My Tuesday conversation with Greg Tidwell and Phil Sanders was illuminating in lots of ways. It certainly confirmed the rightness of the decision to meet. I had asked that we find a time to meet face to face before beginning the online dialogue. I just think you communicate better with people you know — and it’s hard to be mean to someone you’ve met (and there are times I really have to wrestle with the temptation to be mean.)
And I learned a lot about how they see the progressives. You see, they are genuinely concerned that the progressive movement is headed away from repentance and faith in Jesus. One asked whether we (me and Todd Deaver) believed that the fact a given sin is not a salvation issue makes the sin permissible? We said no.
They said surely we knew that many in the progressive movement see things this way.
We said we don’t know anyone who thinks this way. Surely this is more of a communications failure than a doctrinal failure.
They responded by giving concrete examples of “progressives” who’ve said X is sin but since it’s not a salvation issue, it’s okay.
I remain convinced that there are very, very few among the progressives who are that ignorant of the scriptures. I’ve been to the Pepperdine, ACU, and Lipscomb lectureships, and I correspond with hundreds of progressives literally around the world — and I’ve yet to meet anyone who genuinely thinks grace makes sin okay. Maybe it’s sometimes spoken in jest, but never as serious theology (just as Luther used to say that God’s grace is sufficient to cover the occasional beer, just before drinking the not-so-occasional beer).
And they gave very concrete, credible examples of “progressives” who wish to extend salvation and even church membership to non-Christians of goodwill, such as Hindus.
Again, for a fact, in my experience, this is not very common thought among progressives. Nearly all know their Bibles much better than to suggest grace can be found outside of Jesus. But I have no doubt we have a few among us who teach this way. They are not progressives. (I can think of a better word, but I’ll try not to be mean.)
The point is not to criticize the conservatives for over-generalizing (although this is an example of over-generalizing). Rather, I think we progressives are making two very serious mistakes.
First, we don’t spend enough time talking with conservatives. Obviously, there are men among the conservatives who are not interested in dialogue, but it’s hardly a universal characteristic. It’s not that hard to find someone willing to listen. I’ll grant that internet forums rarely produce much persuasion — of the person we are talking to. But I think the conversations are helpful as there are countless many among the conservatives who are looking for something better and find these conversations helpful as they seek a deeper understanding.
Anyway, there’s a culture growing up among the progressives that it’s a waste of time to talk to the conservatives, which is an unfair over-generalization. What we need is more conversation.
Second, we often do a lousy job of explaining ourselves. I mean, as is only natural in an immature movement, we tend to expend too many of our energies saying why the old ways are wrong and not enough explaining what the new ways need to be. We’ve lept straight from legalism to Bible-bookstore evangelicalism or, worse yet, feel-good, cheap grace.
This is hardly universal. The progressive ministers I know are actually pretty good theologians. But we have a tendency to teach an incomplete understanding. We just don’t take the time to draw the boundaries. Indeed, sometimes we suggest that there are no boundaries (isn’t that part of The Jesus Proposal? I have trouble telling just what they’re arguing, so maybe I’m wrong. It was a very confusing book to me.)
There are very real boundaries to grace — and toying with them is foolish in the extreme. But we often are so glad to be shed of legalism that we forget to teach what the limits are. Our congregations need to know the lines, and they need to know how dangerous it is to test the patience of God, not because God will give up on us, but because sin deceives and hardens. Many who stray never come back. We’ve all seen it. We need to talk about it.
The boundaries are faith in Jesus, submission to Jesus as Lord (which is really a part of faith, as Paul uses the term), and baptism. And the scriptures plainly teach baptism as a boundary marker.
While I believe that God will overlook an imperfect faith, an imperfect repentance, and even an imperfect baptism, none of these are to be trifled with. A man without faith in Jesus is lost (John 3:18) and a man who willfully continues to sin is in danger of falling away never to return (Heb 10:26ff and 6:4-6). And it would be truly tragic if we failed to preach these truths. And yet I don’t think we preach these much at all.
And so, I worry that in accepting the penitent believer with an imperfect baptism we are beginning to feel compelled to slip over into the Zwinglian/Baptist view of baptism as an ordinance (just a command) with no real grace attached to it, which even the Baptists are beginning to reject. We don’t have to diminish baptism in order to accept the imperfectly baptized as brothers.
It’s natural for us to wrestle with why we should baptize a new member transferring from a Methodist church who was baptized only as an infant. If we figure God will overlook the imperfection in his baptism, why bother to re-baptize him? Well, I think, we should honor God’s command. Baptism is much, much more than a command, but it is a command. I mean, if a member comes to our congregation with a plainly flawed faith or plainly flawed penitence, we’d teach him better and expect him to change, wouldn’t we? And if there is any grace at all tied to baptism, and the scriptures sure seem to say so, who’d refuse it?
Call me old-fashioned (like that would happen), but baptism is important enough that Jesus submitted to it. And Jesus commanded us to baptize those who’ve been converted. Why not do it right? Grace, remember, is not an excuse to do something wrong when you know better. (See Hicks and Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, p. 251 ff.)
While we can have great confidence in God’s grace, we are not permitted to presume on his grace.
(Heb 12:15) See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
“Bitter root” is a reference to a passage in Deuteronomy we need to take seriously —
(Deu 29:18-20) Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. 19 When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20 The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
Pretty scary stuff, isn’t it? I think we need to preach it.
[to be continued]