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 Cowper; but only after the “violated law” has spoken out its thunder. Evangelicals in the past agreed, likewise, that resistance to the gospel stemmed from a far more radical problem than lack of information: “The last place to which a sinner ever betakes himself for relief is to Jesus Christ,” said Charles G. Finney. “Sinners had rather be saved in any other way in the world. They had rather make any sacrifice, go to any expense, or endure any suffering, than just throw themselves as guilty lost rebels upon Christ alone for salvation.… It cuts up all their self-righteousness, and annihilates their pride.”
Are evangelicals today undermining the gospel by forgetting the nature of evil? Is it possible that we are witnessing the development of what once would have been a contradiction in terms—a romantic or sentimental gospel? Promoting evangelism or bolstering self-esteem may seem far easier if you represent man’s plight as a mere fly in the ointment rather than a poisoned well. Yet glib sentimentalism may distort the essence of our faith.
To be sure, no evangelical church or organization has changed its creeds. But that is not the issue. Doctrinal statements have always moved snail-like in relation to what people actually believe and practice. The gospel delivered from our pulpits today may not reflect the gospel in our statements of faith. The gospel understood in the pew may not equal the gospel proclaimed so simply and powerfully by the revered fathers of the faith. We can isolate three symptoms of a debased romantic piety.
Justification by faith, reliance on the Bible alone, conservative theology, personal rather than social ethics—all of these receive some attention in discussions of what it means to be a “born again” Christian. Yet, ask the question, “What does it mean to be an evangelical?” Then we hear much about a living relationship with Christ, a faith of the heart rather than of the head; of the born-again experience itself, a point-in-time conversion or awakening; and of the evangelistic zeal that compels those who have been born again to share their faith and to win the lost.
Piety, conversion, evangelism—all have long been evangelical distinctives. But scant attention is given to the burning issue that Luther, Wesley, Whitefield, or Edwards faced in clarifying what it meant to be an evangelical. They believed that human nature was fallen, and that the Bible’s view of man forsook glib moralism and took seriously “the chartless darkness of the human heart.”
However prone we are to see the sternness of the law and the sweetness of the gospel as opposites, the classic evangelical message was that the experience of the latter depended entirely on first experiencing the former. The majestic Reformation view of grace followed, not accidentally, a spiritual diagnosis that sin was no mild disease of the soul. It was a cancer that demanded radical surgery. The evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century again brought into sharp relief the paradox of the gospel: that it must crush self-righteousness before uplifting the contrite; that it must root out self-centeredness before offering consolation; that it must kill off self-will before unveiling the power to live by. “For the law must be preached to self-righteous sinners,” said George Whitefield. “We must [beware] of healing before we see sinners wounded lest we should say peace, peace, where there is no peace. Secure sinners must hear the thundering of Mount Sinai, before we bring them to Mount Zion.… Every minister must be a Boanerges, a son of thunder, as well as a Barnabas, a son of consolation.”
We live in a culture dominated by the quest for peace of mind, self-fulfillment, and self-sufficiency. The tracts for our times are the smash best sellers I’m O.K.: You’re O.K., Your Erroneous Zones (a self-help pep talk), Pulling Your Own Strings, and Looking Out for #1. By any standard the message in these books is light years removed from the call of men like Wesley, who argued that the gospel applied only to “mere sinners, inwardly and outwardly self-destroyed, bringing nothing to God but ungodliness only, pleading nothing … but sin and misery.” Yet what seems to be in the works today is a convenient marriage of evangelical piety and self-help. This is a union, moreover, based on the assumption that it makes little difference if we replace biblical concepts of moral poverty, selfish blindness, and spiritual nakedness with the more fashionable psychological notions of fear, frustration, and anxiety. All, of course, without damaging the gospel one iota.
The promoters of this marriage seem to say that nothing is lost when traditional ideas are put into a modern idiom. Isn’t it an improvement over the classical evangelical contention that self-satisfaction, however religious, amounted to shaking a clenched fist at heaven to say confused people can relieve their nagging guilt by coming to Christ? Isn’t it an improvement when we picture faith today as a request that Christ overcome our mistakes and remake our lives instead of an admission of foul revolt and utter helplessness? In practice, many evangelicals contend that such changes are nothing more than going the second mile to make the gospel meaningful in the modern world. Is it possible, rather, that what may have begun as sensitive communication of the gospel is fast becoming a misconstruction of the same?
