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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Risen Indeed!

heaven-cu02-vl-verticalEvery Christmas and Easter you can count on national periodicals to carry cover stories on “the search for the sacred,” “the Jesus quest,” and heaven.  This Easter proves to be no exception, with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller contributing an April 5, 2010 piece, “Far From Heaven.”  It is based on her new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

The Afterlife Hype: Going to Heaven

According to Miller, “while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean.”  “Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth.”  Yet most are confused.  On one hand, they talk about meeting up with loved ones and picking up where they left off on earth.  On the other hand, they view of heaven as an ethereal place where spirits or souls are freed from embodiment.  Yet bodies seem pretty crucial to hanging out with Grandma and Uncle Ed.  As Miller puts it, “If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?”  Great question.

Miller writes,

Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive.

The article quotes Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero: “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven.”

Miller points out that while orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold to a bodily resurrection, alternatives have always been near at hand.  She mentions “the immortality of the soul.”  “Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than the resurrection.  After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot.”  In this perspective, we are saved from our bodies, not with our bodies.  “This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon….Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.”

Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.”

For her own part, although open to mystery, Miller finds the resurrection hope “unbelievable.”

Ever since Christianity conquered the Greco-Roman world, Western civilization has been a little schizophrenic.  On one hand, there’s the traditional pagan view of “the afterlife”: Plato’s “upper world” of eternal souls or intellects liberated from the “lower world” of material and historical embodiment.  On the other hand, there’s the radical eschatology of the prophets and the New Testament, where the contrast isn’t between two worlds but between two ages: this age, under sin and death, and the age to come, under righteousness and everlasting life.  Although our souls are dispatched to God’s safe-keeping upon death, Christians confess their faith in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”  The whole creation will be renewed, not destroyed, says Paul in Romans 8, so we wait for this final resurrection with patience.

So why do so many people today—including “Bible-believing” Christians—talk about their loved ones “passing away” instead of “dying”?  (The former phrase was coined by Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy.  She denied the reality of sickness and death as well as bodily resurrection as an error of the mind when it is attached to the mere appearances of the “lower world.”)  Even the term “afterlife” smacks of pagan overtones, when Christ promises everlasting life.  People aren’t even allowed to die anymore.  It’s too dirty.  Funerals, focusing on “dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” but in the hope of final resurrection in Jesus Christ, have been replaced with celebration of the deceased and the hope that he or she lives on in our memories or hearts—perhaps even looking down on us, smiling, from a happy place.

The Resurrection Hope: 1 Corinthians 15

But before we are too hard on our own time and place, it’s of some comfort that the gospel has always suffered this kind of rip tide, drawing our hopes from Christ out to the ocean of vague spirituality.  Responding to some questions raised by the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul knew how hard it was to transplant Greeks into biblical soil.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he addresses the resurrection head-on.

Paul begins with the fact of Christ’s resurrection—and ours with him.  Nothing less than the gospel is at stake (v 1-2); the Corinthian believers were not only saved (past tense) by this gospel, but are being saved by it—if they continue to stand in it.  If they no longer stand in it, they “believed in vain.”  Writing from Ephesus between the years 53-55, Paul says that he is passing on what he had received from earlier tradition (vv 3-7).  Only 20 years after the event, the empty tomb was already a settled Christian conviction.  And by apostolic authority, the death and resurrection of Christ are delivered “as of first importance.”

Paul could have appealed merely to his own eye-witness testimony of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, but here he bases it on the evidence of the Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the eye-witness reports of the apostles.  No doubt, Isaiah 53 came easily to mind, prophesying the Suffering Servant who would bear the iniquities of his people and be exalted with them in justification and glory.  Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas) and the Twelve, then “to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive….”  The assumption here is that the empty tomb is not a recent legend, but the original claim of the eye-witnesses.  If you were to interview one of these living witnesses, they would not talk merely about the difference that Jesus made in their life today.  They would be able to relate what they saw and heard.

The “that” clauses show the inseparable connection between faith in Jesus Christ and the faith concerning Jesus Christ.  You can believe that Jesus died and was raised without believing in Jesus, but you can’t believe in Jesus without believing that he “was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.”

