Penal Substitution is good news

The salvation of men and women from the penal consequences and power of sin through the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning death, His resurrection from the dead, His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and His unchanging priesthood. (Article 5 of the Australian Baptist Union Doctrinal Statement)

 

Scott Higgins is offering Australian Christians an alternative Gospel to the one deeply held and preached by evangelicals.

In a recent blog post titled, Now this is really good news! Reframing the Gospel, he suggests

“The gospel of Jesus paying the penalty for our sin may have resonated powerfully in mediaeval times through to enormous upheaval in thinking, values and attitudes that emerged in Western society in the 1960s. In our era it has lost resonance.”

Higgins doesn’t settle for the view that the concept of penal substitution is no longer powerful and relevant, he wants us to believe that it is not of the Gospel taught by Jesus and by the Apostles, rather PSA belongs to a formulation created by the medieval church.

He writes,

“Walk into any evangelical church today and this is not what you are likely to hear when people declare the “good news”. You’re much more likely to hear that God is a loving but holy king who is deeply distressed at our refusal to worship him, and who is bound by the demands of justice to punish all human beings for their wrongdoing. So grievous is our offence that that God will condemn us to live eternally in hell, a place so void of goodness, so utterly and excruciatingly painful, it is beyond our worst nightmares. Yet because loves us, God has found a way out of this terrible destiny. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and took the penalty we deserved, meaning all of who choose to follow Jesus will be considered as if we had never sinned and will be welcomed into heaven.

I suspect that there is a lot more mediaeval in the articulation of the gospel we proclaim today then we would like to admit. Go back to the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and you will not hear the gospel described this way. The emphasis is placed firmly on the resurrection as a sign that God had done something extraordinary in the world and that all people should follow Jesus. Was the notion that Christ paid the penalty for our sin part of the follow-on teaching that people received after they converted? Maybe. Maybe not.”

 

There are more than a few problems with Higgins presentation. Here are 4:

Firstly, Higgins hides history

Higgins’ suggestion that an emphasis on penal substitution relies on medieval theology and not the New Testament cannot be sustained.

A thousand years before medieval Europe, the Early Church Fathers taught and affirmed the necessity and centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. Here are just 3 example quotes:

“If, the, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He has been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father’s will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves?” (Justin Martyr)

“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by .the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.” (Athanasius)

“But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death.  And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment.  And these words “every one” are intended to check the ignorant officiousness which would deny the reference of the curse to Christ, and so, because the curse goes along with death, would lead to the denial of the true death of Christ.” (Augustine)

Not only did the early church affirm and explain PSA, so did Christian theologians throughout the early and high middle ages, the Reformers, and Evangelicals from the 18th through to 21st Centuries.

Second, does the Bible teach penal substitution?

Higgins casts aspersions on the idea that either Jesus or the Apostles necessarily believed and taught the doctrine of penal substitution. To use his own words, “Maybe. Maybe not”.

Readers are left wondering, if he believes in PSA why does he want readers left to doubt?

It of course doesn’t require a Bachelor of Theology to know that both Jesus and the Apostles readily affirmed different facets to the atonement, including penal substitution. For example, the Gospel writers interpreted the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of the Old Testament, chief among them was the Passover, Yom Kippur, and the Servant of Isaiah 53. In all 3 cases one who is innocent dies in the place of the guilty in order to satisfy Divine wrath.

All four Gospels either explicitly quote or implicitly reference the Servant Song (Isaiah 53) more often than any other OT passage. R.T France is correct when he talks about Jesus‘ repeated self-identification with the servant of Isaiah 53. Thus, the entire trajectory of Jesus’ earthly ministry as recorded in Scripture is an embodiment of the suffering servant who’s life culminated in a cross and death, before climaxing in a resurrection:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Indeed, Jesus described his coming death in these terms,

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. (26:28)

1 Corinthians ch.15 is the one of the Bible’s most wonderful explorations of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and of its significance. The Apostle begins the chapter by outlining the Gospel.

