By Bojidar Marinov
Throughout the centuries, the church has always faced the problem of the quality of its members – and when I say quality, I mean the sanctification, the spiritual maturity, and the practical wisdom of its members. The constant battle against sin (sanctification) and for the expanding the Kingdom of God (wisdom) has always placed high demands and expectations; and quite often the church has found itself inadequate to the task. Its members sometimes refused to deal with sin, their own and that of the people around them. At other times the church remained passive and escapist, ignoring the clear command of the Great Commission. And at times the church was both plagued by sin and completely oblivious to its task in the world. In the last one century, the same problem persists, and is becoming even more acute and visible.
As I commented in the last article, the modern church has adopted the rhetoric of “making disciples” with the hope that it can solve the problems I described. This rhetoric has become something of a fad; it has produced numberless books, articles, seminars, conferences, sermons. It even led to the creation of a “theology of discipleship” and a whole Discipleship Movement. Pastors and theologians claim that the main mission of the church is not to teach the nations (as the Great Commission really says) but to “make disciples,” meaning individual disciples (as the modern faulty interpretation of the Great Commission says). There is no clear idea as to what “making disciples” entails different than the normal process of converting and teaching, and why it will solve the problem of the modern church. Moreover, as I pointed out, the rhetoric of “making disciples” as something more special than just converting and teaching people is not supported by the Biblical message. And it is dangerous. It is dangerous, because (1) it is based on a pietistic and radically individualistic reading of the Bible, not on a covenantal interpretation; (2) it legitimizes the unbiblical distinction between a “convert” and a “disciple”; (3) its philosophy is behaviorism, not sanctification; and (4) it emphasizes the method of training at the expense of the content of the teaching.
Many of my readers were probably surprised by that article. After all, there has never been any resistance against the idea of “making disciples.” And if we shouldn’t be “making disciples,” what should we be doing as pastors, teachers, missionaries, counselors, etc.? Why does the church have the problem with Christians who are not discipled to think, talk, act, and build like Christians? What is missing in the practice of the Church that prevents us from producing the high quality Christians who exhibit the glory of God in everything they are and everything they do? Do I have an alternative explanation to it, and therefore an alternative solution?
Yes, I do.
The Biblical solution is not based on rhetoric borrowed from a faulty interpretation; and it is not based on a method of training. It is based on the content of teaching the church is giving today to the nations. Obsessed with their fashionable rhetoric of “making disciples,” our modern church celebrities are missing the other parts of the Great Commission; for example, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The church today can not produce believers of good quality because its teaching and preaching is truncated; it limits the Gospel to a few propositions about individual salvation and personal piety. It does not give a comprehensive Gospel, one that covers every area of life and teaches individuals, families, churches, and nations to live according to the Word of God in every area of life. The lack of clear, consistent Biblical instruction in so many areas of life only leads to false theology, and a theology that doesn’t teach these things is a false theology itself, no matter how theologically correct its view of personal salvation is. Unless the church changes the content of its preaching, it will keep failing; and no amount of “discipleship” can save it.
Here are the main areas in which the church’s teaching today – the teaching of all pastors, preachers, theologians, and other celebrities – is lacking:
1. The Sovereignty of God
A truth largely forgotten by the modern church is that the foundational doctrine of Scripture is not the salvation of man, or anything about man, but the sovereignty of God. Nothing else in the Bible makes sense unless we understand that foundational doctrine. This doctrine is the beginning and the goal of our faith, and it must be in the foundation of our teaching and preaching always. There are no “natural” things in the universe, in the sense of existing in themselves; they all exist in God, in His plan for the universe. Neither is there such a thing as history and events happening in themselves, outside of God’s providence and predestination. God doesn’t simply “foreknow” the future by looking in a crystal ball to find out what it is; He foreknows it because He Himself has made it happen and is constantly, in every minute, controlling every aspect of His creation and history, to the minutest detail.
Of course, the greatest challenge to this idea about God’s Sovereignty comes in the form of pelagianism and semi-pelagianism, the idea that man by his own efforts and will – free will – is able to achieve that perfection that gives him salvation. The earlier version of it – pelagianism – claimed that man is completely able to achieve perfection on his own. The early church, and especially that theological giant of the early church, Augustine, exposed it as heresy; it re-appeared much later in the Roman Church. Luther wrote his best treatise on that issue, Bondage of the Will, understanding that the issue of the Sovereignty of God was the pivotal issue of the Reformation. The doctrine re-appeared again in the Protestant churches with Arminius and Wesley but didn’t gain too much ground until the early 20th century. Only in the last 100 years the Protestant and Evangelical churches have switched to full-scale semi-pelagianism, rejecting their heritage of the Reformation and adopting the doctrines of Rome concerning salvation.
