Posts Tagged Gospel
Although I’ve been clearly critical of the Manhattan Declaration (MD), I am thankful to God that it has generated a very important and valuable discussion about the boundaries of legitimate cooperation and, using the buzzword of our day, co-belligerence. I am particularly thankful for the many solid expressions of concern and opposition to the kind of co-belligerence that the MD represents. I’ve highlighted a number of these earlier, but I’d like to encourage you to also read this post by Nicholas Batzig.
For more confirmation, in my mind, of what the MD represents, consider what James Kushiner writes at Mere Comments, “As a statement made by Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians (of many varieties) it does represent the strongest expression of what the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called the New Ecumenism, which is, to use the words of J. I. Packer, who also signed the Declaration, ‘those who confess the Creed and mean it.’” In other words, the New Ecumenism acts as if the Reformation didn’t happen and it studiously avoids the issue of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
Assuming that the Creed mentioned is the Apostles Creed, we’re being asked to form union with others on the basis of belief in the forgiveness of sins without agreement about how that is accomplished. Basically, the Reformed Anglican Professor and the Roman Catholic Bishop decide that their agreement about the outcome (forgiveness of sins) can cover over their disagreement about how that happens (justification by faith alone). As is often the case, what they disagree about is what really matters here—there is no forgiveness of sins apart from the good news that God saves sinners on the basis of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
It seems that the almost immediate and constant accusation thrown at those who object to something like the MD is that we are saying that no Catholic or Eastern Orthodox people are genuinely Christian. This, in my mind, is a bogus objection to our, or at least my, view. I’ll not speak for others, but my view on this matter is fully informed by the fact that I cannot see inside anybody else’s soul. I have no regeneration-o-meter that I can wave across someone to tell if he has been born again.
All I can do, and, I believe, all the professing church can do is examine the credibility of a person’s profession of faith. Is the claim to be a Christian credibly made? That means I have to have some biblical basis for evaluating its credibility. Thankfully, God has given us plenty of instruction about this matter, both positive and negative. John’s first epistle alone provides us with incredible pastoral insight about the difference between true and false claims. The evidence of genuine spiritual life (or lack thereof) includes matters of creed and conduct.
Clear biblical texts lay the responsibility on the church to not allow into or keep within it those who reject apostolic doctrine (cf. Rom 16:17-18) and/or live contrary to their profession of faith (cf. 1 Cor 5:10-13). In other words, the church cannot accept the credibility of their claim to be a Christian and part of the true church. We are not capable of making a final determination on whether they really are or not, but we obligated to deal with what we can judge, namely, that their doctrinal denial or unrepentant disobedience make their claim to be a Christian not credible.
So, applying this to the case at hand, I believe a text like Galatians 1:6-9 makes it very clear that if anybody proclaims a gospel which is contrary to the one Paul preached then that person’s claim to be a Christian is not credible. What else could Paul mean by saying “he is to be accursed” (Gal 1:8b, 9b)? Are we to think that Paul would use that language then throw his arm around those who teach such things? No, Paul would want that leaven removed, not embraced (cf. Gal 5:7-12). The church cannot extend fellowship to those who, by faith or practice, deny the gospel without destroying its own credibility.
Is it possible, to borrow a cliché, that the heart might believe better than the head? Even if I grant that, it doesn’t contradict my point—in fact, it proves it. The very fact that we have to create caveats like that shows that we are not sure if that person is saved or not. There is a serious credibility issue. Although not popular to say, I contend that it is wrong, even sinful, to accept as valid anybody’s profession of faith who intelligently and openly embraces a system that teaches baptismal regeneration and denies Sola Fide. To do so sins against both God and man.
The real question isn’t, are there Christians in the Catholic church? It is, is the Catholic church genuinely Christian? Or, to use more biblical terms, is it preaching the gospel that Paul preached or is it under the curse that Paul declared on those who preach another gospel? And, the question that follows from that is, can I accept as credible the profession of Christian faith made by someone who embracing that false system?
Shortly before the Manhattan Declaration came out I was very disappointed by a discovery I made at the back end of the second edition of J. I. Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness. This new edition contains an afterword entitled “Holiness in the Dark: The Case of Mother Teresa.” I scanned it quickly then, but did not make time to give it a thorough reading until this morning. Very disappointed is an understatement.
