Chapter 4: The Minister and the Gospel

The Gospel and Our World
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 4: The Minister and the Gospel

In what has been said thus far three considerations have emerged which, if true, are of prime importance both to the Church and to our world. The first of these is that the basic source of weakness in the Church is its failure to communicate its gospel intelligibly and vitally. The second is that the Church through its gospel has something to say to the modern man which could alleviate his frustrations and fears, his insecurity and loneliness, and lift both individual and corporate life out of its present morass to firm foundations. The third is that while all the churches have points of strength and weakness, the type of church life which makes most of the search for truth and the Christian moral imperative, instead of showing marked superiority in its fruits as it ought, has often lagged behind or at least has failed to outdo its rivals in generating power for personal religious living.

Our next problem must be to ask what changes are needed if these deficiencies are to be remedied. To know what we ought to do is, of course, not to guarantee that we shall do it. Granting the best of purposes, no human skill or wisdom is perfect. But the more clearly both the ends and means are envisioned, the more likely we are to approximate the choice of right means for achieving Christian ends.

The communication of the gospel is the main function of the minister. It is not the job of the minister alone. One of the most constructive emphases of the Amsterdam Conference was that it is the whole Church -- not professional evangelists or even ministers only, but laymen as well -- that is called to witness to the gospel and transmit it to others. For this reason we shall devote the chapter after this one to the problems and opportunities of laymen. Our chief concern here, however, must be the minister’s witness.

Our primary emphasis will be on the minister’s interpretation of the gospel, for which obviously preaching is the central channel. But it ought to be clear that the sermon, though the primary channel, is not the only one, and unless the sermon is supplemented by discussion groups, forums, directed reading, and pastoral counseling in the intimate and personal vicissitudes of life, the sermon is apt for the most part to fall on unresponsive ears. In the Protestant tradition we have attached, not an undue importance to the sermon, but an undue premium on its efficacy. There is nothing in the life of the Church that is more important than vital preaching; there is no preaching that is likely to be vital if it alone is trusted.

Furthermore, there are three main lines along which we ought to advance at once in our interpretation and communication of the gospel, and to neglect any of them is to weaken the other two. Our preaching and all that goes with it ought at the same time to be more doctrinal, more biblical, and more functional. To be more doctrinal means the imparting to the people of a broader, deeper, more carefully thought out, and perhaps a more Christian system of Christian belief. To be more biblical means the greater use of the Bible in sermons as well as in religious education, and instruction as to how to understand the Bible both in its historical setting and as the Word of God speaking to the human spirit in every age. To be more functional means the discovery of the relevance of the gospel to every human situation, to judge, challenge, broaden, vivify, and transform life through the power of God in Christ.

In what follows, since we cannot consider all these things at once, we shall make our keynote the need to impart to the people a true and vital system of Christian belief. It should be presupposed, however, that we cannot do this unless we approach the matters to be discussed from the standpoint of both a historical understanding and spiritual appropriation of the Bible, and bring our theology to bear at every point on the human situation. (In my Understanding the Christian Faith, which is intended primarily for laymen, I have given a survey of the basic convictions of Christian faith, with a chapter on principles of biblical interpretation. What is said there need not be repeated. The treatment of problems in this chapter is intended to be merely illustrative.)

For a generation or more there has not been a great deal of doctrinal preaching in America. Our sermons, in so far as they are not made up of religious clichés and pretty stories, are mainly attempts to apply the gospel to moral problems. It has been assumed both that people would not be interested in theology and that it would not do them much good to have it anyway. Both these assumptions I believe to be thoroughly false. Moralistic preaching -- if it is really the preaching of Christian morality -- has a function in holding Christian standards before the hearers’ minds, and it cannot be dispensed with; but it seldom answers basic questions or imparts personal conviction for living. Only a true theology which is geared in with the gospel’s answer to life’s basic questions can do this.

What are these questions? Everybody, whether or not he puts the question vocally, wants to know whether life has any meaning, what his relation is to "whatever gods there be," why he is here, what his destiny is, how sin and pain may be overcome, whether prayer matters, what lies beyond death for himself and his loved ones. An abstract discussion of creation, providence, the problem of evil or personal immortality, an abstract presentation of various theories of the atonement or arguments for the existence of God, may leave the hearer unmoved and largely unenlightened. Especially is this true if all the various theories are laid out with objective detachment and the hearer in smorgasbord fashion is expected to choose according to his taste. But, fortunately, a presentation of the abiding convictions of Christian faith does not need to be abstract, and it can be affirmative without being dogmatic.

