“Orthodoxy, properly understood, does not shut down further thought, does not stop further discovery. No, orthodoxy actually is what makes deeper thought and further discovery possible. Discovering the first truth means you now have something you can build upon as you look for a second truth. For some reason people tend to think that the way forward—the thoughtful approach to life and doctrine—is to break down boundaries, toss out taboos, do away with doctrines. But that approach shuts down the possibility of deeper thought before it’s had the chance to grow.” — Trevin Wax
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Heresy Often Begins with Boredom
- Why You Should Read G. K. Chesterton’s ‘Orthodoxy’ with Us
- Beware Theological Dangers on Both Left and Right
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Trevin Wax: Thank you all for being here today. As we look at a topic that is I think important for us today but it’s going to be important for us as we look at the church in the next generation as well, the thrill of orthodoxy. The church faces her biggest challenge not when new errors start to win but when old truths fail to wow.
So theological thrills and predictable passions lead to errors that can entice the Christian who has grown bored with the truth. Something in us responds to the initial excitement of moving just a step away from orthodoxy, of departing even just slightly from the historic Christian faith.
So borrowing the image of electricity, we could put it this way, we feel a surge of energy in opposing our fathers and mothers in the faith, a jolt, a shock, an electrifying sense of courage in pressing the boundaries or championing an innovative doctrine.
But the problem with the jolt that comes from theological error is that it is just that, it’s a jolt. There’s no staying power. And when the electrical error is massive enough, when error slips into heresy, you may find that, after that initial flash of light, you’re left in the dark for Christ has taken away your Church’s lamp stand.
Orthodoxy is different. Its power is divine because it comes from divine revelation, not human invention. Its light shines so brightly that we often look away from it or we easily take it for granted because it’s the light by which we see everything else. Every generation faces the temptation to drift away from orthodoxy, to seek out the electrical jolt that comes with false teaching.
And so, every generation must be reawakened to the thrill of orthodoxy, every generation must discover and experience the shock, the surprise that comes from stumbling afresh upon the electrifying message of the Gospel, and to regain confidence that orthodoxy does not hinder the church in her mission but fans the flame.
So, in our day, the temptation to drift from orthodoxy, to embrace error, to flirt with heresy, it comes in several forms. Here are several forms that we can drift, several ways we might drift.
The first is doubting our assurance of orthodoxy, doubting our assurance of orthodoxy. So the first temptation robs us of confidence, robs us of certainty that we could ever ascertain what orthodoxy is in the first place. I mean truth is contested, right? Christians disagree on many things, so many things in fact that, you know, we ought to just accept one another, just agree to disagree about virtually everything. Since we don’t agree on what constitutes orthodoxy, we can’t seem to define it anyway, we should just embrace the humility of the agnostic, remaining open-minded and charitable regarding orthodoxy. Because, you know, no one can be sure. It’s the first temptation.
The second form of drifting from orthodoxy is when we disregard the details of orthodoxy. So disregarding the details of orthodoxy. So the second temptation to drift from orthodoxy coincides with a disregard and a distaste for the details in our doctrines. We lose the willingness to devote time and attention to theological intricacies, you know, seemingly small or insignificant matters because, well, we just don’t find them practical.
If a particular detail doesn’t connect easily and visibly to something practical in our Christian faith and practical in the Christian life, then well we just think, “It’s really not worthy of attention.” Why stress over definitions? Why get all worked up about debates? The point is just to love God and love others. Orthodoxy in the details doesn’t matter.
The third temptation, the way we might drift from orthodoxy, is when we think we’re saving the future by changing orthodoxy. Saving the future by changing orthodoxy. So the third temptation to drift away from orthodoxy is when we become convinced that the only way to rescue Christianity for the future is to free Christianity from the past.
So orthodoxy needs to be updated, to be adapted to meet the challenges of the modern world. There are aspects of historic Christian belief and practice that must be altered or set aside, otherwise our faith will become irrelevant. Or worse, we will be perceived as backward. So we must reinterpret, we must reimagine the faith in order to fit the needs of the current cultural moment.
And then, a fourth way of drifting from orthodoxy is when we misread orthodoxy as dull and dead. Misreading orthodoxy as dull and dead. So the fourth temptation comes from boredom. Boredom with ancient truths and usually fascination with innovation. We believe that new ideas, doctrinal shifts, that’s what’s revolutionary, those are the signs of progress.
And so, we see, you know, progressives are those who keep the faith alive by offering us new and improved doctrines and by pushing the boundaries, and theology, and ethics, and leading the church to new heights of exploration. Orthodoxy by itself is dead, we need a living faith that makes progress. So here we have four temptations that lead us away from orthodoxy into error, in some extreme cases into heresy.