To cut to the chase, Packer wants to address the “problem of felt abandonment by God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, within the frame of full commitment to God: in other words, the desolation and seeming desertion of the deeply devoted” (italics original, p. 249), and he believes that Teresa’s struggles can be helpful for all of us—even to the point of thanking God “for Mother Teresa’s example, which points the way ahead for us all” (p. 263). In case you are unaware of her stuggles, Packer informs us that “after two decades of constant joyful intimacy with Christ, from 1948 on—that is, for 49 years, during the whole time of her leadership of the Missionaries of Charity—felt abandonment was the essence of her experience. Behind all the cheerful, upbeat, encouraging, Christ-honoring utterances that flowed from her during these years in a steady stream lay the permanently painful sense that, quite simply, God had gone, leaving her in aching loneliness, apparently for all eternity” (p. 250).
Packer bases the entire afterword on the premise that Teresa is a genuine believer, in spite of her devotion to Roman Catholic teachings. Packer tries to explain how she could experience such darkness and begins by explaining away several options:
- “This was not an experience of doubt …. She was always sure of the historic Christian faith and of the grace that flows from Jesus, particularly as she believed through the Mass; she had no doubt about the administrative procedures of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church; she had absolute confidence in the love of the Lord Jesus for herself and for everyone else, including the poorest of the Indian poor, whom Hindu society wrote off as valueless; she was totally convinced that she was called to take the love of Christ to them; and she was ever a human dynamo in furthering this project” (p. 261).
- It was not “passing through the dark night of the soul as Catholic tradition conceives it; for that darkness, however similar while it lasts to Teresa’s, is temporary, leading on to experiential union with God, whereas Teresa by her own testimony had known experiential union with Christ in particular for 20 years before the pain of inner darkness became her permanent condition” (p. 261).
- “Nor, again, was she undergoing an experience of detection, God sending her pain to alert her to issues of repentance and obedience that she had evaded. Quite apart from the fact that the inner darkness spanned her whole half-century of leadership, it is safe to say that there were no problems of that kind in Teresa’s life” (p. 261).
This is so mind-boggling that I am not sure where to start. How Packer can conclude any of this is beyond my ability to understand—he is prepared to look into her soul and assure us that she had no doubt, that she truly experienced union with God, and that she had no problems with repentance or obedience? I know Packer is much more intelligent than I am, but I don’t think even he can see inside a soul with such clarity.
And his conclusions fly in face of sound theology. How can she not have doubt when her salvation is based on the administration of the Mass rather than the finished work of Christ? I’ve seen no evidence that Teresa believed the gospel of grace and significant evidence from her own words that would suggest that she didn’t. Packer seems to ignore the possibility that her devotion to Jesus was not gospel-based, or that it might not have even been the Jesus of whom Paul preached (cf. 2 Cor 11:4).
Some wonder why many of us are making such a big fuss about the Manhattan Declaration, and I’d submit that it is because some of us see a dangerous drift happening. Packer, who signed the MD and also the original ECT document, is representative of this drift. It seems, and this deserves further exploration, that Packer’s initial steps in this direction started in the mid-1960s, then bloomed more fully in the decade following. Packer’s biographer, Alister McGrath, acknowledges that Packer’s support of ECT “can be seen to rest on precisely the theological foundations developed by Packer in England during the 1970s” (J. I. Packer, p. 160). Specifically, Packer took the side of evangelical ecumenism in opposition to Lloyd-Jones in 1966, then co-authored a work with two Anglo-Catholics in 1970 (Growing into Union) that many evangelicals felt conceded too much biblical ground on critical doctrinal issues. The publication of that work led to the formal break between Lloyd-Jones and Packer, bringing an end to the Puritan Conferences.
I think this backdrop is important so that we see this issue in relation to the larger issues. Too many defenses of the signers of the MD err precisely by seeing only this document, not the larger questions on the table and trends at work. Once ecumenism has been embraced, common ground becomes the goal. That almost without fail means that differences are minimized or dismissed altogether. Perceived piety or devotion to good works gradually trump soundness on the gospel as the evidence of genuine Christianity. That seems like the only way to explain how Packer can claim that Teresa is a model Christian because “what one does for others is the real test of the genuineness and depth of one’s love to God, and specifically to Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 262).