“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”

Paul makes it clear that the Gospel he received and preached, is the Gospel the Corinthians received and believed, and is the Gospel which saves. This Gospel contains primary (or essential) elements, which includes the person of Jesus Christ, the testimony of the Scriptures, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and his substitutionary death. The preposition used by Paul here, huper, denotes substitution; Christ died on our behalf/in our place for of our sins.

Thirdly, Higgins unnecessarily pits cosmic and social renewal against personal redemption.

He bemoans evangelicals talking about personal accountability before a Holy God and personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and instead wants us focusing on God defeating the powerful, the wealthy and other structures who trample on the poor and on the environment. Why do we need to choose between the two? Is not the love of money an expression of personal sin before God? Is not using power to crush the weak a demonstration of personal guilt and of need for atonement?

The Gospel of Christ offers a redemption that is individual, corporate and cosmic. We find all three in Colossians 1:15-23.

“15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

“21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

There is peace is for the individual who has been justified through faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). God does not redeem individuals to remain isolated and separated, for peace is inherently about relationships. In the first and primary place it is relationship with God, but God is also making peace between people, and this on view in Colossians. The cross has a established a corporate peace, known as the Church.

This peace issued through the cross will have a reconciling effect on all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven. Colossians 1:20 is a challenging verse, and it is difficult to conceive how this promised cosmic renewal will appear. Paul can not  be arguing that somehow every single person will be justified and brought into heavenly citizenship and that even the cosmos might somehow attain salvation; Paul was no universalist. The Scriptures make clear that the wrath of God is no empty phrase and that hell is a real place which will hold those things that have been exposed by the light and not saved to the light.

Of Colossians 1:20, F.F Bruce explains, “ultimate reconciliation involves peace. This does not imply “that every human being, irrespective…of his attitude to God, will at last enjoy celestial bliss. “When Paul speak here of reconciliation in the widest scale, he includes in it what we should call pacification”. By pacification, he is referring  to realities submitting against their will to a power they cannot resist. We must appreciate however that such Divine power is never used as an unjust and abusive sword, but always with precision against evil, not “because God is hard but because he is good”.

Murray Harris writes, “The whole universe has been restored to its God ordained destiny”. Peace is not the inclusion of all things into a state of salvific bliss but the right ordering of all things, which focuses on a great salvation but which also includes judgment.

“The point is not that the stars and planets have sinned and need atonement as human beings do. But rather, the sin of human beings has led to a twisting of the whole universe that only redemption of human sin can set right.” (John Frame)

 

Fourthly, Higgins suggests a view of God that is problematic.

While he doesn’t want to say it unequivocally, it appears as though his gripe with PSA is that it conflicts with his view of God and that God could ever exercise violence.

“God was refusing to play by the rules of violence and power. God’s reign would not be achieved through the triumph of violence. God would absorb every vindictive blow, every greedy grasp for power, every hateful curse and meet it with love and forgiveness. Incredibly, Jesus’s prayer was “Father forgive them”.

The problem is not so much what Higgins says in these couple of sentences, but what he insinuates by connecting them with his condemnation of Christians preaching about PSA. While again being careful to avoid open denial, he is sketching a view of God where a violent action like penal substitution is unbefitting the God who opposes violence and power. This is another example of Higgins creating a false dichotomy and fudging the biblical presentation of the cross.  As the Gospels show us, Jesus’ extraordinary words of kindness and love from the cross were accompanied with these other words, ““Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).”

On the cross the Father turned his face away. This was not an accident. God was not passive. The crucifixion was not merely the act of evil persons, for God had willed and planned that his Son would willingly go to the cross, to take the punishment of sinners,

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23)

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At a stretch, one might read Scott’s argument as an attempt to restore an aspect of Christ’s work that is sometimes overlooked. If he is simply saying, “don’t forget about the cosmic and social implications of the cross and resurrection”, that is useful. However, he seems to be saying more than this. He’s trying to remove from Gospel presentations talk about penal substitution. According to Higgins, PSA has no power to convict and covert contemporary Australians, and it’s probably not a bible idea anyway!

I have elsewhere summarised the 4 basic positions toward the doctrine of penal substitution and I think it is worthwhile repeating them here:

4 Basic positions on penal substition

First, there are those who deny PSA. There are two basic groups of people who fall under this category: those who reject the idea that PSA is affirmed in the New Testament, and those who believe it is taught but have decided to reject that part of the Bible. There are of course further subgroups, those who have issue with concept of substitution and those who only discredit the adjective penal.

