Thursday, April 27, 2006
Jesus Christ, the Propitiation for Our Sins
by Kim Riddlebarger
© 1996, Modern Reformation Magazine, "Saved From God by God" (March / April 1996 Issue, Vol. 5.2). All Rights Reserved. Subscription Rate: $29 Per Year. Click here to subscribe or call 1-800-890-7556.
There is no way this side of eternity we will ever be able to fully understand the words of our Lord recorded in Matthew 27:46: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" As the mob mocked him, and while the thief who was crucified next to him hurled insults at him, our Lord's thoughts turned not to his own physical anguish or the ridicule he faced from onlookers. His mind was on something far different from that of most dying men-his dying lament was the anguish he felt at being estranged from his heavenly father, whose wrath he bore as he faced an excruciating death by crucifixion. The Father he had known from all eternity had now turned his back on his only begotten son. Just moments after uttering these awesome words, he took his final breath. The significance of his death was only then slowly being grasped by those who watched him give up his spirit. For at the very moment when his heart ceased beating the afternoon sky was suddenly darkened and terra firma itself shuddered beneath his cross. This was no ordinary death.
There are other signs which marked the time of his death as well. The great curtain in the Jerusalem temple-separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place-was dramatically torn in two all the way from top to bottom. It was as though God Himself was removing his blessing from what had been his earthly temple. The sacrifices offered in that temple were no longer accepted by God, and any further shedding of the blood of bulls and goats was now an offense to God and only served to further increase the guilt of those who offered them. And when it was finally and mercifully over, one soldier responsible for seeing to it that the sentence of death was carried out, and now terribly frightened because of the cosmic upheaval that accompanied this man's dying, is reported to have exclaimed "Surely, this man was the Son of God" (Mt 27:54). For it was now clear to all that this was not just another common criminal who had died before their eyes. Indeed, this bloody, disfigured, and humiliated man, the one identified by the crude sign that adorned his cross as the "King of the Jews," was none other than the Son of God. Without guilt before God or man, and a willing victim despite his complete and total innocence, this man died under the wrath of his Father in order to save those who were even then taking perverse delight in his death. This was no ordinary death.
Surely we will never fully understand everything that happened when Jesus Christ died on a Roman gibbet for the sins of the world. But Scripture does tell us quite a bit about what Christ's death accomplished, and how his death benefits us today, nearly 2,000 years later. While there are several striking explanations offered throughout the New Testament as to the meaning of Christ's death by crucifixion, one term strikes me as capturing the meaning behind our Lord's lament perhaps better than any other: Christ's death is said to be a "propitiation for our sins." Used only four times in the New Testament (twice by John: 1 Jn 2:2, 4:10; once by Paul: Romans 3:25; and once by the author of Hebrews: 9:5), the term has a rich Old Testament background, and we will be unable to understand why this term is so significant when used of Christ's death apart from such a context.
There is one theme, however, no doubt more than any other, which underlies the concept of propitiation in both the Old and New Testaments and that is the notion of God's wrath. "In the Old Testament, more than twenty words are used of the wrath of God (in addition to a number of others which are used in reference only of human anger). The total number of references to God's wrath exceeds 580, so that it cannot be said to be an occasional topic."
1 While the pagans described their "gods" as possessing a capricious and almost irrational anger, which they believed was often turned loose against them without perceptible rhyme or reason, "the Hebrews were not in doubt," about why their God was angry with them. "They knew that one thing and one thing only aroused God's anger, and that was sin."2 Thus we can never understand why the biblical writers speak of Christ's death as a propitiation if we do not see the fundamental fact that God is Holy, and that he must punish all sin. Take for example God's reaction to idolatry recorded in Exodus 32:8 10: "They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel.'" God's reaction is swift and quite clear: "I have seen these people," the Lord said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them."
One of the most sobering declarations of God's holy anger is found in Isaiah 30:27:
See, the Name of the Lord comes from afar, with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; his lips are full of wrath, and his tongue is a consuming fire. His breath is like a rushing torrent, rising up to the neck. He shakes the nations in the sieve of destruction; he places in the jaws of the peoples a bit that leads them astray. And you will sing as on the night you celebrate a festival; your hearts will rejoice as when people go up with flutes to the mountain of the Lord, to the Rock of Israel. The Lord will cause men to hear his majestic voice and will make them see his arm coming down with raging anger and consuming fire, with cloudburst, thunderstorm and hail.
God's righteous anger against sin is also seen by his response to those who commit murder and adultery: "I will bring upon you the blood vengeance of my wrath and jealous anger" (Ez 16:38). Even what we might impudently consider "small" and insignificant sins nevertheless provoke the same reaction from the Holy God. "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless" (Ex 22:22 24). Indeed, lies and greed meet with a similar response, as Jeremiah laments, "I am full of the wrath of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in" (Jer 6:11). God is Holy and he will punish all sin with an eternal and righteous vengeance.
