Posted on Thursday, June 21, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517
Last week the Southern Baptist Convention convened in San Antonio, Texas. On the final day Dr. Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida stood to offer the following resolution that had previously been submitted to the resolutions committee:

Resolution on Integrity in Church Membership
Submitted by Tom Ascol
May 1, 2007

· Whereas the Baptist Faith and Message states that the Scriptures are “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried” (article 1); and
· Whereas life in a local church should be characterized by loving discipline as the Bible teaches in passages like Matthew 18:15-18, I Corinthians 5, and Titus 3:10-11 and
· Whereas the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Church Profiles indicate that there are 16,306,246 members in Southern Baptist churches; and
· Whereas those same profiles indicate that only 6,138,776 of those members attend a primary worship service of their church in a typical week; and
· Whereas the ideal of a regenerate church membership has long been and remains a cherished Baptist principle as described in Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message; now, therefore, be it
· RESOLVED that the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in San Antonio, Texas, June 12-13, 2007, urge Southern Baptists to repent of our failure to maintain responsible church membership, and be it further
· RESOLVED that we urge the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to repent of the widespread failure among us to obey Jesus Christ in the practice of lovingly correcting wayward church members (Matthew 18:15-18), and be it further
· RESOLVED that we plead with pastors and church leaders to lead their churches to study and implement our Lord’s teachings on this essential church practice, and be it further
· RESOLVED that we encourage denominational servants to support and encourage churches that seek to recover and implement our Savior’s teachings on church discipline, especially when such efforts result in the reduction in the number of members that are reported in those churches, and be it finally
· RESOLVED that we commit to pray for our churches as they seek to honor the Lord Jesus Christ through reestablishing integrity to church membership and to the reporting of statistics in the Annual Church Profile.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I believe that most Southern Baptists would say “Amen!” to those words. When I read the resolution, as I have done multiple times, I am humbled and challenged. Who would deny the timeliness and propriety of such a resolution? But some among our denominational leadership have a habit of making the obvious, doubtful and the clear, complicated.

The Resolutions Committee refused to bring this resolution to the gathered messengers for a vote. Pastor Ascol then read the resolution from the floor where it was opened to a very brief discussion. A vote was taken to override the Resolutions Committee and bring the resolution on integrity in church membership to a vote. The vote failed. This was the second year in a row that Dr. Ascol sought approval for his resolution.

The reasons the Resolution Committee gave for rejecting the resolution on integrity in church membership were varied and, to my mind, nonsensical. Some said it would interfere with church autonomy, although it was never made clear how. Others had the strange idea that having unregenerate church members could be a positive thing. After all, they could serve as sort of “in-house prospects.” I’m not making this up.

Astonishingly, while the resolution on integrity in church membership was rejected, a flimsy resolution on, of all things, global warming was adopted.

And the band played on.

Posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

In May, John Hammett, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina made a special plea to the students gathered for chapel to take the issue of regenerate church membership seriously. Each semester a faculty member at Southeastern is asked to speak in a chapel service on a topic of particular interest to them. Dr. Hammett chose well.

The long Southern Baptist tradition of a “pray the prayer” or “walk the aisle” understanding of conversion has left our church rolls full of unregenerate church members. Professor Hammett told the students that the greatest problem facing Southern Baptists is not the surrounding secular culture but a Southern Baptist culture that seems to have lost sight of the necessity of regeneration in church membership. He decried the common practice of allowing people to join Southern Baptist churches without any interview process or means of accountability.

If you doubt the problem is pervasive then consider that Southern Baptists report some 16.5 million members. We often boast in the fact that we are the largest protestant denomination in the world. However, by our churches own reporting, the actual weekly attendance in Southern Baptist Churches is between 35 and 40% of the 16.5 million. This begs the question, “Where have all the Baptists gone?” In our fervency to up the attendance of our churches and inflate the number of baptisms that we report each year, we have too often looked the other way as our churches have received into membership people who show no evidence of genuine conversion. Why is it that some of our largest churches increase in attendance by only a fraction of the total number of the multiple hundreds they report to have baptized each year?

