Good news and bad news

Joe Carter reflects on the meaning and practice of “evangelism”:

The term derives from the Greek word evangel: good news. How odd then that so much evangelism appears to be about selling Jesus and hoping that you can convince the unsaved heathen to buy into salvation. Good news doesn’t have to be sold. Bad news has to be sold, but not good news.

via Selling Jesus Like a Chevy | First Things.

What difference might this distinction make in the way Christians and churches, as they say, do evangelism?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    I think the observation that bad news needs to be sold, good news doesn’t, is a keen one. Most modern Americans seem to have more difficulty with the Law than with the Gospel. We just don’t see ourselves as bad as we really are – as the requirements of God’s law would indicate. And I suppose it takes a degree of faith to have the understanding that, no matter what crisis I’m currently experiencing – unemployment, illness, etc. – my largest and most significant problem is my sin and resultant separation from God.

  • Pete

    I think the observation that bad news needs to be sold, good news doesn’t, is a keen one. Most modern Americans seem to have more difficulty with the Law than with the Gospel. We just don’t see ourselves as bad as we really are – as the requirements of God’s law would indicate. And I suppose it takes a degree of faith to have the understanding that, no matter what crisis I’m currently experiencing – unemployment, illness, etc. – my largest and most significant problem is my sin and resultant separation from God.

  • Winston Smith

    An old evangelist used to say that before you can get them saved, you have to get them lost. That is, you need to present them with the awful reality of their sin and the wrath of God and eternity in Hell before they realize they need the free grace of Jesus Christ. That is why the caricature of an evangelist is a person with a Southern accent screaming that “you’re a-goin’ to Haaayyy-ulll!!!!”

    Most people don’t believe they’re going to Hell. They believe life stinks in some respect, that society is corrupt, and that they certainly have their own share of problems and faults, and maybe bitter regrets, but they don’t understand that their, and humanity’s, default condition is to be lost and condemned. In today’s pluralistic, rationalistic, self-help culture, THAT is a hard sell.

    Only after that hard sell has been made does the good news sell itself.

    Even then, Jesus said that only a few would believe it.

  • Winston Smith

    An old evangelist used to say that before you can get them saved, you have to get them lost. That is, you need to present them with the awful reality of their sin and the wrath of God and eternity in Hell before they realize they need the free grace of Jesus Christ. That is why the caricature of an evangelist is a person with a Southern accent screaming that “you’re a-goin’ to Haaayyy-ulll!!!!”

    Most people don’t believe they’re going to Hell. They believe life stinks in some respect, that society is corrupt, and that they certainly have their own share of problems and faults, and maybe bitter regrets, but they don’t understand that their, and humanity’s, default condition is to be lost and condemned. In today’s pluralistic, rationalistic, self-help culture, THAT is a hard sell.

    Only after that hard sell has been made does the good news sell itself.

    Even then, Jesus said that only a few would believe it.

  • Larry

    Peter’s hitting on it when he says, “I suppose it takes a degree of faith to have the understanding…”

    I don’t think the Law is used in any sense, generally speaking, as it actually speaks in scripture. We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but THAT interpretation of the Law altogether. The whole point of us “knowing good and evil for ourselves”, the critical thing in that original fall is not the knowing of the “good and evil” but the “for ourselves”. It’s part parcel, I think, with what Luther says when he says, “…never forget that when scripture tells you to do something, it forbids you to do it by yourself…”. At the head of every commandment in the second part of the table is the first commandment, which has Gospel in it (Luther saw this), “…fear, love and TRUST God above all things…”.

    The other aspect of the Law that is missed is something else Luther points out. He brilliantly points out that if you must be told (by the Law) to do something, realize, you have ALREADY fallen into deadly sin.

    So the “law” gets sold in superficial terms of “good vs. evil” so that what “we sell” is often “you’ve been bad according to the Law, even in thought, word and deed”. What is NOT told of the Law and it is most clearly pointing out is that, as Luther oft stated, the most pious of works are damning you. Something like, “you/we are so utterly fallen your greatest evil is not that you maybe stole something or thought an illicit thought (which too are sin but superficial) but that you/we presume our own righteousness. As Luther says in his very first thesis in the HD, “The Law is truly a most salutary thing, but not only does it not save a man, but hinders him” (my paraphrase). Which is a stunning point, not only does it not save, IT HINDERS. Thus men use it in the most pious way to avoid God’s grace.

    If you want to see a real reaction to the real Law in talking with an unbeliever, eventually you will both agree that the “negative sins” are bad. The list may vary but generally things like “murder” hit everyone’s list as bad. You’ll both agree. But then tell him/her that men are damned because of their good. That gets a head turn. Then of course you have to peel that apart.

