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Loving Muslim Neighbors

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Rick Warren responded yesterday to the Orange County Register story with a helpful clarification.

“Who is my neighbor?”, the rich young ruler asked Jesus. The query was an attempt to deflect responsibility. Of course, I have a responsibility for my family, kinsmen, and fellow Jews, but surely not for the outcasts, the morally unclean, or the Gentile. No loophole, Jesus replied. Your neighbor is the one right under your nose, whomever God created in his image. Like the rich young ruler, we all have ways of defining “neighbor” as someone who is like us. It’s group narcissism: not really loving my neighbor, but loving myself and what I see of myself in others.

Who Is My Neighbor?

We recognize our responsibilities to our own families, church, and perhaps various voluntary associations. There are school ties: fraternity/sorority mates, secret societies, and alumni associations, where belonging gives advantages in climbing the corporate ladder or getting your kids into Harvard. In a less mobile era, churches reflected the demographics of their neighborhood, as it was often divided between the farm and the town, or along racial and socio-economic lines (different sides of the tracks). Even in many cases where blacks and whites worshipped together, the former sat in the loft—never in the main gallery—and certainly did not drink from a common cup in Communion. (Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians.) In our mobile society today, churches are more divided than ever into ever-smaller niche demographics defined by the marketplace.

In all of these cases, we choose our neighbors. They are people who are like us. We share similar playlists on our iPod, shop at the same stores, drive similar cars, and even dress alike. When we move to a new city or suburb, we find a neighborhood, church, and school that most closely fits our own self-chosen identity. (Of course, some people have more freedom to choose than others.)

However, our closest neighbors are not those we choose; they are the ones who are chosen for us, by God, either in his common grace (providence) or special grace (salvation). The most obvious example is our nuclear and extended family. The church is another place designed by God rather than the market. At least in principle. Ideally, based on biblical principles, a local church should reflect the unity of faith and diversity of culture that belongs to its particular time and place. When the defining location is “in Christ”—”one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” then all sorts of people show up who are different from you. They are not only your neighbors, but your brothers and sisters. You didn’t choose them; God did. Who is my brother or sister? Those whom God has given to his Son and therefore to me as someone to love in a concrete yet mysterious depth of mutual affection.

But who is my neighbor? As far as our neighborhoods are concerned, increasingly, socio-economic demographics are more definitive than other factors, such as race or religion, which cut across income-levels.

Our family lives in a typical middle-class track home. Two doors down from us is a family of Muslim immigrants. How do I embrace them as a gift from God—as neighbors rather than aliens? It is interesting to see how our children more naturally interact with this family than my wife and I. The children play together regularly, either at our house or theirs. Sometimes there is tension, especially when they get into a theological conversation! Sometimes the kids get into lively discussions and our children have developed a genuine love for their friends, praying that they will come to know Christ and offering witness where they are able. For the most part, they simply accept each other as neighbors.

My wife and I do our best to remember not to offer treats during Ramadan. I’ve tried to help get one of the kids a job, my wife gave them a stroller, and we sign up for their school contests. But surely we are not loving our neighbors if we have not shared the gospel with them ourselves. I have done so with the oldest son from time to time, but I confess that it’s difficult. Faith is so bound up with culture—not only in Islam, but in their perception (too often the reality) of Christianity in America. Where do you begin? Yet we’re neighbors. In Jesus’ book, that word means a lot more than it ordinarily would in my own. Especially when it comes to the parents, heir difference from me intrigues me, but it also allows me to justify a certain distance, even unavailability. I walk into their home, surrounded by framed texts in illuminated Arabic script and swords, and they too sense the dance of the porcupines. Yet I want to be their neighbor and I suspect that they might want to be mine. I want to see them from God’s perspective, as a gift the he has chosen for me, rather than as a resource that I choose or don’t choose for myself.

Building Bridges

A recent article in the Orange County Register reports that Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has stepped out into the choppy water by building bridges to the Islamic community. He has spoken in a number of mosques and to large groups of Muslim clerics. It’s part of a new initiative, called the King’s Way, which is, according to the report, “proposing a set of theological principles that include acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” Here are a few highlights from the article:

