Until recently it was popular to make light of the evangelical approach to the Gospel by referring to it as “seventeenth-century Christianity, not relevant to the twentieth century.” Now the charge has advanced a bit; ours is a “nineteenth-century message, outdated by the space age.”
We will be wise to keep things in perspective by being aware of what was relevant in the first century after Christ and what is relevant now.
In the first century, when the Gospel was first preached, what did men need?
To put it in the simplest terms possible, they needed a revelation of God, changed hearts, a new dynamic for living, and a hope for the future.
What was the need of the social order when the Gospel was first preached?
The social order, composed of men and women, desperately needed redeemed people to bring into play a new ethic, supplanting the tyranny of power and lust with the fruits of the Spirit.
The social order of the first century needed to be confronted with its own insufficiency, for neither the culture and philosophers of Greece nor the power of Rome with her dedication to law and order was able to cope with the problems caused by sin in the human heart.
Today men and nations, the politician and the philosopher, the ignorant and the sophisticated—all have the same needs as did those who lived nineteen centuries ago.
If, then, man’s need today is the same as it was when men first went out to preach the Gospel, the burning question is whether the Gospel of the first century is relevant for the twentieth.
What was that Gospel?
That all men are sinners, standing under the judgment of God; that the wages of sin is death; that God loves all men everywhere; and that he has made full provision for the sin problem in the death and resurrection of his Son. Paul telescoped the Gospel in these words: “… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15.3b, 4, RSV).
The basic need of man for personal salvation is brushed aside only through a rejection of the clear record of Scripture. To suggest that the space age has changed the hearts of men is utter foolishness. A reading of any newspaper reveals that the hearts of men are still desperately wicked.
To admit the diagnosis but then turn to education, power politics, or social engineering for the solution is to add folly to folly.
To say that the industrial, atomic, or space age represents problems that first-century Christianity is unable to solve is to limit the power of God and to imply that scientific, sophisticated man needs a God not revealed in the Gospel of the first century.
Part of the problem is the confusing of God’s message of redemption with methods of making that message known.
For a church or a Christian to insist on traveling as Paul traveled, or limiting himself to the means of communication available in Paul’s time, would be an absurdity. As each generation comes into its responsibility of preaching the Gospel, it should make use of every means for making Christ known. People must be reached where they are, not where we wish they were. Each generation of Christians must speak to the heart hunger of the multitudes with the tenderness and love found only in the hearts of those who have been touched by the Master.
Preaching the Gospel in the twentieth century requires, as always, consecrated common sense. To think that the social order can be changed without changing the hearts of the people who compose that social order is perhaps the least realistic concept imaginable. In fact, it is downright foolishness.
Those who preached the Gospel message in the first century did not gloss over man’s condition and need. When our Lord commissioned the Apostle Paul as a minister to his generation, he said, “I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).
What was the condition of those to whom Paul was commissioned to preach, and what was his message to be?
Men are spiritually blind until their eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit. Are men in the twentieth century more spiritually enlightened than their brothers in the first? Only by faith in Christ were men’s eyes opened then, and this remains true today. Men out of Christ—in the jungles of Ecuador and in the most sophisticated universities—are still living in spiritual darkness.
Men in the first century were under the power of Satan. What conceivable evidence is there today that those who do not know the Saviour are any less under that power? It is popular to deny the reality of Satan, but it is exceedingly difficult to deny the evidence of his activity.
To turn men from the power of Satan to God was a work of personal conversion that men needed in Paul’s time and that they need today. The imperative, “Ye must be born again,” has never been invalidated.
By the Gospel men could receive forgiveness of sins. All through the Acts of the Apostles we hear the plea to repent. Do men need “repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) less today than they did then? Are we not living in a generation that is sinning far more against the light than did those people in Paul’s time? Are we cloaking our rejection of personal repentance for sins by calling for “corporate repentance for corporate sins” instead? We need personal forgiveness by the One who alone can forgive our sins.
Paul was commissioned to preach a Gospel that would bring sanctification—a new life—by faith in Jesus Christ. The risen Lord knew the hearts of men. He knew their needs in the first century. Men have not changed. Their hearts are the same, “desperately wicked,” and their need for personal salvation continues.
Men make all sorts of desperate efforts to substitute something else for the first-century Gospel. The shrinking world, growth of cults, resurgence of pagan religions, population explosion, lessening influence of the Church—all are used as an excuse to change the Gospel to something more palatable to unregenerate man.
What is advanced by some today as “twentieth century Christianity” is not Christianity at all. It is a gospel of accommodation to man, not the Gospel of man’s reconciliation to God through faith in his Son.
Men may change the method of preaching and teaching the Gospel and thereby be more effective in the twentieth century. But woe unto them—and to those deceived by them—if they change the Gospel Paul preached and the commission he received from his Lord on the road to Damascus!
God forbid that we should be deceived by a form of godliness that denies the power by which alone we are redeemed.
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