This summer, Southern Baptist churches will baptize God knows how many youth after camp and children after VBS without any genuine attempt to confirm the genuineness of their profession. It would be hard for me to quantify the number of adults I have spoken to who have reported their own spurious childhood conversions. They raised a hand at VBS or walked an aisle at camp and were quickly assured by a well-meaning pastor that they need never question the assurance of their salvation. Only in adulthood have they realized that there never was evidence of a truly changed heart.

Dr. Hammett suggested four reasons why a regenerate church membership is a “battle worth fighting”: It maintains a corporate witness; it insures a corporate health; it produces a love for unregenerate church members; and it honors and glorifies Christ. Further, Hammett proposed that churches compose covenants outlining the responsibilities of church membership that incoming members must sign. He also urged that churches reform their requirements for baptism and restore the practice of biblical church discipline. Wise counsel indeed.

I am astounded that the denomination that often refers to itself as “people of the Book” can get it so wrong in the most fundamental issue of all – regeneration. Contradicting Scripture, some of our most prominent pastors have preached and written that spiritual fruitfulness has no bearing on one’s salvation (Matt 24:13; II Cor 13:5; II Peter 1:10). Rather, they rely on unbiblical slogans like “once saved always saved” and assert that so long as someone prays the prayer they are “in” regardless of the contradictory evidence of an unchanged heart. If you don’t believe me then read Charles Stanley’s irresponsible book Eternal Security.

I am frightened by the notion of ever giving false assurance of salvation to someone who is not truly regenerate. Don’t misunderstand. Christians should not go through life doubting their salvation. Full assurance of salvation is a wonderful, Spirit wrought blessing. I fully affirm perseverance of the saints or the eternal security of genuine converts. But I wholly reject the eternal presumption of spurious converts.

I owe the details of Dr. Hammett’s speech to a May 8, 2007 Baptist Press article by Joy Rancatore.

Posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

Okay, so I’ve been re-reading a lot of Lloyd-Jones while on vacation! But what he said and wrote on almost any topic bears repeating in our own time. As I read The Doctor’s thoughts on preaching and the church I cannot help but observe how relevant he still is.

Observing the “feel good preaching” that was so prominent in the church of his day Lloyd-Jones wrote:
“It is made perfectly clear in the pages of the New Testament that no man can be saved until, at some time or other, he has felt desperate about himself…Present day preaching does not save men, the churches are not getting converts. There is something even worse than that about the situation as I see it, and that is that present-day preaching does not even annoy men, but leaves them precisely where they were, without a ruffle and without the slightest disturbance…The church is regarded as a sort of dispensary where drugs and soothing mixtures are distributed and in which everyone should be eased and comforted. And the one theme of the church must be ‘the love of God.’ Anyone who happens to break these rules and who produces a disturbing effect upon members of his congregation is regarded as an objectionable person.”

Of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching, Iain Murray writes:
“Modern preaching, Dr. Lloyd-Jones believed, had gone fundamentally wrong. He saw the main proof of that fact in the failure of the pulpit to recognize that he first work of the Holy Spirit is to convict of sin and to humble men in the presence of God. He knew that any preaching which soothes, comforts and pleases those who have never been brought to fear God, nor to seek his mercy, is not preaching which the Spirit of God will own. The truth is that he was going back to a principle once regarded as imperative for powerful evangelistic preaching, namely, that before men can be converted they must be convinced of sin.”

Finally, this from the good reverend Spurgeon:
“In the beginning, the preacher’s business is not to convert men, but the very reverse. It is idle to attempt to heal those who are not wounded, to attempt to clothe those who have never been stripped, and to make those rich who have never realized their poverty.”

The more things change the more they stay the same. In our own city we see the pastors of evangelical churches buying into the notion that if men and women are going to come to Christ then he must be made more palatable than the writers of Scripture were able to manage. Jesus is presented, if he is presented at all, as the one who will fix marriages, fix kids, and may even provide a job promotion. This is far from the Jesus of Scripture who is pleased to save those who turn to Him in desperation. Rather, this is the Jesus of man’s own undisciplined felt needs. He is the Jesus who offers many gifts but makes no demands. He is the Jesus who makes no exclusive claims to Lordship and would never offend the sensibilities of modern people by calling attention to their sinfulness. Unfortunately, while this Jesus is certainly palatable, the popular Jesus simply cannot save.

