My friend and fellow OPC minister, Tom Champness, preceded me in the pulpit of Grace Church, Modesto. One of the members there told me how Tom once asked the congregation, "By show of hands, how many of you consider yourself to be a sinner?" The response was unanimous. They knew the scripture that says "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." But Tom was not satisfied. He then asked, "Who considers himself to be a dirty, filthy, rotten sinner?" Only a few people were willing to raise the hand at this. Not all of them realized that in God's eyes these questions are identical.
And it is precisely that reason that I need Jesus. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. His death on the cross is designed to cleanse the filth of sin. His atonement paid the price of sin in our stead. Jesus said that he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
But just how can we invite dignified people to join our church if we are calling them filthy sinners? We can't win people over by insulting them. The great temptation we have learned from the salesman model is to modify the packaging of the appeal to outsiders, so that coming to Christ will be more attractive. Repentance is just too negative a package.
Here in Memphis there must be a dozen mega churches that have a more or less reformed affiliation. It's a cultural phenomenon that I have not experienced any other place on the face of the earth. The tragic disappointment for me is when I find one or more of these churches have slipped on the temptation to dress the gospel in a more saleable package. I attended one of these churches only to find that the message was that we need to come to Christ because of our problems. It was almost said that we need him because of our sin, but the message fell short. Not only was the word "repent" not heard, but the concept was not clear at all. I came away with the impression that people were invited to come to Christ because he makes it easier to live life here below. He helps us face difficulties. He comes to us personally and never leaves his own. God with us is a wonderful experience.
All these things are true and wonderful. I suppose the appeal is legitimate, but not without the mention of repentance. John came to prepare for the Messiah, and his message was to "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus' first recorded message was identical. Was the gospel actually preached? I am hard pressed to say that it was. Am I being too picky? Is it not possible to invite people to come to Christ without belaboring the point of being a sinner?