The Bad Theology Gap

One of my favourite mountains is Blencathra, one of the grandest and most beautifully sculpted of all the hills of northern England. Rising almost 3,000 feet in a series of dramatic shattered rock ridges from the fields below, it makes a for a fantastic hike. (I remember dragging my wife—who had never in her life climbed a mountain before—up Blencathra on the very first day of our honeymoon. For the rest of the holiday I was then able to say “Today’s walk is only 80% as hard as day one”, a bribery strategy which was eventually superseded by the judicious use of chocolate).

By far the most impressive route up Blencathra is the ascent via Sharp Edge, an exposed and impressive rock ridges which looks for all the world like ‘a breaking wave carved in stone’.[1] Scramble up the mountain by Sharp Edge and you have to pick your way along its narrow arête with care, especially in the winter: for on one side, a thousand feet of sheer rock plunges vertically to the waters of Scales Tarn whilst on the other side of the ridge, a mass of splintered rock and broken crags tumble down to the river Glenderamackin.

But for all of the adrenalin-inducing exposure that comes with a scramble up the apex of Sharp Edge, the route is nevertheless perfectly safe, provided you keep to the very top of the arête and don’t start fooling around trying to veer off to one side or the other. Keep your balance and keep a straight line and you’ll be fine.

There are parts of Christian theology that are somewhat like this. Concepts and ideas that the Bible insists on holding together that we, often through our urge to simplify, have a tendency to divide. Rather than stick to the theological arête, we delight in plunging down one side of an issue or the other, sliding like a mountain goat with greased hooves as we suddenly discover the cliff is sheerer than we thought. The classic example is the balance between God’s sovereignty and human free will. One has to be wilfully obsessive, obstinate, or utterly selective in one’s reading of scripture to miss the obvious fact that the Bible is very clear: God is sovereign and human beings have significant, meaningful freedom. The Bible has no problem with this and sees no difficulty affirming both. Yet despite that, throughout church history factions have formed, denominations have split apart, hostilities broken out, and nasty emoticons deployed in anger on Twitter by people who want to play off divine sovereignty versus human freedom.

But my concern is that failing to do as the Bible insists and affirming both God’s sovereignty and human freedom has a very negative impact on evangelism. In particular, it leads to two opposite but equally dangerous gaps that can yawn open like abysses, preventing us from pressing on joyfully with evangelism. What are the theological gaps that keep some Christians from evangelising? Well, let’s discover that by taking a look at the two errors that can arise if we disconnect God’s sovereignty and human freedom.

THEOLOGICAL GAP #1 — GOD IS NOT A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER

The first error that we can be tempted to fall into is to take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty. When we begin sliding down this particular cliff face, we forget about scriptures that affirm human freedom and simply focus on those that talk about God’s power and control. On this view, evangelism fades into the background: after all, God has picked ahead of time who will be saved and who will not. Everything has been decided, even programmed in advance, and human beings are just going through the motions, acting out their pre-scripted parts, and nothing we do will change anything: God simply micromanages the whole process. If a person will be saved, they will be saved, whether we share Christ with them or not.

There are a myriad problems with this view. First, if we are not careful, it can become full-blown fatalism—with not merely evangelism but everything seen through this lens. We can’t change anything, we have no responsibility, and we just become passive and helpless. Why even struggle to pursue holiness, or do justice, or avoid sin, if we are just puppets on a string? Second, this view is devastating for evangelism which becomes pointless. Why bother doing it if God has already set up the game in advance? (At best one might say ‘Because God commanded it’, but it’s still pretty de-incentivising: evangelism does nothing, God might equally have commanded us to balance a kipper on our nose). Or we can just do evangelism really, really badly —why bother to work hard at sharing our faith, if evangelism effectively has nothing to do with us? All in all, this particular theological gap is totally demotivating and it can lead Christians to an attitude of simply sitting back and doing nothing at all.

But more significantly, this particular theological error ignores numerous parts of scripture. For example, in the gospels, Jesus sent out the 12 and then the 72 on preaching missions (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-16) and Jesus was overjoyed at the results (Luke 10:17-20). He also commanded all of his followers to “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Then there’s the book of Acts, which one might subtitle The Book of Evangelism and Mission. The very first sermon, preached by Peter on the Day of Pentecost, sees the crowds ask “What shall we do to be saved?” (Acts 2:37) and Peter doesn’t reply, “Well, those of you who are preselected, step through door number 1 …” but rather “Repent and be baptised, every one of you” (Acts 2:38). And then we might point to those scriptures that emphasise the universality of God’s love (John 3:16), or which call for all to repent (Acts 17:30), or which promise that all who call on God will be saved (Romans 10:13).

So, if your evangelism lacks a certain oomph because you have become passive, maybe you’re at risk of sliding down this side of the arête and into this particular theological gap. How can you overcome it? Start by reflecting on God’s love of all and his gift of freedom; read through some of the scriptural passages (especially the commands about) evangelism and disciple-making; and in your prayers, thank God for the privilege of him choosing to involve us and inviting us to partner with him in sharing the good news. What an amazing honour that he would do that!

