Bad Church Ideas That Produce Bad Political Consequences

EndTimesBy P. Andrew Sandlin

(Reprinted with permission)

You may have heard the saying, “Ideas have consequences.” That’s actually a famous book title from a political conservative just after World War II.[1] And it’s true. Ideas do have consequences. And bad ideas have bad consequences. This is just as true in culture and politics as anywhere else. If you look at the cultural and political evils that surround us today (abortion, same-sex “marriage,” Obamacare, gun confiscation laws, judicial tyranny), at their source are bad ideas. It’s hard to get rid of the bad politics without getting rid of the bad ideas that feed them and give them sustenance.

But the bad ideas I want to address right now aren’t so much bad ideas in the culture and in politics. I want to talk about bad ideas in the church that allow these bad ideas in the culture to flourish.

Many of us are conflicted today. We’re political conservatives. We believe in limited government, the dignity of human life, the traditional family. We believe in what’s called “civil society”: the church and family and other “private” institutions are buffers that protect the individual from, and are competitors to, the state. We believe in Christian virtues: love, faith, hope, honesty, sacrifice, hard work, personal responsibility, We believe that God’s moral law binds everyone, Christian and non-Christian.[2]

But we’re more: many of us are activists. Our country is dangerously adrift — a monster federal government, erosion of states’ rights, abortion, pornography, gay “marriage,” euthanasia, Obamacare, increased gun control laws — and we are committed to doing something about it. We embrace conservative ideas, but those ideas lead us to action: perhaps staging get-out-the-vote programs, trying to elect Christian and conservative candidates, influencing legislation for conservative principles. We’re aggressive.

This is just where a conflict rises. As Christians, we’re church people. We must believe in and belong to the church. But many of our churches are not comfortable with our conservative political action as Christians. Some alleged Bible-believing churches aren’t even politically conservative. Even churches that are politically conservative look down on political activism — what we’re committing part of our life to. They practice what I’d like to call “separation of church and politics.”

The pastor may mention conservative issues, but political action isn’t seen as part of a Christian calling. Maybe it isn’t even Christian at all. Maybe it’s just like picking up groceries or attending the football game. It’s OK, but it’s not especially Christian. It’s just something we choose to do. And we’re tempted to think: “I can’t be a good Christian and an active conservative” or, “I must leave my politics at the church door, or leave my Christianity inside the church.” This is the conflict that we feel.

I’d like persuade you today: there is no actual conflict. You can be a political activist and good Christian at the same time. I’ll be even bolder: you cannot be a good Christian unless you’re zealously conservative.

Today I’ll refute three popular but bad ideas in the church. You can be more confident, not just as conservatives … but as politically active Christian conservatives.

Pietism

By pietism I don’t mean piety. What is piety? It’s “the quality of being reverent.” It’s worshiping the Triune God, loving, honoring him, trusting in his Son Jesus Christ. It’s a heart right with, and riveted to, God. We need more piety.

In addition, by pietism, I don’t mean the 17th – 18th century movement reacting against the cold, hard, sterile orthodoxy of scholastic Protestantism.[3] That was a good movement, and it restored an emphasis on warm piety and love for Jesus Christ.

I mean pietism in a more recent, limited sense. The distinctive of this pietism is that it limits the Christian life to private devotion or the church (Bible reading, personal evangelism, end times conferences, “quiet time,” personal taboos). It’s mostly vertical religion.

Pietistic thinking goes like this: “God doesn’t care about politics (or education, art, medicine, technology, economics, music, movies). He cares about my private relation to him.”

Pietistic churches think this way: “You’ve done your Christian duty when you pray, attend church, read your Bible, and volunteer for VBS.”

Pietistic pastors preach: “Political action distracts and detracts from true Christianity. Real Christianity in the church is about a bigger gymnasium, a larger AWANA program, and more beautiful robes.”

Pietism reduces Christianity to a “personal worship hobby.”[4]

The big problem with pietism is that it undercuts Jesus Christ’s Lordship. We all know the simple saying: Jesus Is Lord. Actually, did you know that this was the earliest creed of the Christian church? Long before the Apostles Creed, there was this simple creed: Jesus is Lord, and Lord = Master.[5]

Question: What is Jesus Lord of? I think we’d answer, he’s Lord of everything. Next question: Is politics part of everything? Yes. Then by simple logic, Jesus is Lord of politics, and this is just what the Bible teaches.

The Lord instructed us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10). On earth, not just in the family and church — but everywhere.

Another question: how is Jesus’ will done in heaven? It’s done perfectly. The angels and saints obey him without sin. That’s just what we need to pray for this earth. And this must mean everything, not just our private time and Sunday worship, not just the house and the church house but also the state house and the schoolhouse and the White House.

And then we read Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in Matthew 28:18, the so-called Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And then he commands his followers to disciple the nations, not just individuals, but nations. He means to bring all nations, political units, under his authority.[6]

God the Father gave Jesus the authority to bring all nations under his rule, and he charged us to preach the Gospel and baptize and instruct the nations to do just that.

Therefore, pietism dilutes Jesus’ Lordship. It wants to say to Jesus: “You can be Lord here, but not there. You can be Lord of the church house, but not the state house.” This is a denial of the full Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Pietism leads to strange bedfellows. Secularists say, “Christianity should stay private.” Pietists respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Christians should stay out of politics.” Pietists respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “God’s Word has nothing to say to our society.” Pietists respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Unbelievers should be calling all of the shots in society and culture.” Pietists respond, “We agree.” Secularists say, “Christianity is a ‘private worship hobby.’” Pietists respond, “We agree.”

I think it’s about time we Christians quit agreeing with the secularists.

Pietism surrenders culture to Satan: it’s a sub-Christian idea, and it’s dangerous.

