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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1997 -- Volume 10:18


The Subtle Danger of An Imprecise Gospel

Bob Wilkin
Associate Editor
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society

 

I. Introduction

 

As readers of JOTGES are fully aware, I am not in agreement with Lordship Salvation’s view of the gospel. Yet there are issues (such as: the deity of Christ, inerrancy, the sanctity of marriage, and calling believers to holiness) on which we do find common ground. This article addresses one such shared concern: a concern for the nature of preaching today.

A number of Lordship Salvationists have decried the shallow preaching which is found in many churches today. In his book No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, David Wells gives a sober warning: "Theology is disappearing."1 Why is this happening? Because, Wells says, while "the great sin in fundamentalism is to compromise," "the great sin in evangelicalism is to be narrow."2

Os Guiness likewise decries the current state of affairs in evangelicalism today. In his book Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity, Guinness describes what pastors are being taught today on how to be effective:

Look at church-growth literature and check for such chapters as "Portrait of the Effective Pastor." In one such best-seller, theology and theological references are kept to a minimum—little more than a cursory reference to the pastor’s "personal calling" and to "God’s vision for the church." The bulk of the chapter is taken up with such themes as delegating, confidence, interaction, decision making, visibility, practicality, accountability, and discernment—the profile of the thoroughly modern pastor as CEO.3

He continues:

Small wonder that one eminent Christian leader returned home from a church-growth conference puzzled. There had been "literally no theology," he said. "In fact, there had been no serious reference to God at all."4

As these quotations show, lack of depth in preaching has received a fair amount of attention. However, the specific issue of lack of depth in gospel preaching has received much less attention.5 This article is an attempt to address this important issue.

I must confess at the start that I am venturing outside my field here. Normally I write exegetical or theological articles. While this one certainly contains exegesis and theology, it has a sociological thrust. In this article I am evaluating transcripts of actual evangelical sermons preached around the U.S. within the past few years. Approximately 50 churches from a wide range of evangelical denominations and non-denominations were contacted for samples of evangelistic sermons. A number of them sent one or more messages. Parts of those sermons were transcribed and are cited verbatim in this paper.

The sample of sermons received does not prove that X percent of pastors are imprecise concerning the gospel message. Not being a statistician I wouldn’t try to establish precise statistics. However, the evidence clearly shows that there are many pastors and churches today which inadvertently are imprecise in their gospel preaching.

There are probably many reasons why this is so. Two prominent reasons are 1) the conviction that one can reach more people in this way (believing that a clear gospel proclaimed from the pulpit would offend many before they had a chance to be touched by the love of God flowing through the congregation), and 2) the belief that the way they communicate the gospel is, in reality, the clearest way to share it (after all, many gospel tracts have vague evangelistic appeals like "give your life to Christ," "commit yourself to Christ," "follow Christ," or "pray to receive Christ").

A third possible reason is the desire to avoid being needlessly offensive. More than ever before churches are drawing in people from many different denominations and groups, both within and outside of orthodox Christendom. A pastor friend of mine, for example, has people from over 25 different denominations or groups in his church. That makes it tough to preach evangelistically in a way that will be both clear on the gospel and not needlessly offensive to those present. It is sometimes difficult for a pastor to discern between being needlessly offensive and being needfully offensive (since the gospel itself often does offend). If he is not very careful, he may end up proclaiming an inoffensive, yet imprecise gospel.

My thesis is that there is a subtle danger today of compromising the gospel by proclaiming it in vague, imprecise terms.

If we are to be true to our calling, then we must preach the gospel clearly even though it necessarily offends some of our listeners. The alternative is that in some cases larger groups will attend, but many of those attending, including many of the previously well-grounded believers, will be or will come to be confused about the gospel.

I call this type of proclamation of the gospel "the imprecise gospel." The word imprecise is an adjective which means that something is "not precise," that is, "[not] correctly and clearly stated."6 The imprecise gospel is thus indefinite, inexact, vague.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that a full articulation of the gospel includes three points: 1) the bad news that you are a sinner separated from God, 2) the good news that Christ died and rose again, securing the right to freely give you eternal life, 3) the condition of obtaining eternal life: faith alone in Christ alone. It is on this third point that the imprecise gospel presentation fails to communicate with precision.

