Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Right Error to be Wrongly Charged With

After expounding in glorious detail the gospel of justification by faith through the imputation to sinners of an alien righteousness, Paul the apostle begins the sixth chapter of Romans with the question, "What then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?"

It seems to me that one of the key ways whereby we can determine whether we've understood one of Paul's arguments is by whether or not we are tempted to ask the question that he anticipates his readers asking.

So if, after reading the first five chapters of Romans, your first thought is that you can sin as much as you like since God's grace is so abundant, you're on the right track.

I know, I know... Paul's answer to the question is "no," but that doesn't change the fact that it's precisely the right question to ask.

The case can be made, therefore, that if Paul was constantly charged with preaching antinomianism (cf. Rom. 2:8), then this same charge will be made against those who preach a Pauline gospel today.

The question arises, then, concerning those in our circles who are sympathetic to the theology of the Federal Vision: In your zeal to remedy antinomianism, are you in fact undermining justification by faith alone? And if not, why do your critics all seem to think you are?

And what's more, Does it concern you that you are being charged with the exact opposite error with which Paul was charged?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Knew It!

Many Reformed confessionalists have long suspected that our Federal Vision friends are guilty of smuggling the covenant of works in through the back door by their rejection of the law/gospel distinction in favor of "covenant faithfulness."

Now we have proof....

Federal Visionist and PCA pastor Mark Horne wrote, in response to yours truly, the following:

"And for the record, there simply is no invective strong enough to describe the crimes of Westminster West against the Bible and the Reformed Faith" (comment #87).
Let the reader note that this was written after FV Godfather James Jordan did a pretty good job of calling down imprecations against Reformed orthodoxy when he spoke of the PCA's Federal Vision study committee as "a pack of liars... so openly wicked and evil, and so totally tyrannical, that is makes the Papacy look like small potatoes by comparison," R.C. Sproul as a "clown," and the PCA more broadly as a "gaggle of fools."

So there you have it. Curse-sanctions do have a role to play this side of the cross and empty tomb after all.

They are to be invoked against Westminster Seminary California.


Update: If you are tempted to comment about the precise nature of the Mosaic curse-sanctions or the definition of "invective," please refrain (for that is not the point of my post). Plus, you may want to re-read the verse about straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Take My Advice and Do Better....

I often like to joke about how I would be a great coach for just about any sports team. For example, if I were a batting coach on a baseball team, I would patiently instruct the hitter not to swing at balls, only at strikes. And while we're on the subject, if you do swing, be sure to actually hit the ball (what's the point of swinging and missing?). Oh, and another thing: if you do hit it, be sure to hit it somewhere where there's not a fielder standing there (he might throw you out). Aim better, is what I'm saying.

As amusing as I think I am when I bark such instructions at the TV screen while a bunch of people are gathered to watch a game, the fact is that many church leaders do the same thing when instructing their congregations, or the church at large.

Apparently, the church is supposed to "have an impact." Plus, it should definitely "bring in the kingdom," all the while not forgetting to "redeem the culture."

Is it me, or is this instruction about as helpful as "hit better," "throw harder," and "run faster"?

Thankfully, the Reformed confessions make the church's marching orders much more clear: the job of the local church is to make disciples by preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline in the lives of its members.

Whatever impact or success that the church may hope for (things that are in God's hands), it will only come as the result of doing the things we are actually responsible for. Moreover, if the church refuses to give due attention to the preaching of the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers, she has no business expecting God's blessing on her extra-curricular activities.

When properly understood, then, the advice the church needs to heed is both simple and specific:

Be the Church.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stop Serving God

Dr. Michael Horton's lecture at Westminster Seminary's recent conference was quite interesting and the occasion for plenty of questions during the Q&A time that closed the conference. His basic thesis was that God doesn't need our service, but our neighbor does.

The reason many Christians rarely engage in evangelism, he complained, is that they are so busy with the myriad of programs and "service opportunities" their churches provide. The tremendous pressure to get involved in various church ministries stems from a rather novel interpretation of Ephesians 4:11-12, a passage that in versions other than the KJV seems to teach what has been called "every-member ministry" (the entire argument hangs on the presence or absense of the comma after "saints" in v. 12).

Horton argued that a proper view of the ordained ministry (which insists that it is God, through the officers he has ordained, who serves his people on the Lord's Day) will revolutionize our expectations concerning what church is all about. In a word, we don't come to church to serve God, but for him to serve us. When we do serve God throughout the week, it is not by means of offering him something he lacks, but by means of loving our neighbors.

