I ask this one thing of my readers. Was the message of salvation which you were presented good news? (1) Was it a message you could receive with joy? (2) In Scripture, the message of salvation is called "the good news." It follows that if the message of salvation which we heard was not good news, then we did not hear the Scriptural message of salvation.
For some, the very idea of examining their grounds of assurance is a threatening idea. For others, they are used to asking such questions, but put in this manner, it is a hard thing to judge. Sometimes even in everyday life it is hard to know whether something we have heard is good news or not.
I intend to help my readers answer the question. Then I wish to examine some evangelistic literature to see whether it is successful in presenting good news, and where it isn't, make it easier for my readers to do so. Finally, I want to provide some good news if they discover that the message they originally heard was bad news.
In the New Testament, evangelism was the announcement of news. A true evangelist announces that something has happened (3) . In our day, however, it is not uncommon for evangelism to degenerate into sales. The Gospel is a product for sale and the evangelist's job is to tell you what the product will cost you and persuade you that it is worth the price. Some evangelists will even "cut deals" in order to sell more product. But it is not the evangelist as salesman that I wish to critique here. There are other more subtle ways for an evangelist to miss his or her primary calling. I would like to examine two popular books on evangelism to show what happens when our more responsible Christian writers are not clear about their task.
I have chosen two relatively good books on evangelism for this purpose. These books are written in clear, understandable language by intelligent authors whom I take to be committed Christians. One is written to present the Gospel message to the non-Christian. The other is meant to be read by the Christian who seeks to be a more effective communicator of the Gospel. To a great extent, both fulfill their tasks.
I do not want my readers to go running down these authors, for they are better than the going rate in evangelical publishing. I do not even want these individual books to be rejected. But I do think that an analysis of their shortcomings is vitally necessary. Because they are written so well, these books are influential, and thousands of readers have had their own grasp of the Gospel message shaped by these books.
The first book I would like to look at is John Stott's Basic Christianity. It is an admirable book. First off, it is a short book -- not so long that a non-Christian will reject it as a burdensome time commitment. Secondly, along with a presentation of the gospel, there is a reasoned defense of the Christian faith, an important part of any Gospel presentation which is directed at a wide audience. In spite of my reservations about the book, I have sometimes recommended it to people because it might be the only book the person in question will be willing to read.
The difficulty with this book lies in its presentation of the Gospel. The Gospel can be found stated clearly in this book in Stott's explanation of the Person and work of Christ. (4) The problem lies in what the reader is told to do in order to receive the benefit of that work.
Stott's treatment of the human response to the Gospel involves progressively escalating the demands on the would-be convert, and yet making the demands seem attainable by either softening them or explaining that it is not we who fulfill the demands, but Christ in us. After having a "decision for Christ," "commitment to Christ," the "Lordship of Christ," "repentance," and "restitution" defined, the reader must be convinced that salvation is both impossible and effortless. (5)
John Stott doesn't just casually use the word "decision." He devotes a whole chapter to the idea of "Reaching a Decision." Stott presents salvation as something in the power of the sinner to decide. After claiming that Jesus is standing at the door of our hearts wanting to come in (based on Rv 3:20), Stott tells the potential convert "your hand and only yours can draw back the bolts and turn the handle." (6) He embellishes the Revelation passage to emphasize the individual's responsibility to respond to God. He then sets a pattern which can be seen throughout the chapter. After impressing his reader with the weightiness of the task before him or her, he softens it to make it bearable:
It is a unique act. You can take this step only once. When Christ has entered, he will bolt and bar the door on the inside. Sin may drive him into the cellar or the attic, but he will never altogether abandon the house he has entered. 'I will never fail you nor forsake you,' he says. (7)We are the ones responsible to make an act of will in the beginning, but need not worry that our waywardness will foil our ultimate salvation once we choose Christ. At this point, it seems that the human will is only decisive at the moment of conversion. After that, all is sealed.
