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Know what you believe and why you believe it

Preview of MR’s May/June Issue

mrmj10cover1The blog fury over Dr. Bruce Waltke’s recent resignation from Reformed Theological Seminary is well-timed for the May/June 2010 issue of Modern Reformation.

All this year, we’re focusing on “Recovering Scripture” and in the May/June issue, the topic at hand is “canon formation.” But before you start reading about the Canon of Scripture, we think you’ll be interested in our Ad Extra department (where we feature articles slightly off topic). In this issue, we’re publishing an article by a number of Reformed scientists who take up the issues of the earth’s age and Scripture’s trustworthiness.

Here are the first few paragraphs from their article, titled, “PCA Geologists on the Antiquity of the Earth.”

How old is the earth?  Does an honest reading of the opening chapters of Genesis confine creation to six days a few thousand years ago, or does it allow for an origin of much greater antiquity?  These questions are hardly new.  Scientific assertions suggesting an alternate interpretation of the length of creation began more than 200 years ago, well before the days of Charles Darwin.  With a debate more than two centuries in the making, one might reasonably expect that Reformed scholars long ago resolved the issue. In fact, the much-sought resolution has proven elusive.  In 1998, the PCA commissioned a Creation Study Committee (CSC), made up of both Bible scholars and natural scientists, to consider the relevant Scriptures in light of the various existing interpretations and scientific evidence.  The report, submitted after two years of investigation, did not recommend a definitive answer, but did at least conclude that it is possible to believe both in an ancient earth and the inerrancy of Scripture. The statement below is extracted from the concluding pages of the 2000 Report of the Creation Study Committee.

Clearly there are committed, Reformed believers who are scientists that are on either side of the issue regarding the age of the cosmos.  Just as in the days following the Reformation, when the church could not decide between the geocentric and heliocentric views of the solar system, so today there is not unanimity regarding the age question.  Ultimately, the heliocentric view won out over the geocentric view because of a vast preponderance of facts favoring it based on increasingly sophisticated observations through ever improving telescopes used by thousands of astronomers over hundreds of years.  Likewise, in the present controversy, a large number of observations over a long period of time will likely be the telling factor.

The geocentric/heliocentric debate refers to a controversy starting some 500 years ago between two conflicting views of nature.  The geocentric position held that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around the earth.  In contrast, the heliocentric position held that the earth and planets revolved around the sun.  Several passages of Scripture appeared to support the geocentric view, and heliocentrism was considered by many to be a direct challenge to the authority of God’s Word.  Others recognized more than one possible interpretation of the Scriptures in question, and scientific evidence eventually persuaded them that the sun was indeed the center of our solar system.

In this context, it is important to recognize that science did not prevail over Scripture.  Scripture was and remains true.  Scientific evidence only served as a God-given aid in selecting the more accurate of two plausible, Bible-honoring interpretations.  The CSC report suggests we are at a similar crossroads concerning the age of the earth, but without sufficient evidence to tip the scales one way or the other.

The CSC commendably included several scientists, though none were geologists.  So what would a geologist add to the discussion?  As practicing geologists committed to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, in keeping with Reformed tradition, the eight authors of this article maintain that the “large number of observations over a long period of time” mentioned in the CSC report have already been made, and the data are sufficient to unequivocally answer the question.  We also understand, however, the inherent difficulty that people have in assessing a vast body of scientific literature filled with terms and jargon that often require years of schooling in very specific fields to comprehend.  Such difficulties have landed even well read and godly individuals such as Martin Luther on the wrong side of these debates.  Luther addressed the heliocentric theories of Copernicus in his day as being little more than the pursuit of vanity since Scripture clearly speaks of the sun moving and not the earth.

In this article, we wish to provide our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ with a few general observations, some clarification on a common misconception about our science, and two specific examples that speak convincingly that God’s earthly creation has been around for a very long time.

To read the rest of this article in Modern Reformation, be sure to call 800-890-7556 and one of our customer service representatives can process your subscription or you can subscribe online.

