White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

What happened to God?

The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009 gave rise to a year of debate about the world-historical significance of the French Reformer. Everything from politics and economics to art and philanthropy were cited as having been influenced (even “transformed”) by Calvin’s life and work. Much of what was claimed was highly debatable, though it does make for interesting discussion.

But what seemed to be missing from most of the Swiss city of Geneva’s marketing materials for the anniversary celebration was reference to Calvin’s very practical and immediate impact on the church and its ministry, such as the reforming of idolatrous Roman aspects of worship, the establishment of the “consistory” or body of elders to care for and govern the local church, and the centralizing of Word and Sacrament for Christian ministry.

With the quincentennial of the Reformation approaching in 1517, I anticipate the same kind of lively discussion about Luther’s legacy. What was his impact, after all this time? That’s a good discussion to have, one that is already underway. How fascinating it is to note that the person closest to the truth at this early planning conference in Germany was a Roman Catholic architect! Sometimes truth comes from the strangest of places . . .

It was an evening with a lot going on at many levels, although not once did Luther’s core premise come up – that man is saved by faith and grace alone, and that the pious acts that Catholics thought could help played no role in salvation. The word “God” was seldom used during the evening, and if memory serves, the name “Jesus Christ” wasn’t mentioned a single time.

The question that remained unanswered at the end was: what is the 500th Anniversary celebration in 2017 actually going to be about? Revisiting and strengthening evangelical faith? Or a festive and soon-forgotten occasion with colloquia, ceremonies, entertainment?

Which is not to say that what the nine distinguished “outsiders” told EKD representatives was stupid. On the contrary: it was a sum of what a broad spectrum of society feels towards religion. And God didn’t come into it.

Read the article

WHI-1119 | Christianity vs. Pop Spirituality

What is the typical message one is likely to find in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of a local bookstore, and how does that view differ from classical Christianity? On this program, the hosts contrast the historic Christian gospel with numerous bestselling alternatives, from both the world of New Age spirituality as well as many of the “practical” books in the “Christian Living” section of a typical evangelical bookstore.

RELATED ARTICLES

The New Gnosticism
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Zac Hicks

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Click here to access the audio file directly

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

In the Face of God
Michael Horton

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

Horton Reviews Kingdom Through Covenant

Dr. Horton was asked to review the new book by Gentry and Stephen Wellum titled Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012) over at The Gospel Coalition. Here is an excerpt of the review:

However, their argument assumes that the mere presence of commands indicates a mixture of unconditional-conditional aspects in the basis of the covenant itself. At this point, Reformed theology has traditionally appealed to a distinction between basis and administration. The mere presence of commands says nothing about the basis of a covenant itself. Circumcision (like baptism) identifies the members of the covenant, so if one is not circumcised, he is “cut off.” Nevertheless, one is not justified because he is circumcised, as Paul indicates in Romans 4:11. That would turn conditions into the basis rather than the administration of the covenant. Commands function in a law-covenant as the basis for blessing or curse: the swearer’s perfect, personal, perpetual obedience is the ground, ratified by a public assumption of the covenant obligations on one’s own head. In the covenant of grace, however, commands function as the “reasonable service” that we offer “in view of God’s mercies.”

Click here to read the rest of the review

We Have No King But Elvis

Since presented via a TV game show, it may be tempting to consider Family Feud surveys inherently frivolous. Indeed, it would not be unreasonable to feel that any public opinion survey unduly emphasizes transitory feelings over more significant perspectives.  For this reason most of us understandably look unfavorably at a politician guided more by polls than by principles.  So when it comes to matters of faith, surely we wouldn’t want to mistake ephemeral opinions for eternal truths, let alone ones gleaned from some survey.

How interesting then to consider how Jesus conducted opinion surveys: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked his disciples (Matt. 16:13 ESV).  Survey says (Matt. 16:14):

  • John the Baptist                   43
  • Elijah                                  28
  • Jeremiah                             17
  • One of the prophets              8

And of course, his follow-up question (which would be worth double the number of points if posed on Family Feud) was: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt.16:15)  Clearly Jesus could have just led with this later question, so he evidently wanted to first establish some context.  Why?  Jesus must have anticipated that none of the answers on the board for the first question would be “the Messiah.”  In pairing the questions he was therefore highlighting just how skewed from public expectations of a messiah was his earthly ministry.

