|2011/2 Unhealthy Trends In Gospel Preaching
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The preaching of the gospel should be a matter of prime concern to all serious Christians and churches, and especially to those who are set apart to be ministers of the gospel.
In a talk that I gave at this conference in 2006, entitled "Contending For The Faith Today", which was subsequently published in the Gospel Highway e-magazine as "Sound The Alarm!"1, I warned against five tendencies that together constitute a movement which would have the effect of undermining the gospel. That movement, which might be called neo-liberalism, operates in evangelicalism at large. Neo-liberalism did not arise "out of the blue" from nowhere. There was a history of departures from the gospel message, and from the methods of spreading the gospel, taught in the Bible, which provided the circumstances, background, and mood for neo-liberalism to morph and appear on the scene. This I wish to trace, so as to provide an understanding of these matters to younger preachers. Over and above this, I wish to draw attention to certain unhealthy tendencies connected with gospel preaching which operates in Reformed circles. These tendencies, if left unchecked, would lead to the severe weakening of gospel outreach and leave the field open to the questionable message and methods of evangelicals at large.
My objective is to call upon all who are concerned with the faithful preaching of God’s word to proclaim a full-blooded gospel message, together with a recovery of biblical methodology in outreach, so that our effort will be owned by the Holy Spirit to the conversion of souls. In order to accomplish this, I shall divide this article into two parts. In the first part, I shall spell out the responsibilities of all preachers with regard to gospel preaching. In the second part, I shall show how gospel preaching has been perverted in times past, and is in danger of being perverted today.
I. The responsibilities of preachers with regard to gospel preaching.
The apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” From this verse, and its context, we may ask three questions: first, what was Paul’s gospel; second, how did he bring the gospel to others; and third, how did he preached. In the first part of this article, I shall be focusing on the content of the gospel and the methods of bringing the gospel to others. The manner of preaching the gospel will be dealt with only in passing, although it is an important point that arises from the passage. Normally this would be covered in homiletics classes.
1. Preachers have a responsibility to preach a distinct gospel message.
Before we begin preaching, we must be clear what we are to preach. Before we consider the perversions of the gospel, we must be clear what constitutes the true gospel. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, the apostle Paul summarizes the message he preached as “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”. This is referred to as “the message of the cross” in 1 Corinthians 1:18. This message, which is regarded as foolishness to those who are perishing, is the power of God to those who are being saved. We see, then, that “the message of the cross” is the message of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”. The essence of the gospel is the person and work of Christ.
When we preach the gospel, the person of Christ must be proclaimed. Our hearers need to know who Jesus Christ is. Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Christ must be proclaimed as the One God has appointed to be Saviour of the world, the One the prophets of the OT prophesied about, the Son of God who has taken upon Himself perfect human nature while remaining divine. He is alone the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest and King over His church. Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” without whom no one can come to the Father. The Father said of Jesus Christ, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him (Matt. 17:5)!”
We must also preach the work of Jesus Christ. Christ has come to fulfill the law of God perfectly, on behalf of His people. He died as the perfect substitute for His people, to redeem them from their sins. His blood was shed for their cleansing. His resurrection from the dead shows that the work of redemption is accomplished. Through repentance from sins and faith in Christ, the sinner is justified before God. His sins are imputed to Christ who died on the cross, while Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believing sinner. In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul explains that our justification before God is by faith in Christ, not by our own works. In Ephesians 2:8-9, the apostle says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
All these constitute basic theology, which every Reformed preacher ought to know. The gospel of “Christ and Him crucified” is also the same message preached by our Lord. For example, in John 8:23-24, He said to the Jews, “You are from beneath; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” In verse 28, He said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He.”
Let us be convinced that the person and work of Christ constitute the essence of the gospel.
