White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

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.


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




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


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.


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?

Hey Football Fans, The Big Day Is Nearly Here Again

The Big Day is almost here again: another weekly celebration of Christ’s resurrection. It’s not the only victory that’s interesting, exciting, or important. But it’s the one that determines your identity and destiny forever.

In spite of the loss to the Patriots, Denver QB Tim Tebow is still the subject of headlines (and spoofs) for his public recognition of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Focus on the Family joined in by placing an ad with children quoting John 3:16. All of this celebration of Jesus is intriguing for a show that competes every week (during season) for his ministry to the world. It would seem that the image of a celebrity saluting Jesus on stage is more significant these days than the reality of being gathered as his body to receive Jesus Christ himself. 

A quick Google search reveals that the church world is abuzz with this “high holy day.” You may recall that many churches suspended regular services for this past Christmas (since it had the misfortune to fall on a Sunday, traditionally known by Christians as the Lord’s Day). However, the doors are wide open in many churches for the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday. Only it’s not going to be a regular service of “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), but big-screen gridiron action. Undaunted by NFL suits for violating copyright laws by charging admission fees to watch the show on giant screens, many churches are giddy over Super Bowl-themed parties that will replace worship. Or, perhaps, will offer a different object of worship.

I know, I know. Low blow, as if that benevolent and benign past time of sports—especially football—could be compared with Baal. In fact, God and football (baseball has fallen a bit) block and tackle for each other in American civil religion these days. Typically, in the reports I scanned, pastors were justifying their decision by appealing to the mission opportunity. Somehow, having the building full with people who want to be there for a game, but not for God’s saving service to sinners, is “missional.” In any case, the evening service has fallen by the wayside in many churches anyway—no conflict there. Yet even where there are such services, many sympathize with one pastor who said that it’s “a bit of a luxury,” especially “when it falls on a legal holy day [you read that right: holy day] like Super Bowl Sunday.”

Evangelicals are absolutely sure when liberal Protestants are falling over themselves to curry the favor of the world in the name of mission. Academic faddishness, more-tolerant-than-thou displays of self-righteousness, a craving for the acceptance of cultural elites. Evangelical leaders are not likely to be offering the invocation at Gay Rights marches or texting “Jesus is Lord” at a Sunday opera. But football? It’s clean and manly (at least when there aren’t “wardrobe malfunctions” during the half-time show). So take off the robe, Pastor, and put on a jersey. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and your job today at least is not to represent Christ to us, but us to ourselves.

I don’t want to go after Tim Tebow. I admire his willingness to confess Christ openly. My concern is with an American evangelical audience that seems more excited about Jesus when he’s wearing a jersey on a winning-streak, and “Tebowing” players acknowledging Jesus for a touchdown during the hours when God opens the doors to his feast.

Where is God present in power and grace? Is it on the big screen, for a game? Where is the authentic site of God’s promised presence to judge and forgive? All week long we are at liberty to share in the common life of our neighbors, but the Lord’s Day is the one day of the week when the powers of the age to come are breaking into this passing age. Which age do we believe is more real: the one that Scripture says is “fading away” or the one “with foundations whose builder and maker is God”? As fun as a game might be, is it “tasting the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come”? Is being a spectator of an ephemeral game more significant than being actually swept into God’s unfolding drama, “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”? And are we more tantalized by the words and sacraments of Game Day than those of the Lord’s Day?

Now that football (along with soccer and the mall) has swallowed Sunday whole, Christians have to make a choice. Whatever “Super Bowl Sunday” has become in our culture, it is not “missional” to tell the world that what happens on that field is more game-changing than what happened at an empty tomb and what happens every time sinners gather to be made recipients of that inheritance of the saints.

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


Click here to purchase the audio of this entire conversation

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

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