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I just read an article by Robertson McQuilkin in the spring edition of Connection, the magazine of Columbia International University, where I was privileged to go to college. The article was entitled “The Controversy at Lausanne III,” and in it McQuilkin reported on the debate that was occasioned by a simple, Scriptural statement made by John Piper. Speaking at The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization back in October 2010, Piper had stated that, “As believers, we are concerned about all human suffering, especially eternal suffering.” That was the statement that caused such trouble for so many.

Robertson McQuilkin writes:

Such a simple statement — how could anyone object? Yet many at Lausanne III objected. In fact, from the dozens of sermons at the conference, this one sentence in John piper’s presentation proved a lighting rod. Many quoted it to me with delight; but from Italy to England, to Bangladesh to America, I received feedback from representatives who went home incensed by the statement.

I wasn’t surprised that the battle raged. Why? I had read a position paper prepared for the conference by high-level evangelical leaders. They rejected the church’s historic position of giving priority to the evangelistic purpose of missions, so cogently expressed in Piper’s simple statement. But my apprehension was raised a notch by the cover story of December’s “Christianity Today” magazine — “Jesus vs. Paul.” The thesis was that a great battle rages in evangelical circles over whether the mission of the church is primarily to follow Jesus who cared for the sick, the poor, the oppressed, or whether we should primarily follow Paul with the gospel of justification, of extending the hope of eternal salvation.

We of course recognize a false choice here, don’t we? And a misunderstanding of the teaching of both Paul and Jesus lies at the heart of it. I am sure McQuilkin would agree with me on this point, but he was most interested in the fact that something like the old “social gospel” appears to be making a comeback. He went on to say:

So I was apprehensive about the outcome of Lausanne III. Imagine my delight to find, in the consensus documents emerging from the Congress, a reaffirmation of the historic position of the church that gives priority to the evangelistic mandate. But a very large minority of attendees waged war against this position in favor of giving equal emphasis or even priority to the social or cultural responsibilities of the church.

Yet there’s a deeper reason for my apprehension. I’ve lived through this before. The great mission convention in Edinburgh in 1910, of which Lausanne III was commemorative, is noted for its reinforcement of the dynamic Student Volunteer Movement whose motto was “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” But historically, Edinburgh’s greatest achievement proved to be the launching of the ecumenical movement that dominated church life for most of the century. In my youth I watched as the mainline churches shifted their emphasis to what has become known as the “social gospel.” And I watched the decline toward oblivion of the once-vibrant missionary enterprise. In fact, that is when the “evangelical” movement was born, in objection to a church that was fast losing its evangelistic commitment.

I share McQuilkin’s apprehension about the issue, and I am concerned that there is a rising Scriptural and theological ignorance at the heart of it. There is also a dearth of solid, expository Bible teaching in the pulpits across our land that helps to create the environment in which such errors more easily take root. And we must be clear in saying that the false choice set up by this debate is built upon a great error in understanding and applying the Bible’s teaching. McQuilkin’s own view gets it right, though, as when he concludes his article with these words:

Should the church strive to save people from temporal loss? Yes, always. But the priority must ever be on saving from eternal loss.

So which view will win out? Will history repeat itself? Perhaps that depends on our commitment. Our fortitude.

If you would like to hear Robertson McQuilkin speak at some length on the issue, I recommend listening to his message entitled Priorities in Great Commission Living.

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