Posted on Saturday, June 16, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

In 1927 the 27 year old David Martyn Lloyd-Jones left a prestigious career in medicine to follow God’s call to pastor a small impoverished church in rural Wales. The churches in Wales were not even a shadow of what they had been at the turn of the century during the great Welsh revival. Now the churches were empty, powerless, and increasingly pastor-less. But something extraordinary began to happen in the little church in Sandfields Aberavon where the former physician ministered. God lit a fire in the heart of their young pastor and brought forth from him a new kind of preaching that had not been heard in years. It was the preaching of God’s Word with total conviction but conspicuously absent of the worldly trappings and entertaining flourishes that had come to characterize the church in those days.

When I read some of the things written by Lloyd-Jones on revival and read reports of what God did in Wales during his ministry there my heart leaps to see God move the way he saw God move:

“Pray for revival? Yes, go on, but do not try to create it, do not attempt to produce it, it is only given by Christ himself. The last church to be visited by a revival is the church trying to make it.”

“We say we are concerned for the sin of the town! How much prayer do we offer for the sin of the town? When we pass a drunkard it is not our business to say, ‘What an awful man, what a beast!’ No! judge not, but pray without ceasing. Christ came not to destroy – sin does that – but to save and release men from their sin. Will you as a church pray for the sinners of Aberavon and pray for God to save them through His Spirit? That is the meaning of a church…May God give us this power to pray for a visitation of His Spirit! God give power to all doing this in all places!”

In 1930 a reporter named J. C. Griffith-Jones, the South Wales correspondent for the News Chronicle wrote these words in an article he titled “A Physician of Souls”:

“Seven years ago Martyn Lloyd-Jones, M.D., M.R.C.P., was on the threshold of a brilliantly promising career in Harley Street. He renounced it to labor in one of the most difficult fields of Forward Movement evangelism in Wales. The Sandfields district of Aberavon is a dead end. Even when the sun shines, sandy wastes and dreary, crowded houses convey a sense of desolation, almost hopelessness. What could a man denied work, disillusioned by social callousness, do here but live for a day, deteriorate, drift and die?

“Into this desperate little world came the young physician-minister, preaching, living the gospel of old-new hope. He shocked the locality out of its despair. This world had failed them; there was another world.

“Men listened amazed. Here was one who practiced the gospel that he preached with such tremendous conviction. He had given up a great career – fame, money, leisure – to live and work among the poor and hopeless.

“Not only in Port Talbot, but all around the district, the word went forth that surprising things were happening at the ‘mission hall’ on the sand dunes. Curious, skeptical, doubting, hoping, believing, people flocked to the church.

“It was no passing wonder. Today, years after the first revelation of new power, the congregations still overflow the church. Every meeting is a ‘big meeting.’

“A working-class (and unemployed) membership raising 1,000 pounds a year for church work. Crowded prayer meetings, a crowded church meeting in mid-week, a crowded brotherhood meeting on Saturday, of all nights, when men discuss the problems of spiritual salvation and the pastor sums up the discussion. Sandfields now shares the glad tidings with all Wales.”

So the little church in Sandfields could not chalk up their influence to money, impressive facilities, a seasoned pastor, or a ‘strategic location.’ The church was poor in every sense of the word. But they became rich in the things of God. And now, almost 100 years later, people still read and write about what happened there.



Posted on Wednesday, June 06, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

In a recent article on the Henry Institute’s web page ( Russell Moore calls attention to the tortured morality of Donna Schaper, the pastor of Judson Memorial Church. Judson is an historic American Baptist church in New York. In an article written for Tikkun, a liberal magazine, Schaper reflects on the abortion she had nineteen years ago. Schaper justifies her abortion on the grounds that she and her husband already had twins and an additional child would only be a hardship. She calls abortion a “positive moral force.” It allows “sex to be both procreational and recreational for both men and women…The drama of the abortion battle is not about unborn babies at all. Instead it is about women and sex.”

But Schaper’s own words betray her. Indeed, she spends a good portion of the article referring to the baby she had killed in her womb. She went so far as to name the aborted baby, “Alma.” Astonishingly, Schaper even calls the abortion an act of murder:
“I did what was right for me, for my family, for my work, for my husband, and for my three children. I happen to agree that abortion is a form of murder. I think the quarrel about when life begins is disrespectful to the fetus. I know I murdered the life within me. I could have loved that life but chose not to. I did what men do all the time when they take us to war: they choose violence because, while they believe it is bad, it is still better than the alternatives.”

