by Phil Johnson

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland — usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will “accidentally” swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.


The following except was written by Phil back in February 2012. Phil recounted an encounter during a trip overseas that highlights the bankruptcy of “performance art” as a substitute for preaching the Gospel.

As usual, the comments are closed.

This past week I've been thinking a lot about my first visit to Kiev, with John MacArthur, more than 20 years ago. I remember those days clearly. It was late September and early October 1991, exactly 50 years after the Nazis slaughtered 33,771 Jews at a Kiev ravine called Babi Yarand less than two months after the collapse of the Soviet Union. People were hungry—starved—for the gospel.

Since then I have been to some 35 countries on five continents, and I've never seen any culture more eager to listen to the gospel than Ukraine (and the rest of the former Soviet Union) in 1991. The churches I visited were all crowded. A steady stream of recent converts gave their testimonies in every service I attended. Each new believer was brought to the front of the church and encouraged to “repent.” And they did—confessing their sins with heartfelt remorse, and verbally professing their newfound faith in Christ with overflowing joy and enthusiasm. It was amazing and uplifting and deeply convicting to someone like me, who had become somewhat sluggish spiritually with the comforts and refinements (and superficiality) of Western evangelicalism.

Anyway, one of my most vivid memories of Kiev in 1991 was a day we were walking across a public square in downtown Kiev with a bundle of Russian gospel tracts and Scripture booklets. Ukrainian people crowded around us, clamoring to get one. I was caught quite off guard by the suddenness and enthusiasm of people's response. The moment was unforgettable.

But we weren't the only Western Christians in the square that day. There was a group of “gospel clowns” and mimes from some American church, and we inadvertently interrupted their performance, because even the people who had been watching them suddenly ran over to get gospel literature from us as we approached the center of the square. One of the mimes glared at me. And then, breaking character, he said something to me in English. He wanted us to move on so that they could get on with the task of pantomiming the gospel.

To this day it amazes and appalls me that anyone confronted with the openness of Eastern Europeans in the wake of the Soviet collapse would think wordless “performance art” is a better medium for declaring the gospel than straightforward preaching, simple one-on-one witnessing, and plain-language gospel literature. It's like anti-contextualization—culturally insensitive, incomprehensible to the target culture, and tainted with the scent of spiritual jingoism—but I'm certain those mimes believed their method was the very epitome of innovative “relevance.”

And it occurs to me: That reflects precisely how multitudes of American evangelicals still think. They are more enthralled with their clever methodologies and ingenious “contextualizations” than they are with the gospel itself. Honestly, they seem at times to love their own flamboyance far more than they care about lost souls.

A lot of what's called ministry these days is mere spectacle. Authentic apostolic-style gospel ministry is nothing like performance art.

When evangelical megachurches gave up the pulpit for a stage; traded psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs for AC/DC tracks; hired vaudevillians instead of pastors; and turned away their ears from the truth to follow fables, they chose a path of apostasy.

The only way back starts with repentance.


In February 1906, William J. Seymour, a 24-year-old, one-eyed son of former slaves, began what had been planned as a one-month visit to Los Angeles. Seymour was a preacher based in Houston who had become convinced that speaking in tongues was the first evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Barred from many churches in Los Angeles, he and a group of followers began a series of meetings in the home of Richard and Ruth Asberry at 214 North Bonnie Brae Street. They prayed, they pleaded with God, they fasted, and finally, after five weeks, a man named Edward S. Lee spoke in tongues for the first time. Others soon followed, and Bonnie Brae House soon became known as the spot where the modern Pentecostal movement began. For that reason, it is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are telling the history of Christianity.

Bonnie Brae HouseThe Pentecostal movement is such a significant force within Christianity today that it can be difficult to believe that it, in the sweep of Christian history, it is still in its infancy. The history of the Reformation, the history of the Great Awakening, the history of the early missionary movement—these were times where God was powerful present and powerfully accomplishing his purposes and plans. Yet the signs and wonders that marked the early church—the prophecies and miracles and speaking in tongues—were neither sought nor seen.

And then, rather suddenly, there were Pentecostals, those who longed for and believed in the restoration of the apostolic power of the early church. Most historians believe that Pentecostalism emerged from the American and British revival movements of the late nineteenth century. One of the significant themes during these times was holiness and a higher life. Many taught that the end times were near and that during this time the church should expect a great outpouring of God’s power through signs and wonders.

Charles Parham, a holiness pastor and evangelist, was an early leader in this movement. In 1900 he founded a school near Topeka, Kansas, where he taught that speaking in tongues was the first and necessary evidence of baptism with the Holy Spirit. On January 1, 1901, many of his students prayed for and experienced tongues, believing that God had given them miraculous knowledge of foreign languages. Parham soon closed his school and began a four-year tour through Kansas and Missouri, propagating his teaching. In 1905, he settled in Houston, Texas, where he founded a second school and among his most devoted students was William J. Seymour.

