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Christian Radio as a Means of Grace

I don’t listen to Christian radio often, but occasionally I indulge.  I admit I sometimes enjoy the upbeat Christian pop music, and every once in a while the radio personalities have some interesting things to say.  While listening to one of my local Christian radio stations one afternoon, I heard a statement that struck me as somewhat odd.  The announcer guaranteed that listening to their station for three hours each day would improve my walk with Jesus.  Later on, I was promised that three hours per day of this station would improve my relationship with my spouse or children (again, guaranteed!).  At the time this seemed strange to me, if only for practical reasons.  What if I just happened to listen to the three worst hours each day?  Or what if I only listened to music, and never heard a single sermon, devotional, or piece of inspiring advice?  But really, the issue was not a practical one, it was theological.  A radio station that plays some upbeat music and the occasional sermon or talk  show is not the place I think of going to when I want to change my life.

I had forgotten all about this until just recently.  While indulging in a little Christian radio a few days ago, I heard several “testimonial” advertisements promoting the station.  In one ad, a woman said that she was fighting depression after a divorce, and listening to this Christian radio station lifted her mood and strengthened her faith.  The part about lifting her mood didn’t surprise me, but when she described how listening to this radio station had strengthened her faith I was a bit shocked.  Listening to this radio station apparently took the place of (or was simply more effective than) reading God’s Word, hearing it preached, and having it represented and confirmed for her in the Sacraments.  In short, listening to Christian radio had had the effect of a means of grace.

The next ad I heard was only more shocking.  This time, a woman described a point in her life when she was not a Christian and was struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Somehow (I forget the details now) she was turned on to this Christian radio station, and after listening for a while and feeling better, she decided to give her life to Christ.  There was no mention of a church or pastor being involved, only the radio station.  In this case, Christian radio had not only taken the place of a means of grace (the preaching of the Word), but was apparently responsible for converting a lost sinner.  Yet this too, according to Paul, is the province of the proclamation of the Gospel.

What worries me is not that Christian radio is having a positive effect on people. My worry is that many Christians are increasingly looking outside of God’s ordained means of grace to find what they need.  More worrisome than that is the thought that they are finding their needs met not in faithful Gospel preaching and Sacraments, but in music.  It is surely possible to hear a good sermon, occasionally, on Christian radio (although I can scarcely remember that last time I did).  But in ads like these it is consistently the “uplifting music” that is cited as the main source of help and strength.  There is no doubt that singing heartfelt praises to God can have a therapeutic effect.  Singing praises, however, (or merely listening passively to others singing praises) is not a means of receiving God’s grace, but rather a grateful response to grace already received.  The grace we receive from God comes through his instituted means:  The preaching of his Word, especially the promises of his glorious Gospel, and the Word made visible in the Sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper).  Just as no amount of online sermons can ever replace the experience of gathering with fellow saints in the local church (something that we are in fact explicitly commanded to do), so also no amount of uplifting music can ever replace the true grace of God given by his own specially chosen means.

-David Nilsen (David also blogs at Evangelical Outpost and the A Team Blog)

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New MR Now Available!

2010-3-largeThe newest issue of Modern Reformation is in the mail to subscribers and available online.  The theme and title of the issue is Canon Formation.  Executive Editor, Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, explains the issue:

“Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” is one of those questions signaling an unanswerable conundrum. This issue takes up the question of the formation of the Bible or “canon,” meaning the official list and “rule” of Old and New Testament books. Readers may come to this topic from different starting points, but here is the question that frames much of what follows: Does the Word of God create the church or does the church officially decide what constitutes the Word of God? Put another way: Did the church establish the canon or did the Bible create the church that afterward recognized the books of the Bible to be what they are, the canonical Word of God?

Unfortunately, many evangelicals today think this is either an unsolvable “chicken or egg” conundrum, or worse, that the church acted out of its own authority to create the Bible, which is the Roman Catholic position. From a biblical and Reformation perspective, however, canon formation is not a chicken/egg conundrum but a problem of some who would mistakenly put the cart before the horse. Therefore, our common theme once again is that it is God who works and we who respond; the Word and Spirit together found the community of faith who maintain these books for the purpose of preserving the record of God’s promises.

