Evangelism: Proclaiming God’s Good News—with every bad -ism crossed out
Evangelism: Proclaiming God’s Good News—with every bad -ism crossed out
by Dr. Ralph Blair
This booklet is an expanded version of Dr. Blair’s keynote address at connECtion 1994, the summer conferences of Evangelicals Concerned at Kirkridge in the eastern Pennsylvania mountains and at Chapman University in Orange, California.
Have you ever seen the guy who goes to ball games with his John 3:16 sign? I’m sure that at least you lesbians have. You gay men may have been watching a different channel. The John 3:16 guy gets into trouble with sports stadium officials. When they say his evangelism violates “good taste / bad taste policy,” his lawyer gets a judge to say that the policy violates free speech rights. When the Cincinnati Reds then responded by prohibiting all signs that were not related to baseball, he showed up with a sign that said: “Go Reds! John 3:16.” The Reds management then reacted by banning all non-commercial signs, claiming thereby “to protect the family-oriented atmosphere.” The supposedly “family-oriented” beer and cigarette signs remained and the John 3:16 guy has gone elsewhere. According to his lawyer: “It’s unfortunate that the Reds have to take the fun out of baseball.”
Did you ever think of evangelism as fun? To say it’s fun may be to trivialize the gospel, but fun is at least a hint of the joy that is the good news. Too much evangelism is so dreary or full of self-righteous spite and fright that it’s anything but fun—anything but good news. Why shouldn’t it be a real pleasure to proclaim the truly joyous news that “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that no one need be destroyed but, by relying on him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life?”
Last September the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board estimated that 46.1 percent of the folks down in Alabama are going to hell. Now how did that Mission Board know what Paul says all “creation is eagerly waiting to have revealed” only on the last day? (Rom 8:19) Well, the Board did a county by county statistical analysis. They subtracted the Southern Baptists from the population of each county and then estimated the “unsaved” in the remaining churches on the basis of how closely those groups’ beliefs matched Southern Baptist doctrine. Why did they do this? It wasn’t for idle curiosity. It wasn’t only to look good in their own eyes. It wasn’t in order to look bad in the eyes of southern Methodists, Roman Catholics or Crimson Tide secularists over at the University. And it wasn’t in order to be ridiculed by hostile national news media. It was in order to strategize for evangelism.
Last July, strategists from the Southern Baptist Convention, Campus Crusade for Christ, and other rightward religious efforts met in Colorado Springs—the antigay capital of America—to plan what they call “Assessment 2000: A Global Survey of the Unfinished Task” of world evangelization.
Given such plans and predictions of hell coupled with self-serving heterosexist idolatry, it’s little wonder that we find popularly-defined evangelism frightening, annoying or just plain stupid. But evangelism isn’t only a right-wing white Republican thing. National surveys find that evangelism is important to 62 percent of blacks (in contrast to only 44 percent of whites). Among these “born again” Christians, there’s an almost even distribution between Democrats and Republicans.
At any rate, evangelism as it’s often experienced isn’t much fun at all. As a popular evangelism writer observes: “Christians and non-Christians … [are] both uptight about evangelism.” That’s Christians as well as non-Christians. According to a recent University of North Carolina survey, evangelism is considered “very important” to only half of Christians in the South and only a third of Christians in the rest of the country.
Well why does the E-word make people so nervous? And why is it rather neglected? For one thing, it sounds too much like “evangelists” as in TV evangelists and all the baggage that goes with them. In Chicago, Evangelical Health Systems is changing its name to EHS Health Care. It was founded by the old German Evangelical Synod long before the term was trashed on television. It’s explained that today’s Windy City “consumers now associate the word ‘evangelical’ with TV evangelists and are put off by it.” That’s not new. Paul quotes Ezekiel’s lamenting that God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the hypocrisy of his people. (Rom 2:24; Ez 36:22) Another reason is that we’re all aware of what a church historian calls “evangelism by sword, domination (as in Christendom).” Such triumphalism did not end with the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, romanticized Crusades are linked to evangelism today—as in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Billy Graham Crusades. Another reason we get nervous is that biblical evangelism rightly calls into question the self-righteousness of both evangelists and those to be evangelized. As Luther said: “The Gospel cannot be preached without offense.” Still, much evangelism can seem to be arrogant manipulation of what Jesus, after all, said was most like the mystery of the wind. (John 3:8) Here’s another problem. There is an irrational absolutizing of relativity in our day. The Zeitgeist insists that evangelicals should not tell others that there is only one way to salvation. Of course these self-serving pluralists are, themselves, closet absolutists, for they insist on their own one way: “No one way!” But Jesus said that he is the way because he is the truth, i.e., the revelation of God, and that he is the life, i.e., the life of God and that no one comes to the Father except by him. (John 14:6) This, of course, does not refute the hope of Christina Rossetti’s verse: “Home by different ways. Yet all / Homeward bound thro’ prayer and praise,/ … Home by different ways.” As Eugene Peterson observes: “Human beings are always trying to tum the Kingdom of God into an exclusive club for people like themselves. Jesus, in contrast, opens it to the lowly, the inquiring, the growing.”
These are some of the reasons for the nervousness surrounding evangelism. But it seems to me that the problem in so much evangelism today is very well put by a moderate Southern Baptist when he says: “Much contemporary evangelism is culturally corrupted and doctrinally sick.” That’s it, isn’t it? He calls evangelism “our most abused doctrine.” And as that is true, the so-called “targets” of such evangelism are likewise abused. The other day I got a sales pitch for what was termed “ammunition” for evangelizing such “targets.”
We in Evangelicals Concerned are interested, of course, in evangelism. After all, the word “evangelism” and our first name—”Evangelicals” both come from the same biblical Greek word for “good news” and “good newscasters.” But have we allowed our own views and practices of evangelism to become “culturally corrupted and doctrinally sick?” Or have we been so hurt and put off by bad evangelism that we have lost the biblical vision, or at least the stomach, for good evangelism?
The leading evangelical polling organization finds that Americans who have never married “tend to see the church as irrelevant, unfamiliar, and unfriendly.” In other words, many people with whom we’re likely to associate in lesbian and gay circles—those with whom we might naturally share our faith—are the very Americans who are most likely to be distrustful of anything “Christian”—including evangelism as it’s popularly practiced. And considering the homophobia and the homohatred of the religious right, who can blame them?
But if we look at homophobia and homohatred in a wider context, we’ll realize that so-called Christians are not, of course, the only ones with antigay attitudes and practices. Is Hollywood really so much friendlier to lesbians and gay men? Can rap and hip-hop artists be as viciously antigay? Is Islam more understanding? Are Buddhist parents more welcoming of gay and lesbian offspring? Are lesbians and gay men better off in Castro’s Cuba or in the atheistic People’s Republic of China? As C. S. Lewis asked rhetorically: “How many of those who fulminate on [homosexuality] are in fact Christians?”
