White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1087 | The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved and yet often misunderstood passages of the entire Bible. Many think of it as a blueprint for the gradual improvement of the human race through pacifism, love and generosity. But is Jesus talking to the world in general, or to his disciples in particular? Is this sermon exclusively about ethics, or does it also include the gospel? How should we interpret the Sermon on the Mount? That’s what’s on tap for this edition of the White Horse Inn.

RELATED ARTICLES

God’s New Society
Michael Horton

MUSIC SELECTION

Music

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

God’s New Society: An Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved—and often misunderstood—passages of the whole Bible. Some come to Jesus’ famous speech as if it were a blueprint for the gradual improvement of the human race through love rather than law. At the other extreme are those who say that it has no place in the church today, but is entirely relegated to a future “kingdom age.” In between there are various interpretations that we’ll encounter along the way.

The first thing to do is set up the context. Who is Jesus addressing? According to Matthew’s Gospel, “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain.” This was not in order to broadcast his voice to the thousands, but rather to escape the crowds: see also Mark 1:32-37, John 6:1-3; 6:15, for similar actions. Proof of this is the fact that he sits down and looks up at his disciples. In other words, the sermon is given to a more intimate crowd of his followers (i.e., those who followed him up the mountain).

Looking at the structure of the synoptic gospels, this address could be seen as an ordination sermon given to his disciples at the time of the selection of the twelve apostles (Matt 5:1-2, Lk 6:13, Mk 3:13).

Matt 4:1-11 – Temptation of Jesus
Matt 4:12-17 – Ministry in Galilee
Matt 4:18-22 – Calling of individual disciples
Matt 4:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Matt 5:1 – Jesus ascends a mountain and sits down. Many of his disciples come to him
Matt 5:1-2 – Sermon given to his disciples: “when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…” He is not standing on top of a mountain addressing the crowds below.

Luke 4:1-13 – Temptation of Jesus
Luke 4:14-43 – Ministry in Galilee
Luke 5:1-39 – Calling of individual disciples
Luke 5:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Luke 6:12-16 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples
Luke 6:20 – Sermon given to his disciples: And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples (looking up assumes a sitting position).

Mark 1:13 – Temptation of Jesus
Mark 1:14-15 – Ministry in Galilee
Mark 1:16-20 – Calling of individual disciples
Mark 1:21 – 3:12 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Mark 3:13-19 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples. The exact same structure is present here, but Mark does not include the sermon…

Where is this Sermon in the history of God’s unfolding drama? Its focus is the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus is bringing into the world. This kingdom is not something that human beings are building, but a gift that God is giving. That’s why it’s called “the good news of the kingdom,” not “the good program of the kingdom.”

God commissioned Adam and Eve to rule and subdue, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth. From its capitol in Eden, God’s reign was to be spread to the ends of the earth. Israel, too, was called to guard and keep God’s sanctuary, driving the serpent from his garden, living in love and peace together, spreading the kingdom from its capitol in Jerusalem. As we read in Hosea 6:7, “Like Adam, Israel broke my covenant.” And, like Adam, Israel was sent into exile “east of Eden.”

Yet through the prophets God directed Israel’s hopes to the coming Messiah and a deliverance that was based solely on his mercy. It was based on the Abrahamic promise rather than the Mosaic law; the oath that God swore to Abraham, not the oath that Israel swore at Mount Sinai.

The promise God made to Abraham was of a temporal land, the land of Canaan, that would be typological of a greater promise—namely, the whole world, everlasting life in God’s holy presence. He also promised him a seed—numerous physical descendants, but that was typological of something even greater: a redeemer-seed in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.

So it’s this Abrahamic promise that the prophets appeal to as Israel lies in exile, poor in spirit, persecuted, meek, and hopeless. The prophets proclaim a coming day when God’s glorious presence will overflow the Jerusalem sanctuary. It will cover the whole land of Israel (Ezek 37:25-28) and then the whole earth (Isa 54:2-3; Dan 2:34-45). The nations will come to Zion (Amos 9:11-12; Is 2:3-4; 11:10—12). Isa 26:16-19: “You have increased the nation, O LORD, you have increased the nation, your are glorified; you have extended all the borders of the land.” God tantalizes his people with the vision of a highway running between Israel and its erstwhile enemies, including Egypt and Assyria, as together they are all called the people of God and worship as one body. Is 26:18-19 prophesies “deliverance for the earth” and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” In chapter 27, it’s like a new Garden of Eden and Israel will at last “fill the earth.” All of this is rooted in the promise to Abraham: “In you and your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3).

