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Theological Publications







Is It a Sin To Preach the Gospel ?


I am a teacher. That means my role is to present information, explain ideas, and urge my students to think about them and draw their own conclusions. I consider this a ministry, but I confess my model in this ministry is at least as much Socrates as Jesus. Still I am comforted that Jesus, too, was in the habit of being Socratic, answering a question with a question and nimbly tossing the ball back into his inquirer's court with a " What do you think?" (Matt. 21:28, Luke 10:26).

I teach religion, and some people tell me that religion should be indoctrinated, not taught. Students, they say, should be catechized, not challenged. Of course this is not so. An unexamined faith is no more worth believing than an unexamined life is worth living.

But I am also an ordained minister. Most of my work in this area has been as a campus minister, leading discussions, organizing events. Essentially my approach to "preaching" is the same as teaching. Much preaching, even expository preaching of the Bible, is in essence teaching.

But what about preaching the gospel? How easily can one head wear the two hats of academic teacher and evangelist? I have known seminary professors who seemed to balance both caps rather deftly: they press for repentance in the pulpit, yet present theologies for detached scrutiny in the classroom. Too often, though, the hats slip and theologies, biblical interpretations, or apologetics thought to be more conformable to denominational orthodoxy wind up being preached as the gospel. Only "unbelieving" scholars, "the Liberals," or "the critics," hold other views. Perhaps they will one day repent and switch theories.

My problem is tending to let the hats slip the other way. I cannot help presenting the gospel for scrutiny, for calm and thoughtful consideration. Furthermore, I have come to wonder if it is a sin to do otherwise.

As I step into the pulpit I must preface my preaching with this proviso: I preach the gospel as I understand it. There are various ways to understand it, after all, and why take for granted that the one most often heard or most loudly shouted is the definitive version? The Bible is inspired; I, its interpreter, am not. And thus I must speak with appropriate humility.

James warns his readers that few should dare to teach (James 3:1-2) lest (to switch texts) they find their necks being measured for millstones (Mark 9:42).    There is less danger to teaching, however, if both the preacher/teacher and the hearer know that truth is not so cut-and-dried that the preacher must be either exactly telling it or perniciously distorting it. "Let the hearer beware" is my motto, or as Jesus put it in one of his more Socratic moments, "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57)

A congregation always has the responsibility to hear and weigh what a preacher says. In one early saying not in the Bible, Jesus admonishes his hearers to "be wise money changers." It's good advice even if it is not canonical: we need to be on the lookout for doctrinal wooden nickels.

It is incumbent on me as a preacher, therefore, not to try to bypass my congregation's critical faculties. I have no right to cajole, to manipulate, to threaten, or to use God to intimidate them. All these techniques cloud the issue. They seek to short ­circuit the process of intelligent decision. Much, probably most, evangelism sees its task as winning the hearer's decision in any way short of out-and-out deception (though this, too, may be used on occasion, as it is by those evangelistic door-openers that pose as secular "surveys"). This kind of evangelism differs in no real sense from sleazy salesmanship. I would hesitate to make this comparison if it were not explicitly drawn by some evangelists themselves. Zig Ziglar's Secrets of Closinq the Sale offers persuasion tactics guaranteed to sell a car or make a convert. And many preachers admit to using the tactics of door-to-door peddlers in their evangelism. What's the difference? A decade ago, Bill Bright hired Coca-Cola's ad agency to design the "Here's Life, America" campaign. So, "Things go better with Christ?"

But I wonder if this is all sinful. A choice of beliefs is a decision which has a rational component; it should be an intelligent decision, one you can give reasons for. No sensible voter concludes that one political party has a firmer grasp of the issues than the other because it feels good; rather, we expect people to be able to say why they have such beliefs, to give reasons. Candidates try to con and maneuver voters emotionally, but we condemn this, don't we?

People do not usually change important beliefs because they fear being damned to eternal torture if they don't. Even if, like poor Winston Smith in 1984, we must pretend to believe that two plus two equals five to avoid torture, we can only pretend to believe it. RealIy to believe something, one would have to be shown reasons. If you went ahead and believed anyway, without any reasons, you would be intellectually dishonest. We have no more right to believe something without sufficient grounds than we do to kill someone without sufficient reason. Both are moral choices.

I suspect that many preachers avoid giving a fair presentation of the gospel, relying instead on histrionics and emotional pressure-tactics, because they fear that clear-headed consideration of their gospel would produce few converts. The Apostle Paul may even have felt this way about it on occasion (l Cor. 2:1-5). He wanted the Corinthians to have a firmer faith than rational argument alone could produce. Those who choose their beliefs intelligently must also regard it as a matter of conscience to remain open to reason. And thus it is always possible one may come to accept a different belief if a new belief seems to have more to commend it. Paul apparently wanted to avoid this.

But that hardly means we preachers should abandon reasoning. Wouldn't it be better to abandon a gospel which we doubt will stand up to intelligent scrutiny and start preaching one that will? Paul, on occasion, saw this side of the dilemma, too. He says he has renounced all shameful and underhanded practices and instead commends himself to everyone's conscience by a plain presentation of the truth (2 Cor. 4:2). The preacher who sells the gospel with a sugar-coating of promised prosperity, or drives it home with threats of hell-fire, is not letting the gospel stand or fall on its own merits. Such a preacher is tempting the hearer to commit the sin of mindless belief, irresponsible decision. And this, too, is a grave responsibility. Preaching false doctrine is perhaps not the only crime that merits a millstone. There are other ways of causing the little ones, one's hearers, to sin.

If I preach the gospel, I must explain my understanding of it, the "gospel according to me," as clearly as I can. I should try to hide neither its possible problems (like places where it fails to apply to modern life) nor its unpleasant features (like bearing the cross). I must invite my hearers to consider its merits and to count the cost of accepting it (and Christ).

And I think I must not offer an evangelistic invitation. I must not attempt to force a decision, because to do so would simply be another way of choking off the serious consideration this momentous decision requires. Surely more time is needed than the thirty minutes or so of a sermon, or the five minutes it takes to read a tract. Accepting the gospel should not be a case of "impulse buying.”

But what if your unsaved hearer leaves the church yet undecided and is struck by a drunk driver or perhaps by lightning or a meteor? All this intelligent deliberation will only have won him a place in hell's chain-gang. All I can say is that such a scenario assumes an odd idea of divine justice. If you believe in hell, you had better also believe in God being, just, and perhaps in a divine providence that can avoid this kind of tragedy.

Does all this sound a little tepid? Where are the tearful crowds thronging the altar? Where is the dynamic preaching of yesteryear? I ask in return, where is your faith in the gospel and its ability to commend itself to an honest mind? If it can't compel assent without your help, it isn't worthy of either your help or your belief. You, too, must be intellectually honest. Otherwise it just might be a sin to preach the gospel.



 By Robert M. Price


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