“You never met a fence you didn’t straddle.”
Those were the words of a “frenemy” – someone I enjoy interacting with in the real world, but usually cross swords with online. We were discussing the Gospel Project breakfast in Houston and the interesting discussion between Ed Stetzer, Eric Hankins, Trevin Wax and Jonathan Akin. Akin articulated a hardcore “Christ-centered” hermeneutic. Eric Hankins advocated a hermeneutic that was more grammatical-historical and emphasized authorial intent more strongly. Trevin seemed, to me at least, to fall in between the two in his approach. I told this other man that I was probably somewhere between Eric Hankins and Trevin Wax on this one. To him, this was a sign of weakness – that I was too wishy-washy to make up my mind. Of course, I countered that he was only able to see black and white and was unable to see any gray scale in between. He viewed my position as a lack of conviction and I viewed his as a lack of appreciation for theological subtlety.
I’m not here to fight that battle – it was playful and no one left with their feelings hurt. But his comment got me thinking, because it is safe to say that my blogging would represent me generally as one in the middle on a lot of issues. Blogging is the only place I’ve ever been accused of being moderate. In real life, words like dogmatic, rigid, and opinionated are more common. I received a t-shirt one time, which I have worn almost completely out.
I’m not opinionated. I’m just always right.
But, in blogging I have advocated for respect, grace and understanding, for unity in spite of our theological convictions. So, that comment got me thinking. Have I lost my passion for truth? Am I wishy-washy? Do I truly lack theological and spiritual conviction? I do not think that is the case. But, as the years have gone on, I have developed a new conviction, one that has moved me toward the middle on a lot of issues.
Most of the issues we argue about are not black and white, but shaded in a palate of grays.
No human-contrived theological system is ever going to corner the market on biblical truth or account for all the biblical facts. These systems have varying degrees of truth, but each is also fraught with imperfection and inadequacy.
- Calvinism has truth, but the Reformed system does not hold all truth. Traditionalists have some truth, but not all truth. They are not, I believe, equally true. I think the Calvinist formulation is much closer to truth than the Traditionalist – that is my understanding. But neither side holds all truth, nor is either side so fundamentally flawed as to fall outside the range of biblical truth.
- Cessationists have some truth (granted – not much), but they have a little. Charismatics have some truth, which they often take to scary extremes. To me, the continuationist position is closest to biblical truth, but it does not hold the monopoly.
Parenthetical story: at the convention, Bart Barber offered to share his WiFi connection with me. I gave him my computer to enter the password. He did so, then opened my Facebook and posted a note in my name that I had rejected continuationism and embraced cessationism. One friend, whom I won’t name, because I don’t want to embarrass Joel Rainey, made this statement. “There is more supporting evidence in the Bible for keeping a concubine than there is for cessationism.” What insight! Don’t you cessationists agree? I kid. I kid!
- There is much truth and insight to be gleaned from the Christ-centered hermeneutic. But Eric Hankins made a lot of sense to me as well – emphasizing grammatical-historical interpretation and authorial intent. (NOTE: for both sides, it was a matter of emphasis. Both sides acknowledged the value of the others’ point.)
- Being culturally relevant has a lot of positives and a lot of downsides. It’s not black and white, it’s gray, gray, and gray. (I’m trying hard to avoid saying “shades of gray” so our smark-aleck brigade can’t bring in pop-culture references.)
So, yes, I think most of the time, in our internecine battles, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The extremes often accept some truth to the exclusion of other truth. In fact, I believe this basic truth.
Most biblical truth is held in tension (even conflict) with another biblical truth.
God is one, but also three. Christ was fully God and fully man. We are completely accepted by God in Christ; we must strive to please God through holy living. We are kept in Christ for eternal life, but we must also persevere. Most biblical truth is held in tension with other biblical truth and it is beyond the ability of the human mind to resolve those conflicts (called antinomies).
And, because this is true, on most issues in theology and Christian living, the extremes tend to have a point, but the truth is often found in the gray areas between the deep black and the bright white. I a afraid that those who hold absolute certainly on their theological systems often do so less on the basis of sound, comprehensive exegesis, and more by reliance on human theological systems.
And NOW, to My Point!
I have now devoted almost 900 words to setting up the point of this post. I know that is a mistake, because many folks just read the first paragraph or two and jump to the comments. But, as an advocate of calm, of unity, of peaceful discussions, of a moderated tone in our blogging discussions, I want to make one thing absolutely clear.
There is a time when faithfulness to God demands harsh, intolerant and unyielding words. Sometimes, harsh words are God’s will and anything less is compromise!
