The Gospel. Clear But Maybe Too Simple: The Evangelism Study Bible

evangelism_study_bible_cover_courtesy_publisherThe Evangelism Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Hardcover. 1564+xiii pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-2662-9.

Last time I visited my local Christian bookstore, I admit the one thought that didn’t occur to me was, “You know, what we really need today is a new study Bible.” In addition to believing there might be a few too many study Bibles on the market already, I tend increasingly toward the conviction that commentary and study materials should be printed separately from the Sacred Text itself. But the title of this one, The Evangelism Study Bible (TESB), intrigued me, so I accepted the publisher’s kind offer of a review copy.

There are many things I like about this Bible. It has a respectable-length concordance (1412-1534); the Zondervan maps are nice (1549-1564); emphasis that “It is not a prayer that saves you. It is trusting Jesus Christ that saves you. Prayer is simply how you tell God what you are doing” (1537) is welcome; I also like the choice of Bible version (New King James [NKJV]) and the decision not to impose “the oldest and best manuscripts say otherwise” assertions on readers (at least, no such appear in the notes for John 8:3-11 or 1 John 5:6-8 [1172, 1377] ). As well, various items emphasized in the footnotes and features are sound and greatly welcome, among them the following:

  • Emphasis that baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation and is not some later occurrence (1161, note on John 1:33);
  • Identification of special adoration offered to Mary as inappropriate (1117, note on Luke 1:48);
  • Straightforward repudiation of contemporary health-wealth heresies (206, note on Deuteronomy 28:1-68);
  • Pointing out of the reality that one’s only chance to come to Christ and be saved is during this earthly life (1140, note on Luke 13:25);
  • Refusal to shy away from or seek to evade the reality of God’s directives concerning the handling of cities turned to idolatry (193, note on Deuteronomy 13:14-15) or concerning war against the pagan inhabitants of Canaan (224, feature);
  • Some quite sound statements on God’s sovereignty, such as “Salvation from start to finish is of God. Only He can cause us to see our need. Only He can birth us into His family” (1160, note on John 1:13; see also 319, feature, point 4), “God is sovereign and does all things for His glory and the good of His people (see Rom. 9:18). According to His will, He has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3), and “God is sovereign and in complete control….Sooner or later we will see that in everything that happens, God knows what He is doing” (160, note on Numbers 22:9-24:25);
  • Identification of miracles or signs as something God graciously does, not something any unbeliever has a right to expect or demand (64, feature; see also 368, note on 1 Kings 18:36-37);
  • Straightforward statement that “God’s creation was perfect and without sin” (2, note on Genesis 1:31), a reality one cannot fit with various “alternative” readings of the Genesis creation account that place death and disease (and thorns and thistles and so on) in the world before Adam and Eve’s fall into sin;
  • Its call for Christians to influence, not to be influenced by, the non-Christians with whom they interact (19, feature; 260, note on Judges 11:3), and its warning that Christians should take appropriate action to correct the problem if they find themselves “slipping spiritually when…around unbelievers” (1058, feature);
  • Its recognition that “Good intentions are not enough in our worship of God. God expects us to follow his instructions” (317, note on 2 Samuel 6:7);
  • Its emphasis on the need to “Focus on obedience, not outcomes” (366, feature, emphasis removed);
  • Its recognition of the focus on teaching or doctrine in the passage about knowing false prophets by their bad fruits (1055, note on Matthew 7:16-20, cross-referencing Luke 6:43-45);
  • That it notes how “heart” in Scripture typically “does not mean either the physical organ that pumps blood or our emotions alone” but “the inner person, the ‘self’ made up of intellect, emotion, and will that is the center of a person’s mental and spiritual life” (294, feature), a reality the popular “heart vs. head” dichotomy causes some to miss.

I worry, though, that the Bible’s gospel presentation may go too far in its effort to simplify and may in fact end up promoting a variety of easy believism where professing Christians feel secure while all that distinguishes them from unbelievers is assent to certain historical propositions and a desire to be rescued from the consequences of sin.

