White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1084 | For or Against Calvinism? (Part 1)

What is the role of the human will in salvation? How are we to understand predestination? Why does God choose some, but not all? Is he the author of evil? On this special edition of the program, we’re airing part one of a conversation between Michael Horton and Roger Olson recorded live at Biola University concerning their differences over the issue of grace and free will. White Horse Inn: know what you believe and why you believe it.


Sin & Grace Roundtable
Horton, Olson & Bombaro
Who Saves Whom?
Michael Horton




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For Calvinism
Michael Horton


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We have a problem with bad religion too

One of the really encouraging things today is seeing people raised in “moralistic-therapeutic-deism” coming to understand and embrace the gospel. At the same time, the antithesis between “religion” and “grace” (or being “spiritual but not religious”) is still trapped in its own kind of moralism. It fails to recognize that Christ came to fulfill rather than abolish the Law and religion. If religion is a community with certain doctrines and practices, then certainly Christianity is a religion. It’s bad religion that Jesus abolishes, because he gives himself as the Life of the world in the gospel through preaching and sacrament. Take away this religion and you are just left once again with a religion of your own making. Check this out, from a Lutheran brother.

Renewing The (Modern) Reformation

The new Modern Reformation is hot off the press, and is already generating conversation – John Wilson at Books and Culture sent out the weekly e-newsletter with this little tidbit:

“In my mailbox at the office this morning, I found a copy of the new-look Modern Reformation, celebrating the magazine’s 20th anniversary. Congratulations are definitely in order. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (I’ll do that on the weekend), but on a quick scan of the contents I noticed a piece titled “Luther on Freedom and Bondage of the Will,” an essay by Mark Galli (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Why Evangelicals Need the Young, Restless, and Reformed”), and—closely connected with Mark’s piece—Michael Horton interviewing Collin Hansen. That’s a pretty inviting menu right there. (The cover story, wittily titled “Dead Men Can’t Dance” and wittily illustrated, too, features this callout: “When tested against the biblical standard, Arminianism displays a faulty anthropology. It frequently attributes to unbelievers spiritual abilities they do not possess.” Oh dear. No matter how you dress it up, it’s the same old wheeze. And they put it on the cover! Maybe I’ll skip that article.)”

Here’s to another twenty sinners of sinners gasping the good news of Christ’s all-sufficient work on the cross!


Transformative Posts and Social Networks… of the Reformation

The following article is from the December 17, 2011 edition of The Economist.

How Luther went viral

Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation

It is a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.

That’s what happened in the Arab spring. It’s also what happened during the Reformation, nearly 500 years ago, when Martin Luther and his allies took the new media of their day—pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts—and circulated them through social networks to promote their message of religious reform.

Scholars have long debated the relative importance of printed media, oral transmission and images in rallying popular support for the Reformation. Some have championed the central role of printing, a relatively new technology at the time. Opponents of this view emphasise the importance of preaching and other forms of oral transmission. More recently historians have highlighted the role of media as a means of social signalling and co-ordinating public opinion in the Reformation.

Now the internet offers a new perspective on this long-running debate, namely that the important factor was not the printing press itself (which had been around since the 1450s), but the wider system of media sharing along social networks—what is called “social media” today. Luther, like the Arab revolutionaries, grasped the dynamics of this new media environment very quickly, and saw how it could spread his message.

New post from Martin Luther

The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517. The “95 Theses” were propositions written in Latin that he wished to discuss, in the academic custom of the day, in an open debate at the university. Luther, then an obscure theologian and minister, was outraged by the behaviour of Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar who was selling indulgences to raise money to fund the pet project of his boss, Pope Leo X: the reconstruction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hand over your money, went Tetzel’s sales pitch, and you can ensure that your dead relatives are not stuck in purgatory. This crude commercialisation of the doctrine of indulgences, encapsulated in Tetzel’s slogan—”As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, so the soul from purgatory springs”—was, to Luther, “the pious defrauding of the faithful” and a glaring symptom of the need for broad reform. Pinning a list of propositions to the church door, which doubled as the university notice board, was a standard way to announce a public debate.

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation.

The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.

