What is the Gospel?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel
for it is the power of God for salvation
to everyone who believes,
to the Jew first and also to the Greek
(Romans 1:16)

The gospel. 

It is a word made impotent by its vague familiarity.  Like ‘love’—which sells hamburgers, promotes athletics, and expresses marital bliss—‘gospel’ has become a filler word.  It is often used, but little understood.  Don’t believe me? Just ask a Christian what the word is, and wait for the stammering to begin—uh . . . well . . . hmmm . . . you know . . . it’s the gospel.

The gospel is often assumed.  Rarely defined.  Abstract, not concrete.  It is a good word to use in church, but it is a word more quickly said than studied.

Such gospel assumption—or it is amnesia?—impairs our witness and our worship.  Therefore, we need to ask some questions about the gospel: Who needs the gospel?  Christians or non-Christians?  What do we do with the gospel?  Is it a message to be believed and preached?  Or is it a way of life to be lived?  Are there variations of the gospel?  Or is the message singular?  How do you define the gospel? Continue reading

Truth and Tradition: Or what Francis Turretin might say to Pope Francis

In light of the yesterday’s big news—the election of Pope Francis—it is good to be reminded why Protestants don’t have a pope but do affirm authority in the local church.

1 Timothy 3:14-15 reads, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”

Paul with apostolic authority is writing a letter with Holy Spirit authority to Timothy, instructing him how to teach with didactic authority a local church that is called to have  ministerial authority as they guard the word of truth which has divine authority.  Sadly, somewhere in church history, roughly between the years 1100 and 1400, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its magisterial authority, arguing that church traditions are authoritative in matters of faith and practice.  Clearly, this went beyond Paul’s instruction to Timothy, and by the time of Martin Luther, the church had had enough.  The Protestant Reformation broke out, and that is why so many in the church today do not call Francis their ecclesial head.

Nevertheless, what kind of authority should the church have?  Timothy Ward in his illuminating book, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of Godprovides a very helpful treatment on this subject. Discussing the historical debate between Protestants and Catholics, he cites another Francis, Francis Turretin, who lists five functions of the church related to Scripture.

  1. Keeper and preserver of Scripture
  2. Guide that points people to Scripture
  3. Defender of Scripture, vindicating the genuine canonical books from the spurious ones
  4. Herald who proclaims the truth of Scripture
  5. Interpreter given the task of unfolding the true sense of Scripture

These functions can be found in Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theologyvol. 1 (though all citations come from Ward, Words of Life, 152-53).  Turretin closes his explanation of the relationship between Scripture and the church by reaffirming the nature of the church’s authority: “All these [functions] imply a ministerial only and not a magisterial power.”  Explaining what this mean, he states,

If the question is why, or on account of what, do I believe the Bible to be divine, I will answer that I do so on account of the Scripture itself which by its marks proves itself to be such. If it is asked whence or from what I believe, I will answer from the Holy Spirit, who produces belief in me. Finally, if I am asked by what means or instrument I believe it, I will answer through the church which God uses in delivering the Scriptures to me. 

Rightly, Turretin and Ward point out the robust doctrine of church authority which is often missed by Protestants.  Yet, with biblical fidelity they show how the Scriptures are always the final, magisterial authority. No individual, nor any local church, can exist without tradition; the important thing to note, contra the Catholic Church, is that church authority is always delegated and derivative of the greater and higher authority of the Holy Scriptures.  Tradition is always under the review of God’s truth, even if tradition is what leads us to God’s truth.  In this way, it is the difference between the order of knowing (i.e., the church leads us to the truth of God, or it should) and the order of being (i.e., the truth of God creates and corrects the church).

Sadly, many Protestants will harden themselves against the legitimate authority in the church this week as they see the new pope take his seat.  Equally discouraging, many unassuming Catholics will continue to be misled by the vain notion that uninspired men can update and adjust the doctrines of the church, instead of standing on the foundation laid down by the apostles (see Eph 2:20).  May we be those who avoid both errors.

