Who Needs a Savior? [Wright vs. Comfort]December 18, 2011
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. -Matthew 5:21
If you’ve spent any time in evangelical circles, you’ll be familiar with certain guilt-inducing analogies about evangelism. Not telling your neighbor about Jesus is like not throwing a life preserver to a drowning man. Not sharing the gospel with your school chum is like having the cure for cancer and not sharing it with a cancer-stricken friend.
These analogies are bound to make the timid evangelist feel like a cad. I’ve long thought the analogies were unfair. The drowning man knows he needs saving. The cancer patient is keenly aware of his need for a cure. Not so the unsaved friend. The drowning man is not going to swim away from the life preserver and give you the cold shoulder for bothering him about it. But the unsaved friend who isn’t keen on being proselytized might do just that. Christianity was a hard sell because we were trying to convince people of a solution to a problem most people didn’t believe they had.
Several years ago I was introduced to a soap-box preacher who seemed to have a solution to this dilemma. His name was Ray Comfort and he had a sure-fire way of convincing people of their sinfulness before offering Jesus as the solution. If you’ve seen Comfort’s approach, you’ll know that he rarely deviates from it. He runs through the 10 Commandments, asking people if they’ve ever lied, stolen or taken God’s name in vain. He even gets people to admit that they’re murderers and adulterers by employing Christ’s expansive “You have heard it said” definitions in Matthew 5.
Comfort eventually gets his interviewees to admit that they are guilty of breaking God’s law. He then asks whether God will send them to heaven or hell as a consequence of such guilt. People tend to divide down the line on this one. Some say “hell”, though often with a laugh, suggesting that they don’t really believe this to be their fate. Others insist that they will still go to heaven because they aren’t bad people. This is when it gets interesting. Comfort must then persuade these people that they are deserving of eternal torment, often on the basis of their having admitted to little more than telling lies and “looking at a women with lust.”
I can remember, even then, that although I was on Comfort’s side, I felt the weight of the objections. Why exactly were the fires of hell an appropriate punishment for offences that seemed an inescapable part of being human? Comfort’s whole strategy was to confront people with the law so that they would recognize their personal guilt and cry out for a personal savior. Yet few people seemed to walk away from their encounter with Comfort buckling under the weight of condemnation. Probably because he had done little more than demonstrate that they were typical human beings.
I was reminded of Comfort this week while watching N.T. Wright’s recent talks at Moody Bible Institute. Wright spent a good deal of time sketching the framework for a proper narrative understanding of the gospel in its first century Jewish context. Christ “saving his people from their sins,” he maintains, is primarily about Christ’s role as Savior of the Jewish people from exile (i.e. from the consequences of their corporate sin). For the New Testament authors, “salvation” was about God rescuing his people. It meant the restoration of the Jewish nation – indeed, all of creation – and of individuals as part of that corporate restoration.
The interviewer, seemingly concerned about the lack of emphasis on personal salvation, questioned Wright about what he would say to an unbeliever who sought his counsel because of a personal sense of guilt and alienation from God. Wright replied, in part, as follows:
Actually, I have to say, within western post-modernity, most human beings I meet are not walking around saying, “I feel terribly guilty. How can I get rid of this?” That’s simply not the way they’re asking the question. And I don’t believe it is necessarily part of the task of either the apologist or the evangelist first to make them feel a guilt which they didn’t feel and then to show Jesus as the answer to that. It feels like a con trick.
I’m not saying that we go soft on sin – far from it. I’m saying that all people are aware of a major problem at some point. They may blame everyone else for it. They may blame the politicians, the economists, whatever. But to be able to say, “Actually, the whole world is in a mess and we share that messiness, that brokenness, that sinfulness. And God has dealt with the whole cosmic problem and he’s dealt with your problem in the middle of it.”
We’ve got to do both. And I have a sense that people … there’s a sort of sigh of relief when they realize that the church isn’t just interested in them as an individual, as maybe another scalp to be yanked in. But actually that we in the church are concerned with the whole creation, the whole world, with, to be sure, every single last human being as part of that…
I wonder if Ray Comfort would meet with more success if, instead of trying to persuade people of a personal guilt problem, he sought first to persuade them of a corporate guilt problem. I wonder if my neighbors’ consciences aren’t more attuned to the world’s need for a savior than to their own need for a savior.
I’m increasingly persuaded that the evangelical emphasis on embracing Jesus as a “personal Lord and Savior” represents an impoverished understanding of the kind of savior Christ was meant to be.
Perhaps spreading the euangelion (good news) is not so much about throwing life preservers to individuals who have fallen overboard as it is about enlisting our fellow deckhands into the captain’s plan for righting our listing ship.
[Click here to watch the 4 sessions from Wright’s visit to Moody. The above quotation is from the final video.]