Thursday, November 29, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
One of the issues addressed at Building Bridges is the nature and extent of the atonement. Dr. David Nelson of Southeastern Seminary approached the subject from one who fully affirms sovereign election but holds to a general view of the atonement. He did an excellent job of offering support for his view. He also was a model of irenic discussion. The response came from Sam Waldron who advanced the idea of particular redemption. Dr. Waldron gave compelling support from the Scriptures for particular redemption and like Dr. Nelson was very generous in his style. Both addresses are well worth the hearing.
I can say the same about all the sessions. Nathan Finn of Southeastern Seminary gave a very helpful address on common misconceptions about Baptist Calvinists. He offered five myths that are often held about Baptist Calvinists:
Myth 1 – Calvinism is a threat to evangelism.
Of course this is nonsense. Less than two hundred years ago most Protestants were Calvinists. The founders of the modern missions movement as well as the Southern Baptist Convention were Calvinists. Calvinists see no contradiction between sovereign election and the call to world evangelization. This is so because not only ordains the ends but He ordains the means to those ends. God promises to win for Himself a people from every nation, tribe, language, and people. He also means to use His people as the means toward that end.
Myth 2 – Calvinists are opposed to invitations.
Wrong. The proclamation of the Gospel is an invitation. What many Calvinists are uncomfortable with is the modern practice of altar calls. An invitation and an altar call are two entirely different things. Charles Spurgeon and George Whitefield pleaded passionately for their hearers to repent and believe in Christ. Under their ministries untold thousands were converted, yet without altar calls. Many Calvinists are bothered by their memories of manipulative altar calls and incomplete presentations of the Gospel. Also, Calvinists do not like being told they have to do something that is not commanded or modeled in Scripture.
Myth 3 – Calvinism is the same thing as hyper-Calvinism.
The typical non-Calvinist evangelical has rejected Calvinism because hyper-Calvinism is the only Calvinism of which they have ever heard. Hyper-Calvinism is an aberration that is no more representative of Calvinism than Pelagianism is representative of Arminianism. Hyper-Calvinism rejects both the necessity of evangelism and the call for all men everywhere to repent and believe. The fact is, there are not very many genuine hyper-Calvinists around anymore. Groups that do not reproduce tend not to last very long.
Myth 4 – Calvinists deny human free will.
First of all, there is no single Calvinist or non-Calvinist view of human free will. The fact is, while many non-Calvinists claim to believe in free will they actually believe that man’s will is limited. Every decision we make is conditioned by countless factors. Also, we pray regularly that God will overcome people’s stubborn will. “God change my son’s heart.” “Lord bring my friend to repentance.” Calvinists affirm just as strongly as non-Calvinist evangelicals that repentance from sin and faith in Christ are absolutely necessary for salvation. All who repent and believe will be saved without exception. Furthermore, no one is saved against their will. The Calvinist, however, is careful to affirm that it is God who makes the convert willing. The Calvinist credits his willingness to repent and believe to God alone.
Myth 5 – Authentic Baptists are not Calvinists.
Baptist history is strongly rooted in Calvinism. Take time some day to read the London Baptist Confession of 1689 or the Abstract of Principles of the Southern Baptist Convention. The examples of prominent Baptists and Southern Baptists who were/are Calvinists are legion. From John Bunyan, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon, and Adonirum Judson to Andrew Fuller, J.P. Boyce, W.A. Criswell (that’s right), and many others in our own day Calvinists have always been a part of Baptist life.
Dr. Finn’s address is well worth the hearing. If you are a Calvinist then Charles Lawless’ address on misconceptions that Calvinists often hold about non-Calvinists was excellent and gracious.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
One of the unique things about Building Bridges is that each session consists of two speakers addressing the same theological issue; one from the perspective of a Baptist Calvinist and the other from that of a non-Calvinist. It is a somewhat grueling but nevertheless excellent format. The lectures have been scholarly, challenging, and irenic. It has been an example of how theological dialogue ought to be conducted among brothers who affirm Gospel essentials.
There has, however been one exception so far. In my opinion Malcolm Yarnell who teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary did not display the kind of fairness and irenic spirit that was so characteristic of the other presenters. Dr. Yarnell, a decidedly NON-Calvinistic Southern Baptist, addressed the topic “Calvinism: A Cause for Rejoicing, A Cause for Concern.” Needless to say, his perspective weighed most heavily on the cause for concern. Fair enough. After all, his job was to speak from the non-Calvinistic point of view. The problem, to my thinking was two-fold: his attitude and his scholarship.
