Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Saved from Hell?

One more problematic presentation of the gospel I want to mention that occurred to me writing those recent posts is a particular manifestation of a manipulation of people when the "gospel" is preached: "You don't want to go to hell do you?" In the end, some evangelists will lean upon an appeal to fear, specifically the fear of going to hell. In the end, they communicate that the gospel is the power of God to save you from hell. That's the "salvation" part of the gospel, is that it gets you out of hell. However, scaring people into coming forward and repeating a prayer doesn't mean they are actually responding in repentance and faith. It just means ... well ... you scared them!
What does the gospel save us from? R. C. Sproul's book Saved From What? explains that the gospel saves us from the wrath of God being poured out upon us (1 Thess 1:10). That is basically a description of hell. But my concern is not that this is incorrect, but it can be like "reverse carrot stick" evangelism. Rather than attracting people to Christianity with things other than the glorious Jesus Himself, we scare people away from the alternative (by the way, I'm not suggesting Sproul did this in his book). While it is totally true that we are are saved from God's wrath, I don't believe that's the best motivation for coming to Christ, nor should it be the only motivation. We are saved "from God," that is, from God's wrath, but we are saved "for God," that is, to bring glory to God in our lives.

I still hold that the attraction should be Jesus Himself, honoring His life, death, and resurrection; that scaring people into a decision isn't a full gospel presentation; that we need to focus more on the content of the gospel and not just the responses to it (though those need to be defined carefully and correctly).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Confusing the Response with the Actual Gospel

An evangelist came to a church I was attending several years ago. He came preaching a message on Christian living. It was an okay sermon, very energetic. About 95% of it was directed toward those who were already Christians and how to live as a Christian. Then, right near then end, he "appended" an appeal to get saved. Said that without Christ we are lost and will never be able to have a relationship with God. Then he said that if they wanted to have a relationship with God they needed to "repeat this simple prayer." He had everyone close their eyes and those who wanted to become a Christian were to repeat his words in their heart and really mean it. Then he proclaimed that those who prayed that prayer were saved. What's wrong with this? Here is a non-exhaustive list:
1) He actually never mentioned faith/believing.
2) He quickly referenced "repent from your sins" during the prayer, with no definition or explanation given for what repentance was.
3) He was compelling people to respond ... but what were they supposedly responding to? The gospel? No, the appeal to be in a relationship with God. But what did that mean? He didn't say!

Is this the content or the response?
Many preachers confused the appropriate response to the gospel with the gospel itself. Repentance and faith are the appropriate responses to hearing the proclamation of the gospel. However, they are not the gospel itself. Note what Jesus says in Mark 1:15 (HCSB): "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!" The saving response to the good news (the gospel) is repentance and belief. But if we are repenting and believing in the gospel, then they are not the gospel itself. They are the responses not the content. So the problem with this presentation of the gospel is that it confuses the appropriate responses with the actual content of the gospel. Therefore, when repentance and faith are presented as if they are the content, the gospel has not actually been presented. So what is the person who responds by prayer a pray actually responding to? They are responding to the general concept of becoming a Christian, but that is not a response of faith, it's a response to belong to a group, to be a part of a religion or an organization. This is a huge problem today. What is the content of the gospel?

Greg Gilbert (What is the Gospel?) and Trevin Wax (Counterfeit Gospels) do a great job simply explaining this, though in different ways (both books were mentioned in a previous post). Gilbert uses four words to summarize the gospel: God, Man, Christ, Response. Each word has several concepts connected to it (these are my summaries, not Gilbert's).
God - He is creator there we are accountable to Him

Man - Adam rebelled against his Creator and transgressed God's law. Therefore he was separated from God and all his descendants, which is all of humanity, are separated from God. All people are born enemies of God. We are in a desperate situation, declared guilty before God.
Christ - God initiated a relationship with mankind over and over again: the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant are two examples of God initiating a relationship to mankind. But His ultimate initiation was sending His Son, Jesus Christ, the God-man, to live a perfect life and die a perfect death. His sacrifice was for us. He died in our place. God himself paid the penalty that we could never pay in order to restore us in to a relationship with God. Christ's victory over death and sin, that He was who He said He was, was ultimately demonstrated by the resurrection.
Response - Now repentance (turning from sin) and faith (trusting in Christ Himself and His work on the cross as sufficient to pay for our sins) can be explained in a context as a response to the gospel.

