It is one thing to accept that a doctrine is true; it is quite another for it to shape the life and ministry of the church. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a controversial doctrine in some circles. But those of us who affirm that it is a truly biblical doctrine need to grapple carefully with how it should shape and inform our ministry.
The purpose of this brief article is to argue that PSA should be at the heart of our proclamation of the gospel—at the heart of our regular preaching of the word of God. There are important reasons for this both at the level of theological integrity and at the level of pastoral practicality.
Preaching that is biblical in the truest sense must be sensitive to the wider storyline of Scripture and properly contextualized within biblical theology, consciously shaped by certain key biblical-theological truths. Among these is the basic truth that the God of the Bible is rightly angry because of sin and will judge sin. There is little need to spend time here outlining a biblical theology of God’s justice and his holiness. This basic truth is so woven into the storyline of Scripture that we would have to willfully disregard the essential shape of salvation history to avoid it.
On a recent flight to Dallas I enjoyed reading the current issue of American Way, the monthly magazine of American Airlines. In this particular issue the cover story was about golf phenom Lexi Thompson. Her remarks about why she loves the game of golf were striking: “Every day I wake up and somethings different in my game: my swing, the weather. That’s the thing about golf. It’s always a challenge every time you wake up. That’s why I gravitated to it. What keeps me going is that you can never perfect it.”
What Thompson recognizes about golf we can apply to the Christian life. Indeed, what keeps us going—striving for growth in practical holiness—is that we will never perfect the Christian life this side of heaven. There is always room for improvement.
Outside the church (i.e., outside the visible, organized Christ-confessing covenant community, where the gospel is preached purely, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered purely, and where church discipline is used), the church often looks very different than it does to members. Those outside the church quite often assume that only those who have achieved a state of perfection are welcome in church. Let’s put that to rest immediately: the church most assuredly is not for the perfect. Were that the case, the church would be entirely empty as there are no perfected Christians this side of heaven. The only congregation of perfect people is what Reformed theologians call “the church triumphant” (i.e., that gathering of glorified believers in heaven). We get a picture of that congregation in the Revelation (e.g., chapter 4). The church as it exists in this world, in this life (called the “church militant”) is full of nothing but sinners, who manifest the effects of sin in every conceivable way. It has been that way from the moment sin …
In 2017, George Barna reported on the state of evangelism. The news is not good. Less than 40% of those who claim to be born again Christians believe they should share the gospel. Meanwhile, the percentage of young Americans who profess faith is shrinking.
The theology of many who claim Christ is more than a little unsettling. Nineteen percent of those who say they were saved by grace alone “strongly agree” one can be saved simply by being a good person. Furthermore, only 40% “strongly reject” this claim. That means 60% of those who say they’ve been saved by grace alone are open to the possibility God will save people on the basis of their good works.
In Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon argues that preaching today is generally bad. His thesis is that “many ordained people simply can’t preach” (16). His conclusion is that modern forms of media have shaped the messengers themselves. Minds that have not been shaped by reading struggle to understand a text and minds that have not been shaped by writing struggle to proclaim a message. Gordon’s solution is that those who aspire to preach should prepare beforehand and cultivate life habits that make good preachers. Gordon says, “What I care about is the average Christian family in the average pew in the average church on the average Sunday” (14). His goal in writing is the health of the church.
This is a really important consideration for our friends from the broader evangelical world as they come into contact with confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) worship. There is a high likelihood that those emerging from the broad evangelical traditions are addicted to a regular, even programmed release of dopamine and/or norepinephrine. It is not your fault. You are part of a tradition that dates to the mid-19th century. That tradition (represented and perfected by Charles Finney) discovered ways of manipulating people in public worship in order to move them from point A (the pew) to point B (the anxious bench).
Pastors have the unique privilege and obligation to bend the comfort of heaven into the hearts of their congregations. Yet, there seems to be a disparity between ought and is. In far too many cases, it seems, comfort becomes mere coaching.
If you are a Millennial, relax. This is not another critique. I do spend a fair bit of time with Millennials, however, and I have observed some interesting trends. One of these observations was reinforced recently in an article by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, “How Perfectionism Became a Hidden Epidemic Among Young People.” They define perfectionism thus: Broadly speaking, perfectionism is an irrational desire for flawlessness, combined with harsh self-criticism. But on a deeper level, what sets a perfectionist apart from someone who is simply diligent or hard-working is a single-minded need to correct their own imperfections. They explain, “perfectionists need to be told that they have achieved the best possible outcomes…”. As a teacher I have noticed this. To be sure, this tendency is not unique to Millennials. However, according to the authors it does occur more frequently among Millennials. “[L]evels of perfectionism have risen significantly among young people since 1989.” Their explanation of the cause strikes me as strained—they blame it on the “neoliberalism” of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Brian …
Carl Trueman has a helpful essay in the current issue of Modern Reformation magazine. In “Reflections on the Reformed Resurgence,” Trueman takes stock of what we can learn about a movement within evangelicalism now over a decade old. Trueman introduces the Reformed resurgence in contrast to another significant trend within American Christianity at the time: It is now over a decade since Collin Hansen coined the term “young, restless, and Reformed” (YRR) to characterize a rising generation of Christians who had rediscovered the vitality of the central doctrines of the Reformation: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, and so on. What Hansen (then a journalist with Christianity Today) had noticed was that while much of the trendy Christian media attention focused on the emerging/emergent church, there was another vibrant strand of evangelical Christianity gaining momentum in the United States and beyond. While the emergent gurus, such as Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, were moving in a more non- and perhaps anti-doctrinal direction, other church leaders—John Piper, Tim Keller and so forth—were doing the opposite. They were …
Author Don Whitney is excited about evangelism: “Only the sheer rapture of being lost in the worship of God is as exhilarating and intoxicating as telling someone about Jesus Christ.” Do you feel the same way? I’m concerned his attitude is all-too-rare in the church today. We equate sharing the gospel to flossing our teeth—very important but easily neglected. I want to encourage you share the gospel more. For some, it may feel like a chore. But the more we understand what the gospel is, the more we will share it freely. There are many good reasons to evangelize. We may share out of obedience, a love for neighbor, and even out of a hope of future reward. But the gospel itself is a reason to share.