The theological issue of the relationship between law and gospel is far too complex and has had way too much ink spilled over it for me to do it any real justice here. Simply trying to get an understanding of the various ways the New Testament understands the word ‘law’ is worth several PhD theses. And too often believers today think that the two are mutually exclusive, instead of being vitally related.
But I do want to look at one specific aspect of the overall debate. What is the relationship of the law to the preaching of the gospel?
I write this in part because a few people have encouraged me to do so, and in part because it seems to me that the gospel we preach is often weak and ineffectual. It is anaemic because we have not properly made use of the law in our presentation.
My thesis is simply this: there can be no good news until there is first the bad news. That is, the good news of salvation will make little sense and be of little appeal until our audience first understands the bad news of our dire predicament.
Jesus told his followers that those who are well have no need of a doctor, only those who are sick (found in all three Synoptic gospels, eg., Luke 5:31). And he made it quite clear throughout his ministry that we are all sick – none is without the need of the divine physician. (Part of the reason for the so-called Sermon on the Mount is to make it quite clear that we all fall way short of what God expects of us.)
So that must be the starting point of our gospel proclamation: that all is not well, and we desperately need help. Unfortunately this message is often skewed to better reflect the spirit of the age than the demands of Jesus.
Often when we present the gospel, it is put in terms of, ‘Come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved’. ‘Jesus will boost you lagging self-esteem’. ‘Jesus will help you lose weight.’ ‘Jesus will help you cope with pressure.’ ‘Jesus will make you wealthy and healthy.’
While all of these claims are partially true – Jesus can in fact fix every problem we find ourselves burdened with – it is not exactly how the good news should be framed. The problem with all the above approaches is that they all centre on the listener/hearer. It is a me-centred gospel.
But it is not about me. It is about the creator of the universe. The gospel should be about God, and our relationship with him, and how we have distanced ourselves from him.
The trouble with preaching a gospel which appeals to self is that it is at bottom a false gospel. It is exactly the self that we need to be set free from. Self is not meant to be not catered to, pandered to, coddled nor cuddled. It is meant to be put to death.
Moreover, if we come to Jesus because of all the benefits we might expect from him, what happens when the benefits dry up, or when persecution and trouble come our way? We are then tempted to say, ‘Hey, I didn’t make this bargain. I came to Jesus so that I could have a good and comfortable life. I don’t accept this part of the deal.’
Thus we do a real disservice to people when we preach a man-centred gospel. People should not come to Jesus for all the benefits they can get. And there are indeed millions of benefits, not least of which are sins forgiven and eternal life. But the gospel is not about me. It is about how we have all turned our backs on God and deserve the punishment we have brought upon ourselves.
In truth, we have offended a holy and righteous God, and if we got what we deserved, heaven would be an empty place. Jesus came to make a way for sinners to get right with God. But it must be on his terms, not ours.
We come to God not in order to gain benefits, but because he is worthy of our worship. He deserves to be glorified. He is worth our all. He gave his all for us, and that is the least we can do in return.
Thus a rethink may be needed in much of the contemporary church. Instead of focusing on marketing techniques, on seeker-sensitive services, on what we can do to make the gospel attractive and welcoming, we need to return to the old gospel.
Francis Schaeffer once said that if he had just one hour to preach the gospel, he would spend the first 45 minutes preaching on judgement and sin. Only then would he go on to the next part, the mercy and grace of God offered to us freely in Christ. But it must be in that order.
People need to recognise first their really desperate condition, and how hopeless and lost they are without a saviour. Simply enticing people in with gimmicks and goodies will not do. Indeed, I heard of one popular church that offered plasma TVs as prizes in their youth groups.
No doubt such an offer will fill up churches. But do we want churches filled with those who simply want to get a bargain? How do such people differ from those eagerly descending upon a post-Christmas sale?
Do we want crowds or do we want disciples? That is what Jesus talked about. He did not say that we should go into all the world and make converts. He said we are to make disciples. And as Bonhoeffer reminded us, discipleship is costly. It will cost us everything. Salvation may be free but it is not cheap.
Jesus said that those who come to him must renounce their selves and follow him. Only dying to self is acceptable, not hopes of winning a free TV. Jesus said those who would be true disciples must take up their cross and follow him. And lest we forget, when a person was told to carry a cross back then, that meant something quite severe. Condemned prisoners had to carry the cross-bar of their cross to the place of their horrible crucifixion.
Thus those who heard these words of Jesus would have known exactly what he meant. Prisoners condemned to death had to carry their own cross. This was not exactly an encouraging appeal, nor a positive sales pitch.
But do we understand all this today? Consider how cavalier we are about the very heart of Christianity. How many of us wear jewellery around our neck featuring a small cross? Do we realise we are wearing a symbol of execution? It is like wearing a small electric chair or guillotine. Pretty gruesome accoutrements. Thus our faith is often far removed from the realities of true discipleship.
I am told by a good friend that Abraham Lincoln once said that if he had two hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first hour sharpening his axe. Perhaps we need to spend more time clarifying what it is that we preach before we continue in sharing the gospel. A watered-down, me-centred gospel may draw many, but will the fruit remain?
A gospel which bids us die to ourselves may not exactly fit into our hedonistic, narcissistic culture, but it is the gospel which Jesus preached. By all means, seek to make our churches attractive and appealing to those without. But let us major on majors, not minors. Having an attractive building, nice fellowship teas, great music and the like can be worth while.
But above all we must determine what sort of gospel we are preaching. Is it the gospel of Jesus? The radical gospel that spoke of death and self-denial? Or is it a feel-good gospel which caters to our greed, selfishness and pride? Only one gospel will make a lasting difference. I know which one I would rather proclaim.