Our existence is more real to us than the existence of anything else because the existence of everything else is evaluated in terms of its usefulness and attractiveness to our purposes. Everything is subordinate to our will. To do evil is to attempt to retain that perspective and relation to others. To refuse to do evil is to recognize that we are not at the center and that all things are not to be judged with ourselves at the center.
I have thought for some time that people do not believe that they are actually wrong about anything they do. In this regard we all remain narcissistic children, fully convinced that each decision we make is justified by circumstances around us. A mother asks in vain why a two-year old hit another child. The reason is always justified in the child’s mind and any crying that follows is only because mother was not able to properly assess the situation. In this morning’s paper, Lawrence Taylor, ex-professional athlete and convicted drug user, said plainly, “I am not sorry for anything I have done.” Adult circumstances differ only in degree, not in kind.
Though God tells us plainly in His Word that we are born in sin, it is the one thing we do not want to hear. Eve thought it was wrong of God to keep her from fulfilling her desires and Adam blamed Eve for his decision to participate in the sin. Since then humans have been convinced that all their decisions are really justified, it is only circumstances that make our decisions appear to be bad ones. We may be forced at times to say we are sorry or to make restitution for our misunderstood actions, but that is not at all the same as believing we were wrong. Perhaps the only true admission of wrong-doing that humans ever come to is called repentance. And perhaps that is why there is so little true repentance these days.
The attitude I am describing is selfishness. It is at the root of our sinfulness. It goes against the very fiber of our nature to take blame, to admit that we are wrong, to be sorry for the action itself, not just for the consequences. In fact, without the help of the Spirit of God no one ever does admit such things, for to admit that would be to repent of our sins. This is the root of paganism! We see it all around us today from the highest offices to the lowest grade school rooms. And it is the most natural thing to see in a society apart from God.
I have said before that I believe the current paganism in America can actually afford us better opportunity to preach the gospel of forgiveness through Christ’s blood than what we have known in recent times. The New Testament was written to pagans, not some form of Christendom. It was a world of naturalism, mysticism and humanism, not a world conditioned to think of themselves as born in sin and in need of redemption.
Our gospel demands repentance. It demands a volitional, moral decision to give up on yourself and throw yourself on the mercy of Christ. This is becoming a more radical concept as our society becomes more pagan! David Wells wrote, “It is obvious that the pagan mind had no moral categories superseding the relativities of daily life. Pagans made no appeal to moral absolutes. They determined what was right experimentally.”2 The Apostolic endeavor (as well as the New Testament itself) was designed for such a world and it worked perfectly.
I believe, however, that in order for us to be as successful, we must be careful and accurate in some areas as well.
1. We must center on the moral arguments for God’s existence, not only on creation. That God’s creation shows His eternal power and Godhead will always be true, and that the complexity of nature gives testimony to a complex Creator as well. But knowing that humans are created in God’s image, and that they will always have a conscience void of fulfillment as they try to live against God’s moral universe, we ought to preach loud and clear to this need.
Ravi Zacharias has stated that as he has spoken on university campuses around the world, it is the discussions of moral absolutes and the existence of truth that bring more questions than any other topics.3 Schaeffer wrote, “In the area of morality we find exactly the same thing. Man cannot escape the fact of the motions of a true right and wrong in himself; not just a sociological or hedonistic morality, but true morality, true right and wrong.”4 The pagan morality of our day will only become more and more antithetical to Christianity as time goes on.
2. We must be convinced as believers that covetous desires are the height of hypocrisy. We will have a hard time pointing out the selfishness in others by congratulating and rewarding our own selfishness. This heart of ours is deceitful and desperately wicked. Even Paul admitted, “I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom 7:7). Thomas Watson, an old Puritan writer, called covetousness “The mother sin”5 and showed how all ten commandments are underpinned by this most basic human fault. The breaking of each commandment is a covetous act done for some selfish gain.
I think it is no secret that our churches and our evangelistic efforts are often mere fronts for feeding our own ego. We have a innate desire to be seen and applauded that hounds us constantly. An older writer said, “The enemy whom the Christian combats is his own heart: for he is required to turn arms against himself. He must suspend all sentiments of self-love; he must become his own executioner, and, to use the ideas and expressions of Jesus Christ, he must actually deny himself.”6
If we are to bring the sinner to the place of repentance, in an age which denies moral obligation and exalts self-worth, we must give up our own selfish ambitions. It may be true that we can attract pagans by showing aggressive ambition, but we cannot bring them to repentance. If the cross is lifted up rather than ourselves, God will use us to bring men to himself.
3. We must be willing to accept the vilification which will come our way if we preach the need for repentance. We are seeing this kind of hatred for morality directed socially at the “religious right” and politically at conservatives, but I wonder if we find it directed at us purely because we speak for Christ? In Peter’s first epistle written to suffering Christians, he admonishes the believers in every chapter to accept suffering as Christians, not as law breakers, “for if you take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (2:20). Since Christ has suffered for us, we are to “arm” ourselves “with the same mind” (4:1).
It was October 19, 1856, as Charles Spurgeon was preaching to twelve thousand people in Surrey Music Hall that someone yelled “Fire!”. Seven people died trying to escape the bogus alarm, and Spurgeon was terribly vilified as a “ranting charlatan.” After days of soul-searching and agony, Spurgeon emerged from the ordeal while walking with his wife in the garden, and said, “How foolish I have been! What does it matter what becomes of me if the Lord is glorified? If He is exalted, let Him do as He pleases with me. Oh, wifey, I see it all now.”7 That is the true evangelistic spirit that we find in the apostles throughout the book of Acts!
Our generation of believers may meet the Lord in the air! This generation of pagans has only one chance at salvation. We who love heaven more than earth, we who hate the garment spotted by the flesh, must have this kind of compassion, making a difference! That ministry of compassion must somehow convince the pagans that they are wrong, that only repentance from their selfish sins is acceptable before a holy God.
Notes: 1. Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville: W/JKP, 1989) 106. 2. David Wells, No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 268. 3. Ravi Zacharias, a tape series called Truth, Evangelism and the Postmodern Mind (May, 1998) tape 1. 4. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1971) 127. 5. Thomas Watson, Exposition on the Shorter Catechism (downloaded from Banner of Truth, Edinburgh). 6. Jacques Saurin, “Christian Heroism,” Orations, IV (New York: Collier, 1902) 1752. 7. William J. Petersen, “Meet Charles and Susie Spurgeon” a chapter in a collection of short biographies called C.S. Lewis had a Wife, Catherine Marshall had a Husband (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985) 144.