There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of some to argue that it is the "bad" god of the Old Testament who acts in such wrath, while the God of the New Testament is loving and would never express such righteous anger toward his creatures. While not spoken of as frequently as in the Old Testament, God's anger toward sin and evil-doers is clearly spoken of in a number of ways in the New Testament. In John's Gospel, for example, we read that God's wrath abides on everyone who does not believe in Jesus Christ (Jn 3:36). Jesus himself spoke of Hell and eternal punishment quite frequently (see Mt 5:22, 18:8, Mk 9:48; Lk 12:5). The Apostle Paul argues that "God's wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men" (Rom 1:18) and that "God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient" (Eph 5:6). In Revelation, John speaks of "God's fury, which has been poured into the cup of his wrath" (Rv 14:10, cf. 16:19), and John even goes so far to speak of Christ's coming in judgment as "the wrath of the lamb" (Rv 6:16). Thus we cannot drive a wedge between God's anger in the Old and New Testaments.
Thus the question necessarily arises as to how any will enter heaven since God's righteous anger burns against all those who commit sin, and if the biblical record is clear about anything, it is that everyone living has sinned and is therefore under the just condemnation of God. How will anyone be admitted into heaven and on what grounds? If God cannot overlook sin, then he must punish it. But how can he punish sinners without annihilating them? We will never understand the cross of Christ if we first do not contemplate God's anger toward all sin and those who commit it. And so it is against this background that we must endeavor to understand the term "propitiation."
When those who were translating the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek looked for a word to describe God's forgiveness, in reference to his anger, they choose the term hilsokomai in a number of instances. The idea in view by using that specific term is certainly a turning aside of anger through the offering of a sacrifice (cf. Ex 32:14, Ps 78:38, and Lam 3:42).3 But the term's full meaning is seen most clearly in the New Testament when it is applied to the cross of Christ. When John speaks of the death of Christ as a "propitiation [hilasmos] for our sins" (1 Jn 2:2; 4:10), the meaning is clear. Christ's death on the cross turns aside God's wrath that otherwise would be directed toward us in the judgment because of our sins. Christ accomplishes this for us through his offering up of himself as the sacrifice on whom God has poured out his anger. Christ shed his blood then, in part, to appease the Holy God's anger toward our sins.4 The same idea is in view in Romans 3:25. Paul says that "God presented his Son as a propitiation [hilasterion]," to demonstrate his justice-he will indeed forgive sin only because he punishes it in Christ-and so that he can justify those who have faith in his Son. Since God cannot simply overlook sin but must punish it, Christ must stand in the sinner's stead. The guilt of the sinner's sin has been dealt with in that Christ's shed blood turns aside the wrath of God toward the sinner, thereby removing that guilt from him or her. In this sense, the concept of propitiation is foundational to understanding not only the substitutionary aspect of the atonement, but also forensic justification as well. The reason that sinners can be justified at all is that the guilt for their own sins has been imputed to Christ, so that Christ in turn can turn aside God's wrath toward sinners by being punished for the sinner in the sinner's place (Phil 3:9). Perhaps James Denny put it best when he said, "the simplest word of faith is the deepest word of theology: Christ died for our sins."
The prissiness of Protestant Liberalism is clearly evident in the notion that Christianity is a religion of morality and ethics, rather than a religion of rescue from real personal guilt and the penalty due us from the Holy God, whose "eyes are too pure to look on evil; [who] cannot tolerate wrong" (Hab 1:13). Protestant liberals have always had a problem with the vivid biblical language of personal guilt before a Holy God and the necessity of shedding the blood of the Son of God if there was to be any real remission of sin. One thinks of the rather pitiful efforts of C. H. Dodd to redefine and reduce God's wrath to mere reciprocity-our bad actions inevitably produce bad consequences for us.5 According to Dodd, anger is a human trait, so "how can God, who is love, be angry in the way in which men understand anger?" So Dodd redefines "wrath" according to his own theologically liberal sensitivities. The God of the Bible is too barbaric for those who don't believe that God is holy and will, therefore, necessarily punish eternally all who violate his law as a matter of justice. I have always shuddered at the story recounted by one of my colleagues about a liberally inclined fellow seminarian who once asked him, "You're not one of those guys who's into the 'blood' and all that stuff, are you?" Protestant liberalism has always struggled to fashion a "god" who serves as a mascot for whatever political or moral cause that happens to be in vogue that week. Redemption by the blood of Christ, and the turning aside of God's righteous anger, is always a problem for those who don't take sin and guilt seriously.
