Gospel and Rhetoric

Gospel and Rhetoric November 7, 2011

A theme that was not developed at length in The King Jesus Gospel, but which could have been, is how gospel rhetoric works. How do we “present” or “explain” or “preach” the gospel? Where do we begin? Do we begin with God as utterly holy and perfect and demanding total perfection to enter into his presence? [By the way, a Reformed theologian told me the other day he doesn’t believe this is taught in the Bible.] Or do we begin with God’s love? Or where do we begin? The issue here is the ordering of rhetoric. How do we order things when we gospel?

I’m convinced that many people today think of the word “gospel” with a kind or presentation of ideas in such a way that a person feels compelled to respond. I’m convinced Jesus, Peter and Paul didn’t order their rhetoric like this. But I’m jumping ahead.

Most understand the gospel to be something like this… God loves us but God is also utterly holy; no one can enter into his presence apart from being made perfectly righteous; until then we are under God’s judgment and wrath; but God, out of love for us, found a way to us by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, who took our place and died on our behalf; he absorbed our punishment; if we but accept Christ and what he did for us, we can escape the judgment of God and find reconciliation with God and spend eternity with God and with God’s people.

Many of us were struck by the need to consider Christ and the gospel when someone “gospeled” us like this. While the “results” or “returns” of preaching this message are not as high as we’d like, I will be the first one to stand up to say that it was a message like this gospel that got my attention more than once as a kid. I’m not convinced the above summary of the gospel would be recognized as the “gospel” by Jesus or the apostles, but my point today is a bit different: it has to do with the rhetorical shape of that summary and the rhetorical shape of the apostolic sermons in Acts. (See the book for details.)

What do you think of the distinction (below) between declarative and persuasive rhetoric? They do overlap a bit, and good gospeling may well have some persuasion, but broadly speaking which term best fits the examples of gospeling in the New Testament?

Most of us don’t pay attention to the rhetoric at work in this traditional approach to gospeling. What I mean is that articulating the “gospel” like this is to shape themes of salvation in a rhetorical order aimed at precipitating a response. The rhetorical shape of the gospel above the jump is aimed at getting an audience into a state of liminality, a state where one feels he or she is between God’s love and God’s justice/wrath and holiness. This may seem a little too clinical for such a serious subject, but hear me out. This kind of gospel rhetoric is aimed at comforting us by knowing that God loves us and at the same time driving us to see that we are outside that love. In other words, it aims to drive people into the liminality of wondering where they are before God. I do not dispute the truth of the propositions above: God is love, God is holy, we are sinners, we are at enmity with God, etc.. Nor do I believe there is anything wrong with speaking to our relation to God.

But this rhetorical bundling into what some call the gospel is designed to be a species of what I am calling persuasive rhetoric, at times (but not always) even emotionally manipulative rhetoric. Sometimes, sadly, it seems aimed at precipitating an intense experience. [I often wonder if the “give them the law” and they will cry out for mercy isn’t a species of this kind of rhetoric.] Trading in the shocking impact of a graphic image, like someone stepping out in front of a train, is emotionally evocative but not sufficient to be called genuine apostolic preaching. One reason so many make decisions and don’t follow through is because the rhetoric was aimed at an insufficient response and appealed to a decision on the basis of an emotional story.

Motivation by fear leads people to something I think I once saw in Augustine: those who respond out of fear of hell are telling us only that they are afraid of fire. That is, such responses rarely stick. Yes, sometimes they stick, and sometimes this kind of rhetoric does get our attention. But this kind of rhetoric can be spiritually damaging because it creates at times the sense that gospel preaching primarily seeks an emotional or psychological response and is designed to create crisis. I know many people who have genuinely responded to the gospel but have never ever had a crisis or an emotional experience, and have often wondered if they are saved because of their lack of such an experience. And I know people who have had emotional experiences as a result of this kind of preaching but who are far from being converted. What’s worse, I’ve had conversations with pastors who’ve told me that they can “manufacture” decisions and they are neither happy about it nor convinced it is gospel preaching.

I am convinced on the basis of the Bible that this rhetorical bundle above is not the apostolic gospel rhetoric, and you can examine the gospel sermons in Acts to see my point (Acts 2, 4, 10-11, 13, 14, 17). I am further convinced that the original apostolic “rhetoric” was declarative in shape instead of this kind of persuasive rhetoric. There is a difference between a rhetoric that is declarative and one that is persuasive. Genuine apostolic preaching, of course, sought in the end to persuade, but that gospeling was not primarily shaped by persuasion; it was primarily a declaration about Jesus, and what God was doing in history through Jesus, that summoned people to respond. The former reshapes the content of what is said so that it is more persuasive.

Some modern evangelism seems obsessed with getting people to admit they are sinners, with Christ thrown in as the means. Apostolic preaching was shaped to guide people to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, knowing the perception of who Jesus was would generate a perception that we are indeed sinners. The difference, so I think, is significant. The first too often creates a salvation culture; the second goes further and creates a gospel culture that incorporates the salvation culture.

Which is to say this: the heart of gospeling for the apostles (and for Jesus but today’s post is not about whether or not Jesus also preached the gospel; he did but more of that some other day) was to announce or to declare or to proclaim a message about Jesus and to trust that message to be sufficient to awaken response. It called people to respond, but it was not shaped to create that response. It was shaped to tell us something compelling about Jesus and they trusted the power of God’s Spirit to awaken people — not that they didn’t also urge people to respond.

Many evangelists don’t trust the message so they resort to rhetorical bundles aimed at precipitating responses, which they can do but which will not very often stick. The music played during an invitation is a tip-off, don’t you think? We need to learn to trust the sheer power and glory of the good news that Jesus himself is, and we need to learn to step back and wait on God to attend and to act and get our own persuasive rhetoric out of the equation.

We are on the threshold of a new kind of evangelism, a kind that is consistent with how Jesus, Peter and Paul “gospeled.”

"Sorry, but you have it backwards:). The lion that John heard in Rev, 5 turned-out ..."

The Lamb is the Lion who ..."
"I won't really describe myself as very knowledgeable on matters of faith but aren't you ..."

Was Paul an Egalitarian?
"Pick a topic and your post will apply perfectly. Your critique of Christianity has some ..."

The Gospel of With Us and ..."
""I have found that since the first century there is the simple gospel that has ..."

The Gospel of With Us and ..."

Browse Our Archives