Pragmatism and the Purpose of the Gospel

by Mike Ratliff

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)

pragmatic  adj. dealing with matters with regard to their practical requirements or consequences.1

pragmatism n. 1 pragmatic attitude or procedure. 2 philosophy that evaluates assertions solely by their practical consequences and bearing on human interests. 2

Over the last several days I have been struggling with how I should address, or even if I should, the growing influence of the Acts 29 Network. This push to plant churches across the globe has as its primary proponent Mark Driscoll. I must admit that Driscoll has been somewhat of an enigma for me. There are times that he says, preaches, and teaches all the right things from a Soteriological (doctrinal) basis, but then I will read of him being part of the birth of the Emergent Church movement. Then I see where he promotes Spiritual Formation. Sigh… 

I watched a video today of him talking about the Apostle Paul’s analogy of the good soldier of Jesus Christ from 2 Timothy 2 in the context of being a effective church planter. Here is the video. I found myself agreeing with many of his points while at the same time shaking my head at his application of them. His seediness and crude way of speaking about sex in marriage bothered me some. I attribute that to the Holy Spirit being offended by what I was hearing. We are called to be holy as our Heavenly Father is Holy (1 Peter 1:16). John Piper has said that Driscoll speaks this way because he is young, but there is nothing wrong with his theology. Really? Are we called to minister according to faith or pragmatism? What is the purpose of the Gospel? Is it to build a lot of bigger churches or is it the transformed lives of those who hear the Gospel and believe?

John MacArthur defined pragmatism and why it is the antithesis of true Christianity in the introduction to his book Ashamed of the Gospel:

Pragmatism is the notion that meaning or worth is determined by practical consequences. It is closely akin to utilitarianism, the belief that usefulness is the standard of what is good. To a pragmatist/utilitarian, if it doesn’t seem to work, it must be wrong.3

What’s wrong with pragmatism? After all, common sense involves a measure of legitimate pragmatism, doesn’t it? If a dripping faucet works fine after you replace the washers, for example, it is reasonable to assume that bad washers were the problem. If the medicine your doctor prescribes produces harmful side effects or has no effect at all, you need to ask if there’s a remedy that works. Such simple pragmatic realities are generally self-evident.

But when pragmatism is used to make judgments about right and wrong, or when it becomes a guiding philosophy of life, theology, and ministry, inevitably it clashes with Scripture. Spiritual and biblical truth is not determined by testing what “works” and what doesn’t. We know from Scripture, for example, that the gospel often does not produce a positive response (1 Cor. 1:22, 23;2:14). On the other hand, satanic lies and deception can be quite effective (Matt. 24:23, 24; 2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Majority reaction is no test of validity (cf Matt. 7:13, 14), and prosperity is no measure of truthfulness (cf Job 12:6). Pragmatism as a guiding philosophy of ministry is inherently flawed. Pragmatism as a test of truth is nothing short of satanic.4

Now, take what John MacArthur said in these quotes and apply it to Driscoll’s message in that video. The focus of the churches they are attempting to plant is the contextualization of the Gospel to bring into it their target group, which is young men in their 20’s. Therefore, these planted churches will be all about appealing to these young men in such a way that they will be enticed to come attend because they will not feel threatened in any way. The offense of the Cross will not be part of the message. Denying self, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus in humility will not either. No, the approach to reach these young men will be entirely pragmatic.

As I watched the video above today a passage from 2 Corinthians kept coming to my mind, 2 Corinthians 11:12-15. I did not understand why at first. Here is the passage, which I think you will agree is pretty sobering stuff:

And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 ESV)

12ο δε ποιω και ποιησω ινα εκκοψω την αφορμην των θελοντων αφορμην ινα εν ω καυχωνται ευρεθωσιν καθως και ημεις  13οι γαρ τοιουτοι ψευδαποστολοι εργαται δολιοι μετασχηματιζομενοι εις αποστολους χριστου  14και ου θαυμα αυτος γαρ ο σατανας μετασχηματιζεται εις αγγελον φωτος  15ου μεγα ουν ει και οι διακονοι αυτου μετασχηματιζονται ως διακονοι δικαιοσυνης ων το τελος εσται κατα τα εργα αυτων  (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 WHNU)

What (ο) but (δε) I do (ποιω), and (και) I will do (ποιησω), that (ινα) I might (εκκοψω) the (την) opportunity (αφορμην) of the (των) ones wanting (θελοντων) opportunity (αφορμην), that (ινα) in (εν) what (ω) they brag (καυχωνται) they might be found (ευρεθωσιν) just as (καθως) also (και) we (ημεις). The (οι) for (γαρ) such (τοιουτοι) false delegates (ψευδαποστολοι), workers (εργαται) beguiling (δολιοι), reshaping themselves (μετασχηματιζομενοι) into (εις) delegates (αποστολους) of Christ (χριστου). And (και) not (ου) marvel (θαυμα); himself (αυτος) for (γαρ) the (ο) adversary (σατανας) reshapes himself (μετασχηματιζεται) into (εις) messenger (αγγελον) of light (φωτος). Not (ου) great (μεγα) then (ουν) if (ει) also (και) the (οι) servants (διακονοι) of him (αυτου) reshape themselves (μετασχηματιζονται) as (ως) servants (διακονοι) of rightness (δικαιοσυνης); of which (ων) the (το) completion (τελος) will be (εσται) by (κατα) the (τα) works (εργα) of them (αυτων). (2 Corinthians 11:12-15 word-for-word translation from Koine Greek to English)

