White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Preaching in Jakarta

Although it’s still relatively early on Saturday morning here on the west coast, it’s late Saturday night in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mike Horton has a habit of enjoying late night talks with his friends, but I hope his hosts get him to bed soon so that he can be ready to preach at the Reformed Millennium Center tomorrow morning.

His text will be Romans 4, “The Promise Driven Life.” You can tune in via the church’s livestream webcam at 10:00 am Sunday (Jakarta time, about 12 hours from now).

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Calvin in Singapore

It’s the middle of the night in Singapore right now. Hopefully, Mike Horton is sleeping off his jet lag because he’ll be speaking later today on Calvin and the Christian Life. He’s only in Singapore for a brief stop on his way later today to a week of lectures in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The goal of this free public seminar is to understand the Genevan Reformer’s view of the Christian life and its enormous relevance for our lives and our churches today.  Mike will draw from Calvin’s treatises, letters, sermons, and liturgy to address the following subjects:

  • The Triune God
  • Union with Christ
  • The Communion of Saints
  • Engaging the World
  • Exploring the Relevance of Calvin’s Piety Today

This lecture is the fruit of Mike’s new book on Calvin and the Christian life, which will be published by Crossway in 2014.

Please continue to pray for Mike and his WSC colleague, Julius Kim, as they minister to and with the Sekolah Tingi Teologi Reformated Injili Internasional (International Reformed Evangelical Seminary) in Indonesia.

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Michael Horton in Singapore and Indonesia

Please pray for Mike Horton and his WSC colleague, Julius Kim, as they travel over Spring Break to Singapore and Jakarta, Indonesia, for a week of lectures and preaching. We’ll be keeping you up to date on  where Mike will be and what he’s doing. When he returns, we’ll ask him to write up a brief report as he did on his teaching trip to China last year.

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A Reformed Farewell to Benedict XVI

Taken from the highest ranks of the clergy, popes should be among the best living pastors, biblical scholars, and theologians. That this has often not been the case is obvious enough throughout history, as any well-informed Roman Catholic will concede. (More than a few instances of corruption and heresy may be found on the Protestant side as well.)

However, Benedict XVI has regularly been impressive on these counts. Living alongside Protestants in Germany, he often engages Reformation views with more sympathy and knowledge than most—especially more than many Protestants who convert to Rome and trade on caricatures of the evangelical faith based on the worst of evangelicalism.

One example of Pope Benedict’s judicious engagement is the way he explains the context that helped to provoke the Reformation. Though he realizes that there was more to it, he refers to the Great Western Schism (1309-1417). Not many people know about this today, so it’s worth considering.

Often called the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” the Schism was provoked by the election of rival popes and the removal of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France. Before becoming pope, Benedict explained,

For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side. The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form–the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987), 196)

Throughout the Middle Ages there had been a running feud between popes and kings, leading to excommunication from the one and imprisonment by the other. However, the disruption of the papal succession provoked widespread anxiety within the church—and indeed, the whole of Christendom. Between 1305 and 1377, the pope was French and so were most of his cardinals. The schism was consummated when Pope Urban VI in Rome and Pope Clement VII in Avignon excommunicated each other—and therefore all of those under each other’s respective sees. They continued this division by appointed their own successors.

Who would resolve this stand-off? Some leading theologians had argued for a while that church councils always had priority over the pope until fairly recently. The early ecumenical councils were a prime example.

However, in this case councils it became clear that councils, too, were fallible. The Council of Pisa (1409) elected a third pope to replace the two rivals. At the Council of Constance (1414-18), where the reformer Jan Hus was condemned to the flames, the two rival popes and the third pope were replaced now by a fourth, Martin V. It came at a cost to the papacy: the Council declared its sovereignty over the pope. Pope Martin, who could not attend, declared its position on this matter null. As a binding council, some Roman Catholic theologians today invoke its memory for a new conciliar movement.

