Identification Vs Reductionism




Ajith Fernando


I work for a forty-two year old evangelistic youth organisation. I am alert to the danger of us losing our cutting edge and becoming an institution without the urgency and evangelistic effectiveness that has characterised us over the years. I am convinced that the key to overcoming this danger is for us, especially us leaders in YFC, to burn with a passion for gospel truth and for people which drives us to incarnational identification.


In incarnational identification we become like others so that we can get close to them. But the goal of this identification is bringing them to Christ. Jesus surprised everyone by going into the house of Zacchaeus and having a meal with him; and some grumbled about it. But as a result of the visit a radical change took place in Zacchaeus—a selfish dishonest man became a generous and honest person. In Jesus’ comment on this event he gave the reason for his incarnation, “Today salvation has come to this house…. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). People are lost without Christ. Therefore we too become like them in order to see them saved.


The key to what drives us in incarnational identification is the knowledge that we have a word from God to give to the world. People desperately need to hear this message and we love people. So we will do all we can to take the message to them.


Of course, these people may not accept the message. Isaiah was told at the start of his ministry that he would speak to a people who will hear but not understand; see but not perceive (Isa. 6:9). Why is this? The answer to this and other issues regarding the message we give to the world can be seen in Isaiah 55. Verses 8 and 9 tell why people reject our message: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” People sometimes look down on those who proclaim the message of the Scriptures. They condescendingly patronise the supposedly naïve things that the witness to God’s revelation shares. Do not understand because God’s ways are higher not lower than theirs. They are looking down at scriptural truth, when they should be looking up to it.


Because God’s thoughts are different to human thoughts, we have a prophetic role in the world. So Isaiah proclaims: “…let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord…” (55:7). But some are not willing to forsake their way. So those who call people to repent and turn to God are going to be disliked and even opposed—just as Isaiah was (possibly he met his death by being sawn in two—Heb. 11:37). We sometimes equate relevance with being acceptable to the world. Relevance in ministry is rather the ability to speak a word which penetrates contemporary society. People understand what we say and are arrested by it. Some accept it while others reject it. Stephen was spoke a message that was very relevant to his audience and they clearly understood what he was saying. They understood that he was calling for a radical departure from the religion they loved. So they killed him. His was a prophetic relevance. And in a world that is so influenced by sin all faithful and relevant Christian proclamation will have a prophetic element to it.


But we do not lose heart in the face of opposition. We know that the ripples following Stephen’s ministry spread on for years after his death resulting in great fruit for the gospel. The basis of our confidence is two-fold. Firstly, we know that our message meets the deepest needs of people. So Isaiah called, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isa. 55:1-2). In the same way we present Christ as meeting their needs. That ought to attract them to Christ.


But the Isaiah’s audience did not like the method through which he was going to satisfy their needs—the way of repentance and forgiveness (55:7). Similarly people may reject our message because even though it meets their deepest need they don’t want to traverse the road that leads to salvation: admitting that we cannot help ourselves, repenting of our sin and entrusting ourselves to God on the basis of what Christ has done for us. Conversion involves a radical change—it involves giving up past ideologies and practices by admitting that they are inadequate and taking on the message of the gospel. Some don’t like that. So in this pluralistic age, when we keep calling people to repentance and trying to persuade them about the truthfulness of the Christian gospel as opposed to other messages, we are going to look like we are out of step with the way in which society is moving.


So like Isaiah we will present Christ as the answer to the needs of people. This is one of the things that enable us to approach every evangelistic situation with a positive attitude. We know that, whether the people will accept it or not, only Jesus can fulfil the deepest needs.


The second reason for our confidence is our belief in the power of the gospel. Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God is the Creator and Lord of the universe, and we are taking the message he revealed to his world. Then surely it must be the most powerful message that one can carry.


So when we go with the message we do not go timidly, fearing that we are involved in a fruitless exercise. Only the Creator of this world could get the world out of the mess it is in. And he has called us to tell the world how he will do it and to urge people to embrace his plan for the world.


So the gospel we take to the world is powerful, relevant and prophetic.


Paul found out at the start of his Christian life that he was called to be a servant of the truth of the gospel. Jesus told him, “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:16 NIV). Next Jesus told Paul that he is sending him to the Gentiles with this message of which he is a servant (Acts 16:17).


As Paul went to the Gentiles he learned that he was not only a servant of the truth, but also a servant of the people. He told the Corinthians, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). We see here the dual commitment to truth and to people.


1 Corinthians 9 is the classic passage that combines commitment to truth and to the servanthood that produces incarnational identification. Paul expresses his commitment to truth as a matter of great urgency. What drives him is a sense of compulsion that comes from his deep conviction of the power and importance of the gospel. He said, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16). Why is he driven like this? He knows that when he is proclaiming the gospel to people he is doing the best thing he could do to them. So he says, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:18). One of the most important ways to be a servant of the people is to proclaim the gospel to them.


So after presenting his urgency over the gospel and his desire to proclaim it to people, he expounds how that urgency drives him to be a servant of the people. First, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Cor. 9:19). There was a motive for his being a servant. It was an unambiguous desire to win as many people as he could for Christ. It was a desire for conversion. Conversion is a dirty word in some circles today, but it is a very biblical idea. Paul goes on to describe how he changes his lifestyle and methods in order to win different kinds of people. At the end of this listing of what he does, he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (9:22). Again we see Paul’s unambiguous desire for conversion.


