18 May 2012

You Can't Have True Unity in Christ Without a Fight

by Phil Johnson

    love the idea of unity built on a gospel foundation, but the success or failure of that idea hinges on our understanding of and commitment to a true, unadulterated, biblical understanding of the gospel. We know from both Scripture and the hard-fought lessons of church history that not everyone who says he is committed to the gospel really is. Not everyone who claims to stand with us in affirming gospel truth is really interested in doing the work of the Great Commission. Not everyone who signs an evangelical confession of faith actually preaches the gospel.

Some people who use a lot of gospel words actually peddle a different gospel that is nothing like the apostolic message. Invariably, the very same people who openly advocate (re)imagining Christianity also seek mainstream acceptance. The Emergent(ing) Church Movement melted down as a movement, but it hasn't gone away. Multitudes who thought the emergents' New Kind of Christianity was a Truly Great Idea have simply been dispersed back into the large shallow end of the evangelical community—where hardly anyone is willing to engage in any kind of controversy to stanch their influence.

But if we truly want any kind of gospel-based unity, we have to be willing to defend the gospel together. The gospel is not only the ground on which we unite with other believers, it is also ground we must earnestly defend against false teachers. You cannot achieve true unity unless you vigorously pursue both of those goals.

I'm just sayin' . . .

Phil's signature


donsands said...

Amen. It's difficult at times. But we need to fight the good fight of faith.

I read some edifying thoughts from JC Ryle this morning:

"Let us settle it in our minds that the Christian fight is a good fight--really good, truly good, emphatically good. We see only part of it yet. We see the struggle, but not the end; we see the campaign, but not the reward; we see the cross, but not the crown. We see a few humble broken-spirited, penitent, praying people, enduring hardships and despised by the world; but we see not the hand of God over them, the face of God smiling on them, the kingdom of glory prepared for them. These things are yet to be revealed. Let us not judge by appearances. There are more good things about Christian warfare than we see."

Have a peaceful weekend and especially Lord's day with your fellow saints in worship.

Manfred said...

Amen and may the dog in your picture win the fight :-)

Luther's comment about unity if possible, truth at all costs was on my mind while I was contending for the biblical gospel in a seeker sensitive, Finney-type church. I was blessed by God to be forced out, ending up in a smaller, Christ exalting, gospel focused church where my wife and I serve with joy unspeakable.

Anonymous said...

And, without knowing what the Gospel is, we are ill-equipped to defend it.

Morris Brooks said...

Jules, this is maybe the most important and overlooked factor. Too many assume the gospel is known.

JG said...

Amen and amen. Just last week I had a discussion on my blog where the majority of the comments began with, "I'm a Christian, but I don't agree because..." with no Scriptural support whatsoever. If I may speak for my generation, we've lost both the desire to study the Scriptures and the desire to sharpen iron with iron. Prompting one another to do so is considered antagonistic. And perhaps it should be. We don't war against flesh and blood, but we *do* war.

JackW said...

Someone should write a book.

BerlinerinPoet said...

SO true.

Victoria said...

@Manfred-the dog had no chance to win-let's just hope he got out in one piece ;-)

Manfred said...

Victoria - do not underestimate a puppy :-) Smarter than a horse (except for the famous talking Mr. Ed) and smaller and faster. And I am a dog person, not a horse person. But there's room for all God's creatures - right next to the mashed potatoes!

Bobby Grow said...


When you say the biblical Gospel; I'm curious, what do you mean? This seems to be a loaded point that you move quickly over, and yet it is obviously the very point that is under consideration; viz. what counts as the biblical Gospel amongst Protestants?

All Protestants would clearly affirm sola fide, and that this is by grace alone, in Christ alone etc... these are the bases for differentiating us from our Roman Catholic brethren. But I sense when you emphasize 'biblical' you have something more in mind. Maybe you don't. Could you clarify what you mean by biblical---I know this seems like an inane question, to many, but I think it is important to flesh this point out in order to advance any kind of fruitful discussion around what you're getting at, in general, through your post here.


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"You Can't Have True Unity in Christ Without a Fight"

"Some people who use a lot of gospel words actually peddle a different gospel that is nothing like the apostolic message. Invariably, the very same people who openly advocate (re)imagining Christianity also seek mainstream acceptance."

