In part 1 of the interview, Andy Stanley talks about why he feels we should stop saying “the Bible says,” unpacks the main thrust of his new book Irresistible and why the resurrection is still the most important aspect of our faith.
Who in history hasn’t gotten it wrong? Where do you see this “unblended” Christian theology?
Well, I grew up with the mix-and-match devotional approach to the Bible like just about everybody else. My problems are the “Goliaths,” and I’m a “David,” and all that. Noah was faithful, never mind what was floating on the water during the flood, and all that. We romanticize Scripture, and sand off all the rough edges. It’s a whole assumption undergirding how we preach and teach.
When I was in seminary, taking apologetics with Dr. Norm Geisler—who is still one of the staunchest defenders of inerrancy on the planet—he taught us the classic apologetic method. It’s simple:
1. God exists.
2. Miracles are possible.
3. The New Testament documents are reliable accounts of what actually happened.
4. Jesus rose from the dead.
That’s it. That’s the whole argument. As a result, even though the Old Testament is at the front of our book, it’s at the back of our apologetic. The reason we take it seriously is because Jesus took it seriously.
So, you ask who else got it right? I think anyone who has built their theology and apologetic on the resurrection. All the weight falls upon the gospel accounts and the epistles. That’s where Christians stake their claim in history and where our faith is most defensible. From that, we reason outward, eventually getting to the Hebrew Scriptures. My point in writing the book is that I want thoughtful Christians everywhere to readjust their thinking on how they talk about the Bible, as well as examining what they consider to be the foundation of their faith. Anything less than Jesus isn’t good enough. “The Bible says” isn’t good enough.
Now, I would be the first to admit that salvation is a mystery. I can’t remember a single person I’ve met who became a Christian because of biblical gymnastics. People turn to Jesus because they reach the end of themselves, they look up and at camp, or in a sermon, or on the radio, or whatever, they are given a simple gospel presentation, and something happened inside them. That something had virtually nothing to do with the Bible. It had to do with a simple gospel presentation and them crying out to God, who answered that cry. Then over time, they gained an appreciation for the backstory and the story of Jesus.
I don’t want to make more of this than I should, but at the same time, for the average believer this is extremely important.
In the age of the internet, people can get all kinds of information and misinformation about the Bible without ever actually opening one up. In the old days, that simply wasn’t possible. But today it’s all a click away. How are they going to react? They need a foundation strong enough to weather that. Have we pointed them to one?
OK. How does “new” relate to “irresistible,” then?
Under the “new,” we can preach a faith that can be substantiated and authenticated through an event in history (the resurrection) coupled with the profound New Testament message that God is love and that he showed that by sending his Son to pay for the sins of the world to connect with individual sinners—with you. With me. Is that not a compelling message? Of course it is. First century pagans ultimately found it to be somewhat irresistible, especially in comparison to the fickle pantheon of gods they grew up worshiping. When we compare that message with the alternatives our culture presents, it’s no less powerful.
How do we hear the gospel differently when it’s presented this way?
The gospel is simple. I think this approach keeps it that way. Paul summarized it perfectly: Christ died on the cross for our sins and was buried. He was raised from the dead and was seen. That’s it. Anything outside the good news is unnecessary compared to our presentation of the simple gospel.
We add more in though, right from the start. Not needed. Really, the only people who take those Old Testament stories seriously anyway are Jesus followers. Jesus first, Jonah second, I say. To which my critics shout, “But Andy, Jesus spoke of Jonah!” Which is exactly my point. No modern American would take Jonah seriously if it were not for Jesus. Jesus first. Jonah, Noah, Moses and the other OT heroes second. This is the simplicity of our faith.
In your view, does this change how the church relates to the wider culture?
Yes. It changes how thoughtful Christians communicate to their friends and family members who have not embraced faith. It changes what we argue about, what we debate and what we feel the need to defend.
The foundation of our faith is not inspired text or a perfect book. When I say things like that, people think I don’t believe we have an inspired text or a perfect book. That’s not my point. My point is that we need to get those obstacles out of the way, take that ammunition out of the hands of the New Atheists, etc. Anyone who knows church history knows that the tightly defined concepts of inspiration and inerrancy came late in church history.
Dr. Geisler, my teacher, edited the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But Norm is also the one who taught me the classical apologetic method I mentioned above. He had priorities.
