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A Review of Thomas Stegall's The Gospel of the Christ; Spring 2010 - Vol 23:44
Topic Started: Dec 23 2011, 06:08 PM (240 Views)
lightninboy

A Review of Thomas Stegall's The Gospel of the Christ1

Bob Wilkin
Editor

I. The Thesis of the Book

The main thesis of the book is that in order to be born again a person must believe in "the Lord's deity, humanity, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection, i.e., [in] His person, work, and provision" (p. 19). Note that believing in Jesus for eternal life, or for justification, is not included in that definition. Presumably the person must also believe in justification or salvation by faith alone, apart from works, but surprisingly that is not stated in the preface and is only sparingly stated in this book (e.g., p. 342).
Only once did I find a place where he lists all that a person must believe to be born again. And this list was not a list at all, but headings spread over 25 pages (pp. 353-77).
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II. The Purpose of the Book

The author's main purpose seems to be to sound the alarm about people in the Free Grace movement, like Zane Hodges, John Niemelä, René López, and Bob Wilkin, who have been masquerading as Free Grace proponents, but are in reality enemies of Jesus Christ and His gospel. Indeed, on at least one occasion Stegall drops the theological H bomb, saying that we proclaim a "new heretical gospel" (p. 336, italics added).
The subject index shows the attention he pays to Zane Hodges, me, GES, and others. Note on how many pages the following individuals and organizations are mentioned in the 753 pages of the text:

Robert N. Wilkin 165 pages
Zane C. Hodges 131 pages
GES 126 pages
Jeremy Myers 52 pages
René López 42 pages
John Niemelä 33 pages
Bob Bryant 16 pages.2

The above figures regarding references to GES differ from Stegall's subject index. The index says that Grace Evangelical Society is mentioned on just 10 pages (pp. 21, 35, 41, 57, 64, 228, 270, 750-52). However, Grace Evangelical Society is found on at least 72 additional pages,3 not counting the scores of pages on which the author mentions JOTGES or Grace in Focus but without specifically mentioning Grace Evangelical Society. In addition, I found 44 additional pages in which he mentions GES but not Grace Evangelical Society.4
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III. The Crossless Gospel

According to the subject index the expression crossless gospel only appears on 4 pages (pp. 124-27). Yet it occurs hundreds of times throughout the book, sometimes as often as seven times on one page.5 There are 16 variations used of the expression the crossless gospel, including: the unmodified expression the crossless gospel,6 and a host of modified versions: the new crossless gospel,7 today's new crossless gospel,8 today's crossless gospel,9 crossless gospel advocates,10 crossless gospel teachers,11 crossless gospel proponents,12 crossless gospel exegetes,13 the crossless gospel position,14 the crossless gospel's doctrine,15 the crossless gospel conclusion,16 the crossless gospel approach,17 the crossless, resurrectionless gospel,18 the crossless gospel interpretation,19 today's crossless, deityless gospel,20 and a crossless, resurrectionless version of the gospel.21 The author also utilizes more than twenty other expressions using the word crossless but not with the word gospel.22
Only once in the book did he label his position. When referring to a seminary that agrees with his position he called it "a non-crossless Free Grace school."23 Thus he calls his position the non-crossless gospel position. It seems a bit cumbersome to have a double negative (non- and -less mean not and without) for a title. But the cross gospel position, a natural option, certainly sounds odd too. I think the five essentials position is more descriptive and less awkward.
The author at one point acknowledges that we find the label the crossless gospel to be misleading and offensive (p. 125). He defends his use of this pejorative expression by pointing out that John MacArthur says that he reluctantly used the expression Lordship Salvation to describe his own view as a concession to popular usage. Yet we use the expression Lordship Salvation all the time since it accurately presents the position.
However unlike MacArthur, we do not use the crossless gospel to describe our position. And there is nothing negative or pejorative about the label Lordship Salvation. Obviously there is no salvation unless Jesus is Lord.
Stegall's defense of this pejorative and misleading expression is not convincing.24 Worse yet, it tends to offend people who disagree with him and make it less likely that they will actually read his book.
Stegall reminds me of the abortion advocate who repeatedly speaks of his opponents as the anti-choice proponents. Evidently Stegall thinks if he can craft the wording of the debate, he will win the day.
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IV. Strengths of the Work

