Where does all bad theology come from? From our perspective, it comes from a loss of the church’s one foundation–that is, Jesus Christ and his work counted to us by faith alone.
Members Podcast: Jon and Justin deal with common objections to “faith alone” and “Christ alone.”
Justin Perdue: Hi, this is Justin. Question for you: where does all bad theology come from? Here at Theocast, it is our conviction that all bad theology comes from a loss of the one truth foundation on which the church can stand—and that foundation is Jesus Christ, his work in our place, counted to us by faith alone. We’re going to talk about that today on the podcast.
In the members’ episode, we deal with some common objections to the emphasis that the Reformation puts on Christ alone and faith alone. We hope this is a helpful conversation for you. Stay tuned.
Jon Moffitt: Lately, with Theocast, those who have been joining are really vocal and involved. It’s unreal how encouraging everybody is. So many people are hungry. They’re coming from all kinds of backgrounds—we’re not just talking about a Baptist background, we’re not just talking about Calvinists; there are people coming from Charismatic, Legalism, and Fundamentalism backgrounds. It’s a broad perspective. I know this to be true in my own church where my church has seen a pretty big influx of the Charismatics who are leaving that theology and coming into our church, and people from Fundamentalism coming in this direction.
One of the things that I hear all the time is that these people are finding rest and they love it; they love how much joy there is in Christ. What’s their number one passion? They want to rescue anybody and everybody from their past. They want everybody to know what kind of joy they can have. They call me and they text me so frustrated with the text conversations they’re having, and the dinner conversations they’re having. They’re like, “Jon, how do I show them that this is so wrong?” They get so upset not because these people are wrong, but they’re missing out on the absolute joy that you can have in the midst of pain and suffering in a world that is crumbling.
One of the conversations I’ve been having with Justin about this is how do we help people articulate the patience that is required? And what are we trying to accomplish when we’re being patient with people who we theologically disagree with? What are we trying to do?
Here at Theocast, one of the things that you’ll notice is that we have no problem talking about bad theology and pointing out where things are often wrong. I’ll just put it this way: what really annoys me about discernment ministries is that they are just hatchet jobs. All they do is they go in and they just hack away at people’s bad theology for the sake of telling them they have bad theology. I know I’m imputing people and I’m assuming their motives, but I can only go off of what I see sometimes. It just seems like all the conversations are about proving where you’re wrong. “This is unbiblical.”
Justin Perdue: To briefly jump in and maybe rescue some of those motivations a little bit, I assume that people that are doing that would say—and to an extent, we would agree—that in tearing down bad arguments, and tearing down bad theology, you are aiming to do good to people. I assume that their motivations are good in that regard.
You and I are going in the same direction, but I was just trying to nuance and clarify.
Jon Moffitt: Right. Perception is reality. A lot of times, all people perceive you doing is coming in and telling them where they’re wrong, and it seems like it’s all it is an attack all the time. My poor wife had to deal with me doing this when I first discovered the relief of our theology. It was like everything she did was wrong, and it just overwhelmed her because she never felt like she could trust anything because everything was wrong. Instead of building up a better foundation and then moving someone to that foundation, we just toppled that down; we’re battering rams just wrecking the older one. We’re a theological wrecking ball.
What I’ve learned is that, sure, you can liberate people from bad theology, but what did you liberate them to? It’s more of you crumbled them; you didn’t assure them.
What we want to talk about today is the birthplace of bad theology. If you understand where it comes from, then it’s a lot easier to deal with it than it is just to destroy it. Because if you understand something, and the root cause of it, it’s like versus leaving the splinter in your arm and taking an ibuprofen versus going to the splinter and figuring out how to get it out.
We’re going to talk broadly about the birthplace of bad theology, and then, depending on how this goes, we would love to do a subsequent podcast talking about how it plays out in the different areas in theology throughout history.
Justin Perdue: We can talk about where the bad theology comes from, high level, and make some comments there. Then maybe we’ll transition to how that relates to our posture and our method here at Theocast, and even for ourselves, maybe in our own churches, too. Then maybe conclude—at least this portion—with some allusions to some of the various manifestations of this systemic problem.