Second, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA, believing it is necessary but dismissing the notion that it is central.

Third, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA and who believe it is central, but who believe that other aspects of the atonement have been downplayed and need to rediscovered and given proper emphasis. To explore other dimensions of the atonement at length is not too deny PSA, but it is restoring the beauty of these facets that are sometimes hidden. Of course, there is also more to the ministry of Christ than the atonement: there is his pre-incarnate work, his incarnation, life, resurrection, ascension, reign, intercession, return and Kingly judgement.

Fourth, those who accept the Bible’s teaching on PSA but downplay other aspects of the atonement.

It is difficult to see how the first position is tenable within Christian orthodoxy, for PSA is intricately tied to too many Christian doctrines. Rejecting PSA is often preceded by a changed doctrine of God. It is worth noting that those who deny penal substitution in one hand are often redefining sin on the other hand. Scott is not the only Australian Baptist who throws mud at PSA while arguing for godly sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage. Perhaps we should not be surprised though, that those who don’t believe what God says about sin also don’t accept God’s answer to sin.

The second position is problematic because the Bible does view PSA as critical and foundational. There are many Gospel presentations found in Scripture that do not explicitly speak of either substitution or penal, but of course no Gospel outline ever says everything. And yet, there is a clear weightedness given to substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death which appeases the righteous wrath of a righteous God.

The fourth position is understandable when ministering in a context where PSA is being attacked, however in defending the truth of one doctrine we must be careful not to neglect other important biblical notions of the cross.

The fourth position can end up becoming a reduced gospel. If we only ever preach on the penal aspect of the cross, we will be missing out on the full wonder of the atonement, and we will also be guilty of executing Scripture poorly. If we never speak about PSA then we are guilty of misrepresenting God’s message, and if we neglect those other facets then we are starving our churches and cutting bridges with people where we should be building them. As I mentioned before, if this Higgins’ point then he has something worth saying, but if that is so, why not say it? 

My question to Scott Higgins is, in which of these 4 positions do you fit?  Do you believe Jesus death on the cross includes propitiation?

Aspects of the Gospel may not be popular in Australia right now but that is no reason to minimise them, or worse, to deny them. I’m not saying it’s easy. Then again, did Jesus ever say that evangelism would be easy? What Australian Christians need is to take even greater care to understand the Gospel as revealed in Scripture and to explain with clarity and earnestness this good news of God to our neighbours. It is the failure of Churches to do this, and a lack of imagination to trust God’s Gospel that will make Churches ineffective and irrelevant to Australia in 2018.

When a theologian bemoans Christians speaking of God as Father

 ‘Our Father in Heaven…’

A colleague asked me yesterday whether I had read the outgoing reflections from Whitley College’s Principal, Frank Rees. I have now, and it offers interesting insight into the life of a Bible College Principal. I wish Frank all the best with his retirement, but I trust some of his cautions will not be adopted into the future.

I have decided to leave aside his series uncritical criticisms levelled at ‘critics’ of Whitley College, because those words are Lilliputian compared to one statement he makes. In fact, this assertion only adds weight to the concerns which many Evangelicals have expressed over the years.

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He writes,

“We have gone backwards on gender inclusive language in many of our official events. These elements include a resurgence of emphasis on God as Father, without any balancing awareness of other ways of naming God.”

It is interesting to hear that Frank has identified a ‘resurgence’ of Baptists speaking of God as Father, although he makes it clear that he thinks this is not a good thing. For him, it represents a ‘growing narrowness’ among Victorian Baptists.I would be very happy for Frank to respond and clarify his views on the subject.

His comment is set within a paragraph that relates to gender equality in churches. ‘Gender inequality’ is a now popular and fairly unhelpful phrase, which is sometimes less about genuine equality between the genders and is more about gender blurring. Real gender inequality is wrong and is a denial of the imago dei and our union with Christ (Galatians 3:28). Our Churches ought to be communities where women and men may flourish in the faith and be received as crucial partners in the Gospel. Unfortunately, the language of gender equality often carries with it a false premise, where women and men are not only considered equal but the same, and thus losing the God given distinctive of the sexes.