Stott's initial description of the decision is not complete, however. He escalates the demand upon the would-be convert when he says that our decision involves a commitment to obey, and that "when we receive Christ, a moment of commitment will lead to a lifetime of adjustment." (8) Knowing that this might frighten off timid readers, Stott cautions against postponing a decision "until you have tried to make yourself better or worthier of Christ's entry; or until you have solved all your problems." (9) So we should open the door now, even if we cannot set things straight ourselves.
But then again, perhaps we had better wait. Stott tells us that "Jesus Christ will also enter as our Lord and Master. The house of our lives will come under his management, and there is no sense in opening the door unless we are willing for this." (10)
The embellishment of the Revelation passage continues. What was the door of a church, and became the door of our hearts, is as well the door to the house of our lives. Jesus the meek knocker-at-doors who cannot so much as lift the latch is also Jesus the household manager. This is quite a conflict in imagery.
Our response to Christ is not confined to lifting the latch for him. It "involves repentance, turning resolutely from everything we know to be displeasing to him." (11) This is a good definition of repentance, but we might be confused about its relation to salvation. Stott realizes this and softens things again by stating: "Not that we make ourselves better before we invite him in. On the contrary, it is because we cannot forgive or improve ourselves that we need him to come to us." (12) Apparently we are called upon to turn resolutely from all sin, but we don't have to do it before Christ comes in. Stott explains that what is necessary at the point of decision is that "we must be willing for him to do whatever rearranging he likes when he has come in." (13)
It appears that at the point of salvation, repentance has been softened into a mere willingness to obey, or a willingness for Christ to do rearranging. But Stott doesn't leave it there. Elsewhere he had said that "Sometimes, true repentance has to include 'restitution'." (14) In light of that statement, commitment would again sound impossible. The timid reader shrinks, and again Stott softens the demands. Knowing that the prospect of putting right all past sins would be daunting to his more sensitive readers, Stott says:
We must not be excessively over-scrupulous in this matter, however. It would be foolish to rummage through past years and make an issue of insignificant words and deeds long ago forgotten by the offended person. Nevertheless, we must be realistic about this duty. (15)Apparently it is good to be overly scrupulous, but not excessively so! Stott's confusion in language is a symptom of a confused theology which cannot figure out whether its purpose is to impose demands or to remove them.
The problem is that Stott presents the human response to the Gospel in terms of a decision. Some readers think that we Reformation folk are too sensitive on this point. They argue that we should be pleased if people are coming to Christ, and not be so picky about the language used to get them there. It is hard enough to get shy laymen onto the streets where they must endure the taunts of pagans. Must we also add the heckling of theologians?
Stated like this, I have some sympathy for the position. My intention is not to heckle those who accidentally use the word "decision" because they didn't know of another suitable word. Everyone seems to know that the Bible speaks of decisive moments when people come to a knowledge of salvation. In some of these cases, the individual is put on the spot with the question, "What do you think of Christ?". Jesus himself asks Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15). Peter responds in faith, but his response could hardly be called a decision. Jesus tells Peter that his answer came to him from heaven (see vs. 17). Peter's confession of Christ was decisive. It actively involved Peter. But it was very different from the type of decision evangelists speak of today.
Stott's devotion of a whole chapter to reaching a decision is already far from Peter's experience. Jesus did not say "Who do you say that I am? Here are some tips on how you can decide for yourself." In Scripture, the Gospel message creates faith in the sinner's heart. In modern evangelism, the sinner is given a recipe to create faith in his own heart.
Not only does Stott make the sinner the cause of his own conversion, but he broadens faith to include more than trust in Christ. The Reformers spoke of faith as an empty hand which receives the free gift of forgiveness. Stott makes faith include a commitment to obey. The hand now brings something to trade for the no-longer-free gift.
Stott's presentation of the Lordship of Christ is confused as well. Stott presents Christ's Lordship as a reality which begins with our decision. This places Law after Gospel. The old Protestants would have stressed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Master whether invited in or not, and that the potential convert is a guilty rebel for not having been subject to him from birth. That is Law. The truth of the Law stands even before the good news is announced. Then follows the free proclamation of forgiveness. That is Gospel. No need to tell the convert that he or she must swallow a bitter pill after tasting the sweet medicine. That pill has already been downed.
