Are Our Churches Preaching the Gospel?
by John Hendryx
This year my wife and I traveled to Denver, Colorado to attend the worldâ€™s largest Christian publisherâ€™s conference and retail show. It was quite an experience and probably the most massive coming together of any industry people I have ever seen. Buyers came in the conference with carry on luggage so they could take away the truckloads of free materials given away. Everyone loaded up on single copies of new books given out (some good, some not so good) many of which the authors were signing on the spot. And since we got to meet and connect with many persons in the industry face to face our trip was a great success. Below are some thoughts that I had about our time in Denver.
Are Our Churches Preaching the Gospel?
The next morning after we arrived in Denver it was a Sunday so we went to a local conservative/evangelical Presbyterian church. I was impressed by the facility and doubly impressed that they had a massive book library available to members so they might check books out for free. It seemed like a very literate church and one which we could be confident understood the gospel. That day there was an important guest missionary preacher and so I was most interested in what he had to say given that missions was our personal vocation overseas for over ten years. I want to share a little about what he preached on that morning because it is important to see an obvious trend in both our churches and in the Christian publishing industry.
The Text he chose was the encounter Jesus had with the Rich Young Ruler. He read the story â€¦ but only the first part of it:
â€œAnd behold, a man came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.â€
â€œExcellentâ€, I thought.. This happens to be one of the most interesting events that took place in Jesus' life. If we obey the commandments, Jesus asserts, then we will have eternal life. The man then claimed that he already did so. I noticed immediately, however, that our guest speaker did not finish the story as it was written in the text but I was still eager to hear what he had to say about the portion he did read. But instead of preaching from the word, he began speaking of another "ruler" who the preacher claimed actually did obey our Lordâ€™s voice in this way; a man who really gave all his possessions toward the advancement of the kingdom. He said this person was the head of a missionary movement in the 18th century and I immediately knew he meant the Moravians, and more specifically, Count Zinzendorf. He then went on to tell a very inspiring story from history about Zinzendorfâ€™s obedience to God and thus doing what the Rich Young Ruler did not do. I even learned some very encouraging new things like a painting entitled â€œFirst Fruitsâ€ which showed peopleâ€™s from every culture that had come to know Christ through the missionary efforts of the Moravians. Those who were surrounding Christâ€™s throne in the painting were the actual paintings of the first convert from each specific nation or people group after they had gone to be with the Lord, so they were actually, at that moment, in Christâ€™s presence as the first fruit of a particular people group (as the painting depicted). Now I must admit that I got a lot out of this as a history lesson even though I had read much about this before. And even though it was a positive story which I would recommend anyone read about, something still bothered me about the preaching. It bothered me in the same way many of the sermons in contemporary evangelical churches bother me. What was it you ask? It was the fact that the text of Scripture preached upon really had little or nothing to do with the sermon at hand, and also, that the Text was actually saying the very opposite of what the preacher was trying to make it say. While the Moravian missionaries are to be commended for their spending their lives, and in many cases deaths, for the work of the Kingdom, that is not what the story of the rich young ruler is about AT ALL. It is my conviction, from many years of careful study, that the Scripture, in its whole counsel, contains either law or gospel wherever you look. When we preach from any Text of Scripture we can always find law, which condemns us, and the gospel of Christ which redeems us. This is true for both Old and New Testaments. Luther once said, â€œThe law is for the proud but he gospel is for the brokenhearted.â€
Well, what was preached to us that Sunday I unfortunately concluded, was really just a spiritual pep-talk. While there may have been very encouraging content, but was it the gospel? Is the pulpit meant to rally the troops with inspiring half-time talks, or be a place to preach Christ crucified? The message to us in the church that morining, if you think about it, really was, â€œWe all just need to be more like Zonzendorf and then Christians would have a greater impact on society.â€ But if you consider this even more closely, when we just give examples in our sermons or witness about how to live, we are setting people up for a fall because it is the preaching of the law without gospel. There was no redemptive element whatsoever to the sermon. It was just a message about how we should behave. While I admit that it was of great interest, the fact is that many who heard the inspirational story will simply go out of church and on Monday be deflated. Unfortunately this is what the vast majority of modern evangelical preachers are teaching from their pulpits. A high percentage of the books available at the convention likewise are merely filled with inspirational pep-talks about how to be a good Christian with Jesus help, of course. It is so close to truth that it is easy to understand how we have slipped into this. But it is, in my opinion, the very cause for the weakness and lack of impact we have on those around us. You see, if we go back to look at the end of the story of the Rich Young Ruler, this is not even remotely the message Jesus was communicating. And the fact that the end of the story was forgotten or overloked by the preacher that day was VERY telling. What does the text say after the place in the text where the preacher left off when the young man went away sad?
And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God ." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
You see the whole point of the story is not that we just need to see the Rich Young Ruler as an antetype and go do the opposite or find someone who did obey Jesus and follow their example. No. Jesus chose the manâ€™s covetousness because he knew this is where this man stumbled the most. In the beginning of the passage the man boasted that he had already obeyed Godâ€™s commandments, but Jesus preached the law to Him and pressed where it hurt most. It was a death blow. Jesus wanted to expose, not only his, but all of our tendencies to trust in something we did. Instead of being happy and boasting that we have obeyed Godâ€™s commandments (or that we should be more like Zinzendorf) the disciples understood the radical degree of perfection for everyone that such a perfect holy law would require. They commented that if this were the case for the young man then there is no hope for anyone, including themselves. EXACTLY! This is what Jesus was saying. And He finishes by revealing that obedience to Godâ€™s law, in this case the forsaking of covetousness, is impossible with man, but with God â€œall things are possible.â€ In other words, the story shows that we are all poor, blind and naked, pitiful and are in desperate need of mercy â€¦ a mercy only God can give through Christ. When this is understood the story is not just a spiritual pep-talk but a major blow to the pride of man while simultaneously a testimony of Godâ€™s infinite mercy. As long as the message we hear from the pulpit is that the rich young ruler did not obey but Zinzendorf did, then we are missing the gospel entirely and preaching only law. As great a work that God did through the Moravians, it is God who gets the glory. Any obedience, repentance or faith in God was because of the grace of God bringing him to an end of himself, not because he just hunkered down and gave it all he had by learning from examples. That great energy of the Moravians sprang forth from the gospel. Again, what makes this or any sermon distinctively Christian? Christ is what makes it Christian. A truly Christian sermon from anywhere in the Bible must take into account the full unfolding drama of redemption and its fulfillment in Christ.
