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The Present Evangelical Crisis

A Book Review with Commentary

Kevin Reed

The Coming Evangelical Crisis. John H. Armstrong, general editor. Chicago: Moody Press, 1996. Hardcover, 268 pages, $17.99.

The underlying thesis of this book is indisputable: American evangelicalism is becoming progressively apostate due to a rejection of biblical authority and the biblical gospel. Many reformed writers have decried this trend for years. What is interesting about this book is that it is issued from an "evangelical" publisher not noted for an attachment reformed doctrine; moreover, the authors have addressed their message to mainstream American evangelicals.

Throughout the book, the contributors illustrate ways in which "evangelicals" have abandoned the sola scriptura principle of Protestant theology. This is a necessary exposé, since most American evangelicals profess belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, even while abandoning the scriptures in practice. In his essay on "Recovering the Plumb Line," Michael Horton notes: "While liberals of various stripes are today undermining biblical authority by direct assaults, evangelicals of various stripes are today undermining biblical authority by claiming one thing in theory (the authority of an inerrant Bible) while in practice giving priority to secular disciplines and popular culture in defining and shaping the spiritual diet" (p. 253).

Other contributors to the volume illustrate trends among evangelicals which undercut scriptural authority: charismatic revelations, a denigration of preaching, entertainment-based worship, counseling based upon secular principles of psychology, and the exaltation of subjective religious experiences over the objective doctrines of the Christian faith.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr. hits upon a crucial theme in his chapter, "Evangelical: What's in a Name?" He speaks of a self-conscious effort by prominent evangelicals to move "away from the Augustinian and Reformation bases" to the "human-centered focus of the Arminian tradition" (p. 34). Mohler writes: "Arminius's self-declared heirs are now ready to finish his project ­ to break with the traditional theism that was shared by the Fathers and the Reformers and to replace it with a more relational theology. Thus, some evangelicals now embrace the notion of a more user-friendly deity who waits passionately but impotently to see what His creatures will do" (p. 36).

In a subsequent chapter, "Does Theology Still Matter?" Gary L.W. Johnson also notes the devastating effects of Arminianism: "The subsequent history of the Remonstrants shows that very few of them could resist the slide into Socinianism, Unitarianism, and Deism." Arminianism is a man-centered faith. "When theology becomes anthropology, it becomes simply a form of worldliness" (p. 63).

Other interesting essays include: "Martin Luther: An Evangelical Original," by Robert Godfrey; "How Shall We Cure Troubled Souls?" by David Powlison; and John Armstrong's introduction on "Two Vital Truths."[1]

With all the talk of the Protestant theology, including sharp criticisms of Arminianism, readers might wonder if the authors are ready to champion a new Reformation in American evangelicalism. Would that it were so! Unfortunately, that's not the case.

In general, the authors are correct in identifying critical areas of concern. They have detected that there are problems. In many cases, however, they have understated the depth of the problems. Some contributors speak of these matters as a current crisis, while others (as with the book's title) talk of it as a coming crisis. So let us be clear: we are confronting a present crisis among American evangelicals.

Further, because of the diversity of the contributors to the volume (dispensationalists and "reformed" writers, Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, and Brethren), there is not a cohesive scriptural response to the crisis facing evangelicals. Because the authors have not yet embraced the fully-orbed nature of the Reformation, they are short on solutions to the problems they identify.

In no place is the failure to find a cohesive solution more painfully apparent, than when the book deals with the subject of worship. In his chapter on "How Shall We Then Worship?" John MacArthur begins the discussion in the right direction when he speaks of sola scriptura and the regulative principle of worship. Yes, MacArthur actually speaks of the regulative principle by name, makes citations from John Calvin and William Cunningham, and refers to the commitment of the Puritans to this precept. Yet, after such a promising start, the author then retreats from applying the regulative principle to particular practices which are widely accepted among American evangelicals.

