Thursday, December 31, 2009
11. Answer Man (2009): it made me laugh because the 'spiritual advice' is something I could hear coming from Joel Osteen, it made me angry for the same reason, and it was convicting. The main character was 'an expert', but was unwilling to really help people in the mess of life.
10. Run Fat Boy, Run (2008). Just fun. Made me laugh.
9. Wolverine, Origins (2009). Great comic film.
8. Never Back Down (2008). Think Karate Kid, but better.
7. The Boondock Saints (2002). Loved it, despite the over-the-top language.
6. Star Trek (2009). I grew up on Star Trek. This was better than I had hoped for.
5. Up (2009). A kids film that all the kids liked and didn't bore or annoy me. That's a winner!
4. Gran Torino (2009). Eastwood came up with some racial slurs I had never heard before (and if you knew my extended family, that's a feat). I loved the movie.
3. Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee (2007). Sad portrayal of the plight of American Indians. One of the many reasons I cringe whenever I hear people refer to the US as a Christian nation.
2. Defiance (2009) and Nanking (2007). Two fantasic WW2 movies - one a drama, the other more of a documentary. Both are true stories of heroism and the horrors of war.
1. To End All Wars (2004). My best movie I saw this year. Wonder what living the Sermon on the Mount might look like in a POW camp. This movie gives you a glimpse.
Best Books I read in 2009
- Shogun, James Clavell. I don't know why, but this book gripped me. It's long, but I really enjoyed it.
- Brotherhood of War Series, W.E.B. Griffin. Yep, all nine books. One of my big regrets is not making it through OCS (Marine Corps). I lived vicariously through the characters in Griffin's books.
- The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, Alister McGrath. Ok, the title overstates the case, but McGrath does an excellent job chronicling the rise and fall (intellectually at least) of atheism.
- The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin. I've read a lot of Newbigin recently. This is one of my favorites.
- Evangelism In The Early Church, Michael Green. Awesome. The church has really drifted far away from biblical evangelism and evangelism as practiced in the early church. I really like Green's work.
- John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor, W. Robert Godfrey. In the year of Calvin, this was the only book on him I had time to read. It was very good.
- After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition, Alastair McIntyre. I read little philosophy and little on ethics, but this book was very helpful for me as I prepared for my debate with Dan Barker.
- Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, Jim Belcher. Full disclosure - I haven't finished it yet. However, I appreciate Belcher's 'non-sexiness'. He's not prone to making grand claims, provocative statements. He sees the merits in critiques made by the emerging church and by the traditional church of the emerging church. He offers a 'third way', which leaves me thinking, 'duh, that's exactly what many churches have been doing for decades/centuries'. Anyway, I like that. It makes me feel hopeful.
Best CD's I found in 2009
- Muse, The Resistance
- Kings of Leon, Only by the Night
- Red, Innocence and Instinct
- Rain City Hymnal, vol. 1
- U2, No Line on the Horizon
- Salvation is Created, Bifrost Arts
- Rise Against, Siren Sound of the Counter Culture & Appeal to Reason (waring! can't listen to these cd with the kids in the car.)
- Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream
- Shinedown, Sound of Madness
- Sojourn, Over the Grave
- Jason Gray, Everything Sad is Coming Untrue
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
But Christmas has also had the opposite effect at times, driving a wedge between people. Not quite ten years after the 'Christmas Truce', Harry Fosdick preached a now famous/infamous sermon from his pulpit in NYC. The title of the 1922 sermon was 'Shall the Fundamentalists Win'. In it, Fosdick challenged five 'tenets' of the 'fundamentalists': the atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus and the Virgin Birth. The overall tone of the sermon could be described as 'indifferentism' - a downplaying of the importance of doctrine. Regarding the Virgin Birth, Fosdick said, "[Accepting the Virgin Birth as historical fact] is one point of view, and many are the gracious and beautiful souls who hold it. But side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. . ." He says, basically, the same thing about the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, and the atonement. It's fine to believe they happened, but you don't have have to - it's not essential.
The General Assembly of the PCUSA met and instructed the NY presbytery to administer a doctrinal examination of Fosdick. If he failed, the presbytery was to censure him or cut ties with him if he wouldn't repent of his doctrinal errors. Several months later, in 1924, pastors, professors and other PCUSA officials sympathetic to Fosdick met in Auburn, NY, just outside Syracuse. They issued the Auburn Affirmation, in which they said, in summary, "Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship."
