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A Response to John Frame’s The Escondido Theology

I’ve been reluctant to respond to Professor Frame’s The Escondido Theology, published recently by Whitefield Media. Since the book focuses its critique on Westminster Seminary California, where I teach, I’d encourage readers to visit the Seminary website for a brief response from our president, W. Robert Godfrey. It would be of no edifying value to anyone to go into the details of John Frame’s departure from WSC. Suffice it to say that there are two sides to every story and if you’ve read The Escondido Theology, you have only heard one side whose details many of us would dispute. None of this matters in any case for the general good of the church and the Great Commission, so I will not raise it here.

There are a lot of criticisms in the book directed at my writing, so I’ll say a brief word about it. Having read the book recently, my reluctance is due primarily to the fact that I don’t know quite where to begin and to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.

The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. I’m encouraged to hear that various Reformed companies declined to publish the book. It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset. If I held some of the views John attributes to me, I would be alarmed as well. Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment, even to the point of defending Joel Osteen, for example, against my critique (which, again, he caricatures). I hope readers of John’s book will also consult the books that he attacks rather than take his word for it that they say what he claims.

John Frame has consistently defended “evangelical reunion,” even while questioning the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, and downplaying many historic categories of classical Reformed theology. He often scolds those who take creedal and confessional subscription seriously, while even defending people like Joel Osteen with remarkable sympathy.

There’s a history here of being nicer to those outside Reformed circles than within. A while back, John’s critique of David Wells’ scholarly study of evangelicalism and American culture (acclaimed by many outside as well as inside Reformed circles) went in tandem with his odd arguments against Richard Muller, the dean of Reformed scholasticism specialists. (See Richard Muller’s response in Westminster Theological Journal 59 [1997]: 301-310.) I wish I had the good sense of humor expressed by David Wells’ response, “On Being Framed” (in that same issue). John seems to be the least charitable to those who are most convinced of the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and who, despite their long and serious contributions to the evangelical movement, are worried that it has become too captive to modernity.

A number of John’s claims cluster around the charge of being “Lutheran.” Yet he does not represent Lutheranism fairly (lacking serious documentation for sweeping generalizations); nor does he represent my views accurately. So there is only a vague suspicion, with the terrifying prospect that in spite of all of their notable feuds, Luther and Calvin—and their heirs—might nevertheless have been leaders of the same magisterial Reformation. Apparently, my association with Baptists does not raise eyebrows, but Lutheranism is beyond the pale.

This would have been odd even to American Presbyterian and Reformed folks a century ago. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck, would not have understood this development. Of course, they also defended Reformed distinctives over against Lutheran, Baptist, and other positions. Nevertheless, they took it for granted that confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians were natural allies, joined at the hip on major issues.

Just for the record, I am not a Lutheran or a Baptist, as my Lutheran and Baptist friends will attest. Unlike Calvin, Bucer and other Reformed leaders, I have never signed the Augsburg Confession. My confession, without reservation, remains the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. That should be clear enough to anybody who has read my books, including my systematic theology, The Christian Faith.

Doubtless, there are many reasons for the fear of “Lutheranism” among some in our circles. Since the Great Awakening, pietism and revivalism have formed the ties that bind American Protestants. Confessional Lutheran and Reformed immigrants didn’t quite fit and they were often only too happy to remain in relative isolation. Ever since the “Shepherd controversy” (see below), some (like Professor Frame) have sought to distance Reformed theology as much as possible from Luther and Lutheranism, even as they embrace other non-Reformed traditions (from broad evangelicalism in some cases to Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives in others). So “Lutheranism” becomes the bogeyman for a lot of sweeping charges that are not fair to Lutherans, much less to Reformed people who recognize important areas of common agreement.

Let me briefly summarize the rest of my response under the four following points of criticism:

1. Two Kingdoms

First, WSC has no official litmus test on “two kingdoms.” Our president, Robert Godfrey, is a committed Kuyperian and Kuyper’s legacy is seen by many of us here as closer in some respects to a “two kingdoms” view than many neo-Kuyperians assume today. (For example, Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes clearly between what the church is authorized to do as an institution and what Christians are authorized to do in various callings.) None of us has presented the idea as a test of orthodoxy in Reformed circles; on the contrary, some of our friends have turned its denial into a test.

Where Reformed theology sees distinctions without separation, John often seems to press a false choice. If you distinguish our heavenly and temporal citizenship, then he suspects that you separate them, denying the latter. (The same tendency is evident in the law-gospel distinction below: either law and gospel are really the same or you deny the former.)

From the days when I was John’s student, I have heard his defenses of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction). Although he dissented on some points, he seemed to appreciate the movement’s broader emphases. Years ago, the faculties of Westminster Philadelphia and California produced Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990), edited by William Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Richard Gaffin, Jr., defended amillennialism and Will Barker articulated a biblical-Reformed case for political “pluralism.” Put those together and you basically have “two kingdoms.” Other great essays were included by Tim Keller, John Meuther, and terrific historical chapters by Robert Godfrey (on Calvin) and Sinclair Ferguson (on the Westminster Confession). John Frame contributed a chapter trying to unite theonomists and their critics. My point is that a critique of “one kingdom” thinking by the joint faculties of both Westminsters was mainstream in 1990. I’m sure that John didn’t agree with everything in that volume, but to my knowledge he didn’t call his colleagues “Lutheran,” even though it expresses the views that we at WSC still hold today.

Calvin embraced the “two kingdoms” doctrine explicitly—in those terms. Of course, it was the era of “Christendom,” where Luther no less than Calvin expected the civil magistrate to defend the true faith. Nevertheless, at least in theory, he made precisely the same arguments as Luther. I wonder if those sympathetic to theonomy or making America a “Christian nation” are really serious. Do they really want the White House or the legislative or judicial branches to enforce the first table of the law? Will orthodox Protestants be the only ones allowed to rule, or will a few Roman Catholics, Jews, and perhaps a conservative mainliner or two pass the Senate confirmation hearings? This is not to say that God’s moral law is no longer in force, that it no longer expresses God’s eternal measure of righteousness. Rather, it is to recognize that the New Testament teaches us to live as “strangers and aliens” in this present age, loving and serving our neighbors through our callings, witnessing God’s Word to them, and contributing toward the common good of a city that is important but never ultimate.

Although John’s book claims that this idea of “two kingdoms” is an extreme view, he explicitly states that he isn’t interested in engaging with David Van Drunen or others who have explored the history of Reformed interpretation in detail. So he turns to an exegetical critique that turns out to be thin on exegesis. Only by reducing the view to a caricature is he able to refute a straw position.

With Luther, Calvin, and, yes, Kuyper, a proper Reformed view of Christ and culture affirms God’s lordship over all spheres of life, while nevertheless distinguishing between the way Christ rules his church by his Word and Spirit from the way he rules in providence and common grace. Why did Luther call them “the kingdom of the left hand” and “the kingdom of the right hand”? Because they were both God’s hands! It affirms that special revelation clarifies general revelation, the latter of which we by nature suppress in unrighteousness (although, as Van Til pointed out, sinners can’t suppress everything at the same time). The church proclaims God’s Word, both the law and the gospel, to the world. Where it speaks, we speak. Neither I nor my colleagues teach anything remotely suggestive of the idea that the Bible has no bearing on the convictions and actions of Christians in the public square.

Let me offer an example. I hold a pro-life stance as a Christian, on the basis of the biblical truths of creation, fall, redemption, and the consummation—as well as explicit commands for extending love to neighbors. I make those convictions explicit even in talking to non-Christians. However, because they are made in God’s image and cannot suppress everything at the same time, and the Spirit is also at work restraining evil in common grace, I can appeal to what I know they know even as they suppress its logical conclusions. As Calvin reminds us, “The moral law is nothing other than the natural law that is written on the conscience of all.” Of all people, Christians should not remain passive in the face of slavery, abortion, racism, exploitation, injustice, and failures to be stewards of God’s good creation. However, they can work alongside non-Christians in these callings without having the church bind their consciences about specific policies or agendas that are not authorized by God’s Word.

In content, this natural law is a revelation of God’s righteousness, justice, power, and moral will—distinct from the revelation of his saving will (the gospel) in Jesus Christ. Here, as in many cases throughout John’s critique, crucial distinctions are often blurred and then if you deny this synthesis you are accused of not holding to both.

