What’s an Evangelical to Do? (1)

Mark Minnick

In 1989 the National Association of Evangelicals, together with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, sponsored a four-day conference for over 650 Evangelical scholars, pastors, and leaders. The purpose was to discuss which truths of the historic Christian faith that a person must affirm in order to be termed an “Evangelical.” Plenary speakers and respondents included Charles Colson, Carl F. H. Henry, J. I. Packer, David Wells, D. A. Carson, John Ankerberg, Os Guinness, and Kenneth Kantzer.

The final product of their deliberations was published in a book of over 500 pages and titled Evangelical Affirmations (Zondervan, 1990). It was intended to be a confession of what it means to be an evangelical (14) and to represent evangelical truths that specially need to be asserted and clarified in our day (30).

It is disturbing to discover the issues intensely debated, if not in the plenary sessions, then behind the closed doors of the subcommittees who wrote and edited the final versions of the affirmations. They include such fundamentals as the eternal destiny of unbelievers, the nature of justification, the nature of saving faith, and the inerrancy of Scripture. In some cases, the final statements are conspicuous for what they deliberately omit. For instance, even after both J. I. Packer and John Ankerberg made a very strong case against both Conditionalism and Annihilationism, the affirmation addressing those issues reads only, Unbelievers will be separated eternally from God, and, Concern for evangelism should not be compromised by any illusion that all will be finally saved (universalism).

I had occasion a year or so after the conference to ask Dr. Ankerberg how that particular statement ended up being so indefinite. He related to me that his and Packer’s public presentations on eternal destiny generated such intense opposition that a number of scholars walked out in protest. In the end, the indefinite statement was the maximum common denominator on which the attendees could agree.

Still Debating

Nearly two decades later, conservative Evangelical leaders are still finding themselves constrained to continue defending cardinal doctrines from relentless recasting by other Evangelical leaders. Truths, for instance, as theologically foundational as the extent of God’s knowledge (Does He infallibly foreknow the free decisions of men and angels?), the penal substitution of Jesus Christ in the place of sinners (Wouldn’t this be tantamount to child abuse?), and the imputation of Christ’s blameless righteousness (Doesn’t this doctrine need to be abandoned?).

In fact, evangelical debate on some of these doctrines is apparently growing. The authors of a recent defense of penal substitution (Pierced for Our Transgressions, Crossway, 2007) relate in their introduction, After rumbling away for a century and a half behind the closed doors of the liberal scholarly academy, criticisms of penal substitution have recently been voiced by several influential evangelical theologians and church leaders, provoking a storm of controversy within the Christian community (26). They note, The misconceived criticisms of penal substitution show no sign of abating, and the resulting confusion within the Christian community seems to be increasing rather than decreasing (31).

It’s stunning. Evangelical leaders forced by other Evangelical leaders to have to debate and recover some of the most bedrock theological truths underlying the entire Christian faith. It’s like Detroit’s automakers being forced to reinvent the whole concept of a wheel. Or the Mayo Clinic’s having to recover Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. Or NASA harassed by aerospace engineers within its own ranks to abandon the Copernican Revolution. It’s astounding. How can this be?

Where the Problem Lies

The problem isn’t that the fundamentals of the Christian faith haven’t been deeply studied and widely circulated historically. I’d like to suggest that the presence of huge unorthodox brambles in Evangelicalism is due, to a large degree, to the way Evangelicals respond to those who call their orthodoxy into question. When a professing Christian leader persistently preaches, prints, and teaches content that raises constant questions about the integrity of his theology, what ought sound, Scriptural Evangelicals do?

Scripture’s teaching is largely unambiguous. The NT seems to take for granted that its teachings, particularly those having to do with the fundamentals of the Christian faith, are so clear that it expects us to have a high degree of certainty about what they are. This certainty is called faith. The NT doesn’t call us to have it without providing us with sufficient truth to arrive at it intelligently. The whole intent of the NT’s explanations is to settle not start debates that threaten this certainty.

In some cases, of course, the NT intends to settle a debate by deliberately withholding further information from us. In such cases God expects us to be satisfied intellectually with the extent of what He has revealed. Calvin referred to this contented state as a learned ignorance. Not mere ignorance. But a learned ignorance, one that has studied sufficiently to know why it must rest content with limited knowledge. But in most cases it seems that God intends for His people to be able to determine not only the fundamentals of the faith but even the vast majority of secondary doctrines that are directly addressed in the NT.

If, then, the NT addresses the question I’m raising — what should I do when professing Christian leaders persistently call into question their own doctrinal soundness — its teaching will be sufficiently clear to hold us accountable to obey.

I’d like to explore that particular teaching. But I want to do so thoroughly, even if it takes some time and several columns. So we’ll start with the first NT text that seems to bear significantly on the discussion.