If you haven’t yet taken advantage of our free trial offer, do so today and get access to almost twenty years worth of online content in addition to the current issue. The folks at the home office will also send you a White Horse Inn introductory CD. On the other hand, if you’re ready to subscribe you can do that, too! In fact, your subscription extends the reach of Modern Reformation into foreign countries, like the Philippines, Brazil, and Korea. Your subscription allows us to grant permission to missionaries in Latvia, Poland, and Germany to reproduce and repost translations of Modern Reformation articles. Your subscription allows us to send Modern Reformation to prisoners across the nation  who are starting their own Reformation journeys within the confines of a prison cell.

What are you waiting for? Subscribe today!

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Great Questions! A Further Response

Thanks for all the thoughtful interaction regarding my recent blog post.  I’ll pick out Andrew Meredith’s for further reflection:

As part of the so-called “young, restless, and Reformed” movement, I would consider myself an evangelical who has been significantly impacted by the Reformed tradition. Although I have respect for the “Reformed rooms,” I could not agree with the Reformed confessions. My question is twofold: on what basis does one accept these confessions as one’s own belief, and what exactly is there authority in the church?

Many Protestants today—especially in America—view creeds and confessions with suspicion, or at least treat them as suggestive for individual believers rather than as a shared confession of doctrine.  However, this is itself a tradition.  It’s largely shaped by Anabaptist and revivalist sources.

Roman Catholics are bound to the church’s teachings on the ground that they are simply the teachings of the church.  Reformed Christians are bound to their church’s teachings on the ground that they summarize Holy Scripture.

When the practical implications of the Jew-Gentile relationship in the church came to a head, the church of Antioch (probably a group of local churches) appointed delegates (Paul and Barnabus) to a specially called Synod of Jerusalem (Ac 15).  Repeatedly we read that “the apostles and elders,” sent from each city, met to deliberate and they concluded with a consensus statement: the first time “dogma” (dogmata) is used in the New Testament.  Peter did not act as a pope, speaking ex cathedra.  Nor did each local church (much less each member) decide the case.  As Paul, Silas, and Timothy traveled from city to city, they “delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Ac 16:4-5).  Following this pattern, Reformed Christians believe that the church has real authority from Christ and that the interpretations of Scripture by the church in its representative assemblies are binding—though always open to revision in the light of God’s Word.

However, we know that Reformed and Presbyterian churches are not the only visible expressions of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”  One of my motives for advocating a more inclusive term like “evangelical Calvinist” is that it might relieve some of the stress between people who like some Reformed teachings (such as the doctrines of grace), but, as you say, cannot “agree with the Reformed confessions.”  Evangelical Calvinists can get together at conferences, but we’re all called by Christ to gather regularly for the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers (Ac 2:39).  We’re free to attend edifying conferences, but we’re commanded to belong to faithful churches.

“Reformed” isn’t just a few doctrines; in fact, it’s not even a long list of doctrines.  It’s a covenantal way of faith and life.  The way our confessions and catechisms talk about even issues like election, justification, and union with Christ is inseparable from the way they talk about sanctification, eschatology, and the nature and ministry of the church.  There are some people who call themselves Reformed simply because they affirm a world-embracing faith, even though they deny the “five points.” There are others who affirm the “five points,” but have an at least implicitly Wesleyan-Arminian view of sanctification or a Baptist view of the status of covenant children or embrace a radical distinction between Israel and the church in Scripture.

If something is taught in Scripture, we are obligated to believe it.  As a Reformed Christian, I believe that our confessions and catechisms most faithfully summarize what is taught in Scripture.  And I confess that together with “a cloud of witnesses”—both in heaven and on earth, across the boundaries of time and place.

It’s wonderful when Christians can affirm “mere Christianity” together.  And it’s great when we can affirm the doctrines of grace together.  However, we aren’t all Lutherans because we believe in justification or Roman Catholics because we believe in the Trinity or Baptists because we believe in baptism.  There is such a thing as the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.  Piper, Sproul, Horton, nor anyone else gets to define what that is.  We have to submit ourselves to the common confession of Scripture in a communion of saints.

