The Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) usually gets a bad rap. This is probably due to the fact that when held up to the RPW much of what happens in many churches is ruled “out of order.” Since we would rather do in worship what we want to do instead of what God wants us to do, the RPW is dismissed outright. Kevin DeYoung recently wrote a post about the freedom that actually comes with following and taking seriously the RPW.
Some in our circles have a pretty cheerful estimate of the state of evangelicalism in America today and identify criticism with “Reformed chauvinism.” In that context, this October 2009 article by Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, is worth reading: “In the Beginning, Grace”.
In the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pronounces a blessing on his disciples saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”…”blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the pure in heart,” etc. But what does it mean to be meek, or pure in heart, and how does one qualify for this kind of blessing? If only the “pure in heart” are blessed, how can any of us be saved? On this program, the hosts will address these questions as they conclude their discussion of the Beatitudes in their new series on the Sermon on the Mount.
Brian W. Thomas
I’ve been reluctant to respond to Professor Frame’s The Escondido Theology, published recently by Whitefield Media. Since the book focuses its critique on Westminster Seminary California, where I teach, I’d encourage readers to visit the Seminary website for a brief response from our president, W. Robert Godfrey. It would be of no edifying value to anyone to go into the details of John Frame’s departure from WSC. Suffice it to say that there are two sides to every story and if you’ve read The Escondido Theology, you have only heard one side whose details many of us would dispute. None of this matters in any case for the general good of the church and the Great Commission, so I will not raise it here.
There are a lot of criticisms in the book directed at my writing, so I’ll say a brief word about it. Having read the book recently, my reluctance is due primarily to the fact that I don’t know quite where to begin and to respond point by point may not contribute much to the cause.
The bottom line for me is this. Whether intentionally misleading or merely sloppy, this book represents a new low in intra-Reformed polemics. I’m encouraged to hear that various Reformed companies declined to publish the book. It is so replete with caricatures, misrepresentations, and straw opponents that a healthy debate on important issues is aborted at the outset. If I held some of the views John attributes to me, I would be alarmed as well. Old grudges appear to cloud his judgment, even to the point of defending Joel Osteen, for example, against my critique (which, again, he caricatures). I hope readers of John’s book will also consult the books that he attacks rather than take his word for it that they say what he claims.
John Frame has consistently defended “evangelical reunion,” even while questioning the ecumenical formulation of the Trinity, the Reformed regulative principle of worship, and downplaying many historic categories of classical Reformed theology. He often scolds those who take creedal and confessional subscription seriously, while even defending people like Joel Osteen with remarkable sympathy.
There’s a history here of being nicer to those outside Reformed circles than within. A while back, John’s critique of David Wells’ scholarly study of evangelicalism and American culture (acclaimed by many outside as well as inside Reformed circles) went in tandem with his odd arguments against Richard Muller, the dean of Reformed scholasticism specialists. (See Richard Muller’s response in Westminster Theological Journal 59 : 301-310.) I wish I had the good sense of humor expressed by David Wells’ response, “On Being Framed” (in that same issue). John seems to be the least charitable to those who are most convinced of the distinctive contributions of the Reformed tradition and who, despite their long and serious contributions to the evangelical movement, are worried that it has become too captive to modernity.
A number of John’s claims cluster around the charge of being “Lutheran.” Yet he does not represent Lutheranism fairly (lacking serious documentation for sweeping generalizations); nor does he represent my views accurately. So there is only a vague suspicion, with the terrifying prospect that in spite of all of their notable feuds, Luther and Calvin—and their heirs—might nevertheless have been leaders of the same magisterial Reformation. Apparently, my association with Baptists does not raise eyebrows, but Lutheranism is beyond the pale.
This would have been odd even to American Presbyterian and Reformed folks a century ago. Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and Herman Bavinck, would not have understood this development. Of course, they also defended Reformed distinctives over against Lutheran, Baptist, and other positions. Nevertheless, they took it for granted that confessional Lutheran and Reformed Christians were natural allies, joined at the hip on major issues.
Just for the record, I am not a Lutheran or a Baptist, as my Lutheran and Baptist friends will attest. Unlike Calvin, Bucer and other Reformed leaders, I have never signed the Augsburg Confession. My confession, without reservation, remains the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards. That should be clear enough to anybody who has read my books, including my systematic theology, The Christian Faith.