The liberals are not the only branch of the broader Protestant tradition, however, who have had serious problems with the wrath of God and the language of propitiation. John Miley (1813-1895), noted American Methodist theologian, was quite certain that a consistent Arminian theology-one based squarely on the first principle of the absolute freedom of the human will-demanded that "an atonement of satisfaction" be rejected in favor of the so-called governmental theory of the atonement. Declares Miley, "The Wesleyan soteriology, taken as a whole, excludes the satisfaction theory, and requires the governmental as the only theory consistent with itself." According to Miley, this means that "the atonement is only provisory in character; that it renders men savable, but does not necessarily save them...and the consequence is the conditionality of salvation." A conditionality, Miley notes, which must be "in accord with the synergism of the truest Arminianism."6 Thus the death of Christ doesn't actually accomplish anything, according to Miley, other than showing God to be a just governor of his universe and that by offering up his Son on the cross he shows his love for a lost world. But in Miley's scheme, the death of Christ merely makes it possible for God to remit sin on the condition of faith, and does not actually turn aside God's wrath toward sinners. The cross then, supposedly enables God to find some other less brutal way to save sinners, such as enabling God to now forgive sin through faith. But the nagging question remains: "If Christ did not need to die to satisfy God's wrath toward sinners, then why did God cause his Son to suffer such unspeakable torment, if he really didn't need to?" The governmental atonement of consistent Wesleyan Arminianism turns the cross of Christ into the torture of the Son by God the Father for no good reason. Such a notion is an offense to the holiness of God and the suffering of Christ.
The unfortunate fact that many of our evangelical contemporaries find the whole idea of God pouring out his wrath on his Son as repulsive, demonstrating both the influence of Protestant liberalism and Wesleyan Arminianism, is seen in the fact that several of our major English translations of the Bible have abandoned the term propitiation for the weaker term expiation (RSV, NEB) or the more nebulous sacrifice of atonement (NIV, NRSV).7 As Leon Morris has noted, there is indeed a very important theological point in view here. "Propitiation means the turning away of anger; expiation is rather making amends for a wrong. Propitiation is a personal word; one propitiates a person. Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or crime."8 The term "sacrifice of atonement" tries perhaps to allow for both meanings, but is sufficiently vague to lose both meanings altogether. Fuzzy theological language, it seems, helps avoid the rather sticky problem of deciding the correct rendering in the face of differing opinions.
Evangelicalism has no doubt become more preoccupied with morality and ethics, and increasingly embarrassed by its biblical and historic Protestant roots. There is also no doubt that in more and more circles, synergism in regard to sin and grace is now the rule and not the exception. We should not be surprised then that certain evangelicals would argue that God is not vengeful upon sin (cf. Clark Pinnock's book A Wideness in God's Mercy), or that we can no longer speak of our sins as the reason Christ suffered upon the cross since that would be psychological battering (cf. Fuller Seminary Professor Ray Anderson's The Gospel According to Judas). It is hard to imagine being an "evangelical" without an evangel, but that is where Dodd, Miley, Pinnock, and Anderson would lead us if they could. As for me and my house, we will not follow. If we as Christians are to be faithful to the biblical account, we must see that the death of Jesus Christ was no ordinary death. For the biblical writers are crystal clear about both God's wrath on sin and his grace in offering up his own Son to satisfy his own righteous anger for sins that we have committed. Christianity is not a religion of ethics, morality, or politics. Its central message is the proclamation of the death of God's Son, under God's curse, dying in unspeakable anguish to turn aside God's holy hatred of sin, so that all who trust in him and in him alone can be saved from God's wrath and be assured of God's favor toward them. If we lose that message we have lost Christianity itself.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Are You Sure You Like Spurgeon?
ARE YOU SURE YOU LIKE SPURGEON?
"The doctrine of justification itself, as preached by an Arminian, is nothing but the doctrine of salvation by works..." -- C.H. Spurgeon
Praised by many evangelicals as a great preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon is considered a successful and "safe" example of a "non-theological" ministry. His works are recommended as a means to lead many aspiring pastors into developing their own successful ministries. His Lectures to My Students are often used for this purpose, emphasizing the "practical" aspects of evangelism. But while the form of Spurgeon's successful preaching is often studied by would-be pastors, the content of this Christian giant's preaching and teaching is often ignored. Rather Spurgeon is popularly thought to have heartily approved of the same theology that is presently dominating American culture: Arminianism.