This more liberal view lead to contention and strife for several years in the PCUSA. At the GA of 1927 the Assembly approved a motion, which in effect granted freedom toe the Presbytery of New York to reject the virgin birth of Christ as an essential tenet of the church, and to vindicate the signers of the Auburn Affirmation. This action is one of many that led to the eventual withdraw conservatives like J. Gresham Machen and the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary as a conservative alternative to Princeton. You could argue, and many have, that the spirit of indifferentism is a sure path to theological liberalism, and the PCUSA is certainly evidence for that.
Unfortunately, the spirit of indifferentism is alive and well, even thriving today. For example, on the same issue of the Virgin Birth, one contemporary emerging church pastor has written:“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if, as you study the origin of the word ‘virgin’ you discover that the word ‘virgin’ in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word ‘virgin’ could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being ‘born of a virgin’ also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?…If the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?”
That was a long historical introduction (have I told you I love Church History, especially American Church History) to the question, "Does the Virgin Birth matter? Do we loose something important if we loose the virgin birth? Who was right, the conservatives or the liberals?" My answer, predictably, is "YES, we it is important if we loose the virgin birth. YES it matters!" I'll offer three theological implications and four practical implications tied to the virgin birth.
Theologically, the virgin birth matters because:
1. It speaks to the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Grudem writes, "God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary's womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit" (Systematic Theology, p. 530). The church has historically affirmed that Jesus had no father on earth and no mother in heaven. Sometimes this has been done to unnecessarily safeguard the sinlessness of Jesus, as if sin were transmitted by man through the act of sex (see a great post by Kevin DeYoung on this). He is utterly unique as God incarnate. Thus, this doctrine does not stand alone, but it woven in with other important doctrines of the faith. Al Mohler asserts, correctly, "The virgin birth does not stand alone as a biblical doctrine, it is an irreducible part of the biblical revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls."
2. It is a wonderful test of our worldview. If we can accept a God who intervenes in the world to part a Red Sea, to turn water into wine, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to die and be raised, why would we reject the miracle of the virgin birth? Or to put it another way, if we reject the virgin birth, why would we accept any of these other miracles? As one theologian put it, "if you can swallow the camel of the Resurrection, why strain at the gnat of the Virgin Birth?" Is it a 'more difficult' miracle (how can we even speak of 'difficult' if we affirm an Almighty God)? Is it of a different nature that would make it out of keeping with God's other miracles? No, I don't think so. Rejecting the Virgin Birth is sign of a drift towards an unbiblical worldview in which miracles are not likely or even possible.
3. It is clearly taught in the Bible. To reject the Virgin Birth is to reject the authority of the Bible. Some have tried to find wiggle room on this, asserting that the Hebrew word for virgin ('almah) used in Isaiah 7 could mean 'maiden' or 'young girl' and could refer to any unmarried woman, not necessarily a virgin. Similar arguments have been made regarding the Greek word parthenos. While these arguments tend to be overstated, they miss the point. Beyond the simple definition of the word, the NT clearly states that Mary was surprised, wondering how this could be (Luke 1:34). Moreover, Matt. 1:18-25 makes it clear that she was with child 'from the Holy Spirit' and that she had not 'known' a man. The only way to get around the virgin birth is to argue that the NT authors intentionally misled their reader and/or misinterpreted the Isaiah passage and felt compelled to create the virgin story to jive with the prediction. Karl Barth concludes, "no one can dispute the existence of a biblical testimony to the Virgin Birth."
Theologically, it is dangerous to reject the Virgin Birth. Its repudiation will almost inevitably be accompanied by a movement away from truly evangelical teaching (in the older sense of the word 'evangelical'). After all, it would necessitate a rejection of the historic ecumenical creeds which assert "I believe in...Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary" (Apostles Creed) and "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God...For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man." (Nicene Creed).
Now practically, I think the Virgin Birth is important because:
1. It humbles us. I see this in two ways. First, it shows us how utterly sinful man was. No hope could be found in man for our salvation so God had to intervene in a miraculous, unprecedented way. It's clear that 'Salvation is from God'. Second, it humbles our reason and brings it into submission to the Word of God. Reason is good, but must at all times be submitted to God.
