The “Selfie” Gospel is No Gospel
The "New Model" Gospel
For over 50 years at least, a new message to call the unconverted to Christ has been inching its way virtually undetected into a dominant place among evangelicals.
25 years ago, Christianity Today (the official neo-evangelical organ) published an article by Robert Brow, a Canadian evangelical, called “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May Not Have Heard About Wrath, Sin and Hell Lately.” Brow claimed nearly 25 years ago that there was a “new model” emerging in evangelicalism. Brow's “new model” sounded then, as it does now, as tired ole mainline Protestant liberalism. Turns out Brow's article was a precursor to Clark Pinnock's new open theism and the evangelical emergent movement.
But evangelicals who have not yet espoused open theism and emergent teachings, without noticing it, have apparently accepted Brow's “new model” teaching about the reason for the death of Christ. The “old model” teaching of the cross is still in many doctrinal statements but a “new model” teaching of the cross has affected our hearts and so also our message. This hybrid/mutation has now found a secure position in evangelical gospel preaching. The appeal to the unconverted has gradually changed. It is now quite normal to suggest that Jesus died to rescue us from a life that “sucks,” and promises heaven to boot. What was completed at the cross when the Savior cried “It is finished” has now become a rescue from an unpleasant life we don't like anymore.
This “new model” preaching of the cross to the unsaved has actually been around for a long time. I remember at least 15 years ago listening to a sermon by Franklin Graham. He was preaching a graphic sermon on hell. I was shocked when he made his call to the unconverted and, right at the point of the appeal, he slipped, without warning or hesitation, into a come to Jesus call appealing to a whole range of felt needs. What started out as a hell-fire and brimstone sermon turned into a therapeutic appeal.
How did this become an acceptable gospel appeal to the unconverted? Since when did Jesus die to give us a new start and escape the vicissitudes of life in a commercial society? Well! Surely there was a convergence of causes, but probably the arrival of the church growth theory of missionary evangelism brought it front and center. It began with Donald McGavern's teaching of church growth. He appealed to human psychological needs in missionary evangelistic ministry. Later, Fuller Seminary began teaching Church Growth theory to missionaries on furlough. Finally someone said that this was not only good for missionary evangelism but it should be used as well in the good ole USA. Before we knew it, missiologist C. Peter Wagner and his student John Wimber were convincing everyone that the way to make the church grow was to appeal to the temporal needs of the unconverted, whether in New Guinea or New York. Before Wimber became famous as a signs and wonders evangelist, he traveled the USA teaching Church Growth principles to American pastors.
This felt needs gospel paved the way for the seeker sensitive approach to evangelism. It gave birth to Robert Schuller's self esteem gospel. Schuller called for a new self-esteem reformation. I heard him make this call in Minneapolis. Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, trained directly by Schuller, demonstrated that you could grow huge churches if you appealed to the perceived needs of the people. Suddenly every church wanted to go mega or at least mini-mega. Well do I remember when our District Superintendent sent out the Church Growth book Unchurched Harry to every pastor. We were asked to go to classes on church growth. It wasn’t long till the marketeers were teaching us “the customer is king,” etc. Eventually Schuller died in disgrace, and Hybels converted his mega church to the latest rage of Catholic contemplative prayer. Presenting the cross as the solution to a life that “sucks” was here to stay, or till an authentic revival clears the deck.
For the last 15 years, I have given special attention to the “new model” call to the unconverted in evangelical preaching. Oh! Sometimes there seems to be a throw away sentence, usually one quick sentence reference to Jesus dying for our sins, etc. But when the real pitch comes it is normally an emotional therapeutic appeal. “You can have your best life now, aren't you tired of your unsuccessful life, Jesus wants a relationship with you, and you can escape your failures and your unsuccessful life. Jesus died for this, because He loves you so much, and He wants to give you an abundant life, and He has wonderful plan for your life. He wants to give you a new start in the kingdom of God,” etc., etc. Now, if you preach this gospel you may indeed increase church attendance. But there is a price. The message must be adapted to the consumer. You are suggesting that Jesus can give what you desire the most and could not attain on your own. I have also heard these emotional appeals: “Make your impossible dream possible,” “One little yes can change everything,” “Your hopeless life can be filled with hope,” “The rut in your life can turn into a super highway,” etc., etc. Imagination is the only hindrance here.