Many Christian leaders, for instance, like to point out Spurgeon as one who also had no formal college training. They ignore the fact that he had a personal library containing more that 10,000 books.1 It is further argued that the success of his ministry in the mid-to-late 19th century was due to his anti-intellectual piety, "his yieldedness to the Spirit," and his Arminianism. The fact is, Spurgeon was not anti-intellectual, nor did he entertain delusions of being so holy that he could allow God to work only if he was "yielded." Most importantly, he was not an Arminian. He was a staunch Calvinist who opposed the dominant religious view of his day (and of ours), Arminianism.2 Even toward the end of his life he could write, "From this doctrine I have not departed to this day." 3 He was grateful that he never wavered from his Calvinism.4 "There is no soul living who holds more firmly to the doctrine of grace than do I..."5 Reading Spurgeon's beliefs, one will see that this tremendously fruitful ministry was built upon the preaching of the biblical gospel.
In his work, "A Defence of Calvinism," he states unequivocally: [T]here is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation
Here Spurgeon affirms his agreement with what are usually called "The Five Points of Calvinism." Spurgeon's own summation was much shorter: A Calvinist believes that salvation is of the Lord.7 Selections from his sermons and writings on these subjects make his position clear.
Regarding Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace:
Regarding Unconditional Election:
Regarding Particular Atonement:
He has punished Christ, why should He punish twice for one offence? Christ has died for all His people's sins, and if thou art in the covenant, thou art one of Christ's people. Damned thou canst not be. Suffer for thy sins thou canst not. Until God can be unjust, and demand two payments for one debt, He cannot destroy the soul for whom Jesus died.12
Regarding the Perseverance of the Saints:
Certain that the Cross was an offense and stumbling block, Spurgeon was unwilling to make the gospel more acceptable to the lost. "The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and to God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine."14 Elsewhere he challenged "I cannot find in Scripture any other doctrine than this. It is the essence of the Bible....Tell me anything contrary to this truth, and it will be heresy..."15 Spurgeon believed that the price of ridicule and rejection was not counted so high that he should refuse to preach this gospel: "[W]e are reckoned the scum of creation; scarcely a minister looks on us or speaks favorable of us, because we hold strong vies upon the divine sovereignty of God, and his divine electings and special love towards His own people."16
Then, as now, the dominant objection to such preaching was that it would lead to licentious living. Since Christ "did it all," there was no need for them to obey the commands of Scripture. Aside from the fact that we should not let sinful people decide what kind of gospel we will preach, Spurgeon had his own rebuttals to this confusion:
[I]t is often said that the doctrines we believe have a tendency to lead us to sin....I ask the man who dares to say that Calvinism is a licentious religion, what he thinks of the character of Augustine, or Calvin, or Whitefield, who in successive ages were the great exponents of the systems of grace; or what will he say of the Puritans, whose works are full of them? Had a man been an Arminian in those days, he would have been accounted the vilest heretic breathing, but now we are looked upon as the heretics, and they as orthodox. We have gone back to the old school; we can trace our descent from the apostles....We can run a golden line up to Jesus Christ Himself, through a holy succession of mighty fathers, who all held these glorious truths; and we can ask concerning them, "Where will you find holier and better men in the world?"17
His attitude toward those who would distort the gospel for their own ideas of "holiness" is clear from the following: No doctrine is so calculated to preserve a man from sin as the doctrine of the grace of God. Those who have called it 'a licentious doctrine' did not know anything at all about it. Poor ignorant things, they little knew that their own vile stuff was the most licentious doctrine under Heaven.18
According to Spurgeon (and Scripture as well), the response of gratitude is the motive for holy living, not the uncertain status of the believer under the influence of Arminianism and its accompanying legalism. "The tendency of Arminianism is towards legality; it is nothing but legality which lays at the root of Arminianism."19 He was very clear on the dangerous relationship of Arminianism to legalism: "Do you not see at once that this is legality--that this is hanging our salvation upon our work--that this is making our eternal life to depend upon something we do? Nay, the doctrine of justification itself, as preached by an Arminianism, is nothing but the doctrine of salvation by works...."20
A status before God based upon how we "use" Christ and the Spirit to feign righteousness was a legalism hated by Spurgeon. As in our day, Spurgeon saw that one of the strongholds of Arminianism included the independent churches.21 Arminianism was a natural, God-rejecting, self-exalting religion and heresy.22 As Spurgeon believed, we are born Arminians by nature.23 He saw this natural aversion to God as encouraged by believing self-centered, self-exalting fancies. "If you believe that everything turns upon the free-will of man, you will naturally have man as its principal figure in your landscape."24 And again he affirms the remedy for this confusion to be true doctrine. "I believe that very much of current Arminianism is simply ignorance of gospel doctrine."25 Further, "I do not serve the god of the Arminians at all; I have nothing to do with him, and I do not bow down before the Baal they have set up; he is not my God, nor shall he ever be; I fear him not, nor tremble at his presence...The God that saith today and denieth tomorrow, that justifieth today and condemns the next...is no relation to my God in the least degree. He may be a relation of Ashtaroth or Baal, but Jehovah never was or can be his name."26 Refusing to compromise the gospel in any way, he soundly refuted and rejected common attempts to unite Calvinism and Arminianism into a synthesized belief. Nor would he downplay the importance of the differences between the two systems:
This may seem to you to be of little consequence, but it really is a matter of life and death. I would plead with every Christian--think it over, my dear brother. When some of us preach Calvinism, and some Arminianism, we cannot both be right; it is of not use trying to think we can be--'Yes,' and 'no,' cannot both be true.Truth does not vacillate like the pendulum which shakes backwards and forwards....One must be right; the other wrong.27
1. Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictonary of Theology (Grand Rapids,
Murray, Iain. The Forgotten Spurgeon, 2d ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986; reprint. Spurgeon, Charles H. "A Defence of Calvinism" in C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography. Edited by S. Spurgeon and J. Harrald. Rev. ed. Vol I, The Early Years 1834-1859. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976; reprint. Spurgeon, Charles H. New Park Street Pulpit. A collection of his sermons. Spurgeon, Charles H. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. A collection of his sermons.