Even the icons of fast-lane urban gay culture can prove to be homophobic—take Marky Mark, Donna Summers, Gloria Gaynor. Jerry Herman tells of his thrill at hearing Gloria Gaynor’s belting out his “I Am What I Am” from loudspeakers at a gay pride parade. But while the lyrics of this “Un-Official Gay Anthem” hardly epitomize Christian discipleship, Gaynor calls homosexuality “an abomination.” No. Antihomosexuality is wider than anything specifically “Christian.” Nonetheless, as we think of evangelism, we must be sensitive to the fact that, in the perceptions and experience of many non-Christians, there seems something “Christian” about much of the homophobia and homohatred under which they suffer. So we must be careful not to confuse the offense of the gospel with the offensiveness of some so-called gospel preachers or preaching.
Bad evangelism is indeed “culturally corrupted and doctrinally sick.” Evangelism goes bad when our emphasis is displaced, when we rush over the evangel and get bogged down in the ism, trying to manage God’s unmanageable love. The evangel or good news of God’s freewheeling grace gets cramped into the controlling isms or bad news of our own restricting gracelessness. What shall we proclaim: evangel or ism? Will it be God’s good news or our own dogma, theories, system, and selves?
Evangelism is culturally corrupted when the gospel of Jesus Christ is confused with a particular culture or cultural artifact. Though the gospel carne to and from Jewish culture in the ancient world, Paul went to great lengths of self-denial and innovation to become, as he put it, “all things to all people” in order to proclaim the culture-free good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to God.” (II Cor 5:19)
American popular cultural religion confuses the good news with the American Dream, the agenda of the hate-filled religious right, capitalism, and the idealization of a nostalgically remembered 1950s, not to mention a smug homophobia. Evangelist Luis Palau is right in noting that many so-called evangelicals don’t take the good news seriously. He says they’re too busy with “get[ting] rid of Clinton … or … homosexuality.” Amid Clinton-bashing and gay-bashing articles in Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Flame magazine this summer is a display ad headlined: “Good News!” It goes on to make this boast about the religious right: “We ARE the good news.” Some have gone so far that even the very conservative Evangelical Theological Society has had to pass a resolution saying that “Christians should not allow the gospel to be the tool of any particular political ideology and Christians should not identify the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.” There’s plenty of bad evangelism on the religious right.
On the other hand, there can be plenty of bad evangelism on the religious left. Some recent expressions of evangelism in the lesbian and gay religious communities confuse the gospel of Jesus Christ with so-called “lesbigay” liberation, radical feminism, or whatever else happens to be the agenda of the ACLU, NOW, or New Age “spirituality.” Neither “coming out of the closet” nor “coming out of homosexuality” is conversion to Christ. The gospel is neither liberation for gay/lesbian lifestyles nor liberation from gay/lesbian lifestyles. It’s liberation for Christian lifestyles, no matter the sexual orientation.
Evangelism is culturally corrupted by absolutizing techniques or traditions of the evangelism of a particular place and time. For example, such evangelism insists on the repeating of certain words and phrases, walking the aisle, and other formulae and customs that now pass as good “old-fashioned” ways. But these were called literally the “new measures” when introduced in the 19th century. Some Christians don’t seem to realize that authentic evangelism pre-dates “The Four Spiritual Laws,” altar calls, sawdust trails, and 157 verses of “Just As I Am.” That doesn’t mean we should discard Charlotte Elliott’s profoundly moving hymn. But she did not write 157 verses! And she never milked those she did write. She was a very proper Anglican in Sussex.
Evangelism is culturally corrupted when it depends for its power on mere emotional manipulation or clever debate. Faithful evangelism is neither melodramatic nor syllogistic seduction. Of course there’s emotion and cognition in evangelism. We’re all people of deep feelings and thoughts as well as will and behavior. But evangelism is neither right-brained nor left-brained as such. Evangelism is spiritual.
Well these are some of the manifestations of culturally corrupted evangelism. You can think of even more. Now what is doctrinally sick evangelism?
Evangelism that’s doctrinally sick is evangelism that’s enmeshed in unbiblical theology. For example, evangelism is doctrinally sick if it is not an expression of that love which Jesus said was the point of all the law and the prophets. Says William Barclay: “Our attitude must not be that of condemnation … [and] criticism but of compassion.” Says J. B. Phillips: “People can only be loved into the Kingdom.” The great 19th century evangelist, D. L. Moody, was certain that “The churches would soon be filled if,” as he put it, “outsiders could find that people in them loved them. … The religion of Jesus Christ is a religion of love.” Sadly, that’s the last thing many see in the Christians who mouth grace so gracelessly.
Some evangelism is driven by the notion that God is consumed by a kind of narcissistic rage and that only “your decision for Christ” will get God to calm down enough so that he won’t fry you alive forever! That’s sick. Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock says that “[W]e have narrowed the motivation for [evangelism] down to this one thing: deliverance from wrath. We have made it the major reason for [evangelism] when it is not.” Pinnock says it should not be “individually oriented, hellfire insurance. Sinners are not in hands of an angry God.”
Just the same, evangelism is doctrinally sick if it is merely an unimportant option under the presumptuous dogma that “I’m OK and you’re OK just as we are.” Don’t we know we were made for so much more? Don’t we know we have a long way to go? Don’t we know that even when we try to do the right thing, we fall short of the mark and then, self-righteously, we take it out on each other. We can be mean-spirited even in the name of justice and keep score even as we posture love. We’re not OK just as we are!
But right-wing absolutists think that sin is a bigger deal than grace. And left-wing absolutists think that tolerance is a bigger deal than sin. What both these exclusionists and inclusionists fail to appreciate is that the Big Deal is the God of all grace. Fundamentalists say that everyone else goes to hell. Pluralists say that hell’s gone to hell. But the Psalmist says that, in his mercy, God is found even “in hell” and I Peter says that, in his mercy, Jesus ministers “in hell.” Of course, most of the biblical references to “hell” simply refer to the place of the dead—all the dead, the unrighteous and the righteous in the unseen world. Indeed, “hell” means hidden—though you’d never know that by all that fundamentalists tell of hell.
Notions of evangelism are doctrinally sick when they’re based in a distorted Calvinism that says: ‘”Why bother with evangelism? It isn’t necessary with those God’s already predestined for heaven and it won’t work with those God’s already predestined to hell.” That’s sick. It’s unbiblical.
Evangelism is doctrinally sick when it rests its case in conventional theological pride. There is no difference between boasting “We have Abraham as our father” and boasting “We have Christ as our savior.”
