by Michael Horton
Imagine founding a church on sound doctrine only to receive reports that the body had become seduced by a group of self-appointed leaders who had perverted the Gospel itself. This was precisely the plight St. Paul faced in nearly every church organized under his apostolic supervision. No more pathetic is the pastoral grief of the Apostle to the Gentiles than in his Galatian epistle, probably written between 49-55 A.D. as a circular letter to a cluster of congregations in the region of what is now central Turkey. A mixed group of Jews and Gentiles, the Galatian church seems to have cheerfully embraced the Gospel of God's free grace in Christ, but like the Corinthians, who wanted to add pagan wisdom and signs and wonders to the Gospel, the Galatians were now under the spell of certain "agitators." These men wanted to return the Christians to legal bondage, even to the point of requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised in addition to their baptism. Paul himself was hardly without Jewish credentials, as he reminded the Philippians, but he gave up his own claims to righteousness in order to be clothed in Christ's perfect holiness (Phil. 3:1-9).
Although the Corinthians were in acute moral anarchy, Paul speaks to them as a pastor correcting his erring sheep. But when it came to the very Gospel itself, the Apostle becomes uncharacteristically angry. After a brief greeting he immediately declares,
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from him who called you in the grace of Christ to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:7-9).
Evidently, the agitators were motivated by a desire to attract the Jews of the Diaspora, but Paul insists that there is no "seeker-friendly" aim that can justify another gospel: "For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ" (v. 10).
Rather than rehearsing the familiar themes of this epistle, I want to turn our attention briefly to the discussion in chapter 4 of the two covenants, typified by two mothers (Hagar and Sarah) and two mountains (Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion). This will serve, then, as the background as we briefly trace the Gospel's rise and fall to the present.
Here, in verses 21-31, Paul argues that there is a covenant of works that begets slaves and a covenant of grace the gives birth to sons and daughters. "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise," he argues. "But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now." No Jew needs to be reminded of the ancient rivalry that persists even to our own day between the descendants of Ishmael and those of Isaac. Although the persecution became political and ethnic rivalry, it was originally based on theology: Isaac was chosen by God to be given by grace alone to Abraham and Sarah, while Ishmael was the product of Abraham's vain effort to secure an heir by his own efforts, apart from the promise.
This sibling rivalry actually goes back to the very beginning of the biblical story. Cain, you recall, was jealous of Abel for being accepted by God while he was himself rejected. Wanting to approach God on his own terms instead of by bringing the bloody sacrifice of the first-born from the flock, Cain took the way of works rather than grace; he would not come through the blood of the sacrificial lamb. Jesus himself refers to Abel, therefore, as the church's first martyr and implies that the Pharisees themselves are sons of Cain (Luke 11:46-51).
Remarkably, Paul tells the Galatians who wanted to subordinate Christianity to Judaism, "For these are the two covenants: one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar-for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, for she is in bondage with her children" (vv. 24-5). As Jesus told the Pharisees who prided themselves on being sons of Abraham that they were actually sons of the devil (John 8:44), so here Paul the former Pharisee and persecutor of the church says that the current city of Jerusalem actually corresponds not to God's Holy City (Mt. Zion), but is rather in bondage with her children. In short, all who rely on works-even if they are Jews by descent-are children of Hagar and descendants of Ishmael.
But the line I especially want to highlight here is in verse 29: "But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now." Paul is arguing that the current debate in the Galatian church over a Gospel of pure unmerited favor versus a righteousness that comes by law-keeping corresponds to the age-old dispute between the descendants of Ishmael and those of Isaac: two covenants, two mothers, two mountains. This is the ancient war between the Seed of the Woman and the serpent's allies, as Satan attempts to deceive. He does this not through atheism, but through religion; not by inspiring immorality, but by inculcating self-righteousness and self-reliance. Somewhere Donald Barnhouse has said that if Satan really were to take over a city, the following would happen: the bars would close, no alcohol would be sold; there would be happy marriages and well-behaved children, no crime-and everyone would be in churches on Sunday where Christ is not preached. In all of human history, therefore, the "story behind the story" is a tale of two gospels, one of works and the other of grace.