Apocalypticism

Apocalypticism is end-is-near thinking that inspires cultural sit-on-your-duff Christianity, except for pietistic soul-saving: “The world is getting worse and worse; so it’s a waste of time to change things.” As D. L. Moody once said, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel…. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.”[7] It’s the idea that since the Bible teaches that the world must get worse and worse (the Bible doesn’t actually teach this[8]), it’s futile to try to change things. God has predestined evil to triumph, so why stand in his way?

Now, there are many different views of eschatology (views of the future). Sincere, Bible-believing people hold different eschatologies.[9] We can agree to disagree. However, I don’t care what your eschatology is, apocalypticism is wrong. We read in Acts 1:6–8 … “So when [the disciples] had come together, they asked [Jesus], ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

Jesus is saying, “You don’t need to know the ‘end times.’ You need to take the message of salvation of my Gospel Lordship (that includes politics) everywhere.” [10]

Similarly, we read in Luke 19:13 that Jesus in a parable said to his followers: “‘Engage in business until I come.’” In short, be busy in my kingdom work. Don’t sit around and wait for the Second Coming or “rapture.”

Twenty years ago in Ohio I was preaching to pastors on this topic. I was lamenting abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and socialism. I was exhorting these pastors in their calling to stand up and oppose these evils.

Afterward a pastor accosted me and said: “Yes, all the abortion, porn, homosexuality, and socialism are bad, but really in the end they’re good, since they mean Jesus coming soon.”

If that idea sounds perverted, it’s because it is.

The churches obsessed with “end times” (conferences, books) while Planned Parenthood crushes and sells baby parts, and the U.S. Supreme Court allows sodomites to marry, are dangerously misguided. They’re selling us into cultural slavery.

Apocalypticism, like pietism, is an evil idea.

Retreatism

Recently a leader in the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention declared, “We’ve lost culture wars.”[11] His view is: Let’s just witness; we must be careful about pushing for a Christian America, turning people off. We need to change our strategy.[12]

And churches line up to retreat — they stay out of politics, quit praying outside abortion clinics, pull back from pressing for godly candidates and legislation.

Christian leaders say: “We live in a time when the church is in the wilderness, in exile. Let’s hide out from the Devil. Admit it. We’ve lost. Let’s regroup and wait for a more culturally hospitable time.”[13]

This is pure poppycock. Canaan was devilishly depraved when God told the Jews to take it for his name (Gen. 15:16).[14]

The Roman Empire was a moral sewer when our Lord gave his world-conquering commission to his disciples. He didn’t say, “There’s no way we can win this thing, fellas, so let’s retreat until we can plan a counterattack.” The early Christians took the Gospel to the known world, and in less than 300 years the Roman Empire was forced to become Christian. Why? Because our forebears refused to retreat during culturally depraved times like ours.

Some Christians seem to believe that if they just avoid confronting the Devil in the culture, he’ll leave them alone in their churches and families. This is a dangerous illusion. You might hide out from the Devil, but the Devil won’t hide out from you. If you retreat from him in public and politics, he’ll hunt you down in the privacy of your own home.

Then behind retreatism is the additional idea that world belongs to Devil: “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through,” so goes an old gospel song. “Why should we stand for truth in our world since it doesn’t belong to us or Jesus, but to the Devil?”

Have you ever read that in Bible? No.

You did read in 1 Corinthians 10:26, “For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’”

This is God’s world; he created it; he sustains it. He designed it to operate by his truth.

God allows man freedom, so there’s a great battle between good and evil. But if we give up the battle for this world, we are traitors to the King; it’s not our world, it’s his world.

Retreatism is treason; it surrenders God’s world to his enemies.

Conclusion

Pietism, apocalypticism, retreatism — these are bad church ideas that produce bad political consequences. And if you want to know one reason the culture is so depraved today, it’s because the church has bought stock in these ideas, and this creates the conflict in the minds of hearts of politically active Christian conservatives.

But you should not feel a conflict, because there is no conflict between true Christianity and conservative political activism. In fact, if we do not stand for what we today call basic conservative principles, we are not standing for biblical Christianity, because those principles reflect biblical truth.[15]

The call for retreat from political battle for Christ the King is a sub-Christian message.

In the early 40’s amid euphoria of the rescue of thousands of British troops from the German army at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned: “Wars are not won by evacuations…. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Wars are not won by evacuations. Wars are won by soldiers who stand and fight.

That is our rallying cry for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And we can expect nothing short of complete victory — the unconditional surrender of Satan and his hosts by the power of Jesus Christ.


[1] Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 1948).
[2] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 6:442–446.
[3] Dale Brown, Understanding Pietism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).
[4] Stephen C. Perks, The Great Decommision (Taunton, England: Kuyper Foundation, 2011), 12.
[5] Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), 23.
[6] Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954), chs. 15, 33.
[7] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 38.
[8] John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).
[9] Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).
[10] John M. Frame, Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ, 2014), 32–33.
[11] Leonardo Blair, “‘The Bible Belt Is Collapsing’; Christians Have Lost Culture War, Says ERLC President Russell Moore,” http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-bible-belt-is-collapsing-christians-have-lost-culture-war-says-erlc-president-russell-moore-102576/, accessed October 12, 2015.
[12] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Moore at the Margins,” Christianity Today, September 2015, 32–33.
[13] See John Yemma, “To Separate, Strengthen and Return,” The Christian Science Monitor Weekly, October 12, 2015, 7.
[14] Of course, the Jews as God’s unique nation were called to fight with physical, military arms. Our arms are not physical, military arms but are no less powerful (Eph. 6:10–20).
[15] John M. Frame, Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. 1, 231–234.

http://docsandlin.com/2015/11/20/bad-church-ideas-that-produce-bad-political-consequences/

Aren’t All Christians Supposed to Be ‘Reconstructionists’?

CorneliusVanTilThis past week there has been some discussion about Van Til and his worldview and whether it was more in line with Christian Reconstructionism and theonomy than previously thought, or (more to the point) whether his privately held views were a true reflection of his stated positions of amillennialism and an apolitical Christianity.

Joel McDurmon talks about this in his two articles:

Cornelius Van Til’s ‘Spirit of Reconstruction’

When Van Til Got Crazy Political

‘Spirit of Van Tillianism”

Lots of Reformed Christians consider themselves spiritual heirs of Van Til.  The Reformed world and evangelical Christianity owe him an enormous debt for his path-breaking work that established the philosophical framework for what would later become “presuppositional apologetics.”

Likewise, the philosophical and exegetical framework for Christian Reconstruction would never have gotten off the ground without his pioneering efforts.

So, why is it that Reformed Christians who embrace the philosophical and epistemological views of Van Til are loathe to embrace similarly held views when they are expressed by Christian Reconstructionists?

By Which Double Standard?

At their core, are they really that much different?  In their expression, yes, perhaps.  But not in their presuppositions.

Christian Reconstruction as espoused and promulgated by Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen, Chilton, et al., was a radical departure from conventional Christian thought — even Reformed Christian thought — at the time (mid-1960s).  But it was based squarely on the philosophical foundations of Van Til.

To paraphrase the old adage from the Reformation:

Rushdoony and North hatched the egg that Van Til laid.

The Greatness of the Great Commission

The title of Dr. Kenneth Gentry’s excellent book leads us to the larger issue at hand, and really puts our mandate as believers and followers of Christ into perspective: our commission as the body of Christ in the world is to take the Gospel to all peoples and all nations and to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded.

Modern evangelical Christians until the 1980s have sought to keep this a personal, private, home-based matter.  Fundamentalism institutionalized the thinking: “Save souls, not cultures!”  That is beginning to change.

But “making disciples” doesn’t simply mean making more church-goers and Bible-readers.

It means a Holy-Spirit-caused radical transformation that begins at the bottom and works its way up.  It starts out individually, privately, but it ends up collectively, publicly.  Transformed lives leading to transformed families.  Transformed families leading to transformed communities and transformed societies.  Then, transformed cultures, transformed nations and, ultimately, a transformed world.

Isn’t this what we are supposed to be striving for and praying for (“thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”) (“Go ye into all the world…”)?  Should that not be the earnest desire of our Christ-loving, Holy-Spirit-converted hearts for our fallen race, a humanity comprised of many of our fellow sinners yet-to-be-saved by grace?

You would think so.

Theonomy and Reconstruction: A Reformed Response

R. C. Sproul, Jr. has weighed in on this topic of Christian Reconstruction vs. biblical Reformation and the Great Commission before:

Let’s begin with what we all ought to agree on- that discipling the nations and teaching them to obey whatsoever Christ commanded should include some understanding of the Lordship of Christ over the cultural and political spheres. Jesus is bringing every enemy under captivity, causing every knee to bow, including the knees of princes, judges and kings who will not kiss Him, who will not acknowledge Him as Lord.

No argument there.  He then asks:

So how do we make known the reign of Christ over all things? We begin by bringing our own sinful natures under submission.

No argument there. That is where all true ‘reconstruction’ must begin.

He concludes with this:

What we are called to is neither to huddle in the corner because Jesus is coming back tomorrow, nor to hang out in back rooms cutting deals to hurry His return. Instead we ought to be about our own callings, raising up godly seed, voting for and supporting honest and honorable candidates that submit to the Lordship of Christ. Is this reconstruction, or is this faithful stewardship of our time? Is this reconstruction, or is this seeking first the kingdom of God? Is this reconstruction, or is this making visible the invisible reign of Christ over all things? In the end, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. We are to obey Christ, to train up our children to do the same. This is loving your neighbor and this will change the world. (emphasis added)

Amen, brother.

Nine days after posting that, he reposted another article that had been published two years prior, which was even more amicable to Christian Reconstruction.  It ended with this kind word of solidarity:

Theonomists, like the rest of us, long to see justice in the political realm. They long to see the nations discipled. They long to see the kingdom made manifest. They long to see every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Who, within His kingdom, could ever argue with that?

Who, indeed?

Sproul 2.0 (“Did I Really Say That?”)

More recently, however, Sproul seems to have lost his spirit of solidarity with theonomists and reconstructionists in a podcast and an accompanying article.

It is chock-full of back-handed compliments, like these:

These good folks have the wisdom to not be embarrassed by the Law of God. Every time somebody tries to discredit the Bible stance on sodomy, based on its stance on slavery, unlike the rest of the Christians, these guys don’t blush. They’re perfectly comfortable with slavery because they aren’t slaves to popular opinion. This movement, sometimes called Theonomy, sometimes called Reconstructionism, is the stuff of nightmares to the liberal left. These guys are well-educated, articulate, and medieval.

I see.  Well-educated, articulate, and medieval.

No matter.  What Sproul said in his previous two articles stands as sufficient testimony to the general agreement that exists between what “Christian Reconstructionists” want for the world and what other Bible-believing Christians want.

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”  A redeemed and reformed world.  If not for ourselves, at least for our children and their children and their childrens’ children.

“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”  Later!  (After Jesus comes back bodily to fulfill the responsibilities of His church–right after we are air-lifted out of the global mess we left behind!)

This is where premillennialists and postmillennialists part company.

They’re looking for the lifeboats.  We’re building a whole new shipping company!

But Sproul sounds far more in congruence with the latter group in his eschatology than the former.  For that we are grateful.

