Author: Phillip Jensen
What is the characteristic of the building blocks of truth?
Frequently we see them as Lego pieces, i.e. little interchangeable bits that can be accepted or rejected at will to enable the builder to create anything they want. So we think we can pick and choose our way through the paths of Christian teaching that suit us. We can reject the bits we are uncomfortable with, or that we do not understand, or that we do not like without affecting the whole or rejecting any other bit that we may believe in.
However, there are other kinds of building blocks. Last Year in New Zealand I bought a three-piece jigsaw puzzle. It consists of three wooden blocks. Each block seems to have a strange if not bizarre shape. None of the blocks seem to represent anything in particular. None of them are particularly stable. However, the three can be joined together. When joined together properly, they form a stylised kiwi. This little wooden kiwi is quite stable and attractive. However, it is only seen to be a kiwi and only able to stand when all three pieces are joined together. Even joining two of the pieces together will not establish a stable figure.
Christian truth is like kiwi blocks rather than Lego blocks. The pieces are not interchangeable or irrelevant. It is only when the total picture is present that each of the pieces are seen in their proper place, function and purpose. It is only when each of the pieces is in its proper place that the total picture can be seen for its truth.
Each of the great truths of the Gospel depends and relies upon each other. If Jesus is not human He cannot pay for the death of others. If Jesus is not divine His death could not pay for others. If Jesus’ death for others was inadequate or insufficient then we could not be justified by faith in Him. If we are justified by faith in Him we are being called upon to put our trust in somebody other than God, unless Jesus is God. To put our faith in Jesus requires us to believe God’s Word. To believe God’s word is to trust that God has spoken the truth to us. So to trust God’s Word is to trust God is to trust God’s Son. Not to trust God is not to trust His Son and is not to trust his Word. If you do not honour the Son, you do not honour the Father who sent Him.
None of these various truths operate and act independently. They are completely interrelated. It is not possible therefore to dismiss or omit some and still retain the others. Each implies the others. Therefore they are not interchangeable and independent building blocks of truth; they are not Lego blocks but kiwi blocks.
This indivisibility of Christian truth has great implications for the ministry of the Gospel. It has implications for Bible reading, evangelism and Christian fellowship.
Firstly, it has implications about our reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible.
The various viewpoints contained within the Scriptures cannot be divided off against each other. They are all part of the whole. Each is an integral part of the whole. Thus Bible reading from any part is valuable and worthwhile. Too often we spend too much time trying to work out from which part of the Bible to preach and too little time preaching from the Bible. It ultimately does not matter which part we are reading, teaching or preaching for it is all part and parcel of the truth of God’s revelation. Undoubtedly there are some sections that are easier to understand or from which we can more quickly draw implications for living. However, there are not parts ‘more true’ than others. Nor are there parts that we can omit as being unessential, irrelevant or untrue. Even the sections, which the Bible later condemns as untrue, such as Job’s advisers, are part of the total truth that we need to read, learn and understand. Not that we are going to apply these to our lives positively but rather that we may be warned as the Bible warns us about these false ideas.
There is abroad today a mood of looking for the different theologies of the Bible. The theology of Paul is put against the theology of Luke or of Peter or of Jesus. This atomistic approach to Bible reading, while it has certain value in noting author’s style or distinctive vocabulary or different context of writing, misunderstands the indivisibility of truth. The kingdom of God cannot be set over against the atoning death of Jesus as two different messages. To understand each requires an understanding of the other. To accept either requires the acceptance of the other. It is in Jesus’ death for our sins that He establishes the kingdom of God. A perspective of the kingdom of God that does not have the death of Jesus for our sins at its heart is a misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. That Paul hardly ever writes of the kingdom of God or Luke hardly ever speaks of the atoning work of Jesus’ death does not give us the liberty to divide off these two truths and put them in opposition to each other.
Therefore, in our Bible reading we need to perceive what is being said in any part in the light of the total message of the Bible. This is a two way process – so we also need to see the total message of the Bible in the light of any part.
Today many people fail to read the Bible from the perspective of the Gospel. Christ is the “yes” and “amen” to all the prophets, for He came to fulfil the law and the prophets. He opened the minds of His disciples to understand the Scriptures, and their understanding was that Christ will suffer and rise from the dead and that repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations. The Bible’s teaching is that Christ is the key to understand the whole Scriptures.
Secondly, the indivisibility of truth has implications for evangelism.
We can put it in this kind of conundrum: to omit anything of the Gospel is to distort the truth; yet we do not have to explain the whole gospel to preach it faithfully. Let us look at both of those sides of the conundrum in turn.
To omit anything is to distort the Gospel. You cannot preach the Gospel while purposefully avoiding the resurrection. For if you do not believe in the resurrection you will not be preaching the atoning work of Jesus properly, you will not be preaching justification by faith. For 1 Corinthians 15 says if Jesus has not risen we are still in our sins and are misrepresenting God and as Romans 4 says, we are justified by the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, people who do not believe the Gospel as a whole cannot preach the Gospel in part. They may use the right words but as they make their meaning clear they will be meaning something other than the Gospel. The false teacher is often to be found not in the error he says so much as the truth he avoids saying.
On the other hand we do not have to preach the complete and whole Gospel in order to preach it faithfully. To preach any part faithfully (e.g. the resurrection) will be sufficient to call upon people to repent and believe. We do not have to go into all the details of the nature of the atoning work of Jesus, or the doctrine of creation, or of the triune nature of God to preach the Gospel faithfully. Because we believe these things and would, given time, explain them, our presentation of the gospel will be accurate as far as it goes and will imply the rest of Christian truth. To put it into Francis Schaeffer’s terms – we have true truth but not necessarily complete truth. Because truth is indivisible, things that are truly true will represent faithfully the whole truth even though we have not the time, nor indeed the knowledge to present every aspect of truth.
