White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Why Do We Go to Church?

How the “Worship Wars” Often Miss the Real Issue

Where going to church was for most Americans the default setting, today it’s a conscious choice. Many churches tried wooing Boomers back with softness and smiles, affirming images of a God who is helpful for our life projects, and myriad activities for the kids. Many of their children and grandchildren are burned out on it all. Some head for the exit, toward Rome, the East, or the “spiritual but not religious” category. Others are calling the church to be less consumer-driven and to make God the focus.

For too long the “worship wars” have coalesced around style. These are not unimportant questions; how we worship says a lot about the object and significance of the event. However, all the sides (simplistically drawn between “traditionalists” and “contemporary-worship” advocates) in the debates share more in common than any do with the rationale of Reformation Christianity.

The most important divide is over this question: Do we come to church primarily to receive or primarily to do something? In other words, is God not only the object but the primary actor in the service, or are we?

I’ve heard some conservatives critique contemporary models for being “human-centered.” God isn’t there to make us happy or give us things; we’re there to bring him pleasure, to praise, worship, and serve him. I don’t actually think that most evangelicals disagree over that premise. It’s hard to make the case that people craving more congregational participation—longer “worship times” (“worship” now being equivalent to singing along with a praise band)—are merely consumers. Indeed, the sermons in many of these churches are pep talks filled with exhortations. They may be friendlier, but the goal is to get people to do something.

Actually, what has now come to be identified as “traditional” worship has more in common with “contemporary” worship than either has with historic practice. There are many examples, but the most important is their shared emphasis on the public service as something in which we (rather than God) are the primary actors. We are the subject of most of the action verbs. We come to church to praise, to worship, to express, to rededicate ourselves, to serve, and so forth. Even when we mention receiving something, it’s often merely so that we can do something: we learn our marching orders for the week. The Bible is our road map for life. Based on it to some extent, the sermon motivates us to follow the map. Baptism illustrates our commitment to following Jesus and Communion provides an object lesson to help us reflect more deeply on how much we owe Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. Then the songs reinforce the idea: we’re here to do something for God and perhaps also for each other. We are the subject of the action. At most, the sermons, the liturgy and sacraments can be an occasion for us to think, reflect, feel, and act; they are very rarely treated as actual means of God’s action here and now.

Of course, we are the subject of action in the public service at appropriate points. We do confess our sins and our faith in Christ; we pray, give financial support to his work, and present our laments, petitions, and praise to the one who has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ. But that’s just the point. When do we actually receive these spiritual blessings? Is there room in the service for God to give us anything when we’re doing all the talking, blessing, expressing and acting?

Far deeper than instruments and music styles, this divide is the real one. Historically at least, Reformed and Lutheran churches believed that the Triune God is the primary actor in the public service. That’s one reason it was called “divine service”: the Father, in Christ, by the Spirit, serving his people with his good gifts. We find it referred to as “the divine service” routinely in churches of the Reformation over much of their history.

Drawing on the biblical view of the public service as a covenantal event, Reformed churches have understood the Triune God as the primary actor. If the covenant of grace is based on God’s unchangeable promise, with Christ as its mediator, then the public service is where this covenant is established and extended. Here the risen Lord of the covenant assembles his people to bless, convict, absolve, instruct, guide, and send them out into the world as “a kingdom of priests to our God” (Rev 5:9). The key moments in this covenantal event are God’s speech, baptism, and Communion—in each case, God being the actor. The very media themselves indicate that we are recipients of the action.

In every covenant, there are two parties. In the covenant of works, God delivers the commands, with attending threats for disobedience and promises for obedience. The spotlight is on the people who swear the covenant, “All this we will do!” In the covenant of grace, however, the spotlight is on the Triune God. He is the oath-maker, assuming the ultimate responsibility for realizing its goal. There are also commands; however, they are not conditions for inheriting the family estate, but the “reasonable response” of God’s people “in view of his mercies” (Rom 12:1). In the covenant of grace, God has allowed himself to be put on trial—even to be convicted by his own just law, fulfilling its conditions, bearing its sentence for our transgressions, and being raised as the beginning of the new creation.

In the public service, this is not just a story we talk about; it is actually happening here and now. The kingdom of grace is landing in the middle of us, turning a barren desert into a lush garden. As the keys of the kingdom are exercised, God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven; prison doors are being unlocked, releasing captives. God himself is walking through the animal pieces cut to seal his oath (see Gen 15). It is the new covenant, which is not like the Sinai covenant that Israel swore and transgressed (Hos 6:7; Jer 31:32-35). It is the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which he shed at Calvary and now gives to us as the source of forgiveness. Our Lord’s words and actions in the Upper Room are re-enacted in the regular preaching and celebration of the Supper.