2. Law and Gospel

At first, John seems to affirm the distinction. He even concedes that Calvin and Reformed writers affirmed it as well as Luther and Lutheranism. What he’s against is a “radical law-gospel antithesis.” Yet once again, his own alternative is a blurring of the distinction altogether. The gospel includes commands and the law includes gracious promises, he argues. So it’s not clear to me whether he affirms the distinction or denies it, but the latter seems to be the last word. If he were to say that the covenant of grace includes commands (or that there are commands to repent and believe the gospel), who could argue? But these commands to repent and believe (and obey) are not the gospel; they are the proper response to it. Or, if he were to say that the gospel was promised to the old covenant saints through types and shadows, again, who could take issue? Yet to say that the gospel itself is law and the law itself is gospel is not to hold them together; it’s to make them one and the same thing.

In the 1970s, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was racked by a controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd’s denial of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. The law and the gospel were confused. Well did Calvin’s sidekick Theodore Beza remark that “This confusion over law and gospel has been and remains the greatest source of corruption and abuses in the church.” Eventually, Professor Shepherd resigned and left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Two decades later, the theonomy debate stirred the pot. And more recently, the “Federal Vision” movement arose in our circles, largely out of these two tributaries.

In each of these challenges to the Reformed confession, John’s sympathies have been explicit. While demurring on some points, he has defended and endorsed these movements’ writings even as both “Westminsters” and all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have ruled them beyond the bounds of the confession. The two forewords to The Escondido Theology are written by noted theonomists. One vigorous endorsement of The Escondido Theology comes from a theonomist and Federal Visionist who denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is this neonomian paradigm that conflicts with the Reformed confession. Reformed critics, however, are dismissed as “Lutherans” or “Machen’s warrior children.”

This is ironic. Sadly, I’m not surprised that he appreciates their blurring of the distinction of law and gospel or of justification and sanctification. What does surprise me is that someone who is so adamant against anything that smacks of similarity to a “Lutheran” scheme is so sympathetic to a movement that embraces baptismal regeneration and the possibility of losing one’s justification/regeneration.

In both his exegesis and passing historical remarks, John refutes a position that nobody (at least nobody at WSC) holds and then jettisons a distinction that Reformed as well as Lutheran theology regards as fundamental and crucial. He shows little interest in wrestling with the historical debates, because he embraces “something close to biblicism.” In other words, his exegesis of Scripture trumps everyone else’s; what he believes is “biblical” is therefore “Reformed,” even if it goes against the consensus of Reformed interpretation.

3. Application of God’s Word to All of Life

Related to the previous points, John misrepresents me (and my colleagues) as teaching that we should not apply God’s Word to all areas of life.

First, given the fact that John has been critical of the traditional Reformed application of God’s Word to worship in the “regulative principle,” this is an odd charge. Not even the regular preaching of the Word is an essential element in the public service, John argues in this book (and elsewhere). It would surely be odd if one thought the Bible sufficient for politics, but not for the worship and government of the church.

Second, according to John, I relegate God’s Word to the private life of individuals or the corporate life of the church, having nothing to do with the believer’s stewardship and vocations in the world. I don’t know how anyone could conclude this from anything I have written. In fact, I’ve written books on the role of the law in the Christian life (The Law of Perfect Freedom), the importance of a world-embracing vision of Christian vocation in all spheres (Where in the World is the Church?), and the importance of engaging in culture with godly discernment (Beyond Culture Wars). John even alleges that we don’t talk enough about the Great Commission, when it forms the backbone of much of our curriculum. By the way, I wrote a book on the Great Commission, which also clearly advocates Christian involvement in the world and application of God’s Word to all areas of life.

One point where John is especially egregious in his misrepresentations of my view concerns the third use of the law. At the outset, this would hardly be a “Lutheran” move, since Melanchthon first coined the “third use” and it was included in the Book of Concord in the section against the antinomians. Furthermore, in many places I’ve argued that Calvin and other Reformed writers more carefully nuanced the position and emphasized the third use (including the importance of a disciplined life and church). There are important differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, those differences pale in comparison with the denial of the important distinctions that both traditions affirm together and writers like John Frame either deny or confuse.

4. Translation

In several places John is irritated by my suggestion that we have bent over backwards “translating” the gospel in terms not only that people can understand but that they can accept. It’s not a question of making it communicable, but palatable. Another distinction he doesn’t seem to recognize in my argument. Of course, I affirm translating the Bible into vernacular languages (where would the contrary assumption be gleaned from anything I’ve said)? Of course, I believe that we need to communicate clearly and effectively, drawing analogies from everyday life in our own day. Of all the reviews I’ve seen, only John’s interprets me as suggesting that we should just read the words of the Bible and not try to explain it to people.

What I point to explicitly is something like Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” where you ask the world to define the questions and then go to the Bible for the answers. The wrong assumption here is that we already know what we need before God tells us. In opposing this tendency to accommodate God’s radical Word to the fallen mind and heart, I am simply defending what Kuyper and Van Til referred to as the “antithesis” between godly and ungodly thinking. It’s surprising that a distinguished disciple of Cornelius Van Til would take issue with that argument. (He also takes issue with my advocacy of the archetypal-ectypal distinction—and the analogical view of human knowledge—evidently siding more with Gordon Clark over Van Til in that important debate.)


Speaking for myself, I have endeavored to explore the riches that I have discovered personally in the catholic, evangelical and Reformed heritage. I owe much of my deepest convictions to professors I had at Westminster California, including Edmund Clowney (who helped me understand, among many other things, “two kingdoms” thinking without calling it that), Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, and others.

In spite of the seriousness with which I take my calling as a minister, I don’t doubt my capacity for error and the need to be open to critique. Reviews are great ways of taking on board important critiques that lead to further reflection and correction. However, as I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair. It’s one thing to say that you believe a certain view should lead logically to such-and-such a conclusion; it’s quite another to misrepresent someone’s view as actually advocating a position that he or she in fact rejects.

All that I ask is that those who disagree with my arguments in fact disagree with my arguments, not with John Frame’s description of them. Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California. Like all of my colleagues, I’m trying to participate in a long conversation that is both appreciative and self-critical of our tradition’s interpretation and application of God’s Word so that the church can be more faithful in this generation. It is a work in progress, and our differences among ourselves as a faculty are treated as the grist for the mill of constant dialogue and mutual correction.

Unlike the days when I was a student, there are no factions on the faculty or among the student body. There is a wonderful spirit of mutual trust, spirited discussion—even debate, and, above all, a common conviction that it’s not about us or any party that we might form around ourselves. We’re collaborating in preparing pastors, missionaries, and teachers to bring all of God’s Word to all of the world in all of the ways that our Lord mandates in his Great Commission. We do need to have healthy debate and discussion in our circles of these important issues. We all tend to emphasize the points that we think are being obscured or over-emphasized by others. However, the level of the conversation in conservative Reformed circles has to improve. Otherwise, our internecine squabbles and confusion will thwart the great promise of a tradition that has always sought, at least at its best, to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”

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What is the Church’s Mission?

In recent days, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have taken a fair number of hits for their arguments in What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011). (See one review here) The main worry is that they define the mission too narrowly, focusing on the Great Commission. At least on the more vehement side of the opposition, the concern is that there is no place for the church to have an impact on culture, particularly in social and economic terms.

Having received some similar objections to my argument in The Gospel Commission (Baker, 2011), I think that many criticisms rest on basic confusion of categories. There are several examples that could be mentioned, but I’ll stick with this one: the confusion of the church as a divine institution (place) with the church as Christians (people).

Gathered to Receive and Scattered to Serve

We are made Christians—from the beginning to the end of our discipleship—through the ministry that Christ ordained: preaching and teaching, baptism, the Supper, and the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Growing up into Christ together, we are living stones in a global sanctuary. Our heavenly citizenship shapes the way we live out our earthly citizenship. Like salt that loses its savor, we are always on the verge of being reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream without contributing any distinctive flavor or preservative characteristics. So we come to church each week to be “re-salinated,” bathed again in the minerals of God’s Word, swept by the Spirit into the unfolding story of Christ’s kingdom. We exchange gifts among the saints and then get shaken out into the world for our various callings throughout the week. The church’s job is not to raise children, fix neighborhoods, manage relationships, and heal society. Rather, the church is commissioned to make disciples of Christ by preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching them to observe everything he commanded. All of the other things—being good neighbors—can be done by the members, and not only with other Christians but with their non-Christian neighbors who also care about the needs of their community.

