How does the message of the Bible and the message of the Koran differ? In this video (2 of 3), Michael Horton continues his discussion of the differences between Christianity and Islam.
Part 1 can be found here.
How does the message of the Bible and the message of the Koran differ? In this video (2 of 3), Michael Horton continues his discussion of the differences between Christianity and Islam.
Part 1 can be found here.
“Islam is all law. There is no good news.”
Curious about Islam? Want to dig a little deeper after reading Michael Horton’s article in the July/August issue of Modern Reformation? This is the first of three video conversations that Dr. Horton recorded to help us understand the differences between Islam and Christianity.
First up: Salvation.
Our good friend, J. Todd Billings, was recently featured in Christianity Today. His critique of “incarnational ministry” continues to ring true for many people. We were proud to feature that critique back in 2009, Incarnational Ministry and the Unique, Incarnate Christ.
Here’s a brief preview of Billings’ article in Christianity Today.
In recent decades, scores of books, manuals, and websites advocating “incarnational ministry” have encouraged Christians to move beyond ministry at a distance and to “incarnate” and immerse themselves into local cultures. Some give a step-by-step “incarnation process” for Christians crossing cultures. Some call us to become incarnate by “being Jesus” to those around us. Indeed, many of these resources display valuable insights into relational and cross-cultural ministry. But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to “incarnational ministry”—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications.
I encountered these problems myself as a practitioner of “incarnational ministry.” At a Christian college, I was told that just as God became flesh in a particular culture 2,000 years ago, my job was to become “incarnate” in another culture. Eight months later, equipped with training in cultural anthropology, I set about learning the language and culture in Uganda. But I quickly ran into doubts about the “incarnational” method. Would the Ugandans necessarily “see Jesus” as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Was I assuming that my own presence—rather than that of Christ—was redemptive? Is the eternal Word’s act of incarnation really an appropriate model for ministry?
My questions multiplied as I continued my theological education. Biblical scholars and theologians assured me that the Bible and orthodox Christian theology taught nothing about us “becoming incarnate.” Going back to my professors of missiology and ministry, I heard a quite practical response: If not the Incarnation, what is the alternative model for culture-crossing ministries? Over the past decade, I have come to see that incarnational ministry actually obscures the much richer theology of servant-witness and cross-cultural ministry in the New Testament: ministry in union with Christ by the Spirit.
You can read the whole thing here.
Olympia Morata (1526-1555) was without doubt a woman full of potential, even from her earliest years. As a brilliant young scholar with a passion for knowledge and an immense capacity to learn, she held the opportunity for an illustrious career in the palms of her hands. However, Olympia’s legacy lay not in her contributions to any field of academic study, nor in the power and fame she easily could have attained through her work. Rather, she lived, worked, and endured persecution for a goal that she considered to be far greater than any recognition of men—her faith in her savior. Simonetta Carr’s novel Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata recounts the story of this godly woman and her growth from a young girl brimming with an eagerness for knowledge to a mature adult striving for the sake of the gospel. As part of the Chosen Daughters series, this novel is intended for an audience primarily comprised of young girls, but Olympia’s riveting story and inspiring example is beneficial for any Christian to read.
The novel begins with Olympia’s early teenage years just before she leaves her home to work as a tutor in the court of the Duke of Ferrara. While employed there, Olympia is exposed to a wealth of learning and opportunities, and at this time her highest goal is to attain academic excellence and recognition. The plight of the Protestant faith, both in her native Italy and throughout Europe, is well known to Olympia, as her family and members of the court constantly fear for their safety due to their beliefs. However, the young teenager doesn’t place great importance on the issue at first. She questions her faith and is full of doubts, but she doesn’t seek advice or help with her struggles because her academic pursuits are her first priority.
At this point, Carr masterfully communicates the transition in Olympia’s character that grants this novel its power. After serving the court for many years and growing in academic knowledge, Olympia suffers two losses: the death of her father and the end of her position in the court. The first tragedy brings her faith to the forefront of her mind, as her devout father was always an inspiration to Olympia. However, it is the second event that causes a turning point in the young woman’s life. Without a position in the powerful court and a budding reputation as a brilliant scholar, Olympia is stripped of the earthly power that made her feel secure in the world. She is forced to realize that truly, the accomplishments of men are merely temporal and can be snatched away in a second. It is here that Olympia finally relinquishes her pride, her abilities, and her service, taking them away from focusing on worldly pursuits and instead dedicating her life to the glory of God.
After this turning point, Olympia’s example is even more inspiring. She continues to write and work diligently over academic activities, but now her first priority is using her talents for the benefit of the faith she confesses. The rich history of this time period is explored as Olympia and her husband, Andreas Grunthler, endure persecution, war, and sickness in their struggle to survive the harsh anti-Protestant climate that engulfed most of Europe. Sadly, Olympia died from the lingering results of a fever acquired during wartime; she was not quite twenty-nine at the time of her death.
At first, it may sadden the reader to realize that, due to Olympia’s brief life, she was never able to impact the world around her to a greater extent through her prodigious learning and academic abilities. However, thanks to Carr’s beautiful portrayal of Olympia’s spiritual dedication and maturity, the reader is reminded that Olympia’s true legacy is far greater than any written work or course of study. Her brief but shining example of godliness and devotion to her faith is more inspiring than all the temporal achievements and accolades of a long and prolific life. Carr’s novel is intended to share Olympia’s story with young girls, but the lessons contained in this tale are ones that would benefit a Christian of any age. Olympia Morata is a powerful example of the importance of dedicating one’s ambitions, talents, and life to God, and striving not for glory here on earth, but desiring ultimately “to live in that heavenly home in which it is more pleasant to dwell for one short day than it is to spend a thousand years in the courts of princes” (141).
Madeline Taylor is a member of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA.
“Doing youth ministry without parents is like driving a car without the engine.”
- Mark Devries
It’s no secret anymore, youth ministry is in a state of crisis. Polls of recent years report over and over the dire percentages of youth who leave the church after high school. Whatever the exact percentage actually is, what seems clear enough is that more young people are choosing to leave the church than choosing to stay.  The million dollar question is, of course, “Why is this happening?” And while there are certainly multiple factors involved in this mass exodus, I believe that a primary contributing factor is the loss of emphasis on the central role of the parent in the spiritual nurture of their children. Much of the youth ministry done in recent decades seems to have forgotten that parents are commanded to be, and by God’s design will necessarily be, the primary youth pastors for their children—for better or for worse. And when the central role of the parents is neglected, a major deviation from God’s design for youth ministry has taken place that can only be harmful for youth in the long term.
In order to start righting the ship, churches must first of all re-embrace the responsibility given to parents by God to be the front line “youth pastor” for their children. In the Old Testament, the priests had the general responsibility to teach all of the people the Word of God, but parents were given a special responsibility to teach their children. Moses commanded the people of Israel “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). The same principal is in the New Testament. Pastors have the general responsibility to preach and teach God’s word to God’s people (including the youth), but the only command regarding the training and discipling of children is given directly to parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). This does not necessarily mean that there is no place for a church to have a “youth ministry” apart from parents, but it does mean that youth ministry must be built on this central foundation. Proverbs 22:6 states “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This proverb is not a universal promise that every child who is trained by his parents will grow up to be a Christian, but it is a general principal that God has given for us to live by. Generally speaking, God uses the means of Godly parents who prayerfully and diligently seek to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” to convert them. God has designed the home, not the youth group, to be the spiritual nursery where the Christian faith is taught and modeled to children from their earliest years.
Secondarily, parents and churches must embrace a more sober estimation of what youth ministry actually accomplishes. Part of what has created the current crisis in youth ministry is that churches have assumed that the youth pastor and youth programs are more important than they really are. Again, this is not to say that there is no place for a youth pastor, youth group, or youth programs. When these things are Biblically grounded they can be a real blessing to youth. The reality is, however, that in most cases the overall influence of a youth pastor and youth group on a child will be insignificant when compared to that of the parents. “It’s time for a reality check,” says Mark Devries, “Youth ministries, in and of themselves, have limited power to produce lasting change in young people’s lives.”  As case in point, let me use myself as an example. As a youth pastor, one of my priorities is to spend as much time as I can with the youth. On a good week, a week that I am able to see a specific youth in several different venues, I may be able to spend 6-8 hours with him or her, although most of that time is in a group setting. On other weeks, the only personal interaction I may have with them is at Church on Sunday morning and a text or facebook message during the week. I pray that God will bless the time that I have with them, but I know that it is not enough.
