Category Archives: the Gospel
Are First Nations people human beings or not? Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear. In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question. On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop. Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church. On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar. Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved. It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.
There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others. In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews. God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles. Think of Jonah. Think of his attitude to Nineveh.
But what about us? Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for? In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations. It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away. But what about closer to home? How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday? Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues. What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people? Would we eagerly welcome them?
What would our Master do? To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Her daughter had an unclean spirit. She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet. She begs for healing for her daughter.
Jesus gives her a curious answer. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The comparison is implied: the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles. The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry. At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.
However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it. He wants her to make a good response so he can help her. The woman has to justify her request. She has to demonstrate her faith. How desperate is she? More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?
Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him. She acknowledges her low status. She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie? I’m in agreement with that. I’m not a child in your house. I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps. Can I please have some of the scraps?” She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption. But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles. She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her. He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon. Jesus does. He commends her faith and heals her daughter.
Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies. But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family. We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance. We become everything human beings were created to be. We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace. If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture. God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them. It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9. He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her. It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.
My policy has usually been to preach anywhere if given the opportunity. Why wouldn’t you bring the gospel anywhere you can? Still, I’m not sure if I would have accepted the invitation to preach at this church if I’d known ahead of time what kind of church it was. I do have some limits. But there I was and God made it work out in a surprising, almost funny, way.
It was 2008. The church I was serving in Canada had a couple of members who were working at an orphanage in Mexico. The elders had me go down there for a visit to see how these members were doing and provide some teaching/encouragement. Also, a neighbouring congregation was interested in doing mission work in Mexico and they asked to scout out this particular city for opportunities to do Reformed church-planting. This wasn’t going to be a holiday at the beach – the city in question is in the dead-centre of Mexico, about as far away from a beach as you can possibly get.
Before leaving, I’d been told by one of the members that I might have the opportunity to preach at a church or two in Mexico. So I made sure that I took some sermon notes with me – just in case. Pastors often have their favourite sermons – we call them “sugar sticks.” Without thinking much about it, I just took one of my sugar sticks with me.
Towards the end of my stay in Mexico, sure enough, I was invited to preach at a church. It was just a small congregation located in one of the poorest suburbs of this city. As we pulled up to the building, it was hard to tell that it was even a church building. Actually, it wasn’t. It was just someone’s house and the church worshipped in a room at the back. The “house” was just a rough brick structure. By the time we arrived, the sun had gone down and a few electric light bulbs dimly lit the space. In the worship space, the walls were painted a gaudy pink and a large yellow poster dominated the front wall. At the center of the poster was a cross with the word “Cristo” running across the horizontal beam. At this point, I thought this was just your run-of-the-mill Mexican evangelical church.
After everyone was seated in the white plastic chairs, the pastor took his place behind the pulpit. Actually, if memory serves me correctly, he was the junior pastor, the son of the senior pastor. The pulpit was just a little lectern sitting on top of a table with a pink and yellow table-cloth (nicely matching the walls). That evening, the gringo contingent was not only me, but also a group from Manitoba volunteering at the orphanage. To ensure that all of us could understand, there was a translator who could do both Spanish-English and vice-versa. She’d also translate my preaching into Spanish.
The service started off with some singing in Spanish. There was no band, no musical instruments at all, so the singing was done a cappella. That’s how you know this was a super-poor church. After the singing, the pastor started speaking. Through the translator, we found out that there was about to be a collection. This is where it became obvious. The pastor said something like, “Do you want to know why you’re poor? Do you want to know why you live in this neighbourhood and we have to worship like this? It’s because you don’t have enough faith. You have to sow the seed of faith. You can do that now with the offering. If you give five pesos, God will give you ten pesos. If you give fifty pesos, God will give you one hundred pesos. You have to give in faith and then God will reward you.” Then I knew what kind of church this was. Even though it was in a poor neighbourhood, this was a prosperity-gospel church.
What is the prosperity-gospel? Though it started in the United States, it’s a global phenomenon. I’ve encountered it everywhere. It’s most well-known representatives are people like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland. They teach that the good news of the Bible is that God wants to make us prosper here on this earth. They teach that Jesus Christ is all about our prosperity here and now. If you suffer, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. If you trust God enough, you can name whatever blessing you want, and he’ll give it to you. This is a total perversion of the biblical gospel.
And there I was in a prosperity-gospel church in Mexico. The offering concluded and then Pastor Wes from Canada was invited to come up and share his message. I hadn’t planned on what I’d preach. I didn’t select the message ahead of time thinking that this would be appropriate for this particular church. But there I was and I asked everyone to open their Bibles to the text for my sermon: Psalm 73.
Psalm 73 has Asaph in a bind. He sees a problem that confounds him: the wicked prosper, while the righteous believer suffers. He can’t make sense of it and it threatens to undo his faith. After finally coming to the temple and seeing the sacrificial system in action with all its blood and death, he’s reminded that the wages of sin is ultimately death. The wicked may prosper here, the righteous may suffer, but God is just. The suffering believer can trust in him. You can read my sermon notes on this passage here.
