A Response to Paul Copan on Bad News Evangelism-Part 1

While on Facebook the other day, I caught an article posted by Dr. Michael Patton. For those who don't know, he is the founder and main teacher of a great program called The Theology Program (My church is currently going through it). Dr. Patton also has a very popular blog called Parchment and Pen that is worth visiting. However, a recent article he posted there by Dr. Paul Copan has left a lot of us confused. My response will begin here and continue tomorrow in another post. Ill start by saying that it deals with the use of bad news in evangelism. I'd like to quote him in full so there's no mistake:

We’ve seen them in all manner of places—on street corners, in parking lots, at craft fairs, outside stadiums. Sometimes they’re on wearing placards, admonishing hearers to “turn or burn.” Or perhaps they’re warning America of coming judgment and doom. Others may prefer challenging individual “sinners” on the street, exposing them to their failure to live up to the Ten Commandments. A common justification from those “witnessing” is: “You need to tell people the bad news before they can listen to the good news.” After all, isn’t the Law a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24)? Isn’t this the reality of Romans 1-3?

I first want to point out that there seems to be a lumping together of people who legitimately use the law and judgment in their gospel presentation, and those who just preach hellfire and brimstone and are devoid of the gospel. We're already starting on a bad foot. But the difficulties continue. He goes on to say
I’m not denying hell, judgment, sin, or the need for repentance. Jesus saved his harshest message of judgment for the hard-hearted religious leaders of his day (e.g., Matthew 23), and he called on his hearers to turn/repent and align themselves with God’s kingdom agenda.
That said, Jesus had the strong reputation of being a “friend of sinners.” He reached out to the “unlikelies” of his day—those who, according to the religious authorities, were unlikely recipients of God’s kingdom blessings: tax gatherers, prostitutes, Gentiles, lepers, the ceremonially unclean, the demonized. Jesus let them know that God hadn’t forgotten them, that God was interested in them.
I think I know what he's saying. And I agree. We should not be afraid to speak to all sorts of people or be their friends. I know many wonderful Christians who have no problems with having friends and family who are gay, goths, geeks, etc... However Mr.Copan is mistaking the method for the message. We should make friends as a means to earn the right to be heard. Even the Apostle Paul told us to be wise as to how we treated unbelievers.But does that mean we leave out the bad news of the gospel? A point I'll come back to.

How many of those preaching divine judgment in our day do so with tears in their eyes (Philippians 3:18)? How many of them have the reputation of being “friends of sinners”? How many of them truly follow in the way of the Master? It’s a lot easier to preach a message of judgment than to exemplify Jesus, who actually got involved in the lives of others. ....Unfortunately, many of the law-first-grace-later messengers don’t exude a friend-of-sinners demeanor.

For a someone who has written a good book on apologetics (True For You But Not For Me) with lots of evidences, I see little evidence of what he's talking about. Mentioning the "way of the Master" I can tell who he means: Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. All I can say is that I have met them both and they practice what they preach. And they do it with comedy and courtesy. During a visit to their headquarters in Belflower, my brother and I happen to run into them. They kept us both is laughs and some great conversation. Right as we were getting ready to leave, someone from the power company came to look at their power box. Ray shook his hand, offered him a drink, and as they went looking for it, the last thing we heard was him say, "So let me ask you a question..." He later returned and said he was able to talk to him a little. No pushy attitude, no dour faces, no hellfire. There may be people (which I'v already highlighted) that may be graceless, but Copan barking up the wrong tree by hinting that about Ray and Kirk. I would also like to add, that when preaching the gospel, it isn't about tears, it isn't about laughs, it's about clarity and earnestness. Paul writes:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 2 Corinthians 5:10-11 (NIV)