For example, you would be proclaiming an imprecise gospel if instead of calling people to faith alone in Christ alone you told them that the condition of eternal life was any of the following: giving one’s life to Christ, praying to receive Christ, making a leap of faith, trying Jesus, committing your life to Christ, dying to self, becoming a disciple of Christ. The person hearing your presentation would know, if he believed your first two points, that he is a sinner and that Christ died and rose again for him. Yet he wouldn’t know precisely what he had to do to receive this eternal life from Christ.

Therefore, the imprecise gospel is a vague articulation of the gospel which is inoffensive to most people. The average person who heard this gospel preached would say something like this, "My, didn’t the pastor do a great job of preaching the gospel this morning." If someone pointed out that the pastor failed to call people to faith in Christ for eternal life, he would be viewed by many as nit-picking.

We now turn to look at some specific examples of the imprecise gospel.

 

 

II. The Imprecise Gospel

 

A. What the Imprecise Gospel Includes

One pastor proclaiming the imprecise gospel closed an evangelistic message in this way:

You matter to Him. He gave up Jesus, His Son, to take your capital punishment, to set you free. But you’ve got to sign up. An interesting thing happened after the last two services. Lines of people took out bulletins, and they put a cross on the front of the bulletin, and they put a dotted line and they signed up. They came down…and had… me and others…sign on as witnesses. They said they were going to take that program home and they were going to say that this was the day that I signed up. So we were here for a long time after both previous services helping people sign on the dotted line and praying with them. You don’t have to come down and do that. You’re welcome if you’d like to do that and get it settled and have us witness that. But maybe you could talk with some friends that you know who have already signed up. Maybe you could do this later in the privacy of your own home. But friends, Christ has made available to you forgiveness and eternal life, but you’ve got to sign up. I pray that you will.7

In another evangelistic sermon this same preacher said:

Christianity is not for the faint of heart. Can’t you see the role of risk-taking in becoming a Christian? Can’t you see why theologians have said for hundreds of years that even when a seeker is convinced of the facts surrounding Christianity, he still must take a leap of faith in order to receive Christ personally? You must come to that decision point and then commit to Christ even though the full implications of the commitment aren’t all understood. You see why the Bible talks so much about faith. [You see] how to become a Christian you have to take a step of faith. Heb 11:6 says "Without faith it is impossible to be pleasing to God."

Without taking a spiritual risk you won’t get to first base in Christianity. Now it’s not blind faith. It’s not blind risk. It’s not roulette. It’s a reasonable faith. It’s a reasonable leap of faith. It’s a reasonable risk that you’re taking, but a risk nonetheless. Many of us have taken the risk and have been very richly rewarded for having done so because Christ has come in as He said He would in that verse and He’s changed our lives, changed our eternities. We’re very glad.

But I want to ask before we move any further, how many of you have taken this first essential risk and received Christ into your life personally? When was it? Ask yourself. When did you open the door? Did you really do it? Has Christ come in?

Are there proofs of His presence in your life? Can people who are close to you affirm the fact that Christ is in your life because the evidences are ample and everywhere? Or might it be more true that some of you are standing with your hand on the knob, wanting to open the door, needing to open it, but hesitating because you just don’t feel like you can take that risk? Well, I and every other believer in heaven and on earth are rooting for you today to take the risk. Take the risk. See what happens. Trust God in this. Open the door. You won’t regret it. But if you think there’s a way that you can become a Christian without taking the risk, without just opening the door and seeing what happens, you’ll never become a Christian. Becoming a Christian involves risk-taking.

Another minister proclaiming the imprecise gospel said that there are three steps to becoming a Christian:

Millions believe Jesus in their heads, but it hasn’t dropped into their hearts. It is a mental exercise…Millions believe in Jesus, but don’t believe He’s God…You have to believe in the deity of Jesus Christ in order for the first step to come true. John 8:24. Believe that Jesus is God.

The second aspect of being a Christian means to receive Jesus Christ into your heart as Lord and Savior. It’s not just believing, but you have to receive Jesus into your heart…

The third step is following and adhering to Jesus Christ. It’s not just enough to make a decision 15 years ago. He’s not interested with how many start with Him. He’s interested with how many finish with Him. John 8:31-32. John 10:4…

What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who believes, has received, and follows, adheres to. That’s what a Christian is.

A pastor from Pennsylvania closed an imprecise evangelistic message with these words:

Humbly fall on your face, acknowledge your sin, and change your thinking about God. Say, "I’m willing to follow You, submit to You, give ownership of my life to You." Become a Christ-follower.

