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Article 1: On the Gospel

BookCoverImageThis is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” Purchase a print edition of A Conservative Christian Declaration here.

We affirm that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the boundary of Christian faith (1 Cor. 15). We also affirm that to ignore this boundary by granting Christian recognition to those who deny the gospel is to demean the gospel itself (2 John 1:10).

We deny that Christian fellowship is possible with those who deny the fundamentals of the gospel, including (among others) the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, his sacrificial atonement, and justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

____________________________________________________

Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces,
first, a gracious act of God.

—J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

 

Christianity is irreducibly doctrinal. It is always more than doctrine, but it is never less. The reason that Christianity cannot fail to be doctrinal is that the gospel always involves doctrine. Paul’s example bears out this assertion: when he defines the gospel, he appeals to two elements. The first is a sequence of historical events, namely, that Jesus Christ died (the evidence for which is that he was buried), and Jesus Christ rose again (the evidence for which is that he was seen by witnesses). Paul’s central argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is that if the historicity of these events is denied, the gospel falls; without them, Christian hope vanishes. Without these events, Christianity cannot exist.

These events, however, are not the whole gospel. Hundreds of criminals suffered the same fate as Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, even if the dead body of Jesus were to be revived, that would be merely a novelty of history unless it was theologically interpreted. Paul states the correct interpretation: Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

These explanations are filled with importance. To say that Jesus died for our sins is to affirm that 1) God possesses the authority to say what is sin, 2) we are sinners, 3) sin merits judgment, and 4) there is One qualified to take that judgment in our place. To be qualified to bear our sins, the Bearer must be 1) without sin, 2) like us, and 3) of infinite worth.

Such explanations could continue. What should be clear, however, is that Paul’s brief summary of the gospel, which is the essence of the Christian message, is unavoidably doctrinal. To deny the historicity of the events of the gospel is to deny the gospel. To deny the biblical interpretation of those events is also to deny the gospel.

The gospel is what unites Christians. Where the gospel is denied, either explicitly or implicitly, no true fellowship (koinonia) exists. To claim to have Christian fellowship with those who deny the gospel is to demean the gospel, to remove it from its rightful place as the boundary of Christian fellowship. Those who demean the gospel ought never be looked to as models of wise Christian living or leadership.

In terms of Christian fellowship, then, our commitment to the gospel always is more central than our commitment to specific worship forms. For example, beautiful worship does not somehow make a denial of justification through faith alone permissible. Some churches have maintained “traditional” worship practices while abandoning the gospel. They are not fitting objects of Christian recognition.

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About Michael Riley

Student of theology, apologetics, and Christian affections. Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Wakefield, Michigan.

14 Responses to Article 1: On the Gospel

  1. Hi Michael,

    I think you’ve done a lot of great work on your declaration. I’m happy about all the attention you have given it. I would think I’m part of a small percentage who is positive about it. With that being said, I see this statement of the gospel to fall short, thinking especially about its usefulness in distinguishing conservatives. I’ve preached through 1 Corinthians 15 twice all the way through as part of a series through 1 Corinthians and then in parts on different occasions as part of Easter Sunday sermons. In the context, chapter 15 is correcting a problem in Corinth, that the Corinthians, due to the influence of the mystery religion among other factors, denied bodily resurrection. At the same time, they accepted the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because that was the basis of the founding of the church there. They had to believe at least that in order even to have been saved, so it doesn’t make sense that they would then deny bodily resurrection. Paul draws attention to the contradiction of believing one and not the other.

    With the above being said, I’ve also preached through the gospels with exception of Luke 24, and I’m right now at the end of Luke 23. I’ve also taught the life of Christ as a whole 4 or 5 times in classes. The emphasis of Jesus in the gospels is less the doctrinal aspects of what Jesus did and would do to save, but Who Jesus is and what the saving response to Him is. The gospel is not just what Jesus did and would do to save, which you mention above. You also mention His deity. But one could agree on the deity and that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, and still not be saved. He could get other points wrong. You can tell me if you think I’m wrong, but I read these “fundamentals” to fall short.