Historically, evangelicals have an almost Gnostic (hyper-spiritualized) view of the church. It is simply the sum total of born again individuals. There is often little conception of the church as a divine institution with ordained offices and a holy ministry of preaching and sacrament. Accordingly, the church is seen not chiefly as a community of sinners receiving God’s judgment and grace, but as a group of activists fulfilling Jesus’ redeeming work and building his kingdom. “Getting saved” and “joining a church” or “believing” and “belonging” are considered two separate issues. Some zealous world-changers who have left their pastoral ministry to become humanitarian activists even celebrate their freedom from the church to become truly “missional.” No longer members of a church, they are followers of Jesus. This older pietist bifurcation between personal salvation and the church has widened with each generation to the point now where the Great Commission itself can be described implicitly as narrow and confining.

The confusion of the church as a divine institution with the church as the people of God leads to statements today like, “We can’t go to church, because we are the church!” But this is a false choice—as bad as the nominal “Sunday Christianity” that treats formal membership in the church as fire insurance. The truth is, if we don’t go to church, we can’t be the church. We need to be made Christians or we cannot be Christians. Before we can be active doers of the Word, we have to be grateful receivers. Something must be done for and to us before we have something to do and give to others. Each Lord’s Day, the Risen Lord loads us down with his gifts and then we distribute them to our brothers and sisters—as well as outsiders according to the proportion we have been given.

The callings of Christians are myriad: as children, parents, co-workers, employers and employees, citizens, volunteers, friends, and neighbors. Some of us are called to be missionaries or to live and work in other vocations where we are loving and serving people in other countries. However, we don’t have to visit a church bulletin board or parachurch website to find some faraway neighbors who need us; they are right under our nose. They are our spiritual mothers and fathers in nursing homes, brothers and sisters suffering from illnesses. It could be someone simply going through the stress of everyday life, child care and a lay-off at work and is perhaps one relative, friend, or fellow believer away from not being able to manage it all. We want to do something important—extraordinary—with our lives, but God calls most of us, most of the time, to do a lot of relatively important but ordinary tasks that our real neighbors actually need. The church prepares us to be better citizens of earth because its sacred ministry makes us first and foremost citizens of heaven.

If we can distinguish between the church as organization (place) and the church as organism (people), rather than setting them in opposition, then we can avoid the dangers both of ecclesial mission creep and of ignoring our worldly callings.

Schools cannot usurp the role of families, but children learn many important things outside of the home. The responsibility and authority for national defense are not entrusted to the family, but the military has no say in our home life. Fire departments have a narrowly defined mandate. No one expects them to offer plans for managing Italy’s debt crisis. We do not raise a hue and cry when they do not provide long-term health care. Nevertheless, fire-fighters vote, some even participating in neighborhood, state, or national political parties and coalitions; serve on the school board, and volunteer for all sorts of community services, as well as church activities and offices

Many callings intersect in the life of every believer; the mandate given to Christians is far wider than that given to the church as an institution. The New Testament provides directives for believers in their marriages and parenting; a few commands concerning relationships with employers and employees as well as rulers. However, it also assumes that families still do the lion’s share of raising children; we still owe taxes to our governments to provide for common society, and non-Christians as well as believers owe each other justice, backed up by courts and law-enforcement.

Much of what I’m arguing for here is found in Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” where Christians participate in many different callings and none of these callings or spheres can claim sovereignty over all the others. Even if Christians formed the majority in a society, the church would never have authority to wield the temporal sword—whether in the milder form of policy legislation or by actually taking up arms for its causes. Christians work alongside non-Christians in all of these spheres of common grace, bringing the depth and breadth of their biblically-informed wisdom to bear on these varied decisions and actions.

Christians are not free to ignore the plight of their neighbors. As our catechisms point out, we violate the Sixth Commandment not only when we actually take someone’s life (a sin of commission) but when we fail to do what we could do to preserve their life (a sin of omission). Shaped by the biblical story, some disciples will be called to devote time, talents, and treasure to neighbors who are being kidnapped in Thailand and sold in sex trafficking in San Diego. Others will be called to care for a child with cerebral palsy. Many other, less auspicious crosses, will be borne by believers that are nevertheless part of a vast safety net that the Triune God weaves in his common grace for the care of his creatures. But if the church is distracted from fulfilling its calling, then even these temporal benefits of Christ’s kingdom will diminish. The salt will lose its savor.

The church is both a place where Christians are made over a whole lifetime and a people who are then “salt and light” in the world.

Mercy Ministry

One concrete example of this principle is the office of deacon. I spent a whole chapter on this in The Gospel Commission. I did so for two reasons. First, in spite of all the talk of mercy ministries, this office is often under-appreciated today. Second, the call to love and serve our neighbors (the Great Commandment) is often simply confused with the call to make disciples (the Great Commission). Of course, we do both out of love, but with different mandates, methods, and goals.

Although I’ve read Paul’s Epistles closely for a long time, only over the last few years has it really hit me how obsessed the Apostle was with an offering for the Jerusalem saints. We know that the diaconate was established when the Greeks and Jews were squabbling over the daily provisions.

And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6 1-4).

Stephen and several others were chosen. “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (v 6). The result? “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Ac 6:7).

Already we learn two imporant things about this ministry of mercy. First, it is important. The ministry of the Word was clearly paramount, but instead of neglecting, much less setting aside the bodily welfare of the saints, the apostles established a separate office for it. Both jobs needed to be done well. Second, it is an office in the church. Exercising the direct authority of Christ himself, the apostles instituted an office that highlighted Christ’s redemptive love for the whole person. The church is not called merely to save souls, but to care for people in the totality of their earthly needs.

Paul also spelled out to Timothy the qualifications of deacons as well as elders. Pastors and elders are “overseers,” while deacons are “servants.” Pastors preach, teach, and administer the sacraments; elders rule; and deacons serve: thus mediating Christ’s threefold office of prophet, king, and priest.

And now Paul mentions this diaconal ministry in the latter part of several letters. We know that Paul was obsessed with the gospel—and with getting it to the Gentiles, which is why he was so ambitious to make it all the way to Rome before he died. Yet he was also burdened with a major relief project.

Paul mentions this in 1 Corinthians. A disciplinary letter written to an immature church that in many ways mirrored the individualism, social stratifications, and worldliness of its urbane culture, 1 Corinthians 16 explains,

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me (16:1-4).

At first, it may seem like a passing remark in the signing-off section of Paul’s epistles. But it is actually more than that.

First, the collection was occasioned by a desperate need. Political agitation by various groups of Jewish zealots had led to another Roman crackdown and this included what amounted to a blockade of basic necessities to Jerusalem. Many died of starvation. It was during this time (the mid-40s) that James wrote his epistle, addressing the social conflict in the Jerusalem church between the rich and the poor and calling believers to be doers and not merely hearers of the word.

Second, the collection was especially formal. It wasn’t just another collection taken “on the first day of the week,” as Christians have been taking collections in the public service ever since. Paul assumes some general familiarity with this project: “Now concerning the collection for the saints,” which he has only mentioned here for the first time in this letter.

Third, the collection was catholic (universal). It was not merely the initiative of one local congregation: “…as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do…” It is an apostolic injunction to be received and obeyed by all of the churches.

Fourth, although all churches are to participate, each collection was local, to be taken up each Lord’s Day in every church. No last-minute fund drive when Paul comes! The believers in Corinth are called to make this collection part of their weekly worship service. Thus, it isn’t a top-down enterprise, but a movement of charity from all local assemblies to another local assembly. This expresses genuine catholicity. Although the injunction is apostolic, the administration is to be determined by each church’s officers (most likely, the deacons). “And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” Paul respects the integrity of this local church and its officers. As an apostle, he will send the officers (most likely, deacons) with the gift to Jerusalem, but he will send “those whom you accredit by letter.” He even adds, “If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” Paul really wanted to be there for the giving of the grand collection, but he cedes that personal right to the officers of that church.

Paul refers to this collection also in Romans 15.

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (vv 14-15).

Yet Paul connects his “priestly ministry of the gospel” in offering up of the Gentiles as a sacrifice of praise to his campaign for relief of the Jerusalem saints:

This is the reason why I have often been hindered from coming to you….At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessings of Christ (vv 22-29).

Paul concludes by asking for prayer “that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (vv 31-33).