So clearly already in that promise to Abraham, the expanding of Israel, both geographically and numerically, is not limited to ethnic Jews. The Messiah, David’s own Lord as well as descendant, will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8). In Ps 2 Yahweh promises the Messiah, his Son, “I will give the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth as your possession” (Ps 2:8). Ps 37:11 promises, “But the humble will inherit the land” (the phrase “inherit the land” is repeated in vv 3, 9, 18, 22, 29, 34). Furthermore, this is no longer in the conditional form: they will inherit it “forever” (v 29) and the wicked will but cut off forever, without inheritance (vv 9-11, 28). The earth (v. 5) is the kingdom of heaven (v 3). This is the “age to come,” referred to in inter-testamental Jewish sources, with roots in the prophets (Is 60:21: “Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified”).

This is the stock of prophetic hope from which the New Testament draws when it speaks of Christ as Abraham’s promised seed and the kingdom that he brings as a gift of grace. As Paul tells us in Romans 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” In fact, the word for “world” here is not just the earth (ge), but the whole cosmos. Romans 8 teaches that the whole creation is longing to join in the cosmic liberation that will arrive when the saints are raised in everlasting glory. Hebrews 11 teaches that Abraham was justified through faith, longing for a greater (heavenly) land. And in Revelation 21 and 22 we finally see the new heavens and earth, risen afresh in a glory never seen before, cleansed of all unrighteousness, violence, suffering, and death.

This kingdom is a gift, an inheritance. Like the inheritances we are familiar with, it’s not something we attain, build, or earn. It’s something we hear about. We are made beneficiaries of it. But how? And what kind of new family, what kind of new society, does this inheritance create? All of these questions are addressed in Jesus’ famous sermon.

It is significant that Jesus does not begin with commands, but with blessing. In the old covenant, national blessing was held out as the condition for national obedience: “If you do this, you will live long in the land that I am giving you; if you don’t, you’ll be cut off and exiled from the land.” Yet Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, reverses the order here. The blessing is greater than that of the old covenant, just as the reality is greater than its shadows. And the blessing is surer than that of Sinai, because it is grounded in God’s promise to give an everlasting inheritance gratis, as a free gift. The law still has its place. It still commands good works, but these are not conditions for remaining tenants in God’s land, but an inheritance for children whom he adopts in the Son of his love. Because our elder brother has fulfilled the whole law, the commands are not conditions for us to fulfill, but the appropriate response of thanksgiving in view of the mercies of God.

WHI-1086 | Faith & Experience

Which is more important, Christ’s objective work on the cross 2,000 years ago, or my subjective experience of God today? The good news that the Apostles announced concerned Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and the announcement of that objective fact creates faith and a rich experience of thankfulness and gratitude. But what happens if we preach experience itself, rather than the objective work of Christ? On this special edition of the program recorded live at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, Michael Horton and Rod Rosenbladt unpack the relationship between faith and experience.

RELATED ARTICLES

MUSIC SELECTION

Music

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Christ Alone
Rod Rosenbladt

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

You Win!

Thanks to the 358 commenters on our 20th Anniversary post. Using a random number generator, our staff chose 11 winners.

The grand prize winner is David Crabb who will receive a signed Horton library, a one-year subscription to MR, and five one-year subscriptions to give to his friends. Our ten other one-year subscription winners are:

  • Scott
  • Dan
  • Vince Canilla
  • Brian Thornton
  • Ashwin Ramji
  • Prayson Daniel
  • Daniel
  • Robert Caron
  • Mark Stumpff
  • Phillip

Congratulations, too, to the winners of Justin Taylor’s contest. His post generated 460 entries/comments!

One of the best things about this contest was reading your many, many comments about White Horse Inn, Modern Reformation, our hosts, and your memories. We passed along many of your comments to the staff and hosts. It really encourages us to hear how our work is making a difference for you.

If you didn’t win, you can still take advantage of our 20 years for $20 anniversary special. This is the lowest price we’ve ever offered for the magazine. In addition to the print version (published six times per year), you’ll also have access to our digital version, which can be read on any smartphone or tablet device, and you’ll get immediate access to twenty years of our archives!

We’re also offering a special bulk subscription rate for pastors and churches, which will allow you to purchase individual copies of the magazine for bulk distribution for only $1 apiece.

You can take advantage of both of these deals by calling our office at 800.890.7556 or go online and complete your purchase there.

Happy Birthday Modern Reformation!

