Reformation Needed Today
James Montgomery Boice
For years I have spoken about what I consider to be the worldliness of the liberal churches, accusing them of four things: pursuing the world's wisdom, embracing the world's theology, following the world's agenda, and employing the world's methods. What has hit me like a thunderbolt in recent years is that what I had been saying about the liberal churches at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s now needs to be said about the evangelical churches as well, since many of them have become as liberal as the larger mainline denominations before them.
Well over a decade ago, Professor Martin Marty, always a shrewd observer of the American church, said in a magazine interview that, in his judgment, evangelicals would be "the most worldly people in America" by the end of the century. Marty's observations are not always right, in my opinion, but in this case he was on target. Evangelicals have embraced worldliness in the same ways that it was embraced by the liberal churches. Like those liberals of past years, evangelicals today:
1. Pursue the world's wisdom. Evangelicals are not heretics, of course, at least not consciously. If they are asked whether the Bible is the authoritative and inerrant Word of God, most will answer affirmatively. But many have abandoned the Bible all the same because they do not think it is adequate for the challenges we face as we enter a new millennium. They do not think it is sufficient for winning people to Christ, so they turn to felt-need sermons, to entertainment, or to "signs and wonders." They do not think the Scriptures are sufficient for achieving genuine Christian growth, so they turn to therapy groups or defer to Christian counseling. They do not think the Bible is sufficient for discovering the will of God for their lives, so they look for mystical signs or subjective feelings. They do not think it is sufficient for impacting the secular society that surrounds us, so they fund lobby groups in Washington or throw their efforts into electing increasingly larger numbers of "born-again" government officials.
2. Embrace the world's theology. Like the liberals before us, evangelicals use the Bible's words, but give them new meanings. Sin becomes "dysfunctional behavior." Salvation becomes "self-esteem" or "wholeness." Faith becomes "possibility thinking." Jesus becomes more of an example for right living than our Savior from sin. People are told how to succeed in business, have happy marriages, and raise nice children, but not how to get right with an offended God.
3. Follow the world's agenda. The world's major agenda is not hunger, racism, the redistribution of wealth, or ecology. The world's major agenda is being happy, and happiness is achieving the maximum amount of personal peace and sufficient prosperity to enjoy it. But is that not the bottom line of much evangelical preaching today? Being happy? Being content? Being satisfied? Francis Schaeffer saw it and called the evangelical church to repentance, but we are too self-satisfied to do that. Far be it from us to preach a gospel that would expose our liberal-like sins and drive us to the Savior.
4. Employ the world's methods. Evangelicals have become like liberals in this area, too. How else are we to explain the stress so many place on numerical growth and money? How else are we to explain that so many pastors tone down the hard edges of Bible truth in order to attract greater numbers to their services? How else are we to explain that we support a National Association of Evangelicals lobby in Washington? How else are we to explain that we have created social-action groups to advance specific legislation?
Or consider evangelical rhetoric. Evangelicals speak of "taking back America," "fighting for the country's soul," and "reclaiming the United States for Christ." How? By electing Christian presidents, congressmen, and senators, lobbying for conservative judges, taking over power structures, and imposing our Christian standard of morality on the rest of the nation by law. Was America ever really a Christian nation? Was any nation? What about Augustine's doctrine of the two cities, that meant so much to the Reformers? Will any country ever be other than man's city? And what about America's soul? Is there really an American soul to be redeemed? Or fought over? When we fall into these patterns of religious behavior, do we not merely duplicate what the liberals did before us?
Evangelicals were very critical of President Clinton because he seemed to take political positions from the opinion polls, espousing as truth whatever was most useful to him at the moment. But do not many preachers do the same? A recent column in the New Yorker magazine bemoaned what it called the "brave, new audience-driven preaching" of our day. "The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that and brings his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning from our culture to find out about the world, discovers nothing but its own reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly into the future."
David Wells, in his book Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1998), asks rightly, "Is the antithesis against God or against the world? The evangelical church today imagines that this choice does not have to be made, that it can be on friendly terms with both. This attitude, more than anything else, accounts for the church's diminished spiritual stature and for why it appears as a moral pygmy among the dilemmas of the modern world which themselves seem to be giants. Amidst enormous pain and confusion, evangelical faith seems by comparison to be trivial, as it indulges itself in 'happy clappy' praise songs, light Sunday morning dialogues or, worse, yet, drama in their place.… What the church needs is not more of these strategies but more faith, more confidence that God's Word is sufficient for this time, more confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to apply it, and more integrity in proclaiming it."
How Is Liberalism in the Church to Be Defeated?
How is liberalism in the church to be defeated? Only by the true Christian gospel. And that can be recovered only through the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. If the Bible is neglected, liberalism will come in, because liberalism is merely men and women thinking as men and women always think apart from revelation. Apart from receiving the voice of God in Scripture, we always minimize our sin, exalt our natural abilities, and invent endless plans for our own moral and political salvation. The Bible exposes our sin for what it is, reveals our utter incapacity for self-help, and throws us on the mercy of God who has revealed the sole way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Error will never be defeated by mere rhetoric or even by burning heretics at the stake. It is only by the sword of the Spirit that we are able to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and ... take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).
The author was, until his death last year, the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pa. This article is reprinted with permission from Tabletalk magazine. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2001.