Evangelism is doctrinally sick when it is merely proselytizing from one group to another, from one systematic theology to another, from one worship style to another, from one social theory to another, and so on. Evangelism is not merely recruitment for membership in some organization. Evangelism is not the so-called church growth movement. Said Oswald Chambers: “We are not to make [people] converts to our opinions. But we are to make them disciples of Jesus.” Said C. S. Lewis: “It is right and inevitable that we should be much concerned about the salvation of those we love. But we must be careful not to expect or demand that their salvation should conform to some readymade pattern of our own.” After all, as T. S. Eliot noted: “There is a greater reality that will make false much that we believe today.” And another Christian says: “People of zeal and forceful character can do harm by wanting to impose their zeal and character on others. God wants people formed in his own image, not in mine. I may not put my signature to a masterpiece of God’s.”
Evangelism is doctrinally sick if it’s obsessed about the next world and unconcerned about this one. It’s sick if it caters to the self-absorbed worry over a self-serving salvation that couldn’t care less about the everyday needs of all other people, if it’s limited to getting us “saved” from hell so we can sit around daydreaming about our coming lifestyles as the heavenly rich and famous in some celestial suburb of a place not unlike Nashville! Jesus said that when we try to save our own life, our own skin, we lose it all. If that means anything, it means as Calvin explained, that Jesus is saying that to give one’s main attention to saving one’s own soul is to lose it! By focusing on one’s own selfish concerns, we lose life in the fullest, deepest sense. Henry Van Dyke put it in these words as he began The Story of the Other Wise Man: “Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul / May keep the path, but will not reach the goal; / While he who walks in love may wander far, / Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.”
If Evangelicals Concerned is concerned only about our own interests as homosexuals, we’re no more following Jesus than those who focus on their heterosexual family interests. Gay and lesbian Christians can lose it by too much focus on our need for gay civil rights. But nongay Christians can lose it by failing to focus enough on others’ needs for gay civil rights. The follower of Jesus must be concerned with the welfare of others as much as with one’s own. “It is not your business and mine to study whether we shall get to heaven,” said Phillips Brooks, “it is our business to study how we shall come into the midst of the purposes of God and have the unspeakable privilege in these few years of doing something of His work.” The good news is to be lived as followers of Jesus here and now, as the kingdom of heaven comes in the Savior of the world. “Thou art the Way,” wrote Alice Meynell, “Hadst Thou been nothing but the goal, / I cannot say / If Thou hadst ever met my soul.”
Well these are some of the ways evangelism has been culturally corrupted and made doctrinally sick.
Breaking Free from Bad Evangelism
How do we break free from this corrupt and sick evangelism? To begin with, we need to recognize that every such expression of evangelism is perverted by an agenda that is something other than—if not at odds with—the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of good news as initiation into the powerful love of God invading this world in Jesus Christ, evangelistic dogmas and attitudes have been loveless tools for self-serving power trips all across the theological and political spectra. So as one professor of evangelism puts it: “Instead of reducing the gospel to get it under our control, we need to hear the gospel ourselves, as we have never heard it before. … Christ’s call to ‘Repent and believe the gospel!’ is directed first of all to us, His church.” He warns of the idolatry of our “filing and paring away the radical gospel of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ so that it fits us, our expectations and our agenda.” He rightly reasons that only those who are being evangelized are in a position to evangelize. He reminds us that “Evangelization leads to repentance, and the church must confront and confess the ways (oftentimes subtle) it reshapes the gospel in an attempt to reduce it and bring it under our control.” This critique, of course, applies to the evangelism of both pro-gay and antigay Christians. The professor speaks in terms of the Reformation principle of semper reformanda or continuing reformation: “God is not moving backwards through time as the Kingdom comes,” he says. “Rather, the call is to hear and to respond to claims of the gospel which we have never fully heard before, although the gospel in its fullness has always been available to us. Our repentance must mean setting aside the filters which force the gospel into only [our own image] to be surprised, and perhaps unsettled, by what we hear.”
So if we’re to break free from badly enculturated evangelism, we must first take the authentic culture-free gospel seriously for ourselves. If we would preach the gospel, we must first hear the gospel. To hear we must shut up. We ourselves must be born again—and again and again and again—as we die daily to our own pet gospels, to our own short-sightedness and settled satisfactions. Before Jesus said “Go out to all the world” he said “Come unto me.”
The Beginning of Evangelism
Evangelism begins with evangel. Evangelism without the “ism” is evangel. “Evangel” is the Greek-based word for good news which, in Old English, is “gospel” and in its Teutonic form is “Godspel.” Godspel begins with God. All this is just to illustrate that the good news begins with God. The USA may begin with “us” and USAir, as they say, may begin with “you,” but that’s not the way the gospel begins. The gospel is not our democratically derived response to problems as we define them, but God’s sovereign response to problems as God knows them to be. The gospel is not an optimism of this world order. It is God’s answer that comes to this world’s disorder in the Word of God spoken, written, and enfleshed in love in Jesus Christ. The good news is the “glad tidings of great joy” of the herald angels at Bethlehem. This good news begins with the intrusion of God’s Word. It is likewise fully accomplished by God’s Word. God is the alpha and omega of the gospel – the author and finisher- the beginning or source as well as the end or goal. But evangelism has so often become evangel control.
To say that the gospel begins in the Word of God is to say that the good news is unimagined, unheard of, weird! The good news is altogether different from anything we could ever dream up on our own. In fact, the gospel was never dreamed up in any of this world’s religions. The authentic gospel is not simply another religion among the religions of this world order. The religions of this world order are not news of grace. They attempt to put deities in our debt. They try to pay off gods and goddesses. They try to sweeten pies for the skies. They try to bribe the judge, cop a plea, or rationalize away, saying we’re all fine as we are or as we can make ourselves be or become. Whether by payments to deities, elaborate initiation rites, institutional techniques, special insight, secret knowledge, birthright, enlightenment, will power, self-discipline, good works, science and technology, contemplation, meditation, escapism, drugs, psychotherapy, sex, celibacy, magic, or monistic merger, we earthlings try—on our own and singly or together—to overcome something we’re up against in ourselves and each other in this world’s disorder.
In contrast, the biblical message begins: “In the beginning, God … ” It speaks of the intervention of God—The Other. God calls all creation out of nothing into being. God calls humanity in Adam. God calls a new beginning in Noah’s family. God creates salvation by calling a new people in Abraham and Sarah. God calls his people out of bondage and to a fresh start in Moses. God calls and calls and calls again. And God’s call always begins with God’s gracious gift. The call is gift. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s words: “There is nothing but God’s grace. We walk upon it; we breathe it; we live and die by it; it makes the nails and axles of the universe.”
In the Preamble to the Law God gave to Moses, we read: I AM the one who brought you out of Egypt. I AM the one who has already saved you. Therefore, here are the terms of the treaty I give to you: You shall have no other gods. And here’s how you are to live with each other and with all your neighbors. The Ten Commandments, so called, is not a list of dos and don’ts as such. God’s Covenant did not say: I’ll save you if. God’s Covenant said: I’ve saved you therefore. God’s enlivening grace always comes before any instructions on how we are to live. God’s enlivening grace is the basis on which we live at all. Hear Tolstoy: “God is he without whom one cannot live!”
