I have been reminded that apparently incompatible things can be true. Not because of incompatibilities but rather because the error in each drowns out the truth of the other. I have not become a relativist. I have not abandoned objective true truth. I have struggled, more often than I can admit, with a conflict between what we are told the Gospel defines as a Christian and what visible Christianity is(or often appears to be). That tension, at least as it exists in my limited capabilities, confounds me because I have conflated two separate but related concepts. The reality of it all is that being a Christian consists of an effectual calling, faith, repentance, and belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and savior. The dilemma that apparently exists in the visible church between rightly regulated order and sound doctrine is related to the first, but not wholly.
First, I ought to provide a few caveats. I am not now professing a belief in Billy Graham or Charles Finney-type evangelism. I am not recommending that any more than I am recommending Gideon Bible ministries in hotel rooms. But I deny neither. I hold to reformed theology and believe in election and effectual calling of Grace, I must admit that if the Gospel is present and a person is called, then all manner of means might serve the purpose of the call. It ought likely to occur more effectively and regularly through the ordinary means of Grace, rightly ordered liturgy, hymns, and preaching. But I do not hold that should and ought to preclude may and can.
Second, I am not advocating for any form of universalism. The requirements of salvation are simple, clear, and specific. One must be called, believe, and repent, not in an intellectual way but in a way that implies a whole-man approach. The requirement to recognize that Jesus is Lord might not mean a person has to have worked through all the first few centuries of arguments related to the Doctrine of God. It does mean a person has to have a notion of Jesus that represents His true nature.
Third, I am not saying a true Christian cannot be part of a visible church that does not reflect much or all of authentic Christianity. Many of us have sung Christ be with me. The lyrics “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me and before me. Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore” seem to have been written by a true follower of Christ. It is in several Protestant hymnals but was written by a Catholic missionary, Saint Patrick. In the 17th century, the Anglican Archbishop of Ulster declared that Patrick taught evangelical Protestantism in Ireland. In 1885 the Presbyterian Church in Ireland published Erin Go Bragh, a catechism that claims Patrick. In 1959 Irish Presbyterians affirmed that his teachings were “in harmony with evangelical Christianity”. Patrick taught Christ and displayed faith in Christ if we believe he believed his own prayer later made into a hymn.
There is more. Most of us assume, from his writing and testimony that C.S. Lewis was a Christian, and that he attended a visible church that was in error. Others would see Christ in G.K. Chesterton’s writing, a Catholic. Most reformed Christians would agree the Catholic church is in error. We see already the potential for tension and inconsistency if we comix Christianity and the visible church too much.
Fourth, I am not saying that heresy does not exist nor am I saying that true and sound doctrine does not exist. I am not saying that these do not matter. I would go so far as to reiterate and double down on my previous position that error leads to heresy and heresy to apostasy and that a visible church can fall away from the faith and that real Christians can fall away with it. I do not mean to lose justification, but to fall away from true faith. The fruit of error will always be false. However, the mere truth of the Gospel has a power of its own, God can and will call his own from wherever they are according to his will. But it is a lot more difficult when the person swims in error. (my view on saying the word Heresy)
With those caveats stated, and perhaps sufficient to quell wrong assumptions about what I am saying, there are practical applications to this. Last year I penned “Not our Kind of Christians” as I thought about the historic populations in the Middle East that claim the title of Christian. We cannot label those groups in a homogeneous manner. Some are more Coptic and retain elements of the teaching of the Desert Fathers. Others are a derivative of Orthodoxy and some even retain traits of Zoroastrianism. They use various versions of Scripture, many that include more or less than the Canon of Western Christianity, and most contain what orthodox Christianity would term errors and some heresy. Yet, Jesus is there. Is the broken vessel of a church in error, separated from the rest of the visible church in a hostile land so broken that it is incapable of producing no authentic Christians at all? I do not know, I cannot say, but Scripture might indicate that some true believers do come forth from those ancient populations.
