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Evangelicalism's crisis of faith


by Tim Gallant

Is the twentieth-century evangelical church facing a moment of crisis?

Evangelicals trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation, an historic moment in which the authority of Scripture was regained as the basis of doctrine and life. The Reformers proclaimed sola scriptura - the Bible alone has ultimate authority to determine what we believe and how we must live.

Four and a half centuries later, what remains of the Reformation legacy? Is the Word of God still the cornerstone of evangelicalism?

Is it possible to recognize the Bible as the infallible, inerrant Word of God - and yet lose it? Are there dangers in this regard for those who are careful to uphold an orthodox view of Scripture?

We may begin to answer that by examining what the Bible becomes in our hands when we attempt to force everything into one airtight system. Even when the system is based upon truth, even when the major premises are orthodox, the result is a shrunken God, or a shrunken Gospel, or both. Preaching only God's love will result in a whimsical, "good-buddy" theology. Preaching only God's holiness will result in a religion of terror. Preaching only God's sovereignty will result in the loss of human significance. We may call such an error orthodox rationalism.

But orthodox rationalism is not the only way for Christians to lose the Scriptures. They need not be lost in such a directly theological manner. They can be lost through the black hole of pragmatism, as well. The Bible, although recognized as infallible and inerrant, can go missing nonetheless.

This is the disturbing reality that is increasingly confronting us in today's Church.

The modern defense of the lost Word

It is striking that, in the past half century, the Christian Church of the free world has made unparalleled statements regarding the Bible, and yet, at the same time, seems to be in the process of losing it in practice. There have been symposiums, seminars, scholarly papers, popular articles, and councils on inerrancy. This generation of Christians has often seemed as fascinated with defending the Bible as has any generation that preceded it.

Given these facts, we should expect that the Bible is treasured in practice, that it is studied intensively, preached with careful but dynamic conviction, and held forth and proclaimed at every opportunity. And yes, thank God, we do see some of that, and we must not minimize that.

But the truth is, the great characteristic of the Church at the opening of new millennium is that it is turning away from the Word of God. No, this is not happening by way of a verbal denial, or, at least, not usually (although, sadly, many evangelicals are beginning to deny inerrancy). But there is a turning away nonetheless. And it is dramatic, sweeping, and revolutionary.

The replacement for the lost Word

Just where is this turning away to be seen, then? In the worship service. In the programs of the churches. In the unspoken assumptions of the people of God.

The turning is demonstrated when churches make mighty attempts to fill their pews with young people by entertaining them with the kind of music they like, with dramas, and with flair. It is reflected when churches turn to the theology of "relevance," being sure to be topical so that the man on the street can relate to the worship of the church. I have visited churches where the preaching of the Word was bumped off the worship schedule entirely in favour of everything from plays to missionary stories to special music and Christmas programs. On other occasions, such non-essentials simply chop the sermon into a ten-minute sermonette. The people in the pew get antsy if the minister has the nerve to go over fifteen minutes, or twenty at the most.

How did things get to this state? Well, we can naturally answer that most Protestant churches are no longer safeguarded by the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded in worship is therefore forbidden. And certainly there is an element of truth in identifying this lack, this vacuum of principle, as a cause for such decay in worship. Yet I think the problem is even more basic than that. Many churches which have never observed this worship principle yet have managed historically to retain the centrality of preaching. So perhaps we need to look beyond an imaginary freedom in worship as the cancerous cause of the current symptoms.

The loss of faith

It is quite one thing to suggest that we are free to determine what we will include in our worship, as most evangelicals do, to varying extents, but it is quite another to come to the conclusion that invention is necessary if the church is to survive and flourish. You see, we are dealing here, not with a loss of confidence in the Bible's infallibility or reliability. We are not witnessing a challenge to the Divine authorship of Scripture.

No, what we are seeing is a loss of faith. Not a loss of the faith, period, although those seeds will surely come to flower unless there is a reversal - but a loss of faith in the Word of God. Faith in Christ is threatened by means of a loss of faith in His Word.

The gymnastics to which churches are going to attract people demonstrates that they no longer believe that God's Word is the means by which He builds His Church. They no longer have faith in its relevance to the lives of their hearers. They have, on a practical level, forgotten the spirituality of the true Church, and therefore can no longer see the attraction that the Word of God holds forth for others. In short, they believe in the Scripture's infallibility, inerrancy, and reliability - and its utter ineffectiveness. They have lost all their faith in its sufficiency. They have lost their faith in the Bible, and so they turn to other things to take its place, to take up the slack.

John MacArthur's excellent, but disturbing book, Ashamed of the Gospel,1 provides an account of much of this evangelical folly. Citing source after source, giving example after example, he reveals the growing disposition to gauge ecclesiastical success upon numerical growth, and, even worse, the skyrocketing tendency to promote such growth apart from the Word of God, depending instead upon entertainment and felt-need fulfillment. In short, the churches are becoming man-centred, rather than God-centred.

MacArthur's thesis is that the pragmatism of the modern church is not merely a means to gain a spiritual end (the growth of the church). Pragmatism loses the Gospel itself.

Such a thesis is undoubtedly correct. In the circus atmosphere that is increasingly common in modern evangelicalism, the Gospel presentation becomes little more than whispers in the wind.

