Archive for the ‘Doctrine of Salvation’ Category

The Problem with Christus Victor

April 10, 2009

This Resurrection Sunday I will be preaching on Luke’s account of the resurrection (Luke 24:1-53).  In my study of this passage I have noticed that the most prominent theme that emerges is the necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This event was foretold by the Scriptures and by Jesus himself.  This was God’s plan.  This was the way it had to be.  It could not have happened any other way.

The necessity of Jesus’ death and resurrection is set in contrast to the preconceived notions (and consequent faulty expectations) of the women, of the eleven, and of the rest of the disciples (including the two on the road to Emmaus).  All of these groups expected Jesus to stay dead.  The women carried spices to the tomb, expecting to find a dead body and finish the task of proper burial.  The eleven (and the others with them) heard the report from the women and thought they were just being hysterical.  Even Peter, having seen the empty tomb for himself, did not come to a full understanding of what had happened.  And the two on the road to Emmaus revealed their unbelief when talking to the stranger about Jesus of Nazareth, saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The implication is that, of course, now that he has been crucified, that hope is gone.

God planned it this way from eternity.  The Scriptures foretold it.  Jesus himself predicted it.  How could those who followed Jesus be so dull?  How could the truth have gone completely over their heads?  They missed the truth because their presuppositions were faulty.  They expected a conqueror who would overthrow the Romans.  What they got was a suffering servant, a sacrifice for their own sins.  They conceived of redemption in nationalistic categories, categories that cast Israel in the role of victim in need of liberation from the oppressor.  But the more fundamental truth about their need is that they were sinners alienated from God and under the threat of his coming judgment.  They expected a Christus Victor, but what they got was true atonement.  And they weren’t ready for that. 

Christus Victor is a biblical theme.  I cannot deny that, nor do I want to deny it.  Jesus Christ has defeated the devil and his forces by means of his death resurrection.  He has disarmed the strong man and liberated his people.  But he has done so precisely by putting away their sins.  And if Christus Victor depends on the putting away of sins, then it cannot itself be the means by which sins are put away.  Sins are wiped away by means of a blood sacrifice that pays the penalty for sin.  God’s righteous decree demands death for sin, and by sentencing his innocent Son to death, God’s justice has been upheld even as he acquits those who deserve death. 

The gospel addresses us primarily as sinners, not as victims.  The women and the disciples had that reversed, and they missed the truth as a result.  They conceived of redemption primarily as the change of a social/political situation.  They minimized their own need for forgiveness and thus had no categories for a suffering messiah. 

My concern is that leftist evangelicals are doing the same thing today.  Their primary concerns do not relate to the problem that God stands against us in his wrath.  They tend to see our deepest problem as a social/political problem in which evil has invaded God’s good creation, and God is the primary protagonist standing on our side to fight the battle and overcome it.  Redemption is viewed primarily as the liberation of victims.  It is no surprise that Christus Victor is the atonement theory of choice, generally speaking, for this side of the spectrum.  But this is a truncated gospel because it does not address the fundamental problem: we have offended God and now stand under his wrath.  We need more than a liberator.  We need a sacrifice, a mediator, a substitute, a ransom.  If it is not tethered to a robust doctrine of penal substitution, Christus Victor is just another variation of the faulty presupposition that made Jesus’ followers unable to see the truth about Easter.

If we do not see ourselves primarily as sinners in need of forgiveness, we will not grasp the gospel.  If we do not relinquish the desire to justify ourselves, we will never receive the divine verdict of justification.  May God give us all a deeper sense of our sin and a deeper love for the gospel this Sunday.


Re-run: Justification and Daily Life

April 8, 2009

I have decided that, in order to keep things moving here, I will occasionally post a re-run of a previous post that I think is worth reading again.  This one was originally posted in May of 2006. 

“Justification by faith” is a phrase, derived largely from the Apostle Paul, that has played an enormous role in church history. It has formed the center of debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. Its importance to one’s understanding of the gospel is massive.

Growing up at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas, I formed a basic understanding of justification, although I don’t recall ever hearing the word “justification” used all that much. I understood it to mean, simply, “being made right with God.” Of course, that is a correct understanding, but there is so much more depth to the term. My pastor correctly taught that we are made right with God by faith alone, and not by our own efforts. We are righteous before God because of the cross, not because we can in any way merit righteousness.

All that made sense to me, as far as matters of salvation and eternity were concerned. But not until recent years did I begin to understand how justification impacts not only our vision of eternity, but also our day-to-day lives. If you think about it, our lives are dominated by the question of justification. This is because human life is always lived before others. We constantly strive to justify ourselves–our existence and our accomplishments–in the eyes of men. Oswald Bayer puts it this way:

Our whole life histories are placed before a permanent tribunal in which we act as accused, prosecutor, and judge. Throughout our lives we continually seek to find excuses for the fact that we live as we do, that we are existent rather than nonexistent, and that we are as we are and not something different.

This is the search for justification. We want other people to like us. The politician’s television advertisements are aimed at justifying him before voters. The teenager who dresses like all of her friends longs for their approval, for justification before the court of her peers. The entertainer craves the attention and approval of the masses, which fills his life with meaning and justifies his existence. The man returning to his hometown for the 10-year high school reunion can’t wait to show all of his friends how well he is doing; he longs for justification of himself, his life, and the paths he has chosen.

Everyday of our lives, we are asked to account for the fact that we exist and that we are who we are. Everyday of our lives, we comply and struggle for endless justifications. As social beings, we live in the company of others and constantly desire their approval.

There is something healthy in this. The fact that it often makes us strive to do better, even to be better, keeps society functioning. Virtually every motivational speaker I heard growing up in the Texas public school system had the same message: you have potential; work hard and achieve success. Certainly, that is a good and necessary message. But it is not the whole truth.

What happens when we fail? What if we work hard, but circumstances beyond our control nullify our hard work and leave our potential for success in shambles? Or what if we work hard and stumble at one point, at just the point that destroys it all? In my calling, that of the ministry, one moral lapse may compromise everything. On the other hand, what if obedience to God requires that we relinquish justification before others? If Scripture is any guide (and it is!), then this is sure to happen frequently. The world stands in antithesis to the holy will of God. Therefore, to do God’s will often puts us at odds with the expectations of the world and merits the world’s disapproval. Many Christians have been condemned before courts (both literally and metaphorically speaking) because they stood for the truth of the gospel. They relinquished justification before others and sought only to please God.