There are many folks who are familiar with the White Horse Inn radio show, but aren’t as familiar with her slightly younger sister Modern Reformation magazine who is turning 20 years old this year. To make her ready for the birthday celebrations she underwent a complete make-over, which was revealed in the January/February 2012 issue. The editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation, Dr. Michael Horton, recently answered some questions about MR and why we think it contributes to the conversation taking place within the church today. The video and transcript are below.

When did you start Modern Reformation, and most importantly, why?
Modern Reformation actually grew out of a newsletter, and we didn’t have very high expectations for it initially. It was one of those things that just sort of caught on. It grew out of the experience of a number of us, first at Biola University, and then when I became a student at Westminster Seminary California. It was sort of a cottage project of a bunch of folks who were learning Reformed theology on the fly. It became interesting to other people, and then we included, actually right from the very beginning, Lutheran writers, and people from Calvinistic Baptist backgrounds, as well as Reformed and Presbyterian. So right there at the outset, Modern Reformation established itself as a cross-pollinating conversation among the various Reformation traditions.

The reason we started it was because we thought that there was a real place for this cross conversation between various representatives of the Reformation churches. Not because we want to create some sort of united church, but because we want to take the treasures from all of the different traditions that hail from the great rediscovery of the gospel in the 16th century, and bring them to bear on the topics of interest to us as Christians today. It’s not just going back to the Reformation. It’s sort of like finding all sorts of cool things in the attic from your grandparents, and bringing them downstairs and trying them on. And then really learning how the great contributions, the conclusions out of important debates can really help us think through the controversies and challenges and opportunities of our own day. As Dr. Bob Godfrey says, we often try to reinvent the wheel, and it’s never round. A lot of people have gone before us, and hashed out a lot of issues that are still of great importance to the church today. We saw a place out there for a magazine like this, because really there was nothing in the same category out there. There are magazines for pastors, mainly about how to build a church, and how to put together a successful ministry; there are magazines out there for Christian parenting, for all sorts of special interests. But we thought that all Christians – men, women, parents, children, adults, teenagers, grandparents, grandchildren – would find theology interesting, and as it turns out, they have. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re so grateful for the blessing that God has given to Modern Reformation over these 20 years.

Where does Modern Reformation fit in the world of Christian publishing?
When you think about what Modern Reformation’s place is out there in the marketplace of magazines, it’s odd. We kind of straddle the fence between a popular magazine and a theology journal. It’s clearly not a theology journal – we don’t have a bunch of footnotes, we don’t go into great detail, we don’t explore some of the more obscure themes and figures in church history. At the same time, it’s not really just a popular magazine that focuses on news of the day, or a Christian take on this issue or that issue. It’s really more serious than that. So it’s sort of a serious magazine. And that is not exactly a place that’s occupied out there in the marketplace. There are great magazines and periodicals out there that do what Modern Reformation does not do, like TableTalk, Ligionier’s publication. But Modern Reformation is an attempt to take Christians to the next step, as far as a magazine goes, into exploring what they believe and why they believe it.

There are great resources out there for devotional use and edification from a Reformation perspective, but Modern Reformation, I think, is distinct in that it is an attempt to really rebuild the furniture, or the categories of Christian faith and practice, to remind ourselves once again what we believe and why we believe it.

Who reads Modern Reformation?
That’s interesting – we think that we know the readership of Modern Reformation until we actually conduct surveys, and of course they’re not scientific surveys; we ask people to respond who read the magazine. What we get is really quite a cross section of people from different traditions: mainly Reformed and Presbyterian, but also Lutheran, and also Baptist, Evangelical Free, even Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic subscribers, and certainly people from the Anglican churches. So it’s really exciting to see the diverse discussions across the traditions that are happening today. People are looking for something deeper than a few thoughts for the day.

Why do you still write MR articles after 20 years, and is there still a place for the long form essay in a magazine in our bit-driven world?
I’ve been writing in the magazine for these 20 years regularly because I find that it is a really important outlet for me in my teaching ministry. I’m always encouraged when people tell me that they’re going over it in their family devotions, or they’re working through it as a couple, or with their family, or that their teenagers are getting excited about theology, and wanting to graduate from reading an article on a subject in Modern Reformation to reading a book that was recommended in that issue. That’s such an encouragement to keep on writing for it. I’ve learned so much also myself from this conversation. I learn a lot from reading the articles of other contributors from other traditions. It really helps us – iron sharpens iron, and sometimes we don’t even know our own tradition very well, until someone outside of it comes to us and says something that we haven’t heard before, and we go back and we find that actually, our folks did say some things about this. So that’s been a really exciting journey for me personally.