Jesus’ Harsh Words in Matthew 23
I wish I had a buck for every time someone has invoked the harsh words of Jesus in Matthew 23 as justification for their harsh words to their fellow Baptists. In fact, there was a short trend a few years ago to rewrite Matthew 23 to specifically direct it toward those with whom the blogger disagreed. We are on shaky ground when we rewrite God’s word as a method of attack. I saw one where conservatives were the Pharisees, another which applied to the Baptist Identity crowd. Both were wrong. It is never justified to direct the harsh words of Jesus against our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But, the fact remains that Jesus spoke harsh words in Matthew 23. He called the Pharisees some pretty strong names.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Matthew 23:13-15
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Matthew 23:16-17
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:27-28
And, the coup de grace…
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Matthew 23:33–36
Honestly, is it any wonder they wanted to kill him? Those are harsh words. So, the perfect Son of God insulted the Pharisees personally. He had a conviction about the Pharisees that was so strong that this sinless Lamb was justified in calling them these awful names. He was harsh, and it was God’s will.
Does that not justify us when we use harsh words? Doesn’t that mean that if we have a strong conviction, we can battle those with different opinions forcefully, as Jesus did? NO! NO! NO!
We must remember who the Pharisees were. They were not errant brothers. They were not Christians with a different perspective on end times events. They were false teachers proclaiming a false gospel that led those who followed them to hell. Look back at verse 15. The Pharisees were leading their followers not to God, but to hell. I wrote on this some time ago, and identified the work of the Pharisees. They attempted to articulate a path whereby human beings, on their own strength, could fulfill the law of God. They were providing a false path to God.
Jesus’ harsh words were reserved for those who proclaimed a false gospel of legalistic righteousness that would condemn its followers to eternal hell.
Paul’s Harsh Words in Galatians
Paul also had some harsh words for people in Galatians – words that we could not probably accurately translate and describe in our pulpits.
In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul sets the theme for the book.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Paul brought the gospel to Galatia – that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins and rose again as Lord, offering eternal life to those who believe – and now people were abandoning that gospel for “another gospel.” Paul was flabbergasted that they would turn from the saving truth of the true, biblical gospel to false gospels that can only condemn. There is only one true gospel, one saving faith, Paul maintains, and that gospel was being perverted by people who were “troubling” the Galatian believers. And Paul had no uncertain words for those who proclaim a false gospel.
“Let him be accursed.”
It is a strong word, anathema, and means to be given over to God’s condemnation and judgment. Paul was not playing around. “May those who proclaim a false gospel be eternally condemned to a fiery hell where they cannot lead anyone else astray.”
Later, in Galatians 2:11-14, Paul confronts Peter about his hypocrisy. That is very different. It is redemptive and comparatively gentle. “You are wrong, my brother.” That is very different from his words to those who proclaim the false gospel.
But in Galatians 5:11-12, Paul says something that would make many of our members cringe. He says,
But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
There is a wordplay here that is only evident in the Greek. The word for circumcision is peritome – to cut around. I’ll let you google that if you need a diagram or more information. But in verse 12, he uses the word apokopto – to cut off. Basically, Paul is wishing that these guys that are so interested in cutting around it would just go ahead and cut it off. Them’s fighting words, of course – a violent and harsh word.
Did Paul not know about love and tolerance? Did he not know that he must always be “positive and encouraging?” Paul realized something we must not forget.
When someone is advocating a false gospel, it is no time for words of kindness and unity. Strong words are the only godly response to false gospels.
I am convinced that most of our disagreements are family discussions. Exegesis and rational discussion are the order of the day. Neither Calvinists nor Arminians (or the points between) are enemies of the gospel. Neither the culturally relevant and the cultural traditionalists are enemies of the gospel. Even cessationists are not enemies of the gospel. We must treat our disagreement on such issues properly – honoring one another, guarding our words and yes, seeing all the grays in between the extremes.
But as to the gospel, there can be no compromise. We can still be tactful, perhaps. There is no need to adopt the methods of the Westboro cult. But when someone is advocating a false gospel among us, we must not tolerate it or sugarcoat our response.
It is important to note that I said “advocating.” Most people have believed a false gospel of religious ritual and good works. They are relying on their baptism, on the Lord’s Supper, on their efforts to be a good person to win God’s favor. They are deceived; victims of false teachers. Adherents of false religions are not our enemy, they are those for whom we fight! They must be loved and the gospel must be patiently and carefully proclaimed to them. But those who advocate false gospels that damn to hell for all eternity must not be mollycoddled (yes, I’m old), tolerated or received as fellow-Christians. They must be answered forcefully and clearly – especially those who work within the church to lead God’s people astray.
The harsh words of Jesus and Paul were reserved for those who preached a false gospel. We cannot tolerate what God condemns.