Credo is a relatively new online magazine from a Calvinistic Baptist perspective that is getting rave reviews for its content and design. In their latest issue on justification, they asked a number of theologians for their take on the issues at stake in contemporary debates about justification. Click the link below for answers from Mike Horton, Philip Ryken, J. V. Fesko, Guy Waters, Brian Vickers, and Korey Maas.
Friend of the Inn (and frequent contributor to Modern Reformation), Jon Payne, has asked us to tell you about the Charleston Christmas Conference to be held next month in Charleston, South Carolina, where Jon has planted Christ Church,a mission work of the Presbyterian Church in America.
The theme of the conference is “The Glorious Incarnation.” The speakers will be Derek Thomas and Steve Lawson. For more information about the conference, including price, schedule, and location, please visit the conference website.
Many of you remember that last year, Mike Horton spent some time in the Philippines teaching and ministering with friends there. Our “man in Manila,” Nollie Malabuyo, has been in contact with us and sent this summary, which includes information on how to help those who have been directly affected by the disaster:
News reports on Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of our country seem to be getting worse by the day. Tens of thousands are dead, many of them left unburied. Homes, churches, and buildings are destroyed. Looting and violence are starting to take over the streets. The government is overwhelmed.
From the reports of foreign missionaries who have worked in these areas for years, even decades, their mission buildings suffered great damage, and Christian brothers and sisters have also lost their homes and fields, and many also died.
The news reports focus on the big cities, particularly Tacloban. But there is a big swath of destruction left behind by the typhoon (see enclosed map).
A group of Reformed people in Manila is meeting to discuss how God can use this time of trouble to spread the gospel and assist many in the devastated areas.
Please pray for this effort. None of us has ever been involved in rebuilding efforts after a disaster.
This will be a long-term rebuilding of many parts of the country. Besides larger relief agencies, the following domestic links are reliable (theologically and financially).
On the Rock Ministries, Boracay
Dan and Tori Beaver (Facebook). Serving the Ati people and tourists. Church, school, Bible school
The Hope Foundation, Inc., Tacloban City, Leyte
Larry & Bobby Womack (Facebook). Serving the poor. Bible school/institute
Paul & Margie Varburg (Facebook), Tacloban City
Dennis & Marilou Drake, International Deaf Education Association. They have a website for Bohol Earthquake Relief.
Our friend, Leon Brown, has written a new book on personal evangelism, Words in Season.
Mike Horton wrote the foreword:
The greatest gift that you and I possess in Christ is reconciliation with God. Chosen in Christ from all eternity, we are united by the Spirit through the gospel to Christ through faith, which itself is a gift. From this union we receive “every blessing in heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). We’ll never be recipients of a comparable gift. And the best gift we can give is that same gospel by which others can be reconciled to God: joined to Christ, justified, adopted, sanctified, and finally glorified. We cannot redeem anyone. Nor can we raise those who are spiritually dead to life by our clever techniques, charisma, or persuasion. Nevertheless, we can talk. We can communicate the terms of God’s peace treaty on his behalf to actual people who are “strangers and aliens” to the commonwealth of God. We can share the message that finally addresses the origin of that nagging but undefined sense of shame, guilt, and alienation and announces the good news that God justifies the ungodly. If the Triune God has chosen this means—the communication of his Word—for uniting others like us to the incarnate Son, a gospel that has brought us such rich forgiveness and peace with God, then we cannot fail to raise our hand with the prophet Isaiah and say eagerly, “Here I am, LORD, send me!” But, alas, we often feel somewhat ambivalent about sharing our faith. It’s not that we do not believe it, revel in it, and want others to hear it. Perhaps it is because we are naturally shy, at least when it comes to matters that are likely to be controversial. Maybe we have misconceptions about what personal evangelism is, with visions of standing on street-corners holding “Turn or Burn!” signs. It’s easy to say, “I’m really glad that others are doing it—somewhere—and I’ll even support them financially.” Some people work in sales and others prefer a desk job. It’s the division of labor, right? To be sure, Christ called pastors and teachers to give their lives full-time to studying, proclaiming, and applying God’s Word. Yet we would never say that this relieves us of any personal responsibility for reading the Bible and prayer. The same is true of personal evangelism.
