Today I want to present a critique of The Way of the Master’s approach to evangelism. This is essentially my notes from my Shepherd’s Conference seminar, and so the audio is available here. If you are unfamiliar with TWOTM, then read this post first (there I explain what TWOTM is, and give some reasons why I think it is a helpful approach to evangelism).
Let me give two disclaimers: 1. This is a long post, because I want all of my concerns to be in one place. If you want to read the whole thing, I suggest you pack a lunch. 2. I write this with much respect and admiration for the people at Living Waters, and I am very thankful for their work (if you are wondering, yes I did share this with them first). I share the same goals as they do, and I want this post to be more like two teammates talking at half time, and not like two opposing players bumping chests.
With that out of the way, here are my two main concerns about TWOTM approach to evangelism:
1. It has an over emphasis on the law, which results in several verses that are misinterpreted and leads to a lack of balance in its presentation.
2. Because it presents a single approach to evangelism, it often becomes divisive in churches.
My main contention is that by over-emphasizing the role of the Ten Commandments, they are often misusing them. They are thus often not using the law lawfully. For an example of how pervasive the use of the Ten Commandments is in TWOTM, you only really have to consider their acronym that drives their evangelistic approach: WDJD (What did Jesus do?).
1. Would you consider yourself a good person?
2. Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?
3. If you were judged by the Ten Commandments, would you be guilty or innocent?
4. Destiny: do you think you will go to heaven or hell based on that judgment? (What Did Jesus Do, 170).
What makes reading TWOTM materials so confusing, and their approach so difficult to digest through a theological lens, is the confusing way they use the phrases “God’s moral Law” and “the Ten commandments” interchangeably. This gets to the large point about the misuse of the Law. Comfort and TWOTM will say things like “God judges people based on the Ten Commandments” and then defend that statement with verses that talk about God judging sin. So as you read some of the quotes below where Comfort uses “God’s Law,” know that he generally means “Ten Commandments.” And that is precisely the over emphasis that leads to these other errors:
Standard for Sin:
The problem here is foundational to the system. Are non believers going to be judged by the Ten Commandments when they die?
I don’t think Scripture says that they will. Sin is not simply a violation of the Ten Commandments, nor do the Ten Commandments capture God’s moral law. Rather, God’s moral law is revealed to the world apart from the Ten Commandments. In fact, it is revealed to Gentiles through their consciences. Idolatry, murder, and adultery were all sin before Sinai. Gentiles who have never heard of Moses will still be judged by God for their sin, and it has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments.
Comfort writes that people “need the law to show them the righteous standard that God requires.” (God Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life, 18). If by that Comfort means people need to see the Ten Commandments—or some other form of God’s written law—in order to see sin, then I completely disagree.
Aspects of God’s moral law are of course seen in the Ten Commandments. Idolatry is a profound sin, as are rebellion against one’s parents, murder, and stealing. There are two main ways to view the Ten Commandments: TWOTM way is to see them as a summary of God’s moral law, and thus binding to Gentiles. I disagree with that view, and below I will explain some of the problems it causes.
The better approach is to view God’s moral law as eternal and transcendent, given to people through their consciences and by common grace. This approach sees the Ten Commandments as a reflection of aspects of that moral law, and a codification of some of what is apparent to the world, with some other particulars for Israel. The rest of the Torah does this as well, I might add.
If you agree with me, then it makes no sense to say Gentiles will be judged when they die for breaking the Ten Commandments. It also makes no sense to define moral goodness by one’s compliance with the Ten Commandments. Finally, it also makes no sense to define sin as a failure to keep the Ten Commandments perfectly. More accurately, people will be judged for sin when they die, and sin is any lack of conformity to God’s character. People will be judged for their sinful deeds,even if those deeds are not enumerated in Exodus.
This element of my objection would disappear if, instead of asking a person if they have ever taken Yahweh’s name in vain, broke the Sabbath or dishonored their parents, the evangelist took people to passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 or Revelation 21:8.
Misuse of 10 commandments
But I wish it was as simple as cross references. This wrong view of the Ten Commandments results in incorrect interpretations and misplaced emphasis all over the place. To make the case that the Ten Commandments should be used in evangelism, their material often cites verses about the Law, or historical authors who favor using “the Law” as if those sources were talking about the Ten Commandments.
