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How to Stay Christian in Seminary: Juggling Multiple Callings

Dr. Horton wrote this post in relation to a series done over at the Desiring God blog “How to Stay Christian in Seminary”.

Any seminary worth its salt is going to demand focused labor, time, and interest. In other words, it’s going to be a calling. That’s as it should be. After all, you’re going to be an undershepherd of Christ and you have to be a specialist in his Word. When I hear folks slight seminary education or suggest that it can be substituted with informal and mostly independent approaches, I ask them if they’d choose a brain surgeon who received his medical training in a similar manner. Do we really want our medical physicians operating on us while they are teaching themselves the taxonomy of pathologies? We are relieved to imagine that our doctors spent a lot of late nights preparing for the next day’s class, writing papers, reading journals, attending lectures, and observing veterans on their rounds. Anything worth doing is worth doing well and lives are at stake. What may seem like a routine paper you never would have written unless some rather uncharismatic neurologist assigned texts you never would have read for yourself might turn out to be “just what the doctor ordered” in an emergency room someday.

As important as our physical health is, we’re all going to die. In preparing for the holy ministry, we are preparing to prepare others for death and the life everlasting. Martha was a busy bee in the Lord’s work—”anxious about many things,” but her sister Mary was commended for having “chosen the better part” by sitting at Jesus’s feet for instruction. Disciples have to learn before they leap.

I arrived at seminary with the zeal of a reformer, already engaged in ministry. And it showed. My professors kindly challenged me to slow down. “You have a lifetime of ministry, but only three or four years to become a specialist in God’s Word,” Dr. Strimple told me. “Think of the health of those you’ll be serving—they deserve your best now, which is to be a student.” It was sage counsel.

I have seen a few tragic cases of burnout among students. In almost every one it was due less to the burden of studies than to the challenge of trying to balance multiple callings. I’ve had occasion to offer the same advice Dr. Strimple gave me.

Sometimes, dare I say, it’s the fault of the church leadership. I’ve seen a number of students whose sponsoring church funded their education, but only at the price of demanding unreasonable hours, especially in youth ministry, often requiring students to commute great distances each week. One of the benefits of residential seminary education is that the priorities are already set by sheer distance. You can’t do ministry with seminary on the side. Churches need to have a high enough value of what’s happening here in these few years to pay for seminary without any strings attached—except for regular accountability and encouragement. Being a seminary student isn’t just preparation for a calling, but a calling in its own right.

If you come to seminary married, your first calling is to your wife—and children, if you are blessed with them yet. Luther called the family “my little parish.” Sometimes men leave their wives in the dust. Their furniture is being rearranged. After a week of lectures, reading, and spirited discussions and debates with classmates and professors outside of class, their heads and hearts are spinning. They can’t wait to get onto the next discovery and the material is coming at them from all directions like baseballs. Then there are the daily chapels and prayer groups.

It’s easy to assume that because you are immersed in the Word and prayer every day, that is all you—and your family—need. It’s easy to hang out more with fellow students sometimes than to teach the faith to those closest to you. Certainly there is the importance of daily devotions together as a family, but you need also to consistently unpack what you’re learning in seminary so that your first ministerial call—your own “little parish”—is well-fed. Your calling is to be a disciple and to make disciples, so start at home. When they are part of your trials and wonderful insights, they will also be your cheerleaders and constructive critics for the rest of your ministry. Don’t leave them behind.

We also have a calling as church members. Where I teach, all full-time faculty members have to be involved in pastoral ministry in a local church as teaching elders/ministers and students are expected to be rooted in a local church where they and their families are served. Consistent involvement in a local church is key for keeping our priorities in check. Seminary is a servant of, not substitute for, actual churches.

Juggling these callings can be exhausting. That’s why, at every point along the way, it is so crucial to bear in mind that lectures, papers, and exams (and, of course, grades) are not ends in themselves, but means to the end that every believer’s calling shares: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. If that’s true for you and your closest parishioners now, it will be true for many others for the years of fruitful ministry that our gracious Lord is pleased to give us.

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In God’s Name

A great question, in response to yesterday’s post recommending Michael Gerson’s article:

March 30th, 2012 at 8:33 am


I have been wondering a lot lately on the Christian’s attitude towards politics while keeping things balanced with a Gospel centered approach to it all. How much involvement should a Christian have in political discussion and engagement? I tend to find Christians who are either too hardcore about it (which leads to depression and a lack of eternal perspective) or they are laissez faire about anything that doesn’t immediately affect their wallet. I wish I heard a little more about this from a Biblical perspective. Seems that Christian leaders either go overboard or they avoid it. Could you give me some feedback, scripture, or a resource?

Here are a few reflections. In all of these points, the key is to make distinctions without oppositions:

  • Distinguish Christ’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this age without seeing them as enemies. Although he is the Lord of all even now, Christ will make the kingdoms of the world his own realm of direct rule (without caesars, presidents, mullahs and tribal chiefs) when he returns. At present, the church participates in this kingdom in a partially realized way. Ultimate justice, righteousness, and peace with God have been established in the world through the new creation in Jesus Christ. As the Spirit unites sinners to Jesus by his Spirit through the Word, a colony of this kingdom is planted in this present evil age. The politics of this age can never bring about ultimate justice, peace, or righteousness. Just because earthly governments and other social structures (such as voluntary associations, relief agencies, schools, neighborhoods, etc.) can’t bring in the consummated Kingdom of Christ does not mean that they are not God’s means of contributing to the common good and preserving society with a relative order, justice, and peace in the world.
  • Closely related to this, distinguish common grace from saving grace. Radical Protestantism has often bred radical politics, which feeds off of a nearly Manichean opposition of light and darkness. On one hand, this makes us presumptuous about ourselves, as if non-Christians can only create darkness and Christians can only create light. It has never been that simple historically, because non-Christians are beneficiaries of God’s common grace and Christians are also still sinful. God’s saving grace comes to us in Jesus Christ through the means of grace ministered by his church. God’s common grace comes through the wisdom, vocations, education, and other gifts that the Spirit bestows on unbelievers as well as believers. These common callings cannot build Christ’s kingdom, but they are the means through which he loves and serves us and our neighbors every day. So enough of this Manichean dualism! Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The best works-and policies-fall short of God’s glory. Nevertheless, they are still commanded and are critical for the common good.
  • Distinguish between the church as institution from the church as its members. Abraham Kuyper expressed this distinction in terms of church-as-organization and church-as-organism. In the former sense, the church is Christ’s embassy of saving grace through the ministry of Word and sacrament. In the latter sense, it is believers-saved by grace-who are scattered into their worldly callings as salt and light. The institutional church is entrusted with the Great Commission, with no calling or authority to reform the world. Being shaped decisively by this Word, believers are called to serve their myriad neighbors in the world. Sometimes this provides opportunities for newsworthy impact, but that is not our concern. Our calling is to be faithful at our posts. Where the state has accrued a dangerous monopoly on cultural activity, politics is seen as the most significant sphere of activity. However, Christians can testify by their quiet faithfulness at their posts how essential are the daily and often mundane gifts. Ambition to make a noticeable difference in the world may be a God-given purpose and calling, but it can also be an expression of our pride and self-righteousness. It is easier to abandon the callings where God has placed us to love and serve our neighbors in order to “be somebody” and to be remembered for our “legacy.”
  • Distinguish between “necessary” and “good” consequences of Scripture. The Westminster Confession reminds us that our ultimate authority is Scripture: whatever is contained there explicitly or “by good and necessary consequences may be deduced therefrom.” One of the benefits of preaching through the Bible (rather than topically) is that we are forced to concentrate on the whole teaching of Scripture. By contrast, when we follow our own topical hobby-horses, we are prone to avoid some biblical teachings and to over-emphasize others. Some preachers manage to avoid texts that address sexual ethics or creation stewardship. Others may harp on moral and political issues, with speeches that could have been written if the Bible had never been written. What we need today more than ever is a rigorous submission to the Word, standing under it rather than over or alongside it. It’s not just that we can’t preach anything contrary to God’s Word; we can’t preach anything that isn’t required by it. Not only must our interpretation and application be a good inference; it must be a necessary one. Abortion-on-demand is an obvious example of a “good and necessary inference” from Scripture: namely, the prohibition of murder. Surely opposition to the modern slave-trade, whether in early America and the antebellum South or in current forms around the world, finds multiple sources of good and necessary application. Sound preaching and teaching over the years should shape people who think of creation as neither divine nor something to devour and destroy, but as the work of God’s hand. On many other issues, Christian preaching will shape the worldview that we bring to our lives and policy decisions. Nevertheless, we cannot require specific policies that are not required by legitimate exegesis of God’s Word.
  • Distinguish between the sufficiency and scope of Scripture. Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for faith and practice. That does not mean that Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for daily life. For example, doctors and auto mechanics have wisdom and knowledge that we need. God committed to Scripture what he deemed essential for our salvation and godliness. The scope of Scripture is the Triune God as he is known in Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace. Whatever in Scripture informs and directs our decision making in daily affairs bears divine authority. However, the Bible is not a manual for personal, domestic, and foreign policy. There are commands and promises, but they have to be interpreted and applied according to their natural sense and with sensitivity to their covenantal context. Everything we need for salvation and worship is given in Scripture, but the Bible’s purpose or scope is not everything we need for life. We should not be surprised when an unbeliever who is a trained economist is better-equipped to address sweeping questions of poverty in developing countries than a preacher armed with the Bible.

To conclude: Christians, of all people, should be concerned about the pressing issues in culture and society today. However, even in the same church, where people share the same faith, worldview, and values, there will be different applications, policies, and agendas. Where Scripture speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we don’t dare to speak in God’s name but as those who are attempting to apply our understanding of God’s Word and world to daily living in ways that are not explicitly or even implicitly determined by Scripture. Fundamentalists on the left and the right quote the Bible in a manner that can only be designated “taking God’s name in vain.” It’s no wonder that the public sense of God’s authoritative Word loses its credibility in the process. By all means, let’s preach the Word, embrace the Word, and live in the light of it in all areas of life. Yet let us never invoke God’s authority for decisions that we must make every day that are matters of Christian liberty.

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Not Your Religion in Politics, but Mine

As secularists would have it, religious convictions should play no role in shaping the moral vision of voters and political leaders. Of course, this is itself a religious test. Violating at least implicitly the free exercise of religion, secularists assume that their own practically if not theoretically atheistic worldview should be the established religion. France tried this in the 18th century, symbolized by the unveiling of the goddess of reason in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. However, this has never been the American way. Ironically, in the nation that constitutionally disallows any establishment of a particular religion or denomination, people are free to practice their faith not only privately but in the public square.

At the other extreme, though, is the confusion of Christ’s kingdom with the United States—whether in its more liberal incarnation or as envisioned by the GOP. The rhetoric of a reinvigorated Christian right has turned off a lot of Americans who see evangelicalism more as a voting bloc engaged in identity politics than as a witness to the liberating King who has founded his own empire in his own death and resurrection. Former G. W. Bush speechwriter and policy advisor Michael Gerson offers some insightful analysis of this phenomenon on the campaign trail in recent weeks.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 2)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on some of the concerns surrounding youth ministry as it is often practiced in Evangelicalism today. To read part one click here.

Some Practical Suggestions for Ministering to Youth

For those who may be weary of the extraordinary and want to invest more energy in rethinking how we engage in the ordinary ministry for all generations, including the next, here are a few suggestions. I’m sure others, more experienced than I, can come up with others.