It is morally obtuse to compare the decision to kill a baby in the womb with the sobering but sometimes necessary decision that Commanders-in-Chief face to send men into battle. The Scriptures teach that God uses human governments as instruments to exercise justice even to the point of using violence. The apostle Paul writes, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4).

Something tells me that pastor Schaper would not give credence to large portions of the Bible, particularly much of Romans. She writes, “When I made my choice to end Alma’s life, I was behaving as an adult…It was a human life. That’s why we named her, wanted her, but also knew we did not want her enough.” She concludes that abortion is not only a necessary policy but a good and moral one. It is, she writes, “the best policy conceivable for men and women and for mature, moral sexuality.”

Call me old fashioned but I prefer the bra burning feminists of the early 1970’s that knew the only way to win broader approval for abortion was to convince people that unborn babies were not human and therefore abortion was not the taking of a human life. Some of you are old enough to remember leading liberals actually advancing that notion, leaving us to wonder if unborn babies were actually squirrels or tad poles. But with the passage of time and advances in technology the pro-abortion crowd has found it increasingly difficult to deny the obvious. But this has led to an even more disturbing turn. As the words of pastor Schaper demonstrate, pro-abortionists now justify the appalling procedure not by denying the humanity of the unborn but by asserting the right of the mother to kill it. The late Francis Schaeffer once observed that if we can justify taking life in the womb it will not be long until we justify taking life outside the womb.


Posted on Tuesday, June 05, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517
In his great book Christian Leaders of the Last Century J.C. Ryle, writing in 19th century England makes this observation of the men used by God to help usher in revival in the generations that preceded his own:
“They taught one set of truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality, earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught. They taught them in the same spirit, always loving, compassionate, and, like Paul even weeping, but always bold, unflinching, and not fearing the face of man…The instrumentality by which the spiritual reformers of the last century carried on their operations was of the simplest description. It was neither more nor less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching. The sword which St. Paul wielded with such mighty effect, when he assaulted the strongholds of heathenism eighteen hundred years ago, was the same sword by which they won their victories.”

There is a spiritual famine in our land because the Word of God is absent in too many of America’s pulpits. Don’t misunderstand. I am not talking about liberal churches that have always been skeptical of the authority and reliability of the Bible. We can expect the Bible to be absent in a meaningful way from their pulpits. It seems to me, the great irony is the absence of the Bible in the pulpits of “conservative, Bible-believing” churches. In an effort to see their church grow numerically, these pastors take pains not to “bore people” with the Bible. They use Bible verses, to be sure, but they shy away from careful exposition of the Scriptures. Is there any wonder why Christians in America today know more about “slaying the giants in your life” or “rolling away the stones in your life” than they do about practical holiness, the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrinal flow of the book of Romans? Do these things even matter to Christians any more?

At a recent children’s ministry conference, a prominent young mega-church pastor from Atlanta, Georgia instructed the gathered pastors that preaching through books of the Bible was “lazy.” How appallingly arrogant to dismiss such men as Martin Luther, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Thomas Boston, Matthew Henry, Johnathan Edwards, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, Alister Begg (need I go on?) as lazy because they preach(ed) through books of the Bible. True, these men apparently were not “creative” enough to use stage props and video clips from the latest television shows. All they had was the passion to take their congregations on deep diving missions into God’s precious Word. If that is “lazy” then I will take it over “creative” every day of the week.
If you think I am being too critical let me remind you of what Scripture has to say about the shepherds of God’s people who fail to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and clearly. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, who lived during a spiritual famine, God proclaimed:
"Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’…Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?"
- Jeremiah 23:16-17, 28-29

Preachers have been called into battle but instead of wielding the sword of the Spirit too many play around with trendy sociological theories and baptized versions of pop psychology. Dr Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary rightly observes that one of the problems in many churches today is that the Gospel is proclaimed in therapeutic terms. In other words the Gospel is often not proclaimed as the good news that by His sacrificial death Jesus delivers sinners from the justified wrath of God. Instead the gospel is promoted as a means to psychological or mental wholeness and material blessing.
It is odd that preachers who play fast and loose with the Scriptures are often given a pass because they are nice or they have good hearts. It is reasoned, “He may not get it right when it comes to the Bible but he sure is a good man.” But what is interesting about this perspective is that is exactly opposite of how the Bible evaluates the same kind of situation. Paul writes in Philippians 1:15-18:
"Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here [in prison] for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice."
If Paul had to choose between a decent man who did not proclaim the gospel well and a poorly motivated man who did justice to the gospel in his preaching he would always choose the later. The man matters but the message matters more. O that God would give to His people more men of the Word!
Posted on Friday, May 25, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