I will not go into too much detail but Dr. Yarnell made several errors. First of all he defined three “Calvinisms”: 1) Classical Calvinism 2) Baptist Calvinism 3) Hyper-Calvinism. Those are helpful distinctions. The problem is that even though Yarnell affirmed the difference between hyper-Calvinism and the first two options he seemed then to confuse the categories. He seemed to suggest too close a kinship between Classical and Baptist Calvinism and Hyper-Calvinism.
Dr. Yarnell highly exaggerates the presence of hyper-Calvinism. I know a lot of Calvinists and not one of them could be considered “hyper” except by the most ill-informed among us. While hyper-Calvinists certainly did have a presence in England in the 19th century there are very few of them left. Systems which reject the call to evangelize don’t tend to reproduce themselves. However, Dr. Yarnell seems to see a hyper-Calvinist boogey man lurking somewhere within every Calvinist just waiting to get out.
Incidentally, hyper-Calvinism is not five point Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism is an aberration that believes sovereign election renders missions and evangelism unnecessary and that the Gospel should not be freely offered to all. Calvinists have always rejected those ideas.
Another weakness in Dr. Yarnell’s presentation was his downplaying of the prominence of Calvinism among the early Baptists. He even denied the Reformed character of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. That was a new one for me. I don’t know of any non-Calvinist church historians who deny the presence and, indeed prominence of Reformed doctrine in Baptist and Southern Baptist origins. Dr. Yarnell, however, seems to question this.
Another questionable tactic used by Dr. Yarnell was the use of anecdotes. At one point he said he once spoke to a Calvinist who justified leaving his wife because it must have been God’s will. In twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have talked to numerous men and women who justify their divorce by saying, “It’s God’s will,” none of whom were Calvinists. Is it then legitimate for me to conclude that non-Calvinists are susceptible to such nonsense because they do not embrace Calvinism? I was amazed that a scholar would make such a nonsensical link.
To make matters worse, Dr. Yarnell actually played the Servetus card. Now, I expect uninformed persons who have no formal training in church history to appeal to Michael Servetus in order to discredit Calvinism. I expect people like Dave Hunt and Ergun Caner, neither of whom are careful scholars, to appeal to Servetus to dismiss Reformed doctrine. But Dr. Yarnell should know better. It was purely anecdotal and even inaccurate not to mention the fact that the Michael Servetus situation has nothing to do with the legitimacy of Reformed doctrine.
I felt as if I were being scolded during Dr. Yarnell’s address. He even took a few swipes at John Piper. If he does not agree with Dr. Piper’s Calvinism, fine. But John Piper is a careful scholar and pastor. He is a godly man who has provided laypersons with some of the most accessible theology of any Christian writer. He is also, by any measure, passionate for the cause of world evangelization and a tireless champion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those reasons any non-Calvinist ought to extend Piper a measure of kindness and respect. But those are qualities that, in my opinion, were missing from his address.
I am sure Dr. Yarnell is a fine man. I have no doubt he is an intelligent man who also loves Jesus and cares about the Gospel. I was disappointed that he did not make a better attempt to get his facts right and to truly understand those with whom he disagrees.
Merritt did a fine job but the evening belonged to Mohler. His message was deeply moving. I urge you to go to the Lifeway site linked on a previous post and listen. There are a lot of good sermons preached every week in America. There are far fewer great sermons preached. Dr. Mohler’s sermon Monday night was a great sermon. I will not attempt to summarize. You simply must hear it.
Monday, November 26, 2007
He offered eight assertions:
1. Baptist Calvinists are most consistent in their affirmation of biblical innerancy. If we are to affirm the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture then we must affirm that God's free will trumps man's free will (only Calvinism upholds this truth). How can we trust the full inspiration and innerancy of the Bible if God was not free to overcome the "free will" of the human authors and cause them to write just as He decreed? Only Calvinism upholds "compatibility" or "concurrance" - the biblical position that God's total sovereignty is compatible or runs concurrant with human responsibility.
2. Baptist Calvinists have an intrinsic dependence upon the Trinity. Only Calvinism consistently upholds the unbreakable nature of purpose and action within the Trinity. In other words, what the Father decrees, the Son successfully accomplishes, and the Spirit unfailingly applies. In other theological systems, that union is broken. What the Father decrees, the Son does not necessarily accomplish. What the Son accomplishes the Spirit does not always apply.