During my short-lived adolescent conversion to freewill-with-eternal-security Baptist fundamentalism, I conceptualized “the plan of salvation” as “Admit-Repent-Believe-Receive”: (1) admit you are a sinner worthy of hell and incapable of saving yourself; (2) repent of your sinfulness and sins, desiring to turn from them and turn to Christ; (3) believe that Jesus is the Christ, God the Son, as he claimed to be and that he died and rose again to save you; (4) by a conscious act of will, place your trust in (“make a commitment to”) Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Another, (5) rest assured that you are now saved and can be sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven, could have been added. While, from the perspective of human experience (“phenomenologically,” if you wish to sound learned), all these things may happen when persons are truly converted, this conceptualization does seem to make salvation a human work brought about by acts of will and thought.

Today, with both my adolescent “dry ground” conversion and early adult profession of non-belief behind me, my understanding of the plan of salvation would run more like this: (1) sometime during the period of preparation that is your entire life as an elect soul God loved prior to true conversion (“foreknew” from eternity), be made spiritually alive by God’s sovereign grace in a manner one can never exactly pinpoint in time and knows occurred only by its effects (as one knows the reality of the wind by its effects); (2) seeing the truth of the gospel, of Christ’s claims and promises, of your sinfulness and dire need, desiring to turn from your sins but knowing Christ alone can make this possible (at the point of conversion and at all points thereafter), trust in Jesus Christ alone to save and progressively sanctify you ; (3) realize that the true conversion that happened in 2 was the result of 1 and is something for which you can take no personal credit, and that the same is true of your ongoing transformation in sanctification (knowing that sanctification, like initial conversion, is by grace through faith, and that all true faith, whether initially saving or progressively sanctifying, is entirely a gift of God); (4) find assurance in the promises of Scripture and in the tangible evidences of God’s ongoing work of sanctification in your life.

Neither my adolescent nor my present understanding quite matches “The Gospel. Clear and Simple” (back cover) set forth by TESB. My adolescent understanding was closest, and similarly focused on the human side of things (human understanding and faith commitment), but still fell short of TESB’s minimalism. In TESB’s formulation, those to whom you as a Christian speak, if they would be truly saved through faith in Jesus Christ, need only be made to understand three things: “First, your listeners must know they are sinners. Otherwise, they will never see their need for Christ. Second, they must know that Jesus died for their sins as their substitute and rose from the dead. Finally, they must understand that God is asking them to trust in Christ alone to save them” (1064, feature). A desire to be rescued from the consequences of one’s sins, once one has been made aware that one is a sinner and that there are consequences, joined to a willingness to have Christ serve as the means of rescue, once one has been made aware that Christ is available so to serve, is all that is needed for that faith through which God saves: “because Christ was perfect and took our punishment, we can go to heaven when we die if we trust in Him alone” (280, feature).

What of repentance? What of actually wanting to turn from your sins and so on? In a feature entitled, “Is Repentance Essential to Salvation?” (concerning Luke 24:47), TESB offers this response:

The meaning behind the Greek word for repent in the New Testament is “to change one’s mind.” It is not an additional requirement for salvation over and above faith alone in Christ alone. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. In order to trust in Christ, people must realize their sinful condition that separates them from God and recognize their need for a Savior. They must “change their mind” about whatever is keeping them from trusting Christ, or what they are currently trusting in, and trust in Christ alone to save them. When they trust Christ, both repentance and faith have taken place. (1157)

This “understanding of repentance” is thought to best comport with the seemingly synonymous use of “believe” and “repent” in various contexts dealing with salvation (comparison of Acts 11:18 and 16:31 is offered as an example). Constraint of “repentance” to a “change of mind” about whom or what one trusts to save one, not about one’s rebellion against God and the sins expressing it (including, but not limited to, trust in false saviors), is repeatedly emphasized by TESB’s notes and features. For instance, concerning Jesus’s call to “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), the notes state: “The term repent means ‘to change one’s mind.’ Believe means ‘trust’ (see Acts 16:30-31). Jesus asked His hearers to change their minds, turn from whatever they were trusting in (good works, religious background, etc.), and place their trust in Him” (1091).