One of the trends taking place in the modern evangelical church that is most alarming to me is the disappearance of the Gospel. That sounds ironic doesn’t it? Of all places that the Gospel is missing it certainly couldn’t be the church! You may be tempted to dismiss me as an alarmist. “How is the Gospel disappearing?” you may ask. After all, didn’t Mel Gibson make five zillion dollars on his Jesus movie and didn’t Amy Grant have a TV show for a little while? True enough I suppose. But as I survey our rather substantial corner of Christendom I cannot help but notice the appalling lack of attention the Gospel garners in our preaching and writing and Larry King Live appearances. This is worth our sounding the alarm. Could it be that a significant portion of evangelicalism is neglecting the very centerpiece of our faith? Have we sold our birthright for a bowl of sweet tasting but un-nourishing porrage? At this point it would probably be valuable to make sure we are speaking the same language.

In our day the good news has been so generalized that any “God talk” is often classified as the Gospel. It seems that anytime a man stands in the pulpit and merely mentions God, fumes about a political hot topic, or makes reference to a verse in the Bible he is said to have “really preached the Gospel.” But contrary to current trends, the Gospel is very specific. It is not a general word meaning all things Christian from Prayer of Jabez shofars to Testamints.

Scripture tells us exactly what the Gospel is. It is the doing and dying of Christ in the place of sinners. The Gospel is the announcement that in Christ (that is through His perfect obedience and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection) God was reconciling sinners unto Himself. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (I Cor 15:1-5). The Gospel is not political action or family values. It is not even discipleship. The Gospel is Jesus dying on a cross at the Father’s sovereign decree so that sinners might be saved and God’s righteousness vindicated.

The apostles were slaves to this Gospel. Their ministries, indeed their very lives made little sense if they did not faithfully trumpet God’s good news. Everywhere they went, even in hostile towns, the apostles “continued to preach the gospel” (Acts 14:7). Paul’s commitment to proclaiming the Gospel was singular. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel…” (I Cor 1:17). Explaining why he willingly subordinated his own rights for the sake of others Paul writes, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (I Cor 9:23). On behalf of his fellow apostles Paul prayed for a widening influence in Corinth “so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you…” (II Cor 10:16). To the Thessalonians Paul explains that he and his companions had come not to flatter them to gain favor but “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (I Thess 2:4). Unfortunately too many pastors and churches seem to be asleep at the wheel in this most important of duties. How else can we explain the number of church members and professing Christians who do not understand this most elemental part of Christianity?

One Southern Baptist church I know of in the northeast wisely asks all prospective members to give a sixty second explanation of the Gospel. What they have found is that many of the people coming into their church from other Southern Baptist congregations have a hard time faithfully articulating the Gospel. Similarly, a Christian radio producer in California recently attended the national conference for the Christian publishing industry. He interviewed approximately seventy individuals with one question: “What is the Gospel?” Sadly, only one of the persons interviewed in this Christian conclave was able to offer an answer that was even remotely biblical. All this begs the question, can one be a Christian and not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

The struggle for the Gospel is a struggle for conversion. Since the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” then the stakes are sky high that we believe and proclaim this Gospel. There are many “new gospels” operating in the world today just as there were in the first century. There is the gospel of self-improvement which holds that we need only to do our best in order to get in God’s good graces. There is a cross-less gospel which holds that salvation is found in looking to Jesus as a moral example to emulate rather than a crucified Savior to believe upon. But God’s judgment of these gospels and those who preach them still stands. Addressing the Galatians Paul writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8).

From the time Adam and Eve rebelled in the garden all of history pointed toward the cross in hopeful anticipation that God would redeem His people from their self-imposed sentence of death. One dark Friday some two thousand years ago all that God had promised came to fulfillment on a Roman cross. Since that time the church’s highest obligation has been to faithfully steward the Gospel of our crucified Savior. It was for the apostles and remains for us today the matter of first importance. May we therefore be zealous to get the Gospel right.

