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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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Culture-Changers: Mainline Denominations Losing Members but Making Their Mark

 

U. C. Berkeley professor David Hollinger tried to put wind in the sails of liberal Protestants in his recent presidential address for the Organization of American Historians. Not having read the address, I can only refer to the interview that recently arrived in my in-box from the Christian Century.

According to Professor Hollinger, mainline Protestantism may have lost its members in droves, but at least it has decisively shaped American culture—especially politics. So cheer up, heirs of Harry Emerson Fosdick! Funded by parishioner John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Fosdick’s campaign especially targeted the scholarly defense of historic Christianity by the likes of J. Gresham Machen. Fosdick’s 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” upped the ante in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy and in this interview Professor Hollinger holds him up as a model for a reinvigorated social gospel.

It’s always interesting to hear partisans describe their own defeats as victories. However, Professor Hollinger includes himself among the “Post-Protestants”: secularists who hope that liberal Protestants will revive their spirit enough to combat evangelicals. In so doing, they might still lose their own members, but they will at least win the respect of urban intellectuals like himself and perhaps stay in the game of shaping high culture.

There is a lot that could be said about the views expressed in the interview. If anyone is looking for a good example of Machen’s claim that liberalism equals secularization, they will find it here. What I want to challenge is a historical point.

Professor Hollinger is no mean encourager of the downcast. A historian of American intellectual culture, he has contributed an impressive body of work. Nevertheless, one of the central points he makes in this interview is worth a little push-back, even from a non-specialist such as myself. It is the claim that while evangelicalism hails from the sticks–a coalition of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Holiness folks who were basically racist, sexist, and with “Red State” political agendas– liberal (he prefers “ecumenical”) Protestantism paved the way for racial, gender, and economic equality. Mainliners, Hollinger believes, need to have more face-time in the media, exposing America to the latest biblical scholarship—which, ostensibly, debunks the Bible. (Never mind the fact that evangelicals are among the leading biblical scholars in the Society of Biblical Literature and have arguably injected new life into New Testament studies in recent decades.) The Christian Century needs to get back its groove to go head-to-head with Christianity Today.

If I am aware of it, I’m sure that Professor Hollinger knows that the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the twentieth century was a mixed bag—even from a twenty-first-century secularist’s perspective.

First, evangelicalism was American Protestantism until the turn of the 20th century. Second, it’s also anachronistic to project backwards today’s liberal-conservative profiles. Evangelicals in Britain and America did more to bring down modern slavery and the industrial exploitation of women and children than any other group—certainly more than latitudinarian Anglicans (overwhelmingly Tory) and American Unitarians.

I’m not exactly cheering when I say that the Social Gospel movement arose largely out of the evangelical movement—in particular, the Second Great Awakening.

Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a founding father of the movement, at first opposed local workers who went on strikes. Fellow Congregationalist pastor Charles M. Sheldon (author of In His Steps, which coined the famous query, “What would Jesus do?”) changed his mind on the subject. The German Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), author of Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), joined forces with Unitarian minister Francis Greenwood Peabody. So far, so good on the claim that theological and political liberalism go hand-in-hand.

However, the most popular sermon of the movement—and indeed the decade—was Russell H. Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds”: “Because to make money honestly is to preach the Gospel…You ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich…Ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men in America are honest. That is why they are rich….The number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong.” This distinctively American message was heard on both sides of the theological and political aisle. The conservative evangelist D. L. Moody was at least as energetic as the others in extending concern to the poor and needy (founding scores of rescue missions, not to mention the YMCA). Yet he too said, “Show me a business man who has accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior and I’ll show you a successful business man.” Both the Social Gospellers and their critics in American Protestantism remained fluid on how exactly to restructure the world’s economy. Socialism, however, was not a live option for either camp, as it certainly was for evangelicals as well as others in Europe at the time.

Nor were Social Gospellers less racist or imperialistic, by and large. Many were in the vanguard of those who defended the Spanish-American War. The Reverend William Rainsford, a Social Gospel Episcopalian, opined, “This war has not been cunningly devised by strategists. America is being used to carry on the work of God in this war, which no politician could create, control, or gainsay.”

