White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 1)

From books like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, we were led to believe that this generation born after 1982 was more altruistic and socially-minded than baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

Not so, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The study by sociologists Jean M. Twenge, Elise C. Freeman, and W. Keith Campbell shows that there is actually a decline in civic interest, concern for others, and being a part of something larger than themselves. If anything, Millennials are more individualistic than their boomer parents.

Jean Twenge published a book on the subject, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In fact, she discussed her conclusions in this book on the White Horse Inn a while back. “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” They’ve been raised in a culture that places “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” according to Twenge. “‘The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special,’ she says. ‘It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.'” Individualism certainly encourages more tolerance, but it undermines a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. “‘Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems of the nation and the world, are generally good things,’ she says. But Ms. Twenge does not believe this is happening. People are ‘more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t bode well for society in general.'”

There is always a danger in carving society into generational niches and stereotypes. However, these findings are substantiated elsewhere and it’s evident in church trends.

Back in 2007 USA Today (8/6/2007) reported a study showing that “7 in 10 Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.” Reasons? “Many don’t feel engaged or welcome.” LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer reported that those who stay or return later in life had several things in common: they were raised by parents had both been regularly involved in church, there were meaningful and engaging sermons, “and church members who invested in their spiritual development.”

‘Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza,’ Stetzer says…These findings fit with those by other experts. ‘Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,’ says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow…Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are ‘significantly less likely to believe that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.’

Over the last two decades, self-identifying Protestants (mainline and evangelical) have fallen in the US by over 10%.

In 2006 the Barna Research Group reported its findings. The most startling among them was that of those reared in committed church-going families, 61% were “disengaged” from church. Only 20% of churched teens are “spiritually active” by 29, although three-fourths say they were involved in some sort of pagan spirituality (“witchcraft”) in their teen years. As many as four-fifths say they attended church for at least a 2-month period as teens, but evidently did not find it compelling. This matches similar findings by others (here and here).

According to Barna director David Kinnaman,

Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twenty-somethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ They are also significantly less likely to believe that ‘a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.’ These attitudes explain other anomalies of twenty-something spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twenty-somethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.

In terms of beliefs, affirmation of key evangelical tenets falls steadily with each generation: 12% of those over 40, 6% of twenty-somethings, and 5% of today’s teens. And yet, 44% of those over 40 say they’re “born again,” with 36% of young adults fitting this description.

From the data, Kinnaman concludes,

Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.

Ministering to Youth vs. “Youth Ministry”

Youth ministry is about 150 years old. Arising at first as a way of reaching out to troubled teens especially in highly industrialized urban centers, parachurch ministries like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to provide safe activities and education in basic reading along with evangelism. Throughout the nineteenth century, parachurch organizations mushroomed. Attempting to create a Protestant Empire that transcended confessional differences, the Bible societies and Sunday School movement increasingly supplanted the ordinary structures, resources, and content of particular church traditions. According to the movement’s leaders, it’s what all evangelicals profess that matters, not what distinguishes Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and other denominations. Of course, there had always been catechism instruction for the young and new Christians. Now, however, Sunday school increasingly isolated the younger generations not only from the older but also from the wider confessional tradition to which they belonged. The Sunday school curriculum shared by all Protestant youths, not the catechism, shaped faith and practice. The “youth group” emerged as its own “church-within-a-church,” distinct from the public ministry and worship.

And so it has become increasingly easy for one to go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group and on to college ministry without having actually belonged to the local church. Young people may still drive with their family to the church campus, but from the parking lot they scatter to their own target-marketed groups. For many, the church is more a cafeteria of ministry offerings than a communion of saints. So is it really surprising that a good local church doesn’t figure into things when deciding upon a college and many don’t even join one because, after all, they have their campus ministry? I know of some instances, in fact, of such groups holding their meetings during the regular time of Sunday services.

From childhood, many have never know what it is like to go from catechism to profession/confirmation and first Communion with all of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Their memories of church are actually recollections mainly of youth-oriented (i.e., fun, exciting, entertaining) substitutes of the ordinary public service that their parents and grandparents attended on the same property. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated from the church, that they sense a lack of investment by older people in their spiritual growth, and that they do not know what they believe or why they believe it? Are they really dropping out of church in their college years? Or did they every really belong?

“Generation Me” is alive and well in our churches. Narcissism cuts across the generations, of course, but if in our own churches and families we are worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community—with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures, then should we really blame them? I don’t think so.

Nor can we place all of the blame on youth ministers. Some are doing a terrific job. Besides, it is as lazy for us to drop our children in their lap and expect them to do all of the Christian nurture that families and churches provide. Yet, it’s not just that we are not operating here on all cylinders, but in many cases, not even on one.

We are living off of the legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Believing that salvation is in our hands, Charles Finney naturally thought that the only criterion for the methods we use is “whatever is fit to convert sinners with” or “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” As Sunday school replaced catechism, Finney’s “new measures” replaced the ordinary means of preaching, sacrament, and pastoral care. Once upon a time, the pastor (his name doesn’t matter—it was his office that counted) taught you catechism, made regularly-scheduled pastoral visits to the home, dropped in on Grandpa at the hospital, married and eventually buried you. I realize that a lot of social factors make this “so yesterday”: we are a more mobile society. The realities of life and work uproot us from the network of extended families and communities. However, revivalistic evangelicalism has made uprooting a spiritual imperative. Now the model for ministry was the efficient revivalist. Extraordinary “new measures” invented by clever entrepreneurs, not ordinary means of grace commanded by our Lord, became the new normal.

