Monday, May 14, 2012

Do We Need to Preach the Gospel All the Time? Maybe Not...

From time to time, the church, or a subculture within the church, to be more precise, will pick up a new buzzword, usually associated with a movement or ideology that has recently hit the scene and promises to be the next great “thing” that will revolutionize or revive the church from its slumber if it can be properly disseminated, resulting in the next spiritual revival. First, let me say that I am not immune to such musings. I often allow idealism to creep in, leading me to not so well thought out conclusions. Second, let me also suggest that I do believe that revival is possible, and it is often attached to, simply not merely dependent upon, a new cultural focus or movement. As a Wesleyan thinker, I place a high regard upon God’s prevenient grace in such situations. In short, what I mean is that I believe that God’s Spirit going out preparing the way is what must happen primarily for revival to take place. These cultural movements are merely vehicles for God’s overarching work.

What I mean to say by this is that the idea, buzzword, or new school of thought, in its self, cannot ever produce revival. We should never assume that if we disseminate this or that renewed doctrine or system of thought, spiritual revival must necessarily follow. This is to ignore the utter need of the Spirit for any Spiritual good to take place. So, when a word, a group of words, or a system of thought is touted about as being the next great thing, I am wary. This is not to say that I believe that revival will never come about largely because of a movement, but it has to be a movement God initiates. Simply because it is biblical does not mean it is going to catch the world ablaze. Biblical theology is preached everyday and it still falls on deaf ears. Being attentive to and seeking God’s prior movements and callings alone brings about revival. It is then that the message preached makes headway.

Take for example the Gospel itself. The Gospel, the Bible tells us, happened in the fullness of time, in God’s timing, so that it might have the greatest affect. Therefore, as powerful a message as the Gospel was and still is, it is itself dependent upon the work of God to make its effectiveness sure. Without the prior workings of God, as we see in the Old Testament, the Gospel would have been of much less affect. Instead, as the opening of Mark points out, there was a preparing of a way before the Gospel hit the scene of human history. I use this example mainly because it is the word “Gospel” that I have seen become the newest buzzword, and for reasons enumerated above, I am skeptical of it existence in this new form. That is to say, I see it being used as the new “cure-all” and I am concerned about what persons using the term really mean by what they say and how they think its use will be effective. (If you are a friend of mine that happens to use this word a lot, please be assured that I have no one particular person in mind, but a group. And I write this as one side of a dialogue, with the benefit of my friends in mind. In other words, I offer this in love.)

I first began to notice the trend a few years ago. A few peers of mine began, almost simultaneously, to use the word “Gospel” in just about every dialogue they had upon all things Christian. At first I was simply a bit curious, wondering if I had missed out on something. As I began to listen more, I realized that the rhetoric surrounding the new buzzword was also quite uniform between the adherents to this new way of speaking. That is when I became quite sure that this was a movement of some sort, although I have not yet myself found the genesis for this new thought (if you have any ideas let me know. I am assuming it started in Reformed circles, as I am not always aware of their dialogue). Recently, the use of this new term, and the ideas imported with it, has proven to me to be an overemphasis of one theological idea over several others. This was concluded when I heard it said that biblical messages are fine, but the Gospel is really our only real concern. While I think that there is a hierarchy of ideas within Scripture, method of baptism being of less import than views on say justification and all of soteriology for that matter, I also think that one doctrine should not be used to the exclusion of others, which I worry is happening in this case.

Many would say we need but preach the Gospel. What the sinner needs to hear is the Gospel. Evangelism begins, and in some of the most extreme minds, ends with the Gospel. And so they say, "We need to preach the Gospel!" By this many come to mean, in all our varied ways, the point of all we say needs to be about the Gospel. In the end, this philosophy of evangelism suggests that the primary concern of all messages we give should be the Gospel message. I have even heard it said that Sunday morning-meaning church services-should always be about the Gospel, and by this the person means to suggest it should be explicitly so. Some leeway might be given in suggesting that all biblical principles might be taught, as long as they then point back to the Gospel message in a clear and even explicit manner, as if for any biblical sermon to be affective a formulaic expression of the Gospel must be tagged to the end, thus ending every message with, “…and this is made possible by the Gospel.” I do not necessarily think this is a bad thing to say, but I assume that if we are doing our jobs as disciple makers, this should be implied and implicitly understood often times. Nevertheless, there are those who say, we need but preach the Gospel.