Stott doesn't manage to salvage God's graciousness by reducing the Law's command to obey fully (Ex 24:5) to a "willingness" to obey. According to Stott, we don't have to improve ourselves before Christ comes in. We just need to be "willing" for him to change us. So lack of strength is no barrier to salvation initially. Without waiting an instant, we can ask, and Christ will immediately come in. But what is entailed by being willing for Christ to make changes? The implication is that I do not have to change myself. If I am a thief, I do not have to stop myself from stealing. But I must be willing for Christ to stop me from stealing. How does he do this? By commanding me to stop stealing? If this is the method, Christ is no different from Moses. Moses could do that. But perhaps there is another way. Maybe Christ provides a power to stop stealing. Perhaps the key verse is "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). But if I find that I continue to steal, does that mean that I was not given the power, or that I failed to use it? What if I still feel like I cannot help myself? Perhaps what I need is a power to enable me to use the power, and so on.
This confusion could have been avoided if Law and Gospel had been kept separate. The Law says don't steal. If I steal (or want to steal, or covet), I stand condemned. Christ died as a thief in my place. The Gospel is an announcement of this fact. The Law was given to show me that I am a sinner. Stott's presentation tries to obscure this fact by suggesting that I don't really want to sin, and if a power to stop sinning were offered to me, I would use it rightly. But how come I don't?
The same confusion is engendered by Stott's talk of repentance. Does repentance (which is part of making Jesus Lord) require us to make restitution before Jesus comes in? To be consistent, Stott would probably say that we only need to be willing to do this. Or perhaps we must be willing for Christ to "rearrange our house" so we would be willing to do this.
But what if after asking Christ in we find that we now lack the strength to make up for past mistakes? Does that mean that we never were willing in the first place, so our commitment was a sham? Or should we ask him in again so that he can give us the power to do it? Or, since we didn't have to do these things before asking Jesus in, did he already come it, bolting and barring the door, so that we will be saved whether or not we succeed in making restitution?
Some readers think I am purposely twisting things. But these questions are real. When I read that something is necessary for salvation, questions arise. Many readers who have assumed that they were Christians will read of the necessity of restitution and call their salvation into question. Is my spiritual state on hold until restitution is made? Or is willingness enough? Am I saved if I promise myself to get around to it someday?
These may appear evasive questions, but for many readers they are all too real. I remember as a small child thinking that in order to go to heaven I had to undo every lie I told. Someday I would have to go back to each person I had ever lied to, and tell them the truth. But someday never came. There are cases, like family secrets, where unveiling a lie brings healing. But we must be clear that even in these cases we do not undo lies by telling the truth. Restitution is a way of trying to make the past right. But we can no more perfect our past than our present.
A few readers might notice that along with restitution, repentance requires turning from all sin. None of us turns from sin perfectly, so perhaps we are not expected to do restitution perfectly. It would have been nice for Stott to have said this explicitly. Instead of underlining the lavishness of God's grace which forgives even those who don't repent very well, Stott tried to comfort his readers by making repentance less demanding, so that they don't have to retract "insignificant words."
Scripture doesn't speak in such muddled terms. Either we hear of a Law which demands us to account for "every careless word," which I am sure would include the insignificant words Stott mentioned; or we hear of a Gospel which takes away the guilt of those of unclean lips (Is 6:5-7). There is no one so righteous that the Law cannot condemn, no one so sinful that the Gospel cannot justify.
Perhaps my reader thinks that all of this criticism makes evangelism an impossibly hard task. If a great evangelical writer like John Stott cannot get it right, then how is a simple layman to do it? Simple. This is even easier than the "Four Spiritual Laws." You have two points to get across to the person: the Law which condemns him, and the Gospel which pardons him. Preach Law, then Gospel. When you have preached the Law to where he knows he is condemned by God, stop making demands and announce the free gift of Christ. Believe me, evangelism is easier when you aren't constantly having to switch back and forth between escalating and softening demands.
