Thursday, July 13, 2017

Confess With Your Mouth, or...The Last Time I’m Going to Argue with Gideons

If there is one thing that I have learned over a lifetime of dealing with people, it is that they are seldom predictable. In particular, it is devilishly difficult to predict how people will react to things one says, or writes. I’ve said it before: As someone who publishes his writings on the Internet, it is generally advisable for me to grow a thick skin and ignore the bulk of the criticism of that comes my way. After all, someone will always disagree with, or be offended by, something.

I remain stunned, however, by the response that my article, “Why I Quit the Gideons,” received when I published it, and still continues to receive. Reading many of the comments, it is clear that some of the more outraged critics did not read, or properly understand, what I wrote. I continue to receive, from time to time, thoughtful, and respectfully written comments which I think need to be addressed, and can be debated to the edification of all. This is now the second time I have endeavored to address concerns raised by my critics on The Gideon article. I recently received this comment from David Crow:

In the following statement you said “Among the issues I ran into were Pelagianism, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and the idea that people are converted by your testimony rather than by God working through means as he has promised (the means of grace – Word and Sacrament)” [sic] I have been a Gideon since 2005. My experience in this organization has been totally opposite of your statement and find it a FALSE Statement. I don’t think there is enough space to point out other falsehoods in why you are not a Gideon. In fact, your statements do not line up with the basic application form and the 3 theological statements you put your name too. 1. Jesus is who he said he was, 2. The Bible is inherent [sic] word of God, & 3 – There is a lake of Fire for unbelievers as mentioned in Revelation. After that, we are not supposed to discuss theological doctrine. If you were in a camp that did otherwise, I highly suggest you report them to Gideons International in Nashville, TN.

Or this one from Estudiante:

Hi. I stumbled on this page looking for something else, but read through your post. It seems worth noting that the experience you’ve had within your immediate circle/chapter of Gideons may not be representative of most chapters around the country/world. Also, of course there are misuses of prescribed prayers and “decision cards” in evangelistic settings. But, the Gideons aren’t saying “repeat this sinners prayer and welcome to God’s family!”. [sic] Thy are merely providing suggested prayer language to help someone express in prayer what is in their heart, which is not per se wrong (and a “staple” of confessional Lutheran worship practice!!). And marking a significant day in one’s conversion to Jesus by having and signing a spiritual “birth certificate” in the back of a New Testament isn’t per se wrong either. It’s not really different than the certificate of baptism a Lutheran parent receives when their child is baptized. My grandmother doesn’t believe she is saved just because she has a signed certificate from the Danish Lutheran church. It’s not fair to make that accusation against someone just for holding a “decision card”. I mean this constructively because you seem like you might have an at-least-mostly-correct understanding of God’s Word and it seems like you want to persuade people toward the truth about Jesus. But, seriously, if you want to persuade thinking people toward the truth, then jumping to unsupported conclusions just isn’t going to work; you’re going to lose them right out of the gate. Maybe there’s unshared information from your experience or from elsewhere that would support your accusations that many or most in the Gideons organization are are [sic] Pelagians or prosperity gospel types. But your post only jumps to these conclusions. Another bit meant constructively…If your “camp leader” is in error regarding matters of salvation, don’t write him a letter, definitely not one that sounds like an over-zealous confessional Lutheran elevator speech. Meet with him to read the Bible and pray. I mean, you believe he’s off about SALVATION, right?

There are many similar comments on the post, which one can peruse at one’s leisure. They all end up making the similar points: 1) You shouldn’t worry so much about doctrine, because the Gideons are doing a good thing, 2) You’re hindering God’s work, and causing division, by pointing out what *you* think is error, and mischaracterizing the Gideons, and 3) You do make a decision to believe in Christ.

Before I continue discussing those three overarching issues, common to most of the dissenting comments I have received, I must point out the following, in response to Estudiante’s comments: Never do I ascribe the doctrinal errors I encountered in my personal experience with pastors who attended my local camp’s functions, to all Gideons, with the exception of Decision Theology. In fact, I praised the organization for its high esteem of God’s Word. I would encourage those who think otherwise to carefully reread the original article. Also, the decision page on the back of the PWT does much more than provide suggested prayer language. It is called “My Decision to Receive Christ as My Saviour.” It says, “Confessing to God that I am a sinner, and believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins on the cross and was raised for my justification, I do now receive and confess Him as my personal Saviour.” That, my friend, is the definition of Decision Theology, and is as different from a Lutheran baptismal certificate as night is from day. As for the quotation marks around “camp leader,” and the reference to my “letter” to him, I can only assure you that this letter was indeed written, and sent to the gentleman who led the Gideons Camp of which I was a member, with the intention of opening a dialog. I earnestly desired to sit down with him and discuss this matter face to face. Unfortunately, I never received a response from him. By the way, Confessional Lutherans don’t do elevator speeches. From our very beginnings in the 16th Century, we have desired dialog, and real fellowship and doctrinal unity, with those groups with which we disagree. This is evidenced by our confessional writings, as contained in the Book of Concord. They were all written to explain our theology, and to debate and dialog with our Christian brothers, some of whom misunderstood or mischaracterized our theology, and to combat doctrinal error.

