In his introduction to John Owen’s work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, James I. Packer (Does anybody actually know what the “I” stands for? Iain? Izzy? Ignatius?) gives a helpful diagnosis of the modern church’s sickly state. He contends that the problems and perplexities of the church are ultimately due to our having lost grip on the biblical gospel.
“Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered the biblical gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similarly enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. Why?
“We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because that is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be ‘helpful’ to man–to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction–and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was ‘helpful,’ too–more so, indeed, than is the new–but, so to speak incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis in gospel preaching has changed.”
A.W. Tozer (Not sure what the “A” or “W” stand for in his name–we’ll say “Amadeus Wolfgang”) said the same thing, calling the modern, me-centered gospel, “the new cross.”
“The new cross does not slay the sinner; it redirects him. It gears him into a cleaner and jollier way of living and saves his self-respect. To the self-assertive it says, ‘Come and assert yourself for Christ.’ To the egotist it says, ‘Come and do your boasting in the Lord.’ To the thrill-seeker it says, ‘Come and enjoy the thrill of the abundant Christian life.’ The Christian’s message is slanted in the direction of the current vogue in order to make it acceptable to the public. The idea behind this kind of thing may be sincere, but its sincerity does not save it from being false.”
Do you think these analyses are a bit too harsh? It’s really not that bad, is it? Not in Christian America? Follow the link below to a “Digitract” from the American Tract Society–an organization with the desire to see gospel tracts distributed to masses of people. This is the same group that has published the “Roman Road,” a very popular and enduring gospel tract. Like Tozer, I am not questioning their motives, but do want to challenge the content of their “gospel.” Check it out and then finish my entry:
Remember what Packer said: “similar in points of detail.” The tract refers to creation, resurrection, sin, and quotes some Scriptures. But “as a whole (it is) a decidedly different thing.” The whole tenor of the tract is man-centered. Tozer would say, “To the self-absorbed, it says, ‘Come and be self-absorbed for Jesus.'” It sounds like God is a needy, unfulfilled, empty Person without me.
This is what John Piper means when he says in the introduction to God Is the Gospel, “We are willing to be God-centered as long as God is man-centered. We are willing to boast in the cross as long as the cross is a witness to our worth.” The modern church has erred by placing man as the central figure of the gospel. We’ve made it about us.
This post is not meant to cause anxiety about the future of the church or the progress of the gospel. God is the author of the gospel, God preserves the gospel, and God gives power to the gospel. It is so exciting to see and hear about the effects God’s gospel is having around the world. But we must defensively “guard . . . the treasure which has been entrusted to us” (2 Timothy 1:14) and actively go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the gospel. As every coach I have ever had has said, “the best defense is a good offense” (or is it the other way around?). May we “hold onto” the gospel and “hold forth” the gospel to an unbelieving world, begging them, on behalf of Christ, to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).