Christ: Central or Peripheral in Evangelism?

What I am about to say should be so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I am becoming more and more convinced that this truth is being severely neglected in churches today: The person and work of Christ must be the content and center of our evangelism and preaching. Just this past December, I attended a Christmas outreach event at a local church (here in Central Thailand) where the primary evangelistic message had to do entirely with the benefits of believing, i.e. all the good things that will happen to you as a result of believing. The speaker used many funny and engaging stories to help his audience understand that when you believe in Jesus, you can expect to have joy, peace, eternal life, and help from God. There was one thing that was glaringly absent from his message: Christ!

As part of the Bible reading plan that I am using this year, I’ve started to read through the book of Acts and in the first few chapters, we see plenty of examples of the content of preaching in the early church: Christ. In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he basically tells his listeners that God sent Jesus, you crucified him, and God raised him, so don’t make any mistake that this Jesus is both Lord and Christ, i.e. Savior (Acts 2:22-36). Again, after the beggar is healed at the temple, Peter stands up and gives the a very similar message: God sent his servant Jesus, you betrayed him to death, you acted in ignorance but it was God’s plan, so repent so your sin may be blotted out because God sent Jesus to turn you from wickedness (Acts 3:11-26). After this Peter and John are arrested, and when examined by the authorities as to how they healed the guy, they say the same thing: this man was healed by Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom you crucified, God raised, but whom you rejected, and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:7-12).

Biblical evangelism and Biblical preaching must have the person and work of Christ at it’s center. It may be more appealing to preach about a Jesus who primarily wants to give us stuff but it is only the sinless Savior who died on the cross because of God’s grace toward wicked sinners who is worth following. A Jesus who just gives us stuff is more like Santa Claus than God. And nobody follows Santa Claus. They just get stuff from him and say, “Thanks Santa, see you next year for some more stuff.” Santa does not inspire devotion or obedience, and requires no repentance. If only the benefits of believing in Christ are preached, and not the person and work of Christ, then people are easily misled as to the nature of the true Gospel. And the Gospel is wonderful! To think that wicked people who have hated God who is so merciful and gracious could actually be forgiven and our lives redeemed from bondage to sin and from the prospect of God’s judgment, is a fantastic and almost unbelievable thought. I want to preach Christ and repentance towards Christ for the forgiveness of sins so that God and sinner might be reconciled. This is the wonderful Gospel message and this is the Biblical message. Anything less is not the Gospel.

 

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Whatever Happened to Repentance?

There is a trend in modern evangelism to replace the language of “repentance” with “opening your heart”, “receiving Christ”, and making a “decision for Christ”. I hear it when people share the Gospel with non-Christians and I read it in a lot of evangelistic literature that it being published. Far from an isolated phenomenon, I have noticed this in both the United States and in Thailand where I serve as a missionary. I am sure that the same is true in much of the rest of the world as well since the trends in Western evangelicalism, whether for good or for ill, have a way of making the rounds. In this case, the de-emphases upon the need to repent is a serious compromise of the Gospel and can create a wrong understanding of what it means to become a Christian.

Let me give an example of what I mean and why it is so serious. Sitting in front me right now is an evangelistic tract called “The Gift of Love”. It is put out by one of the largest (if not THE largest) publisher of evangelistic Christian tracts in Thailand. They have a number of good tracts and I don’t want to detract from the quality thinking and writing that they have produced in a number of cases. However, the way that this little tract, “The Gift of Love”, ends rather troubles me when I compare it to evangelism in the Bible. Near the end of the tract, it says (in Thai), “The opportunity to be saved from sin is right before you... hurry and open your heart to receive this gift of love right now. Don’t miss this opportunity to receive this gift that God wants to give you. If you want to receive this gift of love, all you have to do is confess your sins and and ask for help from God like this...” and a sample prayer as to how to receive Christ follows.

New Year, Old Problems

I’ve never been all that excited about New Year’s because the mere change of a date on the calendar doesn’t change anything that really matters. This morning, I went out to run an errand and when I stopped off to get a coffee, I saw a familiar motorcycle parked out in front of the coffee stand that hugged the curb. Coming around the car, I saw a guy from church that had stopped by to borrow our guitar the previous night. It was nine o’clock in the morning and there he was with a big bottle of beer, strumming the guitar and hanging out with his friend, the guy selling coffee. I don’t have anything against alcohol in general, given it is consumed in moderation and with appropriate consideration to who your company is. However, I KNOW that this guy has a drinking problem.

