Archive for December, 2008

Conserving the Whole Counsel of God – 1

December 30, 2008

After the gospel, conservative Christians seek to conserve the whole counsel of God. There is more to Christianity than the gospel. A lot more. There is the entire system of faith, the whole body of doctrine that emerges from the Scriptures as they are studied, compared and understood. Conservative Christians are not satisfied to preserve the gospel and then watch as the whole body of Christian doctrine is washed down the river of liberalism, compromise or doctrinal double-mindedness. The gospel is simply the entrance into the fold. The whole counsel of God is what the sheep are grazing on.

In contemporary Christianity, there is an attitude of minimalism afoot. Minimalism is a movement often found in music or art, where a work is stripped down to its fundamental features. So in modern Christianity there is a prevailing attitude that the only things which matter are the fundamental doctrines of the gospel (even these are questioned in Emergent circles). Anything less important, such as baptism, the sign gifts, eschatology, the doctrines of grace, church leadership, corporate worship or dispensationalism is regarded as peripheral when speaking to a modern Christian.  Apart from particular doctrinal hobby-horses dear to the person in question, he regards the discussion or disputation of any doctrines except the fundamentals (or his hobby-horse doctrine) as divisive, immature and even impolite. Discussing such issues is to him the mark of a childish Christian who has not yet reached his serene place of doctrinal ecumenicism. To him, Christian maturity consists in arriving at a kind of pleasant, sleepy agnosticism over any doctrine other than the gospel itself (or his hobby-horse).

The results of this kind of too-clever-for-its-own-good attitude are seen all around us: a generation of Christians who have only the faintest grasp of the system of doctrine which has been fought for and refined over two millennia. 

Most congregations are atheological; some are even anti-theological. How a church can dislike theology is a mystery; it is perhaps analogous to a race car driver hating roads.

Most churches have a bare and generic (if not deliberately shrunken) statement of faith, which most of the members pay little heed to, let alone work to understand.

Few members have a sound theology behind their practice; most are just looking for spiritual tips to make life work better. The occasional Christian makes the study of theology part of his interests, but most live by the creed of the Egotist: “How is any of this relevant to Me?”

Largely, this is the fault of the leaders, who preach and teach in a way that denigrates doctrine, de-emphasises the need to understand it, caters to the egotist and creates the view that sermons are how-to lectures.

Conservative Christians are like Paul. They are committed to the whole counsel of God, so much so that they would feel guilty had they not sought to understand it and pass it on to others (Acts 20:6).

To conserve the whole counsel of God will require at least three things.

First, there must be a commitment to expository preaching and biblical doctrine.

Second, there must be an informed and mature sense of the relative weight of various Christian doctrines.

Third, there must be a right understanding of fellowship and separation amongst Christians that disagree of matters of doctrine.

We’ll examine these three in turn.

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The Attitude of Patience

December 26, 2008

One of the ways to avoid the error of perverting the gospel is to live in the attitude of complete trust in the sovereignty of God. This attitude is crucial to conservative Christianity, because without it we will certainly heed the shrill voices around us.

All around us are people who have imbibed the atmosphere of pragmatism. It is an atmosphere of impatience with everything except pragmatic concerns. Such people live in a restless state of agitation and expect all other ‘committed Christians’ to do the same. Their rationale is straightforward: If the main idea of Christianity is increased numbers of Christians, then how can we waste time discussing conservatism when we should be evangelising?  How can we spend time learning Hebrew and Greek when millions have never heard? How can we waste time learning about art and music when there are urgent needs for church plants and basic discipleship? How can we take years training for ministry when the world doesn’t even know the basics of the gospel?

This kind of reasoning emerges from a church enamoured with visible results, measurable success and purported effectiveness.  It has learned that you can increase the crowd if you edit out the difficult, unattractive or subtle points of Christianity. With the increase in numbers, the approach becomes self-justifying. “Let those ivory-tower conservatives keep picking lint out of their intellectual navels. Our churches are bursting at the seams! We’re sending 75 missionaries!”

Of course, if the main goal of the Christian life is evangelism, or more to the point, positive and measurable results from evangelism, then their reasoning holds. Why bother with expository preaching, biblical worship, and the teaching of ordinate affection if you can get a crowd by dropping those things and replacing them with motivational talks, entertainment and the indulgence of base passions and appetites in the name of Jesus?

Of course, Jesus made it clear that the primary goal of the Christian life is not evangelism, but worship (Mark 12:28-30). Therefore, conservative Christians must resist the impatience of pragmatism, and its lust after results.  We must be supported by the confidence that God is sovereign. Undergirding conservative Christianity is the patience that God is sovereignly working out all things. He is in control of conversion. He calls and sends missionaries. He adds believers to churches. We cannot and must not seek to engineer results that belong to God’s working.

