White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

What hath Jerusalem to do with Palo Alto?

Church, digitizedSubmitted 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.

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What makes a good resume?

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.

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Revised “Christianity Explored”!

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.

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IX Marks on Church Membership

There are few evangelical churches that practice formal church membership anymore. Our friends at IX Marks (associated with Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church) recently posted a new eJournal on the topic of church membership. Matt Chandler’s lead article, Is Church Membership Biblical?, is especially good and worth your time to read. Here’s the intro:

I was 28 when I became the pastor of Highland Village First Baptist Church (now known as The Village Church). I had had a rough go early on in my church experience, and at that time I was not fully out of my “disenchanted with the local church” phase.

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure at the time that church membership was biblical. Despite that, the Spirit had made it all too clear that I was going to be pastoring this small church in the suburbs of Dallas. That was one of the many ironies of my life in those days.

Highland Village First Baptist Church was a “seeker-sensitive” church in the Willow Creek mold and had no formal membership process, although they were actively working on one and wanted the new pastor’s input. I had a strong understanding of the church universal but wasn’t well versed—and, as I said, somewhat skeptical—about the church local. We started growing quickly with young and oftentimes disenchanted 20-somethings who usually had no church background, or bad church backgrounds. They liked The Village because we were “different.” This always struck me as strange because we weren’t doing anything but preaching and singing.

In conversations with these men and women I began to hear things like “The church is corrupt; it’s just about money and a pastor’s ego,” or “I love Jesus, it’s the church I have a problem with.” My favorite one was, “When you organize the church it loses its power.” Although something occasionally resonated in me with these comments (I, along with most of my generation, have authority and commitment issues), I found them confusing since they were being made to me by people who were attending the church where I was the pastor.

Read the whole thing here.

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The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?

Osama Bin Laden - Dead 2011Dr. Horton’s post below was originally published on Christianity Today.

Understandably, news of Osama bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U. S. Navy Seals provoked cries of celebration. The mastermind of terror, even against civilians (indeed, against fellow Muslims) has been brought to justice. But what kind of justice?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized “Operation Infinite Justice.” Especially after his comment that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” however, the mission was renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Reportedly, the name-change was due at least in part to the concern raised by Muslims that only God can execute “infinite justice.” One would have hoped that the change had been provoked instead by Christian reaction.

Islam, of course, is not just a religion; it’s a cultural and even geo-political reality. As such, its strict adherents excoriate co-religionists like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im who call for an “Islamic Reformation” that would make jihad into a spiritual struggle rather than an armed military conflict.

Unfortunately, Christianity has had a long and complicated history of its own on this score. On one hand, the fourth-century theologian Augustine responded to the sacking of Rome with a detailed scriptural argument for two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Each city has its own origins, ends, and means. As citizens of both kingdoms, every believer is called to recognize the difference between them. Compared with the City of God, the City of Man is hardly a true commonwealth. It cannot ensure ultimate peace, security, justice, and love. Nevertheless, Augustine argues, it can still be considered a commonwealth in a limited, provisional, and penultimate sense. Out of these reflections (especially in the City of God) there arose a legacy of just war theory and a Christian realism about the legitimacy and limitation of human societies in this time between the times.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages gave rise to a fusion of Christ and culture known as “Christendom.” In the name of Christendom, kings and their knights rode off to crusades with papal blessing, as David and the hosts of Yahweh redivivus, cleansing the Holy Land of infidels.

In spite of its own contradictions in practice, the magisterial Reformation sought to distinguish between the kingdom of Christ, which conquers by Word and Spirit, and the kingdoms of this age that are given the divine authority to defend temporal justice. Drawing on the New Testament and church fathers, especially Augustine, the reformers realized that there was no theocracy in the new covenant; all nation-states were “secular” in the sense of being common rather than holy. With no holy land, there can be no holy war. Only just wars, based on natural law.

