White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

The Law of the Modern Man

I awakened this morning with an email from Rod Rosenbladt with this attachment. It’s the indefatigable George Carlin on his identity as a “Modern Man.” Rod’s comment was thought-provoking: “And this is the man we’re supposed to be preaching the gospel to in America?”

Something of a white Boomer rap, Carlin’s brilliant riff exposes our fallen heart: especially that tendency we have toward works-righteousness. Works-righteousness? George Carlin? Yes! If you thought you had to leave a legalistic church to become free to “be yourself,” this celebration of the self may give you pause.

In Galatians 4, the Apostle Paul throws his critics a curve-ball. One of the main reasons that his opponents wanted people to become Christians by coming under the old covenant was their failure to realize that the ministry of Moses was temporary and typological. It was like being an heir of an estate while still being under-aged, more like a slave than a son (Gal 3:23-2). Then in 4:3 he adds, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” This phrase, “elementary principles of the world” (stoicheia tou kosmou) was well-known in the Hellenized world. In fact, the Stoics had based their whole philosophy bringing their lives into conformity with these laws of nature (even deriving their name from it).

What’s jarring is that Paul uses this phrase to describe the Mosaic system now. It wasn’t wrong (just as the moral law written on the conscience of Gentiles isn’t wrong); it’s just elementary, a task-master—like the nuns at Catholic school who wrapped you on your knuckles if you acted up. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). He adds,

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weaek and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (vv 6-11).

In other words, the Gentiles were living “under the law” along with the Jews, but in different ways. Both had the moral law, either in the conscience or as delivered directly by the hand of God in written form. And both had failed to keep that law. So anyone who seeks to justify himself before God by keeping the law is in bondage to “the elementary principles of the world”—even if those principles are found in the Bible!

It’s not a question of content. The moral law remains the abiding expression of God’s holy character and righteous demands, the standard by which he will judge the human race on the last day. Rather, it’s a question of one’s relation to the law here and now. To be under a certain covenant is to be obligated to keep its stipulations or suffer its curses. Now that Christ—the reality—has come, the new covenant has been inaugurated. Having served its purpose, the old covenant is now obsolete. Going back to the “elementary principles,” whether in the form of the Mosaic economy or natural law, in order to justify oneself is in fact to place oneself under condemnation. In short, apart from Christ Jews as well as Gentiles are “in Adam.”

This argument must have provoked a lot of heated reaction among Paul’s agitators in Galatia. Basically, he’s saying that those today—Jews or Gentiles—who cling to Moses rather than Christ (or even in addition to Christ) are in exactly the same relation to God as Gentile idolaters.

So we can see that George Carlin’s expression of his life philosophy is just as legalistic and self-justifying as any comparable version in the Christian world today. There is only one safe place to be: in Christ. Only in Christ can you be a son instead of a slave. (“Son,” by the way, is a legal term: the firstborn heir who was entitled to the whole estate. That “there is no male or female” in Christ (Gal 3:28) means that the gospel runs counter to the ancient laws of inheritance. Not only slaves and Gentiles, but women, are “sons” in that legal sense.)

Outside of Christ, there are only different forms of slavery. No matter how the religious or irreligious profess their self-confident autonomy, they are actually slaves. Paul’s opponents had flattered the church into which he poured his energies and that responded initially with such affection for Paul’s gospel. “They make much of you,” Paul says, “but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (4:17).

Again, there is nothing wrong with laws, principles, and wisdom for living. By God’s common grace, good advice may be found outside as well as inside the church. Christians are still obligated to God’s moral law, even as unbelievers are still going to be judged by it. The real question is whether the law functions for them in a covenant of works, where they are personally bound to keep it perfectly on penalty of death, or in a covenant of grace, where it is no longer their prosecuter but testifies to the fact that in Christ they are justified by his imputed righteousness. Does one seek life by this law as it is revealed in general and special revelation? In other words, when we’re evaluating our life and destiny, do we say, “Well, at least I’ve followed my best lights—tried to do the right thing, followed my little voice within, been true to myself, made the most of what I’ve been given,”etc.? Or do we say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner”?

Compare Paul’s argument with Jesus’s comments to the Pharisees in John 8. After telling them that the truth would make them free, the religious leaders replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:31-36).

