White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta Wants to Reinstate Pelagius

Mollie Hemingway, a writer for The Wall Street Journal (and, we might add, Modern Reformation) reported recently on the latest political machinations of the U.S. Episcopal Church leadership.

And who said liberals were inclusive? Well, they are in one sense—of Gnosticism, Arianism, and Pelagianism, for example. In fact, the Diocese of Atlanta has just passed a resolution seeking to give Pelagius a place of honor in the church. The resolution reads:

R11-7 Contributions of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

On hearing the news, retired South Carolina Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison expressed disdain. Bishop Allison has written about the practical Pelagianism in our day, including a few articles in Modern Reformation over the years (see his articles). In his book, The Cruelty of Heresy, Allison writes, “The broad stream of Western thought since the 17th Century has been characterized by a confidence more congenial to Pelagianism than at any time in history. And Pelagianism is the banana peel on the cliff of Unitarianism.” In response to the decision, Allison lamented, “As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world, there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will’s freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a ‘cruel doctrine.'”

It’s Not About Luther, It’s About the Gospel

Upstaged by Halloween, October 31 is also Reformation Day. As Protestants mark the 490th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, how has the landscape changed? No longer issuing papal bulls for the excommunication, arrest, and even death of Martin Luther, the Vatican has been engaged in charitable conversations with the Lutheran World Federation as well as the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). According to many, especially mainline Protestants-but also evangelicals, the Joint Declaration on Justification (1999) settled the centuries-old dispute. A decade of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” widened the era of good feeling. So it’s no wonder that many evangelicals as well as mainline Protestants were wondering with Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? (2005).

You can listen to our interview with Mark Noll about this book here:

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It will come as no surprise to our readers that we dissent from this widespread opinion. There has been no material change in the Roman Catholic position on the issues that led to the excommunication of the Reformers. Even the Joint Declaration overcame the central doctrine of controversy only by embracing a Roman Catholic definition of justification as forgiveness and actual transformation (i.e., sanctification). See the excellent article by church historian Scott Manetsch, “Is the Reformation Over?” Manetsch nicely summarizes the points of controversy and concludes that these remain crucial divisions.

There has indeed been movement in terms of faith and practice, but it has been Protestants who either no longer agree with the Reformation answers or don’t think that they’re important anymore. (Presumably, the question of how sinners are justified before God is no longer relevant in the context of twenty-first century culture.) The Vatican is much kinder and gentler. The Vatican II rhetoric of “separated brethren” sounds a lot better than “pernicious and heretical sect,” but when it comes to the material issues at stake, nothing’s changed. The worship remains corrupted with human inventions that bury God’s Word; the authority assumed by the magisterium assaults the majesty of the church’s King to rule by his own Word and Spirit, and most significantly, Rome continues to reject in no uncertain terms that we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. As Calvin put the matter in his generous appeal to Cardinal Sadoleto, justification is “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.” After all, “[w]herever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.” Were the Reformers right when they said such divisive things? Is it possible that they were correct then, but not now? What has changed since the sixteenth century with respect to God’s way of saving sinners that would cause us either to give a different answer now or to dismiss the question as irrelevant today?

Aside from the material questions, it’s a combination of tragedy and comedy to watch Protestants fall over themselves to curry papal approval. On his visit last month to Germany, Pope Benedict was greeted with gushing praise for saying a few kind things about Luther (see here). After the pope visited the monastery in Erfurt where Luther resided, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church of Germany announced to journalists that “Luther has experienced a de facto rehabilitation today through this appreciation of his work.” “We heard this very clearly from the mouth of the pope,” he said. “What follows now formally is another question … but that’s not so important for me.” However, as the Reuters report cited above observes, “Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi begged to differ on Saturday. ‘To say that would be exaggerated,’ he told journalists in Freiburg, the last stop on the pope’s four-day tour of his homeland. ‘What this is about is having deep faith and I think it emphasises the commonalities we have in our love of faith.'” Wow. It sounds like the story of a water boy who publicly professes his infatuation with the star cheerleader only to be told, “Let’s just be friends.”

Yet all of this unrequited love swirls amid busy preparations to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s church-dividing theses in 1517. We see that as well in the recurring announcements of Protestants (the Vatican itself being curiously silent) that the rift is overcome-because Rome no longer thinks Luther is a heretic. The gospel is apparently no longer at issue. Rather, it’s Luther. Do you like our Reformer (i.e., us)? “‘It would be nice if they could declare him a doctor of the Church,’ Erfurt’s Lutheran Bishop Ilse Junkermann told Reuters.” It’s sad to watch, just from a human-interest point of view.

No changes to the current Catholic Catechism? No papal pronouncement at least opening conversation to the possibility that the positions promulgated since the Council of Trent might contradict Scripture? Again, unrequited love even on this score, as the same post reports: “Vatican officials have suggested in the past that no official rehabilitation was needed because the ban expired at Luther’s death. ‘One cannot do anything for Martin Luther now because Martin Luther, wherever he is, is not worried about these condemnations,’ Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, said in 1999.”

I like Luther a lot. I look up to Calvin as a mentor through his writings. But do I really care what Rome thinks of “my guys”? No, not really. It’s not about them. It’s about the gospel and the wider issues connected to it concerning authority, superstition, and idolatrous worship.

The Reformation isn’t over. Not by a long shot. What we need most right now is not the rehabilitation of Luther, but the rehabilitation of true proclamation. We need it now, even in Protestantism-perhaps especially in Protestantism, more than ever.