Raised in churches where personal evangelism was highly programmed, we can often over-react. Especially in a society that is increasingly hostile to any serious claims when it comes to religion, we hear many people say, “I don’t preach the gospel; I live it.” The most serious problem with this statement is that it misses the point about what the gospel is in the first place. The gospel is not something that you can live. It’s an announcement about what someone else lived, died for, and was raised from the dead to secure. We are called to live in the light of the gospel, in a way that commends the gospel. Yet we are ourselves among the sinners who need to hear that good news that we’re called to bring to others. We are always the messengers, not the message. The gospel is an announcement and announcements need heralds. Some of us may be burned out on the constant call to be disciple-makers and the expectation to “save souls.” That can be a paralyzing fear, keeping the bravest among us from taking on such responsibility. But it is a great relief to learn that we cannot save anyone. We cannot bring a single person to saving faith. This is the gift of God. This frees us up to share the gospel in intentional ways as we go about our normal life. One of the privileges of teaching in a seminary is that I am able to encounter many young people who are zealous to bring the gospel to believer and unbeliever alike. It is not only an encouragement but a challenge for me to be more intentional about taking advantage of opportunities to plant seeds or to water seeds that someone else has planted. Leon Brown is one of those brothers whose head and heart have found a cordial friendship, one who refuses to choose between knowing Christ and making him known. For Leon, there is no point to getting the gospel right in our own minds if we don’t get the gospel out to those who need it. His own zeal in personal evangelism during his seminary years, and now as a pastor, has been a great example to many, including me. This book is not another guilt-trip. On the contrary, it opens our horizon to a big God who has a big message that he wants the whole world to hear. Filling our sails with the gospel itself, it leaves us drawing our own conclusion, “Here I am, send me!”
Beyond the motivation, Words in Season helps us with the nuts and bolts of evangelistic conversations. Many of us know what we believe, but are not quite sure how to say it or how to take advantage of opportunities— indeed, make opportunities—to present it. The author brings to bear his own experience, working through his own weaknesses and anxieties as well as the approaches that he has seen to be effective. Combining biblical wisdom with common sense, he knows that personal evangelism is a team sport. It is not something that we do alone, as if we could “close the deal” in every encounter. Furthermore, he knows that the goal of personal evangelism according to our Lord and his apostles is not adding a notch to our belt but adding neighbors to the church. We are understandably wary of programs that promise to revolutionize the world and trigger mass conversions. This is not that kind of book. But if just one reader—perhaps you or I—became more prepared to give to the next person we encounter a reason for the hope that we have, then Words in Season will have been worth more than its weight in gold.
Our friend, Gene E. Veith, links to Rod Dreher’s recent article in American Conservative on the death match between Christianity and the changing sexual mores of America.
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Dreher’s entire article is worth a read. But Veith’s conclusions are stellar:
If Christianity becomes radically marginalized, having no cultural power at all, perhaps Christianity will have to return to its essence: Christ, the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins. Because no matter how much people wish to erase anything that restricts them and makes them feel guilty, if Christianity is true (and it is), the moral reality remains. It’s like thinking we can destroy nature; nature always destroys us. Sin kills. People in a society that give itself over to sin will feel those sins. The Gospel will become good news again. Christ will save them. And, ironically, once the Gospel predominates again in the Church, cultural influence–including the Christian view of sexual morality–may well come back as a byproduct.
In The Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick crafted a grandiose yet personal theodicy through a family story against the cosmic backdrop of creation and redemption. His new film To the Wonder is equally existential and autobiographical but focuses its attention on marriage. As in Scripture, the institution is explored as a mysterious analogue of Christ and the church.