Why do we try to justify ourselves, as Carlin does in this performance? Because we know we’re guilty. Heir of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, the “modern man” tries to break free of this guilt by making him accountable to himself rather than to God. But that still doesn’t do the trick. In fact, it just deepens the guilt. The inner legislator is a demanding task-master. There is no end to the plans, schemes, make-overs and expectations. We’re too fat, too thin, too lazy, too “workaholic,” and so on. This thirst for glory and drive for self-justification keeps us self-absorbed: the very essence of sin.

Once you get out from “under the law”—that is, “the elementary principles of the world” as a way of self-justification, to come under Christ as your covenant head, you are truly free not only from the guilt but also the vicious cycle of sin’s power. So Paul can turn in chapter 5 to “the fruit of the Spirit”—which in content expose the deeper intent of the moral law. Not just outward actions and behaviors, but inner motivations and orientations, change. At last, instead of being turned in on ourselves as narcissists, alternating between self-loathing and self-justification, we can look up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love. Ironically, when we stop defending ourselves in a covenant of works and cling to Christ in the covenant of grace, we are free for the first time actually to obey God’s commands out of faith rather than any attempt to secure our identity and life. God’s commands continue to direct our steps, but as the Father’s instructions rather than the Judge’s sentence. The law no longer stands over us, as an external threat, but is written on our hearts even as we are forgiven all of our transgressions against it—past, present, and future. Now that Christ has come, we are no longer slaves but sons. No wonder Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

More on Bible Translations to the Muslims

Coming out in 2012 is the documentary Half Devil Half Child which follows missionaries in Bangladesh who are preaching in secret to the Muslim world. They are facing opposition from other Western Missionaries who are allowing Muslim “Christians” to continue to live and act like Muslims. This teaser clip speaks to the issue we brought up last week concerning the removal of offensive words in Bible translations being produced for Muslims.

Willimon on Sin

Other than Tom Oden, our favorite Methodist is Will Willimon, the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Today on his blog, Dr. Willimon posted a short excerpt of a new book of his selected writings, which we thought was a fantastic expose of how we often think about our sin.

Really now, Lord Jesus, is our sin so serious as to necessitate the sort of ugly drama we are forced to behold this day? Why should the noon sky turn toward midnight and the earth heave and the heavens be rent for our mere peccadilloes? To be sure, we’ve made our mistakes. Things didn’t turn out as we intended. There were unforeseen complications, factors beyond our control. But we meant well. We didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. We’re only human, and is that so wrong?

Really now, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we may not be the very best people who ever lived, but surely we are not the worst. Others have committed more serious wrong. Ought we to be held responsible for the ignorance of our grandparents? They, like we, were doing the best they could, within the parameters of their time and place. We’ve always been forced to work with limited information. There’s always been a huge gap between our intentions and our results.

Please, Lord Jesus, die for someone else, someone whose sin is more spectacular, more deserving of such supreme sacrifice. We don’t want the responsibility. Really, Lord, is our unrighteousness so very serious? Are we such sinners that you should need to die for us?

Really, if you look at the larger picture, our sin, at least my sin, is so inconsequential. You are making too big a deal out of such meager rebellion. We don’t want your blood on our hands.

We don’t want our lives in any way to bear the burden of your death. Really. Amen.

WHI-1090 | The Commands of the New Society

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins a discussion of the Law of Moses, saying, “You have heard it said, but I say…” How are we to interpret these words? Is Jesus saying that the Mosaic law was too legalistic and needed improvement? Does he end up getting rid of all the strict rules and regulations in favor of a new ethic along the lines of “All you need is love?” On this program the hosts will discuss Christ’s interpretation of the law of Moses, and what this means for us today as Christians.

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On Electing a Shepherd of the National Soul

Every national election cycle in the US affords fresh opportunities for speeches calculated to assure us that our president will not only be a capable executive and commander-in-chief but will be our philosopher-in-residence and faithful high priest of the civil religion. The President has become the shepherd of the national soul.

In the UK, the head of church and state (the monarch) is a different person from the head of government (the prime minister). However, in the US we combine these offices in one. Maybe that’s one reason, historically, why we place so much weight on our presidents to embody our own spiritual aspirations and convictions. Yet since the Constitution distinguishes clearly between civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions (shaped by Madison’s training under Princeton Presbyterian’s John Witherspoon as well as American Baptists), that sacred trust cannot favor any particular confession. Hence the tightrope one must walk: required to steward a broad civil religion (basically, a morality grounded in a Supreme Being who has a special place for America in his plan), displaying some personal commitment to a particular Judeo-Christian community, while not giving preference to his own denomination in making policy.