And then, of course, there is the raw truth that as fallen people, we may simply make a mess of things. I believe Jesus’ interaction with the self-righteous Pharisees often pressed home the truth that in order to find life, joy, peace, and abundance, we must first bump up against the hard fact that we are all royally messed up. Read Luke 7:36-50 and see if there can be any other explanation.

What happens when, in our endless search for justifications, we fail to justify ourselves before others for any of the above reasons? This is where the motivational speakers can’t help us. Everything they tell us about success, about happiness, about making this life count, hangs on our achievements. If our achievements do not materialize, the success gurus leave us with nothing. But justification by faith holds us up in a sea of despair.

The doctrine of justification by faith is, essentially, this: we are declared righteous before God because of something that has happened completely outside of us. Jesus Christ the righteous died in the place of the guilty and was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. Faith connects us to him. Because he is righteous before God, we are counted righteous in him and for his sake alone, even though we are not, in ourselves, righteous. We are sinful rebels against God who stand forgiven and accepted into his family because God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours and wipes away our sin in his cross. Nothing we do affects this reality. It is completely outside of us, outside our accomplishments and failures, outside all of our efforts to justify ourselves in the endless ways that we do. If God justifies us for Christ’s sake alone, then nothing we do or fail to do can impact this, the ultimate justification.

Who decides what really “counts” in this universe? God does. This is his universe. And God has declared that all who are in Christ “count”. He has justified all who receive righteousness by faith. Paul speaks of it as the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How can a righteous Judge justify the ungodly, acquit the guilty? Only through the cross of Christ, for it is in the cross that God condemned sin while still receiving sinners. Only through the substitutionary death of Christ do we stand justified before God.

I constantly evaluate myself on a number of levels: am I a good husband, a good father, a good student, a good pastor? I certainly hope that I am, by the grace of God. But what happens if I stumble at any of these points (and I have stumbled at all of them, though some more than others)? What happens if my struggling church eventually goes under, and I am left wondering if I have failed as a leader? Do I consider my call invalidated and my life’s work wasted? Or do I rest in the justifying verdict that has already been pronounced over me in the court of Heaven? God has already given me value for the sake of Christ alone. Therefore, whether I have all the world or none of it, I have more wealth than all the success gurus could ever promise. I have been justified–justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone–and nothing will ever change that. My success story was written in blood 2,000 years ago on a hill called Golgotha and chiseled on the stone rolled back from an empty tomb. And though I may seem a fool by standards of worldly success, I will glorify the God who magnifies his grace by passing over human distinctions and imputing the righteousness of his Son to ungodly fools like me:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

The Righteousness of God and the Cross

October 4, 2008

The following is a sermon I preached on Romans 3:21-26 on Sunday, September 28th, 2008.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire once said, “If there is a God, he is the devil.” He said this in regard to the massive evil, suffering, and injustice that prevails all around us. In a world where the strong oppress the weak, where the poor have little or no recourse to pursue justice, where the innocent suffer because of the sins of others, how can we claim that there is an almighty, righteous God ruling over it all?

Dennis Prager recently gave a good answer to this question on his radio show. I love listening to talk radio, and I happened to hear Prager the other night talking about our current economic woes. He was talking about the fact that these corporate executives who have run their companies into the ground by making reckless decisions are making off with what are known as “golden parachutes,” severance packages of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And all of this happens while investors, who have played by the rules, are taking big losses, and honest employees are losing their jobs. This is not right, Prager said. Often times those who break the rules will prosper in this world, and those who live by the rules will have to pay the difference. And so injustice prevails. But then Prager went on to say that this is precisely why we must believe that there is a God and that he has a coming Day of Judgment when all the wrongs will be accounted for, when the scales will be balanced, and when justice will finally prevail. Every human heart longs for justice. We don’t want to believe that we live in a universe that is ultimately without any standards of right and wrong. But in order to believe that, we must put our hope for justice in God and in the day of reckoning to come.

Dennis Prager is right, but he is still missing something of massive importance. You see, Dennis Prager is Jewish. He does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And so while he rightly recognizes that a Day of Judgment is coming, he does not rightly understand what that will mean for him personally. God will demand not only that the corrupt executives answer for their sins, he will also demand that Dennis Prager answer for his sins. And for that matter, he will demand that you and I answer as well. So, in light of the unrighteousness that prevails now, we long for God’s righteousness to be revealed in the coming Day of Judgment. But that puts us in a predicament: if justice is coming, then it is coming to me too. How can I stand before the judgment of God? The Scripture makes it abundantly clear that no one is righteous, that we are corrupt to the core, rebels against God who have stirred up his anger against us. Dennis Prager longs for justice to come, but how will he himself escape when it does? The answer for him and for you and for me is that we will only escape if we cling to the cross of Christ.

The central phrase of Paul’s letter to the Romans is “the righteousness of God.” In 1:17 he says specifically that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Here in these verses he mentions the righteousness of God four times, two at the beginning of the passage and two at the end. What Paul tells us is that the righteousness of God has been revealed in the cross of Christ, and it has been revealed in two ways. On the one hand, it has been revealed as a gracious gift given to sinners whereby they are declared righteous before him. On the other hand, it has been revealed as judgment against sin, thereby vindicating God’s own character and showing that he truly is righteous, that the scales will be balanced, and that there is ultimately a difference between right and wrong. These two aspects of the revelation of God’s righteousness answer the two deep longings of our hearts: the longing for righteousness to prevail in the end, and the desire to escape the judgment of God that we rightly deserve when it does. What a wonder is the cross, that by it both God and sinners are justified!

Notice first
I. The Righteousness of God as a Gift to Sinners, 21-24.
This passage begins with two glorious words: “But now.” This signals a transition in Paul’s argument as well as a transition in history. Paul launched into an argument about the wrath of God directed against all of humanity beginning in 1:18, which reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul goes on for three chapters about the wrath of God, arguing that it is directed not only against pagan Gentiles, but against the Jews as well. Collectively, all of mankind is under the power of sin and, therefore, under God’s wrath. Broadly speaking, you could say that everything up to this point has been bad news. And then Paul says, “But now,” and he talks about the cross of Christ, and everything that follows through the rest of the book is good news: good news about a right standing with God, about hope in the midst of suffering, triumph over sin and death, and the glorious hope of resurrection. This paragraph signals the turning point, the hinge of the whole letter. And the “now” signifies not only a turn in Paul’s argument, but a turn in history as well. It signifies that something major has happened, so that the time in which we live is a new time when things have changed. And what Paul means is that the death and resurrection of Christ has happened. Christ is the dividing point of history. It is in him that the great transition is made.