    I don’t mean that your few page declaration must be a book. However, the goodness, truth, and beauty of God, I believe, are inextricably connected to Who Jesus is and what it is to believe in Him. I still see you folks as disconnecting those to either enlarge your tent or broaden the door. The Jesus you believe in is beautiful. He is King. Cursed is any man who loves not the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 16:22). Is it conservative to receive those who agree on those fundamentals, but have a different Jesus? It can’t be the same Jesus or that the same Jesus is getting a converted response, when He is being treated vastly differently. That can’t be saving faith. It seems that it is a ripe environment for false conversion and false worship, to give credit for conversion, for being inside the boundary based merely on what you’ve written. It doesn’t even seem to be where the issue is.

    Wasn’t Jonathan Edwards questioning the conversions of the First Great Awakening on these above terms? I’m not attempting to be a nattering nabob of negativity. Is this a conversion issue ultimately, or is it that these are Christians in a perpetual state of ignorance and carnality?

  2. Kent,

    One quick reply (that might go a long way): to assert (as we do here) that even this kind of skeletal gospel is the boundary of fellowship is not to assert that full and unhindered fellowship will be present with anyone who assents to these propositions. Our primary statement here is that no Christian fellowship whatsoever could possibly exist outside this boundary, not that full and unhindered fellowship exists with everyone inside this boundary.

    Here’s where I suspect that the conversation between us will reach an impasse: as I recall, you have argued elsewhere against the idea that there are greater and lesser, more essential and less essential, revealed truths. Those writing this statement would affirm that certain truths are more essential to the faith than others.

    This is not at all to suggest that other issues are not important; if we believed that, we wouldn’t have written this declaration.

    As to your more particular concern: if there is, as we maintain, a category such as orthopathy, it would follow that there is such a thing as heteropathy. And just as heterodoxy or heteropathy are marks of being unregenerate, it would be the case that (certainly) not loving God or (less obviously) loving God amiss would be evidence of false faith.

    But again, this first article is not articulating everything that we think is important to the faith. Its emphasis is more on the negative: true fellowship can not be found outside this line.

  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your answer. I wasn’t bringing in my beliefs of essential/non-essential with my comment, so I don’t think there is or will be an impasse regarding what I am talking about here and now I’m dealing only with what I am saying and with what you are saying.

    I agree that true fellowship cannot exist outside the line (and yes, I would deal with it differently than you, but I’m talking only about what you are talking about). What I’m saying is that one cannot separate conversion from being conservative, that the problem is a lack of conversion, because they don’t believe/love God, have not repented of their wrong view of God. They have a different God, that’s the problem. You seem to be saying that it is degrees of sanctification perhaps that make someone NOT a conservative, as long as he finds himself within the threshold of those facts and fundamentals of the gospel. He can grow into being a conservative and will grow into one. What I am talking about is perpetually never becoming conservative, because his view of God/Jesus clashes with the conservative. Isn’t this what true conservativeness is — starts with God and moves out? They will never arrive because they don’t have the same God. And that would be included in the conversion/gospel aspect of your statement. This is why when we argue, that we never agree. They can’t see, won’t see, will never see. If we really can’t judge this, then there is nothing to argue about, it’s only a matter of taste.

    Scott seemed to understand what I was writing, but didn’t go there. Jonathan Edwards is more than hinting that conversion is the problem with inordinate affections. Here it seems that you’ve shifted the conversation over to sanctification, because they are in the tent, based on those facts, with their false worship. Isn’t the worship a gospel/conversion issue?

    Did you already understand this? Did this addition bring you to understand what I’m saying?

  4. Kent,

    I think I do get the point that you’re making here, and I’m largely in agreement. Loving God is indeed the first and greatest commandment; the key element in conversion is not merely assent to a given set of propositions, but a new heart inclination to God. And for this reason, I do not deny what you are saying here.

