White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Thank You For Your Support

Please consider a donation of $100 before June 30th to help us begin the next fiscal year with the resources we need to continue to call the church back to the rich resources of the Reformation.

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Indonesia Trip Report

I have to admit that my motive for White Horse Inn trips is partly selfish. I’ve learned that I always receive more than I give of actual learning, challenge, example, and encouragement. Even though Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, there seems to be respect for the minority Christian population. The republic’s constitution, drafted in 1945 after a very tumultuous era, recognizes “one God” as the religious foundation. It’s an interesting experiment: neither completely secular nor sectarian. Perhaps more like the U.S. in 1945, but this civil religion is an essential—and practically implemented—part of Indonesian political life.

Christians communicate God’s Word freely, although there are occasional outbreaks of anti-Christian violence. Tragically, Reformed churches were so closely tied to the Dutch colonial government that they lost much of their authority with the struggle for independence. Today there seem to be few solid Reformed churches left in the islands; the ones that have not caved in to liberalism have embraced the charismatic movement.

Yet for some time there has been a faithful ministry of the Word in various churches of the Reformation and they are still thriving. A key figure behind the “new Reformation” movement in the region is Dr. Stephen Tong. Born and raised in China, he was a remarkably bright and committed Marxist and the son of a wealthy businessman. His father disinherited him when he came to faith in Christ.

I first became familiar with Dr. Tong long ago through James Montgomery Boice. I expected to find a very old father in the faith enjoying a peaceful retirement. Instead, I found an evangelist who is, if anything, busier today than he was years ago. At 73, his set weekly schedule includes preaching two services on Sunday morning in Jakarta at Messiah Cathedral, two Sunday evening services in Singapore, a Monday service in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), a Tuesday evening service in Hong Kong, and a Wednesday evening service in Taipei, Taiwan. In addition, he holds one or two evangelistic meetings in locations throughout Asia, often attended by 10,000 or more people, including many Muslims. The church trains pastors and missionaries (the two are virtually synonymous) at its seminary.

Dr. Tong also designed and oversaw the building of the Reformed Millennium Center, a fixture of the Jakarta cityscape. This massive structure houses one of the best collections of Chinese art in Southeast Asia as well as the largest concert hall in the region. In his spare time, Dr. Tong composes and conducts the Jakarta Symphony and Oratorio Society in the hall, where Jahja Ling presided until becoming the director/conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.

The impact of this group of churches has a far reach. The group also started a publishing company, TV and radio station, and network of schools—including a major university. A few years ago, in a London cab, the driver told me that he had become a Christian under the ministry of Dr. Tong.

It was a pleasure to join the many Reformed pastors and teachers who have learned more than they taught during a brief experience of this church’s hospitality, along with my friend and seminary colleague, Julius Kim. There are many there—especially younger folks—who are regular listeners of White Horse Inn and readers of Modern Reformation. In addition, the group’s publishing company has translated several of my books into the Indonesian language.

I was there just long enough to realize my trip’s brevity. After leading a seminar in Singapore, I preached at the English service at Messiah Cathedral. Then I taught a weeklong course on Reformed theology and piety.

A highlight for me was when a young Chinese man from New York City, now speaking with Dr. Tong at these large evangelistic meetings, brought into one of his talks an emphasis on Christ’s active obedience that he had learned in the course I taught. With honest tears, he added, “Jesus Christ was forsaken by God so that you need not ever be again.” I learned later that soon after his conversion he had been introduced to White Horse Inn by a NYC pastor (now teaching at the Jakarta seminary). White Horse Inn was his “pre-seminary education.”

The work that the Lord is doing not only in Jakarta and Singapore but also throughout the region revolves around one man: Jesus Christ. Assisted by a host of fellow pastors, Dr. Tong has led a reformation in that entire region that now has its own next generation of leaders who will carry on the mission.

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Pray For Fikret

A native Turk, Fikret Bocek never imagined being anything other than a Muslim, however nominal. One day in Istanbul, a European couple gave him a Bible and he couldn’t stop reading. After graduating from Westminster Seminary California, he returned and planted a Reformed church that now has planted a number of sister churches in the country. He also started a publishing company, is an author himself, and reflects a profound humility combined with courageous conviction. You may have heard on the White Horse Inn his story of coming to faith in Christ.

