21 Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century – Lesson 19
I’ve written earlier in this series about the need for pre-evangelism. I want to elaborate on one particular variety of that approach to proclaiming the good news – The need to surface and then resolve tension.
Here’s what I mean: The gospel resolves a tension. But if people don’t feel that tension, the resolution seems irrelevant, unimportant, or just plain weird.
Let’s consider this theologically and then evangelistically.
The Bible teaches that God is both holy and righteous, on the one hand, and loving and gracious, on the other. Of course, the Bible tells us many more things about God but these two attributes, holiness and love, seem to get more air-time than others.
Sometimes those two traits are mentioned side by side. For example, in the classic encounter between God and Moses, recorded in Exodus 34:6-7, God announced that He is, “The LORD, The LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
And we would love to stop reading right there!
But God adds, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
We need to consider how God can be both loving and holy, compassionate and punishing. How does forgiving rebelliousness fit with continuing punishment to the third and fourth generations?
Exodus 34 isn’t an isolated incident of this kind of tension. Once you see it, it’s hard not to notice it in numerous other places in God’s word.
For example, Psalm 98’s first half is filled with declarations of God lovingkindness that leads to salvation. God’s “marvelous deeds, his right hand, and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” We want to sing for joy and that’s not just because the Psalmist tells us to. We bask in the glow of God’s saving love and we must respond.
But the second half of the Psalm takes an unexpected (and, for some, an unwelcome) turn at the very end. After numerous exhortations to “shout for joy,” “burst into jubilant song,” “make music,” and hear God call even the sea, rivers, and mountains to join in, he surprises us with the reason for that praise: Because “he will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Can’t you hear the music modulate dramatically to a minor key?
How can God be both a loving savior and a righteous judge? This Psalm doesn’t resolve the tension for us. We have to keep reading our Bible to find such resolution. Many other places in Scripture bring this same tension to the surface without easing it in the slightest (although we do get quite a few foreshadowings and prophecies of that resolution).
It is only when we arrive at the cross that we find “sorrow and love flow mingled down” as God pours out his wrath and his love at the same time. Only as God demands payment for sin and provides payment for sin – at the same moment, through the same sacrifice – can we fully grasp how God can be both loving and holy without compromising either pillar of His character. He is both “just and the justifier.” If he wasn’t, we’d be in a whole lot of trouble.
In our pre-evangelistic conversations, we need to find ways to surface this tension so people sense a kind of problem. Without that, the “answer” of the gospel seems odd. This is part of the problem with beginning our gospel presentations with strong statements that “God loves you.” In most people’s ears, that seems like a no-brainer. “Of course, He loves me” they might think. “Why wouldn’t God love me? I’ve been told how wonderful I am ever since I was an infant!”
If we front-load our gospel presentation with enormous amounts of God’s love, some people might not see why they need to repent of anything or why God would demand payment for sin or what that whole “Jesus dying for sins” stuff is about. For most people, God’s love trumps any need for punishment for sin.
So we need to find gentle ways to make people feel discomfort so they embrace our comforting gospel. There are at least two ways we can do this. First, we can start with what God tells us about himself. We can tell our friends about parts of the Bible that affirm both God’s high standards of holiness and his deep reservoir of love. And then we should ask people if they can explain how that can be true. The crucial point might be worded this way:
“It makes sense that God would punish evil, right? And it also makes sense that he’d love sinners. But how can he love and punish at the same time? Do you find that puzzling at all?”
A second route to this tension’s intersection is to start within our own hearts. People feel an internal hatred of evil. But, if they’re honest, they see some amount of that in their own lives. For this approach, it might be best if we share our own internal contradictions. It might sound like this:
“Y’know, if I’m honest, I want God to wipe out sin from the world. At the same time, I know there is some hatred or anger or evil lurking in my own soul. Sometimes I display both things within a few seconds of each other! My kids make my heart feel tremendous love and horrible anger – almost simultaneously! Do you know what I’m talking about or do you think I’m a monster?”
This may take time. It’ll certainly take patience and creativity. But it might just be what some people need so they come to the One who satisfied wrath and extended love – at the same time, on the same cross.