Is God primarily love? (Part II) The good news

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I wrote the other day about the disappearance of hell from much of Christian thought and preaching. It's being replaced by a more "loving" notion of God, rather than a God who is "judgmental". I think this is unfortunate, and we need, instead, to maintain a Biblical and balanced view of God. We are not to take a single one of God's attributes in isolation. God's love needs to be understood in view of his justice and holiness, for example, and God's judgments need to be seen in view of his other attributes, as well.

This is the second post in a series on the subject. Here, I want to point out an article by D. A. Carson on Distorting the Love of God which I recommend. (Hat tip to Macht in the comments on the last post). He points out that there are different aspects of God's love, and if we focus on just one aspect, we lose sight of what God's love really means. He also argues that God's love, when properly understood, is a difficult doctrine. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here are some particularly good points:

If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God — however he, she, or it may be understood — is a loving being. But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting. For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology. The result is when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture. Worse, neither side may perceive that that is the case.

...

I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God — to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.

The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized....

It has not always been so. In generations when almost everyone believed in the justice of God, people sometimes found it difficult to believe in the love of God. The preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. Of course God loves me; he's like that, isn't he? Besides, why shouldn't he love me? I'm kind of cute, or at least as nice as the next person. I'm okay, you're okay, and God loves you and me.

Even in the mid-1980s, according to Andrew Greeley, three-quarters of his respondents in an important poll reported that they preferred to think of God as "friend" than as "king." I wonder what the percentage would have been if the option had been "friend" or "judge." Today most people seem to have little difficulty believing in the love of God; they have far more difficulty believing in the justice of God, the wrath of God, and the noncontradictory truthfulness of an omniscient God. But is the biblical teaching on the love of God maintaining its shape when the meaning of "God" dissolves in mist?

Notice, Carson points out that in generations when people believed in God's justice, "the preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news." Indeed, that's the very meaning of the word "gospel": The good news of salvation in Jesus Christ offered, based on his work, to everyone who will repent of their sins and trust in Christ. Before there can be good news, there has to be bad news: We deserve God's judgment, but God has provided a substitute to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sins, so that we can be saved if we trust in him.

But if God is primarily love, why is the gospel good news? Indeed, I spent almost the first 20 years of my life assuming that if God even existed, I would certainly go to heaven, because I was a pretty moral person compared to most of the people I saw around me, even nominal Christians. And since we all know God is love, well, of course he'd let me into heaven, right? Like Carson wrote, "I'm ... at least as nice as the next person," so of course he loves me.

See, the problem is, when we think God is only love (and we have a twisted idea of what that means), there is no need for salvation. Salvation from WHAT? If God loves me, surely he won't send me to hell. So, I didn't think I needed salvation from anything. Sure, if God existed, there was probably a hell reserved for people like Hitler, in my view, but not for nice people, like I thought I was. It was only when I began to read the Bible and find out about how God declares that he will punish the wicked, and I read his law and found out that, indeed, I was violating God's law and therefore deserved his punishment, that I started realizing that I needed salvation.

Until we understand what we deserve from God, we cannot rightly understand what it means when God says that he is love. As long as we think of ourselves as lovable, we are very far from understanding the reality declared in the Bible: God does not love people because his love is deserved. He loves even though his love is not deserved, even though we have been in rebellion against him. We read, for example, that Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:31-33). And Romans 5:8 we read, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Ephesians 2:1,5 reads, "And you were dead in your tresspasses and sins, in which you once walked... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved..." It's interesting that in these latter two passages, the understanding of God's love seems inextricably linked with an understanding of our condition. Imagine taking out the mention of trespasses and sins from those verses. What would be left? God's love, but it wouldn't mean much. To properly understand his love, we have to see that it means he loved us even when we were "dead in trespasses and sins". God doesn't love us because of our "good works" (indeed, "who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?", Romans 11:35), but in spite of our sins.

So, if Christian preaching and evangelism turns away from discussing what people deserve, it will also be turning away from declaring what God's love really means. Without understanding what we deserve, we cannot properly understand God's love, and thus we cannot understand the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

As an aside, in closing, it's worth pointing out that there is one thing that people may still want salvation from without understanding that hell is real, and that we deserve God's judgment. That one thing is problems in this life: Sickness or serious illness, financial problems, marital problems, etc. If Christ is the savior, but we don't believe in hell or God's judgment, what is left for Christ to save us from? Sickness, financial problems, etc. It's interesting, then, to notice how common health and wealth preaching is becoming. I've heard sermons when I visited other churches which said essentially, "Come to Christ and he will solve all your problems and make you rich. You'll have a great life. And if you're sick, you just need to believe, and he'll heal you." Christ is still seen as a savior -- but a savior from temporal problems, not a savior from our sins and the hell we deserve.

30 Comments

I saw a really good bumper sticker once that said: Smile, God loves you. Tremble, God is a consuming fire.

That really says it all. I hear a bit now and then about hell from the pulpit I gather 'round on Sundays... it hasn't totally disappeared - unless you believe what the Catholic higher-ups have said (in a Texas Newspaper a few years back) about it being a state of mind instead of a real place. Hmmmm... then I wonder why there are so many physical references to it in the Bible, and I wonder why Jesus warned us about it almost more than he preached anything else?

