We live in a day when far too many Christians are conscientious objectors in the war for God’s truth. Rather than contending for the “faith which was once for all handed down” (Jude 1:3), theological pacifism is now the preferred approach. Instead of viewing doctrine as a stronghold around which to unify and defend, it is considered too divisive to be worth defending.
Today, good deeds are embraced as the best way to foster unity and advance God’s kingdom. And who’s going to argue against charitable works? Nobody objects to feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. For that reason, many Christians now argue that doing is more important than believing.
Slogans like “deeds not creeds,” “preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” and “doctrine divides” are commonplace in modern churches. With increasing frequency, I hear people say things like, “Let’s stop fighting about what we believe—it’s only doctrine. Let’s focus on doing good works because that speaks so much louder anyway. We can show the love of Christ by the way we live our lives.”
And many people evidently find that suggestion appealing. On the surface, it sounds generous, kindhearted, modest, and altruistic. But the view itself is a serious violation of Christ’s teaching that salvation hinges on hearing and believing His Word (John 5:24). He said, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). To those who doubted His truth claims, He said, “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He never left any room for us to imagine that the propositional content of His teaching is optional as long as we mimic His behavior.
In fact, the New Testament consistently stresses otherwise. One vital principle about our redemption from sin destroys the whole argument: faith, not works, is the sole instrument of justification (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9). In other words, our beliefs rather than our actions are what secure us a righteous standing before God—because we lay hold of justifying righteousness by faith alone, and not by our works (Romans 4:5).
Romans 9:31–32 argues that “Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” Paul expressly says they were pursuing righteousness but looking for it in all the wrong places. Because of their wrong beliefs about the righteousness God requires, they rejected the righteousness Christ would have provided and were eternally condemned as a result. Unbelief was enough to condemn them, regardless of their works.
Real righteousness simply cannot exist in isolation from belief in the truth. Any “practical good” apart from sound doctrine has to abandon God’s standards for what is good and righteous. Naturally, it doesn’t take very long for that kind of thinking to undermine the foundations of Christianity itself.
Brian McLaren, for example, goes so far as to suggest that followers of other religions can also be followers of Christ in practical terms without leaving other religions or identifying with Christianity. “I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion,” he says. “It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu, or Jewish contexts.”  Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 260.
The logical starting point of McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy is his belief that doctrinal distinctives are of “marginal” value. A Generous Orthodoxy, 32. A predictably postmodern dubiousness seems to color McLaren’s treatment of practically all objective truth claims—and it’s a skepticism that extends even to the authority of Scripture itself. He seems deeply suspicious of any truth-based definition of orthodoxy. He writes as if orthopraxy (practical righteousness) is what really matters most. In the final analysis, he says, “‘getting it right’ is beside the point: the point is ‘being and doing good’ as followers of Jesus in our unique time and place, fitting in with the ongoing story of God’s saving love for planet Earth.” A Generous Orthodoxy, 192.
It is frankly hard to see such a perspective as anything other than plain, old-fashioned unbelief, rooted in a rejection of the clear teaching of Scripture. McLaren has elevated the sinner’s own good works above the importance of faith grounded in the truth of the gospel. No wonder he feels such an affinity with Buddhists and Hindus—at the end of the day, many of his ideas about the role of righteousness and good works in religion are not fundamentally different from theirs.
And bear in mind that in McLaren’s own moral hierarchy, one of the highest values (if not the supreme virtue by which all others are measured) is a particular notion of “humility”—namely, the standard postmodern species of humility, which starts with the assumption that certainty, assurance, and bold convictions are arrogant and therefore wrong. That, of course, would make the apostle Paul a bad Christian (Galatians 1:8–9)—not to mention Jesus Himself (Matthew 23).
No one except the grossest hypocrite would ever suggest that how we act is utterly immaterial as long as we subscribe to the right creeds and confessions. McLaren nevertheless begins his book with precisely that kind of caricature. He claims that,
Many orthodoxies have always and everywhere assumed that orthodoxy (right thinking and opinion about the gospel) and orthopraxy (right practice of the gospel) could and should be separated, so that one could at least be proud of getting an A in orthodoxy even when one earned a D in orthopraxy, which is only an elective class anyway. A Generous Orthodoxy, 30.
In reality, no true Christian anywhere has ever deliberately advocated such a twisted view of orthodoxy. Scripture is clear: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Biblical orthodoxy encompasses orthopraxy. Both right doctrine and right living are absolutely essential and totally inseparable for the true child of God. That is the consistent teaching of Christ Himself. “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of mine. And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31–32).
Furthermore, Scripture does clearly and consistently teach the primacy of right belief as the foundation of right behavior. In other words, righteous living is properly seen as a fruit of authentic faith, and never the other way around. Pious actions devoid of any real love for the truth do not even constitute genuine orthopraxy by any measure. On the contrary, that is the worst kind of self-righteous hypocrisy.
So truth is worth fighting over. It is the one thing in this world the church is supposed to fight for. Lose that fight and all else is lost.
It is obvious to most sensible people that not every point of truth is of equal importance, and therefore every trifling disagreement does not need to be pursued with equal fervor. But there is a war for truth and the main battlegrounds are the ideas people like McLaren spend their time attacking—the objectivity and knowability of truth as it is revealed in God’s Word.
So what is really at stake are the very same truths the serpent assaulted when he asked Eve, “Has God indeed said . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1). They are the same truths that have always been at the heart of the truth war—the inspiration, authority, inerrancy, sufficiency, and perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture—not to mention several essential aspects of the gospel message.
The vast majority of Christians throughout history have understood that the truth of God’s Word and His gospel are even worth dying for. Truth—including historical facts, assurance, and objective, distinct, knowable, authoritative propositions that demand to be embraced as true—is an essential concept in authentic Christianity. All the other aspects of religious experience flow from the truth we believe and simply give expression to it. Take away the ground of truth, and all you have is fluctuating religious sentiment.
Remember, the apostle Paul called the church “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). We have a duty to uphold the truth and to wield the sword of God’s Word against every human speculation and every worldly hypothesis raised up against the knowledge of God. The struggle will continue until every thought is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). The church must pursue that fight, and if church leaders are not setting the example, they are not being faithful to their calling.
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