What Matters Is What Is True

Dr. William Willimon is a former Methodist Bishop who is now a Professor at Duke Divinity School. He was once voted one of the ten best preachers in the world. Early in his ministry, while he was serving as the pastor of a small congregation in rural Georgia, a relative of one of his members died. Willimon and his wife attended the funeral held in an old-fashioned, rural, Baptist church. Willimon writes: "I had never seen anything like it. The preacher began to preach. He shouted; he flailed his arms. He yelled, 'It's too late for Joe. He's dead. But it ain't too late for you. People drop dead every day. Tomorrow it might be you. Why wait? Give your life to Jesus right now.’”

Willimon goes on to suggest that this was about the worst preaching he had ever heard. It was so simplistic! He fumed and fussed to his wife Patsy, complaining that the preacher had done the worst thing possible for a grieving family—manipulating them with guilt and shame. Patsy agreed, but then she said: “Of course the worst part of it all is that what he said is true.”

Friends, I am a Baptist pastor, but I certainly empathize with Willimon’s reaction. At various times I have felt somewhat embarrassed when other Christians (especially Baptists) present the gospel message in a manner which seems blunt and harsh. I have found myself thinking, “It would sure be nice if these folks were a little more sophisticated and more sensitive to others.” On occasion, I have even felt a bit of pride that my style of preaching is “better” than that of those who do a lot of shouting. Yet, like Dr. Willimon, I also realize that substance is more important than style. Though it is easy to focus on how a message is delivered, what really matters is whether or not the message is true.

Now, the New Testament does give some important instructions and models to all Christians about how we should communicate the gospel message. We should always want to be clear, rational, relevant, gracious and wise as we seek to persuade others to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet, we need to be careful that we do not allow our concerns about proper methods and style to obscure the message God has called us to share.

The Bible tells us (John 3:36) that “Whoever believes in the Son (Jesus) has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life for God’s wrath remains on him.” As I read that, I am almost tempted to ask, “John, why are you so blunt? Why do you have to make it sound so black-and-white? I remember, however, that these are not just John’s words, but God’s words as well. I also remember that this is not rocket science. The basic gospel message sounds simple, because it is simple. John puts it in black-and-white terms because the truth really is pretty black-and-white. Those trusting in Jesus Christ will experience eternal life. Those who refuse to do so face eternal separation from God, also known as hell. And friends, that is the truth, no matter how carelessly or carefully we try to package it.
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Dan Erickson