Am I Evangelical? (3)
According to the Evangelical Alliance’s own Basis of Faith, people need to be converted by the Holy Spirit because of ‘the universal sinfulness and guilt of fallen man, making him subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.’ This basis immediately runs into difficulties because, while many Christians may accept the fallen state of human beings, they will not all accept that such a fallen state necessarily makes people subject to God’s wrath and/or condemnation.
For example, if unsaved people are the object of God’s wrath, how could it be that God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world, as stated in John 3:16? How could it be that Jesus never uttered one angry word to people in general while he walked on earth? Indeed, he reserved his angry words for the religious leaders of his day.
Is God angry with unsaved people today, but suddenly loves them when they make a ‘decision for Jesus’? Does his love turn back to anger when they ‘backslide’? Children with biological parents would grow up incredibly confused if their parent’s attitude to them changed on a regular basis. If people are subject to God’s condemnation, why did Jesus never condemn anyone? Why did the Son of God instead apparently show his Father’s love for people through acts of kindness done for them rather than criticising people for the way that they lived and condemning them out of hand?
According to the Evangelical Alliance’s own Basis of Faith, the fallen state of humanity required a ‘substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God as the sole all sufficient ground of redemption from the guilt and power of sin and from its eternal consequences’ through which God effects ‘the justification of the sinner solely by the grace of God through faith in Christ crucified and risen from the dead.’
Throughout the history of Israel and the sacrifices that were made for sin, was God angry with the sacrifice? Did God condemn the sacrifice? To be sure there were occasions when God found a sacrifice unacceptable, but it was not the sacrifice itself that was the problem so much as it was the attitude of the person or people bringing that sacrifice. If Jesus was God’s sacrifice for humanity, then God did not seem to be angry with Jesus, and nor did he seem to condemn Jesus. On the contrary, the Father seemed really quite pleased with his Son.
There is also the issue of what conversion actually means, and of who it is that effects that work. Is it all about the individual making a decision for Jesus? (Whatever that may mean.) This really highlights one of the chief dangers of Conversionism as apparently practised by evangelicals. It is this: Conversionism focuses on individuals, rather than on the community of faith. It also places the emphasis on an event (conversion) rather than on a lifestyle (discipleship). It is a sad fact that Conversionism tends to focus on the individual almost from start to finish, and the experience of conversion is often the climax of that focus. Once a person has ‘made a decision for Jesus’, the job is done and work is over.
This also means that the direct result of conversionism is that, as Matthews says, ‘people are content simply to believe, whereas the developing, nourishing and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing community.’ Conversionism targets the individual and tends to ignore the faith community. It is all about the individual’s decision. Therefore, as Tozer observed, ‘a sinner may be saved by accepting Him as Saviour without yielding to Him as Lord.’
So, all too often, evangelicals call people to ‘receive Jesus as your Saviour’ or to ‘make a decision for Christ’; when these concepts are totally unknown in Scripture. Furthermore, entering into the kingdom of God in Scripture is certainly about entering into God’s family, the Christian community; it does not focus on the individual. Yet, Conversionism does tend to focus on the individual.
Indeed, as the Baptist Union of Scotland has said, ‘conversion is not chiefly an experience but is about a new relationship and God-transformed values, morals and goals.’ Yet the gaining of converts has long been an evangelical end in itself. It is a very short-sighted end, for it completely ignores the need to make disciples over a lifetime of relationship both with Jesus and also with one another. This is a significant weakness of modern-day Evangelicalism and the evangelism that it practises.
As the Baptist Union of Scotland has stated, ‘The aim of conversion is to make disciples, so discipleship and conversion must not be contrasted with each other or separated.’ But they often are separated, and it is all too common for evangelicals to think that, once someone has been converted, the job is done. This is the weakness of the focus being on the individual, rather than the emphasis being on the joining of a community of faith.
The Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith states that: ‘Evangelicals believe in the priesthood of all believers, who form the universal Church, the Body of which Christ is the Head and which is committed by His command to the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world.’ The active conversion of unbelievers is the expectation of such proclamation. Surely this sounds good?
Did Jesus really commission all believers to the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world? If he did, why are the vast majority of Christians comfortable in their communities? Are the vast majority of Christians (including me!) disobedient to the ‘Great Commission’? Are we staying when we should be going? Are we comfortable when we should be in need?
It is either about all believers being missionaries or it is about all believers building Christian communities. The two are mutually exclusive and you cannot have it both ways. Today, evangelism is almost talked of as it were a duty, a must-do whether you like it or not; such talk once again puts the focus on the individual rather than the community. Such a focus seems almost inevitable when Evangelicalism has no united front, no wholeness.
[It is a subject for a different discussion, but can we take what Jesus said to his Jewish disciples in their culture and apply it unthinkingly to Gentiles in our culture?]
According to the Evangelical Alliance Basis Of Faith, Evangelicals believe in ‘the divine inspiration of the Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.’ Really? Is Scripture really the supreme authority? Yet this is one of the central planks on which Evangelicalism rests. One must ask serious questions of such a proclamation.
How does Scripture fulfil this role? Does it speak into situations from out of nothing to make its decision known? Does a disembodied hand write Scripture’s judgement on the wall by quoting an appropriate verse or two? Can a Bible placed on a table in our midst suddenly become animated and speak independently to us?
Do we really believe that Scripture is the supreme authority for all matters relating to faith and practice? The answer is a firm ‘no’. Evangelical Christians need to repent of the utterly ridiculous idea that the Bible can somehow speak into human lives and yet be free from human prejudice as it speaks. We need to stop claiming things for the Bible that the Bible never claims for itself.
Not one of us will be holding a Bible when we stand before Jesus after we leave this life. Not one of will ascend to heaven with a Bible in our back pocket. The Holy Spirit does not have conform to Scripture in what he says and does, for the Holy Spirit is God but Scripture is not God. Jesus does not have to check with the NIV before he intercedes for us, for Jesus is God but Scripture is not God.
We must also realise that there is no such thing as a standard Bible (with the same canon) across denominations, countries and cultures. Is ‘our’ Bible ‘right’ and the rest ‘wrong’? The Bible that we cling to is but one of many different varieties of Bible that exist across Christendom; which Bible is ‘right’?
If the Bible truly is the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct, then the Bible is God, and the trinity is Father, Son and Holy Scripture. If Scripture is God, then this belief turns us into what Jack Deere calls ‘Bible deists’. For, he says, ‘although the Bible deist loudly proclaims the sufficiency of Scripture, in reality he is proclaiming the sufficiency of his own interpretation of the Scripture.’ Absolutely.
This once again highlights the serious weakness of Evangelicalism in that it focuses on the individual rather than on the faith community. Such a focus inevitably creates an atmosphere of individual belief versus another individual’s belief, instead of creating a faith community.
Furthermore, Bible deists often contend that the Bible is the only way that God speaks into our world today. If, as Deere suggests, ‘for Bible deists the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible is the only way that God speaks to us today,’ then whose interpretation is the sole authority for life?
Since there is manifestly no such thing as a sole Evangelical interpretation of Scripture but rather Evangelicalism contains many Scriptural interpretations within its ranks; how is Evangelicalism ever going to present a united front, or make any meaningful claims of unity?