Like many pastors in Islamic countries, the Rev. Fikret Bocek is constantly under the watchful eye of the state. Our producer, Shane Rosenthal, recently forwarded a provocative piece in the Washington Post. The article contrasts the consequences of conversion from Christianity to Islam and vice versa. Shane wrote me, “Would love to see you comment on this. If not, perhaps we could ask Fikret to write something up….” Then, just an hour later, I received this message (below) from Fikret.

Please remember our brother and his family in your prayers at this challenging time.


“You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police … yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts: words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home — all the more powerful because forbidden — terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”
Winston Churchill, Blood, Sweat & Tears

Fasil Say at his piano.

Fasil Say at his piano.

Last night we watched the movie called “The Pianist,” which is based on the life of famous Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. Szpilman was the most famous of the Warsaw Ghetto “Robinsons,” who lived in hiding in German-occupied Warsaw.

Watching that movie brings home the hatred and wickedness inherent in man, especially toward anything that is “other.” The Germans did not like the Jews, and sought to destroy them. The above quote by Winston Churchill, poignently portrays the desire of powerful leaders to quelch independent thought.

It brings to mind futuristic totalitarian societies such as the one in 1984, where standardized thought was mandated by law. But in fact, places like that exist.

In Turkey, thoughts can be a criminal offense. In particular, thoughts against the government (or a government employee) or thoughts against the religion (or its Prophet Muhammed) are forbidden by law.

The pianist above, named Fasil Say, actually was a bunkmate of Fikret’s during their military service several years ago. Perhaps because Fasil Say is famous his case has hit the news and his thoughts are more liable to be criticized by the government. But in any event, he posted on Twitter an 11th century poem criticizing Islam, and he was charged and convicted of a crime against the State.

1984

“This is not Justice” Fikret’s Case:

As you may remember, a couple years ago Fikret posted a critical comment on an online newspaper regarding the results of a court case against a handicapped young man. He had said, “This is not justice.” The judge he criticized opened a case against all who commented critically about him below that article. Fikret was charged with criticizing the State (through his criticism of the judge), and was convicted of the crime (a pending 3 year prison term).

We appealed the case, and we just heard back from the higher court that the case was sent back to the lower courts. It has to be re-tried with certain “new laws” in mind.

What those new laws are, we are still discovering. Are they in his favor, or against him? Are they stricter judgments (ie: 10 year terms) or are they looser judgments (ie: freedom of speech is suddenly on the books?). We do not know.

All this to say, please pray.

MONDAY, June 3 (ie: Sunday night, June 2 PST) Fikret will appear in court here in Foca Izmir to give a statement regarding this new “thought crime” case.

While people in Turkey are free to have religious beliefs other than Islam, people are not free to think anything critical of the State or Islam. It’s a typical double-think conundrum.

In fact, as I write this I am being careful of how I word things, because it is quite probable that this email will end up in the hands of the Turkish authorities, and I will have to give account.

It’s no fun to know the First Amendment laws of the United States, and to be subject to a different scheme of laws.

And yet “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” True freedom is something that cannot be taken away. For this we thank God.

PLEASE PRAY:
**That the Spirit guides Fikret’s thoughts and words as he prepares and gives his statement to the courts.
**Pray that truth and reason will trump doublethink.
**We want the best for this country, and we hope that the judges will do what is right and good for the people.
**Pray for just judges and upright law-makers in Turkey.
**Pray that the light of Christ reaches even into the heart of Turkish judges, that they will be called from darkness to light.

Thank you for your faithful prayers.

Praise the LORD! We are grateful that God has provided transportation for us for our furlough. If you are currently in a position wondering if your needs will be met, and are waiting on an answer to prayer, remember this verse: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Phil 4:19

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Message to Graduates: “You Are All Going to Die”

It’s Commencement time again. Many of us can’t remember the address at our college graduation. Occasionally, though, there are some zingers. This year the buzz is Joss Whedon’s speech on Sunday, May 26 at Wesleyan University.