It was John the Baptizer who finally prepared the way with the good news that after all those centuries of promise, the reign of God was now coming and therefore the people were to turn around, repent. Jesus began his own ministry with the very same good news: The reign of God is at hand. Therefore turn around and believe this good news. It’s not: Jesus saves if you repent. It’s Jesus saves—therefore repent. Jesus did not see repentance in his executioners before he forgave them. He even made excuses for them when he said that they didn’t know what they were doing. And this same good news of God’s amazing grace was the message Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out into all the world to proclaim. He did not send them out to “win souls for Christ” in some narrowly enculturated membership drive. He sent them out, as Matthew tells us, to disciple all nations, to baptize them, and—in Jesus’ own words, “to teach them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28) He did not say that they were to teach people to observe all that the disciples or their children might think up to demand of people.
The singular good news is God’s amazing grace. It’s unheard of in the history of religions outside biblical revelation. Sadly, it’s unheard of in both fundamentalism and liberalism. The religiously self-righteous or self-satisfied don’t make up such news. And they don’t preach such news. It’s outlandish, unnatural, abnormal, deviant, unorthodox. The good news is queer news from a queer God. Queers should listen up.
The apostle Paul, who apparently introduced the term, “good news,” is writing of it and of our being its messengers when he says to the faithers at Corinth: “All this reconciliation is God’s doing, from first to last. God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ. And God has enlisted us in this service of reconciliation. God was in Christ, personally reconciling the world to himself—not counting the sins of the people against them—and has commissioned us with the message of reconciliation. We are now Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were appealing directly to you through us. As Christ’s personal representatives, we say: Be reconciled to God! Christ was innocent, and yet for our sakes God made him one with our sinfulness, so that we might be made good with the very goodness of God.” (II Cor 5: 18-21)
This is the essence of the good news, the gospel, the evangel of evangelism. “Be reconciled to God!” Paul here uses the wonderfully ironic passive imperative mood – God has reconciled us to himself, so be reconciled to God! Again, here’s the radical priority of God’s grace before any subsequent response. Be what God has made you free to be in Christ! You’re loved by God in Christ. So why not live it? Why not live out that love, out of that love? As Maurice Boyd so often puts it: “We’re loved into loving.”
The gospel of reconciliation assumes estrangement. For something to be made right again, it has to have gone wrong. Flannery O’Connor said that “The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful.” She did that with shocking violence. We can do it with a glance at the newspapers or TV or an honest look into our own hearts. As the noted defense attorney Gerry Spence says, we’re all capable “of even brutal violence.” He goes on to say that the difference between prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys is self-knowledge and maturity. Prosecuting attorneys, he says, tend to be “young, squeaky [“clean”] and judgmental” while defense attorneys are “old enough to know how easily they’re capable of sinning.” Well here’s where the gospel, too, speaks of sin.
But the contemporary cultural elite try to understand and explain our world and ourselves in any terms but sin. Writing last fall in Esquire magazine, political cartoonist Doug Marlette said that in “secular culture, we are now stuck with a kind of yuppie revivalism …. of talk-show hosts and facilitators. … Now even our sociopaths and perverts speak fluent psychobabble. And why not?,” he asks. “Psychobabble exonerates us from everything. In Therapeutic America there is no such thing as sin. There is no place for wickedness in a support group.”
Leslie Weatherhead, pastor of London’s City Temple in the ’40s and ’50s, was one of the first preachers to make use of the findings of modern psychology. But he well knew that all this pain couldn’t be understood merely in psychological terms. “Sin,” he said, “is a dark fact of human life which cannot be dismissed by euphemistic psychological labels.” Some other people try to explain what’s wrong in merely sociological or economic terms. The fault is poverty or peer pressure or political incorrectness. Rage is one of the latest excuses. But Weatherhead rightly assessed that all the manifestations of wrong-doing are “the symptoms of interior dis-ease set up by the soul through making self the center around which all revolves.” That’s what the biblical writers call “sin.”
It’s become fashionable to try to overcome such estrangement through the “cult of the victim.” A Brandeis University historian warns of the grave dangers to society of explaining too much in terms of victimization. A victimization mentality poses grave dangers to every individual as well. Yet as Haddon Robinson observes, “victimization … is America’s fastest-growing industry. Millions make a fat paycheck by identifying victims, representing victims, interviewing victims, treating victims, insuring victims, counseling victims, preaching to victims, and, of course, being victims. Not only does it confer absolution for our stupidity and sinfulness, but it allows us to sue for treble damages.” Ukrainian Orthodox scholar Anthony Ugolnik urges that “as Christians … we must renounce the ‘cult of the victim’ that currently spreads not only through Eastern Europe, but constitutes one of the fundamental bases of the contemporary American epistemology of justice. The victim, even as victim, is capable of sin,” he points out. “If a community of victims comes to rehearse its own heroic epic removed from the transforming narrative of the Gospel, it will cry out for vengeance and thereby become a community of oppressors. A text, whether a ‘diversity’ curriculum or a national epic, whether traditional or ‘liberationist’ in genesis, once it is removed from the Gospel becomes a celebration of separation and division and hate.” Ugolnik calls us back to the evangel when he states: “There is but one answer to the victim: the cross.” The cross: “that divine disastrous place,” as Chesterton called it, “Where Life was slain and Truth was slandered.”
Remember Yeats’ poem: “Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild / With a faery, hand in hand, / For the world’s more full of weeping / than you can understand.” But it will take more than running away with a fairy! Some of you know that, don’t you? And we need more than the cheap grace of a simple-minded purple dinosaur! “I love you / You love me / We’re a happy fam-i-lee / With a great big kiss and a hug from me to you / Won’t you say you love me too?” The woman who wrote those words is suing the multimillion-dollar Barney enterprise for a bigger piece of the profits. Some love! Some fam-i-lee! Barney can fool even toddlers only so long. Recently a mother heard her 3-year-old singing: “I hate you / You hate me / Let’s go out and kill Barney / And a shot rang out and Barney hit the floor / No more purple dinosaur.” Now the little kid had been coached by an older sister. But he got the point. And he loved it! When Jesus pointed to little children and said “of such is the kingdom of heaven” he wasn’t referring to innocence—he was referring to dependency,—total dependency.
So whether sin is expressed in the cruelty of communists or kids, in the fascism of fundamentalists or feminists—or expressed by you and me in all the mixed motives of even our best intentions—it’s sin, it’s estrangement from God, and it’s estrangement from our deepest selves and from each other. And it requires radical reconciliation. That reconciliation is at the cross. Only at the cross. But as Charles Spurgeon knew, “Those who preach the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ are the terror of modern thinkers.” That’s truer today than in Spurgeon’s day. Said George MacDonald: “We are often unable to tell people what they need to know, because they want to know something else.” Even we want to know something else!