Paul’s argument is tight and simple (vv 12-34).  Jesus Christ “has been raised.”  The verb (egēgertai) is in the perfect tense, which connotes a past action with continuing effects.  Paul uses this verb form seven times—all in reference to Christ, while he speaks of “the resurrection of the dead” more generally in the present tense as a fact that now obtains because of Christ’s resurrection.  Paul offers five conclusions from the denial of Christ’s resurrection: (1) Christ is not raised; (2) the preaching of the gospel is useless; (3) your faith is useless; (4) Paul is bearing false witness; (5) “you are still in your sins” and believers who have already died “are lost.”  In summary, “If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v 19).

From this we learn that the gospel is not about “your best life now.”  It is not “come to Christ and all your troubles will be over.”  It is not an invitation to better marriages and families, health, wealth, and social transformation.  The gospel, rather, is that God became flesh, fulfilled all righteousness, bore our curse, and rose triumphant on the third day.

There is no consolation prize for those who placed their hope in a lie.  Paul doesn’t say, “Even if it didn’t happen, haven’t you lived a happier, more fulfilling life?”  He didn’t back up the claim with pragmatic and therapeutic benefits, like, “The family that prays together stays together.”  Paul doesn’t believe in faith.  He’s not an apostle of spirituality, moral uplift, and positive thinking.  If it isn’t true, Paul says, your faith is meaningless (kenos) and fruitless (mataios).  If Jesus is not risen, it doesn’t matter how many “testimonials” we can give about improved relationships, joy, inner peace, practical guidance, and cultural benefits.  It’s all for nothing.

If Jesus Christ is risen, then the age to come has already dawned and this age of sin and death is fading away.  Everyone must hear this Good News and embrace it for their salvation.  If Jesus Christ is not risen, then we are still under God’s judgment and there is no meaning at all to be sought in Christianity.  It is a dead religion: not only hopelessly irrelevant to us, but a vicious lie that has misled millions.  Why?  Because the gospel is not a promise to make our lives happier and healthier.  It is the announcement that our guilt and death have been dealt with finally and forever.  If it isn’t true, then it isn’t helpful.  It’s deranged.

Second, Paul explains the inseparable connection between the resurrection of Christ and believers.  There are not two resurrections, but one.  Jesus is the “firstfruit” of a vast harvest.  When you taste the new wine, you know what kind of vintage it’s going to be.  Or when you examine the first sheath of the new wheat, you know what to expect for the whole field.  Jesus begins the end-time resurrection of the dead, passing through this age of sin and death into the age to come.  He is the engine that has already pulled into the station, guaranteeing that the rest of the train will arrive in due course.

In the meantime, it is a period of proclaiming the gospel.  After all, death has a legal claim on us.  “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (v 56).  We are dead in Adam.  Unless the guilt and curse for our sin is lifted, not even God can raise us from the dead.  Why?  Because it is his own righteousness and justice that has imposed the sentence.  Yet “God set forth Christ as a propitiation by his blood through faith that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). So now is the intermission between Christ’s two advents, when we are justified through faith in Christ.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  We will die, but not under the curse.  Death can no longer hold us in its grip.  It has to let us go, just as it had to let Jesus go.  And the result is not resuscitation of a corpse, but resurrection.

Back to 1 Corinthians.  In this contrast between the two covenantal heads, Paul explains that Adam became “a living being” at creation.  However, our first representative never completed his commission.  Instead of fulfilling all righteousness and winning for himself and his posterity the right to eat from the Tree of Life, he chose his own path of spiritual ascent.  The Last Adam was different.  He fulfilled the trial, bore the curse, and rose again as the source of immortality for his people.  He is not just alive again, picking up where he left off before Good Friday; he is immortal and the source of everlasting life for all who embrace him.  Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life.

So the resurrection that awaits us is not just the continuation of natural existence as a “living being,” but the entrance into a new kind of existence that human beings have never experienced before until their risen Head entered the age to come.  For now, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we are being forgiven and renewed inwardly by the Spirit.

“Then comes the end…”  What is this?  The end of the world?  The end of time?  No, it’s the end of the reign of sin and death: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  When he returns, we will be like him: confirmed in everlasting glory, righteousness, beauty, and life.  Death is not natural.  It is not part of the cycle of life.  It’s a sentence for sin, as Paul also says in Romans 6:23.  Yet it is the last enemy and it will be destroyed when Christ returns (1 Cor 15:26-28).