With this in mind, therefore, the issues of our present day come into sharper focus. If the exegesis I have just offered is indeed sound and accurate, then what should keep us from concluding that every decline in church history can be expected to take this same shape? If we examine church history, that is precisely what we discover.
The Monk & The Bishop
A British monk who came to Rome in the latter years of the fourth century, Pelagius was an austere man who was greatly distressed by the immorality that characterized the city. Launching a movement of moral reform, Pelagius began preaching perfect obedience and insisted that it was perfectly possible for us to fulfill this in our natural state. Why would God have demanded something that was impossible? Although a monk, Pelagius was a layman who found a companion in the lawyer Coelestius. Sometime after 410, when Augustine's Confessions was being widely read, Pelagius and his partner recoiled at the language especially of the African bishop's prayer, "Give what you command: command what you will."
Pelagius began to attack Augustine for what he regarded as a weak view of free will and human responsibility. After all, the Bishop of Hippo believed in predestination and later in his ministry argued vehemently against free will and the ability of sinners to do anything acceptable before God apart from grace. Coelestius applied as a ministerial candidate but was accused of heresy and was excommunicated by a local synod in 412. Among his false teachings were, according to the synod, a denial of original sin (Adam's sin affects us only as a bad example) and the belief that fallen men and women can restore themselves by their own free will and effort. With Pelagius, Coelestius insisted upon the notion of utriusque partis possibilitas-the possibility of going either way, in terms of righteousness leading to life or unrighteousness leading to death. Augustine devoted much of his life and ministry to the defeat of this heresy and a consensus was reached, as Pelagianism was condemned by the Catholic Church at the councils of Milevis (416) and Carthage (418) as well as by Popes Innocent I and Zosimus, and the Emperor Honorius.
How Dark Was The Medieval Age?
Throughout the Middle Ages, however, the age-old debate continued. As Heiko Oberman reminds us of this period, "Pure Augustinians are as hard to find as pure Pelagians...And throughout history Augustinianism would be suspect for undermining the moral significance of Christianity." (1) Gottschalk, a ninth-century monk, began reading the writings of Paul and Augustine and became the center of two controversies. Denying transubstantiation in favor of a view that is rather close to that held by Calvin seven centuries hence, Gottschalk also taught double predestination (i.e., the view that God has predestined not only some to salvation, but the rest to judgment), particular redemption (i.e., Christ's death for the elect alone) and effectual grace. The doctrines we common identify with the so-called "Five Points of Calvinism" were actually held by strict Augustinians during the Middle Ages. (Even on the extent of the atonement, if my Lutheran brethren will indulge my liberty, the standard medieval formula was that Christ's death is "sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone." This is exactly what was endorsed centuries later at the Reformed Synod of Dort in 1619.)
Nevertheless, Gottschalk was imprisoned for his views-especially for his emphasis on divine reprobation-and during his incarceration a significant controversy broke out once more over the nature of grace, with some councils siding with the accused and others approving the decision of his superior. Through political maneuvering, Gottschalk was condemned in 860 and died while his case was being appealed to Rome. Claudius, Bishop of Turin, carried Gottschalk's fallen torch, however, and was even more radical in condemning superstition, the reverence of images, seeking the intercession of the saints, and complained that the papacy was becoming despotic. As Latourette describes his position, Claudius declared that "he is not to be called apostolic who sits in the seat of the apostle, but he who does the work of an apostle." (2)
Not everything went south during the Middle Ages. After all, Peter Abelard was condemned in 1141 for the opinion that "free will as such suffices to perform something good," and the Council of Reims in 1148 declared, "Apart from Christ there is no meritorious action." (3) Granted, it is not sufficiently biblical, with its admission of the notion of merit, but it was a decisive official defeat once more of Pelagianism.
Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358) was an outstanding medieval theologian whose commentary on Lombard's Sentences (the standard theological text in the university) was pointed out by Martin Luther over a century and a half later as a major influence. In his Leipzig Disputation in 1519, Luther declared, "It is certain that the so-called 'Modern Theologians,' in this point of grace and free will, agree with the Scotists and Thomists except for one whom all condemn, Gregory of Rimini....Also these theologians made it absolutely and convincingly clear that they are worse than the Pelagians." While Luther's assessment of the medieval scholastics may have been excessive (after all, Rimini was still respected in some circles and Aquinas himself was basically Augustinian), it does point up the fact that "Modern Theologians" is often the epithet attached to those who distort the Gospel.
