In the sermon I posted yesterday about witnessing, I argue that the proclamation of the gospel possesses its own power—through the Holy Spirit—to change lives. Therefore, if our efforts to witness never include a deliberate proclamation of the gospel, we are robbing our witness of power, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to make converts.
As I’ve said before on this blog, the vast majority of church growth—especially once you subtract confirmations or baptisms of children who already go to church—is “sheep-stealing”: already-Christian people leave one church to join another.
Surely, our Lord wants us to do better. As I said in my sermon,
The gospel, Paul writes in Romans 1, is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” As I said earlier, citing 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” but Paul continues: “to those whom God has called,” the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Do you see the point: The gospel itself has power. God has made it to be that way. God calls people through our gospel proclamation. If we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to people, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re not making disciples! [pick up smartphone] If we as a church aren’t sharing the gospel as our number one priority, it’s like we’ve spent money and resources to build this amazing device but we’ve removed the battery… or we’ve disconnected the power supply… This may be the greatest thing people would ever experience, but they’ll never know because all they have is this blank screen! It’s not working! There’s no power! They need power. And the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power they need!
I was heartened to read that John Piper, in his irenic yet critical assessment of Andy Stanley’s recent sermon “The Bible Told Me So,” makes a similar point. As important as it is to clear away intellectual hurdles that prevent people from believing in Christ, mere intellectual assent can’t bring someone to saving faith.
Saving faith is not the persuasion that the resurrection of Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That persuasion is essential to saving faith, but not the essence of it. The devil knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and he is not saved (see also Luke 16:31). The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the meaning of the event, and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest Treasure in the universe. Satan does not see the crucified and risen Christ as supremely beautiful, and he does not treasure him. But believers do. That is the essence of saving faith…
The gospel is more than the events of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a God-given narrative of what the events meant (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “for our sins”). It is not merely the assembly of events and evidences. It is a divine interpretation of their meaning…
What young preachers need to be clear about in deciding how they will preach is how God planned for the glory of Christ to be revealed to more and more people as the centuries pass. When Stanley says, “For the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book,” that’s not quite right. The debate centered very largely on which written witnesses provided a trustworthy interpretation of the event. The church realized immediately that everything hung not just on whether the event happened, but on what it meant: What were its roots, and accomplishments, and implications for life and eternity? Who was this man, Jesus? Whom can we trust to tell us? How then shall we live? Who can tell us this with authority? That was the issue, not just the event.
God was kind enough to bring those authentic, long-trusted Gospels and Epistles together in the New Testament in due time. But their trustworthiness and authority were functioning from the middle of the first century onward. And the most significant reason God provided these Gospels and Epistles from the beginning was so that the compelling beauty and worth of Christ would shine through these God-given writings. That is how people came to faith. They saw the glory of Christ shining through the writings God had given — or the oral heralding or reading of them.
Therefore, what I am suggesting is that in our present New Testament we have the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life.
Piper says that this truth has several implications. Chief among them is that the
testimony of God in Scripture to the truth and beauty and worth of Christ is self-authenticating. That is, the decisive cause of saving faith is not human argument (as crucial as that is). The decisive cause is described in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God creates a real illumination of our hearts by lifting the veil so that we can see the glory of what is really there in Scripture.”
Another implication is that “God’s portrait of Christ, as he is presented in the inspired Book, is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith.”
Finally, lest you doubt that Piper is one of his generation’s most gifted preachers, he concludes his essay with this:
So my concluding suggestion is this: join Andy Stanley in caring deeply about winning “post-Christians”; join him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. And then spend eight years blowing your people’s post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains.
When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching.
Do you believe this? I do—although I confess I haven’t always acted like I do.
But that changes now: My invitation at the end of the sermon I quoted earlier was to invite members of our church to join me in creating a “witness team.” In fact, we’re having our first meeting tonight. I don’t know who or how many will show up. But we’re going to discuss ways in which our church can share the gospel in a more deliberate way with people outside of our church—starting this weekend, when literally hundreds of people from our community will be on our church property for our annual “Trunk or Treat” festival.
For starters, I’ve ordered a couple hundred tracts from Crossway. I’ve also ordered some pocket-sized New Testaments to give away to visitors.
Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights.