January 16, 2018

What’s an Evangelical to Do? (3)

Mark Minnick

FrontLine • September/October 2008

Part 1Part 2

Resurrecting the Question

The last week’s column began discussing a persistent problem confronting conservative Evangelicals: How should they to respond to unorthodox “Evangelicals”? A case in point is their position toward British theologian N. T. Wright. Wright insists that almost all Christians for the last fifteen hundred years have misunderstood the doctrine of justification. Leading conservative Evangelicals such as D. A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, and, most recently, John Piper have analyzed Wright’s position minutely. They find it seriously defective. Therefore, how should conservative Evangelicals relate to Wright in the future? But Wright is just one recent example of a whole company of aberrant theologians whose heterodoxy leavens Evangelicalism. Yet orthodox Evangelicals don’t seem to know how to come to Scriptural closure about them. What’s an Evangelical to do?

John Piper’s Approach

For the sake of continuity, let me repeat the conclusion of the first article in this series. British theologian N. T. Wright is widely accepted among Evangelicals as a fellow Evangelical. Yet the consequences of his ministry duplicate everything the Scripture warns that wolves do (Acts 20:29, 30). He causes dissensions and hindrances. He teaches and writes contrary to apostolic doctrine. He speaks perverse things. He makes disciples in his aberrant image. So for the flock’s sake and for the Chief Shepherd’s sake, why not play it safe and just say it? N. T. Wright is a wolf. If there’s an outside chance that he’s not, then the burden of proof lies entirely with him.

But conservative Evangelicals hesitate. Let me illustrate. One of the most rigorous recent analyses of N. T. Wright’s teaching is John Piper’s The Future of Justification (Crossway Books, 2007). In it Piper voices his concerns: His portrayal of the gospel — and of the doctrine of justification in particular — is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognize it as biblically faithful. … In my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God (15). Following N. T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church (165). It is more likely that his view will be co-opted as confirmation for the Catholic way (183).

Yet when it comes to his assessment of Wright himself, John Piper doesn’t so much as suggest that the unorthodox theologian may be fencing himself out of Christ’s fold (Matt. 7:15–23). Here is his assessment: My conviction concerning N. T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8–9. … It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification (15). … N. T. Wright loves the gospel and justification (17). … Wright loves the apostle Paul and reverences the Christian scriptures (27).

The disconnect between Piper’s conclusions about Wright’s twisted teaching and his convictions about Wright’s loves and reverences is simply stunning. To my mind, it’s nearly incomprehensible.

Why did Piper even bother to expose Wright’s insidious errors? He states, My hope, most remotely, is that Wright might be influenced to change some of what he thinks concerning justification and the gospel. Less remotely, I hope that he might clarify, in future writings, some things that I have stumbled over. But most optimistically, I hope that those who consider this book and read N. T. Wright will read him with greater care, deeper understanding, and less inclination to find Wright’s retelling of the whole story of justification compelling (16).

Yet after hearing multiple appeals from fellow Evangelicals over all these years, N. T. Wright remains unmoved in his views. So what’s an Evangelical like John Piper to do?

I want to clarify that the issue I’m raising isn’t primarily about John Piper or even N. T. Wright. It’s the question of how the John Pipers of the Evangelical world ought to respond to the N. T. Wrights of their world. I’m assuming that there’s a Biblical answer. Do conservative Evangelicals know what it is? Does their preaching and writing articulate and attempt to model that Biblical answer?

All of us can sympathize with the difficulty of making some determinations. On the one hand, we don’t want to accuse falsely. We do well to remind ourselves from time to time of the ninth commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour (Exod. 20:16). On the other hand, because there are false individuals so adroit at disguise that they’re nearly undetectable, we must be alert to their infiltration. That, in fact, is the very point of our Lord’s warning, Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matt. 7:15). Let me call our attention now to two of the most informative examples in history.

Back to the Question of Wolves

First, take the case of Balaam (Num. 22–24). Let’s begin with the positives. Here’s a man ostensibly committed to speaking nothing but precisely what God said. Again and again, even under fierce pressure, he refuses to budge on that point. The Scripture makes sure the reader catches this (cf. Num. 22:38; 23:3, 12, 26; 24:13).