-Michael Horton

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The Hallway and the Rooms

Movements are funny things.  Especially in the Internet Age, they can be like a summer monsoon in the Arizona desert, gathering impressive force with lightening and showers and then dissipating just as quickly.  For example, the Tea Party movement in U.S. politics has been grabbing the headlines recently, but time will tell whether it’s a tempest in a teapot.

All the hoopla over John Piper’s invitation to Rick Warren to speak at an upcoming Desiring God conference points up the vitality and challenges of the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement. Almost as soon as TIME Magazine hailed this as the third of the ten trends shaping our world today (March 12, 2009), fissures and fault lines became apparent.  Currently on Christianity Today’s liveblog, Collin Hansen (author of Young, Restless, and Reformed) has a good summary of the recent debate over the Warren invite.  David Mills over at First Things has just added a thoughtful take on it. Since both of these quote some of my comments from this blog, I thought it might be worthwhile to expand a little bit on some wider concerns.

The Hallway and the Rooms
Evangelicalism is a movement, not a church, and that’s been part of its strength.  In the wake of the Evangelical Revival in Britain and various “awakenings” in North America, a grassroots cooperation in missions and mercy ministries was formed between conservative Protestants ranging from Anglican to Anabaptist.  Ever since Wesley and Whitefield, the evangelical movement has struggled to keep flying with its Arminian and Calvinist wings.  Though dominated ever since the Second Great Awakening by Arminian sympathies, the “New Calvinism” of recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal.

However, evangelicalism—even in its “Calvinist” manifestation—is a movement, not a church. Movements are led by impressive and charismatic figures.  Even Ben Franklin wanted to cozy up to George Whitefield, a Calvinistic Anglican leader of the Great Awakening who was the closest thing to a rock star in 18th-century America.  Yet the tendency, then as now, has been to downplay the ordinary ministry of the church in favor of the extraordinary movements of the moment.

I’ve argued elsewhere that evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England.  There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation. Evangelicalism is not a church, though it often acts like one.  It isn’t the big tent (more appropriate, given the history) that encompasses all of the churches on the green.  It’s just…, well, the green.  When it tries to adjudicate cases of faith and practice through conferences, press releases, and blogs, evangelicalism (including Calvinistic versions) exhibits its movement mentality.

My analogy echoes C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”: a hallway in a large house where believers mix and mingle, often opening the door as non-Christians knock.  But, as Lewis insisted, it’s in the rooms where people actually live as a family—where they sleep, are warmed by the fire, fed and clothed, and grow.  We are formed in the family life of Christ’s body by particular churches, with their distinct confessions and practices.  You can’t live in the hallway.

I’m not against evangelicalism as a village green or hallway.  In fact, I think it’s a wonderful meeting place.  However, when it acts like a church, much less replaces the church, I get nervous.

Young, Restless and Reformed?
Like wider evangelicalism, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is a grassroots trend among people who are, generally speaking, not Reformed.  I’m energized by this movement every day, as I interact with people from a variety of churches, backgrounds, and traditions who are drawn to the doctrines of grace.  I spend a lot of my time in this hallway and am enriched by it.

Nevertheless, not even a “Reformed” hallway is anything more than a hallway.  “Reformed” has a specific meaning.  It’s not defined by movements, parachurch ministries, or powerful leaders, but by a confession that is lived out in concrete contexts across a variety of times and places.  The Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort) define what it means to be Reformed.  Like Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anabaptism, Reformed Christianity is a particular tradition.  It’s not defined by a few fundamentals, but by a whole system of faith and practice.  If being Reformed can be reduced to believing in the sovereignty of God and election, then Thomas Aquinas is as Reformed as R. C. Sproul.  However, the Reformed confession is a lot more than that.  Even the way it talks about these doctrines is framed within a wider context of covenant theology.

It’s intriguing to me that people can call themselves Reformed today when they don’t embrace this covenant theology.  This goes to the heart of how we read the Bible, not just a few doctrines here or there.  Yet what was once recognized as essential to Reformed faith and practice is now treated merely as a sub-set (and a small one at that) of the broader “Reformed” big tent.  Yet now it would appear that the identity of the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is at stake over whether Rick Warren gets an invitation to speak at a national conference.

