Thursday, May 10, 2007

The goal

I've spent some time on the Gospel (mainly in Romans) recently. It started out because I've been concerned that Christians have lost sight of it: we've gotten caught up in any number of pursuits, and have lost sight of the central message of the New Testament: that God has provided a way for sinners to be freed from the penalty and power of their sins.

But I've also been spending some time on the topic, because I believe the Gospel is the clearest character sketch of God that we have: we have seen His holiness, His heart, and His love for us in the Gospel. As I spend time thinking and meditating on the Gospel, I find myself with a fresh appreciation for the Person He is.

Having said that, I wanted to bring up a favourite Bible verse of mine:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them (Revelation 21:3, NASB)
I find this verse interesting, because it presents us with a wonderful thought: that God's purpose is to be among men. That's what He wants. He's not content to be in Heaven with men (and women) on earth; His desire is to have men with Him. Consider God's words to Moses: "They shall know that I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt, that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God." (Exodus 29:46, NASB). God's purpose in bringing the children of Israel from Egypt was "that I might dwell among them".

We tend to lose sight of what motivated God to hunt down sinners. It wasn't that He needed us, it wasn't that He has a job for us to do: it was because He wanted to have us with Him. We have a tendency to think God wants something from us: the opposite is true, He wants to be everything for us.

I made the statement earlier that I have a real problem with any sort of teaching that attributes an ulterior motive to God in salvation. I really want to emphasize this point. It's a terrible thing for us to slander God: When we present the Gospel as some sort of contract between God and man, we do exactly that. We cast aspersion on God's character, saying that He's the sort of Person who only acts in His own interest.

God is overwhelmingly kind. He is love. We need to be oh-so-careful that we don't have low thoughts of Him; of the One who pursued us to bring us to Heaven.


Kendall said...

After reading your article I remember this one
I am enjoying your comments reading Darby Volume 12 one on your reading list.


By William MacDonald

There is a CURIOUS PROBLEM today in the evangelical world---one that poses sobering questions for the church and for the individual believer. The PROBLEM in brief is this: a great army of personal soul-winners has been mobilized to reach the populace for Christ. They are EARNEST, ZEALOUS, ENTHUSIASTIC and PERSUASIVE. To their credit it must be said, that they are on the job. And it is one of the phenomena of our times, that they rack up an astounding number of conversions. Everything so far seems to be on the plus side.

But the PROBLEM is this: The CONVERSIONS DO NOT STICK. The fruit does not remain. Six months later there is nothing to be seen for all the aggressive evangelism. The capsule technique of soul winning has produced stillbirths (ie FALSE PROFESSIONS).

What lies at the back of all this MALPRACTICE in bringing souls to birth? Strangely enough, it begins with the valid determination to preach the PURE gospel of the grace of God. We want to keep the message SIMPLE – uncluttered by any suggestion that man can ever earn or deserve eternal life. Justification by faith alone, apart from the deeds of the law. Therefore the message is “ONLY BELIEVE>”

From there we reduce the message to a CONCISE FORMULA. For instance, the evangelical process is cut down to a few basic questions, and answers, as follows:

“Do you BELIEVE you are a sinner?”


“Do you BELIEVE Christ died for sinners?”


“Will you RECEIVE him as your saviour?”


“Then you ARE SAVED!”

“I am?”

“Yes, the Bible says you ARE SAVED.”

At first blush the method and the message might seem above criticism. But on closer study we are forced to have second thoughts and to conclude that – we have OVERSIMPLIFIED the gospel.

The FIRST FATAL FLAW --- is the missing emphasis on REPENTANCE. There can be NO true conversion without CONVICTION OF SIN. It is one thing to agree that I am a sinner; it is quite another thing to experience the convicting ministry of the HOLY SPIRIT in my life. Unless I have a Spirit-wrought consciousness of my utterly LOST CONDITION, I can never exercise saving faith. It is useless to tell unconvicted sinners to believe on Jesus---that message is only for those who KNOW they are lost. We sugar-coat the gospel when we de-emphasize man’s lost condition. With that kind of watered-down message people receive the Word with joy instead of deep contrition. They do not have deep roots, and though they might endure for a while, they soon give up all profession when persecution or trouble comes (Matthew 13 v 21). We have forgotten that the message is REPENTANCE TOWARD GOD as well as FAITH IN OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.

A SECOND SERIOUS OMISSION --- is a missing emphasis on the LORDSHIP OF CHRIST. A light, jovial mental assent that Jesus is Saviour misses the point. Jesus is FIRST LORD, then Saviour. The New Testament always places His LORDSHIP before His Saviourhood. Do we present the full implications of His LORDSHIP to the people? HE ALWAYS DID.

A THIRD DEFECT in our message is our tendency to keep the terms of DISCIPLESHIP hidden until a decision has been made for Jesus. Our Lord never did this. The message He preached included the CROSS as well as the CROWN. “HE never hid His scars to win disciples.” He revealed the worst along with the best, then told His listeners to COUNT THE COST. We popularize the message and promise fun.