    This is how fallen reason, the theologian of glory in us judges things, by experience via the senses. Reason must necessarily be offended, Luther often points out, so that room may be made for faith alone (in the Word). He points to many examples of this, the scriptures are pregnant with them, one being Abraham being called to leave his home and later again to sacrifice Isaac. Here Luther points out, and in other places for Abraham, just how many times Abraham dies (reason is sacrificed as it where) and even though Abraham surely battled fiercely with his reason…faith over came and slew reason. It was not “reasonable” to leave such a fine family and homeland to set out into the desert, it was not reasonable nor per the Law right to kill Isaac. Here, Luther points out, that God must look like the devil to offend reason. But Abraham had a Word and promising from God not seen by reason but held by naked faith.

    Thus, we never do SEE (the way of reason) how sinful we are, it takes a Word from God to say so even without full explanation. I.e. to believe I am totally depraved and bound of will, I cannot see nor understand it must be taken by faith alone in the Word of God that simply says so. Here faith subdues and sleighs reason under foot to Christ. This is where the “amen” of faith is best shown I think, “I don’t understand it Lord, but let it be done unto me as you have said, your Words are right and mine are not.”

  • Larry

    Peter’s hitting on it when he says, “I suppose it takes a degree of faith to have the understanding…”

    I don’t think the Law is used in any sense, generally speaking, as it actually speaks in scripture. We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but THAT interpretation of the Law altogether. The whole point of us “knowing good and evil for ourselves”, the critical thing in that original fall is not the knowing of the “good and evil” but the “for ourselves”. It’s part parcel, I think, with what Luther says when he says, “…never forget that when scripture tells you to do something, it forbids you to do it by yourself…”. At the head of every commandment in the second part of the table is the first commandment, which has Gospel in it (Luther saw this), “…fear, love and TRUST God above all things…”.

    The other aspect of the Law that is missed is something else Luther points out. He brilliantly points out that if you must be told (by the Law) to do something, realize, you have ALREADY fallen into deadly sin.

    So the “law” gets sold in superficial terms of “good vs. evil” so that what “we sell” is often “you’ve been bad according to the Law, even in thought, word and deed”. What is NOT told of the Law and it is most clearly pointing out is that, as Luther oft stated, the most pious of works are damning you. Something like, “you/we are so utterly fallen your greatest evil is not that you maybe stole something or thought an illicit thought (which too are sin but superficial) but that you/we presume our own righteousness. As Luther says in his very first thesis in the HD, “The Law is truly a most salutary thing, but not only does it not save a man, but hinders him” (my paraphrase). Which is a stunning point, not only does it not save, IT HINDERS. Thus men use it in the most pious way to avoid God’s grace.

    If you want to see a real reaction to the real Law in talking with an unbeliever, eventually you will both agree that the “negative sins” are bad. The list may vary but generally things like “murder” hit everyone’s list as bad. You’ll both agree. But then tell him/her that men are damned because of their good. That gets a head turn. Then of course you have to peel that apart.

    This is how fallen reason, the theologian of glory in us judges things, by experience via the senses. Reason must necessarily be offended, Luther often points out, so that room may be made for faith alone (in the Word). He points to many examples of this, the scriptures are pregnant with them, one being Abraham being called to leave his home and later again to sacrifice Isaac. Here Luther points out, and in other places for Abraham, just how many times Abraham dies (reason is sacrificed as it where) and even though Abraham surely battled fiercely with his reason…faith over came and slew reason. It was not “reasonable” to leave such a fine family and homeland to set out into the desert, it was not reasonable nor per the Law right to kill Isaac. Here, Luther points out, that God must look like the devil to offend reason. But Abraham had a Word and promising from God not seen by reason but held by naked faith.

    Thus, we never do SEE (the way of reason) how sinful we are, it takes a Word from God to say so even without full explanation. I.e. to believe I am totally depraved and bound of will, I cannot see nor understand it must be taken by faith alone in the Word of God that simply says so. Here faith subdues and sleighs reason under foot to Christ. This is where the “amen” of faith is best shown I think, “I don’t understand it Lord, but let it be done unto me as you have said, your Words are right and mine are not.”

  • Larry

    We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but THAT interpretation of the Law altogether.

    Should read:

    We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s NOT the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but A FALLEN interpretation of the Law altogether.

  • Larry

    We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but THAT interpretation of the Law altogether.

    Should read:

    We tend to think of it in raw “good versus bad” terms but that’s NOT the heart of the law, the more or less moral/legal system that’s fallen in us but A FALLEN interpretation of the Law altogether.

  • CRB

    And so, the old man must be drowned EVERY day, so the new
    man in Christ may come up! There’s no getting around a
    thorough dying every day for the Christian. And yet, even
    THAT is God’s doing—contrition and faith. What Luther
    discovered by God’s grace is an ongoing teaching and will
    never in this life be something that is not necessary for the
    Christian.

  • CRB

    And so, the old man must be drowned EVERY day, so the new
    man in Christ may come up! There’s no getting around a
    thorough dying every day for the Christian. And yet, even
    THAT is God’s doing—contrition and faith. What Luther
    discovered by God’s grace is an ongoing teaching and will
    never in this life be something that is not necessary for the
    Christian.

