White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1144 | I Am The Way, The Truth, & The Life

What does Jesus mean when he says, “Already you are clean because of the word I have spoken to you”? How does his word make us clean? What are the implications of Jesus’ claim not merely to be a teacher who shows us the way, the truth, and the life, but rather, one who claims to actually be “the way, the truth, and the life”? We will interact with these questions and more as we unpack John 13 through 16.

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Review of Jesus Calling

As far back as you can recall, you’ve started or ended the day with a time of personal meditation on God’s Word and prayer. Only this time, you try something different. You want to hear Jesus speak to you personally. So you take out pen and paper and record the results. As she tells us in her introduction, this is what happened when Sarah Young sought a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus. The result is the daily devotional, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence (Thomas Nelson, 2004). The book has taken off since it was first published. It now includes a variety of supplements and has even been turned into a NKJV study Bible.

The author states up front that, unlike Scripture, the words she reports from Jesus are not inerrant. Nevertheless, she presents them as first-person speech from Jesus himself. “I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible,” she says, “but I yearned for more.” “Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day.” That “more” was “the Presence of Jesus,” something beyond the ordinary means of grace. “So I was ready to begin a new spiritual quest,” beginning with Andrew Murray’s The Secret of the Abiding Presence. After reading God Calling, she relates, “I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God.”

Preparing for an interview today on the topic, I read through Jesus Calling. A few reflections: first touching on the method and then on the message.

The Method

In Romans 10, Paul ties the method of salvation to the message: Just as God has saved us in Christ, apart from our works, he has chosen a method of delivering this gift that puts us on the receiving end. We don’t have to ascend into heaven or descend to the depths to find Christ, according to Scripture. “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming” (v 8). “So faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (v 17).

Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, is the Word Incarnate; his speech is the very word of God. Proving his claims by his resurrection from the dead, he also commissioned his apostles as his ambassadors. Their speech in his name is his speech. Furthermore, when that word is proclaimed and read today, it is the very Word of God. Preaching involves teaching and exhortation, but it is more than that; it is Christ himself commanding, absolving, justifying, renewing, sanctifying, and assuring us. Christ could not be closer to you than he is by his Word and Spirit.

Neither Christ nor the Spirit speaks today apart from his Word. It is through the public ministry of preaching and the sacraments that the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ with all of his benefits. When we meditate on Scripture privately or in our family devotions, it is an extension of that public ministry. The preached Word calls us “out of ourselves,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, binding us to Christ and therefore to his body. It is not simply a private affair in the garden, alone, whose joy “none other has ever known,” as the Keswick-inspired hymn has it (“In the Garden”). It was this point that separated the churches of the Reformation not only from Rome but from the Anabaptists.

Yet evangelicalism is a river into which various streams converge. The Reformers discovered in Scripture an inseparable connection between the public and the private, the external and the internal, the formal and the informal. However, radical Protestantism has frequently set the latter over the former. Sure, the external Word matters, but it’s the word that Jesus or the Spirit speaks directly to each of us every day that matters more. “Something more” is the essence of what the Reformers called “enthusiasm.”

In terms of method, then, Jesus Calling is a “something more” book. At the very least, I believe that it encourages believers to see God’s Word as hum-drum and to ascend into the heavens or descend to the depths to discover a word that will make Jesus more present in our daily lives. According to the Reformation stream of evangelicalism, God speaks to us in his Word (the arrow pointing down from God to us) and we speak to him in prayer (the arrow directed up to God). However, Jesus Calling confuses the direction of these arrows, blurring the distinction between God’s speech and our response.

The Message

In terms of content, the message is reducible to one point: Trust me more in daily dependence and you’ll enjoy my presence.

There are some good points. Jesus, according to the author, doesn’t promise a problem-free life; trials are opportunities for growth spurts. He’s in charge and works everything together for our good. Don’t seek Jesus merely to confirm your own plans for the day, but be transformed by his purposes. And above all, fix your eyes on Jesus.

Yet I kept asking, “What purposes”? “Who is Jesus and why should I fix my eyes on him?” In short, the gospel is taken for granted. When exhortations to trust are separated from a clear proclamation of who Christ is, what he has done, and why he is therefore trustworthy, trust simply becomes a work—something that I need to gin up within myself.

