Maybe I’ve blogged about this in one of the many earlier posts, but since I’m thinking about it this morning, I’ll just launch out and talk about it anyway.
When I was pastoring a house church in Tulsa, there was one pastor in town whom I knew briefly and tried to be friends with–but the truth was, we totally butted heads, from the first day we met. We were at someone’s house for a dinner party, and while chatting within the group, I related a story of how I’d recently seen one guy “witnessing” to another outside a Tulsa restaurant. The person doing the “witnessing” was quite literally thumping a Bible, talking very vehemently to the other guy with pointing fingers and everything. I said nothing at the time, but at the dinner party I mentioned how I wished I could have gone to the victim (’cause that’s what he looked like) to apologize on behalf of my brother for improperly representing Christ to him.
That’s when my pastor “friend” spoke to me for the first time–to chide me for my words in front of the other guests.
He proceded to open his Bible, right there at dinner, and preach to all of us about how the gospel was by nature confrontational. He opened to Acts 2, and related the story of Simon Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost–how he confronted the people for crucifying Jesus on the cross, and called for them to repent. This pastor used that Scripture to justify the actions of the brother I’d seen in front of the restaurant thumping his Bible. (Not a comfortable dinner moment, but we got through it.)
As I got to know this guy a little better after that night, it turned out that Acts 2 had shaped his entire approach to evangelism. Personality-wise, he was a bit harsh, anyhow, and Peter’s sermon (at least the way he interpreted it) apparently vindicated his confrontational edge. He really seemed to believe that the right way to preach the gospel was to shove it into people’s faces and rub their noses in it. I guess it worked in some ways–at least he was able to scare the hell out of a few people.
It just goes to show how we can be partly right, and mostly wrong.
Is the gospel of Christ confrontational? You bet it is. We are a race of people that has been steeped in rebellion since the fall of man, always wanting things our way. The gospel is good news, but it definitely requires us to confront the rebellion in our own souls in order to benefit from that good news. We must acknowledge that Jesus is God, and we are not the gods of our own destiny anymore. We must surrender. So yes–from that perspective, the gospel really does confront us with a choice to leave our own way, and pursue the way of Christ. It’s not that God is trying to start an argument or pick a fight; the way I see it, it’s more like the kind of confrontation that happens when loved ones stage an intervention for an addict. The kind of confrontation that is an agent for change.
But that’s just it. If the gospel is inherently confrontational, then we don’t necessarily have to amplify it by our Bible-thumping. It can handle its own confrontation.
So what about my pastor friend and Peter’s confrontational sermon in Acts 2? Was Peter wrong to preach that way? I don’t think so.
You see, unfortunately, my friend had developed his entire evangelical strategy around a few verses of Scripture, without considering the context. The question we need to ask is: who was Peter talking to?
The answer is right there in Acts 2:
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. –Acts 2:5, NIV
Pentecost was a Jewish feast, and Jews from all over the world had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate it. These were the people who filled the streets when they heard the sound of the “rushing, mighty wind,” and these were the people who heard the disciples glorifying God in their own languages.
So…who was Peter preaching to in such a confrontational manner? Who was Peter’s audience?
The truth is, Acts 2 was one sermon, in one context. If we go back to Jesus’ example, we’ll see that he spoke to different people in a variety of ways, according to what the context called for. In most cases, when he was speaking to known sinners, he spoke with great mercy (e.g., Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery), and love brought its own conviction. In fact, there was only one kind of person with whom Jesus was openly confrontational, with whom He got “in their face”. Can you guess who it was?
Do you see a pattern?
Here’s what I think: I think there is something about religion that dulls our spiritual senses. It’s not unlike how a vaccine works: we inject a weakened or dead form of a virus into our bodies to inoculate us against the real thing. Only in this case, the “real thing” is something good, not something harmful, and the “vaccine” prevents us from receiving all the benefit from what is real and good. Religion tends to make us self-satisified and self-assured, so when the real thing comes along, we reject it and react against it. That’s exactly what happened when Jesus came to earth, according to Scripture:
“He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God…” (Jn. 1:11-12, NASB)
I think the reason “His own did not receive Him” was because over time, the Jews (in particular, the Jewish leaders) had taken the Law and the Prophets and expanded it into an extensive religion beyond what God had intended–and that religion became their downfall. (By that, I am NOT suggesting, in a “Mel Gibson” kind of way, that Judaism was an enemy of Christ; I am saying religion was the enemy.) Jesus’ presence was actually a fulfillment of the Jewish Law, but the religious Jews didn’t see it that way because religion had put filters upon their eyes. They simply could not see (or refused to see) that Jesus was fulfilling their own Scriptures. To accept Jesus for Who He was would have meant dismantling every false premise they had come to rely on–and some people just don’t want to do that.
I think Jesus butted heads with the religious leaders (at least in part) because it really takes a greater jarring to shake up religious mindsets. It requires a more in-your-face approach to awaken us from our lethargy. I know in my own life, losing my religion was not an easy process at all. My religious mindsets had to be repeatedly confronted and refuted (not always through argument, but quite often through circumstances) in order to awaken me to the fact that my religion wasn’t working. Thankfully, I had enough hunger for the truth that I was able to awaken from my own religious slumber and embrace the real thing–and I still think that’s an ongoing process for me.
The bottom line is, the gospel is confrontational by nature–but that does not mean we always have to shove it in people’s faces. Simply living the truth of gospel in front of others is often quite enough for the good news of Christ to bring its own conviction. But when religion is involved, sometimes it does takes more of a shaking–and unfortunately, even that doesn’t always work. When our religion is confronted, it makes us mad at first–and then we have the choice, either to wake up or to harden our hearts. Jesus’ open confrontation of the Pharisees and Sadducees was, I believe, an attempt to awaken them–and it was only partially effective. Those who could be awakened became His followers (e.g., Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea); those who hardened their hearts–they were the ones who ultimately had Him crucified.