Contending for the Faith—7 Critical Contemporary Doctrinal Challenges: A Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Response

Looking ahead to the 2020 Theology Conference

When the EFCA Conference adopted our 2008 Statement of Faith (SOF), the EFCA Board of Directors (BOD) affirmed a “process for safeguarding our spiritual heritage.” One aspect of this process was to receive an annual theology update. Another aspect was to conduct a doctrinal survey every five years. The first survey was conducted in 2013. It was a way the BOD sought intentionally to value and safeguard the vital role of the Bible, theology and doctrine in the Christian life and the church for those in the EFCA.

Our second doctrinal survey was conducted at the end of 2018, with an assessment and evaluation completed in 2019. The survey was conducted for informational purposes, to discern a doctrinal “pulse” from a select group of the EFCA, those most often responsible for biblical and doctrinal teaching in the local church and in the EFCA. The 49-question survey was sent to all senior pastors and all those credentialed in the EFCA, which consisted of 3,000 individuals, with 1,509 responding, which represents 50.3 percent. This is an excellent response rate, especially remembering this 49-question survey takes about 20-30 minutes to complete. In addition to completing the survey, 8,341 comments were made by respondents.

Now is the time to address some of those issues with outlier responses so there is no incremental biblical or theological compromise against those matters which are of first importance.
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Through the doctrinal survey, we seek to determine how strongly our SOF is affirmed. Additionally, we are also interested to learn where there are doctrinal weaknesses or theological aberrations, how many doctrinal outliers there are and on what Articles and doctrines. This enables us to discern what issues need to be addressed and where instruction is needed, what biblical and theological issues and trends are affecting us, with possible trajectories, and what resources we should provide to retain our biblical and theological convictions and commitments to doctrinal fidelity and faithfulness.

Doctrinal survey

For our Theology Conference, we are addressing and following up on our 2018 Doctrinal Survey. Thanks be to God we remain strongly and thoroughly orthodox and evangelical in belief. We do not take that for granted these days. And yet, there are also some outliers, which is not completely surprising, even though it is still somewhat distressing. Our strong sense is that now is the time to address some of those issues with some outlier responses so that there is no incremental biblical or theological compromise against those matters which are of first importance.

After reading and evaluating the doctrinal survey, including all the comments, we made some general assessments.

  1. We remain strongly committed to the essential doctrinal truths espoused in our SOF. It remains strong because of our unwavering commitment to the inerrancy, infallibility, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures.
  2. We remain strongly committed to the outworking of the Christian faith on some of the major moral and social issues of the day.
  3. We have a few doctrinal and moral outliers.
  4. In addition to a strong commitment to biblical and doctrinal fidelity and faithfulness, there is also a strong commitment to our ethos, living with the “significance of silence,” the two primary issues that describe the uniqueness of the EFCA.
  5. Through the years we have addressed many of the doctrinal and moral issues in Theology Conferences and at EFCA One.
  6. There remains an ongoing need to address the issues raised in the doctrinal survey, which will be somewhat accomplished through providing teachings and resources. This is one of the reasons for conducting the survey, to hear and learn from pastors, ministers and staff what resources they need in order to shepherd the people of God faithfully. It is both helpful and important to remember that Evangelical Convictions is the “theological exposition” of our SOF, so it is the best resource to learn about our SOF.
  7. As an immediate response, the survey questions asked in the doctrinal survey will be available so they can be asked of pastoral staff, elders, leaders or possibly even members. Based on what is learned, pastors and/or elders may develop a teaching series to address areas of needed growth based on the specific results of the survey. Additionally, our upcoming Theology Conference will address some of the key doctrinal issues raised in the survey.

Contending for the Faith

With our focus on the doctrinal survey, and with the assessment reflecting we remain strongly grounded in biblical and theological truth, we concluded that most need to be reminded of these truths, or stated another way, these truths need to be reinforced in the lives and ministries of our pastors, ministers and leaders. Because the survey also revealed a few doctrinal outliers among us, it was important to restate these truths to address these issues now to prevent biblical and theological drift.

