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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Which Church Would the Reformers Join Today? Avoiding a False Choice

It doesn’t really matter in the final analysis whether Luther and Calvin would find the average evangelical church in America today more or less congenial than Rome. Yet it does suggest an interesting point of departure as we think about the reasons why some find the latter attractive.

Many of us were raised to believe that we had all the answers (whatever they were) and that Roman Catholicism believes in Mary and the pope rather than Jesus and the Bible, in salvation by works rather than grace. And yet, as the surveys demonstrate, we didn’t really know what we believed or why we believed it—beyond a few slogans. If one asked the question in the correct form, we could possibly give the right answer on the big ones at least. However, a rising generation now is indistinguishable in its beliefs from Mormons, Unitarians, or those who check the “spiritual but not religious” box. “Moralistic-Therapeutic-Deism” is the working theology of most Americans, including evangelicals, we’re told. So when it comes to authority and salvation—the two issues at the heart of the Reformation’s concern, Protestantism today (mainline and evangelical) seems increasingly remote from anything that the Reformers would have recognized as catholic and evangelical faith and practice.

In my “cage phase” (when emerging Reformed zealots should be quarantined for a while), I read from a sixteenth-century confession the section on grace and justification. The audience was a rather large group of fellow students at a Christian college. “Do you think we could sign this statement today?”, I asked. Several replied, “No: it’s too Calvinistic.” That was interesting, because I was quoting the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s teaching that justification was by Christ’s merits alone, imputed to sinners through faith alone. I didn’t quote the whole section, but only the part that affirmed that we are saved by grace and that our cooperation in the process of salvation—even our will to believe—requires God’s grace.

You have to dig beneath the sweeping slogans and generalizations; its precisely in the details—where many eyes glaze over—that the massive differences between Rome and the Reformation appear.

Pelagianism—the view that we are saved by our own choice and effort, apart from grace, was condemned by several ancient church councils and bishops of Rome. Even Semi-Pelagianism—the view that we make the first move by free will and then grace assists us—was also condemned. (The Second Council of Orange in 529 even anathematized those who say that we’re born again by saying a prayer, when it is even God’s grace that gives us the will to pray for Christ’s mercy.) Yet the Latin Church always struggled with the Pelagian virus in varying degrees. Medieval leaders like Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine wrote treatises titled, “Against the New Pelagians.” Thomas Aquinas emphasized the priority of God’s grace in predestination and regeneration. Luther’s own mentor and head of the Augustinian Order in Germany, Johann von Staupitz, wrote “A Treatise on God’s Eternal Election” in which he expressed concern that free will and works-righteousness had begun to undermine faith in God’s grace in Christ. By the time of the Reformation, popular piety was corrupted by countless innovations and superstitions. Luther was first aroused to arms by the arrival of a preacher with papal authority to dispense indulgences (time off in purgatory) for money that would help built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Reformation couldn’t be dismissed precisely because it resonated with so many who knew that Rome had drifted far from its ancient moorings into myriad corruptions. Awakened by the new biblical scholarship, many of Europe’s leading Renaissance humanists became convinced that the Reformers were correct in their interpretation and application of Scripture to the church’s condition.

The Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation’s convictions, affirmed the importance of grace going before all of our willing and running. Nevertheless, it condemned the view that, once regenerated by grace alone in baptism (our first justification), we cannot merit an increase of justification and final justification by our works. Trent said in no uncertain terms that Christ’s merits are not sufficient for salvation. Everything turned on different understandings of grace (God’s medicine infused to help us cooperate vs. God’s favor toward us in Christ) and therefore justification (a process of inner renewal vs. a declaration based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone).

As Hodge and Warfield pointed out, the explicit convictions of the famous evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, Charles G. Finney, were much further down the Pelagian road than Rome. Finney not only denied justification through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone. He based this on a rejection of original sin, the substitutionary atonement, and the supernatural character of the new birth. Consequently, his “new measures”—methods whose only criterion was whether they were “fit to convert sinners with”—replaced the divinely ordained means of grace and his “protracted meetings” (revivals) radically altered the shape of most Protestant services and ministries in America. As Arminian theologian Roger Olson has pointed out, much of evangelical preaching today isn’t really Arminian but is closer to Pelagianism.