The term Christian faith, as we noted at the outset, has two essential meanings, not identical but not to be dissociated. The attempt to dissociate them is perilous and responsible for much vacuous preaching. Christian faith means a way of life -- a commitment of spirit in which God and man meet for the overcoming of obstacles and the living of victorious Christian life. The Christian faith means also the body of Christian truth --the content of Christian theology, what a Christian may believe. In trying to preach along one of these lines without the other we have too often missed both and fallen between them. The resulting substitute is at best conventional pious words and moral platitudes, at worst a string of interesting illustrations to make the sermon snappy.

Take, for example, the matter of prayer -- a subject in which every Christian who has anything more than a casual concern about religion is interested. Sermons are frequently preached upon it, and ought to be. To be well preached they ought not merely to be exhortations to pray -- which most of the hearers have heard many times -- nor should they consist mainly of stories of remarkable answers to prayer in which apparently God was persuaded to manage affairs according to the petitioner’s request. To be well preached a sermon on prayer must answer some of the hearer’s questions and give him assurance that through prayer he can find power in God for any situation, including his own deepest need. Among these questions, whether voiced or not, is a desire to know what prayer really is if it is more than wishful thinking, how it relates to God and to God’s world, whether God is concerned with each of us, what difference prayer makes, why it so often seems unanswered. None of these questions can be answered outside of a theological framework of Christian belief in a personal God who has made us for fellowship with himself and for obedience to his will, who cares for us as individuals, and within the channels of his orderly world gives heed to our petitions. To try to answer such questions without reference to the wider context of the Christian gospel is either to speak empty phrases or to hold out expectations that may end in shattered faith and shattered lives.

If this seems farfetched, note the following letter from a girl who had been brought up on sermons which assumed the unfailing efficacy of prayers made in faith. Her brother David, whom she deeply loved, was in the war. After the news of his death came, she wrote to his chaplain, who later as a student of mine gave me the letter. I do not know who the girl is, but her cry has in it a universal pathos:

Right now I just can’t take sympathy or moral platitudes such as "God knows best" and that it was his will. Such is not so, and with David’s death goes my entire faith in prayer. Almost every hour, certainly every day, I’ve prayed earnestly that God would send him back to me. He seems to have laughed in my face and belied such promises as "Ask what ye will believing" and "If ye have the faith of a grain of mustard seed." What a sucker I was to believe all that! . . . I’m bitter and full of hatred because they murdered the one person who was dearer to me than my own life . . . . I shall not mention it again, so let’s consider it closed.

Doctrinal preaching, if it had been the right doctrine, would have saved her from this, and she would have had the Christian gospel to sustain her in her grief.

Or consider a closely related question of which this same letter is an illustration -- the problem of unmerited suffering. Of course no minister ought to claim that he has the complete answer to this ancient and most persistent perplexity of the human spirit. "Why did God let this happen? Why did he do this to me?" will probably continue to be asked as long as men live and believe in God. Yet we could go much farther than we generally have in giving true answers and eradicating false ones.

Two things are imperative if a minister is to bring the Christian gospel to bear on the problem of human pain. The first and more important is to mediate to the sufferer the abundant and unfailing resources of God for mastering his pain -- a sense of the divine nearness, an assurance of divine concern, confidence that in the midst of it all there is a good to be found which, with the help of God, can lead to richer and deeper living. "We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him," the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament puts it, which is a great improvement over the King James rendering of "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God." There is no assurance that to love God will ever pay dividends in freedom from pain; there is every assurance in the Christian gospel that God will find a way to work for good in the worst situations with those who love him and stay their lives upon him. Whatever else we preach, this note must not be absent.

Yet it is not enough to thwart inquiries and gloss over preventable pain by saying simply, "God knows best," or "His will be done." Nobody but God himself knows how much harm has been done by the assumption that whatever is, is the will of God and therefore right! Let a person kill himself or kill someone else by careless -- not to say drunken -- driving, and a kind of residual Calvinism will prompt some to say that "his time had come" and "God willed it so." Let a child be physically maimed for life by a birth injury, or spiritually maimed by having to grow up in hunger and fear as in war-torn lands, or in squalor and crime as in our own slums; and then when the natural consequences appear, not a few pious Christians will say that God in his inscrutable providence willed it to be this way. Fortunately life is more than logic, and modern predestinarians like their Calvinistic forebears are seldom consistent if the issue is one in which human responsibility is clearly evident. However, most of the cases of undeserved suffering come mixed, with individual human choices, social forces, and physical factors all combined -- as in war, poverty, premature or violent death, disease, mental breakdowns, and the like. In such instances it is equally a mistake to say that God willed it and that God has nothing to do with it.