Why is this collection so central to Paul’s apostolic mission? In Romans, it is a concrete expression of the goal of Paul’s entire ministry. “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Great Commission goes out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria to the uttermost ends of the earth. So it is only proper that the spiritual gift that goes out to the Gentiles comes back to the Jewish saints in material blessing. Central to Paul’s gospel is that in Christ the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been removed. And now the collection expresses that truth. The drama leads to doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. “Put your money where your mouth is,” as they say. Paul seems to imply in Romans 15:14-15 that the Roman Christians, though “filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another,” needed a strong admonition to care for the saints.

And this was probably as much of a test of discipleship for the Jewish believers as it was for the Gentiles. Even more than today, accepting charity in the ancient world was an embarrassment, but Jews had been especially careful to avoid the charity of their Roman occupiers. There would have been members of the Jerusalem church who were demanding that Gentile converts adopt Jewish circumcision and dietary laws. Then in walks Paul, the former persecutor of that very Jerusalem church now an apostle to the Gentiles, flanked by representatives (probably deacons) from far-flung Gentile churches, carrying a treasure to lay at the feet of suffering brothers and sisters. Nothing drives home the gospel more and challenges spiritual arrogance than being destitute—even physically—and depending on the kindness of “foreigners.” Yet in this very act, the Jewish believers were bound more deeply to their Gentile co-heirs than they were to their Jewish neighbors. They were no longer strangers and aliens.

So how did the Corinthians do when Paul finally came around for this collection? We find out in his second letter to the church (2 Cor 8:1-9:15). Paul provokes the Corinthians to jealousy by recounting the generosity of the Macedonian churches in spite of their poverty: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” They even “begged us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” “Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace.”

So Paul clearly saw this collection as connected to the gospel itself. It is not the gospel, but the reasonable response to it. They must stop thinking of this collection as a tax—”an exaction,” but “as a willing gift” (v 5). The Corinthians had excelled in knowledge, now it’s time for them to excel in generosity (vv 7-8). “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you b his poverty might become rich” (v 9). He reminds them that they started this project of collecting funds in Corinth a year ago and he urges them now to finally complete it. Just as we build up each other through the diversity of our spiritual gifts, so also through the diversity of our material means. The poor need the rich and the rich also need the abundance of gifts that the poorer members bring to the body (vv 12-15).

At a time when more Christians are martyred in an average year than all of the martyrdoms under the Roman emperors, is diaconal ministry as crucial a concern in our churches as it should be? At least in Reformed and Presbyterian polity, every member is a part of the local church and every local church is a microcosm of the broader (catholic) church. We’re connected, not hierarchically, but covenantally, in a network of shared, representative, ministerial authority. Pastors and elders represent this catholicity in the local church and in broader assemblies. Why shouldn’t deacons as well, as Paul’s example clearly shows? Deacons are not elders-in-waiting; it’s a different but equal office, with its own rationale and gifting. Local churches have plenty of opportunities to look after the daily welfare of the saints under their care; how much more could be done, expressing the catholicity of Christ’s body, if the diaconates of various denominations were linked together in a network of relief to the body of Christ throughout the world? When one part suffers, the whole body should feel the pain.

Even if we could get agreement from everyone on the importance of diaconal ministry for the saints, the larger question concerns the scope of mercy ministry. Let me cut to the chase and then defend briefly my conclusion. In my reading, Scripture gives ample authorization for the church in its official mandate to care for the temporal welfare of the saints. However, it does not sanction as part of the church’s official mission the extension of this welfare to the world at large. Again, recall my main point: the church is not called to do everything that God calls Christians to do in the world. This is not a question of whether Christians (and non-Christians) are commanded by God to seek justice for their neighbors. The Great Commandment—love of God and neighbor—remains in force. Written on the conscience in creation, it is the standard by which God will judge the world on the last day. However, civil government was introduced to legislate and enforce this law of neighborly justice. The church is the creation of the Word, specifically the Gospel. It gives rise to a community of the age to come within the crumbling order of this present evil age. We are obligated to both mandates, as citizens of both kingdoms.

We are familiar with the ways in which liberal Protestantism has turned the radical message of the new covenant into a blandly sentimental ethic of universal brotherhood. Yet we are in danger of seeing that happen in evangelical circles today as well. Again, the problem is not that Christians are too concerned about justice and the good of their neighbors! The problem comes when we reinterpret the story of Jesus and his body as an allegory for the march of human progress.

The astonishing thing about the apostolic community was not that it tried aggressively to transform the world, but that, for all of its faults and failures, it was a recipient of God’s gracious invasion. The early Christians attempted no transformation of Jewish or Roman society, but they refused to allow the presuppositions, methods, standards, and goals of society to have any ultimate claim on their identity as Christ’s body. This strange new society emerged out of their weekly reorientation around Christ, through the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the Supper, and the prayers (Ac 2:43). Although they gave freely, not out of forced redistribution, believers shared all things in common and gave as anyone had need (vv 44-45).

Mercy Ministry Beyond the Church?

What do we say, then, about the passages that are offered to support a wider mission of mercy?

Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). There is nothing in the context to suggest that it is deacons who are being addressed. This is a general call for believers to extend help to everyone, and especially to fellow church members. Hebrews 13:16 exhorts, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares…Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:1-2, 16). Entertaining angels unawares is probably a reference to Abram’s unwitting hospitality to strangers who were actually angels sent to save him and his family from the destruction of Sodom. In any case, the reference to strangers here, like the prisoners mentioned in verse 3, is most likely to believers who were showing up on doorsteps of fellow-saints seeking a hiding place from the authorities.

This context of Hebrews is important for all of these relevant passages. Jesus had already prepared his disciples for this scenario. For example, in Matthew 24-25, Jesus speaks of what will happen in between his ascension and return in glory. There will be persecution. Believers in Christ will be cast out of the synagogues, their own relatives will hand them over to the authorities, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, until the gospel is preached to every nation. And then Jesus speaks of the last judgment when he separates the sheep from the goats:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Mat 25:34-36).

What is especially striking is that the righteous answer, “‘Lord, when did you see you hungry and feed you and thirsty and give you drink?’…And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me'” (vv 37-40, emphasis added). Meanwhile, the reverse happens in the case of the goats: Jesus indicts them for turning their back on the saints—and therefore, on him, while they protest the charge and defend their righteousness (vv 41-45). Do you see the main point, though? Jesus is saying that any solidarity expressed with these persecuted brothers and sisters—even to the point of putting one’s own life in jeopardy—is solidarity with Jesus himself. Ecclesiology, not social justice, is what such passages are all about.

The bond between the Head and his body is so inextricable that when the ascended Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus road, he asked, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting‘” (Ac 9:4-5). Paul would never forget—and only grow in his understanding—of the significance of this bond of union between Christ and his church. Sometimes, in the laudable zeal for reaching out to those outside the church, we ignore or take for granted the priority of Christ’s own body.

Neither does the Sermon on the Mount pertain to the world at large any more than do the Beatitudes that introduce it. Again, the context is persecution and the radically new stance of Christ’s kingdom vis-à-vis the ungodly forces of this age. Instead of driving out the Canaanites in holy war, we pray for our persecutors. When they demand our suit, we give them our shirt, too.

Our dual citizenship issues in a dual mandate: the Great Commandment (to love our neighbors by our common service in our worldly callings) and the Great Commission (to love our neighbors by our holy service in witness to the gospel and participating in the holy commonwealth of the saints). As neighbor-loving Christians, we may give generously to support agencies for the general relief of those in need, volunteer at soup kitchens, or care for an unbelieving parent in his or her old age. However, as co-heirs with Christ, we give joyfully to the support of our brothers and sisters because with them we share equally all that God has given us in his Son. These two mandates intersect in the life of every believer, as Paul tells the Thessalonians:

Now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thes 4:9-12).

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Are You a Soterian?

Reflections on The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2011)

Many of us were raised in churches where the presentation of the gospel meant explaining how you “get saved.” “If you were to die tonight, and Jesus asked, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you answer?” If you shared the gospel, that meant that you told someone that they were sinful and separated from God, but that God sent his Son to die for our sins and by accepting him as Lord and Savior they could know that they would go to heaven when they die. The goal was to get as many people as possible to make a decision. That’s what it meant to present the gospel. That’s why D. L. Moody said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” More recently, a noted evangelist said, “The only theology you need is whatever you can say to an unbeliever in an elevator.” In my youth I passed out a tract to non-Christians that offered the Plan of Salvation. The last page had a contract that the reader could sign with Jesus, guaranteeing salvation to the signatory.

