Earlier this year, Dr. Horton was at the Ligonier National conference with a number of colleagues. You can listen to the entire conference free from Ligonier’s website. However, we thought we would highlight the Question & Answer session that Dr. Horton was a part of that spoke about creation, science, and other non-controversial subjects. Enjoy!
“To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion…”
We are so good at being legalists. One minute we’re the “older brother” in our Lord’s parable, resentful of the Father’s lavish grace showered on the prodigal son; the next minute we’re smug judges of the “pharisees.” To reverse the roles in another parable, gospel-liberated heirs can be, rather ironically, like the Pharisee who prayed (at least in my version), “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee. I know that I’m totally depraved and am justified by grace alone. I’m so glad I ‘get it’—of course, thanks to you.”
One way of asserting this superiority, waving the “I’m-one-of-those-who-get-it” flag, is to turn the taboos of our past on their head. We’ve discovered liberty in “things indifferent”—adiaphora, or things that are not identified in Scripture as sins. Don’t get me wrong: this liberty is precious. In fact, Calvin went so far as to call it “an appendix to justification.” As he said, to bow the neck to a yoke of slavery in practice is to deprive oneself and others of the joy of the gospel. Yet, as the reformer also observed from Paul, love is the rule. For the weaker brother or sister, we restrain our liberty, but we will not surrender that freedom for which Christ died to those who would exercise tyranny over consciences.
What’s interesting in the Lord’s parable is that the prodigal son never once expressed superiority toward his older brother. The Father had enough love and forgiveness to go around: for both brothers. Enough to unite them in fraternal bonds.
We’re all on a long road to maturity. The problem is that when I behold the holy and generous Father, I can only confess with Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Not that long ago, there was a shared culture of propriety. Even unbelievers who swore like a sailor with their buddies on a fishing trip held their tongues in check around the women and children. They weren’t foul-mouthed in business meetings.
Today, however, there is a culture of baseness. The lowest forms of cultural expression have become the most pervasive, tearing down all of the dividers between “appropriate here, but not here.” Even middle-aged people sometimes try to mimick the youth culture. We see this not only in the sloppy dress that has now become de rigeur, but in church services that borrow from the trivial banalities of pop culture as if it could authentically convey the riches of Christ from generation to generation. Pastors even sometimes say they use of foul language in the pulpit as a missional device, but the justification sounds eerily familiar to that of the shock-jock looking for ratings. Our friend Shane Lems has written a thoughtful post about this topic recently. It affects the way in which younger pastors sometimes dismiss the wisdom of older generations. Even when they talk about wives submitting to husbands—and perhaps members submitting to them—they do not themselves submit to elders and a wider body of fellow officers. It’s sloppy. It lacks discernment. And when it involves swearing while speaking in Christ’s name, it’s sacrilegous. Most non-Christians I know get that. They’re not impressed by preachers sharing their sex life in vivid detail; it sounds like someone who just discovered that sex isn’t a sin.
“Oh, Grow Up!”
In all the pendulum-swinging between making a rule and breaking a rule, what we’ve lost is wisdom or prudence. There are some rich words in the older Christian vocabulary that tag along with these pregnant terms. One is circumspection (from the Latin compound circumspectio; literally, “looking around”: the art of using one’s own judgment (discernment) to apply general biblical teaching and common sense in specific contexts where there is no universally-applicable biblical rule.
It’s all about growing up. When we’re children, we learn the grammar. As disciples of Christ, we learn the basic words, teachings, stories, and rules of God’s Word. Then we enter the dialectical (or logical) stage, when we look for connections and ask questions about what we believe and why we believe it. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle: focusing on the pedals and steering without falling off. Or learning to play the piano: focusing on the placement of our hands and looking at the notes on the page. But then we enter the rhetorical stage, where we’re actually riding the bike, attending directly to the road rather than the pedals, and actually playing the music instead of focusing back and forth on our fingers and the notes. Growing up into Christ is a lot like that.