Testimony to the Lamb

Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body (Heb 13:3)

Some Christians read the Book of Revelation with a bit more depth and personal comfort than the rest of us. They read with striking immediacy Christ’s urgent preparation of his followers for persecution. While I may thin out the Apostle Paul’s references to suffering for Christ’s sake as if it referred to a rough week with illness, these brothers and sisters under the cross today understand what Paul meant when he called himself “an ambassador in chains.”

On average, 171,000 Christians are martyred every year around the world (see here). Updates on specific regions may be found at persecution.com.

Since 2009, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, 32, has been imprisoned on the charge of apostasy. Although he has been sentenced to death, the final decision is now in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (see Christianity Today and ACLJ). Written last summer, the following letter (translated from Farsi) by Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani to his flock is a moving testimony to God’s grace.

A Letter to His Flock from the Pastor Imprisoned by the Iranians

Dear brothers and sisters, Salam

In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I am continuously seeking grace and mercy to you, that you remember me and those who are bearing efforts for his name in your prayers. Your loyalty to God is the cause of my strength and encouragement. For I know well that you will be rewarded; as it’s stated: blessed is the one who has faith, for what has been said to him by God, will be carried out. As we believe, heaven and earth will fade but his word will still remain.

Dear beloved ones, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few verses, although you might know them, So that in everything, you give more effort than the past, both to prove your election, and for the sake of Gospel that is to be preached to the entire world as well.

I know that not all of us are granted to keep this word, but to those who are granted this power and this revelation, I announce the same as Jude, earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.

We are passing by special and sensitive days. They are days that for an alert and awake believer can be days of spiritual growth and progress. Because for him, more than any other time there is the possibility to compare his faith with the word of God, have God’s promises in mind, and survey his faith.

Therefore he (the true believer) does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on for him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ’s suffering. Because the believer knows he will rejoice in his glory.

Dears, the “judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

Therefore those who are enduring burdens by the will of God, commit their souls to the faithful Creator. Promises that he has given us, are unique and precious. As we’ve heard he has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”

How can it be possible for a believer to understand these words? Not only when he is focusing on Jesus Christ with adapting his life according to the life Jesus lived when he was on earth? As it is said ” O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.”

Have we not read and heard: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests, and gain victory.

Therefore in the place of Christ’s followers, we must not feel desperate, but we have to pray to God in supplication with more passion to help us with any assistance we may need.

According to what Paul has said: In every temptation, God himself will make a way for us to tolerate it.

O beloved ones, difficulties do not weaken mankind, but they reveal the true human nature.

It will be good for us to occasionally face persecutions and abnormalities, since these abnormalities will persuade us to search our hearts, and to survey ourselves. So as a result, we conclude that troubles are difficult, but usually good and useful to build us.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must be more careful than any other time. Because in these days, the hearts and thoughts of many are revealed, so that the faith is tested. May your treasure be where there is no moth and rust.

I would like to remind you of some verses that we nearly discuss everyday, (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) but as long as our human will has priority over God’s will, his will will not be done.

As we have learned from him in Gethsemane, he surrendered his will to the father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name. He said: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that he will come soon. “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Discipline yourself with faith in the word of God. Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly.
May you are granted grace and blessings increasingly in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.

Yusef Nadarkhani
Lakan Prison in Rasht

The Gospel-Driven Life in the Malay Language

Mike Horton is the author or editor of over 25 books, so we’re not surprised when a new shipment of books bearing his name arrives at our offices. Sometimes it’s a brand new book he forgot to mention that he wrote over Spring Break!

The other day we had a shipment arrive in our office of a few copies of Dr. Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life translated into a different language. What language? Google Translate to the rescue! The language is Malay which is the official language of Malaysia and Indonesia (per Wikipedia).

Malay now joins a good number of other languages into which Dr. Horton’s books have been translated, including Arabic, Latvian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The resources of the White Horse Inn are also having a broad impact. For instance, in the past 30 days we have had visits to our website from over 130 countries! Soli Deo Gloria

WHI-1071 | Give Them Grace

Is sound theology only for people who have their act together? How is the gospel of free justification relevant to people who struggle with utterly broken lives? Michael Horton discusses this issue with Elyse Fitzpatrick, coauthor of Counsel from the Cross: Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ. Mike also talks with Elyse about the problem of moralistic parenting as she addresses it in her new book, Give Them Grace: Dazzling Kids with the Love of Jesus.


Home Schooling
Michael Horton
Preaching Christ
Dennis Johnson


Zack Hicks


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Give Them Grace
Fitzpatrick & Thompson
Counsel from the Cross
Fitzpatrick & Johnson
Comforts from the Cross
Elyse Fitzpatrick


Are You a Soterian?

Reflections on The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, by Scot McKnight (Zondervan, 2011)

Many of us were raised in churches where the presentation of the gospel meant explaining how you “get saved.” “If you were to die tonight, and Jesus asked, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you answer?” If you shared the gospel, that meant that you told someone that they were sinful and separated from God, but that God sent his Son to die for our sins and by accepting him as Lord and Savior they could know that they would go to heaven when they die. The goal was to get as many people as possible to make a decision. That’s what it meant to present the gospel. That’s why D. L. Moody said, “I can write the gospel on a dime.” More recently, a noted evangelist said, “The only theology you need is whatever you can say to an unbeliever in an elevator.” In my youth I passed out a tract to non-Christians that offered the Plan of Salvation. The last page had a contract that the reader could sign with Jesus, guaranteeing salvation to the signatory.

Like many other Christians, Reformed people typically wince at this approach. We do so for a variety of reasons. Many of those reasons coincide with Scot McKnight’s concerns. However, I wonder if he quite gets us to where we need to be. So let me begin by summarizing his arguments.

What is the gospel? According to The King Jesus Gospel, it is the announcement that Jesus Christ, Messiah and Lord, is the resolution to the Story of Israel. Unpacking that is the burden of these 150 pages.

