White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

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.

WHI-1140 | The Bread of Life

In John chapter six, Jesus has miraculously fed five thousand men. But this sign was intended to point to a greater reality, namely, that Christ himself was the eternal bread of life. Yet the crowds continued to crave more and more temporal miracles; in particular, they wanted another free lunch. But because Jesus was interested in creating disciples rather than consumers, he began delivering some hard sayings that left even the disciples scratching their heads. What are the implications of this text on reaching out to the masses by “dumbing things down”?

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WHI-1139 | The Savior of the World

What is the significance of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John chapter four and what is his point about “living water”? What did he mean when he said, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth”? The hosts will address these questions and more as they focus on John chapters four and five.

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How Far Is Too Far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul adds, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2:15). He warns against specific false teachers. “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity’” (vv 17-19). Timothy is approved and those who follow the gospel (specifically here, the bodily resurrection in the future) are approved as well, while the false teachers are not. They have in fact “swerved from the truth” and are “upsetting the faith of some.” The latter are not to remain under the tutelage of these false teachers, but must “depart from iniquity.” This is an act of discernment. It is foolish to remain in a false church. At the same time, Timothy is called to exercise charity. Even in this case, faithful shepherds recall straying sheep from hirelings in love, “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Why? “God may perhaps grant them repentance, leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (vv 25-26).

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

How Much Do I Need to Know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we can err in either direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHI-1138 | For God so Loved the World

In John chapter 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” What does this verse mean, and how has it been misunderstood in our day? What is the meaning of John 3:16, and how does it relate to our understanding of both salvation and condemnation? Why do some respond positively to the gospel while others reject the good news? The hosts will discuss these questions and more in their continuing survey of the Gospel of John.

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Modern Reformation Conversations – The Inventions of Rome (Part Two)

In this second half of our conversation with Dr. Godfrey, we learn Rome’s understanding of tradition, the ambiguity of patriarchal-sacramental language, and just how Rome dances the Tiber Two-Step.

Enjoy!

Pilgrim Theology Now Available!!

The White Horse Inn store is now ready to ship copies of Michael Horton’s newest book Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctines for Christian Disciples. Before you head off to Amazon, know that they aren’t going to ship until February 5. Oh, and there is one other thing, only the WHI store will send you the book signed by Dr. Horton!

Get your copy today!

The 2011 award-winning publication The Christian Faith garnered wide praise as a thorough, well-informed treatment of the philosophical foundations of Christian theology, the classical elements of systematic theology, and exegesis of relevant biblical texts. Pilgrim Theology distills the distinctive benefits of this approach into a more accessible introduction designed for classroom and group study.

In this book, Michael Horton guides readers through a preliminary exploration of Christian theology in “a Reformed key.” Horton reviews the biblical passages that give rise to a particular doctrine in addition to surveying past and present interpretations. Also included are sidebars showing the key distinctions readers need to grasp on a particular subject, helpful charts and tables illuminating exegetical and historical topics, and questions at the end of each chapter for individual, classroom, and small group reflection.

Pilgrim Theology will help undergraduate students of theology and educated laypersons gain an understanding of the Christian tradition’s biblical and historical foundations.

WHI-1137 | Behold the Lamb of God

Who is Jesus, and what was his ultimate mission? Some today say that he was a kind of philosopher or moral reformer who teaches us all to share our toys and behave on the playground of life. But these views presuppose that the human predicament is that we simply need a little advice or enlightenment, and not something drastic like eternal redemption from sin, death, and hell. On this edition of White Horse Inn the hosts will continue to unpack the first two chapters of John’s gospel and will point out the significance of Christ’s role as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

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