It cannot be overstated that the most pressing issue in the American church at present is the prevalence of unregenerate church members within our ranks. When the current surveys of American life place those who call themselves believers in Christ about the seventieth percentile and climbing, conservative Christians ought to finally awaken to the immensity of the problem. Deception is pandemic. It is as if a modern Constantine christianized the masses while we were asleep.
Spurgeon said, “Everyone has a religious spasm or two.” More “spasms” have been taken to be true conversion in our day than perhaps in any other day of our existence as a nation, notably within evangelicalism. We have never looked fatter. But our corpulent appearance is like cotton candy: when you melt it down, there is not much to it. Now we find ourselves struggling over the meaning of conversion. But we have not done our homework early enough and the problem is already out of hand. In message and method we have, in fact, often erred. The sowing of bad seed has produced massive crop failure yet unprecedented statistics. It is getting harder to find wheat among the tares.
It is the complicity of the evangelical church in this deception, either through misinformed enthusiasm or love for repute, that is the most disturbing. We have poured over materials on methodology for bringing people in and used our theology books for doorstops. We have entertained more cleverly than ever before and made the outside world feel good again about the idea of church. We have been quiet enough about sin to make it worth their while to show up repeatedly and perhaps even to join. We have taught them how to act Christian without conviction, to praise God without loving holiness, and, as one has said, to say “Amen” without saying “Oh me!” Is it any wonder that when our converts leave the services, they take the pastor’s hand and say, “It surely is fun to be in this place” rather than “Surely God is in this place”?
I am not saying that God disallows laughter and fun in our lives or that Christians cannot come together to enjoy each other. But I am saying that seeking the face of God turns us in a definite direction which cannot be confused with entertainment or superficiality. Our approach to worship in the States has not only entertained us but unfortunately has presented to unbelievers around us a view of God that is not true. It is a fatal flaw.
There is a product, I am told, called “Near-Beer.” I am not a beer drinker and have never personally seen a can of this variety. I assume it is a type of drink that tastes like the real but lacks the effects. Perhaps a similar way we have created a “Near-God.” Can we not say that the God we have created is somewhat like God in appearance but without the effect? He is a “chummy” God without the “bite” of holiness. He indulges and never inconveniences. He forgives and never disciplines. His name is Savior but not Lord, except as a title of respect.
Our appeals to the unconverted naturally flow out of our views. We invite them to a happy life without passing on the direct message from the true God that he “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30) and that he categorically declares “...without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). We are preaching a one-sided gospel. Should we not press home the fact that “Lord” is not just a title but has been carefully defined by Jesus in Luke 6:46 when he said, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?”
Just how far do we accommodate the sinner before we compromise the gospel? Whatever this relationship is between “being all things to all men” (which seems to draw more people up to conversion) and holding up the standard of holiness (which seems to drive them away), we know that all true evangelists experience the push and pull of it. Such a pattern can be found in Christ’s ministry. He brought them close by food and miracles and then scared them off by the demands of discipleship and the stark nature of the truth itself (Lk. 14:25-33). That is, he scared off all but the called.
The disturbing thing about the American church in general is that our mentality about evangelism does not reflect Christ’s. We often correctly lead the unbelievers up to the door of salvation but then reconstruct the door wide enough for them and their rebellion. We cannot stand for the truth to create resistance. We have a hard enough time with our image anyway. (Nobody wants to be a leader in the Church Loss Movement!)
For our American churches, the absence of two defining negatives should make us think something is awry:
1. Few, if any, hate us for the right reasons.
Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.“ (Jn. 15:18-19).
Now I am not saying that we are not hated at all. But for the most part, we are hated for our clownish behavior on some T.V. programs, our constant fleecing of the people, our nineteenth century traditions, and our notorious sins and hypocrisy. We assume that outsiders know much of what appears to be Christian is not really so...but do they?
We have become despised for a few political and social reasons. This is as it should be. It illustrates the point. Conservatives have taken a stand on abortion, for instance. It is of extreme importance. But how many people have hated the church for godliness in our everyday lives? Yet Paul said, “...everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted...” (2 Tim. 3:13). For such separated living, “they heap abuse on you,” Peter states (1 Peter 4:4b). We must live at peace with all men “if it is possible” (Rom. 12:18), but godliness increases the friction often faster than we can oil the friendship. We can thankfully escape the provocations of legalism, but godliness, like it or not, remains a rebuke.
2. Few, if any, are offended by the message we preach.
Polite and clever homilies may comfort sinners, but they do little to convert sinners. We are in danger of making everybody feel so good by our messages that they no longer perceive a need for regeneration. Do outsiders need salvation (that is, deliverance from the penalty and practice of sin and its judgment) or merely sanctified “how to’s” on becoming more successful? Such messages are appealing but not revealing.
