Truth and unity
Evangelicals know that all is not well in their churches and missions. Behind the facade of glowing missionary reports and massive statistics there is a profound awareness that the church has little power in evangelism. While bravely trying to produce an aura of joy and victory among their followers, church leaders are uneasy and deeply dissatisfied with their present experience and the results of their efforts. The church is astir with questions about evangelism and hope for revival. Never have there been more missionaries. Never have there been more evangelistic campaigns. Never were more Christians studying to do personal evangelism. Never were there such enormous conferences to examine seriously the causes and cure of lameness in the Gospel ministry.
In 1966, 165 mission agencies and fifty-five schools convened at Wheaton, Illinois in a Congress on the Church’s worldwide Mission. Their task was to address themselves to the barriers preventing success in a world evangelistic thrust. Soon after that, 1300 men of 100 nations met in Berlin. They fervently hoped that this Congress on Evangelism would ‘light the fuse for a worldwide evangelistic explosion.’ In 1969 great numbers met at St Louis to investigate and stimulate evangelism. Other such gatherings are to be expected in the future.
Yet the bewilderment is deepening among missionaries and local churches. After analysing, evaluating, praying and hoping, missions are not revitalized and sinners are not turning to Christ in great numbers. The questions are still being asked, ‘What’s wrong with our evangelism? What is needed to win the world for Christ? Where is the power of Edwards and Whitefield?’
In this honest search for God’s power to return to the preaching of today, evangelicals have been making some crucial errors. Those who believe in God’s Word have been grasping at the same superficial solutions that liberalism has adopted. Relevance, respectability (whether intellectual or social), and especially unity have become the aims of God’s people with the hope that these will revitalize a weakened church.
‘If only all Bible-believing people join together, the world will sit up and listen,’ thinks the church. Let’s merge our mission boards to pool our funds and our personnel. Let’s join giant evangelistic projects. If every evangelical joins in a common organization, we can have greater depth of evangelism. Thus organizational unity becomes the aim of Gospel churches.
Having accepted the theory that unity is all-important for world evangelism, both the church and the individual must lower their estimate of the value of truth. In a large congress on evangelism we could not insist on a truth of God’s Word that would offend any brother evangelical. Thus we must find the lowest common denominator to which all born-again Christians hold. The rest of the Bible will be labelled ‘unessential’ for missions. After all, unity (among Christians) is more essential than doctrinal preciseness.
It is for just this reason that the mission societies have been unwilling carefully to examine the root problem in preaching. Mission boards are hesitant to answer the question, ‘What is the Gospel?’ Thoroughly to answer that would condemn what many of their own missionaries preach. It would destroy the mission society, which is a federation of churches who have differing answers to that question. To adopt the position of one church would be to lose the support of five others. The whole system built on unity and generality would crumble.
The local church may not get too specific about truth either. It may affect its harmony with the denomination or association. To define the Gospel carefully will bring conflict with the organizations working with teen-agers. It will prompt irritating problems with mission boards and embarrassing disagreement with missionaries supported for years. It may condemn the whole Sunday School programme. Giving too much attention to the content of the Gospel will mean friction with other evangelicals. And unity is the key to success.
Tradition in evangelism
Evangelicals cherish their Reformation heritage. We stand in the line of Luther and others who have broken the back of Papal superstitions. The Bible, God’s Holy Word, is our guide in all things. We bow to no human authority.
Such a claim flows from a right spirit of supreme allegiance to God. Yet the cry ‘Sola Scriptura’ is more often an indication of good intention than it is fact. The evangelical wing of the Protestant church is saturated with doctrine and practices which have no Biblical foundation. Many teachings and habits touching the Gospel are as much the products of human invention and tradition as were the indulgences of Tetzel. And certain doctrines in our midst are quite as dangerous.
In the central issue of the way of salvation, large segments of Protestantism are engrossed in neo-traditionalism. We have inherited a system of evangelistic preaching which is unbiblical. Nor is this tradition very ancient. Our message and manner of preaching the Gospel cannot be traced back to the Reformers and their creeds. They are much more recent innovations. Worse, they cannot be traced to the Scriptures. They have clearly arisen from superficial exegesis and a careless mixture of twentieth-century reason with God’s revelation.
The resulting product is a dangerous conglomerate – just the sort that Satan uses to delude the souls of sinners. What cult has not learned to use verses of the Bible and half truths to establish their lies? That has been the Devil’s strategy from the beginning [Genesis 3:5]. By selling another gospel to our generation, Satan has been employing many sincere men in preaching a dethroned Christ. The glories of the Saviour are being hidden even from His servants because preachers will not give careful attention to the Gospel of God’s Word alone.
