Think on These Things Articles – New Calvinism

New Calvinism

(January/February – 2015, Volume 21, Issue 1) There is a great deal of interest and confusion about a movement within conservative evangelicalism sometimes called “New Calvinism” or Neo-Calvinism. As with many movements it is not monolithic and therefore describing its teachings is not always easy. Some have labeled virtually everyone who is a member of the Gospel Coalition or speaks at Together for the Gospel conferences as a New-Calvinist but that is surely painting with too broad a brush. Some hail Neo-Calvinism as a breath of fresh air that has united the passionate ministry of the Holy Spirit with the solid doctrines of the Reformation. Others see it as a dangerous departure from the faith which opens the door to aberrant teachings of extreme Pentecostalism. While some fear the movement, others cheer it. Therefore it is important to take a careful look at what New Calvinism is and what it is not.

If there is a New Calvinism then by necessity there must be an “old” Calvinism. We need to start then with the teachings of classical Calvinism and see in what ways the new variety is similar and how it is different. Proponents of historical Calvinism would certainly trace its roots to Scripture. But the theological system known today as Calvinism finds its beginnings in the works of a number of theologians, the first of which was Augustine. Nevertheless it was the famous Reformer John Calvin who mapped out the essential doctrines of the theological structure that bears his name. Calvinism is often equated with what are called the “doctrines of grace” which distinguishes it from other theological approaches. But before we examine these dogmas a few other doctrines that they hold, often in common with those who do not see themselves as Calvinists, should be identified.

Calvinist Distinctive

Calvinists strongly believe in the five “solas” which constituted the battle cries of the Reformation. These are: sola scriptura, the belief that Scripture alone is the authority for the Christian faith; sola gloria, the belief that all things are created for and should be done for the glory of God; sola gratia, the belief that salvation from beginning to end is a gift from God which flows from His grace alone;sola fide, the belief that God’s gift of grace is received by humans on the basis of faith alone apart from any works which they have done; and sola Christus, the belief that salvation has been made possible for sinful people on the basis of Christ and His finished work alone. While not all Christians embrace the five solas, many, even among those who would abhor being termed Calvinists, do. Calvinists also place heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God. He is Lord over everything and nothing happens apart from His direct action or indirect permission. He controls nature as well as nations; He controls demons as well as humans. No thing and no one can thwart His will. While aspects of God’s sovereignty are beyond our comprehension (Rom 11:33-36) most Christians recognize that a God who is not sovereign is a God who cannot be trusted. If there is a single thing in the universe which can frustrate or obstruct the will of God then our Lord is not all-powerful, and that would leave us with a God who is capable of losing control of His universe and/or those within it. Calvinists have championed the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and have provided us with powerful arguments supporting it. It is true that a few have gone too far and drifted into fatalism, but the majority have maintained a good balance and assured the evangelical community that we serve an omnipotent Lord.

Doctrines of Grace

Nevertheless when we think of Calvinism it is the doctrines of grace that come to mind, and rightly so. When Calvinists refer to these doctrines they are talking about five interlocking soteriological terms best remembered by the acronym TULIP.

(T)otal depravity: In a sense this is the heart of the system. How one defines total depravity will lead to how the other doctrines in the chain are understood. By total depravity Calvinists do not mean that people are as bad as they could be, nor that they are incapable of doing good things, as the world measures good. They mean instead that every aspect of our being has been affected and corrupted by sin. Biblical texts such as Romans 3:10-18 and Ephesians 2:1-3 inform us that the bent of all unregenerate people is toward sin and in fact there is nothing anyone can do that could ever please God or contribute to their salvation. From these passages and others we are informed that the unsaved are dead in sin and do not seek God, and left to themselves they would never turn to the Lord for redemption. And because our wills are as fallen and corrupt as our minds we would never independently choose to place our faith in Christ for salvation. The Calvinist, therefore, does not reject the free will of man that many other Christians like to talk about; they simply believe that people, left to their own devices, will “freely” choose to reject Christ. It is because of the depravity of our fallen nature that we are unwilling and unable to turn to Christ unaided. God must do something in us and for us or else we would never find Him, nor even seek Him. Total depravity is not spiritual weakness, it is spiritual deadness – even spiritual inability; that is, left to our own ability, unaided and unenlighted by the Holy Spirit, humans would be unable to be regenerated. It is because of human depravity, defined in this way, that the rest of the links in the TULIP are necessary.

(U)nconditional election: If people are totally depraved, as defined above, then unconditional election becomes a necessity for, if man would never choose God left to their own volition, then God must choose man. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 3:37). A few moments later Jesus takes this further, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” Paul makes clear that the time in which God chose (Greek: elected) His people was before the foundation of the earth (Eph 1:4). It is important to note that the New Testament is clear that the Lord did not choose us because He saw something good in us, but simply according to His sovereign purpose (Rom 9:11, 16-18; 1 Cor 1:26-31).

(L)imited atonement: Some, but not all Calvinists, accept limited atonement or, as it is often called, “particular redemption.” The idea is that Christ’s atoning blood, while sufficient for all sin, was efficacious only for the sins of the elect. Christ did not die merely to make salvation possible; He died in order to atone for the sins of those who God had specifically chosen for His own. Even among Calvinists this leaf of the TULIP is often hotly debated. This is because, while certain verses of Scripture seem to support this view, others point to Christ dying for all (e.g. 1 John 2:2; John 3:16). Everyone, except Universalists, believes in some form of limited atonement. Those embracing unlimited atonement (and that includes some Calvinists) believe that Christ’s death was sufficient for the sins of all, but that only those who turn to Christ by faith are actually redeemed. Those believing in limited atonement believe that Christ died only for the elect. It is my opinion that limited atonement is accepted more on the basis of inference and deduction than by direct biblical support.

(I)rresistable grace: Since totally depraved individuals would always resist the call to the gospel it becomes necessary for the Lord to irresistibly draw sinners to Himself. John 6:44, quoted above, is a key verse supporting this doctrine. While in our natural, unregenerate state, we by nature resist the Lord and His grace due to our spiritual blindness (2 Cor 4:4, cf. Eph 2:1-3), when the Lord opens our eyes and draws us to Himself we will come willingly (2 Cor 4:6; Eph 2:4-9, Acts 26:18).

(P)erseverance of the saints: All those who have been irresistibly drawn to Christ and regenerated to newness of life will persevere in the faith until the end of their lives. Those whom the Lord saves will be kept saved by His power and love (Rom 8:28-39; 1 Pet 1:3-5). While all Calvinists recognize that believers sin, and sometimes grievously and for considerable time, still they believe that none will totally reject the faith or fully apostatize. In the context of those who have been reconciled to God by the work of Christ Colossians 1:23 reads, “If indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” This verse, and others like it, is used to support perseverance.

While much more can be said concerning the doctrines of grace, and arguments pro and con could be presented, it is not within the scope of this paper to address them. At this point we are only attempting to provide a framework in which to understand the New Calvinists. As Calvinists they would embrace the five solas and at least four of the five doctrines of Grace. In addition, most would also identify with covenantal theology. However, there are many dispensationalists who are Calvinists as well, and accept all that has been outlined above. In that sense they would be considered Reformed evangelicals. However dispensational Calvinists and many Reformed Calvinists divide over the doctrine of covenantalism.

Covenantal Theology often confuses people because it does not directly reference the biblical covenants. Rather it is a system that unites all the dispensations and biblical covenants as phases under the Covenant of Grace. According to Louis Berkof, Caspar Oevianus (1536-1587) was the founder of Covenant Theology and it was not until 1647, when it was included in the Westminster Confession, that it was incorporated into any formal creed or confession.[1] Therefore, while many Calvinists accept covenantalism, it is not directly drawn from the writings of John Calvin. It is the idea that all of human history is covered by one to three covenants. The reason for the divide over the number of the covenants is that none of them is actually mentioned in the Scriptures; they are recognized on the basis of inference and logical deduction. The three covenants are as follows:

The Covenant of Works which was between God and Adam : This is seen as an agreement between God and Adam promising life to Adam for perfect obedience and promising death as the penalty for failure. Adam sinned and thus man failed to meet the requirements of the Covenant of Works. [2] Michael Horton, a strong advocate of Covenant Theology, admits that the Covenant of Works cannot be found explicitly in Scripture but believes it is implied in the creation narrative.[3]

The Covenant of Grace between God and sinful mankind : As a result of man’s failure a second covenant became necessary. This is viewed as the gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ and the sinner accepts this promise by faith.