In this public service, we are always passive in relation to God—receiving everything as a gift. God addresses us, here and now, with his commands and promises. He doesn’t just tell us about forgiveness, but forgives us through the ministry of fellow sinners who themselves need forgiveness. He does not take away our speaking parts in the script, but gives us a new script with himself as the central actor—and by his Spirit loosens our tongues to speak his praises. We do have a role in this covenantal event. It is not only the role of hearing and receiving, but also of praising and pledging. However, the latter are our reasonable response to God’s saving work, not conditions for it. In other words, the benefit of this Lord’s Day assembly is based on God’s work for us, not on our work for God. When we say, “This was a really great day at church,” we don’t mean that the choir or praise band was especially good, or even that the preacher was especially motivational. Rather, we mean—or should mean, “Our God did it again today—the holy Father aquitted us by his grace, clothed in his Son, giving us every spiritual blessing in Christ by the Spirit, through his Word and sacraments.”

It is significant that faith is attributed in Scripture to the Spirit through proclamation of the Word (specifically, the gospel); that baptism is effectual not because it is our pledge, but because it is God’s—we don’t baptize ourselves, but are baptized by Christ through his minister; that Communion is effectual not because of our imagination and intensity of commitment, but because through it believers actually receive Christ with all his gifts. These are means of grace.

However, where the sermon is primarily a “to-do” list and baptism and the Supper are primarily our means of commitment and re-commitment, respectively; where the “worship time” (i.e., music) encourages us to focus on our love, our praise, our promises, our sacrifices, the covenant being ratified takes place closer to Mount Sinai than to Mount Zion. It is more like a kingdom that we are building than one that we are receiving (see Hebrews 12:25-29). For this covenant and the public service it ratifies, Christ becomes more of a facilitator than a mediator.

Consider the argument of Dan Kimball in Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). Kimball urges, “…we need to recognize that going to a worship service is not about us, the worshipers. It is not about God’s service to us. It is purely our offering of service and worship to God—offering our lives, offering our prayers, offering our praise, offering our confessions, offering our finances, offering our service to others in the church body” (3).

What Kimball is reacting against especially is a consumer-driven model, where we come to church to “get something out of it.” However, where his answer seems to be to make the service more about what we give than what we receive, I’m convinced that more scriptural way to talk about it is to say that we come to have God tell us what we really need (regardless of our “felt needs”) and to give us what we need most. The problem that properly concerns him—namely, consumerism—is not solved by making it all about what we do! How does saying it’s all about what we do counter the problem he identifies correctly of making us rather than God the center? (Elsewhere, Kimball has criticized the Reformation for identifying the “marks of the church” with preaching and sacraments, precisely because it defines the church as a place where God is doing certain things rather than a people who do certain things.)

How can one say that the worship service “is not about us” and then categorically deny that it’s “about God’s service to us” and instead say that “It is purely our offering” to God?

This even affects the horizontal aspect of the service. There’s a big difference between saying God meets with us and saying that we meet with God. Who called the meeting? Whose agenda? Is God being included in our fellowship or is our fellowship constituted by God’s including us in his great plan for the ages in Christ? According to Kimball, leaders should ask, “Is this environment and what we do allowing us to become more intense worshippers of God?” (115). Similarly, Sally Morganthaler suggests that this approach means that “worship experience emerge from the people themselves,” rather than “the generic wrapper” (I think she means liturgy.) [1]

Again, the cure seems worse than the disease. How can the solution to human-centeredness be found in my determining with other sinners means of more intense worship and more “worship experience” emerging from the very people, like me, who need to be saved from ourselves and our experience? Does God even have a role to play in any of this? Is God nothing more than a passive spectator and recipients of our works? At least in traditional liturgies, there is usually a covenantal conversation: God’s speech-acts provoke a response. But if God is merely a passive recipient of our action, what can our own role be other than self-expression, drawing on our fund of personal experience rather than on the objective Word?

If I enter church regularly with the default setting of narcissism, consumerism, and so forth, then I don’t need better techniques, rules, or motivation for becoming a more intense worshiper of God; I need to be killed and made alive in Christ! “Emerging generations are hungering to experience God in worship,” Kimball says (116). That’s great! But isn’t that precisely why we need God to be the main actor?

If church services are merely places where we get our marching orders for the week, have a little fellowship, and offer our praises, money, and prayers, then why do we all need to actually show up every week to do this? What can be done here that cannot be done in all sorts of informal ways throughout the week? In fact, Kimball adds, “We adore the Lord all week, not just at ‘worship gatherings.’ Our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our marriages, our families, our jobs—everything should be offered to him in worship. This includes what we think about, what we do, what we say, what we eat, and what we spend time doing—they are all acts of worship.” “It is offering our love, our adoration, and our praise to him through all of our lives,” so it’s “extremely sad that we have trained people to think that worship primarily happens when they come to church and sing” (4-5). Our speaking parts (means of commitment), not God’s (means of grace), are the reason for going to church, in this view.

