A man of truth
Charles Stanley remained steadfast in his commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture
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The world lost a truly great man on Monday. This man was devoted to preaching and teaching the gospel message based on the authority of the Bible for 77 years, from age 14 until his death at age 90. His name was Charles Stanley.
Southern Baptists have the unique distinction of being the only major Protestant denomination to arrest a theologically leftward drift and recover a shared commitment to inerrancy without compromising Christ’s command to evangelize the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, liberal theology that emphasized the moral teachings of Christ over historic orthodox doctrines began to make headway among Southern Baptists.
By mid-century, the neo-orthodoxy of figures like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, which emphasized subjective experience over Biblical inerrancy, was also becoming mainstream. And by the 1970s, Protestant liberalism and neo-orthodoxy had become prominent in the seminary classrooms where ministers and missionaries were being trained to preach and teach. As the decade of the 1980s opened, the lines were drawn between Southern Baptists who rejected the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture—the moderates—and conservatives who embraced inerrancy.
The moderates wanted to see a compromise struck among Southern Baptists. They wanted to allow for theological diversity, even to the point of rejecting central points of orthodoxy like the substitutionary view of the atonement along with the inerrancy of Scripture to focus on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. The conservatives were unwilling to make this compromise and insisted on prioritizing theology built on the foundation of Biblical inerrancy. If Southern Baptists would only embrace the Bible as the inspired, infallible, inerrant, and sufficient Word of God, then evangelism and missions would naturally follow.
One of the great champions of that conservative commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture during those fraught days of the 1980s was Charles Stanley (1932–2023). Stanley was born in Dry Fork, Va., the son and grandson of preachers. He was called to preach as a teenager and served churches in North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida before he became pastor of the historic First Baptist Church Atlanta in 1971. Shortly after taking his position there, Stanley began a television ministry called The Chapel Hour, broadcast to local audiences in the Atlanta area—as an Atlanta native growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I remember those broadcasts well. By 1978, through the Christian Broadcasting Network, Stanley’s sermons were being shown all over the country under a new name—In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley—and produced by his In Touch Ministries.
During the controversy over Biblical truth and authority in the Southern Baptist Convention, the moderates argued that inerrancy was a recent invention of conservatives dating back to the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1910s and 1920s. Southern Baptists have never, contended the moderate side, consistently held to inerrancy as a prime Baptist distinctive.
Stanley was one of the most persuasive preachers among conservatives who countered the moderate argument by showing that Baptists, going back to their roots in early 17th century England, had always believed the Bible was without error, the ideas and the words contained in Scripture originated in the mind of God, God sovereignly inspired the human authors to compose the words of Scripture, and the Bible alone was authoritative for faith and practice. Because of those great truths, there was no false choice between theological orthodoxy on the one hand and missions and evangelism on the other.
No compromise was necessary, nor desirable, between doctrine and practice. Stanley understood and conveyed in his preaching that when the churches believe the Bible as God’s Word, then the people of the churches do not have to be cajoled into obedience. Obedience is a joy to those who believe.
Stanley regularly encouraged his audiences through a monthly column on the In Touch website. He died on Monday, but he did not cross the river before composing one final exhortation at the beginning of April as he anticipated the Easter season. Titled “Gain a Deep Appreciation for Jesus’ Sacrifice,” no letter could be more fitting as his last than this one. It is a simple gospel message, focused on Jesus as He died on the cross as our substitute. “His work on our behalf is once and for all (Hebrews 9:12),” he wrote. “And as a result, our salvation can never be lost.”
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