Like much of his work, the experience may be challenging for casual audiences. It is impressionistic in style and visually driven. There is almost no dialogue aside from the glide of prayerful voice-overs. Malick rigorously avoids explaining character motivation and lets the silence serve as a blank canvas for our own introspection and reflection. Though it can be frustrating, the patient and adventurous will find some of the most beautiful cinema on screen this year.
The opening images are of a couple caught up in the sweep of love in Paris. Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko) playfully explore France as Marina whispers the heightened poetry of a lover, “You lifted me from the ground. Brought me back to life.” They visit an ancient cathedral at Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed the Wonder of the West. “We climbed the steps … to the Wonder,” she proclaims, their feelings of passion momentarily aligned with the grandeur of the architecture.
Marina and her daughter Tatiana move to America and begin living with Neil in Oklahoma. The flatlands are beautiful and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki hovers adoringly over every inch of creation. Marina visits a church, where the priest’s sermon is on the divine love our marriages are meant to follow. “The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and give his life to her,” Father Quintana preaches, “He does not find her lovely, he makes her lovely.”
Meanwhile, Quintana is a man haunted by the fragility of his religious feeling. As he walks the streets to visit the poor, he laments that his heart is cold and he doesn’t feel the presence of God as he once did. He mournfully prays, “Why don’t I hold on to what I’ve found?” In the next scene at a local pool, this question begins to emerge as the central concern of the film. Marina looks up at Neil and finds him attentively watching another woman in a swimsuit nearby. A series of scenes quickly move us forward to show love fading and hearts hardening. Voices are raised. Fighting begins. The gloom setting in over the house matches Quintana’s somber face after performing a local wedding.
Neil is noncommittal and absently lets Marina returns to France when her visa expires. Over the next several months he begins a relationship with an old acquaintance (Rachel McAdams) but this too comes to a dead end. “What we had was nothing,” she laments. “You made it into nothing. Pleasure. Lust.”
In To the Wonder, everyone is haunted by the fleeting nature of their affection toward God and each other. The rapturous images of hands outstretched to the sky become hollow and repetitive. This may be a romantic filmmaker like Malick at his most self-critical, ashamed by his own failure to live up to the beauty his camera uncovers. The glory of the created order seems to testify against the ingratitude of his characters rather than lead them to transcendence.
In time Marina returns and marries Neil at the courthouse. They are happy again but still find that their passion comes and goes. Eventually they pace the house on different floors, avoiding each other. They kiss with a mournful quality. At their church ceremony, the exchange of rings becomes a tortured image of failure. “This sign I give you is a sign of our constant faith and abiding love…”
Like the psalmists in Scripture, Quintana’s spiritual struggles also persist, “My soul thirsts for you. Exhausted.” “Will you be like a stream that dries up?”
The story marches on toward catastrophe and adultery. Marina’s ominous walk up the stairs of a motel is painfully drawn out. The man she sleeps with has a tattoo of a skull on his chest. Sin as suicide. It is the final failure in a long series of failures. It is as if Malick is recapitulating the narrative flow of Old Testament history. The covenant community was frequently described as God’s unfaithful bride; repeatedly taking one step forward and two steps back over the course of millennia. As recognized in the film by Quintana, “The prophet Hosea saw in the breakdown of his marriage the spiritual infidelity of his people. In that broken marriage we see the pattern.” Like the Mosaic economy of old, this story has steadily driven us toward a confrontation with covenant unfaithfulness and final breakdown.
For the first time we hear the words, “Forgive me.”
What follows is startlingly unambiguous and Christological. Aching music from Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 begins to play as we watch Father Quintana visit the poor, the diseased, the dying. Even Neil, who prior to now has had no faith, walks alongside him. Marina asks God the question we’ve been asking the film up to this point, “Where are you leading me?”
A flood of images pour over us as Quintana walks with the disabled, holds shaking Alzheimer’s hands, and visits hospital beds. He touches the outcasts and the broken. He meets them in their weakness. We hear his voice recite the famous prayer, “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart.” Back at home, Neil moves toward Marina and kneels at her feet, kissing her hands in a flooding moment of grace.