Are Publishers Promoting the Gospel in their Books? The Good and the Bad
Not only did we meet publishers face to face at this conference but met a large number of authors who were signing their new books. Among those we met were C.J. Mahaney, R.C. Sproul and Ray Comfort. It was an honor and a privilege to spend some time chatting with all of them. Dr. Sproul was there promoting his new Reformation Study Bible and I had the opportunity to explain how great an influence his book Willing to Believe had on launching Monergism.com more than four years ago. He has left a great legacy, one for which I am thankful to God. I explained that his ministry had especially been used by God to open my eyes to the importance of the work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation. He said, â€œYou know, John Calvin was actually known as the theologian of the Holy Spirit.â€ Yes we delight in emphasizing the Holy Spirit, who brings glory to Christ, but has been left out of so many modern evangelical sermons in any meaningful way. I left him with some of my bookmarks and I could see his eyes light up when he saw that it was called â€œMonergismâ€ since he himself has worked tirelessly to promote the Augustinian view of Godâ€™s work of grace changing menâ€™s hostile disposition that, in His great mercy, we may believe.
While there were some encouraging trends, other trends in the industry were somewhat disturbing.
Being at the conference I saw with my own eyes that in our era we have most all the Christian texts through history available at our fingertips but it is tragic that we really do not take better advantage of these resources. One of the reasons we fail to do this, I believe, is that there is too much to choose from. The sheer amount of material out there makes it daunting to the individual Christian, especially since about 80% of it probably would have been better had it never been written. That is why Monergism.com and Monergismbooks.com tries to narrow our selection to what is excellent and yet even at our websites there is more than anyone would ever need to read. We only pray that as we increase the selection that we continue to be faithful to provide only that which is worthy of your time. Life is too short to spend of reading worthless nonsense. Since we are doing this ministry full time now, we really need your support so please consider purchasing books through us. We are VERY thankful for the generosity of many of those who frequent the site.
Some Negative Trends in the Industry
The show was excellent and while I was encouraged by some things I saw, yet there were some very negative things that I took away from the conference as well which I would hope you would all pray about. The publishing industry seems to becoming more and more a consumer-driven industry. Speaking with some of the publishers, much of what is good and classic is or will be going out of print to make way for the books people really want, many times meaning a shallow or hallow legalism or example-driven (not gospel driven) content. This is quite the frightening trend since the Scripture should obviously be the driving factor of the content of the books we read. One of the larger publishers even told me that if we wanted any real discount on their books I would have to buy all of their new books each quarter, whether I wanted them or not. This particular publisher, in my opinion, has only 5-6 really good books I know of that are worthy of carrying and would buy in bulk. The rest were titles that have little lasting value. But their policy was to force the customer to buy what they determined you should have in your store (all the new publications) AND THEN you could get better rates on other books. Most publishers are not this way, thankfully, but the persons representing this publisher did not understand why I would not carry a book if it was a good seller. The possibility that some books just had bad theology and that we would not want to subject our readers to them did not occur to them for a moment.
I share this story with you because it impacts all of us. What seems to matters to many publishers these days is the new and the best-sellers, whether or not they are Christ-centered or truly edifying. You can see this when you walk into most of the bookstores that look like Christian boutiques half filled with junk. Many of our churches are trending in the same direction. The pastor wants to find out what the congregation wants and then preach on so takes a poll rather than be Christ-driven from a sound exegesis of the word. When our ears are tickled the numbers may grow, but how meaningful is that? But a recent Business Week magazine article on the church growth movement and how evengelicalism had become a business had a revealing comment. It said that overall the church in the United States is not growing at all. It is flat. But, we ask, what of all the mega-churches that appear to be growing like gangbusters? The reality is that the mega-churches are not unlike when Walmart or Home Depot moves into a small town. The mom and pop shops close down to make room for the big boys. The so-called success of the church growth movement in evangelicalism is due to factors such as these, not because real growth in converts and discipleship is taking place at any sustained level. Just ask yourself, how can the church really grow in truth unless there is a preacher who proclaims Christ and Him crucified?: A preacher who proclaims the gospel, not just half-time pep-talks is the only means God has promised to bless.
Both our pulpits and the publishing industry are trending in a similar direction: to give the people what they want, rather than give us the law, which breaks us, and the gospel which redeems us. Pray that the Lord grant his people the ability to destroy all speculations that set themselves up against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive and make them obedient to Christ. We are thankful for those who are praying for this ministry. Wicked men and demons are particularly interested in attacking those who study, teach and apply Godâ€™s Word. In addition to our current financial difficulties, juggling responsibilities of family, seminary, church and ministry, there is always the problem with the sin within our own hearts. Pray for us as we contend for the truth and that God would use these weak vessels to bring His name glory.