The Gospel We Preach – and Why
Some missiologists suggest that the Western gospel being exported around the world is a guilt-pardon gospel that has been adapted to meet the needs Westerner’s feel for obtaining relief from their innate sense of guilt. Other cultures do not have this sense of guilt, but are conscious rather of weakness, powerlessness, and shame due to failures. What people in these cultures long for is success, power, victory, and status. Accordingly, the Western gospel of guilt-pardon should not be exported to these places, but rather a gospel presentation should be crafted to highlight the way Christ enables us to achieve, not so much pardon for guilt, but success, power, victory, and status.
I was moved to respond to these suggestions by a message from a good brother who was asked to speak favorably along these lines. In the course of my comments, criticisms of the gospel commonly preached in the West are expressed, as is our perspective on the Biblical gospel that should be proclaimed both at home and abroad.
Your message at the recent conference got me thinking hard about the matters you were asked to address. I concur fully with the theme that we missionaries need to be careful that we do not export defective gospels based on the errors of cultural modifications that we make hoping to better reach our home culture. We need to be guided by the Scriptures whether evangelizing at home or on the mission field. That is extremely important. It is good that the matter was raised because local church leaders need to be alerted to the fact that they must not simply parrot what their missionary told them since it may have been a culturally adapted gospel.
- Man-centered Gospel
You may be aware that I have my own concerns about the gospel of the contemporary Western church, and I am not eager to see it exported around the world or even proclaimed to Westerners. I would say the main cultural phenomenon that has driven the Western gospel during recent decades is our tendency in the West to be man-centered. Nurtured in that pervasive ambience, the gospel of the Western church has steadily drifted in the direction of making too much of man and too little of God.
One of the ways this shows itself is in how we express our salvation. In the West, we say “I accepted Christ.” The center of focus, the subject of the sentence is “Me.” I am the one who accomplished the feat. I am the center of attention. It is all about me. The action verb refers to what I did. Christ or God only enters in as the passive object of our kind act. We let God into our heart. We prepared a place for Him. We granted His wish.
Saints of old spoke of their salvation in the following way: “God saved me!” Note the profound difference! In their thinking and speech, God takes center stage. He is the subject of the narrative. He is the One it is all about. The heroic verb “saved” refers back to something impressive that God did when we were in desperate straits. And where does man come in? He is merely the object of God’s action, the passive recipient of God’s gracious act.
- Biblically driven God-centered gospel
Doctrinally, this is far more accurate than the gospel altered to correspond with Western thinking, because the Bible makes it clear that men are incapable of getting themselves saved no matter what they do. First, they cannot know the gospel unless God sends an evangelist or a book into their life – they will never divine or guess or tease it out philosophically or mystically. God must send someone or something to them that proclaims the gospel. That is why Christ teaches us first to pray to God to send out laborers into the harvest. Getting the gospel into our ears depends upon God sending it forth, and sending it specifically to us.
Second, men cannot understand the gospel once they hear it without God first giving them spiritual comprehension. I Cor. 1:18 and 2:14 says that the gospel is foolishness to them who do not believe. It is foolishness because it must be spiritually discerned, v. 2:14, i.e., understood with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and those who disbelieve do not have the Holy Spirit helping them.
Third, even if God grants understanding, they cannot believe the content is really true unless God gives them faith to do so. In the Bible, faith is not described as originating in us. The author and finisher of our faith is Jesus Christ (Heb. 12:2). It is God who determines who will receive this faith, and how much faith the person will receive (Rom. 12:3). The agent God uses to impart this faith is the Holy Spirit – it is the 7th fruit of the Spirit mentioned in Gal. 5:22. Though newer translations translate the term as faithfulness, the old translations such as KJV and our original Portuguese Bible translate it correctly as “faith” because that is the actual Greek word used. Of 243 times “pistis” appears in the NT it is translated “faith” in all but five. There is nothing I can see in the context of Gal. 5:22 to justify that it should be translated differently in this location except possibly the reluctance of some translators to say that our faith actually is apportioned to us by God through the Holy Spirit and that its author and perfector is Jesus Christ. Because our faith originates from Christ imparting it through the Holy Spirit, our faith is sometimes called “the faith of Christ” in passages such as Gal. 2:20 and Phil. 3:9 (in the Greek and in the old translations). There are other verses that state the same reality that our faith originates from God, such as Eph. 2:8.
