With J. I. Packer, James M. Boice, Richard Halverson, William Pannell and Michael S. Horton
HORTON: Do you think the complaint that evangelicals in this day and age are shallow and superficial is justified?
BOICE: Yes, I would agree with that complaint. For various reasons I think we are contributing to the very thing we ought to be working against. One reason is that we are so preoccupied with numbers. We’re so interested in getting people to make a profession that we often forget to take the time to explain the content of what it is they are about to profess. I notice, by contrast, that our Lord himself never did that. If anything, he seemed to be afraid of numbers. When the numbers got too high, he asked the tough questions, questions that would weed out those who were following only because it was simply the most exciting thing of the hour to do.
PACKER: I think this is right. There is such a thing as cultural Christianity, a Christianity that only goes skin deep and is taken in because it is part of the culture of your home or the group to which you belong. What you receive in this case, you receive by osmosis, rather than by any sort of thinking. When the time comes and the tough questions are asked your mind begins to wake up and you realize that all you’ve got is the veneer of a “Christian lifestyle” without any deeply rooted convictions at all. Culture Christianity is always a problem at this point. Those who have received it think that they are Christians because of the way that they have been conditioned, when in many cases they still have been converted.
PANNELL: What we have failed to do in many of our Christian circles is to present in a stimulating way real biblical questions. Today, people tend to think that you can go to church, be a Christian, and get along best if you leave your mind in the glove compartment.
HORTON: Could it be that we have a cheap and limited view of God and his grace?
HALVERSON: I certainly think we’ve lost that sense of awe when we talk about God in our modern evangelical culture. I don’t sense awe in many of the evangelical gatherings that I have attended. I have a feeling, for example, that if Jesus was to walk into one of our churches or conventions, that we wouldn’t want to stand up and cheer and sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” I think we should fall immediately to our knees in an attitude of worship. However, today I think we tend to equate noise with praise and worship and that troubles me a great deal (see Amos 5:21-24).
PACKER: I think you’ve hit on something fairly basic here. I think of the two pans of an old fashioned pair of scales. If one goes up, the other goes down. Once upon a time folks new that God was great and that man by comparison was small. Each individual carried around a sense of his own smallness in the greatness of God’s world. However, the scale pans are in a different relation today. Man has risen in his own estimation. He thinks of himself as great, grand and marvelously resourceful. This means inevitably that our thoughts about God have shrunk. As God goes down in our estimation, He gets smaller. He also exists now only for our pleasure, our convenience and our health, rather than we existing for His glory.
Now, I’m an old fashioned Christian and I believe that we exist for the glory of God. So the first thing I always want to do in any teaching of Christianity is to attempt to try and get those scale pans reversed. I want to try and show folks that God is the one of central importance. We exist for His praise, to worship Him, and find our joy and fulfillment in Him; therefore He must have all the glory. God is great and He must be acknowledged as great. I think there is a tremendous difference between the view that God saves us and the idea that we save ourselves with God’s help. Formula number two fits the modern idea, while formula number one, as I read my Bible, is scriptural. We do not see salvation straight until we recognize that from first to last it is God’s work. He didn’t need to save us. He owed us nothing but damnation after we sinned. What he does, though, is to move in mercy. He sends us a Savior and His Holy Spirit into our hearts to bring us to faith in that Savior. Then He keeps us in that faith and brings us to His glory. It is His work from beginning to end. God saves sinners. It does, of course, put us down very low. It is that aspect of the gospel that presents the biggest challenge to the modern viewpoint. But we must not forget that it also sets God up very high. It reveals to us a God who is very great, very gracious and very glorious. A God who is certainly worthy of our worship.
PANNELL: I’m always impressed with the conversation that Jesus had with some of his contemporaries when they asked, “What can we do that we might do the works of God?” The assumption being that whatever God laid on them, they could handle. Jesus responded by saying, “This is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent.” They could no more swallow that than they could any of the other teachings of Jesus. This one stuck in their minds and I think the reason for that is because it lays upon God all the burden of being Savior. And that is just un-American. To think that we would need someone outside ourselves to save us is in violation of the spirit of American independence.
HORTON: Could that be why we don’t frequently hear the preaching of the cross in evangelical churches? If we do hear the cross, it’s only in terms of how much God loves us, but we never really hear why the cross was actually necessary.
PACKER: Well, before we ever start talking about the cross showing us the love of God, we ought to take the time to define what took place on the cross so as to explain why the death of Christ shows us God’s love. Surely the first thing to say is that the achievement of the cross was the putting away of our sins. Had that not happened through the wisdom of God who put His Son in our place, we would have had to pay the price for our sins and that would have been eternal spiritual loss. Thus, the meaning of the cross is that a God, who was my stern judge, has become my loving heavenly Father because He has put away my sins. The Father, through the Son, redeemed the world. So our relationship with God becomes the most important issue we can ever face and the cross of Christ becomes the most momentous event in history, because we have a loving heavenly Father and the Judge who fully satisfies the account of us for our guilt. This is the God-centered way of looking at the cross.
BOICE: But that is the question, how are we going to look at the cross, or mankind, or God. For example, if your basic premise is that God exists to serve mankind and you happen to be going through a period of suffering, is God going to have to solve your problems for him to mean anything to you? The health and wealth gospels that we’ve heard so much about are merely outgrowths of this man-centered religion. However, if you take it the other way around, we’re there for God’s benefit and then He has a purpose even in our suffering. Christianity does not involve our solving everybody’s human problem, but instead involves our showing we can go through human problems in a way that honors God. Until Christians in our country understand that, Christianity is not going to have the impact that it once had, either for revival or for cultural change.
HALVERSON: I feel that this is where we are today. Although we say we believe in God, we really believe in man. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. for thirty years and I hear this all the time. They never verbalize it quite this way, but what they’re saying is, “If we just get the right man in the White House, and the right people in the Supreme Court and Congress, we’ve got the kingdom of God.” This concerns me a great deal.
PANNELL: I think there is a consensus in the world today as never before that the human race needs to be saved. I think that’s what communism and other isms are about. This leads inevitably to a contemporary idolatry called nationalism. To the degree that the church is seduced to these ideologies, it is to that degree also that the church loses confidence in the power of the gospel. And the cross just becomes something you wear around your neck.
HALVERSON: Years ago we had a breakfast in Washington for Malcolm Muggeridge, who as some of you may know is very pessimistic. After giving his speech, one gentleman, who happened to be constitutionally incapable of hearing anything pessimistic, approached him and said, “Brother Muggeridge, you’ve been very pessimistic, can’t you say anything optimistic?” He responded, “Why my friend, I’m very optimistic because my hope is only in Jesus Christ.” He let that response settle for a moment. Then he said this, “Just suppose the apostolic church had pinned its hopes on the Roman empire?” I’ve never been able to forget that. In a day when we are pinning our hope on the good old U.S.A. There’s a little text that came to mean a great deal to me a few years ago when I was preparing to preach an ordination sermon. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I can’t believe he has ever failed, or ever will fail in doing that. So I have to believe he is building his church. The problem is the church we’re building.
From Modern Reformation (May/June 1993): “Beyond Culture Wars”