Archives For Gospel

We affirm the importance of the gospel which is foundational to our doctrinal convictions. Furthermore, we affirm its centrality to all of life and ministry. What this means for us in the EFCA is that we affirm our Statement of Faith, which is our foundational confessional statement. This is essential to and for the EFCA. However, many do not think through the practical implications of what we affirm doctrinally, of what it means to be confessional.

What this often means, more often than not, is that there is tacit acknowledgement of the gospel and doctrine, i.e., it is assumed, with a focus on ministry and the practical realities of that ministry. There is not sufficient time, thought or prayer given to how the foundational truth affects, determines, forms and shapes the ministry. It is as if they are two stand-alone realities we affirm, but there is little to no discussion about the foundation (although I am grateful it is there, but it is assumed) and there is little to no thinking about how it is formative to what we do in ministry and how we do it. Although these two matters are different and can and must be pondered in this way, they are also inseparable.

One of the weaknesses in the Evangelical church, I believe, is that there is very little thought given to this so that the exigencies of ministry inevitably trump the foundational gospel framework. It is seldom the foundational framework from and through which we consider ministry so that we ensure that ministry is formed and framed by the gospel’s foundational framework.

I learned this and its importance through Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 124. He insightfully and importantly writes,

The Christian gospel calls us not only to a well-formed theistic matrix but also to make conscious connections between that matrix and the other matrices of our lives. What I believe about God ought to influence how I view my own identity, my vocation, my family, my leisure pursuits, and so on. It is this matrix of matrices that I have been calling the theological vision. It is composed more narrowly of the theistic matrix (what I will be calling a theological framework) and more broadly of the interconnections between the theistic matrix and all other matrices in one’s noetic structures. Theology involves not just the study of God (theistic matrix) but also the influence of that study on the rest of one’s life (theological vision). It is possible to distinguish these two levels, but they are never separable in practice.

I read from one recently who discussed something similar raising parallel concerns, although the writer refers to this as theological confession and theological vision. In working with many churches, church plants, etc., the writer notes,

While for the most part they could pass any confessional test, many of them don’t know how to do theology. They have a theological confession but not theological vision. They lack the vision and ability to connect what they know with how they plan to creatively and constructively advance the mission of God in the world. Theological confession is, by definition, defensive and classically expressed in series of affirmations and denials. This is good and necessary. But successful church planting, ministry, and even the Christian life needs more than confession; it needs theological vision. This concept of theological vision explains how so many churches have similar confessions and yet radically different and even competing expressions of ministry. Without the clarity of a comprehensive theological vision, we succumb to emphatic theology with no connection between all the different fragments of theology and the arenas of our lives.

Tim Keller explains this practically through the illustration of computer. Keller states that our doctrinal/theological confession, our foundation, ought to be considered to be our hardware. The practical, methodological strategy, the ministries in which we engage, ought be considered our software. But there is an important piece that links the hardware with the software, that which he refers to as the middleware. This middleware is the vital piece that brings the foundational confession to life in ministry and it provides the rationale for doing so. Thus we have three vital aspects, all grounded in and guided by the gospel: doctrinal confession (doctrinal centrality of the gospel) => gospel, theological vision => life and ministry (functional centrality of the gospel).

The author I noted above concludes in the following way:

Every Christian and church has theological vision—however much it may be distorted, malnourished, or neglected by certain vices (e.g., letting methodology rather than theology drive vision; poor understanding of biblical and systematic theology; unhealthy accommodation to culture over proper contextualization; lacking the maturity to embrace paradox or hold tensions together). We embody our theological vision. And too often our theology of grace is robust in our hearts and minds, but it never finds a way to our hands and lives.

Based on what is focused upon and what is assumed, let me ask two sets of questions:

  • For those who assume the foundation and focus on the ministry, what needs to happen to ensure your ministry is formed and shaped by the foundational gospel and doctrinal truths?
  • For those who focus on the foundation and assume the ministry, what needs to happen to ensure the foundational gospel and doctrinal truths lead to forming and shaping ministry?

The Gospel, Christians and Culture

Greg Strand – February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the significant discussion and pressure points for Evangelicals is how we understand and engage in culture. In a previous day, Fundamentalists separated from it, while Liberals (speaking theologically) accommodated to it.

The gospel creates a new person (Jn. 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:14-16) who becomes part of a new community (Matt. 16:18), an eschatological, end-time community that exists now in the present time through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This community manifests a gospel grounded, formed and framed culture that influences and impacts the world around them. Although Christians are in the world, they are not of the world (Jn. 17) which means they are not squeezed into its mold (Rom. 12:1-2). Rather, having been transformed by the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:2; Phil. 3:21) they influence and impact the culture.

