Colson Calls for Doctrinal Boot Camp: But Which Doctrine?

In 1994 Chuck Colson attempted to convince evangelicals that the decline of the culture was so precipitous that they needed to set aside the historic Protestant doctrine of justification in favor of an intentionally equivocal statement about how we are accepted by God. That statement was called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” That was seventeen years ago. Just three years ago, he was still defending ECT and again in 2009. Today, however, he seems to be taking a different approach. In an essay in Christianity Today posted today he calls evangelicals to consider a “doctrinal boot camp.”

He writes:

An aversion to doctrine caused some thoroughly orthodox young evangelicals to decline to sign the Manhattan Declaration (which defends human life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty), even though the document is rooted in Scripture. As one young evangelical explained to me, “We don’t like dogmatic statements that a lot of people have to sign.” What about the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith?

One hastens to add that it wasn’t just an aversion to doctrine but also a commitment to doctrine that caused some orthodox, young, and not so young evangelicals (and Reformed) not to sign the Manhattan Declaration.

He confesses,

The more I’ve thought about the parallels, the more I am convinced that we have failed younger evangelicals and new believers generally. We have told them or at least implied that they can live happily ever after, that Christianity is all about what’s good for them—not necessarily about what is true. Things just go better with Jesus.

He’s quite right. The older evangelicals did embrace and embody a latitudinarian (live and let live) approach to doctrine. Often times it was a reaction to ignorant, narrow, know-nothing forms of fundamentalism. Unfortunately, those older neo-evangelicals, who rejected the fundamentalism of their parents and grandparents substituted the wrong thing for it. They assumed (as Brian MacLaren seems to do) that their fundamentalist background was equivalent to Reformation Christianity. Of course that’s just false. So they skipped the Reformation and went looking for alternatives, which search has taken them everywhere but to Geneva, Heidelberg, Dort, or Westminster.

He says,

Perhaps we ought to rethink Sunday school, dust off the catechisms, and start teaching the Bible and theology to our young people again. If the theologically attuned young Reformed crowd is any indication, they can handle it.

Colson is right. We do need to dust off the catechisms and our bibles and begin teaching both again to our young people and to everyone else. He’s right: The YRR movement is encouraging. He’s right: The Marines do embody something important. Yesterday, on the way to LA for to worship with and preach to the Los Angeles Reformed Presbyterian congregation I saw a striking billboard featuring a resolute marine and the text said something like, “We don’t accept applicants, only commitments.” That was going to be today’s HB post, until I saw that Chuck Colson had beat me to the punch. The so-called “church growth” movement has sold us a bill of goods. They told us that we cannot challenge people to commitment and to genuine discipleship because that will scare people away and drive down attendance numbers. The “church growth” folks made us all experts in categorizing attenders. We described some as coming through the “front door,” or the “side door,” and as going out the “back door.”

That’s precisely backwards from the way our Lord talked about the Christian life. How does one square the so-called “church growth” approach to Jesus’ call for self-crucifixion (Mark 8:34). The typical response from the megachurches and the church growth gurus, from Bob Schuller to Willow Creek, is “we do that on Wednesdays.” Really? What happens when the light dawns on these disciples that what is being said on Sundays can’t be squared with what is taught on Wednesdays? Are there two Christians messages? I don’t think so. As Mike Horton has written recently, we need the whole Christian faith.

This brings us back to Colson’s call to take up our catechisms again. Amen! But what happens when we start reading them? We shall have to make a choice. The Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church cannot be squared with the Westminster Confession. After all, the very Westminster Confession that Colson cites, in chapter 11, explicitly and thoroughly rejects the fuzzy doctrine of justification promulgated by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (I and II):

Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

ECT said that it didn’t really matter whether we held to justification by faith resting and receiving alone. The WCF is explicit that the faith that justifies is that which rests in and receives Christ alone. Faith, resting and receiving, is the “alone instrument” of justification. According to WCF 11 we are not justified by “anything wrought in” us or “done by” us. This is a categorical rejection of the Romanist doctrine of justification. ECT said that we could agree to disagree about imputation but we not only reject a wrong view of imputation (i.e.., that the act of faith is imputed to us) but we affirm a different view of imputation, namely, that Christ’s “obedience and satisfaction” are imputed to believers for justification.

Amen to Colson’s call to radical, costly, discipleship, and to his call for a doctrinal boot camp and to taking up the catechisms again, but let’s be sure that we’re picking up the right catechisms.


Shifts Within Intervarsity

Packer’s Involvement in ECT Didn’t Just Happen

Is the Reformation Over?

What Richard John Neuhaus Means to Me

How the Two Kingdoms Doctrine Could Have Prevented ECT

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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