|The Goal||The Chief purpose of the Church’s Mission is to bring glory to God. Glory is brought to God when every nation, tribe, and tongue find their delight in worshipping God.The salvation of souls is certainly a goal in mission. When we look at souls, however, we desire not only that they are saved from Hell, but saved for Heaven.||In man-centered missions’ the salvation of the lost is seen as the main purpose of missions. Men and Women are dying without Christ, and so we must bring them the good news.|
|What drives us?||“People deserve to be damned, but Jesus, the suffering Lamb of God, deserves the reward of His suffering” (John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad, p. 39). We go out because we love Christ, and we desire that others would love Him too (Of course we are also to desire that the lost would be saved and that they find true fulfillment in God).||Man deserves Hell. It is often difficult to develop a love for the lost world, as the lost are so unlovely. To love the sinner who hates God and Christians is very difficult.|
|Worship||Worship of the Triune God is both the fuel and the goal of missions. Missions exist because worship does not. In Heaven there will be no need for missions, but we will be worshipping God for eternity (Rev. 5:8-14).||In man-centered missions, worship is often seen as only a secondary activity, not as important as missions.|
|Missions? Or Mission?||There is only ONE mission of the Church: to bring glory to God by proclaiming the Gospel and reaping the harvest of souls which will worship and delight in God forever.||There are numerous missions’ (plural), because there are numerous souls to save.|
|Bricks or Cathedrals?||The big-picture’ bricklayer constantly envisions the cathedral that he has a privilege to play a part in building. So the God-centered missionary envisions the Kingdom of God which he is engaged in building.||The little-picture’ bricklayer only sees the bricks and the mortar. So it is with the man-centered missionary, who when he is rejected or encounters trials or failures, cannot look beyond to see the hand of God in it all.|
|Work with or for Christ||We are not working for Christ as much as we are working with Christ (Matthew 28:20b)||In this view, we focus on our job, what we can, focus on our job, what we can do for Christ.|
|Human Worth||Human worth is not diminished by being God-centered. Instead, it is established. That is, when we focus on God who alone has worth in Himself, and we understand that we are created in His image, this brings us great worth.||Man has no worth in and of himself, and being man-centered in one’s approach to anything is ultimately futile.|
|Humility Vs. Pride||Though he thanks God for the opportunity to serve Him and desires to accomplish great things for God, the God-centered missionary knows that he is replaceable. He is a tool in God’s hand, and God can choose to discard him when God pleases. This brings about humility.||Again, the man-centered missionary is on his own mission or various missions, and without him the venture would fall apart. The tendency is toward a Lone Ranger’ mentality. This fosters pride.|
|Prayer||Colossians 4:2-4. Only God can open man’s hearts, so we must ever be in prayer when we are engaged in mission work. Methods are important, but only after you pray and get the message straight.||Man is pursued with any method or technique that will get him to listen, to ‘open his heart’. The problem, only God can open man’s heart.Prayer takes a back seat so the methods, and the message is often compromised.|
|Evangelism||We focus on our faithfulness to the message, allowing God to change hearts (1 Cor. 3:5-8). We have no reason to boast for our successes’ except to boast in the Lord. Those who reject the Gospel are not rejecting us, but God.A side note: though we must allow the Gospel to be offensive (the innocent God-man dying for wretched sinners), we must not add our own offensiveness to the mix.||The focus is on persuasion & results, because anyone’s heart can be opened ‘if we have the right key’. We are seen as failures if the person doesn’t choose Christ. Method and delivery are exalted above content. Offensive doctrines like ‘eternal judgment’ and ‘total depravity’ are avoided, so as not to drive away seekers. (Obviously there is no true gospel where sin and judgment aren’t preached).|
|Success & Failure||Success is guaranteed, because it is God who will build the church.(1 Cor. 3:4-6, Matt. 16:18)This is not to say that man has no role in God’s mission. Man is used as an instrument in the hands of God.Isaiah 18:6; 2 Corinthians 4:7)Even our failures are used by God as successes (Genesis 50:20; Romans 11:33-36)||Success is questionable, since in missions it is seen as man’s mission, and humans make mistakes.With a man-centered viewpoint, when we succeed, we tend to become prideful, and when we fail, we tend to get defeated.|
|How Great a Sacrifice?||Though to the word it appears as if you have made a great sacrifice, when we focus on the sacrifice that Christ paid for us and the benefits that He gave to us, our sacrifice is minimal (See Matthew 13:44-46).||With the wrong perspective, the sacrifice becomes unbearable, and when too much rejection, and too much hardship comes, the man-centered missionary is more likely to give up.|
*The Achilles Heel of Reformed Theology?
The doctrine of definite atonement, known historically as “limited atonement” or “particular redemption”, has always courted controversy. It has been called a grim and textless doctrine, the Achilles heel of Reformed theology (see, for example, Karl Barth and Broughton Knox). Of the many objections to the doctrine, one of the strongest is that definite atonement undermines a zeal for evangelism. If Christ died only for the elect, can we sincerely offer the gospel to everyone?
However, when definite atonement is placed alongside other biblical truths, the question does not follow. Particularity of grace in election or atonement does not mitigate a universal gospel offer. This is where we should follow Christ’s example.
In Matthew 11, Jesus explains that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (v. 27). The particularity is explicit. Yet in the very next verse, Jesus gives a universal offer to everyone to come to him and find rest (v. 28). In John 6, Jesus claims that he has come from heaven to do his Father’s will, which is to lose none of those given to him but to raise them up on the last day (v. 39). This is actually the reason why (“For”) whoever comes to him will never be turned away (v. 38). The Father’s will is that “everyone” who looks to the Son and believes will have eternal life (v. 40). Christ’s purpose in coming was particular; the work he performed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was particular (cf. John 17); and yet his invitation was universal. It was also sincere.
Did Christ know all those whom the Father had given him as he encountered the many crowds during his ministry? Of course. Did he still sincerely offer himself to everyone in the crowd? Yes. So we should be like Christ in relation to this issue. Calvin put it well: “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined, and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace.”
Why It Matters
But here’s the take-home value in definite atonement. When we offer Christ to sinners, we aren’t offering them the mere opportunity or possibility of salvation (as those who hold to an unlimited atonement can only do if they are consistent); rather, we offer them a Christ whose first name really means “Savior” (Matt. 1:21). And this is only so because God presented him as a propitiation for sinners—not potentially or possibly or hypothetically, but actually.
Let’s get even more practical. If one believes in definite atonement, can we say to people, “Christ died for you”? What’s interesting is that the phrase “Christ died for you” does not appear in the NT and yet the Apostles turned the world up-side-down with their preaching, as did many “Calvinist” ministers and missionaries: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd—to name but a few. So the efficacy of gospel preaching is not dependent on including the phrase “Christ died for you”. J. I. Packer is most helpful here:
The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is, ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour.’ This is the message which we need to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put their faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him.
Embracing the Tension
When it comes to definite atonement and evangelism, it’s not either/or but both/and. Christ made a definite atoning sacrifice for those whom the Father had given to him; and we are commanded to proclaim Christ indiscriminately to all people.
How should we live between these two points of tension? On our knees, as we plead with our Triune God to do for others what he has so graciously done for us.
Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge University) is the is author of historical and biblical articles in Themelios and Journal of Biblical Literature, as well as “Obadiah” in the NIV Proclamation Bible, and is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (excerpt).
Series: The King and the Kingdom – Part 4
Preached in Manhattan, NY on August 13, 1989
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. – ACTS 2:37-47
Last week we began a series of messages, of talks, on the church. Have you noticed how often I talk about us launching a church? Why do I like to use that word launching? Is it just because I’m a frustrated sailor? No. Actually, I think of a rocket ship, and I think of how important liftoff is, because if you’re aiming at the moon and your rocket ship down here is just a silly millimeter off, it could be thousands of miles off when it gets there.
Therefore, if this church is not going to join the thousands and thousands of cultural institutions that are totally ineffective in this country within just a few years, it is vital we strain every nerve to think about the church aright, to envision it, to see exactly what it is and what it can be. Now last week we said there was a central fact, the most important thing you have to understand if you’re going to understand what the church is. That central fact is the church is the place where God dwells, where God comes down as it were and meets us in all of his transcendent love and light and fire and majesty.
That’s what the Bible says, and the church has known this for years. Not programs. Not busyness. Not work, but that. You know, one of the greatest hymns ever written about the church was written by John Newton. It says,
Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, City of our God!
He’s talking about the church.
He, whose word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for his own abode.
The first thing Newton says in that hymn is the church is the place where God dwells. Now this particular passage is very critical because it gives us the birth of the New Testament church. You see, there’s a little group of people. Jesus, when he left, had only left a small handful of people. Peter preaches this remarkable message on the day in the history of the church we have always called the day of Pentecost, and on that day, Peter preached a message, and the message that formed that church, that gathered those 3,000 souls that first day, was through Jesus Christ you can have the presence of God in your life.
We’ll look at that just for a minute because I want to show you that was his message. That’s what formed the church. We see that in verses 37–41. That’s the message that formed the church. Then in verses 42–47 we see the marks of the life of this early church. In other words, if a group of people actually come together and build their lives on that reality that God is present in the midst, if a group of people come together and actually take that seriously (not cynically) and say, “This is what we’re going to build our lives on,” the presence of God expresses itself.
There is a cosmic vitality that expresses itself through a church like that, and I want to show you the signs of it. It’s right there in verses 42–47. There are five signs of that cosmic vitality. It’s the way you can tell whether a church is realizing the presence of God. What we’re trying to show and what this passage tries to show is first of all, before we can run off to our busyness and run off to our ministries and our programs, we have to stand before God and realize his presence and know it and yearn for it.