Legalism messes all of this up, because it keeps us from growing up, from going on to that rhetorical stage where we’re practicing the faith that we profess. It keeps us looking at our fingers and the notes. How far can I go with my girlfriend? What’s the line I can’t cross in doing my taxes? These are the sorts of questions the Pharisees asked Jesus. It’s the genre of questions I often hear at conferences.
If we are drawn to the lowest forms of culture, we shouldn’t be surprised when even non-Christians respond, “Is that all you can sing?” Or “Are your vocabulary, life experience and imagination so limited that you have to shock people with vulgarity?” Even in areas where we’re free, there is wisdom. And in any case, Christians are not free to violate standards of propriety that Scripture does in fact directly condemn.
In Reformed circles it’s often called the “cage phase”: that familiar introductory period when neophyte Calvinists ought to be held in a medium-security facility to ensure the safety of others and themselves. Not only is there the obvious theological revolution that occurs and generates a certain excitement as well as a sense of being let down by one’s churched background; there is, for many of us who came from fundamentalist or evangelical circles, a newfound Christian liberty. Where once the little legalist inside us loved to wave the flag of superiority by parading our dedication to rules that weren’t even found in Scripture, now we do the same thing by parading our liberties. A cigar and a beer aren’t just a cigar and beer, but banners unfurled for all to see. It’s just legalism of a different sort. In either manifestation, it’s childish.
Growing in wisdom is a lot more difficult. It’s like becoming a vintner, a barber, a musician, or an athlete: it takes time, attention, meditation, and art. It requires submitting to expertise—something that we as Americans especially shy away from in our egalitarian culture where everybody is as competent as the next person.
“The Charioteer of all Virtues”
Not surprisingly, most of the references to prudence in scripture are found in Proverbs. Prudence is distinguished from wisdom as a species from its genus. If wisdom is the general capacity for evaluating and following the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (which, Proverbs tells us, begins with theology—i.e., the fear of God), then prudence is that particular exercise of wisdom that involves discrimination. One does not need to exercise discretion in deciding whether to love God and one’s neighbor. However, discretion is called for when deciding on a vocation for that aim, in the week’s bustling priorities, and how best to fulfill it. You can’t learn to ride a bike just from reading a manual; you have to do it, informed by a biblical outlook and common sense, and when you fall you have to get back on and ride.
Here, the specific context, not the general rule, guides moral reasoning: “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge and discretion” (Prov. 8:12). One not only is expected to do prudent things; rather, prudent things are done by a prudent person. The goal of character, Christian or otherwise, is to develop habits of picking up on both general biblical wisdom and particular, immediate contexts. We know a prudent person when we see one: “A fool’s wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame” (Prov. 12:16). “The heart of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Prov. 18:15). If our only categories are “right” and “wrong,” we will miss the opportunities to develop a moral conscience, the character of a prudent person. This isn’t just about Christian practice, but the wisdom that goes with the grain of our created nature.
Plato called prudence “the charioteer of all virtues” (Phaedrus), but Aristotle especially developed this notion in a direction that many, including myself, regard as remarkably consistent with scripture. (And why not? Aren’t we talking about civic righteousness and common grace? Even Luther, who disliked Aristotle generally, said that he was “very good in the area of moral philosophy,” Luther’s Table Talk, #411).
In Book 2 of his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguished virtue as being of two kinds: intellectual, formed by teaching (experience plus time), and moral, formed by habit. In Greek, he points out, ethike “…is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” People become builders by building, musicians by playing, and so forth. Aristotle emphasizes the fact that we are responsible not only for our actions, but for our lives—our character, who we are and who we become. (Again, we’re not in the realm here of redemption, but of common grace.) Our culture today is starving for this sort of moral discourse, especially when the idea that we are passively shaped by our environment is so rife.
I think that Aristotle would tell a mother who is worried about her children seeing any movies, reading any fiction, or hanging out with the wrong crowd, “Give them an alternative prize.” In other words, it is at least in part up to us as parents to provide an environment where truth, goodness, and beauty are known and experienced in depth. If they are gripped by the truth, they will less likely to believe the latest lie. If they become intimate with that which is good, noble, and worthy of respect, they will be less inclined toward the shallow narcissism that feeds immorality in the first place. Familiar with great lives of great men and women who were shaped by integrity and wisdom, they will at least have something to contrast with the trivial characters that they see promoted in the culture. And they will only come to recognize the inferiority of that which is ugly by being familiar with that which is beautiful. Prudence is thereby molding character in such a manner that even where there is not a specific rule or defined expectation in a given situation, they will be able to size things up and make a mature decision. A rule-oriented existence usually stunts the moral growth of people and communities.