Let’s talk about the real issue, the heart of the matter, here. From our perspective, the birthplace of bad theology is losing the foundation of all true religion. The foundation of the one true religion in the world is justification by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. If we lose that foundation of Christ and Christ alone being the ground of our peace before God—Jesus being our righteousness, him making satisfaction for our sins, his work, his merit being applied to us by faith alone, and all of those things—if we lose that foundation, then bad theology will necessarily follow. We’re just going to talk for a little bit about that foundation, the loss of it, and the fallout of that.
There’s a reason why we talk constantly about Jesus on this podcast. There’s a reason why Jon and I, as pastors of churches, every single week in our pulpits, unashamedly herald Jesus Christ and the justification that is ours in him: because it is our understanding that this is the only firm, true, and solid foundation upon which imperfect, sinful people can stand.
This is a Reformed podcast and oftentimes, we point people to the Confessions. One of the best paragraphs in the 1689 London Baptist Confession is chapter 11, paragraph one, on justification. That paragraph reads this way: “Those God effectually calls he also freely justifies.” To be justified, just for the sake of clarity, is to be declared righteous. It is to be reckoned righteous. It’s a legal term. It is not that we, in and of ourselves, are righteous; it’s that we are deemed to be so, and we are considered that and declared to be that. So, “Those whom God effectually calls he also freely justifies. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them,” He doesn’t just give us a dose of righteousness so that we then become righteous, “but by pardoning their sins and accounting and accepting them as righteous. He does this for Christ’s sake alone and not for anything produced in them or done by them.” That’s massive. It’s for Jesus’s sake alone, and it’s not for anything that is produced in us or anything that we do. “He does not,” God, “impute faith itself, the act of believing or any other gospel obedience to them as their righteousness.” This is important. It’s not our faith that is our righteousness, it’s not the act of believing that is our righteousness, it is not any other obedience that is our righteousness. Christ is our righteousness. “Instead, God imputes Christ’s active obedience to the whole law,” that’s his perfect life, “and passive obedience in his death as their whole and only righteousness by faith. This faith is not self-generated; it is the gift of God.”
The firm foundation, in other words, is the fact that Jesus Christ is our whole and only righteousness, and we receive that righteousness by faith alone—apart from anything in us, apart from anything that we do. We don’t achieve it, we receive it, and it is Christ’s righteousness that’s counted to wretches like us by faith. That is the firm foundation upon which true religion is built, and upon which the church stands.
Jon Moffitt: That’s our starting point. This is where we, at Theocast, want to drive everyone towards: to understand that if your foundation is not there, you have no hope. You should not have hope. Your hope should be questionable because everything else is sinking sand, as the song says. It can absolutely not withstand the judgment requirement that God will put upon it. The weight of your sin will sink you if you are not standing on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ.
Something that helped me really strongly is this: when I am dealing with somebody who is believing something that, I think, is not only unbiblical but damaging—it’s hurtful to their spiritual health, they probably are going to be frustrated, and even question their assurance—when I know I’m talking to somebody like that, I can’t just go over and push them off of the foundation that they’re on. That not only removes their security, but anybody who feels unsafe doesn’t respond well to that. It’s like a scared animal: you corner a scared animal, and that’s going to go sideways on you really fast.
One of the things that you need to think about is that before someone can identify that they’re standing on a bad foundation, you have to begin to point out the weakness of their foundation while you’re pointing to a strong foundation. This is where we’re getting at: the birthplace of all bad theology is when I’m talking with somebody who has what could be fundamentalism, it could be the Calvinistic pietism, or even the Charismatic theology—if you look at those systems, they’re built on what I call a prop-up position, where they’re trying to prop themselves up by different methods, so that they can look at those methods and then find assurance that they are good with God. I will say almost all bad theology is the attempt of finding your assurance, your right position before God, in anything else other than Jesus Christ and the finished work of Jesus Christ.