This results in serious confusion.
For example, Comfort writes:
Wesley, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Moody, Luther, and others used a principle that is almost entirely neglected by modern evangelical methods. They warned that if the Law wasn’t used to prepare the way for the gospel, those who made decisions for Christ would almost certainly be false in their profession and would fall away. (Wonderful Plan, 47).
I don’t know about Wesley or Moody, but I am almost positive that when Luther, Whitfield, and Spurgeon talk about Law, they are using it to mean imperatives in scripture (as opposed to indicatives), and are not making statements about the use of the Ten Commandments in evangelism.
For example, Comfort quotes Spurgeon as saying “There is no point upon which men make greater mistakes than upon the relation which exists between the law and the gospel.” But the context of that quote is a sermon Spurgeon preached in 1855, titled Law and Grace, and it is not at all about Ten Commandments in evangelism, but rather it is about the relationship between imperatives and indicatives’ in Christian living. In fact, there is even a section of the sermon where Spurgeon mocks the idea that gentiles have sin defined by the Torah.
The irony of this is that Comfort would probably agree with the point Spurgeon is making—namely that belief in the gospel does not lead to anti-nomianism, but to contrite obedience to the commands of God. But regardless, it has nothing at all to do with the Ten Commandments in evangelism.
Since I gave the session at the Shepherd’s Conference, many people have pointed out to me that John MacArthur supports using the law in evangelism. But they are making the same mistake Comfort makes above. When MacArthur uses the word “law” and talks about “law in evangelism” he is not talking about the Ten Commandments! He is talking about confronting sin, which I completely agree with. It is simply misleading (and frustrating) to present every use of the word “Law” as an argument in favor of using the Ten Commandments.
This mistake is not just repeated with historical figures, but with Scripture as well. Passages that talk about the Law are quoted by Comfort as if they were talking about the Ten Commandments. This results in confusion about the nature of God’s moral law.
First, the Ten Commandments are not the sum total of God’s moral law. They are an introduction to and a summary of the Law given to Israel. Gentiles are not under the Ten Commandments, and they never were. They are under a law though—the moral law of God. And that law is revealed to them and is manifestly obvious in the world. It is seen in their conscience, in the creation, and in the way the world works.
There is a fundamental bridge to cross here. To say that the Law equals the Ten Commandments is certainly not justified in Scripture. It does not even work to say, “The Ten Commandments capture the moral demands of God” which apply to Gentiles. Or “The Ten Commandments are God’s standard of goodness.” (That quote is in just about everything I’ve ever read by TWOTM). But God’s standard of goodness is Himself, and the Ten Commandments simply cannot be severed from the rest of the Torah, and then held out to Gentiles as if they are to measure up to them.
There are some obvious problems with that approach. Gentiles are not under the Sabbath (Ask the non believer: “Have you ever rescued your neighbor’s cat from a tree on a Saturday?”). The promise about life going well in the Promised Land doesn’t make sense for a Gentile (5th commandment). The third commandment is one that only professing believers can break anyway (it is not “using God’s word as a curse word” but rather calling yourself a follower of God but living in an empty way). Regardless of one’s view of the relationship between the church and Mosaic Law, it is obvious that idolatry, murder, adultery, rebellion against parents, stealing, and perjury are all sins. But they are sins because they are against God’s character, and they are that way independent of the Ten Commandments.
10 Commandments and Gentiles
A major part of my critique is that the Ten Commandments are not able to be separated from the rest of the Mosaic Law, and that the Mosaic Law was given to Jews before the Messiah came, and that they are not binding today to anyone, but especially not to Gentiles living in America.
It simply does not make sense to ask Gentiles if they have kept the Sabbath, or ever taken Yahweh’s name in vain (hint: that is not what you do when you say God’s name when you stub your toe). However, I will save that element of the critique for next week, as I know many people disagree, and I don’t want that to distract from the other points.