There are certainly many passages that affirm with Kimball that our worship is to be an expression of our daily lives—whether eating or drinking, working at the office, living with neighbors and family members, all to the glory of God. However, that’s exactly why we need to be on the receiving end Lord’s Day. Before we can be active in good works, we must be recipients of grace. On the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of that everlasting rest that is already ours objectively in Christ. We are served by God, and then God serves our neighbors through us in the world throughout the week. We come to church because the Creator and Redeemer has called us to assemble. He has something to tell us that will rock our world. It’s bad news and good news. Through all of these words, he is performing miraculous wonders for, in and among us. Christ is present in our midst, in the power of his Spirit. Preaching and sacraments aren’t just more occasions for us to act, but means of the Father’s action, in his Son, by his Spirit. Even our own singing has as its chief purpose not mere self-expression, but making the word of Christ dwell in us richly, with thanksgiving in our hearts (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19).

In short, the problem in many of our churches today is not only that we aren’t God-centered enough. It’s that even in our attempt to be God-centered, the focus is on what we bring the table rather than actually being on God and that remarkable work that he is doing in delivering Christ to us with all of his benefits. Only when we recover the biblical emphasis on God’s ministry to us—where he has appointed, when he has appointed, and through the means that he has appointed, will the priority of God’s grace in his covenant mercies be central. And only when this is central is our desperate need for regular participation in this feast evident as well. We come to church regularly not primarily to do something again, but to receive something again—and, yes, also to respond in gratitude. True enough: it isn’t about us, but it is for us. And a funny thing happens when we surrender to this divine charity: we actually become active again in faith and its fruit of love and service to others.


1. Sally Morganthaler, “Emerging Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: Six Views, ed. Paul E. Engle and Paul A. Basden (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 229.[Back]

For or Against Calvinism: The Miami Edition

This past January, Michael Horton and Roger Olson had another chance to discuss their books (For Calvinism and Against Calvinism published by Zondervan) in Miami, Florida, and this conversation is now available at the White Horse Inn store (The Miami Conversation). If you haven’t heard the first conversation recorded at Biola University in La Mirada, CA in October 2011 you can get a bundle of both audio recordings at a discount (Both Conversations). The format of the Miami conversation was the same; both speakers had a brief opportunity to make the case for or against Calvinism followed up by a time of back and forth conversation and questions from the audience.

The total length of the Miami audio file is 98 minutes, and you can listen to a teaser of this discussion below:

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WHI-1102 | The Worship Experience

The worship wars are over, and most Protestant churches now feature a praise band or worship team. In the quest for relevance, today’s churches offer worship experiences that are in tune with the expectations that parishioners receive from contemporary pop culture. However, some are beginning to recognize that this pop-music worship style lacks a certain transcendence, and in their quest to find a sense of the sacred, many are abandoning evangelicalism and are becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. So is this new appreciation for Gregorian chants and swinging incense a healthy reaction? What is worship anyway? That’s what’s on tap on this edition of White Horse Inn.

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A New York Saturday


Grab your coffee and spend a few minutes with Mike Horton in New York City. This video, graciously provided by our friends at MockingbirdNYC was shot at their recent conference. Mike Horton was the plenary speaker and after his session, he sat down with Jady Koch to talk theology: specifically the difference between grace and karma, the difference between reason and rationalism, the use and misuse of the third use of the law–even Bono makes an appearance! Good stuff to get you started on your weekend.

How Would Jesus Vote?

Every political season, a firestorm of controversy erupts around the religious viewpoints of the major candidates and their policy prescriptions. But more and more Christians are increasingly uncomfortable with the agenda from both sides of the political aisle to claim God as a campaign advisor. How should Christians understand their responsibilities as citizens? What role does our faith play when we enter the voting booth? Does God even care?

The California primary election will be June 5th. Would you consider taking the time in your busy schedule to give the evening of June 1st over to thinking more deeply about the intersection of your faith and your earthly citizenship?

How would Jesus Vote? A Special Presentation from Michael Horton

  • When:  Friday, June 1, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Who:  Michael Horton
  • What:  Michael Horton, author and host of the White Horse Innnational radio broadcast, is coming to the Silicon Valley to explore the political implications of being a disciple of King Jesus. You are invited to a special lecture at The King’s Academy on June 1st at 7:30 pm (reception to follow). Free resources from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation magazine will also be available.
  • Where: The King’s Academy, 562 North Britton Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA  94085
  • Registration: FREE EVENT – no registration required!

Please periodically check our calendar page for more upcoming events.


UPDATE – 6.7.12: This event was not recorded so we will be unable to provide the audio to this lecture.

What’s a Routine Traffic Stop? It All Depends

Looking at the Trayvon Martin Case from an African-American Perspective

By Ken Jones | Pastor, Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, FL) and Co-Host, White Horse Inn

On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, I was looking out of my office window at approximately 3:30, in the afternoon. Our church sits on a busy street just above an on-and-off ramp for the turnpike. So I was not surprised to see a car turn into our driveway (this often happens when a driver has missed the on ramp or has gone the wrong direction when getting off of the turnpike). What caught my attention about this car is that it was actually being directed into our lot by a police car. Apparently there was some sort of traffic violation and the police officer pulled the violator out of the busy traffic into our parking lot to write him up.