How should we respond to these temptations? I mean I suppose we could just pound our Bibles on the table, yell a little louder, slap a bumper sticker on our church that says, “God said it, and that settles it,”you know, or double down on our church’s traditions. But none of these approaches can compete with that initial jolt of excitement in departing from orthodoxy.
You know, the best way to counter the shock of heresy is with the thrill of orthodoxy. The best way to avoid new errors is to love old truths. So this is what G.K. Chesterton did in his classic book Orthodoxy. And in this workshop, I’m leaning on, I’m reimagining Chesterton’s work for the challenges we face today.
And what I really want to leave us with is this understanding, this sense that the broad path is bland and boring, the straight path is where all the adventure can be found. So my hope today is that you will be electrified by the thrill of truth that comes from heaven and inoculated to the insufferable boredom that paves the path to hell.
Okay? So first, the thrill of discovering orthodoxy. We start with the first temptation to drift from orthodoxy and that’s this idea we just mentioned where we can never be completely confident in what orthodoxy is in the first place. Right? Because, after all, there are multiple views on theology, multiple views on ethics, even within the church. So the humble approach, people say, that would be for us to keep an open mind about everything that we believe.
It’s arrogant, it’s closed-minded to establish bold lines of demarcation, to debate who’s in or who’s out when it comes to the church or the kingdom. So, according to this line of thinking, orthodoxy is a mystery. If you’re truly humble, well, you can’t know for sure what is true or false, you know, right or wrong, orthodox or unorthodox.
And trying to figure all of that out is beside the point anyway, it’s best to hold your faith with an open hand. Certainty leads to conflict, confidence drives away doubters. Humility, this recognition that we can never be certain of orthodoxy, that’s what leads to peace. Now, before we respond to this way of thinking, we must admit that there are aspects of Christianity that remain a mystery.
To miss the mystery is too overly rationalize our faith. And it’s also true that our knowledge is not exhaustive, we don’t know everything there is to know about God and His ways. And anyone who assumes they do is guilty of the sin of presumption. And furthermore, we must also admit that churches have not always done well in distinguishing different kinds of doubters.
The brief letter from Jude, near the end of the New Testament, calls us to show mercy to those who doubts. Right? Other New Testament authors call us to rid the Church of false teachers. So there’s the doubt that asks, you know, “Why does God say what he says?” tries to figure out God’s ways.
And then, there’s the doubt that takes a more serpentine form. “Did God really say?” And “you will not surely die.” So there’s a difference between faith seeking understanding and unbelief seeking justification. The healthy church can spot the difference.
One last thing, it’s true that arrogance can flourish among doctrinally-sound Christians. Arrogance is a sign that someone has knowledge of orthodoxy in their head without a corresponding experience of orthodoxy in their heart. Sinclair Ferguson writes this, he says, “There is a kind of orthodoxy in which the systematic theology or stages of redemptive history are all in place, but that lacks the life of the whole. Just as arms, legs, torso, head, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth may all be present while the body as a whole lacks energy and perhaps life itself.The form of godliness is not the same as its power.”
So there is a pseudo orthodoxy that masquerades under doctrinal precision and theological certainty but lacks all vibrancy and power. The problem however is not doctrinal precision, and it’s not theological conviction. The problem is the absence of experiencing God and having the heart set on fire by the Gospel.
The Gospel breeds humility, not arrogance. But unfortunately, we live in a time when being certain of something is confused with arrogance. This is what Chesterton called “Misplaced humility.” Misplaced humility. He said, “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth.This has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.”
So what Chesterton was saying is certainty is not the enemy of humility, it’s a false humility that keeps us from declaring truth. It’s a false humility that says, “Oh, I’ve discovered orthodoxy but I can’t really say so out loud.” Imagine if someone were to set sail and come across an island that no one had discovered before.
No one would say, “The sailor is arrogant for spreading the news of his discovery.” Why not? Well, because it’s something he found, not something he founded. It was something he investigated, not something he invented. It was something he discovered, not something he dreamed up. Even if the whole world were to laugh at him, it wouldn’t change the reality that the island is real, the island is there.
The New Testament authors, most of whom faced death because of their convictions, they were certain about what they had seen and heard. They knew the truth and the truth set them free to declare it to others. They were not bound by a false humility but freed by true humility, the humility that comes from discovering truth that is outside oneself, independent of one’s feelings or imagination.
And for this reason, they distinguished truth from error, they laid down bold lines of demarcation, even to the point of labeling a wrong view of Jesus as being of the spirit of the Antichrist. So, you know, when people are like, “Well, what’s all the fuss about drawing lines, about who’s in and who’s out?” some people ask. Well, take it up with the Apostles. I mean they started it, right?