As with “Likes” and retweets today, the number of reprints serves as an indicator of a given item’s popularity. Luther’s pamphlets were the most sought after; a contemporary remarked that they “were not so much sold as seized”. His first pamphlet written in German, the “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, was reprinted 14 times in 1518 alone, in print runs of at least 1,000 copies each time. Of the 6,000 different pamphlets that were published in German-speaking lands between 1520 and 1526, some 1,700 were editions of a few dozen works by Luther. In all, some 6m-7m pamphlets were printed in the first decade of the Reformation, more than a quarter of them Luther’s.

Although Luther was the most prolific and popular author, there were many others on both sides of the debate. Tetzel, the indulgence-seller, was one of the first to respond to him in print, firing back with his own collection of theses. Others embraced the new pamphlet format to weigh in on the merits of Luther’s arguments, both for and against, like argumentative bloggers. Sylvester Mazzolini defended the pope against Luther in his “Dialogue Against the Presumptuous Theses of Martin Luther”. He called Luther “a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron” and dismissed his arguments on the basis of papal infallibility. Luther, who refused to let any challenge go unanswered, took a mere two days to produce his own pamphlet in response, giving as good as he got. “I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel,” he wrote. “Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no scripture. You give no reasons.”

Being able to follow and discuss such back-and-forth exchanges of views, in which each author quoted his opponent’s words in order to dispute them, gave people a thrilling and unprecedented sense of participation in a vast, distributed debate. Arguments in their own social circles about the merits of Luther’s views could be seen as part of a far wider discourse, both spoken and printed. Many pamphlets called upon the reader to discuss their contents with others and read them aloud to the illiterate. People read and discussed pamphlets at home with their families, in groups with their friends, and in inns and taverns. Luther’s pamphlets were read out at spinning bees in Saxony and in bakeries in Tyrol. In some cases entire guilds of weavers or leather-workers in particular towns declared themselves supporters of the Reformation, indicating that Luther’s ideas were being propagated in the workplace. One observer remarked in 1523 that better sermons could be heard in the inns of Ulm than in its churches, and in Basel in 1524 there were complaints about people preaching from books and pamphlets in the town’s taverns. Contributors to the debate ranged from the English king Henry VIII, whose treatise attacking Luther (co-written with Thomas More) earned him the title “Defender of the Faith” from the pope, to Hans Sachs, a shoemaker from Nuremberg who wrote a series of hugely popular songs in support of Luther.

A multimedia campaign

It was not just words that travelled along the social networks of the Reformation era, but music and images too. The news ballad, like the pamphlet, was a relatively new form of media. It set a poetic and often exaggerated description of contemporary events to a familiar tune so that it could be easily learned, sung and taught to others. News ballads were often “contrafacta” that deliberately mashed up a pious melody with secular or even profane lyrics. They were distributed in the form of printed lyric sheets, with a note to indicate which tune they should be sung to. Once learned they could spread even among the illiterate through the practice of communal singing.

Both reformers and Catholics used this new form to spread information and attack their enemies. “We are Starting to Sing a New Song”, Luther’s first venture into the news-ballad genre, told the story of two monks who had been executed in Brussels in 1523 after refusing to recant their Lutheran beliefs. Luther’s enemies denounced him as the Antichrist in song, while his supporters did the same for the pope and insulted Catholic theologians (“Goat, desist with your bleating”, one of them was admonished). Luther himself is thought to have been the author of “Now We Drive Out the Pope”, a parody of a folk song called “Now We Drive Out Winter”, whose tune it borrowed:

Now we drive out the pope
from Christ’s church and God’s house.
Therein he has reigned in a deadly fashion
and has seduced uncountably many souls.
Now move along, you damned son,
you Whore of Babylon. You are the abomination and the Antichrist,
full of lies, death and cunning.

Woodcuts were another form of propaganda. The combination of bold graphics with a smattering of text, printed as a broadsheet, could convey messages to the illiterate or semi-literate and serve as a visual aid for preachers. Luther remarked that “without images we can neither think nor understand anything.” Some religious woodcuts were elaborate, with complex allusions and layers of meaning that would only have been apparent to the well-educated. “Passional Christi und Antichristi”, for example, was a series of images contrasting the piety of Christ with the decadence and corruption of the pope. Some were astonishingly crude and graphic, such as “The Origin of the Monks” (see picture), showing three devils excreting a pile of monks. The best of them were produced by Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach. Luther’s opponents responded with woodcuts of their own: “Luther’s Game of Heresy” (see beginning of this article) depicts him boiling up a stew with the help of three devils, producing fumes from the pot labelled falsehood, pride, envy, heresy and so forth.