But ideas like “Christendom” die hard. We saw that with the memorial service after 9/11. Held in a building popularly known as the “National Cathedral,” with military honor guards processing and the strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” announcements of a resolve to secure infinite justice in an open-ended “crusade” provided fodder for Islamic extremists in their effort to replay ancient battles. A romantic patriotism has always seethed beneath the professed separation of church and state, as in the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Written by a Unitarian, the hymn confuses Union victory with Christ’s final judgment. Something very close to “infinite justice.”

Cultures are the most dangerous when they invoke holy texts for their defense of holy land through holy war. However, Christians have no biblical basis for doing this in the first place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly abrogated the ceremonial and civil law that God had given uniquely to the nation of Israel. Now is the era of common grace and common land, obeying rulers—even pagan ones—and living under constitutions other than the one that God gave through Moses. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, secular rulers are given the power of the temporal sword—finite justice—while the gospel conquers in the power of the Spirit through that Word “above all earthly pow’rs.”

What does all of this mean for our response to the news about the most notorious terrorist in recent history?

First, it means that we can rejoice that even in this present evil age, God’s common grace and common justice are being displayed through secular authorities. “For [the ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:4, 7). Yet the divine wrath that rulers execute is temporal and finite rather than eternal and infinite. Such justice is never so pure that it is unmingled with injustice, never so final that it satisfies God’s eternal law. In view of the image of God stamped on every person, justice must always be tempered by love. Commenting on Genesis 9:6, John Calvin reminded us that we cannot hate even our most perverse enemies, because of the image of God in them. In one sense, the creation of every person in God’s image provokes the temporal sword against murderers. Yet in another sense, it also restrains our lust for revenge. “Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living beings.”

Second, it means that we cannot rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than does God (Ezek. 18:23). We may take satisfaction that temporal justice has been served, but Christians should display a sober restraint. When Christ returns, bringing infinite justice in his wake, his saints will rejoice in the death of his enemies. For now, however, he calls us to pray for our enemies, even for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This is the day of salvation, calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We may delight in the temporal justice shown to evildoers, but leave the final justice to God.

Third, it means that the mandate to believe and to proclaim the gospel to every person is all the more urgent. After all, where would we be ourselves if Christ, in his first advent, had brought final and infinite justice instead of bearing it on behalf of his people? On the cross, Christ willingly offered himself as the lightning rod for God’s infinite wrath, rising triumphantly on the third day. The events of 9/11 did not change everything in the way that the events of 33 A.D. did. Nor will the death of Osama bin Laden on 5/1/11 satisfy the final justice that awaits him—and all of us—on the last day.

So as we take satisfaction in the honorable service of U.S. forces in bringing a terrorist to justice in the court of the temporal city, let us never dare to confuse this with “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). In our response, let us use this opportunity to display to our non-Christian neighbors the radical contrasts between the biblical view of God, humanity, redemption, and the last judgment, and the religious and secularist distortions—even those that profess to be Christian.

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Seized by Secularism

Like Europe, the United States has now been “seized by secularism,” Newt Gingrich warned at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday. As evidence of the replacement of Christianity with secularism, the former House Speaker cited the following: replacing Anno Domini (A.D.) with the Common Era (C.E.), banning school prayer, striking out “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the court battle over the Mojave Desert Cross that commemorates World War I veterans. Gingrich explained how “secularist fanaticism” encouraged him to join the Church of Rome in 2008. He asked the audience to imagine themselves as the pope, facing a culture that tears down crosses and bans school prayer.

At the same time, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly was ruffled over the current TIME cover story, reporting the denial of hell by evangelical pastor Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. O’Reilly said we need hell for the Pol Pots, Lenins, and Hitlers of the world, though he cited official Roman Catholic statements about those who try sincerely to do good as unlikely candidates for hell. So Ghandi is in, but Hitler is out. Ah, so good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell—and, of course, I’m a good person. If this isn’t a secularization of the Christian faith, I don’t know what is.

