For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.

Luke 19:10 (LSB)

As a tax collector, Zacchaeus wasn’t unaware of his status in life. He wasn’t confused about where he stood. Zacchaeus was a traitor. He had volunteered to work for the Romans, a brutal occupying force in Jerusalem. Zacchaeus shook down his fellow citizens and gave their money to the enemy. He was even allowed to overcharge the amount owed. There is evidence he did this. The crowd called him a sinner. (Luke 19:6.) Zacchaeus knew he was lost.

This scenario could have been different. The Romans might have fought against the negative view of tax collecting. The Romans could have run a propaganda campaign that made being a traitor look positive, even glamorous. Through financial incentives and social pressure, the Romans could have elevated the status of these tax thieves. If this had happened, instead of being despised, Zacchaeus might have been envied. Tax collecting and other jobs of Roman discipline would have been wildly popular. The guilt Zacchaeus felt down in his bones would be replaced with pride.

One might reply, “But Jerusalem was an orthodox society. Roman propaganda would have fallen on deaf ears.” Possibly, which is why Zacchaeus knew he needed a savior. Zacchaeus understood the definition of lost. But what if he lived in a secular society over two thousand years later?

Redefining words

The definition of what is lost has been changed—updated and modernized. It’s a recent development in Western culture. Not too long ago, up through the mid-twentieth century, being spiritually lost was the same definition as in Zacchaeus’s day. It meant living apart from the Holy God of the Bible. It meant rejecting God’s son Jesus Christ. These decisions led to what the Bible calls spiritual darkness. “They do not know and do not understand; They walk about in darkness.” Psalm 82:5 LSB.

Billy Graham boldly defined the word lost in stadiums and arenas. He reminded listeners that man’s nature was wicked and not inherently good. He talked about the general condition of sin and gave specific examples. He cautioned about a real hell. Then, he shared Christ’s news of salvation.

Today, the word lost has no moral foundation. Behaviors that lead to spiritual confusion are no longer considered a sin; another word rejected as outdated, misguided, and anti-science. That would-be Roman propaganda campaign? It’s happening in our time. It’s also working very well. The US Government, for example, actively promotes anti-Biblical beliefs and lost behaviors through laws and observances. A believer once complained the government was lukewarm toward Christianity. Then, we noticed the government turning apathetic, then apolitical, until, in the 21st century, it was anti-Christian.

Generations have grown up in a culture where lostness is normal. Leaders have succeeded in turning bad behaviors into proud choices of individuality. Lost is only for drivers anymore. The label is suddenly applied to Christians who reject the new morality of embracing all forms of personal rebellion.

Reasserting truth

Should these developments affect the way the gospel is preached?
Likely, yes. The days of collective understanding of a lost condition are gone. As are the days of listeners being as aware of their failures as Zacchaeus was.

Jesus lays out the mandate for preaching in Luke 19: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” For years, the Christian pastor had a head start. Much of the Western world knew what “lost” meant. It allowed the pastor to explore “seek and save.” Now, a message of good news appears redundant to a world of self-actualized sinners proud of their new identities.

Has the Christian pastor noticed this shift? One has cause to doubt. There isn’t much talk of the new lostness from the pulpit. One way we know is that a pastor can make headlines when he does address it. John MacArthur is one of the only pastors who takes the time to redefine modern sin as another manifestation of an age-old lost condition. He has preached extensively on the encroachment of government into the church, sexual and gender confusion in our culture, social justice laws, and the possibility that the collapse of American life is because the country is under God’s judgment.

These are unpopular talking points. They make people nervous, including Christians who worry about attending a high-profile church. These pointed beliefs offend and, at times, enrage political leaders. John MacArthur fought many battles with officials in California, where his church is located. These officials despised MacArthur. They took his church to court with the goal of levying fines and perhaps closing Grace Community Church. MacArthur’s defiance against unjust and unbiblical laws orchestrated by Governor Gavin Newsom made headlines. MacArthur would proceed to win every court case.

John MacArthur is direct in expressing his attitude toward evangelism: “We fight every battle. It’s not a matter of selecting certain battles. We fight them all because that’s our calling. It’s a whole life of contention.”

In a 2022 interview with Justin Peters, MacArthur said the Apostle Paul influenced his view of evangelism in Acts 20. There Paul says, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock.” Acts 20:28 (LSB).

“Early in my ministry, what struck me about Paul, in Acts 20, he said he did nothing for three years but warn people of what was coming. It’s coming from the inside, and it’s coming from the outside.”

MacArthur says he understands why churches abstain from addressing current topics. Their institutions may divide over it. There’s a cordiality a church seeks with certain people. Clearly, he doesn’t feel these are good reasons. “We fight every battle against the Word of God, the truth of God.” Why does MacArthur do what few other churches believe is necessary? As MacArthur preached many times, the church has no fellowship with the world. This foundational statement frees a church from trying to please anyone. It raises the question of why a church would feel pressured to try.

Walk and chew gum

Churches can become defensive with various explanations from the pulpit:

“We’re focused on the Gospel, not politics.”

“It’s beneath a church to address the sin of the day.”

“My Bible says God is in control of all this.”

What these pastors don’t address is how modern listeners will receive the context of their messages. Without an agreed-upon definition of lost, sermons devoted only to seeking and saving can fall on deaf ears. The Holy Spirit can whisper the context, but it suggests an incomplete message.

Christians active in culture remain confused. Where will the unsaved hear what is right and wrong if not from a church? If we accept the definitions have changed, who will update the record? How many Christians are worn down by a constant anti-Christian message in society? Will they give in?

Culturally active Christians believe a change in message is past due. Christian pastors must stand up and bravely give specifics as MacArthur does. They must address the ways modern politics have twisted Biblical truth. As often as we hear, for example, that open borders are a sign of compassion, that Jesus was actually an illegal immigrant, that one’s race is an example of original sin, we need pastors who are willing to correct the record, on record.

Will it dilute Christ’s saving message? One listens to MacArthur and hears ninety percent about the Good News and ten percent about the culture. They work off of each other. It seems the modern pastor needs the confidence to walk and chew gum at the same time and include both messages.

Many Christians are on Twitter (now X) to hear Biblical morality defended. Their pastors are silent on these issues, so they turn to cultural influencers to reinforce what is true. Two of the highest-profile people on Twitter who inadvertently defend Biblical morality are Hindu and Jewish: Vivek Ramaswamy and Chaya Rachik. Ramaswamy has been vocal about the effect government lawlessness has on a moral society. Raychik has been a tireless defender of children against the medical malpractice of gender surgery.

These voices aren’t coming from Christians. However, on these topics, they reinforce the truth in proactive, confident ways. They remind us that the gate is narrow and belief in God is the answer. One might accuse culturally-minded Christians of seeking secular solutions. Or, we might acknowledge that the Gospel is active in a society’s specific conditions. If pastors are too distracted to call out these conditions, Christians will look for this context.

A new relevance

Will adding an element of contentious context to the Sunday sermon cause trouble for a church? Might the government suddenly notice a congregation that had been flying under the radar with a weekly message that Jesus saves? Will a community view a church that fights for truth as intolerant?

Possibly. Yet, it’s also possible that the message of seeking and saving will hit listeners differently when they hear a current definition of what lost means. Then, like Zacchaeus, the listener might feel the urge to get nearer to Christ.

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