Let’s now look at the top answers from a recent Family Feud survey which asked 100 people, “When someone mentions ‘the King,’ to whom might he or she be referring?”  The results:

Before rushing to condemn the survey respondents, note that the question posed was not “When someone mentions ‘the King of Kings,’ to whom might he or she be referring?”  In fact, the Family Feud contestant who uncovered the “God/Jesus” answer on the board did so by saying, “I’m going to go with the King of Kings, Jesus” (to which Steve Harvey nodded approvingly).  No, we should actually give the respondents great credit for most accurately capturing who folks are referring to today when they mention “the King.”  (And we should feel no shame in seeing the humor in “the Burger King” rounding out this list.)

The only point I would like to make about the responses to this Family Feud question is how it provides a wonderfully simple articulation of the cultural context in which the gospel is presented in our age.  Few people today are likely to mistake Jesus for John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other Old Testament prophet (if they could even name one).  No, the expectations of Jesus today are much different: some look to Jesus as a role model for respecting human rights or as a champion of various societal concerns (represented by Martin L. King, Jr.: 3), and a few others—whose “god is their belly”—look to Jesus to help them prosper (represented by The Burger King: 2). But the overwhelming majority of people really want Jesus to be Elvis, a feel-good rock star whose every gyration excites the soul.  But such a Jesus is but a “comic caricature” of the true King of Kings, as Stephen J. Nichols describes this figure in Jesus Made in America.  And this Elvis is but a Jesus impersonator.

James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern ReformationJim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics.

Mike Horton in Chicago Today

Mike is in Chicago today, speaking at the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His 1:00 pm (CDST) lecture, “Ascension and Ecclesia: Promise-Driven Ministry in a Purpose-Driven Age” will be open to the public. For directions please click here.

If you can’t attend in person, the school is live-streaming the event. You can access that feed here.

Click here for more information.

WHI-1118 | Myths about Christianity

Are Christianity and science opposed to each other? Is religion just a myth? Does modern scholarship actually debunk the Bible? On this edition of White Horse Inn, Mike Horton talks with Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Exposing Myths about Christianity: A Guide to Answering 145 Viral Lies and Legends.

RELATED ARTICLES

Basic Apologetic Questions
Cwirla, Brown, et al
Christian Scholarship
J. Gresham Machen

MUSIC SELECTION

Doug Powell

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Click here to access the audio file directly

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Inventing the Flat Earth
Jeffrey B. Russell

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

Christianity Explored
(DVD Study Kit)

Christian Character and Good Arguments

As you know, White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation are all about “conversations for a new Reformation.” For over two decades, we’ve hosted a conversation between representatives of Lutheran, Baptist, and Reformed traditions on the White Horse Inn, expanding that circle in the pages of our magazine, Modern Reformation. We’ve also held public conversations with those who hold views that are antithetical to our own. (Check out our upcoming conversation with Roman Catholic theologian, Scott Hahn, here and our previous conversations with Arminian theologian Roger Olson here.) Part of the rationale is that we can’t defend the truth by creating caricatures. We have to engage the actual positions, not straw opponents we can easily knock down. Convinced that truth can take care of itself, we want to expose more and more people to the richness of that “Great Conversation” that Christians have been having for two millennia.

Especially in a “wiki” age, our communication today is prone to gushes of words with trickles of thought. We don’t compose letters much anymore, but blurt out emails and tweets. Just look at the level of discourse in this political campaign season and you can see how much we talk about, over, and past rather than to each other. Sadly, these habits—whether fueled by sloth or malice—are becoming acceptable in Christian circles, too. The subculture of Christian blogging often mirrors the “shock-jock” atmosphere of the wider web. “Don’t be like the world” means more than not imitating a porn-addicted culture, while we tolerate a level of interaction that apes the worst of TV sound-bites, ads, and political debates.