I will say this though: When I shared this concern with TWOTM, they responded by granting that gentile believers are not under the Mosaic Law, but that it is a standard that applies to Gentile non-believers. But I don’t understand how that works. To say that Gentile non-believers will be judged by the Law, but gentile believers are not under the Law, and then add that the Ten Commandments are still a valid source of morality for believers (even though they are not under them anymore?) is just too contrived for me. I get that it is probably the majority opinion in evangelicalism, but I just don’t buy it (I often hope for TWOTM TV to try their approach on a back slidden dispensationalist, but so far I am still waiting). More on this next week.
Because there are so many other Scripture passages that show that gentiles are not under the Mosaic Law, TWOTM material often gives interpretations of those verses that are either misleading or simply wrong. One obvious example of that is TWOTM’s use of Romans 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” That passage is often cited as a compelling argument that the Ten Commandments need to be used in evangelism.
But the point of Rom 3:19 is almost the complete opposite of that. Paul is saying that it is axiomatic that the OT Law only applies to Jews. Earlier in Romans 1 and 2 Paul demonstrated that Gentiles are not lawless, because of their conscience and general revelation. Certainly the passages Paul quotes in Romans 3 about depravity are descriptive of gentiles as well as Jews. But equally certainly this passage is not saying that the Ten Commandments should be used to silence gentile mouths! There are so many reasons for this that it is difficult to know where to start.
One reason is that when Paul writes “What ever the Law says,” he is NOT referring to the Ten Commandments, or even to the Torah. He uses the word “law” to describe the OT in general. In fact, it is in reference to quotes from the Psalms and Isaiah. So even if it was talking about Gentiles, Paul’s point is that all of Scripture is given to silence the mouth, not specifically the Ten Commandments. But more importantly, Paul specifically narrows the reach of the passage to the Jews by saying “those who are under the law.” Mounce puts it this way:
Some wonder how accusations against the Jews can result in the “whole world” being accountable to God. One answer is that the first half of the ἵνα clause refers to Jews alone and the second half to the entire world. More probably we are dealing with an argument that says if God’s people are guilty, how much more guilty is the outsider. (Mounce, Romans, 110).
In other words, the passage is making the point that Law gives Jews a greater accountability than gentiles precisely because they are the ones who had the Law. To take that passage to mean “use the Ten Commandments in witnessing to gentiles” turns Paul’s original point on its head. Leon Morris explains:
It is unlikely that Paul’s readers would have held that anyone other than the Jew was under the law. The law, being from God, has its relevance for all mankind, certainly. But Paul’s point here is that the Jew cannot rest on a fancied security, holding that he is safe while the Gentile will come under the judgment of God. (Morris, 170).
This does not mean that Gentiles are lawless though. As John MacArthur explains, “Paul has already declared that the Jew is under God’s written law, delivered through Moses, and the Gentile is under the equally God-given law written in his heart (Rom. 2:11–15).” (Romans, 194).
In other words, the Gentiles have their guilt established in Chapter 1-2. The Jews may think they are able to escape God’s judgment, so Paul shows them that depravity is described clearly in the OT, and that it is specifically the Jews who are under the Law, who are not going to escape. The result is that the whole world is judged.
Notice that Paul is explicitly making the opposite point from the idea that the Ten Commandments were given to judge Gentiles. Gentiles are condemned by doing things against their conscience. But the Jews have the Law which even codifies some of those offenses.
Another way of saying this is that adultery, idolatry, and murder were wrong before the Ten Commandments were given (and Paul does make that case in Romans 5). Those things are not wrong because of the Ten Commandments, but because they are contrary to God’s nature as revealed in the world.
The Law is exalted at the expense of the work of the Spirit:
In TWOTM, often the work of the Holy Spirit is down played, and replaced with the work of the Law. For example, in several passages that talk about regeneration, Comfort sees the Law as the power behind regeneration, rather than the Spirit.
This is most clear in his handling of the passages in 1 and 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about non believers being blinded by the truth, but then having their spiritual eye sight given to them (or having the spiritual veil lifted). When Comfort talks about those passages, he emphasizes the work of the Law, rather than the work of the Spirit. He writes:
Think of God’s Laws as an extension cord that is plugged into the power of Heaven. The gospel is a light bulb. Without the Law, the gospel is powerless; it leaves the lost in the dark about their sin and its deadly consequences…The message of the cross is therefore foolishness to a world that is perishing. However once the gospel is connected to the Law, it becomes the power of God to salvation. The Law gives the gospel its light. (What Did Jesus Do, 20).
