In this post: The defective gospel of the Alpha Course; False assumption 1 – We can judge what is right by whether it ‘works’; False assumption 2 – Growth in church attendance proves God’s blessing; False assumption 3 – A transformed life is proof of salvation; The right way, and the wrong way, to view good works; Bonus comment thread: why the Purpose Driven Life movement is problematic
I was chatting with a good friend last week. He is on the leadership track of a self-described Purpose Driven church, and we have a history of (mostly) amicable sparring over the nature of the Gospel and how it should be proclaimed.
(For anyone unfamiliar with the dangers of the Purpose Driven church movement, I recommend Bob DeWaay’s eminently readable and definitive book on the subject, Redefining Christianity: Understanding the Purpose Driven Life Movement.)
Entirely incidental to the topic of our conversation, my friend happened to mention that the home group he leads had been showing a Nicky Gumbel video. Without thinking, I blurted out the mildly disparaging quip ‘Never mind.’
Who is Nicky Gumbel? He’s the developer of the wildly popular Alpha Course, the content of which many have found to be highly problematic. Michael J. Penfold’s brief analysis of The Gospel According to Gumbel likewise indicates a dangerously flawed presentation of sin, repentance and the work of Christ. Penfold even goes so far as to document Gumbel’s denial of the doctrine of penal substitution, which teaches that Christ was punished in our place for our sin (my emphasis):
Gumbel’s limited understanding and presentation of the theology of sin, leads to a faulty explanation of why Jesus died. Despite giving various illustrations of Christ’s death, including the old ‘swap the Bible from one hand to the other’ visual image, Gumbel misses the central point of the atonement. The Bible reveals that God’s righteous anger and wrath burn constantly against sin and sinners (John 3:36, Rom 1:18, 2:5). To save sinners from wrath (Rom 5:9) penal substitution took place on the cross. Simply put, the righteous anger and wrath of God against sin was poured out on His own Son (Isa 53:5 & 10). This glorious truth is denied by false teachers like Steve Chalke and Clark Pinnock. Gumbel’s position on penal substitution (God punished Jesus) is spelled out in Questions of Life: “Some people caricature the New Testament teaching and suggest that God is unjust because He punished Jesus, an innocent party, instead of us. This is not what the New Testament says. Rather Paul says ‘God was…in Christ’ [2 Cor 5:19]. He was himself the substitute in the person of his Son…We can come back to the Father and experience his love and blessing…That is what God has made possible through his self-substitution on the cross.”
Although Gumbel later refers to Isa 53:6 and says that, “God transferred our wrong-doings onto Jesus,” he denies that God actually punished His own Son. Here, at the heart of Alpha, is a serious error, for scripture plainly teaches that it was God’s will to bruise His own Son (Isa 53:10). Calvary involved divine punishment. That is why the word chastisement is used (Isa 53:5). The iniquity God laid on Christ stands for the wrong itself, the guilt incurred and the punishment to which it gave rise. Literally in Hebrew it means that the Lord ‘made to meet upon Him’ the punishment due to us all. Wrath was poured out on Christ, as He vicariously identified Himself with sinners, being judicially made sin for them on the cross (2 Cor 5:21).
Now, notwithstanding Gumbel’s questionable theology, it wasn’t especially gracious of me to fire a barb at my friend in the way that I did – at least, not in that particular conversation. (If he’s reading this, I apologise for having done so.) But the reason for this post is not to make a public confession, but to discuss the implications of his response, for he quickly pointed out that they had seen lots of conversions, and that people’s lives were being transformed by Gumbel’s teaching. I have no reason to doubt that these things are true.
Since this was an off-the-cuff rejoinder to my provocation, it would be unfair to hold my friend too closely to it as a definitive and final statement of his position. What follows is not therefore addressed specifically to him.
Nevertheless, my friend’s remark is illustrative of the pragmatic grounds upon which the Church Growth Movement justifies its techniques. In essence they say, ‘Don’t criticise us – look at the lives that are being transformed! The fruit of what we do is proof of God’s blessing.’
Let’s look at three of the faulty assumptions that underly this line of reasoning.