Well, as you can imagine, afterwards the pastor wasn’t just a little awkward with me. He tried to be gracious, but my sermon had undermined what he said before the offering. I didn’t have to mention the prosperity-gospel. I didn’t have to mention the pastor’s error. I didn’t plan on that ahead of time and I didn’t. I just preached what I’d prepared and God’s Word spoke for itself. There’s a lovely word that describes what happened: serendipity. It was pure serendipity. Often that word is used for a “pleasant chance happening.” But this wasn’t by chance! God had it all marvelously planned out ahead of time.
Now I wish I could end the story by telling you that my sermon was the turning point for this little church being led down the garden path. Truth is, I don’t know. I often think about those poor people in that church. They weren’t just physically poor — they were getting stones for bread from their pastors. I pray that they heard something different from the Bible that night that made them think. Maybe the pastor had second thoughts too. Two things I know for sure: first, God is providentially in control of all things; second, if change is ever going to happen with people deceived by the prosperity “gospel,” it’ll happen through the Word of God.
Most of us would not be surprised that Roman Catholicism denies Solus Christus. However, you may be surprised to learn there are Protestants who also deny it. I found this out first-hand on a visit to Hobart, the Tasmanian state capital. My wife and I went to take in the famous Salamanca Market. We went our separate ways for a little while and I ended up in St. David’s Park next to the market.
I was reading a plaque on a statue in the center of this lovely park when a man suddenly approached me. He said, “Excuse me, I was wondering if you had met my friend. His name is Jesus.” I was a bit taken by surprise. Nevertheless, I was only too happy to tell him Jesus was my friend too and I know him well. I said, “Oh, sure, of course I know Jesus. He’s my Saviour. He’s my only hope for eternal life. Everything I need before God I have in Jesus Christ.” Now I thought this would have met with a good reaction from the stranger. I thought he would shake my hand and realize he did not have to share the gospel with me and go on to someone else. But it did not turn out like that.
You see, he then asked me, “So do you speak in tongues and have other spiritual gifts?” I replied, “No, I don’t speak in tongues, but I have something far better.” “What’s that?” he asked. I said, “I have the Bible, 66 books, a complete revelation from God. I don’t need speaking in tongues when I have the Bible.” Then he sniffed, “Well, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t speak in tongues. You’re not going to heaven.” That is the first time anyone has ever told me that!
We entered into an intense discussion there in the park. Eventually, the first man brought his co-religionists into the discussion because he was having a hard time answering my questions. I asked them directly what the basis was for their believing they were saved and going to heaven. It was Jesus plus the fact they had spiritual gifts and spoke in tongues. It was math all over again: Jesus plus. I asked them if they had ever heard about the Reformation. No, they did not know anything about that. So I told them how the Roman Catholic Church had added to the work of Jesus. The Reformation was about getting back to Christ alone as our Saviour and Mediator. It was about that because that is what the Bible teaches. I gave them a couple of examples. But, no, they were insistent that it had to be Jesus plus speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts. If you did not speak in tongues, you were not going to heaven. Eventually they gave up and walked away. As they walked away, they reminded me once more that I was lost. According to them, I was lost because I held to Jesus Christ alone as my Saviour. As I went my way back to find my wife, I was incredulous about what I had just heard.
Who were these people? They were part of an extreme Pentecostal church. They are not alone. This type of Pentecostalism can be found all over the world. It was my first time encountering it in person, but I have heard about it before.
Please do not misunderstand. This is not true of all Pentecostals. I have met many Pentecostals over the years who clearly confess salvation is in Jesus Christ alone. They would say the only basis for their hope of heaven is the Saviour. They would say that their only way of being heard by God when they pray is through Christ. While they are wrong on other points, we can rejoice that many Pentecostals are not denying Solus Christus. Yet there are these extreme Pentecostals who do. If you encounter them, what do you say? How do you respond?
If there is one thing I noticed in that encounter, it was that these people did not know their Bibles very well. They had a few Bible verses at hand to promote their view. But they did not have much depth in their Bible knowledge. If we are going to interact with such people, we need to know our Bibles. We need to be able to point out what Scripture says, especially on important doctrines like Christ alone. But just as with our Roman Catholic neighbours, we have to encourage extreme Pentecostals to begin reading the Bible for themselves. I have several friends who were once Pentecostal pastors and some of them were on the extreme side of Pentecostalism. God graciously brought them to the Reformed faith. I asked them how they got away from it. The answer always has to do with the Word. Somehow God uses the Bible to get people free of these wrong ideas where Christ is not central and exclusive. It bears repeating: the only way Reformation happens is through the Word of God being proclaimed, read, and studied. We have to call people back to the Scriptures where Christ stands alone as the Saviour.
(an excerpt from chapter 2 of my book Solus Christus, available here)