The New Evangelical Virtues

My thanks to Tim Challies for this:

I don’t want to keep talking about Rob Bell. Honest. And in this post I am only going to touch on him on the way to something else. I think the uproar about his view on hell has helpfully illustrated what passes as virtue in the evangelical world today. As I have read some of the controversy, reading particularly from those who have taken his side, I have seen evidence of three characteristics that seem to pass as virtues today. In some parts of the Christian world, these are now embraced as Christian virtue: doubt, opaqueness, and an emphasis on asking rather than answering questions.


Doubt has become a virtue while boldness and assuredness have become marks of arrogance. The only thing we should be sure of is that we cannot be sure of much of anything. Doubt has become synonymous with humility. And so it was with the people who used to be known by that term emerging. This was a faith devoid of boldness, a faith that emphasized the unknowability of God at the expense of what we can know with confidence. The man who went on television and declared how little he knew in a quiet tone of voice was lauded over the man who spoke confidently of what God has made clear.

But here’s the thing: the Bible tells us that we can believe boldly, knowing what we know, believing and proclaiming what God says is true. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives boldness to His people. It is not a rash and arrogant boldness that takes refuge in our own intellectual capacities, but a boldness that what God reveals of himself through Scripture is real and right and true and knowable. It is a confidence that we, simple human beings, can know and understand God. And what we know and understand we can proclaim. Humility is not found in doubting what is true, but in believing that what God says is true is true indeed. And it is found in proclaiming it on that basis. Humility is expressed in obedience.


Another new virtue is opaqueness, of speaking in ways that are deliberately vague and unclear. By hiding behind language like “we need to avoid those old paradigms” everything that has been settled is re-opened, everything is open for redefinition. Categories are avoided, even when such categories have proven helpful and long-standing. Speaking very clearly and frankly about what has gone wrong in the past is more than acceptable, but the way forward must be vague and obscure. Here is what Greg Boyd says about Rob Bell and his new book: “[G]iven Rob’s poetic/artistic/non-dogmatic style, Love Wins cannot be easily filed into pre-established theological categories (viz. ‘universalism’ vs ‘eternal conscious suffering’ vs. ‘annihilationism,’ etc.).” That is meant as praise. But it could just as easily be critique.

There are many people who have read an entire book by a man like Brian McLaren and have come away with a very strong sense of what he does notbelieve in, but almost no sense of what he does believe, as if this is virtuous.

Opaqueness is not a virtue. Stirring people’s emotions and leading them to doubt without providing reassurance is cruel rather than kind. We are to speak clearly of what God has said and done. Where God has been clear we have the ability to be clear and, therefore, we have the responsibility.

Questions Are In, Answers Are Out

Asking questions is in, answering them in a clear and compelling way is out. Here is how Greg Boyd praises Bell in this regard: “Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion.” As just one example, the strength of the Emerging Church and its draw was far more in asking questions than in answering them. In fact, the New Calvinism and the Emerging Church arose by asking many of the same questions—questions that came out of the Church Growth Movement and the slow erosion of significant, weighty doctrine. Right teaching and right living were being replaced by mindless entertainment and those who became Emergent leaders asked many good questions. But their answers, when they were willing to give them, were lousy.

One might say that asking questions without the ability or willingness to answer them is dangerous, misleading, even irresponsible. Jesus loved to ask tough questions, undermining false faith. But he would always return with truth to shore up the cracked foundations. Many leaders today feel little need to do this. They are content to undermine, to cause doubt, without responding with clear truth. There is no virtue in this.

There are many lessons we can and will continue to draw from all the furor surrounding Love Wins. But these are three small lessons I don’t want to lose along the way.

DeYoung and Kluck on the Church

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck write as guest columnists today in the Newsweek/Washington Post forum on religion. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps Christians are leaving the church because it isn’t tolerant and open-minded. But perhaps the church-leavers have their own intolerance too–intolerant of tradition, intolerant of authority, intolerant of imperfection except their own. Are you open-minded enough to give the church a chance–a chance for the church to be the church, not a coffee shop, not a mall, not a variety show, not Chuck E. Cheese, not a U2 concert, not a nature walk, but a wonderfully ordinary, blood-bought, Spirit-driven church with pastors, sermons, budgets, hymns, bad carpet and worse coffee?