Now, that whatever constitutes saving faith in Christ includes within it true repentance, or that whatever true repentance is necessarily incorporates saving faith—that one who truly repents truly believes savingly, that one who truly believes savingly truly repents—doesn’t seem too controversial. The idea that repentance means a “change of mind” doesn’t seem all that controversial either, though contemporary connotations of “mind” as having to do solely with intellect or cognition, with “head knowledge,” might make it less than ideal. The idea that, in order to manifest true repentance, all one must change one’s mind about is what one trusts for salvation, from one’s own works or religious practices (or whatever) to Jesus Christ alone, does seem controversial. If one does not change one’s mind about one’s sin, seeing it as the defiance of God’s rightful Lordship that it is, if one does not repent of sin’s rebellious defiance of God’s Lordly authority, thereby granting that Christ (as God) is one’s rightful Lord to whom one, in true repentance that alone shows genuine trust, now bows in total submission—if one’s “repentance” means a “change of mind” less radical than this, if it means only trusting Christ to save one from the penalty of wrongdoing without acceptance of the reality that Christ only saves those he owns and that those he owns have given themselves over totally to his authority (so that discipleship is not optional and possible but mandatory and inevitable for the truly saved)—can one’s “change of mind” be considered biblical repentance?

In line with its constrained understanding of repentance, TESB is careful to emphasize the distinction between salvation, or entering the faith, and discipleship, or living the faith. Reformed believers, of course, emphasize the distinction between justification (God’s declaring to be just those for whom Christ died) and sanctification (God’s making progressively more like Christ those already justified), and this justification-sanctification distinction does seem related to TESB’s salvation-discipleship distinction. God’s ongoing work of sanctification is what Christians experience as discipleship, and the closest Christians get to directly experiencing their justification, their movement from the state of spiritual death and condemnation to spiritual life and justification, is their coming to faith in true conversion (their “getting saved”). In Reformed understanding, however, sanctification never fails to follow justification; anyone who truly “gets saved” also, inevitably, undergoes discipleship. TESB disagrees: “A disciple is ‘a learner’—someone who, having trusted in Christ, follows after Him. All Christian should be disciples, although all Christians are not [more clearly: not all Christians are] disciples” (182, feature). And, of course, “we can never lose our salvation (see John 5:24)” once we have it (212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15). That truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons is often emphasized.

For instance, in a feature on “How to Reach Children Who Are Rebellious,” TESB advises: “Do not confuse entering the Christian life with living the Christian life. Seek to determine if the problem is that they have not trusted Christ or simply that they are not walking with Christ. To do so, ask two questions: (1) What are you trusting to get you to heaven? and (2) Are you growing as a Christian?….There is a possibility that they have missed the simplicity of the gospel. There is also a real possibility that they have trusted Christ but strayed from Him” (334, emphasis removed). In response to this, one might ask: “If all that one must trust Christ for is to get one into heaven, in what sense is living in continued sin and making no effort to become more like Christ in this life a straying from him, so long as one continues to trust him alone to get one to heaven (as one goes on living in the same sinful way one always has)?” If the repentance included in true faith (trust) in Christ does not necessarily include repentance for, and genuine (God-given) desire to turn from, that rebellion to obedience, if all one must repent of is trusting in other means of salvation, then nothing one does while continuing to believe that Christ alone will save one from the eternal consequences of one’s sins can be called a “straying,” can it? So long as one maintains faith (as TESB defines it) in Christ alone for salvation from damnation, one can’t be said to have “strayed,” though one might be said to “miss out” on the “privilege” and “rewards” of discipleship. One could only be said to have “strayed” if one lost one’s faith, though even this would not change the reality that one once had truly trusted in Christ and been eternally saved. Perhaps, then, we may all look forward to fellowshipping with Bart Ehrman in the age to come, even if he remains an apostate until death.