I don't think that's an officially endorsed Catholic view. The current pope has been a committed defender of the traditional view of hell, from what I've heard. Besides, what does it mean to say hell is a state of mind? If it means it's a state of mind that consists of being tortured in the worst ways possible and having experiences that are identical with such experiences as if you had a physical body being thus tortured, I can't see why anyone would think this lessens the message.

You can't take all the references as literal anyway. They contradict each other. The absolute destruction of Revelation doesn't fit well with the worm not dying and suffering not ending in the gospels. At least some of the images aren't meant to be literal unless you want to have the Bible contradicting itself.

I still don't think you need to have a "salvation from hell" in order for the gospel to be good news. The gospel is good news for many, many other reasons. Hell does not need to take center stage in the preaching of the gospel because even without the (traditional) vision/idea/concept of hell, the picture of life as it is, is still pretty bleak when viewed without God. In other words, in order to speak to the person who is outside of God's love, one does not need to specter of hell to awaken his need for God's grace and love. Salvation from "problems of this life" (as opposed to salvation from hell) doesn't necessarily equate to the health and wealth gospel. Once people realize that living in this world outside of the relationship with God is actually a bleak unfulling and unsatisfying existence, they can well appreciate what it means to be saved from, and how great it is to be drawn into a vibrant, loving relationship with God.

This is a timely post. Responding to the previous comments: "you don't need a salvation from hell in order for the gospel to be good news"-- but hell is part of the message! Jesus voluntarily went to the cross because of our sin(s), which had destined us to face the wrath of God, in hell. Of course because God loves us, He rescued us from this awful fate.

It is unfortunate that many have neglected this message in their gospel--perhaps with the sincere desire to convey the loving aspect of God-- because without also talking about the holiness and the wrath of God, the message of the gospel is distorted. If Jesus thought that we need to hear about hell--then we need to hear about hell! I'm saddened to say I believe Billy Graham has done this. I wrote about this on my blog, Jordan's View http://jordansview.blogspot.com/2005/07/billy-grahams-last-stand.html

Bloke, I'll admit that they can appreciate some of what there is to be saved from. It still remains only part of the gospel. Jesus taught it, and if we shy away from any truth simply because we feel uncomfortable saying it or because someone else might feel uncomfortable hearing it, that's bad. It's part of the gospel. It should be taught. Edwards taught it from time to time. It's not as if he gave this sermon all the time.

Alex, I'm unaware of Graham's unwillingness to speak of hell. Last I knew he had no such hesitations. Your post does nothing argue for this point. It simply gives many other criticisms of him, some of them perhaps worrisome, a number of them perhaps more unfair. This isn't my post, I don't really have the time to engage you on the details right now and I've dealt with some of those issues elsewhere anyway, so I'll spare you the details at this point.

Don;t get me wrong. I am not saying we ought to shy away from the message of hell, but I do not see that if salvation is "salvation from hell" exclusively. I also think that the (traditional) vision of hell is somehow distorted, and possibly unscriptural.

Jeremy, you're right that my blog post about Billy Graham doesn't make the argument that Billy Graham's message excludes teaching about hell. I posted my comments above in the wee hours of the morning and was overtired, so I apologize if I gave that impression.

Parableman's post though did remind me of the watering down of the gospel truth that, in my opinion, has crept into Graham's message.

My thinking about Graham is that he delivers an accurate gospel presentation, in so far as telling people that Jesus Christ is the answer, and has always been a gifted communicator of this message. Nevertheless his ministry adopted a policy of not making clear doctrinal distinctions (for example, between what the Catholic church teaches about how to be saved--which seems to add certain works to the message of the gospel about Jesus-- and the salvation by faith-in-Jesus-alone message that he consistently preaches. The BGEA seems to have no qualms about sending converts to Catholic churches or even to a synagogue-- rather, Graham dismisses the differences between the Catholics/Protestants as simply being minor differences over later church tradition.

So I guess what triggered my thought about Graham is that distortions to the gospel message inevitably develop when certain hard truths are excluded from the presentation. My points about Graham illustrate this, I believe.

I'd be interested to see where you have dealt with thess issues.

Bloke, I see your point. But perhaps if we are preaching that without Jesus our lives are fulfilling and unsatisfying, we may give the impression that the gospel is primarily about fulfilling us, when it is primarily a call to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ; the fruit thereof leading us to fulfillment.

I'm Parableman. Do you mean Abednego's post?

I don't think the Catholic view of the gospel is all that straightforward. One issue is whether it's heretical to believe the model of grace to gain salvation and works to stay in, which Catholics seem to say. If it's interpreted monergistically, I'm not sure it's as big a problem, and I'm convinced some Catholics, including some cardinals and popes, take it that way. I've discussed these at great length in this series and don't want it to infect Abednego's comment thread. I happen to think Graham's attitde toward Catholicism is along the right track, though I'm not sure I'd agree with everything he does and says in this area.

As for hell, I think the best way to present it is as separation from God and to describe just how bad that is, regardless of what form it might take (conscious physical suffering, conscious spiritual suffering, literal spiritual death/annihilation, etc.). That doesn't mean it shouldn't be presented at all.

I don't think the problem of seeing the gospel as about us is solved by preaching hell. Someone who professes faith to avoid hell is acting just as selfishly as someone who professes faith to gain material benefits or a more fulfilled life this side of death. The only truly good motivation to seek God is because God is worthy of it and we ought therefore to do so. Virtually no one starts out with such a motivation, however.