On April 9, 1906, under Seymour’s influence, Edward Lee spoke in tongues for the first time. Almost immediately several others began doing the same, and the small congregation believed they were experiencing a modern-day Pentecost. Just a few days later Seymour himself would have his first experience of tongues-speaking.

The news of this event spread rapidly and soon people of all religious, ethnic, and financial stripes began to migrate to Bonnie Brae Street, eager to see what was happening and to experience it themselves. The crowds quickly grew so large that it became difficult to even come near the house. The sheer number of people pressing up against the house undermined the foundation and caused the front porch to collapse, though amazingly, no one was hurt. Within a week of the outbreak of revival the church had to look for a larger facility and they soon settled in a former African Methodist Episcopal Church at 312 Azusa Street. Having begun on April 9, the Azusa Street Revival would carry on for 9 years.

The services there were enthusiastic and chaotic:

Worship at 312 Azusa Street was frequent and spontaneous with services going almost around the clock. Among those attracted to the revival were not only members of the Holiness Movement, but also Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, and Presbyterians. … Among first-hand accounts were reports of the blind having their sight restored, diseases cured instantly, and immigrants speaking in German, Yiddish, and Spanish all being spoken to in their native language by uneducated black members, who translated the languages into English by “supernatural ability”. … Singing was sporadic and in a cappella or occasionally in tongues. There were periods of extended silence. Attenders were occasionally slain in the Spirit. Visitors gave their testimony, and members read aloud testimonies that were sent to the mission by mail. There was prayer for the gift of tongues. There was prayer in tongues for the sick, for missionaries, and whatever requests were given by attenders or mailed in. There was spontaneous preaching and altar calls for salvation, sanctification and baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Beginning in September 1906, only five months after revival began, Seymour began publishing a newsletter called The Apostolic Faith so he could communicate what was happening at Azusa Street. Copies were printed and distributed freely worldwide. The publication proved hugely influential across America and across the world. It drew many people to the revival and convinced many others that they, too, could experience the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. What had begun in Bonnie Brae House soon spanned the globe.

Today Bonnie Brae House is owned by the Church of God in Christ and is a museum, open to the public, though only by appointment. The porch has been rebuilt and the house looks much as it did in 1906. It houses a variety of exhibits, including portraits of William Seymour and several of the important leaders of the early revival. The house is still regarded as a special location, as evidenced by a recent report in Charisma: “The Los Angeles Revival broke out Friday night on Bonnie Brae Street with the laying on of hands by evangelist Verna Linzey, who was the keynote speaker and minister. The revival saw ecstatic utterances, slaying in the Spirit, violent quaking, crying, tears, people falling on their faces, hands lifted up toward the heavens, screaming in the Spirit, calling the fiery Holy Ghost down from heaven. Event organizers say they’re seeing a repeat of the initial outbreak of the revival in 1906, except more people were present this time.”

Seymour PortraitFrom that inauspicious beginning, Pentecostalism experienced a meteoric rise. Though estimates vary, we do know that today there are some 600 million Pentecostals around the world, and they trail only Roman Catholics as the largest force within Christendom. Bonnie Brae House sparked a religious fervor that shows no signs of decline.

Designer Babies

The headline says it all: “The Dawn of the Designer Babies.” Scientists have developed a new technology meant to eliminate genetic abnormalities in newborns. They do this by combining the DNA of three people instead of only two. The procedure has been successfully tested in monkeys and now the FDA is considering whether the trial should expand to humans. At first the procedure would be available only to women who are likely to pass on debilitating genetic diseases to their children. After that? Well, we can only imagine.

The history of technology shows that we would far rather ask the “can we?” questions than the “should we?” questions. We are more interested in ability than morality. Lest we get cocky, we ought to admit that this is true in the small picture as much as the big picture, in the living room as much as the laboratory. Our relationship to technology is such that on some level we tacitly believe technology’s gifts to us must be good. We believe this when the new social network or the new cell phone comes along and we believe this when the new experimental procedure comes along.

According to Fox, this new “experimental technique, if approved for use, would allow a woman to give birth to a baby who inherits her normal nucleus DNA but not her defective mitochondrial DNA.” In order “to accomplish this, researchers would remove the nucleus DNA from a healthy female donor’s eggs and replace it with the nucleus DNA of the prospective mother. After fertilization, the resulting child would inherit the mother’s nucleus DNA — which contains most inherited traits like eye color and height — but the donor’s healthy mitochondrial DNA.”