For my seminary students I’ve written a summary of what I expect in good paper-writing for my classes. It follows the classical order of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It also explains why the pursuit of excellence in thinking and communicating is not just an academic exercise, but is a crucial part of Christian character.

I’ll skip over some of the rules specific to papers in my classes and get to the core points. Rules for paper-writing carry over directly to good preaching and good conversations.

It’s not just what we say, but how we say it, that matters. Peter reminds us to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16). We have to be ready with arguments and reasons, but we have to give thought also to how we present them.

Good Arguments

First and foremost we need to avoid the ubiquitous ad hominem (“to/concerning the person”) variety—otherwise known as “personal attacks.” Poor papers often focus on the person: both the critic and the one being criticized. This is easier, of course, because one only has to express one’s own opinions and reflections. A good paper will tell us more about the issues in the debate than about the debaters. (This of course does not rule out relevant biographical information on figures we’re engaging that is deemed essential to the argument.)

Closely related are red-herring arguments: poisoning the well, where you discredit a position at the outset (a pre-emptive strike), or creating a straw man (caricature) that can be easily demolished. “Barth was a liberal,” “Roman Catholics do not believe that salvation is by grace,” “Luther said terrible things about Jews and Calvin approved the burning of Servetus—so how could you possibly take seriously anything they say?” It’s an easy way of dismissing views that may be true even though those who taught them may have said or done other things that are reprehensible. Closely related is thegenetic fallacy, which requires merely that one trace an argument or position back to its source in order to discount it. Simply to trace a view to its origin—as Roman Catholic, Arminian, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist/Baptist, etc.—is not to offer an argument for or against it. For example, we all believe in the Trinity; it’s not wrong because it’s also held by Roman Catholics. “Barth studied under Harnack and Herrmann, so we should already consider his doctrine of revelation suspect.” This assertion does not take into account the fact that Barth was reacting sharply against his liberal mentors and displays no effort to actually read, understand, and engage the primary or secondary sources.

Closely related to these fallacies is the all too familiar slippery slope argument. “Barth’s doctrine of revelation leads to atheism” or “Arminianism leads to Pelagianism” or “Calvinism leads to fatalism” would be examples. Even if one’s conclusion is correct, the argument has to be made, not merely asserted. The fact is, we often miss crucial moves that people make that are perfectly consistent with their thinking and do not lead to the extreme conclusions we attribute to them—not to mention the inconsistencies that all of us indulge. Honesty requires that you engage the positions that peopleactually hold, not conclusions you think they should hold if they are consistent.

If you’re going to make a logical argument that certain premises lead to a certain conclusion, then you need to make the case and must also be careful to clarify whether the interlocutor either did make that move or did not but (logically) should have.

Another closely related fallacy here is sweeping generalization. Until recently, it was common for historians to try to explain an entire system by identifying a “central dogma.” For example, Lutherans deduce everything from the central dogma of justification; Calvinists, from predestination and the sovereignty of God. Serious scholars who have actually studied these sources point out that these sweeping generalizations don’t have any foundation. However, sweeping generalizations are so common precisely because they make our job easier. We can embrace or dismiss positions easily without actually having to examine them closely. Usually, this means that a paper will be more “heat” than “light”: substituting emotional assertion for well-researched and logical argumentation.

“Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation is anti-scriptural and anti-Christian” is another sweeping generalization. If I were to task you in person why you think Barth’s view of revelation is “anti-scriptural anti-Christian,” you might answer, “Well, I think that he draws too sharp a contrast between the Word of God and Scripture—and that this undermines a credible doctrine of revelation.” “Good,” I reply, “—now why do you think he makes that move?” “I think it’s because he identifies the ‘Word of God’ with God’s essence and therefore regards any direct identification with a creaturely medium (like the Bible) as a form of idolatry. It’s part of his ‘veiling-unveiling’ dialectic.” OK, now we’re closer to a real thesis—something like, “Because Barth interprets revelation as nothing less than God’s essence (actualistically conceived), he draws a sharp contrast between Scripture and revelation.” A good argument for something like that will allow the reader to draw conclusions instead of strong-arming the reader with the force of your own personality.