We are not for one moment denigrating missions, evangelism, church planting or immediate church discipleship. Our job is to proclaim the gospel and the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Our job is to train missionaries. Our job is to seek to plant churches and disciple believers.

But the needs placed on the frontburner by pragmatists are not the only needs of the hour. There are many responsibilities placed in our lap by the Lord, evangelism and missions are only two of them. No less important is the cultivation of ordinate sensibilities, the labour of teaching the whole counsel of God, the restoration of biblical worship, the learning and parsing of true Christian tradition. These responsibilities are not ‘peripheral’, they are central to loving God – our ultimate obligation. However, the only way to resist the emotive calls of pragmatists to join them in their utilitarian efforts is to rest fully in the sovereignty of God. Knowing that God is ultimately in control frees us to pursue all of life to the glory of God(I Cor 10:31).

Conserving the Gospel – 6

December 20, 2008

 There is one other way in which the gospel is threatened. It is threatened when its proclamation is neglected or perverted.

Complete neglect of evangelism will obviously threaten the gospel, for a failure to proclaim it will be a failure to propagate it. If the gospel is no longer heard, it will not be received, and the gospel message will die with the disobedient generation that failed to pass it on. Failure to evangelise is a frontal attack on conservative Christianity.

The gospel is not proclaimed for several possible reasons. One is sheer laziness and disobedience. When Christians choose to please themselves, hide their faith and avoid the offense of the cross, they will not preach the gospel.

A second reason is hyper-Calvinism. (Not five-point Calvinism, but true hyper-Calvinism.) Hyper-Calvinism denies that man is truly responsible, therefore it dispenses the preaching of the gospel altogether. A warping of the biblical doctrine of the interchange between divine sovereignty and human freedom can lead people to fail to preach the gospel altogether.

A third reason is that some become so acculturated to post-modernism that they secretly doubt that their neighbours are in danger of hellfire for not believing the gospel. They might be gospel believers, but for all intents and purposes they are post-moderns who live as if all beliefs are true to some degree and that there are many paths up the mountain of God.

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The proclamation of the gospel can also fail to conserve the gospel if the presentation itself is twisted, perverted or warped. I am taking for granted that we are not talking about doctrinal perversion, for that goes back to earlier posts. I am speaking about a methodological perversion. In other words, when the gospel is proclaimed in a way that gives a faulty understanding of conversion, this in turn can end up corrupting the gospel itself. For as McLulan said so many years ago, the medium is the message. You might not deny the substance of the gospel message, but if your presentation fundamentally alters the perception of what the gospel does or is, then your proclamation becomes, ironically, a form of corrupting the gospel.

One of several well known examples is when the gospel becomes pure decisionism. Conversion is seen as consisting in a person making a choice hitherto not made, signified by praying a prayer, signing a card, raising a hand, walking forward at an invitation. The person’s act on that day becomes to them the substance of their conversion. This is encouraged by those who make the belief in the gospel centre on a crisis decision, and point back to such a decision as the basis of assurance. It is encouraged by those who, a la Finney, use manipulative techniques to convince the person to ‘accept Jesus’ – lights, sentimental music, guilt trip altar-calls, scare tactics, peer pressure etc.

Certainly conversion is an event, and one which involves the human will. Certainly it can often be traced back to a decisive prayer of repentance and faith, or a public act of submission. However, when conversion is made to hinge on a sinner’s prayer, or a four-point formula, the gospel itself is being diluted into a pale shadow of itself.

Another example of twisting the gospel in its presentation is to preach a utilitarian Christ. When the gospel becomes a means to our own ends, providing improved happiness, less guilt, a better family, more success, more health, more money – then the gospel is being lost. If the death and resurrection of Jesus is portrayed as a yuppie accessory, as the thing which will take your present lifestyle to the next level, it misses the point of the gospel. The gospel is not a means to our own ends. It is restoring us to the moral sanity needed to recognise God as the purpose of our existence.

A third example of perverting the gospel is to use worldliness as the bait. To use forms, devices, media, atmosphere and techniques that are intrinsically or even conventionally associated with the worldliness of I John 2:15-16 as a supposed tool to reach the ‘unchurched’ certainly sends a mixed message. It seems to redefine repentance itself. After all, if God hates worldliness, how can Christian preachers baptise their message in it and expect the hearers to comprehend what God calls them to turn from? If the gospel has left those Christian rockers on stage fundamentally the same, what precisely does Jesus frown upon in the unsaved rockers in the audience? What must they turn from, and more importantly, what do they think they are turning to? “Party life lite”? The self-indulgence of rock with Jesus added?

What you win them with, is what you win them to.

Conserving the Gospel – 5

December 13, 2008

The gospel is not only demeaned by the denials of apostates and the compromise of indifferentists. It is also denied by the ungodliness of professing Christians.