Then it’s the presence of God that becomes like the motor or the driveshaft for everything else the church does, and that’s what we’re going to see. First, the message that forms the church is that Jesus Christ is the way to know the presence of God. Secondly, the five signs of life that flow out of that should characterize every good church. Let’s look at the message and then let’s look at those five signs which are the evidences of that kind of vitality.
First, the message. In a way we talked about this last week, but I just want to show you again what it is. Peter says to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He says, “Repent and be baptized …” That is virtually the same thing Jesus said when he came out of the wilderness and first began to preach in Mark 1:15 and said, “Repent, and believe the gospel.”
Those two things are always there: repentance and trust. Repent and trust your sins can be put away through Jesus Christ so they are no longer a barrier between you and God. Repent and believe. Those are not two different things; that’s one thing. It’s repentant faith, turning from your old ways, resting and trusting in Christ, and making him your only hope in life and death.
They are really two sides to the same coin, and that’s how you receive Christ as Savior and Lord, through repentance and faith. Obviously, we could spend quite a bit of time talking about repentance and faith, but right now let’s move on to how this creates the church. If a person receives Christ as Savior and Lord, Peter says you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now let’s take that apart for a moment. Give me a 90-second tangent for some of you.
Even though you have repented and believed, the Holy Spirit comes in as a gift. Your repentance and your faith do not earn the Spirit; it is a gift. Now the only reason I say that is because I continually meet people who don’t know where they stand in the Christian faith, and they say, “I know you’re not saved by your efforts and your good deeds. You’re saved strictly by faith alone, but I don’t know whether my faith is good enough. It just doesn’t seem to be very strong. It doesn’t seem to be very pure.”
Repentance and faith receive the gift. Your repentance and faith don’t have to be pure enough to earn it. Then it wouldn’t be a gift. Let me put it this way. It’s the fact of your repentant faith, not the purity of it, that brings it in, and anyone who is worried and always saying, “I don’t know if I repented well enough. I wonder if I repented well enough.” I can clear that up for you right now. You haven’t. Nobody has ever repented well enough. Who in the world has ever been sorry enough for the things they’ve done wrong?
You say, “I don’t know whether my faith is good enough.” I can clear that up, too. My friends, here is the bad thing. If you’re worried about it, there is pride in there. As humble and as despairing as you seem, what you’re saying is, “Oh, I have to get good enough. I have to be pure enough. I have to be faithful enough so Jesus Christ can give me his Spirit.” My friends, receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is a gift. Eternal life is a gift. The Holy Spirit is a gift. Your faith receives it; it doesn’t earn it. It can’t. Don’t you see?
Now it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit I want to look at here for a second. Peter is telling us something I’m afraid most of us here cannot really understand the momentous nature of. (How do you like that for a sentence?) I don’t think anybody in this room can understand how momentous a statement this was unless we spend some time reflecting on it. Peter didn’t just preach this sermon. Years later, he wrote a couple of epistles which are in the back of this Book. He wrote a couple of letters to some other churches.
In this sermon he says there is a tremendous promise. He says, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off …” You can come near to God. You can come near. You’re far off. You can come into the presence of God and receive the Holy Spirit. Now he says it a different way in his second epistle (letter) in 1:4, where he says, “Through his great and precious promises, we participate in the divine nature.” That’s the same thing.
See, what is the Holy Spirit? It’s the glory of God. It’s the lifeblood of God. I’m sorry. You see, this promise beggars description. It’s his very glory, and Peter is saying that, through receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, can flood into your life. Now get the hang of this. Remember Moses said, “Show me your glory.” What he was saying was, “Oh, Lord, I want your glory to come into my life. I want to see it,” and God said, “You can’t. It will kill you. Your poor, bitty, little soul would crack under the strain of it, so I’m going to let you see the gleam of my brightness through the back door,” in a sense.
He said, “I’ll put you in the cleft of the rock, and I’ll let my hind parts go by you.” We don’t know what in the world that means except God was saying to Moses, “Moses, you can’t take my glory.” When Isaiah got just a glimpse of God in the temple, what did he say? He said, “Woe is me! for I am undone …” which is a good King James Version way of saying, “I feel unzipped! I feel I’m being unbuttoned. I’m unraveling.” Why? He said, “… for mine eyes have seen the King …” “The King is here, and even getting this close, I feel like I’m coming apart.”
The glory of God (his face, his royal presence, his raw presence, what in the Old Testament they called the shekinah, the glory cloud of God) dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the center of the tabernacle in the temple behind the veil over the ark of the covenant. Who could get there? Who could go back there? Who could get near the presence of God? Only the high priest, the holiest person (supposedly) in Israel, one day a year on the Day of Atonement after spending days purifying himself in body and soul.
Then he would go back there with a blood atonement, sprinkling incense everywhere so he didn’t see anything that might kill him. He had bells on the tassels on his robe so the people outside could hear him moving around so they knew he was still alive. Now why was the presence of God so fatal to people? One of the problems is we have movies, and I know in a way Steven Spielberg wasn’t really trying to depict this, but you know in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the power of God that comes out of the ark of the covenant is depicted as a completely abstract thing.
You remember, don’t you, through great special effects, the nasty Nazis opened the lid and they looked in? If I remember correctly, Harrison Ford and Karen Allen closed their eyes. Isn’t that right? You get the impression first of all, because they closed their eyes while the Nazis were looking at it, and secondly, you also get the impression because the Nazis are nasty and because Harrison Ford and Karen Allen were kind of good people, they didn’t get melted down the way all the other people did with all those great special effects.
In other words, the ark of the covenant is depicted as a kind of cosmic mouse trap, and the power is abstract. If you push the right buttons and you do the right things, you see, it won’t harm you; it will harm somebody else. My friends, that is not at all the way the Bible depicts the glory of God. The glory of God was fatal to people, and the reason it was fatal to people was because of the holiness and sin issues. Maybe the best way to understand it is the old orbit analogy.
God, because he’s completely pure, and he’s completely holy, and he’s completely just, everything he is and does and thinks centers on what is good and what is holy and what is just and what is pure. That’s why he does what he does. Now let’s think about ourselves for a moment. Remember everything we do centers on … let’s face it … our happiness and our comfort. We will take the good, the true, and the holy into consideration, but we reject it if it looks like its not comfortable, right?
Let’s be honest. What do we center on? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make the decisions we make? What do we center on? We center on our own comfort and our own happiness, and here is God centering on what is good and what is true and what is right. My friends, when two planets have the same center, you have a solar system, and you have harmony.
When two planets come together and they have two different centers, you have an accident looking for a place to happen. It’s inevitable there will be cataclysm, and when a holy God and human beings who make everything revolve around their own pride and themselves … When a holy God comes into the presence of sinful man, there is trauma. There is clash.
When Moses said, “Show me your glory,” God said, “I can’t.” Even all through the Bible, you see, though Moses knew he needed the presence of God and we were all built for it, and he knew it would fulfill something deep in every human soul, he couldn’t have it. In the Bible, whenever it says, “Come into his presence with singing,” we know that was a relative command because the people could not come into the presence of God. They could come relatively into the presence of God.
They could come into the outer courts, but nobody could go into the presence of God except that poor high priest with his knees knocking. Then Peter has the audacity to say, “Through his great and precious promises, we are made partakers of the divine nature.” Through receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, because he is the real High Priest, because he is the final sacrifice, when Jesus died that veil was ripped and the barrier between the presence of God and the people was gone because Jesus is the door, and when you receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, the very presence of God comes into your life.
The Holy Spirit comes in with all of his unconquerable mirth. Mirth! The Holy Spirit has enough joy in him to set a whole kingdom laughing. Why not? God is the center of joy. The Holy Spirit, with his absolute purity and boundless love and dynamic energy and strength, comes in and we’re never the same again. Don’t you see this is radical and this is what the church is built on? This is what the people responded to. Now just before we move on, quickly one thing.
You can’t have something like that coming into your life without turmoil. See, some of you are fairly new Christians, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here in New York to meet people like you. It depends on how new you are. I would say if it’s been a few weeks, if it’s been a couple of months, somewhere in there you experience the tough side of being a Christian. There are all sorts of tough sides, and I don’t have time to go into a catalogue of them now, but some of you are out there saying, “If God is my Savior and if my sins are forgiven and he accepts me and all these great things are true, why are all these problems happening to me?”
Some of you are saying, “If the Holy Spirit has come into my life like this, why does it seem to be taking so long for me to get better? Why in some ways do I feel like I’m actually doing worse? Am I really a Christian?” For something of this kind of power and magnitude to come into your life, it just does not sneak in. It doesn’t slip in. If you think of the Christian life as one unbroken, smooth road of peace from here on in, look out.
Suppose we were in the middle of a tremendous heat wave. I mean, we haven’t had heat waves this year, but like last year. Worse than last year. Day after day after day of 110 degrees. People are dying. Imagine being in a heat wave like that, and you start to say, “We are going to perish if we don’t get a cool, Canadian high.”
Then we find out there is one on the way. Well, how will it come and release us and deliver us from this heat? A thunderstorm, right? You see, a cold air mass coming and hitting that heat wave, the only way to move it out before everything clears off and the haze is gone, things get worse before they get better. Before the haze is gone so we can finally see the blue sky, things have to get a lot worse. That’s a normal approach.
My friends, when God’s presence comes into your life full of selfishness with his love, full of power with your anxiety, there’s going to be a clash. It has to happen. There will be, but don’t worry. The haze will clear out. That’s the only thing I need to tell you. Somebody says, “If God is a loving God, why is it he is showing me so many bad things about my life? Why is it that everything is going like this?” Well, listen, remember who he is. He is light, and he is love, and he is wise, and he is holy.
There is this tremendous quote I got out of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, in which he says just be careful when you ask the living God into your life. He says, “In awful and surprising truth, we are objects of his love. You asked for a loving God; you have one. The great spirit [God] you … invoked … is present …” Now listen to every word here. “… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not with the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate … but [he is] the consuming fire himself, the love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work … as provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.”
