Now that R. C. Sproul, the elder statesman of Reformed theology in the U.S., has also come out against the Manhattan Declaration, a number of folks are offering explanations or observations about their role with or the import of the Declaration. Since both R.C. and Mike Horton have emphasized the close connection the current Declaration has with previous announcements of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue that was published in the July/August 1994 issue of Modern Reformation have appeared as supporting documentation on several blogs and websites. We also wanted to draw attention to the Ten Theses for Roman Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue that we published in the March/April 1994 issue. Between these two statements, we believe a cordial and clearly defined course of conversation can develop between Protestants and Roman Catholics who, while aware of our important differences, are also willing to develop closer working relationships on matters of social justice and/or pursue reconciliation of the divide the church suffered when Rome anathematized the Gospel.
[This is the last part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Earlier installments can be found here.]
Misunderstanding #4: “We can’t go to church because we are the church”
We’ve heard this one a lot lately, but again, it’s not really new. Many of us were raised with this idea in old-style conservative evangelicalism. In one sense, there is much to commend this view. The church is certainly not a building. In fact, there is no holy place on earth except for the temple consisting of living stones built up into Christ (1 Pet 2:4-10). However, the way it is often argued goes beyond this insight. Some who invoke this phrase today tell us that the Reformation was wrong when it defined the church by the marks of preaching, sacrament, and discipline. This put the focus on the church as a place where certain things happen instead of a people who do certain things. How should we respond?
First, notice where the emphasis is placed in this construction. Whereas the marks of the church identified by the reformers focus on the church as a place where God is active in serving his people with saving benefits and then sending them out into the world as renewed neighbors, the new phrase makes the church (or at least individual Christians) the active agent. In other words, the emphasis falls on our doing instead of receiving that which God has done and is doing for us. Not surprisingly, this emphasis picks up a lot of collateral confusions along the way, like the call to “living the gospel” or “being the gospel.” Have we forgotten that the gospel is the Good News about God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ? It is for us, but it is not about us. The gospel is concentrated entirely on Christ’s doing, dying, and rising, not on our experience, piety, or acts of service. The gospel creates faith and obedience, but only because it the gospel itself is the announcement of Christ’s obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Of course, the public service includes the response of the covenant partner in spoken word, prayer, and song. Nevertheless, it’s always just that: a response to God’s act of judging and promising, through Word and sacrament.
Second, besides confusing our work with Christ’s, this formula confuses the church-as-gathered with the church-as-scattered. The church has to be a place where God does certain things (such as judge and absolve sinners) before we can be a people who do certain things. Our obedience is “the reasonable service” that we render “in view of God’s mercies” (Rom 12:1-2). The church as an official institution is Christ’s embassy on earth, with his ministerial authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mat 16:19).
However, the church is not only made up of officers—pastors, elders, and deacons. Gifts have been given to every member for the good of all. Furthermore, common gifts have been given to believers and unbelievers to fulfill their creation callings. So the church as gathered is visible in the so-called “marks” of preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline, while the church as scattered refers to individual believers engaged in their ordinary callings throughout the week as parents, friends, co-workers, employers, employees, citizens, and volunteers. The church, then, is both a place where the Covenant Lord speaks a new creation into being and a people who spill out into the world as heirs of that new creation.
The church as an official embassy of Christ’s kingdom does not have the authority to issue public pronouncements on every conceivable topic or to order the world’s affairs. However, Christians may work together, or alongside non-Christian neighbors, to love and serve their neighbors, to engage in political action, and to pursue particular programs for community improvement. Again, it’s a matter of respecting the “common” without trying to make it “holy.” The commission of the church-as-institution is limited to the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline (which includes the physical as well as spiritual care of its members). The activity of Christians, however, is much broader as they engage in their myriad vocations in the world. And where God has not clearly directed our steps, believers have the Christian liberty to use their own sanctified common sense in the way that they raise their kids, vote, entertain themselves, and volunteer their time and talents.
The rediscovery of the doctrines of grace, nicknamed by TIME and Christianity Today as “the New Calvinism,” promises to reinvigorate Reformed and Presbyterian churches that too often take this treasure for granted. At the same time, having been reared in individualistic evangelicalism, I have been regularly overwhelmed with the godly wisdom in churches that have been baptizing, teaching, and caring for the flock in body and soul from womb to tomb. That’s where evangelicalism is weak.
