Singapore churches are preaching the half gospel

Lord anoint your servants to preach the good news of JesusI find Michael Horton’s books invigorating. I have read his “Putting the Amazing Back into Grace” and “Power Religion” of which I would warmly commend the former. But I have not read his more recent books titled Christless Christianity and the Gospel-Driven Life but they should be thought provoking stuff.Michael is currently the  professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, and the author of many books. Recently he was interviewed by Mark Galli from Christianity Today.

I am posting excerpts from this interview on some issues raised in these recent books to strengthen my claims that preaching in Singapore is too man-centered and imperative-driven and needs to return to being God-centered and indicative-driven or gospel-driven. What people have been receiving is a half gospel. The interview will clarify what I mean.

Here are some excerpts from there:

ARE OUR SERMONS IN CHURCHES TODAY CHRISTLESS:

What is at the core of the temptation to practice a Christless Christianity?

When the emphasis becomes human-centered rather than God-centered. In more conservative contexts, you hear it as exhortation: “These are God’s commandments. The culture is slipping away from us. We have to recover it, and you play a role. Is your life matching up to what God calls us to?” Of course there is a place for that, but it seems to be the dominant emphasis.

Then there is the therapeutic approach: “You can be happier if you follow God’s principles.” All of this is said with a smile, but it’s still imperative. It’s still about techniques and principles for you to follow in order to have your best life now.

In both cases, it’s law rather than gospel. I don’t even know when I walk into a church that says it’s Bible-believing that I’m actually going to hear an exposition of Scripture with Christ at the center, or whether I’m going to hear about how I should “dare to be a Daniel.” The question is not whether we have imperatives in Scripture. The question is whether the imperatives are all we are getting, because people assume we already know the gospel—and we don’t.

But aren’t many churches doing good preaching about how to improve your marriage, transform your life, and serve the poor?

The question is whether this is the Good News. There is nothing wrong with law, but law isn’t gospel. The gospel isn’t “Follow Jesus’ example” or “Transform your life” or “How to raise good children.” The gospel is: Jesus Christ came to save sinners—even bad parents, even lousy followers of Jesus, which we all are on our best days. All of the emphasis falls on “What would Jesus do?” rather than “What has Jesus done?”

Why is this such a temptation for the church?

It’s our default setting. No one has to be taught to trust in themselves. No one has to be taught that what you experience inside yourself is more authoritative than what comes to you externally, even if it comes from God. Since the Fall, it has been part of our character to look within ourselves. And it is part of our inherent Pelagianism to think we can save ourselves by following the right instructions.

In such a therapeutic, pragmatic, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps society as ours, the message of God having to do all the work in saving us comes as an offensive shot at our egos. In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. All of that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.

ON WHATS A GOSPEL-DRIVEN LIFE (IS HE TAKING A DIG AT THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE?):

What specifically do you mean by “a gospel-driven life”?

Because I live in San Diego, I think of a sailboat decked out with all of the latest equipment that tells you where you are and where you need to be. It plots your course, but it’s a sailboat, so you need wind in your sails. You start out, and it’s a beautiful day with wind in your sails. You’re out in the middle of the ocean when the wind dies down. You’re just sitting there dead calm. And your radio tells you that a hurricane is approaching. But all of your sophisticated equipment will not be able to get you to safety. What you need is wind in your sails.

A lot of Christians, especially people who have had dramatic conversion experiences, go sailing out of the harbor with wind in their sails. They are so confident in Christ and what he has done for their salvation, and that gospel wind is in their sails. Yet after two years, they have heard just one imperative after another. They have lots of course plotting, lots of books on how to do this and that. They’ve read every manual on spiritual disciplines. They have heard their pastor tell them they need to pray more, to read the Bible more, to evangelize more. Now they are dead in the water. There’s no wind in the sails.

Paul calls the gospel “the power of God unto salvation,” and I don’t think he meant the power of God just unto conversion. The gospel remains the power of God unto salvation until we are glorified. Calvin once said we need the gospel preached to us every week, and the Lord’s Supper to ratify that promise, because we are partly unbelievers until we die.

‘Paul calls the gospel “the power of God unto salvation,” and I don’t think he meant the power of God just unto conversion.

In The Gospel-Driven Life you use news as a metaphor. Why?

I stole it from the apostles! Their dominant metaphor for the gospel message is “good news.” The content is that God has done all the saving, no thanks to us. Someone asked Martin Luther what we contribute to salvation, and he said, “Sin and resistance!”

