Proclamation in light of the consciousness of our age

We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side.

A month ago I shared the link to an interesting blog post by Ian Paul (IP)–“Should We Proclaim that ‘God is love’?”. Based on a handful of responses I concluded that (a) most answer this question in the affirmative and (b) most didn’t actually read the post. Now the average person doesn’t care what I think about what other people think, but since my dog grows weary of his master’s whining my only recourse is to alternate between the canine and, well, you. [If you only knew how much droning I’ve endured over the years. Nakod]

First, I should say up front that in this clickbait age it’s not surprising that some would assume the point of a post based on the title. If I were on the other side I would be suspicious, too. It’s also possible that some of the respondents skimmed, checked the TLDR box, and missed IP’s “answer” at the end.

Second, it’s only fair to note that IP was interacting with another pastor-blogger’s writing here. Pastors (smh)–#amIright

Third, and this is the real point, as provocative as the titular question appeared, the ensuing post struck me as an eminently reasonable. In short, IP would have us consider the (biblical-theological) distinction between motivation and message in evangelism:

Jesus’ motivation in his ministry to individuals and crowds was compassion, but his message was of the coming kingdom and the need to respond to it. We find the same dynamic in Paul. In his extended (and most personal) reflection on ministry in 2 Cor 3–5, his motivation is love (‘the love of God compels us’, 2 Cor 5.14) but the message is about the need to respond and turn from sin (‘We do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus as Lord’  2 Cor 4.5). We are used to making a different alignment: we often think that loving people will proclaim God’s love, and only grumpy people will talk about judgement and the need to respond! And because we want to be loving, we align our message accordingly.

IP tentatively concludes that the way forward is to give more thought to the gospel’s balance between love and lordship:

One way of beginning to resolve this dilemma of the gap between most preaching today and what we find in the New Testament might be to consider the nature of the lordship of Jesus—that those around us are subject to the ‘lordship’ of powers that are anything but loving, and the invitation is to submit to the lordship of one who loves us.

Not surprisingly, I think he’s right. I’d even go one underwhelming step further in saying that this discussion is essential for Christians living in a culture where love has become formless and void. But just to show that we stand in good company when we wrestle with the implications of proclaiming that “God is love,” consider this passage from Geerhardus Vos published some seventy years ago in his Biblical Theology:

It must be acknowledged that, taking all in all, there is a preponderance in bulk and emphasis on the side of divine love. Nevertheless this phenomenon also should be historically explained and not be abused for reducing everything in Jesus’ message to the one preaching up of love. . . Jesus thus brought forward that side of the divine character which was suffering eclipse in the consciousness of the age to which He was addressing Himself. It would be a poor application of this method were we to condense the entire gospel to love and nothing else. Since at the present time the atmosphere is surcharged with the vague idea of an indiscriminate love, and all punitive retribution held at a discount, it is not following the example of Jesus to speak of nothing but the divine love to the obscuring of all the rest. We must put the stress where the decadence of the religion of our times has failed to put it, yet always so as to keep from discarding the other side. Thus alone can the mind of Jesus be faithfully reproduced.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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