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Prosperity, Popularity, and Other Problem Gospels

God commands boldness because it’s the only manner of speaking about Jesus that comes from the overflow of our love for Him. “Now when [the rulers and elders] saw the boldness of Peter and John, … they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). A bold witness speaks out of personal experience, so it is unafraid. Unafraid of how others will view me. Unafraid if people reject me. Unafraid of all but God, whom I hear saying, “Don’t peddle My Son. He’s not damaged goods, and you’re just My mouthpiece. You don’t have to cheapen the message with your cleverness. It’s free and eternal but not for everyone. Just give it out boldly; I will decide who responds.” That’s why Paul called such peddling “disgraceful, underhanded ways,” challenging us to put horizontal methods aside: “we have renounced” them (2 Corinthians 2:17). Don’t peddle the gospel! Don’t sneak up on people. Don’t be subtle, clever, or even strategic. Just be plain, and simple, direct, sincere, open, and bold. Are we possibly blind to ways we might be peddling the gospel? Am I? Are you?

1: Relational Gospel—Receive Christ because we are friends.
Popularized in the 1970s by the book Friendship Evangelism, this method has been so broadly circulated in the Western world that it is considered to be irrefutably effective. Make friends. Take them to baseball games. Wait for them to drop their guard and count you a confidant. Then somewhere down the road, a week, a month, a year, a decade from now, you will earn the right to share Christ and maybe they will be saved, but either way you won’t lose the relationship. In the thousands of baptisms we have witnessed, I cannot recall hearing the “friendship evangelism” story. Oh sure, “somebody invited me to church,” or, “a friend reached out in my time of need and shared the gospel,” I have heard countless versions of those. But the “Jesus guy sees stranger, befriends him or her for the purpose of sharing Christ, earns the right through extended servanthood and exemplary love over long period of time, so that stranger, facing no personal crisis of any kind, jumps off the ship of selfishness and chooses Jesus just because of the compelling example of Jesus guy”—that one I haven’t heard. I am not saying it’s never happened. I am saying it’s not typical, it’s not biblical, it’s not bold, and it’s not working very well in the western church. The power of the gospel is not in the relational capacity of the witness but in the message itself. Friendship evangelism, lifestyle evangelism, relational evangelism—all of it flows from our desire to avoid what cannot be avoided. I will say it again, if you are not willing to be the aroma of death to those who are perishing, you can’t be the aroma of life to those who are being saved. The idea of having conversations with a person for months or years to “earn the right” to talk to him or her about Jesus betrays an elevation of the role of human persuasion in evangelism that just doesn’t square with the Gospels or the book of Acts. Now, I’m not talking about enemy evangelism. Of course we should be kind and live a life of integrity and be sensitive to the Spirit about when to speak up boldly, but bottom line, it’s not about you.

2: Renown Gospel—receive Christ because impressive people do.
In this method a person, or more likely, a public figure whose fame has been lagging of late, will profess faith in Christ and experience a surge in popularity as churches seek to capitalize on the person’s fame and boost attendance by having him or her speak. Sadly, the sudden rise to Christian celebrity status takes the novice convert to places where he or she is vulnerable to disillusionment, and departure from the “Christian phase” comes too often and too quickly. The worst part of this is not the immature believers who feel validated in, say, Bob Dylan’s love for Jesus; they seem to recover fine when he says, “That’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity.” The worst part is when the people “reached” start “following” Jesus in hopes of picking up some celebrity magic and drop Christ without really knowing Him when the celebrity moves on to another phase.

I remember in youth ministry, a weightlifting team that came to town. They got a few Christian bodybuilders up on stage, bending metal bars in half or breaking ice with their foreheads, and the kids would sit in the audience spellbound. At the end of the show, the guy would say, “And I love Jesus Christ.” So a kid thinks to himself, I’d love to have muscles like that. I’d love to be able to break stuff with my head. Maybe if I had Jesus, I could do that.

We can’t “impress” people into salvation. That is peddling God’s Word. It is surely well-intentioned, but it ends up being manipulative and hurtful to kids struggling with sin and all that Jesus came to save us from. Those kids need a bold Holy Spirit appeal to their conscience, not a bait-and-switch “I’m strong and I love Jesus,” which implies maybe you could be strong too if you loved Jesus. A faithful witness to the gospel elevates Christ, not His representatives. Jesus doesn’t need PR; He needs proclamation. Vertical Church is not about God sitting by and watching us convince people they need Jesus to better their horizontal world. God is the seeker, and when we proclaim Jesus boldly, it provokes Him to show up in saving power and conquer the horizontal idols that hold human hearts.

3: Reasonable Gospel—receive Christ because it makes sense or it’s easy.
Here we confuse simplicity and ease. The message of salvation through faith in Christ is so simple a six-year-old can understand, but it is not easy. Formulaic gospels that oversimplify or intellectualize the gospel can leave the “new convert” in the same old situation, because the darkened heart has never truly been penetrated. When we replace boldness with blandness, we get light on repentance and too quick in delivery. Getting saved isn’t a drive-through or a drive-by experience, and Four Spiritual Laws, the Romans Road, Steps to Peace with God that seek to make the gospel accessible run the risk of being superficial. Jesus never hid the cost of following Him, and it is great sin when we do. It’s like the personal trainer who says, “Don’t run, just walk, not sixty minutes, just thirty, not every day, just two to three times per week.” If the workout gets stripped to the place everyone wants in, it has lost its power to make a person truly fit. We must hold to the simplicity of the gospel without hurrying the decision or hiding the cost. The gospel costs a person everything. Jesus is the celebrated guest at the greatest banquet of all time. Jesus is the treasure hidden in the field. Jesus is the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46, 22:1-14).

     You give up everything for Him.
     You give up your sin for a Savior.
     You give up yourself for a Master.
     You give up your hopes and dreams for His eternal purposes.

Choosing to follow Jesus means resigning as chairman of the board of your life and asking Christ to sit at the head of the table. That is not an easy decision and it is not arrived at by rational means alone. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). When you see yourself as convincing people to trust Christ, you tend toward leaving out the parts that might hinder your goal, but when you see Jesus as the true messenger and yourself as just a mouthpiece, you are freed up to share the gospel with boldness. “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom… [Why, Paul?], that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

4: Resource Gospel—receive Christ because your life will improve immensely.
“Don’t you want to be healthy? Don’t you want to be wealthy? Don’t you want to have some piece of paradise here on earth? Jesus Christ is the best investment you will ever make. Put the Son of God in your portfolio, and your life will take off like a rocket.” We have all seen the commercials on television inducing us to buy a vegetable slicer by adding other worthless items: “And even that’s not all. If you order your Vege-omatic in the next twenty minutes, you will also get this handy-dandy paring knife absolutely free.” Nothing cheapens the message of eternal salvation in Christ more than telling people it comes with a new car. We should be deeply offended by anyone who claims to be a minister of the gospel promising people things God doesn’t promise them. Even where “health wealth” has not invaded the church, we can slip into a more subtle version of this error. Jesus Christ promises us a cross to carry, a sword in place of peace, and an exacting accountability for those who claim Him as Lord. Any assuring people of benefits Jesus doesn’t promise or hiding the cost of following Him is a total break with the kind of gospel work revealed in the Gospels themselves.

Each of these erroneous gospel iterations seem to have incubated in the environment of a sincere desire to see people saved, but when we want decisions more than we want disciples, we get tares instead of true converts and Ichabod, departed glory for the church.

Excerpted from Vertical Church.

Authors: James MacDonald

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