Between the 14th and 16th centuries, leading theologians defended the authority of Scripture over councils and of councils over the pope, drawing on the example of the ancient church. Arguing that Scripture is above the whole church, William of Ockham (d. 1349) argued that the whole church (including laity) should hold a council to elect the pope and limit his authority. It is this whole church that is the communion of saints, not the Roman church. If a pope falls into heresy, a council can judge him without his approval. Marsilius of Padua agreed (Defensor Pacis, 1324): the church consists of all the faithful, not just priests. Christ is the only head of the church. More conservative reformists defended the principle of Scripture’s magisterial authority and the priority of councils over the papacy. These included the leading Sorbonne theologian Jean Gerson, as well as Pierre d’Ailly, Francesco Zabarella, and Nicholas of Cusa.

The last gasp of the conciliar movement came at the Council of Basel (1431-49). Papalists formed Council of Florence, while conciliar party in Basel elected another pope. Martin called it but died before it met. Eugenius IV succeeded him and was prevented by health from presiding. He couldn’t have done so in any case, as the fathers declared (on the basis of Constance) that the Council was superior to the pope. Eugenius made concession after concession until he finally submitted. His papal legates could only attend if they accepted this as well, though they were duplicitous afterwards.

Finally, on the eve of the Reformation, Pope Julius II reasserted papal primacy and packed the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17) with cardinals who supported him. Thomas Cajetan, famous (among other things) as Luther’s curial opponent, staunchly defended papal primacy. In condemning the Reformation, the Council of Trent also condemned positions that had been argued by theologians well within its pale for centuries.

With the First Vatican Council in the 1850s, papal infallibility became binding dogma—necessary for salvation. In spite of a few statements in Lumen Gentium exploited by more liberal theologians, Vatican II and the latest Catholic Catechism reaffirm that there is no full and perfect communion with Christ apart from obedience to the pope. Before becoming Benedict XVI, and since, Cardinal Ratzinger defended these views with great energy and skill. I have no doubt that he will continue to do so.

But this tale does clear our eyes from the foggy mists of sentimentalism. Is the Roman Catholic Church united by an unbroken succession from St. Peter? Roman Catholic theologians—and especially historians—know that an uncomplicated “yes” will not do. Are the church’s decisions irreformable? Then what about the Council of Constance? Even the Council of Basel was a duly constituted synod. Whose conclusions are binding? At the very least, Rome has compromised its claim of an unbroken unity—not only between councils and popes, but within the papal line itself. It can invent theories of “anti-popes” to preserve its claim to valid succession. But even if one were to accept the idea in principle, history has already provided too much contrary evidence. Romantic glances across the Tiber are thwarted by the reality. At the end of the day, this story provides one more reminder that the church that is created by the Word and stands under that Word, with all of its besetting sins and errors, is still the safest place to be in a fallen world and imperfect church.

    Further Reading:

  • C. M. D. Crowder, Unity, Heresy, and Reform, 1378-1460: The Conciliar Response to the Great Schism (New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1977).
  • Oakley, Francis. The Conciliarist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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Remembering Dr. Koop (1916-2013)

By now most readers would know that Dr. C. Everett Koop, M.D. died yesterday. At least the reports I heard were generous and grateful.

I first met Dr. Koop with Francis Schaeffer. At the same time, I was like a cat underneath the feet of Dr. James Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, so running into the man he called “Chick” was a regular occurrence. I talked to him about an idea for a book on televangelism and he graciously contributed an amazing essay on “Faith Healing and the Sovereignty of God” for the first book I edited: The Agony of Deceit (Moody, 1990). It’s laced with first-hand accounts, including his examination of healing claims at an Oral Roberts crusade. More than that, it displays his remarkable depth as a lay theologian as well as a medical expert. To me, Dr. Koop was a model of distinguishing his two callings without separating them.

Converted under the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse at Tenth, Dr. Koop was a long-time elder during Boice’s ministry and served on the board of Evangelical Ministries, founded and then led by these two pastors. Years later, the White Horse Inn (then known as Christians United for Reformation) merged with Evangelical Ministries to form the nucleus for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I visited Dr. Koop in his Dartmouth College office to ask—or rather, plead with—the aging doctor to return to our board after Dr. Boice’s death. He agreed and came to as many meetings as his own health allowed.