Also avoid the fallacy of begging the question. For example, question-begging is evident in the thesis statement: “Baptists exclude from the covenant those whom Christ has welcomed.” After all, you’re assuming your conclusion without defending it. Baptists don’t believe that children of believers are included in the covenant of grace. That’s the very reason why they do not baptize them. You need an argument.

An Exercise of Christian Piety

Everything I’ve said about logical fallacies is wrapped up with virtue. You earn your right to critique a position only after stating it in terms that one who holds it would recognize as fair. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Gal 5:22). The love of our neighbor is inextricably bound up with our love of God; love and truth are intimates, not rivals. Especially in the body of Christ we are to avoid “human cunning….Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph 4:14-15). The Ninth Commandment forbids false witness. In fact, the Shorter Catechism explains, “The ninth commandment forbids whatever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbor’s good name.” Similarly, the HC: “God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause…I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

Logical fallacies are often the result of vice—sometimes malice, but more frequently pride and sloth. It is easy to hide behind the banner of truth in yielding to these temptations, but truth is not served well by arrogant assertions, sweeping generalizations or lazy caricatures. When love reigns, an argument is not only true but also good and beautiful. Therein lies its genuine persuasiveness. Sloth is evident especially when we create straw opponents, slippery slope assertions, or attack the person (ad hominem) or the source of the argument (genetic fallacy) rather than critique the argument itself.

It is possible to be so open-minded that we can fall for anything. “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps” (Prov 14:15). Yet imprudence also exhibits itself in narrow-minded over-simplification of complex questions. The wise are “cautious,…but a fool is reckless and careless” (v 16). In either case, “The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge” (v 18). “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).

As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “A quarrel can end a good argument. Most people today quarrel because they cannot argue.” In the din of talking heads shouting at each other, Christians have a great opportunity in the current atmosphere to end quarrels by offering a few good, at least better, arguments.

The Problem and the Solution

We thought that this new video from Jeff Bethke, summarizing our problem and the solution that we have in Christ was worth passing along to our readers.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

As Is The Habit Of Some

What excuses do people give for not going to church?

Family Feud has dealt with this matter.  I know that what the “survey says” on Family Feud is not scientifically based (in terms of conducting in-depth anthropological, sociological, psychological, or ethnographic studies) or even close to being statistically valid (in terms of surveying a sufficiently large numbers of individuals), but still the survey results can provide some insights into the hearts and minds of congregants.

According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 59% percent of U.S. churches average under 100 worshippers each week; the median average Sunday church attendance is 75 people.  (See statistics for 2009 study at: http://www.newchurchweblog.org/?p=81)  And how many people does Family Feud ask their survey questions?  One-hundred.  So think of each Family Feud question as a glimpse into the musings of a single, typical, local church.  Or simply put:

Survey says = Church says!

And now to the question before us: “What excuses do people make for not going to church?”

Here is a picture of my TV screen recapping the “top six answers” to that Family Feud question:

 

What can we learn from this?  Let me suggest some possibilities:

1) “Have to work” only garners 3% of the responses.  With the call to “defend and promote my neighbor’s good name” (see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 112), let us assume these respondents have in view emergency room attendants, power plant workers, police officers, and others who perform acts of necessity.  And if you really think about it: Americans in general have no problem with ceasing from work on Sunday, be they Sabbatarian or not.

2) A better fight may be had with Saturday night, alright, for 27% in the survey cite “Tired/Out Late.”  What shall we make of this?  Well, rather than suggest more folk ought to stay home and get to bed earlier, let me suggest that more Christians go out into the heart of Saturday night.