Says MacAurthur: "I have no interest in igniting a debate about musical instruments, pastoral robes, sanctuary decorations, or other such matters. If there are those who want to use the regulative principle as a springboard for such debates, please leave me out" (pp. 180-81). Such a response evades the issue. If the regulative principle means anything, it means that the authority of scripture must be brought to bear upon the specific practices of our worship. The scriptures demand that we test each mode of worship to see whether it has been enjoined in the Bible. If we introduce any means of worship without biblical warrant, then we have violated the scriptural law of worship. Thus (whether MacAurthur wishes to engage in such discussions or not), once we have discovered the general principle that governs all worship, we are bound to apply that principle to the particular means we employ in the worship of God.

The next writer, Leonard Payton, deals with the question, "How Shall We Sing to God?" Payton's criticisms of contemporary religious music may be warmly applauded. He clearly sees how the religious recording industry, operating upon worldly principles, has produced sub-standard music which works its way into churches, eroding both musical aesthetics and worship. Payton uses the Psalms in his model for evaluating church music (pp, 191-92).

Nevertheless, Payton later asserts, "Music is not canonical" (p. 200). In the context, he is speaking of specific musical compositions. But, in a larger sense, this is precisely where he stumbles. Were his remarks made simply in conjunction with music generally considered, his arguments would be more plausible. Many of his observations are quite appropriate for artists who labour to compose and perform music to the glory of God. Yet, the specific question at issue is not about general music theory, but about what we should sing in public worship. And to that query we emphatically assert that worship music is canonical.

As Payton himself points out, Paul's commands in Colossians and Ephesians refer to the 150 Psalms in the Bible, labelled alternatively in the Septuagint as psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs (p. 191). The psalter is therefore the divine songbook for worship, to the exclusion of man-made compositions. This is the sola scriptura principle applied to church singing.

Payton himself acknowledges that there are certain styles of music which are inappropriate for Christian worship. What he fails to see is that all songs apart from the psalter are not appropriate for worship services, simply because God has ordained the psalter as the sufficient songbook for the church. Other Christian songs may be appropriate in other venues, but they do not belong in a worship service where they will displace the canonical hymnody of the psalter.

Payton acknowledges that the instrumental musicians in the Old Testament were Levitical priests. Yet he maintains the continuation of their musical ministry in spite of the N.T. change of priesthood (Heb. 7:12). Without any biblical exposition to support his claims, Payton asserts: "We no longer have the Levitical ceremonial law, and yet the larger leading role of the Levitical musicians will not cease until the second coming of the Lord" (p. 193).

In contrast, reformed theologians contend the teaching role of the Levites was replaced by the ministry of the Christian pastor. But the musical role of the Levitical musicians, who played on divinely-specified instruments as part of their temple ministrations, is not carried forward to N.T. officers.

Payton apparently believers in a new church officer: that of the "worship musician" (p. 203). Yet, unless he can show a firm scriptural warrant for this additional ecclesiastical office, he has, in practice, abandoned the principle of sola scriptura; for he has asserted the right of the church to create a new office beyond those delineated in the Bible.

Thus, if readers wish to consult a roadmap for a genuine, thorough reformation, they will have to look beyond the pages of The Coming Evangelical Crisis. In spite of the best intentions of the contributors to this volume, the book comes up short on the meaning of true reform.

To illustrate the point, we take one more example: the essay by R.C. Sproul entitled, "Only One Gospel." Sproul uses Paul's anathema in the first chapter of Galatians as a basis to lament evangelicalism's drift from the exclusive gospel of grace. In large measure, this lament is motivated by recent compromises on the part of some evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism.

Although Sproul is willing to make criticisms of Rome's abandonment of the biblical gospel, his criticisms of evangelicals are limited to those who are soft toward Rome. But what of "evangelical" corruptions of the gospel of grace? What about "evangelicals" who have exchanged the gospel of grace for "easy-believism" and "decisionalism"? Here the author is strangely silent.