After a long and fruitful life, not without its share of personal suffering—including the death of his son in a mountain-climbing accident, Dr. Koop has been gathered to Christ’s bosom awaiting the resurrection with all the saints. He touched all of our lives in various ways and as a way of remembering his service we’d like to retrieve some of his contributions to the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation.

Please take time to take advantage of these resources from an old friend:

Chapter from Agony of Deceit

Faith Healing and the Sovereignty of God from July/August 1998 Modern Reformation
(a summary of his chapter from Agony of Deceit)

Audio from a 2001 WHI broadcast:

Click here to access the audio file directly

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Rev. Zach Keele

How many of you skim the first chapter of Matthew?  (It’s all right, we did it too.)  This month, we talk to Rev. Zach Keele of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church about the genealogies listed in Scripture–their purpose, their scope, and the fidelity of God’s promise.

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Angry Atheists Again

It’s a familiar story, but a recent Huffington Post article caught my attention.  The author, a non-Christian physicist, expresses shock after posting an article on the age of the earth.  Expecting a torrent of abuse from religious conservatives, he was surprised that it was the atheistic fundamentalists who piled on.

One of the biggest objections to religion is that there are so many competing truth claims.  How can each claim to be right?  Religious detractors argue that this is in sharp contrast to science, which is based on facts upon which any rational person can agree.

How do we handle this objection?  First, it is important to point out that the number of truth claims on the market has nothing to do with whether which, if any of them, is true.

Take something as significant as belief in a transcendent creator.  Cambridge mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle noted, “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.  The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”   In sharp contrast, biologist and passionate defender of atheism Richard Dawkins says, “The more you understand the significance of evolution, the more you are pushed away from the agnostic position and toward atheism.”  These thinkers can hardly be distinguished by their scientific credentials.  If anything, Hoyle contributed far more to applied science than has Dawkins so far.  Both came to radically different conclusions based on their considerable study of nature.

Albert Einstein saw himself as more of a pantheist like Spinoza than an atheist like Marx or Nietzsche.  “[T]he fanatical atheists,” he wrote to a friend, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.”  They are simply rebelling against their religious upbringing.  Indeed, he added that although he didn’t believe in a personal God, “such belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook.”  Following Spinoza, he was a strict determinist.  He wrote to physicist Max Born,

You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice game, although I am well aware that some of our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility.

Scientists disagree about all sorts of things: from matters as metaphysical as string theory to details over genetic mutation.  In fact, as Michael Polanyi argued years ago, scientists belong to a concrete, historical community of interpretation.  They too have lives, histories, and experiences within which they interpret reality.

We all remember the ill-fated pronouncements of the church in relation to Copernicus and Galileo, but it was scientists who made the biggest fuss at least initially over the new cosmology.  Not unlike religious communities, the scientific community resists massive paradigm shifts.  That’s good, because we’d be starting over every day if it were otherwise.  It takes a lot of anomalies to overthrow a well-established paradigm.  But it happens.

Of course, one reason that paradigm revolutions can occur is that there are rigorous standards for evaluating and testing theories.  I would argue that this is what sets Christianity apart from other religions.  It arose not out of a projection of felt needs, the charisma of a sage, or the profundity of its universal ideas, but as a historical claim with cosmic significance: the resurrection of Jesus.  It was a paradigm revolution within the Jewish community that sparked momentous debate.  Even greater was the shift that it provoked when it met the Greek world.  The idea of God as personal—and three persons to boot; that the world is created out of nothing, as a free act by a good God, not to mention the incarnation of this God in history and his death and resurrection as redemption-bringing events, were completely revolutionary.  One couldn’t really be a good Platonist by day and a Christian by night.  A choice had to be made.