The Covenant of Redemption which was an agreement between the Father and Son is held by some but not all covenantalists. O. Palmer Robertson challenges this covenant on the basis of exegesis. He writes, “Scripture simply does not say much on the pre-creation shape of the decrees of God. [To speak of such] is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” [4] Nevertheless this is believed by some to be an agreement between the Father and the Son in which the Father gives His Son as the Redeemer of the elect, and the Son voluntarily takes the place of those whom the Father had given Him.

The covenantal system has many implications, not the least of which is that it recognizes no discontinuity between Israel and the church. That is, the promises to the nation of Israel, found especially in the Old Testament, are now being fulfilled in spiritual form in the church which is spiritual Israel. Physical and land promises yet to be fulfilled by Israel are either renounced because of Israel’s rebelliousness or have been fulfilled symbolically. In the Old Testament Israel was the church, in the New Testament the church is comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. No future remains for the nation of Israel in the program of God. This interpretation is made possible because covenantal theologians, who faithfully employ historical-grammatical hermeneutics throughout most of Scripture employ an allegorical/symbolic hermeneutic especially involving the future prophetic portions of the Bible. Covenantalists see most prophecies as already fulfilled allegorically or symbolically and the church is the recipient of the Old Testament covenant promises to Israel. Most also equate the church with the kingdom of God and believe we are presently in the kingdom, at least in its initial stage.

New Calvinism

Personalities and Networks

With this basic explanation of the Calvinistic aspect of the New Calvinism it is time to move forward to an understanding of New Calvinism. What makes New Calvinists new? How do they differ from historic Calvinists?

New Calvinism is more easily identified and described than defined. E.S. William’s definition that it is “a growing perspective within conservative evangelicalism that embraces the fundamentals of 16th-century Calvinism while also trying to be relevant in the present-day world,” [5] while somewhat helpful could also define any number of modern evangelical efforts and movements which are trying, in one fashion or another, to reach postmodern people with the gospel. The current wave flowing through evangelical cutting-edge ministries of all stripes is that the church is hopelessly out of step with the surrounding culture and that if it does not change it will die. [6] As Hugh Halter and Matt Smay state in their book The Tangible Kingdom, “What worked in the past simply does not work today, and we must adjust to culture.” [7] Virtually all of those associated with New Calvinism would subscribe to a similar philosophy, but this is not uniquely defining of the movement. Nor is New Calvinism exclusively found in an official organization or denomination, as it transcends such structures and is more ecumenical in nature. Rather it is better identified by personalities, conferences, blogs and websites which are promoting Reformed-charismatic philosophies, doctrines and concepts of engaging culture. It seems to be a movement that is particularly attractive to younger evangelicals who have grown tired of watered-down, anemic, anti-intellectual forms of Christianity that no longer challenge them. Some of the personalities who will be listed below have offered meat-and-potatoes theology which engages the minds and hearts of youthful believers looking for something deeper and more relevant from their faith. As a matter of fact Colin Hansen entitled his book Young, Restless and Reformed to describe this very group. Yet, a number of the key leaders are hardly young, I think in particular of John Piper, D. A. Carson, Timothy Keller, Wayne Grudem and C. J. Mahaney. Jeremy Walker, in his insightful book The New Calvinism Considered, goes so far as to say, “One could argue that the true father figure of the New Calvinism is probably more Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin, and even then it is Jonathan Edwards mediated through John Piper.” [8] This is arguably true, for Piper’s emphasis on the doctrines of grace, sovereignty of God, passionate preaching, intellectual faith, Christian hedonism (the idea that we are all joy-seekers, but the Christian is to seek their joy in Christ), and openness to charismatic teachings of the spiritual gifts are prevalent throughout the young, restless and Reformed. Piper’s fingerprints are all over the movement but he is hardly alone. Some other prominent names include:

Timothy Keller: Keller’s apologetic methodology has hit the right note with those who have grown up surrounded by a largely postmodern worldview. Keller seems to be an interesting mix between old school Reformed, with its emphasis on orthodox doctrine, and postmodern apologist, alternating between the two approaches depending upon which group he is addressing. [9] Keller’s focus on social and mercy ministries also resonates well with young adults today.

D.A. Carson: Carson is the co-founder, with Keller, of The Gospel Coalition, an extremely popular blog filled with articles promoting Reformed thinking and theology and with leanings toward New Calvinistic ideas. While an excellent theologian and commentator with many wonderful books to his credit, nevertheless Carson rejects cessationism. Carson and Keller are co-founders of The Gospel Coalition, which is defined by its website as a “broadly Reformed network of churches which encourages and educates current and next generation Christian leaders by advocating gospel-centered principles and practices that glorify the Savior and do good to those for whom He shed His life’s blood.” These goals are accomplished largely through its website as well as through conferences and publications.

Wayne Grudem: Grudem has done more theologically to pave the way for this movement than perhaps anyone else. This is due to his prolific writings that combine both excellent, readable and solid Reformed theology with a defense of the charismatic’s teaching on the spiritual gifts. Grudem’s teaching on this subject will be examined more closely below but, in general, in his book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, as well as in his Systematic Theology, Grudem champions a position that all the gifts, including the sign gifts, especially that of prophecy, are viable today. However prophecy in the New Testament era is not without error, according to Grudem. He believes that New Testament prophets, unlike Old Testament ones, are unreliable and non-authoritative. The Lord is giving prophecies today, but these are polluted prophecies because a portion of the revelation may be of God but another portion may be of one’s own imagination or even misunderstood by the receiver. This allows for the continuation of prophecies today, something highly prized by the young, restless and Reformed, but does not demand infallibility, as was required of the Old Testament prophet of God (Deut 18:20-22).

C. J. Mahaney: Mahaney is the former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and former pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He resigned the presidency of SGM in 2013 in the midst of some strong accusations and resistance to his leadership. He now pastors the Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, Kentucky. In 2006 he co-founded Together for the Gospel (T4G), a coalition of Christian leaders who have found common ground in the gospel but differ on some other doctrinal issues such as charismatic gifts and cessationism. Mahaney and SGM have been at the center of the birth of Neo-Calvinism and its growth, clearly combining Reformed theology with charismatic practices and musical styles. Together for the Gospel has been a means by which many outside the movement have been exposed to this emphasis. This is especially significant since some who are very strong cessationists, such as John MacArthur, regularly preach at T4G.

Mark Driscoll: Driscoll has been one of the strongest leaders within the young, restless and Reformed. He was founder and pastor of Mars Hills, a megachurch in Seattle, Washington, which is spread out over 13 campuses, and founder of ACTS 29, a church planting network, now led by Matt Chandler, used to start and promote Mars Hills clones. On the one hand Driscoll’s Calvinistic beliefs are strong enough to receive the endorsement of the likes of John Piper; on the other hand he has described himself as a charismatic with a seat belt. However, reading some of Driscoll’s books would reveal that his seat belt has come unbuckled and, more recently, so has his life and church empire. Nevertheless it is claimed that Driscoll’s sermons are the most downloaded of any preacher in America and his influence would be hard to overestimate. [10]

Since New Calvinism is largely centered around personalities, websites, blogs and conferences, the above offers some flavor of the movement. Let’s move now to some other identifiable marks.

Embracing of Charismatic Gifts

If there is one distinguishing mark that separates the New Calvinist from traditional Calvinists it would be the openness of the newer variety toward the charismatic gifts. While many, if not most, would not see themselves as charismatics in the conventional sense, they believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are operational today, including the sign gifts such as miracles, tongues, interpretation of tongues, healings, and prophecy. While most draw the line at apostleship, seeing it as an office reserved for a handful of appointed New Testament leaders who founded the church (Eph 2:20), strangely they see the gift of prophecy as still viable. Following the leadership of Wayne Grudem, in his landmark book, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament Today, as well as his Systematic Theology, many have been convinced that New Testament era prophecy is not held to the same standards as Old Testament prophecies and prophets. Whereas Old Testament prophecy was to be without error, with the consequence of the execution of the prophet if one prophesied falsely (Deut 18:20-22), church age prophecies can often be a mixture of truth and error. Grudem writes, “Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human—and sometimes partially mistaken—report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind.” [11] This view of the sign gifts, including prophecy, is known as the continuationist position, as opposed to cessationism, held by those who believe the miraculous sign gifts are no longer operational.[12] Grudem quotes favorably the Anglican charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennet who claim,

We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance…but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible…one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thoughts. We must discern between the two. [13]

Grudem is not alone in his understanding of the continuation of prophecy. Bruce Compton cites some other prominent evangelical leaders and organizations including:

  • C. Samuel Storms’s, “Third Wave,” a chapter in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, ed. Wayne A. Grudem (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 207–12.