First the author sketches a portrait of what he’s trying to correct. “Evangelism that focuses on decision short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (18). Basically, the truncated gospel creates a “salvation culture,” not a “gospel culture.” More than “evangelicals” in the purest etymological sense, purveyors of the first are “soterians” or “salvationists” who think that the gospel is what you find in the average evangelistic tract. However, a “gospel culture” arises when believers are immersed in the Story of Jesus, which itself is embedded in the Story of the Bible/Israel. The “soterians” don’t even need the Old Testament for their gospel, as illustrated in the honest question the author received by email: “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?'” (24). Evangelicals are good at moving people from “The Members” (in liturgical traditions) to “The Decided.” That’s important. Yet both belong to a “salvation culture,” where the chief question is how one is saved. Only a “Gospel culture” moves all the way to “The Discipled” (30).

So who are these “soterians”? Are they like Rotarians? Or perhaps aliens from a strange galaxy? At first it seems that he has in mind the typical high-pressure presentations that puts the “restless” back in “Reformed.” However, it turns out that he also has in mind the “New Calvinist” movement. “The Calvinist crowd in the USA—and Piper is the leading influencer in the resurgence of Calvinist thinking among evangelicals—has defined the gospel in the short formula, ‘justification by faith'” (25). Ample space is also taken up with a critique of Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? “…the gospel of Jesus wants more from us than a singular decision to get the sins wiped away so we can be safe and secure until heaven comes” (18).

Chapter Three, “Story to Salvation,” builds an intriguing model. Like three levels of a pyramid, the Story of Israel/Story of Bible is the ground floor. From this emerges the Story of Jesus, then the Plan of Salvation, leading finally to the Method of Persuasion. So we have to start with the Story of Israel/Bible. This isn’t yet the gospel specifically. However, within that broader narrative is the Story of Jesus. This is the gospel. That’s why we don’t really have four gospels in the New Testament, but one gospel from four different evangelists. Evidently, they thought that they were proclaiming the gospel and there’s a lot more there than “Jesus died for your sins.” But “Jesus died for your sins” is obviously there. It’s just that this isn’t the gospel. The main point of the New Testament is that Jesus is because “the Jesus Story completes the Israel Story, it saves” (37). Typical evangelistic approaches turn the pyramid upside down: the Method of Persuasion is the ground of everything: getting people to make a decision. How? By presenting the Plan of Salvation (like the Four Spiritual Laws). If it’s anywhere, the actual Story of Jesus (i.e., the gospel) is in the background and even that has usually left the Story of Israel in the deep-dark past.

Basically, the gospel is this: “What Adam was to do in the Garden—that is, to govern this world redemptively on God’s behalf—is the mission God gives to Israel. Like Adam, Israel failed, and so did its kings. God sent his Son to do what Adam and Israel and the kings did not (and evidently could not) do and to rescue everyone from their sins and systemic evil and Satan (the adversary). Hence, the Son is the one who rules as Messiah and Lord” (35). It also includes the consummation (36). (He offers a rich, extended summary on 148-153). Although the gospel itself is the Story of Jesus, without the Story of Israel there is no gospel and “if we ignore that story, the gospel gets distorted, and that is just what has happened in salvation cultures” (36). The “Plan of Salvation” is rooted in the gospel, but it isn’t the gospel.

To put it in terms of Reformed interpretation, McKnight is wrestling here with the relationship of the ordo salutis (salvation applied to individuals here and now) to the historia salutis (the history of redemption). Properly, he wants to ground the former in the latter, not vice versa. The “Plan of Salvation” leads to justification, but not to the whole life of discipleship; for that you need the whole gospel (40). “The Plan of Salvation and the Method of Persuasion have been given so much weight they are crushing and have crushed the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus. This has massive implications for the gospel itself” (43). “Nothing proves this more than the near total ignorance of many Christians today of the Old Testament Story. One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!” (44).

Turning in chapter 4 to Paul’s gospel message, the author focuses on the apostle’s “classic summary” in 1 Corinthians 15, which he said he received from apostolic gospel tradition. The gospel is the Jesus Story (Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection and post-resurrection appearance), grounded in the Story of Israel (“…according to the scriptures”). “Instead of our ‘four spiritual laws,’ which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four ‘events’ or ‘chapters’ ” (49). “To put this together: the gospel is to announce good news about key events in the life of Jesus Christ. The gospel for Paul was to tell, announce, declare, and shout aloud the Story of Jesus Christ as the saving news of God” (50). Of course, Paul’s gospel unpacks thee implications. “Salvation flows from the gospel.” He died “for our sins” (51). “Jesus died with us (identification), instead of us (representation and substitution), and for us (incorporation into the life of God)” (51). It’s not just the cross, but the burial and resurrection, that receive equal attention (54). (I would add, his ascension and return!) The goal of it all in 1 Cor 15 is that finally, in union with Christ, “humans will be doing exactly what God intended for his creation. God will be God and we will be God’s people—and the whole Story will be about God” (56-57).