2. Preachers have a responsibility to preach the gospel from all of Scriptures.
We must preach the gospel from all of Scriptures because it constitutes the essence of the Bible’s message. The Lord said to His disciples, in Luke 24:44, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” Verse 45 says, “And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” The apostle Paul, while expounding in Romans 10 on the necessity of sinners hearing the gospel, concludes in verse 17 by saying,“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The gospel is in the word of God. It is its essence. The whole word of God has the message of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” embedded, to which the spotlight must be shone, and the message unfolded. We ought to be able to preach the gospel from all parts of the Bible.
Where is the message of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” taught in the Old Testament? It is taught in the prophecies, the types, the principles, the examples, and the history of Israel. The book of Hebrews tell us that the animal sacrifices pointed to the coming of Christ as the perfect sacrifice for sinners. It shows us that the offices of prophet, priest and king pointed to the coming of the perfect Mediator, Jesus Christ. It shows to us that the old covenant has to give way to the new. It shows to us that the patriarchs and Old Testament saints lived by faith in the coming Saviour. Romans 15:4 says, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” In 1 Corinthians 10:6, concerning the people of God in the Old Testament who wandered in the wilderness, we are told, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.” Paul teaches in Galatians that the Seed promised to Abraham is a reference to Christ, who would give rise to the many seed of Abraham, who are heirs according to promise (Gal. 3:16, 26, 29). He also demonstrates how the two sons of Abraham, one born by the bondwoman, the other by the freewoman, represented two covenants - one of which saves, while the other leads to bondage in sin ( Gal. 4).
From these truths, we can trace the coming of the Saviour to the proto-evangel of Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” We see how the covenant of grace was made with Abraham, and the other patriarchs, pointing to the coming of the Saviour. We see how the wilderness wandering of God’s people, leading to the promised land, was in fact a picture of the Christian life. The animal sacrifices, the ceremonial laws, and the appointment of prophets, priests and kings pointed to the coming of the Mediator. The coming of the Saviour may be traced through the line of King David in the history of Israel, so that we can preach the gospel from the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. The book of Psalms is rich in prophecies of the coming Saviour, and so also are the books of the prophets, who also spoke of the calling of the Gentiles into God’s kingdom.
The apostle Paul tells us that, while in Ephesus, he taught “publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). In Acts 20:27, he says, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.” That implies that he taught the gospel systematically, from the whole of Scriptures (which at that time consisted of the Old Testament), while building up the faith of those who had already believed. The Great Commission also requires the building up of the faith of those who have become disciples, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:20). There is the need to proclaim the gospel to non-believers and also to build up the faith of believers. But taking verse 27 together with verse 21, we come to see that the process of proclaiming the gospel involves teaching from all of Scriptures.
What I am trying to establish is that the gospel is the essence of the Bible’s message. At this point, the question may be asked, “Why is this not stated in our Catechism?” The catechism of the Particular Baptists asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” and gives the answer, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.”2 Is the Catechism opposed to the view that the gospel of “Christ and Him crucified” constitutes the essence of the Bible’s teaching? We would answer in the negative. The knowledge of God leads us to the realization of our need to be reconciled to Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. The holiness of God, the justice of God, the eternity of God, the love of God, all lead to the conviction of the heinousness of the Fall, and the depth of our guilt before God. Similarly, the knowledge of the duty God requires of man leads us to the realization of our failure to worship Him and our rebellion against Him. The law of God, the bondage of the human will to sin, the depth of our trespasses all lead to the conviction of our need of a Saviour and Mediator whose death alone atones for sins. It has been well said that the scarlet thread of the blood of Christ runs through the whole Bible, from the beginning to the end.
Let us be convinced that the gospel is the essence of the Bible’s teaching. Preachers have a responsibility to preach the gospel from the whole Bible - not just from the four Gospels, not just from the New Testament, not just from selective portions of the Old Testament, but from all the books of the Bible. Failure to relate the exposition of any book of the Bible to the message of “Christ and Him crucified” is failure to expound the book. In gospel preaching, a distinct gospel must be preached, and that from all of Scriptures.