Yes, God has come in with his love. It’s a holy love. It’s a powerful love, and it’s going to renovate you, and it’s going to remake you, but nobody ever renovates someplace without a lot of dust and a lot of dirt and a lot of inconvenience, without it getting uglier before it gets more beautiful? Right? That’s normal! How can you expect it to be any other way? Trust him, though, you see. You trust in him, of course, but recognize when something like this comes into your life, there’s going to be a cloud of dust.
Now verses 42–47 tell us these people who took hold of this truth with both hands and said, “All right. We’re going to build our lives on this. Though we were far away from God, we can be brought near right into the presence of God and have the Holy Spirit in our lives.” I want to show you there are five signs of this vitality. Let me put it this way. Every one of you in this room who has received Christ as Savior and Lord have access to the presence of God when you sit down and pray, when you say, “Because of what Jesus Christ did, O Father, hear my prayer.”
You have access to his presence, but the Bible also says, “For where two or three [of you] are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of [you].” What that means, among other things, is when several Christians get together, though they individually have access to the presence of God, the presence of God expresses itself in corporate ways in the corporate life of those people. Here is what they are, five of them, and I want you to keep this in mind.
I’m going to go through them quickly because every one of them at some future date will get an extended treatment. I guarantee you. I want you to see at this point the importance is they all have to be together. Having one or two or three will not do the trick, and I’ll explain why. The five things are teaching, community, social compassion, evangelism, and worship. Let’s go through them quickly.
It says here in verse 42, they were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. Devoted. A vital church understands truth is not just a subjective thing. Of course, it’s subjective, but we also believe there is a body of truth (the teaching of the apostles and the prophets) deposited here, and that truth not only gives us guidance for every area of our lives, but the truth isn’t an abstract thing. The Bible says about itself that it’s alive and active. It’s a transforming power that comes in and changes us.
For a church to honor the truth does not just mean people flock to hear the great teacher, nor does it mean the people of the church just run by their Bibles in the morning for five minutes and just expect inspiration to jump out of it onto you somewhere to take you through the day. Rather, it says the people of a church like this are devoted to the apostles’ teaching. They devoted themselves, you see. They dug in. They spent the time. They reflected. They thought. They meditated. They wrestled.
They said, “How do I get this truth into my life? What does this truth mean?” You see, they thought about it. One of the hard things to explain in a place like New York, especially in a place like Manhattan, is that wherever God’s presence is, there is an insatiable hunger for truth. Now the reason it’s harder to show in a college town or a big city is there are a lot of people around who are already predisposed to enjoy reading and studying. You become Christians and you continue to enjoy reading and studying.
It’s starkly obvious when you go to a place where people hate reading and studying. When the presence of God comes down in their midst, it’s amazing to see the change. I took a church in Virginia that, when I got there, as far as I knew, virtually none of the officers had finished high school. Especially the males in that particular blue-collar, southern community felt readin’ and writin’ were feminine.
I remember a man who came to Christ just before I got there. He had been an alcoholic. He had been a career army sergeant. He was a tough, rough person. He became a Christian, and this man who had only finished eighth grade (I don’t know how in the world he got that far) became hungry to study the Word of God.
He could barely read, and he would spend hours reading a passage, having to look everything up in the dictionary. After a while, he came to me and said, “I want to teach.” I said, “I don’t know how you’re going to do that.” He said, “Give me a chance.” So we gave him a Sunday school class. His wife told me absolutely for sure that he spent 45 hours a week preparing his lesson. He would spend hours just reading with the dictionary through the Sunday school teacher’s guide.
Then he would write out what he was going to say. He would speak it into a tape. He’d take the tape to some friends, and they would listen. He would say, “Now am I pronouncing these words right?” and “What does this word mean?” What did he turn out to be? A good teacher. Nothing spectacular. A mediocre teacher, but it was unbelievable to see what happened in this man’s life, and he changed. I remember after being there for nine years, one of the last days I was there, this man came up to me and said something.
He said, “Do you know what? Before you came to this town, before I came under your teaching, I was a racist.” Now I had never ever talked to this man. Of course, he was a racist! Everybody in town was a racist, and frankly, I had never talked to this man about it ever. That is one of the last things a blue-collar, Southern male over the age of 50 will ever say. What happened to him? Whenever God is present, the truth shines. Some of you may up till now have been saying, “I don’t even know I’m sure what you mean when you talk about access to the presence of God.”
Let me tell you what the sign of it is. Let me give you the most common way to experience it only through Jesus Christ, of course. You’re reading a passage you’ve read 100 times before and suddenly it shines like somebody plugged it in and you’re looking for the cord. You’re saying, “Why didn’t I ever see that before?” You see, the truth gets real. Real! When we talk about the presence of God, we mean it gets real. For example, the promise of God’s love becomes more real to you than the rejection you’re getting in your life, so you’re just not walking around with your head hanging down.
The promise of God’s protection, the truth of that, becomes more real to you than the things you’re afraid of, the threats that are coming to you. Do you see? That’s why Peter can say, “Through his great and precious promises, we participate in the divine nature.” It’s the promises. It’s devoting yourself to the Word. It’s getting and understand the truth. It shines only when God does it. You experience the presence of God when he becomes real to you through the Word, and that’s a sign of the presence of God. That’s the first sign, and that’s a mark of real Christianity. It’s the essence of a real Christian, and it’s the mark of a church like this.
It says there they had everything in common and they didn’t claim anything they had was their own. Now I know the example it gives here is economic sharing, giving a lot of money and resources to each other, but let me just say they devoted themselves to fellowship and community. Community exists to the degree people are saying to one another, “What’s mine is yours.” We’re not just talking about money at all. As a matter of fact, you can have communism without any community at all, right?
You can have a forced redistribution of wealth without any community. Community has to do first of all with what is in the heart. For example, in the church if somebody comes to me and says, “Do you know what? I don’t like the way in which you are treating your children.” What if I say, “That’s none of your business?” I have no concept then of community, no concept of what the Bible says the church is. I’m a radical, American individualist, but I have no idea about this, because you see, my sins are your business.
The Bible says, “… confess your sins to one another …” “Bear one another’s burdens …” That means we don’t just share our bucks, though we do. We share our joys. We share our mistakes. We share our sorrows. Now this can be done in a very icky way, and you can very artificially press this kind of community on people. It grows, and it has to grow in an organic, natural way, but I tell you, we in America are absolutely against this. In his book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah says the one thing Americans hold dear is the idea I am not accountable to anybody but myself for the meeting of my own needs.
That, my friends, is worldliness. I know many churches have said what worldliness means is, “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls who do.” That’s worldliness. My friends, that’s not worldliness. Worldliness is saying, “I don’t want to be accountable to anybody.” The only thing that can really create community is the presence of God. I saw The Abyss the other night. It was pretty good. I’m just a frustrated film critic, so I won’t say anything about the movie.
That movie is a typical adventure movie in that you have a bunch of people who, for one reason or another, don’t like each other, but because they go through the same incredible experience that sets them apart from everybody else in the world, by the end they are lifelong pals. It’s like The Dirty Dozen. They all hated each other, but then they got on this great mission in the end. It had male bonding stuff. Oh, how great it is. Any two people, no matter how different they are in every other way, who through Jesus Christ have experienced the presence of God, there is community there.
The relationship between two Christians outweighs any other relationship you have on the basis of your race, on the basis of your gender, or on the basis of your social status. You are a Christian first and you’re white second. You’re a Christian first and you’re black second. You’re a Christian first and you’re wealthy or poor second. You’re a Christian first and you’re an American second. Do you see what I’m saying? Community can only be based on the presence of God.
3. Social compassion
It says here these people were unbelievably generous to anybody who was in need. The difference between a real Christian and a moralistic person is not that Christians repent of their sins. My friends, lots of moralistic people repent of their sins. The difference between Christians and non-Christians, the difference between real Christians and moralistic people is Christians also repent of their best deeds.
In other words, they also recognize even the best things they’ve ever done are filthy rags in God’s sight, and I have to rest wholly and completely in what Jesus has done for me. Now if you are a moralist, if you’re basically a Pharisee, if you basically believe God saves you and loves you because you’re a pretty good person, you’re going to look at needy people, and you’re going to say, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I did.”
If, on the other hand, you know you’re a sinner saved by grace, when you look at a person who smells terrible, who has no resources, no mind, nothing left, you say, “I realize I’m looking in a mirror. I realize this is what I look like to God spiritually, and you’re generous.” Only an encounter with God through Jesus Christ can you have that kind of spirit, and any church that understands and realizes the presence of God in its midst is compassionate like that.
Notice it says they enjoyed the favor of all the people and they grew every day. Now can I point out to you, though it says the radiance and the responsibility and the beauty of this Christian community was so great that people were attracted to it (they loved it), non-believers said, “What is going on here?” They had the favor of all the people. Don’t forget 2 Timothy 3:12. It says, “All who live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Now somebody is out there saying, “What do you mean, ‘Don’t forget’? Those two things seem to contradict. How can you keep them together?” It’s really pretty simple. Anybody who is living a consistent, Christian walk will polarize people. That means there will be some people who will say, “You are remarkable. You are amazing. You are fascinating to me. I want to talk to you about my problems. I want to find out what’s going on in your life. I want to get to know you better.” Or you’ll have people who are extremely upset with you, offended by you, and angry at you.
You may go through seasons where there is a lot of popularity and seasons where there is persecution. It might be happening at the same time, but only if you are absolutely not living a consistent, Christian life will nobody notice. The fact is, whenever the church is the church, it’s getting both: a terrific amount of growth through attraction and persecution.