3. Baptist Calvinists are consistent in their affirmation of the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
4. Baptist Calvinists have consistently affirmed religious liberty. Faith cannot be coerced since it is a gift of God.
5. Baptist Calvinists have consistently championed missions and evangelism. Nettles cited such luminaries as William Carey, Adinirum Judson, Luther Rice, John Dagg, and Charles Spurgeon. The founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were uniformly Calvinistic. They founded the denomination for the sake of missions and evangelism. How can the doctrine of the founders of the largest Protestant denomination in the world be condemned as anti-evangelistic?
6. Baptist Calvinists are consistent advocates of Christ-centered preaching. They hold unswervingly to the fact that the Gospel is God’s power unto salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). So, it is in the preaching of Christ and Him crucified which leads to genuine conversion. The manipulative mischief which came of age in the days of Finney and are still nourished in many evangelical churches have all been birthed by systems other than Calvinism.
7. Baptist Calvinists are consistent advocates of personal holiness. Because regeneration (the new birth) is entirely a work of God’s sovereign grace, it cannot but produce genuine transformation.
8. Baptists Calvinists are consistent advocates of regenerate church membership. It is the Calvinists within the Southern Baptist Convention from which the calls for a new commitment to regenerate church membership are coming.
It's late (11:35 eastern). The opening sessions were outstanding. I will post more about those in the morning. Please take advantage of the audio provided by Lifeway here (http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/article_main_page/0%2C1703%2CA%25253D166704%252526M%25253D201042%2C00.html?). Sorry. I haven't figured out how to shorten that whole thing to a simple "here".
Sunday, November 25, 2007
While I am thankful for the opportunity to attend the conference I will, as always, miss being home. I missed being in the pulpit this morning but I know that Kris did a great job. I am blessed to work with men who do not need me to be effective in their ministry.
I will be posting daily on the conference sessions. I hope they will be helpful and encouraging to you.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom
and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgment,
and His paths beyond tracing out!...
To Him be the glory forever!
We hear a lot of talk these days in evangelical circles about mystery. When difficult theological questions are raised we often retreat to the safe confines of the, “We just can’t know” defense. True, there are many questions that will not be fully answered in this lifetime. Indeed, who in their right mind would suggest that we can know all there is to know about God? However, let us not retreat to mystery in response to those doctrines where Scripture speaks with clarity. After all, God did not inspire the 66 books of the Bible so that everything would be hopelessly draped in mystery. For instance, Paul’s words quoted above about the depths and unsearchableness of the knowledge of God are expressed only after 11 chapters worth of rigorous theological instruction on such doctrines as original sin, the substitutionary atonement, God’s wrath, God’s grace, election, and predestination.
Melanchthon was right to a degree. Certainly, to the one whose faith is not much more than intellectual investigation I would join the chorus: “We do better to adore than to investigate!” However, this is an oversimplification. The fact is: how can we properly adore what we do not know? How do we rightly worship what we have not come to understand? The answer is: adore and investigate; study and worship; know and thrill.
It is fashionable in certain circles within evangelicalism to deconstruct Jesus. Rob Bell, popular author and emergent church pastor affirms that such key doctrines as the Trinity, virgin birth, and resurrection of Christ are dispensable. He likens those doctrines to springs on a trampoline. According to Bell, you can disconnect those springs and still bounce on the trampoline (his metaphor for Christianity). Brian MacLaren the unofficial leader of the emergent movement openly dismisses the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of hell, and the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. It is one thing for brothers and sisters in Christ to wrangle over the various theories of the end times and the exact role of Israel in God’s plan but when the atonement, the resurrection, and the uniqueness of Christ are jettisoned then what is left is not orthodox Christianity.
The objection from within the emergent movement and other liberal Protestants is that certainty is arrogant. In the words of Brian MacLaren: “Certainty is overrated.” They tell us that Christians should embrace a more “humble apologetic” or “generous orthodoxy.” But one wonders. Is it more humble to say about what Scripture makes plain: “We just can’t know”? Is it humble to constantly question doctrines that God Almighty has revealed with such care in His Word?
Jesus is under attack both from within the church and from the outside. However, it is not the atheists like Christopher Hitchens who disturb me so much as the prominent Christians who dismiss much of what the Bible makes plain about Christ. How can these men and women with a simple wave of their post-modern skepticism put asunder what God has made so clear? The arrogance is breathtaking. They have reduced Jesus from the eternal Son of God, propitiation for sinners, and returning King who will judge the living and the dead to a political radical and environmentalist who bears little if any resemblance to the Christ of Scripture.