Granted, this is more difficult. It would be great if wisdom were just a matter of acquiring information and applying it. That’s how a lot of people do actually think about discipleship: it’s something you can get out of a catalogue. You can’t buy it—it’s not on sale anywhere. In our modern culture, calculative or instrumental reason (what Aristotle called techne: “know-how”) has swallowed the horizon. You can’t Google “winemaking” or buy a kit and think you’ll give Stag’s Leap a run for its money. The difference between pop culture and serious culture is not “common person” versus “elitist,” but values dominated by consumption versus creation, distraction versus attentiveness, passing fancy versus caring.
The Puritans were brilliant at “cases of consciences.” These were fat volumes of ministerial counsel in concrete, specific cases. It was neither “situation ethics” nor Kant’s categorical imperative (“act in such a way that you would decree that act as a universal law”). Most cases pastors faced (and still do) aren’t answered in black-and-white laws that can be applied universally. In some cases, a wife would be counseled to divorce her husband, while in others not; the difference was the specific set of circumstances. A wise person has to get inside the situation and look around, ask questions, spend time, and evaluate—with the advice of others in similar positions of spiritual authority. As Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin explain the approach, “The prudent person is aware that although the final end of human life is fixed by divine providence, the means to achieving that end are ‘of manifold variety according to the variety of persons and situations.’”
Their goal was to educate the conscience, drawing on both the light of nature and the light of grace. Anglican and Puritan divine William Perkins’s Whole Treatise of Cases of Conscience (1606) represents a major contribution. In that book he begins by saying that such an exercise is essential since many Christians struggle with a heavy sense of guilt and “have either growne to phrensie and madness or els sorted unto themselves fearfull ends, some by hanging, some by drowning.” But, according to Jonsen and Toulmin, pietism and rationalism steadily diminished this practice, with the triumph of legalism and the Enlightenment’s “universal morality.”
Calvin on “Things Indifferent”
After his lengthy treatment of justification, Calvin offers a section on Christian liberty in 3.19. of the Institutes. Note how many times Calvin mentions the conscience: “[A]part from a knowledge of [Christian liberty] consciences dare undertake almost nothing without doubting; they hesitate and recoil from many things; they constantly waver and are afraid” (Institutes 3.19.1). The legalism-license pendulum was familiar also in Calvin’s day:
For, as soon as Christian freedom is mentioned, either passions boil or wild tumults rise unless these wanton spirits are opposed in time, who otherwise most wickedly corrupt the best things…Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? (ibid.)
I know what many of my friends from my upbringing would say to this: with so many perplexities, don’t even open the can of worms. If it could cause anyone offense, don’t do it. So everyone ends up being enslaved to those who do not allow for liberty, since these are (wrongly) categorized as the “weaker brother.” But Calvin says this easy rule-oriented piety comes at too high a price:
Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known. Rather, we must take care that so necessary a part of doctrine be not suppressed, yet at the same time that those absurd objections which are wont to arise be met (ibid.).
After carefully delineating what sense in which believers are even free from the law of God (viz., “…before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences” to condemn them), Calvin explains how freedom from “the severe requirement of the law” actually releases timid consciences to serve God and neighbor (3.19.5).
But there is a further freedom of the Christian, a liberty in “things indifferent”: these are things concerning which “we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently. And the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions.” “Today,” he says, “we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion” over medieval rules. Why not just go along with it all? Who’s getting hurt? “But when consciences once ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of.” First, the sensitive person will say that one thing is wrong, then a further thing, until finally, his conscience will force him “to turn over in his mind” the most trivial matters. “To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw across his path, as the saying goes” (3.19.7).