Let me here share a personal story:

In the mid-80’s, as a bachelor living in Sacramento, California, I had fallen into a period where I had ceased attending church altogether—for well over a year.  If I woke up before noon, it was only to watch the NFL while still under the sheets.  One weekend a friend was visiting from the Bay Area.  He was a recent convert to Christianity, and he insisted on going to church that Sunday.  So he consulted the Yellow Pages and picked a church for us to attend.  I very much enjoyed the worship, but afterwards gave little thought to returning the next week.  But that very next Saturday, on another typical night out with my work buddies, I happened upon all the elders from the RCUS church where I had attended the previous Sunday.  They too were out to see the Briefcase Blues Band (a Blues Brothers tribute band) at Harry’s Bar & Grill.  There, drinking their Beck’s beers with their wives, the elders spotted me and invited my buddies and me to join them.  Long story short: I attended that local church every Sunday thereafter, at first just the morning worship service, but soon the study hour as well, then Sunday evening worship too, and eventually I became a communicant member (of the first church I ever committed to joining).

May I dare suggest to local churches that your future Sunday morning is to be found on Saturday night?

3) Consider next the 20% who responded “Sick/In Pain.”  James writes, “Is anyone among you sick?  Let him call the elders of the church, and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)  I’ll not comment on this use of oil, but let me suggest there is an opportunity in many churches for better communication between elders and their flocks.  In this age of ubiquitous cellphones, text-messaging, Facebook updating, and tweeting, there really is no excuse for poor communication between elders and their flocks.  Note this communication starts with the sick: If you are sick, call your elder!  Elders, be open to such calls.  And visit the sick, not just the very sick, but the 20% Sunday sick.  Frankly, it’s tempting to think those who stay home from church are simply lazy; but perhaps it is those of us who neglect to go visit the sick that are all the lazier.

4) More survey respondents cite “Ball game on” (38%) than “Play sports/Golf” (3%).  In his commentary on Galatians, Luther makes the distinction between passive righteousness (all-sufficient salvation by grace) and active righteousness (insufficient effort by works).  Note that we see greater sports passivity (game-viewing) than sports activity (game-playing) cited in the survey findings.  While all sin against God is active rebellion, maybe a distinction here too can be made, between active unrighteousness (on the fairway) and passive unrighteousness (on the couch).  And maybe for every person actively perfecting their game (for a better life now), tenfold more are to be found passively amusing themselves to death.

Another possible lesson: let me suggest that those who do place their bodies in the pews on Sunday morning may still have their hearts and minds on the “ball game on” television back home.  Perhaps some pastoral prayers along the following lines may be in order (especially in the Pacific Time zone): “Lord, I want to thank you for the invention and awesomeness of the DVR and TiVo.  Please help those who may be here preoccupied with the ballgames going on right now, and with how their fantasy football teams may be doing, to let it go.  Let them be confident in the performance of these recording devices, so that they may focus solely on the greater awesomeness that is to found in communion with you in this hour.”  More such realism might help land more people in the pew, for people might actually want to join in such honest prayer before the Lord.

5) Forbid it that anyone might think they have “Nothing to wear” (2%) to church.  While this Family Feud survey response may seem ridiculous at first glance—the excuse seems like such a, well, such an excuse—do recognize that a church can signal to visitors that they are unwelcome when because of outward appearances they are not embraced as equally as the more fashionably attired.  I have witnessed this with my own eyes: individuals completely ignored by pastor, elders, and well-mannered parishioners, too pre-occupied with small talk to truly greet someone who looks out of the norm.  It is with this lack of looking and loving that we ought to truly feud.

I close with this prayer: “Lord, open our eyes.  Let us affirm that we all stand naked before you.  We are the 2%.  Do please clothe us with your righteousness.  Amen.”

James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern ReformationJim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics.

The Gospel in Seven Words

D. L. Moody once said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” Many of us were raised with the primary question of personal evangelism: “If you had less than a minute in the elevator with someone, how would you share the gospel?”

So how would you summarize the gospel—the very heart of the Christian message—in seven words?