WHI-992 | Christianity: A Faith Founded on Facts

How would you attempt to persuade someone who is unconvinced about the basic truth claims of the Christian faith? We asked pastors that question at a recent convention and their answers will surprise you. Joining the panel for this discussion is noted apologist Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, author numerous books including History & Christianity, and Faith Founded on Fact (originally broadcast April 16, 2006).

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Legal Evidence for the Truth of the Faith
J.W. Montgomery
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J.W. Montgomery

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Faith Founded on Fact
John W. Montgomery
What is Faith
J. Gresham Machen
History and Christianity
John W. Montgomery

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

David Hlebo

Michael Spencer

Last night we received word that our internet friend and Modern Reformation contributor Michael Spencer (also known as the “internet Monk“) had finally succumbed to the cancer with which he had been diagnosed shortly before Christmas.  Michael’s theological journey mirrored many of our own: raised in one tradition, he began to read more widely and deeply in church history, and began to see that the Faith was much larger than his own experience of it.  Michael spoke as an insider to other insiders–calling for reform in evangelical churches. Michael also spoke as a sympathetic outsider to other outsiders–his own questions had changed how he approached the church and he could speak to others who felt the same sense of alienation he often did.

Michael contributed several articles over the last few years:

Like many around the Internet and among his small Kentucky town, we will miss Michael. We will miss his irenic spirit, his application of Reformation insights to the contemporary church, and his willingness to engage those who thought differently in order to see the cause of Christ advanced.  We pray that his wife, children, and son and daughter in law will be comforted with the hope of resurrection as they mourn his death.

WHI-991 | The Cross & Resurrection

On this edition of the program the hosts walk through the significance of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In particular, they focus on the importance of his resurrection from the dead, which vindicates his truth claims and provides a ground for belief in his sacrificial death on our behalf.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Jesus & The Eyewitnesses
Richard Bauckham
There is a God
Anthony Flew
Scandolous
D.A. Carson

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Zack Hicks

The Changing Face of Christianity

g-cvr-10402-jerusalem-hmed-9agrid-6x2

This image, from the MSNBC homepage, of pilgrims in Jerusalem commemorating Good Friday, is a great example of the changing face of world Christianity. No longer predominantly western; the public face of Christianity is beginning to reflect what the first Christians probably looked like: the pilgrims who gathered in Israel, the “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians” (Acts 2:9-11).

Michael Horton on Rick Warren, Modern Reformation, and Desiring God

Update II: More from Modern Reformation

Update: comments closed.

It is not our usual course at Modern Reformation or White Horse Inn to comment on the invitations of other organizations for their conferences.  However, we’re starting to receive questions about our views of Rick Warren’s professed adherence to Reformational theology because an interview in Modern Reformation was posted by Justin Taylor and cited in the comments of his blog as supporters of John Piper wrestle with his recent decision to invite Rick Warren to an upcoming Desiring God conference.  So our team felt that some clarification was needed.

In 2004, Rick Warren graciously accepted our invitation to respond to some Modern Reformation questions in our “Free Space” section, where we engage with various voices, often outside of our usual circles.  We do interviews like this regularly, encouraging conversation, asking questions that we know our readers are wondering.  It’s in our feature articles where we analyze trends and arguments, and I among others have challenged Pastor Warren from time to time.  Our magazine is not just a platform for a few voices or churches.  We’re trying to spark conversation—and, yes, to guide conversation toward a modern Reformation.  Part of that means that we let others speak for themselves.  Yet I think it’s pretty clear to everybody where we land on the main issues.

Speaking first for myself, I admire Rick Warren’s zeal for reaching non-Christians and concern for global challenges.  I respect him for giving away much of his income for charitable purposes.