I knew a man who was a college kid when I was a college kid. One summer he was going to work for the post office. He said to me, “The thing I want to know is how can I be a Christian postal worker?” So we sat down and said, “Okay. How do we integrate our Christianity into our postal working service?” We started to say to ourselves, “Okay. Does the Christian put the stamp on any different than a non-Christian?” “No.”
We finally figured out all he could do was get in there and do eight hours of a hard day’s work. In just one brief summer, he polarized that office because on the one hand he had people saying, “I like your style. I like your hard work. I like your savvy. I like your attitude.” Yet, other people were coming and saying, “You might get roughed up if you don’t slow down. You’re making us look lousy. You’re just a kid. You’re here for three months. We have to work here all of our lives. Your production is making us look bad. It’s putting heat on us. Cut it out!”
He polarized the place just by doing eight hours of good work. What I want to know is why that’s not happening to you and why it’s not happening to me and why it’s not happening to us. All I know is if you’re walking the way you ought to walk, there will be that polarizing, and the church will grow.
They praised God in the temple and in their homes. Verse 43 says there was awe, and intimacy and glad, generous hearts. You know, real worship is characterized both by an awe and an intimacy at the same time, not just sober dignity that eventually makes the place seem like a funeral home, and not just “gee, wish, golly, and God’s a wonderful guy who makes us feel warm and fuzzy,” but both together. There is both an awe and an intimacy, and the reason for that is God will reveal his face to us as a group when we come together and worship him.
That’s not an easy thing to understand, and I can’t explain it. All I know is I exist in this entire field of space right here. Six foot four of it and 220 pounds of it, I exist in this whole field of space, but if you come up and try to talk to me, you probably won’t talk to the back of my kneecap, will you? Why? Because that’s not the way in. This is the way in. Isn’t that weird? The front of my head is the way in. You’re going to talk to the front of my head. You’re going to talk to my face, because that’s the way to make contact.
God is a spirit. He is everywhere, you see. In fact, he’s more than everywhere. It says, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you,” which is pretty hard to figure out. He’s bigger than everywhere. The greatness of God! The place to communicate with him is at his face. How do you find his face? Well, how do you find my face? It’s pretty easy. It’s up here at about six foot four. How do you find the face of a spirit? He has to reveal it to you, and he promises to reveal it to those in worship who receive Christ as Savior and Lord.
In conclusion, let me just say how can any church be a church like this? The answer is on the one hand, we do have to be careful to balance our programs. Yeah, we do. If you don’t have all five of those things, do you realize how bad it can be? It’s possible to have social compassion not because of the Spirit of God … listen to this … but just out of a pride and a humanism, a pride in human beings. A social compassion like that, which arises out of humanistic pride, will not go along with teaching, and it won’t go along with evangelism.
You can have a church or group who loves great teaching and indoctrinating people because it likes tidy systems, and it likes telling people they’re wrong, but there won’t be a lot of fellowship or celebration in that church. You can find people who love celebration. They love great music. They love to get together, and they say it is worship, but it’s probably just an emotional catharsis because there is no truth and teaching in that church. You see what I mean? You can have a church that seems like its full of fellowship and full of community where people love each other because they’re lonely, but there is no outreach and there is no social compassion.
What I’m trying to say is only if you have all five is that a sign that the Spirit of God is there, and you have to work for balance in your programs, yeah, but ultimately, my friends, you and I have to create little altars in our own lives for the fire to come down on us if we expect a church to be a big altar on which the fire can fall. That little altar is right there in verse 42. I suggest you circle it. I suggest you take it home with you. It says you have to be devoted to three things. “They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching.” That’s study. “They were devoted to fellowship.” That’s real communication and accountability to other believers. “They were devoted to prayer.”
My friends, if you give those things short shrift, do not expect the fire to come down. In the Old Testament, you built the altar. You put the sacrifice there, and the fire came down, you see. The fire is the reality and presence of God. I have three sons, and I can’t spend all of my time in their faces. I’d love to do it. I love at night to climb into their bunk beds, to read them a book, to communicate my undying love and affection, to hug them, to touch them. I can’t do that all the time.
I love to buy them gifts, and I love them to hug me. I can’t do that all the time, but I do tell them this: “If you listen to me, if you obey me, if you love me, if you follow me, those times will become more and more frequent.” God says the same thing to you, and you have to look at your life, and if you say, “This reality is just not part of my understanding, my knowledge at all,” dare I say it … you really have no excuse. There is a three-pronged tripod there. They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to prayer, and to fellowship.
Look at yourself. Is there anybody in fellowship you are accountable to for your life who you really talk to, not just in general about the weather, but about what God is doing in your life? Do you have anybody like that? Can you really be said to be devoted to study? Can you really be said to be devoted to prayer? If not, you can forget about access to the presence of God. It’s not automatic.
Lastly, if there is anybody in this room who has had a religious experience, has had maybe God answer prayers, has asked God for help in changing some bad habits and you’ve changed them, and you say, “Well, I think I’m a Christian,” let me tell you this: The purpose of Jesus Christ is not just to give you a lift, just to help you overcome your bad habits, just to answer your prayers. He does all that, yes, but the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to give you something that enables you to stand before God face to face today and on the day of your death. If you don’t know you can do that, then you still don’t understand what the gospel is.
Jesus Christ, if you repent and believe in him alone and receive him, then you can look at him face to face. To stand in the presence of God, that is what the gospel is. The gospel is not primarily about forgiveness. It’s not primarily about good feelings. It’s not primarily about power. All those things are byproducts, sparks. It’s primarily about the presence of God. Do you know that in your life? Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank you this is available, and we ask you would enable every person in here to realize it. Now many of us belong to you, yet we’re dry as a bone. We’re cold, and we need your fire, and we see there is an altar we have to build. Enable us to build it. Father, there are people here tonight, I believe, I know, who have never actually received you in repentant faith and therefore, do not know.
ABOUT THE PREACHER
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.
Dr. Tim Keller is the author of several phenomenal Christo-centric books including:
Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It (co-authored with Greg Forster and Collin Hanson (February or March, 2014).
Encounters with Jesus:Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York, Dutton (November 2013).
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York, Dutton (October 2013).
Judges For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (August 6, 2013).
Galatians For You (God’s Word For You Series). The Good Book Company (February 11, 2013).
Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Plan for the World. New York, Penguin Publishing, November, 2012.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, September, 2012.
The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness. New York: 10 Publishing, April 2012.
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Riverhead Trade, August, 2012.
The Gospel As Center: Renewing Our Faith and Reforming Our Ministry Practices (editor and contributor). Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, Dutton, 2011.
King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Retitled: Jesus the KIng: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God). New York, Dutton, 2011.
Gospel in Life Study Guide: Grace Changes Everything. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010.
The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, Dutton, 2009.
Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Priorities of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York, Riverhead Trade, 2009.
Heralds of the King: Christ Centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney (contributor). Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.
The Prodigal God. New York, Dutton, 2008.
Worship By The Book (contributor). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1997.
Editors’ Note: Christians didn’t discover the need for missions in the Muslim world on September 11, 2001. The Middle East is the homeland of our faith, too, the site of many great acts of God’s miraculous redemption. Long before the Twin Towers fell in Manhattan that clear fall day, Christians debated why the church has struggled to gain a hearing for the gospel where the call once sounded freely. Yet in the last decade, debate has intensified as we agonized over the depth of many Muslims’ hostility toward Christianity. Missionaries and academics have wondered aloud whether the problem extends beyond Western politics, military intervention, and spiritual bondage to the very way we present the gospel. Could our methods be to blame? Could more sophisticated contextualization unlock many more hearts for Christ?
These are the questions we asked experienced pastors and missionaries to answer this week. Whether you’re planning to take the gospel overseas yourself or supporting those who do, we hope these articles will help you make wise, informed decisions about this great missionary challenge of our generation.
“How do you pray?”
Ahmed and I had been sitting at a little teashop talking about various things when he asked this question. Like many other Muslims, he was curious about how Christians pray. I began to explain how our hearts need to be purified in order for us to approach God in prayer. He agreed and wanted to know more. “What do you say when you pray?” he asked. I told him that we can speak to God as a loving father. I then went on to show him the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6.
“Is that from the Bible?” he asked. “Yes it is,” I answered. He responded, “That’s beautiful! Can I get one?” From the beginning, it was obvious that God was working in Ahmed’s life to draw him to Jesus. It was a blessing to introduce him to Jesus the savior—whom he had only known as Jesus the prophet.
As we talk about Insider Movements and how we should or shouldn’t be sharing Christ with Muslims, two dangers can emerge. First, people can become a leery of Muslim evangelism out of fear of doing so incorrectly. We should have no fear in sharing the gospel with Muslims. It is the gospel that we are sharing, after all. It is powerful to save!
Second, we must remember that Muslim evangelism should not be merely talked about and debated on blogs or in academic circles. It is something that should be done wherever we find Muslims. In that endeavor let me offer some words of counsel to all who seek to make Christ supreme among Muslims.
Ground yourself in the fact that God is sovereign in salvation.
Muslims come to faith by a supernatural work of God, by which the Holy Spirit opens their hearts (Acts 16:14) and grants them the gift of repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). We believe that a Muslim coming to faith is not intrinsically connected to our form of contextualization, but rests solely on God’s divine intervention (Dan. 4:35; Ps. 115:3; John 6:64-65) and our humble obedience to proclaim the gospel (Acts 1:8; Matt. 9:38, 28:19-20). God is not concerned with glorifying a method; he is concerned with glorifying his Son. Strategies are useful and necessary, but none of them offers the “key” to Muslim evangelism.
Be diligent in working to understand the local culture and determine the best way to present the gospel.
God’s sovereignty is not meant to make us lazy, careless, or vague in our evangelism. It gives us hope, because our finite attempts to share the gospel are backed by an infinitely powerful Savior who has “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Wanting to present the gospel clearly and knowing that God’s grace is irresistible are not mutually exclusive.