The Reformers and Puritans spoke of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. This was to affirm that God has not left His people in the dark. The doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity declares that God desires His people to know Him well; that our worship and devotion might be undergirded with clear knowledge. During this season of Advent may we all linger long over the precious words of God’s clear and abiding Word concerning our Savior. May we adore the pre-existent, virgin born, divine and human, atoning, and risen Christ. He is worth our careful study and exuberant praise.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
A few other excellent resources on the Puritans are:
Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke
Quest for Godliness by J.I. Packer
Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken
The Devoted Life by Kapic and Gleason
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The current presidential race has seen divisions and confounding alliances among evangelical leaders. Wayne Grudem, a leading evangelical theologian has endorsed Mormon and former (?) liberal Mitt Romney. James Dobson, true to his convictions is supporting Mike Hukabee. Perhaps most shocking, arch conservative Pat Robertson has publically endorsed Rudy Giuliani.
Of the current political influence of evangelicals, Kirkpatrick writes:
“Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.”
Of particular interest to “Wichitans” is the inclusion of an analysis of pastor ________. As anyone living in Wichita knows, __________ has been a fixture in local news primarily because of his involvement in political issues. Kirkpatrick ends his article with a quote from pastor ________ that is sadly illustrative of the attitude he has displayed in the pulpit and the public square: “Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”
The problem revealed in that statement and with much of the political activism on the part of conservative evangelicals is that they wage war with the same weapons and attitudes of the left. In the first three quarters of the 20th century conservative Christians criticized the political activism of liberal Christians. Dismissed as “the social gospel” conservatives saw the left’s politicking as a sad accommodation to culture. It was seen as seeking cultural transformation with worldly weapons rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ which the liberals had already jettisoned. Ironically, while seeking different ends, conservative Christians have become accustomed to employing the same means as liberals.
What bothers me about this brand of evangelicalism is not that it offends but that it offends for the wrong reasons. The Gospel of Jesus will be a stone of stumbling to both conservative and liberal alike. The problem is that the Gospel and politics have, in many cases, become intertwined and confused. For instance, when a pastor rants about politics for 30 minutes (instead of preaching Scripture) he is said to have “really preached the Gospel.” This example, which I have personally observed in this community, reveals the sad reality that many conservative evangelicals have equated conservative political positions with the Gospel of Jesus.
Perhaps now is the time for a bit of self-disclosure. I am a flag-waving patriot and self-described conservative. I am pro-life and support an amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. I have taught my children about the significance of Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. We value American history in our home. My wife and I vote and believe it is a privilege and responsibility to do so. I love America and look forward to taking my children on their first trip to Washington D.C. I believe displays of patriotism should be common in the public square. However, God shares His glory with no one. The gathered worship of God’s people is not to be divided between praise for God and nationalistic celebrations. The mixing of worship and patriotism can be a very dangerous thing as Israel has found during her long history.
Be cautious my fellow conservatives. Just as liberal Christians became an arm of the Democratic Party, conservative evangelicals have been, in too many cases, co-opted by the Republican Party. The church must never become an extension of any political party. Politics and the Gospel mix about as well as oil and water. The message that Jesus Christ died for sinners, rose victorious from the grave, and all must turn to Him in repentance and faith or perish is incompatible with success at the polls. How many evangelical politicians have stumbled in articulating the Gospel because they are well aware of the fact that it is a stumbling block?
The bravado and vitriol so common among certain evangelical leaders seems inconsistent for a people who follow a crucified Savior; a Lord who said His kingdom was not of this world. What is more, Jesus resolutely refused to involve himself in the politics of His day. There was much to condemn in the Roman system and yet Jesus resisted the political wrangling so common among many of His fellow Jews. He turned down all attempts to become politically influential. The power that many of His followers hungered for, He rejected. I cannot imagine Jesus saying, “My followers may be down but not out. You never know when they will come out like a snake and bite you!”
Monday, November 12, 2007
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Friday, November 9, 2007
John Hagee teaches that Israel does not need Christ as Savior. He teaches that God will save them apart from the work of Christ on the cross.
This is where hyper-dispensationalism leads folks. It is the unbiblical teaching that God has one way of salvaiton for Israel and another way for Gentiles. It is heresy plain and simple.
Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex
By Michael Horton
Evangelicals have been talking lately about transforming the culture, doing kingdom work in all of life, and incarnating the church in the world. Sound good? The trouble is, these movements can conceive of the church as a substitute for Christ, shifting the focus of Christians from his promised return to your best life now.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: FROM REVIVALISM TO WARREN
To understand this, it’s helpful to consider how the evangelical church has related to the wider culture over the last couple of centuries. We are often told that evangelicalism was a sleeping giant—aloof and passive toward social, political, economic, and wider cultural concerns. As the story goes, the separatist giant was awakened from its dogmatic slumbers by Francis Schaeffer and the Moral Majority, unleashing the enormous energy of conservative Protestants, with the result that, at least since the 1980s, evangelicals can make or break political campaigns.