Justin Perdue: I’m going to try to qualify what I’m about to say. When Jon and I are using the language of finding assurance, we’re talking in absolute terms here. The Confessions are clear that our assurance can be bolstered, for example, by our good works, but our good works are never the foundation or the ground of our assurance. What we’re talking about is ground zero. What is the foundation of our assurance and peace before the Lord? What is the foundation of our salvation, of our hope, of our confidence, of all of that? And we’re speaking in absolute terms. Because this is bottom of the barrel, rubber meets the road: what is it that we’re standing on? What is it that is our hope and our confidence? The answer to that question, biblically speaking, is only Jesus Christ.
We’re transitioning to our methodology here in the way that we’re talking about this, and I trust that we’ll be clear, but what we’re doing constantly, as preachers or as hosts of this show, is we continue to beat the drum of Jesus Christ, his righteousness, his satisfaction, his work, and that being the only thing that you can ever trust in, hope in, rest in, or find peace in. What we’re doing there is kind of a twofold thing. We’re trying to extol, as much as possible, all of these things about Jesus—who he is and what he has done—so that we might look to him and be satisfied in that, and rest in that, and look to nothing else. We’re doing that.
But then we’re also trying, like you said, to point out how these other foundations, these other things that we all tend to look to, are really lousy foundations. They’re just not solid. They’re weak, they’re rotten, and they can’t bear weight; they certainly can’t bear the weight of our sin and our transgressions, the weight of our corruption. I find that that is so much of the work that I feel like I’m doing in an ongoing manner. In this podcast, it’s what we’re doing in an ongoing way, because we all tend to want to look to other stuff. We all tend to not just look to other stuff, but begin to put our hope in some other things. Or we fall into the trap of reasoning where there need to be these other things, there needs to be evidence, and then we start putting our hope in the evidence, and not in the groundwork of our justification, which is Christ.
At points, it sounds like we’re trying to have a very nuanced, splitting hairs kind of conversation, but it makes all the difference in the world to be clear, like we’ve said so many times. For example, things that flow out of the gospel aren’t the gospel. There are all kinds of implications for our lives that do matter. There are things that are going to flow out of our justification, namely our good works, but to begin to put our hope in any way in those things is wrong. To begin to look to those things, in any way, is effectively you trying to build your Christian life, and to build your assurance, on a shaky foundation. There are many manifestations of this, which we may allude to more in just a moment, but they all come from the same place.
Jon Moffitt: A house that is not built on a very solid foundation, and it starts to topple over, or you have cracks and things start falling apart. What you then have to do is prop and put things in place that should never even be there; they’re not even supposed to be a part of the original design of the house. So you have this patched together house that the more you patch it, the worse that it gets. Before you know it, you’re looking at it, and you’re thinking there’s a resemblance of a house there, but it is a convoluted mess. It is not really functioning. It seems like there’s always something breaking. What you end up becoming as exhausted nearby this constant patchwork you find yourself in. Because if you put this over here, then you’re imbalanced over here, and you’ve got to add this. I’ve met Christians who are so overwhelmed because they can’t seem to keep everything propped up, or all the balls in the air, or all the plates spinning. There’s this constant frantic feeling that if I don’t hold this correctly, then this is going to fall down—and it can be manifested in multiple different ways.
What makes Reformed theology so refreshing, and what was recovered during the Reformation, was the solid foundation. This is what Luther found himself. Luther was exhausted. He could not keep up. He realized the entire foundation that his entire religious experience was built on was just crushing him underneath the weight of his sin. When someone introduced to him Christ, it was like the weight was gone. He now understood that all of this bad theology that had been placed on top of him was where it came from. Once he did, he slowly started to drift away from the Roman Catholic church—not at first, he was trying to change it within and realized he couldn’t do it. So, he slowly started to drift away from it. During the Reformation, that constantly happened.
I will tell you that, Justin and I, that is our experience. Once we understood that our foundation was a little off, that we weren’t fully standing on the sufficiency of Christ…
Justin Perdue: Though we would claim to be.