As I said earlier on this subject, the Manhattan Declaration represents another step toward accepting the false notion that being a Christian is demonstrated by doing something about social issues. It seems clear to me that J. I. Packer has taken that step.
One the chief architects of the Manhattan Declaration is Charles Colson, of Prison Fellowship. For many of us, that Timothy George and Chuck Colson were two of three drafters of this document was the first sign of trouble. These two have been central players in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together efforts. Even Alistair Begg noted this connection and clearly stated his concern on this point, and he wisely argued that the bounds of co-belligerence must be limited by the gospel.
I’ve already shown the ecumenical mindset that Timothy George has about this declaration, but Chuck Colson, not surprisingly, has been even clearer regarding his view of things. On his November 25th Breakpoint Colson referred to the release of the Manhattan Declaration as “one of the most remarkable and memorable moments of my life.” Why?
There, in front of all those cameras and lights, Christian leaders lovingly, winsomely, and firmly took a stand. I will never forget the picture. I stood between Archbishop Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia. I looked over at Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action.
To my left was the brilliant Bishop Harry Jackson, a man who has mobilized African American churches in the District to oppose gay “marriage.” And there was Fr. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. I was missing only one man, my dear friend, the late Richard Neuhaus.
It was a foretaste of what we’re all going to see in heaven, when those of us who can truly trust the Bible, who love Christ with all our hearts, minds, and souls, are re-united in the presence of our gracious and loving God.
Can there any doubt, based on his own words, that one of the primary architects of this document believes it is aimed at expressing genuine Christian unity? It would be wrong to conclude that what Colson believes about this can be attributed to everybody who signed it, or even that signing necessarily commits one to Colson’s pursuit of ecumenicism. But the clarity with which its chief architects express their ecumenical ambitions can’t be ignored and should have been a major cause for concern about this project. Frankly, I don’t see how anybody who signed it could really be surprised about negative reactions given the history of George and Colson with regard to ecumenical efforts. How could the Manhattan Declaration not be viewed as part of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together package?
Another quote from Colson to illustrate a major concern that I have about a theological shift that is underway:
Just imagine what could happen if we could say to the world that a million Christians have made this pledge—that we will not compromise the faith, no matter what. I think that would have an extraordinary impact on American culture.
Note especially these words, “a million Christians made this pledge—that we will not compromise the faith, no matter what.” In one fell swoop, Colson designates all who sign as Christians and turns a pledge to stand up on social issues into a defense of the faith. What will the world think? That being a Christian is a religious designation rather than the name for those who have been born by God’s grace through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. They will think that being Christian is about doing something about social issues. In short, the world will be confused by the message sent via this declaration.
I don’t know if the Manhattan Declaration will actually do anything to stop abortion or prevent the destruction of marriage. Even if it does, though, the price for doing so is too high—fidelity to the gospel. This declaration does, however, provide an excellent opportunity for conservative evangelicals to fully and forcefully reject ecumenical evangelicalism. And I mean reject it completely, not merely say you oppose it while you actually engage in it.
I mentioned that I would return to the subject of how support for and response to the Manhattan Declaration provides a look at the contemporary fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum. Let’s juxtapose some quotes to see if I can illustrate part of my point:
Timothy George (author and signer)
We ourselves set forth this appeal as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We hold differing political views and follow no partisan agendas. We believe it is time for Christian believers to speak together clearly and boldly on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Al Mohler (signer)
I signed The Manhattan Declaration because it is a limited statement of Christian conviction on these three crucial issues, and not a wide-ranging theological document that subverts confessional integrity….
My beliefs concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have not changed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that I find both unbiblical and abhorrent — and these doctrines define nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and we concede no doctrinal ground.
John MacArthur (opposed)
The Declaration therefore constitutes a formal avowal of brotherhood between Evangelical signatories and purveyors of different gospels. That is the stated intention of some of the key signatories, and it’s hard to see how secular readers could possibly view it in any other light. Thus for the sake of issuing a manifesto decrying certain moral and political issues, the Declaration obscures both the importance of the gospel and the very substance of the gospel message.
