White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Christ is Lord of All

I’ve nearly finished reading Center Church, by Timothy Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  I’m not prepared to offer a review, but recommend it as a thoughtful exploration of various approaches to church ministry and culture.  There are a lot of “how-to” books on church planting, marketing, and management.  There are also a number of more theological books on the nature, ministry, and mission of the church.  However, Keller’s Center Church fills an important and less populated niche: theological vision, which is somewhere between theological convictions and practical applications.

One of the places where I found the book especially thought-provoking was his engagement with various approaches to Christ and culture—especially transformationalism, pietism, and two kingdoms.  I still would demur with a couple of his descriptions of the “two kingdoms” perspective, but I think he does point out helpfully that this view is no more monolithic than other positions.  I also share some of his concerns about how the model can be used to justify unfaithful witness—as in the way that it was used by Southern Presbyterians (under the rubric of the “spirituality of the church”) to justify slavery.

There is nothing, however, in two-kingdoms thinking itself that would ever justify sin and injustice, whether public or private, or keep the church from preaching all of God’s Word and disciplining members who refuse its clear instruction.  In fact, by more clearly articulating the proper authority and jurisdiction of the church and the state, a two-kingdoms perspective is most allergic to any ideology, movement, leader, or party that would make absolute claims.  The reduction not only of religion but even cultural life to politics is something that such a perspective opposes with might and mane.  Christ is Lord of all, even if he rules his two kingdoms in different ways, with different means, toward different ends.

Anyway, lots to talk about—on this and other points he raises—and Center Church keeps the conversation going.  Regardless of whether one agrees with all of his points, this book is the fruit of decades of theological reflection and pastoral leadership.

I recently came across a post from a WSC alumnus who is finishing his PhD work at Emory University in political theology. It’s well worth a read, showing how “two kingdoms” was used during the Nazi era to justify both complicity with evil and resistance to it. Here’s a preview:

[W]hile virtually all German Christians were politically conservative and therefore susceptible to Nazi ideology, theologically conservative Christians tended to be much more resistant to that ideology by virtue of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching. Theologically liberal Christians, on the other hand, having rejected such orthodoxy as well as the authority of Scripture, had little basis with which to reject a movement that seemed to be so deeply sensitive to the philosophical and social ethos of the day.

Read the whole thing.

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The Flying Nones: Latest Report from Pew Research Center

More U.S. adults than ever now identify themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” according to Pew Research Center.

Reporting the Findings

The findings, released October 9, 2012, report that this group has grown over the last 5 years from 15% to just under 20%. Dubbed the “nones,” this growing demographic is not only unchurched but doesn’t even identify with any particular religion. “In 2007 60% of those who said they seldom or never attend religious services nevertheless described themselves as belonging to a particular religious tradition.” In 2010, it’s 50%— “a 10-point drop in five years.” And while whole ministries were geared toward “seekers” among the Boomer generation, 88% of the religiously unaffiliated now say they’re not even looking.

“Three-fourths of unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation (74%).” However, as affiliation falls, more Americans emerge with little or no past encounter with the church at all. One-third of adults under 30 self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” compared with one-fifth more generally.

In spite of their lack of religious identification, two-thirds of the unaffiliated say they believe in God. “More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as ‘spiritual but not ‘religious’ (37%) and 1 in 5 say that they pray every day.” Their view of religious organizations seems somewhat contradictory. On one hand, there is the usual complaint that such institutions “are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” On the other hand, “most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”

For decades now evangelicals have celebrated growth while pointing out the precipitous decline of mainline Protestantism. Yet according to this study, “The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline.”

Interpreting the Findings

Sociologists of religion have been debating the “secularization thesis” for at least a century. According to this theory, the process of modernization (the triumph of technology, calculative reason, routinization of behaviors, material prosperity and bureaucratization) gradually edges out religion. As the realm of the sacred shrinks and pragmatic—purely “this-worldly”—routines prevail, people look less and less to supernatural explanations. For example, agricultural communities in which annual harvest festivals culminated in a thanksgiving service at the parish church found it harder to know quite what to do at such a service when nearly everybody in the parish now buys its produce at the supermarket.

