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Do Unbelievers Really Just Not Understand the Gospel?

February 27, 2013 24 comments

From my readings through a devotional book (Daily Readings from the Life of Christ, volume 2), comes this excerpt from the Feb. 21 reading:

Many of the lost fail to embrace the gospel because no one has presented it clearly to them.  That’s because many Christians communicate a muddled gospel that emphasizes lots of secondary issues, thanks in many respects to their leaders’ digressing from the genuine message. A sure way for Satan to weaken the gospel is simply to prevent its clear and accurate presentation.

The devotional’s point was for believers to stay focused on the gospel itself and not chase rabbit trails onto less important, secondary issues. Still, somehow in reading that, I considered the fact that, really (and generally speaking), lost people don’t have a problem of “not understanding” the gospel message.  I’ve been going through S. Lewis Johnson’s Gospel of John series, in which he pointed this out, that people don’t have a problem with understanding the gospel.  Jesus perfectly communicated the saving message, and they understood His message so well that they crucified Him.
Sometimes I think, that people think that if the Lord Jesus were the preacher everyone would respond.  If the Apostle Paul were preaching in Believers Chapel there would be much better results.  Well, I’m willing to grant there would probably be some better results, but let me assure you it would not be because when a man gives a clear presentation of the gospel and gives it in a greater spirit of love, that there must therefore be a response.  Just think for a moment, who was preaching?  The Lord Jesus Christ.  Whoever gave the gospel message more clearly than he?  No one would debate that.  Whoever spoke out of a greater sense of divine love than the Lord Jesus?  What was his response?  Well he was crucified. … The facts are that men are unresponsive to the word of God.  They are unable to come.  They rebel against the Scriptures, for the mind of the flesh is enmity against God.  …  So when those who were listening to the Lord Jesus said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” they were really representative of human nature.
Regarding the idea that believers do not always present the gospel message because they (believers) get side-tracked onto “secondary” issues, and therefore the unbeliever hears a “muddled gospel”: perhaps that does happen, just not within my experience.  Instead, in conversations with unbelievers what usually happens is that the unbeliever likes to throw up objections, and the unbeliever likes to get sidetracked, away from the gospel itself to other unrelated issues.  Here again I recall something that S. Lewis Johnson mentioned sometimes, both from his own experience as an adult unbeliever in conversations with the Christian people around him (including his wife and mother-in-law) as well as the similar advice he was given on this very issue soon after he was saved.  Here is one excerpt from SLJ, describing this:
This reminds me of something that the man who led me to the Lord said when I was just a brand new Christian.  I came to him and spoke to him about a friend of mine with whom I had spoken about the Lord Jesus, and whom I’d sought to bring to faith in Christ, and was totally unsuccessful.  And then he said, Lewis, you’ll notice this about dealing with the lost.  They frequently will come to you with six or eight intellectual reasons why they should not believe the gospel.  He said, you ask them to list them, and they do, and you answer the first objection, and the second objection, and so on down through the six or seven.  And he said, “Lewis, you will notice that when you finish answering the seventh, the last one, they won’t say, ‘well then I’ll become a believer’; as a general rule, they’ll go back to number one again.”

From SLJ’s own experience:

I can remember when I was like that.  Whenever spiritual things would come up, and I would get involved in the conversation, I had about half a dozen things that I thought were things that prevented me from responding to the gospel.  I was in the insurance business, and I prided myself on thinking fairly logically.  And so I had a series of reasons that I would lodge against the Christian faith as it was understood by my mother-in-law and by others.  I usually reduced her to tears.  I won the arguments, and lost the ultimate battle of course.  But anyway, this is what I would do.  I would start with reason number one, why is the Bible the word of God?  How can we know the Bible is the word of God?  And I would go one, two, three, four, five, six.  And if we were in a large group of people, everybody would pounce in and they would answer my question.  So I would move on to number two, number three, number four, number five, number six.  And when I finished number six I would go back to number one again, number one, two.  That’s the way we are.

Unbelievers don’t have a problem of not understanding the gospel.  Jesus perfectly explained it and they still rejected it.  The greater issue is not so much that Christians do not clearly present the gospel and instead present a “muddled gospel” due to being sidetracked into non-essentials, but that unbelievers themselves, by nature, do not want to hear the gospel and will use such “defensive” tactics to distract away from the presentation of the gospel message.

Who is Sovereign in the Spread of the Gospel? The Amillennial Binding of Satan

October 19, 2012 4 comments

I’ve previously posted here and here concerning the Amillennial idea of Satan being bound now.  Michael Vlach’s article, Is Satan Bound?, is another great resource.  In this post, though, I’m looking at one particular feature of the Amillennial binding of Satan.   In answer to the very obvious fact that this world still abounds in evil, and the New Testament scriptures mention Satan as an active lion and someone to be on our guard against, a common amillennial claim is an altered meaning of Revelation 20:1-3:  that Satan is only bound now in one sense, that the gospel is not hindered and can be freely spread about throughout the world.  A friend’s amillennial pastor recently affirmed this amillennial explanation of the binding of Satan, adding that “If Satan’s power hadn’t been restricted (at the time of the cross), no one could have been saved after the cross.”

Aside from the fact that the binding described in Revelation 20 is quite forceful, nothing so limited as this idea, such an explanation poses some serious problems, including the very obvious fact that some parts of the world are very much still in Satanic bondage, places of rampant paganism, spiritual oppression, even Islamic dominance; the gospel has been hindered and not received in certain places and times throughout church history.

But going further to the heart of the matter:  the book of Acts directly tells us who it is that allows and prevents the spread of the gospel.  Acts 16:6-7 describes Paul’s attempts to go east into Bithynia and Asia.  First they went through Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia;” and then they went to Mysia and “attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Does this really sound anything like a present-day binding of Satan such that Satan is really the sovereign one who determines where the gospel can and cannot go?  As hard as it may be for some to accept, it really is God who sovereignly determines —  just as He does with the election of individuals — which nations and peoples get to hear the gospel at any given point in time, in this the Church age.

