One of the frustrating things about being in ministry is how people carelessly accuse pastors of “watering down the gospel.”
Often the accusations are contradictory.
First Church is growing under the leadership of Pastor A. Critics say, “The only reason First Church is growing is because Pastor A waters down the gospel. He tickles itching ears, and just tells people what they want to hear.”
Second Church is growing under the leadership of Pastor B. Other people, or sometimes the same critics say, “The reason Second Church is growing is because Pastor B stands firm on the gospel; preaches it like it is and doesn’t back down.”
Too often “watering down” is nothing more than “I don’t like their particular theology” or “I don’t like how they do ministry.” Or a combination of the two.
Accusing someone of watering down the gospel is a serious charge. Watering down the gospel is akin to preaching “another gospel” (ἒτερος, a different kind), an accursed state of being (Galatians 1:8, 9). Making the charge is as serious as the charge itself.
Watering down the gospel is not…
Creativity in preaching
Using video or music clips in the service
Contextualizing the truth
Preaching application oriented sermons
And a host of other things
Watering down the gospel is…
Saying all roads lead to God.
Saying the virgin birth isn’t necessary
Separating the power of God to save over the power of God to sanctify
Teaching that only eternity is important
Conflating politics with discipleship
Equivocating on the divinity of Jesus Christ
And a host of other things
Is there such a thing as watering down the gospel? Yes, but making the gospel clear is not it. Making the gospel understandable is not it. Making sure hearers comprehend the truth of the gospel is not it. I would argue that a failure to make the gospel clear is no better than obscuring it on purpose.
How would you evaluate a preacher whose sermon included truth, but no specific scriptural reference? A sermon with a direct quote from pop culture–that being an ode to a false god? A literal false god. A preacher who mentioned but did not outright condemn the religious fervor of the hearers–hearers who were adherents to false religions?
A preacher who quoted from Aratus’ poem Phenomena?
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring.
False teacher? Watering down the gospel? I hope not. That’s a basic description of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Acts 17. He used a single line from an overtly pagan poem to bridge the gap between his hearers and the gospel. When he brought the gospel, it was the gospel. But, rather than leading with it, he led into it.
Using culture as a bridge to truth is not watering down the gospel.
American culture is no longer gospel aware. Ignorance abounds, as does confusion. “Jesus” means all things to all people. “God” means all things to all people. Heaven is where everyone goes when they die, with the exceptions of Hitler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper, the 9/11 hijackers, and possibly political pundits. Words that mean everything mean nothing. It is the responsibility of the witness to consider the context and language of the hearer so communication may occur. That’s what missionaries do.
We should stop accosting preachers who are trying to clarify the gospel to an unbelieving generation as if they are presenting something less than the truth. If we intend, like Paul, to become all things to all people that we might by all means save some of them, we can start by sounding a message more clear than a tone-deaf bugler attempting reveille. Life is too important and eternity too long to blame listeners for not comprehending a muddled message.
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