The impact of semi-pelagianism on the quality of the believers should not be underestimated. The practical consequences of a theology that says that man’s effort in making the decision to be saved is crucial have seldom been discussed in theological circles but the results after a century of Arminian prevalence in Evangelicalism are everywhere around us. A Christian who is taught that by his decision he can gain salvation is by necessity also taught that by his decision he can lose it. The promise that he is safe in God’s hands applies to him only conditionally; only insofar as he makes the decision to stay there. But decisions come from the heart, and the heart is “deceitful above all else.” The life of such a believer then becomes introvert, a constant struggle to keep a deceitful heart on the right side of the fence of that life-saving decision. His energy is mainly spent not on obeying God and glorifying God but on examining his own heart everyday. In the final account, semi-pelagianism can’t produce culture, or society, or any kind of comprehensive knowledge about the world because it is too exhausted of fighting with the most deceitful of all things.
But it will be a mistake to imagine that the churches that claim to be “Reformed” are free from that disease. While their view of salvation and man’s efforts may be theologically correct, most of them have exchanged the focus on God’s Sovereignty for a focus on God’s grace. The “doctrines of grace” are exalted as the “most important doctrines” of the Reformation and of the Christian faith. One Reformed author goes to the length of claiming that nothing is so offensive to an unbeliever as the doctrine of God’s grace. The claim, of course, is nonsensical and unproven; unbelievers have no objection to free gifts, what they detest the most is God’s Sovereignty, the idea that they as humans are not the center of the universe. A good friend of mine, under the influence of that focus on grace, recently asked on his Facebook status, “Are you as a Christian exhibiting God’s grace to the world?” I was tempted to reply that it is not God’s grace that we need to exhibit first but God’s Sovereignty.
Nothing wrong with God’s grace, we know we are saved by grace. But when grace is made the center of the Christian teaching, this shifts the center from God to man. God’s main function in such teaching is to give grace to man and to save man. Thus the Gospel is truncated to mean the salvation of man only, not the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. God’s sovereignty in all areas of life and the crown rights of Christ in every area of life are disparaged as “triumphalism,” and only man’s salvation and his piety are exalted as the main purpose of Christian life. I have talked more about this focus on grace in a previous article so I will not repeat all the arguments here. Suffice to say that such focus on man’s need for salvation at the expense of God’s Sovereignty is just as semi-pelagian and humanistic as Arminianism, and therefore will lead to the same results.
2. The Dominion (Cultural) Mandate
Modern Christianity, in a sharp contrast to the Christianity of the previous centuries, is culturally passive. The Puritans in England, being only a small percentage of the population, exercised enormous influence by their unstoppable enthusiasm to make the whole culture submit to Christ. Europe itself, being only a small portion of the world in terms of resources, territory, and population, nevertheless changed the world culturally and civilizationally because it was the Christendom, a civilization built to exhibit the glory of God. The modern dualistic separation between personal piety and cultural involvement was always foreign to Christians in the past. A Christian’s duty was to obey God personally and culturally. There was no separation between the two.
In comparison, modern Christianity, far from being a faith that conquers the world and its kingdoms, is a religion of passive waiting. Evangelical and Reformed celebrities insist that the church shouldn’t even attempt to change the culture; there is no such thing as a Christian culture, or government, or art, or science, or anything else. These areas are not under the mandate of man to conquer. Man’s only purpose is to be saved; as we saw in the previous point, the Gospel is limited to man’s salvation. Thus, whether one is an amillennialist or a premillennialist, all a person can do is wait for that final day of history or of his life, in order to finally “get home.” A Christian’s journey in this world has been described as “constant mourning by the rivers of Babylon,” or “being royal exiles,” or “being faithful witnesses in a dying culture,” or any other beautiful but incorrectly applied Biblical descriptions whose only goal is to declare that there isn’t much that we can do here as Christians, however much we try. Beautiful as these descriptions are, they are false theology, and they go directly against the message and the spirit of the Word of God.