The substance of the book is drawn from the wells of the Keswick or “higher life/victorious life” movement that B. B. Warfield critiqued so thoroughly at the turn of the twentieth century in his massive study, Perfectionism. Based on the Wesleyan notion of two acts of faith—one for justification and another for sanctification, the Keswick teaching calls believers to enter into the “higher life.” While they are saved, many believers fail to experience the presence of Jesus in their daily lives. By “surrendering all,” letting go of their attachment to the things of this world, and striving to enter into this realm of ultimate peace, believers can attain a perpetual state of victory. As Warfield pointed out, the movement exhibited a deep inner contradiction in its message. On the one hand, you aren’t supposed to do anything, but simply rest in Jesus. Leave off striving! On the other hand, there are many things that you have to strive to do in order to enter into the higher life. Warfield traced the lineage back to Germany mysticism.

Andrew Murray (1828-1917) was a classic spiritual writer in this stream and his book, The Secret of the Abiding Presence, has been a staple of Keswick piety. Murray’s emphases are replete throughout Jesus Calling. The only difference is that they are placed on the lips of Jesus himself.

Compared with the Psalms, for example, Jesus Calling is remarkably shallow. I do not say that with a snarky tone, but with all seriousness. The Psalms first place before us the mighty acts of God and then call us to respond in confession, trust, and thankfulness. But in Jesus Calling I’m repeatedly exhorted to look to Christ, rest in Christ, trust in Christ, to be thankful and long for a deeper sense of his presence, with little that might provoke any of this. Which means that I’m directed not actually to Christ but to my own inner struggle to be more trustful, restful, and thankful.

Consequently, trust becomes a work. Nothing depends on us, but everything depends on us. Strive to stop striving. Then, “Save your best striving for seeking my face” (71). “Thankfulness opens the door to My Presence…I have empowered you to open or close that door” (215). You can achieve the victorious life through living in deep dependence on Me” (6). “Every time you affirm your trust in me, you put a coin into my treasury. Thus you build up equity in preparation for days of trouble. I keep safely in My heart all trust invested in Me, with interest compounded continuously. The more you trust Me, the more I empower you to do so…Store up for yourself treasure in heaven, through placing your trust in Me. This practice will keep you in My Peace.”

The first mention of Christ even dying for our sins appears on February 28 (page 61). The next reference (to wearing Christ’s robe) is August 9 (p. 232). Even the December readings focus on a general presence of Jesus in our hearts and daily lives, without anchoring it in Jesus’s person and work in history.

As in Keswick spirituality more generally, trust becomes an inner virtue that grows by its exercise. “The more you choose to trust Me, the easier it becomes,” Jesus allegedly says. “Thought patterns of trust become etched into your brain.” This has more in common with Aristotle than with the Apostles. The latter taught that faith comes—and is strengthened—by hearing God’s Word proclaimed.

Reading Jesus Calling, I was reminded of the confusing message of my Christian youth. Longing for “something more,” I pored over my mother’s bookshelf: Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, D. L. Moody, Bill Bright, and Andrew Murray. Only with the discovery of the Reformers and various Puritan writers was I offered a liberating alternative that drew me out of myself to cling to Christ. While looking to this Reformation stream for a cluster of doctrines, many in the history of pietism have looked for “something more” elsewhere. Luther and Calvin may be great guides on understanding salvation, but we find our spirituality in medieval and modern alternatives. Yet Reformation piety directs us to the Word, always to the Word, where Christ speaks to us every time it is preached and his sacraments are administered in his name. When we come to this Word, in public and in private, we never need something more.

WHI-1143 | The Triumphal Entry

A week before his crucifixion, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. What is significant about this event, and what prophecies are alluded to here? How does Jesus himself describe his own mission and purpose in this account? On this edition of White Horse Inn we discuss the triumphal entry recorded in John 12.

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A Reformed Farewell to Benedict XVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Further Reading:

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

Remembering Dr. Koop (1916-2013)

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter from Agony of Deceit

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

Audio from a 2001 WHI broadcast:

Click here to access the audio file directly

WHI-1142 | I Am the Resurrection

What does Jesus mean about being “the door”? What is significant about his claiming to be the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep”? What does he mean when he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”? On this edition of White Horse Inn the hosts will interact with these passages in more detail as they focus on chapters ten and eleven of John’s Gospel.

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Modern Reformation Conversations – Rev. Zach Keele

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

Angry Atheists Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHI-1141 | The Truth Will Set You Free

“If you abide in my word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Do these words characterize Christianity in our time? Are churches in this country known for their love of “truth”? Are they focused on making disciples who abide in God’s word? That’s what’s on tap for this program as the hosts discuss chapters eight and nine of the Gospel of John.

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Baby Mama or Bride?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of Matt’s post here.

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