However, this picture isn't quite accurate. The evangelical revival in Britain, led by both Calvinists like George Whitefield and John Newton as well as Arminians like John and Charles Wesley, contributed significantly to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the empire. Historians often credit this movement, known in its American theater as the Great Awakening, with galvanizing the colonies into a republic. It is impossible to tell the story of American independence, abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, child labor legislation, and prohibition without mentioning the impact of revivalism.
In fact, by the nineteenth century, the leading evangelist Charles Finney was actually defining the church as "a society of moral reformers." Taking advantage of every opportunity to attack Calvinism, Finney's theology was not even Arminian, but Pelagian: he explicitly denied original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification; and he considered the new birth to be a self-generated conversion from sinful behavior to upright living. His sermon with the title "Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts," which he preached at Park Street Church in Boston, summarizes the Second Great Awakening and much American revivalism ever since.
True to their pragmatic and self-confident instincts, American Protestants did not want to define the church first and foremost as a community of forgiven sinners, recipients of grace, but as a triumphant army of moral activists. Even if one does not explicitly endorse Finney's Pelagianism, the undercurrent of assumptions and practices that evolved from his Pelagianistic social activism are powerful and pervasive. In the nineteenth century, most Protestants were optimistic about wider cultural change. Temperance societies emerged as one of many movements organized around the vision of a Christianized America.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, fellow evangelicals Josiah Strong and D. L. Moody would represent the growing cleavage between the triumphalistic postmillenialists and the pessimistic premillennialists. "The kingdoms of this world will not have become the kingdoms or our Lord," Strong opined, "until the money power has been Christianized." Long before the conservative-liberal polarizations, American evangelicalism had championed the so-called "social gospel," as one notices in the following comment from Horace Bushnell:
Talent has been Christianized already on a large scale. The political power of states and kingdoms has been long assumed to be, and now at last really is, as far as it becomes their accepted office to maintain personal security and liberty. Architecture, arts, constitutions, schools, and learning have been largely Christianized. But the money power, which is one of the most operative and grandest of all, is only beginning to be; though with promising tokens of a finally complete reduction to Christ and the uses of His Kingdom….That day, when it comes, is the morning, so to speak, of the new creation. Is it not time for that day to dawn?
But evangelist D. L. Moody marched to the beat of a different drummer. Although he was initially representative of Charles Finney’s social activism, Moody became increasingly pessimistic about the extent to which earthly empires could become the kingdom of God. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," he would later write. "God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’" Whereas many people increasingly regarded revival as an instrument for Christianizing society through evangelism and social action, Moody saw it as a means of converting individuals. In Josiah Strong’s vision, however, an American version of the Holy Roman Empire began to proliferate with Protestant hospitals, colleges, women’s societies and men’s societies, all signs of God’s approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Finney has been hailed as an evangelical hero by Protestants as diverse as modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and fundamentalist Bob Jones, Sr., and, more recently, as the exemplar of left-wing political causes by Jim Wallis and right-wing causes by Jerry Falwell. It is perhaps no wonder that a bewildered visitor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could describe American religion as "Protestantism without the Reformation." As George Marsden has documented in various places, both the Christian Right and the Christian Left derive from this late nineteenth-century evangelicalism. It is this quite recent train of thought (or, more precisely, activism), rather than the profound reflection of Augustine and the reformers, that guides contemporary evangelical activism. Ironically, even staunch premillenialists like Jerry Falwell sound a good deal like the postmillenialists of yesteryear. The agenda for moral reform may have divided in liberal and conservative directions, but both owe their origin to the revivalism of Charles Finney.
So when a conservative Southern Baptist like Rick Warren embraces "new measures" in church growth by advocating a vision of the church as an army of reformers who can end the plagues of disease, war, and poverty as well as promiscuity, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and alcoholism, he stands in a long line leading from Finney to Strong to Sunday to Graham. "Deeds, not Creeds!" used to be the mantra of the social gospel of mainline churches, but Warren has revived it today as if it were newly minted. After a brief dispensationalist interlude, American evangelicals returned to their more positive and triumphant (postmillennial) message of transforming American culture into "a shining city upon a hill."
Of course, this cursory overview does not answer the normative question about what the church should be doing in relation to the wider culture, but it does provide a context that helps us understand perennial assumptions often taken for granted at least in American churches. Ironically, in the land that prizes the legal separation of church and state, the identification of church and sub-culture, each with its political agenda, is nearly total: white suburban evangelicals, the Black church, mainline social gospels, and the more recent "new urbanism" of the emergent movement. Yet in spite of their different agendas, each of these ecclesiastical demographics is largely dependent on the heritage of American revivalism.