“We must allow for those who have genuinely trusted Christ but gotten so far out of fellowship with the Lord that they appear to be non-Christians,” TESB adds in a “How to Respond to Someone Who Is Saved and Still Sinning” feature (340). Further: “When people trust Christ, they should develop a consistent prayer life, learn to love others, and locate a Bible-teaching church. But none of those actions are a basis for assurance of salvation. God offers us a gift—eternal life. When we receive it by trusting Christ, we are saved. The issue of eternal destiny is settled” (1166). This last feature, “How to Give a New Believer Biblical Assurance of Salvation,” suggests walking new believers through John 5:24 and eliciting affirmations from them, such as in response to the query, “Did you believe what God said and trust Christ as your Savior?” (Ibid.) Joined to TESB’s constrained understanding of the repentance that true faith in Christ implies, where trusting Christ as Savior does not imply submitting to him as Lord, has the interesting implication (it seems) of declaring truly saved every person who ever sincerely wishes to be saved by Christ from damnation, even if no sanctification at all, no lasting change of any sort, ever follows that initial profession. How this fits with verses like Philippians 1:6 is unclear, but if one’s goal is to have as many people as possible comfortably sure they will end up in heaven, TESB’s presentation achieves the goal admirably, albeit not so effectively as universalism.

(While granting that “The fruit of repentance is a changed life” or “Good works” [1050, note on Matthew 3:7], TESB seems unwilling to treat this fruit as an inevitable result of true repentance and so a valid test of the genuineness of alleged repentance—and so, further, a valid source of assurance that one has indeed sincerely repented and been saved. While often emphasizing, as preceding examples show, that truly saved persons might be found living in ways indistinguishable from unsaved persons, TESB does not seem to set a time limit on how long truly saved persons might live this way. It does, however, sometimes note the “danger of…divine discipline” [212, note on Deuteronomy 32:15] that attends such bad behavior. That saved persons should be subject to divine discipline for not progressing in discipleship or sanctification seems in itself proof that faith that is saving includes awareness and acceptance of (submission to) Christ’s Lordship and his absolute right to one’s complete obedience in all things. Persons called upon merely to trust Christ to save them from hell and guarantee them heaven with “no strings attached” are not given proper opportunity to “count the cost,” to rightly understand the radical commitment that true repentance, true faith, genuine trust in Christ requires of them. So it seems to me, at any rate.)

C. G. Kromminga’s article on “Repentance” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) offers some useful thoughts on the words for “repent” and “repentance” in the Greek New Testament. Having noted that the verb (metanoeō; repent) occurs 34 times and the noun (metanoia; repentance) 23 times, and after some discussion of specific uses and related terms, Kromminga writes:

Metanoia…is used [in certain verses] to signify the whole process of change. God has granted the Gentiles “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), and godly sorrow works “repentance that leads to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10). Generally, however, metanoia can be said to denote that inward change of mind, affections, convictions, and commitment rooted in the fear of God and sorrow for offenses committed against him, which, when accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ, results in an outward turning from sin to God and his service in all of life….Metanoeō points to the inward conscious change while [a different term] epistrephō [return, turn, be converted] directs attention particularly to the changed determinative center or all of life (Acts 15:19; 1 Thess. 1:9).

This standard reference, at least, thinks the “change of mind” involved in biblical repentance concerns more than whom or what one is trusting to save one from the just consequences of one’s misdeeds. When simplification and clarification turn into misrepresentation, one has gone too far. TESB seems to have gone too far.

