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Revival or Apostasy?
Don Matzat

Is the Promise Keepers movement a renewing work of the Holy Spirit or evidence of a falling away from the truth of Scripture?

Promise Keepers began in July of 1990 when former Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and Dr. Bill Wardell invited 70 men to join them for a time of prayer and mutual discipleship. They made plans to meet again the following year and invited Christian men from the state of Colorado to join them for what they titled a "Promise Keepers" conference. About 4,200 men showed up. A year later, the number swelled to 22,000 to be topped by 50,000 in 1993. The movement went national. Promise Keeper rallies have been held in all major cities. The number of men influenced by the movement is somewhere over 700,000. Glowing testimonies and exuberant endorsements underline the positive effects the movement is having in Christian churches, homes, and communities.

According to the PK leadership, a time of God's favor is upon us. Christian men should, therefore, seize this opportunity for Jesus by making commitments to be men of integrity. The commitments are identified as the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper. Randy Philips, President of the PK organization, claims that these commitments are not a new list of commandments, but are meant to guide toward the life of Christ and to produce inner transformation. (1)

In most Christian denominations, the Promise Keepers movement has been well-received. Many pastors have encouraged the men in their congregations to attend the rallies. Promise Keeper small groups have been formed in many congregations. This acceptance has been across the board. Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and Reformation-based Protestants have embraced the movement. They see it as a sorely-needed, positive force producing "Men of Integrity" in the home, the church, and the community.

On the other side of the coin, there are pastors and theologians who do have some serious doctrinal concerns about Promise Keepers. While they recognize the value and importance of equipping men to fulfill their God-given abilities they are concerned that the movement minimizes the given response importance of sound doctrine. Therefore, the question needs to be asked: Is the Promise Keepers movement a time of God's favor and a sign of Holy Spirit-led revival in our land, or is it evidence of apostasy, the abandonment of truth.

How Do You Discern?

Discerning, testing, or judging all things is a biblical command. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: "Prove all things!" (1 Thess. 5: 21) The purpose of discernment is not to manifest a critical spirit or an "against mentality," but to preserve sound doctrine.

The question is, how does one judge or discern a very positive and popular movement such as the Promise Keepers?

In an article published in The Lutheran Witness, Missouri Synod Pastor Douglas Meyer defends Promise Keepers on the basis of his experience at a rally. He writes:

My concern is that those who have written negatively about Promise Keepers have done so without attending a Promise Keepers gathering. The best way (if not the only way to find out first-hand about Promise Keepers is to attend and participate in such an event. (2)

I have not attended a Promise Keepers rally. After spending 15 years in the Charismatic movement and attending and speaking at large conferences from coast to coast, I have had much first-hand experience of the dynamics of large emotion-filled gatherings.

I have also learned that the worst way to discern a movement is by experience. As a leader in the Lutheran Charismatic movement, I responded to my critics by saying, "Attend a conference and see for yourself " I knew, as does the charismatic leadership of the Promise Keepers, that getting skeptics involved in the emotional worship, exciting fellowship, and the camaraderie of huge conferences can convince skeptics. The Mormons also use experience technique to silence critics. If you have visited the Mormon Visitors' Center in Salt Lake City, you have probably ascended the winding walkway to sit before the beautiful statue of Jesus and hear an emotional presentation. The purpose is to stir emotion and perhaps produce the elusive "burning in the bosom."

A movement should not be discerned by experience, but by examining the public doctrinal statements of the leadership. This is the only way you can discover the purpose, vision, intentions, and expectations of the movement. The large conferences or rallies associated with the movement are often orchestrated by the leadership to produce an intended result. The type of experience shared at the large rally is of little or no importance. Emotions easily deceive. The best way to properly discern the Promise Keepers is to read the official material.

Is There "Promise Keepers Doctrine?"

