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Christopher Morely quipped, “The enemies of the truth are always awfully nice.” As if that were not confusing enough, the fact is that the quintessence of the truth—the Gospel—isn’t always nice. Indeed, the Gospel often makes us flinch uncomfortably. Invariably it is contrary to our first instincts of fairness, equity, and appropriateness. Often, it can even be downright offensive.
Jesus Himself can be found offending someone on almost every page of the New Testament. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once remarked, “The great effect of our Lord’s preaching was to make everybody feel condemned, and nobody likes that.” When Jesus wasn’t confronting the scribes and the Pharisees, He was rebuking the promiscuous and the perverse. When He wasn’t alienating the Sadducees and the Herodians, He was reproving the tax collectors and the prostitutes. He even had a knack for estranging His own disciples with His “hard sayings” (John 6:60) and dark parables (Matt. 13:10–15).
Jesus “meek and mild” was rarely meek or mild when it came to proclaiming the truth. As philosopher and theologian Michael Bauman has commented, “At various times, and when the situation demanded, Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs, and dirty dishes. He actually referred to one of His chief disciples as Satan. So that His hearers would not miss the point, He sometimes referred to the objects of His most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant. Others He often addressed with the most withering invective. God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that His listeners found deeply offensive. He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice.”
Christ calls all unto repentance. His message stands out as an unflinching condemnation of our fallenness: the great and the small, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor. “ ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one’ ” (Rom. 3:10b–12).
It is not likely that such a sobering Gospel is going to induce a great deal of popular enthusiasm. In fact, it was never intended to be popular; it was intended to be true. That is amply demonstrated throughout the history of revival. While revival always provokes what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections,” those passions are very rarely enthusiastic. They are more likely to be abstemious, sobering, and grave—the very antithesis of the effects of contemporary revivalism. We all desperately need Good News, not nice news. And that is simply not a popular notion. Thus, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).
Modern experts in revivalism tell us that such controversial or confrontational preaching will do more to drive people away than to draw them in. They tell us that sermons ought to appeal to the lowest common denominator, that services ought to be simple and accessible, and that programs ought to be consumer-oriented and user-friendly—otherwise we may offend rather than attract. They tell us that substantive theology will, at best, confuse the average man and, at worst, alienate him. And so they focus on intensely practical methods designed to entertain, to stimulate, and to enthuse. Anything else is likely to produce far less sensational results.
They’re probably right—as the ministry of Jesus so amply demonstrates. His insistence that the demands of God’s holiness and justice ultimately had to be satisfied was an affront to virtually everyone who heard Him. It still is.
The unvarnished truth is just as offensive to us as it was to Christ’s contemporaries. We don’t want to hear that our hearts are “ ‘deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’ ” (Jer. 17:9). We don’t want to hear that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) or that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). We don’t want to hear that our corrupt lives have resulted in a corrupt culture where the innocent are exploited, the helpless are despoiled, and the downtrodden are utterly forgotten. We don’t want to hear that there are tangible consequences to our sin that ultimately must be dealt with. We would much rather find a series of steps that will “enable” us, “empower” us, or help us to “recover” than hear the clear message of grace: “ ‘Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord’ ” (Acts 3:19).
Thus it has always been and thus it will always be. According to Lloyd-Jones: “If Christ had come and told us that the way of salvation was to consider a great, noble, and wonderful teaching and then to set out and do it, why, we would have liked it. Thoughts of imitating Christ always please mankind, because they flatter us. They tell us that if we only use our wills we can do almost anything.… The world today in its state of trouble is very ready to listen to sermons that tell it somehow or another about the application of Christian principles. No one is annoyed at them. ‘What wonderful thoughts,’ people say. ‘What a wonderful conception.’ But the message of the Gospel is that, ‘The world is as it is because you are as you are. You are in trouble and confusion because you are not honoring God; because you are rebelling against Him; because of your self-will, your arrogance, and your pride. You are reaping … what you have sown.’ … We all dislike that, and yet it is always the message of Christ—He called upon men and women to repent, to acknowledge their sin with shame, and to turn back to God in Him, but the message of repentance always has been and still is a cause of offense.”
The unvarnished faith of the Scriptures is “foolishness” to some (1 Cor. 1:18). It is a “stumbling block” to others (1 Cor. 1:23). But it is an “offense” to all who disbelieve (Gal. 5:11). This is why it is essential that we put propositions before passions in every area of life and godliness. What we think of as right, what we think of as good, what we think of as Spirit-filled, what we think of as true revival will, more often than not, fall far short of the Biblical standard (Prov. 14:12). And our enthusiasm for wrong-headed ideas will hardly make up the difference—regardless of how attractive we make them.
Our best intentions and our purest passions are no measure of what is good, right, and true. That is why we so desperately need an objective standard—one that stands above even our experience. We need an absolute against which no encroachment of prejudice or preference may interfere—even when those prejudices are terribly nice and those preferences are genuinely sincere. Proposition must precede passion because sometimes the Good News is just not nice news.