This does seem to comport with Jesus' own insistence that "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve..." (Matt. 20:28).

So if this position is correct, we would be justified in saying that we should stop serving the Lord precisely so that we may begin serving our neighbors. The way we are prepared to do this is by being served by Christ through his minister on the Lord's Day, during which our entire existence is re-oriented according to the story that God is telling in Christ.

It is only when the marks of the church are given their proper attention that the mission of the church will flourish in the world.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Post-Graduate Ecclesiology?

I'm down in Southern California for Westminster Seminary's conference on the importance of being both missional and Reformed.

This topic's got me a-thinking....

There is no small amount of suppressed guilt among pastors of confessional churches about the fact that our main source of growth, besides babies being born, comes from burned-out ex-evangelicals. The way things seem to work is that the megachurches get 'em saved, and then in a few years they graduate from them to us.

On the one hand, I think that Reformed churches can take a page or two from someone like Mark Driscoll's playbook, for despite his rough edges and various inconsistencies, he really does do a superb job of training his people in what he calls "the ground war," by which he means being very purposeful and engaged in the life of our neighborhoods and communities.

But still, I must also point out that any church that insists upon a confessional identity and reverent liturgy will automatically have serious liabilities when it comes to attracting non-believers. I mean, if I were a pagan, I'd go to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. It's got lots of young people, loud music, and a really funny pastor.

I'm curious, therefore, to hear what the faculty of Westminster have to say about what seems to be an inescapable condundrum for Reformed ministers and church planters: Must we be willing to completely re-tool your philosophy of ministry and make worship about evangelizing the non-churched? And if not, must we be content with the scraps that fall from the megachurch's table?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Amillennialism's Pitfalls?

This evening we took a break from our study of Revelation and I gave the first of two lectures on "Amillennialism and the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms." One of the questions that was asked took me a bit off guard, and I'd like to out it out there for your consideration and input.

If pre- and postmillennial theology have their own problems, what about amillennialism? What are its possible pitfalls?

My answer was that a strong amillennial view of life in this age as consisting of suffering now and glory later (which I regard as the amill position in a nutshell) can potentially lead to individual apathy if it is not coupled with a healthy and robust appreciation of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the New Covenant saint.

The problem with transformationism, as I see it, is its insistance that the individual, redemptive transformation experienced by the believer by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of the age to come must be replicated outside the believer, in the culture. I would argue, on the other hand, that while the believer presently experiences elements of both already and not yet, the cosmos still must wait patiently for the full manifestation of the children of God and the redemption that will follow.

In short, when we allow the un-realized nature of cosmic eschatology to swallow the semi-realized nature of personal eschatology, we inevitably end up with an under-realized and anemic doctrine of sanctification.


Friday, January 11, 2008

A Brief Update on the Pacific Northwest Presbytery's Study Committee on Peter Leithart

As I reported back in October, the Pacific Northwest Presbytery of the PCA appointed a study committee consisting of me, Rob Rayburn, James Bordwine, and two ruling elders to examine the theology of Peter Leithart (a member of this presbytery) in the light of last General Assembly's Federal Vision report.

We were due to conclude our work by this month's presbytery meeting (which started yesterday and will conclude today). Well, due to various circumstances, among which is the fact that the committee itself has yet to arrive at a consensus concerning the precise nature of the issues involved, we do not have a final report just yet. I am hoping we will by April's meeting.

Prayers are appreciated....

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Homo Faber, Meet Homo Ludens

Playing off of the Latin title for man, Homo Sapiens, which means "man the wise," various authors have sought to describe man by different characteristics. Among these are Homo Faber ("man the worker") and Homo Ludens ("man the player").

I pointed out in a previous post that work is a pre-fall activity, and that Adam was commissioned to guard and care for the garden as part of his image-bearing activity in the covenant of works. The fall and subsequent curse did not introduce or obliterate work, therefore, but altered it and transformed it into something which would be characterized by toil, sweat, and an uncooperative earth.

Although work is not to be avoided (as if laziness were a virtue), neither is it to be seen as an unmixed blessing either (the CEO of Microsoft apparently never got the memo).

In the same way that many Ugandans would scratch their heads at Jesus' statement that no one would start a building project without making sure he had the money to complete it, or many Hungarians wouldn't grasp Peter's point that the disciples at the feast of Pentecost couldn't have been drunk since it was only 9am, many Americans today have a difficult time with the concept of "serving Mammon." As with Rockefeller's answer of "A little more" to the question "How much money is enough?", "serving Mammon" is something that rich(er) people do, but not us.