Nobody thinks a Roman Catholic person is narrow and exclusive for embracing papacy and the sacrifice of the Mass.  People don’t call themselves Lutheran just because they believe in justification. Baptists (at least historically) do not even recognize as valid the baptism of non-Baptists.  Yet increasingly those who affirm the Reformed confessions are treated with suspicion as narrow and divisive for actually being Reformed.

For centuries, the “Reformed” label has been embraced by people from Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions.  Only in the last few decades has it included those who do not embrace a covenantal interpretation of Scripture, which encompasses baptism and the Supper, the connectional government of the church, eschatology, and a host of other issues that distinguish Reformed from non-Reformed positions.  I often run into Christians who say that they are Reformed—and also dispensational or charismatic, Baptist or Barthian, and a variety of other combinations.  Like the term “evangelical,” “Reformed” is whatever you want it to be.  It’s hard to challenge pragmatic evangelicalism’s cafeteria-style approach to truth when “Reformed” versions seem to be going down the same path.

In this situation, whatever divides confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian folks from others who affirm the five points of Calvinism has to be treated as secondary.  Most obviously, the baptism of covenant children and the nature of the Lord’s Supper are treated merely as relatively unimportant.  But the nature of the visible church and its ministry, especially the sacraments, have always been regarded as relatively unimportant in evangelicalism.  By the way, when a Baptist brother refuses to acknowledge our baptism as valid, it’s hardly secondary to Baptists.  I respect those who hold this view at least for the importance that they give to a crucial biblical doctrine.

Evangelicalism’s conversion-centered paradigm is different from Reformed Christianity’s covenantal paradigm.  It’s not just a divergence here and there, but a difference that affects (or should affect) how we understand, experience, and live out our faith in the world.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hang out in the hallway from time to time; we should just be aware that it’s the hallway.

Regular listeners to White Horse Inn and readers of Modern Reformation are familiar with our regular reminder that we’re not a church, but a conversation.  Our organization isn’t Reformed, but a conversation between Calvinistic Baptists, Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans, drawing from our common agreement in the truths rediscovered in the Reformation.  Sometimes views are expressed that I don’t agree with as a Reformed person, but that’s fine.  Even when we defend truths we all agree on in substance, we are coming at it from the depth of our own traditions, which we did not invent.  We’re not looking for a lowest-common-denominator, a quasi-confession for a movement, but are hoping to provoke discussions that lead people back to their rooms with more understanding of the other rooms and resources for vital engagement with the issues of our time and place.  The old-style evangelicalism, where the movement is defined by parachurch conferences, networks, and personalities, is hopefully on the wane, as younger generations enjoy the conversation in the hallway but take the church more seriously.

Movements can serve an important role in shifting broad currents, but they are shallow.  They rise and fall in the court of public opinion, not in the courts of the churches where Christ has installed officers to shepherd his flock.  That doesn’t mean that they are wrong: it’s wonderful when thousands of brothers and sisters encounter the God of glorious grace in a deeper way.  Yet movements can’t go very deep: when they do, differences are bound to emerge.  The usually rise and fall with the personalities who lead them.  Nor can movements pass the faith down from generation to generation.  Only churches can do that.

If Not “Reformed,” Then What?
So I’ve wondered about a new term that we can use for the “young, restless, and Reformed” movement: “Evangelical Calvinism.”  Why not?  It’s the sort of term that can encompass J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John MacArthur, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul.  Reformed Christians should swell with excitement when brothers and sisters embrace the doctrines of grace and “evangelical Calvinism” distinguishes us from evangelical Arminianism.

I’m suggesting this not just out of a concern to protect the distinctives that I believe are essential to Reformed Christianity, but also out of a concern for the ongoing vitality of the movement toward the doctrines of grace.  Right now, it seems to me, this movement is being threatened by the movement mentality that characterizes evangelicalism more broadly.  The very lack of a doctrine of the church lies at the heart of this.  There are “evangelical Calvinists” from other traditions who realize this.  For example, my friend Mark Dever at Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a strong Baptist ecclesiology.  In comparison with mainstream evangelicalism, it isn’t “weak” in the least, although it’s also not Reformed.  He hasn’t settled for a movement-oriented evangelical ecclesiology, but bases his ministry in the local church.  In other words, for him, the hallway isn’t a substitute for the Baptist room.

