White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

WHI-1015 | Good News vs. Good Advice

The most important difference between the religions of the world and the Christian faith is the difference between law and gospel. At the core of every religion is the application of moral instruction and advice for personal transformation. This appeals to all human beings because we are all wired for law. But the essence of Christianity is not law but gospel. Christ fulfilled the law and paid the penalty for our lawlessness. The gospel therefore is not good advice that needs to be applied, but good news to be believed (originally aired February 10, 2008).


The Gospel Driven Life
Michael Horton
The Gospel Driven Life (MP3 Audio)
WSC Faculty
Christless Christianity
Michael Horton


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Andrew Osenga

Would Grace Make a Difference?

The other night on a local news-talk station, the usually acerbic hosts were having a pleasant conversation with the communications director for the Humanist Association, which has been sponsoring ad campaigns across the country with slogans like, “Be Good for Goodness Sake,” “No God, No Problem,” and “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club.”

When asked to describe the central tenet of humanism, the guest quoted the writer Kurt Vonnegut’s definition: “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.” I was struck by the stark simplicity of that statement and I wondered if Vonnegut or any other humanist who might use that term had ever experienced grace.

If this is a good definition of humanism, it certainly sets humanism against what passes as religion (earning the favor of gods or God by our moral performance and fearing reciprocation if we fail to live up to divine standards), but it doesn’t take account of grace. The Christian concept of grace, of course, is the idea that we don’t get what we deserve (either rewards or punishment); instead, we get what Christ deserved by his life and death in our place.

I’ve also recently finished reading Frankie Schaeffer’s recent book, Patience with God, and in it he traces the relationship between many of the New Atheists and their religious upbringing. He asserts that in his own life and in the lives of many of those he chronicles, grace was absent (perhaps believed in, but life never functioned according to it). Is there a relationship between the desire to throw off the tyranny of the Law by embracing oneself as “Lord and Savior” and ignorance of grace?

Romanticism’s Revenge: The Pope Makes a Visit to the United Kingdom

Editor’s introduction: David Alenskis is a recent graduate of Westminster Seminary California and is an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of North America. He currently serves as the associate pastor of the Anglican Church of the Resurrection (San Marcos, California) and is preparing to serve as a long-term missionary in Buenos Aires, Argentina in early 2011.

Judging by recent news reports, Pope Benedict XVI like so many pontiffs before him suffers from the malady often passed down from one bishop of Rome to the next: he is a consummate Anglophile. Like Paul in anguish for his people, one could say that the Roman pontiff has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” for British Protestants. Today, he begins his four day trip to the United Kingdom, extending in the process an implicit call for the British to return to the Roman Church. Though short, his visit to her Majesty’s realm resonates with a subtle but powerful message: the vision of the via media, the “middle way” often invoked by the clergy and laity of the Church of England, can only be found in the Church of Rome.

The Pope’s four day excursion in bonnie Scotland and merry England is not a courtesy call: there is serious business afoot. There will be many meetings and even a joint prayer service together with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in Westminster Abbey. But the primary reason for Benedict’s appearance is the beatification of the Church of England’s most famous defector: John Henry Newman. It behooves us as careful observers of current events to consider the content of the life and character of this man to understand the message of the Pope’s visit.

Newman was a bright light and leader of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the early Nineteenth Century. This movement of scholars and churchmen like John Keeble, Edward Pusey, and J. H. Newman was a British expression of religious Romanticism. In brief, Romanticism claims that God is experienced and known primarily through intuition stimulated through contact with the sublime, mediated through the natural world, through artistic expression, or even through romantic passion. According to Anglo-Catholics, this sublime experience of God is found primarily through the formation and use of elaborate rituals (derived from tradition or on top of it) and the control of the ambiance of worship. Together, a feeling of transcendence, mystery, and devotion is cultivated which draws worshippers up to God.

In pursuit of these Romantic goals, these theologians increasingly became disenchanted with the Reformation and its doctrines of salvation, authority, and worship. Instead, Newman and the others propagated belief in the via media: that God had organically preserved the Church of England to become a “middle way” between Rome and the Reformation, rooted in its own pre-Reformation tradition. Newman especially made it his project to reconcile these beliefs and practices with the actual confessional formularies of the Church of England, his efforts culminating in the infamous Tract 90 (where he argued outrageously that the Council of Trent was compatible with the 39 Articles). Newman however was too honest a man and too serious a scholar to continue this path of rapprochement for long, and in 1845 Newman joined the Church of Rome.