Writing against the “new measures,” John Williamson Nevin—a Reformed pastor and theologian contemporary with Finney, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” .1

Like the revivals of Finney and his successors, the “new measures” of the church growth movement have been treated by many as science, like the law of gravity. Those who fail to adopt these new models of ministry will be left behind in the spiritual marketplace. It is a small step to the view of Christ’s sheep as “self-feeders” who need a “customized work-out plan” and, finally, to George Barna’s celebration of the “Revolutionaries”—those now who seek their “spiritual resources” online, at Christian concerts and conferences, and in specialized groups rather than the local church. Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism converge in a spirituality that is not only worldly but is unchurching the church.

In the next post I offer some suggestions for ministering to youth. Click here to read part two.

1. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 2-5. [Back]

Mystery Through Manners

We’re heading up to Irvine tomorrow for a screening of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, so we put our resident film critic, Anthony Parisi , to work and asked him to share his thoughts on the film, fiction, and Christian interaction with art.  He also threw in some Flannery O’Connor references for good measure.  You can follow him online at twitter.com/anthonyparisi.


A film version of Don Miller’s popular book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is hitting theaters next month. The trenches already seem to be forming between more conservative Christians and an evangelical subculture championing what they see as more honest, open-ended talk of faith. Director Steve Taylor, a longtime CCM artist and music producer, recently announced the indie film came under fire from Sherwood Baptist (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) during production. Now the distributor of October Baby is working to ensure the trailer will not play before their film.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike Cosper has written an interesting primer on the film. He explains the background and tries to identify some of what attracts burnt-out evangelicals and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive rather than prescriptive, believing we should address any issues we may have at “an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story, and the stories around him.” We should be receptive to the fact that Miller is giving voice to real problems and experiences in the evangelical world.

This prompted some great discussion in the comments. Matthew Anderson brought his characteristic insight, pushing for more options than this framework. While Miller’s storytelling is descriptive, “therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative—and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.” A simple prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy makes “patient, confident, and appreciative critique” more difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. What seems to be missing is that while some Christians may be offended at depictions of “bad behavior”, others (like myself) find some of Miller’s embedded perspective problematic. Like any writer, his descriptive storytelling is necessarily bound up with specific ideas and beliefs. This kind of concern is different than the pious grandmother offended by scenes of dorm-life debauchery. Unfortunately, they can too often be lumped together.

Cosper went on to elaborate some of his thinking that begins to get at a clearer way forward. He explains that he wanted to “illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works.” I think this complex reality lies at the heart of why Christians often talk past each other about fiction and art more generally. In conservative circles it’s common to see reviews reduced to a tedious game of Worldview Whac-A-Mole. Some of the worst film criticism I’ve read has come from theologians and pastors. The story is dissected into a simple “message” or worldview at the expense of the whole work and the empathetic engagement that culture exists to foster. While we can (and should) thoughtfully discuss and critique the ideas that live in stories, this has to be done in a different way than analyzing a logical theorem.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor can be a great guide to thinking about the nature of storytelling. In her brilliant essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (worth reading in full here) it’s clear that there is nothing new under the sun with these kinds of discussions among Christians.

O’Connor sees a fiction writer as someone who is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in concrete life. She points to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a work of art is good in itself. This can easily be forgotten by our pragmatic impulses. “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

As Christians, we can have a very hard time with this idea. It’s easy to feel that fiction only has a place if it has some sort of moral uplift or pedagogical value. Unfortunately, “Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” Certainly we know people who seem to have profited from a “sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better.” But this is true because God uses plenty of poor things in this world for good purposes. We need to leave that up to God’s sovereignty and not let it impair our judgment. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

What is required of the writer is to create “the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it” and ensure that truth “take on the form of his art” and becomes “embodied in the concrete and human.” Mystery and meaning must be put into manners—made incarnate in human life. Here is where a Christian will begin to feel some friction. We live in a fallen world full of corruption and sin. How can we reproduce this? Shouldn’t we tidy it up to show what it ought to be? O’Connor asks, “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and to the absolute?”

More fearful yet, there is the possibility that “what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader.” Is it better that a millstone were tied around his neck? This is a serious concern for the artist “and those who have felt it have felt it with agony.”

Thankfully, we are free of ultimate, redemptive responsibility and shouldn’t burden ourselves “with the business that belongs only to God.” A Christian artist is free to observe God’s fallen creation and must feel “no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe.” To put it a another way: we are not bringing in the kingdom by our cultural activities. Art can glorify God because of the intrinsic good of creation, not because it has some transformative, redemptive power to usher in spiritual redemption. Instead of laboring under the burden of a salvific agenda (which Christ accomplishes), we are to focus our attention on producing a work of art that “is good in itself.” This is to be done for God’s glory and out of love toward others.

For O’Connor, the solution to all this “leads us straight back where we started from—the subject of the standards of art and the nature of fiction itself.”  Holding an artist to that standard is not at odds with moral or theological judgment. Why? Because the medium is (or at least is inseparable from) the message. Any moral or ideological failure will be bound up with an artistic one. A problem of vision or truthfulness manifests itself in the quality of the art. She writes, “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

A current illustration of this is the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. This movie by the standard of movies may have failed to embody the moral sense needed for its proper, devastating effect. This article argues that there is an aesthetic failure to capture the brutality and reality of death. Restraint on violent imagery ends up downplaying the horror of the killing ritual. The hyperactive shaky-cam and rapid editing style distracts and derails necessary focus to the evil of what‘s happening. The director doesn’t frame the image of rising child warriors, thus missing his chance to startle and unnerve. The “manners are failing to embody the mystery” and so both end up being compromised.

What does all this mean for discussing Blue Like Jazz and movies more generally?

I think it should remind us that art is effective and compelling at the particular, incarnate level—not an abstract, didactic one. After having sat in over a hundred screenings of his film, Steve Taylor is convinced “the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences.” This is important to understand, especially for any of us who might be critical of certain ideas within the film. We need to interact with movies not as theological disputations but as works of fiction. Everyone connects with movies in emotional, personal, and experiential ways. Through concrete imagination, not abstract ideology.