When it comes to understanding the local culture, we should seek to do two things:
(1) Know Islam. We need to ask ourselves, What are Muslims longing for? What keeps Muslims from attaining this? Don’t be afraid to read the Qur’an or other religious sources. These things will give you great insight into Muslims hearts and minds.
(2) Use their language. When I say “language” I’m referring to two things. First, speak their actual language. If you want to see a church planted among Arabic-speaking Muslims, learn Arabic. If you’re working among Pakistanis, learn Urdu. If among Bengalis, learn Bengali. Second, speak the language (figuratively) that communicates to them. My wife and I lived and worked among Arabic speakers. We learned early on that we could not get people to listen by presenting a beautiful apologetic syllogism proving Jesus is God. We had to use stories, parables, and passages from their religious books.
Center your gospel presentation on Jesus and the Bible.
The degree to which Muslim-background believers seek to retain their previous religion correlates with how we present the gospel to them. In other words, if we use the Qur’an extensively in our evangelism, we risk encouraging a sentimental attachment to it. Muslim-background believers may see the Qur’an as the means by which they understood the gospel and therefore have a harder time letting it go. If we present the gospel as fulfilling their previous religion, we open ourselves up to future problems.
I am not against the proper use of the Qur’an in evangelism. I am concerned with how much we use it. We should not give it center place in our gospel presentation. Jesus is the only way to the Father. Muslims must believe Jesus is their savior, and this belief can only come from the Scriptures. The story of redemption cannot be told from the Qur’an.
Don’t force your ideas on them.
Muslim evangelism can be messy; discipleship can be even worse. Each convert I worked with was different. I made it a point to preach the gospel and let it linger, giving them the time and freedom to think through the implications and determine how they should be applied in that particular culture. We should not attempt to impose our ideas or forms on Muslim-background believers. This means we shouldn’t impose either Western or Islamic expressions of Christianity on them. This is where much of the tension comes from.
We all have an idea of what we hope to see, and how we do Muslim ministry will be determined by our desired outcome. Insider Movement advocates envision implanting the gospel in a Muslim culture with the hopes that it will grow like yeast and lead to transformation from the inside out. In order to do this, they believe, the message must take on Islamic form. Anything less will be viewed as foreign and suspect. Others argue that Muslims need to be called out of Islam and gathered into a separate body with a clear Christ-centered identity. Anything less, they claim, would be viewed as syncretistic.
I would argue that both are correct. The gospel will take on a form of the culture that it is speaking to; if it doesn’t, it will not be understood. But the gospel will also speak with a prophetic voice within the culture that calls for transformation. It goes in and calls out. Our goal is to preach the gospel of Christ from the Scriptures and let the Spirit transform lives and communities.
In the end, expressions of the church or faith communities among Muslims may challenge all our views at some point. However, if these expressions are orthodox in their beliefs, Christ-centered in their view of the gospel, and not deceptive in their practices, we have cause for rejoicing. May God give us wisdom, grace, patience, and boldness as we seek to share the gospel with Muslims.
J.T. Smith and his wife have been ministering to Muslims for the past ten years. They have spent the last four and a half years in the Arabian Peninsula seeking to plant churches among Arabs. This article originally appeared on http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/05/15/how-to-share-the-gospel-with-muslims/
At the conclusion of T4G, a dear brother approached me to give me a copy of Spurgeon’s classic, The Soul Winner: Advice on Effective Evangelism. Perhaps he felt sorry for me because I didn’t have any Spurgeon quotes for my sermon. But I suspect, having gotten to know him and his wife a little, it was one of those loving gestures that so often occur in the brief exchanges God blesses us with at our churches and at conferences. Praise the Lord.
I’ve been reading the book slowly, enjoying Spurgeon’s unique gift and praying the Lord would make me a better evangelist. In God’s grace, I’m feeling fresh stirring and I’m praying the Lord would not stop until He gives me real fire.
From time to time, I’m hoping to reflect a little on The Soul Winner and I hope you’ll join me. We begin today with chapter 1, “What Is It to Win a Soul?”
That’s a foundational question, isn’t it? We have to be clear about the “it” before we can do “it.” And it’s important that we maintain a sense of the priority of evangelism. Spurgeon writes, “Soul-winning is the chief business of the Christian minister; indeed, it should be the main pursuit of every true believer” (p. 5). Amen. But what is soul winning?
What Soul-Winning Is Not
Spurgeon identifies three things soul-winning is not:
(1) “We do not regard it to be soul-sinning to steal members out of churches already established, and train them to utter our peculiar Shibboleth: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our synagogue.”
He continues, “We count it utter meanness to build up our own house with the ruins of our neighbors’ mansions” (p. 5). How often do we hear boasts of swelling numbers added to the ranks of the converted (or more often baptism and church membership) at the expense of neighboring fellowships? I agree with Mr. Spurgeon; that’s not soul-winning as much as its plain ol’ competition. I love Spurgeon’s charge:
There is such a thing as selfishness in our eagerness for the aggrandizement of our own party; and from this evil spirit may grace deliver us! The increase of the kingdom is more to be desired than the growth of a clan. We would do a great deal to make a Paedo-baptist brother into a Baptist, for we value our Lord’s ordinances; we should labor earnestly to raise a believer in salvation by free-will into a believer in salvation by grace, for we long to see all religious teaching built upon the solid rock of truth, and not upon the sand of imagination; but, at the same time, our grand object is not the revision of opinions, but the regeneration of our natures. We would bring men to Christ and not to our own peculiar views of Christianity. Our first care must be that the sheep should be gathered to the great Shepherd; there will be time enough afterwards to secure them for our various folds. To make proselytes is a suitable labor for Pharisees: to beget men unto God is the honorable aim of ministers of Christ. (p. 6)
(2) “We do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names upon our church-roll, in order to show a good increase at the end of the year” (p. 6). Here! Here!
(3) “Nor is it soul-winning, dear friends, merely to create excitement” (p. 9).
What Soul-Winning Is
Having dispelled the imitation acts, Spurgeon then turns to positively defining “soul-winning” as he sees it. He brings his students’ attention to three positive aspects of evangelism:
(1) ”I take it that one of its main operations consists in instructing a man that he may know the truth of God“ (p. 10).
To try to win a soul for Christ by keeping that soul in ignorance of any truth, is contrary to the mind of the Spirit; and to endeavor to save men by mere claptrap, or excitement, or oratorical display, is as foolish as to hope to hold an angel with a bird-lime, or lure a star with music. The best attraction is the gospel in its purity. The weapon with which the Lord conquers men is the truth as it is in Jesus. The gospel will be found equal to every emergency; an arrow, which can pierce the hardest heart, a balm which can heal the deadliest wound. Preach it, and preach nothing else. Rely implicitly upon the old, old gospel. You need no other nets when you fish for men; those your Master has given you are strong enough for the great fishes, and have meshes fine enough to hold the little ones. Spread these nets and no others, and you need not fear the fulfillment of His Word, “I will make you fishers of men.” (p. 13)
(2) “Secondly, to win a soul, it is necessary, not only to instruct our hearer, and make him know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it“ (p. 13).
A sinner has a heart as well as a head; a sinner has emotions as well as thoughts; and we must appeal to both. A sinner will never be converted until his emotions are stirred. Unless he feels sorrow for sin, and unless he has some measure of joy in the reception of the Word, you cannot have much hope of him. The Word must be like a strong wind sweeping through the whole heart, and swaying the whole man, even as a field of ripening corn waves in the summer breeze. Religion without emotion is religion without life. (p. 14)
You and I must continue to drive at men’s hearts till they are broken; and then we must keep on preaching Christ crucified till their hearts are bound up; and when this is accomplished, we must continue to proclaim the gospel till their whole nature is brought into subjection to the gospel of Christ. Even in these preliminaries you will be made to feel the need of the Holy Ghost to work with you, and by you; but this need will be still more evident when we advance a step further, and speak of the new birth itself in which the Holy Spirit works in a style and manner most divine. (p. 16)
(3) “Of all whom we would fain win for Jesus it is true, ‘Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ The Holy Spirit must work regeneration in the objects of our love, or they never can become possessors of eternal happiness” (p. 16).
According to Spurgeon, regeneration will be shown in:
(1) conviction of sin,
(2) the exhibition of a simple faith in Jesus Christ,
(3) unfeigned repentance of sin,
(4) a real change of life,
(5) true prayer, and
(6) a willingness to obey the Lord in all His commandments.
It’s funny, but many today would regard anything more than “a simple faith in Jesus Christ” as a telltale sign of legalism. But Mr. Spurgeon was no legalist. It’s more likely that our own day has so low a view of conversion–equating it only with “a public profession of faith”–that we’ve grown squeamish and downright afraid of insisting that regeneration must entail newness of life, a radical change, a friendly disposition toward God rather than a stubborn refusal (enmity). If we have any hesitancy at affirming the bulk of this list, might we be unaware of our slippery grip on the magnificence of the new birth? Might we be in danger of rushing to affirm “professions” while overlooking the fruit of conversion?
It hardly seems necessary to say that the problems Spurgeon identified are with us today, and were with the church during the apostolic era. The evidence of false converts–biblical, historical, and contemporary–is plentiful. And one could become discouraged, judgmental, contentious, or indifferent. But when the Lord of the harvest commands we pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers, we’re meant to understand that the Lord of the harvest plans on reaping and there’s no need for fainting! We should be encouraged because the problem of false converts simply means the unsaved have been brought near! We should be encouraged that the cotton has grown so high that by God’s grace we may pick without stooping! Brother, be encouraged to win souls!