The rest of the verse fleshes out this transition: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” Throughout his argument thus far, one of Paul’s major points has been that the Law, the whole covenant structure made with Israel through Moses, has not kept Israel from sin or from the wrath of God. It has been powerless to defeat sin. And that’s why Paul says in 3:19-20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In light of the law’s powerlessness to put anyone right with God, God has revealed his righteousness apart from the law. What is the “righteousness of God” in this verse and in the following verse? It is a gift of right standing with God. We have no righteousness before God on our own, and that’s why we are under his wrath. But in the gospel the righteousness that comes from God as a gift to sinners is revealed, and this righteousness is apart from the Law, apart from anything we could do to earn it. But even though it is apart from the Law, it is attested by the Law. When Paul says, “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it,” he is referring to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Law covenant that God made with Israel always pointed beyond itself to a time when God would act in a decisive way to deal with sin and renew his people. So this righteousness of God that is now revealed is revealed apart from the Law, but that does not mean that God has changed his strategy. The Law itself has always pointed in this direction.

And then verses 22-23 expand: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This righteousness, then, comes through faith. By “faith” here Paul doesn’t mean just any faith. He means a specific kind of faith: “faith in Jesus Christ,” or as some translations say, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is a faith that comes from what Christ has done on the cross and that is directed to him. It is not a general belief in God or a vague hope that things will be okay, much less a blind leap into a fantasy world that is detached from reality. It is a specific, directed trust in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Savior. Those who believe receive the gift of righteousness from God. More than that, Paul says, all who believe receive the gift of righteousness. And when Paul says “all,” his particular focus is on both Jews and Gentiles. As he says, there is no distinction in this regard between them, for all have sinned. All descend from Adam. All have their origin in the same lump of fallen humanity. And, therefore, all have fallen short of the original glory in which Adam was created. Whoever you are and whatever your background, you are a sinner, and the promise of the gospel is that you may be made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And this is what Paul goes on to explain in verse 24: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We don’t see it in English, but in the Greek the word “justified” is related to the word “righteousness.” To be justified is to be declared righteous, to have a right legal standing with God. And here Paul says that justification comes to us not based on what we do but as a gift. It comes as a gift because it comes from the grace of God. And the means by which we have it from God’s grace is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. “Redemption” refers to liberation by payment of a price, a term that was often used in the slave market to refer to the purchase of a slave’s liberation. God has paid that price with the life of his own Son, out of the abundance of his grace, and that means that our right standing with him comes to us as a gift, not as a reward for what we have done.

There was a time when Martin Luther hated that phrase “the righteousness of God” as he read it in the book of Romans. In his medieval theology classes, he had been taught that the phrase referred to the righteousness by which God condemns sinners. And Martin Luther knew that he was a sinner. So he could not understand how the gospel could be good news if it meant that God would condemn him for his sins. But then he had a breakthrough. After much study and meditation, he came to realize that the righteousness of God is not the righteousness by which he stood to be condemned but rather the righteousness by which he stood to be declared righteous. In other words, the phrase refers to the gift of righteousness that comes from God and puts sinners in right standing with him. Writing later about this experience, Luther said, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” And I proclaim to you that paradise is open through the righteousness of God given to us as a gift in the gospel, because of the cross of Christ. Trust in Christ; trust in what he has done on the cross, and you will be counted righteous now and forever in the sight of God

But another aspect of the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross, and that is, second,
II. The Righteousness of God as Judgment against Sin, 25-26.
We are not so eager to talk about the judgment of God, but Scripture is packed full of references to it. The truth is, without just judgment against sin, God would not be righteous. He himself would become complicit in evil; he would therefore be unholy, unjust, and ultimately unworthy of our praise, worship, and adoration. And that conclusion is simply intolerable. It is precisely because God is so good that we must acknowledge his holy wrath against sin.

And what we find in these two remarkable verses is that God’s righteous character is demonstrated through the cross. Having just mentioned Jesus Christ, Paul says in verse 25: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” First we need to address that complicated word “propitiation,” or as some translations say, “sacrifice of atonement.” What does this mean? In the culture of the day, the word signified some kind of offering that makes the gods favorable. You see, the gods of the pagan world were a bit bad-tempered, but it was believed that they had authority over different spheres of the world and, therefore, had the power to make life good or bad for us. So, if you were scheduled to go on a sea voyage, you would offer some kind of sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, in order to make sure that he gave you a safe trip. Or, if you were scheduled to give a speech, you might offer a sacrifice to Hermes, the god of communication. Or, if you wanted abundant crops or an abundance of children, you would offer sacrifices to the appropriate gods. The sacrifice offered is a propitiation, because it makes the god propitious, or favorable, to you. Now I don’t want you to get the idea that the one true God is anything like the gods of the pagan world. He is not capricious and bad-tempered, subject to our control if we only bribe him with the right gifts. But he is full of wrath against our sin, wrath that is his holy response to our wickedness, and unless his wrath turned away from us, we are doomed. Therefore, God must be propitiated. But how? Ah, this is where the difference between the one true God and the false pagan gods is most striking. Notice the one performing the action in verse 25: it is God himself! God put forward his own Son as a propitiation through his bloody death on the cross. God has taken the initiative to satisfy his own wrath against sin by directing it to Christ instead of us. And so, God has not simply swept his wrath aside in all this, which would compromise his justice and holiness. No, he has fully poured out his wrath upon sin, but he has done so in a way that has shielded us from that horrible plight. In his love he sent his Son to take our place.

Paul says that God did this in order to demonstrate “his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” In other words, God’s righteousness, which here indicates his holy judgment against sin, had been called into question so long as he had not dealt with sin in a full and decisive way. And until the cross, he hadn’t. He had “passed over” sins, which in some cases meant allowing sinful rebels to go their own way, and in others it meant actually forgiving sins of Old Testament believers. But what about his justice? How can the justice of God be upheld in light of this passing over of sin? Only if, at some point, he publicly deals with sin in a decisive manner. And this he has done in the cross by delivering up his Son as a substitute for sinners.

