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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Old Trumps New or New Trumps Old?

July 24, 2014 •

In our prior article responding to the Insider Movement (IM), entitled, “Stay in or Come Out,” we examined a prevailing contrast between IM and Scripture: IM calls believers to stay in. God’s Word calls believers to come out.

In this second of five articles, we raise another prevailing contradiction, one that challenges the very core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. IM makes the old trump the new. God’s Word makes the new trump the old.

New Interpretations

IM advocate and author, Kevin Higgins, summarizes common affirmations: “Proponents of Insider Movements, especially among Muslims, have . . .  argued that a biblical precedent exists for new believers from Islam to remain in the mosque and continue to practice other religious expressions of Islamic life.”[1] Applications of this approach vary.

In some cases, remaining means continuing to worship at the mosque and keeping Muslim holy days. In other cases it means maintaining the daily Muslim prayers (salāt). For some it includes affirming the shahāda (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”). Some even go on their hajj (journey to Mecca). They all do so as “Muslim followers of Jesus.”

Attempting to justify the retention of such core features of a Muslim’s former life, IM advocates employ novel interpretations of numerous biblical passages, including 2 Kings 5:18, 19, John 4:1–45, Acts 15:19, I Corinthians 7:20 and 9:19-22. Now read through the lenses of dynamic cultural anthropological insights, these texts of Scripture find themselves flailing in the winds of cultural relativism. All under the banner of evangelical missions!

Such is the diversity of the gospel, they say. The gospel may change some things, but not all. Jesus, it is contended, can be worshiped in lots of ways. And based upon our own cultural and religious backgrounds, we choose how.

Notwithstanding the particular interpretive gymnastics at work in each IM interpretation of these texts and others, preserving the old over the new works at odds with the comprehensive thrust of Scripture. Such a commitment opposes the cosmically transformative character of the work of God in Christ.

The Immovability of IM

IM proponents find certain conclusions of the soft sciences—cultural anthropology and sociology—irresistible and foundational. No matter the theological or practical issue involved, the IM compass stubbornly turns to its own true north: cultural diversity and local autonomy. IM-ers view pre-existing cultural and religious distinctions as the key to gospel diversity, and upholding this diversity ensures that the kingdom of God will prevail.[2]

Whatever the gospel does among peoples around the world then, it does with a view to keeping these people where they were and who they were. If a Jew, always a Jew. If a Muslim, always a Muslim. If a Christian, always a Christian.[3]

To see why this is so, we must drill down to IM’s theological footings. Its anchor-bolts fasten to a theological foundation of cultural and religious immovability. People do not change their identity; they stay who they are. It is impossible to change people in this way and immoral to try. Structured in this way, the Insider Movement suffers insider inertia; in this deeply critical (and spiritual!) sense, the Insider “movement” most ironically stands motionless.

The gospel, so construed by IM, does not call us out from our loves and our lives, making all things new; it adapts to, and then gradually—though imperceptibly to the outsider—transforms what I already know, believe, and practice. Surely aspects of religious habits will (and likely should) change in time, but irrespective of those changes, the shape of the gospel in my life is predetermined by my prior socio-religious context.

Even if we grant any credence to this anemic conception of sanctification, the IM die is cast. The old trumps the new.

Yet God does not shape his redemption to fit our old ways! To do so rips the heart out of the gospel, to rend it of both goodness and newness. Frankly, the IM version of the gospel is neither good nor news.

All Things New

By contrast, Scripture absolutizes the new creation, the new community of faith. The starting point for consideration of all thought, speech, and lifestyle changes begins with the comprehensive newness of life in Christ. His voice (John 10), his Headship (Eph. 1–2; Eph. 5; 1 Cor. 11;), and his resurrection power (Eph. 1; 1 Cor. 1–2; 1 Cor. 15) redefine everything. The new is not seen in light of the old; the old must be seen in light of the new. The comprehensive clout of Christ’s cross and empty tomb demands it!

The Old Testament promised unqualified newness of redemption in Christ to come. “The prophets looked forward to the day when God would do a new thing (Isa. 43:19; cf. Jer. 31:21). When God completes his redemptive work, he will make a new covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31ff.; cf. Ezek. 34:25; 37:27); he will implant a new heart and a new spirit within them (Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26); he will call them by a new name (Isa. 62:2), give them a new song (Ps. 96:1), and create a new heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22).”[4]

At the coming of Christ, the sweeping newness of God’s promised work, now realized, predicates the apostolic message. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world” (Heb. 1:1–2). The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ establish a new order. The new “Sheriff” is in town and nothing is the same. It never will be.

The cosmic implications of Christ’s resurrected lordship, therefore, drive the New Testament message. With the new age under the new Master, all things are new for the people of God. Faith in Christ does not merely add to our existing lives; it changes us forever. In Christ, the new in trumps the old. That is the gospel. Nothing else is.

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Herman Ridderbos captures well the new life in Christ: “The believer has put on Christ (Gal. 3:27), and thus participates in the nullification in Christ of the old mode of existence and in the new creation of God revealed in him.”[5]

The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).

[1] Kevin Higgins, “The Keys to Insider Movements: The ‘Devoted’s’ of Acts,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21:4 (Winter 2004): 158.

[2] IM, in fact, claims that we only uphold the gospel with integrity by preserving cultural and religious diversity. See Rebecca Lewis, “The Integrity of the Gospel and Insider Movements,” International Journal of Foreign Missiology 27:1 (2010): 41–48, available at (accessed July 7, 2014). In response, see Garner, “High Stakes,” 249-274.

[3] To IM advocates and other students of missions (missiologists), the term “Christian” is a socio-religious category, not an essentially spiritual one. Thus, in a “Christian” culture, a person is a “Christian” whether or not he has believed in Christ for forgiveness of sin.

[4] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 521–22.

[5] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 212-13.


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