A pitfall of contemporary evangelicalism is to mistake quantity for quality. How many attended the meeting? How many hits has the website had? What’s the view count of that uploaded video? These can easily become acid tests for how well ministries are faring.
However, surveys and statistics concerning the spread of the gospel do not necessarily drill down deeply enough to reveal the true nature of the ‘gospel’ being believed or the fruit being borne. We can fixate on figures, and our views of the success of ministries can be skewed by mere numbers.
This problem has been heightened by Covid-19. We are rightly excited at increased numbers showing interest in Christianity, online or otherwise. Reports suggest that some 40 percent of Brits were tuning in to religious broadcasts during parts of lockdown.
To question such impressive figures can sound cynical, but circumspect analysis is necessary if we are to speak clearly and authoritatively to the church and the world. Aside from these statistical trends, then, how else can we measure the spiritual state of individuals engaging with the faith?
I suggest that one key doctrine provides a gauge to indicate where people really stand in relation to the gospel: repentance. This doctrine lifts the lid on where hearts actually lie in relation to the Lord. It exposes motives, diagnoses misunderstandings, and is an area of God’s revelation easily neglected in our day.
Love like a morning cloud
In Scripture we often read of God assessing the sincerity of those seeking him. Sadly, there are many examples of those who wish to flee consequences rather than corruption – those who fearing incrimination rather than sin itself.
The prophet Hosea confronted Israel with its spiritual need, but early responses from the people turned out to be self-serving. Hosea 6:1-3 divides scholars: do the Israelites truly repent here or not? There is certainly a desire to return, an acknowledgement of consequences, and confidence that God will respond to prayer.
Yet God’s response is deflating for the Israelites. The love of the people is described as passing, ‘like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away’ (Hosea 6:4). What might pass for repentance is actually further evidence of rebellion – a profane bargaining with God in order to get a Get Out of Jail Free card.
This light repentance, often supplemented with unacceptable sacrifices, has the effect of intensifying rather than mollifying God’s anger. The supposed 40 percent attendance at online church services is also the proportion of people who have written wills in light of Covid-19. These two statistics may not be related, but they certainly suggest that people are concerned about mortality as much as iniquity.
Writing wills, consulting priests, or even resolving to live better may be common responses to the spectre of mortality, but they are no measure of one’s true state before Christ. As Christians, we must beware of this. While we should follow up every interest shown in the gospel, we must make sure that what people are encountering is actually the gospel, not merely an escape pod many perceive it to be.
Bargaining with God
During the 1978 film ‘The End’, Burt Reynolds’s character finds himself drifting in open water and at risk of drowning. He cries out to God, ‘Let me live, and I promise to obey every one of the Ten Commandments’ – just so long as he gets safely to the beach. He promises God 50 percent of all the money he makes in the future.
As he gets nearer to the shore, he assures God that he won’t regret helping him, and now that he is nearer to the beach he modifies his promise to give only 10 percent, claiming that, ‘I know it was you that saved me, but it was also you that made me sink.’
This illustrates what can happen at a time of personal crisis. People try to cut deals with God in order to survive or succeed, and this can be part of the swell of numbers seeking to connect with the gospel. The missing note is, once again, repentance.
Cutting to the quick
This is not to dismiss the renewed spiritual appetite in the wake of Covid-19 and the evangelistic opportunities it offers. But we must consider the motives of those demonstrating new interest, and we must realise that something less than true conviction of sin can interest people in Christianity.
Jeremiah 6:14 bewails the ministry of prophets who heal the wounds of people lightly without truly probing the depth of infection and the need for definitive action. The gospel is not chiefly concerned with psychological wellbeing. Its chief aim is to glorify God in the salvation of sinners through Christ’s atoning work.
To preach repentance is to preach a gospel which cuts us to the quick. It demands that we truly see ourselves as singularly condemned by God’s law and personally under God’s wrath. The Puritan Thomas Watson held that it was not a notional acknowledgement of transgression but a wounded heart labouring under the weight of its position before God, longingly crying for salvation, which marks true repentance.
A key component
Repentance is not just part of certain believers’ testimonies, but a key component of the gospel we preach. Are there regular calls to repentance in our churches? Are we crying out to people not merely to ‘come to faith’, but to come to repentance? Are we preaching the cross not just for consolation but for conviction – that sin is so sinful in God’s sight that his Son had to give his life to remedy it?
The church must beware of proffering a shallow, tick-the-terms-and-conditions-box approach to Christ. We must pray and speak such that men and women would not merely approach God’s vicinity as a means of comfort, but that they would confess their depravity in the light of his holiness and come in true repentance and faith to the only Saviour qualified to cleanse them.
Andrew Roycroft is Pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Northern Ireland, and blogs at thinkingpastorally.com