The full address may be found here: youtu.be/Wn866ryQ5RY. An accomplished screenwriter (“Toy Story” and “The Avengers”) and creator of the series “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” Whedon astonished graduates and well-wishers by announcing, “What I’d like to say to all of you is that you are all going to die.”

Whedon recalled that in 1987, at his own Wesleyan University graduation, Bill Cosby took aim at the usual “change the world” speech that has become the staple of such events. “You’re not going to change the world, so don’t try.” The best thing you can do is to live each day with integrity and responsibility, not expecting everyone to exist as props in your own life movie. Stop being narcissistic about your “dream,” getting everyone else to fit into it, Cosby also told Temple University grads in 2012. “You’ve got plenty of time, but don’t dream through it. Wake up!”

All of this is sort of jarring talk from Boomers. But, happily, it has struck a nerve. Judging at least by the media attention, Whedon’s daring mention of death to largely healthy, eager, young Americans is like a glass of cold water thrown in the face to wake us from our slumbers.

Much of the talk in Christian circles turns on various projects for changing the world. You can’t just be a disciple. You have to be committed to radical discipleship. You can’t just strive to make good choices, form healthy relationships, and do countless little things that add up to loving service to others. You have to be radically counter-cultural to show that you really mean business with God, which is sometimes tough because there are a lot of non-Christians who say and do those things too. Especially in years past, radical discipleship meant embracing private spiritual disciplines. When that was judged too individualistic and self-oriented, others saw radical discipleship as giving up the lifestyle of American consumerism and helping those less fortunate.

There are plenty of calls in Scripture to prayer and meditation on his Word—in private as well as in public. There are also many exhortations to loving those around us: in marriages and families, in the household of faith, and in our wider callings.

But growth in anything important takes time. Etymologically, “radical” means “going to the root.” The way it’s used today, though, it more likely means “pulling up the roots.” If by “radical” folks mean immediate, visible, and measurable, there are no New Testament calls to this sort of discipleship. The repeated analogy used by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles is organic. Growth in Christ is often imperceptible—especially to us. When planting a garden with Mom, young children expect a strawberry after a few days. They sit and watch it. After a few days, the children stop asking about it. They pass it each day without any notice. “A watched pot never boils,” to change metaphors.

Only as we get older do we begin to realize that the most fruitful things in life take a long time—and a lot of care—to mature. If we’re impatient, overly enthusiastic, and over-confident, we easily become disillusioned or disinterested. Sure, there are some big events in our lives that provoke major turning points. For the most part, though, it’s the minutes, hours, days, months, and years that tell the tale. It’s not rallies and revivals, but God’s weekly meeting with his people that transforms them by his Word. Sure, there was a major turning point at Pentecost. Cut to the quick, Jews heard that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Abraham story, believed, and were baptized. But they weren’t looking for a spiritual high. They weren’t eager to discover the Next Big Thing—a program for radical discipleship. What happened next? “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Everybody wants to experience something radical and to do something radical. The tougher thing is to be justified before God and transformed in the depths of our character through the ordinary means of grace. It’s hard work to grow up in Christ, bearing the fruit of love and good works, in ordinary ways through ordinary means in ordinary moments over time.

Are we prepared for the long haul? That’s something to ask not only in commencement addresses, but each day. And though we might differ in the details, that’s why Joss Whedon’s question to the graduates is so genuinely helpful.

Death puts life in perspective. It reminds of the things that matter most. In the prime of our life, we want to change the world. Too often, we lose big dreams and the zest for life precisely because we’ve figured out that we can’t change it. But freed up from impossible dreams and demands, we can finally love and serve our neighbors—not as abstract objects for our life project or instruments of our self-identity-creation, but as God’s gifts.

Godly wisdom is to be found in realizing that faithfulness is not ultimately about how well we’re doing, but how well our neighbor is doing—and what we can do to help. It’s not about changing the world—or even loving the world—but about changing the way we relate to actual people today and loving specific neighbors with whom we live, work, and whose paths we cross each day. More deeply—radically, even—it’s about accepting God’s condemnation and justification in Christ and being renewed each day by his Word. As we’re shaped by his gospel and guided by his law, we discover that godly wisdom is not finally about the sprint but about finishing the race. Death has a practical way of putting all of this in perspective.