So you have a distinctly Protestant kind of hazy moralism (works-righteousness) and an equally hazy notion that somehow Rome believes we’re saved by works rather than grace. It can be a fatal combination, especially when people realize that Rome does in fact believe in original sin and the necessity of grace—more in fact than many who call themselves evangelicals.

Now we see many evangelicals being attracted to the Reformation’s emphases, discovering a tradition that is both catholic and evangelical without many of the trappings of evangelicalism. As their encounter with the Reformation widens beyond election and justification, they bump into views that sound at first “too Catholic.” Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) doesn’t mean that creeds and confessions and the decisions of church councils and assemblies don’t have any authority. Although Scripture alone has magisterial authority, these faithful summaries of Scripture nevertheless have a ministerial authority. Sola gratia (by grace alone) is not set over against the regular ministry of preaching and the sacraments; rather, these are the means of grace through which the Spirit delivers Christ with all of his benefits. It’s not Roman Catholic, to be sure, but to many evangelical brothers and sisters, it sounds “too Catholic.” Reformed and Lutheran churches include the children of believers in baptism. Liturgy, orders and offices, discipline and the accountability of local churches to each other in wider assemblies. These characteristics of Reformed ecclesiology also strike many evangelicals, again, as “too Catholic.”

And that makes some sense. After all, despite its critique of the magisterial authority assigned to the pope officially at the Council of Trent, the Reformation differs at least as much from the freelance ministry of “anointed” preachers who act like popes, only without any accountability to the magisterium.

Churches of the Reformation not only challenged the hierarchical government of the Roman Church but the sects who followed their own self-appointed prophets. Yes, said the Reformers, individual members and ministers are accountable to the church in its local and broader assemblies. God doesn’t speak directly to individuals (including preachers) today, but through his Word as it is interpreted by the wider body of pastors and elders in solemn assemblies. Tragically, evangelical hierarchies today are more prone to authoritarian abuses and personal idiosyncrasies than one finds in Rome.

Reformation Churches and Rome

Dislodged from confidence in Pastor Bob and the givens of the evangelical subculture, they realize that the Reformation was, well, a reformation and not a revolution or “do-over.” Luther was not the founder of a new church, but an evangelical-catholic reformer. As expressed in the title of one of the great works of Elizabethan Puritanism—William Perkins’s The Reformed Catholic, there is a deep continuity with the undivided church.

On the Roman Catholic TV network (EWTN) recently, Fr. Pacwa interviewed a professor who had graduated from Wheaton and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Becoming more interested in the Reformation, the professor pursued a PhD at the University of Iowa focusing on the theology of Calvin. The title of this segment was “How Calvin Made Me a Catholic.” The Reformers were eager to show their connection to the pre-Reformation church. They did not believe that the church had basically gone underground—much less extinct—between Paul and Luther. Rather, they argued that a gradual decay had been accelerated by recent emphases and innovations that needed to be corrected. Calvin is recognized by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike as a scholar of the early fathers and his Institutes and commentaries are replete with citations from writers of the East and West. The great theologians of Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxy engaged the ancient and medieval theologians as their own, yet always subject to critique as well as approval on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture according to a shared confession.

So I can understand why some evangelicals find the Reformation “too Catholic” or, weary of Protestantism in any form, look back to their “Reformation episode” as a gateway drug to the mysteries of Rome. For a long time now, American Protestants have defined their faith and practice in reaction against Rome. Now, a growing number are defining their faith and practice in reaction against evangelicalism. “If the Reformers were alive today, they’d be Roman Catholic before they would join an evangelical sect.” I’ve heard that sentiment on more than one occasion.

However, the men and women who risked their lives in the sixteenth century to defend the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ would refuse the false choice between a chaotic Protestantism and a Roman Catholicism that still maintains the theology of Trent. (See, for example, the most recent Catholic Catechism.) It would be perverse to imagine that Luther or Calvin would find Rome more acceptable today than it was in their day. Even in the much-publicized “Joint Declaration on Justification,” it was the mainline Lutherans who surrendered their confessional convictions; Rome did not change any of its official positions. In any case, the Vatican has made it clear that this consultation in no way has any magisterial weight.

