I had a conversation with a man the other day.
This man faithfully attends church every Sunday and has for decades. He participates. He plays in the worship band. He attends Sunday school.
This man could not articulate the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I try to do good,” he offered, “and the longer I’ve attended, the better I’ve been, the better it’s been for me.”
This man works, hard. He helped build a new sanctuary. He delivers meals to shut-in members. He stocks the food pantry. Whenever a helping hand is needed, he is there. He gives, generously. He went on a mission trip to Haiti.
“Do you know the Lord Jesus,” I asked.
“You know, I don’t think that I do,” he admitted.
Another man confessed to me, “I just want to do what’s right and teach my kids to do what’s right.” The idea that all sin condemns equally was foreign to him, total depravity a strange concept. Interestingly, his pastor agreed, telling him, “no one is as good as they think or as bad as they think.”
I sometimes wonder if some pastors ever actually read the Bible.
These statements, these thought patterns, epitomize the theology of much of the western church, a theology firmly rooted in the pride of men.
New Pride/Old Pride
We’ve institutionalized works and concealed it beneath a veneer of ritual, draping it with religiosity and Jesus-language. It’s nothing new.
When Constantine co-opted the church and blended it with the government, he doomed the institution to millennia of impotence. The theology of works, the religion of the Pharisees, proliferated giving rise to such perversions as infused righteousness, the elevation of church tradition, and the cursed doctrine of papal infallibility.
The Reformers rightly fought against this false gospel. Ironically, many of the faith traditions spawned by the Reformation did not fall too far from the Roman tree.
I grew up in one of these traditions. I attended church regularly. I was a moral and upstanding citizen. As a teenager, I attended a series of classes and through the process of Confirmation, was declared a member in good standing of the church.
I’d have split the gates of hell wide open. I had no idea who the Lord Jesus was and more urgently, He didn’t know me.
I lived enslaved to my sin for another two decades.
“Do Good” is a meaningless message.
What’s the point of religion?
To make you a good person, one who does good things. The average American would unfortunately agree with this sentiment.
“Do good”, is a hollow message, worthless and empty. It does not resonate or inspire. A thousand secular organizations echo this same sentiment. A thousand secular institutions urge their people to do exactly this. Atheists picked up on it asserting that you can, “Be good without God.” And indeed, you can, depending upon what you mean.
Doing “good” does not require God.
“Do good,” is a message that does not save.
“Do good,” is a message of damnation.
It’s not the Gospel, not even close. It’s the antithesis of the Gospel. It’s a false gospel that Jesus came to destroy. He reserved his harshest condemnation for those who do exactly this, seek to earn the favor of God by their religious works and good deeds.
And it’s the message of the modern, western church.
How could a man sit under the preaching of a series of ministers, sit under the ministry of the same church for years on end, and not know the Gospel message? I could understand if he had not yet been saved, but had he never even heard it?
We lament the fall of the church from prominence in the west. The church long-ago ceded its place of authority. It’s been neutered, rendered obsolete and irrelevant to the life of the vast majority of Americans.
The American church is a caricature.
The American church is not surprising.
How could a church that institutionalized and proliferates numerous false gospels—prosperity gospel, liberation theology, the white empowerment gospel, and here, the gospel of works—how could such a church accomplish all that God intends for her? It cannot. It never will.
It’s filled with people who are not saved, people bound for eternal conscious torment in hell, people who believe in a false Jesus, who put their trust in a false gospel.
I was there. I don’t recall ever hearing the Gospel of the risen Lord Jesus. I’ll acknowledge that in the blindness of my sin, the hardness of my heart, it is possible that they preached the message and that I had no ears to ear. It’s possible.
But you’d think that over the course of say 10 years, something would’ve stuck.
I’ll caveat that it’s not always cut-and-dried. I’m sure in many of these churches, Christ is preached. It’s just buried beneath layers of tradition and ritual, rites and processes. And men cling to process because process frees me from the discomfort that the Gospel inevitably yields.
The Gospel offends, it’s the most offensive message ever, and if I can avoid it by yielding to rights-of-passage and rituals masquerading as the real thing, then so be it.
I’m sure I can find a church that’ll allow me this.
An Angry Message
I was angry. I called this man’s pastor in frustration.
I wanted to know if he was preaching the Gospel. I wanted to know if his church preached Christ and Him crucified. I wanted to know if the false gospel of works was taught in his church. I didn’t ask any of these things.
Instead, I expressed my concern for this man, that he was a nominal believer. The pastor agreed to check on him specifically and ask him some questions concerning eternity. As his church numbered over 2,000—don’t get me started—he obviously had no way of knowing the eternal status of all of his congregants.
Sadness replaced anger.
How many of the 2,000 were in a similar condition? As the vast majority of Americans profess Christianity and the vast majority of Americans likewise do not exhibit even the most basic fruit of salvation like say…sporadic church attendance, the problem is evident.
We’ve filled our church pews with false converts and I can think of few things more tragic. Imagine the horror of many on that day…
“I did things. I helped at church. I attended pretty regularly. I donated some money…I went to class. I was confirmed into the church. I’m a good person. They said I was good to go!”
“Depart from me, I never knew you,” the tragic words of our Lord and Savior.
The Message…no, not that one
The Gospel confronted me. It shocked me.
January of 2005, I walked into a friends church and heard the Gospel for the very first time.
The things that this preacher said stunned me, astonished truly. This man preached the Gospel in all of its power, with all of its authority, with all of its teeth. He held nothing back. I’d never heard anything like it.
For the very first time, I was confronted with my sin and the worthlessness of my own self-righteousness. For the very first time, I understood that I deserved nothing of my own merit other than condemnation in a place called Hell. For the very first time, I heard that my works, my baptism, my morality, would all fall woefully short in justifying me before a holy and righteous God.
And then, I heard about Jesus, the Savior and His atoning sacrifice on the cross.
I heard the message that told me, I didn’t need a priest, I didn’t need a ritual or even a church. All that was required of me was repentance, to confess with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and to believe in my heart that God raised Him from the dead.
After several weeks of resisting the grace offered, I crumbled.
I went forward, found a little old man, and fell to my knees with him and prayed, “Lord, I am a sinner, save me.”
If you’ve never been saved, never surrendered your life to Christ in willing submission and acknowledgement of your own helplessness, would you do that today? Forsake your works, forsake your righteousness. They won’t save you…but I know one who will.
Author - Founder
Soldier, Pastor, Author – Bradford stays busy, with his wife Ami, raising their 9 children, serving the nation, pastoring, preaching, and writing books (#3 is due out October ’17).
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