Parents, by contrast, spend every day with their children. For 18 years they live life with them: waking, eating, sleeping, praying, playing, laughing, crying, arguing, and the list goes on. As a result, parents know their children like no other adult will ever know them, and they will have more influence on them for spiritual good or ill than any other adult ever can. Thomas Manton, writing in the 17th century, called on the “Heads of Families” to recognize this special influence:
How much the serious endeavors of godly parents and masters might contribute to an early seasoning the tender years of such as are under their inspection, is abundantly evident, not only from their special influence upon them, in respect of their authority over them, interest in them, continual presence with them, and frequent opportunities of being helpful to them; but also from the sad effects which, by woeful experience, we find to be the fruit of the omission of this duty.” 
If a child has a negligent youth pastor, Godly parents will easily counter his influence. But if a child has negligent parents, very rarely will a youth pastor be able to overturn the “sad effects” of which Manton speaks. Jonathan Edwards put it boldly: “…Family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all other means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful.” 
Thus, if we are going to stem the tide of youth leaving the church, I believe a key component is a fresh awareness of the centrality of the parents for youth ministry. Parents are the church’s primary youth pastors, and a central place in youth ministry today must be given to helping parents embrace that privilege and responsibility, and equipping them to do it. Youth ministry has a valid and important supporting role to the parents, but it must never become a substitute. Our youth are too important to allow that to happen.
Scott Korljan is an assistant pastor at North City Presbyterian Church in Poway, CA.
1. Mark Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1994), 85.[Back]
2. www.christianitytoday.com/le/2009/summer/istheeraofagesegmentationover.html?start=1 This is not an isolated report, the Southern Baptist convention in a 2002 Report on Family Life reported that 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of eighteen. [Back]
3. Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 78. [Back]
5. As quoted in Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 85. [Back]
I would recommend this book with one caveat. Make sure you know what you are in for when you pick up this book. He withholds no punches. He is sarcastic at times. It is a sad, but accurate, picture of the current church in America. And it is not the easiest book to read. But if you want to come face to face with a message that speaks truth and isn’t afraid to use names, this will be a good book for you.
Thad’s recommendation got us thinking: what are you reading right now and how is it making a difference for you? Especially in light of our recent White Horse Inn episode on Scatterbrains, we want to encourage you to do some heavy intellectual lifting, maybe even turn off the computer (gasp!), and equip yourself with tools for ministry (like Thad) or information that expands not just your head, but also your heart.
Go ahead: close the browser, then pick up a book. After you read it, come back and tell us what’s changing in your life.
Brittany Norris asks a few questions of Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace in her review, “Give Me Grace.” In the spirit of conversational theology, we asked Fitzpatrick and Thompson to write a response, which you can find below.
Give Me Grace
We are not nor can we be the saviors of our children. He is the Savior. When we forget this, our parenting will be pockmarked by fear, severity, and exhaustion. (Give them Grace, p.55)
Does this parenting “style” sound familiar to anyone else but me? Like many mothers, I am prone to think too much of my abilities and too little of God’s. Even when I have a dreadful day with the children, I still wake up the next morning thinking that if I just try harder, I can get my children to act more sanctified. Enter Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace, a helpful antidote against the poisonous legalistic bent in parenting.