Much more can be said about that point, but my chief concern here is the way Frank Rees publicly laments Christians addressing God as Father. It is quite strange, theologically perilous, and somewhat reminiscent of that literary wonder, The Shack.

To be clear, Frank is not saying that we cannot speak of God as Father or that we should not, but he’s arguing that by preferencing Father we are being ‘narrow’, ‘going backwards’, and the language is responsible for breeding gender inequality. Not only this, he is implying, although he refrains from spelling it out on this occasion, we ought to use feminine names for God (i.e. God as mother).

The concept of motherhood is biblical and beautiful and to be honoured. But no where are we encouraged to call God mother or any feminine name. There are 4 similes used in the Old Testament, where God is ‘likened’ to a mother, but as J.B Torrance has argued, similes and metaphors are not to be confused, and they are certainly not to be considered analogous to biblical statements  that declare God’s personal names and being.

For example, someone says to me, ‘Murray you’re as slow as a snail.’ Such a statement is not intending to convey something ontologically true about me, as though I am a snail, but that my walking habits remind them of this slumberous creature.

We are not free to ascribe to God names or ideas that have not been given to us by God in Scripture; doing so is treading in very dangerous water, and I so trust Victorian Baptists won’t heed his caution.

In the Bible God does not reveal himself to be  like a father, but he is God the Father.  The one who reveals the Triune God is Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. What did Jesus teach us? Did he speak of God in feminine ways? Did he suggest that we address God as mother? No.

‘Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves’. (John 14:9-11)

So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me’. (John 8:28)

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19)

‘This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:9)

If Frank Rees is right and there is a movement among Victorian Baptists returning to the biblical language of God as Father, we should not bemoan the fact, but thank God for his grace in causing us prodigal children to return to him.

We should not be ashamed of calling God Father, but wonder in his grace to us in Jesus that invites us to know him as Father.

The Fatherhood of God is not a doctrine to be deconstructed by the imposition of current sociological expressions of femininity, just as we must resist defining God by the masculinity of previous ages. Contrary to Frank’s comments, true knowledge of God as Father does not lead to demeaning attitudes toward women, it causes us to repent of such ideas.

For a Bible College Principal to express disappointment over Christians calling God Father is extraordinary, and has the unhelpful consequence of unhinging real conversation surrounding the topic of women in ministry. When Christians address God as Father we are doing what Jesus tells us to do;  that may be ‘narrow’ to some, but it is better for us to narrowly trust God at his word than to be broad and lost in our speculative imaginations and inclinations.

‘I will be a Father to you,

and you will be my sons and daughters,

says the Lord Almighty

(2 Corinthians 6:18)

Is my local Church my joy and crown?

This morning in my Bible reading I was stopped by this verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church,

‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!’ (4:1)

I was struck by Paul’s affection for the local church in Philippi. He not only loves the people and wants to be with them, he speaks of them as being his joy and crown. This made me pause and ask myself, what words do I use to describe Mentone Baptist Church? How do I view this family to whom I belong in Christ?

Joy is one of the main themes that threads through the entire letter; it speaks of a deep wonderment and excitement of knowing these people are God’s and were partnering alongside Paul in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Crown refers to the wreath awarded to an athlete who had trained hard and seen success. As Paul surveys his life and ministry, his prized achievement and great happiness is a local church, and this accomplishment is all God’s doing. From what we know of the Philippian Church there was nothing remarkable about them, but in their ordinariness they lived the Gospel of Christ. Paul’s joy was not rooted in the Church’s power ministries, or in some captured à la mode vibe, but in the genuineness of their Gospel partnership.

We will better understand Paul’s affection for the Church by  reading what he says prior to and following 4:1:

In the latter part of chapter 3 Paul has exposed a group of people, who though probably connected to the Church, were not genuine believers. He refers to their appetite for ‘earthly things’. These people lived for now and the pleasures that can be had in the present, whilst ignoring greater and more important realities. In contrast, Paul reminds us of  an identity and home that is in heaven, and we set our minds on this hope.