  • John Piper, accepts this view as can be seen in the following article and video on the Desiring God website, “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now,” . Piper states, “The Bible teaches that spiritual gifts, including prophecy and tongues, will continue until Jesus comes. To neglect them is to risk disobedience.”

  • Sovereign Grace Ministries’s view can be accessed in “What We Believe, A Statement of Faith,” ( According to the website, their statement of faith affirms, “All the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in the church of the first century are available today, are vital for the mission of the church, and are to be earnestly desired and practiced.” Included in “all the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in the church of the first century [that] are available today” is the gift of prophecy.[14]

Grudem’s views, while incredibly weak in my opinion, have captured the hearts and minds of an amazing number of conservative evangelicals. In response to Grudem there are at least five excellent published works refuting his understanding of New Testament prophecy:

  • Robert L. Thomas, “Prophecy Rediscovered? A Review of the Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today” (Bibliotheca Sacra #149).

  • F. David Farnell, “Fallible New Testament Prophecy/Prophets? A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s Hypothesis” (Master’s Seminary Journal 2:2; Fall 1991).

  • R. Bruce Compton, “The Continuation of New Testament Prophecy and a Closed Canon: A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s Two Levels of New Testament Prophecy” (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary).

  • Thomas R. Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Kregel: 1996).

  • Michael John Beasely, The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism, an Analysis, Critique, and Exhortation Concerning the Contemporary Doctrine of “Fallible Prophecy,” (Michael John Beasely: 2013). Beasely’s contribution is an excellent full-length book dismantling Grudem’s hypothesis.

Nevertheless strong and influential Calvinist leaders continue to propagate the idea that fallible, errant prophecy is common in the church today, despite the unreliability of such prophecies. A good example is John Piper who is well respected, and rightfully so, for many of his theological views and overall contribution to evangelical faith. He has however held to a continuationist view for much of his ministry. Shortly after the Strange Fire Conference held October 2013 and sponsored by John MacArthur, Piper was questioned as to his position.

At the conference, Piper was characterized as open to the gifts but not advocating for them or encouraging others to pursue the gifts themselves. This is a misunderstanding, says Piper. “I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 12:31, “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” And I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:1, “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you might prophesy.” And I advocate obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:39 “earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” “I want Christians today to obey those texts.”

And Piper seeks to obey those texts himself. “I pray for the gift of prophecy almost as often as I pray for anything, before I stand up to speak. This prayer for prophecy is a desire to preach under an anointing, in order to say things agreeable to the Scriptures, and subject to the Scripture, that are not in my manuscript or in my head as I walk into the pulpit, nor thought of ahead of time, which would come to my mind, which would pierce in an extraordinary way, so that 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 happens.” [15]

This understanding of fallible prophecy can lead to sticky situations, as Piper admits.

A lawyer one time prophesied over me when my wife was pregnant and said: “Your fourth child is going to be a girl, and your wife is going to die in childbirth.” And that lawyer with tears told me that she was sorry she had to tell me that. So I went home and I got down on my knees and I said, “Lord, I am trying to do what you said here in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21. And frankly, I despise what that woman just said.” It proved out that my fourth child was a son, and I knew as soon as he came out that that prophecy was not true, and so I stopped having any misgivings about my wife’s life. She is still with me now thirty years later. That’s the sort of thing that makes you despise prophecy. [16]

Of what value, we would have to ask, are prophecies of this nature? When it is impossible to discern how much of a given prophecy is from the Lord and how much of it is from the imagination of the prophet, such prophecies are worse than useless. In the case of Piper, he spent months agonizing over the possibility that the prophecy concerning his wife was true, only to have the prophecy proven wrong in the end. This scenario is repeated countless times in the lives of lesser known Christians who suffer needlessly because they have accepted the continuationist teachings on New Testament prophecy.

It would appear that many of the Reformed charismatics are simply afraid that the cessationist view of the gifts denies the power and working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For example, Mark Driscoll said, “Old Calvinism was cessationistic and fearful of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. New Calvinism is continuationist and joyful in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.” [17]

Popular teacher Beth Moore takes the same position. She says in one of her sermons:

We got a lot of things going in our current religious culture. And we’ve got two extremes I want to address tonight so that we can understand them. First of all I want you to look over to this side. We have the religious culture of the extreme that I’m going to call Cessationism. Now I’m making up a word with that -ism. But you know the word cessation and it’s a word that comes from cease. And this particular extreme teaching in the Body of Christ says all miracles have ceased. For all practical purposes, God no longer works miracles in our day. Now most of them still believe that He will in the end of times. [18]

She also claims, “Cessationism cheats the believer and undercuts hope.” [19]

It is this very issue, more than anything else that distinguishes traditional Calvinism from the New Calvinist. Both delight in Calvinistic theology, but historic Calvinists are normally cessationists, while the newer variety are desirous of the sign gifts that are associated with the charismatic movement. It is my opinion that by doing so the New Calvinists are in danger of departing ultimately from the evangelical faith. It might be instructive to listen to a warning from a well-known “old Calvinist,” J. C. Ryle:

Let us beware of the very small beginnings of false doctrine. Every heresy began at one time with some little departure from the truth. There is only a little seed of error needed to create a great tree…It is the omission or addition of one little item in the doctor’s prescription that spoils the whole medicine, and turns it into poison…let us never allow a little false doctrine to ruin us, by thinking it is but a ‘little one,’ and can do no harm. [20]


The goal of this paper was to introduce New Calvinism, identify some of the key leaders and organizations, and begin to examine some of the distinctives of the movement. Having looked at the two major components of New Calvinism, Calvinistic theology and a charismatic understanding of the sign gifts, we will explore in the next “Think on These Things” paper some of the secondary issues such as its views on cultural engagement, relevance, pragmatism, and the social agenda.

[1] Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Wm. N. Eerdmans Publishing: 1941), p. 211-212.

[2] Michael Horton, God of Promise, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), p. 83.

[3] Ibid, p. 89.

[4] Ibid., pp. 80-81.

[5] E.S. Williams, The New Calvinists, Changing the Gospel (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2014), p. 7.

[6] See Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom, Creating Incarnational Community: The Posture and Practices of Ancient Church Now (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), pp. 59, 94.

[7] Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, p. 108.

[8] Jeremy Walker, The New Calvinism Considered, a Personal and Pastoral Assessment (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), p. 22.

[9] See Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, ed, Engaging Keller, Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical (Darington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), for documentation and discussion concerning this feature of Keller’s ministry, esp. p. 21.

[10] Williams, p. 39.

[11] Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1988), p. 14.

[12] I have written in support of cessationism in my book Out of Formation (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press: 2014), pp. 135-158.

[13] Ibid., p. 110.

[14] R. Bruce Compton, “The Continuation of New Testament Prophecy and a Closed Canon: A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s Two Levels of New Testament Prophecy” (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary), p. 1.


[16] Ibid. Piper admits that he has been persuaded by Grudem’s understanding of New Testament prophecy in the following short video:




[20] As found in Michael John Beasley, The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism, an Analysis, Critique, and Exhortation Concerning the Contemporary Doctrine of “Fallible Prophecy,” (Michael John Beasley: 2013), p. 168.


The above article was the first part of a two part analysis of New Calvinism published by Southern View Chapel’s Pastor Gary Gilley and can be read online here. I thought both parts were knowledgeable and well written. The second part will follow. – Dan C.

Is Gay Marriage Destroying the United Methodist Church?

That’s the title of an article in Christianity Today. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“Irreconcilable” disagreement over same-sex unions is once again prompting debate over splitting the historic United Methodist Church (UMC), one of America’s largest denominations.

“If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two. If, in reality, we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one,” concludes a statement last month from 80 traditionalists from across the UMC, which has 7.7 million U.S. members. (An additional 4.4 million members are overseas.)

The statement says the UMC is facing a crisis in four areas because:

* Pastors have violated or said they are willing to violate the Book of Discipline ban on same-sex marriages. (The Book of Discipline is the church’s most authoritative guide.)