How we discuss an artist’s ideas must proceed accordingly. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to “critique theology” that we miss our opportunity to learn and sympathize with another person. I think this is at the heart of what Mike Cosper was getting at. Culture arises from our great need for commonality, empathy, and shared understanding. Let’s be careful not to ignore the aesthetic, human, “real life” aspects that draw us to art in the first place. Otherwise we forget, as Flannery O’Connor puts it, that “we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.”


WHI-1094 | The Lord’s Prayer (Part 2)

What does it mean to “hallow God’s name”? What are we asking when we pray, “Thy kingdom come”? Why does the Lord’s Prayer begin with these theological issues, rather than with our own practical concerns? The hosts address these questions and more as they continue to unpack the implications of the Lord’s Prayer as part of their series through the Sermon on the Mount.


Our Daily Bread
Michael Horton


Zac Hicks


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A Better Way
Michael Horton
Beyond Culture Wars
Michael Horton


The White Horse Inn is Taking Calls TODAY!

Mike, Kim, Ken and Rod are in studio today to record future White Horse Inn programs, and between 2-3pm (Pacific Time), they’ll begin taking listener questions. So if you have a good question that you’d like to present to the WHI hosts, then be sure to call us for this special Open Lines event. We will not be streaming this recording during the taping, but it will eventually air as one of our future broadcasts. Our studio line is 1-866-349-7090. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Sanctified by Grace?

Chris Jager asked a good question in response to the first post in this series and I thought it was important enough to explore in more than a couple of lines. He asks:

Also, is sanctification a work solely of the Holy Spirit, or both the Holy Spirit and the believer? Is the work attributed to both, or just the Holy Spirit? When does it become “my work,” trying to attain my own righteousness, and when is it true sanctification?

Isn’t true sanctification produced through the hearing of the gospel?

Passive Recipients, Made Active in Good Works

Throughout Scripture, regeneration, which is nothing less than a sharing in the new creation, is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Not only in the beginning, but throughout our lives, the Spirit is renewing us by grace, conforming us to the image of Christ by his Word.

The danger in legalism (or neonomianism) is to collapse the gospel into the law, while antinomianism collapses the law into the gospel. Either way, the office peculiar to each becomes murky until finally it is obscured entirely. Furthermore, while legalism collapses justification into sanctification, antinomianism collapses sanctification into justification. One more, destination is the same, even if arrived at by different routes.

It is crucial, then, to distinguish law and gospel as well as justification and sanctification. Each plays its own essential but distinct role. The law reveals God’s righteous demands, while the gospel reveals God’s gift of righteousness in his Son; in justification God imputes Christ’s righteousness to sinners, while in sanctification he renews them day by day. The law functions as the threatening judge to send us to Christ for our justification, but it also functions as the command of our Father in sanctification.

In the new birth and justification we are passive. Repentance and faith are given as a free gift. However, in conversion—the act of repentance and faith—we are active, having been raised from death to life by the Spirit through the gospel. Our initial and lifelong conversion cannot be attributed to us, but only to the Triune God. Every moment our turning from idols and specific sins (including self-trust, but also other fruits of the flesh) to the Living God is a gift of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. Nevertheless, it is not the Father who repents, nor the Son who believes, nor the Spirit who does good works; it is believers who, united to Christ, bear the fruit of faith in love and works. Salvation is not restricted to justification but encompasses all of the blessings we enjoy in Christ: election, redemption, effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification.

Two Dangers to Avoid

So there are two dangers to avoid.

First, we dare not treat justification as a free gift that is based entirely on Christ’s person and work in the gospel and then treat sanctification as something that is based on our person and work. As Calvin observes, the Spirit creates faith through the gospel, and this faith bears fruit in love and from love proceed good works. “The source of love is the grace of Christ” (Commentary on Corinthians II:404). “The mortification of the flesh is the effect of the cross of Christ” (Commentary on Galatians, 169). Elsewhere he adds,

Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness” (Inst. 3.16.1).

Calvin’s point is that you can’t receive any of Christ’s gifts without receiving Christ himself and if you are united to Christ, then you cannot fail to receive all of his gifts.

Second, we dare not see ourselves as passive in sanctification, as we are in the new birth and justification. Christ is always the object of faith in every act, but there are different acts of faith. In justification, faith merely “receiving and resting on [Christ] and his righteousness” (WCF 11.1). Yet faith responds variously to different passages in God’s Word: “yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). So in answer to Chris’s question, we can say something like this: We are justified by grace through a faith that simply rests in Christ and we are sanctified by grace through a faith that, resting in Christ, is working through love. There are many exhortations in the New Testament to cooperate with the Spirit: “Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25-26). We are warned not to quench the Spirit, or as the NIV has it, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thes 5:19).

We do indeed receive our sanctification as a gift. Not only in the beginning, but throughout the life of daily renewal, believers are always active in love because they are united to Christ alone through faith alone. Nevertheless, the consequence of our being mere recipients of grace is that we are by this gift made active in good works (Eph 2:8-10; Phil 2:12-13, etc.). As Luther said, “Faith is a busy thing.” It is always looking for something to do, not for justification, but for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors. Sanctification is dependent on justification, but it is not the same as justification. Those who make diligent use of the means of grace will mature. They will no longer be children, but will grow up together with the other members of Christ’s body into their head (Eph 4:14-15).

Myriad calls to preserve the bond of unity, to crucify the deeds of the flesh from which quarrels, immorality, and idolatry emerge, to press on, to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness in Christ, both presuppose justification and entail something distinct from justification. On the basis of our freedom from the law’s condemnation, we are able for the first time truly to love God and our neighbors. We are not what we will be, but we are not what we once were. The new creation has dawned and the Spirit has swept us into it—and keeps us swimming in the powers of the age to come—through his means of grace.