The “weaker brother,” Calvin argues, is the one who questions his faith because of using or not using his liberty, not someone who questions the faith of others. Thus, many “weaker brothers” are actually pharisees, and for the sake of the liberty for which Christ died they must be resisted. Christians must not miss a single opportunity to “recognize [God's] liberality toward us.” It isn’t a small matter then: “Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God…” (3.19.8-9). For that reason, one need not (must not) give up his or her liberty for the sake of the “pharisee”:
Here is no ‘given’ offense, but those wicked interpreters baselessly so understand it. None but the weak is made to stumble by the first kind of offense, but the second gives offense to persons of bitter disposition and pharisaical pride. Accordingly, we shall call the one the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all! (3.19.11).
As a side-note here, we could observe Paul’s attack on the Judaizers who came to “spy out the liberty” that believers enjoyed. During the Reformation, open-air barbeques were held every Friday in Zurich, the day on which the medieval church had forbidden the eating of meat. Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge, though he personally did not like whiskey, felt obligated to imbibe on occasions when he was called upon to abstain by abstinence groups trying to make his freedom a federal crime. Charles Hodge both reported and commended his son’s practice.
But are these illustrations of a universal rule, an anti-legalistic legalism, that would dictate our policy in each case? Not at all. These Christians exercised discretion, judgment, analysis of the particular situation and the various implications, including their weighing the priorities of both charity and the importance of this truth. At the same time that Paul warns of spying legalists, he adds, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). Are we following such a general rule in our exercise of prudent application? The general rule is set in stone, but prudence is exercised by an educated conscience in particular circumstances that must be carefully evaluated.
So what’s the outcome of all of this? The monks tried to outrun each other in deprivation. But what’s our response, asks Calvin, “…to outstrip his neighbors in all sorts of elegance…” under “the pretext of Christian liberty”?
They say that these things are things indifferent. I admit it, provided they are used indifferently. But when they are coveted too greedily, when they are proudly boasted of, when they are lavishly squandered, things that were of themselves otherwise lawful are certainly defiled by these vices…We have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine. True, indeed. But where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, to gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones—such are very far removed from a lawful [i.e., prudent] use of God’s gifts (3.19.9, emphasis added).
Luther too reminds us, “God has given poor consciences, which lie captive under the accusation and curse of the Law, the comfort of spiritual liberty. But the devil interprets this as liberty of the flesh and creates nothing but confusion and disorder. As a result, his dupes want to be free in everything, lords of all government, and rulers of everybody. In this way the devil sanctimoniously disguises himself under the semblance of the Gospel and Christian liberty and yet overthrows both the Gospel and Christian liberty” (Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, December 9, 1528).
The point is best summarized by the Apostle Paul: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). You see, this is the hinge! The question in such matters is not whether they are lawful (and therefore, permissible for a Christian), but whether they are helpful. In some cases, they will be—no matter what rule-oriented folks may think. But in other cases, not.
Lazy consciences will cut this process off at the pass. So, in the “worship wars,” one group can end the conversation with the wielding of a rule (such as the regulative principle) that is confused with its application. In many cases, that settles everything about as much as merely crying out against those who drink moderately, “Don’t be drunk with wine!” On the other side, there are those who think that if it isn’t forbidden, it’s acceptable. In both cases, more work is required. Both groups should concede that (a) the general rule does not necessarily rule out the category of “things indifferent” and that (b) that fact does not mean that everything permissible is necessarily helpful. So let’s talk about whether our particular practices in worship are “helpful,” conducive to the divinely-prescribed goals, elements, and forms of worship. Surely by bringing both sides out of the legalism-license rule-orientation we could begin a fruitful dialogue in prudence.
Don’t miss Paul’s point: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” Reverse legalism keeps us slaves of the rule-oriented system of our past. If we are to be genuinely free in things indifferent, we must no more be expected to indulge than to abstain. That’s what genuine freedom is all about. And that’s where the re-formation of prudent character—more than that, our conformity to the image of Christ—can begin.
1. Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 68, 130. [Back]
2. ibid., 163.[Back]
Something is wrong youth ministry today. Visit a typical youth program at a typical evangelical church and you’re likely to witness a lot of fun and entertaining activity, yet most Christian teens remain biblically and theologically ignorant, and statistics show that the majority of them will abandon church after high school. On this program, Michael Horton discusses many of the issues and problems related to contemporary views of youth ministry with special guest Brian Cosby, author of Giving up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture.
Sex advice columnist and MTV-show host Dan Savage has come up against heavy criticism of late for his remarks about homosexuality and other eight-letter-words in Scripture. Thrilling as it would be to jump right into that tête-a-tête, the conversation has been had, with no words minced and little love lost. Rather than reiterate what has already been said and discussed, we offer for your consideration an episode of ‘This American Life’. Originally aired in 2009, it features Savage discussing growing up in the Roman Catholic church, mourning the loss of his mother, and his (then) ongoing struggle between his hope to meet her again in heaven and the finality of her death.
Savage is open in his disdain for the religion of his youth, and while he does pull a few punches, the knock-outs are still there – he can’t reconcile the images of the benevolent father with the righteous judge, nor the church’s dogmatic cling to tradition with the rational pull of contemporary values and social mores. The tension is embodied in his description of his mother, who despite her piety and devotion to the church, not only refused to cast him out upon learning of his sexual orientation, but supported him in public and among their family. Close to the time she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease, Savage began sporadically attending church – not mass, but simply visiting the church at different times during the week. In a voice frequently halted by strong emotion, he speaks of ‘fantasizing’ about going to confession and the prayers offered up by his mother’s priest during her last rites; prayers that ‘filled the terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment’. He recalls his mother’s final words – “I’ll always be with you – remember me in your thoughts” – and breaks down in tears as he recounts making his way into St. James’ Church in downtown Seattle after her death.
“The inability to reconcile death has not been good for me – I visit St. James like an addict drops by a crack-house for a fix. To deaden myself to the pain – to lose myself in the momentary fantasy that she lives.”
While I don’t condone Savage’s coarse articulation of his opinions on certain cultural and cultic practices in Scripture, and lament the poor understanding of redemptive history that informs those opinions, the broadcast was a helpful reminder that there is reason behind his rhetoric, and pain beneath his anger. “Being brought up in a faith built around a guy jumping out of his tomb? That makes it difficult to reconcile oneself to the permanence of death,” he said.
It was this hideous inversion of the gospel that left me all but undone. To hear the locus of the gospel – the message of Christ’s victory over sin and death; that blessed historical fact that brings comfort to the afflicted and hope to the bereaved – so tragically perverted was devastating. What ought to have been his chief solace and consolation was spoken of as an almost-insuperable impediment; the hopeful acceptance of being parted from her for a time was lost in tearful frustration at his inability to accept her irremediable non-existence. Truly did Paul write of Christ crucified as a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23).
There may be tender wounds that are long in healing underneath the aggressive bravado and vulgar language of hostile antagonists, and the root of bitterness is often found in natural grief. Beneath the sin and rebellion is a human being created in the image of God, and our Lord’s name is greatly magnified when we who have been forgiven much show patience and humility, being mindful that while we were yet sinners, Christ showed his love for us.
You probably remember the name Jim Gilmore from the White Horse Inn interview we did with Jim about his book, The Experience Economy. Jim has been a good friend of the Inn for several years now and even helped to moderate some of the small group work we accomplished on our recent cruise. Jim is also one of our newest board members, providing oversight and planning for White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation.
One Jim’s greatest strengths is the ability to cut through the pretentious jargon that is too often mistaken for profundity in both business and theological circles. As a result, Jim has become a trusted commentator on those areas of the Christian world where business sometimes intrudes on the church’s divine mission. A case in point is Jim’s recent interview in the Skyebox.
The Skyebox is the online home of Skye Jethani, a popular writer and speaker who also serves as the Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, a publication of Christianity Today International. Recently, Skye asked Jim Gilmore to respond to a previous interview with Rob Bell about vocation and the Christian’s role in the world.
Here’s a snippet. We’d encourage you to read the whole thing here. I think you’ll understand why we’re so glad to have Jim on our team.