* Pastors and other leaders realize that there are no “meaningful consequences” for violating the Book of Discipline by officiating at a same-sex union. (In one instance, two clergy were given a “24-hour suspension without pay” for marrying gay couples.)

* More church leaders believe “significant parts of the Scriptures do not provide an accurate understanding of God’s heart and mind and may be discarded as uninspired and in error.”

* Among top leaders, “there are dramatic differences in how personal and social holiness is lived out and taught.”

Questions that come to mind:

  • Shouldn’t some differences be irreconcilable?
  • When does a ‘church’ cease being a true church of the living God?
  • Since when does what ‘more and more church leaders believe’ have any standing when what more of them believe clearly violates God’s design and plan for marriage?

The article didn’t leave out an opinion from the “grassroots” level (regular folks).

“At the grassroots, schism is unpopular. A June poll, commissioned by a UMC agency, indicates that rank and file UMC members are opposed to a church schism over homosexuality. “We found that regardless of a person’s position on homosexuality, members felt strongly that the church could offer a positive and different voice to the broader conversation occurring in society today,” said John Deuterman, president of Corporate Research, which conducted the survey for the UMC Communications agency.” (Emphasis mine)

I really don’t know what that is trying to say. The only ‘positive’ and ‘different’ (than society) voice ought to be the voice of Almighty God, who has spoken rather clearly in this matter.



God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge — A Response to Matthew Vines

by Al Mohler

Tuesday • April 22, 2014


Evangelical Christians in the United States now face an inevitable moment of decision. While Christians in other movements and in other nations face similar questions, the question of homosexuality now presents evangelicals in the United States with a decision that cannot be avoided. Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question. There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.

The question is whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over two thousand years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.

The world is pressing this question upon us, but so are a number of voices from within the larger evangelical circle — voices that are calling for a radical revision of the church’s understanding of the Bible, sexual morality, and the meaning of marriage. We are living in the midst of a massive revolution in morality, and sexual morality is at the center of this revolution. But the question of same-sex relationships and sexuality is at the very center of the debate over sexual morality, and our answer to this question will both determine or reveal what we understand about everything the Bible reveals and everything the church teaches — even the gospel itself.

Others are watching, and they see the moment of decision at hand. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann of Stanford University has remarked that “it is clear to an observer like me that evangelical Christianity is at a crossroad.” What is that crossroad? “The question of whether gay Christians should be married within the church.”  Journalist Terry Mattingly sees the same issue looming on the evangelical horizon — “There is no way to avoid the showdown that is coming.”

Into this context now comes God and the Gay Christian, a book by Matthew Vines. Just a couple of years ago Vines made waves with the video of a lecture in which he attempted to argue that being a gay Christian in a committed same-sex relationship (and eventual marriage) is compatible with biblical Christianity. His video went viral. Even though Matthew Vines did not make new arguments, the young Harvard student synthesized arguments made by revisionist Bible scholars and presented a very winsome case for overthrowing the church’s moral teachings on same-sex relationships.

His new book flows from that startling ambition — to overthrow two millennia of Christian moral wisdom and biblical understanding.

Given the audacity of that ambition, why does this book deserve close attention? The most important reason lies outside the book itself. There are a great host of people, considered to be within the larger evangelical movement, who are desperately seeking a way to make peace with the moral revolution and endorse the acceptance of openly-gay individuals and couples within the life of the church. Given the excruciating pressures now exerted on evangelical Christianity, many people — including some high-profile leaders — are desperately seeking an argument they can claim as both persuasive and biblical. The seams in the evangelical fabric are beginning to break and Matthew Vines now comes along with a book that he claims will make the argument so many have been seeking.

In God and the Gay Christian Vines argues that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” He announces that, once his argument is accepted: “The fiercest objections to LGBT equality — those based on religious beliefs — can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together we can reclaim our light” (3).

That promise drives Vines’s work from beginning to end. He identifies himself as both gay and Christian and claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible. “That means,” he says, “I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life” (2).

Well, that is exactly what we would hope for a Christian believer to say about the Bible. And who could fault the ambition of any young and thoughtful Christian who seeks to recover the reputation of Christianity in the Western world. If Matthew Vines were to be truly successful in simultaneously making his case and remaining true to the Scriptures, we would indeed have to overturn two thousand years of the church’s teaching on sex and marriage and apologize for the horrible embarrassment of being wrong for so long.

Readers of his book who are looking for an off-ramp from the current cultural predicament will no doubt try to accept his argument. But the real question is whether what Vines claims is true and faithful to the Bible as the Word of God. But his argument is neither true nor faithful to Scripture. It is, nonetheless, a prototype of the kind of argument we can now expect.

What Does the Bible Really Say?

The most important sections of Vines’s book deal with the Bible itself and with what he identifies as the six passages in the Bible that “have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches” (11). Those six passages (Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10) are indeed key and crucial passages for understanding God’s expressed and revealed message on the question of same-sex acts, desires, and relationships, but they are hardly the whole story.

The most radical proposal Vines actually makes is to sever each of these passages from the flow of the biblical narrative and the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about what it means to be human, both male and female. He does not do this merely by omission, but by the explicit argument that the church has misunderstood the doctrine of creation as much as the question of human sexuality. He specifically seeks to argue that the basic sexual complementarity of the human male and the female — each made in God’s image — is neither essential to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 or to any biblical text that follows.

In other words, he argues that same-sex sexuality can be part of the goodness of God’s original creation, and that when God declared that it is not good for man to be alone, the answer to man’s isolation could be a sexual relationship with someone of either sex. But that massive misrepresentation of Genesis 1 and 2 — a misinterpretation with virtually unlimited theological consequences — actually becomes Vines’s way of relativizing the meaning of the six passages he primarily considers.

His main argument is that the Bible simply has no category of sexual orientation. Thus, when the Bible condemns same-sex acts, it is actually condemning “sexual excess,” hierarchy, oppression, or abuse — not the possibility of permanent, monogamous, same-sex unions.

In addressing the passages in Genesis and Leviticus, Vines argues that the sin of Sodom was primarily inhospitality, not same-sex love or sexuality. The law of Moses condemns same-sex acts in so far as they violate social status or a holiness code, not in and of themselves, he asserts. His argument with regard to Leviticus is especially contorted, since he has to argue that the text’s explicit condemnation of male-male intercourse as an abomination is neither categorical or related to sinfulness. He allows that “abomination is a negative word,” but insists that “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin” (85).

Finally, he argues that, even if the Levitical condemnations are categorical, this would not mean that the law remains binding on believers today.

In dealing with the most significant single passage in the Bible on same-sex acts and desire, Romans 1:26-27, Vines actually argues that the passage “is not of central importance to Paul’s message in Romans.” Instead, Vines argues that the passage is used by Paul only as “a brief example to drive home a point he was making about idolatry.” Nevertheless, Paul’s words on same-sex acts are, he admits, “starkly negative” (96).

“There is no question that Romans 1:26-27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate,” Vines acknowledges (96). In order to relativize it, he makes this case: “Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So how should we understand Paul’s words? Do they apply to all same-sex relationships? Or only to lustful, fleeting ones?” (99).

In asking these questions, Vines makes his case that Paul is merely ignorant of the reality of sexual orientation. He had no idea that some people are naturally attracted to people of the same sex. Therefore, Paul misunderstands what today would be considered culturally normative in many highly-developed nations — that some persons are naturally attracted to others of the same sex and it would be therefore “unnatural” for them to be attracted sexually to anyone else.

Astonishingly, Vines then argues that the very notion of “against nature” as used by Paul in Romans 1 is tied to patriarchy, not sexual complementarity. Same-sex relationships, Vines argues, “disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes” (109).

But to get anywhere near to Vines’s argument one has to sever Romans 1 from any natural reading of the text, from the flow of the Bible’s message from Genesis 1 forward, from the basic structure of sexual complementarity, and from the church’s faithful reading of the Bible for two millennia. Furthermore, his argument provides direct evidence of that Paul warns of in this very chapter, “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Finally, the actual language of Romans 1, specifically dealing with male same-sex desire, speaks of “men consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:27). This directly contradicts Vines’s claim that only oppressive, pederastic, or socially mixed same-sex acts are condemned. Paul describes men consumed with passion for one another — not merely the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. In other words, in Romans 1:26-27 Paul condemns same-sex acts by both men and women, and he condemns the sexual desires described as unnatural passions as well.