Young people have no reason to come to church for dating tips, abstinence training, moving summer camp experiences, or a positive circle of friends.  There’s no point in getting dressed every Sunday for therapeutic moralism or for hearing about how you can have your best life now.  Again Paul reiterates the point that if the resurrection isn’t true, then there’s no point in being religious, spiritual, or even moral.  His fall-back isn’t, “Well, at least I was courageous” or “At least I lived a better life than most people.”  Rather, his alternative to the resurrection faith is hedonism—what we often call “nihilism” today.  Apart from this truth, Paul says that there is no saving knowledge of God (v 34).

In the Greek (Platonic) scheme, our true self (the soul or mind) is raised from the body to heavenly bliss.  In Paul’s scheme, our whole person is raised from sin and death, following in Christ’s wake, as we enter the Promised Land.  The Greek—and average Westerner today—is looking for inner light and going to heaven when they die.  The Christian is looking to Jesus and “the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come.”  In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we are presently “groaning” in our “earthly tent.”  Yet this refers to our body in its mortal and sinful condition.  In fact, he adds, “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (v 4).  In verse 3 he says that we don’t want to be found “naked”—that is, bodiless, as Plato imagined.  Our burden is not our flesh, but our mortality and sin.  In the resurrection, we will be “further clothed.”

So just as Christ is our clothing of righteousness in justification, he is our garment of glorification.  Resurrection and glorification are the same event.  By nature, we bear the image of the first Adam, but by rebirth we bear the image of the Last Adam.  The new birth—spiritual resurrection—has already occurred, as the guarantee of the final resurrection not only of our bodies but of a renewed creation, as Paul highlights in Romans 8.

Paul Pulls Back the Curtain

Paul concludes his argument in 1 Corinthians 15 by drawing back the curtain just enough to anticipate what lies ahead for us (vv 50-58).  “Flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom,” Paul says, echoing Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus in John 3.  One must be “born from above.”  There is nothing in us or in this present age that has the power to give this new life.  Free will is impotent before sin and death.  Our best works are filthy rags before God and our best intentions are a stubborn refusal of God’s gift in his Son.  There is no hope for world peace, justice, and righteousness through the powers that already exist in nature and history.  Apart from Christ, we are existing for the moment, but devoid of real life.  The Spirit does not come to make the old Adam a little better, but to kill him and make him alive in Christ.  Jesus did not to come to earth to make the world better, but to make it new.  He did not come merely to provide a model and to show us how to complete his work of building his kingdom.  He came to save the world and we will come again to judge the world and consummate his everlasting reign.

Paul lets us in on a “mystery”: “We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (51-52).  He says nothing of a secret rapture.  On the contrary, the whole harvest will be raised together when the first-fruit appears again in the flesh.

The unrighteous cannot become righteous; they must “put on Christ,” who is “our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”  The mortal cannot become immortal; it must “put on immortality.”  We don’t have this suit in our wardrobe.  We have to get it from someone else and we have it already in Christ.  Because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” every believer is guaranteed this final clothing of his or her faded, decayed, and decomposed flesh with immortal glory (vv 53-55).

If we conceive of the future basically as an escape from history, our bodies, and God’s creation, we will reduce salvation to “going to heaven when we die.”  I’m not denying the precious truth that upon death our souls are received into God’s safe-keeping.  However, there’s a good reason why we call that the intermediate state.  Our blessed hope is the resurrection.

This orients our lives in this present age.  God never has given up on his creation and he never will.  He will not throw it away and start from scratch.  The Christian hope has nothing to do with visions of “the late great planet earth,” but with the expectation that we find in the Book of Revelation.  In that vision, the City of God descends from heaven to the earth.  In fact, not only are all walls removed between Jew and Gentile; even the vertical demarcations of heaven and earth are dissolved.  At long last, God’s dwelling will be with us forever.

Justified and renewed by the power of the Spirit, united to Christ, we struggle against indwelling sin, groaning for our release not from embodiedness but from sinfulness. Because Christ has been raised, our hope is not in vain—and neither are our labors in this age (v 58).  As the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth, those dead in trespasses and sins are raised, justified, seated with Christ in heavenly places, are being conformed to his image, and will one day be glorified together with us.  Even when we go about our daily callings, working in our garden or our cubicle, volunteering at a homeless shelter, falling in love, raising children, and loving and serving our neighbors, we are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” because of the vista he has placed before us.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!

