Despicable Me: Total Depravity – TULIP Pt 1

by Clint Archer

Calvinism is a word that I believe would make John Calvin roll over in his grave. His life and ministry were marked by a passion for the centrality of the glory of God. He was so effective in showing from the Scriptures that God is central to everything, that the very concept became wedded to his name— Calvinism. But he would have called it “theocentrism.”

clip_image002[3]Calvin was born in 1509, making him eight years old when Luther nailed the 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg that sparked the Reformation flame, 500 years ago this month.

We know very little about Calvin himself because, in a self-conscious effort to minimize his fame, he almost never referred to himself in any of his voluminous writings or revealed any personal details in his sermons. We do know that he possessed a brilliant mind, was fluent in five languages, published his first book at age 23, and at 27 wrote what has become arguably the most influential and respected theological work ever penned: Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin believed it was his calling to proclaim the glory of God to a world that had been in ignorance of the Bible during the Dark Ages. So he worked constantly at teaching lectures and Bible studies, writing commentaries and articles, and preaching hundreds of sermons every year. He never rested from this task, contributing to his early death at age 54. His prolific output made him known as “a bow always strung.”

As is so often the case with effective instruments in God’s hands, Calvin’s life was marked with much suffering. He had tremendous and constant physical pain due to kidney stones, stomach aches, coughing fits that spat blood, migraines, gout, and hemorrhoids. He controlled the agony by eating only one, small meal a day and injecting milk into his bloodstream. One month he was so ill that he took the closest thing to sick leave he knew how—he described his convalescing this way:

Apart from the sermons and the lectures, there is a month gone by in which I have scarce done anything, in such a wise I am almost ashamed to live thus useless.”  He had delivered only twenty sermons and lectures that month!

Like his Savior, Calvin was acquainted with emotional suffering. In 1541 he married an Anabaptist widow, Idelette who had two children. In the seven years that followed he lost three babies and his wife, leaving him with two teenage step-children whom he raised as a single parent.

To give you a taste of his unshakeable trust in God’s sovereignty Calvin wrote after his first infant died:

The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a father and knows best what is good for his children.”

He was banished from his Geneva on multiple occasions. He was slandered, maligned, and threatened almost daily. He was also constantly hounded by death threats and mobs gathering outside his house, firing shots. But Calvin was immovably committed to the verse by verse exposition of Scripture. He never took a break for topical studies or special occasions, including Christmas and Easter!

He wrote:

Let the pastors boldly dare all things by the word of God….Let them constrain all the power, glory, and excellence of the world to give place to and to obey the divine majesty of this word. Let them enjoin everyone by it, from the highest to the lowest. Let them edify the body of Christ. Let them devastate Satan’s reign. Let them pasture the sheep, kill the wolves, instruct and exhort the rebellious. Let them bind and loose thunder and lightning, if necessary, but let them do all according to the word of God.”

This became the standard of the Reformation.

Throughout October, each Monday, we will look at the five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, and sometimes known by the acronym TULIP.

Today we examine the first point of five – the T in TULIP.

TOTAL DEPRAVITY or COMPLETE INABILITY of man

It is important to understand what is being claimed by the term Total Depravity. As authors David N. Steele and Curtis C. Thomas put it…

The adjective ‘total’ does not mean that each sinner is as totally or completely corrupt in his actions and thought as it is possible for him to be. Instead the word ‘total’ is used to indicate that the whole of man’s being has been affected by sin. The corruption extends to every part of man: his body, his soul…his mind, his will.”

So total depravity is not believing that everyone is as despicable as they can be, but that every part of the human (significantly including their reasoning, will, desires, and ability to process truth) has been tainted by original sin.

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People do restrain their behavior if they fear consequence, are educated, have been raised well, etc. While some people are incredibly evil, sadistic, murderous, others are very sweet, kind, and loving. But even in “good people” sin has tainted their thinking at some level, preventing them from coming to saving knowledge without God’s supernatural intervention.

Anything we give God is imbued with a twinge of sin. Like moneybags with ink bombs in them. When the robber opens the bag, the ink bomb stains the bills so they can be traced. Even a tiny spec of ink corrupts the cash and makes it unusable.

Westminster Confession:

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man…is not able by his own strength to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto.

So, sin is universal in extensiveness and intensiveness: it has spread to all people, and to every part of each person.

Calvin:

Man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God, as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony.

Rom 3:10-12, 14-28, 23 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;  no one understands; [mental/spiritual ability] no one seeks [will] for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one…  “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”  “Their feet are swift to shed blood…   and the way of peace they have not known.”  “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”…  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Rom 8: 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

If I offered you 10 million bucks to stop speaking, it would be difficult, but possible. If I offered you 10 million bucks if you stopped thinking, you could not do it. Or if I offered you salvation if you stopped sinning, you could never do it. Why? Because sinning is in your nature.

Jer 13: 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.

Jer 17:9 the heart is deceitful above all else and desperately sick, who can understand it?

If you wanted to stop sinning, what part of your being would you employ? Your heart or thinking or will.  But Jeremiah says you can’t use your heart to clean your heart. Because it is tainted by the sin too. That is like trying to wipe a spot of gravy off your sofa with an oily rag.

1 Cor 2: 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand [complete inability] them because they are spiritually discerned.

It’s like trying to pick up cable TV without a decoder. Or play a CD on a record player. A sinner does not have the mental equipment to believe the gospel in a saving way.

What’s the APPLICATION?

When you evangelize, you don’t try to appeal to the person’s reason alone. Proof alone will never convince anyone. It is God’s power that will make them believe. We need to pray for God’s intervention.

When someone comes to Christ, we give God all the glory. We don’t congratulate them on making the right choice, we glorify God for changing their mind and heart.

We can make this world better by education and police and democracy. I agree. But we cannot make people better. Only the gospel can do that.

And that is the doctrine of Total Depravity.

Can you think of any other applications to our lives?

_____________

Clint Archer  has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.

The New Apostolic Reformation An Examination of the Five-Fold Ministries

By Pastor Gary Gilley, Southern View  Gospel & Think on These Things Ministries (TOTT)

TOTT Ministries publishes really well written articles concerning contemporary issues facing today’s church. The two most recent articles address the topic of this blog post. They represent a careful and honest  examination of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR)  covering NAR’s

  • Historical Roots and Foundation,
  • Theological Distinctives,
  • Infiltration into Mainstream Evangelicalism,
  • A Biblical Examination,
  • and Conclusion

All of the information in these articles is carefully presented and referenced in great detail. Due to the length of the material it is not practical to post them in their entirety in this blog. Instead, I offer you the linked to the online articles:

The New Apostolic Reformation An Examination of the Five-Fold Ministries Part 1

The New Apostolic Reformation An Examination of the Five-Fold Ministries Part 2

Whether you recognize the term NAR or not,  You will recognize many of NAR’s theological distinctives, as well as the names of well know NAR proponents.