If the Promise Keepers movement were merely a social or cultural phenomenon such as the recent "Million Man March," there would be no theological or doctrinal problem since it would not be a "church thing." It could be grouped with "the Million Man March," Alcoholics Anonymous, or the "Moral Majority." Lutherans would identify it within the "Kingdom of the Left Hand" which is ruled over by the Law. But this is not the case. Promise Keepers is a Christian or "church thing." It promotes specific doctrines. According to Randy Philips, it is a "sovereign move of the Holy Spirit." (3) He writes:

Just a few years ago, it would have been a minor miracle to get 25 men together at a men's seminar in most churches. Today, however, you find men gathering in hundreds and thousands in almost every city, and they're not just hearing testimonies from famous sport's personalities or competing in chill cook-offs. Today, American men are looking for answers, and they are looking to Jesus to provide them. (4)

While the Charismatic movement dealt with spiritual gifts, Promise Keepers deals with the subject of sanctification. According to Philips, keeping promises and becoming a man of integrity involves the theological process of "progressive sanctification." The purpose of the movement is that "we're supposed to become more and more like Jesus Christ." (5)

The Sanctification Issue

The primary theological question raised by the PK movement is: What is sanctification? Reformation-based Christians (Lutherans and Calvinists) have a different understanding of the process of sanctification than do Pentecostals and Evangelicals who promote Arminian decision theology. The difference is centered in the role of the Law. Lutherans and Calvinists both recognize that, in addition to serving as a "curb" and a "mirror," there is also a "Third Use of the Law." For Christians, the Law serves as a guide or a rule, but it is never the focus of sanctification. Focusing upon yourself and dour relationship with the Law will not produce the Christian life, but will lead to guilt and with condemnation. In his 1535 Commentary on Galatians. Martin Luther makes the following comments concerning the "Not I, but Christ" of Galatians 2: 20. If you examine this statement in the context, Luther is not speaking about our righteousness before God, or Justification. He is talking about how we should live, or sanctification. This statement underlines the seriousness of the issue we are discussing.

Therefore, when it is necessary to discuss Christian righteousness, the person must be completely rejected. For if I pay attention to the person or speak of the person, then, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the person becomes a doer of works who is subject to the Law. But here Christ and my conscience must become one body, so that nothing remains in my sight but Christ, crucified and risen..... By paying attention to myself and considering what my condition is or should be, and what I am supposed to be doing, I lose sight of Christ who alone is my Righteousness and Life. Once he is lost, there is no aid or counsel; but certain despair and perdition must follow. (6)

Sanctification does not occur by looking at yourself in the light of the Law, making promises, claiming to act in the power of the Spirit, and thereby assessing yourself as a "promise keeping man of integrity" who is becoming more and more like Jesus. Looking at yourself in the light of the Law or the seven requirements of a Promise Keeper will always produce self-accusation since Lex semper accusat (Law always accuses). Sanctification is not self-improvement.

Not What, but How!

The issue is not what God wants Christian men to be. Does God want the world to see Christian men as men of honesty, faithfulness, integrity and commitment? Of course! Does the Bible urge men in this direction? Definitely! The issue is not what. It is how! While the world may applaud the goodness, faithfulness, and integrity of a Christian man, the Christian man, accused by the Law, knows that he is a man with a deceitful heart, impure thoughts, unclean lips, and devoid of integrity. But, the Gospel has brought him to Christ. Accusing self as a result of hearing the Law and grasping Christ in the Gospel is the continual life of repentance.

In John chapter 15, Jesus speaks of himself as the Vine, and we are the branches. He encourages us to "abide in him" in order to produce fruit. Sanctification is not applying the Law to the branch so that the branch might resolve to be, "a fruit-bearing branch of integrity." Rather, it is teaching the branch how to abide in the Vine through the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) so that the life in the Vine produces the fruit. This Vine-life is "alien life." There was only one promise-keeping man of integrity who ever walked the face of this earth, and his name was Jesus! The Christian life is the spontaneous result of the "law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8: 1-2) The Lutheran confessional document "The Formula of Concord" describes it in this way:

Fruits of the Spirit, however, are those works which the Spirit of God, who dwells in the believer, works through the regenerated, and which the regenerated perform in so far as they are reborn and do them as spontaneously as if they knew of no command, threat, or reward. (7)

Promise Keepers confuses Law and Gospel!

