Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #5

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

On February 4 I suggested not much that is important has truly changed between the days of Whitefield and my own. Today I’ll suggest that something HAS changed.

 

Something has changed. I feel it in my bones, like feeling certainly the temperature has changed or rain is bound to fall. What is it I feel? This: preachers MUST regain their own trust in the message of the gospel to cause salvation for sinners. We – I count myself among the preachers – must remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. … For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

Preachers, I believe, have grown fearful about their significance. Perhaps we are more attuned to the research telling us how pitifully weak a preacher is in the modern world, how insignificant his impact. Perhaps we fear a culture slouching towards Gomorrah and smell brimstone in the air. Joel Looper addresses the effects of this fear in his piece for Leadership Journal, “Fear From the Pulpit.”

Young people can smell this fear as soon they step into the sanctuary on Sunday morning, especially if it’s coming from the pulpit. They’re disgusted by it and frankly, they should be. They intuitively know that a life lived in fear is far from the abundant, Spirit-led life promised to those who become disciples of Jesus. If we are living in fear, we send a message that we don’t feel secure in the love of the all-powerful God we worship. If congregants panic at the demise of D.O.M.A., is it likely that they could stand faithful in the midst of actual persecution? If pastors are crippled by anxiety when giving declines, how can they expect to respond faithfully if God calls them to voluntary poverty? Young people notice this lack of trust in God. The proof is there for them to see and hear every Sunday morning.

We publicly call people to Christ as Lord and Savior. Do we trust Christ ourselves? Do we believe His promises and tremble at His judgments? We say, in one form or another, “Hear the word of the Lord.” Do we listen? Do we alter, cut and paste to protect our retirement? We warn against the sadness of a life without purpose. Yes, “sad.” Do we warn against hell, a real hell, not just an extended psychological hiccup? We extol the virtue of a productive life, full of fulfilling service and impacting successes. Yes, “good.” Do we hold out the hope of heaven, of seeing God, of His wiping every tear, of ultimate holy justice established, of eternal glory?

Do we believe what we’re asking others to believe? OR do we ask them to believe a lesser, scaled down-version of what we once might have thought we believed? But we let go all that because, well, we needed to be current and validate our place in a changing culture.

I contend such introspective gymnastics are not profitable. We either believe and thus we preach OR we do not believe and had better shut up lest we be exposed a fraud. People will forgive the bold word. They’ll condemn the fraud. And God … Holy God … already knows under which flag we march. There is room for only one fear in preaching, eclipsing all other pretending fears. It is the reverential fear of knowing we stand before God and our ultimate accounts are given over to Him. Jesus closed His Sermon with the word picture of people standing before Him in judgment. “But we preached in your name and did mighty works in your name.” Notice Jesus does not correct their remembrance. He simply, finally, says: “I never knew you. Depart.”

We are not called to convert people. We do not save sinners. We tell the story. We proclaim the gospel. Oh yes, we beg and plead and call and summon and exhort and explain and reason. We weep real tears and burn with desire for the lost souls of men and women. Yes! Yes! Yes! That IS what we do. Let us do it with passion and fidelity.

God works conversion. God saves sinners.

Trust the gospel.

Believe it.

Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #4

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

February 2 we looked at a passage in George Whitefield’s life where he saw God at work beyond the denominational boundaries. Are people really so different today? Is the power and the potential of the gospel sufficient for evangelism today?

 

In a previous post I had referred to Thom Rainer’s “10 Areas Where Pastors Need Training For The 21st Century.”  Is there a place where the two “Tom’s” meet? Is there common ground between Kidd’s take on George Whitefield and Rainer’s take on modern pastoral training?

I think there is. I think they do not disagree. Finding disagreement was never the point of these posts. What struck me as I went between the two worlds is the enduring power of the gospel. The gospel was as counter-cultural in Whitefield’s day as it is today in mine. After all, the gospel is only 275 years older today than Whitefield preached it.

(Please bear with my following foolishness.)