Following Charles Finney, New School Presbyterians and Congregationalists were, ironically, the fountainhead of both wings of Protestantism before the fundamentalist-modernist split. In an Oberlin address, “A Perfect State of Society,” Wheaton president Jonathan Blanchard was hardly less serious in his postmillennial vigor when he said, “What John the Baptist and the Savior meant when they preached the kingdom of God was a perfect state of society.” Lyman Beecher, whose trial over denying original sin and the substitutionary atonement finally split the Presbyterian Church in 1835, was a staunch abolitionist as well as defender of prohibition and the restriction of Roman Catholic immigration. Beecher unflinchingly supported America’s “manifest destiny” in conquering the natives in the West.

An especially peculiar figure, both an evangelical and social gospel advocate, was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). A Congregationalist minister, Strong argued in Our Country: Its Promises and Its Crisis (1885), that Anglo-Saxons have a duty from God to “civilize and Christianize the rest of the world.” There are Seven Perils, he announced: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Alcohol, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. Unlike other European races, whose religion is bound up with external rites and institutions (Rome and state Protestantism), Anglo-Saxon religion is “pure spiritual Christianity.” Thus, the Anglo-Saxon (especially American) race is “destined to be for all men its brother’s keeper.” Missions brings development: “Commerce follows the missionary.” “Christianizing talent on a wide scale,” including “the money power,” will bring enormous gains, along with prohibition of alcohol. Yet this strength of Anglo-Saxon America, uncorrupted even by British monarchism, cannot be limited to one continent. We are about to see “the final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled.” His chilling words continue:

Long before the thousand millions of immigrants are here, the mighty centrifugal tendency, inherent in this stock and strengthened in the United States, will assert itself. Then this race of unequaled energy, with all the majesty of numbers and the might of wealth behind it—the representation, let us hope, of the largest liberty, the purest Christianity, the highest civilization—having developed peculiarly aggressive traits calculated to impress its institutions upon mankind, will spread itself over the earth. If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond. And can anyone doubt that the result of this competition of races will be the ‘survival of the fittest’?…The United States is destined to dispossess many weaker races, assimilate others, and mold the remainder until, in a very true and important sense, it has Anglo-Saxonized mankind.

This will lead to “God’s final and complete solution of the dark problem of heathenism among many inferior peoples” (392).

After Our Country, Strong was made General Secretary of the American Evangelical Alliance, then founded his own League for Social Service with its magazine, The Gospel of the Kingdom. He also wrote The New Era (1893), where he coined the terms “Christian socialism” and “the Social Gospel,” and continued his vision in The Next Great Awakening (1902). Strong became a pioneer of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ, forerunner of the National Council of Churches—which, once again, shows that any talk of a clear divide between evangelicals and social gospel advocates at the turn of the century is anachronistic. (By the way, a note to Emergent brothers and sisters: all of this was called “modernism,” not “postmodernism.”)

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922) was another liberal evangelical, whose central message was “What Jesus saw, humanity is becoming.” He too called for the conquest of the native Americans “and other inferior peoples.” “Barbarism has no rights which civilization is bound to respect. In the history of the human race, nothing is more certain than that civilization must conquer and barbarism must be subdued.” President McKinley, an evangelical Presbyterian close to Abbott, spoke in an interview of the “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines—but it was an atrocious and bloody war with Spain. McKinley told the interviewer, “I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me…that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.” Not to be outdone, even Pope Leo XIII endorsed the war, while Mark Twain wrote, “I fail to understand how the Filipino has been lifted up by the Gospel that was rammed into him with bayonets.”

Although Abbott was an outspoken liberal (basically, Unitarian), when the aged Charles Finney published his self-congratulatory Memoirs, it bore this endorsement from Abbott: “This is the most fascinating religious biography that I ever read. It is as dramatic, full of surprises, almost as marvelous in its manifestation of divine power, as the Book of Acts. It is coming out at just the right time.”