Also in the last couple days, MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell took on Rusch Limbaugh for distorting Jesus’s teaching. After a tirade against the Left for using Jesus as a mascot for socialism, Limbaugh used Jesus as a mascot for capitalism. Not “What Would Jesus Do?”, but “What Would Jesus Take?”, is the question to ask. And the answer, of course, is nothing. Jesus was against high taxes. Au contraire, O’Donnell responds, quoting Jesus’s conversation with the rich young ruler and the separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. For his part, O’Donnell invokes Jesus for a progressive income tax structure.

So what do all of these stories have in common? Lots of things come to mind, but I’ll mention two. First, all of these stories point up the remarkable ignorance of Scripture and a consequent inability to do anything more with it than find quotable sound-bites for positions that one would have if Jesus had never lived. Second, they suggest that there is indeed a creeping secularism that is threatening vital Christianity. However, I would suggest that the kind of Christianity that many worried souls have in mind is not really that different from creeping secularism.

In the 1950s, C. S. Lewis was asked by Decision magazine whether he was concerned about the “de-Christianizing” of the West, especially Europe. Lewis replied, “I’m not really qualified to speak to the question of the culture, but there is definitely a de-Christianizing of the church.” It’s one thing for Christian churches to lose their cultural influence. Fusing Christ with a particular civilization is already a gross distortion of the faith. Nevertheless, “Christendom” is over, regardless of whether you think it was a good or bad idea in the first place. Benign prayers to an unkown god in public schools, apart from the Mediator, is already a capitulation to secularism. Who cares whether crosses no longer dominate national memorials where Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and atheists are buried? The question is whether the cross is proclaimed in our churches.

Maybe “fanatical secularists” who are so nervous about public expressions of faith have something to worry about, when burning Qur’ans and using Jesus for whatever left-wing or right-wing policy become the most familiar presence of religion in public life. Maybe it’s time for us to stop taking God’s name in vain and begin again to be Christians in a pagan culture.

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Risen Indeed!

Every Easter affords fresh opportunities for national news magazines to take up the question of Jesus’s resurrection. It’s difficult to point with any firmness to a “consensus” in Jesus scholarship any more than in other studies. Nevertheless, even liberals recognize (and lament) a trend in New Testament scholarship away from many of the “assured results” assumed by their predecessors only a generation ago.

Many factors have contributed to this more conservative trend, but two are worth mentioning. First, there has been a trend toward earlier dating of the Gospel accounts, which undermines the critical presupposition that the most obvious reports of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and deity are later interpolations. Second, especially since the last 40 years or so, there has been a trend toward placing Jesus in his Jewish milieu and this has led—generally speaking—to greater suspicion of the quite Gentile (Greek) biases that have dominated higher-critical (i.e., liberal) scholarship.

It’s helpful for us to return to the “facts of the case.” Here, speculation is useless. It does not matter what we thought reality was like: whether we believed in thirty gods or none. It doesn’t matter what we find helpful, meaningful, or fulfilling. This is not about spirituality or moral uplift. Something has happened in history and we cannot wish it away. It either happened or it didn’t happen, but the claim itself is hardly meaningless or beyond investigation.

The Facts of the Case

The earliest Christians testified to the following elements of the resurrection claim, even to the point of martyrdom:

1. Jesus Christ lived, died, and was buried.

Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the sceptical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”1 There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. According to the Babylonian Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. No less a towering Jewish scholar than Joseph Klausner identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.2

Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the explusion of Jews from Rome in 48 AD because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4). Late in the first century, Tacitus—the greatest Roman historian—referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals [Read the rest of this entry...]

