But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
(Acts 15.11 ESV)
Amidst the very negative reactions to Andy Stanley’s comment last year that Christians need to “unhitch” from the Old Testament, a discussion Stanley had with Dallas Theological Seminary leadership on its Table Podcast seems to have gone almost completely unnoticed on Christian social media. In it, Stanley attempts some clarification at what he meant in the controversial sermon several months prior. Despite the attempt, a review of Stanley’s sermons reveals major theological problems that persistent “unhitch” stabs on social media may fail to grasp.
It is fair to say that Dallas Seminary has some skin in this game. Stanley is one of DTS’ most prominent active graduates, and his church hosts a DTS extension site. DTS leadership may rightly find it uncomfortable when he is being called a Marcionite. The interview isn’t entirely focused upon Andy Stanley’s sermon, but there is a portion that seems to have missed necessary attention.
Unhitching from the Jewish Scriptures?
The sermon in question in which Stanley made his “unhitch” remark was in April 2018 and primarily focused upon Acts 15. Near the very end of the sermon, he sums up as follows:
Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well. And I’ll tell you why. It’s actually the same reason they did: because we must not make it difficult for those Gentiles who are turning to God. They didn’t. We shouldn’t either. The faith of the next generation may depend on our willingness and our ability to get this right. The faith of your neighbor may depend on it. And who knows? Someday, your faith may depend on it as well.
That last portion about faith is basically a polemic against excessively elevating the doctrine of inerrancy. More on this later.
The interview with DTS’s Table podcast occurred the following October, and here’s what Stanley says:
I should have put “old covenant” instead of “Old Testament.” But the reason – and please don’t lose your question; I want to come back to this – the reason I did is – the point I was trying to make in that particular message, in that particular series that followed another series, all of which went together, but that’s a story for another day – is I want our church and our congregation to understand it’s not just the Law. There was a worldview, there was a perspective, there was an approach to life, and all of that was going away. And that we, as Christians, need to unhitch from all of that.
Later in this same discussion, Stanley makes similar comments regarding how it is necessary to gather context from more than that particular single sermon.
Well, people who listen to me preach consistently know those things never pass – go through their mind because it’s so inconsistent with how I consistently preach and teach. The people who’ve been critical of me drop into a message, and they pull it out of context.
But the broader conversation is they have a different theological framework, and they are afraid that I’m leading evangelicalism, you know, in some dangerous direction at which, for the life of me, I can’t quite figure that out. But they have a different worldview. They are presuppositionalists for the most part. So, they begin with the Bible’s inerrancy; the Word of God, “let’s begin there.”
That’s just not where I begin because I’m talking to people who that’s a nonstarter. So, why would I – you know, why would I begin the conversation there?
Did Andy Stanley really advocate ‘unhitching’ the entire Old Testament as in no longer bothering to read, study, or preach it? As the exchange between Bock and Stanley continues, it becomes apparent that Stanley did not mean to communicate that we do away with the Old Testament scripture itself, as if we should physically remove our Old Testaments from our Bibles. I do encourage you to view it or read some of the additional context from the transcript. Despite this clarification, there remains much to fear and at which to be utterly frustrated in Stanley’s teaching within this Aftermath series in April 2018. Allow me to go through a few major concerns.
What is Acts 15 Actually Talking About?
Acts 15 teaches that the apostles opposed the Judaizers’ demand that Gentile Christians submit themselves to circumcision and other aspects of the Old Testament ceremonial laws.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
(Acts 15.1–11 ESV)
The immediate historical issue presented in Acts 15 is circumcision as a requirement for Gentiles to be saved. As Darrell Bock rightly summarizes in the DTS discussion, the central question is “Do Gentiles in effect have to become Jews to become Christians?” and the answer — we all agree — is an absolute “no.”
We can legitimately gather several applications from this text. For one, Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to become Christians. By extension, especially if we cross-reference with Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we must not add to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
But unless North Point Community Church is somehow dealing with an influx of Hebrew Roots influence (and I’m sure this does happen some churches), it’s difficult to imagine that the congregation is actually struggling with people adding circumcision to the doctrine of justification or insisting upon following Jewish food laws (a subject addressed in the broader context of the Acts). To what degree are modern Christians really guilty of “mixing and matching” aspects of the old and new covenants as Stanley addresses in part 2 of Aftermath? Something else is going on here. Stanley takes circumcision in Acts 15 and conflates it with much more than it’s really saying.
