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.