    Perhaps I could frame my position this way (and here, I’m speaking for just me, not the other authors): there may be an intelligible parallel between confusion about justification by faith prior to the Reformation and the confusion about ordinate affections in our own day. Thus, when we read pre-Reformation authors, we sometimes find their theology of justification confusing (at best). But I would be inclined to say that there is a difference, on the other side of the Reformation, in rejecting justification sola fide. There is greater culpability when the issues are clearer.

    For that reason, I think, we tend to begin our affirmation of the gospel with those points that are most clear in our day: the doctrinal points. The nature of ordinate affections is deeply confused, which means that a person today could well take an illegitimate position on issues of the affections without doing so in a high-handed way.

    I understand the possible slippery-slopeness of what I’m suggesting here. But I do think that there is a principle in Scripture of degrees of sin, often tied to the revelation for which one is responsible (more tolerable for Sodom than for a town which rejects the disciples’ preaching). If so, and if we acknowledge living in a day in which orthopathy is deeply confused, it would make sense to begin our affirmations of the boundaries of the gospel with what would be conceded by all.

    And I do think this is especially significant when there are those who would suspect that we’d look with greater favor on a traditional Romanist service than we would, for instance, on an evangelical service singing the latest praise ditties. We must acknowledge, up front, that certain doctrinal convictions are of consequence as a boundary.

    Again, I agree with your central contention: conversion is a matter of affections. Orthopathy is a question of worship of the true God vs. worship of an idol. And therefore, there are real gospel issues at stake with regard to conservatism and the affections. In fact, Article 4 of this same declaration says, “We deny that Christianity is merely assent or commitment to a set of doctrinal propositions that explain the gospel.” So perhaps we could summarize thusly: Article 1 is mostly negative (the gospel does not exist if these things are denied) without attempting to be exhaustive (the gospel does not exist if *only* these things are denied).

  5. Hi Michael again,

    It has always been my desire to agree with what I can agree in good faith, that is, love rejoices in the truth, love believes all things, hopes all things. I’m as assertive in my affirmation of the truth at least as my denial of error. This is the true spirit of unity. With that being said, I would looking to agree with your declaration, but to agree, I must understand. I’m willing to agree with something that falls short of what I would say, but agrees with what I believe, what scripture teaches. Even when we don’t agree on everything, we can agree on what we agree on. If you’ve written a statement, a helpful one, that I can agree on, then I would want to agree on it, even if I think it falls short of what I would say. I would then want to distribute it with permission.

    This declaration doesn’t fall too short even of what I would say. However, with your explanation, I could agree with what it does say. I don’t believe it is clear in the declaration however. I wouldn’t have understood that you were saying what you have written in your comment. How it reads is that you may have involuntarily opened the tent to false worshipers perhaps out of a spirit of ecumenicity. I’m not saying you’re ecumenical, because this isn’t a statement, as Scott said, on separation. But does it make room for ecumenical worship, a form of syncretism, because it draws the line at a minimalist gospel, that doesn’t include the affections? Is being conservative a process that may never happen, because it is a matter of sanctification, or is it a matter of justification, where every believer, even unwittingly, becomes a conservative at the moment he is converted?

    Thank you.

  6. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Hey, Kent. Thank you so much for interacting with us about these things. I do believe it is helping us as we move forward with how we might use this document for the good of the church.

    A couple questions: Do you think it is possible to be a true Christian and yet worship wrongly? Let’s make this even more specific. Do you believe it is possible for a true Christian to baptize infants (in a covenant community sort of way, not baptismal regeneration) and yet still be called “brother”?

    I’m not asking if you would cooperate with them on any level, etc. But would you call someone who truly believes the essentials of the gospel and yet worshiping in a way you believe to be unbiblical a Christian?

  7. Steven says:

    Kent,

    You are a preaching a different Gospel than the Apostles. Jesus died for ALL sins of the elect including those who don’t worship him perfectly. You are adding to the Gospel and should repent.

    Steven

  8. Hi Scott,

    It is possible to be a true Christian and worship wrongly (1 John 1:8-10). That’s one.

