Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Further Thoughts on the Manhattan Declaration and a Response to Frank Beckwith
11/25/2009 - James White
I returned from a very enjoyable jaunt up and down South Mountain with my wife (on bicycles, of course) to discover that Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler had tweeted a link to my comments on the Manhattan Declaration. I am very thankful Dr. Mohler felt them worthy of notice. I said recently Dr. Mohler is the smartest Southern Baptist alive, and I gain much from listening to his podcasts (again while slowly cranking along on my quest to finish my second trip around the earth at the equator---only 2800 miles away now!).
Of course, one of the main questions I have received since posting my thoughts (and referring to those of John MacArthur) has to do with Dr. Mohler's defense of his signing the document. It has never been my intention to excite that spectrum of folks who exist on the fringes of meaningful apologetics who are constantly looking for a new conflict, a new battle. Yes, I had read Dr. Mohler's comments on why he signed the document prior to writing my article. I appreciate his position, but I beg to differ. I am thankful Dr. Mohler does not view the document as a theological manifesto requiring him to abandon a biblical view of the gospel. But as I and others have pointed out, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of what Christians should do, and in fact, must do, in the face of an ever increasingly hostile secularism, without doing so in the context of the gospel itself. In other words, a Christian who believes in the God-centeredness of the gospel of grace will respond differently to secularism than one who embraces a much more man-centered, works-oriented "gospel." And given the long history of Rome's violation of biblical teachings regarding the gospel (not just on the matter of sola fide, but the entire complex of doctrines that forms Rome's sacramental system, including its rejection of sola scriptura, its sacerdotal priesthood, and its perfection-denying doctrine of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice), I, and others, find it impossible to speak in unison with a Church that claims to define "Church," embody "Church," all the while perverting the gospel of Christ. Our social duties are not separate from the gospel. They are defined by it. Now I accept that Dr. Mohler honestly believes the following words are true, and as a result, signed the document:
My beliefs concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have not changed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that I find both unbiblical and abhorrent — and these doctrines define nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and we concede no doctrinal ground.
I agree that the document does not, explicitly, seek "to establish common ground on these doctrines." But that is part of the problem. Since it seeks to speak for the "Christian tradition," by isolating the gospel and the distinctives that separate biblical believers from the "traditions" of "Christianity," the document asserts that we as "Christians" can "stand" together apart from the very divine truths that create the only kind of lasting unity and power the Church has ever known. That was my primary concern, one shared by Dr. MacArthur. Yes, I am glad when a Roman Catholic says "Abortion is wrong," but why does the Roman Catholic say that? What is the theological grounding of his objection to abortion? And what is the believer to do when faced with the next question, "Now what?" Will the Roman Catholic offer the same positive solution to abortion that the biblical believer will? Isn't the issue of how one views life fundamentally an issue of the heart? And what power changes the heart? Rome's gospel? Priests and sacraments, never-ending Masses and confessionals and purgatory and indulgences? Surely not.
I understand Dr. Mohler's statement, "At the end of the day, I did not want my name missing from that list when folks look to see just who was willing to be listed." Dr. Mohler, believe me, sir, no one with a scintilla of common sense will be questioning where you were in the battle for righteousness. I fully understand the desire to stand against the hypocritical forces of secularism that are seeking to undermine everything that is good and godly in our society to the life-destroying detriment of all. For the moment I will leave aside the question of how much of this is simply God's wrath coming upon a very deserving nation. But I just have to wonder if there will not be a time, if the Lord tarries, when, as in the days of Athanasius, or the days of Wyclif, Luther, Spurgeon, Machen, etc., our children's children will look back and ask, "Who stood clearly for the gospel once for all delivered to the saints in those dark days of compromise when so many were willing to remove it from being definitional of the faith?" I want my name to be on the list of those who despite all the pressures and incentives stood firmly and clearly apart, not ignoring the cultural issues by so doing, but seeking instead to stand firm for the truth in those areas because of the gospel, not in spite of it.