Bloke,

I agree that the gospel's good news reaches much further than just salvation from the judgment we deserve. It is salvation to something, as well, and also certainly has lots of beneficial effects in this life. But it needn't have those for it to be good news. Think, for example, of the thief on the cross -- the one who repented. He was dying; the gospel didn't bring him any benefit in this life. But it did bring Jesus' assurance "Surely you will be with me today in paradise," rather than eternal punishment.

I guess I also think of Paul's comment in 1 Cor. 15, where he argues that if the dead are not raised, we (Christians) are more to be pitied than all men. Here, he was particularly fighting against people who denied the resurrection of the dead, but I think his argument applies to heaven and hell also (since our eternal destiny does involve resurrection). Paul's point seems to be basically this: Christianity is not at all worthwhile if it's only for this life. He even says, "If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." He's essentially saying that if the dead are not raised, there's really no reason to live the Christian life.
That, to me, seems to suggest that the primary motivation for Christianity is the life to come. Even Hebrews 11 seems to address this, I think. Consider, for example, Moses, who chose to be persecuted along with the people of God.

I agree that people can be brought to recognize their need for God in various ways, including seeing how much they lack in this life, and seeing (for example) Christians who exhibit real joy they lack, and so on.

You wrote: "Once people realize that living in this world outside of the relationship with God is actually a bleak unfulling and unsatisfying existence, they can well appreciate what it means to be saved from, and how great it is to be drawn into a vibrant, loving relationship with God."
Like I said, I understand that people can recognize this sort of need without preaching about the judgment we deserve.

But I question whether people will come into real salvation without first recognizing that we deserve God's wrath. Christianity inevitably involves some suffering, some taking up one's cross and following Christ. I'm not sure if people who "come" to Christ only because they find the outside world unfulfilling will really persevere through trials.

In other words, I'm saying that if what we "turn" to Christ for salvation from is only things in this life, it's quite likely that inevitably, we will face difficulties as Christians in this life which will cause us to turn away, because our "Christianity" is founded on this life. See for example the parable of the sower.

I also like the example of the early church, where many died for their faith. They were looking ahead to something better; their Christianity wasn't primarily based on present benefits, but on their future hope.

So like I said, there are certainly benefits to being a Christian, and we can and should mention these. But as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, the really fundamental issue is the resurrection, and what will happen on the day of judgment. Jesus himself talks about the great separation between the sheep and goats, and those who will stand before him when he says, "Away, I never knew you." Compared to everything in this life, our eternal destiny is so much more meaningful, and it seems that this is an essential element of the gospel presentation.

Abednego-- I like very much your answer to Bloke. It seems to me that the necessity of preaching about hell is not so much to scare us, but to convict us of the fact that our sin is so ugly and such an affront to a just and holy God that God's wrath against it is both required and completely justified.

How the Spirit works such conviction into our hearts/minds can take many forms, and may be progressive (at least it has been for me).

If God did nothing at all for us in this life but save us from the hell to come we have already received something of infinite benefit.

Parableman: Sorry for mixing you up with Abednego. I looked over at your series on Roman Catholicism and there is much to chew on there. My concern is about how Catholic doctrine actually plays out in the life of the average Catholic (who I suspect doesn't engage in the kind of deeper examination of the nuances of these doctrines that you and the other commenters display in your series). I really have no clue about this, since I don't know many Catholics very well and have not studied the RCC. But on the face of it, the RCC seems to include many doctrines that are not compatible with a justification by faith in Christ alone gospel, which is why I think it inappropriate for Billy Graham's converts to be sent there. But since as you point out this thread is not about this topic, I leave the issue for now. Thanks for your response.

I suggest that it is quite short sighted to say that the man on the cross who turned to Christ did not benefit "in this life." Only if you subscribe to a health & wealth gospel would you say that. I see this need to distinguish between benefits "in this life" and "in the next" as counterproductive. Whatever you are trying to do, you might be in danger of overcompensating. I still think that balance comes from another, slightly different perspective. I am also uncomfortable using terms like "real salvation," "truly saved" etc. I think there is more to our relationship with God than just what happens after we die. Eternal life, or abundant life begins now.

Bloke,

I agree that eternal life, and abundant life, for Christians begins now. That's a Biblical idea and is pretty explicitly taught by the Bible, and this idea certainly has a place in preaching. I'm not trying to say we should avoid this idea, but that if it's the ONLY reason given to turn to Christ for salvation, we're missing something really important.

But my concern is this statement you made:
"Once people realize that living in this world outside of the relationship with God is actually a bleak unfulling and unsatisfying existence, they can well appreciate what it means to be saved from, and how great it is to be drawn into a vibrant, loving relationship with God."

If this is the primary reason you give people to turn to Christ, I think your reasoning isn't the same as that of the Bible. Christ, and the apostles, continually pointed to people's sin and our need of salvation from our sins; our need of an atoning sacrifice, and so on. They didn't point only to what C.S. Lewis called the "God-sized hole" in our hearts, and our emptiness, lack of satisfaction, etc. They pointed to our sin and our need of salvation from our sin. See for example Romans 1-3. I see very little there about how unfulfilling life without God is, and a whole lot about how we have sinned terribly against God.