2. It should serve to strengthen our faith as we are reminded, as was Mary, that "nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). When we don't see a way, we can be reminded that God can make a way.
3. It should open our eyes to the work of God in the giving of life and making us increasingly thankful. As CS Lewis pointed out, miracles simply 'unmask' the work of God. He is the author of life - all life comes from him. Usually he uses natural means. Usually he uses the instruments of a man and a woman coming together in sexual union. But, even when he does it naturally and through the instrument of sex, he does it. Life comes from God. We should remember and be grateful for the gift and miracle of life.
4. It provides us with a wonderful example in Mary's humble obedience. Trying to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic extra biblical teaching on Mary, Protestants tend to downplay Mary. While we should reject the extra-biblical account of Mary's immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, the biblical accounts are enough to teach us to hold Mary in high regard and learn from her example of 'active passivity' (to steal a Schaeffer phrase). We should all say, daily, "Behold, I am the servant6 of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38).
Monday, December 21, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
We are Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical Christians who have united at this hour to reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good, and to call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them. These truths are:There is much I like about it, and a few things I don't. First, here's some positives from the document:
- the sanctity of human life
- the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
- the rights of conscience and religious liberty.
1. I like that they place the efforts of the Christians today in a historical context - "Christians are heirs of a 2,000-year tradition of proclaiming God’s word, seeking justice in our societies, resisting tyranny, and reaching out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering". That truth often gets lost.
2. The above assertion that is balanced by the acknowledgment, be it ever so brief, that there have been "imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages". Some might want a more explicit explanation of what these shortcomings were or an apology for them, but that doesn't seem to have been the point of the Declaration.
3. I appreciated that the drafters made it clear that they were not signing on behalf of any institution in an official way: "We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities." I think when church leaders speak out on social/cultural problems they need to make this clear (a post coming later this week I hope).
4. I like that the drafters appeal to natural law and not just special revelation: "We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person." When in dialogue with nonbelievers I think this is the right approach (not to the exclusion of special revelation, but alongside it). Here's one example, "Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves. Unfortunately, we have witnessed over the course of the past several decades a serious erosion of the marriage culture in our own country."
5. I like that they acknowledge other concerns to which the church should pay attention, but also stay focused on three that are particular concern (expanding it too much would have made it so broad it would have been meaningless): "While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions." I agree that these three issues are of greater concern than say the spread of AIDS. Maybe it would be better to say 'concern of a different, more fundamental nature' than the spread of AIDS'. However, I wish the framers had explained why they consider these more worthy of address than others. They offer, "Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense", but don't spell out why these three are 'foundational'.
6. I like that the document is nonpartisan in nature: "Our commitment to the sanctity of life is not a matter of partisan loyalty, for we recognize that in the thirty-six years since Roe v. Wade, elected officials and appointees of both major political parties have been complicit in giving legal sanction to what Pope John Paul II described as “the culture of death.” We call on all officials in our country, elected and appointed, to protect and serve every member of our society, including the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us." As someone who has voted for the Republican (Presidential) candidate in every election I could vote, I acknowledge that I have been used by the right. I hate it, and don't see an end to it in sight. They do 'call out' the current President, and I think they sum up the contradictory position of the current President well: "The President says that he wants to reduce the “need” for abortion—a commendable goal. But he has also pledged to make abortion more easily and widely available by eliminating laws prohibiting government funding, requiring waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and parental notification for abortions performed on minors. The elimination of these important and effective pro-life laws cannot reasonably be expected to do other than significantly increase the number of elective abortions by which the lives of countless children are snuffed out prior to birth."
7. I like that the framers aren't merely focused on abortion, but other ways in which the sanctity of life has been eroded. The framers write, "the cheapening of life that began with abortion has now metastasized" and they show proper concern for the various ways that this cancer is showing itself.
8. I like the commitment to action beyond political action: "We will be united and untiring in our efforts to roll back the license to kill that began with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion. We will work, as we have always worked, to bring assistance, comfort, and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion, even as we stand resolutely against the corrupt and degrading notion that it can somehow be in the best interests of women to submit to the deliberate killing of their unborn children. Our message is, and ever shall be, that the just, humane, and truly Christian answer to problem pregnancies is for all of us to love and care for mother and child alike."
