The world seems like it’s going crazy. Looking around at what’s going on brings to mind Bible verses like “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” and “there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Jud. 17:6; Ps. 36:1). Not only do people reject God, but they reject the entire idea of absolute morality as well, opting for a subjective, situational version that can change moment-to-moment and person-to-person.
In the midst of this, many Christians want to fight for and defend the truth of our faith. We want to show the world they’re wrong and prove that God is right. We think that to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered,” we need to offer logical, scientifically supported, convincing arguments to counter the lies running rampant in our culture.
But I don’t think we’re going to convince many people that God’s word is the truth (rather than just one of many truths) by arguing with them. There’s definitely a place for apologetics, and people with the knowledge and expertise to enter debates and stand up for truth are invaluable. In general, though, I question whether telling people how wrong they are and what they need to change is a good first step for introducing them to the faith.
If we start out by lecturing people about how much God hates their sin or how wrong they are about ideas they hold dear, why would they react any way other than defensively? And if they don’t acknowledge God as real yet, why would we expect them to care what we say He wants them to do?
Keeping Your Audience In Mind
God’s truth doesn’t change with the times. But those who are wise keep their audiences in mind when they speak the truth. When Paul spoke to Jews in Antioch, he knew his already religious audience could best be reached by using scriptures to prove Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (Acts 13:14-41). When he preached to people in Athens without any Biblical background, however, he started by talking about who God is and why we should care. He even quoted one of their own philosophers as part of his argument (Acts 17:18-31). Tailoring the message to fit his audience was a deliberate, conscious choice that Paul made.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9:20-22, WEB)
My target audience for posts like this is people who already identify as Christians, so I make certain assumptions when writing articles. For example, I assume we agree the Bible is the inspired word of God so I can quote it as an authority on the subjects we’re studying.
If I was to talk with people who don’t have that foundation, I’d need to use a different approach. I’d have to care about them enough to figure out where they are and how to phrase what I have to say so it best reaches them. The adage is true that people don’t care what you (or God) have to say until they know how much you (and God) care.
Distortions of Grace
If what I’m saying is correct, then we’d expect to find support for this not just in Paul’s approach but also in how Jesus taught. From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus came saying, “The time is fulfilled and God’s kingdom is at hand! Repent and believe the Good News” (Mark 1:15, WEB). He certainly didn’t avoid telling people when they were wrong (especially the religious leaders who should have known better), but His message is primarily one fueled by love that desires reconciliation between God and man. He wants repentance and belief so that we can be in relationship with Him and the Father.
Sharing the Gospel — the Good News — with people should point them toward the same things Christ pointed them toward. Repentance, belief, justice, mercy, faithfulness, love — all those things are key to His message. Though we aren’t in control of who God chooses to work with, the way we talk about Him does have an effect. If our message strays too far away from His, then we can sabotage what God wants to do in this world by putting stumbling blocks in front of people.
Sometimes, we focus too much on either “repent, thou foul sinner” or on “just believe and everything will be fine.” Too much focus on the first tends to make people feel condemned and/or scare them off. Too much on the latter doesn’t inspire the change of heart that God seeks from His people. Neither by itself fully represents the message of the gospel.
Grace is often defined as “unearned favor” or “unmerited pardon.” Have you ever been in a church that emphasized just one of aspect of grace? Perhaps they spent a lot of time focused on how much you don’t deserve salvation and how angry God will be if you fall back into sin. Or maybe they focused more on the favor and pardon, saying God loves you so much he doesn’t care how you live. Both are distortions of the truth, and if we’re going to share the Good News as Jesus did we have to find our way back to a proper balance. We need to speak of repentance and of belief; of truth and of love.
Speaking Truth In Love
Early in His ministry, Jesus read from the prophet Isiah and told His listeners, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Reading this passage provides us with several of Christ’s self-identified goals in sharing the Good News.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the broken hearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19, WEB)
Jesus is still doing these things today, but He’s chosen to make us the tools He uses to fulfill His goals on earth. If we are to follow in His steps, then sharing good news, healing the broken hearted, proclaiming freedom, showing the blind how to see, and delivering those who are crushed while proclaiming the Lord’s coming is part of our mission today.
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Rom. 5:5, KJV)
The Lord pours His love into us, and as a result that same love should pour out of us into the world. We “don’t love the world, or the things that are in the world” because they’re in conflict with God (1 John 2:15). However, we do follow God’s example of loving people so much that we want them to choose eternal life (John 3:16; Rom. 10:1; 1 Tim. 2:4). Whenever we speak God’s truth, His love must be the starting place
The Greatest Is Love
People often treat the Christian idea of love as something to gloss over, even in the church. It’s simple, basic, and we talk about it too much (they say). We’ve got that “love stuff” down pat by now. Let’s move on to something deeper or more interesting. But God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), which means love is the most deep and powerful thing in the universe. We should never get bored with it or move on from it. Love must be part of everything we are and do.
“Speaking the truth in love” prompts growth and deepens faith (Eph. 4:15). This love is agape — active, benevolent love that always seeks the other person’s good. It never compromises truth (e.g. by saying sin is okay) because it knows following truth leads to good (e.g. continuing in sin leads to death, but following truth leads to life). Making our love active “in deed and truth” instead of simply in words is key to having God’s love in us and sharing that love with the world (1 John 3:17-19).
So how do we convince people they’re wrong and God is right? By not making that our goal. We won’t shove people into the kingdom of God with logical arguments or by insisting they’ve got everything wrong. But we can point them toward a relationship with the One who can get them into His kingdom, and we do that by showing His love in all that we are, say, and do. God’s love is transformational inside us and if we share that love with others, it can transform them as well.
Featured image credit: Shaun Menary via Lightstock