The Injustice of Social Justice

Here is the fifth in a series of blog posts by Dr. John MacArthur concerning the social justice movement and its relationship to the the Gospel, posted at GTY. Here are the links to the first four posts.

Social Injustice and the Gospel by John MacArthur

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 1

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 2

Is the Controversy over “Social Justice” Really Necessary? by John MacArthur

On to The Article:

The Injustice of Social Justice

by John MacArthur

Friday, September 7, 2018

The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been that they shamelessly borrow fads and talking points from the unbelieving world. Today’s evangelicals evidently don’t believe the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God (1 Corinthians 3:19). Virtually any theory, ideology, or amusement that captures the fancy of secular pop culture will be adopted, slightly adapted, perhaps cloaked in spiritual-sounding language, propped up with specious proof texts, and peddled as an issue that is vital for evangelicals to embrace if we don’t want to become totally irrelevant.

That’s precisely how evangelicals in the mid-twentieth century became obsessed for several decades with positive thinking, self-esteem, and “Christian psychology.” After that, it was marketing savvy and promotional strategies. By the beginning of the twenty-first century it was postmodernism, repackaged and aggressively promoting itself as the Emerging Church movement.

Today, critical race theory, feminism, intersectional theory, LGBT advocacy, progressive immigration policies, animal rights, and other left-wing political causes are all actively vying for evangelical acceptance under the rubric of “social justice.”

Not every evangelical leader currently talking about social justice supports the full spectrum of radical causes, of course. Most (for the moment, at least) do not. But they are using the same rhetoric and rationale of victimhood and oppression that is relentlessly employed by secularists who are aggressively advocating for all kinds of deviant lifestyles and ideologies. Anyone who claims victim status can easily and effectually harness the emotional appeal of a plea for “social justice” both to gain support and to silence opposition.

Indeed, as social justice rhetoric has gained currency among evangelicals, just about every cause that is deemed politically correct in the secular world is steadily gaining momentum among evangelicals. It would be folly to pretend the social justice movement poses no threat whatsoever to evangelical conviction.

Evangelicals seldom explicitly define what they mean by “social justice”—possibly because if they gave an accurate definition of where that term came from and what it means in the secular academy, they might lose a lot of evangelical support. Countless critics have pointed out that the rhetoric of “social justice” is deeply rooted in Gramscian Marxism. For many decades, “social justice” has been employed as political shorthand by radical leftists as a way of calling for equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.

The rhetoric has been effective, and nowadays the typical social justice warrior is convinced that equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law are not sufficiently just; we haven’t achieved true social justice until we have equality of outcome, status, and wealth. That’s why we hear so much about income comparisons, racial quotas, and other statistics suggesting, for example, that systemic oppression by a male oligarchy is conclusively proved by the dearth of women who pursue careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Marxists, socialists, anarchists, and other radicals purposely use such arguments to foment resentment, class warfare, ethnic strife, tension between the genders, and other conflicts between various people groups, because in order to restructure society to fit their ideologies, they must first break down existing societal norms.

All of that is true, and the connection between Marxism and postmodern social justice rhetoric is surely a valid and important point. But it is even more vital that we as Christians employ the light of Scripture to scrutinize and evaluate the ideas currently being promoted in the name of social justice.

No Justice but God’s Justice

The Bible has much to say about justice. In the English Standard Version of the Bible, the word is used more than 130 times. It is never preceded by an adjective, except in Ezekiel 18:8, which speaks of “true justice.” It is occasionally paired with possessive pronouns. God Himself speaks of “my justice” twice in Scripture. Twice in prayers addressed to God, we read the expression “your justice.”

The point? There are not different flavors of justice. There is only true justice, defined by God Himself and always in accord with His character.

It is a fact that the Bible puts enormous stress on the charitable aspects of justice—goodwill toward all; compassion for the underprivileged; assistance for the fatherless and the widow; love for foreigners; and care for the poor, especially providing needy people with the necessities of life (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 140:12; Ezekiel 22:29).

But biblical justice is not a one-sided affair, showing partiality to the poor or disenfranchised in an effort to even the scales of privilege. In fact, Scripture expressly condemns that mentality as unjust (Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15).

