The Protestant and Evangelical Future

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As you all know, or should know, this is the second in a series of four lectures. The first was entitled An Inescapable Burden of Glory, and addressed the necessity that God has placed upon all of us—that of seeking glory somehow, somewhere. The obedient look for it precisely where He told us to look for it; the disobedient seek it elsewhere. But all of us seek it, of necessity. We have no more choice about this than we have in choosing our next heartbeat. The corrupt seek out various forms of vain glory, while the forgiven seek out the glory that radiates out from, and draws us to, the tree of life.

With that in the background, this second lecture is entitled The Protestant and Evangelical Future, and we will turn to that subject in a moment.

The third, sometime after the first of the year, will address Distance Learning across the Centuries. Then the fourth is going to be overtly political and will be on the moral necessity of conservatism. That lecture will called Liberal Arts as Liberty Arts. When considered all together, the four lectures will hopefully form a coherent whole. One can only hope.

The Long War

After our first parents fell into sin, one of the first things that happened was that God placed a curse on all three of the participants in that most unfortunate event—on Adam, on Eve, and on the serpent. God asked Adam first what had happened, and then He spoke to the woman. He questioned them both first, but did not yet pronounce a curse. He spoke to the serpent third, and did not ask him any questions—for him God went straight to the curse, and curiously, embedded in that first curse, we find the first promise of the gospel, not to mention the foundational basis of all Christian ethics.

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).

The promise of the gospel is found in the words about the seed of the woman bruising the head of the serpent’s seed. And the foundational basis for all Christian ethics is seen in the antithesis that God established between the serpent and the woman. This enmity, this antipathy, this antithesis, means that from this point 6,000 years ago, down to the day the world ends, there will be constant, total war between righteousness and unrighteousness, between faith and unbelief, between holiness and iniquity. Friendship and comity between the two warring sides can never be established. Anyone who attempts to establish peace between them is simply declaring his allegiance to the way of the lie. Only the unrighteous ever believe that righteousness and unrighteousness could possibly kiss one another on the cheek, and even the unrighteous don’t really believe it—although they pretend to.

There is a chiasm here in how God deals with these three miscreants. God questions Adam, and then He questions Eve. When He comes to the serpent, He simply delivers the curse. After the curse on the serpent—which contained the gospel promise, remember—God turns to Eve again, delivering a multiplied sorrow to her, and then finally out to Adam again. The woman’s griefs in childbearing would be multiplied, and for Adam, the ground was cursed for his sake.

So the grief that was placed upon childbearing and upon agriculture was a grief that was given in the context of a promise—a promise buried inside a curse. The seed of the woman was promised a great victory before the sorrow of the woman was declared. And in this promise, God in effect declared that the second Adam would in the future rise from the dead out of the ground before He declared that the first Adam would have to wrestle with the ground to bring forth food (Gen. 3:17), and also before God told him that he was to return to that ground (Gen. 3:19). These hard providences were given, true enough, but they were given within the context of grace.   

One War, One Weapon, Multiple Terrains

We know that since that time, our world has been subjected to one long, sustained war. We know this because the Scriptures speak of it this way, over and over again. After the Lord was crucified, He descended into Hades, and one of the things He did was announce His decisive victory to the rebellious spirits who had been destroyed in the Flood several millennia before (1 Pet. 3:19-20)—an earlier battle in that same war. And when God promises His people, about to launch our great invasion of the world under the banner of the Great Commission, He echoes His promise to Joshua on the threshold of his invasion of Canaan. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5). We do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers—and these celestial authorities had been around for a long, long time (Eph. 6:12).

The mission we have been assigned runs through to the end of the world, which means that the war of which this mission is a part must also do the same. When the day of Isaiah’s vision comes true, and we “study war no more” (Is. 2:4), we will hang the trumpet in hall because our warfare is completed. But what we have put behind us, what we will have completed, is war in the singular. There has really only ever been one war.

