Read the series so far.
Even among evangelicals, the gospel constantly faces the danger of being obscured. It is obscured when gospel believers embrace gospel deniers in cooperative ministry. It is obscured when new doctrinal constructs redefine gospel essentials. It is obscured when Christians embrace values or practices that are contrary to gospel living.
Since such obfuscations abound, Christians ought to give themselves to the task of clarifying and defending the gospel. Organizations that support this task should be welcomed as helpers in a day of theological confusion. The common perception is that groups like The Gospel Coalition (TGC) and Together for the Gospel (T4G) have been created specifically to perform this task. Many people believe that these organizations exist only for the clarification and defense of the gospel.
To be sure, both TGC and T4G are strong defenders of the gospel. Insofar as that is the case, I support their efforts. Nevertheless, I find that I cannot bring myself into too-close association or identification with groups of this sort. I cannot “join” them.
As I explained in a previous essay, The Gospel Coalition displays a curious mixture of doctrinal diversity and specificity. Because it is The Gospel Coalition, it includes leaders who differ in their denominational commitments, in their understanding of the present role of miraculous gifts, and in their teachings about the literalness of the biblical creation accounts (but who are “not quite” theistic evolutionists). This range of views represents considerable theological and practical diversity. Consequently, it is surprising to discover that TGC has adopted doctrinal standards that de facto rule out most traditional dispensationalists. Its leadership appears to include no one who objects to Calvinism or to a fairly strongly-worded version of Lordship salvation. Given the breadth that it displays on some issues, the specificity of these other commitments is startling. Evidently, The Gospel Coalition intends to stand for something more than the gospel.
By itself, that is not a problem. It does, however, raise the matter of truth in advertising. If a farmer purchases a bag labeled Oats, he does not expect to find that it is half full of black-eyed peas. Christians who hear about The Gospel Coalition have no reason to suspect that they will find the bag half full of inaugurated eschatology and Reformed soteriology. At least some of them are bound to be pretty disappointed.
Like The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel is often thought of as an organization that focuses upon the gospel alone. This thinking is reinforced by the opening words of the “Affirmations and Denials” that constitute the T4G confession: “We are brothers in Christ united in one great cause—to stand together for the Gospel.” In some ways, these “Affirmations and Denials” are less specific and idiosyncratic than the TGC confessional statement. Consequently, T4G evidences approximately as much breadth as TGC. For example, its platform brings together representatives who hold different understandings of church order and of miraculous gifts. I have heard a leader in T4G comment that this level of diversity is acceptable exactly because the organizers and speakers are together for the gospel.
Nevertheless, the “Affirmations and Denials” do rule out certain traditional evangelicals. Article V states, “We deny that the God of the Bible is in any way limited in terms of knowledge or power or any other perfection or attribute, or that God has in any way limited his own perfections.” One effect of this denial is to exclude certain versions of moderately Arminian and Wesleyan theology. Traditional Arminians and Wesleyans very often argue that God voluntarily limits his power in order to preserve libertarian freedom for humans. For example, H. C. Thiessen states, “Nor does omnipotence exclude but rather imply [sic] the power of self-limitation. God has limited Himself to some extent by the free will of His rational creatures.” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, Eerdmans 1949, 126). One can disagree with this perspective while recognizing that some Arminians (people like A. W. Tozer) have been earnest believers in and proclaimers of the gospel. Why would people who hold a moderately Arminian theology not be embraced by a gathering that was together for the gospel?
At the practical level, T4G appears to be committed to almost the same doctrinal system as TGC. Speakers at the biennial conferences include many who are known for their defense of Calvinism and Lordship salvation, but few if any who are visible critics of these positions. The circle of prominent speakers has featured one person who characterizes himself as a “leaky dispensationalist,” but other (and less “leaky”) representatives of dispensational theology are difficult to spot. While the leaders of T4G are indeed together for the gospel, it does not seem to be the only thing they are together for.
Either organizations like T4G and TGC mean to be gospel-only organizations or else they do not. If they do, then it seems wrong-headed not to embrace dispensationalists or moderate Arminians who are committed to the gospel. If they do not mean to be gospel-only organizations, then their labels promise something that the organizations really do not intend to deliver. More than that, the rationale for their considerable theological diversity becomes much more suspect. If these organizations intend to stand for more than the gospel, then why should they make an issue of Calvinistic theology but not of cessationism? The answer is not obvious.
This strange interplay of breadth and specificity creates a problem for people who do not hold the entire TGC or T4G bundle. Where do we stand with these organizations? Of course, we know that they would like us to show up at their meetings and encourage others to do the same. How enthusiastic can our endorsement be, however, when it seems that these groups are committed, not simply to defending the gospel (with which we heartily agree), but also to propagating a doctrinal system that treats some of us as second-class Christians?
This is part of my reason for not “joining” (i.e., bringing myself into too-close identification) with these popular, gospel-only organizations. While I am by no means an opponent of these organizations, and while I do want them to succeed in much of what they do, I do not see them as gospel-only. Furthermore, I am not sure that they truly see themselves as gospel-only. If they intend to represent more than the gospel, then a more specific set of standards has to be applied. On my view, they fail that standard partly by what they include. They also fail by what they neglect. That topic will be addressed in the next essay.
Hymn XI: God, the Offended God Most High
Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
God, the offended God most high,
Ambassadors to rebels sends;
His messengers his place supply,
And Jesus begs us to be friends.
Us, in the stead of Christ, they pray,
Us, in the stead of God, intreat,
To cast our arms, our sins, away,
And find forgiveness at his feet.
Our God in Christ! thine embassy,
And proffered mercy, we embrace;
And gladly reconciled to thee,
Thy condescending goodness praise.
Poor debtors, by our Lord’s request
A full acquittance we receive!
And criminals, with pardon blest,
We, at our Judge’s instance, live!