At the same time, I believe that his message distorts the gospel and that he is contributing to the human-centered pragmatism that is eroding the proper ministry and mission of the church.  Judging by The Purpose-Driven Life, Pastor Warren’s theology seems to reflect run-of-the-mill evangelical Arminianism, especially with its emphasis on the new birth as the result of human decision and cooperation with grace.  There are also heavy traces of Keswick “higher life” teaching throughout the book.  None of this disqualifies him from being an evangelical statesman.  After all, much the same can be said of Billy Graham.  After pointing out how difficult it is to define an evangelical theologically, historian George Marsden famously surmised that it’s “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”  Today, perhaps, it’s anyone who likes Rick Warren.

Obviously, Rick Warren believes that he is simply translating the gospel in terms that the unchurched can understand.  However, the radical condition of sin is reduced to negative attitudes and behaviors and the radical redemption secured by Christ’s propitiatory death and resurrection are reduced to general and vague statements about God giving us another chance.  His central message seems to be that you were created for a purpose and you just need to fulfill it.  Even at Easter he can say, “…And of course, that purpose now becomes greater — and in fact, I think that’s really what the message this week of Easter is, is that God can bring good out of bad. That he turns crucifixions into resurrections. That he takes the mess of our life, and when we give him all the pieces, he can — God can put it together in a new way” (“Larry King Live,” CNN, March 22, 2005).  I heard him say on a network morning program last Christmas that Jesus came to give us a mulligan, like in golf—a chance for a “do-over” in life.

While I applaud his concern for social justice, I am concerned that he confuses the law with the gospel and the work of Christians in their vocations (obeying the Great Commandment) with the work of Christ through his church in its ministry of Word and sacrament (the Great Commission).

His best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, begins by announcing that it’s not about you, but about God, and then the rest of the book is about you.  There seems to be a contradiction between the God-centered theology that is professed and the basically human-centered orientation that dominates much of his message and methods.  Some time ago, my wife discovered a letter that Rick Warren wrote to me way back in 1998, in which Pastor Warren mentioned the impact of my first book, Mission Accomplished, and his intention to write a book that highlighted the point that God made us for his purposes, rather than the other way around.  Since then, we have corresponded periodically, but that has not kept either of us from offering occasional critiques of each other’s views.  In fact, we will be together for a panel discussion at Saddleback in June, sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Pastor Warren tailors his appeals to his audience.  To Calvinists, he stresses his support for the “solas” of the Reformation.  Yet he tells prosperity evangelist David Yonggi Cho, “I’ve read your books on Vision and Dreams – speak to pastors about how you hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?…What advice would you give to a brand new minister?…Do you think American churches should be more open to the prayer for miracles?” (“Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren,” Pastors.com).  In a June 2006 article in JewishJournal.com, editor-in-chief Rob Eshman reported on a speech that Warren gave for Synagogue 3000, after Rabbi Ron Wolfson became involved in the Purpose-Driven pastoral training seminars. “Warren managed to speak for the entire evening without once mentioning Jesus — a testament to his savvy message-tailoring.”  When USA Today asked him why Mormon and Jewish leaders are involved in his pastoral training programs, Rick Warren reportedly said, “I’m not going to get into a debate over the non-essentials.  I won’t try to change other denominations.  Why be divisive?” (USA Today, July 21, 2003).  Rick Warren endorses a host of books, from New Age authors to Emergent writers to conservative evangelicals.  So why not include Calvinists?

The first Reformation was about God and the gospel of his Son.  It centered on the justification of sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  Robert Schuller wrote Self-Esteem: The New Reformation in the 1990s.  And in 2005 Rick Warren announced at the Baptist World Alliance meeting a new Reformation based on “deeds, not creeds.”  As he explained in an interview,

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs.  This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what does the church believe, but about what is the church doing (beliefnet.com/faiths/Christianity/2005/10/Rick-Warrens-Second-Reformation.aspx?p=1).

He has also said he is working toward a Third Great Awakening, which seems like the better comparison, since the basic message is more in step with Charles Finney and the Second Great Awakening than it is with the Reformation.

