Let me introduce you to, and recommend 2 books I’ve read recently: Kent Philpott’s thought provoking and useful little book, “Are You Really Born Again?” – subtitled “Understanding True and False Conversion.” And Gavin Ortland’s extremely timely and potent “Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage.”
Let me be clear that these 2 books have nothing whatever to do with one another. They are as far away from one another in theme and content as can be imagined, and yet both are profoundly useful in their spheres.
The usefulness of “Are You Really Born Again?” Is located first and foremost in 2 Corinthians 13:5a & b (ESV): “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”
It is incumbent upon all those who profess saving faith in Jesus Christ to enter upon this examination from time to time. Due to our own sinful capacity for self-deception, and because there are so many “false gospels” out there, re-examination from time to time is very healthy. I would aver even necessary. Of course some personality types can run with this and take it to morbid extremes, never arriving at place of assurance even though others wouldn’t hesitate to confirm their authenticity. Philpott’s book is helpful here too. Though, if I have one slight critique it is that I think he lays a tad too much stress on every genuine Christian having full assurance. Nevertheless, when it is all said and done, this book is helpful both in terms of defining true conversion – over and against the several types of false conversions he describes; and, in laying out sound Biblical means for working through such an examination well.
One of the most helpful concepts the author develops is in drawing a distinction between being “Christianized” versus being genuinely “converted.” I do not think this differentiation is anywhere near enough explored or explained. If only for this, the book is well worth the purchase price and the read. That he develops his points in this regard using numerous case histories from his decades of pastoral experience make the work extremely practical rather than theoretical. You DO NOT need to be a theologian to access it on every page. You WILL learn from fundamental theology along the way.
Philpott names an array of groups who he would classify as falling into 2 broad categories: The non -religious unconverted comes in many forms: The “jilted” (victims of bad church experiences); Careerists – too caught up in career and cultural sub-groups to pursue religion; Hedonists who view Christianity as too restrictive and joy-killing; Gnostics who think they know what they need to know and that gives them freedom to live any way they please; Technocrats, Existentialists, Humanists, Secular-ethicists, the Driven – and more. He explains each in easy to grasp terms and in only a paragraph or so each. Many of these he posits walked away from Christianity at some point due to their views.
Then there are the RELIGIOUS unconverted. The “loving and fair mined liberal” for whom Christianity is wrapped up fairness. The Do-gooder, the Mimic, the Positive Thinker, the Superstitious, the Sentimentalist, the Traditionalist and others. These would claim some form of Christianity, but fall short of being truly converted.
He tackles some of the false conversions he’s observed: Crisis conversions, Moral Conversions, Spiritual Conversions (rooted in some spiritual experience), Doctrinal conversions and more.
As he urges on pg. 132, in terms of helping one another find out where we are, he suggests asking this question first: “What are they relying on for their salvation?” And now you have a real starring point – for yourself as well.
Worth the price of the book alone is Appendix I – a sermon preached by Jonathan Dickinson in 1741. In it, Dickinson lays out “the principle method by which this great change is wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit of God is in giving him a realizing view of the great truths revealed in the Word of God, and enabling him to see things as they are.” Rich!
He then lists 5 of those realizations: 1. His own miserable spiritual condition for what it really is. 2. Realizing his unworthiness of divine mercy, and his utter inability to help himself. 3. A deep desire to search after Christ. 4. Realizing the fullness and sufficiency of Christ to meet his need, and Christ’s willingness and readiness to save him. 5. Continued views of spiritual things as they are and seen in God’s Word.
“Are you Really Born Again” is not just good for those wrestling with this question consciously, but also as an evangelistic tool. It is winsomely written, clear and chapter 4’s walk through key redemptive vocabulary: Love, Atonement, Sacrifice, Substitution, Propitiation, Reconciliation, Redemption, Justification and the like – in short, clear bursts – can help build a really sound theology of salvation.
My thanks to Pastor Tony Bartolucci for giving me my copy. An excellent resource.
The 2nd book, Gavin Ortland’s “Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage.” I found so compelling, I bought each of our Elder’s a copy.
In today’s climate of raging commentary in the media, and especially in the often cowardly world of social media, where there lacks no number of angry, vitriolic verbal combatant – coming to grips with what is really important enough to “fight” about, and what isn’t – isn’t an easy task. We are called upon every day from countless corners to feel deeply and respond strongly to an endless list of causes. Many, very legitimate. Many not. In either case, the ability to determine what is genuinely worthy of certain levels of response is not always easy to pin point.