We know also that the godly have wielded only one weapon throughout the course of this long war, and this one weapon has been faith—sola fide. Abel overcame with that one weapon (Heb. 11:4). Noah saw the world remade, and he did this by faith (Heb. 11:7). Abraham inherited the city that was being shaped and fashioned, and he inherited all of it at a time when all he could see of it were the stars that would shine down on that city once it was established (Heb. 11:10). The stars that passed over his tents are the same stars that will pass over a redeemed planet. Moses exercised the same faith (Heb. 11:26), and the roster of all such faithful ones extends over centuries, over millennia. And all of them were engaged in the same good effort that we are engaged in (Heb. 11:40), and all of us are summoned to fight the good fight of faith.

We are told that the just shall live by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17). It is faith at the beginning, faith at the end, and faith all through the middle. If the just live by faith, and they do, this must be true of all the faithful, all the just, throughout the entire history of the world. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). This is always and everywhere the bedrock truth. Faith is what pleases Him. In the sense we are discussing here, it is the only thing that pleases Him.

So the response of faith is a constant. The weapon of faith is the weapon we must wield. But the terrain of all these battles varies widely. Cain killed Abel over whose sacrifice was received. Noah built a big ship. Abraham believed that he would have a son, through whom these promises would be fulfilled. Moses believed that Israel should be able to go out into the wilderness to hold a festival to the Lord.

The battles are always fought with this weapon of faith, but the terrain of the various battlefields could not be more different. Sometimes it is mountainous warfare with small guerilla bands. Sometimes it is naval warfare. Other times great armies clash on the plains. Then there was that time when Elijah thought that he was a solitary sniper, and he thought they were going to catch him soon.

The Great Terrain/Weapon Match-Up

Now one of the great battles in this long war was the Protestant Reformation. This was not an unfortunate disaster, “rending the seamless garment of Christ,” but rather a great victory for the people of God, a moment of glorious gospel advance. In the two thousand years since the ascension of our Lord, this Reformation has been one of the most remarkable movements of the Spirit in the history of mankind. It will be celebrated as such until the morning stars get tired of singing about it, which won’t be any time soon.

Now one of the more striking quirks about this great Reformation is that it was an instance where the weapon that God’s people have always used—faith—also happened to be the terrain. The battle was by faith, as always, and the battle was also over faith, which had not really happened before.

This was a glorious convergence, in one sense, but it has also been a source of much subsequent confusion.

One of the temptations that generals and admirals always face is that of always wanting to fight the last war over again. In the history of our tradition, it has led to some diehard Reformed types acting as though the terrain of all our future battles will be the battleground of justification by faith alone. But that will not be—it could not be. But there is another error that goes into the opposite ditch, and it is equally silly. The fact that the terrain will not be sola fide does not make that issue irrelevant. Not a bit of it. The fact that the modern Roman Catholic Church is shot through with modern liberalism (instead of medieval scholasticism) does mean that faith has somehow become dispensable. Machen needed faith to fight the liberals every bit as much as Luther needed it to fight the papists.

The contemporary evangelical and Reformedish scene is dominated by soft Protestants who are holding on to (uncontested) definitions of faith, thinking themselves orthodox thereby, but they are actually holding to these definitions of faith by inertia, and not by faith.

During the Reformation, because it was a work of the Spirit driven by faith, and because a great deal of the subject matter under debate was also the issue of faith, the end result is that we learned a great deal about it. And because we learned a great deal about it, this is knowledge that we must appropriate for all our future battles. But we must appropriate it in a particular way. More about this shortly.

What is it that overcomes the world? Is it not our faith (1 Jn. 5:4)?

Faith overcame Cain’s corrupted sacrifice. Faith drowned the antediluvian world. Faith escorted all of Israel through the Sea and out into the wilderness. Faith threw down the giants of Canaan. Faith demanded that Judea surrender to the Babylonians. Faith was sawn in two. Faith routed armies, and faith hid in caves.

“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).

Fix this in your minds, and never forget it. Faith is up to something.

Five, Five and Three

If I might, I would like to briefly touch on thirteen things to think about, broken into three segments of five, five, and three. You are familiar with a number of these. I mention them so that you won’t think I have forgotten them, and so that we might fit them all into battle harness when we done.

The first set is the five solas. We affirm, and exult in, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura, and soli Deo gloria. Salvation is through Christ alone. That salvation is offered to us by grace alone, and is received by us through faith alone. We have true assurance of all this through Scripture alone—our only ultimate and infallible source of spiritual authority. All of this redounds to the glory of God alone, to whom be glory and majesty, dominion and power, amen.

