Two postmodern preachers were discussing their evangelistic efforts on television. One was being congratulated that he did not preach about sin. The assumption was that everyone knows they are in sin and do not need to be told. Then came this advice: "When a man is drowning, you don't describe the water to him. You throw him a rope!" The audience clapped their cheer and approval.
It sounds good, doesn't it. Sin destroys and we need immediate response. Of course the response of the postmodern preacher was for people to stand during the invitation and say a brief, salvation prayer with the preacher. Some rope.
The process of salvation is often cast into the drowning man analogy, but analogies are often short-sighted and inadequate.
First, sin in the minds of most people isn't what it used to be. A recent Ellison Research survey showed that thirteen percent of Americans did not believe there was any such thing as sin. Recent Harris polls now reveal that many people no longer think of a variety sinful behaviors as even a moral issue to be thought about. According to the Ellison report:
"People under age 35 are less likely than Americans in other age groups to believe adultery, getting drunk, not reporting income on taxes, homosexual activity, pornography, and gossip are sin. At the same time, younger people are more likely than others to say using tobacco and working on the Sabbath are sinful." They found that only 35 percent of Americans (who are not evangelicals) thought sex before marriage was sinful.
You have to describe the water to people who don't know they are in it. You have to preach a more balanced approach than "Jesus loves you, believe in Him, say this little prayer, and you are saved and can never be lost."
The main burden of Jesus' preaching was a balance between "repent" and "grace" (though he uses the latter term in the gospel accounts). Jesus talked much about sin, repentance, obedience, and hell. He did not assume the people (even the Pharisees) understood those things. And preachers in a post-modern world cannot assume that either.
Preachers who don't like to talk about sin don't do any favors to the people who hear them. Yes, people like to hear about other things; and I believe in giving hope to people. But if there is a serious problem, then ignoring a discussion about that problem will not make it go away.
Salvation is far more involved than throwing a rope. Jesus did not die simply to save us; He died for us in order to cause us to be new people. We must die to the old man of sin (yes, sin) and be born to a new life. We aren't saved to be reformed a little for a better life; we are saved to be reborn as new creatures altogether (2 Cor. 5:17).
Giving medication to a man with a broken leg relieves the pain for a short while; but until the break is corrected, the man is not helped. Someone has to set the leg, so that it can heal. Repentance, life-correction, is necessary to make a lasting difference. God gives us a great blessing in granting us repentance, because he gives us the ability to start over fresh and clean and right.
Just getting someone out of the water may not keep him out of the water. Until change takes place, the threat is not over. A rope may not be all that person needs. We are not saying, "don't throw a rope." Of course, we must give hope. But what good have we done, if the person doesn't even know when he is drowning? The water is the danger, and we must show people where the shorelines are.