Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Church: Neither a Gospel-Free Outrage Machine nor a Gospel-Free Affirmation Machine

In days gone by it used to be said, partly in jest, that Lutherans worshipped like Catholics but preached like Baptists. These days, alas, it's just as likely to be the other way around...(think about it for a while). Be that as it may, an evangelical Baptist who subscribes to the formal and material principles of the Lutheran Reformation - namely that scripture alone is the sole infallible authority in the church and that the justification of the sinner before God is by faith alone and on account of Christ alone - is, unlike a Roman Catholic, at least on the same page as a confessional Lutheran on those basic pillars of the Faith, even if they don't yet understand that Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper are Gospel sacraments and not mere symbolic "ordinances". The Lutheran is compelled to observe that evangelical Baptist persistence in that error is a result of a failure to thoroughly apply those Reformation principles to their theology, which is, to modify Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper's famous phrase, an infelicitous inconsistency.

But, those doctrinal errors notwithstanding, Baptists who have tapped into the mother lode of Lutheranism can exhibit a passion for the Gospel that Lutherans can recognise as authentic and be encouraged by. Take a recent address by Southern Baptist preacher and theologian, Russell Moore, delivered at The King's College, an upmarket evangelical Christian college (i.e. university in British and Commonwealth terms) in New York City, upon the occasion of the installation of a friend and colleague of his as president there, an excerpt of which follows. Acutely sensitive to the dangers posed to a college in such a setting of elitism and the twin follies of cultural warfare and/or cultural accommodation, Moore said this to them, including the sage counsel that while the church - an by extension its schools - doesn't exist to fight culture wars, neither does it exist to bless pagan culture (hence the post title):

"Evangelicalism always faces the temptation to listen to the call of that old zombie Harry Emerson Fosdick, who never stays long in his crypt and often walks forward with Mr. Rockefeller’s money brimming from his pockets. Fosdick’s temple stands across the city from where we are tonight, a monument to what some would tell us that we need. The temptation is to barter away what the world around us finds embarrassing about the faith we have received. In a previous era, that was the miraculous—virgin births and empty tombs. In our era, it is usually a Christian sexual ethic. This never works, which is why, despite Mr. Jefferson’s predictions of the future, the Unitarians have not inherited the earth.

But, more importantly, this impulse is an act of violence. It leaves people in sin and death. If there is no Judgment Seat, or if Jesus and his apostles are inaccurate in what we will give an account for there, then why concern ourselves with Christianity at all, much less Christian higher education? But if there is a Judgment Seat, a Lake of Fire, a New Jerusalem, then those that would mute the hard truths of the call to repentance are worse than merely unfaithful. They are the spiritual equivalent of human traffickers, promising guilty souls safe passage over the River Jordan, but leaving them to die in the desert.

…Our response to the challenges around us should not be a dour, curmudgeonly evangelicalism. The gloominess and fretfulness so many evidence is more than defeatism, it is a sign of wavering belief in the promises of Jesus himself. Carl Henry reminded Greg Thornbury and me of that truth. We were lamenting the current state of evangelicalism, two young doctoral students to the greatest evangelical theologian of the twentieth century. We lamented the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies, and we asked, “Does evangelical Christianity have a future at all.” Dr. Henry looked at us as though we were crazy.  “Of course gospel Christianity has a future,” Dr. Henry said. “But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans right now.”

Dr. Henry told us that we were acting as though Christian leadership were a genetic dynasty, complete with ruling families. And yet, he told us, God never built his church that way. Saul of Tarsus was a murderer. Augustine of Hippo was a player. C.S. Lewis was an atheist. Chuck Colson was a hatchet man. The gospel not only saved these leaders, but God put them in the leadership of his church. They seemed to come out of nowhere, with shady pasts and uncertain futures. And none of us would be here, apart from their labors. We had forgotten what Jesus told the chief priests. “Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” And why? It is because in the preaching of John, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.” The difference is the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. This is the burden of The King’s College, in a world of uneasy consciences. This college must exist to preserve and to engage a gospel for the sake of those who are not yet aware of it, or not yet interested in it, or perhaps even as of yet openly hostile to it.

The answer is not what some would prescribe, the sort of selective universalism that refuses to call to repentance in those areas of sin deemed untouchable by the ambient culture. The answer is not the angry warrior spirit that seeks to humiliate our opponents. The church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free outrage machine. And the church of Christ Jesus cannot be a gospel-free affirmation machine.

That’s why The King’s College should never be merely a finishing school for the evangelical elite. Every classroom and every lecture should serve as a reminder that the next Augustine might be wasting away on heroin right now on the streets of Manhattan. The next Corrie Ten Boom might be a sex-worker in a darkened alley right now. The gospel can change, not just for their sake but also for ours. The King’s College must exist for them. That’s why The King’s College must fight for doctrinal orthodoxy. An almost gospel won’t do. And that’s why The King’s College must ever struggle to retain intellectual rigor. This academic prowess is an act of love, equipping these brilliant students to push back the arguments behind which guilt consciences hide, in order that they may hear the voice that calls “Adam, where are you?”

Yes, we face difficult times, every generation of the church does. But we also face unprecedented opportunities. People walking past on the streets outside us, many of them will be burned over by the unkept promises of the utopianism of the Sexual Revolution and of Faustian libertarianism. You must study, you must labor, to preserve something old, something ever new, not just for us, and not just for our children, but for our future brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom may hate us right now. But many of them may one day lead us, by the power of the Spirit that calls to life that which was dead.”

This is the majority of the text (slightly re-formatted for ease of reading); if you want to read the entire thing go to Dr Moore's blog.

Well said, Dr Moore. You give Lutherans much to think about in regard to the purpose of the church and of a Christian education, which is an area that, at least in Australia, we need to re-think. One can only hope and pray that similar things might be heard at the commencement services of Lutheran schools and colleges.

Now, Russell, about baptism...

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