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A Response to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology

I’ve been reluctant to respond to Professor Frame’s The Escondido Theology, published recently by Whitefield Media. Since the book focuses its critique on Westminster Seminary California, where I teach, I’d encourage readers to visit the Seminary website for a brief response from our president, W. Robert Godfrey. It would be of no edifying value to anyone to go into the details of John Frame’s departure from WSC. Suffice it to say that there are two sides to every story and if you’ve read The Escondido Theology, you have only heard one side whose details many of us would dispute. None of this matters in any case for the general good of the church and the Great Commission, so I will not raise it here.

There are a lot of criticisms in the book directed at my writing, so I’ll say a brief word about it. Having read the book recently, my reluctance is due primarily to the fact that I don’t know quite where to begin and to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.

The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. I’m encouraged to hear that various Reformed companies declined to publish the book. It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset. If I held some of the views John attributes to me, I would be alarmed as well. Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment, even to the point of defending Joel Osteen, for example, against my critique (which, again, he caricatures). I hope readers of John’s book will also consult the books that he attacks rather than take his word for it that they say what he claims.

John Frame has consistently defended “evangelical reunion,” even while questioning the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, and downplaying many historic categories of classical Reformed theology. He often scolds those who take creedal and confessional subscription seriously, while even defending people like Joel Osteen with remarkable sympathy.

There’s a history here of being nicer to those outside Reformed circles than within. A while back, John’s critique of David Wells’ scholarly study of evangelicalism and American culture (acclaimed by many outside as well as inside Reformed circles) went in tandem with his odd arguments against Richard Muller, the dean of Reformed scholasticism specialists. (See Richard Muller’s response in Westminster Theological Journal 59 [1997]: 301-310.) I wish I had the good sense of humor expressed by David Wells’ response, “On Being Framed” (in that same issue). John seems to be the least charitable to those who are most convinced of the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and who, despite their long and serious contributions to the evangelical movement, are worried that it has become too captive to modernity.

A number of John’s claims cluster around the charge of being “Lutheran.” Yet he does not represent Lutheranism fairly (lacking serious documentation for sweeping generalizations); nor does he represent my views accurately. So there is only a vague suspicion, with the terrifying prospect that in spite of all of their notable feuds, Luther and Calvin—and their heirs—might nevertheless have been leaders of the same magisterial Reformation. Apparently, my association with Baptists does not raise eyebrows, but Lutheranism is beyond the pale.

This would have been odd even to American Presbyterian and Reformed folks a century ago. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck, would not have understood this development. Of course, they also defended Reformed distinctives over against Lutheran, Baptist, and other positions. Nevertheless, they took it for granted that confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians were natural allies, joined at the hip on major issues.

Just for the record, I am not a Lutheran or a Baptist, as my Lutheran and Baptist friends will attest. Unlike Calvin, Bucer and other Reformed leaders, I have never signed the Augsburg Confession. My confession, without reservation, remains the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. That should be clear enough to anybody who has read my books, including my systematic theology, The Christian Faith.

Doubtless, there are many reasons for the fear of “Lutheranism” among some in our circles. Since the Great Awakening, pietism and revivalism have formed the ties that bind American Protestants. Confessional Lutheran and Reformed immigrants didn’t quite fit and they were often only too happy to remain in relative isolation. Ever since the “Shepherd controversy” (see below), some (like Professor Frame) have sought to distance Reformed theology as much as possible from Luther and Lutheranism, even as they embrace other non-Reformed traditions (from broad evangelicalism in some cases to Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives in others). So “Lutheranism” becomes the bogeyman for a lot of sweeping charges that are not fair to Lutherans, much less to Reformed people who recognize important areas of common agreement.

Let me briefly summarize the rest of my response under the four following points of criticism:

1. Two Kingdoms

First, WSC has no official litmus test on “two kingdoms.” Our president, Robert Godfrey, is a committed Kuyperian and Kuyper’s legacy is seen by many of us here as closer in some respects to a “two kingdoms” view than many neo-Kuyperians assume today. (For example, Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes clearly between what the church is authorized to do as an institution and what Christians are authorized to do in various callings.) None of us has presented the idea as a test of orthodoxy in Reformed circles; on the contrary, some of our friends have turned its denial into a test.

Where Reformed theology sees distinctions without separation, John often seems to press a false choice. If you distinguish our heavenly and temporal citizenship, then he suspects that you separate them, denying the latter. (The same tendency is evident in the law-gospel distinction below: either law and gospel are really the same or you deny the former.)

From the days when I was John’s student, I have heard his defenses of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction). Although he dissented on some points, he seemed to appreciate the movement’s broader emphases. Years ago, the faculties of Westminster Philadelphia and California produced Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990), edited by William Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Richard Gaffin, Jr., defended amillennialism and Will Barker articulated a biblical-Reformed case for political “pluralism.” Put those together and you basically have “two kingdoms.” Other great essays were included by Tim Keller, John Meuther, and terrific historical chapters by Robert Godfrey (on Calvin) and Sinclair Ferguson (on the Westminster Confession). John Frame contributed a chapter trying to unite theonomists and their critics. My point is that a critique of “one kingdom” thinking by the joint faculties of both Westminsters was mainstream in 1990. I’m sure that John didn’t agree with everything in that volume, but to my knowledge he didn’t call his colleagues “Lutheran,” even though it expresses the views that we at WSC still hold today.