These three represent, I believe, different points on the spectrum. George and MacArthur stand significantly apart from each other, while Mohler occupies something of a middle ground. George clearly implies that all of the signers are genuine followers of Jesus Christ, something which MacArthur clearly denies. Mohler, I think, tries to keep the discussion completely away from this issue by deemphasizing theology in favor of focus on three social issues. George reflects the kind of ecumenical evangelicalism that the new evangelical agenda called for, something George himself calls an “ecumenicism of the trenches” in his defense of the declaration. MacArthur’s argument squarely rejects any ecumenical effort which obscures the gospel.
Mohler’s middle ground looks like what I referred to in the previous post as some kind of flattened Judeo-Christian worldview or ethic. This allows him to find unity with others who share this worldview, but not call it genuine gospel unity. The problem, though, is that it allows Christian to be used in two distinct ways, and that creates confusion about the real meaning of Christian. This, I think, is a core issue and presents a real challenge for a man like Dr. Mohler.
Iain Murray, in Evangelicalism Divided, has done an excellent job chronicling the danger of ecumenical evangelicalism and the damage it does to the gospel. It might be simplistic to say it this way, but the damage is done by fuzziness regarding what it means to be a Christian. The new evangelical agenda virtually required evangelicals to accept the Christian standing of those who denied gospel truths. The net result is that Christian came to be used as a religious category in distinction to Muslim or Buddhist, not as a name for those who have experienced the new birth by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is no genuine unity apart from the gospel, and all attempts at unity apart from the gospel actually work against the gospel.
This is the predicament for Dr. Mohler. He is unapologetically committed to the priority of the gospel in defining Christian identity, yet his commitment to the culture war leads him to make uncomfortable alliances with those who have a similar agenda. I could be mistaken, but my take on it is that he only accepts part of the new evangelical agenda. He does not, for instance, embrace the ecumenical evangelism of Billy Graham, but seems to embrace the ecumenical activism of Carl Henry. So, he finds himself signing the declaration and simultaneously issuing a strongly worded clarification. One hand builds; the other tears down.
Thankfully, to this point Dr. Mohler has kept a theological edge that has prevented him from fully embracing the ecumenical path of men like Timothy George and Chuck Colson. I hope he never loses that edge. Well, truth be told, I really hope he slides closer to John MacArthur’s position.
I have received several emails about the Manhattan Declaration, so I thought I’d do something of a hodge podge post on it. Information about the Declaration itself is here.
Some explanations for why they signed the Declaration:
Some explanations from others as to why they would not sign it:
Here’s what I wrote to someone yesterday who had emailed me to ask my view of it:
“I think the major problem is the assumption made by the statement that all involved are Christians and believers. It uses this language clearly and repeatedly. Placing Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals all under the common designation Christian and referring to them as believers causes confusion regarding the gospel. At the least, it substitutes a sociological-historical definition of Christian in the place of a biblical-theological one. At the worst, it runs the risk of minimizing the biblical message of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
I share the concerns of this document regarding the issues it addresses, but I differ from them in that I cannot give those matters more importance than clarity regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it truly means to be a Christian.”
I also think that John Stackhouse’s assessment regarding the value of this statement is insightful.
A few thoughts:
- The issue of co-belligerence within Christendom in spite of radical differences regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ is a serious matter. As I noted above, and MacArthur argues more fully and clearly in his response, the gospel is at stake in an effort like this. I’ve used the words “extend Christian recognition and fellowship” a lot throughout my posts on gospel-driven separation and that’s the problem here. It’s one thing to sign a paper under the banner of “concerned citizens” and another thing altogether to sign one under the banner of “concerned Christian citizens.”
- While I recognize that I am a member of a very small minority on this point, I still contend that this kind of effort is the inevitable outcome of accepting the original new evangelical agenda. Elevating social concerns to the degree that it does inevitably demands: (a) the broadest coalition possible in order to actually have an impact; and (b) the basis for social action be some kind of flattened Judeo-Christian worldview or ethic (whether formed by Scripture or natural law). Both of these move in the direction of minimizing the gospel since focusing on it would introduce division and probably seem too conversionist.
- I think it is a good thing that there is open debate about this because it shows: (a) the diversity of viewpoint among evangelicals on these matters; (b) that some (hopefully many) evangelicals are uncomfortable with anything that sends mixed messages regarding the gospel (the fact that Dr. Mohler felt the need to defend his actions seems like a strong proof of this); and (c) that “movement” unity isn’t the dominant concern that it used to be.