In a highly unusual move Pope Benedict intends to preside over the beatification mass of this same John Henry Newman; and what is more, Newman’s motto Cor ad Cor Loquitur (“Heart Speaks to Heart”) is the theme of the Pope’s whole visit to the isle.  The Roman pontiff brings the message that Newman was right: religious Romanticism and the via media find truest expression in the Church of Rome. Newman’s own conclusions are reinforced through essays found in the booklet to prepare the British for the Pope’s visit (“This invitation to faith is always spoken in the language of the heart. It is profoundly personal, most often softly spoken and not at all imperious.”), as well as through interviews with the English Catholic bishops and archbishop who share their own intuitive and emotional experiences of God through nature, pilgrimage, silence, and other encounters with the sublime.

All this comes in an age when the Anglican Communion and other Protestant churches around the world have struggled with or even submitted to a creeping liberalism, seen most obviously in the celebration of homosexuality and the denial of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to reconciliation with God. In this context, a post-Vatican II Roman Church issues a compelling appeal to the conservative heirs of religious Romanticism, whether they be Anglo-Catholics or evangelicals: come find the fullness of your intuitive grasping for God in the fullness of the Church led by St. Peter’s spiritual descendent in Rome. It was true for Newman: it can be true for you as well.

But as biblical Christians and heirs of the Reformation, we can submit neither to the Church of Rome nor to any other form of Romanticism. There is no “middle way” when it comes to worshipping God faithfully, and God does not call us to set our hope upon our intuitive experience of God but upon his self-revelation in his living, abiding and active Word as it is read, preached, and proclaimed. We fear and love this God by heeding the commandments he has given us, and we have faith in this God by trusting the promise he has given us to pardon and deliver us completely on the basis of the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God that the Pope Benedict’s trip to the United Kingdom changes none of this: his subtle invitation to a deeper Romanticism in the Church of Rome should not be a serious temptation for those of us who have set our hope upon the living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has given us a sure Gospel and an unshakeable Kingdom.

-David Alenskis

Whose Forgiveness?

Forwarded to me by our own Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, a recent article in American Thinker is worth passing on to others. First a little of the article, and then some comment.

I absolutely hate making mistakes. But more than this, I fear them. As a psychotherapist, I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out why.

All roads lead back to my mother: a woman who could be sweet one minute, and then, out of the blue, erupt like a volcano. I never knew what would trigger her rage.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, “If you keep doing things like that, I won’t love you anymore.”

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn’t seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

I cried and I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then, when my tears I dried up, I decided, with the logic of a small child, that I would never, ever make another mistake. Being perfect would shield me from disaster.

Not surprisingly, I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend. But it wasn’t just my mother who catapulted me into lifelong perfectionism. It was the absence of a forgiving God.

Read full article on AmericanThinker.com

The author, “Robin of Berkeley,” offers bracing insight. You can’t forgive yourself when you’re not the one you have ultimately offended and do not have the power or authority to absolve anyone—including yourself—of ultimate guilt. Liberalism encourages a form of “works-righteousness,” where the world is divided into the saved and the damned based on personal performance. “DO MORE!” is the message and, assuming the posture of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, one can congratulate oneself—maybe even thank God—that he or she isn’t like the “tax collector” (i.e., “Republicans and sinners”). The same spirit is evident enough in conservative politics, it should be added, just with a different agenda for salvation.

Yet there is something crucially missing from this article. Rod Rosenbladt points it out in his comment: “I hope someone does a little with her about who Christ was and what His cross did, so all of this hope gets grounded where God Himself grounded it. If someone doesn’t do some “cross, blood, death, atonement, sacrifice” stuff with her, the usual trajectory is (because it is still law-based) a crash! I think Robin is more in need of a Gospel-preaching pastor than she realizes—a very, very tenuous position for any human being!”

The only place where God’s judgment and grace can be safely found is in Christ—specifically, in his thirty-three years of faithful obedience to his Father’s will from the heart, his blood-shedding substitution on the cross, and his triumphant resurrection for our justification and entrance into the new creation. The author properly points out that release from guilt only comes from God and not from our striving to do better next time. However, there is no mention of Christ. Yet apart from Christ, we cannot know God as merciful and forgiving, but only as the one to whom we are accountable and whose judgment we will face at the last.

