This weekend I spent a little bit of time reflecting on a couple of seemingly random books: Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity and Rick Warren’s The Purpose of Christmas. But they’re not random–they are in many ways books that approach an issue from opposite directions.
Throughout his book, Horton emphasizes the importance and transcendence of the gospel message—the pure, undefiled simplicity of the gospel. Warren, on the other hand, obscures that message with talk of purpose and rash generalizations about the nature of a person’s relationship with God (though, thankfully, the heart of the gospel message is present despite that obscurity). Over the past couple of days I’ve found myself pondering the gospel message over and over again and asking myself why it is that this message is so unpopular even in Christian churches and among Christian authors. Why would an author or a pastor seek to soften the message?
I guess there is no great mystery here. Unbelievers hate the gospel message because it insists that things are true about them that they simply do not wish to believe. It insists things are true that they are unable to believe. The gospel message tells us that we are sinners. Many people are able to accept this information; only an incredibly dishonest and delusional person could pretend that he has done no wrong. The gospel message tells us that ultimately we have not sinned against others or against ourselves, but against God. This is more difficult to digest. Few of us care to think that we have sinned against the Creator of the world. The gospel goes on to tell us that our sin against God has offended him and filled him with wrath against us. Fewer people still are able to digest and accept this information. Few people are able to believe that God is justified in his wrath towards those who transgress his laws. But the gospel reaches its ultimate offense when it tells us that we are utterly unable to do anything about all of this. None of our deeds, however noble and good, are able to make the least dent in the debt we owe to God. Furthermore, none of us would pursue any kind of reconciliation with God were it not for his prior action in our hearts. We are, in our heart of hearts, God-haters. Without God’s grace we are helpless and hopeless.
This is some exceedingly bad news. And this is why so many churches seek to soften the news. It’s better, they think, to welcome into church the many people who will accept a softened message than the few who will accept such a tough message. And so they tamper with it, taking the edge off. Yes, we have sinned, but let’s think of it as just doing bad things or making mistakes. And though God has noticed these mistakes, he is willing and eager to overlook such offenses. What kind of Father would he be if he really insisted that we face eternal damnation for some mistakes? Soon the message is watered down into watery, tasteless baby food. Having covered this not-too-bad news, these pastors and authors offer good news. If you turn to God, you can have your best life now. He will bless you richly, giving you all the things you want and need. He will make your life better and promise you the reward of heaven where you will be reunited with all of the people and the things you held dear here on earth.
There is, of course, a direct correlation between the weakness of the bad news and the weakness of the good news. The weaker we make the bad news, the weaker is the good news in comparison. The badder the bad, the gooder the good (and I apologize to my English teachers for that sentence)! When we understand—truly understand—the precariousness of our position; when we understand just how badly we have offended God and how we justly deserve his wrath, the good news becomes so much sweeter. Gone is the man-centered view of the benefits of God’s salvation and in its place arises an understanding that the greatest benefit of salvation is Christ himself! Rick Warren presents the benefits of being reconciled to God primarily in terms of personal benefit. “Wrapped up in Jesus are all the benefits and blessings mentioned in this book—and so much more! In Jesus, your past is forgiven, you get a purpose for living, and you get a home in heaven.” All of these things are amazing, but they pale in comparison to Christ himself. John Piper says it well. “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”
Good news is only good in relation to what is bad. If we soften the bad news, we necessarily soften the good news. Our job is not to analyze the news we are called to herald to the world. Faithfulness to God requires faithfulness to the message—the whole message. We dare not soften the bad news; we dare not lessen the offense of the cross. Instead we preach the message faithfully and fully, letting people see first the depth of their debt to God and then the unsurpassed worth and beauty of Christ.