Believing that ignorance of God and neglect of the gospel of grace are at the root of evangelicalism's problems, Boice's explanation of the five "solas" of the Reformation offer the solution for the church today.
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About the Author
JAMES MONTGOMERY BOICE was senior minister of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for thirty years and a leading spokesman for the Reformed faith until his death in June 2000.
Lane T. Dennis (PhD, Northwestern University) is CEO of Crossway, formerly called Good News Publishers. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the managing director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dennis has served as the chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the executive editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
Eric J. Alexander is the retired Senior Minister at St. George's-Tron Parish Church in Glasgow, Scotland.
Read an Excerpt
The New Pragmatism
'Round the throne in radiant glory All creation loudly sings Praise to God, to God Almighty — Day and night the anthem rings: "Holy, holy, holy, holy Is our God, the King of kings."
These are not good days for the evangelical church, and anyone who takes a moment to evaluate the life and outlook of evangelical churches will understand that.
In recent years a number of books have been published in an effort to understand what is happening, and they are saying much the same thing even though their authors come from different backgrounds and are doing different work. I was struck by three studies that appeared within a year or two of each other. The first was No Place for Truth, by David F. Wells, professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. The second was Power Religion, by Michael Scott Horton, vice president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. The third volume was Ashamed of the Gospel, by John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. Each of these authors was writing about the evangelical church, and one can get an idea of what each is saying just from the titles alone.
Yet the subtitles are even more revealing. The subtitle of Wells's book is Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? The subtitle of Horton's book is The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church. The subtitle of MacArthur's work proclaims When the Church Becomes Like the World.
When we put them together we realize that these careful observers of the current scene perceive that evangelicalism is seriously off-base today because it has abandoned its evangelical truth-heritage. The thesis of Wells's book is that the evangelical church is either dead or dying as a significant religious force because it has forgotten what it stands for. Instead of trying to do God's work in God's way, it is trying to build a prosperous earthly kingdom with secular tools. Thus, as we have noted, Wells declared that, in spite of our apparent success, we have been "living in a fool's paradise."
John H. Armstrong, founder and president of Reformation and Revival Ministries, edited a volume titled The Coming Evangelical Crisis. When I asked him whether he thought the crisis was still coming or is actually here, he admitted that in his judgment the crisis is already upon us.
"And why is that?" I continued.
He answered, "It is because evangelicals have forgotten their theology."
A THIRTY-YEAR PERSPECTIVE
Let me put my thoughts in historical perspective. When I returned to the United States from theological studies in Europe in 1966 to work at Christianity Today, I found that the 1960s were a time of rising influence for evangelicals. Christianity Today was part of the resurgence. Under the leadership of founding editor Carl F. H. Henry, the magazine was mounting an effective challenge to the liberal churches and especially to the liberal theological journal The Christian Century. The largest seminaries in the country were evangelical, some with thousands of students. Evangelical churches also were growing, and they were emerging from their comfortable sub-urban ghettos to engage selected aspects of the secular culture. Observing this trend exactly a decade later, Newsweek magazine would call 1976 "the year of the evangelical."
It was also a time of decline for the mainline churches. I was part of one of those denominations from 1968 to 1980, and I came to the conclusion that the mainline churches were trying to do God's work in a secular way and that they were declining as a result. The older churches were pursuing the world's wisdom, embracing the world's theology, following the world's agenda, and employing the world's methods.
1. The world's wisdom. In earlier ages of the church, Christians stood before their Bibles and confessed their ignorance of spiritual things. They even confessed their inability to understand what was written in the Bible except for the grace of God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit to unfold the Bible's wisdom to them. They sought the wisdom of God in Scripture. But this ancient wisdom had been set aside by the liberal church, with the result that the reforming voice of God in the church through the Scriptures was forgotten. The liberal denominations had been undermined by rationalism, and they were no longer able to receive the Bible as God's Word to man, only as man's word about God. The Bible might still be true overall or in places, they believed, but it could no longer be regarded as authoritative.
This had three sad consequences for these churches. First, it produced a state of uncertainty about what to believe. This was usually disguised, often by increasingly elaborate liturgies or by social programs. But it was the true case, and it explained why so many people were beginning to desert these churches and turn to conservative churches instead. Unable to redirect the bureaucracies by personal participation or by democratic vote, people began voting with their feet and either dropped out entirely or turned to those churches that still retained a biblical message.
About this time a churchman named Dean Kelley wrote a book titled Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. He said it was because they knew what they believed. He was right. People are not attracted to churches that do not know where they stand theologically.
Second, the liberal churches were embracing the outlook and moral values of the world. Since there was nothing to make them distinct, they ended up being merely a pale reflection of the culture in which they were functioning.