It has sometimes been said that justification is monergistic, but sanctification is synergistic. I understand the point: namely, to distinguish these gifts, as I’ve done above. It is certainly true that we are active in sanctification and that we grow in Christian maturity through our grace-given responses each day to God’s commands and promises. However, it is unusual and, I think, inappropriate to import the monergism-synergism antithesis (typically belonging to the debate over the new birth and justification) into sanctification. It is better simply to say that we are working out that salvation that has Christ has already won for us and given to us by his Spirit through the gospel. Though in sanctification (unlike justification) faith is active in good works, the gospel is always the ground and the Spirit is always the source of our sanctification as well as our justification. As John Owen expressed it, “The doctrine of justification is directive of Christian practice, and in no other evangelical truth is the whole of our obedience more concerned; for the foundation, reasons, and motives of all our duty towards God are contained therein.” In other words, the law always tells us what God requires and the gospel always tells us what God has done for sinners and why they should now yield themselves to righteousness.

In Roman Catholic and other synergistic schemes, we are working toward union with God—a final justification according to works. In evangelical teaching, however, we are working out of, or better, from the union with Christ that is already ours. In sanctification, we are striving, training, and running a race to the finish line—not toward justification, but from justification to our glorification. We “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Heb 12:1-2).

What the Law Still Can and Cannot Do

In this race, the law still functions as God’s command for us, but no longer with the power to condemn those who are justified in Christ. It is easy at this point to turn the third use of the law (to guide believers) back into the condemning use, or as the old Puritans used to say, to turn back from the covenant of grace to a covenant of works. At the beginning, upon first hearing the gospel, the believer was amazed by God’s grace in Christ. Eventually, though, exhortations have become quasi-conditions for God’s aquittal, as if one began by the Spirit through the gospel and then attained final justification through one’s efforts in sanctification (see Gal 3:3).

Again Calvin’s pastoral wisdom is helpful:

The consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness…For there the question is not how we may become righteous but how, being unrighteous and unworthy, we may be reckoned righteous. If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law. Nor can anyone rightly infer from this that the law is superfluous for believers, since it does not stop teaching and exhorting and urging them to good, even though before God’s judgment seat it has no place in their consciences (3.19.2).

Owen says much the same thing in A Treatise on the Dominion of Sin and Grace, referring to the moral law:

Christ is not in the law; he is not proposed in it, not communicated by it, – we are not made partakers of him thereby. This is the work of grace, of the gospel. In it is Christ revealed, by it he is proposed and exhibited unto us; thereby are we made partakers of him and all the benefits of his mediation. And he it is alone who came to, and can, destroy this work of the devil…. This ‘the Son of God was manifested to destroy.’ He alone ruins the kingdom of Satan, whose power is acted in the rule of sin. Wherefore, hereunto our assurance of this comfortable truth is principally resolved. And what Christ hath done, and doth, for this end, is a great part of the subject of gospel revelation.

Then in the last section of that work he concludes that the law directs us but can never destroy the dominion of sin and give us new hearts any more than it can justify:

It is that which the law and all the duties of it cannot procure. The law and its duties, as we have declared, can never destroy the dominion of sin. All men will find the truth hereof that ever come to fall under the power of real conviction. When sin presseth on them, and they are afraid of its consequents, they will find that the law is weak, and the flesh is weak, and their duties are weak, and their resolutions and vows are weak; – all insufficient to relieve them. … They sin and promise amendment, and endeavor recompenses by some duties, yet can never extricate themselves from the yoke of sin. We may therefore learn the excellency of this privilege, first, from its causes, whereof I shall mention some only:- 1. The meritorious procuring cause of this liberty is the death and blood of Jesus Christ. So it is declared, 1Pet.1:18-19; 1Cor.6:20, 7:23. Nothing else could purchase this freedom… ‘Christ died, and rose, and revived,’ that he might be our Lord, Rom.14:9, and so deliver us from the power of all other lords whatever.

… Let those that are believers, in all the conflicts with sin, live in the exercise of faith on this purchase of liberty made by the blood of Christ; for two thing will hence ensue:- [1.] That they will have a weighty argument always in readiness to oppose unto the deceit and violence of sin… See Rom.6:2. [2.] The internal efficient cause of this liberty, or that whereby the power and rule of sin is destroyed in us, is the Holy Spirit himself; which farther evinceth the greatness of this mercy. Every act for the mortification of sin is no less immediately from him than those positive graces are whereby we are sanctified. It is ‘through the Spirit’ that we ‘mortify the deeds of the body,’ Rom.8:13. Where he is, there, and there alone, is liberty…

…Wherefore, a great part of our wisdom for the attaining and preserving this liberty consists in the acting of faith on that promise of our Saviour, that our heavenly Father will ‘give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him’ of him. When sin in any instance, by any temptation, urgeth for power and rule in us, we are ready to turn into ourselves and our own resolutions, which in their place are not to be neglected; but immediate cries unto God for such supplies of his Spirit as without which sin will not be subdued, we shall find our best relief.

In this battle, therefore, success is always due to “considering the office and care of our Lord Jesus Christ for our relief,” Owen adds. “Pardoning mercy, according to the tenor of the covenant, doth always disarm this sin in believers of its condemning power; so that, notwithstanding the utmost endeavours of it, ‘being justified by faith, they have peace with God.'” Looking to ourselves, depending on our own progress and resolutions, will not destroy sin at its root, Owen concludes.

