A prophetic message – either one that confronts the sins of the culture or simply proclaims the exclusivity of Christ as Savior and Lord – often produces a terrible backlash
- Ed Vitagliano
The Gospel of Intolerance
Will the church lose its prophetic voice?
The following first appeared in the January 2003 issue of the AFA Journal.
For most believers, the words “hateful Christian” are an oxymoron. Christians are to love; neither their thoughts, words, nor deeds are to ever reflect hate.
Increasingly, however, Bible-believing Christians are being portrayed as full of hate. Especially among the progressive crowd, people are renouncing what is perceived to be the intolerant nature of the gospel message.
Such intolerance is rapidly becoming our secular culture’s version of the unpardonable sin – at least when committed by Christians. Morality, rather than growing out of absolute truths, has been boiled down to a simple ethic of hyper-individualism. Tolerance reigns supreme as the sole measuring rod of right and wrong.
From a Christian perspective, it’s not that tolerance is bad – it’s just that it no longer means what it used to mean. Once upon a time, to be tolerant was to respect the views of others. Now, however, tolerance means acceptance of everyone’s views as equally valid.
This is especially true when the subject is some controversial cultural issue like homosexuality. In such cases, Christians are often admonished to be more tolerant, or merciful or loving. Strong views – and even worse, the characterization of any behavior as sin – are discouraged in the most strident terms.
As theologian and New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has said, “[U]nder the new definition, no place is allowed for a group to claim it is right. The church that takes this stance is no longer perceived as standing for something and thus in some sense heroic, but is merely bigoted, narrow, right-wing, antiquarian.”
“You are the man!”
The problem is that the message of Christianity is very intolerant. After all – contrary to what some seem to think – the gospel is a message of severity as well as consolation. What could be more severe than for the apostle Paul to say that “we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin?” (Rom. 3:9, NASB) What is more narrow-minded than to say that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven?
It is a difficult and painful thing to tell a person that his good works are unacceptable to God, and that he is trapped in the chains of his iniquity, judged guilty, and awaiting execution. God rejects sinful man. God’s justice is an intolerant thing that infuriates the proud heart, and His unapproachable holiness is a discouragement to the religious man who daily labors to earn his place in heaven. Far from being a soothing message of “I’m OK, you’re OK,” the gospel is like a sword that dismembers entire families (Matt. 10:34ff.)
The mission of the church in proclaiming the gospel often includes a prophetic emphasis that pains men with the truth of their own sinfulness. For a culture that no longer fears the Lord, the proclamation of God’s provision for sin must sometimes follow on the heels of a proclamation of God’s hatred for it.
The nature of this prophetic mission is clearly demonstrated by the story of the prophet Nathan. After King David lusted after Bathsheba, dispensed with her husband Uriah, and then took her for himself, Nathan paid David a visit. He told the king a story of a man who, rich with herds of sheep, nevertheless took from a poor man the only lamb he had and served it for a special dinner (2 Sam. 12:1ff.).
David, thinking that the story represented a true incident within his kingdom, was enraged. “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die.”
Then, in one petrifying moment, in which one can almost see the crooked finger of the prophet pointed in David’s face, Nathan thunders his accusation: “You are the man!”
David’s conscience is stricken, and his brokenness, penned for all to see in Psalm 51, is a poignant portrayal of true repentance. Following David’s immediate confession, Nathan tells him, “The Lord has taken away your sin,” (2 Samuel 12:13, NASB).
This represents the prophetic message of the church, for love does more than clutch and caress tenderly the hand of sin’s prisoner. Love must sometimes extend its crooked finger and – perhaps for the first time in the sinner’s entire life – point out the fact that the chains exist, and the bars of his cell are locked tight. Love tells the truth (Ephesians 4:15).
Pierced to the heart
Some believe that such confrontational, prophetic preaching ended with Old Testament prophets like Nathan – or perhaps with that “transitional” prophet, John the Baptist.
The New Testament, however, presents a different picture. In fact, in Peter’s first sermon, preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the apostle boldly proclaims in stark terms the role of both Jew and Gentile in the crucifixion of Jesus: “[Y]ou nailed [Jesus the Nazarene] to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death,” (vs. 23). Peter concludes with a testimony to the fact that Jesus is both “Lord and Christ,” and then again points the finger at the guilty ones, adding, “this Jesus whom you crucified,” (vs. 36).
Note the reaction: “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’”
The word “pierced to the heart” means “smitten in conscience,” as the truth of what they had done penetrated deep into their hearts and created a sense of spiritual desperation that cried out for hope. It was a moment that seemed to echo David’s brokenness.
The prophetic calling of the church is so critical because a sense of one’s guilt is necessary before a person feels the need for a Savior. In the next verses of Acts 2, it is only when the people are pleading with Peter for an answer to their awful plight before a holy God that the apostle points the way out. A sinner only senses the need to “[b]e saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40, NASB) when he understands that the generation is perverse – and that he is personally perverse as well.
We sometimes see this same pattern elsewhere in the Book of Acts. In Stephen’s wondrous witness borne against his persecutors, he also thrusts the sword of the Holy Spirit into their hearts: “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit,” he says, and then speaks to them of Jesus Christ, “the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become,” (Acts 7:51f, NASB).
A failure of nerve?
However, the reaction of those listening to Stephen was vastly different than those who heard Peter: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him,” (Acts 7:54, NASB). Stephen soon became the young church’s first martyr, stoned at the hands of an angry mob.
A prophetic message – either one that confronts the sins of the culture or simply proclaims the exclusivity of Christ as Savior and Lord – often produces a terrible backlash from the culture that bears the brunt of it, and that reaction can cause the church to shrink back from its prophetic calling.
To do so would be a catastrophe, but some Christians seem to be experiencing what Christian writer and philosopher Douglas Groothuis called “a failure of nerve.”
Pastor and writer John Piper is even more blunt. For the church to refrain from declaring the universality of Christ’s claims is an act of “provincial cowardice.” Yet that may be happening all around us in the U.S. The weightiness of the message that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord of all is threatening to intimidate the church into silence.
Why? Because that proclamation “seems too global. Too sweeping. Too universal,” Piper said. “To say it takes their breath away. And, worse, it brings down the wrath of the intolerant. What could be more arrogant than to think that the infinite variety of need in all the cultural groups of the world could be met by a single Savior?”
Facing the prospect of such backlash, it is difficult for the church to arise to her proper place and continue – or even begin – the process of accurately, consistently, and lovingly preaching prophetically to the culture. Without it, however, how can the church be relevant? If it does not call the culture to repentance, what good is the church? In the absence of this message, what purpose does the church serve that cannot be better served by some secular counterpart?
Under such circumstances, great courage is required. This may very well be why the Book of Revelation – which, after all, pictures God’s people living in a hostile cultural environment – strongly emphasizes overcoming (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7); and why, in Revelation 21:8, cowardice is considered to be as wicked as sorcery, idolatry and murder – and, in fact, is put at the top of the list.
Keeping Stephen’s case in mind, it should not be surprising that Christians are increasingly labeled “extremists” and “haters.” And the pressure on believers is likely to grow even more intense, as sinners gnash their teeth and call for democracy’s version of stoning – be that prison, civil lawsuits, or locked churches. At some point, a stiff-necked society will do what it needs to do in order to silence an unwanted message by silencing the messenger.
Nevertheless, how we respond in that moment will determine whether or not our generation is accorded status with the overcomers, or the cowards.