White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

First Things First: The Gifted Kingdom

“‘Therefore I tell you,'” says Jesus to his disciples in Luke 12, “‘do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.'” After all, God takes care of the birds and in any case, “‘which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?'” Jesus doesn’t tell them that it doesn’t matter whether they have food and clothing, or that they shouldn’t do anything about it. In fact, Paul offers a rebuke to those who refuse to support themselves and their families by working (1 Thess 4:11-12). Nevertheless, Jesus assures them the God is the ultimate provider. “‘Indeed, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you'” (Lk 12:22-31).

Make secondary things primary (i.e., your god) and you’ll always be disappointed; look to Christ and his reign over sin and death, and even if life falls apart you can know that he is working all things together for his glory and your salvation. Jesus doesn’t say that these temporal concerns are trivial; he simply challenges the way we rank his everlasting kingdom and our temporal concerns.

What makes this exhortation more than a pious platitude that no one can seriously entertain in the face of hopelessness and despair? Jesus explains in the very next verse: “‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom'” (v 32). You mean it’s not, “Work really hard to find God and pursue his kingdom vision and then everything else will fall into place?” Not at all. The kingdom is a gift. It has been given—is being given. It’s coming down from heaven even now, with the forgiveness of sins and new life.

It’s a good time for us to be reminded that our ultimate citizenship is in the kingdom of Christ. He is the King—not the one we elected, but the one who has chosen us and has laid down his own life for his fellow heirs of the Father’s realm. And his is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. It is not an empire, party, or social movement that we are building. Not that we aren’t a part of these temporary kingdoms, helping to build better neighborhoods and nations. It’s just that in these common callings we are contributing to the building and repair of the kingdoms of this age that eventually collapse and, if remaining at Christ’s return, will be shaken to the foundations (Heb 12:26-27). Rather, “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken…” (v 28).

After his resurrection, Jesus returned to Galilee. “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Mat 28:16-17). Then and there the King announced, “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age'” (vv 18-20).

The disciples would face not only deprivation along with fellow Jews; they would soon be persecuted by their own families. It’s a “little flock”: make no mistake about it. Especially in churches here in the U.S., we don’t quite know what we are. On one hand, we seem to imagine that we’re a “big flock,” with an impressive history of national influence. On the other hand, we play the persecution card a lot, as if we were being thrown to the lions when the City Hall decides not to display the manger on its lawn at Christmas. Maybe it’s not as contradictory as that, though. After all, it’s only when you think you’re big that you take offense at the slightest evidence that you’re not. Our fears, like our hopes, reveal the gods in whom we place our trust.

I fret over making ends meet. Then I encounter believers enduring extreme poverty with remarkable confidence in God—not to mention those I meet under the constant threat of religious persecution in China and across the Islamic world. I want control over the temperature in my car. These folks know that they’re not in control, and yet they seem less fearful. They don’t demand things or fall apart at the slightest inconvenience. Their faith under pressure rebukes my sinful tendency to use God as a resource for my own control over my life instead of falling into the everlasting arms of a Father who so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. These saints don’t talk as much as we do about their impressive buildings, numbers, and cultural clout. They get the whole “little flock” thing. It’s not a stumbling block to them, but wonderfully realistic and assuring. The church may be nothing in the eyes of the world, but it’s everything to the Triune God. The King announces, “‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mat 16:18). It’s not “my life,” “so-and-so’s church/ministry,” or even “our project.” We belong to someone else. “‘Fear not, little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.'” It’s a little flock, but what an inheritance!

In John 16 the disciples confess their certainty that Jesus has indeed come from the Father. “Jesus answered them, ‘Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me'” (vv 30-32). Jesus’ response would appear at first glance to belittle their strong confession. Indeed, it is true: they would scatter, leaving Jesus alone. However, it’s not a rebuke but just a statement of fact leading to a marvelous assurance that in spite of their fear for their own lives he would be their conqueror even through their abandonment. Building the kingdom, purchasing the kingdom, bestowing the kingdom: these are the things that only he can do anyway, alone. The presence of the Father and the Spirit would suffice to uphold him in this solitary work he has to do. So he adds, “‘I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world‘” (v 33).

This is not just another “our brightest days are ahead” speech. It’s not a question of whether we’re happier, healthier, and wealthier than we were four years ago. It’s a well-grounded hope, anchored in the fact that Jesus has already inaugurated his kingdom and in death his last will and testament will be executed. When he is raised to the right hand of the Father, the seat of all power and authority, he will pour out his Spirit and adopt rebels as his co-heirs with him of his kingdom.

Notice that he didn’t say, “We’ll overcome the world together.” Nor did he say, “Here are the principles you can use to overcome the world.” He did not invite us to share in his redeeming agenda. Rather, he calls us to come to him and enjoy the spoils of his conquest.

In his life, death, and resurrection, this King of kings has secured the victory of God over the forces of sin and death that reign over this present evil age. When he returns, he will cleanse the whole earth to make it his dwelling place with his people forever. In between, it will be an era of, paradoxically, the stunning triumph of the Spirit through the Word in a global empire of grace and a perpetual conflict with the principalities and powers in heavenly places. Besides sharing in the common curse with our non-believing neighbors, the saints will be persecuted in many places during this intermission. The forces of darkness will not only be external threats, but wolves within that seek to wound, divide, and scatter the sheep.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this reflection on our King’s counsel for his “little flock” during this election season.