If it is true that market-driven societies value hard work more than they do leisure, then perhaps it is also true that we Americans are more aptly labeled Homo Faber than Homo Ludens.

But if life postlapsum is more than toiling for daily bread, and if divine image-bearing consists of more than being an efficient tool of production (such as enjoying friends and family, engaging in a hobby, or simply lingering over a well-brewed beverage and a book), then perhaps training (or even forcing) ourselves to slow down a bit is the most "world-affirming" thing we can do.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

When Excellence Demands Mediocrity

One would think that the degree of authority with we are charged to do all things "with excellence" is indicative of the fact that such a charge actually comes from the Bible. Recent archaeology has surely uncovered the Eleveth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Do All Things With Excellence," right?

When this insistence is applied to the spiritual kingdom, the logic usually runs thus: "God is glorious and majestic, and unless our church's music and production reflect this, we're selling him short." I'll not spend the necessary time refuting this notion, since I assume that most Reformed amillennialists will see right through this subtle marginalization of the cross.

But the requirement to do all things excellently does seem to make more sense when applied in the civil kingdom, since what passes as power and prestige in the secular realm is quite different from what characterizes the spiritual one.

But can we really bear this burden?

It seems to me that it's hard enough to do even one thing well. And can those of us similarly plagued with mediocrity really be expected to do many things well, let alone all things excellently?

One thing that we average-level Christians could stand to wrestle with is the question, "If I can't be great at everything, which among my various callings are worth the effort needed to excel at them?"

If answering this question entails sacrificing job recognition for a "World's Greatest Dad" coffee mug (though in a meritocracy the latter is worth almost nothing), is that a sacrifice we are willing to make? Is it a "sacrifice" at all?

Sure, the demands of every sphere are unique, and no two sets of circumstances are ever identical. But the storing up of heavenly treasure often demands the sacrificing of that which is earthly, and the responsibility to nurture and train our covenant children in the faith is surely an opportunity to do the former, even if it also entails the latter.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Darwinism in the Workplace

I mentioned in an earlier post that the phenomenon of "job dissatisfaction" is not simply a symptom of a spoiled culture with nothing to do but complain that the AC in our corner office is too loud and interferes with our Blue Tooth, but in fact, it goes back to the fall of man when God cursed his labors and told him that work would continue in the post-fall world, but it will be a total pain.

We're supposed to feel frustrated, and if you think about it, so was Adam, even before the fall. If Vos was right, and eschatology precedes soteriology, then there was a measure of longing during Adam's pre-fall state (and this means, by extension, that you don't need a crisis to see the need for God, nor will getting that big promotion make you cease "looking for to fill that God-shaped hole").

Still, we live in a market-driven society, which teaches us to think of ourselves as consumers and forces us to compete for that which sustains us. This is ironic for conservative Christians, since in a very specific cultural battle we claim to believe in a "right to life," while on the big, broad question we deny that claim, insisting instead that a person only has a "right" to that which he can gain for himself in the open market. So if you don't have any skills that the rest of us deem valuable, then don't come crying to us for a handout.

I guess pro-choice Darwinism is alive and well in our circles after all.

When we are atomized and forced not to cooperate but to compete for wages, promotions, and power, it is to be expected that the built-in frustration we feel will only grow over time.

Are there ways in which the Christian can be countercultural and buck the traditon in the workplace, or should the two kingdoms provide us with the ability to play by one set of rules of rules Monday through Saturday, and another on Sunday?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Questionable Job Well-Done

As I pointed out in my last post, all legitimate vocations are potentially God-honoring, and further, there is no need to "redeem" or "transform" the work in order for God to be glorified by it. Accounting is accounting, whether it is done for human or divine glory.

Some vocations, however, are by their very nature God-dishonoring. Occupations such as prostitution, drug trafficking, and bank robbery are both illegal and immoral, and no matter how much one may try to convince himself otherwise, God cannot but be grieved with those who practice such things.

But here's where the issue becomes interesting....

Are there jobs that are not only legal but respectable, but which are by their very nature morally questionable? I say "by their very nature" because I am not speaking of the dirty cop on the take, or the embezzling CFO, or the juiced-up designated hitter. These are legitimate jobs done dishonestly. I am speaking of professions that, even though legal and even when performed well, are inherently bad.

I hesitate to provide examples for obvious reasons. So I will let you, the faithful reader, wrestle with this question and come up with examples, if there indeed are any.

Fire away....