There are two basic approaches. The first approach, which is based on fear, poses hypothetical questions like, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go? You could go to hell!”
I don’t doubt that this approach is effective in getting people to make a decision. I have used it myself. But this method of evangelism rarely leads to lasting transformation. Instead, it creates nervous churchgoers who are forever asking questions like, “Do I have to do such and such, to be saved?” They are more conscious of the rules for who’s in and who’s out than they are of the love of their heavenly Father.
Fear is a very effective means for motivating fallen people who care for nothing more than their own self-interest and avoiding hurtful consequences. But it is a poor basis for sharing what is supposed to be good news. A far better way for revealing gospel is to demonstrate the love of God, just like Jesus did. His was a show-and-tell gospel. He preached good news to the poor, proclaimed freedom to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind. He announced the year of the Lord’s favor.
There is no fear in love yet many Christians are trying to balance the two. They say you have to love God yet be afraid of Him at the same time. This leads to what Wayne Jacobsen, in his book He Loves Me: Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection, calls, Daisy Petal Christianity – Christians interpreting God’s love for them through their circumstances. “I got a raise. He loves me. I lost my job. He loves me not.” When things go well, they figure they’re walking in God’s favor. When things go not-so-well, they figure they’re walking in His displeasure. Since life is full of ups and downs they are permanently insecure and confused. It certainly doesn’t help that the Bible seems to paint two contradictory portraits of the living God: a terrible Judge and a loving Father. Wayne Jacobsen asks, “Which is it? Can he be both?… So what happened to God? Did he get ‘saved’ somewhere between Malachi and Matthew?” (19-20). As I have explained elsewhere, God doesn’t change, but we do.
The root problem is that most Christians are uncertain of their Father’s love for them. They look right past the cross into the old covenant and conclude that God will not love them unless they first please Him. Never mind that Jesus gave us greatest demonstration of unconditional love the world has ever seen. Never mind that He told story after story about lost things being restored even though they had done nothing to save themselves. Never mind that He went around healing and forgiving the sick and undeserving.
A classic sign that a believer has missed the Father’s heart is that he talks more about obedience than love. Doing the right thing – and being seen to be doing the right thing – is paramount. Live like this and you’ll make “serving God” your god and miss knowing the real God. Obedience is not the bottom line. God is far more interested in whether we will love and trust Him. You can obey without trusting, but you can’t trust without obeying. Cast your mind back to the Garden of Eden and that tree. As Jacobsen reads it, this was not primarily an obedience test, but a trust test:
If obedience had been God’s only issue, don’t you think he would have made the whole scenario far clearer? He told them not to eat from that tree or they would die. He didn’t describe that death in detail… If he had they might have been obedient, but not because they trusted him. They would have obeyed only because it served their self-interest. God would merely have become a tool for their own fulfillment. Self would still have been at the center of their choice, and self would prevent them from discovering the full vitality of life in him. No, God didn’t tell them because he wanted something far better. (p.92)
Adam and Eve chose independence over trust and we repeat their mistake whenever we rely on our own strength or understanding. Doing good is just as sinful as doing bad when our motive is to prove ourselves worthy and therefore in no need of grace.
He Loves Me is a book about learning to trust in the love of your heavenly Father. If you are uncertain about the Father’s love for you, read this book. In it, Wayne Jacobsen gives one of the best descriptions I have read of what really happened on the cross. He contrasts the appeasement-view of the cross (God’s demands for justice needed to be appeased by a human sacrifice) with the Biblical view (God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ). We’ve heard that Jesus was a lonely victim of divine vengeance taking God’s whippings on behalf of humanity. But as Jacobsen explains, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were jointly executing a plan to redeem the world. This was no good cop/bad cop routine. It was a team effort.
I’ll leave you with an extended quote from the book that expresses the heart of Jacobsen’s message better than I ever could:
There are two ways to hide from God’s love – rebellion and religion. Rebellion, illustrated in the prodigal son, defies God’s love and seeks to cover up guilt and shame through the indulgence of sensual desires. Religion, on the other hand, is far more subtle. It seeks its cover-up through good works and obligation. However, like the prodigal’s older brother, it still denies the Father’s place in our lives and leads us no closer to knowing him for who he really is.
Simply, religion is keeping score – striving for acceptance through our own performance whether it be in our good works or in ritualistic activities. Those things put the focus squarely on us and what we can do to be accepted by God, thereby dooming us to failure.
Most of Paul’s letters were written because even the earliest believers found themselves trading relationship for religion. Instead of learning to live in the security of his love, they would go back to traditions, creeds, disciplines, and laws as an attempt to earn it themselves. He reminded them again and again that God’s love would take them further than their own efforts and achievements ever would…
What would you do today if you knew God absolutely loved you? God knows the answer to that question will lead you further into his life than the strivings of religion ever can. The key to a productive Christian life is not waking up every day trying to be loved by God, but waking up in the awareness that you are already His beloved. (137-8)