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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Calvin on the Christian Life

mhmacThe following is an excerpt of an address that Mike recently presented at a conference on the campus of Mackenzie University, a conservative Presbyterian institution in Sao Paulo, Brazil with over 40,000 students. He gave this address on Friday, October 4th. Today he’s in Fortaleza, Brazil preparing to speak for another Fiel Leadership Conference.

How God Delivers His Grace
Much like monastic piety, evangelical spirituality often tends toward viewing the Christian life as the individual’s ascent of mind or spirit. It is a personal relationship with God—direct and unmediated. One “gets saved” and then decides to join (or, perhaps, not join) his visible church. Along this line of thinking, “means of grace” are chiefly private disciplines or activities that facilitate the individual’s spiritual growth. Consequently, it strikes many Protestants as “Romish” to talk about public preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of grace—that is, as sacramental. There are first of all saved individuals, whose relationship with the Lord has nothing to do with such outward and public rites, and then there is a church that sometimes performs these ceremonies in order to illustrate personal salvation or afford an opportunity for individuals to testify to their commitment to following the Lord. Rome tends simply to collapse the individual and personal faith into the collective faith of the church and its sacramental system. The Anabaptist tendency, on the other hand, is to separate what God has joined together.

Calvin assumes an entirely different paradigm. There is a distinction between the believer and the church: each of us is united to Christ through a personal act of faith. Nevertheless, to be united to Christ is simultaneously to be united to his body. It is God who works through creaturely means such as preaching and sacrament to create and deepen this union and communion. Preaching, baptism, and the Supper are public events that socialize individual believers into “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Therefore, the purpose of this public ministry is not simply to illustrate a merely private salvation, much less simply to get us to do something that will initiate or deepen that relationship. First and foremost, its purpose is to convey God’s saving blessings that unite each person to Christ and therefore to each other in a communion of saints.

This is why Calvin, in the Institutes, moves directly from Christ’s person and work in book 2 to “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ” in book 3. There is one unfolding argument: (1) Everyone knows God but suppresses the truth in unrighteousness; apart from the gospel we know God only as Creator and Judge; (2) Christ alone is the mediator and has fully accomplished our redemption, but all of this would be for naught if the Spirit did not unite us to Christ; (3) the way in which he does this is by the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

Consequently, on Calvin’s map, the means of grace appear at the intersection of the doctrines of salvation (soteriology) and the church (ecclesiology). To switch metaphors, the means of grace form the hinge that turns from personal salvation to the communion of saints. Piety, knowing God and ourselves, begins with a general awareness of and reverence for God that only measures our ingratitude and idolatry until we encounter Christ as he is clothed in his gospel. Through this very specific gospel, the Spirit unites each of us to Christ and therefore to his body. But then the line begins moving out again in a broader trajectory, as the church created and sustained through the word and sacraments expresses its holy calling through mission and its members fulfill their common callings in the world.

So at this point in the story, the means of uniting believers to Christ opens into the doctrine of the church. If all that Christ accomplished for us in the past can only become ours by being united with Christ in the present, then how does this happen? Again, even the Reformer’s ordering of subjects is driven by pastoral sensitivity.

And once more the maxim distinction without separation is in play. Where the priority of the church in Roman Catholic theology tends to smother personal faith, and in many Protestant approaches the emphasis on personal faith tends to be separated from the church, in Calvin’s piety, the two are distinguished but inseparably connected. Each of us is united to Christ through faith, but at the same time united to Christ’s body. The church is not only the place where the means of grace are administered; it is itself the communion that the Spirit creates through these means. Just as Calvin’s view of the image of God is social, so too is his understanding of the restoration of that image in Christ.

Sign and Reality
Since we could not rise up to God, he descended to us in saving mercy. But that is not all: he even brings us the gift here and now. There are no rungs of the ladder left for us to climb. It is easy for us to imagine that Christ accomplished our redemption and now we have to go get it. Calvin interprets Paul’s handling of this question with superb skill.

In preaching, the creaturely sign or medium is obviously human speech; water in baptism and bread and wine in the Supper. The reality is Christ with all of his saving benefits. Scripture unmistakably places the creaturely signs in the closest relationship with the reality, while at the same time teaching that it is the Spirit who makes these means effectual.

