A Critique Of Ray Comfort's "Hell's Best Kept Secret"
by Jon Zens
Ray Comfort's message, “Hell's Best Kept Secret,” has been highly endorsed and recommended by Bill Gothard, David Wilkerson and James Dobson. In this cassette Comfort laments the fact — and rightly so — that 80% to 90% of modem evangelicalism's converts do not stick because of a man-centered message that focuses on life enhancement instead of the problem of sin.
His answer to the malaise of easy-believism is to “prepare the heart for grace” by “opening up the divine Law, the Ten Commandments,” before preaching the gospel. Comfort confidently asserts that the Law-before-Gospel method reflects faithfulness to Jesus and the apostles. But does it really? Let's first take a look at the Scriptures Comfort uses to establish his position.
Psalm 19:7, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.”
Comfort assumes that “law” in this text means the Ten Commandments. But when David used the word “law” here it refers to all the Lord's revealed will available in his day. The word “law” in the New Testament most often refers to the entire Old Testament. With the coming of Jesus, and especially after his resurrection, the Old Testament is no longer viewed as statute-centered, but as Christ-centered.
“Moses wrote of me” (John 5:46).
“The scriptures testify of me” (John 5:39).
“All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me” (Luke 24:44).
“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets he opened up to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
As far as I can tell, in this teaching Comfort always uses the word “law” as synonymous with the Ten Commandments. But in the New Testament such usage is unknown. With the Jews, the apostles used the Law (the Old Testament) to “preach Christ” (Acts 8:35; 18:28; 13:15ff.; 17:2-3).
There is no example in Acts or the Epistles of any evangelization done by confronting people with the Ten Commandments before giving them the gospel. There is no precept in the New Testament that teaches that the Ten Commandments “convert the soul.” To clarify in our minds what David is saying, we can read Psalm 19:7, “The revealed Word of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.”
Romans 3:20, “For by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
“Law” in this context refers to the whole Old Testament. In verses 10-18 Paul cited
Isaiah and the Psalms, not the Ten Commandments, to establish the utter sinfulness of
Jew & Gentile (see the comments on Romans 3:9-20 attached).
1 John 3:4, “Sin is anomia [iniquity].”
Comfort asserts that this verse proves that all sin is a violation of the Ten Commandments. However, the Greek word used here, anomia, is a broad catch-word for all kinds of wickedness. In Matthew 7:22-23 religious people mention that they have prophesied, cast out devils and worked wonders in Jesus' name. But Christ replies, “depart from me you who are working iniquity [anomian].”
Is the wickedness described here specifically related to the violation of a commandment in Exodus 20? As W. Gutbrod points out, there is not in the use of anomia in 1 John 3:4 “a reference to the Old Testament law inherent in the word” (Law, Bible Key Words from Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, London, 1962, p.138). Further, it would seem out of place, since John is not dealing with it in his context.
Romans 7:7, “I would not have known sin except by the law.”
Paul's flow of thought in chapters 6-8 of Romans is not dealing with a method of evangelism. There is much debate about what kind of person is being described in Romans 7. However, it appears that the best way to see it is a description of a person growing up in Judaism. Paul points his remarks to those to “know the law” (7:1), which would be Jews raised in the synagogue. One thing for sure, Romans 7:7 would not reflect a Gentile's experience, for Paul in Romans 2:12,14 designates the nations outside of Israel as those “not having law.” (See the comments on Romans 7:7 attached).
Galatians 3:24, “. . . the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.”
Comfort says about this verse, “God's law acts as a schoolmaster to bring us to Jesus Christ.” This is the most quoted verse to prove that the law must be preached before the gospel, but it is actually the least useful for such a position. In the context Paul is dealing with the progression of redemptive history from Abraham to Christ, not with a method of law-preaching in evangelization (Ernest DeWitt Burton, A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, New York, 1920, p.200).
Even John Calvin asserted that Paul was dealing with the demise of the old era and the appearance of the new, not with how God saves individuals (quoted by John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians, p. 391). The law was a “trainer” only for the Jews until the fullness of time when Jesus appeared. Galatians 3:24 has nothing to do with Gentiles. (See the comments on Galatians 3:24 attached).