Their book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion is now available.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Al Mohler’s New Book

Al Mohler’s latest book, “The Disappearance
of God”, can be ordered HERE
From the Publisher:

For centuries the church has taught and guarded the core Christian beliefs that make up the essential foundations of the faith. But in our postmodern age, sloppy teaching and outright lies create rampant confusion, and many Christians are free-falling for ‘feel-good’ theology. We need to know the truth to save ourselves from errors that will derail our faith.

As biblical scholar, author, and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler, writes, “The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack.” With wit and wisdom he tackles the most important aspects of these modern issues:

Is God changing His mind about sin?
Why is hell off limits for many pastors?
What’s good or bad about the emergent movement?
Have Christians stopped seeing God as God?
Is the social justice movement misguided?
Could the role of beauty be critical to our theology?
Is liberal faith any less destructive than atheism?
Are churches pandering to their members to survive?

In the age-old battle to preserve the foundations of faith, it’s up to a new generation to confront and disarm the contemporary shams and fight for the truth. Dr. Mohler provides the scriptural answers to show you how.

(HT: Todd Pruitt)

Five Trends in the Church Today – D A Carson

From Acts 29, via Justin Taylor:

If you ever want to feel like you have the intelligence of a NASCAR fan that just finished off a six-pack (I think it’s a Red Neck law), then listen to D.A. Carson talk about, well, anything. Don is fluent in something like 7 languages and has written over 45 books. He is the esteemed Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. For instance, Carson said in his talk to us, “To be a non-perspectivalist is to be omniscient.” Nobody in the room was smart enough to argue with him over that.

Don spoke at a luncheon at Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper) on Friday September 26, 2008 just before the Desiring God Conference. I attended this lunch with about 40 other church leaders. Don spoke for an hour about five trends in the American church that are troubling to him.

Five Trends in the Church Today

By D A Carson, September 26, 2008

1. It is important to observe contradictory trends.

Interestingly, Don encouraged us to recognize the good things in our current culture. He said we have a lot more good commentaries available to us than we did fifty years ago. Yet, mainline churches have fewer conversions than ever before. This is a contradictory trend, according to Carson.

I understand this to mean that we know more and have access to more information, but it is not resulting in more conversions. We apparently know more about God, but less about His mission to seek and to save those who are lost. Our mainline churches are focusing on the minutia difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for example, but are ignoring the call to both know God and to follow his sending us to our neighbor’s house. There should be a constant tension between group Bible studies and sharing of one’s faith. Otherwise we end up in a holy huddle somewhere arguing about non-essentials.

2. Current evangelical fragments are moving into a new phase — into polarized “clumps.”

Don said evangelicals are identifying themselves in clump-like expressions of evangelicalism (Health/Wealth clump, Openness clump, Arminian clump, etc.). Carson said the National Pastor’s Conference (NPC) is as inclusive as possible — some speakers are stellar while others are simply heretical — but they include as many unique tribal representatives as possible.  “Even Reformed circles are clumping,” said Carson, “and the center is emptying out in favor of vague, dilute evangelicalism.”

Carson astutely said that old-time gospel would be around until Jesus comes while he believes (as Don humorously put it, “not as a prophet or the son of a prophet, but one who works for a non-profit”) that in 25 years nobody will be calling themselves “emergent” but many will still be centralized in the gospel.

I wonder what will replace the center as the varied subcultures of evangelicalism move to the fringes. For orthodox confessionalists, the center is the perfect place for the gospel. We need pastors who call their people “back” to the inner city of the gospel without relenting to the flight to the suburbs of dilute evangelicalism, as Carson put it.

3. The most dangerous trends in any age are the trends that most people do not see.

Orthodoxy is always focused on the past but the new expressions of evangelicalism are the most dangerous. Carson recalled the once Christian colleges like Princeton and Yale that were led by pastor/theologians but became so big that they hired administrators who were not as discerning of current trends; only of past. A formally orthodox leader will head into trouble if he is not astute toward current trends in evangelicalism.

Carson made the case that 1920’s liberalism is no longer the issue-even though some churches are still fighting that shadow. Today’s issues like justification, inerrancy, primacy of family, gender roles, sexuality, pornography, modesty, race relations (very few race-integrated churches), tolerance, consumerism and human flourishing are the current issues at hand.

I think most church planters are men who grew tired of fighting for bygone issues in their churches while people are losing the wars against the current issues of today. In my opinion, mainline churches will continue to lose their best men who want to be warriors in a real war, not in the reenactments of the religious wars of the last forty years. As long as we continue to address these modernist battles, Satan and his demonic force will rule the ground in our churches with diversion tactics that consume our energy.

