Archive for October, 2009

The Gospel and Separation II

One of the men that made a deep impact on my life when I was in college was Richard Rupp. I had the privilege of getting to know him because of his work with and my involvement in the ministerial class at Bob Jones University. On one occasion, sitting in his office talking over the issue of separation, he told a group of us that the real issue in separation is the gospel. We are to practice separation for the sake of the gospel. I believe that conversation happened during my senior year of college (1982-83). It made sense then and I think it makes sense now. Our practice of separation should be focused on gospel issues. Building on yesterday’s post, I’d like expand on what I believe the gospel entails and why is it so important to hold firmly to it. I am again rooting my thoughts in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, but appealing to other texts as needed.

The Gospel is a Message with Essential Content, “the gospel which I preached” (v. 2; cf. v. 11)

There is a very definite and deliberate shift away from propositional truth that poses a serious threat to the health of the church and the souls of lost people. Sadly, this attack is often disguised as a call to a more pure love for and trust in Jesus Christ. Listen to Robert Webber:

                The primary problem we evangelicals have inherited from the Enlightenment is its emphasis on the foundational nature of Scripture. The church has from its beginning confessed that Jesus Christ is the foundation of faith…. This foundation of Christianity is the incarnation of God into our humanity to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: Defeat the powers of evil and restore the creation in the new heavens and the new earth.

                It was during the Enlightenment that the foundation of the Christian faith shifted from the centrality of the person and work of Jesus Christ to the centrality of the Bible. Theology shifted from the God who acts to the God who spoke. In the worst scenario faith shifted from trust in Christ to trust in the Book. Therefore, the first question we must address as evangelicals in a postmodern world is this: Do we believe in a book or a person? (Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999], p. 45.)

 Webber creates an artificial and false dichotomy between Jesus Christ and the Scriptures—he tries to make us choose between two options, but no choice really needs to be made. We believe in a Person who has been revealed to us through a book! Paul says plainly here that there was a gospel which was preached by him and was received by the Corinthians. It is within this gospel message that the Corinthians stand, if they stand at all. There is a definite “word” which Paul preached to them.

The Character of the Gospel is that it is Apostolic and Biblical, “we preached…according to the Scriptures”

The apostolic witness in the Scriptures is a foundational truth that we must guard. It is “the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15). Any explanation of the gospel must be apostolic and biblical or it is not God’s gospel.

Paul is unmistakably clear about this in Galatians 1:6-9. The way in which Paul describes the true gospel is a key to guarding ourselves against false teaching. He says it was what “he preached” and what “you received.” The language here is the language of apostolic truth and discipleship. The apostles “received” the message from Jesus Christ and then proclaimed it to others who also “received” it. By using this language, Paul is establishing a test for the truth that must be accepted and what must be rejected: Is it the doctrine received from Christ and transmitted to us through the apostles? In other words, it is the principle of Sola Scriptura that must be the testing mechanism.

The Context of the Gospel is Man’s Alienation from the True and Living God, our Creator, “died for our sins” (cf. Acts 14:15; 17:23, 30-31; 1 Ths 1:10).

You cannot understand the biblical gospel outside of its theistic framework—God, the source, support, and end of all things, created man; man sinned against God; God’s wrath is kindled against man because of his sin. This is why the gospel preaching of Acts begins with God, cf. Acts 14:15 “we preach the gospel to you so that you should turn from these vain things to a living God” and Acts 17:23 “this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it.” When Paul preached in the synagogue, he confronted the Jews with the God of the covenant. When he preached to Gentiles, he confronted them with the God of creation. His point of contact with them was their awareness of God, and he proclaimed to them the true and living God who had provided salvation through His Son, Jesus (1 Ths 1:9-10).

This is where the book of Romans starts the gospel message—the wrath of God revealed against all unrighteousness. Why? Because when they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, neither were thankful (1:21). Without this aspect of the message, there is no need for the good news. This means that the message of the gospel is more than simply information to be known. It confronts us with our rebellion and demands our repentance. I have seen some argue that repentance and faith are not part of the gospel, but I would contend that this is a reductionist view of the gospel—Paul could say that his life’s mission was to “testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” and within three verses also say that he had been “solemnly testifying…of repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:24, 21).