Luke 10:26, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
Comfort uses as a model for us to follow the encounters of Jesus with certain people where some of the commandments were used. Again, it is a misuse of Scripture to make such incidents a formula to use with all persons. When dealing with these self-righteous Jewish people Jesus indeed did confront them with the commandments. Keep in mind that Christ was dealing here with people who were “under law,” and in the end he confronts them with the legal foundation of the old covenant, “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). Neither Jesus nor Paul ever deal with Gentiles in such a manner, for they were not “under law,” but anomos, “without law” (1 Corinthians 9:21).
To assert that Jesus' use of commandments in some cases is a universal method contradicts what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 9. In this context he is talking about his evangelistic methods, and when dealing with Gentiles he specifically rules out Comfort's law-preaching approach. “To those without law, I became as without law.” With Gentiles Paul used, not the Ten Commandments, but God's creation of all things, specifically his creation of image-bearers, male and female. Read Romans 1:13-2:16, Acts 14:11-18, Acts 17:16-34, and you will get a feel for how Paul approached those “without law.”
1 Timothy 1:8, “Knowing that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.”
This context states that the law is not for a righteous person, but for the lawless and disobedient. What would suggest here that Paul is talking about using the Ten Commandments in evangelism? Is not the point that laws are necessary in society for non-righteous people who are bent toward iniquity? Would not the rightful use of such law be put by God in the hands of the state?
John 16:8, “He [the Holy Spirit] will reprove the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.”
Comfort completely misquotes and twists this text. Here's what he said:
“God has given light to every man. The Holy Spirit convicts them of sin, righteousness and judgment. Sin which is the transgression of the law; righteousness which is of the law; judgment which is by the law.”
He makes the text sound law-centered, when in fact it is Christ-centered. The verse actually reads, “of sin, because they believe not in me; of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and you see me no more; of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” (John 16:9-11). The Holy Spirit takes the things of Christ and shows people their sin of not believing in Jesus, and their need for a righteousness outside of themselves.
George Smeaton in his work on the Holy Spirit comments that unbelief is presented as if it were the “only sin, because, according to the happy remark of Augustine, while it continues, all other sins are retained, and when it departs, all other sins are remitted.”
James Buchanan in his work on the Holy Spirit illustrates the tendency of people's assumptions about things to dominate instead of what texts actually teach. On one page he states Comfort's perspective, “the principal means of conviction is the law,” and cites Romans 3:20 and Galatians 3:24 as proof (these texts do not teach this, as we have seen above and in the attachment). Yet several pages earlier, when dealing with John 16:8-11, he notes,
“It may be safely affirmed that it is by the Spirit's witness to Christ that he is first brought to the magnitude of his guilt . . . By looking to Christ on the throne, he is ‘pricked in his heart, and exclaims, What must I do to be saved?’. . . This truth of Christ is powerfully fitted to awaken his conscience . . . The subject on which the gift of the Spirit is now designed and fitted to shed a clear and convincing light is the character and offices of Christ . . . Christ's exaltation, of which the gift of the Spirit was the predicted proof, is sufficient, when it is duly recognized, to carry home the conviction of ‘sin, righteousness and judgment.’”
We must handle the Law (the Old Testament) in light of the gospel. We do not, according to John 16:8-11, come to the Christ through law-preaching, as Comfort teaches, but through gospel proclamation. Timothy illustrates the proper use of the Old Testament. His grandmother, Lois, and mother, Eunice, taught him the Old Testament during his childhood, “which are able to make you wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).
The early church used the Old Testament to preach the Lord Christ. If preaching the Ten Commandments is so vital, why is there no practice of it in the Book of Acts, the most evangelistic writing in the New Testament? As F.F. Bruce points out, “there is no evidence that Paul ever used the law in this way in his apostolic preaching” (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p.192).
Why not deal with the Ten Commandments in light of the New Covenant revelation? If this is done, then one would see that nine of the ten are restated in the New Testament. The Sabbath commandment is dealt with, but in terms of it being a shadow, the reality of which is Jesus Christ, not in terms of it being a binding commandment (Colossians 2:16-17).
The Sabbath was different than the other nine commandments. It was a ceremonial type, not an eternal moral law. This is shown by the fact, as Jesus pointed out, that the Sabbath was technically violated, but those who “profaned” it were guiltless (Matthew 12:5; cf. Mark 2:23-28). Which of the other nine commandments could be broken and the perpetrator be held guiltless? (Cf. Robert Morey, Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?, 1979, 16 pp.).