And it’s not only secularists who deny the need for such reconciliation. At a recent conference of church-related feminists, a Union Seminary professor said: “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all.” She added: “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff … we just need to listen to the God within.” What do you think of that? When Peter voiced opposition to Jesus’ speaking of his coming suffering and crucifixion, Jesus rebuked him, understanding that there was something of the satanic in such objection to the cross. And what did Paul say about those who reject the preaching of the Savior’s necessary death on the cross? Paul wrote: “The preaching of the cross is nonsense to those who are involved in this dying world system, but to us who are being saved from that death it is nothing less than the power of God.” (I Cor 1:18)
The good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God does assume that we need atonement. But it proclaims that even while we’re sinners, God values us as worth whatever it may cost. That’s the message of the blood at the cross.
If reconciliation assumes estrangement, estrangement assumes an original belonging. And that’s what the Book says: We’re all created in the image of God. We’re God’s own children. We’re lost people, but we’re God’s lost people. The lost coin belonged to the woman who looked diligently to find it. It was because the lost sheep was his that the shepherd went to such lengths to rescue it. And we belong to God even as his rebelliously estranged children. Even as sinners, we’re God’s sinners. And he comes—putting up with everything—in order to save us. That’s the good news of evangelism. It is good news because it tells of the rescue. But without the inclusion of the fact that we’re lost, the news that we’re found is meaningless.
The Personal Gospel
“There is a Person at the heart of things.” That’s what Sam Shoemaker never tired of telling his parishioners at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City. And while he preached that “We are not saved by our experiences; [that] we are saved by the ‘mighty acts’ of Christ for us – the Crucifixion and the Resurrection,” Shoemaker knew from his many years of pastoral work that “these vast truths will only begin to be real [to people] as they come to see how [Christ] can help them with their immediate problems and situations.” It is the personal gospel that must be heard first.
This very personal promise of God’s good news is beautifully paraphrased by the Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen: “I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depth of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. … You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse … Nothing will ever separate us.”
Contrary to the caricatures of hell-fire evangelists, the greatest evangelist of the 19th century preached such a personal gospel of God’s grace. Said Moody: “If I could only make [people] understand the real meaning of the words of the apostle John—’God is Love,’ I would take that single text … If we could really make people believe that God loves them, how we should find them crowding into the kingdom! … The trouble is,” he said, people “think God hates them.”
The good news of the cross means we are loved. And that’s what people don’t realize. We no longer have to earn love. We no longer have to be perfectionists under the tyranny of a superego that never lets up. We no longer have to pretend to be perfect. We don’t have to suffer as filmmaker Ingmar Bergman says he suffered from the religious training of his childhood: “I have really tried hard,” he writes. “But as long as there was a God in my world, I couldn’t even get close to my goals. My humility was not humble enough. My love remained nonetheless far less than the love of Christ or of the saints or even my own mother’s love. And my piety was forever poisoned by grave doubts.” Obviously the God presented to Bergman in his youth was not the merciful Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We no longer need to project perfection onto others and get ourselves all disappointed when they, too, turn out to be less that what we want. There’s now no need for narcissistic exploitation in search of love and no need for rage when we fail to find it where we should not search. There’s no more need for cowardly caution, no more need for pretense that intimidates others as it reinforces our own sense of imperfection. Our painful awareness of estrangement from God and from each other and from what is deepest in ourselves that sent us seeking for connection in all the wrong places may find its way, by God’s relentless grace, to the cross. It is only at the cross that we may find relief from a punitive superego. It is only through the cross that we may live a lively forgiveness of ourselves and others in the love expressed in the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. That the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world just means that there was never a time when you were not loved by God.
Is this news to you? You weren’t aware of it? Let me ask you: Were you aware of God’s grace when God was creating a universe out of which to bring you to life one day? Were you aware of God’s grace when he brought you into human life on the day of your conception? Were you aware of God’s grace on the day you were born—or, like Chesterton, do you take the fact of your birth only on the basis of “hearsay evidence?” And were you aware of God’s grace while you grew from a single cell to 60 trillion cells of you? Were you aware of God’s grace on the day you spoke your first word? Were you aware of God’s grace that has gone before you every day of your life to prepare you for this very day in the summer of ’94? And what do you know today of God’s grace that will follow you all the days of your life and will welcome you Home forever? So what if you’ve not been aware of all this grace. Your unawareness did not cancel the fact of God’s grace to you. But your unawareness did prevent you from being thankful. Might some of you be troubled if you can’t point to a specific day and say, as some preachers insist you say: On that day I was born again? Nevermind. Be thankful that even now you can be aware of at least something of God’s grace by which you are now being born again and again, as you are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ, even by and through all of the doubt and trouble and ups and downs of these formative years.
The Relational Gospel
The good news is personal in order to become interpersonal. It’s a social gospel. Moody spoke against merely individualistic salvation when he said: “I have no use for the man who … wants a little harp all for himself when he gets to heaven.” Didn’t we say that the good news is the love of God? Love is interpersonal. Love is relational. There is no love without relationship. The gospel of Jesus Christ is relational. It is on the basis of the gospel, in the power of the gospel, that we see that we are loved together by God and therefore we may love God and one another in return. Listen to John Bunyan, the 17th century author of The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Dost thou see a soul with the image of God in him? Love him, love him. Say to thyself, ‘This man and I must go to heaven together someday.'” That realization may help us live as loving neighbors in the here and now, where we have our opportunity to live out a gospel lifestyle, for we will “never pass this way again.”
But evangelist Tom Skinner observes that, sadly: “Christians in America have preached only half the gospel—personal salvation.” We’ve failed to see that to take the good news seriously we must live good news with others, for others, in the social and economic circumstances in which they suffer in a world for which we bear some corporate responsibility. Such attention to real matters of justice and mercy and peace is the social gospel in its best and biblical sense. It’s not a secular substitution of do-good social engineering but a vital expression of the full gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s here, in the relational gospel, that our repentance calls for our living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as we love God with all we have and are and love all others as we care about our own welfare. It is for just such kingdom living that we are being saved.
Now just as the good news does not reach its end merely within the individual’s own needs, the good news does not reach its end merely within the interpersonal relationships we have with our families, our friends, and our communities and the issues that we face together.