Scripture affirms that Balaam did exactly what he professed. It wasn’t that Balaam deceptively claimed a homiletic that wasn’t really the case. To the contrary, The Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth (23:5). The Lord met Balaam, and put a word in his mouth (23:16). The spirit of God came upon him (24:2).

To top it off, Balaam’s sermons eventually became inerrant Scripture. Talk about a guy whose sermons make good books! And some of it is even breathtaking Christology (24:17–19). Balaam preaches Christ!

Yet the New Testament’s warning is that Balaam is False Prophet Exhibit A. He’s the ancient archetype for first-century religious teachers who have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam (2 Pet. 2:15). Woe unto them, for they … ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward (Jude 11). The Lord indicts the church in Pergamum, I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam (Rev. 2:14).

It’s beyond our scope to analyze thoroughly what makes Balaam a negative example. In brief, the two things for which God faults him were his mercenary motives (Jude 11) and his counsel to Balak to seduce Israel sensually (Rev. 2:14; cf. Num. 25:1–9; 31:16). Obviously then, these are two of the distinguishing evidences of a wolf. It isn’t my purpose here to enlarge on these at present. I simply want to hold up the case of Balaam as an illustration of the fact that what a man preaches can be entirely God’s Word, including its Christology, and that what he preaches can end up in good books, and yet he himself can be false.

Second, let’s investigate a New Testament example of the same phenomenon. Think about how Judas must have appeared to the other apostles. What did they see? To begin with, they saw him as one of only twelve companions chosen by Jesus out of all of the hundreds of thousands of possibilities in Israel. Like themselves, this man was picked by the Master for the rare privilege of the closest possible hour-by-hour fellowship. He also appears to have been trusted implicitly. Judas had the bag, and bare what was put therein (John 12:6). This trust elevated Judas even among the apostles! Further, to Judas also, like the others, Jesus imparted His very own authority to exorcise demons, heal the sick, and preach the Kingdom (Matt. 10:1, 7). It’s no wonder that the other apostles never suspected him to be a counterfeit. Even after our Lord explicitly revealed that one of them was at that very time betraying Him (Luke 22:21), they seem to be utterly blind to the possibility that it was Judas (Luke 22:23; John 12:21–29). Yet inwardly this man truly was the son of perdition (John 17:12).

In all of our discussions about associations in ministry, have we seriously considered the phenomenon of an influential Evangelical leader who (1) seems to enjoy an almost unique relationship with Jesus Christ, (2) appears to be elevated by Christ Himself among even other spiritual leaders, and (3) is remarkably gifted, but tragically (4) is actually a son of perdition and an instrument of Satan? A Satanic masterpiece?

The applications of these considerations are mindboggling. They’re almost so beyond the realm of believability that it actually takes a while to come to terms with them. I don’t think any of us can really be adequately prepared to accept the implications of these two examples unless the Lord Himself opens the eyes of our understanding.

The Scripture teaches the possibility that there are respected theologians, pastors, and influential church leaders among us of whom other Christian leaders say: I don’t think I’ve ever known a man much closer to Christ (he’s one of “the Twelve”); he’s clearly been entrusted providentially with great leadership (he carries “the bag”); his spiritual gifts are incredible (he has authority to cast out demons and heal every kind of sickness and preach the kingdom); his commitment to the exact words of Scripture is unshakeable (he refuses to say what God has not said); I seldom hear preaching that impresses me any more profoundly as being exactly what God has said (it’s nothing less than the Lord’s Word that comes out of his mouth); God’s power is obviously on his life (the Spirit of God is with him) — but in actuality, the man is a false prophet.

We acknowledge, of course, that Scripture warns that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light and that his ministers also are transformed as the ministers of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14, 15). So we have a place in our theoretical paradigm of church leaders for the man who is a counterfeit. But practically speaking, how are we to detect him? 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 • September/October 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


  1. Adam Blumer says:

    Great series by Dr. Minnick. Thank you.

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