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An International Journal for Students of
Theological and Religious Studies
Volume 35 Issue 2 July 2010
MINORITY REPORT: Not in the Public Interest 195
B. B. Warfield on Creation and Evolution 198
Fred G. Zaspel
Why Evangelicals Should Ignore Brian McLaren: How 212
the New Testament Requires Evangelicals to Render
a Judgment on the Moral Status of Homosexuality
A Member of the Family or a Stranger? A Review Article 228 of Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology Stephen Dempster Parallels, Real or Imagined? A Review Article of Jeffrey 238 J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology William Edgar How to Write—and How Not to Write—a Review: 245 An Appreciative Response to Reviews of Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology by Dempster and Edgar Jeffrey J. Niehaus PASTORAL PENSÉES: Motivations to Appeal to in Our 258 Hearers When We Preach for Conversion D. A. Carson Book Reviews 265 Themelios 35.2 (2010): 258–64
PA S TO R A L P E N S É E SMotivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion 1 — D. A. Carson — D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
M ost of us, I suspect, develop fairly standard ways, one might even say repetitive ways, to ap- peal to the motivations of our hearers when we preach the gospel. Recently, however, I have wondered if I have erred in this respect—not so much in what I say as in what I never or al- most never say. What follows is in some ways a mea culpa, plus some indication of why I think the topic should be important for all of us.
Before I survey the motivations themselves, I should specify that because the gospel is to be preached to both unbelievers and believers, the motivations that here interest me may be found among both parties. Nevertheless, I shall tilt the discussion toward those motivations of unbelievers to which we should appeal when we preach the gospel to them, aiming, in God’s mercy, at their conversion.
1. A Survey of Possible Motivations The eight motivations I am about to list are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Several may, and
often do, coexist at one time and in one person. In no particular order of importance:
1.1 Fear The Letter to the Hebrews insists that people are kept all their lives in fear of death but that the coming of the Son of God as a human being, a son of Abraham, set in train the destruction of him who has the power of death, namely, the devil himself (Heb 2:14–18). With respect to this particular fear, then, the preaching of the gospel promises a reduction in fear. On the other hand, in various ways Jesus tells his hearers to fear him who has power to destroy body and soul in hell (Matt 10:38). Not a few of the parables end in a simple polarity: gathered into barns or burned (Matt 13:30), entering the home of the wedding feast or being shut outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 22:10–13), and so forth. Some apocalyptic images depict people calling for the rocks and mountains to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of the Lamb (Luke 23:30; Rev 6:15–17). Belonging to the same theme are
texts asking us, rhetorically, where the profit lies if we gain the whole world but lose our own souls (Matt 16:26), or the insistence that it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31).
Obviously it is possible to preach the wrath of God in such an angry and self-righteous fashion that we bear a much closer resemblance to Elmer Gantry than to Jesus Christ. On the other hand, in addition to the example of Jesus and the apostles, we have occasional examples from church history where God has used the appeal to the fear of judgment in powerful ways. The best known witness is doubtless Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which I reread some weeks ago to remind myself how biblical most of it is.
1.2. The Burden of Guilt I specify “the burden of guilt” instead of “guilt” because I prefer to use the latter for one’s moral and legal status before the holy God. In other words, one may be very guilty and not feel guilty, that is, not labor under any burden of guilt. If one is in fact guilty but feels nothing of the burden of guilt, the objective guilt is not a motivation for conversion. Until one cries, in these words or something similar, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4),2 one is not strongly motivated by the burden of guilt. On the other hand, that guilt, rightly perceived, can be a crushing burden and thus a powerful and desperate motivation for relief.
It is a truism of much Reformed theology, not least Puritan theology, that the law must do its work before grace can do its work. Without an adequate dose of the former, the latter is likely merely to heal the wounds of the people slightly (to use King James English). That Puritan heritage influenced many who were, strictly speaking, outside that heritage. For example, John Wesley’s advice to a young minister on how to preach the gospel in any new situation is replete with this perspective.3 The text to which many in this tradition appealed was Gal 3: the law is our παιδαγωγός to bring us to Christ, for the law was added to turn sin into transgression, to make us see our fault, to shut us up under condemnation (Gal 3:19–25). Careful exegesis of Gal 3 has often shown, of course, that this interpretation is substantially mistaken: Gal 3 is less interested in the psychological and moral profile of the person transitioning from guilt to grace, than in unpacking the place of the Mosaic law in redemptive history. Nevertheless, the Puritan vision of the place of the law is not as off-base as some think. For even if Paul’s primary point in Gal 3 is to locate the law’s rightful place in redemptive history, over against the place that many Palestinian first-century Jews thought it should have, the conclusion one must inevitably draw is that God took extraordinary pains to establish and nurture the law-covenant across a millennium and a half as preparatio Christi. Total ignorance of this OT background is one of the reasons that so many in contemporary culture feel almost no burden of guilt when they are first confronted with the Bible, with Jesus, with the gospel. In fact, nurtured on a spongy epistemology, many hear the law’s demands and conclude, at least initially, that the God who thought this lot up is not worth respecting, for he must be a manipulative and power-hungry despot. Still, at some point the burden of guilt catches up with many people, and it can become a powerful motivation in their conversion.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are from Today’s New International Version (tniv), © 2 2005.
John Wesley, “To an Evangelical Layman,” in The Works of John Wesley: Volume 26: Letters II: 1740–1755 3 (ed. Frank Baker; Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 482–89.