MacArthur rightly points out that evangelicals seem to have forgotten that it is Christ Who builds His Church, not men.2 Or, more precisely, I would say that it is Christ Who builds His Church through the Word by His Spirit, not men through their humanly-devised programs.

How does pragmatism lose the Gospel? Not through direct contradiction. Rather, the medium inevitably becomes the message, simply because the message is so truncated and buried beneath an avalanche of man-pleasing activity. This result is inevitable, for if we presume that the Gospel does not communicate, then we are of necessity distorting its message. If the attractiveness of grace is hidden behind the supposed attractiveness of the program, then grace is lost. If the idea is to make the Gospel more winsome, then the notion is a failure. Winsome grace is seen in earthen vessels, not circus events.

The error of pragmatism is that it seeks to please men in order to gain them. The way of the Gospel is to please God, that He will change men. Pragmatism makes merchandise of the Gospel (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17). Paul's answer is clear enough: "do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10).3

The church becomes a non-profit organization

The problem, it seems, is that the evangelical church has fought long and hard for the first clause of 2 Timothy 3:16 - "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God" - and subsequently lost sight of the rest: "and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."4

Having grown up among a broad spectrum of evangelicals, I suppose the writing was on the wall. Even 25-30 years ago, it was not unusual to hear such statements as, "Well, the Bible doesn't speak to this," or "The Bible isn't concerned about that." (Beware when you hear this kind of language: it is a danger signal.)

When Christians turn for the healing of the soul to psychologists and psychiatrists, then you can know that the Scriptures are no longer seen as sufficient. When the Bible is not the counseling resource to equip the saints for lives of good works, as reflected in everyday life (marriage, self-control, responsibility), if we have lost confidence in the Bible, not as God's Word per se, but as God's Word to us - then we are not merely shortchanging ourselves. We are losing the Bible. We are losing the heart and soul of what it means to be truly evangelical.

Evangelicalism centres around the good news of God's Word. Earlier, we gave indication that theological rationalism cripples the Bible as good news. The blessedness of the proclamation becomes paralyzed through fear of upsetting the system.

But the even greater danger today is that evangelicals have forgotten just how good the news really is. When we recognize all Scripture as profitable, as desirable equipment for the whole person, we begin to appreciate the glorious gift we have been given. But when the Bible is seen as largely irrelevant to everyday life, then the Gospel of salvation is in the process of becoming lost.

The lost vision of preaching

If there is one place we may see this, it is in the preaching - or the lack thereof. As I mentioned earlier, it is hardly unusual to see other activities displace the sermon. And often what is preached is not the message of faith.

How we need to be reminded of Paul's glorious vision of preaching! He wrote to Titus,

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which is according to godliness, in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested His word through preaching....

Titus 1:1-3

Paul does not think small here. He ties the big issues very closely to preaching. The unveiling of the hope of eternal life finds its focus in the manifestation of God's Word through preaching. Paul preaches with the confidence that this is what God will use to build His Church through the Spirit.

It is in comparison with this glorious vision that we are stricken by the feebleness of modern evangelicalism's approach to, and attitude toward, the preaching of the Word. It is often considered the least necessary element in worship. But the Bible teaches us that it is God's central method of dispensing His gift of eternal life. It is the voice of God speaking to men (Rom. 10:14, 17). The Scripture does not say, "How then shall they hear, unless they are wooed by the gimmickry of the church" - it identifies the hearing of God's voice in His Word through preaching as the means of salvation through faith (Rom. 10:13, 14).

What is the mark of such preaching? It is earnest and direct, because it is spoken before God: "we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ" (2 Cor. 2:17).

Is this what we are seeing? Too often, the pearl of the Word preached has been swallowed by the great fish of self-centred worship.

Conclusion

Evangelicalism, fighting for relevance through technique rather than truth, is rapidly becoming a rudderless vessel. The Scriptures' view of a holy, transcendent God Who rules all areas of life and faith is the only antidote for the current malaise. For behind the issue of the sufficiency of the Scriptures is the sufficiency of God Himself. The Church must regain her confidence in Him, and her sense of awe before Him.

I think that above all, the task of reformation today is to press the claims of Scripture as God's covenant Word to His people. We must proclaim the majesty of the Sovereign Christ, reminding one another of His sufficiency as the sole object of our faith. We must warn against misplaced faith in the ingenuity of human devices as the means for building God's Church and kingdom. If ever there was a practical task in the proclamation of the implications of God's sovereignty, surely it centres around this basic issue of faith: faith in God, His Spirit, and His Word.

The Spirit and Word are God's steadfast gifts to His people. They are the unfailing tokens of His everlasting covenant love. If we are to uphold the honour of His Name, we must acknowledge the sufficiency and goodness of these gifts, by which He builds and sustains His Church.

"This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith" (1 Jn. 5:4). Whether the world is without or within, whether it be cultural attack or the temptations of pragmatism, God will grant us victory through faith alone, for He alone is sufficient for the needs of His Church.

May God in His mercy once again lavish such faith upon His people.

Endnotes

1 Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993. Highly recommended reading.

2 Ibid., chapter 9 (pp. 173-189). MacArthur pointedly remarks that when men attempt to build the church, they are putting themselves in competition with Christ (p. 173).

3 Also see 1 Thess. 2:4-5: Those entrusted with the Gospel must "speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts. For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness - God is witness."

4 I have included verse 17 as well.

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