  1. Turn the youth group into a nursery for faith. In our culture, the “youth culture” is in the driver’s seat, with the goal even of older people to be “forever young.” According to the Scripture, though, sanctification is all about joining the rest of the church in “growing up in Christ” as our head, through the ordinary ministry of pastors and teachers (Eph 4: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:10-15). In The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers notes how children learn at first by parroting. This stage is perfect for rote memorization, building the stock of Christian grammar that they will use the rest of their lives. Then they begin to question things, looking for the logical connections between different beliefs and reasons for them. (We call this being a teenager!) Finally, they enter the “rhetoric” stage, where they understand, express, explain, and live the faith for themselves. We shouldn’t let our culture’s child-centered educational philosophy keep us from emphasizing rote memorization. However, we also should be ready to accept and even to encourage the questioning stage, so that they can embrace Christ and his Word for themselves.
  2. Are we preparing younger believers for the communion of saints? When do they actually share in the public service, learning in growing stages to participate in the corporate prayers, confession, praise, giving, hearing, and receiving the Supper? When we include them in the service from the earliest possible years, they grow from fidgety toddlers to gradually appreciate what is happening and that they are equal sharers in it. We should not create alternative services for different age groups during the ordinary worship service, but bring them into the service and worship of the Triune God with his people.
  3. In the teen years, supplement engagement with the catechism with serious apologetics. What we believe, why believe it, and why it matters for our lives: these are always the coordinates that we have to keep in mind together especially as people enter emerging adulthood. If we show them why these questions are important and invite them to press us on the reasons, they won’t even wonder why there isn’t any pizza and they haven’t gone to Six Flags in months.
  4. Don’t inculcate in them a fear of the world, but show them how their faith encourages them to engage widely and deeply in the arts and sciences, to reflect on the way technology shapes their lives, to open their eyes to the needs and opportunities in the world. If they go to a secular college—even many Christian colleges—they will be surrounded by a naturalistic worldview. How do you work back from that eventuality to where they are now? Don’t ignore now the challenges that they will certainly face when it comes to questions like creation and evolution. Are Christians afraid of science? How they answer that as college seniors will depend in large measure on how such topics were treated in church and at home. Engage these issues without simplistic and dogmatic assertions. And while exposing the irrationalism of a naturalistic worldview carefully and over time, be wary of basing the Christian faith on precise conclusions about matters on which orthodox Christians differ among themselves. Too many college students have given up their faith at least in part because they were told that Christianity stands or falls on the age of the earth!
  5. As they become more interested in sharing and defending the faith that they now own for themselves, offer concrete “courses” in how to do it. A great resource is Greg Koukl’s Tactics, where he provides a masterful way of explaining Christian claims and exposing the inconsistencies in alternative worldviews in a winesome and persuasive manner.
  6. What are the priorities our children have seen in our own lives as they were being raised? When we moved, did we consider where we’d plant ourselves in a local church? Did we go with anticipation, expecting the Father once again to meet us in holiness and grace in his Son and by his Spirit? And did we take this faith seriously enough to commit to regular patterns and habits of family prayer, Bible reading, and catechism in the home?
  7. Above all, we trust in the Triune God to fulfill his promises to us and to our children through the ordinary means of grace. No more than Finney’s “new measures” can the ordinary means of grace be treated as magical techniques that work simply by doing them. God is sovereign. Covenant heirs, richly bathed, fed, and clothed with the gospel each week may disengage for a while. Some may not return. However, we cling to Christ’s promise to work through the means he has ordained and to bring wandering sheep back into his fold. Pastors, elders, deacons, parents, school teachers, youth leaders, and fellow church members have their distinctive role to play, but only the Spirit can bring sinners to repentance and faith through the Word.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 1)

From books like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, we were led to believe that this generation born after 1982 was more altruistic and socially-minded than baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

Not so, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The study by sociologists Jean M. Twenge, Elise C. Freeman, and W. Keith Campbell shows that there is actually a decline in civic interest, concern for others, and being a part of something larger than themselves. If anything, Millennials are more individualistic than their boomer parents.

Jean Twenge published a book on the subject, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In fact, she discussed her conclusions in this book on the White Horse Inn a while back. “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” They’ve been raised in a culture that places “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” according to Twenge. “‘The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special,’ she says. ‘It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.'” Individualism certainly encourages more tolerance, but it undermines a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. “‘Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems of the nation and the world, are generally good things,’ she says. But Ms. Twenge does not believe this is happening. People are ‘more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t bode well for society in general.'”

There is always a danger in carving society into generational niches and stereotypes. However, these findings are substantiated elsewhere and it’s evident in church trends.

Back in 2007 USA Today (8/6/2007) reported a study showing that “7 in 10 Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.” Reasons? “Many don’t feel engaged or welcome.” LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer reported that those who stay or return later in life had several things in common: they were raised by parents had both been regularly involved in church, there were meaningful and engaging sermons, “and church members who invested in their spiritual development.”

‘Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza,’ Stetzer says…These findings fit with those by other experts. ‘Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,’ says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow…Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are ‘significantly less likely to believe that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.’

Over the last two decades, self-identifying Protestants (mainline and evangelical) have fallen in the US by over 10%.

In 2006 the Barna Research Group reported its findings. The most startling among them was that of those reared in committed church-going families, 61% were “disengaged” from church. Only 20% of churched teens are “spiritually active” by 29, although three-fourths say they were involved in some sort of pagan spirituality (“witchcraft”) in their teen years. As many as four-fifths say they attended church for at least a 2-month period as teens, but evidently did not find it compelling. This matches similar findings by others (here and here).

According to Barna director David Kinnaman,

Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twenty-somethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ They are also significantly less likely to believe that ‘a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.’ These attitudes explain other anomalies of twenty-something spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twenty-somethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.

In terms of beliefs, affirmation of key evangelical tenets falls steadily with each generation: 12% of those over 40, 6% of twenty-somethings, and 5% of today’s teens. And yet, 44% of those over 40 say they’re “born again,” with 36% of young adults fitting this description.

From the data, Kinnaman concludes,

Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.