There are basically three ways to understand the relationship between signs and reality in the ministry of preaching and sacrament: (1) The creaturely means are saving in themselves; (2) The creaturely means have nothing to do with salvation; (3) The Spirit creates and confirms faith in our hearts through these creaturely means. These views correspond roughly to Rome, Anabaptists, and the Reformed position that Calvin follows.

The first view confuses sign and reality. In transubstantiation, the creaturely elements of bread and wine no longer exist; they are annihilated, replaced with the reality: the body and blood of Christ. Not surprisingly, Rome failed to distinguish between the ministerial word of the church and the magisterial word of God, baptism and regeneration, and so forth. The church could even conjure Christ’s bodily return at every Mass by the ringing of a bell. Seated on the lap of the Virgin Mary (symbolizing the church), and held fast on the crucifix hanging above the altar, the presence of Jesus was under ecclesiastical control. The church could distribute the benefits of Christ, Mary, and the saints from the treasury of merit according to the officially prescribed arithmetic and the specific penances required by the priest.

The second option is to separate sign and reality. This was done by Zwingli, but even more radically by the Anabaptists who contrasted the “external word” (preaching) with the “inner word” (the Spirit speaking directly to the heart). Preaching was a form of teaching and exhortation: talking about God and his word, more than the means through which God himself acted in judgment and grace. The goal was to explain and exhort, to get the hearers to do something, rather than to see preaching as the medium of God’s action. Similarly, baptism was the believer’s act of testifying to the true baptism by the Spirit and the Supper was another opportunity to express faith and obedience. In short, the public ministry was an occasion for the believer’s decisive response to the Spirit’s inner voice.

The third option is a sacramental union of sign with the reality. This view sees the signs as the instruments through which God communicates the reality. “Distinction without separation” is the watch-phrase. The preacher’s proclamation of the word is the word of God, but only insofar as it is consistent with Scripture. Through this preaching of the gospel the Spirit creates faith in our hearts, but he gives this faith only to the elect. God so identified his activity with the ark of the covenant that it could be called “the Presence.” So too baptism in the New Testament is identified with the remission of sins, the new birth, and the gift of the Spirit. The reality is not identical to the signs, but it is also not separated from them. Ordinarily, the reality is given through them. This was Calvin’s view, nicely summarized in question 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “If it is by faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits, then where does this faith come from?” Answer: “The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel [Ro 10:17; 1 Pet 1:23-25] and confirms it through our use of the holy sacraments [Mt 28:19-20; 1 Cor 10:16].”

Calvin saw the physical aspect as the means chosen by God for delivering and strengthening the spiritual communion with Christ. There is a “sacramental union” accomplished by the Spirit working through his word that makes preaching, baptism, and the Supper means of grace. Christ is not intrinsically bound to these means, but he has voluntarily bound himself to them as covenantal signs and seals that communicate his saving work to his people. According to Calvin, Rome binds God to earthly means, while the Anabaptists disallow that God can bind himself to them. Lutherans, he argued, leaned too far in the direction of Rome’s confusion of sign and reality, while Zwingli’s tendency to separate them was too close to Anabaptism.

It is not simply by invoking the rule “distinction without separation” that distinguishes Calvin’s approach to the means of grace. Crucial to his thinking is that union with Christ is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Grace is not a substance infused into the soul to empower it to cooperate in its healing. Rather, it is the personal favor, activity, and gift of the Father, in the Son, delivered to us by the Holy Spirit at work within us. While Rome seemed to give more efficacy to the means than to the Spirit, Anabaptists underscored the work of the Spirit within us over against any creaturely means. Yet, in scripture, everything that the Holy Spirit does is associated with visible, material, creaturely reality. He separated the waters in creation and the exodus, filled the temple, brought about the conception of the Incarnate Word in Mary’s womb, empowered Jesus to perform physical miracles, and raised him bodily. He indwells us and will raise us bodily with our Head at his return. Therefore, to emphasize the person and work of the Holy Spirit, as Calvin does, is never to disparage the external means through which he is pleased to accomplish his saving ministry.