Fourth, even after the elect have heard the gospel, understood it, and believed it, there is the need to respond appropriately – namely, to repent. The fact that our response must be to repent entails that the thrust of the true, pure gospel is that we are sinners before God who need to be forgiven for our rebellion against Him and His laws. We have nothing to bribe Him with, no peace offering of our own. God supplies all that. Our part is to believe the gospel of God’s forgiveness of repentant sinners and respond in faith (respond appropriately) through repenting, that is, through humbly and sorrowfully beseeching God to forgive us of His own free will.
This repentance also is something we cannot produce on our own. Like the rest of the process, the repentance that leads to salvation is a gift that God must work in us. For that reason, II Tim. 2:24-26 speaks of God granting repentance to the sinner (not just the forgiveness!), as do Acts 5:31 and 11:18. Just as faith is imparted by means of the Holy Spirit working upon the listener, repentance also results from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit as the sinner hears the gospel (John 16:8).
The Bible makes much of what God does to save a sinner and emphasizes the inability of man. Man-focused Western culture with its high view of man determining his fate and calling the shots turns it upside down and makes the gospel simply a matter of “Accept Christ and be forgiven,” with all the focus being on man and all the work done by man and with God becoming the object of our acceptance instead of the one who in fact accomplishes the marvelous feat of saving the lost and accepting THEM through enabling us and causing us to do what we are commanded to do!
- Our helplessness / inability
I personally do not mind letting lost sinners know their helplessness in the matter of salvation, because I also tell them if they do not understand, or believe, or care, then they must cry to God to give them understanding, to give them faith, to give them repentance, and to give them the Holy Spirit who works these things in the hearts of all those who finally draw near to Him. Their eternal state depends on seeking this diligently! In my opinion, bringing sinners to the point of crying out in desperation to Christ, as Peter did when he was sinking beneath the waves, is actually the surest way to get to the goal, which is their salvation. As long as people keep trusting in something they can do mechanically to accomplish the feat, they have a false sense of control over their destiny when they actually have none, and they are that much less likely to do the one thing they really need to do – cry earnestly to God to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. That is the real sinner’s prayer that gets genuine results!
- Bible’s terminology
When the Bible talks about our salvation, this is the terminology it uses. You can look at Paul’s testimony in Gal. 1:13-16. In vv. 13-14 Paul describes himself before salvation with four action verbs, all of which have Paul as the subject or the do-er. But in vv. 15-16 he describes his conversion. Again he uses action verbs that were involved in the event – but now the subject in every case, the one doing the acting, is always God! God is the One who set Paul apart from his mother’s womb, God is the One who called Paul through His grace, God is the one who was pleased to reveal Christ in Paul. And the grateful recipient of God’s kind acts in behalf of the sinner is Paul.
The language of salvation in the Bible has God as the one doing the work, and it is the grateful, passive (in Bible terms) sinner who is the direct object or recipient of God’s action.
The same thing happens in the narrative of Lydia’s conversion in Acts 16:13-14. The description of her salvation is related as “God opened her heart.” It is the same formula that has God as the subject, God as the one doing the work, and, in this case, the heart of Lydia being the passive recipient of God’s gracious act.
- Our terminology
Though Western Christians can hardly describe their salvation apart from saying “I accepted Christ“ at some time or place or for some reason, it is noteworthy that the Bible never uses the expression “accept Christ.” There are a lot of things Christians RECEIVE, but nothing they accept, because in receiving we are the recipients of what God does for us, while in accepting, God is the recipient of what we do for Him in granting that acceptance. The latter type of language is unknown in the Bible, but it has become the only way Western Christians can even think about their salvation. We have drifted far from the Bible in how we think about or express our gospel in the West!
- Ekklesia’s priorities
I am very grateful for Ekklesia because they are seeking to correct these errors here in Mozambique and they are succeeding. And an important element in their campaign is to help us all step back and evaluate the Western gospel rather than just adopt the message as conveyed to us through Western missionaries with their Western mindset which first reveals and then inculcates itself in our listeners when we use our Western terminology to express a faulty Western gospel.
- J.I. Packer’s monograph
These realizations first came crashing in on me 40 years ago when I read “The Old Gospel” by J.I. Packer, which is one of the first assignments in Fiel’s and Ekklesia’s and my reading programs and which our mission keeps stocked in our bookstore.
- The Western church’s proclivity in appropriating for the gospel business models and precepts derived from secular anthropology
A second error I see in the Western gospel is our tendency to incorporate business principles into church work, and anthropological studies into mission work, rather than to depend on the methods set forth in the Bible. We think if McDonalds has succeeded in spreading itself throughout the entire world in a single generation, then the church should study their techniques and apply them to church expansion at home and abroad.
