Love for an Offensive Gospel

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(November 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 11) 

Virtually all students of the Scriptures would agree that the church exists for two basic purposes: evangelism and edification. We are called to share the gospel with lost souls (Romans 10:14) and to disciple those who come to Christ (Matthew 28:19). Edification takes place as the local church gathers together to be taught the Word and to minister to one another (Ephesians 4:11-16; I Corinthians 12). Evangelism is to take place in the community as the church scatters (Matthew 28:19, 20; Romans 10:14).

In the New Testament the members of a local church are never seen coming together for the purpose of evangelism. Evangelism took place apart from the meetings of the church – in the workplace, at the synagogue, in town squares, among family members and friends. The early Christian went to where the unbelievers were and presented the gospel of Christ. They did not necessarily do this through evangelistic blitzes on Thursday nights – this wasn’t necessary. Everyone had their pool of opportunity through the normal discourse of their lives, just as most of us do today. One thing they did not do was invite unbelievers to their church services in order to evangelize them. The closest we get to any kind of evangelism within the context of church services is 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, If therefore the whole church should assemble together and…all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. The obvious implication is that the Corinthian church had gathered for the purpose of mutual edification – evangelism was not on the stated agenda. No evangelistic sermon was preached; the music was not geared toward the interests of unbelievers; spiritual language was not tempered to keep from offending or confusing the unsaved; absolutely nothing was done with the “seeking” unbeliever in mind. But, if an unbeliever happens to show up and hears the truth of God expounded, and watches the body function, he may very well have his heart opened and be drawn to Christ. This is a wonderful collateral result of the church functioning in a biblical manner, but it is not the reason that the church assembles.

With this New Testament foundation in mind it should give us great concern when we find the philosophy behind the church-growth, or seeker-sensitive, movement ignoring this pattern and developing churches that have structured their regular services for the purpose of evangelizing the lost. This movement has turned the church on its head as the main services of the church have been transformed into evangelistic outreaches. Most churches adopting this philosophy have relegated edification and instructional services for believers to mid-week gatherings or small groups. Yet, these services tend to be basic in nature as well, geared toward keeping the new convert happy and coming. Even Charles Finney, who in many respects is the great-grandfather of the market-driven church, warned way back in the mid 1800s, “If men enter upon the Christian life only for gain in the line of their hopes and fears, you must keep up the influence of these considerations, and must expect to work upon these only; that is, you must expect to have selfish Christians and a selfish church …. [They will say] we became Christians… only for the sake of promoting our own interest, and we have nothing to do in the Christian life on any other motive.” [1] In other words, whatever you use to bring them in must be continued or they will leave. [2] If you enticed people to attend your church on Sunday morning through great entertainment, promises of met felt-needs, or material prosperity, you will have a very difficult time “switching horses” on Wednesday night and offering them a solid diet of biblical exposition. They did not come in the front door to learn the Scriptures and worship God. They were drawn by a good show, promises of success, personal fulfillment and happiness. If you are to keep them coming you must give them more of the same.

This is the dilemma that many churches now face. So why do they put themselves in this position? Because they do not believe that people will respond to the gospel unless it is presented in a winsome package that connects positively with their felt needs. D. A. Carson laments:

It is hard, for instance, to deny the influence of pluralism on evangelical preachers who increasingly reconstruct the “gospel” along the lines of felt needs, knowing that such a presentation will be far better appreciated than one that articulates truth with hard edges (i.e., that insists that certain contrary things are false), or that warns of the wrath to come. How far can such reconstruction go before what is preached is no longer the gospel in any historical or biblical sense? [3]

An example

Recently I picked up a bulletin from a local evangelical church that offers a good example of the realization of Carson’s fears. At the bottom of the sermon note’s handout was the plan of salvation which was in essence a watered-down version of the “Four Spiritual Laws.” Here are the supposed four steps to salvation:

  • God loves you and has a plan for your life.
  • We make mistakes and decisions that don’t please God.
  • Jesus died on the cross for all the “bad stuff”
  • You can accept His forgiveness, follow Jesus and become a Christian through prayer.