Then too, if Satan was only bound at the cross, thus no longer preventing the spread of the gospel, and “if Satan’s power hadn’t been restricted, no one could have been saved after the cross” is true, then how indeed were people saved before that point in time?  As Jonah proclaimed over 700 years before the cross, Salvation is of the Lord.  Salvation has always been sovereignly determined by God, who hardens who He will (such as Pharaoh) and saves who He will, in His sovereign purposes. The biblical record shows this was always the case, along with the fact that many non-Israelites were saved before the first century AD.

The Old Testament has numerous accounts of Gentile individuals who were God’s people: to begin with, the people who lived before there even was a nation of Israel:  Adam and Eve; Abel; Enoch; Noah and the other seven people with him in the ark; Job; not to mention the patriarchs (from whom the nation later came).  During the Mosaic period, certainly the other nations were left to themselves while God focused His attention on the nation Israel, and yet even during those centuries we find several references to individuals saved (through coming into contact with Israel).

Then we consider the historical record, the beginning of the times of the Gentiles and the years between the Old and New Testament, still the pre-Cross time (before circa A.D. 30).  Daniel in particular, and other Jews no doubt to some extent as well, had great influence among their neighboring Gentiles, such that a few centuries later we find the maji from the East looking for the Messiah at His birth in Bethlehem – men who evidently had some knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and were actually more aware of the time and looking for Him, than did the Jews whom they questioned for further information.  Jewish synagogues had been established throughout the Greek/Roman empire, with many of them still living outside of Israel, and we also see historical indications of Jewish proselytization among those Gentiles: certainly not on the same scale as what took place later in the book of Acts, but there were at least some God fearers and converts to Judaism during this pre-Cross time.  John 12 describes the coming of some Greeks to see Jesus; this was still before the event of the crucifixion and resurrection and Satan’s supposed “binding.”

The gospel went forth with greater results (than previously seen) in the early years of the Church, as recorded in the book of Acts.  Yet even during Paul’s missionary journeys, Satan continued to obstruct and hinder, such that Paul even said that “Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18).  Even during that great early growth of the church, the same general pattern was observed as from ancient times: saving faith in a relative few within the overall population of each setting, while the majority did not respond.  The same God was sovereign over where He allowed the gospel to spread or not spread (again, as Acts 16:6-7 explicitly tells us), just as before the cross.  The spreading of the gospel message is not something that Satan has sovereignty over.

J.C. Ryle: The Workers in the Vineyard

April 23, 2011 Leave a comment

J.C. Ryle, from Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Matthew.

Text:  Matthew 20:1-16  (The parable of the workers in the vineyard hired at different hours of the day.)

Let us beware of supposing, from this parable, that the distinction between Jews and Gentiles is entirely done away by the Gospel. To suppose this is to contradict many plain prophecies, both of the Old Testament and New. In the matter of justification, there is no distinction between the believing Jew and the Greek. Yet Israel is still a special people, and not “numbered among the nations.” God has many purposes concerning the Jews, which are yet to be fulfilled.

Let us beware of supposing, from this parable, that all saved souls will have the same degree of glory. To suppose this, is to contradict many plain texts of Scripture. The title of all believers no doubt is the same–the righteousness of Christ. But all will not have the same place in heaven. “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.” (1 Cor. 3:8.)

The Lordship Controversy: Specials from the S. Lewis Johnson Miscellaneous Files

March 17, 2011 4 comments

In my recent exercise sessions, I’ve been listening to an assortment of topical messages from S. Lewis Johnson.  Interesting topics have included reviews of John MacArthur’s book Charismatic Chaos, another concerning MacArthur and the Lordship controversy, as well as John Stott, George Muller, and Israel and the PLO Peace Treaty.

The “Lordship Controversy” message was recorded in 1989, soon after the publication of MacArthur’s book, “The Gospel According to Jesus” and as an accompaniment to an article that S. Lewis Johnson had published in Christianity Today magazine (September 1989).  Amongst all the rhetoric over the years on both sides (and I have concurred with the MacArthur view, as best as I understand it), SLJ presented the proper perspective:  that we really need to understand the definitions and terminology that the different people are using.  Zane Hodge didn’t clearly define what he meant.  Ryrie apparently stated some things in an unclear way so that he was misunderstood, but elsewhere Ryrie stated his belief as one that is more accurate.  MacArthur for the most part is right, but in his book he showed some inconsistency — in some places saying that the believer first coming to Christ must give Him total 100% commitment/Lordship, but then backing off in other places and saying, well not 100%.

The matter really involves understanding the difference between justification and sanctification, and MacArthur’s book (as he himself has said) came out of his own frustration at seeing the easy-believism methods and techniques used to bring people to the Lord, but then not proving to be true conversions.  Interestingly, S. Lewis Johnson picked up on this as the likely thing that prompted MacArthur to write the book (the general feelings of pastors, teaching a lot and disappointed with the results), even though at that time he was unfamiliar with the details that MacArthur would mention in later interviews.  I recall, for instance, MacArthur telling about the times he met strangers (such as on airplanes), who asked him basic questions about how to be saved — and he would right then and there give a gospel presentation and guide them into making a confession of faith.  But then when he followed up with those people, the conversions proved to be incomplete and false.

The confusion between justification and sanctification, though, is an age-old one — and again I refer back to J.C. Ryle’s classic work, Holiness, as a good source for understanding the difference between these two doctrines.  See also my previous blog on the introduction to his book for more background concerning that book and the “Holiness” Keswick movement of the late 19th century.