For the first time in many decades, evangelism has become respectable. While some still view it with suspicion and even with disdain, many now regard evangelism with enthusiasm because of its popularity among large segments of the visible church. Renewed interest in biblical theology, success of the Billy Graham crusades, extensive coverage by the secular press, and the upsurge of evangelical publications have all created a favorable climate for evangelism. Surely this is the opportune time for evangelicals in the twentieth century to pass from rearguard defensive action to an aggressive leadership. By bold action and strategic planning, the evangelical Church may penetrate and conquer territory lost in past years. The revival and increasing acceptance of historic Christianity gives hope and encouragement for the future.
These many evidences of resurgent evangelism in our day are heartening. Nonetheless, we must candidly acknowledge that the movement appears strong only in comparison to its recent weakness. When the foundation of the second temple was laid, according to the prophet Ezra, the people shouted with a great shout and praised the Lord. But those who had seen the first temple wept with a loud voice, for the glory of Zerubbabel’s temple could not compare with the glory of Solomon’s. One need not be a tottering octogenarian to remember the time when many more churches, colleges and seminaries, institutions, and missions were under the sway of a vital and strong evangelism. In light of the corruption and secularism of this generation, no one can claim that resurgent evangelism has as yet made an appreciable impact for righteousness upon American life and society.
Source Of Vital Evangelism
Although its former glory and strength has not been fully restored, evangelism has manifested sufficient power to merit a grudging respect. Impressed with the awakened and resilient strength of historic Christianity, inclusive ecumenism has indicated a willingness to be even more inclusive in order to embrace it. Ecclesiastical activists have volunteered to give direction to it. Alluring Delilahs assure evangelicals that they will not shave all seven locks of hair as they did in previous years. Some may concede to retain the six locks that formerly were objectionable: the Lord’s virgin birth, deity, bodily resurrection, second coming, judgment, and vicarious atonement. But almost in unison they insist that the seventh lock—the doctrine of the infallible and verbally inspired Word of God—be shorn. Signs are not lacking that this has attracted people within the evangelistic camp who feel that the strength and glory of evangelism can be retained with the omission of that particular “obnoxious” doctrine. And to wield that one lock of hair, they feel, is a small price to pay for the prestige of having ecclesiastical acceptance. Church history, however, gives evidence that all strong revival and reformation movements in the past have been associated with emphasis on the Scriptures as the authoritative Word. Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, and Spurgeon were not ashamed to acknowledge the Bible as the infallible Word. From there they drew forth the vital doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ, the priesthood of all believers, justification by faith, vicarious atonement, and others. Through the Written Word they came to a knowledge and acceptance of the Living Word. If resurgent evangelism is going to have authority, permanence, and an impact in our day for righteousness, it must grasp and view productively the same fundamental doctrines that come out of the same authoritative source.
Our greatest concern has been over the matter of denominational spiritual life which often rises no higher than denominational theological seminaries. As ministers are trained and taught, so will the people be instructed. Knowing of the confusion that exists in many theological schools, one cannot but become frustrated and pessimistic over a desperate situation. Seminaries may be the last to become sensitive to resurgent evangelism. They are now extremely sensitive to neo-orthodoxy in its various forms, and so continually adjust their sails to the changing winds of theology that a Roman Catholic writer stated recently, and with some justice: “Protestantism is in a constant flux, so that a polemic of 20 years ago is today no longer to the point.” If, therefore, evangelism finds a closed door to many theological schools, where will the dynamic doctrines of the Word of God find entrance? The answer is in the preaching of consecrated men.
Evangelicals, while having little influence over ecclesiastical machinery and denominational seminaries, and being scarcely heard in ecumenical counsels, do have access to the pulpits across the nation. God has ordained the medium of preaching to the salvation of souls, and to the sustaining of the salt of the community and the light of the world. In the first chapter of I Corinthians Paul announces the amazing fact that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” The preaching of Christ crucified is as foolish in the twentieth century as it was in the first, but “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” Not many wise, mighty, and noble are among the evangelicals; nevertheless, as Paul states: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” Preaching takes precedence over all other means to reaching the nation with the gospel of the Saviour. The strengthening and spiritual reinvigoration that can issue from the pulpit should cause evangelicals to give priority to preaching for strategic planning. We must confess that the evangelical pulpit is by no means as distinguished as it should be; it leaves much to be desired.
Lack Of Depth In The Pulpit
A candid and realistic appraisal of the preaching of those who stand behind the sacred desk reveals distressing weaknesses that explain why evangelism has failed to make an impact for righteousness upon the nation. Perhaps the most glaring is that of shallowness, or lack of scriptural depth in so many sermons. The sheep within evangelical churches remain hungry and thirsty because the Bread of Life is not imparted nor the Fountain of Life opened. The task of the preacher is to set the Word before the people. He is to expound it, interpret it, and bear witness to its power. He is to sow the seed with the heartening knowledge that under the providence of God that Word shall not return unto him void. To preach the Word is an exacting, painstaking, and time-consuming task. And he who regards his responsibility lightly, regards the Word lightly.
Many feel that inclusion and repetition of certain biblical phrases automatically constitutes an evangelical and scriptural message. Frequently they will repeat, “Ye must be born again,” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and “Be cleansed by the blood of the Lamb.” But a mere reiteration of biblical phrases is not expounding and interpreting the Word. Jesus spent an evening with Nicodemus in order to explain the nature and necessity of the New Birth; and he who would expound the doctrine of regeneration must master much of the third chapter of the Gospel of John. Paul and Silas took considerable time to expound the meaning of faith in Christ to the family of the Philippian jailer. Is it not reasonable that he, who would explain the phrase “cleansed by the blood of the Lamb,” should know the structure of the Temple, the significance of its sacrifices, and have a mastery over the epistle to the Hebrews? In other words, an effective preacher ought to be a theologian. James Denny said: “If evangelists were our theologians or theologians our evangelists, we should at least be nearer the ideal Church.”
