Israel Folau’s provocative Instagram post has caused polarised reactions, not just in the realm of the unchurched, but within the factions of the faithful.
For Pete and Monique on the street, the offence relates to Folau stating publicly that unrepentant sinners will go to hell. Debate centres on whether someone can or should be dismissed from their employment for expressing convictions which are held by faith, and secondary issues regarding the finer legal points surrounding his contract.
For Sue and Hugh in the pew, the debate has centred around how Pete and Monique might hear Folau’s message, and whether or not his social media post constitutes a complete and balanced presentation of the gospel. For the finely tuned ears of the seeker sensitive, Folau’s Insta post was too much fire and brimstone and altogether lacking in any expression of God’s love or grace.
The highest profile of such views has been that of Hillsong’s Brian Houston, who, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, said, “while sin is a real issue, the God I know and seek to follow is a God of love.” Furthermore, he explains that he has seen that the “‘turn or burn’ approach to proclaiming the message of Christianity alienates people,” and does not “draw them into the love of Jesus.” The message that Houston would have liked people to have heard (and to hear through his piece) is that “God cared so much for the eternity of humankind that he sent his only son (sic.) to die in order that he might make a way for restoration and reconciliation.”
In turn, many conservatives have taken up Folau’s cause and rallied against Houston, pointing out that Houston’s message didn’t call sinners to repentance, and accusing him of preaching to itching ears. Ben Davis, writing on Cauldron Pool, states that Houston is “dangerously wrong” and “at odds with the New Testament” since the repent or perish message (aka “turn and burn”) was part of Jesus’ preaching in such places as Luke 13:3, 5. He says that by encouraging Folau and others away from preaching hell, Houston has in fact minimised sin and so the work of Christ.
In fairness to Houston, he does state clearly that there is a hell and implies that there will be a judgement by contrasting it to heaven. And, given that he said that sin is a real issue with consequences, I guess we could join the dots and say that sin leads one to hell.
However, the accusation levelled at Houston that he did not call people to repentance within his article must be upheld. While we learn that Folau, Margaret Court, and Houston himself have all “been captivated and adopted” into a story of which Jesus is at the centre, nowhere does he explain to our friends Monique and Pete how they too might be adopted, other than to say that they must experience the love of Christ.
In the spirit of being fair, we should note that Folau’s message wasn’t entirely the pastoral train wreck that it was purported to be. Sometimes with social media, the devil – or in this case the grace – is in the detail.
An IG post is fundamentally a picture. In this instance, it was a meme, presented as a warning sign that listed sins that roughly correspond to 1 Cor 6:9-10 or Gal 5:19-21, along with the statements, “Hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus Saves.”
Instagram text is secondary but serves to explain and give context to the visual. Folau’s text included three Bible passages and his own comments which included: “Jesus loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.” So, love was not front and centre, but it was there, if, as with Houston’s article, we know how to join the dots.
Furthermore, Folau had actually already joined the dots for us and then went on to do the colouring in. Following a previous social media controversy, he wrote for Players Voice where he identified as a fellow sinner who has taken responsibility his sins and repents of them daily. Towards the end, he writes, “If you choose to believe in Him, repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the removal of your sins, you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. That will enable you to live the life that God called us to live.”
What we need to note here is that Folau talks about belief but focuses on the outworking of that faith in repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. More pointedly, his Insta post focused on repentance without a call to faith. To understand this emphasis, we need to understand something of Folau’s faith.
Israel Folau and The Truth About Jesus Church (Sydney), where he attends and teaches as a layperson, say that they do not fall under any denomination or religion, but seek the truth of God from his Word alone. Arising from their reading of Acts 2:37-38, The Truth About Jesus Church teaches that salvation – or being born again – comes through a sequential process whereby someone repents or their sins, receives water baptism in the name of Jesus, and then has hands laid on them with accompanying prayer so that they receive the Holy Spirit. It is not surprising then that the public testimonies made by church members emphasise a changed life and repentance from sin – an emphasis we find in Folau’s public statements.
If this seems to you to negate the Reformation teaching of “faith alone,” then you are on the right track but should appreciate the subtleties. The Truth About Jesus Church teaches, based on James 2:14, 17-19, that faith alone is dead faith. They argue that the works that are negated by passages like Eph 2:8-9 are dead works, but we are saved through righteous deeds including repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and Holy Spirit baptism.
The tension between James’ and Paul’s use of “justified” is an important issue, but it is an important issue that has been handled elsewhere, and I would like to keep the focus only on the reasons behind Folau’s focus on repentance. Put simply, it is because of his theology of salvation i.e. that we are saved through the three-step process as outlined above.
This focus contrasts with the evangelistic approach that most evangelicals are familiar with, which focuses on a call to faith. For example, the popular resource, Evangelism Explosion, calls the listener to firstly to faith, focusing on Acts 16:13, “…Believe (trust) on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” It then calls people to repentance separately as one of four things that faith entails; it means to be willing to turn from what is not pleasing to God and (assumedly) follow his will as it is revealed to us.