So where did things go wrong? “How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?”, asks chapter 5. Like the authors of his two forewords (N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard), the Reformation is for McKnight the turning point from the glory days of a “gospel culture” to a “salvation culture.” The early era of the creeds were extrapolations of 1 Corinthians 15. “In fact, denial of the creeds is tantamount to denying the gospel itself because what the creeds seek to do is bring out what is already in the Bible’s gospel” (65). From Paul to Nicea we see a gospel culture. He acknowledges that it wasn’t all blue skies: Constantine, the crusades, etc.. But it was a gospel culture (70). Augustine got the ball rolling, but the Reformation began to shift the focus from the Jesus Story to salvation (McKnight focuses on the Augsburg and Geneva confessions) (70-73). “When I read today’s thin and superficial reductions of the gospel to simple points, I know that that could never have happened apart from the Reformation” (71). Not that the Reformers would have done this. “In fact, no one can read either Luther or Calvin and not observe that they operated with both a profound gospel culture and a profound salvation culture. I have no desire to blame them or the Reformation for the soterians or a ‘salvation culture.'” But the seeds were there for a shift “from the story to soteriology” (73). All that was left was the experiential focus of Wesley and the conversionistic impulse that is also a strength of evangelicalism (74-75). “From the enhancement of a gospel culture with a profound emphasis on salvation we have now arrived at the ability for a person to be able to say he or she has had the right experience” (75). (It’s interesting that he draws in this context on Dallas Willard, who hardly focuses on the Story over personal experience!)

After discussing “the Gospel in the Gospels” (ch. 6), McKnight focuses on the gospel according to Jesus (ch. 7). Much of this I recall from an insightful article he wrote for Christianity Today exploring the tendency to pit Jesus (and the kingdom) against Paul (and salvation). Taking a step back from myopic debates that distort the message of both figures, McKnight thinks that the gospel as the Story of Jesus brings them together in a harmonious whole. “Evangelism, what is it? To ‘evangelize’ or to ‘gospel’ is to tell the Story of Jesus as a saving story that completes Israel’s Story” (112). This encompasses the kingdom and personal salvation.

Chapter 9 explores “Gospeling Today,” which is usually different from how it was done in Acts. “The difference can be narrowed to this single point: the gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior. We are not creating a false alternative here. The latter can be done within the former, but much of the soterian approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal) Savior and doges Jesus as Messiah and Lord…the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion” (133-134).”

However, if we read the Story of Jesus in the light of the Story of Israel, we can see that Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to satisfy her most pressing need for a King and a Lord. “Remember that the fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means that there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord. The pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’s day was for the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land” (137).

Finally, the author fleshes out what this gospel drama—the Jesus Story—means for discipleship, how it creates a “Gospel culture.” First, we must become People of the Story (153-154). Start with the beginning of the book and find yourself in the Story of Israel as it winds its way to the Story of Jesus. Following the church calendar helps with this. Second, we also need to become People of the Church’s Story. “Make a decision to know our story from Adam to the newest baptized Christian in your church” (156). Read the creeds and confessions (156). All of this will help believers to develop counter stories to individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, scientific naturalism, New Age, postmodern tribalism, salvation by therapy (157). Third, embrace the Story. The author attaches an especially useful appendix with summary statements in the New Testament defining “the Gospel.” A second appendix, taken from Justin Martyr’s First Apology, makes less sense. In that classic citation, the early church father explains what happened in early Christian worship, focusing on preaching, prayer and sacrament.

Evaluating The Arguments

There are many things to admire about The King Jesus Gospel. While affirming evangelicalism’s zeal in moving people from members to deciders, “the gospel” has been reduced to “personal salvation” and the result is that all of our strategies are bent on getting “decisions” (26). Reformed folks share the same concern. Christ is both Savior and Lord: you can’t embrace one without the other. And we don’t make him Savior and Lord; he is Savior and Lord whether we embrace him or not. The goal of evangelism in our churches is to make disciples, not just converts. That’s why we don’t focus on a striking conversion experience, but on Christ, and emphasize the Christian life as a constant living out of our baptism, in the communion of saints. Lifelong discipleship is not an individualistic affair, but a team sport.

Furthermore, we emphasize that the ordo salutis (application of redemption)—what the author calls “the Plan of Salvation”—arises out of the history of redemption (historia salutis)—the Story of Jesus, which emerges in the Story of Israel. (My stated goal in my systematic theology, The Christian Faith, is to reintegrate these coordinates by the rubric of drama-doctrine-doxology-discipleship.) The prophets pave the way for Jesus’s claim that he is this solution, the author argues (137). Indeed! Commentaries from John Calvin to Don Carson emphasize that the whole Bible is to be read as one unfolding story from promise (Story of Israel) to fulfillment (Story of Jesus). Reformed exegetes regularly lament the place of the Old Testament in contemporary preaching and evangelism, turning to it mostly for edifying examples to imitate (or to shun). Even the exegesis that McKnight offers concerning Jesus’ temptation as the recapitulation of Adam’s and Israel’s (154) is standard in Reformed commentaries (as well as others).

The abstraction of doctrine (like what McKnight calls the Plan of Salvation) from the Story tends to push out not only the Old Testament but the Holy Spirit and the church. I can’t help be feel that what we really need is not to put the Plan of Salvation somewhere else other than the gospel (especially if that includes justification and the new birth), but question aspects of what many evangelicals mean by the very idea. I can only add a hearty amen when the author writes, “To make this more serious, what we are in most need of today, especially with a generation for whom the Plan of Salvation doesn’t make instinctive sense, is more gospel preaching that sets the context for the Plan of Salvation ” (40).

When the Bible talks about “getting saved” (which it never does in precisely those terms), the focus is on the Triune God saving sinners through the twists and turns of redemptive history, from one end of the book to the other. Typically, where the Bible sweeps me into its grand story of redemption in Christ, many evangelistic presentations reduce that grand story to “me and my personal relationship with Jesus.” We talk about the gospel as an announcement—a promise—that is revealed as a grand drama that unfolds from Genesis 3:15 to the close of Revelation. The gospel isn’t an offer to appropriate, decide, or contract for with Jesus. It’s an announcement—a declaration—of God’s saving accomplishment in Jesus Christ. Promised in the Old Testament, the gospel is fulfilled in the New. The call to repent and believe is not the gospel, but the proper response to the gospel. In fact, the gospel is not a call to do anything—even to believe. The gospel itself is simply an announcement that we are therefore called to believe.