Even within religious communities there are major paradigm shifts.  The Reformation is an example.  Fresh exegesis turned up new evidence and shed new light on passages that had been misunderstood—even mistranslated in the Latin Vulgate.  This doesn’t explain it all, of course, but it was a big part of it.  The reformers didn’t set out to cause a revolution.  They didn’t touch most of the Christian doctrines—affirming the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other key teachings without alteration.  However, they did cause many throughout Europe to rethink the meaning of the gospel.  Pretty significant on its own merits.

At some point, we have to take responsibility.  We can’t just dismiss the search with Pilate’s shrug, “What is truth?”

At a conference a number of years ago, I was on a panel with Bill Nye (as in “The Science Guy”).  Like a modern-day David Hume, he made general arguments about religious claims as equivalent to fairy tales that evolve over time with each telling.  I agreed with some of his assertions about religion in general, but asked him to evaluate specific claims for Christ’s resurrection.  Going through these claims, one by one, he became increasingly impatient.  Finally, without addressing even one of the arguments, he dismissed the whole thing with a single brush, returning to his opening assertions.

Christianity has been in the business of offering arguments and evidence from the beginning.  The Hebrew prophets mock the idols of the nations because they cannot speak and cannot make good on their promises in history.  The God of Israel has done so in Jesus Christ and “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Of course, none of us is neutral.  We all come to the evidence with big assumptions about reality.  The Holy Spirit alone can bring conversion, but he does so through his Word.  And he also uses supporting arguments and evidence that reveal too many devastating anomalies—indeed contradictions—that our reigning worldview can’t accommodate.  One thing is for certain: to say that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is as vicious a circle as any argument can be.  In fact, it’s not an argument at all, but mere assertion.  Isaac Asimov said, “Emotionally, I am an atheist.  I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect that he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”  Insert “believer” and change “doesn’t exist” to “does exist” and there is nothing expressed here that the Dawkinses of the world wouldn’t leap upon as evidence of blind faith.

Hoyle concludes, seemingly against his personal inclinations, that the evidence requires a transcendent creator, while Dawkins’ conclusion couldn’t be more antithetical.  No less than religious ones, scientific claims about ultimate reality are driven by deeper worldview assumptions.  But the sheer fact that there are competing claims doesn’t settle anything.  Whether or not we take the time to investigate those claims on their own terms is a decision that closed minds on both sides of the debate will have to consider seriously if the search for truth is of any significance to being human.

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Baby Mama or Bride?

Our friend, Matt Marino (of “Cool Church” fame), has written another great post on the church: The Church is Christ’s Bride, Not His Baby Mama. Here’s a preview:

In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with.  In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.

If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?

I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.

I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ –  for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
  • Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
  • Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
  • Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
  • Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
  • Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.

I especially felt the sting of, “Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.” You will find the rest of Matt’s post equally discomforting, but necessary even for Reformation Christians who can be guilty of the same consumerist mindset that plagues our evangelical friends.

Read the rest of Matt’s post here.

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How Far Is Too Far?

I argued in my previous post that while true faith can exist with remarkable ignorance, confusion, and doubt, believers are called to learn everything that our Lord teaches in his Word. “How much is enough?” is basically a cop-out. It assumes that we’re saved by passing a doctrinal exam and we just want to know what will be on the test. That doesn’t exactly make a disciple—which first and foremost means a pupil. The corollary question is “How far is too far?” Yes, faith can coexist with ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright contradiction of the truth?

At this point, we have to be careful about what we put under the category of heresy. Faith is trusting in Christ to save us from condemnation and death by his own life, death and resurrection. That’s why Paul says that these events in history are “of first importance”; they are the gospel (1 Cor 15:3). Deny the resurrection and you are cut off from all hope. Yet in that same chapter Paul goes on to unpack that gospel in its glorious effects: justification, sanctification, and glorification. It is possible for Christians to disagree about crucial definitions of these truths while nevertheless directing their faith to Jesus Christ. Whatever they say in theological debate, if you ask them where their confidence for salvation is lodged, they name Jesus Christ.

