Robert Coleman is the modern father of discipleship. His breakthrough book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, released a torrent of disciple-making in the 60s and 70s. Selling over 3 million copies, Billy Graham had this to say about the book:
“Few books have had as great an impact on the cause of world evangelization in our generation as The Master Plan of Evangelism.”
In a recent exchange with Dr. Coleman, he noted that “[Gospel Centered Discipleship] offers practical teaching that can help every follower of Christ more effectively live out the Gospel and the Great Commission.” Coleman heartily agreed to support GCD by allowing us to post excerpts from his new book, The Heart of the Gospel: The Theology Behind the Master Plan of Evangelism. We have selected key passages and italicized quotes on various topics from his new book below.
Overview of the Book
The book unfolds with some variation around the classical outline of systematic theology, beginning with the character of God the Father, his revelation, creation, and the fall of mankind. Moving to God the Son, attention centers on the incarnation, the life and death of Christ, his resurrection, and ascension. Then with the Holy Spirit in prominence, the focus is on the grace of God, conversion, the new life, sanctification, and eternal security. The study concludes with the church, Christ’s return, the providence of God, and the coming glory.
Each chapter begins with a biblical résumé of the doctrine. This leads to the theological rationale, which in some instances brings out conflicting evangelical interpretations. Where pertinent, distinctions are made between Reformed and Arminian positions, and on some doctrines, differences with Roman Catholic dogma. The next section treats popular misconceptions of the Gospel that adversely affect evangelism. Finally, each chapter ends with a practical application of the doctrine. These observations are not exhaustive, but they capsule important issues. All that goes before in the chapter gives the background for these conclusions. Obviously one cannot make applications until first the theological basis is understood.
Initially, the chapters were delivered as lectures to my students. In that setting, clarity, brevity, and simplicity were all-important, as well as the frequent use of illustrations. When the oral presentations were rewritten and revised for this book format, I tried to follow these guidelines even more closely.
Much cannot be covered in a work of this size, of course. However, something left out in one chapter may be treated in another. Theology rests on the total revelation of God, so it all tends to come together in the end.
Theology or Evangelism?
Theology is the study of God. No subject is more instructive and elevating in the whole realm of human thought. Little wonder that it is called “Queen of the sciences.” Based on the revelation given to mankind finally and perfectly disclosed in Jesus Christ, it surpasses all other sciences in its quest to know ultimate reality.
The word theology comes from two Greek terms, theos (God) and logos (discourse), thus literally meaning “God speaking.” This corresponds to the impulse within the nature of God to make himself and his purposes known. That inherent desire to communicate bespeaks his love, which gives rise to evangelism—bearing Good News. And what greater news can one hear than to learn of the love of God and his Redeemer Son, whom to know aright is eternal life.
In their origins, then, theology and evangelism belong together. When the two are separated in practice, as so often happens, both suffer loss—theology loses direction and evangelism loses content. To use the analogy of C. E. Autrey: “Theology is to evangelism what the skeleton is to the body. Remove the skeleton and the body becomes a helpless quivering mass of jelly-like substance.” Looking at it another way, J. I. Packer observes, when theology is separated from evangelism, “it grows abstract and speculative, wayward in method, theoretical in interest and irresponsible in stance.” Perhaps James Denny says it best: “If evangelists were our theologians or theologians our evangelists, we should be nearer the ideal, for evangelism is in the last resort the judge of theology.”
The Essential Gospel
The Gospel defines what is popularly called evangelical theology. Its fundamentals, according to J. I. Packer, are “the supremacy of Holy Scripture, the majesty of Jesus Christ, the lordship of the Holy Spirit, the necessity of conversion, the priority of evangelism, and the importance of fellowship.”
John Stott reduces Packer’s six essentials to three (the last three he believes are but elaborations of the first three). Thus, using the three persons of the Holy Trinity as a rubric, evangelical priorities are summed up in “the revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son and the transforming ministry of God the Holy Spirit.”