    • On one occasion, Saddleback Church hosted an “interfaith” soccer game with pastors and imams taking on the teens. “At the dinner, Abraham Meulenberg, a Saddleback pastor in charge of interfaith outreach, and Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at a mosque in Los Angeles, introduced King’s Way as ‘a path to end the 1,400 years of misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians.’” Then a document was presented, affirming common belief in “one God” and “two central commandments: ‘love of God’ and ‘love of neighbor.’” It expressed the goal of making friends, building peace, and working together on social service projects. “We agreed we wouldn’t try to evangelize each other,” said Turk. “We’d witness to each other but it would be out of ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ not focused on conversion.”
    • One of Warren’s neighbors, Yasser Barakat—a Muslim from Syria, befriended the Orange County pastor and they have been fast friends ever since. In fact, “‘He calls me his Muslim brother,’ Barakat said. ‘It all started with a friendship.’”
    • According to this article, Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest said that when she and Muslim leader Jihad Turk co-founded the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in 2006, they left evangelicals out of the invitations—fearing that the desire to convert Muslims would threaten the project. Now, however, both are convinced that the worries are unjustified. In these gatherings, people weep as they realize how many misconceptions they had of each other.

Reaching Out Without Watering Down

Rick Warren’s initiative on this, as on other fronts, is admirable for its motivation. I don’t question the sincerity of his neighbor-love or of his concern to create greater friendship, understanding, and social cooperation. As a recent Newsweek cover-story documents, this is extremely rare in Islamic countries, where persecution of Christians is alarming. So wherever bridges of friendship and understanding can be built, so much the better.

However, I have some concerns on two fronts. The more important concern touches the ultimate mission and identity of believers and the church. Do we in fact worship the same God? It is true that there is widespread misunderstanding among Muslims concerning the Christian view of God—that the Trinity implies three separate gods and that the incarnation was the result of God the Father’s sexual relations with Mary, for example. Nevertheless, even when these misconceptions are resolved, the fact remains that Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God’s identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share. With respect to the latter, we disagree sharply over who this God is: his attributes, character, purposes, and relation to the world.

Out of respect for our neighbors, we have to allow them to register their own “No!” to our creed and out of faith we have to confess and witness to the revelation of God’s Word. Rick Warren categorically denies that he is trying to merge Christianity and Islam. “My life and ministry are built on the truth that Jesus is the only way, and our inerrant Bible is our only true authority,” he said on his site (Pastors.com). Given that, though, doesn’t love require that we extend neighborly friendship and seek to bring them the gospel? Is this not the way it should be with all of our neighbors? Surely not every social event has to be an evangelistic opportunity, but then it also should not be a religious one either—as if churches and mosques could find some common ground of faith for their charity towards each other. The bridge-building between neighbors should happen in neighborhoods, not in “interfaith” quasi-religious gatherings.

The “King’s Way” statement acknowledges common belief in the law of love. However, even this is interpreted in radically different ways in the authoritative texts of both religions. The “love” of Allah is radically different in definition than love as it is manifested by God and commanded in Scripture. More importantly, there is no gospel in Islam. It is a religion of works-righteousness from start to finish, with no rescue operation of God incarnate for sinners. The God we worship is known in Jesus Christ and any god who could be known apart from this Savior, dying and rising for us, is an idol. To separate belief in God from the gospel is to vitiate biblical faith at its core. The Allah of the Qur’an and Hadith is the archetype of terror and I have witnessed the overwhelming relief of those who have been freed from the fearful resignation to Allah by embracing the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not for that reason wish to deprive my Muslim neighbors of the free expression of their religion. In fact, I would defend their right to it with life and limb. Nevertheless, our faith is missionary not in the jihadist sense but as the inherent impulse of the gospel itself as good news that must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The above-cited Register article reports, “‘I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,’ Warren told an audience of 8,000 Muslims at a Washington, D.C. convention in 2009, according to a transcript published by the religion news website beliefnet. ‘People of all beliefs (can) be, and discuss, and, yes, even disagree, without demeaning or debasing each other.’”

Certainly it is true that we should engage in civil conversation. It is not merely democratic values, but the New Testament, that requires Christians to love their neighbors regardless of the response. However, to tell Muslim friends, “I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,” is to imply that God approves idolatry as if it were equivalent to the diversity that God does in fact like—indeed, creates—when he saves people “from every tribe, kindred, language, and people” by his blood (Rev 5:9).

Neighbor-Love without Illusions

My second misgiving is subordinate to the first, but perhaps worth mentioning. I do not doubt that there are many Muslims who embrace democratic values, but it is naïve for Christians to assume that Islam is simply a religion, much less one that is freely embraced. Ask any devout Muslim.

Until we come to understand, respect, and respond to Islam in all of its difference, we will not prepared to love our neighbors properly. Islam does not proclaim good news to the world, which is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam: the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but a political state. Islam is a totally-encompassing geo-political, social, legal and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates (“infidels”). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, “one whose responsibility has been taken.” If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb (“House of War”).

