Minimalism vs. Passion and Perseverance

Making God our Servant, or Embracing the Cross

by Bob Bradley

Texts: Luke 14: 27; Rev. 2: 4

Several months ago our ministry received a letter from an inmate, and it was forwarded to me. This letter triggered the concerns I’ll be dealing with in this message. Let me give you some extensive quotes from his letter--the underlining and italics are mine.

The doctrine of repentance, in salvation or in the process of sanctification throughout our lives in Christ, isn’t so popular in the ‘movements’ that are in vogue these days. In here, the absence of teaching that emphasizes the important role of repentance in our Christian lives, and its significance in the greater context of what we have in Christ altogether, is the kiss of death. People want to go to chapel and hear about how Jesus loves them because they were bold in raising their hands for Him, but it gets complicated when you delve into how it is that our lives are supposed to be different now that we belong to Him. I speak with people all the time, and in listening to them, you just don’t detect a desire to change or a hunger for truth. Their interest goes only as far as the immediate angle they can identify for themselves reaches, and that’s no surprise in people of the world, but in people who profess the faith it’s just incredible.

Sometimes it’s lack of maturity, but mostly in my experience I’ve found that it’s a lack of basic instruction--and I believe this is basic. True friendship with Christ is sharing His heart (because He lives in our hearts) and His mentality (because we are constantly renewed in the spirit of our minds through our communion with Him and His truth). The bottom line is that when we know Him, we want our lives to be free of what creates interference in our relationship with Him. His commandments are not burdensome when we love him, right?”

Our brother is writing from the perspective of an inmate, expressing his concern for the shallowness of commitment that he observes in some fellow inmates who are professing Christians. As we might suspect, this shallowness or minimalism is not just a problem in prisons. Rather, it reflects a strong trend in our evangelical Christian culture. The gospel of grace has largely become the gospel of “cheap grace” in our American culture. The term “cheap grace” was first used by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian who was killed by the Nazis for his resistance to Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as grace without repentance, grace that costs us nothing, or grace that we bestow upon ourselves for performing certain religious duties, such as believing certain doctrines. In contrast, Bonhoeffer said that “when Christ calls a man, He calls him to come and die.” This analysis was supported by another German, Basilea Schlink, who wrote that during her college years in Germany in the 1930’s, cheap grace was rampant. There was a lot of religion, but very little devotion to Jesus. Basilea went on, after WWII, to found the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, and to write powerfully about costly devotion to Jesus, which she called “bridal love.”

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone deliberately sets out with the objective of making grace cheap. It’s just that our selfish, sinful nature always attempts to intrude into our dealings with God. And, the Adversary is always present to insinuate that God is unreasonably demanding, so we should save ourselves. Or, to those who are slightly more discerning, he argues that the call to sacrifice and obedience and purity is for a spiritual elite known as disciples, and that discipleship is a special calling given only to a hardy few. But the primary lure of cheap grace or minimalism, as noted earlier, comes from our very attractive and seductive religious culture. How can you argue with hundreds, if not thousands, of highly eloquent and entertaining pastors whose congregations number from 2,000 to 25,000 and whose church parking lots are filled with the most expensive SUV’s? How dare we challenge popular and dynamic senior pastors who communicate a minimalist gospel? This is a gospel which calls us to “receive” Jesus as our personal Savior so that God can begin to fill our lives with the things we really need--purpose, success, happiness, health, and eternal life as a bonus for the hereafter.

I must call a time out here and underscore the fact that many influential pastors are doing their best to communicate a New Testament call to serious discipleship, holy living, and tangible love for Jesus. Although they may do it in a modern style, they teach an old-fashioned gospel of thorough cleansing from sin and serious commitment to the Lordship of Jesus. The focus is not on what God wants to do for us, but rather on the Father’s agenda to conform us to the image of His Son. Such pastors and teachers are part of a faithful remnant that God always raises up to counter the almost overwhelming influence of those who compromise the gospel to make it more palatable to the culture.

Let me tell you about one of them. Jan Hettinga pastors a large Baptist church in the Seattle area. A few years ago he began to track people who responded to a salvation altar call at his church. He found that the “fallout rate” was distressingly high. He and other friends in ministry concluded that the general retention rate was only about 10 percent. He started a vigorous discipleship program for these new converts, but there was little change in the percentage of those who stuck with their commitment. He knew then that something was seriously wrong. He concluded that the way we present the gospel is flawed. We ask people to publicly affirm their belief in certain Biblical doctrines, such as the fact that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died as a sacrifice for our sins. We also ask them to repeat the sinner’s prayer. All this can be good in a preliminary way, but often the “convert” does not really repent--he or she does not really experience the metanoia, the change of mind, that is the essence of Biblical repentance. Pastor Hettinga started a serious 35-week program to teach new believers how to submit to the Lord in the ways they act and think. Some of them experience a real conversion as a result of this focus. Hettinga has written a book entitled Follow Me that tells his story and lucidly outlines the truths of basic commitment and repentance.

The problem of a compromised, minimalized gospel does not by any means flow exclusively from those who promote the gospel of success and prosperity. Many teachers who would shun any identification with the “word of faith” movement have nonetheless made their presentation of the gospel so seeker-sensitive that the issues of discipleship, obedience, and sanctification are perceived as secondary or unimportant. Recently the key leadership at Willow Creek, one of America’s largest and most influential churches--the very church that popularized the seeker-sensitive approach--reviewed their thirty years of ministry to study the effectiveness of their programs. They concluded that Willow Creek had failed to meet its stated objective of leading converts to become maturing disciples of Jesus. These findings were released in a book co-authored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins entitled Reveal: Where Are You? Founding pastor Bill Hybels called the findings earth shaking,ground breaking, and mind blowing.