I pray that God will bless your reading!

Physical Healing And The Atonement of Christ

I recently read the testimony of someone who just started believing that healing is in Christ’s Atonement. I am thrilled and will always praise God when someone receives healing, whether it be through the God given talents of the medical community, naturally built in healing properties of the human body, and of course through prayer!

The question before us is whether or not physical healing is promised in the Atonement of Christ. It is my contention that it is not. I will set forth my reasoning from an identical portion of scripture used to say that it is. Turn first to Isaiah 53:5 in which we read:

“And by his stripes we are healed.”

That portion of scripture seems to be the lynch pin of the ‘there’s healing in the atonement argument. Some go so far as to claim that since Christ received 39 stripes and since there are 39 main groups of sickness/disease, that proves it! But does it?

Let’s look at ALL of verse 5:

“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” (Isa 53:4-5)

Notice that in the very same verse, immediately preceding the portion taken out of context we find out exactly why Christ was wounded, as well as from what we are ‘healed’:

“But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”

Simple rules of grammar tell us that it was because of our transgressions and iniquities that he suffered. To assert that physical healing was also provided for is to add to the text what is not there. That’s called eisegesis.

If physical healing / divine health is in the atonement and can be experienced by having enough faith,

  • Why did the Apostle Paul tell young Timothy to have an occasional drink of wine for his (Timothy’s) stomach troubles?
  • Why did Paul pray three times for the ‘thorn in the flesh’ to be removed, yet God told him “my grace is sufficient for you” but did not heal him.
  • Why did James encourage the sick to be prayed for by the elders of the church and not just counsel the sick to exercise their own faith?

Having said all that, which should be sufficient, let’s assume that healing IS part of the atonement. We are presented with a couple of issues we must think through.

1. Since salvation from sin is received by grace through faith, it’s quite logical to assert that physical healing is appropriated in the same manner – by grace through faith. In fact, those that teach healing as part of the atonement often make that very claim – that faith in the ‘healing promise’ is all you need. And that leads to a second issue.

2. If a believer has sufficient faith for salvation, but still suffers from sickness once in a while, or still has a disease, he/she is lacking strong enough faith to shed the physical illness. And that brings up the subject of the source of believing faith. Does it come from God, or is it something inherent to all of us from the day we are born? But that’s another subject, deserving of its own discussion. Back to our assumption that healing is part of the atonement and the matter of ‘levels’ of faith.

3. When the assumption is accepted there are two groups affected by it. First there are those who who sit in the pews (or auditorium seats). They sit there, subject to the ‘stuff’ of life, including sickness and disease, from which they want relief. Let’s call them the ‘sheep’. Then we have the preachers and teachers who tell the sheep that with enough faith they can be completely healed, and even walk in a state of ‘divine’ health the rest of their lives. It’s all up to the sheep and the strength of their faith. Let’s call this second group ‘wolves in sheep suits’.

The wolves know they have a steady stream of finances from those who are trying to build up enough faith to be healed, who are holding on to hope. Promise the sheep hope and they’ll keep coming back, for healing as well as a lot of other things that are part of their ‘best life now’. Some of the wolves even tie the promised healing to a mandatory tithe being given to their establishments. No tithe, no blessing.

I must confess that some years ago we believed that physical healing was indeed part of the atonement. That’s what we were being taught in the Charismatic church we attended. And to this day, I don’t consider the Pastor of that church to be the sort of ‘wolf’ described above. Deceived sheep become pastors. They did then and they do now.

Some genuine believers will die of sickness and disease still believing they just didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Shame on the wolves. They will be judged.

Does God still heal, even miraculously? YES! God heals whenever, however, and whomever he wants. It’s just not part and parcel of Christ’s Atonement. That was about human sin.

I rest my case.

Five tulips in one field: Revelation 13:8-10

by Jesse Johnson

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The “five points of Calvinism” are a mnemonic approach to understanding the complexity of our salvation. The doctrine of salvation can seem complicated because it incorporates hamartiology (the effects of sin on a person’s nature), Christology (the nature of Christ), theology proper (the sovereignty of God), and pneumatology (the work of the Holy Spirit). To put it another way, our salvation intersects with just about every major area of theology, and the five-points help us understand what exactly is going on when God saves us.

The five-points are often presented in an acronym form (T-U-L-I-P), and that is fitting because the whole point of extracting these five particular points of emphasis is to help us think memorably about salvation. While they are called the five points of Calvinism, they were not designed by John Calvin—although they do reflect some of the emphasis of his ministry, it is unfair to his legacy to confine it to the five points.

While the five points themselves were identified in the 1600’s, the acronym T-U-L-I-P didn’t come into use until the 1900’s in the United States (say what you will about Americans, but we are good at acronyms).

A common push back against the five points is to claim that they are an invention of man, and are not found in the Bible. In a limited sense I grant that is true: the phrase “total depravity’ is not in the Bible (nor is I suppose is “theology”), but the concepts themselves are obviously biblical, and there is no shortage of resources that make strong cases for them (like this long-form article on Desiring God, or an 8-part Grace To You series, or a 30-minute John MacArthur video).

But this year, I stumbled across a new (to me) approach to the five points. In studying for a sermon on Revelation 13:8-10, I realized that all five points are represented in this single concise passage:

All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. If anyone has an ear, let him hear.  If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.

T—Total Depravity

“All who dwell on the earth will worship the beast.” John declares that during the tribulation, every human will worship the beast, and by extension, the antichrist. Revelation 13:7 expressly says that it will include people from every ethnic group, language group, and nation. Verse 16 says that “all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave” will worship the antichrist. In other words, every human has the capacity to worship the devil and believe his lies.

It’s not just that humans are sinners. Total depravity means that we worship that which is evil. Nor is this confined to some future eschatological judgment on earth. Back before the flood God had already said that “every inclination of people’s hearts is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Total Depravity doesn’t mean that people are as evil as they could be, but it does mean that every one of their actions, inclinations, and desires are all corrupted by sin; so much so that they will worship the antichrist, were he on earth. You could say it this way: there is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who seeks for God; all have turned their own way.

This depravity is exactly what makes our salvation necessary.

U-Unconditional Election

“Everyone whose name has not been written from before the foundation of the world in the book of life.” While everyone is born depraved, and with the inclination toward worshiping the devil’s lies, that is not the end of the story. There is a sub-group of people that will be rescued from this, and they all have one thing in common: their names were written by God before the world was even created.