I have Roman Catholic and Protestant friends who don’t accept what I am convinced is the clear teaching of the gospel with respect to justification. I think they’re on dangerous ground. Yes, I believe that their salvation is endangered—not because they don’t check the right box on a doctrine exam, but because justification by Christ alone through faith alone is the only consistent way of articulating what it means to trust in Christ. I think the 17th-century Puritan John Owen was correct in his repeated warnings against the threat of Arminianism and Roman Catholic teaching on this point. Yet I also agree when he says, “Men may be really saved by that grace which doctrinally they do deny; and they may be justified by the imputation of that righteousness which in opinion they deny to be imputed” (The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone in Owen’s Works 5:163-64).

Another unimpeachably Reformed source is Herman Witsius (1636-1708). He wisely counsels,

To point out the articles necessary for salvation, and precisely to determine their number, is a task, if not utterly impossible, at least extremely difficult…It does not become us to ascend into the tribunal of God, and to pronounce concerning our neighbor, for how small a defect of knowledge, or for how inconsiderable and error, he must be excluded from heaven. It is much safer to leave that to God. It may not be safe and expedient for us to receive into church-fellowship a person chargeable with some error or sin; whom, however, we should not dare, on account of that error or sin, to exclude from heaven…Our faith consists not in words, but in sense; not in the surface, but in the substance; not in the leaves of a profession, but in the root of reason. All the heretics of the present day, that claim the name of Christians, are willing enough to subscribe the words of the Creed; each however afixing to them whatever sense he pleases, though diametrically opposite to sound doctrine (Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010, 16, 27-29, 31).

True faith is directed to the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. When we call on the name of the Lord for salvation, we are invoking for rescue the Father who has given his Son as our Mediator and his Spirit as our Life-giver. Believers did that in prayer and in baptism even before the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity was defined over against heresies that challenged what the earliest Christians were directed to believe and to do already by Jesus and his apostles. To direct our faith to anyone but this Savior, Jesus Christ, is idolatry. We have the wrong God as the object of our trust. We may still hope that someone who denies the Trinity is saved, but we have no biblical justification to recognize the legitimacy of their public profession of faith. This is rather different from the believer who is confused or is struggling to accept the mystery of “one in essence, three in person.” To recall the illustration above, one may be relying on the lifeguard for rescue and only afterward come to appreciate more fully the peril and the credentials of the rescuer. It is possible to trust in this Savior with the slenderest of knowledge and even with confused or errant beliefs. The problem is that if we do not go on to maturity, our faith more easily will shift eventually from Christ to someone or something else.

Wrong views of God, the person and work of Christ, justification, and the like are so critical that they strike at the very foundation of the faith. If one follows errant views on these points consistently, one would not be looking to Christ for rescue. Happily, many believers are inconsistent and do trust in Christ even though the way they articulate that doesn’t fit with—and undermines—that confidence.

What I have suggested here in relation to Christians applies more broadly to churches. This is why churches of the Reformation have identified the marks of a true church with the true preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.

The Roman Catholic Church officially embraces many crucial truths, but contradicts the gospel at its heart. Condemning the doctrine of justification as taught by the apostles, Rome just as explicitly affirms justification by our meritorious obedience as we cooperate with enabling grace. The merits of Christ are not sufficient for our salvation. This is not an inference, but the clear and consistent teaching of Rome’s magisterium to the present day. Rome is therefore not a true church. And yet I can say with Calvin that “there is still a true church among her.” On one hand, there are remnants of the gospel in the actual preaching, liturgy, and baptism administered in Roman Catholic circles. On the other hand, these remnants are buried or even contradicted by serious errors in doctrine and worship. The same could be said of Protestant churches. There are many such churches where the gospel is not being faithfully preached and the sacraments are not being properly administered. Sure, there may be true believers among them. Yet they are in spiritual danger. Soon they will realize either that their faith in Christ is being challenged and will therefore seek a true church or, like the frog in the kettle, they may remain as their profession of faith is increasingly confused, weakened, and perhaps even abandoned.