The Universal Gospel
The gospel of Jesus Christ is universal good news. It was for the sake of the world that God chose Abram. It was for the sake of the world that God gave Noah the rainbow sign. It was for the sake of the world that God gave Jesus, Christ. “God so loved the world!” (John 3:16)
But such biblical teaching of unrestrained grace is sorely lacking in Evangelicaland—that peculiarly American suburban enclave of enculturated Christianity. As one evangelism professor observes in disgust: we’ve reduced “For God so loved the world” to “For God so loved the Christians.” God’s agenda is the world—the whole, wide world. Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock asserts that this “attitude of harsh exclusion was once a novelty in the history of doctrine, being the view neither of Scripture nor of the first theologians.” It’s “ironic,” he says, that the term evangelical “would come to refer to a theology that … looks more like an attack on the Good News of the New Testament.” He continues: “It was a disaster in the history of theology when Augustine reinterpreted the biblical doctrine of election along the lines of special redemptive privilege rather than unique vocation on behalf of the world.”
How do people who call themselves Bible-believing Christians miss this? I suppose that the answer with which we can readily identify is the biblical one: self-serving pride, rigid self-righteousness, and even a sort of willful ignorance and careless failure to grasp the importance of the Golden Rule. It’s more than coincidence that the most rabidly antigay forces within the churches are also the most rigidly exclusivist when it comes to a theology of the grace of God.
Turning to the Bible, we see that God’s covenant of grace with Noah, a treaty that precedes his call of Abram, is a covenant for all peoples everywhere. There was not one person living outside the scope of this covenant with Noah. The original Rainbow Coalition was the Lord and the whole human race!
The rainbow is God’s sign of his covenant with Noah “and with every living creature … for all generations to come.” The Bible says so. (Gen 9: 12) The Good Book says that “I, God, will see the rainbow and remember the covenant.” It says it’s the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth (Gen 9: 16). Imagine: God’s promise of everlasting living things of every kind! One Old Testament scholar calls these repetitions “hammer blows that fix more firmly and drive home more deeply.” Even Calvin called the rainbow “a sign of the divine favor towards humanity.”
The covenant that God later made between himself and Abraham was not for Abraham alone, but was—again—for the whole world. It was God’s promise that in Abraham’s seed, all the nations of the earth might be blessed.
And even after God called Abraham, God was still active outside the Hebrew people he created in Abraham’s line. The action of God’s grace still moved among the pagans. For example, God’s grace was active with Abimelech, a priest/king of Gerar; with Jethro, priest of Midian; with Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest/king whose blessing Abraham received and for which Abraham paid a tithe. God’s grace was active in a pagan named Job in the land of Uz, wherever in the world that was.
And what do we hear from the prophets of Israel? Listen to Amos: “‘Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?’ declares the Lord. ‘Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?'” (Amos 9:7) Listen to Isaiah: “The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.'” (Isaiah 19:25) Now lest exclusivists trash the parallelism of the Hebrew poetry here, and try to say that “inheritance” is somehow superior to the other titles, listen to the comments of Southern Baptist biblical scholar John D. W. Watts: “All three titles traditionally belong to Israel. Here they are shared with Assyria and Egypt. Yahweh’s divine imperium is seen to draw within its scope and purpose the entire known world.” And listen to Malachi: ‘”From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations.’ says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 1:11) And hear the Psalmist: “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me—Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.”‘ (Ps 87:4)
There are non-Jews among the ancestors of Jesus. The Magi who came from the East to worship the baby Jesus were pagan astrologers. Jesus celebrated the faith of the rich Arabian queen of Sheba who ruled in the Yemen a thousand years earlier. In contrast to her faith, Jesus lamented the lack of faith in his fellow Jews and foresaw this pagan queen in apostolic judgment over them. (Matt 12:42) Jesus says that the kingdom of God will include the Ninevites, the people of Tyre and Sidon, the Sodomites and the citizens of Gomorrah (Matt 10:15; 11:23; 12:41f). Jesus told the religious Jews that the traitorous tax collectors and the sexually-promiscuous prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. (Matt 21:31) Jesus wasn’t speaking of fly-fishing techniques when he likened the kingdom of God to a dragnet that gathers all kinds of fish. He speaks of his other sheep that are not of the fold of Israel. He reminds the religiously prideful orthodox that God can raise up his children from the stones of the streets!
Hear Paul at Mars Hill in Athens, commenting upon the religious faith of the Greek pagans and enlightening them on just who it is that they are already worshipping as “the unknown god.” The word “world” in Paul’s statement, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” (II Cor 5:19) “stands in place of us” in the immediately preceding phrase, “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,” as New Testament scholar Victor Paul Furnish points out. He says that as the Apostle sees it, the world is the object of God’s reconciliation action in Christ. Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Colossians: “God was pleased to have all fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Col1:20) Ralph Martin of Fuller Seminary comments that Paul is here “intent on rebutting any idea that part of the universe is outside the scope of Christ’s reconciling work.” Paul states further that even “all evil powers are ‘reconciled’ and restored to the place under their rightful head (2:10) from which they broke loose to become rebels” according to Martin. Noting that the Apostle uses the neuter for “all things,” another scholar writes: “The point is that the reconciliation of God extends not only to all persons but to all creation, animate and inanimate. The vision of Paul was a universe in which not only people but the very things were redeemed. This is,” Barclay says, “an amazing thought.” Another evangelical scholar, Peter T. O’Brien, writes that “Paul affirms that this universal reconciliation has been brought about … in history, [in] the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross.” As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “just as all are dying in Adam, so also all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Cor 15:22)
Paul writes to the Romans that “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Rom 11:32) With a note of understatement, one New Testament scholar, James D. G. Dunn, says that this “does not exclude universalism.” He goes on to say: “It is the magnificence of this vision of the final reconciliation of the whole world to God which makes it possible to see here the expression of a hope for universal salvation (‘universalism’).” In fact, as it’s put by another evangelical New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce: “There is an unmistakable universalism in Paul’s language here.”
And listen to Peter’s insight when he says: “I now recognize how true it is that God does not show favorites but accepts people from every nation who reverence him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34f) Read Jesus’ brother James’ assertion that Christians are the “first fruits” of God’s eventual world-wide harvest. (James 1:18) Listen to John the Seer of the Revelation of Jesus Christ when he writes that the time is coming when God will make all things new and when the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ. (Rev 21:5; 11:15) John sees the kings of the earth bringing their glory and honor into the new City of God. (Rev 21: 24-26) And he sees that nothing at all of the world’s cultures and civilizations will be lost.
All of this is in the Bible. What about more that the Bible does not address? What might be gratefully imagined about God’s grace to those the biblical writers don’t mention—don’t know anything about? Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck spoke of the “collective” possession of the image of God and said that only in the New Jerusalem will we see the many-splendored imago dei in its world-wide fullness. In her intriguing poem, “Christ in the Universe,” the Catholic poet and essayist Alice Meynell praises God’s cosmic grace in these words of wonder: “Nor, in our little day, / May His devices with the heavens be guessed, / His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way, / Or His bestowals there be manifest. / But, in the eternities, / Doubtless we shall compare together, hear / A million alien Gospels, in what guise / He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear. / O, be prepared, my soul! / To read the inconceivable, to scan / The million forms of God those stars unroll / When, in our tum, we show to them a Man.”