If you are a Christian, marvel that before your parents even met, God already knew you by name. Before our country was formed, before God spoke light into darkness, he knew you, and he knew you by name.

He didn’t know you because he saw that would do something good in your life. Rather, before you were “even born, or had done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose in election might stand,” God wrote the names down of the people whom he would save.

He didn’t write everyone’s name down. Also, he didn’t write family names, or church names, or nation’s names. That’s because he doesn’t save nations, churches or families—he saves people, people whom he has known before they were even alive.

John presents this book as the causal effect for why one group of people does not worship the antichrist. There will be lots of differences between them and the rest of humanity (holiness, purity, worship, faith, etc.). But none of those are presented as the causal difference. John instead identifies this book with names as what separates those who will be saved from those that will perish resisting the gospel. And this book was written before anyone was born.

This election is what makes our salvation possible.

L-Limited Atonement

“..the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.” While I prefer the phrase “definite atonement” or “particular redemption,” those would mess up the acronym, so we are stuck with limited atonement, which is probably the most controversial of the five points.

But when you look at the book John sees, you see one of the places this doctrine comes from. The book is titled “The Book of Life,” and the copyright date is “before Day 1.” The content is a list of names. But closer inspection reveals that this book has a subtitle: “The Book of Life: of the Lamb that was slain.”

The book which describes whom God will save was written in light of the means by which God would save them. Jesus did not simply die a generic death for people everywhere, but a specific death to take away the punishment for the sins of specific, named people.

The Lamb indicates that the death was substitutionary and efficacious. Jesus’ death was in our place, and was effective at removing the sins of all for whom he died—even the sin of unbelief. In fact, once the Lamb died, our salvation was so accomplished that Jesus himself could declare, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

The atonement is what accomplishes our salvation.

I- Irresistible Grace

“If anyone has an ear, let him hear.” John inserts a refrain from the seven letters (Revelation 2-3), which serves as an appeal for those who are spiritual to see the spiritual truth which he is describing. And of course this is an adaptation of Jesus’ own explanation of why he taught in parables: “So that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven” (Mark 4:12).

If Jesus accomplished our salvation at the cross, how come people whose names are in the book of life spend much of their lives running from God and rejecting the gospel? Because of their depravity they are unwilling to turn and be saved, and this remains until God gives them spiritual ears to hear. This is called regeneration, and it has the effect of opening a person’s eyes to the truth, so that they can turn and be saved.

This happens in time, through the preaching of the word and the gift of faith. It is a work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8), and it results in a person able to hear spiritual truth through their faith (1 Corinthians 1:182 Corinthians 2:15, 4:3).

This grace is what makes our salvation a reality.

P—Perseverance of the Saints

“If anyone is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.” John now quotes Jeremiah 15:1-6, which was Yahweh’s response to Jeremiah’s question. Yahweh told Jeremiah to evacuate Jerusalem, and the question was, “where, exactly, should they all go?”

God’s proposed destinations were less than encouraging. He said that some of them could be killed by the beasts, some by birds, some by famine, and some by plagues. In short, if God wants them to go to jail, to jail they will go. If he has chosen some of them for death by the sword, then by the sword they will die.

What is that reference doing in Revelation 13? Well for Christians under the antichrist’s reign of terror, they too might wonder “Where should we go?” The answer is simple: God has already chosen each person’s end. Some the antichrist will throw in jail, and some he will kill with the sword. But despite their martyrdom, the antichrist cannot take their salvation away. They may die a martyr’s death, but their names cannot be removed from the book of life. The cannot take Jesus off the cross, and he cannot take the Spirit out of believer’s hearts. And because their names are in the book, and Jesus did die for their sins, and they do have spiritual ears to hear, then they will overcome. Or, as John says, “this is the perseverance of the saints.”

Such a promise encourages believers to hold onto the grace that is holding onto them. It compels us to trust God even in the midst of horrific persecution.

This perseverance is what makes our salvation a certainty.

Taken together, these verses explain salvation by showing:

The condition that required it (depravity)

The predestination that allows it (election)

The substitution that achieves it (atonement)

The illumination that gives it (regenerative grace)

The sovereignty that keeps it (perseverance).

Source: The Cripplegate

“Of course  it’s true, it’s on the Internet!”

We laugh at that notion, as if no one with of a functioning brain would swallow such a ridiculous idea! Only a complete idiot would believe that!

At the same time, some of us who profess Christ would subscribe to a slightly different notion:

“The music is fantastic, it MUST be a great church!”

Well, don’t we? (Rhetorical question) Whether it’s tender lyrics that make us feel all loved and warm inside, electric guitar riffs accompanied by loud pounding drums reminscent of our non-believing days, or somewhere in between, we automatically assume we’re in a great church!

But is it true, or are we getting ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, like B. J. Thomas used to sing. (aging myself?)

At ths point I have to admit that I have two specific ‘churches’ in mind, Hillsong and Bethel. I recently visited family in Texas and the music of both was glowingly spoken of. A friend at work, when I asked him if he had a good weekend, said yes and going to the recently released Hillsong movie was part of it. If you don’t know, it was billed primarily as ‘experiencing’ worship. You can hardly find a church thesemdaysmthat doesn’t play Hillsong and Bethel music on a regular basis.

In case you think / this a Hillsong/Bethel bash fest, don’t worry, it’s not. I’ll leave it to you to investigate their respective ‘doctrines’, vision statements, etc.
Some of you won’t have an issue with Word of Faith, the prosperity gospel, glory clouds, gold dust, dead raising teams, etc.. If you are one of those, I encourage you to read the Bible, in context, and ask yourself if they are biblical.

In fact, I would ask us all to be a bit more discerning when it comes to both contemporary Christian music and the doctrine(s) held by the churches who have laid classical theology rich hymns aside in order to attract more of the ‘unchurched’. Hillsong and Bethel aren’t the only ones dispensaing spiritual junk food.

While you’re examining the church behind the music, also ask yourself if the preaching there is more about you and your felt needs, or God and his glory.

Happy discerning!

Responding to Miracle Claims

by Eric Davis at The Cripplegate

clip_image002“But I’m telling you, I saw it! I was there and it really happened.”

Often miracle claims are brought before us. Fairly regularly, I hear of things like local, impromptu, evangelistic, healing events during which individuals were approached at random, prayed over, and healed of some various physical ailment. The claim might be followed by an individual testifying sincerely that it happened or a video documenting the healing miracle as undeniable proof that the pain departed, the crutches dropped, or the oppression lifted. Excitement erupts. God is at work. The Spirit is moving. It’s a God thing. How could it not be?