In the late medieval period, the so-called Via Moderna (Modern Way), especially led by William of Occam and Gabriel Biel, rejected the doctrine of election and taught that one actually merits grace de congruo. That is, God accepts the believer's works as if they were meritorious. In this sense, final justification is merited by the person who cooperates sufficiently with grace. This became the prevailing view among the theologians at the Council of Trent, where the Reformers' defense of the Gospel was officially condemned.
But there was another movement during the late Middle Ages: the Via Augustini moderna-that is, the Modern Augustinian Way. Among the leaders of the medieval Augustinians was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Bradwardine, a victim of the Black Death in 1349. Bradwardine's autobiographical account of how he came to understand the Gospel of grace is helpful in our own day:
Idle and a fool in God's wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter of grace and free will, and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth....In the philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins and much more along this line....But every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will-as is the case in Romans 9, 'It is obviously not a question of human will or effort, but of divine mercy,' and its many parallels-grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was....However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and [I was] captured by a vision of the truth....That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a free gift. (4)
Bradwardine not only expressed his gratitude, but defended the gift that had brought him such liberty by writing The Cause of God Against the New Pelagians.
We finally arrive at Johann von Staupitz, Luther's superior in the Augustinian monastery, whose most important work is titled, Eternal Predestination and Its Execution in Time. (5) Election, he says, is by grace alone. "No one elicits or merits this grace, nor is this grace due to merits foreknown by God, nor to good use of reason in the future foreseen by God, nor to merits already performed. Rather, the sole source of this grace is the most kind and generous will of God." So firm is this election that "Christ is put under obligation [by the Father] to save the elect," who are "called without fail in their lifetime unto faith by God's powerful will...Provided the exterior call is efficacious, then you certainly say that all who are called will doubtless be justified." The will is helpless, left to itself. "She has neither the knowledge nor the will to be freed from this, let alone to free herself." Nor does God forgive and justify because of anything he sees in us: "For the gifts and call of God are not the result of penitence." Because Christ perfectly satisfied the Law, "God owes to the elect not only the call but also justification...This happens at that moment when the sinner's eyes are opened again by the grace of God so that he is able to know the true God by faith." But this is "nothing but grace, and flows from the merits of Christ...Our works do not, nor can they, bring us to this state, since man's nature is incapable of knowing or wanting or doing good. For this barren man God is sheer fear." Thus, says Staupitz,
[Christ] makes our sins His own. Just as the Christian is just through the righteousness of Christ, so Christ is unrighteous and sinful through the guilt of the Christian. Whereas the Jew would say 'blasphemy' and the Greek 'madness' the believer says, 'You are right.' The Jew is affronted, the Greek ridicules, the believer rejoices...Nor should it escape you that the suffering of the Son of God is sufficient for all, though it was not for all but for many that His blood was poured out.
Thus, "God loves the elect with a lasting passion." It is only this Gospel that can not only make us acceptable to God, but God acceptable to us, Staupitz writes. "How great are the joys of the heart, the exultation, the jubilations which come from this touch!" (6) As Oberman reminds us, Luther on more than one occasion acknowledged his debt to Staupitz: "I received everything from Dr. Staupitz," he said. (7)
While Luther appreciated Augustine, Rimini and Staupitz for their clear (and one can even say, at least of that triad, increasingly clear) defense of sola gratia, it would be the German monk himself who would recover sola fide--and therefore the true brilliance of grace. After giving all the praise to God's glorious grace in election over against free will, Augustinianism still generally saw justification as the movement of the soul from sickness to health rather than as a legal verdict that is declared from the judge concerning the criminal as criminal. This was due in part to the influence of Greek philosophy, whether Aristotle's physics (an emphasis on movement from lesser to greater bodies and weakness to strength) or a repristinated version of Plato's rationalistic mysticism. The Gospel is foolishness to Greeks, but the medieval theologians kept trying to make it less so.