In Mathew 24 verse 14 we are told that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”. Jesus in the Olivet Discourse was speaking of events in (a type and shadow) Revelation 1-19, the tribulation of Christians was to begin in that generation as well as the wrath visited upon Rome and Israel.(video) In Acts 2:5-15 we are told “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” that heard the Gospel preached in their native tongues fulfilling Jesus’ “prophecy of testimony to all nations”. Did all of those that heard have a solid theology or perhaps just an understanding of the Gospel? When they returned to their land did they take error with them? Maybe, even the Apostles could be in error. In Galatians 2:11-14 we find that even Peter, a man that walked with Jesus could succumb to error. After the Destruction of Jerusalem, with believers heeding the warning and leaving to take refuge, and many dying and suffering but many coming to faith after the Wrath, did all of these have a solid theology? Let’s leave that thought for a moment.
There is an apparent inconsistency between what I have written previously and what one might imply from the paragraph above. How is it I can say with boldness that an authentic Christian in the United States cannot attend a heretical or apostate church, that if someone claims to be such and does so, they are in fact not. I cannot know their hearts, how could I make such a proclamation, particularly if I am implying that some number of real Christians have and do in fact come out of Middle-Eastern Christian Churches, and Orthodox and Catholic? Who among those groups is without excuse? In every town in America, there are at least three churches. There are real and authentic Christian teachers on the internet, mostly uncensored, and we can order Christian books on Amazon and have them delivered to our homes without fear of the Muslim post office confiscating them. What excuse does an American that claims to be a follower of Christ have to intentionally attend a heretical church? What option does a Copt, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, or Orthodox person have in a land that is hostile to Christianity? If the family is an institution ordained by God and some families in those areas have retained something of the Faith through their people groups is it not entirely possible that God’s effectual Grace can and does reach his elect even there? Does the error mean that the ordinary means of grace are less effective, most likely yes but does it mean that all that have suffered persecution, privations, and death in the name of Christ died for naught just because they have an incomplete understanding of His full revelation? The quandary comes when such a person is presented the full revelation, but if we believe in a Sovereign God that said believe in him, we likely believe that true believers once they have access to full truth will part with error. At least as much of it as they can, given their cultural and political limitations.
Many of us, and count me as a firm member of this camp, look at missionary reports and statistics from the Global South and recoil at the fact that of the millions that claim Christ there a large percentage have been evangelized by charismatics, the NAR, and prosperity gospel. This is a valid concern for many reasons. However, there is another perspective. When we recoil and say “oh no they are teaching them error” we assume something less than about our brothers and sisters there. We assume they will be forever incapable of finding truth. We would be ignorant of both history and the sovereignty of God.
We have to admit the Catholic church did God’s work in service to Christ and his kingdom. Without the early church structure, organized ecclesiastically in a way that could influence the civil magistrate we might never have been able to establish many foundational doctrines as true and other ideas as heresy. Without the Catholic church riding Roman roads the foundation of Western Christendom might not have occurred. For all of its errors, the Catholic Church was instrumental in the development of theology and building its foundation. We would be dishonest to deny that God prudentially used the Catholic Church for almost 1500 years until Common Grace gave us the printing press and a Reformation. It was the presentation of The Word, juxtaposed against the error of the Catholic Church that enabled a Reformation, not just by making the Word universally available but in the development of systematic reformed theology from that Word.
Do we believe there is not a John Calvin or Martin Luther now studying in Africa under an NAR teacher? Are we so arrogant from all the blessings we in the West have enjoyed that we do not believe that a Reformation of the Faith back to true faith is not possible? Is it possible one of these Brothers may soon nail his thesis on the internet and spark a real renewal and reformation, not just in Africa but here too? It is more than possible if it is God’s will. My view on this has changed. Let the word be sent to them, and trust in God to allow them to discern error from truth.