Calvin embraced the “two kingdoms” doctrine explicitly—in those terms. Of course, it was the era of “Christendom,” where Luther no less than Calvin expected the civil magistrate to defend the true faith. Nevertheless, at least in theory, he made precisely the same arguments as Luther. I wonder if those sympathetic to theonomy or making America a “Christian nation” are really serious. Do they really want the White House or the legislative or judicial branches to enforce the first table of the law? Will orthodox Protestants be the only ones allowed to rule, or will a few Roman Catholics, Jews, and perhaps a conservative mainliner or two pass the Senate confirmation hearings? This is not to say that God’s moral law is no longer in force, that it no longer expresses God’s eternal measure of righteousness. Rather, it is to recognize that the New Testament teaches us to live as “strangers and aliens” in this present age, loving and serving our neighbors through our callings, witnessing God’s Word to them, and contributing toward the common good of a city that is important but never ultimate.

Although John’s book claims that this idea of “two kingdoms” is an extreme view, he explicitly states that he isn’t interested in engaging with David Van Drunen or others who have explored the history of Reformed interpretation in detail. So he turns to an exegetical critique that turns out to be thin on exegesis. Only by reducing the view to a caricature is he able to refute a straw position.

With Luther, Calvin, and, yes, Kuyper, a proper Reformed view of Christ and culture affirms God’s lordship over all spheres of life, while nevertheless distinguishing between the way Christ rules his church by his Word and Spirit from the way he rules in providence and common grace. Why did Luther call them “the kingdom of the left hand” and “the kingdom of the right hand”? Because they were both God’s hands! It affirms that special revelation clarifies general revelation, the latter of which we by nature suppress in unrighteousness (although, as Van Til pointed out, sinners can’t suppress everything at the same time). The church proclaims God’s Word, both the law and the gospel, to the world. Where it speaks, we speak. Neither I nor my colleagues teach anything remotely suggestive of the idea that the Bible has no bearing on the convictions and actions of Christians in the public square.

Let me offer an example. I hold a pro-life stance as a Christian, on the basis of the biblical truths of creation, fall, redemption, and the consummation—as well as explicit commands for extending love to neighbors. I make those convictions explicit even in talking to non-Christians. However, because they are made in God’s image and cannot suppress everything at the same time, and the Spirit is also at work restraining evil in common grace, I can appeal to what I know they know even as they suppress its logical conclusions. As Calvin reminds us, “The moral law is nothing other than the natural law that is written on the conscience of all.” Of all people, Christians should not remain passive in the face of slavery, abortion, racism, exploitation, injustice, and failures to be stewards of God’s good creation. However, they can work alongside non-Christians in these callings without having the church bind their consciences about specific policies or agendas that are not authorized by God’s Word.

In content, this natural law is a revelation of God’s righteousness, justice, power, and moral will—distinct from the revelation of his saving will (the gospel) in Jesus Christ. Here, as in many cases throughout John’s critique, crucial distinctions are often blurred and then if you deny this synthesis you are accused of not holding to both.

2. Law and Gospel

At first, John seems to affirm the distinction. He even concedes that Calvin and Reformed writers affirmed it as well as Luther and Lutheranism. What he’s against is a “radical law-gospel antithesis.” Yet once again, his own alternative is a blurring of the distinction altogether. The gospel includes commands and the law includes gracious promises, he argues. So it’s not clear to me whether he affirms the distinction or denies it, but the latter seems to be the last word. If he were to say that the covenant of grace includes commands (or that there are commands to repent and believe the gospel), who could argue? But these commands to repent and believe (and obey) are not the gospel; they are the proper response to it. Or, if he were to say that the gospel was promised to the old covenant saints through types and shadows, again, who could take issue? Yet to say that the gospel itself is law and the law itself is gospel is not to hold them together; it’s to make them one and the same thing.

In the 1970s, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was racked by a controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd’s denial of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. The law and the gospel were confused. Well did Calvin’s sidekick Theodore Beza remark that “This confusion over law and gospel has been and remains the greatest source of corruption and abuses in the church.” Eventually, Professor Shepherd resigned and left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Two decades later, the theonomy debate stirred the pot. And more recently, the “Federal Vision” movement arose in our circles, largely out of these two tributaries.

In each of these challenges to the Reformed confession, John’s sympathies have been explicit. While demurring on some points, he has defended and endorsed these movements’ writings even as both “Westminsters” and all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have ruled them beyond the bounds of the confession. The two forewords to The Escondido Theology are written by noted theonomists. One vigorous endorsement of The Escondido Theology comes from a theonomist and Federal Visionist who denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is this neonomian paradigm that conflicts with the Reformed confession. Reformed critics, however, are dismissed as “Lutherans” or “Machen’s warrior children.”

This is ironic. Sadly, I’m not surprised that he appreciates their blurring of the distinction of law and gospel or of justification and sanctification. What does surprise me is that someone who is so adamant against anything that smacks of similarity to a “Lutheran” scheme is so sympathetic to a movement that embraces baptismal regeneration and the possibility of losing one’s justification/regeneration.

In both his exegesis and passing historical remarks, John refutes a position that nobody (at least nobody at WSC) holds and then jettisons a distinction that Reformed as well as Lutheran theology regards as fundamental and crucial. He shows little interest in wrestling with the historical debates, because he embraces “something close to biblicism.” In other words, his exegesis of Scripture trumps everyone else’s; what he believes is “biblical” is therefore “Reformed,” even if it goes against the consensus of Reformed interpretation.