- I wonder if something like this doesn’t quickly surface where people are on the contemporary fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum. On one end will be those who conclude from this that all signers have betrayed the gospel and, therefore, must be marked and turned away from. At the other end will be those who think signing it is somehow wrapped up with the gospel itself since the mission of God is to oppose all injustice and establish His reign on earth. There is a lot of turf between those two poles and we’re seeing that demonstrated in the responses. I’ll probably return to this in some follow up posts.
The parenthetical portion in the title of this post is to make it clear that I realize that it is impossible for us to really stand outside of ourselves and our situation completely. I have spent my Christian life in the context of fundamentalist churches and schools, and I unapologetically committed to fundamentalist beliefs, and I realize that my perspective is affected by this. All of us, because of our backgrounds, need to work hard to make sure that we are not assuming things that we need to actually prove. I hope we all recognize this.
I am not, though, inclined to think that we are so conditioned by our experiences and personal histories that we cannot look at the Word carefully and have it shape (and reshape) us. That’s what we constantly need. The Word must have full and functional authority over us.
I believe we have much to learn from history, but we need to view those lessons as descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, we see what people did, not necessarily what we must do. Prescription comes from the Bible, not fundamentalist or new evangelical history. We can’t afford to be historically ignorant or live as if truth was born today, but we also must justify our decisions on the basis of Scripture, not merely on traditions received from our elders. The split between fundamentalists and new evangelicals, after all, wasn’t like a feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. It was division produced by very clear differences regarding the obligations Scripture places on us to safeguard the gospel. If we separate from a professing brother, it must be rooted in something more significant than the fact that he comes from the wrong family line.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine that you are a missionary church planter in Africa. As God graciously blesses clear gospel preaching with conversions, a church is formed, then another, a third, and so on. As the work multiplies, men are trained to pastor and plant new churches. How would you teach these men and churches to practice separation for the sake of the gospel in this context? None of the big names, well known schools, or movements from America really matter over here, so your inherited taxonomy isn’t very helpful. To talk about separating from new evangelicals wouldn’t make sense to these godly and gifted African brothers or the churches. What would you do?
Here’s what I would do—teach them these three obligations as the base line for ecclesiastical fellowship and cooperation, then focus their attention on the goal of fulfilling the Great Commission for the glory of God. Since the Great Commission calls for discipleship and reproduction, I’d encourage them to partner with those who are likeminded in matters of faith and practice.
Maybe this is too simplistic. I don’t think so. I think it will work better than most of what I see happening. Separation is not the end. It serves the gospel because the gospel serves God’s glory (2 Cor 4:4-6, 15). Personally, I think we need to recover this kind of gospel-driven simplicity on the matter of separation. If they’ve denied or compromised the gospel, then we say no to cooperation and fellowship. If they’ve not denied and are not compromising the gospel, then the possibility of cooperation and fellowship exists. Since we have a clear task to carry out in obedience to Jesus Christ, then wisdom calls us to join with those who are likeminded so that we can pull together in the same direction. Applying this isn’t easy, but is fairly simple.
My goal through these posts on gospel-driven separation has been to lay out what I believe are the biblical obligations regarding separation that are explicitly stated in or implied by clear biblical texts. I’ve tried to summarize these obligations with the following three statements:
- For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).
- For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15).
- For the sake of the credibility of the gospel, believers and churches must strive to reflect God’s holiness and to live differently than those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:15-16; Eph 4:17-19).
It is important to note the difference between what I am calling obligations and other decisions regarding the extent of our ministerial cooperation and fellowship. My understanding of these obligations is that they are necessary for our church’s obedience to Jesus Christ—we don’t have any other option if we desire to be obedient to our Lord. We cannot extend Christian fellowship to those who deny fundamental doctrines of the Faith. We cannot ignore the disobedience of those who do so. We cannot blur the line between the church and the world.
Once these obligations have been met, though, each local assembly is free to determine the extent of its external relationships and participation in inter-church fellowship and cooperation. Because this kind of fellowship and cooperation is voluntary (i.e., it can’t be forced on the local church), local churches should make these decisions consistent with their theological and ministerial commitments rather than operate from a lowest common denominator approach. Each local assembly, because of its peculiar context and condition, will have particular concerns related to its health and mission, and, so, will need to examine things so as to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph 5:10).