Viewed in this light, one can see how antinomianism and legalism come from the same failure to look to Christ for relief from sin’s guilt and power. They are two sides of the same coin, as Thomas Boston pointed out:

This Antinomian principle, That it is needless for a man, perfectly justified by faith, to endeavour to keep the law, and do good works, is a glaring evidence that legality is so engrained in man’s corrupt nature, that until a man truly come to Christ, by faith, the legal disposition will still be reigning in him; let him turn himself into what shape, or be of what principles he will in religion; though he run into Antinomianism he will carry along with him his legal spirit, which will always be a slavish and unholy spirit. He is constrained, as the author observes, to do all that he does for fear of punishment, and hope of reward; and if it is once fixed in his mind that these are ceased in his case, he stands still like a clock when the weights that made her go are removed, or like a slave when he is in no hazard of the whip; than which there cannot be a greater evidence of loathsome legality (Thomas Boston, “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”, 207).

“In a sinking state of the church,” Boston wrote elsewhere, “the law and gospel are confounded, and the law justles out the gospel, the dark shades of morality take place of gospel light; which plague is this day begun in the church, and well far advanced” (Gospel Truth, 106). Another 18th-century Scottish minister, John Colquhoun, adds, “To mingle, then, the law with the gospel, or teach men to join the works of the law to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ as the ground of a sinner’s title to justification in the sight of God is, according to our apostle, to preach another gospel (A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, 142).

There are some in our Reformed and Presbyterian circles today who do not approve of the distinction between law and gospel or the covenant of works and the covenant of grace that they find in their Confession. Far easier it is indeed to yield to antinomianism or moralism, the default setting of our fallen heart. Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, but now we feel that we must go on to some other foundation, with a different basis and different conditions, for our sanctification. Yet, as our Lord said, wisdom is vindicated by what she accomplishes. There is more to our salvation than justification. Because of what God has done and is doing, there is much for us to do now. However, any pretended obedience that is not grounded in the finished work of Christ imputed to sinners is both an offense in the nostrils of a holy and merciful God and a fruitless effort to destroy the fruit of sin while leaving its root in tact.

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Occasionally, we pull our pastor friends away from their ecclesiastic duties, and through our cunning wiles and irresistible charm manage to wheedle them into writing for us. Today, we have our buddy Brian Thomas, the Vicar of Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California, reviewing Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything.  (If this whets your appetite, check out the Rev. Tchividjian’s latest MR article here.)

Math has never been my strong suit, but Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, Jesus+ Nothing=Everything, presents a liberating equation for troubled sinners. Written in a down-to-earth style, Tchividjian offers a very pastoral confession of how a renewed understanding of the gospel brought him through a time of professional and personal crisis.

Building upon the work of St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis, the book begins by painting a picture of the restless heart longing for everything. Rather than to turning to Jesus, who alone can fill the void, we often turn elsewhere because ultimately we have misunderstood the gospel. Trouble arises when Christians think of the gospel as merely an entry ticket to heaven, the thing that gets us in, while the thing that keeps us in (we assume) is our own effort and performance. In other words, Tchividjian notes “we recognize that the gospel ignites the Christian life, but we often fail to see that it’s also the fuel to keep us going and growing as Christians” (37).

The real issue is not that we blatantly seek to replace Jesus with something else, we simply add this something else to him: Jesus plus self-affirmation, personal approval, social justice, success, power, etc. As the Galatians learned from St. Paul, when we add anything to Jesus, even a good thing, we end up with a sum that is no longer the Gospel (Gal 1:6–10). If Jesus plus nothing is not the ultimate equation in the life of a believer, Tchividjian argues that we have become idolaters, which he defines as building our identity on something besides God (40).

The greatest enemy of the Gospel, as the author contends in chapter four, is legalism, or what the he calls “performancism.” Performancism is what happens when we fail to believe the gospel; it happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game (46). Legalism, as Pastor Tullian confesses, preserves the illusion that we can do this. Unfortunately, as the author laments, so much of what passes for contemporary preaching fuels this legalistic fire by piling law upon law (what we do) without the gospel (what Jesus has done). Tullian writes, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list, strengthening our bondage to a performance-driven approach” (49).

I found the next couple of chapters to be the strongest in the book as they offer a devotional commentary on how Jesus plus nothing equals everything through the lens of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Tracing Paul’s argument, Tchividjian here presents an exegetical and theological presentation of the person and work of Christ. In one of the most simple and yet profound gospel statements I have ever read, the author concludes:

In his law-fulfilling life, curse-bearing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus has entirely accomplished for sinners what sinners could never in the least do for themselves. The banner under which the Christian lives reads, “It is finished” (84).

I must confess that as much as I enjoyed this book, the latter chapters tended to feel a bit redundant as he retraces the problems with idolatry and finding our identity apart from Jesus. It is not that what he writes isn’t excellent—it is—it is just that he’s already said it; and while repetition is often helpful it felt like listening to a forty minute sermon when the preacher has said everything he is going to say in the first twenty. This is likely due to the fact these chapters were built from a sermon series where a level of repetition is necessary from week to week when preaching lectio continua.

In today’s culture, it is rare to find a popular evangelical pastor admit weakness and confess his sins, not to mention write a book about it. Martin Luther described faith as a beggar’s hand receiving a gift. In this book, Pastor Tullian is a beggar pointing the reader to the Bread of Life who alone can satisfy a hungry soul. Here you will enjoy the freedom of the life-giving gospel equation: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything; everything minus Jesus equals nothing” (206).

The White Horse Inn is taking calls this Friday!

Mike, Kim, Ken and Rod will be in studio this Friday, March 23rd, 2012 to record future White Horse Inn programs, and between 2-3pm (Pacific Time), they’ll begin taking listener questions. So if you have a good question that you’d like to present to the WHI hosts, then be sure to call us for this special Open Lines event. We will not be streaming this recording during the taping, but it will eventually air as one of our future broadcasts. Our studio line is 1-866-349-7090. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions

In the previous post I offered a very brief survey of some controversies, pointing out that while there have been some true-blue antinomians, the charge is often made by those tilting in a more neonomian direction against faithful, apostolic, evangelical preaching. For example, in spite of the fact that Lutheran and Reformed churches have gone on record against antinomianism in no uncertain terms, that has not kept them from being accused of holding at least implicitly to antinomian tenets.