In the present day, there are many pressures pushing against these truths, with influences from progressive evangelicals and theological liberals, from sexual revolutionaries, and from the culture in general. There are temptations to soften, to concede, to accommodate, to capitulate, to become relevant, among many others. So we are, in this day, contending for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints, thus the title of our conference: “Contending for the Faith—7 Critical Contemporary Doctrinal Challenges: A Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Response.”

Our conference theme is guided by the words written by Jude in the first century:

“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (vv. 3-4).

As pastors, ministers and leaders, we are entrusted with the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints.”
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Jude was eager to discuss the joys and glories of salvation, that which they shared because of the work of Christ and the application of that work by the Holy Spirit. And yet, even though that is always right and appropriate and timely to discuss the blessings we receive and experience in our salvation in Christ, there are times when other pressing issues must be addressed, which actually affect or undermine the truth and reality of salvation and all that entails. This is the historical context in which Jude lives and writes, and we also believe today is that day for us.

In addition to being exhorted to “contend for the faith” (v. 3), believers are also to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith” (v. 20). As pastors, ministers and leaders, we are entrusted with the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” This is the truth, the gospel with which we have been entrusted (1 Thess 2:4). It is not ours to create or change. It is received and believed and affirmed and passed on.

We also build ourselves up “in your most holy faith.” While we engage in contending for and building up in the faith, we also extend “mercy to those who doubt” (v. 22) the truth, and we “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (vv. 23a; cf. Jas 5:19-20, “if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”).

Speakers and topics

Not only is this conference a follow up to our doctrinal survey, it is also a time to contend for the faith, to be built up in the faith, and to be reminded of the importance of snatching from the fire those who doubt, which is to be grounded in grace and truth and a manifestation of mercy.

We are grateful to be able to gather with other EFCA pastors and leaders, and we are eager to learn from our excellent and eminently capable speakers, those with whom we will “contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.” As we consider titles, it is important we not only consider the title, which is somewhat general, but also the subtitle, as it becomes more specific, and which focuses on the particular issue for which we must content.

The Doctrine of God: The Trinity and Classical Theism – Fred Sanders

“The Doctrine of God” is affirmed in Article 1 of our SOF, along with the specific and unqualified affirmation of his eternal existence “in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The doctrine of God is foundational to all of theology, and there are many issues raised today in relation to theology that challenge the biblical and historical understanding of God.

Here are the issues addressed in this lecture: the doctrine of the Trinity, immanent and economic, simplicity, the eternal generation of the Son, the discussion and debate about the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFSS)/eternal relational authority-submission (ERAS), “the outward works of the Trinity are indivisible” (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt), and other ways the doctrine of God is being questioned, reinterpreted and/or denied today.

The Doctrine of the Scriptures: Authority, Clarity and Sufficiency - Graham Cole

“The Doctrine of the Scriptures” is affirmed in Article 2 of our SOF, and in addition to affirming the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, we also affirm the “authority, clarity, and sufficiency” of the Scriptures. Although some affirm inerrancy today, while speaking and living in a way that undermines its authority and sufficiency.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: how we understand and affirm the two testaments and one Bible, how we move from the Bible to theology engaging in theological theology, how we respond to the notion of “pervasive interpretative pluralism,” how it is that God speaks to us today and the sufficiency of the Scriptures, how we identify and respond to a progressive evangelical hermeneutic, the new liberalism of the day, such that that which has previously been considered sinful is now reinterpreted to be considered approved, e.g., homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Is there such a thing as status confessionis, and does this new progressive evangelical hermeneutic and understanding of the Bible fall prey to the same conclusion and condemnation of the liberalism Machen condemned as another religion?

The Doctrine of Humanity: Imago Dei, Embodiment, Identity and Human Sexuality – Gregg Allison

“The Doctrine of Humanity” is affirmed in Article 3 of our SOF, and it also emphasizes some of the key truths of what it means to be created in the image of God and the entailments that we are created beings, things like “the imago Dei, embodiment, identity, and human sexuality.” Some of the major cultural pressure points are found pressing against this doctrine.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: the image of God (imago Dei) and human dignity, what the image means for the body and soul and the intrinsic goodness of the body, the significance of being embodied, what this means for identity, what it means for human sexuality, what it means for racial issues, and how the fall has affected this, and as a result of the fall how these issues are manifested during the present day. How do we think about such matters and respond to them?