By coming to this subject from the angle that I have chosen, I’ve attempted to work from Scripture to our contemporary ecclesiastical context. My desire is to know what God expects of His people in all times and all places. Once I have some clarity about that, then I can prayerfully and carefully apply it to the actual time and place in which I live. The proper flow, I believe, is from timeless principle to timely application.
One of the concerns that I have is that some (perhaps many) seem to work at this from the opposite direction. They look at the current ecclesiastical landscape which they have inherited, then to the Scriptures in search of texts to defend or debunk the existing boundary markers (depending on whether they want to retain or change the status quo). One side keeps adding items to list of what qualifies one as a fundamentalist while the other side keeps paring the qualifications down. The problem with both, from my perspective, is that they are focused on identity in relation to the movement. Each has its idealized version of when fundamentalism looked best and then defines what a fundamentalist is according to that ideal.
I’ve already gone on record stating that I don’t believe there is a fundamentalist movement at this time (here and here), so I’ll not retread that ground other than to point out that this undercuts both of these approaches. The current fragmentation inevitably results in identity markers that are very provincial. The deeper problem, though, is that both approaches run the risk of elevating historic identity markers over biblical ones. Fundamentalist was a label developed in response to a specific historical context and conflict, but biblical Christianity existed before that label and will exist after it has faded. To the degree that some who profess to be fundamentalists have actually drifted from biblical Christianity the label has been tarnished and that raises questions about the value of fighting over who can legitimately wear the label. My contention is that we’d be better served by looking at what God expects of us, and then find cooperation and fellowship with those who are likewise committed to meeting, by God’s grace, those expectations. It’s the content on the inside, not the label on the outside that really matters.
That this subset of my series has four parts is because I believe this aspect of separation is both important and complicated. It is important because marking the difference between the church and the world is a gospel issue that has eternal consequences for souls. The new birth is evidenced by new life, and life inside the church should be genuinely different from life outside of the church. Believers “are not of the world” (John 17:14, 16). Maintaining the line between the church and the world is very, very important.
But, it also can be complicated because believers have been sent “into the world” (John 17:18; 20:21). In fact, our Lord was clear that He wasn’t asking for them to be taken “out of the world” (John 17:15). As it is often said, believers must balance the tensions of being “in the world” while not being “of the world.” Or, to use Paul’s way of saying it, believers are “those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).
The fact that navigating how to live in a sin-cursed world and fallen culture is not simple is evidenced by the biblical commands which call us to practice discernment (e.g., Phil 1:9-10; Eph 5:10; Heb 5:14). Culture is never neutral, but rather is an expression of beliefs and values. Because of depravity, all cultures have been affected by the fall. The task of discernment often focuses on determining what parts of the culture around us express unbiblical beliefs and values. IOW, where is the line between simply being in the world and being of the world.
An aspect of this that is too often overlooked is the replacement of the Mosaic Law as the rule of life for believers. The NT does not set out to create a culture in the way that the Mosaic Law did for Israel, but it equips believers for life in diverse cultures by the application of biblical truth under the direction of God’s Spirit (cf. Gal 3, 5). Our Great Commission mandate demands cross-cultural ministry (“all nations”) and NT missions aims to spread the Gospel without unnecessary cultural baggage. Although there are sad exceptions, most recognize that the goal of missions, for example, is not to plant American churches around the world, but to plant indigenous gospel churches. Planting a church that is “in the world” but not “of the world” is loaded with challenges that call for discernment. The same is true for being the church in a culture that changes over time.
The challenge we face is applying timeless truths in specific times and places. The truths are timeless, but the applications must change as the context changes. We cannot lock down on a particular set of applications from a bygone era or we are guilty of elevating our applications above biblical truth itself. We run the risk, in such cases, of becoming traditionalists rather than being Biblicists. We must constantly be making fresh application of biblical truth to the world in which we currently live, not the one in which we used to live.
Inevitably, it seems, there will be disagreements about how the Scriptures should be applied in certain contexts. Disagreement about applications should never produce indifference about applying the Bible. The fact that people disagree about something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Each of us (and our congregations) must arrive at conclusions which we believe honor the Lord, whether others agree with us or not. We also need to allow room for other believers and congregations to develop different convictions about the application of biblical truth.