McKnight helpfully makes the point in several places that the gospel is a story, an announcement, a declaration, and not a series of “steps” for us to follow to “get saved.” But here’s where he gets confusing. In spite of this point, he still thinks that what he calls the Plan of Salvation and Method of Persuasion are importantly related to the gospel. These phrases are a bit unfamiliar to Reformed ears. Where we typically talk about the Spirit’s application of redemption through the gospel itself, most evangelicals speak of our appropriating, actualizing, or making Jesus our Savior and Lord. God offers us the package, but our new birth depends on something we do, at least our decision. McKnight still seems to follow this way of speaking about “…what that person must do in order to get saved” (38) and appropriating salvation by “making a personal commitment to Jesus Christ” (28). No wonder, then, he wants to distinguish this from the gospel.

From Bavinck to Berkhof, Reformed theologians have lamented the excesses of a pietism and revivalism that threaten to reduce the gospel to a personal decision or crisis experience. So how exactly does the Reformation get saddled once again with a tragic narrowing of the gospel to the “four spiritual laws” with the goal of making mere deciders (converts) who know Jesus as Savior rather than disciples who embrace him as Lord? McKnight acknowledges that there were some flaws in the pre-Reformation “Gospel Culture” (Constantine, the crusades, etc.). He also acknowledges that the Reformers wouldn’t agree with everything that “salvation culture” implies. Yet, much like N. T. Wright, he seems to think that he if we would just go “back to the Bible to find the original gospel” as he has, we’d get it right (24). The history of exegesis is reduced to the categories of “gospel culture” and “salvation culture.” Also as in Professor Wright’s work, The King Jesus Gospel offers sweeping assertions about the Reformation without serious engagement. I can’t imagine that he has explored the commentaries of the Reformers or the history of Reformed biblical theology in any depth. No harm done for having different interests, but one shouldn’t then pile with one more straw-man portrait.

Even when he “damns with faint praise,” the author misses the goal of at least Lutheran and Reformed branches: “The singular contribution of the Reformation, in all three directions—Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist—was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility and the development of the gospel as speaking into that responsibility” (71). This confuses the Reformation’s interest with pietism, which was a completely different kettle of fish. The former focused on what the Triune God has done to accomplish salvation for sinners, not on “human response” and what I’m supposed to do to “get saved.”

Though largely respectful, McKnight takes aim especially at John Piper and Greg Gilbert as examples of “soterists.” I won’t presume to speak for these brothers, except to say that the author’s critique appears to lift a few statements as “Exhibit A.” For example, when Piper says that the gospel is “justification by faith,” he is speaking short-hand. The Reformers often did the same, yet they didn’t even come close to the author’s description of decision-oriented “soterism.” The justification of the ungodly is as much an event in the history of salvation (Story of Israel/Jesus) as it is the application of Christ’s imputed righteousness to believers. We simply don’t talk about “Plan of Salvation” evangelism in the first place. That is a different way of doing evangelism than the Lutheran and Reformed approach, centering as it does on the gospel as the announcement of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Those who believed this gospel were baptized and joined the church, regularly meeting together for the apostles teaching, the Supper, and common prayer (Ac 2:32).

The great thing about the author’s treatment of Jesus and Paul is that the Story of Jesus indeed encompasses the kingdom emphasis along with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. However, he doesn’t seem to allow the same space for the benefits (like justification) in the definition of the gospel itself that he opens up for the kingdom. Without justification, Christ’s messianic reign and kingdom are not necessarily good news.

In this light, I worry about forcing a choice between the gospel as the Story of Jesus and the Plan of Salvation (if the latter means justification and new birth, for example). The one is still too broad to specify the saving announcement and the latter is too narrow—indeed, somewhat distorting (understood the way McKnight describes it, as akin to the Four Spiritual Laws). McKnight does a great job with 1 Corinthians 15, but there Paul clearly includes the benefits of Christ’s saving work (forgiveness, justification, resurrection) with Christ’s Story as the gospel. In fact, our story (how he saves us) is bound up with his story in that passage. If 1 Corinthians 15 is a summary of the gospel (and I agree that it is), then wouldn’t it be arbitrary to say that the details about Christ’s death and resurrection are the gospel while the benefits for us, as important as they are, are not the gospel? There are just too many passages, here and elsewhere, that make Christ’s work (living, dying and rising again in history) and its effects for us inseparable aspects of the gospel. “He was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). The dramatic story of Christ and the doctrine that interprets its significance for us are inseparable aspects of the same gospel.

Typically, Reformed and Lutheran theologies speak about “the gospel in the narrow sense” (something like 1 Cor 15:2-5 and Rom 4:25) and “…in the broader sense,” encompassing all of the promises that God fulfilled in Christ, including the gift of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and all of the other benefits of our union with Christ.

So we already have the categories that make these points: promise and fulfillment, historia salutis and ordo salutis, and the gospel in the narrower and broader senses. To me, at least, these distinctions are less capable of reductionism. The gospel in the New Testament is neither “Repent and believe” (that’s the call to embrace the gospel) nor “Jesus is the Solution to Israel’s Story.” It’s not even that Jesus is Lord, the Messiah-King. This announcement is as ambiguous without the news of justification as is the news of justification apart from the Story of Israel and Jesus. Jesus’ lordship entails judgment and wrath as well as justification and grace. So there is plenty of reductionism to go around. McKnight is mostly right, I believe, but I’m concerned that his definition of the gospel is too general in one sense (“The Story of Jesus”) and too reductive in another (“Messiah-King-Lord” vs. “Justifying High Priest”). What’s wrong with staying with the integrating rubric of “Prophet, Priest, and King,” interpreted within the horizon of Israel’s story? Penal substitution not as the only aspect of his atoning work but as the sine qua non of his victory of the powers and principalities, vindication of his moral government, and recapitulation of Adam’s failed headship? Why the false choices?