4. There is a trend in our churches to be consumed by social concern.

In the most intriguing point of his talk, Don said that the Gospel plus caring for the poor was an inseparable couplet. He cautioned that if the gospel was merely assumed (and not clearly articulated), our passion for social justice would overshadow the gospel. While we are not intentionally exalting social concern over the gospel, people learn what we are excited about (gospel over caring for the poor). Carson warned, “Our passion must first be the gospel and not assume it to be understood.” He continued, “We must be careful to keep the gospel central and not turn our responses to the gospel as the main target.”

Furthermore, Carson exhorted these Christian leaders to spend our time on prayer and the ministry of the Word and allow our people to begin and maintain efforts in social concern. He said we must distinguish between what the church as church must do and what the community of believers in the church must do (I did not personally see the difference but it seemed to suggest that the pastor was exempt from exemplifying an outpouring of the gospel into the community through social efforts).

Our calling, Carson said is to do good in the city (Jer. 29), because the person has an eternal destiny and we care for them. We are all poor beggars telling other poor beggars where they can find bread. Don concluded this section by warning us not to make the issues of gospel and social concern antithetical.

5. There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the gospel.

It is crucial to teach the whole council of God centering on Christ crucified as the power of the gospel and salvation. If we see the gospel as what “saves” us and if we see discipleship as the actual place where real transformation takes place, it is not a biblical approach. Carson said this trend has a tendency to lead us to see discipleship as legalism; as what pleases God.

It is disturbing to me that some churches see discipleship as a formulaic course of study instead of a lifelong journey as a sinner saved by grace. Following Jesus is not accomplished by completing 8 classes in the basement of a church. It is a complete abandonment of our self in favor of the person, work and mission of Jesus.

We need to be aware of the current trends in the church today and pastor our church with an emphasis on the gospel. Anything less leads to narcissistic religion and away from Jesus.

Don Carson Talks About Culture

Derek Thomas interviews Don Carson:

On the eve of the publication of Don Carson’s new and important book, Christ and Culture Revisited, Derek Thomas caught up with him in an airport somewhere in the far East….

DT:  Congratulations of the publication of Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008). It obviously bears some link to the classic treatment by H. Richard Niebuhr, a volume I was asked to read at seminary thirty years ago, though it was published more than fifty years ago. Why did you feel it necessary to “Revisit” this book and its theme in 2008?

DC:  Thank You. At one level, the tension between Christ and culture is perennial, and every generation must thoughtfully engage in the discussion. Moreover, the world has become much less North-Atlantic-centered than it was in Niebuhr’s day, especially the Christian world — and these changes require serious reflection. Would Kuyper have developed his gentle version of sphere sovereignty if he has been born in China under Mao? Why are the French and the American versions of the separation of church and state so radically different? Where is the place of suffering in our thinking? Alternatively, in precisely what ways does the Christian have a responsibility to serve as salt and light in a world that is corrupt and dark? What does the Bible say on these and related matters?

As for Niebuhr’s seminal work: the five well-known typologies he advanced (and that have been the basis for discussion in the Anglo-Saxon world for the last half-century) are insufficiently grounded in Scripture. One of the five has little biblical warrant at all. Insofar as the other four have biblical warrant, then if they are treated as alternative models from which one may choose, one is saying that the Bible does not speak univocally on the subject, and one can pick and choose among the assorted “case models” that the Bible offers. It is much more faithful to Scripture to say that behind Niebuhr’s typologies stands a still more comprehensive vision of the relations between Christ and culture that is grounded in a rich biblical theology. That is what I have tried to tease out.

DT: Mark Dever says in a blurb on the cover of the book that “Carson exposes and explodes ‘egregious reductionisms’. It’s one of those phrases which I feel is now going to become part of our vocabulary, but what exactly did he mean when he said this?

DC: Mark, bless his heart, is gently poking fun at my inadequate vocabulary (note his quotation marks!). Point taken. Since he is the one who fastened on this expression, perhaps you should ask him which reductionisms (egregious or otherwise) he felt were best exploded in the book. For better or worse, I suppose I am commonly tempted to question arguments positions that can apparently claim a verse or two for support, or that simply relies on inherited tradition, without wrestling with the massive biblical themes that are relevant to the discussion. In other words, the position itself depends on some sort of “reductionism”: the voice of Scripture is “reduced” to a handful of prooftexts that in fact get the balance of things wrong. Few topics are more susceptible to this sort of error than the tension between Christ and culture, not least because the issues are complicated. I’m sure I’ve tumbled into a few of my own errors in this book, and equally sure that they will be pointed out to me.