9. I think there is a proper confidence (to steal a phrase from Newbigin). A proper confidence doesn't say we've got it all right, we know what we're doing, just look at us and do what we do. Instead, it confesses we mess up, but we're willing to own that and still declare what is true and right. So, amid the assertions regarding what we see naturally about marriage and the sanctity of life and assertions regarding what Scripture teaches, we read confessions like this: "We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same."
10. I like the compassion that accompanies the sternness. "We acknowledge that there are those who are disposed towards homosexual and polyamorous conduct and relationships, just as there are those who are disposed towards other forms of immoral conduct. We have compassion for those so disposed; we respect them as human beings possessing profound, inherent, and equal dignity; and we pay tribute to the men and women who strive, often with little assistance, to resist the temptation to yield to desires that they, no less than we, regard as wayward. We stand with them, even when they falter. We, no less than they, are sinners who have fallen short of God’s intention for our lives. We, no less than they, are in constant need of God’s patience, love and forgiveness. We call on the entire Christian community to resist sexual immorality, and at the same time refrain from disdainful condemnation of those who yield to it. Our rejection of sin, though resolute, must never become the rejection of sinners."
11. Lastly, I like the resoluteness in the document. There is no waivering, and that is to be commended: "Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s."
As I said, there's a lot to like. However, I wouldn't sign it (and am under no illusions that anyone cares). Here's why, and it boils down to one thing - the gospel. Two aspects of how the drafters use 'the gospel' in this document concern me. First, the framers assume that the gospel is something on which Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical (even historic Protestant) Christians agree. It simply is not. The document asserts, "Like those who have gone before us in the faith, Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace...," and, "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."
Since the Reformation, the Protestant church has declared that the gospel consists in the justification of sinners by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide). This understanding of the gospel is officially anathema in the Roman Catholic church. We can have debates on what the nature of the gospel is, but we can't assume or declare we agree when in fact we do not (The Catholic Church hasn't moved towards the sola's of the Reformation. Has the Protestant church moved away from them?). Second, there seems to be a profound confusion of gospel and law in this. Proclaiming that we should honor life, that we should honor marriage, that we should guard freedom of conscience in religious matters are statements of law, not gospel (see my post on Gospel and the Kingdom).
This might seem like a trivial matter or just poor wording on the part of the framers. Unfortunately, it's neither. It's not trivial - without the gospel there is not church, no hope, no salvation. And the wording doesn't seem to be an oversight. Consider Colson's words (one of the chief architects, "I believe the Manhattan Declaration can help revitalize the church in America. One great weakness of the Church today is its biblical and doctrinal ignorance. This document is, in fact, a form of catechism for the foundational truths of the faith." Michael Horton offers his thoughts, "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."
There is a lot of debate on this. The document was signed by some men I greatly respect (and will continue to do so despite what I consider to be an error in judgment on this). For example, Church Colson, Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Bryan Chapell, William Edger, Timothy George, Wayne Grudem, Erwin Lutzer, Richard Mouw, Tom Oden, JI Packer, Cornelius Plantinga, Joseph Stowell, John Woodbridge, and Ravi Zacharias all signed it. You can read Al Mohler's explanation of why he signed it, and Ligon Duncan's explanation of how he considers the document to be a matter of judgment, not principle, and Kevin DeYoung's explanation of why he signed it. Other men I respect refused to sign it. You can read Horton, MacArthur, Sproul. There, three reps from each side (also worth reading is Mark Dever's take)!
In the end, I agree with Duncan that it is a matter of judgment. Much will hinge on how you interpret the documents language, particularly the use of the word 'gospel'. I won't sign it because for the reasons stated above, but understand that others who do sign it aren't reading as much into those references as I am.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
There’s nothing new under the sun. That’s one of the things I come away with after reading Christ’s words of encouragement and reprimand to the seven churches of Revelation 2&3. The churches were struggling to love, struggling to keep themselves morally pure, struggling against false teachers, under pressure from their culture. Some were holding up well; some looked to be, but were dead inside. Others had fallen away and were in danger of a major smackdown. What’s new? Nothing.
The study of these two chapters is so practical and relevant. It’s relevant as we think about our church, the church in America, and us as individual members of the body.
The first seven/eight weeks we’ll be looking at one church per week. Then, for the second half of the semester we’ll be looking at major trends/movements/figures within the American church – i.e. revivalism, liberalism (theological and moral), modernism/postmodernism, pragmatism, denominationalism, etc.