Quite a number of past presidents would not have made it across that tightrope today. In terms of personal beliefs and commitments, George Washington seems to have been a more faithful Mason than a Christian. One thinks of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who quite publicly revealed their profound disagreement with orthodox Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ. By the best accounts, Abraham Lincoln was a very nominal Baptist—probably Unitarian in his views—who nevertheless shared the public sense of belonging to a chosen nation, favored by Providence yet for that very reason subject to the judgment of Providence for failing to fulfill its sacred mandate.

Understandably, most conservative evangelicals today would identify the policies of Woodrow Wilson as part of the drift toward big government. Confessionally, however, he was a staunch “Princeton” Presbyterian. (B. B. Warfield nominated him to Princeton’s presidency.) In modern British history, the Labor Party relied heavily on the intellectual capital and numerical strength of nonconformist Puritans and evangelicals. Westminster Chapel’s famous pastor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, was personally committed to the labor movement—and the Labor Party. Why? Because he believed that humanity was created in God’s image and therefore are “men, not pigs.” Christians sharing the same theology have always disagreed about which policies are most consistent with it. Unlike the old covenant, the New Testament doesn’t include a blueprint for a nation’s foreign and domestic policy.

Although confessional distinctives have been largely downplayed in American evangelicalism in favor of the experience of being born again, theology has moved from the back page to headline news in recent weeks. Are Mormons Christians? Is President Obama truly born again or is he a liberal Protestant, agnostic—or even a secret Muslim? Is he driven by a theology that is different from the one that most Americans would espouse? In spite of several marriages, would Newt Gingrich’s policies support family values? Is America the last bastion of good in the world and therefore the focus of Satan’s attacks?

Meanwhile, striking a superior pose, secularists pretend that they are above all of this “abolute truth” business, even as they pronounce edicts of atheistic materialism that they have no scruples about imposing on the public for its own good. It’s all about politics, they say, and playing the religion card is just another way of trying to win an election.

Secularists like to pitch themselves as tolerant caretakers of democracy, claiming that the quest for “abolute truth” (and the conviction that one possesses it) lies at the heart of the culture wars. Recently, one writer opined, “The essence of democracy is that we, the people, get to choose our values. We don’t discover them inscribed in the cosmos. So everything must be open to question, to debate, to change. There can be no fixed truth except that everyone has the right to offer a new view. It’s a process without end, whose outcome should never be predictable. A claim to absolute truth—any absolute truth—stops the process of democracy

However, secularists are no less convinced that they are right—even about absolute truth. They just have different authorities and inhabit different communities that affirm their convictions. There are plenty of core convictions and values that are not “open to question, to debate, to change” on their side. And that’s as it should be—must be, in fact. Whether in science or public policy or a religious community, you can’t leave everything open or there is no shared consensus on anything and thus no community.

It is not that theology doesn’t matter in the public square, or this election year in particular. President Obama does indeed draw deeply from his own worldview, and this worldview is laden with theological assumptions and beliefs—as every worldview is. There is no such thing as a “naked public square.” We bring ourselves to every discussion and any religion or worldview that is merely private, with no relevance for how we live in the world, is about as publicly interesting as stamp collecting. Do I see a lot of contradictions between Mr. Obama’s puplic profession of faith in Christ and his stands on various important issues? Yes, of course I do. I also see contradictions on the Republican side. I also see on both sides a tendency to claim more warrant from Jesus and the Bible for views that one would hold (in fact many non-Christians do hold) apart from it. Danger lurks not in favoring certain policies that can’t claim explicit biblical warrant, but in claiming carte blanche divine authority for these views. Secularists are mistaken in thinking that God’s ultimate authority doesn’t matter; believers err when they fail to realize that their interpretation of Scripture and application of biblical teaching to specific policies are always shaped by a lot more than Scripture itself. Political liberals and conservatives seem to me often to over-interpret some passages and under-interpret others according to an ideology they would have regardless of their faith.

