The Candy-Coated Gospel
M. Dean Stephens*
Looking around at the efforts of evangelical Christians to preach the Gospel today, one might be struck with the almost heretical thought that maybe, just maybe, what passes for the Gospel of Christ in the twentieth century is not an exact reproduction of the original article. Perhaps somewhere along the line something has been lost. What with "pack the pew night," "transportation Sunday" (the one who gets to church in the oddest way wins a prize), big-name athletes and movie stars appearing at the local church to give their testimonies, and other novelties, one may suspect that evangelical churches have begun to let gimmicks and glamour overshadow the Gospel.
We think of the early Church as the ideal example of church power and normalcy. Somehow those early believers turned the world upside down in a very few years without resorting to the use of gimmicks.
Why do our churches produce so little in lasting results? Why have we so little power? I want to suggest one thing that seems to me to be a great part of the problem: the dearth of the preaching of God's law from our pulpits.
At this point many will decide that I have been reading too many Puritan classics and spending too much time in the damp basement of Calvinism. But the fact remains that the Gospel being preached in many churches today is a candy-coated Gospel. "Three easy steps to salvation" seems to be the order of the day. To hear many pastors and evangelists preach, you are not sure whether they are offering a crucified and risen Lord or a no-down-payment, twelve-easy-installments way to heaven. Evangelical preaching seems to have been influenced by the shallow, neon society in which we live. We make it easy to become a Christian; after all, we might lose converts and church members if we preached too many "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots." After the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-21 asks how he can gain eternal life, Jesus says:
And of course we know the rest: "he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved; for he had great possessions." Note that Jesus didn't make a general statement about the sinfulness of all men as a first step to leading this young man to faith. The young ruler didn't think he had sinned. Most men don't really believe they are sinners, at least not bad enough for God to keep them out of heaven. Our Lord didn't just condemn sin in general; he condemned it in the particular. The rich young man was an idolator. He loved money more than he loved God. Jesus' implication was clear and convicting. Christ used the law in dealing with sinners. Why do we shy away from it? We go on our way singing, "free from the law, O blessed condition," forgetting that without the law there is no basis for identifying sin: "By the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20). Without this divine yardstick, men have no way to measure their lives against God's righteous demands. No wonder sinners are bored by our proclamation, and we make very little impact on the world. It is when we get down to particulars that sinners begin to get restless and look for the nearest exit.
As an Episcopal priest, I am called upon to instruct potential church members in the tenets of the faith in confirmation classes. I have had people threaten not to return to the class because as we studied the commandments they felt God was getting too personal in saying "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not." When we get down to particulars, men quickly see that they are sinners in need of divine grace.
In Today's Gospel — Authentic or Synthetic, Walter J. Chantry says:
Not until the law is applied in the condemnation of particular sins will sinners flee to Christ for mercy. The woman at the well must have had the seventh commandment applied to her condition. Paul confesses that the law was the schoolmaster that brought him to Christ: "I had not known sin but by the law" (Rom. 7:7). When we have been wounded by the law, then the oil of the Gospel can be poured on our diseased souls.
It's time to do away with the gimmicks and tricks. Let's quit trying to attract men to Christ by giving them a candy-coated Gospel, and let us restore the law to its rightful place in the preaching of salvation by grace through faith. To do this will take us a big step toward reproducing the original article.
*M. Dean Stephens was vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Later, he was the rector of Christ's Church in Metairie, Louisiana. He received the A.B. degree from Bob Jones university. Copyright 1972 by Christianity Today; reprinted by permission.