And that is perhaps the point. We in the “West” have been blessed far beyond all others in all of history, warts, flaws, and all – this is undeniable. We have the freedom to find and discern truth from error. We do not live in a village in northern Iraq where there is a culture that demands one choice or we can choose persecution in a church that claims Christ. What have we done with that? Voddie Baucham says that the United States looks a lot more like a type of a Whore of Babylon than most of us like to admit.(sermon)
We make war on the world. Entire ancient Christian populations have disappeared, hundreds of thousands have disappeared, and many have died. Most of these are a direct result of the United States' invasion of Iraq, and meddling in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The blood of those Christians is on our hands, not unlike Rome in the first century. We did not overtly commit the murders but our actions ensured they would occur. Beyond these, countless millions have suffered and died at our hands or by our actions in the last sixty years.
We have made a religion of apostasy. Alongside our missionary efforts in the name of Christ, we have made disciples of secularism, and consumerism to the world. We now make a religion of neo-gnosticism and export that to the world more fervently than Christ.
We sanction the murder of image-bearers of God. Humans might argue about conception and cells but are any humans with excuse when we can make out the image of a human in the womb?
Usury. In practical terms when the United States wants a new dollar it prints it. It is more convoluted and hidden than all that, we camouflage it a bit but when Congress goes to the Fed this is essentially what happens. When a government in Africa wants a dollar’s worth of stuff it has to literally trade a dollar’s worth of stuff to get it. It is a geopolitical and banking Ponzi scheme, not just used against taxpayers but the entire world. Our status as reserve currency holders comes with an obligation to act justly, not in usury.
This is not an exclusive list. We are ungodly and unrighteous. We neither do justice nor value real justice. We confuse truth for lies, saying we do and seek justice when we do evil. Do not confuse my words with the pagan lies our culture tells us is justice, I am referring to justice based upon true truth. We are the proximate or tertiary cause of most of the suffering and dying across wide swaths of the world and have a hand in much of the rest. My perspective has changed, or at least broadened on this matter. We have sinned against our fellow man, against the unborn, we have lived in greed, avarice, and sloth. In a very real sense, we are guilty of the tribulation that Christians in the Middle East suffered over the last two decades. It is very likely that what we are experiencing since 2020 is wrath for that, just like that suffered by Rome in the late first century. It is done through the hand of evil men that seek power and control but these men are not unlike all men in all times such as these through history. Nothing is new under the sun.
My perspective is changed. But some things remain unchanged. The dark days we face and the darker days to come are what history has told us occurs, time and time again when a people lose sight of what is true. (history cycles) It is a type and a shadow of the first chapters of Revelation. The West and the United States are now receiving and will receive the wrath due to us. If I have ever presented my view on this as a fear for myself, that was never true. I worry as any father, son, and husband does for those I love. There is nothing to fear in tribulations. In Revelation 1:1-8 John is writing to the Churches about the type and shadow of tribulation they are about to face, but he is writing for us in the tribulations that Christians face throughout the rest of history.(sermon)
John's are beautiful and hopeful words.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants[a] the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail[b] on account of him. Even so. Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
That was written to them but applies to us. It is bigger than us. We enjoyed a wonderful ride and we might yet return to truth before Rome burns, “Nero dies” and the empire falls into war and strife. But it is not about us. If our vessel is broken beyond repair, there are others, brothers in Africa, Asia, Eurasia, or South America that may yet lead a Reformation.
It is possible I have previously made an idol of my identity, of my culture, people, and history. These things are of the triune God, it is how He made us. We might rightly be sad when we see our affections sick and dying. I will still fight for the embers of what was and still can be while I draw breath. However, if we do not learn true truth, the difference between a man acting as a hero from real heroism and rightly order ourselves in line with the blessing we have received and what we have been told is truth it may die. Wars, poverty, strife, and decline may be our lot. One day, some brothers in Russia may reform the Orthodox church or one in Africa may break free of the errors they have been taught. In the future, the theological heirs to that reformation may come to America as missionaries to my offspring. I am fine with this. God’s church will not be defeated and he has many other gardens to tend if we become barren.
Love one another and remain faithful and true. (Love and Kindness)