By Mike Willis
The Devil never ceases to assault the Lord’s church. From generation to generation he attacks the church, both from within and without. After the Devil tried to destroy the Son of God, he turned to destroy his disciples. The book of Revelation pictures the Devil as a dragon attacking the children of the woman saying, “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 12:17). That spiritual conflict is still in progress.
Sometimes the enemies of the church dress up the same old-fashioned error in new clothes to make its assault. Many are taken in by the new dress, failing to recognize the false doctrines which are hidden by the transformation of false teachers into “apostles of light” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). This is happening now, especially among our liberal brethren. This article shall call attention to some of these assaults, especially as they are expressed in two recent publications: The Worldly Church (later referred to as WC) by C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, and Michael R. Weed and The Cruciform Church (later referred to as CC) by C. Leonard Allen. Both of these books are published by Abilene Christian University Press.
The guise under which the assaults are made appear, innocuous. The authors are calling their brethren back to a “cross-centered” gospel. Who can oppose the preaching of the cross? Like Paul, we need to commit ourselves to preaching nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1-5). However, the message which is presented under the banner of a “cross-centered” gospel is far afield from the revealed religion of the New Testament. Here are some of the things opposed and promoted in this preaching of a “cross-centered” gospel:
1. The restoration plea is condemned and rejected. The idea that one can restore the New Testament church is condemned as a hermeneutical approach which is not only wrong but damaging to a cross-centered gospel. Lest someone think I have misrepresented the authors, let them speak for themselves.
It is one of the great conceits of our time to imagine that we can sweep away the past and simply begin all over again at the beginning. We cannot (CC x).
In this work, Allen charged that it was naive to believe we can restore the New Testament church (14,25,74). He charged that the restoration movement devalues church history (5,11), creates a duty to conform (24), and devalues the Old Testament and gospels (52,54,55,57). He condemned the restoration plea for creating the attitude that the Bible should be viewed as a blueprint or law (19,31).
He emphasized that we must restore the “mystery” of the gospel, implying that we cannot comprehend the revelation given to us by God (24,44,48).
The restoration concept has led us to bibliolatry (worship of the Bible, 88), church idolatry (88-89), and doctrine idolatry (89).
The call for a “cross-centered” gospel is not a call for Bible preaching. It is a plea for the abandonment of Book, chapter, and verse preaching in favor of an allegiance to Christ – an allegiance unexplained and unexplainable. It cannot be established by an appeal to the Bible, for that would be a call for a restoration of the ancient order. It must be an open-ended allegiance that is defined by experience whereby every individual decides for himself what his allegiance to Christ involves.
2. Preaching on obedience to the gospel is condemned as a departurefrom cross-centered preaching. Allen states that we have moved away from a cross-centered message to preach a gospel of self-reliance, and boot-strap religion when we emphasize gospel obedience. He stated that when restoration preachers have preached on salvation, they have not preached on the centrality of the cross but concentrated on what man must do to be saved. Here are his words:
. . . There was affirmation of the fact of the atonement but reluctance to delve much into its meaning. Thus preachers could preach sermons entitled “What Must I Do To Be Saved?” and scarcely even mention the crucifixion or atonement of Christ (120).
He cited the example of T.W. Brents’ book The Gospel Plan of Salvation as an example of preaching which was not cross-centered. He charged that a book which purports to study the gospel plan of salvation while only devoting five pages to the cross, but 306 pages to water baptism, is “a sign of something deeply awry in the theology of the movement” (120).
Allen concluded that the theology of restoration preaching shifted from salvation by grace to salvation by works legalism. He wrote,
The most common traditional formulation of the gospel reflects this shift. The gospel consisted of three facts to be believed (Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection), three commands to be obeyed (believe, repent, and be baptized upon a confession of faith), and three promises to be received (forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and hope of eternal life). God had already fulfilled his part of the contract; human beings must now fulfill all their obligations or else the contract was broken. All benefits promised in the contract depended entirely upon the exact fulfillment of all contractual obligations” (123).
Hence, the appeal of a cross-centered gospel, as expressed by Allen, is not an appeal to Book, chapter, and verse preaching. It is a subtle shift away from the Bible preaching whereby under the guise of “cross-centered” preaching, a person preaches different conditions for salvation by grace. There are only two alternatives: (a) God saves all men unconditionally (universalism); (b) Salvation is conditional. If salvation is conditional, then men need to know what conditions are necessary to be saved by the grace of God. Allen’s condemnation of preaching the conditions for salvation as a departure from “cross-centered” preaching results in a message about the cross’s saving benefits without an expression of what man must do to receive those benefits. A gospel which tells men that they can be saved without telling them how to be saved is impotent. Allen’s thesis implies that when Peter told the Pentecostians what to do to be saved by grace, he had departed from the cross (Acts 2:38).
This is the old doctrine of denominationalism in a new dress. “Preach the man, not the plan.” Preaching the plan is not gospel preaching. Leroy Garrett, relying on the same study by Bill Love as cited by Allen, makes the same charge about preaching on baptism:
. . . We have been critical of big-time evangelists Eke Billy Graham for “not preaching the gospel” since he does not preach baptism. We fail to apply the same rule to the Apostle Paul who insisted that “Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the gospel.” If this means anything it means that there is a distinction between preaching the gospel and preaching baptism. Did any New Testament evangelist ever “preach” baptism? They preached “the gospel of the grace of God” and they preached “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” but did they ever proclaim any ordinance? Was it not always a person, the Person of Jesus Christ, that they proclaimed?