Doubtless, there are many reasons for the fear of “Lutheranism” among some in our circles. Since the Great Awakening, pietism and revivalism have formed the ties that bind American Protestants. Confessional Lutheran and Reformed immigrants didn’t quite fit and they were often only too happy to remain in relative isolation. Ever since the “Shepherd controversy” (see below), some (like Professor Frame) have sought to distance Reformed theology as much as possible from Luther and Lutheranism, even as they embrace other non-Reformed traditions (from broad evangelicalism in some cases to Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives in others). So “Lutheranism” becomes the bogeyman for a lot of sweeping charges that are not fair to Lutherans, much less to Reformed people who recognize important areas of common agreement.
Let me briefly summarize the rest of my response under the four following points of criticism:
1. Two Kingdoms
First, WSC has no official litmus test on “two kingdoms.” Our president, Robert Godfrey, is a committed Kuyperian and Kuyper’s legacy is seen by many of us here as closer in some respects to a “two kingdoms” view than many neo-Kuyperians assume today. (For example, Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” distinguishes clearly between what the church is authorized to do as an institution and what Christians are authorized to do in various callings.) None of us has presented the idea as a test of orthodoxy in Reformed circles; on the contrary, some of our friends have turned its denial into a test.
Where Reformed theology sees distinctions without separation, John often seems to press a false choice. If you distinguish our heavenly and temporal citizenship, then he suspects that you separate them, denying the latter. (The same tendency is evident in the law-gospel distinction below: either law and gospel are really the same or you deny the former.)
From the days when I was John’s student, I have heard his defenses of theonomy (or Christian Reconstruction). Although he dissented on some points, he seemed to appreciate the movement’s broader emphases. Years ago, the faculties of Westminster Philadelphia and California produced Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Zondervan, 1990), edited by William Barker and W. Robert Godfrey. Richard Gaffin, Jr., defended amillennialism and Will Barker articulated a biblical-Reformed case for political “pluralism.” Put those together and you basically have “two kingdoms.” Other great essays were included by Tim Keller, John Meuther, and terrific historical chapters by Robert Godfrey (on Calvin) and Sinclair Ferguson (on the Westminster Confession). John Frame contributed a chapter trying to unite theonomists and their critics. My point is that a critique of “one kingdom” thinking by the joint faculties of both Westminsters was mainstream in 1990. I’m sure that John didn’t agree with everything in that volume, but to my knowledge he didn’t call his colleagues “Lutheran,” even though it expresses the views that we at WSC still hold today.
Calvin embraced the “two kingdoms” doctrine explicitly—in those terms. Of course, it was the era of “Christendom,” where Luther no less than Calvin expected the civil magistrate to defend the true faith. Nevertheless, at least in theory, he made precisely the same arguments as Luther. I wonder if those sympathetic to theonomy or making America a “Christian nation” are really serious. Do they really want the White House or the legislative or judicial branches to enforce the first table of the law? Will orthodox Protestants be the only ones allowed to rule, or will a few Roman Catholics, Jews, and perhaps a conservative mainliner or two pass the Senate confirmation hearings? This is not to say that God’s moral law is no longer in force, that it no longer expresses God’s eternal measure of righteousness. Rather, it is to recognize that the New Testament teaches us to live as “strangers and aliens” in this present age, loving and serving our neighbors through our callings, witnessing God’s Word to them, and contributing toward the common good of a city that is important but never ultimate.
Although John’s book claims that this idea of “two kingdoms” is an extreme view, he explicitly states that he isn’t interested in engaging with David Van Drunen or others who have explored the history of Reformed interpretation in detail. So he turns to an exegetical critique that turns out to be thin on exegesis. Only by reducing the view to a caricature is he able to refute a straw position.