Harold Netland, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at TEDS, and a former ReachGlobal missionary to Japan, and Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College, were interviewed about their recently co-authored book, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal. There is much to glean in the interview, and even more in the book. However, there was one response that was an excellent reminder about Christians and culture, and how we are to understand the gospel and its relation to culture.

Netland and McDermott write, “While the gospel can be expressed in any culture, it also judges every culture.” In response to the question “Why is it important to recognize both these truths?,” they replied,

Scholars like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have drawn attention to the “translatability” of the Christian gospel into diverse cultural settings. Walls speaks of the “indigenizing principle,” which reflects the fact that all Christians (including those within the first-century New Testament church) are embedded within particular historical, linguistic, and cultural settings. God encounters people within these contexts. Thus, the gospel of Jesus Christ can become “at home” within any particular linguistic or cultural setting. Unlike the relationship between Arabic and Islam, there is no single “Christian language” or “Christian culture.”

But the indigenizing principle must be balanced with what Walls calls the “pilgrim principle.” While the gospel can be authentically expressed within any cultural setting, it cannot simply be identified with any culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and challenges all cultures, reminding believers that they are not to be completely at home in any earthly culture. In this sense it also judges every culture.

A few questions to ponder:

  • What do you find helpful about remembering the two aspects of culture – the “indigenizing principle” and the “pilgrim principle”?
  • What happens if we focus on the “indigenizing principle” and neglect the “pilgrim principle”? Or what happens if we focus on the “pilgrim principle” and neglect the “indigenizing principle”?
  • How has this played out among Evangelicals in our present-day discussion and understanding culture and cultural engagement?

Over the course the last number of weeks there have been a couple of public occurrences that have reflected an insensitivity to Asian Americans. Though it may well have intended to be funny, it was anything but that to the Asian American family members. To the contrary, it was hurtful.

Last week the group “Asian American Christians United: On Cultural Insensitivity and Reconciliation in the Church” wrote “An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church.” The letter begins,

We, the undersigned, are distressed about the continuing divide that persists in the North American evangelical church in the area of racial harmony. Certainly, we acknowledge that over the past several decades, the church has grown both in its understanding and pursuit of racial reconciliation. However, such efforts have largely been reduced to black-white relations, or they have resulted in tokenism, in which organizations or events allocate an appropriate number of spots to include voices of color and mistakenly believe that is all that is required.

We have imagined and hoped for such a different future for the church, one in which racial harmony would not be an illusion, but a tangible reality. However, as a number of incidents in recent years demonstrate, the evangelical church is still far from understanding what it truly means to be an agent of racial reconciliation. In particular, the Asian American segment of the church continues to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and misjudged.

We write this letter to collectively assert that which continues to trouble us about the church’s treatment of Asian Americans and Asian culture, and to ask the church to make a more concerted effort to both understand and address the concerns of its Asian American brothers and sisters.

They state that the hurtful caricatures must stop.

We are a part of the body, we are North American Christians every bit as much as any other North American Christian, and we are weary, hurt, and disillusioned by the continuing offensive actions of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When one part of the body experiences pain, should not the whole body feel the repercussions? And yet the occurrences of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping have shown no sign of abating.

The authors state that when they have raised these issues with those who have engaged in such behavior they have often responded defensively, dismissively or claim that those offended have been overly sensitive. To this the authors reply that they

are tired of continuing racial insensitivity in the church. And embrace the truth: the evangelical church in America needs a reality check to honestly assess how it relates with its Asian American family members.

As fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, these sorts of hurtful and demeaning images, pictures, words, either through carelessness or ignorance it is more than hurting a small group of people.

You are damaging the very cause of Christ, by maintaining and increasing fissures within the church. You are furthering the exact opposite of what it means to be the church, which is to reflect Christ and his love through the power of a reconciled body. And you are creating an environment that will not only disillusion current Asian American Christians within the church body, but also repel Asian Americans who do not know Christ and who do not see him represented in the actions of those who call themselves Christian.

They acknowledge their fundamental belief in the cross of Jesus Christ to bridge the divide, and that they too have much to learn from others.

We do believe in the power of the cross of Christ to bridge every and all possible divisions that come between human beings. But this can happen only if all parties lay aside pride and humbly say to one another, “Forgive us for where we have erred in our relationship with you. Help us to understand where you are coming from and how we can repair things between us.” We are far from perfect, individually and collectively. We have not been without fault in how we have handled these situations, and we can do more to offer the grace and love of Christ. We, too, can learn from others and acknowledge that we have our own insensitivities and cultural blind spots.