Justice in Scripture is often paired with the words equity and righteousness. Equity means equal treatment for everyone under the law. Righteousness signifies that which is consistent with the demands of God’s law—including punishment for evildoers (Jeremiah 5:26-29); obedience to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7); penalties that fit the crime and are applied without partiality (Leviticus 24:17-22); and a strong work ethic, enforced by the principle that able-bodied people who refuse to work shouldn’t benefit from public charity (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Those aspects of true justice are conspicuously missing from the recent evangelical dialogue touting “social justice.” Instead, what we hear is an echo of the same accusatory rhetoric and political slogans being shouted by secular social justice warriors. That fact ought to awaken the Berean urge in every Christian.

Widening the Gospel

Even more troubling are statements that have been made by certain evangelical thought leaders who claim that anyone who doesn’t advocate for social justice is preaching a truncated gospel. Some say that those who reject their social justice ideology don’t have any gospel at all. Anthony Bradley, Chair of Religious and Theological Studies at The King’s College, recently posted this remark online:

“Here’s the problem (and this will be hard): from a black church perspective, evangelicals have never had the gospel. Ever. Read the book Doctrine A[nd] Race. Here then is the actual Q: When will evangelicals embrace the gospel for the first time ever?”

Those who say such things typically bristle when critics compare their views to Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel. But the argument and most of the rhetoric are identical. Rauschenbusch was an early twentieth-century liberal theologian and author of a book titled A Theology for the Social Gospel. He taught that Christians need to repent not only for their personal transgressions but also for “social sins.” Like most of today’s evangelical social justice advocates, Rauschenbusch insisted (at first) that he had no agenda to do away with any vital gospel truth; he just wanted to widen the focus of the gospel so that it would encompass social evils as well as the issue of individual sin and redemption. But soon Rauschenbusch was saying things like this:

“Public evils so pervade the social life of humanity in all times and all places that no one can share the common life of our race without coming under the effect of these collective sins. He will either sin by consenting in them, or he will suffer by resisting them. Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B.C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A.D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society, and they in turn are causally connected with all private sins. [1] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: MacMillan, 1917), 247 (italics added).”

Several of America’s largest mainstream Protestant denominations eagerly imbibed Rauschenbusch’s ideas. All that did quickly drifted even further into liberalism until they had abandoned any commitment they might have had to the authority of Scripture. By then they had long since lost the gospel completely.

Why? Because those who let the culture, a political ideology, popular opinion, or any other extrabiblical source define “justice” for them will soon find that Scripture opposes them. If they are determined to retain their perverted idea of justice, they will therefore have to oppose Scripture.

Furthermore, every attempt to widen the scope of the gospel will ultimately put the gospel so far out of focus that its actual message will be lost.

The message of social justice diverts attention from Christ and the cross. It turns our hearts and minds from things above to things on this earth. It obscures the promise of forgiveness for hopeless sinners by telling people they are hapless victims of other people’s misdeeds.

It therefore fosters the works of the flesh instead of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.

Let Us Not Provoke One Another or Envy One Another

Christians are the last people who should ever become offended, resentful, envious, or unforgiving. Love “does not take into account a wrong suffered” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The mark of a Christian is turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, praying for those who mistreat us. Christ is the example whose steps we are to follow: “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).

Hatred, envy, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, hostility, divisiveness, bitterness, pride, selfishness, hard feelings, vindictiveness—and all similar attitudes of resentment—are the self-destructive works of the flesh. The beneficial fruit the Spirit produces are the exact opposite attitudes: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”  The NIV translates 1 Corinthians 13:5 this way: “[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.”

Such qualities, frankly, are in short supply in the rhetoric of those advocating for social justice.

Doing justice (i.e., biblical justice, not the secular substitute) together with loving mercy and walking humbly with God are all essential virtues. Those are the chief practical duties incumbent on every believer (Micah 6:8). Constantly complaining that we are victims of injustice while judging other people guilty of sins we cannot even see is antithetical to the Spirit of Christ.

As Christians, let’s cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, the qualities named in the Beatitudes, the virtues outlined in 2 Peter 1:5-7, and the characteristics of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13. Any notion of moral equity that omits or minimizes those righteous qualities has no right whatsoever to be called “justice.”