He says "Unfortunately, many of the law-first-grace-later messengers don’t exude a friend-of-sinners demeanor." I will develop this idea later, but for now all I can say is that it is possible to lovingly start with God's law and sin and point people to the Savior. Whether you just met this person, or if they are a life long family member or friend. He continues:
It seems that we should be careful about a formulaic method of communicating the good news. After all, helping people connect with Christ is more a process than it is an event. This process includes friendship, the integrity of Christian character, a loving community, and time process the implications of Christ’s Lordship. (See Greg Boyd’sLetters from a Skeptic [Victor] that nicely illustrates the process—even if you or I may not agree with all of Boyd’s arguments.)
Again, I think he's mistaking the message for the method. And I think he's mistaking discipleship with the proclamation of the gospel. Having said that, there is a move in some circles, that before people believe, they belong. I'm not entirely opposed to that ideas (something for another blog). John Piper has called it "conceptualization" as differentiated from "contexualization". Some people may be interested and may need a lot of time with Christians to learn and connect. But again, to say that a bad news first MESSAGE is opposed to a friendship METHOD, misses the mark. My other concern is that he quotes Greg Boyd. He is a proponent of an open view of God and not exactly the person I would have picked. Indeed, I would have much more preferred him mentioning Evangelism Explosion, which has added friendship as a component of their evangelistic method.

This is where Dr. Copan starts talking about a few considerations involving evangelism and a bad news first message.

1. People will at some point need to be aware of the bad news, but are we the ones who have to bring this up?

He mentions that those who use a bad news first message (BNFM) can come off like storm troopers. Again, he brings up taking consideration for unbelievers and bad past church experiences. I agree, and it is for this reason that we should be wise in how we speak to others. However, I will say this again and again: he's confusing method for message.
I am also surprised that he then goes on to quote Blue Like Jazz and an example the author had with a radio station. He was asked to defend Christianity. Instead he wants to point the person to Christ. I have no problem with that. Greg Koukle of Stand to Reason has a great article on pointing people to Jesus. But remember, Jesus will always cause controversy. No matter how nice you are. I also take issue with something he says about 1 Peter 3. He writes:
Yet in 1 Peter 3, Peter exhorts wives of unbelieving husbands to focus on the way they live their lives—quietly, gently, virtuously—so that their husbands may be won without a word even though they didn’t believe the word of God (3:1). A virtuous life is a very attractive thing, and such a life may create a spiritual and moral longing in those previously disinterested in Christ—and this without a single word about anything, let alone sin!

Let me quote the verse he is talking about. 1 Peter 3:1-2 says:
1Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2when they see your respectful and pure conduct. (Emphasis mine)
I think Dr. Copan is assuming that the husband in this example hasn't heard the Word and doesn't need to either. If anything, the fact that it says he doesn't BELIEVE the Word, probably means that he heard it and rejected it. Again, Dr. Copan has confused method with message. The wife may have given the message at one point, and now is showing through her testimony, that is, what it looks like.

2, I have met plenty of “the encountered” who report that those “witnessing” about the bad-news-first commonly come across sounding judgmental, legalistic, and morally-superior, arrogant, and so on.
Yes, rebels against God love darkness rather than light. But our focal point ought not be a guilt-finding mission. Our consciously taking on Paul’s chief-of-sinners title would go a long way in building bridges.

I have to admit that some people in their zeal without knowledge, can leave add to the sting of the gospel with bad manners, or a bad approach. We must develop a posture of humble boldness. But again, this is advice we can give to anyone, not just singling out one group and making it apply especially to them.

3. Like the prodigal son, most people already know they carry shame or guilt and are looking for relief, hope, acceptance, and friendship.

But what they ultimately need is the gospel. Again, I think he's mistaken the message for the method. And I do hope that those of use who use some sort of BNFM will have hearing ears and loving, giving hearts. But that can't change the message we proclaim.
As an additional point to this, Dr. Copan again missuses scripture. He quotes Romans 2:4. It states that" the kindness of God that leads to repentance". (Emphasis his) But again, I think we need to look at what the text is really saying.
1Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (Emphasis mine)
In context, we see that this verse means that people who think they're getting away just fine while judging others are in grave trouble. God's kindness to them (the air they breathe, the people they love, the food they eat) and God's patience (the fact he hasn't brought judgement on them is something to worry about. As a matter of fact, Paul uses this as a starting point in his gospel proclamation. In Acts 14:15-18 we see
15"Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness." 18Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. (emphasis mine)

The longer you take advantage of these things, the more wrath is being stored up. I think Dr. Copan has taken Romans 2:4 out of context and it shows gravely. He quotes Rodney Star as saying
“Hell fire-and-brimstone sermons to the contrary, people respond far more strongly religiously to a carrot than to a stick. This has long been recognized by missionaries.”
Again, Dr. Copan has lumped together a BNFM with hell-fire-and-brimstone preaching. He's painting a caricature, but not giving people like Comfort and many in the Reformed camp like him, a fair shake.

