In an recent edition of Themelios, D.A. Carson suggests that there are a number of possible motivations that preachers might appeal to, especially when addressing unbelievers. I summarise:-
1. Fear. Although the gospel promises deliverance from fear (Heb 2:14-18), Christ and the apostles did not shrink from warning people of the consequences of unbelief (Mt 10:38; 13:30; 16:26; 22:10-13). It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:31).
2. The burden of guilt. To feel onself to be guilty before God is a powerful motivation to seek his forgiveness. Psa 51:4. Preach law comes before grace (even if Gal 3:19-25 is as not relevant here as used to be thought).
3. Shame. Feelings of shame are closely related to feelings of guilt. However, it may be that at the present time people will more readily respond to the shame of idolatry, of the de-godding of God, than to guilty feelings arising from breaking God’s law.
4. The need for ‘future grace’. Where people have a sense that they will be called to account before God, then a desire to be found in the right before him can be appealed to.
5. The attractiveness of the truth. Some people have a high regard for the truth, and a strong desire to know it. By showing that Christianity accords with the truth, evidentialist apologetics has a role to play.
6. A sense of need. Many do not pursue Jesus from well thought-out doctrinal reasons, but out of a sense of need. Jesus embraces such: see Mt 9:20f, 27; Mk 7:25-28; Jn 4:10-18.
7. Responding to grace and love. Some are drawn to Christ when they see what God has done in Christ to rescue a poor and needy world. On this bounteous love, see Gal 2:20; Eph 3:17-19; 5:25,29.
8. Vague longing. Many have an ill-defined sense of wanting to be on the side of what is right, of wanting to be biblical, wanting to be clean, wanting what endures, wanting to be on God’s side. Zacchaeus could not, at the time, say more than that he wanted to entertain Jesus in his home. Many others hoped that he would turn out to be Israel’s hope.
Of course, these motivations can co-exist in many combinations.
Some theological and pastoral reflections
Again, to summarise Carson’s thoughts:-
1. We are not at liberty to choose the one(s) we like and neglect the others. To the extent that these motivations have scriptural warrant, we should hold them together, and use any and all of them as pastorally appropriate.
2. On the other hand, it may be right to emphasise one motivation more than others. In doing so we will be following the example of Paul, who addressed his audiences differently, according to whether, for example, he was speaking to biblical literate Jews and proselytes (Acts 13), or biblically illiterate pagans (Acts 17). Of course, some motivations are completely unworthy, and are to be shunned (“Come to Jesus, and you will always be free from trouble.”)
3. Nevertheless, a comprehensive grasp of diverse motivations should reflect a grasp of the comprehensiveness of he gospel. Just as it would be wrong to so emphasise the doctrine of justification that we neglect the doctrine of regeneration, so it would be wrong to stress future hope, for example, at the expense of present forgiveness. We should not only preach to felt needs, but also seek to awaken new motivations in our hearers as we unpack the many-sided gospel of our God.
4. If we do not take account of the whole range of biblically-mandated motivations for seeking and following God, then we end up diminishing God himself.
Any failure to appeal to the full range of biblically exemplified and biblically sanctioned motivations not only means that there are some people we are not taking into account, but, more seriously, that there are elements in the character and attributes of God himself that we are almost certainly ignoring.
Looking back over Carson’s list, it seems to me that overwhelming emphasis is placed these days on no. 7 – an appeal to God’s love. It pains me to say anything that might appear to diminish this, but I do fear that an incessant playing of this one note not only ignores other, equally legitimate motivational appeals, but actually limits the appeal to God’s love itself. Steve Chalke notorously claimed that the biblical statement that ‘God is love’ is not only the most important thing that can be said of God, but also that everything else that we might say about him must be made to pass through this filter. All he had to do was to complete his own quotation from 1 John (‘God is love, and gave his Son to be a propitation for our sins’) to see the fallacy of this position. ‘Propitiation’, it should be stressed, refers specifically to the placation of God’s own wrath against sin. On the other hand, when ‘God is love’ is placed more securely in the context of the other divine attributes, then it is seen as the astonishing, arresting, and magentically appealing assertion that it really is.