Like many other Christians, Reformed people typically wince at this approach. We do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons coincide with Scot McKnight’s concerns. However, I wonder if he quite gets us to where we need to be. So let me begin by summarizing his arguments.

What is the gospel? According to The King Jesus Gospel, it is the announcement that Jesus Christ, Messiah and Lord, is the resolution to the Story of Israel. Unpacking that is the burden of these 150 pages.

First the author sketches a portrait of what he’s trying to correct. “Evangelism that focuses on decision short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (18). Basically, the truncated gospel creates a “salvation culture,” not a “gospel culture.” More than “evangelicals” in the purest etymological sense, purveyors of the first are “soterians” or “salvationists” who think that the gospel is what you find in the average evangelistic tract. However, a “gospel culture” arises when believers are immersed in the Story of Jesus, which itself is embedded in the Story of the Bible/Israel. The “soterians” don’t even need the Old Testament for their gospel, as illustrated in the honest question the author received by email: “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?'” (24). Evangelicals are good at moving people from “The Members” (in liturgical traditions) to “The Decided.” That’s important. Yet both belong to a “salvation culture,” where the chief question is how one is saved. Only a “Gospel culture” moves all the way to “The Discipled” (30).

So who are these “soterians”? Are they like Rotarians? Or perhaps aliens from a strange galaxy? At first it seems that he has in mind the typical high-pressure presentations that puts the “restless” back in “Reformed.” However, it turns out that he also has in mind the “New Calvinist” movement. “The Calvinist crowd in the USA—and Piper is the leading influencer in the resurgence of Calvinist thinking among evangelicals—has defined the gospel in the short formula, ‘justification by faith'” (25). Ample space is also taken up with a critique of Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? “…the gospel of Jesus wants more from us than a singular decision to get the sins wiped away so we can be safe and secure until heaven comes” (18).

Chapter Three, “Story to Salvation,” builds an intriguing model. Like three levels of a pyramid, the Story of Israel/Story of Bible is the ground floor. From this emerges the Story of Jesus, then the Plan of Salvation, leading finally to the Method of Persuasion. So we have to start with the Story of Israel/Bible. This isn’t yet the gospel specifically. However, within that broader narrative is the Story of Jesus. This is the gospel. That’s why we don’t really have four gospels in the New Testament, but one gospel from four different evangelists. Evidently, they thought that they were proclaiming the gospel and there’s a lot more there than “Jesus died for your sins.” But “Jesus died for your sins” is obviously there. It’s just that this isn’t the gospel. The main point of the New Testament is that Jesus is because “the Jesus Story completes the Israel Story, it saves” (37). Typical evangelistic approaches turn the pyramid upside down: the Method of Persuasion is the ground of everything: getting people to make a decision. How? By presenting the Plan of Salvation (like the Four Spiritual Laws). If it’s anywhere, the actual Story of Jesus (i.e., the gospel) is in the background and even that has usually left the Story of Israel in the deep-dark past.

Basically, the gospel is this: “What Adam was to do in the Garden—that is, to govern this world redemptively on God’s behalf—is the mission God gives to Israel. Like Adam, Israel failed, and so did its kings. God sent his Son to do what Adam and Israel and the kings did not (and evidently could not) do and to rescue everyone from their sins and systemic evil and Satan (the adversary). Hence, the Son is the one who rules as Messiah and Lord” (35). It also includes the consummation (36). (He offers a rich, extended summary on 148-153). Although the gospel itself is the Story of Jesus, without the Story of Israel there is no gospel and “if we ignore that story, the gospel gets distorted, and that is just what has happened in salvation cultures” (36). The “Plan of Salvation” is rooted in the gospel, but it isn’t the gospel.

To put it in terms of Reformed interpretation, McKnight is wrestling here with the relationship of the ordo salutis (salvation applied to individuals here and now) to the historia salutis (the history of redemption). Properly, he wants to ground the former in the latter, not vice versa. The “Plan of Salvation” leads to justification, but not to the whole life of discipleship; for that you need the whole gospel (40). “The Plan of Salvation and the Method of Persuasion have been given so much weight they are crushing and have crushed the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus. This has massive implications for the gospel itself” (43). “Nothing proves this more than the near total ignorance of many Christians today of the Old Testament Story. One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!” (44).

Turning in chapter 4 to Paul’s gospel message, the author focuses on the apostle’s “classic summary” in 1 Corinthians 15, which he said he received from apostolic gospel tradition. The gospel is the Jesus Story (Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and post-resurrection appearance), grounded in the Story of Israel (“…according to the scriptures”). “Instead of our ‘four spiritual laws,’ which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four ‘events’ or ‘chapters’ ” (49). “To put this together: the gospel is to announce good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ. The gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God” (50). Of course, Paul’s gospel unpacks thee implications. “Salvation flows from the gospel.” He died “for our sins” (51). “Jesus died with us (identification), instead of us (representation and substitution), and for us (incorporation into the life of God)” (51). It’s not just the cross, but the burial and resurrection, that receive equal attention (54). (I would add, his ascension and return!) The goal of it all in 1 Cor 15 is that finally, in union with Christ, “humans will be doing exactly what God intended for his creation. God will be God and we will be God’s people—and the whole Story will be about God” (56-57).

So where did things go wrong? “How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?”, asks chapter 5. Like the authors of his two forewords (N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard), the Reformation is for McKnight the turning point from the glory days of a “gospel culture” to a “salvation culture.” The early era of the creeds were extrapolations of 1 Corinthians 15. “In fact, denial of the creeds is tantamount to denying the gospel itself because what the creeds seek to do is bring out what is already in the Bible’s gospel” (65). From Paul to Nicea we see a gospel culture. He acknowledges that it wasn’t all blue skies: Constantine, the crusades, etc.. But it was a gospel culture (70). Augustine got the ball rolling, but the Reformation began to shift the focus from the Jesus Story to salvation (McKnight focuses on the Augsburg and Geneva confessions) (70-73). “When I read today’s thin and superficial reductions of the gospel to simple points, I know that that could never have happened apart from the Reformation” (71). Not that the Reformers would have done this. “In fact, no one can read either Luther or Calvin and not observe that they operated with both a profound gospel culture and a profound salvation culture. I have no desire to blame them or the Reformation for the soterians or a ‘salvation culture.'” But the seeds were there for a shift “from the story to soteriology” (73). All that was left was the experiential focus of Wesley and the conversionistic impulse that is also a strength of evangelicalism (74-75). “From the enhancement of a gospel culture with a profound emphasis on salvation we have now arrived at the ability for a person to be able to say he or she has had the right experience” (75). (It’s interesting that he draws in this context on Dallas Willard, who hardly focuses on the Story over personal experience!)

After discussing “the Gospel in the Gospels” (ch. 6), McKnight focuses on the gospel according to Jesus (ch. 7). Much of this I recall from an insightful article he wrote for Christianity Today exploring the tendency to pit Jesus (and the kingdom) against Paul (and salvation). Taking a step back from myopic debates that distort the message of both figures, McKnight thinks that the gospel as the Story of Jesus brings them together in a harmonious whole. “Evangelism, what is it? To ‘evangelize’ or to ‘gospel’ is to tell the Story of Jesus as a saving story that completes Israel’s Story” (112). This encompasses the kingdom and personal salvation.

Chapter 9 explores “Gospeling Today,” which is usually different from how it was done in Acts. “The difference can be narrowed to this single point: the gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior. We are not creating a false alternative here. The latter can be done within the former, but much of the soterian approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and doges Jesus as Messiah and Lord…the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion” (133-134).”

However, if we read the Story of Jesus in the light of the Story of Israel, we can see that Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to satisfy her most pressing need for a King and a Lord. “Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means that there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord. The pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’s day was for the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land” (137).

Finally, the author fleshes out what this gospel drama—the Jesus Story—means for discipleship, how it creates a “Gospel culture.” First, we must become People of the Story (153-154). Start with the beginning of the book and find yourself in the Story of Israel as it winds its way to the Story of Jesus. Following the church calendar helps with this. Second, we also need to become People of the Church’s Story. “Make a decision to know our story from Adam to the newest baptized Christian in your church” (156). Read the creeds and confessions (156). All of this will help believers to develop counter stories to individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, New Age, postmodern tribalism, salvation by therapy (157). Third, embrace the Story. The author attaches an especially useful appendix with summary statements in the New Testament defining “the Gospel.” A second appendix, taken from Justin Martyr’s First Apology, makes less sense. In that classic citation, the early church father explains what happened in early Christian worship, focusing on preaching, prayer and sacrament.

