You won’t want to miss this scintillating post by Dr. Clair Davis,, our beloved in-house church historian, starting out with these two tease questions: Is there too much grace in our evangelical churches? Or too much law?
Is there too much grace in our evangelical churches? Or too much law? Is there something we all can agree on, on how to be clear to each other that the Lord is a holy God, that he cannot tolerate sin of any kind, and also that in Jesus our sins are totally forgiven? What is it that’s missing from our faith, our following Jesus Christ, that we can agree on together?
As an historian I’m intrigued. This is the Reformation all over again. This is Lutherans and Reformed not satisfied with each other, high church Anglicans and all the ‘Methodists’ both Whitefield Calvinist and Wesley Arminian also. This is the Scottish Marrow controversy, American Presbyterian Old Side/New Side: do we need to make sure everyone gets the gospel or is that happening already?
Most of all, it’s my story, of course. We all went to church, we heard and wanted to obey the Ten Commandments. In my dry county, being a Christian was not drinking beer and not mowing your lawn on Sunday. There must have been more but as I a kid that’s what I heard. If there was more I didn’t hear it. Then our new preacher Trev came to town and I heard a lot more. Did Trev preach from anything but Galatians? For us youngsters he brought in a (Texas) Young Life Club, where we did Navigators Bible study and memorization, where we learned how to work with the Bible and our lives at the same time. It seemed to all come together.
I went on to Wheaton College where everyone knew more Bible than I did. It was strange though, Galatians and justification didn’t seem to be at the top of the list. They had been moving on from that to the second blessing, of trusting Jesus Christ for sanctification, for heart change. That was good mostly biblical, but I did miss Galatians.
Westminster Seminary and John Murray—now it was coming together a lot more. He sounded like Trev but even better. Sanctification is not just my job, Jesus has done it already, ‘definitively.’ He made it so clear that some piece of salvation doesn’t happen before something else, because it all is together in union with Christ. I’m still working and praying from that and so are many of my former colleagues too.
The hardest part was putting together Ed Clowney and Jay Adams. Ed showed us Jesus everywhere in the Bible, lovingly and mercifully—but that’s where his sermons stopped, it seemed to me. I didn’t hear from him what difference this look at Jesus should make in my life, that could have been my fault, I’m not eager to hear I have to change. Then Jay came along, nouthetically of course. He was so good at doing what was so rare, showing us clearly from the Bible the hows of our lives, what to do next when we’re not doing what our Lord wants us to do—but he took for granted all that Ed stuff and didn’t do much with it, and I think we need to be reminded of grace in Jesus all the time, the way Paul does it. Déjà vu all over again? Nobody is able to put Jesus and how together? Murray could in principle, but how does it work in life? (Jay’s counseling disciples are pretty good at that, I think David Powlison best).
Let me add something that I’ve just been thinking about. I did my doctorate at Göttingen under Otto Weber, on Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg and his hermeneutic: ‘Edifying Value as Exegetical Standard.’ (Charles Hodge of old Princeton studied with him to learn cutting-edge German Bible answers to German liberal heresy). Hengstenberg knew that the liberal way to take the Bible didn’t do anyone any good, it was just ‘objective scientific’ stuff. He also knew that Pietism, the notion that our personal religious experience should be read into the Bible so it touches our hearts, was just as bad as rationalistic liberalism. Neither way took the Bible as it was, both read something else into it. So, find what the Bible is really saying and keep going with that till it touches your heart, was what he said (to get my degree I had to use more words than that). The Bible is in charge, not your rationalism nor your emotionalism! Do justice not just to the texts that attract you, but to all of them. That’s quite a job but I believe it’s right. So all of us need to preach those judgment texts, those warning texts, those ‘stop that’ ones. and all of is need to be clear about what the Word says about the Lord’s gracious forgiveness.
Naturally, a good evangelical preacher today knows where his people are, and applies the text to them. But he won’t distort what it says either just to be ‘relevant.’ He can build on what he showed to them earlier from the Word. He doesn’t need to say it all at once, but he has to be very alert to where their confusion is. Trev was right to be one-sided, since hardly any of us knew anything about that side. (He went on to Boise Idaho with the state governor in his church, but I don’t know what he said there).
You see what I’m trying to do, honor good pastors who know their people and are using God’s Word to make deep differences in their lives, while their people might be in a different place than people miles away. Does that work? Or is that too 19th century before TV not to mention internet? I do know that my friend Jack Miller’s ‘Sonship’ seemed helpful to many people everywhere. I don’t have the stats, can we show that the divorce rate is higher in Sonship churches? Or that those preachers don’t keep up their Hebrew the way others do? Or that the kids lose their faith in college quicker than others? I just don’t know. Maybe others do?
But I need to be open with you about my own bias. As I read the gospels I keep meeting Pharisees. Since I’m well-trained I know who they are. They aren’t slimy ‘hypocrites,’ no they are the most upstanding citizens ever, the neighbors you’d like to have who’d always keep their lawns tidy and never keep you awake at night, the most obvious candidates for elder in your church. All well and good except for one thing—they find their identity in being better than the rest of us, so much so that they won’t admit they need Jesus. If you know sociology of religion you recognize us Presbyterians, well-educated, organized, planning ahead people—all wonderful people, if they still remember how much they need Jesus. So I think we’re more likely to need to hear about grace. Maybe not, what do you think?
Let me tell you about my next sermon. Our church is doing a great series on what our Confession calls the ‘benefits’ of having Jesus, justification, sanctification and the rest. After that my job is to do a ‘missions’ Sunday. We just had a great evening of joy and prayer for our long-time work in India, so I think I’ll do something more at home, telling those high schoolers that soon they’ll be in college or on the job, where so many forget the gospel. Evangelical churches are rapidly aging, I’ll tell them, so it’s up to you. I’ll do that Colossians 3 long hard race with seeing Jesus at the finish line, the race of fighting off world, flesh and Devil, where what you need to hear is mostly, just persevere, keep on going. Then I’ll sneak in justification, not really there in the text, and say: isn’t it great that you know your sins are forgiven since Jesus went to the cross for you? Well, since that’s over and done with, now you’re free to face your sins and admit them and repent of them, aren’t you? You’re free to model the gospel that way to a lost and dying world, aren’t you?
I’ll bring that in, though it’s not there, not explicitly. Is that pastoral imbalance? Too much grace? Hengstenberg, what do you think?