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Posts Tagged ‘publicans’


Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

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