Evaluating The Arguments

There are many things to admire about The King Jesus Gospel. While affirming evangelicalism’s zeal in moving people from members to deciders, “the gospel” has been reduced to “personal salvation” and the result is that all of our strategies are bent on getting “decisions” (26). Reformed folks share the same concern. Christ is both Savior and Lord: you can’t embrace one without the other. And we don’t make him Savior and Lord; he is Savior and Lord whether we embrace him or not. The goal of evangelism in our churches is to make disciples, not just converts. That’s why we don’t focus on a striking conversion experience, but on Christ, and emphasize the Christian life as a constant living out of our baptism, in the communion of saints. Lifelong discipleship is not an individualistic affair, but a team sport.

Furthermore, we emphasize that the ordo salutis (application of redemption)—what the author calls “the Plan of Salvation”—arises out of the history of redemption (historia salutis)—the Story of Jesus, which emerges in the Story of Israel. (My stated goal in my systematic theology, The Christian Faith, is to reintegrate these coordinates by the rubric of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship.) The prophets pave the way for Jesus’s claim that he is this solution, the author argues (137). Indeed! Commentaries from John Calvin to Don Carson emphasize that the whole Bible is to be read as one unfolding story from promise (Story of Israel) to fulfillment (Story of Jesus). Reformed exegetes regularly lament the place of the Old Testament in contemporary preaching and evangelism, turning to it mostly for edifying examples to imitate (or to shun). Even the exegesis that McKnight offers concerning Jesus’ temptation as the recapitulation of Adam’s and Israel’s (154) is standard in Reformed commentaries (as well as others).

The abstraction of doctrine (like what McKnight calls the Plan of Salvation) from the Story tends to push out not only the Old Testament but the Holy Spirit and the church. I can’t help be feel that what we really need is not to put the Plan of Salvation somewhere else other than the gospel (especially if that includes justification and the new birth), but question aspects of what many evangelicals mean by the very idea. I can only add a hearty amen when the author writes, “To make this more serious, what we are in most need of today, especially with a generation for whom the Plan of Salvation doesn’t make instinctive sense, is more gospel preaching that sets the context for the Plan of Salvation ” (40).

When the Bible talks about “getting saved” (which it never does in precisely those terms), the focus is on the Triune God saving sinners through the twists and turns of redemptive history, from one end of the book to the other. Typically, where the Bible sweeps me into its grand story of redemption in Christ, many evangelistic presentations reduce that grand story to “me and my personal relationship with Jesus.” We talk about the gospel as an announcement—a promise—that is revealed as a grand drama that unfolds from Genesis 3:15 to the close of Revelation. The gospel isn’t an offer to appropriate, decide, or contract for with Jesus. It’s an announcement—a declaration—of God’s saving accomplishment in Jesus Christ. Promised in the Old Testament, the gospel is fulfilled in the New. The call to repent and believe is not the gospel, but the proper response to the gospel. In fact, the gospel is not a call to do anything—even to believe. The gospel itself is simply an announcement that we are therefore called to believe.

McKnight helpfully makes the point in several places that the gospel is a story, an announcement, a declaration, and not a series of “steps” for us to follow to “get saved.” But here’s where he gets confusing. In spite of this point, he still thinks that what he calls the Plan of Salvation and Method of Persuasion are importantly related to the gospel. These phrases are a bit unfamiliar to Reformed ears. Where we typically talk about the Spirit’s application of redemption through the gospel itself, most evangelicals speak of our appropriating, actualizing, or making Jesus our Savior and Lord. God offers us the package, but our new birth depends on something we do, at least our decision. McKnight still seems to follow this way of speaking about “…what that person must do in order to get saved” (38) and appropriating salvation by “making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ” (28). No wonder, then, he wants to distinguish this from the gospel.

From Bavinck to Berkhof, Reformed theologians have lamented the excesses of a pietism and revivalism that threaten to reduce the gospel to a personal decision or crisis experience. So how exactly does the Reformation get saddled once again with a tragic narrowing of the gospel to the “four spiritual laws” with the goal of making mere deciders (converts) who know Jesus as Savior rather than disciples who embrace him as Lord? McKnight acknowledges that there were some flaws in the pre-Reformation “Gospel Culture” (Constantine, the crusades, etc.). He also acknowledges that the Reformers wouldn’t agree with everything that “salvation culture” implies. Yet, much like N. T. Wright, he seems to think that he if we would just go “back to the Bible to find the original gospel” as he has, we’d get it right (24). The history of exegesis is reduced to the categories of “gospel culture” and “salvation culture.” Also as in Professor Wright’s work, The King Jesus Gospel offers sweeping assertions about the Reformation without serious engagement. I can’t imagine that he has explored the commentaries of the Reformers or the history of Reformed biblical theology in any depth. No harm done for having different interests, but one shouldn’t then pile with one more straw-man portrait.

Even when he “damns with faint praise,” the author misses the goal of at least Lutheran and Reformed branches: “The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility” (71). This confuses the Reformation’s interest with pietism, which was a completely different kettle of fish. The former focused on what the Triune God has done to accomplish salvation for sinners, not on “human response” and what I’m supposed to do to “get saved.”

Though largely respectful, McKnight takes aim especially at John Piper and Greg Gilbert as examples of “soterists.” I won’t presume to speak for these brothers, except to say that the author’s critique appears to lift a few statements as “Exhibit A.” For example, when Piper says that the gospel is “justification by faith,” he is speaking short-hand. The Reformers often did the same, yet they didn’t even come close to the author’s description of decision-oriented “soterism.” The justification of the ungodly is as much an event in the history of salvation (Story of Israel/Jesus) as it is the application of Christ’s imputed righteousness to believers. We simply don’t talk about “Plan of Salvation” evangelism in the first place. That is a different way of doing evangelism than the Lutheran and Reformed approach, centering as it does on the gospel as the announcement of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Those who believed this gospel were baptized and joined the church, regularly meeting together for the apostles teaching, the Supper, and common prayer (Ac 2:32).

The great thing about the author’s treatment of Jesus and Paul is that the Story of Jesus indeed encompasses the kingdom emphasis along with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, he doesn’t seem to allow the same space for the benefits (like justification) in the definition of the gospel itself that he opens up for the kingdom. Without justification, Christ’s messianic reign and kingdom are not necessarily good news.

In this light, I worry about forcing a choice between the gospel as the Story of Jesus and the Plan of Salvation (if the latter means justification and new birth, for example). The one is still too broad to specify the saving announcement and the latter is too narrow—indeed, somewhat distorting (understood the way McKnight describes it, as akin to the Four Spiritual Laws). McKnight does a great job with 1 Corinthians 15, but there Paul clearly includes the benefits of Christ’s saving work (forgiveness, justification, resurrection) with Christ’s Story as the gospel. In fact, our story (how he saves us) is bound up with his story in that passage. If 1 Corinthians 15 is a summary of the gospel (and I agree that it is), then wouldn’t it be arbitrary to say that the details about Christ’s death and resurrection are the gospel while the benefits for us, as important as they are, are not the gospel? There are just too many passages, here and elsewhere, that make Christ’s work (living, dying and rising again in history) and its effects for us inseparable aspects of the gospel. “He was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The dramatic story of Christ and the doctrine that interprets its significance for us are inseparable aspects of the same gospel.

Typically, Reformed and Lutheran theologies speak about “the gospel in the narrow sense” (something like 1 Cor 15:2-5 and Rom 4:25) and “…in the broader sense,” encompassing all of the promises that God fulfilled in Christ, including the gift of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and all of the other benefits of our union with Christ.