Applying these kinds of approaches yields the strategy that Christians should evaluate the felt needs of people and then show how their product (salvation through Christ) will meet those felt needs. If we can convince people they will get what they really want by joining our church, then we will grow dramatically. It sounds good, but pitfalls abound in this approach.
- Emphasizing felt needs inevitably distorts the true gospel
First, inherent in the process is adapting the true gospel so that it emphasizes not what the Bible emphasizes but rather the felt needs of the host culture. This can skew the gospel beyond recognition or beyond spiritual usefulness.
- “Smile, God loves you!” gospel
For example, in the Western culture of my youth, people were conscious that they were not in a good way with God. When I was born, 48% of Americans were in church on any Sunday morning. Though perhaps only a small percentage of those were saved, people in general did understand that men needed to become saved and join a church. Even people who opted out of church were generally aware that people needed to be made right with God. The felt need of people was that they were in trouble with God and needed to do something about that. People also (as always) were concerned about self-esteem. No one likes to be called a sinner or a bad person.
Taking note of these felt needs, the popular gospel of my youth focused on reassuring people that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for them, so that is how the gospel was presented. Everyone knew the phrase, “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I was taught to evangelize that way after I was saved. Sin was eventually mentioned in a general way, but it was very much down-played so as not to offend the listener. Through this gospel, mindful of not rubbing listeners the wrong way by treading on their need for self-esteem, no one would come to the point of sweating bullets because of his predicament with God. Rather, we were all assured that God was kindly disposed toward us and we could get right with Him any time we determined we wanted to have relationship with Him by simply reciting a prescribed prayer that was guaranteed to save us. I was taught to assure people immediately after repeating the prayer that now they were saved because God promised to save anyone who called upon His name (we glossed over the need to believe in our heart) – it was all that easy!
Most people just wanted us to bug off, but the important message they took away if they did not listen to anything else was that they could be very happy, because on our authority as God’s ambassador they could be certain that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their life. Sin was never a big problem, and repentance was not even needed – just the prescribed prayer inviting Christ to take refuge in our heart!
- “Health and prosperity“ gospel
This gospel was displaced eventually as Western culture became more secular and the felt need of getting right with God waned. We Westerners became exceedingly materialistic in the 80’s and beyond. All kinds of prosperity was out there, potentially, if we could only get our hands on it. The great thing we all feared was cancer, because while medicine had largely conquered the infectious diseases that used to be a major cause of death, we did not have a cure for cancer.
And so the gospel morphed into something promising health and prosperity. Preaching that message was the way to get a lot of interest and to fill a church.
I believe that having one’s material needs met is indeed a by-product of giving one’s life 100% to Christ to serve Him (Matt. 6:25,33), and I believe that God ultimately controls the length of our life. But prosperity and long life, if we receive them, are only incidental by-products of the one important thing, which is relationship with Christ. Also, it is important to note that they do not come from our seeking after them. They only come when we stop thinking about them and instead seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. As long as our warped Western gospel teaches us to think about wealth and prosperity by dangling those felt needs before us, we will never start seeking first Christ Himself and His righteousness, and thus the second step will never occur.
- Why preaching to felt needs will not save – you do not change a person’s true god
It is a mistake for us to dangle the incidental by-products of salvation before people to induce them to seek salvation – because to get to the by-products you must first be saved, and to first be saved you must come to terms with the true gospel, which is our need of forgiveness for our rebellion against God. Christ makes it clear in Luke 14:26 and 33 that no one can be His disciple if they have some other god ahead of Him in their life. People who try to skate past the gospel of repentance and pardon for sin in order to get to the by-products of wealth and health may become religious, but they will not become saved disciples. They will be weeded out along the way when they are finally forced to choose between Christ and their real god. The very passage teaches that the real god of many who are trooping after Christ today (as people were doing in Luke 14:25) was never actually Christ or the Father, but wealth and health. Christ was just the means of getting to the real objective. And thus, the wealth and health churches are full of people who do not have Christ as their God and do not have relationship with Christ, because that was never their felt need, and they do not have genuine salvation, just a counterfeit substitute. And therefore, I doubt as well that they are receiving much of the prosperity and health bait that was dangled before them in the gospel they responded to.
