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A powerfully prophetic call from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) for intellectual engagement in the culture as a means of pre-evangelism:

We are all agreed that at least one great function of the Church is the conversion of individual men. The missionary movement is the great religious movement of our day. Now it is perfectly true that men must be brought to Christ one by one. There are no labor-saving devices in evangelism. It is all hard-work.

And yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel.

It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless.

But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel.

False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel.

We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.

Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root. . . .

What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combated; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassioned debate.

So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity. . . .

What more pressing duty than for those who have received the mighty experience of regeneration, who, therefore, do not, like the world, neglect that whole series of vitally relevant facts which is embraced in Christian experience—what more pressing duty than for these men to make themselves masters of the thought of the world in order to make it an instrument of truth instead of error?

—J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” in What Is Christianity? And Other Addresses, ed. Ned Stonehouse (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 162-163; emphasis added.

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15 thoughts on “Can We Prepare Our Culture to Receive the Gospel?”

  1. Paul M. says:

    Gresham Machen was a living example of what James Davison Hunter labels the “faithful presence” approach to culture. Machen was neither an isolationist nor a culture warrior; indeed, he was a libertarian.

  2. Robert Wille says:

    The entire essay can be read here:

  3. Robert Wille says:

    “It is all hard-work” should read “It is all hand-work”. Explains the hyphen between the words.

  4. John Guidry says:

    With hesitation I must disagree. I am not convinced that the following “fact” is fact:

    “But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel.”

    If I did accept this I would find it perfectly normal to come to the conclusion:

    “So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity. . . .”

    But I truly believe this is antithetical to the approach that Paul took to evangelism, especially as presented in 1st Corinthians. The cross which is a stumbling block to Jews (because a man hung on a tree is cursed) and foolishness to Gentiles was all that Paul preached to the Corinthians. He preached the gospel by emphasizing that which is most uncomfortable and illogical. But if someone comes to faith by accepting the cross, it must be because God changed their heart. We have many people who “come to Christ” because the church is a wonderful place to ‘belong,’ or to have physical needs met, or to fight against injustice.

    In contrast, in order to come to Christ, it must be God who reveals the mystery of the cross to you. If it was reasonable, those who were well-versed in “the wisdom of this world” would be the chosen ones, but God introduces the cross as a “logical absurdity” in order to use foolishness to shame the wise. It is a bit pretentious to think that we are called to prepare society or individuals to accept the gospel. We are called to present the logical absurdity, because it has been revealed to us as the true wisdom upon which any true logic must be based. God alone prepares the heart.

    1. blake says:

      So then you would disagree with any Christians engaging in academic debate and scholarship with the secular world?
      And if you do think Christians should be engaging in those things, how is that not helping “make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity. . . .”?

      1. John Guidry says:

        I believe that Christians can engage in academic debate and scholarship with the secular world. There is much truth about the world that can be gained through science, debate, and scholarship. My point is that the most important truth, the truth required to accept the gospel, is not dependent on debate or scholarship (reason).

        Evangelism is much simpler. We are given the task to be witnesses and testify publicly that we have been changed by the power of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture warns us that it is impossible for the natural man to accept this without God doing a work in the individual heart. We are not called to lay down some ideological framework to make people more receptive to the message, because there is nothing that we can say that makes the idea of a bloody, gruesome human sacrifice that satisfies God’s wrath palatable to the reasonable person. Yet, to the Christian, to whom God has revealed this truth, the cross is both horrible and the most beautiful sight imaginable.

        As the Christian engages in academic debate and scholarship with the secular world, there must be an understanding that human reason is not useless. It helps us to solve many temporal problems. It can be used to convince others to be more moral, intentional, responsible, etc. But it can not bring someone closer to salvation.

        On the other side of the coin, the Christian can use logic that is built on top of the truth of the gospel in order to impact other believers in profound ways. The apostle Paul gives perhaps the best examples of this in his epistles. He appeals to logic based on the foundation of Christ in order to spur Christians on to holiness, service, and a closer clinging to Christ.

        1. blake says:

          Yes and I agree with what you are saying. But do you have any category for pre-evangelism? Acts 19:8 says, “And he [Paul] entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning, and persuading them about the kingdom of God”.

          Reasoning and persuading probably meant using some type of contextualization as Paul did when he used their own literature and idols to point them to the true God.

          The point of Christian scholarship and academic study is to show the world that God is who He says He is. You are right, none of this will save anyone, but it can better position a person to hear the gospel without all the hindrances of man-centered falsehoods that dominate the academy today. None of this denies the fact that God alone opens hearts to the foolishness of preaching and evangelism.

          1. John Guidry says:

            The context of Acts 19:8, even if you only add a few surrounding verses supports my view. He entered the synagogue after 12 men had been converted. But even though 12 men had been converted, he found that speaking wisdom in the synagogue was not very effective. So he took only the true believers and continued reasoning with them.:

            Acts 19:6-9 “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men. And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the people, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.”