This, friends, is the very progress of history, the making of God’s enemies into his footstool. And this is the very trajectory of history. Here we are told, not that things must get really bad before He comes again, but that they must get really good. He is now at the right hand of the Father, there He will stay until all His enemies are defeated. I confess that I don’t know exactly what this will look like, it won’t mean that everyone on the planet will serve Christ. It won’t mean that there will be no more sin and no more death. That will await his final return. But it does mean this, that every pretender to the throne of Christ will be brought low.

At least he is laboring — grudgingly alongside his theonomist provocateurs — toward the same worthy goal.

Is Biblical Christianity ‘Reconstructionist’?

Let’s take the familiar critics’ question and turn it around.

It is a fair question: “Is Christian Reconstruction ‘Biblical’?”

So we ask the converse of it: “Is Biblical Christianity ‘Reconstructionist’?”

An equally fair question.

Let’s wrap up this article by asking and answering it.

Does biblical Christianity see history as the progress of Christ’s kingdom on earth advancing before He returns? In other words, is it optimistic about the future before His Second Advent?

Do fish swim?

Does biblical Christianity see all of Scripture as self-authenticating and the inviolable basis for presupposing that ALL of its utterances and pronouncements are true, and that it is the authoritative rule and standard over ALL of life and ALL people and places at ALL times, by which ALL things are judged?

Do birds have feathers?

Does biblical Christianity see the Gospel as a comprehensive message of salvation to be preached to ALL the world, so that MANY souls (collectively and individually) may be saved and many cultures redeemed, to the glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Do cows give milk?

Is biblical Christianity a faith that is intended to affect everything in our lives and in our world, for good and for God’s glory?

Are these questions obviously rhetorical (and the answers self-evident)?

Yes!

An Informed Response

So, the next time somebody asks you, “Is Christian Reconstruction ‘biblical’?”, or they tell you that it isn’t biblical, ask them if they know what reconstructionists really want.

Tell them they want the same thing that all Bible-believing Christians around the world want.

A world won for Christ, the redemption of Adam’s fallen race, and the coming (and growth and advancement and ultimate victory) of His Kingdom!

David Chilton on ‘Piety and Christian Reconstruction’

George WhitefieldWe are clearly on a “David Chilton” kick this month.  So let’s just go with it.

I recently came across another of his fine newsletter issues from The Biblical Educator, published by ICE in the early 80s.  This one, from June 1981, was in response to a letter he received from a pastor who took umbrage at some of the things he said in a book review he had written with regard to the 18th-century Calvinist evangelist George Whitefield.

Chilton took the occasion of this pastor’s letter to clarify–not just for the sake of answering one individual’s concerns, but to convey to a broader audience a more accurate, biblical understanding of the difference between Christian piety and the unscriptural theology of pietism.

This one was worth rescuing from the obscurity of obsolescence. Because the scanned image of the original newsletter is so riddled with errors (primitive 1990’s OCR scanning technology!), it required painstakingly retyping and correcting all of the original content of this particular issue, and reformatting it from top to bottom so as to be able to republish it here.  Very much worth the effort, though!

This article offers marvelous insight into the mind of Pastor Chilton.  He had a knack for addressing what he saw as unbiblical tendencies in someone’s theology, answering them directly and candidly with a unique mixture of warmth, humor, Christian charity, exegetical honesty and frankness, undergirded by his signature brand of biblical scholarship.

(If you want to see a previous example of this, read here: Reconstructionist Blast from the Past: David Chilton on Covenant Theology.)

Be forewarned, this is a VERY long article.  Not for a printed newsletter, mind you–but for an online blog post!   Nonetheless, I encourage you to take the time to read it through.

Here, let me give you just a few tasty nuggets to whet your appetite:

Christian piety, if it means anything at all, is godly living in every aspect of thought and activity.  It is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, to be “careful of the duties owed by created beings to God…”  Piety, therefore, must be radically distinguished from its counterfeit in pietism–which centers on rapturous emotional experiences and “devotional exercises,” while steadfastly refusing to apply God’s word to God’s world.

And this, on the “centrality of the Gospel”:

Once a man has been converted, what then? The gospel has changed him from death to life: he is now supposed to live.  He must discover God’s standards for his living in every area–in his family, his work, his everyday activity.  Shall we then accuse him of departing from the centrality of the gospel? No! It is the gospel that has made the difference! He is applying God’s standards to his life just because the gospel is central.

 One more, on “salvation and the cultural mandate”:
Reconstructionists should be corrected when they fail to apply the Scriptures to the issues of life. But they cannot be faulted for seeking to apply the Scriptures to the issues in the first place. Dominion under Christ is not a departure from the gospel. It is the point of the gospel. To claim “the centrality of the gospel” must eventually lead to the bold question: “Central to what?”

There, that should be enough of a “trailer” for you!  To enjoy more of Chilton’s pithy style of biblical (and historical) exposition, here is the article in its entirety:

************************************************************

THE BIBLICAL EDUCATOR

“To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding” Prov. 1:2

vol. III, No. 6 June 1981

© Institute for Christian Economics, 1981

PIETY AND CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTION

By David H. Chilton

Some time ago, I wrote a review of Arnold Dallimore’s definitive biography of George Whitefield. In the course of the article, I criticized some of Whitefield’s actions and viewpoints (particularly regarding marriage), while also affirming my respect for the tremendous evangelistic labors and achievements of the man. I mentioned that his errors stemmed from his unconscious acceptance of Neoplatonism–the idea that the “spiritual’ (i.e., non-physical, internal) aspect of life is superior to the more physical aspects. There is, of course, a measure of truth in this–regeneration begins on the inside, etc.–but the Neoplatonic perspective implicitly denies the biblical facts that man is a unit, and that God is concerned with the whole of our being and with all of life. Neoplatonism leads to a spiritual contempt for God’s material creation and for the laws God has ordained in such areas as government and economics. Without trying to discredit Whitefield’s ministry, I did draw several observations about the deleterious aspects of his views for the church as a whole.