Alan Maben is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach and Simon Greenleaf School of Law
1992, 1999 Reprinted by permission of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, 1716 Spruce Street, Philadelphia PA19103. http://www.alliancenet.org/pub/articles.html
By Alan Maben
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Monday, April 17, 2006
This Morning's Meditation
C. H. Spurgeon
"We are come to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel."—Hebrews 12:24.
READER, have you come to the blood of sprinkling? The question is not whether you have come to a knowledge of doctrine, or an observance of ceremonies, or to a certain form of experience, but have you come to the blood of Jesus? The blood of Jesus is the life of all vital godliness. If you have truly come to Jesus, we know how you came—the Holy Spirit sweetly brought you there. You came to the blood of sprinkling with no merits of your own. Guilty, lost, and helpless, you came to take that blood, and that blood alone, as your everlasting hope. You came to the cross of Christ, with a trembling and an aching heart; and oh! what a precious sound it was to you to hear the voice of the blood of Jesus! The dropping of His blood is as the music of heaven to the penitent sons of earth. We are full of sin, but the Saviour bids us lift our eyes to Him, and as we gaze upon His streaming wounds, each drop of blood, as it falls, cries, "It is finished; I have made an end of sin; I have brought in everlasting righteousness." Oh! sweet language of the precious blood of Jesus! If you have come to that blood once, you will come to it constantly. Your life will be "Looking unto Jesus." Your whole conduct will be epitomized in this—"To whom coming." Not to whom I have come, but to whom I am always coming. If thou hast ever come to the blood of sprinkling, thou wilt feel thy need of coming to it every day. He who does not desire to wash in it every day, has never washed in it at all. The believer ever feels it to be his joy and privilege that there is still a fountain opened. Past experiences are doubtful food for Christians; a present coming to Christ alone can give us joy and comfort. This morning let us sprinkle our door-post fresh with blood, and then feast upon the Lamb, assured that the destroying angel must pass us by.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
C. H. Spurgeon
He Remembers No More
For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)
When we know the Lord, we receive the forgiveness of sins. We know Him as the God of grace, passing by our transgressions. What a joyful discovery is this!
But how divinely is this promise worded: the Lord promises no more to remember our sins! Can God forget? He says He will, and He means what He says. He will regard us as though we had never sinned. The great atonement so effectually removed all sin that it is to the mind of God no more in existence. The believer is now in Christ Jesus, as accepted as Adam in his innocence; yea, more so, for he wears a divine righteousness, and that of Adam was but human.
The great Lord will not remember our sins so as to punish them, or so as to love us one atom the less because of them. As a debt when paid ceases to be a debt, even so doth the Lord make a complete obliteration of the iniquity of His people.
When we are mourning over our transgressions and shortcomings, and this is our duty as long as we live, let us at the same time rejoice that they will never be mentioned against us. This makes us hate sin. God's free pardon makes us anxious never again to grieve Him by disobedience.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
The Gospel in the Background - Part 4 - Does Seeker-Oriented Evangelism Make the Most of Every Opportunity?
It is disturbing that Seeker-oriented evangelism has spread so rapidly in the circles of non-denominationalism and pop-evangelicalism. But that is to be expected. After all, Seeker-oriented evangelism fits the model of conversion common in these churches. But even more disturbing is that this approach has also been catching on among mainline churches that claim to have a more sound Biblical theology, including Lutheran churches.
The very foundation of Seeker-oriented evangelism is its unbiblical view of conversion as a process culminating in man’s decision, as God’s passive offer and man’s active reception. This is entirely inconsistent with the Lutheran view of conversion as God’s work from beginning to end, as God’s active gift and man’s passive reception.
