The Christian Message for Contemporary Life. By Stephen F. Olford, Grand Rapids : Kregel Publications, 1997. 112 pp. Paper. $7.99.
Stephen F. Olford is a noted communicator, author, and pastor. Born in 1918 to missionaries, he spent the first seventeen years of his life in West Africa where he witnessed the power of the gospel to change lives and developed a passion for evangelism. His book, The Christian Message for Contemporary Life, is born out of this passion that has not waned for more than sixty years of ministry. In his preface Olford writes, “I [am] burdened…for young Christians who find it so difficult to appreciate and communicate the Christian message to their contemporaries.”
The Christian Message for Contemporary Life is a homiletical exposition of the first three chapters of First Corinthians. Indeed, the book is essentially a transcript of a series of messages Olford first preached at a crusade. It contains six chapters each covering a different aspect of the Christian message. A brief summary and review of each chapter follows.
In the first chapter, Dr. Olford addresses what he calls the Contradiction of the Christian Message. Based on 1 Cor 1:9-17, the author points out that division within the church severely hinders the church’s ability to spread the gospel. It is true that hypocritical Christianity certainly plays into the devil’s hand as he attempts to obstruct the effectiveness of the gospel message. According to Olford, the solution to this problem is a return to the centrality of Jesus Christ. This is also true, provided that by “the centrality of Jesus Christ” he means more than a mere ambiguous focus on Him. For many evangelists and preachers, Christ is central to their message but the specific content of the message is confusing. Olford addresses the communication of the message in a later chapter.
The second chapter addresses what the author calls the Character of the Christian Message. This section is based on an exposition of 1 Cor 1:18-25. The author affirms the importance of the unchanging nature of the gospel especially in this questioning age of Postmodernism. Olford is correct that “the gospel of Jesus Christ is unchanged.”
The third chapter deals with the Community of the Christian Message based on 1 Cor 1:26-31. Here Olford addresses the positive effects of the Christian community—in contrast to the negative effects of division addressed earlier—on the spread of the gospel. The author is to be commended for the high priority he places on the importance of a consistent walk with Christ for those who wish to be effective evangelists.
In the fourth chapter Olford looks at 1 Cor 2:1-5 and discusses what he calls the Communication of the Christian Message. He is correct that “the priority program of the church until Jesus returns is the communication of the Christian gospel” (p. 69). One key to communicating the gospel effectively, according to Olford, is the power of the Spirit. This is certainly true. Quoting Leon Morris, the author points out that “it is possible for arguments to be logically irrefutable, yet totally unconvincing” (p. 75). Unfortunately, what the author fails to point out is that it is equally possible for arguments to be logically flawed yet very convincing to an undiscerning and indiscriminate audience. Olford states, “No communicator [of the gospel] fulfills his mission until he brings boys and girls, men and women, to rest their faith in the power of God. The power of God is nothing less than the word of the gospel, even our Lord Jesus Christ crucified and risen” (p. 77). While this is true, Olford goes on to say that genuine faith must be “sound, saving and steadfast” (p. 78). He states that a saving faith is one that effects a “mighty transformation” (p. 78). Olford’s characteristic alliteration is unfortunate here for in his effort to sermonize the text he seems to imply that it is not possible to have saving faith without steadfast faith. This is certainly not the case. The faith of believers often wanes. That is precisely the reason Scripture commands believers to be “steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet 5:9; cf. Col 1:23 ). Nevertheless, when “we are faithless, He remains faithful” (2 Tim 2:13 ).
The Comprehension of the Christian Message is what Olford titles his exposition of 1 Cor 2:6-16. In this fifth section the author makes an unfortunate distinction between what he calls “believing faith” and “receiving faith.” He claims that the reason many are lost is that they have “believed” but never “received the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 86). He does not adequately explain how believing differs from receiving. The fact is the two terms are synonymous when it comes to eternal salvation. To “receive the Lord Jesus Christ” is to believe that you are a sinner in need of a Savior and that only Jesus Christ can save you and give you the free gift of eternal life (cf. John 1:12; 3:16; 6:47). In this chapter, Olford also states, “There is no truth that is vital to Christian life and practice that has not the support both of divine revelation and Christian tradition” (p. 90, emphasis mine). This statement is made during his discussion of the Spirit’s ministry of illumination. Olford implies that the accuracy of a particular interpretation of Scripture is validated or even proven by the testimony of historical interpretation. In other words, a certain interpretation must be correct because that’s the way the church has always interpreted it. It’s a good thing Luther did not subscribe to this viewpoint!
In his final chapter titled The Challenge of the Christian Message, the author focuses on 1 Cor 3:1-4. He seems to allow for the reality of carnal Christians. However, his outline of this passage is confusing because it includes “natural, carnal, and spiritual” as three subheadings under “categories of carnal Christians.” Still, the author is to be commended for challenging Christians to avoid carnality and grow up into maturity.
In the introduction to his book, Olford writes, “Despite the unparalleled advances in the fields of technology and other scientific endeavors, our day is plagued by a great deal of fuzzy thinking…The question, ‘What is the Christian message?’ would evoke a confusing cluster of replies…” This is certainly true. Unfortunately, The Christian Message for Contemporary Life does little to clear up the confusion and may even add to it.
J.B. Hixson, Th.M.
Assistant Academic Dean
College of Biblical Studies