And later he adds, “By using the Law, Paul was pulling back the veil of Moses so that his hearers could have ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” ( What Did Jesus Do, 92).
But the context of those passages (2 Cor 4:4, 1 Cor 2) shows it is the Holy Spirit that does this, and it does this through the preaching of the gospel. The power cord in the analogy I think is wrongly identified as the law, rather than the Spirit.
Another example is Psalm 19:7, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;” Concerning this verse, Comfort writes, “Scripture makes it clear that it is the perfect Law of God that actually converts the soul (Psalm 19:7)” (Wonderful Plan, 51). But in the Psalter, the word torah does not mean Ten Commandments, but actually the whole of God’s revelation (cf. Ps 119). Moreover, the word for restores is probably better seen as refresh than regeneration anyway. But regardless, this passage simply is stretched too far if it is taken to mean that the use of the Ten Commandments are what regenerates a person. And to imply that they do gives the credit to the use of the Law for what is actually a work of the Spirit.
I conveyed this concern (and my others) to Living Waters, and they disagree. They don’t think the method relies on the law to bring conviction. I’m telling you that in the interest of full disclosure. But when I read quotes like this, and then see the method in practice, that is the concern that I come away with.
Missing the Relational Separation from God:
The non-Christian is doubly separated from God. They are separated judicially (when they die, they have a debt they cannot pay), and they are separated relationally (in this life the unsaved live without purpose, without prayer, and without peace with God). Because of its focus on the Ten Commandments, TWOTM stresses the judicial nature of salvation over — and (in our opinion) to the neglect of — a restoration of our relationship with God through Christ.
Too often the gospel is presented simply as a way to have your debt paid, not as a way to have a relationship with God restored. TWOTM uses lots of analogies about a courtroom scene, but not a lot of analogies about adoption or Fatherhood, for example. Salvation is simply portrayed as having a fine paid and a punishment lifted.
While people were designed and created to have fellowship with God, sin separates us from our Father, and breaks that relationship (Psalm 80:4, Isaiah 1:15, 59:2). People were created in the image of God, and were designed to have a relationship that consists of obeying his word, prayer, and rejoicing in who God is.
The gospel is not simply the paying of a fine, but is the restoration of the sinner’s relationship to God. The joy of conversion is seen in judicial righteousness, and in a right relationship with God (1 Peter 3:18).
However, having said that, just about every other gospel program I have ever seen commits the opposite error by stressing a personal relationship with Jesus to the point that the judicial element of justification is completely gone (The Four Spiritual Laws, for example). But the opposite of those (God is angry with you and has a terrible plan for your life unless you repent) also misses the mark.
Skewed view of judgment
The question is this: are people going to hell for breaking the Ten Commandments, or for rejecting Jesus? In some sense that is a false dichotomy. They are both true. But TWOTM certainly builds their tent on the commandments side of the question.
Comfort makes clear that he thinks people are sent to hell for breaking the Ten Commandments, and he expressly says it is not for rejecting Jesus. In What Did Jesus Do, he has a sort of excursus on this question (67-8). He argues specifically that those who have never heard of Jesus are on their way to hell for breaking God’s moral Law as revealed in the Ten Commandments. He rejects that they are on their way to hell for rejecting Jesus, because he points out that they haven’t even heard of Jesus.
But notice the circular reasoning Comfort finds himself stuck in. If people cannot be held accountable for the rejection of Jesus if they have not heard of him, how can they be held accountable for the rejection of the Ten Commandments, if they have not heard of them either? Unless Comfort would grant that the truth of the Ten Commandments is self-evident (which I don’t think he would, but on pages 94-95 he does deal with this question), he simply kicks the dilemma further down the road.
To be clear, Comfort is not putting forth universalism, nor am I. But I am saying that the Ten Commandments are not equal and congruent to natural revelation of sin. Those who have never heard are on their way to hell for being sinners, for hating God and rejecting God, as manifestly seen by their sinful deeds. This is all true apart from the Ten Commandments, but it is personified in Jesus Christ. Had Jesus come to their unreached group, they would have rejected him because they are murderers form their nature.
