Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Then Arose Another Generation." Observation of J.I. Packer's Relationship to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

I recently read JI Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and noticed that it was published by 'InterVarsity Press.' The same IV that a very nominalist christian, social-gospel-focused and 'diversity-celebrating' (see post Christian Identity and Racial Identity) campus organization at my university belonged to. I was curious how this came to be, and the following is my reflection. It originated as a text.

JI Packer may have unintentionally contributed to the turn of IV toward more of a friendship-evangelism focus. He shows he’s a product of his time in that whereas he is able to look fairly objectively at evangelistic efforts from the 1850s to 1961, he implies out of existence, by omission, any evangelism of strangers. Everything he wrote has value, there’s nothing in his theology or ecclesiology or recommendations that puts forth positive error, the short book is a good read – his only mistake, I think, is that he implies quite directly that Christians should “become friends with” whom they intend to evangelize. He has good intentions, but he leaves out mention of those whom perhaps no Christian is friends with – who will preach to them? I think he was well observant of the diminishing returns of evangelism over the century and pointed out that it is chiefly God’s plan, and not necessarily a result of bad methods. But he seemed not to consider, as many people I have heard speak on the subject have also failed to consider, that with diminishing numbers of Christians, the number of lost people that can be engaged through friendship is bound to be much less than the total population. It also ignores the fact that due to personality as well as worldly hostility, many Christians may have very few or no worldly friends, through no fault of their evangelistic compassion. Packer did not seem to foresee the rise of the “impersonal” street preacher movement spearheaded by Ray Comfort a decade and a half later (his book “hell’s best kept secret” – unless it was another one ("God has a wonderful plan for your life?"), but it was one I’ve read – explicitly stated at one point that he and David Wilkerson(?) had sympathized over that they “didn’t believe in follow-up,” i.e. the task of the evangelist is to make the Gospel known and not expect to disciple anyone). The early disciples didn’t make friends, either, they went to strangers, and that is the only option for many of us going forward.

That’s to say, hitting the first point, that failing to encourage the evangelism of strangers inadvertently led, I suspect, to IV’s contemporary disregard for it. When I brought up evangelism with cru people (similar thing there), their uncompromising opinion was that you were doing it wrong if you didn’t get to know someone over a long period before ever bringing up Christ – or at another point, I was told that I can do what I want as long as I make sure to follow up and disciple them. That’s overwhelming. Are we to conclude that Christians can only evangelize a handful of people in their lifetime? Foolishness! It necessarily leads to withholding the Gospel from those whom it is within our power to share it with, and who may not have any opportunity to hear it any other way! So the things that upset you with IV were likely the increasingly more heretical practice and doctrine resulting from a small, small error half a century earlier. This is why “small things” matter, like creation, complementarianism, and other non salvation essentials.

On the subject of creation, Ken Ham has been fond of mentioning in his writings and speaking engagements that though you might be just propping the door open a crack, each new generation pushes that door open further and further. 

JI Packer was no heretic. It's difficult to see, perhaps, where the error lies in his recommendation to build relationships with the mission field. There is no explicit proof text that says doing exactly that is wrong.*  But this seed of "friendship evangelism" has now grown into a tree and borne fruit, and the result on at least one American campus this decade was a Christless social gospel that gloried in racial identity rather than Christian identity.

We should certainly evangelize our friends. But we should not have hang-ups about needing to make friends with those we must evangelize. My hope is that the next 50 years might see this drift corrected.

-W

*(I still think there are dozens of proof texts that directly imply it's wrong)

PS It was Hell's Best Kept Secret, page 8 here. Excerpt reproduced below.

Saints, the first thing David Wilkerson said to me when he called me on his car phone was, “I thought I was the only one who didn’t believe in follow-up.” Now, I believe in feeding a new convert; I believe in nurturing him. I believe in discipling him—biblical and most necessary. But I don’t believe in following him. I can’t find it in Scripture. The Ethiopian eunuch was left without follow-up. How could he survive? All he had was God and the Scriptures. You see, follow-up…now let me explain follow-up for those of you who don’t know. Follow-up is when we get decisions, either through crusades or local church, and we take laborers from the harvest field, who are few as it is, and give them this disheartening task of running after these decisions to make sure they’re going on with God. What it is is a sad admission of the amount of confidence we have in the power of our message and in the keeping power of God. If God has saved them, God will keep them. If they’re born of God, they’ll never die. If He’s begun a good work in them, He’ll complete it to that day (Philip. 1:6); if He’s the author of their faith, He’ll be the finisher of their faith (Heb. 12:2). He’s able to save to the uttermost them that come to God by Him (Heb. 7:25). He’s able to keep them from falling and present them faultless before the presence and glory with exceeding joy (Jude 24). Jesus said, “No one will pluck you from my father’s hand” (John 10:29).

(Emphasis added)

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