3. Application of God’s Word to All of Life

Related to the previous points, John misrepresents me (and my colleagues) as teaching that we should not apply God’s Word to all areas of life.

First, given the fact that John has been critical of the traditional Reformed application of God’s Word to worship in the “regulative principle,” this is an odd charge. Not even the regular preaching of the Word is an essential element in the public service, John argues in this book (and elsewhere). It would surely be odd if one thought the Bible sufficient for politics, but not for the worship and government of the church.

Second, according to John, I relegate God’s Word to the private life of individuals or the corporate life of the church, having nothing to do with the believer’s stewardship and vocations in the world. I don’t know how anyone could conclude this from anything I have written. In fact, I’ve written books on the role of the law in the Christian life (The Law of Perfect Freedom), the importance of a world-embracing vision of Christian vocation in all spheres (Where in the World is the Church?), and the importance of engaging in culture with godly discernment (Beyond Culture Wars). John even alleges that we don’t talk enough about the Great Commission, when it forms the backbone of much of our curriculum. By the way, I wrote a book on the Great Commission, which also clearly advocates Christian involvement in the world and application of God’s Word to all areas of life.

One point where John is especially egregious in his misrepresentations of my view concerns the third use of the law. At the outset, this would hardly be a “Lutheran” move, since Melanchthon first coined the “third use” and it was included in the Book of Concord in the section against the antinomians. Furthermore, in many places I’ve argued that Calvin and other Reformed writers more carefully nuanced the position and emphasized the third use (including the importance of a disciplined life and church). There are important differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, those differences pale in comparison with the denial of the important distinctions that both traditions affirm together and writers like John Frame either deny or confuse.

4. Translation

In several places John is irritated by my suggestion that we have bent over backwards “translating” the gospel in terms not only that people can understand but that they can accept. It’s not a question of making it communicable, but palatable. Another distinction he doesn’t seem to recognize in my argument. Of course, I affirm translating the Bible into vernacular languages (where would the contrary assumption be gleaned from anything I’ve said)? Of course, I believe that we need to communicate clearly and effectively, drawing analogies from everyday life in our own day. Of all the reviews I’ve seen, only John’s interprets me as suggesting that we should just read the words of the Bible and not try to explain it to people.

What I point to explicitly is something like Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” where you ask the world to define the questions and then go to the Bible for the answers. The wrong assumption here is that we already know what we need before God tells us. In opposing this tendency to accommodate God’s radical Word to the fallen mind and heart, I am simply defending what Kuyper and Van Til referred to as the “antithesis” between godly and ungodly thinking. It’s surprising that a distinguished disciple of Cornelius Van Til would take issue with that argument. (He also takes issue with my advocacy of the archetypal-ectypal distinction—and the analogical view of human knowledge—evidently siding more with Gordon Clark over Van Til in that important debate.)

Conclusion

Speaking for myself, I have endeavored to explore the riches that I have discovered personally in the catholic, evangelical and Reformed heritage. I owe much of my deepest convictions to professors I had at Westminster California, including Edmund Clowney (who helped me understand, among many other things, “two kingdoms” thinking without calling it that), Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, and others.

In spite of the seriousness with which I take my calling as a minister, I don’t doubt my capacity for error and the need to be open to critique. Reviews are great ways of taking on board important critiques that lead to further reflection and correction. However, as I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair. It’s one thing to say that you believe a certain view should lead logically to such-and-such a conclusion; it’s quite another to misrepresent someone’s view as actually advocating a position that he or she in fact rejects.

All that I ask is that those who disagree with my arguments in fact disagree with my arguments, not with John Frame’s description of them. Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California. Like all of my colleagues, I’m trying to participate in a long conversation that is both appreciative and self-critical of our tradition’s interpretation and application of God’s Word so that the church can be more faithful in this generation. It is a work in progress, and our differences among ourselves as a faculty are treated as the grist for the mill of constant dialogue and mutual correction.

Unlike the days when I was a student, there are no factions on the faculty or among the student body. There is a wonderful spirit of mutual trust, spirited discussion—even debate, and, above all, a common conviction that it’s not about us or any party that we might form around ourselves. We’re collaborating in preparing pastors, missionaries, and teachers to bring all of God’s Word to all of the world in all of the ways that our Lord mandates in his Great Commission. We do need to have healthy debate and discussion in our circles of these important issues. We all tend to emphasize the points that we think are being obscured or over-emphasized by others. However, the level of the conversation in conservative Reformed circles has to improve. Otherwise, our internecine squabbles and confusion will thwart the great promise of a tradition that has always sought, at least at its best, to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”

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Ryan Glomsrud on Office Hours

Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, the Executive Editor of Modern Reformation and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California was recently interview on Office Hours to discuss what books he would want to have with him on a desert island.

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That Word Above All Earthly Pow’rs: The Kingdom of the Cross Under the Sword of the Crescent

Newsweek‘s current cover-story is “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” by Ayann Hirsi Ali, who fled her native Somalia and served in the Dutch Parliament before taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. As the article points out, widespread anti-Christian violence is exploding even in countries with Muslim minorities. How do we respond wisely as Christians to this growing threat?

