Saturday, October 7, 2023

Confused Catholicity

 “All things are lawful to me, but not all things are helpful.” 1 Cor 10:23.

It appears that “catholicity” is replacing the term “ecumenism”—and that for good reason as we shall see below. Meanwhile, the use of “catholicity” represents an interesting non sequetor. That inconsistency pertains to use of the word “catholic” with a small “c” and “Catholic” with a capital “c”. The first use with a small “c” is to be understood to mean “universal.” The use with a capital “c” is understood to refer to the Roman Catholic Church.

The ambiguity and confusion are quite alarming. I recall attending a church that placed the Apostles’ Creed in its bulletin with an asterisk by the word “catholic” to explain that it meant “universal.” It is interesting that a 20thCentury Evangelical church using a Second or Third Century creed, eventually translated from the Latin, keeps one ambiguous transliterated term in its liturgy. Granted, it was probably borrowed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, only removing the “k” from the end of the word, “The Holy Catholick Church.”[1] Meanwhile, modern Evangelicals are taught to remove “borrowed terms” from modern Bible translations.

The policy-making agreement for worldwide Bible translation work, “Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible” (1968), included an important a statement regarding the use of loan words from other languages:

For major languages borrowing should be kept at a strict minimum, for all such languages have a sufficiently large vocabulary or phrasal equivalence to make borrowing relatively unnecessary[2]

“Guiding Principles” were originally drafted by the hand of Eugene Nida in 1964.[3] Whatever malaise was applied to loan words in Bible translation, it curiously does not seem to apply to Creeds. For this reason, the word “catholic” continues to be used in the Apostles Creed to this day, even though it is confusing to those who read it.

For the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostles’ Creed belongs to them, therefore it is uniquely in their purview to interpret it and its terminology. For example, it was his treason against the word “Catholic” in the Apostles Creed that John Huss was sent to the stake in Constance on July 6, 1415. In the meantime, according to the 1208 “Profession of Faith Prescribed to the Waldenses,” the word “Roman” was added to the list of adjectives describing the Catholic Church:

“We believe with our heart and confess with our mouth only one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Church, Catholic, Apostolic, outside of which we believe that no person is saved.”[4]

Notice that the word “Roman” was added to the list of descriptors of the “catholic” church in 1208, Rome thereby clarifying their self-understanding.[5] From these two examples, it is clear that this loan word from Latin, “catholic,” comes a thorny and polemic historical context.

Modern scholars seem to be using the noun “catholicity” as a synonym for “ecumenism” or “cooperation.” The concept of catholicity may be founded on the false notion that there was a consensus of faith in the Early Church. Prior to Constantine there were a multiplicity of approaches to the church and the gospel, which is confirmed by the existence of the seven major autocephalous (having their own head) Orthodox Churches in the modern times. In addition to these verifiable autocephalous churches, numerous other churches can be discerned in histories by their inclusion among the listings as either rival churches or heretical churches.

If there was a consensus of faith within the State-Church movement initiated by Constantine, after he saw a cross in the heavens and heard a voice saying, “Conquer with this,” that consensus came with significant compromises to the gospel. Some of these compromises include:

·      General Atonement and universal salvation—to accommodate every person living within any given state.

·      Sacramentalism politically silencing its rival Evangelical soteriology—Sacramentalism became the approved means of grace, largely due to the ecclesio-doctrinal and political efforts of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine.

·      Although against the teaching of the Pastoral Epistles, church leaders were called priests.

·      Although idolatrous from a biblical point-of-view, state churches did not forbid the veneration of Mary, angels, and saints, and prayer to the same.

·      The Great Commission was revised to champion the use of the sword to conquer lands and people for the benefit of church and empire.

Many more compromises and heresies can be added to this list.[6]

In the mid-19th Century the use of the word “ecumenical” was originally used for interconfessional cooperation among Evangelicals in their missiological endeavors. This was the case as noted in the “New York 1900 Ecumenical Missionary Conference.” The term “ecumenical” transitioned to mainline Protestant use after the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. The Ecumenical Movement transitioned again on August 23, 1948, with the founding of the World Council of Churches. Then on November 21, 1964, 2,156 Roman Catholic bishops assembled at the Second Vatican Council approved the decree “Lumen Gentium” (2,151 for and 5 against). In this most recent emendation, the word “ecumenical” moved from pan-Christian to pan-religious:

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.”[7]

The term ecumenical in missionary conference circles went from describing Evangelical missions. It morphed into a mainstream Protestant use. Then once the Roman Catholic Church entered into the Ecumenical waters, it quickly took on a pluralistic religious overtone. This same pan-religious emphasis was confirmed in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions [other than Judaism and Islam] that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.’”[8]

In a way it is easy to understand why the term “ecumenism” has gone into disuse among 21st Century American Evangelicals. Perhaps that is why some Evangelicals are now looking to use the term “catholicity.”