May we hold to Scriptures as the final source of authority, and may we benefit from and exercise the legitimate use of authority that Christ gave to his churches.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

 

The Bible Says It, That Settles It

Maybe you have heard the phrase, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Until a few months ago, I had not observed the great error contained in that phrase.  However, thanks to one of the senior saints at our church, I was informed of its self-centeredness.  On the occasion that someone wryly quoted that phrase in a small group Bible study, this seasoned lady kindly replied that actually if the Bible says it, that settles it.

Continue reading

Who Is Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher?

Who is Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher? (a) A nineteenth century German theologian?  (b) A pietistic pastor with a funny name?  (c) The father of liberal theology? (d) Or the unknown philosopher whose views on religious experience have shaped much of evangelical theology?

How about (e) All of the above?  Amazingly, Schleiermacher’s approach to theology has both influenced two hundred years of liberal theology and is still influencing evangelical thought more than two-centuries later.  While most who know his name associate him with liberalism, many who do not know him are unaware at how much his brand of Christianity is being reproduced in Christendom today. For that reason, the question “Who is Friedrich Schleiermacher?” is of vital importance today.

The influence of this nineteenth-century German theologian on contemporary theology can hardly be overestimated.  Although most Christians have never heard of Schleiermacher, his ideas about religion in general and Christianity in particular have trickled down to them through the theological education of their pastors, denomination leaders, favorite religious authors and college teachers.  His influence is subtle but persuasive in Western Christianity.  He is to Christian theology what Newton is to physics, what Freud is to psychology and what Darwin is to biology.  That is to say, he may be the absolute authority, but he was the trailblazer and trendsetter, the one thinker subsequent theologians cannot ignore (Roger Olson and Stanley Grenz, 20th-Century Theology: God & The World in a Transitional Age [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992], 39).

Olson and Grenz’s appraisal needs qualification but is broadly correct.  Just as Freud and Darwin have set the pace for certain kinds of (secular) psychology and biology, so Schleiermacher has blazed a trail for liberal theology–the theology usually associated with mainline denominations.  However, as in the case of psychology and biology, the conservative world has not been unaffected.  Where Christian psychologists and biologists must interact with the secular or evolutionary theories of the day, so conservative theologians must interact with the liberal views that arose from Schleiermacher.

Yet, another qualification is needed.  Schleiermacher’s theology is not just “out there.”  His feelings-based, experiential form of religion has permeated conservative evangelicalism.  Even in churches that confessionally affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and the objective work of salvation, many live by their feelings.  They look for the next word from God to them, the next experience.  Instead of walking by faith that is grounded in God’s specific promises, they walk with an ambiguous God conscience and God dependence.

Just listen to the banter of Christian radio.  What Matt Papa has recently critiqued in his thoughtful series of posts on CCM is nothing but Schleiermacherianism (I know, that is mouthful). But it is true.  On the other side of the “Battle for the Bible”– a battle that continues today–most evangelicals are uninformed about the pernicious battle for the Christian mind.

Instead of thinking diligently about matters of faith (2 Tim 2:7) and loving God with all their mind (Mark 12:29-30), too many simply imbibe a kind of Christianity that is replete with appeals for emotion, ethical living, imitations of Christ, and God-dependence.  Because ‘God,’ ‘Scripture,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘faith,’ and other buzz words are employed, many evangelicals think they are being biblical and growing in grace.  And praise God, many are; but many more may be influenced by the spirit of Schleiermacher more than the Spirit of Christ. Over the next few days we will consider who this man is, and how an awareness of his theology may serve evangelicals by

The goal is not to commend his theology or his method, but to show how his theological method is similar to what passes as standard fare among many evangelicals today.  My hope is to introduce this man and his theology, so that we will be better able to see the way his kind rationalistic Romanticism has infected the church today.  I fear that unless we learn to see this hyper-subjective brand of Christianity, there will be many for whom the gospel will implode–theology will become anthropology.  This happened in the past with classical liberalism, and it could again happen among evangelicals–especially among those who are emphasizing the personal, subjective experience over the sovereign act of God in salvation.

Of course, we need both, but in our day, the pendulum needs to swing back toward the objective work of Christ.  I believe getting to know Friedrich Schleiermacher may be the historical figure to help us see the far-reaching dangers of experience-based Christianity.  And hopefully, it will bring us back towards the unmistakably God-centered gospel where the Triune God is the Lord of salvation (Jonah 2:9).