Pastor Hybels acknowledged that Willow Creek had made a mistake. He concluded that when people made a commitment to Christ, they should have been instructed in how to take aggressive responsibility for their own spiritual growth. The new believers should have been taught how to feed themselves with Bible study and other spiritual disciplines, rather than allowing them to depend heavily upon Willow Creek’s attractive services and programs. One can only admire the honesty of the Willow Creek leadership. On the other hand, I have to wonder if they will take the risk of changing their focus to the “old-time religion” that focuses on repentance, love of the Word, and obedience to the commands of Jesus. I’m hopeful but frankly a bit skeptical.

It would be a mistake, though, to blame our lack of spiritual passion and devotion on our religious culture. The Holy Spirit is always faithful to speak to us regarding things in our lives, and affections in our hearts, that need to be acknowledged and submitted to Him. We are responsible for the quality of our devotion to the Lord, no matter how compromised and seductive our environment may be.

You cannot read the New Testament very long without being confronted with the call to love Jesus and to do the things that are pleasing to Him. The Sermon on the Mount is not a replacement for the Mosaic law--a list of things to do in order to merit God’s favor. The New Testament knows nothing of this kind of Pharisaical legalism. Jesus’ commandments in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere are an articulation of the principles that govern spiritual growth. They are a listing of impossible standards that can only be practiced by those who truly love Him. It is only as we have a revelation of Jesus the Servant to our hearts that we can begin to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. These are commandments for those who love Him and deeply trust Him.

We begin to really love Jesus as we discover Who He is. When we first believe we embrace the truth that He is the Son of God, but as we continue to believe He grows in stature! As the truth that He is the uncreated, eternal Son of God, fully equal to the Father (All things that the Father has are mine…John 15:16) begins to dawn on us, we also begin to understand the unspeakable wonder of the Incarnation. He is the oldest son of Mary, the peasant girl, and during all His years in the carpenter’s shop He was known as Joshua, or Josh. He is the young prophet who astounded everyone with his powerful, authoritative preaching, and yet who was utterly gentle and tender with the broken and hurting. He is the miracle-worker who refused to entertain the skeptics with a sign, but who quietly turned 150 gallons of water into the richest wine, and just as unobtrusively turned five loaves and two small fish into three or four tons of food! He tweaked His enemies by publicly forgiving sins (Who can forgive sins but God alone? Mark 2:7), brought their blood to a boil by casually declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, and pushed them into a frenzy of rage by healing a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath. So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild!

How is it possible not to love Him and want to do His will, unless you really don’t know Him? I think that is what Paul is getting at in I Cor.16:22--If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. Of course Paul is not talking about unbelievers in the world. They cannot be expected to love Jesus, when they have little or no knowledge of Him. But he is addressing his remarks to persons in the church, who have been exposed to the truth about Jesus, but who do not love Him (and who by logical extension do not obey His commandments, either). These are intellectual believers who affirm a certain amount of doctrine but have paid no price for their faith, and tend to say, let’s not get emotional about this when in an environment of worship and adoration.

In Luke 14: 26, 27 Jesus says to the crowds, If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Jesus is here using a cultural form of exaggeration to make a point — devotion to Him and obedience to His guidance must have priority over every other personal attachment. Our love for the Lord is measured by our willingness to sacrifice our will to His will. Jesus’ message to the church at Ephesus in Rev. 2:4 is Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. The church at Ephesus seemed to be doing everything right, but Jesus sharply rebuked it because its devotion was less than passionate and sacrificial. The church had become professional in its ministry, and Jesus required the passion of first love, which always entails sacrifice.

We are called not only to sacrificial love but to love which endures till the end. Hebrews 3:14 says For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end. This is echoed by Colossians 1: 22b, 23: to present you holy, and blameless, and irreproachable in His sight--if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard…. The New Testament clearly teaches the necessity of perseverance for final salvation.

J. Oliver Buswell, a Calvinist theologian of the first rank who wrote about fifty years ago, sharply repudiates the doctrine of once saved, always saved when it is taught on the basis of the so-called conversion experience. He urges that this doctrine should never be preached except on the basis of the doctrine of election. He goes on to say my point is that so long as the professing Christian is in a state of carnality, no pastor, no Christian friend, has the slightest ground for holding that this carnal person has ever been regenerated. Buswell adds that the New Testament warnings about falling away are a part of the means whereby God preserves the regenerate in the walk of the Christian life. God has not only foreordained the end, the salvation of His people, He has also foreordained the means whereby they are to be saved and preserved. These warnings are a part of the means. He urges that no Calvinist should in any way minimize or fail to give the strongest emphasis to such warnings. (Taken from A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, pp. 146-148, by J. Oliver Buswell. Copyright 1962 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan). Although I disagree with some of Buswell’s Calvinistic logic, I think he is dead on the money on this issue of the validity of the warnings for committed believers.

After a lifetime of pastoring and reading theology, I am convinced that a truly converted person can, by repeated hardening of the heart, commit apostasy, and never return to repentance. I believe that this terrible possibility is a large part of the message of the Book of Hebrews. Buswell would say that the professing Christian who dies in active sin was never converted in the first place. I’m not so sure. But I have the deepest respect for Calvinists such as Buswell who take the warnings at face value, and caution us against the popular once saved, always saved doctrine that is based on a profession of faith, rather than on the doctrine of election. And no matter which viewpoint you take, perseverance is critical.

Let’s earnestly determine to meditate upon Him, love Him, and with His help, keep His commandments.

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