Monday, June 5, 2017
Recovering the Gospel
“The weakness in evangelicalism is also its minimalism. Doctrinal minimalism in one generation can be a way of focusing the fight; in another, the path to doctrinal indifference.”
On October 31st, 2017 the Church will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany. This event set into motion the irreversible movement known as the protestant reformation. It is sad to say that the significance of this event is lost on many Christians. And it is sadder still to say that American Christians with their unfettered access to information and education through modern technology remains inexcusably and unconscionably ignorant of the significance of this movement. Even in my own church, at breakfast with some of my own fellow members of a large Southern Baptist Church, I was shocked to learn that one of those men thought it absurd that our church would acknowledge the anniversary with any sort of celebration when the time arrives. The same person rejected the idea that Rome preaches a different gospel. This attitude and level of sheer ignorance is pervasive, especially in the American version of Christianity.
It is very unlikely that Martin Luther fully understood the firestorm for which his document would serve as the spark. Luther understood that some practices desperately needed to be corrected. But he was in no way calling for what would end up becoming the complete breach of the Church he had come to know and love. God was surely moving to reform his church in ways that Luther could have never known. This would be the second time that Luther had issued a list of theses in hopes of sparking theological debate. The first attempt was in April of the same year, just five months earlier when he penned 97 theses, entitled Disputations against Scholastic Theology. It was an open attack against the neo-Pelagianism of the later schoolmen and a call for a return to Augustinian theology. It awakened no one. It hardly aroused a single syllable of discussion, let alone a serious debate. The situation would be remarkably different in October when he penned his 95 theses, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Martin Luther was concerned with something far more significant than simply possessing a cogent theological system. Luther was concerned with the gospel itself. What distinguishes the Reformation, however, is that its deepest theological concern was the gospel itself.
The Christian Church continues to face threats, mostly from within, that in one way or another go to the heart of the gospel. What modern conservative evangelicals are contending for is not tradition, contrary to the claims of emergent hipsters and even some among the young restless reformed camps. The battle is not a power struggle between and old guard and the newer, younger, more progressive one. The issue has always been, from the beginning down to this very day, a gospel issue.
During the reformation there were two very different camps that occupied John Calvin: Rome and the Anabaptists. Both camps, in their own way, threatened the gospel by threatening the only source of the gospel: sola Scriptura. In order for salvation to be secured, something must secure it. Perseverance must persevere in something. What sustains the life of the church is nothing other than Scripture breathed into her continually by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that His Words are life! (John 6:53) Peter knew fully that Jesus’ words were the very words of eternal life. (John 6:68) There is no separating Christian life from Christian Scripture. Any attempt to diminish the place and role of Scripture in Christianity is an attempt to destroy the life brought by Christ Himself.
The Roman Catholic Church had destroyed Scripture, yanking it down from its lofty place by equating tradition with it, and by claiming that the interpretation of the Church was of equal authority with the divine revelation. Evangelicals used to be far-removed from the Catholic Church and her aberrant theology. Not so much in modern times as my own fellow church-member indicates. Why have we moved ever closer to Roman Theology over recent decades? Part of this shift began or at least picked up steam in 18th century enlightenment and in 19th century American revivalism. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who described American Protestantism as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” Much of this condition can be laid at the feet of the Christian leaders who tolerated the revivalist preacher, Charles G. Finny. Finny set aside the sufficiency of Scripture and focused on new methods of outreach. These methods would infect American Protestantism, especially evangelicals, with a cancerous and erroneous view of the gospel that remains prevalent down to this very day. Finny believed that conversion from one form of behavior to another was a natural process. He rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness for Finny, was a false gospel. Finny believed that full present obedience is a condition of justification. From this revivalist movement, the Anabaptist idea of an inner voice and a focus on individual experience ignited a wild fire in the church that continues to burn bright in American evangelicalism to this day. Calvin battled both the Roman and the Anabaptist fires. Both separate the Spirit from the Word by advocating the living voice of God with the inner speech of the church or of the pious individual. Both of these approaches to Christianity naturally lead to a false gospel. Rome insists that the Scripture requires the living presence of the Spirit speaking through the magisterium while enthusiastic evangelicals (charismatics, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc.) emphasize a supposedly immediate, direct encounter with the Holy Spirit speaking in our hearts. In the former case, the church is the mediator of divine truth while in the latter, it is the individual. Both require a synergistic approach to the gospel that is absent from New Testament teachings and its historical record.
“Enthusiasm” – the tendency to assimilate God’s external Word to the inner word – is inseparable from the Pelagian tendency to assimilate God’s saving gospel to our own efforts. No longer does the Word of God sit in judgment over our thoughts, our claims, even our behavior. Modern evangelicals are beginning to call into question, not just the reliability and credibility of the Bible, but even its morality. The inner voice prevails over the external Word. No longer does the external Word of God come to us, changing us, threatening our comfortable way of life, convicting us for our wicked thoughts and actions. Instead, the inner voice, my voice, my moral experience, what I know because science told me so, threatens every aspect of the Bible and with that threat, the gospel as well.
When we insist on an inerrant text, we are not insisting on keeping with tradition for the sake of tradition. We do not strive to hang on to the old for the sake of its antiquity. We are not fighting for familiarity. The issue is the gospel. When we insist on taking Genesis 1-11 at face value, we are interested, not in preserving an age-old view or a traditional interpretation. We see what others do not because our understanding of the gospel is different from others who apparently, because of their understanding of the gospel, do not see the connections. Men like Andy Stanley claim that we can let some beliefs slide, like, for example, the virgin birth. As long as we have the resurrection we have enough! But such thinking indicates to me that Stanley has a dangerously flawed and deficient view of the gospel. The resurrection is meaningless if Jesus was not God in the flesh. And if there was no virgin birth, there is no God in the flesh. And if there is no God in the flesh, there is no imputed righteousness because Jesus, like the rest of us, was born a sinful man. And if Jesus was a sinful man, there is no gospel. See how that works? We aren’t upset because Stanley challenges an old belief or a tradition. We are upset because Stanley’s view destroys the gospel. This is why the reformed camp eventually coined the phrase: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: The Church reformed, always reforming. Sin stands at the door always desiring to lead us into error, into heresy, into damnable doctrines of demons. The Christian community is spiritual boot camp, always, never ending. It isn’t the place for coffee, donuts, niceties, and small talk about the latest in toddler fashions. It isn’t a time for prolonged discussions about whether or not the Warriors will sweep the Cavs. It is an equipping ground. Churches need to understand the purpose of the community, the purpose of our gatherings. Grace is dispensed to combat the enemy in every way. But the act of participating in a vibrant community should not be so cozy and undisturbed.
How do we recover the gospel? It begins with deliberate leaders who take the task of leading seriously. It begins with men who fear God more than they fear man. Think about the reformers and what they risked. Think about Martin Luther and the risk he took with each passing exchange. As each encounter with Rome unfolded, Luther’s resolve grew stronger until eventually, he realized the stakes were much higher and the cause much greater than he had imagined at the beginning. He could be burned at the stake or beheaded or imprisoned for life. But this did not stop him. It only served to strengthen his resolve. The gospel will not be preserved or reclaimed by cowards who care more about popularity, prestige, their kingdoms, being liked, being rock stars, their careers, their names, their images, than they do about God’s view of them.
Let us echo with Luther: Unless I am refuted and convinced by testimonies of Scripture or by clear reason – since I believe neither the popes nor the councils by themselves, for it is clear that they have often erred and contradicted themselves – I am conquered by the holy Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not withdraw anything, since it is neither safe nor right to do anything against one’s conscience. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.