You might have heard it said that the faithful preaching of the gospel will inevitably cause offence. In fact, if your evangelism does not cause offense, you’re probably not doing it properly. You might as well measure your faithfulness to the gospel by the number of people who hate you. Count it as a badge of honour.
About this assertion I shall say nothing at the present time, except that any truth that might reside in the first of these claims is utterly negated by the attitude which it expresses.
But you might also have heard it said, in contrast to this, that the whole idea that the gospel is offensive is unbiblical. If we share the gospel in the spirit of Jesus and his apostles, then people will understand that you are seeking to share wonderful news with them because you love them. They will be helped, encouraged and affirmed.
So let me try to explore this a little bit. The argument would be that Paul did indeed regard the cross of Christ as offensive to unbelieving Jews, or more specifically the Jewish religious leaders of his day, but this should not be generalised to all hearers of the gospel in every place and age. The texts that are used to justify the idea that the gospel will inevitably cause office (1 Cor 1:18-24; Gal 5:10f; 1 Pet 2:6-9) do not support that interpretation. They are reduced to proof texts, without regard to their context. Rather, we should expect the gospel to be welcomed – even when it is not actually accepted – providing that we ensure that it is the real gospel that we are seeking to share, and if we are truly motivated by love.
Now, we are indeed taught to give a reason for our hope, when asked, and to do so ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Pet 3:13ff). But, lest we turn Peter’s words themselves into a proof text, let us note that the context is one of suffering and persecution. Peter is envisaging a situation in which followers of Christ might suffer ‘for what is right’ (v14), who are slandered because of their ‘good behaviour in Christ’ (v16). So much for Christians always being able to stay in other people’s good books!
The picture becomes even clearer if we consider some of the rather extensive teaching of the New Testament on persecution. Our Lord Jesus taught that his followers might well be mocked and persecuted and lied about on his account (Matthew 5:11f). 1 Peter 1:6 talks about trials, in the context of the response of an unbelieving world to Christ’s followers. 2 Timothy 3:12 teaches that ‘all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’. If Jesus was persecuted, then his followers can expect the same treatment (John 15:20). Sadly, the agents of persecution may sometimes even be members of our own families (Mt 10:21).
So it is in Galatians 5:11 and Galatians 6:12. I turn to the wise comments of John Stott (The Message of Galatians) on these passages:-
‘The cross of Christ is mentioned in both these verses, and in Galatians 5:11 it is called an “offense” or “stumbling-block” (skandalon). In both verses too there is a reference to persecution. According to Galatians 5:11 Paul is being persecuted because he preaches the cross; according to Galatians 6:12 the false teachers are avoiding persecution by preaching circumcision instead of the cross. So the alternative for Christian evangelists, pastors and teachers is to preach either circumcision or the cross.
‘To “preach circumcision” is to preach salvation by the law, that is, by human achievement. Such a message removes the offense of the cross, which is that we cannot earn our salvation; it therefore exempts us from persecution.
‘To “preach the cross” (as in Gal 3:1) is to preach salvation by God’s grace alone. Such a message is a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23) because it is grievously offensive to human pride; it therefore exposes us to persecution.
Paul’s teaching about persecution does not apply only to the Judaizers of his day:-
‘There are, of course, no Judaizers in the world today, preaching the necessity of circumcision. But there are plenty of false teachers, inside as well as outside the church, who preach the false gospel (which is not a gospel, Gal 1:7) of salvation by good works. To preach salvation by good works is to flatter people and so avoid opposition. To preach salvation by grace is to offend people and so invite opposition. This may seem to some to pose the alternative too starkly. But I do not think so. All Christian preachers have to face this issue. Either we preach that human beings are rebels against God, under his just judgment and (if left to themselves) lost, and that Christ crucified who bore their sin and curse is the only available Savior. Or we emphasize human potential and human ability, with Christ brought in only to boost them, and with no necessity for the cross except to exhibit God’s love and so inspire us to greater endeavor.’
‘The former is the way to be faithful, the latter the way to be popular. It is not possible to be faithful and popular simultaneously. We need to hear again the warning of Jesus: “Woe to you when all men speak well of you” (Lk 6:26). By contrast, if we preach the cross, we may find that we are ourselves hounded to the cross. As Erasmus wrote in his treatise On Preaching: “Let him [that is, the preacher] remember that the cross will never be lacking to those who sincerely preach the gospel. There are always Herods, Ananiases, Caiaphases, Scribes and Pharisees.”’
Of course, thank God, this is not the whole story. The book of Acts records a number of individuals and groups who gave the warmest of welcomes to the gospel. But enough has been said, I think, to establish that a warm reception cannot be guaranteed for the gospel, and that a cool, or even hostile reception does not mean that any blame should necessarily be attached either to the matter of manner of the presentation.