“With every head bowed, and every eye closed, if you want to receive Jesus as your personal Savior, raise your hand.”
Those words are a part of the church experience of my youth. Most sermons closed with this kind of invitation. Usually it would include a call to come forward, talk to the pastor, and pray a prayer. If you prayed the prayer and meant it, you would become a Christian. It was very similar to the approach that Billy Graham used for his crusades.
The Jesus Movement hit the Christian world in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the time of Hippies, Woodstock, the drug and sex revolutions. Older people were disenchanted. Younger people were experimenting and looking for purpose. As a result, Jesus was presented as the remedy for unhappiness, bad marriages, and finding satisfaction.
The so-called Seeker movement of the late 20th century and the early years of this century followed in this tradition, presenting Jesus as someone who could fix life’s problems and be a friend in an uncertain world. Many claimed that the Seeker movement avoided the hard parts of the Gospel message so that people were not turned off. If they were, they would stop coming to church.
The Gospel-Centered resurgence (sometimes called the Young Calvinist movement) of the early 2000s sought to restore the clarity of the Gospel message. There was a renewed effort to express the gospel fully and accurately. Doctrinal themes and biblical terms that had been regarded as difficult to understand were now at the forefront of Gospel preaching.
Here’s my point: I’m realizing that over the last 50 years the way we have expressed the Gospel has changed several times. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Now before I go on, let me say that no one should be a Gospel Curmudgeon. A Gospel Curmudgeon is someone who takes delight in being critical of others who don’t dot every “i” and cross every “t” the way he or she does. Some of these people have websites. Their sites are the children of the “Fighting Fundamentalist” newsletters from the days before the Internet. Man, were they wild! You and I don’t want to be one of “those” people.
Yet I believe that it’s essential that those of us who preach and teach a) understand the gospel, and b) express it in ways consistent with the biblical message. As I became more influenced (and for this I am thankful) by the Reformed Resurgence, words like “imputation” and “justification” were often used and explained often in our church. In fact, I semi-jokingly told our congregation that if I called any of them at 3am and asked them to tell me what it meant to be justified by faith, I hoped they could do it.
I never tried that. Though I kind of wish I had.
How should we present the Gospel? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve observed that something is lacking in some Gospel preaching that I have heard over the last few years. Too often it seems like I’ve heard the facts of the Gospel presented accurately. But I’m missing a call for people to believe it.
Believing is the way we respond to the Gospel. If people don’t believe the Gospel, they aren’t believers.
Can we say we’ve accurately and adequately presented the biblical Gospel if we haven’t called for a biblical response? The Gospel message always includes responding by faith or believing.
It should be rare that a sermon or lesson does not have a connection to the Gospel. Others have written far more eloquently and persuasively than I can that teaching the Bible without a Gospel or Christ-centered focus leads to moralism. But presenting the facts of the Gospel without appealing to people to believe is not sufficient. We haven’t finished the job.
Most of the people in our congregations may be believers. It’s possible there are some who were warming themselves by the Gospel fires but have never trusted Christ. But in most cases our audiences are predominantly Christian audiences.
Yet we should still call on them to believe when we come to the content of the Gospel. In fact, without being manipulative, we should urge them to belief/faith as the way to respond to the Gospel.
Is that “preaching to the choir?” No!
We don’t know people’s hearts. We don’t want people to assume that they are Christians just because they are hearing the Gospel message. And we shouldn’t want any to answer the question of “How do you know that you are a Christian?” by saying, “Because I prayed a prayer.” or “Because I went forward at an invitation.” or “My life was a mess so I turned it over to Jesus.”
May I encourage you to check your preaching and teaching? The Gospel message includes a call to respond. Be sure that your Gospel presentations and explanations ALWAYS include that appeal to believe the Gospel, to put faith in the finished work of Christ.
You have your whole ministry life ahead of you. No matter how large or small your church or class is, you’ll speak to hundreds of people if not thousands over the years. Let me encourage you to get the Gospel right while you are young.