So we already have the categories that make these points: promise and fulfillment, historia salutis and ordo salutis, and the gospel in the narrower and broader senses. To me, at least, these distinctions are less capable of reductionism. The gospel in the New Testament is neither “Repent and believe” (that’s the call to embrace the gospel) nor “Jesus is the Solution to Israel’s Story.” It’s not even that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah-King. This announcement is as ambiguous without the news of justification as is the news of justification apart from the Story of Israel and Jesus. Jesus’ lordship entails judgment and wrath as well as justification and grace. So there is plenty of reductionism to go around. McKnight is mostly right, I believe, but I’m concerned that his definition of the gospel is too general in one sense (“The Story of Jesus”) and too reductive in another (“Messiah-King-Lord” vs. “Justifying High Priest”). What’s wrong with staying with the integrating rubric of “Prophet, Priest, and King,” interpreted within the horizon of Israel’s story? Penal substitution not as the only aspect of his atoning work but as the sine qua non of his victory of the powers and principalities, vindication of his moral government, and recapitulation of Adam’s failed headship? Why the false choices?

Another danger in reducing the gospel to the Jesus-Story-as-Solution-to-the-Israel-Story is that it fails to account adequately for why the gospel is good news to Gentiles. “Now this might seem simplistic,” the author says, “but any reading of the Prophets, former or latter and major and minor, will show that the problem for the Story of Israel was a resolution to Israel’s and Judah’s problems” (137). Indeed, that’s a big part of it, but don’t the apostles ground the “mystery of the church” in the prophetic promise of Israel’s Messiah as the answer to the whole world’s problems? What about all those wonderful prophecies of a remnant from the nations streaming to Zion?

The Story of Israel sets us up for the Story of Jesus: true enough—and not only true, but just as crucial as McKnight suggests. However, he says, that what is central to the gospel “is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord.” This was “the pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’ day: the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land.” This is a salutary point, frequently made in our circles. However, like N. T. Wright, McKnight seems to give too much credit to what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting, as if it were basically what the prophets and Jesus had in mind. Clearly it wasn’t, since Jesus regularly upbraids not only the religious leaders but his own disciples for missing the point, thinking that he was coming to restore the nation to its former glory, renewing the Sinai covenant.

If Gentiles are in themselves strangers to the covenants of promise, God’s enemies, “unclean,” and already under judgment, of what relevance is the news, “Finally, Israel has a King who will bring things around in the land!”? I agree that we Gentiles have to be immersed in the Story of Israel; we get in the covenant on Jewish shirt-tales, as it were. We’re the workers in the vineyard who came at the end of the day, the Johnny-come-latelies. However, unlike those to Jewish audiences, the gospel sermons to Gentiles in Acts and descriptions of the gospel in the epistles don’t merely rehearse the history of Israel; they proclaim Christ as the Savior of the world, from judgdment, sin and death, by Christ’s own death-judgment and resurrection-justification. The context of their repentance is idolatry. Somewhere N. T. Wright has written that the tragic problem that confronts Israel at Jesus’ advent is that Israel too is found to be “in Adam.” That’s exactly right. Being “in Adam” universalizes the plight. We dare not skip over Israel, but the Pauline contrast is being “in Adam” versus being “in Christ.”

Surely the reign of the Messiah-King is key in the prophets, but the way in which he exercises this reign is inextricably linked to his priesthood. By fulfilling the law, bearing their sins, clothing them in his righteousness, giving them his Spirit, and returning to make all things new, this Messiah will indeed accomplish what Adam and Israel have failed to do. I would want to press the author a bit more on what he means when he adds, “So he sends us east of Eden into the world with the same task” of being priest-kings in his garden” (138). So is our mission the same as Christ’s? Are we recapitulating Adam and Israel, bearing the curse, and by our resurrection securing the restoration of all things? Is Jesus really the “Last Adam,” who does all of this for us, or the model for how we are to complete his redeeming work? I may be reading too much into that statement, but it would be interesting to hear more about that point. In spite of clear echoes of N. T. Wright throughout The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight is less confident in the “gospel and empire” thesis: namely, that the main thing in saying “Jesus is Lord” is to specifically challenge Caesar and his empire. “Let’s keep in mind that no one would ever deny that an implication of the gospel declaration that Jesus is Lord is that Caesar is not. The issue here is how conscious, overt, and intentional this anti-imperial theme is to the gospeling of the first Christians,” especially in light of Paul’s remarks about ordained powers in Romans 13 (142-144).

Finally, I was looking forward to the last chapter: “Creating a Gospel Culture.” After all, I wholeheartedly agree that a gospel that takes its narrative habitat seriously and connects individual believers to Israel and the Triune God’s purposes for history will create a very different kind of community than one that’s based on individual decisions. However, I didn’t find what I was expecting. It wasn’t what was there, but what was missing, that puzzled me. Sure, we need to become People of the Story and all, reading the Bible cover to cover, but all of his concrete suggestions for this were basically about the individual believer. Nothing about the sacraments, church membership and discipline—especially odd in light of the Justin Martyr appendix that focused on these ordinary means by which God “creates a gospel culture.” McKnight says, “As Dallas Willard has argued for decades, God transforms us through a vision, our intention, and the means God provides—the spiritual disciplines” (159). This seems hardly capable of creating a less individualistic and more integrated gospel culture than its “soterian” alternative.

I would encourage likely critics of The King Jesus Gospel to hear out the argument, setting caricatures and false choices to one side. There is a lot in this book that should resonate with Reformed Christians. Whatever inaccuracies in his description of the views of others who deserve better, Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly. To enthusiastic readers of the book, I’d caution against exchanging one set of reductionism for another. Let’s not polarize into even more extreme camps of “story-people” and “doctrine-people”; “kingdom” and “personal salvation”; “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is Savior.” We can all be evangelical soterians, rejoicing in the gospel as the Story of Jesus that proclaims the only one who saves us from our sins. Despite my concerns, this is a great starter for some remarkably important conversations.

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“Real-World” Church

SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World
by Douglas Estes
Zondervan, 2009
256 pages (paperback), $16.99

In his book SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World, Douglas Estes gets defensive about an accusation that no one seems to be leveling. I, for one, was only peripherally aware of the “virtual world” before picking up Estes’ book. As a member of the clergy, I didn’t really know that there were virtual churches in virtual worlds, much less was I aware of some movement to classify such churches as “not real,” the movement against which Estes writes. Rather than writing an introduction or an ode to virtual churches, his defense of the same comes off as, well, defensive. He rarely quotes specific arguments against the validity of virtual churches (pulling most of the critique from only two sources outside of general anecdotal “evidence”) and puts his reader in mind of Queen Gertrude’s observation: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” SimChurch, though, provides an introduction to the virtual church despite itself.

The first point that Estes is at pains to make is an important one and well made: Virtual churches are not the same as church websites. My brick and mortar church has a website, on which we publish sermons, prayer lists, sign-up sheets, schedules, and so forth. This does not make us a virtual church. To borrow Estes’ vernacular, it simply makes us a real-world church with a website. A virtual church proper is a church that exists in the virtual world. That is, a church that exists in a world that exists exclusively online, such as Second Life or even World of Warcraft. This distinction is important to Estes, as it should be. It is the first place virtual churches apparently come against resistance. Everyone knows real-world churches should have websites, and isn’t that enough of an Internet presence? Estes argues that it isn’t, and to illustrate he makes a comparison with which real-world evangelists are sure to take issue.

Estes likens the virtual world to a new landmass discovered off the coast of Africa. “Wouldn’t we plant churches there?” he asks. By ignoring (at best) or shunning (at worst) the virtual world, Estes claims we are making no attempt to reach this new continent full of souls in need of the good news of Jesus Christ. A large fallacy exists in this argument, of course:  The citizens of this newly discovered land (the virtual world) are also citizens of a known territory (the real world). The implication that we (the apparently anti-virtual church crowd) are dropping the ball on the Great Commission is a little underhanded and ultimately specious. It would serve Estes’ argument better to simply suggest that it’s possible some people might be better reached in a virtual church than in a real-world church. He does make this argument later in the book, but he doesn’t do himself any favors with what he must hope is his audience: real world Christians wondering about virtual world ministry.

One of the first protestations that critics of virtual churches are alleged to bring up is the necessary use of avatars. For the uninitiated (a group that has shrunk considerably in the wake of James Cameron’s blockbuster film), an avatar is an online “you” that you control in the virtual world. Estes admits up front that most people create avatars that are little like themselves. The first-blush reaction to widespread avatar use is that it is too easy for congregants of a virtual church to hide their “real” selves behind their avatars. Indeed, how is a pastor to minister to a congregant who presents as half-man, half-bull? As Estes is quick (and correct) to point out, though, we all use avatars in our real lives—the “us” we create for the world to see. This practice could be said to be especially prevalent in churches. Virtual churches simply admit that a ubiquitous real-world practice occurs while real-world churches pretend it doesn’t.