The real issue is whether the confusion of kingdoms (which can only lead to a bland civil religion) is creating an atmosphere that brings harm to the cause of Christ and the common good of our society. Recently, Franklin Graham has explained his personal test for candidates, which seems to be reducible to the validity of their personal testimony to having a personal relationship with Jesus. For Senator Santorum, it’s a more objective test: a question of one’s worldview and the theology undergirding it. Boston College’s Stephen Prothero offered a sane analysis of Senator Rick Santorum’s statement about President Obama’s “phony theology.”

To speak freely, I have serious questions about the theology of all of the candidates. Many Roman Catholics would parse their theology differently in relation to the environment than Senator Santorum. In terms of moral fitness, many bishops and priests would be more concerned about a candidate (Newt Gingrich) with multiple marriages being the standard-bearer for a platform of family values. I have lots of problems with Roman Catholic theology. Some of the candidates earlier in the race had close ties to extreme Pentecostals. Their rhetoric of “dominion” and claims to private revelation were more worrisome to me than the religious or irreligious beliefs of anybody in the field. This is even before we talk about Mormons or liberal Protestants! Where does the religious test stop?

We do not have access to the hearts or minds of others—not through their personal testimony or to their personal morality. We only have access to their public profession and to the policies that appear most directly to derive from it.

Secularists need to back off of their smug illusion of neutrality in religious and worldview matters. One’s faith—and worldview—matter. Many in the media don’t realize this because religious convictions and practices are not important to them personally. With little or no background or training in any particular religious tradition, they assume that the rest of us leave our deepest convictions at the door of the voting booth. Until they see the significance of ultimate convictions for the lives of millions of their fellow-Americans, they will miss the story behind the story again and again. There should be freedom to explain how it matters in shaping policies directed at the public good.

Yet believers also must stop expecting politicians to double as high priests of a false religion, an idolatrous religion, that substitutes real confessional communities for a generic moralism. Even where a candidate’s confession differs from our own, we have to ask what we’re looking for in our political leaders. Are we seeking an icon who will reassure us that even in a wildly pluralistic and relativistic society we are the ones in the right, safely ensconced in the walls of absolute truth? Or do we have the more modest goal of electing presidents who will eschew any messianic mantle and pursue policies that we believe are more likely to do more good than harm to the republic’s common good and the Constitution that they swear to uphold?

The Bible for Muslims–A Difficult Strategy

The current issue of WORLD magazine has a feature article “The battle for accurate Bible translation in Asia” which interviews Fikret Bocek extensively. Fikret is concerned with Western missions organizations not being patient enough with work being done among Muslims and therefore, they are making Bible translations more “palatable” to Muslim readers and loosing some of its truth. This is a great article that sheds light on the current struggles to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the Muslim world. May we continually pray for the Spirit to work in the hearts of those that are lost and turn the offensiveness of the Scriptures into sweet, sweet words of God to their souls.

If the name of Fikret Bocek sounds familiar to you that is because the WHI interviewed him on our October 23, 2011 program. The audio of that show is below:

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Logos Discount for WHI friends!

Last week we posted on our blog information that two of Dr. Horton’s books were available on Logos Bible Software. Now we are excited to announce that Logos has given White Horse Inn friends the ability to purchase their base packages at 15% off using the coupon code WHITEHORSE! (Please note: this discount does not apply to the bundles including Mike’s books.) To learn more about Logos and to purchase a base package head to logos.com/whitehorse

If any of our readers will be going to the LIBERATE conference (beginning Thursday, February 23) Logos will have a booth and will be giving a presentation at some point, so if you have any questions you can ask them directly.

Thoughts about Lent

Back in February 2010 Mike Horton participated in a “The Village Green” segment for Christianity Today with his article “Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ.” Mike continued the discussion on our blog by responding to a question that was asked about the practice of Lent in light of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Since the season of Lent is again upon us, we invite you to reconsider these these two conversations. You might also enjoy reading a side-bar article on the church calendar that Mike wrote for Modern Reformation in the January / February 2001 issue of MR.


Lent—Why Bother? To Lead us to Christ

While Israel’s neighbors celebrated the cycle of seasons as shadows of the realm of the gods, Israel celebrated the interventions of God in historical events of judgment and deliverance. The major feasts include Passover, Firstfruits (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Tabernacles (Sukkot). In commanding these feasts, God was incorporating them into his unfolding drama, anchored in his promises and their future fulfillment in Christ.

Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar. Furthermore, Lent became associated in the medieval church with all sorts of rules and superstitions. For the most part, the Protestant Reformers continued to celebrate Lent, but in a more evangelical way. They inveighed against the connection between fasting and penance “as a work of merit or a form of divine worship,” as Calvin put it. Lent is still celebrated today in Lutheran, Anglican, and many Reformed churches.

However, many of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians went further, arguing that such observances fostered superstition, constrained the conscience where God had left it free, and undermined the Christian Sabbath as God’s appointed holy day. (At the same time, the Puritans did call for special days of thanksgiving and fasting, by order of Parliament!)

In my view, these special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’s saving work. Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence.

I believe an evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ’s person and work.

Lent is a 40-day preparation for the observance of Christ’s passion and Easter. It gives us an annual opportunity to trace the history of redemption. We learn that the number 40 is associated with a trial, a preparation, even an ordeal that leads either to blessing or curse in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Jonah. Recapitulating Adam’s trial and Israel’s 40 years of testing, Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, fasting instead of following Adam and the wilderness generation of Israelites in demanding the food they craved (Matt. 4:1-4). Resisting Satan’s temptation with God’s Word, Jesus was the Last Adam and Faithful Israel who fulfilled the trial not only for himself but also for us, as well as bearing the curse for our covenant-breaking.

New disciples in the ancient church were instructed daily in Christian doctrine and practice for the 40 days of Lent, leading to their baptism on Easter Eve. They realized that they were quite literally wrestling with demons from their pagan heritage. Isn’t our culture just as toxic? Are we really making disciples, or just superficial converts?

When unburdened by superstitious rites, Lent still holds tremendous promise if we will recover its evangelical purpose; namely, leading us and our children to Christ by his Word. Hopefully we can all agree that this goal remains the central mission of the church every Lord’s Day.

From the February 2010 issue of Christianity Today.


Lent and the Regulative Principle

Justin asked:

Not trying to start a fight, I am trying to humbly submit this question: when did the Reformed start participating in the “we do it for pragmatic beneifts” woship stuff instead of “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the … See More imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture (WCF 21.1)”? Truly wondering how our confession just quoted squares w/ Horton’s statement in the CT article: “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar”? Again, I’m not trying to be malicious, but humbly submitting myself to your guidance, how should we think about Lent in terms of WCF 21.1 and not the pragmatic benefits (which too many use to vilify so much un-godliness in the church today) of it?

Mike Horton responded:

Great question, Justin, and thanks for raising it. You quote my statement, “Unlike the Old Testament, however, the New Testament does not prescribe a church calendar.” Before that remark, I listed Israel’s various festivals. My point was that we cannot use these old covenant festivals as a justification for new covenant festivals, such as Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day, etc.. In other words, observance of these Christian holidays cannot be considered as necessary for true worship. Some (most of the Westminster divines) would eliminate (did eliminate) all Christian holidays, although they encouraged special days for thanksgiving. The Continental Reformed tradition did not do this, however, and continues the tradition of calling stated services on these special days. With respect to the regulative principle, it’s definitely a line-call and there are those on both sides of the issue who affirm the principle. I hope this helps!


Modern Reformation sidebar article from Mike Horton: A Year of Signposts-Following the Church Calendar

Ken Jones in Keep Your Head Up

Ken Jones, co-host of the White Horse Inn, contributed a chapter in Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation edited by Anthony Bradley and recently released by Crossway. Ken’s chapter is titled “The Prosperity Gospel,” something that he has been discussing with the “cast of characters” around the WHI table for many years.

Crossway provides this synopsis of the book: “Continuing the renowned “Cosby Conversation” first started in 2007 by Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Anthony Bradley has assembled a team of pastors, scholars, and leaders to address specific issues within the black community.”

“Covering topics such as the black family, hip-hop, masculinity, and the prosperity gospel, this book will open your eyes to the serious challenges facing the black church today. It will leave you with hope, however, as each contributor brings the conversation back to the Bible and the gospel as the only source of true, enduring change.”

WHI-1089 | Salt & Light

What does Jesus mean when he tells his disciples that they are the “salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world”? And what are the implications of this for our lives today? Does this text justify the assertion that Christians should not primarily attempt to preach to others, but rather should simply “be the gospel,” by living transformed lives of faithfulness and compassion in this generation? The hosts address these questions and more as they continue to unpack the Sermon on the Mount.

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