3. Preachers have a responsibility to ensure that the gospel gets a hearing.
The gospel must be heard to benefit the hearers. The apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” By now I hope you are convinced that it is by the hearing of the gospel alone that sinners will be brought by the Holy Spirit to faith in Jesus Christ. There is no necessity to add to, or subtract from, the gospel before sinners are saved. There is no necessity to include methods other than the hearing of the gospel before sinners are saved. The Spirit uses the gospel to save sinners. We want to depend on the gospel alone to save souls. We must, therefore, preach a distinct message of salvation, from all parts of the Bible. However, another point needs to be emphasized, viz. that we must ensure that the gospel we preach gets a hearing from those who are in need of it.
The necessity of getting a hearing for the gospel is emphasized in Romans 10. Verses 14 to 15 say, ‘How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”’ Verse 17 says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” In practice, this means seeking out people to hear, and getting a hearing from them. In the book of Acts, we find the apostle Paul constantly seeking out people to hear the gospel. He would preach to few or to many, as seen in the cases of the conversion of Lydia and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16). Philip the evangelist preached to many in Samaria, and also to one, viz. the Ethiopian eunuch. The Lord preached to one, viz. the Samaritan woman, and then to the many who came to Him, led by the woman (John 4). He preached to the crowds who thronged to hear Him, but He also singled out Zacchaeus to speak to (Luke 19).
In practice, the necessity of securing a hearing requires that we seek out the people to bring the gospel to them. Merely visiting our contacts without the gospel being conveyed across does not constitute gospel outreach. Merely inviting our contacts to come to church does not constitute gospel outreach. For the visit to constitute gospel outreach, we need to proclaim the gospel in the hearing of the people. An important principle is involved here, namely that the meeting of souls is highly valued by the Lord. By example and by precept, the Lord shows that He desires to bless the meeting of souls. In the Great Commission, we are to go... and make disciples. There is something special about souls meeting together. In Matthew 18:20, the Lord says, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Generally, outreach is done by two or three believers visiting one or more non-believers. The Lord sent out His disciples two by two. The apostle Paul had others travelling with him, although there were times when he was alone (Acts 17:2-5; 18:4, 11). Peter similarly travelled with others (1 Cor. 9:5; Acts 10:23). The were times when the Lord spoke to others alone, as when He met the Samaritan woman, but in a public place. Philip was alone when he went to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch and his entourage. The important point to notice is that the face-to-face verbal communication of the gospel seems to be the method intended by our Lord for his people. The Romans 10:14-15 passage says, “And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” This is not to say that supplementary means should not be used. In fact, we would strongly advocate the use of supplementary materials and methods, such as tracts, books and power-point presentations. However, all these must not supplant the primary means of the face-to-face, verbal, communication of the gospel.
Another thing to note about apostolic practice is that the same places were visited, and the same people were preached to, until there were conversions or the preachers were unwanted. We are told, in Mark 6:6, that the Lord “went about the villages in a circuit teaching” - implying that the route was planned, and that it was going to be covered again. In his missionary journeys, the apostle Paul was in the habit of revisiting the places he had been to. In Acts 15:36, Paul said to Barnabas, ““Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing.” We have already seen how Paul, in Ephesus, taught “publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21). In Acts 19:8-9, we are told, “And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.” The same approach is seen in other passages such as Acts 17:2-5; 18:4, 11. The principle that emerges is that the gospel must be preached to the same people until they are converted, or the preacher is unwanted. The Lord has set the example. When He gave the teaching in the Great Commission, “go, and make disciples of all the nations”, how did He intend it to be carried out? The apostle Paul shows us how it is to be carried out, namely by persisting in preaching to the same people until they are converted, or until he was unwanted.