My initial impression of him, about a year or so ago, was that he is friendly fellow with a good head on his shoulders, and perhaps some potential for leadership in the church. That initial impression has proved to be inaccurate as it has become obvious that he has a drinking problem that doesn’t concern him as it should. On numerous occasions (especially after I haven’t seen him for a while), he tells me that he hasn’t forgotten about God and that he is still

Thai Political Crisis

The Thai political crisis continues to worsen as protesters try to bring things to a head in Bangkok, shutting down both the new Suwanaphum airport and the old Don Muang airport, effectively closing the country off to much of the world. The protesters demand the resignation of the government and the government says no, but refuses to do anything other than riot police containing the crowds. The news is constantly changing here so if you want latest, I would recommend looking at the website for the Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com) or the International Herald Tribune (www.iht.com). The Bangkok Post will have more up to date information although the IHT will have a more readable summary of the events and the context of the current crisis.

Our family lives two hours north of Bangkok, and thus plenty far away from any of the disturbances. Everything seems to be confined to Bangkok right now. However, after I preach in Ayuthaya this Sunday, we'll head down to OMF's Mission Home in Bangkok, which is not far from the Don Muang airport, one of the sites of mass protests and some violence. We will drive in to the mission home the back way, using the outer ring road and Expressway from the north, so we won't have to

Valuing our Elderly

The following two stories from the lives of believers at the PhraBaht church (with whom we work) have reminded me of the special care that we need to take to value the elderly among us. “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. Honor widows who are truly widows.” 1 Timothy 5:1-3

Pim’s mother was discouraged. Weak and bedridden because of diabetes, she often had thoughts of death and recently she had been having dreams about her late older sister who was calling her to come join her. ‘What’s the point of living?’ she thought to herself. ‘It would be better if I were to die.’ She would often vent her frustrations to her daughter and teenage grandson. One Sunday morning before church her grandson got tired of listening to her complain. Rather coldly, he said to her ‘If you want to die, then die already’ Those words cut her deeply and she refused to be taken to church that day.

While Pim’s mother lay at home with thoughts of death and worthlessness, the believers at church had different thoughts. They missed her. After church, Sun and Muay visited her to talk, pray, and read the Bible. A few days later, Arui came to encourage her. By the time Sunday came around again, her spirits had perked up a bit and she was glad to see us when we came to pick her up and bring her to church. I don’t think that the preacher that day knew what had

False Assurance

There is a Thai Christian with whom I've done evangelism and visitation several times and the way that he shares the Gospel worries me. His Gospel presentation is quite brief, consisting of only a few points, namely - 1) There is a God 2) You're a sinner and God sends sinners to hell 3) You want to go to heaven and not hell, right? 3) So, if you want to go to heaven, believe in Jesus because he died for your sins so you don't have to go to hell 4) God healed my ankle and he can help you too if you pray to him. This is the gist of his Gospel presentation and it is my friend's belief that as long as someone consents to say "the prayer of faith" (or "the sinner's prayer"), then that person is good to go, as it were. He would love for that person to come to church and grow in their new faith but even if that doesn't happen, at least he is saved from hell.

While my friend's desire for people to be saved from hell is a commendable one, I am concerned that his evangelistic method leaves out some important elements of the Biblical evangelism (helping people see the severity of their sin in light of God's wrath, the necessity of repentance, the Lordship of Christ, and cost of discipleship). The preaching of this kind of truncated Gospel is not a phenomenon unique to Thailand, but is quite common in evangelicalism in America (and in much of the world, I imagine). This morning as I was reading about John the Baptist in Luke 3, I was struck by how radically different John's evangelism was from my friend's all-too-common modern way of evangelism. In Luke 3:7, we see crowds of Jews coming out to John to be baptized. In modern parlance, we might call them "seekers" (I actually have a problem with the term "seekers" but that discussion can be left for another time). These are Jews who would seem to have a spiritual interest in the preaching of John the Baptist but instead of welcoming them with open arms and encouraging them to believe his message, read their Bibles, go to synagogue, and to rely on faith and not feelings, this is what John says to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9). Wow! John really lays into them, doesn't he? No encouragement there! Only rebuke is to be had for those who claim to be believers but aren't bearing any evidence of being believers. John wants to shake them out of their reliance on external factors (lineage, being religious, etc) and get them to see that true faith and true heart change always results in a changed life. If someone doesn't have a changed life, then that person needs to be shaken out of their false assurance of salvation and helped to see that he is not really saved because he does not have a life that reflects true faith. This is the same point that James makes when he says, "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17)

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