The Whole and Heart of the Gospel | Cardus

September 23, 2009 — 1 Comment

I found this summary from Ray Pennings (HT: Kevin Young) of Reformed theological positions on cultural/social engagement to be particularly helpful in identifying the predominant understandings churches tend to have of gospel and culture.  Below is the core of the article:

Neocalvinism focuses on the comprehensiveness of the gospel claim. “Every square inch” belongs to Christ, and the full effects of the cross—as fully conquering sin, including its effects in the groaning creation—are emphasized. “Grace restores nature,” and although we will have to wait for the new heaven and the new earth for this to be fully realized, worshiping the Lord Jesus as King today means acknowledging and living out of that kingship. That means challenging the presuppositions of secular reasoning and working carefully with both the books of creation and revelation.

The “two kingdom perspective” that has become associated with Westminster Theological Seminary in California brings at least two valuable insights to the conversation. Negatively, it warns against the hubris that sometimes can accompany an attempt to define “the” Christian position on various contemporary issues. There is inevitable ambiguity that characterizes Christian life in a fallen world. Positively, it brings a very strong ecclesiology into the conversation, emphasizing the calling of believers to focus on their place in the church and the bride of Christ, and to emphasize the transcendence of the gospel.

Neopuritans (which I prefer as a term to describe that group which Time magazine described as New Calvinists) focus on the sovereignty of God and the glory of God. In so far as one can discern a coherent political philosophy uniting the diverse group of writers commonly associated with this group, Albert Mohler’s focus on love as a unifying principle comes as close as any: “Love of neighbor grounded in our love for God requires us to work for good in the City of Man, even as we set as our first priority the preaching of the gospel, [which is] the only means of bringing citizens of the City of Man into citizenship of the city of God.” In practice, this perspective results in an approach that is more individualistic than corporate, focuses more extensively on responding to the needs of our neighbours through the diaconal ministry of the church, and relies on being an example, resisting cultural trends and intentionally working towards a Christian counter-culture.

This survey of perspectives would not be complete without acknowledging a fourth approach which, for lack of better term, I will label as “Old Calvinism.” (The variants of this argument almost inevitably suggest that there is something about the “old paths” that is being lost in the process of cultural engagement.) One example of this approach is John MacArthur, who has essentially come to the conclusion that engaging the city inevitably leads the church to worldliness and that when the church attempts to engage the culture, the culture is usually more effective at influencing the church. MacArthur has argued that Christian political activism has four results: it (1) denigrates the sovereignty of God over human history and events, (2) uses fleshly and selfish means to promote biblical values, (3) creates a false sense of morality, and (4) risks alienating unbelievers by viewing them as political enemies rather than a mission field. Promoting godly living and the fruits of the Spirit is a mission “far more good and profitable to men than any amount of social and political activism . . . [Christians] are content very much to let the worldly people deal with the worldly things of this world.”

I have certainly been wrestling through these issues myself, and have had some exposure to each theological stream.  The difficulty in understanding this particular issue is that the arguments for each position are predominantly born out of extensions of philosophical theology or from an extension of applied biblical theology.

If I were to peg what position I most closely align with, it would probably be the “neopuritanism” camp at this point, which is less of a well-informed biblical position, and moreso based upon observations of ministry around me and the actual practice of my life.  While I would agree completely with the neo-Calvinist perspective theologically, I practically tend to view the transformation of culture as a derivative of transformation of the individual through the power of the gospel.  This certainly gives me some things to chew on however…

Care to chime in? I’d love some thoughts in a comment!

Todd Engstrom

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Although I was raised in the church and had a knowledge of God, I didn’t embrace Jesus until I heard gospel preached and lived out by some Young Life leaders. God has proven faithful and good to me since that day, even in great suffering and loss. I have learned to treasure Romans 8:28 as a wellspring of hope and truth. God has blessed me with an amazing wife (Olivia), three sons (Micah, Hudson and Owen) and a daughter (Emmaline). Growing up in the northwest, the thought never crossed my mind that I would have four children who are native Texans. Despite landing in the south, I still watch Notre Dame games with my children every Saturday in hopes they will land at my alma mater.

One response to The Whole and Heart of the Gospel | Cardus

  1. It’s interesting, I’ve been working on an article over contextualization and the Gospel, the biblical way to contextualize, and the unbiblical, perhaps I’d go as far to say heretical way of contextualizing.