With Luther, Calvin, and, yes, Kuyper, a proper Reformed view of Christ and culture affirms God’s lordship over all spheres of life, while nevertheless distinguishing between the way Christ rules his church by his Word and Spirit from the way he rules in providence and common grace. Why did Luther call them “the kingdom of the left hand” and “the kingdom of the right hand”? Because they were both God’s hands! It affirms that special revelation clarifies general revelation, the latter of which we by nature suppress in unrighteousness (although, as Van Til pointed out, sinners can’t suppress everything at the same time). The church proclaims God’s Word, both the law and the gospel, to the world. Where it speaks, we speak. Neither I nor my colleagues teach anything remotely suggestive of the idea that the Bible has no bearing on the convictions and actions of Christians in the public square.
Let me offer an example. I hold a pro-life stance as a Christian, on the basis of the biblical truths of creation, fall, redemption, and the consummation—as well as explicit commands for extending love to neighbors. I make those convictions explicit even in talking to non-Christians. However, because they are made in God’s image and cannot suppress everything at the same time, and the Spirit is also at work restraining evil in common grace, I can appeal to what I know they know even as they suppress its logical conclusions. As Calvin reminds us, “The moral law is nothing other than the natural law that is written on the conscience of all.” Of all people, Christians should not remain passive in the face of slavery, abortion, racism, exploitation, injustice, and failures to be stewards of God’s good creation. However, they can work alongside non-Christians in these callings without having the church bind their consciences about specific policies or agendas that are not authorized by God’s Word.
In content, this natural law is a revelation of God’s righteousness, justice, power, and moral will—distinct from the revelation of his saving will (the gospel) in Jesus Christ. Here, as in many cases throughout John’s critique, crucial distinctions are often blurred and then if you deny this synthesis you are accused of not holding to both.
2. Law and Gospel
At first, John seems to affirm the distinction. He even concedes that Calvin and Reformed writers affirmed it as well as Luther and Lutheranism. What he’s against is a “radical law-gospel antithesis.” Yet once again, his own alternative is a blurring of the distinction altogether. The gospel includes commands and the law includes gracious promises, he argues. So it’s not clear to me whether he affirms the distinction or denies it, but the latter seems to be the last word. If he were to say that the covenant of grace includes commands (or that there are commands to repent and believe the gospel), who could argue? But these commands to repent and believe (and obey) are not the gospel; they are the proper response to it. Or, if he were to say that the gospel was promised to the old covenant saints through types and shadows, again, who could take issue? Yet to say that the gospel itself is law and the law itself is gospel is not to hold them together; it’s to make them one and the same thing.
In the 1970s, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was racked by a controversy surrounding Norman Shepherd’s denial of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification. The law and the gospel were confused. Well did Calvin’s sidekick Theodore Beza remark that “This confusion over law and gospel has been and remains the greatest source of corruption and abuses in the church.” Eventually, Professor Shepherd resigned and left the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Two decades later, the theonomy debate stirred the pot. And more recently, the “Federal Vision” movement arose in our circles, largely out of these two tributaries.
In each of these challenges to the Reformed confession, John’s sympathies have been explicit. While demurring on some points, he has defended and endorsed these movements’ writings even as both “Westminsters” and all of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have ruled them beyond the bounds of the confession. The two forewords to The Escondido Theology are written by noted theonomists. One vigorous endorsement of The Escondido Theology comes from a theonomist and Federal Visionist who denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. It is this neonomian paradigm that conflicts with the Reformed confession. Reformed critics, however, are dismissed as “Lutherans” or “Machen’s warrior children.”
This is ironic. Sadly, I’m not surprised that he appreciates their blurring of the distinction of law and gospel or of justification and sanctification. What does surprise me is that someone who is so adamant against anything that smacks of similarity to a “Lutheran” scheme is so sympathetic to a movement that embraces baptismal regeneration and the possibility of losing one’s justification/regeneration.
In both his exegesis and passing historical remarks, John refutes a position that nobody (at least nobody at WSC) holds and then jettisons a distinction that Reformed as well as Lutheran theology regards as fundamental and crucial. He shows little interest in wrestling with the historical debates, because he embraces “something close to biblicism.” In other words, his exegesis of Scripture trumps everyone else’s; what he believes is “biblical” is therefore “Reformed,” even if it goes against the consensus of Reformed interpretation.
3. Application of God’s Word to All of Life
Related to the previous points, John misrepresents me (and my colleagues) as teaching that we should not apply God’s Word to all areas of life.