A recent cover story (Aug 23, 2012) of The Christian Century, the magazine of mainline Protestantism, put that question to several leading pastors and theologians. The writer, David Heim, begins,

In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls how his friend P. D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long or fancy explanation. ‘I’m not too bright,’ he told Campbell. ‘Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?’ Campbell obliged his friend: ‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said. To which East replied, ‘If you want to try again, you have two words left.’ Campbell and East eventually had an extended conversation provoked by Campbell’s summary. It had stuck in East’s mind. He wasn’t sure he bought it, but it gave him something to think about.

So now to the results of the Christian Century survey of answers—the seven words they’d use to summarize the gospel. I’ll leave the names out (you can find them at the link above) but give my thoughts concerning their submissions. Most of the statements cluster around the more therapeutic understanding I’ve described above:

  • “God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” At least there’s the “through Jesus Christ” clause, but is there anything like this in the New Testament? Are people already “welcomed anyhow” apart from repentance and faith in Christ?
  • “We are the Church of Infinite Chances.” First of all, isn’t the gospel “good news” about what God has done in Christ to save sinners? Why does “we” become the subject of the seven-word summary of the gospel? Second, this response suggests, once again, that grace is a new opportunity for a fresh start, not God’s justification of the ungodly on account of Christ. Infinite chances for what? The idea implied at least is that God simply lets bygones be bygones and turns the page. Every day we blow it, but God is love.
  • “Divinely persistent, God really loves us.” I can’t imagine any non-Christian I know who would find this jarring, surprising, or anything qualifying as “good news.” It’s probably what they assume already—which is why they don’t take such things seriously. Not even Christ makes an appearance in this summary.
  • “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” I could hear Karl Barth offer this response. Yet without the gospel, this just sounds like fatalism. Why should I respond if, apparently, it doesn’t matter either way?
  • “Christ’s humanity occasions our divinity.” Reflecting an Eastern Orthodox emphasis on salvation as the deification of human beings by Christ’s incarnation, this answer again could be easily taken by the average person (at least one capable of understanding the sentence) to mean that the “good news” has nothing to do with what God has done for us in Christ, but what he has made possible for us to do in cooperation with him.
  • “We live by grace.” True enough. The gospel of grace certainly gives us life and motivates our living. But what is the gospel?
  • “We are who God says we are.” The respondent fleshes this out a bit: “In the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ we see that God is so for us and with us that we can no longer be defined according to death, a religion-based worthiness system or even the categories of late-stage capitalism.” Again, this is so true, but is the good news that God ignored our debt (“worthiness system”), or that in Christ God has paid it through the Savior’s having fulfilled the law and borne its curse for us?
  • Wisdom become flesh, spirit roars, life transformed.” I know that it’s seven words, but…again, nothing about the cross and resurrection.
  • “Israel’s God’s bodied love continues world-making.” After explaining that sentence to a stunned passenger on the elevator, I’d still be concerned that with a statement like this I was placing the emphasis—as many of these do—on the saving work of God’s people here and now (God’s continuing “world-making”) while marginalizing his saving work in Christ on the cross.
  • “To dwell in possibility.” The response continues, “When my daughter was confirmed in the Christian faith last spring, I gave her Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Dwell in Possibility.'” The horrible fact about me and the world in which I live is that I’m tormented by possibilities I fall short of. What I need is good news that someone has actually achieved something for me, not made it possible for me to achieve. In Christ, I dwell in divine accomplishments.

There were other responses that certainly included elements of the gospel:

  • According to one, “The wall of hostility has come down.” Shaped by Paul’s marvelous celebration of the “mystery” in Ephesians 3, this response certainly gets at something that the apostle considered part of the gospel itself. The wall separating Jew and Gentile has been torn down, with one new body with Christ as its head. Yet Paul saw this as possible only because of the salvation that we have in Christ by election, redemption, and calling of those “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 1 and 2).
  • Another answered, “He Led Captivity Captive,” adding, “Among Gospel epitomes I especially love the Jesus prayer, the Agnus Dei and “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive”–the good news as I first heard it from Paul (Ephesians 4:8) and Christ’s Jubilee proclamation (Luke 4:18).” It can hardly be denied that Christ’s victory over the powers of death and hell are part of the gospel, but as Paul explains in Colossians 2:13-15, this victory over the powers was accomplished precisely because at the cross God cancelled the debt we owed to the law and its verdict against us.
  • “Once dead. Now alive. Christ reshaping people.” Again, part of the gospel in the broader sense: it’s certainly part of the good news that we are raised from death to life in Christ. However, sanctification (“Christ reshaping people”) is not the biblical answer to the question, “How can we as sinners be justified before a holy God?”
  • “Christ offers new life for all.” Like the previous answer, this offers regeneration without justification.
  • God enters history; renewed covenants promise salvation.” Having written a lot on covenant theology, I like this one a lot. It might be a good conversation-starter to get to the gospel, but I’m not sure I would adopt this as my seven-word summary.
  • “Christ was born. We can be reborn.” The response adds, “Birth is a messy, painful affair, fraught with risk and danger. Yet Jesus was born.” Actually, I was surprised that “messy” didn’t make it into more of these, along with adjectives like “radical” and “wild.” It’s true enough that our Lord’s incarnation and our new birth are part of God’s good news, but again, without the stuff in the middle (faithful life, a messy crucifixion for our sins and victorious resurrection for our justification), what’s the connection between his birth and our new birth?
  • “God is love: This is no joke.” The only reason that so many people in our society might think it’s a joke—or at least not take it very seriously—is that they already think that God loves them. Apart from Christ, why should they? Now that might get the conversation going after the elevator arrives!

Other responses were did not even include the gospel as announced by Scripture:

  • “In Christ, God calls all to reconciliation” is the gospel according to a noted Emergent church leader. Here we meet the familiar refrain of old liberalism (and increasingly some forms of newer evangelicalism): the gospel is a call to do something, not good news about something that God has done for us and for the world already.
  • “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Although Jesus said this was a summary of the law, this response offers it as the summary of the gospel. The respondent adds, “This always seemed like hard moral advice that very few of us were really able to follow. But in recent times its meaning seems clearer.” Clearer? Easier? Hmmm.
  • “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Imagine Jesus (not mentioned here) gathering a multitude to announce the good news of the kingdom. The crowd hushes, waiting for the words, as Jesus opens his lips to speak: “Everyone gets to grow and change.” Is there anything vaguely like that in the New Testament? What religious leader or motivational speaker could not fill this bill? This is the surprising news brought from a herald on behalf of the King who has reconciled enemies to himself in his Son? As if this were not enough, the respondent adds, “But not everyone will grow and change.” Indeed. Is there any good news for that person?

There were two responses that expressed what seems clearly to lie at the heart of the gospel according to Scripture. I was encouraged (but not surprised) to see William Willimon break away from the pack to say, “God refuses to be God without us.” It assumes, of course, that he could be if he wanted to. That is a direct shot at the human-centered message that pervades Christian speech today. Willimon added, “We asked God to say something definite and God, getting personal, sent Jesus Christ. We were surprised.” The one response that hit the nail on the head, in my view, was that of Yale missions professor, Lamin Sanneh, who quotes Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world.”

The Gospel of “God Loves You Anyway”

We saw that David Heim began his article introducing these responses with the summary by Will Campbell in Brother to a Dragonfly: “‘We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,’ he said.” Interestingly, Heim notes, “Our respondents were not so blunt in diagnosing the human condition. Many seem determined to make grace, not sin, the prominent feature. Nevertheless, sin is acknowledged in some way.”

As I read through the responses, that summary seemed justified. “Grace” is one of those words you can still hear quite a lot across the spectrum today. Mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics sing “Amazing Grace” and appeals to God’s grace are often heard in liberal as well as conservative circles.