TESB’s unwillingness to see discipleship as an inevitable result of genuine trust in Christ, and so dependable evidence that one is truly saved, makes for some awkwardness in the distinction drawn between salvation and discipleship. For instance, concerning Matthew 16:24-27 (cross-referencing Mark 8:34-37 and Luke 9:23-25), TESB notes: “Jesus describes the requirements for discipleship, not salvation” (1069). These verses include the following statements: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (verses 23-24). Now, if discipleship is an inevitable result of salvation, then it makes sense that one who fails to follow Christ in discipleship should be spoken of as losing his “life” and his “soul.” But making this fit with the idea that discipleship is possible but not inevitable for the truly saved forces one to read the passage in some awkward and unnatural manner (such as, “well, the ‘life’ and ‘soul’ of the Christian who does not become a disciple are ‘lost’ in the sense that they lack the value and vibrancy they could have had”). The only way to have all the relevant verses about initial salvation and the discipleship that follows, or about justification and sanctification, hang together without strained readings of one set of verses or another, is to hold that the one (true faith or trust, including repentance; initial salvation; justification), if genuinely present, never fails to be followed by the other (true conversion followed by growing obedience; discipleship; sanctification).

While TESB’s simplified gospel presentation does eliminate submission of one’s will to Christ’s Lordship from saving faith and the true repentance that goes with it, making the obedience of progressive sanctification or discipleship merely possible for true believers rather than inevitable, TESB, in fairness, does not at all intend to encourage disobedience. That Christians “should” obey God is emphasized throughout the notes and features. Two examples among many are these: “Christians should respond to God’s righteousness and live in obedience to God’s revelation through the Scriptures” (186, note on Deuteronomy 6:25); and “God’s standard is that we obey whole-heartedly” (226, feature). I’m pleased that TESB emphasizes this, but the difficulty created by allowing true salvation and complete lack of discipleship to coexist does not go away simply because one tells professing Christians they “should” be obedient, “should” seek to do God’s will out of gratitude, or “should” pursue discipleship because it offers eternal rewards not otherwise obtainable (true and noteworthy as these all are).

Its constrained view of what saving faith with true repentance includes is the main aspect of TESB that doesn’t work for me. It is not the sole aspect I have difficulty with, however. One additional area of difficulty worth noting is that TESB stands very firmly on the side of universal or general atonement (Christ died as an atoning substitute for all human individuals without exception, not solely for those who will actually be saved), as well as on the side of saying that God desires to save every human individual, including those who will ultimately end up damned. Select indications of these are the following: “1 Timothy 2:4 assures us He [God] ‘desires all men to be saved’” (62, note on Exodus 7:3); “He [Jesus] died for every person in every community” (125, feature); “It took His [God’s] all-righteous Son to atone for an all-sinful humanity” (204, feature); “God’s love is for ‘whoever’—anyone, anytime, and everyone, everywhere” (274, note on Ruth 1:22); there is “no one on earth whom He [God] is not interested in saving” (354, note on 1 Kings 8:41-43, 60); to ensure you have correct motives when sharing the gospel with unbelievers, TESB advises, one thing you should ask yourself is, “do you genuinely want to see them reconciled to God forever because Christ has already paid for their sins?” (381, feature); “What Jesus did on the cross, He did for everyone” (1249, feature).

Those of us who believe that Christ died as an atoning substitute only for those who would actually trust in him and be saved (particular atonement) are very uncomfortable making the target of Christ’s atoning work “humanity” or “every person in every community” or “everyone.” One might theorize that Christ died even for non-elect persons (persons who will never accept him and will end up eternally separated from God) in the sense that his death justifies even God’s non-saving graces (“common grace”)—life and enjoyment rather than immediate hell, rain and sunshine, limited expression of fallen tendencies, retention of some ability to express created giftedness in a positive way, and so on. Even if one finds this theory plausible, finding justification in Jesus’s sacrifice for God’s this-worldly benevolence toward the non-elect does not come near to saying that Jesus paid the full penalty for the sins of those who will end up paying for their own sins in eternal separation from God. For one thing, God’s perfectly just nature would not permit such a double payment. If Christ died savingly on behalf of all, then all will be saved. If not all will be saved, Christ could not have died savingly on behalf of all.