Intrinsic to the gospel is the truth that Jesus saves us from our sins. Certainly, He saves us from the penalty of these sins, and will one day save us from their presence entirely, but the New Testament is consistent in its teaching that true saving faith is evidenced by salvation from the power of sin in our lives. In other words, the gospel is testified to by the changed lives of its professors.
Conversely, the gospel is demeaned if those who profess to possess it contradict that claim with their lives. They effectively deny their profession with their lives.

Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!

1 Timothy 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

However, the Lord put something in place to protect the integrity of the gospel from those who demean it with their lives. He created the visible church as an institution, and commands it to guard its membership.

 Those who profess to be part of it (by believing the gospel) must live accordingly (by obeying Christ), or be removed from recognised membership of the visible church. No one knows who is part of the invisible church, but the acts of membership and church discipline are a visible, tangible means of protecting the integrity of the Gospel in the eyes of the world.

Matthew 18:17-18 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

1 Corinthians 5:11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.

What happens when churches refuse to limit their membership to baptised believers who profess and obey the gospel? What happens when churches refuse to preach on sanctification and holiness as the necessary effects and fruits of saving faith? What happens when churches refuse to discipline unrepentant believers or believers who commit scandalous behaviour?

The gospel is demeaned.

The world looks upon scandalous behaviour in the church and concludes that if the gospel is actually the boundary of the church, while guilty parties continue unchecked within the boundaries of the church, then the gospel itself must be a very porous thing. They conclude that the gospel must make very little difference to real life, if the people ‘on the inside’ look and live like the people ‘on the outside’.

Put simply, to believe the fundamentals of the faith, defend them, preach a clear gospel, and then extend Christian fellowship to people who act like unbelievers without remorse or amendment of life is to cut down the gospel message almost before it leaves your lips.

We conserve the gospel by practising Christian discipleship, church membership and church discipline.

Conserving the Gospel – 4

December 6, 2008

The gospel is threatened when its importance is demeaned.
How does this occur? We have stated that the gospel is the boundary of Christian fellowship. It is through your response to the gospel that determines if you are in the church and the circle of Christian fellowship or outside of it.

We have also seen that the gospel is understood within the doctrines that explain its meaning. Therefore, it is safe to say that these doctrines themselves form the boundary of Christianity. If a person denies any one of the fundamental doctrines, he denies the faith itself. Of course, if he makes no claim to be a Christian, he is simply an infidel (unbeliever).

However, if he denies one of the fundamentals of the faith while simultaneously claiming to be a Christian and expecting Christian fellowship, he is an apostate. Today, we can think of many groups that expect to be recognised as Christians, while denying one or more of the fundamental doctrines: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, Roman Catholics and many others. Such people demean the gospel by denying the gospel itself, while insisting that they are inside the circle of Christianity.

The Bible is very clear on how Christians are to respond to apostates.

2 John 1:9-11 Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; 11 for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.

Apostates are not even to be extended civility while they are in the act of proselytizing their false gospel. By the way, this does not mean we do not show courtesy, kindness and neighbourly love to apostates as you work with them, study with them, or even live with them. It means you do not extend any recognition to them as Christians. You do not in any way act like you accept their message or endorse it. You do not do or say anything that might be construed as a concession to their apostasy.

But here comes the difficulty. It is fairly clear what to do with apostates. However, what do we do with people who profess the gospel themselves, but extend Christian recognition to apostates? What do we do with Christians who believe the fundamentals, but do not make them the boundary of Christian recognition and fellowship? J. Gresham Machen had a term for such people. He called them indifferentists. Such people show indifference towards the importance of the fundamentals, while seemingly professing it themselves.

The outstanding 20th century example of an indifferentist is Billy Graham. Graham, apart from some dubious statements made on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, does not seem to have publicly reneged on any of the fundamental doctrines. He would claim to believe them himself. However, since his 1957 crusade in New York, Graham has been extending Christian recognition to liberals who deny the virgin birth and deity of Christ, Roman Catholics who deny salvation by grace alone through faith alone and various other state churches (in the Communist era) that denied the gospel. His methodology of inviting all represented churches and denominations to participate in his crusades still stands, insisting upon ecumenical participation above even agreement on the fundamentals of the faith.

It is quite clear that an indifferentist demeans the gospel. He sidesteps it as the gateway of Christianity, and lowers its importance overall. He essentially tramples on it, and sets something else up as the gateway for Christian fellowship.

So what do we do with indifferentists? They demean the gospel. Indifferentism is a scandal.

The new evangelical and now mainstream evangelical answer to this question is to be indifferent towards their indifferentism, and act like nothing wrong is happening.

The fundamentalist answer has been to treat the indifferentist as a very disobedient brother, and treat him accordingly.