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Is the Controversy over "Social Justice" Really Necessary? by John MacArthur

Here is the fourth  in a series of blog posts by Dr. John MacArthur concerning the social justice movement and its relationship to the the Gospel, posted at GTY. Here are the links to the first three posts.

Social Injustice and the Gospel by John MacArthur

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 1

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 2

On to The Article:

Is the Controversy over “Social Justice” Really Necessary?

by John MacArthur

Monday, August 27, 2018

I do not relish controversy, and I particularly dislike engaging in polemical battles with other evangelical Christians. But as my previous posts in this series demonstrate, when the gospel is under attack from within the visible church, such controversy is necessary. And if it seems fierce disagreements within the church have been the rule rather than the exception, that’s because relentless attacks on the gospel from people professing fidelity to Christ have come in an unending parade since the very beginning of the church age. There has never been an extended period in church history when it has not been necessary for faithful voices to mount a vigorous defense of one or more cardinal biblical principles.

None of the controversies I’ve described in my previous posts sprang up suddenly. The lordship controversy, for example, was a conflict many of us saw coming more than a decade before I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus. The twisted gospel of the prosperity preachers has its roots in the Pentecostal movement going back to the early twentieth century. Normally we can see storm clouds brewing and anticipate where the next major assault is coming from.

But occasionally a new threat to the simplicity or clarity of the gospel seems to erupt with stunning force and suddenness. The current controversy over “social justice” and racism is an example of that. Four years ago, I would not have thought it possible for Bible-believing evangelicals to be divided over the issue of racism. As Christians we stand together in our affirmation of the second great commandment (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—Leviticus 19:18). We therefore stand together against every hint of racial animus.

Racism is a stain on American history that has left shame, injustice, and horrible violence in its wake. The institution of slavery and a costly civil war left a deep racial divide and bred bitter resentment on every side. No sensible person would suggest that all the vestiges of those evils were totally erased by the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Civil rights legislation now guards the legal principle of equal rights for all Americans, but no law can change the heart of someone who is filled with prejudice or bitterness.

Thankfully, however, much progress has been made. Racial relations in secular America are not what they were even fifty years ago. The American attitude has changed. White supremacy and all other expressions of purposeful, willful, or ideological racism are almost universally condemned.

As Christians we know that the human heart is evil, so undoubtedly there are still people who secretly harbor animosity against ethnicities other than their own. But any open expression of acrimony, ill will, or deliberate antagonism across ethnic lines will be scorned and emphatically rejected across the whole spectrum of mainstream American life today.

Of course, people everywhere still tend to be oblivious to or inconsiderate of customs, traditions, community values, and ethnic differences outside their own culture. Culture clash is a universal problem, not a uniquely American quandary—and it’s not necessarily an expression of ethnic hostility. But Americans’ contempt for racial bigotry is now so acute that even accidental cultural or ethnic insensitivity is regularly met with the same resentment as blind, angry racism—and even a simple social gaffe is likely to be treated the same as bigotry. There are people—increasing numbers of them—so obsessed with this issue that they seem able to find proof of racism in practically everything that is said or done by anyone who doesn’t share their worldview.

I understand when fallen, worldly people filled with resentment lash out at others that way. I don’t understand why Bible-believing Christians would take up that cause. I thought the evangelical church was living out true unity in Christ without regard for race. That has certainly been my experience in every church I’ve ever been part of, and it’s also what I have seen in the wider evangelical world. I don’t know of any authentically evangelical church where people would be excluded or even disrespected because of their ethnicity or skin color. Just last Sunday night—as we do every month—we received about a hundred new members into Grace Church. It was another testimony to God’s love crossing all ethnic lines, as the group was composed of Hispanics, Filipinos, Chinese, Ugandans, Nigerians, Mongolians, Koreans, Ukrainians, Armenians, Lithuanians, Russians, Austrians, people of Arabic descent, as well as black and white Americans.

As Christians we are reconciled with God and united with Christ. To understand that doctrine is to be reconciled with one another. This is a major emphasis in all the Bible’s teaching about forgiving one another as God has forgiven us. Christians should not be the ones dividing over race in a racially charged environment. We are the peacemakers and the lovers of all men. We don’t seek vengeance. We forgive seventy times seven.