As this mother-and-daughter-team see it, Christian parents too often make the goal of their parenting Judeo-Christian moral training, which any Mormon or Jewish parent could accomplish as well as we can. What makes parenting truly Christian, the authors suggest, is steeping our training in the message of our children’s inability to keep the law, and their need for a relationship with the Obedient Son who kept the law in their place. Though we know that our own salvation is accomplished this way, somehow we get gospel-amnesia when it comes to raising our kids. After all, “[i]n the same way that iron filings follow a magnet, our hearts chase after rules—not because we ever really obey them but because we think they make life manageable” (p. 81). According to Fitzpatrick and Thompson, our children are often “taught that God wants them to be good, that poor Jesus is sad when they disobey, and that asking Jesus into their heart is the breadth and depth of the gospel message” (p.18). In this way, Jesus simply becomes the extra boost the kids need to be good enough. But when we teach them obedience while neglecting their need for the righteousness of Christ to cover their (constant!) disobedience, we give them a false confidence in their flesh—a sure path to Hell. Nevertheless, the authors encourage us to teach our children the Law—over and over—not because they can obey, but to help them see that they can’t.
One of the most powerful sections of Give Them Grace is their discussion of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as Fitzpatrick calls it, the Story of the Welcoming Father). As the authors demonstrate from the parable, both sons sin, and the Father welcomes both into the abundance of his grace. Yet many of us tend to focus our disciplinary efforts on the “prodigal” child or behavior and overlook the pharisaical, “older brother” ones (read: outward compliance and self-righteousness). The older brother, with his indignant reaction to the younger brother’s restoration, is just as guilty of wandering away from his Father’s love as was the Prodigal. I need this reminder when I encounter both the Prodigal and the Pharisee in my own home (and in myself). It is often tempting to squelch the licentious eruptions from my children because they are showily disobedient. Meanwhile, I may notice the whiney legalism that surfaces (“She took an extra turn, Mom!”), but I mistakenly think that the self-righteous lack of mercy is not equally worth correcting. Fitzpatrick and Thompson rightly point out that the Heavenly Father welcomes both Prodigals and Pharisees with open arms, and suggest that even little pharisees should be lovingly shown their sin as we point them to the true, merciful Law-Keeper.
Also helpful is that co-author Jessica Thompson is herself in the process of raising children according to the gospel principles outlined in the book. With four young children of my own, I need both to steep myself in the theological underpinnings of Christian parenting and to see real-world examples of these same principles in action. In the immediacy of a teachable moment—with spaghetti boiling over on the stove and the baby crying—I may not remember the finer points of Jesus’ passive and active righteousness on my shouting three-year-old’s behalf. I may, however just manage to remember a similar moment that Thompson shared from her own life and be able to apply the Gospel Story to my child’s sinful behavior in like manner. Or not. And when I fail, then I can lead my daughter to the foot of the cross where we can both seek forgiveness: her, for her rebellious tantrum, and me, for my angry knee-jerk reaction.
Nevertheless, my main criticism of the book is one that other Reformed reviewers have noted: Fitzpatrick and Thompson have a decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children. Because none of us know whether our children have yet experienced God’s redeeming grace, the authors encourage us to treat our children as unbelievers unless the child has formally announced his own salvation. An otherwise helpful appendix in the back of the book which suggests gospel-based responses to children needing discipline for common offenses (lying, blame shifting, disobeying, etc.) offers different presentations for Christian and non-Christian children. With Fitzpatrick coming from a Reformed Baptist background, this viewpoint is not surprising. And, as they do throughout the book, the authors are right to point out the dangers of breeding hypocrisy in our children, whether through coerced apologies or presumed regeneration. The real pitfall of hypocrisy, however, is not merely in pretending to be something we’re not. Hypocrisy is deadliest when the hypocrite actually thinks the outward show is good enough. We unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God, since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens. It would surely be a recalcitrant child who refused to pray the Prayer for Salvation by the age of four or five in such an environment. So making a strong distinction—as the appendix charts do—between how you present the gospel to your children based on some singular point of decision may actually drive them to believe that their faith must reach a certain minimum of sincerity in order to earn righteous standing. To a lesser extent, this may be an inadvertent danger in the authors’ insistence on waiting until the child initiates an apology before forgiveness is articulated. Am I sorry enough? Yes, I think I am. The unspoken message is that the purity of Johnny’s repentance—or faith, when considering his own regenerate state—is the basis for his forgiveness. And here we are, coming in the back door of works-righteousness. For, of course, none of us—children included—are capable of pure repentance or faith. Our most lofty spiritual impulses are always co-mingled with sin. The only standard for “sorry enough,” or “believing enough,” is perfection, and none of us can manage that, which is why we need Christ’s perfection credited to us. Certainly, paedobaptists have their own pitfalls; presumption comes to mind. But it seems better to treat your children like members of the visible Church that they are, while daily lavishing them with their need for the same Gospel that unbelievers need. As the parable has it, wheat and tares really do grow together, and can only be distinguished in the Final Harvest.