In answer to the three general concerns raised in objection to my article, I would offer these three points: 1) Holy Scripture calls Christians to teach right doctrine, 2) It isn’t mean, or un-Christian to point out doctrinal error, 3) Decision Theology is contrary to God’s Word.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians, in general, and pastors in particular, are called to teach right doctrine. In this final passage from Matthew, Jesus, as he ascends into heaven, commands his disciples to teach and observe, “all things that I have commanded you.” It isn’t enough for Christians to simply agree to disagree about difficult doctrinal points. Christ’s command is clear. We are to teach and observe all the things he has commanded. We must, acknowledging Holy Scripture as the only rule and norm for discerning doctrine, search it diligently, reading God’s Word in its proper context, and rightly dividing Law and Gospel. Indeed, pastors dare never forget that their paramount business is to preach doctrine, the divine doctrine of Holy Scripture.[1] This is such an important point that St. Paul takes great care to warn Timothy to give attention to right doctrine, and to be careful to continue in it:

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Timothy 4:12-16).

St. Paul is preparing Timothy to be a faithful pastor who contends against the doctrines of demons (v. 1). Nowhere in 1 Timothy chapter four, does St. Paul give the slightest impression that it is alright for Timothy to not discuss certain difficult teachings, or to “agree to disagree” for the sake of unity. No, he is commended for carefully following good doctrine, and instructed to reject the profane. St. Paul understands that doing so runs counter to the spirit of this present age, and will win Timothy no admirers, but will instead bring reproach. The footnotes to this passage in the Lutheran Study Bible adds the following:

Pastors are to command and teach true doctrine, while condemning doctrine that is false and deceitful. This runs counter to the spirit of the present age, which downplays the importance of true doctrine and avoids condemning all but the most extreme examples of false doctrine.[2]

In his second letter, St. Paul tells Timothy the same message about sound doctrine. He encourages him to stand fast in sound doctrine, even though there will come a time when the world will not endure it, and Timothy will be faced with affliction for his stance:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4: 1-5).

To teach sound doctrine, and to rebuke the false, St. Paul tells Timothy, is to do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill his ministry. This is quite a contrast from the attitude of the Gideons International organization, which, as the commenter rightly points out, discourages the discussion of doctrine beyond the “big three” points listed on the membership application.

As for being nice: St. Paul certainly didn’t worry about offending anyone when it came to teaching sound doctrine, or rebuking error. He spoke boldly to St. Peter, when he was in error concerning the Judaizers:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:11-21).

St. Paul says here that St. Peter’s hypocrisy in the matter of observing the traditions and laws of the Jews, was him not being straightforward about the truth of the Gospel. But what does it matter, if they think they have to keep Jewish traditions, if they believe in Christ, one might argue? St. Paul says it makes all the difference in the world. It means that the law, the thing that they *do*, is the how they are seeking to be justified; and by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. He doesn’t chalk it up to a disagreement. He doesn’t let it go for the sake of superficial unity. He confronts the false teaching (another word for doctrine, by the way), and strongly rebukes it, because it obscures the Gospel. He doesn’t care if he sounds “mean.” This method of confronting false doctrine, as opposed to ignoring it, is the more loving response to the Christian brother in error.

I have spent many hours writing against Decision Theology, and will not reproduce all of those writings and arguments here. In my first “reader comments” article (In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments), I summed up the problem with Decision Theology like this:

If mankind is the actor in conversion, by doing the work of making a decision, or anything else, then salvation depends on man. If this is the case, a man must be convinced, and in many cases manipulated, to commit an act of will and declare himself for Christ. I understand how we can be seduced to believe such a thing. It seems logical. As logical and reasonable as this may seem, however, Scripture says otherwise. To maintain this Pelagianism is to take Christ’s work away from him. If, however, God is the one who does the verbs – who chooses, who converts, who saves, who declares righteous – we can have tremendous comfort.[3] 

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.[4] Therefore, in order for one to “confess with their mouth” they must first be made to “believe in their heart,” by the working of the Holy Spirit. Confessional Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that man cannot, by his own reason, or strength, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him, because it is what Holy Scripture teaches. Mankind, by his very nature, is spiritually blind and dead.[5] Natural, unregenerate man, is God’s enemy.[6]

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2: 13-16).

In 1 Corinthians chapter two, Paul is describing spiritual wisdom. He contrasts spiritual wisdom (summarized by the phrase “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”), with worldly wisdom. He says that he came to them in weakness, preaching a wisdom, Christ crucified for them, which was revealed to them by the Spirit of God (vv. 3, 11). He says that they listened to him, not because he convinced them by the “excellence” of his speech, or “with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (vv. 3-5).” St. Paul continues to explain that, the wisdom he was teaching the Corinthians was foolishness to the natural man (v. 14); it was understood by them because they, possessing the Holy Spirit, have the mind of Christ (15-16). The reason they – and we – can receive the things of the Spirit of God, is because the Spirit of God makes us able to receive them. We make no decision to believe. We are incapable of making such a decision before our conversion, as Scripture plainly teaches. He converts us, and not randomly, out of nowhere, but through the preaching of God’s Word (His means of grace) by sinful human beings like St. Paul, or your parish pastor.