But is it? How should we respond to these things? After all, well-meaning and sincere professing Christians saw it and documented it, so how could it be denied? Why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit want to do that? And doesn’t that mean that the Spirit wants to use us in such ways?

It’s astonishing how flippantly we Christians sometimes claim miracles. Scripture beckons us to exercise great caution here. In this order, here is how I would generally respond to a friend’s miracle claim:

1. It’s probably best to avoid denying the individual’s experience.

Usually, it’s more profitable to avoid playing the “that-didn’t-happen” card. Granted, it may not have. But this can quickly deteriorate into a, “No it didn’t!” “Yes it did!” ping-pong match. And, something very well may have happened (see #7, 8, and 9 below).

Instead of bringing our negation to bear on their experience, we owe it to the individual to bring the word of God to bear. That way, the authority of inerrant Scripture, rather than our “Nuh-uhh,” becomes the issue.

Further, it’s helpful to ask, “What do you mean by a miracle?” Child-birth, for example, though remarkable, is not a miracle. A miracle is when God works contrary to his established laws of creation (e.g. raising the dead).

2. God can do miracles and it’s ok to pray for them.

clip_image004And praise him that he has, can, and does. Our God sits in the heavens and does whatever he pleases. It has pleased him to divide seas and rivers, rewind days, and cease storms. And though nature miracles have been, for the most part, limited to a few small clusters of history (Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Christ and the apostles), spiritual miracles have not been. The greatest miracle is turning depraved spiritual corpses into regenerate children of God.

And it’s ok to pray for miracles. Whether it be a debilitating disease, traumatic accident, or salvation, it’s loving to pray for miracles in these kinds of situations.

But the argument typically goes beyond this: “So you’re saying that God can’t/won’t do miracles?!” The case seems closed because we never want to say that God cannot do something. But the discussion is broader than that. The existence of Scripture as God’s authoritative word has massive implications on proper understanding of life’s experiences, especially the miraculous. Speaking of which…

3. When it comes to miracles, or any experience, our experiences and perceptions must not be our interpretive authority.

Our interpretive authority is that criteria by which we interpret experiences and perceptions so as to make absolute conclusions about them. Generally, there exist two interpretive authorities; God’s word and everything else (e.g. human reasoning, a textbook, famous philosophers, majority opinion, false religion). For example, if I interpret every bad dream I have as Satan attacking me because a friend told me it was so, my interpretive authority is that friend, not Scripture.

In each stream of life, we exercise some interpretive authority. When it comes to experiencing and perceiving miracles, Scripture is to be our interpretive authority. Why? Because of what Scripture is; God-breathed revelation (2 Tim. 3:16-17, 2 Pet. 1:20-21). The repercussions of what Scripture is are major. Since it is God-breathed, it is inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient as our interpretive authority (Ps. 12:6, 119:89; Prov. 30:5; John 17:17; Titus 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:3).

Much of this boils down to, “How do we know what we know?” It’s a question of knowledge and authority. And I wish that more of my miracle-claiming friends would dwell longer on this matter because this is the heart of the issue. Far more than being about, “I saw it!” or, “Come on, don’t you believe God can do miracles?!”, this is about how we know what we know.

Since Scripture is the word of God, it is authoritative in determining what we know. It overrides everything as our interpretive authority. Which is to say, God’s interpretation overrides man’s interpretation, no matter how intense the experience was. So, before confidently attributing a miracle to a thing that God seems to be doing, we need be prepared to submit to Scripture.

clip_image006Consider an example. Imagine that you unexpectedly lose your job and are short $1500 for a month’s budget. So, you and three friends fast for one day. At the end of the day, you pray together for an hour on top of a local mountain. The next day, an anonymous check shows up for $1500. If we used experience as our interpretive authority, we would conclude that fasting with three friends for a day and praying for an hour on a mountain is the means to get big prayers answered. If we used Scripture as our interpretive authority, we would find no such formula. We would find that God is good, sovereign over all things, and does as he pleases. Also, we would find individuals sometimes failing to receive what they ask for in prayer (e.g. 2 Cor. 12:8-9). Would this mean that we cease fasting and praying? No, because Scripture contains commands for both. More generally, our correlations must go no further than what Scripture permits.

Even the miracle-working apostle Peter took this route. In 2 Peter 1:16-21, he recalls the incredible experience of Christ’s transfiguration. But he concludes that Scripture is the “more sure” authority and source of knowledge (2 Pet. 1:19). In effect, Peter is saying, “Look, the Bible, rightly understood, is to be my absolute guide in determining what I should conclude about my experiences.” By application, then, Peter would say to us, “You and others seem to have experienced some healings? Ok, I have some miracle experience. But, before you celebrate, ‘These are real miracles! And the Spirit is working through us!’ go to the thing that can tell you exactly how to understand your experience; the Bible. Because there is more going on here than you might think.” And Peter might say, “Are you more interested in submitting to everything that the Bible has to say about miracles or being able to believe and tell others that a miracle happened?”

Scripture is to form my conclusions more than my opinions, desires, and even experiences. And if not, then, whether intentionally or not, I am saying, “Well, God, yes, you have spoken about this issue by your Spirit. But, I do not want to take into consideration everything you’ve said. So, I am going to hold to my biased, poorly informed view on this matter and call it a ‘God thing’ anyways.”

But this will not do. We are prohibited from interpreting miracles in a way contrary to Scripture.

And if it is determined that a miracle did occur, praise God! Give him glory. And stay focused on what Scripture commands, which does not include the chasing of, or fixation upon, miracles.

4. No one has the spiritual gift of miracles and healing as defined in Scripture.

clip_image008This not to say that miracles never happen through people (see #’s 7, 8, and 9 below). But it is to say that no one possesses the gift of miracles and healing as it is described in the NT. It’s at this point that many of my charismatic friends walk away from the conversation. But I would urge them to honestly study the issue from Scripture.

When the first century closed, the spiritual concrete had been poured for the footers and foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). All that Jesus did through the apostles was poured into the forms upon which our church rests today. The apostolic gifts, the miracles, the ecclesiological pioneering, the inspiration of the canon—it all rests in the foundation giving the stability of the church for some twenty centuries so far.

And on a lesser note, if individuals did possess the NT gift of healing and miracles, then they should be flown every day to a different ICU around the world.

5. Miracle claims should be verified.

If actual physiological miracle-healings are occurring, then let’s get medical professionals involved. Let’s have them pull up the records, confirm the previous ailment, and verify physiologically that the healing occurred. Go get the X-Ray, MRI, CT, or exam from your regular GP. Have them compare your last physical and verify that the “miracle” was indeed so; that it is not regressing or a temporary pain relief that is coming back or some placebo effect. That way, they can see it for themselves, and, more importantly, here about the Jesus who propitiated the wrath of God due their sin in order to give them the miracle of the new birth. But of course, if they will not believe the more-sure Scriptures, then neither will a miracle convince them (cf. Luke 16:31).