    Probably not too ironically, I just listened to the debate of MacArthur and R. C. Sproul on paedo baptism yesterday while installing a new blower on my fireplace insert. The Paedo baptism argument is so much based on wrong historical presuppositions, which can’t be proven from scripture. The paedo baptists themselves concede it isn’t scriptural. MacArthur strongly argued lastly that it weakened or diminished the gospel, saying he knew that would rankle that audience. But I digress somewhat.

    A “can he still be a brother” is the wrong approach, I believe. It’s not how to get an accurate doctrinal declaration. I’m not saying it is your approach, but it could be, which is why you might state things the way you do. If you start with situations out there that you experience, it’s going to affect your conclusions. We should start with careful thinking about the Bible and then move to situations to judge them.

    With the last paragraph in mind, I have noticed previously that even Mark Dever says that paedo baptism is a sin. http://www.9marks.org/blog/sin-infant-baptism-written-sinning-baptist He says that it affects the communion at the Lord’s Table, but not outside of the church. That sounded very conflicted (to me unhelpful). Can a person live in perpetually unrepentant sin and still be saved? Scripture says no. The grace that saves, continues saving, cleanses. Scripture doesn’t present grace like a garbage can, but a cleansing agent. I don’t believe the Bible is unclear on this, because the Bible isn’t unclear on anything. MacArthur and Sproul even called it a “major issue.”

    But I choose not to judge or condemn Him as “unsaved.” I treat him as Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Even Jesus isn’t saying, “He’s not saved.” He’s saying, “Regard him like an unbeliever, in essence, as if you don’t know really.” This is speaking of someone with whom we’ve come to an impasse. I believe a scriptural view of fellowship is that it is yoking together, not recognition. I might recognize someone has a true gospel, but not fellowship with him. That doesn’t mean we don’t get together to talk.

    I believe as well that the paedobaptism and the, let’s say, beautiful worship or worship aesthetic or orthopathic issues are essentially different. They are different in nature. Paedobaptism is interpretational. It relates to hermeneutics, which is obvious in the MacArthur/Sproul debate. I would more likely think that a paedobaptist with godly orthopathy is converted than a credobaptist with heteropathy. The latter is irreverent and idolatrous, perhaps ignorantly, but this in the end speaks more of who he is than the former. The latter more likely than the former has another God. If we go ahead and fellowship with him, there is more at stake to the gospel, more gospel confusion.

  9. Steven,

    You are very bold, very absolutist about me. I would call it selective absolutism and selective relativism. From your brief comment, you seem yourself confused on the gospel. Jesus said if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Him. Jesus will save us from disordered loves, from self gratification and self-idolatry, but not without repentance. Are you one of the free gracers, the crossless gospelists? Through Jesus’ one offering, he forever perfected them who are sanctified. God is seeking for true worshipers. My Jesus saves me to the uttermost. Did you read Michael Riley’s statement?

    “Loving God is indeed the first and greatest commandment; the key element in conversion is not merely assent to a given set of propositions, but a new heart inclination to God.”

  10. Steven says:

    Kent,

    There is no confusion on my part. I understand that I don’t worship God perfectly which is why I need the Righteousness of Christ. You have added the perfection of worship to the Gospel and should repent and take heed of Paul’s warning. Worship is more than just when you meet with other believers. It’s a 24/7 deal and whenever you sin it’s a slap in the face of the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of God. Even if you believed worship is what you do Sunday morning, you don’t do it perfectly which again doesn’t reflect the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty of God.

    Kent just an off topic question if you don’t mind, are you a KJV only person?

  11. Steven says:

    Typo correction:

    I meant to say, “Even if you believed worship is ONLY what you do Sunday Morning”

  12. Scott Aniol Scott Aniol says:

    Let’s keep this on topic, Steven, per our comment policies. Thanks.

  13. Steven says:

    Thank you Scott I will. I wasn’t going to start a KJV only debate, I was just curious and if he was I was going to leave it be. Thanks again for the reminder.
    I also appreciate the stance you and Michael have took on the issue here.

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