The Strange Effectiveness of the Law

This old article from Fast Company has been sitting in my inbox for awhile now (ht Matt Perman), but its theological implications warrant a long shelf life. Consultants, authors, and brothers Dan and Chip Heath in the January 15, 2009 issue of the coolest business magazine around talk about the power of incentives for business performance. Most of us are familiar with this routine: a vacation to Palm Springs for the highest performers or lower commission percentages for the lackluster performers.  But the Heath brothers argue that inherent in that power is the chance that the incentive will backfire.

Ken O’Brien was an NFL quarterback in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in his career, he threw a lot of interceptions, so one clever team lawyer wrote a clause into O’Brien’s contract penalizing him for each one he threw. The incentive worked as intended: His interceptions plummeted. But that’s because he stopped throwing the ball.

The law in this case, the incentive, backfired and couldn’t produce the desired result.  I think many of us resonate with that experience when we consider our relationship to God. Many of us wrongly relate to God on the basis of what we do. If we accomplish our goals (the Law) we get the perk (closeness with God, a sense that God is pleased with us).  Of course, this is all an illusion since we cannot keep the Law as God requires nor does God relate to us on the basis of our Law-keeping.  Most of the Christian life for some folks is spent trying to convince themselves of this fiction.

The Law cannot empower us to throw the ball down the field. Only the love of the game and a sense of our calling/vocation can do that. And that is exactly what the Gospel does for us. It does not hold out a divine carrot for good behavior, the Gospel announces that we are accepted in Christ.

Does Your Church Pass the IRS Test?

“Paging Balaam’s ass…”

God sometimes reveals truth in the most unlikely of places: on August 16, 2010, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled against the “Foundation for Human Understanding” (FHU) which had appealed an IRS action revoking its nonprofit status as a church. The Court ruled that FHU was not a church and it based its finding in part on a 14 point test created by an IRS commissioner in 1979. Those 14 points were:

(1) a distinct legal existence
(2) a recognized creed and form of worship
(3) a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
(4) a formal code of doctrine and discipline
(5) a distinct religious history
(6) a membership not associated with any other church or denomination
(7) an organization of ordained ministers
(8) ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies
(9) a literature of its own
(10) established places of worship
(11) regular congregation
(12) regular religious services
(13) Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and
(14) schools for the preparation of its ministers
(emphasis added)

So, let’s make sure we understand: In order to be a church in the eyes of the federal government, you need more than a charismatic leader and willing followers. You need a liturgy, doctrine, a learned ministry, accountability among ministers, regular worship in a regular place of worship, and Sunday school!  How does your church measure up?

Why is it that the secular world can see what so many in our own circles cannot see? Too many of our own church leaders are actively downplaying each one of these elements in favor of something so bland and nondescript that soon it will be hard to distinguish the average church from neighborhood associations, MOPs groups, and fraternal organizations.

When Absolution Isn’t

The headline over at msnbc.com is striking, “Taylor Swift absolves Kanye West at VMAs.” In case you missed it, the Video Music Awards were on last night and everyone was holding their breath, waiting for the next round of West vs Swift—a fight that started during last year’s awards when Kanye West grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift and boorishly declared that the award she won should have gone to Beyonce.

Early reports on Sunday indicated that Swift had written a song, Innocent, addressing West’s bad behavior, and after everyone from Oprah to President Obama called West out, it seemed fitting that Taylor Swift would have the last final word. What was that last final word? Um…hard to say, and this is where the headline comes in.

Absolution is the Christian doctrine that God has authorized and empowered his ministers to declare the true forgiveness of sins for those who are penitent (or “sorry”) for their sins. In most Christian liturgies, the wording is something like: “In the name of Christ, I absolve you of your sins.” The minister, standing in the place of Christ and typically reading the words of Christ, looks upon the sinner and assures him that his sins are forgiven. It is a powerful, dramatic moment in the congregations that still retain the absolution. But of course, this is why it seems so odd for someone to think that Taylor Swift had “absolved” Kanye West of his sin against her. I’m not even thinking here of the fact that Swift has no standing to absolve someone—she can certainly forgive, but absolution belongs to those ministers who were entrusted with the keys of the kingdom, with the responsibility to retain or remit sins (Matthew 16:19). Instead, I’m thinking of the song she sang in which she addressed the conflict with West. Here are the relevant lyrics of the chorus as reported by the intrepid entertainment reporters at theboot.com:

It’s alright, just wait and see
Your string of lights are still bright to me
Oh, who you are is not where you’ve been
You’re still an innocent

The problem, of course, is that Taylor Swift provides neither personal forgiveness nor declarative absolution. Instead, it’s just a mushy, feel good message about innate goodness, time to become a better person, and the need to judge yourself in light of all the wrongs everyone else has committed! That, my friends, is a confusion of law and gospel, broadcast for all to see on MTV.