Adding your decision to believe to Christ’s work of redemption on the cross (Christ’s death, and…) makes your decision the basis for your salvation. Decision Theology, the doctrine that man must be convinced to make a decision of his own will to believe in Christ to be saved, is unscriptural. As much as our rational mind might want to reconcile the conflicting ideas that 1) God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and 2) not all men will be saved, it is impossible. I am confident that these things fit together in a way which God understands perfectly. Perhaps, when we are in eternity, we will understand as well. For now, I shall repent and believe the Gospel[7], things which I would not be able to do, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, while working on this article, I received another comment from Glenn Dowling, which I will reproduce here, only in part:

Abraham Lincoln had a story which ended in the point, “When a feller doesn’t want to do something, any excuse will do.” Joseph, no one is walking around the perfect knowledge [sic] but the Bible provides God’s inspired word and the Holy Spirit is the teacher. What, brother, are you doing to further God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I struggled with this comment, because it asks a good, and valid question. In fact, that question is partially what spurred me on to want to join the Gideons in the first place. Christians are called to do Good Works.

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (John 6:28-29; Ephesians 2:10).

In the first passage from John, Jesus says that *the* work of God, that is, the thing that saves us, is to believe in Him. This, as discussed exhaustively above, and in other places, we cannot do by our own reason, or strength. The passage from Ephesians, however, explains that, our purpose after conversion is to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do. From beginning to end, conversion, repentance, faith, and good works, all these things are done by God and given to us as gift. Of course, the Confessions teach this as well:

I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart (Acts 15:9-11), and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead (Romans 7:18), yet He will not punish or remember it. Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). What is still sinful or imperfect in them will not be counted as sin or defect, for Christ’s sake (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 4:7-8). The entire individual, both his person and his works, is declared to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us and spread over us in Christ. Therefore, we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy. As it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31); namely, that he has a gracious God. For with that, all is well. We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true (SA III XIII 1-4).[8]

So, the question remains: What am I doing to further God’s Word, and the Gospel of Christ? The answer is, nothing…at least in the sense that the question is asked by Glenn Dowling. No, I am not going out on mission trips. I no longer stand on the street corner offering New Testaments to passers-by. By those measures, I am a piss-poor Christian, and those Gideons who devote their time and effort to doing such things have far surpassed me.

The Church’s existence and growth, however, doesn’t depend on us. It depends on Christ. The Church is His body. We should maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support, but we must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills.

So, faith must be lacking in me, because I don’t do good works, right? Well, that’s not exactly true either. What are good works? They are what a child of God does in faith. We know that we can’t do the work that saves us, but we can, after conversion, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do the works God has prepared in advance for us to do. We are given these works to do in our various vocations. He has called me into the vocation of Husband, of Father, of Citizen, of Employee (bond-servant, if you will), of Parishioner, of Friend, among others. In Christ, God regards all of our works done in faith, living out our vocation, as pure and holy.

While some are called to be missionaries and pastors, others are not. We are called to strive to overcome sin, and do good works. We who are not called to the vocation of missionary or pastor, however, are still called to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified among those with whom we have a relationship, according to our vocations. We must still, as St. Paul tells Timothy, hold fast to sound doctrine, and we must teach all that Christ commanded us. We must do all this, knowing that it is not our works, which remain tainted by sin, that advance the Gospel, or grow the Church, or convert the sinner. After all, he who plants and he who waters are nothing. God gives the increase. And God’s word, as Mr. Dowling points out, will not return to him void, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. This is why I expressed my love and admiration for the men who pass out Scripture to the public, as brothers in Christ. I do so now again.

For their theological faults, one of the redeeming characteristics of the Gideons organization is the thing for which they are best known – placing Bibles, and distributing New Testaments to the public. In the end, the Gideons, at least the ones I met, all believed that the Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God. And, while I can’t associate myself with them because of their doctrinal error, I pray that God will continue to use the scriptures they disseminate, to regenerate people who are dead in their trespasses and sins.[9]

As a Lutheran pastor once said, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.”

[1] Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Volume I. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.
[2] Engelbrecht, Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009
[3] Klotz, Joseph D. “In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments.” The Hodgkins Lutheran. (accessed July 13, 2017).
[4] 1 Corinthians 12:3
[5] Romans 8:7-9 – For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.
[6] Romans 5:6-11
[7] Repentance and faith both being gifts of the Holy Spirit, through the means of God’s Word. See 2 Timothy 2:25, and Ephesians 2:1-10.
[8] McCain, Paul T., et. al. “Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.” Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
[9] Klotz, Joseph D. “Why I Quit the Gideons.” The Hodgkins Lutheran (June 5, 2015). (accessed July 13, 2017).