In yesterday’s podcast, I said that we Christians never “outgrow” John 3:16. I gave a personal example: Even though I’ve been a Christian for 34 years, I realized only recently how desperately I need my career to “save” me. Not eternally, of course: I know that I will only ultimately be saved through faith in Christ. My problem is that I live as if I need something right now—other than Christ—to make me feel good about myself. Specifically, I need to know that I’m doing good work. I need to feel as if I’m “getting ahead” and “climbing the ladder of success”—or name your own cliché.
I hear the voice of the Law (if not God’s Law, then my own): “You must prove your worth. You must live up to your standards. You must accomplish something great. You must justify yourself.”
Isn’t it strange that God has called me to a profession where many of the external measures of career success are missing? After all, few people (I hope) go into pastoral ministry for the money! And it’s hardly a “growth industry.”
So here I am—sick with sin and in need of a real Savior. What do I do? I listen to the gospel again. I remind myself that my worth does not come from any thing, any person, or any idea in this world; it comes from God alone. He has demonstrated my worth by sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross—which meant suffering hell itself—all because he wanted me to be his child. As I said in yesterday’s post, I am infinitely valuable to God because he paid an infinite price to buy my pardon. And he did so without caring about what I would accomplish in my career. God’s embrace of me is based on one condition only—faith in Christ.
Yes, this is a “simple gospel” message. I have not outgrown it. I cannot improve upon it.
I don’t listen to old Billy Graham sermons from the 1960s, for example, and think, “How naïve! If only he would have added these additional points to his message!” No… I listen and think, “This is life-saving medicine!”
This is on my mind, in part, because of a blog post I read recently on the “Ministry Matters” website, a United Methodist-affiliated blog. The author, a retired pastor, began by saying that his post “isn’t about Billy Graham,” yet he took a sideswipe at him using the words of a South African Methodist leader, Peter Storey, who helped organize a preaching rally with Graham in South Africa when the country was still under apartheid. Storey said:
[Graham’s] mandate, he claimed, was to preach the ‘plain and simple gospel.’ The problem is there is no such thing. What he really meant was that he would offer only half the gospel, the half that invited people to face their personal sins without confronting the systems that often did their sinning for them.
Is that true? Was Graham offering only half the gospel?
Where in the New Testament does Jesus or the apostles include “confronting sinful systems” as part of their gospel presentation? (It’s one-half of the gospel, after all. Surely there’s one or two references to it!) Did Philip, in Acts 8, preach only half the gospel—a message of “facing personal sins”—to the Ethiopian eunuch without confronting the sinful system that makes, well… men into eunuchs in the first place? Regardless, I’m sure the Ethiopian eunuch, having lived in Paradise for nearly two millennia, isn’t complaining.
But forget about the specifics of Storey’s criticism of Graham. His words (and the effect to which his words are put by the article’s author) demonstrate the tendency within Methodism that I mentioned in yesterday’s post: The gospel—as represented by Graham and the very personal nature of John 3:16 (note: “whosoever” is a singular pronoun meaning “any individual”)—isn’t enough (unless you redefine what the gospel is, as Storey does). Not that the gospel isn’t necessary, but the point of the Christian life is to get on with it—to go about “transforming the world.”
The scare quotes are deliberate: Many years ago the UMC changed its Book of Discipline to say that the mission of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” That was simple and to the point. Several years later, it was changed again: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Why was that added? Jesus says nothing about the “transformation of the world,” for example, in his Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. While I’m sure “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” will play a positive role in the world’s transformation (as history attests), it’s hardly the aim of evangelism, as Billy Graham understood.
Moreover, we can’t change the world. Only God can. And most of that change takes place in the eschaton. But, of course, semi-Pelagianism is also a Methodist tendency (not that proper Wesleyan-Arminian theology leads there).
My point is, this getting on with the alleged “second half” of the gospel feels like Law all over again. (Just what I need! ) Even if I were successfully transforming the world (which I’m sure I’m not), my left hand would certainly know what my right hand was doing—at all times! And then, like the Pharisee in the parable, I would be left in the cold while the tax collector—whose very livelihood opposed the world’s transformation—goes home justified.
But that’s Jesus, like Billy Graham, only preaching the “first half” of the gospel!