The main strengths of this book are its bibliography (32 pages), author index (7 pages), Scripture index (12 pages), and the extensive discussion of some of the issues involved (826 pages). There are over 100 pages devoted to 1 Cor 15:1-11 (pp. 483-589), 25 pages to Acts 13:23-48 (pp. 353-77), and 34 pages to Acts 2:38 (pp. 629-62). While there is much Stegall fails to discuss even with all those pages, and while much of his exegesis is suspect, it is very helpful to have such extended discussion.
Having met the author and spent an hour discussing these issues with him about five years ago, I consider him to be sincere, driven, and dedicated. Those are all highly admirable qualities and they do come through in the words of the book.

V. Main Weaknesses of the Work

A. Dependence on Tradition

I believe the underlining weakness that causes all the rest is that Stegall is blinded by tradition. As Acts 17:11 shows, we must be able to overcome our tradition if God's Word contradicts our tradition. Yet Stegall unashamedly refers repeatedly in this book to tradition as proof that his view is correct.25 He rejects the promise of life view because it does not fit Church tradition, Evangelical tradition, Free Grace tradition, and his own tradition. He views the promise of life position as a radical departure from established truth.26 He is so influenced by his tradition that he cannot give a fair hearing to the Biblical arguments of others. Like a five-point Calvinist, he thinks his tradition is right and he seeks ways to prove his tradition (from tradition, theology, logic, and Scripture), rather than searching the Scriptures and letting them speak for themselves.
Edited by lightninboy, Dec 23 2011, 06:42 PM.
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B. Failure to Explain or Defend the Free Grace Position

One might read this book and fail to notice that like the emperor with no clothes, this book doesn't contain the Free Grace message.
The back cover of the book explains how that could be:

Evangelical Christians agree that faith in Jesus is necessary for eternal life. But what is the essential content of that faith? A segment of evangelicals today is openly denying that belief in Jesus' deity, substitutionary death for our sins, and bodily resurrection is necessary to be saved.

He does go on to add:

Those who have departed from traditional Free Grace theology are now claiming that the lost must simply know the name of 'Jesus' and believe in His promise of everlasting life in order to be born again. But is this what it means Biblically to believe in Christ? Can anyone know with certainty what God requires?

Thus Stegall is speaking about what "Evangelical Christians agree." That is clearly not the Free Grace position.
Of course, even if the author believes the object of faith is five things and not simply the Lord Jesus and His promise of life, one would still expect that he would have some discussion of the Free Grace position. Thus we would expect him to discuss that saving faith is simple assent. He doesn't do that. We would expect him to discuss how a person can be sure of his eternal destiny by faith apart from works. This he does not do. We would expect him to discuss motivations for serving God, including the Bēma, God's discipline, God's blessings, and certainly not fear of hell. But he doesn't discuss this either.
One of the most remarkable things about this book is that even in 826 pages the author never lays out or defends the Free Grace view.27
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C. Luke 18:9-14: The Clearest Evangelistic Text in the Gospels?

In a section entitled "Justification before Calvary" (pp. 182-84) Stegall turns Jesus' evangelistic ministry on its head. What is the clearest passage in the Four Gospels on what a person needed to believe during the ministry of Jesus to be born again?
Most Free Grace people would point to verses like John 3:1-18 or John 6:35-40 or John 11:25-27. However, the clearest passage according to the author is Luke 18:9-14.
If Luke 18:9-14 was the saving message during the ministry of Jesus, then John 3:1-18 is at best misleading and at worst a lie. Nicodemus, since this was still pre-cross, according to Stegall did not need to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, to be born again. Rather, Nicodemus needed to believe what the tax collector believes in Luke 18.
Stegall says the tax collector was justified because he believed "in the one God" (monotheism); "that [God] is righteous"; that he was "an unworthy sinner"; and that "God would provide propitiation for sin."28
Nicodemus believed all of that before Jesus told him that he had to believe in Him to be born again. So did the woman at the well.
What is the point of the Gospel of John if these four things were the object of saving faith prior to Calvary? Where do we find those four points in the OT? Where else do we find those four points in the NT? It seems odd for Stegall to pick a text that finds no correspondence elsewhere if it is indeed the clearest indication of what pre-cross people had to believe to be born again.29
It should be noted, however, that the Lord might not be referring to forensic justification in Luke 18:9-14. There is no other place in the NT where the Lord speaks of forensic justification. That has led some to conclude that Jesus was not speaking of forensic justification there at all, but of being vindicated before God. Some see this as an issue of which man pleased God that day, not who went home forensically justified.30
In any case, Stegall's treatment of Luke 18:9-14 is inadequate.
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D. Vitriolic Tone