Skye: Rob Bell thinks part of the reason we don’t talk about vocation is that we’re ignoring Gen 1 and 2 and jumping straight to the “bad news” in chapter 3. Do you agree?
Jim Gilmore: I don’t agree. His statement in the interview that you did with him — “a lot of Christians have been taught a story that begins in chapter 3 of Genesis, instead of chapter 1″ — struck me as blatantly absurd. I’ve never ever met a Christian who didn’t start with Genesis 1, right along with John 1, for that matter. The very first sentence of the Nicene Creed affirms the first two chapters of Genesis; ditto the Apostles’ Creed. Of course, to the extent contemporary churches no longer affirm and recite the historic creeds… But seriously, today it’s Genesis chapters 3 and 4 that gets downplayed in many circles. That’s the case with most all liberals — and certainly among the prosperity-gospel types.
Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.
In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.
It is hardly a newsflash that we’ve been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and “masculine Christianity” in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don’t feel comfortable in a “safe environment” that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don’t like “conformity, control, and ceremony,” so churches need to “adjust the thermostat” and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they’re “doers”). Men don’t like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.
I get the point about a “soft” ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It’s predictably and tediously “safe.” Get the women there and they’ll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it’s sure to bore any guy who doesn’t want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.
Click here to read the rest of “Muscular Christianity”
On Sunday night [April 29, 2012], 41,000 fans packed Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C., to hear a message of hope, inspiration, and encouragement from Joel Osteen. Most paid about $20 (including fees) for the privilege.
Osteen sold out the stadium—a feat the Nationals rarely accomplish. But did he have to sell out to do so?
Osteen is the latest embodiment of the American Religion—Revivalism. For centuries now, preachers have known how to fill stadiums or circus tents and send people home with hope in their heart and a skip in their step. Osteen promises you will leave a transformed person—at least until his tour comes around again next year, when you can be transformed again.
Osteen’s message is a positive one for a difficult time. Every one of us has seeds of greatness inside, potential that has not yet been released, buried treasure waiting to be discovered. If you were a car, you would be the fully loaded and totally equipped model—”with pin stripes,” he says, gesturing to his suit.
Before God created you, he planned great things for you. As you stretch your faith, “God is going to show up, and show out, in tremendous ways. … If you don’t step into your destiny and release your gift, then this world will not be as bright as it should be.”
That’s a pretty positive message. What could be wrong with that?
The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:
Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.
God is as big as I think him to be.
Yes, this is the American Religion: a program, a plan, five simple steps to help me be all that I can be. This is the religion of the bootstraps, where “God helps those who help themselves.”
By the way, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that is a quote from the Bible. It’s not.
And that’s the second problem. Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.
There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”
One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.
It is not primarily the details of Osteen’s biblical sunbeams that are problematic. It’s the overall message. What’s missing is any sense of human sin. Osteen leads his crowd in a mantra at the opening of his performance: “This is my Bible. Tonight I will be taught the word of God. I can do what it says I can do.” Again, bootstraps.
What does the Bible say we can do for ourselves? Our best works are like filthy rags, the prophet Isaiah teaches (Isaiah 64:6); we are like sheep gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). Paul says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and includes himself in this “all” as “the chief of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The big problem is that we don’t want what’s good for us, and when we do, Paul says, “The good that I want to do, I do not do” (Romans 7:19).
Ring true? It does for me. That’s why the stadium will be full next year. Self-esteem doesn’t help me, it just leaves me with more me, digging deeper within.
How about Jesus? Surely he’s more upbeat than Paul or the prophets? Well, he does offer this simple recipe to happiness: “Sell all you possess, give it away to the poor, and follow me.” You done that yet? Yes, he does say that our faith makes us well, but he is the healer our faith looks to. He also tells the paralytic to take up his bed and walk, but only after he has healed him.
What we want is the excitement and encouragement and affirmation of the stadium—”God is waiting for you to act.” What we need is the truth and compassion of Jesus—”Come to me you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”
After the adrenaline boost, I hope some of those 41,000 find their way through the desert to some place where they can get a drink of water.