I went back to my desk and after about twenty minutes I peeked out the window and there was a young African-American male with hands spread on the hood of his car as he was being patted down by the officer. Most traffic violations don’t require a body search or pat down, so I headed out to the parking lot for a closer look.

Not wanting to jump to a conclusion, and doing the best that I could to suppress the familiar anger that accompanies the conclusion that I was trying not to jump to, I first went to my car that was parked several feet away from the incident but still in view. By the time I reached my car the young man was seated on the ground as the officer proceeded to search both the trunk and glove box of his car. At this point I walked towards the scene and from a distance I informed the officer that I was the pastor of the church and asked if everything was alright, to which he replied “yes”, just a routine traffic stop. I stood by the door of the building for a few minutes before returning to my office. When I looked back outside, the officer was handing the young man a ticket and within a few minutes they were both gone.

The words resonated in my mind “routine traffic stop.” I had received a traffic ticket a few weeks earlier, a procedure that took all of ten minutes, with my glove box being opened by me to get out my registration. I never got out of my vehicle, was not searched or patted down and my trunk was not opened. I thought my experience which also ended with a citation was a routine traffic stop. But then I thought about the conclusion that I had tried to avoid jumping to, and I understood the truthfulness of the officer’s words.

In far too many instances when young black males are involved this is “the routine.” I recalled incidents from my youth in South Central Los Angeles, where standing on the street with two or three friends would prompt a U-turn from law enforcement passing by. We would be told by these officers of the law that we were gang members (when we weren’t); that we matched the description of perpetrators of some crime in the area, or they were sure we were on our way to no good. That was “routine.” It was also routine, when I started driving, to be pulled over and detained for up to an hour. When my son came of age it was also routine for him to be detained on his way home from his university job for similar periods of time. There seems to be something suspicious about young African males that warrants re-defining “routine” when dealing with them.

Whatever else is associated with the Trayvon Martin case; what gnaws on me is the suspicion that he was deemed a suspicious character and therefore a threat. In the incident that occurred in our church parking lot, I intentionally did not mention the race of the police officer because this not wholly a race issue. Many of the officers who gave out the harshest treatment in our South Central neighborhood were themselves African-American. This is about prejudice in the name of prevention and the subjects of this prejudicial action in far too many cases are young African-American males who seem to be perceived as a threat. Geraldo Rivera suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin made him suspicious, and that Hispanic and African-American parents should not allow their teens to wear them.

Last summer, I spoke at the Legacy Conference in Chicago where there were braids, tattoos and hoodies galore, adorned by young people who devoted three days to the study of God’s word and taking it to the streets. Whether we like the fashion of our young people or not, is beside the point. Fashion has always been a part of youth rebellion. After all, suburban youth of different ethnicities who often share the fashion of urban youth are not subject to the same “routine” as young African-American males.

In the past, this prejudice in the name of prevention has come from law enforcement. In the Trayvon Martin case, it was from a neighborhood watch person. I pray that the judicial process will render a just ruling. But here is my greater desire that young men of color will become subjects of actual “routine” traffic stops and not suspicious characters because of their age, color or attire.

Half the Truth in ‘Halfway Herbert’

I love children’s books – I never would’ve made it through Moby Dick without the Great Illustrated Classics version.  They’ve proved invaluable when teaching my ESL students, too – Ivanhoe becomes a lot more palatable to new English readers once you’ve removed the polysyllabic words and anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that even the most apathetic reader will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo if they’re sure they’ll be able to finish it in an hour (which they certainly will, considering that the five sub-plots are condensed into one).

This is the genius of children’s literature – taking wonderful stories and new ideas and making them comprehensible (and hopefully, attractive) to young minds.  Hence the proliferation of children’s Bibles and the VeggieTales series – we take the admonition to train our children up in the way they should go seriously, and we’ll use any and all means to those ends.  It behooves us, then, to be very careful about understanding exactly to which ends we’re orienting them.

In the afterword to his new book, Halfway Herbert, Francis Chan writes that he hopes parents will be able to use the story to “teach them [their children] the commitment to which Christ has called us,” and to exhort them to “raise a generation of children who understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.”  It’s a praiseworthy goal, and one which parents ought to take seriously.

The story is about a little boy named Herbert Hallweg with a viciously short attention-span that leaves him incapable of finishing any task, from hair and teeth-brushing to homework completion and soccer practice.  Eventually, his lackadaisical attitude creeps into his half-developed moral faculties and half-pushes him into the realm of sin, and one day (in true Pharisee-fashion) to tell a half-truth to his father.  The fully-brushed and meal-finishing Mr. Hallweg calls him out on it, admonishing his son that, “living [his] life halfway isn’t okay,” following up with the edifying maxims: “Jesus doesn’t want us to love Him halfway,” and “God doesn’t want us to live out of just half our hearts.”