If anything, Rome is a more confusing place today. The magisterium tolerates views that contradict its official teachings—even on points that we share in the ecumenical consensus. In Rome today there are as many competing schools, sects, and the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal, as in Protestantism. The only difference is the one doctrine that really matters to Rome: implicit faith in and obedience to the authority of the pope. And make no mistake about it: Anyone who does convert out of a desire to surrender responsibility for interpreting Scripture in exchange for the infallible certainty of an earthly teacher is making a very “Protestant” move. At least that first leap is a personal judgment and interpretation of Scripture, every bit as individual as Luther’s “Here I stand.” The decision to embrace any confession or ecclesiastical body is a personal commitment that involves (at best) one’s own discernment of the plain teaching of Scripture.

Is the growing interest in Reformation theology among younger evangelicals going to mean that, for some, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury will be a rest stop before moving on to Rome or Antioch? I suspect that there will be this kind of trend of some sort in the future. We dare not treat those struggling with these issues among us as “necessary casualties,” a minimal loss compared to net gains. Pastoral love, wisdom, and patience will be more valuable than gold. There are real questions here—existential, exegetical, theological, and practical, with real lives being affected. It’s not a time for us to grand-stand or to shoot from the hip with speculations about peoples’ motives or character, but for trying to make a persuasive case and leaving the results to the Spirit of truth. In my next post I’ll explore the issue of authority, which is a major issue for those wrestling with these questions.

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Dare to Do the Daniel Diet

The “Daniel Diet” launched by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Community Church has a lot of people talking. About a month ago, a national paper asked me to comment on this latest plan from a passionately creative Christian leader. It was the health editor. Never talked to a health editor before, ever. I rarely talk to a health provider. So besides unwillingness to criticize a brother in public over a totally unimportant issue, about which I knew nothing except for what the editor told me, I declined in short order.

Yet now here TIME magazine spotlights the “Daniel Diet”-and does such a good job with it, I thought, that something larger is worth bringing to the table (no pun intended). In a land where almost anything with the word “diet” in it sells, “spirituality” isn’t far down the list either. Together, the world’s their oyster. Now, if we can get sex, spirituality, and diet in the same program, I’m guessing we’d see that one at the airport.

What intrigued me about the TIME article was the author’s keen exegetical skills. I’ll explain in a minute.

When I was growing up, the Old Testament was a quarry from which to sculpt heroic examples to emulate. “Dare to Be a Daniel” meant something like “Man up-don’t be afraid of lions.” You do your part, and God will watch your back.

Still in that genre, the “Daniel Diet” focuses predictably on what obsesses most Americans today: obesity. Understandably. To badly paraphrase Isaiah, I am out of shape and dwell among an out-of-shape people. I have lost a few pounds, am back in the gym, but my wife keeps telling me that it’s not about fad diets but about daily decisions. “Just think about what you’re doing,” she tells me. The point is, I don’t need Daniel-or the Bible-to tell me I need to get fit. And a diet of seeds and water that Daniel and his Jewish compadres endured may not even be healthy.

It all goes back to the human-centered way of reading the Bible, as if God were a supporting actor in our drama, rather our being cast as beneficiaries of his bounty in Christ. We appeal to statistics to convince people that prayer makes us happier, healthier, and more fulfilled than non-prayers. Leviticus is relevant only if we can explain how the dietary laws somehow reveal secret principles of universal health, when that wasn’t the point of these laws at all. Their purpose was to separate Israel from the nations: the “clean/unclean” separation, keeping a pure line leading to the Messiah. That distinction was dissolved with Christ’s advent, as Peter was told by God in the dream in Acts 10:9-19. Pork is as acceptable as chicken now, just as in Christ believing Gentiles are co-heirs with Jews.

The problem with the moralizing interpretations familiar to us is not only that they focus the story on us rather than on God and his work in history, centering on Christ; it’s that precisely in making it about us, we trivialize the greatest story ever told. No wonder so many people assume that the Bible is simply a collection of tips for life.

Elizabeth Dias, the author of the TIME article puts his finger on the right issue: “But the historical context of the Book of Daniel suggests that the text in fact has very little to do with diet or health.” (Read more here.)

