Confusing Times

Founders Journal · Winter 2004 · pp. 1-6

Confusing Times

Tom Ascol

These are confused and confusing times for American evangelicals. The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) could not bring itself to exclude from its membership two prominent open theists in its annual meeting last November. Though there are, no doubt, many considerations that motivated the majority to vote against their dismissal (not the least of which is the very brief and limited affirmation of faith that is required for ETS membership), the fact those who deny God’s exhaustive foreknowledge may do so while maintaining an evangelical identity is troublesome at best.

In addition to this, other prominent voices from within the camp are casting doubt on justification by faith alone. Specifically, the imputed righteousness of Christ as the sole foundation for divine acceptance is being questioned by respected teachers in ways that at least sound like they are speaking with a Roman Catholic dialect. [1]

Who can you trust anymore? Publishers that were once known for their allegiance to the orthodox and evangelical faith have adopted the motto of Fox News: “we report, you decide.” Thus the almost simultaneous publication by Baker Book House in 2000 God of the Possible by Greg Boyd (a warm-hearted defense of open theism) and Still Sovereign, edited by Tom Schreiner and Bruce Ware (essays decidedly opposed to the openness view). A publisher’s logo on the spine is no longer a safe guide to a book’s general content.

Nor is a church’s sign any guarantee of the biblical content of its ministry. “What do Baptists believe?” and “What are Baptist churches like?” are impossible questions to answer with any real significance. The reason is that there are as many differences to be found among Baptist churches as there are between them and other denominations. Sadly, even a church’s open identification with the “conservative cause” in the Southern Baptist Convention does not necessarily mean that its ministry is intentionally biblical.

This sad state of affairs was made plain to me through recent experiences in a conservative church, a moderate church and a Baptist–Catholic funeral.

Conservative Worship

One Sunday shortly before Christmas I attended a large, respected church that is well-known for its strong affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture. The service opened with a fifteen second prayer followed by eight minutes of a rapid-paced medley of Christmas carols. A quartet took the next six minutes with a rousing rendition of a song unfamiliar to me. After announcements and a “meet-and-greet” time, the congregation sang a brief chorus that was followed by a duet of a sentimental song about a couple that could not afford decent gifts but had a good Christmas anyway because the meaning of Christmas is in your heart (forget the incarnation, neither God nor Jesus Christ were even mentioned).

This was followed by another brief congregational chorus and then a soloist who, before singing, opened her Bible and read Revelation 22:17 (finally, Scripture!). The words of her song supported the gracious invitation of that verse.

When the applause for the singing died out the pastor, who is highly regarded as a biblical expositor, took the stage and invited us to open our Bibles to Matthew 10:40–42 as he was moving toward the center. After engaging in some humorous banter with the last soloist and another fifteen second prayer, he started talking about the text (though he did not take the time to read it publicly).

The explanation of verse 40 struck me as convoluted. Jesus said to His disciples, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” The congregation was told that this means that God has placed an innate knowledge of His existence within everyone. If a person accepts that knowledge then he will also accept Jesus Christ and if he accepts Christ then he will also accept those who preach the message of Christ.

Contrast that understanding with the simple explanation that John Broadus gives of this text: “To receive them [the disciples] will be receiving him who sent them, yea, the Father who sent him.” [2] Is not Jesus saying that whoever receives—accepts, embraces—gospel messengers as they are proclaiming salvation in Christ is receiving Christ through the message preached?

The pastor’s treatment of rewards in verses 41 and 42 was even more confusing. The reason, he said, that Jesus alerted the disciples that those who receive them will be rewarded is because he anticipated the guilt they would feel over the suffering that would come to the new believers. In order to encourage the disciples not to quit or feel badly over the persecution that comes to those who received their message, Jesus informs them of the certainty of rewards.

While I am willing to acknowledge that there is a legitimate point to be made about this (based on Mark 10:29–30, Romans 8:18 and similar verses), it is not the point of the text.

As I later reflected on this experience I found it sadly strange that in a church that is very outspoken in its commitment to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word of God, the Bible had such a minor place in worship. Apart from the one verse by the soloist and the three verses sporadically referred to by the pastor, Scripture was not read publicly. Yet, in 1 Timothy 4:13 Paul specifically commands Timothy to devote himself to this very practice—the public reading of Scripture (as the NASB, NIV and ESV make clear).

And though I was encouraged that the message did direct our attention to the actual text of Scripture, my enthusiasm was muted by the unwarranted speculations about its meaning. If the point of the sermon is not derived from the text it purports to exposit, is it expositional preaching? Hardly. [3]

Moderate Worship

That experience was quite a contrast to the one I had in a well-known moderate Southern Baptist church the Sunday after Christmas. While on vacation with my family, we attended one of the flagship congregations of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This was a first for me.

Instead of the roar of loud talking interspersed with rowdy laugher, those gathering for worship spoke in whispers—when they spoke at all—and a general quietness pervaded the large auditorium. When the pastor stepped up to the pulpit to open the service he said, “Welcome to the first Sunday of Christmastide.” When my six children simultaneously turned their heads toward me with an almost identical inquisitive look, I immediately became aware of a gap in my education. For all I knew from my Southeast Texas upbringing, Christmastide referred to the ebb and flow of the Gulf of Mexico on December 25!

A shrug of Dad’s shoulders toward the children had to suffice until Merriam-Webster could be consulted. I have since learned that Christmastide consists of those days from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, or, in some traditions, Epiphany (which, for those readers who grew up attending the same kind of schools and churches that I did, is a festival originating from the Middle Ages that commemorates either the visit of the Magi—if you follow Western tradition—or the baptism of Jesus—if you follow Eastern tradition). But I was without that knowledge as the worship service unfolded.

All of the worship leaders had a sense of humility and seriousness about them. One of them read the first fourteen verses of John’s Gospel and the organist led us in singing two familiar Christmas carols, though the second one had been gender-neutralized. It was rather difficult to sing with conviction that the “Angel of the Lord” who came down said to the shepherds, “Glad tidings of great joy I bring, to you and humankind.” But that is the way it was written in the worship folder. I must confess that I did not have a much easier time with the third song, entitled, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”

There were two prayers offered in the service—both very thoughtful, well-organized and read with proper inflection. A final prayer was inadvertently omitted when the pastor failed to recognize the reader who had stepped to the microphone, manuscript at the ready.

The sermon was loosely taken from John 1. It was well-crafted and, in fact, rather literary. It was filled with quotes (at least one from a universalist) and apt illustrations but painfully void of Scripture. To paraphrase a comment once made by John Leland, if the text had a virus the sermon would have been in no danger of catching it. The pastor’s inclusivist leanings appeared in his favorable description of sincere practitioners of other religions.

Mixed into his message were some very good points about living honestly, having integrity, caring for the poor and not being driven by worldly success. But there was no gospel. Nothing about the person or work of Jesus Christ for sinners; no mention of our need for a Savior to make us right with God. Despite this glaring omission, at the end of his message the pastor gave the obligatory altar call—albeit without any kind of pressure or even apparent conviction.

Our Anglican friends would laugh at the thought of a Southern Baptist congregation aspiring to be “high church” in any sense of that phrase, yet I came away with the impression that this is precisely the longing of that moderate church. Despite obvious efforts, the wedding of high liturgical form to latter day pop evangelical traditions simply did not work. For example (in addition to the altar call), rather than delete the “meet and greet” time from worship it was given the liturgical heading of “the passing of the peace.” A high sounding name doth not a liturgical element make.

Baptist–Catholic Funeral

The third example of the confusion that reigns in modern evangelicalism comes from the funeral of a friend’s relative. I, along with others, had witnessed to Paul during the final days of his terminal disease. He died scoffing at God, hardened against the gospel of salvation. Due to competing family wishes, the funeral was led by a Roman Catholic deacon and a conservative Southern Baptist pastor.

The Roman Catholic stood first and led the congregation in reading from a standard missal used for funerals. He did not know the deceased and so had to repeatedly refer to his notes to get the name right. Amidst many assurances that “brother Paul” was safe in the arms of Jesus, the congregation was led to read selections from the Prophets (Jeremiah), the Gospels (Matthew) and the Letters (1 Thessalonians). The deacon’s heart was not in it and he seemed relieved when his part was over. In fact, he simply left once the missals were collected.