Herbert may not be our go-to guy on personal hygiene or commitment-keeping, but his theology (as far as personal guilt is concerned) is spot-on.  “But I’ve never been able to do things all the way,” he cries.

Mr. Hallweg responds with a sort of prologue to a sinner’s prayer for help.  “God knows that none of us can love him all the way by ourselves.  So He gave us a friend called the Holy Spirit to help us live out of our whole hearts,” Herbert’s dad said.  “When we decided to follow Jesus all the way, God’s Spirit fills up our hearts and helps us obey God.”

I want to tread carefully here – as someone who isn’t a parent, it’s easy for me to sit on the pristine seat of emotional and physical detachment and wax eloquent on the need for sound theology in godly parenting.  My biggest child-rearing problem is deciding where to take my nieces and nephews hiking.  I sincerely admire the earnest wish to encourage children in their infant piety, and it’s because I believe it’s our (the church as well as the nuclear family’s) duty to nurture it that I think we ought to be careful in laying the proper foundation for it.  My problem with Chan’s book isn’t that it emphasizes our obligation to live righteously; it’s that it doesn’t acknowledge in any way the fact that Christ has already lived righteously for us – the imperative is given without the indicative; there’s law, but no gospel – which is only half the truth revealed in Scripture and half the message children need to hear.

When Herbert acknowledges his failure to keep the law to his father, his father’s response is more law – decide to follow Jesus all the way, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you.  Good advice, to be sure – but it must be prefaced with the blessed preface that Christ has fulfilled the law on his child’s behalf and freed him from his bondage to sloth and laxity, and that because of his obedience and the application of that obedience to Herbert, he’s made willing and able to implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, and make that decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly.  Mr. Hallweg’s response leaves the impression that the Holy Spirit is a reward for obedience; an aid given through the means of a request, rather than a gift that must be and is given.

I’m told that parents suffer no incapacity in reminding their children about the need for active obedience – ‘Clean your room now!’, ‘Stop fighting with your sister!’, and ‘Come back here and finish your homework!’ are frequent injunctions imposed on youthful impulses.  In her book Give Them  Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes that while we may know that we need to trust in Christ for our goodness, something happens when we apply that to our parenting.  “We forget everything we know about the deadliness of relying on our own goodness and we teach them that Christianity is all about their behavior and whether, on any given day, God is pleased or displeased with them.”  Foolishness certainly is bound up in the heart of a child, and the proverb truly says that the rod of correction will drive it far from him, but let the rod be tempered with the mercy of the gospel, lest we drive our children from Christ.  

WHI-1101 | Reforming Youth Ministry, Part 2

What’s wrong with contemporary approaches to youth ministry? In order to address this question, last week Michael Horton began a discussion of this issue with Brian Cosby, author of Giving up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture, and on this program we’re presenting the conclusion of that discussion. The White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it.

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Should We Oppose Same-Sex Marriage?

I appreciate the responses to my previous posts on this issue and, after reading some of the questions, thought somewhat pressed to write this last one. OK, so we know what Christian marriage is. We preach that, teach it, and expect believers to embrace Scripture’s instructions regarding sexual conduct, although we are still sinners who must continually repent, trust in Christ, and receive his pardon. Got it. But what about the public argument?

As I said in the last one, we aren’t authorized to speak in God’s name where he hasn’t spoken, but we are commanded to do so wherever he has. This is where it gets dicier, though. I’d like to frame my response, first off, in terms of two extremes that we have to avoid:

1. Treating references to homosexuality in the Old Testament as either irrelevant or directly applicable to the current question.
You see this in public debates of the issue, where extremists on both sides talk over (and past) each other. One thing they often share in common is interest in quoting passages from the Old Testament on the question. Then the person on the left reminds us that the sanction mentioned is stoning. “Do you want to stone gays?”, one shouts. “No, but I believe what the Bible says about homosexuality.” “Well, right next to that verse it says that you should stone disobedient children—Oh, and not eat pork, and not touch a woman who is having her period.” Bottom line: the skills of biblical interpretation are about equally as bad on both sides of the table.

The statements in Leviticus are part of the Mosaic covenant. They pertain uniquely to the covenant that God made with Israel as a nation. The laws that governed every aspect of private and public life, cult and culture, were a unique episode in redemptive history. Their divine purpose cannot be rationalized in terms of sanitation, public health, or personal well-being. The whole focus was on God and his desire to separate Israel from the nations, preparing the way for the Messiah to come from her womb. Therefore, there is no more biblical warrant for stoning homosexuals today than there is for avoiding Scottish cuisine.

