Where do religious liberals come from?
Several years ago Gregory Wills discussed this question in an article called What Lessons Can We Learn from the History of Liberalism? We make a mistake when we assume that liberalism starts outside the church, as if it were a kind of alien invasion. Liberalism arises as a kind of “heresy” of evangelicalism. Ironically (at least from our point of view), liberals say that believe the Bible as much as we do.
|“We identify liberals as persons who reject the Bible, the church, and Jesus. However, such persons are not liberals. Liberals have always made it their first ambition to honor the Bible, the church, and Jesus. Liberalism does not originate from without the church but from within.”|
The liberals proposed a version of Christianity that downplayed the miraculous, rejected inerrancy, and made peace with evolution as an explanation of human origins. They hoped this new kind of Christianity would liberate the faith from the cultural bondage that kept it in the backwaters of contemporary life. Wills notes that the liberals had a “missiological” purpose in mind:
|“Educated persons did not merely reject Christianity as untrue; they also scorned it as disreputable and absurd. Based on evolutionary thinking, intellectuals increasingly concluded that Christianity, like religion generally, belonged to the childhood of the human race. But now that humanity had reached its majority it would stand upon enlightened and scientific reason, and would discard its religious superstitions.”|
The liberals proposed a new view of biblical inspiration that made room for the prevailing scientific consensus. No longer were Christians shackled by a literal reading of Genesis 1-3. No longer did they have to defend floating ax heads, talking donkeys, and a man walking on water. Now they could keep the “red-letter” words of Jesus while dismissing the outmoded trappings of superstition. The end result was a Christianity expressed in largely naturalistic terms:
|“Liberals were convinced that they could preserve the transcendent spiritual truth-supernatural truth-on this basis. They were wrong. They intended to rescue the faith, but in making Christianity more credible to the world, they replaced it with a religion according to the world.”|
Wills is quite right when he says that a modern generation of evangelicals is repeating the same mistake. In the name of making Christianity “credible” to an unbelieving world, they have actually pulled some of the bricks out of the foundation.
|“Modern evangelicals who wish to remove Christianity’s discredit among its cultured despisers are retracing the steps of the old liberals. If the history of liberalism has proved anything, surely it has proved that the gospel must be accepted on its own terms, not on the terms of its despisers, however cultured, educated, and successful they may be.”|
This is the second half of a two-part message answering the question “What does it mean to believe the Bible?” You can read Part 1 online. In that earlier message I argued that believing the Bible means accepting its authority in every area of life. In this day of enlightened skepticism when unbelief seems to be on the march, we have to face this difficult question:
Will we believe the Bible, all of it, every word of it, from first to last, and everything in between?
Our spiritual ancestors had no problem answering Yes to that question. But we struggle mightily with it. That controversy over the Bible continues to our present day.I want to answer and answer one very important question: What does it mean to believe the Bible? It’s one thing to say you believe the Bible, it’s another thing to live that out on a daily basis. So what do we mean when we say that we believe the Bible?
Using 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 as our guide, we can discover three answers to that question. Part 1 discusses the first answer:
I. Believing the Bible Means Accepting Its Authority in Every Area of Life.
My first message ended with these words:
Do I truly believe the Bible?
If so, what difference does it make in my life?
Every Christian needs to think about that because we live in days of spiritual anarchy where society has rejected the word of the Lord. Are we willing to be men and women “under authority” who do what we are told even when it isn’t popular? God help us to answer yes and show the world by how we live that we truly believe what the Bible says.
And now we pass on to consider the second answer to our question.
II. Believing the Bible means accepting the opposition it brings.
“For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews” (v. 14).
Here we have a piece of bad news. If you believe the Bible, you’re going to have some strong enemies. Here’s the really bad news. When Paul writes “your own countrymen,” he uses a word that is absolutely unique. It’s not found anywhere else in the New Testament. It means the people closest to you. If you decide to believe the Bible is the Word of God, many people who are close to you will not share your faith at all.
When I pastored in Oak Park, I was sometimes encouraged by well-meaning members of the congregation that I should not speak out so boldly about sin in our community because I might turn away the very people we were trying to reach. Deep in my heart I understood their concern and to some degree I shared it. No one likes to be unpopular. We would all rather be part of a church that makes us feel good when we go about our life in the community. And there is a huge place in the church for ministries of compassion to lift up the hurting people all around us.
It is a little embarrassing when friends say, “Oh, you go to that church?” and they don’t mean it as a compliment. That’s no fun. It would be better if everyone loved us. But they don’t. If they despise us for telling the truth about homosexuality, then so be it. If they think we are narrow-minded and bigoted, then so be it.
The truth is much different, of course. The church is filled with men and women who love God and love people. Let us say it and say it clearly: We don’t hate anyone. We welcome everyone to attend our services. Our doors are open to all people without exception. We don’t ask, “Where were you sleeping last night?”-and we’re not going to start now.
Some Christians think they can escape the opposition if they are hip and cool. But it will not work. Listen to these words by Carl Trueman (Pleased to Meet You. Hope You Guessed My Name, Sept 17, 2012):
|“You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world. Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture of being a white supremacist.”|
I have no doubt he is right. The day is fast approaching when Christians who stand on the Bible will be marginalized and ostracized. And the great debate will be exactly at this point: Will we stand under the authority of Scripture in the realm of sexual ethics? Already many so-called evangelicals are starting to squirm out from under that authority by playing fast and loose with the biblical text. They are doing exactly what Gregory Wills talked about. Liberalism always starts inside the church as a means of taking away the hard edges of our faith.