Ministering to Youth vs. “Youth Ministry”

Youth ministry is about 150 years old. Arising at first as a way of reaching out to troubled teens especially in highly industrialized urban centers, parachurch ministries like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to provide safe activities and education in basic reading along with evangelism. Throughout the nineteenth century, parachurch organizations mushroomed. Attempting to create a Protestant Empire that transcended confessional differences, the Bible societies and Sunday School movement increasingly supplanted the ordinary structures, resources, and content of particular church traditions. According to the movement’s leaders, it’s what all evangelicals profess that matters, not what distinguishes Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and other denominations. Of course, there had always been catechism instruction for the young and new Christians. Now, however, Sunday school increasingly isolated the younger generations not only from the older but also from the wider confessional tradition to which they belonged. The Sunday school curriculum shared by all Protestant youths, not the catechism, shaped faith and practice. The “youth group” emerged as its own “church-within-a-church,” distinct from the public ministry and worship.

And so it has become increasingly easy for one to go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group and on to college ministry without having actually belonged to the local church. Young people may still drive with their family to the church campus, but from the parking lot they scatter to their own target-marketed groups. For many, the church is more a cafeteria of ministry offerings than a communion of saints. So is it really surprising that a good local church doesn’t figure into things when deciding upon a college and many don’t even join one because, after all, they have their campus ministry? I know of some instances, in fact, of such groups holding their meetings during the regular time of Sunday services.

From childhood, many have never know what it is like to go from catechism to profession/confirmation and first Communion with all of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Their memories of church are actually recollections mainly of youth-oriented (i.e., fun, exciting, entertaining) substitutes of the ordinary public service that their parents and grandparents attended on the same property. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated from the church, that they sense a lack of investment by older people in their spiritual growth, and that they do not know what they believe or why they believe it? Are they really dropping out of church in their college years? Or did they every really belong?

“Generation Me” is alive and well in our churches. Narcissism cuts across the generations, of course, but if in our own churches and families we are worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community—with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures, then should we really blame them? I don’t think so.

Nor can we place all of the blame on youth ministers. Some are doing a terrific job. Besides, it is as lazy for us to drop our children in their lap and expect them to do all of the Christian nurture that families and churches provide. Yet, it’s not just that we are not operating here on all cylinders, but in many cases, not even on one.

We are living off of the legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Believing that salvation is in our hands, Charles Finney naturally thought that the only criterion for the methods we use is “whatever is fit to convert sinners with” or “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” As Sunday school replaced catechism, Finney’s “new measures” replaced the ordinary means of preaching, sacrament, and pastoral care. Once upon a time, the pastor (his name doesn’t matter—it was his office that counted) taught you catechism, made regularly-scheduled pastoral visits to the home, dropped in on Grandpa at the hospital, married and eventually buried you. I realize that a lot of social factors make this “so yesterday”: we are a more mobile society. The realities of life and work uproot us from the network of extended families and communities. However, revivalistic evangelicalism has made uprooting a spiritual imperative. Now the model for ministry was the efficient revivalist. Extraordinary “new measures” invented by clever entrepreneurs, not ordinary means of grace commanded by our Lord, became the new normal.

Writing against the “new measures,” John Williamson Nevin—a Reformed pastor and theologian contemporary with Finney, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” .1

Like the revivals of Finney and his successors, the “new measures” of the church growth movement have been treated by many as science, like the law of gravity. Those who fail to adopt these new models of ministry will be left behind in the spiritual marketplace. It is a small step to the view of Christ’s sheep as “self-feeders” who need a “customized work-out plan” and, finally, to George Barna’s celebration of the “Revolutionaries”—those now who seek their “spiritual resources” online, at Christian concerts and conferences, and in specialized groups rather than the local church. Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism converge in a spirituality that is not only worldly but is unchurching the church.

In the next post I offer some suggestions for ministering to youth. Click here to read part two.

1. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 2-5. [Back]

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Mystery Through Manners

We’re heading up to Irvine tomorrow for a screening of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, so we put our resident film critic, Anthony Parisi , to work and asked him to share his thoughts on the film, fiction, and Christian interaction with art.  He also threw in some Flannery O’Connor references for good measure.  You can follow him online at twitter.com/anthonyparisi.


A film version of Don Miller’s popular book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is hitting theaters next month. The trenches already seem to be forming between more conservative Christians and an evangelical subculture championing what they see as more honest, open-ended talk of faith. Director Steve Taylor, a longtime CCM artist and music producer, recently announced the indie film came under fire from Sherwood Baptist (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) during production. Now the distributor of October Baby is working to ensure the trailer will not play before their film.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike Cosper has written an interesting primer on the film. He explains the background and tries to identify some of what attracts burnt-out evangelicals and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive rather than prescriptive, believing we should address any issues we may have at “an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story, and the stories around him.” We should be receptive to the fact that Miller is giving voice to real problems and experiences in the evangelical world.

This prompted some great discussion in the comments. Matthew Anderson brought his characteristic insight, pushing for more options than this framework. While Miller’s storytelling is descriptive, “therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative—and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.” A simple prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy makes “patient, confident, and appreciative critique” more difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. What seems to be missing is that while some Christians may be offended at depictions of “bad behavior”, others (like myself) find some of Miller’s embedded perspective problematic. Like any writer, his descriptive storytelling is necessarily bound up with specific ideas and beliefs. This kind of concern is different than the pious grandmother offended by scenes of dorm-life debauchery. Unfortunately, they can too often be lumped together.

Cosper went on to elaborate some of his thinking that begins to get at a clearer way forward. He explains that he wanted to “illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works.” I think this complex reality lies at the heart of why Christians often talk past each other about fiction and art more generally. In conservative circles it’s common to see reviews reduced to a tedious game of Worldview Whac-A-Mole. Some of the worst film criticism I’ve read has come from theologians and pastors. The story is dissected into a simple “message” or worldview at the expense of the whole work and the empathetic engagement that culture exists to foster. While we can (and should) thoughtfully discuss and critique the ideas that live in stories, this has to be done in a different way than analyzing a logical theorem.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor can be a great guide to thinking about the nature of storytelling. In her brilliant essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (worth reading in full here) it’s clear that there is nothing new under the sun with these kinds of discussions among Christians.