THE RESULT OF ALL THIS is that we have people believing without knowing what they believe. In many cases they have NO DOCTRINAL BASIS for their decision. They do not know the IMPLICATIONS of commitment to Christ. They have never experienced the mysterious, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.

And of course we have others who are TALKED INTO A PROFESSION because of the slick salesmanship techniques of the soul-winner. Or some who want to please the affable. Personable young man with the winning smile. And some who only want to get id of this religious interloper who intruded on their privacy. Satan laughs when their conversions are announced on earth.

I WOULD LIKE TO RAISE SEVERAL QUESTIONS that might lead us to some changes in our STRATEGY of evangelism.

The FIRST QUESTION: Can we generally expect people to make an intelligent commitment to Christ, the first time they hear the gospel? Certainly, there is the exceptional case where a person has already been prepared by the Holy Spirit. But generally speaking, the process involves sowing the seed, watering it, then sometime later reaping the harvest. In our mania for instant conversion, we have forgotten that conception, gestation, and birth do not occur on the same day.

The SECOND QUESTION: Can capsule presentation of the gospel really do justice to so great a message? As one who has written several gospel tracts, I confess to a certain sense of misgiving in even attempting to condense the good news into four small pages. Would we not be wiser to give people the full presentation as it is found in the gospels, or in the New Testament?

The THIRD QUESTION: Is all this pressure for decisions really Scriptural? Where in the New Testament were people ever pressured into making a profession? We justify our practise by saying that if only one out of ten is genuine, it is worth it. But what about the other nine---DISILLUSIONED, BITTER, perhaps DECEIVED enroute to Hell by a FALSE PROFESSION?

The FOURTH QUESTION: Is all this boasting about conversions really accurate? You’ve met the of the man who solemnly tells you of ten people he contacted that day and all of them were saved. A young doctor testified that every he goes to a new city, he looks in the phone book for people with his last name. Then he calls them one by one and leads them through the 4 steps to salvation. Amazingly enough, every one of them opens the door of his heart to Jesus. I don’t want to doubt the honesty of people like this, but am I wrong in thinking that they are extremely na├»ve? WHERE ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE WHO ARE SAVED? They cannot be found.

In CONCLUSION: What it all means is that we should SERIOUSLY RE-EXAMINE our streamlined CAPSULE EVANGELISM. We should be willing to spend time preaching the gospel, laying a SOLID FOUNDATION doctrinally for faith to rest on. We should stress the NECESSITY -FOR REPENTANCE – a complete about-face with regard to sin. We should stress the FULL IMPLICATIONS of the LORDSHIP OF CHRIST and the CONDITIONS of TRUE DISCPLESHIP. We should explain what belief really involves. We should be willing to wait for the Holy Spirit produce genuine conviction of sin. Then we should be ready to lead the person to saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

If we do this, we’ll have less astronomical figures of so-called conversions, but more genuine cases of spiritual rebirth.

bigjonah said...

Gods supreme interest in man is Christ. I dont think (although I cant bs sure) we are ever going to see God the Father who is spirit. Christ said no man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared [him].We will behold Christ Himself who is God. Christ is the Word or expression of God. God becomming man is Christ the supreme act of interest and love and also purpose. I believe the human body itself was designed with this in mind by the Creator Himself who would tabernacle among us in the flesh. What a glorious mystery for mankind and Heaven to observe.

clumsy ox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
clumsy ox said...

Glad you're enjoying Darby! Vol. 12 is a great investment.

This is my second attempt at replying to your comment: I want to be very careful of what I say here.

I've read the article you posted several times over the last couple years. I'm afraid I have a real problem with the tone and direction it takes. I see some dangerous leanings in it, and indeed: I see the same dangerous leanings in most of the "open brethren" these days.

I've only met Wm. MacDonald once, and that was several years ago. I have a great deal of respect for him (although he has doubtless forgotten the handful of words we exchanged), and I am not interested in levelling accusations against him.

But with that said, I really think he has allowed his honest appraisal of the current gospel situation to draw him out. I play in martial arts (specifically xingyi and bagua), and one constant danger in fighting is to over-reach---to allow an opponent's jabbing to tempt you into striking back and losing your balance. I fear this is exactly what MacDonald is starting to do in this article: he has allowed problems in modern evangelism to lead him into making some statements that are over-extensions.

It is certainly true that the "evangelism" he describes is fundamentally unsound: it combines a sales pitch with high-pressure "closing" tactics, then rushes into forcing "assurance" on someone who doesn't seem to have any real concerns. These are all wrong: we declare the gospel, we don't sell it. And like MacDonald points out, running ahead of the Holy Spirit---trying to produce results before His work in preparation is complete---is totally unfounded in Scripture. And offering assurance of salvation to someone who doesn't seem to have any real concerns about the issue is just plain stupid.