True forgiveness (either personal or divine) requires a cost to be born. When you forgive someone who has wronged you, you are taking the debt they owe you upon yourself, promising to carry that cost so they don’t have to. When God absolves you for your sins, it isn’t because he thinks you’re an innocent, or that your lights are still bright (side note: what terrible lyrics!). God absolves you of your sins because he has taken the debt of sin on himself in the person of Jesus.

This overwrought moment of reality TV could have been a powerful experience of forgiveness, living up (almost) to the headlines, if Taylor Swift had understood that forgiveness doesn’t mean making someone else feel better about what they did wrong. It means relieving them of a real debt, by a real sacrifice. If anything, Swift’s inability to truly forgive points us forward to a savior who won’t be upstaged by a meat-wearing Lady Gaga, one who bears in his body even today the cost of our real absolution. May you hear his words of forgiveness wherever you worship this coming Sunday! And if you don’t, get to a place where you will hear those life-changing, life-giving words.

WHI-1014 | Justification & Imputed Righteousness

What is the heart of the gospel message? On this program the hosts make the claim that the essential core of the good news is the doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness, namely, that we are declared righteous not because of anything we have done but rather on the basis of the righteous life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The hosts also discuss how this doctrine is being ignored or outright denied in our time (originally aired October 7, 2007).


Rightly Dividing the Word
Michael Horton
The Secularization of Justification
C. Fitzsimmons-Allision
Does Justification Still Matter?
Michael Horton


The Gospel-Driven Life
Michael Horton
Jesus’ Blood & Righteousness
Brian Vickers
Counted Righteous in Christ
John Piper


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Dave Hlebo

Michael Horton’s Follow-Up To ‘Burning Books or Proclaiming Christ’

Book and MatchesI have to admit that many of the responses to my post have surprised me. Some of them sound eerily like the beliefs and attitudes of Muslim extremists. This may be in part because so many Christians in the United States still assume some of the errors of “Christendom.” On a cold November day in 1095, Pope Urban II roused a Christendom plagued by internal wars to take up the cause of holy war against Islam. “If you must have blood,” he exhorted, “bathe in the blood of infidels.”[1] Substituting itself for its ascended Lord, the church assimilated a civilization to that ecclesial body. “Our divinely favored emperor,” said the church father Eusebius concerning Constantine, “receiving, as it were, a transcript of the divine sovereignty, directs, in imitation of God himself, the administration of this world’s affairs.” With divine mandate, therefore, the emperor “subdues and chastens the open adversaries of the truth in accordance with the usages of war.”[2]

Although there were often lively debates as to whether the temporal and visible head of Christendom was the pope or the emperor, the medieval imagination was fed by this erroneous substitution of Europe for Israel of old. Monarchs fancied themselves King David redivivus, driving out the Canaanites with their holy knights. Islam actually learned a lot of its “jihadist” ways from Christendom. The glaring difference is that while the Qur’an and Hadith justify the use of violence in the struggle for worldwide submission, the Bible does not.

Unlike Islam, the biblical faith is an unfolding drama of redemption in which different covenants determine distinct policies and relationships between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this age. Under the old covenant pledged at Mount Sinai, Israel was a geo-political theocracy, commanded by God to drive out the idolatrous nations. It was a type of the Last Judgment at the end of the age. Yet Israel broke this covenant and was sent into exile; even when a remnant was allowed to return, the nation was under the oppressive reigns of successive empires. Then the Messiah arrived and in his Sermon on the Mount sharply re-defined the nature of his kingdom. Christ did not come to revive the old covenant (Sinai), but to fulfill it and to inaugurate the new covenant (Zion) with his own blood. No longer identified with a nation, his kingdom is the worldwide family that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a “new covenant,” which is “not like the covenant” that Israel swore at Sinai (Jer 31:31-34). It is a kingdom of grace and forgiveness, an era in which the outcasts are gathered for the feast instead of driven out of the land. Even in the face of persecution, it is the hour for loving and praying for enemies, not for hating them or retaliating (Mat 5:43-48). Whereas God promised Israel temporal blessing for obedience and disaster for disobedience, today is the era of common grace. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (v 45). One day, Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and the holy wars that God commanded in the Old Testament will pale in comparison with the worldwide arraignment before the Son of God.