Ortland is not going to help you in terms of the secular media. This book is aimed at helping us sort out what theological, doctrinal and Church life issues fall into what he has laid out as 4 orders of importance, what Ortland calls “Theological Triage.” If you’ve never heard that term before – he explains: “As far as I know, the expression “theological triage” was first coined by R. Albert Mohler, who draws analogies with medical triage. At the scene of a terrible accident or some other violent event, there may be too few first responders to deal with all the victims immediately. Decisions have to be made: should the first concentrated attention go to the victim with severe burns, the victim who is bleeding profusely, or the victim with a couple of broken limbs? It is the responsibility of the initial triage teams to make these hard choices. Similarly, in the realm of theology some theological issues are more important or more urgent than others, and Christians who have to decide on how best to deploy their energy need to exercise godly judgment as to where their theological priorities should go.”
Don Carson in his introduction notes: “Ortlund usefully develops four tiers in his theological-triage system: (1) doctrines that are essential to the gospel; (2) doctrines that are urgent for the health and practice of the church, such that Christians commonly divide denominationally over them; (3) doctrines that are important for one branch of theology or another, but not such that they should lead to separation; (4) doctrines that are unimportant to gospel witness and ministry collaboration.”
What appears neat and clean at the outset, Ortland is careful to tease out necessary nuances and clarifications to these 4 all the way through. His is not a rigid grid but a flexible guide. You will appreciate the wisdom and thoughtfulness he puts into the examples he uses at each level. The table of contents demonstrates what I am talking about.
Part 1 Why Theological Triage?
1 The Danger of Doctrinal Sectarianism
2 The Danger of Doctrinal Minimalism
3 My Journey on Secondary and Tertiary Doctrines
Part 2 Theological Triage at Work
4 Why Primary Doctrines Are Worth Fighting For
5 Navigating the Complexity of Secondary Doctrines
6 Why We Should Not Divide over Tertiary Doctrines
Conclusion: A Call to Theological Humility
His tone is conciliatory while utterly lacking compromise on essentials. I think he gets it as right as anyone I can think of. And his call to making how we debate such issues as important as the issues themselves is vitally important when those with opposing views often hurl barn-burner comments at one another.
Rather than interjecting too much of my own thought here, let me leave you with. A smattering of quotes that impacted me, and that I will return to over time. Enjoy!
Martin Luther noted, “Softness and hardness . . . are the two main faults from which all the mistakes of pastors come.” The same could be said of all Christians.
Turretin was opposing not only the elevation of what he regarded as false doctrines into necessary articles of faith but also the elevation of true but secondary doctrines into necessary articles of faith.
We should have lower theological criteria for looser forms of partnership.
Baxter’s words remind us that theological zeal must be subjected to the test of love. Not all zeal is from God.
Even when the error we oppose is a deadly heresy, our aim must be to heal, not to disgrace.
If we isolate everything outside the gospel as a matter of indifference, we end up trivializing the majority of what God has communicated to us.
In his classic book Knowing God, J. I. Packer even suggests that a love for all of God’s truth is a distinguishing mark of regeneration.
On many other issues, as well, we might say with Machen: better to be wrong than indifferent.
Theological wisdom does not consider doctrines in the abstract, concerned mainly with technical correctness. Instead, it considers doctrines in their “real life” influence on actual people and situations and churches.
Even in our theological polemics, we must exhibit a self-restraint that subordinates our personal likes and dislikes to the concerns of the kingdom.
Several distinctions can help us in this regard. First, we should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what must not be denied.
Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as characteristic of growth in Christ over time.
In addition, when a first-rank doctrine is denied, we must distinguish between a denial based upon ignorance or confusion and a knowing, willful denial.
We must distinguish between confused sheep and active wolves.
Herman Witsius put it long ago: “It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship, a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven.”
The fact that someone does not verbally affirm justification by faith alone does not necessarily mean that in that person’s heart and conscience he or she is not trusting in Christ for justification. As John Owen observed, “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed.”
Too often, each side assumes the worst of the other or associates everyone who holds a particular view with its worst representations.
Being a member in a church and being an elder in a church should have different doctrinal criteria.
Let that sink in: more Christians were killed by each other over baptism during the Reformation than were killed by the Roman Empire over their faith in Christ.
This is a constant danger with the sacraments—that the outer rite replaces, rather than spotlights, the inner reality of which it is a symbol.
I would suggest that a wise theologian, like a wise military general, will be characterized by patience far more frequently than by action.
The issue is not whether but how Genesis 1 is narrating history.
The greatest impediment to theological triage is not a lack of theological skill or savvy but a lack of humility.
Pride makes us stagnant; humility makes us nimble.
If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything—if it doesn’t hurt—then you probably are not adjusting enough.
Honesty is not the same as volunteering your views at the earliest possible moment, regardless of context.