Dr. Horton was recently invited to speak about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at the Richmond Center for Christian Study in Richmond, VA. His lecture and a time of Questions & Answers are available for free download on the Center’s website.
After declining several invitations, John Witherspoon (1723-94) finally accepted a call as the first pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church and president of Princeton College. At Princeton he also taught theology, history, and philosophy to many of the new nation’s leaders, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, and a host of supreme court justices and members of Congress. Besides being the only clergyman (and college president) to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon also drafted the Articles of Confederation and gave input on the U.S. Constitution. However, his lesser-known ministry in the Church of Scotland was just as active and controversial. Before emigrating, Witherspoon wrote a Ecclesiastical Maxims, a collection of maxims that employed satire as a way of illustrating the feeble sentiments of the Kirk’s “Moderate” wing. This one is too relevant to our own day to overlook. The views he targets here are often repeated in our day and this satire reminds us that in spite of the “postmodern” advertisements, anti-confessional arguments have varied little from their “modern” script:
John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III):
“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.
“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.
“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…”
Last week (May 19, 2011), President Obama created controversy with his statement that any Israeli-Palestinian accord “must begin with a return to the 1967 borders.” Besides Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, many evangelical leaders have been criticizing the statement over the last several days.
Foreign policy experts have been discussing and debating the conditions for a lasting accord, offering thoughtful analysis on complicated questions. However, they are often drowned out by the background voices of those who insist, on biblical grounds, that any pressure put on Israel to keep its past pledges is tantamount to heresy.
Lacking both the qualifications and the authority to pronounce on the policy questions, my focus here is on the argument that many evangelicals have made over the years since dispensational premillennialism gained ascendence.
In a recent post for Charisma Magazine Online, Jack Hayford, pastor of Church on the Way (Van Nuys, California), called President Obama’s announcement “a trumpet call from God’s Spirit: ‘Beware – Take Action!’” He adds, “We are living in a sobering moment in history that calls us, as believers in Jesus Christ, to take a stand with Israel. We could be people of the last hour.”
To his credit, Mr. Hayford warned against disrespectful or violent responses. However, he reiterated a familiar defense for a policy that would basically recognize Israel’s privileges as a “holy nation” and not simply as a secular nation that is one of the US’s closest friends. Inasmuch as it has been embraced (at least publicly) by several recent presidents, the “Bible-based” argument that Mr. Hayford offers has had some influence on foreign policy. But is it, in fact, biblical?
Like most dispensationalist brothers and sisters, Mr. Hayford’s main argument is the unconditional nature of God’s promise to Israel of an earthly land and kingdom. “Israel is a land about which God says uniquely, prophetically, redemptively and repeatedly in the Bible This is Mine. God refers to Israel as He does to no other land on Earth. Israel was raised up to be a light to the Gentiles.” He makes other arguments in favor of the special relationship of Christians and Jews. “Salvation comes from the Jews,” the first church was Jewish, and Gentiles are the “wild branches” grafted onto the tree. All of this is important to remember when we are thinking about the relationship between Christians and Jews. However, does it have anything to do with the nation of Israel and Palestine or the United States?
The deeper problem in the argument supporting Mr. Hayford’s urgent call concerns the nature of the promise that God made to Abraham. He writes, “The Lord selected a people … He began by selecting a man named Abraham. The Lord said that through the seed of Abraham (in relationship with his wife, Sarah, giving birth to the promised child, Isaac) all the nations of the Earth will be blessed … every human being having access to the divine blessing of Almighty God. In Genesis 12:3, the Lord says in the covenant He makes with Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
I can agree with the point that “This relates not only to a people (the Jews), but it also relates to a land (Israel),” and that God did in fact judge Israel’s enemies. Nevertheless, God’s covenant with Israel was itself conditional. It is not Israel’s land, but God’s, and if Israel breaks the covenant, then the land will “vomit out” Israel as well (Lev 20:22). God himself will lay the nation waste through other nations and send his people into exile “east of Eden.” The land will no longer be holy, but common, even though God continues to work through the holy line—the “stump of Jesse,” from whom David and eventually the greater David (the Messiah) would come. Throughout the law (especially in Deuteronomy), the temporal promise of “long life in the land” is conditioned on Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant it swore at Mount Sinai. It is distinct from the unconditional promise of everlasting life and peace through Abraham’s Seed, through whom all families of the earth will be blessed.