  • Winston Smith

    It should also be noted that we, strictly speaking, do not convert anyone, or “sell” the gospel to them. The Holy Spirit, by means of the Word of God transmitted through men and women of God, does that. He is the Salesman, not us.

  • Winston Smith

    It should also be noted that we, strictly speaking, do not convert anyone, or “sell” the gospel to them. The Holy Spirit, by means of the Word of God transmitted through men and women of God, does that. He is the Salesman, not us.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It may be nit-picking, but I think Mr. Carter missed the mark when he said, “Good news doesn’t have to be sold. Bad news has to be sold, but not good news.” After all, one could read that and infer from it that “the Gospel doesn’t have to be sold; the Law has to be sold, but not the Gospel.” But we shouldn’t be hawking either.

    After all, bad news is still news, is still the truth. And people want to know the truth, good or bad. They want to know what’s what.

    I think I’d modify Mr. Carter’s statement to say that the truth doesn’t have to be sold. Lies have to be hawked, but not the truth. The truth just has to be told.

    But even that’s only sort of true. Lies do have to be sold, but they sell very well — because people want them to be the truth. Lies that are sold as flat-out lies don’t sell very well. Lies sold as truth sell like hotcakes. But when people find out their lies are, well, lies (because they’ve finally heard the truth), they typically don’t want the lies anymore.

    But then, people pay a lot for those lies, becoming very invested in them. When you tell them that not only are the lies false, but the truth is free, a lot of people try to rationalize all the money they spent on those lies — it can’t all have been wasted money!

    And so on.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    It may be nit-picking, but I think Mr. Carter missed the mark when he said, “Good news doesn’t have to be sold. Bad news has to be sold, but not good news.” After all, one could read that and infer from it that “the Gospel doesn’t have to be sold; the Law has to be sold, but not the Gospel.” But we shouldn’t be hawking either.

    After all, bad news is still news, is still the truth. And people want to know the truth, good or bad. They want to know what’s what.

    I think I’d modify Mr. Carter’s statement to say that the truth doesn’t have to be sold. Lies have to be hawked, but not the truth. The truth just has to be told.

    But even that’s only sort of true. Lies do have to be sold, but they sell very well — because people want them to be the truth. Lies that are sold as flat-out lies don’t sell very well. Lies sold as truth sell like hotcakes. But when people find out their lies are, well, lies (because they’ve finally heard the truth), they typically don’t want the lies anymore.

    But then, people pay a lot for those lies, becoming very invested in them. When you tell them that not only are the lies false, but the truth is free, a lot of people try to rationalize all the money they spent on those lies — it can’t all have been wasted money!

    And so on.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    the law is about doing love that makes people feel loved and provides for their creaturely needs. Who would NOT want to feel loved and taken care of by others?

    what our old adam does not like is the idea that this is a fully reciprocal proposition. so we do love as old adam by being made to do it or with the thought that being good has rewards. if we could get love without giving it, we would jump at that as old adams.

    who needs to be sold on that idea? really. what the world needs now is love sweet love. love makes the world go around.

    So we think then that we have to “sell” the gospel by showing that it will “fix” us and make us be the more loving us that our conscience tells us we need to be. or ..more likely…. we imagine that the gospel will fix all those others that we find so annoying because they dont realize that we are the center of the universe.

    instead we need to be honest that the gospel is meaningless and useless in any earthly sense except to god and a troubled conscience.

    And we teach that god here on earth demands us to do love to others. and if we do not he will make us do it and he will give us goodies if we do it.

    we finally teach that there is nothing that God demands of us to do that will make the difference as to whether we go to heaven or hell.

    That this last point is a sticking point for some christians, is evidence that they do not believe, in practice, that we are truly saved by faith+nothing-else-at-all.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    the law is about doing love that makes people feel loved and provides for their creaturely needs. Who would NOT want to feel loved and taken care of by others?

    what our old adam does not like is the idea that this is a fully reciprocal proposition. so we do love as old adam by being made to do it or with the thought that being good has rewards. if we could get love without giving it, we would jump at that as old adams.

    who needs to be sold on that idea? really. what the world needs now is love sweet love. love makes the world go around.

    So we think then that we have to “sell” the gospel by showing that it will “fix” us and make us be the more loving us that our conscience tells us we need to be. or ..more likely…. we imagine that the gospel will fix all those others that we find so annoying because they dont realize that we are the center of the universe.

    instead we need to be honest that the gospel is meaningless and useless in any earthly sense except to god and a troubled conscience.

    And we teach that god here on earth demands us to do love to others. and if we do not he will make us do it and he will give us goodies if we do it.

    we finally teach that there is nothing that God demands of us to do that will make the difference as to whether we go to heaven or hell.

    That this last point is a sticking point for some christians, is evidence that they do not believe, in practice, that we are truly saved by faith+nothing-else-at-all.

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