by Dr. Daniel G. Mueller
In front of our church, Shepherd of the Hills in San Antonio, Texas, we have a large sign on which we post a variety of messages about the life of our church and school. Each week, one message stays on the sign the longest: a bite-size thought from the upcoming weekend’s sermon intended to get people’s attention and proclaim the truth of God’s Word. Some of the messages posted there over the years included the following:
- “When we see people the way Jesus does, everyone looks much better.
- “Peace has less to do with the absence of war and more to do with the presence of God.”
- “Faith is not about what you know but who you know.”
- “No investment brings a greater return than putting faith in Jesus Christ.”
We know that people read the messages because they tell us so. We also know they sometimes don’t like what they read because they tell us that, too.
The first time we were “scolded” for our message was a while back when the sign read thus: “God calls us to be His children, not His spoiled brats.” Two people called, one of them irate, to complain. We received two complaints again last December when the sign said, “Without Jesus, none of us is good enough for God.” One person sent an e-mail, asking for the sign to be taken down because it was intolerant and particularly inappropriate so close to Christmas when we celebrate the love of God. The second person called to tell us he had a “visceral” reaction to the sign. Both were polite and civil and had the integrity to identify themselves.
We never intentionally set out to offend people but sometimes we do. The e-mail complaining about the December message came from a woman who described herself as a Christian who attends church and Bible class every week. She quoted John 3:16 this way: “God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him (God) will not perish but have eternal life.” For her, Jesus is just one prophet among many, all of which are equally good. We exchanged e-mails twice, and I tried to explain to her from Scripture why I believed the sign to be true. I also informed her that I believe John 3:16 calls for us to believe in Jesus. In the second e-mail, she wrote about how the Bible has been changed so much over the years, and that interpretations vary. Of greatest concern was her statement that she didn’t believe that Jesus is God. She appealed for tolerance, meaning that the sign should not offend anyone.
That’s an impossible goal. To fail to point people to Jesus offends and saddens me, and I would like to think that my opinion counts, too. We could have posted that everyone is good enough for God, but perhaps that would have offended atheists who deny the existence of God. It would have also been wrong, too, as we know.
Our prayer is that the message on the sign makes people think; that it will encourage those who believe and confront those who don’t—and open a door for them to come to know Jesus more closely so that they might be embraced by His grace and find in Him their Savior. Because of the messages on the sign a few people have visited our worship services and one family actually joined our congregation.
The December message offended some people because it conflicts with what surveys tell us that most Americans believe: That all good people go to heaven. It’s a wonderful thought and, to be honest, I wish it were true. It would make life so much easier.
Logically, though, the idea just doesn’t work. If it’s true that all good people go to heaven, just how good does one have to be? Or to put it the opposite way, just how bad can one be and get away with it?
The Bible tells us that David was a man after God’s own heart. That would seem to indicate that he would have been good enough to go to heaven. But the Bible also tells us that he committed adultery and murder. If one commits adultery and murder, can one still be good enough to go to heaven? My guess is that the family of the murdered party and those injured by the act of adultery would likely give a different answer from those not affected by either act. It’s not at all unusual for people to wish for a murderer to “burn in hell.” Is there a specific number of times one can commit adultery and murder before one becomes too bad to go to heaven? Is there enough opportunity in one lifetime to do sufficient good to erase the evil of even one murder or act of adultery?
People say that there’s some good in everyone. So there must have been some good in Hitler, right? And also in Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, the Son of Sam, and other legendary killers? We all know that Hitler did enough evil to bring the whole world to war, but surely he must have done some good here and there, don’t you think, maybe early in his life?
Trust me, I know there’s no defense for Hitler, but if we choose to think that all good people go to heaven, then we are faced with the challenge of setting a standard to determine how good a person has to be. Is a little bit of good enough? Is there a balance book somewhere that keeps track of all the good and all the evil in a person’s life and declares a person good or evil, depending on which one is greater?
Do you see how difficult it is to make sense out of the conviction that all good people go to heaven? As I said earlier, I wish it were true, but everything the Bible tells me is that it isn’t.
Apart from Jesus, nobody is good enough to go to heaven. That’s why the good news of the Gospel is so marvelous. We can all be good enough to go to heaven, not because we manage to do more good than evil, but because God sent His Son into the world to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God sent His Son to be one with us, God with us, to take our place under the Law and live the perfect life we can’t live, and to die an innocent death in payment for the sins of the whole world. God sent His Son Jesus so that whoever believes in Him (Jesus) will not perish but have everlasting life.
The Bible is clear on this, and it proclaims the message over and over again: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are made right with God by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Not everybody believes that. Some are even deeply offended by it. St. Paul was right when he wrote that Jesus is “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” The best part is at the end of the passage: “Whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33 ESV).
‘Signs of the Times’?
Pastor Daniel Mueller’s experience and that of the good folks of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas, is similar to that of many other outreach-minded Christian congregations around the nation. Some of the passersby who see the outreach messages posted by our churches and schools are pleased with the message and how it is presented; others express hurt, concern, or even anger toward both the message and its messengers.
We can certainly thank those who respond positively, but the more important question and the greater concern is this: How do we, as Bible-believing Christians, positively address those who respond negatively?
There are times when even our best-motivated activities are perceived negatively. These times give us an opportunity to engage in dialog—which we earnestly pray will lead to “Gospel moments” or “faith-sharing conversations” through which the Christian can clearly present the life-giving message of God’s love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness through saving faith in Jesus Christ alone.
We need not be shy about entering into these conversations because we believe that God’s Word has the power to change hearts and create saving faith. The apostle Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16 ESV).
Our outreach efforts are attempts to get people to listen, and sometimes people don’t like what they hear. When confronted by those with concerns about our outreach approach, it’s good to ask, “Is it the Gospel itself that has caused offense or have we, intentionally or otherwise, been the cause of the offense?” As we respond, we would be well advised to remember “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
LCMS congregations seek to be mission outposts, intentionally and effectively engaging their communities with the Gospel. Advertising, television, radio, flyers, mailings, personal visits—and even church and school signs—can be effective first steps to reach out with the Gospel if they are carefully and thoughtfully presented.
As you consider your outreach approach, good advice from a group of creative, Gospel-centered church professionals includes the following:
- As God’s people, we can’t just play it safe. We must engage our communities with the Gospel. Our heavenly Father sent His only Son “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). As His body, the Church, our passion is to be about His business—sharing Christ with those who need to know Him as Lord and Savior.
- The methods we use must not overpower the message we seek to share.
- Seek the wisdom of mature Christian advisors who will be able to prayerfully give good, sound counsel on what we’re planning and how to go about it.
Evaluation of our efforts in Christ’s service is also critically important:
- “Did our efforts positively impact the kingdom of God?”
- “What might we do better next time?”
Jesus’ words to His disciples as He sent them—armed with their faith and the Gospel alone—into hostile and unbelieving communities can also be our guide. He told them to be as “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
–By Rev. Scott Snow