And yet, as the issue of racial division has become more and more a focus in the secular academy and in the news media, evangelicals eager to engage the culture have taken up the issue. Unfortunately, many who have spoken on this issue have simply echoed the wisdom of this world rather than addressing the issue in a truly gospel-centered way. As a result, rancorous discourse over ethnic differences has eclipsed the gospel and divided the church—even among those evangelicals who might be most likely to self-describe as “gospel-centered Christians.”

It’s quite common these days for Christian leaders addressing this issue to call for people who have never harbored a racist thought to confess the guilt of racism because their ancestors may have been racists. Expressions of repentance have been demanded of white evangelicals for no actual transgression, but because they are perceived to have benefited from “white privilege.” Supposedly, their skin color automatically makes them culpable for the racism of the past. One influential evangelical leader, in an article titled “We Await Repentance for Assassinating Dr. King,” suggested that racial reconciliation in the church cannot even start until white Christians confess their parents’ and grandparents’ complicity in “murdering a man who only preached love and justice” (meaning Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).

So by this view of “social justice,” a person’s skin color might automatically require a public expression of repentance—not merely for the evils of his ancestors’ culture, but also for specific crimes he cannot possibly have been guilty of.

There’s nothing remotely “just” about that idea, and certainly nothing related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The answer to every evil in every heart is not repentance for what someone else may have done, but repentance for our own sins, including hatred, anger, bitterness, or any other sinful attitude or behavior.

As Christians committed to the authority of Scripture and the truth of the gospel, we have better answers than the world could ever give to the problems of racism, injustice, human cruelty, and every other societal evil. We have the cross of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who grows and leads us in all love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

In the days to come, I want to discuss those answers, and specifically how Scripture says we should respond when we suffer wrongly at the hands of unrighteous people, corrupt governments, or hostile persecutors. The New Testament’s answer to that dilemma is not the least bit obscure or mysterious.

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The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 2 by John MacArthur

Here is the third in a series of blog posts by Dr. John MacArthur concerning the social justice movement and its relationship to the the Gospel, posted at GTY. Here are the links to the first two posts.

Social Injustice and the Gospel by John MacArthur

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 1

On to Part 2:

 

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 2

 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Monday’s blog post focused on some of the past few decades of conflicts within the evangelical movement that have provoked me to preach and write in defense of the gospel. It wasn’t an exhaustive list—that would be tedious, I suspect. Evangelicals as a group have shown an unsettling willingness to compromise or unnecessarily obfuscate all kinds of issues where Scripture has spoken plainly and without ambiguity.

For example, despite the clarity of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man”), leading evangelicals have been debating for several years whether women qualify to be elders or pastors in the church. Many capitulate to cultural preference rather than submitting to biblical authority on this and other similar issues. Some have tried to redefine the role and proper functioning of the family. Others seem to want to deconstruct—or simply ignore—what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage.

More disturbing yet, over the past few years some evangelicals have begun to borrow moral rationalizations from secular culture in the wake of America’s sexual revolution. For years there has been a slow but steady softening of evangelicals’ stance against sex outside of marriage. More recently, and more ominously, several vocal evangelicals (including some in positions of leadership or influence) have been tinkering with novel ideas regarding gender fluidity, sexual orientation, transgenderism, and homosexual marriage. Those are issues that generations of believers would never have dreamed of putting on the table for debate or redefinition in the church. But at this very moment there is a burgeoning campaign to reconsider and abandon the church’s historic stance on LGBT issues under the banner of “social justice.”

Why have so many evangelicals openly embraced such compromises? The answer is very simple. It’s the next logical step for a church that is completely ensnared in efforts to please the culture. For decades the popular notion has been that if the church was going to reach the culture it first needed to connect with the style and methods of secular pop culture or academic fads. To that end, the church surrendered its historic forms of worship. In many cases, everything that once constituted a traditional worship service disappeared altogether, giving way to rock-concert formats and everything else the church could borrow from the entertainment industry. Craving acceptance in the broader culture, the church carelessly copied the world’s style preferences and fleeting fads.