The New Testament authors and the early church fathers who went to battle on behalf of orthodoxy, they were not rationalist enlightenment modernists beholden to scientific notions of certainty. They were witnesses of the truth. They did not possess orthodoxy, orthodoxy possessed them. They did not create orthodoxy and then define it for the rest of us, they discovered orthodoxy, and then, submitted to it, and then, called everyone else to take the humble knee.
I realized that’s not popular today, many people don’t like the idea that we should be certain of our theology or that we should know our destination. And it’s nicer, isn’t it, to just think of ourselves as we’re just on a path with other truth seekers, just stumbling along like everyone else with faith as this pilgrimage that we’re on.
And listen, there’s nothing wrong with the picture of faith as a pilgrimage. Okay? The idea of faith as a journey, that goes back to the Bible, that goes back to church history, that’s not a postmodern thing. John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress and he wasn’t even a millennial. When it comes to the journey, that metaphor only works though with orthodoxy because our journey is our…the metaphor of journey works because our discovery of truth is never exhausted.
It’s a road that leads us into deeper and richer truths. So, at some point, orthodoxy means that we become more than truth seekers, we become truth finders. And then, we become truth spreaders. And the reason the Christian life is a journey into deeper and deeper discoveries of truth is because we’ve already had initial success in finding the fundamental truths, and then, submitting to the truths that we have found.
So orthodoxy, properly understood, does not shut down further thought, does not stop further discovery. No, orthodoxy actually is what makes deeper thought and further discovery possible. Discovering the first truth means you now have something you can build upon as you look for a second truth. For some reason people tend to think that the way forward, the thoughtful approach to life and doctrine is to break down boundaries, you know, toss out taboos, do away with doctrines.
But that approach shuts down the possibility of deeper thought before it’s had the chance to grow. You don’t make progress in your thinking until you grow in your convictions, until you have a conviction you are sure of, something you know to be true, you cannot grow in your thought process, you cannot go into further conclusion or do further exploration. So an open mind is a good thing as is an open mouth.
But as Chesterton said, “The point of both is to close on something solid.” The purpose of seeking truth is to find it, and then, to build upon it. So the thrill of discovering orthodoxy is that truth is fruitful and multiplies. It leads to further thought, it makes room for further reflection, it’s when we wrongly equate humility with uncertainty that we shut down thought in further conversation.
Truth bears fruit. It’s true that Christians disagree on many important issues, and you could look at all of the different debates and denominations and conclude, “Well, that just is a sign. Orthodoxy isn’t real.” Or you could look at all of these groups and see the thrill of orthodoxy at work, the existence of people who are so convinced that orthodoxy matters, that the Scriptures are important, that we will do whatever it takes to get it right.
Christians don’t split from each other because they assume their beliefs don’t really matter but because they know they do. Not every difference of course, when we’re talking about the differences even here at a conference like this, not every difference leads from the narrow path to the broad or away from heaven or toward hell. But debates still matter because truth matters. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, he says, “Denominational differences need not impede the unity of the church, rather they enhance it.They do so not by diluting their denominational characteristics, including distinctive doctrines, but by offering them as prophetic gifts to the whole church.”
So yes, there are going to be differences, there are going to be interpretive disagreements among biblically-minded Christians but I think our love for orthodoxy is enhanced, not hindered, when we have fellowship with those who still submit to the supreme authority of God, exercise the Scripture, who strive to be faithful to the non-negotiable tenets of orthodoxy that we’ve discovered.
Tensions, debates, disagreements on lesser matters, those can be signs of life, signifiers of the reality of orthodoxy that we know exists. So, the thrill of discovering orthodoxy. Two, the thrill of orthodoxy’s details. Details. Remember I said, “The second temptation to drift from orthodoxy comes when we get tired of theology in its more practical, more detailed…sorry, in its more detailed forms, we don’t find it practical.
So instead of theology, we run to whatever we see to be most practical and we think the study of theology in its smallest details, “Ah, that’s counterproductive,” it may be even harmful to a vibrant faith. So the solution here is just, “Let’s make faith simplistic.” Okay?
Let’s make sure our faith is palatable and practical and don’t bother with the details, you know, just make sure you keep in mind the big picture. Because that’s the way to reach the next generation. Who has the time or energy to expend on theological minutia? Now, before we respond to this way of thinking, we ought to ask why it resonates with people today. It is certainly possible to debate and divide over trifling and insignificant matters that don’t deserve our attention.