I agree wholeheartedly when Pastor Warren argues that Christians can work with non-Christians—even agnostics and atheists—on the global challenges of poverty, racism, corrupt leadership, injustice, and disease.  However, this is precisely why his confusion of the Christian’s calling to love of neighbor with the gospel is so dangerous.  Working toward the common good is the calling of every person, believer and unbeliever alike, but it is not the Great Commission.  It is the law of love that obliges us all, but it is not the gospel.

Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”  We can be so proud of getting the gospel right while we don’t bother to get the gospel out to those who need it.  Furthermore, we can be self-confident in our theological integrity while ignoring the Word of God when it impinges on questions of social concern.  Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith.  Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.

-Michael Horton

Whither Gospel-Centrality?

Our good friend, Toby Kurth, a church planter in the San Francisco area recently wrote up a small bit on “gospel-centeredness.” It’s a phrase that is well worn in modern Reformed circles and Toby thinks that it is starting to show some wear and tear:

Will Gospel-Centrality Go The Way of Fundamentalism?

Will gospel-centrality go the way of fundamentalism? Let’s hope not. Before fundamentalism became associated with reductionist “fighting fundies” it made many wonderful contributions to evangelical Christianity. In the face of liberalism, fundamentalism defended the basic biblical doctrines that conservative evangelicals believed were fundamental, or one might say central, to the Christian faith. Doctrines that any “gospel-centered” evangelical would still enthusiastically support: the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus, the substitutionary atonement by God’s grace and through faith, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles. Fundamentalism equipped pastors and churches to preserve, protect, and proclaim a clear gospel message. Over time fundamentalism became little more than a slogan with no real substance behind it. Fundamentalists would doggedly defend themselves against all that disagreed with their fundamentals, but those fundamentals lost definition and connection to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Enter gospel-centrality.

Like fundamentalism, gospel-centrality seeks to equip pastors and churches to preserve, protect, and proclaim a clear gospel message. Organizations like the Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel came into existence for that very purpose. Gospel centrality must not be reduced to a slogan or way of defining yourself that does not really describe how you view the world. Gospel-centrality says that all of life and the Scriptures must be interpreted through the person and work of Jesus Christ. If gospel-centrality becomes just a way of speaking about ministry with certain buzzwords and catch phrases then it will have lost all meaning. We do not drift towards gospel-centrality in our own lives or in our churches. It involves an active and frequent application of gospel truth to every situation we face. What makes me nervous are phrases like “Is he gospel-centered?” or “That is not a gospel-centered church.” Let’s not settle for shorthand. Being “gospel-centered” is a life-long endeavor, not a slogan. It is not the ability to recite a few well-crafted phrases; it is rather the commitment to continually turn away from defining yourself or your church in accordance with anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Lausanne Conversations

Mike Horton has been invited to participate in two conversations leading up to the Lausanne global conference on evangelism in Cape Town this summer. The first of these conversations (part of the “12 Cities, 12 Conversations” campaign) is tonight in Pasadena at Fuller Theological Seminary.  The topic is “Culture Making: The Role of Christians in the World Today.”

Mike’s newest book (as yet untitled but part of his Christless Christianity and Gospel Driven Life series) takes on the issue of the relationship between Christians and culture. We’re posting a small snippet of the book below.  You’ll also find links to other White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation resources to stimulate your own thinking about Christ and culture.

There are two extremes in contemporary Christian interpretations of the kingdom. One extreme is to say that the kingdom is not present at all, but is an entirely future (millennial) reality.  In this future millennial kingdom the purpose is not only to dispense Christ’s gifts, which he has already won by his own trial, but “is the final form of moral testing.”  The other extreme is to say that it is present in its all-encompassing form, transforming the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ. In this perspective, the main calling of Christians and churches is to redeem the culture and extend Christ’s kingdom over politics, the arts, entertainment, sports, economics, law, and every other aspect of public and private life.  We’ve gone from “soul-winning-and-waiting-for-the-Rapture” to “kingdom transformation” in the blink of an eye.

The Great Commission is given to the church for this time between his first and second comings.  It is an intermission, between his accomplishment of redemption and his return to consummate its blessings.  However, this intermission isn’t a time for loitering in the lobby as consumers; it is a time of joyful activity on behalf of our neighbors: loving and serving them through our witness to Christ and also through our daily callings in the world.