The way the Gospels, but especially Hebrews and Galatians, interpret these passages is to recognize that the Sinai covenant was temporary, conditional, and typological. It was a shadow of the things to come—namely, Christ and his kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces a “regime change” from the civil laws of the theocracy. Instead of driving out the enemies of God, the True Israel—those united to Christ—are to endure suffering for the gospel and to pray for their persecutors. God’s common grace is shed on the just and the unjust alike in this age. Having fulfilled its job, like a trailer for a movie, the old covenant is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:13). Christ’s ministry, far greater than that of Moses, fulfills the everlasting promise that God made to Abraham. Now, blessing has come from the Jews to the ends of the earth in Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the true and faithful Son of David, the true Temple.
The church has therefore not replaced Israel; rather, the borders of Israel have now been extended. No longer a geo-political nation, limited to one people, it is an international remnant “from every tribe, kindred, and nation” (Rev 5:9). So while I do believe that Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 leads us to expect a great outpouring of God’s Spirit on ethnic Jews in the last days, this has nothing to do with the state of Israel.
A lot more could be—and should be—said (I treat this at length in The Christian Faith [535-47, 729-33, 919-90] and elsewhere). However, it’s worth concluding this brief response by mentioning that not even Orthodox Jews believe that the modern state of Israel is holy. The messianic kingdom for which they long is strictly “from above.” It comes with the Messiah and cannot be a secular democracy. So they too realize that the state of Israel is not in any way a revival of the Mosaic theocracy. They are still living in exile, even in Israel.
To conclude: God’s promise to Abraham included (1) and earthly land and (2) a heavenly land. The central claim of the New Testament, anticipated by the prophets, is that although Israel (like Adam—Hosea 6:7) has thoroughly violated the conditions for inheriting the first, God has been faithful to keep history moving beyond the sinfulness of his human partner—including us. Through Christ, he has fulfilled this promise, bringing blessing to all the families of the earth. All heirs of this kingdom are “a holy nation,” living in the common nations of this age.
Especially given the legacy of Christian persecution of Jews throughout the medieval and modern periods, there is a special obligation of Christians to defend the common rights of the Jewish people to a flourishing existence. Yet, by acknowledging that God’s promise of a temporal, geo-political theocracy and land were conditional and that this covenant now lies in the past, we are free to support our friends in Israel and Palestine in their pursuit of a stable peace that will doubtless require trust and negotiation on both sides.
This post is actually written for followers of Harold Camping to read on May 22, after their leader’s failed prediction of Judgment Day on May 21 (today) passes.
Undaunted by our Lord’s explicit warning against predicting “the day and the hour” of his return and his warning about false prophets in the last days, as well as by his own failed speculation that Jesus would return in 1994, Mr. Camping has squandered enormous resources on full-page ads in national newspapers and billboards across the country for his new date.
Reared in the Christian Reformed Church (in which he was an elder), Mr. Camping owns “Family Radio Network,” with over a hundred stations and translators in the US, and others around the world, including Moscow, Istanbul, and in various parts of Africa. His organization also owns several TV stations.
I recall listening to Mr. Camping’s “Open Forum” as a teen-ager, hearing for the first time serious teaching on the doctrines of grace. However, since 1988, when he left the Christian Reformed Church, he has gradually adopted a variety of teachings. In biblical interpretation, he employes a hermeneutic in which there are multiple layers of meaning and, as in much of medieval speculation, the “spiritual interpretation” seems to be his preferred method. So it’s not surprising that he would mine the Bible much like a medieval alchemist, looking for the secret meaning.