So far we’ve considered the historical context of the question, "What should the church's role be in the wider culture?" Now to the biblical and theological context.
BIBLICAL/THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT: CHURCH AS MESSIANIC SUBSTITUTE
Many writers today are calling for a greater emphasis on the resurrection. What’s overlooked, ironically, is the importance of Christ’s ascension.
The resurrection and ascension of Jesus generate a remarkable paradox. Right at the place where the Suffering Servant has been exalted as conquering Lord, the first fruit of a new creation, and the head of a body, he disappears. Then, precisely in that place that is vacated by the one who has ascended, a church emerges.
The most direct ascension account comes from Luke (Luke 24:13-27; 24:50-53). Acts 1 reprises this episode in its opening verses (Ac 1:6-11). Thus the ascension (and parousia) became part of the gospel itself. Not only was Jesus crucified and raised according to the prophets, but the Messiah will be sent again. Jesus, says Peter, "must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets" (Ac 3:20-21, emphasis added).
As they were taught by Jesus in the Olivet and Upper Room discourses and on the road to Emmaus (Matt. 24-25; John 14-16; Luke 24:13ff), the apostolic preaching in Acts follows the familiar pattern of descent-ascent-return, justifying the confession in the eucharistic liturgy, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Jesus’ departure is as real and decisive as his incarnation, and he "will come [again] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Ac 1:11)—that is, in the flesh. In the meantime, he is absent in the flesh.
Under-realized Ascension, Over-realized Eschatalogy
One problem in the history of interpretation, however, has been to treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than as a new event in its own right. The ascension of Jesus in the flesh opens up an interim within history that keeps us looking forward to the return of the same Jesus. Nothing can replace Jesus in the flesh.
As the first fruits of the new creation, Jesus in his ascension does not abandon history but redefines all that has preceded it as the old age of sin and death, subjecting it to judgment. The history of human misery and pomp, autonomy and strife, which can only yield the fruit of condemnation, is now passing away. It’s becoming obsolete. Even now the "age to come" is reconfiguring reality around its glorified head. The time that the church thus occupies because of the ascension is defined neither by full presence nor full absence, but by a eucharistic tension between "this age" and "the age to come." The church is lodged in that precarious place of ambiguity and tension between these two ages, and it must live there until Jesus returns, relying only on the Word and Spirit.
Yet the church does not like to stay put. It wants to jump the gun and realize the kingdom of glory when, for now, God has determined for it to be a kingdom of grace. Looking away from the absence of Jesus of Nazareth, the church, as the body of Christ, can easily come to see itself as his visible and earthly replacement. As Douglas Farrow notes, "When the earthly church is seen as a mirror of heavenly triumph, when its success on the horizontal axis is thought to display the dizzying heights to which its Lord ascends, it is difficult to set limits to the glory which should accrue to it." Augustine spoke of a totus Christus, the whole Christ consisting of its head and its members. In other words, that which is human about Jesus—visibility, temporality, fleshiness—is now transferred to the church as a historical body. Jesus proclaimed himself as Jacob’s ladder (Jn 1:50-51), but in his bodily absence the church offers itself for that mediation. The history of Jesus in the flesh is at least implicitly replaced by the history of the church as the kingdom of God. The deity of Christ remains transcendent, but his incarnate existence is "fleshed out" by and as the church.
In this context, it is not surprising that the kingdom of God was identified directly with the church—a kind of "over-realized" amillennialism that was no longer palpably aware of the church's location in the already/not yet tension of God's plan in history. The kingdoms of this world are gradually becoming the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
Church As Christ’s Regent
This transition to what we might call anachronistically a "postmillennial" optimism was more plausible with the conversion of Constantine since Christianity was given imperial status. Constantine's admiring assistant and biographer Eusebius announced that Christ had, as it were, handed over earth's title deed to his servant, Constantine, who advances Christ's reign "through the ordinary usages of war." Eventually, the bishop of Rome would vie for the keys to the kingdoms of this world.
For Thomas Aquinas, Christ's physical presence was under the control of the church, which could summon him with the ringing of a bell in the mass. The miracle of transubstantiation "placed Christ fully in the church’s possession," notes Farrow. "Indeed, it meant that the church now controlled the parousia. At the ringing of a bell the Christus absens became the Christus praesens…Seated comfortably with the Christ-child on its lap, the church soon became his regent rather than his servant."