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“Fear Not, Little Flock”: The King’s Promise that Presidents Can’t Match

If our hopes indicate what we value most—what keeps us going, then our fears reveal the same in reverse. What do we need (or think we need) so much that we would be unable to go without it? And what do we believe in so much that if it doesn’t come through for us we’re totally disillusioned?

Even the most casual observer of these final days in the countdown to the general election is aware of the enormous largess being spent on fear. Tragically, some of the most extreme examples of fear-mongering hail from churches, on the left and the right. Earlier in the campaign, some evangelicals expressed alarm that a Mormon might become the high priest of the nation’s soul, while reviving the rumor that Barack Obama is a Muslim. (“After all, he’s not quite like us, is he?”) Yet many conservatives now think that Mitt Romney is just right for the job. In fact, maybe we’ve been too hard on Mormonism. It’s a God-fearing faith of family values. Isn’t that what matters most?

Let’s face it: Mr. Romney belongs to a religious community that officially rejects the Christian creed and Mr. Obama is a member of a liberal Protestant denomination that has largely abandoned it. Since George Washington we’ve been electing presidents with dubious confessional credentials, including a string of deists, Unitarians, and agnostics who nevertheless invoked the Unknown God for the American cause. The real question is not whether Americans generally will elect a non-Christian, but whether churches will redefine Christianity as a surrogate of civil religion. Judging at least by public profession, our next president will once again not be an orthodox Christian. That’s not a tragedy. The real tragedy is quasi-apocalyptic and eschatological claims that are made in churches on the left and the right that create a cycle of false hopes and false fears. The official name for this is idolatry. Who is Lord, Christ or Caesar? Churches and Christian leaders often send mixed signals on that one, especially at election time.

Responsibility versus Fear

Now, there is fear and there is responsible concern. Christians are called to be faithful in caring about and acting for their neighbors’ welfare. Our temporal good is wrapped up in the common good of our nation. We are right to be concerned about the value of human life and marriage, as well as “justice for all,” including our weaker and less privileged neighbors. We are faced with complex crises, foreign and domestic. Some wonder if they’ll ever find employment. Others fear that the economy will hit yet another, perhaps more catastrophic, dip. While the Arab Spring has become a scorching Islamist summer and dictatorships are replaced in some cases with jihadist sects, tensions continue to build between Israel and Iran. North Korea continues its threats, relations with China grow increasingly strained, and many feel a sense of vertigo about the future role of the U. S. in the world. These are not unimportant matters; they demand our attention.

Yet all of these anxieties get whipped up into a virtual frenzy at election time. It’s easy for opinions and strategies—even deeply-held political convictions—to morph into deified ideologies. Unrealistic hopes typically end in disillusionment and cynicism, if not something worse.

My next post will focus on how we put first things first again.

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Local Church, Local Restaurant

If you listened to this week’s White Horse Inn episode Is “The Easy Way” Always Best? perhaps you were intrigued by Kim Riddlebarger’s comment in the latter part of the the show about ministers serving a finely prepared meal to God’s people. This reminded me of a great article by Michael Brown from the July/August 2009 issue of Modern Reformation, “Local Church, Local Restaurant”. In this article, Rev. Brown develops this thought of the minister’s primary duty every week being to prepare rich, well-crafted sermons and how the sheep are to be fed with this divinely-served feast throughout the Divine Service:

As a pastor of a local church, I often walk alone through the empty auditorium of our building during the week. In the stillness, I look at the vacant pews and think of the people who will fill them on Sunday during the dinner rush. I contemplate the text I am working through that week and the sermon I am preparing. I look at the raised pulpit and large table and anticipate the food that will be served to them. I reflect on the movement of the liturgy, which, in some ways, resembles the structure of an Italian meal. The salutation after the invocation is similar to an aperitivo (aperitif). The absolution after the confession of sins is like the antipasto (appetizer). The sermon is the primo (first course), and the Lord’s Supper the secondo (second course). A contorno (side dish) might be served, if there is a baptism that day, but the meal will always conclude with formaggio e frutta (cheese and fruits) and/or dolce e caffe (dessert and coffee); that is, a benediction. I think of how, throughout the meal, we will raise our glasses of fine Sangiovese or Nero d’Avola wine in response to the God of grace, singing his praise, and confessing his goodness and mercy to us. This is a dining hall where God meets his people and feeds them with the surprising feast of Christ. These are the means he has ordained to give us refreshment, nourishment, and delight in this present evil age, a foretaste of that great meal to come, which was prophesied in Isaiah 25:6-9.

I hope you were well fed this past Lord’s Day in the preached Word and the Lord’s Supper and that it sustains you this week as you continue your pilgrim journey. However, as you will get hungry by week’s end, prepare yourself for another feast being lovingly prepared right now by your faithful chef.

To read the article in its entirety click here: “Local Church, Local Restaurant”

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Reforming A Local Church

Rev. Ken Jones of The White Horse Inn discusses his views on reforming the local church, and why it’s worth the headache.

The reality is that a church has the right to be wrong – if the conviction of the leadership of the church is different from what your new convictions are, and you try to teach in a secondary capacity that which contradicts what the leadership is teaching, it doesn’t matter how sound your doctrine, you are being disruptive.  It’s not a matter of trying to maintain false peace or maintain; it’s a matter of maintaining church order.

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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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