Reason carefully through this my brethren. Just as our enemy, our adversary, σατανας, Satan transforms himself, μετασχηματιζεται, into an angel of light in order to deceive, his ψευδαποστολοι, pseudo-apostles, are able to μετασχηματιζονται, transform themselves, to appear as servants of righteousness, διακονοι δικαιοσυνης. As I meditated on these things today dealing with my enigma of Mark Driscoll, I became convinced that I had to address this.

I have had good reports from some who have visited these church plants. They say the doctrine is solid, et cetera. Therefore, when we go in with our discernment full on looking for doctrinal errors we see nothing that draws an alert. However, then we watch a video like the one above or listen to Driscoll preach that pornographic sermon on the Song of Solomon that wasn’t even close to being exegetically correct. What are we seeing? Aren’t we witnessing the fruit of what is really inside a person when we witness what they say and do? I think Paul was referring to the very same thing in this passage. These ψευδαποστολοι said a lot of the right stuff. Their doctrine was probably “mostly” right, but there were problems. There were inconsistencies. These ψευδαποστολοι were a bit licentious. They were enamored with Greek culture it seems. They were too close to the fleshly side of things and this revealed to Paul what was really inside.

The Acts 29 Network is all about planting churches. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, normally, I would be behind such a thing. However, as I look closer at this and look at the recommended reading for those wanting to do this and then listen to Driscoll emphasize the seeker-sensitive (pragmatic) focus of these churches, then I know the purpose of this is not the transformed lives of people into godly Christians, but to grow these churches using the means of the flesh rather than the means of grace. This will not accomplish the transformed lives unto Christlikeness, but will only create pockets of religious people who are all about flesh oriented church.

What should our focus be?

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)

1παρακαλω ουν υμας αδελφοι δια των οικτιρμων του θεου παραστησαι τα σωματα υμων θυσιαν ζωσαν αγιαν τω θεω ευαρεστον την λογικην λατρειαν υμων  2και μη συσχηματιζεσθε τω αιωνι τουτω αλλα μεταμορφουσθε τη ανακαινωσει του νοος εις το δοκιμαζειν υμας τι το θελημα του θεου το αγαθον και ευαρεστον και τελειον Romans 12:1-2)

This is what we are to be about. We do this ourselves and we teach all who will listen to do the same. This is accomplished as we reject being fashioned according to this age, και (and) μη (not) συσχηματιζεσθε (be fashioned together) τω αιωνι τουτω (to the age this). This means that we walk in repentance from being focused on the flesh and what it wants. We turn from this to God to be those living sacrifices, θυσιαν ζωσαν, which is the only way we can live that is well pleasing to God because this is what brings Him glory when we walk in humility as His sacrifices to do with as He pleases.

When we do this, we will also be in continual mind renewal (ανακαινωσει του νοος). This is done as we immerse ourselves in God’s Word as a way of life. We listen to godly servants of God preach and teach from His Word. This renews our mind as the Holy Spirit changes us through it. This transforms (μεταμορφουσθε) us from immature Christians to those who are mature and are continually becoming more Christlike. In this will be able to discern what is the will of God.

Notice that Satan’s ψευδαποστολοι, are transformed as well, but they do it themselves and it is for a wicked purpose. When we submit to the will of God in this, He will transform us. As we grow this way, we will be more and more humble as we take on more and more of Christ’s character.

Now, is the purpose of the Gospel to build large religious systems, with lots of people becoming more and more religious in them or is it to transform the lives of those who hear it preached from flesh bound sinners to sinners saved by grace who are living sacrifices going through continual transformation as God renews their minds? As far as Mark Driscoll goes and all like him, το τελος εσται κατα τα εργα αυτων.

Soli Deo Gloria!

1”pragmatic” in The Oxford New Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, Third Edition, (New York: The Penguin Group, 2009) 647.

2”pragmatism” in The Oxford New Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, Third Edition, (New York: The Penguin Group, 2009) 647.

3John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1993), xii.

4Ibid, xii-xiii

Addendum: Here is a link to quotes made by Mark Driscoll that should be very useful to the discerning Christian.

16 thoughts on “Pragmatism and the Purpose of the Gospel

  1. I watched about 2 minutes of this video, so it might I might not be a completely fair judge.I didn’t really want to watch too much more for fear of polution. However what I did see,right from the beginning, the whole thing is made to appeal to the world and its glamorous take on war and violence.There is just too much wrong with it to even begin really. You have laid it out excellently in your post, your last paragraph puts it perfectly. As he was talking, he reminded me of a man I know and the way he talks about his business ventures, which according to him can be done with the love of the world and Gods love in mind!M Driscoll in short here, is using Christian words to speak in worldly language; a wolf in sheeps clothing.


