A few years ago I took my Sunday School class through The Way of the Master Basic Training Course. Overall, it was a good experience for us, even though we did not complete every aspect of the course. Since my class was not composed of people who elected to sign up for the course knowing what it would require, I did not push them all to complete every assignment. But we did gain a clearer understanding of the gospel and how to present it more effectively.
Below is a short summary of key ideas from the course.
Central idea: the “Modern Gospel” is not the biblical gospel.
The foundational idea of The Way of the Master evangelism program is that there is a difference between the “modern gospel” and the biblical gospel. The modern gospel presentation, which Ray Comfort says grew in the early 1900’s, begins this way: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” This is an appeal to the non-Christian for life enhancement, which basically says, “Jesus will make your life better if you embrace him as Savior.” The biblical gospel presentation, according to Ray Comfort, starts with a warning: “You are a sinner and will face judgment one day.” We can see this starting point in the ministry of Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well (see specifically John 4:16-20) and the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). In both accounts, Jesus holds up the standard of God’s Law to them, helping them see their own sin. For the woman, he holds up (implicitly) the seventh of the 10 Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, ESV). For the rich young man, he (implicitly) holds up the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), which the young man had violated by giving wealth first place in his life. The Apostles essentially did the same thing when they held up God’s law and coming judgment to help people see their urgent need for forgiveness (i.e., Acts 17:30-31).
The difference between the two gospel presentations is illustrated well with Ray Comfort’s story of the two parachutes. A man on an airplane is approached by a flight attendant and is offered a parachute. She argues persuasively that if the man puts on the parachute, it will enhance his flight. After some consideration, the man decides to give the parachute a try, so he straps it on. But when he sits back down, he finds that he cannot sit upright in his seat because of the parachute, and finds it generally uncomfortable. But he wants to give it a good try, so he keeps it on. After a little while, he notices that others on the flight are pointing at him and snickering. Finally, when his back and ego have had enough, he takes off the parachute and throws it on the floor and says, “Stupid parachute!” As far as he is concerned, he gave it a good try and he won’t get duped like that again. The promise was that the parachute would improve his flight, but in reality it only made it more difficult. He was looking for a better flight, but only received discomfort.
A second man on the flight is approached by the flight attendant and is offered a parachute. The flight attendant explains that the plane is having mechanical problems and the pilot expects it to crash land very soon, and the best hope of survival is get off the plane while it is still in the air. The man eagerly receives the parachute and straps it on tight and even asks for some pointers on how to deploy it properly. He sits back down in his seat and occupies himself while waiting for the right time to jump. The parachute is uncomfortable and he cannot sit fully upright like the first man, and some of the passengers snicker at him, but he does not care! He did not put on the parachute to enhance his flight, but to save his life! If anything, the hardships of wearing the parachute make him look forward to the jump!
The modern gospel is like offer to the first man, a promise of life enhancement. The biblical gospel is like the offer to the second man, salvation from dire consequences. Only the second man understood his parachute to be essential and accepted the discomfort that came along with it.
Why is this so important? There are several reasons. (1) If we begin the gospel presentation with the idea that “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” the sinner may simply “test drive” Jesus, but not truly depend up him in faith, which does not result in salvation. (2) Also, if after we begin with “God has a wonderful plan for your life” and then later begin to talk about sin and the cross, the sinner may feel tricked at this bait-and-switch. (3) What is more, when a sinner hears that “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” they think that means God will eliminate or at least greatly reduce suffering in their lives, for what could be more wonderful than that? The problem is, Jesus promises things like persecution and the Bible nowhere promises easy life to those who follow Christ. In fact, in many ways life may get far more difficult after conversion. (4) Furthermore, the message of the cross will be offensive and foolishness to the sinner. Offensive, because the typical non-Christian hears the evangelist implying that he is a sinner when he does not think he is, and foolishness, because there are plenty of people far worse than him. The solution of the cross will not make sense to such people because they do not see the urgent problem of their own sin and upcoming judgment.
Central method: use the Law of God to help the sinner self-diagnose
So how do we help them see their sin and desperate need for forgiveness? We use the Law of God as a mirror to help non-Christians self-diagnose. The main tool for this is the 10 Commandments, and it is all handled with questions such as, “Do you consider yourself to be a good person?” This is a crucial question, because most non-believers will say yes, sometimes even emphatically. This is because the criteria they use to evaluate their own behavior is something they have made up and/or adopted from society, not gleaned from the Bible. In other words, the standard they are using lets them off the hook.
The Way of the Master method gently yet directly walks people through enough of the 10 Commandments to help sinners see their own need for forgiveness. The goal is to prick the sinners’ God-given conscience with the Law of God. God has given people a conscience and the Holy Spirit appeals to that God-given sense of right and wrong and the reasonableness of judgment through the Word of God. This is crucial because it is part of sinful human nature to minimize sin and think of ourselves and not all that bad. So questions like, “Do you think you have kept the 10 Commandments?” with a walk-through of several of them helps the non-Christian self-diagnose themselves as liars, idolaters, murderers, thieves, and more. When this is carefully handled, and the non-Christian person is receptive, the Law of God will undercut their self-righteousness and ignorance and prepare them for the message of grace. With their sin and consequent guilt embraced, for the first time the message of the cross will make perfect sense to them, and they will be ready for the parachute of the gospel.
Thoughts for us Wesleyans
Wesleyans have understood the gospel to be about far more than forgiveness and escaping hell (as does Ray Comfort). We do not want to simply say to people, “If you repent and believe in Christ, God will forgive you and grant you eternal life.” We want to put it this way: “If you repent and believe in Christ, God will forgive and transform you in this life, and grant you heaven after this life is over.” Historically, Wesleyans are all about the transformation of the sinner into one who loves and serves God in holiness of heart and life. So it is important for us to emphasize both forgiveness and transformation. We believe whole-heartedly in the necessity of forgiveness, but for us forgiveness is simply the doorway into what God is really after, and that is a transformed, sanctified life.