I did the “math.”  275 years separate Whitefield’s gospel proclamation and my gospel proclamation today. 275 years set against the history of the gospel proclamation from its very first day. I’m 54. Compared to a percentage of my own life, 275 years of gospel proclamation would be about seven and a half years. I’m 54. Am I all that different at 54 than I was at 47? No, not really. Most adults and a whole lot of adolescents can easily remember seven and half years. In the last 275 years … spiritually … have people radically changed? I don’t think so.

The fundamental assumption of my “math” was that the gospel message was first proclaimed in the year 33 A.D.. I believe my assumption is fundamentally wrong. The gospel was not invented on the first Pentecost Day after Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus came proclaiming the gospel. The gospel was the product of God’s sovereign purpose at work all the way from Adam’s Fall. The gospel was in the heart of God before the earth’s foundation was laid. By that kind of eternal reckoning the 275 years between Whitefield’s day and mine is not even the skip of a heart (if that!). Are sin and salvation different in the time it takes for the heart to beat once? I don’t think so. No, not really.

We do live a world vastly different from Whitefield’s. No doubt about it. But God has not changed. Sinners now are neither no more nor less ‘sinner‘ than sinners from a million previous yesterdays. The gospel is the same. The need is ever-urgent. The promise burns just as bright.

 

In the last post of this series – February 6 – I will suggest that something has changed. No, not the human heart. Certainly not the gospel. But something.

Christian Proclamation? Anyone? #3

This series of posts reflects on evangelism and preaching the gospel, comparing the days of George Whitefield (mid 1700’s) to today.

On January 31 we compared cultural settings and mused, a little, on the question of whether or not people are really different, say, from century to century.

 

I was  struck by one passage in Thomas Kidd’s biography. Certainly a product of his times, Whitefield assumed the need for agreement with – even blessing from – his denomination. In other words, he knew God wanted him to preach the gospel but he also wanted to preach it in a way that kept peace with his church. But things changed. Whitefield began to see God at work beyond the boundaries of his denomination. He began to see the power of the gospel AND a whole-hearted, full-orbed devotion to gospel in unexpected lives.

This did not trouble Whitefield so much as elevate his own sights to see a larger God at work in a larger world. As he joined labors with like-minded evangelists Whitefield began to pay more attention to the gospel message itself. Agreement was met on God’s sovereign will to save, Christ’s perfect and complete atoning sacrifice for sin, the utter necessity of the Holy Spirit to apply salvation to the heart and the resulting fruitful, holy life. Agree here. Agree on the gospel.

Kidd writes of Whitefield’s reaction to opposition from a pastor named Cutler: (bold italics are mine – T. A.)

 Cutler already had well-formed opinions of revivalists when Whitefield appeared in Boston. Their exchange, which Whitefield recorded at length, again revealed the fundamental theological rift between the new evangelicals and Anglican leaders. The key differences lay in their views of denominations and regeneration. Because Cutler saw the Church of England as having unique apostolic authority, he did not regard the Dissenting pastors’ ordinations as valid. Indeed, he regarded his own Congregationalist ordination as illegitimate.

Whitefield, in spite of his Anglican ordination, was not concerned about the particular authority of any one church. Why did Whitefield cooperate with Dissenters, Cutler asked? Whitefield answered that he “saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church folks [Anglicans], all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship, and who can tell which is most evangelical?”

I find this passage fascinating. Whitefield seems to grow in his awareness that the current of God’s work in Christ and the proclamation of the gospel surges over any denominational banks. Our own day can rightly be called ‘post-denominational.’ Oh, the denominations have not vanished. They roll on and on, propelled forward by the weight of their own histories, interior culture and bureaucratic heft. But they are elephants without tusks, old lions lacking sharp claws, drought horses with sagging spines.

Whitefield in his day saw people less through the lens of denominational affiliation or assumptions about what they might need to know given their background. Rather he saw people needing saving, pleading Christ and being changed.

On February 4 we’ll pursue a little further the question of whether people have changed so much. Do we need, today, to change our assumptions regarding evangelism and preaching the gospel?