At Pentecost, Peter declared, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39). Focusing on covenant nurture across the generations, older Reformed churches help us to understand what it means to deliver God’s promise to “you and your children.” “New Calvinists” can help us become more intentional in our mission “to those who are far off,” reaching those outside the covenant community. Let’s do this together! As the movement matures, my hope is that it will draw more deeply and broadly from the Reformation’s wells. If “Reformed” simply identifies someone who believes in God’s electing grace, then Thomas Aquinas was Reformed. However, just as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and other traditions are defined by their confessions, Reformed Christians confess their faith together through carefully considered statements. Under the normative authority of God’s Word, the Three Forms of Unity (consisting of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms summarize this consensus.
Ecclesiology is a significant part of the churches that emerged from the Reformation. Anglican theologian Paul Avis has observed, “Reformation theology is largely dominated by two questions: ‘How can I obtain a gracious God?’ and ‘Where can I find the true Church?’ The two questions are inseparably related…” According to the churches of the Reformation, the true church is found “wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered.” Our challenge today is to move from a Reformed movement to Reformed churches. We must question not only the human-centered doctrine that dominates so much of American religion but the methods and form of life that arise naturally from such doctrine. There is a particular kind of piety and conception of mission that is generated by the doctrines of Scripture. At least since the Second Great Awakening, the Reformation and its confessional distinctives have played a less discernable role than pietist and revivalistic emphases. In fact, at the end of his US tour, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could summarize his observations concerning American religion generally as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” So let’s have a new Reformation that recovers the God-exalting, Christ-centered, grace-proclaiming faith and practice that will bring renewal not only to Reformed churches but, we pray, to the wider body of Christ around the world!
What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? Should Christians focus more on “being the church” rather than going to church? Can we really “live the gospel?” On this edition of the White Horse Inn the hosts will interact with these questions and more as they discuss the nature and meaning of discipleship.
Did you like the Romans Revolution CD that we gave out to supporters of White Horse Inn last summer? Then you’re gonna love the new 20th Anniversary CD that is now available for a gift of $100 by the end of the year!
The MP3 CD includes 20 classic episodes plus extensive bonus material including: the pilot episode, the entire 2 hour (!) Robert Schuller interview, and the Dad Rod Christmas Special along with outtakes and bloopers. One reviewer has already written in: “I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats.”
Maybe you’re thinking a CD like this would only appeal to Inn-heads or Inn-atics. Well, we know they’ll love it, but this would also be a great CD to give to someone who needs to be introduced to the treasure trove of Reformation resources that you’ve been enjoying every week for twenty years. We’ve included Modern Reformation articles and even some old Horse’s Mouth newsletter articles to take you deeper into the different topics the hosts tackle on this CD.
We’re asking for $100 because this is the most important season for our fundraising. We know the CD is valuable, but we also want you to participate with us in getting this message out to more and more people in the New Year. We’re grateful that you’ve been supporting us in the past; your tax-deductible gift will be a tremendous encouragement to us for the future.
The White Horse Inn hosts will be recording their 20th Anniversary Special this coming Friday, Dec. 4th, between 11:00am and Noon (Pacific Standard Time). If you would like to call in and let Mike, Kim, Ken and Rod know what the WHI has meant to you over the years, send an email to WHI producer Shane Rosenthal along with your phone number. He’ll then contact you with the studio number and the appropriate time to call in. Shane’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Manhattan Declaration, released November 20, 2009, firmly yet winsomely takes the stand in defense of truths that are increasingly undermined in contemporary Western societies, including our own. Drafted by Princeton law professor Robert George and evangelical leaders Chuck Colson and Timothy George, this declaration focuses on three issues: (1) the inherent dignity and rights of each human life (including the unborn) by virtue of being created in God’s image; (2) the integrity of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and (3) religious liberty, also anchored in the image of God.
There is a lot of wisdom in this document. For one, it does not breathe the vitriol that is often too common on the religious right and left. In this declaration one will find more light than heat, yet a sense of personal concern for the humaneness of the common culture, even for those who are pursuing antithetical agendas. May this more thoughtful approach to public engagement become more characteristic!