Jon Moffitt: Absolutely. This is the hard part about it. It’s like, “No, Jon, I believe that we are saved by grace alone.” What I want you to hear is that I can barely think of a theology, a bad doctrinal position, that isn’t—down the road—directly propping up a bad theological position that isn’t related to one’s assurance in Christ. It may not be directly connected, but it is connected in some way back to the history of how they got assurance wrong, and now, because of that, you have all of these tentacles that go out that are all propping up something that was, first of all, built in the wrong place.
Justin Perdue: They’re all a manifestation or a form of what I would call the Jesus-Plus theology. This is part of the frustration that, I think, some of our listeners experience; I’ve even seen people in my own church is they’re trying to talk with friends or loved ones or other people—they feel this frustration, too. Because when you talk to other people who are Christians, they, of course, are going to agree with you: we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ alone. If they’re Protestant, they’re going to absolutely affirm that. But then, a lot of times, people like our listeners or people in our churches, as they’re trying to talk with others, they get frustrated because they’re like, “No, you don’t get it. You’re saying you agree with me, but you don’t really agree with me.” Like you said earlier, Jon, they’re emailing and calling us and asking, “What do I do? How do I help people see?” A lot of times our response is unsatisfactory for people because we’ll tell them that they need to be patient and gracious. They need to be winsome, kind, and humble. They need to play the long game; they need to just love these people and slow drip this stuff over the course of time, and trust the Lord with it. People are saying, “Okay, but that just doesn’t seem like a sufficient plan of attack here. I got to have something else.”
Jon Moffitt: Can I jump in real quick? What I hear is this: “But, Jon, they don’t see how bad this is.” I’m like, “You should hear yourself. You’re right. They don’t see it. Which means you should be patient.”
Justin Perdue: You even said something like this before we recorded today: you’re not going to convince people of their own off-centered, not great theology by always punching them in the face. There are other ways to go about doing it that are actually more effective. For us, the posture that we take, as a general rule here at Theocast, is to continue to unashamedly, over and over and over again, every time we record and every time we preach, point people to Christ and him alone. We’re preaching that and nuancing that in different ways every time we talk about it. It’s like that proverbial diamond—we just kind of keep slightly turning it and letting people just gaze at it.
What we’re trying to do there is at least a couple of things: one, we’re trying to so catechize people as to what the real thing is that they then, over the course of time, are better able to recognize the counterfeit. They realize, “This thing over here that I’m thinking about, or I’m trusting in a little bit, I realize that I’m off, and that that’s not Jesus and thereby it will fail me.” They’ll realize that every time. The other thing that we’re trying to do is show them by constantly heralding Christ and extolling him. We’re trying to help them see the beauty and the goodness of Christ, and the fact that he really is sufficient. It’s a twofold thing. You’re helping them see the error, but then you’re also helping them to just steep and soak in Jesus, so that they are satisfied in Christ, and that they are resting in him, and really do believe that Christ will do, and that there isn’t anything else that they need to add into it.
It can’t be done overnight. It takes time. That’s why we exhort people to patience and graciousness as they deal with people who don’t yet see this stuff. Because it will happen. Sometimes it takes a while, but when it happens, it’s very clear—the light bulb goes off, the toothpaste is out of the tube and they can’t get it back in, but they don’t want to anyway because it is so good. It’s worth the wait.
Jon Moffitt: One of the things that I even used to do when I was first in ministry dealing with college students, I was always trying to correct every little thing that was off and wrong that they had. I never really understood how they were all connected—their perspective on this and their perspective on that. It was always, “Let’s look at this Bible verse.” The longer I was a pastor, I started to realize that almost every little thing I was dealing with was a symptom of a greater problem. If you can identify that almost all theological issues are directly connected to an assurance issue—and to be clear, when I say there’s a result of a result, someone can ask how this is directly connected to the doctrine of assurance, and that might just be a theological difference within Christianity. Let’s be clear: denominations; if you’re not a Baptist, then there’s an assurance issue, not necessarily. Let’s be clear on that. What I’m talking about is real theological issues. If you can understand that the root cause of this is directly connected.