It may also be helpful to consider noted Evangelicals who “returned” to Catholicism in the last 100 years as a point of caution:

·      In 1922: G.K. Chesterton, Author, Evangelist, and Apologist.

·      In 1985: Tom Howard, brother of David Howard and Elisabeth Elliot.

·      In 2007: Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

The path they trod is well worn. Waldensian Pastor and Evangelist, Durand of Osca took this path from 1204 to 1206. His reconversion into Catholicism led to the writing cited above, the 1208 “Profession of Faith Prescribed to the Waldenses.”

Confusing discipleship is not helpful for the next generation of Christians. Hence another term is needed to reflect the spirit of “catholicity” experienced by some young Evangelicals today. A term should be chosen that does not carry significant ecclesiastical polemic. “Great Commission Partners” is used by some missionaries to delineate other Evangelical mission organizations with similar views of the gospel and whom they can partner. More seem to be using the term “Reformed” to delineate an affirmation with the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Whatever the case, "catholicity" does not appear to be a helpful term.

[1]The Book of Common Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments… (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, n.d.), 23.

[2]“Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible”; from Thomas F. Stransky, C.S.P., and John B. Sheerin, C.S.B., eds. Doing the Truth in Charity: Statements of Pope Paul VI, Popes John Paul I, John Paul II, and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity 1964-1980. (New York: Paulist, 1982), 164.

[3]Nida was the Executive Secretary of Translations of the American Bible Society from 1946 until 1980. A position from which he was able to make personnel and funding decisions for worldwide Bible translation for 35 years. These 35 years were marked by important transitions in original language textual work and worldwide Bible translation—a transition that Nida superintended from his position. “Guiding Principles” were eventually reworked and jointly published by the Roman Catholic Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and the United Bible Society Executive Committee on Pentecost, June 2, 1968. A revised edition of this strategic plan was renamed to “Guidelines,” approved by the President of the Society for Promoting Christian Unity and the Honorary President of the United Bible Societies in 1987. It is currently housed on the Vatican website.

[4]Heinrich Denzinger, Peter Hünermann (ed., original edition), and Joseph Hoffmann (ed., French edition), Symboles et définitions de la foi catholique: Enchiridion Symbolorum (aka. Denzinger, or DS), 38th ed. (37th ed., Freiburg: Herder, 1997; Paris: Cerf, 2005), §792; translation mine.

[5]Jean Gonnet and Amedeo Molnar, Les Vaudois au Moyen Age (Torino, Italy: Claudiana, 1974), 5.

[6]“A Century by Century Quickview of Developments in Western Christianity,” Chart 6 in “Timelines for Western Christianity: Chronological Theology”; available following a link at: (Online); accessed 6 Oct 2023; Internet.

[7]“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium” (21 Nov 1964) §16; available at:; accessed 19 April 2007.

[8]Catechism of the Catholic Church [London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994], §843.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Addressing the Designation Manichean

“What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 

Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, 
and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” 1 Cor 10:19-20.

Mark Noll made an interesting parenthetical comment in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His comment described the Manichean tendencies of contemporary Evangelicals.

To make room for Christian thought, evangelicals must also abandon the false disjunctions that their distinctives have historically encouraged. The cultivation of the mind for Christian reasons does not deny the appropriateness of activism, for example, but it does require activism to make room for study. Similarly, it is conversionism along with a consideration of lifelong spiritual development and trust in the Bible along with a critical use of wisdom from other sources (especially from the world that God made) that will lead to a better day. Modifying the evangelical tendency to Manichaeism may cost some of the single-minded enthusiasm of activism, but it will be worth it in order to be able to worship God with the mind.[1]

This admission from a lifelong historian is monumental. Noll here admits that a focus on the Great Commission and evangelism (“conversionism”) betrays a dualistic view of the world. In other words, conversionists do not believe that the “matter” or “substance” of this present world is eternal. On the other hand, these same Evangelicals do believe that the soul is eternal. When an Evangelical is saved, it is not his body that is saved, but rather his soul. Hence the term “soul winning.” The material world is fleeting, the spiritual world is eternal. In their most basic belief in being “born again,” Evangelicals betray their Manichean tendencies.