We interviewed a widely recognized sociologist who defends the secularization thesis from recent challenges. We’ll run that interview in the next post.

The secularization thesis may be briefly summarized: It explains why, in modern societies, we can expect the children to be less religious than their parents.

According to its proponents, religion becomes more privatized—especially without the reinforcement of widely shared cultural practices (such as the rhythm of holy days, festivals, and Sunday observances) and public policy (such as state support for a particular church, anti-blasphemy laws, and religious instruction in schools).

Privatization leads to pluralization, especially as new immigrants arrive with varied religious backgrounds. Religious pluralism, of course, is a fact—especially in Europe and North America. Religious freedom is a right. However, these two facets of pluralism are often confused in people’s minds with the idea that all religious paths are equally true.

This leads typically to the relativization of truth claims, as those practicing a particular religion are reluctant to defend their beliefs as true for everybody and increasingly commend their private commitments merely as personally useful and meaningful.

At last, religion is reduced to a form of personal therapy, as objective claims are psychologized into subjective experience. “God” becomes equivalent to “source of inner empowerment” and the Bible’s historical plot-line of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation is turned into an individualistic and inner striving, from an autonomous selfhood to dysfunction to recovery and self-enlightenment.

According to this story, we came from nowhere and are going nowhere but in between we can make something of ourselves. To the extent that we see the basic trajectory of this process in evangelical circles today as well, we should not be surprised to discover in the latest report that the sharpest rise among the “nones” is among evangelical as well as mainline Protestants. Accommodating ourselves to the culture of modernity, we can no longer use the old growth-versus-decline argument as an anti-mainline polemic.

Resisting the Powers and Principalities

It’s not only explicit ideas that determine the course of secularization, but cultural practices that assume the validity of a completely immanent (naturalistic) interpretation of reality. Conversely, it is not merely the recovery of sound doctrine that will fortify our churches and families—and our own lives, but the routines that presuppose a different reality, in which we are God’s creatures, fallen in sin, and redeemed by Christ awaiting his return in glory to restore all things.

These routines center on the public ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline in doctrine and life—as Jesus instituted for making disciples in his Great Commission. They entail mutual submission and service in Christ’s body. Our public gatherings announce that in Christ and by his Spirit, the age to come has broken into this present age that is fading. We aren’t just consumers in a mall of endless choice and felt needs that the culture of marketing has created in our hearts, but recipients of a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Our families are not the products of contracts, but of covenants—and the most formative influence in passing the faith down from generation to generation. As we eat our daily bread in gratitude, our children grow up seeing that we also depend on our Triune God and his word, seeking him in prayer, and that they are part of this circle of forgiven sinners who look to God’s gracious provision and salvation. They come to learn by experience that in all of our half-hearted ways, we are seeking to “read” the world with God’s spectacles, to see our neighbors in the transcendent light of God’s greater love and purposes.

We immerse ourselves in Scripture not simply to consume yet another product or program, but to find our story in Christ’s. Our callings are not just jobs, but are anchored in a transcendent purpose. We were made for something great. Lost in sin and death, we were reconciled by God by his gift of his Son and are united Christ by his Spirit. Telling that story, teaching its doctrines, baptized into Christ’s body and receiving Christ again and again in his Supper, worshipping with God’s people in confession, praise, and thanksgiving, we are being formed by the Spirit into citizens of the new creation rather than prisoners of trivial pursuits.

Maybe this latest study can jolt us out of going further and further down that path of captivity to a culture of the “nowhere man, making all his plans for nobody”—and reach out to unbelieving family and friends with the greatest story ever told along with tangible gifts of love and service that commend it. Hopefully it will give us pause to wonder how much our churches, families and lives have become captive to our culture’s narcissistic demand for a constant state of extraordinary excitement, making it increasingly difficult to embrace patiently and lovingly the ordinary ministry of the church and the daily routines of family, friendship, and sociality that yield an abundant harvest over the long haul. Perhaps the report will help make us reconsider our message, mission and strategies and help us discover renewed confidence in the power of the gospel to create, sustain, and expand Christ’s church.

In any case, these findings shouldn’t lead us to despair, because it is still as true as it ever was that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Therefore, let us keep the feast!