On a pragmatic level, this makes all kinds of sense. It promises to further eliminate diseases and abnormalities, goals that are well within our God-given mandate of filling this earth and exercising dominion over it. On an ethical and spiritual level it is troubling. The slippery slope implications are especially disquieting because this same technology could be used to craft custom-built, designer children, a specific combination of traits according to the parent’s specifications. Once we allow designer children, we will not be far from expecting designer children. Once we can eliminate genetic abnormalities, it will not be long before we should eliminate genetic abnormalities, where it is considered downright cruel not to eliminate them. When this happens, the disabled and those who brought them into the world will be further marginalized. We could discuss the implications all day long.

But I want to make narrower observations. It never ceases to amaze me how the world breaks down when people will not look to the Bible in order to gain God’s perspective on matters like these. The Bible assures us we are so marred by sin and so full of ourselves, that in order to know ourselves, in order to know God, and in order to know how to live in this world, we must gain God’s perspective through his Word. When we read and believe and obey and trust the Bible, our outlook is absolutely transformed. We are given God’s eyes to see this world.

This is exactly the case when it comes to designer babies, because here’s the thing: The Bible tells that we already have designer babies, children custom-crafted by an all-good and all-knowing God. This is true if our babies are exactly the way we had wished and imagined and it is true if our babies are the very opposite of what we had wished and imagined. It is true if our babies are healthy and “normal” and it is true if our babies are unhealthy and severely disabled. They are all designer children.

We see this in John 9. There Jesus and his disciples pass by a man who has been blind since birth—a genetic abnormality, perhaps—and they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus turns right away from the cause of the blindness to the purpose behind the blindness: the works of God. The glory of God. God. That is why this man was born this way: God. Piper says it well:

When there is a defective chromosome or some genetic irregularity in the sperm that is about to fertilize an egg, God can simply say no. He commands the winds. He commands the waves. He commands the sperm and the genetic makeup of the egg. If God foresees and permits a conception that he knows will produce blindness, he has reasons for this permission. And those reasons are his purposes. His designs. His plans. God never has met a child from whom he had no plan. There are no accidents in God’s mind or hands.

God does not display himself and his glory only through normalcy, but also through abnormality. God does not display himself only through ability, but also through inability and disability. God does not display himself only through strength, but also through weakness.

We do well to end suffering when we are able to. We do well to cure disease and eliminate curable pain. But we dare not step into God’s place as those who will design babies according to our plan rather than his. We dare not trust our goodness ahead of his goodness, our wisdom ahead of his wisdom. Sometimes God’s good and wise plans involve something we would not choose and would never design, such as a child with a severe genetic abnormality. But when we trust a good and wise God, we rejoice that the works of God might be displayed in all of these.

Crucifixion Not the Cross

Last week I compared The Passion of the Christ to the forthcoming Son of God, a film set to release later this week. I meant to point out that we can’t expect a movie to do what God promises only the Word will do. I also wanted to suggest similarities between the two movies and to draw attention to the obvious attempts from the marketing team behind Son of God to apply lessons learned during the brouhaha surrounding The Passion of the Christ. Today I want to dig in just a little bit more. I suppose I am going to be a tad contrary here, but I want to give us something to think about before we buy our tickets.

Now listen: I know many people who read this site have thought about the movie, will go to see it, and will enjoy it. I also know many people who read this site will not go to see the movie because they too have thought about it and are convicted it would be wrong for them to go. I believe this is one of those areas in which Christians need to acknowledge that some will believe the very opposite of what they themselves believe. Convictions will vary, even among Christians of the same theological stripe, which makes it an ideal time to obey Romans 14 and to refuse to pass judgment on one another.

Before moving on, let’s distinguish between two related terms: crucifixion and cross. I will allow David Wells to describe the difference: “The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness.” According to this definition, many were crucified, but only One went to the cross.

Here is what I want to think about: A film cannot adequately capture the reality of what transpired between the Father and the Son while the Son hung upon the cross. If this is true, a film that displays the crucifixion but misses the cross might actually prove a hindrance rather than a help to the Christian faith. Even the best movie will still be hampered by a grave weakness.

Words and pictures are very different media, and in the history of redemption, God has used both. For example, in the Old Testament God used words to record prophecies about the coming Messiah while in the tabernacle he provided pictures of the coming Messiah and what he would accomplish—an altar for sacrifice, a lamb to be slaughtered, incense rising to God. Words can tell truth while pictures can display truth.

When it comes to the cross, God has given us four written eyewitness accounts but no visual accounts. Why is this? The Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know, though, is that every medium has limitations. While visual media are excellent at conveying feelings, they are poorly suited to conveying ideas. Words are able to tell what happened at the cross in a way that pictures cannot.

At the cross we encounter something no picture can tell. Its reality cannot be displayed. Even the eyewitnesses of the cross, those who saw it all unfold, walked away ignorant that day, needing words to explain what had happened there. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see excruciating physical suffering; when we read about the cross, our hearts recoil at soul-crushing spiritual suffering. When we see the crucifixion, our eyes see soldiers punishing an innocent man; when we read about the cross, our minds grapple with God the Father pouring out his wrath upon his sinless Son. When we see the crucifixion, we see a man stripped naked and slowly dying; when we read about the cross we see Christ Jesus clothed in our unrighteousness. When it comes to understanding the cross, only words will do, only words are sufficient.

