“Why can’t it be about love, positivity, and inspiration?” they say. “That’s what’s missing in our lives.” Sounds great. It’s easy to swallow, not confrontational, and its hard to attack without looking like a jerk.
For a long time, I too had a habit of trying to “sell” the Gospel better. When I’d hear a Christian preacher speak fire-and-brimstone, I’d make a note to avoid recommending him to friends. Seriously. When a coworker would tromp around with a message of hellfire, I’d try to gently “rein him back in”. Tell them about the love of Jesus, I said. Make it about the benefits of his kingdom. Ask them why anyone would want to live without his love.
Without ever going to college to learn it, I had engaged in marketing. Soften the message. After all, nobody talked about hell anymore. It was corny and nobody wanted to hear it.
Then a cruise missile breached my arrogant thinking.
“The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” – Matthew 13:41-42
Oh shoot. Jesus talks about hell???
Hey, genius, I suddenly thought to myself. What if it’s not your job to decide what the Gospel is?
In trying to make the Gospel more palatable, we’ve come to advertise it by its secondary benefits. Fulfillment, identity, healing, purpose, practical living, justice, and the love of Jesus. That is how it’s often pitched these days.
And in doing so, we don’t always mention the small matter of the prerequisite to all those benefits. We’ve designed a terrific brochure of the kingdom, but forgotten to mention the gateway.
Ugh. It’s a word we don’t even want to say in the church anymore. It conjures up images of people in plaid and furrowed brows, standing on the sidewalk waving placards and Bibles, looking like they’ve never had a moment of joy in their lives. It’s a synonym of all the anger, divisiveness, and pulpit-pounding we cringe at in the modern church. Pictures of the Ten Commandments on our billboards and bumpers seem painfully out of date. “This is the twenty-first century,” I remember thinking to myself. “That strategy doesn’t work anymore.”
In a world of confused identity, lost purpose, body shaming, mental brokenness, and gripping loneliness, it seems insensitive at best – and backwards at worst – to point out the faults of the individual. If Jesus exists, let him be our healer and affirmer, they say. Let him bring us his love.
Which is great. Jesus is all those things.
The problem is, you can’t get to him without repentance.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 3:23
A verse I’ve known since childhood, and I treat it like an afterthought?
I wish I was overstating things. But according to the experience of countless pastors and church leaders, we’ve got an entire generation that doesn’t seem to know anything about repentance.
Satan has a claim upon anyone whose sins have not been forgiven. And there’s no way around it – despite our attempts, none have been able to pay their own debt. Nobody’s perfect, and perfection is required. The New Testament uses phrases like “blameless” and “white as snow” to describe the necessary state.
Until we achieve it, the Bible says we are cut off from his love and benefits and, yes, headed for hell. It’s not his fault. It’s ours.
Which means we have to make up our minds whether we believe the Bible. If so, we must, at the cost of all other considerations, answer its question: Does mankind owe God a debt?
The things we long for from Jesus Christ – purpose, freedom, love – come at a cost.
But here’s where the Gospel comes in: Jesus has slashed the price like the yellow smiley face rampaging through Wal-Mart. There’s your marketing. Instead of eternal death, the invoice now asks only repentance. We must go through that hard, humbling, oh-so-infuriating-to-our-pride moment of bending the knee and admitting that we are sinners. We must also accept a life of surrender (and persecution, should God grant us the honor).
Whether or not this Gospel is popular anymore? That’s so far from being a relevant question that it’s laughable. Of course it’s not popular. It’s rejected for the same reason it always has been. It’s ugly. It’s humiliating. It reveals our sin, and that’s not marketable except to the convicted.
Somewhere along the way, we apparently decided that we can sell anything as long as we tinker a bit. But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so is his message. We cannot ignore repentance. It was the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth when he arrived on earth.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” – Matthew 3:2
Instead of letting the world water us down – “I won’t listen unless you stop sounding hateful” – perhaps we need to stop worrying what they think. It’s not our job to market the Gospel. It’s our job to share and steward it. What people do with it is their problem, and always has been.
The good news? Jesus’ offer has not changed either. If one will accept conviction (do we pray for that for our friends?), they can ask for his forgiveness, and then receive the enormous inheritance he offers us.
Or look at it this way. If a friend had a cancer diagnosis and didn’t know, the evil would not be in the message. The evil would be in withholding it. We cannot compassionately ward our friends into hell. Sharing the gospel is kindness.
As attractive as the Gospel becomes when we talk about the benefits, we must never commit the disservice of forgetting to tell people what is required. The Gospel is not primarily a hospital, an inspiration channel, a self-help program, feeding the poor, or good moral lessons. The Gospel destroys us. And then rebuilds us. It is a message of repentance.
Jesus said to count the cost. That’s hard to share. But he also seemed to think that it’s worth it. He saw redemption as the greatest treasure that awaits us. Indeed, why gain all those other things but lose your soul?
Let’s market this thing right.
Image credit: Ben Sutherland