‘Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Immediately following 4:1, Paul mentions an argument that is occurring within the church between two godly and Gospel-centred women, Euodia and Syntche.

‘I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.’

Paul can both speak wonderfully of this Church and also recognise there are issues needing to be addressed.

The two women whom Paul is talking about are not enemies of the Gospel, they are mature and faithful workers who have found themselves clashing. We don’t know the nature of their disagreement, but it is clear the issue needs resolving. In verses 2-3 we see that Paul is not harsh with them, he does not tell them to leave or remove them from ministry, but rather he organises counselling for them in order to restore the relationship.

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As I meditated on God’s words today, these 3 points came to mind:

Firstly, Philippians 4:1-3 encourages me because even healthy churches have disagreements. It is inevitable but it need not diminish our affection for one another; indeed we can and ought to work through these quarrels and arguments because of our Gospel partnership.

Secondly, an appetite for ‘earthly things’ is a constant danger and is a destroyer of genuine Christian fellowship and joy. If our affection for the local church diminishes, it is worth asking ourselves the question, what are we hungry for? What are we filling up on in order to feel satisfied?

Third and foremost, when we sense our passion and love for our local church dissipating, return to the Scriptures and listen afresh to how God describes these communities of brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Bible is a great antidote to our modern individualism and sense of autonomous living, which sadly impacts the growth of so many of our Churches.

I confess, there are moments when my own Church doesn’t feel like it’s my joy and crown, and I suspect the sentiment is at times reciprocated! That is a great reason for reading Philippians 4:1 and many other passages like it. We often forget how extraordinary the local church is in the sight of God, and how wonderful it is to be called by God to belong to a local gathering of his people.

Is our local Church a people whom we love and long to spend time with? Do we see the local church to whom we belong as our joy and crown?

Evangelical! Who me?

When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?

Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.

McAlpine writes,

“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US.  Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.

If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.

It’s actually worse than a pox.  It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word

As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.

The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.

In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.

Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.

If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.

Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?

The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.

ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.

It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.

There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.

In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice. 


To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.

I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

What is the euangelion?

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.

The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.

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While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.

Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.

Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.

The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.

McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,

“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.

“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle.  It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.

“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.

The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means,  and second, it is  defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.

What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?

Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.

Happy Birthday!

On the way to 100 million reads! (hyperbole intended)

It’s one year since I began this blog. Blogging is a work in progress; not unlike learning to the play piano. You have to practice regularly, and as you do one discovers that there is yet more improvement to be had. 

From the vault, here are the 10 most read articles that I’ve written thus far (I’m not including pieces published in the media and other sites). A couple from the previous blog have snuck in as they continue to be read.

This list shouldn’t be  confused as being synonymous with the most significant articles from the blog, but those which have attracted the highest readership.

Also interesting is how social issues dominate the list, rather than posts which focused on theological and church matters. I suspect this is due to the fact that ethical questions have broader interest than issues facing a Christian denomination, amongst others things.

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1. 2 Straight men marry 

2. What did John Dickson say?

3. New anti-religious legislation to impact Victoria

4. Please don’t call Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian 

5. What does Bible say about Asylum Seekers? 

6. The End of Tribalism (Gospel Coalition of Australia)

7.The trouble of disagreeing with homosexuality 

9. Observations & Questions about Safe Schools 

10. Lessons in how to disagree with popular opinion 

Baptist Courage of the 17th Century

 

17th Century England was not a promising environment for serious discourse on theological matters. Indeed, discussing theology in public could lead to loss of employment, imprisonment, exile, and on rare occasions, death.

Pressure to conform to the prevailing winds was enormous, with both governmental and ecclesial bodies (the two often working in tandem) interpreting difference as hostility and something to be silenced.

And yet this period of English history also witnessed tremendous Gospel growth, and playing a significant role in the missio Angliae were the early Baptists.