I would protest and say that while the statement, “We need to preach the Gospel” is indeed a proper thing to say, it is incomplete, and if it becomes one’s mantra, then it can lead to an over generalizing of our call to discipleship.  Instead, I would simply say that all that we say and do as disciples should be about, leading to, pointing to, or dependent upon the Gospel. Certainly, without the Gospel, no other biblical principle would really matter, for without resurrection, we are without hope. But the Gospel message alone will not suffice for Christian evangelism, unless by "Gospel" one simply means whatever is contained in Scripture. I suspect this is not what many mean when they say such for why would they not simply say we need to preach biblically. The Gospel should remain within our minds as a distinct part, albeit the climatically crucial part, of the larger Scriptural text.

To say we need to preach the Gospel is to say something very true, but incomplete. Think of it this way: We need to breathe, without this action, we cannot sustain life, but we also need to eat to be sustained. We should not say, “We need to breathe,” only to then conclude, “Breathing is so primary that all else can fall to the wayside.” Likewise we need to preach the Gospel to maintain a sustained ministry, but we also need to preach other Scriptural truths, complementary to the Gospel message. The reality that much needs to be said before and after the Gospel message is, as I pointed out earlier, indicative of why Messiah did not come immediately after the fall. Yes the Gospel is the good news of God's great solution to our problem, but he had to do much to prepare the way.  

Just as humanity had to learn over time, thus the redemptive story happens throughout real history, so too does the individual learn of the truth over time. First he gave the law to convict. The Gospel largely is not meant to convict, that is it assumes we know the problem. The problem of our perversion, as pointed out by the law, was already established in the OT. Likewise, before we tell persons about the good news, we often must present the problem before they are ever ready to hear the solution. As it needs a foundation, we are not warranted in suggesting that all we need to do is present the Gospel. The Old Testament provides such a basis for the Gospel message, that the Gospel would be nonsensical without it. Moreover, the Gospel is not the end of the story. The Gospels, properly speaking, end after the ascension, but the story goes on. Pentecost is really the result of the Gospel. We need to not only present the Gospel, but what the Gospel makes possible as well.

The Gospel, in the life of a Christian is merely the beginning of the journey. If all one hears Sunday in and Sunday out is the Gospel, then he or she might think that after justification, that is, after acceptance, he or she is through. What else could be determined from church service if the Gospel is all we ever give. Some might rebut by suggesting that we have to present this message in church, for there might be some there that particular Sunday that only have this one opportunity left. This places the responsibility of salvation squarely on our own shoulders and out of the much more trusting hands of God., and it effectively disables us to preach the full revelation of God. Is the Gospel to be so stifling a thing? Not by any means. If this was one’s philosophy, then he or she should never waist a breath with anyone at any time unless it concerns the Gospel in an explicit way. Sunday should be no special occasion for such.

The whole of Scripture is to be taught, and not the ever part of it is the Gospel message in an explicit sense. This is my bottom line. We need to stop belittling the messages of others, revealed to their heart by God, by saying, he or she did not present the Gospel! If it is biblical, I bet God wants it to be heard at some point or another, and we need not conclude every reading of Scripture by turning then to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John for the “real” story.

But, do I think these people, or better yet, this school of thought, has something to offer. Of course I do. We can take from this that the Gospel should be of primary concern. It should be considered in all we say and do. We are dependent upon it for our very existence, and sermons day in and day out that simply use the bible to instruct us on moral matters, never mentioning the Gospel, are of little use, sense without the Gospel, we are without hope. We should preach the Gospel and preach it often, but we also must take time, assuming the Gospel has been heard by the majority of our congregation, to preach the fuller message. We must remind persons of God’s will for our lives by presenting messages like those derived from the law, which is an explicit representation of God’s good will and perfect way for humanity. The law can convict a person and lead them to the Gospel. Moreover, the law can teach us, as Christians, what we should expect from the Christian walk if we follow the Spirit to lead. If we are living a life antithetical to the moral law of God, we are probably not walking in the Spirit, and this points to the need for God’s Gospel, for on our own, we cannot walk in righteousness. We must also preach messages that speak to what the Gospel provides for us, like messages of Sanctification-that is the message of God’s Spirit living in us and actually changing us from the inside out.

