I can picture the view from Andy Stanley’s position. He looks out among rolling secular hills and see that more and more millennials are leaving the church, and adopting a religious affiliation of “nones.” He hears the overplayed statistic in the wind that over 80% of teens leave the faith after high school. He watches as the lighting flashes of the New Atheistism storm. He sees bigger clouds of homosexuality and transgenderism not far behind. Then he gazes at the beleaguered ekklesia (a key word for him in this book) and sees them huddled in massive church building (more like a theater) with air conditioning, renditions of Mumford and Sons on stage (yes that has happened at his church), and crazy light shows and tech effects. He asks himself a very American pastoral question, “How can I make Jesus attractive to these people? How can I keep them from leaving the church?”
This is the question that begins this book. He starts with a story from a time he spent visiting house churches in China. He was called out by a little girl who was saved by listening to one of his sermons, and asked the question, “Why doesn’t everyone in America go to church?” He found out that this girl was always in church and she overcame incredible obstacles in order to get there. She loved going to church and went to every Bible study she could. “So,” Stanley reflects, “why doesn’t everybody in America go to church? Why is the church so resistible?”
This is not an invalid question to reflect upon, but from the very beginning Stanley starts looking for the answer in completely the wrong direction. The Bible is very clear why some people are passionate about God’s word and his people, and why others are not.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. – 1st Corinthians 2:14
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. – Romans 8:5-8
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires. Of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” – Ephesians 2:1-3
In this crucial fork in the road, Stanley completely by passes what the Bible identifies as why God’s word and his church are resistible: sin. It is sin which blinds the unbeliever to think that the gospel is folly to him instead of absolutely essential to his dire and hell bound path. And without the quickening of his heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, no amount of lights, smoke, stories, or even logic will take out his heart of stone and give a heart of flesh.
It is also sin which deceives the believer, who has been released from the shackles, to go back to Egypt and once more submit themselves to yoke of slavery. It is sin that keeps the believer’s sunglasses on from beholding the irresistible glory in the face of Jesus Christ. For why is sanctification so hard? Why is growing in a passion for God’s word and his people so difficult? Because Christ is lovingly leading us up the narrow path, the path of crucifixion. To be a Christ follower is to die to yourself. That is painful and absolutely not easy, but there is great joy to be found on the journey.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20, 21
Bonhoeffer’s famous quote comes to mind:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Sin as the fundamental problem as to why people hate, reject, leave, and disbelieve the gospel message and this is never touched upon by Stanley in these first nine chapters. The thesis of the book can be found early on in chapter one: “Mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed. These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. The populist version of cultural Christianity we see today is anchored to two assumptions that creat a straw-man version of our faith.” Notice how he never mentions sin at all! From Stanley’s prospective, the reason why people find the church resistible is because they just haven’t heard good arguments. It is Christianity that is fatally flawed, not the rebel sinner who has a heart of stone.
A Poor Apologetic
While Stanley doesn’t spell out these two assumptions, it is not hard to see where he is going:
“This version of Christianity is simplistic and easily discredited. For decades, college professors with biases against religion have found Christian freshman easy targets.”
“I recently read a blog by a former worship leader who left the faith after she read a book “proving” contradictions in the Bible. Apparently, she grew up believing the foundation of our faith is a non-contradicting book.”
The second quote is the most disturbing. Is Stanley asserting that there are contradictions in the Bible and that it doesn’t matter? I lament with Stanley at the horrific state of apologetics in American Christianity. I work at a school designed to train the next generation of Christian leaders to know what they believe and how to defend their faith. I was that student who was blind-sided by my religion 101 teacher in college. This did not cause me to reject my faith but to roll up my sleeves and go deeper. For most of my Christian experience I have loved apologetics and I have listened to hundreds of hours of lectures and read many books on the subject. But it is a poor apologetic that runs away from the problem. Such an apologetic comes from Christian liberalism, the same liberalism that two-hundred years ago “unhitched” themselves from inerrancy. “The Bible is just a human book that has myths and legends but at the core there is a beautiful kernel of spiritual truth.” That was the refrain. No need to defend those difficult passages!
On a digression, ninety-five percent of “so-called” contradictions in the Bible are not the fault of the Scriptures but of the reader. The 5% of difficult passages that exist have completely plausible and believable solutions that do not violate inerrancy. Jason Lisle has a fantastic resource on this topic that walks through all of the most common contradictions and refutes them one by one.
Why God’s Word Matters
Why does it matter though? Can’t we just go along with Stanley here and say that our faith isn’t dependent on a book full of contradictions? Can’t I just say that I have the resurrected Jesus so that is all I need? Let’s just follow a train of thought here for a moment. If I say that all I need is the risen Jesus and that makes him the living God, then that means that I believe that he is holy, righteous, and the sovereign king of the universe. No sin can be found in him. But if I then say, I believe that Jesus is the risen Lord but his word, the very sixty-six books Paul says are “God breathed,” is full of contradictions and untrue miracles then I have created a massive contradiction for myself. If Jesus is God, and the Bible is his speech, then God is made to be a liar! If the exodus didn’t happen then God is a liar. If Balaam’s donkey didn’t talk, then God is a liar. If Jesus didn’t walk on water, then God is a liar. By definition this means God is not God.
If there are contradictions in the Bible then why would I believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Bart Ehrman, the foremost skeptical New Testament scholar, doesn’t think so. He thinks something happened after Jesus’ crucifixion but it most certainly was not that he rose from dead. You see, by cutting way the “hard” parts of the Bible you just kick the problem down the road. You soon find that there are even more things that need to be cut away.
More to come soon.