I completely agree with all of that. In fact, I more or less agree with his entire prognosis. But I don't think the solutions he offers are really any better.

The Gospel demands nothing of the sinner: the one who believes God is justified. But MacDonald uses words like "commitment" and "discipleship". This is a very thin edge, but it is a watershed. The sinner is fundamentally incapable of either commitment or discipleship. His paragraph on repentance is also a little confused: he mixes up a couple different ideas and presents them all as one.

When we see the sorry state of the Church, of individual Christians, and of evangelism; it is very easy to slip into a subtle legalism. It is natural for us to see law as the solution to lawlessness. But it is all the more necessary for us to stand firm in the grace of God in that case. It is all the more important to stand on the absolutely free justification for all who believe.

Why? Because only when we proclaim that justification is by faith in Christ alone that we reveal the completeness of man's sinfulness. Anything the sinner can do to offer God something in exchange for justification---even something like commitment or repentance---is something that proves he is not absoutely lost. But the Scripture declares; there is nothing to do, there is only something to believe.

If there were anything a sinner could do to impress God, a lesser Gospel would be enough. But we can't: we are completely helpless before Him; and He justifies us freely, or He couldn't justify us at all.

There are all sorts of things that follow: all sorts of discipline and exercises. The Christian life is hard, the battle is all uphill. And if you've read the posts and comments I've been making, I have been careful to point that out. In fact, the problem of sin is so deep, that God's solution is to put us to death. The Christian life is one of deep repentance and painful work of God in us. But it flows from the unconditional love of the holy God: I have nothing to offer Him.

We don't look for fruit from the sinner, but from the one who is a child of God.

KingJaymz said...

Wow! Excellent discussion, and really nice response there, Marco. Couldn't agree with you more.

I'd go further on the other side of what MacDonald is saying. He's putting forth "education" as the "fix" to the evangelism problem. What is the essential element of the Gospel? God cares about you enough to have sent His Son to die for your sins.

High pressure sales tactics explain it well. What happens when the sale is closed? The customer is left holding the bag of crap he was just sold feeling short-changed or cheated. Yet, what happens when class is over? You turn in your homework and everyone goes home.

What should happen? The Gospel is not just knowledge and Truth, it is relational as well. God relating to man because of His love for him. We draw a sinner in and expose them to the hard truth or pressure them into a sale, they are going to run screaming out the door saying "Why would anyone want that?!" And they would be right.

But, if we come along side them, love them with the genuine love God gives us, they are going to see the reflection of His Glory. They will see It contained in the broken vessels in the Church, and want more of it. Yet, most churches are very empty of this nowadays. So we turn solely to high pressure sales tactics or education to console ourselves about how to go about fulfilling our responsibility to spread the Good News.

God is Truth. God is Holy (x3). Yet, He is also Love. If the love is missing, why bother?

I believe that it is at that very point where genuine discipleship comes in. It marries the concepts of love and wisdom (or education, if it pleases you). It isn't just about instruction. It is about support and love and being committed to someone even when they may not be committed to you (Jesus went back after Peter). It is a willingness to open our hearts and love others without condition, as God has for us. That kind of radical love changes things.

clumsy ox said...

"Gods supreme interest in man is Christ."

Very true. But I want to avoid trivializing God's love for sinners at the same time. What I mean by that is, I want to avoid shielding ourselves from the intensity and passion of God's love by building a theology. Not that you do so; I'm just commenting on my motives.

It was God's love that motivated Christ to take on Himself the form of a servant. And it was God's love that motivated Him to remain a Man in the glory now: He has declared "I love my Master, my wife, and my children, I will not go free".

Having said all that, you are 100% correct. The heart and eye of God is focused on the Son, who is a Man in Heaven now.

I have no opinion on whether we will ever see God. On the one hand, He dwells in light unapproachable. On the other hand, He has called the Son to sit on His throne, and the Son has extended that invitation to believers (whether to all or to certain ones, the principle is the same). I've held both views on this one, and now just hold a big question mark.

"God becomming man is Christ the supreme act of interest and love and also purpose. I believe the human body itself was designed with this in mind by the Creator Himself who would tabernacle among us in the flesh. What a glorious mystery for mankind and Heaven to observe."

Amen! I have long thought "let us make man in our image" was God looking forward to the day when Christ would come as a Man, and that He designed Adam with this in view.

bigjonah said...

"When we present the Gospel as some sort of contract between God and man, we do exactly that. We cast aspersion on God's character, saying that He's the sort of Person who only acts in His own interest." Are you referring to some of the Reformed ideas on this subject or something else?

clumsy ox said...


I wasn't actually referring to anything specific, although I first heard the Gospel described as a contract or covenant---where God and man both have a part---with regard to someone who leans Reformed.