But it was also due to a corrupted translation of the New Testament. Luther himself was in debt to the noted Renaissance humanist Erasmus for discovering discrepancies between the Latin Vulgate (Jerome's translation upon which the church had depended) and the Greek New Testament. The most glaring, at least from Luther's point of view, was the erroneous translation of the Greek word "to justify." The original Greek word, diakaiosune, which means "to declare righteous," was instead translated with the Latin verb iustificare, which means "to make righteous." Thus, justification was seen as a process of becoming or being made righteous rather than a declarative event in a courtroom. With the aid of these advances in biblical scholarship by loyal sons of the church, justification was now rightly recognized not as an infused habitus (i.e., new disposition), but as a gift of right standing. In other words, Luther finally realized that justification was a legal, not a moral, change.
After Luther, nothing would be the same. Although the "evangelicals"-those recovering the Gospel-would be sadly divided into Lutheran and Reformed camps, with further divisions along the way, there was never a possibility of going back. Not until 1564, the year of Calvin's death, had Rome officially condemned the Gospel. Indeed, in council after council and standard papal decisions the Gospel was defended against both Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, but the church can err and did err when it promulgated the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, condemning the Gospel of free justification and instead embracing a gospel of merit, which is no gospel. Furthermore, Rome put the evangelicals to the flames of the Inquisition. Again Paul's words become hauntingly familiar: "But as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now" (Gal. 4:29). The rivalry between Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, continued unabated.
For those who wonder how the church could have strayed so far from the Gospel en masse, we need only review the history of the church since the Old Testament times. In Deuteronomy 8 and 9, God has to once again remind his people that they were chosen because of something good in God, not in them. Jesus repeatedly charges that the church of his day had become so corrupt that it was no longer a true church: the nation had abandoned the Gospel promise en masse. The church must never forget our Lord's warning: "And shall God not avenge his own elect who cry out day and night to him, though he bears long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he really find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:7-8). As we have seen, Paul marvels that even the New Testament churches are so soon abandoning the Gospel. If such declension can come during the ministry of an Apostle, surely the church is always, like the individual believer, "prone to wander...prone to leave the One" she loves. But if even an Apostle such as himself, says Paul, or an angel from heaven, should issue decrees or teachings contrary to the Gospel of free justification by Christ's imputed righteousness, "let him be accursed." If this can be said concerning an Apostle himself, then surely it may be said of one who makes unwarranted claims to that status.
But when the moment came to take a stand for the purity of the Gospel, God has always had his church and his successors to the apostles and prophets-those whose apostolic succession was determined not by clerical descent but by the faithful Ministry of the Word, come what may. Are we willing to do this in the (post)modern age?
Sola Gratia and the Modern Age
Criticisms one could have made of a modernist in 1925 can now as easily be made of many conservatives. According to the infamous slogan of the National Council of Churches, "The church follows the world's agenda," but evangelicals show, by their slavish devotion to popular culture, that they too have "changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image..." (Rom. 1:22). George Barna, for instance, urges us, "It is critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign." (8) This sentiment did not escape the notice of Newsweek when it pointed out that, "This is the 90's, an age of mix 'em, match 'em spirituality...where brand loyalty is a doctrine of the past and the customer is king." "In their effort to accommodate," the article went on to say, "many clergy have simply airbrushed sin out of their language." (9) Such criticisms could just as easily have been leveled against the popular Modernist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick seventy years ago.
H. Richard Niebuhr laid open the barrenness of liberalism in his clever description of its essential message: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." (10) If we think about it, that characterizes much of the evangelical diet these days, although it was intended to describe liberalism in the first half of this century.