The same pastor closed another imprecise evangelistic sermon in this way:

Simply say, "God, you be the God of my life. I will no longer be the god of my life. I desire to receive Christ as my Savior. I want Him to control my life. And I reap all the benefits because of that."

In a sermon entitled, "Can I Be Confident I’ll Go to Heaven?," a Kentucky pastor said:

Heaven is promised to those who accept Christ as their Savior and have yielded their life to Him as Lord…If you can’t say that if you were to die you would go to heaven, you need to think about that. The first step is to accept Him as Savior and Lord of your life. To be obedient to His commands and example…That means you say, "I’m not going to trust myself anymore. I’m going to put full confidence in Him.

In a Leadership Journal forum on "Seekers or Saints: The Church’s Conflict of Interest," a pastor from Washington State said, "I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, if you’re sleeping with someone other than your wife, you aren’t going to make it. Read 1 Corinthians 6. I sure love you, but you are not going to make it."8

Later in the forum a pastor from Chicago spoke about evangelism. Here’s how he chose to articulate an evangelistic appeal: "Have you ever made a commitment to Christ?"9

I am disturbed by this sort of appeal. Even more disturbing to me is that many believers are not disturbed when they hear or read these things. I fear we have become so immersed in the imprecise gospel and in the toleration of our age that we are only offended when someone comes out and blatantly contradicts the gospel.

There are a number of recurring appeals I found in the evangelistic sermons I analyzed:

  • Accept Christ as your Savior and Lord

  • Repent of your sins

  • Follow Christ

  • Commit your life to Christ

  • Submit your life to Christ

  • Turn your life over to Christ’s control

  • Receive Christ as Savior and Lord

  • Give your heart to Jesus.

You may notice that these are common evangelistic appeals today. Often we would call these "popular" appeals. And that is my point. The imprecise gospel is one which is popular. It has wide appeal. It is vague enough that most people feel comfortable with it.

The imprecise gospel is distinctive both in the vague expressions it uses and in the clear expressions which it does not use. Let’s consider what the imprecise gospel excludes.

 

 B. What the Imprecise Gospel Excludes

The imprecise gospel tends to exclude anything which is likely to divide or offend a significant number of people. Missing are expressions such as "Lordship Salvation," "Free Grace Salvation," "cheap grace," or "easy believism." Commitment and obedience are not renounced as conditions of salvation. In fact, as shown above, commitment and obedience are normally held up as requirements of salvation. While the imprecise gospel sometimes speaks of salvation by faith, it doesn’t usually speak of salvation by faith alone.

Faith is not normally defined as a conviction that the testimony of God is true, or as simple trust. Instead, when explained, faith is often pictured as a blind leap and as a risky venture. Faith to some is not certainty, but is uncertainty!

I am not suggesting that unless a pastor corrects false understandings of the gospel he cannot be clear on the gospel. Of course, a person can clearly articulate the gospel without directly confronting false views of it. However, while a preacher might not do this in every presentation of the gospel, he surely should do so in some, if not many. Otherwise he leaves the flock vulnerable to those who would mislead them (radio and TV preachers, tracts and books, well-meaning friends, etc.). What I am suggesting here is that the imprecise gospel does not clear up major misconceptions on the conditions of eternal life. For example, if a pastor preaches against the need to do good works in order to be saved, stay saved, or even prove you’re saved, that the only condition is faith in Christ, then he is no longer proclaiming the imprecise gospel. Though he may have been imprecise in his evangelistic preaching to that point, at that point he is precise.

 

III. Applications

It is unwise to settle for something less than the clearest presentation of the only saving message there is. The gospel cannot be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism (Gal 1:6-9). Besides, ultimately, the truly pragmatic thing to do is always to please God.

A. Application to Pastors and Evangelists

Make the gospel a non-negotiable in your ministry. Preach the gospel clearly and often. Call people to faith alone in Christ alone. Tell them that commitment, following Christ, and turning from sins are not conditions of eternal salvation, but of discipleship, progressive sanctification, and eternal rewards. Tell them that if a person is trusting even in part in such things, then he is not truly believing in Christ for eternal life.

Don’t offend people needlessly. There is no reason to use poor grammar, to dress in a way that turns off your audience, or to ridicule and harangue. However, do offend people needfully. Just make sure that it is the gospel that offends, and not you.

Be willing to resign or be fired over the gospel issue. The alternative is much worse than unemployment, since compromising the gospel message is a grievous thing to God (Gal 1:6-9).

