Over the past few months, I’ve encountered many instances of what I’d like to call “relationship-driven Christianity.” That is, the belief that Christianity is a relationship not only between us and Christ, but ourselves and others. Therefore, the correct way to spread the gospel is to form relationships with others over a period of time, giving them encouragement and essentially “enticing” them into a life with Christ. You don’t have to present the Law to them, or convict them of their sins; simply show them that a God-loving community makes one feel loved, and therefore they will hopefully join in. In fact, any attempt to use the Law is seen as harsh, and those who do open-air evangelism are often mocked by those who prefer the relationship-driven approach.
Before I continue, it might be best if I elaborate on what this line of thinking does not get wrong. Part of the Christian lifestyle is indeed a relationship not only between believer and Savior but fellow believers. A person who hates his brother cannot sincerely love His God, just as the beloved apostle John wrote: “the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). It is likewise not a bad thing for a believer to become friends with an unbeliever, but it should be emphasized that this is done along with the evangelism.
Where this mindset conflicts, then, is that it takes an addition to evangelism, makes it the sole methodology of evangelism, and essentially falls into the trap of being seeker-sensitive. I’ve heard those who follow this relationship-driven mentality say that the Law offends, and therefore you cannot win anyone honestly with it. Therefore, one essentially skips Law and runs to Grace, displaying the affects of it by example and inviting others to join in. Christianity essentially becomes a better way of life, no different than a vegan diet or a therapeutic medicine.
The greatest fault in this mindset is that part which says the preaching of the Law offends – to this I answer: of course it does. By the Gospel’s very nature, it offends. As the apostle Paul wrote: “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18). Part of the Gospel message is that mankind is in need of God, for “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). All are under Law, and the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that the Christian has been given the righteousness of God apart from the Law (cf. Rom 3:21). However, how can a perishing individual come to know this unless they are first taught the truth of the matter? Without the Law, one cannot know sin. This is why the apostle Paul likewise wrote, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law” (Rom 7:7). This is where, having realized the depths of our sin, we come to know Grace: “what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:3).
Those who would propose skipping the Law and running to Grace seem to forget that, as we’ve seen here, the two go hand in hand. The Law might be “bad news,” but it is necessary to show just how good the “good news” truly is. Those who think we should simply skip the bad news seem to forget that in the epistle to the Romans – one of the greatest expositions of salvation – Paul spends three-and-a-half chapters of bad news before finally getting to the good news.
Those who would likewise propose a relationship-driven evangelism seem to forget that there is no scriptural model for this. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles was not followed by the apostles slowly making relationships with various people in Jerusalem; instead, they preached to those gathered there and told them to repent (Acts 2:38). Paul, traveling throughout Asia Minor, often began ministry in a town by going to the nearest synagogue and opening debate with those who were inside. Likewise, the first act of Paul upon entering Athens was to invite everyone to the Areopagus, say their beliefs were wrong, and tell them to repent (this often doesn’t get covered because, as we’ve seen, Acts 17:22-23 gets quoted in isolation).
Personally, I believe much of this comes because of the condition of health and lifestyles in the western world. That is, the average person in the western world lives to about 80-years of age, and unless you die in a car crash or some other unforeseen accident, death doesn’t become an immediate concern until much later on in life. Is it any wonder, then, that we think we can slowly convert people with relationships, since in our own minds we believe we have all the time in the world? There is no sense of urgency because our lives, as a whole, do not feel urgent.
In the olden days, things were far, far different. Up until perhaps 150 years ago, there was a very good chance you would die of one reason or another. It was very rare for a person to die of natural causes after a long life. Certainly many great theologians passed away due to reasons beyond old age: John Calvin burst a blood vessel in his lungs from which he died a slow death, and Jonathan Edwards died of an infection from inoculation. The common man was simply prone to death. During the Black Death, one out of three people in Europe died, so that even those who were left alive had a sense of what it meant to be mortal. Man’s temporal nature was ingrained on the minds of those who had eyes to see.
Is it any wonder, then, that some of the most fiery preachers to ever live come from this time period? John Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards…all preaching to the common man as if they were soldiers about to go off into battle and may not be alive come dusk. They understood full well that life was not eternal, and that God’s judgment should always be on one’s mind. Edwards, in fact, took the funeral of one of his daughters as a chance not to talk about how sweet her temporal life had been, but as a chance to remind the community that death could come at any moment, and after death we will have to stand before our Lord and Creator. These great Christian men would be shocked to hear the current mode of evangelism in many western churches, which seems to instead preach: “Form a relationship with a person first, share the Gospel later.”
The other major issue that may be causing this is the decreased understanding of just what that judgment will entail: that is, those who reject Christ will in turn be rejected by Him (Matt 10:33). While I fully believe that Christ knows His sheep (John 10:14) and His sheep cannot be lost (John 10:28), how would it seem to our conscience if we meet a person who does not know Christ, forgo the Gospel out of fear of offending, and then later that day the person were to die by some unforeseen circumstance? How would we be able to stand before the Almighty God and confess that we were too ashamed of His words (cf. Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26) to share the good news of eternal salvation with an individual? How can we, like the slave who hid the mina and did not invest in it (Luke 19:11-27), hide this salvation given to us as a gift from our Lord and meant to be shared with others?
The fact is, we are taught to preach and evangelize to others, and part of sharing the Gospel is sharing the Law and the condemnation which all mankind finds itself under (Rom 3:9). Many will be offended, but the pleasure of man should not be in the forefront of our thinking. Our priority is to spread and nurture the seed; God will cause the growth (1 Cor 3:6). We are to become the instrument by which the Good Shepherd calls out to His sheep, and His sheep will hear His voice and follow (John 10:3). We should treat every encounter as a chance to preach, and treat every instance with a person as if we will never see them again, and this is our one opportunity to let them know about the glory and majesty of God. Amen.