Trevin Wax organizes it differently. He pictures the gospel as a stool with three legs. The first leg is the gospel story: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The second leg is the gospel announcement, which is very similar to the "God, Man, Christ, Response" explanation above. The third leg is the gospel community. He says "the gospel story is the context in which we make the gospel announcement" (Wax, 154). Without the gospel story, the gospel announcement can easily be understood, especially in a culture that is unfamiliar with the Bible. Then he says: "The gospel story and the gospel announcement lead to the formation of the gospel community" (Wax, 155). Here Wax explains that once someone has heard the gospel story and announcement, if the presentation of the gospel ends there, they might misunderstand that being incorporated into a local church body is not just an option but is essential. The church is birthed by the gospel and is the place where we are sanctified. The body of Christ is one of the tools that God uses to make us more like Christ (to sanctify us). American individualism gets in the way of this tool.

Is this more complicated then just saying: repent and believe! Yes, it is. Does it take more time? Yes, it does. Sometimes it might take several meetings for the unbeliever to understand. Sometimes they won't understand the first, or second, or tenth time you explain it. Make sure you do the true work of an evangelist and give the content to the gospel, not just the proper response when witnessing to unbelievers.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Robert C. McQuilkin

Robert C. McQuilkin (died 1952) preached a sermon called "Surrender and Faith." Here are two quotes that I particularly appreciated:

“But I want to remind you that saving faith is not just saying is not just saying with your lips that you believe that Christ is the Son of God. The devil, the demons, believe that and they tremble and they’re waiting they’re judgment. Well they know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. There is a believing even in the works of Christ that is not saving faith.”

“Saving faith is committing myself to the Lord. And when I say I believe in Christ as my Savior, I wish you young people would get this, you are taking Christ as your Lord. If you think you took Christ as your Savior and did not take Him as your Lord then you never were saved. Because, Jesus the Savior is Lord.”

Friday, August 16, 2013

Columbia International University

Many of you know that I have moved to Columbia, South Carolina to begin teaching in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. CIU has an orientation process for their new faculty that I've already appreciated greatly. It really helps new faculty (especially those who were never students here) to grasp well the ethos of the school and its history.

CIU has a broad evangelical statement of faith. This is in contrast to a denominational college or seminary that might be Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist. The only unique aspect to the statement of faith (or, doctrinal statement) that is more narrow than a broad evangelical stance is the statement on premillennialism.

CIU purpose statement is to "educate people from a biblical worldview to impact the nations with the message of Christ." We have five core values:
1) The authority of Scripture - Scripture governs everything CIU is about. It is inspired and inerrant.
2) Victorious Christian living - This has been explained in several different ways, but basically it is the expectation that a Christian will be growing in Christ-likeness and not stagnant in their faith.
3) World Evangelization - CIU is most known as a missions sending school (though it is much more than that). The emphasis upon reaching the lost throughout the world for Christ is felt throughout campus. When driving on to the main road leading to the campus (called International Blvd), flags of nations throughout the world are flying (see picture to the right).
4) Prayer & Faith - This is a community that relies upon God for everything and demonstrates that reliance in prayer. Several days throughout the school year classes are cancelled so a dedicated time in prayer can be spent.
5) Evangelical Unity - We are a diverse faculty coming from various perspectives: covenant and dispensational, paedo-baptist and credo-baptist, calvinistic and arminian. We avoid dogmatism on non-central doctrines and avoid compromise by holding to an strong evangelical, orthodox doctrinal statement.

As I blogged previously, I have had many connections to Columbia, SC and CIU over the years. I'm excited for classes to begin next week and to get back to teaching. This is a wonderful place with so many godly, humble, meek servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. It truly is an honor to be working here.

Carrot Stick Evangelism: A Distraction and Detraction

Edward and I were at a sub shop eating lunch. He was raised Jewish, but really didn't know much about Judaism, the Old Testament, not to mention Christianity. I had been meeting with him for a few weeks and he had started attending church. He had heard the gospel several times at this point and we had spent several hours going through the typical apologetics-type questions unbelievers ask. Then he said: "Many of my friends say that if I go to church and become a Christian that I'll have a better life: better friends, better finances, better health, a happier marriage, you know, those kind of things. Do you think that's true? Do you think that if I become a Christian that all those areas in my life would get better?" This, I think, is kind of a trick question coming from Edward.

A clear, faithful presentation of the gospel should be one of the main goals in evangelism, but some times we focus on other things, things that end up distracting and detracting. What is carrot stick evangelism?

