We cannot ensure the salvation of anyone—but we can know that we are doing our part to love those given us by God and to defend his holy honor in a realm that despises it.
Andy Stanley is one of the best-known preachers of his generation, and for understandable reasons. He is a lively and gifted communicator with a penchant for aphorisms. He has a good sense of humor. He is clearly passionate about Christian leadership, and despite what the stereotypes tell us, people all around us are desperate to meet a preacher of real conviction. Stanley has been married for several decades and seems to love and support his children. Reading his material, it is evident that Stanley has a restless intellect, a skeptical bent, and a zeal for ideas.
I recently received Stanley’s new book Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan). In it, I found evidence of the aforementioned traits. I also encountered teaching that stretched and informed me—for example, Stanley’s discussion of the makeup of the Old Testament temple (41-43). Though he has a reputation as a translator, primarily, it’s clear to me that Stanley genuinely enjoys diving into deep research. He has a sharp mind and an ability to think and speak freshly.
The Main Thrust of Irresistible
Stanley’s major burden in Irresistible is to reframe Christian apologetics. He believes that Christians have shot themselves in the foot by leaning on the Old Testament in their engagement with unbelievers. This is why we lose the younger generations raised in our churches—because after being educated (or not) in local congregations, they go on to university, take classes from smart unbelieving professors who poke holes in Old Testament ethics and theology, and then abandon the faith. In Stanley’s reckoning, this abandonment is unnecessary and tragic. Instead, we should effectively jettison the Old Testament from our witness. Though the church often promotes a blended hermeneutic, the old covenant is totally outmoded and does not apply to the believer. It is a record of Israel’s history and little more, a “means to an end” as he writes repeatedly (27, 69). We shouldn’t lean upon the OT in any positive way in our evangelism and outreach. Instead, the resurrection of Christ is our chief apologetic (296-97). It’s the good news that draws unbelievers like flies to honey—the salvific “all-skate,” to use one of Stanley’s favorite phrases (23). If we will preach it, and leave outmoded values and ethics and visions of God behind, we’ll see our churches full once more, and the New Atheists will stop claiming evangelical youth by the bushel (270-71).
There are two significant matters to ponder in Stanley’s critique. First, I think Stanley is right that modern Christians are very confused about the interplay between the old and new covenants. I’ve written more on that here. He has a point, a considerable one, when he critiques the church for preaching the old and new covenants as if they are interchangeable and equally binding in terms of practice on the believer. It is confusing, frankly, to read discussions of American politics in which the Old Testament is cited so as to make America the new Israel. You cannot easily transfer the theocratic structure of the Israelite kingdom into the modern nation-state. Indeed, you and I have no biblical summons to do so. Stanley has put his finger on a theological issue of great import.
Second, Stanley is right to address the crisis among evangelical youth. Many young men and women do suffer real loss or at least weakening of their faith when they venture beyond home and church. Many struggle to respond to skeptics, defend the truthfulness of the Bible, and answer objections about sexual “intolerance.” As will be clear, I do not agree with Stanley’s antidote to this problem, but I do agree with his identification of the problem. There is a real issue in the modern evangelical movement with training our youth. The issue is namely this: we don’t train our youth. In my view (this is not what Stanley lays out), we send our children out as lambs to the intellectual slaughter by not treating them as if they can understand, appreciate, or even love sound doctrine. Though our kids take classes in chemistry and precalculus, though they learn football plays and master emerging social-media technologies within hours, we evangelicals commonly treat them as if their greatest need is entertainment. In truth, our youth are no different—please read me without any uncertainty here, no different—than any other person. They desperately need Christ, his gospel, and the whole mind-blowing counsel of God. They do not need watered-down material; they need to be challenged to know and love the Lord.
But I digress. It should be abundantly clear that neither Stanley’s hermeneutical concern nor his apologetic concern can be easily dismissed. A man of uncommon discernment when it comes to spotting broader trends in secular culture, Stanley has identified two major issues for the modern church to address. Here, sadly, is where I find my agreement with Stanley—such as it is—coming to an abrupt halt. If his diagnosis of two definite problems is on target, the solution he offers is untenable and even dangerous.
