It’s grown fashionable to raise a lot of dust to obscure Christianity’s very exclusive claims. Rob Bell is just the latest and hippest in a long line of folks whose chief theological talent seems to be blowing smoke and arranging mirrors. But while conservatives love to bash Rob Bell, we have been much, much slower to learn a key lesson that Bell’s existence and popularity ought to teach us — a lesson about how our presentation of the ‘good’ news often sounds to today’s unbelieving world.
“If you were to stand before God right now, and He said to you, ‘Why should I let you into my perfect heaven?’ what would you tell Him?”
Suppose you ask this question to your new neighbor, Fred. Like a lot of people, Fred begins to talk about how he’s a decent guy who’s done a lot of good in this world. “Of course I’m not perfect,” Fred says, “but I’m a good person.”
Suppose you take Fred to one of our standard response verses, Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” There’s the problem, you say. Bringing God your good works can’t be the answer, because salvation is not of works.
So far, so good.
Then you lay out the alternative: There’s a message God wants Fred to believe. It’s not about salvation by works at all; Jesus did all the work. Fred just needs to believe that…[fill in Saving Proposition here]. Within Free Grace circles, there are various conceptions of the Saving Proposition: “Jesus gives resurrection and eternal life to those who believe Him for it,” or “Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, rose the third day and was seen by witnesses” or “Jesus promises everlasting life” or “Jesus promises you forgiveness of sins if you believe in Him”—in the last few years I’ve heard all these and more besides. Whichever one you use, if you talk for more than a minute, you’ll talk about God’s promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and you’ll tell Fred that all this is possible because Jesus bore our sins on the cross and rose from the dead. I have no interest in trying to argue which proposition is the most biblical. Instead I want to address a more basic problem that can creep in, no matter which Saving Proposition you are using in your witnessing.
The ‘Gospel ‘According to Fred
Let’s begin by taking off the Sunday School thinking cap for a little while. Instead, let’s think like Fred—an average American pagan—and let’s go back through that presentation. The trouble starts with the diagnostic question: “If you were to stand before God right now, and He said to you, ‘Why should I let you into my perfect heaven?’ what would you tell Him?” What kind of god does Fred see in that question?
The god of that question is interested in keeping people out of heaven. He’s worked hard to make it a perfect place, and he doesn’t want anyone messing it up. But Fred’s a decent guy; he always cleans up his own trash at the park, and picks up other people’s litter besides. So when Fred responds by talking about how good a person he is, he is in effect saying “Hey, God, don’t worry about it. I leave the city park better than I found it; I’ll be good to heaven too. I’m doing the best I can.”
Now, of course, you respond by telling Fred that he can’t possibly be good enough. He would have to be perfect. So from Fred’s point of view, the picture just keeps getting worse. First, your god is reluctant to let people into heaven (and what kind of god is that, anyhow? Isn’t he supposed to be loving?) Now, you’re telling Fred that your god is so darned picky that practically anything disqualifies a person. Steal one candy bar, one time, when you’re eight years old, and that’s it—your life is over. You can’t do anything to make up for it, ever. Hell awaits, Freddie, you stinkin’ thief.
As many of you know, more than one person walks away at this point in the conversation. That’s not a god they want anything to do with. Can you blame them?
But suppose Fred hangs in there. What’s the next thing you tell him? This god is not only angry at Fred for his candy bar theft, but he’s mad enough to kill him over it. And then, to make matters worse, instead of killing Fred, this picky, stingy god goes and kills his own son instead, and because he dumped all his pent-up anger on his own kid, now Fred can enter heaven. All Fred has to do is agree to this scheme, and he’s in.
Is that demented, or what? Would you want to benefit from the slaughter of someone else’s child? Would you want to be complicit in that murder, all because you stole a candy bar? Fred is horrified, and why shouldn’t he be?
Where We Led Fred Astray
Hopefully by now you are protesting that this picture is all wrong. It’s not like that at all!
Indeed it’s not. But where did the story go wrong? Fred’s picture has everything, doesn’t it? Man’s sin, God’s righteousness, substitutionary atonement, the promise of life in Christ…what’s Fred missing?
Seriously, stop for a minute and try to answer that question. What is Fred missing?
I have my own set of answers to this question, but I’ll save them for another entry. Give it some time and some thought. Don’t take the easy dodges: don’t blame Fred for misinterpreting you; don’t blame the devil for blinding Fred. Both those things might be true, but we’re talking about you right now. How can you help Fred avoid this problem?
God seems more like a legalistic psychopath than a gracious friend.
I would say that grace and love are missing, but the fault is not with Fred, but with the presentation to Fred.
Also, I think God cares very much about cleaning the park down the street, and Fred should be praised for his responsible living, rather than condemned for it.
Looking forward to your next post on this…
Boy bro. Tim, I like this one. Makes me really think! I agree that even though I’d never put meat on the thought, I kept having a feeling in the back of my mind every time I used or heard anyone use the EE question, that something was misssing, but I just couldn’t put a finger on it. I still haven’t thought it through fully, but just wanted to think out loud here a few minutes. I agree with bro. Jeremy also about commending Fred for his good works, rather than beat him with them as I hate to admit I’ve done to some Freds in the past using Isaiah 64:6. The first thought I had, along with Jeremy obviously, ios love was clearly missing. This may just be another form of the same thing, but to me, the major thing mising, is meeting Fred where he is, as Jesuss almost always , if not always, did that. The woman at the well, the outcasts, all sinners, ME, He came to us & met us where we were because He genuinely loved & loves us. Anyway, that popped in my mind & I thought I’d pop it on the page before my feeble mind forgot! I too am looking forward to the next installment as well as your astute guests & their ideas!! God Bless.