Note: Dr. Horton was asked about this study by Christianity Today along with some other Christian leaders. Read that article here: New Report: Non-Religious Grow, Protestants Wither (to below 50%)

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New Book!

Michael Horton recently wrote a chapter for the new book, Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception: Disputes, Developments, and New Possibilities. You can get your copy through Amazon for less than $20!

Dr. Horton’s chapter is entitled, “Calvin’s Theology of Union with Christ and the Double Grace: Modern Reception and Contemporary Possibilities.” Here’s a brief preview:

A typical trajectory among many Roman Catholic interpreters conceives of Calvin’s theology as a series of contrasts, with a radical diastasis between God and humanity, transcendence and immanence, reality and signs…. Obviously this interpretation gives little attention to Calvin’s considerable emphasis on union with God in Christ. This thesis is pressed in spite of Calvin’s explicit and sometimes stern criticisms of nominalism and an emphasis on divine-human communion (indeed participation) that appears already in the opening paragraph of the Institutes.

Obviously not for the faint of heart (or mind), but if you know a budding or seasoned scholar who wants to dig deeper into the development of Reformed theology, this is a good volume for his or her library.

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NPR story on Truth, History & Wikipedia

This is a fascinating story from NPR’s Morning Edition this morning. Lot’s of implications on a host of issues related to our view of truth and history in a Wikipedia age. 7 mins long, well worth your time…

Wikipedia Politicizes Landmark Historical Event

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Unintended Consequences

A veteran youth minister evaluates the state of youth ministry and “big church”–he doesn’t like what he sees:

We look at our youth group now and we feel good. But the youth group of today is the church of tomorrow, and study after study suggests that what we are building for the future is … empty churches.

What Pastor Marino says is not necessarily new, but it is helpful to have a man who has spent his entire ministry working with youth to say these things. Equally eye-opening are the comments that follow his post where other youth ministers either applaud or argue his premise. In response to one, Marino says:

The blog article comes from a seminar I put together a few years ago for the Urban Youth Workers Institute. Interestingly, when I did the seminar people over 35 would sit with their arms folded and youth workers under 25 would literally be standing and cheering. I can say that they resonated with what I was saying.

I think most pastors would agree that youth and children’s ministries are some of the most difficult to navigate as a church, especially for those of us in churches that are intentional in our efforts to catechize our children and include them in the worship of the church. [For more on the treacherous nature of children's ministries, especially, see this fine post.] Let us, then, add Pastor Marino’s council to that of others like Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean: rigorous theology, Word and sacrament ministry, and service to others forms not just the basis of our adult pilgrimage but also our young adult pilgrimage. As Dr. Barnhouse said, “What you win them with, you win them to.”

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Sanctification and Worship

If “all of life is sacred,” as a popular saying goes, then what’s the significance of going to church? The Reformation got rid of the division between Christians who worship (monks) and those who work (laypeople), but only in our individualist-expressivist culture has this downplaying of worship become a grand distortion. Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith’s recent article in Reformed Worship succinctly and insightfully untangles this amazingly practical issue. Here is an excerpt:

Christian worship gathered around Word and table is not just a platform for our expression; it is the space for the Spirit’s (trans)formation of us. The practices of gathered Christian worship have a specific shape about them—precisely because this is how the Spirit recruits us into the story of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ. There is a logic to the shape of intentional, historic Christian worship that performs the gospel over and over again as a way to form and reform our habits. If we fail to immerse ourselves in sacramental, transformative worship, we will not be adequately formed to be ambassadors of Christ’s redemption in and for the world. In short, while the Reformers rightly emphasized the sanctification of ordinary life, they never for a moment thought this would be possible without being sanctified by Word and sacrament.

Click here to read the rest of this article

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What happened to God?

The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009 gave rise to a year of debate about the world-historical significance of the French Reformer. Everything from politics and economics to art and philanthropy were cited as having been influenced (even “transformed”) by Calvin’s life and work. Much of what was claimed was highly debatable, though it does make for interesting discussion.

But what seemed to be missing from most of the Swiss city of Geneva’s marketing materials for the anniversary celebration was reference to Calvin’s very practical and immediate impact on the church and its ministry, such as the reforming of idolatrous Roman aspects of worship, the establishment of the “consistory” or body of elders to care for and govern the local church, and the centralizing of Word and Sacrament for Christian ministry.