In my book Ashamed of the Gospel, I warned that this was a slippery slope, because the world would not be content for the church merely to reflect its style—it would demand to dictate the substance as well. And the seemingly endless parade of evangelical compromises bears that out. Many believers have long been convinced that they first have to give the world what it wants in order to have any opening for the gospel. Evangelical style coaches have heedlessly followed wherever the world leads them. Having thoroughly absorbed the world’s methods, the church is now being forced to adopt the world’s message.

The common link in those continual compromises is pragmatism*, driven by a desire to reach the world and win its support and admiration by utilitarian means. Evangelicals of our generation seem pathologically addicted to the sin of desiring the praise of men. Indeed, that is precisely the brand of pragmatism that I fear points people down nearly all the paths of departure from the gospel mentioned in Monday’s post. Today it has penetrated deep into the culture of the church, and the end effect is disaster.

Every one of those deviations from sound gospel doctrine has been driven and advanced by evangelicals seeking acceptance in the broader culture. Some of the errors I have singled out (seeker sensitivity and the explosive growth of the charismatic movement) have been promoted by evangelicals who think that whatever attracts the world must be the right doctrine or strategy. Other errors (the embrace of psychotherapy, the ecumenical drift away from Protestant principles, and—yes—the recent rhetoric about “social justice” reflect a fear of being thought unsophisticated or out of step with contemporary “wisdom.”

“Social justice” (in the world’s usage of that term) entails political ideas that are deemed sophisticated—namely, identity politics, critical race theory, the redistribution of wealth, and other radical or socialist policies. Those ideas were first popularized and propagated in the secular academy, where they are now regarded as received wisdom and have become a dominating part of popular culture. Evangelicals who are chasing the culture are latecomers to the party of those who advocate “social justice.”

And I’m convinced the dominant motives are pragmatic.

In ministry, success cannot be measured numerically or by popular opinion. “It is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2, ESV)—not “famous,” “fashionable,” “filthy rich,” or whatever. If attendance figures are someone’s gauge of effectiveness, there’s literally no end to the crazy schemes that person will try to legitimize—as long as the schemes are successful in drawing appreciative crowds. That idea has been injecting poison directly into the evangelical mainstream for decades. 

Consider this: The maestros of missionary and church growth have been telling church leaders that they need to survey the unchurched people in their communities, find out what it would take to get them interested in their churches, and then give that to them. Let opinion polls tell the church how to preach, what to teach, and what not to say or do.

Is it any wonder that the unchurched world now expects to be able to tell the church precisely what she should believe and how she should function and teach?

And is it any wonder that people who grew up through several decades of evangelical pragmatism and have now come into leadership positions in the church are absolutely convinced that it is essential for Christians to both heed and parrot the world’s wishes?

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*Pragmatism, quite simply, is the notion that the truthfulness or value of any strategy, idea, or truth claim is determined by its practical results. If a tactic produces the desired effect, it is deemed good. In the realm of church growth and gospel ministry, pragmatism as a guiding philosophy is severely flawed—even dangerously detrimental—for a couple of reasons that should be fairly obvious.

Number one, pragmatism alone cannot define what “the desired result” ought to be. If the goal is bad and the strategy works, it’s a bad strategy. In fact, if the desired end is evil, the strategy used to achieve it is by definition evil.

Second, and more to the point, raw pragmatism is unbiblical. God’s Word itself is the only reliable test of how good or bad anything is.

Name This Heresy

Here’s the screen capture of real tweet  from  a student at Wake Forest Divinity School:

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There seems to be an interesting syllogism here that goes something like this:

Major premise: Reparations is an expression of repentance.

Minor premise: Repentance is part of salvation.

Conclusion: Where there is no reparations, there is no salvation.

Then we are told that this the “Bottom line.” If reparations are not made to those who have been oppressed, there is NO  salvation.

I remember John 3:16 telling us that all those who believe in God’s Son will have eternal life (salvation). II t doesn’t say that those who believe in Christ ‘and pay reparations’ will have eternal life.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that  making reparations for wrongs done is never warranted. The Old Testament has at least 6 references to making reparation (See Numbers  5:7-8; Numbers 6:12; Numbers18:9; 2 Kings 12:16; and Proverbs 14:9).

