One of the reasons that I like to fly on United Airlines is because, more often than not, it is possible, on channel nine, to listen in on the communication between the cockpit and air traffic control. I am struck by the precision and care which mark these verbal exchanges. As a matter of course, the pilot repeats the instructions he has received so that there can be absolute clarity concerning the flight path, speed and altitude. When the controller tells the pilot to ‘descend and maintain 9,000 feet,’ can you imagine if the pilot replied, ‘What do you mean by 9,000 feet?’ And then the pilot and the controller debated the question of an objective standard of measurement. Imagine them agreeing to disagree and feeling comfortable with the notion that as long as they were both sincere in their convictions. All the sincerity in the world will be unable to prevent a catastrophe if the standard of measurement is wrong. At a far more mundane level, every child who has failed to gain access to a roller coaster ride on account of the height restriction, can testify to the futility of arguing with the attendant along the lines, ‘Well, according to your chart I may not be 48 inches, but to me 42 is equal to 48 and I am very sincere.’ Now, no one who is thinking properly is going to accept for one minute that the child is anything other than sincerely wrong. The inherent logic in this is recognised in architectural drawings, civil engineering, neuro-surgery and generally across the board. That is until we come to the question of religion and particularly to the exclusive claims of Christianity.
I can remember in the seventies being involved in fairly fierce debates over the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity. Now, however, it is customary for there to be little debate, if any, and for the conversation to end with the parting shot, ‘Well, I don’t doubt your sincerity and after all, that’s all that matters.’ The crux issue, then, in light of this prevailing notion, and with so many different religious ideas floating around, is learning how to make the claim that Christianity is true and, in doing so, to explode this myth. It is important to note that the Christian message has always challenged the rival religious and intellectual convictions of a pluralist world. In the Old Testament, God’s people were at their best when unashamedly proclaiming that they were right, where others were wrong. The same is true for the church in the New Testament whether confronting the idols of Athens or the religious smorgasbord of Corinth. And so for us to face the challenge that comes from new age mysticism, eastern religions and cults like scientology and Mormonism, is not unique. But there remains this peculiar danger of embracing this sincerity myth. The multicultural agenda demands that religions do not make exclusive truth claims. Furthermore, the liberal political agenda dictates that all religions should be treated on an equal footing. It is right that religions other than our own should be granted respect, but to treat them as equally valid is to reveal the extent to which we have bought the myth. My sincerity cannot be taken as a guarantee of the truth. My good Jewish friends believe that Jesus was not the Messiah, I believe He is. We cannot both be right. Hindus believe that God was incarnated many times. As Christians we believe that this happened only once and in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot both be right.
The pulpit and the pew
The church needs to be on guard against the subtle notion that any view which is held with sincerity may be regarded as true. Tragically, it appears that too many evangelicals are unaware of this threat or, worse still, unwilling to take their stand against the devil’s schemes. The extent to which this is sadly true can be gauged by considering the fact that confusion in the pulpit breeds compromise in the pews. Consider the uncertain sounds that are coming from our pulpits.
Ministers of the gospel are increasingly preoccupied with peripheral issues. In attempting to be ‘user-friendly’ and relational, the faithful consecutive exposition of the Bible is adamantly ignored or unwittingly sidelined. Consequently the listeners assume that the moral imperatives exist alone without a foundation in the doctrinal indicatives. This in turn leads to a sense of unity with all who happen to share our peripheral concerns about school prayer, home-schooling, debt-free financing or the rest. Untaught congregations are then susceptible to the lie that, although the group down the street disagree with us on the deity of Jesus Christ, they have their heads screwed on when it comes to the pressing political and moral issues and after all, ‘they are very sincere in what they believe’. One of my good friends who is involved in itinerant ministry among young people told me recently of an evangelical gathering of teens where the leaders invited two Mormon elders to speak about Mormonism. The staggering result of this proved to be scores of young people thoroughly confused about what they believe. They wanted to know why, since these well-meaning young men were ‘so sincere’, we should not consider them Christian also. In many situations the problem is that many pastors will not pronounce other ideas and religions wrong.
Tolerance and exclusiveness
Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated and proselytism is a dirty word. We need to face the challenging question put by the late Max Warren, ‘Is the Cross of Calvary really no more than a confusing roundabout sign pointing in every direction, or is it still the place where all men are meant to kneel?’ Consider the over stated value of the ‘Judeo Christian’ agenda which, in its attempt to acknowledge the place of Judaism, is increasingly unwilling to declare unequivocally that there is no other name given under heaven by which men and women will be saved than the name of Jesus.
Consider also the extent to which tolerance is exalted over truth. If Martin Luther were to return and seek to nail his theses to the door today, he would face, not only the challenge of the false system of religion he denounced, but surprisingly and tragically the opposition of many evangelicals for whom the crucial doctrine of justification by faith alone has been marginalized by their concern not to offend those who reject it. After all, ‘They are very sincere people.’ But if we try to please men and win their approval on account of their sincere convictions, we should no longer be the servants of Christ, but those, who, like the Galatians, are in grave danger of embracing a gospel which is no gospel at all.
It is therefore imperative that we identify these and other subtle ways in which this lie is wrapping itself around our convictions and that we determine to root it out. As Don Carson points out so helpfully in The Gagging of God, voices which oppose the truth of the Bible should be accorded courtesy, ‘but if we insist that they be accorded the same authority (after all they are sincere), we are implicitly adopting philosophical pluralism, at the cost of affirming Biblical Christianity.’
Alistair Begg is the senior minister of Parkside Church, Ohio, and is the main speaker at the EMW Aberystwyth Conference this year.