Matthew's gospel begins the ministry of Jesus with the Sermon on the Mount. He is preaching to crowds of people, hardly any of them followers in the sense of being disciples. There is nothing here about how ``God loves you.'' You are commanded to love God and to love not just your neighbor but also your enemies, but nothing about God loving you. The whole message is very harsh and unforgiving. Guess what? The crowd ate it up! This is a message people need to hear, and it is a message they want to hear.
Peter's first evangelistic sermon, in the second chapter of Acts is very Thinker, very critical. Nothing here about how ``God loves you.'' The word ``love'' does not occur in the whole book of Acts. Peter is very critical, very honest. These people crucified the Messiah of God, and they ought to repent. They did repent, 3000 of them in one day. Billy Graham never got that kind of proportionate response. People need to hear the truth, and they will respond to the truth.
The truth of the gospel is damning, not affirming. The churches who -- despite their Feeler preferences -- preach a gospel of Hellfire and damnation, of repentance and turning from sin, these churches grow. God is still God, and His gospel still gets preached, even its modern watered-down touchy-feely form. What would the church be like if we preached the unadulterated truth?
What is the truth? Very simple, in three parts.
Part One: God is God, and you are not God. God made you, you did not make God. God has the right of ownership over you. God has the right to tell you what to do and what not to do. That's not a popular American idea, but it is the gospel truth.
Part Two: You and I screwed up, we tried to act like we are our own little gods, that we get to decide what we want to do. That's ``sin'' in God's book, and He has the right to destroy you and me for it. Maybe we didn't get caught today, but the time will come. Every one of us understands Justice, we all want it when somebody else does us harm. Every one of us, from childhood. The Hindus call it ``karma'' and it's a universal concept.
Part Three: The death of Jesus Christ on the cross erases karma, so we can start over with God the way things were intended to be. But you have to want to.
Thinkers can understand this gospel. The modern Feeler church tries to erase Part One, but it doesn't really go away. The modern Feeler church tries to ignore Part Two, but that is a denial of the truth. Thinkers know and care about truth. They don't want a touchy-feely gospel divorced from truth. They don't want a touchy-feely church that hides the truth.
So the Thinkers stay home.
I would stay home too, except I know that the preachers have got it wrong. God's truth is not what the Feeler preachers say it is, it's what God's Word the Bible says it is. Church is a part of what God intended for His followers, so I go, even though they got it wrong. The Thinkers just now hearing the message for the first time, they don't hear the truth, so they stay home.
Houston, we have a problem.
I don't have any easy solutions to this problem. If the preachers in America started preaching God's truth from their pulpits today, all the Feelers in the pews would go home, and the churches would not be able to pay their mortgages and preacher salaries. Eventually the pews would be filled again with Thinkers (and they would bring their Feeler wives), but the transition would be catastrophic.
I'm not proposing a separate church for Thinkers, but a single church for all people, Feelers and Thinkers alike. The ideal church, the church I read about in the Bible, would ``tell the truth in love.'' A church where people are honestly affirmed, where it is considered rude to greet a person by saying ``How are you?'' when you don't have time to stop and listen to how they are -- and equally rude to answer ``I'm good'' when your life outside the church is upside down. But also a church where a person living a life of selfishness is told to shape up.
Some people like to call the shots. They like to be preachers because preachers get to tell people what to do. The Twelve Disciples liked that idea too, but Jesus told them not to do it that way. Shot-callers do not belong in church leadership. God calls the shots. People do not want preachers telling them what to do. They need God telling them what to do. There is a difference.
The best church leadership, the best evangelists in a post-modern age, the bastion of God's Truth in a relativistic culture should be helping people to understand for themselves what God demands. The modern internet society wants to get the truth for themselves. If you show them the Truth, they will accept it -- or not -- on its own merits and their own willingness to confront the truth and the God of Truth, without being put off by an apparent power grab.
The modern American church is an image of the senior pastor. That's good when he is a humble servant of the living God; more often it just propagates his mistakes and his megalomania. You cannot have a Godly church discipline with an autocratic preacher, but you also cannot have Godly church discipline if everybody is afraid to tell the truth, if people are only affirmed but never told about sin.
When he was here on earth, Jesus did not evangelize non-Jews. He sent out his disciples to preach the good news of the Kingdom, but he told them to go only to the ``lost sheep of the house of Israel.'' It was not appropriate, he told the Phonecian woman, to give the children's food to Gentile ``dogs.'' Yet even to the Jews he preached a message of repentance.
Repentance is an important Christian principle. It is an important part of the truth of God's gospel. But it is widely misunderstood.
Repentance means turning away from our old selfish life, and towards the life of generosity commanded by God. Yes, God is Love, but God expects His people to express that love in the world. We don't do that naturally. By nature we are selfish. The atheists understand that. Altruism does not fit in their Darwinistic theology, and they know it. Richard Dawkins is probably the closest thing to an atheist pope as you will ever find. The title of his book The Selfish Gene expresses that principle perfectly, you don't even need to read the book.
But selfishness cannot sustain a moral and habitable society. Atheists survive in our culture only because they are a tiny minority. When the atheists take over control of society, evil abounds, and the citizens (or the rest of the world) overthrow them. We saw that with Hitler and with the Soviet Union. Both are gone and destroyed, with no regrets. Other smaller atheist tyrants go down too, some sooner, some later. Civilized society cannot tolerate extreme selfishness.
The gospel commands and enables us to turn away from selfishness. That is repentance.
Repentance is not a feeling of remorse, although that is helpful in achieving it. Feeling bad about past mistakes (when we got caught) is not the same as deciding to stop making mistakes. Deciding to reform is not the same as actually succeeding. The gospel of Jesus Christ gives people both the power and the will to make necessary changes. ``Any person in Christ is a new creation,'' the Apostle Paul tells us. ``Old things are gone, everything is new.'' That is the essense of repentance.
But you have to want to.
After his resurrection Jesus opened up the gospel to Gentiles. But the gospel has not changed from what he previously preached to the Jews. Peter and Paul preached a message of repentance in Acts. Paul explained the gospel in several of his epistles. I like the particularly short form in Rom.10:9,
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as LORD,``Jesus as LORD'' is what I called ``Part One'' above. God is God. Jesus is God. Jesus has the right to tell you and me what to do. ``God raised him from the dead'' points to Part Three. Part Two is implicit in ``you will be saved.''
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,
you will be saved.
There is nothing here about correct theology, but that comes from accepting Jesus as Lord. He's the Boss, and he gets to tell us what to believe as well as what to do. The Bible is his message. We don't criticize it, we obey it unconditionally.
There is nothing here about walking the aisle or being baptized or joining a church, but that also comes from accepting Jesus as Lord. Public confession, admitting that we got it wrong (Part Two), but we are made right in Christ, that is right there in the short gospel. There are no secret Christians.
Repentance means turning away from our natural disposition to selfishness, and by the power of God, choosing to be unselfish and loving. Choosing to love God and to love our neighbor, as God commands.
Thinkers can handle that. They may not like it,
but it's the Truth and they can understand truth.
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rev. 2008 May 3