Now, it doesn’t take much research to show that Christians have failed gravely in their discipleship. Our hands are stained with the blood of “Christendom,” which in many ways was indistinguishable from Islam in its “one-kingdom” confusion. The difference, though, is that when we have confused Christ and culture, we have acted in clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. However, Islamic states are only inconsistent with their sacred texts when they do not impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire. Whether through patient moderation or radical extremism, Islam remains a worldwide culture that is only secondarily religious. One may endure a liberal democratic compromise for a time, but only for a time.

For example, it was reported last week that Muslims in Switzerland are setting up their own “parallel parliament,” called the Ummah Schweiz, based on sharia law rather than the common laws of Switzerland (http://www.stonegateinstitute.org/2863/muslim-parliament-switzerland). It is becoming increasingly clear that Islam is fundamentally committed to an absolute and all-encompassing control of territories and nations even where its adherents are a minority.

Love and War

The holy wars that God commanded in the old covenant were types, a mere foretaste of the final judgment when Christ returns. Yet we are now living in the period between Christ’s two advents when the kingdoms of this age are ruled by God’s common grace while his church grows and expands by his gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes it clear that the era of a holy land, with holy war, is suspended. Instead of driving the idolaters out of his land, we are to proclaim the good news, endure persecution without retaliation, and pray for our enemies. No matter how Islam continues to expand its reign of terror across the globe, focusing especially on Christ’s co-heirs, believers everywhere must resist any appeal to political coercion to defend the faith. Like Paul, who appealed his case to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship, we may invoke our Constitutional liberties, but we must not claim any political privileges beyond the freedom to practice the Christian faith, including the freedom to evangelize which is at the heart of that faith.

There are at least three easy ways of avoiding the command to love our Muslim neighbors. The first is to ignore them, to pretend that America is a “Christian nation” and that the “other” does not really exist. That’s a version of the group narcissism I referred to above. The second is to demonize them, as if they were not fellow image-bearers of God whom we are called to love and serve and to whom we are called to bring the gospel. The third way is to try to establish some religious common ground that can make them seem less “other” and more like us, so that we can love them. The hardest thing is to love them simply because they are our neighbors and, as such, make a claim on us in all of their difference from us, a claim that we cannot ignore precisely because God’s law and his gospel are true—and savingly true—for them as well as for us. May we all pray for more of this kind of love.

“Would You Mind Answering A Few Questions?”

 

Spring’s on its way, and if you’re still sitting under snowbanks and next to space heaters, the March/April issue of Modern Reformation will help beguile the hours.

The theme of this issue is ‘Exit Interviews’, where our indefatigable editorial staff interview Christian Smith, Michael Shermer, Tim Keel and many others on their respective journeys from mainline evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, atheism and the emergent church.  We’re grateful for their continued willingness to converse with us on their views, and hope you’ll find the articles insightful and informative as you endeavor to better understand the contemporary philosophical and theological milieu.  Leon Brown provides some helpful practical tips on talking with non-Christians, and Dr. Horton shares some great ideas on how to improve your testimony  reminds us that when sharing our testimony, there’s only one date we really need to remember, and one reality we need to focus on.

(HINT: it’s not yours.)

Happy Reading!

The Pain and the Gain of True Holiness

I’ve been struck again by the wonderful depth and simplicity of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, this time with respect to his treatment of the spiritual struggle in the final chapters. Justification is not a process or a reward for those who are victorious in battle. Rather, it is a completed verdict that is rendered on the sole basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness. Precisely on this basis, we have a lot of work ahead of us. It will be a battle; we’ll win some and lose some. However, the war itself has been decided. We live from Christ’s victory over sin’s guilt and power toward Christ’s victory over sin’s presence. In the meantime, it’s choppy waters.

What pain and what gain? First, it’s crucial to notice that Paul is not talking about justification but sanctification here. The pain is perpetual struggle, warfare, and battle between the Spirit and the flesh, not between justification and condemnation. All of those who are justified are in Christ and therefore are indwelled by the Spirit. In the old covenant, provision for atonement was made in the sacrificial system of the Temple that the Spirit filled with his glory. And yet, in the new covenant the law is written on our hearts, our sins are forgiven, and the Spirit indwells us as his temple. Yet this very indwelling of the Spirit arouses the flesh to arms. Paul is not saying that we walk in the Spirit in order to be justified, but that those who are justified are in the Spirit and therefore must “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16).

