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The Deadly Danger of How-To Sermons

Greg Strand – December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Timothy Raymond has given us an important reminder as we preach which is essential to a faithful preaching of the gospel: “The danger of a how-to.” The concern he raises, which is very real and much more prominent than one would wish is that preaching becomes a series of how-to messages, which in essence becomes moralistic preaching.

The concern, according to Raymond, is that the definition of a Christian has been changed so that it no longer refers to “someone who confesses the gospel and gives reasonable evidence thereunto,” but instead “a Christian is someone who strives to follow Christian ethics.”

Raymond lays much of the blame on pastors who have given in to the “how-to sermon. . . . ‘Six keys for raising happy children’, ‘Four secrets for a healthy marriage’, ‘Five principles for managing your money.’ ” The problem with such a sermon, he notes, is that “a steady diet of how-to sermons devoid of the gospel, or weak on the gospel, or vague on the gospel, or which simply tack-on the gospel at the end as a sort of formality, implicitly yet powerfully communicate that Christianity is a lifestyle first and a faith second. They place ethics at the core and beliefs at the periphery.”

This is not to suggest that there is no place for ethics or lifestyle. There is but it arises from the gospel, so the order and priority are essential or we miss the gospel and generate moralism. It must get the indicative, that which Christ has done, and the imperative, that which we are commanded in light of having believed and received what Christ has done, right: the indicative is foundational to the imperative; the imperative is grounded in the indicative. This means we embrace the gospel and affirm there are also entailments to the gospel.

In conclusion, “evangelicals are evangelicals not because we follow four principles, five keys, or six secrets. In the end, evangelicals are evangelicals because we build our lives on the gospel alone.”

I heartily concur. As we consider our lives and ministry, particularly our teaching and preaching, are we evangelical?

A number of years ago Os Guinness responded to the call from some Evangelicals to disengage from the culture. Instead, he calls “for a fresh engagement with Western culture in order to win it back to Christ.” He refers to this as a “third mission to the West.” This rests not in human numbers or ingenuity or technology. Neither is it spoken in a Pollyanna-like manner. Guinness reminds us, “For those who know God and the power of the gospel, history is never deterministic, no odds are so overwhelming that it’s ever all over, and no door is truly closed unless God has closed it.”

This consists of the one main plan the church has been given by the Lord Jesus Christ spelled out in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), and it is the church’s long-term plan. The key focus is not winning back the West for the West’s sake, or for the sake of recreating a Christian culture. It is for Christ’s sake!

Winning back the West will not be the work of five minutes, five months, or five years. It may take a hundred years, for the hardest spheres of our society such as the universities are not going to be won without immense toil and perseverance. And our motive must not be to win back the West for the West’s sake (or for the sake of America or Europe, or even for democracy or civilization), but to win back the West for Christ’s sake—out of faithfulness to the Great Commission. In other words, our concern is the West, not because it is in any way superior and worth saving—we could easily argue the opposite—but because the West is our Jerusalem and our Judea, from which we must join hands with others around the world and reach out to bring the gospel also to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.

Guinness spells out what he means by “third mission,” and what the previous two missions were.

Why “third mission” to the West? The first mission to the West was the conversion of the Roman Empire, a three centuries-long movement under God that was a staggering accomplishment through which the faith of a bunch of provincial malcontents grew to replace the faith of mighty Rome herself. The second mission to the West was the conversion of the barbarian empires, a less known but equally staggering achievement through which the violent tribal peoples of Europe were “gentled” and the foundations were laid for what became Christendom. Today, as the legacy of those great and successful missions runs out, we face the challenge of giving up or setting out on a third mission to the West.

Guinness concludes with the one truth that is foundational to all the challenges and opportunities before the Christian and the Church – it is an impossible task apart from God and His grace.

But one truth will underlie them all. The task of winning back the West is so stupendous that we can only succeed if we determine unflinchingly—in Hudson Taylor’s great phrase—to “do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.” With all due respect to the brilliance of modern insights and technologies, reliance on them, as much recent church growth and mission has done openly, will be to court failure and be exposed as faithless.

Put differently, winning back the West involves many things, but it is an essentially spiritual, theological, and evangelical task. Hence the need to surmount the widespread disdain for theology and to shed the recent cultural and political baggage of the evangelical movement and be truly evangelical—people who define themselves and their lives by the first things of the good news (or evangelion) of Jesus Christ.