Brazil Video Clip 2: Mike Horton on the Book of Job

mhbzLast night Michael Horton spoke on the book of Job at the Fiel Leadership Conference in Aguas de Lindoia (video clip: mhbrazilclip2). This morning he spoke on the topic of The God of the Empty Tomb, which was an exposition of John chapter 11 and the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Later this afternoon Mike will fly across country to the city of Fortaleza.  Please continue to pray for safe travels and for God to bless the hearing of his word, and for Reformation to take root throughout the country of Brazil.

Video Clip of Michael Horton Speaking in Brazil

fielconfIt’s 11:25am in Aguas de Lindoia, Brazil, and Michael Horton is giving a plenary address titled “Is Any Body Up There?” before a few thousand attendees at the Fiel Leadership Conference on the theme of The God Who is There.  Other speakers include D.A. Carson, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes, Heber Campos Jr., and many others. To watch a short clip of this talk, which at the time of this posting is still in progress, click on the link below: mhbrazilplenary

Michael Horton Speaking & Traveling in Brazil

mh1This past Friday, Michael Horton arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil in order to give a talk on “Calvin & The Christian Life” at Mackenzie University. Sao Paulo is one of the world’s most populated cities (number six according to Wikipedia), and Mackenzie University is a large conservative Presbyterian college (sometimes referred to as the Yale of Brazil) with over 40,000 students. Today Mike is headed to Aguas de Lindoia for a Fiel Leadership Conference with D.A. Carson, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes and others, on the topic of The God Who is There. The native language of Brazil is Portuguese so Mike uses a translator during his presentations, but knowledge of basic English isn’t uncommon, which means he’s able to communicate informally without any difficulty.  Please pray for traveling mercies and that Mike’s trip would bear fruit.

WHI-1174 | Lessons from Church History

Why is it important to study church history? Is it possible to avoid the mistakes of the past, or does every generation bring a certain amount of cultural baggage to the sacred text? How did the early church resolve the question of Jesus’ divine nature? What was Constantine’s role in the rise of Christianity in the West? What were the main arguments of the Protestant Reformation? In this program, W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California, joins Mike Horton to discuss these important issues.


The Inventions of Rome
W. Robert Godfrey
Calvin on the Eucharist
W. Robert Godfrey
Augustine & Jerome
Michael Horton


Matthew Smith


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WHI-1173 | Ordinary Life and Vocation

Should our lives look more like the book of Joshua, or the book of Ruth? How should we live out our faith in a secular culture? On this edition of White Horse Inn, we’ll talk with hip-hop artist Jason Petty about the pursuit of excellence in ordinary life.





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A Place for Weakness
Michael Horton



Secularization In ‘Christian’ America (Part 2)

(This is the second half of the abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization”  from Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R Publishing).  To read Part 1, click this.)

RepublocratSecularization, Subtle and Speciously Orthodox

Yet there are other ways that secular values creep in to orthodox churches. This point has been made again and again by David Wells, the retired professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary, starting with No Place for Truth (1993) and finishing with The Courage to be Protestant (1998). In this latter book, in many ways a summary of his thesis as a whole, David points towards the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of ‘values’ for morals, and the rise of a me-first individual rights culture has come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. On his account, both megachurches and Emergent churches represent not so much counter-cultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. The former is the church’s equivalent of the big box store with its careful managerial techniques and pragmatic, market-driven, pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap mentality; while the Emergent churches (representing a reaction to such crass consumerism) have actually imbibed the slippery epistemologies and eclecticism of postmodernism, which is itself arguably connected to consumerism.

David Wells’ indictment is damning: what he argues is that many churches are as secular in their ambitions and methods as any straightforwardly secular organization. The difference, we might perhaps say, is that the latter are just a whole lot more honest about what they are doing. But, while David’s criticisms are primarily focused on megachurches in the church growth/ Willow Creek tradition and on what we might, for want of a better term, call the evangelical left, is there a case to be made for saying that secular values also pervade the churches which at least think of themselves as traditionally Protestant in the way that David favors?

