This past Friday, Michael Horton arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil in order to give a talk on “Calvin & The Christian Life” at Mackenzie University. Sao Paulo is one of the world’s most populated cities (number six according to Wikipedia), and Mackenzie University is a large conservative Presbyterian college (sometimes referred to as the Yale of Brazil) with over 40,000 students. Today Mike is headed to Aguas de Lindoia for a Fiel Leadership Conference with D.A. Carson, Augustus Nicodemus Lopes and others, on the topic of The God Who is There. The native language of Brazil is Portuguese so Mike uses a translator during his presentations, but knowledge of basic English isn’t uncommon, which means he’s able to communicate informally without any difficulty. Please pray for traveling mercies and that Mike’s trip would bear fruit.
Why is it important to study church history? Is it possible to avoid the mistakes of the past, or does every generation bring a certain amount of cultural baggage to the sacred text? How did the early church resolve the question of Jesus’ divine nature? What was Constantine’s role in the rise of Christianity in the West? What were the main arguments of the Protestant Reformation? In this program, W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California, joins Mike Horton to discuss these important issues.
W. Robert Godfrey
W. Robert Godfrey
W. Robert Godfrey
W. Robert Godfrey
Should our lives look more like the book of Joshua, or the book of Ruth? How should we live out our faith in a secular culture? On this edition of White Horse Inn, we’ll talk with hip-hop artist Jason Petty about the pursuit of excellence in ordinary life.
(This is the second half of the abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization” from Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R Publishing). To read Part 1, click this.)
Yet there are other ways that secular values creep in to orthodox churches. This point has been made again and again by David Wells, the retired professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary, starting with No Place for Truth (1993) and finishing with The Courage to be Protestant (1998). In this latter book, in many ways a summary of his thesis as a whole, David points towards the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of ‘values’ for morals, and the rise of a me-first individual rights culture has come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. On his account, both megachurches and Emergent churches represent not so much counter-cultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. The former is the church’s equivalent of the big box store with its careful managerial techniques and pragmatic, market-driven, pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap mentality; while the Emergent churches (representing a reaction to such crass consumerism) have actually imbibed the slippery epistemologies and eclecticism of postmodernism, which is itself arguably connected to consumerism.
David Wells’ indictment is damning: what he argues is that many churches are as secular in their ambitions and methods as any straightforwardly secular organization. The difference, we might perhaps say, is that the latter are just a whole lot more honest about what they are doing. But, while David’s criticisms are primarily focused on megachurches in the church growth/ Willow Creek tradition and on what we might, for want of a better term, call the evangelical left, is there a case to be made for saying that secular values also pervade the churches which at least think of themselves as traditionally Protestant in the way that David favors?
I believe so, and in a number of significant ways. First, take the ‘rights’ culture which is so typical of the wider world in which we live, where litigation and lobby groups seem to proliferate. Certainly, we can all express dismay at the people who are so inept that they do not realize coffee is hot and, to their great surprise, burn themselves when they spill it and then proceed to sue the vendor for not telling them about the temperature of the steaming liquid in their cups. We have all no doubt rolled our eyes at the latest innocuous action of some employer which has been deemed offensive – and therefore oppressive – to whatever the minority of the month is. There is a clear silliness going here; after all, if I took offense and felt oppressed and psychologically damaged every time an American comedian made a joke about British dentistry, I would never have the emotional energy to lift myself out of bed in the morning.
But rights culture is no monopoly of the Left in either politics or the church. The Left may have their rights to a completely secular public space, to abortion, to gay marriage, but the Right too has its litany of rights as well: to carrying firearms, to cheap gas, to minimal taxation. Now, let me be clear: I am not here drawing any moral equivalence between any one of the rights and any other; what I am pointing out is the way in which the language of Left and Right is typically couched in that of individual rights, whatever the specific issues involved might be.
This plays itself out in the church. What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:
Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?
The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger then me and my own agenda; and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.
There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of mutual commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.
That is surely the reason why this is the vow that strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow which has been most weakened by that thing which lies at the very heart of the American dream: the automobile.
My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church; and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, with its radical individualism as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.
