Pastors Need to Know Trends

by Ed Vasicek

Those of us in the ministry are sometimes classified as "theologians." Labeling pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and other full time clergy "theologians" is appropriate-because while few of us feel worthy of that title, on the other hand we do explain theology to our flocks or target mission field (salvation, the Trinity, etc.). We have been trained in the realm of theology and can find ourselves in the midst of theological conflicts. We are the common man's theologians. Therefore, we need to take our theology books out of mothballs and engage in the theological debates of our day (especially those within the evangelical world).

Although truth stays the same, our understanding of truth changes. This "change of understanding" can be positive or negative. As Evangelical Christians, we profess that God's truth is unchangeable, and that the only infallible source of truth is God's Word, the Bible. We also agree that a Bible verse means primarily one thing (with the exception of prophecy which may have both a less literal and a more literal fulfillment), and that, whatever a verse means, it always meant that. The true meaning of a verse does not change: our understanding of it either improves or declines. So a doctrine cannot be true in 1800 and false in 2006, nor can it be false in 1800 and true in 2006. It is always false or always true.

So let's get specific. What are some trends trickling down into our churches or effecting our ministries? Let's start with the positive.

Positive trend one:

Although many Pulpit Helpsreaders may not share my enthusiasm, I consider "Progressive Dispensationalism" a positive trend. Unlike Replacement Theology (including the 16th century "Covenant Theology"), which says that the church replaces Israel, the Progressive Dispensationalism paradigm emphasizes that the church is blessed through Israel, and that the people of the nation of Israel will believe in Jesus as the Messiah in the End Times. Although Traditional Dispensationalism has been around since the 18th Century, Progressive Dispensationalism is distinct in that it recognizes that the church is hazily anticipated in the Old Testament. It asserts that many Old Testament prophecies have a limited (less literal) fulfillment in the church while it anticipates a more literal fulfillment in the coming Millennial Kingdom. This viewpoint more or less agrees with most Dispensational claims, but adds missing components to Traditional Dispensationalism; it clears up a lot of interpretative headaches, including the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy in Acts 2 and the relationship of the New Covenant to believers today. It is less vulnerable to the criticisms raised against Traditional Dispensationalism. Unfortunately, I consider the other trends below to be negative ones.

Negative trend one: The New Perspective on Paul.

E. P. Sanders wrote a work over 25 years ago that asserts that our understanding of justification is based upon the "Lutheran captivity of Romans" (as some of Sander's followers have put it). According to the "New Perspective," Paul believed one enters the New Covenant by God's grace through faith, but that one remained in the New Covenant by faithfulness to God's commands and keeping the Law. As in other false systems of salvation, man and God co-operate for salvation. But Paul clearly teaches us that salvation is totally a work of God, and no part of it is of ourselves (Eph. 2:8-9).

Negative trend two: Rejection of Imputed Righteousness.

Robert Gundry has paved the way against imputed righteousness. His viewpoints complement the "New Perspective on Paul." The Bible no longer means what the Reformers and we have taken it to mean. Instead of hiding in the righteousness of Christ, which is given as a white garment, God helps us create our own righteousness. This righteousness then justifies us as we develop it with God's help. The righteousness of Christ is no longer a present possession, but only a future ("if we cut the mustard") hope. In a way, both Gundry and Sanders are advocating a position closer to the Roman Catholic view than that of the Reformers.

But the Word is clear: in Philippians 3:9, Paul declares how he gave up non-Messianic Judaism and accepted Christ so that He might, "be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith"; and 2 Corinthians 5:21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." The "Great Exchange" worked two ways: we gave Jesus our sin; He gave us His righteousness. That's the heart of the gospel. God takes great pleasure in justifying the ungodly (Rom. 4:4-5), not the law keeper. Negative trend three: Open Theism.

Most Pulpit Helps readers have probably come across this trend. This belief (advocated by Clark Pinnock, among others) argues that God does not know what is going to happen before it does. He only knows what is real, and, since the future is not real right now, God does not know it. According to this view, God can project what is likely to happen, but our free will presents Him with a constant wild card. Besides contradicting a vast array of Scripture, Open Theism advocates a weakened God who would prevent disasters if he knew they were coming. This god might be interesting, but he is not the Sovereign God of the Bible! The Bible teaches that God knows everything beforehand, down to the detail. Psalm 139:4 reads, "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord." God not only knows all that will happen, but even "what would happen if" (1 Sam. 23: 10-13). Negative trend four: Politically Correct Theology.

This covers many issues, and it is nothing new. The Bible no longer means what we thought it meant for centuries, whether we are talking about women pastors, homosexuality, the eternality of hell, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ, or a "gender neutral Bible." If we have any convictions at all, we are considered intolerant; we are only allowed to have preferences. If we speak out against error, we are guilty of judging.

Negative trend five: All Sincere Professors of Christianity Are Saved.

Although it is true that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are saved, it is impossible to believe in a saving way without having been born again. So promoting Christendom or "religion" (a word that used to be taboo in evangelical circles) is replacing the call for individuals to personally covenant with God and be saved. People who are religious but have not been born again are now to be considered our brothers and sisters. We need to recall what Jesus told Nicodemus, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" (John 3:3). If an individual has not been resurrected to spiritual life, no religion can save his soul. We need to reaffirm this most basic evangelical belief. Negative trend six: The Emerging Church Movement.

The movement, led by Brian McClaren, advocates what I believe to be a "dumbed down" Christianity; it is more about action than belief and ignores important doctrines. This movement is connected directly to the above trend. The Great Commission, we need to remember, is not primarily about making this world a better place. Christians must be grounded in truth and renew their minds to please God.

Almost all of these challenges to the faith would be thwarted if Christians truly espoused the ideas of a 1) a sovereign God who chose His elect from eternity despite their actions, not because of them; 2) a God who exists outside of time and dimension and is limited by neither; 3) a God who does not need us, but takes pleasure in working through us; and 4) a God who changes not.

These errors flow ultimately from a weak view of God. How big is your God? How desperate is He? How needy is He? If we can persuade our people that our God is truly a big God, we have won half the battle.

Ed Vasicek has served the Highland Park Church in Kokomo, IN, for 22 years.

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