When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my mansion in the skies,
ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

Jesus the endless praise to thee,
whose boundless mercy hath for me -
for me a full atonement made,
an everlasting ransom paid.

O let the dead now hear thy voice;
now bid thy banished ones rejoice;
their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.

von Zinzendorf, 1739

Posted on Friday, May 25, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517
The Gospel is all about the work of God on behalf of sinners. It is the news that through His beloved Son, God has done everything necessary for sinful man to be forgiven of his sins and receive full pardon from the sentence of death. This was all done through the ministrations of a crucified Savior who fully satisfied the Father’s just demand that sin be punished to the utmost. What is more, man is completely unable either through kind intentions or good works to contribute in any way to the work of his Divine Redeemer. Even our responses to the Gospel, repentance and faith, are owing to God’s gracious work to draw us to Himself (John 6:44).

One prominent evangelical leader appearing recently on Larry King Live said that one of the main themes of the Bible was redemption. Good enough so far. But then he went on to explain that redemption is when we love God back as much as He loves us. What?! This is not a negligible error. This is a flub up of monumental proportions. It is precisely this kind of error which turns the Gospel upside down and leads to the common misunderstanding that the Gospel is something we do. This will inevitably lead to the heresy that our standing before God is determined more by our good works than Christ’s work of atonement on the cross in our place.

The theme of substitution is the heart of the Gospel. It is expressed in the biblical term “propitiation” which New Testament scholar Leon Morris defines as “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.” Romans 3:25 refers to Jesus “whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood…” So the cross vindicated God’s righteousness in that sins would indeed be judged. We refer to the propitious nature of the cross as the “substitutionary atonement.” Christ died the death we deserved. He paid the debt we owed. He died in our place. Unfortunately, this essential doctrine is under attack within the church today.

One of the men recently identified by TIME Magazine as being among the twenty-five most influential leaders in evangelicalism denies this cardinal doctrine of biblical faith. But this is nothing new in American evangelicalism. Charles Finney, the 18th century revivalist, is revered in many evangelical circles today as a pioneer of mass evangelism. No one much reads Finney anymore. If they did they would find that the great evangelist was a Pelagian (Pelagias was a fifth century heretic) who denied such essential Christian doctrines as original sin and the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the very essence of the Gospel. Finney considered the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners “a theological fiction.” He insisted that it was impossible for Christ to die in our place and that our justification before God was dependent upon our ability to obey the letter of the law. Nevertheless, Finney was able to make an indelible mark on evangelicalism through his emphasis on revival meetings and a new innovation often referred to as the “altar call.”

If the substitutionary nature of the atonement is dispensed with then the cross is, at best, nothing more than an example of God’s love. Certainly the cross is the ultimate example of God’s love. No greater love has ever been seen than that shown in the torn and anguished body of Christ. But God was doing much more on the cross than just saying “I love you.” He was saying, “I love you so much that I will punish your sins in the person of my only Son.” This is what the cross meant above all else. From the beginning the gospels point us to Jesus’ rendezvous with the cross. The Gospel of Mark, for instance, is often described as a passion narrative with a long introduction. The entire movement of the account is toward the cross. Jesus is presented as the ultimate Passover Lamb, covering us from God’s wrath (Mark 14:12). Jesus described his mission to his disciples by saying that he would “give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Thy works, not mine, O Christ,
speak gladness to this heart;
they tell me all is done;
they bid my fear depart.

Thy pains, not mine, O Christ,
upon the shameful tree,
have paid the law’s full price
and purchased peace for me.

Thy cross, not mine, O Christ,
has born the awful load
of sins that none in heav’n or earth
could bear but God.

Thy righteousness, O Christ,
alone can cover me:
no righteousness avails
save that which is of thee.

- Horatius Bonar 1857

Posted on Friday, May 25, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…
Romans 1:16

What a great promise on which the church may cling! When the power of God has been identified with everything from “holy laughter” to big budgets it is good to be reminded of the true locus of God’s power. Think of it: The conversion of sinners, the most extraordinary of miracles, is brought about by the Holy Spirit through the simple means of the Gospel made plain. What is more, proclaiming the Gospel does not require money, social status, priestly vestments, or an impressive resume`. Rather, to proclaim the Gospel we need only to understand what it is and then be willing to go and tell. We can be sure that God’s power is present, whether we feel it or not, whenever the Gospel is faithfully proclaimed in churches, living rooms, and front yards.