It may seem unnecessary to some to address what seem to be such straightforward truths, but we live in a day where some are arguing that God the Father and Jesus Christ of the Scriptures are the same as the god and Jesus of the Koran. This is a serious error that undercuts the biblical witness about God, Christ, sin, and salvation. In other words, it is an attack on the gospel. The biblical gospel must be understood within the context and framework that the Bible itself establishes. The biblical gospel also includes the message of why God’s grace is needed and how it is received.

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The Gospel and Separation I

I am trying to make the case for gospel-driven separation, so an obligation is laid on me, I believe, to demonstrate that the gospel is the center of the separation issue. Probably to no one’s surprise, I’d turn to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 as evidence that my case is grounded on biblical priorities. As Paul begins to confront a very serious doctrinal issue, the resurrection, among the Corinthians, he lays the foundation for his argument by showing its connection to the gospel. He does this because the gospel is “of first importance” (v. 3).

It is important to understand the logic of his argument—you can’t deny the resurrection because denying it damages the gospel and the gospel is of first importance. The significance of the resurrection comes from its place as an essential element (i.e., belongs to the essence of) of the gospel. No resurrection means no gospel. By arguing in the way that he does, Paul shows us the priority of the gospel in our theological controversies. It doesn’t mean that other doctrinal controversies are insignificant, but that the ones that are of “first importance” are those that are tied to the gospel.

Because our day is plagued by an approach to the gospel which is reductionistic, I’d like to make clear that I don’t believe this fits this text or the rest of the NT witness about the gospel. Specifically, I think it is a serious misinterpretation to take vv. 3-4 as giving us a full expression of the gospel. Paul is providing a summary of the key historical events, assuming, because he is writing to the church at Corinth, that the full significance of these statements really constitutes the gospel.

Exegetically, I’ve always found it very odd that anybody could claim that vv. 3-4 present a statement of the whole gospel when the sentence also includes v. 5. So, if we are going to say that Paul intends vv. 3-4 to be a theological statement of the complete gospel, then we also need to include the matter of appearing to Cephas and the twelve in our gospel presentations.

Theologically, it is naïve to ignore the fact that every aspect of this summary is packed with understanding shared in common by the believers at Corinth and Paul, but that would not be apparent to those who have not heard the fuller explanation and exposition of the gospel. Take, for instance, the statement “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Think about what is comprehended in that simple statement: What does Christ mean? Who is this Christ? What kind of death did he die? What are sins? Why would He die for our sins? What are the Scriptures? The answers to these questions are all assumed by the statement because Paul was writing to people who have already accepted the gospel message (cf. v. 11 “so you believed”).

My contention would be that the gospel, as outlined in the NT, is fuller than most of the truncated gospel presentations of our day. That has implications for gospel preaching, but my main concern here is stating that calling for gospel-driven separation is not an attempt to minimize theological concerns. It is an effort to sharpen our focus on the point of concern—does this doctrinal deviation affect the gospel?

I would argue that this gospel-centeredness is why Jude uses the word “faith” in his famous statement about what was “once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Jude is not referring to our act of believing, but to the object of our believing—the message of the gospel. Colossians 1:23 provides a helpful parallel, “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard….” Here “the faith” and “the hope of the gospel” are two ways of saying the same thing.

This also accounts for the seriousness of theological error regarding the person and work of Christ. John makes it clear that departure from the apostolic doctrine of Christ means that one “does not have God” (2 John 9). Christological error is gospel error precisely because preaching the gospel is preaching Christ (cf. Phil 1:12-18; 1 Cor 2:2; 2 Cor 4:5). The problem at Galatia was a gospel problem, not just at theological debate about justification (Gal 1:6-9). Even his confrontation with Peter and Barnabas was based on the fact that “they were not straightforward on the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). Whether the problem is one of creed or conduct, Paul sees the gospel at stake and moves to defend it.

God’s glory and man’s good is wrapped up in the gospel, and that makes us doubly obligated to guard the gospel. There is more to be said on this matter, but my point here has simply been to demonstrate that the gospel is another way of saying “the fundamentals of the faith” and, so, any doctrinal departure that tears at the gospel (i.e., denies a fundamental) is cause for separation from such false teaching and those who teach it.

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Possible or Probable?