Amid the barrage of pamphlets, ballads and woodcuts, public opinion was clearly moving in Luther’s favour. “Idle chatter and inappropriate books” were corrupting the people, fretted one bishop. “Daily there is a veritable downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin…nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther,” lamented Aleander, Leo X’s envoy to Germany, in 1521. Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Luther’s enemies likened the spread of his ideas to a sickness. The papal bull threatening Luther with excommunication in 1520 said its aim was “to cut off the advance of this plague and cancerous disease so it will not spread any further”. The Edict of Worms in 1521 warned that the spread of Luther’s message had to be prevented, otherwise “the whole German nation, and later all other nations, will be infected by this same disorder.” But it was too late—the infection had taken hold in Germany and beyond. To use the modern idiom, Luther’s message had gone viral.

From Wittenberg to Facebook

In the early years of the Reformation expressing support for Luther’s views, through preaching, recommending a pamphlet or singing a news ballad directed at the pope, was dangerous. By stamping out isolated outbreaks of opposition swiftly, autocratic regimes discourage their opponents from speaking out and linking up. A collective-action problem thus arises when people are dissatisfied, but are unsure how widely their dissatisfaction is shared, as Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, has observed in connection with the Arab spring. The dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, she argues, survived for as long as they did because although many people deeply disliked those regimes, they could not be sure others felt the same way. Amid the outbreaks of unrest in early 2011, however, social-media websites enabled lots of people to signal their preferences en masse to their peers very quickly, in an “informational cascade” that created momentum for further action.

The same thing happened in the Reformation. The surge in the popularity of pamphlets in 1523-24, the vast majority of them in favour of reform, served as a collective signalling mechanism. As Andrew Pettegree, an expert on the Reformation at St Andrew’s University, puts it in “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”, “It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.” Although Luther had been declared a heretic in 1521, and owning or reading his works was banned by the church, the extent of local political and popular support for Luther meant he escaped execution and the Reformation became established in much of Germany.

Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” Social media are not unprecedented: rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition. Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

Union and Imitation

“Why can’t you be like your brother?” We all know intuitively that guilt-driven comparisons like this don’t actually work, but sometimes our frustration gets the better of us as parents. We hear, and sometimes say, the same thing in church. Frustrated with the lack of serious discipleship, we turn more easily and naturally to threats. In sharp contrast, Jesus spoke of our being his younger siblings, living branches of his vine. “You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that would last” (Jn 15:16). As I point out below, Paul’s horizon was much deeper, richer, and broader than imitation of Jesus. Being like Jesus Christ has its place only if we are in Christ to begin with.

As G. C. Berkouwer reminds us, we are not moving from theory to practice when we turn from justification to sanctification. Even in our sanctification, we keep our eye on Christ and his all-sufficient righteousness imputed as the only basis for our growth in holiness. Separating justification from sanctification is as serious as confusing them, because it means that the latter is “cut loose or abstracted from justification.” When that happens, says Berkouwer, justification is easily seen as the gracious act of God, while sanctification becomes the result of human striving. Paul teaches that believers are “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 6:11; 1 Thes 5:23; cf. Acts 20:32; 26:18). As Bavinck puts it, “Many indeed acknowledge that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ, but seem to think that—at least they act as if—they must be sanctified by a holiness they themselves have acquired.” Something close to this error seems to have been held by Paul’s opponents in Galatia (Gal 3:1-9).

Perhaps the dominant picture for sanctification in evangelical circles is the imitation of Christ. “WWJD?” (What Would Jesus Do?) summarizes that orientation. Sure, there is talk of being “in Christ,” but the driving model is Jesus as model and example. This can take the form of a heavy emphasis on spiritual disciplines or on social outreach. Of course, it is true that there are New Testament calls to imitate Christ (for example, his humility and love for others, in Philippians 2); in fact, the idiom for the life of faith in the Old Testament is “walking after the Lord,” as a servant-king follows the Great King in a public recognition of the covenant. However, even these rest on a deeper, richer foundation of union and communion with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. For example, we are not “walking after the Lord” merely in inimitation, but as guilty and pardoned—indeed, justified—servants who are swept into the train of his royal favor and merciful act of liberating us from our oppressors.