Take a stand regarding church membership and the gospel. Don’t tolerate a situation where people can be members of your church and yet not believe the gospel of grace.10

Don’t let anyone fill your pulpit who holds to Lordship Salvation, even if he would agree not to talk about the gospel. To have a famous Lordship Salvation preacher in your pulpit might be a good move in terms of publicity. It might help church growth. However, you would be sending a message to your church and community that the theology of this famous Lordship Salvationist is all right. Many people in your church would buy his books and listen to him on the radio with confidence that he is an orthodox teacher. If someone who proclaims a false gospel is under the anathema of Gal 1:8-9, we must stay away from him just as if he had the plague.

 

B. Application to Church Leaders

All that I said to pastors above applies to you as well.

In addition, don’t let your pastor twist in the wind on the gospel. Get out there with him. Take the heat he takes. Stand firm as a united group for the clarity of the gospel.

Until he went to the mission field, a friend pastored a large church in Colorado. One day a fellow pastor in his city encouraged him to co-sponsor an evangelist who was coming to town. My friend happened to know that the evangelist he mentioned preaches Lordship Salvation. He went to his elder board and told them of his reservations. All agreed that the church shouldn’t co-sponsor the evangelist. In fact, they decided to send a letter to the other church detailing their concerns. The other church took offense and fired back a letter rebuking my friend and his elders for being negative and mean-spirited.

My friend’s church ended up being one of the few conservative evangelical churches in his town that didn’t sponsor the evangelist and they lost about a hundred members as a result of their lack of participation. Interestingly, however, shortly afterwards they actually gained several hundred new members, more than making up for the numerical and financial loss.

The elders at my friend’s church really stood by him. Since they all shared a burden for the clear gospel, they acted in the only way they felt they could. The fact that some people ended up leaving their body didn’t make them wish they had acted differently. While they were sorry that people left, they were glad that the reason was a difference of conviction over the gospel and its importance.

Make sure that you keep the gospel foremost in your hiring practices, whether for senior pastor, youth pastor, director of Christian education, administrative pastor, or church secretary. Don’t accept any addition to the church staff who isn’t clear on the gospel, regardless of how gifted they are or how much charisma they may have.

Keep up on the gospel debate yourself. Read widely. Don’t rely on somebody else to know the issues. When speaking at a church in Pennsylvania recently, I stayed in the home of one of the elders. In the course of our conversations I learned that he subscribes to several journals (ours included) and that he reads widely on the gospel issue.

I was impressed that he took such pains to stay up on the gospel debate. He feels it is his responsibility as a leader of the church to be informed so that he can lead properly. He is absolutely right. The spiritual well-being of the church should not rest solely in the hands of the senior pastor and the paid staff. All of the leaders of a church are responsible for the spiritual life of the body.

Bring in Free Grace speakers to conduct conferences and seminars and to fill the pulpit when the pastor is out of town.

Encourage the flock to read Free Grace literature.

Share the gospel clearly yourself and teach others to do the same.

 

C. Application to the Church Body

You may not be able to vote in the leadership meetings or have a direct say in who is hired or what is done in your church. However, you can make your voice heard. Let the pastor and church board know what you think, and not only when things go wrong. If the pastor preaches a clear gospel message, let him and the board know how much that means to you. Notes of encouragement can really make a pastor’s day.

Keep up with the issues. Stay informed. Tell the leaders of your church about good books, journals, and commentaries you are reading. A number of JOTGES subscribers give the GES journal and GES material to leaders of their church.

Share the gospel clearly yourself and disciple others to do the same.

 

D. Summary

Make clear gospel proclamation a non-negotiable for you. Be clear on the gospel yourself and teach others to be as well. Don’t let a desire to be a part of a large congregation lead you to become less clear or even unclear on the gospel. Nothing is worth that.

 

IV. Objections Answered

A. But Didn’t Paul Become All Things to All Men?

Yes, he did. The apostle Paul said: "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor 9:22).

What, however, did Paul mean when he said that he became "all things to all men"? He makes that clear in the entire context:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without the law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men that I might by all means win some.

Becoming all things to all men for Paul meant he gave up his liberty (in the context, his right to be paid) whenever doing so would help him proclaim the gospel to people. Let’s take, for example, the issue of circumcision. Circumcision is not required for salvation or for Christian growth. However, when Paul was in Derbe and Lystra, he had Timothy circumcised "because of the Jews who were in the region, for they all knew that his father was Greek" (Acts 16:3). He didn’t want the fact that Timothy was uncircumcised to keep Jews from hearing the gospel message.