Let me not discourage any one that reads this from robustly proclaiming our need to study and preach the Gospel. Let me not temper your words. But, if you will, allow me to have you consider a fuller thought upon the matter. Do not reduce God’s Word to one part. Allow it to operate in its fullness. Preach with the Gospel at the heart of all you say and do. That is, preach with the intention of leading persons to Christ, but allow all portions of the Bible to teach us about God, never assuming that they are weak left to themselves. They will still accomplish much, even if the Gospel is only assumed to be foundational and not the center of the particular message at hand.

To conclude, allow me to return to the doctrine of Prevenient Grace: It is not this or that message that will cause revival. If He prepares the way, makes soft the hearts of those who need Him, then He knows the message that needs to be given. Therefore, we need not make any absolute statement (ex: We can only present the gospel) about what needs to be said, except this: We need to preach what God lays upon our heart to preach. That alone is the answer. Once again, there is much more to the Bible than the Gospel proper. The Gospel then should not be a constraining message that eclipses God's fuller revelation. 

Think on these things.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Musings on the Great Worth of the Lost: A Wesleyan’s Perspective of Humanity

To the Reader: This is an extremely long blog post. It is probably not what most people see as conducive to one sitting, so I have broken it up into sections so you can return...

Part 1 

In light of who we are before God, it is easy to beat ourselves up, to look at one’s self and say, “I am a worthless sinner, but praise God for abounding in love and grace to save a wretch like me.” The rhetoric goes on and on: “God owes me nothing… I am nothing… I have nothing to give…” Now, calling myself a wretch because of the totally depraved state of my sinful being is, in a very great sense, true and proper. I am a guilty sinner in need of grace. However, I wonder if this sort of thinking has led us to holding a lower view of humanity as a whole than is warranted.

It is an easy logical step to say, “Well, the reasons I see myself as a wretch are derived from qualities I share with every other human being walking the planet; therefore, I am warranted to think of them as wretches as well.” I think we often do make this step, and I think it leads to conclusions concerning others that are less than Christian in their essence. The question that this raises is this: Does the Bible afford us the right to think in such a way, to think that humans (especially the lost) are merely despicable? If our view of our fellow human is lower than perhaps is warranted, can this low anthropology not misshape our theology?

Consider this: If the lost are merely despicable beings, rotten to the core, with nothing of worth within their being, why are we obligated to love them? I think the answer: “Because God says so!” is lacking. Why would God have us love a purely sinful being? In a previous post: “Making ‘Sense’ of Calvinistic Election…” (Perhaps I should have entitled it, “Trying to Make Sense of Calvinistic Election,” as I never really did make sense out of it), I attempt to discuss the character of the lost and show the reformed objection to my views. I think the point is worth restating here:

Whenever I, or any other person, provide any amount of dignity to the lost, we are immediately countered by the fact that the lost are utterly depraved and as such my value of the lost is misplaced. In a recent discussion with a [Reformed] friend, I was chastised for appealing to children or the tribesmen who are never given the chance to respond. This attempt at a corrective of my view of such people was characterized by the fact that the children and tribesmen in question are utterly despicable and evil. If this was not an attempt to justify their plight as damned without hope of grace, I cannot imagine why it was brought up.

While the Bible certainly takes occasion to put us in our place, to remind us that we are sinners before a just and Holy God, there are usually two sides to the coin that we must consider. The other side of this coin: The Bible often affords humanity with such dignity that for me to do any less would be presumptuous and arrogant:

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast             set thy glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the [God], and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)

Here the Psalmist is pondering a great question: How can a God so great care for beings that seem so insignificant in the grand scheme of things? Part of the writer’s consideration is that God has actually made man just below Himself (Note: The KJV as I quote here actually uses the term “angel” in v 5, but notes that other translations use God, which is perhaps a more literal reading). How can he say such a thing? How can he afford such dignity to humanity? That is precisely his question: “God, why do you care about us? Why give us such privilege? Why love us so?” The psalmist certainly sees greatness within humanity. Not just God fearing people, but in the race as a whole. He is considering how God sees man at the present, not just in the future. He is not just saying, God you once made us great. He is saying God you made us great!