The second set of five has somehow acquired the nickname of Calvinism, which developed formally as a response to the five points of Arminianism. The Arminians were answered by the Synod of Dort, point by point. We affirm that fallen man is utterly unable to save himself or to prepare himself to be saved. This is total inability. We affirm that from among fallen men God has chosen a great host, a number that we cannot count, for salvation, and the specific number of these elect cannot be increased or diminished. We believe in sovereign election, a gracious decision by the Father. When the time was ripe, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that He might die on the cross to secure the salvation of all those who had been chosen by His Father. We believe in efficacious redemption. With the Father and the Son working in harmony for us men and our salvation, it should come as no surprise that the Holy Spirit works in harmony with them as well. When the time came for each of us to be converted, the Spirit quickened us with a resurrecting grace. Given our total helplessness prior to conversion, and given the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit have all mutually engaged to bring us out of darkness and into light, it follows that the work of grace in the soul will not be interrupted by things present or things future. We believe in the perseverance and preservation of God’s elect.

It is true that there are faithful Christians who do not understand these truths with this precision. But stated this way, the gospel is shown to be a true Jerusalem blade, wicked sharp, and whenever it is pulled from the scabbard, it glitters with a hatred of all iniquity.

The third set of doctrines is three-fold. The first of them is that the gospel is going to be victorious in this world. The earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. This world, as messed up as it currently is, is someday going to be as holy as the Pacific Ocean is wet.  

“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

Notice what Paul says. He says that God preached the gospel to Abraham. And what did God say when He preached this gospel? He said that the gospel was that all the nations of men were going to be blessed through believing Abraham. So it is part of the gospel that the gospel is to inundate the entire world. And this is no lame social gospel. This is not a be-nice-everybody gospel. It is hot gospel, preached by men who are afraid their hearts might explode if they don’t preach it.

The second arena is what Scripture teaches about sex and sexuality. As I trust I have made clear, we are always to fight all our battles by faith. The just shall live by faith. They start by faith; they finish by faith. They pray by faith, they worship by faith. They plow by faith, and they gather into the barns by faith. They form study groups by faith. They make love by faith, and they bring children into the world by faith. They throw grenades by faith, and punch by faith. They hang out at Bucers by faith. All of it, all of it, by faith from first to last.

But the faith that you will have to exercise—in common with all the saints through the entire history of the world—will be faith that is wielded in uncommon terrain. That is why I bring this set of issues up. You will have to be evangelical through and through, but you will have to do this in a world where men are pretending to be girls, and where girls are pretending to be men, and where magistrates are solemnly requiring you to go along with the pretense or else. You will be bringing up children in a world where brothels are staffed with sex bots, and where virtual and augmented realities will stream all the naked women of Vanity Fair straight into their daydreams. You will marry, and you will bring up sons and daughters in a corrupt and leprous generation. Not only so, but you will only be able to see the leprosy and corruption by faith. If you can’t see what is happening, it is because you are faithless.    

The third and last element of all this is what might be called the obedience of faith, or which, if we stated it another way, could be called the uselessness of non-application.

“But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:26).

Faith is not about thoughts you might think. Faith has feet and hands. Faith is a great warrior, conquering the world. As the Westminster Confession states it, wonderfully:

“Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2).

This faith is alive, and it works. But it works at more than simply keeping one’s own nose clean. What faith actually works at is the destruction of Satan’s kingdom.

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).

If we are going to cast down their imaginations, then we will need to be men and women of faith, a people whose faith flies a lot higher than their imaginations. 

A Constant Market:

I have been using the imagery of war throughout this talk, and it is worth noting again that this is a war that God is not going to lose. So what does this mean?

If the Reformed articulation of the gospel is accurate, if it is the clearest, cleanest, and most profound statement of what the Scriptures reveal about God, about man, about sin, about salvation, and about how we can know any of this stuff, then what that means is that it is never going to go out of fashion. People can convince themselves to act as though the gospel of the kingdom is dry, dusty, and irrelevant, but the gospel of the kingdom can never be made to be boring like that. People who do that tell us a lot about themselves, but tell us nothing about God’s plan of redemption.