1. Prayer

First, the crisis calls for concerted prayer on behalf of our brothers and sisters under the cross. More Christians have been martyred in the last several decades than in all of the centuries combined—including the early Roman persecutions. We are directed by Christ to pray first and foremost for the coming of his kingdom, come what may. But we also are called to pray for the “daily bread” and protection from temptation that become especially critical needs under persecution. Corporate and private prayers for all the saints, especially those under the cross, should be high on our list.

2. Faithful Witness

Second, instead of watering down the faith, Christians in the West should stand with fellow saints who are witnessing to Christ even to the point of death. It’s striking that when Paul, writing from prison, asks for prayers on his behalf, he does not even mention better conditions. The gospel is his overriding passion. The “prisoner of Christ” asks for prayer “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20).

The temptation is great to tone down the radical message of the gospel. A growing trend in evangelical missiology, known as the “Insider Movement,” encourages people to become “Jesus followers” while remaining Muslims. They need not profess faith in Christ publicly, be baptized, or become part of the church; they may continue to be Muslims outwardly. In the church’s first centuries, a similar challenge arose. Many, including some bishops, claimed that they could remain Christians inwardly while outwardly surrendering their Bibles and any public identity as believers. Excommunicated, they were known as the “lapsed,” and this gave rise to the well-known statement by the third-century bishop and martyr Cyprian, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”

In the West, including the US, there is a growing detachment from public identification with Christ, including baptism and membership in the church. Emergent church leaders encourage people to become “followers of Jesus” while remaining Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, or Muslims. After all, it’s “deeds, not creeds.” There is growing reluctance to witness openly to Christ for fear of being perceived as narrow-minded and intolerant. While we eschew all appeals to temporal power, much less violence, for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, we must pause to consider the seriousness of Christ’s claims not only in the face of martyrdom but in the face of the more subtle forms of compromise that are weakening our witness at home and abroad. While brothers and sisters sit in prisons for their testimony to Christ, their greatest disappointment is to learn that some Western missionaries are encouraging what amounts to apostasy. It’s a policy that doesn’t even make sense pragmatically, since the duplicity of “Muslim followers of Jesus” outrages the Muslim community even where Christians and Muslims live in relative co-existence.

Controversy over Wycliffe Bible Translators for apparently softening the references to Jesus Christ divinity as the eternal Son of the Father raises further suspicions that we in the West may be losing our nerve just at the moment when Christ is calling his sheep to martyrdom around the world. I had the privilege of participating in a film directed by Bill Nikides. Soon to be released, “Half Devil, Half Child,” includes interviews with Christians in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim leaders. A trailer can be seen here (www.halfdevilhalfchild.com).

3. Human Rights, Not Just Christian Rights

Third, Christians in the West should advocate publicly for human rights, including religious freedom, as part of the universal mandate of neighbor-love. Ramez Atallah, an evangelical leader and general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, reportedly counseled, “It’s not to our benefit to have loud voices overseas talking about Christians. It’s a great benefit to us to have loud voices abroad talking about a more universal bill of rights for all Egyptians.” (See that article here).

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You Win!

Thanks to the 358 commenters on our 20th Anniversary post. Using a random number generator, our staff chose 11 winners.

The grand prize winner is David Crabb who will receive a signed Horton library, a one-year subscription to MR, and five one-year subscriptions to give to his friends. Our ten other one-year subscription winners are:

  • Scott
  • Dan
  • Vince Canilla
  • Brian Thornton
  • Ashwin Ramji
  • Prayson Daniel
  • Daniel
  • Robert Caron
  • Mark Stumpff
  • Phillip

Congratulations, too, to the winners of Justin Taylor’s contest. His post generated 460 entries/comments!

One of the best things about this contest was reading your many, many comments about White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation, our hosts, and your memories. We passed along many of your comments to the staff and hosts. It really encourages us to hear how our work is making a difference for you.

If you didn’t win, you can still take advantage of our 20 years for $20 anniversary special. This is the lowest price we’ve ever offered for the magazine. In addition to the print version (published six times per year), you’ll also have access to our digital version, which can be read on any smartphone or tablet device, and you’ll get immediate access to twenty years of our archives!

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You can take advantage of both of these deals by calling our office at 800.890.7556 or go online and complete your purchase there.

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Moving from West to East? | Mike Horton on Office Hours

In recent decades a large number of evangelicals (and some Reformed folk) have left the evangelical faith for some version of Eastern Orthodoxy. Recently the CBS news program “60 Minutes” claimed that the Eastern Orthodox church is only unbroken tradition in Christianity. In the latest episode, Office Hours asks Mike to tackle these questions and more.

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Celebrating 20 Years

This year marks the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Modern Reformation magazine. In an era of disposable information (and media) this is no small milestone. We’re grateful to you and our many supporters over the last twenty years who have helped make this celebration possible. We want to share our joy by inviting you to participate in a contest to win a free one-year subscription for you and five of your friends plus a Mike Horton “library”: signed copies of The Christian Faith (Christianity Today’s 2012 book of the year in theology/ethics), For Calvinism, the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace which includes a DVD of Mike teaching on each chapter, the Christless Christianity trilogy (Christless Christianity, The Gospel-Driven Life, and The Gospel Commission), A Place for WeaknessIntroducing Covenant Theology, A Better Way, and Where in the World is the Church.