No wonder the greatest evangelical preacher of Victorian England, Charles H. Spurgeon, proclaimed that ultimately, “the elect will be all the world.” No wonder that the leader of the turn-of-the-century orthodoxy at Princeton Seminary, B. B. Warfield, said that “in the age-long development of the race of humanity, it will attain at last a complete salvation, and our eyes will be greeted with the glorious spectacle of a saved world.”
How is it that modern evangelicals miss this? When Moody was asked about the eternal destiny of the most famous agnostic of his day, he said: “I don’t know. We are not judges. It is for God alone to judge.” He couldn’t get away with that in fundamentalist circles today. When C. I. Scofield, the editor of the Scofield Reference Bible, was asked about the eternal destiny of those who die without ever hearing the gospel, he replied that if they follow whatever light God gives them, “they will find their way to God.” The hope of that gracious faithing contrasts with the smug judgmentalism of Scofield’s heirs.
William Cowper wrote the hymn: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins / And sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.” Listen to what else he wrote: “Is virtue, then, unless of Christian growth, / Mere fallacy, or foolishness, or both? / Ten thousand sages lost in endless woe, / For ignorance of what they could not know? / That speech betrays at once a bigot’s tongue, / Charge not a God with such outrageous wrong.” Cowper then concluded with the basis of his faithful hope: “But still in virtue of a Saviour’s plea, / Not blind by choice, but destined not to see, I Their fortitude and wisdom were a flame / Celestial, though they knew not whence it came, / Derived from the same source of light and grace, / That guides the Christian in his swifter race; / Their judge was conscience, and her rule their law; / Led them, however faltering, faint, and slow, / From what they knew to what they wished to know.”
Read over the shoulder of John Wesley as he rides in his coach on a cold December day in 1767, reflecting in terms of Peter’s understanding, on the salvation of mystics who denied the doctrine of justification by faith. He is writing in his Journal: “Is it not high time for us … to return to the plain word, ‘He that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.’?” This is what he wrote even as he continued on his way to yet more preaching of the gospel all over England.
Hear Augustus Montague Toplady, the Calvinist Anglican priest—and Wesley’s self-appointed opponent—and the hymn writer of “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, / Let me hide myself in Thee.” He also wrote these words: “The purpose of God is not restrained to [people] either of particular country, or age of time, or religious denomination. Undoubtedly, there are elect Jews, elect Mohametans, and elect Pagans. In a word, countless millions of persons, whom Christ hath redeemed unto God, by his blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Toplady believed that even all the animals would be saved!
The leader of the great Protestant Reformation in the 16th century Swiss Confederation, Huldrych Zwingli, was one who also believed in the salvation of the pagans—quite apart from their having heard the good news preached during their lifetimes. He expected to see even Hercules in heaven, even though, of course, he realized that this son of Zeus was a mythical hero no more real than the Greek god himself.
Clearly historically, there’s nothing heretical about a universal salvation that is both a biblical and a traditional evangelical hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And why not? After all, God is revealed throughout the universe—everywhere and in all eras. This is the solid testimony of both the Old and the New Testaments. Listen to David: “The heavens tell out the glory of God, and the vault of heaven reveals his handiwork. One day speaks to another, night with night shares its knowledge, and this without speech or language or sound of any voice. Their music goes out through all the earth, their words reach to the end of the world.”(Ps 19:1-4) And listen to Paul, who said that God has never left the world without a witness to him (Acts 14:17). Paul wrote to the Romans: “The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.” (1:20)
Well didn’t Plato see this when he marveled that “The world is God’s epistle to humankind,” that “God’s thoughts are flashing upon us from every direction.” Even Hugh Hefner knows this. He says that “the closest that I’m able to come to the concept of God is nature.” But maybe he comes closer than to a mere “concept” of God. Having been stung by the mean-spirited Methodism of his boyhood, he says that as he walks through the redwood forest of his California estate he experiences “a sense of awe, of smallness.” Luther put it this way: “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars.”
Paul explained to the Romans that God’s law—the very law of Israel, which is the “law” so far as Paul is concerned—is written within the heart of each pagan (Rom 2:14f). Here he had in mind God’s promise through Jeremiah (31:33) and Isaiah (51:7) that God’s law would be inscribed in hearts. Not only here (Rom 2:29), but in his other letters (e.g., II Cor 3:3, 6; Phil 3:3), Paul sees this promise fulfilled in the gift of the Spirit of God.
Said Clement of Alexandria: “God has bestowed his benefits, according to the aptitudes of each, upon Greeks and barbarians …. The one God is known to the Greeks in pagan fashion, to the Jews in Jewish fashion, to the Christians in a spiritual way.” According to Justin: “All the sound principles discovered by philosophers and legislators—these owe to a partial contemplation of the Word. Thus the teaching of Plato is not foreign to that of Christ, anymore than is the teaching of others, Stoics, poets, writers. But each was able to express only a partial truth.” Speaking of this universal address from God to the people all over the world, Jean Danielou ingeniously notes that “it is the regular cycle of life in the seasons, the very basis of worship amongst pagan people, which constitutes this revelation.” Perhaps.
God’s universal self-disclosure is expressed in the testimony of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said, “Two things hold me in awe: the starry heaven above me; and the moral law within me.” The “moral principles that seem binding on us are not products of family tradition or racial taboo or religious scruple,” says Sam Shoemaker. He says “The things are written in the universe itself, and that is why we cannot escape them.”
Empirical research verifies what men as different as Paul and Kant attested. James Q. Wilson is one of the most distinguished social scientists of our day. He concludes that for all the moral disagreements that can be discerned both between and within cultures, there is nonetheless a core of universal and near universal basic moral attitudes and beliefs to be found through all times and places. According to Wilson, sympathy, fairness, self-control, and regard for duty are held in common as values throughout the world. Another of the world’s top social scientists, Peter Berger, writes of “The recurring urge of human beings to find meaningful order in the world.” He sees this universal in, for example, “the overwhelming conviction that certain deeds of inhumanity merit absolute condemnation, and the contrary conviction as to the absolute goodness of certain actions of humanity.” Says Berger: “Each of these, though quite ordinary in many cases and almost never perceived as supernatural, points toward a reality that lies beyond the ordinary.” Berger speaks of faith as daring to “suppose that what this experience intends is not a lie.” He finds that there is “faith in the ultimate benignness of the universe,” a sense that the “transcendent reality … perceived is not only out there, but is there for me.”
A Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ
“But what about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” That’s what I can hear many evangelicals asking along about now. “Where is Jesus Christ in all this talk of God in stars and flowers? Where is the personal relationship with Jesus Christ in all this talk of universal moral conviction?” Well both this universal awareness of God and this universal ethical awareness are related to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—biblically understood. So let’s take a closer look.