Evangelical ministers are apt to forget that the saints’ edification, sanctification, and consolation, and not only the conversion of sinners, are God-given tasks. It is true that many congregations seek only a milk diet and abhor strong meat, but this immature condition can be overcome if there is consistent preaching of the whole Counsel of God. A systematic instruction in the great doctrines of the Word of God cannot be overstressed nor carried on at a superficial level. This naturally requires intense study and sermon preparation on the part of the preacher—a painful procedure most likely, to the activist minister. Yet this quality of conscientiousness is necessary for establishing a powerful pulpit. It means the elimination of dozens of church organizational meetings and semi-social functions. It means that the minister will not become occupied with church routine at the expense of study in the Scriptures. Only as he grows in the knowledge and wisdom of the Lord will there be a richer infusion of His Word in the messages from the pulpit.
Salvation Of Souls
One of the major tasks of the pulpit is to bring men and women into a saving relationship with Christ. Keen observers of church life have noted that in spite of the signal success of the Graham crusades, the trend is away from great mass evangelistic campaigns. There is a wholesome movement toward mobilizing all forces of the local church in consistent evangelism as over against the sporadic effort of special campaigns. Here the pulpit must take leadership by stressing the primacy of the Word as over against methodology, and by inculcating a deep and lasting passion rather than temporary zeal for lost souls. Some preachers and churches are only impressed by numbers and are unwilling or impatient to labor for weeks and months in order to lead one soul to Christ. They forget that God sent an earthquake to cause just one soul to cry out for salvation, and that all heaven rejoices over the repentance of one soul. We can learn something from the scribes and Pharisees who compassed sea and land to make proselytes. Of course, the pulpit must reach out for numbers, but, at the same time, the salvation of one individual is worth the effort of an entire ministry.
There is a poverty reflected in many of the messages intended to reach for lost souls. A minimum of the Word and a maximum of entertaining anecdotes are often regarded as the most effective way to encourage “decisions.” But superficial sermons produce superficial results. Wesley, Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Christmas Evans (the Welsh revivalist), and Spurgeon all steeped and saturated their sermons with Scripture. They not only made the text possess their message, but used other parts of Scripture to shed light about it. They were ministers of the Word in the true sense, and God honored his Word by sending times of revival and refreshing. It is the foolishness of preaching Christ and him crucified that God blesses in the salvation of souls, and not the foolish preaching of personal experiences or human wisdom.
Social Problems And Culture
Constant criticism is heard from numerous sources that the evangelical pulpit lacks proper concern for the social problems that confront the world. Some of that criticism is justified. Actually that situation could be corrected were preachers to expound all of the Word of God. Six of the Ten Commandments concern themselves with social relationships. The Fifth Commandment concerns itself with care for the aged; the Sixth, with race hatred, murder, and wars; the Seventh, with sexual perversion, lusts, and divorce; the Eighth, with gambling, communism, dishonest capitalism, and labor rackets; the Ninth, with truth in all phases of life; and the Tenth with materialism and secularism. The Sermon on the Mount is deeply concerned with social problems. Every Epistle has its practical application to the situation in which a Christian finds himself. If voices from the evangelical pulpit are mute on the pressing social problems of this generation, it is that evangelism has suppressed a goodly portion of the Word. Evangelicals have a great responsibility for the calloused and indifferent conscience of contemporary society, and they have failed to lash the public’s conscience with the Word of God. Men must not forget that it is by creating a sensitive and tender conscience that the proper climate is provided to call sinners to repentance and salvation.
Another woeful weakness on the part of evangelism, so it is claimed, is its negligence of culture. This may be true, but it should not be the major concern of the pulpit. Eventually regenerated men, if there are sufficient number, will influence culture. Great periods in the history of the evangelical church have produced great art, architecture, music, and the inauguration of educational institutions. A dominant and persuasive religion will create a new and more enjoyable way of life. But the first task is to extend the boundaries of the kingdom of God. Then culture will be cleansed and uplifted.
The Strength Of The Pulpit
Some of the weaknesses of the evangelical pulpit have been reviewed and undoubtedly more could be said, but we must never forget that its strength is as mighty and powerful as the promises of God. When Joshua went forth to drive the seven pagan tribes out of the Land of Promise, God said to him, “Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper withersoever thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written herein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shall have good success, … for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Joshua was successful in his mission because he did not turn to the left or to the right from the law of God. The same God gave a similar command to his Church to make disciples of all nations and reinforced this command with an identical promise given to Joshua: “And, lo, I am with thee alway, even unto the end of the world.” As the strength of Joshua was the presence of the Lord, so the strength of the evangelical pulpit is the Lord who has all power in heaven and upon earth. As the Lord was present with Joshua in the conquering of Canaan so the Lord is present with the Church in the fulfillment of her mission.
Until the end of time the evangelical pulpit will remain the great means for the sinner’s conversion and the saint’s edification. In this particular period of tension, uncertainty, and theological transition it can stand as a rock of strength and a source of inspiration to the entire Church and nation. From the tenth chapter of Romans this may be paraphrased: “Say not in thine heart, who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) or, who shall descend into the existential theological chaos? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead). But what saith it? The Word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thine heart, and in thy pulpit: that is, the Word of faith, which we preach.” It is only as the preacher behind the sacred desk preaches the whole Counsel and remains in communion with Christ himself that the pulpit will manifest a mighty power and influence to the glory of the Triune God.
Associate Editor J. Marcellus Kik’s address was delivered at the Ministers’ Workshop on Evangelism of the Fellowship of Conservative Congregational Christians of New England.
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