There are numerous problems with these steps but the most glaring is the absence of any mention of sin. Sin is sand-blasted out of this statement and replaced with “mistakes,” “decisions that don’t please God,” and “bad stuff.” Why would this evangelical church, one which places evangelism at the top of its priority list, want to shy so far away from using the word “sin?” And why, when it attempts to use synonyms as substitutes for sin, does it chose to use words that do not define sin? Mistakes, decisions that don’t please God and “bad stuff” are lame alternatives for the biblical concept of sin. Rebelliousness, disobedience, transgressions, iniquity, evil or wickedness might have been decent stand-ins, but not mistakes. Christ did not die on the cross because we make bad choices or mistakes. He died because we were helpless, ungodly, sinners who happened to also be the very enemies of God (Romans 5:6-10). And we don’t become Christians by asking God to forgive our mistakes, we become Christians when, after recognizing our lost condition we, by faith, repent and receive Jesus Christ and the gift of God’s saving grace (John 1:12; Ephesians 2:1-10).

What would provoke an evangelical, evangelistic-minded church to so alter the gospel message as to gut it of, as Carson says, “its historical and biblical sense?” Almost certainly their motivation is a noble one – the desire to see people get saved. But they fear that very few will respond to a gospel which calls sin “sin” and identifies unbelievers as ungodly, rebellious enemies of God. With Robert Schuller they apparently suppose, “Once a person believes he is an ‘unworthy sinner,’ it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace God offers in Jesus Christ.” [4] Such Christian leaders simply do not believe the unaltered gospel message, as presented in Scripture, will draw the seeker to Christ. It is too offensive, too degrading, and too foolish to be appetizing. If we are to entice unbelievers to Christ we must somehow make the foolishness of the cross attractive to sinners.

Proclaiming an offensive message

There is nothing new to this approach – it is as old as the New Testament. The apostle Paul apparently was under the same pressure to produce converts. Some at Corinth seemed to be leaning on Paul to preach a gospel-lite, that would incorporate some of the in-vogue wisdom so popular among unbelievers in the first century. At the very least Paul should not be so offensive – he was turning everyone off, Jew and Gentile alike, by insistence on the centrality of the cross. What was Paul to do? I Corinthians 1:18-30 is the answer. Verse eighteen sets the stage, For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Our perspective on the gospel is determined exclusively by our relationship with the Savior. To the lost, the good news is foolish, to the redeemed it is the power of God.

It is of utmost importance that we wrestle with the truth that the unbeliever views the cross as foolish. This being the case, in our attempts to evangelize there appears to be two options. We can present the gospel exactly as Scripture describes, knowing that its message will repulse the unbeliever devoid of the enlightening ministry of the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:17-18; 4:6). Or we can attempt to “unfoolish” the gospel by altering the message enough to make it sound enticing to unregenerate minds. That is, we can make them an offer they can’t refuse. Before we embark too enthusiastically on this second option we might want to examine how Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sought to resolve the dilemma.

In 1 Corinthians 1 verses 22 and 23 Paul affirms what the unsaved person seeks is foreign to the gospel. In the culture of Paul’s lifetime Jews asked for signs, while Greeks searched for wisdom. This being the case a sharp marketer would surely give his audience what they wanted. He would deemphasize the negative and accentuate the positive. For the Jews he would give evidence of the signs they desired. For the Greeks he would reason philosophically, proving that receiving Christ and living for God was the only reasonable choice for wise men. It is interesting that Paul could have legitimately done either one of these things. Christ gave signs of His deity and Messiahship and certainly Christianity makes sense. But Paul saw clearly that the danger lay in the temptation to filter out anything that might offend his audience. To be true to the gospel this temptation would not only have to be resisted, but the actual offensive aspect of the good news would need to be emphasized. This emphasis was not for the purpose of intentionally stepping on toes – Paul would go out of his way not to offend unnecessarily his unsaved audience — as he would say later in this same epistle (9:19-23). But he understood to tamper with the central essence of the gospel, in order to attract a wider audience, was not just to diminish its power but to so alter its message as to create “a different gospel” altogether (Galatians 1:6).

The central piece of the gospel, which was so offensive to the Corinthians, was the cross. This is a bit hard for us to grasp today since we have sentimentalized the cross, making it into a piece of jewelry and decoration for our walls, rather than a symbol of death. The stigma of the cross is largely lost to our generation, but in the first century it bore very different, even disgraceful connotations. The Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for three classes of people: rebellious slaves, the worst of criminals and defeated foes of the empire. [5] Gentiles, therefore, viewed crucified men with disdain and contempt. “This animosity toward crucified men was deeply engraved on the social consciousness of the world to which Paul brought his message about a crucified Savior.” [6] To the Gentiles the crucifixion was pure foolishness, madness, craziness. Who could imagine that God’s Son dying on a cross as a common criminal would be pivotal to God’s redemption plan?

For the Jew things were even worse. “Though Gentiles viewed crucifixion as a punishment reserved for detestable people…the Jews believed the victim was cursed by God (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23). Consequently, the stigma went beyond social disgrace to a declaration of God’s spiritual judgment against the victim.” [7] According to the Jewish mindset Jesus not only died a despicable death, He was also cursed of God. How could He be the Messiah, the Savior, and be under the curse of God? The crucifixion would prove to be a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23) to the Jews. The Greek word translated “stumbling block” is skandalon (from which we get our word “scandal”) and refers to an enticement to apostasy and unbelief. “In other words, the spiritual offense of the cross actually worked to make some Jews go astray. Remarkably, the crucifixion – so essential to eternal life – actually hindered Jews from coming to saving faith. They simply could not overcome their preconceived notions about the significance of crucifixion…. The very content of Paul’s message caused Jews to turn away.” [8]

Paul was not ignorant of the fact that the preaching of a crucified Savior would more than dull the attractiveness of the gospel; it would be a major impediment. Before his audience could get to the good news of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God, they had to first come to the cross, which was abhorrent to them. But this did not deter Paul from preaching the centrality of the cross, for to the “called” the crucified Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). The good news is grounded in the cross; to eliminate it, or even to minimize it, would be to rob the gospel of its power to save.

In the twenty-first century this particular debate seems very distant. The cross, as most envision it today, is more likely to elicit warm fuzzies than disgust or revulsion. Still Paul’s point is not lost. The gospel continues to offend; whether it is the crucifixion itself, the insistence on recognizing our sins and repenting, receiving by faith One that we have never seen, or abandoning our self-reliance, denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24). None of these things pander to our ego. The gospel is not a message about how to get ahead in life, or how to find the key to happiness and success. Paul stayed focused on what was true and essential and he would not be moved by the pressures around him. “‘Christ crucified’ was not a ‘seeker-friendly’ message in the first century. It was an absurd obscenity to Gentiles and a scandalous oxymoron to Jews. The gospel guaranteed offense.” [9] Paul’s example should encourage us today to not sellout the gospel for perceived evangelistic success. We need to stand by the message given in the New Testament, proclaim it with authority and let God give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

 


[1] Charles G. Finney, So Great Salvation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1965), p. 58.

[2] I am purposely avoiding saying that these people are being brought to Christ through these methodologies, for I do not know that is the case. However, they have been brought into membership or attendance of a local church by certain enticements, whether biblical ones or not.

[3] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996), p. 30.

[4] Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Waco, Texas: Word, 1982), p. 64.

[5] Donald E. Green, “The Folly of the Cross,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Volume 15#1, 2004, p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 64.

[7] Ibid., p. 65.

[8] Ibid., p. 66.

[9] Ibid., p. 68.

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