Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Preaching "Get Right with God" Is a Gospel-Killing Heresy [or] How Some Fundamentalists Are Functionally Medieval Roman Catholics

Mark Farnham makes that point quite effectively here, though perhaps less abrasively. Some quotes:
[T]o those within legalistic systems, legalism is a refuge from the insecurities of life and the uncertainties of our world.

This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk someone out of a legalistic church. There is so much “certainty” and comfort in knowing exactly what one must do to remain in “right with God.” Legalism requires so little faith, because every aspect of life is defined and mandated. In contrast, the concept of grace and Christian liberty is a scary wilderness of uncertainty. Better to stay in the fortress (or prison). . . .

For anyone who has ever lived in a legalistic system, this sounds all too familiar. The Fundamentalist variety of today would never deny that salvation is all by grace, but the not so subtle message is that to be “right with God” requires the keeping of the rules.
This sort of preaching "get right with God" misunderstands justification, sanctification, substitutionary atonement, and the finished work of Christ. It often creates a false system of worship—a set of standards that depraved humans are capable of reaching. Even more scandalously, this system necessitates a new god—a god small enough to be satisfied by it.

Seems to me that a heresy doesn't get much more fundamental than that.


Matthew Tilley said...

How do you balance this thought with the need for repentance ... even (especially) among God's people?

Now please don't take me to be questioning the absolute necessity of preaching grace (as starkly juxtaposed to legalism). But sometimes one needs to "get right with God" by repenting of legalism or in some other way taking too low a view of the glory and grace of Jesus.

I'm seriously wrestling with this as a pastor, especially when I find myself preaching some of the Old Testament prophets who -- while certainly with a Messiah in view -- are calling for people to ... to use the phrase of the post ... "get right with God."

Larry said...

With Matthew, I too am unclear about this, though I have seen a similar comment from several people.

Growing up, I heard the "get right with God" many times, and all I understood it to mean was "confess your sin, repent, and return to Jesus."

I wonder if you and Mark are not talking about the standards for determining whether one is "right with God," which I think is just a phrase for walking in the Spirit. Isn't Mark's point (and your's) that some people have erected bad standards for being right with God? The problem is not with "being right with God," but with drawing lines that have nothing to do with being right with God.

What counsel would you give to a believer who sins, and how would that differ from getting "right with God"?

Aaron Blumer said...

"Get right" is kind of vague... and there's no question that in some places the constant harping on it becomes a kind of gospel distortion.

But if...
a. It is possible to displease our Father
b. Sin still disrupts fellowship
c. Scripture instructs us to correct these situations when the occur

...then "get right" is often what we need to do in terms of our fellowship--with the understanding that our standing with Christ never changed and never will.

d4v34x said...

Ben, a few things.

1. Do you understand I John 1:9 to be primarily intended for the saved or the lost?

2. I've been in fundamentalism for just about 40 years now. That phrase "get right with God" has never seemed to mean to me "make sure you keep the rules to restore your standing before Him," even when used by people who tended to equate the keeping of (their) standards as a prime indicator of where you were spiritually.

3 This spring our congregation had a series of special meetings (with David Shumate) on the book of Romans. I think the theme was the Gospel of Grace. The Monday message was out of Romans 5 and you could kind of sense the collective jaw drop as person after person grasped that, because of what God has done, it's not inaccurate to say believers are /always/ right with God (depending what you mean by that phrase).

ben said...

Matthew, I'm not sure we need to balance anything. My understanding of justification and sanctification is that we repent and believe, and then keep on repenting and believing.

When we are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone, we are declared righteous by God. Our sin is imputed to Christ, and Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. Our standing before God is right. It can never stop being right. It can't get more right. God sees us clothed in Christ's righteousness.

Sin doesn't make me less right with God, though it does demand repentance. The terminology "get right with God" may, in a preacher's mind, mean the same thing as repentance, but it employs terminology of "righteousness," or right standing. The problem is, that terminology is used consistently in Scripture in relationship to justification. That confusion in terminology, at best, implies false things about justification.

I understand this to be the consistent, if not universal, pattern of Scripture. I'm unaware of any text that refers to getting right with God. I see no reason to use extra-biblical language, particularly when it confuses justification, when we have the perfectly biblical language of repentance available.

ben said...


1. 1 John is clearly addressed to professing Christians, but John obviously leaves the door open to the prospect that they may not all be genuinely converted. I'm not sure we need to force that verse into one box, but merely call on all people to confess/repent.

