If you’re a certain age you will have been raised to believe that our understanding of the world, people, events, truth claims and counter-claims, is informed by rationalism. Truth is arrived at by a process of dialectic, of discussion, sharing and exploring perspectives and ideas.
We discard those things we think don’t stand up to scrutiny while seriously considering those truth claims that bear further investigation. At least that is how we like to think we reason from the Scriptures. This is an important characteristic of New Testament Christianity. Peter, in his first letter, writes:
‘Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 1:13, ESV)
Luke tells us that Jesus ‘opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.’ (Lk. 24:45) Paul reminds us that the minds of unbelievers have been blinded by the god of this world (2Cor.4:4) and that believers are renewed in their minds (Eph.4:23)
In his first letter John writes about, ‘that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands…’ (1 John 1:1) John’s gospel begins, ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ introducing the Logos, and continues, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ Testimony of empirical, eyewitness evidence for Jesus as the objective, rational expression of God.
Of course there are questions about the veracity of the evidence presented, its ability to satisfy the honest inquirer, and a discussion needs to be had concerning the respective natures of evidence and proof. We have all met, indeed made the demand, ‘prove it!’ Nevertheless there is, historically, agreement on how evidence and proof are arrived at.
Yet today any objective expression of truth, logos, rationalism, has been replaced by ethos, guiding principles and shared concerns that make me authentic, which appeals to pathos, people’s sympathies. ‘This is my struggle, in my honesty I am authentic, can you feel my pain?’
That is why people of a certain age find the world increasingly difficult to engage. We press our rational arguments, our apologetic, only to be met by a seemingly foreign language of feelings. It’s a world in which people make judgements and decisions based on how they feel about something, authenticism rather than what they think, rationalism.
The rationalist values facts and reason, asking ‘what do you think?’ and appeals to works like Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Sean McDowell, while the authenticist suspects facts and appeals to impressions, asking ‘how do you feel?’ appealing to writers like Rob Bell.
There has to be a balance between these two positions. Cold rationalism is lifeless, while reason-free feelings can easily lead us away from the God who insists,‘The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.’ (James 3:17)
The danger for the church in this new world of personal truth fed by impressions and feelings is when it sees and identifies with the countless physical, mental, and emotional challenges people face every day and, moved to pity, pathos, takes action in feeding the hungry, serving the poor and suffering, reaching out to the marginalised, ethos, but fails to bring the logos, the gospel message. Community work becomes an end in itself, a social gospel.
I remember an occasion some years ago in which there were twelve candidates for baptism. Each in turn shared their testimony, interviewed by the pastor, before going down into the water. For each the church had done a great work, helping them come off the streets, kick a habit, mend relationships, etc. Not one mentioned sin, repentance, the cross, salvation, eternal hope, or kingdom living. Astonishingly, the gospel was absent and the church, for them, had become another agency with a social programme.
People’s physical and emotional needs may be met, the marginalised may be included, but they remain spiritually impoverished, unaware of their deepest need, dead in their sins. Unregenerate, they come to church in their sin, they sing hymns and choruses in their sin, they continue in their sin because no one has done them the greatest service of all, bring them to the cross.
Paul wrote, I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…’ (Ro.1:16)
Jesus said, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’ (Lk4:43)
Jesus charged his disciples, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)
‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Mt.28?19)
As citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Jn 18:36) living in an earthly estate we serve our society in many ways. Through local initiatives to the homeless, in supporting medical and other charities in the majority world, by serving our neighbours and obeying the law, all are part of the charge to Christians to be good neighbours, good citizens. Our primary role, however, is as citizens and ambassadors of that other kingdom to which we now belong, and whose urgent message accompanies us in all else we do.
James insists ‘faith without works is dead,’ asking, ‘What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’ (Js.214-18) We might just as well say works without faith is dead, asking what good is it if someone says he has helped a person live better in this world but does not share the good news of the kingdom? This was the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, the primary charge to the apostles and, according to Paul, the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
One of the best examples of this balance is Paul who, seeing Athens full of idols, felt ‘his spirit provoked within him….So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.’ (Acts 17:16-17) Moved to pity, pathos, Paul felt the pull of his conscience-driven principles, ethos, compel him to reason from the Scriptures, logos, with all who would listen. This is the complete experience of the Christian witness, the motivation and outworking of God’s command to tell the good news.
In his Moorhouse Lectures, published in 1970 as Not Ashamed: Studies in Mission and Ministry, Douglas Webster wrote:
‘The church’s primary task is to proclaim the gospel in each new generation and in every society. The gospel is more than a cultural inheritance.’
When we forget this we are no longer answering the call, no longer proclaiming the gospel.