          2. John Guidry says:

            Also I think you alluded to Acts 17 where Paul uses the altar “To the Unknown God” in order to open up dialogue with the men of Athens. This was not pre-evangelism. It was just evangelism. He really wasn’t reasoning with them. He merely stated that he knew the God they did not and proceeded to present the gospel (v.24-31). When we come to verse 32 we find that some accepted it and some didn’t. But notice at which point the detractors sneered:

            Acts 17:32 “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’”

            And Paul’s response:

            Acts 17:33-34 “So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among who also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

            Paul presents the foolishness of the gospel. Some believe and some don’t. But Paul is confident that those who joined him were true believers because he didn’t shy away from the hardest part of the teaching. He believed that God prepared and changed the heart. Paul’s job was simply to present the gospel.

  5. blake says:

    Yet again I agree with you to a large degree. I’m just trying to get you to understand what Machen is getting at. We can and should preach the gospel to people. But some should also argue for a theistic worldview, challenge macro-evolution, debate the historicity and trustworthiness of the gospels in the marketplace that distinctively denies those truths. And yes, we can win all those arguments with unbelievers and they not be any more spiritually undead than they were previous to those debates. But wouldn’t you agree that they are now in a better soil that has been watered with the water of truth and the Word, that God could now give the growth?

    Are all cultures homogenous that one would never have to defeat strawmen, and erase misconceptions before the Gospel can land with force? I would agree with Machen that, “false ideas are the greatest obstacle to the reception of the gospel”. The gospel has to travel through the brain to land sweetly on the heart.

    1. John Guidry says:

      Yes, Christians can argue for a theistic worldview, challenge macro-evolution, and debate the historicity and trustworthiness of the gospels, but this does not change the soil. At best it will create theistic creationists who think that the facts presented in the Bible are correct.

      I think that the heart of our disagreement is that I think that people accept the gospel, not because they are free from ideological hindrances, but because God changes their heart regardless of what they previously believed. The gospel is not in competition with strawmen and misconceptions because it is not based on the wisdom of men (at all), but the power of God. Whereas Machen believes that the wisdom of men can get in the way a bit, so if we straighten that out, then the power of God is more likely to be able to penetrate the heart of the unbeliever.

      I say that God is more than able to penetrate the heart of any man by revealing the truth of the gospel regardless of their culture, false assumptions, and misconceptions. And further, that God’s ability so far overshadows all possible differences in human thought as to color them irrelevant.

      I do have one tangentially related question. Do you think that parable of the seed was meant to tell the disciples that they were responsible to change the hearts of men into becoming the good soil through reason? If so, what gives you that impression?

      1. blake says:

        As I’ve said before, I largely agree with you, though I think you go too far to say it that freedom from ideological hindrances does nothing to prepare a person to hear and believe the gospel. I’m not saying it can save, it can only bring a person to see Christ biblically, not see Christ savingly. I agree with you that The Holy Spirit is the only one who can penetrate a dead, cold heart with life giving faith.

        To your question; I don’t believe that it was meant to tell the disciples that they could change hearts by becoming good soil. But it was meant to say that some people will have saving faith, and others won’t, no matter what you do to try and teach them about the gospel.
        I was referring to 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered…”. Paul said that he did the planting. He’s not saying he saved anyone (God gives the growth). So whether you want to call that pre-evangelism or just evangelism (or post-evangelism), whether on the street corner or in the academy, whether we’re sharing the gospel or truth implications from the gospel, we are telling people about who God is and what they are required to believe. I believe that is planting, watering, but not giving the growth. No matter how we engage culture, from the pulpit or the chalkboard, we need to be praying for God to give the growth.

        You said in your last post,” At best it will create theistic creationists who think that the facts presented in the Bible are correct”. Now, is that person in a more or less favorable position to receive the gospel now that they believe the facts in the Bible are correct? I understand what you’re trying to say. I believe in election and the sovereignty of God too. But don’t you believe that God ordinarily uses certain means through which people become saved?

        1. John Guidry says:

          Thank you for clarifying. It is my position that the theistic creationist who thinks that the facts presented in the Bible are correct, is neither more nor less favorably positioned to receive the gospel. They might be more likely to identify with Christianity as a cultural movement, but this does not put them in a position of being more likely to accept the hard truths of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In fact, it could just as easily lead to a false security.

          I have met quite a few atheists who went to Bible school claiming to be believers. They assumed that even though they didn’t understand everything yet, Christianity was completely logical. This assumption was made because many Christians present their case for Christ in terms of reasonableness. They say look at how reasonable is creation as compared with evolution. Look how reasonable it is to hold to the historicity of scripture. But when these students studied scripture they found Paul saying (my paraphrase): The cross, the center of our faith, isn’t reasonable. God made it that way so that he alone could reveal the truth to those whom he wills.

          Then these students were faced with the fact that they couldn’t believe in Christ. It isn’t that they didn’t want to. They weren’t able to believe because their faith was based on the wisdom of men and not the power of God. Does that mean that God will never change their heart? By no means! But they weren’t in a better place to receive the gospel because of the fact that they thought many academic Christian positions were reasonable.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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