This Great Commission is not the cultural mandate—the original commission to be fruitful and to multiply, ruling creation as God’s viceroys.  That is the covenant of creation, in which worship and cultural labors were fused in a vocation whose goal was nothing less than bringing all of creation into the everlasting Sabbath rest.  It was this covenant that was renewed as God took Israel to himself as a chosen nation.  “But like Adam they transgressed my covenant…” (Hos 6:7).  So once again, God cast his people out of his sanctuary, “east of Eden,” into captivity, where they languished in hope for the coming Redeemer promised through the prophets even in the people’s dire distress.  Nevertheless, God again promised the coming seed who would bring salvation to the ends of the earth.  It would be a new covenant, greater than the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai.

The march toward the kingdom continued, even though its typological sign—the land and the Temple—lay in ruins.  The land of Israel was no longer holy, but common.  The Spirit had evacuated the Temple and Judah joined its northern sister in exile.  Yet even in Babylonian captivity, the people received the letter from the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD (Jer 29:4-9).

Living like our exiled parents (Adam and Eve), “east of Eden,” the children of Judah are to participate in the common life—its burdens and joys—of the secular city.  They find their welfare in the city’s welfare and are therefore to pray for the commonwealth.  Yet they are also to increase the size of the covenant community during this period and the greatest threat is not persecution by the ungodly, but the internal deceptions of unauthorized prophets.  (As we will see, this is precisely the situation of the new covenant church in its exile and Jeremiah’s exhortations bear striking resemblance to those of the apostles in their letters.)

Although a remnant returned to Jerusalem and sought to rebuild the walls and rededicate itself to the covenant they made with God at Sinai, they realized that they were still in exile.  Ruled by a series of oppressive Gentile regimes, punctuated by false messiahs and attempts to bring in the kingdom by force, the City of Peace was in perpetual turmoil.  It was into this scene that John the Baptist stepped as the forerunner of the Messiah.

It is this new covenant that forms the basis for the Great Commission: a holy task of bringing the Good News to the world.  It is an unshakable kingdom—incapable of being thwarted by our own unfaithfulness—precisely because it is not a kingdom that we are building, but one that we are receiving (Heb 12:28).  It is God’s work.  Everything that we will be exploring in the rest of this book presupposes the view of the kingdom that is summarized here.

Stay tuned to the White Horse Inn blog for more information on the title and release date of this book.
If you’d like to explore this issue in greater depth, be sure to check out some of these resources from White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation:

Risen Indeed!

heaven-cu02-vl-verticalEvery Christmas and Easter you can count on national periodicals to carry cover stories on “the search for the sacred,” “the Jesus quest,” and heaven.  This Easter proves to be no exception, with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller contributing an April 5, 2010 piece, “Far From Heaven.”  It is based on her new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife.

The Afterlife Hype: Going to Heaven

According to Miller, “while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean.”  “Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth.”  Yet most are confused.  On one hand, they talk about meeting up with loved ones and picking up where they left off on earth.  On the other hand, they view of heaven as an ethereal place where spirits or souls are freed from embodiment.  Yet bodies seem pretty crucial to hanging out with Grandma and Uncle Ed.  As Miller puts it, “If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for?”  Great question.

Miller writes,

Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive.

The article quotes Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero: “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven.”

Miller points out that while orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims hold to a bodily resurrection, alternatives have always been near at hand.  She mentions “the immortality of the soul.”  “Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than the resurrection.  After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot.”  In this perspective, we are saved from our bodies, not with our bodies.  “This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon….Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.”

Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.”

For her own part, although open to mystery, Miller finds the resurrection hope “unbelievable.”

