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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.

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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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Evangelicals, Catholics, and Unity

Mike Horton’s booklet, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Unity, is coming back into print. He will be on Stand to Reason later today to talk about the booklet, why Rome is still an attractive option for some evangelicals, and how to equip ourselves to answer critics of the Reformation.

In anticipation of its release, you can read a few sample chapters on our blog this week:

Chapter One: Why Are We Still Divided?

How can the church be the symphony of redemption when its musicians interpret the composition so differently that it sounds more like a wild cacophony than a harmonious concert?

The world wonders.

And so do we.

When we look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book for a certain church or a certain kind of church, we find a bewildering array of denominations. There are hundreds of denominations in America. In some regions, such as Northern Ireland and Central America, Protestants and Roman Catholics still even take up arms against each other. This is not only a scandal to the watching world; it is sometimes overwhelming, especially to new Christians who are simply seeking a solid nursery for their budding faith.

Meanwhile, the growing secularism of our time, reflected in the “culture of death” that naturalism, pragmatism, and relativism have unleashed, reduces the influence of religion in society nearly to the vanishing point. In such an environment, when committed Roman Catholics and Protestants share so much in common, highlighting remaining doctrinal differences strikes many persons as foolishly fiddling while Rome burns.

It is no wonder, then, that there is strong impatience with the divisions that haunt Christian witness at the end of its second millennium. Billy Graham’s crusades broke with a fundamentalism that tended to identify Roman Catholicism with everything that is wrong with the world. Graham has even included local priests and distinguished Roman Catholic leaders on his crusade platforms. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council opened the windows and allowed the breezes of Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism (both liberal and evangelical) to blow through Rome’s hallowed halls. Modernity, against which Rome had struggled more valiantly in many respects than mainline Protestants, was at last allowed entry, and many changes followed – at least on the surface. Especially in the United States, Protestants and Roman Catholics began to intermarry as religious differences, if not religion itself, receded in importance. There have been countless dialogues, some of them quite helpful in reaching greater understanding of both differences and agreements.

The charismatic movement, Bible study groups, Promise Keepers, the pro-life movement, and other grassroots efforts have drawn individual members of both communions together in non-ecclesiastical ways despite the official church divisions. All of us have come face to face with strangers and have often found them to be friends. In fact, in many cases we have found them to be true brothers and sisters in Christ.

So it happened that in 1994 and 1997, when a group of evangelicals and Roman Catholics drew up two bases of agreement (“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “The Gift of Salvation”), many took this as a sign that the issues that have separated the two communions for nearly five centuries were no longer obstacles to genuine unity and fellowship in a shared understanding of the Gospel.

All this has been confusing and troubling for many believers who sincerely long for greater visible unity among Christ’s flock. We wish for unity but cannot willingly surrender essential truth in order to accomplish a false peace. For those who care about such truth, Christian unity must be a marriage made in heaven, not a merger or acquisition made on earth. Yet we ask: How should we navigate these troubled waters?

Let’s begin by asking two important questions. First, are evangelicals catholic? Second, may Roman Catholics be considered evangelical?

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5 Myths about Reformed Theology

Dr. Horton was recently asked to address some of the common misconceptions about Reformed theology. His response can be found on the Resurgence website.

If you would like some more resources about Calvinism and Reformed theology, go to our on-line store where you can purchase Dr. Horton’s book For Calvinism as well as two conversations that Dr. Horton had with Dr. Roger Olson on the subject of “For and Against Calvinism.”

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Reviving Christianity or Christendom?

For nearly a century, conservative Christians have seen the mainline Protestant decline as a sign of God’s judgment on liberals for hitching their wagon to the spirit of the age. That’s also a subtext of New York Times editor Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The threat of heresy has always been an opportunity for the church to clarify and articulate its convictions. Yet in the past, even heretics were clear in their teaching, Douthat explained in an interview: “But instead, precisely because the heresies we actually have tend to be anti-hierarchical, vague about doctrine, and much more individualistic and do-it-yourself and self-consciously easygoing than some of the past heresies you’re referencing, it’s harder for people to clarify what’s actually at stake in religious debates—both for Christianity and for America as a whole.”

Liberals used to justify their losses by referring to their cultural impact. This strategy has reappeared in recent weeks, even as mainline denominations are slashing budgets and the Episcopal Church is selling off its headquarters in the heart of Manhattan. Diana Butler Bass defends liberalism as the best hope for reviving Christianity.