A nation which has a profound sense of the Frontier, of the need for each person to look after themselves, and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of America government which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all of its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core; hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be very suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over in to the church; and, when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of ’I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture’ mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and rive to the next church where I can better preserve my anonymity.
The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond
Another area where a secular mentality impacts the church is the identification of the nation of America with God’s special people. Again, I need to be clear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that those Christians who want a place in the public square for the Christian voice are guilty of a secular mindset; many of such simply want their faith to shape the way they think politically, and that is a perfectly legitimate notion. Nor am I concerned with those Christians who are also strongly patriotic; patriotism, love for one’s homeland, is a generally a good thing as long as it does not morph into an uncritical nationalism or racism. What concerns me is the so-called extreme wing of the ‘Christian America’ type movements, where the boundary between church, state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred. An extreme example is provided by the editors of the Patriot’s Bible, an edition of God’s word which is sold on the basis of its connection to the founding of the USA. Even if we set aside the problem of connecting the American Revolution to Paul’s teaching on civil obedience in Rom. 13, the promotional video for the Bible is stunning. A series of images and captions make the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington – first families; Moses and Lincoln – freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress – Founding Fathers. In case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the statement, `Sometimes history does repeat itself.’ Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the United States or any other nation, for that matter. To claim such is puerile, blasphemous nonsense, as bad, if not worse, as anything Osteen might say in a sermon; and it represents nothing other than the secularization of the gospel message to an idolatrous degree.
Yet even the Patriot’s Bible pales in comparison to a painting entitled ‘One Nation Under God,’ which portrays holding the US Constitution, surrounded by figures from American history, including the noted Deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Now, I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not, and to include them pictorially in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous and, quite frankly, risible. It would be fascinating to know what the artist’s view of the faith is: presumably some form of Unitarianism? Patriotism is a civic virtue, and certainly not in itself sinful; but make no mistake – notions of patriotism, so dear to the American Right, can also stand alongside the most secular and heretical visions of Christianity, and can even co-opt such as part of their agenda.
The Celebrity Syndrome
One final aspect of the secular nature of much conservative Christianity is its increasing preoccupation with superstars. This is important, because so often we identify the secular mindset with content – prosperity doctrine, social gospel, straight-down-the-line anti-supernatural liberalism; sometimes, however, the secular mindset is evident not so much in content but in form, a more slippery and surreptitious thing; and it is in this category that I would place the superstar phenomenon. Confessional superstars might be thoroughly orthodox; they may even not like being superstars; but the people and churches who treat them as such betray the creeping secularism in their own mindsets.
Paul is very clear in his letters to the Corinthians. Corninth was a culture where orators, public speakers, were the rock stars of their day. They prided themselves on their ability to declaim eloquently on any given topic, they attracted disciples and fans, and they carried weight within the wider culture. The problem Paul highlights in the Corinthian church, particularly in his first letter, is that members of the church were using the standards of the secular world in order to judge the quality of their own church leaders. The result was a set of factions, or perhaps even better, fan clubs, within the church, focused on different great preachers; and Paul, being, according to his own account, not a physically or rhetorically impressive man, was being dismissed as a second-rater. We can perhaps summarize the Corinthian problem by saying that the church had developed an essentially secular mentality: the criteria of the non-Christian world that surrounded them had come to control how they thought about the ministry and its representatives.
Cults of personality are very bad things; the role of the preacher is to point to Christ and, in that context, to be as invisible as possible. The preacher who brings attention to himself would seem to be, by Paul’s standards, a failure; more than that, a congregation which focuses on the preacher has failed to understand the power and logic of the cross and has capitulated to a secular mindset. Yet the conservative church in America is, arguably, driven to a large extent by such cults of personality.
There are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards this. First, there is the number of parachurch ministries that have sprung up which are focused on the big personality, and frequently named after said personality. Ironically, the movement popularly known as the Young, Restless and Reformed is in the vanguard of such celebrity dominated ministry. Then there is the proliferation of big conferences with big name speakers, again a staple of the YRR. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such; but it is clear from even a casual glance at the internet or even conversation after church that these things have fostered a church equivalent of stardom where it is not the gospel or even the church that provides the focal point, but Speaker X or Speaker Y. It has also fed in to a church culture where a few high-profile celebrity pastors and scholars seem to believe that no issue has been properly addressed until they have definitively spoken to it. Such power plays are profoundly secular.
