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.]


  1. Fantastic post! Right on target. Got my heart beating a bit!

    I have got to watch those Wright sessions. Never have I wished more to be back at Moody.

    • Thanks Jeremy. Yes, definitely spend the time to watch those sessions. Few people can so beautifully articulate the Christian hope like Wright.

  2. Wright touches upon an important point — anyone trying to spread Christianity (or any other message) needs to understand their target audience. It’s marketing 101. A pet peeve I have with Christian apologetics and proselytizers is that too often, they have no concept of how their target audience thinks.

  3. […] Massey pits Ray Comfort and N.T. Wright against each other about evangelism. Really […]

  4. Love the last line – a really strong analogy. Definitely going to borrow that!

  5. Good thoughts.

    Here, where I am from, it is quite interesting to observe how evangelicals evangelize when the the majority of citizens are just that…evangelicals. There is a certain sense of frustration amongst them as they tither too and fro. They are constantly on the look out for the men/women overboard, those of whom they may “save”. When there is no one one overboard they tend to look amongst themselves and wonder…”Are my shipmates really saved?” “Would they be doing such things if they were?”. What has happened, more often then I would like to recall, is the thrusting of sailors overboard into the waters in hopes that the shipmates aboard might save the “lost” once more.

    The desire to convert others to ones own beliefs is quite an interesting thought and a sociological conundrum. What happens when one attains there goal? It is all fine and dandy when one, two or even three are converted, but what if everyone was? Being a firsthand witness to this type of situation, I have observed the classic problem of pursuing something so wholeheartedly that once one has attained that of which was pursued, one is not content, but rather, there comes the realization that that which they have desired all along, was exactly that of the pursuit.

    The Coyote finally getting that damn RoadRunner


    • Philip, I liked the throwing fellow sailors overboard part. Is the tendency among Christians to doubt each other’s salvation tied to frustrations about the ineffectiveness of their witness to the outside world? I’d never made that link before, but it’s a point worth pondering.

  6. Great stuff. I have to ask myself, who is being true to the Biblical narrative? To my mind it is NT Wright. And that obviously means that the traditional evangelical approach as epitomised by Comfort is actually a distortion, maybe even a false teaching.

    Oh dear, if I think that I must be someone who’s “unsaved”…

  7. […] This blog was not posted this week, but I found it this week.  Franky, the name of the blog Cognitive Discopants alone makes it worth checking out, but in this post Cognitive Discopants explains why there is such a big difference between Moody Bible Institute and NT Wright on salvation and forgiveness of sin. […]

  8. Reblogged this on Global Theology and commented:
    Some thoughts on the role of guilt in evangelism, especially in postmodern context, via lectures by NT Wright at Moody Bible Institute.

  9. “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.”


    I have been concerned about Comfort and his approach for a while, but it of course makes sense that it emerges from – and is an extent of – a hyper-individualistic approach. It’s like a modern day Billy Sunday, “Now go out and get hit by a bus so you can go see Jesus.”

  10. Comfort’s approach depends on layers of logical fallacy to produce an emotional reaction. Unfortunately, the verses he chooses to use also contain layers of fallacy and interpretation. I don’t know how Christianity can escape this one. Ray’s just agressive about it.

  11. FIrst time ive heard a Christian openly admit just what a strange paradox such gospel presentation is in the modern world.

  12. Fascinating.

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