With the quincentennial of the Reformation approaching in 1517, I anticipate the same kind of lively discussion about Luther’s legacy. What was his impact, after all this time? That’s a good discussion to have, one that is already underway. How fascinating it is to note that the person closest to the truth at this early planning conference in Germany was a Roman Catholic architect! Sometimes truth comes from the strangest of places . . .

It was an evening with a lot going on at many levels, although not once did Luther’s core premise come up – that man is saved by faith and grace alone, and that the pious acts that Catholics thought could help played no role in salvation. The word “God” was seldom used during the evening, and if memory serves, the name “Jesus Christ” wasn’t mentioned a single time.

The question that remained unanswered at the end was: what is the 500th Anniversary celebration in 2017 actually going to be about? Revisiting and strengthening evangelical faith? Or a festive and soon-forgotten occasion with colloquia, ceremonies, entertainment?

Which is not to say that what the nine distinguished “outsiders” told EKD representatives was stupid. On the contrary: it was a sum of what a broad spectrum of society feels towards religion. And God didn’t come into it.

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Christian Character and Good Arguments

As you know, White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation are all about “conversations for a new Reformation.” For over two decades, we’ve hosted a conversation between representatives of Lutheran, Baptist, and Reformed traditions on the White Horse Inn, expanding that circle in the pages of our magazine, Modern Reformation. We’ve also held public conversations with those who hold views that are antithetical to our own. (Check out our upcoming conversation with Roman Catholic theologian, Scott Hahn, here and our previous conversations with Arminian theologian Roger Olson here.) Part of the rationale is that we can’t defend the truth by creating caricatures. We have to engage the actual positions, not straw opponents we can easily knock down. Convinced that truth can take care of itself, we want to expose more and more people to the richness of that “Great Conversation” that Christians have been having for two millennia.

Especially in a “wiki” age, our communication today is prone to gushes of words with trickles of thought. We don’t compose letters much anymore, but blurt out emails and tweets. Just look at the level of discourse in this political campaign season and you can see how much we talk about, over, and past rather than to each other. Sadly, these habits—whether fueled by sloth or malice—are becoming acceptable in Christian circles, too. The subculture of Christian blogging often mirrors the “shock-jock” atmosphere of the wider web. “Don’t be like the world” means more than not imitating a porn-addicted culture, while we tolerate a level of interaction that apes the worst of TV sound-bites, ads, and political debates.

For my seminary students I’ve written a summary of what I expect in good paper-writing for my classes. It follows the classical order of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It also explains why the pursuit of excellence in thinking and communicating is not just an academic exercise, but is a crucial part of Christian character.

I’ll skip over some of the rules specific to papers in my classes and get to the core points. Rules for paper-writing carry over directly to good preaching and good conversations.

It’s not just what we say, but how we say it, that matters. Peter reminds us to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16). We have to be ready with arguments and reasons, but we have to give thought also to how we present them.

Good Arguments

First and foremost we need to avoid the ubiquitous ad hominem (“to/concerning the person”) variety—otherwise known as “personal attacks.” Poor papers often focus on the person: both the critic and the one being criticized. This is easier, of course, because one only has to express one’s own opinions and reflections. A good paper will tell us more about the issues in the debate than about the debaters. (This of course does not rule out relevant biographical information on figures we’re engaging that is deemed essential to the argument.)

Closely related are red-herring arguments: poisoning the well, where you discredit a position at the outset (a pre-emptive strike), or creating a straw man (caricature) that can be easily demolished. “Barth was a liberal,” “Roman Catholics do not believe that salvation is by grace,” “Luther said terrible things about Jews and Calvin approved the burning of Servetus—so how could you possibly take seriously anything they say?” It’s an easy way of dismissing views that may be true even though those who taught them may have said or done other things that are reprehensible. Closely related is thegenetic fallacy, which requires merely that one trace an argument or position back to its source in order to discount it. Simply to trace a view to its origin—as Roman Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist/Baptist, etc.—is not to offer an argument for or against it. For example, we all believe in the Trinity; it’s not wrong because it’s also held by Roman Catholics. “Barth studied under Harnack and Herrmann, so we should already consider his doctrine of revelation suspect.” This assertion does not take into account the fact that Barth was reacting sharply against his liberal mentors and displays no effort to actually read, understand, and engage the primary or secondary sources.