Claims of miracles ought to be verified so that glory can be given to God.

6. Biblical miracles had distinct characteristics.

Healing miracles in Scripture were profound displays of God’s power. We could define a biblical healing as God’s power demonstrated through a human mediator with the result that a specific physiological ailment was instantaneously, completely, and undeniably healed. They were not gradual. No follow-up healing appointments were required. And they typically involved a major display of power. Quadriplegics walked. The blind saw. The dead were raised

When Peter did miracles (Acts 3:8, 9:40), he was not shooing away aches, adding an inch to a leg, or lifting emotional clouds. Nor did he have to repeat incantations in the name of Jesus with increasing force and volume to warm up the Holy Spirit. With a word, God repaired spinal cords, neurons, atrophied limbs, and death. Thus, we should compare our miracle claims to those of Scripture.

7. Miracles can be performed by those who worship false gods.

The presence of legitimate miracles is no sign that it is a God thing. In fact, it could be a Satan thing.

clip_image009For example, prior to Israel’s exodus, the pagan Egyptian magicians were able to perform three of the miracles. They turned their staffs into snakes (Exod. 7:11-12), changed the Nile into blood (Exod. 7:22), and made frogs come up on the land (Exod. 8:7). And, during the Tribulation, Satan and his associates will perform various signs and wonders (cf. Rev. 13:3, 13).

I’ve heard miracle claims from both sides of redemption. For every one miraculous thing that someone’s uncle’s cousin’s co-worker’s son’s friend’s missionary friend whose name he can’t remember saw in an unverifiable African village in the name of God, there are three miraculous things that a close friend experienced in a verifiable pagan festival in our town in the name of Gaia. I’ve heard of many miracles from professing believers. And I’ve heard many from professing unbelievers.

I don’t know if these claims are authentic. But I do know this: Satan is an angel of light. He’s capable of doing powerful things through pagans. Unbelievers are, whether knowingly or not, servants of Satan. A miracle is not an automatic sign that God’s favor is among us.

8. God has used miracles to test individuals.

At times in history, God has permitted miracles, not to bless, but test. Israel was warned accordingly:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God…” (Deut. 13:1-5).

In 1 Kings 22, God permitted a “deceiving spirit” to enter some 400 prophets to give false counsel.

And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (1 Kings 22:19-23).

Though not a miracle per se, the incident demonstrates that God has permitted teachers who profess faith in him to be led astray by satanic influence for retributive reasons. In this case, 400 supposed teachers of God’s word were caused to falsely prophesy. All of this suggests that we should exercise restraint with miracle (and prophecy) claims.

9. Miracles in the name of Christ by professing Christians are no sign of the presence of salvation or true Christian worship.

One of the most sobering passages in Scripture comes from Matthew 7.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23).

According to Jesus, not few, but many people assume that they are going to heaven, but will be turned away in the judgment. These will be individuals who professed Christ as Lord and performed “many miracles” in his name. They assumed that they believed in Jesus. They approached people, commanded healings in the name of Jesus, and experienced apparent miracles. Those were the things they often looked to and counted on as God’s blessing and the presence of the Spirit. However, Jesus says there will be a large number of such individuals who are sent to hell.

10. True signs of the Holy Spirit have nothing to do with miraculous healings.

Much of this issue centers on widespread, erroneous pneumatology in our day. Evangelicalism has capriciously assigned works to the Holy Spirit which God does not. Thus, it behooves us to carefully study who the Spirit is and what he does.

Miracles can be performed by devout pagans and Satan. Many individuals performing miracles in the name of Jesus will be turned away by Christ in the judgment. Therefore, the presence of miracles is no evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work.

11. Miracles were not part of Christ’s commanded mission, nor considered evangelism.

Often healing-evangelism is excitedly recounted as, “We were able to encourage many people with God’s healing love!” along with a report of the various healings. But more importantly, did those with departed back pain hear that God is willing to divert their due, eternal pain if they mourn their sin and surrender in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ? In other words, did evangelism occur? Which is to say, did we really love them?

clip_image011In the NT, the concept and doing of evangelism always has to do with preaching the content of Christ crucified in the place of sinful man that he might repent and be reconciled to God under the lordship of Christ. If our evangelism merely consists of telling people that God wants to heal and bless them, then we have fallen short of evangelism.

Proper understanding of miracle claims requires God’s word as our interpretive authority. A brief consideration of Scripture’s teaching on miracles demands we exercise caution with respect to their claims. We must interpret miracles in light of the many things which Scripture has to say about the matter. The miracle that we can say is the work of God with absolute certainty is salvation. Other than that, there are a variety of possibilities which must be carefully considered before we cry, “Miracle!”

Biblical Fundamentalism*

By Pastor Gary Gilley, Southern View Chapel

Think on These Things Articles

(Volume 22, Issue 2, Mar/Apr 2016)

I am a Fundamentalist. There I said it. And yet, although I inherited a few guns I don’t know where the bullets are. I don’t hate anyone, not even my neighbor whose cat keeps my songbird population thinned out. Knowing my own weaknesses and sinfulness I refrain from being particularly judgmental of others. Some might call me a “Bible-thumper” but I have not actually thumped anyone with a Bible since junior high when I was trying to impress the girls (I learned many years later that punching girls did not impress them nearly as much as I originally thought). I have some strong preferences and opinions about everything from politics to entertainment (just ask me), but I recognize that not everyone shares all my views and I am at peace with that. I believe in separation from sinful practices and compromising associations, but I do not hide out in a wilderness refuge in an effort to stay as far away from “sinners” as I can. And horrors of horrors, I will tune into CNN as much as Fox News – which may cause me to lose my Fundamentalist membership card in the eyes of some. Nevertheless, I, and those like me, are among the most despised, marginalized, suspected, criticized and misunderstood people on the planet. So it is with good reason that few today want to identify with the label Fundamentalist. When asked how we would like to be identified we might say we are evangelicals, but that term lost all its meaning many years ago. Perhaps “conservative evangelicals” might be better. Yet Fundamentalism is a good word, when properly understood and biblically informed. Unfortunately, even among many Christians, Fundamentalism is an unattractive term and much of the blame lies with Fundamentalists. Part of the problem is this – too often biblical Fundamentalism has been highjacked by cultural Fundamentalists, and few know the difference. But before we look at the important distinctions in more detail we should back up and take an overview of the historical development of Fundamentalism.