Brittany Norris (MA, University of Colorado) lives in San Diego, where she’s the wife of a ruling elder and the homeschooling mother of four energetic and effervescent children.
Response to “Give Me Grace” and Brittany Norris
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson
First of all, we’d like to thank Modern Reformation for this opportunity to respond to the generally insightful and gracious critique by Brittany Norris of our book, Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.
We appreciate the fact that Norris would take the time to read and respond to our book even though she knew going into it that we had significant differences on covenantal theology. Generally speaking, when people know upfront that there will be as significance a difference of opinion on something as integral to their belief systems as covenant theology is for many, they dismiss the book out-of-hand. We’re very thankful that Norris took the time to read the book and demonstrate godly maturity in being able to cull out segments that she found helpful. In other words, she refrained from throwing out the baby with the bathwater and with a book on childrearing, that’s a good idea.
We obviously agree that many Christian parents fall into the trap of moralism or as Christian Smith identified, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This, coupled with a pervasive insufficiency in communicating the gospel, was our primary goal in writing the book. We are gratified that Norris rightly identified and deduced our objectives.
Now to the areas of disagreement (remembering that this is disagreement between sisters for whom Christ died): We agree that we have a “decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children.” Rather than using our response now to try to convince any of our readers of the correctness of our position (as if that would be possible), we will simply clarify the areas where we think Norris has misunderstood or misrepresented what we’ve written in Give them Grace.
To begin with, Norris references our Appendix 2, “Common Problems and the Gospel.” In her remarks she misconstrues our position on regenerate and unregenerate children. She states that we
unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens.
This statement grieves us. If our writing was so ambiguous at this point that a parent could think that we would propagate this kind of works righteousness, we are indeed sorry. We do not think this. In fact, the heartbeat of our message is that mere outward conformity to a religious practice such as saying the “sinner’s prayer” would never merit the pleasure of God. It is simply impossible for us to overemphasize how strongly we oppose that statement. Throughout the book we say over and over again, that both parents and children must be hidden in the righteous of Christ alone and never put any trust in any outward conformity at all. Children and parents (both covenantal and non-covenantal) must trust in Christ who makes believing children and their parents righteous by faith alone.
Perhaps Norris is foisting her own presupposition of what non-covenantal people believe (and they may!) onto what we have said. If we were unclear on this point, we would simply ask for a charitable reading of what we’ve said rather than an assumption of what “reformed Baptists” believe. On numerous occasions, we say that the promises are for those who believe—no matter how they may conform to outward religious practices (or not). We assume that the promises being for those who have been given faith by Christ’s grace alone is an area of disagreement among covenantal and non-covenantal people but we never propose to judge the state of any person’s salvation no matter what they have prayed or how “good” they seem to be.
In our own home, we present the Bible’s promises for both believing and unbelieving children to our children, continually assuring our kids that if they have believed (no matter what they’ve said to us) all of God’s good gifts are already theirs. We are very well aware of the fact that they may outwardly conform to our religious practices out of a desire to please us and not out of real faith. When they exhibit what we identified as “religious obedience”(Luther’s category) in the book, we continually tell them that their obedience is not meritorious and that the Lord sees the heart but delights in their simple faith in his promise to declare that they are righteous no matter what. The issue for us is not declaration of faith but rather real faith – something only the Lord can judge.
In sum, we agree that wheat and tares do grow together and that no one aside from our Sovereign God knows those who are really his. We are continually striving to teach and believe that “salvation is of the Lord” alone and to treat each of our dear children as fellow-sinners as in need of the grace and faith and righteousness as we are.