If there’s every reason to distinguish these two covenants, we have to be very careful nonetheless that we don’t make the opposite interpretive blunder of contrasting the Old and New Testaments on the question of homosexual practice itself. I’ve heard of late several times committed Christians acknowledging that the Old Testament forbids it, but the New Testament is silent. It’s “mean Moses” versus “nice Jesus”: a familiar but completely baseless contrast. Affirming that the the civil laws are now obsolete doesn’t mean that the rationale explicitly given for some of these laws should be disregarded, especially when God singles some acts out not simply as dependent on God’s will for that time and place, but as “abominations.” Homosexuality is included in that list, as it is also in the New Testament (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10—right up there with “murders, enslavers, liars, and perjurers”). The church does not have the power of the sword in the new covenant. Nevertheless, God’s statement on the matter is pretty clear: he hates homosexuality. It violates the natural order—reflecting the extent to which fallen humanity will go to suppress the truth—even that which can be known by reason—in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18-32).

Jesus brings forgiveness of sins, not a new—supposedly easer, happier, more fulfilling law. In fact, he upbraids the lax view of divorce tolerated in his day. Jesus does not ground marriage between a man and a woman in the Mosaic covenant—or in the new covenant, but returns to the order of created nature: “He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’” (Mat 19:4-6).

It should be added that Paul’s point in Romans 1-3 is to sweep the whole world—Jew and Gentile—into a heap, condemned under the law, in order to announce that Christ is the Savior of all, Jew and Gentile, and justifies the ungodly who trust in him. We are all called to repent—lifelong repentance, in fact. In this, as in everything, we fall short; our imperfect repentance would be enough to condemn us if we weren’t clothed in Christ’s righteousness. However, to repent is to acknowledge that God is right and we are wrong—on the specifics of precisely where we want to assert our sovereignty.

2. Allowing same-sex marriage because since this isn’t a Christian nation, we should not seek to make the traditional Christian view public law.
Yes and no. The argument sounds like a “two-kingdoms” approach, but I think it’s actually more on the historic Anabaptist side.

First, it is certainly true that America is not a Christian nation and in any case Christians should not seek to promote distinctively Christian doctrines and practices through the properly coercive power of the state.

Second, however, I believe that we have to carefully distinguish general and special revelation, common and saving grace, the kingdoms of this age and the kingdom of God. Traditional Roman Catholics and Protestants are the vanguard of the pro-life movement, but in addition to witnessing to the depth of Christian conviction on the subject they also make arguments that can appeal to the conscience of non-Christians. The goal is certainly to legislate morality (just as the pro-abortion lobby attempts). However, it is the attempt to include the unborn in the category of those to whom the most basic right to life applies (namely, human beings). It is not a distinctively Christian view that the unborn are human beings (many pro-abortionists even agree, but rank the mother’s choice and happiness higher). Nor is it a distinctively Christian view that human beings shouldn’t be murdered—regardless of the parents’ economic or psychic well-being.

I think that the same can be said here as well. Marriage is not grounded in the gospel, but in creation. Special revelation corrects our twisted interpretations and gives us a better map, but general revelation gives sufficient evidence at least for minimal arguments from antiquity. Knowledgeable people will disagree about the strength of those arguments, since, for example, Greek elites often had teen-age boys entertain them on the side—with the approval or at least the awareness of their wives. Yes, others reply, but that was part of the downfall of the Greek civilization. In every case, it will be a debatable point—not to say that it isn’t worth arguing, but in the light especially of recent studies, it probably will not change a lot of minds.

Third, in my own wrestling with the political debate, love of neighbor looms large. Some on the right may offer arguments that reflect more the same demand for special rights as those on the left of the issue. The legal aspects of that are beyond my pay-grade—and they are important. Others may treat this issue as irrelevant: “Look, it doesn’t affect me. I just don’t want to live next door to some creepy home like that.” However, in terms of specifically Christian witness, love of neighbor (as God’s image-bearers) should be front-and-center. We have to care about our non-Christian neighbors (gay or straight) because God cares and calls us to contribute to the common good.

The challenge there is that two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.

On one hand, it may be said that if we can no longer say that “Judeo-Christian” ethics are part of our shared worldview as a republic, then the ban seems arbitrary. Why isn’t there a campaign being waged to ban providing legal benefits to unmarried heterosexual couples? Or to make divorce more difficult? It just seems more symbolic than anything else: it looks like our last-gasp effort to enforce our own private morality on the public. On the other hand, we might argue that every civilization at its height, regardless of religion, has not only privileged marriage of one man and one woman but has outlawed alternative arrangements. Same-sex marriage means adoption, which subjects other human beings to a parental relationship that they did not choose for themselves. Are we loving our LGBT neighbors—or their adopted children—or the wider society of neighbors by accommodating a move that will further destroy the fabric of society?

