Beware of the Pendulum Swinging Too Far

In yesterday’s post we observed that God does not extend unconditional acceptance to unbelievers, but rather, His acceptance is predicated on the condition of faith. This truth seems to be self-evident. Why then would evangelicals embrace and propagate a gospel that included the concept of unconditional acceptance?

A major contributor to evangelical vulnerability to this error is found in the history of the American church across the past century.

Secular Developments that Intimidated the Church

In the latter part of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s science became a dominant force in American culture. Science per se is good, but this particular brand of science failed to be scientific in regard to the supernatural. It began with the assumption that only the physical world exists, and therefore it rejected any evidence pointing to the supernatural realm.

Because of the academic credibility assigned to this perspective and the cultural power it amassed, it was able to promote the concept that any thinking person, anyone with a good education, recognizes that only the material world exists and that prescientific myths such as found in Christianity prop up belief in the realm of the supernatural. This position is expressed quite succinctly by Rudolf Bultmann in his book Kerygma and Myth. He asserts:

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world—in fact, there is no one who does. What meaning, for instance, can we attach to such phrases in the creed as “descended into hell” or “ascended into heaven”? We no longer believe in the three storied universe which the creed takes for granted.

This quote not only conveys the content of the belief system advanced by the scientific community in those days but also the attitude. Anyone holding to belief in the supernatural felt the contempt and scorn of academia.

The Pendulum Swinging Too Far in One Direction

The Mainline denominations in America capitulated to this pressure, seeking to maintain some form of Christianity but stripping it of its supernatural elements. This decapitated form of Christianity necessarily eliminated redemption and the resurrection of Christ, reducing its belief structure to a moral system. This led to the advancing of a gospel of good works. Salvation was viewed as resulting from being a good person and contributing to society.

The Overreaction in the Opposite Direction

Those committed to a scriptural position rejected this message, stressing that we are not saved by works but by faith. In their eagerness to distance themselves from a works salvation, many stripped the condition for salvation of anything that might suggest works. This resulted in reducing saving faith to mental assent, i.e. believing the facts regarding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Sensing the need for some response in addition to this cognitive requirement, they called people to go forward in a meeting or pray the sinner’s prayer. Repentance as historically understood, that is, a repudiation of one’s sinful lifestyle and commitment to live a godly life, was viewed as works, as was the related submission to the authority of Christ.

Attempt at a Corrective toward the Center

In 1988, John MacArthur published a book entitled The Gospel According to Jesus that addressed this issue, making a case from Scripture that saving faith included repentance and submission to the Lordship of Christ. This book created a substantial uproar within the evangelical community, resulting in numerous responses asserting that MacArthur was wrong, seeking to support the view that repentance and commitment to the lordship of Christ were unbiblical and tantamount to works salvation. When all the dust settled, it seemed that the evangelical community more than ever was embracing a faith that had minimal and uncertain content.

Vulnerability to the Secular Model of Carl Rogers

This view that rejects the condition of repentance and recognition of the lordship of Christ left the evangelical community vulnerable to the secular teaching on unconditional acceptance. Eliminating repentance meant that God accepts the unsaved individual just as he is, i.e. unconditionally. After all, the old and best known invitation song, “Just as I Am,” seems to suggest that God accepts us as we are, which seems to mean that He accepts us unconditionally.

Therefore, this hyper-response of evangelicals to the liberal works gospel, the swing of the pendulum back past the center-point to the opposite extreme, is responsible, at least in part, for evangelicals feeling at home with Carl Rogers’ model and its foundational precept of unconditional acceptance.

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