I do think that there is a place still for the long essay form. Again, if it’s not technical, if it is clear, if it is addressing the questions that people are asking – not just giving them the truth in the form that we think we would like to give it, but asking the questions that we think are on their minds, and then forming articles around that. There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of books in our day. But one of the things that especially publishers have been fond of pointing out is the explosion of publishing companies and of distribution points – I don’t think Amazon.com has really gotten the news that books are over. “Its death,” as Mark Twain said, “is greatly exaggerated.” I think the same goes for tougher essays. “Essay” sounds so academic, but an essay in terms of a 4,000 word article that outlines why this is important, goes to the Scriptures to ground that argument, talks about the history of Christian interpretation on that subject – that’s very vital for everyday Christians. I think we forget just how prepared Christians in other ages were to read pretty difficult stuff, theologically. That’s a discipline that we need to recover. It’s only when we’re told that we can’t understand something that we give up. But we find, I think, when we pick up a strong bit of material, that a good meal is worth the wait.

What makes a good conversation for Modern Reformation?
I think there are lots of factors that go into making for a good conversation for Modern Reformation. One is selecting the topics that are of interest to a wide spectrum of Christians. The other is to find writers who are gifted in communicating that to people in the pew. You have to really be motivated to
read Modern Reformation. It’s not the sort of thing that you can just pick up and digest in five minutes. You have to make a commitment to it–not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it requires patience and investment of time and energy in poring over. That, I think, creates a good conversation. You put good topics, important topics, together with good communicators, and I think that’s one of the things that make Modern Reformation really distinctive.

What roles does Modern Reformation have in the theological pilgrimage of its readers?
One of the funny things that I hear from time to time is that people who are in churches that are not, let’s say, exactly in the Reformation camp, get their Modern Reformation and walk out of the office with it in a brown paper bag. Then they go home and digest it, and are excited about it, and then they start passing it around to their fellow pastors and elders and people in the church. We’ve heard about wonderful things happening, reformation happening in churches as a result of people having the conversations in person that we have in the pages of the magazine.

Modern Reformation is passed around a lot. We know that a lot of people who don’t subscribe read it, that it does get passed around. We have a lot of anecdotes regularly coming in along those lines, and that’s exciting, because it means that kindling is being placed in fireplaces all over, and hopefully fires are burning, and people are talking about these transformative doctrines again, in ways they haven’t, perhaps, in the past. It’s something that really is a great gift to give to pastors, to give to elders, to give to people in the church you know who are interested in digging a little more deeply into their faith. It kind of shows that you have confidence in them as gifted spiritual leaders, that you value their ability to pore over a magazine like that.

We also are in the middle right now of a redesign that’s very exciting, because now Modern Reformation will be a lot easier to put in that brown paper bag, or to put in a booklet. It’s a booklet size and the paper is going to be of a type where you can write on it easily and take notes. So you can really use it as a companion for your own reflections on the Scriptures. The way the word gets out about Modern Reformation - we don’t have a large staff or a large marketing budget at all – the way it gets out is because people like you pass it around. What we often find is that once people start reading it, they get hooked. R.C. Sproul says that it’s the magazine he reads from cover to cover. That’s the way it is, that’s why it takes some time. You get sort of into it and you don’t want to stop reading. I’m not usually like that with magazines – I’ll read an article here, an article there. But I think Modern Reformation, for a lot of people, is the magazine they read from cover to cover.

Moving from West to East? | Mike Horton on Office Hours

In recent decades a large number of evangelicals (and some Reformed folk) have left the evangelical faith for some version of Eastern Orthodoxy. Recently the CBS news program “60 Minutes” claimed that the Eastern Orthodox church is only unbroken tradition in Christianity. In the latest episode, Office Hours asks Mike to tackle these questions and more.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Celebrating 20 Years

This year marks the Twentieth Anniversary of the publication of Modern Reformation magazine. In an era of disposable information (and media) this is no small milestone. We’re grateful to you and our many supporters over the last twenty years who have helped make this celebration possible. We want to share our joy by inviting you to participate in a contest to win a free one-year subscription for you and five of your friends plus a Mike Horton “library”: signed copies of The Christian Faith (Christianity Today’s 2012 book of the year in theology/ethics), For Calvinism, the Twentieth Anniversary edition of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace which includes a DVD of Mike teaching on each chapter, the Christless Christianity trilogy (Christless Christianity, The Gospel-Driven Life, and The Gospel Commission), A Place for WeaknessIntroducing Covenant Theology, A Better Way, and Where in the World is the Church.