Ever since Christianity conquered the Greco-Roman world, Western civilization has been a little schizophrenic.  On one hand, there’s the traditional pagan view of “the afterlife”: Plato’s “upper world” of eternal souls or intellects liberated from the “lower world” of material and historical embodiment.  On the other hand, there’s the radical eschatology of the prophets and the New Testament, where the contrast isn’t between two worlds but between two ages: this age, under sin and death, and the age to come, under righteousness and everlasting life.  Although our souls are dispatched to God’s safe-keeping upon death, Christians confess their faith in “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”  The whole creation will be renewed, not destroyed, says Paul in Romans 8, so we wait for this final resurrection with patience.

So why do so many people today—including “Bible-believing” Christians—talk about their loved ones “passing away” instead of “dying”?  (The former phrase was coined by Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy.  She denied the reality of sickness and death as well as bodily resurrection as an error of the mind when it is attached to the mere appearances of the “lower world.”)  Even the term “afterlife” smacks of pagan overtones, when Christ promises everlasting life.  People aren’t even allowed to die anymore.  It’s too dirty.  Funerals, focusing on “dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” but in the hope of final resurrection in Jesus Christ, have been replaced with celebration of the deceased and the hope that he or she lives on in our memories or hearts—perhaps even looking down on us, smiling, from a happy place.

The Resurrection Hope: 1 Corinthians 15

But before we are too hard on our own time and place, it’s of some comfort that the gospel has always suffered this kind of rip tide, drawing our hopes from Christ out to the ocean of vague spirituality.  Responding to some questions raised by the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul knew how hard it was to transplant Greeks into biblical soil.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he addresses the resurrection head-on.

Paul begins with the fact of Christ’s resurrection—and ours with him.  Nothing less than the gospel is at stake (v 1-2); the Corinthian believers were not only saved (past tense) by this gospel, but are being saved by it—if they continue to stand in it.  If they no longer stand in it, they “believed in vain.”  Writing from Ephesus between the years 53-55, Paul says that he is passing on what he had received from earlier tradition (vv 3-7).  Only 20 years after the event, the empty tomb was already a settled Christian conviction.  And by apostolic authority, the death and resurrection of Christ are delivered “as of first importance.”

Paul could have appealed merely to his own eye-witness testimony of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, but here he bases it on the evidence of the Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the eye-witness reports of the apostles.  No doubt, Isaiah 53 came easily to mind, prophesying the Suffering Servant who would bear the iniquities of his people and be exalted with them in justification and glory.  Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas) and the Twelve, then “to more than 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive….”  The assumption here is that the empty tomb is not a recent legend, but the original claim of the eye-witnesses.  If you were to interview one of these living witnesses, they would not talk merely about the difference that Jesus made in their life today.  They would be able to relate what they saw and heard.

The “that” clauses show the inseparable connection between faith in Jesus Christ and the faith concerning Jesus Christ.  You can believe that Jesus died and was raised without believing in Jesus, but you can’t believe in Jesus without believing that he “was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.”

Paul’s argument is tight and simple (vv 12-34).  Jesus Christ “has been raised.”  The verb (egēgertai) is in the perfect tense, which connotes a past action with continuing effects.  Paul uses this verb form seven times—all in reference to Christ, while he speaks of “the resurrection of the dead” more generally in the present tense as a fact that now obtains because of Christ’s resurrection.  Paul offers five conclusions from the denial of Christ’s resurrection: (1) Christ is not raised; (2) the preaching of the gospel is useless; (3) your faith is useless; (4) Paul is bearing false witness; (5) “you are still in your sins” and believers who have already died “are lost.”  In summary, “If we have hope in Christ in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v 19).

From this we learn that the gospel is not about “your best life now.”  It is not “come to Christ and all your troubles will be over.”  It is not an invitation to better marriages and families, health, wealth, and social transformation.  The gospel, rather, is that God became flesh, fulfilled all righteousness, bore our curse, and rose triumphant on the third day.