2. I wouldn't want to try to categorize all the ways I've heard that phrase used. I'm certain that the emphasis of many of those sermons was a change of behavior needed to restore a relationship, and distinctly NOT humble submission and dependence on the gracious work of Christ to fulfill the Law on our behalf.

3. Amen! Praise the Lord. I wonder whether those jaws dropped because the beauty and wonder of this foundational component of the gospel had been diminished over many decades in comparison with a performance-driven understanding of our relationship with God.

d4v34x said...

I think that wonder and joy had been obscured by various factors for various people. I would be loath to lay it all at any given ministry's door.

Frankly, I have received more clear teaching in the 12 years at my current church about the basis of our salvation being what God has done rather than what we do than I ever had in the 3 churches I attendended during th 27 years preceding.

d4v34x said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ben said...


I'm not in the slightest intending to indict any particular preacher or place. This is about a pervasive culture that's far broader than any church or even a single movement.

d4v34x said...

And I agree with you. On both the pervasiveness of it and the damage it did and does.

At least now we are seeing major fissures in the bulwark!

Larry said...

Ben, Two further thoughts:

Sin doesn't make me less right with God

What would you say it does make us with God (convoluted way to put I know, but trying to use your words).

it employs terminology of "righteousness," or right standing.

Isn't the dikaio- word group used not only of a forensic category but also ethical or moral? Let me shoot from the hip here for a minute and see if you have any thoughts.

In Titus 1:8, it is the requirement of an elder, which I can't imagine is requiring that an elder be only justified. Surely it refers to his ethical righteousness, his behavior as compared to God's standard.

In 2 Thess 1:6, it is used of God's judgment. There is seems an ethical category of what is "right" in terms of judgment and justice. There, it is God's behavior in light of his own character.

In Eph 6:1, it is used of children obeying their parents for this is "right." There again, it seems ethical (even for those who are not justified, I would say).

1 John 3:12 speaks of Abel's deeds which are "righteous." There, it is specifically deeds that place him the category of right, and given the context of sin and judgment, I would think right with God or right according to God is the only way to understand that.

It seems to me in each of these, "right" has to do with more than standing. It has to do with behavior before God. I would think a case could be made that these usages speak of being "right with God" in terms of ethical or moral behavior, not just forensic standing.

It seems that the dikaio- word group is bigger than only right standing.

I do think that many, including myself in years past, have no focused enough on the right standing that Jesus purchased for us. I am not yet convinced that this argument follows from that, however.

Larry said...

To clarify, the point of that is to say that "right with God" does not seem to be only a forensic category as you appear to suggest, but also a moral and ethical one, unless I am wrong on understanding those verses (which may be the case).

ben said...

Larry, thanks for asking questions that'll lead to useful development and clarification.

1. I'm not sure sin makes me anything "with" God (though I haven't surveyed it). It does make me rebellious against, unfaithful to, and disobedient to. (I realize we're dealing with English translations here, but the expression is in English, nowhere in Greek, so it seems fair to compare it with terms as they're translated into English.)

2. You make a fair point about the ethical/moral range of the dikaio- word group. My intent was not to argue that the word group can never carry an ethical or moral meaning. The point I was trying to communicate is that anytime the word group is used in relationship to our standing, it refers to a settled status grounded in God's acceptance of Christ's finished work on our behalf.

It's been a few months since I read Moo's excursus on the "righteousness of God," but it seems as though the passages you cite are examples of moral behavior that is consistent with God's righteous nature. They have nothing to do with acquiring, maintaining, or advancing a right standing with God. In other words, I don't thing "right with God" is used commonly in preaching to mean "right according to God."

The implication is that my argument doesn't hinge on the dikaio- word group always referring to forensic justification. It hinges on the fact that the term "get right with God" implies an unbiblical way of achieving right standing with God.

ben said...

Ok I surveyed it. I see two somewhat relevant passages:

Rom 5:1—"peace with God": obviously a transformed relationship with God grounded in justification

James 4:4—"friendship with the world is enmity with God"

That text offers the only evidence I know of in the English text for sin making me something "with God." I certainly don't see that as valid grounds for creating a concept of "getting right with God."

Bro. Jude 1:3 said...

The most important thing is that we keep salvation and discipleship distinct, as Bro Lou has been teaching us.