Maybe you’ve been in a place before where winning a battle for theological orthodoxy was all that mattered, even if the warriors betrayed few signs of the Spirit. Or maybe you’ve seen a church torn apart by theological differences that followers of Jesus should debate but not divide over. There is always the danger of over intellectualizing the faith, turning Christianity only into a system of thought.
And when happens, it’s usually at the expense of pursuing life in the way of Jesus. But we shouldn’t do away with the details just because some people like to quarrel over them. The truth is the people most drawn to theological controversy are often drawn to controversy in general, whether it’s theological or not.
Quarrelsome spirits fly to theology like mosquitoes to an outside porch light in the summer. The answer to that problem though isn’t to turn off or disparage the light of theology. Instead, we should just swat away the mosquitoes. And we need the light to see them.
In a pragmatically-minded world that has no tolerance for detailed debates over the Bible and theology, we may think that the best way forward is just to simplify everything that we believe to be true and downplay the details of orthodoxy. But what if orthodoxy claims to tell us the truth about the world and about God and what if the truth is well-detailed?
I mean what if the truth is not simplistic but gloriously complex, just like the human body or the ecosystem or the intricacies of the emotions that lead us to thought and action? I mean if the human person, if the human person is complex, both in physical form and in personality, why should we expect our understanding of God to be simplistic?
Now, I know of course that we have a doctrine regarding the simplicity of God, and if that were a simplistic doctrine, I would explain it to you really briefly, but I won’t. I know some of you are like, “But we’re called to have a simple and a childlike faith.” Yes, but the call to exercise a simple faith does not mean the faith itself is simple. The call to approach God with a childlike heart does not mean we are to satisfy ourselves with a childish mind.
The faith is simple enough to be understood and believed by a child, yes, it’s true, but it is also complex enough in its inner depths to be plumbed and explored for a lifetime without exhausting its riches. Orthodoxy is complex and sometimes difficult to understand, much like the world is often complex and difficult to understand.
Heresies are appealing because they are simplistic. They are always simpler than the truth. The simplifications may appeal to the…they may appeal to the pragmatically-minded but they always sacrifice the power of the truth which is more complex. They are so simple they are not true.
Here’s how this works. Error creeps in when people attempt to simplify the Christian faith by picking up one truth. And I’ll admit, it’s a real truth that makes up part of the Christian faith. And then, holding tightly to it while letting go of other important truths. And, over time, that one truth, separated now from the rest of orthodoxy, gets called into action and becomes a weapon against Christianity’s other truths.
One truth divorced from all the others then becomes the unassailable foundation for a new creed and, eventually, a new religion gets constructed upon it. So let me give you an example of this. Someone that I would say many today, this would be an example that we see happening in our own time, someone could take the inclusive truth of Christianity, okay, the bold claim that Jesus is for everyone, that we are to go out into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to everybody regardless of race, nationality, creed, or ethnicity, and in a culture that sees inclusion as always good and exclusion as always bad, and in a culture that demands we simplify the faith to its practical essence, this one truth becomes the foundational truth that can be separated from all the others.
Now this truth describes, it describes Jesus’s shocking inclusivity. And listen, you read the Bible, this is an inclusiveness that angered the Pharisees, they opposed Jesus for dining with all the wrong kinds of people. Okay, this is a Christian truth, this inclusive vision, this inclusive call of Jesus, the inclusive call of the Apostles to the world.
But when that gets separated from other important Christian truths, such as the fierce exclusivity of orthodox Christianity, just think, the Apostles claim that there is only one name under heaven and on Earth by which people can be saved, Jesus Himself said he is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Him. So you’ve got the shocking nature of Jesus’s inclusive call but it’s matched by this radical exclusivity in His teaching.
I mean just think about what he says, “Unless you build your house on the rock of His teaching, you are a foolish brick builder, doomed for destruction.Unless you bear good fruit, you will be like a tree cut down and thrown in the fire. Unless you find the narrow path, you will walk the broad road to destruction.” Read the Gospels, we don’t find Jesus offering multiple paths of inclusive ways to live.
There’s the road to life and the road to judgment. Now get this, the early Christians faced the wrath of Rome because they held together both the inclusive call and the exclusive claim of Jesus. Caesar could tolerate the Jews, the Jews had an exclusive claim about the one true God.
Right? Why was that exclusive claim tolerated? Well, because Caesar and the Romans thought of them as, “Oh, they’re just merely a tribal ethnic religion, they don’t really pose a threat to the empire.They won’t worship the idols, but that’s okay, they’re just this exclusive little sect over here, they’re fine as they are.” And you know what? Caesar would’ve been fine with the early Christians if they had been totally inclusive, if they had just said, “You know, we worship Jesus.
