Kevin T. Bauder
[This essay was originally published on February 27, 2009.]
Conservative Christians recognize that they have received a doctrinal and moral patrimony. They wish to leave this legacy to be enjoyed by their children for generations to come. In order to conserve their heritage, they must pledge themselves both to guarding the integrity of the gospel and to perpetuating the whole counsel of God. They soon discover, however, that they cannot perform these tasks unless they learn to depend upon the wisdom and benevolence of a sovereign God.
For nearly two centuries, American Christianity has been overpowered by a fascination with visible effectiveness. At the latest, this fascination stems from Charles Finney, who made visible success (defined in terms of the number of decisions) into the test of spiritual wisdom. Finney himself succeeded wildly in these terms, and he created a mythology of success that has become the very atmosphere of American evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Finney argued, and many American Christians have agreed, that the spirituality of any preacher, program, church, or method should be gauged by the results that it produces.
Finney’s pragmatism is the carrot that lures American Christians. The stick that drives them is the crisis mentality. This mentality shows up in a variety of ways. You have surely encountered more than one of them. If we don’t send more missionaries (now!), then the doors will surely close in the 10-40 window. If you fail to persuade your neighbor to trust Christ (today!), then He will certainly blame you publicly on Judgment Day. If we don’t vote for our candidate (in this election!), then America will be gone beyond retrieval.
I do not mean to make light of Christian duties such as missions or witnessing. We surely should encourage young people—and older ones—to consider whether the Lord might be leading them to go to the mission field. Indisputably, we ought to seek occasions to tell our neighbors about Christ. Perhaps we should even vote, though we may have trouble finding a candidate who is more interested in righteousness than in his political future.
These are duties, but they are not our only duties. We are called to be diligent workers, whatever our vocation may be. We are called to be good spouses and parents, whatever else our station in life. We are called to be students of the Word, whether we are preachers or not. Our God confronts us through the created order with a revelation of His eternal power and Godhead, and only the most impoverished of souls would wish to ignore the majesty and beauty of this revelation. On top of these duties, God has made us with a capacity to order our little worlds in such a way as to reflect His own glory. This capacity is most clearly reflected in human artistic and cultural activity. To concede the arts, letters, and sciences to the unbelieving world is simply impious.
We do not deny that missions, evangelism, and other forms of explicitly Christian ministry are duties. Nevertheless, we also recognize that we have other obligations, and we are not permitted to neglect any of them. Conservative Christians insist that we must not trade off one of these duties for another.
The problem arises when we become so prepossessed with some putative crisis that we are panicked into neglecting duties that are equally important. This problem becomes especially acute when it affects, not merely an individual Christian here or there, but entire churches and movements. Why take time to go to seminary when the mission fields need workers (now!)? Why quibble over doctrinal definitions when we are surrounded by an aggressive and hostile secularism (now!)? Why bother with the labor of expository preaching when proficient showmanship can lure (now!) so many into our churches who have never even heard the gospel?
And that is where the rub comes. Somewhere along the line, somebody discovered that they could always attract a bigger crowd and see a greater visible response if they would just trim away the uncomfortable or unattractive aspects of the Christian faith, inserting in their place some really spectacular amusement. This methodology has succeeded wildly—at least from a certain point of view. Its very success has created an acute problem. We are now forced to wonder how much of the Christian faith we actually have left. Some of us suspect that it is far less than American evangelicals ordinarily assume. Some of us suspect that nearly the entire birthright of Christianity has been traded away for a mess of pragmatist pottage.
To add insult to injury, conservatives are the ones who are made to feel guilty. We are told that if society topples, it will be our fault. If the heathen remain unevangelized, we will have to answer. If our neighbors go to hell, we will be to blame. We are the obstructionists who seek to prevent ministries from doing the most effective things.
So how do we resist the crisis mentality? How can we live with ourselves, knowing that our occupation with some point of doctrine or our refusal to authorize some bit of amusement may result in a lost soul? The answer is that we refuse to concede the point. We are not in charge of conversion. The fate of the heathen does not rest upon our shoulders. The future of our country and our civilization is in other hands than ours.
We affirm the sovereignty of God. We believe that God is working out His plan in accordance with His own purpose. From time to time, as He wills it, our ministry will be in season. And from time to time, as He wills it, our ministry will be out of season. The Scriptures nowhere indicate that we ought to panic when the preaching of the Word goes out of season. Nor does the Bible indicate that we may leave the preaching of the Word for some other, more supposedly effective, activity.
We shall continue to send missionaries as God calls them. We shall continue to pray that God will send forth laborers. We shall continue to witness as God gives opportunity. We shall continue to act as salt and light. While we do these things, however, we shall not neglect the other duties that God has given us.
We do not produce awakenings, God does. God can be trusted to bless His Word when we are faithful in living and proclaiming it. We have no need to be shrill, no need to stampede. As conservative Christians, we refuse to let any apparent crisis drive us away from the conservation of the gospel and of the whole counsel of God.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Of the Last Verses in the Book
Edmund Waller (1606–1687)
When we for Age could neither read nor write
The subject made us able to indite.
The Soul with nobler Resolutions deckt,
The Body, stooping, does Herself erect:
No Mortal Parts are requisite to raise
Her, that Unbody’d can her Maker praise.
The Seas are quiet, when the Winds give o’er
So calm are we, when Passions are no more:
For then we know how vain it was to boast
Of fleeting Things, so certain to be lost.
Clouds of Affection from our younger Eyes
Conceal that emptiness, which Age descries.
The Soul’s dark Cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light thro’ chinks that time has made.
Stronger by weakness, wiser Men become,
As they draw near to their Eternal home:
Leaving the old, both Worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the New.