In 1998, Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since 1863. She had been convicted of murder, an act that included repeatedly hacking away at a woman with a pickaxe. Her execution made headlines because she had appealed for clemency, claiming that her life had been transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. Clemency was not granted. But assuming that her conversion to Christ was real, then we must conclude that Karla Faye Tucker stood before God and heard him say, “Not guilty.” What would her victims think of that? What would their families think? If it were any human court, they would no doubt conclude that injustice had prevailed and that the judge was corrupt. And yet, Paul’s point here in Romans 3:25-26 is precisely that this judge who acquits the guilty, who justifies the ungodly, who calls the filthy clean, is completely righteous. God’s righteousness cannot be questioned in the least because it has already been demonstrated on the cross. Judgment was already handed out to Karla Faye Tucker—and to you and to me—on the cross, where her Savior took it in her place. Justice has prevailed. God’s righteousness has been revealed.

Paul then closes in verse 26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God’s righteousness has been demonstrated now, at this point in history, through the cross of Christ, so that he is both “just” and the “justifier.” His character is fully vindicated even as he counts righteous those who are clearly guilty before him.

Unrighteousness is evident all around us. This creates a longing within us for a coming day of reckoning, a day when the wicked will have to answer for their sins. But unrighteousness also prevails within us, whether we realize it or not. And that creates a longing within us for forgiveness, for some way to escape the judgment of God that will certainly come. So the very Day of Judgment that we long for is the Day that will sweep us away with all the rest who have offended God by their sins. Is there any hope for God to reveal his righteousness and yet for us to escape his judgment?

Yes, there is hope. There is hope in the cross of Christ. For it is in the cross that the righteousness of God is revealed, both as a gift of right standing with God for sinners and as a vindication of God’s own righteous character. Take hold of the cross and of the Christ who hung there for you, and don’t ever let go.

What about Israel?

July 2, 2008

What should Christians think about ethnic Israel?  What does the coming of Christ mean for God’s relationship to the natural descendants of Abraham, and where do we as Gentile Christians fit into the picture?  Classic dispensationalists argue that we are two separate people.  According to them, the church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption, a time when his purpose for Israel has been suspended until the millennial kingdom.  Therefore, we must “rightly divide” the Scripture so as to relate Israel passages to ethnic Israel and church passages to the church.  For some dispensationalists, this division between the two peoples of God will endure through eternity, with the church inheriting the new heaven and redeemed Israel inheriting the new earth.  Covenant theologians have traditionally maintained the opposite view: the church has replaced Israel, and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are now fulfilled spiritually in the salvation that the church receives in Christ.  For many covenant theologians (but not all), there is no longer any significance for ethnic Israel in God’s plan of redemption.

I think both approaches are wrong.  My view is neither that Israel and the church are separate nor that the church has displaced Israel as the people of God.  It is, rather, that believing Gentiles become God’s people by being incorporated into Israel.  Conversely, ethnic Israelites who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah have been cut off from the covenant people.  However, ethnic Israel as such still holds an important place in God’s plan of redemption, for there is a coming day when the partial hardening will be lifted from them and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).  Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, particularly regarding the image of the tree, the broken branches, and the grafted branches, gives a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture on this subject.

Therefore, when I read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:11-16), I try to understand them first as their original hearers would have understood them.  There can be no doubt that they would have understood “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel, and thus I see the Old Testament hope relating to a future salvation for ethnic Israel.  And yet, there are also prophetic images of the Gentiles being part of this final redemption (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  And what the New Testament makes clear is that the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel as true Israelites (not bound to the Mosaic Law, however, for the old covenant passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant).  Therefore, I also believe it is legitimate for us to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, that is, with the understanding that the promised restoration of Israel includes the gathering of the nations, incorporated into a restored Israel, to Israel’s Messiah. 

The fact that Israel as a nation still exists and has preserved its culture, language, and heritage despite being hated and persecuted for centuries, is a testimony to the providential favor of God.  Though they are now, for the most part, covenant breakers, God has not fully and finally rejected his people.     

What Is the Gospel? Part 3

May 30, 2008

(See Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already.)

Through the cross we are saved from our greatest threat: God himself, in his wrath against us.  But what about the other threats mentioned: ourselves, each other, and Satan?  How does the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us save us from them as well?  I believe our deliverance in these realms flows directly out of our deliverance from the wrath of God.  In other words, the atonement as penal substitution is the center from which the manifold dimensions of our salvation extend. 

Some have argued that the cross was aimed primarily at our hostility to God.  By showing us how much he loved us in Christ, the enmity on our side is overcome and we repent and turn to God in love.  I have already critiqued this view in part 2.  However, I do believe this subjective impact of the cross can be grounded on the truth of penal substitution.  How do I know that in the cross God extends love to me?  I know it not because the event, in and of itself, communicates love.  Rather, I know it because of what the cross means in the context of my rebellion against God and need for a Savior.  I know God’s love in the cross because I see Christ bearing the punishment of sin in my place.  Through willing self-substitution, God has turned away his own wrath from me.  Far from diminishing the love of God expressed in the cross, penal substitution enhances it, sharpens it, and makes it deep and rich beyond imagination!  Now, for me, the cross is the very standard by which love is measured. 

Some have argued that the cross absorbs our hostilities and exposes the cycle of violence inherent in human society, thereby overcoming it and reconciling us to one another.  Again, I believe this achievement could only occur in the context of penal substitution.  If the cross exposes us all as sinners and places us all on level ground, no matter what our various distinctions as human beings (ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.), then the cross also provides the theological rationale by which we embrace one another.  I cannot pretend that I stand on higher ground before God than does someone else who is not like me.  Before the cross, we are all on our faces.  Jews cannot boast in the law, for it only condemns them.  Greeks cannot boast in wisdom, for the cross is foolishness by human standards.  None of us have any ground on which to boast against another.  Therefore, we who stand together under the cross have no basis on which to be enemies.  We have the power to embrace otherness precisely because that is what God has done for us in Christ. 