The gospel is not even my conversion experience. If somebody asks me what the gospel is, I’m not going to talk about me; I’m going to talk about Christ. All of the testimonies we find from the apostles’ lips are not testimonies about what happened in their hearts. They are testimonies about what happened in history when God saved his people from their sins. That’s the gospel. Although the gospel makes all sorts of things happen inside of me and gives me the fruit of the Spirit, the gospel itself is always an external word that comes to me announcing that someone else in history has accomplished my salvation for me.

Someone comes with instructions and says, “Here’s what your life could be like if you do x, y, or z.” Good news is, “Let me tell you what has happened!” The gospel is not good instructions, not a good idea, and not good advice. The gospel is an announcement of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So what is the first step in living a gospel-driven life?

Become a recipient again. Mary and Martha, the two sisters and disciples of Jesus, had different relationships with Jesus. Martha busied herself with many tasks, and she was getting mad at Mary for making her do all the work. Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning from him. Jesus rebuked Martha for criticizing her sister and said Mary had chosen the better part.

First and foremost, disciples are recipients of Jesus Christ’s teaching. His teachings are really teachings concerning his person and his work. He has accomplished our salvation. He has accomplished our redemption. So first, allow the gospel to soak in again.

Then allow the imperatives that arise out of that to be our reasonable service. Instead of trying to live the victorious Christian life, instead of trying to get into God’s favor by following tips and formulas, let’s receive the gospel and then follow the commands of God’s law when it comes to directives. Then our sailboat is perfectly equipped. Now we have the wind in our sails—the gospel—and we also have God’s own wisdom to guide us in that gospel-driven life.

If we understand what Michael Horton is saying in this interview, we will understand why our churches of full of tired Marthas running around on an empty tank in the kitchen, and who will end up in churches that cater for Marys.

For the full interview go to Christ the Center article in online Christianity Today.com.

And read a related article which I posted recently on the indicatives and imperatives of the gospel.

Indicatives and imperatives of the gospel

preachingUnderstanding the indicatives and the imperatives will help anyone identify what is effective and empowering preaching and teaching of the gospel. This is something many believers and preachers miss. Their criteria of good preaching hinges too much on peripheral issues of structure and style. What is crucial is the content. It distinguishes us from the professional motivational speakers, religious gurus and politicians.

Nowadays there are a great deal of “How to…” messages which give instructional, moralistic, practical, Readers Digest type advice albeit with a Christian makeover. While I admit there is a place for this, the diet of God’s people has to be balanced with apostle Paul ’s order of indicatives(what God has done for us) before imperatives(what we therefore ought to do in response).

Most churches in Singapore preach the imperatives and the result is that Christians may mistakenly or subconsciously think that Christianity is another set of do’s and don’ts like Buddhism, or Islam: a moralistic religion with pragmatic, adaptable and logical rules and advice for living.

One of the more insightful succinct books I have read on preaching is “A Primer for Preachers” by Ian Pitt-Watson, a Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. I particularly like his emphasis that preaching the Good News is founded on, and driven by the ‘indicatives’ (who God is and what He has done). Here is an extract:

What is preaching? It is procalmation, not just moralizing. It is Good News, not just good advice; it is gospel, not just law. Supremely, it is about God and what he has done, not just about us and about what we ought to do. Logically and theologically(though by no means always chronologically) preaching is about God before it is about us; it is about what God has done before it is about what we ought to do. Our self-understanding must flow from our understanding of God. When we speak of what we ought to do(as of course we must, our moral imperatives must issue from our knowledge of what God has done. Otherwise our imperatives are no more than pious moralizings that refuse to face the facts of life: “When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach”(Rom 7:21). Or else, if the moral exhortations are seriously intended and seriously attempted, the consequence is simply to compound in our hearers their burden of guilt when, inevitably, they make the same desolating discovery that Paul made: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will”(Rom 7:19). Only through what God is and has done can I be what I ought to be and do what I ought to do. What I cannot do for myself, “what the law could never do, because [my] lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done.” At heart, preaching is about what “God has done: by sending his own Son in a form like that of our own sinful nature”(Rom 8:3). That is the gospel.

