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The Necessity of Preaching Christ in a World Hostile to Him

Answering the challenge of pluralism

This is an excerpt from the 2004 PreachingToday.com book of the year Preaching to a Shifting Culture.

Before considering how preaching that is faithful to the gospel must distinguish itself from the prevailing pluralism of this culture, we must consider whether the Bible expects such distinctions to be made. Modern evangelical preachers may too readily assume that the authors of Scripture did not face our challenges and framed the truths of the gospel without understanding of our context.

No context is more common to the authors of Scripture than religious pluralism. The monotheism of Israel was at odds with polytheism of Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, and Babylon. Still, God apparently felt no obligation to answer the cries of the priests of Baal in their duel with Elijah because they were sincere in their efforts to worship Israel's God in the best way they knew (1 Kings 18). Daniel did not consider it unloving to testify of the Most High God to the king of a nation of many gods (Daniel 4), nor did the prophet believe it unjust to promise the punishment of a monarch who worshiped gods of silver and gold but did not honor the God in whose hand was the life of the king (Daniel 5).

The situation does not change in the New Testament. Peter pointedly confesses Christ's unique divinity at Caesarea Philippi in the presence of Jesus and in the shadow of the great shrines of Roman polytheism (Matthew 16). Ephesus was a cultural melting pot of the ancient world where international commerce, numerous nationalities, bizarre cults, and organized religion blended into sophisticated interdependence. This cultural diversity, however, did not stop Paul from telling the elders of the Ephesian church:

I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. —Acts 20:21

The Jewish convert also showed little of what our present world considers sensitivity when he stood on Mars Hill, gestured to the sacred Acropolis of the Greek gods and said, "The God who made the world...does not live in temples built by hands" (Acts 17:24). Echoing the prophetic message that consistently flows through the Old Testament and floods into the New, Paul proclaimed that Christ alone was the hope of all races (Ephesians 2:11-22) and the only true Lord for human salvation despite the claims of others (Galatians 1:6-9; cf. Isaiah 45:14-25).

The Exclusivism of Jesus

Proclaiming the message of eternal salvation in Christ alone unquestionably evidences undiluted arrogance, gross insensitivity, and religious bigotry—unless the message is true. Then, proclamation of the only true hope is the most important and loving message that a person can communicate, and failure to do so evidences incomparable callousness, gross negligence, and religious selfishness. The determination of whether evangelical preachers who proclaim salvation through Christ alone are guilty of religious bigotry or are admirable for religious altruism hinges entirely on the question of the truth of their message. That question Jesus answers with clarity: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). The apostles faithfully maintain this message: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

No context is more common to the authors of Scripture than religious pluralism.

Through his Word our Lord makes it clear that salvation of all persons is through Christ alone, but where our minds can comprehend such logic our hearts remain reticent to grant such truth. This reticence is not simply due to fear that the implications of such logic will compel a mission commitment more significant and zealous than our present lifestyles can tolerate. The hesitance of our hearts to affirm the exclusive claims of Jesus is a curious but natural product of the compassion our allegiance to him ingrains.

True followers of Jesus Christ believe that every person is an image bearer of God. We feel compelled by our convictions and by the affections placed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit to care for the underprivileged, weak, and loveless. Reflexes developed by love for Christ instinctively react to the thought of millions of God's children that we observe in our travels or on our televisions being destined for eternal suffering because they do not claim Jesus as their Lord. The knowledge that 70 percent of the present world population is non-Christian and that many millions more have already perished without knowledge of Christ burdens our hearts due to the very compassion he instills in us.

Our missiologists respond to our compassionate instincts by reminding us that many more will perish without knowledge of Christ, if we do not proclaim him zealously. Since more persons will live in this century than have lived in the history of the world, a great movement of God's Spirit over the world may still populate heaven with more souls than hell will contain. Further, our theologians remind us that if God has saved for these days of redemption the birth of the millions that he knows will be receptive to the gospel, then his infinite mercy and sovereign power are yet working with wisdom beyond our imagining (Ephesians 1:22-23; Ephesians 3:20-21).

Our apologists also respond to our heart concerns by reminding us that the Bible is not blind to the seeming unfairness of divine condemnation for rejecting a Savior never embraced or, perhaps, never even proclaimed in many cultures.The Bible does not say that persons face hell simply because they do not know of Jesus. Eternal separation from a holy God is the consequence of not honoring what he has revealed of himself to all persons.

The general revelation of God in the world about us teaches what is necessary to honor him through our relationships with our world and with each other (Romans 1:19-21). Even without the special revelation of Jesus, persons of all nations and tribes made in the image of God still can perceive what is loving, good, true, and just in some measure. Yet, the hearts of all fail fully to honor even this law "written on their hearts" (Romans 2:15).

Though the Bible makes it clear that persons will be judged fairly in accord with the knowledge that they have (e.g., John 9:41; John 15:22-24),Scripture also makes it clear that no persons will be able to stand before a holy God and claim that they merit his salvation (Romans 3:23). God's judgment of persons will not be based on their degree of exposure to the message of Jesus Christ, but on their failure to honor the requirements of righteousness they naturally know. For this reason, the historical goal of the Christian preaching is to rescue persons from their own sin rather than (from twisted logic) to keep them from hearing the gospel so that they will not be guilty of rejecting it.