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Outsourcing Our Job Description? A Plea to Fellow Ministers

“Given all the demands on my time every day, it’s really hard to invest a lot of hours in preparing my sermons.” I hear this sentiment a lot out there these days. It’s expressed in a series of clips for a new service. The ad invites pastors to take advantage of an energetic team of researchers who help do a lot of the legwork for sermon-writing. Explaining “what we do,” the site offers the following services: “(1) Research Briefs (stories, statistics, quotes, connections to culture, theological insights, exegetical analysis of Scripture)”; (2) book summaries: “content you need to know but don’t have time to read”; (3) book projects, including “research, editing, and collaboration.”

I understand the challenge. There are many demands on a pastor’s time—even distractions that are part of the legitimate calling of a minister. However, are we turning to a Wikipedia-style of ministry? Some pastors in recent years—even in our own circles—have been brought up on charges of “borrowing” sermons verbatim from well-known preachers. I suppose this new service isn’t as bad as outright plagiarism. But what does all of this mean for the ministry?

I’ve been asking that question as I run into aspiring pastors who don’t think they need a seminary education. After all, there are so many on-line resources. Apparently, we’re way beyond that now.

It’s not just that people think they can teach themselves the languages, the art of biblical interpretation and biblical, systematic, and historical theology, or the practical insights from God’s Word in how to preach and apply God’s Word. You can even refer to the Hebrew and Greek of a passage without ever having actually studied the languages. Ironically, we teach students to study a passage in the original languages without showing their work in the sermon; increasingly, ignorance is being passed off as skill. It’s one thing to Google-search a figure or date; quite another thing to write a doctoral dissertation as a web-surfer. You wouldn’t go under the knife of a surgeon who learned medicine from Youtube clips. Why would you entrust your knowledge of God and his truth from someone who didn’t actually know how to “rightly handle the Word of truth” for himself?

The deeper question is this: What has become of the pastoral office when many who hold it seem to think that they are too busy to study, pray, read, and deepen their own understanding of God’s Word so that they have more to dish out?

Do we really believe, as the apostles and the reformers did, that the church is the creatura verbi—”creation of the Word”? That faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ as it is proclaimed by those who are sent? That the heart of sanctification is the renewing of the mind by the Word?

Pastors would never tell their congregations to outsource their discipleship to others: to pay someone else to pray, read the Bible, and witness for them. Why do some think that it’s fine for them to do this, especially when—unlike their parishioners—pastors are called to devote their full time to this work?

The tragedy is that pastors are often overwhelmed even by important things that are nevertheless subordinate to their ministry of the Word and the sacraments. Too often, elders are taken from the ranks of leaders in business, industry, and other professions, even if they lack the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Not surprisingly, the church is run like a corporation, with the pastor as the CEO. Or in other contexts, the pastor is the young and independent entrepreneur—more like Mark Zuckerberg than St. Timothy. He has to keep reinventing himself and his ministry and this requires enormous energy. But what really matters?

Amid these obvious extremes there are the faithful pastors who are wearied by parts of their job description that are in fact mentioned in Scripture. They may have godly elders who rule well and generous deacons who look out for the temporal needs of the sheep. Yet even with such blessings it’s difficult to avoid the constant interruptions.

What are those “other things” that have pastors so busy? Are those other things as explicitly mentioned in the job description laid out by Christ and his apostles? Or are we—even in “gospel-centered” and “Bible-believing” circles—coming to recast the office in terms more aligned to the managerial, entrepreneurial, or therapeutic styles of leadership that our culture prizes? A minister friend recently quipped, “The most embarrassing question you can ask a group of pastors in our circles today is, ‘What’s the latest book you’ve read?’”

Last week, after explaining my symptoms, I asked my doctor about a prescription that I saw advertized. The ad sold me. Sounded like my symptoms and promised to solve them (with the appropriate qualifications at the tail end). My doctor said he had prescribed that very medication many times, but after reading a ground-breaking report he was taking all of his patients off of it. I’m glad he keeps reading.