Consider what Jesus tells us about loving others: We are to love neighbor and enemy. So, let me ask you this once again: If it were the case that nonbelievers are totally and utterly evil, black to the core, with no goodness whatsoever in their being, no worth, no dignity,which was the position my Reformed friend was taking in the portion I quoted from my previous essay, why should I be told to love pure evil. Is that not sinful? Once again, it is not just that God says so. He is not an arbitrary God. There is good reason to love the lost.

Part 2

There must be something loveable about these persons. Does this mean that they are not sinners, not capable of utter horror. Well, yes. But, there can be silver in the midst of dross. A being can be a guilty sinner, and yet exude goodness from within.

As a father, I know this to the deepest depths of my being. My daughter, a baby still, almost two years of age, has yet to have a conversion experience. She was born inheriting my sin nature. I can see pride and selfishness in embryonic form within her. She is broken and, without Christ, she will be lost. But, that does not mean that even prior to her becoming a Christian, she does not abound with good and Godly qualities. She most certainly does. That I see the imago Dei emerging from her being is an everyday occasion. Love and joy burst forth from the seams of her being, and no one can ever convince me that she is utter evil. You might as well walk away if you ever want to say such to me. It would be best that you do.

So, what is my point?

Simply put:

We need not have an extremely low and impoverished anthropology to hold a high and proper theology that elicits awe and humility to the greatest degree possible.

In other words, I need not see humanity and the lost people of the world as despicable smut, nor do I need to forever see myself as a mere pile of crap covered in the snow that is Christ (as Luther put it). As I have said before, Christ is more than spiritual Febreze. Because of sanctification we Christians are more than mere sinners saved by grace, and because of the inherent grace given by God and His image within all humans, as fractured and damaged as it might be, we all, even the lost, have real worth. That they are in need of Christ and are dead without Him need not be denied for me to say that there is something in them worth saving. I can afford humanity with dignity in my mind without doing injustice to the high place God is to have in my thoughts and beliefs.

Let’s move a little off topic for a moment:

To counter my statement that the lost has goodness in them, one might wish to go a little off topic and talk about human works, which, while not being the human itself, represent the human and his or her capabilities. The point is often made that God sees our actions apart from Him as filthy rags, that all our attempts to do good are not really good. Because of our low anthropology, we hold a view that humans are fully incapable of doing anything that reflects goodness within. This ignores that we are image bearers, broken as we are, and it denies God’s working in us even before salvation through prevenient grace, wooing us to His Beloved Son through the Holy Spirit.

Some persons have questioned Christians about the goodness they see in this or that person. It is often a common sort of statement: “I know X, and X is an atheist. Yet, X does so many benevolent acts, more than the Christians that I know. X works at the soup kitchen. X gives money to the needy. X opens his home to all in need. X feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and looks after orphans and widows. Are they not doing good?”

What is the response? From many Christians the answer is pure dismissal of the obvious: That that person is exhibiting Godly traits of kindness, love, compassion and grace. Instead a response is formed because persons think they are defending a biblical stance that states nonbelievers cannot exhibit signs of the image of God: “Well outwardly the deed is seemingly good, but it is not of God and is not good at the heart of the matter.” I’ve heard this time and time again, and have even said it myself, but it is not as warranted as I once thought. Humans are made in the image of God and grace is given even before salvation, so how is it that it cannot be expressed? Yes we are broken, but even a broken watch is even right twice a day! As many, I used Isaiah 64:6 as backing my assumption that nonbelievers cannot really do good: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

Does this settle it? I think not. Better put: Does this actually tell us that humans are incapable of doing good things if they are not Christian?