Thus, defined this way, a conservative Christian must be a fundamentalist in conviction. He must hate indifferentism as one of the threats to the gospel and act so as to conserve it. He will call indifferentism a scandal, rebuke the behaviour of indifferentists, and severely limit his fellowship with such disobedient men.

Conserving the Gospel – 3

December 1, 2008

The gospel is threatened when its meaning is warped. In fact, the only way one can avoid misunderstanding the gospel’s purpose is by understanding its meaning. But its meaning lies in something that modern religionists hate: doctrine.

The way Paul describes the gospel in I Corinthians 15:1-4 on the surface seems to be a simple recounting of historical events: Jesus died and rose again, verified by His burial and by the witnesses that saw Him after His resurrection.

This rather plain reading of the gospel has led some to think that the gospel is nothing more than mental assent to these historical events. However, the gospel is definitely more than historical events. It can never be less than those events, for if Jesus did not actually live, die and rise again, the entire Christian faith collapses (I Cor 15:14).

But the gospel lies primarily in the interpretation of those events. An interpretation will simply be the teaching that explains the significance of the events of Christ’s death and resurrection. Another word for teaching is doctrine. Put simply, you cannot conserve the gospel unless you conserve the doctrines that explain the meaning of the gospel.

Paul helps us understand part of that doctrine when He says Christ died for our sins. This introduces the idea of substitutionary atonement. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, so that we might be forgiven, and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. We must conserve the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

However, why was this atonement needed? Because without it, we would have paid the penalty ourselves. What was that penalty? To offend an infinite God is an infinite offence. Yet we are finite, time-bound, mortal beings. The only way we could pay an infinite debt would be if we were punished for an infinite period of time. To conserve the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of eternal punishment.

How then could Christ pay for our sins over a space of three hours? The answer must be that Christ was actually an infinite Person with infinite merit. If an infinite Person suffers as a substitute, He pays an infinite price. This means that Christ had to be God. To have the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of the deity of Christ.

However, Jesus was acting as a substitute for mankind, not for angels. To be a true substitute, He had to be a true human being. He had to be able to die, something God cannot do. Therefore, we know that part of the gospel is that Jesus was truly human. To have the gospel we must conserve the doctrine of the humanity of Christ.

This leads us to something else. How did Jesus enter our world as both God and man? Of He had simply appeared as a fully grown man, He would not have been truly human, not having been born. But if He were simply born as all of us, He would not be God. To have the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of the virgin birth.

Jesus could only have been a true sin-bearer had He been sinless Himself. Likewise, only if He bodily rose from the dead would He have been successful in His atonement – having rendered death itself as an unlawful act upon His sinless life – and upon all who would be found in Him. Essential to the gospel then are the doctrines of the sinless life of Christ and the bodily resurrection of Christ.

The fact that Jesus was paying a penalty on the cross to God, while being Himself God leads us to another truth fundamental to the Gospel: God is more than one Person. This means that essential to the gospel is the doctrine of the Trinity.

Going back, we consider that payment for our sins means something about us. We are sinners. Man is sinful and inherits a sin nature. To say that man is innocent or could become righteous by his own acts contradicts the gospel. To conserve the gospel we must conserve the doctrine of human depravity.

That leads us to something else. If man was able to achieve salvation through his own means, then Christ’s death was needless. The gospel teaches that man cannot be saved by his own works, only by the grace of God through faith. To conserve the gospel, we must conserve the doctrine of human inability.

For that matter, does this gospel have a deadline? Does anything happen if the world keeps rejecting it? The answer of the Bible is that the same one who died to provide atonement will also personally return to execute judgement on those who rejected it, and to vindicate those who received it. Thus if we deny the doctrine of the personal return of Christ, we deny the gospel.

Of course how do we know all this? Paul tells us that these things are true because they are ‘according to the Scriptures”. Thus, if the Scriptures are fallible, filled with errors, and only containing the Word of God, we are in trouble. How do we know if the Scriptures have not led us astray on one of these doctrines? Thus, to conserve the gospel is to conserve the doctrine of the authority and infallibility of Scripture.

These doctrines, as you can tell, form the very basis of understanding the gospel. They are part of the gospel itself. To deny them, is to deny the gospel. Because these doctrines are essential to the gospel, they have sometimes been called the fundamentals. People who hold to the fundamental doctrines as being the boundary of Christianity are, at least historically speaking, fundamentalists.

Now, not everyone understands all these things at the point of salvation. Most of us grow to understand these things more as we mature. But ignorance is a different matter to denial. No one can flatly deny these doctrines, without denying the gospel itself.

A conservative Christian must be dedicated to studying, understanding, articulating and defending doctrines essential to the gospel. If we do not, we lose the gospel itself.