Appealing to Choon-Leong Seow, an Old Testament professor at Princeton Seminary, Dias notes, that “Daniel is less a story of resisting rich food than a story of resisting a foreign king.” “Daniel and his friends resisted the king’s table, Seow says, as a tangible expression of their reliance on God’s power instead of the king’s.” “If the text were actually about diet, Seow argues, there would be evidence that the king’s table violated Jewish food laws. A Jewish diet would have meant no pork, Seow notes, but most other meats, slaughtered properly, are O.K. Wine too is permissible. Nor does the text give any indication that the king’s food had been offered to idols, which is another thing that would have made it off-limits to the young Jews.”

Dias, who studied with Seow, points out, “It’s no surprise many people don’t realize this, since English translations sometimes miss the original emphasis the Bible places on contrasting what the king could give Daniel (earthly pleasures) and what God could give him (something much greater). ‘The point is not the triumph of vegetarianism or even the triumph of piety or the triumph of wisdom,’ Seow concludes, ‘but the triumph of God.’”

Wow! Talk about getting the point! Just then, though, Dias drifts toward another form of moralizing the story. Daniel’s actions were mainly about solidarity with his oppressed fellow-Jews. “There’s a lesson or two here for a modern culture in which the income and opportunity gap grows wider every day.” The Book of Daniel may not be about a diet plan. “Still, it’s the call for restraint, for choosing not to get drunk on excess, that may be the Book of Daniel’s most powerful message. Not only does this benefit the privileged, but also the needy, who may then have a chance to enjoy the choicest portions too, as opposed just society’s leftovers. That’s a message Daniel himself would probably celebrate and support.”

Predictably, evangelicals often use Daniel for personal well-being and moral uplift, while mainliners go for the social justice angle. In both cases, the story is about us and what we can use from it for our self-crafting and world-crafting projects. Yet something more wonderful is lying there in Daniel waiting to be discovered! Even in exile, God is faithful to his covenant people. The most powerful king in the region of that day is not Lord, as it turns out. Yahweh is. (That’s what the actions of Daniel and his friends, the fiery furnace, and the visions are all about.) With the vision of the four beasts (or kingdoms) in chapter 7, the message becomes crystal-clear: The Ancient of Days takes his throne in the courtroom and the “Son of Man” appears. All of the empires are shaken, but this kingdom that will arise has no end. “But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever’” (Dan 7:18). The prophecies go on to relate in apocalyptic imagery the triumph of the Son of Man over the earthly empires. God has the last word in the book: “‘But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of days’” (Dan 12:13).

It’s this prophecy that Hebrews announces as having been fulfilled with Christ’s coming: Everything that can be shaken will be, “in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:26-28). In this version, God has the starring role. He is building his kingdom, installing his Messiah on his holy hill, and we’re recipients of the victory he has won-for us and for the whole world. Now that’s a headline story!

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Update from Kim Riddlebarger

Dear friends,

Great news to report.

In the providence of God, the serious GI bleed revealed the presence of a polyp turned tumor which caused the bleeding. Had I not had the bleeding, I would never have known the nasty little polyp was in there growing and turning cancerous. The doctor was able to remove the polyp/tumor, and found nothing outside. The pain, while great, is bearable and the doctors anticipate a full and complete recovery with little to no change in diet and lifestyle.

We felt your prayers and are deeply moved by so many thoughtful well-wishes. I will remain hospitalized a couple of days and may even be at church sooner than expected.

God is good.

Blessings,
KR

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Please Pray for Kim Riddlebarger

Kim Riddlebarger will have surgery tomorrow to remove a tumor and part of his colon. Please pray for our friend.

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WHI-1103 | Growing in Grace & Knowledge

Knowledge and truth have fallen on hard times in contemporary American culture. We are distracted from thinking deeply about anything because we are too busy focusing on ourselves and our own entertainment. Sadly, this problem is not merely “out there” in the world. Overnight, contemporary churches have become entertainment centers and purveyors of self-centered spirituality. Encouraged by smiling television preachers to have our best life now, modern Christians have almost lost sight of Jesus and his saving work. We desperately need to follow the advice of the apostle Peter, who encouraged believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18). R. C. Sproul joins the panel for this special edition of White Horse Inn recorded before a live audience in Orlando, Florida.

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The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
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Why Do We Go to Church?

How the “Worship Wars” Often Miss the Real Issue

Where going to church was for most Americans the default setting, today it’s a conscious choice. Many churches tried wooing Boomers back with softness and smiles, affirming images of a God who is helpful for our life projects, and myriad activities for the kids. Many of their children and grandchildren are burned out on it all. Some head for the exit, toward Rome, the East, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Others are calling the church to be less consumer-driven and to make God the focus.