This difference is seen in concrete terms with the Rich Young Ruler. If there was a TWOTM proof text, this would be it. Jesus is evangelizing a synagogue leader, and he directly asked him if he had kept the commandments. In fact, this I believe this passage is where the name TWOTM comes from.
The leader lied to Jesus (breaking the ninth commandment), and said that he kept them all. But here is where I think TWOTM’s understanding of this verse reflects their concept of judgment. When the leader lied, Comfort claims that Jesus simply drilled down on the first commandment (What Would Jesus Do, 43). But this wrongly gives the impression that Jesus was taking issue with his fidelity to the commandments. I think it is better to see Jesus as taking an entirely different approach to evangelism all together. Instead of calling him out on his lie, Jesus demonstrated that God’s standard is not seen in the commandments, but in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is almost as if Jesus set the commandments aside, and made the issue about him—not about the law. He told the man to value the person of Jesus above everything in the world, and thereby demonstrated that the ruler was rejecting the Messiah, and if you do that there is no hope for eternal life. There is so much depth about the person of Jesus and his glory in that passage, but to simply say Jesus drilled down on the first commandment (or the 9th commandment) is to simplify what happens here. That ends up missing the point that you go to hell ultimately because of your rejection of Jesus, and not the commandments.
Wrong emphasis in Witnessing:
The elevation of the law also leads to wrong emphasis in witnessing. The Ten Commandments are seen as an essential element of evangelism, and the biblical mandate for their use is seen everywhere. It is said that some Calvinist preachers can find tulips in every verse. Well, it seems to me that often TWOTM can find the Ten Commandments in every witnessing encounter.
For example, in Acts 17, Comfort writes that Paul was preaching “the essence of the first and second commandments” by confronting the Athenians in their idolatry. But I think it is the opposite way around. Paul is not holding them to the first and second commandment, but he is showing them that idolatry is sinful, and that the very presence of their plaque demonstrates that they know that. Idolatry is sinful, and that is in the second commandment, but it is not sinful because of the second commandment. This is an important distinction.
Or consider the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus certainly confronted her on her adultery, but definitely did not use the Ten Commandments. He called her out on sin, and that certainly transcends the seventh commandment. To see that encounter and simply say “Jesus did use the seventh commandment” is to conflate the confronting of sin with the commandments. Comfort and I would both agree that evangelists need to confront sin, but disagree on the role of the Ten Commandments in that. I look at encounters like John 4 and don’t see them used. TWOTM does.
Skewed emphasis on the death of Jesus
The elevation of the Law leads to a skewed emphasis on the death of Jesus. The Are you a Good Person tract says that “Jesus suffered and died on the cross to satisfy the Law.”
I agree that Jesus did die to satisfy the righteous requirement of the Law (Rom 8:4), and, ultimately, to satisfy the righteous wrath of God (Rom 3:25-26; 5:9; Heb 2:17-18). The satisfaction was a legal, forensic satisfaction, yes. But that satisfaction was made to a Person: God Himself. In that sense, his death satisfied God, not simply the Law.
The result of this skewed emphasis is that the principle of justification based on faith and the need for propitiation are down played. In much of their material the clearest element of the gospel is substitution (not so much in the 180 video, but alas). But even where it is clearly presented, it is usually described as a paying of a fine. But biblical substitution is linked more to propitiation than to a simple payment.
This is connected to occasional lines like, “There’s something you can actually DO, because of God’s kindness, to have all your sins forgiven” (at 27:47 in the 180 video)–all without a single mention anywhere of the fact that OUR works contribute nothing to salvation.
This means that often in TWOTM material, propitiation is neglected, substation is equated to a paying of a fine, and regeneration through the washing of the Word is reduced to “have you ever lied?”
Phil Johnson writes:
It is crucial–especially in these postmodern times when words are capable of an infinite variety of meanings–it is crucial to explain _what we mean_ when we say “Jesus died for your sins.” The principles of substitution and propitiation; the futility of our own works and the utter sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness; and the meaning of faith as trust in Christ ALONE–those are truths that even many professing Christians don’t understand sufficiently. And the person who never takes time to explain them in clear and simple terms just isn’t doing all he needs to do as an evangelist, no matter how bold he is in bringing up the subject with people on the street.