What I try and do is I walk people backwards. Why do you think it’s necessary that you perform or do this, or believe this? Or hold to that or not hold to that? Or not partake in that? Then you start walking them back. Eventually, what I’m trying to do is I’m having them look at where they’re looking to. If I do this, or if I don’t do this, what am I looking to that it will perform or not perform? Or what will it do in my heart and my mind? We were even saying, before the podcast got started, that we were thinking about the Charismatic movement, and that a lot of people in that movement truly just want to see the power of God in a world where we’ve lost sight of how glorious and powerful God is. How do you fault that desire?
Justin Perdue: They want to see the power of God because they don’t think that the power of God is not demonstrably at work in many churches. I’m with you there.
I want to comment on something that you said, and we’ve said this a few times already, but sometimes nuance is helpful for people as they listen. Sometimes, you need to hear it said a couple of different ways and then it clicks. Like you said, Jon, the birthplace of all bad theology can be traced back to compromising what the Scripture teaches with respect to justification. What I mean specifically is it can all be traced back to trying to add something, in some form or fashion, to Christ in his work. And really, when we say justification, we mean we’re declared righteous now and forever—not just peace with God now, peace with God forever. Whenever you start bringing anything else into that equation—anything other than Jesus, who he is, and what he’s done—inevitably, bad theology follows from that. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Jesus plus circumcision, or Jesus plus a work of the Law, or Jesus plus speaking in tongues, or whatever it was if you fill in the blank, or Jesus plus abstinence from certain kinds of behaviors. We could go on and on and on. Any time it’s Jesus and something, we’ve lost the only foundation on which the church can stand. We could rant on that for a while.
What we’re trying to draw out here is that there are so many ways, and what’s hard here is that many of them are so subtle. Because, again, you’re going to ask people how are they justified, and they’re going to say Christ. But then functionally and practically, it becomes quite clear that it is Jesus and this other stuff that is the ground of our hope. In some contexts, it’s like, “I’m hoping in Christ but you need to be concerned about good works.” In other contexts, “I’m hoping in Christ but you need to be concerned with speaking in tongues and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” In other contexts, “I’m hoping in Christ but you need to be concerned about your affections and your disciplines.” And in other contexts, “I’m hoping in Christ but you need to be concerned about the kind of media that you’re consuming, what kind of movies you’re watching, what kind of music you’re listening to, and how you dress for church on Sunday.”
It’s very clear that to hope in Christ alone always has been, and still is, and always will be, scandalous. Because in our like legal spirits, we are always wanting to be able to contribute something or point to some other stuff. We have such a hard time with the biblical distinction of Christ as the only hope we have. He is our whole and only righteousness. He is the ground of our salvation now and in the future. And then, yes, having been united to Jesus, and having been indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there will be outflow from that. We have such a hard time keeping those things distinct. We want to meld them together to where the outflow and the groundwork become merged. Then you give the whole thing away.
That’s why we keep doing what we’re doing. That’s why we keep talking about the same stuff week after week, We keep preaching the same stuff week after week, because it’s absolutely imperative that we get this right.
Jon Moffitt: For the last few minutes, we will look at a couple of passages where Justin and I find a lot of hope and security in what we teach, and where we would say we base our entire ministries, no matter if it’s on a podcast or sitting across in a counseling session.
The apostle Paul overwhelmingly places this foundation of Christ upon almost any letter that he writes. In the second chapter of Colossians, towards the end, Paul is bringing us into the beauty and glory of Christ: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—”Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Where does he say to put the foundation of the Christian life? He says, “If you’ve been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things of the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Hidden with Christ in God. He’s saying, “This is what the world is telling you to do to govern you, and I’m telling you that you need to rest in your identity in Christ, where your Advocate, your Savior, is seated at the right hand of God, and you are hidden away,” meaning that it’s this concept that nothing can find you to steal you back. The foundation is always being pressed back in on my assurances in Christ, and that is the foundation.
To even go back to Corinthians when Paul says, “I want to make nothing known among you, except for Christ, and him crucified.” There is more that comes out of Paul’s mouth than just the message of the gospel, but he’s talking about a foundation for their faith. To him, on a foundation level, this is the most important thing before he says anything else.