Others, such as Roman Catholics on the other hand, are monistic not dualistic. They adhere to the Creed of Chalcedon wherein spirituality is based in the person of Christ. Christ’s essence was not merely Docetic (appearing as human), but he was truly human. The consecrated bread of the Eucharist is true matter and true Spirit. Christ is truly present in the person of the Bishop of Rome, the true Vicar of Christ. The world is something to be cared for, and not merely a temporary place soon to be destroyed by fire.

What a massive difference!

Back to Manicheanism. Augustine of Hippo exaggerated the Manicheanism of the Donatists. In his unrelenting polemic mind, Manicheanism was a reductio ad absurdum of salvation by faith alone and through grace alone. Salvation to Augustine was much more than a mere spiritual phenomenon where a person is “born again” just by hearing the words of the gospel. No, the material world also has its place. The water on the head of the baptismal font representing the new birth. The bread on the tongue of the Host in the Eucharist representing true spiritual nourishment. True grace is only communicated when a physical species is accompanied with the spiritual presence. Separating the use of matter from their corresponding spiritual benefits was to Augustine denying that Christ came in the flesh. It was dualism. It was Manicheanism. It was heresy plain and simple.

Christ was true God and true man. He came in the flesh. And, according to the learned Augustine, no one comes to the Father but through the Christological means provided by Christ to His Church: the Sacraments, which all share Christologically true matter and true Spirit.

Evangelicals on the other hand, not only deny the need for material things in the salvation process, they also turn their backs on the One True Church instituted by Christ. All in the name of their Manichean tendencies. Evangelicals believe that matter is temporal and that the spirit is eternal. They agree with Paul that there is a dualism involved in both the worship of demons, as well as in the worship of God.

In 1 Corinthians 1:19, Paul responded to meat sacrificed to idols with clear materialism. “An idol is nothing” and the meat sacrificed to idols is also “nothing”—they are “nothing” spiritually. Rather, it is the dualistically differentiated demons behind the idols that are the problem. In 1 Corinthians 1:20, the items sacrificed to these material shapes of wood, stone, metal, or bone, are not actually being sacrificed to those material shapes. Rather the worship bestowed on these material shapes of stone, metal, wood, or bone are being given to the demons masquerading behind the material representations.

Idolatry happens in a dualistic world. Yes, there is an outward form, but it is truly nothing. Why? “The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains” (Psalm 24:1). On the other hand, there are demonic forces at work stealing the fear of God and the glory due to God alone. The worship of the idol forms plays into the hands of demons that are behind them.

Paul teaches a dualism in 1 Corinthians 10, while at the same time condemning idolatry. He teaches that there exists a separate spiritual realm, freeing Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols. If they want to eat meat sacrificed to idols they are free to do so, notwithstanding the conscience of another. They are free to eat what is available to them if that is what they want to eat—not for the demon’s sake, but for their enjoyment of all things created by God, for which they give thanks to God (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

Freed from a slavery to a monistic view of matter and spirit, the Christian is a steward of this material world.

Meanwhile, Christ left a mission for His followers to fulfill. It is the Great Commission. This mission keeps His followers focusing not on the things of this life, but on those of the life to come. We are to go into all the world to preach the gospel to all creation. We are to snatch lost souls from the clutches of sin in this world, so that they can be born from above.

When they are saved their body may remain the same in its outward form, but their inner man is transformed into the likeness of Christ. And it all happens solely through the preaching of the gospel message. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17.

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, 
we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, 
eternal in the heavens.” 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[1]Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 245.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Double Assurance of Salvation in 1 John 5:13

“He will give him grace for his sin, & will restore his conscience, instead of his being as in danger of losing the gift of faith.”

Original: « Il lui fera grâce de son péché, & le restaurera en sa conscience, au lieu qu’il soit comme en danger de perdre le don de la foi. »

Such was John Calvin’s marginal notation on the last phrase of 1 John 5:13 in the 1588 French Geneva Bible that bears his name. So potent was the last phrase of verse 13 in Calvin’s mind, that it led him to teach assurance of salvation. In the case of the believer who sins, said Calvin, based on 1 John 5:13, he will receive grace to cover his sin, as well as a restoration a clean conscience between him and God.

I personally had never seen the last phrase in 1 John 5:13 until several years ago, perhaps in 2014. I was sharing the gospel door-to-door using a New King James Bible and incidentally read 1 John 5:13 to the evangelism contact. The end of the verse sounded incorrect. I had memorized it differently from my youth—using the New American Standard Bible.