J. I. Packer has put it all on the line:
“During the past century without realizing it, we have bartered the Gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is a decidedly different thing.... It is undeniable that is how we preach, perhaps this is what we really believe.... This set of twisted half-truths is something other than the biblical Gospel. The Bible is against us when we preach this way.”
The Gospel has indeed been changed to essentially Jesus died to rescue us from whatever is our personal pit. How was this mega shift accomplished? Slowly and surely. Some truths are ignored and just left out. Some truths are given a slightly different meaning. Over time, and when repeated by popular preachers and authors, truths are ignored or redefined. They are ultimately replaced by error.
Schuller, the unchallenged father of the church growth movement in the USA, in his seminal book Self Esteem the New Revolution, asserts man needs to have his negative self image corrected by the non- judgmental love of God. Schuller lived and died his new revolution. Unfortunately he died in disgrace and bankruptcy. His Crystal Cathedral now is owned by the Roman Catholic church. But his reformation lives on among his mega church disciples. Nevertheless, his very disciples are promoted in our evangelical churches. I have personally, again and again, heard these seeker sensitive disciples and their books promoted in our churches.
But it is no small thing to change the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross. Its a big deal to ignore in the actual Gospel appeal to the unsaved, the biblical teaching of Jesus substitutional death for sin, and that Jesus died because of man's sinful depravity.
A Deliverer has come, but not to get us out of a negative rut and give us a new start. Rather, Jesus died for our sin. But sinners do not like the word sin and unconsciously we know that. So mostly we don't talk about the sin and the cross very much.
Recently I heard sermon. The crowd was told, “You can receive Jesus today. So if you need a second chance this morning... if you have been losing hope, His name is Jesus, receive Him today.” But it was our sin that was transferred to Jesus, and on the cross He stood in for us and bore the penalty and punishment of our sin. Our just God provided a sinless sacrifice for our sins.
Funny thing, however: when challenged our uninformed “new model” preachers will agree. But when it comes to making an appeal they seem to forget it totally. If challenged they may even fight for a penal substitution view of the atonement. But its just that when appealing for souls so many just can't preach about sin and God's remedy at the cross. Unconsciously, I guess they must think conversions come easier that way and so church growth is more likely.
Brow's “new model” for pan-evangelicalism seems firmly rooted in place. That a significant change will come without true biblical revival is highly unlikely. This revival will have to come from the shepherds, for the sheep usually follow the shepherds.
Recently, a compassionate evangelical pastor called people to receive Jesus as Savior. He used the metaphor of exchange. Because of the love God expressed at the cross, just give God your deficient, unfulfilled life, and He will give you a new life and a new start. But, getting a new start is not specifically the exchange the cross accomplished. The biblical exchange at the cross effected something quite different. We repent of our sin and rebellion, and our sin is credited to Jesus on the cross, and we receive in return an annulment of sin and a righteous standing in God's sight. Because Jesus, God's Son, lived a perfect life and died in our place we can receive a righteous standing before God. 2Cor. 5:21 expresses it this way: “For He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might (receive) become the righteousness of God.”
By God's grace, through repentance and faith, our status as sinners is thus changed. Jesus stood in our place and received the punishment of death for us. Jesus then returns to us forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life. This exchange delivers sinners from the just condemnation of God. We later will grow in grace and live a new life in Christ. In Colossians 2:14, 15 the apostle Paul states clearly that it was our sins that were metaphorically nailed to the cross. In ancient times when a debt was paid in full it was announced to the public by driving a nail through a copy of the indebtedness in the town square. It was at the cross that our sins were paid for and annulled, making a new life possible. The cross was about a holy God effecting a just transaction. Sin was punished for us by a loving and just God. Now God can justly acquit us of our sin. Indeed! we must get the cross right in order to get the Gospel right!