I grew up in a First Baptist Church in a small town in western North Carolina. My grandfather was my first pastor.
He passed away when I was nine years old, but I remember him as a man of prayer and a preacher who could make the judgment so realistic you could see sinners standing before the Great White Throne wringing their hands and sweating bullets. He could make hell so hot you could smell the fire and brimstone. He could make heaven so attractive that you prayed for the angels to come and carry you home.
However, I fear that in our sophisticated society we have become too refined to hear “offensive” sermons like my grandfather preached. We prefer something more urbane and polished. Enter Norman Vincent Peale.
Norman Vincent Peale, the influential pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York, took preaching and Christianity down a different path by popularizing the concept of positive thinking through his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. Although many embraced Peale’s approach to Christianity, John MacArthur has stated, “If you think Paul is appealing, you will think Peale is appalling.”
Robert Schuller, known for his Crystal Cathedral and televised worship service “The Hour of Power,” followed down Peale’s pathway with his concept of “Possibility Thinking.” Schuller’s primary focus was self-esteem. In his book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, Schuller wrote, “Sin is any act or thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem.”
Schuller also defined hell as “the loss of pride that naturally follows separation from God” and that “a person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.”
Despairing over Schuller’s theology, MacArthur also once stated that he was training 40,000 pigeons for an all-out attack on the Crystal Cathredal.
In his Apologetics column Orrel Steinkamp writes: Schuller pioneered the adaptation of Church Growth Principles and societal contexualization … as taught at Fuller’s “School of World Missions.” He adapted these growth principles to his own theology of self-esteem and fashioned a gospel presentation to lure southern Californians into his church. He then taught this model yearly at the Crystal Cathedral pastors’ conferences. Among his most famous students were first Bill Hybels and then Rick Warren.
Although Hybels and Warren have a more orthodox theology than their previously mentioned forerunners, they have focused on “felt needs” sermons, “seeker sensitive services,” and a “market-driven Christianity.”
In this approach to church growth, members and guests are treated as consumers and, as you know, “the consumer is always right.”
In many seeker friendly churches the doctrines of man’s depravity and hell’s fury are secondary to self-help sermons like how to face your fears, how to manage your money, how to love your enemy, and how to redeem the time. These are valid topics for sermons, but it is possible to address them without telling the bad news – our sinfulness – in order to get to the Good News – the Gospel.
In Pastor Wayne Edwards’ book Raising the Standard he writes, “Rather than going to the world with a clear message of the cross of Christ, and its affect upon our lives, the church is adjusting its ministries to attract the world to itself. Therefore, we are giving the world an ‘uncertain sound’ as the Apostle Paul referred to in I Corinthians 14:7-8.
“Most Christians have decided to acquiesce to society rather then to incur the ridicule and persecution for being different from society,” Edwards explained.
Matt Walsh is a writer, speaker, author, and one of the Religious Right’s most influential young voices. He recently wrote an article for DailyWire titled “Dear Churches, If You Aren’t Making People ‘Feel Judged,’ You Aren’t Doing Your Job.”
In the article Walsh stated, “It was decided some decades ago that no one must ever feel uncomfortable, guilty, or, worst of all, judged. They especially must not feel this way at church.
“Church is a place where all must be welcome, we’re told … But the problem is that the modern American Christian insists on being welcome along with his lifestyle, his self-centeredness, and his sin. He wants all of that to be welcomed, too. And most churches are happy to oblige. He will not be called to repentance from the pulpit, and his favorite sins will not be denounced, because that would make the poor soul feel ‘judged,’ and one cannot feel welcome if he is being judged.”
It is through that kind ecclesiology that the culture has infiltrated the church, shorn the church of its power, and blurred the lines between the church and the world so that the church is not distinctively different.
I realize that the world into which I was born does not exist anymore. Things have radically changed and many things have changed for the better. Air-conditioned churches are better than the gentle zephyr I managed to create from the hand fans our church got from Crowe’s Funeral Home. Automatic transmissions in automobiles are better than having to shift the gears by hand. Speed dialing on a cell phone is better than having to wait your turn to use the party line. My automobile’s GPS is better than having to use those maps I could never get folded back correctly.
However, the Gospel remains the same in every place and in every generation. According to Walsh, when pastors fail to insist that their parishioners face the truth, when they refuse to denounce sin and call for repentance, “they are like the surgeon who refuses to perform a lifesaving operation on a sick man, but simply gives him a pat on the back, a smiley face sticker, and sends him home to die.”
Walsh added, “Most (so-called) Christians don’t go to church … For a country that claims to be “majority Christian,” there are strikingly few Christian leaders who are willing to stand up and offer some clarity and direction to the legions of lost sheep bumbling around and casually apostatizing.”
Preaching human guilt and the coming judgment shows people their need for the Gospel. Preaching anything less than this gives the sinner hope for self-improvement through good works. Preaching the whole demand of God’s righteousness shows that outside of God’s gracious provision through the atoning death of His only begotten Son we are all hopeless sinners.
Preaching repentance is central to the message of the Kingdom of God. Preaching repentance is a vital part of the Great Commission according to Luke 24: 46-47.
In 2004, just months before he died, the great expository preacher Stephen Olford spoke in chapel at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and said, “The churches in America are hemorrhaging at the rate of 50,000 souls per Sunday at the hands of a watered down Gospel that fails to enliven its hearers with a steadfast, Spirit-wrought faith.”
Steve McSwain writing for the HuffPost, recently stated, “Each year, nearly 3 million more previous churchgoers enter the ranks of the ‘religiously unaffiliated.'” That statement basically verifies what Olford said 14 years ago.
So, maybe a watered-down Gospel is not really working. God-called preachers need to “hunker down” and resolve to forever preach the whole counsel of God, including messages of judgment and repentance.
The judgment day will reveal that it will be infinitely better to have a platoon of saints in the church than a battalion of sinners duped into believing they were saved.