What we have to do in our preaching and pastoral counseling is to combine a Christian doctrine of providence with an understanding of the way in which God works consistently in his world through a natural sequence of events. Either one of these concepts would be easier to hold without the other. A doctrine of providence presupposes not only that God is personal in his own nature, but that he cares personally for each individual, that prayer makes a difference, that "in everything God works for good with those who love him." A concept of natural cause-and-effect relations accords with all the presuppositions of science but seems to have an impersonality about it which is not easily fitted into a conception of God’s personal care and guiding providence. As a consequence we have often wavered between one and the other, and the people have been left either with unwarranted expectations of divine intervention in their behalf or with a remote and essentially deistic God to whom -- or perhaps more accurately, to which -- it has seemed futile to turn in time of need.

Though providence and causality may seem strange bedfellows, we must get them together; and if both are true, they must belong together in God’s world. The key to the situation lies in putting together what we know of God as Creator and Redeemer, and finding a view of God’s relation to the world which will do justice both to the insights of biblical faith and to the facts of human experience. It is possible to make this synthesis, though it is not possible to amalgamate biblical literalism and proof-texting with mechanical impersonality.

In recent years numerous attempts have been made to solve the ancient problem of evil by way of a Given within the nature of God, the assertion of "the demonic" in the world (its metaphysical status being somewhat cloudy), or a forthright reinstatement of the existence of a personal devil. None of these approaches solves as many problems as it raises. The familiar liberal view of a self-limited God whose ends are altogether good and whose means are orderly still seems to me the best solution, and one which not only can be but ought to be made clear to our laymen.

The approach to a coherent synthesis of divine providence with divine causality runs somewhat as follows. God the Creator in his wisdom and goodness has chosen to make a world of human freedom, of natural order, and of intricately interwoven physical and social relationships. All told, this is an exceedingly good world. From our freedom comes our human responsibility, which makes us persons instead of things and opens the door to all the highest achievements of the human spirit. From the natural order of the world comes its dependability, without which there would be no science, no ordered control of physical forces or events, none of the security which comes from knowing that the physical world is at least in large measure calculable. From our relations to one another come the possibilities of love, fellowship, and mutual service. These are our greatest boons, which we would not surrender if we could; and the ancient biblical judgment on creation, "And God saw that it was good," is profoundly right.

But this is not the whole story. These same blessings have in them the possibilities of evil, and must have if God is to be true to his chosen ways of working -- chosen because with all their risk for him and for us they are still the best ways. Human freedom makes goodness possible, but also sin and error. Orderly and dependable forces in God’s world make possible man’s security and mastery over nature -- but never wholly, for accident and disease come in their wake and wait to be conquered. Our social interrelatedness that puts us in families and communities of many sorts brings with it suffering to the innocent from the sins and misdeeds of the guilty. This is the common lot of our humanity.

Is God responsible for the painful and tragic events of life? Here we need to distinguish, more sharply than we often do, between causality and purpose. To ask regarding any circumstance, "Why did this happen?" may mean either "What conditions brought it about?" or "What good end is it intended to serve?" The why in one instance refers to cause, in the other to purpose; and an answer to one of these questions will not do for the other. Many events occur, caused by the conditions of God’s world, which we must believe are not directly willed or purposed by God. Since he who loves most suffers most, God must be far more brokenhearted than we when young lives are snuffed out prematurely, high possibilities crushed through accident or illness or the guilt and carelessness of others. A simple explanation to our laymen at this point alone can help greatly in the meeting of this problem.

Yet, faced by the painful facts of life, our confidence in the goodness of creation would turn sterile if we were not able to trust the goodness of God the Savior and Redeemer. This is why any theoretical attempt at an explanation of the problem of suffering must go deeper than philosophy can take us. It is as we come to know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that we know he understands, he cares, he fashions his world with no mechanical impersonality but with loving concern for his children’s good. In his inclusive love he makes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust. His way of conquering evil is for the innocent and the fortunate to bear the burdens of the weak, and in the Cross of Christ he has gone before us in the way. He works with his children to banish pain where it can be removed, and where it cannot "in everything God works for good with those who love him."

This brief statement is of course but a suggestion of the way we must approach this eternal problem. Yet approach it we must, in sermons, discussion groups, church-school classes, and every other available channel of instruction. In the face of grief or bitter, devastating pain people are in no frame of mind to think reasonably or to be instructed. All that is appropriate then is reassurance and a sense of the love and nearness of God. Yet if the instruction is not given beforehand, the reassurance is built not on rock but sand, and is more than likely to be washed away by the waters of affliction which engulf the soul.