He’s just another deity to be added to the pantheon alongside all the others,”and besides, you know, all these religious practices, if they’re sincere, they’re all really leading to the same place. You know, what put Christianity in the cross hairs of the Roman Empire, in the cross hairs of Caesar and the Roman authorities was this explosive combination of inclusivity and exclusivity.
This little group of people who insisted on the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way, not the idols of Rome, and, “Also, we’re issuing this inclusive call to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, to repent and believe and become part of the new worldwide family,” that was the jolt of the electricity that shocked the Roman Empire.
The earthquake that eventually brought down the ancient Roman religions. It wasn’t exclusivity on its own and it wasn’t inclusivity on its own but the creative combination of both that leads to the thrill of orthodoxy. Error always leads to an unfortunate simplifying of the faith and a diminishing of Christianity’s explosive power. And today, the temptation for some is to say, “Well, inclusion is at the heart of Christianity.”
And they’re surely right that that is a truth, in the New Testament, but, when they wield that one truth over against all the others, when they champion the call to inclusivity and fail to declare the corresponding countercultural claim of exclusivity, they are laying the foundation of what will eventually become the unassailable plank of a new religion altogether.
Heresy is always more narrow than orthodoxy. Orthodoxy calls us to hold paradoxical truths, like the inclusive call and the exclusive claim, in our minds at the same time. Heresy would have us close our minds to one of the two. Orthodoxy calls us to confess our faith in Jesus, “He is both God and man.” Right? The Arian or the Docetic heresies tell us, “It must be one or the other.”
Orthodoxy allows us to believe in both science and miracles. The materialist tells us that we can’t have a mind that’s open to the supernatural. Orthodoxy lifts up a holy God of love and justice. Heresy would have us choose between God’s attributes. Theological errors always try to cut God down into size.
They are dangerous simplifications of beautiful orthodoxy. They force upon us false dichotomies and they lead us to narrow our perspective. So orthodoxy, on the other hand, would rather have complexity than simplification because the minutiae involved in debate, especially, you know, sometimes even those small seemingly insignificant details about who God is and what he has done, they really matter.
They really matter. You know, in what other field of study would we say that details don’t matter? I mean how can we expect our spiritual health to improve apart from detailed diagnoses or accurate prescriptions? I mean imagine if we were to disparage doctors and nurses and pharmacists for paying close attention to the details of their profession.
“Oh, what’s with all these big Latin words, you know, medical jargon? Why this focus on the precise measurement of this medicine you want to give me, getting every single ingredient right when it comes to the prescription meds? I mean why don’t we just talk about living healthy in a generic way?” No, we don’t expect our doctors to ignore the details, why would we expect our pastors to?
We don’t expect scientists to avoid technical language or stop doing careful observations. And you can go to the artistic realm, we don’t expect artists to craft novels, or compose songs, or make movies and say, “Well, they don’t really matter in the details.” Now, why then would we say that in theology the details don’t matter? Just remember, at one point in Christian history, the threat of orthodoxy hung on the presence of one vowel in one word describing God the Father and God the Son.
Is it homoousios or homoiousios? Of one substance or of like substance? Oh, but that’s such a small, that’s such a tiny detail. Well, it mattered. It mattered.
It was the difference between Arius and Athanasius, between the Trinity and heresy, between a God-like Son or the Son as God. It mattered then, it still matters today because love is mindful, not just heartfelt. Athanasius was a doctrinaire man. I mean he was ready to suffer the pains of exile in order to stand by the truth that Jesus is both God and man.
He cared about the details. Imagine postmodern person today, transported back to Athanasius, standing virtually alone against the world and telling him, “You know, it’s not that big of a deal. You can compromise on this.” I mean it’s important that we just love everybody and that we don’t get caught up in the details of theological debate, I mean we can just agree to disagree on this.
The details are small, the details are unimportant. “No,” Athanasius would reply, for he had experienced the sacred fire of truth. He was alive to the thrill of orthodoxy. He knew the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob revealed in Jesus Christ. He knew the divine I Am and would not for a moment accept a simplistic compromise that robbed the Triune God of any aspect of His glory.
Athanasius refused to cut God down to size or to join the narrow-minded Arius who could not accept a savior who was fully God and fully man. And Athanasius knew the clever songs that pushed heresy, he knew the timidity that led many of his fellow pastors to compromise, yet here was a man who was doctrinal, he was dogmatic, he was detailed, and he kept the fires of orthodoxy burning.
One wrong step would’ve doused the flame and led the church into darkness. But he knew the Redeemer he had trusted, he was plugged into the source of orthodoxy and his faithfulness endured. It isn’t true because Athanasius won, Athanasius won because it was true. So that’s orthodoxy in the details.