Matthew 7:15–23

This is one of many NT passages touching on the issue of right and safe associations among God’s people. Associations. I’m not saying that is the theme of the entire passage, but I am proposing that it is a subject lying very close to its heart, because it opens with a warning about certain people who will come to you (7:15). Our Lord here discusses something that, at least in part, has to do with relating to certain kinds of people. Associations.

One of the significant values of looking at this teaching on associations before any others is that it is the first one in the NT to issue a warning about them. It is as if we are being introduced to virgin territory. Let’s take it that way and assume that we know nothing about the subject of threatening associations. The whole topic begs for a thoroughgoing treatise of firstorder exegesis, theology, and application. Space permits only that we sketch in broad strokes. But even a general treatment should shed light on the question of how all of us, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, are supposed to respond to people who regularly call their own orthodoxy into question.

It is the NT’s very first sermon. Jesus is the preacher. Life in His kingdom is the general subject. But there is an imminent threat to kingdom citizens. Wolves! But they won’t be the kind that attack in broad daylight; they will be a kind that can disguise themselves. They will come looking like sheep! Not like goats, cows, horses, or burros — animals obviously different from sheep but nonthreatening to them — but like sheep themselves! They will come to you, approaching you for acceptance, in sheep’s clothing (7:15).

At first glance we may be envisioning something like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood — a fleecy, lumpy sheep’s hide, head and all, draped shrewdly but not altogether convincingly over a creature that can’t be entirely disguised because of its protruding hairy grey legs, long tail, and slavering fangs. I don’t think that’s what our Lord had in mind at all.

I think the key to getting His picture right is the word inwardly (7:15). Our Lord seems to imply that you’ll never peg this kind of person by scrutinizing his outward appearance. There are no hairy legs in sight. He flashes no alarming teeth. Nose to tail he’s every inch a sheep. But inwardly, despite the façade, people like this are ravenous wolves.

Jesus describes such persons as false prophets — religious teachers who are so well-disguised outwardly that you’ll only get them identified rightly if you can somehow know them inwardly. What kind of prophet or, for our purposes, pastor, theologian, academician, or ecclesiastical official matches His description of being false but entirely disguised as true? How would such a leader present himself when he applied for acceptance by an Evangelical or Fundamentalist pulpit committee, Bible college or seminary, publishing house, or theological society?

I suspect that if you were on the search committee to fill an endowed seminary chair and took a guy like this to lunch, his verbal testimony would convince. When you talked theology, he’d communicate orthodoxy. If you kept an eye on his demeanor, manner, and general affability, he’d appear nothing less than a thoroughly Christian gentleman. From the way Jesus continues in the passage, I think He intends us to conclude that He’s talking about a counterfeit so convincing that even scrutinizing him over lunch would arouse no suspicions. I conclude that because He goes on to stipulate that the way to know these people is by observing what they produce: Ye shall know them by their fruits (7:16).

Fruit isn’t something that appears at first glance. It may not be evident for quite a while. But when it finally shows, it is infallible evidence. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit (7:18). Trees cannot produce differently than their botanical nature, Jesus says. A tree is simply ou dunatai (not able). Theologically this is rightly called total inability. A pseudoprophet is distinguishable by his total inability to produce the grapes and figs of a true prophet.

But before we assume we’re equipped to start testing, we’ve got to reckon with the last part of the passage too. Here Jesus projects far into the future to the Final Judgment. Surprisingly, He reveals that there will be many, not a few, who plead that not just the appearance of their lives, but even the words and works of their ministries were Scriptural. Their words? Have we not prophesied in thy name? (7:22). In this protest, as well as in the next two, in thy name is placed emphatically forward. Read it like this: In thy name (!), have we not prophesied? As if this is the clinching evidence of their genuineness. And what about their works? In thy name (!), have (we not) cast out devils! In thy name (!), (have we not) done many wonderful works? (7:22).

Remarkably, the first question (and the next two as well because of the way the sentence proceeds grammatically) emphasizes not only the fact that they preached and worked in Jesus’ name, but also that in the future façade-stripping moment when all pretense is useless, they fully expect Jesus to return a positive answer to their protests. To bring this nuance out we have to word the questions something like the following, In thy name (!), we prophesied, didn’t we? And in thy name (!), didn’t we cast out demons? And in thy name (!), didn’t we do many works of power? Considering the context — Heaven’s blazing glory, vast and awesome thrones, God the Father high and lifted up, Jesus presiding as King of kings and Lord of lords, myriads of shining angels, final judgment and fearful eternity — these are amazing claims.

There are some counterfeits that you can’t detect over lunch, but you can when you hear them preach or if you spend a little time circulating inside their ministries. But from the passage it appears that there’s also a kind of religious leader whom you can’t peg over lunch or even when he’s in the pulpit or behind the lectern. In words and works he not only ministers in Jesus’ name, but he’s apparently so divinely empowered that the results are nothing less than supernatural. He exorcises demons! He does many deeds of power (dunameis pollas)!

This creates a terrific difficulty for sheep. How are they ever to know if such a wolf is in their midst? To be continued.

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)