A third area in which we need very much more of theological preaching is the deeper and more serious aspect of the problem of evil, namely, sin. Theoretically the problem here is less acute, for once the reality of human freedom of choice is granted, moral responsibility follows as a correlate, and with it the possibility of the misuse of our moral freedom. Practically, however, the problem is intensified both by the pervasiveness of sin and by the fact that relatively few people think of it as other than the infraction of conventional moral standards. Not recognizing themselves as transgressing such standards they do not regard themselves as sinners, or, at least, as very great sinners. In the Ladies Home Journal poll above referred to almost three quarters of the respondents failed to connect religion with their adult ethical judgments. When allowed to give their own definition of "a good person," 18 per cent thought they were completely successful; 28 per cent, three quarters; 32 per cent, halfway; and "only 7 per cent admitted they had scaled less than half the pinnacle of virtue." Challenged to say what they thought about loving their neighbors, well over three quarters of those interviewed said they thought they obeyed the law of love regarding their business competitors and those of other races and religions. Only 25 per cent claimed to love the enemies of their country and members of dangerous political parties, though in view of prevalent behavior even this seems a startling proportion! With due regard for the fact that no poll can give a true picture of inner attitudes and no individual can judge himself with full objectivity, it is apparent that the great majority of the American public think of themselves, not as perfect, but as pretty good; and that the deeper meaning of sin as transgression of the law of God and lovelessness in the subtler aspects of human relations has hardly crossed their minds.

For this fading out of the sense of sin and consequently of the need of repentance and divine forgiveness, many factors are responsible. It is part of the general secularization of the times, in which naturalistic interpretations of the social sciences, ethical determinism, Freudian and behavioristic psychology, the reaction from puritanism, the increasing complexity and impersonality of modern life, have all had a part. Sin bothers us less than it did our fathers, not because we sin less, but because we have become wary of guilt complexes and scornful of old fogy scruples. The less we know our neighbors, the less we are restrained by the fear they will talk about us; and the more our neighbors sin, the less binding seem former inhibitions and restraints. Furthermore, the more we sin collectively in the vast impersonalities of modern warfare and industrialism, the more we get used to it, and the more inevitable seem the forces that thrust us in that direction. It is hard to feel sinful about something that seems inevitable, and to an unprecedented degree our age both is unconscious of sin and feels helpless before it.

However, it will not do for religious leaders to lay the fading of a sense of sin entirely to the influence of the secular community. At several crucial points in our preaching and teaching we have gone astray, and our inability to preach now an effective and vital doctrine of sin and salvation is fundamentally the result of our own mistakes. In the more conservative churches sin has been generally conceived as a state of inherited Adamic guilt, not very sharply defined or related to the moral life, but nevertheless with some moral content in the individual’s personal relations. There is censure for the more overt sins of the flesh and transgression of conventional moral codes, and sinners are called to repentance for unchastity, drinking, lying, stealing, swearing, cheating one another, and neglecting duties owed to God through the Church. In both the Roman Catholic and the fundamentalist Protestant traditions there is an impulse toward contrition for what is recognized as sin and a channel of escape, but relatively little attention is given either to the more subtle sins of the spirit or to major social evils in which as sinners we all participate.

In the liberal tradition we have done a better job at pointing out the range of sin in the horizontal dimension and have aroused something of a conscience over such matters as mass exploitation, child labor, race discrimination, preventable disease, and indiscriminate killing in war, which our Christian fathers less often thought of as sin. But in broadening the scope of sin we have flattened it out. Sin as the individual’s personal evil will in rebellion against God is far less talked about than it once was. In the prevailingly liberal churches for years now few books have been written, few sermons have been preached, few church-school classes have been taught in which sin as sin against God has been the central theme. Theologians in recent years have reinstated the reality and seriousness of sin, but as far as I have been able to observe this mood has not yet to any great extent reached the churches.

As a consequence a generation has arisen in which sin is an almost meaningless word. This same generation therefore can hardly be expected to think much about repentance, forgiveness, or the grace of God. When members of it hear Reinhold Niebuhr or some other prophet talk about sin and the judgment of God, it all sounds so strange that while they are fascinated they are baffled by it. The whole matter is apt to be dismissed as something too pessimistic, and too hard to understand, to be worth much thought when there are so many other things to think about.

