Recently on a flight overseas, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate. When he learned I was a pastor, he asked the all-too-familiar question, “How can you be sure you’re in the right church when they all claim to have the truth?” And then he added, “Is it really that important? After all, don’t we all believe in the same God?”
If you are a pastor or if you have ever discussed religion with a person on the street, you are sure to have encountered similar questions. That is because more and more people today are buying into the belief that truth is relative—there is your truth, and there is my truth, but ultimately, there is no absolute truth.
Or worse yet, many believe that truth is irrelevant. Since truth cannot be determined, we should stop trying and focus on what is really important: personal fulfillment.
The postmodern Christian
One hundred years ago, and as recently as the 1950s, the questions people posed were very different. In a predominantly Christian America, people were searching for biblical truth. Pointing someone to a certain Bible truth was proof enough for the sincere seeker, and the Bible alone was the yardstick by which truth was measured.
But for many today, truth is a matter of convenience. That is why some may attend a church on their street just because it is close to home or go to a large community church farther away because of its outstanding musical program, and even one in a neighboring town for its church school.
The landscape of Christian America changed radically with the 1960s “revolution,” disrupting the traditional order of things and challenging every aspect of American life. This landscape introduced new lifestyle options into mainstream America, both in the secular and the religious sphere, blurring the lines of demarcation.
If we add the influx of Middle Eastern and Eastern religions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam), the truth would appear to have been lost somewhere in translation. Our distinct beliefs became just one more option among thousands, and with no yardstick in common by which to measure truth, truth became relative.
How, then, do we reach people from all walks of life and cultures with the gospel message? And more importantly, how do we reach the world with the three angels’ messages—the distinct biblical truth for our time?
This involves a double challenge, because while the core gospel message has never changed—Adam and Eve accepted salvation by faith in the Lamb who was to come, just as we accept it by faith in the Lamb who died for us—some aspects of truth for each generation do change.
Every generation had a particular truth to proclaim. Noah accepted the gospel message of salvation by faith in the coming Messiah, but he had a distinct message to present to the world: the earth would be destroyed by water, and all who would be saved must enter the ark. Elijah, too, had a message, as did John the Baptist and all the prophets throughout the Bible, all within the context of the gospel.
Presenting today’s message
Martin Luther was a devout Catholic monk who desperately sought the favor of a harsh and exacting God, following the rules of his order to the letter. But the harder he tried, the less deserving he felt, until that fateful day when, in abject despair, he climbed on his knees up the marble staircase purported to have been climbed by Jesus on His way to the cross. He felt that maybe this would finally atone for his sin.
But that day, everything changed, because he suddenly understood with lightning clarity the text that flashed through his mind: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17, KJV).
As the light of truth flooded his mind and filled his heart with joy, he jumped up and resolutely walked down the steps, to the astonishment of those around him.
Why is this so relevant today? Because 500 years later, people are still climbing stairs, creating a salvation of their own making. If there is one thing that distinguishes the gospel message from every other religion and philosophy in the world, it’s that justification is by faith in the works of Someone else and not our own. It is a gift from God.
The only staircase that matters is the shining staircase that Jacob discovered nearly 4,000 years before, when he, too, was at a low point: a staircase that leads straight to heaven. That staircase is Jesus Himself. He describes it in John 1:51: “ ‘you will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’”1
That is our distinct message. Jesus is the only One who bridged the gap between heaven and earth. His sacrifice allowed heaven to come down to us and our prayers to ascend to God’s throne. We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder toward our salvation!
The gospel message is distinct in that it is a message of grace and forgiveness. “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). He took our punishment and died for us that we might live (Isa. 53:5).
To the Christian, salvation is by grace: being justified by faith through the merits of Jesus who died on the cross to save us. That is our distinct message.
But all Christians believe in that. So how is it distinct, and how does salvation by grace tie in with the three angels’ messages?
Look for a moment at Cain and Abel. Both desired to worship God. Abel threw himself on God’s mercy and trusted Him implicitly. Cain believed he had a better idea than what God required: a form of worship of his own making, a salvation by his own works. Cain’s idea may not be a bad one and may have made complete sense. But it was not what God required.
Whenever we deviate from God’s explicit Word and follow a form of worship of our own making, we are rejecting salvation by grace. We are believing that our method, tradition, ideas are better suited to work out our salvation. We stop trusting implicitly in a “thus says the Lord,” and our straight and narrow becomes a thousand winding roads of confusion.
When we look at the three angels’ messages, we see in them salvation by faith adapted to what God’s people will face in the time of the end. They are a call to face the judgment through the merits of Jesus, to come out of a form of worship that God does not approve, and to trust implicitly in the Word of our Creator. This constitutes a call to examine what He has said in His law and abandon what He has not sanctioned so that we may receive the seal of God.