He missed the “Baptist” part of the service. The first words out of the pastor’s mouth once he stood to address the congregation were, “I am just so excited to be here!” When no one (other than the widow) took him up on his invitation to share special memories of the deceased, he concluded that portion of the service with “Going once. Going twice. Gone!”

This was followed by a rambling twenty-minute autobiographical monologue that I think was supposed to be a personal testimony. It contained only 2 allusions to Scriptures (one of which was Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment”) and consisted mostly of light-hearted stories.

To his credit, the Baptist did not preach the deceased into heaven and he was obviously concerned that those present get to heaven. But there was no gospel. Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection were not set forth as the way of salvation. Rather, the point that was repeatedly emphasized at the end of every story was this: God loves you and wants you to trust Him. The finale was a long, drawn-out tale about how Death (dressed like the Grim Reaper) visited the White House and went to the Rose Garden to take the President’s son. The President quickly put his son on Air Force One and sent him to Kansas City, only to have his hopes dashed by Death’s statement, “I can’t talk now, Mr. President. I have an appointment to keep in Kansas City.”

The effect was not what the pastor hoped for, I am sure. None of the mostly unchurched gathering seemed scared or stirred by the story. With a final prayer, the service mercifully ended. I stayed in my seat for a while thinking of how odd the previous fifty minutes had been. I had witnessed a Roman Catholic read dozens of Scripture verses while blasphemously preaching an unrepentant man (and, ultimately everyone else) into heaven. The Baptist, on the other hand, avoided universalism but used only a couple of Bible references in a bumbling attempt to give a “gospel presentation” that said nothing about Jesus Christ.

The Need for Reformation

What if I had to choose between a liberal church that does not believe in the full authority of Scripture yet thinks highly enough of it to read it publicly in worship, and a fundamentalist church that loudly affirms Scripture’s inerrancy but feels no compulsion to read it or be governed by it in worship? Or who would I want to officiate my funeral? A Roman Catholic who does not understand the gospel but who reads God’s Word publicly, or a Baptist who at least recognizes that not everyone who dies goes to heaven but who cannot (or at least does not) simply explain the gospel he no doubt professes to believe?

Fortunately, most of us are not faced with such limited options. There are many evangelical churches that not only believe the Bible but actually give it a place of priority in their public ministries. And there is a growing number of pastors who are coming to recognize that affirmation of inerrancy is not enough, the Bible also calls us to have confidence in its sufficiency for ministry.

Despite these hopeful caveats the fact remains that churches all across our evangelical landscape are suffering from spiritual and theological amnesia. This is particularly true of Southern Baptists. What once was considered basic is now exotic if not explicitly archaic. To suggest that the Bible ought to be read publicly in worship and consulted to identify the constituent elements of worship is to be regarded as old-fashioned at best and irrelevant at worst.

Furthermore, the Bible’s teachings on sin, judgment, hell, the person and work of Jesus Christ, faith and repentance were once considered essential elements in a presentation of the gospel. Now it is not uncommon to hear “evangelistic appeals” regularly made on the basis of divine benevolence, felt-needs or simply because nobody wants to miss out on heaven.

These are difficult, troubling times. Nevertheless, every difficulty that can be cited should be regarded not as an excuse to give up in frustration but as further justification to keep working for reformation and revival in our day. The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ must be recovered. Biblical evangelism must be rescued from the superficial, false-convert-multiplying imposters that have supplanted it. And the true nature of a local church (and pastoral ministry) must be rediscovered and reasserted.

The questions that we must continue to ask and seek to answer with explicitly biblical teachings are these: What is the gospel? What is a Christian (and how does one become one)? What is a church? [4] It is no longer safe to assume that evangelicals—even conservative, inerrancy-affirming evangelicals—mean the same thing when we talk about these issues. Those who recognize the need for reformation and are committed to pressing for it must keep these questions in focus. They are clarifying questions and serious consideration of them can help resolve some of the confusion that reigns in our day.


1 For a brief, excellent treatment of this issue see John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002).

2 Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, reprint ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, nd), 232.

3 Mark Dever has a very simple and memorable definition of expository preaching that is very helpful. “Expositional preaching is that preaching which takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture.” Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 26.

4 I have been greatly helped to think in these categories by Iain Murray in Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950–2000 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000).