This is probably the easiest contest you’ve ever entered! Just leave a comment below by Thursday at midnight (PST). We’ll randomly choose one comment to win the grand prize. We’ll also choose ten more comments to win one-year subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you don’t win, you can still take advantage of our anniversary special: 20 years for $20. Get a one-year subscription to the magazine, which includes access to 20 years of archived content on our website for the ridiculously low price of $20. At this price you should buy a subscription for everyone you know! (Ok, maybe not everyone, but at least one or two people that you really like.)

Ok, are you ready to play? Just leave a comment below and you will have “entered” the contest. (Make sure you give us a working email address, otherwise we have no way of contacting you!) Not sure what to say? You don’t win based on the quality of your comment, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Tell us when you started reading Modern Reformation
  • Who introduced you to Modern Reformation?
  • Where do you like to read Modern Reformation?
  • Any articles/issues that stand out? made you mad? led to an “ah-ha!” moment?
  • Or, you can simply wish us happy anniversary

But wait! There’s more. You have TWO chances to win! Our friend, Justin Taylor, is helping us celebrate by running this same contest on his blog. You can leave a comment there and get a second chance to win.

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Is the Law Gracious?

Is the law gracious? Like many important questions, this one is thorny. There are lots of ways to prick yourself if you’re not careful.

First of all, it’s beyond dispute that God is gracious and that the law is an expression of his character—as well as the norm for what it means to have loving relationships to him and to each other. In other words, the God whose law it is, is gracious.

Second, God uses the law for gracious purposes. Even pagan cultures are indebted to God’s common grace in writing his law on the conscience, so that even where his written law is not known his moral law is enshrined (in varying degrees) in human constitutions. However these laws are distorted, much less unenforced, at least in theory they secure the vulnerable from injustice. In saving grace, God uses his law graciously to drive sinners to Christ and to guide them in Christ. It is essential to know God’s moral will, first to become guilty before God and so recognize our need for a Savior but also to live in a way that glorifies God and serves the needs of our neighbors. Love and law go hand-in-hand. In fact, the whole law is summarized in the sentence, “Love God and your neighbor.” So not only is the God who gives the law gracious; the law is loving and it stipulates what it means to love.

Third, it’s crucial to distinguish the nuda lex (the bare law summarized in the Ten Commandments) from the totus lex (the law in its totality as a covenant of works). Obligations and commands for loving God and neighbor are given in the new covenant as well as the old, in the Sinai covenant as well as the Abrahamic covenant that we enjoy in Abraham’s seed (Christ). The difference is how “law” functions. In a covenant based on law, the law functions as the basis for the continuing relationship: “Do this and you shall live.”

This is how law functioned in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not deserve their existence; it was a pure gift of God’s love—but not a gift of grace or mercy, since they were not yet fallen. Furthermore, Adam was given a promise of life, for himself and his posterity, on the condition of full, perpetual, and personal obedience as the covenant head. Israel did not merit the land; it was a gift—in this case, a gift of grace, as we see in Deuteronomy 6-8. However, it was a gift to win or lost. Flourishing in the land—long life, temporal security and peace, national righteousness and blessing—depended on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.” The promise was temporal blessing rather than everlasting life, but this national prosperity depended strictly on faithfulness to the stipulations of the law.

In a covenant of works, personal fulfillment of the law’s commands is the condition for inheritance; in a covenant of grace, Christ’s personal fulfillment merits our right-standing and now the only role the law can have is to direct—it cannot condemn us. If law were intrinsically antithetical to grace, it would be exempt from the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, the New Testament repeatedly reasserts and extrapolates the moral law for the life of believers. The gospel does not remove the obligation to obedience. Far from it! It is only because we are justified and given a new heart, with the law written on it by the finger of God, that we are able to love God’s moral will and follow it. Yes, and follow it. We fall and fail. Nevertheless, we do follow Christ—and anyone who doesn’t is not a believer. There is that great wisdom in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. But can those converted to God obey these commands perfectly? A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Neverthelesss, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some of God’s commandments.

In other words, just as we believe the whole gospel, we embrace the whole law—all of the commands that Jesus summarized as loving God and neighbor. Even when we fail to keep them, we don’t pick and choose which have authority to direct us. Even though we do not trust in them to save us, we embrace them to guide us.

But is the law itself gracious? Though subtle, there is a world of difference between saying, on one hand, that the Law-giver is gracious and uses the law for gracious purposes and saying, on the other, that the law itself is gracious. Our parents may have been gracious in giving us a curfew, but at least in my home the curfew was not gracious. It was “be home at 10—no ifs, ands, or buts.”

In order for the law itself to be gracious, it would have to offer promises to sinners apart from their personal performance. In other words, it would have to give relief to those who stand in a condition of violating it. This the law manifestly does not and cannot do. The law tells us God’s demands; it simply does not have anything to give as far as assistance and leniency. The law does not budge or bend. If God relaxed his moral law at a single point, he would himself be unlawful; he would violate his own character, which his law manifests.

The law isn’t intrinsically judgmental; it’s simply just. It “calls ‘em as it sees ‘em.” We’re the unjust ones, whom God must size up as such simply because of who he is. The law is God’s revelation of his unchanging moral character and will. The law is not gracious even in a covenant of grace, but it is also not ungracious. It is simply not the character of the law to extend mercy, because that is not its job description. The law can only stipulate what obedience is, issuing approval or disapproval. It stops and goes no further. The God who speaks his law is gracious to his people in revealing his moral will, but only his word of promise in Christ delivers God’s grace and mercy.