Finally, we face the threat of Satan and the powers of evil.  A long and venerable tradition in the church has affirmed that the atonement overcomes Satan’s power, but the trick has been explaining how.  I believe penal substitution offers the best explanation.  If defeating Satan were merely a matter of divine power, then God could have done so with minimal effort.  Before the infinite power of God, no other power even registers on the scale.  And yet Satan does appear as a formidable enemy in Scripture.  Why?  It is because it is not through the exercise of raw power that he is defeated.  Rather, God disarms him by removing from him all legal claims against us.  God’s means of doing this was very costly: the death of his own Son.  The very word “Satan” means “accuser,” and thus Satan’s power over us revolves around his power to accuse us.  But when we are justified by faith, declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience, forgiven of all sin, Satan has been stripped of his greatest weapon.  The power of evil over us depends on the power of the law against us.  The only reason we stand under the dominion of Satan in the first place is not because we are passive victims of his malice; rather, we are willing prisoners of his deception, justly held under his power because of our sin.  Only by removing our guilt can God then free us from the power of Satan. 

Therefore, the heart of the atonement is the removal of our guilt before God and the turning away of his wrath from us.  This, in turn, is the heart of the gospel, the good news of our salvation.  It is not the sum total of the gospel, for there are many dimensions to our salvation.  It is, however, the foundation of everything else that is good news for us. 

What Is the Gospel? Part Two

May 8, 2008

We know we are saved through the cross of Jesus Christ.  But saved from what?  If our greatest threat is not ourselves, not each other, and not Satan and the powers of evil, then who or what is it?

Our greatest threat is none other than God himself.  This truth is spelled out for us clearly and repeatedly from Genesis to Revelation.

God is the one who cursed the ground in his wrath and drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, fencing the Tree of Life from them and sentencing them, and all their posterity, to death.  God is the one who executed the entire race of humanity–save Noah and his family–by the waters of a flood.  God is the one who later, and in similar fashion, drowned the idolatrous Egyptians who pursued his people through the Red Sea.  God is the one who commanded Israel to approach him through the mechanism of the tabernacle, the altar, and the blood sacrifices, communicating his holy distance from the people and his danger to them if they did not regard him as holy.  God is the one who broke out against them at select moments in history when they did not take him seriously: Nadab and Abihu were consumed by flames, Korah and his band were swallowed by the earth, and Uzzah was struck dead on the spot when he merely reached out his hand in a cavalier manner to steady the ark of the covenant when it tottered on the ox’s cart.  God is the one who overthrew an entire generation in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land.  God is the one who ordered the slaughter of the pagan peoples who possessed that land at the time of the conquest.  God is the one who sent his prophets to Israel for centuries, warning them repeatedly of his wrath because of their idolatry, hypocrisy, and social injustice, beckoning them to repent lest they fall under the curse of the law.  And that they did.  God is the one who fulfilled his word by driving his people out of the land and away from his presence–much as he drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden–and left their holy city and temple in ruins.

The wrath of God is just as prominent, if not more so, in the New Testament.  John the Baptist came proclaiming amnesty to repentant sinners, but he warned those who would not repent of the Messiah’s winnowing fork, which would divide the righteous from the wicked and send the latter like chaff to the fire.  Jesus himself came preaching the same message about the arrival of the Kingdom, and the consequences for those who would not receive the King.  Jesus is the one who, in the face of seemingly random tragedies where many lives were lost, told those who heard him that if they did not repent, they too would perish.  The epistles of the New Testament likewise testify repeatedly of the coming of wrath of God.  And perhaps more than any other book, the book of Revelation unfolds as an apocalyptic drama, whose every movement is a more intense expression of the wrath of God and of the Lamb.  It is in the book of Revelation that the inhabitants of the earth cry out for the mountains to fall on them to hide them from God.

Our greatest threat is God, and no other.  Jesus made the point crystal clear: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10:28). 

Most people do not like this view of God, so they invent another god to suit their fancy.  Many cloak this god in the veneer of Christian terminology.  But one thing they cannot do is claim that the god who is not the greatest threat to sinners is to be found anywhere in the Christian Bible.  The only God to be found in Scripture is the God who, in unrivaled holiness, stands against sinners and threatens to destroy them for belittling his name. 

And God, who is our greatest threat, is also our greatest hope.  Putting these two ideas together brings us to the heart of the gospel.  We may not understand how a God who hates us can love us at the same time.  But if we do not accept this truth, Scripture makes no sense, and there is no gospel for us after all.  God, who stands against a sinful world, is also the God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son to identify with sinners and die in their place as a substitute, bearing in himself the wrath that his people deserved.  Three days later he was raised from the dead, demonstrating that the sentence of death had been carried out and exhausted; the wrath of God against his people has now been forever spent.  At the Father’s right hand, the ascended Christ is our high priest and advocate, pleading his wounds as sufficient payment for sin and satisfaction of the holy wrath of God.  In this way, God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This message, combined with an appeal for all sinners to trust in Christ alone for deliverance from this threat, is the gospel.  It is the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ for the salvation of humanity. 

But even though the other threats mentioned (ourselves, each other, and Satan) are not our greatest threats, they are still threats to us in some way.  Does the gospel affect them as well?  In Part Three we will see that it does.      

What Is the Gospel? Part One

May 1, 2008

The gospel is the good news of God’s saving work for sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This is basically how Paul defines the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  But how is it that the death and resurrection of Christ saves?  What is it about the cross that makes it our hope for salvation?  These questions really take us to the heart of the gospel.

Through the cross we are saved.  But saved from what?  In order to be saved, you first have to be in danger.  What is the greatest threat facing us?  How we answer this question will determine what we understand the gospel to be. 

Some have argued that our greatest threat is us.  God loves me, but I am a sinner who has turned away from him.  What needs to be overcome is my hostility to God.  So God sent his Son to die in order to show me how much he loves me.  When I come to understand this, I will relinquish my hostility and turn to him.  If I am my own worst enemy, then this is the kind of gospel I need.

There is certainly truth in this view.  The cross does reveal the love of God to us (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16).  But why did Jesus have to die the most horrible death imaginable in order to show me that?  This view asserts something true about the cross (namely, that it is an expression of God’s love), but it does not explain the cross.  This is not the gospel.

Others say that our greatest threat is each other.  We are caught in a cycle of hostility and violence toward one another that only continuously spirals into more and more hostility.  One person or group attacks another, and then the other must retaliate with a more severe act, and then vice versa, until finally we collectively aim our hostilities at a convenient target, an “other,” a scapegoat.  So, for example, in Nazi Germany the Jews became the scapegoats, targets of this spiral of hostility.  The scapegoat mechanism perpetuates the cycle of violence and keeps it alive.  On this view, Jesus came to absorb everything we could throw at him and then to rise again from the dead and not retaliate, thus exposing the cycle of violence and scapegoat mechanism for what it is.  When we see this revelation in the cross, we relinquish violence as a way of life and follow Christ in a life of love toward others, especially toward outsiders who were formerly the targets of violence. 