One of the vexing things, at least to me, is the too frequent tendency to read and use a writer’s words carelessly, especially at those points where one wants to disagree with him. I am sure there are lots of reasons for this, some of which may be simple matters like reading comprehension or carrying one’s own assumptions into the words. What concerns me, though, is when the fairly obvious point of certain words is ignored in order to bring a criticism based solely on a possible meaning of those words. The goal in criticism isn’t that kind of nitpicking. It is to interact with what an author intended to say, that is, with the most probable meaning of his words.

Maybe an example would help. Let’s say you and I are golfing together and I push my drive wide right of the fairway into a patch of trees. We begin looking for my golf ball. As we search, you ask me, “Where do you think it landed?” I reply, “It could have landed anywhere.” Eventually we give up and I take my penalty stroke. Later that day, you bump into a mutual friend and decide to report to him that you think I am careless with the truth. This mutual friend asks why you would say that and you reply, “Because on the golf course today he said his tee shot could have landed anywhere. Does he really mean that his tee shot could have landed forty miles away in Toledo? That’s a conclusion I could come to based on his words.” Frankly, I hope our mutual friend looks at you in amazement and then proceeds to tell you that you are an idiot. Of course my words possibly could mean that the ball left the golf course, but the context of my words and the nature of such an idiom would clearly show that such an interpretation is highly improbable. If you are concerned about genuine understanding, then you are after the probable meaning, not just a possible meaning of someone’s words.

Perhaps I am mistaken on this, but it seems that I see this most often done when an agenda is driving the interpretation. Usually that agenda focuses on discrediting someone or someone’s work, and the method employed is serving that agenda, not the truth. I fear it is becoming part of our culture—a lot of talk radio and the shout-at-one-another cable shows operate like this. I suppose I can understand when lost people twist the truth to serve their own agendas, but it is hard to understand how God’s people can justify this.

None of us are above using weak arguments or misunderstanding what someone has written or said. I certainly am not trying to claim absolute purity on this point. I believe, though, there is a clear line between using a person’s possible meaning to build a straw man and actually engaging the probable meaning of his words. I think it is a breach of good faith to twist people’s words like this. It reflects a lack of trustworthiness in the critic and/or a lack of trust in the one whose communication is being criticized. So, don’t be an idiot.

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Map or Compass?

I genuinely want to see a renewed committed to a biblically defined, gospel-driven separatism. Obviously, if I am calling for this, then I must not be happy with the present state of things. Correct. My concerns about the contemporary ecclesiastical landscape are two-fold: (1) biblical separatism is in danger of being lost because we are more focused on application than biblical principle and we are in danger of confusing the two; and (2) the increase of what I would call hyper-separatism is contrary to Scripture and counter-productive to genuine separatism and Great Commission ministry. As I’ve already mentioned, my desire is to see God-centered, healthy local churches working together to glorify God by the establishment of indigenous church planting movements worldwide. I don’t believe you can have God-centered, healthy churches without the practice of separation for the sake of the gospel. I also believe that the ability of local churches to work together to establish other churches is hurt by unwarranted and unnecessary separation.

For better or worse, one way I tried to communicate what I believe about separation was based on the difference between a map and a compass. I believe that we have been to map oriented and need to shift to a compass orientation. IOW, it seems that we’ve treated the ecclesiastical landscape like a map with territories divided up according to historical group identities—the fundamentalists live over here, the new evangelicals live there, and the liberals are over there. Separation decisions are based on where someone is placed on that map.

The problem is that the map doesn’t really work very well anymore. One reason is that the map is outdated. Border lines have shifted. New ones have been added and some have been removed. It’s like using a map of Europe from 1850 to guide you around Europe today. Just think of the fundamentalist territory on our old map. What might have been considered one region is now filled with separate provinces (probably closer to little kingdoms). And when I say separate, I mean separate—it could be deadly to cross some of those borders. Forty years ago I might thought I was safely in fundamentalist territory, but now the inhabitants of that particular province think I am a new evangelical or liberal because I preach from the NASB. Lot of good that map does me.

The same problem applies to the region labeled new evangelical on the map. It has sub-divided several times in the past sixty years. Some of its inhabitants have really moved theologically over into liberalism, but they still occupy turf in the evangelical section of the map. And others have grown very uncomfortable with the ecumenical approach of the old new evangelicalism. They still live in that region according to the map, but they are not of that persuasion.