The law and the gospel therefore do different things. Or better, God does different things with his law and his gospel. Neither is bad. Both are necessary. However, they have different job descriptions. The law is not gracious. It commands, “Do this and you shall live.” It promises reward for obedience and threatens judgment for disobedience. It tells us what God requires of us. If we seek our life in the law, it kills us—it’s “the ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7). If we seek our life in Christ, the law is not the ministry of death. In any case, it never becomes the ministry of life (Gal 3:21-22; cf. 2:21), but the ministry of direction for that life that we have in Christ alone.

We need this measure of God’s holy will—not only so we will give up on our own righteousness and flee to Christ, but so that we will know what we are to do as those who have been justified and released from the dominion of sin and death. However, the law never bleeds into the gospel’s job description. Where the law pronounces us all “guilty before God” (Rom 3:19-20), the gospel announces “God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv 21-31). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!” At the same time, Jesus fulfills rather than abolishing the law. In fact, if Jesus had set the law aside or downplayed its authority, then his active obedience and self-offering in fulfillment of the law would not have been necessary.

Opposing the law to Christ in an abstract way is just another way of justifying ourselves: I’m good—the problem is laws and rules. Set those aside and have a grace-based freedom! But this fatally misses the point.

That’s the problem when people say “I’m spiritual, not religious”; “Jesus came preaching love, not a bunch of rules.” Actually, Jesus summarized the whole law as love, so the two are actually identical. The law merely stipulates what it means to love. No, the gospel is opposed to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves by our obedience—including our love. If it’s self-righteous to say we’ve kept the whole law, then are we any less so when we say that we’ve set aside the law but have loved God and our neighbor? If I set the law aside, I don’t realize that crucial fact and I will trust in my own righteousness because I don’t know what God’s righteousness really means. Many professing Christians today sound like antinomians (rejecting “religion” and “rules”), while nevertheless trusting in their own righteousness (love and graciousness).

The gospel is only opposed to the law when we are seeking life by the latter. The problem is not the law. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14). So I’m the problem. I need to be saved from the law’s condemnation, not from the law’s prescriptions. It is right to say that the law, in the hands of its Triune giver, is employed to gracious ends. However, it is dangerously wrong to say that the law itself is gracious. Its terms are anything but. That is why we need—always need—the gospel.

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Making Necessary Distinctions: The Call to Discernment

Some distinctions are pedantic, part of that “craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” that Paul warned against (1 Tim 6:5). Yet where would we be without those crucial distinctions between essence and persons in the doctrine of the Trinity, or between person and natures in Christ? I’ve been struck by how frequently John Calvin invoked the Chalcedonian maxim “distinction without separation” not only for the doctrine of Christ but as a rule for a host of other theological topics—including justification and sanctification, law and gospel, and the earthly signs (water, bread, and wine) and the reality (Christ with his benefits).

Our problem today is more often the erosion—or even ignorance—of crucial distinctions and categories. As Robert Godfrey often says, “We like to reinvent the wheel, and it’s never round.” Sometimes we treat contemporary controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Unaware of the discussions and debates that forged Christian consensus in the past, we often treat controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Starting from scratch, we often end up with our own lopsided confusion of things that ought to be distinguished and separation of things that ought to be held together.

In recent debates over the application of redemption, especially union with Christ, justification and sanctification, there is a tendency on the part of some to view classic Reformed distinctions with suspicion. Are they a bit of Aristotelian logic-chopping, the product of an over-active scholastic imagination? Or are they valuable—and more importantly, grounded in Scripture?

Here are a few categories that are helpful in guiding our own reflection today on some of these important questions:

History of Salvation / Order of Salvation

When were you saved? I’ll never forget the day the answer hit me between the eyes: “Two thousand years ago.” My pastor (who was not Reformed) looked puzzled. I didn’t know it then, but I was talking about the history of salvation (historia salutis) and he was thinking about the order of salvation (ordo salutis). In reality, though, “salvation” in Scripture encompasses both. Jesus Christ accomplished my redemption at the cross and in his resurrection, but the Spirit applies it when he calls me effectually through the gospel and unites me to Christ.

The order of salvation is of crucial significance and may be drawn from many clear passages, including Romans 8:29-30: “Those he predestined he called; those he called he justified, and those he justified he glorified.” We were chosen in eternity and redeemed at the cross. We have been justified the moment we trusted in Christ alone for our salvation. We are being sanctified. And we will be glorified.

In one and the same act of faith we receive the whole Christ with all of his gifts: justification and adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Now, some tend to absorb the history of salvation into the order. This is what happens when “getting saved” means the experience of personal conversion. Others make the opposite mistake, assimilating the order to the history, as if “salvation” meant only what Christ accomplished objectively, for us, not what he accomplishes in us by his Word and Spirit. This can also be done by making union with Christ such a controlling motif that there is no need for an order of application at all. Because we receive everything in union with Christ, there is no logical connection between justification and sanctification, for example. Like spokes of a bike’s wheel, every gift of this union has its source in Christ, but the gifts don’t have any real sequential dependence on each other.