The Lutheran Confession

In his Small Catechism, Luther begins with the Ten Commandments, concluding, “God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.”

Settling the controversies in its own circles, the Lutherans confess in the fourth article of the Formula of Concord (1577), “We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.”

For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits (IV.2).

After affirming the civil and elenctic uses of the law (viz., to curb public vice and to drive sinners to Christ), the sixth article defends the “third use”: “..that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life…” (VI.1).

The following conclusions are worth quoting at length:

We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith (VI.2-3).

For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and believers are, by the spirit of their mind, in a constant struggle against the flesh, that is, against the corrupt nature and disposition which cleaves to us unto death. On account of this old Adam, which still inheres in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12, Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff ; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1) (VI.4).

The regenerate bear the fruit of the Spirit not as “works of the Law” in the sense of condemnation and justification, but “spontaneously and freely”; “for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7:25; 8:7; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2″ (VI.5-6).

Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him (VI.7).

Therefore, the Formula rejects as an “error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness” the view that this law is “not to be urged upon Christians and true believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent” (VI.8).

The Reformed Confession

In the earlier Reformed confessions, the primary goal is to clear the evangelical doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic (and Anabaptist) charge that it rejects any place for good works, rather than any direct threat of antinomianism within the ranks.

The Belgic Confession (1561) affirms that regeneration by the Spirit through the gospel “creates a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. . Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man.” These good works “are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works.” Although “God rewards good works, it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts” and “we do not found our salvation upon them; for we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable…Thus, then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Art. 24).

The Heidelberg Catechism begins its “Gratitude” section by asking why we should still do good works if we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. We do so “because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Q. 86). Conversion involves repentance as well as faith: dying to the old self and living to Christ (Q. 87-90). What then defines a “good work”? “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition” (Q. 91). This sets the stage for Catechism’s treatment of the the Ten Commandments (Q. 92-113). “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (Q. 114). The law much still be preached in the church for two reasons: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (Q. 115). There are also many relevant statements in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619).

The same view is found in articles 15-18 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. However, the debates of subsequent decades brought refinement to the Reformed confession even as they did for Lutherans.

In the Westminster Confession (1647) we find the most mature reflection of Reformed churches on these questions. After a remarkably clear statement of justification, taking into account a variety of subtle deviations, the Confession treats sanctification and faith, repentance, and good works in chapters 13-16. Again the Pauline emphasis on sanctification arising necessarily from election, effectual calling, justification and adoption is evident.

Christ, “by his Word and Spirit,” destroys the dominion of sin, weakening and mortifying its desires while quickening and strengthening the new creature in “the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (13.1). Though “imperfect in this life,” there arises “a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” Nevertheless, by God’s grace the saints will prevail (13.2-3). The Spirit brings us to repentance through the law and the gospel (15.1-2). We do not rest on repentance “as any satisfaction for sin,” but it evangelical repentance is always present with true faith as the gift of God (15.3).

Good works are those done according to God’s law, not human authority, zeal or pious intention (16.1). They are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith…” (16.2). Yet believers’ good works are by grace in Christ, through his Word and Spirit, “not at all of themselves” (16.3). “We cannot by our best works merit pardon or sin, or eternal life at the hand of God…,” since even the best works of believers are still “defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (16.5-7).

Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” distinguishes clearly between the way the law functions in a covenant of works (promising life for obedience and threatening death for disobedience) and in the covenant of grace . “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet it is of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience” (19.6). Expanding on the law / gospel distinction that grounds it, the federal scheme (covenant of works / covenant of grace) is crucial for avoiding legalism as well as antinomianism.

Drawing on Confessional Wisdom for Contemporary Debates

I have quoted Lutheran and Reformed confessions at length on this question at least in part because I sense that in some circles today there is a dangerous tendency to rally around persons, forming tribes around particular flags. Unchecked, this leads—as church history teaches us—to slander and schism.

There are several dangers to point out regarding this temptation to follow persons rather than to confess the faith together with saints across various times and places. There are personal idiosyncrasies attached to individuals, no matter how great their insight into God’s Word. With a clear conscience Paul could tell the Ephesian elders that he had fulfilled his office, declaring to them “the whole counsel of God” (Ac 20:27). This is our goal, too. Paul’s message came directly from the ascended Christ, and yet his letters reflect the particular controversies, strengths, and weaknesses of the churches he served. His personality and emphases differed at times from those of other apostles, even Peter and James—sometimes to the point of sharp confrontations. Nevertheless, the Spirit brought a sweet unity to the apostolic church as it gathered in a representative synod of “apostles and elders.” In solemn assembly in Jerusalem, the whole church received its marching orders for the proper view and treatment of Gentile believers.

How much more, after the death of the apostles, is our Lord’s wisdom evident in the representative assemblies of his body. It’s interesting that at the Council of Jerusalem not even Peter was given precedence over the body. Not even Athanasius’ writings were made binding at Nicea. Lutherans are not bound to Luther’s corpus and Reformed churches do not even subscribe anything written by Calvin. Jonathan Edwards did not sit at the Westminster Assembly. We are not obliged today to these confessions because of great persons, but because of great summaries of God’s Word.