My basic point is that the map doesn’t work anymore because it isn’t accurate anymore. This fact is being ignored to the harm of genuine separatism. One by-product of the map approach is that separation is too often being treated like checking an ID card that states where you live. If you have a card that says you live in fundamentalism, then you’re safe whether you believe and practice separation or not. If you don’t have that card, it doesn’t matter whether you believe and practice separation because you’re from the wrong part of the map. The map doesn’t work.

It is further complicated by the fact that maps work best when you know where you are and I believe that issue isn’t as clear as it used to be either. The changes in our culture are forcing committed separatists to wrestle anew with questions of how we relate to the culture around us and to each other as we come to differing conclusions. Life was easier when there was more of a shared fundamentalist sub-culture, but I don’t think we have anything close to that any more. (I wonder if we ever really did—when I went off to college in 1979 I was amazed to find out the things that fundamentalists did and didn’t do that I’d never heard of growing up in my fundamentalist local church!) There seems, at least to me, to be a wide range of answers emerging as to what separatism in the 21st century looks like. Folks are trying to figure out how to properly apply the Scriptures to the issues we face today. Where they place themselves on a map that is outdated is a kind of double whammy.

What’s my answer to all of this? Don’t trust the map so much and start using a compass. A compass gives us direction, and direction is really what we need. Determine from the Scriptures what your fixed points are and then you can make decisions regarding your ecclesiastical relationships based on those. People can draw and redraw the boundary lines on the map, but you will not thrown off. You will be able to evaluate whether you can walk with other travelers simply by looking at the direction that each is moving. You won’t be able to travel with some at all because they are going the opposite direction. Others will be going the same general direction, but you’ll choose different paths because you read the terrain differently.

Basically, I am arguing that we need to make separation decisions not on the basis of historic label or group identity, but on the basis of belief and practice. Does this man or ministry accept what the Bible teaches about separation and is it being put into practice? There are lots of reasons that I’ve come to this position, but one of the most basic is that I don’t believe the old map (and its labels) works anymore. There are a lot of self-professing fundamentalists that I believe we must separate from over false doctrine and there are some who don’t self-identify as fundamentalist (for a variety of reasons) with whom we can partner together to fulfill the Great Commission. The issue isn’t the label. The issue is belief and practice.

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Gospel-driven Separation

Well, we’ve finished our conference and I am thankful for the Lord’s help and for how well it turned out. The theme was gospel-driven separation and was different from our usual approach to these conferences. I took the main sessions and addressed the theme. Audio is available here. If you’re having trouble sleeping, this might be the cure for which you’ve been looking.

I am toying with blogging through some of what I covered and things that were raised that probably need more attention. We’ll see how that goes. I will, tonight, though simply report here what I tried to make clear a few times during the conference, namely what I was attempting to accomplish through my sessions. My intention was to set forth the case for a renewed commitment to biblical, Gospel-driven separatism. This kind of separation would reject both non-separatism and tradition-bound separatism (i.e., separation based on tradition as much or more than Scripture). It could only be described with a word like renewed if it flows from hearts and minds stirred by the gospel as the motivation for pursuing holiness. I chose to tackle this subject because I have a strong desire to see God-centered, healthy local churches working together to glorify God by the establishment of indigenous church planting movements worldwide. SDG.

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Rush to Judgment

Mid-stream of our conference, so I’ll just post somebody else’s work and call it a day. I think my favorite blog is Powerline and this post is one of the reasons. Powerline is a blog that covers a range of subjects (some of which should be ignored!) and offer, usually, good analysis and argument. The particular post I have linked to addresses Rush Limbaugh’s bid for ownership of an NFL team (Hey Rush please try for the Lions!). Read it all, but here’s a snippet that captures why I enjoy it:

A final observation, perhaps too obvious to require saying: It’s no coincidence that Democratic Party outlets like CNN had to dredge up fake quotes to make their case. Nothing Rush actually said would do the trick, even though he’s been on the radio three hours a day, five days a week, for more than twenty years. That really tells you all you need to know.

ONE LAST UPDATE: It is worth noting, as a kind of macabre footnote, that CNN found it worthwhile to “fact check” Saturday Night Live when that program had the temerity to ridicule CNN’s President, The One. Maybe CNN could become a respected news organization if it tried to fact check news stories as well as comedy skits, starting with–is this too much to ask?–its own broadcasts.

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Heretics without Borders

Rob Howell supplies a report from Tanzania about the havoc caused by false teachers. Sad reminder of the sinister effectiveness of Satan’s strategies.