Number three, the thrill of orthodoxy’s challenge. The third temptation I mentioned at the start is this idea that the only way to preserve orthodoxy in the next generation is to alter it, to update it, to let go of certain aspects of orthodoxy in favor of some ideas that might better suit the modern age. Whenever I think about the challenge that orthodoxy poses to us, I’m reminded of what took place 100 years ago.
Many church leaders, 100 years ago, were concerned that Christianity would appear backward because of the church’s insistence on supernatural events, you know, the miracles of Jesus, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. People were saying, “In a scientifically and technologically-advanced age, we can’t expect modern people to hold to backward beliefs like that.”
You know, the best way for Christianity to thrive in the future, if we’re going to save Christianity in the future, the best thing we can do is, well, if we don’t deny, at least downplay the doctrines that have to do with miracles and we should instead focus on the morals of Christianity, the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man.
You know, that was the way to see Christianity grow, right, to see Christianity adapt to the challenges of the 20th century. But surprisingly, the past 100 years have demonstrated the exact opposite. In fact, the groups within Christianity that have most emphasized miracles, including modern-day miracles, are those who have grown the fastest. And the groups that accommodated themselves to the spirit of the age grew irrelevant and experienced steep numerical decline.
One hundred years later, many of today’s church leaders are, again, concerned about Christianity appearing backward. We live in an age of moral permissiveness, sexual liberation. So the way forward would be, if we don’t deny, can we at least downplay, you know, our traditional beliefs about human anthropology, and gender, and sexuality?
Because unless we get with the times, we will be doomed to extinction as the last bastion of bigotry and repression. And we should not be hindered by the unanimous consensus of the Christian Church regarding sexual morality because, you know, the church got other things wrong in the past, it’s time for the church to evolve, the church used to make progress in its moral positions.
And so, we assume, many people today assume, “Well, because the church has been wrong in the past, the world must be right in the present. When the world challenges orthodoxy, orthodoxy must adjust.” The problem with this proposal is that it has the world, “Challenging orthodoxy,”at the very point we need orthodoxy challenging the world.
We are always tempted to challenge the constraints of orthodoxy at the pressure points where we most need the constraints of orthodoxy. And the thrill of orthodoxy means that we adhere to a religion that refuses to embrace our error. No matter how sincerely we believe the error, right, orthodoxy insists on keeping us from error by believing in the ultimate triumph of truth.
And so, 100 years ago, people wanted Christianity’s morals without the miracles. Today, people want Christianity’s miracles without the morals. But in both cases, remember what I said earlier, we see an unfortunate narrowing of the truth to fit the times. And in both cases, the truth that is narrowed into error, and then, into heresy, no longer serves the times at all because it loses the power of its strangeness, all the while the great need of the world is a church that offers something other than the echo of its own times.
The great need of the world as a church that remains a source of sanity, no matter how strange such sanity may seem in a world that has slipped into lunacy. In every culture and in every age, there are parts of orthodoxy that seem implausible. There are aspects of orthodoxy that seem strange. And the reason this is the case is because truth is strange.
We didn’t invent it, fiction makes more sense. Heresy always seems reasonable. We find error and heresy easier to accept because it’s something that we’ve made more suitable for ourselves. But the thrill of orthodoxy is the realization that truth presses in on us and binds us at the very place that we’d be most likely to go astray.
Heresies are dead idols that we fashioned in our image. Orthodoxy is alive enough to constrain us. Heresies bind us to the movement of the current moment. Orthodoxy frees us from the slavery of the present day. The thrill of orthodoxy is that it’s real, that it’s alive enough to swim upstream, that it’s alive enough to challenge the movement of the moment.
So please, I beg you, don’t fall for the endless stream of books written by Christian authors who cast themselves as provocative and daring for questioning orthodoxy. I mean, really, what is daring about such a move? You know, to receive applause from all of the people you already believe to be enlightened, to get criticized by all the rubes you think are dated don’t matter anyway?
I mean, no, in an age where everyone believes that they can pick and choose what parts of any religion to adhere to, what is truly provocative, what is truly daring is to submit yourself to the truth you’ve discovered. To commit, what Mark Sayers calls “self disobedience.” To care about orthodoxy in the details. To stand firm and high no matter how hard the cultural winds are blowing. To wield the sword of God’s word for the healing of the world.
Orthodoxy, we just got to get used to it, it’s always under attack because it’s such a big and massive target. It can be attacked from so many different angles. But when you see orthodoxy under attack, look at the places where it is most often challenged and you’ll find the places where we most need the challenge of orthodoxy.
Let me give you an example, universalism, for example, the belief that, in the end, all will be saved. Universalism is appealing to many people in our culture, it rids us of the problem of eternal suffering, the idea of hell, which has never been pleasant. But when held up against orthodoxy, universalism is too small. It’s too cramped.