Justin Perdue: 1 Corinthians 1-2, since you’re there right now, he does say, “I endeavor to know nothing among you other than Christ and him crucified,” but a few verses earlier than that, he’s been talking about the gospel, in particular, the message of Christ crucified, and Christ for sinners is the power of God unto salvation. Then he goes on to say that because of God, we are in Christ, who has become to us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, so that it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” Paul is very clear there. We could talk about Ephesians and how Paul starts that letter. We could talk about Romans in the first seven chapters. 2 Peter one. 1 John is replete with stuff, in the first couple of chapters, and throughout in terms of the confession of Christ becoming flesh, and how, when we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father and all these things.
Then, of course, Romans. Paul lays out a number of things there, including how he sets up a beautiful argument that he lands there at the end of Romans 3, that God is a righteous judge, everybody is wicked, nobody does good, so we’re in trouble, and now the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law. Though the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it, it is the righteousness of God by faith for all those who believe in Christ.
The one that immediately comes to mind for me, when we have this conversation, is Galatians. It is the book as has been said by a number of people. My former mentor in the faith used to say that Galatians is the book in the New Testament with the sharpest elbows, because Paul really is in the lane throwing bows. I think the scandal of that book is not that Paul is blowing up works righteousness—that’s not what he’s doing. He is blowing up Jesus-Plus theology. It’s important for you to understand that. Because it’s not that the people in the Galatian context were being told to keep the Law and be saved, they were being told, “Believe in Jesus and be circumcised. Believe in Jesus and obey the Law in this way.” That is what it really is to be a Christian, and to be saved, and have peace with the Lord. Paul is so sharp in his language about it. If you are going to uphold any work of the Law, you better keep all of them. If you’re going to uphold a work of the Law, then you are cut off from Christ and you’ve fallen away from grace. That’s what we’re trying to say here. We’re trying to speak in maybe a pointed way, like Paul does in the letter to the Galatians, to defend the exclusivity of Christ as being the way that sinners are saved, and counted righteous, and their sins are paid for and satisfied for, and you can’t add anything to Jesus or you compromise the whole thing.
Jon Moffitt: Our hearts are so quick. You’ve been saying it over and over again: Jesus plus. Our hearts are so quick. We’ve been having a lot more quotes being posted out there lately, and the comments on there, people are really quick to say, “Yeah, but James says faith without works is dead.” People are so quick to want to point you to the performance of the individual. What’s interesting to me is that there are a couple of passages in the Bible that do say faith without works is dead. In context, it’s very important to understand why James feels the need to say that, just like 1 John feels the need to say certain things, which is a whole other podcast for another reason. Or maybe we’ll just say it for the members’ podcast.
My point is that when you think about that tendency that we have, and with Theocast, it’s just heightened for us—I just feel it all the time. Anytime we put something out there that is Jesus only, it scares people.
Justin Perdue: It frightens the daylights out of people.
Jon Moffitt: I am sympathetic, but at the same time, you have to understand what we are trying to do is pull everything out of people’s hands and say, do not ever trust in anything else. This is what Paul says to the Galatians. “Know that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” It is faith alone in Christ. It’s not faith in our faith. It’s not faith in our faithfulness. It’s faith in Christ.
Justin Perdue: I feel like I have a lot more to say, Jon, and we’re going to go over now and say some of it in the members’ podcast. If you’re listening to us, and you are interested to be able to continue this conversation with us, and you don’t know what the members’ podcast is, you can find more information about that at our website theocast.org.
Jon Moffitt: This is like the team meeting for me. This is where I get to talk to my fellow teammates and say, “Hey, look, here’s some encouragement and motivation for you.” Those of you that are trying to love people graciously towards Christ, stay tuned. We got something for you.
Justin Perdue: That’s what the members’ podcast is: to be able to talk with those that are tracking with us and seeing the wonderful peace, rest, joy, and freedom that is found in Christ, and want others to be able to see and experience this too. We’re having a conversation amongst ourselves to better understand these things, and then to hopefully better be able to help other people.
Hopefully that makes sense. Make your way on over to the members’ podcast and join us for that conversation. We’d love to have you there. For those of you that may not be able to do that this week, we look forward to speaking with you again next week.