Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Personal counseling on a group scale. . .
J. Gresham Machen, who published both The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930) and his programmatic Christianity and Liberalism (1923), was not unaware of Fosdick and was not without question to the Christianity of Fosdick's preaching and teaching. “The question is not,” Machen asked, “whether Mr. Fosdick is winning men, but whether the thing to which he is winning them is Christianity.” Machen would not be without preachers to apply his words today, that is sure. For while many are enamored of numbers, the content and faithfulness of what happens among the many popular preachers of American evangelicalism remains questionable, to say the least.
Therapeutic preaching stands in need of a therapeutic gospel and, if one cannot find it catholic tradition, it is certainly possible to cherry pick passages to come up with such a gospel and to name it Christian even if it is not. We live in an individualistic age when Christianity and its message is both defined and judged one mind or heart at a time. Lacking doctrinal integrity and consensus, the only thing left is a therapeutic gospel that appeals to felt need and promises to help us achieve our desires. Those who are good at this are good at filling stadium size churches but the people who sit in the seats are wedded less to Christianity than to their wants, needs, and desires and they will follow whatever voice best addresses them. It is also clear that the categories of Scripture are generally absent from the proclamation of these popular preachers -- sin, death, repentance, atonement, redemption, eternal life, and holiness. In their place, these personal counselors on a group scale address our happiness and how to achieve it, our relationships and how to make them good (at least we might define good), our jobs and how to get ahead, and our lives and how to make them rich and full.
Fosdick may have been early or even a very successful preacher of this therapeutic gospel but he was not the first and he will not be the last. Yet it remains to be seen if the ability of some to pack them in is used to convey anything of the classic Christian kerygma. Jesus has become a self-help guru to enable us to cash in the promises of a new, better, and happier life. For this we will gladly suffer death at an acceptable time (as long as we have achieved our dreams and have many happy memories of the journey). We seek redemption less than we seek affirmation, hope for success more than hope for rebirth. So it is a struggle to preach the Gospel of Christ crucified in a world intent upon what H. Richard Niebuhr described as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Machen would remind us. The judgment of God lies not in how many we could pack in but whether or not Christ was preached faithfully to them so that the Spirit might impart true faith.
The Church has been tempted by the therapeutic and by the philanthropic and by a dozen more isms that men have invented in place of the Cross but we are called and set apart for the one purpose of being witnesses to Christ whose death gives us life and whose life death cannot overcome. In Him alone is forgiveness for the sinner and a righteousness to wear that we did not earn. In the end, if you are not a sinner in need of forgiveness, the unclean in need of righteousness, and the dead in need of life, Jesus holds little for you. He will not pat you on the back but neither will He coddle you to hell.