Would it not follow then that anyone who proclaims Jesus as the risen Christ and the Savior of the world is preaching the good news of the gospel, all of the gospel? Granted, the likes of Billy Graham may err in not properly instructing people how to respond to the good news by repenting of their sins and being baptized for the remission of their sins like Peter did on the day of Pentecost. But if one preaches Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world he is preaching the gospel, apart from what he might or might not say about baptism (Restoration Review [May 1992] 288).
The emphasis on “cross-centered” preaching is a call for a departure from preaching, clearly defining and emphasizing the conditions for salvation by the grace of God!
3. Preaching on the New Testament church is opposed to cross-centered preaching. Allen condemned the “doctrine-idolater” who makes correct doctrinal beliefs that which saves. He said, “Doctrines do not save us; we are saved by Christ. Doctrines do not cleanse us from our sins; it is the efficacious blood of Christ” (89). The self-contradiction of this should be apparent: must one believe the doctrines that state what occurred on Calvary to be cleansed from sin? This is a false dichotomy invented by Allen, not condemned in the Bible. The assertion that “we are saved by Christ” in some sense which excludes Christ’s doctrine is itself a doctrine – a false doctrine!
Allen charged that in preaching a church centered message we have tended to make orthodoxy more a test of the correct doctrinal beliefs than being Christ-like. “This separation between doctrine and life has created a narrow and stunted measure of orthodoxy. A church can be ‘sound’ while excluding black people from its midst. A church can be doctrinally correct while virtually ignoring the poor and hungry living down the street” (174-175). This has driven us into doctrinal isolationism.
Such statements imply that we have departed from cross-centered preaching and started preaching a church-centered message when we preach sermons on the church, including its organization, names, worship, conditions for membership, work and other distinctive marks revealed in the New Testament. Allen condemned as sectarianism our debates with our religious neighbors and belittled books designed to answer the apostasies introduced by men (7). He wrote of the rejection of the restoration hermeneutics in search for a new hermeneutics saying, “Some have consciously rejected this method of interpretation and begun casting about for new ones. Many others, it seems, have not intentionally rejected the traditional method but, weary with the pugnacious, debate-all-comers attitude it nurtured, have found themselves spiritually malnourished, hungry for the things of the Spirit” (19-20). In The Worldly Church the old preaching which must be discarded was described as “sectarian divisiveness,” “debating,” and “the argumentative spirit” (38).
The agenda of the “cross-centered” preaching advocated by Allen is a departure from Book, chapter, and verse preaching. He rejects preaching a restoration of the pattern of the first century church because he does not believe there is any such pattern revealed in the New Testament (contrary to 2 Tim. 1:13; 1 Tim. 3:14-15). Rejecting the principle that there is a pattern to be restored, the church is left to adjust itself to the changing culture as need so requires. This is the essence of the difference between revealed and unrevealed religion. Under the guise of “cross-centered” preaching, Allen takes us away from divinely revealed religion into the morass of unrevealed religion.
Sectarianism is equated with preaching the pattern of the New Testament church in contrast to the departures of denominationalism. To preach such sermons is to depart from a cross-centered message to a church-centered message. Lip service may be given to these sermons (“this is not to minimize the importance of any doctrines about the church”), but the bottom line is that a “core gospel” which is essential is distinguished from a body of “doctrine” which is optional. The former must be preached and believed for salvation; the latter is optional.
In the name of “cross-centered” preaching, positive preaching which does not condemn denominationalism is commended (see The Worldly Church 2,7,38-39; The Cruciform Church 19). The older preachers are condemned for having departed from cross-centered preaching when they preached sermons contrasting the Baptist Church with the Lord’s church, condemned Pentecostalism, and such like sermons. Again, I emphasize that under the guise of “cross-centered” preaching, Allen calls us away from the Book, chapter, and verse preaching commended in 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:1-5; 1 Corinthians 1:20; 4:6 Titus 2:15; John 17:17; 1 Peter 4:11 and many other familiar passages.
We need to be aware of Satan’s devices. Satan would lead us to believe that when we emphasize and teach those things which the Lord Jesus commanded, we have somehow departed from cross-centered preaching. Quite the opposite is true.
Preaching the word of God’s grace is teaching all that Christ revealed (Acts 20:20,24-27,32). Paul said, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:11-14). Preaching the grace of God involves condemning ungodliness and worldly lusts. We are preaching the grace of God when we are condemning worldliness.
We are preaching the grace of God when we preach baptism. The Scriptures teach us to baptize people into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20) and to preach baptism in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38). I cannot preach Bible baptism without preaching Christ. When we preach what Christ said about baptism, we are preaching his grace.
We are preaching the grace of God when we teach, “Children obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). This makes obedience to one’s parents reach much beyond the social relationship between the parent and the child to a relationship between the obedient child and his God.
We are preaching the grace of God when we teach servants to obey their masters “with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ” (Eph. 6:5). This passage emphasizes that the relationship between a servant and his master (or employer and employee) reaches much beyond the social relationship of the two to one’s relationship to Christ. We are preaching Christ when we preach what he commanded about this relationship.
This “cross-centered” preaching advocated by Allen invents a false dichotomy which separates Christ from his word. Those who claim allegiance to Christ while disobeying or preaching something contrary to his word are not in his fellowship. John said, “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 Jn. 1:6). That truth has not changed through the ages. We need to be sure that we echo the clear and certain sounds of the Scriptures in gospel preaching, not the uncertain sounds of such books as The Worldly Church and The Cruciform Church. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8)
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 17, pp. 514, 534-536
September 3, 1992