As the subtitle suggests, this book is not irenic in tone. It is an attack. I am loathe to use that word. But other words—like interaction, dialogue, discussion, or debate—all fail to capture the truth. Stegall clearly views his opponents as heretics. Indeed he calls them heretics (p. 336). He is not subtle as to whom he is attacking. As I show above based on how often he cites people or organizations, he is primarily attacking me (on 165 pages), Zane C. Hodges (on 131 pages), GES (on 116 pages), Jeremy Myers (on 52 pages), René López (on 42 pages), John Niemelä (on 33 pages) and Bob Bryant (on 16 pages).
Pejorative language is repeatedly used by the author. Though he knows that none of those who hold the view he is disparaging use that title of themselves, he persists in repeatedly speaking of the crossless gospel. The expression occurs hundreds of times in the book (see above). But that is the tip of the iceberg. Also included are things like "aberrant [theology]" (p. 25), "this new doctrine" (p. 54), "a new doctrine of faith" (p. 60), "doctrinal departures" (p. 60), "unique interpretation of John 20:31" (p. 67), "its aberrant doctrines" (p. 78), "this new gospel" (p. 78), "shamed into submission" (p. 80), "the false gospel of the reductionists" (p. 80), "assurance [is]…the new god of the crossless, resurrectionless, deityless gospel" (p. 98), "inclusivist" (p. 203), "shocking statements" (p. 31), "the new view" (p. 87), "the new aberrant Free Grace position" (p. 120), "this new heretical gospel" (p. 336), "the new aberrant form of the gospel" (p. 340), "an unending utoopian existence" (p. 396),31 "this radical redefinition of 'salvation'" (p. 426), "this novel view" (p. 447), "truly bizarre and tragic" (p. 476), "innovative and novel views" (p. 751), "exegetical fallacies" (p. 751), and "twisting of Scripture" (p. 750).
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E. Failure to Present the Views of Others Fairly

Actually the author seems to do a fairly good job of representing the view of Reformed Lordship Salvation people who agree with him. However, when it comes to Free Grace people with whom he disagrees, he fails to take care in presenting their views.
An example of failing to fairly present the views of others is when he quotes Zane Hodges as using the words "flawed" and "extremely uncomfortable" and me as using the word "shutter" (p. 31). One or two word citations are not quotes. They are caricatures of a view. For example, if one looks up what I said in that context, I was not in any way saying that the "old gospel," to use Stegall's expression, causes me to shudder. What I actually said was this: "When I hear people point to 1 Cor 15:3-11 and boldly proclaim that is the precise evangelistic message Paul preached, I shutter (sic)." (Even in a later chapter devoted to that passage, he only gives a small part of my discussion about it [pp. 529-89].)
Of course, Stegall sometimes gives more than a word or two snippet of what we said. Even then, however, though he mentions us often, he gives detailed quotations quite sparingly.32 Unless the reader has read what we have written, he will come away with an inaccurate understanding of our view.
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F. Unanswered Questions Abound about What One Must Believe to Be Born Again

