The Devil’s Gospel

Introduction:  Words like rogue, scoundrel, scalawag, and rascal could all be used to describe the villainous Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (1872-1916). He exercised a baleful influence on Czarina Alexandra, the wife of Russian Czar Nicholas II. Rasputin was a grossly immoral man who operated under the motto “The more a person sins, the more grace he will get—so sin all the more and do it with gusto!”[1] Another and more recent individual who would fit this kind of description would be the notorious Jim Jones who founded the People’s Temple in San Francisco and then moved his congregation to the South American country Guyana and founded Jonestown where in 1978 under instructions from Jim Jones, 380 people committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. During this same period of time, one-time evangelical minister David Berg founded The Children of God, a group of ex-hippie flower children that lived communally and under the sinister control of Berg, developed into a cult that allowed communal sex as one of its distinctive features.[2] All three of these men would be classified as antinomians.

Regrettably, modern evangelicalism provides fertile soil for antinomianism to flourish. Louis Berkhof correctly noted this long ago, “Antinomianism, on the other hand, does not regard the external Word as necessary at all, and displays a Mysticism which expects everything from the inner word or the inner light, or from the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit. Its slogan is, ‘The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.’ The external word belongs to the natural world, is unworthy of the really spiritual man, and can produce no spiritual results. While Antinomians of all descriptions reveal a tendency to slight, if not to ignore altogether, the means of grace, this tendency received its clearest expression at the hands of some of the Anabaptists.”[3] It should come as no surprise that David Berg was nurtured and took his theological cue from the Charismatic renewal of the 1960’s with its emphasis on speaking in tongues, words of knowledge, prophecies, and claims to continuing revelation. In other words a loss of confidence in Sola Scriptura.

As James Boice observed, this kind of thing is not restricted to Charismatics, Evangelicals, are equally guilty. “To put it another way, evangelicals have abandoned a proper commitment to revealed truth and have become mere pragmatists. Instead of proclaiming and teaching God’s Word, the Bible, they are resorting to sermonettes of pop psychology, entertainment-style services and technological approaches to church growth, which is a formula not for the increase of true religion but for the end of it. Evangelical churches are growing, but they no longer have anything distinct to offer. They are popular in many places, but the prophetic, challenging voice of the Christian preacher and teacher, which has been the glory and strength of the church in all past ages, has been lost.”[4] We have, as a society, imbibed a decidedly antiauthoritarian attitude in which we glorify individualism, considering it a virtue to go our own way. In the process we buy into the notion that true freedom means having no boundaries or restraints. Having cast off the shackles of our authoritarian forefathers, we are now emancipated. We are autonomous to the core of our being. We are free to follow our own personal light, to pursue primarily individual goals. And where does this lead? We are fascinated with feelings and experiences. We rely on intuition as our moral compass. “It is especially disconcerting to see the church ally itself with some current ideology in hope of gaining relevance or credibility. Ideological alignments accelerate rather than counter the secularization of the church.”[5]

Evangelicalism is increasingly taking its cue from the culture. To be sure, there is what Michael Scott Horton calls “Orthotalksy—a litany of the right words, but emptied of the usual meaning…when truth has been defined in such terms as ‘the Lord spoke to my heart … ’ and ‘the Lord revealed to me … ’; the objective authority of Scripture loses its importance.”[6] One of the major reasons for the sad condition of present day evangelicalism, with its preoccupation with psychology and marketing techniques, etc., is traceable to biblical and doctrinal illiteracy. This condition is a direct result of the failure of the pulpit to preach and teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). People attend church year in and year out and possess only rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. We are easy victims of the spirit of the age because of this condition. We reflect the antiauthoritarian mindset right along with everyone else and forget the truth that the Bible portrays true freedom, not as absolute, but as freedom from sin’s tyranny. “This libertarianism,” notes D.A. Carson, “has engendered two surprising children. The first is a new love of authoritarianism amongst some believers: they do not feel safe and orthodox unless some leader is telling them exactly what to say, do, and think. Inevitably this brings some power lovers to positions of religious leadership, supported sometimes by a theology that ascribes ‘apostleship’ or some special charismatic inducement to them, sometimes by a theology of churchmanship that makes each pastor a pope. The authority of the Scriptures is in such instances almost always formally affirmed; but an observer may be forgiven if he or she senses that these self-promoted leaders characteristically so elevate their opinions over the Scripture, often in the name of the Scripture, that the Word of God becomes muted. The church cries out for those who proclaim the Scriptures with unction and authority while simultaneously demonstrating that they stand under that authority themselves.”[7]

Anyone who undertakes an exposition of the sixth chapter of Romans had better beware. The textual terrain is wild and rigged. There are exegetical booby traps everywhere and the historical landscape is dotted with the remains of those who stepped on them! What is Paul’s intent in this chapter? The Apostle was seeking to correct a gross distortion of his teaching on the grace of God. He is vindicating his gospel from the charge that it allows people to be careless and indifferent about sin. His major premise revolves around the relationship of believers to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is critically important to note how the Apostle underscores and presupposes the determinative role of doctrinal understanding. (Note the emphasis of “knowing” in 6:3, 6, 9, and 16). This has to do not only with the facts of the gospel, but with its implications as well. We examined five popular misinterpretations of this passage last week. Today we will focus our attention on a recurring phenomenon that has plagued the Christian Church down through the centuries: Antinomianism.