This is probably the easiest contest you’ve ever entered! Just leave a comment below by Thursday at midnight (PST). We’ll randomly choose one comment to win the grand prize. We’ll also choose ten more comments to win one-year subscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you don’t win, you can still take advantage of our anniversary special: 20 years for $20. Get a one-year subscription to the magazine, which includes access to 20 years of archived content on our website for the ridiculously low price of $20. At this price you should buy a subscription for everyone you know! (Ok, maybe not everyone, but at least one or two people that you really like.)

Ok, are you ready to play? Just leave a comment below and you will have “entered” the contest. (Make sure you give us a working email address, otherwise we have no way of contacting you!) Not sure what to say? You don’t win based on the quality of your comment, but here are a few suggestions:

  • Tell us when you started reading Modern Reformation
  • Who introduced you to Modern Reformation?
  • Where do you like to read Modern Reformation?
  • Any articles/issues that stand out? made you mad? led to an “ah-ha!” moment?
  • Or, you can simply wish us happy anniversary

But wait! There’s more. You have TWO chances to win! Our friend, Justin Taylor, is helping us celebrate by running this same contest on his blog. You can leave a comment there and get a second chance to win.

WHI-1085 | For or Against Calvinism? (Part 2)

On this edition of White Horse Inn we’re airing the conclusion of our conversation between Michael Horton and Roger Olson on the role of God’s grace versus human freedom in salvation. This event was inspired by two books recently published by Zondervan: For Calvinism, by Michael Horton, and Against Calvinism, by Roger Olson.

RELATED ARTICLES

Is God Unfair
J.I. Packer
Am I Predestined?
Shane Rosenthal

MUSIC SELECTION

None

PROGRAM AUDIO

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

For Calvinism
Michael Horton
Chosen by God
R.C. Sproul

RECOMMENDED AUDIO

Click here to purchase the audio of this entire conversation

Is the Law Gracious?

Is the law gracious? Like many important questions, this one is thorny. There are lots of ways to prick yourself if you’re not careful.

First of all, it’s beyond dispute that God is gracious and that the law is an expression of his character—as well as the norm for what it means to have loving relationships to him and to each other. In other words, the God whose law it is, is gracious.

Second, God uses the law for gracious purposes. Even pagan cultures are indebted to God’s common grace in writing his law on the conscience, so that even where his written law is not known his moral law is enshrined (in varying degrees) in human constitutions. However these laws are distorted, much less unenforced, at least in theory they secure the vulnerable from injustice. In saving grace, God uses his law graciously to drive sinners to Christ and to guide them in Christ. It is essential to know God’s moral will, first to become guilty before God and so recognize our need for a Savior but also to live in a way that glorifies God and serves the needs of our neighbors. Love and law go hand-in-hand. In fact, the whole law is summarized in the sentence, “Love God and your neighbor.” So not only is the God who gives the law gracious; the law is loving and it stipulates what it means to love.

Third, it’s crucial to distinguish the nuda lex (the bare law summarized in the Ten Commandments) from the totus lex (the law in its totality as a covenant of works). Obligations and commands for loving God and neighbor are given in the new covenant as well as the old, in the Sinai covenant as well as the Abrahamic covenant that we enjoy in Abraham’s seed (Christ). The difference is how “law” functions. In a covenant based on law, the law functions as the basis for the continuing relationship: “Do this and you shall live.”

This is how law functioned in Paradise. Adam and Eve did not deserve their existence; it was a pure gift of God’s love—but not a gift of grace or mercy, since they were not yet fallen. Furthermore, Adam was given a promise of life, for himself and his posterity, on the condition of full, perpetual, and personal obedience as the covenant head. Israel did not merit the land; it was a gift—in this case, a gift of grace, as we see in Deuteronomy 6-8. However, it was a gift to win or lost. Flourishing in the land—long life, temporal security and peace, national righteousness and blessing—depended on Israel’s obedience: “Do this and you shall live.” The promise was temporal blessing rather than everlasting life, but this national prosperity depended strictly on faithfulness to the stipulations of the law.

In a covenant of works, personal fulfillment of the law’s commands is the condition for inheritance; in a covenant of grace, Christ’s personal fulfillment merits our right-standing and now the only role the law can have is to direct—it cannot condemn us. If law were intrinsically antithetical to grace, it would be exempt from the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, the New Testament repeatedly reasserts and extrapolates the moral law for the life of believers. The gospel does not remove the obligation to obedience. Far from it! It is only because we are justified and given a new heart, with the law written on it by the finger of God, that we are able to love God’s moral will and follow it. Yes, and follow it. We fall and fail. Nevertheless, we do follow Christ—and anyone who doesn’t is not a believer. There is that great wisdom in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. But can those converted to God obey these commands perfectly? A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Neverthelesss, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some of God’s commandments.