First, given the fact that John has been critical of the traditional Reformed application of God’s Word to worship in the “regulative principle,” this is an odd charge. Not even the regular preaching of the Word is an essential element in the public service, John argues in this book (and elsewhere). It would surely be odd if one thought the Bible sufficient for politics, but not for the worship and government of the church.
Second, according to John, I relegate God’s Word to the private life of individuals or the corporate life of the church, having nothing to do with the believer’s stewardship and vocations in the world. I don’t know how anyone could conclude this from anything I have written. In fact, I’ve written books on the role of the law in the Christian life (The Law of Perfect Freedom), the importance of a world-embracing vision of Christian vocation in all spheres (Where in the World is the Church?), and the importance of engaging in culture with godly discernment (Beyond Culture Wars). John even alleges that we don’t talk enough about the Great Commission, when it forms the backbone of much of our curriculum. By the way, I wrote a book on the Great Commission, which also clearly advocates Christian involvement in the world and application of God’s Word to all areas of life.
One point where John is especially egregious in his misrepresentations of my view concerns the third use of the law. At the outset, this would hardly be a “Lutheran” move, since Melanchthon first coined the “third use” and it was included in the Book of Concord in the section against the antinomians. Furthermore, in many places I’ve argued that Calvin and other Reformed writers more carefully nuanced the position and emphasized the third use (including the importance of a disciplined life and church). There are important differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions. However, those differences pale in comparison with the denial of the important distinctions that both traditions affirm together and writers like John Frame either deny or confuse.
In several places John is irritated by my suggestion that we have bent over backwards “translating” the gospel in terms not only that people can understand but that they can accept. It’s not a question of making it communicable, but palatable. Another distinction he doesn’t seem to recognize in my argument. Of course, I affirm translating the Bible into vernacular languages (where would the contrary assumption be gleaned from anything I’ve said)? Of course, I believe that we need to communicate clearly and effectively, drawing analogies from everyday life in our own day. Of all the reviews I’ve seen, only John’s interprets me as suggesting that we should just read the words of the Bible and not try to explain it to people.
What I point to explicitly is something like Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” where you ask the world to define the questions and then go to the Bible for the answers. The wrong assumption here is that we already know what we need before God tells us. In opposing this tendency to accommodate God’s radical Word to the fallen mind and heart, I am simply defending what Kuyper and Van Til referred to as the “antithesis” between godly and ungodly thinking. It’s surprising that a distinguished disciple of Cornelius Van Til would take issue with that argument. (He also takes issue with my advocacy of the archetypal-ectypal distinction—and the analogical view of human knowledge—evidently siding more with Gordon Clark over Van Til in that important debate.)
Speaking for myself, I have endeavored to explore the riches that I have discovered personally in the catholic, evangelical and Reformed heritage. I owe much of my deepest convictions to professors I had at Westminster California, including Edmund Clowney (who helped me understand, among many other things, “two kingdoms” thinking without calling it that), Robert Godfrey, Robert Strimple, M. G. Kline, Dennis Johnson, and others.
In spite of the seriousness with which I take my calling as a minister, I don’t doubt my capacity for error and the need to be open to critique. Reviews are great ways of taking on board important critiques that lead to further reflection and correction. However, as I tell students in class, you have to earn the right to critique first by stating the position held by others in terms that they would at least recognize as fair. It’s one thing to say that you believe a certain view should lead logically to such-and-such a conclusion; it’s quite another to misrepresent someone’s view as actually advocating a position that he or she in fact rejects.
All that I ask is that those who disagree with my arguments in fact disagree with my arguments, not with John Frame’s description of them. Do not assume that if you’ve read The Escondido Theology you actually have any grasp of what I or any of us teach at Westminster Seminary California. Like all of my colleagues, I’m trying to participate in a long conversation that is both appreciative and self-critical of our tradition’s interpretation and application of God’s Word so that the church can be more faithful in this generation. It is a work in progress, and our differences among ourselves as a faculty are treated as the grist for the mill of constant dialogue and mutual correction.