The only corrective is the preaching and teaching of a broader, deeper, more incisive doctrine of sin, and with it the ever-present resources of God for its mastery. The neo-orthodox school has rendered great service in calling liberals back from complacency at this point. Yet it has its own deficiencies. The new orthodoxy puts more emphasis on sinful inner motives, particularly pride, than the old orthodoxy; and at least in the American scene it has more social emphasis. It has a revised version of original sin which admits the mythological character of Adam. Yet it is still too generalized in its doctrine of original sin, making much of man’s sinful state of pride and rebellion but relatively little of the concrete sins for which we are responsible. It is, furthermore, too much disposed in its doctrine of divine judgment to spread the doom on thick without adequate recognition of God’s saving grace or of the concrete works of love which man not only can but must do if he is to be God’s servant in fashioning a better world. It rightly strips us of our illusions and alibis, and leaves us naked before God; but it does not always clothe us again with the garment of praise. What the men of our time -- what all of us -- need is "with hearty repentance and true faith" to acknowledge our sin before God and then hear him speak the word of hope and confidence, "Thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace." This dual Christian note of repentance and hope it is the primary task of a chastened liberalism to bring to a sinful and despairing world. (For an unusually well balanced and constructive treatment of this problem see Daniel D. Williams, God’s Grace and Man’s Hope (Harper, 1949),

A fourth area of human experience we must look at, for it bulks large both in human experience and in the minister’s functions. This is the fact of death. Not only is death the one absolutely inescapable event of life, but the victory over sin and death has always been at the center of Christian faith. It is therefore perhaps natural that people who have lost all other connection with the Church still desire for their loved ones a funeral at which a minister officiates.

Except at funerals death is little talked about in our time, and sermons are seldom preached on it from one Easter to the next. I have now been attending church and college chapels for a long time; and outside of funeral, memorial, and Easter services I doubt that I have heard three sermons on the Christian understanding of death in the past thirty years. Yet people keep on dying; funerals continue to be held; and if nothing is said about death except at the funeral, what is said there is not apt to be very meaningful or more than superficially comforting.

The reasons for such sermonic silence are varied, ranging probably from a fear of being thought morbid through a fear of sounding other-worldly to a fear of not knowing what to say on so moot a subject. All of these apprehensions, though with some foundation, can be greatly overdone. One ought not to talk about death, or any other subject, all the time -- but not to talk about it at all because people prefer to think of something pleasant is to fail to give them Christian victory over what all must face sooner or later. To talk about eternity and fail to stress the Christian responsibilities and opportunities of this life is to be off-center --but so is the reverse. To claim to know more than we do about the future life is presumption, but the Christian faith gives us all we really need to know. What we do know we ought not to hesitate to proclaim whenever the occasion is appropriate.

What, then, can we know? Our basic faith is that the God who has made us for this life has made us for another, and that for time and eternity all that matters most is safe in his keeping. The God who has made us persons and who "setteth the solitary in families" here will keep us as individual persons in bonds of fellowship beyond the grave. With earthly chains removed, life can be richer, fairer, finer. If we believe this, death, whether it comes early or late, need not daunt us and separation from our loved ones means no final cleavage. When people had this faith, death held fewer terrors and the present life fewer frustrations.

This is not to say that any minister should assay to give proof of immortality. In the nature of the case the evidence needed for reasoned proof on empirical grounds is not accessible, and we had better frankly admit that our faith in immortality is a faith, coherent with what we know of God and his ways with men, and not a conclusion from scientific evidence. Yet much can be done in the way of making clear the understanding of man’s spiritual nature, his high destiny which points beyond this life for its fulfillment, the meaning of the Kingdom for this life and the next, the Christian concepts of judgment and salvation with eternity in their span -- in short, the goodness and power of a God who, having given us this life, can give us another in which to attain to his nearer presence, enjoy a richer happiness, and do his will more perfectly.

The persuasiveness of faith in immortality will no doubt always seem greater to those who stand within the Christian heritage than to those who view it critically from without. To those to whom the resurrection of Jesus and the goodness and power of a living God mean nothing, it is likely to seem mere wishful thinking. Argument will persuade no one who is convinced to the contrary. Yet to those many who would like to believe if they could, ministers have an obligation to speak the abiding convictions of Christian faith with clarity and integrity. It is better to be silent than to announce to others as truth what one personally disbelieves. But to be silent through indifference or through aversion to dealing with an unpleasant problem is to be recreant to our calling. If we do not ourselves know what we believe, the first thing to do is to go to our New Testaments and read them until the vistas and overtones of eternity have captured our earth-bound minds.

What has been said in this chapter about the need of leading the people to a clearer understanding of prayer, suffering, sin, and death is but a pointer along the way. There is not a human problem -- there is no human situation, whether joyous or tragic -- that does not call for interpretation by the central convictions of Christian faith. Unless ministers give the people such an interpretation, they are not likely to get it for themselves. And unless they get it somewhere, the Christian faith cannot make much difference. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear" is a familiar word; the correlate is, "He that hath aught to speak, let him speak it."