By the looks of many of these responses, though, America is “Israel.” America’s “war on terror” is not only a just war, defending national interests, but is in fact a holy war: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” In this way, we become a mirror of Islam, reverting to bad “Christendom” habits that ignore the revolution that occurred in history when Jesus announced his “regime change” from the old to the new covenant, gave his life for his people, was raised for their justification, and sent his Spirit to make them witnesses to his Good News to the ends of the earth.

In this present era of history, Christ’s kingdom expands by the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Its heirs are also in the world as active citizens in the cultures and nations of this passing age, but their ultimate loyalty is to the Lord of lords. They can expect the world’s opposition. In fact, more Christians have been martyred in the last few decades than in all of the centuries combined. Yet the martyrs triumph through the word of their testimony—their witness to Christ, not through violence. This is the message of the Book of Revelation.

In my travels, I have met some of these brothers and sisters under constant threat of violence from Muslims in African, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. I have had the privilege of getting to know others as seminary students and wonder at the daily struggles they face—and their joy in fulfilling their ministry regardless of the cost. They are willing to suffer for their testimony to Christ, but why should an American Christian put them in harm’s way for an act of violence that testifies to anger rather than redemption?

Just today I was sent an urgent appeal for prayer from Christian Solidarity Worldwide. In response to the Florida church’s plan to burn the Qur’an on Saturday, many Christian leaders in Nigeria and the Middle East have asked for our prayers. Here are a few requests passed on by CSW:

“Things are very, very difficult here…Several Village Heads who reported on Boko Haram have …been killed and then yesterday Boko Haram attacked Bauchi prison. The situation in Maiduguri is very tense. Please be praying for us. We need prayers for God’s grace and survival…We are the ones who are going to bear the brunt of [the burning of the Qur’an]. Since we saw news of what he plans we have been weeping and mourning. Ramadan will end here either end today or tomorrow. People are already moving their families away for safety.”
—From a pastor in Maiduguri, Nigeria, scene of the 2006 cartoon riots and the worst of the 2009 Boko Haram violence

“In northern Nigeria the tension is high. We are in great panic because if this occurs it will be worse than 2006, and most of our churches will be burnt down. If you can plead with those people to stop the burnings it will help us.”
—Anglican Bishop Musa Tula of Bauchi, Nigeria

“As I write the Iraqi Army Colonel has just left. He had a clear message: “There are plans to blow you up because of what the Pastor in Florida has said about burning the Holy Koran”. There is nothing we can do to protect ourselves. The army is being sent to us in force to try and protect us, what they can do is also limited…”
—The Reverend Canon Andrew White, Anglican Chaplain to Iraq
Provided by The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East

Given especially the theological confusion underlying the anger expressed in some of the responses to my post, it is my hope and prayer that we can raise our thoughts higher than the daily news, to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). Whereas the blood of Abel cried out from the ground for vengeance, the blood of Christ pleads for forgiveness—and that is why we come not to Sinai, but to Zion “and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).

Burning the Qur’an is wrong for the following reasons: (1) It confuses the proclamation of Christ with violent conflict, justifying the suspicions of our secular and Muslim neighbors that Christianity is also a quasi-political movement; (2) It puts our neighbors around the world at risk, Christian and non-Christian, military and civilian; (3) It puts our brothers and sisters at greater risk, not for the gospel, but for an easy act of desperation that avoids the difficult sacrifice that fellow Christians around the world are making daily in their witness to God’s saving love in Christ.

[1] Robert Payne, The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades (New York: Stein & Day, 1985), 34
[2] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia, 115, from Orat. 1.6-2.5

Reformation To Germany

Although the Reformation was a world-changing event, some of the religious reforms it introduced have not lasted into the modern age. Whether Luther’s Germany or Calvin’s Geneva, some of the brightest spots of the Reformation have dimmed over the succeeding generations. That’s why we’re excited to highlight works of renewal in these seedbeds of the Reformation, like Reformation to Germany.

Reformation to Germany is led by Sebastian Heck, a German national who is ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America and whose goal is to establish a faithful Reformed and Presbyterian presence in Heidelberg and beyond. Last year we interviewed Pastor Heck on the blog. Now Reformation to Germany has produced a video to introduce supporters to their work. Please pray for them and for renewal movements among other Lutheran and Reformed friends in Europe: may the light of the gospel shine brightly there again!

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