In practice, this means that a “touch-and-go” method where the gospel is spread thinly over as many people as possible, once over, is not the right approach. We acknowledge that there will be many occasions in which we can only proclaim the gospel to people only that once, due to the circumstances. However, a deliberate strategy of going to the same people continually to teach the gospel from all of Scriptures need to be adopted if we are serious about carrying out the Great Commission.
We summarize the first part of our talk on the responsibilities of preachers with regard to gospel preaching. We have covered three points. First, preachers have a responsibility to preach a distinct gospel message. Second, preachers have a responsibility to preach the gospel from all of Scriptures. Third, preachers have a responsibility to ensure that the gospel gets a hearing. In practice, that means preachers must seek out hearers and deliver to them on a regular basis the gospel from all Scriptures, teaching in a systematic way, until they become believers or until the preachers are unwanted.
II. Perversions in gospel preaching.
We consider now the perversions of the gospel message and its presentation, tracing the history from apostolic times to the present. Of necessity, this survey will be sketchy but I trust it will give an idea of how the present sad state of affairs with gospel preaching is arrived at.
1. Perversions of the gospel in times past.
An awareness of how the gospel had been perverted in times past will alert us to the danger of allowing forms of such perversions to be resurrected. In the time of the apostles, there were already perversions of the gospel of salvation “by grace, through faith in Christ, alone” (Rom. 3:21-26; Eph. 2:8-9). The opposite tendencies of the libertines and the legalists were seen at that time.
Paul was keenly aware of the danger of the libertine tendency when he said in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” In verses 12-13 he says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” What Paul feared actually came to pass, as can be seen from Jude’s epistle, verse 4, “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There was also the opposite danger of legalism, propagated by the Judaizers who claimed that faith in Christ must be supplemented by Jewish regulations including circumcision, keeping of feasts and food laws, angel-worship, etc. In Galatians 4:9, Paul called these additions to faith in Christ “the weak and beggarly elements”. In Colossians 2:8 he says, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” He was extremely serious about any perversion of the gospel, saying in Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”
As we move down the timeline in history, we come very quickly to the perversion of the gospel by the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches the errors of salvation by works, the ultimate authority of church traditions, the repeated sacrifice of Christ at the Mass, and baptismal regeneration. Today, those who are ecumenical-minded and ignore the doctrine of separation as taught in the Bible would want to justify their close interaction with the Church of Rome by claiming that it has become more open-minded since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). When we examine what is meant by the Roman Catholic Church becoming more open-minded, we discover that, in 1963, Pope Paul VI called for a restoration of unity among all Christians, and sought pardon for Catholic contributions to separation.3 He advocated dialogue with Protestants, and encouraged ecumenism through the World Council of Churches.4 On closer examination, we find that the Second Vatican Council still claimed that the Church of Rome is the only true church, while adding the remark: “Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.” The doctrines pronounced at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) were upheld at the Second Vatican Council, including the Catholic doctrine of salvation, the worship of Mary, the Mass, and the ultimate authority of church tradition.5 That being the case, how can anyone claim that the Church of Rome has changed? Do not be fooled. The Roman Catholic Church has not changed, and it is unlikely that it will ever change. It has gone too far astray. Its errors are too deeply entrenched. It might put on a charming front, but it is aimed at catching the unwary to draw them into its fold. If Martin Luther could not change the church, can we expect to do any better? Separation is taught in the Bible (2 Cor. 6:14-18; Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; 2 John 10-11).
To our friends who are enamoured with the Roman Catholic Church, we want to state clearly that Rome has not changed. Its doctrine of salvation is still faith in Christ plus baptism, plus attending the Mass, plus confession of sins to the priest, etc. It is a system of salvation by works.