Union with Christ is different from imitation of Christ. There are calls in Scripture to imitate Christ, but this is only possible because of that deeper reality of our being actually united to Christ through faith alone. The best analogy is marriage or adoption: in both cases, we grow more and more into “oneness” and, along with our different personalities, share the common family resemblances because we are legally and organically connected.

The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ, while the law still calls us to be like Christ on the basis of that gospel announcement. Because we are “in Christ,” we should make every effort to be “like Christ.” Reverse that order, or deny one of the clauses, and it’s trouble—not just in theory, but in practice. In other words, while sanctification finds its direction in the law, it finds its ground in the gospel. George Lindbeck reminds us that the proper category for discipleship and imitatio Christi is not the atonement or justification, but the third use of the law. Otherwise, the Christian life is reduced to a moralistic attempt to live up to Christ’s example rather than our living out of the realities of Christ’s saving work. “Jesus is not first Example and then Savior, but the other way around,” Lindbeck adds. Berkouwer is exactly right: “Hence Paul can say without a qualm that he is ‘under law to Christ’ (1 Cor. 9:21).”

This view puts to flight two perennial temptations: legalism and antinomianism. The law cannot heal; it can only pronounce a just sentence in view of the facts.

Basing sanctification on our imitation of Christ or following his commands can only yield self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and ultimately condemnation for having failed. Only when Christ steps forward as our law-keeping and curse-bearing Mediator are we no longer “under the law”—that is, subject to its demand, “Do this and you shall live.”

At the same time, this same gospel creates faith that bears the fruit of righteousness. Because of our justification, the law no longer can condemn us before God’s throne. Yet far from leading to moral anarchy, it is precisely on this basis that the deepest intent of the law—love of God and neighbor—is written on our hearts by the finger of God. I once hated the law because it only exposed my failures, but now it comes as the word of my Father who already accepts me as righteous in his Son. Ironically, the very thing that Israel sought (law-righteousness) has eluded it, while those who are justified apart from the law, through faith in Christ alone, are also judged as righteous (Rom 10:1-5). However, there is still more to the gospel. As a result of this justification, we actually begin to love God and neighbor—not only out of gratitude or all-consumming passion for God’s glory, but out of the magnificent fact that we are united to Christ. He has attained justification and glorification by his works and now sits enthroned, reigning over all his enemies. What he is, we will be. As goes the King, so goes the kingdom. However, we are not quite there yet. He is the firstborn from the dead, securing our resurrection and giving the Spirit as the security deposit. We are already fully new, yet this new creation is not fully revealed in us. We are justified and regenerated. Both are completed events for us in the past. Nevertheless, we do not yet see all things, including our own hearts, minds, lives, and communities free of temptation and sin.

Just as creation begin with a command, “Let there be….And there was…,” so too does the new creation originate in the womb of the Word. It is not something we attain by imitating Christ, but a gift that is given in union with Christ. The result is that second type of speech thatt we see in Genesis 1: “‘Let the earth bring forth fruit.’ And the earth brought forth fruit.” This fruit-bearing, too, is the work of the Spirit through the gospel. It is the law that defines what “fruit” is and it’s through the gospel that the Spirit produces it. The church is “a chosen race” and a “holy nation,” “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Although “the gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing…For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:3, 6). It is not surprising that Paul also thinks of justification (Rom 4:17-18) and the new birth (Rom 6) as analogous to ex nihilo creation (Rom 4:17-18). By speaking righteousness into a condition of unrighteousness, God brings into existence a new creation, which refers not only to justified and renewed individuals but to a living community: his church.

