Deeds Over Creeds
The English Reformer Hugh Latimer once remarked, “We ought never to regard unity so much that we would or should forsake God’s Word for her sake.” Wise words from a man who went to the stake, rather than compromise the truth of the gospel.
To those whose only concern is the appearance of visible unity among all who call themselves Christians, Latimer’s resolve appears most unattractive. We are repeatedly told by those of this persuasion that the church’s major fault is its deplorable lack of visible unity. Appeal is constantly made to the words of Jesus in John 17, and those who do not join this effort are portrayed as being in serious disagreement with Jesus! This abominable lack of visible unity, they claim, is our greatest sin. And what is chiefly to be blamed for this heinous state of affairs? Doctrine — or to be more precise — doctrinal distinctives. Nowadays we are told that things like the Reformation’s understanding of sola fide, the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, and, particularly, the distasteful notion of endless punishment and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone are an encumbrance to establishing visible Christian unity. But is this notion of visible unity what Jesus intended in His high priestly prayer in John 17? Our Lord’s concern, as Robert Lewis Dabney pointed out last century, is for spiritual unity. The demand for visible unity is not only quite foreign to the text, it constitutes, in the words of Dabney, an enormous blunder. It is, in fact, an idol that is used to stifle any legitimate dissent, and, let me add, it is positively deadly to the health and welfare of the church. I am reminded of the remark of Francis Bacon, the noted English philosopher and statesman of a bygone era: “Unity that is formed on expedience is, in reality, grounded upon an implicit ignorance. As everyone knows, all colors will look the same in the dark.” Times have changed and we are frequently reminded that we need to change with them. If we don’t, we’re going to be perceived as backward and outdated.
In our postmodern times, “tolerance” is valued over truth, and truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder and as such must be extended to everyone, except those disagreeable and critical exponents of truth who hold to absolutes, or, to put it into theological language, those who seek to maintain historical orthodoxy. Tragically, many professing evangelicals are embracing in celebratory fashion a distinctively non-doctrinal mentality when it comes to defining their faith. In part, this sad state of affairs is traceable to the gullible and blatantly naÃ¯ve assumption that the surrounding culture is value-neutral and thus harmless. This manifests itself in the notion that since all things are primarily a matter of personal preferences (such as different lifestyles), then we should celebrate diversity by suspending judgment only to live and let live. Christians who end up buying into this idea fail to recognize that by doing so they are violating the apostle Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world.” Despite the fact that this kind of neutralism accents diversity, it does so in name only. Conformity is actually what drives it. The standard around which neutralism seeks conformity is human autonomy, pure and simple. Not surprisingly, this desire for conformity has a noticeable parallel in Christian circles — the demand for visible unity.
Recently, the motto “deeds over creeds” has once again captured the imagination of the evangelical world. As attractive as this may sound, there is a very steep price to be paid here. How so? According to this notion, it really doesn’t matter what your label is (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, or Baptist). All that matters, apparently, is one’s love for Jesus — everything else is of little concern. This is not the first time we’ve heard this appeal. Over a decade ago, the Promise Keepers marched down this same path. At its 1994 “Seize the Moment” conference in Portland, founder Bill McCartney said, “Promise Keepers doesn’t care if you’re Catholic. Do you love Jesus? Are you born of the Spirit of God?” One-time PK president Randy Phillips continues: “…whatever the labels are should not divide us. …all men are welcome, whether you’re Baptist, Pentecostal, or Roman Catholic. If you are in the body of Christ, then you should certainly be welcome” (Albert James Dager, Media Spotlight, “Promise Keepers: Is What You See What You Get?” p. 20). But it was not simply a question of labels. If that is the case, then the official position of the Church of Latter-day Saints should not be a concern. If individual Mormons claim they love Jesus and are born of the Spirit, why should they be excluded?
Many evangelicals are now banging the same drum: deeds over creeds. But as it turns out, creeds really do matter. Any unity like the kind now being urged on us that is formed apart from creeds and the need for them, is doomed to produce the kind of unity that is polluted by doctrinal impurity. It is the kind of impurity that in the final analysis ends up compromising the truth of the gospel. This is too steep a price to be paid for the sake of visible unity.
Dr. Gary L.W. Johnson is senior pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Mesa, Arizona, and is an editor of By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification.
Pastor’s Perspective is an opportunity each month for a different seasoned pastor to apply the themes discussed in Tabletalk more directly to the life of the layperson and equip the saints for service in the local congregation.