If Professor Hollinger’s historical narrative is open to question, his simplistic portrait of evangelicals and “ecumenical Protestants” is as black-and-white (or “Red” and “Blue”) as that of any fundamentalist. Readily available, a host of recent studies show that evangelical Protestants give far more of their income per capita than their neighbors, including mainline Protestants. And they give not only to missions but also to myriad causes for the relief of human suffering around the world. Organizations like World Vision continue a long history of pioneering benevolent work by evangelicals. Nor can evangelicals, who helped to elect Jimmy Carter as well as Ronald Reagan, be considered a predictably Republican voting block.

I get the secularist narrative, and why its proponents find it persuasive—indeed, need it to be persuasive. But this interview illustrates how history can be the hottest resource and the greatest casualty when you’re engaged in a culture war.

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Should You Pray for God to Save Your Loved Ones?

 

Calvinists hear Arminian friends ask this question all the time. It’s usually intended as a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s really a statement: If you believe that your unbelieving friend is dead in sin until God unilaterally regenerates him or her, and that God has unconditionally chosen whom he will save, then what’s the point? Que sera, sera: Whatever will be, will be.

Of course, this is a terrific objection to hyper-Calvinism, but misses its Reformed target. Our confessions teach that God works through means. Though the Father has chosen unconditionally some from our condemned race for everlasting life in his Son, the elect were not redeemed until he sent his Son “in the fullness of time,” and they are not justified until the Spirit gives them faith in Christ through the gospel. To invoke Paul’s argument (on the heels of teaching unconditional election), “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14-15, 17).

For years now, I’ve reversed this rhetorical question, asking, Why would anyone pray for the conversion of their loved one if God were not sovereign in dispensing his grace? Arminians shouldn’t pray for God to save their loved ones, because God could reply, “Look, I’ve done my part; now the ball is in your court.” Yet, I note, Arminians are typically no less zealous in praying for the salvation of the lost than Calvinists. We’re at one on our knees.

Not so quickly, says Roger Olson, a distinguished Baptist professor and author of Arminian Theology. By now, readers of this blog may know that my friend Roger and I have been engaged in conversations about these things. He wrote, Against Calvinism, and I wrote For Calvinism, and we have taken up these issues in person as part of our White Horse Inn “Conversations” series. We’re both trying to understand each other’s views charitably, if nevertheless critically. In that spirit, the following…

In a recent post, Roger stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that “Arminians should not pray to God to save their friends and loved ones.” It may be that one is using “save” differently. However, “Normal language interpretation would seem to me to indicate that asking God to save someone, without any qualifications, is tantamount (whatever is intended) to asking God to do the impossible (from an Arminian perspective).”

He adds, “So, if a person asks me about such praying I will lead off the discussion with ‘What do you intend for God to do?’ If the person says ‘I am asking God to intervene in their life to force them to repent and believe’ I will say ‘That’s not possible’ and explain why.”

(Now, Roger, I do have to quibble here: Who on earth, including the staunchest Calvinist, is going to mean by that, “I am asking God…to force them to repent and believe”? Again, you have to look at our confessions for our views on the subject and they all unanimously teach that in effectually calling us the Spirit does not coerce or force our will, but frees it from its bondage to sin and death. Faith is entirely the gift of God and entirely the free response of a human being who has been made alive by the Spirit through the gospel.)

Roger’s point is that an Arminian who prays this kind of prayer is acting like a Calvinist, but in fact asking God to “force them to repent and believe” is not a Calvinist way of praying.

Having said that, I do think that Roger has consistency on his side when it comes to his own position. “‘Lord, save my friend’ (without qualification) normally reflects monergism, not synergism.” (Since Paul said that “my heart’s prayer to God for [fellow Jews] is that they may be saved” [Rom 10:1], I’m delighted now to find that this is yet another proof-text for monergism!)

Professor Olson is not being picky, going around telling fellow Arminians not to pray for folks; he just wants their prayer to be consistent with their theology. He explains, “If I hear my pastor or Sunday School teacher or a student pray something like ‘God, please save so-and-so’ I will probably go to that person and inquire what they meant and suggest changing the words in the future to match the intended meaning. Why? Because public prayers also teach. People hearing a pastor or Sunday School teacher or student pray such a prayer will probably get the wrong idea (unless the prayer was intended monergistically).”