When Estes’ discussion turns to the administration of the sacraments and church discipline, though, he paints himself into a bit of a corner. By making the administration of each a constitutive part of what makes a church legitimate, he forces himself to find ways in which virtual churches can administer the sacraments, for one, in a “real” way (mostly involving pilgrimages to real-world churches). It would seem to be a better route, however, to attempt to argue for a redefinition of church: that where the preaching of the gospel is, there the church is. By holding to a historical definition of “church” in a decidedly nonhistorical context, Estes makes the sacraments into a ponderous chore rather than the glorious grace they are meant to be. With regard to discipline, Estes finds himself in a similar place. My own tradition, Anglicanism, does not consider discipline a necessary mark of the church, but many other traditions do. Once again, by insisting on a measure of church discipline, Estes (whose church is loosely connected to the Baptist tradition) makes his argument harder to win.

Confronted with such issues, Estes seems to cheat. He offers alternatives of varying worth, but doesn’t argue for one over another. He asks lots of rhetorical questions, often ending sections with several in a row, without ever answering any of them. Beyond being a tiresome technique, it’s only a surface profundity without any substance underneath.

I never would have thought that virtual churches were “real” or “legitimate” churches, although any opportunity for people to hear the gospel is some small victory. The preaching of the gospel is rare enough in real-world churches that its presentation anywhere should be celebrated. By writing his book in defensive response to a perceived critique, Estes has weakened what could have been a powerful story of gospel witness in a new environment, and he could have interacted with old definitions of church for a new world, rather than allowing the virtual church to simply “be” church in a new way.

Reviewed by Nick Lannon. The Rev. Lannon is curate of Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City, New Jersey.

This review was originally published in Modern Reformation magazine (May/June 2011) Vol 20, No 3, pages: 50, 63.

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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
By Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
266 pages (hardcover), $27.95

Reviewed by Nathan Barczi for Modern Reformation (November/December 2010) Vol. 19, No. 6. Pages 54-55.

No one saw it coming. In April 2005, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan spoke glowingly of the burgeoning subprime mortgage industry. At his Senate confirmation hearings a few months later, current Chairman Ben Bernanke similarly disavowed any danger of a housing bubble. Policymakers, financiers, and captains of industry have spoken in near-unanimous chorus:  no one saw it coming. Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is the story of some of those who not only anticipated the collapse but made a fortune betting on it. Clearer and more comprehensive accounts of the tumult have been written, but none delivers with such force its human particulars.

The central figure in Lewis’s character-dominated account is Steve Eisman. As an analyst at Oppenheimer, Eisman earned a reputation for being brash and excessively honest about the dim prospects of the companies he evaluated. “Even on Wall Street, people think he’s rude and obnoxious and aggressive,” his wife tells Lewis. He left to run a hedge fund in 2001, and by spring 2005 his pessimism focused chiefly on the same subprime mortgage industry lauded by Greenspan. Lenders seemingly couldn’t issue mortgages quickly enough, often with little or no proof of the borrower’s capacity to make good on the payments. Eisman began looking for ways to bet against bonds backed by subprime mortgage debt. What he found was the now-infamous credit default swap (CDS).

The buyer of a CDS effectively owns insurance against the default of a bond. But why would anyone want to be on the other side of the bet, buying the risk associated with these bonds? It is one of the strengths of Lewis’s book that he embeds lucid explanations of arcane concepts in an engrossing narrative. He unpacks one more needed piece of terminology here:  the collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Picture many towers of credit default swaps backed by subprime mortgages. At the top of each tower are the highest-rated bonds and at the bottom are the riskiest bonds. In a collateralized debt obligation, slices from the lower levels of each tower are packaged together into one financial instrument. Ratings agencies accepted the argument of Wall Street firms that because the slices were coming from different mortgages all over the country, they couldn’t possibly all default at the same time. And so, although each slice was risky, the new tower couldn’t be—or so said the ratings agencies (who are the targets of some of Lewis’s sharpest criticism), pronouncing the CDOs worthy of AAA ratings, safe enough for pension funds and insurance companies (AIG, for instance), who couldn’t get enough of them.

Lewis recounts that one night in (where else?) Las Vegas over dinner with a CDO manager, Eisman realized how these pieces fit together. “I love guys like you who short my market,” the manager tells Eisman. “Without you, I don’t have anything to buy.” Wall Street’s demand for subprime-backed CDOs couldn’t be met by the stock of actual mortgages, no matter how many of them were issued. But when Eisman bought credit default swaps on those mortgages, he wasn’t merely making side bets; he was actually providing a stream of income that replicated the bonds, effectively synthesizing new mortgages without the hassle of finding an actual house or borrower. Eisman’s pessimism about the subprime market was literally fueling its growth. (This is a good place to address the widely held notion that short-selling is inherently harmful. It is helpful to allow investors who believe that the price of an asset will fall to place bets to that effect; these help to prevent bubbles from developing. Short positions that generate more of the asset against which they are taken, of course, are another matter.)  Freed from the fetters of being backed by actual homes, the market could grow without bounds, which is why its collapse was capable of such universally devastating effects. “There’s no limit to risk in the market,” Eisman explains. “A bank with a market capitalization of one billion dollars might have one trillion dollars’ worth of credit default swaps outstanding. No one knows how many there are! And no one knows where they are!” As the book ends, reality is setting in—Bear Stearns is no more and Lewis’s protagonists are wondering just what they’ve done.

Twenty years ago, Lewis was shocked when readers of his first book, an autobiographical account of the greed he encountered in his stint as a Wall Street analyst, treated it like a how-to manual for getting ahead in finance. The same dynamic is on display here:  No one who could see how rotten the subprime market had become had any incentive to do anything but seek to profit from it. The book logically leads to an appeal for better regulation to keep greed in check, a conclusion of inescapable merit. Reformed Christians are, of course, familiar with the civil use of the law to restrain evil. But as Augustine put it, “[C]ertain laws are established which are called civil laws, not because they bring men to make a good use of their wealth, but because those who made a bad use of it become thereby less injurious.” Lewis’s elucidation of the human stories underlying the movements of vast and impersonal markets serves as a corrective to the tendency to place inordinate degrees of hope in regulation. Regulation can do no more than restrain the human heart, just as markets can do no more than channel our greed toward generally beneficial ends. But neither offers any ultimate remedy for what is so vividly depicted, though never named, in Lewis’s book—namely, sin.

Lewis’s book puts a human face on the financial crisis that dominates the news of the day. Those readers will be best served who can recognize their own faces in its pages. Neither Wall Street nor Washington, DC is the sole repository of human depravity, but it’s also the case that the institutions that dominate them do not exist independently of the people who fill them or of the need for regeneration in their hearts. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton: What’s wrong with Wall Street? I am.

Nathan Barczi is an economist, and an elder at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and son.

The Venetian hotel—Palazzo Ducale on the outside, Divine Comedy on the inside—was overrun by thousands of white men in business casual now earning their living, one way or another, off subprime mortgages. Like all of Las Vegas, the Venetian was a jangle of seemingly random effects designed to heighten and exploit irrationality: the days that felt like nights and the nights that felt like days, the penny slots and the cash machines that spat out $100 bills, the grand hotel rooms that cost so little and made you feel so big. The point of all of it was to alter your perception of your chances and your money, and all of it depressed Steve Eisman, the CEO of FrontPoint Partners, a hedge fund that detected the subprime mess before nearly everyone else. He didn’t even like to gamble. “I wouldn’t know how to calculate odds if my life depended on it,” he said. At the end of each day his colleague Vinny would head off to play low-stakes poker, his other colleague Danny would join Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann and the other bond people at the craps tables, and Eisman would go to bed. That craps was the game of choice of the bond trader was interesting, though. Craps offered the player the illusion of control—after all, he rolled the dice—and a surface complexity that masked its deeper idiocy. “For some reason, when these people are playing it they actually believe they have the power to make the dice work,” said Vinny.

—Excerpt from The Big Short

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Horton’s Review of Wright – Full Review

Recently on the WHI Blog Dr. Horton reviewed the book Justification by N.T. Wright in ten different postings. In order to make it easier to read this review in its entirety we have compiled all the posts and made them available as a PDF.

Horton reviews N.T. Wright’s Justification (350 kB PDF)

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