We do not need to convince someone of our inerrant biblical text to make a case for the message of John 3:16. We know this to be the case, right? Most people who put their faith in Christ have neither read the whole Bible or been given a sophisticated understanding of the Bible. Many can’t even spell “inerrancy.”
One key question here is how the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures are connected. As you note, it’s an old debate. Tertullian wrote: “Since Marcion separated the New Testament from the Old, he is necessarily subsequent to that which he separated, inasmuch as it was only in his power to separate what was previously united.” Implication: The early church did not view the collecting Scriptures as divided. They thought of them as part of the same literature. United. Your response?
I think the early Gentile church got it wrong. The church fathers were very brave. But they were not Jewish. Few knew Hebrew. They were persecuted by the Jewish community. Remember, the first persecution against Christians was led and funded by Jews, not Rome. Christians were taken to Jerusalem for trial. Later, the Jewish community sided with the Romans in persecuting Christians.
The church allegorized, Christianized and baptized the Jewish scriptures. Their lack of proper contextualization of Jewish texts laid the groundwork for the later persecution of Jews by the church and the persecution of pagans who would not convert to Christianity. (I give a couple of illustrations of this in the book.)
Let’s summarize. Our problem is a “blended” gospel that gets old religion (law) all mixed in with new covenant (love). But the solution you advocate rejects how Christians have traditionally handled the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of what I might call a “Wow, the OT was nice history, but let’s move on” approach. That’s an option for responding, but not the only one.
Are you open to people embracing your deftly named problem while considering alternative solutions?
Yes, I am. But let’s be clear—I’m not suggesting, “That was nice, let’s move on.” I am saying, “Be careful with extracting portions of the old covenant and importing it into the new.”
There’s a nationalistic worldview that permeates the history of the ancient Jews. It’s supposed to be that way. I’m not arguing it was wrong. I think it was necessary and brilliant. But our reading of the Bible trips us here. Most Christians see the Bible as a spiritual guidebook, cover to cover. They go looking for applications and promises to claim, getting way out of context. For the most part, no harm is done. But not always.
And what’s more, the Hebrew Scriptures come alive when understood in their proper context. Neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul expended any energy explaining away God’s somewhat un-Christian behavior in the Jewish scriptures. It wasn’t a problem for them because it wasn’t a problem. I encourage readers not to glamorize, sanitize, romanticize or attempt to harmonize God’s old covenant behavior with the new covenant. One led to the other. The old covenant was a necessary means to the new, I believe.
In the book I give several specific suggestions for how Christians should navigate and leverage the OT texts. Again, I preached on the story of Joseph just yesterday. Last year I did an entire series on the life of David. I’m not advocating abandoning the OT by any means. I am advocating for putting it where it belongs—at the end of our apologetic.
I think that we should read it first and foremost as history. It is divinely directed history with a divinely directed end. It has a specific historical context. Most of the Jewish scripture—Exodus through Malachi—took place within the context of God’s covenant relationship with ancient Israel. To drop into the text here and there looking for something to apply is to miss the majesty of the story. God created a remarkable world. Mankind stunk it up. God went to work to remedy the problem. The rest is history.
How is your evolving view changing how you preach? How you pastor? How you evangelize?
This year I spent two hours with about 700 high school seniors from our churches talking to them about what the Bible is. Before they go to college I want them to have an adult understanding of what the Bible is and to have a clear understanding of what is the true foundation of their faith.
I’ve begun to blend a layer of apologetics into just about every message I preach. I’ve never taught straight up apologetics. It’s not necessary—we can preach through it, not about it. Anchoring the text to the author’s story and a specific historical context is part of that process.
Anchoring our faith to the resurrection is part of that process as well. Reminding our people that we don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead simply “because the Bible says so” is part of that process. We believe because Matthew believed. Along with Mark, Luke, Peter, James, John and Paul. You’ve got to deal with each one of those men and their testimonies separately.
What do we gain when we recapture this “new” for the world?
We gain greater confidence, Paul. It’s beautiful.
Our faith becomes more easily defensible in the marketplace and classroom. We’re less threatened by “what else” the Bible says. We realize that science is not an enemy—it’s our friend. This approach reminds us that God acted in history. The Word actually became flesh. He dwelt among us—and those he dwelt among reliably documented it for the rest of us.
In the book, you talk about the experience of being on record with sermons, books and more from your past that you might disagree with or nuance differently today. What should leaders take away from your personal journey?