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Perhaps no group in England made more use of public disputations than did Baptists. Between 1641 and 1700 at least 109 such public debars involving Baptists were held in England, with 79 of these between 1641 and 1660. These debates pitted one or more Baptist champions against opponents from Anglican, Quaker, Independent, or sometimes, Roman Catholic groups. Baptists welcomed these occasions, for they gave opportunity for declaring the gospel to large crowds, helped defend Baptists against unjust slanders, and often led to numerous conversions and the planting of new Baptist Churches. Many leading Baptists of that time were converted at public disputations.” (Leon McBeth, ‘The Baptist Heritage’, p64)

The Scriptures encourage Christians to live quiet, peaceful and productive lives. We are to pray for all, including those who Govern over us, and to submit to their authority with humility and obedience. At the same time, we are to live courageous lives, choosing godliness and faithfulness over compromise and indifference.

Of course, we do not need to choose between 1 Timothy 4:1-2 and 2 Timothy 4:2-5, or between Ephesians 4:1-6 and Galatians 1:6-9. All are applicable to our circumstances and they are driven by the desire to see God saving people and bringing them to a knowledge of the truth.

Challenging the norms of society is no easy task; it requires grace and wisdom the size of the outback.

A century of ecumenical murkiness makes the Rio Olympic pool smell and look like pure H2O. Indeed, one might forgiven for thinking the only heterodoxy left is the view that still believes that there is a line separating orthodoxy and other.

As we look at the enormous social and spiritual challenges before us, both in terms of engaging in the public square and in the ecclesial circle, there is encouragement to be found from among our Baptist grandparents. They didn’t permit a culture of fear to win the day. Instead, taking their confidence in the power, truth, and beauty of the Gospel, they sought to persuade all. Not all were convinced, but many were and thus begun one of the great church planting movements in Western history. 

I wonder what might happen if we in Melbourne (and Australia) adopted this kind of Gospel determination?

Do we want a Maverick Baptist College?

Simon Carey Holt has written a blog piece where he speaks favourably of the current climate of Whitley College. Simon is currently the Senior Pastor at Collins Street Baptist, and for many years he taught at Whitley.

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It is good to hear Simon’s perspective. There is much that can be said in response, but here are four thoughts for now.

First, it is important to understand the role Simon attributes to the college.

For example, he states, “Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo.

While putting it in a rather gentle way, Simon is essentially saying, the College’s role is to speak down on the churches, telling us what we are doing wrong.

Yes, we need a theological college with academic rigour, where students are encouraged to think deeply and engage with a broad spectrum of theological persuasions. We also need a college that is anchored to the ‘faith once for all delivered’.

The question is, is it the role of the college to “call churches to account”, or does the college exist to serve the churches? When a former lecturer portrays the college as a maverick with a stick, he only reinforces concerns and exemplifies how out of touch they are with the Baptist community (and with Baptist polity!).

Second, Simon believes the college listens to the churches, but is that the case? I have no doubt that a few churches are listened too, but if the College was truly listening to the broader churches, we would not be hearing concerned voices from a growing number of churches and pastors.

Which leads to a third point,

Simon suggests, “As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church”.

This is a noble desire, one which is worth pursuing, but as I mentioned last week,  many of our churches do not have confidence in the College to train and teach the next generation of Gospel ministers. This is demonstrated by the fact that churches continue to send their people to alternative theological colleges in Melbourne and interstate.

Fourth, Simon said,

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and clichéd hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not.”

This may be a fitting description for some scenario somewhere, but here it is nothing more than a straw man. The reality is, some of the concerned baptists have sat in classes, they have conversed with teachers, and they have read publications. And many who made the decision to study at other theological institutions have engaged with Whitley College in other ways over the years.

I notice that Simon does not deny the theological discord between the College and Churches; indeed he admits Whitley promotes ideas and teachings that are incongruent with those of the churches. His rationale is, the College is  a prophetic voice speaking to the BUV, “like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo”.

I guess Hananiah was a prophet of sorts! Should not prophets contend for the faith, rather than contravene the faith? In fact, professionalising prophecy was the error of the kings of Israel and Judah. While God may use a voice from the college in a ‘prophetic’ way, assuming the mantle of prophet is dangerous, and is certainly not the role ascribed to it by the BUV.

In conclusion, we want to see a faithful and growing Baptist College in Victoria, which is able to serve our Churches well. I agree with Simon in that a change of leadership is opportunity to ask hard questions. Hard questions have been asked this year; what remains to be seen is how they will be answered.