In my post yesterday, I listed three key areas in which I believe the church of Jesus Christ is failing in its mission. Today, I’d like to comment on the foundational failure—the watering down of the message of salvation.
While this certainly doesn’t apply to all individual churches and Christian leaders, there are far too many who, in their desire to bring people to the faith, make it so palatable that the faith of the apostles is hardly recognizable. The New Testament, both in the precise words of Jesus and in the letters sent by His apostles, clearly reveals that salvation comes only after first coming to terms with one’s sinfulness. It’s no good to simply invite people to an altar to “try Jesus” or, more commonly, to “accept Jesus.” The reverse is closer to the truth: will He accept us? And the answer is: only if we meet the conditions He has set forth for restoring the broken relationship.
The message of sinfulness sounds so negative; people want the positive instead. Talking about sin will only drive them away, we rationalize. Yet without first understanding our lostness, we will never get to the positive part of the message. We must begin with a deep realization that our sins have separated us from God and that something is required on our side of the ledger. Jesus did die to forgive those sins, but His sacrifice is of no value to anyone without a genuine repentance. Until we seek to change our ways and live for Him, we cannot cross over to the life He offers. Any message of salvation that doesn’t emphasize sin and repentance is a stillborn message, and the “converts” from that message are often not converts at all; they just want assurance that God is on their side and they can go to the heaven He describes.
The terms “easy believeism” and “cheap grace” are sometimes used to explain this approach. Usually, this cheap grace, which treats the atonement and the sufferings Jesus endured for our sake in a shallow manner, carries over into one’s life. We’re told not to worry too much about one’s sins from now on since Jesus’ death covers them all; just ask Him to forgive and everything’s fine. There is little expectation of holiness; that’s far beyond our reach, so one’s life will probably continue as before, not much different in quality. The nice thing, though, is you get to go to heaven regardless. It’s epitomized in the bumper sticker that proclaims, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” The unintended consequence of that bumper sticker is to convey the idea that there’s no real difference between Christians and other people, except the Christians can sin and be forgiven while others cannot expect that benefit.
This type of cheap grace creates a multitude of people who think they’re okay with God, but who are still wallowing in their sins. They pass themselves off as Christians, but the world looks at them and wonders—if that’s what being a Christian is, what’s the big deal?
The apostle Paul has a passage in his second letter to the Corinthians that lays out the distinction between true and false repentance, and therefore true and false salvation. Here’s what he says:
I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.
Note that there are two kinds of sorrow: one that leads to life and one that leads to death. A lot of people feel “sorry” for what they have done, but they never get to the point of genuine repentance. Take Judas, for example. After he realized his betrayal of Jesus led to the Cross, he had remorse for his action. Yet what was his response? He went out and hanged himself. Peter, on the other hand, who also betrayed Jesus, when he faced up to his betrayal, had a change of heart and found true repentance. Afterward, he became the chief spokesman with the original apostles.
Jesus also lays out the problem in what is normally called the parable of the sower. I prefer to call it the parable of the soil because the focus is where the seed [Word of God] lands. When God’s message falls on the hardened path, it bounces off. Jesus likens this to those whose hearts are so hardened there is no place for the seed to be planted. Then there is the rocky soil, which corresponds to those who eagerly receive it, but it doesn’t really take root in their hearts. There are a lot of people who get excited about wanting to be happy in God and receive His “goodies,” but they are fly-by-night “Christians.” Actually, they never were Christians at all.
Some of the seed falls among the thorns, which, as Jesus explains, means it does start to take root, but it gets choked out by all the worries and temptations that an earthly life offers. There is no fruit. These are not real Christians either.
Finally, there is the deep, rich soil—those with honest and good hearts who grasp the depth of the message—where fruit grows in abundance. Only in this soil do we find the genuine Christians.
If the church is not making as much of an impact on our society as it should be, I suggest we begin by examining the message of salvation we are teaching. A phony salvation message leads to phony Christians who will never change anything in the society because they have never experienced the change personally.
What I have written today will not be accepted by some, but I had to say it anyway. Our only hope is to get the salvation message straight before anything else.