Third, they made decisions based not on the teachings of the Bible but as a response to the prevailing opinions of the time, what Francis Schaeffer called the wisdom of the fifty-one percent vote. Business was done by consensus. Issues would be discussed (usually with very little reference to the Bible or its principles), a vote would be taken, a majority carried the day, and the moderator would usually declare, "The Holy Spirit has spoken." For the most part, I thought that the Holy Spirit had very little to do with what happened. But I also learned that if Christians throw out a transcendent authority, another authority will always come in to take the Bible's place.
2. The world's theology. The mainline churches had also adopted the world's theology. The world's theology is easy to define. It is the view that human beings are basically good, that no one is really lost, and that belief in Jesus Christ is not necessary for anyone's salvation — though it may be helpful for some people. In popular terms it is the "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy.
In adopting this theology the liberal churches did not entirely abandon the traditional biblical terminology, of course. They could hardly have done that and still have pretended to be Christian. Many of the old biblical terms were retained, but they were given different meanings. Sin became not rebellion against God and his righteous law, for which we are held accountable, but ignorance or the oppression found in social structures. It was what the young people were shouting about in the 1960s. The way to overcome was by social change, new laws, or revolution. Jesus became not the incarnate God who died for our salvation but rather a pattern for creative living. We were to look to Jesus as an example, but not as a divine Savior. Some looked to him as a model revolutionary. Salvation was defined as liberation from oppressive social structures. Faith was becoming aware of oppression and beginning to do something about it. Evangelism did not mean carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to a perishing world but rather working through or against the world's power centers to over-throw entrenched injustice.
3. The world's agenda. In the liberal churches the words "the world must set the agenda" were quite popular. That had been the theme of the 1964 gathering of the World Council of Churches, and it meant that the church's concerns should be the concerns of the world, even to the exclusion of the gospel. If the world's main priority was world hunger, that should be the church's priority too. Racism? Ecology? Aging? Whatever it was, it was to be first in the concerns of Christian people.
4. The world's methods. The final accommodation of the mainline churches to the world was in the realm of methods. The methods God has given for us to do his work are participation, persuasion, and prayer. But these three methods, particularly persuasion and prayer, were being jettisoned by the mainline churches as hopelessly inadequate, and what was proposed in their place was a gospel of power politics and money. I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker at about that time that I thought got it exactly right. Two Pilgrims were coming over on the Mayflower and one was saying to the other, "Religious freedom is my immediate goal, but my long-range plan is to go into real estate."
I was reminded of that cartoon years later when I heard the Reverend Phillip Jensen, the evangelical senior minister of St. Mathias Anglican Church in Sydney, Australia, say that in his opinion the major denominations are nothing more than real estate holding companies.
THE WORLDLY (EVANGELICAL) CHURCHES
But here is the important thing. What has hit me like a thunderbolt in recent years is the discovery that what I had been saying about the liberal churches at the end of the 1960s and in the '70s now needs to be said about evangelical churches too.
Can it be that evangelicals, who have always opposed liberal-ism and its methods, have now also fixed their eyes on a worldly kingdom and have made politics and money their weapons of choice for winning it? I think they have. About ten years ago Martin Marty, always a shrewd observer of the American church, said in a magazine interview that, in his judgment, by the end of the century evangelicals would be "the most worldly people in America." He was exactly on target when he said that, except that he was probably a bit too cautious. Evangelicals fulfilled his prophecy before the turn of the millennium.
1. The world's wisdom. Evangelicals are not heretics, at least not consciously. If we ask whether the Bible is the authoritative and inerrant Word of God, most will answer affirmatively, at least if the question is asked in traditional ways. Is the Bible God's Word? Of course! All evangelicals know that. Is it authoritative? Yes, that too. Inerrant? Most evangelicals will affirm inerrancy. But many evangelicals have abandoned the Bible all the same simply because they do not think it is adequate for the challenges we face today. They do not think it is sufficient for winning people to Christ in this age, so they turn to felt-need sermons or entertainment or "signs and wonders" instead. They do not think the Bible is sufficient for achieving Christian growth, so they turn to therapy groups or Christian counseling. They do not think it is sufficient for making God's will known, so they look for external signs or revelations. They do not think it is adequate for changing our society, so they establish evangelical lobby groups in Washington and work to elect "Christian" congressmen, senators, presidents, and other officials. They seek change by power politics and money.
2. The world's theology. Like the liberals before us, evangelicals use the Bible's words but give them new meaning, pouring bad secular content into spiritual terminology. But differently, of course. We live in a therapeutic age now. So evangelicals have recast their theology in psychiatric terms. Sin has become dysfunctional behavior. Salvation is self-esteem or wholeness. Jesus is more of an example for right living than our Savior from sin and God's wrath. Sunday by Sunday people are told how to have happy marriages and raise nice children, but not how to get right with God.