The Biblical doctrine of man is that man was created with a purpose on earth and in history: to take dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28). Theologians call this the Dominion Mandate, or the Cultural Mandate. Man is supposed to bring God’s order to every corner of the creation, and build every aspect of his culture and society according to God’s requirements. This is the main task man was given when placed in the Garden; not to “worship,” not to idly enjoy the beauty of the Garden, not to discuss obscure theological details. His true worship, his true enjoyment of God’s creation, his true knowledge and understanding of theology or God were to come through his work in cultivating the Garden, or later, in cultivating the whole world and his own culture. This mandate wasn’t destroyed in the Fall; man’s sin only made it more difficult. But God repeated the same mandate to Noah. In the New Testament, Jesus declared that He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18) and made it the basis of the Great Commission. And Paul could declare in very strong terms to his fellow Christians: “All belongs to you, . . . the world, the present, the future; all things belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:21-22). That the world belongs to the Christians is only a restoration of the original commandment, “let them have dominion.” And if Christians own all things and the world, then they have the responsibility to cultivate the world in their God-given Cultural Mandate.
This was an accepted truth among Reformed theologians until the 1950s. Only in the last generation a neo-Reformed theology emerged that declares man’s Cultural Mandate to be null and void, and only valid for an agricultural society. Or, that Christians can not change culture because there is no such thing as a Christian culture. Neo-Reformed theologians like Al Mohler and Michael Horton claim such a thing, and then add that Christians’ cultural involvement is not a primary task but only a secondary by-product of the Christians’ “faithful presence” (whatever that means) in a dying culture. Christian life and action, they believe, must be centered on the self and the church, and whatever cultural influence there is, will be only incidental. And of course, no cultural influence can produce cultural impact strong enough to build a Christian culture; because there can’t be such a thing as a Christian culture, period.
Such rejection of the Cultural Mandate can not but produce a truncated gospel and in result, truncated Christians. If man’s task on earth is to take dominion over the earth – in every aspect of his life, individual and cultural – then replacing that task with an introvert religion that only looks at culture as a by-product of the Christian life will create low quality Christians.
3. The Law of God as a Tool for Dominion
God is sovereign. Man is given the Dominion (Cultural) Mandate over the earth. When we combine these two Biblical truths with the belief that God has revealed Himself and His will in God’s Word, we can easily answer the question: What rules has God established for man in his Cultural Mandate? Obviously, these rules for dominion must be found in that same Word that reveals God to us.
We call these rules the Law of God. The Law of God is given to man to obey. Man is given dominion but not as a sovereign, only as subject to God. And man is obligated as creature to obey God’s Law as far as his Cultural Mandate extends. How far does it extend? In everything man does, in his personal life and in his cultural life. There is nothing on earth that can remain outside of man’s Cultural Mandate, and therefore there is nothing that can be free from the requirements of God’s Law. God’s Law must be taught to individuals, families, churches, and nations, because it is only God’s Law that gives them the tools to obey God in the task He has given man. Once the foundation of God’s Sovereignty is established, and the Dominion Mandate is taken as man main task on earth, there is only one logical conclusion: God’s Law is the Law, in everything man does, individual or cultural.
That Law is, of course, revealed in the Bible. It is summarized in the Ten Commandments, and its case applications are given in the legal code nicknamed Mosaic Law because it was given through Moses. And in the rest of the Bible we see practical applications of that Law explained to and practiced by the Old Testament church and the nations around Israel, and by the New Testament church. Without the Law of God, there is no idea of what practical righteousness and sanctification is.
This truth has never been been challenged in orthodox Christian circles until about 100 years ago. Throughout the centuries the church in the West made mistakes concerning the interpretation and the application of the Law of God; sometimes the old pagan laws were brought in to interpret the Biblical Law, sometimes the meaning of it was obscured by sin and corruption in the church. But over and over again, theologians, when asked concerning practical advice to individuals, communities, and rulers, went directly to the Law of God. The process of learning and understanding the Law took centuries; but the direction was clear.
It is only in the last 100 years that this consensus about the validity of the Law of God has been rejected by the church. Predictably, since if the Sovereignty of God is replaced with man’s sovereignty, and if man’s comprehensive Cultural Mandate is replaced with man’s limited need for individual salvation, the Law of God is not necessary anymore. If the redeemed man is supposed to only wait to get to heaven and not build a redeemed culture on the earth, then he doesn’t need a law for that culture. The culture is left to the unredeemed, as quite a few neo-Reformed theologians insist, and whatever law there is, must be a man-made law, or even the vague and never-defined “natural law.” At the end of the day, as Cornelius Van Til rightly pointed, there are only two options, theonomy (God’s Law) or autonomy (self-law). When pastors, theologians, and other celebrities focus on man and man’s salvation, then inevitably man’s law will control the culture, not God’s Law.