So much more could be said, but Mr. Spurgeon should have the final word of exhortation:
You may say to yourself, at the close of a service, “Here is a splendid haul of fish!” Wait a bit. Remember our Savior’s words, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind; which, when it was fully, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.” Do not number your fishes before they are broiled; not count your converts before you have tested and tried them. This process may make your work somehow slow; but then, brethren, it will be sure.
Do your work steadily and well, so that those who come after you may not have to say that it was far more trouble to them to clear the church of those who ought never to have been admitted than it was to you to admit them. If God enables you to build three thousand bricks into His spiritual temple in one day, you may do it; but Peter has been the only bricklayer who has accomplished that feat up to the present.
“Do not go and paint the wooden wall as if it were solid stone; but let all you building be real, substantial, and true, for only this kind of work is worth the doing. Let all your building for God be like that of the apostle Paul According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; pp. 27-28).
Preach, Mr. Spurgeon! Preach!
About the Author: Thabiti Anyabwile is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman in the Grand Cayman Islands and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. In his own words, “I love the Lord because He first loved me. I love His people because He has given me a new heart. I have received God’s favor in the form of my wife, Kristie. And together we know His blessing through three children. I was once a Muslim, and by God’s grace I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ. By God’s unfathomable grace I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in which I hope to serve Him until He returns or calls me home!”
He earned his B. A. and M. S. degrees in psychology from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. Before moving to minister in the Caribbean, he served with Dr. Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. He is married to Kristie and they have three children: Afiya, Eden, and Titus. As a native of Lexington, North Carolina, he has an affinity for Western-NC-BBQ. Thabiti writes regularly at Pure Church as part of The Gospel Coalition blog crew. He has also authored several books, The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence (Thabiti converted to Christianity from Islam); Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons; Ephesians: God’s Big Plan for Christ’s New People; May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes; What Is A Healthy Church Member?; The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity; The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African American Pastors. He has also contributing chapters to the following books: For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper; Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God; Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology; Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity; and John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine & Doxology.
The article above is adapted from http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2012/05/03/winning-souls-with-charles-spurgeon
VIEW OF GOD:
|Point of contact with Christians is love (God loves you). Therefore, God’s authority is secondary.||Point of contact with non-Christians is creation (God made you). Therefore, God has authority over your destiny (Romans 1:18-21).|
|Love is God’s chief attribute.||Holiness and love are equally important attributes of God (Romans 2:1-5).|
|God is impotent before the sinner’s will.||God is able to empower the sinner’s will (John 1:12-13).|
|The persons of the Trinity have different goals in accomplishing and applying salvation.||The persons of the Trinity work in harmony—salvation accomplished for and applied to the same people (Ephesians 1:3-14).|
|God is a friend who will help you.||God is a king who will save you (Zechariah 9:9; 1 Timothy 1:15-17).|
Fallen, yet has the ability (or potential to choose the good.
|Fallen, and will not come to God by own will power (John 6:44).|
Seeks truth but lacks correct facts.
|Mind at enmity with God, none seek God (Romans 3:10-12).|
Needs love, help, and friendship.
|Needs new nature (mind, heart, will) regeneration (Jn. 3:3; 2 Corinthians 5:17).|
Makes mistakes, is imperfect, needs forgiveness
|Rebels against God, has a sinful nature, needs reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).|
Needs salvation from the consequences of sin—unhappiness, hell
|Needs salvation from guilt and the power of sin.|
Humanity is sick and ignorant
|Humanity is dead and lost (Eph. 2:1-6).|
Savior from selfishness, mistakes, hell.
|Savior from sin and sinful nature.|
He exists for our benefit.
|He exists to gather a kingdom and receive honor and glory (Revelation).|
His death was more important than his life.
|His death and his life of obedience are equally important (2 Cor. 5:21).|
Emphasize his priestly office.
|Emphasizes his priestly, kingly, and prophetic offices (Hebrews).|
An attitude of submission to Christ’s lordship is optional for salvation.
|An attitude of submission to Christ’s lordship is necessary for salvation (Rom. 10:9-13).|
|RESPONSE TO CHRIST|
Invitation waiting to be accepted now.
|Loving command to be obeyed now.|
Our choice is the basis for salvation—God responds to our decision.
|God’s choice is the basis for salvation—we respond to God’s initiative.|
We give mental assent to truths of the gospel—decision.
|We respond with our whole person (mind, heart, will)—conversion.|
Appeal is made to the desires of the sinner.
|Truths are driven home into the conscience of the sinner.|
Saved by faith alone—repentance omitted for it is thought of as “works”
|Saved by faith alone—saving faith is always accompanied by repentance.|
Assurance of salvation comes from a counselor using the promises of God and pronouncing the new believer saved.
|Assurance of salvation comes from the Holy Spirit applying biblical promises to the conscience and effecting a changed life.|
“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
1) God created us for his glory
“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth,… whom I created for my glory.” (Isaiah 43:6-7)
God made us to magnify his greatness – the way telescopes magnify stars. He created us to put his goodness and truth and beauty and wisdom and justice on display. The greatest display of God’s glory comes from deep delight in all that he is. This means that God gets the praise and we get the pleasure. God created us so that he is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
2) Every human should live for God’s glory
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
If God made us for his glory, it is clear that we should live for his glory. Our duty comes from his design. So our first obligation is to show God’s value by being satisfied with all that he is for us. This is the essence of loving God (Matthew 22:37) and trusting him (1 John 5:3-4) and being thankful to him (Psalm 100:2-4) It is the root of all true obedience, especially loving others (Colossians 1:4-5).
3) All of us have failed to glorify God as we should
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
What does it mean to “fall short of the glory of God?” It means that none of us has trusted and treasured God the way we should. We have not been satisfied with his greatness and walked in his ways. We have sought our satisfaction in other things, and treated them as more valuable than God, which is the essence of idolatry (Romans 1:21-23). Since sin came into the world we have all been deeply resistant to having God as our all-satisfying treasure (Ephesians 2:3). This is an appalling offense to the greatness of God (Jeremiah 2:12-13).
4) All of us are subject to God’s just condemnation
“The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23)
We have all belittled the glory of God. How? By preferring other things above him. By our ingratitude, distrust and disobedience. So God is just in shutting us out from the enjoyment of his glory forever. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
The word “hell” is used in the New Testament fourteen times1—twelve times by Jesus himself. It is not a myth created by dismal and angry preachers. It is a solemn warning from the Son of God who died to deliver sinners from its curse. We ignore it at great risk.
If the Bible stopped here in its analysis of the human condition, we would be doomed to a hopeless future. However, this is not where it stops…
5) God sent his only son Jesus to provide eternal life and joy
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The good news is that Christ died for sinners like us. And he rose physically from the dead to validate the saving power of his death and to open the gates of eternal life and joy (1 Corinthians 15:20). This means God can acquit guilty sinners and still be just (Romans 3:25-26). “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Coming home to God is where all deep and lasting satisfaction is found.
6) The benefits purchased by the death of Christ belong to those who repent and trust him
“Repent” means to turn from all the deceitful promises of sin. “Faith” means being satisfied with all that God promises to be for us in Jesus. “He who believes in me,” Jesus says, “shall never thirst” (John 6:35). We do not earn our salvation. We cannot merit it (Romans 4:4-5). It is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is a free gift (Romans 3:24). We will have it if we cherish it above all things (Matthew 13:44). When we do that, God’s aim in creation is accomplished: He is glorified in us and we are satisfied in him – forever.
Does this make sense to you?
Do you desire the kind of gladness that comes from being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus? If so, then God is at work in your life.
What should you do?
Turn from the deceitful promises of sin. Call upon Jesus to save you from the guilt and punishment and bondage. “All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Start banking your hope on all that God is for you in Jesus. Break the power of sin’s promises by faith in the superior satisfaction of God’s promises. Begin reading the Bible to find his precious and very great promises, which can set you free (2 Peter 1:3-4). Find a Bible-believing church and begin to worship and grow together with other people who treasure Christ above all things (Philippians 3:7).
The best news in the world is that there is no necessary conflict between our happiness and God’s holiness. Being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus magnifies him as a great Treasure.
“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)
*John Piper is the Pastor for Preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and studied at Wheaton College, where he first sensed God’s call to enter the ministry. He went on to earn degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.) and the University of Munich (D.theol.). For six years he taught Biblical Studies at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and in 1980 accepted the call to serve as pastor at Bethlehem. John is the author of more than 30 books, including Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, What Jesus Demands from the World, and Don’t Waste Your Life. DesiringGod.org provides a huge selection of God-centered resources from the prolific ministry of John Piper with free audio and video sermons, books, conference teachings, and articles like this one.
Defeater beliefs – Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call “defeater beliefs”. A defeater belief is a Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.
Christianity is disbelieved in one culture for totally opposite reasons it is disbelieved in another. So for example, in the West it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief there can’t be just one “true” religion. That doesn’t seem implausible at all. Rather there it is widely assumed that Christianity can’t be true because of the cultural belief that American culture, based on Christianity, is unjust and corrupt. (Skeptics ought to realize, then, that the objections they have to the Christian faith are culturally relative!) So each culture has its own set of culturally based doubt-generators which people call ‘objections’ or ‘problems’ with Christianity.
When a culture develops a combination of many, widely held defeater beliefs it becomes a cultural ‘implausibility-structure.’ In these societies, most people don’t feel they have to give Christianity a good hearing – they don’t feel that kind of energy is warranted. They know it just can’t be true. That is what makes evangelism in hostile cultures so much more difficult and complex than it was under ‘Christendom.’ In our Western culture (and in place like Japan, India, and Muslim countries) the reigning implausibility-structure against Christianity is very strong. Christianity simply looks ludicrous. In places like Africa, Latin America, and China, however, the implausibility structures are eroding fast. The widely held assumptions in the culture make Christianity look credible there.