No matter but others think about us, our deepest commitment must be to the Word of God. We preach it and teach it and proclaim because it is the only hope for a dying world.
There is yet a third answer to our question.
III. Believing the Bible means accepting its judgment on society.
“Who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved-so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!” (vv. 15-16)
These are sobering words. In these verses Paul mentions four ways that the Jews opposed the early Christians:
1. They killed Jesus and the prophets.
2. They drove the apostles out of Jerusalem.
3. They are hostile to all men.
4. They hinder the preaching of the gospel.
The last point is that one that grips Paul’s mind and heart. It’s one thing to say, “Not for me, but it’s okay for you.” It’s something else to say, “Not for me, and not for you either.” If you prefer to stay in darkness, that’s your privilege. But it is a terrible sin to put out the light so that others cannot see.
There is something fundamentally wrong with any religion that cuts off a man from his fellow man. Such a religion is not of God. Mark it down, please. The greatest sin is not in refusing salvation. The greatest sin is trying to keep others from believing.
If you prefer to go to hell, that’s your business. But please don’t try to take others with you.
Such people are all around us today. Not all unbelievers fit this pattern, but some do. They do all they can to actively oppose Christians who are actively seeking to win others to Christ.
Full to the Brim
Verse 16 tells us two things about God’s judgment on such people:
1. They heap up their sins to the limit. The word means to “fill to the brim.” There is a limit, a line, and a point of no return for each person. No one knows when or where that point is. But that point of no return comes for nations, for families, and for individuals.
2. Wrath has come upon them. The word is both present and future. Although our God is patient, his patience has limits. Eventually the storm clouds rolls in and finally break over the heads of unbelievers. Though they be long delayed, the fires of hell will come at last to those who reject our Lord.
Please understand. This is God’s judgment on any society that rejects his revelation.No nation or individual can reject him with impunity. No nation can sin forever without reaping a divine punishment.
This is the final answer to the question: What does it mean to believe the Bible? If you believe the Bible, you must accept its judgment on society.
Two Concluding Thoughts
Let me wrap up this message with two concluding thoughts:
1. There are certain unchangeable facts which are true and which must be believed if we are to be truly Christian.
These truths are not like the shifting tides of human opinion. They do not change with the latest Gallup Poll. These truths make Christianity what it is and if they are neglected or denied, our faith loses its foundation.
Our supreme authority is the Bible. Like Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, we say, “Our conscience is bound by the Word of God. Here we stand. We can do no other.” Such a stand will not win us brownie points with the world or with the local newspapers.
Let me sharpen the point just a bit. Suppose someone were to ask why you are a Christian. It is not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus because he solves all my problems.” That’s beside the point. We must not claim to be Christians simply because of some advantage we receive. We must believe because the message is from God and is therefore true. No other answer will suffice.
2. We Are Men and Women Under Authority.
That’s the point T. D. Jakes was trying to make to Oprah Winfrey.
He was right about that.
We don’t have the right to change what God has said.
We are heralds who announce to the world what God has said.
If God has spoken, we don’t debate his commands.
We declare them.
The gospel is good news to those ready to receive it.
It is bad news to those who reject it.
One thing you could always say about Jack Wyrtzen, the founder of Word of Life: “He was not ashamed of the gospel.” He told it the same way to rich and poor, young and old, in America, in Africa and around the world.
That’s what you do when you’re under authority.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks in 2001, I visited the Prison Fellowship headquarters in Virginia. While there, I had a chance to check out Chuck Colson’s office. Among the various mementos I noticed a plaque containing these words: “Faithfulness Not Success.” After Chuck Colson died a few months ago, I thought about that plaque. In God’s economy the values of the world are turned upside down. If you want to save your life, you have to lose it. If you want to become great, first be a servant. If you want true success, first learn to be faithful where you are.
When we stand before the Lord, we may be surprised to know that our bottom line and his aren’t quite the same. He won’t ask how much money we made or lost or how many cars we owned or whether or not we climbed to the top of our profession. His question on that day will be much simpler: “Were you faithful in doing the task I gave you to do?” If we can answer yes, our time on earth will have been well-spent. Chuck Colson got it exactly right: It’s faithfulness not success that matters most to God.
It all begins with faithfulness to God’s Word. Like the campfire song says, “No turning back, no turning back.” Believing the Bible is serious business. No turning back, no turning back.
Some years ago I drove to Moody Bible Institute in downtown Chicago to eat lunch with a friend. As I was walking back to my car after the meal, I happened to see a beat-up blue church van parked on Wells Street. It was from a church down on 110th street in a tough part of the city. As I looked I noticed the most unusual slogan I have ever seen on a church van. Under the name of the church were these words: “There is no substitute for the Word of God.”
It’s not very catchy but it’s true. And it sums up everything I’ve been trying to say in this message. There is no substitute for the Word of God.
May God help us to stand on the Word of God until Jesus comes again. Amen.