Right now, though, the “young, restless and Reformed” movement is in danger of succumbing to the fate of all movements at their peak: splintering.  Our confessions help us major on the majors, leaving secondary matters open.  Yet the “New Calvinism” movement is already showing signs of stress over questions like the age of the earth. Churches have ways of dealing with questions of fraternal relations and cooperation, but leader-driven movements can’t handle the stress.  Conferences operate as quasi-official church courts, with vigilante benedictions and excommunications determining who’s in or out. It’s like the wild west.

Christ promised to be with his church to the end, expanding his embassy to the ends of the earth. Christ pledged that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his church.  The same promise can’t be invoked for a movement.  May God swell the hallway with new visitors!  And may we all have the charity to come out of our rooms every now and again to bless each other and bear witness together to God’s sovereign grace.  But discipleship has to be formed in the rooms—in real churches, where the depth and breadth of God’s Word is explored and lived.

-Michael Horton

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Preview of MR’s May/June Issue

mrmj10cover1The blog fury over Dr. Bruce Waltke’s recent resignation from Reformed Theological Seminary is well-timed for the May/June 2010 issue of Modern Reformation.

All this year, we’re focusing on “Recovering Scripture” and in the May/June issue, the topic at hand is “canon formation.” But before you start reading about the Canon of Scripture, we think you’ll be interested in our Ad Extra department (where we feature articles slightly off topic). In this issue, we’re publishing an article by a number of Reformed scientists who take up the issues of the earth’s age and Scripture’s trustworthiness.

Here are the first few paragraphs from their article, titled, “PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth.”

How old is the earth?  Does an honest reading of the opening chapters of Genesis confine creation to six days a few thousand years ago, or does it allow for an origin of much greater antiquity?  These questions are hardly new.  Scientific assertions suggesting an alternate interpretation of the length of creation began more than 200 years ago, well before the days of Charles Darwin.  With a debate more than two centuries in the making, one might reasonably expect that Reformed scholars long ago resolved the issue. In fact, the much-sought resolution has proven elusive.  In 1998, the PCA commissioned a Creation Study Committee (CSC), made up of both Bible scholars and natural scientists, to consider the relevant Scriptures in light of the various existing interpretations and scientific evidence.  The report, submitted after two years of investigation, did not recommend a definitive answer, but did at least conclude that it is possible to believe both in an ancient earth and the inerrancy of Scripture. The statement below is extracted from the concluding pages of the 2000 Report of the Creation Study Committee.

Clearly there are committed, Reformed believers who are scientists that are on either side of the issue regarding the age of the cosmos.  Just as in the days following the Reformation, when the church could not decide between the geocentric and heliocentric views of the solar system, so today there is not unanimity regarding the age question.  Ultimately, the heliocentric view won out over the geocentric view because of a vast preponderance of facts favoring it based on increasingly sophisticated observations through ever improving telescopes used by thousands of astronomers over hundreds of years.  Likewise, in the present controversy, a large number of observations over a long period of time will likely be the telling factor.

The geocentric/heliocentric debate refers to a controversy starting some 500 years ago between two conflicting views of nature.  The geocentric position held that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth.  In contrast, the heliocentric position held that the earth and planets revolved around the sun.  Several passages of Scripture appeared to support the geocentric view, and heliocentrism was considered by many to be a direct challenge to the authority of God’s Word.  Others recognized more than one possible interpretation of the Scriptures in question, and scientific evidence eventually persuaded them that the sun was indeed the center of our solar system.

In this context, it is important to recognize that science did not prevail over Scripture.  Scripture was and remains true.  Scientific evidence only served as a God-given aid in selecting the more accurate of two plausible, Bible-honoring interpretations.  The CSC report suggests we are at a similar crossroads concerning the age of the earth, but without sufficient evidence to tip the scales one way or the other.

The CSC commendably included several scientists, though none were geologists.  So what would a geologist add to the discussion?  As practicing geologists committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, in keeping with Reformed tradition, the eight authors of this article maintain that the “large number of observations over a long period of time” mentioned in the CSC report have already been made, and the data are sufficient to unequivocally answer the question.  We also understand, however, the inherent difficulty that people have in assessing a vast body of scientific literature filled with terms and jargon that often require years of schooling in very specific fields to comprehend.  Such difficulties have landed even well read and godly individuals such as Martin Luther on the wrong side of these debates.  Luther addressed the heliocentric theories of Copernicus in his day as being little more than the pursuit of vanity since Scripture clearly speaks of the sun moving and not the earth.