While some books like Stott's are written to evangelize, others are written to teach Christians how to do so. In her book Out of the Saltshaker and into the World, author Becky Pippert defined relational evangelism for a generation of university students. Written at a time when many campus ministries were training their students to look down upon any work that wasn't evangelistic (including their university studies!), Out of the Saltshaker was a breath of fresh air. It told its readers how to successfully interweave the task of evangelism with the lives to which they had been called. It affirmed the dignity of the Christian's vocation, and the dignity of the non-Christian.
One of the things which makes Ms. Pippert's book so readable is its conversational style. She used real-life experiences to illustrate evangelistic principles. The dialogues in the book actually took place, so we cannot expect the precision we would find in a carefully-worded theological treatise. One of the things she successfully avoided was a "canned" approach. The problem is that few readers nowadays read carefully worded theological treatises. They derive their doctrine from popular books. The doctrine in this book is imprecise, and I fear the conclusions readers could walk away with. The doctrine of salvation is not an area where we can afford imprecision.
In a chapter titled "Jesus the Lord," Pippert recounts a series of conversations which led to the conversion of a student. The student was unmarried, but sexually active, and Pippert saw this as an obstacle to conversion:
The next day Lois and I talked again. "Is there any reason why you couldn't become a Christian?" I asked.At this point, we have witnessed an evangelist who is willing to say what she feels must be said without worrying about offending the potential convert. Pippert certainly demonstrates a great deal of integrity. But aside from modeling integrity, she tries to model an accurate presentation of the Gospel. How is it presented?
"No," she said.
"Well, I can think of one," I said. "What will you do about Phil?" Then we talked directly about how becoming a Christian isn't merely fire insurance; it's a relationship that affects every aspect of our lives: values, lifestyle, sexuality. As we talked, it became clear that God had been pursuing her for a long time. There were tears and struggles followed by an utterly sincere prayer asking Christ to come into her life as Lord. (16)
My concern is that God's demands are presented in full rigor, so that Lois knows she is a sinner. Then I want to see God's promises presented freely so that Lois knows that her salvation was taken care of long ago. The gift is to be received with the empty hands of faith. Is this what took place? It is hard to say. We weren't told enough about Lois.
Perhaps Lois was "secure in her sins" before the above discussion. Maybe she felt that her life was her own and God owed her his goodwill. Pippert then turned the conversation to her relationship to Phil to point out her rebellion, showing Lois her desperate need of Christ. In this case, the above exchange was a good use of Law and Gospel.
But then again, what if Lois was a "terrified sinner"? What if she had always felt distant from God, and Pippert's presentation of the Lordship of Christ made it look as if by setting her moral house in order, Lois could make herself acceptable to God. In this case Law and Gospel would have been hopelessly mixed and Lois was converted to Phariseeism!
We aren't told enough to know what really happened. It might be that even if Pippert had filled in all the details she knew, we still wouldn't know what happened. That is the nature of Law and Gospel. The true state of the heart of the person we evangelize often remains hidden from us. We do the best we can, preaching the message of Law or Gospel as it seems appropriate.
Out of charity, I would like to assume that Ms. Pippert said the right thing at the right time. Perhaps the Holy Spirit inspired a sensitivity to Lois's condition that made what was said perfect to the occasion. My fear is not for Lois. She was probably well cared-for.
My fear is for the evangelical reader who reads the above account and constructs a doctrine of salvation out of it. Lois's conversion becomes a how-to manual in reaching assurance of salvation. What is the result? Uncertainty and doubt. If this sounds harsh, look at what Pippert says followed upon Lois's conversion:
That one decision had far-reaching effects. That same night three girls on the floor decided to get right with Christ. Another girl who had assumed she was a Christian realized she wanted no part of it if it demanded total commitment. (17)Some readers will read the above as an account of a huge success. Again, my response is not to condemn, but to point out the fact that we haven't been told enough to know the real story. What took place?