Reformed theology has not accepted this false choice. To be united to Christ and his history is indeed to receive all (not just some) of his benefits; yet at the same time, sanctification has its basis in justification.

Law/Gospel

Here also there is a danger in either confusing or separating. God’s Word has two parts: the law and the gospel. The law commands and the gospel gives. The law says, “Do,” and the gospel says, “Done!” Equally God’s Word, both are good, but they do different things. The law issues imperatives (commands), while the gospel announces indicatives (a state of affairs).

Two further distinctions on this point are helpful.

First, our older theologians spoke of the law and the gospel in the wider and narrower sense. In the wider sense, the law is everything in Scripture that commands and the gospel is everything in Scripture that makes promises based solely on God’s grace to us in Christ. In the narrow sense, the gospel is 1 Corinthians 15:1-3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” The content of the gospel is not our justification or sanctification, but the announcement that Christ was crucified and raised for our salvation in fulfillment of the scriptures. However, another way of stating this “narrow sense” is Romans 4:25: “He was crucified for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

At the same time, the gospel includes God’s gracious fulfillment in Christ of all of the promises related to the new creation. That’s why Paul can answer his question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” with more gospel: Union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, so that we’re no longer under sin’s dominion. The gospel isn’t just enough to justify the ungodly; it’s enough to regenerate and sanctify the ungodly. It’s not just justification. However, only because (in the narrower sense) the good news announces our justification that we are for the first time free to embrace God as our Father rather than our Judge. We have been saved from the condemnation and tyranny of sin. Both are essential to the “glad tidings” that we proclaim.

They also spoke of the law in what I have called the redemptive-historical sense and as the covenantal principle of inheritance. Borrowing on our first distinction, we might correlate this with the history of salvation and the order of salvation. Sometimes the law is referred to as the whole Old Testament—specifically, the part of the Bible called “the Law and the Prophets.” The history of salvation moves from promise to fulfillment, from shadows to reality. In this sense, the law is not opposed to the gospel. Yet when it comes to how we receive this gift—how redemption is applied to us by the Spirit, we are saved apart from the law. Law and gospel are completely opposed in this sense, since they are two different bases or principles of inheritance. We are saved by Christ or by our own obedience, but we cannot be saved by both. Interestingly, Paul includes both senses in Romans 3:21: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [justification in the order of salvation] although the Law and the Prophets [i.e., the Old Testament writings] bear witness to it.”

Finally, following Melanchthon, Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition distinguished (without separating) three uses of the law: the first (pedagogical), to expose our guilt and corruption, driving us to Christ; the second, a civil use to restrain public vice, and the third, to guide Christian obedience. Believers are not “under the law” in the first sense. They are justified. However, they are still obligated to the law, both as it is stipulated and enforced by the state (second use) and as it frames Christian discipleship (third use). We never ground our status before God in our obedience to imperatives, but in Christ’s righteousness; yet we are also bound to Christ who continues to lead and direct us by his holy will.

Passive/Active Righteousness

Under this crucial distinction may be found others: faith and works, justification and sanctification; regeneration and conversion. In regeneration we are utterly passive. God finds us “dead in trespasses and sins.” “Yet while we were dead he made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 1:2, 5). In conversion, however, we are alive. We turn from sin, death, Satan, and self to Christ—this is repentance and faith. We are the ones repenting and believing, but we do so only because these have been granted as a free gift on the basis of God’s unilateral grace in Christ, by his Spirit.

Faith receives Christ for everything: not only for salvation from judgment, but for the fruit of good works. However, in justification faith is passive: receiving, resting, clinging to Christ alone for an imputed righteousness even while we are still ungodly. This same faith, in sanctification, is active in good works. Having received everything in Christ, faith goes to work in love and service to our neighbors. There is no justification by works. However, there is no genuine faith (and therefore justification) that fails to bear the fruit of good works. Faith is passive with respect to God (receiving rather than giving), but active toward our neighbors (giving without demanding anything in return).

Related to this, then, is the distinction between faith and works. In determining the basis for our relationship with God, faith and works are completely opposed. However, the justified are free finally for the first time to pursue good works out of love for God and neighbor. Fear is no longer in the driver’s seat, so love can flourish. The proper order is the Word (specifically the gospel), then faith (created by the Spirit through the gospel), then love (which expresses itself in good works).

With this distinction between passive and active righteousness in mind, we can distinguish without separating justification and sanctification. Both gifts are given in union with Christ. At no point is either something that we attain by cooperating with God. He gives it all, in Christ, through faith alone. Even in sanctification, we are passive receivers of God’s grace in Christ, mediated through his Word and sacraments. However, in sanctification we are also active in good works. Faith expresses itself in love.

There are many other important distinctions that are critical to Christian reflection. Reformation theology applies the magisterial-ministerial distinction when it speaks about the authority of the Word over the subordinate authority of the church, reason, tradition, and experience. These “ministers” or servants have their important role, but they stand under the Word.

Similarly, we distinguish between the invisible and visible church. Many confuse them, as if the visible church were identical to the full number of elect and regenerate—as if everyone who is baptized is united to Christ even apart from exercising faith in Christ. Others separate them, as if the visible church were merely a “man-made” organization unrelated to the spiritual church of the “truly saved.”

We distinguish without separating sign and reality, applied to the church and the sacraments. Some confuse them, as if the water, bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Others separate them, as if the signs only point to but do not convey Christ and his benefits.