It leads to a dull safety where our choice is no longer a matter. Eternity is no longer in question, we lose our moral agency. We also lose the adventure of missions. Michael McClymond who wrote a two-volume History of Universalism says, “Where are the universalist evangelists going to the ends of the earth, painstakingly learning and transcribing hitherto unknown languages and suffering opposition up to and including the prospect of martyrdom so that they can deliver their message of final salvation for all?Where are they?”
The adventure is lost. Over the centuries, by fiercely opposing universalism, orthodoxy has always insisted on eternal states. The thrill of orthodoxy’s vision of liberty, it may lead you to the mountaintop and dizzy your senses but only because it truly puts you at the precipice of life or death and insists on a real and enduring responses to the choices you make.
Or another example, take the the moral orthodoxy of Christianity’s sexual ethic. Now, we may find appealing the idea that God doesn’t really expect us to live up to his difficult commands. You know, perhaps we should relax our standards of sexual morality because the orthodox view is just…it’s simply impossible to live by, I mean to reserve sex for marriage between a man and a woman is cruel, and besides, we don’t really expect single people to refrain from sex before marriage.
Do we? We don’t really expect a young man to not look at pornography. We don’t really expect the young couple to live in separate houses before they come together in matrimony. So, in the name of love, we champion laxity. In the name of mercy, we promote mediocrity. In the name of compassion, we settle for compromise. And isn’t it strange to see such a moral permissiveness in a society that is obsessed with pushing our bodies to new heights?
You know, there’s this Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo, about a man ascending El Capitan without a rope. I mean it’s crazy, right? But it’s inspiring. Why is it inspiring? Because humans long for perfection. Because we long to aim high. We long for excellence. And yet, at the very moment when people do Crossfit and adopt various diet and exercise plans, you know, all as a way of striving to become the best versions of themselves, you know, to achieve new heights and pummeling their bodies, as the Apostle Paul said, today’s church leader comes along and says that, when it comes to sex, we can settle for moral mediocrity.
How strange is that? Laxity destroys the thrill of orthodoxy in the name of a mercy with no power to transform. And besides that, what does that laxity say of our view of God? Can we expect people to be in awe of a God that we have shrunk down to nothing more than a permissive grandfather who is less intrusive, less passionate, expects very little of us, just winks at our sin?
Now, contrast that to the exciting vision of the God of the Bible who calls us to soar to new moral heights. The thrill of orthodoxy lies in its challenge, it says, “Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through the power of the Spirit, you can develop into a person who actually lives as a new creation. Someone who actually achieves this height.” This is the way of Christianity, this is the thrill of orthodoxy.
Imagine a baby just learning to walk. Does a father say, you know, “You’re going to stumble, so we just won’t worry about walking?” No, your loving father says, with a gleam in his eyes, “I know you can do it.” And like a jolt of electricity in your toddling legs, you look up at your father, and through the spirit, you gather your courage and you totter forward amazed that you were even moving.
Imagine the boy on the soccer field whose father’s on the sidelines saying, “Take a shot, son.” Now, knowing that you have his love no matter what, even if your shot misses, you risk it all and aim for the goal. Even if you stumble and fall, you get up and keep running the race. Why? This is the thrill that far surpasses that of any inattentive dad on the sidelines who never cheers you on to new moral heights.
The thrill of orthodoxy comes through the moral command, “Get up and walk.” Error always leaves a man on the steps affirmed in his natural state. But the truth is what fires up his mind and surges through his legs, the natural state is transformed. We believe this, do we not believe that grace changes? That grace empowers? That grace makes us new? That is the challenge of orthodoxy.
Fourth and finally, the thrill of orthodoxy that is alive. The fourth temptation to drift from orthodoxy comes from those who believe that life is found in doctrinal shifts rather than instability.
Okay? In signs of progress over against the status quo. So we’ve got to move away from old thoughts and practices if we want to maintain a living faith. And if our faith is to make progress and reach its full potential, we can make orthodoxy better. Now, it’s very important to have a living faith rather than a dead traditionalism with no vibrancy.
And here I want to change the picture a minute, a living faith does not come along because we, as the doctors, have decided it is necessary to send an electrical shock to the heart of orthodoxy to get it beating again. No, the only way we maintain a living faith is when our hearts are in danger of stopping. And orthodoxy, a faith that truly is alive, sends the electrical shock to us. We cannot have a living faith unless we adhere to a faith that is alive.