Another danger in reducing the gospel to the Jesus-Story-as-Solution-to-the-Israel-Story is that it fails to account adequately for why the gospel is good news to Gentiles. “Now this might seem simplistic,” the author says, “but any reading of the Prophets, former or latter and major and minor, will show that the problem for the Story of Israel was a resolution to Israel’s and Judah’s problems” (137). Indeed, that’s a big part of it, but don’t the apostles ground the “mystery of the church” in the prophetic promise of Israel’s Messiah as the answer to the whole world’s problems? What about all those wonderful prophecies of a remnant from the nations streaming to Zion?

The Story of Israel sets us up for the Story of Jesus: true enough—and not only true, but just as crucial as McKnight suggests. However, he says, that what is central to the gospel “is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord.” This was “the pressing need of the Jews of Jesus’ day: the Messiah-King and the Messiah-King’s people in the Messiah-King’s land.” This is a salutary point, frequently made in our circles. However, like N. T. Wright, McKnight seems to give too much credit to what the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting, as if it were basically what the prophets and Jesus had in mind. Clearly it wasn’t, since Jesus regularly upbraids not only the religious leaders but his own disciples for missing the point, thinking that he was coming to restore the nation to its former glory, renewing the Sinai covenant.

If Gentiles are in themselves strangers to the covenants of promise, God’s enemies, “unclean,” and already under judgment, of what relevance is the news, “Finally, Israel has a King who will bring things around in the land!”? I agree that we Gentiles have to be immersed in the Story of Israel; we get in the covenant on Jewish shirt-tales, as it were. We’re the workers in the vineyard who came at the end of the day, the Johnny-come-latelies. However, unlike those to Jewish audiences, the gospel sermons to Gentiles in Acts and descriptions of the gospel in the epistles don’t merely rehearse the history of Israel; they proclaim Christ as the Savior of the world, from judgdment, sin and death, by Christ’s own death-judgment and resurrection-justification. The context of their repentance is idolatry. Somewhere N. T. Wright has written that the tragic problem that confronts Israel at Jesus’ advent is that Israel too is found to be “in Adam.” That’s exactly right. Being “in Adam” universalizes the plight. We dare not skip over Israel, but the Pauline contrast is being “in Adam” versus being “in Christ.”

Surely the reign of the Messiah-King is key in the prophets, but the way in which he exercises this reign is inextricably linked to his priesthood. By fulfilling the law, bearing their sins, clothing them in his righteousness, giving them his Spirit, and returning to make all things new, this Messiah will indeed accomplish what Adam and Israel have failed to do. I would want to press the author a bit more on what he means when he adds, “So he sends us east of Eden into the world with the same task” of being priest-kings in his garden” (138). So is our mission the same as Christ’s? Are we recapitulating Adam and Israel, bearing the curse, and by our resurrection securing the restoration of all things? Is Jesus really the “Last Adam,” who does all of this for us, or the model for how we are to complete his redeeming work? I may be reading too much into that statement, but it would be interesting to hear more about that point. In spite of clear echoes of N. T. Wright throughout The King Jesus Gospel, McKnight is less confident in the “gospel and empire” thesis: namely, that the main thing in saying “Jesus is Lord” is to specifically challenge Caesar and his empire. “Let’s keep in mind that no one would ever deny that an implication of the gospel declaration that Jesus is Lord is that Caesar is not. The issue here is how conscious, overt, and intentional this anti-imperial theme is to the gospeling of the first Christians,” especially in light of Paul’s remarks about ordained powers in Romans 13 (142-144).

Finally, I was looking forward to the last chapter: “Creating a Gospel Culture.” After all, I wholeheartedly agree that a gospel that takes its narrative habitat seriously and connects individual believers to Israel and the Triune God’s purposes for history will create a very different kind of community than one that’s based on individual decisions. However, I didn’t find what I was expecting. It wasn’t what was there, but what was missing, that puzzled me. Sure, we need to become People of the Story and all, reading the Bible cover to cover, but all of his concrete suggestions for this were basically about the individual believer. Nothing about the sacraments, church membership and discipline—especially odd in light of the Justin Martyr appendix that focused on these ordinary means by which God “creates a gospel culture.” McKnight says, “As Dallas Willard has argued for decades, God transforms us through a vision, our intention, and the means God provides—the spiritual disciplines” (159). This seems hardly capable of creating a less individualistic and more integrated gospel culture than its “soterian” alternative.

I would encourage likely critics of The King Jesus Gospel to hear out the argument, setting caricatures and false choices to one side. There is a lot in this book that should resonate with Reformed Christians. Whatever inaccuracies in his description of the views of others who deserve better, Scot McKnight is reacting against a serious weakness of contemporary evangelism that plays out in church life abundantly. To enthusiastic readers of the book, I’d caution against exchanging one set of reductionism for another. Let’s not polarize into even more extreme camps of “story-people” and “doctrine-people”; “kingdom” and “personal salvation”; “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is Savior.” We can all be evangelical soterians, rejoicing in the gospel as the Story of Jesus that proclaims the only one who saves us from our sins. Despite my concerns, this is a great starter for some remarkably important conversations.