Now, while in the process of writing this blog entry, I was directed to a comment left by Frank Beckwith, revert to Rome, criticizing John MacArthur's statement on this matter. It reads:
Here’s what MacArthur writes:
“Although I obviously agree with the document’s opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and other key moral problems threatening our culture, the document falls far short of identifying the one true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills: the gospel.”
Can you imagine if he had said this, instead:
Although I obviously agree with the document’s opposition to rape, torture, and theft and other key moral problems threatening our culture, the document falls far short of identifying the one true and ultimate remedy for all of humanity’s moral ills: the gospel.
MacArthur, though a decent man with his heart in the right place, does not seem to understand that “the Gospel” is more than merely getting people into heaven. It is about loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and that requires a concern for the moral ecology of one’s community, since that community, whether we admit it or not, has the power to shape Christian culture and its influence on the wider culture. Consider this example. As a Christian, I have an interest in making sure that the Church’s children grow up to be loving ambassadors for Christ, living holy lives. But that task, that hope, becomes more difficult when they are surrounded by, and saturated in, a wider culture that opposes that hope. To put it another way: it may be the case that the children of one Christian will never have to sit through hours of indoctrination in a public school. But other Christians’ children will. Yet, it the latter children may grow up to date the former children.
The comment went on to promote an upcoming book, so it seems that there is nothing "missing," though it seems to end abruptly, and honestly, doesn't make a whole lot of sense toward the end. But given that Dr. Beckwith has become exceptionally active promoting and defending Romanism on the web over the past few months, I think it proper to provide a response.
Dr. MacArthur's point seems to have been lost on Dr. Beckwith, who has made it clear that even during his time away from Rome, he was never truly gospel-centric. He never saw Rome's gospel as a false gospel, and hence did not trust in the imputed righteousness of Christ as his sole hope before a thrice holy God. So it is understandable why he would think that his re-presentation is somehow relevant. Dr. MacArthur does not believe, of course, that the gospel is about "merely getting people into heaven." Such a representation says more about Beckwith's journey in "evangelicalism" and the wide range of churches he was a part of than it does MacArthur's comments. The point is that the only real answer to any of those issues, whether the radical redefinition of marriage, homosexuality, the murder of unborn children, rape, incest, torture or theft, lies in the changing of the hearts of men. And it is just here that Rome's gospel fails to be able to do this very thing! Surely man's religions can bring about a surface-level moral reformation, if there is sufficient reason offered to the reprobate sinner to change for his own self-interests, but true change, the exchange of the heart of stone for the heart of flesh, is the divine work of the Spirit of God, not the work of the alter-Christus, the baptismal font, or the never-ending cycle of Masses and confessionals. Calling men to recognize the sovereign and holy God of Scripture, bowing the knee before the all powerful Lord of all men, Jesus Christ, is a powerful (and uniting) thing, but when men's traditions have so encrusted those truths as to rob them of their power and meaning, what are we to do? Stand apart, of course, identify the perversions of the truth, and trust the Lord to guard His people and build His kingdom through the Word and the Spirit. This is what the Apostles did when false teachers arose amongst them, and we must follow their example.
Beckwith speaks of seeking to see young people live holy lives. Rome has been particularly notable in its utter failure to do this very thing, has it not? By reducing God's grace to the sacramental system, by teaching people they are in a "state of grace" outside of actual repentance and change, by confounding justification and sanctification, robbing men of a finished work of Christ---in other words, through the entire "gospel" of Rome, unchanged, unrepentant, unregenerate people are called "Christians," resulting in the constant denigration of the faith on the part of Muslims, atheists, and others, who take Romanism as the very definition of "Christianity." Rome's gospel produces worldwide nominalism, does it not? And does this not illustrate the main point of what has come above? Theology matters. The gospel forms the faith, and if you do not have the right gospel, you can call what you have Christianity all you want---it isn't. Without the gospel, you have one of man's religions, and men's religions will never have the power to change the heart, and hence the society.