2. Perversions of the gospel since the Reformation
The Reformation of the 16th century led to a recovery of the sole authority of the Bible, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and a healthy mission-mindedness in which there was outreach to the local vicinities and missionaries were sent overseas. The effort of John Calvin in sending missionaries abroad has been well established.6 We can be sure that other Reformers and churches were actively engaged in missions. Dutch and German missionaries were known to have come to the Far East, and portions of the Bible were translated into Indonesian before the 1611 translation of the King James Bible. When the centre of the Reformation shifted to Britain in the 17th century, the Puritans were concerned with outreach to the Jews as well as missions in America. Political turmoil and the persecution of the church did not manage to kill off evangelistic and missional zeal.
In the 18th century, Hyper-calvinism affected many otherwise orthodox Christians and churches. A distorted emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation resulted in a lack of enthusiasm in outreach and missions. The Great Awakening in the mid-18th century led to the founding of the Methodist Church and the practice of mass-evangelism in Britain and the colonies in North America. John and Charles Wesley represented preachers of the Arminian camp, while George Whitefield, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands represented preachers of the Calvinistic camp. Both George Whitefield and John Wesley also preached in America, complementing the ministry of the well-known theologian, Jonathan Edwards, during the First Awakening.
The Particular Baptists of 18th century Britain were at first unenthusiastic about the revivals taking place around them. Many of them were already infected with the leaven of Hyper-calvinism. God worked in the hearts of William Carey, Andrew Fuller, John Sutcliff, and others to stir up a burden for overseas missions.7 The Baptist Missionary Society was founded. William Carey became known as “the father of modern missions”, for through his influence and example, many became missionaries and many missionary societies were established.
The Second Great Awakening occurred in North America in the first quarter of the 19th century. Two great evangelists, among others, used mightily at the time were Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney. The former was a Calvinist who saw the danger of the altar call being popularized by the Arminian Finney. Today, most General Baptist and Methodist churches would practise the altar call, coupled to an Arminian gospel. Many evangelical churches have adopted the same method and message, and would not tolerate criticism of them from any quarters.
The mighty revival under the ministry of CH Spurgeon in London in the mid-19th century was soon overshadowed by the spread of theological liberalism coming in from Germany. At the same time, Christians were being influenced by Charles Darwin’s so-called theory of evolution. By the middle of the 20th century, many denominations, seminaries, and missionary societies had succumbed to liberalism. The principle of “the sole authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice” was abandoned. Pragmatism and academic pursuits combined to secularize gospel preaching such that the emphasis was now on transforming societies, engaging in social work, and meeting personal needs. In short, the social gospel has replaced the gospel of “Christ and Him crucified”.
In the late 20th century, the rise of the charismatic movement introduced a damaging subjectivism which reinforced the man-centredness of liberalism. The claim of the restoration of the miraculous signs of tongue-speaking, healing, and prophecies has been a major distraction from true gospel preaching. While the early excesses of the charismatic movement has abated, the greater danger of the widespread acceptance of charismatic theology as part of mainline Christianity is most disturbing.