It can be as difficult for their followers as for prominent preachers and theologians themselves to submit to the consensus of a whole body rather than to promote their own distinctive teachings, emphases, and corrections. Those who were raised in more legalistic and Arminian backgrounds may be prone to confuse every call to obedience as a threat to newly discovered doctrines of grace. The zeal of those who are converted from a life of debauchery or perhaps from a liberal denomination may boil over into legalistic fervor. As in the Jerusalem Council, representatives came to Nicea, Chalcedon, Torgau, Dort, and Westminster with idiosyncrasies. Yet they had to make their case, participate in restrained debate, and talk to each other in a deliberative assembly rather than about each other on blogs and in conversations with their circle of followers. Muting personal idiosyncrasies in favor of a consensus on the teaching of God’s Word, these assemblies give us an enduring testimony for our own time. Nothing has changed with respect to how sinners are justified and sanctified. There has been no alteration of God’s covenantal law or gospel.

On one hand there is reason for thanksgiving today. Many believers, especially younger ones, are embracing the doctrines of grace. Parachurch associations have provided a remarkable opportunity to extend this message and to provide mutual support to those in different denominations, or no denomination at all.

On the other hand, Christ founded a church, not an association or a website. He gave authority to churches, subordinate to his Word, to guard the apostolic deposit entrusted to them. This ministerial authority is lodged in the offices of pastor and elder, in local and broader assemblies. And yet, even in churches officially committed to this form of mutual fellowship and admonition, one discerns a growing tendency to gather into parties rather than presbyteries. Can we imagine Paul blogging about Peter rather than confronting him face to face? Are controversies to be decided by pastors and elders or by posts and emails?

Social media today create grassroots, democratic movements overnight, but unless we submit to the New Testament structures of mutual edification, these exciting wonders will be monsoons that pass as quickly as they came, leaving devastation in their wake. We have to reflect on the assets and liabilities of these new forms of mass communication, using them to the glory of God in their appropriate domain while submitting ourselves to the often humbling, slow, deliberative, and consensual processes of church courts.

If the growing charges and counter-charges of antinomianism and legalism continue to mount in our own circles, may God give us good and godly sense to recover the wisdom of our confessions as faithful summaries of biblical faith and practice. And may the Spirit direct us to the fraternal fellowship of the church’s representative assemblies for mutual encouragement and correction.

Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History

This is part two of four in a short series on Antinomianism. Read part one “What Is Antinomianism?”.

Like Moses (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18), Jesus taught that the whole law was summarized by the command to love God and neighbor (Mat 22:37). He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Mat 5:17-20). Nevertheless, Jesus was famously accused by the religious leaders as an “antinomian” for refusing to accord the same weight to the extrabiblical rules of the elders. Evidently, Paul, too, was accused of “antinomianism” by his critics. “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying” (Rom 3:8; cf. 6:1). Encouraging believers in God’s grace, nevertheless warned them against “using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). Peter adds that “lawless people” were using the gospel as an excuse for license; “ignorant and unstable,” they were twisting the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16-18). It should be noted that the charge of antinomianism and the reality of a lawlessness based on Scripture-twisting could only arise perpetually throughout the church’s history because the gospel of free justification in Christ apart from works is so clearly taught in Scripture.

As Packer’s first type indicates, the first form of explicit antinomianism was a stripe of Gnosticism. Gnostics identified the body with evil, the prison-house of the soul, longing to be reunited with the cosmic Christ (distinguished from the human Jesus). For some, this meant extreme asceticism and mistreatment of the body; for others, licentiousness, since it didn’t matter what the body did, as long as the spirit was pure. The church father Augustine was famously converted from a life of debauchery in Manichaean Gnosticism.

Martin Luther and his colleagues faced a more “Christ-centered antinomianism” in their day. Luther compared reason to a drunk man who fell off one side of his horse and got back on only to fall off on the other side. No sooner had the reformers proclaimed the liberating power of God’s free grace than “certain fanatical spirits” announced that the law was no longer necessary for believers. Coining the term “antinomian” (against law) for the first time, Luther denounced Johannes Agricola and others who defended this view. (In fact, Agricola even sued the reformer for slander, though he eventually dropped the suit.) While believers are free of its condemnation, the law remains God’s standard of living and plays its distinctive role together with the gospel in our lifelong repentance. Luther wrote, “Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” Antinomianism is a “blasphemy and sacrilege,” Luther thundered in his “First Disputation Against the Antinomians” (1537). The debate reached its climax in 1539 with Luther’s book, Against the Antinomians.

A second antinomian controversy erupted in Lutheran circles when the “Philippists” (those who claimed Philip Melanchthon, though with dubious warrant) denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and turned the gospel into a form of law while dispensing with the law itself. The fifth and sixth articles of the Formula of Concord affirmed the law-gospel distinction, rejected antinomianism and affirmed the third use of the law (to guide believers), which Melanchthon had in fact systematized before Calvin.

Actually, Packer’s second type (“Spirit-centered”) is close to the first type (Gnostic dualism). In both, antinomianism is virtually indistinguishable from extreme mysticism. In varying degrees of intensity, this impulse runs through various medieval sects to some Anabaptist groups and radical Pietists, who mediated it to a host of “enthusiasts” in Germany, England (especially in the Protectorate), and America.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly (convened by Parliament in 1643), there were a few hyper-Calvinists suspected of this “enthusiastic” taint. This version exhibits characteristics both of Spirit-centered and Christ-centered antinomianism. They were usually called antinomians because at least some of them held that the elect are justified from all eternity (even apart from faith), emphasized inner experience of the Spirit over all external ministry, and the freedom from the moral law’s direction. This identification of extreme mysticism with antinomianism was especially evident in New England’s “Antinomian controversy,” provoked especially by the teachings and trial of Anne Hutchison in 1637.