David Wells explains this in a powerful way in his new book God in the Whirlwind:

[Crucifixion] was a death that many others had also suffered. In fact, it was an event so common in the first-century Roman world that Jesus’s crucifixion almost passed unnoticed. For the soldiers who carried it out, it was an unexceptional part of their routine. As for the Jewish leaders who had opposed Christ, it was a fitting end to their problem. Soon, they were back to business as usual. And although the resurrection was to happen shortly thereafter, and although the disciples were to be emboldened in their preaching, and although the Holy Spirit was to authenticate what they said by miracles, the historians of that day also missed the significance of this event.

There is a distinction between the crucifixion and the cross. The former was a particularly barbaric way of carrying out an execution, and it was the method of execution that Jesus endured. The latter, as the New Testament speaks of it, has to do with the mysterious exchange that took place in Christ’s death, an exchange of our sin for his righteousness. It was there that our judgment fell on the One who is also our Judge. Indeed, he who had made all of creation was dishonored in the very creation he had made. And yet, through this dark moment, this fierce judgment, through this dishonor, there now shines the light of God’s triumph over sin, death, and the Devil. And in this moment, this moment of Jesus’s judgment-death, God was revealed in his holy-love as nowhere else.

This, however, was not seen from the outside. Besides Christ’s cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)—there was little to indicate what was really happening. For that we need to think back to the Old Testament with its prophetic foretelling of the cross and to Jesus’s own expressed understanding of it, and we need to look on to the apostles for their more complete exposition of it. Without this, the meaning of Christ’s death is lost on us. We would see the execution but, without God’s explicating revelation, it would remain mute. It would be a death like any other death except for its disgrace. God must interpret his own actions, and so he has. Without this, we too are mute.

That is why dramatic presentations of Christ’s death, such as on TV and in movies, so often miss the point. They give us the crucifixion, not the cross. They show the horrifying circumstances of his death. These circumstances may be shown accurately. But this can take us only so far. It leaves us with only a biographical Christ, who may be interesting, but not with the eternal Christ whom we need for our salvation. The crucifixion without the cross is an incomplete picture, a half-told story. What is omitted is the meaning of the event. We do not carry this meaning within ourselves, nor can we find it in this world. What eludes us is something we have to be given by God himself, for only he can say what was happening within the Godhead as Christ was killed and, in his death, atoned for our sin. This is indispensable to the meaning of Christian faith. Without it, Christ’s death is only a martyrdom and Christian faith is just a nice, moral religion but one that is neither unique nor uniquely true.

The cross of Christ is not less than the crucifixion, but it is certainly far, far more. Don’t believe you understand more about the cross by witnessing a dramatic recreation of the crucifixion. Before you line up to see Son of God, do at least consider what Wells says: the film leaves us with a biographical Christ, an incomplete picture, a half-told story. Those who see the film without being told the rest of the story may actually understand less about the person and work of Christ than if they had never seen it at all.

Note: A moment ago I said that God has given us no visual representations of the cross, but that is not strictly true. He did give us one: The Lord’s Supper. It may be worth challenging yourself whether you are more excited to see the film or to remember what Christ did at the cross by participating in that God-given picture.

We All Feel Like Frauds

Sometimes we all feel like frauds. At times we feel like everyone else is experiencing something so wonderful while we are just putting on a show. Their relationships are so deep, their friendships are so real, their faith is so strong, their worship is so heartfelt, their marriage is so satisfying. But our relationships are so shallow, our friendships are so fake, our faith is so weak, our worship is so distracted, our marriage is so difficult.

That’s life under this sun. It’s a life of inadequacy, a life where we are never as fulfilled and satisfied as we want to be. For all the genuine joys this life brings, there is still and always the lingering sorrow of all that life is not and will never be.

Sometimes I like to sit and think about the books that push their way onto the lists of bestsellers. Almost by definition, each of the books that sells a half million or a million copies is addressing some kind of deep felt need. After all, why else would you buy it and why else would you recommend it to a friend except that it meets you where you’re at—it promises help in an area in which you feel incomplete or inadequate.

  • The Purpose Driven Life promised to answer the ultimate question of life by helping us find our purpose. And who hasn’t felt unmoored, adrift, and purposeless in this world?
  • Jesus Calling promised us more than hearing from God through the Bible. It held out the promise, or the possibility, that Jesus might speak to us in a new and fresh way and, perhaps even better, in a personal way.
  • The Five Love Languages promised that it would give us better and longer-lasting relationships as we figured out how to relate in healthier ways.
  • The Shack promised a new way to understand God and a much more personal way to relate to him than any we have known this side of Eden.
  • 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is For Real—and all the other entries in the “I Went to Heaven” genre—promised answers to what we can only take by faith: that there is hope and life beyond the grave.
  • Radical promised to help us shake off the unfulfilling dullness of the American Dream and to pursue something so much bigger and nobler than the accumulation of possessions and a savings account.
  • Your Best Life Now promised that our lives could be better and happier, more fulfilling and more positive.