Again, this view is not totally without merit.  The cross does indeed heal horizontal divisions between us.  It brings together Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, etc. (Gal 3:28).  But the idea that it does so simply by exposing our violence will not do.  We don’t need just to be shown our sin.  We need to be forgiven of it and transformed inwardly.  Furthermore, the idea that Jesus will not retaliate against sinners does not square with the teaching of the New Testament (see 2 Thess 1:5-10).  This is not the gospel.

Others have argued that Satan and his spiritual forces of evil are our greatest threat.  We live in a world that is captive to the evil one, and we must be liberated from his death-grip.  So God sent his Son to die and rise again in order to claim victory over Satan and the powers.  Again, there is certainly truth here.  The cross did defeat Satan and his forces (Col 2:13-15).  But like a view already mentioned, this one simply cannot explain why it was necessary for Christ to die.  General Washington did not have to die in order to claim victory over the British.  Why, then, if our biggest threat is captivity to evil spiritual forces, did Christ specifically have to die for us?  Why didn’t God just destroy Satan?  Why didn’t he perform one giant exorcism over the planet?  No, this view is not the gospel either.

If our greatest threat is not ourselves, each other, or Satan, then who or what is it?  The answer will take us to the heart of the gospel. 

Together for the Gospel 2008

April 19, 2008

This week I had the privilege of attending the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference in Louisville.  It was wonderful.  I got to spend some time with my younger brother, Andrew, who flew in from Texas.  I met Kevin DeYoung (whose name tag Andrew happened to spot on an elevator), one of the authors of the new book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), a book that I read a few weeks ago and found very helpful.  I sang rich hymns about the gospel with 5,500 brothers and sisters, often moving me to tears.  Andrew and I got a picture made with John Piper.  We also got about 15 free, theologically substantive books.  And I heard some wonderful teaching, preaching, and discussion.

Ligon Duncan gave the first address by stressing the importance of systematic theology for the church and for preaching.  Thabiti Anyabwile deconstructed the idea of biologically determined race and argued, based on theological truths from Scripture, for a new way of relating to people whose skin is a different color from ours (more on that address in a future post).  I missed John MacArthur’s message on total inability (I was in class at the time), but I heard that it was wonderful.  I did get to hear the panel discussion with MacArthur afterward.  Mark Dever spoke on contemporary attempts to improve the gospel, and he exhorted us to ensure that we never try to do such a thing.  Instead, he called us to be clear on what the gospel is and to keep it distinct from legitimate implications that may flow from it, lest we generate confusion and ultimately lead people away from the gospel.

R. C. Sproul delivered what may be the best sermon I have ever heard in my life.  It was on the curse motif of the atonement, based on Galatians 3:10-14 but drawing from the blessing/curse teachings of Genesis 3, Deuteronomy 28ff., and Numbers 6 (the Aaronic blessing), as well as from the Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16.  Unable to stand for a long period of time due to his health, Dr. Sproul preached sitting down from the depths of his soul and vividly communicated to us the horror and wonder of the cross.  I will never forget that message. 

Albert Mohler followed Sproul’s sermon with an address on contemporary rejections of the doctrine of penal substitution, and he (as always) brought clarity and strong biblical-theological reasoning to the discussion.  John Piper passionately exhorted us to embrace a radical ministry of suffering as we look to the ultimate reward, namely, Christ himself.  By treasuring Christ above all, he said, and enduring suffering and loss for his sake, we show the world his glory and value in a way that would not be shown were we never to experience suffering in his service.  C. J. Mahaney ended with a call to pastors to shepherd their flocks joyfully, exhorting us from Philippians 1 to pursue ministry with gratitude, faith in God’s promises for the future, and deep affection for those under our care.  In between these sessions were panel discussions with the four leaders of T4G (Mohler, Dever, Duncan, and Mahaney) together with whatever speaker had previously given his address. 

This week was a refreshing oasis.  It was like church camp for Calvinist pastors, only without goofy recreation time, goofy youth speakers, or goofy music.  No, I take that back.  Very little of it was like church camp.  It was much too rich for that kind of an analogy.  This week I saw 5,500 brothers and sisters of mine who are passionate for the gospel of Jesus Christ celebrating that passion together and drawing energy to go back to their churches in order to proclaim that gospel more faithfully.  Gatherings like these give me great hope for the future of the church.

More to come later.  I want to share with you first some of the things Thabiti Anyabwile argued about the concepts of race and ethnicity.  And I also plan to write a series of posts on the gospel based on thoughts provoked by this conference.   

Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC: A Proposal for Unity

April 4, 2008

It is no secret that Calvinism has been a hot topic in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years due to the rise of Reformed theology among (mostly) younger leaders, especially seminarians.  A number of non-Calvinist SBC leaders have responded in print and from the pulpit by putting forth arguments against Calvinism, and of course, some Calvinists have responded.  This post is by no means a call for the end of theological debate.  I believe that debating our views in a spirit of charity with our brothers is good and healthy, and no one should feel pressured to privatize his views on this subject.  Rather, the point of this post is to issue a call for protocol, so to speak.  I believe that both Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists can live and minister together in the various entities of Southern Baptist life, including associations, state conventions with their various ministries, and the various entities of the national convention.  While the doctrines that surround the debate about Calvinism are very important theologically (even touching the heart of the nature of God’s grace, human sinfulness, God’s intention and accomplishment in the cross, and the nature of God’s love), I do not believe that either one side or the other has fallen away from the truth of the gospel.  I fear that theological conservatives, having won the battle for the SBC, have now turned to fight each other.  It would be a tragedy for the issue of Calvinism to create disunity at any level of SBC life.