I think Christians should be the most curious people on the planet. There’s never a reason to close our hands around anything less than Jesus. We shouldn’t grasp what we own, what we believe, what we love, what we’re open to God doing in our lives, none of it. Repeatedly, what does Jesus say? “Fear not.”
But when we become afraid and feel threatened, we close our hands, grasping things. Then we close our hearts and close our eyes. Finally, we close our minds. I love this quote from Sam Harris: “We should pay attention to the frontiers of our ignorance.”
I want to be a Christian who has his face to the world, unafraid of what I’m going to discover. I don’t want to hesitate to pick the rocks up for fear of all the squiggly things that might be under my worldview or my theology. I want to be fearless. Part of that for me has been this journey of understanding what the foundation of my faith really is. As I have seen some of my students come back from secular classroom experiences, their faith is being grounded and confirmed with this context, not shaken by new ideas.
That ability to question the nonessentials while holding to Jesus is the mark not of a shaking faith but one that’s securely grounded, isn’t it?
Absolutely. And I want every Christian to be there. All three of my kids attended secular universities and graduated with their faith intact.
“What does love require of me?” is the key question you say ought to guide Christian life and make our faith irresistible. How do we lead from that question?
That question has been a guiding light for Sandra and me personally. We’ve had to navigate some super tricky situations over the years, in ministry, in parenting and in our life in general. It’s helped us and our church tremendously.
Now, what many churches hear in that statement is “forget the law, forget morality, forget ethics, forget the Bible, just go out there and do what you feel is love.” Actually, though, this is a Jesus question, and it’s way bigger than that. Jesus shows us what it looks like to live that question out. Imitating that is the backbone of the Christian life. Jesus said that if we saw him, we saw the Father. If we look past Jesus, we’re looking past the Father. If we stop short of Jesus, we’ve stopped short of the Father.
John took away from that encounter of his life that “God is love,” because he knew that Jesus was love. So what that question really is, whether we’re a veteran pastor or a new Christian, is “What does Jesus require of me?”
That is so much harder than the legalism of blended theology. It closes all the loopholes. Give me 10 rules? I’ll find a loophole. But tell me that I must live in light of what love requires? I may not live up to it, but I can’t find a loophole there. It becomes individual, circumstantial. What’s true for one child might not be true for another.
And in terms of evangelism, no one in the marketplace or our culture can argue with that question.
So, I’ll say what love requires of me as a Christian, and I’ll let leaders ponder how this looks for them: I am to do for others what God through Christ has done for me. God forgave me—I must forgive. God has compassion on me—I must have it too. God bore my burdens—I’m to bear yours. The answer is very specific, for each of us. It’s only open ended if you’re not asking it, concretely, for you. If you start doing that, it all leaps into focus.
It requires us to grow up then, doesn’t it? We need to grow into the image of Jesus who was more than a good little law keeper. He had authority.
Paul, over and over, talks about the “way” of love. All the rest fades away considering that.
Thanks for taking the time to wrestle through this. Lead us out with your favorite “new” quote from the Old Testament?
You bet! Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
This is remarkable. Imagine this being penned in a world where might made right—and where women had virtually no rights. A world where it was assumed the gods created mankind as an afterthought to serve as slaves. Genesis puts a stake in the ground. Genesis introduces an idea that the world both is still catching up to, yet takes for granted.
Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, what if the way forward has been with us the whole time? The message of Genesis 1 is that every man, woman and child has intrinsic worth because they are the image of God.
This magnificent statement sets the course for all that follows in the whole Bible. I don’t know why everyone would not want the story found in the Old Testament to be true. From creation to Abraham to God’s involvement with Israel to the introduction of the Messiah—it’s the greatest story ever told. And it includes each of us.
The better we tell it, the more inviting it is. John who watched his friend die, saw where he was buried, peered into an empty tomb and then had breakfast with his risen Rabbi on the beach—that same John summed it all up perfectly: “God so loved the world that he gave …”
Well, you know who he gave.
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Communicator, author and pastor Andy Stanley founded Atlanta-based North Point Ministries in 1995. Today, North Point consists of six churches in the Atlanta area and a network of 30 churches around the globe that collectively serve nearly 70,000 people weekly. and author of several books, including Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan, 2018).
Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach, and author of multiple books on spiritual formation, including The Listening Day series of devotionals (Zeal Books). Instagram: @PaulJPastor. Website: PaulJPastor.com.