And on it goes. Every time a book hits the list of bestsellers, it is worth asking why it is there and what need it promises to address. There is the occasional exception, the occasional book that sells a million copies based on the popularity of the author (see anything related to Duck Dynasty) or because of brilliant marketing, but most books make the list because we put them there as we try to find answers to our deepest needs. Some of the most popular authors are adept at writing to our needs, even if they don’t answer them in a compelling and satisfying way.

A year ago I wrote about this very topic and suggested that the solution is found in Ecclesiastes and the single word Vapor. This was the refuge of Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Has anyone ever written words than ring truer? We are dissatisfied because we must be dissatisfied. God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) but we locked ourselves in a temporal world. God created us to find our highest joy and delight in him, but we chose to seek delight in the things he made. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. Even those of us who have been drawn back to the Creator still turn to this side and that, to this idol and that.

We can cry out that we were made for more, that we were meant for more, from now until eternity. We will cry out from now until eternity. We will simply be expressing what Solomon told us so much more pointedly so many years ago. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This world cannot deliver all we want from it. This life cannot deliver all the satisfaction we long for.

This dissatisfaction is ugly when it paralyzes us with guilt or when it motivates us to act rashly out of guilt. It is unhelpful when it traps us in complacency and despair. Solomon did not advocate guilt, he did not cry out in complacency and hopelessness. Far from it.

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

This dissatisfaction is a gift when it motivates us to pursue the best and purest source of delight. God’s gift to us is that we find all the pleasure we can, all the pleasure there is, in the good things of this life. God’s gift is that we can pause and enjoy the rich scent of a rose in full bloom. We can linger in lovemaking and enjoy the pleasure of every sensation. We can watch the sunset until darkness has taken the sun’s last ray from the sky. These are pleasures to enjoy to the full and with God’s richest blessing.

Even two thousand years ago Solomon could say, “Of making many books there is no end.” There is no end of books that expose our dissatisfaction and propose solutions. None of the solutions last. None of the solutions deliver all we want and all we long for. You could follow every application in every one of those books and you would still be discontent. We will all die dissatisfied, still longing for more. But. But those who die in Christ have the great promise that we will awake to all the pleasures, all the satisfaction we have ever longed for, and so much more besides.

The False Teachers

Last week I set out on a new series of articles through which I intend to scan the history of the church—from its earliest days all the way to the present time—to examine some of Christianity’s most notorious false teachers. Along the way we will visit such figures as Arius, Servetus, Fosdick, and even a few you might find on television today. We continue this morning with a false teacher whose teaching can still be found today, though most often in a reduced form. His name is Pelagius.

Pelagius

Historians believe that Pelagius was born in Britain around the year 354. We know little about his early years, but do know that at some point he became a monk and in that capacity journeyed to Rome. While in Rome, Pelagius began to write theological works, though, except for a few fragments, these have been lost and are known to us only through quotes in the writings of those who refuted him. He began to promote a rigorous asceticism, apparently out of concern for the moral laxity he saw among many Roman Christians. This austere lifestyle made him attractive to many Romans and he soon gained a considerable following. One person in particular, a lawyer named Celestius, became a devoted follower and promoter of Pelagius’ teachings.

It is said that at one time Pelagius heard a quote from Augustine’s Confessions—“Command what you will, and give what you command”—and blamed such teaching for the lack of morality in the church. He believed that Augustine was teaching doctrine contrary to a biblical understanding of both grace and free will and believed such teaching turned man into a mere automaton. Contrary to Augustine, “Pelagius taught that human beings have a natural capacity to reject evil and seek God, that Christ’s admonition, “Be ye perfect,” presupposes this capacity, and that grace is the natural ability given by God to seek and to serve God” (Theopedia).

When the Visigoths attacked Rome in 410, Pelagius and Celestius fled together to Carthage in North Africa. Pelagius’ influence began to spread there as well, causing concern for Augustine who responded by publishing several works that refuted and counteracted Pelagius. After a couple of years in Africa, Pelagius moved to Palestine and Augustine promptly warned Jerome that Pelagius was spreading a seditious heresy. Jerome, too, labored to prevent this false teaching from spreading in the East.

In 416 the church in North Africa held two separate synods to examine Pelagius’ teachings and both of them condemned him. Their results were sent to pope Innocent I for his decision, and upon receiving them he excommunicated Pelagius and Celestius. However, less than two months later, pope Innocent died and he was succeeded by Zosimus. Pelagius and Celestius asked Zosimus to reconsider the previous pope’s decision. When he did so there was alarm in North Africa and yet another synod was immediately convened to beg him not to repeal the prior pope’s sentence until it could be proven that the two men had clearly denounced their false beliefs.

