Balance: Combating Christian Triumphalism

Jul 10, 2018 | Apologetics, Article, Theology

Note: This post makes mention of Ravi Zacharias. It is with a heavy heart that I must acknowledge a tragic independent report concerning evidence of sexual abuse and predatory behavior on the part of Ravi Zacharias. This man was a huge inspiration to me, as is evident from reading my blog, and the news was more than heart shattering. Some ministries leaders have come to the conclusion that removing articles about and references to Ravi is the right move; I have come to a different conclusion, and here is why:

  1. Though I cannot begin go to imagine the grief or pain of those Ravi hurt and the emotional toll of his behavior, it is also the case that to discredit a piece of information due to the character of the source of such behavior is to commit the genetic fallacy. If I quote or mention Ravi, it is because I believe those items to contain truth value on their own merit.
  2. To go back and change previously written information without a careful disclaimer is, I believe, a form of revisionist history. If a disclaimer must be offered anyway, I believe there is value in keeping the material accessible. So while I know it is a difficult ask to say, “Just trust the ideas and disregard his personal character,” I must ask that of you as a careful thinker.
  3. I have seen a lot of comparisons by Christians to not removing Ravi’s work because biblical characters like King David and others had fallen into terrible sin, and they have obviously been given to us as a gift to learn from (Romans 15:4). Why “cancel” Ravi if we’re not “cancelling” the Bible? It does seem to me, though, that there are two problems with this line of thinking: (1) These books are inspired by God and thus we can trust his revelation to us. They were examples given for a purpose. (2) These characters also seemed to show true biblical repentance of their wicked actions. Ravi remained unrepentant until his dying day. Therefore, I do not think these are 1-and-1 comparisons. This behavior reflects SERIOUS error and dangerous behavior on the part of Ravi and, to an unknown degree, RZIM as a whole, and that must not be taken lightly or swept under the rug.

I do not expect you to agree completely with this decision. I do ask that you respect the thought, prayer, and seeking of counsel in which I engaged regarding it.

The Christian life is supposed to be one marked by humility, service, surrender, and even joy. But what happens when a Christian loses balance, and takes one of these too far? This happens all the time, sadly. Ultimately, it is a consequence of our fallen nature. There are many ways this shakes out, but I want to highlight the polar “extremes” if you will in a two-part series I’m calling “Balance.” Specifically, I want to deal with the notions of triumphalism and defeatism, and how we can combat them in our spiritual walk and evangelism.

So, what is “Christian Triumphalism”? First, it may be best to define what I don’t mean by this term. I do not mean to address the socio-political notion that one religious group is better than another for subjective reasons, although that certainly can come into play. Rather, I mean to address the idea that if one becomes a Christian, his social status will become elevated. He will never want or need for anything, he has socio-economical advantages in virtue of his being a Christian, and he has power to “speak” areas of advantageous truth over his life and miraculously watch these things come to fruition. His relationship with God gives him unique standing which, in turn, garners him the necessary ability to prosper in anything and everything he tries to accomplish, and he has biblical justification to assume that what God wants for him (and all believers) is to live a healthy and wealthy life now.

Two very important caveats/distinctions to be made about the above: First, many of the statements above are not wholly false–there is truth sprinkled in which must be thought through very carefully in order to understand biblical teaching. Second, some of the above (though not all) is simply a result of bad theology or misinterpreting the Bible (whether intentional or otherwise). In this series, I don’t want to address the person whose theology has incorrectly led to this line of thinking. But rather, the person who knows the Christian experience is not this way (and believes that), but then sells and boasts Christianity as if it is the antidote to all of life’s problems.

I want to look at two steps we can take (both personally and corporately) to combat this harmful enterprise. An interesting quote from Job, a well-known Old Testament figure, to start us off: “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not” (Job 14:1-2).   ## 1. Identify the Source   A helpful question we might ask is this: “What leads a person to think they must advertise a false brand of Christianity in order to make it compelling?” Some interesting new research may actually shed some light on this. This new research seems to indicate that upcoming generations are, while interested in evidence and truthfulness, much more interested to know if something is good. One apologist is well known for asking his interlocutors, “If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?” Surprisingly, many say “no.”

Koukl has noted that this thinking is really just a new angle on the problem of evil–in other words, even if we grant that Christianity is true, the God of the Bible Himself is evil. This is precisely the reason many give for not following the God of the Bible, even granting that Christianity is true. They’ve read the Bible, they say, and would never follow a God like that. One popular online meme shows a couple of atheist books with text that reads, “Books they think make you an atheist,” and a picture just below of a Bible and another religious book that reads, “Books that actually make you an atheist.” This is the sort of opposition we are facing in our culture right now, and it could really give us insight into the source of the Christian triumphalist attitude. In an effort to make Christianity seem “good”, we may be tempted to posture Christ as though He is some sort of cosmic genie in the bottle. Of course, this is not the only possible source. In many local assemblies, much pressure is put on seeing “results” in soul winning and evangelism. Neither of these are inherently bad of course.

