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!

  • Malachi Malagowther

    10th August 2018 at 6:33 pm Reply

    The irreducible content doesn’t seem to contain some of the things that you think are essential. Mr Stevens doesn’t seem to mention the incarnation or crucifixion in his list. I’m not too happy about his statement that, “you will be forgiven and blessed”. It sounds very much like, “Jam tomorrow”. I like to think of God’s forgiveness as constantly being renewed and stretching from the past into an infinitely long future. Similarly with His blessings. I think his blessings have been freely given ever since the world was created and have been, “new every morning” ever since the first morning. Admittedly there are some blessings that our sinfulness may prevent us from receiving but in general His blessings come first and our response (or lack of it) comes second. Even the statement that , “God is going to judge you” seems a bit bald. I thought that in the OT God reached out His mighty right arm to judge the nations but when we looked more closely in the NT what we saw was the arm of Jesus stretched out and nailed to the cross. I think it was CS Lewis who amplified this by saying that on the Day of Judgement God will say to each of us, “thy will be done” and if we have spent our whole life searching for Him then we will have eternity to enjoy His presence but if we have spent our whole life denying Him and turning our back on Him then His sustaining love will be withdrawn and we will cease to exist. St Paul said that we see through a glass darkly but I think if you just concentrate on Mr Stevens’ list then the glass will become a solid opaque black.

  • Stephen Sheridan

    13th August 2018 at 1:06 pm Reply

    I love the GKC quote Penelope – it needs a T-shirt!

    It would be interesting to stretch back into the early Church to see how much of the “we are right and you are wrong” preaching happened. I suspect that this came about more through Constantine’s adoption of Christianity and then it became driven by conflict within the Church (the Donatists, the Arian heresy, the Pelagianism etc and the need to create a common canon of belief) rather than a battle with paganism. The latter came later with Emperors like Theodosius attempting mass suppression of paganism. In the early Church it would always have to be a matter of persuasion and on that score Christianity had so much going for it compared to paganism:
    1) A string moral code based on scripture, while most (if not all) contemporary polytheistic religions within the Roman Empire focussed on appeasement of amoral powerful deities with an ill defined or undefined moral core.
    2) The promise of forgiveness of sins.
    3) The promise of eternal life.
    4) An emphasis on love and charity.

    As Penelope points out on the Christian drive on emancipation and other areas, when you look at the enlightenment values, one actually sees a direct line of descent from Christian values of Love and Charity. When those values become divorced from enlightenment thought, the latter quickly mutates towards tyranny, usually justified as being for the greater good.

    Judgement is necessary or there is no incentive to avoid bad behaviour. However, as Malachi points out, the nature of that judgement is a matter of great interpretation. In a less sophisticated society, simple hellfire becomes the punishment, but CS Lewis put it much better in his book The Great Divorce, where Hell is just a continuation of the frustrations and negativity people endured in life. For instance the new arrival to Hell is told that Napoleon is there and wanders about a big palace in his uniform complaining about how his defeats were all his generals’fault (it was all Ney’s fault or Soult’s fault or Grouchy’s fault), rather than his own. Napoleon is thus denying his own responsibilities – after all he appointed those generals in the first place and why was he leading them to pointless wars of conquest causing so much human misery anyway, given history shows that such wars almost always end badly for the initiator.

    Lewis then takes some of his inhabitants of Hell to a day trip to Heaven, where they get a chance to repent. Heaven is portrayed as the extension of everything good and purposeful you did in life and he comments particularly on one inhabitant who committed a terrible crime but repented. Most of the visitors from Hell can’t get over how unfair they feel their treatment is (especially when they encounter the repentant man) and that is exposed as a product of their selfishness and their inability to take responsibility for their actions. One view could be that God’s judgement as simply “take responsibility and ask for forgiveness” and God’s judgement depends on how honest you are about taking responsibility.

    A real life comparative example of dishonesty in taking responsibility was Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and later his armaments minister. He evaded the death penalty at Nuremberg, by saying that he took responsibility for the terrible crimes of the Nazis, because although he didn’t know about most of them, he should have taken the trouble to find out. It was a cunning strategy, because he convinced the judges that his were sins of omission rather than commission. When he left prison he wrote a best selling book about his time with the Nazis and earned a good living from it. However, as more documents emerged, it was clear that he lied massively about his level of knowledge and masked a lot of the crimes committed in his area (slave labour, deportations, economic looting) through euphemisms in the documentation. He was a handsome, urbane and charming man, who was also a notable philanderer – all of the philanderers I have met have been similarly empty people. The judges at Nuremberg should have noted that for him to break into Hitler’s inner circle (when he did as an outsider), he would have been adept at flattery and manipulation, but they fell for his charms. His punishment in Hell might be to be surrounded by people who never fall for his charms and he would be doomed never to realise that he exercised poor judgement himself about not taking real responsibility.

  • Judith Leader

    13th August 2018 at 3:46 pm Reply

    Last Sunday I thought again about how middle class our church was and how everyone is so busy looking for someone that sometimes I think, where should I sit and do I really want to be here. We had a baptism and the sermon was about The Way and I wondered that if any of the baptism party weren’t church goers (lets not get into the all who go to church aren’t Christian debate, after all if you go and aren’t you may not be a christian but surely you are a saint) new what was going on and what everything was about. Of course a book religion tends to be middle class (that is when they allowed us to read the bible) even in a working class area, such as I was brought up in and sent to Sunday School. So what has that to do with what Ian Paul says, not a lot except you might not like a thing but can agree with it or perhaps you can agree with part of it. Originally my thoughts were, well yes I suppose he is right, but I sometimes wonder, I wonder if perhaps stopping judging people and being more friendly would spread the feeling that this is a nice place to be. Perhaps the church I go to is nice and friendly and I am out of step which is most likely. And I know I am a sinner or at least wrong, my parents said so, my former husband said so, so it must be true, but sometimes I want to do what a friend of my mother’s told me, when her minister told the congregation they were all sinners she told him afterwards that she was not. I go along with Mathew Judge not that you are not judged but then I get into the more questions than answers. Some of my neighbours are much better and helpful people than me, perhaps if they became a Christian (perhaps secretly they are, don’t mean to judge) they wouldn’t have time to be nice and helpful.

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