EN: You have a new booklet out entitled Why the Cross? What would you say is the great attraction of the cross for needy sinners?
JB: From one angle it is no attraction at all. The cross is hateful to unbelievers as it strikes an unacceptable blow at their pride, making all their supposed goodness — even their religious ideas and practices — worthless, while they fondly imagine that these will prepare them for eternity. One of my golfing partners was a humanist (with a small ‘h’) and at his funeral service the word ‘God’ was never used, yet ironically another member of our golf club assured the congregation that Fred (not his real name) was now safely in heaven. Any suggestion to the contrary would have caused offence.
The real attraction of the cross (or, rather, what should be seen as its attraction) is that it is the only place where God’s justice, wrath and mercy meet to provide a way of salvation. It was there that Jesus died, ‘the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’. The cross is what C.H. Spurgeon called ‘the world’s one and only remedy’.
Is evangelism hard?
EN: You have been an evangelist for many years. Would you say it is harder or easier now to present the message of the cross to non-Christians? And what is your reasoning?
JB: In one way, it is harder because we live in an increasingly ‘thing centred’ world. Advertising techniques have developed with such speed and subtlety that millions of people are marinated in materialism, with their lives so dominated by their possessions that they have little or no time for spiritual issues, let alone for the core message of the Christian faith.
The apostle Paul said that the preaching of the cross was ‘foolishness’ to most people of his day. The Greeks and Romans, for example, would have ridiculed the idea that their pantheons of deities were non-existent, that there was only one God and that the only way to get right with him was through the death of a 30-something man — and a Jew at that! The growth of a multi-faith culture in the UK is gradually pushing people to think the same way. Christianity is not only being reduced to the same level as man-made religions, it is now being marginalised to the point at which those who claim that it offers the only solution to man’s deepest needs are being dismissed as fundamentalist bigots. This makes it increasingly difficult to focus people’s attention on the basic truths of the Christian faith, let alone on the event that lies at its very heart.
On the other hand, the outrageous trumpeting of New Atheism’s cheerleader Richard Dawkins may have done more than all the country’s preachers combined to make people think about God. This has at least given Christians a starting point when talking to their friends and contacts and from there they have an opportunity to steer the conversation towards Christ and Calvary.
EN: Is the cross still as central in the life of the evangelical church in this country as it ought to be?
JB: Sadly, it may not be. We should be thankful for hundreds of churches that preach a clear, unadulterated gospel, but there are countless others where this is not the case and in which the trend has been towards a ‘softer’ approach which presents Jesus as a role model rather than as a Redeemer. But Jesus came into the world ‘to save sinners’, not merely to provide us with a moral benchmark. Discussing modern trends with Geoff Thomas some time ago, he drew dismayed attention to some of the things that were being taught and done by some churches and added: ‘John, all we have to offer is a crucified and risen Saviour’. He was right. Paul said: ‘Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’, but too many churches fall short of this, whatever their outward appearance.
I wonder whether the reason for this is that churches are shying away from what makes the message of the cross so inescapably important and urgent. When did the average churchgoer in this country last hear a series (or a single sermon) on the subject of hell? When doing research for my book Whatever happened to Hell? I asked an evangelical pastor with a library of 4,000 books how many he had on the subject of hell and he replied: ‘I did have one, but I seem to have mislaid it’. Yet if hell is not real, why did Jesus die? The cross makes no sense until it is seen in the light of God’s utter holiness, his zero tolerance of sin and his clear warning that as far as heaven is concerned ‘nothing unclean will ever enter it’.
Church programmes that help to meet local needs in society among the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged and the poor have an important part to play. The Christian church has often been a worthy example of compassion and care, but unless these programmes are in some way geared to the cross they fall short of the church’s commission, which is to ‘preach the gospel’.
Another hindrance to the centrality of the cross in church life is that its true message does not fit comfortably into the Christian entertainment industry, with the result that the message often has to be watered down to accommodate the method. The holiness and sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, the substitutionary death of Christ, the need for genuine repentance and the call to personal godliness are not easily conveyed by much of what is being offered as ‘worship’. Framing a genuinely biblical gospel in some formats is like trying to send War and Peace by Twitter.
The wonder of the cross
EN: Tell us about your own conversion and how you first saw the wonder of what Jesus achieved at the cross.
JB: I was born in Guernsey, evacuated to the Hebrides during the German occupation, returned in 1945 and joined my stepmother in attending an evangelical Anglican church. I soon became a card-carrying religious hypocrite, heavily involved in the church but a stranger to God’s saving grace. After leaving school I joined the Guernsey Civil Service and after several years was transferred to the Attorney General’s office. Sharing a room was the loveliest girl I had ever come across and in October 1954 she invited me to a mission being held by a visiting American evangelist, Paul Cantelon. I kept turning down her invitations to attend, but eventually went simply because she would be there. At first, I disliked the whole thing, but eventually found myself convicted of sin, not least the sin of thinking that my religion could make me right with God. The glory of what Jesus accomplished on the cross suddenly became wonderfully real to me and at the end of one meeting I became a Christian by singing (and meaning) the words: ‘Pass me not, O gentle Saviour; hear my humble cry. While on others you are calling, do not pass me by’. The rest is history — and I did marry the girl! A year ago I tearfully laid her in her grave — but I rejoice in the text on its headstone which reads: ‘With Christ, which is far better’. Even after my body is laid there I will be able to give my testimony to all who pass by!
Advice for rookies
EN: What advice would you give to young evangelists today just starting out on their path in ministry?
JB: First and foremost, make your personal walk with God a priority — though this is not my advice; it simply applies Paul’s word to Timothy to ‘Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching’. As to advice, I don’t feel qualified to give any, but these (not in any significant order) are some things that have proved helpful to me.
• Firstly, master the biblical basics. Knowing the words of the evangel is not the same as understanding their meaning. Keep meditating on the salvation doctrines.
• Secondly, read as if your life depended on it; read, read, read!
• Thirdly, read for sustenance and not just for sermons. A young evangelist once rang me to ask: ‘John, what are you reading for the good of your soul?’ Always be ready to give a good answer to that question!
• Fourthly, be disciplined; don’t spend time, invest it.
• Fifthly, set goals, aim high and do everything you can to get there.
• Sixthly, get out of bed early! Any active hours invested before 8.00 am are worth double. This kind of discipline is sometimes difficult when away from home and you need to consider your hosts, but at home there is no excuse for being sloppy.
• Seventhly, develop a prayer support team and keep it up to date with your news.
• Eighthly, never stop praying for ‘wisdom from above’, especially as your ministry develops and you have ever-increasing calls on your time and gifts.