So let us debate our views as we love one another and minister together.  Here are the rules of discourse that I propose for addressing important theological differences over our views on Calvinism:

1. Let us seek first to understand each other’s views.  This should really go without saying, but unfortunately, in our desire to refute theological opponents, we often respond too quickly before we have taken the time to hear their claims fairly.  Sometimes Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of Semi-Pelagianism (the affirmation that God gives grace in response to some remnant of goodness left in sinners).  But this is not necessarily what non-Calvinists believe.  Those who stand in the Arminian tradition believe in total depravity, just as Calvinists do, but they affirm that through the cross God gives all people prevenient grace that enables them to respond freely to the offer of the gospel.  (Of course, I recognize that very few Southern Baptists are fond of the term “Arminian” because of its associations with liberalism and its doctrine of apostasy, but on the subject of conversion at least, many non-Calvinists would probably affirm the evangelical Arminian doctrine).  Calvinists should not paint their non-Calvinist opponents as Semi-Pelagians without sufficient evidence.  Similarly, non-Calvinists should not accuse Calvinists of teaching fatalism.  There are important differences between Calvinism and fatalism.  Calvinists affirm that God ordains all things, both the ends and the specific means to those ends.  Fate, on the other hand, is an impersonal force that compels us toward necessary ends, though without encompassing the specific means to them.  So a fatalist will say, “If I am destined to die today, there is nothing I can do about it.  So I might as well jump in front of a bus.  If it is my fate to die, I will die.  If it is not, then I will live.”  Calvinists do not say these things.  Calvinists affirm that both the ends and means fall under God’s sovereign decree, so that if God has decreed that I will die today, he has also decreed how that will happen, and it is a decree that incorporates decisions of free agents who are morally responsible for their actions.  So I will not, therefore, jump in front of a bus because I would be morally culpable for jeopardizing my own life and acting with stupidity. 

So, let both sides agree to do their best to hear what the other side is saying.  Not only does Christian charity demand that kind of fairness, but we also accomplish nothing when we argue against views that our opponents do not hold. 

2. Let us not hold our opponents accountable for what we perceive to be the logical outcomes of their beliefs if, in fact, they specifically deny those outcomes.  I know that is a lengthy sentence, so let me give an example.  Many non-Calvinists cannot fathom why a Calvinist would ever practice evangelism.  To a non-Calvinist way of thinking, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election renders evangelism useless.  It is fair enough for him to say, “I am concerned that unconditional election could lead to laxity in evangelism.”  It is not fair, however, for him to claim that Calvinists are not evangelistic, or that Calvinism by its very existence has killed evangelism wherever it has flourished.  These claims are simply not true.  The vast majority of Calvinists affirm evangelism as the church’s mandate until Christ returns, and they have stood alongside their non-Calvinist brothers faithfully proclaiming the gospel to a lost world.  Even if the non-Calvinist cannot make sense of that in his own mind, it is simply unfair for him to impute to Calvinists his perception of the logical conclusion to their theology if, in fact, that conclusion is something they specifically deny.  The same goes for Calvinists who cannot make sense of why a non-Calvinist would ever pray for a lost person’s conversion.  Just because Calvinists think such a thing is illogical (given the non-Calvinist theology), Calvinists would be unfair to impute timidity in prayer to non-Calvinists on that basis alone.  The point is this: just because I see someone else’s theology entailing something does not mean he sees it the same way.  Maybe he has a way of working it out that I have not considered, or perhaps he is simply logically inconsistent (but driven to that inconsistency by his commitment to the nonnegotiable truths of Scripture).  It is fair to say, “This is inconsistent with this.”  It is not fair to say, “You are not faithful in evangelism” or “You are timid in prayer” if, in fact, that is not the case.

3. Let us remember often and celebrate the important, weighty truths that we hold in common as conservative Southern Baptists.  Conservatives (whether Calvinist or not) in the SBC hold much more in common than they do in opposition.  Here is a list of our central beliefs: the inspiration, inerrancy, and supreme authority of Scripture; God as Trinity; God as sovereign over his creation (with differences in detail about how that works out); the divine-human person of Christ; Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross, whereby he bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners; the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church; the expectation of the visible, bodily return of Christ; the necessity of conversion for salvation; salvation by grace alone through faith alone (again, with some differences as to how that works out); the church as a body of believers who have been baptized as believers and by immersion; separation of church and state (though not in the ACLU sense); religious liberty; soul competency (meaning every individual is directly accountable to God); the priesthood of believers; congregational government of the local church; the church’s mandate to evangelize the world until Jesus returns; and a commitment to voluntary cooperation among churches for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. 

I could list more areas of agreement, but this list, taken as a whole, is sufficient to demonstrate my point.  Yes, how one conceives of the nature of God’s sovereignty, his decree of election, and the nature of saving grace in conversion is important.  But I do not believe these issues are important enough to overturn our unity on the weighty matters listed above.  So let us keep these matters in mind as we debate the issue of Calvinism and remember that we will be stronger together than we would be apart. 

4. Let us pray for each other.  I know this sounds so simple and basic, but oh, how much this simple practice could change the tone and nature of theological debate!  What would happen if, before launching a theological attack on the views of someone else, you took a moment to pray for that person?  What if you asked God’s richest blessings upon him, prayed that, where he does not see the truth, he would be given eyes to see it?  And what if, humbly before God, you prayed the same for yourself?  What if you prayed for the grace to be fair in your interactions with this other person, to represent him fairly in his views, to understand why he holds them, and to advance only the truth (and not a personal agenda) when you set forth arguments against him?  What if you imagined being with this person 10,000 years from now in Heaven, where theological controversy will be a thing of the past, and there will only be joy and unity in Christ?  How might this kind of prayer change the way you debate theology?

I am not proposing that we be any less vigorous in our commitment to the truth, or that we shy away from making arguments with deeply held conviction.  If there is anything we need in the church in this age, it is deep conviction.  We live in a sea of relativism, and I do not believe unity can be forged by pushing doctrine to the side.  Such a unity would only be superficial.  So let us hold our convictions deeply, debate them passionately, but do so prayerfully, humbly, and lovingly toward one another. 

Making this point prompts me to say this: I know I have not been a shining model of this kind of discourse in the past.  I have rarely committed myself to prayer for a theological opponent before seeking to blast his views into the stratosphere.  To all whom I have wronged in this regard, I ask your forgiveness.  And I pray for grace to do better. 

If we set these four rules of protocol in place to govern all of our interactions on Calvinism within the SBC, I believe we could debate the issue passionately and still join hands for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the nations.  The result will be a stronger, healthier Southern Baptist Convention with (we pray) stronger, healthier local churches.    

World Religions, The Great Commission, and Baptism

January 10, 2008

What role to the various non-Christian religions of the world play in God’s redemptive purpose, or do they have a role to play at all?  This question has become more acute as the world has grown smaller and the (formerly?) Christian West has come into significant contact with vast multitudes of religious people who are not Christians.  How should Christians appraise this situation, and what does that mean for our approach to missions?