In the New Testament, a tax collector named Zacchaeus, upon meeting Jesus, vowed to pay back what he had  wrongly taken from taxpayers, with interest. That’s making reparation.

So clearly, making reparation can be a very good thing to do. Note the DO part. The tweet from Me. Hughes just as clearly tells us that the ‘bottom line’ to obtain salvation is something that we MUST DO.

Can you name the heresy yet? Here’s a hint:

”O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?   Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?   Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?   Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—  just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? “ (Gal 3:1-6) (ESV)

OK. . . . .that was a bit more than a hint. Mr. Hughes is guilty of what has been called ‘The Galatian Heresy”. He has added works to faith for salvation.

Sadly, making reparations is being called a ‘gospel’ issue by many evangelicals today. But is it? that’s the question. Did Christ die for our sins, or did he die for wrongs done to some members of  our society by other members of our society?

Is social  ‘justice’ a gospel issue, or is the gospel the answer to all forms of social ‘injustice’?

Thoughts? Comments?

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 1 by John Mac Arthur

Almost two weeks ago, on Monday, 13 August, Dr. MacArthur began what will be s series  of blog posts at Grace to You with  a post titled “Social Injustice and the Gospel”. You can read it at GTY by clicking the previous link, or you can read it here at The Battle Cry. Please read it before reading this post, the 2nd of the series. Dr. MacArthur has taken a lot of flack concerning his views concerning the relationship between the social justice movement  and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I, for one, agree with him. Again. please read the first article in the series at either of the links provided and without any more prattling on my part, here is the second of Dr. MacArthur’s  posts.

The Long Struggle to Preserve the Gospel, Part 1

by John MacArthur

Monday 20 August, 2018

From the earliest days of the apostolic era, faithful Christians have been called upon to contend earnestly for the truth of the gospel. The hardest battles have taken place within the visible church, among those who claim fidelity to Christ. That’s because the greatest threats to gospel truth have not come from atheists and other overt adversaries, but always from influential voices that arise within the church who speak twisted things (Acts 20:30). The evidence that this was happening in the very earliest era of the New Testament church is seen not only in Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders, but also in his admonitions to Timothy and Titus, and in Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3.

When I was studying doctrine and apologetics in seminary, I thought I was equipping myself to defend biblical truth against an onslaught of attacks from the world. I envisioned answering atheism and confronting threats to the gospel that would arise out of secular culture, the entertainment industry, the academic world, and other places outside the church.

Sometime after I entered full-time ministry, it dawned on me (to my profound shock) that the greatest threats to biblical truth typically arise from within the fellowship of professing believers—and it is a relentless parade of attacks. Looking back through church history, I realized that’s how it has always been. There has never been a time when false doctrines, harmful methodologies, unwholesome practices, bizarre beliefs, poisonous ideologies, and false teachers weren’t troubling the church of God—often with seriously divisive and otherwise spiritually destructive results.

In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise to me that the worst troubles come from within. I was born into a pastor’s home. My father was the son of a pastor. Both were part of the historic denominational landscape of planet church. They were in the American Baptist Church (ABC) denomination.

By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in heaven, having served as a pastor until the day he saw the face of Christ. My dad left the faltering, compromising ABC to plant an independent church in a building sold by a failing Lutheran congregation.

My father took his stand in the liberal-fundamentalist conflict. The issue then was the inspiration and authority of Scripture. My dad was bold and relentless, always with grace, to defend the Bible as inspired by God in total. He was cut off from lifelong friends who stayed in the ABC, but he was never divided in his loyalty to the true doctrine of Scripture. He encouraged me as a teenager, as a college student, and as a seminary student to learn and acquire all the doctrinal and evidentiary proofs necessary to defend the Word of God against the modernist and liberal attacks.

Although he was a loving pastor, my dad was also an earnest, relentless, skilled, and thoughtful defender of the Bible.

