Preaching the gospel


Some years ago a survey was undertaken of the sermon delivered on a particular Sunday by some 300 evangelical ministers. Two subjects were found to dominate. First, an exhortation to submit to a "forensic" gospel (sin, judgement, Christ's substitutionary sacrifice...) and second, an exhortation to undertake personal evangelism. Let's consider the first topic.

At a funeral recently a Quaker said to me, "I hope we are not going to get the usual lecture on our mortality." What an interesting comment. She had observed that we evangelicals function under a particular theological paradigm. It runs something like this: "boys and girls, we have all done bad things, we are all sinners, and because of this, we face judgement. Jesus died on the cross and took our sin upon himself so that we can be forgiven. So if you want your sins washed away you must believe in Jesus."

Of course, the atonement (Jesus' death atones for our sins) takes a central place in Christian theology. Yet, it is a theology for "churchies" rather than outsiders. When Paul the apostle develops the theology of the atonement in Romans and Galatians, he is about convincing believers that their standing in the sight of God is completely dependent on Christ's sacrificial death on their behalf. Through faith in Christ a believer stands eternally righteous before God, and that therefore, there is no need to get into "law obedience" to somehow confirm, secure or advance that righteousness. Our standing in the sight of God is completely dependent on what Christ has done for us, not on what we may or may not do.

Church attenders are the ones who need to hear how their complete state of loss is totally transformed by the grace of God in Christ. The unchurched, on the other hand, are confused when we take this theology and use it as a gospel message. First, we end up forgetting that it was for us, and so soon find ourselves on the "law-obedience" trail. Second, we give an inappropriate message to the unchurched. They can't understand the concept of the atonement and also tend to turn off at a message which reinforces low self-worth. In the New Testament, the gospel concerns the coming Kingdom. This truth is encapsulated in Christ's resurrection. Jesus is alive, and because he lives we can live now and for eternity in the presence of our creator God. All we have to do is ask Jesus for this gift.

The message of the empty tomb is the best place to start with the unchurched; far more appropriate than sin and judgment.