06 July 2012

A Peculiar Kind

This Friday, to commemorate the stellar contributions to internet apologetics and punditry made by our founder and benefactor, Phil Johnson, the unpaid and overworked staff at TeamPyro is posting a "best of Phil" post to give your weekend that necessary kick.

This excerpt is from the original PyroManiac blog on 24 June 2005, but was originally published in Pulpit Magazine.

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Let me be more explicit: I fear that many (perhaps most) of the religious people whom Christianity Today and Ron Sider want to sweep into the evangelical movement aren't even true Christians.

CT's interview with Ron Sider begins precisely where Sider's book begins: citing data from a controversial 1999 survey conducted by evangelical pollster George Barna. Barna's figures supposedly demonstrate that the divorce rate among evangelicals is no better than the divorce rate among the total population of America. The problem with Barna's survey is his watered-down concept of what constitutes "evangelicalism." (See the lead section of "The Good the Bad, and the Ugly" in this issue of Pulpit for more on this same subject.)

Pollsters like Barna, aided and abetted by Christianity Today, have systematically been moving the boundaries of the evangelical movement outward for years. It's pretty hard to imagine any theological opinion so deviant that one could not hold it and credibly claim to be an "evangelical," given the paradigm for evangelicalism used by people like Barna, Sider, and CT's editors. The evangelical fringe has become so large and all-inclusive that old-style mainstream evangelicalism frankly seems like an oddity when you look at the whole of the visible movement. Historic evangelicalism is now under fierce attack on several sides from within the "evangelical" camp. As a result, the group Barna and company label "evangelical" is filled with people who don't even understand the most basic truths of the gospel—justification by faith, the authority of Scripture, the lordship of Christ, and all that. Their real problem is not that they don't live up to their beliefs, but that they don't really even have a biblical belief system.

Ron Sider himself is part of the problem. He denies that orthodoxy takes precedence over orthopraxy. He would claim, of course, that sound doctrine and good works are equally paramount. That's essentially the argument he attempted to make in his 1993 book One-sided Christianity (republished in 1999 as Good News and Good Works), where he claimed that evangelism without social action is "lopsided Christianity." Throughout the book, he treats sound doctrine and good works as disparate virtues to be balanced.

He is wrong on at least four counts.

First, in practice, Sider himself does not place nearly as much stress on sound doctrine as he does on humanitarian works. Virtually all his books tend to neglect the issue of faith (or take it for granted) while emphasizing the importance of good deeds. Far from attaining "balance," he has reversed the proper priority between faith and praxis.

Second, Mr. Sider is obsessed with a peculiar kind of "good works." For some thirty years he has talked incessantly about social activism, political justice, environmental protection, government-based anti-poverty programs, and similar liberal public policy issues—as if these were the epitome of all truly "good works." He actually seems to regard political support for a liberal social agenda as the true barometer of authentic Christian piety.

Third, it is a serious mistake to think either truly sound doctrine or genuinely good works can stand alone. The two are not distinct features to be set in balance by weighing them against one another.

Which is to say, fourth, that authentic good works flow from sound doctrine; not the other way around. Orthodoxy is what gives rise to orthopraxy. It never works in reverse. This, after all, is the basic message of Christianity: good works are a fruit of genuine faith. Faith, not any kind of work, is the sole instrument by which we lay hold of justification (Romans 4:4-5). And the practical righteousness of sanctification follows that (Hebrews 11:6; Galatians 5:6). Genuinely good works do not—and cannot—precede faith (Romans 8:7-8).

In other words, orthodoxy does take precedence over orthopraxy. That is an essential ramification of true biblical and evangelical doctrine. Orthodox doctrine really is more important than social action.

That is not to suggest that good works, human compassion, or godly virtues are optional. Far from it. (That certainly ought to be clear; for more than 35 years, our ministry has opposed the kind of antinomianism that portrays good works as irrelevant to authentic faith.) But good works are secondary to faith and sound doctrine, because they flow from it. They are caused by it. They are never the cause of it. Social action and political causes (whether on the right wing or the left) are simply not as important as the truth of the gospel message, and every Christian's personal priorities ought to reflect that principle.