Seeking to bring the church back under the old covenant, Paul’s opponents in Galatia had not even realized that the heart of the law is love. Like his gospel, Paul’s law is too simple. His critics demanded that Gentile believers be circumcised, keep kosher, and “observe days and months and seasons and years” (4:10). In the meantime, they looked down on others (especially Gentiles who didn’t act like Jews). Like Jesus in his exchanges with the Pharisees, Paul not only blames his opponents for confusing the law with the gospel but for setting aside God’s law (summarized by love) to obey their own rules, programs and ceremonies. The result of this false righteousness was disregard for God’s law under the pretense of fulfilling it. Legalism bred arrogance; instead of building each other up in the gospel and love, they were biting and devouring each other over who was “in” and who was “out.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). Clearly, this cannot mean that the Spirit is opposed to the moral law, which he has summarized (like Jesus-indeed, Moses as well) as the command to love. In fact, the “fruit of the Spirit” are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (v 22)-precisely the moral characteristics that the law aimed at but never could bring about because of our perversity. Far from setting aside the moral law, Paul is saying that the gospel is the only foundation on which true godliness can arise. Like Jesus, Paul refuses to pit law against love; it is love, not the observances and rules that we impose, to which all of God’s moral commands are directed.

Only in Christ, justified apart from works of the law, can the deeper intent of the law be fulfilled in us. In other words, now that we are in Christ, justified by a perfect righteousness imputed, we are finally free to “walk in the Spirit” and to fight against the flesh without any anxiety about the outcome. Will there be set-backs? Of course! Failures only happen if you’re in the fight. You will fall short, but that’s not the point anymore. Justified in Christ alone, you are free to love and serve your neighbor simply out of tainted love, more or less for his or her own good.

In their commentaries, Luther and Calvin make the same point: to no longer be “under the law” means that we are free of its condemnation, not of its command. Because we are justified, we are able to bear the fruit of love toward our neighbors: “that is,” Luther comments, so that the law “might begin to be fulfilled in us.” Only our justification is perfect, since it’s the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; the fruit of faith-namely, love-is partial in sanctification. And yet, it is truly begun. Paul is telling us, Luther adds, that we will never fulfill the law sufficiently, while “in the meantime nevertheless endeavoring diligently to walk in the Spirit, that is, wrestle against the flesh and follow spiritual motions…for that is all ye are able to do. Obey the Spirit and fight against the flesh.” Paul’s point is not to seek justification by works, but, having been justified by grace alone, to “walk in the Spirit, and thereby not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” Passive recipients of God’s favor and gift in Christ, we are thereby made active enemies of our sinful attitudes and actions. “Yea, the more godly a man is,” Luther says, “the more doth he feel that battle…Of this battle, the hermits, the monks, and the schoolmen, and all that seek righteousness and salvation by works, know nothing at all.”

So this is the irony: only a gospel of free righteousness in Christ alone, apart from works, is able produce the fruit of the Spirit, while works-righteousness keeps the fruit of the flesh well-watered. All of our righteousness before God is imputed. “But it followeth not,” Luther adds, “that thou shouldest make a light matter of sin, because God doth not impute it. True it is that he doth not impute it; but to whom, and for what cause? To such as repent and lay hold by faith upon Christ the mercy-seat, for whose sake, as all their sins are forgiven them, even so the remnants of sin which are in them be not imputed unto them.” They can freely accept the true weight of their sin precisely because it is borne by Christ. Nevertheless, “God always hateth sin,” and the believer does also-which is precisely why the battle is so severe. Those who do not abhor their sin and cling to Christ “die in their sins.” “Wherefore we speak not of them which dream that they have faith and yet continue still in their sins. These men have their judgment already: They that live after the flesh shall die.”

This is precisely Paul’s point in verse 21, after listing the fruit of the flesh: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The verb “do” here is a present participle, prassontes, meaning “practice”-as a pattern of life. Paul is not listing unpardonable sins; rather, he is talking about someone who is not even in the fight, someone who has not taken a definitive stand with God against his own sin. For Paul, “the flesh” means our old identity in Adam, under the power of sin and death. You will fall, but you take God’s side against your sin-and not just in general, but specific sins. You hate it. You long to be free of its presence in your life. The flesh remains strong, “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (v 17). Nevertheless, the condemnation of the law has been removed and now we are free to engage the battle without fear, self-righteousness, or despair-in dependence on the Spirit. The command is not to win enough victories over sin to enter into the life of the Spirit. On the contrary, believers are in the Spirit and therefore are commanded to “walk by the Spirit” and so bear the Spirit’s fruit.