Unlike the days when I was a student, there are no factions on the faculty or among the student body. There is a wonderful spirit of mutual trust, spirited discussion—even debate, and, above all, a common conviction that it’s not about us or any party that we might form around ourselves. We’re collaborating in preparing pastors, missionaries, and teachers to bring all of God’s Word to all of the world in all of the ways that our Lord mandates in his Great Commission. We do need to have healthy debate and discussion in our circles of these important issues. We all tend to emphasize the points that we think are being obscured or over-emphasized by others. However, the level of the conversation in conservative Reformed circles has to improve. Otherwise, our internecine squabbles and confusion will thwart the great promise of a tradition that has always sought, at least at its best, to be “Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God.”
Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, the Executive Editor of Modern Reformation and Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California was recently interview on Office Hours to discuss what books he would want to have with him on a desert island.
Newsweek‘s current cover-story is “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” by Ayann Hirsi Ali, who fled her native Somalia and served in the Dutch Parliament before taking a position at the American Enterprise Institute. As the article points out, widespread anti-Christian violence is exploding even in countries with Muslim minorities. How do we respond wisely as Christians to this growing threat?
First, the crisis calls for concerted prayer on behalf of our brothers and sisters under the cross. More Christians have been martyred in the last several decades than in all of the centuries combined—including the early Roman persecutions. We are directed by Christ to pray first and foremost for the coming of his kingdom, come what may. But we also are called to pray for the “daily bread” and protection from temptation that become especially critical needs under persecution. Corporate and private prayers for all the saints, especially those under the cross, should be high on our list.
2. Faithful Witness
Second, instead of watering down the faith, Christians in the West should stand with fellow saints who are witnessing to Christ even to the point of death. It’s striking that when Paul, writing from prison, asks for prayers on his behalf, he does not even mention better conditions. The gospel is his overriding passion. The “prisoner of Christ” asks for prayer “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph 6:19-20).
The temptation is great to tone down the radical message of the gospel. A growing trend in evangelical missiology, known as the “Insider Movement,” encourages people to become “Jesus followers” while remaining Muslims. They need not profess faith in Christ publicly, be baptized, or become part of the church; they may continue to be Muslims outwardly. In the church’s first centuries, a similar challenge arose. Many, including some bishops, claimed that they could remain Christians inwardly while outwardly surrendering their Bibles and any public identity as believers. Excommunicated, they were known as the “lapsed,” and this gave rise to the well-known statement by the third-century bishop and martyr Cyprian, “Outside the church there is no salvation.”
In the West, including the US, there is a growing detachment from public identification with Christ, including baptism and membership in the church. Emergent church leaders encourage people to become “followers of Jesus” while remaining Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, or Muslims. After all, it’s “deeds, not creeds.” There is growing reluctance to witness openly to Christ for fear of being perceived as narrow-minded and intolerant. While we eschew all appeals to temporal power, much less violence, for the spread of Christ’s kingdom, we must pause to consider the seriousness of Christ’s claims not only in the face of martyrdom but in the face of the more subtle forms of compromise that are weakening our witness at home and abroad. While brothers and sisters sit in prisons for their testimony to Christ, their greatest disappointment is to learn that some Western missionaries are encouraging what amounts to apostasy. It’s a policy that doesn’t even make sense pragmatically, since the duplicity of “Muslim followers of Jesus” outrages the Muslim community even where Christians and Muslims live in relative co-existence.
Controversy over Wycliffe Bible Translators for apparently softening the references to Jesus Christ divinity as the eternal Son of the Father raises further suspicions that we in the West may be losing our nerve just at the moment when Christ is calling his sheep to martyrdom around the world. I had the privilege of participating in a film directed by Bill Nikides. Soon to be released, “Half Devil, Half Child,” includes interviews with Christians in the Muslim world, as well as Muslim leaders. A trailer can be seen here (www.halfdevilhalfchild.com).
3. Human Rights, Not Just Christian Rights
Third, Christians in the West should advocate publicly for human rights, including religious freedom, as part of the universal mandate of neighbor-love. Ramez Atallah, an evangelical leader and general secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt, reportedly counseled, “It’s not to our benefit to have loud voices overseas talking about Christians. It’s a great benefit to us to have loud voices abroad talking about a more universal bill of rights for all Egyptians.” (See that article here).