Zosimus listened to these pleas and commanded that another council be convened to consider and decide the matter. In May of 418, the Council of Carthage once again branded Pelagianism as a heresy and Pelagius was expelled from Jerusalem. He settled in Egypt, and was never heard from again. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, Pelagius and Celestius were officially declared heretics by the entire church.

False Teaching

Pelagius believed that man had not been entirely corrupted by Adam’s fall and that he could, by his own free will, do works that pleased God, and thus be saved. This led Pelagius to deny the doctrines of original sin and predestination, and to deny the need for special grace to be saved. Essentially, he believed that man is basically good and moral and that even pagans can enter heaven through their virtuous moral actions.

Monergism summarizes in this way: “Jesus Christ, was a good example. Salvation is a matter chiefly of following Christ instead of Adam, rather than being transferred from the condemnation and corruption of Adam’s race and placed ‘in Christ,’ clothed in his righteousness and made alive by his gracious gift. What men and women need is moral direction, not a new birth; therefore, Pelagius saw salvation in purely naturalistic terms—the progress of human nature from sinful behavior to holy behavior, by following the example of Christ.”

Followers and Modern Adherents

Though church councils condemned Pelagianism as heresy, this did not immediately crush the teaching. In the early church, Pelagianism was carried on by Julian, Bishop of Eclanum, one of eighteen Italian bishops who refused to sign the papal decree and who were consequently exiled. To advocate Pelagianism was to battle Augustine, and Julian did this until Augustine’s death, though he was never able to gain as great a following as Pelagius. Over the next century or so, Pelagianism broke out a handful of times, but the councils condemned it so consistently and strongly that by the sixth century it had been nearly eradicated.

Pure Pelagianism has not resurfaced in a major way during the past fifteen hundred years, but a modified form took root in the sixteenth century through the teachings of Jacob Arminius whose beliefs are often described as semi-Pelagian. Semi-Pelagianism teaches that while humanity is tainted by sin, we are not so tainted that we cannot cooperate with God’s free offer of grace. Calvinists tend to describe Arminianism as a form of semi-Pelagianism, though Arminians tend to consider the label unfair.

Perhaps the closest modern-day successor to Pelagius was Charles Finney. Like Pelagius, he denied original sin saying “Moral depravity is sin itself, and not the cause of sin.” He believed the whole notion of a sinful nature is “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma” and taught that we are all born in a state of moral neutrality, able to choose between good and evil—to choose between being good or being sinful.

What the Bible says

The Bible teaches that we were created to be good, but because of Adam’s Fall we are all born in a state of total depravity—spiritually dead in our sin—and that we are wholly dependent upon God’s supernatural grace for salvation and new life. Our wills are not free to do what is righteous or even to desire to do what is righteous. We need to be born again by God before we can begin to do even the least deed that is pleasing to God. (See, for example, Ephesians 2:1-9, Titus 3:3-8; Romans 6:17-18.)

Today, Orthodox Christians confidently proclaim because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all of creation is fallen; we are all born in sin and guilt, corrupt in our nature and unable to keep God’s law (New City Catechism, Answer 14).

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, volume 31, sermon number 1,836, “First healing and then service.”

“What glory Jesus casts upon common things!”

Would it not be well if many Christian people had some little consideration when they are choosing a house, as to whether it will be convenient for the hearing of the word?

Do you not think that a great many professors look chiefly for every other kind of advantage, and, when they have virtually made their choice, they afterwards enquire into the very secondary item of their nearness to a place where they may worship God, enjoy Christian fellowship, and be useful?

There are some in this congregation who have moved to this part of town to become members of an earnest, prayerful church. Such believers feel that the first consideration in life must be the health of their souls, the benefiting of their children, and their usefulness in promoting the cause of Christ.

When they have made the selection of a house in that way and for that reason, they have found a blessing resting upon them, according to the promise, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Some who have forgotten this rule, and, like Lot, chosen the well-watered plains of Sodom, have lived to rue their choice. Although the house may be commodious, and the position convenient, these advantages will not make up for losing the means of grace and missing opportunities of holy service.

When Mephibosheth lived at Lo-debar, the place of no pasture, David fetched him up to Jerusalem, where he himself delighted to dwell. It would be well for many a limping brother if he made a like change.


by Dan Phillips

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland — usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will “accidentally” swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.


The following except was written by Dan back in April 2006. The topic was the proper approach to dealing with Biblical metaphors.

As usual, the comments are closed.