If you’ve got suggestions for ‘-ism’s’ you’d like to see us discuss in the second half of the semester, shoot em my way. See you January 10th for class (and hopefully on the 9th for a time of fellowship and fun)!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
(2) How should we read the Bible? (The hermeneutical issue)
a) Reading “along” the whole Bible. To read along the whole Bible is to discern the single basic plot-line of the Bible as God’s story of redemption (e.g., Luke 24:44) as well as the themes of the Bible (e.g., covenant, kingship, temple) that run through every stage of history and every part of the canon, climaxing in Jesus Christ. In this perspective, the gospel appears as creation, fall, redemption, restoration. It brings out the purpose of salvation, namely, a renewed creation. As we confess in CS–(1), [God] providentially brings about his eternal good purposes to redeem a people for himself and restore his fallen creation, to the praise of his glorious grace.
b) Reading “across” the whole Bible. To read across the whole Bible is to collect its declarations, summons, promises, and truth-claims into categories of thought (e.g., theology, Christology, eschatology) and arrive at a coherent understanding of what it teaches summarily (e.g., Luke 24:46-47). In this perspective, the gospel appears as God, sin, Christ, faith. It brings out the means of salvation, namely the substitutionary work of Christ and our responsibility to embrace it by faith. As we confess in CS–(7), Jesus Christ acted as our representative and substitute, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
How this reading of the Bible shapes us. (1) Many today (but not all) who major in the first of these two ways of reading the Bibleóthat is, reading along the whole Bibleódwell on the more corporate aspects of sin and salvation. The cross is seen mainly as an example of sacrificial service and a defeat of worldly powers rather than substitution and propitiation for our sins. Ironically, this approach can be very legalistic. Instead of calling people to individual conversion through a message of grace, people are called to join the Christian community and kingdom program of what God is doing to liberate the world. The emphasis is on Christianity as a way of life to the loss of a blood-bought status in Christ received through personal faith. In this imbalance there is little emphasis on vigorous evangelism and apologetics, on expository preaching, and on the marks and importance of conversion/the new birth. (2) On the other hand, the older evangelicalism (though not all of it) tended to read across the Bible. As a result it was more individualistic, centering almost completely on personal conversion and safe passage to heaven. Also, its preaching, though expository, was sometimes moralistic and did not emphasize how all biblical themes climax in Christ and his work. In this imbalance there is little or no emphasis on the importance of the work of justice and mercy for the poor and the oppressed, and on cultural production that glorifies God in the arts, business, etc. (3) We do not believe that in best practice these two ways of reading the Bible are at all contradictory, even though today, many pit them against each other. We believe that on the contrary the two, at their best, are integral for grasping the meaning of the biblical gospel. The gospel is the declaration that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has come to reconcile individuals by his grace and renew the whole world by and for his glory.
The discussion on the nature of the gospel began after I read a quote by Michael Horton regarding the Manhattan Declaration. Here's the quote, "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." Some in the class questioned such a narrow definition of the gospel, pointing out that Jesus came and preached 'the gospel of the kingdom'. How does this broader understanding of the gospel, the announcement of the good news that God's reign is being established, relate to the more narrow understanding of the gospel as proclamation of forgiveness based on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross?
Remember the version of Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner as Robin Hood and Alan Rickman (aka Hans Gruber from Die Hard) as the Sheriff of Nottingham. I remember the Sheriff had his witch hag whom he consulted. At one point she sees the return of King Richard and the Sheriff is visibly disturbed. I think the line was 'that would be terribly inconvenient'. By way of contrast, those loyal to the king longed for his return, waited, looked to the horizon, dreamed of a restored kingdom and remained loyal subjects. So, for one group, the return of the king and the restoration of the kingdom was indeed good news while for another it was anything but - it was horrible news.
Here's my point. While we'd all like to identify ourselves with Robin and his band of noble thieves who are loyal to King Richard, we shouldn't. If we're up for being honest we should identify with the Sheriff and his followers. Why? Because we're rebels. We've turned our back on the king, thumbed our nose at his authority, disobeyed his decrees, trampled his honor and glory underfoot and have declared ourselves to be his enemies (Rom 5:10, Col. 1:21). So, in what sense is the coming of the king and the establishment of the a just and righteous kingdom good news? It isn't, not for unjust sinners!