I.          Antinomianism: The Term and its Concept:  This striking saying of the well-known Scottish theologian of the 19th cent. Rabbi Duncan suggests that every heresy springs from the carnal mind, which is incapable of subjection to the divine law.[8] The term “antinomianism,” derived from anti, “against,” and nomos, “law,” and coined by Luther in his controversy with Agricola, designates a tendency reappearing in ever-varying forms throughout the history of the church.[9] An accurate definition of antinomianism is not easily constructed. Almost invariably, those charged with this heresy repudiate or at least reformulate the positions they are alleged to have asserted.[10] Here are some of the most obvious features of Antinomianism:

A.        The law is made void by grace. Justification by faith alone renders good works unnecessary.

B.        Since good works are unnecessary, obedience to the law is not required of justified persons.

C.        God sees no sin in the justified, who are no longer bound by the law, and is not displeased with them if they sin.

D.        Since no duties or obligations are admitted in the gospel, faith and repentance are not commanded.

E.        The Christian need not repent in order to receive pardon of sin.

F.         No conviction by the law precedes the sinner’s closing with Christ, inasmuch as Christ is freely offered to sinners as sinners.

II.         Paul’s Gospel and the Charges of Antinomianism:  The Apostle earlier alluded to the insinuation that charged him with encouraging people to be not only careless about sin, but actively engaging in it! (Rom. 3:8) Paul dismisses this “slanderous” charge, but now returns to fully address it in Romans 6. Paul’s critics could actually point to people who actually did promote this kind of distortion of the Gospel of grace. Such people were common (cf. Jude 4). Incidentally, as Stott comments, it is highly significant both that Paul’s critics lodged the charge of antinomianism against him, and that he took time, trouble, and space to answer them, without withdrawing or even modifying his message. For this shows conclusively that he did preach the gospel of grace without works. Otherwise, if he did not teach this, the objection would never have been raised. It is the same today. If we are proclaiming Paul’s gospel, with its emphasis on the freeness of grace, and the impossibility of self-salvation, we are sure to provoke the charge of antinomianism. If we do not arouse this criticism, the likelihood is that we are not preaching Paul’s gospel.[11]

I want to quote at length the late Martin Lloyd-Jones, who as I cited in number 16 of this series, declared that Norman Shepherd’s doctrine of justification by faithful obedience (thus a form or works) was another gospel. “First of all let me make a comment, to me a very important and vital comment. The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel. Let me show what I mean. If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise this question. If a man’s preaching is, ‘If you want to be Christians, and if you want to go to heaven, you must stop committing sins, you must take up good works, and if you do so regularly and constantly, and do not fail to keep on at it, you will make yourselves Christians, you will reconcile yourselves to God, and you will go to heaven’. Obviously a man who preaches in that strain would never be liable to this misunderstanding. Nobody would say to such a man, ‘Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?’ because the man’s whole emphasis is just this, that if you go on sinning you are certain to be damned, and only if you stop sinning can you save yourselves. So that misunderstanding could never arise. And you can apply the same test to any other type or kind of preaching. If a man preaches that you are saved by the Church, or by sacraments, and so on, this kind of argument does not arise. This particular misunderstanding can only arise when the doctrine of justification by faith only is presented. Let me put this in another way. You remember what the Apostle says in chapter 4 in the fifth verse: ‘But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’ It is when a man says a thing like that – that God justifies the ungodly – that the misunderstanding is liable to arise. Or when a man says what we found in chapter 5 verses 9 and 10: ‘Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.’ It is when we preach things like that, that this misunderstanding tends to occur. So this is a very good test of one’s preaching. There is a sense in which the doctrine of justification by faith only is a very dangerous doctrine; dangerous, I mean, in the sense that it can be misunderstood. It exposes a man to this particular charge. People listening to it may say, ‘Ah, there is a man who does not encourage us to live a good life, he seems to say that there is no value in our works, he says that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”.

Therefore what he is saying is, that it does not matter what you do, sin as much as you like’. There is thus clearly a sense in which the message of ‘justification by faith only’ can be dangerous, and likewise with the message that salvation is entirely of grace. I say therefore that if our preaching does not expose us to that charge and to that misunderstanding, it is because we are not really preaching the gospel.”[12] What Lloyd-Jones is saying is that the charge of Antinomianism could not be made of the views of Norman Shepherd, N. T. Wright and their respective followers in the Federal Vision.