Even this can be turned into a form of self-righteous ranking, though. Many teach that Paul has in mind a “second blessing.” Economy fliers are justified, but through a separate act of faith some move up to first class. They live the higher and victorious Christian life. They are not run-of-the-mill “carnal” Christians, but sold-out, on-fire, radically-crazy-for-Jesus people, living “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh.” But here, as in Romans 6-8, Paul teaches that all believers are simultaneously justified, filled with the Spirit, and therefore engaged in a battle that seems often like a hopeless cause when viewed from our point of view. No believer is “carnal” (i.e., defeated, living “in the flesh”) or living above the battle with indwelling sin. Antinomianism and legalism tempt us to go AWOL in this battle, either by passive resignation to indwelling sin or by an activism that has neither the gospel as its power nor the law of love as its goal.

If God cannot condemn us, since we are justified, then how can we condemn each other? Ironically, legalism is breeding antinomianism in the Galatian church. Legalism has no power to create a new heart; on the contrary, it’s like pouring gasoline on the raging fire. Notice how, among the “works of the flesh,” Paul includes “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” in between “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery” and “drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vv 19-21). Outside of Christ and his Spirit, it’s death; legalism and antinomianism merge into one. Sniping gossips and censorious judges are lumped together with witches. Dividing the church into “haves” and “have-nots” is right up there with orgies and idol-worship. Refusing to cling to Christ alone for all of their spiritual blessings, each in its own way sets aside both the gospel of grace and the law of love.

The reformers were quite right to see parallels between the legalism of the first-century and the medieval church. We should also see parallels with our own day. In our own evangelical circles, we often hear more about spiritual disciplines, devotions, quiet times, and personal growth than we do about either the gospel or the law that summons us to love our neighbors. We tend to think of sanctification-this war of the Spirit against the flesh-almost exclusively in terms of our own inner life. While that is certainly present and personal disciplines are included in the pursuit of godly maturity, the fruit of the Spirit and of the flesh are revealed chiefly in our relationships with others. Clinging to the merit of works leads us to set aside God’s law of love, which none of us fulfills as we ought, in order to establish our own more flashy and attainable works of piety that God has never commanded. Like the external show of the religious experts confronted by Jesus and Paul, medieval piety drove sinners deeper into their narcissism rather than leading them outside of themselves, looking up in faith to God and out in love toward their neighbors. Like Jesus and Paul, the reformers pointed out how this kind of works-righteousness actually focused not on that charity that we owe to others-”the weightier matters of the law,” but fasts and washings and seasons and pilgrimages and other acts of private devotion that we think will impress God. However, they not only enrage God; they serve no useful purpose for our neighbors.

Calvin observes, “Let arrogance go and we shall be most moderate towards one another…But it often happens that we compare ourselves with others and from the low opinion that we form of them set a high price on ourselves.” If the gospel of free grace really does characterize the basis, source, and confidence of the church, then instead of looking for opportunities to catch a fellow believer in sin, Paul says “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” and “keep watch on yourselves,” since each of us is just as prone to fall. We will “bear one another’s burdens” instead of loading them on each other. “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (6:1-3).

In this freedom, Paul can exhort, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (vv 9-10).

Here is the irony: Only in the gospel, where we passively receive Christ and all of his benefits, through faith apart from works, is it possible to become active in good works for the first time. On the secure basis of the Father’s acceptance in his Son are we able now at last to work hard, to “not grow weary of doing good,” to “not give up,” to strive more and more to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to love and serve our neighbors. Only because we are saved by grace apart from works can grace-wrought works blossom. Now the commandment is a wonderful summons to a life of love, knowing that our failure to fulfill this law will never be used against us in the court of law. So forget about your merits! Think now of those neighbors you encounter today who need your gifts, your time, your money, your words of comfort and exhortation. Love them not as a way of mollifying an angry judge or even of improving your own sanctification, but simply because they need you.

“Now let the Papists go and try to break their way into heaven by the merit of works!”, Calvin exclaims in response to this verse. Even our rewards “are the freely granted fruits of adoption,” gifts of God’s grace rather than merit. “The vast number of the needy overwhelms us; we are drained by paying out on every side. Our warmth is dampened by the coldness of others. Finally, the whole world is full of hindrances which turn us aside from the right path.” What does it matter? It is our vocation. Having been given everything by grace, God makes us debtors not to himself anymore, but to others. “Our common humanity makes us debtors to all; but we are bound to believers by a closer spiritual kinship, which God hallows among us.”

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.

RELATED ARTICLES

A New Commandment
Michael Horton
The Law & The Gospel
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Zac Hicks

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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.

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