Are the Pyros gonna have a fight with Adam Walker Cleveland and his band of pomomusing Christians at "(re)imagining Christianity"?

Johnny Dialectic said...

Well said, Phil. I am going through Galatians now, and we can all see the application.

Of course, we must also know how to fight and what to fight. Sometimes the militant Christian can forget the fruit of the Spirit altogether in a misguided charge against straw windmills. Thinking he is "fighting the good fight" he may instead be shooting off the bad mouth.

Leslie A said...

My dad just recently pointed out that Paul wouldn't have told us to put on our armor (Eph 6) if there wasn't a battle. There is a battle alright but it's extra hard when our opponents claim to be believers but follow their own standard instead of scripture's.

Tim Souther said...

@ Bobby Grow,

Phil didn't say, "biblical Gospel". He said, "biblical *understanding* of the gospel".

Of course the gospel is, by definition, biblical. Anything that purports to be the gospel that derives in any point apart from the Bible's presentation of it, is false.

Our need is to be well taught and firmly grounded in the Bible, and in particular the gospel. This point of the post was I think well articulated by JG in his 10:20 AM comment.

Merrilee Stevenson said...

Made me think of the three analogies of the soldier, the farmer, and the athlete. The soldier fights to stand his ground defending the truth, destroying lofty & contrary speculations (an external battle of sorts). The farmer fights pests and weeds that would come up amid the seeds that have been planted (sort-of an internal fight). The athlete fights against temptations and sinful tendencies (our individual battles). The enemy wages war in all areas. If we decide to become pacifists, we lose in every case.

Bobby Grow said...

@Tim Souther,

So what's your point then?

You clarified what Phil said i.e. 'understanding' V. just straight 'biblical Gospel', but then in your second paragraph you say, but the Gospel=Biblical. So I just cut to the chase. Anyway, your point doesn't make any sense to me.

So since Phil won't respond, how would you answer my question to, Phil? How would you define the 'Biblical' Gospel and its understanding? This is the point of contention, and the major thrust of Phil's post (that is we need to unite around the 'Biblical understanding of the Gospel'); but, like I said, he quickly moves over 'Biblical' w/o defining what he means. And in fact it is this point that is where the division is coming from---i.e. the various definitions of what counts as "Biblical." My sense, is that Phil means that what counts as Biblical is the kind of theology that his pastor teaches; that is the Biblical Gospel, as Charles Spurgeon has asserted, simply is (=)[5-point] Calvinism.

If Phil is wanting to get beyond this kind of idiosyncratic understanding of the Gospel, then I think the unity he is calling for is possible. If not, then I don't think it is. And it is this that I was seeking clarification on, Tim. If we can agree, as all orthodox Christians do, that the Gospel is reducible to faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone; then I do think, Phil is onto something. Is this what you think, Tim?

Nonna said...

Bobby Grow,

If my suspicions are correct, you won't go far with this kind of conversation in this meta. You might just want to give it a rest.

Don't misunderstand me. I think I have a pretty good idea of where you would like to take the dialogue, and that isn't bad or wrong or any other such negative. I just don't think it will work within this sort of milieu. I'd be surprised and delighted to be amiss in this regard.


Bobby Grow said...


You are right. I am a veteran at such attempts here at Pyro over the last 7 years now (even before they were the Pyromaniac[s] plural ;-). But I am not really trying to pick a fight, I am trying to engage the post through offering some 'critical' feedback; which one would think Phil would want to engender through a post like this (and not just from the "regulars").

If Phil affirmed my suspicion about what the biblical Gospel entails; I had no intention of taking that any further, because I already have multiple times in the past and it is fruitless in this venue (that's what my blog is for ;-). Thanks for the heads-up, Nonna; I know you are right by experience :-).


Linda said...

"but the success or failure of that idea hinges on our understanding of and commitment to a true, unadulterated, biblical understanding of the gospel."

1Cor. Chapter 15 "According to Scripture"

Nonna said...


From what I gather, (and I could be wrong), you seem to lean more toward a Calvinism closer to Leithart, or even Doug Wilson. Am I right or completely off the mark?

It's been my experience that within the various camps of denominations homogeneity does not exist. That is, there are different strains within Calvinism just as there are in Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Mennonite, and a whole host of other religious circles. Protestants from various backgrounds have tried to unite in what they consider to be the essentials, but such a task often results in obliqueness and ambiguity, rather than preciseness and clarity.