The prophet is discussing our state before God. We are unclean, which in the ancient Hebraic context means that we cannot approach God. He makes the point that not even our attempts to do good can cleanse us for they are “as if” they are dirty, which is different than saying they are dirty in themselves for one thing. So, in other words, they are incapable of taking away sin. They do not have saving quality: A filthy rag cannot remove filth and make us clean. To offer God any act of good will and genuine effort, even if assisted by his prevenient grace (more on this in a moment) as an offering for the atonement of sins is to offer to God a base and insulting gesture. We cannot save ourselves. So, these works are called filthy rags when they are offered for atonement. But, apart from atonement, we need not make degrading commentary on their existence.

Are they filthy in and of themselves? Is everything a human does before he is saved a filthy gesture of a seemingly righteous motive? Is the person who saves another’s life not doing good if he is yet to be a Christian? I think he is doing good. The point Isaiah is making is that it is not an act that will save us. It cannot make us clean. Doing good does not replace doing wrong. Good can be done, and it can be good in and of itself, and will remain a good work especially if it is not offered up as a reason God should save the person because it does not negate prior guilt.

To better understand my point, take for instance Cain’s offering to God in the Genesis account.  He offers God the fruits of his labor (Genesis 4:3). Now, we are reminded that God’s creation, although subjugated to the fall, is still a good creation. Thus, the fruits and vegetables gathered by Cain in and of themselves are not inherently evil. In fact, if anything, they are inherently good.  He has produced a good crop. His work has been good. However, for Cain to suggest that what he has created through his labor, a harvest of fruits and vegetables, is sufficient for the remission of sins is an insult. They are as filthy rags then.

Part 3

So, once again, the question arises: can a nonbeliever do good? I think so. The deed is not worthy of the remission of sins, but it comes from a place within the being that is still grounded in love, truth and beauty because of the image that remains, as broken as it might be. God extends his prevenient grace out to the lost, even before they have been converted, working in their heart to bring them to truth. Is it not possible that because of this grace, the person realizes something of what is right and good and acts upon it even before fully committing to Christ and being filled with the Spirit? I think so. And if it was the prompting of the Spirit, how then do we say it is not good. In fact, it could be this action that God uses that leads the doer to repentance, seeing that he or she want to dedicate this life to the cause of God. But, meaningful goodness, as Isaiah points out, can only be sustained by grace, and God wants this person to give his whole life over so that the goodness within can be fully restored and salvaged from the grips of death. Otherwise it will perish and disappear.

The issue is that the goodness that remains is in the clutches of death, and God is on a rescue mission. He wants to save the lost because they have something savable, a worth given to them by God’s image and grace.  

What makes a human being? It is not simply a living body. Bodies vary in all ways. Some do not even have full bodies. So, it is no one part of the body. A human must have a body, but that does not make them fully human. It is the image of God that makes us humans. So, we are broken humans, but humans nonetheless, because the image has been damaged by our sin. Has that image been devastated? Yes. Is it utterly gone? I think not, otherwise would we even be human anymore? God wants to restore that brokenness for it is worth restoring.

So, I submit that humans have worth. All humans have worth, at least at some point (I assume a person can give themselves over totally to sin and refuse God’s grace: the reprobate). If humans have worth, and that worth is worth loving, then how could God predestine any of them, with no power to choose otherwise, to Hell? To bring beings into existence with the express purpose of designating the being to eternal damnation seems cruel. If you assert that God loves all, wants all to be saved, then how can you assert that he would not offer grace, but send some to Hell without ever a genuine chance of salvation?

I once heard it said: Calvinists try to answer the question: How does a sovereign God demonstrate His Love, while Wesleyans try to answer the question: How does a God of Love demonstrate His sovereignty. God is Love, and He loves all humans because they are lovable. He would not condemn an object of love to eternal punishment without giving that object of love a chance to love Him back. I base all this on the evidence of the revealed Scripture, not on conjecture. So, when I say, “How could God do so-and-so,” if I base that question upon what God has already revealed, the retort “Where were you, O man,” need not be offered. That was a question for persons who were without revelation, simply speculating on God. I am not merely speculating. I am asking this question in light of Scripture. Moreover, to simply relocate this to the realm of mystery is to ignore the question. I am saying, “This is revealed by God, that He loves all and wants all to be saved.”