We can err on both sides of this eschatology of sanctification: either in the direction of a sort of “premillennial” under-realized kingdom or a “postmillennial” over-realized kingdom. Like the kingdom more generally, our own sanctification is “already” and “not yet.” We press on to take hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us. We are grieved, but not surprised, when we still sin and fall short of God’s glory. Assured of our place “in Christ,” we see the imperatives to grow, to mature, to move on, to continue earnestly, to love, to struggle against indwelling sin, and so forth, no longer as threats or conditions of sharing in Christ and his kingdom, but as commands that we are called to obey and, because of the indwelling Spirit working through the gospel, can obey imperfectly.

We are liberated now to seek God’s moral will for our lives without fear. The law remains the standard for righteousness, but no more in sanctification than in justification does the law become the basis for our righteousness before God. Otherwise, we would place ourselves under a covenant of works again, fulfilling the conditions of justification, instead of the covenant of grace, with Christ as the fulfiller of all righteousness for us. We must always bear in mind throughout our Christian pilgrimage that the Christ who commands is already also the one who has taken care of our guilt for failing to keep them properly.

How can we despise that holy will of the Father that Jesus not only fulfilled for us out of duty but of which he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn 4:34)? How can we set aside God’s commands when Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptation with his submission to “‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mat 4:4)? How can we cherish those sins from which Christ has liberated us by his death and resurrection? Believers hate their sin and they love God’s law, longing to keep it not out of fear of punishment or hope of merit, but because they belong to Christ, who loved us and his law to the point of death on a cross.

So we must beware of seeking a balance between legalism and antinomianism. After explaining the justification of the ungodly, Paul anticipated the logical question: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1). The antinomian answers, “Yes!”—or at least imagines that one might continue in sin (i.e., under its reign) and yet be justified. One may make a decision for Christ and be therefore eternally secure, but become a “carnal Christian” who does not bear fruit and may not even still trust in Christ. The legalist replies to Paul’s question, “Not on your life! Don’t you know that if you still fall into sins—especially the same ones repeatedly, you either lose your salvation or never had it to begin with? If you do not obey, you will not be justified.”

Paul’s answer stands in sharp contrast to both. He does not even advocate balance between extremes. Rather, he turns again to the gospel: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized intto Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:2-4, emphasis added). No one can be united to Christ’s death, for the forgiveness of sin, without also being united to his resurrection life (vv 5-6). We have died (a completed act in the past) and now are alive. So instead of issuing an imperative with a threat, Paul proclaims an indicative with a promise. The answer to the antinomian and legalist alike is the gospel. The antinomian has too narrow a view of the gospel, as if it were mere fire insurance—cancelling our debt without actually marrying us to Christ—while the legalist turns the gospel into law. However, Paul returns to the gospel and simply announces that through our union with Christ by faith we have not only justification but sanctification. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v 11). It is impossible for a believer to be an unbeliever, under the domain of sin and death. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey its passions” (v 12). In short, you are not under the reign of sin, so don’t act as if you were! Instead of a double source (synergism), redemption is concerned with a double grace: justification and inner renewal. It is all the work of God, in Christ. In Lesslie Newbigin’s words,

The idea of a righteousness of one’s own is the quintessence of sin. Against this, therefore, against every trace of a holiness or righteousness which does not depend simply upon God’s mercy to the sinner, we have to set our faces as relentlessly as Paul did. But equally with Paul we have to recognize that if any man be in Christ there is a new creation, not a fiction but a real supernatural new birth, the life of the risen Christ in the soul.1

1 – Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of Faith (London: SCM Press, 1953), 128-129

WHI-1083 | Scot McKnight & The King Jesus Gospel

What is the gospel? Throughout the history of American Evangelicalism, many have tried to reduce it to a simple slogan, or something like “four spiritual laws.” But in reducing the gospel of Christ to a sales pitch, have Evangelicals altered the message? Does the good news that we proclaim have more to do with getting people to make a decision, more than it focuses on Christ’s person and work? On this program Michael Horton discusses these issues with Scot McKnight, author of The King Jesus Gospel.


Are You a Soterian?
Michael Horton


Matthew Smith


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Historical Claims Concerning Union with Christ

“Union with Christ is finally getting its just place as a central dogma in organizing the Reformed view of how we are saved.” “Charles Hodge, among others, placed the forensic (especially justification) at the center, rather than union.” “Reformed paradigm: justification and sanctification have their source in union; Lutheran paradigm: minor role for union, if anything, and sanctification has its source in justification.”