Unfortunately, when it comes to evangelism the church has come to rely too heavily on technique and not enough on the simple means that God has prescribed. There are I believe two primary reasons for the ascendancy of technique-driven evangelism. The first reason is a lack of confidence in God’s power to regenerate a lost heart. The second reason why evangelism tends to become technique-driven springs from a mistaken notion that the Gospel needs to be made more palatable if people are going to accept it.

A Crisis of Confidence
In recent years the church seems to have been suffering from an increasing lack of confidence in the Gospel. I fear that all too often God’s own people are not aware of the primary means by which He converts the lost. This then leads to an unhealthy reliance on techniques and a tragic neglect of the very thing God has promised to use to reach unbelievers.

Paul makes very clear in Romans that proclaiming God’s Word is the primary means by which faith is generated in the unbelieving heart: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how are they to 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!’…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (10:13-17). The proclaiming of God’s good news from pulpit, in Sunday school, in small groups, and in one-on-one conversations is God’s design for the conversion of the lost. Why is it then that so many pastors and churches seem to have confidence in almost everything but the clear proclamation of the Gospel?

Of course this trend to rely upon technique is nothing new. In his days as an evangelist during in the 19th century Charles Finney advanced the idea that many “excitements” or “enthusiasms” were needed in order to gain a response from those attending evangelistic meetings. He taught that revival was wholly the work of man and that conversion was not the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart but was instead the work of man to change his own ways. Clearly, any theology that so diminishes God’s power in salvation while at the same time exalts man’s power will lead to a technique-driven approach to evangelism. Among the new excitements that Finney pioneered was the altar call which was almost unheard of prior to his time. Don’t misunderstand. I am a strong believer in calling people to respond to the Word of God when it is preached. Indeed, the preaching of God’s Word always demands a response. But it seems that the altar call, along with a host of other traditions and techniques, has been invested with near sacramental powers.

There is no doubt that techniques will often deliver quick and quantifiable results. But what is the fruit of such work? In or own denomination the statistics are not encouraging. Over 50% of Southern Baptist Church members do not attend church with any regularity. For all or our success in getting people to pray a prayer or walk an aisle we have not fared as well in seeing genuine converts to Christ.

Making the Gospel palatable
The second reason for the ascendancy of technique-driven evangelism arises from the conviction that the only barrier between a lost person and salvation is the church’s ability to make the Gospel attractive. However, Scripture tells us that the message of the Gospel will be downright offensive to many. Paul makes it clear that for some the Gospel is sweet while for others it is thoroughly unpleasant. Speaking of those who are privileged to proclaim the Gospel Paul writes, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (II Cor 2:15-16). Also, we know that the apostles were routinely driven out of towns, arrested, beaten, and eventually killed because of the message they preached.

The message the apostles preached was the matter of “first importance” that Christ died, was buried, and rose again to save sinners (I Cor 15:3-4). Mankind will not come to know Christ through intuition or effort. In his own wisdom man will always wander away from the knowledge of Christ. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:21-24).

Preaching is folly. After all, aren’t there more relevant methods available to the church today? I recently read an article about a new church where the pastor never preaches but rather produces dramas each Sunday. Their reasoning is that no one wants to listen to preaching anymore. But this has always been the case. God’s means will never make sense to our world. To make matters worse, the message we are called to proclaim is either foolish or offensive depending on who is listening. It is true that we must not allow our own foolishness to interfere with our message. But the only way to make the Gospel palatable to the world is to remove the cross.

Over one hundred years ago J.C. Ryle wrote with characteristic clarity:
The Gospel in fact is a most curiously and delicately compounded medicine, and is a medicine that is very easily spoiled. You may spoil the Gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eye of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to Faith, - Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place,…and the mischief is done…
You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You only have to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done…
You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You only have to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the part of the truth, and truth soon becomes downright error…

The Gospel is still God’s power for the salvation of all those who believe. Faith still comes from hearing the word of Christ declared. God’s gospel will always be the effective means by which Christians are birthed and upon which churches are built.