In other words, just as we believe the whole gospel, we embrace the whole law—all of the commands that Jesus summarized as loving God and neighbor. Even when we fail to keep them, we don’t pick and choose which have authority to direct us. Even though we do not trust in them to save us, we embrace them to guide us.

But is the law itself gracious? Though subtle, there is a world of difference between saying, on one hand, that the Law-giver is gracious and uses the law for gracious purposes and saying, on the other, that the law itself is gracious. Our parents may have been gracious in giving us a curfew, but at least in my home the curfew was not gracious. It was “be home at 10—no ifs, ands, or buts.”

In order for the law itself to be gracious, it would have to offer promises to sinners apart from their personal performance. In other words, it would have to give relief to those who stand in a condition of violating it. This the law manifestly does not and cannot do. The law tells us God’s demands; it simply does not have anything to give as far as assistance and leniency. The law does not budge or bend. If God relaxed his moral law at a single point, he would himself be unlawful; he would violate his own character, which his law manifests.

The law isn’t intrinsically judgmental; it’s simply just. It “calls ‘em as it sees ‘em.” We’re the unjust ones, whom God must size up as such simply because of who he is. The law is God’s revelation of his unchanging moral character and will. The law is not gracious even in a covenant of grace, but it is also not ungracious. It is simply not the character of the law to extend mercy, because that is not its job description. The law can only stipulate what obedience is, issuing approval or disapproval. It stops and goes no further. The God who speaks his law is gracious to his people in revealing his moral will, but only his word of promise in Christ delivers God’s grace and mercy.

The law and the gospel therefore do different things. Or better, God does different things with his law and his gospel. Neither is bad. Both are necessary. However, they have different job descriptions. The law is not gracious. It commands, “Do this and you shall live.” It promises reward for obedience and threatens judgment for disobedience. It tells us what God requires of us. If we seek our life in the law, it kills us—it’s “the ministry of death” (2 Cor 3:7). If we seek our life in Christ, the law is not the ministry of death. In any case, it never becomes the ministry of life (Gal 3:21-22; cf. 2:21), but the ministry of direction for that life that we have in Christ alone.

We need this measure of God’s holy will—not only so we will give up on our own righteousness and flee to Christ, but so that we will know what we are to do as those who have been justified and released from the dominion of sin and death. However, the law never bleeds into the gospel’s job description. Where the law pronounces us all “guilty before God” (Rom 3:19-20), the gospel announces “God’s gift of righteousness through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vv 21-31). The law is unyielding. It commands, but doesn’t give. The law says, “Do!”, but the gospel says, “Done!” At the same time, Jesus fulfills rather than abolishing the law. In fact, if Jesus had set the law aside or downplayed its authority, then his active obedience and self-offering in fulfillment of the law would not have been necessary.

Opposing the law to Christ in an abstract way is just another way of justifying ourselves: I’m good—the problem is laws and rules. Set those aside and have a grace-based freedom! But this fatally misses the point.

That’s the problem when people say “I’m spiritual, not religious”; “Jesus came preaching love, not a bunch of rules.” Actually, Jesus summarized the whole law as love, so the two are actually identical. The law merely stipulates what it means to love. No, the gospel is opposed to legalism, the attempt to justify ourselves by our obedience—including our love. If it’s self-righteous to say we’ve kept the whole law, then are we any less so when we say that we’ve set aside the law but have loved God and our neighbor? If I set the law aside, I don’t realize that crucial fact and I will trust in my own righteousness because I don’t know what God’s righteousness really means. Many professing Christians today sound like antinomians (rejecting “religion” and “rules”), while nevertheless trusting in their own righteousness (love and graciousness).

The gospel is only opposed to the law when we are seeking life by the latter. The problem is not the law. “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14). So I’m the problem. I need to be saved from the law’s condemnation, not from the law’s prescriptions. It is right to say that the law, in the hands of its Triune giver, is employed to gracious ends. However, it is dangerously wrong to say that the law itself is gracious. Its terms are anything but. That is why we need—always need—the gospel.

Making Necessary Distinctions: The Call to Discernment

Some distinctions are pedantic, part of that “craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” that Paul warned against (1 Tim 6:5). Yet where would we be without those crucial distinctions between essence and persons in the doctrine of the Trinity, or between person and natures in Christ? I’ve been struck by how frequently John Calvin invoked the Chalcedonian maxim “distinction without separation” not only for the doctrine of Christ but as a rule for a host of other theological topics—including justification and sanctification, law and gospel, and the earthly signs (water, bread, and wine) and the reality (Christ with his benefits).

