Saturday, February 27, 2010

Contemporary Evangelicalism and the Kerygma/Didache

By Ben Zemmer

In recent years, many professing Evangelicals have forgotten what it means to contend for the biblical evangel, that is the gospel. Sadly, the word evangelical is more often likened to a political movement of the “religions right” rather than a theological one with deep life changing ramifications (Bloesch, p.9-10). In attempts to affect political change and gain ground on worthy social issues, many have diluted the gospel message to a Christian version of therapeutic moralism. “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” has replaced the deep gospel message – salvation from God’s wrath, the imputed righteousness of Christ, biblical faith, true repentance, and the lordship of Christ. The evangel in evangelical is thus all but eclipsed by man-centered philosophies.

When the Scriptures speak of proclamation (kerygma) and teaching (didache) they refer to different forms of conveying this very gospel message – the evangel. Any departure from the biblical evangel will inevitably empty any kerygmatic or didactic communication forms from their meaning or even abandon these forms all together. A prime example of this is the modern de-emphasis on preaching the primary biblically mandated form of proclamation (kerygma). Another example is a corruption of the biblical concept of teaching (didache) into a mere set of ethical guidelines. The other extreme is outward profession that results in no true spiritual fruit and even encourages sin. Examples are those churches which call themselves evangelical and champion a semblance of biblical forbearance and humility, but at the same time, overlook and encourage homosexuality along with the doubting and subversion of God’s sufficient Word. The evangel is the core of what it means to be an Evangelical. A departure from the evangel by definition is a stepping away from the life-giving gospel and the essence of what it means o be a Christian.

The apostle John asked, “What fellowship does light have with darkness?” The implied answer is: none! Those who contend for the gospel must not fellowship as supposed brothers and sisters in Christ if one is denying the biblical evangel. This denial can come in various forms. The most obvious is the plain denial of the basic truths of the gospel. Other not quite so obvious forms include the rejection of the biblical necessity for proclamation, the reduction of biblical teaching into mere ethical codes (moralism), or the rejection of the plain biblical imperatives (anti-nomianism).

Biblical discipleship inevitably results in greater conformity to Christ. In contrast, a life of unrepentant sin denies the very truths professed. In other words, a true Evangelical is not only one who professes biblical truth but one who does not deny that gospel with a life of unrepentant sin. Thus, good doctrinal statements guide local church bodies by proclaiming the evangel not only by heralding the essential truths of the gospel and sound teaching, but also by explaining the biblical relationship between belief and desire which result in action. True belief is faith in God’s Word, which results in right desires and actions, while unbelief inevitably results in unrighteousness. Actions of obedience and God glorifying emotions are a necessary part of the Christian life because they demonstrate outwardly an inward reality of God’s work. This inward and vertical reality is the reason for and source of strength for the horizontal and outward. Thus, “the slogan ‘become what you are’…encapsulates the essence of Pauline ethics” (McGrath, p.92).

Doctrine is a necessary part of growing in the knowledge of Christ, for “the identity and significance of Jesus can only be spelled out in doctrinal terms”(McGrath, p.103). This was a point made clearly by the fundamentalist movement at the turn of the 20th century. In attempts to defend the authority of the Scriptures and foster fellowship around the gospel across denominational boundaries, godly men drafted a statement of faith which both clarified the gospel at the points at which it was attacked and called for greater unity around God’s Word. However, its weakness lies in that it was largely shaped by the issues at hand and did not treat the gospel in all of its fullness (Bloesch, p.9-10). Evangelicalism was a movement which formed out of fundamentalism and put greater emphasis on the gospel the as the very essence of Christianity (Bloesch, p.15). Thus, it is correct to say that true Evangelicalism reflects a balanced summary of the gospel and its outworking (the “first principles”). To deny the biblical Christ and the gospel is to cease being evangelical (Blosech, p.15-15).

True discipleship is the result of biblical relationships in community. Older and more mature believers encourage, admonish, and instruct the younger in the faith. The content of this instruction is the gospel and its outworking. Modern curriculums that encourage this understanding of the gospel as necessary for every part of the Christian life are truly in keeping with the Scripture while those which treat ethics in isolation from the gospel are foolish at best and spiritually dangerous at worst.

To many the modern flavor of the Evangelical movement is no longer one of a potent and powerful gospel but rather one of superficially sweet people pleasing. In contrast, the era of the Reformation was one of commitment to the essence of what it means to be Christian namely the gospel – the evangel revealed in the Scriptures. The re-discovery of the gospel and the lengthy writings and statements of faith continue to reverberate for the benefit of believers today. Though most theologically sound churches do not have statements as long as the ones of the Reformation, they are indebted in many ways to them (Koivisto, p.207).

In summary, the witness of faithful believers of the past and the Scripture itself cries out to members of the modern Evangelical movement to return to what it really means to profess for the biblical evangel – to contend for the gospel in all of its fullness. That is what it is to be Evangelical.

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