The Reverend Andrew Edwards was filled with joy when at a youth camp in North Devon, England, in 1972, his tearful six-year-old son Jonathan “asked Jesus into his heart.” Twenty years later, the young Edwards had become an Olympic, Commonwealth, European, and world champion triple jumper who wore Christianity on his sleeve. Such were his initial convictions about not competing on the Lord’s Day that in 1991, he withdrew from the World Championships in Tokyo. By the time the multiple gold-medallist Edwards retired from professional sport in 2003, he was one of Britain’s most prominent “born-again Christians.” He landed the job of fronting a TV documentary on the life of the apostle Paul and secured a role on the BBC’s Sunday flagship religious program Songs of Praise. He was an evangelical “hero figure,” enough to make any Christian proud. Then he dropped a bombshell.
In an interview with The London Times on June 27, 2007, Edwards announced that it had all been a grand mistake; that his conversion was nothing more than self-delusion; that his inner sense of God’s presence was fictitious; that the Bible was not literal truth, and that having left his sport as a dyed-in-the-wool evangelical, he was now an atheist.
Was this high-profile retraction an isolated case to be brushed aside as just “one of those things?” Hardly. This and other similar, though less-dramatic, scenarios are played out tens of thousands of times a year across the world as multitudes of teens and adults abandon the “faith” of their childhood and head off into the world. Perhaps, then, it’s just a case of our increasingly sinful and oppressive culture producing ever more backslidden Christians. No. Where there is continual, willful, habitual disobedience to God’s Word there can be no assurance of salvation. The Bible says, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1John 1:6). Again, the Lord Jesus said, “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
The root problem behind the “phenomenon of Edwards” is that Satan has so successfully and subtly corrupted the message of the Biblical gospel and the method of its presentation, that it is no longer producing true, lasting conversions. To put it bluntly, what is wrong in evangelicalism today with its apathy towards sound doctrine, its compromise with the world, and its general lack of seriousness in spiritual things, is that large numbers of its adherents are simply not saved. They are products of a diluted, distorted, and damaged gospel. They may have been deluded into thinking that they have accepted Christ as their Savior but their lives plainly show that they have rejected Him as their Lord. They say, but they don’t do. Yet the Bible warns that though a man says he has faith, if he has not works, his faith is vain (James 2:14, 26).
The Method Under Attack
Satan’s attack on the gospel has come in two primary forms. He has attacked the message itself and the method of its presentation. We will deal with the latter first. The primary method God has given for the spreading of the gospel is preaching (Mark 16:15; Titus 1:3). Though the PR experts tell us that mere speaking is last in effectiveness in terms of audience comprehension and retention, all New Testament evangelism was conducted by the use of rational words addressed to the conscious mind – despite the drama-soaked environment of the first century’s Greco-Latin culture. The method of “public heralding without supplementation” was practiced by John the Baptist (Matt 3:1), the Lord Jesus (Matt 4:17), the apostles (Matt 10:7), Philip (Acts 8:5), and Paul (Acts 9:20). Paul actually called himself “a public herald” (1Tim 2:7, 2Tim 1:11). Today, in the face of calls for us to supplement our preaching with – or abandon our preaching in favor of – drama, comedy, concerts, films, mime, clowns, puppets, and Christian rock, the Bible pertinently asks, “How shall they hear without a preacher?” – literally, “without one publicly heralding the gospel” (Rom 10:14).
In thinking through this issue it will help us to identify our “target.” What are we aiming for when we preach? The sinner’s soft spot? His emotions? His sense of humor? No. We are aiming for his rational mind. It is the sinner’s intellect that has become vain, his understanding obscured, his conscience benumbed (Eph 4:17-18). While drama may be captivating and influential it is an inadequate and inappropriate vehicle for the gospel because:
It is primarily entertainment.
By way of contrast, note the superior qualities of direct proclamation when the gospel is publicly and plainly preached. The authority of God is in view. It is His message, His Word, His authority – not obscured by music, acting, stage props, and PowerPoint.
The attitude and heart of God is directly expressed to hearer with eye-contact. In drama the characters speak to each other.
The rational mind and conscience is engaged, challenged, and persuaded. Yes, there may be tears and trembling, but they will be the result of the Word having its effect by the power of the Spirit, not the emotions being stirred by music and drama.
The tone is right. The gospel deals with solemn issues. Sin and salvation, heaven and hell, life and death. Only preaching gets the tone right and fittingly conveys the spirit of the message. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress Christian saw in the house of the interpreter the picture of “a very grave person” with “eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth written upon his lips, the world behind his back. He stood as if he pleaded with men, and a crown of gold hung over his head.” Oh, for an army of men like this to be raised up among us!
Paul refused to preach with “enticing words of man’s wisdom” (1Cor 2:1-4). He would not even use the kind of captivating rhetoric and sophistry of argument in which the orators of his day excelled. How much less would he have countenanced blending gospel preaching with jokes, drama, rock music, and entertainment had he been alive today?
Before moving on to Satan’s attack on the message of the gospel, a couple of footnotes are required. Firstly, proper warnings against the danger of music in evangelism do not preclude the use of hymn singing both before and after gospel meetings. Likely, next only to the Bible itself in effectiveness, the words of hymns, whether sung or read, have been widely used as a means of blessing to sinners. Hearty congregational gospel singing is not a form of entertainment and, unlike music, is not prone to manipulation.