At least three approaches to the various religions of the world have been influential at various times, and they are as follows:

1. The Historic, Orthodox View: The church has long affirmed Cyprian’s axiom, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”  Of course, there have been significant differences over how to define the word “church,” but the basic idea that has been dominant throughout church history has been that, apart from faith in Jesus Christ, no one can be saved.  This means that adherents to non-Christian religions, no matter how sincere they may be, are lost and under the wrath of God without Christ.  Certainly, there have been notable exceptions to this doctrine, but it has been the majority view for 2,000 years. 

2. The Liberal View: Liberalism sought to define all religious expressions in terms of a universal human experience.  For a classical liberal, then, all religions are merely variegated expressions of the same experiential core.  What matters is not the set of beliefs you profess, the rituals, or the way of life that you follow.  Those will vary from culture to culture.  What matters is the common experience that underlies these various expressions.  Liberals seek to build unity among world religions by claiming that they are all, at their core, really the same thing (often with the assumption that Christianity is the highest expression of the universal religious experience, but not different in kind from the other religions of the world). 

3. The Postliberal View: This view has blossomed in the last few decades, and it represents a reaction to the liberal view, but not a return to orthodoxy.  According to postliberals, there is no universal religious experience.  To make that claim is to reduce the various religions of the world to something that they are not and to subsume them under one’s own version of liberal Christianity.  Religions often contradict each other in terms of what they affirm and the ways of life that they produce, so they cannot be mere outward expressions of the same thing.  Instead, postliberals argue that religions are like languages.  We are born into them, and over time we learn them and assimilate to their rules.  For example, I was born in an environment where English was spoken, and over time, by hearing, imitating, and a little formal study, I became proficient in the way the English language works.  I live, move, and have my being in the English language.  My thought processes are shaped by language (is there any thought that ever occurs to you that is not embedded in linguistic patterns?).  In the same way, I was born into a Baptist tradition.  Over time, I learned by experience the Baptist way of life.  Now, I live and move and have my being in this particular religious tradition.  I have learned the way Baptist religion “works,” and I have assimilated myself to its language, rituals, and traditions.  According to postliberals, these things give rise to religious experiences, not the other way around.  I have religious experiences because I am part of a Baptist tradition.  I do not express some universal, prelinguistic, undefined religious experience through my Baptist religion.  Therefore, it is simply illegitimate to claim that my religious experiences and those of a Buddhist represent the same thing in different forms.  Instead, we should view religions more like games that we play according to different rules.  Just as it is illegitimate to say, “Touchdown!” after shooting a free throw in basketball, so is it illegitimate to subsume Buddhist religious experience under my understanding of the Christian religion, as classical liberals have done. 

The postliberal approach to religions has given rise to a new kind of missiology where dialogue has become more popular than conversion.  George Lindbeck has argued that various religions have the potential to express various aspects of God’s redemptive purpose for this world.  While we should not subsume non-Christian religions under our own (as Karl Rahner did by calling adherents of other faiths “anonymous Christians”), Lindbeck has argued that we should recognize that non-Christian religions may each bring something unique to the table, and that these unique features may represent positive aspects of God’s redemptive purpose.

It looks as though Brian McLaren has been influenced by Lindbeck.  In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren argues that the church’s mission may include encouraging Muslims that we encounter to be better Muslims, Buddhists to be better Buddhists, etc.  In other words, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and all the various religions of the world have a legitimate place in the renewal of creation that has come about in Christ, and as the church we should encourage adherents to those religions to walk in the way of Jesus while remaining within their own faiths.  McLaren has been called a postconservative, but his approach to missions seems to be very postliberal (though I wonder how much distance there really is between postconservatism and postliberalism). 

My contention is that the Great Commission kicks this postliberal idea (and the classically liberal idea) in the teeth.  Jesus commanded us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)  Granted, one could argue that making “disciples” does not necessarily mean making “Christians,” and that we could fulfill Jesus’ command without calling for conversions to the Christian faith.  Aside from the fact that such an idea has no basis in the context of Matthew, it falls to pieces as soon as we get to the next phrase.  Let me quote the verse in full:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” 

To make disciples, then, evidently includes “baptizing them” in the name of our Triune God.  Baptism is the sacrament that brings a person into the church.  It initiates one into the Christian faith and marks that person out forever as one united to this particular group, confessing this particular faith, and repudiating one’s connection to anything that would contradict it.  That’s why baptism is so revolutionary in some parts of the world.  To be baptized is to take a major plunge (pun intended) into a new way of life, to take on a new identity, to be defined forever after as a disciple of Jesus Christ, yes, even a Christian (as opposed to a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu).

The missiologies of Lindbeck and McLaren logically entail a denial of the importance of baptism.  McLaren in particular seeks to fulfill the main verb of Jesus’ command (“make disciples”) without fulfilling one of the participles attached to it (“baptizing them”).  It seems that the wording of the Great Commission becomes extremely relevant to current debates over missiology. From the beginning, Jesus has given us the command to convert people, to bring them out of whatever religious commitments they may hold, and initiate them into the church through baptism.  This is an integral component of making disciples, and if we are not doing it, then we are not making disciples. 

So where does this leave other religions?  What role do they have to play in God’s world?  I won’t claim that there is no good in them at all.  Many religions play an important role in shaping communities and societies according to moral standards (although, it must be admitted by all, many religions contribute to the destruction of communities and societies).  As such, many aspects of various world religions are reflections of God’s common grace and of the universal sense of divinity that has been hardwired into us by our Creator.  But I see no biblical evidence that they have any saving value.  In fact, I see positive evidence that they do not.  In Scripture, pagan idolatry is universally condemned.  Paul’s contention that humanity suppresses the truth of general revelation and perversely worships the creature rather than the Creator appears to be a universal indictment of humanity apart from special revelation (Romans 1:18-32).  The fact that the exalted Christ sent Paul to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18) implies that the nations of the world currently lie under darkness, under the grip of Satan, and under the penalty of unforgiven sin.  This speaks strongly against the idea that vast multitudes of people are finding redemption through their non-Christian ways of worship. 

Our approach to other religions, then, may legitimately include an element of dialogue, for dialogue connects us as human beings to one another.  But our goal must always be conversion, because without faith in Christ, expressed through the taking on of a new identity in his church, there is no salvation.  For 2,000 years this has been the majority view, and we affirm it–whether we realize it or not–every time we stir the waters of baptism.