Gospel preaching, judgment and church history
I frequently enjoy and am often challenged by Rev Ian Paul’s award-winning blog Psephizo, which ranges over all matters theological and church-related. The other day his post was entitled, provocatively, “Did Jesus come to bring good news?”
In it he quotes, apparently with approval, one John Stevens, who after looking at sermons in Acts deduces that the following items are the “irreducible content of gospel proclamation, and ought to provide the framework for authentic gospel preaching… by which preaching ought to be assessed for its faithfulness to the one true gospel:”
Jesus is the risen Lord
You are guilty of sin
God is going to judge you
You need to repent
You will be forgiven and blessed.
By contrast, we are told with disapproval, many sermons, including evangelistic sermons, simply say “God/Jesus loves you.” They may add “Jesus died for you and rose from the dead.”
So do we like Mr Stevens’ Irreducible Content? (Of course, if we don’t, that doesn’t mean he’s not right.)
I agree that I am unhappy about any gospel message that omits the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, and even of any thorough gospel message that omits sin and repentance. The gospel is not all summed up as “Jesus loves you, end of story”, and people do sometimes talk as if it is.
But for an irreducible minimum Stevens does seem to have a rather heavy emphasis on judgment, and no, I don’t like it.
One can’t ignore the theme of judgment in the New Testament – it is extremely prominent in the gospels, in Acts and in Revelation; slightly less so perhaps in the epistles. One can’t ignore either the fact that if Christians believe they/we are “saved”, we ought to know what we’re saved from. And although I’d really like my duty as an evangelist to be limited to being extra nice to people, and telling them that God loves them – the fact that I’d like this doesn’t make it so.
I do, however, think that John Stevens is overlooking something I mentioned in a previous blog post – namely, the passage of time – 1900 years since St Luke wrote and St Paul and St Peter preached.
Just because something may have been the overwhelmingly necessary and useful thing for 1st-century Jews to hear in 33 AD doesn’t mean it’s the overwhelmingly necessary and useful thing for Gentiles and Jews to hear in 2018.
For one thing, Peter and Paul seem to have been convinced that the Second Coming and the Last Judgment were imminent, due within a few years or at most decades.
If they thought this, they were wrong, although the horrible events of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 might have been regarded as fulfilling some of the characteristics of the judgment described in, say, Mark chapter 13.
The Second Coming may still today be imminent, but the world’s been waiting a long time. Long enough that it is simply not sensible to live on the assumption that we’re not probably going to live and die in a normal way.
This doesn’t of course mean that we shouldn’t preach judgment, which can equally come after death.
But things have happened in the last 1900 years.
One person commented on Ian’s blog post that he would want to replace the word “you” in the Irreducible Content with the word “we”. “We have sinned”, etc. This seems sensible.
Because if there is one thing certain over the last 1900 years, taken as a whole, it’s that the church has not been a great advert for any kind of Christianity. And many people who listen to evangelistic addresses know this.
They know that the church has (mostly; fairly consistently) stood on the side of the rich and the rulers against the poor. That the church has frequently justified and promoted foreign invasion, torture, slave-owning, cruelty to children and racism. That the church has centuries of persecuted Jewish blood on its hands. That the church has allowed and encouraged the double sexual standard for men and women, with appalling consequences for unmarried mothers, neglected, infected and betrayed wives, and illegitimate children. That within living memory churches were organisations that disapproved of the cinema, raffles and alcohol.
They know that we are still not at the bottom of the monstrous scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up in most if not all major Christian denominations.
Many people associate the church at some level with all that is joyless, cruel and hypocritical. This means that they understandably associate God and Jesus with them.
Churches are now apologising for some of these things, but not all of them.
Of course this isn’t the whole story. Christians both individually and collectively have often worked hard for and promoted better values. The value and dignity of an individual human being was and is a radical Judeao-Christian thought, and it helped turned society away from (for example) infanticide, gladiatorial fights and polygamy. And slavery, eventually. On some more modern issues of justice and mercy, such as fair trade and prison reform, Christians have led the world. On many others, such as freedom of religion, Christians have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into what we now regard as civilised behaviour, which is one reason why I wish traditionalists would be less dogmatic on the subject of same-sex marriage.
Part of me thinks that the Church, by which I mean Christians collectively, have deprived themselves of any right to tell the world that “we’re right and you’re wrong”, that this right needs to be earned, and it may take about a hundred years to earn it back.
Only part of me, before you report me to my vicar. And (also before you say it) evangelism is not, or should not, be saying “we’re right.” We should be saying “behold the Man Jesus.”
But there’s baggage. I’m sure John Stevens would agree that he’s a sinner equally with everyone else, but that’s not always what people hear.
We are, or ought to be, the ones repenting – and trying to do this without throwing all the blame back on our ancestors’ generation, which as Jesus pointed out, is easy to do.
I am reminded, and you may be too, of the quote attributed (though alas without much authority) to GK Chesterton. (Chesterton again!)
“Dear Sir, Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am.”
I am. And Jesus isn’t.
Love from the PPI Blogger
PS Thank you to Stephen Sheridan for a very detailed and enthusiastic review of “The Tenth Province of Jaryar” on Amazon!