Dispensationalism and the Eternal Moral Law
Here also lies an area where we at Things Above Us diverge on our views. It might surprise you to learn that dispensationalism is not a graduation requirement at Dallas Theological Seminary, but here I am one year later, and my dispensationalism hasn’t budged. Many dispensationalists hold that the Ten Commandments in a formal sense do not apply to Christians today because the old covenant has been abrogated. However, it shouldn’t stop there. As nine of the ten are effectively repeated in the New Testament (the Sabbath commandment being excluded), nearly everyone agrees that at least these nine (in a sense outside the specifics of the old covenant) still apply to us today. To this end, dispensationalists, in general, reject the typical “tripartite” or “threefold division of the law” (ceremonial, civil, and moral) found in Reformed theology.
By the way, I’m speaking in very broad generalizations of camps here, so please don’t be too harsh on me. 🙂
Deeper than even this debate, however, is the eternal moral law which the Ten Commandments historically represent. We find in the 69 chapters of Scripture prior to Exodus 20 that the eternal moral law was in effect and binding despite the Ten Commandments in particular not having yet been given. Murder is forbidden in Genesis 4 and 9. Joseph already knows that adultery is forbidden in Genesis 39. The moral law is eternal, manifest in general revelation, and spoken clearly in special revelation, especially in nine of the Ten Commandments.
But here’s Andy Stanley’s view of the Ten Commandments as they apply today:
The old covenant law of Moses was not the go-to source regarding sexual behavior for the church. More importantly, and perhaps more disturbingly (if that’s a word) or offensively, the Old Testament — or the Law and the Prophets as they called it — was not gonna be the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church.
Now, to make this point, ’cause this is so important, I —originally in my notes — I was gonna put a screen up here that said, “In other words, that means “Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments.” But I knew someone would take a picture of that, and it would define me for the rest of my life. So I’m not gonna put it up there, but I want you to hear me say it. Here’s what the Jerusalem Council was saying to the Gentiles: You are not accountable to the Ten Commandments. You’re not accountable to the Jewish law. We’re done with that. God has done something new. Besides, he would say to them and he would say to you, thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments because those are not your commandments. Yours are better. And yours are far less complicated, but they are far more demanding.
What exactly is the demand in the new covenant that is greater than in the old covenant? According to Stanley:
When you begin to view every single person you are eyeball-to-eyeball with as made in the image of God and a potential dwelling place for the Spirit of God, you will treat them well. You will not need chapter and verse. You will do for them what God through Christ has done for you. Any questions? This was a new and better day. This was an extraordinary day in the history of the church.
Are they more demanding? We learn in the Sermon on the Mount that the Ten Commandments were far more demanding than they were being made out to be. As with the Ten Commandments, this is a reflection of the eternal moral law.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
(Matthew 5.21–22 ESV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
(Matthew 5.27–28 ESV)
Stanley’s view of the eternal moral law goes beyond the above misunderstanding to the point that he teaches God is no longer angry at sin. The beginning of part 2 of Aftermath includes a short discourse highlighted by the screen text, “We resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible” without covering the inherent offense of the Gospel, which Scripture calls “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” (1 Cor 1:23). Later in the same message, Stanley preaches:
Have you ever heard preachers kind of rant about sin? It’s like they’re angry at sinners. They’re angry about sin. They’re just judgmental. They’re angry about sinners and happy about Hell. Angry about sinners and happy about Hell. That’s old covenant thinking that leaked in. That’s mix and match. That’s an old covenant prophet railing against the nation of Israel, and God’s gonna judge you, and God’s gonna get you, and God’s gonna get you, and God’s gonna judge you. It’s Old Testament. It’s old covenant. In the new covenant, you know what we discover? That sin doesn’t make God angry. Sin breaks God’s heart. Sin should break our hearts — why? — because sin breaks people. And if God really so loved the world — if God so loved the world — if God so loved the whole world, not just the Jewish nation — if God so loved the world that He gave His son, then He is for the world. And that means He’s against anything that’s not for you, and the reason God is against sin is not because He’s not for you. God’s against sin because God is for you, and sin breaks you.