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Moving Past Movements

I mentioned at the end of the post on the fundamentalist movement (which I don’t think actually exists any more—just the shadow remains), that I don’t think our obsession with movements is good. I’d like opine a little about that in this post. Let me begin the whole discussion by reminding everybody that I am not anti-fundamentalism at all. I believe there is a recognizable belief system that makes one a fundamentalist and I remain very committed to those ideals because I believe they are biblical.

I just don’t think that one can make a solid case that there is any longer a compelling and unique objective that sustains a fundamentalist movement. The fundamentalist movement came together in opposition to modernism and it maintained significant unity for quite a while as an alternative to the ecumenical evangelicalism that emerged mid-20th century. Since the early 1970s, though, the fundamentalist movement has been in a constant state of fragmentation as other causes motivated some subset to pursue its own agenda and objectives. Lest anybody think I am picking on fundamentalism, let me clearly say that the same holds true for evangelicalism. In fact, the evangelical house is in more disarray than fundamentalism. There is no coherent and distinctive evangelical movement.

Personally, I think this may be a very good thing and that’s my main point in this post. To the degree that American Christianity has been obsessed with movements, it has been tempted (and yielded to that temptation often) to neglect the local church and its mission. I will grant that the two, movements and the local church, don’t necessarily have to be opposed to each other. I am convinced, though, that the constant yearning for something big and dynamic that will make a difference in our culture and make a lot of noise so that the world knows we exist does in fact minimize the local church. It despises the day of small things. The really exciting stuff happens at big conferences and offers promises to really “make an impact.”

Just think back over the past whatever amount of years you’ve been watching the ecclesiastical scene and think about how many movements have come along that try to do what the local church is designed by God to do (or to get the local church to do something that it was not designed to do!). The American penchant for the parachurch and its individualistic qualities seem to run hand in hand with our movement-itis. Somebody embraces a cause and successfully promotes that cause until enough people begin to rally around it, and then a support system has to be built to sustain it. Movements launch ministries. Ministries attract the similarly focused and their money. Constant excitement and new opportunities have to be rolled out to keep the machine moving. Meanwhile, the local church and its mission tend to get eclipsed by the glitz. They remain viewed as necessary, but not where the real frontline action is. Movements change the world. Church, well, that’s just what we do on Sunday.

I don’t suppose there is anything wrong with wanting to be part of something big and that is making a difference in this world for Christ. But that’s exactly what the local church is! It is big because it is Christ’s body regardless of numerical size and what is happening in the local church is important enough for angels to check it out, so that seems pretty important. Our cultural obsession with showing strength through numbers has brainwashed the church into thinking we have to have huge numbers to be impressive. And we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into thinking that the organizational unity of a movement (or conference or crusade) is what Jesus prayed for in John 17. Jesus was not referring to a convention of churches, a meeting like the Gospel Coalition or the FBF, or filling a stadium for something like the old Promise Keepers rallies. All of those make us feel better about ourselves, but they are not where the real action is.

The center of God’s will for this dispensation is in the local church (1 Tim 3:15). That’s where the unity of the Spirit is to be preserved in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). The local church has been charged with the task of carrying out the Great Commission (since baptizing is an ordinance of the church). The movement that ought to matter most to us is one that aims to plant churches that will reproduce in every place where the name of Christ has not been named, and that movement must spring from local churches in order to be biblical. Sign me up for that movement.

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2 Timothy 4:3-4 Alert

Wow.  Or, to be more biblical about it, “Woe.”

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The Legal Limit on Rules

In light of a recent discussion here, here, and here at SharperIron about legalism and school rules, I thought I’d post a couple of links to an article I wrote for Frontline several years ago. It was long enough to warrant two parts, so here’s part one and here’s part two. Don’t have time at present to interact with the articles written by Pastor Mike Durning, but my article probably expresses my biggest concern—biblically, we need to be careful about reducing legalism to issues of rules and regulations. Saying that does not invalidate his article, so please don’t take my comment that way.

UPDATE: It occurred to me that I probably should point out that my two articles were first published 10 years ago. The significance of pointing this out is that I believe that there has been good progress over these ten years regarding some of the potential Pharisaism that I mentioned at the end of the article. I think, for instance, that there is less “fear of man” dressed up like “concern about your testimony” than previously.

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