Houston’s article in the SMH was not the first public exchange between Houston and Folau. The pair had spared previously on both Twitter and Instagram. Folau counts Houston among prosperity preachers who “don’t ever speak of repentance, Hell, Sin” (Reply to Brian Houston on Twitter 27 June 2018). Conservatives, such as Davis, who came to Folau’s defence focused on the same issue, namely that we need to be explicit about sin and the need to turn from it.
Clearly, there are those within the church who feel that others are failing to preach repentance adequately. I did not mention EE because I set out to criticise it, but just to show a contrast between those who emphasise faith and those who stress repentance. If indeed there are some, as some of Folau’s supporters suggests, who have lost hold of repentance altogether or relegated it to the back seat, they might do well to note the warning.
While we must stand firmly upon passages like Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16, Eph 2:8-9, recognising that we cannot find favour in God’s eyes based on any good dead such as water baptism or a human interaction such as the laying on of hands, we must also note that Jesus did call people to repent alongside his call to believe (Mar 1:15). Likewise, Paul summarising his ministry to the Ephesian elders says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).
This repentance is fundamentally a turning from the world or rival gods to the living God. An example of this was Thessalonians whose faith was seen in their changed allegiance (1 Thes 1:8-10). And yet, as part of the same action, repentance also has the dimension of turning from the behaviours associated with the world or rival gods, to behaviours associated with the Kingdom. The Colossian Christians are implored to, “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). This appeal was made on the basis that, “since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). That is, their behaviours should align with their status. John puts this another way, saying, “The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:7-8). Our behaviours indicate our allegiance. Repenting of our previous allegiance will entail repenting of our associated sin.
Repentance relates directly to faith. We need to believe that our King is who is says he is and can accomplish what he says he can accomplish if we are going to voluntarily submit to him. Declaring “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9) necessitates both faith and repentance. First, I need to believe that Jesus is Lord, and if I do in fact believe that it will necessarily change my life because I know that Jesus is Lord.
However, while Houston’s critics have focused on repentance, those who have criticised Folau’s posts have not generally done so on the basis that it did not call the listener to faith, but on the basis that the call to repentance wasn’t done graciously. In a tweet last year, Houston says, “@IzzyFolau has lost touch with the goodness and grace of Jesus and it’s tragic.”
Anyone who read his article in Players Voice or has listened to him teaching in his local church (as I have done via recordings), will know that Izzy is gracious when he gives himself the time and space to express himself. This should highlight the dangers of public Christianity on social media. But the 140 characters of Twitter or visuals of Insta do force us to make a choice – like a teacher who restricts the word limit of an essay so that the student must decide what is most important – and the fact remains that Folau, following his theology of salvation, emphasised sin, hell, and repentance foremost and love, mercy, and grace secondarily.
Here, we should note the close logical relationship between faith and grace in the New Testament. If God has provided a way of salvation which does not rely on our insufficient works, then that must be by God’s grace (Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8-10). This reminder of God’s gracious dealing with us will (or at least should) cause us to act with grace towards others. It is at least plausible that those who put faith front-and-centre in their message will be more mindful of the need to convey God’s grace to their listeners than those who focus on repentance.
Those who emphasise a call to repentance of sins are not wrong in doing so – we have seen that it is biblical so long as the call to repent of sin is given within the framework of repenting in allegiance – turning from the world and towards God – and based on faith in who Jesus is. However, those who emphasise repentance might do well to ensure that they are gracious in the way that they do it – especially in talking to the unchurched. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan women in John 4, he confronts her with her sin but does so graciously. Even Peter in his “turn or burn” speech of Acts 2, identified with the crowd (2:14, 22, 29) and offered forgiveness alongside the call to repent (Acts 2:38).
I do not write this as an attempt to adjudicate in the disputes of people whom I have never met, but to try to bring shade and tone to what has been a polarised discussion. We need to be aware that Folau is doing more than merely calling sinners to repentance; he is calling all people to his particular theology of salvation, in his own words, “If you have done it a different way from this then you aren’t born again.”
Furthermore, the supporters of Folau, need to hear the challenge to position grace and faith on at least on equal billing with judgement and repentance, whether it be the prominent aspect of a social post or in our evangelistic message. On the other hand, those who have condemned Folau’s posts might also benefit from a theological self-audit to ensure that our preaching of grace and faith hasn’t lost contact with the call to repentance issued by Jesus and the Apostles.
So, Hugh and Sue, if you’re having Monique and Pete to dinner, please lovingly explain to them the problem of sin, and challenge them with the twin calls to faith and repentance.
Note: While Israel Folau’s beliefs concerning the Trinity have been called into question, this post only focuses on his ideas relating to salvation, repentance, and faith. The subtleties of his understanding of God and the broader issue of how other Christians who differ from his view should relate to him in his persecution is the topic for another discussion.
Great piece, Tom. Informative and fair. Keep ‘em coming (if you have the time/opportunity)!