Let me point out two further problems I see with pointing only to the bleakness, etc., of life without God:
1) The basic Christian message is "repent and believe", in my view. (If you disagree, please say so and I'll back this up). If you focus only on how empty we are without God, you're really lacking the "repent" part of the message.
2) What of those who don't feel empty? There are those who won't admit that they lack satisfaction. How do you share with such people? Christ didn't preach to the Pharisees by pointing out how unsatisfying their lives were; he preached to them by pointing out their sin and hypocrisy.

Again, I'm not trying to say there should be no mention of the fact that the Christian life begins now, and the Christian life is the truly blessed, happy, fulfilling life. My concern is just that if that's ALL you preach (and nothing about eternity), you're (a) leaving out an essential part of the Christian message (repentance, atonement, etc.) and (b) you're telling people they should become Christians because of the benefits Christianity brings in the present. What if they get to the point where Christianity will lead to severe suffering in this life, and turning away will (to outward appearances) be a lot easier? I think if your message is primarily about the present benefit of Christianity, you're risking "bringing" fairweather Christians -- people who are only interested in Christianity as long as it seems to fullfill their immediate needs and interests.

I have to admit, I've used precisely the approach you're talking about in sharing with people before. I've seen a number of them express some interest, come to church, etc. But most of them seemed to eventually conclude that it didn't "meet their needs" in the way I was saying it would. In hindsight, I think this is because they never understood their greatest need: Salvation from their sins. They were instead just looking for something that would make them happy in this life. And I failed to do my part, because I essentially put forward Christianity just as something that brings people happiness. Granted, it can and does -- but it's also about reconciliation with God. In order to be reconciled to God, we must first understand we have offended him, and that we NEED to be reconciled to God.

It reminds me of the parable of the prodigal son. He went away and squandered his inheritance in sinful living, eventually coming to poverty and living in misery. So he went back to his father, but first, he recognized his sin. So when he went back, he came to his father and said, "I have sinned against heaven and against you..." and asked his father to take him on as a servant. His father received him joyfully, and provided generously for him. But first, he came saying "I have sinned against heaven and against you." He didn't come saying, "I'm miserable and starving and I want you to take care of me." First, he had to recognize that he had sinned, and ask his father's forgiveness. So yes, he came partly because of his suffering -- but I don't think his father would have received him with joy without him also showing remorse for his sins. Do you?

Alex,

You wrote: "It seems to me that the necessity of preaching about hell is not so much to scare us, but to convict us of the fact that our sin is so ugly and such an affront to a just and holy God that God's wrath against it is both required and completely justified."

I totally agree. One can't scare people into heaven, I don't think. :) But one can point out how hideous sin is in God's sight, and the punishment it deserves, and I think mentioning hell is part of this. We need to recognize the danger we are in without Christ, so that we turn to Christ.

Bloke:
I concur with Abednego’s response. The man on the cross who gained salvation experienced a tremendous blessing of course, as he received eternal life, which would then continue on after his death. But he did not get to experience much of the benefit of his salvation in his earthly life, which might have included walking with the Lord and serving him in some kind of ministry, and perhaps some material blessings as well. Nevertheless, he was a truly blessed man just to have gained eternal life and escaped hell.

Jesus included many warnings about hell in his teaching, which seems to indicate that it is a crucial element of the gospel message. I don’t know all the reasons the hell element is necessary, but one obvious thing is that such a message indicates the utter seriousness, in terms of consequences, of your response to Jesus Christ.

Parableman:
A last word about the Billy Graham issue-- Mr. Graham was quoted recently in an interview on Larry King as saying he does not preach about hell (from his answer, I would presume this means he has not being doing so for quite some time: http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0506/26/lkl.01.html

He says he doesn't preach in the forceful and judgmental way Falwell does. He doesn't say he doesn't preach hell. Larry King left him with a picture of Falwell's style of preaching, and Graham says his style of preaching is different, reflecting God's love in a way Falwell doesn't. The proof that he does preach hell is in the very story you linked to. The transcript contains the transcripts of the video clips of Graham's preaching that they showed coming into and going out of segments at commercial breaks. One of those clips was as follows:

Have you been changed into a new and different person? Have something happened here that changed your relationships with your family, with your friends, with your community, with your school? Jesus said there are two roads in life. One is the broad road that leads to destruction and judgement and hell, the other is a narrow road that leads to heaven and paradise.

That counts as preaching the reality of hell. Your claim is simply false.

Bloke, you say: I am also uncomfortable using terms like "real salvation," "truly saved" etc.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (I John 2:19, ESV )

That's pretty clear language about those who are genuinely in Christ and those who truly are not. The surrounding context within I John is pretty clear, and you find the same thing throughout the gospel of John, Paul's letters, and elsewhere. There are those who truly know him, and there are those who say they know him but are not telling the truth. The truth is not in them. There are those who are born of God and those who have not been born of God. There are those walking in light and those in darkness. There are those who have life in Christ Jesus and those who don't. There are those who have the Spirit of God and those who don't. This is uncomfortable language, because it leads to talking about those who are truly saved and those who have real salvation. I admit that it's uncomfortable language. It's biblical language, however.

Hi Jeremy: I stand corrected.

As I read the transcript from Larry King’s interview with Billy Graham, I misinterpreted Mr. Graham’s comments to mean that he was saying that he doesn't preach about hell. However as you point out, it seems that he does; I'm sorry about the mistake.