3. Perversions of the gospel today.
The Arminian problem is still very much alive. The altar call is still widely practiced in public meetings. In personal evangelism, the “Four Spiritual Laws” of the Campus Crusade For Christ is still widely used. If the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet is not used, a similar approach would be used. For example, the gospel is reduced to three easy steps, viz. ABC. A is to accept God’s free gift. B is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for sinners. C is to confess your sinfulness. Here is minimalization of the gospel message to the point of perverting it. Here is also man-centredness in which salvation is portrayed as the sinner doing his part while Christ has done His. If up to this point you are still asking, “What is wrong with such a message, and such an approach?”, I would recommend that you read Walter Chantry’s “Today’s Gospel, Authentic or Synthetic?”8
Following closely on the heels of the Arminian “gospel” is the Alpha Course that has been whipped into international frenzy in the beginning of this century. It combines an Arminian approach with charismatic theology, in which the Bible is understood by the subjective experiences of men like Nicky Gumbel of the Holy Trinity Brompton church in west London, and the late John Wimber of the Vineyard Movement. Alpha is a “self-multiplying” course in which an individual is introduced to a private meeting which begins with a meal, and continues in a “low-key” approach that is peppered with humour. The course of some 15 talks take ten weeks to complete, with a weekend away, ending with “celebration” in which the individual who has prayed “the sinner’s prayer” in the third week now introducing someone else to the meeting. The course is largely man-centred, portraying the God of love meeting the needs of man through the death of Jesus Christ. Healing, prophecy, tongue-speaking and emotional release are all advocated. The sacrificial death of Christ is portrayed as humanistic altruism rather than atonement for sin. There is no clear teaching on the holiness and justice of God, the guilt of man, the certainty of judgement, the redeeming work of Christ, and the need of repentance. The amount of energy and effort, of time and publicity - not to say money - spent in reaching out to others with a perverted gospel cannot but cause consternation in any right-thinking Christian. The multiplication of superficial Christians and pseudo-Christians, all done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, cannot but cause distress in the true children of God. Those involved in the Alpha Course show commendable zeal that is sadly lacking in true knowledge (Rom. 10:2).9 (Those with a bad spirit among them would retort that we are “cerebral Christians” who are puffed up with knowledge, 1 Cor. 8:1 - to which we would not waste our time responding.)
In my talk given in 2006, I described five tendencies seen in evangelicalism which have the effect of undermining the gospel. First, there is the neglect of “Christ crucified” in the gospel messages of evangelicals. Second, there is the pressure from social concerns and the perceived threats to the Christian faith, which leads to carelessness over doctrinal integrity. Third, there is widespread ignorance of, and naivety over, past errors such that a number of these errors are allowed to resurface and are absorbed. Fourth, there is an overweening desire for ecumenical unity at the expense of truth, disregarding the importance of the doctrine of “justification by faith.” Fifth, there is the emergence of the New Perspectives on Paul, which distorts the gospel in language and form that will have a wide appeal.
Over and above these, we must add the effects of liberalism, together with its pragmatism and man-centredness, upon the methodology of missions. I contend that evangelicals have not been careful and have been influenced adversely. In the area of missiology, there has been much discussion on the need, and the manner, of contextualization. The modern church growth movement advocates the need to “build bridges”, the need to earn the right to be heard, the need to have have a pretext to establish the context, and the necessity of pre-evangelism before there is evangelism. The altar call is an accepted norm in mass evangelism. Saying “the sinner’s prayer” is an accepted practice in personal evangelism. The number of people present at a meeting, or who “walk the aisle”, or say the sinner’s prayer, is taken as the indication of success. Breaking the church into cell groups is regarded as indispensable to church growth. The Alpha Course is but a child of the modern church growth movement.
What are we to say about all these? The answer is, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isaiah 8:20).” We reject the bulk of what the modern ‘gurus’ of church growth teach because they fail to measure up to Scripture. As always, there would be some things that are good and in accordance to Scripture, for which we are thankful. For example, there is a proper place for contextualization in the work of missions, which Reformed missionaries have had no difficulty in acknowledging, but it is always tempered by common sense and kept within the limits of biblical principles. God’s work must be done in God’s way.
4. Unhealthy tendencies in Reformed circles.
We do not want to be all negative. What have we to offer in place of the unbiblical methods and perversions of the biblical gospel? The answer is in Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls.” We believe that the word of God is sufficient for all our needs. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In the first part of this article, we have delineated some important principles of gospel preaching. By these, we may assess the message and methods of the modern church growth movement. By these also, we are able to confidently plod forward, knowing that God will bless the message and methods He has given to us. Faithful servants of God have preached the gospel in biblical ways and been blessed. We do not want to do any less.
A commendable concern of the Alpha Course is to build up the faith of the professed believer, equipping him to live the Christian life and to be an effective soul-winner. The minimalist approach, based on Arminian and charismatic theology, will only produce many shallow and pseudo believers. In place of the Alpha Course, we would recommend to any serious Christian the use of the Catechisms and Confessions of Faith that arose from the Reformation. Our own church uses a Reformed Baptist Catechism and the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.
