Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Presupposition of Evangelism

Almost ten years ago I sat with my bride before a pastor search committee. One of the many good questions asked during that visit was, “what is the minimum a person can believe to be saved?” I believe I answered with the historical content of Paul’s summation of the Gospel: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Since then, when asked a similar question, I’ve even responded with Paul’s earlier words: “…if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Occasionally, I’ve even used Peter’s words (they’re on my business cards): “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:39).

I spend my early Thursday mornings at a local coffeehouse reading through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. We’ve been at it a few years now. I love meeting at a place “off campus” from our congregation’s building. I prefer it, in fact. This last meeting we were working through the chapter on “Faith” for a second week. I began to notice a pattern in Berkhof’s discussion of faith that may have changed my answer to the question, “if saving faith is the acceptance of Christ as He is offered in the gospel, the question naturally arises, ‘How much of the gospel must a man know, in order to be saved?’” (pg. 559).

Read Berkhof’s repeated statements and see the same pattern I saw:
  • “The knowledge of faith consists in a positive recognition of the truth, in which man accepts as true whatsoever God says in His Word, and especially what He says respecting the deep depravity of man and the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (pgs. 558-559).
  • “The knowledge of faith is mediated for, and imparted to, us by the testimony of God in His Word, and is accepted by us as certain and reliable on the basis of the veracity of God” (pg. 559).
  • “Naturally one who accepts Christ by a true faith, will also be ready and willing to accept God’s testimony as a whole” (560).
  • “Its object is the whole divine revelation as contained in the Word of God. Everything that is explicitly taught in Scripture or can be deduced from it by good and necessary inference, belongs to the object of faith in this general sense” (pg. 561).
  • “…true faith in the Bible as the Word of God is absolutely necessary” (pg. 562).
  • “The ultimate ground on which faith rests, lies in the veracity and faithfulness of God, in connection with the promises of the gospel. But because we have no knowledge of this apart from the Word of God, this can also be, and frequently is, called the ultimate ground of faith” (pgs. 562).

I’m mindful of Billy Graham’s repeated phrase in his evangelistic preaching: “…the Bible says.” Eternally more importantly, reconsider Paul’s words to the Corinthians and hear the same emphasis: “…Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” After his words to the Romans promising salvation for confession and belief in the resurrected Lord, the apostle also says, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (10:17). And Peter’s Pentecost sermon is built on passages from Joel 2 and Psalm 16 (and others). The basis of saving faith is the written Word.

If a person does not accept the witness of God in the Scriptures describing the historical fall of humanity into sin (and its personal, individual reality), the consequences of that sin, and God’s remedy for that sin, you will not accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Submission to the authority of and belief in the truthfulness of the Bible are presuppositions to a saving faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t think this necessarily changes our approach to evangelizing the lost, but it is important in our evangelism. Is the message I proclaim “according to the Scriptures”? Am I begging them to believe me, or God in His Word? Am I relying on my ability to argue or convince, or the matchless power of the Bible?

The foundation for the Gospel and the salvation of the lost by that Gospel is ultimately grounded in the proclamation of God in His Word. We would not know our need otherwise. We would not know the Good News otherwise. The Gospel originates outside of me, and is infinitely bigger than I am, and eternally older. I pray I learn to rest in this power and authority in my evangelistic conversations, like those with the owner of the coffeehouse before dawn every Thursday morning.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Gathering and Garages

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile” (Billy Sunday, 1862-1935).

I’ve heard a dozen variations on this quote. So have you. It’s popular for preachers, youth ministers, evangelists, and unbelieving scoffers to diminish the importance of attending regular gatherings of the Church. I understand why the last group I mentioned does it (I was part of that group); it baffles me why the first three groups do it. I’ve hoped that they don’t intend to do that. The person on the stage says this, gets some souls to walk the aisle (a sign, I suppose, of a “successful” gathering). I’ve never heard them take the time to then explain that those who are truly Christian gather with the Church; it is, in fact, one of the biblical assurances that you are a Christian. Christians gather. It’s what they do. It’s what it means to “be the Church.” If a person doesn't gather with the Church, it's a biblical reason to question the genuine nature of their confession to be Christian (Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 2:19). It would seem Billy Sunday's got it backwards. But the speaker who diminishes the gathering gets his aisle-walker from out of the gathering. Work done. The Great Commission isn’t happening, though (the teaching of disciples to obey all that Christ commanded).

“…if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24,25). Yes, there hopefully are unbelievers in the gathering of the Church. Prophecy, or Spirit-empowered, Christ-centered proclamation of the Bible, must occur in the gathering of the Church. The garage is built to house an automobile. The Church gathers for Christians – and those who might become Christians through the proclamation of the Word of God.

Please stop comparing gathering as the Church with a garage, or Pizza Hut, or anything else. The gathering is of exceeding importance and should not be diminished. If you want regular gatherers to examine the genuine nature of their salvation, don’t question something that is a biblical sign that you are actually a Christian (gathering with the Church). Just use the language of Paul to the Achaian Baptist Association: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you - unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5,6). In fact, a weekly observation of the Lord's Supper gives a biblical and liturgical opportunity for such regular examination of the legitimacy of one's salvation (1 Corinthians 11:27-32). Or just be diligent in preaching the Gospel every time you're on stage. It's "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16), not this diminishing of the Church as a manipulative rhetorical tool.

What does it profit a preacher to get “decisions” if they communicate a deprioritizing of the God-given instrument of discipleship – the gathering of the Church?

Gather. Proclaim the Gospel. Keep on proclaiming that Gospel in the gathering. And when you've done it, do it again. The lost will be saved. The saved will grow in Christ. This is the power of God.