-Michael Horton

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An Update from Michael Horton in Brazil

I’m writing from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  It’s my third trip down here, and I am told repeatedly that the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation have had a healthy impact.  Ten of my books have been translated into Portuguese.

This invitation came from the Presbyterian Church—specifically, Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie (Mackenzie Presbyterian University) founded in 1870 by an American Presbyterian missionary.  I’ve known the circle of brothers who invited me for a while, since they were involved with one of the earlier trips.  In fact, Augustus Nicodemus Lopez was my interpreter for a conference.  Today, he’s the chancellor of Mackenzie, a 45,000-student university in the heart of an urban area roughly the size of New York City.

Although the missionaries that Calvin sent from Geneva to Rio (the first Protestant missionaries in the New World) were killed by Frenchmen who returned to the Roman Catholic Church, today Reformed theology is making a huge comeback.  Lots of people—especially younger generations—are embracing the doctrines of grace.

The Presbyterian Church of Brazil is a confessional denomination: with over 700,000 members.  That’s A LOT more members than all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in the US.  There is a new Reformation spreading down here.  In fact, the Presbyterian Church of Mexico, a sister church of Brazil’s, has 1.5 million members and growing.  There is also something afoot in Africa (there more confessional Reformed Christians in Nigeria than North America), and Asia (especially South Korea).  Many Pentecostals in these countries are becoming attracted to the Reformation.

Here in Brazil, I’m speaking at a pastors’ conference this week at the University, with about 700 people in attendance.  The response could not be more encouraging.  It is a privilege to be a part of the ministry of such courageous, generous, and clear-minded reformers.  We have a lot to learn from our sister churches abroad!

In addition to Reformed and Presbyterian efforts, the doctrines of grace are spreading down here through groups like FIEL.  I had the privilege of speaking at one of the early FIEL conferences and today they have over 1,000 in attendance regularly.  It draws a lot of brothers and sisters from Baptist and other evangelical denominations.  Since Angola and Mozambique are Portuguese-speaking, these groups and churches are having a huge impact on Africa as well.

Information about the conference I am speaking at is available online (see our previous blog entry for more information). We hope to work more closely with similar groups down here and make our resources available to Portuguese-speakers around the world.

In Christ,

Mike Horton

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Horton in Brazil

imagesMike Horton is in Sao Paulo, Brazil this week speaking at the Congresso Internacional de Religião, Teologia e Igreja, which is being hosted by the Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie.  If you’d like to watch a live webcast of his lectures, you can log into the University’s website and click where it says “ao vivo” (which means “live” in Portuguese).  His next lectures are scheduled for 5:30 PST/8:30 EST and 2:30 PST/5:30 EST.

On Monday, Mike sent the following message:

The service went well last night and they’re expecting over 500 pastors and others for the conference.  Great dinner with the leaders last night, and again (with others) for lunch.  These folks are really making a huge impact here.  The Presbyterian Church of Brazil has 700,000 members and the University has 45,000 students.  This group has been given theological leadership of the whole denomination and they’re really solid folks.  They want to keep working on how to have a closer relationship with WHI/MR and the 10 books in Portuguese, they say, have really made an impact … a new Reformation is spreading around the world.

Today, he said that the number of registrants for the conference is rapidly increasing so the organizers moved the sessions to the main auditorium on campus, which seats 700 people.  Continue to pray for Dr. Horton and for Reformation in Brazil!

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New Issue, New Steady Hand

2010-2-large The newest issue of Modern Reformation is now available online. In this year that we’re dedicating to “Recovering Scripture,” we’ve turned in this issue to the topics of inspiration and inerrancy. You won’t want to miss the articles by Michael Horton, Michael Allen, Rick Ritchie, David Wells, Michael Kruger, and Paul Helm. We’re also pleased to feature in this issue a roundtable discussion between Michael Horton, Donald Richmond, and Michael Spencer on some of the problems that evangelicals have with the doctrine of inerrancy. Please remember to pray for Michael Spencer (aka “the Internet Monk“) who is battling cancer and undergoing treatment.