This may be the appropriate point for me to sound forth a note of warning concerning certain unhealthy tendencies in Reformed circles that would have the effect of undermining biblical gospel preaching. If you can agree with me that theology and preaching fall primarily under the arts and humanities, instead of under the sciences and technologies, you would have no (or less?) difficulty accepting what I have to say. In the arts and humanities, there have been the opposite tendencies of maximalism and minimalism. Maximalism is a trend or movement in literature, music and painting which attempts to encompass everything under certain umbrella terms or ideas. In painting, for example, there is the maximalist idea of expressionism.
We are here dealing with preaching. There was a time in recent years when some Reformed teachers attempted to maximalize the gospel by claiming that every time any portion of Scripture is expounded, the gospel is being proclaimed. The gospel is maximalized under the systematic exposition of Scripture. This is based, wrongly in my opinion, on such scriptures as Luke 24:44, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” We have used the same passage to advocate preaching a distinct gospel message from all of Scriptures. The maximalist idea has the effect of obscuring the gospel message and blurring the distinction between preaching the gospel to win souls and preaching a teaching message to build up believers. Churches that were influenced by such maximalism began to focus more on expository preaching to build up the faith of believers rather than preaching the gospel to win souls. Any growth in the congregation - and there was growth - was due to believers from other churches being attracted to the solid expository preaching. There was thus growth in one congregation at the expense of other congregations. In effect, there had been no increase in the the kingdom of God.
In reaction to this teaching - which was not recognized as maximalism, then and now - there was a call to preach a distinct gospel in distinctly gospel meetings. The response to the call has been largely positive. There has been a return to the preaching of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”, and a recovery of the gospel meeting on Sundays, in addition to the teaching service, aimed at winning souls to Christ. Afterall, churches of the Reformed and Puritan tradition always have had two services on the Lord’s day - one of which is focused on building up the faith of believers, while the other is geared towards the winning of souls to Christ. Of course, there would be considerable overlap in the two types of service. It has been heartening to see a recovery of the gospel service. It is here that the opposite problem of minimalism has emerged.
Minimalism is a trend or movement in the arts - including painting, music, poetry, dance, etc. - in which the work is stripped down to its most fundamental features. As observed in theology and gospel preaching, we find the gospel stripped to its most fundamental elements in Arminian evangelism, an example of which is the “Four Spiritual Laws” of the Campus Crusade for Christ. Not only is the theology underlying the approach flawed, but the message itself has been perverted by the act of minimalization. The claim is that time is short, souls are perishing, and the harvest is plentiful while the labourers are few. It is claimed therefore, that the gospel must be stripped to its barest essentials, and preached to as many as possible. The adverse effects we have already noted. The maximalism in Reformed circles, which we have discussed, was largely a reaction to Arminian minimalism.