Yet, on a different occasion, Paul refused to have another coworker circumcised. Legalists in Jerusalem were urging him to have Titus circumcised. "Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised" (Gal 2:3). Why not? "That the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (v 5). The reason the legalists wanted Titus to be circumcised was so that Titus could be saved—and so that their view of the gospel could be validated and promoted among the Gentiles. Thus the very gospel was at stake. Hence, on that occasion Paul refused to accommodate. Accommodation was always for the gospel, never against it.

Becoming all things to all men does have application regarding the words a preacher chooses to use with his audience. He will want to avoid using words which hinder the audience’s ability to understand and believe the gospel. This would mean that a preacher should avoid using words that are coarse or inappropriate. He will want to avoid gestures which might offend. He will want to use illustrations that speak to that audience. All of these things are especially difficult to observe when preaching cross-culturally. Accommodation of this type is Pauline.

However, when a pastor preaches an imprecise gospel, he is not becoming "all things to all men that [he] might by all means save some." Instead, he is altering the actual message of the gospel. This the apostle Paul would not do (Gal 1:8-9).

Paul articulated his message in various ways. He used a different approach when he preached to the Athenian philosophers at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) from when he preached to a Jewish audience in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41). However, he always shared the same message. His gospel was always by grace through faith, apart from works, lest anyone should boast. The sole condition of eternal salvation, according to Paul, is believing in Christ for it: "However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all long-suffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life" (1 Tim 1:16). Paul did not preach an imprecise gospel of salvation by commitment, surrender, following Christ, or making Christ Lord of one’s life.

While Paul tried to avoid offending anyone needlessly, he offended a lot of people needfully. Paul may well have experienced more persecution as a result of his preaching than any other preacher ever (cf. 2 Cor 11:22-33).

 

B. Does a Solid Free Grace Pastor Have Any Cause for Concern?

Yes, he does. Any pastor, including those who solidly hold to the Free Grace view of salvation, is subject to the subtle danger of being imprecise in his gospel preaching.

In the Book of Galatians, a book warning against defection from the gospel, Paul reports an incident in which two apostles, Peter and Barnabus, temporarily acted in a manner inconsistent with the gospel:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy…I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel… (Gal 2:11-14, italics added).

Surely if apostles could fail to be straightforward about the truth of the gospel, so could anyone. Pastors who firmly believe in God’s grace are subject to strong, if subtle, pressure to avoid offending people with their gospel preaching. While the following comment about pastors is not specifically about pressures on them regarding gospel preaching, its application is obvious:

[There is] a heavy weight on the pastor’s shoulders. Consider the implications. If the church grows: It needs to keep growing, and any false move by the pastor can bring it to a halt. The pressure is on. If the church fails to grow: "Why, it’s the pastor’s fault, since leadership is primary. So, what’s wrong with our pastor?"11

It is naive to think that pastors won’t feel this pressure and that this pressure won’t, at least in some cases, have an impact on their gospel preaching. This can lead to two negative consequences for the Free Grace pastor: he may begin preaching the gospel less often and he may begin preaching it less clearly.

All pastors are faced with this question: how can I attract and keep enough visitors to keep our church growing? Approximately 20% of people in America today move each year. Thus a church of 100 needs 20 new members a year not to grow, but just to stay the same size. A church of 400 needs 80 new members just to break even.

It is possible to call people to faith alone in Christ alone and yet at the same time avoid offending people holding to a mild form of Lordship Salvation. Doing so requires a decrease in frequency and clarity in evangelistic messages.

For example, assume some members of the audience believe that saving faith includes obedience, surrender, and turning from sins. They think they are saved in part because they are obeying God. If the pastor merely preaches that salvation is by faith, these people can retain their legalistic thinking. Even if the pastor preaches that we are saved by faith alone, such people may still fail to understand or believe the gospel.

Only if the pastor confronts the issue of Lordship Salvation (with or without mentioning it by name) can he make the gospel clear for people confused by legalism. The pastor needs to explain that saving faith is simply the conviction that the gospel is true, that Jesus Christ gives eternal life to those who believe in Him for it. Faith is not commitment, obedience, surrender, or turning from sins. Faith doesn’t even necessarily result in those things. Faith is simply a conviction that the gospel is true.