Imagine your pastor exhorting the congregation next week to stop coming to church and simply visit websites to become “self-feeders”? Well, perhaps that’s a bad illustration, since it’s actually happening today.

It takes a long time to become a craftsman, a skilled expert, and a wise steward of natural gifts. If pastors expect Christ’s sheep to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ,” then are they exempt from first-hand study? Who are these people writing up the quotes, cultural connections, and even theological points and exegesis? Are they seminary-trained? According to the site I saw, yes—they have Master of Divinity degrees or more. If so, then why not attend their church instead of the one where the heavy-lifting is farmed out?

Even after seminary, habits of lifelong study and prayer are essential. Pastors are spiritual craftsmen, not the equivalent of busy guys who buy a Home Depot book to construct their patio. Even the best seminary education can merely equip ministers with tools that they can use and develop in their own ongoing study.

We typically invest our time in things that matter to us, things that we’re called to. And we typically appreciate—and patronize—those specialists who focus on the quality of their work. Comedians and other entertainers might have other people write their material. But if we farm out our sermons, aren’t we assuming with the world that there is some other story that’s more ultimate than the new creation that God is summoning into being by his Word and Spirit?

Isn’t there something a little contradictory about shepherds touting the virtues of truth, spiritual maturity, and knowing God through his Word while they outsource their own study? If a pastor is too busy to mine Scripture to distribute Christ’s treasures to his people each week, what does that say about the priority of “the ministry of the Word and prayer” that Peter identified as the pastor’s primary job description (Acts 6:4)? That’s why deacons were appointed: to take care of the temporal needs of Christ’s flock.

Paul was absorbed in his calling, which he defined with laser-sharp focus:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:7-10).

What a calling!

The prophets actually served those who now bring the good news, “in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Pet 1:12).

Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially to be honored (1 Tim 5:17), though they are also held especially accountable (Jas 3:1). “Until I come,” Paul counsels young Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the presbytery laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Don’t get entangled in “civilian pursuits,” he exhorts. Teach God’s Word and then “entrust [it] to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:1-4). “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (v 15).

Bottom line: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching…[D]o the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim 4:1-2, 5).

In his last reported conversation on earth with Peter, Jesus asked solemnly, “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep’…And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (Jn 21:15-19).

To follow the Good Shepherd as his emissaries is to feed his sheep. It’s a calling not to be taken up lightly. If we’re going to take it up, we need to prepare for it. And then we need to keep ourselves in his Word and in whatever resources that can help us deepen our own wisdom rather than outsource it to others. Great numbers of pastors out there are fulfilling this calling “in season and out of season” today. Nevertheless, there is a troubling proliferation of preachers who are not so much lazy as distracted by expectations—either their own or those of others—that turn the pastor’s study into an office, building their own ministry rather than serving Christ’s. Here, as always, we all need to be reminded that Christ is the only head of his church. We didn’t write the job description and he knows best what his people—and we ourselves—need most.

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Zondervan e-Book Special

In conjunction with this week’s show, “A Place for Weakness,” our good friends at Zondervan are discounting the e-version of Michael Horton’s book, A Place for Weakness, to $3.99.

This is a great opportunity to go a little deeper into the problem of suffering through what is undoubtedly Mike’s most personal book.

The promotional pricing ends on June 3rd, so get your copy today! The discount is already available through these retailers:

Amazon’s Kindle

Barnes and Noble’s Nook

 

 

For more on the book and what personal and pastoral problems led Mike to write it, check out the following video.

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Is This Good News?

In his Wednesday Mass homily this week, Pope Francis attracted considerable media attention.  According to reports, the message drew on Mark 9:40, where Jesus says, “He who is not against us is for us.”  Like the disciples, we can be intolerant of the good that others can do—even atheists.  Because we’re all created in God’s image, there is still a possibility of doing good.  So far, nothing particularly controversial in terms of classical Christian teaching.  The most ardent evangelical would affirm that although our works are so corrupted by sin that they cannot justify us before God, they can help our neighbors.