Posted on Friday, May 25, 2007 by Todd Pruitt on 1517

Man is incurably religious. The problem is that because of sin we are hopeless to find our way into the truth apart from the intervening grace of God (Romans 8:7-8). The Gospel, the message that Jesus died on a cross in the place of sinners, is not something that will appeal to man unless God opens his mind and heart to the truth. The good news is that once a sinner comes to realize his hopeless plight the Gospel becomes sweet truth indeed. But until man realizes his sinful state he will always distort the truth of the Gospel. There are primarily two ways that religious man distorts Gospel truth: relativism and moralism.

There are religious relativists and irreligious relativists. The religious relativist is a Baptist, Taoist, or Hindu not because of a belief in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” but because of strictly pragmatic reasons. They are a Christian (or other) not because Christianity represents the truth of God and must therefore be yielded to but because it “works” for them. Irreligious relativists defend their agnosticism on much the same grounds. But being good relativists they will give an approving nod to a Christian or a witch for finding the thing that works for them.

The relativist denies the Gospel because he sees no need for a substitutionary atonement because God is not a righteous Judge who demands that sin be punished. God is a kind loving grandfather figure who, in the end, will let every sinner off the hook because He is so nice. Likewise our sins are not indicators of a heart that is hopelessly inclined away from God but simply human frailties that God does not hold against us. Relativism does not see sin as an offense against a holy God but, rather, common weaknesses that can be overcome with enough effort and positive thinking.

Moralism should not be confused with morality. Moralism is what happens when we look to moral behavior as a means to gain favor from God. It is morality for my sake; morality for the sake of putting God in my debt. By insisting on good behavior as a condition for our acceptability to God moralism denies Scripture’s promise that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). But the religion of man has a strong hold on our hearts. We insist on believing that we must add something to Christ’s atoning work on the cross if we are to be acceptable to God. At the same time it operates on the assumption that we are capable to doing something that will make us acceptable to God. In the Christian context, moralism is always “Christ plus.”

Moralism seeks to compel obedience through external pressures. Its message is, “I must obey in order to be accepted.” Gospel-driven obedience on the other hand is radically different. The Gospel teaches us to say, “I am accepted by God through Christ, therefore I gratefully obey.” If we obey God’s law without believing that in Christ we are accepted by God then our obeying is really a striving after something other than Jesus for life. The ultimate end of this striving is always the same: idolatry. We come to worship whatever feeling or lifestyle we believe our obedience can earn us rather than worshiping God alone.

Moralism is deceiving because it can be a very religious way to live. However, as the Gospel always directs us to be supremely concerned with God’s glory moralism is inherently self-focused. It offers a twisted kind of virture that is conditioned on bargaining with God. “I will do such-and-such and surely God will give me the life I want in return.” Obedience becomes a way toward self-salvation by controlling God. This is man’s religion.

The Gospel drives our obedience for very different reasons. Obedience generated by Gospel truth is not a frantic search for favor from God. In light of the Gospel we obey God from a place of rest knowing that God fully loves and accepts us in Christ. The Gospel tells us that there is nothing we still must get from God. We are heirs with Christ so that all that is His is ours and this all because of grace. Therefore we obey out of sheer gratitude for the kindness of God. Jonathan Edwards helps us understand how this works in relation to honesty. Why should we be honest? Certainly we should be honest because God commands it. But even a lost person can be honest for the sake of outward conformity. Edwards however defines true virtue in honesty as being honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are struck with the beauty of God who is the essence of truth and sincerity and faithfulness. Only the Gospel can do that to the otherwise idolatrous and self-serving human heart.

The relativist sees no need for justification because God is not a Judge. The moralist sees justification as something that can be achieved through enough effort. He is the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) who is convinced that his good behavior has earned him good standing with his father. Relativism does not understand truth. Moralism does not understand grace. As a result the relativist cannot then truly understand the grace he says he loves because he has not rightly understood truth. In the same way, the moralist cannot properly understand the truth he claims to champion because he has failed to properly understand grace.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is entirely different from both of these systems of thought and religion. The Gospel is not a way in between relativism and moralism making use of “the best of both worlds.” The Gospel is a distinct third way. It tells of God’s acceptance of sinners through Jesus Christ so striving for acceptance can now finally cease. It also offers a way of obedience that is free of any bargaining with God. Obedience becomes an offering given freely out of a heart that is endlessly amazed by grace.