The practical consequences of these theological conclusions are of immense importance to the preacher. Now that the “what?” question has been faced, the “how do you dos” of preaching can be answered with more confidence. If preaching is to be proclamation and not mere moralizing, then the ethics of our preaching must be rooted in the theology of our preaching. We cannot make sense of who we are and what we ought to do until first we know who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ. The Christian ethic, severed from its theological roots, is no more than a new law, more demanding and therefore more burdensome than the old. That is why it is always so clear in the letters of Paul that the ethic flows out of the theology. We can be what we ought to be and do what we ought to do only because of what God is and has done. The theology empowers the ethic; it does not just accompany it with an encouraging, heavenly-father pat on the back. For every imperative of the Christian ethic there is an empowering indicative of Christian theology. In the Sermon on the Mount the imperatives are indeed there and inescapable in their demand. But they are more than imperatives; they are descriptions of life in the kingdom of God, indicatives of that kingdom. Perhaps that is why the Sermon begins, not in the imperative mood speaking of how things ought to be, but in the indicative mood speaking of how things are. “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs”(Matt, 5:3). This is how things are in the kingdom that in Christ is already in our midst. People are happy(makarios) with the special kind of happiness that comes from God alone. The most surprising people are happy in the most surprising circumstances. They are not told to be happy or trying to be happy. They just are happy. The blessed indicative of the Beatitudes precedes and empowers the demanding imperatives of the kingdom that are to follow.

“Don’t preach!” means “Don’t just tell me what to do; help me to do it.” That is precisely what authentic biblical preaching is all about. It is about action enabled by insight, imperatives empowered by indicatives, ethics rooted in theology, “what we ought to do” made possible by what God has done. (p21,22)

Evangelical discomfort with prosperity

Keep the change, son.
"Keep the change, son".

Evangelical Christians are okay with God’s spiritual blessings but are ill at ease with material blessing from God.

One reason is an over-reaction to the excesses of the “prosperity gospel”.  We look with disdain on some American television evangelists who raise millions from naive believers by twisting Scriptures to say what they do not say, to support grandiose projects, and flaunt a lavish lifestyle that Solomon would envy.

The PEST test

An easy way to check for “prosperity doctrine” quotient is to do a PEST test that I have developed:

P –  Presumption is “an assumption, often not fully established, that is taken for granted in some piece of reasoning.” “Prosperity doctrine” is built on assumptions that are not fully borne out by the whole counsel of God, and their tenets are flawed by tenuous interpretation of scripture passages.

E – Eternity: “Prosperity doctrine” have no regard for what is eternal, accusing others of “pie in the sky” irrelevancy.  Jesus told us not to accumulate wealth on earth but to lay our treasures in heaven. He had a high regard with living on earth with a view to eternity. Hold to our material wealth lightly and be contented and free from greed and hoarding.

S – Stewardship: “Prosperity doctrine” does not emphasize God’s ownership of all things and how discipleship entails the faithful and wise management of God’s resources and places all our resources at God’s disposal. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money(Matthew 6:24).” This practically means the wealthy Christian should use his wealth to honor God, and care for the poor and needy, this good old earth and world missions.

T – Thanksgiving: “Prosperity doctrine” does not cultivate humility and gratitude and generosity. It has tendencies toward materialism, and unchecked consumption and pride. “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” (Proverbs 30:8,9)

So we rightly say no to “prosperity doctrine” but sadly are hesitant to preach about God’s desire to bless us so that we can bless others. We do not want to be associated with “prosperity doctrine” and so we stay in the safety of the boat and do not risk teaching rightly what the Word says about God’s fatherly desire to bless his children.

God wants to bless

I preach that God wants to bless his children. He blessed Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and many may have missed this scripture: “When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”( Luke 24:39). It seems to me that every significant new beginning, was launched with the blessing of God, unmerited and free, and that blessing included material benefits as well as spiritual. He wants us to “put our hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”(1 Timothy 6:17).

In the Old Testament, as in Abraham’s case, the blessing of God covered his family, finances, protection, guidance and did not exclude the spiritual for by faith righteousness was credited to his account, and he sought a city not made by hands. The promises of blessing to those who fully obey in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 would easily have had Abraham as an example of fulfillment.

Evangelical dis-ease must be cured

Evangelical Christians think that the New Testament blessings emphasizes spiritual blessings but not to the exclusion of the temporal and material.  I rejoice and thank God for all the spiritual blessings secured for us through Christ’s death and resurrection. However, the reluctance and neglect of preaching about how God loves to bless us with “daily bread”, a temporal and material blessing embedded in the Lord’s prayer itself, does a disservice to the church. Our heavenly Father is mistakenly regarded as one reluctant to bless us with material resources as well as spiritual. Paul declared boldly that God wants “to make all grace abound toward you so that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”(2 Corinthians 9:8).

This evangelical dis-ease must be cured.

Let’s not junk the good with the part that’s spoiled.