From the earliest days of the apostolic era, faithful Christians have been called upon to contend earnestly for the truth of the gospel. The hardest battles have taken place within the visible church, among those who claim fidelity to Christ. That’s because the greatest threats to gospel truth have not come from atheists and other overt adversaries, but always from influential voices that arise within the church who speak twisted things (Acts 20:30). The evidence that this was happening in the very earliest era of the New Testament church is seen not only in Paul’s parting words to the Ephesian elders, but also in his admonitions to Timothy and Titus, and in Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3.
When I was studying doctrine and apologetics in seminary, I thought I was equipping myself to defend biblical truth against an onslaught of attacks from the world. I envisioned answering atheism and confronting threats to the gospel that would arise out of secular culture, the entertainment industry, the academic world, and other places outside the church.
Sometime after I entered full-time ministry, it dawned on me (to my profound shock) that the greatest threats to biblical truth typically arise from within the fellowship of professing believers—and it is a relentless parade of attacks. Looking back through church history, I realized that’s how it has always been. There has never been a time when false doctrines, harmful methodologies, unwholesome practices, bizarre beliefs, poisonous ideologies, and false teachers weren’t troubling the church of God—often with seriously divisive and otherwise spiritually destructive results.
In retrospect, it should not have been a surprise to me that the worst troubles come from within. I was born into a pastor’s home. My father was the son of a pastor. Both were part of the historic denominational landscape of planet church. They were in the American Baptist Church (ABC) denomination.
By the time I was a teenager, my grandfather was in heaven, having served as a pastor until the day he saw the face of Christ. My dad left the faltering, compromising ABC to plant an independent church in a building sold by a failing Lutheran congregation.
My father took his stand in the liberal-fundamentalist conflict. The issue then was the inspiration and authority of Scripture. My dad was bold and relentless, always with grace, to defend the Bible as inspired by God in total. He was cut off from lifelong friends who stayed in the ABC, but he was never divided in his loyalty to the true doctrine of Scripture. He encouraged me as a teenager, as a college student, and as a seminary student to learn and acquire all the doctrinal and evidentiary proofs necessary to defend the Word of God against the modernist and liberal attacks.
Although he was a loving pastor, my dad was also an earnest, relentless, skilled, and thoughtful defender of the Bible.
By the time I finished seminary I had my own settled convictions about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. My beliefs were shaped by and solidly anchored in the testimony of Scripture itself—affirmed by the evidence of the Bible’s life-changing power, its accuracy in all details that are subject to examination, the precise fulfillment of so many of its prophesies, and the sheer glory of God’s self-revelation. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.X), what I hear when I read my Bible is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”
While in seminary I wrote papers defending the Bible’s authority, and I even debated at Fuller Seminary against the corrupted view of inerrancy put forth by two of its faculty members, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim. Theirs was a defective view of the Bible’s truthfulness, claiming the general thrust of Scripture is inspired but not the very words (ipsissima verba). They argued that there may be “technical errors” in the Bible, but it nevertheless is a “living witness” to what God has revealed. Together with some other evangelical leaders, I was invited (when David Allen Hubbard was president) to speak to Fuller’s administration, faculty, and board on the issues of biblical inspiration and inerrancy. This was requested by concerned board members who had been told by faculty leaders that the views being taught at Fuller were perfectly orthodox—but when they spoke to students and other members of the faculty, those board members were hearing that unorthodox ideas were indeed being aggressively promoted in classrooms at Fuller.
I had always assumed that the defense of Scripture would be a lifelong battle (and it has been). What I did not anticipate, or even notice at first, was that the most damaging attacks on gospel principles tend to come in relentless waves and not mainly from secular skeptics and contentious unbelievers, but almost routinely from within the church—and from all sides.
I hadn’t been serving as a pastor very long when I was attacked by legalistic fundamentalists, and therefore was thrust into a conflict between works-based self-righteous religion and liberty in Christ. After that, an attack came from the opposite direction, claiming that gospel preaching that calls unbelievers to repentance and submission to Christ’s lordship is itself a form of legalism. I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus in response, and when the controversy intensified, I wrote a second reply, The Gospel According to the Apostles.
There was also the campaign to gain conservative evangelicals’ acceptance for Pentecostal views on the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and continuing revelation. The church I pastor is a short distance from the Episcopalian church in Van Nuys, California, where the charismatic movement had its inception. I wrote Charismatic Chaos in part to chronicle how that movement resulted in an influx of unorthodox ideas and false teachers in the evangelical mainstream.
We fought for the sufficiency of Scripture against the intrusion of psychotherapy into the church (attempting to integrate Christian doctrine with a horde of ideas based on godless presuppositions about the reasons for the human struggle). For a time, the evangelical movement was beset with, and almost overrun by, self-styled experts who belittled biblical truth as unsophisticated and inadequate for helping people with their “deep” psychological problems. They were convinced that sanctification couldn’t even start until a person went through the foyer of psychology. Our Sufficiency in Christ was my written response to that trend.
Throughout all those years, another somewhat subtle but very appealing—and very dangerous—trend was steadily gaining influence among evangelicals. It was the rank pragmatism of the so-called “seeker-sensitive” philosophy of church growth. Churches that followed this pattern moved away from biblical preaching and doctrinal instruction and generally used entertainment laced with spiritual-sounding themes as a means of drawing crowds. The stress was on reaching the “unchurched” rather than training believers for ministry. The result was that people remained untaught and did not grow spiritually. A handful of megachurches stood out as models that smaller churches everywhere attempted to imitate. Although countless small churches failed and even died when they adopted the model, a few glib, young leaders became very skilled at the pragmatic approach and saw their congregations grow to unprecedented sizes. Some of them numbered literally in the tens of thousands, giving observers the impression that this novel approach to ministry was reaching people on a huge scale. My book Ashamed of the Gospel analyzed and confronted that issue.
I have referred to those books not for the sake of self-promotion but to show that my best-known polemical works all have one basic aim: they were written to respond to subtle, in-house attacks on core gospel convictions. The fact that they span my whole ministry illustrates what I mean when I say, the battle for biblical authority rages constantly and on many fronts. I’ve never sought to be a controversialist, but my conscience and my commitment to Scripture compel me to contend earnestly for the bedrock principles of the gospel delivered once for all to the saints.
On Wednesday I’ll continue and conclude this retrospective with an explanation of what the current evangelical obsession with “social justice” has in common with all of those other issues. And I’ll begin to explain why it’s my conviction that much of the rhetoric about this latest issue poses a more imminent and dangerous threat to the clarity and centrality of the gospel than any other recent controversy evangelicals have engaged in.