Some of these teachings are well-represented in evangelicalism, but contrary to Reformed teaching—such as the distinction between a rapture of the saints and the second coming of Christ. Other teachings are odd interpretations that he claims to have received directly from God, although they resemble past errors in church history. In recent years, he has argued that there is no eternal punishment (hell is simply death) and so emphasizes God’s eternal decree that Christ’s work in history is merely a demonstration of what he already accomplished in eternity.
By the turn of the millennium, he announced the end of the “church era,” calling his followers to abandon their local churches. And many did. Years ago, as president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, which sponsors James Boice’s “Bible Study Hour,” I met with Mr. Camping. He was asking us to delete any reference to the church in Dr. Boice’s sermons, which we refused to do. So many loyal listeners could no longer hear the broadcast. Resolute and self-confident in the meeting, Mr. Camping seemed for the first time to me then to have crossed the line from the idiosyncratic to the heretical.
Apostasy is a serious business. Nevertheless, Christ extends his open hand to Mr. Camping and his followers to return to him and his body. Tragically, some followers will be completely disillusioned on May 22. Having already abandoned the church, many will likely become skeptical of anyone who claims to teach Scripture, indeed even of Scripture itself. (I’ve even heard of one follower who said that if the prediction turns out to be wrong, then the Bible is wrong.)
Of course, Jesus may return tomorrow, or the next day, or long after we die. We simply do not know. However, we can be sure that the errors that he teaches—quite apart from his failed predictions—are enough to regard him, tragically, as a false prophet.
Also tragic is the shame that such movements bring to the cause of Christ. Predictably (no pun intended), atheists are planning “rapture parties” around the world. (BBC report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13468131; NBC report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2J0ce66hzQ
As for the rest of us, we’ll be in church this Lord’s Day, proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection, longing for his return…on his Father’s timetable, which none of us knows.
I’ve read stories this morning at Slate and in The New York Times about Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will occur tomorrow. Each one makes the same kind of reporting mistakes that drive our friends at GetReligion batty. But what’s really tragic about the mainstream reporting on this issue is the barely disguised, thinly veiled mockery that provides the undercurrent for each narrative. There’s been fantastic theological and exegetical reflection elsewhere (here and here, for starters), which I won’t repeat here. Instead, I want to think about how we should interact with our friends and neighbors who have been overtaken by Camping’s madness.
A few days ago, the local Los Angeles evening news program featured an interview with Michael Shermer, the former Christian turned skeptic that Mike Horton interviewed for the next episode of White Horse Inn coming up this Sunday. Shermer and the anchor sat across from one another and traded smirks, eye rolls, and knowing grins about all those deluded Christians who believed that Jesus was coming back on Saturday. At some level you probably expect this from people who have no concept of living between the ages; of praying with the apostle John at the end of Revelation, “even so, come Lord Jesus!”; of feeling the same missionary burden that propelled these otherwise normal Americans into the streets to warn of the judgment to come.
The real danger post-Saturday doesn’t come from the skeptics, however, it comes from people like you and me. Having lived through Camping’s failed prediction in 1994 and his 2002 rejection of the visible body of Christ on earth, many Reformational Christians feel the same desire to smirk, roll their eyes, and use the worst kind of language to describe fellow Christians who have been deluded by false teaching. We also probably feel a justified sense of outrage that Camping is making a mockery of Christ and his church, giving skeptics like Shermer a free shot at one of our cherished hopes.
We must be very careful about how we respond. Will we join our friends at the “Rapture Parties” that are planned for pubs and living rooms around the nation? Will we laugh at those who have spent the last several months of their lives dedicated to a true but untimely belief? What will we say on Saturday night or Sunday morning?
History teaches us that previous generations caught up in eschatological fervor often fell away from Christ when their deeply held beliefs about the end of the world didn’t pan out. While Camping must answer for his false teaching at the end of the age, Reformational Christians are facing a pastoral problem come Sunday morning: how can we apply the salve of the Gospel to the wounded sheep who will be wandering aimlessly, having discovered that what they thought was true (so true they were willing to upend their lives over it) was not? If this isn’t true, they might reason, then what other deeply held beliefs and convictions and doctrines and hopes might not be true?