With respect to eschatology, we distinguish between the “already” and “not yet.” Some Christians believe that the kingdom is fully present already, while others believe it is entirely future. However, like the maxim, “simultaneously just and sinner” in relation to believers, Reformation theology affirms concerning the kingdom that it is present in grace but not yet consummated in glory. Consequently, it distinguishes between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this age, but without separation. The two kingdoms are under Christ’s ultimate authority, but the one through his providence and common grace in the world and the other through his miraculous saving grace in the church. The church is both a divinely ordained organization and a Spirit-empowered organism, with special offices (pastors, elders and deacons) and the general office (prophet, priest, and king) shared by all believers equally.

Distinctions should not be endlessly multiplied. On the other hand, there is a kind of “biblicism” that discourages making any distinctions that are not found explicitly in Scripture. Of course, that would spell disaster for the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and a host of other core Christian convictions. Good distinctions are an act of discernment. It is the wisdom to recognize things that are required by Scripture even when they are not directly expressed in Scripture. While we must avoid “quarrels about words” (1 Tim 6:5), we must also “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13).

Now how many controversies in the church today can you think of where these distinctions could be practically relevant?

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Hey Football Fans, The Big Day Is Nearly Here Again

The Big Day is almost here again: another weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It’s not the only victory that’s interesting, exciting, or important. But it’s the one that determines your identity and destiny forever.

In spite of the loss to the Patriots, Denver QB Tim Tebow is still the subject of headlines (and spoofs) for his public recognition of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Focus on the Family joined in by placing an ad with children quoting John 3:16. All of this celebration of Jesus is intriguing for a show that competes every week (during season) for his ministry to the world. It would seem that the image of a celebrity saluting Jesus on stage is more significant these days than the reality of being gathered as his body to receive Jesus Christ himself. 

A quick Google search reveals that the church world is abuzz with this “high holy day.” You may recall that many churches suspended regular services for this past Christmas (since it had the misfortune to fall on a Sunday, traditionally known by Christians as the Lord’s Day). However, the doors are wide open in many churches for the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday. Only it’s not going to be a regular service of “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), but big-screen gridiron action. Undaunted by NFL suits for violating copyright laws by charging admission fees to watch the show on giant screens, many churches are giddy over Super Bowl-themed parties that will replace worship. Or, perhaps, will offer a different object of worship.

I know, I know. Low blow, as if that benevolent and benign past time of sports—especially football—could be compared with Baal. In fact, God and football (baseball has fallen a bit) block and tackle for each other in American civil religion these days. Typically, in the reports I scanned, pastors were justifying their decision by appealing to the mission opportunity. Somehow, having the building full with people who want to be there for a game, but not for God’s saving service to sinners, is “missional.” In any case, the evening service has fallen by the wayside in many churches anyway—no conflict there. Yet even where there are such services, many sympathize with one pastor who said that it’s “a bit of a luxury,” especially “when it falls on a legal holy day [you read that right: holy day] like Super Bowl Sunday.”

Evangelicals are absolutely sure when liberal Protestants are falling over themselves to curry the favor of the world in the name of mission. Academic faddishness, more-tolerant-than-thou displays of self-righteousness, a craving for the acceptance of cultural elites. Evangelical leaders are not likely to be offering the invocation at Gay Rights marches or texting “Jesus is Lord” at a Sunday opera. But football? It’s clean and manly (at least when there aren’t “wardrobe malfunctions” during the half-time show). So take off the robe, Pastor, and put on a jersey. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and your job today at least is not to represent Christ to us, but us to ourselves.

I don’t want to go after Tim Tebow. I admire his willingness to confess Christ openly. My concern is with an American evangelical audience that seems more excited about Jesus when he’s wearing a jersey on a winning-streak, and “Tebowing” players acknowledging Jesus for a touchdown during the hours when God opens the doors to his feast.

Where is God present in power and grace? Is it on the big screen, for a game? Where is the authentic site of God’s promised presence to judge and forgive? All week long we are at liberty to share in the common life of our neighbors, but the Lord’s Day is the one day of the week when the powers of the age to come are breaking into this passing age. Which age do we believe is more real: the one that Scripture says is “fading away” or the one “with foundations whose builder and maker is God”? As fun as a game might be, is it “tasting the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”? Is being a spectator of an ephemeral game more significant than being actually swept into God’s unfolding drama, “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”? And are we more tantalized by the words and sacraments of Game Day than those of the Lord’s Day?

Now that football (along with soccer and the mall) has swallowed Sunday whole, Christians have to make a choice. Whatever “Super Bowl Sunday” has become in our culture, it is not “missional” to tell the world that what happens on that field is more game-changing than what happened at an empty tomb and what happens every time sinners gather to be made recipients of that inheritance of the saints.

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We have a problem with bad religion too

One of the really encouraging things today is seeing people raised in “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” coming to understand and embrace the gospel. At the same time, the antithesis between “religion” and “grace” (or being “spiritual but not religious”) is still trapped in its own kind of moralism. It fails to recognize that Christ came to fulfill rather than abolish the Law and religion. If religion is a community with certain doctrines and practices, then certainly Christianity is a religion. It’s bad religion that Jesus abolishes, because he gives himself as the Life of the world in the gospel through preaching and sacrament. Take away this religion and you are just left once again with a religion of your own making. Check this out, from a Lutheran brother.

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