Removing the Old Testament from Christian Apologetics
It is impossible to state just how strong Stanley’s critique of the Old Testament is. I’ve never read anything quite like it from a figure positioned in the evangelical mainstream. The two covenants, Stanley argues, are “incompatible” (146). There are “inconvenient” and “offensive” portions of the old covenant (154). Jesus and various biblical authors have “given us permission to unhitch our faith from God’s covenant with Israel” (158). While the OT prophets may not “be our favorites,” they did predict Christ’s coming (161-62). If we try to “harmonize the values and ethics of the old and new covenants,” we will misfire, for God “doesn’t expect us to explain (or explain away) his old covenant behavior” (162-63). Every pagan god was a “human rights violator” and so was the old covenant god—he “play[ed] by the rules of the day” (163). Old Testament morality was “vertical morality” in contradistinction to the “horizontal morality” of the New Testament. Vertical morality—the kind found squarely in the OT—“leaves folks with sincere hearts longing for more and those with not-so-sincere hearts looking for ways to get by with less” (177). Put less delicately, old covenant morality is stringent and legalistic, where new covenant morality is gentler and love-oriented.
Do not misunderstand: Stanley is directly contrasting theology proper—God himself—in the old covenant and new covenant. The Jewish God was “holy” and “separate” and “unapproachable” but the God of John was “love” (223). The old covenant God “reserved” his love “for his covenant people” unlike the new covenant God. The critique does not lessen in intensity as the book goes on. The Old Testament God “got so angry” that he drowned the Egyptians (251). He and his prophets demonstrated “righteous anger,” which “is a thing,” Stanley avows, only “as long as we hover over the Old Testament anyway” (251). Unlike the jealous and angry OT God and his wrathful people, “New covenant folks don’t get angry at lost things” (254).
In places, Stanley makes careful statements that seem to affirm the truthfulness of the whole Bible (146, for example). There is evidence in the book of some balanced theologizing (86). But the bias against the old covenant (and the old covenant God!) is so plain as to be incontrovertible. In his ragged handling of “mutual submission,” for example, Stanley writes this without blushing: “A man who leverages Scripture to pressure his wife into anything is operating under old covenant thinking and assumptions” (213). Could you be more direct about the inferiority of old covenant ethics and theology than this? (The submission Paul is calling for in Ephesians 5:21, by the way, is not each partner submitting to the other, which would make the following verses extremely confusing, but Christians submitting to proper headship per the guidelines stated in that which follows in Ephesians 5-6.)
The Old Testament so weakens our apologetics and evangelism that we should not even try to defend it as Scripture. “Our faith does not teeter on the brink of collapse,” Stanley opines, “based on the historicity, credibility, or even the believability of the Old Testament” (290). In other words, you and I waste our time by in any way trying to show that the OT is God’s Word, inerrant and totally true. Though 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us the Scriptures—meaning Old Testament writings—are God-breathed, and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” Stanley flatly urges us neither to give attention to defending these texts nor to live according to their witness. In other words, Stanley rejects the plain teaching of the apostle Paul.
In Stanley’s understanding, Christian preachers should not (I use imperatival language intentionally) try to convince people of the total truthfulness of the Bible or even the New Testament in calling them to faith. “Resurrection is the horse. The Bible is the cart” according to Stanley (299). It’s not the Bible that’s inspired—it’s the authors (302). This view makes problematic the letters of Paul, as one example, that were written by an apostolic author but not included in the canon (as in his epistles to the Corinthians). Stanley also handles canonical formation very poorly, referring to the early church as “textless” when in truth there were copies of the biblical books being passed around like wildfire between congregations prior to the formal recognition (not formal decision) of the canon in the late fourth century (306).
Building in the Wreckage of a Post-Inerrantist Faith
The preceding section was hard to write, and Irresistible was in truth hard to read. I find no joy in evaluating this material, though I do find joy in defending the honor and truthfulness of God. It is terrible to see a preacher, a widely-respected one, reject the ethics, values, and theology of the Old Testament. Stanley, as noted above, has put his finger on a real biblical-theological principle: the new covenant comes with better promises in Christ Jesus and has ended the norming function of the old covenant (Hebrews 7-10). This is why I am a Baptist; I am not only exegetically convinced per the New Testament texts on baptism, but I am hermeneutically convinced by the newness of the new covenant. Too many Christians hear about the first but rarely encounter the second (I am trying to do my humble part to help at Midwestern Seminary, and am tackling a January 7-11, 2019 hermeneutics class to try and strengthen our students both exegetically and hermeneutically).
Here is where Stanley goes wrong, and ends up in a place that is far from orthodoxy. He rightly sees in Scripture that the new covenant is “better” than the old, but he fails to handle this with care. The new covenant is enacted on better promises and is secured by the great high priest, Jesus Christ, whose death clears the guilty by assuaging the just wrath of God (Hebrews 7). But this in no way to say that the new covenant is better in that its ethics, values, and theology are superior to those of the old covenant. If you get this technical matter wrong—and it is not terribly hard to do so—you will fundamentally misunderstand the Scripture itself.
