I didn’t grow up in a Christian family or in church and I still managed to ask Jesus in my heart three times by the age of 15. As a kid, it was kind of like fire insurance, something to tag on in case Hell was real. As a teenager, it was because I was invited to church and the preacher told me I had a God shaped hole in my heart only He could fill, and that resonated with me. Tears running down my face I raised my hand to accept Jesus. Christian kids from school smiled and got teary and gave me hugs. I went home with a One Minute Daily Devotional and felt pretty certain that now I was headed for Heaven.
Soon after, I went to the local Christian book store. I found a Teen Study Bible and bought the only poster available that didn’t look like it was for pansies. It was black with scrawled writing and a bloody cross, and I thought it looked pretty hardcore. Not only that but it had some pretty profound words- words that truly did speak to me and testify to my soul as being true: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).”
But there was a serious problem, one I recognized over, and over, and over again, as my eyes rested on that poster above my bedroom mirror for the next three years. I had never denied myself. I had never laid down my life to follow Him. I hadn’t lain down anything. Not only that, but there was nothing in me of strength or desire to be able to lay it down.
There were attempts- some pretty heart wrenching attempts, to cut myself off from sin. But it was by sheer grit. It was both futile and joyless. It felt like putting a knife to my own heart. See, I had never experienced a new nature. I knew nothing of the power of the Holy Spirit. I simply had not been born again. The more I tried to separate from sin, the further it pulled me into its grasp. I was a slave; Sin was my master.
What could I do? I tried a bit of works-righteousness, but knew it wasn’t good enough. That tiny bit of heartless good I mustered up was not going to erase all my sin.
You could call this the season of “my screaming conscience.” It really was unbearable. I remember attending an evening teen church service on occasion. I liked it because they sang songs by the Smashing Pumpkins before the worship time. I suppose they were seeker sensitive. But one night, the speaker touched on my sin. My heart rose to my throat and I began to shake. I went upstairs to the bathroom. I felt like throwing up. Then and there I had my first full fledged panic attack. It was the first of many.
I often skipped classes and wrote poetry. One day I was writing that I felt like the blood of Jesus was hanging over me. I described it as a soaked rag hovering above me, needing to be wrung out, needing to be accessed in order to have it wash my sins. I remember sitting there thinking “but how is it the blood of Jesus washes sins?” See, I had heard that Jesus died for my sins because He loved me, but no one had ever preached it to me in a way that made sense. Why did my sin require Jesus to have to die? How did Him dying help my desperate case?
This is why friends, if we really care about people, we need to be careful to “not shrink from declaring… the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27),” as far as we are able. The gospel is not that Jesus loved you so much He was willing to die in order to fill a God shaped hole in your heart. The risks associated with preaching a seeker sensitive, felt-needs gospel, far outweigh the supposed benefits. And what are those benefits, in the mind of the preacher really (I am thinking primarily of pastors/teachers)? Increased church attendance? Moral reform? Popularity? What are the risks for their hearers? They are diverse and many: false assurance, moralism, futility, despair, ship wrecked faith, religion without power, complacency, confusion, and the list could go on and on.
They think their sins are forgiven, but they don’t know why. They know they should try to stop sinning, yet they are not changed and cannot produce good fruit. They must be endlessly kept by a plethora of church activities, or else they will simply slide back to their own ways. Worst yet, unless their ears be opened, they are heading towards Hell, but must keep trying to convince themselves this cannot be so since they are “Christian” now. But the one who bears good fruit is “the one who hears the word and understands it (Matthew 13:23).”
We must aim for bible based preaching and seek the hearer’s understanding of it. So this is what I suggest:
1) Preach seriously about the sinfulness of man, the wrath of God, and the penalty of Hell. I am convinced, this should be the start of gospel proclamation. People might not like it, but if you care about their souls more than anything else, you will do it, knowing it is for their good.
2) Preach penal substitution. In other words, explain to them that Jesus took the punishment from God that we deserved. He bore our sins and died our death. He paid the price.
Without the first step, the second won’t make sense. Without the second step, the first step has no solution. You preach a message that kills, followed by a message that can make whole. It is also good to stress that people cannot produce this righteousness on their own, but that it can only be granted by trusting in the righteousness Christ provides.
There are more things that can and should be said, but tragically these two steps I believe most essential in gospel preaching, are almost totally passed over by many of today’s preachers. The effects are likely more devastating than they would ever imagine.
So let’s get specific about what Jesus did on the cross. If the salvation of souls hangs on believing the message we share, let’s be more careful about that message than about anything else. Why stop short by saying “Jesus died for your sins,” when explaining why that was necessary and exactly what transpired there, could spare a person like myself years of struggle and confusion?
Finally, thanks be to God alone who has the power to “give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2Corinthians 4:6).” Amen.