There have been times in the past when things have been far worse than they are today, and those who responded in faith were far fewer than those who stand ready to respond now. But the challenge is the same: to trust only in God, to have no fear, to let God be God, and watch and wait to see what He alone can do.


Muslim Insiders: An Evangelical Response

Greg Strand – January 30, 2013 Leave a comment

In today’s article, John J. Travis states that Evangelicals ought to be grateful for the work of God among Muslims who are part of Insider Movements: “Why Evangelicals Should Be Thankful for Muslim Insiders,” Christianity Today 57/1 (January/February 2013)

Travis points out a number of characteristics about these Muslims who are part of Insider Movements, which, he claims, ought to resonate with Evangelicals.

First, they accept Jesus as the Savior through whom their sins are forgiven.

Second, there is clear evidence of the work of the Spirit as they obey the Bible and grow in the lordship of Jesus.

Third, though they are not called Christians, they are spiritually and biblically part of the church universal put there by Christ because they are one in him. (Many I have met have deep friendships with Christians and often make statements such as, “Any person who truly follows Jesus is my brother or sister.”)

Fourth, they affirm most aspects of their Muslim heritage, simply seeing it as their natural identity. Yet they clearly reform certain teachings and practices that are not in line with the New Testament. This makes them different from others around them, and many have already endured more suffering for the name of Jesus than most Western evangelicals will ever face.

As an Evangelical, of the evidences listed . . .

  • What resonates with you?
  • What do you affirm, and what ought to be cause for gratitude?
  • What questions do you have, and what concerns would you raise?

Gregg Allison, Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a book on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church: Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway). This is the most recent release in Crossway’s excellent Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.

A few preliminary remarks should be made before reading the interview, which will, hopefully, lead you to read the book. First, the title should reveal a bit of Allison’s ecclesiological bent, broadly baptistic (note the smaller case “b”), with a respectful interaction and irenic engagement with other ecclesiologies. This would be reflective of many in the EFCA.

Second, the foundational focus is on the biblical nature of the church. This is foundational, and ministries are determined by that foundation. This, he believes, is his most important contribution to the study of ecclesiology today. I would strongly agree, as I have stated it this way for many years. We must understand what the biblical nature of the church is if we are going to understand what the function and ministries of the church are to be.

Third, he defines the church through seven key attributes, the first three based on “the origin and orientation of the church,” with the final four focused on the “gathering and sending of the church.” I will include this in part 2 of this interview, which you can read tomorrow. I believe you will, as did I, find this very helpful.

Fourth, he is sympathetic to the notion of a multisite church model. This is a relatively recent Evangelical phenomenon, so it will be helpful to hear the biblical reasons for his support.

Finally, Allison notes that one of the greatest challenges in the church today is “so-called Christians claim to love Jesus but they can’t stand the church and are not involving themselves in a local church. Thus, the challenge is how to root the church in the gospel of Jesus and connect these people, who claim to know the gospel of Jesus, to the church.” Most of us feel this, and utter a hearty Amen.

Matthew Claridge interviewed Allison in Credo Magazine about this new publication:

I encourage you to read the interview, even more so the book. But today and tomorrow I am going to share two excerpts from the interview, with the hope it will whet your appetite to read the book.

What are some of the challenges you personally faced in writing this systematic treatment of the church?

One of the key challenges was writing an ecclesiology for an audience that is broadly evangelical and thus holds to divergent positions on ecclesiological matters such as continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and New Testament and the old covenant people of God and the new covenant people of God, the normative or descriptive nature of the book of Acts, when the church began and who are its members, the relationship of the church to Israel and the kingdom of God, the nature and recipients of baptism, the nature and recipients of the Lord’s Supper, how the church should be governed (e.g., episcopalian, presbyterian, congregational with one pastor and a board of deacons, congregational with a plurality of elders), and the like. In my opinion, a generic evangelical ecclesiology cannot be written. Thus, I chose to write a broadly baptistic ecclesiology (reflecting my theological persuasion and my membership in several baptistic churches over the course of my life) that (I hope) fairly presents other ecclesiologies and interacts with them in a respectful and irenic fashion. At the same time, my ecclesiology develops in some directions that are not typically baptistic (though not without historical precedents and contemporary examples) like opening with a discussion of biblical covenants and identifying the church as the new covenant people of God, a significant emphasis on church discipline, a view of the Lord’s Supper that is both memorial and a type of spiritual presence (with strong warrant from 1 Cor. 10:14-2)[sic], a plurality of elders, the diaconate consisting of both deacons and deaconesses (this latter point is affirmed within a complementarian framework), and advocacy of a particular multisite church structure.