I seem to recall from crusade messages I've heard Graham preach in the past, that hell was included as part of the presentation—- I am glad that he does include the reality of hell in his message.

Nevertheless I remain troubled by other aspects of his message, as previously mentioned, and on further reflection, I think those concerns are relevant to this thread. It seems to me that, despite an accurate gospel presentation, there are other elements in Graham's ministry, which, coupled with certain public statements he's made, reflect the "God is primarily love" approach that Abednego points out has serious shortcomings.

This "God is primarily love" approach might explain why Graham's ministry makes no clarifying distinctions between elements of the gospel as preached by Roman Catholicism (purgatory, Mary as co-redemptrix?) vs the Protestant version of the gospel; or why Graham, in interviews such as the recent one with Larry King, has made statements that give the impression he believes one might possibly be accepted by God without receiving Christ.

Possibly a case could be made, from Paul’s comments in Romans 2: 14-16, that some may be saved without having heard of Christ, if they have walked according to the light they were given (?). I’m not at all sure about this but there’s no reason to believe that Paul would say that such a possibility excuses us from obeying the command to faithfully preach Christ as the way to salvation and to warn others of the coming judgment and the possibility of hell.

In today’s climate it is difficult and uncomfortable to tell others about the exclusive claims of Christianity and to talk about hell. I know I struggle with this a lot. Yet a love that fails to warn people about hell and false gospels/religious teachings falls short of the mark. While Graham has done well on the former (preaching Christ), he does not seem to have done well on the latter (warning against the false). This may be a symptom of the "God is primarily love" approach.

Purgatory is irrelevant to the issue of hell. Ultimately everyone goes to heaven or hell for Catholics, even if some people will spend some time in purgatory before going to heaven. If they're wrong for thinking it will take time to purify people absolutely, I don't think that's a gospel issue. This, again, is part of the issues of my posts that I referred you to again. The only gospel objection I know of to purgatory takes purgatory to be a place where salvation is earned, and I don't think that's how Catholics view it/

The co-redemptrix issue is also much misunderstood. Calling her co-redemptrix is merely an acknowledgement that she played a role in some aspects of Jesus' mission to redeem us, aspects that were necessary to that mission. One of them is purely giving birth to him and providing him a body. To some, it includes that she was one of the few who stayed with him through his death on the cross, thus supporting him to the end in a way none of the 12 did, providing support for him in the hour when he was providing redemption. Some Catholics might mean more than that at the popular level, but then such negative comments should be restricted to those who believe that and not to those who believe the official teaching.

Graham's view that some might be saved without receiving Christ is fairly common. I think it's wrong (and I think that interpretation of Romans 2 is wrong), but he's in good company. C.S. Lewis plainly held that view. Josh McDowell is open to it. Anyone who thinks babies who die will be saved believes that. Paul makes it quite clear that the remedy for those who haven't heard is to tell them. See Romans 10. So whatever view you take on this you have to preach to those who haven't heard. Of course Graham does. He proclaims the truth, and he says that those who disagree are wrong. He doesn't spend time picking nits about which people are in disagreement. Rather, he does what's more valuable. He proclaims the truth, and those who say something different have to be evaluated in light of the truth. It's the same principle used in training counterfeiters. They don't tell them everything that can go wrong. They train them with real bills so they know what they look like. Anything different is a counterfeit.

I'm not educated enough about Graham to comment on him particularly, but I agree with what Jeremy is getting at at the end of the last comment: The important thing isn't to point fingers at who exactly is wrong and how, but to make plain the "real thing", the real gospel. Paul warned the Galatians against "another gospel" other than the one he preached, because any other gospel was a false gospel. I think the idea is the same as the counterfeiting example: If you know what the real gospel is, you'll also recognize perversions of it.

Generally, I think it's important to proclaim "omne consilium Dei", the whole counsel of God -- in other words, what the Bible teaches, not just the aspects we prefer. There are errors on both sides of (almost?) every issue; I've spoken here against overemphasizing the love of God, since I think that's a bigger risk at present, but it's equally important not to overemphasize any of his other attributes.

Parableman:
I don’t think that the teaching of purgatory as a doctrine is irrelevant to the issue of hell if it leads some to believe that they can count on something other placing their faith in Jesus--in this life-- to be saved, and it leads them not to do so, to their eternal doom. The gospel teaches that Jesus Christ died for our sins, once for all (Romans 6:10, Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:10, 1 Peter 3:18) and that as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice, our “sins and lawless deeds I (God) will remember no more." We die once, and then we face God’s judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Purgatory seems to say that the cleansing of our sins provided by Jesus is not enough, that we need further cleansing from sins after we die. I can’t find such a teaching in the Bible.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul warned that if they began to follow those that teach that we must be circumcised in order to be good Christians, that they would fall away from grace by bringing themselves under law again, and would be following a different, false gospel:

“ I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! Galatians 2:21".

A different gospel, Paul seems to be saying, is one that detracts from the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the Cross. The circumstances which prompted Paul to write the letter, was the issue of circumcision. Purgatory similarly detracts from the sufficiency of the work of the Cross by saying that, somehow, we must be cleansed from sins after death--Jesus' cleansing was insufficient. This seems to be another gospel.

Paul does speak of our works being judged (1 Cor 3: 10-15), but as for our justification before God and our salvation from sin, Paul unequivocally states that it is by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2: 8-9)��?.

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’(Romans 4: 1-8)".