It is very clear that the Lord has blessed the church of today with some remarkably talented individuals who have been used to do remarkable things. One thinks of Tim Keller in New York or John Piper in Minneapolis. The danger is that, in focusing on such men, we create unrealistic expectations and distorted notions of what normative ministry should be: the evidence that the church models developed by these men can be transplanted with success elsewhere is highly equivocal; more likely, their success is rooted in God using their own remarkable gifts and contexts – the right men in the right place at the right time for something great, if you like. For most pastors, life is likely to be far more ordinary, church far smaller and poorer and the fruits of ministry far less spectacular.
More importantly, we must recognize the preoccupation with such personalities for what it is: a distraction from the very thing for which these men have themselves worked so hard – a single-minded focus on Jesus Christ. So from whence does the problem come? It comes from imbibing the obsessions of the wider culture with big personalities. The world has Access Hollywood, the church has – well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as the Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.
Secularization is slippery; it hits us where we least expect it; and there is naught here for the comfort of conservative evangelicals. Arguably, those who call themselves confessional evangelicals and yet who build their ministries around cults of personality and slick conferences are in real danger of merely aping the values of secular culture. What is needed is continual reformation which takes us back to the standards of God’s word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.
Given the First Amendment, the religious nature of so much political discourse in the States is surprising but does fit in general with what has been seen, at least until recently, as part and parcel of American exceptionalism. This is a wide-ranging thesis which basically argues that the way society has developed in America is exceptional in that it does not follow the pattern of social development that is found elsewhere. Religion is central to this argument: while the development of modern technological societies elsewhere in the world has led to the decline of public, institutional religion, this has not occurred to anything like the same extent in America. The obvious evidence for this is attendance at places of worship, which is still very high in the US but now pitifully low in Europe.
In fact, as the years roll by, it looks increasingly as if it is secular Europe that is the exception, and not America. Religion around the world seems to be on the rise, particularly in places such as Africa. Only in Europe, among the old, indigenous populations, does religion seem to be in any kind of terminal decline; elsewhere, the religious future looks really quite rosy. The rise of modern society does not seem, in general, to be quite as opposed to traditional religion as was once supposed.
I want to ask the question, however, as to whether America was ever that great an exception to secularization, or whether it is rather the case that secularization can take various forms, some of which, ironically, look really rather religious at first glance. Could it be that both Britain and America are really both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such? And could this actually create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume?
The U.S.A: Secularization, Religious-Style
In the USA church attendance, while varying from state to state, is much higher than in Europe. I remember being at a worship service in Grand Rapids in the mid 90s and hearing the pastor lament in a sermon that ‘the tragedy of this town is that only 1 in 2 people will be in church this morning.’ Wow, I thought to myself, that’s a tragedy? Back home we’d call that a revival beyond our wildest dreams. In context, of course, the figures no doubt did represent a decline from earlier generations; and it is also easy to become so used to minuscule church attendance that one can become very jaded about what is really the tragedy of half the population not worshipping on a Sunday; but my point is that, while Grand Rapids may be exceptional even by American standards, this points to the generally very much higher church commitment there than in Europe.
Historians and sociologists will probably debate the reasons for the difference between America and Europe for years to come. Various factors probably play in to the difference: Europe’s twentieth century was one of declining world influence, America’s of increasing, thus helping to foster pessimism and optimism within the respective cultures; Europe saw horrible slaughter and genocide, and significant civilian casualties in a series of major conflicts, while American soil was by and large protected from such, even as she lost large numbers of young men overseas. America also never developed the kind of labour movements found in Europe, had no state church, and contains vast tracts of land where the economy and the lifestyle were rural, agrarian and thus typically conservative and traditional in culture.
The question I want to ask here, however, is: is it actually the case that the church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Secularization might merely have taken a different form in America to that which we find in Europe.