The Necessity of Christ's Atonement

Understanding that persons are not going to be judged on the basis of their exposure to the gospel but rather held accountable for their own sin should move us from questioning why God would judge persons who have simply not heard of Jesus to considering why they must hear of Jesus in order to be saved. We must further understand that the reason that Christ must be in our preaching is not simply because his name communicates some magic privilege to those who providentially hear it, but because the substance of the message is necessary for salvation from personal sin. We cannot allow questions of the necessity of Christ-centered preaching to rest purely upon issues of whether it is fair for God to judge those who have never heard of Jesus. We must also recognize that no message has any eternal efficacy if it does not also provide rescue from the effects of sin that separate persons from God.

The need of all persons for some relief from the consequences of sin must move us from questions about the sufficiency of God's revelation to convictions about the necessity of Christ's atonement. Ultimately we do not preach Christ simply because we think our religion is superior to others in logic, origin, or enjoyment. We may well believe all of these things, but others will think the same of their religion. We certainly should not think that our religion is better than others simply because it is ours, or because it leads to better behavior according to the customs and culture we prefer. Unless we perceive the necessity of Christ's atoning sacrifice for sin, we will inevitably only counsel persons to know God through the greater pursuit of good works that the Bible says are never sufficiently holy to save them (Isaiah 64:4; Luke 17:10).

As counter as it is to the spirit of our age, we must preach that Jesus is the only way to God because without Christ's atoning work there is no other way for sinful humans to be justified before a holy God. As the eternal and perfectly righteous Son of God, Jesus made atonement for our sin upon the cross, and faith in what he did on our behalf—rather than confidence in our goodness—is the only hope for our reconciliation to a holy God (Romans 3:21-25). Persons cannot compensate for their sin apart from Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9). Thus, those who proclaim his salvation are not religious bigots but religious philanthropists of the riches of grace that they have themselves received through no merit of their own (Ephesians 1:7-10).

The Necessity of Christ's Compassion

It is possible to proclaim the truths of Christianity in a bigoted fashion. Such proclamations typically demean others' value, motives, or intelligence in the process of asserting the superiority of the Christian faith. These approaches seek to promote the Christian faith while demonstrating an ironic lack of understanding of Christ's message. His gospel requires us to treat all kinds of people with love, dignity, and respect precisely because they are made in the image of God and potentially include those he considered so precious that he sacrificed his Son to make them our spiritual siblings (Romans 8:32; Ephesians 2:12-19). We should see diversities of race, ethnicity, and culture as manifestations of the manifold wisdom of God from which even the angels learn to perceive the greatness of his glory (Ephesians 3:10). At the same time we must recognize that the fallen dimensions of our own culture require us to learn from those who become believers in other settings to grasp all that we should perceive about our God (Ephesians 2:15-16).

We should also recognize that the gospel often requires us to treat other faiths with dignity and respect even when we believe that their message and worldview are wrong. Treating those of other faiths as though they are intelligent and well meaning in their convictions does not automatically compromise the gospel but, to the contrary, may win a hearing for the gospel. Gaining this hearing in a pluralistic culture often requires Christians to recognize that the distinct history and teachings of other faiths hold deep and dear meaning for their adherents who cannot be understood or loved without regard for these formative features of their thought. We should also recognize that pluralism inherently denies such respect for other faiths because it treats these profound distinctions as though they are incidental.

Eastern or Western thought that blurs faith distinctions in the name of tolerance or universalism inevitably demeans other religions' distinctions, faithful followers, and revered leaders. While the nominal adherents of every religion may be ready to disregard their faith distinctions, the informed and committed rarely agree that the faith to which they have committed their lives is easily interchangeable with other faiths. Truly respectful communication begins on the solid premise that faith differences are real and cannot proceed with integrity on the hollow platitudes that what has separated peoples and cultures for centuries is really inconsequential.

Faithful Christians are simultaneously, uncompromisingly committed to the unique authority of the Christian message (Acts 19:8; Romans 1:16) and intolerant of prideful speech or insensitive behavior that creates any stumbling block to acceptance or understanding of that message (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; 2 Corinthians 6:3; 1 Peter 3).We should speak with the repentant humility of those who know that our salvation depends entirely upon the mercy of God, and with the compassionate boldness of those who know there is no other hope for multitudes dying in sin.

The Necessity of Christ's Message

Being so definite about our faith in a time of moral and intellectual relativism may seem assured to marginalize orthodox Christianity, but such assurance—lovingly expressed with cultural sensitivity—is actually proving to be a sound mission strategy. William Dyrness explains that

sociologists have realized that the faster growing and more vigorous religious groups in America tend to define their views more precisely, exhibit a wholehearted commitment to their faith, and express an irrepressible missionary zeal....In other words, Christianity will do best when it employs its contextual resources to clearly differentiate itself from other faiths, even as it makes use of current cultural resources to express its identity clearly.

Such research suggests that the more a church emphasizes the uniqueness and necessity of Christ as Savior, the more healthy and expansive will be the church even if, as a consequence of such emphases, her people become more persecuted and shunned by those hostile to the gospel.

To purchase Preaching to a Shifting Culture, clickhttp://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/product?p=1022189&item_no=091624

From Preaching to a Shifting Culture, edited by Scott M. Gibson (Baker Books, 2004), pp. 64-72. Used with permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. www.bakerbooks.com


1. Clendenin, "The Only Way," 36.

2. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (1952 Repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 879-80.

3. R. C. Sproul, Objections Answered, (Glendale, CA: Regal, 1978), 47-54.

4. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 850.

5. Jerram Barrs, The Heart of Evangelism, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 274-5.

6. Dyrness, "Diversity in Mission and Theology," 118-19.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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