However, the pontiff added, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics.  Everyone!  ‘Father, the atheists?’  Even the atheists.  Everyone!…We must meet one another doing good.  ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’  But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Reports from major outlets, including the Huffington Post, express astonishment at the pope’s comments.  What is this strange new teaching? Of course, it’s not new at all.  It has been an emphasis ever since the Second Vatican Council, where the previously shunned speculations of Karl Rahner, S. J., became official teaching.  There is no way to reconcile the previous councils and papal pronouncements depriving non-Roman Catholics of salvation with the idea of the “anonymous Christian.”  Nevertheless, there it is.  Not the development of dogma, as Cardinal Newman formulated, but the flat contradiction of dogma.

Before Vatican II, the standard teaching was that ordinarily no one can be saved who does not submit to the magisterium and papal authority in particular.  Especially in trouble were those who had been reared Roman Catholic and yet explicitly rejected the pope’s headship.  Although they were consigned to everlasting punishment by papal decrees, the Protestant Reformers never applied the same rule to their Roman Catholic opponents.  Calvin even said that although Rome has excommunicated itself according to the criterion of Galatians 1:8-9, “There is a true church among her.”

What has changed?  We keep hearing from Protestants that, given the Vatican II reforms, if Luther and Calvin were alive today they’d renew their Roman Catholic membership cards. I doubt it. Not even the craziness of contemporary Protestantism could push them to make that move against a Scripture-bound conscience.

What has changed is that Rome has carried its incipient Semi-Pelagianism to its logical conclusion.  I know, Karl Rahner and Vatican II repeatedly condemn Pelagianism and extol grace as the fundamental basis for salvation.  Yet that has always been Rome’s teaching.  It is by grace alone that we are empowered to cooperate in meriting further grace and, one hopes, final justification.

The Reformers never accused the medieval church of embracing outright Pelagianism, but of that subtler form of works-righteousness that invokes grace as no more than assistance for our attainment of God’s favor.  Maybe Protestants don’t get that because this is essentially the same tendency at work in many mainline and evangelical churches.

There is a certain truth, then, to the idea of development, at least from the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and the twentieth-century Second Vatican Council.  Various seeds have come to full flower:

  • Collapsing special revelation into general revelation, and therefore the gospel into the law, Rome maintains that Scripture provides a higher revelation—greater illumination.  The gospel is simply “the new law”—easier than the old covenant—with Christ as a “new Moses.”
  • Collapsing our works into Christ’s, the familiar slogan of the medieval church was “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.”  It is this slogan that is official dogma, according to Vatican II and the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.
  • The Council of Trent anathematized the view that we are so thoroughly bound by sin that we cannot cooperate with God’s grace by our own free will.  The new dogma simply extends this logic to conclude that everyone is “in Christ,” infused with saving grace, and capable of attaining final justification by grace-empowered works.
  • The medieval dogma of implicit faith was a way of demanding absolute obedience to everything taught by the pope and magisterium, which Calvin described as “ignorance disguised as humility.”  Now, implicit faith is invoked to support the idea that even atheists evidence an openness to divinity by their good works.  They may not have explicit faith in Christ—or even in any transcendent Creator, but it lies buried in their sub-consciousness nevertheless.

What’s different is this: where the older view denied that faith was sufficient for justification, the new view denies that faith—at least the explicit faith in Christ everywhere assumed in Scripture—is even necessary.  In other words, good works not only now supplement faith in justifying sinners but replace faith entirely.

It’s no wonder that the media is welcoming this Wednesday homily with such glee.  Aside from some major social problems, the world, after all, is not as in need of being rescued as we thought.  We just need a little direction to get back on the road, some encouragement to be more tolerant and attentive to the plight of others.  Somehow Jesus Christ has made it possible for all of us to wind up in heaven (purgatory, etc., left to the fine print).

But is this a gospel—good news?  Perhaps it is to good people who could be a little better, but not to the ungodly who need to be justified before a holy God.  What’s so amazing is that the pope’s message is treated as kinder and freer, even though it replaces faith in Christ with our own acts of charity.  For anyone who knows what God counts as true love—and therefore good works, this can only provoke deeper guilt and fear.