  2. Thank you Mike. This is off topic, but I read the transcript of the Song of Solomon sermons (?) by Driscoll, and MacArthur’s responses. It didn’t even OCCUR to me until I read your post, that it was the Holy Spirit in me that was offended, and not just my sense of decency!

    May I say that the definition of “transformed lives” is becoming quite muddled between Christ centered churches and the EC…a caution for future discussions with them.


  3. Amy, yes, I noticed that very thing as well about the “transformed lives.” It means something totally different to the Emergent than it does to those who are being transformed by the renewing of their minds by God as they immerse themselves in His Word.


  4. Hi Mike,
    I have just recently heard of this man, watched a bit of a sermon by him a few months ago and haven’t watched him since….mainly because he enjoys “shocking” people with his language and “toughness” and that is all done to appeal to the flesh and not the spirit. So, why would one trust in what he had to say?
    Bless you today, Mike.


  5. Mike,
    Thank you for this post, for the Scripture lesson and the Greek alongside it. Very helpful. We are struggling so much with this in the SBC, and my state convention as well. Mark Driscoll seems to be such a huge influence on many of our young pastors, and the divisions his methods and teachings are causing are taking it’s toll. We have too many older pastors in our convention, who would never speak like he does, or recommend the books he does, but yet give him a pass when approached by those of us concerned with the impact his teachings and conferences are having on our folks. I hear too often the phrase, “I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s repented of the cussing and he’s more theologically sound than many in the SBC”.

    I too, try to convey the scriptural problems I saw in his Song of Solomon series, the continued use of sexual innuendo and sex jokes in his sermons, the mystical/new age books that he recommends, which many in the emergent do as well and have strayed from scripture long ago, and also his relationship with Robert Schuller, speaking at the Crystal Cathedral, which at the least shows inconsistencies and confusion on the part of Mark.

    So far, these examples seem to be falling on deaf ears. If you don’t mind, I would like to send your post to some of these I have been trying to reach with these concerns. You handled this topic well, and maybe it will help. Thanks again for sharing your studies with us.


  6. You see the issues very clearly Kim and I see that you are troubled by the apathy in the SBC about these things. Yes, you are welcome to share this article. May God open their eyes to the truth.


  7. It is fitting that Driscoll has named his endeavour Mars Hill, for that is where the apostle Paul tried to use the Greek culture to explain the Gospel. Notice in Acts 17:16-18 that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue..and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” and that what he was preaching was “Jesus and the resurrection.” But then in verse 19, we see a change. The philosophers “took him and brought him to the Areopagus…” This is the only time in Paul’s ministry that we see him being directed in his ministry by unsaved men. It is here that he makes the mistake of trying to please their itching ears. What was the result? A few believed, but many were open to continue the “conversation.”

    The first stop for Paul after Athens was Corinth. We read in his first letter to the Corinthians that when he got to Corinth, he “determined not to know anything among [them] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (2:2). If you read from 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5, you will see that Paul did not try to persuade them with worldly wisdom.

    At Mars Hill, he spoke to the philosophers by starting with their beliefs and trying to show them the similarities and differences between Greek philosophy and the world according to God. He speaks to them as an orator, trying to reason with them on their own terms. Now, when he gets to Corinth, he says he came “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” and that he did not speak with “persuasive words of wisdom” (2:4-5). I get the feeling that God had a talk with Paul on his way to Corinth. 🙂

    It seems that Paul learned his lesson, but men like Mark Driscoll — because they are fleshly — grab ahold of the Areopagus speech and build a ministry around it. They twist the Athens ministry into something they can feel good about. Why is it that although Paul only uses this tactic once, it has become the foundation for so many modern pastors? They fail to read the rest of the story. They don’t want to see that Paul never again resorted to such tactics. They would rather continue on in their flesh, to build their worldly kingdoms around philosophical conversations. There’s money to be made when you can gather so many people. Soothing itching ears pays dividends for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.


  8. Mike, great post. I feel the same way about Mark Driscoll because of his crudeness, his infatuation with spiritual formation, and his calling Schuller brother when he preached there. God led me into the reformed faith last year after 30 years of floundering in and out of arminian churches, and I worry because Driscoll is very popular in reformed circles, especially with the younger guys. The CRN post a few weeks back that talked about the acts 29 spiritual formation was a good one, I passed that on to my pastor just to make him aware of it. Thanks for the great job Mike, thanks for standing firm in these strange days!


  9. I know of a couple of people who are ‘in to’ this Mark guy. One is a baby Christian and the other one should know better. He is my cousin and is a youth pastor in Belgium for our militarys kids. You try to inform them and they just get mad. I get the feeling that because we want the Word rightfully divided they consider us ‘legalistic’.


  10. Paul and Luann, its a mindset that is totally consumed in the “marketing” of Christianity. It is totally unbiblical, totally pragmatic. The consequences are the very thing you mentioned. They have no concept of the power and grace of God working through those who are obedient to His Word.


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