False assumption 1: We can judge what is right by whether it ‘works’
In the business world (the source for many of the ideas in the Church Growth Movement), judging by results is generally reasonable. However, the church is not her own master, but rather is responsible to her Head, even the Lord Jesus Christ who bought her. She has not been given a mandate to innovate, but to ‘stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle’ (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
For the church, what matters is not our own opinion of what works, but what Christ has commanded. She is to hold fast to the Apostle’s doctrine, to the proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ.
False assumption 2: Growth in church attendance proves God’s blessing
In my previous treatment of this assumption, I observed that Baal worship was at one time the most popular religion in Israel. Was this evidence of God’s blessing?
Islam has over a billion adherents and is currently growing faster than the total world population. Is this proof that God approves of Islam?
Or is the reality that the true Church preaches a message that the world finds unpalatable? Even ‘Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)
False assumption 3: A transformed life is proof of salvation
Many religions transform lives. Mormonism has produced zealous clean-living converts who would put most evangelicals to shame in their general moral conduct. And radical Islam certainly transforms the lives of those who decide to become suicide bombers – and those of their victims.
This book changed my life. After reading this book back in 1997 my whole thinking about myself and others changed. I wish they teach this book in high school in every country in the world. Since 97 I buy this book and give it as gift to anyone I come across, especially to young people. You read it and judge it.
The religion of the Pharisees transformed lives. Yet Jesus said of them:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. (Matthew 23:15, NKJV)
Clearly, Jesus didn’t approve of that particular sort of life transformation.
We should be concerned that Pharisaism, which was really all about making God’s law doable, is alive and well in far too many of today’s churches. Whenever anyone gives you five simple steps to keep God’s law (whether it is to stay out of debt, or have healthy relationships, etc.), understand that Pharisaism is the religion being offered. Likewise, when someone preaches the law and tells you to just go out and do it. But the Bible tells us that God’s law exists primarily to show us our sin – it does not have the power to make us righteous:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20, ESV)
I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. (Galatians 2:21, NKJV)
The gospel is not a formula by which we can obey God’s law and thereby become righteous. No, it is the Good News that, even though we do not obey the law, Christ kept it for us. That His perfect righteousness is put to our account, and that the wrath of God that we deserved for our sin was instead poured out upon Christ on the cross:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26, NKJV)
Those who believe that gospel have eternal life. These are the ones who believe that God justifies (declares righteous) all those who are trusting in Jesus and His work on the cross. For them, ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness’ (Romans 10:4, NKJV).
‘Ah’, someone might say, ‘You don’t understand. When I talk of a transformed life, I mean that people’s lives are turned around and they are joyful in the Lord.’
What then, of the parable of the soils? Jesus says:
Behold, a sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them.
Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away.
And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them.
But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
Matthew 13:3–9, NKJV
Jesus subsequently explains the parable to His disciples:
Therefore hear the parable of the sower:
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.
But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.
But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Matthew 13:18–23, NKJV
The seed which fell upon stony ground appeared to burst into life – it ‘immediately sprang up’. Why? ‘Because there was no depth’.
Far from the immediate flourishing of growth being an indicator of eventual fruit, that growth was caused by the seed falling upon unprepared ground. This is sobering; the implication is that a quick conversion – an abundance of early growth – might very well prove to be ill-grounded.
Notice that the first hearer is said not to understand the Word he has heard. We are not told whether the second and third hearers understand it, but we are left to draw our own inference, given that we are expressly told that the final hearer, he who received seed on the good ground, ‘is he who hears the word and understands it’.
The seed which fell on stony ground is likened to one who hears the Word and immediately receives it with joy. Yet there is no depth there, no true understanding of what has been declared.
If this is sometimes the case with those who hear the true Word of the Kingdom, properly proclaimed, how plainly this exposes the dangers of our modern watered-down presentations of man’s sinful state. Rather than risk offending people by telling them of the wrath of a holy and just God toward sinners, we instead talk of having ‘made mistakes’ and ‘messed up our lives’. Instead of warning of the coming judgement, we tell people that God loves them, omitting any mention of His holiness and justice. Rather than call sinners to repent, we entice them with the offer of a better, more abundant life.