These statements illustrate a type of exaggeration that I’d like to unpack very briefly, in part because there different nuances in this discussion that have pretty significant implications. Since my focus here is the historical claim about defining the Reformed consensus on this point, rather than exegesis.

  1. Union with Christ at the center

    Hunting down central dogmas that distinguish one tradition or school from others was a hallmark of 19th-century historians. Yet a host of specialists in Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy have shown conclusively that this is a wrong approach. It imposes our own constructs on historical views and, furthermore, there is no central dogma in Calvin, much less in Reformed theology. A central dogma is not just an important truth; it functions as a theory from which everything else is deduced.

    For Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition, Christ’s person is the source of everything and his work is inseparable from Christ himself. Christ himself, not any one of his gifts, is the center and object of our faith. (That’s Lutheran, too, by the way.) However, there’s a big difference between something being important—even in tying together other important doctrines—and something being a central dogma. Many are discovering union with Christ, and that’s great, but it has been there in our Reformed bloodstream all along. It is not something that was somehow buried after Calvin and then just uncovered recently in a particular school or circle of contemporary Reformed thought.

    Part of the danger is that some are using the “centrality” of union with Christ as a way of equalizing justification and sanctification or, in some extreme cases, to collapse both together with “union” as the whole. It’s treated in most of our major systems—including Hodge’s, though according to some he’s a “Lutheran” in his prioritizing of justification. I devote the first chapter in my discussion of the application of redemption to union with Christ, so I readily acknowledge its importance. It is wonderfully true that faith clings to Christ for both justification and sanctification together: the double grace. This marvelous union influences Reformed thinking on a variety of topics, including the sacraments.

    However, union with Christ isn’t treated as a distinct topic in any Reformed confession or catechism (including Calvin’s), while justification and sanctification are considerable attention. Calvin called justification “the main hinge on which true religion turns,” “the principal article,” and of “most importance” in our understanding of salvation. Union with Christ is a way of relating everything from election to glorification, but is not itself a deductive center of the system. If Calvin thought so much of union with Christ and also treated sanctification as having its source in justification, what’s all the fuss about?

  2. “Reformed: union with Christ; Lutheran: justification leading to sanctification.”

    There is so much debate—in my view, confusion—over the historical theology of the “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigm that one hardly knows where to begin. I certainly can’t do any justice to the arguments here. A lot of this goes back, I think, to the controversy in the 1970s at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, surrounding the teaching of Norman Shepherd.

    Rejecting the whole covenant of works-covenant of grace (i.e., law-gospel) scheme of federal Calvinism, and taught in the Westminster Standards, Dr. Shepherd also revised radically the confessional view of justification and justifying faith. Everyone who didn’t agree with his revisions (although they were departures from the Reformed confessions) was labeled “Lutheran” by him and his supporters. “Union with Christ” became a way of upholding that everything is from Christ while confusing justification and sanctification at crucial points.

    Dr. Shepherd did resign from his post, and many who emphasize union as a central dogma do not follow him all the way. However, there is still a lingering notion that even on this important question that most historical theologians believe to have united the churches of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed views of justification are radically different. In the “Lutheran” paradigm, justification is the central dogma and sanctification flows out of it; in the “Reformed” paradigm, the mystical union has priority, with no logical dependence of sanctification on justification.

    If I may be so bold, this is an arbitrary construct that has no support in the primary sources. There is no point in a brief blog post to offer a syllabus of quotations, but everyone from Calvin, Vermigli, Knox, Bullinger, Zanchi, and Owen all the way to Berkhof held that while we receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, the forensic (Christ’s mediatorial work and forensic justification) is the source or basis of personal renewal and sanctification. Vos expressly says that this is the emphatic Reformed position: “In Paul, the mystical is always subordinated to the forensic.” Same as Berkhof, Hodge, et al..

    A case needs to be made for the new view that if we receive justification and sanctification together in our union with Christ, sanctification cannot have any relationship to justification. That case has not been made, in my view, but assumed. This means that any talk of sanctification being grounded in our justification is dismissed as “Lutheran.” Ironically, many who have followed Norman Shepherd (directly or indirectly) along this path have jettisoned justification altogether. The Federal Vision controversy springs to mind.