We can start with a soft target: the health, wealth and happiness teaching of men like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. One listens in vain to their addresses for the kind of talk one finds in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where not only does he talk of the cross as providing a logic both to God’s saving action in Christ, but also as providing a paradigm for ministry. The suffering that marks his life is essential for his ability to minister to others who suffer, that he might bring them comfort (e.g., 2Cor 1). Instead, Osteen and Hinn, in their different ways, point their listeners towards an allegedly happy life, free of pain, want, and distress, that is just there for the taking if their advice and spiritual guidance is followed.
Somebody asked me recently if Osteen and Hinn were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are here in the US. Why is that? Came the follow up, to which I replied: they simply wouldn’t work in the UK because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language in the way many Americans do; thus, we have self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity.
Prosperity preachers are a soft target, particularly from the perspective of conservative, confessional evangelicals. But the identification of worldly or secular ambitions with the gospel is no monopoly of the positive thinkers and the prosperity Pentecostallers. The vision–or at least the sales pitch–of all politicians, Left and Right, is more prosperity, more comfort, better health etc. etc. We may tut-tut at Osteen as he pushes his message of health, wealth, and happiness; but is it not the case that many Christians who claim to be orthodox actually nurture similar ambitions themselves? I will argue in the next chapter that the connection often made between economic prosperity and Christianity by conservative Christians is but a more sophisticated and rhetorically toned-down version of the Osteen gospel. At a more mundane level, how many of us assume that God’s favor towards us will be typically demonstrated in the categories of health, wealth and happiness? How many of us, if you like, are as guilty of Corinthian style conceptions of what Christianity should look like, as Osteen and company? Maybe the difference is that Osteen is just more open and honest about it.
Eckhart Tolle? Yes.
Rhonda Byrne? Yes.
Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes.
Rob Bell? Yes!
Yes, the moment has arrived. After encouraging us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, pushing us to unlock ‘The Secret’ with Byrne, and exhorting us to let Gilbert teach us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Oprah has added Rob Bell to her list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media mogul picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month,’
Now, this could go sideways in a hurry; but Derek cautions us to think a little more generously, and I think he’s right. It’s not the book I would ask Oprah to endorse, but it’s certainly a step up from her other spiritual best-sellers.
There seems to be a false choice today in many quarters between a secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism. Conceived this way, either nothing is miraculous, or everything is. But in either case, God’s ordinary providence gets sidelined and ignored. That’s what’s on tap for this program as we begin to wrap up our month-long series, Ordinary.
So far throughout this series we’ve underscored this point: it’s not just the theology we profess but also the habits and practices that make certain doctrines plausible or implausible in the first place. But the doctrines obviously matter. Faithful convictions expose unfaithful ones and persuade us to re-evaluate the practical assumptions that we take for granted in our lives.
The doctrine of providence is that sort of doctrine. It has fallen on hard times, though. Its marginalization is no doubt a major contributor to our lack of appreciation for the ordinary. A casualty of the culture wars, the doctrine falls through the crack between secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism. Either everything is a miracle, or nothing is. The result is that everything is brought down a notch. Miracles lose their distinction as exceptional and extraordinary divine acts, while ordinary providence seems hardly capable of fending off a full-strength secularist virus. To appreciate the ordinary, we have to begin with God as the original worker. Here I try to distinguish God’s miraculous and providential ways of working while giving both their due.
Once upon a time, many average Christians expected to experience God in the ordinary and familiar routines of daily life. You couldn’t go to the market or the park without passing the church in the center of town, with the graveyard reminding you that we all are hanging by a thread, dependent in every moment on the generosity of God. In times of famine, drought, disease, or natural disaster, people worked hard, but they also prayed hard.
Today, God’s involvement in our everyday lives seems increasingly remote. We go to the superstore to buy our packaged food items. We find it easier to follow the Weather Channel than to pray during natural disasters. For relief from plagues, we wait eagerly at the altar of technology for some word of a new pharmaceutical answer. We want to believe that even these natural remedies are ultimately from God, but we often find ourselves trusting in the gifts more than in the Giver.