As in the medieval church, often solus Christus--Christ Alone!--today is pushed aside for a host of reasons. Either people are more interested in popular topics or in personal self-improvement, so moralism often prevails in preaching. It is often couched in pious phrases like, "life, not doctrine." Even more disconcerting than the subtleties of civil religion are the findings of James D. Hunter, George Gallup, and George Barna in this regard. According to recent studies, 35% of America's evangelical seminarians deny that faith in Christ is absolutely necessary and the same percentage of the entire adult evangelical population agrees: "God will save all good people when they die, regardless of whether they've trusted in Christ." (11) Of course, the last statistic rests on the premise, widely plausible in our society, that human beings are basically good, which receives an approving nod from 77% of America's evangelicals. (12)
The sentiment expressed in the medieval slogan, facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam ("God will not deny his grace to those who do that which lies within their power") is endorsed by 87% of American evangelicals, that number rising with frequency of involvement in evangelical churches. (13) But all too often, it is secular writers who raise these questions, as in a Newsweek's article whose title repeated that of a secular psychologist: "Whatever Happened to Sin?" In this article, writer Kenneth Woodward points out that "Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God. Yet the urgent sense of personal sin has all but disappeared in the current upbeat style in American religion." (14)
How did we come to this pass? Is it simply that we are coming belatedly to the conclusions championed earlier this century by the modernists or were the seeds of destruction sown earlier? Sadly, both liberalism and evangelicalism may arguably share the same parentage in frontier revivalism. Much of American revivalism--since the Second Great Awakening--is responsible for a Pelagian renaissance even before the arrival of Protestant Liberalism. It was not Feuerbach, but Finney, who declared,
There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature. It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that and nothing else. When men become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God.
So, for Finney, even revival (the corporate conversion of sinners) is "not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means-as much so as any other effect produced by the application of means." This meant, said Finney, that the evangelist could only be successful by employing "powerful excitements." (15)
A man who championed views that have been consistently regarded as heretical by both Roman Catholics and Protestants is regarded as a hero even by fundamentalist Protestants in our day. Evangelicalism has inherited this pragmatic and naturalistic tendency of America's Counter-Reformation, so that when one of today's evangelical theologians declares that "...we have finally made peace with the culture of modernity," (16) it is not simply the capitulation of conservatives to liberalism but of Protestants generally to an incipient Pelagianism that has been present in revivalism since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Ironically, many conservative Christians who decry naturalism in the wider culture, especially in science, nevertheless imitate Finney's religious naturalism in evangelism, worship, and their view of the church's role in society.
In a 1994 cover story titled "The Search for the Sacred," Newsweek made mention of "seekers who move beyond conventional boundaries, to a kind of cafeteria religion," concluding that this was the product of "a very American theology." (17) In this "cafeteria" approach to truth that dominates our age, Christians may nod their heads at perfectly orthodox, biblical statements and then go on thinking, speaking and acting as if something else altogether were true. We need to recover antithesis-that is, the ability to say, with the Reformers and the ancient church, not only, "We confess," but, "Therefore, we condemn." On no other truth is this "antithesis" more important than "grace alone." Paul employed just this sort of antithesis when he declared, "If then election is by grace, it is not of works. Otherwise grace is no longer grace" (Rom. 11:6). "It is not the result of human decision or effort, but of God's mercy" (Rom. 9:16). This is the sort of clarity ("if this, not that") we desperately need in this hour. Only then can the salt retain its "saltiness."
We have already seen how deeply committed Charles Finney was to Pelagian convictions. We should therefore not be surprised to find him rejecting sola fide as well, boldly declaring that this doctrine, like original sin and the substitutionary atonement, was "impossible and absurd." (18) Finney writes,
As has been already said, there can be no justification in a legal or forensic sense, but upon the ground of universal, perfect, and uninterrupted obedience to law....The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption.