Here are the two versions compared:

NASB: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

NKJV: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”

The phrase in question is this, “and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” So assured were the translators of the NASB that the last phrase was not in the original manuscript that they did not even include it in the footnote. On the other hand, the translators of the NKJV were so convinced of its authenticity, that they did include this in the text of 1 John 5:13.

Let’s briefly consider the textual history of this phrase.

It continues to exist in the Greek Orthodox 1904 “Patriarchal Text” as follows:

Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν τοῖς πιστεύουσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἵνα εἰδῆτε ὅτι ζωὴν αἰώνιον ἔχετε, καὶ ἵνα πιστεύητε εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ Θεοῦ.

The reader may consider the 10 words following the last comma in this verse. They are equivalent to the missing or omitted phrase in 1 John 5:13. In addition, this phrase is also found in the the following Greek New Testaments: Erasmus (1516), Codex Bezae (1562), Elzevir Brothers (1624, 1633, 1641), Hodges-Farstad (1982), Robinson-Pierpoint Byzantine Textform (2005), the Pickering’s New Testament according to Family 35 (2014), which history is often titled, “Majority Text”—in other words, the majority of the New Testament manuscripts in existence. In addition, the Greek Orthodox reading of the “Patriarchal Text” is followed by the Russian Orthodox, etc.

How is it that we English-speaking Evangelicals in the 21st Century currently follow the “Minority Texts,” “Critical Edition Text,” or “Eclectic Text”? That is a discussion for another article. In short, in this author’s estimation, it involves subscribing to false premises combined with unequally applied principles.

There were two textual traditions in the 16th Century—that is, in the century of the Protestant Reformation. There was the Protestant tradition and the Catholic tradition on this verse.

An authoritative example of the Catholic tradition, is the 1592 Clementine Vulgate. It reads as follows:

« Hæc scribo vobis ut sciatis quoniam vitam habetis æternam, qui creditis in nomine Filii Dei. »

As the reader might ascertain, the last phrase is not found in this verse. Hence, during the 16th Century, a standard Catholic Latin Vulgate did not include the last phrase, "and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God."

By clear contradistinction, all the Protestant Bibles of that era, being translated from the Majority Greek text, did include that phrase. For example, here are five French Swiss Protestant versions that span the 16thCentury (close to original French spelling).

The last phrase of 1 John 5:13 is found translated in all five of these versions. Three important 16th Century Protestant versions also include the last phrase of 1 John 5:13.

It is very interesting to note what has taken place in the 500 years since the Protestant Reformers gave us the New Testament translated from the Greek. A great reversal has taken place. Some of the Greek readings in the New Testament, that were not found in the Latin Vulgate versions of the 16th Century, have now disappeared from the “Critical Edition Text” of the Greek New Testament, as curated by the German Bible Society.

The last phrase in 1 John 5:13 is an example. While it was found in all the 16th Century Protestant Bibles. It is no longer found in most of the Bibles of their contemporary doctrinal descendants.

The science of textual criticism developed alongside of the sciences of higher criticism in the 19th Century secularizing German universities. While more subtle, textual criticism undermined the verbal inerrancy of Scripture since the exact words of Scripture were in question. Only with an infinite progression of study of every possible manuscript of the Greek New Testament (along with other ancient languages), could one determine with a certain level of certainty which words were actually in the original manuscripts.

An unending quest for manuscripts was triggered. The constantly elusive “original reading” ever more in question. A shift took place from understanding the text to determining what is a part of the true text. And even with this enormous textual wound, Evangelicalism is prospering in the United States. While Evangelicalism may have a more difficult times in other parts of the world, it does not seem to have adversely impacted United States Evangelicalism.

Back to 1 John 5:13: Is our faith in Jesus Christ indeed certified by God Himself? Yes it is. Philippians 1:6 (NKJV) reads, 

“Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” 

The certificate of our assurance then moves to the question, did God begin a good work in me? There are some “who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). First John 5:13 helps us differentiate momentary self-gratifying faith of the shallow soil from the true faith of the good soil, who “keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15).

If we truly believe in the name of the Son of God, says the elder Apostle John, we can be assured of two things: (1) that we now have eternal life, and (2) that we will continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. Therefore, God gives both (1) assurance of initial salvation and (2) assurance of a sustaining salvation. God is the source of saving faith in the first place, and He is also the source of sustaining faith.