The options seem pretty stark. On one hand, we encounter a dogmatic naturalism that identifies ordinary with natural, the means with the ultimate cause. There is no God. The world is self-caused and self-sustaining, the result of chance plus time. On the other hand, in reaction, many Christians have adopted a hyper-supernaturalism. In its laudable eagerness to uphold God’s existence, power, and involvement in the world, this approach tends to downplay the ordinary and natural means through which God fulfills his purposes. Ironically, these opposing views end up agreeing on at least three crucial points: (1) There is only one cause; (2) If God is this cause, then his fingerprints must be obviously evident; (3) To the extent that natural explanations are appealed to, God’s involvement is negated.
None of the major branches of the Christian church or their representative theologians have agreed to any of these points. A host of examples could be cited, but I will only summarize the consensus.
First, mainstream Christianity has never held that there is only one cause—one agent (namely, God). Every now and then, a thinker has come along to suggest that everything that happens is a direct act of God, but this idea has typically been dismissed as a form of Creator-creation confusion (that is, pantheism or panentheism). The traditional view that one finds in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant teaching is that while God is the Lord of all, apart from whose eternal purpose nothing exists, he is not the immediate or proximate cause of every act. This would include sin especially. It is generally recognized that Scripture teaches both God’s all-encompassing sovereignty and human responsibility. God is not the author of evil. The fact that both of these truths are true is part of biblical revelation; how they can be true is beyond our comprehension or explanation.
Second, God uses ordinary and natural means to accomplish his purposes. Following Luther, Calvin referred to these means as “masks” God wears. We pray for our daily bread, but manna does not fall miraculously from heaven as it did for God’s people in the wilderness. God fulfills this petition through natural processes and our neighbor’s vocations. Some people plant, water, and harvest grain. Others load and transport the grain to the mill and send the processed product to shops where bakers make the bread. Still further steps are required, with other “masks” fulfilling their calling, before a sandwich appears on the table. Do we thank God for that sandwich? Of course. Did he make it? Ultimately, yes, but through many hands. Therefore, we cannot choose between supernatural and natural sources. God did it, through natural and ordinary means. Similarly, our restoration to health may be attributed both to doctors and to God, but in different ways. God is the ultimate healer, but he ordinarily heals through natural processes and remedies and skills that he has created, sustains, and gives.
Third, because God works ordinarily through so many layers of creaturely means, we cannot expect to decipher his immediate providence. To begin with, we do not know his ultimate purposes if he has not revealed them to us in his Word. We see the mask, but not the one wearing it. What we encounter ordinarily is the baker—the immediate rather than the ultimate source of our daily bread.
In our day, we are even further removed from the baker by more layers of mediation. Usually, we pick up our bread at the supermarket. Normally these days, we don’t meet the dairy farmer who harvests the milk we drink. As medical advances have exploded, we seem to have more natural diagnoses and treatments on hand before resorting to supernatural explanations and cures. At this point, we may be inclined to embrace naturalism: the view that only that which we can see and subject to measurement and prediction truly exists. Or we may react by embracing a hyper-supernaturalism that looks for God in the gaps—that is, where natural explanations are not readily evident. Yet, as apologists have discovered, this approach ends up backfiring as scientific research expands and the gaps in the natural explanations are filled in. Where is God to go?
The other response—the one that I am advocating, consisting with traditional Christianity—is that God has not gone anywhere. We must not relegate God to those occasions when he is one cause among others that we can see, measure, and test. We only have direct access to the natural means, but they are God’s ordinary way of working in the world and in our lives. Every time a cut heals naturally, God is the ultimate healer. The birth of a baby is not a miracle, but a splendid example of his providence that never fails to fill us with awe. Instead of detracting from God’s sovereignty, natural explanations—especially the more complex ones that display the obvious evidence of God’s design—should provoke wonder at God’s concern, wisdom, and loving involvement in every detail of our lives.
Our good friend, Jim Gilmore, was asked to comment over at the Out of Ur blog on the death of Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon whose book on the parables we commended to you during the White Horse Inn series on the parables. Jim’s comments are rich (which we’ve come to expect from Jim): rich with personal insight, heart felt commentary, and humor.
Here’s a preview:
Robert Farrar Capon. Died September 5, 2013. Age 88.