I was not exactly deluged with mail. A journalistic rule of thumb is that for every person who writes a letter to the editor, there are about a thousand who feel the same way. The letter expressing the feelings of those thousand people came from H. Carl Shank, Assistant Pastor of Grace Church (Vienna, VA). He disagrees with me on certain points, but he is writing as a friend.  His entire letter (in italics) and my response are below. I considered the issue important enough to devote a great deal of space to it, even though its relevance to Christian schools is only indirect. I hope this exchange will encourage other spokesmen for the other thousands to let me know what you all think.

A LETTER TO THE EDITOR

“As a Reformed pastor and Christian school teacher I can readily appreciate your desire for Christian reconstruction by Scriptural reformation.  However, as in most of the issues published by ICE (and affiliates), there has been a dismaying trend toward the downplaying of Christian piety and the ever-present need of the centrality of the gospel message to radically change sinners. Such a trend appeared evident to me in your review of Daltimore’s book.

“I too have certain grievances with the Banner of Truth style of writing, especially in Iain Murray’s historically narrow selectivity of articles for the magazine.  I too favor a thorough re-evaluation of the philosophical presuppositions and tenets under which the puritans and others, like Whitefield, operated.  I too agree that man’s purpose is “godly dominion.” Indeed, biblical salvation is not a catch-phrase for the type of Arminian, decisionistic preaching that wearies me and greatly distresses me.

“However, I am not so certain that rigorous biblical exegesis of the terms kingdom, salvation, covenantal, etc. would yield your thesis, which is shared by all Chalcedon writers. That thesis tells us that salvation is a mere pretext for the important function of man, namely the fulfillment of physical, earthly and civil rule under God over the earth. In other words, salvation according to Chalcedonian tenets seems to be the forerunner and means to the fulfillment of the Genesis cultural mandate.  I certainly hold to the abiding validity of the cultural mandate of Genesis, but “Christ and Him crucified” is in fact the central theme of Scripture and the central need of mankind.  Most definitely I deny a totally “individualistic, internal and immaterial” cast to the salvation theology of the Bible. Yet that aspect is certainly there.  Moreover, people are still brought into the kingdom one by one as God works individual new birth in the internal recesses of a person’s being, post-fall mankind will never return to an Edenic state, at least not on the earth as we know it presently.  Indeed, our home is “in Him” because our inheritance with Christ our Lord is there.  Our concern is eternal life that begins now and will be consummated at Christ’s return.  Our desire should be to Know Christ, as Paul desired to know Him (Phil. 3).

“To criticize Whitefield’s idea of marriage may be to the point, but for him in his God-assigned kingdom work, perhaps a marriage partner on earth would have rivaled an intensity of devotion for God’s glory and for the spread of the gospel that few of us possess today.  You decry Whitefield’s “pietism” or his “mysticism,” calling it Neoplatonism.  Perhaps that is philosophically correct.  However, it seems to me that Whitefield’s desires mirrored exactly the desire Paul expressed: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). No matter how that is exegeted, it always comes up saying in Chalcedonian terms that Paul is a neoplatonist, a mystic, who desires spirituality in terms of transcending our creaturely limitations.  Indeed, Paul knew and taught a theology of serving God in every sphere of life.  But he knew a far deeper theological truth–he was a pilgrim and stranger to this earth.  This terrain was not to be his abiding possession, even if ruled by thoroughly Christian men with thoroughly Scriptural reformation principles.  Paul had learned a lesson on “wilderness theology,” a lesson the Israelites did not learn thoroughly enough.

“This naturally involves us in dealing with the issue of Christian piety.  Piety is not a nasty word. It does not have to assume or imply a theology or life devoid of sophisticated, intellectual and reformational study of creation and the Scriptures.  It does not deny the cultural mandate.  It can be properly taught and profitably exercised.  From my study, it seems that the pursuit of biblical piety was central to the Puritans and to Calvin.  One can scorn their “heavenly language,” but for the most part they knew God through Christ in His word in a way and depth we have yet to discover.  ICE (and its affiliates) talks a lot about Christian reconstruction and Scriptural reformation.  The Puritans and their spiritual sons, like Whitefield, engaged in the business of reconstruciton and reformation through hours of fervent prayer, intense supplication for the souls of eternally dying men.  They preached unflinchingly and faithfully the riches of the gospel and applied it to where people lived, worked and taught.  They knew God–and what reforms society underwent from their century onwards largely came from the seeds sown with the tears (and sometimes sealed with the blood) of our Puritan forefathers.  Can any of you–any of us–lay claim to such infiltration of life as the “pietistical” Puritans and their followers in the faith had?

“Such a challenge can be dismissed, but it really cannot be ignored.  I truly and sincerely hope you re-examine some of the issues mired and implied in your review.  Again, I am thankful for helpful clarification and analyses of issues relating to the kingdom of Christ.

“Yours in His service, H. Carl Shank”

EDITOR’S RESPONSE

I do not have the room to answer every line of Mr. Shank’s argument, but I believe the following will be a substantial response. I have divided his argument into the following areas: (1) the nature of Christian piety; (2) the centrality of the gospel; (3) salvation and its relationship to the cultural mandate; (4) Whitefield’s attitude toward marriage; (5) the question of Paul’s “neoplatonism”; and (6) the piety of the Puritans.  I aimed for his major points, and picked off a few stray minor ones as well; but I made no attempt to untangle every target. I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but if Mr. Shank can do it—I’ve heard of sowing seeds,  but sealing them?–so can I.  (And there goes the first minor point. I’ve tried not to be picky, but I just couldn’t resist that one. The rest of my disagreements are more substantial, so read on.)