There certainly were some bona fide antinomians afoot during this era. However, they were not in the mainstream. In other cases, the charge was brought by those with a more legalistic bent—typically identified as “neonomians” for turning the gospel into a “new law.” For example, Richard Baxter accused John Owen of antinomianism and Owen returned the favor by warning about Baxter’s neonomianism. On the basis of the Reformed confession, there is no basis of any charge against Owen, though his appraisal of Baxter seems justified. Similarly, the New England elders may have been justified in their concerns about Anne Hutchison’s alleged visions, but even if John Cotton—a distinguished English Puritan recently transplanted—sounded antinomian at points, it was mainly because the New England elders were in fact neonomians.

In many cases, the antinomian charge was leveled by neonomians against classic Reformed pastors. A classic and tragic example is the so-called “Marrow Controversy.” Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645) had enjoyed a wide readership among Puritans, including commendations from the likes of Jeremiah Burroughs. Aside from a brief polemic against the sabbatarian position, the book reflected typical Reformed conclusions. By the early 18th century, the Church of Scotland was influenced by neonomianism and the “moderate” party, influenced by the Enlightenment. Coming upon Fisher’s volume, Scottish minister Thomas Boston reprinted it in 1718, with a preface from the great James Hog. However, the 1720 General Assembly declared it “antinomian” and in spite of the arguments of Hog, Boston, and ten other leaders, including Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, this decision was reaffirmed in 1722. This led to a schism in the 1730s, forming the Associate Presbytery. A position that was considered standard Reformed orthodoxy in 1645, even by members of the Westminster Assembly, had become “antinomian” by the Church of Scotland only a half-century later.

Arminians had long vilified Reformed theology as either explicitly or implicitly antinomian. Arminius himself had first provoked criticism by denying that Romans 7 could possibly describe the experience of a genuine believer. His followers have maintained that Reformed soteriology inevitably leads to carelessness and vitiates the seriousness of the call to holiness. William Law argued the same in 1729 in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) and A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726). Indebted to the radical mysticism of writers like Jacob Bohme, Law denied justification and at times verges on Pelagianism. Though no Pelagian, John Wesley expressed his debt to these works and he sought Law’s personal counsel on various occasions. In John Wesley’s view, Calvinism leads inexorably to antinomianism—a view he maintained especially in sharp polemics with Augustus Toplady (Anglican minister and author of the hymn “Rock of Ages”). His protege, John Fletcher, carried forward the charge with his book, Five Checks to Antinomianism (1770). The antinomian charge was renewed by Charles Finney and has been a staple of Arminian polemics to this day.

Yet Wesleyanism has generated its own form of antinomianism. Drawing from Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification, the Higher Life or “Victorious Life” movement emphasizes the mystical rather than activistic side of Wesley’s thought. “Let go and let God” is not a maxim that Wesley would have countenanced, but it reflects the emphasis of medieval and pietistic quietism. The key Wesleyan ingredient is the idea of sanctification as a “second blessing,” a separate experience subsequent to conversion, that makes it possible for believers to live above all known sin. Associated with the Keswick conferences in England and America, this movement emphasizes that this blessing comes in “full surrender,” as the self of the believer is replaced with the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.

In more recent years, a few writers from the dispensationalist camp have argued that these two blessings are not only separate events, but that one may make a decision for Christ (“making Jesus one’s personal Savior”) without bearing the fruit of faith in good works (“making Jesus Lord of one’s life”). The latter, a “carnal Christian,” may even no longer believe in Christ, yet be eternally secure. The call is to become a “victorious Christian,” by “letting Jesus have his way,” but sanctification is not necessarily given with justification in our union with Christ. It should be added that in this construal, “eternal security” is based not on God’s unconditional grace of election, redemption, and effectual calling, but on the believer’s having fulfilled the terms of God’s offer of salvation by making a decision for Christ.

In my next post, I’ll explore the rich summary of sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions, especially in the light of current controversies. Read part three, “Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions”

Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism?

Writing at a time of intense controversy and division within Reformed ranks, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote, “Factions breed factions.” We are called to the peace and purity of the church, but when is the concern for peace a crutch for compromise and when does our appeal to the church’s purity become a cloak for own pride and dogmatism?

Of course, we all say that we should find our unity around primary truth, but I know of no historical debate in which a partisan advocated schism in the name of “secondary matters.” Repeatedly these days I hear church leaders dismiss important age-old debates because they are not “gospel issues,” as if we had not been commanded by our Lord to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” At the same time, some of the most divisive issues in our churches today concern matters that are not even addressed clearly in God’s Word.

One issue that is clearly addressed in Scripture is sanctification: the work of the Spirit through his Word in uniting us to Christ and giving us the grace to grow up into Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Given the centrality of justification to the Reformation debate, it is not surprising that Reformed, Lutheran and other evangelical bodies are crystal-clear in their confessions and catechisms on this point. In some circles, though, it is at least assumed in practice that our confessions aren’t quite as clear or as emphatic on sanctification. Reformation theology is great in defining the gospel, but when it comes to the Christian life, we need to supplement it with healthy doses of Thomas a Kempis, Spener, Wesley, and their contemporary voices.

In my view, this would be a tragic conclusion to draw. However, before I make that case, it’s important to define antinomianism. After all, it’s one of those labels that is often thrown around carelessly today, as in previous eras. This is the first of a 4-part series of posts on antinomianism. After defining it, I’ll offer a very brief history of the debates in church history. Then, I’ll offer some contemporary reflections by drawing on the rich summary of Reformed teaching on sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. Finally, I will discuss sanctification and its relationship with the gospel.

Defining Antinomianism(s)

Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as a characteristic of human rebellion against any external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture.

In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.

One of the best summaries of the different varities of antinomianism is offered by J. I. Packer in his Concise Theology (Tyndale House, 2001), pages 178-80: (1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant; (2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word; (3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”; (4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law; (5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the examples of these varieties of antinomianism—and false charges of antinomianism—as they have played out in church history.

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