White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Evangelicals and Confession

The Catholic Church’s new iPhone app is generating a lot of buzz. Today, The Christian Post featured a story that included the positive endorsement of Biola philosophy professor John Mark Reynolds:

A checklist like that is totally compatible with evangelical traditions. Someone like John Calvin or Martin Luther would want you to go through the Ten Commandments and reflect thoughtfully on how you may have broken them,” said Reynolds.

As digital confessors tap their way through the app, they are asked questions like: “Do I not give God time every day in prayer?” “Have I been angry with God?” and “Have I encouraged anyone to have an abortion?”

Daily and thorough introspection is a good thing, according to Reynolds.

“If we’re not careful, we fall into cheap grace,” he cautioned. “We don’t pay any specific attention to a lot of the bad things we do. A lot of people get two or three things that they struggle and those are the only sins that they only considered that they have committed.”

Reynolds said some mainline Protestant denominations such as Lutherans or Episcopalians still observe the tradition of confession before a priest or pastor. According to Roman Catholic beliefs, however, the presence of a priest is required for absolution.

Evangelicals aren’t required to adhere to the same standard of confessing their sins to a pastor but they should still follow the biblical mandate to confess their sins to one another, he said.

“The Bible says you should confess your sins to Jesus but it also says you should confess your sins to one another,” said the Biola professor. “It’s true that ultimately only the power of the Holy Spirit can save me and only Jesus can truly help me, but sometimes they need advice and counsel from someone.”

Reynolds said that a lot of Christians, including himself, falls into the “cheap grace” camp. That observation has led him to be more concerned about Christians under-confessing to the Holy Spirit rather than becoming obsessed over their sins.

“Sin separates us from God … It’s good to review what we are doing wrong,” he said. “If we say that we love Jesus but we want to do things that separate us from him then once again we’re lying and the truth isn’t in us.”

Sin needs to be examined seriously but it’s not something to dwell over 10 years down the road, according to Reynolds.

“Once we’ve received forgiveness from Jesus, it’s time to move on.”

Prof. Reynolds’ best point is that evangelicals don’t have a mechanism for confessing sin and receiving forgiveness. Sadly, this iPhone app won’t help fix that problem. It may give a pious evangelical help in identifying his or her sins, but its purpose is to drive the sinner to the Confessional where a priest can then direct the sinner’s penance. One priest, Father Edward Beck even said, “I think this app may be a boon for the sacrament.”

But what is an evangelical to do after coming up with a list of sins? Surely they can confess them to a brother or sister in Christ, though the best that they can offer–Reynolds reminds us–is “advice” and “counsel.” Do they make an appointment with their senior pastor (or one of his many associates) to confess their sins? I wonder how many professional ministry staff have a tag for that in Outlook?

Sadly, there isn’t much recourse for the tender-hearted evangelical, which may be one reason why the “cheap grace” Reynolds laments is so prevalent in the church. One can only be tender-hearted about their sins for so long if they are never given relief. That’s where the Reformed and Lutheran practice of corporate confession and absolution comes into play.

In all of the early Reformation liturgies, a place was given for the congregation to read the Ten Commandments or some other passage that detailed God’s requirements. Upon reflecting on the Law, the congregation was led in a corporate prayer of confession after which they would look up to their minister who in the name of Jesus would absolve them of their sin.

Depending on the tradition, this was done in different ways. Sometimes with a hearty, “I absolve you.” Sometimes with a declaration of pardon. Sometimes with a reading of various gospel texts that pointed the penitent to the work of Christ for them. But regardless of how it was done, a sinner was assured of his or her standing with Christ and could worship God without fear. They received the objective word of Christ that reminded them of their being a New Creation, that the sin which so easily entangled them that week was removed from them as far as the east is from the west, and that God looked on them in his beloved Son and pronounced them, “not guilty.”

The iPhone app, as we’ve been reminded, isn’t meant to do that. It’s just meant to prepare the penitent for the Confessional. Sadly, the evangelical who adopts it for their own private confession will only dwell on the Law and never hear the voice of God through his ministers speaking words of grace and peace.

For a personal account of the power of the practice of confession in a Lutheran context, you’ll want to read this account from our friends at New Reformation Press.

Confession App

So, you’ve probably heard by now that the Catholic Church has approved an iPhone app that helps prepare people for making confession. Check out this story from the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. The very first comment from E-Rock at 1:06 p.m. is priceless!

The Gospel-Centered Life Conference Audio

If you missed last month’s conference at Coral Ridge PCA with Mike Horton, Tullian, Tchividjian, and J. D. Greer, you can now listen to the audio of each of the sessions and Mike’s Sunday morning sermon.

The Science of Atonement

A great find from our friends at Mockingbird: from this week’s Economist, a story about the relationship between guilt and pain.

WHI-1035 | Is Faith in Christ Necessary?