Thank God that the Bible as a whole doesn't read like a legal document or — worse — anything written by any department of any branch of any government. Whereas legaloids, bureaucrats and eggheads tend to generate documents addressed mostly to themselves and the rarefied atmosphere of their peers, the Bible is addressed to craftsmen, tradesmen, farmers, parents, kids. Folks like us.

For that reason the Bible bristles with vibrantly colorful ways of communication, including stories, riddles, poems, aphorisms, personal letters, alliterations, similes and metaphors. We pretty instinctively know what a metaphor does: it illustrates something about something. It doesn't illustrate everything about anything. We shouldn't go nuts with it.

So when we read that Yahweh is our Shepherd (Psalm 23:1), we're usually smart enough to let the psalm itself bring out the implications of that word picture. We don't go nuts, and depict God as wandering around in the desert, carrying a literal stick, picking grit out of His stew and being bitten by bugs. That's leagues beyond, and beside, the point of the metaphor.

On the other hand, of course we don't sniff, “Well, of course, He isn't literally a shepherd,” and then simply ignore the point of the psalm. The metaphor is used for a purpose, and we're both fools and the poorer for it if we evade that purpose.

We should similarly avoid going to either extreme when it comes to Biblical metaphors applied to believers. There are many of them.

Take the one I think is most misunderstood: disciple. What does that word itself mean? Ask any church gathering and, assuming that you know the answer, you'll be a bit disheartened. “Follower?” the first brave soul will venture. “Apostle?” “Believer?” “Disciplined, uh, person?”

They'll all mean well, and they'll all probably be wrong, because disciple has just become one of those words we use without definition. In Greek, it's quite unambigous. Mathetes is related to the verb manthano, which means “I learn,” and it simply means “a learner,” “a pupil,” “a student.” (See how much better sense that understanding makes of Matthew 28:18-20, and John 8:31-32.)

It's a neglected and much-needed metaphor, in my view. How many professed Christians come to church, Sunday after Sunday, mentally and physically prepared to do everything but learn? No pen, no pencil; no laptop, parchment, crayon, stub of coal. More often than I can bear to think, no Bible. They simply come to watch, to observe, perhaps to sing, hopefully to be entertained to some degree — but not to participate, not to catch what they hear, tie it up, make it their own, and do something with it. They feel that their mere bodily presence fulfills all requirements.

So we'd move on a good bit towards the reality of Hebrews 5:11-14 if we stressed that image, that picture, that metaphor, more insistently. But it is not the only metaphor! Is the only goal of a church's function to fill up notebooks, or load heads with facts? Is a pastor doing his job if he develops a vocabulary that only his special students can understand, and develops the atmosphere of a college classroom?

Not at all. The Bible also pictures the church under the metaphors of a body (1 Corinthians 12:12), a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5), a temple (Ephesians 2:2), a new man (Ephesians 2:15), a priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), and a family (Galatians 6:10) — among others.

In sum: the Bible is a big book, on purpose. In crafting our view of anything, we should take in the whole range of revelation, and not just isolate the bit that strikes us at the moment.


When I was a child my family owned a cottage—a beautiful cottage where I spent every summer of my childhood. On those long, warm, summer evenings, we would sometimes have friends and neighbors from up and down the road converge on our property for giant games of capture the flag. Those were grand nights—the kind of nights that form indelible memories.

One of the things I loved to do when we played capture the flag was to set trip lines. I would string a rope between two trees and wait in the dusk for some unsuspecting person to stumble across it and go down. Looking at it through adult eyes it sounds like a recipe for a cracked skull or broken ankle, but it seemed like good, clean fun back then.

The memory of stringing trip lines flashed into my mind recently, because something I read in a book took me out at the knees, so to speak. And down I went.

Vaughan Robert’s little book True Friendship has a lot to commend it, but there is one thing that stood out more than any other. Before I get to it, though, allow me a brief aside. I’ve thought often about this old blog post from Bob Kauflin:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people – sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

I read for the same reasons. Like Bob, I forget almost everything I read. But I don’t mind, because I don’t want or need to remember everything, so long as I find those two or three sentences that will be resounding in my heart and mind a week or month or year from now.

In Roberts’ book I came across one of those lines, one of those sentences, that has stuck with me and, I think, will continue to do so. It was a question, a simple question aimed at doing what every Christian wants to do: Destroy sin and pursue holiness. Roberts was talking about the kind of friendship men ought to have with one another and the kinds of questions they should be asking each another as they go through life together. Here is what he wants his friends to ask him: If you were the devil, where would you attack yourself?

Yes, that simple question was the trip line. And it leveled me. It’s an obvious question, I suppose. I feel like the guy who discovers that great television show when it’s in its final season and everyone else has been talking about it for years. Yet I don’t think I have ever asked the question of myself and I’m certain I have never asked it of a friend. I’m equally certain a friend has never asked it of me (and I’ve got some pretty good friends who ask me some pretty good questions).