That "assumption" is nothing less than the substitutionary atonement. "The doctrine of an imputed righteousness," he said, "is a different gospel." (19)
Fuller Seminary's Russell Spittler writes, "But can it really be true-saint and sinner simultaneously? I wish it were so...Is this correct: 'I don't need to work at becoming. I'm already declared to be holy. No sweat needed? It looks wrong to me. I hear moral demands in Scripture...Still, I'm grateful for Luther's phrase and for his descendants...But simul iustus et peccator? I hope it's true! I simply fear it's not." (20) Clark Pinnock is so uncomfortable with an objective justification that he favors "the possibility of a doctrine of purgatory." He says, "Our Wesleyan and Arminian thinking may need to be extended in this direction." (21)
This is not to suggest that such eccentric comments would be endorsed by a significant majority of evangelicals, but it is to suggest that the so-called "evangelical megashift" described by Christianity Today in 1990 (February 19), is drawing deeply, if indirectly, on the incipient Pelagianism within American Protestantism and the modern consciousness. This megashift includes a "new-model" evangelicalism that is critical of preaching that is concerned with divine wrath, original and personal sin, a vicarious atonement and forensic justification. (22) Insufficiently "relational" and sensitive to the experiences of contemporary men and women, the classical evangelical paradigm, we are told, tends to offend unnecessarily. The triumph of the therapeutic within evangelicalism is acutely illustrated in Ray Anderson's warning:
If our sin is viewed as causing the death of Jesus on the cross, then we ourselves become victims of a 'psychological battering' produced by the cross. When I am led to feel that the pain and torment of Jesus' death on the cross is due to my sin, I inflict upon myself spiritual and psychological torment." (23)
Should we view such comments as exceptional departures that should not be used to reflect the general state of evangelicalism? Surely most evangelical pastors would feel awkward in making such bold statements, but the point here worth making is that these sentiments differ in degree, but not in kind, from the diet that is typical of evangelical preaching, publishing and broadcasting in our day. In other words, the aspects of the modern consciousness that make the relational a dominant category and drive classical motifs to the periphery of vision are so widespread that the most conservative evangelicals find themselves sympathetic to the "new-model" evangelicals for reasons they often feel but do not understand. Even if they refuse to "revision" evangelical theology, more conservative evangelicals now implicitly share the same world-view and in practice often follow assumptions that they might deny if directly put to them. Thus, it is essential that we not only wait for signs of actual apostasy or explicit departures, but that we get beneath the most egregious declarations in an attempt to discern the larger story of modern consciousness and its impact on our operating theology.
While the entire revivalistic tradition cannot be condemned as explicitly Pelagian, it has tended to confuse these issues considerably, at least in its more popular forms. The modern consciousness dominated by pragmatism, consumerism, subjectivism, moralism, sentimentalism, and other "isms," has more to do with the real life and ministry of the church today than any theological perspective. In fact, they require evangelicals to be anti-theological. Nevertheless, I hope we have seen that whenever the Gospel gets lost in the translation from one generation to the next, the form that spiritual decline always takes is toward Pelagianism. To the extent that the church is driven by the felt needs of the culture, salvation from divine wrath and justification before a holy God will be "foolishness to those who are perishing."
But once again, one has to turn to a magazine such as Newsweek to find the best insight into the current crisis. For example, in 1993, this "secular" periodical focused its attention on a megachurch in Arizona that had traded in catechesis and preaching for "Steven Spielberg-like Sunday school gimmicks [and] the generic Amy Grant music at worship services" as well as drama in place of a sermon. The church's pastor told Newsweek, "People today aren't interested in traditional doctrines like justification, sanctification, and redemption." (24) But if such apostolic truths are not as relevant as, say, relief from stress or happier marriages, what does that tell us? It tells us what is, but not what ought to be. It is precisely because justification is not the unbeliever's "felt need" that we must preach the Law. Why should unchurched Harry and Mary have the felt need for Christ's righteousness if they are not aware of their nakedness before a holy God? The cry for grace will never be appealing until there is a sense of guilt and despair once more in our churches. The pastor of this particular church does not have to explicitly reject these doctrines, as Finney and others have done; all he has to do is subordinate them to something else.
To preach Scripture is to preach Christ; to preach Christ is to preach the Cross; to preach the Cross is to preach grace; to preach grace is to preach justification; to preach justification is to attribute all of salvation to the glory of God and to respond to that Good News in grateful obedience through one's vocation in the world.
We cannot simply rest on the laurels of our bold forebears, but must take our place in God's story, determined to locate the Archemedian points where God's address and our world can be brought into vital confrontation. We must revisit our own heritage not only to reappropriate its strengths, but to assess its weaknesses and to address our own accommodations to the modern spirit. It is not enough to be "conservatives," whether romanticizing the Reformation, Puritanism, or America's "founding fathers." Christ's church does not exist to prop up the best ideals of humanity, but rather to confront each generation with the claims of Christ.