O’Connor sees a fiction writer as someone who is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in concrete life. She points to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a work of art is good in itself. This can easily be forgotten by our pragmatic impulses. “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

As Christians, we can have a very hard time with this idea. It’s easy to feel that fiction only has a place if it has some sort of moral uplift or pedagogical value. Unfortunately, “Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” Certainly we know people who seem to have profited from a “sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better.” But this is true because God uses plenty of poor things in this world for good purposes. We need to leave that up to God’s sovereignty and not let it impair our judgment. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

What is required of the writer is to create “the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it” and ensure that truth “take on the form of his art” and becomes “embodied in the concrete and human.” Mystery and meaning must be put into manners—made incarnate in human life. Here is where a Christian will begin to feel some friction. We live in a fallen world full of corruption and sin. How can we reproduce this? Shouldn’t we tidy it up to show what it ought to be? O’Connor asks, “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and to the absolute?”

More fearful yet, there is the possibility that “what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader.” Is it better that a millstone were tied around his neck? This is a serious concern for the artist “and those who have felt it have felt it with agony.”

Thankfully, we are free of ultimate, redemptive responsibility and shouldn’t burden ourselves “with the business that belongs only to God.” A Christian artist is free to observe God’s fallen creation and must feel “no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe.” To put it a another way: we are not bringing in the kingdom by our cultural activities. Art can glorify God because of the intrinsic good of creation, not because it has some transformative, redemptive power to usher in spiritual redemption. Instead of laboring under the burden of a salvific agenda (which Christ accomplishes), we are to focus our attention on producing a work of art that “is good in itself.” This is to be done for God’s glory and out of love toward others.

For O’Connor, the solution to all this “leads us straight back where we started from—the subject of the standards of art and the nature of fiction itself.”  Holding an artist to that standard is not at odds with moral or theological judgment. Why? Because the medium is (or at least is inseparable from) the message. Any moral or ideological failure will be bound up with an artistic one. A problem of vision or truthfulness manifests itself in the quality of the art. She writes, “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

A current illustration of this is the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. This movie by the standard of movies may have failed to embody the moral sense needed for its proper, devastating effect. This article argues that there is an aesthetic failure to capture the brutality and reality of death. Restraint on violent imagery ends up downplaying the horror of the killing ritual. The hyperactive shaky-cam and rapid editing style distracts and derails necessary focus to the evil of what‘s happening. The director doesn’t frame the image of rising child warriors, thus missing his chance to startle and unnerve. The “manners are failing to embody the mystery” and so both end up being compromised.

What does all this mean for discussing Blue Like Jazz and movies more generally?

I think it should remind us that art is effective and compelling at the particular, incarnate level—not an abstract, didactic one. After having sat in over a hundred screenings of his film, Steve Taylor is convinced “the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences.” This is important to understand, especially for any of us who might be critical of certain ideas within the film. We need to interact with movies not as theological disputations but as works of fiction. Everyone connects with movies in emotional, personal, and experiential ways. Through concrete imagination, not abstract ideology.

How we discuss an artist’s ideas must proceed accordingly. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to “critique theology” that we miss our opportunity to learn and sympathize with another person. I think this is at the heart of what Mike Cosper was getting at. Culture arises from our great need for commonality, empathy, and shared understanding. Let’s be careful not to ignore the aesthetic, human, “real life” aspects that draw us to art in the first place. Otherwise we forget, as Flannery O’Connor puts it, that “we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.”


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The White Horse Inn is Taking Calls TODAY!

Mike, Kim, Ken and Rod are in studio today to record future White Horse Inn programs, and between 2-3pm (Pacific Time), they’ll begin taking listener questions. So if you have a good question that you’d like to present to the WHI hosts, then be sure to call us for this special Open Lines event. We will not be streaming this recording during the taping, but it will eventually air as one of our future broadcasts. Our studio line is 1-866-349-7090. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

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Sanctified by Grace?

Chris Jager asked a good question in response to the first post in this series and I thought it was important enough to explore in more than a couple of lines. He asks:

Also, is sanctification a work solely of the Holy Spirit, or both the Holy Spirit and the believer? Is the work attributed to both, or just the Holy Spirit? When does it become “my work,” trying to attain my own righteousness, and when is it true sanctification?

Isn’t true sanctification produced through the hearing of the gospel?

Passive Recipients, Made Active in Good Works

Throughout Scripture, regeneration, which is nothing less than a sharing in the new creation, is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Not only in the beginning, but throughout our lives, the Spirit is renewing us by grace, conforming us to the image of Christ by his Word.

The danger in legalism (or neonomianism) is to collapse the gospel into the law, while antinomianism collapses the law into the gospel. Either way, the office peculiar to each becomes murky until finally it is obscured entirely. Furthermore, while legalism collapses justification into sanctification, antinomianism collapses sanctification into justification. One more, destination is the same, even if arrived at by different routes.

It is crucial, then, to distinguish law and gospel as well as justification and sanctification. Each plays its own essential but distinct role. The law reveals God’s righteous demands, while the gospel reveals God’s gift of righteousness in his Son; in justification God imputes Christ’s righteousness to sinners, while in sanctification he renews them day by day. The law functions as the threatening judge to send us to Christ for our justification, but it also functions as the command of our Father in sanctification.

In the new birth and justification we are passive. Repentance and faith are given as a free gift. However, in conversion—the act of repentance and faith—we are active, having been raised from death to life by the Spirit through the gospel. Our initial and lifelong conversion cannot be attributed to us, but only to the Triune God. Every moment our turning from idols and specific sins (including self-trust, but also other fruits of the flesh) to the Living God is a gift of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Nevertheless, it is not the Father who repents, nor the Son who believes, nor the Spirit who does good works; it is believers who, united to Christ, bear the fruit of faith in love and works. Salvation is not restricted to justification but encompasses all of the blessings we enjoy in Christ: election, redemption, effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

Two Dangers to Avoid

So there are two dangers to avoid.