In this article, we wish to provide our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ with a few general observations, some clarification on a common misconception about our science, and two specific examples that speak convincingly that God’s earthly creation has been around for a very long time.

To read the rest of this article in Modern Reformation, be sure to call 800-890-7556 and one of our customer service representatives can process your subscription or you can subscribe online.

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Michael Spencer

Last night we received word that our internet friend and Modern Reformation contributor Michael Spencer (also known as the “internet Monk“) had finally succumbed to the cancer with which he had been diagnosed shortly before Christmas.  Michael’s theological journey mirrored many of our own: raised in one tradition, he began to read more widely and deeply in church history, and began to see that the Faith was much larger than his own experience of it.  Michael spoke as an insider to other insiders–calling for reform in evangelical churches. Michael also spoke as a sympathetic outsider to other outsiders–his own questions had changed how he approached the church and he could speak to others who felt the same sense of alienation he often did.

Michael contributed several articles over the last few years:

Like many around the Internet and among his small Kentucky town, we will miss Michael. We will miss his irenic spirit, his application of Reformation insights to the contemporary church, and his willingness to engage those who thought differently in order to see the cause of Christ advanced.  We pray that his wife, children, and son and daughter in law will be comforted with the hope of resurrection as they mourn his death.

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The Changing Face of Christianity

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This image, from the MSNBC homepage, of pilgrims in Jerusalem commemorating Good Friday, is a great example of the changing face of world Christianity. No longer predominantly western; the public face of Christianity is beginning to reflect what the first Christians probably looked like: the pilgrims who gathered in Israel, the “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11).

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Michael Horton on Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God

Update II: More from Modern Reformation

Update: comments closed.

It is not our usual course at Modern Reformation or White Horse Inn to comment on the invitations of other organizations for their conferences.  However, we’re starting to receive questions about our views of Rick Warren’s professed adherence to Reformational theology because an interview in Modern Reformation was posted by Justin Taylor and cited in the comments of his blog as supporters of John Piper wrestle with his recent decision to invite Rick Warren to an upcoming Desiring God conference.  So our team felt that some clarification was needed.

In 2004, Rick Warren graciously accepted our invitation to respond to some Modern Reformation questions in our “Free Space” section, where we engage with various voices, often outside of our usual circles.  We do interviews like this regularly, encouraging conversation, asking questions that we know our readers are wondering.  It’s in our feature articles where we analyze trends and arguments, and I among others have challenged Pastor Warren from time to time.  Our magazine is not just a platform for a few voices or churches.  We’re trying to spark conversation—and, yes, to guide conversation toward a modern Reformation.  Part of that means that we let others speak for themselves.  Yet I think it’s pretty clear to everybody where we land on the main issues.

Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges.  I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.

At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.  Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick “higher life” teaching throughout the book.  None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.  After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham.  After pointing out how difficult it is to define an evangelical theologically, historian George Marsden famously surmised that it’s “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Today, perhaps, it’s anyone who likes Rick Warren.

Obviously, Rick Warren believes that he is simply translating the gospel in terms that the unchurched can understand.  However, the radical condition of sin is reduced to negative attitudes and behaviors and the radical redemption secured by Christ’s propitiatory death and resurrection are reduced to general and vague statements about God giving us another chance.  His central message seems to be that you were created for a purpose and you just need to fulfill it.  Even at Easter he can say, “…And of course, that purpose now becomes greater — and in fact, I think that’s really what the message this week of Easter is, is that God can bring good out of bad. That he turns crucifixions into resurrections. That he takes the mess of our life, and when we give him all the pieces, he can — God can put it together in a new way” (“Larry King Live,” CNN, March 22, 2005).  I heard him say on a network morning program last Christmas that Jesus came to give us a mulligan, like in golf—a chance for a “do-over” in life.

While I applaud his concern for social justice, I am concerned that he confuses the law with the gospel and the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission).

