By Iain Murray
An edited extract from Mr Murray’s new book Evangelicalism Divided (Banner of Truth)
In his book on Evangelicalism, James Davison Hunter wrote: ‘A dynamic would appear to be operating [in Evangelicalism] that strikes at the very heart of Evangelical self-identity’.
What is this ‘dynamic’? I believe that all the evidence points in one direction. It is that Evangelicals, while commonly retaining the same set of beliefs, have been tempted to seek success in ways which the New Testament identifies as ‘worldliness’.
What is worldliness?
Worldliness is departing from God. It is a man-centred way of thinking; it proposes objectives which demand no radical breach with man’s fallen nature; it judges the importance of things by the present and material results; it weighs success by numbers; it covets human esteem and wants no unpopularity; it knows no truth for which it is worth suffering; it declines to be a ‘fool for Christ’s sake’.
Worldliness is the mind-set of the unregenerate. It adopts idols and is at war with God. Because ‘the flesh’ still dwells in the Christian he is far from immune from being influenced by this dynamic.
It is of believers that it is said, ‘the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary one to another’ (Galatians 5:17). It is professing Christians who are asked, ‘Do you not know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?’ (James 4:4) and are commanded, ‘Do not love the world’, and ‘keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 2:15, 5:21).
Apostasy generally arises in the church just because this danger ceases to be observed. The consequence is that spiritual warfare gives way to spiritual pacifism, and, in the same spirit, the church devises ways to present the gospel which will neutralise any offence.
The antithesis between regenerate and unregenerate is passed over and it is supposed that the interests and ambitions of the unconverted can somehow be harnessed to win their approval for Christ. Then when this approach achieves ‘results’ – as it will – no more justification is thought to be needed. The rule of Scripture has given place to pragmatism.
Converted to the world
The apostolic statement, ‘For if I still pleased men, I would not be the servant of Christ’ (Galatians 1:10), has lost its meaning. No Christian deliberately gives way to the spirit of the world but we all may do so unwittingly and unconsciously.
That this has happened on a large scale in the later-twentieth century is to be seen in the way in which the interests and priorities of contemporary culture have come to be mirrored in the churches.
The antipathy to authority and to discipline; the cry for entertainment by the visual image rather than by the words of Scripture; the appeal of the spectacular; the rise of feminism; the readiness to identify power with numbers; the unwillingness to make ‘beliefs’ a matter of controversy – all these features, so evident in the world’s agenda, are now also to be found in the Christian scene.
Instead of the churches revolutionising the culture, the reverse has happened. Churches have been converted to the world. David Wells has written: ‘The stream of historic orthodoxy that once watered the evangelical soul is now dammed by a worldliness that many fail to recognise as worldliness because of the cultural innocence with which it presents itself. … It may be that Christian faith, which has made many easy alliances with modern culture in the past few decades, is also living in a fool’s paradise, comforting itself about all the things God is doing … while it is losing its character, if not its soul’ (No place for truth, pp. 11, 68).
This same worldliness has come to affect the way in which the gospel is often presented to the unconverted. Leonard Sweet has pointed out that Evangelicals and liberals are often similar in the inducements which they propose to their hearers why they should become Christians.
Both offer such things as more success in life, a happier marriage, an integrated personality, more meaning to existence, and so on. In other words, the reasons for becoming a Christian are pragmatic and they are presented with stories of how it has worked for others.
The subject of worldliness, however, has a deeper bearing. Human conduct is not capable of being understood so long as it is imagined that man is self-contained and insulated from any power other than his own.
Worldliness, it is true, is the outcome of man’s fallen nature, but the same fall which introduced that nature also brought man under the control of Satan and demonic powers. Worldliness is no accident; it is the devil’s use of such idols as pride, selfishness, and pleasure, to maintain his dominion over men.
The malice of Satan
What Satan proposes for man’s happiness is, in truth, the result of implacable malice towards the whole human race. He means to exclude God and to destroy men, and the system he has devised to do this is so subtle that man is a willing and unconscious captive: ‘You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him’ (John 8:44).
Scripture says a great deal on the reality of the demonic, and yet the subject is today largely passed over in silence. Human wisdom has no place for the very idea and diverges completely from the revelation in Scripture.
The devil is a mere fable and superstition, so men believe; according to Scripture he is the unseen enemy who constitutes the greatest problem for men in general and for the churches in particular. Man is in the midst of a supernatural conflict; and the adversary – ‘the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience’ (Ephesians 2:2) – is vastly superior to all the intelligence and energies of men.
While we may expect unregenerate men to have no discernment on this issue, it has to be a matter of concern when – given the prominent warnings of the New Testament – the demonic ceases to be a vital part of the belief of professing Evangelicals.
For the apostles, understanding the existence and wiles of Satan was essential to Christian living: ‘Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might … For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age’ (Ephesians 6:10, 12). This teaching determines the biblical view of human need.
Non-Christians are in a condition of blindness and bondage. They are under a power greater than the will of man and from which only Christ can set them free. Here was the recognition which led the apostles to repudiate all the world’s methods for winning disciples.