Died. Capon would want it described this way. Not “passed away.” Not “departed.” Not “went to be with the Lord.” He died. Dead. Dead. Dead.
Many who will write tributes to the pastor, chef, and author, will undoubtedly call attention first and foremost to Capon’s delightful book,The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Christianity Today has already commented that Capon was “most notably” known for this work, a theological thought-tickler presented as a lamb recipe for eight, served four times. This focus is understandable, as the book is a truly unique treasure. I love the chapter in which Capon skewers the cocktail party; I think it the book’s climatic moment. To Capon, the cocktail party provides the host with an excuse to not be a host, flitting about here and there, never taking responsibility for the conversation among his guests. (Hmm … in this sense, I suppose all of today’s so-called “social media” is really just one big cocktail party!) Capon used the cocktail party as a foil to advance his case for the dinner party as the ideal social form of entertaining—for amusing ourselves delightfully to death. I’ve put his advice into practice. First, I helped stage a sizeable two-day business event in which every meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) was held at rectangular tables-of-eight for conversations-of-eight. (Hotel “banquet rounds” for ten inherently kill whole-table conversation.) And at home, my wife and I now sit as hosts in the middle of the long side of the dining room table when having three other couples over for dinner—that is, we’re not seated at either end, as had previously been our custom.
We get a lot of great questions sent to us. Here’s one that I’d like to address because I hear it a lot these days. The writer asks:
Here is the issue as stated: ‘Sanctification is NOT “justification in action.” Justification is a finished work. Sanctification is powered by regeneration, not justification. The New Birth enables the believer to work with the Holy Spirit. Justification is a finished work apart from sanctification. I’m sure you’ve written on this, just not sure where.
Yes, I’ve written at length on this subject in various places, including (more recently) my books The Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology. In a nutshell, though…
What I’m hearing, on one hand, are comments about sanctification being simply the outworking of our justification, and, on the other hand (often in reaction), that sanctification has nothing to do with justification but is simply the fruit of our union with Christ.
I think that Scripture clearly refuses this false choice. Although I can’t make the full case here that I do elsewhere, let me summarize my conclusion. It’s standard Reformed theology. And, though perhaps nuanced a bit differently here and there, I think it’s substantially the same as the Lutheran view as well.
Faith is produced by the Spirit through the gospel. This faith that rests in Christ for justification also receives Christ for sanctification. In other words, union with Christ is not piecemeal. We don’t have the forgiveness of sins through one act of faith and sanctification from another. Faith embraces Christ for all he is and gives: freedom from both sin’s guilt and tyranny. One day, as faith is turned to sight, we will also be liberated from sin’s presence. So saving faith bears the fruit of love, and love expresses itself in good works as we serve our neighbors. Here’s the order, then: Gospel – Effectual Calling/Regeneration – Faith – Love – Works. God sanctifies those whom he justifies.
Looking at this from the “big picture,” then, sanctification is guaranteed by our union with Christ (through faith, given to us by the Spirit through the gospel in effectual calling). It’s not only justification, but all spiritual blessings in Christ that ensure our sanctification. Examining it in terms of the traditional “order of salvation” (ordo salutis), our gradual renewal and conformity to Christ (sanctification) is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. Without that legal basis, there is no adoption, no sanctification.
So on one hand it’s reductionistic to say that sanctification is the consequence simply of justification (without including election, redemption, and the new birth). And it’s dangerous, in my opinion, to say that sanctification is “justification in action.” Justification is complete: a once-and-for-all judicial verdict based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Justification is therefore not “in action.” It is finished. Rather, it’s faith that is “in action,” always looking to justification as the security that allows us to move forward in confidence rather than fear. Although in the act of justification faith is only a “resting and receiving,” because it receives Christ with all of his benefits it cannot be dead, but is immediately active in love and good works. We are not only declared righteous, but grafted into the Righteous Vine, producing the fruit of the Spirit.
Ironically, those who see justification as absorbing the whole horizon of our blessings in Christ end up turning it into something more than the declaration that it is. Yet those who fail to see a logical dependence of sanctification on justification within our union with Christ leave sanctification suspended in midair. They fail to see the decisive role of justification in giving assurance of peace with God throughout the Christian life.