The Gospel According to Columbo

What if Lieutenant Columbo was a Christian? Instead of solving a crime, his task would be to present the Gospel. What would he say? How would he say it?

At Stand to Reason, we’ve always been intrigued by Columbo’s inquisitive style and believe it’s a powerful way to engage people. Here’s what I believe he’d say if he were to present the Gospel. He’d ask three questions. Do you believe people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished? Have you ever committed a moral crime? Would you like to be pardoned? Let’s look at the reasoning behind each question.

1.  Do you believe people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished? The first question gets the ball rolling. It’s supposed to be an obvious question that most honest people will affirm. They intuitively recognize that guilty people deserve to be punished. It’s an established principle in our country and, indeed, many others.

In rare cases, a person will answer no. I’ve found these people are often just trying to be difficult. Their insincerity can be exposed with a clear-case scenario. I ask them, “If a man murders your mother, would you be content with the judge letting him go free without any punishment?” Chances are they’ll say no. That’s because human nature demands that guilty people be punished. Now they’re ready for Columbo’s second question.

2.  Have you ever committed a moral crime? This question takes the conversation from the abstract to the personal. That’s because the Gospel isn’t mere theory, but affects real people.

It’s important they understand that by “crime,” we’re not talking about rape, murder, or other ghastly offenses. Those count, but most people haven't committed such egregious acts. A moral crime entails breaking any law or moral code, no matter how seemingly small. Lying, cheating on tests, fudging your tax returns, maligning a person’s character, jealousy, and greed are all examples of moral crimes. They may not be against the law, but they’re crimes according to God. That matters because we live in His universe and, therefore, are under His jurisdiction.

Again, most people answer yes to this question because they all recognize they’ve done wrong. In fact, we’ve all done a lot of wrong. We feel guilty because we are guilty.

Notice what follows after the first two questions. The person believes that people who commit moral crimes deserve to be punished and they believe they have committed a moral crime. That's bad news. They're in trouble because they know they deserve to be punished. This prompts Columbo to ask the final and most important question.

3. Would you like to be pardoned? Now that people understand the problem, providing Jesus as the solution makes sense. God is willing to give guilty people a chance to go free. He, however, determines the terms of the pardon. God is willing to have His Son pay the penalty for the crimes you’ve committed, and in return you give Him a lifetime of allegiance. You can accept the pardon and go free or pay the penalty yourself. It’s your choice.

There you have it—the Gospel according to Columbo. Three questions that help a person understand the bad news and (hopefully accept) the good news.

Presenting the Gospel according to Columbo isn’t just a cute, hypothetical exercise. It’s practical for three reasons. First, it makes the Gospel brief. We’re not always given a chance to explain the Gospel over a prolonged dinner. Sometimes our time is limited and we have to get right to the point. These three questions distill the key elements of the Gospel in a concise way.

Second, using questions engages the mind. Instead of being a passive listener, a person must process a question, which forces them to comprehend the point. This helps them understand the precise problem and why the solution works.

Third, it avoids what I call “Christianese.” That’s a term that describes the way Christians talk about their faith with each other. They use religiously-loaded language. The problem is that Christianese is largely incoherent to non-Christians. Saying “Jesus died for your sins” might be easily understood by believers, but it’s meaningless to unchurched people. They might wonder what you mean. What is sin? What does death accomplish? Why did Jesus die? How is He involved with me? Explaining the Gospel using the language of crimes, punishment, and pardons makes the Gospel understandable. People get that. When people understand, they’re more likely to respond.

So, next time you have a chance to explain the good news of Jesus, think about how Lieutenant Columbo would do it…and ask three good questions.

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Alan Shlemon

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