By the way, I don't think such a task is impossible, whatever the challenges may be. I think it is possible for Christians to unite on vital and necessary definitions of the faith in order to work in concert for the benefit of their neighbor/s - while still maintaining their particular practices of worship and beliefs within their own faith tradition.

Bobby Grow said...

Hi Nonna,

Actually, I advocate for a Scottish development of Calvinism which Myk Habets and I are calling Evangelical Calvinism after Thomas Torrance so called it in his book Scottish Theology; see our forthcoming book (Lord willing this June): Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow. Foreword by Alasdair Heron. Eugene, OR.: Pickwick Publications. It's an amalgamation of Calvinian, Knoxian, Torrancean, Barthian themes and contours; identifying more of a mood than a movement, nevertheless Myk and I identify 15 Theses in the last chapter of the book that he and I see as constitutive, in general, of this mood (at least for Myk and myself). It is actually quite different than Leithart & Wilson's Federal Vision, metaphysically, that is.

Yes, I have written quite a bit on the rather organic nature of the Reformed trad in contrast to the rather monolithic flavor it is usually marketed to us in, in Western theology (America in particular).

I agree with you about the possibility for Christians to work together across-confessional/trad boundaries; yet, this calls for an attitude of humility V. arrogance (sectarian). But, in some ways I think our prior commitments to certain theological frameworks predispose us to certain attitudes; i.e. if, for example, my conception of God flows from a metaphysic that sees him shaped by brute Creator power and Law, then this will reinforce an attitude and posture that is similar amongst the adherents to this kind of doctrine of God etc. So while I am optimistic that we can and should work together (whatever that means) as Christians, in general (simpliciter); it will be difficult for some of us because of our view of God and how that shapes our own "Christian" sensibilities.

Nonna said...

"I agree with you about the possibility for Christians to work together across-confessional/trad boundaries; yet, this calls for an attitude of humility V. arrogance (sectarian)."

Yes, and looking upon the 'Other' without suspicion. It's easy to mistrust others outside of one's own enclave.

"But, in some ways I think our prior committments to certain theological frameworks predispose us to certain attitudes;"...

Christians can take a stand and die on a hill with their remnant in the name of "truth." I was once part of a ministry that did just that; it was US against all the other Laodicean Christians playing church. We used to hand out tracts that began with the line, "We're into doing what the churches should be doing, but aren't." We had an Us V. Them approach to life, and it was we who had the correct worldview, the true interpretation of Scripture, the best method of evangelization, yada yada. We dared not unite with other Church Christians (as we called them), because in doing so we would compromise on being sold out to Jesus and become apathetic and lazy.

"So while I'm optimistic that we can and should work together (whatever that means) as Christians, in general (simpliciter); it will be difficult for some of us because of our view of God and how that shapes our own "Christian" sensibilities."

There's quite a bit to address in such a comment. I would say that there is a dark side to ecumenism - a way it shouldn't be done; and there is an ecumenism that can be guided by the Holy Spirit bearing fruit for God. It takes a wise Christian to understand the difference between the two, and work toward the latter.

Fast forward some two and half decades later, I have been involved in various community outreaches that involved Christians of different persuasions (i.e. denominations). Personally, I have friends and family that hail from an assortment of faith communities. On various occasions we have reached out to each other across these confessional divides to bear one anothers' burdens - assisting esch other financially and materially, praying with and for each other, and being willing to serve each others' needs.

I realize that such anecdotes can appear a bit sanguine and naive, but from one who has been on both sides of the aisle, I have no desire to revive that staunch sectarian that defined my very person.

Phil Johnson said...

Bobby Grow: "I sense when you emphasize 'biblical' you have something more [than sola fide] in mind."

Not really. I'm assuming we mean the same thing by sola fide in the historic sense--as shorthand for the Reformers' general consensus on the doctrine of justification by faith. I would stress two points of doctrine as the central, essential principles without which you can't really have sola fide: 1) imputed righteousness and 2) penal substitution.

I would not elevate the five points of Calvinism to the level of essential gospel truths, as you seem to assume. Neither did Spurgeon.

Sorry for the delayed reply. We have a board meeting Monday I've been trying to prepare for. I haven't been reading comments.

mike said...

