The Fatal Error at the Heart of Religious Liberalism

I’m afraid I’m going to have to exhaust the remainder of my year’s allotment both of scare quotes and of parentheses, but, here we go.

You have probably heard of the kerfuffle regarding “evangelical” writer Eugene Peterson. In an interview with religion writer Jonathan Merritt, Peterson verbally shrugged and said he’d conduct a “gay” “wedding” if asked, observing that unrepentant homosexuals “seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do,” and that the debate about homosexuality appears to be over – which he deems “a transition for the best, for the good.”

Overall, the interview was a study in muddled double-talk. However, to the evident delight of Merritt, it put Peterson on the “affirming” side of the controversial issue.

Whereupon Christian bookstores begin speculating loudly as to whether or not they’d continue selling Peterson’s books.

Whereupon Peterson hastily reappeared to issue yet another display of foggy misdirection, which sufficient numbers have (as intended) interpreted effectively to move Peterson’s marker over to the other side of the tally board, the side where the booksellers are more comfortable.

My concern, however, isn’t Peterson. That’s an essay which, for any Biblically-instructed Christian, would fairly write itself. Rather, I want to single out something Jonathan Merritt said after the “retraction” was issued. Merritt wrote this:

To all the LGBT Christians who read Peterson’s words and felt a sense of hope but today feel like deflated tires: I am sorry if today feels like yet another church-induced bruise. Regardless, you are sons and daughters of Almighty God and the object of God’s love. In fact, God is obsessed with you. There is nothing you can do today to make God love you less or more. Trust that these statements are true of you and that their truthfulness is not dependent upon the statements or beliefs of any leader.

Note: there are no lacunae or ellipses in that quotation.

I wonder whether the enormity of this statement, and the labyrinthine convolutions of its thinking, hit us all fully. Let me see if I can lay it out:

  1. Merritt addresses people who have given themselves over, unrepentantly, to sexual perversion of one form or another. (As opposed to those who have repented of sin and trusted Christ alone for salvation, who yet continue to battle immoral passions. Such persons would have no interest in the impossible invention of “gay” “marriage,” or in gaining approved status for the immoral cravings of which they have repented.)
  2. Merritt calls these people “LGBT Christians,” which is about the same as speaking of “BLT-eating Muslims.”
  3. Merritt claims to know their relationship to God from God’s side, assuring all of them that they are “sons and daughters of Almighty God.” (To know this, he must see some document not visible to average mortals’ naked eye.)
  4. Merritt further claims to know God’s disposition toward them from God’s side, informing them that they are “the object [sic] of God’s love” – presumably His special love of acceptance and approval, and not of general charity.
  5. Merritt further asserts the ability to know God’s feelings, emphasizing to the unrepentant homosexuals that “God is obsessed with you” (presumably in a positive way).
  6. Merritt claims personally to know God’s requirements with absolute and exhaustive authority, emphasizing that his homosexual readers need not change in any way.

All this is, in itself, utterly breathtaking, as we shall see. But Merritt’s not done:

  1. In one sentence, Merritt gathers together every truth statement of each and every “leader” in all of human history and dismisses them all – exhorting his readers instead to put absolute and unwavering trust in Merritt’s truth statements. And who is Merritt to bear all this colossal weight? Apostle? Prophet? – with attendant cred? No; he’s a religion writer.

Merritt has done us a real service by unmasking the heart and soul of religious liberalism. It presents as charitable humility, but it is really all about relocating the center of authority from God’s Word to each individual. Usually there is some particular trigger, some noteworthy truth that the objector wants to oppose publicly. But all the specifics – Hell, the exclusivity of Christ, the truths of the Gospel, some especially beloved sin – are incidental. The core is simply this: I don’t want God being God over me. I want that role. I demand that role.

Tragically, Merritt is urging his readers unqualifiedly and unhesitatingly to trust their temporal and eternal destinies to that chimeric foundation.

The Christian position is the polar opposite. Insofar as he practices the faith he professes, the Christian is dead serious about Proverbs 1:7 – the fear of the revealed, infinite, personal God of Scripture is the indispensable beginning of knowledge. The Christian believer renounces autonomy and looks to God’s inscripturated self-revelation to learn truth.

For that reason, the resting point of authority, to the Christian, is external to himself. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, who is Himself God (John 1:1) – and the Christian affirms that truth. When he reads Jesus saying that God’s word is truth (John 17:17 – Jesus elsewhere explicitly includes the whole Old Testament), and that Christ Himself teaches nothing but God’s words (John 14:24), the Christian embraces those truths as well. Thus, when Jesus says that He – God, the Son – perfectly reveals the Father (John 14:9; cf. 1:18), and that the only way personally to know God as Father is through conscious faith in Jesus personally (John 14:6), he gladly yields to those truths as well.

So, in short, the fundamental conviction of the Christian is that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Philippians 2:11; Colossians 2:6).

The inevitable corollary is: and I am not.

That’s the part people hate. But that is the fear of the Lord. And it is the polar opposite of today’s false gospel of Follow-Your-Heart-ism. The former leads to a saving knowledge of the one true God resting on His authority. The latter creates a horde of false self-gods, abandoned to an eternity of groundless, endless despair and misery.

Love compels me to urge all my readers to turn from sin to Jesus Christ, as we find Him in the Biblical Gospel. Believe in Him. Rest on and under His authority.

Only in so doing can we know God as loving Father truly – on His terms.