This week Brian Houston, founder of Hillsong, penned an open letter to Israel Folau criticising the rugby star’s “judgmental” approach to sharing the gospel on social media. Brian then sent the letter to the Sydney Morning Herald who published it under the title: A message to Folau: The world doesn’t need more judgmental Christians.
The piece divided opinions, and many, including some of Brian’s own supporters, expressed disappointment in his decision to distance himself from Folau. But that’s not the most concerning aspect of Brian’s letter.
Brian doesn’t just take issue with Folau’s approach, he quickly turns his attention to anyone who preaches about sin and judgment, suggesting to an unbelieving world that Christians who speak in such terms have questionable motives, at best.
In 40 years of telling people about the good news of Jesus, I have seen that the “turn or burn” approach to proclaiming the message of Christianity alienates people. Scaring people doesn’t draw them into the love of Jesus.
The problem is, Brian has now found himself at odds with the New Testament. That is why he appeals to forty years of personal experience, rather than any clear example in Scripture.
What Brian seemingly fails to understand is that the “turn or burn” approach finds its origin in the Bible. “Turn or burn” is simply another way of saying “repent or perish”, a message that Jesus himself preached to unbelievers in, for instance, Luke 13:3, 5.
The idea that such an approach would “alienate” people fails to recognise the fact that, according to Scripture, those outside of Christ, are already in a state of alienation (Eph. 2:12; Eph. 4:17; Col. 1:21).
Brian makes a similar claim again when he warns, “The problem with harsh comments in the media and disparaging statements on social media is that they create a further wedge between God and people.” But what greater wedge is there than the one that’s caused by sin?
If sin is the great wedge between God and people, and if Brian is genuinely concerned about the things that keep people from God, then why would he object to anyone drawing attention to that very real, very present wedge we call sin?
Brian’s assumption is that the “repent or perish” message is inherently unloving and sinfully judgmental, yet he has no problem calling Folau to repent of his message. If Folau’s message is a “wedge” and should be addressed, then what should we do about the wedge that is sin?
Further on in the piece, Brian draws a false distinction between Biblical truth and Biblical love, as though it’s appropriate at times to sacrifice Biblical truth for the sake of Biblical love.
I would never compromise the integrity of Biblical teaching and I believe that the Bible is clear about the consequences of sin. However, as Christians we are first called to love God and love other people, including those who believe differently to us.
Is Brian suggesting that warning people about the eternal consequences of sin and pointing them to the only Saviour from that sin is inherently unloving? If Brian actually believes there are real present and future consequences for sin – including hell – then how is downplaying that reality anything other than dishonest?
The Apostle Paul said, “knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” That fear is grounded on the fact that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10-11). It’s not loving, graceful, or respectful to downplay or minimize that very real threat.
Charles Spurgeon once warned, “We rob the gospel of its power if we leave out its threatenings of punishment.” Similarly, R. C. Sproul said, “It is as reasonable for preachers to warn against hell as it would be for a sentinel to warn of an approaching army or a weatherman an approaching tornado.”
In no other area of life would we minimize impending danger in order to maximise responsiveness or a sense of urgency. Why then would we adopt this approach when it matters most and when apathy and complacency will have eternal consequences?
In the end, Brian’s approach of minimizing sin and judgment only minimizes the person and work of Jesus Christ, who came into the world to defeat sin and save his people from God’s wrath by enduring it in their place.
You cannot minimize sin without minimizing the one who saves people from their sin. Sadly, this is one of the primary reasons why so many people leave churches with the false idea that Jesus is entirely irrelevant. They were never told the truth. They were never warned that it’s a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
A.W. Tozer once said, “The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.”
When you take the bad news from the good news, the good news becomes irrelevant. Who needs a Saviour if there’s no real threat? You don’t run from a building unless you’re convinced it’s on fire. That’s why you won’t find Brian’s good-bits-only approach anywhere in the Bible.
The Old Testament prophets, the New Testament church, and Jesus Christ himself all preached a message, warning their hearers to “repent or perish”, or as Brian put it, “turn or burn”. No Christian minister in his right mind would accuse them of being graceless or unjustly harsh for doing so. In fact, it was their love for God and people that fuelled their ministries.
In Acts 2:47 we’re told the early church had “favour with all people”, but that was not because they compromised or watered-down their message. They preached “repent or perish”:
Repent and be baptized… for the forgiveness of your sins… Save yourselves from this crooked generation (Acts 2:38, 40).
It’s preposterous to suggest that one could preach the same gospel, that one could preach repentance from sin and forgiveness of sin without making any clear indication as to what constitutes as sin.
We’re told the church preached repentance, but what were the people called to repent from? They preached forgiveness of sins, but what were the sins they needed to be forgiven of? They urged their listeners to be saved from their “crooked” and “perverse” generation, but what does that mean without any clear connection to specific sinful behaviours or actions?
All of these are essentially meaningless without a clear definition of what sin is. Those who would sacrifice truth in order to gain favour end up with neither. The church in Acts 2 had both.
Brian would do well to meditate on J.C. Ryle’s words of warning:
What would you say of the man who saw his neighbour’s house in danger of being burned down, and never raised the cry of ‘fire’? What ought to be said of us as ministers if we call ourselves watchmen for souls, and yet see fires of hell raging in distance, and never give the alarm?
Call it bad taste, if you like, to speak of hell. Call it charity to make things pleasant, and speak of smoothly, and soothe men with a constant lullaby of peace. From such notions of taste and charity may I ever be delivered! My notion of charity is to warn men plainly of danger. My notion of taste in the ministerial office is to declare all the counsel of God. If I never spoke of hell, I should think I had kept back something that was profitable and should look on myself as an accomplice of the devil.
To be a faithful Christian is to be faithful to Christ, and to be faithful to Christ is to be faithful to his Word. The good news we have been entrusted with is a gospel of God’s grace. But a heart that has not been humbled by the law of God, that has never been convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment will never recognize their desperate need of that grace. Why? Because sick men don’t seek cures while they’re convinced they’re whole.