The good news of the kingdom is that the king is coming and offering amnesty, forgiveness, mercy, grace, an inheritance and more to those who will accept the free gift (free to us, costly to him). He is welcoming rebels, beggars and vagabonds into his kingdom. Yes, he is establishing a kingdom, but apart from this grace and forgiveness that would not be good news. And this forgiveness comes from, and only from, the cross work of Jesus Christ where our sins are imputed to Jesus who suffers in our stead and his righteousness is imputed to us. The peculiar feature of this kingdom is that King Jesus ‘reigns from the cross’, as early patristic writers put it.
Coming at it from a different angel, the gospel is about what God has done in Jesus, not about what we do in following Jesus. The gospel is about indicatives (the mood of the verb that states facts); the gospel is not a new set of imperatives - it is not law. Their are plenty of imperatives that flow from the indicatives of the gospel, but the gospel is about what God has done, is doing, and will do - not how we act in light of that. The truth that God has redeemed us and that we have been transferred into the kingdom of light by the mighty act of God's love in Jesus changes things, and we are called to live in light of those things (i.e. Galatians 2:14), but it is the truths themselves that constituted the gospel (see 1 Cor 15 for a great summary). A clarification from Horton might help. He writes, "It's important t point out that law and gospel do not simply refer to the Ten Commandments and John 3:16, respectively. Everything in the Bible that reveals God's moral expectations is law and everything in the Bible that reveals God's saving purposes and acts is gospel." (Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, pg. 109).
The only imperatives that we should connect with the gospel is 'repent' and 'believe' or 'receive'. Thus, the three passages in the Bible that speak of 'obeying the gospel' are equivalent to saying 'believe the gospel' or 'receive the gospel'. That is actually quite clear in one of the passages. Romans 10:16 says, "But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (ESV). Even these imperatives should be acknowledged as impossible imperatives apart from the operations of God's grace in our lives (by Calvinists and Wesleyan alike), which is something he does, not us.
So, for example, the sermon on the mount, which is the mandate for how to live in the kingdom, is really law, not gospel. However, trying to live out the kingdom to merit entrance into the kingdom wouldn't work. Apart from God's forgiveness through Christ, the call that comes to us in the Sermon on the Mount would be anything but good news, for who can live up to that standard (or the standard of following Jesus' example). As J. Gresham Machen wrote, "Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus? In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair. We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope” (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ).
So the coming kingdom of God is good news because Jesus died a substitutionary death on the cross for sinners like me and has transferred me, now a forgiven and holy saint, into his kingdom. With question, that will change how I live (by God's continued sanctifying grace) - and that needs to be taught and preached also. But the kingdom mandate isn't the gospel. Again Horton, "Not everything in God's Word is gospel; there are a lot of exhortations, commands, and imperatives. They are to be followed. However, they are not gospel. Not everything we need is gospel. We also need to be directed...[but] confused with faith as the means of inheriting God's gift, our 'good works' become the most offensive sin against God." (Christless Christianity, pg. 109). Preach that to unregenerate souls and one of two things will happen: 1) they'll be crushed with no hope, 2) in their pride (which we're all guilty of) they'll try to do it and become more self righteous than ever. Because we live in a positive culture where people are taught 'you can do it' (read with a Rob Schneider Cajun accent) the later is much more likely.
This may be the greatest flaw in the evangelical church today - it's becoming largely therapeutic, moralistic, and self help oriented. You can see it in the pragmatic 'five steps to' approach of the seeker church, in the emerging churches call for kingdom living, and in the prosperity gospel movement. Again, Horton writes, "Osteen speaks of salvation entirely in terms of prosperity here and now, while McLaren speaks of salvation primarily in terms of peace and justice in the hear and now...Whether we define the gospel as God's invitation to everyone 'to turn from his or her current path and follow on a new way' (with McLaren) or as 'becoming a better you' (with Osteen), we are confusing law and gospel, the command to follow Christ with the announcement from heaven that he has defeated death, condemnation, and sin's tyranny, and will come again in power and glory, first to judge and then to make all things new." (Christless Christianity, pg. 114).
I'll discuss why I think this is important in our evaluation of the Manhattan Declaration (and why I wouldn't sign it) in a subsequent post.