  3. “Union” a distinctive feature of Reformed soteriology?

    At the height of the “central dogma” era of historians, Lutheran historical theologian Mathias Schneckenberger argued that the central dogma of Lutheranism is…union with Christ. That’s right, union with Christ. In fact, the New Finnish School within mainline Lutheranism today goes so far as to dissolve justification in a version of union that is close to that of Osiander. (Osiander was a 16th-century Lutheran. Calvin devoted a whole section to refuting Osiander in the 1559 Institutes and Lutheran orthodoxy condemned his views.)

    Besides Paul, the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux was a principal source of Luther’s emphasis on the “marvelous exchange”—union with Christ along the lines of the marriage analogy. When Calvin talks about union, he often quotes Bernard and Luther. So much for the central dogma thesis in the general and the odd contention that union with Christ distinguishes Reformed from Lutheran theology.

Like any new discovery of a wonderful and biblically-grounded truth, the doctrine of union with Christ can put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together, but it can also swallow the horizon. That’s true of justification as well, or sanctification, not to mention election and other precious truths. As wonderful and important as it is, this doctrine of union must not be understood as a way of relativizing the forensic basis of our salvation or of treating justification and sanctification as if they were related only to union but not also, within that union, to each other.

There are different nuances, emphases, and formulations between Lutherans and Calvinists, just as there are between representatives within these traditions. However, if our confessions are any indication, sharp contrasts, reductionisms, and exaggerations regarding “Lutheran” vs. “Reformed” paradigms is unhelpful, especially when they are often motivated by the old criticism of Reformation teaching, expressed by Schweitzer: “There is no motive for ethics in that system.” Creating caricatures of Lutheranism as the foil for distortions of Reformed theology hardly leads to understanding of the Reformed consensus; it just makes for “schools” of idiosyncratic interpretations.

So I join those who are impressed with the importance and implications of union with Christ. However, with all historical interpretations of an important truth, the motto holds: “Look before you leap.”

We’re live this Friday at the White Horse Inn

Many of our faithful listeners remember the days when Mike, Rod, Kim, and Ken would gather in the studios of KKLA each Sunday night for the live broadcast of the White Horse Inn. Those evenings generated some of our most memorable content: the Robert Schuller interview, Dad Rod’s “scotch problem,” and countless others.

When Mike Horton moved to England for Ph.D. studies, the program went from being live to taped. Over the years we’ve experimented with various ways to reintroduce a live format, but none of them have achieved the same sound and feel as those early days. As part of our ongoing experiment on San Diego’s KPRZ 1210 AM, we are hosting the  first live White Horse Inn show in more than a decade!

Mike Horton will be in studio this Friday, January 6th at 10:30 AM (PST) and we’ll be taking calls from listeners. You can listen online via KPRZ’s live stream (at kprz.com). Call us at 866-577-2473 to join the conversation. This is a great opportunity to be part of the White Horse Inn wherever you live.

Make plans today to listen and call in to the live broadcast of White Horse Inn this Friday, January 6th at 10:30 AM (PST). Listen at kprz.com and call 866-577-2473. We’re looking forward to talking to you!


WHI-1082 | A Mormon President

On this edition of the program Michael Horton talks with Adam Christing, writer and director of a new documentary about a relatively unknown aspect of the life of Joseph Smith, namely his candidacy for President of the United States. Mike and Adam also discuss the history and theology of Mormonism, as well as some of the political questions that have arisen relating to Mitt Romney’s run for office. Are Mormons Christians? Is it okay to vote for a Mormon President? These issues and more will be discussed on this edition of White Horse Inn.


A Mormon President
(offisite articles)


Matthew Smith


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Anthony Hoekema
An American Fraud
Kay Burningham


Click here to purchase the extended length audio of this program.

Book of the Year

We’re pleased to announce that Mike Horton’s systematic theology, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan), was awarded Christianity Today’s book of the year award in the category of theology/ethics. The judges’ assessment of the book: “Averting his gaze from the kind of popular evangelicalism that is nondenominational in style and never quite confessional in ethos, Horton delivers the Reformed goods to a new generation.”

We’re also pleased to share in the joy of our good friend Tullian Tchividjian whose book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything won the award for Christian Living.

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