CHRISTIAN PIETY

Two questions must be answered on this point: (1) What is the nature of true Christian piety? (2) Does the ICE really “downplay” its importance?

Christian piety, if it means anything at all, is godly living in every aspect of thought and activity.  It is, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, to be “careful of the duties owed by created beings to God…”  Piety, therefore, must be radically distinguished from its counterfeit in pietism–which centers on rapturous emotional experiences and “devotional exercises,” while steadfastly refusing to apply God’s word to God’s world. For example, Israel and Judah in the eighth century B.C. were often pietistic, with much seemingly devotional activity going on, but they were in fact godless. The prophets, speaking for God, denounced such false religion, often using strong and offensive language: “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from Me the noise of your songs…” (Amos 5:21-23); “Bring your worthless offerings no longer, their incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies–I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly” (Isa. 1:13). There was nothing wrong with these acts of worship as such, for they had been appointed by God. But while the people were doing all these things, they were also neglecting to obey God’s word in all of life; and this neglect turned all their vaunted piety into blasphemous hypocrisy.

pietistsPietism takes many forms. In our day the most obvious is that which is simply a cowardly retreat in the face of opposition: the pietist is too busy with devotional exercises to get involved in working for God’s glory. There is certainly a proper place for devotional exercises; but, after all, the basic reason for any exercise at all is to enable one to live a healthier and more hard-working life.  The egotistical parlor-athlete whose entire existence is spent flexing and primping in front of gymnasium mirrors is of no use to anyone–for him, “exercise” is a means of avoiding the demands of real life. Jesus did not send the apostles into monasteries, but into the world, with the commission to disciple the nations. Our exercises are to make us strong for service.

Do reconstructionist writers downplay Christian piety? I don’t believe so, and I could quote extensively from Rushdoony, North, Bahnsen et al to document it. But since the occasion which prompted Mr. Shank to write was an article of mine, I will speak for myself. I do heartily believe in prayer, devotions, self-examination, adoration of Jesus Christ, cultivation of Christian graces and attitudes, and so on. I seek to lay a due stress on these things in my sermons. I admit that I don’t stress them in my articles, and there is a reason for this. In a limited space, articles for The Biblical Educator have an overall goal to teach teachers how to teach. Our primary purpose is not to teach teachers how to manage their personal devotions (although an article on this theme might be accepted). The same goes for the other ICE newsletters: they are written to deal with specific issues and problems that faithful Christians must face, after they’re done “exercising.” A fundamental thesis of the Reconstructionists is that piety is not for the prayer closet alone, but for all of life–that prayer-closet piety alone is not piety but pietism. But to say this is not to deny the need for a prayer closet. Piety, if it is genuine, will not be restricted to either internalism or externalism. The godly man will seek to honor God at every point of his existence. No area of life is exempt from our Lord’s demands. Thus, in dealing with these issues, the ICE newsletters are teaching “Christian piety,” for to neglect such matters is impious. The standard of piety is the law of God.

THE CENTRALITY OF THE GOSPEL

The GospelThe gospel of Jesus Christ is central to any genuine program of Christian reconstruction. The preaching of morality–even biblical morality–will not change hearts. Sinners are transformed only by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit through the message of the crucified and resurrected Savior. But that is only the beginning. Once a man has been converted, what then? The gospel has changed him from death to life: he is now supposed to live.  He must discover God’s standards for his living in every area–in his family, his work, his everyday activity.

Shall we then accuse him of departing from the centrality of the gospel? No! It is the gospel that has made the difference! He is applying God’s standards to his life just because the gospel is central.

For example: Let’s say you are teaching mathematics in a Christian school, and I interrupt your class with the accusation that you have not presented the plan of salvation-that you are wasting time with long division instead of justification by faith. You will answer: “If my students are going to grow up to be mature, faithful stewards of Jesus Christ, they need to learn how to balance their accounts. It is necessary for them to understand and believe the gospel. But the gospel must bear fruit in their lives. They must become responsible men and women, and that is the goal of my instruction.” And much the same would be said for any of the disciplines in a Christian school. To answer otherwise would be a mandate for closing down the schools altogether, and teaching “the gospel” alone. And even that would last for only one generation, since we will have to quit wasting time in phonics. Our children would grow up unable to read the Bible, and that would be the end of preaching the gospel. So much for its centrality.

The point is that the ICE newsletters are not evangelistic tracts, any more than a biology class is a revival meeting. The gospel is central and foundational to all that we do. But our publications are addressed, for the most part, to Christians engaged in the task of applying God’s standards to God’s world. We believe that the gospel must be integrated into all the disciplines–that the disciplines are, in fact, meaningless without the gospel. But that does not mean that preaching the gospel is a substitute for teaching the disciplines.

SALVATION AND THE CULTURAL MANDATE

I think I know what Mr. Shank has in mind when he says that our thesis holds salvation to be “a mere pretext’’—but a dictionary and a thesaurus would have helped. What he means to say is: Reconstructionists believe that conversion is the first step in the Christian life, and that it leads to the fulfillment of God’s original mandate to have dominion over the earth. And he is absolutely correct. (Especially now that I’ve corrected him. Of course, if he really did mean to say pretext, he’s theologically mistaken. But I prefer to regard it as a semantic error. If I’m wrong, then he’s more wrong than I think he is.)