Precisely what must one believe about Jesus' deity, humanity, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection to be born again? The author only elaborates when he is responding to questions I and other have raised.
When Stegall first started writing some of the articles that are included in this book, one only needed to believe in "His [Jesus'] genuine humanity" (p. 542). However, in response to a question I raised as to whether a person could be born again who believed that Jesus sinned, he added a new essential (p. 545). It is no longer enough to believe that Jesus was genuinely human. Now one must also believe He was sinless.33
Another example is that Stegall now says that "unless they come to believe that He [Jesus] is the 'I am'—equal to Yahweh God—they will remain spiritually dead, unregenerate, and unforgiven in their trespasses and sins" (p. 292). He is arguing this was true of Jesus' audience at that time, which is odd since elsewhere in this book he says that was not required, but that one simply had to believe what the publican of Luke 18:9-14 believed. He is also arguing one must believe that today.
Thus if someone believes that Jesus is Yahweh God, not that He is equal to Yahweh God, he would be unsaved. A modalist is one who believes that Jesus is God the Father and God the Holy Spirit and that there is but one person, not three persons, in God. Such a person cannot be born again.
I happen to believe that the term Yahweh in the OT sometimes refers to the preincarnate Christ and sometimes to God the Father. The "I am" of Exod 3:14 referred, in my view, to Jesus, not God the Father. That would seemingly bar me from eternal life since in Stegall's view to be born again one must believe that refers to God the Father and Jesus is simply "equal to" the Person who appeared to Moses at the burning bush.
There are many other essential truths which are going to emerge over the next few years as the author explains precisely what people must believe about each of these five points. Here are a few examples of new essentials that I believe will emerge:

1.Trinitarianism.
2.The eternality of Jesus.34
3.Jesus' substitutionary death does not actually take away the sins of the world (John 1:29).35 His death only potentially does so.36
4.A person cannot be born again if he believes the ransom-to-Satan view of the atonement. Actually, he already says this in the book.37
5.A person with a Nestorian or Eutychian view of Jesus Christ cannot be born again.
6.A person must believe that the Second Coming has not occurred yet.38
7.It is not enough to believe all the essentials. One must also believe that his belief in all of the essentials are necessary for him to be born again.39
8.Belief in the virgin birth is necessary to be born again.40
9.One must believe that Jesus is, was, and always will be immutable. He never changes.

Stegall's position logically requires that the unbeliever must be somewhat of an expert on Christology to be born again. How much of an expert? That is the moving target. That is why assurance is impossible for the author's position.
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G. The Virgin Birth and Jesus' Resurrection

I would have thought that the author would argue that belief in Jesus' virgin birth is an essential object of saving faith. Yet he says it is not. He takes over 40 pages to develop this one point (pp. 705-46). But his explanation is confusing since it seems to contradict his main thesis.
He argues:

If even the apostles could reject and deny such an essential truth as Christ's resurrection, at least initially, then surely some genuine but unfaithful Christians in our day could conceivably deny the virgin birth and be saved (p. 738).

Did you notice that Stegall says the apostles rejected and denied an essential truth? If they did, then would they not have been unregenerate? He fails to say that the apostles rejected and denied what is in his view an essential truth today, but which was not essential prior to Calvary. The evidence for such a view seems quite thin. But it gets worse.
Here Stegall opens Pandora's Box with an argument that contradicts his own position. Here is his argument laid out logically:

Major premise: The apostles were born again.
Minor premise: The apostles did not believe in Jesus' resurrection.
Conclusion: Thus people today need not believe in the virgin birth to be born again.

That conclusion is based on an unstated a fortiori argument. Stegall implicitly is saying that the resurrection of Jesus is a more fundamental truth than the virgin birth. While that could be debated (most fundamentalists consider them equally fundamental), let's grant his argument. Thus if a person could be born again and reject the more fundamental truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then he could certainly be born again without believing the lesser truth of His virgin birth.
In the first place, if the apostles were born again by believing a different set of facts, then would it not be inappropriate to use them at all to discuss what people must believe today?
In the second place, even if it would be appropriate to use people who were supposedly born again by believing a different message, his conclusion is not the most direct. Another conclusion is more logically direct than the one he gives:

Major premise: The apostles were born again.
Minor premise: The apostles initially did not believe in Jesus' resurrection.
Conclusion: Thus people today need not believe in Jesus' resurrection to be born again.

It seems to me that this is one of the best arguments that Stegall makes in his book. I heartily agree with his reasoning in this case. However, since he has inadvertently destroyed his whole case, this is one of the most glaring weaknesses in his book.
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