For too long the “worship wars” have coalesced around style. These are not unimportant questions; how we worship says a lot about the object and significance of the event. However, all the sides (simplistically drawn between “traditionalists” and “contemporary-worship” advocates) in the debates share more in common than any do with the rationale of Reformation Christianity.

The most important divide is over this question: Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?

I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.

Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.

Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?

Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.

Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.

In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.

In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.

In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”

It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.

However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.

Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).

What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center? (Elsewhere, Kimball has criticized the Reformation for identifying the “marks of the church” with preaching and sacraments, precisely because it defines the church as a place where God is doing certain things rather than a people who do certain things.)

How can one say that the worship service “is not about us” and then categorically deny that it’s “about God’s service to us” and instead say that “It is purely our offering” to God?

This even affects the horizontal aspect of the service. There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ? According to Kimball, leaders should ask, “Is this environment and what we do allowing us to become more intense worshippers of God?” (115). Similarly, Sally Morganthaler suggests that this approach means that “worship experience emerge from the people themselves,” rather than “the generic wrapper” (I think she means liturgy.) [1]

Again, the cure seems worse than the disease. How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word?

If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ! “Emerging generations are hungering to experience God in worship,” Kimball says (116). That’s great! But isn’t that precisely why we need God to be the main actor?

If church services are merely places where we get our marching orders for the week, have a little fellowship, and offer our praises, money, and prayers, then why do we all need to actually show up every week to do this? What can be done here that cannot be done in all sorts of informal ways throughout the week? In fact, Kimball adds, “We adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings.’ Our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our marriages, our families, our jobs—everything should be offered to him in worship. This includes what we think about, what we do, what we say, what we eat, and what we spend time doing—they are all acts of worship.” “It is offering our love, our adoration, and our praise to him through all of our lives,” so it’s “extremely sad that we have trained people to think that worship primarily happens when they come to church and sing” (4-5). Our speaking parts (means of commitment), not God’s (means of grace), are the reason for going to church, in this view.

There are certainly many passages that affirm with Kimball that our worship is to be an expression of our daily lives—whether eating or drinking, working at the office, living with neighbors and family members, all to the glory of God. However, that’s exactly why we need to be on the receiving end Lord’s Day. Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.


1. Sally Morganthaler, “Emerging Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views, ed. Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 229.[Back]

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For or Against Calvinism: The Miami Edition

This past January, Michael Horton and Roger Olson had another chance to discuss their books (For Calvinism and Against Calvinism published by Zondervan) in Miami, Florida, and this conversation is now available at the White Horse Inn store (The Miami Conversation). If you haven’t heard the first conversation recorded at Biola University in La Mirada, CA in October 2011 you can get a bundle of both audio recordings at a discount (Both Conversations). The format of the Miami conversation was the same; both speakers had a brief opportunity to make the case for or against Calvinism followed up by a time of back and forth conversation and questions from the audience.

The total length of the Miami audio file is 98 minutes, and you can listen to a teaser of this discussion below:

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A New York Saturday


Grab your coffee and spend a few minutes with Mike Horton in New York City. This video, graciously provided by our friends at MockingbirdNYC was shot at their recent conference. Mike Horton was the plenary speaker and after his session, he sat down with Jady Koch to talk theology: specifically the difference between grace and karma, the difference between reason and rationalism, the use and misuse of the third use of the law–even Bono makes an appearance! Good stuff to get you started on your weekend.

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How Would Jesus Vote?

Every political season, a firestorm of controversy erupts around the religious viewpoints of the major candidates and their policy prescriptions. But more and more Christians are increasingly uncomfortable with the agenda from both sides of the political aisle to claim God as a campaign advisor. How should Christians understand their responsibilities as citizens? What role does our faith play when we enter the voting booth? Does God even care?

The California primary election will be June 5th. Would you consider taking the time in your busy schedule to give the evening of June 1st over to thinking more deeply about the intersection of your faith and your earthly citizenship?