I believe so, and in a number of significant ways. First, take the ‘rights’ culture which is so typical of the wider world in which we live, where litigation and lobby groups seem to proliferate. Certainly, we can all express dismay at the people who are so inept that they do not realize coffee is hot and, to their great surprise, burn themselves when they spill it and then proceed to sue the vendor for not telling them about the temperature of the steaming liquid in their cups. We have all no doubt rolled our eyes at the latest innocuous action of some employer which has been deemed offensive – and therefore oppressive – to whatever the minority of the month is. There is a clear silliness going here; after all, if I took offense and felt oppressed and psychologically damaged every time an American comedian made a joke about British dentistry, I would never have the emotional energy to lift myself out of bed in the morning.

But rights culture is no monopoly of the Left in either politics or the church. The Left may have their rights to a completely secular public space, to abortion, to gay marriage, but the Right too has its litany of rights as well: to carrying firearms, to cheap gas, to minimal taxation. Now, let me be clear: I am not here drawing any moral equivalence between any one of the rights and any other; what I am pointing out is the way in which the language of Left and Right is typically couched in that of individual rights, whatever the specific issues involved might be.

This plays itself out in the church. What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?

The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger then me and my own agenda; and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.

There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of mutual commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.

That is surely the reason why this is the vow that strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow which has been most weakened by that thing which lies at the very heart of the American dream: the automobile.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church; and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, with its radical individualism as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.

A nation which has a profound sense of the Frontier, of the need for each person to look after themselves, and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of America government which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all of its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core; hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be very suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over in to the church; and, when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of  ‘I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture’ mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and rive to the next church where I can better preserve my anonymity.

The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond

Another area where a secular mentality impacts the church is the identification of the nation of America with God’s special people. Again, I need to be clear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that those Christians who want a place in the public square for the Christian voice are guilty of a secular mindset; many of such simply want their faith to shape the way they think politically, and that is a perfectly legitimate notion. Nor am I concerned with those Christians who are also strongly patriotic; patriotism, love for one’s homeland, is a generally a good thing as long as it does not morph into an uncritical nationalism or racism. What concerns me is the so-called extreme wing of the ‘Christian America’ type movements, where the boundary between church, state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred. An extreme example is provided by the editors of the Patriot’s Bible, an edition of God’s word which is sold on the basis of its connection to the founding of the USA. Even if we set aside the problem of connecting the American Revolution to Paul’s teaching on civil obedience in Rom. 13, the promotional video for the Bible is stunning. A series of images and captions make the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington – first families; Moses and Lincoln – freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress – Founding Fathers. In case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the statement, `Sometimes history does repeat itself.’ Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the United States or any other nation, for that matter. To claim such is puerile, blasphemous nonsense, as bad, if not worse, as anything Osteen might say in a sermon; and it represents nothing other than the secularization of the gospel message to an idolatrous degree.

Yet even the Patriot’s Bible pales in comparison to a painting entitled ‘One Nation Under God,’ which portrays holding the US Constitution, surrounded by figures from American history, including the noted Deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Now, I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not, and to include them pictorially in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous and, quite frankly, risible. It would be fascinating to know what the artist’s view of the faith is: presumably some form of Unitarianism? Patriotism is a civic virtue, and certainly not in itself sinful; but make no mistake – notions of patriotism, so dear to the American Right, can also stand alongside the most secular and heretical visions of Christianity, and can even co-opt such as part of their agenda.

The Celebrity Syndrome

One final aspect of the secular nature of much conservative Christianity is its increasing preoccupation with superstars. This is important, because so often we identify the secular mindset with content – prosperity doctrine, social gospel, straight-down-the-line anti-supernatural liberalism; sometimes, however, the secular mindset is evident not so much in content but in form, a more slippery and surreptitious thing; and it is in this category that I would place the superstar phenomenon. Confessional superstars might be thoroughly orthodox; they may even not like being superstars; but the people and churches who treat them as such betray the creeping secularism in their own mindsets.

Paul is very clear in his letters to the Corinthians. Corninth was a culture where orators, public speakers, were the rock stars of their day. They prided themselves on their ability to declaim eloquently on any given topic, they attracted disciples and fans, and they carried weight within the wider culture. The problem Paul highlights in the Corinthian church, particularly in his first letter, is that members of the church were using the standards of the secular world in order to judge the quality of their own church leaders. The result was a set of factions, or perhaps even better, fan clubs, within the church, focused on different great preachers; and Paul, being, according to his own account, not a physically or rhetorically impressive man, was being dismissed as a second-rater. We can perhaps summarize the Corinthian problem by saying that the church had developed an essentially secular mentality: the criteria of the non-Christian world that surrounded them had come to control how they thought about the ministry and its representatives.

