Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Following the flow of Article 8, we chose the theme of our Theology Conference for these reasons.
First, it is important to address this historically. Even looking at our Free Church history is reflective of the discussion that was taking place among Evangelicals. Silence in 1950 was not unusual. It certainly does not mean nothing was being said or done in these realms, but it is important to notice historically why our 1912 Statement of Faith contained the Article it did, why there was no Article in 1950, and then why we again included the Article on “Christian Living” in our present Statement of Faith. It reminds us how we are influenced by history and context, and it also reminds us why it is absolutely necessary to be driven by the Bible and a commitment to biblical and doctrinal fidelity. It is one reason why we are committed to the Reformation principle, The Church Reformed and Always [in need of] Being Reformed According to the Word of God (Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformanda secundum verbi Dei).
Second, this topic, as all topics, must not only be understood historically, but must be centered in the Scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although this is a biblical issue, it is also culturally trendy. It does not make it wrong for us to address, but it does mean we must ground it biblically. Long after the trend passes, we remain faithful to the Scriptures and committed to compassion and justice as fruit-bearing of the gospel. It is not the gospel, but it is an outworking of the gospel in our lives, it is an entailment of the gospel. This is especially important today because some treatments of this issue contain little to no biblical grounding, and are more culturally and/or sociologically driven. And yet, a problem in the other direction is that often too many Evangelicals consider this topic a matter of indifference, particularly those with a majority voice. There is not entailment of the gospel, so that there is no connection between “God’s justifying grace” and his “sanctifying power and purpose,” contrary to the connection made in the Bible and articulated in our Statement of Faith. It is both a critical moment and a critical topic to address biblically, theologically, historically, and pastorally.
Third, based on the present-day cultural context and pastoral necessity, it is necessary to address this Article and these topics. These moral issues are front-burner issues culturally, which makes it timely to address. But because these are culturally pressing issues, it is also important to address so that it does not merely become trendy. Matters of compassion and justice, and all that entails, are key issues in our contemporary culture and for the present generation. These are key issues of concern for the world. They ought also to be key issues for the church of Jesus Christ, and those committed to the authority of the Scriptures. Since this is a biblical issue, it ought to be grounded biblically so that when the cultural moment passes, the biblical truth and biblical structures remain. It is only the Scriptures and gospel-transformed believers who are empowered to live as members in the kingdom of God here and now, and remain committed for the duration.
Fourth, the ground of addressing this theme is justification and sanctification, with acknowledgement that “God's justifying grace must not be separated from His sanctifying power and purpose.” When studying theology it is appropriate to study and discuss these two doctrines separately. But experiential, the two doctrines, although not one and the same, are related. They go together. Too often, how we approach these truths remain theoretical doctrine, and not living doctrine that is both personal and existential. Many have gone awry on these matters, either ending up on the side of antinomianism, or on the other side of legalism. This has grave implications on how we understand truth, how we understand the Christian life, and how we understand love for God and love for others. The church’s history on this has too many examples of the pendulum and bifurcation such that those who professed faith in Christ and who submitted to the authority of the Bible but lived inconsistently with these truths. For example, some owned slaves, and believed – wrongly! – it was sanctioned by the Scriptures, or some do not care for the orphan, the widow, the abused, the marginalized, the immigrant, the other, the neighbor.
Fifth, the specific focus of sanctification in our Christian lives will be on God’s command “to love Him supremely and others sacrificially, and to live out our faith with care for one another, compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed.” When Jesus was asked the question about “which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36), he did not respond with a single commandment, but two: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39; cf. Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18). Love for God is “the great and first commandment.” That will also result in love for others. Jesus summarizes these two teachings by stating “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). We seek to love God supremely and others sacrificially. This leads us to the manner in which we do this by living out our faith.
Sixth, one of the specific issues to address as we “live out our faith” is that of “compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed.’ At the moment a couple of key issues are race and reconciliation and immigration. It is vital that we are grounded biblically and theologically on these issues, and that we engage pastorally with others personally, not just from a distance. We are all created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-17), all coming from one man, sharing the same parents (Acts 17:26). And though sin has broken relationships vertically and horizontally (Gen. 3), God in Christ has made it possible to reconcile and to overcome enmity and through faith in Christ that becomes experientially and practically true (Gal. 3:28), creating one new humanity (Eph. 2:14-15), reconciling us to God and others, and giving us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21). This also effects our understanding and practice of immigration, of helping the orphan, the widow, the displaced, the marginalized, the oppressed, the taken-advantage-of, those for whom God has a special concern (Jms. 1:26-27; cf. Ps. 82:3-4; Prov. 31:8-9; Jer. 22:16).
The church has often emphasized biblical truth over against biblical application, one at the expense of the other. As we write in Evangelical Convictions, “When thinking of ministries of compassion and justice, the church has often vacillated between two extremes, either focusing on the physical needs of people while assuming or neglecting the spiritual or seeing people only as ‘souls to be saved’ and disregarding their tangible suffering in this world” (p. 199). Added to this is the politicizing of these issues, and the politics surrounding these discussions and decisions. Certainly, we have responsibilities as those citizens living in two cities, the city of man and the city of God. But ultimately, since we are first and foremost citizens of the city of God, we believe and affirm that the notions of justice and righteousness are closely tied to the Bible such that these together point to a rightly ordered society under God’s rule.
Living in the tension between the now and the not-yet of God’s final and ultimate rule, this is one of the ways in which the enemy undermines the outworking of the gospel that has transformed us and which we preach. That gospel is being undermined and tarnished through the lack of reconciliation among believers, and the lack of care and concern for the immigrant. Grounded in God’s Word, guided by the Spirit’s power, and praying and working in Christ’s name, this is one of the ways we must “combat the spiritual forces of evil.” This is a gospel issue, and this is a matter of a spiritual battle, in that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
Seventh, and finally, this issue is not just an issue “out there,” but one we must address within the EFCA. As people grounded in the gospel and tethered to the Text, as those who have been justified and are being sanctified/transformed, in this specific area we are committed to “make disciples among all people, always bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed.” This both adorns the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel (Tit. 2:10), and carries the fragrance of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14).
You can find information on the Conference at the following link: EFCA Theology Conference: The Gospel, Compassion and Justice, and the EFCA. Registration is now open, so please register today. And do not come alone. Please plan to come as a ministry team.