I could easily be wrong, often am, but as I read this post, if there is a word that calls for defining it would be unity, not biblical.
The phrase biblical gospel, is somewhat self explaining. It is the gospel according to the bible. I would suggest two books on it, 1. The bible 2. The world tilting gospel
The word unity though is much tougher, acceptance, tollerance, silent indifference, or possibly united by a shared belief and purpose.
We (broad brush American church) can all united for or against taxes, abortion, gay marriage, or the Yankees. But can we truly unite around the gospel when we so often refuse to live subjected to what the scripture, all of it, tells us.
When we refuse to disagree with those who clearly do not believe what we do, and then call hat unity, we are choosing another definition for that word.
For any that are truly Christ followers, that should not be so.

Bobby Grow said...


Thank you, I've appreciated our little exchange. Yes, I understand what you're getting at relative to sectarianism; we all have this bent, no doubt (I think in Christianese it's called the 'flesh' ;-) ... my way or the highway type thinking. Of course I think we ought to be persuaded about something, with conviction; but I also think we need to hold that conviction from within an attitude that reflects grace and love (and I don't mean wishy washy watered down cultural conceptions of this i.e. love and grace, but biblical and/or Christic).

Glad to see that you have been able to grow through such processes, and obviously gained wisdom and not bitterness toward the body of Christ in general.

Thanks, Nonna.

Johnny Dialectic said...

I would not elevate the five points of Calvinism to the level of essential gospel truths

Well said, Phil. I appreciate your equanimity. That makes for respectful disagreements on other issues.

Bobby Grow said...


Thanks. Sorry for my presumption on the timing of your reply.

I don't have a problem with penal substitution as one of the facets of a multivalent theory of the atonement. But I am way way more comfortable with Calvin's 'double-grace' in Christ conception of salvation. One that emphasizes participation with God, in and through Christ's vicarious humanity. I am also, as a Reformed guy, give primacy to grace over and against law as the ground of a salvation theory; and I think of grace in personal, Triune terms, such that grace is God's accommodation to the other, and his active movement in that direction (which I see creation, incarnation, and salvation given shape by in Christ).

I understand where you're coming from, Phil (not to be too presumptuous); penal and imputation as benchmarks are inimically related to the kind of forensic theory of salvation from which the Canons of Dort spring. I would imagine that penal/imputation as touchstones have just as much of a delimiting effect as does using the 5-points as the standard. But, I can see how using penal/imputation as the benchmarks could open the door wide enough for some Arminians to join in.

Thank you, Phil, for clarifying.

Solameanie said...

Preached on this very thing in surburban Chicago today with 1 John as my text. Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a believer.

Rubin O. Wits said...

A local Foursquare pastor here has a radio show and was telling how feeding the poor and caring for the sick is what the gospel is all about. I explained to him in an email that no, that's not the gospel. He confused law and gospel and then I went on to explain how he did this. He never acknowledged my email.

Also, McCarthur gave this guy's radio show an interview during his recent book blitz. Not sure why Mac would acknowledge a Foursquare pastor. Anyone?

Ruth said...

I have an idea. Maybe Macarthur did an interview with him because having a conversation or doing an interview with someone is not the same as endorsing someone's entire ministry. He probably did it for the same reason that he's spoken at an Episcopalian seminary and put his name on the new (controversial) NIV translation. Influence can only happen when we are willing to actually interact with people who hold different views from our own.

Hmm....this sounds familiar. Is there an elephant in this room too?? :)

Rubin O. Wits said...

Are you calling me fat?

Rubin O. Wits said...

So Ruth, can I expect to see Mac on TBN?

Where are ya, Ruth?

You call me fat and then run away?

solasis said...

I've been attending a church with my son-in-law and daughter (Grace Communion Int'l) that espouses Trinitarian Incarnation Theology by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Baxter Kruger. How amazed I've been to find several postings by Bobby Grow here doing the same thing. I've never heard of this theology until attending this church. I'm trying to read all I can about what these supposed "biblical scholars" teach, but it is so convoluted (as is Bobby Grows posts) that I'm just not smart enough to discern it all obviously. It seems to me that they believe that God is a "hopeful universalist". I would love for you to write a blog about all this fuzzy theology. However, I realize that Bobby Grow may become overbearing in posting his thoughts if you do.