Roots of Fundamentalism

The 1800s proved to be years in which evangelicalism was radically changing, especially in English-speaking societies. As the world moved into the nineteenth century, the effects of the Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the 1730s-1740s in America and the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys in England were largely a memory. Those reading the accounts of these earlier movements of God longed for something similar but many seemed willing to settle for the outward emotionalism of revivalism [1] rather than follow the content-oriented approach of their fathers. Thus, when the so-called Second Great Awakening began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1800, subsequently spreading throughout much of New England and parts of the American south, it had a very different flavor from what Edwards and his peers experienced. Edwards believed the Great Awakening was a true revival sent by the Lord, but he also knew that intermingled were excesses, pretenders and “false spirits.” What took place in the first half of the nineteenth century flipped the ratio. While there were undoubtedly true conversions and fervor for the Lord, there was much that was little more than fleshly passion. Nineteenth century believers longed for a spiritual experience that the camp revivals and traveling evangelists seemed to provide. A good motivational speaker, such as Charles Finney, could draw huge crowds to hear his messages which often provided sensational, if temporary, results. Churches would be packed during “revivals,” but sadly, after the evangelists had moved on, life returned to normal and church attendance did as well. It did not take pastors long to figure out that if they wanted large, enthusiastic meetings they would have to dump their more subdued method of teaching the Bible and offer revival-style services complete with “new means” that were field-tested and handed down by Finney and other lesser-known revivalists. This soon led to a predictable pattern. People would be whipped into emotional frenzies by evangelists and pastors through the use of new and creative techniques which were devoid of solid biblical content. When the emotions subsided, a new round of similar methods was needed to bring back the “revival.” One critic of the Finney-style revivals wrote in 1858, “Singing, shouting, jumping, talking, praying, all at the same time… in a crowded house, filled to suffocations, which led to people having fits and giving their names as converts but, as soon as the excitement was over, falling away.” [2]

This cycle became so common that certain sections of New England, especially the state of New York, became known as the “Burnt-over District” where the fire of revival meetings had swept so often through some areas that people ultimately had grown resistant to the things of God. To this day, these regions remain perhaps the most spiritually hardened parts of the American landscape. It is interesting, however, that in the mid-1800s many of the major cults that are prominent today emerged from the “Burnt-over District.” In addition, numerous utopian societies arose at the same time and place, each offering some form of heaven on earth. All of these things appear to be the direct result of revivalism of the early 1800s which heavily promoted emotional excesses while minimizing the study of the Scriptures.

Developing Fundamentalism

All these things dovetailed to create much confusion and division within Christian circles. By the mid-1800s, some were seeing a need to push back and establish criteria by which a true evangelical could be identified. In 1846 “the Evangelical Alliance was formed to bring together the Protestants all over the world who were the heirs of the awakening of the previous [18th] century.” [3] The Evangelical Alliance confirmed the standard conservative doctrines of the faith but offered four important hallmarks of an evangelical:

  • Belief in the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of Scripture,
  • Acknowledging the centrality of the cross upon which the sacrifice of Jesus provided the way of salvation for men,
  • Affirming the need for conversion in which by repentance and faith a sinner becomes a new creature in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and
  • Activism in which the child of God is busy presenting the gospel and ministering to those in need. [4]

Those who rejected the doctrinal orthodoxy of the World Evangelical Alliance (as it was also called) attempted to infiltrate it with liberal theology, but when that failed they withdrew in 1894 to form their own organization, The Open Church League, which later was renamed the National Federation of Churches and Christian Workers in 1900. By 1950 the National Federation was reorganized as the National Council of Churches. [5] This breaking away by the liberal factions and the forming of their own organization led ultimately to the demise of the World Evangelical Alliance. It is noteworthy, in light of the common misunderstanding that conservative Christians are the source of most ecclesiastical disunity, that it was the liberals “who separated from the evangelicals to found their own organizations to promote church union among those who rejected the authority of Holy Scripture.” [6] Liberals, both in the past and today, desire unity, but do so at the expense of doctrinal purity. They are happy to join hands with any except those who insist on certain essential truths remaining foundational to unity.

The Great Divide

By the last decades of the 1800s liberal theologians (known as modernists in the late 1800s) were bringing German rationalism into English speaking churches, especially in America. Many in these churches, pastors and laymen alike, had long since abandoned the careful study and teaching of Scripture, allowing their churches to become fertile ground for heretical ideas, especially since the liberals often disguised their teachings by using the same words that evangelicals used but giving those words new meanings. Added to these factors was a move from Enlightenment thinking with its preciseness to Romanticism with its impreciseness and emphasis on feeling and experience over theology and Scripture. [7] All of these threads were drawn together during the second half of the nineteenth century to produce a radical makeover in Christianity. The cardinal doctrines held dear by evangelicals since at least the Reformation were now being jettisoned. And with the denial of essential biblical truth came a shift in the focus and purpose of the church. If the incarnation was in doubt and the Scriptures suspect and theology itself under attack, then that left social action as the mission of the church. And thus was born what would be called the “social gospel.”

By the early 1900s, most theological liberals had made social concerns central to their understanding of the gospel. Historian George Marsden writes, “While not necessarily denying the value of the traditional evangelical approach of starting with evangelism, social gospel spokesmen subordinated such themes, often suggesting that stress on evangelism had made American evangelicalism too other-worldly… and individualistic… Such themes fit well with the emerging liberal theology of the day.” [8] “The theology of the day” was increasing acceptance of Darwinian theories, higher critical attacks on the Scriptures and Freudian redefining of human nature. In light of these modern challenges to the Bible and conservative evangelical thought, liberal theologians believed Christianity needed to change to survive. That which was unacceptable to modern man, such as the incarnation, the atonement, creationism, inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc., had to be rejected. That which was acceptable and appreciated by the culture was to be retained and emphasized. Western societies had little problem with the social agenda, and as time moved forward the church accommodated such thinking. Of course not everyone was in lockstep with the social gospel, but by the turn of the 20 th century virtually all the major denominations, schools, seminaries and Christian agencies had been infiltrated by liberal thinking, and by the 1920s they had capitulated almost entirely. The test of orthodoxy had shifted from what one believed to how one lived. As Marsden states it, “The key test of Christianity was life, not doctrine.” [9] Drawing from Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Christian liberalism, what increasingly mattered was experience and not truth. Renald Showers observes:

“Liberal Protestant advocates of the social gospel declared that the church should be concerned primarily with this world. It should divert its efforts from the salvation of individuals to the salvation of society. The church should bring in the kingdom of God on earth instead of teaching about a future, theocratic kingdom to be established in Person by Jesus Christ… The Church was to save the world, not be saved out of it.” [10]

