Saturday, August 20, 2005

Love for an Offensive Gospel

Full article
In the New Testament the members of a local church are never seen coming together for the purpose of evangelism. Evangelism took place apart from the meetings of the church – in the workplace, at the synagogue, in town squares, among family members and friends. The early Christian went to where the unbelievers were and presented the gospel of Christ....

One thing they did not do was invite unbelievers to their church services in order to evangelize them. The closest we get to any kind of evangelism within the context of church services is 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, If therefore the whole church should assemble together and…all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. The obvious implication is that the Corinthian church had gathered for the purpose of mutual edification – evangelism was not on the stated agenda. No evangelistic sermon was preached; the music was not geared toward the interests of unbelievers; spiritual language was not tempered to keep from offending or confusing the unsaved; absolutely nothing was done with the “seeking” unbeliever in mind. But, if an unbeliever happens to show up and hears the truth of God expounded, and watches the body function, he may very well have his heart opened and be drawn to Christ. This is a wonderful collateral result of the church functioning in a biblical manner, but it is not the reason that the church assembles.


The central piece of the gospel, which was so offensive to the Corinthians, was the cross. This is a bit hard for us to grasp today since we have sentimentalized the cross, making it into a piece of jewelry and decoration for our walls, rather than a symbol of death. The stigma of the cross is largely lost to our generation, but in the first century it bore very different, even disgraceful connotations. The Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for three classes of people: rebellious slaves, the worst of criminals and defeated foes of the empire. [5] Gentiles, therefore, viewed crucified men with disdain and contempt. “This animosity toward crucified men was deeply engraved on the social consciousness of the world to which Paul brought his message about a crucified Savior.” [6] To the Gentiles the crucifixion was pure foolishness, madness, craziness. Who could imagine that God’s Son dying on a cross as a common criminal would be pivotal to God’s redemption plan?

For the Jew things were even worse. “Though Gentiles viewed crucifixion as a punishment reserved for detestable people…the Jews believed the victim was cursed by God (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23). Consequently, the stigma went beyond social disgrace to a declaration of God’s spiritual judgment against the victim.” [7] According to the Jewish mindset Jesus not only died a despicable death, He was also cursed of God. How could He be the Messiah, the Savior, and be under the curse of God? The crucifixion would prove to be a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23) to the Jews. The Greek word translated “stumbling block” is skandalon (from which we get our word “scandal”) and refers to an enticement to apostasy and unbelief. “In other words, the spiritual offense of the cross actually worked to make some Jews go astray. Remarkably, the crucifixion – so essential to eternal life – actually hindered Jews from coming to saving faith. They simply could not overcome their preconceived notions about the significance of crucifixion…. The very content of Paul’s message caused Jews to turn away.” [8]

Paul was not ignorant of the fact that the preaching of a crucified Savior would more than dull the attractiveness of the gospel; it would be a major impediment. Before his audience could get to the good news of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God, they had to first come to the cross, which was abhorrent to them. But this did not deter Paul from preaching the centrality of the cross, for to the “called” the crucified Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). The good news is grounded in the cross; to eliminate it, or even to minimize it, would be to rob the gospel of its power to save.

In the twenty-first century this particular debate seems very distant. The cross, as most envision it today, is more likely to elicit warm fuzzies than disgust or revulsion. Still Paul’s point is not lost. The gospel continues to offend; whether it is the crucifixion itself, the insistence on recognizing our sins and repenting, receiving by faith One that we have never seen, or abandoning our self-reliance, denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Him (Matthew 16:24). None of these things pander to our ego. The gospel is not a message about how to get ahead in life, or how to find the key to happiness and success. Paul stayed focused on what was true and essential and he would not be moved by the pressures around him. “‘Christ crucified’ was not a ‘seeker-friendly’ message in the first century. It was an absurd obscenity to Gentiles and a scandalous oxymoron to Jews. The gospel guaranteed offense.” [9] Paul’s example should encourage us today to not sellout the gospel for perceived evangelistic success. We need to stand by the message given in the New Testament, proclaim it with authority and let God give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
(emphasis mine)


loren said...

Interesting thoughts. But what do you think about, let's say, an Easter Sunday service? This is the one time of year when non-Christians might show a little respect and come. Knowing this is so, wouldn't it wise for the pastor to talk about the meaning of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection on this day?

Kristina said...

"This is the one time of year when non-Christians might show a little respect and come. Knowing this is so, wouldn't it wise for the pastor to talk about the meaning of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection on this day?"

That is indeed the very point. It would be wise for pastors to talk about that year round, especially on days like Easter. Yet, around the country that is not what is happening. We have thousands of pastors "sheparding" millions of people, but Christ is not talked about, the meaning of the cross isn't mentioned, and you can bet your last dollar that in a lot of these churches people are not refered to as sinners.

Sin is a mistake, a bad choice in these churches. And we are told to "change our minds" about said mistakes. Not to repent, not to confess. And when you don't mention sin, how can you explain why Christ had to die? You cannot.