His best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, begins by announcing that it’s not about you, but about God, and then the rest of the book is about you.  There seems to be a contradiction between the God-centered theology that is professed and the basically human-centered orientation that dominates much of his message and methods.  Some time ago, my wife discovered a letter that Rick Warren wrote to me way back in 1998, in which Pastor Warren mentioned the impact of my first book, Mission Accomplished, and his intention to write a book that highlighted the point that God made us for his purposes, rather than the other way around.  Since then, we have corresponded periodically, but that has not kept either of us from offering occasional critiques of each other’s views.  In fact, we will be together for a panel discussion at Saddleback in June, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.  To Calvinists, he stresses his support for the “solas” of the Reformation.  Yet he tells prosperity evangelist David Yonggi Cho, “I’ve read your books on Vision and Dreams – speak to pastors about how you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?…What advice would you give to a brand new minister?…Do you think American churches should be more open to the prayer for miracles?” (“Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren,” Pastors.com).  In a June 2006 article in JewishJournal.com, editor-in-chief Rob Eshman reported on a speech that Warren gave for Synagogue 3000, after Rabbi Ron Wolfson became involved in the Purpose-Driven pastoral training seminars. “Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring.”  When USA Today asked him why Mormon and Jewish leaders are involved in his pastoral training programs, Rick Warren reportedly said, “I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials.  I won’t try to change other denominations.  Why be divisive?” (USA Today, July 21, 2003).  Rick Warren endorses a host of books, from New Age authors to Emergent writers to conservative evangelicals.  So why not include Calvinists?

The first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son.  It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Robert Schuller wrote Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in the 1990s.  And in 2005 Rick Warren announced at the Baptist World Alliance meeting a new Reformation based on “deeds, not creeds.”  As he explained in an interview,

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs.  This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1).

He has also said he is working toward a Third Great Awakening, which seems like the better comparison, since the basic message is more in step with Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening than it is with the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly when Pastor Warren argues that Christians can work with non-Christians—even agnostics and atheists—on the global challenges of poverty, racism, corrupt leadership, injustice, and disease.  However, this is precisely why his confusion of the Christian’s calling to love of neighbor with the gospel is so dangerous.  Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike, but it is not the Great Commission.  It is the law of love that obliges us all, but it is not the gospel.

Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  We can be so proud of getting the gospel right while we don’t bother to get the gospel out to those who need it.  Furthermore, we can be self-confident in our theological integrity while ignoring the Word of God when it impinges on questions of social concern.  Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.  Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.

-Michael Horton

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Whither Gospel-Centrality?

Our good friend, Toby Kurth, a church planter in the San Francisco area recently wrote up a small bit on “gospel-centeredness.” It’s a phrase that is well worn in modern Reformed circles and Toby thinks that it is starting to show some wear and tear:

Will Gospel-Centrality Go The Way of Fundamentalism?

Will gospel-centrality go the way of fundamentalism? Let’s hope not. Before fundamentalism became associated with reductionist “fighting fundies” it made many wonderful contributions to evangelical Christianity. In the face of liberalism, fundamentalism defended the basic biblical doctrines that conservative evangelicals believed were fundamental, or one might say central, to the Christian faith. Doctrines that any “gospel-centered” evangelical would still enthusiastically support: the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement by God’s grace and through faith, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles. Fundamentalism equipped pastors and churches to preserve, protect, and proclaim a clear gospel message. Over time fundamentalism became little more than a slogan with no real substance behind it. Fundamentalists would doggedly defend themselves against all that disagreed with their fundamentals, but those fundamentals lost definition and connection to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Enter gospel-centrality.

Like fundamentalism, gospel-centrality seeks to equip pastors and churches to preserve, protect, and proclaim a clear gospel message. Organizations like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel came into existence for that very purpose. Gospel centrality must not be reduced to a slogan or way of defining yourself that does not really describe how you view the world. Gospel-centrality says that all of life and the Scriptures must be interpreted through the person and work of Jesus Christ. If gospel-centrality becomes just a way of speaking about ministry with certain buzzwords and catch phrases then it will have lost all meaning. We do not drift towards gospel-centrality in our own lives or in our churches. It involves an active and frequent application of gospel truth to every situation we face. What makes me nervous are phrases like “Is he gospel-centered?” or “That is not a gospel-centered church.” Let’s not settle for shorthand. Being “gospel-centered” is a life-long endeavor, not a slogan. It is not the ability to recite a few well-crafted phrases; it is rather the commitment to continually turn away from defining yourself or your church in accordance with anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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The Lausanne Conversations

Mike Horton has been invited to participate in two conversations leading up to the Lausanne global conference on evangelism in Cape Town this summer. The first of these conversations (part of the “12 Cities, 12 Conversations” campaign) is tonight in Pasadena at Fuller Theological Seminary.  The topic is “Culture Making: The Role of Christians in the World Today.”

