Let's face it: American evangelicalism is awash in pulpit therapy, "felt needs" foci, and nationalistic materialism. Even with our "conservative" approach to Scripture, it seems we are less and less transformed by Scripture. Radically following Christ is defined, not in terms of martyrdom, but rather in terms of wearing a Christian T-shirt into a public school.
In this environment, it is truly difficult to find men who truly and genuinely preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In my personal study, I have always been able to rely on the Puritans to accurately deliver the mail. But Edwards, Bunyan, Baxter and Spurgeon are, regrettably, little known to church-goers in the 21st century, and outside of a few exceptions like John Piper, there seem to be few pastors in the broader public eye who care more about the glory of God than the applause of men.
These are heavy charges, I know. But honestly, when was the last time you heard a pastor over radio or television speak about the Gospel . . .not in terms of the key to life fulfillment, but instead in the Biblical terms of escaping the wrath to come?
This is particularly a problem in my neck of the woods. The Baltimore-Washington D.C. area is one of the most affluent in the country. From all tangible perspectives, the people who reside here are, generally speaking, not in search of "life fulfilment." They already have the $800,000 home on the 18th green, the three-bay garage with a Mercedes parked next to a Lexus, which is in turn parked next to a Hummer. They have their children all enrolled in private, college-preparatory schools, and they are living large with salaries that far exceed $100,000 annually. Telling these people that Jesus will "make their life better" is tantamount to telling Brahms that Jesus will help him play a better and more effective lullaby.
They don't need a relationship with Christ for a "more fulfilled life." They need a relationship with Christ for a secure eternity. And last night, I heard one missionary who still believes this.
Paul David Washer is the founder of the HeartCry Missionary Society, located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Operating under the authority of Muscle Shoals First Baptist Church, this Society seeks to train and deploy indigenous pastors, missionaries and church planters all over the globe. But while I was particularly impressed with their emphasis on the use of indigenous missionaries, it was a message Washer preached on DVD, given me by a recent aquaintance, that re-energized my spirit, and reminded me that there are still genuine men of God in the broader public eye.
Still, it was dissapointing to learn that Washer has not been invited back to the same venue where I saw him preach this recorded message last night. More dissappointing still was to subsequently read of abuse by listeners, verbal assaults, and one instance of even being pelted by water balloons after speaking.
Indeed, the words he speaks are direct, and unpopular, even within the ranks of so-called "conservative" Christianity. And as I listened to this hour-long message yesterday evening, I suspect that his words are such precisely because of the conviction they bring. They sure brought conviction on me!
The evangelical sense of history has become extremely shallow. We forget that since the Apostolic age, the greatest of God's men have often preached unpopular messages. I think immediately of Jonathan Edwards and his infamous sermon preached to a crowd of unbelievers at Enfield Conneticut in 1741:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight . . .and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up . . .O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell.
Not exactly a candidate for "feel-good sermon of the year" now is it? This man, described by 18th century pastor Samuel Davies as "the profoundest reasoner, and the greatest divine that America ever produced," was such because he both knew and believed the Biblical Gospel.
The same can be said for 17th century pastor Richard Baxter. "I preach as never sure to preach again," said the Puritan preacher, "and as a dying man to dying men." Baxter, like so many of his brothers, knew the eternal gravity that came with the preaching task. Oh, for such a thing to be so in the new millenium!
I find it tragically ironic that while so many within evangelicalism chide the Emergent church for its ambivilence toward subsitutionary atonement, they simultaneously minimize what they claim is so important. While the substitutionary death of Jesus is indeed central to the Gospel message, the purpose behind that atonement barely gets mention in today's evangelical pulpit. The simple fact is that it is grossly offensive to apply penal subsitution to the life of the sinner.
To do so means the preacher must point to human nature as "rotten to the core." He must accentuate the physical sufferings of Christ, and then tell his listeners that the physical torture was a picnic compared to the terror of God's wrath that fell upon His own Son. He must remind his people of what that agonizing death at Golgotha should teach us: that the wages of sin is death. Sin is the refusal to acknowledge our Creator and follow Him unconditionally, and such is a capitol offense. He must warn all within the sound of his voice of the wrath to come, and urge them to come to Christ . . . not for a better sex life or a nicer car or a better marriage, but for the only path to redemption from the terrible wrath of an angry God whom they have despised and whose laws they have trampled under foot.
Paul David Washer is just such a preacher. It was obvious to me as I watched his message to thousands of Alabama Baptist youth that he was not interested in popularity, or accolades, or even being invited back to speak again (which, interestingly, he wasn't). His passion was the same as the Apostle who shares his name; to preach Christ crucified!
I'm not suggesting that every sermon be "hell, fire and brimstone." The Apostle Paul himself encouraged young Timothy to balance his preaching between "rebuke" and "exhortation." (2 Tim. 4:2). Nor am I saying we should never speak of Jesus as the answer to a fulfilling life. He spoke of Himself in this way (John 10:10). I am also not suggesting that the message of the Gospel is always preached in a cultural vaccum. In our age, believers in the west must increasingly live like missionaries, and the job of the missionary, according to Ed Stetzer, is to find the question the culture is asking to which the Gospel is the only answer.
What I am saying is this: In the midst of a modern evangelicalism baptized with an enculturated, albeit more conservative version of "health, wealth, and prosperity," we should be constantly evaluating our ministries to ensure that at the heart of it all remains a bloody cross and a bodily ressurection. God grant such insight to more pulpits!
You can listen online to the message I saw on DVD by clicking here: http://www.heartcrymissionary.com/index.php?option=com_weblinks&catid=39&Itemid=85
Then click on "Youth Evangelism Conference 2002."