Issues, Etc. Journal - January, 1996 - Vol. 1 No. 3
"What Think Ye of the Promise Keepers?"
Lutheran Seminary Professor Robert Newton,
Baptist Pastor John Armstrong, and
Reformed Theologian Kim Riddlebarger respond to the question.
Law and Gospel are not always properly distinguished. While certain leaders do state clearly that a Christian's ability to "keep promises" rests not in themselves but in the Gospel of God, others, unfortunately, seem to view God's "promise keeping" for us not principally as the Gospel in which we live, but as Law, the model for us to emulate.
The Gospel is also presented as essentially the starting place, rather than the staying place, for Christian growth. Author Geoff Gorsuch, for example, declares, "The cross is not the end of a search; it is the beginning of an adventure! To come to belief in God through the cross of Jesus Christ is only an introduction to all that men were intended to be." He goes on to explain the steps that lead on from the cross. "Too many groups. . . never get to exhortation . . . covenants and accountability. They never enter into the struggle for moral excellence together. The never really worship!"
Gorsuch's desire that men be exhorted to live as Christians and that they strive together for moral excellence is appropriate and commendable. But exhortations, making promises, and being accountable do not themselves bring about Christian growth. Sooner or later we break our promises. The only promises that sustain the journey are those made by God in His son - unconditional love and forgiveness.
Knowing Christ crucified is not merely where we begin our adventure; it is the adventure.
God's commandments seem to be viewed by some in Promise Keepers as not only a guide or Christian growth, but a>means for it, too . . . Scripture teaches, however, that transformation and motivation are effected solely by the Gospel.
The Lutheran Witness, November 1995.
Bill McCartney, the man who arguably came up with the Promise Keepers vision, has been a friend of mine for the past 15 years. During his days in Michigan we used to meet together two or three times a year. I used to do chapel services for his football team. When the Promise Keepers movement began in 1990 or '91, and began to get publicity, I watched it closely. It wasn't surprising to me, because it had been the growing vision of Bill to do something like this since the early 80's.
The theological foundation upon which a movement that purports to be faithful to Scripture in its requirements for leadership for men in their homes and in society has to be evaluated by Scripture. This is not claimed to be a secular therapy movement for men of all religions who just want help to be better men. It claims to be a movement that is distinctly faithful to Christ. Although they say they are not a church, they are carrying on certain functions that are commissioned by Christ to the church and to minister of the Gospel. That's where a part of the confusion comes in. If Promises Keepers took the general position of simply being helpful to men with no religious overtones, and provide a social function to help people, that would be one thing. But they claim to be deeply committed to Christ. The first promise is that "a Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to God's Word in the power of the Spirit." The movement is distinctly claiming to be a movement in the name of Christ, and thus in the name of truth, His Word. You must discern the movement on the basis of its own claims. It claims to be a movement that seeks to honor Jesus Christ, so we must seek to discover whether it does so on the basis of the Word of God.
The whole idea of "promise keeping" raises some questions with me because it is used in the language of covenant. When you make a promise to a covenant, such as marriage, to break that covenant is a most serious offense. These men are engaging in covenantal language, perhaps unwittingly, and they are being led to make promises which at best are vaguely general.
What people must understand, coming at Promise Keepers from a confessional, Protestant perspective, I am bound as a minister of the Gospel in the Christian Reformed Church to evaluate all movements in the light of Scripture, and as Scripture is summarized through the confessions of my church. Therefore, I am going to have theological problems with Promise Keepers. I must make a clear distinction between the good that the movement accomplishes and what is being taught, or what is the ideology that underlies the Promise Keepers.
Promise Keepers claims to be a Christian movement, but in the movement, ethics have completely superseded theology. The movement is based upon an ancient heresy, Pelagianism, that argues that if God commands us to do something in Scripture, we have the ability to do it. Ought implies can. If something ought to be done, it means it can be done, because you have the ability to do it. If Scripture commands us to do something, does that mean we can do it? Promise Keepers assumes "yes" while the Bible clearly tells us that God's Law is a revelation of his will and shows us our need for a Savior.
I grew up a dispensationalist Evangelical where it was argued that we were in the age of grace and no longer under the age of law. Some famous dispensational writer would say, "since we are not under law, this was the Old Testament, now we are under grace." That raises the question: What do we do about ethics and morals? The answer, "Let's live by principles of grace." These "principles of grace" basically became Evangelical "house rules" or new laws. The Seven Promises are a mixture of things in Scripture and things that are kind of the Evangelical house rules. These now supersede the Ten Commandments. Evangelicals do not understand the Law/Gospel distinction.
Those of us who are "confessional Christians," in that we subscribe to confessional statements such as the unaltered Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confessions, have a problem with the Promise Keepers. Evangelicals look at us as if we have three eyes, because our confessions define our "house rules" They define them as the Law of God. Our inability to keep the Law of God or the Christian "house rules," which are a revelation of the will of God, shows us that we must have a Savior who, not only can pay for the guilt of our sin every time we break the Law of God, but who can keep the Law of God so that his Law-keeping can be reckoned or imputed to me to cover my Law-breaking.