In his attempt to relativize 1 Corinthians 6: 9, Vines actually undermines more of his argument. Paul’s careful use of language (perhaps even inventing a term by combining two words from Leviticus 18) is specifically intended to deny what Vines proposes — that the text really does not condemn consensual same-sex acts by individuals with a same-sex sexual orientation. Paul so carefully argues his case that he makes the point that both the active and the passive participants in male intercourse will not inherit the kingdom of God. Desperate to argue his case nonetheless, Vines asserts that, once again, it is exploitative sex that Paul condemns. But this requires that Paul be severed from his Jewish identify and from his own obedience to Scripture. Vines must attempt to marshal evidence that the primary background issue is the Greco-Roman cultural context rather than Paul’s Jewish context — but that would make Paul incomprehensible.

One other aspect of Vines’s consideration of the Bible should be noted. He acknowledges that he is “not a biblical scholar,” but he claims to “have relied on the work of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own.” But the scholars upon whom he relies do not operate on the assumption that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.” To the contrary, most of his cited scholars are from the far left of modern biblical scholarship or on the fringes of the evangelical world. He does not reveal their deeper understandings of Scripture and its authority.

The Authority of Scripture and the Question of Sexual Orientation

Again and again, Vines comes back to sexual orientation as the key issue. ‘”The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation,” he insists. The concept of sexual orientation “didn’t exist in the ancient world.” Amazingly, he then concedes that the Bible’s “six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” but insists, again, that “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”

Here we face the most tragic aspect of Matthew Vines’s argument. If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted to understand what it means to be human, to reveal what God intends for us sexually, or to define sin in any coherent manner. The modern notion of sexual orientation is, as a matter of fact, exceedingly modern. it is also a concept without any definitive meaning. Effectively, it is used now both culturally and morally to argue about sexual attraction and desire. As a matter of fact, attraction and desire are the only indicators upon which the modern notion of sexual orientation are premised.

When he begins his book, Matthew Vines argues that experience should not drive our interpretation of the Bible. But it is his experience of what he calls a gay sexual orientation that drives every word of this book. It is this experiential issue that drives him to relativize text after text and to argue that the Bible really doesn’t speak directly to his sexual identity at all, since the inspired human authors of Scripture were ignorant of the modern gay experience.

Of what else were they ignorant? Vines claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible and to believe that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” but the modern concept of sexual orientation functions as a much higher authority in his thinking and in his argument.

This leads to a haunting question. What else does the Bible not know about what it means to be human? If the Bible cannot be trusted to reveal the truth about us in every respect, how can we trust it to reveal our salvation?

This points to the greater issue at stake here — the Gospel. Matthew Vines’s argument does not merely relativize the Bible’s authority, it leaves us without any authoritative revelation of what sin is. And without an authoritative (and clearly understandable) revelation of human sin, we cannot know why we need a Savior, or why Christ died. Furthermore, to tell someone that what the Bible reveals as sin is not sin, we tell them that they do not need Christ for that. Is that not exactly what Paul was determined not to do when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Could the stakes be any higher than that? This controversy is not merely about sex, it is about salvation.

Matthew Vines’s Wedge Argument — Gender and the Bible

There is another really interesting and revealing aspect of Matthew Vine’s argument yet to come. In terms of how his argument is likely to be received within the evangelical world, Vines clearly has a strategy, and that strategy is to persuade those who have rejected gender complementarity to take the next logical step and deny sexual complementarity as well.

Gender complementarity is the belief that the Bible’s teachings on gender and gender roles is to be understood in terms of the fact that men and women are equally made in God’s image (status) but different in terms of assignment (roles). This has been the belief and conviction of virtually all Christians throughout the centuries, and it is the view held by the vast majority of those identified as Christians in the world even today. But a denial of this conviction, hand in hand with the argument that sameness of role is necessary to affirm equality of status, has led some to argue that difference in gender roles must be rejected. The first impediment to making this argument is the fact that the Bible insists on a difference in roles. In order to overcome this impediment, biblical scholars and theologians committed to egalitarianism have made arguments that are hauntingly similar to those now made by Matthew Vines in favor of relativizing the Bible’s texts on same-sex behaviors.

Matthew Vines knows this. He also knows that, at least until recently, most of those who have rejected gender complementarity have maintained an affirmation of sexual complementarity — the belief that sexual behavior is to be limited to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He sees this as his opening. At several points in the book, he makes this argument straightforwardly, even as he calls both “gender complementarity” and denies that the Bible requires or reveals it.

But we have to give Matthew Vines credit for seeing this wedge issue better than most egalitarians have seen it. He knows that the denial of gender complementarity is a huge step toward denying sexual complementarity. The evangelicals who have committed themselves to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles as revealed in the Bible are those who are most vulnerable to his argument. In effect, they must resist his argument more by force of will than by force of logic.

Same-Sex Marriage, Celibacy, and the Gospel

Matthew Vines writes with personal passion and he tells us much of his own story. Raised in an evangelical Presbyterian church by Christian parents, he came relatively late to understand his own sexual desires and pattern of attraction. He wants to be acknowledged as a faithful Christian, and he wants to be married … to a man. He argues that the Bible simply has no concept of sexual orientation and that to deny him access to marriage is to deny him justice and happiness. He argues that celibacy cannot be mandated for same-sex individuals within the church, for this would be unjust and wrong. He argues that same-sex unions can fulfill the “one-flesh” promise of Genesis 2:24.

Thus, he argues that the Christian church should accept and celebrate same-sex marriage. He also argues, just like the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, that Christianity must revise its beliefs or face the massive loss of reputation before the watching world (meaning, we should note, the watching world of the secular West).

But the believing church is left with no option but to deny the revisionist and relativizing proposals Vines brings to the evangelical argument. The consequences of accepting his argument would include misleading people about their sin and about their need for Christ, about what obedience to Christ requires and what faithfulness to Christ demands.

Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners.

Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors. The church is the assembly of the redeemed, saved from our sins and learning obedience in the School of Christ. Every single one of us is a sexual sinner in need of redemption, but we are called to holiness, to obedience, and to honoring marriage as one of God’s most precious gifts and as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.

God and the Gay Christian demands an answer, but Christ demands our obedience. We can only pray — with fervent urgency — that this moment of decision for evangelical Christianity will be answered with a firm assertion of biblical authority, respect for marriage as the union of a man and a woman, passion for the Gospel of Christ, and prayer for the faithfulness and health of Christ’s church.

I do not write this response as Matthew Vines’s moral superior, but as one who must be obedient to Scripture. And so, I must counter his argument with conviction and urgency. I am concerned for him, and for the thousands who struggle as he does. The church has often failed people with same-sex attractions, and failed them horribly. We must not fail them now by forfeiting the only message that leads to salvation, holiness, and faithfulness. That is the real question before us.

Relevant Excerpts from C.H.Spurgeon


A Sermon
(No. 2047)
Delivered on Lord’s-day Morning, October 7th, 1888, by
At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington

“If the world will not come to Jesus, shall Jesus tone down his teachings to the world? In other words, if the world will not rise to the church, shall not the church go down to the world? Instead of bidding men to be converted, and come out from among sinners, and be separate from them, let us join with the ungodly world, enter into union with it, and so pervade it with our influence by allowing it to influence us. Let us have a Christian world.
          To this end let us revise our doctrines. Some are old-fashioned, grim, severe, unpopular; let us drop them out. Use the old phrases so as to please the obstinately orthodox, but give them new meanings so as to win philosophical infidels, who are prowling around. Pare off the edges of unpleasant truths, and moderate the dogmatic tone of infallible revelation: say that Abraham and Moses made mistakes, and that the books which have been so long had in reverence are full of errors. Undermine the old faith, and bring in the new doubt; for the times are altered, and the spirit of the age suggests the abandonment of everything that is too severely righteous, and too surely of God.
clip_image001[1]The deceitful adulteration of doctrine is attended by a falsification of experience. Men are now told that they were born good, or were made so by their infant baptism, and so that great sentence, "Ye must be born again," is deprived of its force. Repentance is ignored, faith is a drug in the market as compared with "honest doubt," and mourning for sin and communion with God are dispensed with, to make way for entertainments, and Socialism, and politics of varying shades. A new creature in Christ Jesus is looked upon as a sour invention of bigoted Puritans. It is true, with the same breath they extol Oliver Cromwell; but then 1888 is not 1648. What was good and great three hundred years ago is mere cant to-day. That is what "modern thought" is telling us; and under its guidance all religion is being toned down. Spiritual religion is despised, and a fashionable morality is set up in its place. Do yourself up tidily on Sunday; behave yourself; and above all, believe everything except what you read in the Bible, and you will be all right. Be fashionable, and think with those who profess to be scientific—this is the first and great commandment of the modern school; and the second is like unto it—do not be singular, but be as worldly as your neighbours. Thus is Isaac going down into Padan-aram: thus is the church going down to the world.
clip_image001[2]Men seem to say—It is of no use going on in the old way, fetching out one here and another there from the great mass. We want a quicker way. To wait till people are born again, and become followers of Christ, is a long process: let us abolish the separation between the regenerate and unregenerate. Come into the church, all of you, converted or unconverted. You have good wishes and good resolutions; that will do: don’t trouble about more. It is true you do not believe the gospel, but neither do we. You believe something or other. Come along; if you do not believe anything, no matter; your "honest doubt" is better by far than faith. "But," say you, "nobody talks so." Possibly they do not use the same words, but this is the real meaning of the present-day religion; this is the drift of the times. I can justify the broadest statement I have made by the action or by the speech of certain ministers, who are treacherously betraying our holy religion under pretence of adapting it to this progressive age. The new plan is to assimilate the church to the world, and so include a larger area within its bounds. By semi-dramatic performances they make houses of prayer to approximate to the theatre; they turn their services into musical displays, and their sermons into political harangues or philosophical essays—in fact, they exchange the temple for the theatre, and turn the ministers of God into actors, whose business it is to amuse men. Is it not so, that the Lord’s-day is becoming more and more a day of recreation or of idleness, and the Lord’s house either a joss-house full of idols, or a political club, where there is more enthusiasm for a party than zeal for God? Ah me! the hedges are broken down, the walls are levelled, and to many there is henceforth, no church except as a portion of the world, no God except as an unknowable force by which the laws of nature work.
clip_image001[3]This, then, is the proposal. In order to win the world, the Lord Jesus must conform himself, his people, and his Word to the world. I will not dwell any longer on so loathsome a proposal.”

. . . . .

“The Lord Jesus Christ heads that grand emigration party which has come right out from the world. Addressing his disciples, he says, "Ye are not of the world, even as I am not of the world." We are not of the world by birth, not of the world in life, not of the world in object, not of the world in spirit, not of the world in any respect whatever. Jesus, and those who are in him, constitute a new race. The proposal to go back to the world is abhorrent to our best instincts; yea, deadly to our noblest life.

. . . . .

“Why is there such spiritual death to-day? Why is false doctrine so rampant in the churches? It is because we have ungodly people in the church and in the ministry. Eagerness for numbers, and especially eagerness to include respectable people, has adulterated many churches, and made them lax in doctrine and practice, and fond of silly amusements. These are the people who despise a prayer-meeting, but rush to see "living waxworks" in their schoolrooms. God save us from converts who are made by lowering the standard, and tarnishing the spiritual glory of the church! No, no; if Isaac is to have a wife worthy of him, she will come away from Laban and the rest, and she will not mind a journey on camel-back. True converts are never daunted by truth or holiness—these, in fact, are the things which charm them.”

. . . . .

“When we lie a-dying, if we have faithfully preached the gospel, our conscience will not accuse us for having kept closely to it: we shall not mourn that we did not play the fool or the politician in order to increase our congregation. Oh, no! our Master will give us full absolution, even if few be gathered in, so long as we have been true to him.  . . . Do not try the dodges which debase religion. Keep to the simple gospel; and if the people are not converted by it, you will be clear. My dear hearers, how much I long to see you saved! But I would not belie my Lord, even to win your souls, if they could be so won. The true servant of God is responsible for diligence and faithfulness; but he is not responsible for success or non-success. Results are in God’s hands. If that dear child in your class is not converted, yet if you have set before him the gospel of Jesus Christ with loving, prayerful earnestness, you shall not be without your reward. If I preach from my very soul the grand truth that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will save my hearers, and if I persuade and entreat them to believe in Jesus unto eternal life; if they will not do so, their blood will lie upon their own heads. When I go back to my Master, if I have faithfully told out his message of free grace and dying love, I shall be clear. I have often prayed that I might be able to say at the last what George Fox could so truly say: "I am clear, I am clear!" It is my highest ambition to be clear of the blood of all men. I have preached God’s truth, so far as I know it, and I have not been ashamed of its peculiarities. That I might not stultify my testimony I have cut myself clear of those who err from the faith, and even from those who associate with them. What more can I do to be honest with you? If, after all, men will not have Christ, and his gospel, and his rule, it is their own concern. If Rebekah had not come to Isaac she would have lost her place in the holy line. My beloved hearer, will you have Jesus Christ or not? He has come into the world to save sinners, and he casts out none. Will you accept him? Will you trust him? "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." Will you believe him? Will you be baptized into his name? If so, salvation is yours; but if not, he himself hath said it, "He that believeth not shall be damned." Oh, do not expose yourselves to that damnation! Or, if you are set upon it; then, when the great white throne shall be seen in yonder skies, and the day of wrath has come, do me the justice to acknowledge that I bade you flee to Jesus, and that I did not amuse you with novel theories. I have brought neither flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, nor any other kind of music to please your ears, but I have set Christ crucified before you, and bidden you believe and live. If you refuse to accept the substitution of Christ, you have refused your own mercies. Clear me in that day of all complicity with the novel inventions of deluded men. As for my Lord, I pray of him grace to be faithful to the end, both to his truth, and to your souls. Amen.”


Genuine Church Growth–It’s NOT about Numbers

Church growth means that attendance/membership numbers are on the rise. An increase in numbers however does not necessarily indicate genuine church growth. By genuine church growth I mean an increase resulting from the addition of truly regenerate, saved sinners. Please allow me to explain.

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Those are Jesus’ words, to Peter of course, and I ‘m convinced that those few words speak volumes about genuine church growth. I just want to share a few thoughts.

First of all we are told that there is a “rock” that is the foundation of the church. What is that “rock”? To understand “the rock” we need only examine the immediate context and a couple of other passages in the New Testament.

“He said to them (his disciples), "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:15-18)

With his words, Jesus was replying to what Peter had answered to the question he had posed to them “Who do you say that I am?”. Peter correctly responded by identifying Jesus as Christ, the  Messiah (deliverer) they had been looking for throughout Jewish history, and that Jesus was the Son of God. Because the Greek name ‘Peter’ is similar to the Greek word ‘rock’ there are those who will say that Peter himself was that rock of which Jesus spoke. Was he?

“So then you (believers) are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” (Eph 2:20) (Emphasis mine)

I assume we will all agree that the ‘household of God’ refers to the church on earth. Note that the apostles and prophets form the foundation of the church, and that Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone of the foundation. Peter was one of the apostles in the foundation, not ‘the rock’ of which Jesus spoke. The rock was Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, the one identified by the Apostle Paul (also part of the foundation) as the Chief Cornerstone.

What does that mean in terms of genuine church growth? Thanks for asking! Here’s the critical phrase from our beginning passage, Jesus’ words:

”. . .on this rock (Jesus is the Messiah) I will build my church.”

No rocket science here. Jesus claims ownership of the church and it is built on the truth that He is the Christ, the One who delivers us from our sins, who was crucified in our place. It is when a lost sinner makes the same confession as Peter, calls on the name of the Lord for salvation, that a new member is added to the church, the body of Christ. And just how does anyone come t the point of calling on the name of the Lord for salvation? We have the answer in Paul’s words to the church in Rome

“For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" “(Romans 10:13-15)

Genuine church growth begins with the ‘preaching’ of the gospel by ‘sent’ ones,. equipped with Holy Spirit power. At least that was the pattern during the infancy of the church. When Stephen was stoned to death by an angry Jewish mob, great persecution arose and believers scattered from Jerusalem fulfilling what was spoken by the resurrected Christ to his disciples in Jerusalem:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

Then came Pentecost. The rest is history.

Does that mean numbers being added to a local church somewhere? Of course it does! The new birth generates a desire for fellowship with other believers. When lost souls are added to the universal church, the body of all believers, local churches grow. The numbers are a natural result of preaching the gospel to God-opened hearts. Numbers added to a local church are merely a by-product, and should never be the main goal of man-made schemes and methods. Jesus said “I will build my church.”