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Tullian on The Gospel Commission

Mike Horton’s new book, The Gospel Commission, which rounds out his three book series that started with Christless Christianity, is now available. Last week Tullian Tchividjian pointed out one of the important points Mike makes in the book:

Mike’s excellent point is one that I’ve made time and time again. Namely, that imperatives – indicatives = impossibilities! Whenever we see an imperative in the Bible (what we must do) we need to look for the indicative that grounds it (what Jesus has done). Because, no matter how hard you try or how radical you get, any engine smaller than the gospel that you depend on for power to do what God has called you to do will conk out…most importantly, the Great Commission!

Read the whole thing.

You can now purchase The Gospel Commission directly from White Horse Inn through our new online store. We’re slowly adding resources to the store and the prices are hard to beat. Right now, you can get all three books in this trilogy for less than Amazon sells them.

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Piety vs. Pietism / Confessional vs. Confessionalism

One of the great things about movements is that they can bring together people from diverse backgrounds for a common cause. One of the dangerous things about movements is that they can create artificial positions that undermine the integrity of institutions that have grown organically through the years.

In recent discussions, especially in the blogosphere, “pietism vs. confessionalism” has provoked fresh debate. Some of it is helpful. Some of it, in my view, is not. The much-publicized “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement tends to side with pietism in this debate. While passionate critics of the nearly Pelagian revivalism of the Second Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Charles Finney), this movement’s leaders are equally ardent defenders of the First Great Awakening (especially exemplified in Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield). Then the “confessionalists” (some of them, at least) claim John Williamson Nevin in his famous contrast between “the system of the Catechism” and “the system of the anxious bench.”

Lines in the Sand
As is often the case with movements, there is always a danger of raising flags that each side can salute and under which each side can defend its territory—even if these positions are of rather recent origin.  The hard-and-fast categories of “pietism” and “confessionalism” can easily fall into this over-simplification.

When you look back at Lutheran and Reformed churches in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth churches, it’s a lot harder to identify the clear lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists.” Especially in the Reformed tradition, many of the formative figures in what’s called “orthodoxy” or “Reformed scholasticism” were also defenders of further reformation in doctrine and life.  They not only wrote doctrinal treatises and liturgies, but devotional guides, prayers, and resources for evangelism and missions.

For example, there is Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676).  A pastor at a time of great turmoil in the Dutch Reformed Church, Voetius was used by God to convert many Roman Catholics and to defend the gospel against the rising challenges of the Remonstrants (Arminians).  Voetius rose to prominence as a leading delegate at the Synod of Dort.  Appointed first as professor of Oriental science (teaching Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac) at the University of Utrecht, he also taught physics and theology, eventually becoming the rector (president) of the University.   Among the first critics of the new rationalism associated with René Descartes, one of Voetius’s students wrote a dissertation that was so persuasive that Descartes himself felt obliged to write a refutation.  In Voetius we find not only an ardent defender of the Reformed confession but one who played a prominent role in drafting one of them: the Canons of the Synod of Dort.  Defending the confession against Arminianism, he also challenged a rising tide of mysticism, identified with Jean de Labadie, who called for a separation of truly sanctified believers from the institutional church.  At the same time, his first book was The Proof of Godliness and he was especially ardent in his defense of the Christian Sabbath over against fellow Reformed theologian Johannes Cocceius. In addition, Voetius was was a pioneer of Reformed missions.

Meanwhile, the leading defenders of further reformation in England were nicknamed “puritans” by their detractors, because they wanted to pursue more serious discipleship and reforms in church government.  They decried the nominalism of state churches, while warning also against Anabaptist mysticism and separatism.  It’s hard to call them pietists, since this term has come to be identified with an individualistic, unchurchly, and enthusiastic tendency.  But they could hardly be dismissed as advocates of “dead orthodoxy.”

William Perkins, the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, was a staunch Anglican whose book, The Reformed Catholic, reminds us that reformation, not radicalism, was the goal.  The “spiritual brotherhood” that led from Perkins to Richard Sibbes to Thomas Goodwin was cut from the same cloth, despite growing differences between episcopal, presbyterian, and independent views of church government (respectively).