According to a recent Pew study, 70% of Americans agreed with the idea that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” What’s more striking is that when this same question was put to self-identified evangelical Christians, 57% agreed. So is this view correct, or is faith in Christ the only way to heaven? That’s the focus of this edition of White Horse Inn as the hosts continue their series through the Great Commission.


The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
Christ Alone
Rod Rosenbladt
Only One Way
ed. Richard Phillips


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Doug Powell

Help Wanted!

Will you be in southern California on February 18th?

Are you free from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.?

Would you like to help White Horse Inn create a study resource in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the publication of Mike Horton’s book, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace?

We’re looking for 15 people to be in the live studio audience on February 18th in Carlsbad, California as Mike Horton leads a small group through twelve sessions corresponding to the twelve chapters of Putting Amazing Back Into Grace. These sessions will be professionally recorded and packaged with a study guide and a new edition of the book later this year. All those who participate as members of the studio audience will get the complete package when it is published.

We have limited space available for this event and we need to know if you are committed to participating, so please leave a comment or contact us (please direct your comment to “Marketing”) to secure your spot and receive further instructions.

Thanks for your help!

WHI-1034 | The Mission Statement

The Great Commission is both deep in its intensity (making disciples, not just converts) and wide in its extensiveness (“into all the world”). But even where it was once strongly preached and professed, the Gospel’s light seems today to be a flickering candle. How do we take the message of the gospel into all the world? On this edition of the program the hosts discuss the meaning of Christ’s mission statement in the context of today’s religious pluralism.


Bible & Mission
Richard Bauckham
The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
The Christian Faith
Michael Horton


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David Hlebo

The Gospel Sonnets of Ralph Erskine

I’ve recently started reading Ralph Erskine’s Gospel Sonnets to my four children with great profit. Written in 1720, this book combines incredible theological precision with beautiful poetry. Thanks to Google, you can now read or download a pdf copy of this hard to find book. Here are a few lines dealing with both justification and sanctification:

The believer, being married to Christ, is both justified and sanctified

Proud nature may reject this gospel-theme,
And curse it as an Antinomian scheme.
Let slander bark, let envy grin and fight,
The curse that is so causeless shall not light.
If they that fain would make by holy force
‘Twixt sinners and the law a clean divorce,
And court the Lamb a virgin chaste to wife,
Be charg’d as foes to holiness of life,
Well may they suffer gladly on this score,
Apostles great were so malign’d before.

When as a cov’nant stern the law commands,
Faith puts her Lamb’s obedience in its hands:
And when its threats gush out a fiery flood,
Faith stops the current with her victim’s blood.
The law can crave no more, yet craves no less,
Than active, passive, perfect righteousness.
Yet here is all, yea, more than its demand,
All render’d to it by a divine hand.
Mankind is bound law-service still to pay,
Yea, angel-kind is also bound t’ obey.
It may by human and angelic blaze
Have honour, but in finite partial ways.

Thus doth the Husband by his Father’s will
Both for and in his bride the law fulfill:
For her, as ’tis a covenant; and then
In her, as ’tis a rule of life to men.
First all law-debt he most completely pays;
Then of law-duties all the charge defrays.
Does first assume her guilt, and loose her chains;
And then with living water wash her stains:
Her fund restore, and then her form repair,
And make his filthy bride a beauty fair;
His perfect righteousness most freely grant,
And then his holy image deep implant;
Into her heart his precious seed indrop,
Which, in his time, will yield a glorious crop.
But by alternate turns his plant he brings
Through robbing winters and repairing springs.
Hence, pining oft, they suffer sad decays,
By dint of shady nights and stormy days.
But blest with sap, and influence from above
They live and grow anew in faith and love;
Until transplanted to the higher soil,
Where furies tread no more, nor foxes spoil.

CBD Interviews Mike Horton for “The Christian Faith”

Matthew Miller, the academic blogger at Christianbook.com, recently interviewed Mike Horton about The Christian Faith. Below are some highlights from the interview:

UPDATE: part two of the CBD interview with Michael Horton is also now available online.

Matthew: Predestination is, of course, always a hot button topic for Christians of every tradition. You ground your doctrine in the Trinity (following Barth?). What major implication does your grounding of the doctrine in divine ontology have for Christian theology?

Horton: Hmmm. A lot of comparisons to Barth! However, here as well I’d have to say that it’s the older Reformed theologians who most influence my thinking on this point. The covenant (federal) tradition of Reformed theology begins with the covenant of redemption, made between the Father, Son, and Spirit, before creation. In fact, I point out Barth’s rejection of this motif on the basis of what I take to be an inadequate appreciation for a robust view of the persons of the Trinity as distinct persons.

Calvin emphasizes that predestination can never be discussed safely unless we seek our election in Christ and not in ourselves or in God’s secret councils. Unfortunately, many have heard defenses of predestination that don’t follow this advice and the result is a doctrine that is indistinguishable from Islam. Happily, that does not characterize the confessional theologies of the Reformed tradition, but it circulates in popular presentations—by friend and foe alike.