You’ll also notice a new name near the top of our masthead. Dr. Ryan Glomsrud has taken over as the executive editor. For the last three years, I was honored to serve as the executive editor (having previously served as managing editor since 2002). In many way this was a dream come true for me: I began reading Modern Reformation shortly after it began in 1992, and it has been a constant companion on my Reformation journey ever since. But late last year, Michael Horton asked me to help lead the new parent organization of both White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation. So, as of January 1, 2010, I stepped down as executive editor of the magazine and we’ve welcomed Dr. Ryan Glomsrud to the helm.

Dr. Glomsrud is a familiar name to regular readers of the magazine. He has previously served as the book reviews editor and has also contributed several articles to the magazine over the last several years. A graduate of Wheaton College and Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Glomsrud received his D.Phil from Oxford University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. Dr. Glomsrud joins a distinguished cadre of former executive editors:

  • Dr. Benjamin Sasse (former U.S. assistant secretary of health and human services, currently president of Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska)
  • Dr. Darryl Hart (former director of academic programs at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, currently writing a global history of Calvinism)
  • Dr. Mark Talbot (associate professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College)

We’re pleased that Dr. Glomsrud is joining our team and we know that under his guidance Modern Reformation will continue to develop as the voice for confessional Protestants in American Christianity.

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A New Chapter in the Worship and Culture Wars

It is remarkable that debates about sexual morality (i.e., contraception, gay marriage, gay ordination, etc.) have so climaxed that some Anglicans are now considering mass conversion to Roman Catholicism. All they’ve needed is an invitation, that and the promise to be able to worship as their custom dictates, which is not insignificant thing for many so-called conservative Episcopalians. The offer came last November at the peak (thus far) of Anglican debates over homosexuality when the Pope removed the last apparent barrier to conscience and made it clear that aspiring Anglican converts no longer need to “do as the Romans do” even though they would come over to Rome.

To us, this seems like a strange but potent use of the “culture wars” and the “worship wars” uniquely combined for sheep-stealing purposes. And in today’s WSJ online “what are they doing now” article, we see that this is precisely the case. Those helping converts swim to shore on the Roman side of the Tiber river are quick to point out that being “angry about Gene Robinson” is not a sufficient reason for converting, but that seems to be the key factor nonetheless, especially when taking into account that “Anglican Use” Books of Common Prayer have now been officially revised by the Vatican and approved for special use. The upshot is that “conservatives” can now have their ethics and keep their worship too.

While this is certainly not “the end of the Reformation,” or even the end of Anglicanism, it is one more sad testimony that Gospel-doctrine is far from many Christians’ minds and that the direction- and pace-setting agenda of modern Christianity (even of the Roman Catholic stripe) continues to be morality and worship-style.

-Ryan Glomsrud, Executive Editor, Modern Reformation

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Evangelism and Social Justice

[What is the relationship between the Great Commandment (to love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (to make and baptize disciples)? In this preview of Mike Horton's newest book, he lays out the challenge our churches are facing.]

A while back I asked the general secretary of the World Council of Churches if his organization still holds to its old slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites.”  Chuckling, he said, “Good grief, no.” He went on to relate that the group has learned over the decades that service divides.  Some think capitalism is the way forward, while others insist on socialism.  The pie cuts a thousand ways.  “But then we’ve found that when we go back to talking about the Nicene Creed or some such thing, there is at least a sense of people coming back into the room and sitting down with each other to talk again.”

In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw relates the story of his article submission to the flagship evangelical magazine, then under the leadership of Carl Henry. Henry himself had challenged evangelicalism to engage with social concerns in his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947).  However, he told the young  graduate student that he needed to tweak some of the arguments in his article.

Though grateful that Henry was considering the article, Mouw recalls, “I was also troubled by the change he was proposing.  This was a period in my life when I had often felt alienated from evangelicalism because of what I saw as its failure to properly address issues raised by the civil rights struggle and the war in Southeast Asia.  As a corrective, I wanted the church, as church, to acknowledge its obligation to speak to such matters.”

Henry wouldn’t budge.  Where Mouw insisted it was the church’s duty to address these issues directly, Henry wanted him to say it was the Christian’s duty.  The church has a responsibility to proclaim God’s Word, even with specific application, wherever it speaks.  It has the authority from God to announce a final judgment of oppression, wanton violence, and injustice and to call all people (including Christians) to repentance and faith in Christ in the light of this ultimate assize.  However, “The institutional church,” said Henry, “has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.”

