22 September 2016

Sacralism and the Invitation System

Iain Murray's 'The Invitation System' rightly condemns the Altar Call for its tactics of coercion and manipulation, for making emotional appeals that lack substance. As an unbiblical method it creates a false conversion and ultimately does more harm to the hearer than if they had never heard the gospel in the first place.

The Altar Call is built on a spurious theological foundation. Misunderstanding conversion, the gospel, sin, repentance and salvation it is a dangerous caricature of the true gospel invitation to heartfelt repentance and brokenness.

At this point I heartily agree with Murray, who condemns the theology of Charles Finney as well as those who came after him and took up his mantle and legacy. This theology gave us Moody, Sunday, Graham and it could be argued was re-cast once more in the Seeker movement. These men have done irreparable harm to the cause of Christ.

And yet, for all that, in another form this is the very theology advocated by Murray.

How so?

It is clear that Murray in his recent work on JC Ryle wishes to promote the idea that Christianity is something that can be legislated, something that can be imprinted on society through cultural and social institutions.

This is extra-Scriptural, a gospel method that is alien to the New Testament. Nowhere does the Scripture suggest that the gospel is spread by means of culture or the state. This is not remotely what Paul was suggesting in Romans 13.

In the end, it's yet another version of the Altar Call, a contrived system of manipulation and coercion dependent on a diluted definition of Christianity. The Sacral theology of Christendom, the idea that the state and cultural institutions will somehow manipulate and bring about conformity and that this conformity (which is rooted not in true Spirit-wrought repentance, but social stigma, coercion and shame) will somehow produce 'Christians' is little different from the Pelagian system of Charles Finney and his method-based approach to salvation.

If we can just get kids into proper schools, have proper legislation and policing, if we can force people to attend church, then we can have a Christian society.

The New Testament knows nothing of this. An advocate of such a theology cannot possibly hold to Total Depravity, the Gospel of Grace or even Sola Scriptura. This is a humanistic system.

Though it drives Postmillennialists mad, it must be said again. Their theology is little more than a conservative version of the Social Gospel. Or more properly the Social Gospel is simply a liberalised version of their vision. Essentially they are the same creature. Though they decry this analogy and argue the liberal version is built on a different foundation, ultimately the means, if not the vision are the same.

Postmillennialists like Murray look for the Millennial Golden Age as Christendom brought about through revival. And yet it would seem in his frustration with culture he has turned more to the Theonomic-Reconstructionist vision that believes the so-called Golden Age comes through culture war and mandated social transformation. Liberal or conservative, whether Capitalist and Militarist or Socialist and philanthropic... both camps view the world system as the tools by which the Kingdom is built and advanced.

As I've argued continuously, I embrace a theology of Means. I'm not a Hyper-Calvinist or a Baptist. But the Means have to be God ordained and delineated. The Means operate within the confines of the Covenant. They did not and do not apply to the 'Gentiles' in either the Old or New Testaments. 

As Christians we raise our children in the Lord. But this is within the confines of the Covenant, within the context of the Church. Our children are reckoned part of the Church, holy and in a sanctified relationship with God through Christ. And we raise them accordingly.

Broadening the definition of the Church doesn't make the Church or Covenant bigger, it simply waters down the definitions to the point in which they become all but meaningless.

The Invitation System of Finney and his spiritual descendants watered down Christianity and sought to make Christians through moralistic man-made means. The Christianity it produced was often little more than a veneer. The backlash was the creation of Burned Over Districts, like Western New York, areas almost inoculated to Christianity.

The Sacral Theology of Christendom which birthed American and British Christianity have done this on a large scale. We have Burned Over societies... burned out on Christianity.

Sadly, just as the many folks who have fallen prey to the Cheap Grace gospel of Finney, the majority of people in Western Christendom have never actually encountered Biblical Christianity or its Gospel. And yet at this point it's almost as if the damage has been done.

They will not hear it.

Rather than fall back into old patterns, let us learn from the foolishness and error of JC Ryle. With 20/20 hindsight we can see that he wasn't a prophet but a fool, morally blind to the evil he was supporting and the false Christianity he championed. That said, I don't doubt for a moment Ryle was a Christian. Many of his works, and Murray's too are excellent and I have greatly benefitted from them. But on this point, they couldn't be more mistaken. Their message needs to be heard today. Heard, but not embraced. We need to learn from their error.