Likewise, those of us who believe that God’s sovereign counsel always comes to pass, that what God wants or is pleased to have happen invariably does happen (Isaiah 46:10; see also Ephesians 1:11), cannot be at ease saying that that God “is interested in” or “desires” to save even persons whom he ultimately will not save. To TESB’s identification of 1 Timothy 2:4 as assuring us that God desires for all human individuals to end up saved (a desire that will ultimately be thwarted), a Reformed study Bible answers: “This does not mean that God sovereignly wills every human being to be saved (i.e., that God saves everyone). It may refer to God’s general benevolence in taking no delight in the death of the wicked, or to God’s desire that all types of people (v. 1 note) be saved (i.e., God does not choose His elect from any single group)” (New Geneva Study Bible [Nashville: Nelson, 1995], 1909, note on 1 Timothy 2:4). The referenced “v. 1 note” reads as follows: “As can be seen from the next expression (‘for kings and all who are in authority’), this [“all men” in v. 1] does not mean ‘every human being,’ but rather ‘all types of people,’ whatever their station in life” (Ibid., note on 1 Timothy 2:1).

As it happens, the cited TESB reference to 1 Timothy 2:4 follows a statement straightforwardly recognizing that God “According to his will…has mercy on some and hardens the hearts of others” (62, note on Exodus 7:3). “At the same time,” it immediately adds, God desires for “all men to be saved.” Seeking no resolution for the apparent contradiction, TESB finally states that “God desires that we obey Him, not that we must understand all of His ways” (Ibid.). Certainly, there is a place for humbly accepting that God has not always provided enough information for us to resolve apparent tensions between scriptural assertions. Given that references in Scripture to “all men” or “everyone” so often refer to “all” persons making up some group under discussion or to select representatives of “all” groups from whom representatives might be drawn, it isn’t obvious that 1 Timothy 2:4 is an instance where such humble acceptance of tension is required. Even if one rejects such harmonizations as the New Geneva Study Bible’s, belief that in some mysterious way God “desires” for all persons to be saved (even though he has not ordained that they will be) doesn’t make sense of the idea that Christ in fact died as an atoning substitute on behalf of all persons, since not all persons will be saved (Matthew 7:13-4, John 21:8).

A final aspect of TESB with which I’m uncomfortable is its use of the weary religion-relationship dichotomy that has become so popular in certain circles (1061, feature; 1112, feature). In this way of speaking, “religion” becomes a shorthand for trusting in rules and regulations to make you acceptable to God, for relying on adherence to certain rules of conduct or ritual practices or such to save you. Reference to “the Christian religion,” “the religion of Christ,” or even “true [rather than false] religion” goes out the window as one comes to view “religion” as pure evil. People who get into this way of speaking squirm at any mention of “religion” is association with their Christian beliefs and practices. True Christian faith, this way of thinking holds, must be exclusively about personal relationship between the believer and Christ; rules of conduct, mandatory or recommended practices, ceremonies to teach one’s intellect and to train one’s will and emotions, and all other things rightly labeled “religion” must be avoided like the Ebola virus turned airborne. Religion, bad; relationship, good. The worst thing about this terminological revolution is that it makes nonsense of much fine Christian literature of days past that uses “religion” as a positive term. I am saddened to see this dichotomy find its way into another published work. To those who say, “Come on, David, that’s way too minor an issue to include in your review,” I can only respond that they might be right. Still, contemporary animus toward the word “religion” strikes me as misguided and unhelpful.

Overall, then, my feelings about this study Bible are mixed. While it has many positive qualities, it goes astray on its topic of central focus, the gospel, by representing saving faith and true repentance as less than they are (as less than I have come to understand them to be, at least). While it isn’t a book I would purchase or recommend others purchase, it also isn’t a book I would caution strongly against purchasing.The choice is yours.

This review also appears, less nicely formatted, on Amazon, and will appear, in abridged form, on Goodreads.

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