And I am saying that these truths are crowded out by an over emphasis on the law. And when I say over emphasis, I’m not talking about a specific ratio, as much as how a misplaced theological concept (nonbelievers will be held to and judged by the Ten Commandments) affects these issues.
My second concern with TWOTM approach is that it can lead to division inside of churches. I have dozens of emails, FB messages or phone calls since my Shepherds Conference presentation from pastors telling me that this is an issue in their churches.
I know that it is not the goal of the staff at Living Waters to create a divisive program for churches. In the same way that Calvinists are often more Calvinistic than Calvin, I think many TWOTM people are more Comfort than Comfort is.
This reality is in large part caused by the one-size fits all approach to evangelism TWOTM presents. At their training conference, they ended the event by a role-playing exercise. The whole point of the exercise was that no matter who the person you were talking to, the content of the evangelism presentation was identical. This point is driven home by any of TWOTM TV shows and even the 180 video. Comfort is seen witnessing to multiple people, and often the same audio track is even played over all the encounters as their faces flash by, as a way of illustrating that the exact same words are being used with each person.
That can lead to those who use TWOTM approach to think “if you are not doing evangelism this way, you are not doing it the way of the Master.” And I can’t even begin to count all times I have heard people tell me that I am not doing evangelism biblically because I am not using the Ten Commandments.
The leadership of TWOTM may not think that they are presenting a one-size fits all approach to evangelism, but the seeds for those tendencies are certainly in the material they produce. Comfort has said that unless evangelism uses the Law, it is going to fill the church with false converts. If by “law” he means Ten Commandments, then a person who hears that is going to think “this is a hill worth dying on.”
That tendency is reinforced in some of Comforts’ writing. For example, he writes, “I want the church to see that God gave only one method to reach the lost, and that method is the one we should be using.” (What Did Jesus Do, 11). When it is combined with the acronym WDJD and the four questions that go with that, then followed by training videos that use the same questions over and over, it becomes very scripted.
But I do think Comfort is conflicted about this. He sees the danger of the scripted approach to evangelism, and he has writings that warn against it. But then he has other statements that certainly seem to foster it. For example:
Am I saying that we must us the moral Law to bring the knowledge of sin every time we share the gospel? Of course not; Jesus didn’t. (What did Jesus Do, 18).
But then he writes:
When I speak of using the Law in evangelism, I don’t mean merely making a casual reference to it. Rather, the Law should be the backbone of our gospel presentation, because its function is to prepare the sinner’s heart for grace.
I did ask TWOTM staff about this, and the answer they gave—which is also in their books—is that they strive to give “law to the proud, grace to the humble.” I think that answer is perfect, and explains a principle and a balance that every evangelist should have. But the follow up question is how do you know who is humble and who is proud? And in one of their training videos they say, “I don’t know a better way than to ask the person if they think they are a good person.” So we are back on the script again. It is as if the approach is law to the proud, grace to the humble, but the only way to see if someone is humble is to give them the law.
TWOTM makes it clear that everyone has to be hit with the law at some point in evangelism. So when you find the person in the NT who is witnessed to without a reference to the Ten Commandments (Nicodemus and Zacchaeus are two examples they grant), then Comfort deduces that they must have been broken by the law prior to their encounter with Jesus.
Comfort writes, “Never once did the Son of God give the Good News (cross, grace, mercy) to a proud arrogant or self-righteous person.” (Wonderful Plan, 84-5). He often writes, “If I go to an impenitent sinner and say, ‘Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins,” it will be foolishness and offensive to him…” So his implication is that you have to use the law, so that they see they are sinners. And again, this is often true. I’m not objecting to the principle, but to the practice.
And in TWOTM practice, “Law to the proud, grace to the humble” means Ten Commandments to everyone, until they are broken, then grace. This is simply not a balanced approach to evangelism.
On the whole, I appreciate TWOTM and all they do. But a good evangelist has to have many tools in his tool box, and taking people through the Ten Commandments cannot be the only one in there.
Next week we will look at the use of the Law in evangelism to gentiles, and specifically at Galatians 3.
Update: Mike Riccardi has written a follow-up post addressing the threefold division of the Mosaic Law.