As Calvin taught in his marginal notation on 1 John 5:13 of the 1588 French Geneva Bible: while sin may assail the true believer, God will give him forgiveness and grace in sin, restoring to him a clear conscience. The believer’s faith is secure in God. He is not in danger of losing his faith.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Friendship Evangelism Reconsidered

Every semester, I ask my students to look over and analyze elements of a worksheet that discusses the 55 Personal Evangelism Conversations in the New Testament. Students are asked to 

“Draw out conclusions from the level of preexisting relationship in these personal evangelism conversations?”

The following numbers provide the totals regarding the previous relationship prior to these spiritual conversations:

  • In 39 conversations there was no previous acquaintance
  • In 5 conversation there was a clear previous acquaintance
  • In 9 conversations a previous acquaintance is unclear.

As my students evaluated these numbers and looked at particular conversations listed on the seven pages of notes, here are twenty amazing quotes taken from their analyses:

  1. It is God who does the work of saving people, since He is the One to Whom salvation belongs (Psalm 3:8).
  2. God desires to use people in evangelism in situations that are ostensibly unlikely to produce fruit. He uses what seems impossible to accomplish His purposes so that He may receive the glory.
  3. The Holy Spirit can use anyone at any time to reach a lost soul.
  4. The success rate in conversations showed that those with existing relationships led to a less successful result, and they occurred much less often.
  5. The boldness of those sharing in the NT is encouraging as they truly had good news to impart to all who would listen and did not need a reason for sharing the gospel with others. The gospel is the reason for starting conversations or sharing the message.
  6. This ultimately means that Christians must be ready to share the good news of Christ wherever they are and whomever they are around.
  7. The gospel can be shared in situations where there are no preexisting relationships.
  8. A pre-existing relationship can be helpful in personal evangelistic conversations, but it is by no means necessary.
  9. While evangelism can and does take place inside of existing relationships, that should not be considered to be the only way, or even the normative way that evangelism takes place.
  10. In other words, the evangelist was engage in cold call evangelism. This means that as one enters cold contact evangelism situations, one need not fear because this is actually the norm in the Gospels and the Acts.
  11. With the clear, pre-existing relationship encounters being such a small percentage at less than 10, this may warrant considering how one can prioritize cold-contact evangelism as much or even more than deep, relational evangelism. Pre-existing relationships are certainly useful, but not necessary in evangelism.
  12. We are called to go into new areas with the gospel message. We must take the initiative to go into places that are new and therefore have no relationships.
  13. It would be a grievous sin of omission for believers to only share the Gospel with those with whom that have a personal relationship.
  14. Christians should be ready to share the gospel at all times.
  15. Based on this observation, a conversation can be started at any moment, from any conversation.
  16. With a stranger, people have the blessing of a clean slate as it pertains to their relationship. So, Christians ought to seize every opportunity that they have in order to share the love of God made manifest in Christ.
  17. Sometimes, a contact feels for comfortable opening-up to someone they don’t have a prior relationship within personal evangelism.
  18. It is also much easier for an evangelist to share with someone they have no relationship with.
  19. Preexisting relationships have little importance to the effectiveness of evangelism.
  20. I need to be more open to having random conversations. And when I have those conversations, I should go into it with a positive attitude as I understand that God can save in the craziest, most random, and unlikely conversations.

Thank you, students. Because in the mystery of God’s sovereign will, through evangelizing, He calls out His elect and not necessarily just our friends.

The Bible is supra-cultural. It always trumps culture and informs culture. Culture must bend the knee to God’s Written Constitution for all of humanity. Biblical teaching and practice rules in every area, including also in personal evangelism.


Monday, May 17, 2021

Doctrinal Downgrade of the Social Justice Movement

Two images are important to keep in mind: a seesaw and a fully raised loaf of bread. A teeter-totter illustrates that when a child one side of the fulcrum rises, then necessarily the child on the other side drops. In the case of doctrine, additions made to one doctrinal element, occasion coequal excision in another area. Scripture involves a closed system. It strictly warns against adding or subtracting (Revelation 22:18-19).

The second image is that of the loaf of bread. When yeast is added to dough and fully kneaded into the lump, the resulting bread rises with consistent uniformity. Even so, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). Doctrinal aberrations do not lay dormant or self-contained. They bourgeon to displace all areas of doctrine. Such is also the case with the Social Justice Movement (SJM), as shall be considered in this brief article.

