“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'" Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."” (Matthew 3:1-12)
We are living is a day of robust evangelistic zeal combined with little evangelistic know-how. Just consider the well-meaning but fallacious website 1-888-NEED-HIM. The visitor to the site is asked “Why Am I Here?”, “How Do I Beat This Loneliness?”, “What Makes My Life So Hard?” and “Where is That One Special Relationship?” The answer presented to these questions is, of course, Jesus Christ. However, there is an important element missing from this gospel presentation: a presentation of the gospel.
Promising a Jesus who died on the cross to free us from all of our temporal problems is a tantamount to selling a false bill of goods. There is nothing in the Bible that guarantees a life that isn’t hard. In fact, Jesus warned that "…In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33). While the gospel cannot be set into a simple formula, it must be pointed out that the true gospel message, like the one John the Baptist preached, consists of the following essential elements.
1.) Man’s Sinfulness.
John the Baptist’s message was one that was universal, because it dealt with a universal problem: SIN. John didn’t just preach a message of warm fuzzy promises to the “lonely” or to those who had a hard life. He wasn’t concerned with whether or not the people in his audience had found “that one special relationship”. He did not promise his listeners a better earthly life, or encourage pop-psychological remedies for their temporal problems. He dealt with the issue of man’s sinfulness, preaching to “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region” (Matthew 3:5-6), the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7), and even King Herod (Mark 6:8), using the law to expose their sinfulness. He was not concerned with removing the sinner’s feelings of guilt, but instead poured it on. “You brood of vipers!” he warned (Matthew 3:7). (That’s not being very sensitive to the needs of sinners for comfort, is it?) This was a message for the lonely as well as the popular, the rich as well as the poor, and the prince as well as the pauper. (See Galatians 3:28). If we haven’t made the sinner aware of his sinfulness, we have not evangelized.
2.) God’s Judgment.
John’s presentation of the Good News did not shy away from the bad news. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7). The modern consensus is that “love” is a better starting point for the gospel than wrath, yet John makes no mention of God’s love. In fact, not one apostle used the love of God as a tool for evangelism. God’s love in the Bible is presented only to converts, never to the unsaved. Solomon tells us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” (Proverbs 9:10). It was for this reason that Paul, the greatest human evangelist who ever lived, shares his method for converting sinners. “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others…” (2 Corinthians 5:11). While I don’t necessarily promote all out “hellfire and brimstone” preaching, the modern church could certainly use some of that. If we haven’t brought the unsaved sinner to the knowledge of the Doctrine of Eternal Hell, we have not evangelized. The Good News is only good in light of the bad news.
3.) A Call to Repentance.
The term “repent” is fast becoming obsolete in the church of today, as we seek more modern “methods” of evangelism. Notice that John the Baptist did not ask anyone to raise their hands, nor did he close his message with an altar call. He did not ask anyone to repeat a prayer, nor did he persuade any of his listeners to “make decisions for Christ”. He did not try to build anyone’s “self-esteem” or encourage them to deal with their “emotional health”. His request was simple. “Repent… Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:2, 8). He knew that the Holy Spirit, working in the life on an unbeliever, would cause them to be painfully aware of their wickedness and their hopelessness without a Savior. They would become as Job, who said “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6). After all, what was the purpose of Christ but to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32)? If we haven’t called sinners to repent of their sin, we have not evangelized.
4.) A Promise of the Kingdom.
While it is extremely important to let the sinner know what he is being saved from, John also made it clear what they were being saved to. “…the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). John didn’t promise his listeners a better earthly existence. He did not tell them that their finances and relationships would improve. John was fixed on eternity. He was in agreement with Paul, who considered “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). It’s not that the Bible is devoid of earthly blessings, but that these are irrelevant to the Gospel message. The true gospel message deals with escape from eternity in Hell in order to obtain an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of Heaven. All else is in inconsequential in comparison, and any earthly blessings that God gives to His children are “icing on the cake”.
5.) A Confidence in the Message Itself.
Because John was sound in his theology, he was able to preach the true gospel message and then leave the results to God. John was not concerned with “church growth”. The fact is that most of the people he preached to did not convert, but these perceived “failures” did not cause John to seek better “techniques”. Very few of the Judaists came to Christ. An even smaller percentage of the Pharisees did. King Herod most certainly did not. In any case, John’s message was consistent, because he was confident that God’s Word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11). John did not try to make the message "more relevant". He did not have to attend seminars because he church didn’t grow enough. He didn’t seek out new-fangled evangelistic methods because the Pharisees rejected his message. He simply accepted the fact that “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9).
Of course, the central element of the true gospel is the work of Christ (Matthew 3:11-12). It is this type of gospel presentation that can give the modern church a much needed revival. Let us pray for revival, as well as an attention to sound doctrine and expository Bible preaching that can bring it about.