It’s at this point that we need to be ready to provide a reasonable defense of our reasonable faith. Christianity is not founded upon some complex Bible code that needs years of analysis to reveal its secret. Christianity is about a man who claimed to be God, who died in full public view as a criminal, and was inexplicably raised from the dead three days later appearing to a multitude of witnesses. When his followers, who witnessed his resurrection, began speaking of it publicly, they connected the prophecies of the Old Testament to the life and death and resurrection of this man who claimed the power to forgive sins. This is the heart of the Christian faith, the message that deserves to be featured on billboards, sides of buses, and pamphlets all over the world. It is also the message that needs to be reinvested into the hearts and lives of those who found hope and meaning in Harold Camping’s latest bad idea.
I just returned from Korea, after 10 days of fellowship with brothers and sisters seeking a new Reformation not only in their own nation but also throughout Asia. Much as is the case in the U.S., the vitality of sound faith and practice in Korean churches has been challenged by consumerism, pragmatism, and Arminian revivalism. The history is rich, especially given the fact that the earliest missions were dominated by Presbyterian leaders and the Presbyterian Church (mainline as well as conservative denominations) remains the largest body there. However, a number of solid Reformed and Presbyterian leaders there are longing for a new Reformation that will recover a more Christ-centered, Word-proclaiming, and doctrinally sound faith and practice.
Together with my colleague, Julius Kim (and our wives), I was treated to the remarkable hospitality of several churches and institutions. Sponsored by the Yullin Presbyterian Church in Seoul, the trip included a conference at Yullin on recovering Reformed theology and worship, with 1400 conferees. I also spoke at Hapdong Theological Seminary and Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology and preached at Yullin Church and Jesus Family Presbyterian Church. The trip also included interviews with one of the largest newspapers in Korea as well as the Ministry and Theology Journal, the most widely read Christian magazine in Korea. Lastly, I gave a lecture at the Korean Reformed Theological Society meeting.
Three things especially encouraged me.
First, Yullin-pastored by The Rev. Nam-Joon Kim, is a hub of reformation not only in Korea but throughout Asia, especially China. It’s one of the most rigorous disciple-making churches I’ve encountered, with serious courses in Scripture and Christian doctrine required for membership and even more for office-bearers. The church even houses an amazing collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century books and manuscripts as well as a whole team that oversees a bee-hive of activity for database and curriculum development. Among the 4,500 members are many young people, hungering for God’s Word. Out of this concern for truth there is an amazing range of efforts in missions, evangelism, and outreach in Seoul and beyond. It’s truly remarkable to see such a dedication to getting the gospel right and getting it out!
Second, Reformation and Revival Publishing, under the leadership of The Rev. Geum-San Baek, has been translating and publishing all of my books and we are even talking about the possibility of a Korean edition of Modern Reformation.
Third, my interest in expanding our reach into China was encouraged by conversations with Pastor Nam-Joon Kim and others who have established contacts throughout the house church movement. As the Christian movement grows there (soon China will have the largest Christian population in the world), the opportunity to infuse it with Reformation theology is very exciting.
As we continue this fellowship with like-minded brothers and sisters in Asia, please pray that White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation will be able to make the most of strategic opportunities.
Submitted by Dr. Brian J. Lee of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C.
The May 16th New Yorker (behind firewall) delivers “The Facebook Sonnet,” a delightful poem by Sherman Alexie, which captures the anomie of “the endless high-school reunion” that is Facebook. Interesting that for Alexie the desire to “exhume, resume, and extend Childhood” ends with a perversion of the divine:
“…Let one’s search for God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.
Let’s sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.”
Where is wisdom to be found? Theologians seek to rebuild the house of God as a “virtual resource center,” but poets see the pitfalls of making the sacramental digital.