What does Pippert mean when she says that three girls "got right with Christ"? Thinking pictorially, I imagine three just-shampooed girls in flannel nightgowns sitting in a circle praying. Perhaps some tears are shed. But the theologian in me has questions to ask. Were these Christian girls who were living in sin, or non-Christians? If they were non-Christians, what did they do to get right with Christ? Promise to stop sinning? Promise to try to stop sinning? Promise to try to stop sinning if God helped? Promise to be willing to stop sinning if God made them willing?
My readers might find this line of questioning a little persnickety, but it is not. When obedience gets thrown into the question of salvation, there is always the difficult matter of degree. It is always admitted that nobody is perfect, but then again, surrender is to be total. The upshot is that the Christian world is theoretically populated with totally-surrendered people who still manage to sin a lot. How is this possible? This state-of-affairs is the cause of immeasurable anxiety for Christians. But instead of questioning their teaching, the questions are turned inward and eat away at their confidence.
Ms. Pippert recognizes that she has two separate elements in her model of conversion. She explains how these two elements came together for Lois: "She came to see that if Jesus is Lord then the only right response to him is surrender and obedience. He is Savior and he is Lord. We cannot separate his demands from his love." (18) What is demanded of Lois is a dual response to Christ. Christ here has two roles: Savior and Lord. Since we find these roles in the one Christ, we cannot separate them.
The Reformers saw this differently. They would present Christ's Lordship first. He is Lord over all areas of life. God described this overarching Lordship in the Ten Commandments. Christ as divine teacher reestablished the rigor of this rule in the Sermon on the Mount (an experience which C. S. Lewis compared to being knocked in the face with a sledge hammer (19) ). This Law is presented not to convince its hearers to submit on this or that point, but to make us "conscious of sin" (Rom 3:29). Once this is accomplished, we understand our need of Christ as Savior.
In one sense it is right to say that we must accept both Christ's Lordship and his role as Savior, but we must be clear as to what this does and does not entail. Accepting Christ's Lordship means that we accept his right to judge. When we read the Law we recognize ourselves as sinners. We do not at this point begin making New Years resolutions. The purpose of the Law was to convince us of our character as lawbreakers. Christ is then presented as the one who came to save lawbreakers.
Ms. Pippert says that we cannot separate God's demands from his love. But that is what the distinction between Law and Gospel is all about. Ms. Pippert was right. Lois's immorality did separate her from God. But that was why Christ came. Mark this well. Christ's demands require more than that Lois stop being sexually immoral. They require her to be perfect. If Christ's demands must be met to receive his love, and he demands perfection, then there is no hope.
Scripture teaches us to distinguish God's commands from his promises. It tells us that while the Law came through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). The Law can be summarized as a commandment to love God and our neighbor (Mt 22:40). If we do it, we are promised life (Lv 18:5, Rom 2:7,10). But the Gospel is a righteousness from God apart from Law (Rom 3:21), that is, apart from doing. While both messages are scriptural, and we need the Law to show us our need of the Gospel, these messages cannot be confused without obscuring the message of salvation.
Perhaps in your life you never heard the Gospel as good news. Or maybe at conversion you did have good news preached to you, but later someone convinced you that unless you had submitted to Christ's Lordship enough, or felt enough anguish over sin, or made restitution for past mistakes, you could not be saved.
I have some bad news for you. To be saved, you must be submitted to Christ's Lordship -- starting at birth. And you must be born without original sin. But you shouldn't merely feel anguish over your sins, you are not allowed to commit any. And as for restitution, if you need to make it, then it is too late.
The good news is that Christ submitted to the Law for us, starting from birth. "Conceived by the Holy Ghost" and "born of the Virgin Mary," he had no original sin. Nor did he anguish over any sins of his own. But he did feel the anguish of our sins in our place on the cross. As for restitution, he had none to make for himself. He will, however, make a place for us where his people are no longer condemned for their sins.
Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Issue: "Evangelism: To the Ends of the Earth, Till the End of the Age" May/June 1995 Vol. 4 No. 3 Page number(s): 12-17
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