Using Jesus: the Felt-Needs Gospel

We’re in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 17, the incident when ten lepers came to Jesus and asked Him to have pity on them. The term “leprosy” represented a whole variety of skin diseases, and there were stringent regulations given for the treatment of the sufferer. Essentially, these diseases made the sufferers unclean, and the priest had to examine them outside of the camp. In other words, they were treated as if they were not Israelites and were barred from religious life. There was a great stigma attached to it, and lepers were not allowed back into the camp until they had been declared clean by the priest. Their request to Jesus was, therefore, to allow them to be accepted back into society; their physical condition alienated them. Jesus healed them all and, according to the regulations of the Law, referred them to the priest. However, having received what they wanted, nine of them went on their own way. They were using Jesus. It is recorded that one, a Samaritan, went back to Jesus, praising God. As a Samaritan, his position was different; he was not seeking social acceptance in the fold of Israel. He was a man alone demonstrating true faith and so was accepted by Jesus. His heart was pure, and he received the fullness of the Gospel, reconciliation with God. The nine, who should have known better, approached Jesus on what we would call a felt-needs basis. Their need was real enough, but it was not their real need. In other words, their surface need prevented them from doing what they wanted; they were only interested in having their circumstances changed so that they could continue their self-centred lives. Their real need was to encounter Jesus at a different level, to change who they were, not what they were suffering from. We live in a felt-needs society—“make my life better, keep me from suffering, give me what I want.” The Samaritan, on the other hand, returned to Jesus and was saved, made whole. Here is the remarkable truth: sometimes God is willing to answer our felt need; that’s His compassion at work. But having a felt need met is not the same as salvation; neither does it lead to salvation. Throughout the whole of His ministry, Jesus showed His compassion, but most used Him for what they could get out of Him, walked away, rejected Him, and even crucified Him. Evangelism on a felt-need basis is at best weak but mostly misleading. As the Kingdom advances, its benefits should spill over into the world. If somebody benefits, be glad that the Kingdom has come, but do not confuse it with salvation. Also, the miracles were signs that validated the messianic mission of Christ. Many saw the signs and believed in the power of Jesus to do miracles, but they never took up their cross daily and followed Him. By all means, meet felt needs where you can, but when you present the Gospel, do not say, “Come to Jesus and He will heal you, change your circumstances, make life better, and so forth.” That is not the Gospel. It is not founded on truth, and so it will lead to disappointment, disillusionment, and confusion.

Let’s press the point further: have you come to Jesus on the basis of your felt need? A sickness, a circumstance, a broken relationship? Or more subtly, your fear of hell or desire for heaven? I am convinced that many people have responded to an evangelistic sermon promising heaven without true repentance and faith, without the call to complete surrender to the Sovereign Lord. They have been sold a felt-needs Gospel and from now on expect God to be their Sugar Daddy, a genie in a bottle, who is there for their comfort or desires. Without doubt, many of these people have a saving faith, but they have been given a worldview that stunts their growth, and they remain infants, working out their salvation on a demand-feed basis.

Felt needs exist at a superficial level. They are the needs that we are told that we have by the society we live in. It is, essentially a problem of worldview. Let me give you an example: a very good friend of mine is a Nigerian, born in Africa. He’s a medical man; in fact, he is a surgeon. One day we were discussing the rise of depression in Western society, and his comments were to the point and quite cutting. He said that in Africa people, generally, don’t suffer from depression; they are too busy trying to survive. I don’t want you to conclude that I’m saying that depression isn’t real, because it is, and it is one of the most debilitating conditions around. What I am saying is that the worldview that we have, our expectations and what we believe to be our rights, will interpret our needs. Some of our needs are consequences of wrong belief and wrong action, and by alleviating them we keep feeding the underlying problem, focusing our attention elsewhere, and so we live in denial, hiding away from the real issue. It’s like the person who is afraid of developing cancer and actually suspects that he might have it but is afraid to say the “Big C” word because saying it would somehow make him have it; so he calls it something else, and now he doesn’t have to go to see the doctor. When I was a boy, I lived in a row house (we called them terraced) in Manchester, England. The house was tiny and had stone floors and an outside toilet at the bottom of the small yard. I couldn’t call it a washroom, because there was nowhere to have a wash. There was no central heating, and in the winter it was so cold that when I got dressed my trousers were actually frozen solid. Incidentally, they were short trousers, because boys under a certain age were not allowed to wear long pants in those days, even in the worst of weather. I think that it must have been some weird rite of passage the first time a boy wore long pants, but its significance passed me by. Anyway, back to the story. We did not have a television until I was fifteen years old, we had no phone or car, and my dad, a skilled tradesman, struggled to make a living. The truth is, we were a working class family who experienced hardship and lived in a slum. Why am I telling you all this? I’m not into romantic nostalgia; this was my reality, but I didn’t know we were in need. Today, we believe that we have a right to a better life, and so when hardship comes we fall apart and cry out to God to meet our felt needs. Let me encourage you to read Hebrews chapter 11, a great passage on faith. Here’s a few words from the chapter; they represent an extreme; nevertheless, they help us focus on the things that really matter: “They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them…These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (Heb. 11:37–39).

We are exhorted in the Bible not to be conformed to the ways of the world but to think and live in a totally different way. We have a consumer society, so we have a consumer church. Of course, in a consumer society, you make your choice and take your product home and pay your money later. Advertising is done on the basis of creating a need, appealing to the impulse of the moment, and so you make your choice, buy the product, and pay your money in the easiest way possible. I saw an advertisement on television the other day; it was advertising a fast food product with processed cheese. Processed cheese was the selling point! From my point of view, I determined that I would never buy that product. Why? Because it was not the real, authentic thing; give me real cheese any day. Of course it’s only processed cheese, it’s not life changing, but here’s the point: an authentic product is modified and packaged to appeal to the mass market. How often do we take the pure Gospel, modify it and package it to appeal to a mass market? The real Gospel is devalued to the lowest common denominator; it’s a cheese-spread Gospel; it’s misleading and can never fully satisfy. The Gospel is not to be taken on the run; it is to be savoured with all of its fullness. Worse, I could never understand the need to package a vegetarian meal as if it were meat. Nut cutlets may well be satisfying in their own way, but they are not meat. Eat them for what they are; don‘t pretend. Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6–7). Don’t present the Gospel in such a way that it denies its reality. Further, “For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough” (2 Cor. 11:4).

There are those who include a Jesus in their Gospel but it is not the Jesus of God’s Word. It is a deception and may lead some into following a counterfeit in which there is no salvation. Some will tell you that Jesus was a rich man and that He worships God with your money. You won’t find that in the Bible; that’s another Jesus, and the possibility is that you will end up bound by a demonic strongman, trusting in a false hope that will lead to destruction.