And thus we emasculate the Gospel, robbing it of its majesty and power. For if God is not angry with sinners, the punishment of His Son in their place on the cross can make no sense. Truly, it is this kind of diluted evangelism that results in false converts, lacking depth and with no understanding of the amazing grace that has been poured out upon sinners through the cross of Jesus Christ.
The Church’s task is not to make the Gospel palatable to unbelievers. It is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so clearly that the offence of the Gospel – Christ crucified in our place, the just suffering for the unjust – is plain to everyone who hears.
Our message should be such that it is impossible for anyone to accept, except the Holy Spirit be at work supernaturally in people’s lives. The Church is charged with preaching the Law in all its severity to frighten comfortable sinners, and then to comfort frightened sinners with the Gospel.
And so we see that false religion can transform lives. Secular books and programmes can transform lives. And even those who hear the true Gospel can receive it with joy and exhibit the signs of a transformed life, yet fall away when tested by tribulation or persecution. And thus, when it comes to matters of eternal salvation, a transformed life is proof of precisely nothing.
The right way, and the wrong way, to view good works
None of what I have said regarding a transformed life is to deny that genuine faith will result in good works. For it is true that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2). That is, someone who has been regenerated and granted the gifts of repentance and trust in Christ will inevitably produce good works.
But always remember that any such good works are the consequence of our salvation, not its cause. We must never think that we have somehow earned favour with God by anything we have done. We have favour with God only because of what Christ has done for us and in our place. It is impossible that we could add to that finished work. As Paul admonishes the Galatians:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?
This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?
Galatians 3:1–3, NKJV
Neither should we look to good works as proof of salvation. Elders may not rest secure simply because they see transformed lives among their flock.
Likewise, we should never look to our works for definite assurance of our own salvation. To do so is immensely dangerous. For whenever we examine our lives honestly in the light of God’s Law, we can but agree with Paul:
For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do…For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. (Romans 7:15, 18, NKJV)
Direct me to my works, and I shall despair, for I do not see them, except perhaps a few rags ‘defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection’ (as the Westminster Confession puts it). And even if I should be so blind to my true sinful state as to be reassured, I would then no longer be trusting in Christ’s merits alone, but rather in my own. A new Pharisee would have been born.
We are simul iustus et peccator, righteous and yet sinners at the same time. I am declared righteous, but the taint of sin is as yet present within me. With St. Paul, I cry out:
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25, NKJV)
Point me then, not to my own works, but to the exceedingly precious promises of Christ that are mine through His finished work on the cross. Call me daily to repentance, and tell me of the forgiveness of all my sin that has been accomplished through Christ’s death and the shedding of His blood. Exhort me not to look inward to myself, but outward to the one with whom I was buried through baptism into death, the one who was raised from the dead for my justification and even now causes me to walk in newness of life (cf. Romans 6).
The Church Growth Movement is predicated upon pragmatism. It wrongly assumes that numerical growth and transformed lives are proof of God’s blessing. Let us not measure the health of our churches by such things, but by their steadfast adherence to the Apostle’s doctrine, and by their faithful proclamation of repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
Christ’s message to the church in Sardis should be salutary for all churches whose confidence is in their results, in their reputation for being alive:
These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars:
‘I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.’
‘You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.’
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Revelation 3:1–6, NKJV
How different from Christ’s letter to the persecuted and apparently impoverished church in Smyrna! (Revelation 2:8–11)
The Church has no need for human efforts to engineer salvation. For hear St. Paul’s summary of the Gospel and its power:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21–24)
After I had begun writing this article, Ken Silva posted a précis of a piece by Dr. John MacArthur on this same subject of pragmatism in the Church. Ken’s summary and Dr. MacArthur’s full article are both well worth reading. This quote from Dr. MacArthur is particularly apposite:
It is folly to think one can be both pragmatic and biblical. The pragmatist wants to know what works now. The biblical thinker cares only about what the Bible says. The two philosophies inevitably oppose each other at the most basic level.
Readers might find the comment thread below helpful in clarifying why the Purpose Driven Life movement is problematic. I have also written a follow-up article, Our transformed lives: what are we to make of good works?