We’ve all heard of resume-padding, but this is a little ridiculous:
A pastor who regaled family and parishioners with tales from his time in the Navy SEALs is backtracking after his story turned out to be nothing more than a self-described “ego-booster,” according to reports.
Without knowing the man, his ministry, or his preaching, it’s impossible to say how this lie found its way into his sermons, his counseling, or his leadership. But it certainly had to have an impact. Contrast how this pastor wanted to be seen and known with how the apostle Paul describes his ministry in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Paul’s perception of his own ministry and of his own place in that ministry went arm in arm with his message of Christ crucified, the power of God displayed in the hiddenness of the cross. Sadly, many modern pastors do not have the same confidence that Paul had in his message. But when the message changes to something more than the scandal of Christ and Him crucified, there must be a corresponding change to the messenger. Messages that are focused on me and my abilities and my successes are far more convincing if they are delivered by a man who seems to have experienced the success he offers in his sermons.
The foolishness of the cross remains a scandal among those who profess to worship the risen Christ, even among those who are called to be his heralds. When faced with our own personal sins and idols, the temptation is strong to make ourselves more than we really are, to pretend to be more than we have ever been. But when we succumb to that temptation we also turn away from the only hope we can ever have to be loved according to our real circumstances rather than the fiction that we create, believe, and project to others.
I hope that for this particular pastor, someone in his church or some peer reminds him of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 2 and I hope it changes the way he preaches to desperate sinners and counsels those who just can’t seem to rise above their circumstances. Having had his glory pulled out from under him, he is in a perfect position to remember the glory of the One who was lifted up for him. May all our pastors take refuge in the foolishness and weakness and hiddenness of God.
The Great Commission has been our year-long theme at White Horse Inn. In fact, everything we do is focused on getting the gospel right and getting it out. We know we’re not a church, but God has used the White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation magazine, events and our other resources to help Christians know what they believe and why they believe it. And even many pastors have written to tell us that these conversations have changed their own conversations and directions in their ministry.
But beyond helping Christians know the faith better, there is a tremendous need for resources to help us to communicate this faith to those outside the church. There just isn’t very much out there, frankly. Of course, there are lots of evangelistic programs-lines to memorize, with pretty strong (and predictable) pressure to “close the deal” at the end.
Well, we can’t complain any more about our resources. Unlike other evangelistic courses, “Christianity Explored” isn’t formulaic. It isn’t built around themes, but around the unfolding drama of Jesus-his person and his work-in the Gospel of Mark. The author, Rico Tice, is a long-time friend-we roomed next door to each other at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and kept each other up many a night talking theology and evangelism. Rico’s example alone is a constant source of encouragement to make the most of every opportunity to share the gospel. And it is the gospel that drives him. I love his familiar line, “The bad news is worse than you thought; the good news is greater than you ever imagined.”
Besides the content, there’s finally a practical program. Yes, a program. Only this one is sound! It’s easy for us as ministers to talk about evangelism as a noble ideal, but never get around to it. D. L. Moody once replied to a critic of his methods, “I like my way of doing better than your way of not doing it.” Well now you don’t have to choose. The program is based on the content, not vice versa. But there is a DVD (also CD), with Rico walking folks through Mark. There’s a Leader’s Guide as well as a Handbook for others following along. You can do this with your family, invite over some neighbors over to the house or do the course at a local spot where non-Christians who wouldn’t attend church can show up, listen in, and ask questions. And you can go through the course with your whole church. Even mature believers will gain new insights-and fresh appreciation for the glory of Christ in his gospel.
Sorry to go on about this, but “Christianity Explored”-especially with this newly revised edition-is exactly what we’ve need for a long time. My prayer is that churches faithful to getting the gospel right will become just as known for getting the gospel out. And “Christianity Explored” is the best supporting resource I know of for helping us to do that. The best way of getting more information on “Christianity Explored” in the US is by contacting Brad Byrd at The Good Book Company. You can also visit www.christianityexplored.org.