But there is more. Lutheran theology is also a sacramental theology. The Bible’s doctrine of conversion is thoroughly sacramental:
Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
Martin Luther emphasizes both man’s powerlessness to effect or cooperate in his conversion and the sacramental character of that conversion in his Small and Large Catechisms:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
For God's name was given us when we became Christians and were baptized, so that we are called children of God and have the Sacraments, by which He so incorporates us in Himself that everything which is God's must serve for our use.
This sacramental theology of conversion stands in stark contradiction to the teaching of conversion in Seeker-oriented evangelism. But you wouldn’t know it by the way some Lutheran churches are adopting seeker-methods.
Can Seeker-oriented evangelism be adapted to fit this sacramental theology? No. The two are fundamentally in conflict. The evolutionary, human-decision-focused model of conversion is integral to Seeker-oriented evangelism. Any adaptation would require adoption of its fundamental theology of conversion. That’s something Lutherans simply cannot do.
Why? Well, aside from the obvious issues of compromising the theology of the Reformation, there is that pesky issue of the Gospel. Seeker-oriented evangelism requires that the Gospel be preached less, not more. Lutherans who seek to adapt Seeker-oriented evangelism, do so at the expense of their theology and of the Gospel.
Sinner-Oriented Evangelism —Preach the Gospel!
But what about all those Seekers? Am I saying that the church should ignore them? No, not at all! In fact, I am saying quite the opposite. However, we can focus on seekers until the cows come home, but if we don’t proclaim the Gospel to them, they’ll still go to hell.
Instead of being "Seeker" oriented, the Church ought to be "Sinner" oriented. "Sinners" include both believers and unbelievers; both the churched and the unchurched, both the religious and the irreligious. And there is one thing I can say about all sinners: Sinners need Jesus. And that means that they need to hear the explicit Gospel message at every opportunity.
I am saying what St. Paul said to the Colossians:
And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. (Col. 4:5)
Seeker churches, you have an opportunity like few others. Quit wasting your unprecedented access to the thousands who come to you every week. Don’t let a week go by without proclaiming the message of Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection for sinners, as you should. Stop trying to lure people into making a decision and start proclaiming the Gospel that creates saving faith. Bring Jesus Christ Crucified out of the background and into the foreground. Make the most of every opportunity —preach the Gospel!
Rev. Todd Wilken is host of Issues, Etc.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
The Gospel in the Background - Part 3 - Does Seeker-Oriented Evangelism Make the Most of Every Opportunity?
According to Seeker-oriented evangelism, the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation —but only to a point; then man himself must act. God proposes, man disposes. God offers, man decides, accepts or commits. Near the end of a sermon cited as an example of clearly communicating the Gospel to seekers, Bill Hybels writes:
The Bible says that between now and that day you’ve got to make a decision. If you’re going to take the hit and do your own atoning, then you’ll do it forever—separated from God in a place called hell. It’s your choice. But there’s another option available to you: substitutionary atonement. It’s Jesus Christ, out of love, saying, "I’ll take your rap, I’ll take the hit. I’ll pay the penalty. And you, as a guilty party —on my merits— can be free, forgiven, adopted into God’s family, blessed in love, and taken to heaven forever. Your choice!"
Notice what conversion is here. Rather than conversion being purely God’s active work and man’s passive reception, conversion becomes God’s more or less passive offer and man’s active reception.
This view of conversion is the entire rationale for Seeker-oriented evangelism. This explains why the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection is kept in the background so much of the time. This explains why the clear Gospel isn’t proclaimed at every opportunity in seeker churches.
You see, conversion is the goal. And that’s good. But, according to Seeker-oriented evangelism, what Jesus has done for you at the cross is only half the story. The crucial point of conversion occurs at your decision. Hybels writes:
[Jesus] says to us, "I love you, I’ve willingly paid the penalty you owed, and I want to forgive you. Would you trust and follow me?" The ball is now in your court, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with it. Jesus paid the price of salvation for the whole world, but only those who say yes to Him will actually receive His forgiveness…this is the most overlooked part of the message in a lot of churches today… a personal response is essential.
Now, this is puzzling, because Hybels and Mittelberg deny the Arminian view of conversion, namely, that the Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes as an act of his free will. Yet the emphasis remains on man’s decision. Pritchard observed:
The message that a decision has to be made in response to the gospel is regularly repeated in the weekend services. The words decisions, committed, commit, commitment, choice, decision and decide were used a total of 502 times over the year I studied (an average of 9.3 times each message).
