December 13, 2017

What’s an Evangelical to Do? (4)

Mark Minnick

FrontLine • September/October 2008

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Part 3 established the fact of false teachers and showed how they can appear to be orthodox, yet their reality can’t be denied. Part 3 closed with this question:

But practically speaking, how are we to detect him?

Back to the Question of Fruit

We’re back to the question of fruit. Our Lord says that wolves in sheep’s clothing cannot produce good fruit. But that raises a question. How then do you explain bad men (e.g., Balaam and Judas) who apparently did and spoke so much good? The answer to that question can evidently be complex. But I think that there are certain considerations that point toward the answer and start us on our way.

The first might be to remember that it takes time for fruit to make its first appearance and even longer for it to ripen fully. The Lord Himself seems to remind us of this when He warns that some professing Christian leaders are such masters of disguise that it won’t be until the Judgment that they’re exposed beyond all doubt (Matt. 7:21–23). However, it doesn’t seem likely that He intends us to understand from this that we’re hopelessly at the mercy of wolves that we can’t ever identify in this life. He assures us at both the opening and closing of the section on identifying false prophets, Ye shall know them by their fruits (16). … Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (20). So although it’s possible that pseudoprophets may fool all of us for awhile, and perhaps some of us forever, it is nevertheless possible for us to know them by their fruits. But what are those?

Secondly, it is possible that some take a wrong turn when they assume that certain characteristics of professing Christian leaders are “fruit” when in fact they are something else. For instance, is it really theologically correct to think of spiritual giftedness as fruit? Or leadership positions? What about accurate exegesis? Theological precision? Empowerment by God’s Spirit? Are these fruit? Or are these things something else — endowments, privileges, talents (Matt. 25:15–28), or a stewardship (1 Pet. 4:10)?

Our times, saturated with theological confusion and populated with deceptive leaders, demand that we formulate a more precise theology of spiritual fruit. But this much at least seems clear: spiritual gifts, positions of leadership, spiritual power, and miraculous works are evidently not fruit. At least not the kind of fruit our Lord was directing our attention to for identifying either good or evil religious leaders. So what is the fruit?


Many years ago J. C. Ryle stated the evidences of a true minister as Biblically and succinctly as anyone could: Sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of true prophets. It comes down to a man’s beliefs and behaviors. Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). These are the two things Scripture conjoins inseparably as the evidences of our regeneration. This is especially true of the doctrinal fundamentals about Jesus Christ (Whosoever … abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God, 2 John 9) and our personal separation away from the world and unto God (holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord, Heb. 12:14).

I’m going to begin with the matter of a man’s theological positions and frame it in this way. It’s indisputable that someone can, Balaam-like, parrot in his preaching or teaching exactly what God has said while not being true to it himself. No contest here. This is what makes it possible for an unbelieving scholar to do accurate textual criticism or to produce a helpful work of exegesis. But what he does with that text theologically and homiletically will eventually betray what He is in his heart. I may be wrong here, but I think that this is almost always the case. As he is in his heart, he will eventually be in what he makes out of the text for which he professes so much reverence.

Many years ago I was impressed with this dynamic as it surfaces in the commentaries of William Barclay. His Daily Study Bible series on the New Testament is renowned for its insights into the text. Barclay will employ the Scripture’s precise Scriptural terminology as he explains a text’s context and general content. But it’s when he turns to theological interpretation that his unbelief shows, often — and this is extremely important to note about all theologians of this kind — not in what he says, but in what he won’t say.

Teaching things that the Bible doesn’t, or teaching things contrary to the Bible, is bad fruit. That’s clear. But this ought also to be clear. Refusing to say what the Bible says is also telltale. It’s fruitlessness. This is how men like Barclay are sometimes detectable. They don’t bear Bible theology when you give them the seed of a text and ask them to produce. They can accurately classify it, get its taxonomy correct. They can break it apart and describe the pieces. But they won’t take that seed, plant it like a growing thing in their own hearts, and produce from their tongues and their pens healthy doctrine springing up into men’s everlasting life and godliness. This is what our Lord was referring to when He said that it was a thing which they cannot do. They are constitutionally incapable of it.

We don’t have the record of anything Balaam said apart from what he was given by direct revelation and commanded to pronounce verbatim without variation. And yet the New Testament identifies as “the doctrine of Balaam” the fact that he “taught” Balak how to cause God’s people to sin by creating opportunities and arguments for them to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit fornication (Rev. 2:14). Balaam’s “doctrine” was a personal contradiction of everything else wonderful that came out of his mouth.

It is in the interest of screening out Balaams and Barclays that churches and other Christian institutions have found it necessary to formulate constitutions and creeds stating clearly their doctrinal positions, and to require that their members subscribe to these without mental reservation. My heart explodes in a mighty “YES!” when I read the wording of the vow which the early Princeton Seminary professors were required to take publicly in a clear voice, In the presence of God … I do solemnly promise and engage not to inculcate, teach, or insinuate any thing which shall appear to me to contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, any thing taught in the said Confession of Faith or Catechisms. That’s the spirit!

Certain truths are Scripturally incontestable. They are holy ground, doctrines before which men ought to remove their shoes and bow their heads. In the presence of God, ministers and teachers of theology ought solemnly to promise never to teach or insinuate anything that in any way contradicts them. And it ought to be spelled out what the terms and Scriptures are that we’re employing to define and demarcate those truths, so that no applicant for a trusted position can manipulate semantics to his own ends. It’s not sufficient to ask a William Barclay, Do you find God in Jesus? Or, When you see Jesus, do you see God? Or, Do you believe that he who has seen Jesus has seen the Father? A William Barclay says “yes” to all three of these questions (see his autobiography, William Barclay, 56–57). But if you press him, if you force him to reckon with the wording of the old, time-tested confessions of the Christian faith, he’ll finally flush out. It is not that Jesus is God, he’ll clarify. Nowhere does the New Testament identify Jesus and God, he’ll argue. Jesus did not say, “He who has seen me has seen God.” He said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” That’s what Barclay says when you keep his feet to the fire.

This is the first thing Evangelicals ought to do. They ought to require that any organization to which they belong for Christian endeavor or any professing Christian theologian with whom they enter into any spiritual cooperation whatsoever give unfeigned, unqualified, dogmatic assent to every single Fundamental of the Christian (that is, “Evangelical”) faith.

If, after repeated appeals, an organization or individual refuses to do so, those who are truly Evangelical ought to withhold Christian recognition and avoid him (Rom. 16:17), and for the love of the Truth and the safety of Christ’s flock, cry “wolf!” Interminable, deferential, academic fencing will not do. There’s no Scriptural paradigm for it whatsoever. Well-intentioned or not, it’s a betrayal of Christ and the gospel. 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.)

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