This highlights the problem of simplistically saying the Ten Commandments must be preached before the gospel. How are you going to preach the Sabbath as commandment to Gentiles who were never bound by it? Comfort says, “David broke all Ten Commandments in his sin with Bathsheba.” Pray tell, how did he break the Sabbath in this iniquity?
Charles G. Finney: False Evangelism Set In Motion
Comfort places Finney “among those who God used through the ages.” He approvingly quotes Finney who said, “. . . evermore the law must prepare the way for the gospel.” Comfort locates the demise of true evangelism at the beginning of the 2Oth Century when, he avers, the law was forsaken and replaced with the idea that Jesus is primarily a life enhancer.
The gospel as life enhancement has surely emerged as a serious problem, but the perversion of true evangelism must be pushed back to the beginning of the l9th Century, with the rise of Charles G. Finney's “New Measures” in the 1830's. It was he who introduced the practice of protracted services in order to break people down, and altar calls to call people forward to the “anxious bench” (Cf. Robert More, Jr., “The Historical Origins of ‘The Altar Call,’” Banner of Truth, Dec.1969, pp. 25-31).
Finney's theological assumption was that people possessed “free wills” that could decide for Christ at any time. He denied that the Holy Spirit was necessary to enable sinners to be saved. “The Spirit's agency is not needed to give him power, but to overcome his voluntary obstinacy.” He believed that in conversion the sinner is “in the most proper sense, the author of the change.”
For Finney, God was a helpless observer in the evangelization process. “You are all perfectly able to give your consent, and this moment to lay hold on eternal life. Irrespective of your own choice, no election can save you, and no reprobation can damn you.” Christ's atonement becomes like a fruit-stand on the street for passers by to take or leave. “It [the atonement] provides for the salvation of all men; but it of itself makes sure the salvation of no man” (Sermons On Important Subjects, 3rd ed., New York: John S. Taylor, 1836, pp.24, 22, 233, 238).
Beyond these serious errors, Finney denied the very heart of the gospel: the righteousness of Christ obtained on the cross imputed to the believing sinner. In his initial religious experience Finney claimed the presence of God came upon him on a particular evening. Then the next morning, he notes,
Instantly the baptism that I had received the night before returned upon me in the same manner . . . In this state I was taught the doctrine of justification by faith, as a present experience . . . Indeed, I did not know at all what it meant in the proper sense (Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney, New York: A.S. Barnes, 1876, p. 23).
And what was Finney's teaching on justification that he learned that morning?
Gospel justification is not by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Under the gospel, sinners are not justified by having the obedience of Jesus Christ set down to their account, as if he had obeyed the law for them, or in their stead (Lectures, pp.215, 216; quoted in Isaac V. Brown, A Historical Vindication of the Abrogation of the Plan of Union by the Pres. Church in the USA, Philadelphia, 1855, pp.306-307).
Finney denied Christ's gospel and based his man-centered evangelistic methodology on a legion of false doctrines. Here is the root of all the horrible fruit that Comfort laments at the beginning of his message. The man Comfort praises is in fact the enemy of the gospel and true evangelism.
We have seen that the texts Comfort ushers forth to dogmatically teach that we should preach “90% law and 10% grace” (citing John Wesley) are found wanting. There is in what he offers no Biblical basis to accept his view. He has used the Bible for support, but not in a way that reflects careful exegesis and sensitivity to the context of the Biblical writers.
Indeed, the cure means nothing if the disease is not comprehended. But nothing is more suited, as James Buchanan observed, to show people their sinfulness and the salvation that was purchased by Christ, than the free proclamation of the gospel as it is unfolded in the New Covenant documents. What could be more pervasively convicting than the demands on one's life that Jesus presented to people as he walked on the earth, such as:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
If any one come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).
There is plenty to confront people with in the gospel. That is what Paul did in Romans. The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel, but Jews and Gentiles are shown to be grossly unrighteous. Nowhere in Romans 1-3 does Paul hit anybody over the head with the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20.
Yet by confronting the Gentiles (who are without law) with the implications of their being made by God, and by confronting the Jews with their Old Testament (“the law”), he skillfully and conclusively proves that all people are sinful and guilty before the Holy God. Only then does Paul arrive at the cure: “but now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all and upon all those who believe, for there is no difference: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:21-23).
Read the plethora of gospel proclamations in the Book of Acts and you cannot go wrong.