By the time I finished seminary I had my own settled convictions about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. My beliefs were shaped by and solidly anchored in the testimony of Scripture itself—affirmed by the evidence of the Bible’s life-changing power, its accuracy in all details that are subject to examination, the precise fulfillment of so many of its prophesies, and the sheer glory of God’s self-revelation. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.X), what I hear when I read my Bible is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

While in seminary I wrote papers defending the Bible’s authority, and I even debated at Fuller Seminary against the corrupted view of inerrancy put forth by two of its faculty members, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim. Theirs was a defective view of the Bible’s truthfulness, claiming the general thrust of Scripture is inspired but not the very words (ipsissima verba). They argued that there may be “technical errors” in the Bible, but it nevertheless is a “living witness” to what God has revealed. Together with some other evangelical leaders, I was invited (when Donald Hubbard was president) to speak to Fuller’s administration, faculty, and board on the issues of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. This was requested by concerned board members who had been told by faculty leaders that the views being taught at Fuller were perfectly orthodox—but when they spoke to students and other members of the faculty, those board members were hearing that unorthodox ideas were indeed being aggressively promoted in classrooms at Fuller.

I had always assumed that the defense of Scripture would be a lifelong battle (and it has been). What I did not anticipate, or even notice at first, was that the most damaging attacks on gospel principles tend to come in relentless waves and not mainly from secular skeptics and contentious unbelievers, but almost routinely from within the church—and from all sides.

I hadn’t been serving as a pastor very long when I was attacked by legalistic fundamentalists, and therefore was thrust into a conflict between works-based self-righteous religion and liberty in Christ. After that, an attack came from the opposite direction, claiming that gospel preaching that calls unbelievers to repentance and submission to Christ’s lordship is itself a form of legalism. I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus in response, and when the controversy intensified, I wrote a second reply, The Gospel According to the Apostles.

There was also the campaign to gain conservative evangelicals’ acceptance for Pentecostal views on the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and continuing revelation. The church I pastor is a short distance from the Episcopalian church in Van Nuys, California, where the charismatic movement had its inception. I wrote Charismatic Chaos in part to chronicle how that movement resulted in an influx of unorthodox ideas and false teachers in the evangelical mainstream.

We fought for the sufficiency of Scripture against the intrusion of psychotherapy into the church (attempting to integrate Christian doctrine with a horde of ideas based on godless presuppositions about the reasons for the human struggle). For a time, the evangelical movement was beset with, and almost overrun by, self-styled experts who belittled biblical truth as unsophisticated and inadequate for helping people with their “deep” psychological problems. They were convinced that sanctification couldn’t even start until a person went through the foyer of psychology. Our Sufficiency in Christ was my written response to that trend.

Throughout all those years, another somewhat subtle but very appealing—and very dangerous—trend was steadily gaining influence among evangelicals. It was the rank pragmatism of the so-called “seeker-sensitive” philosophy of church growth. Churches that followed this pattern moved away from biblical preaching and doctrinal instruction and generally used entertainment laced with spiritual-sounding themes as a means of drawing crowds. The stress was on reaching the “unchurched” rather than training believers for ministry. The result was that people remained untaught and did not grow spiritually. A handful of megachurches stood out as models that smaller churches everywhere attempted to imitate. Although countless small churches failed and even died when they adopted the model, a few glib, young leaders became very skilled at the pragmatic approach and saw their congregations grow to unprecedented sizes. Some of them numbered literally in the tens of thousands, giving observers the impression that this novel approach to ministry was reaching people on a huge scale. My book Ashamed of the Gospel analyzed and confronted that issue.

I have referred to those books not for the sake of self-promotion but to show that my best-known polemical works all have one basic aim: they were written to respond to subtle, in-house attacks on core gospel convictions. The fact that they span my whole ministry illustrates what I mean when I say, the battle for biblical authority rages constantly and on many fronts. I’ve never sought to be a controversialist, but my conscience and my commitment to Scripture compel me to contend earnestly for the bedrock principles of the gospel delivered once for all to the saints.

On Wednesday I’ll continue and conclude this retrospective with an explanation of what the current evangelical obsession with “social justice” has in common with all of those other issues. And I’ll begin to explain why it’s my conviction that much of the rhetoric about this latest issue poses a more imminent and dangerous threat to the clarity and centrality of the gospel than any other recent controversy evangelicals have engaged in.

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