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by Philip Rosenthal
September 23, 2009

The way we evangelicals present the gospel has shifted radically in the last 30 years. Before the gospel presentation always included judicial/legal language such as: judgment, law, covenant, truth, justification, vindication, truth, evidence, forgiveness, redemption, confession, punishment, witnesses and testimony. Today, the language tends to be exclusively relational for example: love, reconciliation and becoming part of God's family. One could summarise the shift from a 'court room model' to a 'family living room model'. Is this good or bad? Well, surely, given the choice, most of use would prefer a 'family living room' to a 'court room'. Why does this matter to the average Christian? Firstly, because it is affecting the way we present the message of salvation and secondly the way we engage with worldly society.

Which of the two models is Biblical? There is plenty of evidence for both in the Bible. The problem is the shift in emphasis - and in many cases the shift is so big that judicial language, which was formerly the main way of explaining the gospel is avoided as 'politically incorrect'. What is unbiblical is the neglect of the court room model. Why am I, a Christian social activist writing on this subject? Because a new generation is growing up which has not grasped many of the basic building blocks of truth, essential to engage with sin in society. Such people have a hard time understanding why we should do anything that may offend non-Christians, such as picketing abortion clinics or sex shops.

Abandonment or neglect of the court room model is a feature of Postmodern/Emergent reinterpretation of Christianity, but the shift was underway long before Postmodernism became popular. The problem thus cannot be solved just by attacking Postmodernism. The court room model is also unpopular with many of those who focus on self-image & psychology, health and wealth, political correctness - some who believe the 'court room model' is not 'seeker sensitive'. Our culture hates the judicial model. To get a hearing, we need to a certain extent to adapt our message to the culture of our times, but some things we cannot give up. Why?

Because the central message of the cross cannot be properly explained without the model of a court room. Without it, Jesus death and resurrection are a bit meaningless. We, the human race sinned and broke God's law and deserved everlasting punishment in hell. Jesus, God's perfect substitute, died in our place, which is why we qualify for God's grace and mercy. On another level, both the Jewish and Gentile human government authorities condemned Jesus to death for his claim to be King/Messiah, but God's higher court over-ruled this wrong judgement and vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead - thus proving his innocence. We who tell this truth that Jesus is alive and Lord are called 'witnesses' who 'testify' - both terms borrowed from the court room. So many people have died telling this truth that our English word 'martyr' is derived from the Greek word for 'witness'. The way every human being on earth will be judged in eternity is all tied up with what they believe and confess in this one massive cosmic court case.

Apart from court room language, one can maybe talk about aspects of the cross such as Jesus reconciliation with us or Jesus good example of love for his enemies demonstrated from the cross for us to follow. Most preachers who neglect court room language do understand these truths. But will the next generation understand? And will they understand well enough to be willing to be 'witnesses' who will die for the truth? On a smaller scale to risk unpopularity and share the shame and disgrace of being a witness for Jesus in a generation that hates the truth? Will they have the courage to accuse our government and society of murder in their slaughter of the unborn innocents, as did the apostles when they accused the Roman and Jewish authorities of murdering Jesus (Acts 3:15; 5:28)? Are we going to preach God's wrath against sin to a Postmodern generation that doesn't understand the concept of sin? Will we pursue holiness as we treasure the price paid for us by Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19), or will we view grace instead as meaning that God doesn't think sin is a big deal. Neglecting judicial language is going to affect our holiness, our courage, our view of Christ and God, our understanding of grace, our gospel presentation to unbelievers, our worldview, our social activism and our motivation to reach the lost. Please lets help restore judicial language to our teaching and gospel presentation.

The new mega-shifted evangelical gospel, hopes that its 'kinder, gentler, more loving' view of God will be more attractive and thus win more to Christ. It will improve the bad image that the worldly media has given Christianity. But will it really do so? Didn't Jesus say the world would hate us (John 15:19) and praise false prophets (Luke 6:26). Such people struggle with a 'self-image problem' about Christianity. They have a 'court room model', but in their view, the world (or the secular media) or public opinion is the judge instead of God the ultimate judge. Which 'court room' will we worry about? Will we fear God and his judgement against unrepentant individuals in eternity in hell or on this earth against a society that rebels against God, by for example murdering unborn babies - or will we worry about trying to help Christianity win the media contest to become the most popular religion?

Is a 'kinder, gentler' mega-shifted gospel more compassionate to help hurting people? In some senses, maybe. Maybe in the short term some people will avoid getting annoyed by the truth. But sin still brings God's judgement, whether hell for eternity or in society now. Fewer people may be offended by the message, but those same people will still be hurt by consequences of sin. And in any case, regardless of the results of each, the gospel is not meant to be pragmatic - we are called to proclaim truth (Ezekiel 3:17). In Old Testament times, the false prophets were also preaching 'peace' and neglecting the message of judgment on sin (Jeremiah 6:14).