But the question remains: If our central message centers on the gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages, how do we convince people who do not accept our yardstick?
We do not. We do not have to convince anybody. We just have to present the message. We have been called to take the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. And while searching for methods and studying cultures to better reach people is imperative, ultimately, the work of conversion is not ours, because we cannot change a single heart.
What we sometimes forget is that we are not struggling alone to fulfill our commission. In fact, this is not even our work—we are just co-laborers with Christ. It is His work through the Holy Spirit that changes hearts.
We are not even asked to be successful. We are only asked to be faithful in proclaiming the message. The results belong to God. If I have learned anything in 32 years of ministry, I learned that I cannot convince anybody of anything. But what I can do—what we have been commanded to do—is to present the gospel message regardless of how futile or hardened our audience may seem, because the Holy Spirit is at work.
Recently, I was in a country where Christianity is a small minority. I had been asked to speak at a very well-to-do church on Sabbath morning, and before the service began, I asked one of the elders whether he knew how many visitors were present because I always like to pray for them at the end of a service. “Sir,” he told me emphatically, “we do not have visitors in this church.” To my surprise, there was a hint of pride in his voice: pride at a church so exclusive that visitors opted to go elsewhere.
At the close of the service, I decided to risk the elder’s ire and ask, anyway, whether there were any visitors present. Five people stood up, and I invited them to come forward for a special prayer. As one of the ladies approached, I noticed two burly body-guards flanking her and then retreating as she reached the front.
After the prayer, I spoke a few words with each guest and asked them to whom I had the pleasure of speaking. The lady said, “I am the wife of the postmaster general of the country. I have been attending this church for three months, and this is the first time anybody has spoken to me.” Nobody had invited her, she said; she had been attending because she wanted to know more about the Christian faith.
God’s work, not ours
Jesus said, “ ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ ” (John 12:32). If we believe this, we must know that we are not working alone and that the work of conversion is His. Jesus said that if we are silent, “ ‘the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:40). And if God can use stones, He can use you and me. But we must speak up and not be silent. There will soon come a time when God will pour out His Spirit, and we will see Jesus and His sacrifice as we have never seen Him before. Zechariah described this in his book in chapter 12, verse 10: “ ‘I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and of supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.’”
God does not say He will pour His Spirit on the whole world, but on His people—His church, the spiritual Israel. And as a result of that weeping, “ ‘A fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity’” (Zech. 13:1).
God’s people will be cleansed and purified. The Holy Spirit will be poured out in full measure to enable us to fin-ish the work of proclaiming the gospel to the world. What a time that will be!
The grand finale
There are incredible signs impossible to miss taking place right now in the sociopolitical world. We know that Satan has “three impure spirits that looked like frogs” going to the kings of the world “to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:13, 14). We know that Satan calls the world to a place of reunion, to a false unity. And while unity is good, unity in error is not—and never unity at the expense of Bible truth.
But God also has three angel messengers who are calling the world to a place of reunion. They are not going to the kings to enforce civil laws but going to every person on the planet, speaking to their hearts and calling them to a reunion on Mount Zion. They are calling people to come out of error and trust implicitly in what God has said in His Word. The three angels’ messages are God’s last message of love and mercy to the world.
We know that whenever God’s people have been faithful throughout history, this faithfulness has incited the fury of those who are not. God rejected Cain’s worship, and Cain despised his brother and set out to destroy him. That pattern has continued throughout history.
Now, as the world spins toward the final battle between Christ and Satan, we are being asked to take a stand and proclaim with power God’s distinct message for our time. There are more than 3,000 different evangelism and outreach methods, and they all work if we just try them—because God’s Spirit seizes any opportunity to influence hearts.
In her book The Great Controversy, Ellen White describes the time that is coming when people will be called to take a stand: “Servants of God, with their faces lighted up and shining with holy consecration, will hasten from place to place to proclaim the message from heaven. By thousands of voices, all over the earth, the warning will be given. . . . Thus the inhabitants of the earth will be brought to take their stand.
“The message will be carried not so much by argument as by the deep conviction of the Spirit of God.”2
As the earth plunges into ever-deeper moral, political, economic, and ecological chaos, the Bible clearly describes those who stand for truth and proclaim the message during this time: “ ‘Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever’ ” (Dan. 12:3).
Great times are ahead for God’s people, and the best chapters of the book of Acts have yet to be written. When we embrace evangelism and make it a part of our ministry, we place ourselves in the center of God’s action—and what a place to be!
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version of the Bible. Emphasis in this passage added.
2 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 612.