Please accept my apologies for not answering you sooner than this. As you know from our private correspondence, the concussion from the automobile accident set me back. The effects of the concussion have now significantly improved, though they still linger, and the semester here at Southwestern is now at an end. More than the pressures of body and work, however, I have been reticent to answer your question, for our discussion has revealed an apparently deep division in how we view the Christian faith and faithfulness to Christ. I pray the division is more apparent than real.
Today, I re-read your last letter. Rather than rehearsing your many questions in that letter and seeking to clarify the numerous misunderstandings that exist between us, I thought it best to address your three pointed closing questions:
- "Do you believe there is a place for people like me in Southern Baptist life? Do you believe that any of the views I take should disqualify someone like me from service as a Southern Baptist missionary or denominational employee? Why or why not?"
- "If I do not change my views concerning the matters we have been discussing here, do you believe it would be better for me to serve with some group other than the IMB? Why or why not?"
- "At what point do we cross the line from evangelistic and disciple-making ministry into ‘church planting’ ministry? … [A]nd what are the reasons for drawing the line of cooperation at that particular point?"
In order to answer these questions, please allow me to discourse a bit on the Christian faith and faithfulness to Christ. Out of such a discussion, perhaps we can perceive the limits of proper Christian fellowship. The following can be divided into three sections: the true Christian faith, the New Testament churches as the locus for faithfully living out the faith, and the limits of Christian fellowship. This letter is longer than what we originally agreed upon, but I have noticed that your letters have become progressively longer, as the pressure of expressing yourself clearly and passionately rose. Please forgive the length of my letter, as I have now discerned the same pressure.
I. The True Christian FaithWhen the New Testament speaks of faith, two aspects are assumed: the personal and the propositional. The personal activity of faith assumes a cognitive reality, and the cognitive reality demands a personal response. Orthodox Christians do not consider faith as lacking substance, but as full of content; alternatively, pious Christians do not consider faith as inactive, but as a vital trust in the message of the faith. The difficulty we face in discussing the faith is that we tend either toward a living faith that can easily become detached from orthodox content or toward an orthodox faith that is satisfied with mere cognitive speculation. Both tendencies result in error: the former ends in a mindless liberalism, the latter in a heartless scholasticism. As we discuss the content of the faith, let us never forget that true faith is a dynamic faith lived personally and communally.
God the Father. The classical creeds begin with a personal and communal confession. "We believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth." The Father is the beginning of the eternal Trinity. One cannot claim to be Christian unless one is willing to affirm the Scripture’s witness to God as being eternally one and yet three. The Father is distinct from the Son and the Spirit, the Son is eternally generated from the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father through the Son. This profound mystery of the Trinity is what separates Christians from the false religions of paganism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism, the Arian sects, and so on.
While a Christian church must affirm the Trinity in order to be considered Christian, our faith is not only about who God is, but what He does. He is the Creator of all that is, and as Creator, He is distinct from His creation. Humanity is humbled by its knowledge that it is not the highest reality, yet exalted in that it is made in the very image of the Creator.
God the Son. The classical creeds, reflecting their origin in the baptismal formula of the Great Commission, are typically threefold in form. "We believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord." The Son of God is fully God, though distinct from God the Father. The Son is God and from God, eternally begotten from the Father. Some two thousand years ago, at the fullness of time, the second person of the eternal Trinity also became a human being. As the formula of Chalcedon affirms, Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, without the separation, conflation or diminution of His deity and His humanity.
Following the apostolic kerygma, the classical creeds typically devote an extended section to the work of the Son: His incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and impending return receive especial treatment. Most Christian preaching focuses here on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for our salvation is utterly dependent upon His cross and His empty tomb. On the cross, Christ died for the sins of the whole world; from the grave, He arose to offer redemption to all that will repent and believe in Him. Until this truth becomes one’s own, one should not consider oneself a Christian.
God the Holy Spirit. The final section of the classical creeds concerns the third person of the Holy Trinity. The Nicene Creed, as modified at Constantinople, declares truthfully that the Holy Spirit is "Lord and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], Who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and glorified." Unless a church affirms that the Holy Spirit is fully divine and is to be worshipped alongside the Father and the Son, it may not be considered a Christian church.
Indeed, one cannot become a Christian apart from the sovereign work of regeneration (being born again) by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired the prophets and apostles to speak the Word of God, and to record the Word of God in the Bible. Today, He continues to convince people that the Bible is God’s Word, and that they must believe in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, or face eternal judgment. The Spirit continues to lead the church into all truth by pointing her to the inspired text. He also empowers the churches to fulfill the Great Commission given by the Son of God.
While the Christian faith primarily concerns God, Who He is, and What He does, especially in relation to humanity, it assumes a number of doctrines commonly affirmed by orthodox Christians. Among them are divine providence, human constituency, the pervasiveness of sin, the righteous but unmeetable demands of the law, the eternal consequences of disobedience and disbelief, and the gracious nature of the Gospel. And yet, it will be remembered that faith is not only a list of true doctrines, it is a living reality. Just as the Christian faith is to be personally and communally affirmed, the Christian life is to be lived faithfully in fellowship with the local church.
(Reader, due to its length, this letter by Dr. Yarnell has been broken into three parts. The next two parts will be posted in coming days.)
Letter #1, Two Requirements for a Universal Fulfillment of the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #7, Both the End and the Means are Established by the Lord, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #8, A Matter of Emphasis?, by David Rogers Letter #9, Complete Obedience versus Hesitant Discipleship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #10, The Universal Scope of the Great Commission, by David Rogers Letter #11, Freedom, Power and Authority in the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #12, Enduring Submission to the Great Commission, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #13, Obeying the Commands of Jesus, by David Rogers Letter #14, John Gill on Romans 14 and 15:1-7, by David Rogers Letter #15, The Illustration of the Hypothetical "Common Loaf Denomination", by David Rogers Letter #16, A Condensed Response to Your Last Three Letters, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #17, Further Discussion on Cooperation and Obedience, by David Rogers Letter #18 (Part I), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part II), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #18 (Part III), Faith and Faithfulness: Truth, Love, and the Limits of Fellowship, by Malcolm Yarnell Letter #19, A Deep Division?, by David Rogers