According to gospel revelation, it is on the basis of one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ that he or she will be judged in the Last Judgment, when the sheep and the goats will be separated to the kingdom of heaven and the fires of hell. This is true even though there are millions and millions of people who have lived and died without ever even hearing of Jesus of Nazareth. And since some have heard of “Jesus” only as a projection of an antigay rightwing preacher or as a euphemism for Western culture, they, too, have really never heard of Jesus of Nazareth.
Some Christians commonly speak of “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as the goal of evangelism. But is this what we read in the gospels? What we read in the gospels is that even though many people have never even heard of Jesus, everyone already has a personal relationship with him. And what’s more ironic is that, again according to the gospel, though both those who have heard of him and those who haven’t heard of him have a personal relationship with him, all of those who have never heard and a surprising number of those who have heard are totally unaware of this personal relationship with him. And yet, it will be on the basis of this personal relationship that they will be judged in the Last Judgment.
In Matthew 25 we read that Jesus taught that there will finally be a sorting out of what he calls the sheep and the goats. His original hearers knew the scene well. Every night, the shepherds of Palestine would divide the sheep and goats that had grazed together during the day. This was done so that the goats could be better protected from the night cold. The sheep didn’t need the same protection. With reference to the Last Judgment, Jesus taught that such a sorting out will be on the basis of a person’s relationship with Jesus. Some will be told that they are welcome into the Father’s House. Why? Because, as Jesus tells them: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was homeless and you gave me a room. I was shivering and you gave me clothes. I was sick and you stopped to visit. I was in a prison and you came to me.” Then they’ll say: “What are you talking about?” And Jesus says: Well, you probably don’t remember—when you gave scarfs and mittens to those homeless men and women. But I remember because I was cold and those mittens and scarfs kept me warm. You see, I was each of those women, every one of those men. You helped to keep me warm that winter. And remember those people with AIDS? I was each of them. Your visits meant so much to me.
And then, since heaven is not an extrinsic reward but is further intimacy with this same Jesus, some will be told that they really would not fit-in at the Father’s House since they’ve never liked to be around Jesus anyway. When he was hungry, they couldn’t be bothered. When he was lonely, they couldn’t have cared less. He wasn’t cute enough. And they’ll protest: “What are you talking about?” And Jesus will remind them of all those times when they failed to feed hungry people and when they withheld kindness from those who were isolated and imprisoned by fear and sorrow. I was each of those persons in need, Jesus will say. I was each of those hurting people.
Now don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. Nobody is saved except by the action of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The Bible’s clear on this. We don’t earn salvation. Salvation is pure gift. There is salvation in no other name but Jesus’ name. But that of course doesn’t mean that salvation is dependent on a person’s knowing the English word J-E-S-U-S! “Jesus” isn’t even the name by which he was known to his first disciples or to Paul, or to Pilate for that matter. The Bible doesn’t say that anyone needs to know the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic or Latin either. Biblically speaking, the term “the name of Jesus” is just a way of saying “the authority of Jesus.” What is meant is that all salvation is personally dependent on the very one who gave his own life to save the whole world. Knowing Jesus as we Christians are privileged to know him, isn’t it very good news that all salvation is dependent on his sovereign authority rather than on that of anyone else or anything else? We are saved by grace. But we are judged by lifestyle. The way we live—that’s our solemn responsibility.
And Jesus said more about Judgment Day and hell-fire. He said that the uncharitable terms by which we’re constantly finding fault with what others say and do will be the terms by which we’ll be judged. (Matt 7:1-2) Our ungrateful indulgence in harsh judgment will backfire into hell-fire. Jesus said that contempt for others will be burned up in what reminded him of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. (Matt 5:22) And Paul picked up on this when he warned that in our cruel condemnation of others, we are unintentionally condemning ourselves because, as he knew, we’re doing the very same sorts of things. (Rom 2:1) Don’t we know that? Said Chrysostom: “You’re making the judgment-seat dreadful to yourself; the accounting strict,” in condemnation of other people.
The Day After Judgment Day
Is the Last Judgment the last judgment? Is it the final word? What about the day after Judgment Day? Will there be God? Of course there will be God. Then what does it mean for the Psalmist to declare that God is even in the abode of the dead? And what does it mean for Peter to write that Jesus descended even into hell to preach good news? If God will still be God, will he no longer be the God of all grace and peace? Will God stop loving his creation on the day after judgment day? Or will even judgment day be full of grace-filled judgment? If this question is idle curiosity, there is only the incomprehensible silence of utter destruction. If this question is ever asked—can ever be asked—in Godly sorrow, the answer is God’s resoundingly gracious Yes!
But God’s grace does come by way of judgment – even by way of violence – doesn’t it? What is the cross if not violence of shocking dimension? Flannery O’Connor pictures the violence of grace in her stories. Remember the one entitled “Revelation?” The self-righteous Ruby Turpin rails against the judgment conveyed by Mary Grace when, after hitting her in the head with the Human Development textbook, whispers: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” For the rest of the day, back on her pig farm, Mrs. Turpin tries, in one way and another, to resist the judgment. Listen to O’Connor tell it:
Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one comer around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extended upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
Not only our sins but all that passes as our virtues will be burned away. C. S. Lewis spoke of the same purging mercies when he said that “every conversion begins with a blessed defeat” and when he wrote of God’s grace-filled judgment in these words:
All the rabbit in us is to disappear—the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.
The End of Evangelism
The end or goal of evangelism is not to save evangelicals from hell so we can squander forever preening and pampering ourselves in pink clouds of self-centeredness. And it’s not to save us from homophobia so we can waste forever primping and pumping in pink tights. Even when we’ve refocused on the universal scope of the good news, we have not reached the end or goal of evangelism. For as God is the alpha of authentic evangelism, so God is its omega. True evangelism is God-centered, not humanity-centered. George MacDonald spoke sadly of those “who would rather receive salvation from God than God their salvation.” Hear Thomas À Kempis: “I had rather be poor for Thee than rich without Thee. I rather choose to be a pilgrim on earth with Thee than without Thee to possess heaven. Where Thou art there is heaven, and where Thou art not there is death and hell.” Is that the way we ourselves see it? God is not merely the only means of salvation. God is the only real end of salvation. And therefore the end of evangelism is the utterly realistic, universal and enlivening worship of the only Living God! As the Westminster divines summed it up: Our chief goal is to glorify this God in all we are, by God’s grace, and to joy in this God forevermore. “By the preaching of the gospel,” said Spurgeon, “we had before us but one object, and that was the glory of God.”
Throughout history, the good news has been that God patiently calls wandering children home. This gospel is from and to God and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Lamb forever worthy to receive all glory and honor and praise. This is the end as well as the ending of evangelism.
Having heard for ourselves this best news, do we dare be so unthankful as not to pass it on in the repentance of that justice which is the action of mercy for all the world God gave his all to save?