Two years ago I was traveling down I-85 on a summer afternoon southbound. As I approached Charlotte NC I noticed that the northbound highway was closed to traffic. Then I noticed as I drove south that on the bridges over the highway were gathered emergency vehicles of all sorts with cars and truck and people gathered. Then as I got closer to Charlotte I saw people lined up along the highway on the other side. Then some motorcycle outriders appeared follow by a funeral cortege.
It was Billy Graham’s body being transported to lie in state in our nation’s capital.
I was brought up in a fundamentalist, Protestant home. One of the strengths of this background was an awareness of the need to present the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly to a needy world.
Billy Graham was one such preacher. He preached the Christ and him crucified and didn’t apologize.
It was very simple: We were sinners and headed for hell. Because we were Bible believers this was clear from the third chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the need to be born again.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
For Evangelicals of my generation I think it is fair to say that this passage was as fundamental to our faith as the “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church” passage is to Catholics.
One of the verses which hit us hard was verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Ouch! Does it really mean that? The default setting is damnation? This is a hard saying. Not only is it exclusive: you must “believe on the name of God’s one and only son” but the default setting would seem to be that if you do not believe you are damned from the get go.
I’ve been a Christian all my life and have listened to preachers and teachers of all stripes, but have never yet heard anyone give an interpretation of this verse other than what it says. Oh, yes, the universalists and semi-universalists do all sorts of theological gymnastics to explain it away, but there it is.
This is what spurred Evangelical preachers to call people to repentance and belief in the Lord Jesus for the salvation of their souls.
We called this “evangelism” or to use the Catholic terminology, “evangelization.”
The message that was preached to us was just as clear as the gospel of John: “If you do not believe in the name of God’s only son you are in danger of condemnation. Therefore, turn from your sinful ways. Repent and believe the gospel. You should then be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and your life will be changed forever.
Over the years people have mocked me and said, “You can take the boy out of fundamentalism, but you can’t take fundamentalism out of the boy.”
If believing the plain words of the gospel of John is fundamentalism then so be it. Call me fundy.
But what have modern Christians done with this passage?
They have pushed it aside. Evangelism became equated with doing good works. Recently on social media someone commented, “Every person we feed. Every person we house. Every child we educate…that is evangelization.”
Sorry. No it’s not. That’s feeding, housing and educating people.
Of course if it is done in Jesus’ name it is a vital and necessary witness. It is love in action. It is followers of Jesus Christ doing what we are commanded to do.
But it is not evangelization.
It accompanies evangelization and complements evangelization, but it is not evangelization.
Evangelization is preaching Christ and him crucified.
The main impediments to this work are first, that modern man has lost any sense of sin. Psychology and social sciences and Sigmund Fraud have conditioned us to blame others, blame our environment, blame the past, blame anyone but ourselves.
The second problem is the difficulty of space age man understanding stone age religious concepts. The idea of a blood sacrifice that takes away sin simply doesn’t compute. So the contemporary person understandably would say, “What on earth does the execution of a criminal on a hillside outside a provincial city two thousand years ago take away the naughty things I’ve done….and besides I’m not a sinner. I’ve never raped or killed anyone.”
Answering these two questions: “What is sin?” and “What does the cross have to do with it?” are the reasons I wrote Immortal Combat-Confronting the Heart of Darkness. I think the book does help to answer these questions, but there is a more basic problem with evangelization in the Catholic Church.
As long as we cling to this idea that evangelization consists of doing good deeds for people the power of preaching the gospel will be diluted. Please don’t misread this. I am not saying the good deeds don’t matter and we should not be doing them. I’m simply saying they are not the same thing as evangelization.
I have no doubt there are some souls out there who have seen the charitable works of Christians and been impressed and decided to accept the faith and be baptized, but I have yet to hear their testimony.
I am resolved more and more to combine the good works we do in our parish and school with a clearer proclamation of the gospel. Despite the problems, I think this message still touches hearts and minds in a powerful and mysterious way.
We should proclaim this message with compassion, power and love, but too often Catholics are embarrassed and afraid.
But we should not be afraid. For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a balanced mind.
Join me on Tuesday for the first session of my next six week course. Characters of Christmas will be a deep dive into my book Mystery of the Magi. Discover the true identity of the wise men and much much more. Go here for more information.