Earlier Sunday, 45 worshipers (about 0.1% of Osteen’s crowd) gathered at Christ Reformed Church in Logan Circle—and other churches in this city—to hear a message of sin and salvation, the Good News of a God who loves those who are his sworn enemies. They responded to God’s word with prayer, song, and confession, and received the benediction of a God who pardons sin full and free.
There was hope and inspiration too, but of an entirely different sort. Admittance was free.
[Note: The author didn't make it to Nationals Stadium on Sunday; he caught the previous "Night of Hope Event" at Yankee Stadium online.]
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a communications director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Editor’s note: Just so that you don’t think it is only cranky Reformed types who are saying these things about Joel Osteen, Salon.com also posted a piece on The Osteen Tour stop in D.C.: Joel Osteen Worships Himself
R. C. Sproul, James Boice, and J. I. Packer were already stirring many evangelicals with the vision of a great God who saves sinners by a grace that is amazing from start to finish. Out of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, chaired by Dr. Boice, a host of annual conferences sprouted up across North America. Ligonier Ministries gained a national platform. Inspired and nourished by these efforts, several of us started the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation 20 years ago out of a concern that we need to recover the riches of the Reformation, with the gospel of justification in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, at its heart.
Over these two decades, we’ve been through a series of controversies within evangelicalism about the character of God and his gospel: open theism, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the “emergent” movement, to name a few. Along the way, we’ve engaged Robert Schuller, with the publication of his Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, at a moment when it seemed from the Christian best-seller list that Christianity was being radically re-written in the subjective and therapeutic categories of modernity.
There are still enormous challenges, of course. As our latest issue of Modern Reformation points out, the diet of Christian trade books doesn’t exactly point in the direction of widespread renewal of catechesis. Nevertheless, there has been a proliferation of gospel-centered resources. Groups like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel sponsor large national conferences. Reared on moralism, a number of younger pastors—many of larger nondenominational churches—are being gripped by grace.
Just think of some of the titles of late in this genre: The Gospel as Center, D. A. Carson; The Prodigal God, Tim Keller; Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian; Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J. D. Greear; The Good News We Almost Forgot, Kevin DeYoung; What Is the Gospel?, Greg Gilbert. I’ve added a few of my own logs to the “gospel” fire, so I can only rejoice in what Charles Swindoll called a while back “the grace awakening.”
Of course, there is always a danger that when you take God’s Word out of the church—out of the ambient environment of expository preaching, baptism, Communion, prayer, confession, absolution, and praise—it becomes a genre. Like “gospel music,” gospel or grace can easily become an adjective more than a noun—like a category on “Jeopardy,” carved up into emphases of each parachurch ministry. The latter can do a lot to put “first things” back on the radar, but they can’t proclaim the whole counsel of God week after week, baptize, commune, look after you and your family, and preach your funeral.
We have to be careful that this wonderful recovery of something so precious doesn’t become reduced to “the gospel thing.” I think that this is in part what people are reacting to when they wonder if it has all gone too far. But has it? From what I hear with some growing frequency, this is becoming a real question in our circles. With all this talk about grace, are we becoming antinomians? Maybe we’ve taken the gospel for granted, but are we now over-reacting by taking holiness for granted?
As I’ve said before, antinomianism (or what usually goes by that label) is never the result of taking the gospel too far; it’s the result of not taking it far enough. When, after treating justification so forcefully, Paul anticipates the question, “Shall we then sin so that grace may abound?”, his answer is an equally forceful “No—may it never be!” Yet it’s not by adding a dose of fear to douse the flames of libertinism, but by exposing us to the wideness of the gospel, that he answers this important question. Those who are united to Christ are not only justified but renewed, sharing in the benefits of his resurrection as well as his death. Sin is no longer in power over our lives and destiny. Finally, we are free to obey the command to offer ourselves to righteousness. No longer hearing the Judge’s conditions from Mount Sinai, we hear the Father’s commands from Mount Zion, with a better covenant and a better Mediator.
So does antinomianism really exist? Certainly there have been actual groups and individuals down through the ages advocating freedom not only from the moral law’s condemnation but from its precepts. In recent decades, some evangelicals have argued that one can accept Jesus as Savior but not as Lord. But is this a serious problem in our churches?