Dealing With the Implausibility Structure Today
Many books on reaching post-moderns today give the impression that people now need virtually no arguments at all. The ‘apologetic’ is a loving community, or the embodiment of social concern. I couldn’t agree more that post-modern people come to Christ through process, through relationships, through mini-decisions, through ‘trying Christianity on.’ They are pragmatic rather than abstract in their reasoning, etc. But the books that are against any arguments at all seem to miss the fact that the extreme pragmatism of non-Christians today is part of a non-Christian world-view. Our post-enlightenment culture believes what has been called expressive individualism. That is – ‘it is true if it works for me.’ This obviously is based on the view that truth and right-or-wrong is something I discover within my own self and consciousness.
What then of the claim that “post-modern people don’t want arguments – they just want to see if it works for them”? All right – as with any form of contextualization, let us as evangelists enter – adapt partially – to the culture of expressive individualism. Let us show them the reality of changed lives. Let us use narratives rather than long strings of logic. But at some point, the idea that “it is true if and only if it works for me” must be challenged. We have to say: “Ultimately that is correct – in the very, very long run, obeying the truth will ‘work’ and bring you to glory and disobeying the truth might lead to ostracism, persecution, or other suffering.
There have been many times in New York City that I have seen people make professions of faith that seemed quite heart-felt, but when faced with serious consequences if they maintained their identification with Christ (e.g. missing the opportunity for a new sexual partner or some major professional setback) they bailed on their Christian commitment. The probable reason was that they had not undergone deeper ‘world-view change’. They had fitted Christ to their individualistic world-view rather than fitting their world-view to Christ. They professed faith simply because Christianity worked for them, and not because they grasped it as true whether it is ‘working’ for them this year or not! They had not experienced a “power-encounter’ between the gospel and their individualistic world-view. I think apologetics does need to be ‘post-modern.’ It does need to adapt to post-modern sensibilities. But it must challenge those sensibilities too. There do need to be ‘arguments.’ Christianity must be perceived to be true, even though less rationalistic cultures will not demand watertight proofs like the older high-modern society did.
A ‘Sandwich’ Approach to Sharing the Gospel
There are two parts to sharing the gospel. What this means now is that there are two parts to sharing the gospel in a particular culture – a more ‘negative’ and a more ‘positive’ aspect.
The more negative aspect has to do with ‘apologetics’ – it consists in deconstructing the culture’s implausibility structure. In short, this means you have to show on the cultures terms (that is, by its own definitions of justice, rationality, meaning) that its objections to Christianity don’t hold up.
The more positive aspect of sharing the gospel is to connect the story of Jesus to the base-line cultural narratives. In short, you have to show in line with culture’s own (best) aspirations, hopes, and convictions that its own cultural story won’t be resolved or have ‘a happy ending’ outside of Christ.
A sandwich of three layers — I think the overall best way to ‘present the gospel’ is a kind of ‘sandwich’ approach to these two parts. The following assumes there is a process and a series of conversations between you and the person who doesn’t believe.
Brief gospel summary. First, the gospel must be presented briefly but so vividly and attractively (and so hooked into the culture’s base-line narratives) that the listener is virtually compelled to say “It would be wonderful if that was true, but it can’t be!” Until he or she comes to that position, you can’t work on the implausibility structure! The listener must have motivation to hear you out. That is what defeaters do – they make people super-impatient with any case for Christianity. Unless they find a presentation of Christ surprisingly attractive and compelling (and stereo-type breaking) their eyes will simply glaze over when you try to talk to them.
Dismantle plausibility structure. Alvin Plantinga wisely asserts that people avoid Christianity not because they have really examined its teachings and found them wanting, but because their culture gives huge plausibility (by the media, through art, through the expertise and impressive credentials of is spokespersons) to believe a series of defeater beliefs that they know are true, and since they are true, Christianity can’t be. The leading defeaters must be dealt with clearly and quickly but convincingly. Defeaters are dealt with when the person feels you have presented the objection to Christianity in a clearer and stronger way than they could have done it.
Longer explanation of the person and work of Christ. Now, if people find you have at least undermined the defeaters in a listener’s mind, you can now return to talking at greater length about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. If you try to do apologetics before you pull off a quick, attractive presentation of Christ, people’s eyes will glaze over and they will become bored. But if you try to do a very lengthy explanation of the meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection before you convincingly deal with the defeaters, they won’t listen to you either.
Summary of the approach:
The attractive gospel – Brief gospel connected to baseline narratives
Why Christianity can be true – Dismantling doubts and defeaters
The Biblical story of the gospel – A more thorough telling
The gospel connected to baseline cultural narratives
The doctrines of creation, sin, grace, and faith must be presented in connection with ‘baseline cultural narratives’ – Jesus must be the answer to the questions the culture is asking. Don’t forget – every gospel presentation presents Jesus as the answer to some set of human-cultural questions, like ‘how can I be forgiven?’ (Western moral individualism) or ‘how can I be free?’ (Post-modern expressive individualism) or ‘how can we over come evil forces in the world?’ (Contemporary Africans) etc. Every gospel presentation has to be culturally incarnated, it must assume some over-riding cultural concern, so we may as well be engaged with the ones that we face! Christianity must be presented as answers to the main questions and aspirations of our culture. Two of the over-riding concerns are:
Cultural concerns. First, a concern for personal freedom and identity. Contemporary people ask: Who am I? I’m not completely sure – but I do know I have to be free to create my own identity and sense of self. Whatever spirituality I have, it must leave me free to experiment and seek and not be a ‘one size fits all.’
Second, a concern for unity in diversity. Contemporary people ask: How can we get past exclusion and exclusivism? How can we live at peace in a pluralistic world? How can we share power rather than using power to dominate one another? How can we embrace the ‘Other’ – the person of a sharply different viewpoint and culture?
Gospel resources. Gospel resources for personal freedom. Kierkegaard depicts sin in The Sickness unto Death – as ‘building your identity on anything but God’ which leads to internal slavery and narrowness of spirit. This is a gospel presentation that connects well today. (Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche and other great thinkers, was a good century ‘ahead of his time.’) Kierkegaard also deconstructed mere religion and moralism and contrasted them with the gospel. (See his Three ways of life: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the spiritual.) Building your identity on any finite created thing besides God leads to the idolization of that factor and the demonization of anyone who lacks it.
Gospel resources for living at peace. If you build your identity mainly on your class, or race, or culture, or performance you will necessarily vilify and disdain anyone who lacks what you consider the cornerstone of your own significance. Therefore, building your identity on God leads to hatred of the other, to social conflict and oppression. Jonathan Edwards (again, a man ahead of his time) recognized that if your highest love is based on your nation, your family, your career, even your religious performance, then you will disdain other nations, families, classes of people, and other religions. If anything but God is our “highest good” (i.e. if make anything an idol) then we have to demonize or at least exclude some part of creation. But if God is our ultimate good, then we are free to develop deep love for (what Edwards calls) “Being in general.” If we truly made the Lord our ultimate beauty and Savior and good – we would have an equal love and joy equally in all creation, all individuals, all people groups, even in all nature and created things.
In any case, there is no religion with a more powerful ground-motif for accepting enemies and the ‘Other’ than Christianity. We are the only faith that has at its heart a man dying for his enemies, forgiving them rather than destroying them. This must be presented to our culture as an unparalleled resource for living in peace in a pluralistic society.
As we said above, people’s eyes will ‘glaze over’ if you start your presentation with ‘reasons Christianity is true’. Christianity must be attractive to people before they will sit still for a presentation of intellectual credibility. A person must come to the point where he or she says, “that would be great if it were true – but is it?” Then and only then will they sit still for a discussion on why Christianity is true. So Christianity has to first be presented attractively and compellingly. We must show post-modern western culture – with its aspirations for personal freedom and unity in diversity – that its ‘Story’ can have a ‘happy ending’ in Jesus Christ. Then we can deal with the main objections (the ‘defeaters’) in our cultures that make it hard it hard to believe that Christianity is true.
Here is an example of a brief gospel presentation:
Why we are here. The one God is community – a Trinity of three persons who each perfectly know and defer to one another and love one another and therefore have infinite joy and glory and peace. God made a good, beautiful world filled with beings who share in this life of joy and peace by knowing, serving, and loving God and one another.
What went wrong. Instead, we chose to center our lives on ourselves and on the pursuit of things rather than on God and others. This has led to the disintegration of creation and the loss of peace – within ourselves, between ourselves, and in the nature itself. War, hunger, poverty, injustice, racism, bitterness, meaninglessness, despair, sickness, and death all are symptoms.
What puts the world right. But though God lost us he determined to win us back. He entered history in the person of Jesus in order to deal with all the causes and results of our broken relationship with him. By his sacrificial life and death he both exemplifies the life we must live and rescues us from the life we have lived. By his resurrection he proved who he was and showed us the future – new bodies and a completely renewed and restored new heavens and new earth in which the world is restored to full joy, justice, peace, and glory.
How we can be part of putting the world right. Between his first coming to win us and his last coming to restore us we live by faith in him. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, his healing kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. Christ gives us a radically new identity, freeing us from both self-righteousness and self-condemnation. This liberates us to accept people we once excluded, and to break the bondage of things (even good things) that once drove us. He puts us into a new community of people which gives a partial, but real, foretaste of the healing of the world that God will accomplish when Jesus returns.
Deconstructing the Implausibility Structure
What are the dominant defeaters in contemporary Western civilization? These are the dominant defeaters discovered in a recent survey I did of young under 25 year olds NYC who are not Christian. Below six ‘defeaters’ are stated and answered in a nutshell. Why Christianity can’t be true because of:
The other religions. Christians seem to greatly over-play the difference between their faith and all the other ones. Though millions of people in other religions say they have encountered God, have built marvelous civilizations and cultures, and have had their lives and characters changed by their experience and of faith, Christian insist that only they go to heaven – that their religion is the only one that is ‘right’ and true. The exclusivity of this is breath taking. It also appears to many to be a threat to international peace.
