The gospel demands ultimate humility—it brings us to our knees.

We live in a day of evangelical optimism. A born-again President speaks of a government “as good and honest and decent and competent and compassionate and filled with love as are the American people.” The thriving evangelical book market offers a steady diet of positive inspiration, spiritual uplift, and successful Christian living. Evangelical visionaries, building multi-million dollar enterprises in television, church growth, and education, have latched onto an upbeat style that is more than vaguely reminiscent of Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie. One of these pastors recently defined faith as building self-confidence, resisting negative thoughts, and tapping the limitless possibilities within ourselves. In a similar vein, a prominent evangelist explained that what keeps people away from Christ is not hardness of heart but simply a misunderstanding of what he has to offer.

Whatever its merits, this approach to Christianity raises serious questions for evangelicals. Most disturbing is a view of human nature that differs greatly from what Christians in the past believed. Such evangelical forebears as Luther, Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards, and Finney would have been amazed to hear that the people of any nation were inclined to good rather than evil. Similarly, they would have winced to hear the gospel explained only as a soothing message of comfort, forgiveness, acceptance, and peace of mind. These evangelicals of another day demonstrated that the majesty of God’s grace could not be seen without having first peered deep into what Augustine called mankind’s “radical apostasy.” The gospel does whisper peace “in strains as sweet as angels use,” declared William ...

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