Whether we are talking about individuals or churches, we hold simultaneously to charity and discernment. This is clear in 2 Timothy 2. There is indeed a “pattern of sound words,” as Paul mentions earlier in the letter (1:13). How we say things is important. That’s why we have creeds, confessions, and catechisms: to learn the grammar of the faith. Like a trellis, these consensual statements give proper direction to our faith, leading us to Christ. However, we can easily become slaves of words to the point where we listen not for what a brother or sister is actually affirming or denying, but the precise formula. Faithful pastors don’t encourage “quarreling over words,” Paul reminds Timothy (2:14). That was one of the points that Witsius makes above.

Paul adds, “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” (2:15). He warns against specific false teachers. “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (vv 17-19). Timothy is approved and those who follow the gospel (specifically here, the bodily resurrection in the future) are approved as well, while the false teachers are not. They have in fact “swerved from the truth” and are “upsetting the faith of some.” The latter are not to remain under the tutelage of these false teachers, but must “depart from iniquity.” This is an act of discernment. It is foolish to remain in a false church. At the same time, Timothy is called to exercise charity. Even in this case, faithful shepherds recall straying sheep from hirelings in love, “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (vv 25-26).

In short, Paul reminds all of us with Timothy that only the Lord knows his elect. Pastors and elders in council may approve valid professions of faith and guard the ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, but only the Great Shepherd can separate the sheep from the goats on the last day. Until then, our calling is to entrust ourselves to faithful shepherds and to long earnestly and prayerfully for the repentance of those who have strayed from Christ’s Word.

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How Much Do I Need to Know?

“How far is too far?” Growing up in conservative evangelicalism, that question was common in youth group. Of course, we were talking about physical intimacy. When everything’s reducible to making a rule or breaking a rule, it’s important to know when you’ve “crossed the line.” I’m not downplaying the importance of guiding young people through the mysterious era of puberty—and even in suggesting wise guidelines where there is no clear chapter and verse. But when “How far can I go?” is the main question, we’ve already lost too much. It suggests that character has not been formed by life in a particular community—especially home and the church—when people just want you to net it out for them like that. Usually we ask that question when we’re just about to dive in. We just want to know when to push the eject button.

A similar phenomenon happens when people ask, “How much do you need to know to be saved?” It’s like asking, “How ignorant can I be?” At one end, there’s the official Roman Catholic answer: assent to everything the church teaches. It’s called implicit faith because you can’t possibly know for yourself everything that the church teaches. The Geneva reformer John Calvin described this view as ignorance disguised as humility. At the other end, there is that line from evangelist D. L. Moody: “I can write the gospel on a dime.” How much do you need to know? Enough to lead someone to Christ in an elevator.

We recall the question of the rich young ruler. Assuming that he had so far done everything he knew to do, he asked Jesus, “What’s the one thing I have to do to be saved?” Jesus pressed him to face the full brunt of the law, showing him that he had not even begun to fulfill the duty of loving God with total devotion and loving his neighbor as himself. As confessional “Reformation” folks, we get that. However, we are so good at works-righteousness that we merely shift the bar of merit from things we do to things we know.

According to Scripture, the object of our faith is neither our actions or our knowledge, but the person of Jesus Christ. Of course, trusting a person involves knowledge and assent, but we’re saved by Christ, not by doctrines. The purpose of the doctrine is to direct us to the right person and to keep us looking to him until that day when faith yields to sight.

In his Great Commission, Jesus called his disciples to go to the whole world preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching them to observe everything he had delivered. He mentions things in a certain order: faith comes by hearing the preached gospel, converts are baptized along with their children (you knew I had to say that), and then is set for a whole life of learning everything. The “learning everything” part of it is not the condition for salvation, but the wonderful privilege of unpacking the gifts we’ve been given for the rest of our life. Faith is not mere assent to truths, much less blind submission. It’s trust in Christ. To trust in someone, you have to know something about them and have some confidence that they can do what they promise. However, faith is not saving as a virtue in itself, but because it embraces Christ who is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. A weak faith clings to a strong Savior.