Cults of personality are very bad things; the role of the preacher is to point to Christ and, in that context, to be as invisible as possible. The preacher who brings attention to himself would seem to be, by Paul’s standards, a failure; more than that, a congregation which focuses on the preacher has failed to understand the power and logic of the cross and has capitulated to a secular mindset. Yet the conservative church in America is, arguably, driven to a large extent by such cults of personality.

There are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards this. First, there is the number of parachurch ministries that have sprung up which are focused on the big personality, and frequently named after said personality. Ironically, the movement popularly known as the Young, Restless and Reformed is in the vanguard of such celebrity dominated ministry.  Then there is the proliferation of big conferences with big name speakers, again a staple of the YRR. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such; but it is clear from even a casual glance at the internet or even conversation after church that these things have fostered a church equivalent of stardom where it is not the gospel or even the church that provides the focal point, but Speaker X or Speaker Y. It has also fed in to a church culture where a few high-profile celebrity pastors and scholars seem to believe that no issue has been properly addressed until they have definitively spoken to it.  Such power plays are profoundly secular.

It is very clear that the Lord has blessed the church of today with some remarkably talented individuals who have been used to do remarkable things. One thinks of Tim Keller in New York or  John Piper in Minneapolis. The danger is that, in focusing on such men, we create unrealistic expectations and distorted notions of what normative ministry should be: the evidence that the church models developed by these men can be transplanted with success elsewhere is highly equivocal; more likely, their success is rooted in God using their own remarkable gifts and contexts – the right men in the right place at the right time for something great, if you like. For most pastors, life is likely to be far more ordinary, church far smaller and poorer and the fruits of ministry far less spectacular.

More importantly, we must recognize the preoccupation with such personalities for what it is: a distraction from the very thing for which these men have themselves worked so hard – a single-minded focus on Jesus Christ. So from whence does the problem come? It comes from imbibing the obsessions of the wider culture with big personalities. The world has Access Hollywood, the church has – well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as the Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.


Secularization is slippery; it hits us where we least expect it; and there is naught here for the comfort of conservative evangelicals.  Arguably, those who call themselves confessional evangelicals and yet who build their ministries around cults of personality and slick conferences are in real danger of merely aping the values of secular culture. What is needed is continual reformation which takes us back to the standards of God’s word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.

Secularization In ‘Christian’ America (Part 1)

(In honor of our September/October issue, ‘Secularizing Religion’, MR contributor Carl Trueman (Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary) and P&R Publishers have graciously permitted us to post this abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization” from Dr. Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative.  We’ll post the second half tomorrow.)

RepublocratAmerica, the Exception?

Given the First Amendment, the religious nature of so much political discourse in the States is surprising but does fit in general with what has been seen, at least until recently, as part and parcel of American exceptionalism. This is a wide-ranging thesis which basically argues that the way society has developed in America is exceptional in that it does not follow the pattern of social development that is found elsewhere. Religion is central to this argument: while the development of modern technological societies elsewhere in the world has led to the decline of public, institutional religion, this has not occurred to anything like the same extent in America. The obvious evidence for this is attendance at places of worship, which is still very high in the US but now pitifully low in Europe.

In fact, as the years roll by, it looks increasingly as if it is secular Europe that is the exception, and not America. Religion around the world seems to be on the rise, particularly in places such as Africa. Only in Europe, among the old, indigenous populations, does religion seem to be in any kind of terminal decline; elsewhere, the religious future looks really quite rosy. The rise of modern society does not seem, in general, to be quite as opposed to traditional religion as was once supposed.

I want to ask the question, however, as to whether America was ever that great an exception to secularization, or whether it is rather the case that secularization can take various forms, some of which, ironically, look really rather religious at first glance. Could it be that both Britain and America are really both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such? And could this actually create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume?