Henry quoted Princeton University ethicist Paul Ramsey: “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.’”  At the same time, Henry argued that evangelicals are not only authorized but commanded to proclaim God’s clear “No!” to excessive violence, racial injustice, and other serious moral crises.  God’s Word shapes the moral conscience of its hearers, but where it does not offer specific policy prescriptions, the church has no authority to speak.

Drawing on his Reformed heritage, especially the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, Mouw points out that there is an important place for Christians thinking and working together to apply biblical teaching to such issues, he concludes, “Henry was right, and I was wrong.”

Today, “Deeds, not creeds,” is likely to be heard most frequently from the quarters of evangelical Protestantism as it has been now for a century in mainline Protestantism.  In part, this is an understandable reaction to an apparent lack of concern for bodies, and not only for human bodies but for the creation itself.  If salvation is all about the soul’s escape from the body and this earth will be destroyed (both ideas being explicitly rejected in Scripture), what’s the point of getting all worked up over social injustice?

As we become more aware of global warming and its attendant threats to our whole planet, it is theologically erroneous and spiritually irresponsible for churches to remain silent on God’s command for stewardship.  Anchored not only in the past work of God (creation) and his ever-vigilant providence, the church’s hope is oriented toward the restoration of the whole creation (Ro 8:20-25).  However, is the church competent to deliver pronouncements on specific policies?  And in doing so, is it possible that the church loses its legitimate authority by over-reaching, rather than encouraging its members to pursue their own research and form their own personal and public policy agendas on the specifics?

We easily underestimate the impact of the church’s theology—its preaching and practice—on the wider culture, thinking that if the church is really going to make a mark, it has to be as a political action committee.  A lot of times it is bad theology that underwrites evil practices or at least encourages passive toleration.  Slavery in Europe and the United States and apartheid in South Africa were defended in pulpits through grave distortions of God’s Word.  Yet it was by recovering sound biblical teaching that churches were able to repent.  In the case of apartheid, it was when the South African church—excommunicated from its sister Reformed churches in the world—finally confessed apartheid to be heresy that the practice lost its moral legitimacy.  Without a civil war, the nation was able to face itself and dismantle the oppressive system in courts, congresses, and commissions.  The church did what only the church can do: that is, declare its perverted exegesis to be heretical.  Yet Christians, together with non-Christians, fulfilled their vocations in the world by changing the laws and customs of their society.

I went through this reaction myself.  I felt challenged and liberated by Reformed theology, resonating with J. I. Packer’s description I heard at a conference: “Fundamentalism is world-denying and Reformed theology is world-affirming.”  In college, I began delving into liberation theologians and found much there that resonated with what I had learned from Reformed theology about the problem of soul-body dualism.  Material-spiritual reality forms a unity.  United in its creation, in its corruption, and in its redemption, the whole world is God’s domain.  Then I spent a summer at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.  Staying up late nights with human rights advocates from all over the world, my naivete crumbled as I heard eye-witness accounts of the most flagrant violations, often by regimes supported by my nation’s government.  Why had I—and so many of my American brothers and sisters—not spoken up?  In fact, why were we committed to a “My America, right or wrong!” kind of philosophy?

But now evangelicalism risks merely changing its political affiliation, tying the gospel to a different political agenda.  Many evangelicals have come to see that the movement was largely  co-opted by the Republican Party, but this repentance seems somewhat superficial when the alternative is simply to switch parties and to broaden political agendas.

[This is an excerpt from a chapter of Mike Horton's newest book (still untitled), set to published by Baker as part of his Christless Christianity and Gospel Driven Life series. We'll post more information as it becomes available. Stay tuned to the WHI blog for more excerpts like this one.]

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Phil Ryken to Wheaton

The Internet has been abuzz for the last several days with the news that Dr. Philip G. Ryken, senior minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been elected as the new president of Wheaton College. Apparently the news of his election was leaked to Christianity Today and picked up by other bloggers before Dr. Ryken had a chance to announce the move to his congregation. [It should be noted that the church's leadership (or "session," in Presbyterian parlance) was fully aware and had given their blessing to Dr. Ryken to pursue this new calling.]