The Doctrine of Salvation: Penal Substitution – The Heart of the Atonement – Steve Wellum

“The Doctrine of Salvation” is affirmed in Article 5 of our SOF, and “penal substitution,” or penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), is the “heart of the atonement.” This is one of the key doctrines in which one’s understanding of God will be expressed. Some pit God the Father over against God the Son, as if this is a form of divine child abuse.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: why this doctrine is central to our understanding of God, why it is essential to God and His redemptive historical plan to redeem a people for himself, why it is necessary to the salvation of individuals, why PSA is central and essential to our understanding of the Scriptures, with PSA being at the heart of the atonement how we understand other truths of the atonement in relation to PSA, and how and why it is being questioned, reinterpreted and denied today.

The Doctrine of the Church: The People of God, Public Theology and Politics – Thabiti Anyabwile and Jonathan Leeman

“The Doctrine of the Church” is affirmed in Article 7 of our SOF, and Christian Living, orthopraxy, is affirmed in Article 8 of our SOF, with the “people of God” picking up another image of the church of Jesus Christ, that we are not only the true church, but that entity finds expression and is manifest in local churches. As the people of God, we live our lives together as the people of God and in the world, being in but not of the world. One of the ways that is expressed is through our political engagement.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: How is the mission of the church related to public theology, or engaging with culture, or to the State (and the relationship between the church and the State)? How does the individual Christian’s responsibility reflect or parallel the church’s responsibility? How do we move from orthodoxy to orthopraxy in this realm? Is it even possible to agree on foundational and fundamental truths about the people of God, the church, and that the people of God are salt and light in the world, and yet discuss and disagree on public theology, and engagement in the public and political realm? Since this will be a contentious election year, how should/might we lead the people of God in the churches where we pastor to think rightly about our role in the political process?

The Doctrine of Christ: The Exclusivity and Necessity of Jesus Christ – Harold Netland

“The Doctrine of Christ” is affirmed in Articles 4 and 5 of our SOF, and these important truths of Christ’s “exclusivity”, that is, salvation exclusively through the Lord Jesus Christ, and the “necessity” of believing in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to be saved are affirmed in a number of Articles in our SOF. What we affirm about Jesus’ exclusivity and the necessity to believe in him are considered arrogant and spiteful in today’s culture, as inclusivism, pluralism, relativism and universalism are considered the new dogma, making Christians cultural heretics.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the necessity of hearing and responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, inclusivists who affirm exclusivity but deny necessity, why these truths are being questioned, softened, reinterpreted and/or denied, and the attraction of inclusivism and pluralism and its wide path, the theology of religions, and why these “options” are attractive to many today.

The Doctrine of Hell: Eternal Conscious Punishment – D. A. Carson

“The Doctrine of Hell” is affirmed in Article 10 of our SOF, and specifically and explicitly so is “eternal conscious punishment.” There are few doctrines that have experienced so great a shift since the rise of modern theology than the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, and there is no doctrine more offensive to contemporary sensibilities than this truth. A person’s understanding of this doctrine is often the corollary to other more central doctrines related to many other doctrinal truths such as God, Christ, sin and salvation. In many ways, the biblical and historic doctrine of eternal conscious punishment stands for everything the contemporary culture rejects.

Here are the issues addressed in this message: the truth of eternal conscious punishment, why it is essential, how it is organically connected to many other crucial doctrines, how it has moved from being affirmed as a cardinal doctrine to one that is just an option, and why it is being questioned, softened, reinterpreted and/or denied.

Conclusion

We give thanks to the Lord the EFCA remains strongly committed to biblical truth and doctrinal fidelity. We are thankful you are here to learn and grow. We pray we will be “built up in the faith,” so that we are enabled/equipped to “contend for the faith,” and we will be emboldened to speak and live this faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” and by this means help those who doubt and save others out of the fire.

Please plan to join us for our EFCA Theology Conference as we build on our most recent doctrinal survey by focusing on the important theme of “Contending for the Faith—7 Critical Contemporary Doctrinal Challenges: A Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Response,” held February 5-7, 2020, on the campus of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. Although online registration is now closed, walk-in registrants are still welcome at Trinity.

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