DT: You mention several key issues which force us re-evaluate Christ’s role in culture (secularization, democracy, freedom and power). In short compass, can you explain what you mean by this and how this helps us to understand our own (postmodern) culture?

DC: Inevitably, we in the West, not least in America, tend to adopt a host of “givens” that are part of growing up here. Most of us think freedom is a good thing. But is it always a good thing? A friend in Slovakia once told me that only three weeks after the Berlin wall came down, for the first time in his life he saw pornography sold in the street. Was the enhanced freedom an unmitigated “good” thing? I’m not denying it was good in many ways, but some of us have given “freedom” such an iconic value that we fail to see how, in the name of freedom, we may become slaves to sin. Most of us are thankful to God that we live in a democracy. But I have met Christians who live in parts of the world under one form or another of tyranny who are much less daunted by the violent “beast out of the sea” that they face than by the “beast out of the earth,” the danger of deceptive teaching and materialism, that we face in the West: they pray for us that we will escape the tyranny of the seduction of easy, triumphalism, and materialism. Certainly what Paul wrote about the government of his day being appointed by God, he did not have a democracy in mind: what bearing do such differences in the structure of power have on our responsibility as citizens — as citizens of the US, and as citizens of the new Jerusalem?

DT: Why don’t you like the terminology of “redeeming the culture”?

DC: Redemption terminology in the NT is so bound up with Christ’s work for and in the church that to extend it to whatever good we do in the broader world risks a shift in focus. Not for a moment do I want to deny that we are to serve as salt and light, that exiles may be called to do good in the pagan cities where Providence has appointed them to live (Jer 29), that every square foot of this world is under Christ’s universal reign (even though that reign is still being contested), that the nations of the world will bring their “goods” into the Jerusalem that comes down from above. But many of those who speak easily and fluently of redeeming the culture soon focus all their energy shaping fiscal and political policies and the like, and merely assume the gospel. A gospel that is merely assumed, that does no more than perk away in the background while the focus of our attention is on the “redemption” of the culture in which we find ourselves, is lost within a generation or two. At the same time, I worry about Christians who focus their attention so narrowly on getting people “saved” that they care little about doing good to all people, even if especially to the household of God. Getting this right is not easy, and inevitably priorities will shift a little in various parts of the world, under various regimes. Part of the complexity of the discussion, I think, is bound up with what the church as church is responsible for, and what Christians as Christians are responsible for: I have argued that failure to make this distinction tends to lead toward sad conclusions.

DT: What are some key things for young pastors to keep in mind when they are urged to “engage the culture”?

DC:  Know what the gospel is first, comprehensively, accurately, faithfully. Work out from there. Learn to preach to your own people, not to the aggregates set out in books by Barna and Wuthnow (though much can be learned from such books). Whether the “engagement” is part of how you engage people evangelistically, or part of how Christians in your church do good in your own community, keep thinking through what the Bible itself says — and then try, like the men of Issachar, to understand your own times.

DT: Thank you.

The Postmodern Gospel

“The postmodern individual may be the easiest sinner in 200 years to interest in the faith. Yet he is capable of living with contradictions. He can claim to have received Jesus but not believe in his historical existence. He can claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture but deny absolute truth. When the gospel is presented as a means of improving self-image, giving us a spiritual and thrilling experience, providing a source for success and fulfillment, or helping us overcome loneliness, we may be speaking the language of the age; however, we have trivialized and distorted the gospel message as to make it meaningless.”

“Perhaps there has never been a time when it has been more vital to present the gospel message clearly and without apology. That Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and give us his righteousness is the good news, which the sinner must understand. The issue on the table is sin, not felt needs. Our postmodern generation needs to hear that we have offended a holy God and are thus separated from him. If we do not tell them this we are in danger of preaching another gospel (Gal. 1:9).”
-Gary E. Gilley, This Little Church Stayed Home p50-51

(HT: Reformed Voices)

The Emergent Church and the Gospel

This is a great piece from John Samson. I also recommend the book he quotes, ‘Why we’re not Emergent’. It is probably the best critique of the emerging church around at the moment.