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved and yet often misunderstood passages of the entire Bible. Many think of it as a blueprint for the gradual improvement of the human race through pacifism, love and generosity. But is Jesus talking to the world in general, or to his disciples in particular? Is this sermon exclusively about ethics, or does it also include the gospel? How should we interpret the Sermon on the Mount? That’s what’s on tap for this edition of the White Horse Inn.
Brian W. Thomas
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved—and often misunderstood—passages of the whole Bible. Some come to Jesus’ famous speech as if it were a blueprint for the gradual improvement of the human race through love rather than law. At the other extreme are those who say that it has no place in the church today, but is entirely relegated to a future “kingdom age.” In between there are various interpretations that we’ll encounter along the way.
The first thing to do is set up the context. Who is Jesus addressing? According to Matthew’s Gospel, “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain.” This was not in order to broadcast his voice to the thousands, but rather to escape the crowds: see also Mark 1:32-37, John 6:1-3; 6:15, for similar actions. Proof of this is the fact that he sits down and looks up at his disciples. In other words, the sermon is given to a more intimate crowd of his followers (i.e., those who followed him up the mountain).
Looking at the structure of the synoptic gospels, this address could be seen as an ordination sermon given to his disciples at the time of the selection of the twelve apostles (Matt 5:1-2, Lk 6:13, Mk 3:13).
Matt 4:1-11 – Temptation of Jesus
Matt 4:12-17 – Ministry in Galilee
Matt 4:18-22 – Calling of individual disciples
Matt 4:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Matt 5:1 – Jesus ascends a mountain and sits down. Many of his disciples come to him
Matt 5:1-2 – Sermon given to his disciples: “when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…” He is not standing on top of a mountain addressing the crowds below.
Luke 4:1-13 – Temptation of Jesus
Luke 4:14-43 – Ministry in Galilee
Luke 5:1-39 – Calling of individual disciples
Luke 5:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Luke 6:12-16 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples
Luke 6:20 – Sermon given to his disciples: And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples (looking up assumes a sitting position).
Mark 1:13 – Temptation of Jesus
Mark 1:14-15 – Ministry in Galilee
Mark 1:16-20 – Calling of individual disciples
Mark 1:21 – 3:12 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Mark 3:13-19 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples. The exact same structure is present here, but Mark does not include the sermon…
Where is this Sermon in the history of God’s unfolding drama? Its focus is the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus is bringing into the world. This kingdom is not something that human beings are building, but a gift that God is giving. That’s why it’s called “the good news of the kingdom,” not “the good program of the kingdom.”
God commissioned Adam and Eve to rule and subdue, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth. From its capitol in Eden, God’s reign was to be spread to the ends of the earth. Israel, too, was called to guard and keep God’s sanctuary, driving the serpent from his garden, living in love and peace together, spreading the kingdom from its capitol in Jerusalem. As we read in Hosea 6:7, “Like Adam, Israel broke my covenant.” And, like Adam, Israel was sent into exile “east of Eden.”
Yet through the prophets God directed Israel’s hopes to the coming Messiah and a deliverance that was based solely on his mercy. It was based on the Abrahamic promise rather than the Mosaic law; the oath that God swore to Abraham, not the oath that Israel swore at Mount Sinai.
The promise God made to Abraham was of a temporal land, the land of Canaan, that would be typological of a greater promise—namely, the whole world, everlasting life in God’s holy presence. He also promised him a seed—numerous physical descendants, but that was typological of something even greater: a redeemer-seed in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.
So it’s this Abrahamic promise that the prophets appeal to as Israel lies in exile, poor in spirit, persecuted, meek, and hopeless. The prophets proclaim a coming day when God’s glorious presence will overflow the Jerusalem sanctuary. It will cover the whole land of Israel (Ezek 37:25-28) and then the whole earth (Isa 54:2-3; Dan 2:34-45). The nations will come to Zion (Amos 9:11-12; Is 2:3-4; 11:10—12). Isa 26:16-19: “You have increased the nation, O LORD, you have increased the nation, your are glorified; you have extended all the borders of the land.” God tantalizes his people with the vision of a highway running between Israel and its erstwhile enemies, including Egypt and Assyria, as together they are all called the people of God and worship as one body. Is 26:18-19 prophesies “deliverance for the earth” and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” In chapter 27, it’s like a new Garden of Eden and Israel will at last “fill the earth.” All of this is rooted in the promise to Abraham: “In you and your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3).