Here’s the thing: We know that Satan and his demons have made a long and scrutinizing study of humanity. They have had millennia to study us, to get to know us, to learn how to tempt us. They have had thirty-seven years to study me, to get to know me, to learn how to tempt me. They have studied us as humanity since the Garden of Eden and I presume they have studied me as an individual since the day I was born. And they must always be asking themselves, “Where can we attack him? Where is he weak? Where is he prone to sin? Where is he lax? Where is he undisciplined? Where is he giving up?”

What I find so helpful about Roberts’ question is that it anticipates an attack in my areas of weakness and calls me not only to identify those vulnerabilities, but to involve a brother in strengthening me right there.

Why don’t you consider asking the question next time you’re with a friend. If you were the devil, where would you attack yourself? The answer will show you exactly where you can help, strengthen, and pray for your friend.

Son of God the Movie

In late 2003 and early 2004, we were told that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was going to change the world. We saw breathless slogans like, “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life had made him a household name, predicted “a spiritual tsunami” would hit when the film released. When he saw this tsunami coming, he planned a two-week preaching series leading up to the movie’s release, booked 47 theatre screens so members of his church could attend with their lost friends, invited a long list of celebrities and billionaires to a premier showing, and prepared a three-week small group curriculum for follow-up. He claimed that his church rode this tsunami to incredible results: “Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000.”

It is hard to overestimate the buzz, the excitement, and the anticipation prior to The Passion. Do you remember it? I do.

Back in 2004, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church that tried to ride the Passion wave by mimicking just about everything Rick Warren did. The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part—people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person—not even one—came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened. All the time, energy and resources gained nothing.

In the film’s aftermath George Barna got to work and found that the results we saw were far more typical than what Warren reported. “Among the most startling outcomes is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Either The Passion was not actually a great opportunity for evangelism, or most churches botched it.

Ten years later it is indisputable that all the talk of The Passion of the Christ being a powerful tool for evangelism was far more hype than reality. The marketing slogans earned Mel Gibson hundreds of millions of dollars, and brought lots of money to marketers and merchandisers. But the claim that it was the best outreach opportunity since Pentecost is downright embarrassing. For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.

Yet here we go again. We are just a couple of weeks away from the next The Passion of the Christ: Mark Burnett’s Son of God. Based on the 2013 miniseries The Bible, it is being marketed much like The Passion before it. B&H has just announced a new small-group Bible study from Rick Warren titled Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You. The press release quotes Warren as saying, Son of God is “the best movie I’ve seen on the life of Jesus in years.” The release also says, “The film has made headlines in the build-up to its Feb. 28 nationwide release as churches and organizations across the country have been renting out cinema multiplexes to show the film on every screen the night before its official release.”

As far as I can tell, and measuring two weeks prior to release, there is far less enthusiasm for Son of God than there was for The Passion of the Christ. I expect the reason is largely attributable to the old phrase, “once bitten, twice shy.” There’s a feeling of deja vu about this film. Still, I see marketers applying pressure and I see some churches buying in.

I want to urge caution, and I can draw these cautions directly from lessons we learned—or should have learned—from The Passion of the Christ.

The first caution is that The Passion caused us to look away from Scripture. This is ironic, of course, since The Passion was based on Scripture (plus a bit of imagination and a dash of Roman Catholic tradition). The fact is, though, that God saw fit to give us the Bible written, not displayed. He choose to give us a book, not a film. Those who pushed churches to embrace The Passion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made all kinds of promises, and many of those promises were based on the media. They claimed that by putting the old message into a new media it would come alive to a whole new generation and would do what preaching would not or could not. Many churches looked away from Scripture, even if only for a few weeks, and put their hope in a film.

The second caution is that The Passion took us off-mission. There is nothing more central to the church than the preaching of God’s Word. There is nothing that cuts deeper or builds stronger than the Bible faithfully taught. There is nothing we should expect God to use more powerfully than the preaching of his Word. Every revival in days past—every true revival, at least—has been a revival sparked by and carried on through preaching. We should have no expectation that God will accomplish through a film what he has only promised to accomplish through preaching. Too many churches veered off-mission when faced with the opportunity of The Passion of the Christ.

I have not seen Son of God. It may be a powerful film that is faithful to Scripture. I hope that is the case. It is entirely possible that God may choose to use Son of God to call people to faith. He may use it to generate interest in himself. He has used stranger means than this to work his will. Rick Warren’s follow-up Bible study may be excellent and may drive people from the screen to the Book. Lots of good may come. But still, both of these cautions apply to Son of God just as they did to The Passion. Don’t look away from Scripture and don’t get off-mission.

As you consider this new film, remember that we have been here before. Remember that there are a lot of people hoping to make a lot of money from this film. Remember that God promises to bless the preaching of his Word, not the display of that Word on the silver screen. Don’t expect a movie to do the Word’s work.