This week, I will be running a series of posts on Schleiermacher–his life, theology, and its impact on evangelicals today.  Hope you will tune in.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

In the Fight Against Abortion, Truth Shall Set You Free

In his recent FREE online ebook, Exposing the Dark Work of Abortion, John Piper lists 15 critical ‘truths’ about abortion.  As many churches celebrate life this Sunday and call an end to the genocide that is abortion, may these truths spur you on to fight the good fight of faith to protect life and proclaim eternal life whose guilt over a previous abortion leaves them scarred for life.

1. Existing fetal homicide laws make a man guilty of manslaughter if he kills the baby in a mother’s womb (except in the case of abortion).

2. Fetal surgery is performed on babies in the womb to save them while another child the same age is being legally destroyed.

3. Babies can sometimes survive on their own at 23 or 24 weeks, but abortion is legal beyond this limit.

4. Living on its own is not the criterion of human per- sonhood, as we know from the use of respirators and dialysis.

5. Size is irrelevant to human personhood, as we know from the difference between a one-week-old and a six-year-old.

6. Developed reasoning powers are not the criterion of personhood, as we know from the capacities of three- month-old babies.

7. Infants in the womb are human beings scientifically by virtue of their genetic makeup.

8. Ultrasound has given a stunning window on the womb that shows the unborn at eight weeks sucking his thumb, recoiling from pricking, responding to sound. All the organs are present, the brain is functioning, the heart is pumping, the liver is making blood cells, the kidneys are cleaning fluids, and there is a fingerprint. Virtually all abortions happen later than this date.

9. Justice dictates that when two legitimate rights conflict, the limitation of rights that does the least harm is the most just. Bearing a child for adoption does less harm than killing him.

10. Justice dictates that when either of two people must be inconvenienced or hurt to alleviate their united predicament, the one who bore the greater responsibility for the predicament should bear more of the inconvenience or hurt to alleviate it.

11. Justice dictates that a person may not coerce harm on another person by threatening voluntary harm on themselves.

12. The outcast and the disadvantaged and exploited are to be cared for in a special way, especially those with no voice of their own.

13. What is happening in the womb is the unique person-nurturing work of God, who alone has the right to give and take life.

14. There are countless clinics that offer life and hope to both mother and child (and father and parents), with care of every kind, lovingly provided by people who will meet every need they can.

15. Jesus Christ can forgive all sins, and will give all who trusts him the help they need to do everything that life requires.

God in heaven, maker of life and limb, may you be pleased to end this murderous “right” in our generation.  More than that, would you make abortion so ugly, so hated, so despicable to Christian and non-Christian alike, that to endorse, support it, or seek it would be as awful as the thought of lynching a man because of his skin color.  Oh Father, you have given our country equal rights according to race; might you do the same for age.  Use these truths and the sermons preached this month advocating life to spur us on towards loving life, and protecting the innocent.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Wise Words on Pastoral Leadership

Tom Schreiner, New Testament professor at SBTS and prolific author, has some poignant words for young pastors.  In his article on speaking the truth in love, he gives counsel to pastors on how to shepherd their flock with grace and truth. Pastors must speak the truth in love with Spirit-wrought patience, kindness, and endurance (cf Eph 4:15; 2 Tim 2:24). He writes,

Love recognizes that people are not changed in a day. Love takes people where they are and moves them slowly toward a deeper appreciation of truth. Love does not relish controversy, but longs to shepherd the flock so that it becomes more like Christ. Love never compromises the truth, but it does not burst onto the scene by teaching controversial doctrines. Love communicates that you want to be a pastor and a shepherd and healer and not just a teacher. Love never compels or constrains others to share your beliefs; it patiently teaches, remembering that truth dawned upon our hearts slowly and that our knowledge is still imperfect. Love does not tolerate error, but it stoops low to understand the person who is mistaken, for the one who understands why one believes a falsehood will be able to explain more deeply and sympathetically why such a view is wrong.

Well said.  May I and all those who pastor be such loving servants!

Soli Deo Gloria, dss