Jesus said to the thief, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). John Piper comments on this passage: “Here is a dying man declaring a life-long thief accepted and loved and heaven-bound. Here is a grace that sweeps a lifetime of guilt away in an instant. Here is a power that says death can hold neither you nor me. Here is an authority that decides who goes to heaven and who doesn't. Here is an immediacy that says it will happen this very day. No purgatory, no testing, no penance. Just absolute forgiveness and acquittal and cleansing and acceptance.��?

Even if purgatory is simply a place where people become fully purified so that they can go to heaven, I believe that the whole concept is misleading (because it could give the impression that one has a second chance at getting to heaven though they reject Christ) and unbiblical (because it is not found in Scripture but is only part of Catholic tradition).

If the co-redemptrix issue is merely an acknowledgment that Mary played a role in some necessary aspects of Jesus’ mission, surely all Christians would agree to this. But Catholic teaching seems to imply much more than this about Mary. Why was there a worldwide movement to lobby the Pope to officially pronounce Mary as co-redemptrix? Why is it claimed that Mary was immaculately conceived and that she remained a perpetual virgin? Why is she prayed to, and why is it said that she can intercede for us? It is clear that Catholic teaching elevates Mary to a place where she is no longer a mere human being that served God humbly, but is some kind of exalted Lady. Where are any of these teachings found in the Bible?

Paul exhorted Timothy to “watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.��?(1 Timothy 4:16) He told Titus that an elder of the church “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.��?(Titus 1:9)

These verses say that not only must we persevere in proclaiming the truth through right doctrine and a right life, we must also be able to refute that which is not truth, doctrine which is not sound. As a world-renowned and respected evangelist- one to whom many have looked to for answers to the most critically important questions of life, Mr. Graham should be able to give sound doctrinal answers. You say that “he proclaims the truth and that he says that those that disagree are wrong��?. Does he? In the aforementioned interview with Larry King he did not say that either Jews or Muslims were wrong, only that he does not judge them. His ministry also neglects to highlight vital doctrinal distinctions between Catholic and Protestant teaching, apparently because he does not see them as important and/or sees the differences as minimal. It has been official BGEA policy for years that “anyone who makes a decision at our meetings is seen later and referred to a local clergyman, Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish."

He seems to do so on the basis of the “God is Primarily Love��? approach, playing down the importance of doctrinal distinctions in the name of loving our Catholic brothers and sisters. Perhaps he also believes that Jewish people may become Christians without Christ, or that if you send a new Christian to a synagogue, somehow he won’t lose his faith and everything will turn out ok, just so long as everyone loves one another?

Abednego: most perversions of the gospel have just enough truth in them to make them sound right, which is why I believe it is biblical to fight against distortions, whether they come through addition or by leaving certain critical things out.

My apologies to all for the very long post-- I thought however that the issues I brought out in response to Parableman were also still related (at least in my thinking) to Abednego's original post. I am happy to discontinue the discussion here and renew it elsewhere, if you feel that is more appropriate.

Blessings,

Alex

Abednego, I think you misunderstand me. I am saying that one can also use other means of sharing the gospel. I am saying that the message of hell and eternal punishment may not be necessary all of the time. My refering to talking about the emptiness of life without God is a broad characterization of one way to share the gospel, not the exclusive way. I do think that the message of hell, brimstone and fire of the previous generation by and large had been misdirected, though and I don't think some of the points you say about NOT preaching about hell and eternal damnation will necessarily lead to some of the problems you have raised.

Just because you were unsuccessful in preaching the gospel using the "other" method, may have nothing to do with the method or the message. I personally have shared with tens, probably more than a hundred on a one-to-one basis and probably several thousands en masse using the standard God loves you but you have sinned formula. Only a handful had come to commit their lives to God. I have also used other, some not so conventional methods, but none of the methods I have used have been exclusively "successful" in that people came to know Christ in droves. But my mentors' advice to me so many years ago still hold true: Success in witness is faithfully sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.

Parableman: I hear what you are saying, and there are certainly tares among the wheat, but the problem is to identify someone as not "truly" saved unless that person is able to pass a orthodoxy or doctrinal test, or in this case, unless the person believed rightly what he is saved from. Like the blind man, sometimes, the truly saved could only say, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

Parableman and Abednego: Thanks for a great discussion, maybe at times we are talking past one another, but we are probably disagreeing only in a matter of perspective or of emphasis.

P.S. I have become so involved in this discussion that I have now included a post on my blog which links back here.

By the way, I do believe that God is primarily love, but His is a love that is not sentimental or fickle or limited or tainted by evil such as human love is, but is pure and holy, and is the most powerful force in the universe.

Blessings,

Alex

Bloke,

Thanks for your further comments. I agree that one can use other methods to share the gospel -- but I think it's essential to understand how we have offended God, and what we deserve from him, to understand what Christ has done. Don't you? I mean, how can you explain Christ's sacrificial death on the cross without explaining why he had to die?

I don't mean to say that the "other" method must be wrong because it didn't work. I think ordinarily most people reject the gospel message even when it's presented in its entireity. My point was that I brought people who were interested in what I was offering (a good life) but NOT interested in really repenting and following Christ. Christ exhorts us to "count the cost" (which may be things very dear to us, or even our own lives), and I'm concerned that if we focus primarily on the temporal benefits of Christianity, we're not pointing out the "cost".