Supernatural power had to be met with supernatural power: ‘For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
Darkness and confusion
The biblical revelation on evil spirits is no less relevant to the way in which the church is to defend herself against the demonic. We are constantly warned that Satan works principally through doctrinal deception and falsehood. He was the inspiration for all the false prophets of the Old Testament: ‘He is a liar and the father of it’ (John 8:44).
His great intent is to bring darkness and confusion into the church as he did among the Jews. It was a lie of Satan which brought judgement into the infant church at Jerusalem (Acts 5:3). It was Satan who at Paphos opposed Paul on his first missionary journey by using a sorcerer ‘to turn away the proconsul from the faith’ (Acts 13:8).
The church at Corinth was in danger of allowing ‘a different gospel’ to be unopposed because ‘the serpent who deceived Eve by his craftiness’ was working to mislead her (2 Corinthians 11:3).
False prophets arise within the church yet they do not appear as such: ‘And no wonder!’, writes the apostle, ‘For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14).
The idea that Christianity stands chiefly in danger from the forces of materialism, or from secular philosophy, or from pagan religions, is not the teaching of the New Testament. The greatest danger comes rather from temptations within and from those who, using the name of Christ, are instruments of Satan to lead men to believe a lie. ‘False christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect’ (Matthew 24:24).
No one can rightly believe this without seeing the seriousness of error. Wrong belief is as dangerous as unbelief. To deny the deity and the work of Christ will shut men out of heaven as certainly as will the sin of murder (John 8:24; 1 John 2:22-23).
To preach ‘another gospel’ is to be ‘accursed’ (Galatians 1:6-9).Those who support heresies ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:20-21).This means that a large part of the preservation and defence of the church lies in resolute resistance to falsehood and in forthright teaching of the truth.
Such warnings as ‘beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Matthew 16:12), for they ‘shut up the kingdom of God against men’ (Matthew 23:13), run right through the New Testament.
The apostles, filled with the Spirit of Christ, suffered no toleration of error. They opposed it wherever it arose and required the same spirit of all Christians. Eusebius, the early church historian, wrote of their outlook: ‘Such caution did the apostles and their disciples use, so as not even to have any communion, even in word, with any of those that thus mutilated the truth, according to the declaration of Paul: “An heretical man after the first and second admonition avoid, knowing that such a one is perverse, and that he sins, bringing condemnation on himself”.’
Consistent with love
Yet today this kind of witness against heresy and error, if not altogether silenced, has become muted to an extraordinary degree. ‘Even the mildest assertion of Christian truth today sounds like a thunderclap because the well-polished civility of our religious talk has kept us from hearing much of this kind of thing’ (Wells, No place for truth, p.10).
The explanation often given by Evangelicals for the lack of confrontation with error is that a harsh militancy has done more harm than good. As Christians, it is said, we do not want to be party to the kind of strident controversy which has too often marred the faith. Dr Billy Graham has often blamed ‘fundamentalists’ for this fault.
But the fact that what the New Testament says on love has been ignored, is no reason why its injunctions against error should not be obeyed. That some have followed these injunctions in a contentious spirit is no excuse for others not to follow them at all.
A biblical contending against error is fully consistent with love; indeed it is love for the souls of men which requires it. The command to contend for the faith is not abrogated because some have failed to speak the truth in love.
However, there would appear to be a far more probable reason for the contemporary absence of opposition to error. It is the way in which the instrumentality of the devil in corrupting the truth has been so widely overlooked.
In this, as I have already said, we differ widely from Scripture. Instead of believers in the apostolic age being directed to listen to all views ‘with an open mind’, they were told how to ‘test the spirits, whether they are of God’ (l John 4:1). For there are ‘deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1); false teachers ‘who will secretly bring in destructive heresies’ (2 Peter 2:1). There are words which ‘spread as a cancer’ (2 Timothy 2:17).
When churches have been in a healthy state they have always been watchful in this regard. In the great persecutions of the first three centuries, for example, Cyprian (c. 200- 258), bishop of Carthage, is to be found writing as follows:
‘It is not persecution alone that we ought to fear, nor those forces that in open warfare range abroad to overthrow and defeat the servants of God. It is easy enough to be on one’s guard when the danger is obvious; one can stir up one’s courage for the fight when the Enemy shows himself in his true colours.
‘There is more need to fear and beware of the Enemy when he creeps up secretly, when he beguiles us by a show of peace and steals forward by those hidden approaches which have earned him the name of the “Serpent” …
‘Light had come to the gentiles and the lamp of salvation was shining for the deliverance of mankind …Thereupon the Enemy, seeing his idols abandoned and his temples and haunts deserted by the ever growing numbers of the faithful, devised a fresh deceit, using the Christian name itself to mislead the unwary.
‘He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to sunder our unity. Those whom he failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion’.
Evangelicalism Divided; a record of crucial change in the years 1950-2000, is published by Banner of Truth, 352 pp., at £13.50 (ISBN 0-85151-783-8).
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