Conclusion:  I close by quoting two significant representatives of the Reformed faith. First, Ezekiel Hopkins, an acclaimed Puritan of the 17th cent. “It is the greatest reproach which can be cast upon the doctrine of Christ, that it makes men libertines, or gives them indulgence to sin. Some may possibly so argue, that, if Christ procured happiness and salvation for them, there lies no necessity upon them to exercise holiness and strictness; but they may live at random, for Christ hath done all: this is that cursed inference, which the Apostle, all along in his epistles, confutes and abhors: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” Rom. vi. 1, 2; and this is the greatest reproach that can be cast on this doctrine, that it should hold forth Christ as a patron of licentiousness, who was the greatest pattern and example of holiness and purity.”[13] Finally, listen to the words of the Father of Reformed Theology, John Calvin. “Why, then, are we justified by faith? Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which, alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also. For he, “is given unto us for righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30). Therefore Christ justified no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies.”[14]

References:

 


[1] Cf. Rene’ Fulop-Miller, Rasputin, The Holy Devil (Viking Press, 1928) L. Praamsma correctly points out that Rasputin was a self-proclaimed monk and was not a clergyman or a monk in the Russian Orthodox church, cf. his The Church in The Twentieth Century VII (Paideia Press, 1981), p. 106.

 

[2] Berg’s own daughter eventually left the group and wrote The Children of God: The Inside Story (Zondervan, 1984).

 

[3] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 611.

 

[4] J. M. Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture (IVP, 1996), p. 28.

 

[5] Donald G. Bloesch, Crumbling Foundations: Death & Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval (Zondervan, 1984), p. 39.

 

[6] M. S. Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Baker, 1991), p. 151.

 

[7] D. A. Carson, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, eds. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Zondervan, 1986), p. 46.

 

[8] This is adapted from Wm. Young’s article on the subject in The Encyclopedia of Christianity I, General editor E. H. Palmer (The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964), p. 271.

 

[9] The late John Gerstner wrote, “The magisterial Reformers were very sharply opposed to Antinomianism. While they recognized that justification by faith alone was the article by which the church stands or falls (Luther), and the very hinge of the Reformation (Calvin), they never for a moment granted that the faith, which justifies could be sterile. As a matter of fact, the formula was “Sola fides justificat, sed fides non est sola” (faith alone justifies, but faith is not alone). Luther strongly opposed Antinomians such as Johann Agricola and Nikolaus Amsdorf, who went so far as to say that good works are harmful. Luther wrote two treatises against the Antinomians.” Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), p. 211.

 

[10] Arminians were fond of labeling their Calvinistic foes as antinomians. Robert Traill, one of the great Scottish Puritans wrote one of the definitive works on the Reformation’s understanding of justification entitled “A Vindication of the Protestant Doctrine Concerning Justification, and of its Preachers and Professors from the unjust charge of Antinomianism” in The Works of Robert Traill I (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1975), pp. 252-296.

 

[11] J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: The Bible Speaks Today (IVP, 1994), p. 167.

 

[12] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6 (Zondervan, 1973), p. 8, 9.

 

[13] The Work of Ezekiel Hopkins (rpt Soli Deo Gloria, 1997), p. 500.

 

[14] Calvin Institutes Rom. III.16.1.

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture

by Kenneth A. Myers

Where did popular culture come from? Why is it the way it is? How does it influence Americans in general and Christians in particular? Ken Myers provides fascinating answers to these questions. He sees pop culture as a culture of diversion, preventing people from asking questions about their origin and destiny and about the meaning of life. Two aspects stand out–a quest for novelty and a desire for instant gratification. In addition, this culture offers something very appealing–the illusion that you set your own standards, you can choose, you are the master of your fate, you deserve a break, you’re worth it.

Endorsements:

“A magnificent and timely book. Fresh, witty, informative, trenchant, and eminently sane, Ken Myers’s book is a must for thoughtful evangelicals… I only hope there are enough of them left to read it.” — Os Guinness

“In All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes Ken Myers looks at the entire phenomenon of popular culture–its roots, assumptions, practices, and effects. The result is a provocative book that shows how our thought, communication, and living have all been affected by popular culture’s omnipresence. It should make us take a hard look at what we’ve accepted as harmless entertainment.” –Ted Prescott, sculptor, past president of Christians in the Visual Arts

“Ken Myers has made an excellent contribution here, dealing not only with the roots of popular culture in social history and philosophy but also with its ultimate impact on character.” — Dick Keyes, L’Abri Fellowship

Paperback; 224 pages

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