Our problem today is more often the erosion—or even ignorance—of crucial distinctions and categories. As Robert Godfrey often says, “We like to reinvent the wheel, and it’s never round.” Sometimes we treat contemporary controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Unaware of the discussions and debates that forged Christian consensus in the past, we often treat controversies as if we were the first to encounter them. Starting from scratch, we often end up with our own lopsided confusion of things that ought to be distinguished and separation of things that ought to be held together.

In recent debates over the application of redemption, especially union with Christ, justification and sanctification, there is a tendency on the part of some to view classic Reformed distinctions with suspicion. Are they a bit of Aristotelian logic-chopping, the product of an over-active scholastic imagination? Or are they valuable—and more importantly, grounded in Scripture?

Here are a few categories that are helpful in guiding our own reflection today on some of these important questions:

History of Salvation / Order of Salvation

When were you saved? I’ll never forget the day the answer hit me between the eyes: “Two thousand years ago.” My pastor (who was not Reformed) looked puzzled. I didn’t know it then, but I was talking about the history of salvation (historia salutis) and he was thinking about the order of salvation (ordo salutis). In reality, though, “salvation” in Scripture encompasses both. Jesus Christ accomplished my redemption at the cross and in his resurrection, but the Spirit applies it when he calls me effectually through the gospel and unites me to Christ.

The order of salvation is of crucial significance and may be drawn from many clear passages, including Romans 8:29-30: “Those he predestined he called; those he called he justified, and those he justified he glorified.” We were chosen in eternity and redeemed at the cross. We have been justified the moment we trusted in Christ alone for our salvation. We are being sanctified. And we will be glorified.

In one and the same act of faith we receive the whole Christ with all of his gifts: justification and adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Now, some tend to absorb the history of salvation into the order. This is what happens when “getting saved” means the experience of personal conversion. Others make the opposite mistake, assimilating the order to the history, as if “salvation” meant only what Christ accomplished objectively, for us, not what he accomplishes in us by his Word and Spirit. This can also be done by making union with Christ such a controlling motif that there is no need for an order of application at all. Because we receive everything in union with Christ, there is no logical connection between justification and sanctification, for example. Like spokes of a bike’s wheel, every gift of this union has its source in Christ, but the gifts don’t have any real sequential dependence on each other.

Reformed theology has not accepted this false choice. To be united to Christ and his history is indeed to receive all (not just some) of his benefits; yet at the same time, sanctification has its basis in justification.

Law/Gospel

Here also there is a danger in either confusing or separating. God’s Word has two parts: the law and the gospel. The law commands and the gospel gives. The law says, “Do,” and the gospel says, “Done!” Equally God’s Word, both are good, but they do different things. The law issues imperatives (commands), while the gospel announces indicatives (a state of affairs).

Two further distinctions on this point are helpful.

First, our older theologians spoke of the law and the gospel in the wider and narrower sense. In the wider sense, the law is everything in Scripture that commands and the gospel is everything in Scripture that makes promises based solely on God’s grace to us in Christ. In the narrow sense, the gospel is 1 Corinthians 15:1-3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” The content of the gospel is not our justification or sanctification, but the announcement that Christ was crucified and raised for our salvation in fulfillment of the scriptures. However, another way of stating this “narrow sense” is Romans 4:25: “He was crucified for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

At the same time, the gospel includes God’s gracious fulfillment in Christ of all of the promises related to the new creation. That’s why Paul can answer his question, “Shall we then sin that grace may abound?” with more gospel: Union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, so that we’re no longer under sin’s dominion. The gospel isn’t just enough to justify the ungodly; it’s enough to regenerate and sanctify the ungodly. It’s not just justification. However, only because (in the narrower sense) the good news announces our justification that we are for the first time free to embrace God as our Father rather than our Judge. We have been saved from the condemnation and tyranny of sin. Both are essential to the “glad tidings” that we proclaim.

They also spoke of the law in what I have called the redemptive-historical sense and as the covenantal principle of inheritance. Borrowing on our first distinction, we might correlate this with the history of salvation and the order of salvation. Sometimes the law is referred to as the whole Old Testament—specifically, the part of the Bible called “the Law and the Prophets.” The history of salvation moves from promise to fulfillment, from shadows to reality. In this sense, the law is not opposed to the gospel. Yet when it comes to how we receive this gift—how redemption is applied to us by the Spirit, we are saved apart from the law. Law and gospel are completely opposed in this sense, since they are two different bases or principles of inheritance. We are saved by Christ or by our own obedience, but we cannot be saved by both. Interestingly, Paul includes both senses in Romans 3:21: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law [justification in the order of salvation] although the Law and the Prophets [i.e., the Old Testament writings] bear witness to it.”