I take the second view, but I recognize the former as wrestling as much as I’m trying to with the neighbor-love question. Legal benefits (“partnerships”) at least allowed a distinction between a contractual relationship and the covenant of marriage. However, the only improvement that “marriage” brings is social approval—treating homosexaul and heterosexual unions as equal. Although a contractual relationship denies God’s will for human dignity, I could affirm domestic partnerships as a way of protecting people’s legal and economic security. However, the “marriage card” is the demand for something that simply cannot consist in a same-sex relationship. Human love is defined not by a feeling, shared history, or animal attraction, but by something objective, something that measures us—namely, God’s moral law. To affirm this while concluding that it’s good for Christians but not for the rest of us seems to me to conclude that this law is not natural and universal, rooted in creation, and/or that we only love our Christian neighbors.

At the end of the day, what tips the scales toward the second view is that I can’t see how neighbor-love can be severed from love of God, which is after all the most basic command of all. Even if they do not acknowledge “nature and nature’s God”—or anything above their own sovereign freedom to choose—reality nevertheless stands unmovable. Like the law of gravity, the law of marriage (of one man and one woman) remains to the end of time—not just for Christians, but for all people everywhere.

A Christian Response to Same-Sex Marriage

As a minister of the Word, I am not only authorized but commanded to speak in God’s name where he has clearly spoken. The authority of the church’s speech is undermined either by saying too little or by saying too much. Ironically, when we respect the limits that God has placed on our public speech in God’s name, we dig more deeply into our own scriptures and are better enabled to exhibit a different pattern of living that, for all of its inconsistencies and hypocrisy, points not just to a better argument that still trades on the assumptions of this fading age, but points to the new creation.

With that in mind, I’m following up my previous post (“Same-Sex Marriage Makes Sense”) with a few thoughts about how we as Christians should ground our corporate beliefs about marriage as a witness to the powers, rulers, and authorities of this age without becoming their servant.

In my last post I suggested that same-sex marriage makes sense within the moral framework of a universe in which I am the center, my individual choice is absolute even over nature and nature’s God, and whatever role God might have is defined by my story, not his. In that light, the same-sex marriage debate is just the tip of the iceberg. Our own traditional marriages-indeed, Christian ones-fall short of the glory of God. The issues cut deeper than the assault on marriage or crumbling marriages or even pornography and other perversions of God’s order. Yet even to fall short of something is to have something to fall short of. And if there are no longer any sins to confess, then there isn’t any guilt to be forgiven by a gracious and loving God “who is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ” (Rom 3:26).

What Really Matters? How Our Lives Reflect our Worldview

As I argue at length in The Christian Faith, our lives are shaped by the intersection of the specific drama, doctrine, doxology, and discipleship that unfolds in Scripture. First, the drama. We go back to this basic story to make sense of the events that otherwise would seem atomistic and meaningless. Second, this plot becomes meaningful to us through the doctrines and commands. So how should I respond to this story? The drama has to mean something first, before it “means something to me,” but the latter is the special concern of doctrine. Israel knows that God is faithful because he has proved it in the historical drama. The gospel story is that Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised, but a remote history becomes our story when we hear that “he was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). If the doctrines arising from this drama lead us to faith in Christ, then the commands elicit our obedience. The doctrines and commands connect us here and now to the story then and there. Faith breaks out in thanksgiving and praise. Twice, right after teaching God’s unconditional grace in election and redemption (in Romans 8 and 11), Paul is led to outbursts: “What shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”; “For from him and to him and through him are all things, to whom be the glory forever. Amen.” In this mode of praise and thanksgiving, faith bears the fruit of good works: “I urge you, therefore, in view of God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Rom 12:1).

Every worldview consists of a founding drama, a narrative plot, whether it’s creation-fall-redemption-consummation or the self-caused and self-sustaining evolution of energized matter, the unfolding of Absolute Spirit, the education of the human race from medieval superstition to modern (or postmodern) self-sufficiency, or class warfare, and on we could go. Each story yields distinctive doctrines. If our origin and death have no transcendent meaning or purpose, then our reasonable response is to have faith in ourselves and try to make something work here and now. If the “meaning of history” is the survival of the fittest, then my neighbor is a competitor and the weaker they are, the better. If it’s the worker’s victory over the bourgeoisie, then our daily actions will be oriented to that goal. Doxology follows. We’re wired for praise. In fact, we’re created as the being that leads the whole creation in a symphony of tribute to the Triune God. Even when we praise idols, including ourselves, we praise. It’s interesting that Paul identifies original sin with being “no longer thankful,” worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Then there’s discipleship-living out the story that we have internalized as our own. Taken together, these are the coordinates of a worldview that animates us-and that often, quite literally, move armies.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

The bedrock convictions of the Christian complex of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship are summarized in the ecumenical creeds. Triune God is the only God, the “Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.” This God is revealed in the law and the prophets and supremely in the person of Christ, as he is disclosed in the apostolic writings. The God who created us also became flesh to redeem us, fulfilling the law in our place, bearing our curse, and being raised on the third day as the beginning of the new creation. The Spirit-”the Lord and Giver of Life”-is sent to baptize us into Christ, giving us faith to embrace the remission of sins. Though still sinful and full of error, we are gathered into Christ’s body: justified and being renewed day by day. At the end, the ascended Christ will return “the judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

Whether we’re thinking about issues like same-sex marriage or traditional marriage, we are called upon to repent of the nihilistic narrative of the autonomous self, the dogmas of self-founding and self-transformation, the worship of ourselves, the market, the state, the family, morality, happiness and security, political ideologies, and peace of mind. We burn the script we’ve written for our “show about nothing.” We stop singing Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” And a strange thing happens. As we turn our back on lords that cannot liberate but only tyrannize, we embrace in faith a Father who welcomes us in his Son and calls us by his Spirit to a feast. Once outcasts and strangers to God and his covenants, we become co-heirs with Christ, seated with companions-brothers and sisters-we did not choose for ourselves.