4. Certain contemporary evangelistic methods in America would be deemed culturally insensitive in non-American contexts.

This may be a somewhat legitimate complaint against a BNFM, but we do live in the American West. He mentions talking in terms of honor, power and shame to those from other cultures. I can understand that, but Paul lived in such a culture, and he had no problem mentioning sin, and man's responsibility to God. (Something I will mention at the end). For now, I will again note that we need contexualization and conceptualization. But that may change certain emphasis, but not the overall message.

5. How many of us came to trust in Christ because a stranger told us that we were sinners? Or did we come through friends or relatives who modeled an attractive, redeemed Christian life?

Again, this is confusing method and message. Dr. Copan is assuming that a winning testimony and BNFM are mutually exclusive. I've already dealt with that, so let's move on.

6 and 7 The idea that “this may be the non-Christian’s only chance to hear the gospel and she may not hear it again” often turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy...the “what if the person dies tomorrow?” question raises issues about our own view of God’s sovereignty

I think this these two concerns are something most people who take evangelism seriously face, so why only mention this as if this is a problem for people who use BNFM? He writes:
Sometimes well-meaning Christians tend to take the entire burden of another’s salvation upon their shoulders and fail to trust in a sovereign God who may use us to be a stepping stone in another’s life. In John 4, Jesus reminded his disciples that they were “reaping,” thanks to the faithful labors of others who had gone before them.
He may be right, that some of us forget where our part ends, and God's part starts. But again, is that a legitimate critique of BNFM users or of anyone who takes evangelism seriously? Indeed God does work sovereignly in many ways. I'm friends with a missionary couple in Taiwan. Before they left, they worked in a restaurant. One of their friend there was an outspoken Christian. One night, he was witnessing to one of their co-workers. As their conversation ended, the man said that if he died that night, he knew he was going to heaven. That night, as he drove through an icy Iowa street, his car sled and crashed killing him instantly. Needless to say, having those be the last words to his co-worker heard must have spoken powerfully. God's sovereignty does work mysteriously. So I hope we do wisely use every chance we get. It may be OUR last! He also writes:
Those touched by Jesus knew that he first was genuinely interested in them. Perhaps that friend-of-sinners approach has something going for it! The confrontational method diminishes the listening and unfolding process involved in evangelism. The gospel should be expressed in a holistic and relational manner. Otherwise it more often than not appears to be a judgmental sales pitch. (emphasis his)
Again he has mistaken the method for the message. And this is where I will finally respond to this. I have said that it is possible to be relational and yet to use a BNFM at the same time. I will illustrate this with two examples. If you want to read the whole story feel free to visit another blog where I talked about this. (HERE)

Recently, my pastor and I went to a local university campus to give away food while talking to students. One of the students just so happen to share a similar up bringing as me. As we talked, I was able to open my Bible and talk to him about God, Sin, and Christ. I even got to use the 10 Commandments and used something Dr. Copan mentions, talking about sin as slavery. While explaining these things to the guy I was talking to, I was able to relationally (talking while asking questions, not shouting) kindly (free burger!) and Biblically (we opened a Bible and read it in context) share the gospel. He even let me pray for him and gave me his email. Not terribly hard at all. Of course I was praying the whole time.

My second example comes from Jesus himself. When talking to the rich young ruler, he was careful to point him to the 10 Commandments. The Scripture says that he looked at him lovingly. And yet even with love, Christ could use the law of God to show a man his sin, his slavery to his money. We are under orders to do no less.

I'll respond to the rest of Dr. Copan's points tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for this response! I too responded to criticism out of context , and Scripture out of context. I just asked to friend you on Facebook. :)