The problem here is that sin is not dysfunction, though it may contribute to it. "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer to Question 14), and our major problem is not a lack of wholeness or a lack of integration of personalities but the peril of God's wrath toward us for our sin. What we need from God in Christ is not an example for living but an atonement. Even preaching about happy marriages and raising nice children is wrong if it leads people to suppose that, if they succeed in these areas, every-thing is well with them whether or not they have repented of their sin, trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior, and are following him as their Lord.
3. The world's agenda. The world's major agenda — forget world hunger, racism, or ecology — is to be happy — happiness being understood, as Francis Schaeffer put it in several of his books, as the maximum amount of personal peace and sufficient affluence to enjoy it. But is that not the bottom line of much evangelical preaching today? To be happy? To be contented? To be satisfied? Some of the worst forms of this particularly Western form of worldliness are seen in the health, wealth, and prosperity preachers, who claim that it is God's desire that his people be rich and feel satisfied. But it is also seen in preaching that extols the good life as a valid Christian goal while failing to address the sins of those who are living for themselves rather than for others. Far be it from many Christians today to preach a gospel that would expose sin and drive men and women to the Savior — or demand a hard following after Jesus Christ as the only true discipleship.
4. The world's methods. Evangelicals have become like liberals in this area too. How else are we to explain the emphasis so many place on numerical growth, large physical plants, and money? Or so many bizarre approaches to evangelism? Or that so many pas-tors tone down the hard edges of biblical truth in order to attract greater numbers to their services? Or that we major in entertainment? Or that so many support a National Association of Evangelicals lobby in Washington? Or that we have created social action groups to advance specific legislation?
Not long ago I came across a newspaper story about a church that is trying to attract worshipers by imitating radio news pro-grams that promise: "Give us twenty-two minutes, and we'll give you the world." Their 9:00 A.M. Sunday service is called "Express Worship," and the hook is that parishioners can come in and be out in twenty- two minutes. In one service described by the newspaper, the pastor began with a greeting and a short prayer, followed by a reading from Luke 7:1-10. He then asked the worshipers to write down their thoughts on what constitutes authority in their lives. Finally, they sang "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and went out. The pastor described it as "a restructuring of the way we think of the service. Not one person delivering the truth to you, but a shared experience."
The newspaper said, "Give him twenty-two minutes, and he'll give you the Lord."
Here is another example. An evangelical church in Philadelphia recently distributed a brochure giving "ten reasons" to visit their Sunday evening service:
1. The air conditioning feels great.
2. Coffee and goodies for everyone after every service.
3. The music is upbeat and easy to sing.
4. You get to meet some really neat people.
5. The sermon is always relevant to everyday life.
6. You can sleep in on Sundays and still make it to church on time.
7. Child care and children's church are provided.
8. Free parking!
9. You can go to the shore for the weekend and still make it to church on Sunday night.
10. You will discover an awesome God who cares about you.
When I saw that I was reminded of an advertising brochure I had come across some years before. See if you can guess what is being described. This brochure was printed in full color with pictures of attractive people, and the cover read: "This Is Where It's At." Inside it had headings like these:
It's about family.
It's about style.
It's about giving.
It's about fun.
It's about the best way to please everybody.
It's about caring.
Actually, the brochure was an advertisement for the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Massachusetts. But its appeal is virtually undistinguishable from that of the churches I am describing.
Or, to follow a different line, consider evangelical rhetoric. Evangelicals speak of "taking back America," "fighting for the country's soul," "reclaiming the United States for Christ." How? By electing Christian presidents, congressmen, and senators, lobbying for conservative judges, taking over power structures, and imposing our Christian standard of morality on the rest of the nation by law. But we ought to ask: Was America ever really a Christian nation? Was any nation ever really Christian? Does law produce morality? What about Augustine's doctrine of the two cities — the city of man and the city of God — which meant so much to the Reformers? Will any country ever be anything other than man's city? And what about America's soul? Is there really an American soul to be redeemed or fought over?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?"
Copyright © 2001 Linda McNamara Boice.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Eric J. Alexander,
Part One: Our Dying Culture,
1 The New Pragmatism,
2 The Pattern of This Age,
Part Two: Doctrines That Shook the World,
3 Scripture Alone,
4 Christ Alone,
5 Grace Alone,
6 Faith Alone,
7 Glory to God Alone,
Part Three: The Shape of Renewal,
8 Reforming Our Worship,
9 Reforming Our Lives,
What People are Saying About This
"Boice was right to point out that to mischaracterize worldliness 'is to trivialize what is a far more serious and far more subtle problem.'"
—Burnside Writer's CollectiveBurnside Writer's Collective
"Boice explains how the five doctrinal truths that transformed the world during the Reformation not only offer the solution but can shape a renewal today among God's people."
—WRGN NetworkWRGN Network
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