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.
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.
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.
Brian W. Thomas
WHI Discussion Group Questions
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 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:
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.
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
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, 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.”
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.
WHI Discussion Group Questions
Usually, the call to be world-transformers comes from church leaders: pastors and theologians. It comes in different forms. Sometimes it’s the biblically defensible application of Christ’s announcement that his church is a city on a hill, his followers “salt and light” in the world. They are to be what they are where God has placed them, in their many different callings in life.
On other occasions, though, it is a more general and somewhat vague but nevertheless urgent call to a deeper, broader, and collective activism. On the right, it tends to be a call to greater personal and public morality. Reacting against a familiar agenda, many younger evangelicals don’t want to be the Fox Network at prayer; whatever their politics, they want to make a difference in the world by radical discipleship, sacrificing their personal comforts for suffering neighbors at home and around the world. No doubt sociological demographics plays a role in where one lands. Younger people, either single or without children, are freer to focus their energies on a broader range of neighbors, while later they find themselves focusing on the family, both at home and in the public square.
Maybe the obsession reveals more about the dangers of ministers stewing in our own juices—perhaps even suffocating in the caverns of regular ministry—that we don’t get out much. But what about their parishioners? Is the most important thing we have to say to them that they are not making a difference in the world, making touchdowns for Jesus, and transforming culture?
Think of the nurse who dragged herself out of bed to attend the means of grace after having worked a fifteen-hour shift. Ministers shouldn’t feel guilty for not having cared for the physical needs of hundreds of neighbors in the hospital this last week. But why should they load down this nurse for failing to “live her faith” because she extended hours of neighbor-love in her ordinary vocation rather than as an identifiable church-related “ministry”?
Or picture the parents of 4 children, one of whom has a rare blood disease. They both work tirelessly, one outside the home, loving and serving neighbors. They would like to have more friends and open up their home. Stirred by the opportunities and needs to volunteer for all sorts of good causes, they find that all of their time, energy, and resources go to caring for their family. Are they world-changers? Should they be giving more time to “finding their ministry” in the church, so that the church can receive the credit for having an impact on the community?
I also think of the banker who came to church today. On Thursday he stretched the “best practices” a bit to extend a low-interest loan to a responsible but disadvantaged young family for their first home.
I picture the mom and dad who, though tired at the end of a busy day, read Scripture and prayed with their children and then tucked them into bed with an imagination-building story.
A Sunday school teacher who labored over the lesson in between working two jobs, the high schooler whose vocation is to learn, grow, and assume civic as well as church responsibilities, the struggling artist who makes us all stop to imagine ourselves and our place in the world a little differently, the lawyer who prosecutes the claims of justice and defends the rights of the accused—who just this past week offered pro bono hours to a victim who couldn’t afford legal advice.
On and on I could go. Are these folks your platoon for your own vision of having an important ministry that changes your community and your world? Is it not enough to “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work well with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11-12)? To love and serve our neighbors—especially those nearest to and most dependent on us—regardless of the burden?
Sure, there are the Wilberforces who can truly be said to have changed the world. However, they did so in their worldly callings as believers and neighbors. It’s what James Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Moreover, they don’t set out to change the world but to live out their identity in Christ where they are in all sorts of ordinary ways that sometimes turn out to present extraordinary moments of extraordinary opportunities for extraordinary service. Rosa Parks got up one morning (December 1, 1955) in Montgomery, Alabama, and got on the bus as she usually did, only this time she refused to sit in the back as she was expected to do. She didn’t set out to become “the mother of the freedom movement” or “the first lady of civil rights,” but she was the right person, with the right convictions and character, in the right place, at the right time.
Now, all of these people are there before you. After their long week, filled with the hopes and fears of this present age, they are longing to hear something new, that they have not—could not—hear from the various institutions, media, and personalities they’ve encountered over the last six days. There are single people who are struggling with their relationships, wondering if they will always be lonely—and whether they’re to blame. Others are struggling in their marriages, troubled by the way their children seem to ignore them, wrestling with real possibility that one or both of them will be laid off at work. You are Christ’s ambassador, entrusted with his words. You dare not speak in his name, except for the fact that he authorized and commanded you to do so. What will you say?