How would Jesus Vote? A Special Presentation from Michael Horton

  • When:  Friday, June 1, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Who:  Michael Horton
  • What:  Michael Horton, author and host of the White Horse Innnational radio broadcast, is coming to the Silicon Valley to explore the political implications of being a disciple of King Jesus. You are invited to a special lecture at The King’s Academy on June 1st at 7:30 pm (reception to follow). Free resources from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation magazine will also be available.
  • Where: The King’s Academy, 562 North Britton Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA  94085
  • Registration: FREE EVENT – no registration required!

Please periodically check our calendar page for more upcoming events.


UPDATE – 6.7.12: This event was not recorded so we will be unable to provide the audio to this lecture.

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What’s a Routine Traffic Stop? It All Depends

Looking at the Trayvon Martin Case from an African-American Perspective

By Ken Jones | Pastor, Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, FL) and Co-Host, White Horse Inn

On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, I was looking out of my office window at approximately 3:30, in the afternoon. Our church sits on a busy street just above an on-and-off ramp for the turnpike. So I was not surprised to see a car turn into our driveway (this often happens when a driver has missed the on ramp or has gone the wrong direction when getting off of the turnpike). What caught my attention about this car is that it was actually being directed into our lot by a police car. Apparently there was some sort of traffic violation and the police officer pulled the violator out of the busy traffic into our parking lot to write him up.

I went back to my desk and after about twenty minutes I peeked out the window and there was a young African-American male with hands spread on the hood of his car as he was being patted down by the officer. Most traffic violations don’t require a body search or pat down, so I headed out to the parking lot for a closer look.

Not wanting to jump to a conclusion, and doing the best that I could to suppress the familiar anger that accompanies the conclusion that I was trying not to jump to, I first went to my car that was parked several feet away from the incident but still in view. By the time I reached my car the young man was seated on the ground as the officer proceeded to search both the trunk and glove box of his car. At this point I walked towards the scene and from a distance I informed the officer that I was the pastor of the church and asked if everything was alright, to which he replied “yes”, just a routine traffic stop. I stood by the door of the building for a few minutes before returning to my office. When I looked back outside, the officer was handing the young man a ticket and within a few minutes they were both gone.

The words resonated in my mind “routine traffic stop.” I had received a traffic ticket a few weeks earlier, a procedure that took all of ten minutes, with my glove box being opened by me to get out my registration. I never got out of my vehicle, was not searched or patted down and my trunk was not opened. I thought my experience which also ended with a citation was a routine traffic stop. But then I thought about the conclusion that I had tried to avoid jumping to, and I understood the truthfulness of the officer’s words.

In far too many instances when young black males are involved this is “the routine.” I recalled incidents from my youth in South Central Los Angeles, where standing on the street with two or three friends would prompt a U-turn from law enforcement passing by. We would be told by these officers of the law that we were gang members (when we weren’t); that we matched the description of perpetrators of some crime in the area, or they were sure we were on our way to no good. That was “routine.” It was also routine, when I started driving, to be pulled over and detained for up to an hour. When my son came of age it was also routine for him to be detained on his way home from his university job for similar periods of time. There seems to be something suspicious about young African males that warrants re-defining “routine” when dealing with them.

Whatever else is associated with the Trayvon Martin case; what gnaws on me is the suspicion that he was deemed a suspicious character and therefore a threat. In the incident that occurred in our church parking lot, I intentionally did not mention the race of the police officer because this not wholly a race issue. Many of the officers who gave out the harshest treatment in our South Central neighborhood were themselves African-American. This is about prejudice in the name of prevention and the subjects of this prejudicial action in far too many cases are young African-American males who seem to be perceived as a threat. Geraldo Rivera suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin made him suspicious, and that Hispanic and African-American parents should not allow their teens to wear them.

Last summer, I spoke at the Legacy Conference in Chicago where there were braids, tattoos and hoodies galore, adorned by young people who devoted three days to the study of God’s word and taking it to the streets. Whether we like the fashion of our young people or not, is beside the point. Fashion has always been a part of youth rebellion. After all, suburban youth of different ethnicities who often share the fashion of urban youth are not subject to the same “routine” as young African-American males.

In the past, this prejudice in the name of prevention has come from law enforcement. In the Trayvon Martin case, it was from a neighborhood watch person. I pray that the judicial process will render a just ruling. But here is my greater desire that young men of color will become subjects of actual “routine” traffic stops and not suspicious characters because of their age, color or attire.

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