For whatever it’s worth, here is my take. There are basically three groups of professing Christians.
- The first are nominal. These are folks who tell Gallup and other pollsters, as well as Christian friends and family members, that they’re believers. However, they resist any external authority; instead, the follow their own lights, their own inner intuitions, drives, and goals for maximizing their potential. Taking a pick-and-choose approach to religion, they do not belong to a local church, don’t really know what they believe and why, and consequently their lives are indistinguishable from those of their non-Christian neighbors.
- The other two groups consist of what we might call the committed: those whose steady spiritual diet keeps them moralized and those who are regularly evangelized.
In the 1950s, Protestant liberals accommodated the faith to modernity by psychologizing, subjectivizing, and moralizing the faith. God was less a Lord and Redeemer external to the self than a power within us to realize our spiritual and moral potential as active agents of his transforming and affirming presence in the world. Meanwhile, conservative Protestantism was often obsessed with distinguishing itself from the world by narrowing the faith to a few fundamentals (fundamental though they indeed are) and superficial codes of behavior that have little or no scriptural justification.
As evangelical churches today accommodate to the psychologizing and subjectivizing of the faith, like mainline churches before them, we can expect more nominal attachments. Here one clearly finds at least practical antinomianism, despite a steady drumbeat of self-justifying moralism. People won’t go to hell for dancing—or for sexual promiscuity, but they may be frowned on if they aren’t happy, or perhaps drive SUVs and fail to participate in the various service projects listed in the bulletin. If all that’s important is finding the right spiritual technology for “my best life now,” then antinomianism is the theory regardless of the actual practices one chooses.
At its heart, though, this isn’t really antinomianism. It’s not a choice between law and freedom but between God’s law and the laws (principles, tools, expectations) that I determine suitable for judging my life and course of actions. After all, for all their personality differences, smiling life-coaches give you a work-out program every bit as arduous as anything you would have found in the party-crashing conservative churches of yesteryear.
There is a real process of secularization in the West, including the United States, and it’s deeper than “antinomianism-vs-legalism.” In my experience, at least, I just don’t run into many card-carrying antinomians in churches. What I do meet are (1) nominal Christians who aren’t converted and therefore are not communicant members of the church, (2) believers who are either self-deceived or burned out on a constant diet of “Do more/Be more” that takes the gospel for granted, and (3) believers who are regularly given a Christ who is great enough and a gospel that is big enough to save Christians, too. Those in the first two categories may be antinomians in theory (denying the external claims of a holy God), but they are far from it in practice; they simply exchange the divine condemnation that leads to Christ with the self-condemnation that leads to despair.
Those who are in the third category alone can pray, “Teach me thy ways,” with joy. They don’t pick-and-choose what they decide is useful or helpful for their life project. They don’t file out of the service saying, “I’m going to sin more so that grace may abound.” They receive the Word in the power of the Spirit: embracing the promises in faith and the commands as their “reasonable service…in view of the mercies of God.” As members of Christ’s body, they submit to the teaching and admonition of the one Christ who is saves to rule and rules to save. For this group of fellow pilgrims, among whom God’s grace in Christ has included me, there is a perpetual movement back and forth between confession of sins, absolution, good works, confession of sins, and on we go. There is joy and frustration, faith and doubt, obedience and disobedience. But the very terms associated with this cycle of sanctification tell the tale: In this new world, at least, antinomianism does not—for it cannot—actually exist.
Modern Reformation contributor and street evangelist veteran Leon Brown sat down with us to discuss his article “Common Objections” – need some practical advice from an old hand? Look no further!
Will God allow murderers to get off scot-free? If so, what does it say about God himself? How can he do this kind of thing and still remain holy? Scripture actually condemns those who justify the wicked (Proverbs 17:15, Isaiah 5:23), so how in the world can we be justified? Only by recognizing the radical lostness of the human condition does the scandal of grace come into full focus. Recorded before a live audience at the Liberate Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the hosts, along with the help of special guest Tullian Tchividjian, interact with the logic of Romans chapters 1-4 and unpack the scandal of grace.
Ed. Glomsrud and Horton