So clearly already in that promise to Abraham, the expanding of Israel, both geographically and numerically, is not limited to ethnic Jews. The Messiah, David’s own Lord as well as descendant, will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8). In Ps 2 Yahweh promises the Messiah, his Son, “I will give the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth as your possession” (Ps 2:8). Ps 37:11 promises, “But the humble will inherit the land” (the phrase “inherit the land” is repeated in vv 3, 9, 18, 22, 29, 34). Furthermore, this is no longer in the conditional form: they will inherit it “forever” (v 29) and the wicked will but cut off forever, without inheritance (vv 9-11, 28). The earth (v. 5) is the kingdom of heaven (v 3). This is the “age to come,” referred to in inter-testamental Jewish sources, with roots in the prophets (Is 60:21: “Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified”).
This is the stock of prophetic hope from which the New Testament draws when it speaks of Christ as Abraham’s promised seed and the kingdom that he brings as a gift of grace. As Paul tells us in Romans 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” In fact, the word for “world” here is not just the earth (ge), but the whole cosmos. Romans 8 teaches that the whole creation is longing to join in the cosmic liberation that will arrive when the saints are raised in everlasting glory. Hebrews 11 teaches that Abraham was justified through faith, longing for a greater (heavenly) land. And in Revelation 21 and 22 we finally see the new heavens and earth, risen afresh in a glory never seen before, cleansed of all unrighteousness, violence, suffering, and death.
This kingdom is a gift, an inheritance. Like the inheritances we are familiar with, it’s not something we attain, build, or earn. It’s something we hear about. We are made beneficiaries of it. But how? And what kind of new family, what kind of new society, does this inheritance create? All of these questions are addressed in Jesus’ famous sermon.
It is significant that Jesus does not begin with commands, but with blessing. In the old covenant, national blessing was held out as the condition for national obedience: “If you do this, you will live long in the land that I am giving you; if you don’t, you’ll be cut off and exiled from the land.” Yet Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, reverses the order here. The blessing is greater than that of the old covenant, just as the reality is greater than its shadows. And the blessing is surer than that of Sinai, because it is grounded in God’s promise to give an everlasting inheritance gratis, as a free gift. The law still has its place. It still commands good works, but these are not conditions for remaining tenants in God’s land, but an inheritance for children whom he adopts in the Son of his love. Because our elder brother has fulfilled the whole law, the commands are not conditions for us to fulfill, but the appropriate response of thanksgiving in view of the mercies of God.
Which is more important, Christ’s objective work on the cross 2,000 years ago, or my subjective experience of God today? The good news that the Apostles announced concerned Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and the announcement of that objective fact creates faith and a rich experience of thankfulness and gratitude. But what happens if we preach experience itself, rather than the objective work of Christ? On this special edition of the program recorded live at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, Michael Horton and Rod Rosenbladt unpack the relationship between faith and experience.
Thanks to the 358 commenters on our 20th Anniversary post. Using a random number generator, our staff chose 11 winners.
The grand prize winner is David Crabb who will receive a signed Horton library, a one-year subscription to MR, and five one-year subscriptions to give to his friends. Our ten other one-year subscription winners are:
- Vince Canilla
- Brian Thornton
- Ashwin Ramji
- Prayson Daniel
- Robert Caron
- Mark Stumpff
Congratulations, too, to the winners of Justin Taylor’s contest. His post generated 460 entries/comments!
One of the best things about this contest was reading your many, many comments about White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation, our hosts, and your memories. We passed along many of your comments to the staff and hosts. It really encourages us to hear how our work is making a difference for you.
If you didn’t win, you can still take advantage of our 20 years for $20 anniversary special. This is the lowest price we’ve ever offered for the magazine. In addition to the print version (published six times per year), you’ll also have access to our digital version, which can be read on any smartphone or tablet device, and you’ll get immediate access to twenty years of our archives!
We’re also offering a special bulk subscription rate for pastors and churches, which will allow you to purchase individual copies of the magazine for bulk distribution for only $1 apiece.
You can take advantage of both of these deals by calling our office at 800.890.7556 or go online and complete your purchase there.