It is our sincere desire that this response may have cleared up any misconceptions about our book. In any case, we are thankful for this opportunity and pray that the Lord will continue to illumine all of our hearts to the glories of his grace. Again, we’re thankful that Norris took the time to interact with our book and we pray that this brief response will be helpful.
A friend of mine went to visit his family in San José last weekend—he’s a particular favorite with his nephew, James (who can’t stand being away from him for more than five hours if he knows his uncle is visiting), and when James found out that “Buddy” would be flying in Friday night, he announced to his grandmother that he’d be coming over to spend the weekend. After breakfast on Sunday morning, Danny asked him what he’d be learning at church that Sunday. “God,” was the prompt answer. “That’s wonderful,” he said, “do you know who God is?” “God,” he said. While true, it wasn’t quite the answer he was looking for, so he explained a bit more about who God has revealed himself to be in the person of the Trinity.
“You’re teaching a five-year-old about the Trinity?” his mother asked him later. “How is he going to understand that?”
“Well, I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about it. ‘One essence, three persons.’ I don’t get how it works, but I know what it is—James can understand that.”
I sometimes wonder if parents think that teaching their children theology means plopping them on the couch, tossing them a copy of Bavinck and saying, “Good luck, Junior. Don’t go cross-eyed.” Contributing author (and mother of eight) Simonetta Carr took time out of her busy schedule to assure us that there’s a better (and easier) way to go about it.
I love children’s books – I never would’ve made it through Moby Dick without the Great Illustrated Classics version. They’ve proved invaluable when teaching my ESL students, too – Ivanhoe becomes a lot more palatable to new English readers once you’ve removed the polysyllabic words and anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that even the most apathetic reader will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo if they’re sure they’ll be able to finish it in an hour (which they certainly will, considering that the five sub-plots are condensed into one).
This is the genius of children’s literature – taking wonderful stories and new ideas and making them comprehensible (and hopefully, attractive) to young minds. Hence the proliferation of children’s Bibles and the VeggieTales series – we take the admonition to train our children up in the way they should go seriously, and we’ll use any and all means to those ends. It behooves us, then, to be very careful about understanding exactly to which ends we’re orienting them.
In the afterword to his new book, Halfway Herbert, Francis Chan writes that he hopes parents will be able to use the story to “teach them [their children] the commitment to which Christ has called us,” and to exhort them to “raise a generation of children who understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.” It’s a praiseworthy goal, and one which parents ought to take seriously.
The story is about a little boy named Herbert Hallweg with a viciously short attention-span that leaves him incapable of finishing any task, from hair and teeth-brushing to homework completion and soccer practice. Eventually, his lackadaisical attitude creeps into his half-developed moral faculties and half-pushes him into the realm of sin, and one day (in true Pharisee-fashion) to tell a half-truth to his father. The fully-brushed and meal-finishing Mr. Hallweg calls him out on it, admonishing his son that, “living [his] life halfway isn’t okay,” following up with the edifying maxims: “Jesus doesn’t want us to love Him halfway,” and “God doesn’t want us to live out of just half our hearts.”
Herbert may not be our go-to guy on personal hygiene or commitment-keeping, but his theology (as far as personal guilt is concerned) is spot-on. “But I’ve never been able to do things all the way,” he cries.
Mr. Hallweg responds with a sort of prologue to a sinner’s prayer for help. “God knows that none of us can love him all the way by ourselves. So He gave us a friend called the Holy Spirit to help us live out of our whole hearts,” Herbert’s dad said. “When we decided to follow Jesus all the way, God’s Spirit fills up our hearts and helps us obey God.”
I want to tread carefully here – as someone who isn’t a parent, it’s easy for me to sit on the pristine seat of emotional and physical detachment and wax eloquent on the need for sound theology in godly parenting. My biggest child-rearing problem is deciding where to take my nieces and nephews hiking. I sincerely admire the earnest wish to encourage children in their infant piety, and it’s because I believe it’s our (the church as well as the nuclear family’s) duty to nurture it that I think we ought to be careful in laying the proper foundation for it. My problem with Chan’s book isn’t that it emphasizes our obligation to live righteously; it’s that it doesn’t acknowledge in any way the fact that Christ has already lived righteously for us – the imperative is given without the indicative; there’s law, but no gospel – which is only half the truth revealed in Scripture and half the message children need to hear.