While Stanley may admit that his “unhitch” remark from part 3 of Aftermath was poorly stated, the underlying core of what he’s preaching is not the preservation of sola fide or resisting the heresy of the Judaizers. Rather, Stanley preaches a certain form of antinomianism that downplays God’s righteous anger against sin. Neither the eternal moral law nor God’s wrath are Jewish distinctives that get dropped in the new covenant.
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The Inevitable Chaos of Evidentialist Inerrancy
In The Bible is Christianity — 2 Peter 1:19 and Frank Turek’s View of Inerrancy, I critiqued the view of inerrancy that demands we arrive at believing in the Bible’s inerrancy based upon external evidence. The “house of cards” argument I addressed in this post is nearly identical to Stanley’s. According to this argument, if we elevate inerrancy to the level of essential doctrine, it turns the believer’s faith into a “house of cards” which will collapse if a bit of external evidence casts any individual part of the Bible into question. Therefore, according to this argument, we should consider the resurrection to be the foundation of our faith rather than the Bible.
A far superior doctrine is that inerrancy is a necessary consequence of God’s nature. If we really believe that God cannot lie and that God inspired Scripture, Scripture is inerrant. When we find apparent contradictions or historical inaccuracies, we faithfully seek answers while trusting in the God who inspired the sacred text. It is indeed this sacred text which teaches us reliably about the resurrection and speaks of its own authority by the indwelling Spirit.
For to us God has revealed these things through the Spirit, for the Spirit fathoms all things, even the depths of God. For who among men has known the things of a man except a man’s spirit within him? So also, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.
For we have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God in order that we should understand the things which are freely gifted to us by God. And we speak not in words taught in human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
The spiritual person judges all things, but he himself is judged by no one. For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 2:10–16, my own translation)
When our trust in Scripture is based upon human analysis of external evidence rather than God’s character and nature, the result really is a “house of cards.” The correct response to this is to elevate the doctrine of Scripture in our hearts and minds, not to diminish it.
Accuracy vs. Catchiness
Repeatedly, long prior to starting my research on this article and during my research, I’ve seen many describe Stanley as a “master communicator.” This situation begs a couple of questions in light of this repeated assertion. First, how much contextual viewing or reading is necessary before the communicator — not the listener — is liable for a message being misunderstood? Stanley insists in this case that he was misunderstood because (1) observers failed to listen to the entire three-part sermon series, (2) failed to realize that he had just preached through Old Testament passages, and (3) are approaching his messages from a different, presuppositional theological framework. A similar common assertion is that we should read entire books of a popular author or speaker before being quick to declare him or her a false teacher, even when no amount of context could seemingly redeem poor statements made within a smaller context of a few minutes, let alone an entire sermon or an entire book.
No amount of masterful communication on anyone’s part can prevent a wayward blogger from taking a speaker out of context in a five-second sound bite. However, three sermons of context is probably too much to ask on a consistent basis. (For what it’s worth, I actually did listen to the entire Aftermath series before writing this.) One can also certainly understand a certain motivation to come up with a catchy summary statement that sticks in the mind of the listener. I scored major points with my preaching professor once when I preached, “Iron your pants on Saturday.” The point was being well-prepared to serve others on Sunday morning, not just having nice pants, and I made that clear. That aside, accuracy is far more important than catchiness. To make a catchy statement like “Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments” without a strong warning against ignoring the eternal moral law — or “nine of the Ten Commandments,” if you wish — is poor communication at best. We would do well to heed this warning in our own preaching and teaching.
If I’m reading Stanley’s concluding remarks accurately, his entire approach is driven by this reason: “because we must not make it difficult for those Gentiles who are turning to God.” This indeed drove the Jerusalem Council’s thinking in not requiring Jewish distinctives upon Gentile believers. Stanley’s methodology, driven by this “irresistible” motif, extends too far beyond the text, all but eliminating the eternal moral law, God’s righteous wrath upon sin, and the basis upon which we should trust the inerrancy of Scripture. When we don’t preach wrath and grace and just go with the latter, we eliminate the need for grace, and that makes evangelism more difficult, not less. Over and above the infamous “unhitch” remark, this is the greater failure of Andy Stanley’s message.