Here is where we see that the church is profoundly challenged today. Will we embrace the whole counsel of God? Will we preach the truth about contested and despised doctrines? Will we speak decisively in love so that sinners will know that they must totally—in terms of behavior and desire and identity—reject homosexuality, gender-bending, extramarital sex and lust, and other pet sins of the age? Stanley seems to think that he can get the church out from behind the cultural 8-ball. If he just jettisons the Old Testament, he’s left with the New Testament, which unlike the cruel “vertical morality” of the Old is rife with love and acceptance and kindness. He doesn’t have the sticky ethical demands and exclusive covenantal affection and the thundering justice of the Old Testament God. He has something quieter, softer, and much more appealing to those outside the church, whether raised in it or not.
But Stanley not only does violence to the Old Testament—and violence is the appropriate word for it. He also misses the punctuated nature of the new covenant. What do I mean? I mean that the new covenant does not reject the old covenant’s theology and ethics, but rather brings them to their full and cosmic conclusion. The demands and scope of the new covenant are not limited in contrast to the old covenant, but heightened. As the gospel is loosed and the Spirit is sent, the church obtains a comprehensive call to holiness, for we now look to Christ and not a law-code in fundamental terms as our standard for godly character. We see that old covenant teaching in sexual ethics—the headship of the husband and submission of the wife—is not discarded in the new covenant, but expanded and taken to a Christocentric conclusion (Ephesians 5:22-33). Homosexuality is now understood as a decisive and total rejection of the Creator, for homosexual relationships (like homosexual desires) are not only contra God’s will (as in lust for a person of the opposite sex who is not one’s spouse), but contra God’s design (Romans 1:18-32). The justice of God does not evaporate in the new covenant, but is poured out in eschatological fullness when the rider on the white horse returns (Revelation 19). Stanley has not only gotten different theological matters wrong in his book, but has fundamentally reversed the biblical-theological momentum of the Scripture itself.
There are an overwhelming amount of things we need to say at this point, but we cannot in the interest of time. For now, it is enough to suggest the following to the faithful preacher of God’s Word. First, we cannot embrace this view of the old covenant. It dishonors God and dishonors his Word. Second, we cannot stop preaching the whole Bible. It is true that the old covenant no longer binds the believer, but this fact does not render the Old Testament unprofitable to read and preach and love. Third, we cannot stop telling the truth in love about biblical ethics. This is where the culture is pressing in; this is where (as Stanley shrewdly sees) the battle is fiercest today. But we must not adopt a softer brand of biblical ethics in our time; we must speak the truth with confidence, showing the golden thread between the theology and ethics of the old and new covenants.
Fourth, and most significantly, we should tremble if we give our people the faintest inkling that the Old Testament God is different from the New Testament God. Yes, we learn more—much more—about the character of God and his will in the New Testament. But we must not intimate in any way that there is any tension between theology proper in the old and the new covenant. This, to put it most fundamentally, is blasphemy. It is teaching that places us under the horrible but just prospect of the judgment of God. This kind of view is that which God will not countenance. This is the kind of material that will leave you liable to the Lord God of heaven and earth taking your life and your ministry apart brick by brick, page by page, line by line, until there is nothing left. Then, when you are undone before God, and you have made a hash of all the good that God did in your life, and you have incinerated all the ministry that God in his grace allowed you to do, you will see your folly exposed in full—but more than this, you will see the holiness of Almighty God, and you will have no recourse but to cry out in the barest whisper of a voice for mercy.
I pray that Andy Stanley will turn from the teaching he offers in Irresistible. Further, I pray that faithful pastors—whether those who have cottoned to his teaching in the past and lead megachurches or those who shepherd smaller congregations—will see that this apologetic ends up being no apologetic at all. To encourage people to reject the Old Testament and to see the Old Testament God as unsavory is not sound in any way.
It is true as Stanley notes that young people are being picked off by skeptics and secularists today. It is true that this constitutes a crisis. But here is the solution to this crisis: to double down on our biblical teaching. We need to love our youth, yes, and to have fun with them, but primarily prepare them for the wilds of an unbelieving world by taking them deep in the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. We need to point them to strong and sound teaching from faithful theologians and pastors of the Christian tradition. We need to preach not a pocket-sized Jesus who saves you and then disappears, but Christ the lion and the lamb, the one who roars over his creation and came to it to ransom a people for himself by dying in their place as an act of war against the devil. We need to help our youth see that the God of the old covenant is an impossibly gracious God who foreshadows his global gospel by gathering in Gentiles even in ancient times.
If we do these things, we cannot ensure the salvation of anyone—but we can know that we are doing our part to love those given us by God and to defend his holy honor in a realm that despises it.