This second side of the conundrum is very helpful to us in the practice of evangelism. For, we are tempted to preach the Gospel to our non-Christian friends by trying to give them every piece of Christian knowledge at the same time. We indigestibly package doctrines of creation, sin, judgement, trinity, atonement, resurrection, salvation, repentance, faith, etc. etc. etc. We have the insecurity of feeling the need to speak the gospel in its totality in order not to misrepresent it. However, we only need to speak it in part truthfully in order to represent it faithfully. From there we can call upon people to respond, for being a Christian is responding appropriately to God not knowing everything there is to know about God. For example, Jesus preaches the Gospel and calls upon people to respond in repentance and faith without mentioning His death and atoning work. He didn’t omit it because of unbelief, in fact He taught it to His disciples, but He preached that which was the truth of the Gospel for the audience in front of Him namely the coming of the kingdom of God.
Thirdly, the indivisibility of truth has implications for our fellowship.
A great problem in modern Australia is the question of with whom we can fellowship in the Gospel. People we can fellowship with in some issues e.g. supporting the same football club, will not necessarily be in fellowship with us on other issues e.g. euthanasia legislation. Fellowship in the gospel will be determined by our agreement in the gospel truths.
Various groups and organisations ask us to work with them on a range of causes. Frequently we are encouraged to join into fellowship with people who appear to hold some of the same truths that we hold but not all of them. Thus it is said “we know this person doesn’t believe in the authority of the Scriptures as you do but he does believe in the resurrection”, or “this man may have a strange sacramental theology but he is a spiritually minded man”.
When we move from home and church to a new town or suburb we are confronted with a choice of which congregation to join. Sticking to denominational lines will not lead us consistently into Christian fellowship because of the theological waywardness of many churches. It is the conformity to the Gospel that enables us to join wholeheartedly with a new congregation. Jesus effectively warned against institutional conformity when he rebuked the disciples for rejecting the exorcist who was “not following us” (Mark 9:38-41). We must be wary of being too legalistically narrow in our view of the truth, such that we miss the welcome of the true gospel of grace (Romans 14:1ff). Yet we must also beware of placing ourselves under false teachers and being unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
Especially in the ministry of the gospel it is important to work with people who unreservedly believe it. Given that the truth of the Gospel is indivisible no one who omits or denies part of the Gospel can faithfully and truthfully preach the rest. Therefore it is impossible to work together in preaching the Gospel with people who deny or intentionally omit part of the Gospel. We may have a superficial appearance of similarity, but when the work intensifies and the Gospel is to be expounded and defended we will find ourselves parting company at crucial moments. Ultimately only evangelicals preach the Gospel for non-evangelicals always distort it.
Paul rejoices in Philippians 1 that people are preaching the Gospel even out of bad motives. There is no indication that the gospel they were preaching was anything but the true gospel. He does not rejoice that people are preaching a false gospel or a distorted gospel or an inaccurate gospel. Preaching a false or distorted gospel is roundly condemned in Galatians 1. This does not excuse bad motives but it does not allow false Gospels.
Christian fellowship that is not based upon the agreed truth of the Gospel is the building of a divided house. Denominations like Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Reformed Church or Lutheranism were built on doctrinal agreement. The Intervarsity Fellowship (IVF), which has become the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES), was very wise in establishing its University evangelism on the basis of a doctrinal viewpoint. We cannot institutionalise the truth but office bearers of such denominations and movements as well as speakers on these platforms, had to agree in writing to the doctrinal positions. Without such agreement joint evangelistic efforts are impracticable. Over time as people want their movement or denomination or church to grow in numbers and political power, there is a tendency to ignore these important doctrinal foundations. Alliances are made that can only undermine the gospel or lead to unhappy conflicts. Unity and growth come from the centre outwards not from the edges inwards. It is not alliances with fellow travellers that grow a ministry of the gospel but from faithfulness to the central truths.
However there are limits to our knowledge of the truth for while the truth we have is indivisible, we do not have the whole truth.
The Gospel revelation of God in the person of His Son and the record of Scripture covers with clarity certain key issues. However, it does not claim to be an exhaustive revelation of all truth. Therefore, though truth is indivisible we are not in receipt of the knowledge of all truth. Consequently, it is only in certain areas that we know the truth absolutely. Furthermore, part of that truth is the knowledge of the inconsequentiality of some parts of life.
It is possible, from what has been said before, to conclude that unless we agree on every issue we cannot agree on anything. However, as the Bible does not speak on every issue, and as on some issues it says we are free to disagree with each other, that is not the conclusion that should be drawn. One man will count one day more sacred than another while others will count all days the same. Each is to do as his conscience directs. We must be in fundamental agreement with the importance of obedience to your conscience. However, we need not be in any agreement as to the importance or significance of one day as opposed to another. You may have a Keynesian view of economics or you may be a neo-Keynesian or you may object to all forms of Keynesian economics. The Bible has no view expressed on Keynesian economics. However, the truth that is revealed in the Scriptures concerning the person and work of Jesus in particular is an indivisible truth, which requires commitment to the whole and not to some parts alone.
It is not always easy to establish precisely the degrees of tolerance of differences in Christian understanding. However, certain truths such as justification by faith alone (Galatians), the divinity and humanity of Jesus (1 John), the authority of the Scriptures (1 John) and the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15) are said in Scripture to be of an absolute and fundamental nature.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.