Solomon reminded his readers “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The spirit of Social Justice has been around a very long time. We begin with key doctrinal commitments central to the current debate, then we will move to congruent voices from the past.

On May 30, 2020, three authors published an article on The Gospel Coalition website to help pastors navigate issues in social justice. They are Jamaal Williams, Timothy Paul Jones, and Jarvis Williams. Their article was titled, “The Gospel and the Pursuit of Justice in Your City” (TGC). In its use of SJM specific terminology, this article identifies key doctrinal elements of the SJM.

Four of the SJM key concerns reveal the doctrinal downgrade demonstrated in this movement, the redefinition of (1) Sin, (2) the Atonement, (3) the Church, and (4) finally Mission.

Present Issues

First, SJM focuses on man-to-man, horizontal, or racial sin. Williams, Jones, and Williams addressed “societal injustice” as a heart issue to be addressed and alleviated in the SJM.

“With the gospel and God’s Word as our foundation, in the power of the Spirit, we can give our brothers and sisters in Christ the necessary spiritual resources and skills to advance God’s kingdom in a society marred by sin and to push back the darkness of the societal injustices all around us.” (TGC).

In the Bible, however, sin’s overwhelming concern lies with its primary victim, God. Sin is not primarily horizontal (man versus man), but it is overwhelmingly vertical (man versus God). So much so that King David wrote, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4).

Astonishingly, King David wrote these lines after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and killed her husband Uriah. Uriah carried the battle plans by which David conspired to kill Uriah. David colluded with his general Joab for Uriah to be struck down by the sword of the Ammonites. David carried this guilt until after Bathsheba bore him their conceived son. It took Nathan the prophet to confront David on his sin. As to the horizontal results of sin against God, Nathan foretold of King David’s household that “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Samuel 12:10).

How could David have prayed and written—under Holy Spirit inspiration—“Against You, You only. have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight”?

The vertical dimension of sin is so great, as noted in this Psalm, that it eclipses all horizontal dimensions to sin. Sin as open rebellion against God and His Law is so great, that the man-to-man dimensions of sin—overt and real as they are—have no stake in the matter.

Second, SJM redefines sin as the reconciliation of man to man. Because of its overwhelming focus is horizontal sin, SJM seeks out Bible passages that imply a man-to-man reconciliation as central to the atonement:

“This gospel also explains that Jesus died to reconcile sinners to God and to each other into one new humanity.”

Herein the SJM realigns the atonement as societal reconciliation into a “new humanity.” This salient quote brings up two multiform doctrinal elements: (1) What is meant by reconciling sinners “to each other”? And (2) What is meant by a “new humanity”? Do the reconciled sinners represent repentant believers, or do they represent an entirely reconciled society (in a utopian sense)? Does the “new humanity” refer to God’s blood-bought people in the true church, or is this a newly Christianized society living in obedience to Christ’s moral teachings?

Third, as inferred above, the SJM reinterprets commands given to Christ followers, and applies them to all members of society. This shift downgrades true church membership and raises up everyone in a given society to become a type of pseudo-church or a “kingdom of God” on earth. In addition, this system presupposes a universalism or universal salvation in which all of humanity has the ability to follow the moral teachings of Jesus.

Fourth, the SJM redirects the focus of the Great Commission. Williams, Jones, and Williams explained the church’s mission as including the restoration of creation.

“This gospel tells us that God through Christ’s death and resurrection promises to restore creation.”

The restoration of creation or the creation of a Christianized culture has long been a favorite chorus among socially minded Christians. Chuck Colson exemplified this same approach when he redefined the church’s primary job as being “creating culture.”

“Salvation does not consist simply of freedom from sin; salvation also means being restored to the task we were given in the beginning—the job of creating culture.” (How Now Shall We Live? [1999] 295-296).

Interestingly for Colson, he explained that the “job of creating culture” was not to be found on the pages of the New Testament. Colson went back to Genesis 1 and found his mandate in God’s blessing to Adam and Eve.

“When we turn to the New Testament, admittedly we do not find verses specifically commanding believers to be engaged in politics or the law or education or the arts. But we don’t need to, because the cultural mandate given to Adam still applies.” (ibid., 296).

Colson admitted that cultural reconstruction was not found in the New Testament (quite a concession). Looking beyond Christ’s Great Commission passages or any other New Testament teaching, Colson located his cultural mandate a priori  in the first creation narrative.

Contemporaneous culturally oriented Christians redefine four important doctrines: sin, the atonement, the Church, and the mission given to the Church. Their voices echo hundreds of theologians and practitioners from the past.