The U.S.A: Secularization, Religious-Style

In the USA church attendance, while varying from state to state, is much higher than in Europe. I remember being at a worship service in Grand Rapids in the mid 90s and hearing the pastor lament in a sermon that ‘the tragedy of this town is that only 1 in 2 people will be in church this morning.’ Wow, I thought to myself, that’s a tragedy? Back home we’d call that a revival beyond our wildest dreams. In context, of course, the figures no doubt did represent a decline from earlier generations; and it is also easy to become so used to minuscule church attendance that one can become very jaded about what is really the tragedy of half the population not worshipping on a Sunday; but my point is that, while Grand Rapids may be exceptional even by American standards, this points to the generally very much higher church commitment there than in Europe.

Historians and sociologists will probably debate the reasons for the difference between America and Europe for years to come. Various factors probably play in to the difference: Europe’s twentieth century was one of declining world influence, America’s of increasing, thus helping to foster pessimism and optimism within the respective cultures; Europe saw horrible slaughter and genocide, and significant civilian casualties in a series of major conflicts, while American soil was by and large protected from such, even as she lost large numbers of young men overseas. America also never developed the kind of labour movements found in Europe, had no state church, and contains vast tracts of land where the economy and the lifestyle were rural, agrarian and thus typically conservative and traditional in culture.

The question I want to ask here, however, is: is it actually the case that the church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Secularization might merely have taken a different form in America to that which we find in Europe.

We can start with a soft target: the health, wealth and happiness teaching of men like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. One listens in vain to their addresses for the kind of talk one finds in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where not only does he talk of the cross as providing a logic both to God’s saving action in Christ, but also as providing a paradigm for ministry. The suffering that marks his life is essential for his ability to minister to others who suffer, that he might bring them comfort (e.g., 2Cor 1). Instead, Osteen and Hinn, in their different ways, point their listeners towards an allegedly happy life, free of pain, want, and distress, that is just there for the taking if their advice and spiritual guidance is followed.

Somebody asked me recently if Osteen and Hinn were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are here in the US. Why is that? Came the follow up, to which I replied: they simply wouldn’t work in the UK because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language in the way many Americans do; thus, we have self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity.

Prosperity preachers are a soft target, particularly from the perspective of conservative, confessional evangelicals. But the identification of worldly or secular ambitions with the gospel is no monopoly of the positive thinkers and the prosperity Pentecostallers. The vision–or at least the sales pitch–of all politicians, Left and Right, is more prosperity, more comfort, better health etc. etc. We may tut-tut at Osteen as he pushes his message of health, wealth, and happiness; but is it not the case that many Christians who claim to be orthodox actually nurture similar ambitions themselves? I will argue in the next chapter that the connection often made between economic prosperity and Christianity by conservative Christians is but a more sophisticated and rhetorically toned-down version of the Osteen gospel. At a more mundane level, how many of us assume that God’s favor towards us will be typically demonstrated in the categories of health, wealth and happiness? How many of us, if you like, are as guilty of Corinthian style conceptions of what Christianity should look like, as Osteen and company? Maybe the difference is that Osteen is just more open and honest about it.

Who is Oprah Reading?

Eckhart Tolle? Yes.

Rhonda Byrne? Yes.

Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes.

Rob Bell? Yes!

Our friend Derek Rishmawy who blogs at the Christ and Pop Culture channel at Patheos.com gives us the news on Oprah’s latest spiritual guru. He’s got a great perspective. Here’s a glimpse:

Yes, the moment has arrived. After encouraging us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, pushing us to unlock ‘The Secret’ with Byrne, and exhorting us to let Gilbert teach us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Oprah has added Rob Bell to her list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media mogul picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month,’

Now, this could go sideways in a hurry; but Derek cautions us to think a little more generously, and I think he’s right. It’s not the book I would ask Oprah to endorse, but it’s certainly a step up from her other spiritual best-sellers.

Follow the link to Derek’s post and join the conversation there.

WHI-1172 | The God of the Ordinary

There seems to be a false choice today in many quarters between a secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism. Conceived this way, either nothing is miraculous, or everything is. But in either case, God’s ordinary providence gets sidelined and ignored. That’s what’s on tap for this program as we begin to wrap up our month-long series, Ordinary.



Doug Powell


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Modern Reformation
The Gospel-Commission
Michael Horton


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