We need a balance of gentleness and toughness and wisdom to know what is appropriate in what situation. God's self revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai included his compassion and his judgment of sin (Exodus 34:6-7). His revelation on the cross included his wrath against sin by the punishment of crucifixion and his mercy to us in substituting Jesus in our place. The judicial court room model perfectly explains this paradox.


A popular example of this mega-shifted unbalanced gospel presentation is found in the poem 'The father's Love Letter'. http://www.fathersloveletter.com/text.html . It seems orthodox, because it is made up almost entirely of paraphrased Bible verses and full of references. It sounds beautiful. What is wrong? Firstly, if you look up the scripture quotations and read them in context, you will see the paraphrases are often inaccurate and the context doesn't match the message of the poem. If you read on in the references, you will also see references to God's judgment - but not in the poem. The second problem is that the statements paraphrased in the poem are made in the Bible to believers, who have already received Christ and become children of God (and thus part of God's family). But the poem blurs the distinction between believers and unbelievers, giving the impression the same statement apply to both. Most of the promises quoted from the Bible are conditional on receiving Jesus on the basis of his dying in our place as a substitute (the courtroom model). While the poem may give some comfort to believers, it may also give false comfort to those who have not repented of their sins.


For those who want to study the history of the intellectual debate in more detail, the following links may be helpful:

In 1990, theologian Robert Brow published an article in Christianity Today, describing the Mega-Shift away from the 'Court Room/judicial' model http://www.brow.on.ca/Articles/Megashift.html towards the 'family/relational model'. The article was phrased to sound a neutral description of a trend, but Brow showed by his other publications that he strongly supported this new trend. Soon other scholars responded for and against the new trend. Donald Carson, Michael Horton and David Wells strongly opposed it, and defended the historic court room model. John McArthur responded to the undermining of the atonement at http://www.ondoctrine.com/2mac0103.htm A surprise for many was Clark Pinnock, a previous champion of conservative orthodoxy against liberalism came to Brow's support. Robert Brow and Clark Pinnock worked together to develop their new theories further. Eventually, their theorizing led them to the conclusion that God doesn't exhaustively know the future, but rather can only take a good guess at what is going to happen on the basis of the balance of probabilities. They called their new theory 'Open theism' and together they published a book 'Unbounded Love' available online at http://www.brow.on.ca/Books/ULove/ULIntro.htm . Pinnock was interviewed by Michael Horton about his shift in views in an opposing publication at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=issuedisplay&var1=IssRead& var2=26 Later writer, Philip Yancey promoted a similar view in a less intellectual, but more popular style.

The most heavyweight intellectuals in Evangelicalism have historically been Reformed/Calvinists, since this tradition tends to emphasise truth. These men focused their counter-attack on this undermining of the Sovereignty of God. Together they replied with a book 'Beyond the bounds' with John Piper as the main editor, and a list of respected other authors each contributing a chapter, which is also available online at http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/OnlineBooks/ByTitle/2397_Beyond_t he_Bounds/ Piper et al, argued that Open Theism was heresy and that the boundaries of evangelicalism needed to be redrawn to exclude it. There was an attempt to remove Open Theists from the Evangelical Theological Society, but this failed. Piper, Carson and similar reformed thinkers later formed the 'Gospel Coalition', whose Statement of Faith specifically excluded Open Theism. In the book, Wayne Grudem argues that Open Theism is pastorally dangerous because a weak view of God undermines people's faith.

A bunch of world-class Bible scholars have written a 400 page book - for sale in many Christian bookshops and available for free download. Robert Brow has died. So is the debate closed? Not at all. I argue the primary debate has been side-tracked. The trend away from 'Courtroom language' that Robert Brow was the first to spot and write about has become mainstream and now dominates most of Evangelicalism. Brow, Pinnock and their followers took their vision of a 'kinder, gentler' gospel to an extreme that ended up with a denial of God's sovereign control and foreknowledge of the future. But millions of evangelicals have not gone to that extreme, but they do squirm and evade the Courtroom model and terminology in presenting the gospel - the place where Brow and Pinnock started. And so what is considered normal evangelicalism is very different to what it was 50 years ago.

I argue that the original debate of whether the gospel should be presented using the 'Court room/judicial' model needs to come back to the centre. It is an issue that faces every church. I argue both Court Room language and Family language are biblical, but that the Court Room/judicial model should be central because without it we cannot properly understand why Christ died for us on the cross. This understanding then impacts how we view just about everything else. The neglect of the Court Room model I believe explains much of the weakness and confusion in contemporary evangelicalism.


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