The gospel is not about any merit I have on my own, but is based upon Jesus’ merit alone. It is not what we have done for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for us (Rom 5:19, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 2:8). In the covenant rainbow sign with Noah, God says He “remembers” never to flood the world this way again, so likewise in the covenant in Christ’s blood, God “remembers” not to treat us as we justly deserve for our sins. The mystery of God has been made manifest in the Person and work of the Son, who frees the prisoners, gives sight to the blind, breaks loose the chains and changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. We were taken captive to do Satan’s will and could not escape until Christ set us free. In other words, Christ, in His cross work, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He lived the perfect life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died, in order to free us so that we might then proclaim His excellencies, make known his gospel and spread justice and mercy to the poor.

But this is not what many of the the most notable characters in the Emerging church (e.g. McClaren, McManus, Bell) mean when they use the term “gospel”; for Christ, in their view, did not come so much as a Savior, who delivers us from His just wrath, but rather, came to make us “Christ followers”. Jesus came as a moral example of how we might live, treat one another, and form communities. But as has been repeatedly shown throughout the testaments, this is a recipe for failure. In Romans 3:20 the Apostle teaches that the purpose of the law was not so much to show us how to live (although it was that too), but more to reveal our moral inability and hopeless bondage to sin apart from the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Some major voices in the emergent church are saying they want a relationship with Jesus and not doctrines, but we must ask which Jesus do they want to have a relationship with? If words mean anything it appears they want a relationship with a moralistic Jesus of their own imagination. They want to believe that God is pleased with us because of what we do … that He is pleased with us if we join HIm in being active in crusades against social ills such as corporate greed, global warming, racism and poverty. That doing this is what the Gospel is all about. But as good as some of these things might be, God is not pleased with them if they do not come from faith in Jesus Christ as a Savior first, not as a mere example for us to follow. For instance, Jesus revealed His sinlessness and our moral impotence in the face of it. and thus our need for His mercy. But McLaren and many of the other emergent church leaders trumpet their belief that the gospel is more about ethics than the work of Christ on our behalf. They appeal to bettering the world around us as a task that is opposed to and more pressing than seeing our own rebellion and poverty, which prove our need for reconciliation to God through the life, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. This unbiblical bifurcation of orthopraxy and orthodoxy, and foundational preference for the former, is just plain contrary to the Christian gospel.

Ultimately, the emergent “gospel” is not about the grace of Jesus Christ who delivers people from the wrath of God and puts them into the kingdom of light, but rather about becoming a Jesus follower, about walking as Jesus walked and trying to live the life he exemplified. Apart from the fact that, according to Scripture, this is a naturally impossible goal, it misses the whole point for which Jesus came. The gospels showed Jesus setting his face like flint toward Jerusalem for a reason. He did not come primarily to be a moral example for us, but to become a Savior who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The emergent ideology, in other words, is appealing to the fallen will without the merciful act that God has done for us in Jesus. Since we woefully fall short of God’s call to us to live this way, it offers no hope

In his new book, Why We’re Not Emergent, Kevin DeYoung says, “I am convinced that a major problem with the emerging church is that they refuse to have their cake and eat it too. The whole movement seems to be built on reductionistic, even modernistic, either-or categories. They pit information versus transformation, believing versus belonging, and propositions about Christ versus the person of Christ. The emerging church will be a helpful corrective against real, and sometimes perceived, abuses in evangelicalism when they discover the genius of the “and,” and stop forcing us to accept half-truths.”

My fear, and I believe it is well founded, is that Emergent is just a newly cast form of the old Pelagian heresy – behavior modification, or to put it bluntly, moralism. The most tragic “either-or” category they have set up for themselves is this: faith in Christ as a Savior versus following Christ as an example. Many of its leading proponents assert that right living leads to right doctrine, thus reversing the Biblical priority of grace. But ethics are not what make Christianity to differ from other world religions. All world religions offer ethical programs that are remarkably similar to ours. But ethics/morals don’t bring us into relationship with God unless you can perfectly keep them. Then, of course, you don’t need a Savior. What makes Christianity to differ is that it is the only way which acknowledges that its own adherents are rebels and without hope in themselves, that is, apart from the sovereign mercy of their Head, who procured salvation for them. All other religions rely on moral improvement and good works, but Christ has shown us that “there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” (Ecc 7:20) Trusting in Jesus as a moral example alone, trusting in our good works and the social justice we do, simply makes Jesus’ Person and work of no effect, for we are ascribing the power to do those things to ourselves apart from His redeeming us. Thus it would appear that both the emergent and seeker sensitive churches are cut from the same moralistic cloth. If you are a young person considering either of these, remember that seeing Christ as merely an example and seeing church as a place to hear stories about how we are to live, apart from the new birth, is a man-centered and not a Christ-centered message and should be steered clear of as you would a poisonous viper.