In praise of bad news:
There might be some truth in the old saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. However, it seems many biblical authors may have missed that bit of advice. Their words were seldom sweet as honey, but often biting and forceful – even worse than vinegar.
But so many Christians today differ – they say we must always be nice to people and never seek to offend them. They roundly criticise you if you appear to be ‘negative’ or ‘judgemental,’ and try to argue that we should just use kind and soothing words to win others.
They think that Jesus only uttered nice platitudes and shared pleasant thoughts, like some modern-day self-help guru or New Age teacher. They seem to forget that for constantly offering hard and unwelcome truths, he was killed by all those who took offence at him.
The truth is, if we really want to help people, we have to tell them a lot of unpalatable and offensive truths first. In other words, before we can offer the good news of the gospel to others, we first have to give them the bad news. That is always the biblical order. No amount of wanting to make things easier for sinners or to offer them a pleasant and smooth gospel will change this – or help matters.
Indeed, it will just make things worse. Until people are fully aware of their real condition as sinners before a holy and righteous God, they will not see any need of a saviour, and if they do, it will be a saviour created in their own image. The modern day preachers who only want to offer soothing and comforting words, without first smiting the listener with the biblical truths of human sinfulness and the wrath of God are simply false shepherds.
But this sort of shallow and humanistic preaching is found everywhere in the West. It stands in marked contrast to the biblical proclamation of truth, be it from the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament Jesus and the disciples. No wonder the ‘your best life now’ preachers so often steer clear of them.
Biblical spokesmen did not mince words, but proclaimed the truth of our sinful and abhorrent condition. Since I am now reading Isaiah again, simply consider the way he begins his book for example. He would never talk the way these modern preachers talk to people. Here are the first six verses of Isaiah 1:
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil….
Wow, what a way to begin a book! What a way to win friends and influence people! And consider verses 10-14:
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
“When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
Just in case you are not yet convinced about how true biblical prophets speak nothing at all like so many Western preachers today, consider one last verse – verse 21:
How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
Hmm, such words are certainly not what we hear from the modern-day ‘let’s stay positive and uplifting’ sort of preachers. Indeed, they would accuse Isaiah and all the others of being far too legalistic and judgmental and negative and gloomy. ‘Lighten up and tell people something pleasing and welcoming,’ they would say.
Make no mistake however: I am not saying there is no good news to be found in Isaiah, or the prophets, or the rest of Scripture. But it is predicated on, and based upon, the necessary prior bad news of our sinful condition. It makes no sense to speak of a saviour until we first understand that we are in desperate need of being saved – saved from sin and self.
And this is true in the New Testament as well. Think of the book of Romans for example where the opening chapters lay out some pretty hardcore bad news, which is then followed up by the good. That is always the order we must follow. Sure, our false shepherds think we should just pour out sweet nothings from the pulpit, but they are nothing but sweet lies.
Getting back to Isaiah 1, let me offer a bit of commentary on it. In the introduction to his commentary on Isaiah, Derek Thomas says this: “Isaiah’s entire message is bounded, as between two book-ends, by the word ‘rebelled’ (1:2; 66:24). Five times in this first chapter, God charges the Old Testament church with rebellion (1:2, 5, 20, 23, 28) and he repeats the charge on eleven other occasions. Behind the accusation lies a history of unfaithfulness to God’s covenant, his solemn promise entered into with his people.”
Bear in mind what is happening here. It is not just the non-Christian who needs to hear the bad news. God’s people are not exempt from this. The true believer will often find himself giving hard words to both groups – and that is the most loving thing that can be done.
One last quotation, this time from Raymond Ortlund and his expository commentary on Isaiah. He says Isaiah 1 is all about “Our urgent need: A new self-awareness”. He writes:
We may feel good about ourselves. But what if God thinks we’ve done wrong, a lot of wrong, and not much right? What if he wants to talk to us about it because he also has a remedy for us? What if he can see that our self-protection is really self-imprisonment? God lovingly confronts us with truths embarrassing enough to save us.
What is conviction of sin? It is not an oppressive spirit of uncertainty or paralyzing guilt feelings. Conviction of sin is the lance of the divine Surgeon piercing the infected soul, releasing the pressure, letting the infection pour out. Conviction of sin is a health-giving injury. Conviction of sin is the Holy Spirit being kind to us by confronting us with the light we don’t want to see and the truth we’re afraid to admit and the guilt we prefer to ignore. Conviction of sin is the severe love of God overruling our compulsive dishonesty, our willful blindness, our favorite excuses. Conviction of sin is the violent sweetness of God opposing the sins lying comfortably undisturbed in our lives. Conviction of sin is the merciful God declaring war on the false peace we settle for. Conviction of sin is our escape from malaise to joy, from attending church to worship, from faking it to authenticity. Conviction of sin, with the forgiveness of Jesus pouring over our wounds, is life.
In Isaiah chapter 1, God is telling us the truth about ourselves. Let’s not be fooled by our polished appearances and our stylish theories of the darling self. They’ll be the death of us. The unflattering portrait of Isaiah 1 is God’s way of disturbing us until we start asking the courageous Godward questions that can breathe life back into us.
The first chapter of Isaiah shows us the “before” picture — what we are, left to ourselves. Later prophecies in the book piece together the “after” picture — what God promises to make of everyone he saves. By the end of the book, what God achieves is not simply a patched-up version of you and me. His grace will create new heavens and a new earth (65:17; 66:22). Isaiah 1 opens the way to our God-glorification by deconstructing our self-glorification.
That is always the way it must be. Until we can see ourselves as God sees us, we will never see any need of his help – of his redemption. It is only when God graciously yet firmly reveals to us the utter horror and stench of our sin, and our hopelessness in ever delivering ourselves out of this mess, that we can begin to turn to God and let him remedy the situation.
Thus it is always the Christlike thing to do: to tell people the bad news. They really do need to hear it. As John Stott put it: “We cannot come to Christ to be justified until we have first been to Moses, to be condemned.” And again:
Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit the need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested us and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for our justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.
Or as Charles Colson rightly said:
Formulas don’t convert people; slick slogans and cute phrases are no substitute for hard spiritual truth. In our well intentioned effort to reach unsaved masses, we often make the gospel message itself sound easy, nonthreatening, a painless answer to all of life’s ills. We portray a loving God who forgives all and asks nothing in return. Now, that may tickle the ears of this pleasure seeking generation however this is nothing less than heresy. We must challenge presuppositions, not only of society as a whole but of the evangelical subculture as well. The gospel of Jesus Christ must be the bad news of the conviction of sin before it can be the Good News of redemption. The truth is revealed in God’s Holy Word; life can be lived only in absolute and disciplined submission to its authority.
It is time to start proclaiming the whole counsel of God – to both the lost and to fellow believers. Away with a mushy, sentimental and feel-good gospel. People need to hear solid, biblical truth. And it will always be to their eternal advantage to hear such hard truths – no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel at first.