Mike’s newest book (as yet untitled but part of his Christless Christianity and Gospel Driven Life series) takes on the issue of the relationship between Christians and culture. We’re posting a small snippet of the book below.  You’ll also find links to other White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation resources to stimulate your own thinking about Christ and culture.

There are two extremes in contemporary Christian interpretations of the kingdom. One extreme is to say that the kingdom is not present at all, but is an entirely future (millennial) reality.  In this future millennial kingdom the purpose is not only to dispense Christ’s gifts, which he has already won by his own trial, but “is the final form of moral testing.”  The other extreme is to say that it is present in its all-encompassing form, transforming the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ. In this perspective, the main calling of Christians and churches is to redeem the culture and extend Christ’s kingdom over politics, the arts, entertainment, sports, economics, law, and every other aspect of public and private life.  We’ve gone from “soul-winning-and-waiting-for-the-Rapture” to “kingdom transformation” in the blink of an eye.

The Great Commission is given to the church for this time between his first and second comings.  It is an intermission, between his accomplishment of redemption and his return to consummate its blessings.  However, this intermission isn’t a time for loitering in the lobby as consumers; it is a time of joyful activity on behalf of our neighbors: loving and serving them through our witness to Christ and also through our daily callings in the world.

This Great Commission is not the cultural mandate—the original commission to be fruitful and to multiply, ruling creation as God’s viceroys.  That is the covenant of creation, in which worship and cultural labors were fused in a vocation whose goal was nothing less than bringing all of creation into the everlasting Sabbath rest.  It was this covenant that was renewed as God took Israel to himself as a chosen nation.  “But like Adam they transgressed my covenant…” (Hos 6:7).  So once again, God cast his people out of his sanctuary, “east of Eden,” into captivity, where they languished in hope for the coming Redeemer promised through the prophets even in the people’s dire distress.  Nevertheless, God again promised the coming seed who would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.  It would be a new covenant, greater than the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai.

The march toward the kingdom continued, even though its typological sign—the land and the Temple—lay in ruins.  The land of Israel was no longer holy, but common.  The Spirit had evacuated the Temple and Judah joined its northern sister in exile.  Yet even in Babylonian captivity, the people received the letter from the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD (Jer 29:4-9).

Living like our exiled parents (Adam and Eve), “east of Eden,” the children of Judah are to participate in the common life—its burdens and joys—of the secular city.  They find their welfare in the city’s welfare and are therefore to pray for the commonwealth.  Yet they are also to increase the size of the covenant community during this period and the greatest threat is not persecution by the ungodly, but the internal deceptions of unauthorized prophets.  (As we will see, this is precisely the situation of the new covenant church in its exile and Jeremiah’s exhortations bear striking resemblance to those of the apostles in their letters.)

Although a remnant returned to Jerusalem and sought to rebuild the walls and rededicate itself to the covenant they made with God at Sinai, they realized that they were still in exile.  Ruled by a series of oppressive Gentile regimes, punctuated by false messiahs and attempts to bring in the kingdom by force, the City of Peace was in perpetual turmoil.  It was into this scene that John the Baptist stepped as the forerunner of the Messiah.

It is this new covenant that forms the basis for the Great Commission: a holy task of bringing the Good News to the world.  It is an unshakable kingdom—incapable of being thwarted by our own unfaithfulness—precisely because it is not a kingdom that we are building, but one that we are receiving (Heb 12:28).  It is God’s work.  Everything that we will be exploring in the rest of this book presupposes the view of the kingdom that is summarized here.

Stay tuned to the White Horse Inn blog for more information on the title and release date of this book.
If you’d like to explore this issue in greater depth, be sure to check out some of these resources from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation:

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