Wow, great post Tim. Good question. What is Fred missing? I’ve contemplated it for a few minutes, probably not as long as I should, but I think Fred is missing that God isn’t being capricious. He isn’t whimsically choosing to keep people out of heaven based upon a set of arbitrary rules that He set up because….well because He can. A rose can’t change it’s color. God is holy, and just, and righteous, He cannot change this. No matter how “good” Fred thinks he is, he must admit that he’s not any of those things.
Once we explain that it is God’s nature of holiness that excludes humanity from heaven, we can paint God as someone who sent His son to seek and save the lost. Yes, Jesus’ death is substitutionary, however now it’s not to an arbitrary God but to one who desperately wants to reconcile Himself with Fred because Fred is a lost sheep, and God loves His lost sheep. The narrative of humanity is one where God created us and loved us and we rejected Him and He spent the rest of human history providing reconciliation (even punishment was for this end); Jesus being the final bridge. This narrative is true of Fred’s life as well, we just have to get him to see it.
Am I close??
Very thought provoking post, Tim.
I guess my issue with this “style” of evangelism has always been that we go into it with no relationship at all. We don’t know Fred, we have not taken time to listen to Fred (ok we are listening to him a little, but only so we can plan our next move) and we assume that Fred is completely without any experience with God until we come along to enlighten him. This is arrogant on our part as we all come to the table with previous experiences and understandings of who God is and what He “wants” from us. Our own perceptions of who God is are constantly being adjusted by our circumstances, our knowledge of scripture, people speaking truth into our lives, etc. Only when we have relationship with another person can we come to the table as equals and share the truth of grace with someone else. This begins, as David and Jeremy already commented, with taking time to meet (and love) people where they are. This can not be done with a formula and is often a slow grinding process, but the reward of seeing Jesus change a life is worth it.
Looking forward to your thoughts on the subject!
Hmm, that’s a thought-provoking post. I’ll venture my own thoughts for whatever they’re worth. First, I’m not necessarily against discussing God’s wrath with non-believers as long as I can explain the other aspects of his character and nature. After all, that’s where Paul begins in Romans and anyone reading the OT will find it all over the place–along with his immense longsuffering.
But second, if we follow John (especially), rather than majoring on getting into heaven vs. going to hell we’d probably do better to offer life over death. God wants to give us life and that’s a theme we can stay on the rest of our lives, and it starts and continues with a personal relationship with our Savior based on faith.
For my money, you nailed it, David. Thanks for weighing in.
I’m with you on a lot of this, but I would point out that you’re wrong about Romans. That’s where Romans 1:18 starts…but the audience is not unbelievers, and the first 17 verses carry significant content.
If I’m right about the part you agree with, it’s probably mostly because of you and Jim. Ha–you even primed the pump with your previous post! Like others, I often have trouble understanding what you’re saying but I try to listen to all sides and you seem to be on to some things that have been nagging me for a number of years, and I appreciate all your efforts.
Regarding the wrath issue, I don’t think there’s only one way to go about evangelism. Although I’ve not done this, it seems that if time were available, one method in this Bible-illiterate world would be to survey the Story of God beginning at Genesis, and doing such would certainly include the topic of God’s wrath as one piece of that story. It’s the opposite of the “bare minimum” approach and certainly goes way beyond the EE two question method.
As always, you are very gracious, and I really appreciate that about you in this present era of the history of the FG movement.
I completely agree with the thrust of your latest comment and would like to contribute a mediating position on how Romans “begins” that speaks directly to the question of evangelism and wrath. I believe the template for the argument of Romans is laid out in 1:16-18, and if we take a look at Paul’s structure there, it IMO helps illuminate a more robust approach to evangelism, as you have suggested.
Romans begins with the “gospel of God” (1:1), and Paul picks up on this with a tightly structured thesis statement in 1:16-18ff that justifies his intent to travel to Rome: “Why do I want to evangelize Rome?” Paul argues, “I’ll tell you why—because I am not ashamed of the gospel [of God]…
• For the power of God it is to salvation to all who believe…
• For the righteousness of God in it is being revealed from faith to faith…
• For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…
o …who suppress the truth in unrighteousness
o …inasmuch as what may be known about God [= His righteousness] is evident within them
If we reason backwards through this sequence of “for’s” (= “because’s”), we find that:
• the reason we need a gospel of God, says Paul, is that people are suppressing the truth about God and dying because the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness as an integral and necessary consequence of his righteous character,
• so in the gospel [of God] the righteousness of God is being revealed [ongoingly] by faith
• so that the gospel [of God] becomes the power of God to salvation, bringing life to all who “faith” (believe)
What is common to all people of mature conscience (we might say “of accountable age”) is that they intuitively understand that they are dying and need life. The gospel of God “fills out” the human understanding of the righteousness of God “within them” so that they have hope of life in the face of their dying: This “good news” is, the powerful grace of God—His ongoingly revealed righteousness—comes to all by faith, bringing life (“saving” us). Our evangelism is thus called to “reveal the righteousness of God” in all its facets so that people may have His life by faith in the face of all the “collateral damage” they incur by their departure from the truth evident within them.
I agree that there’s no single way (in terms of a technique) to approach this.
Starting at the beginning is a great strategy, and it doesn’t have to take a huge amount of time. Acts 17 describes Paul doing it in a single sitting, and Luke’s account (which may be verbatim but is more likely a faithful and artful summary) takes just minutes to read aloud. Of course, one can take longer (cf. John Cross or Trevor McIlwain).