Closely related to these fallacies is the all too familiar slippery slope argument. “Barth’s doctrine of revelation leads to atheism” or “Arminianism leads to Pelagianism” or “Calvinism leads to fatalism” would be examples. Even if one’s conclusion is correct, the argument has to be made, not merely asserted. The fact is, we often miss crucial moves that people make that are perfectly consistent with their thinking and do not lead to the extreme conclusions we attribute to them—not to mention the inconsistencies that all of us indulge. Honesty requires that you engage the positions that peopleactually hold, not conclusions you think they should hold if they are consistent.

If you’re going to make a logical argument that certain premises lead to a certain conclusion, then you need to make the case and must also be careful to clarify whether the interlocutor either did make that move or did not but (logically) should have.

Another closely related fallacy here is sweeping generalization. Until recently, it was common for historians to try to explain an entire system by identifying a “central dogma.” For example, Lutherans deduce everything from the central dogma of justification; Calvinists, from predestination and the sovereignty of God. Serious scholars who have actually studied these sources point out that these sweeping generalizations don’t have any foundation. However, sweeping generalizations are so common precisely because they make our job easier. We can embrace or dismiss positions easily without actually having to examine them closely. Usually, this means that a paper will be more “heat” than “light”: substituting emotional assertion for well-researched and logical argumentation.

“Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation is anti-scriptural and anti-Christian” is another sweeping generalization. If I were to task you in person why you think Barth’s view of revelation is “anti-scriptural anti-Christian,” you might answer, “Well, I think that he draws too sharp a contrast between the Word of God and Scripture—and that this undermines a credible doctrine of revelation.” “Good,” I reply, “—now why do you think he makes that move?” “I think it’s because he identifies the ‘Word of God’ with God’s essence and therefore regards any direct identification with a creaturely medium (like the Bible) as a form of idolatry. It’s part of his ‘veiling-unveiling’ dialectic.” OK, now we’re closer to a real thesis—something like, “Because Barth interprets revelation as nothing less than God’s essence (actualistically conceived), he draws a sharp contrast between Scripture and revelation.” A good argument for something like that will allow the reader to draw conclusions instead of strong-arming the reader with the force of your own personality.

Also avoid the fallacy of begging the question. For example, question-begging is evident in the thesis statement: “Baptists exclude from the covenant those whom Christ has welcomed.” After all, you’re assuming your conclusion without defending it. Baptists don’t believe that children of believers are included in the covenant of grace. That’s the very reason why they do not baptize them. You need an argument.

An Exercise of Christian Piety

Everything I’ve said about logical fallacies is wrapped up with virtue. You earn your right to critique a position only after stating it in terms that one who holds it would recognize as fair. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Gal 5:22). The love of our neighbor is inextricably bound up with our love of God; love and truth are intimates, not rivals. Especially in the body of Christ we are to avoid “human cunning….Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph 4:14-15). The Ninth Commandment forbids false witness. In fact, the Shorter Catechism explains, “The ninth commandment forbids whatever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name.” Similarly, the HC: “God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause…I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

Logical fallacies are often the result of vice—sometimes malice, but more frequently pride and sloth. It is easy to hide behind the banner of truth in yielding to these temptations, but truth is not served well by arrogant assertions, sweeping generalizations or lazy caricatures. When love reigns, an argument is not only true but also good and beautiful. Therein lies its genuine persuasiveness. Sloth is evident especially when we create straw opponents, slippery slope assertions, or attack the person (ad hominem) or the source of the argument (genetic fallacy) rather than critique the argument itself.

It is possible to be so open-minded that we can fall for anything. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov 14:15). Yet imprudence also exhibits itself in narrow-minded over-simplification of complex questions. The wise are “cautious,…but a fool is reckless and careless” (v 16). In either case, “The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (v 18). “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).