Incarnation Or Substitution
Why this excursus on the ascension? Because there is so much dangerous talk these days about the church as the continuing incarnation of Christ, the active agent of redemption, who completes the work that Christ came to accomplish. In short, the church is substituted for Christ. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic followers of German idealism have made this move, and the trail leads all the way to Pope Benedict XVI, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, and the circle of brilliant writers known as Radical Orthodoxy.
Graham Ward, a representative of Radical Orthodoxy, has recently written,
"We have no access to the body of the gendered Jew…It is pointless because the Church is now the body of Christ, so to understand the body of Jesus we can only examine what the Church is and what it has to say concerning the nature of that body as scripture attests it...As Gregory of Nyssa points out, in his thirteenth sermon on Song of Songs, ‘he who sees the Church looks directly at Christ.’"
I realize that most evangelicals bristle at such grandiose claims for the institutional church, much less the pope, but do we not regularly encounter the claim that Christians are called to save Western civilization, transform the culture, and build the kingdom of God as the extension of Christ's redeeming mission in the world?
According to the late Archibishop of Canterbury, William Temple, "The church should recognize in itself the earthly body of the ascended Lord; and not only in itself, but also in the world, it should recognize the work of the Spirit drawing all things to God." The question of Christ's bodily whereabouts is no longer important, because the church is alive and well, picking up where he left off.
In fact, "incarnational" is becoming a dominant adjective in evangelical circles, often depriving Christ’s person and work of its specificity and uniqueness. Christ’s person and work easily becomes a "model" or "vision" for ecclesial action (imitatio Christi), rather than a completed event to which the church offers its witness. We increasingly hear about "incarnational ministry," as if Christ's unique personal history could be repeated or imitated. The church, whether conceived in "high church" or "low church" terms, rushes in to fill the void, as the substitute for its ascended Lord. In its train, the sacramental cosmos returns. As Christ and his work is assimilated to the church and its work, similar conflations emerge between the gospel and culture; between the word of God and the experience of our particular group; and between the church’s commission and the transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ.
It is this recurring temptation to look away from Christ’s absence—toward a false presence, often substituting itself as an extension of Christ’s incarnation and reconciling work—that distracts it from directing the world’s attention to Christ’s parousia in the future. Yet a church that does not acknowledge Christ’s absence is no longer focused on Christ; instead, it’s tempted to idolatrous substitutions in the attempt to seize Canaan prematurely.
The parallel with Moses is striking:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him" (Ex 32:1).
Of course, the church has seen and heard a lot since then, including confirmation upon confirmation of God's saving promise. Yet we must wait for the restoration at the end of the age. We hope and act in the present not in order to save the world or build the kingdom of God, but because "we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken" (Heb 12:28).
IS ALL OF LIFE KINGDOM WORK?
If this theological argument is correct, then we should question popular statements like, "All of life is kingdom work." No, proclaiming the Word, administering baptism and the Supper, caring for the spiritual and physical well-being of the saints, and bringing in the lost are kingdom work. Building bridges, delivering medical supplies to hospitals, installing water heaters, defending clients in court, holding public office, and having friends over for dinner are "creation work," given a pledge of safe conduct ever since Cain under God's regime of common grace. In this work, Christians serve beside non-Christians, as both are endowed with natural gifts and learned skills for their common life together.
Only when Christ returns in glory will the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Until then, the New Testament does not offer a single exhortation to Christianize politics, the arts and sciences, education, or any other common grace field of endeavor.
Of course, Christians will bring their worldview and values to their secular callings. Instead of simply working for the weekend out of pure self-interest, believers should choose and fulfill their vocation as a way of best loving and serving their neighbor. What the church does for those who are of the household of faith is different from what individual Christians do as neighbors in the world.
Where we might hope for triumphant calls to "redeem culture," the New Testament epistles offer comparatively boring yet crucial exhortations to respect and pray for those in authority, to treat employers and employees well, and to be faithful parents and children. We are called "to increase more and more" in godliness through the ordinary means of grace in the church. And in our secular vocations we are called to "aspire to lead a quite life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside and that you may lack nothing" (1 Thes 4:10-12).
SHOULD THERE BE "CHRISTIAN" INSTITUTIONS?
Again, if this theological argument is correct, we should ask whether there should be Christian hospitals, Christian businesses, or Christian entertainment industries. Haven't such enterprises, which often do no more than mimic their secular counterparts, distracted the church from its primary focus and ministry? What if churches were more seriously Christian, concentrating on Christ as he is delivered to sinners through Word and Sacrament, and their members were scattered throughout the week to occupy posts alongside their non-Christian neighbors instead of being driven into an ostensibly Christian sub-culture? What if, instead of trying to discipline a pagan culture, we restored the evangelical practice of church discipline in our own churches (a point made better by Paul in 1 Cor 5:9-12)?
Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work. Yet in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished slavery, but Christians in public office who had been formed by the church's ministry. When William Wilberforce came to John Newton for advice on whether he should enter the ministry, Newton encouraged his friend to pursue politics instead. It was as a member of parliament that Wilberforce loved and served his neighbor, benefiting from the ordinary means of grace that Newton ministered to him. The church preaches God's transcendent law and gospel, and her children pursue their cultural mandate in their secular vocations. One wonders what might have happened if, instead of dividing over national policy, Protestant churches in the antebellum American North and South practiced church discipline against slave-holders. After all, according to numerous accounts, South African apartheid in our own time came crashing down when the Dutch Reformed Church confessed that its religious justification of the system was "heresy." Disciplined by its sister Reformed churches around the world, the church did what only the church could do, and the result was that the system lost its moral legitimacy.
I realize that this argument only scratches the surface. It is too broad to offer an adequate answer to important questions about whether and to what extent mercy ministries should be extended to those outside of the household of faith. However, I hope to have offered some more general thoughts to help frame such a discussion.
The ascension highlights Christ's bodily absence, while Pentecost highlights his presence in saving action by his Spirit, working through the Word. Even now, the powers of the age to come are breaking in on this present evil age, yet we remain pilgrims, not emperors or architects of a new world order.
In imitation of our Father, who in this era of common grace sends rain upon the just and the unjust alike, we are called to fulfill our secular vocations as a loving service to our neighbors. As citizens of the City of God, we are called to grow up into maturity together in the body of Christ and proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. Only at Christ's appearing will these two callings—the creation mandate and the Great Commission—become identical.
The law can guide us in godly living, but it can never—even after we’re justified—give us any life. "Deeds, not creeds!" means "Law, not Gospel!" By going beyond God's law, this moral agenda imposes on Christ's sheep burdens that he has not commanded to be borne, agendas that do not have his authorization; and it dulls that patient and hopeful cry engendered by the Spirit in our hearts, "Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly!"
At the same time, by placing an emphasis on unwarranted "kingdom movements," Christians are distracted from the concrete vocations God has given us in the world simply to love and serve our neighbor with patience, respect, and excellence.
Just as we cannot derive any life from the law, we cannot derive any confidence in our cultural triumphs in so many fields. As with law-and-gospel, our earthly and heavenly citizenship are not opposed unless we are seeking a way of salvation for ourselves or our nation. But once we recognize that there is no everlasting rest from violence, oppression, injustice and immorality through our own political or cultural works, we are free to pursue their amelioration with vigorous gratitude to God for his saving grace in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, we pursue this cultural task looking back to the creation which God blessed and looking forward to this same creation that will be restored when the kingdoms of this world will finally be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ forever, world without end. Amen.
Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, editor of Modern Reformation magazine, and a host of the White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio/internet broadcast. His latest book is Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (WJK, 2007).
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
This was posted at Christian Research Net. It's a bit long but illustrates well why so many pulpits are impoverished. By abandoning the call to be shepherds of the Lord's flock, pastors have also abandoned the long discipline of studying the biblical text. Why not just buy a sermon from Warren or Hybels?
With words that are eerily contemporary Spurgeon wrote:
"The heaving of the masses under newly invented excitements we are too apt to identify with the power of God. This age of novelties would seem to have discovered spiritual power in brass bands and tramborines...The tendency of the time is towards bigness, parade, and show of power, as if these would surely accomplish what more regular agencies have failed to achieve...
"Jesus said, 'Preach the gospel to every creature.' But men are getting tired of the divine plan; they are going to be saved by the priest, going to be saved by the music, going to be saved by theatricals, and nobody knows what! Well, they may try these things as long as ever they like; but nothing can ever come of the whole thing but utter disappointment and confusion, God dishonored, the gospel travestied, hypocrites manufactured by the thousands, and the church dragged down to the level of the world...
"Why is this? Whence this distaste for the ordinary services of the sanctuary? I believe that the answer, in some measure, lies in a direction little suspected. There has been a growing pandering to sensationalism; and, as this wretched appetite increases in fury the more it is grafted, it is at last found to be impossible to meet its demands. Those who have introduced all sorts of attractions into their services have themselves to blame if people forsake their more sober teachings, and demand more and more of hte noisy and the singular. Like dram-drinking, the thirst for excitement grows."
from "The Forgotten Spurgeon" by Iain Murray