Our faith in people rises or falls with the reliability of their word. We lose our faith in a friend who promises something over and over again but never comes through. We stop believing what he or she says. A broken marriage vow cuts the cord of trust. In many cases it can be repaired, but it doesn’t come quickly. Instead of focusing on our faith, we should focus on the Triune God as the promise-maker and promise-fulfiller. Look at the history of God’s promises and his track-record in delivering. That’s what the prophets do when they contrast the reliability of Yahweh with the breathless idols. Look especially to the one in whom all of these promises reach their goal: Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory at the end of the age. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20).

So we can err in either direction.

The first error is to assume that we only need to know the bare minimum that is necessary for salvation. There are too many exhortations in Scripture to go on to maturity, to grow up into Christ through the knowledge of his transforming word, and so forth. Discipleship is first and foremost a humble eagerness to hear every word that comes from the mouth of our Lord. However untaught and even confused we have been, we are called to grow up by instruction and participation in God’s means of grace. How much do we need to know? Everything.

The second error is to assume that we need to know everything correctly in order to be saved. Who among us can claim that without delusional pride? According to the Great Commission, unbelievers hear the gospel, believe, and are baptized. Then they go on to maturity. If it’s unbiblical to require people to yield blind assent (implicit faith) in everything the church teaches, it’s also unscriptural to require them to have explicit knowledge of and assent to everything Scripture teaches. Indeed, there is no expectation in Scripture that one knows explicitly even everything that is important.

Reacting against the first error, many freshly-minted reformers veer toward the second. We call it the “cage phase,” when those who’ve just discovered the doctrines of grace wonder if they were truly believers before—and question the status of everyone else who remains under the pall of ignorance. After all, Arminians believe in free will and deny God’s electing grace. They believe that people can lose their salvation if they don’t cooperate with God’s grace. How could they possibly be true believers? Aren’t they trusting partly in themselves and partly in Christ? Ironically, we end up advocating salvation by works just as surely as our worst fears concerning others. We’ve just shifted the basis from moral to doctrinal correctness. In my own cage phase I wondered if I was even a believer experiencing the “Romans revolution.” Looking back on it now, I can see how God used those early years at home and in church as crucial for developing a love for and basic knowledge of God’s Word through which God led me to the doctrines of grace. With every growth spurt, I marvel at my spiritual immaturity that, at the time, seemed like quite an advance on the previous stage. Shouldn’t that lead me to a little humility about where I am now?

How much did those folks know in order to be converted in Acts 2? God has fulfilled all of his promises to Israel in Jesus Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection. “What must we do to be saved?”, they asked. Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38). A drowning person doesn’t need to know a lot about the rescuer in order to place his or her confidence in that person.

Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” Answer: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are [Rom 3:9-10; 1 Jn 1:10]; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery [Jn 17:3; Ac 4:12; 10:43]; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance [Mat 5:16; Rom 6:13; Eph 5:8-10; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 pet 2:9-10].” Each of these is simple enough to know in order to cling to Christ and yet deep enough to swim in throughout one’s life without touching bottom.

Trusting in a person, based on certain promises this person has made, can coexist with confusion and ignorance. One may trust in the Triune God known in Christ as he is clothed in the gospel without being able to pass a doctrinal exam. At the same time, we go on to maturity, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Savior, because we want to understand the richness, depth, and vastness of our inheritance in Christ. Faith is constantly threatened by doubts, anxieties, and circumstances; it needs to be fed regularly by God’s Word, grounded in his gospel and guided by his law. A knowledge of the gospel that you can write on a dime may direct you to Christ, but it will hardly sustain you during the crises of life. And sooner or later, it will be taken for granted like the alphabet—perhaps even forgotten.

Yes, ignorance and perhaps confusion, but what about outright denial: heresy? I’ll take up that one in the next post.

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