Voices from the Past

For example, between 1907 and 1917 there came a major SJM wave across American Christendom. Two epicenters of this movement were the University of Chicago and Rochester Theological Seminary—both Baptist schools. Walter Rauschenbusch, longtime professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, described sin in this manner.

“Sin is not a private transaction between the sinner and God. Humanity always crowds the audience-room when God holds court. We must democratize the conception of God; then the definition of sin will become more realistic. … We rarely sin against God alone.” (Theology for the Social Gospel [1917], 60).

“Every personal act, however isolated it may seem, is connected with racial sin.” (ibid., 246).

Rauschenbusch’s predisposition to focus on the social mandates of Christianity led him to focus on sin as a man-to-man infraction. He ended by redefining all sin as racism. 

When one’s definition of sin is changed—in like manner the purpose for the cross changes. It is no surprise that for Rauschenbusch the death of Christ was not at all substitutionary. Rather, Christ’s death exemplified that “we owe God the complete best in us”—just as did Jesus:

“In living his life and dying his death as he did, Jesus lived out, confirmed, and achieved his own personality. He did it for himself, as well as for God and humanity. There was no ‘merit’ in the medieval sense in it; nothing superfluous which he could hand over and credit to others to make up their defects. Just as we owe God the complete best that is in us, so Jesus too owed life and death to God.” (ibid., 260).

“These traditional theological explanations of the death of Christ have less biblical authority than we are accustomed to suppose. The fundamental terms and ideas—'satisfaction,’ ‘substitution,’ ‘imputation,’ ‘merit’—are post-biblical ideas, and are alien from the spirit of the gospel.” (ibid., 243).

Rauschenbusch was forced by consistency to change his approach to the atonement, even as he had redefined all sin as racism. For Rauschenbusch, Jesus’ life and death on the cross resulted in a “new humanity”—now following the example of Jesus:

“Therewith humanity began to be lifted to a new level of spiritual existence. To God, who sees the end enfolded in the beginning, this initiation of a new humanity was the guarantee of its potential perfection.” (ibid., 265).

Likewise, SJM terminology redirects our gaze to this utopian “new humanity.” It conflates the God’s redeemed people and unbelieving society, treating them with one brush stroke.

Shailer Mathews was Dean of the University of Chicago from 1908 to 1933. In his, The Social Gospel, explained the reason for his book.

“My purpose has been rather to set forth the social teachings of Jesus and his apostles as well as the social implications of the spiritual life. … The gospel, in its bearings upon the salvation of society, is something more than a new Decalogue.” (The Social Gospel [1910], 5).

In advancing “the salvation of society,” Mathews masterfully fused obedience to His social mandates with obedience to Jesus, thereby silencing any potential critics.

“Snap judgments and extemporaneously developed theories are less to be desired than convictions reached after the student has reasonably mastered the evidence in the case. But amid all differences of opinion, it should be borne in mind that among genuine Christians there can be no difference as to the fundamental conviction that the principles of Jesus must be put into our social life or they will be forever inoperative. No man should call him Lord who does not do the things which he commands.” (ibid., 6).

So, Mathews leveraged the moral teachings of Jesus (e.g. the “Sermon on the Mount”) and applied them the same to all of society. In doing so, he ignored the revealed audience of the Sermon on the Mount (Christ’s disciples, Matthew 5:1-2), the evangelistic purpose of the sermon (Matthew 5:20), and its chronological position as pre-resurrection teaching of Christ.

Adolf Harnack and Wilhelm Hermann went even farther, calling their hearers to “self-sacrifice and energy.” Harnack and Hermann affirmed the need for alleviating “the want and misery of our fellow countrymen … urging us to study and investigate the construction of social organism, to examine which ills are inevitable, and which may be remedied by a spirit of self-sacrifice and energy.” (Essays on the Social Gospel [1907], 88). 

For Harnack and Hermann, the urgent need was not sinful rebellion against God, but human “want in misery.” Their remedy was Christian “self-sacrifice and energy” to alleviate these urgent social needs. Sin was redefined; the remedy for sin was redefined.

In his volume, Social Evangelism (1915), Harry F. Ward likewise redefined the task of evangelism, the focus of repentance, and Christian discipleship.

“The call to repentance opens the gospel of the Kingdom and the first social task of evangelism is to show men their social sins that they may turn from them and develop a social conscience.” (Social Evangelism, 95). 

Ward’s indeterminate approach to the Kingdom of God redirected his evangelism mandate to helping people “develop a social conscience.”