There is no consolation prize for those who placed their hope in a lie.  Paul doesn’t say, “Even if it didn’t happen, haven’t you lived a happier, more fulfilling life?”  He didn’t back up the claim with pragmatic and therapeutic benefits, like, “The family that prays together stays together.”  Paul doesn’t believe in faith.  He’s not an apostle of spirituality, moral uplift, and positive thinking.  If it isn’t true, Paul says, your faith is meaningless (kenos) and fruitless (mataios).  If Jesus is not risen, it doesn’t matter how many “testimonials” we can give about improved relationships, joy, inner peace, practical guidance, and cultural benefits.  It’s all for nothing.

If Jesus Christ is risen, then the age to come has already dawned and this age of sin and death is fading away.  Everyone must hear this Good News and embrace it for their salvation.  If Jesus Christ is not risen, then we are still under God’s judgment and there is no meaning at all to be sought in Christianity.  It is a dead religion: not only hopelessly irrelevant to us, but a vicious lie that has misled millions.  Why?  Because the gospel is not a promise to make our lives happier and healthier.  It is the announcement that our guilt and death have been dealt with finally and forever.  If it isn’t true, then it isn’t helpful.  It’s deranged.

Second, Paul explains the inseparable connection between the resurrection of Christ and believers.  There are not two resurrections, but one.  Jesus is the “firstfruit” of a vast harvest.  When you taste the new wine, you know what kind of vintage it’s going to be.  Or when you examine the first sheath of the new wheat, you know what to expect for the whole field.  Jesus begins the end-time resurrection of the dead, passing through this age of sin and death into the age to come.  He is the engine that has already pulled into the station, guaranteeing that the rest of the train will arrive in due course.

In the meantime, it is a period of proclaiming the gospel.  After all, death has a legal claim on us.  “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (v 56).  We are dead in Adam.  Unless the guilt and curse for our sin is lifted, not even God can raise us from the dead.  Why?  Because it is his own righteousness and justice that has imposed the sentence.  Yet “God set forth Christ as a propitiation by his blood through faith that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). So now is the intermission between Christ’s two advents, when we are justified through faith in Christ.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  We will die, but not under the curse.  Death can no longer hold us in its grip.  It has to let us go, just as it had to let Jesus go.  And the result is not resuscitation of a corpse, but resurrection.

Back to 1 Corinthians.  In this contrast between the two covenantal heads, Paul explains that Adam became “a living being” at creation.  However, our first representative never completed his commission.  Instead of fulfilling all righteousness and winning for himself and his posterity the right to eat from the Tree of Life, he chose his own path of spiritual ascent.  The Last Adam was different.  He fulfilled the trial, bore the curse, and rose again as the source of immortality for his people.  He is not just alive again, picking up where he left off before Good Friday; he is immortal and the source of everlasting life for all who embrace him.  Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life.

So the resurrection that awaits us is not just the continuation of natural existence as a “living being,” but the entrance into a new kind of existence that human beings have never experienced before until their risen Head entered the age to come.  For now, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we are being forgiven and renewed inwardly by the Spirit.

“Then comes the end…”  What is this?  The end of the world?  The end of time?  No, it’s the end of the reign of sin and death: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  When he returns, we will be like him: confirmed in everlasting glory, righteousness, beauty, and life.  Death is not natural.  It is not part of the cycle of life.  It’s a sentence for sin, as Paul also says in Romans 6:23.  Yet it is the last enemy and it will be destroyed when Christ returns (1 Cor 15:26-28).

Young people have no reason to come to church for dating tips, abstinence training, moving summer camp experiences, or a positive circle of friends.  There’s no point in getting dressed every Sunday for therapeutic moralism or for hearing about how you can have your best life now.  Again Paul reiterates the point that if the resurrection isn’t true, then there’s no point in being religious, spiritual, or even moral.  His fall-back isn’t, “Well, at least I was courageous” or “At least I lived a better life than most people.”  Rather, his alternative to the resurrection faith is hedonism—what we often call “nihilism” today.  Apart from this truth, Paul says that there is no saving knowledge of God (v 34).