How important is this issue? Can we set aside theological differences in order to produce unity? Every pastor desires to see the men of his congregation grow in Christ Jesus. Should those men be encouraged to attend the PK rallies so that they might embrace the goal of becoming men of integrity even though there is a Law/Gospel confusion? How important is it that we maintain a proper understanding of the Christian life? What about doctrinal integrity?

Unity, But At What Price?

According to the PK leaders, being committed to a specific doctrinal understanding that defines the position of a Christian denomination is not strength, but a divisive weakness. PK unity is based on experience, rather than on truth. Consider these words from Bill McCartney:

But what I know is that Almighty God wants to bring Christian men together regardless of their ethnic origin, denominational background, or style of worship. There is only one criterion for this kind of unity: to love Jesus and be born of the Spirit of God Can we look one another in the eye - black, white, red, brown, yellow, Baptist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God, Catholic, and so on - and get together on this common ground: "We believe in salvation through Christ alone, and we have made Him the Lord of our lives." (8)

This quotation raises a number of red flags. How can McCartney lump together racial diversity and denominational distinctives? Since setting aside "color" will produce racial unity, is McCartney suggesting that the men of Promise Keepers should abandon doctrinal distinctives in order to achieve church unity? In other words, are Reformation-based Christians supposed to abandon their Law/Gospel distinctives in order to produce unity? Does Almighty God want unity without truth?

McCartney's basis for unity is "love Jesus and be born of the Spirit of God." This statement could be accepted by Mormons, Moonies, followers of The Way, and possibly even the late David Koresh. What does McCartney mean by "salvation through Christ alone?" What is salvation? Roman Catholics would define "salvation" differently than Protestants. Aren't those distinctives important? Seeking unity at the expense of truth is apostasy, not revival.

Lutheran pastor Harold Senkbeil is correct in observing:

By ignoring doctrinal differences and central Scriptural truths, Promise Keepers seek to unite men under the banner of lowest common-denominator experiential religion: love Jesus and being born in the Spirit. By their public confession, Mormons deny the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet even they are being courted to join this happy throng of testosterone-driven spirituality. (9)

In a newsletter article, Christian apologist Tom McMahon writes:

As we noted, at its beginning Promise Keepers stressed discipleship. However, in its zeal to unify professing Christian men, PK has decided that doctrine is a stumbling block to unity, rather than the biblical basis for it. That makes Christian discipleship an impossibility. Very simply, there is no true discipleship without doctrine: "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed." (John 8: 31) (10)

In an age in which spiritual deception is rampant shouldn't Christian men be taught that the pursuit of sound Christian teaching is their primary it concern? If we join forces with the PK movement, are we not giving the impression that maintaining doctrinal integrity is unimportant?


Promise Keepers is a classic example of what we have defined in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as unionism: the promotion of unity at the expense of truth. Some have argued, and perhaps rightly so, that attending a Promise Keepers rally is not unionism. The problem is PK, in and of itself, is a promotion of unionism. While the Ecumenical Movement seeks unity by discussing doctrinal distinctives, the Promise Keepers ignore and even deprecate such distinctives. According to Jack Hayford, being committed to doctrinal distinctives in the light of the massive men's movement is an example of "small-minded sectarianism." (11) Is this small-minded sectarianism or the desire for doctrinal purity?

In February of 1996 a gathering of 100,000 promise-keeping pastors is planned for Atlanta, Georgia. The purpose of this gathering, according to McCartney, is to tear the hearts of pastors wide open so that a single leadership can be produced. (12) I wonder. In the light of all the doctrinal distinctives, what direction such a "single leadership" will plot?

The Proper Use of the Law

The Promise Keepers goal of equipping men to fulfill their God-given responsibilities in the home, church, and community is an excellent, praise-worthy goal. While I believe the movement should be rejected because it promotes apostasy, the goal can still be adopted as long as the Law is used in its proper relationship with the Gospel.