The framers wisely appeal to natural law as well as to Scripture and its revealed doctrines. After all, these three issues are grounded in creation. They are deliverances of the law that God inscribed on every human conscience, not of the gospel that God announced beforehand through his prophets and fulfilled in his incarnate Son’s life, death, and resurrection.
However, it is just for that reason that I stumbled over a few references to the gospel in this declaration. It took me back to the old days of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” when I joined others in raising concerns with Chuck Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, J. I. Packer, and others that this 1996 document announced agreement on the gospel while recognizing remaining disagreement over justification, merit, and the like. Many true and wonderful things were affirmed in that ECT document, but the gospel without “justification through faith alone apart from works” is, as I said then, like chocolate chip cookies without the chips.
This declaration continues this tendency to define “the gospel” as something other than the specific announcement of the forgiveness of sins and declaration of righteousness solely by Christ’s merits. The document recites a host of Christian contributions to Western culture, adding, “Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace, to protect the intrinsic dignity of the human person and to stand for the common good. In being true to its own calling, the call to discipleship, the church through service to others can make a profound contribution to the public good.” The declaration concludes, “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.” In an interview, Mr. Colson repeatedly referred to this document as a defense of the gospel and the duty of defending these truths as our common proclamation of the gospel as Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals.
Having participated in conversations with Mr. Colson over this issue, I can assure readers that this is not an oversight. He shares with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI the conviction that defending the unborn is a form of proclaiming the gospel. Although these impressive figures point to general revelation, natural law, and creation in order to justify the inherent dignity of life, marriage, and liberty, they insist on making this interchangeable with the gospel.
The error at this point is not marginal. It goes to the heart of the more general confusion among Christians of every denominational stripe today, on the left and the right. The law is indeed the common property of all human beings, by virtue of their creation in God’s image. As Paul says in Romans 1 and 2, unbelievers may suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but the fact that they know this revelation makes them accountable to God. However, in chapter 3, Paul explains that a different revelation of God’s righteousness has appeared from heaven: God’s justification of the ungodly through faith alone in Christ alone.
When we confuse the law and the gospel, there is inevitably a confusion of Christ and culture, and there is considerable evidence in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and evangelical histories to demonstrate the real dangers of this confusion. In this otherwise helpful declaration, the confusion is evident once more. Alongside the theological claims that witness to the dignity of all people created in God’s image, Christianity seems to be defended as a major stake-holder in Western culture and society. By tending to confuse the gospel with the law, special revelation with general revelation, and Christianity with Western civilization, the document actually undermines its own objective—namely, to defend the dignity of human life as a universal moral imperative. Not only Christians, but non-Christians, are recipients of this general revelation.
The church has a responsibility to proclaim the gospel of free justification in Christ and to witness to God’s universal rights over humanity in his law. This law is sufficient to arraign us all before God’s court, pronouncing every one of us guilty for failing to love God and our neighbor, and it remains the rule for all duties and responsibilities that we have to contribute to the flourishing of our culture and the good of our neighbors. Yet the gospel itself is the testimony to God’s act of redemption in Jesus Christ, which delivers us from guilt, condemnation, and the tyranny of sin. The commands of the law, both natural and clarified in Scripture, ring in the conscience of everyone, but the gospel is the only “power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).
Have you ever been lied to? By your bank? By your boss? By your two year old? We can all answer, yes. What is even more interesting is how we are lied to. The new show, Lie to Me, starring Tim Roth (of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction fame) as Dr. Cal Lightman, the world’s leading deception psychologist. Using his unique methods he can, within a few subconscious ‘micro expressions’, figure out if anyone is lying. The climax of each episode, however, is why they are lying. His breakthrough techniques (yes, this is still TV) have proven themselves with cheating spouses and local criminals. Now the FBI has exclusive rights to use Dr. Lightman and his associates as human polygraphs to find the truth. My dad always said there are three sides to every story: yours, theirs, and the truth. The Lightman Group is looking for the latter.
The show’s characters are a collection of extremes. The show has many well-developed characters from a diversity of backgrounds. For instance, “the new kid on the block” Ria Torres (Monica Raymund) was discovered by Cal Lightman at a customs department where she worked checking bags. Cal recognized her lie detection abilities and now she is one of the leads in the field for Cal’s psychology firm.