Apparently, God can lead the horse to water, but He can’t make the horse drink. The horse has to decide to drink. Pastors sold on the Seeker-oriented approach believe that most churches are filled with horses that have their noses in the trough, but aren’t drinking. They believe that we need to become more strategic about how we lead them to the water so that they will want to drink once we get them there.
The view is this: The Holy Spirit moves you to seek God, to consider God, and to weigh the prospect of God, but He does not create faith —at least not apart from your personal response.
We believe that it is only…because of the work of the Holy Spirit that anyone can be drawn to God and can begin to seek Him; but that He does enable people to do that and that there is a time period in their life between when He begins to do that and when they actually make a commitment to Christ…. Salvation is a point in time where a person reaches repentance or comes to a point of repentance, acknowledges their need for the forgiveness and lordship of Christ, and they are made a new creation. But I’m saying that there’s a period prior to that where people can begin to seek after God, to say "Does this make sense?", to count the cost as Jesus described it.
Still, its unclear when the conversion actually takes place. Where along the continuum of seeking, considering, counting the cost and commitment does God actually create faith? Or does He?
Mark Mittelberg is fond of citing the example of a former atheist, who is now a minister at Willow Creek. Speaking of this man before his conversion in an interview with Don Matzat, Mittelberg says:
Mittelberg: It was the Holy Spirit that was drawing him, the Holy Spirit that was working in his heart.
Matzat: Not changing his nature, though?
Mittelberg: Not yet, not until a year and nine months later when he committed his life to Christ, that’s when he was regenerated.
Matzat: So, he was still an enemy of God, dead in his trespasses and sin while he was being drawn?
Mittelberg: That’s the way I’d describe it.
So, according to the Seeker-model, conversion is an evolutionary process culminating in man’s decision and commitment. The unbeliever needs to be walked through this process —intellectual, psychological, emotional, sociological and spiritual— wherein his natural resistance is overcome, and his barriers are removed. Mark Mittelberg puts it this way: People go through a process in coming to Christ —a process. And I believe in and respect that process.
When you honor and validate the process people go through in coming to Christ, many of them will be willing to get started. Your approach tells them you really understand what they’re going through as they take those difficult steps toward faith.
Now, if conversion is a process, then the highest priority is not to preach the Gospel at every opportunity, rather it is to understand that process and to keep people in the process. Hybels writes:
Sometimes God does a miracle and instantaneously changes a Saul into a Paul, but that’s the exception and not the rule. At other times, He’s already prepared the person through efforts of somebody else. But as a general rule people need time to think it over. We need to give them that freedom. If we push or rush them, they’ll back out of the process. But if we allow them to move at their own pace, we’ll be able to help them gradually progress until, eventually, God brings them to the point of crossing the bridge and trusting Christ.
Again, God brings, lures, draws and woos unbelievers. But just at the point where you would expect God to finish the job and create faith, you find man making his decision. At the crucial point of conversion, the emphasis and onus lies squarely on man’s action, not God’s.
If conversion is not entirely God’s work, if man has even his little part to do, his final decision to make, then all sorts of human considerations will begin to take priority over the clear and regular proclamation of the Gospel.
Another Emphasis, Another Center
Hybels and Mittelberg write:
Those outside the faith grossly underestimate the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God. So [Seeker-oriented churches have] learned to emphasize not only the central Gospel message, but also the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality.
Not only the Gospel, but also the Law. But what does the Law do? The Law is not there to show us the day-to-day benefits of knowing and honoring God, the Law is there to show us our sin. Isn’t this what Paul tells us?
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Rom. 3:20)
But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, [the law] produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Rom. 7:13)
When the Gospel has to compete with the Law for centrality in the message, which one wins? When the Gospel shares the spotlight with the Bible’s wisdom for everyday life, including guidance in the areas of marriage, child-raising, family and work relationships, conflict resolution, and issues related to ethics and morality, does God’s work accomplished in Christ remain central and preeminent in preaching?
Seeker-oriented churches claim that this doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. But in actual practice, it often is. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest California, another famous Seeker-church, recently chided a group of 1,500 pastors:
You must preach to change lives. You have to preach for application. It’s not good enough to say, "Oh, I’ll leave that up to the Holy Spirit." It’s not good enough just to interpret Scripture. The Bible says, "And teach them the kind of behavior that comes from sound teaching." That’s what preaching is all about.
We’ve made biblical interpretation an end in itself. This is why our churches are filled with far more believers in the Word than doers of the Word. …Application-less preaching is why there is no difference between the way many Christians and non-Christians act.
Warren wants deeds and action. I ask: Are we going to produce the fruit of the Spirit by the preaching of the Law or by the preaching of the Gospel? How does St. Paul answer that question?