This climax has crashed us upon the shores of the gospel. Sacrifice and forgiveness.
In the film’s closing moments, Malick resists simplistic resolution to the lives of the characters. Their marriage is not suddenly restored. The primary thrust here is eschatological. We end with prayer and with hope. “Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.” We’ve glimpsed a partial redemption already breaking in but not yet fully reached. The Sabbath rest is still beyond this wilderness.
But the final image points us to “the Wonder”, the cathedral of Mont Saint-Michel standing tall after centuries. The skies are stormy but it stands tall; a symbol of the covenant-keeping Christ whose care for his bride never changes. The only hope for fainthearted lovers like us.
In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with. In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.
If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?
I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.
I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ – for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:
- Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
- Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
- Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
- Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
- Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
- Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.
I especially felt the sting of, “Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.” You will find the rest of Matt’s post equally discomforting, but necessary even for Reformation Christians who can be guilty of the same consumerist mindset that plagues our evangelical friends.
Read the rest of Matt’s post here.
It’s been out for a while, but depending on how things go at the Oscars on February 24, Les Mis may be around for a while. We have a White Horse Inn interview on the movie here and a blog review here. But a long-time contributor (former editor) and pastor/professor Brian Lee has a slightly different take on the film. In keeping with our purpose of provoking good conversations, we’re delighted that Brian wrote this for our blog.
Almost a month has passed now since a new generation of audiences have experienced the musical production of Les Miserables on the big screen. I was among those who had long heard of the redemptive power of Victor Hugo’s story, yet had never seen or read the story. Going in, I was primed to be blown away by a lifetime of sermon illustrations about silver candlesticks.
And I was indeed blown away. The ample analogies of the Law and Grace have been ably catalogued elsewhere, including in the excellent White Horse Inn discussion. Being a good Calvinist, the story already had me at its portrayal of slavery and bondage… yes, the waterworks began in the opening number. But the gracious gift of the aforementioned candlesticks, offered to the ungrateful rebel in the place of a guilty verdict, packs a big punch. The gifted candlesticks travel with Valjean through the film; a life is transformed; grace resonates through the ages. The gift is even Christological, given by a representative of Christ and premised upon his passion and blood. The Law in Javert hounds. There are echoes of the substitutionary atonement, and the recurring question whether Valjean will identify with the Old Man, the criminal, or the New.
And yet, by the closing song I was nagged by the impression that much of what had been offered me by the one hand of grace had been taken back by the other. What really surprised me in the film (and this is not a plot spoiler), was the degree to which the themes of law and grace echoed equally through the personal transformation of Valjean and the political transformation of the Paris revolutionaries. (The political background of this conflation has previously been discussed on this blog).
As much as I was emotionally drawn into the plot of personal redemption, I was somewhat surprised by this confusion of the heavenly kingdom of grace with earthly utopia. When I heard, for instance, the orphan sing of a castle on a cloud: I know a place where no one’s lost, I know a place where no one cries, crying at all is not allowed, not in my castle on a cloud… Well, I’m thinking of the Heavenly Zion, Jerusalem above, where every tear is wiped away. But in the finale the chorus sings on the barricades in Paris:
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies… They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord… The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward. Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
The heavenly city is an earthly Utopia. The transforming power of grace is an entirely immanent one. The sacrifice of fallen comrades in revolutionary battle is the transforming inspiration of grace that will ultimately overthrow the oppressors of the wretched, the law that demands its pound of flesh.
It was like hearing a solid Law-Gospel sermon that surprisingly closes by shifting the category back to guilt, leaving you with Law-Gospel-Law and asking, “What have you done for Jesus lately?”
Walking out of the theater, somewhat disappointed after all the build up, I wondered if I was picking nits. C’mon, man! It’s not a sermon, it’s a movie. Give your inner systematic theologian a break. There’s no such thing as a perfect analogy.