Brief response: Inclusivism is really covert exclusivism. It is common to hear people say: “No one should insist their view of God is better than all the rest. Every religion is equally valid.” But what you just said could only be true if: First, there is no God at all, or second, God is an impersonal force that doesn’t care what your doctrinal beliefs about him are. So as you speak you are assuming (by faith!) a very particular view of God and you are pushing it as better than the rest! That is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical, since you are doing the very thing you are forbidding. To say “all religions are equally valid” is itself a very white, Western view based in the European enlightenment’s idea of knowledge and values. Why should that view be privileged over anyone else’s?
Evil and suffering. Christianity teaches the existence of an all-powerful, all-good and loving God. But how can that belief be reconciled with the horrors that occur daily? If there is a God, he must be either all-powerful but not good enough to want an end to evil and suffering, or he’s all-good but not powerful enough to bring an end to evil and suffering. Either way the God of the Bible couldn’t exist. For many people, this is not only an intellectual conundrum but also an intensely personal problem. Their own lives are marred by tragedy, abuse, and injustice.
Brief response: If God himself has suffered our suffering isn’t senseless. First, if you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have to (at the same moment) have a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. (You can’t have it both ways.) Second, though we don’t know the reasons why he allows it to continue, he can’t be indifferent or un-caring, because the Christian God (unlike the gods of all the other religions) takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he is willing to get involved with it himself. On the cross, Jesus suffered with us.
The ethical strait jacket. In Christianity the Bible and the church dictate everything that a Christian must believe, feel, and do. Christians are not encouraged to make their own moral decisions, or to think out their beliefs or patterns of life for themselves. In a fiercely pluralistic society there are too many options, too many cultures, too many personality differences for this approach. We must be free to choose for ourselves how to live – this is the only truly authentic life. We should only feel guilty if we are not being true to ourselves – to our own chosen beliefs and practices and values and vision for life.
Brief response. Individual creation of truth removes the right to moral outrage. First, aren’t there any people in the world who are doing things you believe are wrong that they should stop doing no matter what they believe inside about right and wrong? Then you do believe that there is some kind of moral obligation that people should abide by and which stands in judgment over their internal choices and convictions. So what is wrong with Christians doing that? Second, no one is really free anyway. We all have to live for something, and whatever our ultimate meaning in life is (whether approval, achievement, a love relationship, our work) it is basically our ‘lord’ and master. Everyone is ultimately in a spiritual straightjacket. Even the most independent people are dependent on their independence and so can’t commit. Christianity gives you a lord and master who forgives and dies for you.
The record of Christians. Every religion will have its hypocrites of course. But it seems that the most fervent Christians are the most condemning, exclusive, and intolerant. The church has a history of supporting injustices, of destroying culture, or oppression. And there are so many people who are not Christian (or not religious at all) who appear to be much more kind, caring, and indeed moral than so many Christians. If Christianity is the true religion – then why can this be? Why would so much oppression have been carried out over the centuries in the name of Christ and with the support of the church?
Brief response. The solution to injustices is not less but deeper Christianity. First, there have been terrible abuses. Second, in the prophets and the gospels we are given tools for a devastating critique of moralistic religion. Scholars have shown that Marx and Nietzsche’s critique of religion relied on the ideas of the prophets. So despite its abuses, Christianity provides perhaps greater tools than the other religions do for its own critique. Third, when Martin Luther King Jr. confronted terrible abuses by the white church he did not call them to loosen their Christian commitments. He used the Bible’s provision for church self-critique and called them to truer, firmer, deeper Christianity.
The angry God. Christianity seems to be built around the concept of a condemning, judgmental deity. For example, there’s the cross – the teaching that the murder of one man (Jesus) leads to the forgiveness of others. But why can’t God just forgive us? The God of Christianity seems a leftover from primitive religions where peevish gods demanded blood in order to assuage their wrath.
Brief response. On the cross God does not demand our blood but offers his own. First, all forgiveness of any deep wrong and injustice entails suffering on the forgiver’s part. If someone truly wrongs you, because of our deep sense of justice, we can’t just shrug it off. We sense there’s a ‘debt.’ We can either (a) make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil spreads into us and hardens us or (b) you can forgive – but that is enormously difficult. But that is the only way to stop evil from hardening as well. Second, if we can’t forgive without suffering (because of our sense of justice) its not surprising to learn that God couldn’t forgive us without suffering – coming in the person of Christ and dying on the cross.
The unreliable Bible. It seems impossible any longer to take the Bible as completely authoritative in the light of modern science, history, and culture. Also we can’t be sure what in the Bible’s accounts of events is legendary and what really happened. Finally, much of the Bible’s social teaching (for example, about women) is socially regressive. So how can we trust it scientifically, historically, and socially?
Brief response: The gospels’ form precludes their being legends. The Biblical gospels are not legends but historically reliable accounts about Jesus’ life. Why? First, their timing is far too early for them to be legends. The gospels, however, were written 30-60 years after Jesus’ death – and Paul’s letters, which support all the accounts, came just 20 years after the events. Second, their content is far too counter-productive to be legends. The accounts of Jesus crying out that God had abandoned him, or the resurrection where all the witnesses were women – did not help Christianity in the eyes of first century readers. The only historically plausible reason that these incidents are recorded is that they happened. The ‘offensiveness’ of the Bible is culturally relative. Texts you find difficult and offensive are ‘common sense’ to people in other cultures. And many of the things you find offensive because of your beliefs and convictions, many will seem silly to your grandchildren just as many of your grandparents’ beliefs offend you. Therefore, to simply reject any Scripture is to assume your culture (and worse yet, your time in history) is superior to all others. It is narrow-minded in the extreme.
Two Final Notes on Dealing with ‘Doubts’ and ‘Defeaters’
First, it is critical to state these defeaters in the strongest possible way. If a non-Christian hears you express them and says, “that’s better than I could have put it” then they feel that they are being respected and will take your answer more seriously. You will need to have good answers to these defeaters woven in redundantly to everything you say and teach in the church.
Second, our purpose with these defeaters and doubts is not to ‘answer’ them or ‘refute’ them but to deconstruct them. That is, to “show that they are not as solid or as natural as they appear” (Kevin Vanhoozer). It is important to show that all doubts and objections to Christianity are really alternate beliefs and faith-acts about the world. (If you say, “I just can’t believe that there is only one true religion” – that is a faith-act. You can’t prove that.) And when you see your doubts are really beliefs, and when you require the same amount of evidence for them that you are asking of Christian beliefs, then it becomes evident many of them are very weak and largely adopted because of cultural pressure.
Steps Into Faith
What about the positive? If you are ready to move toward the exploration of faith in Christianity, you must be:
Deconstructing doubt. Your doubts are really beliefs, and you can’t avoid betting your life and destiny on some kind of belief in God and the universe. Non-commitment is impossible. Faith-acts are inevitable.
Knowing there’s God. You actually already believe in God at the deep level, whatever you tell yourself intellectually. Our outrage against injustice despite how natural it is (in a world based on natural selection) shows that we already do believe in God means the world is not the product of violence or random disorder (as in both the ancient and modern accounts of creation) but was created by a Triune God to be a place of peace and community. So at the root of all reality is not power and individual self-assertion (as in the pagan and post-modern view of things) but love and sacrificial service for the common good.
Recognizing your biggest problem. You aren’t spiritually free. No one is. Everyone is spiritually enthralled to something. ‘Sin’ is not simply breaking rules but is building your identity on things other than God, which leads internally to emptiness, craving, and spiritual slavery and externally to exclusion, conflict, and social injustice.
Discerning the difference between religion and the gospel. There is a radical difference between religion – in which we believe our morality secures for us a place of favor in God and in the world – and gospel Christianity – in which our standing with God is strictly a gift of grace. These two different core understandings produce very different communities and character. The former produces both superiority and inferiority complexes, self-righteousness, religiously warranted strife, wars, and violence. The latter creates a mixture of humility and enormous inner confidence, a respect for ‘the other’, and a new freedom to defer our needs for the common good.
Understanding the Cross. All forgiveness entails suffering and that the only way for God to forgive us and restore justice in the world without destroying us was to come into history and give himself and suffer and die on the Cross in the person of Jesus Christ. Both the results of the Cross (freedom from shame and guilt; awareness of our significance and value) and the pattern of the Cross (power through service, wealth through giving, joy through suffering) radically changes the way we relate to God, the world, and ourselves.
Embracing the resurrection. Because there is no historically possible alternative of the rise of the Christian church than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus was raised from the dead as a forerunner of the renewal of all the material and physical world, then this gives Christians both incentive to work to restore creation (fighting poverty, hunger, and injustice) as well as infinite hope that our labors will not be in vain. And finally, it eliminates the fear of death.
*TIMOTHY KELLER was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989 he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has more than five thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world. He is the author of KING’S CROSS, COUNTERFEIT GODS, THE PRODIGAL GOD, and the New York Times bestseller THE REASON FOR GOD & the forthcoming CENTER CHURCH (August 2012).
“In our church in Washington, I always ask our prospective members to tell me the gospel in one minute or less. How would you do that? What would you say the message is?
Here’s what I understand the good news to be: the good news is that the one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him. But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him. In his great love, God became a man in Jesus, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of all those who would ever turn and trust in him. He rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted. He now calls us to repent of our sins and to trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness. If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God.”
*Adapted from Mark Dever’s book The Gospel and Personal Evangelism published by Crossway Books, p. 42.
Mark Dever (PhD, Cambridge), author of several books and articles, serves as the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC. Along with his pastoral responsibilities, Dever is also the president of 9Marks. He is coauthor, with J. I. Packer, of In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement.