Since the Bible is practical, when you preach what it means, you get application. However, it’s obvious that a lot of what the Bible says requires making application to every day life. We could even call this “wisdom,” that is, the proper application of Scripture. Not all of the Bible tells you exactly how to apply it. A lot of it assumes that you are going to have to apply it. This is where the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes in, in addition to the text of Scripture.
For example, in 2 Timothy 2:22, Paul commanded Timothy, “Flee youthful lusts.” Preaching should include ‘what it is to flee’ or ‘how to flee.’ That is partly where application comes into the right kind of preaching. After Paul told Timothy to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2), he also said to “reprove, rebuke, exhort.” The goal would be to have actual fleeing youthful lusts to take place. When that’s the goal, you want to give the audience some ways that fleeing should occur. You could go to parallel passages to expand upon what it is to flee, but explaining that is a means by which someone would apply God’s Word. It might take very little time to describe what “flee youthful lusts” means and a lot of time to explain how to do it. In those cases, the application would last longer than the interpretation.
The inclusion of more of this kind of application with interpretation is a major way that fundamentalist or separatist preaching differentiates itself from evangelical preaching. It is possible, even probable, that the popularity of many evangelical preachers comes because they do not apply the Bible with proper authority. And then they may do very little reproving and rebuking that Paul told Timothy was required in preaching.
For instance, Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Timothy 2:9 concerning the proper dress “that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.” What is adorning with shamefacedness? A preacher should show that the term “modest” relates to extravagance. “Shamefacedness” is what corresponds to our modern term “modesty.” Is there a scriptural standard for modesty? Are certain lines drawn in the Bible? This is where a separatist or fundamentalist has historically given specifics to the audience, while the evangelical often has not. And you’ll see far more immodesty in evangelical churches. That kind of evangelical preaching, however, is creeping into fundamentalist churches and so now their practice looks more and more the same as evangelicals.
So what does the evangelical say in response to a criticism for the lack of application? He would say that the preacher should allow the Holy Spirit to “guide them in the application of that truth to their individual lives and circumstances.” This is exactly what John MacArthur has said is the role he strives to take in preaching as it relates to application of a passage. He has said that “it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make the most personal, individual applications of the truth of Scripture in the heart of the hearer, and He does that infallibly, in a way [that] a preacher cannot.”
But what passage of Scripture itself says that the preacher should allow the Holy Spirit to make the application to the hearer? Shouldn’t the preacher be making the application to the hearer? Isn’t that part of the responsibility of the preacher? I think so. Again, I think it is part of the role of reproving, rebuking, and exhorting. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians to imitate Him (1 Cor 11:1), and I think especially in the application of the principles of Christian liberty. As the man of God, you have wisdom from God that He wants you to use in your preaching.
In a sense, the ‘fallibility of the preacher,’ as a reason for not applying Scripture, is just an excuse. It is a cop-out. The passages left unapplied are often the ones most difficult to keep because their application is the most offensive to the world. This is one major reason, I believe, for the larger size of many evangelical churches. Their pastors offend fewer people with their preaching, because they don’t make pointed applications. What they say is “waiting on the Holy Spirit” is actually just fear of man.
When MacArthur says he doesn’t apply because of his fallibility, this sounds humble. Uncertainty is quite in fashion today. The emergents can’t even interpret because of fallibility. They think they’re even more humble. I say that all this is “voluntary humility” (Col 2:18). We can interpret and apply. God wants us to do that. This doubt about application is akin to the doubt about truth found in the world. Truth is relative. Application is relative. None of this is good.
The preacher leaves the people ignorant of the application and then uses the Holy Spirit as his excuse for doing so. If the people don’t make the application, ‘I guess the Holy Spirit must not have wanted them to do that.’ I believe this is what Paul had in mind with Titus when he called on him to “speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). Sure the younger women were to love their husbands (Titus 2:5), but what does that look like as it is fleshed out in the life of a younger woman? Preachers should exhort and rebuke in the particular shortcomings of love in the life of those women. The “aged men” were to be “temperate” (Titus 2:5), so certainly application is called for.
Preachers can be prey to fallibility in interpretation just as well as application, so if fallibility is the “reason” for not applying, then perhaps nobody should preach. After all, they might make a mistake in preaching due to their fallibility. This is why the preacher is not the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor 14:32) and the congregation, though not to despise prophesying (1 Thess 5:20), is to “prove all things” (1 Thess 5:21). The church is the pillar and ground of the truth. The protection against fallibility is the Holy Spirit and the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
I’ve heard many evangelicals say that they “don’t want to get in the way of the Holy Spirit.” I contend that they are getting in the way of the Holy Spirit by not making the application for the hearer. The Holy Spirit works in the heart of the preacher, but he quenches the Spirit by not applying the verse as the Holy Spirit would have him. The Holy Spirit wants the preacher to make application. When he doesn’t obey the Holy Spirit, why would He think that those to whom He is preaching will obey the Holy Spirit? Can individuals take the application a little further? Yes. Should they? Yes. But that doesn’t alleviate the responsibility of the preacher to apply.
When the preacher doesn’t apply, and leaves that to the hearer, and then the hearer doesn’t apply, the preacher doesn’t have to be responsible for that. After all, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job, right? And so he doesn’t have to confront anyone about not applying the Bible either. And how can he? He’s fallible, isn’t he? This type of thinking is very normal in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism mocks and criticizes fundamentalist preaching because of their overemphasis on application. In several cases, they might be right. However, the evangelicals are wrong in their lack of application.
In the end, God wants us to do what He says. Without application of Scripture, we won’t do what He says. If you have fundamentalist churches that do what God says, even though they are not quite as instructed in what Scripture means, they still are doing more of what God says if they are doing more of what God says. And then when someone in a fundamentalist church is confronted for not doing what God says, so starts doing what God says, while a person in the evangelical church continues not doing what God says because everyone is waiting for the Holy Spirit to do the job of making an application, the fundamentalist person is doing what God says and the evangelical is not. The evangelical might say that telling someone to do what God says is actually replacing the Holy Spirit. That whole “replacing the Holy Spirit” doctrine is not in Scripture anywhere, either interpreted or applied. Whoever tells someone to do what God says is doing something that someone ought to do. It results in more people doing what God wants them to do, and we do want that. Don’t we?
This last week two huge evangelical and fundamentalist events concurred: Independent Baptist Friends International in Knoxville, TN (April 11-16, 2010) and Together for the Gospel in Louisville, KY (April 13-15, 2010). Obviously, these two groups didn’t get their calendars together to make sure that they wouldn’t be competing for attendance. It’s probably a very small group who had to decide which one to attend. But it was possible. And actually, when you consider the speakers at these two conferences, you aren’t too many steps away from almost the entire spectrum of evangelicalism, including fundamentalism, being represented, except for a very small number.
I think we could probably agree that the Dan to Beersheba at the IBFI conference is best represented by the one side of John Vaughn, former president of Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International, and Mike Schrock, a staff evangelist for Bob Jones University, stretching to another side with Jack Schaap, pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond. It’s harder to find the outer boundaries of Together for the Gospel, because there’s the Charismatic, C. J. Mahaney, the Southern Baptists, Mark Dever and Albert Mohler, and then the Presbyterian, Ligon Duncan. Also there’s John Piper, who is having Rick Warren come to speak at his Desiring God Conference later this year. Some of the conference speakers of IBFI also fellowship with Southern Baptists.
Several fundamentalists, who would associate with the FBFI, would also attend Together for the Gospel. They have. They do. So you move from Bob Jones to Jack Schaap and you can make it all the way through the Southern Baptist Convention to John MacArthur to Rick Warren in the connectivity. Nothing is that far removed. And just for a little sidebar: they all say they represent the historic Charles Spurgeon, all of them. If you take it one step further, you get Rick Warren with Robert Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral. I think that the theme for IBFI, Truth-Friendship-World Evangelism, would work for Together for the Gospel too. Both of these conferences are saying, let’s put down differences to get together.
What does all this mean? What is it that the leadership of these conferences are saying to those following, including the people in the churches? And is there anything wrong with it? What brings these people together? Should anything that any of these believe and practice result in some kind of separation between them?
As I start to consider this, the typical reaction to any kind of analysis or questioning is that it is “critical” and “divisive.” In that way, the ironic critics of the analysis would say that it is also “unchristian.” They might even say it is “heretical.” Oh, and “unloving.” Or something like this: “You’re just trying to impose your opinions on others.” And “that’s what gives fundamentalists a bad name.” Or, “you’re why everyone is turned off with fundamentalism.” And just in case, a little psychobabble, “You’re just jealous!” Wait a minute, one more: “While you are writing your blog, people out there are dying and going to hell.” OK, now we can move on.
Getting together like these two groups means deciding that certain differences in belief and practice don’t matter enough. They must be overlooked, ignored, or deemed non-essential, too minor. When it comes to the T4G guys, paedobaptism and continuationism are two obvious of the supposed tertiary differences—together despite them. For the IBFI conference, the gospel itself is at stake with a denial of some that repentance is necessary for salvation. A few of the primary participants are the poster boys of the 1-2-3 pray-with-me method of evangelism. Within both groups the range of acceptable music for worship among the participants ranges from contemporary to southern gospel to very conservative. John Piper’s affirmation of Rick Warren makes a concession to his methodology. IBFI wouldn’t use all the techniques and strategies of Warren, but the basic philosophy between many of these IBFI and Warren are the same. Both conferences are purposefully minimizing certain doctrines and practices for the purpose of cooperation and fellowship. An emphasis of both is that they aren’t going to be judging based on too strict a standard, making concessions in several areas for the sake of unity or friendship.
Several of the conflicting beliefs within these conferences are mutually exclusive from one another. Both could not be at the same time pleasing to God. Two irreconcilable doctrines could not both be congenial to the nature of God. To say so or to act as such is to suggest that God has no particular favor for either truth or error.
I understand that these men would not say that they are indifferent to the contrasting doctrine and practice, just that they are willing to overlook it for the sake of the alliance. The alliance itself becomes sovereign. The idea is also that the value of the gospel in T4G and friendship and world evangelism in IBFI surpasses the value of the differences in belief enough to merit indifference toward those conflicting doctrines and practices.
Unity and fellowship, in contrast with what scripture says, have become more about toleration. Evangelicals and fundamentalists don’t wish to be reduced to an insignificant number to the world, which will happen if one elevates all of Scripture to a basis of fellowship. The key then is to reduce doctrine to a manageable level, that will allow the conflicting factions to get along. The new heretic is the dogmatic, someone who thinks he’s certain on too many teachings. He endangers the harmony and cohesiveness and ruins the togetherness. Or in other words, he violates the most sacred tenet to the whole, getting along.
Whether evangelicalism or fundamentalism likes it or not, or whether they agree or not, they have surrendered to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the meaning of Scripture. They concede the perspecuity of God’s Word. At the root of this is a fundamental awareness of permissible doubt. We cannot assume that all truth can be known. They are saying that God hasn’t been plain and that we cannot sort things out. As much as they say they love the truth, the truth is the casualty of indifference.
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, wrote:
The fountain of Christ
I ever will sing;
The blood of our Priest,
Our crucified King;
Which perfectly cleanses
From sin, and from filth;
And richly dispenses
Salvation and health.
This fountain from guilt
Not only makes pure,
And gives, soon as felt,
But if guilt removed
Return and remain,
Its pow’r may be proved
Again and again.
The things that Bunyan says in this poem are things that John MacArthur won’t say about the blood. Somebody’s wrong. I’m saying it’s MacArthur. The blood of Christ is a fountain. The blood of Christ has power. None of these are new ideas, novel inventions of modern theology. They are old. Actually they’re Bible. And I’ll talk more about that.
By the way, it might seem like I’m picking on MacArthur and that I do that a lot. And that my “attacks” on him are the equivalent of a chihuaha jumping up to nip at a passing elephant. So they’re funny! There are guys a lot worse for me to target. OK. But MacArthur is the bridge to the badder guys. He often crosses the same line, just not as far as some of them. Many men who will never be seduced by those worse than MacArthur, will be lured by him. I understand that it would be a good thing if some on the left would move MacArthur’s direction, but I don’t see that happening. If anything occurs, those to the right shift MacArthur’s way. That’s a big part of his following.
What’s somewhat confusing about MacArthur is that he makes true statements about the blood. However, when you read him carefully, you see that he never has the blood of Christ actually doing anything except one thing, that is, fulfilling the Old Testament types of a bloody, violent death. He says the death of Christ needed to be bloody, oh yes, but it never does anything itself. I don’t see how anyone could take that position without some outside influences. On 1 John 1:7, in his reference Bible, MacArthur says nothing about the blood. He says nothing about the blood there in Revelation 1:5. On Revelation 7:14, he writes: “This refers to the atoning sacrifice of Christ.” In 1 Peter 1:18-19, he amazingly says nothing about the blood of Christ. Regarding Hebrews 9:12, he says, “A better translation would be ‘through His own blood.'” For Hebrews 9:14, concerning “the blood of Christ,” he comments:
This is an expression that refers not simply to the fluid, but the whole atoning sacrificial work of Christ in His death. Blood is used as a substitute word for death.
That’s it for that verse. He does the same kind of thing everywhere. In reading for this, I found a few places where MacArthur may have slipped up. He said something that was different than he has said he believed. When he preached Hebrews 9:1-14 in 1972, in commenting on the sprinkled blood of Christ purging us from a sinful conscience, MacArthur said:
Boy, Christian, you need to realize that. You need to realize that. It’ll…it may clean up your life a little bit. You live in the throne room of God, spiritually speaking. Jesus has taken us in. He not only went in and sprinkled some blood for us, but He hauled us in with Him. And He says you can stay forever. That’s the sanctuary that He ministers in.
He doesn’t elaborate on this at all. And then consider this line of exposition on Revelation 7:14 from a sermon in 1993:
[T]hese are white robes because they have been washed and they have been made dazzling, leukon, and they have been washed and made dazzling by what detergent? The blood of the Lamb. . . . [H]ere is a paradox, a precious paradoxical truth. Blood doesn’t stain, blood cleanses every stain. The divine detergent removes sin all together. This wonderful theme of the blood of the Lamb is not new to the book of Revelation. . . . The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.
He was extremely careful to say the opposite in the audio that I embedded in part one and in much of what he has written. The way he has written in the two above quotes says the exact opposite of what he says when he instructs in his doctrine of the blood of Christ.
It is difficult to understand how MacArthur comes to his position. I don’t deny that the term “blood” can be used as a metonym. However, its usage in the New Testament in many cases doesn’t read as a synonym or metonym. MacArthur doesn’t prove that “blood” means “death,” unless you believe that a couple of straw man arguments count. I can’t assume he’s being stubborn. I’ve got to believe that he means what he is saying. With that in mind, I do believe that it is possible that MacArthur was influenced by the teachings of the late R. B. Thieme, oft published author and long time pastor of the Church in Houston, Texas (R. L. Hymers develops this idea here).
By the words that he says and the tone of his voice, MacArthur sounds very upset about the criticism he receives on this issue. However, the things that he says are not compatible with New Testament teaching. Scripture reads as though the blood itself is doing something, not just performing as a synonym. Let me explain how I see it.
What Scripture Says the Blood Does
As I have explained God’s plan of salvation to my own children, here is what I have said to them about the blood of Jesus. I’ve said that Jesus did two things. He died for us on the cross and He shed His blood for us. I have said that through His death He paid the penalty of our sin by substituting for us sinners. I have also said that His shed blood washes away our sin. I’ve told them that sin stains us, corrupts us, spiritually, so Jesus’ blood cleanses away our sins spiritually. I explain to them that we don’t know how His blood does this, but that it does. How do we know? Because the Bible tells us.
But MacArthur might contend that the “fluid” doesn’t do anything or that no priest carried Jesus’ blood in a bowl to heaven. So what? Who is saying that? Let’s just stick with what the Bible says and rejoice in it. None of us can fully explain how Jesus could die for everyone, but He did. We just accept it. We accept that Jesus’ blood not only washed away all our sins in the past, but all of them in the present and the future too. This is more than atonement. Jesus’ blood takes away all of our sins and keeps taking away our sins. This is one reason why we willingly confess our sins (1 John 1:9), because as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus is washing away all of our sins (1 John 1:7).
MacArthur says that we shouldn’t get caught up in the “bizarre notion” that there is some kind of saving efficacy in the actual blood of Jesus. Why not? We can believe that the physical body of Jesus had something to do with our salvation. That is why we partake of the bread and the cup. Those symbols are not signifying a spiritual death (as R. B. Thieme taught and his doctrinal statement still reads) or a spiritual blood, but actual body and blood.
I don’t know how it is that the blood of Jesus gets applied to me, but it is different than what is only human blood or else why would Peter describe it as “incorruptible” and “precious” (1 Peter 1:18ff). What makes it precious? And how is it incorruptible? Certainly human blood is corruptible, that is, it perishes, decays, rots. Christ’s blood is the opposite of that. The exact Greek term translated corruptible relates to “decay” and “rot.” It’s not like silver and gold that is temporal, the price paid to redeem a slave in the Old Testament. The blood of Christ is much more. There is life in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). In this case the life of Christ, which is Divine and eternal. Through the Spirit of God the physical blood of Christ has within it a spiritual dimension that cleanses from sin.
MacArthur says that “incorruptible” simply communicates the value of Christ’s blood, nothing about its lack of decay. Silver and gold is worth a lot and it can’t redeem, but His blood is worth eternal value. He makes the point that blood is of tremendous worth or cost. That’s not how it reads, especially in light of the later idea in 1 Peter 1 of things that perish. The blood of Christ has an eternal quality that is different than the temporal quality of gold and silver, even though they are thought to be supremely long lasting by men’s standards. The blood of Jesus can be trusted for its longevity even as God’s Word can be trusted in such fashion (1 Peter 1:23-25).
There is a relationship between the physical and the spiritual. God is a Spirit, but He created a physical universe with spoken word. Words, which are inanimate, made animate things out of nothing. We use our physical body to commit deeds that are spiritually corrupt. Sin, something spiritual, resides in our physical bodies (Romans 1:20-21). We can yield our physical bodies to God, a Spirit, and glorify Him in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Romans 6:12-13).
There seems to be a bit of the influence of docetism in MacArthur’s thinking on this. He talks down the place of Jesus’ physical blood in the cleansing from sin, as if the body and blood of Jesus were not able to participate in His eternal works. 1 Peter2:24 says that Jesus “bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” Is this too a synonym for death? Jesus conducted something saving with His body that a mere man could not have performed. Docetism comes, I believe, from doubt. Docetistic people won’t just accept what the Bible says about Jesus—they have a few “scholarly” presuppositions that won’t allow them to give in to statements that communicate the miraculous nature of our salvation. Instead of saying “miraculous,” someone like MacArthur will say “magical property” in a mocking way. Well, was there a “magical property” to Jesus’ body that allowed Him to bear all our sins in His body?
There was something miraculous about Jesus’ body. His body was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20). Before Jesus was born, He had a body prepared for Him by God the Father (Hebrews 10:5). I agree with the Trinitarian statement of the council of Chalcedon (451), but that doesn’t stop me from believing that there was an aspect to Christ’s blood that could do the spiritual work of cleansing sin in conjunction with His death on the cross.
What Have Men Said?
Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology writes (p. 395):
Such being the Scriptural doctrine concerning the person of Christ, it follows that although the divine nature is immutable and impassible, and therefore neither the obedience nor the suffering of Christ was the obedience or suffering of the divine nature, yet they were none the less the obedience and suffering of a divine person. The soul of man cannot be wounded or burnt, but when the body is injured it is the man who suffers. In like manner the obedience of Christ was the righteousness of God, and the blood of Christ was the blood of God. It is to this fact that the infinite merit and efficiency of his work are due. This is distinctly asserted in the Scriptures. It is impossible, says the Apostle, that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sin. It was because Christ was possessed of an eternal Spirit that He by the one offering of Himself hath perfected forever them who are sanctified. This is the main idea insisted upon in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This is the reason given why the sacrifice of Christ need never be repeated, and why it is infinitely more efficacious than those of the old dispensation. This truth has been graven on the hearts of believers in all ages. Every such believer says from his heart, “Jesus, my God, thy blood alone has power sufficient to atone.”
C. H. Spurgeon said (recorded in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons, parts 417-42):
Poor creatures have even gone the length of doubting the power of the Hood of Jesus to cleanse them. If you talk so, I must put my hand on your mouth ; you must not say another word of that sort. Is it not enough that you have bespattered yourself with sin ? Must you now asperse your Saviour? Will you trample on the blood of Christ ? Will you deny its cleansing power ? As he was God as well as man, our Lord’s sacrifice has an infinite virtue in it, and we cannot endure that you, guilty as you are, should add to all your former crimes this highest and most ungenerous iniquity of charging the blood of Christ with a want of cleansing power. Will you give God the lie about his own Son? O sirs, if you perish it will not be because the blood has too little efficacy, it will be because you have not believed on the name of the Son of God, and will not come unto him that you might have life.
Richard Watson in his Theological Institutes, wrote (p. 621):
For what does Dr. P. Smith gain, when cautioning the believer against the use of the phrase “the blood of GOD,” by reminding him that there is reason to prefer the reading, “the Church of the Lord, which he hath purchased by his own blood ?” The orthodox contend, that the appellation “TILE LORD,” when applied to our Saviour, is his title as GOD, and the heterodox know, also, that the “blood of the Lord” is a phrase with us entirely equivalent to “the blood of GOD.” They know, too, that we neither believe that “GOD” nor “THE LORD” could die; but in using the established phrase, the all-important doctrine of the existence of such a union between the two natures of our Lord as to make the blood which he shed more than the blood of a mere man, more than the blood of his mere humanity itself, is maintained and exhibited; and while we allow that God could not die, yet that there is a most important sense in which the blood of Christ was “the blood of GOD.”
We do not attempt to explain this mystery, but we find it on record; and, in point of fact, that careful appropriation of the properties of the two natures to each respectively, which Dr. Pye Smith recommends, is not very frequent in the New Testament, and for this obvious reason, that the question of our Lord’s Divinity is more generally introduced as an indisputed principle, than argued upon. It is true, that the Apostle Paul lays it down, that our Lord was of the seed of David, “according to the FLESH,” and “the Son of God, according to the SPIRIT OF Holiness.” Herre is an instance of the distinction; but generally this is not observed by the apostles, because the equally fundamental doctrine was always present to them, that the SAME PERSON who was FLESH was also truly GOD. Hence they scruple not to say, that “the Lord of glory was crucified,” that “the Prince of life was killed,” and that HE who was “in the form of God,” became “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
We return, from this digression, to notice a few other passages, the meaning of which can only be opened by the doctrine of the personal union of the Divine and human natures in Christ. “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead BODILY,” Col. ii, 9; not by a type and figure, but, as the word swmatikw~ signifies really and substantially, and for the full exposition, we must add, by personal union; for we have no other idea by which to explain an expression never used to signify the inhabitation of good men by God, and which is here applied to Christ in a way of eminence and peculiarity.
John Owen in His Works wrote:
The blood of Christ in his sacrifice is still always and continually in the same condition, of the same force and efficacy, as it was in that hour wherein it was shed. The blood of other sacrifices was always to be used immediately upon its effusion; for if it were cold and congealed it was of no use to be offered or to be sprinkled. Blood was appointed to make atonement, as the life or animal spirits were in it, Lev. xviL 11. But the blood of the sacrifice of Christ is always hot and warm, having the same spirits of life and sanctification still moving in it. . . . Every one, therefore, who at any time hath an especial actual interest in the blood of Christ, as sacrificed, hath as real a purification from the defilement of sin as he had typically who stood by the priest and had blood or water sprinkled on him; for the Holy Ghost diligently declares that whatever was done legally, carnally, or typically, by any of the sacrifices of old at any time, as to the expiation or purification of sin, that was all done really and spiritually by that one sacrifice,—that is, the offering and sprinkling of the blood of Christ,—and abideth to be so done continually. To this purpose is the substance of our apostle’s discourse in the ninth and tenth chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
This truth about his blood is seen in the history of believers’ praise to God in the old hymns of the faith. William Cowper in 1771 wrote:
There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood, Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he, Washed all my sins away:
E’er since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, And shall be till I die.
Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God Be saved, to sin no more.
A song doesn’t have the authority for Scripture, but it does communicate what Christians believed the Bible taught. These types of thoughts are all over the old hymns. They say something different than what John MacArthur teaches on the blood.
I recently listened to this audio (below on an embedded youtube clip) in which Phil Johnson throws John MacArthur the ultimate softball in order to clear up the false assumptions made about his doctrinal stance on the blood of Christ. I have often defended MacArthur in the past on this issue. I read the original criticism of him by Bob Jones University in their former Faith for the Family. I knew what he said in his Hebrews commentary. I always hoped for the best. Love does hope all things.
The attack on MacArthur, that he says is untrue on this audio, is that he denies the blood of Christ. Is that true? Does MacArthur deny the blood? Well, it depends on what you mean by “deny the blood.” He doesn’t deny that Jesus bled when He died. He doesn’t reject that Jesus bled a whole lot. In other words, MacArthur doesn’t take the R. B. Thieme position that Jesus barely shed any blood on the cross.
However, when I listened to this audio clip, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Here was the perfect opportunity for John MacArthur to clear up his blood position and I think that is exactly what he did. As much as any time I’ve heard him, he communicates his position. You can tell it bothers him that he has been attacked on this. I want you to listen before you read what I write below the clip. You make your own evaluation. Then read what I wrote. You will be welcome to comment and even defend MacArthur if you think that what he says is defensible.
John MacArthur is a very careful expositor. There’s a lot you can learn if you read his commentaries. He’s a great example for diligence in the study of scripture. And then he takes this type of position, among several others, that belie the scriptural evidence. And what does his position on this really mean to the nature of the gospel? Does it change it?
Johnson poses the situation that people have said that MacArthur denies that it was necessary for Jesus to shed His blood. Then he asks the question, “Could you tell us one more time your view on the necessity of Christ’s blood?” MacArthur starts by saying that he has been completely misrepresented. Well, he isn’t going to be misrepresented here. He’s on tape and he has been set up perfectly to clear up all twisting of what he believes. His first doctrinal statement is tell-tale. Listen to what he says and doesn’t say. It’s clear even by how he enunciates the words. Remember that we are talking about the necessity of Christ’s blood. And John MacArthur’s answer:
Of course I believe Christ had to die.
But that wasn’t the question. The question was about His blood, not His death. But John MacArthur far understates the necessity of Christ’s blood with His answer. He misses what scripture teaches on the blood of Christ.
After a little more personal material, MacArthur says:
Jesus died on the cross because that was what God predetermined He would do.
OK, we all agree with that, but he still hasn’t said anything about the blood. God predetermined that Jesus would died. Yes. But what about the blood?
After alluding to the text of John 3 with the lifting up of Jesus as the serpent and then referring to John 6 about Jesus drawing men to Himself, he comments:
I think the image of a bloody death is all over the Old Testament.
So there we get his first mention of blood and he uses it as an adjective for death. Bloody death. If you try to find that language in the Bible, “bloody death,” you won’t find it. But he is setting up his view and he will be very plain with it. He goes on, “Every animal that was sacrificed was a blood bath.” So he’s still not really talking about the blood of Christ, but the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament. He continues, “Priests were butchers who stood ankle deep in blood. . . . The temple was a slaughterhouse.” And then concluding that point, he says, “The image of that was to depict a violent death.”
John MacArthur teaches that the emphasis of the blood of the Old Testament sacrifice was to show how violent the death was. Where do we get that instruction anywhere in the Bible? I don’t know of any place. The word (or forms of it) “violent” is found in the Old Testament many times, but it is never applied to the blood of the animals or of the Savior.
Finally, he makes the connection between the Old Testament imagery and Jesus, when he explains:
On the cross of Christ you have the Passover Lamb dying a bloody, violent death. It’s necessitated. It’s all the imagery of the Old Testament that directs itself toward that.
So if you can follow him, he’s saying that the necessity of the blood of Christ was to fulfill the imagery in the Old Testament sacrificial system of a bloody, violent death. He never, ever says “the blood of Christ.” It’s a bloody death. The Bible never says “bloody death,” but it does say “blood of Christ” (4 times), “blood of Jesus” (3 times), and “blood of the Lord” (1 time). Then he makes this astounding statement:
Having said that, you must stop short of saying that we are saved by the blood of Jesus.
Why? Why would anyone stop short of that? Isn’t that what these verses say?
Romans 3:24-26, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
Romans 5:9, “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.”
Ephesians 1:7, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace;”
Ephesians 2:13, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”
Hebrews 10:19, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,”
1 Peter 1:18-19, “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:”
Revelation 12:11, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
You want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t get why MacArthur would say that we “must stop short of saying that we are saved by the blood of Jesus,” when the Bible says that we are saved by the blood of Jesus. Well, he explains why it is that he says this:
In the sense that there is some efficacy in the fluid that poured out of His body.
He goes on:
I have tried to make that distinction—that when the New Testament refers to salvation by His blood that it is not talking about salvation by His fluid. It uses blood as a metaphor or a synonym for death because it conveys the violence of it. . . . We don’t want to get caught into this bizarre notion that somehow in the actual fluid that came out of the body of Jesus that there is saving power or saving efficacy.
After explaining that, MacArthur goes on to give an example of something people have said about Jesus’ blood that is beyond and different than what he said in this above paragraph, in order to somehow color what someone would believe if he said that there was saving power in the actual blood of Jesus. MacArthur then makes another important statement:
When the New Testament is talking about the blood of Christ it is talking about the death of Christ, but it uses blood because that is a metaphor that speaks of the violence of his death.
Where does MacArthur get this? I don’t know. It isn’t in the Bible. When we see the blood of Jesus in the New Testament, we are not looking at a metaphor or synonym or metonym or euphemism for Jesus’ death, all words that MacArthur uses to describe what the blood of Christ is all about. For one, the New Testament separates the death and the blood as two aspects of His sacrifice that were distinct and both individually necessary in Colossians 1:20-22:
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:
In those verses you see “the blood of his cross” doing something and “the body of his flesh through death” doing something. Both were needed. Second, you get the two separate elements in the Lord’s Table—the bread and the cup. The bread symbolizes the death in His body and the cup portrays the sacrifice in His shed blood. So MacArthur is wrong in taking away this New Testament emphasis.
MacArthur uses the tone of his voice to mock the other position that is not his own. He talks in a condescending way about the blood being “fluid,” that salvation isn’t in the “fluid.” This is a strawman. Jesus’ blood isn’t just “fluid.” There is something more to Jesus’ blood than just the human. There is a Divine quality to the blood of Jesus that cleanses, something that MacArthur just ignores. And is not willing to believe that there is anything to Acts 20:28:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
At the end of the verse, it says, “with his own blood.” What is the antecedent of “his?” Yes, it is “God.” So Acts 20:28 says “God’s own blood.” One of the great mysteries of scripture is the hypostatic union. Jesus is fully human and fully Divine. There was something Divine to the blood of Christ, which is why the blood can cleanse. Yes, the blood itself. And you say, “How?” I don’t know, but it does cleanse. This is where MacArthur goes wrong. He’s sort of like the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the Trinity on this. They don’t get how Jesus could be man and God, so they reject His Deity. MacArthur doesn’t see how the blood of Christ could cleanse everyone, so he just denies that it does anything of itself. It is only by Jesus’ death, according to MacArthur, that people are saved. But what about these verses?
1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Revelation 1:5, “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,”
Hebrews 9:14, “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
We never hear about the cleansing of His death, do we? Why? Because the blood of Christ is what does the cleansing.
MacArthur goes to more strawmen, “It wouldn’t have done any good if He had just bled and then lived.” He says this with a kind of tone of disdain as if there were all sorts of people saying this, when I haven’t heard anyone in my life or have read anyone who has claimed that Jesus bled and lived. Really?!?! Who are we arguing about here?!?!
Then MacArthur gets angry at the idea that Jesus could die in a way in which He would not bleed. And then he again explains that this would be preposterous because then Jesus wouldn’t fulfill the depictions in the Old Testament. And that’s the extent of MacArthur’s answer here.
Johnson tries to help, it seems, by asking MacArthur about those times that the New Testament talks about the cleansing of Jesus’ blood, but MacArthur gets it wrong again and even more so. He says that those are the times that the New Testament is talking about Jesus’ death. This is classic circular reasoning. If you go look at the passages to see if they mention Jesus’ death, you won’t find it in 1 John 1:7 and Revelation 1:5. So why are they talking about His death? Well, because blood means death. This is also begging the question.
To cap it all off, MacArthur makes this point, like this is a major point. “Jesus didn’t bleed to death.” That seems to contradict what he said earlier when he said that the shedding of the blood showed that Jesus’ life was leaving His body. So when He bled enough, wouldn’t that mean that He had died? But no, MacArthur says that Jesus died by asphyxiation. How do we know that? Because that’s how the thieves died and how history shows other crucified ones died. But is that how the Bible says Jesus died? No! It says that He gave up His own spirit. And when he gets to the very end he admonishes, “You just want to be biblical about it!” Right! I agree! Let’s be biblical about it. Or in this case, let’s not follow what John MacArthur says about the blood of Christ. He’s wrong.
I’m asking you the reader. What does this message do to the nature of the gospel? Does it change it? How far does changing scriptural truth about the blood alter the gospel itself? Is Jesus’ blood important enough for us to take a stand in separation over this understatement or even misstatement by MacArthur?
Almost always today evangelism efforts are judged by their effectiveness. In other words, do they work? Sometimes you’ll hear, “Door to door just doesn’t work any more.” Or, “Door to door evangelism turns people off.” Or, “We invite the lost to our church services because we have found that it is more effective.” I read often about all sorts of “effective” programs for evangelism. “We’ve got this ministry or that ministry, and we’ve found that they work.” Whether these evangelistic efforts work or not seems to be the justification for their usage. Does it matter that the “program” or the “ministry” are not in the Bible? I believe so.
I know this might sound harsh, but I don’t care about your evangelism statistics. I don’t care that a certain program that you used garnered more numbers than other means that you have used. I do care if you are obedient to the Bible in evangelism. That’s what will please God. It is living by faith when we trust what God told us to do and then do it. He gets the credit for it. When I hear about some new program, I can see the innovator getting the credit for it. And I think that following exactly what God said is most important in evangelism. God will always be the One doing the saving no matter what the innovation, but how we go about doing it will affect whether God will get the glory or not. It is for this reason that we should limit our selves and our churches to biblical evangelism methodology. God revealed the way and He gets the credit when it works.
Before I talk to you about why I believe we should do it only God’s way, I want us to consider that we can’t even judge results. God has a perspective about results that we can’t have. He sees all of time in one indivisible present. We may think that we see better results with a certain methodology because of something visible and immediate. We have no way of judging whether that will be the best for the next 500 to 1000 years. None of us should imagine that we could think of a better way than what God has proposed. And yet there seems to be non-stop innovation in the work of evangelism. I keep hearing about one new program and method after another that really makes a difference.
I might see few results in my entire lifetime, but those results may yield more results in the next generation, which then produces even more results in the next generation, and then it keeps going like that. My new method might see some short-term results and then crash in the next generation. This is where we get into trouble with a very cultural “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” philosophy. I think of Jesus in the parable of the mustard seed. He said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A major point of this, I believe, is that the population of His kingdom builds up slow to something great. It doesn’t show immediate massive size.
What I’m proposing here is seeing your own personal stupidity. I think I’m too stupid to judge better than God. I’ll leave that judgment up to Him. I know that there are things that I can judge by the grace of God, through the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Really these are things that God is still judging. Not me. I should take responsibility for judging where I am supposed to, but I don’t want to judge where I can’t possibly succeed. I’m ridiculous to do so. I want to think of myself as a methodological imbecile. God created a universe. I have, um, hmmmmm, not been very impressive. So let’s get off our high horse, folks. Get a rich understanding of how stupid you are and how smart God is. Stop depending on what you might think is keen judgment of results. You don’t have it.
The Permanence of God’s Glory
What will last is God’s glory. And that’s what He wants. He’ll produce salvations. He is the only One Who can do that. If we use His method, we’ll get exactly what He will effect. I’m fine with that, because He gets the glory and that’s why I do what I do. He’s a good God. He deserves to be glorified. I deserve zero glory, less than zero. He isn’t glorified when I do it my way, so I don’t want to do it my way. On top of the fact that I can’t judge results. I’ve got to leave all that in God’s hands.
His glory is the gold, silver, and precious stones. His glory is the laboring, that whether present or absent, I’m accepted of Him. His glory is what’s important at the judgment seat. His glory is what will last through eternity. My ideas are at the most a vapor.
What Glorifies God In Evangelism
The Bible is full of this teaching that God doesn’t want human innovation in evangelism, replete with the idea that God wants worshiped through our preaching of the gospel. We’ve obviously needed to have heard that instruction because we’ve often forgotten what He told us. We have built our own evangelistic towers of Babel. We’ve become the Thomas Edisons of evangelism. And I don’t think we’ve recognized how far we’ve gotten away from what He said.
I’m not going to focus on all of the passages on this, but some are very enlightening. I think of three right off the top of my head and I’ll deal with them in the order that they appear in my brain. The first is 1 Corinthians 1-2.
1 Corinthians 1-2
1:17 gets it started when Paul writes, “preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words.” The “wisdom of words” represents human strategy and technique. This is the gospel plus something else, the gospel along with the additions that make it work or make people like it, take some of the foolishness off of it so that it might seem a little more palatable to the lost. He moves on with this in v. 18:
For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness.
What we should get from this is that preaching of the cross doesn’t make sense to us as a method. The world doesn’t like it. He continues in v. 19:
For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
Who are these wise and prudent? They’re the ones who have have figured out that people don’t like the straight preaching of the gospel, so they choose something else or something more.
The smartypants know that “Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1:22). They’ve studied the demographic. They know how people tick. They know how to customize the gospel according to the particular characteristics of a type of lost person—the alcoholic, the drug addict, the homeless, the American, the big city person, the third world country citizen, the rich guy, the kiddies, youth, urban braniacs, etc.
Paul moves opposite of the strategic program evangelism. He continues in 1:23:
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.
And more in 1:25:
Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What people say doesn’t work is actually the wisdom of God. They don’t think it works because they don’t see something that says to them that it has worked. God says it works. That should be enough. No one should assume it hasn’t worked. The assumption should be that God has worked powerfully, because that’s what He does. The way that glorifies God doesn’t make any kind of human sense that it should work. It looks exactly like it shouldn’t work. That it does work is because it is of God.
And why this particular methodology of straight preaching, of just going out and proclaiming the gospel? 1:29 answers:
That no flesh should glory in his presence.
And v. 31:
That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
We don’t want the glory, do we? Do we? If we don’t, then we restrain ourselves from a different methodology. Just preach the gospel. “But people will be offended.” “It will turn people off.” “It works better if you….” But whether He gets the glory matters.
Because of the doctrine that we read in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, Paul operated in a particular fashion. He explains that in chapter two beginning with this in v. 1:
I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.
Read this in vv. 4-5:
And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom . . . . That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
Somebody who wants God glorified in evangelism will take the same tack as Paul.
Here’s the program our church uses for evangelism—we preach the gospel. We preach it house to house and to those with whom we come in contact. We preach it to relatives, to neighbors, to co-workers, to fellow students, to children, to teens, to college students, and to the elderly. We preach it to Buddhists, to atheists, to Catholics, to Hindus, to Sikhs, to professing Christians, and to Mormons.
In Matthew 13, the sower went out to sow. We go out and sow. We preach the gospel to every creature. We don’t hide our light under a bushel. We open our mouth boldly as we ought to speak. We don’t have a program. We just preach the gospel. The world might hate us. I marvel not.
We don’t use an invitation to church philosophy. We don’t use any kind of special program for teens, for kids, for drunks, for drug addict, or for any other demographic. We just preach it. I can explain to you how that what I am describing is scriptural. I can also describe how that your program is unscriptural. I don’t think a person invited to church has a better opportunity of being saved than someone who hears the gospel at his door.
For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son.
“Serve” is the word latreuo. It is speaking of the worship of the priestly service, the sacrificial system, the offerings to God. The noun form is used in Romans 12:1 when the offering of your body to God is called latreia.
This verse says that our evangelism is a presentation to God as worship. The concern for an offering to God is whether God accepts it or not. Is it acceptable to God? The question isn’t whether it will work but rather will please God.
That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost. I have therefore whereof I may glory through Jesus Christ in those things which pertain to God.
V. 16 uses the language of priestly service. Paul ministered in the sense that he acted as a priest. As the priest was to offer an acceptable offering unto God, so Paul offered up the believing Gentiles to God. Even as Aaron, the first Levitical priest, offered the Levites before the Lord (Numbers 8:13)—
And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron, and before his sons, and offer them for an offering unto the LORD.
—So also believer-priests living today may offer Gentile converts before the Lord that they may serve Him. God is well pleased when they’re offered up to Him, because it is His plan for this present age. Every new Gentile believer is sanctified by the Holy Spirit, indwelt by Him, made holy and acceptable to God. You see this thought in Isaiah 66:20 where people “out of all nations” are offered to God.
In v. 17 we see that Paul wants to “glory through Jesus Christ.” For Jesus to be glorified, the ministering, the offering that is Paul’s preaching of the gospel, must be acceptable to God.
The concern in evangelism is whether God will be glorified. When we take care of what is required for that to occur, we’ll get the exact results we’re supposed to get, no more or no less. More converts doesn’t justify a method. This isn’t living by faith but by sight. No one should assume that an evangelistic strategy is better because it has worked better than others.
In a question and answer time during a recent conference, John Piper commented that Mark Driscoll has a much greater opportunity to reach the people he does in Seattle than what Piper could. Why? What is it about Driscoll that would be more effective than Piper in reaching unsaved Seattle citizens? The implication was that Driscoll’s speaking style, his deco teeshirts, his grunge rock bands, and these types of customized innovations to the Seattle crowd were more prone to the use of God than what Piper would be able to offer. And this is coming from a Calvinist, who says he believes and teaches theological monergism in salvation. It is sheer pragmatism, Finneyesque new measures. Piper himself shows again and again that this is what he thinks. He would not have the same results if he hadn’t bowed to his own wisdom in evangelistic approach.
You look at the Resolved conference of John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Southern California, and you have the rock concert style theater lighting and platform, the relational dress, and the fleshly rock form of music all tailored for the youth culture. These all smack of the contextualization that defies these passages on Divine methodology.
I bring these two examples because they actually contradict what these evangelicals say that they believe. Young fundamentalists and evangelicals hover around them in part because they think that they are different than abuses in old fundamentalism. There’s hypocrisy in their condoning and acceptance.
Of course, we’ve got the promotion and marketing methodologies of modern fundamentalism, the giveaways and the gimmicks, justified by their effect. Methods don’t glorify God because they work. They glorify God because they stand in His wisdom and not that of men. God uses the supposed non-effective. He doesn’t get Jews through signs and Greeks through wisdom, children through toys and games, and adults through buildings and bribes. Music isn’t an evangelistic method. There’s no gospel music in the Bible, only gospel preaching. A Christmas concert is not an evangelistic strategy. A youth rally with pizza and big ball is not a biblical technique.
Typical comebacks are: “Scripture doesn’t say it’s wrong.” “Jesus got a crowd by healing people.” “The Lord gave food to the masses.” “Paul adjusted his message to the Athenian crowd.” “Jesus ate with sinners.”
The Bible does say the human innovations are wrong (see above). The healing of Jesus was to fulfill prophecy in order to reveal His identity. He wanted those to go away who were merely seeking after signs. Jesus didn’t keep feeding people because it wasn’t an evangelistic strategy. Paul preached the same gospel but used the truth that would pull down Athenian strongholds (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Jesus preached to sinners everywhere.
The limitations of the sufficient Word of God will free you from the bondage of evangelistic concoctions. You won’t be burdened by the pressure to find a way to succeed. You’ll find liberty in the simplicity of the gospel. Come to the methods of Scripture. God will give you rest. Above all, Jesus will be glorified. Oh praise His name!
In the late 1960s, early 1970s, mega churches exploded with growth in California. Popular evangelical pastor and author John MacArthur talks about it in an interview with Albert Mohler:
I can trace certain trends and a visible process over the past twenty-two years. When I first came to this church as pastor, I started to preach this way and people flooded the place. It was an interesting time. It was just after the publication of The Living Bible — for what it is worth — and that certainly gave people a fresh insight into Scripture. Then came the New American Standard Version, the “Jesus Movement,” Calvary Chapel, and the intensive interest in personal Bible study. People came to church carrying Bibles with covers featuring a dove and a cross, and all that. Christian bookstores and publishers began to flourish. Maranatha Music hit — and Christian music exploded. I really think that one hundred years from now the 1970s and the early 1980s will look like a revival — and that period really was.
MacArthur elsewhere says that the Jesus Movement was a primary cause for the phenomenal growth of his church:
We kind of caught the wave of that, the tail end of the Jesus Movement. There were new Bible translations, that was huge. People were beginning to understand the Bible in new ways. There was just a wave, I think, at that time when I came that the Lord sort of allowed us to catch that I think a real moving of the Holy Spirit in a special way.
Churches in southern California became huge at this period of time, filling up with the proselytes of the Jesus movement. Like so many other fads that start in California, those churches in turn had a huge impact on the church all over the United States through their radio ministries with now well-known names in addition to MacArthur—Chuck Swindoll, Chuck Smith, and Greg Laurie—among many others. These churches took on a flavor that was admired and mimicked all over the country before there was a Hybels, Osteen, or Rick Warren.
This was the beginnings, even by testimony of those who were part of it, of something that still today has a major influence in Christianity, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. The leadership that pioneered this direction and style made decisions about how they would function that continue to affect churches all over the world. They were uniquely non-denominational, choosing to forego the typical church brands that repulsed the spirit of that era’s seekers. They made plain choices in their evaluation of cultural issues that clearly impact the belief and practice of churches today.
Was that place and period truly subject to God-given revival? Does what occurred represent what we would see as revival according to a scriptural understanding? Did the leadership make decisions befitting of a movement of God among men? Or was this a bevy of deceit that has since caused more problems than good?
What Kind of Movement Was It?
The Jesus Movement was born out of the sixties counterculture. Young people, distrustful of authority, attempted to find fulfillment in an anti-establishment attitude and behavior that characterized the war protesters. Disenchanted with the status quo, they became hippies. The Jesus Movement contrasted with established churches both in style and substance, keeping many of the mannerisms and appearance of the hippies yet tweaking the content of the message. The hippie culture infiltrated and then changed churches into its image.
Sally Thomas in First Things, The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life characterizes the start of the Jesus Movement in an article entitled “Grooving on Jesus”:
There’s no denying that, in many places, have it your way was an effective formula. Witness the nondenominational Calvary Chapel phenomenon. In 1968, Pastor Chuck Smith, encouraged by other conservative evangelical California pastors, recruited a youth pastor, the groovily named Lonnie Frisbee, from the Christian-coffeehouse counterculture as a “hippie liaison” to draw in the unchurched. The results were electrifying. Traditional hymn-sandwich services gave way to an effusively emotive worship atmosphere more like the quasi-religious atmosphere of a Grateful Dead concert.
The Calvary Chapel was a struggling congregation of less than thirty until Lonnie Frisbee started bringing hippies to the meetings. Thomas explains what happened:
Hundreds of shaggy young people clutching Bibles in zippered leather cases turned up for Wednesday-night Bible study with Frisbees. The church outgrew its space, outgrew it again, and ultimately multiplied into a network of churches, its own freestanding denomination.
Rock music itself had already swept the nation through its collection of noncomformists and malcontents. The Jesus movement was the beginnings of Christian rock. It began when some hippie and street musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s converted to this brand of Christianity. They continued to play the same style of music they had played previously, but began to write lyrics with a quasi-Christian message. Many music groups developed out of this, and some became leaders within the Jesus movement, rockers like Larry Norman, Keith Green, and others.
The same Chuck Smith founded the first Christian rock label when he launched Maranatha Music as an outlet for the Jesus music bands performing at Calvary worship services. It was here where the whole contemporary Christian music industry got its start as well as the new viewpoint that the music itself was amoral. The new innovation was that only the words communicated any moral content. The only ones still who hold this deceived position are those who like and support Christian rock, country, rap, rhythm and blues, and even grunge.
The churches that saw amazing numeric growth were those receptive of the hippie lifestyle, not expecting it to change. The Jesus movement was a trojan horse to wheel the world into the church. There were several keys for contextualizing God to this worldly crowd: non-denominationalism (an anti-establishment move), toleration, come-as-you-are dress, modern language translations, long hair on men, pants on women, the world’s music, and little application of scripture to the culture (dismissive of worldliness).
John MacArthur calls this time period of the Jesus Movement a genuine revival. This is when his church saw amazing numeric success. You see pictures of MacArthur in those days on his book covers wearing long hair. This is when, more than ever, you would hear the accusations of “legalism” and calls for grace. It was obvious in the counterculture hippie movement that the long hair was rebellion. If you moved that direction with your hair, you were making a statement that contradicted God’s Word in 1 Corinthians 11:14. Although MacArthur’s hair wasn’t as long as Lonnie Frisbee‘s, it was a clear signal to hippies that he wasn’t a part of the establishment.
A later contribution as a polemic for worldliness and the new view of grace to vindicate the worldly practices of this Southern California “laid-back” style was Chuck Swindoll’s 1990 book, fittingly named Grace Awakening. The Jesus Movement was a Grace Awakening in the opinion of the participants. Here are some of the statements by Swindoll that typify the defense necessary subsequent to lowering the barriers to the world:
[It is a] freedom from the demands of other people, from all the shoulds and oughts of the general public.
I can be me—fully and freely. It is a freedom to know Him in an independent and personal way.
It means I’m free to choose righteousness or disobedience.
At one point in the book, inspired by an “awakening of grace,” Swindoll asked why it is that we couldn’t visualize God in a pair of bermuda shorts.
You can’t explain a true revival outside of the gospel. When measures are adopted to produce results, you have revivalism. The Jesus Movement was very careful to adapt its methods to the tastes of the hippy culture. They liked rock music. Rock music was a new method to gather and excite a crowd. They labeled and relabeled their churches with names not packed with the theological dogma of denominationalism.
When you hear MacArthur talk about that time period that fueled the numerical growth of his church, you read of the key conditions that must be met for God to work in a tremendous way: new translations of scripture and even the paraphrase, the Living Bible, use of contemporary Christian music, and verse-by-verse teaching.
David Wells writes in No Place for Truth, speaking of fundamentalism and evangelicalism (p. 129):
Strong, authoritarian preachers emerged whose very demeanor banished doubt on sight. The stronghold of faith was thus made invincible. . . .Fundamentalism was a walled city; evangelicalism is a city. Fundamentalism always had an air of embattlement about it, of being an island in a sea of unremitting hostility. Evangelicalism has reacted against this sense of psychological isolation. It has lowered the barricades. It is open to the world.
Chuck Smith, MacArthur, and many others used the verse by verse expository type of teaching. Smith would sit on a stool in front of a microphone before a sea of hippies and work his way through the text. Certainly whatever good that did occur could result from the Bible they did get. However, what was missing was strong, authoritarian preachers, who wouldn’t lower the barrier for the world, who by their very demeanor would banish doubt on sight.
Like Finney’s Second Great Awakening, the numerical success is the main evidence for the revival. Iain Murray writes in Revival and Revivalism (p. 283):
Numbers seen to be responding were claimed as more than sufficient evidence for the rightness of the changes in practice and teaching. If the argument for the new measures had been based upon the testimony of Scripture or the witness of church history, the likelihood of the propaganda succeeding would have been small, but these were not the grounds on which the case for the new measures was based. The proof urged for them was much simpler: people had only to look at what could be seen across the country.
Finney himself wrote in his Memoirs (p. 83):
I used to say to ministers, whenever they contended with me . . . Show me the fruits of your ministry. . . . Much fault has been found with measures which had been preeminently and continually blessed by God for the promotion of revivals.
For the numerical success, the cooperation with Lonnie Frisbee, hippies, and rock bands was a necessary measure for continuing revival for Chuck Smith. Then numerical success validated the new measures. This was the way to revival that others had missed and became necessary to continue. Then, like Finney, new theological explanations must be developed that would authenticate the fellowship with the world. John MacArthur said this about that time at his church:
[I]t doubled about every two years for the first ten, just kept doubling and it went from three hundred, to six hundred, to twelve hundred. Obviously our growth has slowed down eventually. But in those early years it was amazing growth. We were doing something that was fresh, expositing the Scripture, there was a new hunger for that. We kind of caught the wave of that, the tail end of the Jesus Movement.
In his break-down of revivalism, Murray writes (p. 22):
Revival are not brought about by the fulfillment of ‘conditions’ any more than conversion of a single individual is secured by any series of human actions.
I believe that the Jesus Movement and Finney’s revival were both authored by human measures uniquely adapted to their time. Murray explains it this way (p. 298):
[A]ll christian rightly want to see success, and the new measures seemed to offer that possibility in a way not known before. . . . [T]he introduction of the new measures in a time of real revival gave weight to the claim that their ‘successes’ were due to divine blessing. . . [T]he illusion was ultimately accepted because the alleged successes received far more publicity than did the evidence of harm done to the life of the churches.
The Jesus movement was a revival in the tradition of the Second Great Awakening. It wasn’t. However, the numerical successes have influenced thousands of pastors and churches to follow the style of the Southern California mega-churches. If there is a new wave today, it is the manner of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, or in another way, that of Mark Driscoll and those imitating him.
Lonnie Frisbee, as much as anyone, ignited the Calvary Chapel phenomena. He sat cross-legged in the front lawn of a local public school, wearing a long robe, beard, and shoulder length hair, the identical circumstance at which Greg Laurie made a profession of faith. Lonnie Frisbee died of a AIDS, a long time closet homosexual. Frisbee not only led in the beginning of the spread of the Calvary Chapel, but also the Vineyard churches.
Recently Phil Johnson, a right hand man of John MacArthur, has written a lengthy series against contextualization, coming from Acts 17. In a comment on vv. 16-18, he writes:
What’s crucial to notice here, first of all, is Paul’s relationship to the culture. He doesn’t try to assimilate. He doesn’t embrace the culture and look for ways to shape the gospel to suit it. He is repulsed by it.
As part of the Jesus movement, the churches of Southern California embraced the culture and did try to assimilate, including Johnson’s own Grace Community Church.
A new type of Jesus movement is exploding all over the country, perhaps best represented by Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in the Seattle, WA area. They have embraced the grunge culture of Seattle. Driscoll’s presentation, the design of the building, the dress, and activity are like the world where Mars Hill exists. John MacArthur wrote about it in an article he entitled, “Grunge Christianity: Counterculture’s Death-Spiral and the Vulgarization of the Gospel”:
You have no doubt heard the arguments: We need to take the message out of the bottle. We can’t minister effectively if we don’t speak the language of contemporary counterculture. If we don’t vernacularize the gospel, contextualize the church, and reimagine Christanity for each succeeding generation, how can we possibly reach young people? Above all else, we have got to stay in step with the times.
Those arguments have been stressed to the point that many evangelicals now seem to think unstylishness is just about the worst imaginable threat to the expansion of the gospel and the influence of the church. They don’t really care if they are worldly. They just don’t want to be thought uncool.
We could turn the clock back to the early seventies and say the same thing about MacArthur’s compromise with the Jesus Movement. We could even look today at the youth conference of his church, called Resolved, that dresses up the room to fit the vernacular of secular culture, to make the preachers “cool” with the young people. What I see Driscoll doing is operating with the same strategy as the Jesus Movement and Lonnie Frisbee, except with the world having gotten that much worse and his targeting the Seattle grunge culture.
Even John Piper, whose churches have followed the Jesus Movement pattern of rock music, is rethinking this now. He was in a recent Q & A along with D. A. Carson, and he was asked, “What are some of the biggest issues you think the church and evangelical scholars will need to deal with in the next twenty years?” As part of his answer he said:
Whether the ethos of the explosion of contemporary worship music and worship forms (i.e., chummy rock music) can sustain the gravitas of the glory of God over the long haul.
How could he be questioning the gravitas of rock music? That’s a done and settled case, isn’t it? Piper knows in his heart that the rock music is a self-gratifying sell-out to the world. He said it in a very understated way, but you can still catch his thinking on it.
One of the tragic casualties of the Jesus Movement and its offspring is spiritual discernment. People see numbers and they assume it must be God. They have a feeling and it must be the Holy Spirit. They want to see something spectacular and so they produce it. And then the methods are copied with very little evaluation. Later they defend it by calling it grace, so grace becomes a casualty as well. Many evangelicals and fundamentalists who decry the revivalism of Finney latch on to the revivalist children of the Jesus movement.
Holiness is more than moral purity. It is separation from that which is common and profane. God in His unique and supreme attributes retains a majestic separation far above His creation. He desires a difference be put between the sacred and the profane. As He is holy, He calls on His own to be holy as well (1 Peter 1:14-16). The angels hovering about His throne repeat “holy, holy, holy.” He says, “Come out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17). The Jesus Movement was not compatible with holiness or separation, but that wasn’t a problem for its adherents, as long as they could catch its wave.
The Jesus Movement birthed modern day non-denominational evangelicalism, it’s music, methods, and mega-churches. It made worldliness the norm for the church. It spawned even worse paganism in churches for today. It concocted the entire Christian music industry with its Dove awards and entertainers. It encouraged an all-time low for reverence in the house of God. It watered down grace. It demeaned Christianity. As much as or more than anything that Finney did, it profaned the holiness of God. It contaminated and perverted true worship of God. It produced a wicked generation that seeks after signs.
Where does Scripture tell us that only a limited number of its teachings are worth separating over? Answer: Nowhere. You can’t find that anywhere in the Bible. Phil Johnson says it’s just common sense for us to rank doctrines and bemoans the loss of common sense since post-modernism. C. H. Spurgeon came along before post-modernism and perhaps even modernism, so based on Johnson’s standard for common sense, I wonder where Spurgeon’s is, when I read this quote from his 1856 sermon, Zion’s Prosperity:
I believe that we ought not to say that any truth is non-essential; it may be non-essential to salvation, but it is essential for something else. Why! you might as well take one of the jewels out of the Queen’s crown, and say it is non-essential, but she will be Queen all the same! Will anyone dare to tell God that any doctrine is non-essential?
He lacked the “common sense” that Johnson claims in many other sermons he preached as well. Johnson must retreat to the 17th century to find anyone expounding on essentials and non-essentials and really to only two volumes, one of which was Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed. Witsius argues that essential doctrines are only those necessary to salvation. One of Witsius’ life goals was reconciliation between the reigning orthodoxy of his time with the new covenant theology. His doctrinal taxonomy would help bridge the gap between those two. We must consider that objective when we read Witsius’ arguments as well as to understand that he’s unpacking the Apostle’s Creed, which on its own is a monumental contraction of doctrine that among the few things that it states as essential, it includes: “I believe in the . . . holy catholic church; the communion of saints. . . .”
The Point of Ranking Doctrines
Witsius revealed his point of ranking doctrines—the holy catholic church and the communion of saints. He believed that all believers made up the true church, the holy catholic one, and that unity was required, the communion of the saints. I agree with total church unity. Paul admonishes the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12:25 “that there should be no schism in the body.” Of course, two verses later (v. 27) he also calls the Corinthian church the body of Christ.
Scripture doesn’t teach the communion of the saints. 1 Corinthians 10:16 teaches “the communion of the body of Christ,” but the “body of Christ” and “the saints” are two different terms and two different concepts. “Saints” is a soteriological term. It means “saved people” in essence. “Body of Christ” is an ecclesiological term. It is speaking of the church, local only, which is why Paul said to the church at Corinth, excluding himself, in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Ye are the body of Christ.”
You can clearly see “saints” and “church” are different in 1 Corinthians 14:33, where Paul mentions “all the churches of the saints.” “Saints” and “churches” are differentiated from one another in their usage. The church is an assembly of saints in a particular location, and it is in the church where unity can be found, because a church has the means provided by the Lord Jesus Christ to maintain unity: church discipline, the Lord’s Supper, and the church officers, among other tools not given to all the saints in general. The church, local only, is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” God gave churches the capacity to protect and propagate the truth and nothing more than churches. A church can keep factions out of itself (Titus 3:10-11). It can do that by means of church discipline.
It is no wonder that Phil Johnson says that ranking doctrines is common sense. It’s the only way that he sees that all believers could get along. There’s way too much diversity even on a plain subject like baptism for “the communion of the saints.” Yet, how far do they reduce the doctrines to get down to the essentials? Ironically, almost everyone disagrees on what is essential, so that they even divide over what to divide over.
Even if these evangelicals make the gospel the one non-negotiable, they do not consistently separate over that either. There is a huge divergence in the gospel understanding of Billy Graham and Albert Mohler, but that did not stop them from coming together in a “gospel” endeavor in 2001. Graham preaches universalism. John MacArthur understands very clearly what Graham told Robert Schuller in 1997. But then Mohler and MacArthur are in very close fellowship. Mohler’s doctrinal triage is the means that he wants to bring the Southern Baptist Convention together, he and Graham both being Southern Baptists. As a part of Together for the Gospel, MacArthur and Mohler also both join with the Charismatic C. J. Mahaney. MacArthur has written scathing material against Charismatic doctrine, but that doesn’t keep him from fellowship with Mahaney. In other words, these men who believe that the true church is all believers use ranking doctrines as a means to unify everyone. What we can see by their practice is that they unify whether they believe the same gospel or not. Instead of calling themselves “Together for the Gospel” (T4G), they should label themselves “Together for the sake of Getting Together.”
Johnson and MacArthur and their evangelical guys aren’t the only one who believe this. We also have the fundamentalists as represented by Kevin Bauder and his indifferentism and everythingism teaching, and as exemplified by the 2009 Bible Conference at Bob Jones University. Of course, they’re a lot less diverse than the evangelicals, but the diversity that’s there comes because of a kind of theological triage they also possess. I’m sure that Paisley is a Calvinist. I’m sure that Ollila is not, especially in light of the reported statement that he is a “no-point Calvinist,” that is, “there’s no point in discussing it.” In Paisley and Sexton we have King James Only. Among some of the other speakers are multiple versionists. Sexton markets himself as with Spurgeon in most of his publications, but on the Crown College campus he has a building named after Curtis Hutson, one of the fathers of the modern no-repentance-for-salvation doctrine, and has the image of Jack Hyles hanging in his preachers hall of fame.
Scripture must be consistent because God cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13). God can’t tell us to have no schism in the body on one hand (1 Corinthians 12:25) and then to separate from believers on the other hand (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15) if the body of Christ is all believers. Those two teachings would contradict one another. The unity must be based upon doctrine and found only in the church, which is local only. If churches choose to fellowship, they will do so based upon doctrine and practice. However, we are together for more than just the gospel.
Ranking doctrines was invented for the point of a fake unity that is based upon degrading the teachings of God’s Word. Unity trumps all other doctrines in this scheme. Earlier Baptists were tortured and died over mode and recipient of baptism, but now baptism is a doctrine to overlook in order to get together and to get along. With so much doctrinal disagreement, instead of separating, men unify based upon a lower common denominator, reducing the teachings of the Bible into essentials and non-essentials. It encourages disobedience to Scripture.
The Presumptuousness of Ranking Doctrines
Jesus told the religious leaders that they left the weightier matters of the law undone. He also said that there was a greatest commandment. Paul said that certain doctrines were foundational. From those teachings, one is presumptuous to think that he can choose certain doctrines to deemphasize in order to stay in fellowship with another professing believer. Those verses don’t say anything about that. The ones who do the ranking are guilty of the Pharisaic practice that Jesus confronted in Matthew 15:6:
Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
Ranking doctrines is tradition. It isn’t taught in the Bible. This tradition, however, has led to the fall of many a man by making the commandment of God of none effect. Sure, they might recognize the commandment of God—so did the Pharisees—but it isn’t necessary to practice, because they’ll suffer no loss of fellowship for disobeying it.
Uzzah presumed on God and touched the ark of the covenant. God killed him. Nadab and Abihu presumed on God in the matter of the recipe for the incense to burn at the altar of incense. They offered strange fire unto the Lord. God killed them. Ananias and Sapphira presumed upon God in holding back certain money they had promised from the sale of their land. God killed them. Adam and Eve presumed about one piece of fruit on one tree in the Garden. They died the day they ate thereof.