That being said, when I look around today’s evangelical landscape, I keep seeing all sorts of church growth conversations in which numbers themselves seem to be the main focus. I was at another site just recently that had a post titled “8 Reasons Your Church Won’t Get Past The 200 Mark.”While I’m convinced the author of that blog post genuinely  wants to see unsaved people saved, I am equally convinced that creating a church that the ‘unchurched’ (euphemism for lost, in bondage to sin, spiritually dead folks) love to attend is NOT the way Jesus intended HIS church to be built.

I think I pretty much explained Jesus’ method for church growth. I probably should say ‘non-model’. In Jesus’ ‘non-model’ there are no Peter Drucker management techniques being used, no state of the art entertainment productions that mimic Guns and Roses or AC/DC, no cheerleaders posing as worship teams to get folks all worked up (not all worship teams are like that), no Barna style surveys to isolate certain demographic segments for the church’s target audience, no leaving out the issues of sin and repentance. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Genuine church growth comes from the preaching of the gospel – the one that Paul was not ashamed of, that “Christ died, was buried, and rose again for OUR sins for out sins” (See I Cor 15:1-4). That preaching can happen just about anywhere, in fact should happen more outside the church building than inside it, as believers are equipped to being ‘scattered’, and just like the N.T. believers, they preach the gospel wherever they are! (See Acts 8:4)

So what is the goal of genuine church growth, if not numbers?

Dear friends and fellow believers, the goal of church growth is to bring the ‘unchurched’ to the foot of the cross of Christ, NOT through the doors of our church!


A Megashift in Church Growth Methodology

In my last post (that I just edited so correct the color of most of the text) I ended with this thought:

“I can’t help but think of the infant church, birthed at Pentecost, and whether or not Peter’s vision for the new church was to create a place that ‘unchurched people love to attend’. There seems to be a disconnect between the church growth strategy of our author and the NT model. At the same time the ‘give them a place they will love to attend’ seems to be the prevailing model in today’s evangelical culture.”

Even a casual reader of the book of Acts, the history of the New Testament church, will pick up on the huge difference between the NT model for church growth and what prevails in our time.

First of all, I’m not at all sure there was a ‘model’ followed by the NT church. Those early Jewish believers were mostly ecstatic that they had found the Messiah they had longed for and went about sharing the great news! Add Holy Spirit power to their joyous testimony and the church just grew as ‘the Lord added to it daily those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47). There no gimmicks to attract nonbelievers, no offerings of worldly entertainment or promises of prosperity and success in this life. There was just a simple message of having found the Messiah, devotion to sound doctrine, prayer and fellowship. (Acts 2:42). The purpose of the church was the equipping believers to live lives worthy of the One who had saved them and prepare them to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28:19). When persecution arose, they scattered and just kept on preaching the good news!  They didn’t have time to develop ‘models’ and ‘methods’. They just did what came naturally (NEW naturally, that is).

These days some pastors want to give the ‘unchurched’ (nonbelievers) a church they will love to attend. Some have even told the folks in the theater seats that the church is NOT for them, but FOR the lost! Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for nonbelievers coming through the doors of the Chapel we attend, but should we have as a goal creating a place they would rather come than say, watching the latest NFL pregame show?

The big question here, as I see it, is this: “Why and how did church growth change from Jesus adding to the church ‘those who were being saved’, to us adding to the church those we can convince that our church is a really cool place?” 

I think I know, but this isn’t about what I think I know. If you are reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Five Ways God Points Sinners to Christ

I’ve been listening to John MacArthur’s sermon series on the book of Acts as my homework for leading a Sunday morning Bible study through the same book. Listening to all of the sermons and taking notes better prepares me for the task and provides me with some helpful ‘additions’ to the broader study material, also John MacArthur’s.

One of the sermons provided a short list of ways God points sinners to Christ that I found helpful. Listed below are the points presented in the sermon, for your thoughtful consideration, followed by some personal thoughts concerning their application in our evangelistic efforts.

1. Knowledge

The miracles, signs and wonders at the hands of Jesus and the Apostles were signs that they were from God. The Jews knew that they were seeing with their own eyes that which only God could do. Some did the math and believed, but many did not.

One man, who was blind from birth, even reminded the Jewish leaders that only God could have healed him and even asked those rulers if they too wanted to become a disciples of Jesus. Sadly, I think they thought he was just being sarcastic. (See John 9)

Today we don’t have Christ among us, but we are given the same knowledge through the written New Testament.

2. Guilt

In the days following the birth of the Church at Pentecost, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, accusing them of being guilty of their own Messiah’s death. 3,000 hearers responded with "what shall we do?" to Pater’s first sermon.

3. Sorrow

"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." – 2 Cor 7:10

The repentance of Peter for having denied Christ brought repentance and was ‘Godly’ sorrow. Judas’ sorrow for his betrayal was worldly sorrow that led to his suicide/hanging.

4. The goodness of God

"Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" – Rom 2:4

5. Judgment

"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." – Acts 17:30-31

As I consider these points, several things come to mind concerning their use in evangelism:

First of all, only one of them, knowledge, seems to not be connected with the issue of our ‘sin’ problem. The miracles and signs performed by Jesus and the Apostles were signs that the both of their ministries were of God. Only God could heal the sick and raise the dead. In the same manner, we can ‘make known’ the God of the Bible and the mighty deeds of Jesus and the Apostles in the early church. The Bible is our ‘source’ of information.

The remaining four; guilt, sorrow, the goodness of God and judgment speak of repentance, or turning. There are, I think, two aspects of repentance in view here – turning from sin and turning toward God. While both ‘turnings’ should need no explanation, turning toward God might have had special significance to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and the days of the early church. Those same religious leaders thought themselves already toward God, while Jesus told them they knew not the true God. Go back and review some of the hard things Jesus had to say to them concerning whom they really served.

That four out of five ways God points to Christ deal with man’s issue with sin should be hugely significant. As we share Christ with a lost world, if we don’t take the conversation to man’s biggest problem, we are failing in our mission. That doesn’t mean we ‘pound people over the head’ with it, but we have as a goal to ‘get to the bottom line’, as it were. We walk gently down that path, with great concern and much care. We can even encourage those to whom we share Christ to actually identify the problem themselves, with ‘creative’ dialogue and conversation!

We need to remember that salvation is a work of God, and we are only messengers. We also don’t know which of our five points God will use in any individual to bring him/her to Christ. We leave the ‘convicting’ of sin, righteousness and judgment to the Holy Spirit. However, we just need to be like the Apostle Paul, and ‘unashamed’ of the entirety of the gospel message we present.

Lastly (for now) we must always bathe our evangelistic efforts with prayer. We should pray daily that God will open hearts to receive the gospel message and seize the divine appointments God arranges for us. We should be praying as we share the gospel message, both for guidance in that sharing and for God’s revelation to the hearer. We should be continuously praying for those to whom we share the gospel as they grow in Christ whether or not we are part of that growth, since we know the enemy will try and destroy seed that was sown.

So much for my thoughts. I have a couple of questions. Of the five points we just discussed, which ones seem to be most prevalent in most of today’s evangelistic culture? Which ones, if any, are missing? What are we to do about it?

The Thought Lives of Believers and the Building up of The Body

In his final remarks to the church in Philippi, the Apostle Paul said this:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Phil 4:8

Perhaps more than any other passage in scripture, this verse has meant more to me personally in guiding my thought life. It tells me what the overall ‘character’ of my thought life should be, regardless of the situation I am in, as well as how I should ‘direct’ my thought life when my fleshly mind wants to do otherwise.

I’ve found it quite easy at times to dwell on perceived and actual wrongs that have come our way to the extent that I’ve become personally discouraged and bitter; become angry toward the ‘perpetrator’ and asked God to let me be the instrument of His vengeance.

The above passage tells me to think about, focus on good things. This does not mean that I should just let wrongs go and not seek ‘justice’ for those wronged. There is a system of Biblical church discipline for such matters as well as a civil court system, both ordained of God for the purpose of ‘righting wrongs’.

I believe there is great danger, both personally and for the body of Christ, when we begin to focus on the wrong and not on what good for the Glory of God can be accomplished in hard situations. As believers, we are to be about the building up of the body of Christ. We have given gifts just for that purpose – to build up the body of Christ.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” – Ephesians 4:11-12

We are instructed concerning ‘gifts of the Spirit’ in 1 Corinthians 12; that they are for the ‘common good’ :

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Whatever we think about offices in the church and spiritual gifts, Paul makes it very clear in both passages that they are given and empowered by the Holy Spirit to equally important members of the church who occupy different offices and perform different functions in the body, a;working together to build up the body.