And it’s orthodoxy that lives, not whatever progressive or innovative doctrine we are currently excited about. I don’t even like the word progressive because it gives away the farm. Okay? When we talk about progressive in a sense of referring to people who claim to push the boundaries in theology and ethics, the moment you use that label, you’re indicating that progressive is for progress, meaning that they must be further along in the journey toward wherever the world seems to be going or wherever they think the church should go.
And so, it gives that common image today of you’ve got, “The orthodox are slowing down the rest of the world.” Right? With the progressives in the church they are, they are out on the leading edge and urging us all to follow. Actually, when you take the longer view of things, the opposite is true. The orthodox are out in front, the progressives are always the ones who get left behind.
I mean picture, think about new and improved labels on boxes or toys from decades ago. You look at that, it doesn’t matter how new and improved it was at the time, it looks really out-of-date now. Errors in theology are always like this. When you abandon orthodoxy, you don’t get something new and improved, you just change yourself to a fad that is going to quickly look old-fashioned.
It’s striking today to me to see how many secular people are suddenly waking up to the damage that comes from overly-sexualized songs and artists. I mean I remember, when evangelical youth pastors in the 1990s were criticizing R. Kelly or music with explicit lyrics, you know, back then, it was the progressives who were pushing everything forward and it was the church people who were prudish, old-fashioned.
And yet today, there are calls to mute R. Kelly, right, or ban the music of Michael Jackson, or to reconsider even some of the early songs of the Beatles, that have like some innuendo about underage sexual encounters. But when you think about it back then, and the way that Hollywood, the way the culture of entertainment sees things, these were the progressives. Right?
I mean pushing against the boundaries. Strangely enough, many church leaders were taking a stand for sexual and moral purity 25 years ago and they were backward and behind the times. Really though, now when you look at it, they were out in front and the rest of the culture is just now catching up with them. The past is alive. The future is unknown. Progressives are not excited about the future, they’re afraid of the past.
It is easy to shrink back from the rigors of history, to lose our balance on the tightrope of theology, to prefer the fog of the future rather than the clarity of the past. And it’s true that we can grow weary from the challenges proposed by orthodoxy because there is a challenge with orthodoxy. And listen, life wears you out. Life wears you out.
And orthodoxy, because it is something that is alive and active, can wear us out because it comes with challenge, with demands, with duties, blessings, gifts as well. Heresy though is exhausting in the worst sense. It’s the boredom, and powerlessness, and the absence of lasting achievement. Orthodoxy is tiring in the best sense, through activity, and exertion, and moral progress on the road to heaven.
As I draw us now to a close, I just want to share with you one concern that I have in talking about truth and error in the way I have been, in orthodoxy and heresy. I guess I worry that you might think that these are equal and opposite forces. That heresy is just as powerful a temptation as orthodoxy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I know we’ve looked at a few temptations about drifting away from orthodoxy, and yes, we looked at some of the traps of heresy. But I’ve only addressed four temptations to drift, I could not encompass in one talk all the many ways that lead to orthodoxy. It’s easy to identify the relatively few traps of heresy because they are so old and they have been redeployed so many times.
There are only so many ways that one can depart from the truth. It’s harder to find the traps of orthodoxy because there are a million ways that we can find the truth. It’s because the truth is there. It’s really there, a shining, multifaceted, massive thing that must be reckoned with.
God has laid the traps of truth everywhere, all around us are signs pointing to His existence and Scriptures pointing to His Redemption. So the future of the church will not be forged by those who tire of the thrill of orthodoxy but by those whose roots run deep, through the ages of the Christian Church and back into the pages of God’s inspired work.
The future of the church will not be forged by those who jump on the bandwagon of fads and fashions, who hang on to a passing moment or movement as if it assures their future. The future of the church will not be forged by people who deny the presence of grace and legalistically condemn everyone around them.
Neither will it be forged by people who deny the power of grace to lead to moral transformation, who relax the law of love given to us by Jesus, who claim that the demand to pick up our crosses is too much, or who believe that people cannot change their faith. The future of the church will be forged by pilgrims who remain empowered by the Spirit, who are thrilled by the discovery and definition of orthodoxy, who can see past the fads and fashions of the day, who have no patience for the narrow-minded heresies that mutilate the Christian faith, and who lean fully into the richness of the truth they’ve inherited and want to pass on to the next generation uncompromised.
The future of the church depends on the thrill of orthodoxy.
Let’s pray. Father, I thank you for this time that we’ve had together. Thank you for giving us your word. Thank you, Father, for raising up people in every generation who would hold fast, and hold tightly, and be alive to the thrill of orthodoxy. Thank you for allowing us to be in this long line of saints that runs all the way through the church and back into the times of the Bible.
I pray, Father, that we would have confidence, have certainty, have hope because of You and the truth that You revealed to us. And it’s in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.