For many the idea of the Gospel to be primarily about deliverance from condemnation of God, because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, is to reduce the Gospel. They assert that “inner transformational living” is the Gospel, too. Thus, in not emphasizing this so called “spiritual transformation” as the Gospel is to reduce it to being ‘saved’ and severely impair the Gospel. Read the blogs and listen to the sermons here (especially listen to the one titled “The Gospel According to Jesus” and tell me if I’m misunderstanding what is being taught). They over-react to the “easy-believism” that is so prevalent in America. The idea that one can simply pray a prayer, raise a hand, walk down an aisle to “accept Jesus” in their hearts and never be a disciple of Christ (no evidence of sanctification). I’m right along in a condemnation of that type of teaching. In fact this blog has written two articles on that here and here. The latter article is my favorite on the blog and I would emphasize that if their is no sanctification (at the risk of over simplifying: to be conformed into the likeness of Christ through holiness, godliness and righteousness) there was no justification. If you prefer non doctrinal form- no fruit, no root or if there is no godliness there was never any salvation.
Now the “inner transformation” message, found common among Dallas Willard and the Emergent crowd, has not solved the problem they decry. In fact the “transformational living” teaching is responsible for producing just as many false converts as the “easy believism” that they are reacting to! Why? Because they confuse (a fuzzy view of) sanctification with (a fuzzy view of) justification or collapse them together and teach that salvation is about avoiding “hell on earth” and end up with a different Gospel. In short they teach that the (a distorted view) Christian life is the Gospel. Yet, in the Bible our “transformed” lives are never said to be the Gospel. Sanctification flows from justification. The two are not the same but nor can they be separated. You never have an un-sanctified person that is justified nor vice versa. So to teach that “be like Jesus” or to emphasize “inner transformation” in the proclamation of the Gospel is another way to teach a works based salvation. In reality the former is a result of the Gospel while the latter, if the same teaching as Dallas Willard’s, is just unbiblical or at best sub-biblical. It is to make the sinners salvation dependent on what he does along with what Christ has done. One can produce all the verses that teach about being conformed into the likeness of Christ as much as they wish. They only prove that the Gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is that powerful. Not only to deliver from God’s holy wrath but also to free us from the bondage to sin. Isn’t that what Paul says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Ro 8:1–4)? To teach that the Gospel is “to trust in Jesus” is not the Gospel (to trust in Jesus is a response to the Gospel). Trust Jesus about what? “Everything” is not a biblical answer!
Was Christ a “reductionist” when he said “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10)? Did the the Lord just reduce the Gospel to salvation? My fear is that some will want to redefine”save” and “lost.” Just follow the the following parable ( the Parable of the Ten Minas) The Lord is very clear on what he means by “save” in v. 27- “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me”(Lk 19:27). Try turning that descriptive word “slaughter” into “come to ruin.” Doesn’t quite work.The Lord is declaring that He came to save sinners from the judgment of God. This is the fulfillment of Is. 53! Where the Word says that He came, not to bring “inner transformation” but “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is 53:10–11). That is a whole chapter on the purpose of the coming of Christ. It is about Christ’s death for our salvation. It is consistent with John 3:16-35, which is consistent with John 12:27: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” What was the focal point of Christ’s message? The salvation of His sheep! The glory of God in the salvation of His elect is from Genesis to Revelation. Of course those that are justified will be conformed unto the image of Christ- “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified”(Ro 8:29–30). It is called the golden chain of redemption for a reason. You can’t break that chain. But one should never confuse the effects of the Gospel with the Gospel itself. That is to turn the grace of God into legalism. No the Gospel is not just about forgiveness but it also includes imputation of the righteousness of Christ.
Was the Apostle Paul a reductionist? He says, inspired by the Holy Spirit, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Co 15:1–4). The Gospel he preached is the one by which the Corinthians (all believers, too) were being saved. There’s that word “saved” again? He answers the question in the immediate context and elsewhere, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied”(1 Co 15:16–19). There that word “perish” which means punishment. But isn’t what the “inner transformationalists” are trying to avoid. Either they don’t believe it or they fear men and neglect to preach the Gospel. Focus, if you will, on what Paul says is of first importance. Those facts are the most important of Paul’s message. How does he start listing them? With the death of Christ. Why does he say Christ died? “For our sins.” I guess you have to label Paul a “reductionist” since he forgot to remind them of the “inner tranformation” as part of the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Lest their be some more confusion here’s what Paul tells the Thessalonians: “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Th 1:8–10). The resurrection of Christ is mentioned alongside deliverance from His wrath. Isn’t this consistent with- “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Ro 4:23–25). The resurrection of Christ is a glorious truth! No resurrection, no justification! What the “spiritual transformationsists” wish to do is emphasize a passage like Romans 6:4 and emphasize an un-biblical view of sanctification as the Gospel itself. There is no denial that the Gospel produces sanctification but it also is our motivation for keeping the law which acts as a rule and guide for the believer. That is why Paul writes to believers in Rome and says, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Ro 1:14–16)
Concerning the emphasizing of discipleship. There is no such thing as a disciple-less Christian. I think, though, there is a vast difference on what the Bible and historic Christianity teaches on discipleship from what “spiritual transformationists” teach. The biblical call to discipleship is a call to repentance from sin and faith in Christ. These our the one born from above and are being conformed into the likeness of Christ.