Sproul remarks, "It bothers me at meetings of the presbytery of my own denomination when I see people arguing and fussing over doctrines that are not essential" (p. 115). Yet it is well-known that the author's denomination (the P.C.A.) tolerates the false gospel of decisionalism within its ranks. If the author wishes to move beyond the bickering over "non-essentials," why not lead a battle against the purveyors of a false gospel within his own backyard? Now that would exhibit an attitude truly reflective of the apostolic zeal found in Galatians 1.

Therefore, in Sproul's essay, it is not so much what the author says, as what he doesn't say, that gives his presentation an insufficient character.

And this is my main criticism of the book: "if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Cor. 14:8). If readers wish to understand the nature of genuine reformation, we suggest they read Calvin's small tract, On The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543). In this tract, the reformer succinctly states the chief issues of the Reformation. Calvin states that the entire substance of Christianity may be comprised under two principal heads (all other aspects of the faith being comprehended under them): "first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped, and secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained."[2]

The authors of The Coming Evangelical Crisis have rightly perceived that the issues of salvation and worship are central to what is wrong among contemporary evangelicals. What they lack is a consensus of reformed thought on how to address those issues.

We need to renew the foundational emphases of the Reformation: (1.) The true gospel must be proclaimed, to the exclusion of all others. Whether the gospel of grace is undermined by Rome, or by "evangelical" Pelagianism, we must oppose all parties who corrupt the gospel of sovereign grace. (2.) True worship must be upheld in practice as well as theory. This requires not merely distress over the contemporary and tasteless fads among evangelicals; but it requires the rejection of all will-worship (all modes of worship not enjoined in scripture).

Of course, it will be impossible to maintain biblical doctrine and worship in the church without church discipline. The reformed creeds speak of discipline as one of the marks of the true church.[3] While readers will find passing comments about discipline in the The Coming Evangelical Crisis, there is no separate chapter on the subject. This is not surprising: given the eclectic range of contributors to the book, it would be difficult to establish concord among them on principles of church polity. Yet, if we wish to promote a new reformation, it is essential to undertake a discussion of church order as a means to preserving doctrine and practice in the church.


1. Further essays include: "Preaching: God's Word to the Church Today," by R. Fowler White; "Does God Speak Today Apart from the Bible?" by R. Kent Hughes; "Behold the Lamb: The Gospel and Substitutionary," by S. Lewis Johnson; "What Does God Know?" by Robert B. Strimple; "Evangelical ism, Conversion, and the Gospel: Have We Sold Our Heritage for Relevance?" by John D. Hannah; "How Shall We Wage Our Warfare?" by John H. Armstrong. Unfortunately, the space limitations of this review preclude giving an individual analysis of each essay.

2. John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church (rpt. Dallas: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 15.

3. See The Confession of the English Congregation at Geneva (1556); the French Confession of Faith (1559); the Scottish Confession of Faith (1560); the Belgic Confession (1566).

In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, after speaking of worship and salvation as the two principal heads of the Christian religion, Calvin is quick to delineate the sacraments and church government as means "instituted for the preservation of these branches of doctrine." Calvin links church discipline to the preservation of the church by an analogy between the body and the soul, in which ecclesiastical order is the body, and doctrine is the soul. "If anyone is desirous of a clearer and more familiar illustration, I would say, that rule in the church, the pastoral office, and all other matters of order, resemble the body, whereas the doctrine which regulates the due worship of God and points out the ground on which the consciences of men must rest their hope of salvation, is the soul which animates the body, renders it lively and active, and in short, makes it not to be a dead and useless carcass" (p. 15).

Further, we should raise the issue of the sacraments as an important aspect of reformation. But again, it is unlikely that the contributors of The Coming Evangelical Crisis could come to substantial agreement about the administration of the sacraments.

Copyright © 1996 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
P.O. Box 180922
Dallas, Texas 75218

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