The members of the firm are treated like family. FBI agent Ben Reynolds (Mekhi Phifer) is attached to Cal as a bodyguard and he provides the ‘hard’ cop attitude in the show. In the show, Ben finds himself in a spot where his life is on the line. When Cal finds out, he goes out of his way to save him. Agent Reynolds says, “Why didn’t you just write me off?” Cal responds, “I’ve been cut loose many a time when the truth has been inconvenient. But somebody caught me on the way down.” Reynolds replies, “That’s a true friend.” Our post-christian culture still recognizes the value and necessity of friendship, pointing forward to the one who is ‘closer than a brother’.
The plot lines range from trying to figure out who is next on a serial killer’s list to dealing with Cal Lightman’s teenage daughter lying about her birth control. In one great scene, Cal’s daughter is reeling from the unforeseen consequences of her actions. Cal says, “That’s the thing about consequences love, you don’t know when they are gonna stop.” These are the kind of open doors to engage our kids, friends, and neighbors with the truth about sin and the destruction that even one little lie can bring.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Why watch TV? Shouldn’t I be reading my Bible like a good Christian? After all, how is a show about lying worthwhile, don’t you know your catechism?” I used to agree, but after watching one episode I changed my mind concerning the redemptive worth of this show for a couple of reasons.
First, we all need to remember how actions and words relate. This show is unique in connecting actions, words, and thoughts. Christians can identify with this because Christ says the same thing about thoughts in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus exposed motives to prove guilt. Cal exposes guilt by micro-emotions. In both cases the guilt remains.
Secondly, this show is built upon the fact that right and wrong, truth and error actually exist. It throws relativism out the window and discovers the real truth behind circumstances, despite the tales attached. People’s motives are exposed and they are responsible for their actions. This is a great point of contact for neighbors and friends: we are responsible not just for what we do wrong but why we do wrong.
So, if you’re looking for a point of contact to share the gospel with your friends and neighbors, or if you just want to watch a show with a good script, take a look at this new show on Fox. Lie to Me airs on Fox at 9 pm on Monday nights.
Mike Horton was interviewed recently by Tabletalk’s Burke Parsons. That interview is now being featured on the Ligonier blog. Here’s a snippet of the interview about blogs and whether Mike Horton reads them:
Do you read any blogs, and if you do, what are some of the most helpful blogs?
I don’t. I’m kind of in that in-between generation. Well, I can’t really blame that as a factor. A lot of people my age and older read the blogs. I just never got into it. However, we just started doing a blog for The Whitehorse Inn, and they tell me it’s doing well.
So The White Horse Inn blog is your favorite blog?
Sure, it’s my favorite blog, but I don’t even read it. Nevertheless, I hear people all over the place talking about the Riddleblog, the Heidelblog, Justin Taylor’s blog, and Tim Challies’ blog; so I’m aware of them, it’s just not part of my daily routine.
How’s THAT for an endorsement! We’re his favorite blog and he doesn’t even read it! Well, we’re hoping you’re reading and benefiting from the WHI blog. But please excuse us, we need to show Mike where the “send” button is on his email program.
[This is the third part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Parts one and two can be found here.]
Misunderstanding #3: The outward form, structure, and methods of the church are not nailed down in Scripture
I’m a typical American. I like to “get ‘er done,” as they say. We’re practical, can-do folks. Let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing. Let’s just do it! Many evangelicals assume that the Bible gives us a clear message, but then leaves the methods of delivering it up to us.
However, even in the Great Commission the command to “Go into all the world” is followed by the specific components of this calling: namely, to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to teach everything he has revealed. Acts 2 tells us that the community created at Pentecost was dedicated to “the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (v 42). These are all communal, structured, public activities. (In Greek, the definite article in “the prayers” suggests that early Christian worship carried on the form of the synagogue liturgy with respect to corporate prayers.)
Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles busy themselves with the elements of Christ’s commission. In fact, the diaconate is established so that they can give themselves entirely to the ministry of Word and sacrament (Acts 6). Then, everywhere they have a nucleus of converts, the apostles ordain ministers and elders. “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul reminds Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5). While Paul the Apostle could invoke a direct commission from the risen Christ, he bolstered Timothy’s confidence by reminding him of the calling and gift he received “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14). Eventually, this ordinary ministry will replace the extraordinary ministry of the apostles. The former will build on the foundation of the latter. Not only are local churches to be organized with pastors, elders, and deacons; they are responsible to each other in a wider fellowship of mutual encouragement and admonition. When the churches in Antioch brought the case of Gentile inclusion to the whole church in Acts 15, the “whole church” was represented by “the apostles and elders” from each local assembly. The result was a written decision that was expected to be received by every local church.
Then when we get to the Epistles, specific offices and qualifications are clearly stated, especially in the pastoral letters. Clear instructions are given for the meaning and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10-11), for church discipline (Mat 18; 1 Cor 5-7), and for public worship (Ac 2:42-45; 1 Cor 14:6-39) and the diaconal care of the saints (Ac 6; Rom 15:14-32; Gal 6:10; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13). We are even told why we sing. Why does God need to tell us why we sing? Because singing in corporate worship is not mere exuberance, entertainment, or pious expression of our own thoughts, feelings, and commitment. Rather, the purpose of the singing is the same as the preaching, the sacraments, and the prayers: “…so that the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly…” (Col 3:16). Christ cares so much about every aspect of his visible church because he knows how prone we are to wander and to set up idols, demanding our own forms of worship. Not only the message of Christ, but the means of grace that he has appointed, are calculated by the Triune God for delivering Christ to sinners—including believers—throughout their pilgrimage. The same gospel that brings those “far off” to Christ also brings to Christ those who are near to the covenant promises: “you and your children” (Ac 2:39).
A major heresy swept the ancient church in the second century, known as Gnosticism. Trying to assimilate the gospel to Greek thought, the Gnostics drew a sharp division between spirit and matter, invisible and visible, outer and inner. It was not the external ministry of Word and sacrament or external ministers like pastors and elders, but an inner ministry of the Spirit through spontaneous ecstasy and enlightenment, that the Gnostics extolled. Paul’s agitators in Greek-dominated settings (such as Corinth and Colossae), whom the apostle had sarcastically dubbed “super-apostles,” were likely forerunners of this sect. However, Jesus did not found a mystical sect of the inner light; he founded a visible church, where he has promised to deliver Christ and all of his benefits through the public ministry of Word and sacrament and to guard his sheep through loving discipline and care of body and soul.
Christ is not only our prophet and priest; he’s also our king. As such, he has not only determined our personal piety but our corporate practices as his body. Jesus did not redeem his sheep only to make them “self-feeders.” The Spirit disrupts our lives and disorganizes the ordinary course of this present age, but only to re-organize and re-integrate a new society around the Son.
As I observed above, I’m as pragmatic as the next American. However, this is not a benign character trait, especially if it keeps us from taking seriously Christ’s claims as king of his church. American evangelicalism is deeply indebted to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney. The classic American pragmatist, Finney saw the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth as obstacles to genuine revival and society’s moral improvement. His “new measures” (such as the “anxious bench,” a precursor to the altar call) supplemented and eventually supplanted the ordained means of grace. Revival was as normal as any other programmed event, dependent on the most effective means of persuasion that could be imagined by a clever evangelist.
Just as the Spirit’s inward call is often contrasted with outward means, evangelicalism celebrates the charismatic leader who needs no formal training or external ecclesiastical ordination to confirm a spontaneous, direct, an inner call to ministry. Historians may debate whether the Protestant enthusiasm is more of a consequence than a cause of the distinctively American confidence in intuitive individualism over against external authorities and communal instruction, but the connection seems obvious. In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,
The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers. They were validated by the crowd’s response. Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance. The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made. This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning. This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished. The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry.
Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” Where American Transcendentalism was the version of Romanticism that attracted a wide following among Boston intellectuals, Finney’s legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.” Emerson had written, “The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force”—no external God, with an external Word and sacraments or formal ministry. And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier.
Writing against Charles Finney’s “new measures,” a contemporary Reformed pastor and theologian, John Williamson Nevin, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” He was certainly right and we can’t just staple the five points of Calvinism to an essentially Pelagian methodology.