Adam and Eve were created as.righteous, in the image of God. As such, they were given the task of ruling the creation under God. When they rebelled, they fell from this standing, and the image of God in man became marred, disfigured, twisted and broken. Godly dominion is impossible for all the unregenerate posterity of our first parents. But salvation in Christ changes all this. Justification restores a man to righteousness in the Last Adam. Regeneration makes us a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), and remakes us in the image of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). We now have the right standing with God first enjoyed by Adam-one from which there is no danger of falling. In Christ, God has permanently restored man to his original standing; and as the new humanity we are to return to our original task of dominion. Thus, conversion is not the end; it is the means—certainly, the indispensable means–to the end: fulfilling God’s plan for His creation. Conversion is the crucial first step, but that does not change the fact that it is still the first step. The goal has always been godly dominion.

Paradise Restored-PJRThe subject is much too vast to go into here (although I plan to deal with it extensively at another time), but it is extremely significant that the Bible uses a great amount of Edenic imagery to describe salvation: We are called the “new creation”; we are said to be remade in God’s image; we partake in salvation of the tree of life; God promises to return the earth to Eden-like conditions (cf. Isa. 11:1-9; 51:3; Ezek. 36:35); and so on. The point of all this language is to remind us of our calling, and to assure us that we will be able to fulfill it. Reconstructionists are not anti-evangelistic (I’m not, anyway); but we are saying that evangelism is not the goal. To declare that birth is not the goal of life is not to be anti-birth; it simply means that infancy is not the pinnacle of human achievement. Produce all the babies you want–the more, the better. But you had better concern yourself with feeding and training them as well, enabling them to grow into responsible maturity. Christians may not have been consistent in this, but it is–or should be–central to any program of Christian education. We are training our students to be good workers for the kingdom in every sphere of life.

This was one of the great insights of the Reformation: that every lawful activity can and must be pursued for the glory of God. A man may have a calling as a pipefitter as surely as another man may have a calling to preach. God is glorified in any work which develops His earth.  Janitor and statesman, judge and electrician, scientist and kindergarten teacher will alike stand before God at the Last Day to render an account of their service for Him. God does not call a man to be a plumber only in order that he may witness to unregenerates with overflowing toilets. The work, in and of itself, brings glory to God.

What about Paul’s desires “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified”? Taken too literally, of course, that means that it’s wrong even to speak of the resurrection! But Paul goes further than that. In the same letter (1 Corinthians), he discusses not only the crucifixion and the resurrection, but also the following: litigation, food, marriage, sex, wages, hair length, division of labor, tongues, hats, the place of women, biology, and care for the poor. He seems to have departed from the simple gospel–and in the very letter which began with his declaration that he would never do so! As we all know, of course, he never abandoned the centrality of the gospel at all. The meaning of his declaration is that the gospel is the presuppositional frame-work through which he examines these other issues. In Christ all things hold together (Col. 1:17), and all things must be seen in relation to Him. He is not arguing for a “know-nothing” Christianity. He is arguing for a know-everything Christianity, and declaring that it is impossible to know anything at all apart from the knowledge of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Our knowledge of Christ is certainly defective if we feel that an attempt to understand all areas of life in terms of Christ’s lordship is somehow a betrayal of the gospel. The gospel, rightly understood, requires such an attempt—and promises us continuous renewal to “true knowledge” according to the image of God (Col. 3:10): thus our attempts will be successful as we submit to Him. Reconstuctionists should be corrected when they fail to apply the Scriptures to the issues of life. But they cannot be faulted for seeking to apply the Scriptures to the issues in the first place. Dominion under Christ is not a departure from the gospel. It is the point of the gospel. To claim “the centrality of the gospel” must eventually lead to the bold question: “Central to what?” It seems odd that those who are trying to answer the question are accused of downplaying the centrality of the gospel!

WHITEFIELD’S ATTITUDE TOWARD MARRIAGE

Werther-coupleThe idea that marriage is, in general, a hindrance to a godly man is unbiblical: “it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2: 18). On the other hand, marriage may be a hindrance in a specific historical situation (the context of Paul’s discussion in I Cor. 7 is “the present distress,” v. 26). I trust we all are agreed so far.

Now, as far as Whitefield is concerned, the issue is simple. If he really felt that his circumstances  required celibacy, he should never have married.  Having married, his biblical duty was then to love his wife, and shut up about what he might have been without her. “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released” (I Cor. 7:27). In other words, choose a wife, or don’t; but don’t complain about your choice.

If, however, you choose not to marry, you can forget about becoming ordained, since having been married is a biblical qualification for the eldership (I Tim. 3:2 Tit. 1:6). If you’re too “spiritual” to be a husband, you’re too “spiritual” to be a church officer as well: God wants experienced household-managers only as His officers (I Tim. 3:4-5, 12). Now don’t get mad at me. I’m not the one who made the rules.

The historical fact is that on several counts (not only marriage), Whitefield was a Neoplatonist. He didn’t get it from the Bible. He got it from his university education in classical humanism (of course, seminary preparation is much different nowadays–it’s still humanism, but the classical variety is a little out of vogue; besides, Aristotle is too difficult for today’s graduate students, and “Christian Marxism” is lots more fun–oops! I mean sociologically relevant). No matter how much it hurts, we should be brave and face the hard, biblical truth: marriage is a blessing.  “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov. 18:22); and that should be compared to the passage in which Wisdom says,  “He who finds me find life, and obtains favor from the LORD” (Prov. 8:35). True, “a constant dripping on a day of steady rain and a contentious woman are alike” (Prov. 27:15); the answer is not celibacy, but marrying wisely. And anyway, the “constant dripping” wasn’t coming from Mrs. Whitefield.

WAS PAUL A NEOPLATONIST?