Since many people are confused in this way, it is important to clear up this confusion. Otherwise, many will be left confused—especially since many in Christendom today get more teaching outside of the church (Bible studies, Christian radio and TV, Christian books, Christian Web Sites on the Internet, etc.) than they do in the church.

Huebel points out that "the [church growth] movement studiously avoids any distinctive theology which might limit its universal appeal."12 While he was speaking of literature, his point also applies to gospel preaching.

One of the sermons I evaluated did promote a faith-alone view of the gospel; yet it was not clear on the gospel. It illustrates what I am talking about here.

The church sent its doctrinal statement along with two sermons. Here’s what they say about salvation in their doctrinal statement:

Salvation is a gift from God to man. Man can never make up for his sin by self-improvement or good works. Only by trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s offer of forgiveness can man be saved from sin’s penalty. Eternal life begins the moment one receives Jesus Christ into his life by faith.

While that statement is reasonably clear on the gospel, the sermon which the church sent was not. As you read over excerpts from this pastor’s sermon, notice how he is very vague as to what specifically one must do to be saved:

To know where we stand, we have to take a four-step process… 1) The first step we have to take to know where we stand in the eyes of God is we have to realize that God loves us and He offers us a wonderful plan for our lives that is abundant and eternal…You are a much loved person…You matter to God…[Here he quotes and briefly comments on John 10:10].

2) The second step of knowing where you stand in the eyes of God concerns something called sin…Our sins have separated us from God and the wonderful plan He offers. The reason most people are not experiencing the abundant life, the reason most people don’t have their eternity secured is the fact that they are sinners and their sins have created a Grand Canyon-like chasm between themselves and God…[Here he quotes and briefly comments on Isa 59:2, Rom 3:23, and Rom 6:23]… Man has tried to bridge the gap through good works, through religion, through philosophy… We still [all] fall miserably short.

3) [The third step is that] God sent Jesus Christ to become our Bridge over troubled waters. Jesus lived a perfect life, a sinless life…Jesus died on the cross for all of our sins. He is the bridge over the troubled waters… And it is something that no one here deserves. [Here He quotes and comments on 1 Pet 3:18 and John 14:6].

4) The fourth step is, it’s my choice. I either walk across the bridge and I have eternal life [or I don’t and I won’t]. I know Jesus Christ. I have meaning, power, purpose. The person of the Holy Spirit is put inside my life. I have direction, a clear conscience, if I walk across the bridge. So my question is, which side are you on?…You’ve got to take those one, two, three, four steps to become a Christian, to have eternal life. To more or less crystallize what I’m talking about, I want you to look at the screen behind me and listen to the words of a person I had the privilege of talking to, and he’s going to tell you about crossing the bridge:

At this point a testimony of the one of the members of the church was played on video on a large screen behind the pastor. It culminated with the following:

My dad asked me how did I feel becoming a Christian? And I could remember a movie about Indiana Jones and his search for the Holy Grail. At the end of the movie he had to pass through three gauntlets to get to the grail. The third gauntlet found him at the foot of a huge cavern. And on the other side was the grail and there was no apparent way to get to it. And I remember Indiana Jones praying for a way to get across and he put his foot out and when he put his foot down and took this leap of faith, a bridge appeared underneath his feet and he walked across and he got the grail.

So I said to my dad, that reminded me of when I was with the pastor in his car ready to accept Christ and searching for the bridge. And I took that leap of faith and that’s what it was for me. I would encourage anybody who is in my position to take that leap of faith and walk across the bridge.

When the video ended, the pastor began speaking again. He came to the point in his message where he was giving his evangelistic appeal:

I’m asking you, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, to walk across the bridge, to take those four steps… I believe, to the best of my ability. I don’t understand it all. There’s questions I still have, folks. It’s by faith. But God doesn’t want us to check our intellect at the door. It’s our choice. I pray that you will obey the Word of the Lord…if you will take the step and walk across the bridge. One more time, look at the screen behind me and listen to the words of John Doe as he encourages us concerning the bridge: "I would encourage anybody who is in my position to take that leap of faith and walk across the bridge."

There are no clear elements there of Lordship Salvation—with the possible exception of the leap of faith and choosing to walk across the bridge, two vague concepts which someone in the audience might understand in that way. Yet it is still an imprecise gospel message. It is broad and fuzzy.