In the Greek (Platonic) scheme, our true self (the soul or mind) is raised from the body to heavenly bliss.  In Paul’s scheme, our whole person is raised from sin and death, following in Christ’s wake, as we enter the Promised Land.  The Greek—and average Westerner today—is looking for inner light and going to heaven when they die.  The Christian is looking to Jesus and “the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come.”  In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we are presently “groaning” in our “earthly tent.”  Yet this refers to our body in its mortal and sinful condition.  In fact, he adds, “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (v 4).  In verse 3 he says that we don’t want to be found “naked”—that is, bodiless, as Plato imagined.  Our burden is not our flesh, but our mortality and sin.  In the resurrection, we will be “further clothed.”

So just as Christ is our clothing of righteousness in justification, he is our garment of glorification.  Resurrection and glorification are the same event.  By nature, we bear the image of the first Adam, but by rebirth we bear the image of the Last Adam.  The new birth—spiritual resurrection—has already occurred, as the guarantee of the final resurrection not only of our bodies but of a renewed creation, as Paul highlights in Romans 8.

Paul Pulls Back the Curtain

Paul concludes his argument in 1 Corinthians 15 by drawing back the curtain just enough to anticipate what lies ahead for us (vv 50-58).  “Flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom,” Paul says, echoing Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus in John 3.  One must be “born from above.”  There is nothing in us or in this present age that has the power to give this new life.  Free will is impotent before sin and death.  Our best works are filthy rags before God and our best intentions are a stubborn refusal of God’s gift in his Son.  There is no hope for world peace, justice, and righteousness through the powers that already exist in nature and history.  Apart from Christ, we are existing for the moment, but devoid of real life.  The Spirit does not come to make the old Adam a little better, but to kill him and make him alive in Christ.  Jesus did not to come to earth to make the world better, but to make it new.  He did not come merely to provide a model and to show us how to complete his work of building his kingdom.  He came to save the world and we will come again to judge the world and consummate his everlasting reign.

Paul lets us in on a “mystery”: “We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (51-52).  He says nothing of a secret rapture.  On the contrary, the whole harvest will be raised together when the first-fruit appears again in the flesh.

The unrighteous cannot become righteous; they must “put on Christ,” who is “our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.”  The mortal cannot become immortal; it must “put on immortality.”  We don’t have this suit in our wardrobe.  We have to get it from someone else and we have it already in Christ.  Because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” every believer is guaranteed this final clothing of his or her faded, decayed, and decomposed flesh with immortal glory (vv 53-55).

If we conceive of the future basically as an escape from history, our bodies, and God’s creation, we will reduce salvation to “going to heaven when we die.”  I’m not denying the precious truth that upon death our souls are received into God’s safe-keeping.  However, there’s a good reason why we call that the intermediate state.  Our blessed hope is the resurrection.

This orients our lives in this present age.  God never has given up on his creation and he never will.  He will not throw it away and start from scratch.  The Christian hope has nothing to do with visions of “the late great planet earth,” but with the expectation that we find in the Book of Revelation.  In that vision, the City of God descends from heaven to the earth.  In fact, not only are all walls removed between Jew and Gentile; even the vertical demarcations of heaven and earth are dissolved.  At long last, God’s dwelling will be with us forever.

Justified and renewed by the power of the Spirit, united to Christ, we struggle against indwelling sin, groaning for our release not from embodiedness but from sinfulness. Because Christ has been raised, our hope is not in vain—and neither are our labors in this age (v 58).  As the gospel is proclaimed to the ends of the earth, those dead in trespasses and sins are raised, justified, seated with Christ in heavenly places, are being conformed to his image, and will one day be glorified together with us.  Even when we go about our daily callings, working in our garden or our cubicle, volunteering at a homeless shelter, falling in love, raising children, and loving and serving our neighbors, we are “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” because of the vista he has placed before us.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!

-Michael Horton

WHI-990 | The Kingdom of God, Part 2

On this edition of the White Horse Inn the hosts continue their discussion of the Kingdom of God. Though many today seek a Kingdom of power and glory, God’s Kingdom advances in weakness and humility. One day God will reign visibly with great power and majesty, but in the meantime his Kingdom advances through word and sacrament.

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