In this combination of being a servant of truth and of people lies our answer to the charge of arrogance that pluralists put on us because we proclaim the exclusive claims of Christ. Indeed, we are convinced about the truth. But that is not because of any arrogance on our part. We are not acting like great people or making any claims to greatness. We are servants of truth not big shots. And not only are we servants of truth, we are servants of people. We live among people as humble people making no claims of greatness for ourselves but urgently in seeking their welfare.


Servanthood results in our constant willingness to change what we are comfortable with so that we can communicate the gospel effectively to people. We will not change the gospel because we know it is powerful, relevant and prophetic. But so that people will want to hear and respond to this gospel we will change our lifestyle and our methods.


Today we are seeing a new way of identification with people in the church. Some Christians are saying that people have changed and that in order to identify with them we may need to giving up some of the essentials of the gospel. We can call this “trend induced reductionism.” For example, we are being told today that postmodern people in the west and eastern people in Asia are not interested in objective truth; that the evangelical movement was captive to the rationalistic approach to life that characterised the modern scientific era. People have changed, we are told. They are no longer attracted to objective truth—to propositions which explain what God has done in Christ to bring salvation to humans. They are therefore downplaying the objective truths of the gospel and sometimes saying that we do not need to insist on them. Instead they are presenting an experience oriented message that meets people where they are at.


Let me first say that subjective experience is a very important aspect of biblical religion. If we evangelicals downplayed that in the past—shame on us! In the Bible subjective experience and objective truth criss-cross as two aspects that live in harmony with each other. You cannot divorce one from the other. If you do you will end up with a religion that is sub-human—neglecting a key aspect of human need and of biblical religion. We present both the subjective and the objective because both are important aspects of the gospel.


If the church has emphasised one aspect of the gospel to the exclusion of another, and if that aspect we emphasised has lost its appeal to people, the answer is not to stop emphasising it. The answer is first to see how we can make this appealing to the people, and second to incorporate into our method that aspect which have neglected. So the challenge today is to make objective truth attractive and to present the subjective aspects of Christianity in a way that harmoniously co-exists with the objects aspects.


Sometimes when an established Christian group seems to be losing its momentum it commissions a major study asking for recommendations on how it can be more effective in this present age. The study commissioned by a youth ministry may report that young people are no longer interested in scriptural propositions. What they relate to are stories. So instead of studying and teaching the Bible as before they begin to communicate the message by telling stories. But can’t we do serious Bible study and include stories within the serious study? Young people may think the Bible is not relevant. But if we proclaim the unchanging truth of the Bible creatively and relevantly, young people will realise that it is relevant. So we don’t change or neglect the whole truth of the gospel. We present this unchanging truth—the attractive and the unattractive parts—using relevant methods, like stories, in our proclamation.


So we have double work to do now. We have to do the old work of carefully studying the Bible. Then our urgency for the gospel and the yearning to communicate the message causes us to look for new and attractive ways to present what has come out of the careful exegetical study of the Scriptures. A similar thing happens with our evangelistic proclamation. To our sound-byte oriented generation we may need to give our message in the form of several different “bytes.” So the same content that was once given in a single long message may now be given through a testimony, a discussion, a drama, a film clip and a song and a shorter message.


When a movement loses its momentum and no longer seems to be reaching lost people like they used to, they would do well to commission a study to see how they can change and become effective again. The study may recommend paradigm shifts, which may be necessary, just like paradigm shifts were needed in the thinking of the New Testament Christians as the gospel went out to the world. We saw Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 about how he did this.


But before commissioning studies, the first question we must ask is whether the passion is there in the movement. Do we still have such a confidence in our message that it drives us to passionate witness? In 1 Corinthians 9:16 Paul explained how his passion drove him to preach the gospel. Do we still have the fullness of the Spirit which ignites the truth and drives us to share it powerfully with others? Stephen demonstrated this when the people could “not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). Do we still have a conviction of the horror of the lostness of people apart from Christ which causes deep compassion within us and again drives us to witness? Paul showed this in the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” over the lostness of the Jews (Rom. 9:2).

If we have this passion for truth and for people generated by the indwelling Spirit of truth and love we will have the motivation to make the radical changes that are necessary so that we can reach our present generation.


This is why while veteran organisations are struggling to survive; new organisations working with the same group are thriving. They do not have the knowledge and experience that the old groups have. They seem to break many of the rules of propriety and cultural sensitivity, but they are being used to depopulate hell and populate heaven at a remarkable rate. And why is this? Not because their methods are perfect, but because their members are filled with God’s Spirit and with a passion for truth and for people that drives them to make whatever changes are necessary to win a hearing for the gospel.


So what we need most today is Jesus’ style of incarnational identification: going with the unchanging message of the gospel to seek and to save those who are lost and making whatever changes need to be made in order to do so effectively. Trend induced reductionism may be seen to have much relevance; but it will lack the power of the radical gospel which alone can effect as radical a change as conversion in a person.


Archbishop William Temple said that the church that is married to a culture of one generation will find herself a widow in the next. Cultures may temporarily be blinded to the value of some Christian essentials like objective truth. But that will change soon. When the world gets tired of the confusion and uncertainty caused by focusing exclusively on the subjective and looks for a place where objective truth is upheld, will they find that the church is also so married to culture that it has no objective truth to offer?