First, we dare not treat justification as a free gift that is based entirely on Christ’s person and work in the gospel and then treat sanctification as something that is based on our person and work. As Calvin observes, the Spirit creates faith through the gospel, and this faith bears fruit in love and from love proceed good works. “The source of love is the grace of Christ” (Commentary on Corinthians II:404). “The mortification of the flesh is the effect of the cross of Christ” (Commentary on Galatians, 169). Elsewhere he adds,

Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness” (Inst. 3.16.1).

Calvin’s point is that you can’t receive any of Christ’s gifts without receiving Christ himself and if you are united to Christ, then you cannot fail to receive all of his gifts.

Second, we dare not see ourselves as passive in sanctification, as we are in the new birth and justification. Christ is always the object of faith in every act, but there are different acts of faith. In justification, faith merely “receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness” (WCF 11.1). Yet faith responds variously to different passages in God’s Word: “yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). So in answer to Chris’s question, we can say something like this: We are justified by grace through a faith that simply rests in Christ and we are sanctified by grace through a faith that, resting in Christ, is working through love. There are many exhortations in the New Testament to cooperate with the Spirit: “Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25-26). We are warned not to quench the Spirit, or as the NIV has it, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thes 5:19).

We do indeed receive our sanctification as a gift. Not only in the beginning, but throughout the life of daily renewal, believers are always active in love because they are united to Christ alone through faith alone. Nevertheless, the consequence of our being mere recipients of grace is that we are by this gift made active in good works (Eph 2:8-10; Phil 2:12-13, etc.). As Luther said, “Faith is a busy thing.” It is always looking for something to do, not for justification, but for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. Sanctification is dependent on justification, but it is not the same as justification. Those who make diligent use of the means of grace will mature. They will no longer be children, but will grow up together with the other members of Christ’s body into their head (Eph 4:14-15).

Myriad calls to preserve the bond of unity, to crucify the deeds of the flesh from which quarrels, immorality, and idolatry emerge, to press on, to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness in Christ, both presuppose justification and entail something distinct from justification. On the basis of our freedom from the law’s condemnation, we are able for the first time truly to love God and our neighbors. We are not what we will be, but we are not what we once were. The new creation has dawned and the Spirit has swept us into it—and keeps us swimming in the powers of the age to come—through his means of grace.

It has sometimes been said that justification is monergistic, but sanctification is synergistic. I understand the point: namely, to distinguish these gifts, as I’ve done above. It is certainly true that we are active in sanctification and that we grow in Christian maturity through our grace-given responses each day to God’s commands and promises. However, it is unusual and, I think, inappropriate to import the monergism-synergism antithesis (typically belonging to the debate over the new birth and justification) into sanctification. It is better simply to say that we are working out that salvation that has Christ has already won for us and given to us by his Spirit through the gospel. Though in sanctification (unlike justification) faith is active in good works, the gospel is always the ground and the Spirit is always the source of our sanctification as well as our justification. As John Owen expressed it, “The doctrine of justification is directive of Christian practice, and in no other evangelical truth is the whole of our obedience more concerned; for the foundation, reasons, and motives of all our duty towards God are contained therein.” In other words, the law always tells us what God requires and the gospel always tells us what God has done for sinners and why they should now yield themselves to righteousness.

In Roman Catholic and other synergistic schemes, we are working toward union with God—a final justification according to works. In evangelical teaching, however, we are working out of, or better, from the union with Christ that is already ours. In sanctification, we are striving, training, and running a race to the finish line—not toward justification, but from justification to our glorification. We “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Heb 12:1-2).

What the Law Still Can and Cannot Do

In this race, the law still functions as God’s command for us, but no longer with the power to condemn those who are justified in Christ. It is easy at this point to turn the third use of the law (to guide believers) back into the condemning use, or as the old Puritans used to say, to turn back from the covenant of grace to a covenant of works. At the beginning, upon first hearing the gospel, the believer was amazed by God’s grace in Christ. Eventually, though, exhortations have become quasi-conditions for God’s aquittal, as if one began by the Spirit through the gospel and then attained final justification through one’s efforts in sanctification (see Gal 3:3).

Again Calvin’s pastoral wisdom is helpful:

The consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness…For there the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous. If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law. Nor can anyone rightly infer from this that the law is superfluous for believers, since it does not stop teaching and exhorting and urging them to good, even though before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences (3.19.2).

Owen says much the same thing in A Treatise on the Dominion of Sin and Grace, referring to the moral law:

Christ is not in the law; he is not proposed in it, not communicated by it, – we are not made partakers of him thereby. This is the work of grace, of the gospel. In it is Christ revealed, by it he is proposed and exhibited unto us; thereby are we made partakers of him and all the benefits of his mediation. And he it is alone who came to, and can, destroy this work of the devil…. This ‘the Son of God was manifested to destroy.’ He alone ruins the kingdom of Satan, whose power is acted in the rule of sin. Wherefore, hereunto our assurance of this comfortable truth is principally resolved. And what Christ hath done, and doth, for this end, is a great part of the subject of gospel revelation.

Then in the last section of that work he concludes that the law directs us but can never destroy the dominion of sin and give us new hearts any more than it can justify:

It is that which the law and all the duties of it cannot procure. The law and its duties, as we have declared, can never destroy the dominion of sin. All men will find the truth hereof that ever come to fall under the power of real conviction. When sin presseth on them, and they are afraid of its consequents, they will find that the law is weak, and the flesh is weak, and their duties are weak, and their resolutions and vows are weak; – all insufficient to relieve them. … They sin and promise amendment, and endeavor recompenses by some duties, yet can never extricate themselves from the yoke of sin. We may therefore learn the excellency of this privilege, first, from its causes, whereof I shall mention some only:- 1. The meritorious procuring cause of this liberty is the death and blood of Jesus Christ. So it is declared, 1Pet.1:18-19; 1Cor.6:20, 7:23. Nothing else could purchase this freedom… ‘Christ died, and rose, and revived,’ that he might be our Lord, Rom.14:9, and so deliver us from the power of all other lords whatever.