Time and again the gospel has broken in upon people and left them startled, amazed, even dumbstruck that God has acted so mightily on their behalf. Some of the finest hymns in the English language were written to reflect this questioning sense of wonder. “Isn’t all of this just too good to be true?” we hear Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and Samuel Davies saying:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
In wonder lost, with trembling joy,
We take the pardon of our God;
Pardon for crimes of deepest dye,
A pardon bought with Jesus’ blood:
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
These deep emotions welled up within persons who had seen their lives become part of a profound and majestic drama. They could never get over it. To have been apprehended as a traitor and marched in shame to the gallows only to find a new verdict read: full pardon and a royal decree of adoption. To have relived over and over the physician’s stark diagnosis, terminal and incurable, only to wake up healthy. To have known the anguish of thirst and starvation in the desert, only to discover cool milk and rich, sweet honey. To have been ostracized as a stranger in the land, only to find the welcome embrace of family friends. Here is the drama of the gospel.
Why does the gospel seem dull, insipid, even trivial today? We have removed the drama from salvation by underplaying the plight of mankind and overbilling the potential of persons to achieve their own self-fulfillment in Christ. The promise of self-acceptance, power, and status has mesmerized us. We don’t want to be lonely or anxious. And if Christ can give us what we ask and remove what we fear, we’ll sing “He’s everything to me.” We tell ourselves that by accepting Christ we will no longer yearn for anything.
Yet evangelicals who are counseled and coddled, stroked and soothed stumble when the gifts cease. We may have once thought that emphasizing sin dulled the splendor of grace. Self-absorbed evangelicals are learning that those who have been forgiven little also have a desensitized palate to taste grace.
As evangelicals in the past knew a sense of wonder that we do not, they also were gripped by a fear we don’t know. They realized that the most perverse form of evil did not appear in debauchery, blasphemy, and drunkenness, but in the smug and pious smiles of the self-righteous. The Puritan Thomas Hooker insisted that the real “hellish nature” of sin was that persons in its grip often became outwardly more decent and upright. Following our Lord’s blunt assertions about the whited sepulchre of pharisaism, evangelicals have long considered the heart most desperately wicked when, giving little appearance of evil, it smugly dismissed the indictment of being “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.”
When counterfeit faith was considered a distinct possibility, a different light was shed on the process of conversion and doctrine of assurance. The danger was that a person would assent to justification by faith but never relinquish that deep impulse to trust in himself and his own morality. Deceitful as it as, the heart could exert complicated gymnastics in order to avoid the admission of moral bankruptcy. Above all, then, the gospel had to mount a frontal assault on a self-righteousness, as Luther emphasized in the introduction to his commentary on Romans—the proximate instrument of Wesley’s conversion: “The object of this Epistle is to destroy all wisdom and works of the flesh no matter how important these may appear in our eyes or those of others, and no matter how sincere and earnest we might be in their use.” Those who meted out comfort, furthermore, had to do so with great care, lest someone assent to the gospel in self-righteousness and never come to real faith.
We are so busy going in the opposite direction, removing every possible inconvenience that one might have to becoming a Christian, that the danger of self-righteousness is hardly a fleeting nuisance. Why shouldn’t everyone have new life in Christ? If we could just upgrade the banquet a bit and advertise it better, why wouldn’t everyone want to come? It hasn’t crossed our minds, apparently, that some people already may be filled and have need of nothing. To make matters worse, many evangelicals glibly offer assurance of faith (chapter and verse to build an iron-clad case) to anyone who raises the hand or who walks the aisle. The danger of counterfeit faith simply has evaporated, given our overriding assumption that human instincts are oriented toward rather than away from truth. Although evangelicals in the past assumed that persons would do almost anything to avoid coming to Christ on his terms, we assume that they will do almost anything to find him.
The same romantic view of human nature is evident also in a form of Christian living that is shorn of self-doubt. Evangelicals have always stressed the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives; they have also recognized the danger of self-deception, what the Puritan John Cotton called “man’s perverse subtlety in inventing ways of backsliding.” We hear all too few sermons that begin to peel away the skin or husks of self-righteousness. We take our own piety far too seriously, never asking whether it has actually become a mask for self-interest. We forget that pride is the worst spiritual cancer and quenches the purifying work of the Spirit. “The real test of being in the presence of God,” J. I. Packer has said, “is that you either forget yourself or see yourself as a small, dirty object.” In our own day the growth of a form of piety that gives free rein to the ego is sufficient evidence that something fundamental has gone awry.
Within the evangelical community today numerous interest groups vie for attention, each laying out what seems to it the most biblical agenda for the church. Evangelism and missions, a Christian approach to social action and politics, a correct view of biblical authority, “body-life” within the local church, “inner healing” for the Christian psyche, the fullness of the Holy Spirit. All of these rightly demand our attention in one way or another. But all too easily they assume that every Sunday school child, every person in the pew, already knows the gospel and that the problems of the church today result from not fleshing out a biblical life style. Amid such a flurry of activity, we are in danger of losing sight of the foundation of our faith: that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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