Contract or Covenant?

This biblical story opens and closes with the work and word of the Triune God. “For from him and to him and through him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” He made us in his image, establishing a relationship by way of covenant and related us to each other covenantally as well. Here, covenantal responsibilities come before abstract rights. Even my right to owning property is not grounded in autonomy, since “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1). In his providence, God has apportioned to me times and places, but they are ultimately his and I am accountable to him for how I steward them. So it’s not so much my right to private property, but my neighbor’s responsibility not to steal from me, that is basic to biblical ethics. It is not a universal principle that each sovereign self legislates for himself silently within, but a voice from the One who made us all, that summons, “Cain, where is your brother?” And I dare not use sophistry, replying with the rich young ruler, “Who is my neighbor?”

The most significant covenants between God and humanity are the covenant of creation and the covenant of grace. Under the first we are condemned “in Adam” yet still accountable to the law. It rings in the conscience of every person, coming from God, not from the individual or the state. Under the second, we are divorced from Adam’s cursed tree and grafted onto Christ, the Living Vine.

Among the most significant covenants that God established between human beings is marriage. Marriage is not a sacrament. Ordained in creation, before the fall, it is not a means of grace. Furthermore, not everyone receives it and yet God blesses their lives, too, in his common grace. Yet marriage is also not a contract. It is not simply an agreement between two autonomous selves to form a useful corporation for individual self-fulfillment. Though it isn’t sacred, it is solemn. And in a Christian marriage, the holy and the common intersect as the Lord maintains his covenant faithfulness from generation to generation. The children even of one believing parent are holy (1 Cor 7:14). The family, as God ordained it, is the building block of both cult and culture, the holy church and common society.

Marriage, then, is both a medium of the law and the gospel. Why should we be surprised at same-sex marriage when for generations now we have accepted the idea that unfettered choice brings happiness and law is the opposite of love? Not only in Israel, but especially in Israel, ancient political relationships between the ruler and the ruled were expressed not in contractual terms (a formal agreement to exchange certain goods and services), but in terms of loyalty and love. To love the king is to obey or “walk after” the king. The law merely stipulated what that love entailed. Moses summarized the law this way, as did Jesus when he said that the two tables of the law can be summarized as love of God and neighbor. Throughout the epistles, the call to love is not left suspended in mid-air as a romantic emotion that comes and goes, but as a commitment to love and serve each other according to the pattern of specific commands.

We are so used in our culture of entertainment to infidelity having a happy ending. We accustom ourselves to the idea that “I have to be happy and if I’m not happy with so-and-so, but with this other person, then I’m really not fulfilling my end of the bargain either to myself or to my wife-I just don’t love her anymore.” Even Pat Robertson suggested infamously that a husband should not have to stay by his wife with Alzheimers but should be free to flourish again with someone else. The portrait of a person hanging in there, not “till the money runs out” or “till neither of us is really happy anymore” or “till it just not working”-instead of “till death do us part”-may seem quaint to some, but even in this culture I wonder if it wouldn’t arouse a little tenderness, a different way of imagining life, where duty to nature and nature’s God were actually treated as the essence of love.

But finally, Christian marriage is uniquely an evangelical ordinance. It is not our faithfulness to God or to each other, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises, that keeps us going even through rough marriage-and-family experiences. It’s a wonderful thing when the Spirit draws those “far off” into Christ’s fold through the gospel. It is also a wonderful thing when the Spirit unites sinful children to Christ through the gospel as it is passed down from generation to generation. We dare not idealize the “Christian family.” We too are sinful, and our families are carriers of our universal contagion as well as its peculiar manifestations in our own lives. Nevertheless, it is not what we make of it, but what it makes of us-or rather, what God makes of us through it-that the covenant home becomes, despite its weeds and diseases, a garden blooming in the desert.

You Are Not Your Own-And That’s Good News!

Despite whatever unfortunate quotes one can find from some church fathers too influenced by pagan notions, the biblical affirmation of sexual purity in the marriage of believing spouses has nothing to do with ascetic disdain for the body and sexual pleasure. On the contrary, it’s precisely because our bodies are too important to the biblical drama that they can’t be exempted from biblical discipleship. Here is an example of that point from the Apostle Paul:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’…Flee from sexual immorality…You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:13-20).

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