Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Confusing Theology and The Gospel
From time to time, I am asked about my view of the extent of the atonement. I certainly have definite convictions about this issue (a most helpful essay, which many have read, is by J.I. Packer in his introduction to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ).
However, I don’t like getting into these kinds of discussions with people because they are typically unfruitful and unnecessarily divisive most often because so many operate from a skewed, caricatured understanding (e.g., Calvinists stifle evangelism; Arminians don’t preach the gospel).
Moreover, these discussions more times than not miss the point when it comes to the gospel and evangelism.
The point is that regardless of whether a man believes in limited or unlimited atonement, there is never a reason to introduce either view when preaching the gospel. Neither view is something that needs to be included in the equation.
Think about that for just a minute. A theological distinction is unimportant to evangelism. Makes sense. When people accept Christ, we do not require them to immediately study and decide on things like dispensationalism - nor do we make sure, often ever, that they have read Calvin, or Augustine, or Luther, or N.T. Wright.
Now, I think most people will agree with this in principle, but how many are willing to explore it out to the edges. We seem to have "theological lines" about what is and is not a Christian. (Trinitarianism for example.) Yet, how many people in your congregation could give a straightforward answer in two sentences or less to the question, "What is the Trinity?" (OH, I know everybody can run off "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" - but I mean an answer that reveals understanding of what that means.) But if our view of atonement is not important to salvation, why is our view of the Trinity?
What about the ramifications of this idea for spiritual development? And specifically what does that say about the methods we use to help people develop spiritually?
I was blessed in my undergraduate education to attend a very well funded school with extensive laboratory facilities and limited student numbers. That meant, among other things, that I got to play in the lab - a lot. When I entered the working world and met other people that had studied chemistry, but from larger institutions where lab time was severely restricted, I met people that know how something was supposed to work, but they could not actually DO chemistry.
I will never forget having a guy about my age come into my lab at my employer and ask me to run an infrared spectrum on something. He was a chemistry major from one of the more prestigious, if larger, chemistry schools in the country. I was really busy at the moment, and told him so, but pointed at the instrument and told him to have at it. The entire exercise should have taken him about 15-20 minutes, including clean-up. I came back two hours later to find him staring hopelessly at the instruction manual for the instrument. I walked up and helped him out at that point, and he mumbled some quasi-insult about "technician's work." (I put that to rest when the spectrum was complete and I identified the unknown for him at a glance while it took him two hours in the library to interpret the spectrum, but that is a story for another time.)
How often we view simply being a Christian, or doing Christianity as "technicians work." And yet, that is so backwards. Theory, is theory, is theory. It is important, and it is even useful in some context, but it is often unnecessary to do the job. I don't need to know if atonement is limited or unlimited to access it - I just need to access it.
I am wondering what a church that was built on doing Christianity, that is to say being a Christian, rather than learning about Christianity would look like. A lot more decentralized is the first thought that comes to mind.