As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “A quarrel can end a good argument. Most people today quarrel because they cannot argue.” In the din of talking heads shouting at each other, Christians have a great opportunity in the current atmosphere to end quarrels by offering a few good, at least better, arguments.

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The Problem and the Solution

We thought that this new video from Jeff Bethke, summarizing our problem and the solution that we have in Christ was worth passing along to our readers.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

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The Gospel in Seven Words

D. L. Moody once said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” Many of us were raised with the primary question of personal evangelism: “If you had less than a minute in the elevator with someone, how would you share the gospel?”

So how would you summarize the gospel—the very heart of the Christian message—in seven words?

A recent cover story (Aug 23, 2012) of The Christian Century, the magazine of mainline Protestantism, put that question to several leading pastors and theologians. The writer, David Heim, begins,

In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls how his friend P. D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long or fancy explanation. ‘I’m not too bright,’ he told Campbell. ‘Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?’ Campbell obliged his friend: ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said. To which East replied, ‘If you want to try again, you have two words left.’ Campbell and East eventually had an extended conversation provoked by Campbell’s summary. It had stuck in East’s mind. He wasn’t sure he bought it, but it gave him something to think about.

So now to the results of the Christian Century survey of answers—the seven words they’d use to summarize the gospel. I’ll leave the names out (you can find them at the link above) but give my thoughts concerning their submissions. Most of the statements cluster around the more therapeutic understanding I’ve described above:

  • “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” At least there’s the “through Jesus Christ” clause, but is there anything like this in the New Testament? Are people already “welcomed anyhow” apart from repentance and faith in Christ?
  • “We are the Church of Infinite Chances.” First of all, isn’t the gospel “good news” about what God has done in Christ to save sinners? Why does “we” become the subject of the seven-word summary of the gospel? Second, this response suggests, once again, that grace is a new opportunity for a fresh start, not God’s justification of the ungodly on account of Christ. Infinite chances for what? The idea implied at least is that God simply lets bygones be bygones and turns the page. Every day we blow it, but God is love.
  • “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.” I can’t imagine any non-Christian I know who would find this jarring, surprising, or anything qualifying as “good news.” It’s probably what they assume already—which is why they don’t take such things seriously. Not even Christ makes an appearance in this summary.
  • “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” I could hear Karl Barth offer this response. Yet without the gospel, this just sounds like fatalism. Why should I respond if, apparently, it doesn’t matter either way?
  • “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity.” Reflecting an Eastern Orthodox emphasis on salvation as the deification of human beings by Christ’s incarnation, this answer again could be easily taken by the average person (at least one capable of understanding the sentence) to mean that the “good news” has nothing to do with what God has done for us in Christ, but what he has made possible for us to do in cooperation with him.
  • “We live by grace.” True enough. The gospel of grace certainly gives us life and motivates our living. But what is the gospel?
  • “We are who God says we are.” The respondent fleshes this out a bit: “In the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ we see that God is so for us and with us that we can no longer be defined according to death, a religion-based worthiness system or even the categories of late-stage capitalism.” Again, this is so true, but is the good news that God ignored our debt (“worthiness system”), or that in Christ God has paid it through the Savior’s having fulfilled the law and borne its curse for us?
  • Wisdom become flesh, spirit roars, life transformed.” I know that it’s seven words, but…again, nothing about the cross and resurrection.
  • “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” After explaining that sentence to a stunned passenger on the elevator, I’d still be concerned that with a statement like this I was placing the emphasis—as many of these do—on the saving work of God’s people here and now (God’s continuing “world-making”) while marginalizing his saving work in Christ on the cross.
  • “To dwell in possibility.” The response continues, “When my daughter was confirmed in the Christian faith last spring, I gave her Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Dwell in Possibility.’” The horrible fact about me and the world in which I live is that I’m tormented by possibilities I fall short of. What I need is good news that someone has actually achieved something for me, not made it possible for me to achieve. In Christ, I dwell in divine accomplishments.

