“I have just preached a message dealing with salvation, respect to parents, rock music, pornography, mixed bathing, and daily Bible reading, so if you aren’t at the altar repenting of something, than you are obviously living in rebellion and God can’t use you.” I heard this worldview expressed almost every summer beginning in 7th grade and lasting through my senior year. Those words were never actually spoken of course, but the sentiment was loud and clear, from the camp speak down to my counselors, who would look at me funny (i.e. with “deep spiritual concern”) if I didn’t go forward every night of the week.
Then I entered full-time pastoral ministry, and I get bombarded with “the” way to grow the church. If we sing just the right songs (theologically blah with a loud band and a “Top 40” sound), and have just the right message (short, basic concepts delivered with no interpretation work involved), then Tim, Tom, and Tina (who all live in my community and are just dying to come to the “right” church) will pop in and stay. Will they get saved (accept Christ) and be discipled? Maybe, maybe not, but at least they’ll be in the church!
Just recently, I watched an online broadcast of an event in support of the Houston pastors who had their sermons subpoenaed by the Mayor’s office. It was a good event with a good emphasis, but on three different occasions, three different pastors or speakers used 2 Chronicles 7:14 to make the point that if our nation is ever going to turn around, it all begins with Christians falling on their faces and repenting of their sins, which will lead to (I guess in fulfillment of 2 Chronicles 7:14) national repentance, turning to God, or at least an improvement in our national morality.
After watching that event, I prayed. I confessed. I asked the Holy Spirit to reveal any unknown sins in my life. But then what? Does the future rest in someone else’s hands? Did I just not pray hard enough? Did I just not believe enough? No national revival has taken place….who dropped the ball? I have gotten tired of hearing references to the “church” as the cause of our national spiritual apathy, but always in vague and mysterious terms, as if the “church” exists somewhere “out there.” There is pointing to the past as the “golden years” of faith in the US, but do pastors who preached on Sunday and rode with the KKK on Friday count as golden? Or was it earlier, when our Founding Fathers decided that black people were worth 3/5 of a person, simply because their level of melanin is different than someone else’s? What marks revival? Is it a full church? But if I have a church full of “seekers,” when do they ever go deeper? If we are not teaching the deep things of the Word of God, how can we ever expect our people to go deeper in their walk with God and thus in their prayer lives?
No, the problems we are facing are not new, and the solution is not found in “trying harder,” “praying more,” or manipulating people into emotional experiences. No, Paul nailed it in Romans 1:16-17. He had tapped into the source of true spiritual power, not just for salvation, but for sanctification (Paul didn’t really separate the two the way we do today).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)
We do need to pray. We do need to confess sin. We do need to make sure that nothing that we ourselves are doing is creating unnecessary obstacles to those who would hear the gospel. But the power to change lives does not lie in those things. Paul understood something that is fundamental to our faith. He understood the innate power of the Gospel. If we water down or “just don’t talk about” aspects of the gospel, we are showing shame and lose its power, which actually turns into a nasty cycle of constantly seeking the next thing that will have some sort of effect. The result is shallow (if even genuine) conversions, and an extremely blurry line between who is truly a Christian and who is not. On the other side of the coin, when we seek sanctification through an exclusive emphasis on the negative (as opposed to preaching that drives believers to a deeper faith, deeper reliance on the Holy Spirit, and deeper manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit), we end up with a whole lot more “decisions” and a whole lot more ritualistic obedience to a set of rigid rules and guidelines. The Word says that the “righteous will live by faith.” Faith in what? Faith in the gospel and in the power of the gospel. Now, don’t get me wrong. As pastors, we preach the whole counsel of God. We deal with the text, and when the text says that homosexuality is wrong, we preach that. When the text says that it is wrong to sleep with someone you aren’t married to, we preach that. When the text says that you’re not to place anything in a position of importance over God, we preach that. But we go to the root. Why do people sin? What is sin? Why is sin sinful? What is the solution for sin? Where do we find the power to not sin? It is all rooted in the gospel! How do churches grow? How does “revival” come? It is through the faithful, consistent, proclamation of the gospel by the church to the lost for the remission of sins and to the saved for the power to say “no” to sin. That takes a huge load off of my shoulders as a pastor. Because let’s face it, I don’t “do” guilt trip invitations, and I can barely grow stubble, never mind the obligatory goatee in order to be a truly “culturally adept thirty-something Seeker-friendly pastor.” No, I’ll settle for preaching the gospel, teaching the gospel, sharing the gospel, meditating on the gospel- and then watching the power of the gospel do what the power of the gospel does in the lives of people.
Oh God, on a daily basis remind us of the power of the gospel- not just to guarantee our eternal destiny, but to empower our daily obedience in this life as well. Help our obedience to Your Word be rooted in a deep love for You because of the preciousness of the gospel.