But the nagging sense continued, and I couldn’t help but believe that even the brilliant gospel images of Les Mis are ultimately a case of truth in the service of a lie. Hugo uses the emotional power of Valjean’s story to drive home a political message. There is a certain degree of manipulation involved, made worse because it runs roughshod over biblical truth.
Ultimately, the political confusion at the end of the film led me to revisit the personal story of grace in Valjean’s life, which strikes a few troubling notes. The biggest warning sign here is that Valjean is still haunted by his past at the closing of the film. Am I forgiven now? Valjean asks in his closing scene.
Perhaps this is just the lingering doubt of a troubled soul, but there is a lurking sense in which the transforming power of the story’s gracious act is more driven by guilt, than gratitude. Valjean is ever a man on the run, hunted by the Law. The Law is never satisfied, but eluded, and deceived.
Grace in Les Mis is imperfect, because there is no substitute, no one to bear Javert’s punishment on Valjean’s behalf. Valjean’s only hope of deliverance is by his transformation, and his own acts of kindness. In fact, I think it is safe to say that Hugo portrays the Law more powerfully, and more accurately, than the Gospel — at least the Hugo of the musical, I haven’t read the book. At the end of the day, there is no reconciling of grace and justice in Les Mis, and to the extent that Javert’s law grasps and grapples with Valjean’s grace, it is led to a place of utter despair. This insatiable force of the Law, it’s inability to take anything but it’s full pound of flesh, is essentially Roman Catholic in its understanding, which is not surprising given Hugo’s french context.
We tend today to think of images, and especially moving images, as a more effective medium of communication than mere words. “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But as T. David Gordon points out, there are certain things that pictures can’t convey, like the gospel of justification through imputation by faith alone. This is why, in part, Paul tells us that “Faith comes from hearing.” While moving images may tug our emotions far more effectively, they lack the precision and clarity to convey saving words, the legal declaration of our covenant-making — not image making — God. Les Mis shows how emotionalism can miss the mark, and how any merely human story of redemption will tend to miss the mark.
This is not to say that the film is not great art. If you haven’t seen the film, take this criticism as an endorsement. But enjoy the film for what it is… a movie, a story. While it is natural for Christians to get excited about Gospel imagery in popular culture — and Les Mis has it in spades — we need to be aware of the limits of “redemptive” film, and preserve the category of entertainment. Unfortunately, much of the mania for redemptive cultural efforts (see this list of the Top Ten “Most Redeeming Films of 2012”), broadens the Christian concept of redemption to the point of which it is practically useless.
Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, DC
Many of the folks who come to White Horse Inn are on a journey of sorts. Some are happy in their present churches, but are digging more deeply into the rich resources of the Reformation as they serve their church, their family, and neighbors. Others of you have left the churches of your youth and feel like you are in the middle of a journey to…somewhere! And finally, some of you have found your way to a new home and church identity. If you are a “former evangelical” who has found their way into the Lutheran tradition, one of our friends would like to speak with you.
Pastor Matt Richard, a Lutheran minister, is working toward a doctor of ministry degree at Concordia Theological Seminary and is engaged in a research project that focuses on the journey of American evangelicals into Lutheranism. He’s looking for participants who would be willing to answer questions as part of his research. We can vouch for Matt. He and his wife spent some time with us earlier in the year during our Conference at Sea.
It’s the day after Reformation Day. All the Luther and Calvin costumes are at the dry cleaners; the left-over party treats have been taken to the office; the post-Protestant hangover has set in. It’s as good a time as any to take a second look at what really divides us from our Roman Catholic friends, family, and neighbors. After all, Pope Benedict seems to have a soft spot for the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther–maybe we’re not so far apart after all?
At least one ELCA Lutheran thinks so and asked plaintively at the First Things blog why he couldn’t receive communion at the local parish church. In response, Anthony Sacramone detailed a few of the outstanding issues that still divide Lutherans (and the Reformed) from Rome. Here’s a preview:
Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?
Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?
I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?
Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:
“If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.”
Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?
Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.
Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.
What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?
For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.
The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.
The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.
The entire thing is worth reading.