When it comes to the line between the church and the world, I believe this is the crucial thing to remember. We can agree with one another on the biblical truth regarding anti-worldliness, but still differ from one another in some details of application. Of course, I concede that some applications might be so absurd as to call into question commitment to the biblical truth at stake. Yet, I don’t think that is where most of the tension exists. The real question is how we should relate to those who disagree with us about the application of biblical truth. My contention is that agreement on the principles is necessary, not agreement on all points of application.
To try to pull this section all together, let me state it in bullet points:
- The power of the gospel changes those who receive it.
- The boundary line between the church and the world must be guarded by church discipline.
- Not being conformed to the world means not allowing the beliefs and values of this present fallen world to shape our minds and hearts with the result that we would indulge in its sinful practices and live for the treasures it offers.
- Some evidences of worldliness are easily identified because they are expressed in sinful practices, but other more subtle aspects of worldliness call for the discerning application of biblical truth.
- Not all believers will agree with one another on all matters of application, so, if we are agreed on the biblical truth at stake, we must allow room for differing applications while accepting one another as God’s people.
- Some disagreements on application may practically result in limited fellowship and cooperation out of concern for matters of conscience and discipleship, but those are voluntary choices, not the application of biblical texts regarding separation.
I am sure that my presentation of this leaves significant room for improvement, but I am not trying to write the perfect position paper. I am trying to express what I believe to be the controlling factors in a view of separation that is gospel-driven. The application of all this will never be like a mathematical equation. It will never be as simple as checking someone’s ID card. It will always require careful evaluation and discernment. May God grant us the discernment needed for our day!
The Bible is very clear that there is difference between the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:9-10). This difference is created by God’s power through the gospel to change lives. The Lord Jesus Christ mentioned this in His high priestly prayer recorded in John 17. We find these words in verse 14, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” The Word effected such a radical change in them that they are said to be no longer “of the world.” The believer’s relationship to Christ changes his relationship to the world.
To talk about the line between the church and the world means we have to define the terms world and worldliness. What is it that we are to be distinct from? What does it mean to be worldly? Biblically, the word world may mean: (a) the universe, i.e., the sum total of creation (Jn 17:24); (2) the earth, i.e., the inhabited world (Rom 1:8); (3) the people who dwell on the earth (John 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2); and, (4) the evil world order controlled by Satan and in opposition to God (2 Cor 4:3; John 12:31; 14:30). The one that matters for the subject at hand is the fourth—the evil world order which opposes God. The general nature of that definition presents some challenges for us in terms of application, but at its core it is rebellion against the Maker and rightful Master.
Trying to define worldliness is also a challenge, but here is my attempt to synthesize what I believe the Bible teaches on this. Worldliness is having a heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values (1 John 2:15-17; Matt 6:24-33; 13:22) so that we engage in its sinful pleasures (Eph 4:17-19, 22; 1 Peter 4:2-5) and pursue earthly treasures (Matt 6:19-24; Col 3:1-4; 1 John 2:17). Obviously, I could spend a whole sub-series unpacking this definition, but let me just broadly address the three main parts of it.
A heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values
Ephesians 4:17-19 is very clear about the condition of man’s heart and mind apart from Jesus Christ. Paul describes it in very negative terms—“futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart….” Because man has rejected God, his heart and mind are without light. In his blindness he believes lies and puts the wrong price tag on everything around him. Believers, on the other hand, have been enlightened by God’s Spirit so that we can know the truth and can see the true value of things (cf. 1 John 2:17, 20). Worldliness is when a believer looks at life like a lost person does and when he accepts the appraisal of the world about what really matters.
We engage in its sinful pleasures
It is important that we not trivialize worldliness. 1 John 2:15-17 paints a very stark picture that pits love for the world against love for the Father in mutually exclusive terms. How might we trivialize worldliness? By treating it as if it means something like “popular among lost people.” Being popular among lost people does not necessarily mean that something is worldly or sinful. There are plenty of popular things that are actually good. Sure, given the fallen condition of lost people, many things that are popular are also sinful. They might be popular because they are sinful, but being popular does not make it sinful. So, if someone says, for instance, that a certain hairstyle or style of clothing is worldly simply because a lot of lost people wear them, that trivializes the meaning of worldliness. If the hairstyle or clothing is immodest, then there is biblical warrant for questioning it, but in that case it wouldn’t matter if it was popular or unpopular among lost people.