The Rt. Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, former dean of the venerable National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has offered a similar argument:

What Douthat sees as a rising tide of liberalism increasingly weakening the mainline churches is in fact a tidal wave of social change washing over the face of Christianity in North America. To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.

In response to these responses, Mr. Douthat has qualified his analysis while holding to the basic plot: namely, that liberal Christianity—for all of its political and social influence—has emptied the faith of its content.

It’s an argument that J. Gresham Machen made in the 1920s, with his controversial book, Christianity and Liberalism.

Yet Dean Lloyd makes a good point:

A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members. The churches have much to learn in this time of transition, and the good news is that the learning curve is now sharp and many are in the game.

It’s true, as Bass and Lloyd observe, that conservative churches are facing decline as well. Secularization is wider than card-carrying liberal Protestantism. The culture of personal fulfillment that he mentions encompasses conservatives as well, and evangelicals have excelled at marketing to this cultural instinct. It points up the fact that it’s as easy to secularize churches by identifying with popular culture as it is by linking them up with the trends of high culture. Liberals pioneered the strategy of marketing a watered-down “faith-experience” with a craving for cultural acceptance, transforming the radical news of sin and grace into therapeutic categories of personal and social well-being. To the extent that evangelicals follow that course, albeit with different cultural agendas, it too will find its relevance operations irrelevant to those who can find entertainment, politics, and advice for their self-help life projects elsewhere.

But what exactly does it mean to be “in the game”? Apparently, it is to continue to shape the left wing of the culture wars. It is not theology that matters, but vital spirituality. Like Professor Bass, Mr. Lloyd believes that the core of genuine faith is morality: love of God and neighbor. This is not just the law that Christians have always seen as essential, but the gospel. And now wonder that this is all that’s left after successive denials of the historic Christian faith. Bass and Lloyd cite the social and political legacy of liberals, from the civil rights movement of the 60s to the gay rights movement of today. “The real issue will not be which churches are conservative and which are liberal, but which are spiritually alive and which are not.”

Being “in the game” for liberals has always meant cultural clout. In this respect, ironically, liberalism has more invested in “Christendom” than in Christianity. Long before the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, American Protestantism sought to be the soul of a Christian America. In many ways, liberal and conservative Protestantism today represent twin offspring of American civil religion—albeit different political wings. Liberalism does not have a gospel, but our response should not be smug self-confidence. As I argued in Christless Christianity, many of the same trends that corrupted mainline Protestantism are alive and well in evangelicalism today.

With all due respect to Dean Lloyd, being “in the game” from a Christian perspective has to do with the faithful preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and the spiritual and temporal care of the saints. To begin with, there has to be a gospel to answer the deep crisis between God and humanity that reflects itself in the crisis between human beings. Only the incarnate God can save us, by his life, death, and resurrection. Take this away and there is no reason for the church to exist. Delivering this message—to lifelong believers as well as to those “far off” is the mission of the church, as it reaches out, draws in, and grows up in ever-widening circles. With this gospel, even the little church in the wildwood is on the field in the middle of God’s action. Without it, we’re not only out of the game, but playing for the other team.

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The Law and Abandonment Among American Youth

A recent conversation I had with a suburban nanny brought to light an alarming trend in teen culture. While the child is too young to clearly articulate his inner turmoil, his nanny described in him a deep sense of isolation and estrangement in addition to anger and resentment toward his parents and situation. Beyond the primary element of her job, which involves driving the child to various artistic, academic, and athletic pursuits after school, the nanny characterized her job as similar to working with an orphan.

Now, I am not describing a child who is a victim of desperate poverty, a deadly epidemic, or a violent war and has found refuge in an orphanage. I am telling the narrative of a suburban American pre-teen who has access to every conceivable material want and life opportunity.  Recent research in the social psychology of American teens identifies this child’s anguish, not as an exceptional circumstance, but as more of a norm.

Researchers have committed much study to the trend of abandonment in teen culture.  The literature has identified an intense sense of disconnection and isolation among teens in their family and community systems.  While researchers consider high-rates of divorce and general family dysfunction as contributing factors, the primary variable among teens with symptoms of abandonment is over-programming and performance-based lifestyles.