What has this t do with our thought lives? I’m so glad you asked!

I’ve never become bitter about a wrong done (to myself or others) without my thinking being the first step toward wanting to be an instrument of God’s vengeance upon persons guilty of wrong. All I have to do is focus on the evil wrongdoing and the want to have that wrong righted. And I must say that it’s not too difficult to find passages of scripture to support my desire, although I need to take them out of the context of God’s redemptive plan and/or read into them (eisegete) God’s permission for my sinful emotions and even a ‘holy crusade’ for justice.

On the other hand, while there might have been great wrong done, if I focus, as Paul teaches us, on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, and whatever is worthy of praise I can avoid falling off of a path leading to restoration and redemption, which is God’s ideal; and leave the ‘justice’ element to appropriately applied church discipline and whatever God ordained civil court system is in place, and ultimately to God himself.

In short, regarding the church, the very Bride of Christ, I can either be a ‘body builder’ or a ‘wrecking ball’. Which one am I? When there are wrongs done or ‘sin in the camp’, how do I respond? I could ignore it and keep my head stuck in the sand, pretending it isn’t happening. I could decide to hunt down the criminals, expose them to the world as both judge and jury, or I could pray that God take care of the justice and be an agent or reconciliation and redemption.

The question is, am I a ‘body builder’ or ‘wrecking ball’? Dear Christian, which one are you?

Food for thought early on a Sunday morning.

The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy A View from the Classroom – David R. Nienhuis

For well over twenty years now, Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of general biblical literacy in America. No doubt you have read some of the same dire statistics that I have. Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely. Indeed, while the Exploring Religious America Survey of 2002 reports that over 84 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren’t even able to identify Genesis as the Bible’s opening text.

Upon hearing these figures (and many more are readily available), some among us may be tempted to seek odd solace in the recognition that our culture is increasingly post-Christian. Perhaps these general population studies are misplaced in holding secular people to Christian standards. Much to our embarrassment, however, it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard. Again, numerous studies are available for those seeking further reason to be depressed. In a 2004 Gallup study of over one thousand American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" and over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount or "the road to Damascus" as the place where Saul/Paul’s blinding vision occurred. In each of these questions, evangelical teens fared only slightly better than their non-evangelical counterparts.

These numbers serve to underscore the now widespread recognition that the Bible continues to hold pride of place as "America’s favorite unopened text" (to borrow David Gibson’s wonderful phrase), even among many Christians. As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students–around 95 percent of them–are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover. Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel’s history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible’s larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text–even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the current predicament. In general we spend far less time reading anything at all in this culture, much less dense and demanding books like the Bible. Not long ago I met with a student who was struggling in one of my courses. When I asked her what she thought the trouble was, she replied, in a tone suggesting ever so slightly that the fault was mine, "Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style." She went on to inform me that students today learned more by "watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another." She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.

Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls "an astonishingly malleable Jesus–an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation’s social and cultural preoccupations."

The most important shift, according to Prothero, was the shift from theology to morality. The nondenominationalist trend among Protestants tended to avoid doctrinal conflicts by searching for agreements in the moral realm. Christian socialists, such as Charles Sheldon, taught us to ask not "What does the Bible say?" but "What would Jesus do?" Advocates of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, taught that it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential "seekers" shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

Is it any wonder that Christian youth have had little option but to default to thin, pop-cultural platitudes in their attempts to make sense of their faith? In the largest study to date of the religious lives of American youth, the National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton found that though American teens are generally quite happy to follow the faith of their parents, the de facto religion they practice is best characterized as a kind of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, they describe MTD as a vaguely Christian set of convictions that result in a view of God as a divine butler-therapist figure. The majority of teens interviewed reflected the belief that God is primarily concerned with making people happy, bailing them out when they get in trouble, and providing them with the necessary goods to enjoy life. Apart from these activities, God is uninvolved in the world. In other words, God is basically a nice, permissive dad with a big wallet.

These same teens could be profoundly articulate about drinking, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases, but were generally stumped when asked to talk about their faith. "Most U.S. teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives," Smith and Denton report. There is more at stake here than a lack of basic biblical and theological knowledge, of course. The authors go on to say:

Philosophers like Charles Taylor argue that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. So, for instance, religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality. A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to be fostering articulation: helping teens practice talking about their faith, providing practice using vocabularies, grammar, stories, and key messages of faith. Especially to the extent that the language of faith in American culture is becoming a foreign language, educators, like real foreign language teachers, have that much more to work at helping their students learn to practice speaking that other language of faith.

Inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. If Smith and Denton are correct in their analysis (and I think they are), then it means that even those teens who are able to answer isolated Bible knowledge questions will not automatically be enabled to make the biblical story a constitutive element of their daily existence. Knowing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem will not in and of itself empower them to speak the language of faith. Satan’s use of Scripture in tempting Jesus is clear indication that a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character.

To make a real difference in people’s lives, biblical literacy programs will have to do more than simply encourage believers to memorize a select set of Bible verses. They will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them. As Paulo Freire reminded us, literacy enables us to read both the word and the world. Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn’t simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world. Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers.

This is part of what I find troubling about what appears to be the dominant model of biblical literacy employed among evangelicals in their attempts to raise children of faith. This approach emphasizes the memorization of discrete Bible verses and "facts," mostly in the service of evangelism and apologetics. By mastery of passages that are deemed doctrinally relevant and emotionally empowering, it is hoped that believing youth will be equipped to own their faith, share it with seekers, and defend it against detractors. Most of the students in my classes who consider themselves "familiar with the Bible" have been trained to approach Scripture in this fashion.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I have a deep respect for the venerable and immensely valuable tradition of memorizing Scripture. Indeed, it is a central component in learning the language of faith. The deliberate, disciplined, prayerful repetition of those texts the church has come to especially value has long been a strategy for inscribing the Word of God directly on the heart and mind of the believer (Jer. 31:31-34). My comments thus far, however, should make it plain that I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate.

I observe two common problems with students who have become "familiar with the Bible" in this way. First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that "years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions" never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren’t trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. But whenever she was alone with the text, she felt swamped by its staggering depth and breadth; so if she read the Bible at all, her method typically involved skimming the Scriptures in search of the passages she already knew and loved. This method of "reading" (if it can be called that) is seriously limited, if not dangerous, because it reduces the Bible to a grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments.

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. In this they are sometimes led to uncritically conclude that Christians who believe differently from them are either incompetent or willfully disobedient. They are therefore often surprised (and occasionally profoundly demoralized) when they read the verse in its actual literary context and discover that the meaning they had come to invest in it is not completely commensurate with the plain sense of the text on the page. Those of my students who are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast") are sometimes shocked to read the subsequent verse 10 ("For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life"). Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") are often horrified to read Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21 ("Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"). In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students’ encounter with the Bible’s depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith.

So what then shall we do? What is biblical literacy? Coming to an agreed-upon definition is itself part of the problem. I think all would agree that, at base, it involves a more detailed understanding of the Bible’s actual content. This requires: (1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular "orienteering" skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints. The survey courses we teach at SPU seek to do these very things. But in the end we want to do more than fill believing heads with objective knowledge about the Bible; we want to empower our whole community–students, faculty, and staff–to buck the cultural trends and take up the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. It is not enough for a Christian university to function as an outpost of the academy; it must also take up the task of serving the church by becoming an abbey for spiritual growth and an apostolate for cultural change. Through our newly established Center for Biblical and Theological Education, we are working to create a reading program–a lectionary of sorts–that will contribute to the formation of readers who come to cherish a relationship not with the "astonishingly malleable Jesus" of American culture, but with the particular God whose story is related in the Bible and celebrated in the Christian church. We want to create a community ethos of habitual, orderly, communal ingestion of the revelatory text. We do so in the hope that the Spirit of God will transform readers into hearers who know what it is to abide before the mirror of the Word long enough to become enscripturated doers; that is, people of faith who are adept at interpreting their individual stories and those of their culture through the grand story of God as it is made known in the Bible.

1  Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 111.
2  Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 268.

David R. Nienhuis (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is associate professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University and interim director of SPU’s Center for Biblical and Theological Education. He is the author of Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (Baylor University Press, 2007).

Issue: "Recovering Scripture" Jan./Feb. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 1 Page number(s): 10-13, 17

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