Rather than pile on with our own view of a “scandal” that has already blown over, we’re pleased to join with the many others who are passing on their good wishes to Dr. Ryken and his family! Dr. Ryken is a contributor to Modern Reformation. If you’re a subscriber to the magazine, you’ve probably benefited from his articles over the years. If you’re not yet a subscriber, we’ve temporarily “unlocked” all of Dr. Ryken’s articles in our archives. Take a moment now to get a sense of how the members at Tenth Presbyterian, and soon Wheaton College, have benefited from Dr. Ryken’s ministry:

How Can Jesus be the Only Way? (March/April 1998)

Rachel, Dry Your Tears (November/December 2004)

A Review of D. A. Carson’s The Gagging of God (March/April 2007)

Several of Dr. Ryken’s books have been reviewed in the pages of Modern Reformation. Here are several of the positive reviews that he’s received over the last several years:

A Review of Courage to Stand: Jeremiah’s Battle Plan for Pagan Time (January/February 2000)

A Review of Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (January/February 2002)

A Review of Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis (September/October 2004)

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Lent and the Regulative Principle

Update: We left out an important word in Mike Horton’s response below. We’ve put it in bold to draw your attention to it. Sorry for the confusion!

One of our Facebook friends asked a great question and we’ve asked Mike Horton to clarify some remarks he made in his recent Christianity Today article on Lent.

Justin asked:

Not trying to start a fight, I am trying to humbly submit this question: when did the Reformed start participating in the “we do it for pragmatic beneifts” woship stuff instead of “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the … See Moreimaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)”? Truly wondering how our confession just quoted squares w/ Horton’s statement in the CT article: “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar”? Again, I’m not trying to be malicious, but humbly submitting myself to your guidance, how should we think about Lent in terms of WCF 21.1 and not the pragmatic benefits (which too many use to vilify so much un-godliness in the church today) of it?

Mike Horton responded:

Great question, Justin, and thanks for raising it.  You quote my statement, “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar.”  Before that remark, I listed Israel’s various festivals.  My point was that we cannot use these old covenant festivals as a justification for new covenant festivals, such as Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, etc..  In other words, observance of these Christian holidays cannot be considered as necessary for true worship.  Some (most of the Westminster divines) would eliminate (did eliminate) all Christian holidays, although they encouraged special days for thanksgiving.  The Continental Reformed tradition did not do this, however, and continues the tradition of calling stated services on these special days.  With respect to the regulative principle, it’s definitely a line-call and there are those on both sides of the issue who affirm the principle.  I hope this helps!

Join the conversation and friend us on Facebook through White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation!

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Elton John on Jesus–A Candle in the Wind?

According to this CBS post in a recent interview, Elton John provocatively stated that Jesus was “a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems.”

At first glance, this statement borders on the absurd–how can Elton make these claims about the historic Christ, and so boldly? It contradicts the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus.

His statement, however, raises questions about how our society (in general) views love, compassion, and intelligence. By saying that Jesus was a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man,” Elton seems to equate these attributes with homosexuality itself (i.e. if you aspire to or live by these virtues, then you are either supportive of the homosexual community, or actually homosexual).

This leaves Christians with an important question: how do we respond? Obviously, we do not believe that Jesus was gay, and we know that homosexuality is a sin. But wouldn’t a vitriolic response automatically make us seem less loving and compassionate (based on Elton’s claims)?

So, how would you respond?

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Why Lent?

Mike Horton was asked to contribute to a series of articles in a recent issue of Christianity Today exploring the meaning and practice of Lent.  In addition to reading Mike’s reflections on Lent, we’ve also made available this article from the Modern Reformation archives that makes the case for using the church calendar as helpful signposts for our Christian pilgrimage.

2001-1-smallA Year of Signposts–Following the Church Calendar
(January/February 2001, Vol 10. No. 1, pages 18-19)

I realize that following the Church calendar is not the practice of some churches. However, it has been effective in many of our churches that have inherited it from ancient practice, and it’s being discovered by others today. While it should never be followed slavishly or with superstition, it helps to have signposts in the year that focus our attention on the momentous events in the life of Christ and the founding of his New Covenant assembly. It is another way of getting us to orient our Church life around the divine drama: Advent (culminating in Christmas), Epiphany (the appearance of the wise men-or, more properly, the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles), Circumcision (the beginning of our Lord’s consecration), Lent (Jesus’ wilderness temptation of forty days, culminating in Good Friday), Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. This is a marvelous tool for education over many years, as long as it doesn’t deteriorate to mere habit. Click here to read more.

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