Let me restate this: Our message has paled and become effeminate because it fails to expose the dilemma of the human condition in any convincing way and virtually forgets the judgment to follow. We have preached in such a way as to cause people to say, “Saved from what?” All that is left is to appeal exclusively on the basis of the proper (indeed, pleasing) psychological adjustment Christianity gives to life. To the degree we move the fulcrum in our presentation so as to give the weight to the psychological benefits, to that degree we remove the offense. No wonder the people want it. It ruffles no feathers. “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3). The biblical answer to this predicament is to “preach the Word...correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Let’s face it: our gospel is offensive. The cross and faith are offensive because they take meritorious works and send them packing. Repentance and the call to holiness are offensive because man prefers to run from the light. The narrowness of the door is offensive because it sours people on God’s open-mindedness. God’s sovereignty is offensive because humans like to call the shots. No wonder Paul was straight with Timothy from the outset and said, “...join me in suffering for the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:8b). It makes sense now why he said, concerning faithful gospel expression, that “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him...” (Phil. 1:29). If you are looking for a challenge, join up. Giving the true gospel in its pure form is like feeding liver to a preschooler—no way!
When is the last time you heard or spoke the gospel in such a way that the people said, “This is a hard teaching—who can accept it?” and then watched them turn on their heels and walk out? Yet that is what they did to Christ (see Jn. 6:60-69). This was not an isolated experience for the greatest evangelist. This persistent clashing of words and world-views continued unabated all the way up to the cross! He brought a sword, not peace. Self-manipulating such violent rejection of the gospel for the sake of proving one’s spiritual verve is unthinkable. Yet we must ask the question: Could it be possible that we have improved the gospel beyond what Jesus ever knew? Can we now outsell the Master?
But this must be seen: On that day, when Jesus “lost his crowd,” twelve men did stay behind (though Judas for his reasons). They said what every true believer says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69). And that is the amazing thing. The gospel which is always offensive, mitigating against the fallen nature of man, this holy gospel which is always repelled by the world, found willing admission. Here we find the exception. Here we see some who find this resisted Gospel irresistible...indeed, in it alone they say they find life!
I think we have missed the idea of the gospel. It is not a big flypaper to catch busy executives and unsuspecting children. The objective is not just catching men but glorifying God. We have not said all of what the gospel means when we convince people that our way makes more people genuinely happy than theirs. These gospel words go down hard, and, correctly stated, often seem to be utterly foolish. They appeal to no one except those who are prepared by God. Christ plainly stated: “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (Jn. 6:65).
Is it not time to speak as viscerally as Paul did, holding back nothing, but lovingly and accurately setting forward the offensive cross? He didn’t give them what they wanted: he gave them what they needed. We can risk such boldness as well. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24). Do not worry: the called will find the cross appealing even if the world cries foul.
Must we expect small numbers and churches that are martyrs’ hospitals? Yes and no. Yes, if God so chooses, if God allows the spirit of the age to prevail. No, whenever God grants any measure of awakening, however widely, so as to open hearts “en masse.” God has His seasons for each and His reasons for all.
Have we no longer a category for spiritual giants who have been true to God without all that registers as signs of success in corporate America? Think through our history. There have been sturdy men in shaken times (have there not?), tender men in calloused times, revived men in reviling times. Compelling men in repelling times. We have honored them and the God who made them. We stand upon their shoulders.
Now even though most giants of Christian history would appear short of the goal on church growth charts due to the absolute strictness of their gospel, in all our emulation and reverence for them, there can be no excuses on our part for a lack of zeal or freshness in evangelism. We must not try to reach less people in order to prove our doctrinal correctness. We are not called to be “soft men in fine raiment,” refusing to soil our hands in the business of knowing and loving sinners just because the gate is narrow.
On the other hand God will not permit the preaching of a half-gospel in this wholly pagan age out of deference to the sinner. The gospel remains a serrated and sharp knife, killing, not just wounding, sinners before the balm is applied. It is not our prerogative to let divine opportunity go unused; nor do we have liberty to dribble out gospel half-truths.
A primitive and unaltered gospel must be preached; the pure and potent God must be known. There must be no more sitcom sermons. We must not reduce the foolishness of preaching to the foolishness of man. Our services can no longer be staged plays to entertain or even moralize in comfortable categories only. We cannot continue to forget sin and hell and repentance and justice and conviction and holiness as if we are more sophisticated than Christ. We must ask again, “What are sinners supposed to feel in the presence of a holy God?”
Copyright © 1994 Jim Elliff
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