The phrase comes from the idea of leading a donkey or horse by tying a carrot to the end of a stick and holding it in front of them to lead them in the direction you want them to go. You hold out a "reward" for the animal when it does what you want it to do. You try to "attract" them to go in a certain direction.

So carrot stick evangelism is when we hold out things other than Christ as the reward or attraction to the Christian faith. What are these "other things"? It could be deliverance from depression or some illness. It could be a happier marriage or friends that are trustworthy. It could be a non-prosperity gospel explanation that when you use your resources the way God intends, that your finances will be in a healthier place. It could be that God will relieve you of all your anxiety. We can be so tempted to hold these things out in our evangelism, tempted to attract people to less anxiety, more health, a better marriage, etc. But is that what we should be attracting people to in our presentation of the gospel?

My answer is an unqualified "no"! And I'm NOT just talking about prosperity gospel preaching. Don't place the carrot on the stick in front of unbelievers of a "better life". I do believe that following the principles laid out in Scripture will typically lead to a more joyful life, in marriage, friendships, finances, etc. But ... but what if God decides that suffering an illness will help make you more like Jesus and bring Him glory? What will that young convert think when he is diagnosed with cancer three months after "making a decision" for Jesus? He'll think what many have said after hearing the "carrot stick" evangelism method: Christianity doesn't work. Instead of attracting unbelievers with these superficial things, let's attract them by lifting up Christ, His life, His death, His glorious resurrection and ascension. When the glory of Christ is explained, when His love as expressed in His life and death is explained, that is what should be attracting unbelievers. And what's their reward? Not just the avoidance of hell (another "iffy" gospel presentation method), but they gain Christ. Christ is both the attraction and the reward! If someone "makes a decision for Jesus" because they want a better marriage, I ask this: is that a true conversion? Did they convert to Christianity or to a man-made religion that gets them whatever they want? So this method distracts from what is the only thing that can truly draw them to God, Christ; it detracts from the glory of Christ by presenting a "better life" as more praiseworthy, more glorious than Christ himself. So how did I answer Edward?

"Edward, I do believe that following the principles in Scripture typically leads to the things you've mentioned, but I do not want you to come to Christ so you can get those things. I want you to become a Christian because you fall in love with the God of the Bible who has already demonstrated His love for you in the life and death of His Son. I want you to be attracted to Christianity because Jesus is so glorious! I want you to see that the reward of becoming a Christian is knowing Christ! Not some temporal reward of better health or more money. So, let's talk about Jesus and what he's done for you."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Critiquing Some "Gospel" Presentations: Part 1

When I began teaching New Testament Survey at Liberty University in the Fall of 2006, I quickly discovered that many of my students did not have a firm grasp ... or at times ... any grasp on what the gospel was. So I began looking for a short book on the gospel to supplement a New Testament Survey book. The only two book that came close to what I was looking for were: 1) God is the Gospel (2005) by John Piper; and 2) Saved From What? (2002) by R. C. Sproul. There were problems with both, however.

With Piper's book, I didn't feel comfortable using any book by him with the heated dialogue that was taking place about Calvinism at Liberty University during this time period (aka, the almost debate between Ergun Caner and James White). The same problem crossed my mind when Mark Dever's published his helpful work The Gospel and Personal Evangelism (2007).

Sproul's book brought similar baggage, but I was able to use it for a year. It did a fine job in what he was trying to do and it ministered to many students in a powerful way. But it still wasn't exactly what I was looking for. And I was still uncomfortable using a book by someone so Reformed at Liberty University at that time. Also, the resurrection of Christ was heavily minimized, about 2-3 references in the entire book.

And then an explosion occurred:
- Greg Gilbert's excellent book: What is the Gospel? (2010)
- Trevin Wax's wonderful book: Counterfeit Gospels (2011)
- Matt Chandler's The Explicit Gospel (2012)
- Paul Washer's first two installments of his (soon to be) trilogy: The Gospel's Power & Message (2012) and The Gospel Call and True Conversion (2013).
I'm sure more could be added to this list! Regardless, D. A. Carson has repeatedly stated that when the gospel is assumed by one generation, it can easily be denied by the following generation (Basics for Believers, 27). These are not identical presentations of the gospel, but they are all very helpful. Reading through these works (and listening to this sermon by Paris Reidhead) has helped me to see two specific problems with gospel presentations in many sermons today that I want to focus on (not that their aren't others):
1) Carrot Stick Evangelism
2) Just Explaining the Response