Products of modern evangelism are often sad examples of Christianity. They make a profession of faith, and then continue to live like the world. ‘Decisions for Christ’ (To become a Christian, a sinner must decide to turn from sin and trust the Saviour. Repentance and faith are inward acts of the human will. But these must be carefully distinguished from the outward procedure of going forward, verbally confessing sin and publicly asking Christ to be one’s Saviour. In this paper the term ‘decision’ will refer to formal ceremonies connected with evangelistic services; for these have become identified with ‘decisions’ in the evangelical mind, with the unfounded assumption that participants in outward ceremonies have inwardly decided to follow Christ.) mean very little. Only a small proportion of those who ‘make decisions’ evidence the grace of God in a transformed life.
When the excitement of the latest campaign has subsided, when the choir sings no more thrilling choruses, when large crowds no longer gather, when the emotional hope in the evangelist’s ‘invitation’ has moved to another city, what do we have that is real and lasting? When every house in our mission village has been visited, what has been done? The honest heart answers, ‘Very little.’ There has been a great deal of noise and dramatic excitement, but God has not come down with His frightful power and converting grace.
All of this is related to the use of a message in evangelism that is unbiblical. The truth necessary for life has been hidden in a smoke screen of human inventions. On the shallow ground of man’s logic, large numbers have been led to assume they have a right to everlasting life and have been given an asssurance which does not belong to them. Evangelicals are swelling the ranks of the deluded with a perverted Gospel. Many who have ‘made decisions’ in modern churches and been told in the inquiry rooms that their sins have been forgiven, will be surprised as Tetzel’s customers to hear, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’ [Matthew 7:23].
Many of you who read these pages have inherited practices and teachings which you have assumed to be the right way of evangelism. You have never seen a lively church actively evangelize in any other way, so you have never questioned it. I know that there are some who claim to possess a more precise theology of evangelism who do nothing to win sinners to Christ. Absence of evangelistic zeal is a dreadful predicament on one hand. But there is also the danger of zeal which is not according to knowledge. Could you be misleading souls and misdirecting the labours of other Christians? Have you closely examined your message and methods in the light of God’s Word?
Pastors, this is no idle question. Have you not wondered about those ‘converts’ who are as carnal as ever? What about those who have ‘decided for Christ’ and you cannot tell what they decided? They are not godly like the Saviour they profess, nor zealous for His cause. They do not study the Word and do not mind if they are absent when it is preached. Consequently, you know that they give no evidence of true conversion. Have you considered the possibility that they were never evangelized at all? Have your
preaching and methods led them to comfort apart from Christ?
Unless our churches rethink the way of salvation by an honest search of God’s Word, evangelical Protestantism will be choked in the morass of human tradition, as was Rome years ago. Already many of its members are shackled as sadly as the ignorant subjects of the Pope. Unity must not be sought at the expense of the Gospel.
Many case histories of our Lord’s personal evangelism and many apostolic sermons would serve well for defining the Gospel. Jesus’ interview with the rich young ruler has been chosen because it is a vivid instance of the elements essential to Gospel preaching which are found everywhere in the New Testament. The words of Mark 10:17-27 stand in stark contrast with the prevailing doctrine of evangelicals today. The difference between today’s gospel and Jesus’ Gospel are not in minor details, but in the core of the matter. Modern changes are serious enough to grieve the Spirit and yield empty nets. They are dangerous enough to misguide souls for eternity.
Some will immediately retreat behind the convenient shield of relativism. The excuse, ‘It’s only a matter of emphasis,’ will be used to escape a serious self-examination in the light of
God’s Word. But the ensuing contrasts between Christ’s Gospel and today’s popularized ‘gospel’ are crucial, not peripheral. In these contrasting messages may lie the difference between life and death for a soul, between vitality and sterility for a church.
No sincere Christian intends to deceive sinners. In love for souls, true evangelicals invariably present some profound truths in their witnessing. Yet by the unconscious omission of essential ingredients of the Gospel, many fail to communicate even that portion of God’s Word which they mean to convey. When a half truth is presented as the whole truth, it becomes an untruth.
Though the answers may be painful, you must ask if your church, your missionaries, your evangelists, your Sunday School teachers, and you, yourself, are preaching our Lord’s Gospel. Though the answer may bring discomfort, conflict, mis-understanding, and loss of friends, you cannot dishonour God by ignoring His truth. If you are unwilling to take a firm stand on the content of the Gospel, then say no more about zeal, sacrifice and activity. If you are not willing to insist that the ‘story to tell to the nations’ be precisely Jesus’ story, why go on with ‘evangelism’ and ‘missions’ at all?
Look closely then at the Master Evangelist of all ages. Listen to His message, observe His motives, and note His methods. Then reflect on your own ministry. In the young man of 30 AD you will see the faces of young men of 1970. To reach them, you must say what our Lord said. To please God you must labour as Christ laboured. Cast off the shackles of evangelical traditions! Refuse to pay for outward unity with the coins of fundamental truth. Learn to follow the Christ of the Scriptures in evangelism. Lay hold of the authentic Gospel and discard the synthetic.