There were other responses that certainly included elements of the gospel:

  • According to one, “The wall of hostility has come down.” Shaped by Paul’s marvelous celebration of the “mystery” in Ephesians 3, this response certainly gets at something that the apostle considered part of the gospel itself. The wall separating Jew and Gentile has been torn down, with one new body with Christ as its head. Yet Paul saw this as possible only because of the salvation that we have in Christ by election, redemption, and calling of those “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 1 and 2).
  • Another answered, “He Led Captivity Captive,” adding, “Among Gospel epitomes I especially love the Jesus prayer, the Agnus Dei and “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive”–the good news as I first heard it from Paul (Ephesians 4:8) and Christ’s Jubilee proclamation (Luke 4:18).” It can hardly be denied that Christ’s victory over the powers of death and hell are part of the gospel, but as Paul explains in Colossians 2:13-15, this victory over the powers was accomplished precisely because at the cross God cancelled the debt we owed to the law and its verdict against us.
  • “Once dead. Now alive. Christ reshaping people.” Again, part of the gospel in the broader sense: it’s certainly part of the good news that we are raised from death to life in Christ. However, sanctification (“Christ reshaping people”) is not the biblical answer to the question, “How can we as sinners be justified before a holy God?”
  • “Christ offers new life for all.” Like the previous answer, this offers regeneration without justification.
  • God enters history; renewed covenants promise salvation.” Having written a lot on covenant theology, I like this one a lot. It might be a good conversation-starter to get to the gospel, but I’m not sure I would adopt this as my seven-word summary.
  • “Christ was born. We can be reborn.” The response adds, “Birth is a messy, painful affair, fraught with risk and danger. Yet Jesus was born.” Actually, I was surprised that “messy” didn’t make it into more of these, along with adjectives like “radical” and “wild.” It’s true enough that our Lord’s incarnation and our new birth are part of God’s good news, but again, without the stuff in the middle (faithful life, a messy crucifixion for our sins and victorious resurrection for our justification), what’s the connection between his birth and our new birth?
  • “God is love: This is no joke.” The only reason that so many people in our society might think it’s a joke—or at least not take it very seriously—is that they already think that God loves them. Apart from Christ, why should they? Now that might get the conversation going after the elevator arrives!

Other responses were did not even include the gospel as announced by Scripture:

  • “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation” is the gospel according to a noted Emergent church leader. Here we meet the familiar refrain of old liberalism (and increasingly some forms of newer evangelicalism): the gospel is a call to do something, not good news about something that God has done for us and for the world already.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Although Jesus said this was a summary of the law, this response offers it as the summary of the gospel. The respondent adds, “This always seemed like hard moral advice that very few of us were really able to follow. But in recent times its meaning seems clearer.” Clearer? Easier? Hmmm.
  • “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Imagine Jesus (not mentioned here) gathering a multitude to announce the good news of the kingdom. The crowd hushes, waiting for the words, as Jesus opens his lips to speak: “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Is there anything vaguely like that in the New Testament? What religious leader or motivational speaker could not fill this bill? This is the surprising news brought from a herald on behalf of the King who has reconciled enemies to himself in his Son? As if this were not enough, the respondent adds, “But not everyone will grow and change.” Indeed. Is there any good news for that person?

There were two responses that expressed what seems clearly to lie at the heart of the gospel according to Scripture. I was encouraged (but not surprised) to see William Willimon break away from the pack to say, “God refuses to be God without us.” It assumes, of course, that he could be if he wanted to. That is a direct shot at the human-centered message that pervades Christian speech today. Willimon added, “We asked God to say something definite and God, getting personal, sent Jesus Christ. We were surprised.” The one response that hit the nail on the head, in my view, was that of Yale missions professor, Lamin Sanneh, who quotes Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world.”

The Gospel of “God Loves You Anyway”

We saw that David Heim began his article introducing these responses with the summary by Will Campbell in Brother to a Dragonfly: “‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said.” Interestingly, Heim notes, “Our respondents were not so blunt in diagnosing the human condition. Many seem determined to make grace, not sin, the prominent feature. Nevertheless, sin is acknowledged in some way.”

As I read through the responses, that summary seemed justified. “Grace” is one of those words you can still hear quite a lot across the spectrum today. Mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics sing “Amazing Grace” and appeals to God’s grace are often heard in liberal as well as conservative circles.