David Elkind of Tufts University has dedicated over two decades to following this trend in parenting. Elkind notes that most parents focus on the competence of their child as a performer in the market place as their central mission; the primary role as a parent becomes one of strategic development. During the course of his research on this issue, Elkind documents an intensification of the problem as over-programming increases.

While Elkind describes youth who have been formed in this manner as the “hurried child,” Chap Clark, in his book Hurt, affirms this trend but chooses to use the term “the abandoned child.” He writes, “We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture … Even with the best of intentions, the way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment.[1] Elkind’s terminology focuses more on the means of parenting (over-programming) and Clark’s descriptor elucidates the results (isolation).

Certainly people can evaluate accurately this issue from various angles (psychology, sociology, education, etc.). From a theological position, this parenting style reflects the natural result of life lived intensely under the law. When I mention law in this context, I do not refer to the moral code but to a pattern of life focused on living up to standards through personal performance and effort. A standard of false righteousness- child competence – exists in the culture, and adults employ whatever necessary means (math tutors, batting coaches, personal trainers, academic camps, intense schedules, etc.) to maximize their child’s performance that they may satisfy the expectations. The standard may manifest itself in language such as, “I want my child to have every opportunity,” or “I want more for my children,” but producing “successful” children constitutes the core hope. This mentality practically plays out in twelve year olds bouncing from early morning swim practice to school to piano to Boy Scouts to homework to bed as a normalized routine.

Scripture tells us that a life defined by the law yields alienation from God and man, as one sinks into a lonely, self-absorbed pursuit of perfection. In contrast, the Gospel of grace draws one out of alienation and into fellowship with God and neighbor. In the Gospel the onus of perfection shifts to Christ, and one is freed to enjoy relationship with God and others.

Understanding the pervasiveness of this trend among American teens compels those ministering to youth (parents, youth pastors, teachers, et al.) to recognize the law-driven nature of the culture and to offer the freedom of the Gospel. In addition to this, discussion of spiritual adoption may have more relevance in this context than any other element of salvation. The Father’s role in salvation as the one who adopts justified sinners as sons and daughters resonates with students struggling with a sense of abandonment. The idea of a Perfect Parent who offers free love and constant presence and who calls for rest, rather than effort, provides a sense of relief for students who often live under pressure.

Adoption calls individuals out of isolation and into God’s Kingdom and family. As John says in 1 John 1:2-3,

The life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

This adopting love, made manifest through Christ, not only brings people into union with God but also into the fellowship of the saints.

Certainly all benefits of salvation have relevance to all generations in all contexts. At the same time, in the context of American teen culture, emphasis on the Father adopting sinners and delivering the isolated into a fellowship provides great hope to a generation of estranged teens.

Cameron Cole serves as the chairman of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry, which will host its conference, themed Adopted: The Beauty of Grace, at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama on August 9-11. The conference will focus on the Gospel of grace and message of adoption to a generation of alienated teenagers. Those interested can learn more at www.rootedconference.com and can follow the Rooted blog at www.therootedblog.blogspot.com.

 


[1] Chap Clark, Hurt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 46-47.

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Response to Alan Chambers

 

An interview in a recent issue of The Atlantic provoked more debate over evangelical views toward same-sex relationships. Christianity Today asked me, among others, to respond. My response was posted this morning.

Can Christians embrace a same-sex lifestyle and still be members in good standing in a Christian church?

I’ve been asked to comment on the controversy provoked by a recent interview in theAtlantic with Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International—an evangelical ministry founded to help Christians and non-Christians find freedom from the guilt and power of a same-sex lifestyle.

Christians may debate public policy, but in this interview, Chambers raises issues that are very clearly addressed in Scripture. Especially when we are dealing with human lives, daring to draw our counsel from God, we need to affirm the simplicity of biblical teaching on the subject while rejecting an over-simplifying of the issues involved.

The problem (sin and death) as well as the solution (redemption in Christ through the gospel) are simple, but hardly simplistic. In terms of sin, Scripture is quite clear about the condition (original sin—guilt, bondage, corruption leading to death) and the acts that arise from it. There are versions of the pro-gay and anti-gay agenda that assume a simplistic rather than simple understanding of the issue—at least from a biblical perspective. Reject it or embrace it: that’s the easy choice that makes for great sound-bites but ruins lives.

So let’s apply this “simple but not simplistic” formula to homosexuality.

To read the rest of the article head to Christianity Today’s website.

Also check out this Modern Reformation article “Such Were Some of You”

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