THEOLOGICAL GAP #2 — HUMANS ARE NOT THE CENTRE OF THE STORY

But there’s another, opposite error that we can plunge into if we fall off the other side of the theological ridge and that’s the error of thinking that everything (or at least everything that really matters) is about human beings and our choices. On this view, God would never (or even in extreme forms of this view, cannot) override our will and so everything becomes about us. When it comes to evangelism, the emphasis is placed on humans and their choices—it is humans who search for or seek God, humans who decide for themselves whether they will follow God or not, and humans who are ultimately the deciders of who will, or will not, spend eternity with Jesus. In extreme forms of this view, even God doesn’t know who will be saved (presumably God will spend the first thousand years of the eternity saying “Fancy seeing you here!” every time he meets somebody new).

It goes without saying that there are numerous problems with this theology. In a bizarre mirror image of the first error, this time it is God who is the passive actor—buffeted about and restricted by the choices of billions of human beings. He is weak, even helpless, boxed in by our preferences and our decisions. When it comes to evangelism, that becomes all about us: it is down to us and our efforts to persuade, bribe, cajole, or motivate our friends to follow Christ as we, through our rhetoric and intellect try to overcome their willpower. All of which is terribly demotivating and usually leads to paralysis and fear: What if I’m not a talented enough evangelist? How will I ever forgive myself if somebody doesn’t become a Christian? Have I done enough—maybe I could do more, more, more! Unintentionally, we have become the centre of the story and God has become side-lined.

This theological error has also ignored large portions of scripture. For example, Jesus said “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44). Or consider the book of Acts, which might equally be subtitled The Book of God at Work, since God is the main character in it, a point made in statements like “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). And then we come to books like Ephesians, with its crystal clear assertion that “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

So, if your evangelism lacks a certain pizzazz because you are afraid that you’re not good enough, that your efforts will be in vain, how can you arrest your slide into this theological gap and get yourself back onto the biblical ridge? Start reflecting on the fact that God is in ultimate control and our freedom operates under this protection; read through some of the scriptures about God’s love for the human race (his love for the lost is far greater than ours!); and in your prayers, thank God for the wonderful freedom this brings—we have the joy of taking part in God’s mission, but don’t have to carry the load or the burden. Rather we can relax and enjoy that God chooses to work through us.

CONCLUSION: GOD’S WORK THROUGH US

The more you soak yourself in the scriptures, the more it becomes inescapably obvious that the Bible holds together both truths: yes, God is sovereign and yes, he has given us significant freedom. To ignore either truth is rather like shouting “Arêtes are for wimps!” before leaping off one side of Sharp Edge or the other. You’d better have Mountain Rescue, or ideally the local undertaker, on speed dial. And besides, if our fallible attempts at theology can’t fully hold together these two great and wonderful biblical truths, then “So much for your theology!” would, I think, be the Bible’s answer.[2]

Indeed, sometimes in many stories in the Bible about evangelism one sees these themes in the very same text. For example, think of the story of Jonah, a whale of a tale and one of the most famous episodes in the Old Testament. The Lord commands Jonah to go to Nineveh (God could have thundered from the sky, but sent Jonah). Jonah then acts very freely and leaps on a boat headed in literally the opposite direction. God then demonstrates his power and sends a storm and a giant fish. Finally Jonah goes to Nineveh and begrudgingly preaches what is, quite frankly, a fairly rubbish and short sermon (just five words in the Hebrew!) Despite all that, the whole city full of people freely turn in repentance and are saved. Thus we see God’s sovereignty and human freedom woven together throughout the story. As Glen Scrivener puts it:

The great evangelist of the Bible is not Jonah, it’s the Lord. And that’s great news because by the Spirit, the Lord continues to reach out through rubbish evangelists like Jonah, like me, like you. As you seek to share your faith with others today, take heart: nothing can thwart God’s gospel mission to the ends of the earth—not even you can thwart it. Because “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).[3]

So if you think you think that you might be in danger of falling into the theological gap and it keeping you from evangelism, why not bring this to the Lord in prayer:

Father God, thank you that you are on the throne and I can trust you with everything!
Thank you, Lord, for your love for the world and thank you for choosing to work through us to reach the lost with the gospel.
Please forgive me for the times I let bad theology get in the way of your plans and your work!
Please would you work through me to reach my friends, neighbours, and colleagues with the forgiveness and peace that is to be found in Jesus.
Please help me trust you to work through my efforts, however weak and feeble.
In Jesus’s name, Amen!

[1]        A. Wainwright, A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, Book 5, The Northern Fells. (London: Frances Lincoln, 2003) Blencathra 25.

[2]        The famous preacher and evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, once said: “There is a great deal of truth in the positive side of both systems, and a great deal of error in the negative side of both systems. If I were asked, ‘Why is a man damned?’ I should answer as an Arminian answers, ‘He destroys himself’. I should not dare to lay man’s ruin at the door of Divine sovereignty. On the other hand, if I were asked, ‘Why is a man saved?’ I could only give the Calvinist answer, ‘He is saved through the sovereign grace of God, and not at all of himself.” Source: Charles H. Spurgeon, vol. 22, Spurgeon’s Sermons, Volume 22, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Spurgeon’s Sermons. Sermon No. 1271, also available online here).

[3]        Glen Scrivener, Reading Between the Lines, Volume 1. (Leyland: 10Publishing, 2018) p. 469.