But what exactly is grace? It seems to be as vague as “love” and “being nice”: reduced to subjective feelings rather than God’s objective stance toward and gift to sinners. At least Will Campbell mentioned our sinfulness as the problem that the gospel answers. Yet even there, the good news skips over the way in which God’s love and justice embraced through Christ’s cross. Someone once quipped, “I like to sin; God likes to forgive. It’s a great relationship.” It’s as if God exists to make us happy and when we mess up, he just brushes us off and gives us another chance to do better this time. “Grace” becomes forgiveness and empowerment, but a forgiveness without a costly cross and empowerment of the old self rather than its death and the resurrection of the new self in Christ.

Several years ago, sociologist Marsha Witten concluded after surveying scads of sermons (both mainline and evangelical churches) that much of Protestant preaching today has transformed theological categories of sin and grace into therapeutic categories. Conservatives and liberals nuance it differently: for example, sin and grace in more individualistic versus social terms, but the underlying philosophy is similar: Grace is God’s letting bygones be bygones, giving us a chance to turn over a new leaf and give it another shot. (One famous evangelical leader said at Christmas on a network TV morning show that Jesus came “basically to give us a do-over, like in golf.”) Basically, grace is God’s “forget about it” and his empowerment to be all we can be, individually and collectively. The title of her book alone tells the story she documents so well: All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1995).

To grasp something definite about grace (at least in biblical terms) presupposes something about the problem that it answers. So if we’re good people who could be better (lacking only the right formula, motives, and strategy), grace will mean something rather different than it would if it were the answer to, say, God’s just wrath against all unrighteousness.

The worldview that many of us assume—again, across the liberal-conservative spectrum—is that God presides over a world of cause-and-effect. He built laws into the cosmos that work pretty much like clockwork. In a culture defined by Christian Smith as “moralistic-therapeutic-deism,” sin has very little to do with God—other than the obvious fact that he created the universe somehow to run like this. God is very concerned that we don’t hurt each other or his creation, but our wrongs are only indirectly an assault on God himself.

When sin becomes reduced to the horizontal aspect (the second table of the law), we can’t even conceive of the orientation that might lead David’s confession in Psalm 51. Although his penitence is provoked especially by his adultery with Bathsheba and indirect murder of her husband, the heinousness of it all is measured by its offensiveness to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v 4). Sin doesn’t offend God because it violates the law of human flourishing; it violates human flourishing because it is first and foremost an act of treason against God. If that sentiment seems foreign to us, what are we to say of his additional lament in verse 5—”Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”? David is not just wracked with a subjective sense of shame, but the experience of being objectively guilty before God. Further, he realizes that he is not admitting he has morally “bad hair days”—committing particular sins that provoke God’s anger, but that he is morally unclean and guilty even from birth.

Far from ignoring the seriousness of our offenses against each other as individuals and societies, this vertical definition of sin—as an offense against God—is what makes such actions so reprehensible. Not only in what we do to harm others, but in what we leave undone for their welfare, we sin against God. Apart from this vertical reference—”Against you, you only, have I sinned”—there can be no such thing as sin at all. There can only be violations of social contracts and customs.

Yet this view of sin—as first and foremost against God, and as a condition that gives rise to certain acts rather than vice versa—presupposes a certain view of God that our culture no less disdains. A gospel that does not have Christ’s vicarious substitution for sinners at its heart reveals a truth-suppressing denial of sin as bondage and guilt from which none of us can escape by our own efforts. And a therapeutic view of sin, reduced to the private and public health of human beings, has not yet reckoned with the God of the Bible whose love cannot be divorced from his holiness, justice and righteousness. As Anselm responded in the eleventh century to the moralistic rejection of Christ’s vicarious atonement , “You have not considered how great your sin is.” We can only add, “You have not yet considered how holy your God is.”

It’s not just being cranky to comb through these published responses to the most central question of the Christian faith with a critical eye. It’s a great question. It should make us think about how we would summarize the gospel in those brief encounters with strangers, friends, co-workers, and relatives.

So, if anyone cares, here’s mine, drawn from Romans 4:25: “Crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.” Sure, it’s nine words, but two more can make a lot of difference.

Now it’s your turn to offer a seven word summary—and we’ll even let you take nine if you need them.

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