Finally, following Melanchthon, Calvin and others in the Reformed tradition distinguished (without separating) three uses of the law: the first (pedagogical), to expose our guilt and corruption, driving us to Christ; the second, a civil use to restrain public vice, and the third, to guide Christian obedience. Believers are not “under the law” in the first sense. They are justified. However, they are still obligated to the law, both as it is stipulated and enforced by the state (second use) and as it frames Christian discipleship (third use). We never ground our status before God in our obedience to imperatives, but in Christ’s righteousness; yet we are also bound to Christ who continues to lead and direct us by his holy will.

Passive/Active Righteousness

Under this crucial distinction may be found others: faith and works, justification and sanctification; regeneration and conversion. In regeneration we are utterly passive. God finds us “dead in trespasses and sins.” “Yet while we were dead he made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 1:2, 5). In conversion, however, we are alive. We turn from sin, death, Satan, and self to Christ—this is repentance and faith. We are the ones repenting and believing, but we do so only because these have been granted as a free gift on the basis of God’s unilateral grace in Christ, by his Spirit.

Faith receives Christ for everything: not only for salvation from judgment, but for the fruit of good works. However, in justification faith is passive: receiving, resting, clinging to Christ alone for an imputed righteousness even while we are still ungodly. This same faith, in sanctification, is active in good works. Having received everything in Christ, faith goes to work in love and service to our neighbors. There is no justification by works. However, there is no genuine faith (and therefore justification) that fails to bear the fruit of good works. Faith is passive with respect to God (receiving rather than giving), but active toward our neighbors (giving without demanding anything in return).

Related to this, then, is the distinction between faith and works. In determining the basis for our relationship with God, faith and works are completely opposed. However, the justified are free finally for the first time to pursue good works out of love for God and neighbor. Fear is no longer in the driver’s seat, so love can flourish. The proper order is the Word (specifically the gospel), then faith (created by the Spirit through the gospel), then love (which expresses itself in good works).

With this distinction between passive and active righteousness in mind, we can distinguish without separating justification and sanctification. Both gifts are given in union with Christ. At no point is either something that we attain by cooperating with God. He gives it all, in Christ, through faith alone. Even in sanctification, we are passive receivers of God’s grace in Christ, mediated through his Word and sacraments. However, in sanctification we are also active in good works. Faith expresses itself in love.

There are many other important distinctions that are critical to Christian reflection. Reformation theology applies the magisterial-ministerial distinction when it speaks about the authority of the Word over the subordinate authority of the church, reason, tradition, and experience. These “ministers” or servants have their important role, but they stand under the Word.

Similarly, we distinguish between the invisible and visible church. Many confuse them, as if the visible church were identical to the full number of elect and regenerate—as if everyone who is baptized is united to Christ even apart from exercising faith in Christ. Others separate them, as if the visible church were merely a “man-made” organization unrelated to the spiritual church of the “truly saved.”

We distinguish without separating sign and reality, applied to the church and the sacraments. Some confuse them, as if the water, bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Others separate them, as if the signs only point to but do not convey Christ and his benefits.

With respect to eschatology, we distinguish between the “already” and “not yet.” Some Christians believe that the kingdom is fully present already, while others believe it is entirely future. However, like the maxim, “simultaneously just and sinner” in relation to believers, Reformation theology affirms concerning the kingdom that it is present in grace but not yet consummated in glory. Consequently, it distinguishes between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this age, but without separation. The two kingdoms are under Christ’s ultimate authority, but the one through his providence and common grace in the world and the other through his miraculous saving grace in the church. The church is both a divinely ordained organization and a Spirit-empowered organism, with special offices (pastors, elders and deacons) and the general office (prophet, priest, and king) shared by all believers equally.

Distinctions should not be endlessly multiplied. On the other hand, there is a kind of “biblicism” that discourages making any distinctions that are not found explicitly in Scripture. Of course, that would spell disaster for the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and a host of other core Christian convictions. Good distinctions are an act of discernment. It is the wisdom to recognize things that are required by Scripture even when they are not directly expressed in Scripture. While we must avoid “quarrels about words” (1 Tim 6:5), we must also “follow the pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13).

Now how many controversies in the church today can you think of where these distinctions could be practically relevant?

Page 40 of 97« First...102030...3839404142...506070...Last »