Back to my choice of the phrase "real salvation". Are you familiar with MacArthur's book "The Gospel According to Jesus"? Essentially his argument is that much of modern evangelism calls people to come to Christ as savior, but not as Lord -- but "salvation" without repentance, without turning to Christ as Lord, is no salvation at all (according to James 2, for example). "Real salvation" involves not just asking for forgiveness while continuing to sin just as we always did, but turning away from sin, to Jesus Christ. My choice of the phrase "real salvation" was an attempt to point out that it's entirely possible to promote the benefits of Christianity so much that people decide they want to come so they can have the benefits, but never realize that coming for the benefits also means turning away from sin.

Anyway, so I agree that one can point out the benefits of salvation in Christ, but I don't think it's wise to focus only on these unless you're dealing with someone who already understands what we deserve from God -- that is, why we need a savior.

Do you think that most people, at present, already understand that we deserve God's just wrath for our sins? Or do you think that, generally speaking, most people do NOT understand that?

From what I can tell, in talking with people, most people fall into the latter group. They think that of course God is in the business of forgiving sins. Yeah, they've done some things wrong, but no more than anyone else, so of course God will let them into heaven, if there even is such a place. And then you try to tell them that God has offered salvation in Jesus Christ, but they don't think they need salvation -- at least, not salvation from the just wrath of God. Salvation from their troubles, sorrows, and misery, to a better life, maybe. But salvation in Christ encompasses a lot more than that.

I haven't been able to keep up with this, but I have some things to say.

First, purgatory isn't supposed to be a way for someone who can't otherwise get into heaven to get into heaven, i.e. a second chance. It's supposed to be a way for those who will end up in heaven to get to be such that they will be ok once there, i.e. purified.

As for the Galatians argument, I think that's a mistake. Paul says that we are purified. That means we're purified now. But surely something must happen to us after death for us to be actually purified enough to be in God's presence! We still sin, after all. The doctrine of purgatory takes that process to be an extended, time-consuming middle-life between death and heaven. Those who deny purgatory take it to be more or less instantaneous. Either way it happens. If purgatory is a heresy by that argument, so is the view that we will be transformed instantaneously after death.

It's not clear that Paradise is heaven, either, so I wouldn't try to rest much on that. There's enough evidence of an intermediate state that I don't think we can assume Paradise is the final state.

I never said no Catholic views are misleading. I said they aren't necessarily the heresy of Galatians. I've said over and over again that they can be misleading and that they can be dangerous because they can lead to misunderstandings that can end up at heresy. That doesn't make someone who holds them a heretic. I have no problems with teaching the gospel and making fine distinctions. I have problems with assuming that someone who gets the distinctions wrong is therefore not believing in Christ. Sometimes find distinctions are hard to parse, and sometimes they indeed have committed their lives to Christ but have simply got some views wrong. Often those who criticize them have misunderstood their actual views. As has been said by others, salvation is through trusting in Christ, not through trusting in doctrine, even in true doctrine. Can that be done while not being able to express the gospel perfectly and fully in line with the Bible? It better be possible, or no one is saved.

I would expect his comment about Jewish clergy is not about non-Christian Jews. He probably refers Jewish people to the local Messianic congregation who will understand the Jewish background more fully for better discipleship.

Hi Parableman:

Thanks again for posting some of your comments over at my blog.

I understand that the Catholic concept of purgatory is about an after-life purification process that prepares us to enter heaven (or Paradise?). As you say, we still sin after becoming Christians (1 John 1:8) -- and without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14)-- it seems therefore that some kind of final cleansing from sin is necessary before we come face to face with the Lord and enter into heaven (1 John 3: 2-3). What is not clear is how this cleansing is completed. If purgatory has nothing to do with justification, then I have less problems with it. Nevertheless problems with purgatory remain because the concept fits in with Catholic ideas about somehow earning your place into heaven. Christ suffered for my sins, but I must also suffer. Maybe so, but the Bible teaches that such trials and tribulations happen to mature our faith while we live, not after we die, not afterward (see 1 Peter 1: 6-7, Romans 5: 3-4, James 1: 2-4).

Hebrews 9-27-28 ESV
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Graham has preached that all one must do is to put your faith in Christ in order to be saved. But Catholics seem to say that you must believe in Christ, and in addition, be a good Catholic; is it not the official dogma that Catholics believe that they are the one True Church?

So I still see a contradiction between Graham's all you need is Jesus gospel and mainline Catholic teaching. Again, I point to the Marian coredemptrix idea as a concept that borders on blasphemy. It makes Mary into something that she is not. A teaching that diminishes the work of the Savior by telling us that we should adore Mary as the "Mother" of God, for her unique role in salvation is offensive. It is not that I cannot find much in Mary that would inspire great inspiration and respect, but Mary is a human being, not sinless. Yet devotion to Mary is pure Catholic teaching.

Graham says that the greatest man of this century was the Pope, who believed and taught this false doctrine about Mary. So to say that Graham rightly focuses on preaching the true gospel and that it is not necessary for him to point out all the ways people get the message wrong is a misleading statement. For through his close association with the Catholic church and his praise of Catholics, Graham has implied that there is no error in the Catholic church, and only minor differences between the Protestants and Catholics over church traditions. One can only maintain such a view by ignoring the radical differences between Catholic teachings such as these and the gospel as understood by the Reformers.