Secondly, what about those who ask, “You are against drama because it is not ‘proclamation’ yet you are happy with gospel tracts, posters, websites, and one-on-one conversations. They are not ‘proclamation’ either, so what’s the difference?” The difference is that tracts, posters, and websites employ words and address the rational mind of the sinner. They are, therefore, a perfectly acceptable “subset” of proclamation, whereas drama and rock concerts represent another genre of communication altogether. It is one that is utterly unsuitable as a vehicle for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and hopelessly ineffective at producing conviction and conversion in the hearts of sinners.
The Message Under Attack
Not only is the divine method of spreading the gospel under attack, but the message itself is suffering from a withering satanic onslaught. The average gospel presentation heard in many circles today runs no deeper than this:
“God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants you to be personally fulfilled and satisfied. Your feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and low self-esteem will disappear when you say “sorry” for your sins and commit your life to Jesus. You matter to God; that’s why Jesus paid for your sins on the cross. You have tried everything else; so why not give Jesus a try too? All you have to do is ask Jesus to be your personal Savior. Why not pray this prayer after me …?’’
What is wrong with this message? To start with, it is tailored to appeal to the felt needs of the natural man. However, the sinner’s problem is not what he thinks it is. His problem is a lack of righteousness, not a lack of happiness. He doesn’t just have a broken life – he is guilty before God. This is the area that needs the most work.
Our preaching must aim to stir the conscience of the sinner, to thoroughly awaken him to see that he has not merely made a few mistakes, or even committed a few sins; he is a sinner by nature with an incurably corrupt principle of evil within him such that his very best endeavors are but filthy rags in God’s sight. Before trusting in Christ a sinner must therefore be brought to what Robert Murray McCheyne used to call “a proper sense of the dreadfulness of his sin against God.” It’s perfectly possible for the desperately wicked and deceitful heart of man to even long to be saved from hell (the natural instinct of self-preservation) while being quite unwilling to be saved from sin. That is why repentance is needed.
Paul summed up three years of preaching at Ephesus in one sentence: “repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’’ (Acts 20:21). Summarizing his entire life he declared that he had preached that men should, ‘‘repent and turn to God’’ (Acts 26:20). Remember, the same Savior Who said “Believe or perish” (John 3:16) also said, “Repent or perish’’ (Luke 13:3). A gospel that demands repentance is the only gospel that the Word of God authorizes and the Holy Spirit will not endue an unauthorized message with power.
Not only is the modern gospel message couched in “sinner-friendly terms,” but it invites the sinner to come to Christ in a manner that is not Scriptural. For example, many modern preachers present coming to Christ as a mere physical act. Practices such as the raising of a hand, the repeating of a prayer, or coming to the front have become so ingrained in evangelicalism that most are happy to believe that once the physical act has been sincerely performed there is nothing left to do than to say, “Congratulations and welcome to the family of God!” More subtly, others portray coming to Christ as a mere mental act. “Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, and died in your place? Then you are saved.” Yet, never in the Bible is saving faith presented as mere mental assent to the facts of the gospel.
Agrippa believed all that the prophets had spoken but he was never saved. Others set forth salvation as a kind of mystical experience wherein sinners feel a sensation of light or heat or, worse still, speak in tongues. Yet it was said of those who came to the Lord Jesus that they had heard, learned, and been taught by the Father, not that they had experienced some mystical sensation (John 6:45). Salvation involves obeying a “form of doctrine” (Rom 6:17). Then there are those who would reduce salvation to the level of a mere volitional act; a simple “decision.” Granted, all who come to Christ make a choice, but if one’s commitment to Christ is a mere “decision to be a Christian,” what is there to stop one deciding later not to be Christian, as did the athlete Jonathan Edwards?
So what is the true gospel? It is heaven’s solemn ultimatum to the sinner to repent, combined with its grand and gracious invitation to come to Christ, the sinner’s only Savior. While God condemns the sinner for what he is, He has provided a basis in the work of Christ whereby the sinner may be forgiven for what he has done. Whosoever will may come and rest on the all-sufficiency of the person (Christ) and work (crucified) of the Lord Jesus.
Abandoning all former trust in self and works, repudiating self-will and attachment to the world, the repentant sinner trusts his soul for eternal salvation to the blessed risen man of Calvary and finds Him to be light for his darkness, cleansing for his defilement, relief for his burden, and rest for his turmoil.
The very moment the sinner trusts Christ, he passes from death to life, he receives life and is never the same. Evidence of the reality of the work of justification in the soul is then seen in sanctification in the life. Those twins must never be separated. This is why Romans 6 follows hard on the heels of Romans 5. Sanctification ever and always follows justification as night follows day. No doubt the aged Puritan John Owen had this in mind when, reminiscing over his long life of service, he noted down what he regarded as the two greatest mistakes people make in regards to salvation. Firstly, they think they can get to heaven without being born again and secondly, they think they have been born again without a holy life to prove it. The Bible says one who has been born of God does not practice sin as a course of life (1 John 3:9-10).
May the Lord give us an earnest desire to return to the Biblical gospel, to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to see genuine results that will stand the test of time and eternity.