J.I. Packer in his article refers to the fact that one way these new gospels differ from the Old Gospel is that the new gospels try so hard to be useful to men. It makes much of man and his needs and desires. In contrast, the Old Gospel makes much of God and man’s need to be reconciled to Him. But then, paradoxically, the Old Gospel ends up being the most helpful to men because of all the blessings that come as a by-product of genuine salvation and relationship with Christ – more helpful in the end than the gospel that focuses so much on man and tries so hard to satisfy his felt needs.
- Teaching people to become God-focused, God-centered, God-oriented
The other problem with the new gospels as pointed out by Packer is that their converts are never brought to focus on God as the center of life and of all things – because the new gospels themselves do not even do this! The converts are “saved” with the felt needs in mind, and felt needs are what are continually preached to them after “salvation”. That is the sum of their religion.
- “Felt needs” exploitation by a highly successful but apostate church in Mozambique
This is the strategy of the local health and prosperity church. Their billboards used to proclaim special services each day of the week to deal with each of the felt needs of the people here in Nampula – need for power, need for health, need for money, need for employment, need for influence over other people. I found it interesting that they did not have a service to meet the need for holiness or the need for relationship with Christ or the need for reconciliation with God. They just dangled the felt needs before people continually in order to fill their services.
Genuine conversion is a miracle that only God can perform. Men can produce carnal conversions by carnal means, but that does not actually save people. It may, however, delude them into thinking they are saved, as my evangelistic efforts may have done in the early days of my Christian life.
- We must synchronize our efforts with the Holy Spirit, not our audience
Genuine conversion is carried out by the Holy Spirit in the life of hardened sinners. We have the great privilege of participating with God in the process that He is doing, but we must synchronize our efforts on the human level with what God is doing on the spiritual level.
With that in mind, it is noteworthy that Christ said in John 16:8-11 that when the Holy Spirit came he would convict men of three things: sin, righteousness, and judgment – sin, because that is our native condition until we come to faith in Christ; righteousness, because Christ was the only one with sufficient righteousness to make it into the presence of God and we need that righteousness if we are going to make that step also; and judgment, because the devil and his followers have already been declared guilty, as we will be also when we are judged.
The Holy Spirit does not convict men of their powerlessness, their financial poverty, their lack of stature in comparison to other races or nations, or their physical ailments. So we are not getting anywhere spiritually preaching about these things. The Holy Spirit only goes to work when we are preaching about our guilt before God and our need of having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. And it is only the Holy Spirit that can produce a genuine conversion.
- The gospel of guilt and forgiveness
In the eight chapters of Paul’s gospel explanation in Romans 1-8, he spends three of them convincing men of their sin. Conviction of sin may not be a felt need of men, but it is the Holy Spirit’s work to make that need rise to the fore of everything else in the process of bringing men to salvation. But we need to be preaching along those lines, synchronizing our efforts with those of the Spirit.
Convincing men of their guilt was the grand project God spent 1400 years accomplishing through the Law of Moses. The Law was never intended to be the final word in the Bible, but it was important before Christ appeared on the world stage to prepare men to correctly understand the gospel – which starts with the fact that we are guilty of breaking God’s laws and therefore we need to be forgiven. It would appear this must be a crucial part of the gospel message if God spent such a long time driving that message home before presenting Christ to the world.
I like the approach New Tribes (old name) uses, which is not to even mention the gospel until they have taken men all the way through the Old Testament. That is how I used to present the gospel if people would give me an hour of their time. New Tribes spends weeks or months in the Old Testament because before their listeners can understand the gospel the host culture, which usually has no clue of the Bible or the gospel, must be trained even as the Jews were, to understand WHY they are in a bad way with God. Their guilt must become a felt need before the gospel is preached to them as the means to resolve that felt need.
- The “gospels” that in fact have been adapted to meet the felt needs of Western men
I would suggest that the gospel that focuses on man’s guilt is not the gospel adapted to felt needs in the West. That is the Biblical gospel. The gospel that caters to the Western man’s felt needs, and which we must not export to anywhere else on the globe, I would suggest, is the health and prosperity gospel, and the gospel before that of “Smile, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” and before that the man-focused gospel where men are in the driver’s seat of the salvation process, and the gospel that offers the magic repeat-after-me fast-food prayer that gives the instant results Westerners want for everything. These are the gospels that we have corrupted to meet man’s felt needs in the West.
