One of the thief characteristics of the Protestant faith as it has come to us from the Reformation has been the preaching of the Scriptures by word of mouth. I put it like this to avoid the recent tendency to think of preaching in a general sense, such as setting a good example, sharing one’s goods with those less fortunate than oneself, or worshiping through sacrament and ritual.

About two months after I came to my first parish the fire whistle blew one Sunday afternoon. Being an honorary member of the Fire Department, I immediately left the dinner table and followed the line of cars. Three boys had hit a tree trying to make a curve at 100 miles an hour. Two of the boys were sent to the hospital. The third was pinned under the dashboard of the car. He had a gaping hole in his forehead and kept crying out, “I don’t want to die!” Everyone was embarrassed and confused; all seemed to look to me for help and guidance. I tried to comfort the boy by saying, “You’re not going to die,” and ordered blankets to cover him and cardboard for the broken window to keep out the cold. The boy was extricated from the wreck and taken to the hospital. There he died. I had been a counselor, a ready leader, an efficient first-aid man. The community could be proud of its minister. Yet all the time I had realized that the boy was fatally injured and had not said one word about the Gospel; I was ashamed of it.

One might raise questions in a case like this. How could I have known the boy was going to die? Why tell a dying person he is going to die by giving him the Gospel? Had I not ministered the best that I could? Since everyone else was confused, was it not my responsibility to act as I did? These arguments sounded good that day at the wreck. But in the quietness of my study they sounded terribly weak.

As I have related this incident to a number of people, they have said in an embarrassed tone that there have been times when they too have been ashamed of the Gospel. In fact, does not this feeling prevail among many of us who have been called to proclaim the saving acts of God in Christ?

Often we hear it said, “The Church is irrelevant to our times.” We try to pretend that sin in our times is different from the sin there was when Christ walked upon this earth and when Paul preached “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Or we are told, “The language of the Bible just doesn’t speak to people today.”

Let me deal first with the question of relevance. We are in a great push for racial equality, slum clearance, and middleclass affluence. Smut and indecent movies, dope rackets, and exploitation of the poor are all around us. We talk as if all this were new and as if ancient Jerusalem had no social problems. We give the impression that our sin is unique and therefore needs a new cure. But if we believe what archaeologists say, then we must realize that Jerusalem was overcrowded and that people lived there in poverty. Our slums are, if anything, better than theirs. And immorality is far from new; Paul had to deal with it in Corinth. The difference is that we have new and more sophisticated ways (such as TV and movies) of fostering immorality. The admonition in Ephesians, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,” suggests that there was juvenile delinquency in the first century. Did they have racial problems? Well, the Jews hated the Samaritans and the Gentiles, and vice versa. And more than half the population of the Roman Empire was in some kind of slavery.

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Equally groundless is the notion that the Bible doesn’t speak to our society. “ ‘Redemption,’ ‘regeneration,’ ‘justification’ are words of another age and our people can’t understand them,” some tell us. But “justification” is a legal term, and we live in a world of legal relations. “Redemption” had great meaning in the first-century days of slavery when human beings could be bought and sold, and it still has meaning today. Green, red, and yellow “redemption” stamps are a million-dollar business in our land. The radio tells us how a certain product can “regenerate” our automobile engines.

Excuses for not preaching the Gospel are futile. The real reason we fail is that we are ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. There are even times when we try to evade our preaching obligation by teaching the Gospel. But the great New Testament scholar, C. H. Dodd, says that there is greater emphasis in the New Testament on preaching than on teaching. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15). According to Dodd, the word here translated “preach” stands not for the action of the preacher but for that which he preaches, his message. This message, the Apostle tells us, is a message of power. In the first chapter of Romans the word “power” is used three times: once in verse 4, in relation to Christ as the Son of God (“… declared to be the Son of God with power …”); again in verse 16 (“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation …”); and again in verse 20 (“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead …”). Paul states that the great power that has made the universe and raised the dead is the power of the Gospel of salvation.

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In New Testament days the method of bringing this salvation to men was preaching. “… it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). If the method was preaching, the content was the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “But we preach Christ crucified …” (1 Cor. 1:23). “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain …” (1 Cor. 15:14). And if the method was preaching and the content of that preaching was the death and resurrection of Christ, then the results were for them that believed. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12).

Though we ministers may be good sociologists, fine psychologists, wonderful scholars, respected counselors, and community leaders, let us remember that our calling demands that we be first of all preachers, proclaimers of the saving acts of God in Jesus Christ. How can we be ashamed of the Gospel?

-Burkett L. Smith, Center Evangelical United Brethren Church, Silver Lake, Indiana

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