For Calvinism–Conversations

With the release of Mike Horton’s newest book For Calvinism conversations are beginning to take place. The first is with Westminster Seminary’s Office Hours podcast where Mike discusses the book and why he wrote it. There is another conversation this coming Saturday at Biola University where Mike will be having a conversation with Roger Olson who wrote the companion volume Against Calvinism. Click here to find out more about this free event.

The WHI Store has For Calvinism on sale now for only $9.99! Click here to purchase

Courageous Christianity?

Anthony Parisi is a filmmaker for New Renaissance Pictures and one of the co-founders of WebSerials.com. His website is www.anthonyparisimedia.com

Last weekend saw the release of Courageous, the fourth film produced by the media ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. Opening fourth at the box office with a call to responsible fatherhood, the movie is being trumpeted as the latest culture-transforming hope for some evangelicals. As with Facing the Giants and Fireproof, endorsements are marching out from various churches and para-church organizations across the country.

I’m less concerned with how individual Christians personally choose to interact with the film and more with the troubling trends of American evangelicalism it illustrates. Is Courageous really something to be whole-heartedly embraced? Art being reduced as a vehicle for sermonizing is problematic enough, but even more so is the type of sermon being preached. The emphasis on personal morality and simplistic transformation turn this film into a superficial lecture rather than a robust exploration of life as a Christian father. Our personal piety, our self-improvement, and our “courage” forms the fabric of the story. Christ and his gospel, along with church life and God’s established means of grace, are marginalized.

The story follows a group of four law enforcement officers who seek to become better fathers and live up to God’s calling of leadership in their homes. When tragedy strikes his family, Adam (played by writer/director Alex Kendrick) looks for renewed identity by telling his pastor “I want to know what God expects of me as a father.” Six weeks later he’s typed up a list of resolutions and is on a mission to live up to each and every one of them. “I don’t want to be a good enough father.” His other friends soon join in and they all agree to hold each other accountable. Resolutions are framed and vows are given in a backyard ceremony. They are warned to now be “doubly accountable” and when challenges arise will need “courage, courage, courage.”

The third act attempts to put these vows to the test through a handful of sequences that show the men either failing or persevering. Three of the men encounter few problems at all, appearing to meet the challenge effortlessly. One fails and is convicted of a serious crime. Another faces a test of honesty at work but resists the temptation—finding no consequences or suffering for his integrity and instead receiving instant promotion. Everything culminates in a Sunday morning church scene. The pastor gives up his pulpit to one of the cops, who admonishes the men in the congregation to accept their responsibilities as fathers if they want God’s blessing on their home. Inspiring music crescendos and fists are raised with the repeating cries of “I will, I will, I will!

The film closes and we smash cut to a 3D fly-in of the title “Courageous” as contemporary Christian rock drives it home with anthemic force. “We were made to be courageous / We were made to lead the way / We could be the generation / That finally breaks the chains.” Watching this inspirational ending, one can’t help but hear an echo of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where all of the people swear an oath to keep the law and be faithful to the Mosaic covenant. The credits even display Joshua 24:15, taken from a passage where Joshua leads the people of Israel in covenant renewal at Shechem as they again promise to fulfill their vows. In the context of redemptive history, this story illustrates how Israel’s failure to be faithful and inherit the Promised Land ultimately pointed forward to Christ, who would earn the true Promised Land for his people in spite of their sin. In Courageous, as in many Sherwood productions, texts like this are abstracted and turned into moralistic slogans already on hats and t-shirts. As with much self-proclaimed “Christian art” from the last few decades, the end product ends up replicating many of the worst parts of our consumerist culture. Spin-off resolution books and devotionals become branded accompaniments.

Given the clear sincerity and earnest work put in by the filmmakers, it’s hard to know the best way to respond to all this. The social issues and family challenges it seeks to raise are certainly worth exploring. Small, independent dramas on family life are a rarity in Hollywood’s current obsession with franchise-driven blockbusters and it’s refreshing to see stories of this scale and interest on screen. The importance of fathers in family life and their responsibilities is always an area in need of our attention. Yet it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm when the film fails to engage or embody any of these areas well.

Courageous rejects nuance and the cross-bearing pilgrimage of the Christian life for artificially neat resolutions to the prayers of its one-dimensional characters. Sherwood continues to make films with God functioning primarily as a tool for our lives—whether he’s helping us win football games, repair our struggling marriages, or helping us find a job within seconds of a cry to the heavens. Brief, passing references to the gospel are only seen useful to convert a skeptic, who in a few tearful seconds somehow embraces the faith. Despite all the sermonizing dialogue—the story’s form and emphatic message has all of its focus on us and our accomplishments, not Christ and his work for us. In what could be page out of a John Elridge book, the “manly” vocation of police officer is used as the icon of fatherhood. Violent shootouts and car chase stunts ensure being a godly dad also looks as glorious as possible. Even the poster image calls to mind the slow-motion hero shot popularized by Michael Bay. As for the women, they are given little to do than look on approvingly.

The result is that Christians and their “good works” become the message, overshadowing Christ and the gospel. The LA Times calls the movie “a particularly clunky, tunnel-visioned vehicle whose overbearing, overlong script nearly smothers the movie’s quibble-free message: Fathers must be responsible.” The AV Club describes it as “essentially about fundamentally good, moral men proudly accepting the mantle of fatherhood” and feels that the film “deifies fatherhood and fathers when it would be better off treating its central striver like a flawed human being instead of a paper saint.” Slant Magazine laments “One must have the courage to ignore this self-righteous pablum’s naïve, truly offensive trivialization of social realities in this country—the complete flipside of Paul Haggis’s cynical representation of the same in Crash.” The New York Times pointedly sums everything up: “Adam is born again into the spiritual obligations of conservative family values.”