The concern I am sounding forth is that in Reformed circles, there is now the tendency at minimalism in gospel preaching. This is seen in a number of ways. There is, first, the tendency to minimalize the gospel message to a repetitive and predictable package like, “You are a sinner. Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners. You must repent and believe in Christ to be saved.” While there are no steps for salvation as found in Arminian minimalism, a stereotyped gospel is nevertheless found. Such a packaged gospel lacks flair in its presentation, lacks effectiveness in application, and lacks respect for the intelligence of the hearers. It does not do justice to the Bible passage preached from, which is generally richer than the way it is portrayed to be. Second, there is the tendency to limit the choice of passages to the four Gospels and, if at all, to one or two other books of the New Testament. There is a reluctance, and possibly an inability, to preach the gospel with liberty from the Old Testament books and other books of the New Testament. Third, there is a tendency to limit the unbelievers to hearing only the packaged and minimalized gospel. Non-believers, regardless of whether they have a Christian background or not, and regardless of the exposure they have had to Christian teaching, are herded to the gospel service and discouraged from attending the “teaching service”. Invited speakers are specifically instructed to preach “only the gospel” at gospel meetings. Some suggested topics by the speaker may be censured as inappropriate for non-believers. By so doing, are we not unwittingly taking over the work of the Holy Spirit in determining which passages, and what topics, will be used by God to save souls? There is a proper place for preachers and evangelists to identify the type of hearers in order to speak to them effectively.10 The Reformed minimalists are going beyond that. They are engaging in “personalization”, which has its inherent dangers.11
There is a fourth way minimalism is seen in Reformed circles. It is the tendency to confine the preaching the gospel to the church and other similar formal settings. In some churches, there is even an undervaluing of the teaching service compared to the gospel service. The gospel service is seen as the “be all and end all”. Believers in the church are deprived of solid expository preaching from the Bible. The gospel service in church takes centre-stage. There is a failure to take the gospel to individuals and small groups outside such formal settings. There is a failure to persist in visiting, and preaching to, the same people until they are saved or the preachers unwanted. It seems that they have an unhealthy “settled church” mentality instead of a healthy “pioneering church” mentality.
In the first section of this article, we have considered the responsibilities of preachers with regard to gospel preaching, under which three biblical principles are expounded. We have seen that preachers have a responsibility to preach a distinct gospel, from all of Scriptures, to those who are sought out to hear. In the second section, we have briefly considered the various perversions of the gospel down the centuries, arriving at present day perversions. We have seen how a tendency to minimalism with regard to gospel preaching is creeping into Reformed circles. If this tendency is not curtailed, it will have detrimental effects on gospel preaching and outreach.
In matters of missions and outreach, Reformed churches have the distinct advantages of a history of strong missionary endeavours, powerful preaching, and the use of time-tested church documents such as the catechisms and the confessions of faith12. We would not want to stray from that tradition. We would want to recover powerful preaching in the pulpit, active local evangelism, and strong missionary endeavours at church planting. Let this be a call to renew our commitment to preach the word; to be ready in season and out of season; to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching; ...to do the work of an evangelist; to fulfill our ministry (2 Tim. 4:2, 5). Let us look to God for wisdom, strength and perseverance. May He fill us with His Spirit. May He bless us in our service to Him. Amen.
1. Poh, BS. 2007. Sound The Alarm! http://www.ghmag.net/index.php?p=1_9_2007-5-Sound-The-Alarm.
2. Keach's Catechism, Q. 7. This is found also in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
3. Second Vatican Council: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vatican_II.
4. Pope Paul VI: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Paul_VI .
5. Council of Trent: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent.
6. For John Calvin's missionary endeavours, see:
- Bratt, J. 1973. The Heritage of John Calvin, Eerdmans.
- Berthoud, JM. 1992. John Calvin and the Spread of the Gospel in France. Westminster Conference Papers.
7. Haykin, MAG. 1994. One Heart and One Soul: John Sutcliff of Olney, his friends and his times. Avon: Evangelical Press. 431 pp.
8. Chantry, W. 1970. Today's Gospel, Authentic or Synthetic? Banner of Truth Trust.
9. For a good analysis of the Alpha Course, see Hand, C. 1998. Falling Short? The Alpha Course examined. Glasgow: Day One Publications. 104 pp.
10. On distinguishing hearers of the word, see the following:
- Bridges, C. 1830 (1976 reprint). The Christian Ministry. Guildford and London: The Banner of Truth Trust, pp. 344-383.
- Masters, P. Biblical Strategies For Witness. Wakeman Trust.
11. Personalization is widely practiced in modern marketing strategies and on internet searches and advertisements. See http://www.christianseoguys.com/2011/06/what-arent-you-seeing-on-the-internet/.
12. See “The Reformed Pastor” by Richard Baxter, on the power of catechising.
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