Can one get saved in the Catholic church? Of course, since they do preach about Christ. But their addition of misleading or false doctrines based on tradition are, I believe, precisely an example of "Galatian" heresy because they lead people away from trusting Jesus alone for their salvation--away from grace.

Sincerely,

Alex

You're taking the word 'justification' the way Protestants use it and then interpreting what Catholics say about justification according to that definition. Catholics use the word to mean something different. When they say we're justified by works, they're not talking about a legal declaration of righteousness. They're talking about what actually makes you become righteous in your deeds. That, of course, takes having righteous deeds. So purgatory is bound up in what they call justification, but they're using the word very differently. As I said, this has all come up in the previous posts and is exactly what I didn't want to have to repeat, which shows me that you didn't go read the discussions I said to read first before continuing your complaints.

Catholics would not deny the sufficiency of Christ's death. They just think his death manifests itself through God's grace in various ways that Protestants wouldn't define that way. The sufficiency of Christ is applied to Christians through the eucharist, they say. It's still the sufficiency of Christ, and it's Christ's death that's present in the eucharist. You can take that in a way they don't intend, and it might lead you to denying the sufficiency of Christ, but that's not how the doctrine is officially stated. The same goes for anything else.

I'm not going to repeat all that I just said about disagreement and false doctrine as compared with heresy. I'm just not going to get involved in repeating myself every time you say something that I've already responded to. I have too much to do for that kind of thing.

I don't think Graham would see these as minor differences. I do think he sees them as Christians who preach the gospel and thus can help new believers grow in their faith at the initial stages as they seek to figure out what sort of church would be best for their growth. Maybe he's too idealistic. Maybe his practice is wrong. I wouldn't say it's abandoning anything crucial.

Dear Parableman:

I did read the discussions you pointed out to me. I admit though, that the discussion seemed esoteric and therefore was not helpful (to me at least). Perhaps someone who has often studied or debated Catholic doctrine and could patiently follow all the nuances of that discussion would have derived more out of it.

I perhaps have repeated some of my arguments in the hopes of persuading you of my main point-- that Graham's ministry is an example of one that has, in effect, preached a "God Is Primarily Love message". You don't seem to want to concede that Graham does anything wrong, although it is clear that:

1- His ministry sends many converts to the Roman Catholic Church, thus seeming to give endorsement to that church, but,
2- It does not make distinctions-- which would be helpful to new believers -- between what is true and false in Roman Catholic teaching,
3- Rather, he uncritically promotes Roman Catholicism through public statements such as his choice of the Pope as the "man of the century" (12/20/99 Religion Today); or, "We only differ on some matters of later church tradition. I find that my beliefs are essentially the same as those of orthodox Roman Catholics" (McCall's, Jan. 1978)".

Perhaps as you say I am misunderstanding some RCC doctrines-- of course it can be a challenge to understand more deeply most Christian doctrine, and Catholic doctrines have their particular intricacies. But it is precisely clarification of doctrine that is necessary since it bears upon what young believers need to understand about how to be saved, and furthermore, how to become a disciple. And who better to do look to than the teacher you trust has just given you a true message about salvation? So I would argue that teaching about such matters is indeed "crucial".

Jesus says we are to make all disciples (Matthew 28: 19-20), not just converts. So it is not enough to preach a technically correct gospel message that helps people become Christians, but neglects the spiritual welfare of converts by leaving them to fend for themselves in a place where they are likely to receive bad teaching.

Perhaps Graham's public statements, and the policies of his ministry, indicate that Graham does not in fact find bad teaching in Roman Catholicism.

Again I relate what I view as the BGEAS's compromised ministry policy back to the ideas expressed in Abednego's original post about the distortion of truth that occurs when God's love is defined as simply forgiving and accepting all, but neglects emphasis on the very necessary (because of God's holy character) foundation of that acceptance-- the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay the penalty of our sins. Perhaps as you say this is a result of Graham's "idealism"--one that leads him to think that so long as the basic true message of Christ is preached, all of these other matters will work themselves out. I don't think that's true.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus teaches that people may hear the message and not understand it, and then Satan comes and snatches away what was sown in their hearts.

So we know that as the gospel message is preached, we are in the midst of a spiritual battle. Satan is going to be there, trying to steer people off course. A good strategy to accomplish this might be to direct someone who has received the true gospel message to a place where that seed will be snatched away through teaching that mixes truth with error.

In this light, I think that Graham's organization has followed a policy that is seriously mistaken, with possibly disastrous consequences.

I never said he hasn't done anything wrong. I've been arguing that what he's done isn't as bad as you say it is. That doesn't mean this element of what he's done isn't bad.

I just wanted to clarify something I said above. I do believe that your post "Catholics and the Galatian Heresy" is helpful-- was what not so helpful to me was the comments discussion afterward.

My whole argument has proceeded upon the assumption that we agree that there is some error in the doctrines of the RCC. From what I have read in your series this seemed to me a valid assumption. Additionally, you're agreeing with me that Graham's ministry has done some thing(s) wrong.

So my main point has been, if you believe that indeed there are false doctrines being taught in the RCC, then I believe one’s duty as a Christian is to advise a young believer about these errors, rather than send them to become members of RCC churches without any advice or guidance (as Graham seemingly does).

Perhaps I view the errors of the RCC as more serious than you do, and thus Graham's mistake also seems to me to be more grave.

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