Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Several decades ago, preaching was defined as an act meant “to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed” (Campus Gods on Trial, 102). You’ve heard that definition before of preaching. Disturbing the comfortable remains one of the great challenges faced by the preacher and the evangelist and all of us who seek to share the gospel in the prosperous West today. Because to be comfortable in sin, apart from Christ, is the deadliest place to be.

With that concern comes this question from a listener named Matt. “Hello, Pastor John! As an evangelist, what have you done to try and convince people who have their material needs met of their need for Christ? I have a wealthy brother who has no interest in the gospel or spiritual matters. I’ve been praying for him for years to be saved and I just don’t know how to break through all the comforts of his life that make him feel confident and assured and safe.”

This question resonates deeply with me, not only because of people I know who are outwardly quite content and yet are lost, but also because my father was an evangelist who saw thousands of people come to Christ through his ministry, and he said to me when I was a boy, “Johnny, getting people saved through the gospel seems not to be the hardest thing in my ministry. But getting them lost so that they know they need to be saved — that’s the hardest thing.” So, this question is not new to me. It’s been around for a long time. I suspect it’s not unique to our time.

Alternative Gospels

The thing that this question is getting at is that most people do not feel any need for the most important thing that Jesus accomplished and offers. And add to that the tragedy that so many Christians, and even some preachers, in our day have altered the message of the gospel so that the main thing — the most important thing Jesus accomplished by dying and rising again — is not the most important thing being offered when people share the gospel. Rather, there’s a constant effort to make the message fit the felt need, which drastically alters the message from something infinite and ultimate and glorious and precious to something temporal and far less important.

The prosperity gospel, of course, is the most egregious example of this, as prosperity preachers try to sell Jesus as a kind of magical force in your life that will make things go better in this world. But there are less egregious forms of prosperity-gospel distortion, which do the same thing at a lesser level, that is pretty much infecting the American church. We create alterations of the gospel as we try to persuade people with our own seemingly innocuous version of the prosperity gospel — by mainly referring to the fact that your psychological state or your marriage or children or finances or health will improve if you accept Jesus.

Death and Judgment

Now, my father was a very happy man. He knew the wonderful effects of God’s forgiveness and justification by faith and the hope of eternal life. He knew the wonderful effects here and now of being a Christian. He was a happy, well-rounded, balanced Christian. I think that’s probably why I’m a Christian today. I never saw in my father or my mother any reason to jettison what they were so authentically changed by. My father wrote a little paperback. Most fundamentalists don’t write books like this — and he was one, a very happy one. I have it on my shelf: A Good Time and How to Have It.

And yet he also knew that most people thought they were having a good time and the gospel would just get in the way. That was the problem. That’s what he had to overcome. Therefore, what I remember most clearly in his preaching is the flame in his eyes of mingled kindness and severity when he quoted Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Oh, I can just hear him say it. I can see the look on his face.

“At the bottom of all other problems is the problem that we are under the wrath of God.”

Sometimes we joke and say, “Well, two things are unavoidable in life: death and taxes.” Well, that’s not true. Taxes are avoidable. You can just go to jail. But there are two things that are unavoidable without Christ: death and judgment, death and hell. The main thing Jesus came into the world to accomplish was to make it possible for human beings, under the just sentence of death and hell, to escape that eternal condemnation and live forever, glorifying God by their happiness in him. That’s what he came to do — centrally at the bottom of all other things.

Solving Our Biggest Problem

What God sent Jesus into the world to do was to solve every human problem eventually. The problem that has to be solved at the bottom of all other problems is the problem that we are under the wrath of God. That’s humanity’s biggest problem. No matter how rich we are or happy we are — or healthy or famous or strong or beautiful — we are all sinners. We have belittled the glory of God by making so little of it, and we deserve eternal condemnation. Romans 5:9 says, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” And 1 Thessalonians 1:10 says, “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead, . . . who delivers us from the wrath to come.” And Romans 2:5 says, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

This is the problem at the bottom, under all other problems, and this is the main problem for people who feel they have no problems and don’t need the gospel: the rich, the comfortable, the content; the poor, the comfortable, the content.

So, my father pleaded with healthy, wealthy, self-satisfied people to wake up and realize that every heartbeat could be your last, and you’re not ready to face an all-holy God. There’s only one way to be ready, and that is to be united to Jesus Christ by faith in him as our Savior and Lord and treasure. According to Romans 8:3, God condemned sin in Jesus Christ’s flesh. That is, he gave his Son to bear the condemnation of his own wrath for all who will trust him.

Or in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” My father would plead with people, “If you don’t accept the curse that Jesus came under God’s wrath against you to give, you will have to bear your own curse in hell.” That’s the one crucial message that our comfortable, oblivious friends and neighbors need to hear. There are many other good things to say; that dare not be neglected.

Warning with Wisdom and Love

We need to be deeply aware that this is a message of love about an act of love that is so great it cannot be exaggerated. Just before mentioning God’s wrath in Romans 5:9, Paul said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is no greater love than that God would put his only Son through hell on the cross to save his enemies from going to hell. That’s the heart of the gospel.

So, Matt, let’s pray that God would give us tears and compassion, not just for the pains and sorrows of this life. Oh my goodness. You read the news of what’s happening around the world, and there is just so much suffering now. Yes, by all means let us weep for that, but also, may God give us tears for the pain-free people, the comfortable people, the healthy, wealthy people who are blind to what awaits them without Christ.

God will show you, Matt, when and how to give this message as you seek to lay down your life for others. He will. He’ll show you. I have seen such warnings — I mean severe, earnest, tearful warnings, from my father and in my own ministry — I have seen warnings from my father and from me bear the fruit of salvation. May God cause our love to abound with great wisdom so that we know how best to deliver this essential message.