Here are a few of my concluding thoughts.

Race, reconciliation and insensitivity continue to be a challenge. Sadly, it likely will be until the Lord returns.

The truth of the gospel and the sin of racial prejudice is a biblical issue, not just a sociological matter or trendy (Eph. 2:11-22). The gospel of Jesus Christ abolishes this sin, and the application of the gospel in our lives by the Holy Spirit empowers us to be a new community, a community of the redeemed that reflects heaven.

Until the Lord returns, during the time between the now and the not-yet of the kingdom, we pray and work toward a community that truly reflects the redeemed around the heavenly throne (Rev. 4-5).

Last November, Justin Welby, 56, Bishop of Durham, was appointed to serve in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican Church. Welby serves as the 150th Archbishop of Canterbury, and succeeded Rowan Williams who retired this past December after serving in this role for 10 years. It has been noted that Welby “is regarded by observers as being on the evangelical wing of the Church, closely adhering to traditional interpretations of the Bible with a strong emphasis on making the Church outward-looking.”

Today Welby officially takes this most senior post in the Anglican Church in a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral.

Writing of this change last November, Carl Laferton, senior editor of The Good Book Company, took the opportunity to address some important denominational lessons we can learn from “The Rusty Anglican Auto.”

Often when one looks outward at others, one does not engage in sufficient introspection. One might notice other rusty cars, but not the rust on one’s own car. The rust among the Anglicans Laferton explains as “declining numbers, massive money problems, increasingly marginalized, and tearing itself apart over the issues of homosexuality and women bishops.”

Though he acknowledges the Anglican vehicle moves, it is slow, rusty, with too many passengers and not enough drivers. What has caused these problems? Laferton is clear that it is a matter of the gospel:

The easy answer: the church lost the gospel. Waves of pragmatism, liberalism, and “Anglo-Catholicism” (a blend of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism) have swept through the church, leaving wreckage in their wake. . . . But the actual cause is slightly more subtle. Anglicans still talk about the gospel, a lot. And mission. And even about being evangelical—the new archbishop self-identifies as an evangelical . . .The denomination never lost the words. But it lost the biblical content. In order to keep unity among people who differ over essentials, Anglicanism has increasingly emptied key concepts of their content. . . . Once the biblical gospel is no longer a church’s raison d’etre, it looks for another one. And almost always the reason becomes the church itself.

Laferton addresses how Anglican Evangelicals will likely respond. He also draws three important lessons from the Anglican experience that those in other denominations can learn if they are determined, by God’s grace, not to follow a similar path.

1. Don’t assume the gospel, and don’t stop showing that it’s the biblical gospel.

Assuming the gospel leads to losing the gospel. One generation loves the gospel; the next assumes it; the third doesn’t know it, but thinks it does; the fourth leaves the church.

2. Don’t prize unity over truth. 

It’s easy to be overly divisive, to split off from a denomination because we disagree over secondary matters (or because we disagree over what the secondary matters are). . . . But there’s an equal and opposite error, too, that Anglicanism teaches us. Unity has been prized above truth.

3. Remember that times change, and churches must change with them. 

Healthy churches don’t hold fast to what used to work; to how we used to be; but instead hold a Bible in one hand, a newspaper in the other, and work out how to show and communicate the eternal gospel in this particular time and space.

Laferton concludes,

If your denomination can still accelerate, can change direction as necessary, and has godly leaders who are passionate about the biblical gospel in the driving seat, give great thanks to God for his mercy. And pray to God for your brothers and sisters who sit in rustier cars. After all, God can restore rusty panels, and build new cars out of old ones.

I give thanks to the Lord for His grace and mercy evidenced in the EFCA. We remain the Evangelical Free Church. Yes, the gospel is in our name. But more importantly, we are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ in doctrine, in proclamation and in practice. Join me in giving thanks to the Lord!

If we ever compromise the gospel, though we may retain the Evangel in our name, we will be a name only for we will no longer be part of the true church created, formed and shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Join me in prayer that we will remain tethered to the text and grounded in the gospel!

A Broken Heart, Yet Hopeful in the Gospel

Greg Strand – February 22, 2013 Leave a comment

“Let sin break your heart, but not your hope in the gospel.”

Thomas Wilcox (1621-1687), “Honey Out of the Rock”