The consistent witness of the NT is on the sinfulness, not popularity, of any particular practice. Just after instructing the Ephesians in 4:17-24 about not living like those who don’t know Christ, the Apostle Paul provides practical instruction about what that means in 4:25-5:14. The contrast he draws is between vice and virtue—don’t lie, but speak the truth; don’t steal, but work and share; don’t use unwholesome words, but those which edify. He focuses on matters like immorality, impurity, greed, and filthy talk. In the same way, Peter marks off the difference in terms of vices like sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries (1 Peter 4:3).
Churches that are serious about resisting worldliness, then, will be serious about dealing with sin. Being anti-worldly isn’t about staying away from things simply because they are popular with lost people. It is about not adopting the sinful practices of those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Pursue earthly treasures
Temporal, material preoccupation is clearly a sign of worldliness and must be resisted by believers and congregations. Frankly, assessing this aspect of worldliness has always been difficult since there is nothing inherently evil about material prosperity and it can be tricky to spot the line between having things and them having you. This is even more difficult when we apply it to congregational life. We all probably have our own views on when the line is crossed, but we’re not talking about disagreements or things we find objectionable. We’re talking about matters which cast doubt on one’s profession to be “seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
I want to be very clear about what I am advocating so that there is little confusion (I’ve given up on pursuing no confusion when it comes to discussing separation!). I am talking about what would demand that separation take place for the sake of the gospel. The standard for making that judgment is very high. We may choose to limit our ecclesiastical fellowship for the sake of conscience or for discipleship purposes, but that’s not my point. The real point, from my perspective, is identifying the point at which a church has so compromised the gospel that we must separate for the sake of the gospel?
If you’ve been following along over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been attempting to make the case for gospel-driven separation. Separation is necessary at those points where the gospel is at stake. As I see it, defense of the gospel demands that we draw three lines very clearly: (1) between belief and unbelief; (2) between gospel faithfulness and unfaithfulness; and (3) between the church and the world. If we disregard the first line, then the purity of the gospel will be lost. If we ignore the second line, then the clarity of our gospel message will be lost because we extend Christian fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel. If we are not careful with the third line, then the credibility of the gospel is damaged by those who claim to be saved without showing any credible signs of genuine conversion.
It’s the third line that was introduced in the last post and that is the subject of this post. The NT is clear about the transforming power of the gospel. Those who have experienced the new birth are changed because of it (2 Cor 5:17). The difference between those who are born again and those who are not is so clear that the Apostle John could write, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10). To deny this distinction is to deny the power of the gospel and open the door of the church to those who have no saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
It is clear from what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the local assembly must give careful attention on this point as it relates to the issue of membership. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul confronts the congregation about its misunderstanding of separation and its toleration of sin within the church. They had taken the mistaken position that they should not associate with lost people who were practicing sin, but Paul refutes that on the basis that believers would then “have to go out of the world” (v. 10). Instead, his concern was that they not “associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11). Of special interest here is Paul’s designation of this person as a “so-called brother.” The person in question is someone who professes to be a Christian, but whose unrepentant sin contradicts that claim (cf. 1 John 3:9-10). In fact, the contradiction is so profound that fellowship must be withheld so as to not create confusion about gospel issues like the new birth and the nature of the church.
That the nature of the church is at stake is confirmed by the language Paul uses in vv. 12-13. Those who are the “people of this world” (v. 10) are called “outsiders” in v. 12. The “so-called brother” is viewed as being “within the church” (v. 12) and therefore should be removed (v. 13). This insider vs. outsider language also is used in Colossians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:12, and 1 Timothy 3:7. These texts all mark off the local church as community which is distinct from the world around it—believers are insiders while non-believers are outsiders.
A definite boundary line is established between the church and the world, and the call for church discipline in this passage means that the boundary line must be maintained. In terms of our larger subject, anytime the distinction between the saved/church and lost/world is removed, it is a gospel issue. For the sake of the gospel, then, churches must not extend fellowship to those churches which deny, whether in belief or practice, the transforming power of the gospel and the truly distinctive nature of the church.