Although the surprise expressed by the Huffington Post report cited above reveals unfamiliarity with official teaching, it does get one important thing right in its conclusion:  “Of course, not all Christians believe that those who don’t believe will be redeemed, and the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.”  Anyone who thinks that the Reformation is over doesn’t realize just how much further from the gospel Rome has moved in recent decades.

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Moore Prayers

One of Mike Horton's nephews in the wreckage of his home

One of Mike Horton’s nephews in the wreckage of his home

No matter how many times it’s been asked–and answers offered–the perennial question is provoked by fresh wounds: “How could a good and all-powerful God allow such a tragedy?”  The massive 2-mile-wide tornado that leveled much of Moore, Oklahoma, exposes the fragility of life—but also the apparent contradiction between a God who is good and all-powerful.

Receiving the news, my heart raced as I thought about my brother, sister-in-law, nieces, nephews, and cousins in Moore.  My parents were from there.  It was a place I’ve known well since childhood, visiting extended family.  So I scanned the local OKC TV stations for updates.  I knew by the description of the devastated area that the home of my brother and sister-in-law was in its path.

Finally, late at night I received an answer to my text-messages and talked to my brother by phone.  “It’s all in God’s hands,” he said.  It was from him that I first heard the doctrines of grace.  He and Linda are enthralled with the God of grace and glory who has revealed himself in his Son.  We don’t know why, but he does—and that’s enough.  It’s one thing coming from me, and another thing hearing it from my brother just after he and his wife had lost every material treasure they had.

His wife was away for the afternoon, beyond the range of the tornado.  Their children were just out of its path.  Waiting it out at home, my brother—a veteran of “Tornado Alley”—changed his mind when he heard it was a Category 4 or 5.  Climbing into his truck with debris already falling, he drove off for several miles until he saw the twister pass his neighborhood.  Returning only 5 minutes later, he found only a heap of rubble.  Yet there they are, extending a helping hand to neighbors.  Why?  Because life is meaningless and “sympathy” is just an expression of self-interest?

Without answers, we are faced with senseless tragedy.  Arbitrary, meaningless, random.  We search for answers—to make some sense of things—because our hearts and minds are not satisfied by this shrug.  It’s not an easy thing to affirm faith in a good God who could have restrained this ferocious storm but didn’t.  But it’s more offensive both to reason and to life itself to imagine that we live in a world where there is no ultimate meaning or purpose.  The only thing worse than losing a loved one in such a tragedy is believing that their death—and their life—had no transcendent purpose.

I noticed that evangelists of atheism—mainly from other parts of the country—quickly appeared in chat rooms.  “If a god who allowed this does exist, we would have to call him evil,” said one.  It’s struck me that this person lives in a world as simplistic as any radical fundamentalist claiming to read God’s mind.  For both, the answers are clear.  For both, God is not hidden and he does everything directly and immediately.  Both imagine a God who sends natural disasters like Zeus throwing thunderbolts from Olympus, either for sadistic pleasure or for specific judgments.

The nihilistic shrug is not an answer—even a partial one.  It’s not a comfort at all.  It has absolutely nothing to say in a situation like this.  “Stuff happens” is the only response consistent with a naturalistic worldview.  But the emptiness spreads.  It’s not just the bad things, but the good ones, that are reduced to meaningless trivia.  It also means that the love that has been overflowing in extravagant generosity shown not only to but even among victims of the tornado themselves is meaningless.

Out of darkness, light is already emerging.  And instead of turning on God, like many of the faraway critics, they are turning to God for comfort, even as God sends his people to tend to their temporal needs.

This is in no way to treat lightly the tremendous loss incurred.  The amazing spectacle of victims who have lost much extending a helping hand to neighbors who have lost more is a testament to the fact that there must be something more to life than making up meaning as we go along.  Yet it doesn’t assuage the grief over losing a loved one.

The choice is between placing our confidence in a God who is both good and sovereign despite the moral and natural evils—even when we don’t have all the answers, and giving up on any transcendent meaning for love as well as suffering.