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? …Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believed what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-5)
The way to proclaim the whole counsel of God is to proclaim the Law to the unrepentant and self-assured, and to proclaim the Gospel to the repentant and despairing. The way to lay the day-to-day benefits of knowing God before seekers is to lay the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection before them. The way to preach to change lives is to preach the life-changing Gospel clearly, at every opportunity.
Monday, April 03, 2006
The Gospel in the Background - Part 2 - Does Seeker-Oriented Evangelism Make the Most of Every Opportunity?
The Seeker-oriented model of evangelism teaches that in order for an unbeliever to be brought to saving faith, the unbeliever must be guided through an intellectual, psychological, emotional, sociological and spiritual process. During this process, the unbeliever’s resistance is worn down and his internal barriers are overcome. Finally, the unbeliever can be brought to a point of decision, the point of conversion.
But oddly, rather than calling for more preaching of the Gospel, Seeker-oriented evangelism calls for less:
If we were convinced that a gospel presentation and invitation every week was the most effective approach for the kinds of people we’re trying to reach, we’d be doing it. For that matter, we’d do it three times a service if that was the way God seemed to be leading! But that is not the case.
Now, the Gospel is still preached in Seeker-oriented churches —just not at every opportunity.
G. A. Pritchard has done an in-depth sociological study of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, one the largest Seeker-oriented churches in America. Quoting Willow Creek’s pastor, Bill Hybels, Pritchard writes:
"I get bitterly, bitterly attacked from the fundamentalist side for not preaching a salvation message every time we have a seeker service." Some confront Hybels after a service, "You know, the blood of every seeker is on your hands" or "How can you have two thousand seekers there and not give a full-blown message?" Hybels answers, "Because we’re here every week."
But what about the seeker who shows up on the Sundays when the Gospel isn’t preached and ends up going to hell?
Pritchard concludes: In the year I studied, it was only rarely that Hybels or another speaker would proclaim the whole gospel during one message.
All Things to All Men
The proof-text for Seeker-oriented evangelism is 1 Corinthians 9:22: I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. But in order to use this passage to support preaching the Gospel less, one must ignore the immediate context of Paul’s words. Paul says, Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel…, I do all things for the sake of the gospel… (1 Cor. 9:16-23), and, We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (1Cor. 9:12). Paul seems to be saying that the preaching of the Gospel overrides all other considerations.
Did Paul go to the trouble of becoming all things to all men only to leave the Gospel itself unspoken? No. The book of Acts and Paul’s epistles prove this. Paul took every opportunity to make the Gospel plain. In fact, Paul says that the Gospel should be spoken at every opportunity!
Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel. (Eph. 6:19)
Seeker-oriented churches are very concerned about preaching the Gospel without compromise —when they do preach it. They respond directly to those who accuse them of having compromised the Gospel message itself:
We have a mandate to please God alone by preaching the pure gospel message alone —whether people like it or not. The ironic thing is that most real seekers are looking for a leader who has the courage to look them in the eye and tell them the truth about their spiritual predicament— and then show them the way to the One who can help them. And even when people don’t want to hear about the cross —and some truly won’t, as the Bible predicts— we need to preach Christ anyway…
Good! But isn’t there more than one way to compromise the Gospel? One way of compromising the Gospel is to modify the Gospel message itself. Another way is to leave the Gospel itself unspoken, to remove the Gospel from its place of preeminence. Seeker-oriented evangelism is guilty of the latter. Mark Mittelberg, executive vice president of Willow Creek Association in charge of evangelism, says:
Not every Sunday is about the Gospel. For instance, we’ll do a series on marriage or the family…. Some churches in the Southern Baptist tradition, for instance, feel that at the end of every service you have to bring it around to preach the Gospel, and challenge people to commit to it. No, we don’t do that every week; partially because we feel that people need to keep hearing biblical truth, they need to hear how the Bible is relevant to their everyday lives.
How can Seeker-oriented churches justify not preaching the clear Gospel at every opportunity? It would seem to fly in the face of even the most basic understanding of Christ’s words, Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Seeker churches deftly respond: But the Gospel is the foundation of everything we do:
Willow Creek tries to surround and influence seekers with the gospel in every way possible: from the relationships formed with our members and the words spoken between them as friends, to the teaching and encouragement available through our variety of small groups, to the lyrics of our music and the impact of our dramas, to the testimonies and lives of our leaders, to the illustrations in our messages, to the explicit presentations at our frequent "target weekends." The Gospel is woven in and through every aspect of ministry.
Jesus Crucified is still there they say, behind the scenes, in the background, and occasionally, even making a cameo appearance. Like Alfred Hitchock.
I ask, if the Gospel is the foundation of everything you do, then why not proclaim that Gospel at every opportunity? Seeker-evangelism’s answer to that question leads us to its theological foundation and its fatal flaw.