Understanding Conservative Christianity, Part 2

In The Nick of Time
Read Part 1.

The Integrity of the Gospel

The first element in conservative Christianity is an absolute devotion to the integrity of the gospel. The gospel is the boundary of the Christian faith. One becomes a Christian precisely by believing the gospel. The gospel is essential, not merely to conservative Christianity, but to Christianity in any form.

The gospel is not primarily about the amelioration of social, economic, cultural, or environmental evils. It may entail these things, but it is about the forgiveness of personal sins, of individual transgressions of divine law. Because God cannot overlook our sins, He has provided a substitute to bear His wrath in our place. Therefore, the gospel affirms that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen of many witnesses.

The gospel deals with historical events: the death of Jesus on the cross and the subsequent resurrection of His body from the tomb. The gospel is not an ethical code, a moral philosophy, a liturgical ceremony, or a system for self-improvement. Rather, it deals with historical events, real happenings that occurred in space and time.

The gospel, however, does not merely narrate these events. It explains them, and the explanation is what makes the difference. That Jesus died on the cross, by itself, is not even a particularly interesting fact. Thousands died on Roman crosses whose names we do not care to know. What matters is not merely that Christ died, but that He died for our sins. When this explanation is attached to the event, it constitutes a doctrine.

The same is true of Jesus’ resurrection. That a corpse might be resuscitated is certainly a scientific curiosity, but not necessarily a matter of any spiritual interest. What grips us about Jesus’ resurrection is that “Christ is risen from the dead and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” We understand that “since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” With Paul we affirm that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have confidence that “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” These affirmations explain the significance of Christ’s resurrection. Attached to the event of Christ’s resurrection, they are doctrine.

The foregoing implies that the gospel is irreducibly doctrinal. Without doctrine, we have no gospel. In some sense, doctrine does save, because the gospel itself is doctrinal. Moreover, the doctrines do more than simply repeat the core affirmations of the death of Christ for our sins and His resurrection from the dead. The proposition “Christ died for our sins” implies that we had sins, that eternal judgment for sins is approaching, that our sins required condemnation, that we could not deliver ourselves from that condemnation. The same proposition implies that Christ was a qualified sin bearer, which implies both His deity and His humanity, which in turn necessitates the virgin birth. The fact that we know these things “according to the Scriptures” implies both the authority and the veracity of the written Word of God.

These doctrines and others like them are essential to the gospel. They are fundamental. To deny them is to deny the gospel itself. People who deny these essential doctrines are beyond the boundary of the gospel and therefore beyond the boundary of the Christian faith.

We cannot conserve Christianity unless we conserve the gospel. But what does conserving the gospel entail? I suggest that it requires at least four attitudes.

First, we must maintain and defend the doctrines upon which the gospel depends. These doctrines are essential to Christian faith and life. When they are denied, the entire superstructure of Christianity collapses. Therefore, these doctrines must be guarded as a precious heritage.

We may not yet know what all of these fundamental doctrines are. They tend to be exposed when someone teaches an error that subverts the gospel. Whether the error is Arianism or Pelagianism, Romanism or Socinianism, Open Theism or the New Perspective on Paul, we must answer it. We must demonstrate both its gravity and its falseness. We must show how it is in error and why it matters.

Second, we must always treat the gospel as the boundary of Christian recognition. No one who denies the gospel should ever be recognized as a Christian. We must never accord Christian fellowship to those who deny the fundamentals of the gospel. We certainly must never point to them as models of Christian faith or leadership. They are apostates, and they must be recognized as such.

Third, we must beware of those who demean the gospel. Even people who affirm the gospel may demean it. The gospel is demeaned whenever it is dethroned from its position as the boundary of Christian faith. The evangelical world today is filled with people who believe the gospel, but who are willing to extend Christian fellowship to apostates who deny the gospel. To do this is precisely to demean the gospel and to diminish its importance.

People who demean the gospel may well be brothers in Christ, and if they are, they must not be treated as enemies. Nevertheless, they are indifferent to the importance of the gospel when it comes to extending Christian fellowship and recognition. If we really intend to conserve the gospel, then we must recognize that indifferentism threatens its integrity. Indifferentism is a scandal, and we must never make it seem that indifferentists are discerning Christian leaders. To put it bluntly, it is difficult to understand how any conservative Christian could be involved with any organization, church, movement, or enterprise that includes indifferentists in its leadership. If we would not follow a known embezzler or adulterer, then we must not follow an indifferentist.

Fourth, if we are going to conserve the gospel, then we must proclaim it. The gospel is a promise of forgiveness and life for those who will believe, and its power lies in being heard and believed. It is not merely an announcement of God’s saving work, but also a call to repent and to trust Jesus in order to receive eternal life. People will not believe the gospel if they do not hear it, and they will not hear it if we do not preach it. In our pulpits and in our daily lives, the message of the gospel deserves pride of place.

Incidentally, what I have just described is the idea of Fundamentalism. What I am suggesting is that a conservative Christian can never be less than a fundamentalist. We may object (and I do) to much that is found within the organized fundamentalist movement. We may even wonder about the usefulness of the name fundamentalist. In terms of the idea, however, Fundamentalism is the very first step in a conservative Christianity. No one who denies the idea of Fundamentalism has any right or title to be called a conservative Christian.

Hymn

Augustus M. Toplady (1740-1778)

Inspirer and hearer of prayer,
Thou feeder and guardian of thine,
My all to thy covenant care
I sleeping and waking resign;
If thou art my shield and my sun,
The night is no darkness to me,
And fast as my moments roll on,
They bring me but nearer to thee.

Thy minist’ring spirits descend
To watch while thy saints are asleep,
By day and by night they attend,
The heirs of salvation to keep;
Bright seraphs dispatched from the throne,
Repair to the stations assigned,
And angels elect are sent down,
To guard the elect of mankind.

Thy worship no interval knows,
Their fervor is still on the wing:
And while they protect my repose,
They chant to the praise of my King:
I too, at the season ordained,
Their chorus forever shall join,
And love, and adore, without end,
Their faithful Creator, and mine.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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