And that choice isn’t arbitrary.  How can we be so sure?  Perhaps it might have been, except for the fact that the Triune God revealed in Scripture has fulfilled every one of his promises in history.  Most conclusively, he has sent his Son to rescue sinners by his life, death, and resurrection.  Who knew what God was doing at the cross?  Jesus’ disciples fled, the Romans jeered, and his own people judged him cursed by God.  By the look of things, Good Friday yielded only one of two choices: a God who doesn’t care or a “Savior” who was a fraud.  Because Christ has been raised in history, our lives are no longer “the show about nothing.”  We have come from somewhere grand and although we have fallen from it, we are being taken far beyond that glorious beginning, in the train of the Conqueror who has defeated death and hell.

If you want to help victims of the Moore tornado, please consider donating one of these organizations:

The American Red Cross

The Presbyterian Church in America Disaster Relief

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Disaster Relief Fund

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The Radical, Missional, but not-so-new Legalism

Being wired for Law makes us susceptible to Christians and other religious people trying, in the most creative and eloquent ways, to goad Christians into adopting a new law.  Writer Anthony Bradley has pinpointed one way our culture is coaxing Christians towards a new law or “new legalism.” “Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian, “he says, “is slowly becoming the “new legalism.””

These calls to be “radical”—or whatever is the new “extraordinary”—snooker us because we are wired for the Law.  We were created for the Law.  Adam chose to disobey the first law given to us by God and we bear the consequences of that today.  Israel proclaimed that they would keep the law given by Moses. As they stood together as a nation (Exodus 19:8), they promised, “This we will do.”  Like Adam, though, they broke the covenant and, as a consequence, lost the right to stay in God’s Promised Land as his chosen people.  Ever since then we have gone looking for a new law in an attempt to erase our narcissistic shame.  We love new laws, particularly when they promise to make us look spectacular.

Sadly, because Adam disobeyed, we are no longer able to keep this type of law or what really matters:  God’s Law.  That is why Christ came.  He fulfilled God’s Law perfectly, took our sins upon himself, and died on the cross to satisfy justice and bear the condemnation we deserved because we broke (and willfully keep breaking) God’s Law. Jesus did for us what we could never do and then intentionally gave to us his own earned righteousness.  This is the glorious gospel, the true missional and radical action.  We did nothing; Christ did everything.    But instead of claiming this truth, we forever harangue ourselves into adopting some new law so we can prove that we are not quite as bad as Adam.

But now there is no new law to fulfill.  Clarion calls abound for us to band and stand together again and shout “This we will do.”  But Christ did it all.  Michael Horton calls Christianity a “sit down” religion, not because our faith is not active, but because we have to sit down and receive before we have something to give others.  We are active, but it is because we’ve been given something.   So every Sunday we sit down in church to hear God’s word preached by God’s servants and to learn about our glorious inheritance.  Every Sabbath we turn our hearts towards the north star of God’s living and beautiful words because we are so prone to forget our inheritance and wander into the wilderness.  In our anxiety, we prefer to launch a new movement to assuage this restlessness that only the Father, speaking to us about His Son through the power of the Holy Spirit, can cure.

Anthony Bradley is dead right.  We are sons and daughters of the living God; this is our inheritance.  Therefore we can become lovers of the one true God and lovers of our neighbors.  Mr. Bradley suggests that we need to recover a true sense of vocation, and certainly that is correct and proper.  But before we rush off to our vocations, we need to learn to sit in wonder at our radical, missional God who calls us to learn who we are in union with His Son.  Only then will God’s Word properly inform us so that we do not create another legalism that obscures our inheritance and only gives us, in the end, something else to do.

Mark Green is the President of White Horse Inn

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Should we open Congress with prayer?

bleeprayerBrian Lee, former White Horse Inn staff member and current pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington D.C., recently penned a provocative piece for The Daily Caller on the topic of whether ministers of the gospel should offer a prayer before congress.  He wrestled with this issue for some time after he was recently invited to serve as a guest chaplain for the US. House of Representatives. The article also includes links to the text and video clip of the prayer he offered earlier this month.

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