The Westminster Confession and Catechisms were drafted by “Puritans.”  From these documents one cannot detect any internal conflict between a high view of the church’s ministry (Word, sacrament, and discipline) and a clear delineation of the need for personal conversion and piety.  It was not a “church-within-a-church”—the truly regenerated remnant within the institutional church—that these divines encouraged, but a visible church truly reformed according to God’s Word.  Anyone looking for a clear line between confessional orthodoxy and concern for personal piety will not find much support in these writers.  The body of their work, from Perkins to John Owen, exhibits a fuller range of interest than “pietism versus confessionalism” might suggest.

Not all pastors and theologians of the official churches in The Netherlands, England, Scotland, Switzerland, and elsewhere were advocates of the “further reformation.”  Some staunch Reformed leaders in the Church of England, for example, were nevertheless opposed to the reforms in church government and piety that Puritans encouraged.  Nevertheless, the lines between “pietists” and “confessionalists” are not as thick as contemporary debates often suggest.

Revival, Anyone?
“Pietists” and “confessionalists” are in danger today of making one’s stance toward “revival” a litmus test of fellowship.  This is hardly new, of course.  Many Reformed Christians have been opposed to the idea of revival as subverting the ordinary means of grace, encouraging Christians to look for spiritual vitality in surprising and extraordinary works of the Spirit.  Isn’t this like trying to pull Christ down from heaven or descend into the depths to bring him up from the dead, when he is actually as near as the preached Word, as Paul instructed in Romans 10?  It certainly can be, and has been.  Our generation is especially given to enthusiastic hyperbole.  It’s not enough that God’s covenant mercies be experienced through Christian nurture in the home and church, gradually over a lifetime.  Authentic conversion and piety require adjectives like “radical,” “glorious,” “overpowering,” and so forth.  This longing for spontaneous, unmediated, and visible experiences of grace often creates impatience and ingratitude for God’s normal way of working.  Some Calvinists have fallen into spiritual depression waiting for the revival that never came.

We desperately need to recover the emphasis evident in a host of New Testament passages that celebrate the gradual, ordered, organic work of the Spirit through ordinary means.  At the same time, the  promise is not only “for you and your children,” but also “for those who are far off.”  Regardless of whether one is pro- or anti-revival, it’s one thing to imagine that one can manipulate God into sending revival by “new measures” and “excitements” and quite another to pray and hope for seasons of greater blessing.  Writers like Iain Murray who speak of revival as the Spirit’s extraordinary blessing on his ordinary means of grace stand in a long line of “experimental Calvinism.”  If revivalism is antithetical to “the system of the Catechism” (and I agree that it is), it is nevertheless true also that confessional Protestants have often prayed for special periods of awakening and revival.  Pro-revival Calvinists include the Puritans and the great Princetonians (Alexander, Hodge, and Warfield), not just Edwards and Whitefield. So the debate over the meaning and legitimacy of “revival” is in-house.  There is no historical justification for pro-revival or anti-revival Calvinists to write each other out of this heritage.

So what does all of this mean for the current discussion?  Several things could be mentioned:

  1. Regardless of the historical accuracy of our definitions, what we call “pietism” today is different from the piety exhibited in the Reformed and Presbyterian heritage.  To the extent that “pietism” conjures the picture of a personal relationship with Christ and an immediate work of the Spirit over against the public means of grace and ministry of the church, it is inimical to Reformed piety.
  2. At least in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, “confessionalism” is just as unhelpful a description.  I know what it means to be confessional: it’s to affirm that Scripture so clearly reveals “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” that churches can recognize and affirm this faith together across all times and places.  But what exactly is a “confessionalist”?  Typically, this is a swear-word hurled at those who are simply confessional.  However, sometimes it is worn proudly as a label by anti-pietists. If “pietism” sets the inward work of the Spirit over against the external means of grace, “confessionalism”—in some versions, at least—simply reverses the antithesis.  This is a dangerous opposition that is foreign to the Reformed confession.  And that leads to the third point.
  3. For some—on both sides of the debate, “confessionalism” is in danger of becoming identified with extreme views that are opposed to the actual teaching of our confessions.  The Belgic Confession treats the marks of the true Christian (faith in Christ, following after righteousness, love of God and neighbor, mortification of the flesh) in the same article as the marks of the true church (Art 29).  Although assurance of God’s favor is founded solely on his promise of justification in Christ, “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” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 86).  Personal faith, repentance, and growth in godliness are enjoined in the Westminster Confession (chapters 13-16).  There is no hint of the public and corporate means of grace being opposed to one’s personal relationship to Christ.  It would be ironic—and tragic—if “confessionalism” became identified with positions that are actually inimical to the confessions themselves.  Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin have become flag-bearers for Calvinistic “pietism” and “confessionalism,” respectively.  However, in my view, both are somewhat idiosyncratic representatives of the Reformed tradition.  To move beyond polarization, we need to include more mainstream voices through the ages.

As I suggested at the beginning, debates like this one point up the benefits and dangers of movements.  “Iron sharpens iron,” and it’s helpful to move out of our parochial rooms from time to time and mingle in the hallway.  It’s easy for healthy emphases to sink into unhealthy fetishes; we need the occasional diversion.  Movements, with their conferences, blogs, books, and sound-bites can provide occasions for these “hallway” conversations. Yet they are not churches, where we are bathed, clothed, fed, taught, and raised.

Let’s stop expecting too much of the hallway and let it be what it is: a place for mingling conversation.  Movements have no authority to marginalize or excommunicate, but they can provide opportunities for mutual admonition and edification.  As for me and my house, our church’s confession will continue to articulate my own understanding of the Bible’s faith and piety.  And a movement—whether “pietist” or “confessionalist” is no substitute for that.

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How is He changing me?

One of the more embarrassing campfire ditties I sang way back when went a little like this:

He’s changing me, my precious Jesus
I’m not the same person that I used to be
Sometimes it’s slow-going, but there’s a knowing
That one day perfect I will be!

When it comes to our progress in the Christian life, I think this chorus reflects an overly optimistic view that we all have (even if we wouldn’t dare admit to singing that particular song): the Christian life is always upward, victory upon victory, making small but regular advances toward the perfection that will be ours in our glorification. But is that the way our Christian life actually looks? Is that the right way to define progress?

These questions become especially pressing whenever we turn inward to consider the work that Jesus is doing in our lives. If you’re anything like me, you wonder how much Jesus is really doing when you can see next to nothing that is commendable in your life. And after a few times of venturing into the dark chasm of my inner-man, I stop making the journey because I know that it will become a never-ending and despair-inducing search for what does not exist. But of course the problem here is that I have misunderstood what it is that is commendable to God.

The work that God does in me does not commend me to him–that is, it isn’t the basis of my standing before him; only Jesus and his perfect righteousness can put me on a sure foundation before God. Instead, the work that God is doing in me bears witness to the act of God already accomplished, to the verdict of “not guilty” already announced over me intruding into this life from the Day of Judgment.

When I understand God’s work in that way, I don’t just look inwardly for evidence of my obedience; I also look for evidence of my repentance. Any good thing that I do is a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in me and is rightly counted a progress in the Christian faith. So too, any recognition of sin and failure, any longing for the fullness of eternal life, any feeling of the ache that recognizes in me a life not yet in line with the promise is also a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and should be rightly counted as progress in the Christian faith.

When we consider that God is changing us, not just by making us do better things but recognize and repent of our sin, our view of progress changes. Our good friend, Tullian Tchividjian, wrote up a great blog post on this very subject. As you prepare to worship God this Sunday, we commend it to you:

[R]eal change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is “not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us.” Sanctification involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”

Read the rest.

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