The Fear of Antinomianism

Fear is a powerful motivator. We’ve grown used to it being used in politics to argue for (or against) certain economic, immigration, or military proposals. We sometimes don’t recognize its misuse in the church.  This week, the fear of antinomianism (which means the rejection of God’s Law as a standard of righteous action required of God’s covenant people) has been raised.  There have been genuine antinomians in church history.  There are many today, who set aside God’s law as the standard for God’s righteous judgment, usually substituting their own prescriptions.  However, accusations have been raised over the last few days that target people who are decidedly not antinomian.  In a recent Christianity Today article by Jason Hood, the antinomian charge was directed at contemporary Reformed preachers and writers.  Elsewhere, the White Horse Inn was rebuked for encouraging this false teaching.

There’s no point in responding to accusations point by point.  Anyone who subscribes Lutheran or Reformed confessions is conscience-bound to repudiate antinomianism as a perversion of biblical teaching.  We do not deny the abiding role of God’s moral law in exposing our sin (first use) and guiding us in grateful and godly living (third use).  So if Reformation Christianity is “antinomian” (the perennial charge from Roman Catholic and Arminian quarters), then it would help if critics would let us know the new definition.

The conventional wisdom in many Christian circles is that “we need to find the right balance between law and grace, so that we don’t fall into legalism or license.” Although this counsel has a long history, its most recent expression was urged in Jason Hood’s article.  The author expresses concern that too many Reformed Christians today are encouraging antinomianism—or at least reveling in the charge.  The author especially criticizes appeals to the point made by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (on the basis of Romans 6:1) that if we aren’t accused of antinomianism, we haven’t preached the gospel properly.  In that verse, Paul asks the rhetorical question that he assumes his treatment of the gospel thus far will provoke: “What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”  The author of this article points out that Paul immediately answers in the strongest possible terms, “By no means!”  Yet his article implies that those of us who invoke Lloyd-Jones’ point might answer otherwise.

This misunderstanding can be cleared up easily by looking at what Lloyd-Jones goes on to say in that Romans commentary.  It could also be cleared up by looking at the sharp denunciations of antinomianism in the Lutheran Book of Concord and the Reformed (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort) and Presbyterian standards (Westminster Confession and Catechisms), as well as the Savoy (Congregationalist) and the London Baptist confessions.  With Paul, we answer without hesitation,

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 into 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 (vv 2-4).

What’s striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel!  In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little!  They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin’s guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.

The danger of legalism becomes apparent not only when we confuse law and gospel in justification, but when we imagine that even our new obedience can be powered by the law rather than the gospel.  The law does what only the law can do: reveal God’s moral will.  In doing so, it strips us of our righteousness and makes us aware of our helplessness apart from Christ and it also directs us in grateful obedience.  No one who says this can be considered an antinomian.  However, it’s not a matter of finding the right “balance” between law and gospel, but of recognizing that each does different work.  We need imperatives—and Paul gives them.  But he only does this later in the argument, after he has grounded sanctification in the gospel.

The ultimate antidote to antinomianism is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.  It is enough to save Christians even in their failure and not only brings them peace with God in justification, but the only liberation from the cruel oppression of sin.  To be united to Christ through faith is to receive everything that we need not only to challenge legalism but antinomianism as well.

For more on this important distinction, please see my friend Tullian Tchividjian’s post and the post of my friend and colleague at WSC, R. Scott Clark.

UPDATE: some of you are asking for a more specific response to Frank Turk. A number of charges were laid against WHI, all in the spirit of brotherly concern. We appreciate the time that Frank took to write his six page letter, the 300 comments that it generated, and the interest that you are taking in the ongoing dialogue. But none of the WHI hosts has ever said that the Bible only has indicatives and imperatives.  And none of us has said that once you’ve said “Law & Gospel,” you’ve done your exegesis. Nor are we responsible for antinomian statements from people who listen to WHI (any more than Frank Turk is responsible for all the comments made after his blog post). We’re simply saying, with the Reformers and the confessional Reformed as well as Lutheran theologians through the ages, that Law and Gospel summarize the “two words” of that one Word that God has revealed to us.  There is narrative, poetry, wisdom, instruction, dialogue, parable, and other genres, but the most basic distinction to make when reading and proclaiming God’s Word is the one between Law and Gospel.  This is not only Luther, but Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, Perkins, Owen, Bavinck, Berkhof, Hodge and Murray.  Just as preaching “Christ crucified” doesn’t mean simply repeating the phrase, “Christ crucified,” but interpreting the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, bearing in mind the distinction between command and promise is not just a matter of parroting the words, but of making sure that we don’t turn promises into commands and commands into promises.  There is a lot more that we have to bring to our study of Scripture, but when we get that wrong, everything is confused.

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