I am in something of a fog at this point (some of you may want to question the last three words of that statement). Mr. Shank admits that my characterization of Whitefield as a Neoplatonist may be “philosophically correct.” Yet he goes on to say that in this Whitefield “mirrored exactly”  Paul’s attitude. In charity, I’ve tried to construe that as another “semantic error,” but I can’t. I’ve examined it from every side, but no matter what I do, it still seems like a genuine error of substance. Let me be absolutely clear: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “Whitefield was a Neoplatonist” and “Whitefield agreed with Paul.” They can’t both be true.

Plato

Plato

Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Mr. Shank feels that, “no matter how that is exegeted,” it still means a Neoplatonic, mystical wish to transcend one’s creaturely limitations. Space doesn’t permit a full exegesis of the verse here, but I do think it can be exegeted without making Paul sound like a medieval flagellant. Take that word gain. I don’t think I would be twisting Scripture to insist that our very real “gain” at death (see 2 Cor. 5:8) will not include becoming gods ourselves. Death doesn’t deify. Agreed? Okay, then even after death, regardless of the benefits, we’ll still be creatures, right? Therefore, when Paul spoke of the gain to be received at death, he was not speaking of “transcending his creaturely limitations,” correct? Voila!  You have just read an exegesis which, incredibly enough, did not lead to Neoplatonic conclusions. (I didn’t do it with mirrors. It’s actualIy pretty easy. All you have to do is this: Don‘t start with Plato, and you won’t end up with him,)

In concluding this section, I must comment on Mr. Shank’s statement about “wilderness theology.” I don’t really know what he means by the term (in some circles, that may be a damning admission). But I do know this much: the basic idea in the wilderness was to get through it as soon as possible, and get on with the conquest. God didn’t want His people to stay  there, and their 40-year “wilderness experience was a judgment. It certainly wasn’t anything to be proud of. The Jews dropped dead learning their wilderness theology, and it was their children who learned “Promised-Land Theology.” They left the wilderness to the buzzards and mystics, and moved onto victory. I’m with them.

THE PIETY OF THE PURITANS

I agree (finally) that “the pursuit of biblical piety” was important to the Puritans. Circle the word biblical, and see the section headed “Christian Piety” above for my definitions. Moreover, I know of no reconstructionist writer who has ever scorned their heavenly language. There is nothing essentially wrong with talking about heaven. It is wrong only when it becomes a means of escaping from earth and the duties God has assigned to us here and now. The Puritan longing for heaven was biblical and realistic, and it was balanced with their deep sense of calling. As William Hailer wrote: “Men who have assurance that they are to inherit heaven have a way of presently taking possession of earth” (The Rise of Puritanism, [1938]  1972, p. 162). Their Anglican contemporaries talked about heaven also; but there was a significant difference, according to John F. H. New: “Anglicanism was a religion of aspiration, and Puritanism of perspiration” (Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of Their Opposition, 1558-1640,  1964, p. 104). The Puritans wanted heaven, but they wanted earth, too. They believed that all things were their inheritance in Christ (Rom. 8:32); they believed in an earthly victory for the people of God; and they went ahead and took possession.

Samuel_RutherfordConsider just one example (I could give many)–that of the great Scottish Puritan, Samuel Rutherford. He is known to many Christians through his oft-reprinted Letters (the most recent edition was published last year by Moody Press). Every page of this book reflects his all-encompassing devotion to Jesus Christ and his longing to be eternally in His presence. The intimacy of Rutherford’s expressions is almost embarassing–it’s like reading someone else’s love-notes. But Rutherford was no pietist. He wrote another work called Lex Rex (published last year by Sprinkle Publications)–sort of a 17th-century version of The Institutes of Biblical Law. In his day it was a political blockbuster, and he would certainly have been executed for writing it if he hadn’t died first. Charles II had to content himself with publicly burning the book.

My point is this: Considering the state of the present debate between the Pietists and the Reconstructionists, it seems incredible that the two books were authored by the same man. Many who like the Letters would think Lex Rex too “carnal”  and “worldly”; and (I fear) some who enjoy Rutherford’s politics would disdain to read his more “devotional” works. For my part, I wish the two groups would get together. Rutherford himself does not appear to have realized he was doing anything extraordinary. What looks to us like “two strains” m his thought was really one: all-out devotion to Jesus Christ in every area of life. When it was appropriate, he wrote poetry about his personal relationship to Jesus; and when it was appropriate, he exuberantly blasted royal absolutism and laid down the biblical principles for a just law-order. Do you see a dichotomy or inconsistency in this? I don’t, any more than I see one between Remans 8 and 13. It’s the same man writing in each case. More importantly, it’s the same Lord, who is over all.

Admittedly, reconstructionism can degenerate into an unbiblical externalism, just as the theonomic revival under Ezra became warped and turned into Pharisaism. But it doesn’t have to–and it does only when we forget the principle of Jesus’ lordship over all of life. The Bible commands both personal devotion and cultural transformation according to biblical law. We should heartily abhor any “either-or” mentality about these things. We don’t need to abandon one for the other. True piety must include both. But we must be sure to get our standards for both from Scripture alone. We must not baptize the immoral writings of a gaggle of ancient Greek homosexual “philosophers” in order to find out how to get close to God. That has been one of the most serious errors of the past two millennia of church history, and it is taking centuries for us to get out of it. Some sections of the church haven’t moved a step beyond Aquinas on this point. On the other hand, it may be easy for some of us to react by falling into the opposite error–and, even though I believe Mr. Shank is mistaken regarding certain aspects of both the problem and the solution, I also believe he is sincerely trying to correct us on this point. The Bible-God's Inerrant WordWe do need to warn one another against sin, and nothing is so easy as fleeing from one sin into the clutches of another.  We must reason together on the basis of Scripture, and I invite further comments from interested readers (although I cannot promise to devote this much space to the subject in the near future–we have to get back to the Christian school business). The answer will always be genuinely biblical piety, and the direction will always, and only, be found in God’s inerrant word.

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