If one wishes to emphasize Christian living are they willing to preach to their congregation “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you” as John Owen wrote about in his book The Mortification of Sin. Is one willing to make statements such as Spurgeon’s, “Thousands are congratulating themselves, and even blessing God that they are devout worshipers, when at the same time they are living in an unregenerate Christless state, having the form of godliness, but denying the power thereof. He who presides over a system which aims at nothing higher than formalism is far more a servant of the devil than a minister of God.” Both of these men are dead and in the presence of Christ and their lives were walked in a manner worthy of the Gospel ( Php. 1:27, Eph. 4:1); therefore they are worthy to be read. Will one preach the whole Word of God and say things offensive to sinners such as, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Co 6:9–11). Or is one too concerned about being liked while fearing such preaching will cause people to leave the church? And just who is being consistent in preaching on justification and sanctification? Let the people decide.
Label us “reductionsists” if you wish but it is we that have the Word of God, the creeds and confessions and the history of the saints on our side. I know, I know, deeds over creeds right? But has not that become a creed in itself? We take Paul’s command seriously: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers”(1 Ti 4:16).
When asked “What must I do to be saved?” (there’s that dreaded word “saved” again) we answer with Paul, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (acts 16:30-31). “Being like Jesus” will never save anyone but Christ will and the call to Him is to repent and believe in Him.
Since we believe in creeds that lead to deeds, let us examine the Heidelberg Catechism.
Question 12. Since, then, by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, is there no way by which we may escape that punishment, and be again received into favor?
Answer. God will have his justice satisfied; and therefore we must make this satisfaction, either by ourselves, or by another.*
Question 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “he suffered?”
Answer. That he, all the time he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation; and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness, and eternal life.*
And since we also value sound theologians and church history we now examine the teaching of a 19th century theologian by the name of George Smeaton:
With this doctrine of sacrifice the Jewish mind was familiar. They all admitted the necessity of a sacrifice of atonement in order to avert punishment. This was the great idea for the full development of which the nation had been peculiarly separated from other people, and which was to be learned by them in order to be diffused over the earth. They acknowledged these atonements as the method of averting the threatened penalty, however much they perverted them from the Divine purpose for which they were appointed by extending their effects to MORAL TRESPASSES, instead of limiting them, as they should have done, to ceremonial defilement. They held the necessity of expiation; and our Lord, accordingly, in speaking to them, proceeds on this conceded truth. And hence His words take all this for granted, wherever He makes reference to His work. With a deeper reference than was commonly attached to the sacrifices, and sounding the depths which underlay them, He throughout assumed the indispensable necessity of an expiation. All His sayings contain this thought in their deeper relation. Thus, when we read of sin to be borne in a sacrificial sense (John 1:29); of a ransom to be paid for the purpose of liberating captives to Divine justice (Matt. 20:28); of the law, both moral and ceremonial, to be embodied in a sinless life and exhibited in a sacrificial death (Matt. 5:17); of the blood of the covenant which puts men on a new footing, and in a relation of pardon and acceptance, to be dissolved no more (Matt. 26:28);—all these allusions take for granted that an atonement is indispensably necessary, and that the Divine claims must be discharged in full.*
We’ve observed this teaching in the Word of God, the confessions and catechisms and throughout church history;since we hold dearly to Sola Scriptura, we return to the Word of God: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Ro 5:6–11). Our justification is the basis for our sanctification. Soli Deo Gloria!
For His Glory,
Ursinus, Z., & Williard, G. W. (1888). The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (77). Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company.
Ursinus, Z., & Williard, G. W. (1888). The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (212). Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company.
Smeaton, G. (2009). The doctrine of the atonement, As taught by Christ Himself (Second Edition) (25). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.