In the form of a serpent in the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Adam and Eve to presume upon God. Certain things that God said weren’t essential. They just weren’t as important as other things. Jesus, however, never presumed upon the Father. He always did the will of the Father, who sent Him. And he said that the greatest in His kingdom is the one who does the least of His commandments.
If you are in touch with contemporary theology, then you know the emphasis today in theological circles on ranking doctrines. In case you don’t understand, let me explain. Evangelical teachers say that some doctrine and practice is worth separating or fighting over and some is not. They rank certain doctrines as primary or essential and others as secondary or non-essential. Ironically, there’s a lot of conflict among them about which doctrines are important and which ones are not. For instance, is mode of baptism worth separating over?
Who Is Talking About This?
I said that people are talking about it. Who?
Nick Duke, pastor of Campus Church at the The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, wrote a three part series outlining his thoughts on the ranking of doctrines (beginning here).
The GARBC published a pamphlet written by a pastor, David Nettleton, which was against the dividing of doctrine into essentials and non-essentials.
Miles J. Stanford writes that the separation of doctrine into these types of categories was a characteristic of new evangelicalism: “Concession has been the course of Neo-evangelicalism. Its interdenominational [and nondenominational] approach has caused it to divide the Bible into essentials, and non-essentials.”
Oh, and then me. I finished a series at my blog specifically on this subject (part one, two, three, four, five, and then here) [One young blogger commented]. My position, of course, contrasts with Johnson, MacArthur, Bauder, and Mohler. Kevin Bauder might call me an “everythingist,”or at least a modified everythingist, which he would look at with disrepute.
Overview of the Discussion
One side says that Scripture ranks doctrines according to importance and that this provides a basis for separation. Most of the truth rankers agree that the gospel is the one doctrine over which we are to separate as Christians. Everything else is tertiary or non-essential. A major phrase I’ve heard on this position is: Essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity. They say that some doctrines are more important than others—those are primary or fundamental—and those are the ones that are worth separating from another person or institution. This is the means by which we maintain unity between believers. In order to get along, we have to reduce the teachings or issues over which we will separate to a manageable number.
My position is that every doctrine in Scripture is essential. We don’t have one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable. The non-essential doctrines are those that are non-scriptural. Non-biblical issues are not a basis of separation. Anything that God did say in His Word is primary and fundamental. We aren’t taught in the Bible anywhere this essential and non-essential, primary and secondary or tertiary doctrine. We are not given liberty in the Bible to disobey God or to believe differently than what Scripture says.
Phil Johnson gives five scriptural reasons in his online series on this subject, but he admits:
It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture.
He says the teaching is implicit. And yet, it is a major teaching for evangelicals and many fundamentalists. These are the same men who often chafe at dogma arrived from implications. And this is major dogma with them. In my five part series linked above, I cover several of his arguments by implication.
I’ve found in person that the main arguments for the essential/non-essential teaching are experiential. The typical attack is rhetorical, something like this: “So you’re saying that baptism is as important as salvation in Scripture?” Or, “So you think that Jephthah’s daughter and the sons of god in Genesis 6 are as important as the doctrine of justification?” If you say yes to either of these questions, then they say something like: “That’s just crazy!” Or, “You gotta be kiddin me (laughter)!” The indifferentist crosses his arms with smug satisfaction. With those questions, he has just won this debate. If you won’t separate over every teaching of Scripture, then you may as well fellowship with everyone no matter what their beliefs.
Once I started looking into this issue again in preparation for this series, I read some that saw it like I did. Leland M. Haines, albeit a Mennonite, here writes an article that I believe reflects a biblical view. He concludes: “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”
As we look at Scripture, do we see God take the same attitude as us about all of his teachings? Do we take the same attitude when the restaurant missed our special order? “I said no onions on my Whopper!” Our position should reflect the will of God as revealed in His Word. We don’t have liberty to cobble together a new doctrine based upon our struggles to get along with one another.
You will find men discuss this topic in history. Herman Witsius, 17th century Puritan, discusses it from pp. 16-33 in his Sacred Dissertations: On What Is Commonly Called the Apostles Creed. He barely refers to Scripture to make His point, but this issue was being discussed. John MacArthur’s three part series (linked above) essentially uses the outline of Witsius from these pages, except MacArthur attaches verses to what Witsius wrote. This article says that Wesley took some type of this essential/non-essential position. Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, in volume 1 deals with what is fundamental and non-fundamental under his fourteenth question, which is “Are some theological topics fundamental, others not; and how can they be mutually distinguished?” Turretin uses 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Philippians 3:15 as his basis and that’s it. You will be hard-pressed to find any kind of ranking of doctrines in those two texts. Tell-tale is Turretin’s opinion of the Lutheran view of doctrinal taxonomy: “the more strict Lutherans who extend fundamentals more widely than is just.” In this we see the peril of taking scripture and reducing it to what we think is important—people who have a longer list of important doctrines than us are considered “too strict.”
Spurgeon, on the other hand, with his vast library and encyclopedic knowledge of theology did not approve of dividing doctrines into essentials and non-essentials. He talked about this on many different occasions and showed a severe dislike for this practice. Alexander Young wrote against this doctrinal division in 1852, James Carlile in 1823, and J. S. Thompson in 1890. In 1887 Thomas Armitage in The History of the Baptists wrote (p. 680): “But their folly is more apparent still when we find them drawing a distinction between essential and non-essential Christian doctrines.” In 1878 The True Covenanter did an article against the division of doctrine as such.
The Bible is historical and I believe that ranking doctrines did start in Bible times. We read about it in Scripture. It began with the unconverted religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes. It was normal for them to reduce the commands of God to a number they could keep on their own. They wanted to involve Jesus in this practice when they asked Him in Matthew 22:36, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Like Jesus would do many times, He played along with this little game when He answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Of course Jesus wasn’t saying that ranking God’s commands was acceptable. He knew that all of the other commandments could be wrapped up into this one. He also recognized that this was one that the religious leaders were violating.
The religious leaders in Israel didn’t have a supernatural religion. In their sinful flesh, they were powerless to keep the many commands that God had given. This weighed upon them a heavy burden. Since they couldn’t keep them all, they chose to minimize them to a manageable number. They even started reducing the number to just the one really important one. That’s what we see happening today with ranking doctrines as well. We choose what we think is important and then we fellowship based on that smaller number of divine instructions based on our own convenience. Then we call it unity.
Why a New Popularity?
Ranking doctrines occurs for two reasons: a perversion of the nature of the church and a misunderstanding of the doctrine of unity. The latter is related to the former. Since men think that the church is all believers, they assume they must unify with all believers based on what the Bible teaches about unity. They have found that there is no way that they can get along with everyone else if every teaching of Scripture is the basis of fellowship. There is too much doctrinal disagreement, so they choose to get along based upon what they call the “essentials.” If someone violates one of the essentials, then they have a reason for separation. Until then, they’ve got to maintain a unity that is based upon a few doctrines or just one.
This practice has been around for years in Roman Catholicism. Men may not have believed Roman Catholic doctrine, but the belief in Catholicism itself trumped all other doctrines. Remaining in the Catholic “Church” was necessary for eternal life. Excommunication from the denomination meant condemnation. Roman Catholicism was held together by a few basic teachings that all Catholics agreed upon in order to stay together and to remain in the church.
I believe the new popularity of ranking doctrines comes mainly as a response to the mainstream culture. We live in a new era of tolerance. Not getting along is not acceptable and those most at fault are the ones with the higher and more plenteous standards. The church has mirrored that trend. It doesn’t look good squabbling over doctrinal differences. The new unifying doctrine is unity itself.
Another factor is the world’s view of success. To be successful you need to be in a large group. It brings credibility and safety. When you are outside of the group, you lose the comfort of social status. God said that it wasn’t good that man was alone. God created us with the desire for relationships. Like anything good that He created, the ruination of the curse twists it into something perverse. You won’t be considered a success unless you have a lot of friends. The new facebook craze is testimony to the seduction of popularity. The only criteria for friendship is the click on one internet link. You’re now friends…because you want to be. Doctrine and practice doesn’t have to mess that up at all. It’s nice to feel wanted.
Monetary factors exist. You can’t sell books without a more universal acceptance. You won’t have the pool of speaking invitations unless those opportunities are kept open. You might not get a job at a parachurch organization that is more broad than what you are. Being narrow is the deal-breaker. If you have your own conference, you won’t have people coming if you are so narrow that few will feel comfortable. The threat of shunning exists. The way to alleviate that is to have very little worthy of ejection from the group. If they come, they’ll help pay for your conference.
If you are dispensational and premillennial like I am, then you believe a one world church is in the future. How is that going to happen? Religious people will forego their doctrines and scruples to get together based on one common belief. I would expect a trend toward that as we get closer to the end. It’s Satanic influence headed toward what we see prophecied in Revelation. Before the all out unity in the tribulation period, the world will be rid of all those that have been causing division—the people that believe and practice the Bible.
But Does Ranking Doctrines Please God?
When you rank doctrines, you are going to let a few teachings go like so many loose tomatoes in the back of a pick-up truck. The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him. In essence, God is left out of this discussion. It centers on man. Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God. God is loved by keeping His commandments, words, and sayings (John 14:15, 21, 23). We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between. If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important. All of it needs to be followed. We don’t have liberty to sin (Romans 6:1). Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him.