While surely produced with good intentions, Courageous is likely to further entrench the misguided culture wars and bring harm to the Christian witness in the world. Alongside the political arena, art is another place where confusion about the institutional church and the way it interacts with culture is common. Churches should always encourage individual members to take up vocations in the arts, but this is to be done out of love for one’s neighbor and needs to embrace the totality of life. Films like this reinforce the unfortunate impulse that anything we create must be explicitly “Christianized” or evangelistic. Churches are to spread the kingdom not by some sort of cultural revival but by the unglamorous life of local ministry God has founded on Word and sacrament. Making movies falls far outside the bounds of what the church has been called to do.

Thankfully, the church has good news that far outpaces the takeaway of this story: an announcement that God has reconciled sinners to himself through Jesus Christ. The gospel pulls us out of our fragile self-worth built on performance and centers our identity on God’s love for us in Christ. As forgiven, yet still sinful sons and daughters, mothers and fathers— we will continually fall short of what God has called us to. In marriage and family life we need to be reminded of the gospel more than ever. Only by continually looking to our standing in grace can we be humbled and motivated to serve others not in prideful self-righteousness but thankful gratitude. Christ was courageous for us when we were not. This is the good news that changes everything.

WHI-1070 | Christianity & the New Liberalism

Is Christianity primarily about what God is doing in your life right now, or what he did one afternoon two-thousand years ago? Is the idea of Jesus “in your heart” more important than Jesus “in the manger” or “on the cross”? Do you value your own personal experience of faith more than what God accomplishes externally through the proclamation of the gospel? In the not-too-distant past, theological liberals were the ones answering yes to questions like these, but increasingly American evangelicals are moving in this direction. On this program, the hosts discuss this troubling trend and offer some challenges to this “new liberalism” of our time (originally broadcast March 23, 2008).


History & Faith
J. Gresham Machen
A Sentimental Journey
Shane Rosenthal


Matthew Smith


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What is Faith?
J. Gresham Machen


Yes, Virginia, there is a Holy Spirit

I was intrigued by a recent conversation between Doug Wilson and Mark Driscoll (interview video above).

I’d prefer to keep my thoughts to myself, but I think there’s a crucial piece missing from the “debate.”

As I said in an earlier post ( Reformed and Charismatic?), I’m not willing to die on the hill of cessationism. In fact, I’d fit into the category that Doug Wilson describes as “a cessaionist who believes strange things happen.” A sovereign God is free to fulfill his purposes as he pleases. As God, the Holy Spirit is not on a leash.

However, this misses the point. No Calvinist would believe that the Spirit is not free or that he cannot speak directly to people today as he did in the days of the prophets and apostles. Nor are Reformed Christians deists for believing that, as a rule, he doesn’t. In fact, the church was not guided by anti-supernaturalism when it rejected the claims of the Montanists in the late second century. Nor were Luther and Calvin under the spell of the Enlightenment when they challenged the “enthusiasts” for pitting the Word against the Spirit.

The Spirit is not bound by anything, but he freely binds himself to his Word. The question is not where the Spirit may work, but where he has promised to work. If strange things happen—similar to events in the era of the prophets and apostles, praise the Lord! However, one doesn’t have a right to expect the Spirit to work except where he has promised to work and through the means that the Triune God has ordained.

Like older charismatic-cessationist debates in evangelicalism, this newer discussion therefore has the wrong categories. The real issue isn’t whether the sign-gifts have ceased; it’s whether the Spirit works through ordinary means that Christ ordained explicitly or whether he works through extraordinary means that were identified with the extraordinary ministry of the apostles. Even deeper than that, it’s a question of whether we embrace a paradigm in which the Spirit’s work is identified with direct and immediate activity within us apart from ordinary means or through the external Word and sacraments. The history of “enthusiasm” (Protestant or otherwise) trends toward an almost Gnostic dualism between spirit and matter, indirect and inner experience versus mediated and external ministry, the individual heart and the covenant community. This is where the seismic fault is revealed. It’s at this point where the real differences—paradigmatic differences—become evident. And there are plenty of cessationists as well as charismatics who presuppose the “enthusiastic” paradigm.

In this interview, my friend Mark Driscoll expresses his worry that cessationists believe in the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” That may well be. In fact, one of the things that I’ve emphasized especially in recent years is the richness of the Spirit’s person and work that is actually far more evident in classic Reformed as well as patristic faith and practice than today. The temptation to celebrate the Spirit over the Word in our day is in part a reaction against a conservative tendency to separate the Word from the Spirit. He has also said elsewhere that where Reformed people attribute God’s work to the gospel, charismatics attribute it to the Spirit. We talk past each other, he says. I’m not so sure. Rather, I think we’re operating with quite different paradigms. When we attribute God’s work to the gospel, it’s actually attributing it to the Spirit who works through the gospel.

The choice between Spirit and Word is a false one that has typically been forced by Protestant enthusiasm. We do speak past each other, but because we have different paradigms—not just because of different views of whether the sign-gifts have ceased. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Where does this true faith come from?” Answer: “The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the holy sacraments.” Who creates it? The Holy Spirit. How? Through preaching the gospel and by ratifying it through the baptism and the Supper.

When Reformed people (and others) speak of preaching, baptism, Communion, covenantal nurture in the home, church discipline, diaconal ministry and so forth, our charismatic brothers and sisters wonder, “Where is the Holy Spirit?” Why? Because they have come to see the Spirit’s work as separate from—even antithetical to—the external ministry of the church and ordinary means of grace.

Of course, this point doesn’t address the issues, much less pretend to solve them. However, my hope at least is that we could have a better conversation than the usual debate question: “The Sign-Gifts Have Ceased: Pro or Con?”

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