I imagine that it would be very difficult for an unbeliever to be saved simply by hearing this sort of message. The pastor doesn’t ever call the listener to believe in Christ for eternal life. No verse is cited where the Lord Jesus promises eternal life to those who believe in Him. And what does the pastor mean when, speaking of the fourth step, he says, "I don’t understand it all. There’s questions I still have folks"? What doesn’t he understand? What questions does he still have? He doesn’t say. He seems to be suggesting that a person might not believe the whole gospel and yet still be saved. If so, what is it precisely that a person must believe to have eternal life? The listener is left to wonder what it is that he is to believe and why that belief should result in his salvation.

In what sense is the fourth step "a leap of faith"? Does the pastor mean that people are to "try Jesus"? Does he mean that at the point of salvation a person really doesn’t know whether the Lord Jesus will give him eternal life or not? Is the gospel a sure thing, or is it like buying a ticket in the lottery?

What precisely is a person to do to be saved? The answer is far from clear in this message.

Free Grace pastors are not immune to the danger of becoming imprecise on the gospel. Someday all believers, including all believing pastors, will appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10). The judgment of pastors will include, among other things, how they proclaimed the gospel (1 Cor 3:4-15; Jas 3:1). Were they clear? Were they unswerving in proclaiming the cross of Christ and the free gift of eternal life? Did they call people to believe in Christ for everlasting life?

 

C. Is It All Right to Exclude Clear Gospel Proclamation from Sunday Morning?

Some pastors operate out of a different paradigm than "traditional" churches. They don’t feel that the Sunday morning service needs to be directly evangelistic. They are comfortable with viewing the Sunday morning service as a sort of pre-evangelism.

Their first aim is to get people to become regular attenders. Get them used to coming every week. They feel that once people get plugged in, they will eventually come to faith in Christ through one-on-one witness from other members, through the small groups, through the midweek believers’ service, etc.

I have three objections.

In the first place, many pastors who say they follow this paradigm don’t really do so. If a pastor preaches the imprecise gospel, he is not following the paradigm suggested here. He is proclaiming a gospel at the Sunday morning message, albeit a fuzzy one. He is doing more than pre-evangelism. If he is evangelizing, then he should do so clearly.

In the second place, assuming a pastor actually never evangelized on Sunday morning, there is reason to question whether this practice is biblical. Aren’t pastors to proclaim the whole counsel of God? Aren’t pastors to tell people who attend their church how they can have eternal life? If some pastors never do more than pre-evangelism on Sunday morning, are they practicing an unbiblical paradigm?13

In the third place, there is a real possibility that people coming to such churches will never hear the clear gospel. Inadvertently they may be given a false assurance that they are in right standing with God. If they attend church and sing the songs and never hear precisely what they need to do to be born again, then it is possible that they will become inoculated against the gospel. Many people never go on to attend the midweek believers’ class or small groups. Many stop attending altogether. For many people who attend church on Sunday morning, if they don’t hear the gospel then, they may well not hear it at all.14

V. Conclusion

Evangelicalism is in trouble because it is becoming increasingly unconcerned about clarity in the proclamation of the gospel.

How can we turn the tide? We can’t. Only God can. However, He can use willing vessels. Pray for revival. Pray that the Lord will open the hearts of people to heed the biblical gospel (Acts 16:14) and to have the courage and commitment to proclaim it clearly (Rom 1:16). And, model this type of commitment to the clear gospel. The Lord may use you as an example to motivate others to do likewise.

In his book Writing with Power, University of Massachusetts Professor Peter Elbow makes an excellent point about writing which applies equally well to preaching the gospel:

Probably for a long time we will be hurt by people’s disapproval, ridicule, or indifference to what we write. It is sensible to avoid dangerous audiences if they hold us back in the work of learning to improve our writing. But we need to learn to write what is true and what needs saying even if the whole world is scandalized.15

Similarly, we need to proclaim the true gospel "even if the whole world is scandalized."

A little later Elbow speaks of two different kinds of writing. One type he calls "get-the-results writing." Concerning this type he says:

You are writing to a particular audience and the whole point is to produce a particular effect. Unless the words have that effect you won’t get the money or the contract or the job, you won’t get into college, no one will come to your meeting. This is get-the-results writing.16

The other type of writing he calls "get-it-right writing." Concerning this type he says:

You don’t care whether readers like it or not. The only result that counts is the satisfaction that comes from getting it the way you want it… Maybe the writing will in fact go to readers; maybe they’ll like it; that’s nice. But if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours. (Of course, you may use readers for get-it-right writing. Their reactions can help you enormously—but for getting it the way you want it, not the way they want it.)17

Of course, as Elbow himself points out, these are two extremes. However, all writing, and all preaching, ultimately come down on one side or the other. When "push comes to shove," is it more important to get the results or to get it right? If you could only do one of those, which would it be?