When Herbert acknowledges his failure to keep the law to his father, his father’s response is more law – decide to follow Jesus all the way, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you. Good advice, to be sure – but it must be prefaced with the blessed preface that Christ has fulfilled the law on his child’s behalf and freed him from his bondage to sloth and laxity, and that because of his obedience and the application of that obedience to Herbert, he’s made willing and able to implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, and make that decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly. Mr. Hallweg’s response leaves the impression that the Holy Spirit is a reward for obedience; an aid given through the means of a request, rather than a gift that must be and is given.
I’m told that parents suffer no incapacity in reminding their children about the need for active obedience – ‘Clean your room now!’, ‘Stop fighting with your sister!’, and ‘Come back here and finish your homework!’ are frequent injunctions imposed on youthful impulses. In her book Give Them Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes that while we may know that we need to trust in Christ for our goodness, something happens when we apply that to our parenting. “We forget everything we know about the deadliness of relying on our own goodness and we teach them that Christianity is all about their behavior and whether, on any given day, God is pleased or displeased with them.” Foolishness certainly is bound up in the heart of a child, and the proverb truly says that the rod of correction will drive it far from him, but let the rod be tempered with the mercy of the gospel, lest we drive our children from Christ.
Sex advice columnist and MTV-show host Dan Savage has come up against heavy criticism of late for his remarks about homosexuality and other eight-letter-words in Scripture. Thrilling as it would be to jump right into that tête-a-tête, the conversation has been had, with no words minced and little love lost. Rather than reiterate what has already been said and discussed, we offer for your consideration an episode of ‘This American Life’. Originally aired in 2009, it features Savage discussing growing up in the Roman Catholic church, mourning the loss of his mother, and his (then) ongoing struggle between his hope to meet her again in heaven and the finality of her death.
Savage is open in his disdain for the religion of his youth, and while he does pull a few punches, the knock-outs are still there – he can’t reconcile the images of the benevolent father with the righteous judge, nor the church’s dogmatic cling to tradition with the rational pull of contemporary values and social mores. The tension is embodied in his description of his mother, who despite her piety and devotion to the church, not only refused to cast him out upon learning of his sexual orientation, but supported him in public and among their family. Close to the time she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease, Savage began sporadically attending church – not mass, but simply visiting the church at different times during the week. In a voice frequently halted by strong emotion, he speaks of ‘fantasizing’ about going to confession and the prayers offered up by his mother’s priest during her last rites; prayers that ‘filled the terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment’. He recalls his mother’s final words – “I’ll always be with you – remember me in your thoughts” – and breaks down in tears as he recounts making his way into St. James’ Church in downtown Seattle after her death.
“The inability to reconcile death has not been good for me – I visit St. James like an addict drops by a crack-house for a fix. To deaden myself to the pain – to lose myself in the momentary fantasy that she lives.”
While I don’t condone Savage’s coarse articulation of his opinions on certain cultural and cultic practices in Scripture, and lament the poor understanding of redemptive history that informs those opinions, the broadcast was a helpful reminder that there is reason behind his rhetoric, and pain beneath his anger. “Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb? That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death,” he said.
It was this hideous inversion of the gospel that left me all but undone. To hear the locus of the gospel – the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death; that blessed historical fact that brings comfort to the afflicted and hope to the bereaved – so tragically perverted was devastating. What ought to have been his chief solace and consolation was spoken of as an almost-insuperable impediment; the hopeful acceptance of being parted from her for a time was lost in tearful frustration at his inability to accept her irremediable non-existence. Truly did Paul write of Christ crucified as a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).
There may be tender wounds that are long in healing underneath the aggressive bravado and vulgar language of hostile antagonists, and the root of bitterness is often found in natural grief. Beneath the sin and rebellion is a human being created in the image of God, and our Lord’s name is greatly magnified when we who have been forgiven much show patience and humility, being mindful that while we were yet sinners, Christ showed his love for us.