Conservatives fought against the modernistic drift of Christianity through various means such as booklets entitled The Fundamentals and the writings of such men as Princeton professor J. Gresham Machen. Machen, in his classic book Christianity and Liberalism, called liberalism a different religion altogether. Machen warned during this turbulent period, “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.” [11] His insight has proven all too sadly to be true. But neither Machen nor other conservatives were able to rescue the denominations and schools, as Princeton itself officially rejected its doctrinal roots and adopted liberalism in 1929. It was left to the conservatives to either stay within their systems and work to redeem them or separate and start new denominations, schools, churches and ministries. Many took this latter route, with Machen himself starting Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929 and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. Many others from all denominations would follow suit resulting in the founding of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the Conservative Baptists, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Mission agencies, seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary and numerous parachurch organizations would be started during this era. According to Marsden, 26 schools tied to Fundamentalism were founded during the Great Depression. [12] The conservatives focused on evangelism, theological training and discipleship, while the liberals were increasingly defined by the social gospel accompanied by their view of the kingdom. To the liberals the “kingdom was not future or otherworldly, but ‘here and now.’ It was not external, but an internal, ethical and religious force based on the ideas of Jesus.” [13]

The Second Great Divide

The colossal differences between liberals and conservatives were crystallized around the turn of the century with the subsequent division of the two camps occurring in the 1920s and 1930s. At this point the conflict was often referred to as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy but, as the years rolled by, another division was looming, this one among the Fundamentalists. By the 1940s the question of cultural and social engagement had arisen within the Fundamentalists’ camps. The original Fundamentalists, perhaps oversensitive to the social gospel that was at the heart of liberalism, often pushed away from any form of social action. In time, some felt that they had gone too far and needed to become more involved with the culture and improve society, as well as preach the gospel. This ultimately led to a split within the conservative camp. The Fundamentalists would take on more separatists’ views, that is, they would separate from any who taught false doctrines and, rather than try to infiltrate society, they would live as lights of the gospel calling people to Christ. On the other hand, the opposing position would be termed new (or neo) evangelical. Neo-evangelicals believed that the church had the mandate not only to win and disciple the lost but to engage the culture and make the world a better place to live by changing social structures that cause grief and suffering. Many see 1957 as the year of the official rupture between Fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals, for it was that year that the two groups divided over Billy Graham accepting an invitation to conduct a crusade in New York City sponsored by a consortium of conservative and liberal churches. The Fundamentalists opposed Graham while neo-evangelicals made him the face of their movement. [14] Since that time neo-evangelicals have become better organized, more influential, and more widely funded as they have united over many causes, both spiritual and cultural. Evangelicals, however, have not been without their problems. The movement has continued to spread and broaden theologically to the point that defining the word “evangelical” has become an exercise in futility. Conservatives, Pentecostals, Prosperity Gospel proponents, and even many Roman Catholics are all claiming the title evangelical, although the doctrinal beliefs between these factions differ widely. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, perhaps because of their very nature as separatists, have been increasingly marginalized and content to go about the business of fulfilling the Great Commission.

As we have now made the turn into the 21st century we can look back with some insights and some questions. Liberalism, which seemed to have won the day as the 20th century dawned, has lost most of its steam. Evangelicals make most of the waves today, but in order to do so, they have had to increasingly widen their views, practices and doctrines to include those they would have deemed heretical in the mid-1900s. They seem to be united mostly over social action rather than the Great Commission. Without question, it is the Fundamentalists who have been able to safeguard the gospel and the Scriptures, even as they have lost influence in society. As one student of the church has correctly observed, “At root, however, it is a question of how to engage the culture without losing one’s soul. Fundamentalism feared losing its soul and did not engage the culture; evangelicalism feared being different from the culture and is in danger of losing its soul.” [15]

In the 1920s and 1930s differences between conservative and liberal churches came to a head in America. Out of that controversy came new denominations, fellowships, schools, missions, etc., which separated from those who no longer believed in biblical Christianity. These organizations were founded by believers who desired to hold fast and “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). One of the big problems at that time (as it is today) was developing a consensus concerning the essentials of the faith. That is, what doctrinal truths were absolutely necessary? What did all Christians who claimed to be orthodox believe and, conversely, what could be left to individual convictions? In other words, what was non-negotiable in the faith? A series of volumes, published originally in 1909 entitled The Fundamentals for Today (mentioned earlier in this article), were an attempt to answer those questions. Written by some of the finest conservative scholars and church leaders of the day, The Fundamentals addressed the doctrines of Christology and soteriology, but almost one third of the essays concerned the reliability of Scripture. What emerged from this has become known as the Fundamentalist movement. A Fundamentalist was simply one who adhered to the fundamentals of the faith, primarily as described in The Fundamentals. One of those fundamentals was the belief in an infallible and inerrant Bible.

As time moved on, those who would become known as evangelicals split from Fundamentalism. Evangelicals still held to the fundamentals of the faith, but believed there was more room to compromise and work with those who denied some of the essentials. Of course, today there are many sub-groupings under these titles, but that is not our subject. Our point is that, by definition, all Fundamentalists and evangelicals supposedly adhere to the belief that the Bible is the only authoritative revelation from God to man, without error in the original, and is correct in all that it affirms. So how do the two differ?

Definitions

The primary caricature of Fundamentalism is that it is in essence legalism. Legalism is one of the hot-button words that everyone seems to use and few know what it is – they just “know” they are not personally legalistic (almost no one would say he identifies himself as legalist). In declaring Fundamentalists as legalistic the most common comparison offered is with that of the Pharisees, with the idea that Fundamentalists are modern day Pharisees hung up on external rules, comparisons and judgmentalism. Jesus certainly condemned the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and judgmentalism but the heart of Pharisaic legalism had more to do with their handling of Scripture than rule-keeping. In Mark 7:1-13 (and the parallel passage in Matthew 15:1-9) Jesus’ concern ran much deeper than the practices of the Pharisees – all the way to their handling, or should I say, mishandling of the Word of God.