- Likely origin of the Western sense of guilt
The fact that many people in the West still have a problem with their conscience and with guilt, I suspect, is because the West was immersed for centuries in the true, “Old” gospel of the Bible. This sense of guilt is a remnant of the cultural transformation that occurred as a result of widespread preaching of the true gospel of forgiveness of sins several generations ago. The effects of great American revivals carried out through George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards and Asahel Nettleton are still percolating down to today, though those effects are almost entirely obliterated now even in the church, because the Old Gospel has been out of vogue for quite a while. We can be thankful there are still Christians in the West who have drunk deeply from that fount, and we must not disregard their effectiveness even today as salt in Western culture!
- The danger of having felt-need gospels competing with the true gospel for men’s attention
The Biblical gospel preaches a message that men do not particularly want to hear. The first part of the gospel is always the bad news of our poor standing before God. However, to be saved, people must first understand they are lost because of personal disobedience to their Creator, and they must understand the consequences according to the Bible.
The second part of the gospel is the good news that God has handled the problem of our condemnation due to sin, and that the solution is available to men through faith in Jesus Christ without requiring merit or works on our part to secure reconciliation.
The bad news is not pleasant to hear. We can try to frontload the gospel by first telling people the good things that will happen to them if they come to salvation, but the dangers of that approach were mentioned in sections 11-18.
Additionally, there is the risk that people will listen to us the same way Westerners run after the prosperity and health gospel. Unbelievers will divert their attention from preachers of the true, Old, Biblical gospel in order to hear something that sounds more pleasant, that promises to meet their felt needs rather than their true need of forgiveness and reconciliation, which starts out with our condemnation before God.
In other words, I fear preachers of gospels that cater to felt needs of a culture that still knows nothing of guilt before God will basically be teachers who tickle the ears of men, teachers whom people will happily heap to themselves because they are preaching what the natural man wants to hear and what he wants to get. These felt-needs evangelists will be teachers according to the lusts of the people (II Tim. 4:2-4). The preachers the people will turn away from are the ones who are preaching sound doctrine (II Tim. 4:2-4), the doctrine that finally produces holiness (I Tim 6:3), not the gospel that promises power and authority or success and stature in the eyes of men. Those latter results will come from the true gospel, as stated in section 15, but only if one stops seeking those things and starts to seek Christ.
What we want to avoid at all costs is manufacturing a culturally adapted gospel that ends up diverting people AWAY from the only true gospel that will solve their real problem.
- Where power and authority, success and stature enter in
The basic gospel message I have used since 1992 has three parts – the bad news of our condemnation before God, the good news of Christ reconciling us to God, and the results of our salvation (or how we may know when we are truly saved).
The gospel I was initially taught to proclaim included assurance of salvation, but it was faulty. I was taught to recite Rev 3:20 about Christ coming into the heart of the Laodiceans, and then to assure people that after opening their heart through the sinner’s prayer, Jesus was now inside of them and they were reconciled to God. I also was taught to say that Rom 10:13 promised that God would save everyone who called out to Him for salvation, and so if they doubted they were saved after reciting the prayer, they were calling God a liar.
But time showed that not many people who repeated the formulaic prayer truly were saved, and I realized that the passage said they must also believe in their heart. I learned about the three types of “faith” or “belief” referred to in the Bible, of which two types (James 2:14-26 and Luke 8:13) are declared to be false faith that does not save or produce fruit.
So I changed my gospel presentation to offer in the third section three things that happen when one is saved: 1) his name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, 2) he is received by God as His own son – i.e. God takes care of Him and hears his prayers, and 3) he receives a new nature through the Holy Spirit that causes him to desire and to act according to the will of God, Phil. 2:13).
If the second and third results do not occur, then the first result also has not taken place, and one must continue beseeching the Lord to save him.
Easy assurance often ends up being false assurance. But when one truly becomes a son of God he has access through prayer to the greatest power in the universe, far greater than witchcraft and divination and all the spirits in this world. With God as his helper, he does not need to fear any man, Heb. 13:5-6. He becomes an ambassador of the Most High God and can preach with authority when he speaks according to the word of God. As he obeys the Lord more and more, thanks to his growing understanding of the Scriptures and the new nature at work within him, the failures of his life give way to increasing success and stature. These are, however, presented in the gospel as the evidences of salvation rather than as inducements to perform prescribed acts or prayers that yield the power and authority, success and stature, that men may seek without any real interest in being forgiven by God and set free from sin.
I appreciate your broaching this important subject and stirring my own thinking. Though I may be more wary than you are of many of the things that one reads in missiology books these days, I know we agree about the need to keep the gospel pure and to seek genuine conversions!