1.3. Shame A glance at the literature shows how difficult it is to distinguish absolutely between guilt and shame.
Some cultural anthropologists speak of “shame cultures” as if such cultures know little of guilt, and of some traditional Western cultures as if they are guilt-ridden but know little of shame: the two kinds of cultures are sometimes treated as if they are categorically disjunctive. Some in the field of psychiatry assert that guilt arises from what we do, while shame arises from what we are, but that is certainly not a biblical distinction. In the Bible we may be guilty and feel guilty for what we are, and equally we may be ashamed of what we do.
In popular parlance, I suspect that shame has more to do with losing face, primarily (though not exclusively) in horizontal relationships. Nevertheless, if one loses face before one’s family or peers, it is usually because one has done something “wrong” as judged by those peers, so it is hard to see why guilt feelings do not also intrude. Similarly, one may be genuinely guilty of some sort of moral breach and be ashamed of what one has done. Initially Adam and Eve are naked and unashamed: they have nothing to hide. But when sin changes everything, does Adam hide from God because he feels guilty or because he feels ashamed? Must one choose? Nevertheless, there does appear to be a slight difference in focus between the two: shame has to do with losing face, often objectively, and hence feeling shamed.
Such loss of face commonly springs from one’s own faults, but of course it may spring from something one has endured—like David’s envoys who are ashamed of losing half their beards at the hands of the Ammonites and whom David therefore consoles by instructing them to remain at Jericho until their beards grow back (2 Sam 10:1–5). They have lost face, but of course in this instance they are not guilty of anything.
Many have argued that in a culture like ours, which protests that it is unmoved by the law’s demands and that refuses to admit to guilt feelings because it refuses to admit to guilt, a better way to unpack the nature of sin is to unfold the nature of idolatry rather than the nature of law. Idolatry is bound up with corrosive relationships, with de-godding God, with shameful distortions and substitutions;
and, it is argued, these evils are more easily admitted among yuppie postmoderns than are the evils of transgressing law. In other words, shame is more readily acknowledged than guilt.
1.4. The Need for “Future Grace” When John Piper unpacks this category, he has primarily Christians in view. Historically, however, a great deal of evangelism has been carried out by urging people to prepare to meet God, to receive the grace now that alone prepares a sinner for resurrection-existence in the new heaven and the new earth.
Where is the profit in gaining the world and losing one’s soul? Where there is widespread belief that one must finally give an account to a holy God who does not grade on the curve, this sort of appeal carries quite a lot of weight. The motivations to which one appeals are a mixture of fear (which I have already mentioned) and the desire to be found right, just, before this God, acceptable to him.
1.5. The Attractiveness of Truth Frequently the apostles declare that they bear witness to the truth, that they declare the truth, that they do not peddle the truth, that they cannot do other than speak the truth, that they speak the truth plainly in the eyes of all, and so forth (e.g., John 19:35; Rom 9:1; 2 Cor 4:2; 11:10; 13:8). The assumption, of course, is that by the grace of God, the truth itself is attractive to some. Cornelius was such a man.
He was a good deal more eager to hear the truth, at least initially, than Peter was to declare it. For those
with eyes to see and ears to hear, the truth can be self-attesting; for others, like some of Jesus’ opponents in John 8, the truth is precisely what is detested: “Because I tell you the truth, you do not believe” (John 8:45; cf. also Isa 6, cited in Matt 13 and elsewhere). To draw an analogy: the one gospel can be a wonderful aroma to those who are being saved and a disgusting stench to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). So also the truth can appear wonderful to those who by grace begin to see its beauty and compelling nature, while actually causing offense and unbelief in those who are perishing.
When I was a young man, many university missions spent a lot of time defending, say, the deity of Christ or his resurrection from the dead. The widespread assumption, both among the evangelists and among many of the student hearers, was that if one accepted the truth of these claims, one was already on the path toward becoming a Christian. This assumption sustained quite a lot of evidentialist apologetics. The approach is flawed in several ways, of course. James reminds us that the devil knows and believes such truths, but such “faith” does not save him (James 2:19). Granted, however, the need for grace to enable the “natural” person to perceive the truth, one cannot deny that one of the motivations in people as they begin to “close” with Christ (to use an old Puritan expression) is the attractiveness of the truth. While some in Athens sneered, others, in some ways already hooked by what the apostle Paul was saying, wanted to hear him again on these matters (Acts 17:32). They were drawn to the truth.
1.6. A General, Despairing Sense of Need It is pretty clear from the Gospel accounts that many who pursued Jesus did not do so out of a well thought-through theology (e.g., law precedes gospel, and they were under deep conviction of sin), but out of desperation fed by their most acutely perceived need. Witness the woman with the history of hemorrhaging (Matt 9:20–21), the two blind men by the side of the road calling for the Son of David to have mercy on them (Matt 9:27), the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:25–28), and many others. In some cases, of course, Jesus responds to such needs yet also pushes on a little farther to deal with the sin in their lives (the Samaritan woman [John 4:10–18], the man by the pool of Bethesda [John 5:5–14]).
Moreover, it does not follow that everyone who is healed by Jesus is “saved” in the fullest theological sense of that word. For instance, nine of the ten healed lepers do not have the courtesy of gratitude, let alone saving faith (Luke 17:11–19). Yet where there is a whole-hearted and desperate plea to Jesus, even absent much theological understanding, it is wonderful to see how embracing Jesus is.
Pastoral experience supports this assessment. Many of us have witnessed people turning to Christ with remarkably little exact theological knowledge. The knowledge comes later. Why these people come, at least initially, is that they need help, need it desperately, and turn to Jesus. This may prove to be part of a broader, whole-life turning to Jesus. Their initial motivations, however, are all bound up with desperation.