I’m glad that most Arminians are not consistent on this point. Since God does use means (including our prayers) to accomplish his purposes, it is a good thing indeed that Christians of any stripe are asking God to bring their loved ones—and ours—to saving faith in Christ, just as God used the prayers of all sorts of people in our case. And it’s a good thing that God can in fact answer that prayer, isn’t it?

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Muslim Persecution of Christians

As we have seen the Arab Spring turn into a scorching summer throughout many countries in the middle east, we are also beginning to hear more and more about the difficulties faced by minority Christian populations in those regions. Even where somewhat democratic regimes have offered promising hopes for religious freedom (as in Indonesia), the pace of persecution is stepping up around the world. A recent article by the Gatestone Institute provides an up-to-date summary:

Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012

Unlike those nations, such as Saudi Arabia, that have eliminated Christianity altogether, Muslim countries with significant Christian minorities saw much persecution during the month of May: in Egypt, Christians were openly discriminated against in law courts, even as some accused the nation’s new president of declaring that he will “achieve the Islamic conquest of Egypt for the second time, and make all Christians convert to Islam;” in Indonesia, Muslims threw bags of urine on Christians during worship; in Kashmir and Zanzibar, churches were set on fire; and in Mali, Christianity “faces being eradicated.”

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa—in Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan, the Ivory Coast—wherever Islam and Christianity meet, Christians are being killed, slaughtered, beheaded and even crucified.

To read the rest of this article click here: Muslim Persecution of Christians: May 2012.

To read more about Christianity and Islam, check out the July / August 2012 issue of Modern Reformation “The Cross and the Crescent

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“It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the church…”

The need is still great for missions to far-flung regions where the gospel is virtually unknown. One of the things I’ve become more convinced of over the past 20 years, however, is that the gospel is as foreign to us in the West (including North America) as anywhere. You can get a lot of support from Christians on that point when you’re talking about the culture, but I’m talking about churches.

It’s increasingly possible to grow up in the church today without ever having really heard the gospel. In fact, many churches – and the parachurch Christian subculture – actually move people further away from Christ, even in the name of mission and “reaching the kids.” In response to a recent White Horse Inn program on “Reforming Youth Ministry,” a young adult named Kristy wrote in:

It is a miraculous wonder that I didn’t leave the church completely. I had never heard of apologetics, reformed theology, justification, etc… until I was in my late 20′s. I grew up in a very small country church. I learned much about love & serving others but nothing about sound theology or doctrine. I don’t completely fault my home church because I doubt the majority of the adults in the church had ever heard any of those topics. Most of the elders probably didn’t even have a high school degree. They taught us what they knew, the love of God. However, when I went off to college, I didn’t have the solid foundation that I should have. I was…still am…very drawn to New Age/The Occult. It was only for the Grace of God that I didn’t end up in some weird cult. I feel like I am now having to play catch up. Comments like “they won’t understand,” “they’ll shut off,” “they won’t remember this stuff” make me SO angry. It really irritates me to think how they underestimate these kids. If you don’t expect much out of kids, you won’t get much. Expect the most from kids & most of them will strive to prove themselves to you & the ones who don’t will catch a couple of nuggets that may return later in life. If you expect someone to fail, they will be less likely to give it their all. If you are there as a support & encourager, they will thrive & even surprise you down the line.

We can’t repeat it often enough: we’re not a church. Still, God is using White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation to introduce people to solid biblical teaching, to give them the criteria and passion for finding a good church, and to reform churches that have found themselves drifting into “mission creep.”Through your generous support, conversations in homes, schools, lunchrooms, and churches are changing and the scandalous gospel is being rediscovered – and discovered for the first time – by people who had thought previously that they knew it all along.

Would you please consider a special gift in support of our work, here and abroad, as we conclude our fiscal year end? Donate any amount by June 30 (only 10 days left). All gifts are important! Donate $100 and receive an MP3 cd of your choice loaded with White Horse Inn episodes and articles from Modern Reformation magazine.

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