The problem with this is that a Christian raised and taught in such theology is powerless and ignorant as to what he is supposed in the world outside of the church. As I have mentioned before, Al Mohler points to the “incompetence” of Christians in the field of politics and civil government. He doesn’t have to look too far to find who’s responsible for this incompetence: he himself and his rejection of the Law of God as the only Law for man and his culture. Without the Law of God there is no standard for righteous life and action. As Greg Bahnsen said in his great book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, “…today the church has largely succumbed to the idea that God’s Law is extraneous, not only to personal morality, but to matters of statesmanship and civil government. The theologians of this century have offered no serious alternative to the world, giving the impression that ‘the salt has lost its saltiness.’”
Indeed, when there is no standard for practical righteousness in the teaching of the church, the quality of believers will predictably be low.
4. God’s Covenant Sanctions in History
“And meanwhile [the common grace order] must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious ways.”Dr. Meredith Kline wrote these words in 1978. At the time he was writing them, he was living in a prosperous, safe, and peaceful society where he could have his own house and his own car, and his family was free from persecutions for their religious convictions. He had a secure job, and the job paid him at least 16 times more – in pure monetary equivalent – than his ancestors had only 150 years ago. (As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey points out, in terms of quality of goods and services available, the increase is not 16 times but something about 100 times.) His town has never been bombed, and he had liberty and justice in a legal and political system that valued the individual much more than any time before in history. His nation, the United States of America, the most Christian nation in the world – relatively to other nations, I mean – was the indisputable leader of the world, economically, militarily, technologically, socially, etc.
These circumstances were the direct, if historically gradual, product of a Christian civilization that started as a small, ragtag band of eleven disciples. For most of its history, the Christendom was inferior to its rivals, economically, demographically, militarily. And yet, it emerged victorious to conquer the world.
And there was nothing “mysterious” or “unpredictable” about it. Christians in the past expected it, they looked forward to it, they predicted it. There were no hidden mysteries in history; history was God’s, and like everything else, God used history to reveal Himself and His victory over His enemies. He would reward His people for their obedience, and punish the wicked for their disobedience, in history as well as in eternity. Deuteronomy 28 – as is obvious from Calvin’s sermons on it – was considered as applicable to us today as it was applicable to the Old Testament Israel. A nation, or a culture that was obedient to God, could expect temporal blessings – prosperity, peace, liberty, justice, safety – like the ones Meredith Kline experienced in his life. A nation or a culture that was disobedient to God could expect temporal curse and judgment – like what is happening to the non-Christian nations today and has happened in history. Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and His rod of iron rules the nations.
Kline’s words made official a paradigm shift that has been happening in the Reformed circles for about a generation before him. The focus of that paradigm shift was to separate history from God’s Covenant with man; to make history independent, unpredictable, and morally neutral. This paradigm shift is at the foundation of the modern neo-Reformed movement and its amillennial eschatology. It is a logical development: God’s Sovereignty is denied; man’s Cultural Mandate is denied; the validity of God’s Law is denied; therefore the next logical step is the denial of God’s covenant sanctions in history. History is now divorced from God’s revelation, and only given to the “mysterious” and “inscrutable” divine will. However much we look at history, from our modern perspective, it has no recognizable meaning or direction at all.
But this paradigm shift has its price. If history has no recognizable meaning and direction, then the life of the individual believer – a piece of history itself – has no recognizable meaning and direction either. The personal life of a Christian is inseparable from the historical setting in which that Christian was placed by Divine Providence (Acts 13:36). If that historical setting’s purpose and direction is hidden and unpredictable, the purpose and the direction of the believer’s life would be hidden and unpredictable. Kline’s statement above, if applied to history in general, eventually gets applied to individuals as well. If the work of the Holy Spirit is invisible in history, it will be invisible in a man’s life as well.