These voices from the past do not differ markedly from contemporaneous voices calling churches to social repentance, racial reconciliation, and a new focus on social justice. A little leaven leavens the entire lump. It sounds good on the surface, but as Colson said, it lacks New Testament support. 

When sin is no longer defined as overt acts of rebellion against the Law of God, something has changed. One end of the teeter-totter begins to drop. Meanwhile the horizontal elements of sin begin to rise. The modern SJM not only redefines sin, but they reshape the atonement, evangelism, salvation, the nature of the Church, and Christian discipleship. The SJM changes every major doctrine of the Christian Church.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Unmasking Dialectical Evangelism

In seminary and for the several years of my post-seminary career, I considered Dialectical Evangelism the only type of evangelism available:

  • The message comes from the Bible—often something like the Roman Road, the Four Laws, or Bridge to Life
  • The method comes from culture—whatever the practitioner decides is best in his or her cultural situation

The result of this synthesis of ideas was a dialectic somewhat as follows:

The reader may want to consider that, by definition, dialectics seeks to “resolve the conflict of two contradictory ideas.” Often verbs used to describe this amalgamation of differing or opposing concepts are conflate, integrate, and synthesize.

In the above scenario, the methods of evangelism are only as solid or fanciful as the practitioner. For this reason, methodologies are posited from many different directions. We studied Relationship Evangelism, Lifestyle Evangelism, Apologetic Evangelism, Discipleship Evangelism, and Servant Evangelism. Most recently added to this always growing list is Social Justice Evangelism.*

In addition, many of these practitioners disagreed with one another. There reasons for preferring their approach were usually immersed in pragmatism. “Use my method because it really works!”

Some practitioners even experiment with advocating multiple approaches. They identify diverse types of evangelism with differing characters in the Bible. Hence, these innovators posit that persons should practice evangelism only as they feel comfortable. “It is better,” they say, “to have people try something in evangelism than to do nothing.” A noble goal indeed!

All along, the same presupposition prevails. The Bible does not instruct in methodology of evangelism. Rather, Christ in His Word depicts multiform methodologies according to the presuppositions of practitioners and/or the comfort-level of the doers.

When I discovered the verb “evangelize” three times in my French Louis Segond Revisée Genève (1979), I became confused. Why had I not learned that this verb existed in the Bible? Soon the veil of cultural-conformity was removed from the practice of evangelism. Was there really a biblical verb that helped describe true biblical evangelism? Yes, it was the verb “evangelize” (εὐαγγελίζω).

Through further study, I found that this same Greek verb (behind the three French translations) was actually used 55 times in the New Testament. My curiosity was piqued. Perhaps the Bible did have something definitive to say about ever-conflicting views of evangelism methodology.

The shifting sands of Dialectic Evangelism, as taught by the sirens of culture, were excavated and substituted with the bedrock of teachings and examples from the Bible. Divine propositions replaced human intuition and insight. The removal of the dialectical element returns control of the proclamation of the gospel to Jesus Christ:

No matter how eloquent, cogent, or godly the practitioner, human frailties cannot help but muddy the waters of Great Commission activity. It is dangerous to expose the accomplishment of the Great Commission to the volatilities of human intuition. No matter how godly the practitioner, there is always the risk of shift or drift. 

Therefore, no matter how appealing, we must avoid Dialectic Evangelism whenever we recognize it. Only the biblical methodology of gospelizing perfectly synthesizes with the biblical message of the gospel.

Whatever the means, dialectic, synthesis, or integration, it is important to avoid diluting Scripture through misplaced practice.

For this reason, I am very grateful that some Evangelical Statements of Faith affirm that the Bible is inerrant in matters of both “Faith and Practice.” God makes no mistakes in communicating His gospel message. Nor does He lack in providing necessary training in how to propagate that message.

In these past ten years it has been my experience to see an increase in the practice of biblical evangelism—even as it has been under attack. Practitioners of biblical evangelism must keep pressing on. Follow the divine examples and teachings of Jesus and the apostles. There is no need to synthesize a dialectic with worldly ways.

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*Biblical alternatives to more human approaches to evangelism may be termed: Expectant Evangelism, Initiative Evangelism, Biblical Evangelism, New Testament Evangelism, Direct Evangelism, Active Evangelism, Street Evangelism, Door-to-Door Evangelism, Street Preaching, Open-Air Preaching, Searching for Houses of Peace, Winning Disciples, Disciple-Making, and Soul-Winning.