Some scholars see in the larger revelation of God’s Good News a central core of salvation truth particularly in the preaching of the apostles. Prominent in the viewpoint is C. H. Dodd. He makes a distinction between preaching, the Greek term kerygma, meaning public proclamation to the non-Christian world, and teaching, the Greek word didaskein, addressed to the church. In this view, much in revelation would not be strictly evangelistic, the audience determining what was appropriate. Michael Green, on the other hand, sees a much wider variety of ways the Gospel was presented.
However one wants to define the essential message, evangelical theology gets its name from the Gospel. As John Stott says, “Both our theology (evangelism) and our activity (evangelizing) derive their meaning and their importance from the good news (the evangel).”
For a concise formulation of the Gospel, based on the total revelation of God, one needs to go back to the great affirmations of Christendom hammered out in the first centuries of the church, particularly the Apostles’, the Nicene, the Chalcedonian, and the Athanasian Creeds. To these early ecumenical statements could be added the confessions of faith developed through the history of the church, like the Thirty-nine Articles, the Westminster Confession, the New Hampshire Baptist Confession, and the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church. More recent ecumenical proclamations of general acceptance among evangelical theologians would be the Lausanne Covenant and the Amsterdam Declaration: A Charter for Evangelism in the Twenty-First Century. Suffice it to say that evangelical theology and orthodox Christianity are cut from the same cloth.
It is in this full sense of divine revelation that I approach a theology of evangelism. Some parts of doctrine may have more immediate relevance to personal salvation, but everything that God has said has some bearing on his purpose to make a people to display his glory. Cut through evangelical theology anywhere, I believe, and it will bleed the Gospel.
Evangelism & Discipleship
Let me clarify, however, that to me making known the Good News means more than making converts. Certainly that is primary, but the objective of the Gospel in the context of the Great Commission is to make disciples, that is, learners committed to following Christ, teaching them in turn to do the same, that through the process of multiplication, someday the nations will hear the Gospel (Matt. 28:18–20).
It is the vision of reaching the world with God’s saving revelation that drives evangelism and evangelical theology. The Commission comes from him who has all authority, and therefore with the assurance that, however long it takes, God will accomplish his purpose. Every believer enters into this mission. Making disciples is not a special gift or calling; it is a lifestyle of obedience incumbent on the whole body of Christ, the church.
Reading More Than the Bible
The basic text for the study of God, of course, is the Bible, our only inerrant source of truth. Interpretations of Scripture in commentaries and theological formulations will vary, so it is helpful to compare notes. We can learn much from each other, especially in working through differing points of view.
In my own study, I have perused the writings of the early Christian fathers, then followed developing thought through church history, giving particular attention to the great reformers, while not forgetting voices of renewal from the Moravians, Pietists, Puritans, and Wesleyans. Many scholars of more recent vintage have also been consulted in an effort to understand the theological underpinnings of the Gospel.
Giving my research more practical input, countless sermons also have been reviewed from preachers with a passion for souls. I have often told my students, the best way to understand theology is to see how it preaches. Across the years, too, a number of books described as theologies of evangelism have appeared, one of the most recent being the work of Lewis A. Drummond. While I am appreciative of these works, my own study takes a more comprehensive approach and gives greater attention to application.
The Disciple’s Burning Heart
Though this book had its origin in the classroom, its purpose is not academic. The study of theology, rightly pursued, becomes a spiritual exercise that leads into the heart of God, out of which flows his Gospel to a lost world he ever seeks to save. To feel the passion of God speaking makes one burn with the desire to tell the Good News to others. I recall the German pastor Pregizer of Haiterbach once seeking to arouse his lethargic congregation by suddenly shouting in a Maundy Thursday sermon: “Fire! Fire! Fire!” “Where?” the startled congregation asked. Whereupon the pastor exclaimed, “In disciples’ hearts!” It is my hope that tracing in these pages the story of the Gospel through the sequence of theology will ignite an evangelical fire in disciples’ hearts.
Dr. Robert Coleman has taught at Gordon-Conwell South Hamilton since 2001, after directing the School of World Mission and Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 18 years. Widely known for his ministry as a disciple-maker and evangelist, Dr. Coleman currently serves on the Mission America Facilitation Committee and several international mission boards and is the president of Christian Outreach. His personal interests include spending time with his family, including his children and grandchildren, and keeping in touch with those he has discipled.