Any believer that is taught so will be utterly confused concerning the purpose and the meaning of his life. Individual human beings live in history, and they serve God’s purpose for their specific generation. They must understand what God is doing in history; otherwise, they won’t understand what their place in it is. If the church doesn’t teach God’s covenant sanctions in history as the foundation for understanding history, the church will produce low-quality, immature believers, confused about themselves and their lives, and unstable in their commitment and obedience to God. And no technique of ”making disciples” can mend this.
5. The Victory of the Gospel in History
When it entered the world’s arena, Christianity shocked the world with a completely different view of history. All pagan religions – including post-AD 70 Judaism and Islam – are essentially pessimistic about history; and all pagan religions are focused on the past and the imagined past Golden Ages. The future was a threat to all of them; the past needed to be preserved and perpetuated; the present was a preventive action against any change. Any change was to be to the worse, a threat to the existing stability of the world.
Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 3:21-22 (“all belongs to you, the present and the future”) and Phil. 3:13 (“forgetting what lies behind”; based on Is. 43:18) presented a completely new view of history. Future was not a threat anymore; a Christian could securely look ahead, forget what’s behind, because the future belonged to him, to the Church, to Christendom. Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine express in their writings the victorious expectations Christians had of history; history itself would exhibit the victory of Christ. The pagan world had nothing to compare; in its best, the official ideology of the Roman Empire could not offer even the smallest optimism about the future; neither could the different cults, or mythologies; and neither could the dualistic heresies that plagued the church.
And indeed, a true believer is trained only when there is a goal to reach forward to, as Paul said in Phil. 3:13. Our beliefs about the future determine our actions in the present. Not only that, but our beliefs about the future determine our sanctification here and now. Christian maturity is developed when Christians apply Biblical wisdom to their circumstances today in order to achieve certain results tomorrow. This applies for everything, whether it is missionary and evangelism activity, or planting and building a church, or raising and training children in the Lord, or economic and political stewardship, or scientific activities, or anything else. There is no other way to define practical wisdom except by knowing what consequences one’s actions will have, based on the Bible. And of course, if a Christian doesn’t know for sure that spiritual obedience – individual and collective – will be blessed by God, then that Christian has no motivation to be obedient. And even if he does have that motivation, there is nothing for him to achieve, unless there is a firm faith in a future changed by the efforts of godly men like him.
This view is anathematized as “triumphalist” by many modern church celebrities. In its place, they offer a view of history that follows the pessimism of the pagan religions that the early church encountered. The church was never made so passive as when that most unique feature of her doctrine – historical optimism – was thrown away and replaced with a pessimistic view which says that we should not expect any good development in history. Some of the neo-Reformed teachers do say that we may see a few improvements here and there but in general, there is no assurance of any large-scale, comprehensive victory in history. This pessimistic view of the Kingdom of God established at the First Coming of Jesus Christ is dressed in theological jargon, the principle of “here but not yet.” The focus, of course, is on “not yet,” which means that we have no legal foundation to expect victory for the Gospel as is described by the Great Commission: disciple all the nations.
And indeed, the greatest issue is: Is the Great Commission going to be fulfilled by the Church in history? Or is the Church, having the Holy Spirit and the presence of her Lord and King, going to fail? The promise of victory produces soldiers who are willing to lay their life for the cause. The promise of defeat is going to produce wimps who would remain passive and never grow in their faith, and in spiritual maturity. The church in the last century has been producing mainly wimps. No wonder.
ConclusionThese five elements of the Christian doctrine are essential for producing true Christian converts of good quality and spiritual maturity:
1. The Sovereignty of God
2. The Dominion (Cultural) Mandate
3. The Law of God
4. God’s Covenant Sanctions in History
5. The Victory of the Gospel in History
Without these as the foundation of all Christian teaching and preaching, the church will continue to produce weak converts who don’t know what they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do as Christians. We will keep losing our children, and we will keep losing even the adults to the world system – especially to a world system that has adopted secularized versions of these foundations of the Biblical teaching. No rhetoric of “making disciples,” no methods of training, no discipleship seminars and conferences can make up for the lack of these essentials.
The modern church, and especially the neo-Reformed, by refusing to preach the whole counsel of God to their congregations, have created the problem of a weak church with weak believers. They are trying to solve the problem by more of the same – the dangerous rhetoric of “making disciples,” based on a faulty interpretation of one Biblical verse. What they need to do is embrace a comprehensive Gospel that speaks to every area of life, gives a comprehensive worldview, and proclaims the crown rights of Jesus Christ in every area of life. Only then will we have a church that is without spot and blemish.