The second challenge was making my way through a large body of contemporary literature on the church, the vast majority of which is pragmatic in nature and thus focuses on the ministries of the church without ever considering what the church is. But I had made a decision early on in my writing that I would start my ecclesiology with a consideration of the nature of the church—its attributes (see point 4 below)—then move to the ministries of the church, because I was convinced that those ministries must flow from the church’s identity, and not visa versa. Thus, while learning a good deal from this contemporary literature on how to do church, I was not particularly helped in constructing my ecclesiology.

A third challenge was the tenor of most contemporary ecclesiologies: almost universally, they underscore the problematic nature of constructing a doctrine of the church. Whether they focus on the dreadful state of the contemporary church (e.g., its consumerist mindset), or accentuate the multiplicity of ecclesiologies (to emphasize the difficult task ahead), or underscore the divisions separating churches due to their different stances on homosexuality and/or gender, most contemporary formulations of the doctrine approach ecclesiology as a problem with which to wrestle. Such a negative orientation weighed quite heavily on me as I sought to write my book.

Remember to come back tomorrow to read the second excerpt from this interview, spelling out Allison’s biblical definition of the church using seven key attributes.


What Happened with Jesus’ Wife?

Greg Strand – December 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Peter Williams, Warden, Tyndale House, Cambridge, follows up the claim made in September that Jesus may have had a wife with a provocative title, “Jesus’s ‘wife’ found dead,” Evangelicals Now (November 2012).

The translation of this document was titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” and it created an incredible response in the media. Many focused on the title and made certain assumptions and claims, while others were much more cautious in their assessment of this document. As is often the case with these sorts of sensational stories, there was an immediate buzz, and then it faded into obscurity. It is helpful to take a look at something like this once the dust has settled a bit. That is what Williams does in this brief article.

Williams traces the response to this document and concludes that “after nearly a month of scrutiny by scholars on the blogosphere, it appears that the fragment is almost certainly a fake.” Rather than letting this go and losing the opportunity for learning lessons, Williams concludes by stating some things we (Evangelicals) learned:

First, we see a number of layers of spin in this tale. Dr. King’s original decision to call the media and to label the fragment a ‘Gospel’ just set the ball rolling. Soon media reports copied each other, and started to suggest that this was a discovery to revolutionise or challenge Christian teaching. By the time this arrived at popular perception, the transformation was complete: a piece of historical evidence suggested that Jesus actually had a wife. The majority impression given by the media was that this was an authentic piece, and the message that, even if genuine, the fragment was of little historical consequence was not heard. Public attitude will have been affected for the worse.

So we are reminded that the secular media appear incredibly powerful at getting false messages across which it is hard for us to redress.

Secondly, it could have been worse. To her credit, from the beginning Dr. King released high resolution photos and the technical information she had. This enabled quick scrutiny. Had the person responsible for the fake been better at his or her job the story could have had yet more negative impact. As it was, it’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown of The Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.

It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.

It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.

What are we to make of these lessons learned? First, it is encouraging to know that Evangelicals, those who affirm the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures, and who also affirm the historicity of the God-man, Jesus Christ, are on the front-lines of defending the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.

Second, that Evangelicals have the “technical expertise” and the “intellectual firepower” to engage in these subjects is what people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer and others, including our own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, moved towards in the 1940s when they pursued a new direction, different from the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists. It was/is also at the heart of numerous Evangelical seminaries, including our own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Third, even as these Evangelical scholars can engage in and provide leadership to these academic discussions, humility is absolutely essential. That attribute is a mark of both the Lord Jesus and those who truly understand, proclaim and defend the gospel. Apart from humility, one can win an argument, displease God (cf. Isa. 66:2) and undermine the gospel we proclaim.

Fourth, our ultimate aim as we defend the faith is that God would be glorified. Our goal is to make much of God, not of self. This can and ought to be done in all situations and circumstances, even like these in which a claim is made that Jesus had a wife.