In our own century, the Pelagianism and nationalism of Nazi Germany and the Evangelical Church that had renamed itself the "Reich's Church," were resisted by confessional Lutherans and Calvinists working together in the Young Reformation Movement and the Confessing Movement. In our day, a far subtler Babylonian captivity of the church has taken place, as the deeply secular presuppositions of the modern world have so imprisoned the thoughts and lives of many of even the most devout believers. But the Gospel, known in Scripture alone, found in Christ alone, given by grace alone, received by faith alone to the glory of God alone, is still "the power of God unto salvation." We are convinced, with all of the "confessing saints" of the past and the future, that the greatest challenge the church can pose to secularism is not mystical, moral, political, pragmatic, or institutional, but the saving announcement of God's work. "And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us." And as for the father of lies, "One little word shall fell him."
1 [ Back ] Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), pp. 127, 126.2 [ Back ] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), p. 362.3 [ Back ] Oberman, op. cit., p. 130.4 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 135.5 [ Back ] Ibid., pp. 175-195.6 [ Back ] Ibid.7 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 125.8 [ Back ] George Barna, Marketing The Church (Ventura: Regal, 1992), pp. 41, 145.9 [ Back ] Newsweek, December 17, 1990, p. 50-56.10 [ Back ] H. Richard Niebuhr, op. cit., p. 193. Niebuhr adds, "For an Edwards divine sovereignty had been a hard truth to which he had slowly learned to adjust his thought and life; for liberalism it was an untruth. It established continuity between God and man by adjusting God to man." Consequently, "Christ the Redeemer became Jesus the teacher or the spiritual genius in whom the religious capacities of mankind were fully developed" (p. 192).11 [ Back ] George Barna, op. cit., p. 51.12 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 89.13 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 80.14 [ Back ] Newsweek, February 6, 1995, p. 23.15 [ Back ] Charles Finney, Revivals of Religion (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1968), pp. 2-5.16 [ Back ] Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God and the Will of Man (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), p. 27. Further, Pinnock questions the doctrines of original sin and substitutionary atonement for reasons similar to Finney's (pp. 22-23), adding: "It is my strong impression, confirmed to me even by those not pleased by it, that Augustinian thinking is losing its hold on present-day Christians" (p. 26).17 [ Back ] Newsweek, November 28, 1994, p. 55.18 [ Back ] Charles Finney, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1976). On original sin, Finney takes a great deal of space attacking "...the anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma of a sinful constitution" (p. 179). Concerning the substitutionary atonement, he writes, "If he obeyed the law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine qua non of our salvation?...Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted" (pp. 206, 209). He strongly denies the view "that the atonement was a literal payment of a debt" (p. 217). On the New Birth, he insists, "Original or constitutional sinfulness, physical regeneration, and all their kindred and resulting dogmas, are alike subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence; and should be laid aside as relics of a most unreasonable and confused philosophy" (p. 236).19 [ Back ] Finney, Systematic Theology, op. cit., pp. 320-1.20 [ Back ] Russell Spittler, in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. by Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), p. 43.21 [ Back ] Clark Pinnock, in Four Views of Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), pp. 122-131.22 [ Back ] Stanley Grenz, in Revisioning Evangelical Theology (IVP, 1993), argues for a definition of evangelical in terms of shared experiences, stories and piety rather than in terms of doctrine. Kenneth Kantzer endorses it as a volume that "redefines evangelicalism as focusing, not on its doctrinal commitments, but on a type of spiritual experience or piety. In so doing he says many things that ought to be heard and heeded by all Christians." Cf. The Openness of God, by Pinnock, et. al. (IVP, 1994); Robert Brow and Pinnock, Unbounded Love (IVP, 1994); The Grace of God and the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Zondervan, 1989), edited by Pinnock with contributors such as respected New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, Terry Miethe and Grant Osborne. A symposium on the "megashift," with Clark Pinnock,et. al., is available on audio cassette from Christians United for Reformation (CURE), Anaheim, California.23 [ Back ] Ray S. Anderson, The Gospel According to Judas (Co. Springs: Helmer and Howard, 1991), p. 99.24 [ Back ] Newsweek, August 9, 1993.