The encounter (as recorded in Mark 7) between Jesus and the Pharisees took place somewhere in Galilee, probably after the feeding of the 5000. The Pharisees, as a religious sect, followed the teachings of the scribes, who were the official interpreters of the Mosaic Law and the guardians of its sanctity. Their interpretations formed the basis for the practices of the Pharisees. In verses 3-4 Mark, who is writing primarily to Gentiles, adds a footnote of sorts because he realizes that many of his readers will not understand why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus. We are at the same disadvantage. In dispute was the tradition of the elders (v.5). This was a body of minute regulations passed down orally by leading rabbis. Later these traditions were recorded in the Mishna; later still a commentary on the Mishna called the Gemara was added. Together they would make up the Talmud, a Jewish religious book that, in reality, became more important to the Jews than the Scriptures. The oral tradition probably started with the best of intentions. The rabbis, during the intertestamental period, sought to protect the sacred law of Moses by “putting a fence” around it in the form of detailed rules which would regulate every aspect of daily conduct. They developed extremely detailed rituals concerning ceremonial washings of hands and the body. The Law itself required such purification only for the priests under certain circumstances (Lev 16:4, 24, 26; 22:6), and for others on specific occasions such as purification from disease (Lev 14:8-9; 15:5-27). The Pharisees apparently decided that if it was good enough for the priest it was good enough for everybody. And so an elaborate system of washing (the Mishna devotes no less than 30 chapters to the cleansing of vessels) was established. By the time of Jesus, any Jew who wanted to be considered pious followed the Pharisee’s oral tradition.

Today Christians do not officially have an authoritative oral tradition or a written Mishna, but it is not uncommon to develop their own traditions and standards that are elevated to biblical proportions. We will fight, split churches, and demonize fellow believers over styles of music, theater attendance, versions of the Bible, whether women can wear slacks, holiday observances and myriad of other issues. Like the Pharisees we have convinced ourselves that our convictions have the support of Scripture and therefore to not follow them is equal to disobedience to God. When we do so we have moved into the realm of legalism. At this point it is important to determine how Jesus described legalism in Mark seven. According to Jesus legalism is:

  • Hypocrisy (v. 6a): The ancient word for hypocrite was used for actors on the stage who wore masks. In other words they were play actors. Hypocrites are people who are radially inconsistent with what they claim to be.
  • Lip-service not heart service (v. 6b). While they make great boasts about how much they love the Lord, and how they worship and honor Him, the truth is they do none of these things with their hearts.
  • Elevating man’s ideas to the level of doctrine (v. 7). When we confuse our opinions, convictions, and traditions with the doctrines of God we magnify ourselves and degrade God. Before long we can no longer distinguish between what is from God and what is our own creation.
  • Neglecting the commandments of God (v. 8). Legalism is not obedience to God; it is just the opposite. When the opinions and rituals of men begin to dominate the spiritual lives of people, they inevitably lead to neglect of the commandments of God.
  • Invalidating the Word of God (v. 13). Going one step further, legalists have abandoned and devalued the Word of God by replacing it with their own opinions, preferences and convictions, which undermine God’s Word.

Legalism is not having strong convictions, loving traditions or being sticklers for rules. Legalism happens anytime people take away from or trump the Word of God with their own opinions, ideas, convictions or traditions. This would mean that both theological liberals and conservatives could be legalist. The liberal invalidates the Word by saying it is unimportant, old fashioned, out of date, not politically correct or not really God’s Word. Therefore they subtract from the Word and replace it with their own ideas. The conservative, who claims to have a deep love for the Bible, can add his own views and convictions to the Divine Revelation and elevate them to the level and authority of Scripture. Both are legalists, and both are guilty of the sins that Jesus identifies as being the sins of the Pharisees. Today some theological conservatives have fallen into the legalistic trap. These could be defined as “cultural Fundamentalists.”

Distinctions

We are happy to be described as biblical Fundamentalists, but we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from cultural Fundamentalism. We see a number of important differences between the two.

Authority : Biblical Fundamentalism draws its understandings from the clear record of Scripture and believes God’s Word is the final authority on everything it touches (2 Tim 3:16-4:5). Cultural Fundamentalism, much like the Pharisaic legalism described above, tends to add personal, or corporate preferences and convictions to the inspired revelation and, in reality, these additions hold more weight than Scripture in matters of practice.

Sanctification : While cultural Fundamentalism emphasizes rules and regulations either as a means of spiritual growth or a measure of it, biblical Fundamentalism seeks to emphasize walking in the Spirit as outlined in texts such as Galatians 5:16-25.

Leadership : Some Fundamentalists exercise an authoritarian or dictatorial style of leadership which is often characterized by harshness. Biblical Fundamentalists see the importance of leadership but seek to live out the servant leadership style Jesus modelled and espoused in the Upper Room (Luke 22:24-27).

Attitude toward others : Whereas Fundamentalists are often accused of being judgmental and condemnatory toward those who do not measure up to their standard, biblical Fundamentalists seek to call one another to godly living with grace. They recognize their responsibility to restore those who struggle or have fallen into sin, but they also recognize that only the grace of God keeps them from similar failures (Gal 6:1-2). Therefore they desire to show the same grace as the Lord shows them, without minimizing the importance of obedience. Romans 14:1-4 makes clear that even the strongest of believers will differ over certain preferences and convictions which are not clearly defined in Scripture. We are not to look down upon those who do not agree with us nor judge them, for they are servants of Christ.

Separation : All Fundamentalists recognize the importance of the scriptural doctrine of separation (2 Cor 6:14-18) – it is one of the marks that distinguish them from many who call themselves evangelicals. But biblical Fundamentalists do not believe in isolation. They want to be engaged with this world, rescuing people from this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4), being lights in the world who reflect the love, grace and truth of Christ (Matt 5:14-16). The common criticism of Fundamentalists, that they don’t care about this present world, is not true of the biblical Fundamentalist.

Fear : Sadly, some within Fundamentalism have used intimidation to keep the troops in line. As a result the fear of man can be prominent. The biblical Fundamentalist seeks to guard their steps so as to not be a stumbling block to weaker believers (1 Cor 8:1-13), but their main concern is the fear of the Lord and pleasing Him (1 Cor 5:9).


* Recently I was asked to write an article for Voice magazine, the official organ of the IFCA International. This is basically the same article.

[1] Revivalism could be defined as an attempt to orchestrate a spiritual awakening through man-made techniques, and manipulation in contrast to revival which is often defined as a genuine movement of God.

[2] David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, the Age of Spurgeon and Moody (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), p.106.

[3] Ibid., p.21.

[4] See ibid., pp.22-40.

[5] Robert Lightner, Church-Union, a Layman’s Guide (Des Plaines, Illinois: Regular Baptist Press, 1971), pp.31-32.

[6] Ibid., p.62.

[7] See Bebbington, p.166.

[8] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p.29.

[9] Ibid., p.34.

[10] Renald E. Showers, What on Earth Is God Doing? (Bellmawr, NJ: Friends of Israel, 2005), pp.79-80.

[11] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p.137.

[12] Ibid., p.194

[13] Ibid., p.50.

[14] George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, p.73.

[15] John H. Armstrong, General Editor, The Compromised Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998), p.27.