Sadly, however, many preachers just want to see conversions—of any kind—even if they are fake, or forced. If it means presenting a false form of Christianity, so be it. But this thinking is dangerous and wholly unbiblical. Ultimately, Christian fellowship is not achieved in spite of sound doctrine and teaching, but as a result of it. We cannot expect one to actually come to the faith if we present a gospel that is contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. And make no mistake—a triumphalist gospel is a false gospel. The Apostle Paul admonishes us in 1 Corinthians 14:8, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” In context, Paul is dealing with the Corinthians’ gross misuse of the gift of tongues. The immediate application of this short metaphor is hardly missed. One cannot prepare himself for battle if he hears a sound contrary to that which he is expecting—the true sound, as it were. And likewise, how can one truly be converted if he is drawn to a falsehood, rather than Christ as presented in His Word? The gravity of this problem should not be lost on us. We should fight hard to identify the source of this error wherever possible.

Most of all, we should fight to avoid the temptation we all face to take this road. If we’re honest, we want Christianity to appeal to those to whom we are witnessing. We want to see those conversions, but we should make sure to keep truth at the center of the conversation. Sometimes truth is uncomfortable. Sometimes truth is difficult to hear, and even more difficult to understand. Nevertheless, whatever is not truth is, by definition, error. And error should be avoided at all costs, especially when we have been entrusted with the greatest message of all—the message of the One who Himself claimed to be the Truth (John 14:6).   ## 2. Implement the Solution   As Christians, we must hold the Body of Christ to a high standard. This often involves walking a fine line, of course. One does not want to come across at self-righteous or boastful, but eliminating the spirit of triumphalism involves calling it out for what it is—sin.

Here are some practical things we must do to eliminate the sinful propensity to misrepresent the gospel, even if one has good intentions:

First, we should commit ourselves to careful study.

As we spend time engaging with the Word of God, it’s incumbent upon us to learn and understand the gospel and what it means for us. We should understand the gospel in terms of the theological backdrop laid down by the Old Testament. We should understand it in terms of what it meant to the first-century eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. We should understand what it has meant to the Church throughout its 2,000-year history. And finally, we should understand what it means for us today.

Understanding the sheer gravity of the gospel is paramount to combating Christian triumphalism. The more time we spend with God in His Word, the more pressing the danger of sin becomes, and the more motivated we are to represent Christ in the best—and truest—way possible.

Second, we should call our leaders to a higher standard.

It is not uncommon at all to encounter triumphalism of this sort within the local church. Worse, many highly publicized Christian pastors and teachers tend toward this. This is one reason I am usually overly cautious of large megachurches. This not to paint with a broad brush; indeed, I can think of numerous megachurches that are only so because of a commitment to sound doctrine and teaching. Nevertheless, large crowds of those with “itching ears” tend to be drawn towards teachers and preachers who proclaim “fables” and do not teach “sound doctrine” or “truth” (see 2 Timothy 4:1-4). Though we should be careful to avoid a critical spirit, we must stand firmly on the truth as revealed in God’s Word. When the gospel is taught in error, eventually, the house of cards comes tumbling down. One can believe many “right” things, and even many good things, but what good are they if the main message—the gospel of Christ—is missed?

Finally, we must correct faulty thinking in those who have been harmed.

There is a dark side to the triumphalist attitude that often rears its ugly head. One may become convinced that if they simply become a Christian, all of life’s problems disappear. But what happens when they don’t? Too many times folks have been given the wrong idea about God, and when “life” happens and God does not come to the rescue in the way that has been promised, they get mad at God. Or worse, they start to think He isn’t even there. Many who are professing atheists today are so because, by their own admission, they were trusting in God to move and act in a particular circumstance, and He seemingly sat idly by without a response. Ultimately, this is because the person simply took hold of the false gospel they were presented with and did not, as I’ve already suggested, commit themselves to careful study.   ## Conclusion   One can hardly look past the writings of Paul without seeing that God works through and in spite of insurmountable circumstances—He does not always—or even usually—eliminate them. It is our responsibility as believers of the true gospel of Jesus Christ to show them why and how the gospel is beautiful—the real reasons. Against the backdrop of sin—high treason against the Creator of the cosmos—the gospel is God’s rescue plan. Make no mistake, it was not “Plan B”. It was always the plan from the beginning. God would rescue sinful man from his own sin. He would give Himself to pay the debt He did not owe, and that we could not pay. Ravi Zacharias likes to say that Christ did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive. And this is so, so true. Similarly, Christ did not come to fix all of life’s problems, but to fix the problem—your dead, sinful, condition in God’s sight as The Righteous Judge. In virtue of your acceptance of His free gift, you will have eternal life. You will have insurmountable joy in a perfect creation for all eternity. But for now, we are still clothed in bodies of sin. We must still deal with a fleshly nature that runs contrary to the things of God. These “afflictions” ought not cause us to despair, however. The Apostle Paul weighed in with these words in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” We have a blessed hope for a brighter future. That is the true gospel. That is the true story of reality, and in that alone we should ground our trust and our comfort. —

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