… Let those that are believers, in all the conflicts with sin, live in the exercise of faith on this purchase of liberty made by the blood of Christ; for two thing will hence ensue:- [1.] That they will have a weighty argument always in readiness to oppose unto the deceit and violence of sin… See Rom.6:2. [2.] The internal efficient cause of this liberty, or that whereby the power and rule of sin is destroyed in us, is the Holy Spirit himself; which farther evinceth the greatness of this mercy. Every act for the mortification of sin is no less immediately from him than those positive graces are whereby we are sanctified. It is ‘through the Spirit’ that we ‘mortify the deeds of the body,’ Rom.8:13. Where he is, there, and there alone, is liberty…

…Wherefore, a great part of our wisdom for the attaining and preserving this liberty consists in the acting of faith on that promise of our Saviour, that our heavenly Father will ‘give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him’ of him. When sin in any instance, by any temptation, urgeth for power and rule in us, we are ready to turn into ourselves and our own resolutions, which in their place are not to be neglected; but immediate cries unto God for such supplies of his Spirit as without which sin will not be subdued, we shall find our best relief.

In this battle, therefore, success is always due to “considering the office and care of our Lord Jesus Christ for our relief,” Owen adds. “Pardoning mercy, according to the tenor of the covenant, doth always disarm this sin in believers of its condemning power; so that, notwithstanding the utmost endeavours of it, ‘being justified by faith, they have peace with God.'” Looking to ourselves, depending on our own progress and resolutions, will not destroy sin at its root, Owen concludes.

Viewed in this light, one can see how antinomianism and legalism come from the same failure to look to Christ for relief from sin’s guilt and power. They are two sides of the same coin, as Thomas Boston pointed out:

This Antinomian principle, That it is needless for a man, perfectly justified by faith, to endeavour to keep the law, and do good works, is a glaring evidence that legality is so engrained in man’s corrupt nature, that until a man truly come to Christ, by faith, the legal disposition will still be reigning in him; let him turn himself into what shape, or be of what principles he will in religion; though he run into Antinomianism he will carry along with him his legal spirit, which will always be a slavish and unholy spirit. He is constrained, as the author observes, to do all that he does for fear of punishment, and hope of reward; and if it is once fixed in his mind that these are ceased in his case, he stands still like a clock when the weights that made her go are removed, or like a slave when he is in no hazard of the whip; than which there cannot be a greater evidence of loathsome legality (Thomas Boston, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”, 207).

“In a sinking state of the church,” Boston wrote elsewhere, “the law and gospel are confounded, and the law justles out the gospel, the dark shades of morality take place of gospel light; which plague is this day begun in the church, and well far advanced” (Gospel Truth, 106). Another 18th-century Scottish minister, John Colquhoun, adds, “To mingle, then, the law with the gospel, or teach men to join the works of the law to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as the ground of a sinner’s title to justification in the sight of God is, according to our apostle, to preach another gospel (A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, 142).

There are some in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles today who do not approve of the distinction between law and gospel or the covenant of works and the covenant of grace that they find in their Confession. Far easier it is indeed to yield to antinomianism or moralism, the default setting of our fallen heart. Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, but now we feel that we must go on to some other foundation, with a different basis and different conditions, for our sanctification. Yet, as our Lord said, wisdom is vindicated by what she accomplishes. There is more to our salvation than justification. Because of what God has done and is doing, there is much for us to do now. However, any pretended obedience that is not grounded in the finished work of Christ imputed to sinners is both an offense in the nostrils of a holy and merciful God and a fruitless effort to destroy the fruit of sin while leaving its root in tact.

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The White Horse Inn is taking calls this Friday!

Mike, Kim, Ken and Rod will be in studio this Friday, March 23rd, 2012 to record future White Horse Inn programs, and between 2-3pm (Pacific Time), they’ll begin taking listener questions. So if you have a good question that you’d like to present to the WHI hosts, then be sure to call us for this special Open Lines event. We will not be streaming this recording during the taping, but it will eventually air as one of our future broadcasts. Our studio line is 1-866-349-7090. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

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Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions

In the previous post I offered a very brief survey of some controversies, pointing out that while there have been some true-blue antinomians, the charge is often made by those tilting in a more neonomian direction against faithful, apostolic, evangelical preaching. For example, in spite of the fact that Lutheran and Reformed churches have gone on record against antinomianism in no uncertain terms, that has not kept them from being accused of holding at least implicitly to antinomian tenets.

The Lutheran Confession

In his Small Catechism, Luther begins with the Ten Commandments, concluding, “God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.”

Settling the controversies in its own circles, the Lutherans confess in the fourth article of the Formula of Concord (1577), “We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.”

For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits (IV.2).

After affirming the civil and elenctic uses of the law (viz., to curb public vice and to drive sinners to Christ), the sixth article defends the “third use”: “..that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life…” (VI.1).

The following conclusions are worth quoting at length:

We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith (VI.2-3).

For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and believers are, by the spirit of their mind, in a constant struggle against the flesh, that is, against the corrupt nature and disposition which cleaves to us unto death. On account of this old Adam, which still inheres in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12, Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff ; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1) (VI.4).

The regenerate bear the fruit of the Spirit not as “works of the Law” in the sense of condemnation and justification, but “spontaneously and freely”; “for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7:25; 8:7; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2″ (VI.5-6).

Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him (VI.7).

Therefore, the Formula rejects as an “error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness” the view that this law is “not to be urged upon Christians and true believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent” (VI.8).

The Reformed Confession

In the earlier Reformed confessions, the primary goal is to clear the evangelical doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic (and Anabaptist) charge that it rejects any place for good works, rather than any direct threat of antinomianism within the ranks.

The Belgic Confession (1561) affirms that regeneration by the Spirit through the gospel “creates a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. . Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man.” These good works “are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works.” Although “God rewards good works, it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts” and “we do not found our salvation upon them; for we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable…Thus, then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Art. 24).