To begin with, the Seven Promises must be accepted for what they are - Seven Commandments. If the PK promises are not commandments as Randy Philips suggests, they are reminiscent of the Boy Scout pledge: "On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country etc." I recall every week going to a Boy Scout meeting, making the pledges and promises, and never coming to grips with implications or applications. If you rewrite the promises as God-given commandments, which is what they are, here is what you have:

1. You shall honor Jesus Christ and obey God's Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

2. You shall live in open honest relationships with your brothers in Christ.

3. You shall practice spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity.

4. You shall build a strong marriage and family through love, protection and biblical values.

5. You shall support your local church, honor and pray for your pastor, and give of your time and resources.

6. You shall overcome racial prejudice.

7. You shall influence your world and obey the Great Commandment (Love God completely, and your neighbor as yourself), and the Great Commission (Go and tell other people about Jesus).

Now, this is one tall order, but this is what the Promise Keepers are committing themselves to do. This is no meaningless pledge for overgrown Boy Scouts. It is the divinely ordained will of God, and God threatens to punish those who do not obey those commandments. Once you take all the exuberance, emotion, male camaraderie, and hoopla out of it, the task is sobering, humbling, and fearful!

Secondly, the purpose of teaching or preaching these Seven Commandments is to drive the hearer to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of the continued existence of the sinful nature, Christian men need to hear the Law of God concerning their behavior. The Formula of Concord puts it this way:

Hence, because of the desires of the flesh the truly believing, elect, and reborn children of God require in this life not only the daily teaching and admonition, warning and threatening of the law, but frequently the punishment of the law as well, to egg them on so that they follow the Spirit of God. (13)

I wonder how many pastors who have encouraged their men to attend the PK rallies are willing to get up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning, armed with the Seven Commandments, and preach the Law as it is intended to be preached with all of its divine wrath and fury in order to convict the hearers and drive them to the forgiveness, grace and mercy offered in the Gospel? In order to maintain the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, this is the only way these laws, or the Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, can be presented. These are not merely divine suggestions! If pastors do not proclaim the Law of God as it is intended to be proclaimed, involving men in the PK movement has no value whatsoever. They might as well plan a weekend camping trip. The purpose of the Law is always to drive to the Gospel.

The Formula of Concord further states:

The law indeed tells us that it is God's will and command that we should walk in the new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin it or to do it. It is the Holy Spirit, who is not given and received through the law but through the preaching of the Gospel, who renews the heart. Then he employs the law to instruct the regenerate out of it and to show and indicate to them in the Ten Commandments, what the acceptable will of God is and in what good works, which God has prepared beforehand, they should walk. He also admonishes them to do these, and when because of the flesh they are lazy, negligent, and recalcitrant, the Holy Spirit reproves them through the law. In this way, the Holy Spirit simultaneously performs both offices, "he kills and brings to life, he brings down into Sheol, and raises up."

It seems to be that the proliferation of the self-esteem movement and the popular notion of providing "seeker sensitive worship," has caused the preaching of the Law to be neglected. As a result, the Gospel loses its sweetness in the ears of the hearers. It is the Gospel, not promises to obey the Law, that will change the hearts of men. Perhaps the Promise Keepers will awaken us to the proper use of the Law, and the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

If the Law and Gospel were properly used, men should return home from a PK rally crushed and repentant by their failure to do what God demands of them and filled with a renewed dependence upon God's grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. They would not identify themselves as men of integrity, but as poor, miserable sinners in need of God's empowering forgiveness. Any joy and exuberance would be found in the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Table of References

1. Bright, Bill, et. al., The Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1994), pp. 6-9.

2. Meyer, Douglas E., "My View: go see for yourself," The Lutheran Witness, November 1995, p. 6.

3. ibid. 1, p. 2.

4. ibid. 1, p. 2.

5. Lewis, Gregg, The Power of a Promise Kept, (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family Publishing, 1995), p. 2.

6. Pelikan, Jaroslav, Luther's Works, Vol. 26, "Lectures on Galatians, 1535," (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), p. 166.

7. Tappert, The Book of Concord, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 480-481.

8. ibid. 1, pp. 161-162.

9. Senkbeil, Harold L., "My View: 'Thanks, but no thanks.'", The Lutheran Witness, November 1995, p. 7.

10. McMahon, T. A., "Promise Keepers," The Berean Call, November 1995.

11. Hayford, Jack, "Seven Signs of Imminent Grace," Charisma, December, 1995, p. 68.

12. ibid. 10.

13. ibid. 7, p. 565.

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