The preacher’s purpose should be to "get it right," regardless of whether he gets the numerical results he desires in terms of numbers of visitors, conversions, baptisms, new members, etc. The message of the gospel is not negotiable. The ultimate "result" every pastor should be after is to please God (Gal 1:10-11; 2 Cor 5:9-10). To do that we must "get it right." The Lord Jesus said those things His Father told Him to say, even though He knew He could have much better numerical results if He had given a different, more popular message.

The apostle Paul said, "My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor 2:4). Paul was here disavowing the use of human rhetoric in place of the message of the cross. He was careful to preach the gospel clearly. Lim’s comment on this verse is telling:

Paul is rejecting the contemporary, sophistic techniques as they were applied to preaching—a practice which emphasizes the form rather than the content of the sermon and the role of the preacher rather than the Gospel (cf. I Cor. 4:20). He is arguing against that method of preaching which employs literary figures not as a means to convey better the message of the Gospel, but as ornamentations intended to please and amuse the congregation.18

Endnotes

1David F. Wells, No Place for Truth, Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?

(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 12.

 

2Ibid., 129.

 

3Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 52-53.

 

4Ibid., 53.

 

5N.B. John MacArthur has a book that sounds like it deals specifically with the preaching of the gospel message, Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World. However, Dr. MacArthur uses the term gospel in the broad sense of all truth revealed in Scripture: "The gospel—in the sense Paul and the apostles employed the word—includes all the revealed truth about Christ (cf. Rom 1:1-16; 1 Cor 15:3-11). It does not stop at the point of conversion and justification by faith, but embraces every other aspect of salvation, from sanctification to glorification," p. 122. And, when he does discuss how one obtains eternal life, his emphasis is on what he believes the message is, not on the gospel preaching found in many churches today (see, for example, the chapter entitled "The Sovereignty of God in Salvation," pp. 153-72).

 

6Oxford American Dictionary, s.v., "precise," 524.

 

7All quotations from sermons in this article are verbatim transcripts. I have not cited the pastors names because I want the issue to stand out, not personalities. In some cases where the pastor mentioned someone’s name, they have been left out to preserve anonymity.

 

8"Seekers or Saints: The Church’s Conflict of Interest," Leadership Journal (Fall 1991), 16.

 

9Ibid., 22.

 

10Of course, this can be difficult. Being a leader in the church is the hardest job there is. What does one do with someone who is not clear on the Gospel, yet who believes himself to be a Christian and who will be offended if you exclude him because of his view of the gospel? I would recommend doing the same thing you would do if the person didn’t believe another of the fundamentals of the faith, such as the deity of Christ. I recommend having a doctrinal statement. One requirement of membership could be agreement with that statement. One who didn’t agree could attend, but not join. Otherwise you end up giving people the impression that everything is negotiable, even one’s view of the Gospel itself.

 

11James Berkley, "Church Growth Comes of Age," Leadership Magazine (Fall 1991): 113.

 

12Glenn Huebel, "The Church Growth Movement: A Word of Caution," Concordia Theological Quarterly (July-October 1986): 166.

 

13Surely all would agree this must be done sometime. The question thus becomes, when is the "meeting of the church"? While the Bible does not require that the meeting of the church take place on Sunday morning—indeed, the early church seems to have met on Sunday evening, according to Acts 20:7ff—it does require that whenever it does meet that the Bible is clearly taught and that the Gospel is proclaimed at least as often as the Lord’s Supper is observed (1 Cor 11:26).

 

14Of course, this isn’t to suggest that at every meeting we must proclaim the Gospel (though I personally think it’s a good idea, especially if you have visitors each week). If a person regularly attends a church for a reasonable length of time, say 6 to 8 weeks, he or she ought to have heard at least once precisely what needs to be done to be saved.

 

15Peter Elbow, Writing with Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 190, italics added.

 

16Ibid., 192.

 

17Ibid., italics his.

 

18Timothy H. Lim, "‘Not in Persuasive Words of Wisdom, But in the Demonstration of the Spirit and Power’ [1 Cor 2:4]," Novum Testamentum 29 (1987): 149, italics added.

 

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