Two local ministers met for coffee. One pastored a small, struggling church while the other pastored a large, thriving church. “Why is your church growing?” the first pastor asked. “Because I preach the Gospel!” the successful pastor answered. “And you?” he asked. “Why is your church not growing?” The first pastor shrugged and said, “Because I preach the Gospel.”
Does the preaching of the Gospel attract people or repel people?
Charles Spurgeon once quipped that “We cannot expect those to approve of us whom we condemn by our testimony of their favorite sins.” Likewise, despite Christ’s mercy and compassion, He made enemies. A.W. Tozer noted that Jesus was either perfectly loved or perfectly hated, but people were rarely indifferent to Him. Jesus was a polarizing figure… which doesn’t happen when you’re Mr. Nice Guy.
The Gospels tell us that immediately after Christ’s baptism He went forth proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). Calling people to “repent” is hardly the way to attract followers. Nor is it conducive to the caricature of Jesus often painted as a gentle, compassionate, tolerant, humble, emotive, rather namby-pamby individual. Rather, Jesus spoke Truth, despite whom it triggered.
Before the Gospel is “good news,” it is “bad news.” The “bad news” about the “good news” is that we are sinners in need of a savior. And if we don’t repent of our sins and turn to the Savior, we will “die in our sins” (Jn. 8:24). At least, this according to Mr. Nice Guy. No matter how kindly and lovingly one presents the “good news,” it will be “bad news” to someone.
But I’m not sure if the Church believes this any more.
I engaged in an online discussion recently about the Church’s treatment of outsiders, namely those in the LGBTQ community. There’s an assumption in such conversations that if the Gospel was REALLY preached to the LGBTQ community, and if Christians were REALLY loving, then more of these individuals would be wooed to Christ and embrace the Gospel. In other words, if we just embraced sinners rather than scolding and finger-wagging, urging them to repent, our churches would be bursting at the seams.
For example, Ray Ortlund, a popular Christian pastor and teacher, recently stated that what “impedes the Gospel’s advance” is the Church’s “tone.” He says,
“…we decide if the Gospel is going to advance. And we decide that not just at the level of what our formal doctrine is, but at what our informal relationships are. And when our nation can see in us the kind of grace, mercy, love, the dropping of judgment — God has lowered His gun in looking at us and embraced us to His heart — when we can demonstrate that kind of mercy toward one another, that joy over one another, that receiving of one another, then the Gospel will explode. “
So if Christians were just nicer, friendlier, more gracious, more forgiving, and less judgmental, the Gospel would advance.
Of course, when it’s pointed at that Jesus, the Original Gospel Preacher, was not always a nice, non-judgmental, tolerant kind of guy, allowances are made. Plan B of the Gospel Tone Police is then to point out, that “Jesus only offended the religious elites.”
I evoked that response in a Twitter dialog just yesterday.
So Jesus only vented and passed judgment on the religious elites. He did not express “righteous anger” to the average person. Tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, and widows were all free from Jesus’ stern gaze. To them, He was patient, gentle, empathetic, soft-spoken, and tolerant. But when the Pharisee showed up, He let ‘im have it!
Such an approach offers several advantages to the Gospel Tone Police. For one, it legitimizes condemnation of the “elite.” Why rebuke the “little guy” when Jesus targeted the oppressors, the rule-makers, and the societal upper-crust? This frees us to broadly condemn religious authorities, influencers, systems, and power structures which are deemed “oppressive.” Why? Because Jesus did. He always punched up. For another, this approach falsely frames the Gospel as a “feel-good” missive and strips it of bite. I mean, if we’re watching our tone, telling someone that they are a sinner who needs to repent is a bit forward. If our goal is to preach the Gospel in such a way that it attracts sinners, we may not want to use Jesus are our example.
You see, Jesus was an equal opportunity offender. His terms for discipleship — whether for the Pharisee or the fisherman — were quite high. He often angered and turned people away, whether they were the “religious elite” or the peasant just seeking a free meal. For example:
- Jesus went everywhere preaching “Repent and believe” (Matt. 3:2, 4:17; Mk. 1:15)
- Jesus issued strict terms for discipleship, like denying one’s life, family, possessions, etc. (Lk. 14:26 and many others)
- Jesus told the adulteress “go and sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11)
- Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor. The man went away sad. (Matt. 19:16-29)
- Jesus drove away the multitudes and lost “many disciples” when He commanded them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. (Jn. 6:66)
- Jesus cautioned the healed invalid to stop sinning lest something worse come upon him. (Jn. 5:14)
- Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple. (Matt. 21:12)
- Jesus rebuked Peter and even called him “Satan.” (Matt. 16:23)
- Jesus rebuked His disciples on numerous occasions (for their unbelief Lk. 9:37-41a; their inability to understand His betrayal 9:44-45; their pride 9:46-48)
Yes, Jesus’ “yoke was easy and His burden was light.” He is meek and lowly of heart (Matt. 11:29). He is a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). He knows us intimately and loves us deeply. We should be incredibly thankful for these things! However, He also came to bring a sword and divide households (Matt. 10:34). He came to call sinners to repentance (Lk. 5:32). And He will return as a fiery-eyed warrior king, riding on a white horse, leading an army of saints against the powers of hell. “With justice he judges and wages war” (Rev. 19:11 NIV).
The Gospel Jesus came to preach is for both the “religious elites” and the “common man.” To them, John wrote, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (Jn. 3:36 NIV). That term “whoever believes” encompasses both rich and poor, “oppressor” and “oppressed.” Likewise, that phrase, “whomever rejects” equally applies to all. In this way, neither the “religious elite” nor the Man on the Street gets a Gospel pass.
Jesus’ love for people, whether the cold-hearted Pharisee or the world weary everyman, didn’t stop Him from speaking the truth to them… even if it hurt.
Jesus loves you so much that He will risk offending you.
It’s fallacious to assume that if people reject our message, either our presentation is off or our message needs modified. If someone is offended by your Gospel, the tone police scold, you’re not sharing it in a loving manner. However, even when truth is lovingly spoken it can potentially turn people away and hurt their feelings. I mean, the same mob that shouted “Crucify Him!” were likely some of the same who’d flocked to Jesus’ tent meetings. Shall we accuse Christ of being a big meanie because His message left some angry, confused, offended, or upset?
It’s equally fallacious to conclude that Christ only offended the “religious elite.” Would a harsher judgment fall upon those religious leaders who misrepresented God and made one’s path there more difficult? Absolutely! (See the Seven Woes of the Pharisees and Scribes.) Nevertheless, “WHOEVER rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” The road to salvation was indeed narrow, but it was the same road for all. The religious elite or the Average Joe would encounter different obstacles along that road. But the Gospel preached to both was the same.
And no matter how kindly and lovingly one presents that “good news,” it will always be “bad news” to someone.