The Heidelberg Catechism begins its “Gratitude” section by asking why we should still do good works if we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. We do so “because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Q. 86). Conversion involves repentance as well as faith: dying to the old self and living to Christ (Q. 87-90). What then defines a “good work”? “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition” (Q. 91). This sets the stage for Catechism’s treatment of the the Ten Commandments (Q. 92-113). “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (Q. 114). The law much still be preached in the church for two reasons: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (Q. 115). There are also many relevant statements in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619).

The same view is found in articles 15-18 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. However, the debates of subsequent decades brought refinement to the Reformed confession even as they did for Lutherans.

In the Westminster Confession (1647) we find the most mature reflection of Reformed churches on these questions. After a remarkably clear statement of justification, taking into account a variety of subtle deviations, the Confession treats sanctification and faith, repentance, and good works in chapters 13-16. Again the Pauline emphasis on sanctification arising necessarily from election, effectual calling, justification and adoption is evident.

Christ, “by his Word and Spirit,” destroys the dominion of sin, weakening and mortifying its desires while quickening and strengthening the new creature in “the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (13.1). Though “imperfect in this life,” there arises “a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” Nevertheless, by God’s grace the saints will prevail (13.2-3). The Spirit brings us to repentance through the law and the gospel (15.1-2). We do not rest on repentance “as any satisfaction for sin,” but it evangelical repentance is always present with true faith as the gift of God (15.3).

Good works are those done according to God’s law, not human authority, zeal or pious intention (16.1). They are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith…” (16.2). Yet believers’ good works are by grace in Christ, through his Word and Spirit, “not at all of themselves” (16.3). “We cannot by our best works merit pardon or sin, or eternal life at the hand of God…,” since even the best works of believers are still “defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (16.5-7).

Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” distinguishes clearly between the way the law functions in a covenant of works (promising life for obedience and threatening death for disobedience) and in the covenant of grace . “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet it is of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience” (19.6). Expanding on the law / gospel distinction that grounds it, the federal scheme (covenant of works / covenant of grace) is crucial for avoiding legalism as well as antinomianism.

Drawing on Confessional Wisdom for Contemporary Debates

I have quoted Lutheran and Reformed confessions at length on this question at least in part because I sense that in some circles today there is a dangerous tendency to rally around persons, forming tribes around particular flags. Unchecked, this leads—as church history teaches us—to slander and schism.

There are several dangers to point out regarding this temptation to follow persons rather than to confess the faith together with saints across various times and places. There are personal idiosyncrasies attached to individuals, no matter how great their insight into God’s Word. With a clear conscience Paul could tell the Ephesian elders that he had fulfilled his office, declaring to them “the whole counsel of God” (Ac 20:27). This is our goal, too. Paul’s message came directly from the ascended Christ, and yet his letters reflect the particular controversies, strengths, and weaknesses of the churches he served. His personality and emphases differed at times from those of other apostles, even Peter and James—sometimes to the point of sharp confrontations. Nevertheless, the Spirit brought a sweet unity to the apostolic church as it gathered in a representative synod of “apostles and elders.” In solemn assembly in Jerusalem, the whole church received its marching orders for the proper view and treatment of Gentile believers.

How much more, after the death of the apostles, is our Lord’s wisdom evident in the representative assemblies of his body. It’s interesting that at the Council of Jerusalem not even Peter was given precedence over the body. Not even Athanasius’ writings were made binding at Nicea. Lutherans are not bound to Luther’s corpus and Reformed churches do not even subscribe anything written by Calvin. Jonathan Edwards did not sit at the Westminster Assembly. We are not obliged today to these confessions because of great persons, but because of great summaries of God’s Word.

It can be as difficult for their followers as for prominent preachers and theologians themselves to submit to the consensus of a whole body rather than to promote their own distinctive teachings, emphases, and corrections. Those who were raised in more legalistic and Arminian backgrounds may be prone to confuse every call to obedience as a threat to newly discovered doctrines of grace. The zeal of those who are converted from a life of debauchery or perhaps from a liberal denomination may boil over into legalistic fervor. As in the Jerusalem Council, representatives came to Nicea, Chalcedon, Torgau, Dort, and Westminster with idiosyncrasies. Yet they had to make their case, participate in restrained debate, and talk to each other in a deliberative assembly rather than about each other on blogs and in conversations with their circle of followers. Muting personal idiosyncrasies in favor of a consensus on the teaching of God’s Word, these assemblies give us an enduring testimony for our own time. Nothing has changed with respect to how sinners are justified and sanctified. There has been no alteration of God’s covenantal law or gospel.

On one hand there is reason for thanksgiving today. Many believers, especially younger ones, are embracing the doctrines of grace. Parachurch associations have provided a remarkable opportunity to extend this message and to provide mutual support to those in different denominations, or no denomination at all.

On the other hand, Christ founded a church, not an association or a website. He gave authority to churches, subordinate to his Word, to guard the apostolic deposit entrusted to them. This ministerial authority is lodged in the offices of pastor and elder, in local and broader assemblies. And yet, even in churches officially committed to this form of mutual fellowship and admonition, one discerns a growing tendency to gather into parties rather than presbyteries. Can we imagine Paul blogging about Peter rather than confronting him face to face? Are controversies to be decided by pastors and elders or by posts and emails?

Social media today create grassroots, democratic movements overnight, but unless we submit to the New Testament structures of mutual edification, these exciting wonders will be monsoons that pass as quickly as they came, leaving devastation in their wake. We have to reflect on the assets and liabilities of these new forms of mass communication, using them to the glory of God in their appropriate domain while submitting ourselves to the often humbling, slow, deliberative, and consensual processes of church courts.

If the growing charges and counter-charges of antinomianism and legalism continue to mount in our own circles, may God give us good and godly sense to recover the wisdom of our confessions as faithful summaries of biblical faith and practice. And may the Spirit direct us to the fraternal fellowship of the church’s representative assemblies for mutual encouragement and correction.

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