But what exactly is grace? It seems to be as vague as “love” and “being nice”: reduced to subjective feelings rather than God’s objective stance toward and gift to sinners. At least Will Campbell mentioned our sinfulness as the problem that the gospel answers. Yet even there, the good news skips over the way in which God’s love and justice embraced through Christ’s cross. Someone once quipped, “I like to sin; God likes to forgive. It’s a great relationship.” It’s as if God exists to make us happy and when we mess up, he just brushes us off and gives us another chance to do better this time. “Grace” becomes forgiveness and empowerment, but a forgiveness without a costly cross and empowerment of the old self rather than its death and the resurrection of the new self in Christ.

Several years ago, sociologist Marsha Witten concluded after surveying scads of sermons (both mainline and evangelical churches) that much of Protestant preaching today has transformed theological categories of sin and grace into therapeutic categories. Conservatives and liberals nuance it differently: for example, sin and grace in more individualistic versus social terms, but the underlying philosophy is similar: Grace is God’s letting bygones be bygones, giving us a chance to turn over a new leaf and give it another shot. (One famous evangelical leader said at Christmas on a network TV morning show that Jesus came “basically to give us a do-over, like in golf.”) Basically, grace is God’s “forget about it” and his empowerment to be all we can be, individually and collectively. The title of her book alone tells the story she documents so well: All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1995).

To grasp something definite about grace (at least in biblical terms) presupposes something about the problem that it answers. So if we’re good people who could be better (lacking only the right formula, motives, and strategy), grace will mean something rather different than it would if it were the answer to, say, God’s just wrath against all unrighteousness.

The worldview that many of us assume—again, across the liberal-conservative spectrum—is that God presides over a world of cause-and-effect. He built laws into the cosmos that work pretty much like clockwork. In a culture defined by Christian Smith as “moralistic-therapeutic-deism,” sin has very little to do with God—other than the obvious fact that he created the universe somehow to run like this. God is very concerned that we don’t hurt each other or his creation, but our wrongs are only indirectly an assault on God himself.

When sin becomes reduced to the horizontal aspect (the second table of the law), we can’t even conceive of the orientation that might lead David’s confession in Psalm 51. Although his penitence is provoked especially by his adultery with Bathsheba and indirect murder of her husband, the heinousness of it all is measured by its offensiveness to God: “Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (v 4). Sin doesn’t offend God because it violates the law of human flourishing; it violates human flourishing because it is first and foremost an act of treason against God. If that sentiment seems foreign to us, what are we to say of his additional lament in verse 5—”Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”? David is not just wracked with a subjective sense of shame, but the experience of being objectively guilty before God. Further, he realizes that he is not admitting he has morally “bad hair days”—committing particular sins that provoke God’s anger, but that he is morally unclean and guilty even from birth.

Far from ignoring the seriousness of our offenses against each other as individuals and societies, this vertical definition of sin—as an offense against God—is what makes such actions so reprehensible. Not only in what we do to harm others, but in what we leave undone for their welfare, we sin against God. Apart from this vertical reference—”Against you, you only, have I sinned”—there can be no such thing as sin at all. There can only be violations of social contracts and customs.

Yet this view of sin—as first and foremost against God, and as a condition that gives rise to certain acts rather than vice versa—presupposes a certain view of God that our culture no less disdains. A gospel that does not have Christ’s vicarious substitution for sinners at its heart reveals a truth-suppressing denial of sin as bondage and guilt from which none of us can escape by our own efforts. And a therapeutic view of sin, reduced to the private and public health of human beings, has not yet reckoned with the God of the Bible whose love cannot be divorced from his holiness, justice and righteousness. As Anselm responded in the eleventh century to the moralistic rejection of Christ’s vicarious atonement , “You have not considered how great your sin is.” We can only add, “You have not yet considered how holy your God is.”

It’s not just being cranky to comb through these published responses to the most central question of the Christian faith with a critical eye. It’s a great question. It should make us think about how we would summarize the gospel in those brief encounters with strangers, friends, co-workers, and relatives.

So, if anyone cares, here’s mine, drawn from Romans 4:25: “Crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.” Sure, it’s nine words, but two more can make a lot of difference.

Now it’s your turn to offer a seven word summary—and we’ll even let you take nine if you need them.

Page 30 of 100« First...1020...2829303132...405060...Last »