People will always need to worship God, and will suffer the penalty of refusing to do so. People will always need to be forgiven. When is sin going to go away? When is guilt going to vanish? How can the ironclad cure become irrelevant when the disease is universal?

Asking how long the gospel will remain relevant is like asking how long a master key, one that opens every lock, will remain relevant. The answer is that it will remain relevant as long as there are rooms and closets that need to be unlocked. And every human heart is crammed full of rooms and closets.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan gives us a telling moment when Christian, who has been locked up in the dungeon of Giant Despair, realizes that he has had the key that will release him, and that he has had it on him the entire time.

“Now a little before it was Day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech; ‘What a fool,’ quoth he, ‘am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will I am persuaded open any lock in Doubting-Castle.’ Using the key, Christian and Hopeful escaped.”

How long will we need formulations of the gospel that are clear, clean, open, precise, rigorous, deep, honest, and profound? Well, we will need them for as long as this world contains any dungeons of guilt, shame, and fear. How could a planet, inhabited by billions of lost souls, not be in need of a map? How could a world, riddled with disease, be uninterested in a cure? How could a world, entirely uninterested in a cure, be unaffected by a message that compels their interest in that cure in spite of themselves?

The thing we need to deal with is this. Christian had the key on him the entire time but he had forgotten about it. We have the solution, we have the key, and we have the answers. What we need is the spirit of remembrance, and this is something we cannot have unless the Holy Spirit comes upon us.

The Reformed and evangelical statement of the gospel is the real goods. It is the truth of God. But—and work with me closely here—the truth of God, on paper, is inadequate. The truth of God chiseled into stone is nothing but condemnation from Sinai. The truth of the Spirit does something deep inside us.

“Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:3).

The thing that will cause all the things I have mentioned up to this point to engage with the world will be the obedience of faith. The car is not going to drive until we let the clutch out, and letting the clutch out is the obedience of faith. Tuning your guitar to an open D is the obedience of faith.  In Scripture, obedience is not a dirty word. It only turns foul when someone takes the faith away. Obedience becomes rancid when trust is gone.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is a book of truth on my shelf, and nothing wrong with the truth. No complaints about truth, right? But the Westminster Confession of Faith is also double cream. What is the difference between those two statements? The difference is the experience of tasting. When you take a book down and taste it—Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Watson’s Contentment—you then look around at the Christians who are bored with the glory, and you cannot figure it out.

So what I am talking about is the marriage of the sovereignty of God in the skies and the grace of God in the soul. I am talking about the humiliating and exhilarating and humiliating experience of bare, naked honesty before God. You can only be naked before God if you are clothed in Christ before God. If you cover yourself with anything else, and especially with lame excuses and man-made religion, all your coverings are nothing but nakedness.

You learn that confession of sin is not about groveling, but rather about the kind of honesty that is lifted upright before the throne of grace, and stands there, mysteriously, with boldness.

“As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious” (1 Peter 2:2–3).

“Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

We have come around to the theme of the first lecture—joy unspeakable and full of glory.

So what we are talking about is an experienced Christ, a known Christ, a felt Christ. Accurate descriptions of how to get there are a great legacy of the Reformation, but it was the experience of that which was the Reformation. And because sin will always be destructive, and because God will always be gracious, and because the gospel will always be efficacious, the future is evangelical and Protestant.

Not evangelical and Protestant under E and P in the theological dictionary. Evangelical and Protestant the way the law of God is—sweeter also than the honey, and the honeycomb. Evangelical and Protestant the way water from a rock would taste in the dry wilderness. Evangelical and Protestant the way Christian’s burden fell off his back and rolled down the hill and into a sepulcher—long gone guilt. Evangelical and Protestant the way the twisted seraphim on a pole was health to everyone who so much as looked at it. Evangelical and Protestant the way manna from the sky was the bread of heaven. Evangelical and Protestant the way the returned exiles walked around like those who dreamed.

What will never grow old? Christ flogged and every raw stripe on His back being full of blood-red healing for you. Christ crucified, and nailed there for you. Christ buried, and wrapped in one hundred pounds of ointment for you. Christ raised in victory, and He turns to you in order to bestow all the fruit of that victory.