    The whole premise is that it is culture that is contextualized to the culture of heaven a.k.a. the gospel. This occurs through the process of discipleship, and once a believer, sanctification towards the culture of holiness, i.e. Heaven. You cannot enter heaven and not be of its culture. Or else culture shock would kill ya. 😉 Christ does this transformation for you.

    If it is the gospel that is contextualized, then it is changed in someway from the original, and God went to quite some pains in presenting and orchestrating the gospel as He presents it.

    Often the examples of contextualization in the Bible are really Paul, Jesus, or someone identifying something in the unredeemed culture that relates to the gospel, and they then present the Gospel in full, not watered down or changed, stumbling blocks and all. i.e. Mars Hill.

    There are times where the unredeemed culture has some attributes (not many i’d suspect) that are not contrary to the culture of Heaven. These attributes can be retained by the person, or redeemed, yet retained for the glory of God. Examples of this are music style, language, and perhaps some traditions. Though I think they will still be change to some degree, so in effect they are changed and redeemed. This would support Neo-Calvinism.

    It is important to know as a church, missionary, etc.. that our goal is NOT to change those we reach out to into our own earthly, and still unredeemed culture, but to invite them to join us in the redemption of all cultures on earth to the culture of Heaven. The gospel message is this invitation.

    It is also important to know as a church, missionary, etc.. that our goal should NOT be to have them retain their own unredeemed earthly culture. Rather the invitation for them is the same invitation for us, to allow Christ to redeem us and to transform us all and change us through discipleship and then be sanctified into His culture.

    This has been a big issue in the modern missions that rather than presenting the gospel as is, and relying on the Holy Spirit alone to save souls (Reformed Theologists should really be on board with this), they have relied on their eloquence and intellectual strategies to bring souls into the kingdom, often on a gospel that is not pure. There are plenty of examples of this, some minor, and some down right disturbing that really is no gospel at all and could be classified as an entirely different religion, and yet these are applauded as “being all things to all people”. I’m certain Paul is flipping out on the mis-use of what he said there. Their argument is that the gospel should be relatable by others. That the retention of the person’s ‘self’ is more important than the sacrifice of following the full unblemished gospel. First it is not up to us to make the gospel ‘relatable’ to anyone. The Holy Spirit is what makes one relate to God’s story. We simply present the gospel. We are the messengers, not the author.

    I believe the biblical argument is that there are stumbling blocks to the gospel, and they are there for a purpose. God has his reasons. If someone doesn’t like the fact that Jesus was called the Son of God, then that’s their problem I guess. It’s not my role to change what God determined to be his way of explaining himself. That would be extreme hubris.

    Well I could go on and on. But this really is a disturbing trend that I’ve seen both in missions and church planting, and I’d say to some degree or another, it’s the majority. All ministry needs to be analyzed as to whether:

    1) Our belief is 100% that it is God, and God alone, who will draw, save, and redeem. Not our ministry or strategy. This is Reformed Theology 101.

    2) That the gospel is fully presented in all ministry. That no special group is pandered to, and given a ‘customized’ gospel. (The intro may be different for someone, but in the end, the whole complete Gospel has been revealed.)

    3) That the presentation of the Gospel is not for the individual, but for the purpose of glorifying God so that His work can be done.

    4) That when the gospel is rejected because of the stumbling blocks within it ( God placed ) we do not belittle those stumbling blocks in an attempt to convince someone to ignore them. This can create non-belivers thinking they are believers, weak christians, or worse yet, new religions.

    That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Matt up front saying what the gospel says, and not backing down from it, and I think why the fruit of the Stone is not attributable to the staff, but simply to the honest Spirit of God doing its work.

    Thankfully, there are a few people and organizations out there speaking against this trend towards gospel malformation, who are trying to bring contextualism back to a Biblical understanding, but it’s an uphill battle.

    In relation to this article, I guess the big question would be, is how do we change the world without being changed by it? Which is the fear of Old Calvinism, yet embraced by Neopuritians. I think the ultimate solution is to be grounded in the power of the gospel, not be ashamed of it, but to be transformed by its power, and live out life with complete boldness in all aspects of life. (To be noted I really like Francis Schaeffer who dealt with a lot of this issue.)

    So I understand the concerns of Old Calvinists, see the motivations of the Neopuritans, but see that the Neo-Calvinists really want all complete transformation of culture. Which I think perhaps is the purpose of the Gospel itself. After all, the rallying cry of Neo-Calvinism is, “No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

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