Theological development is largely an exercise in reaction and compensation. Theological emphases come along and respond to other, different or competing, emphases. This has happened over the last 30 years or so with the doctrine of justification among conservative Protestants. It has been known to Lutherans as the article of faith on which the church stands and falls. John Calvin said it was the principal hinge of religion. More recent theologians both within and influenced by the so-called New Perspective on Paul have correctly pointed out that the Bible doesn’t quite say this about justification. In short, they have argued that justification has been comparatively overemphasized in historic Protestantism. This assertion is correct, but to acknowledge this is not to suggest that justification is unimportant. All to the contrary: there can be no Christianity without justification. It is near the heart of the Christian Faith. Why?
The modern world and church tend to be lax about and indifferent toward justification because the holiness of God is no longer popular. Moderns tend to see God as an indulgent grandfather or as a self-help guru assisting us in our life‘s aspirations. This is far from the biblical picture of God. In fact, one characteristic that we find of God, literally from Genesis to Revelation, is that when humans come into his presence, they are awestruck by his majestic holiness. This is not quite the depiction of God popular in today’s Christianity, including much conservative Christianity, to put it mildly.
Again and again in the Old Testament we read how God established specific laws and methods by which his people were to approach him so as to cleanse themselves. The most obvious example of this was the sacrificial system in Israel. Of course, in the New Testament, we know from the book of Hebrews that this system pointed to the final, enduring sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, many Christians seem not to stress this rationale for our Lord‘s death. They do understand that he died for our sins so that we can escape eternal judgment. They seem not to accent as much that it was necessary to die for our sin so that we could be restored to fellowship with God.
What does all this have to do with justification? Just this: God does not fellowship with an unholy people, and he makes us holy by justification. In its simplest terms, justification means being right with God. Because we are sinners, we cannot be right with God by our good works. We are made right with God by what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and the empty tomb. The Bible teaches that his righteousness is imputed, or marked up to, our account. This is a judicial, or courtroom, way of looking at the matter, and this is just how the Bible puts it, no matter how foreign or distasteful it might be to us in the contemporary world. This is also why our union with Christ is the undergirding soteriological doctrine of the Bible. When we are united to Christ by faith (alone), we are aligned with his righteousness, which becomes ours. God does not make us righteous by first changing our lives from sinful to virtuous and accepting our virtue. Rather, he declares us righteous because of our union with the Righteous One, and on that basis changes us from sinners to righteous.
We are made right with God by Christ’s righteousness credited to our account. This is the only way in which we can approach God and God can approach us. We cannot fellowship with God if we are not right with God, and we cannot be right with God apart from justification.
This, in summary, is why justification is an indispensable truth of the Christian Faith. To marginalize justification is to marginalize the only way that we can be restored to fellowship with God.
If you want to be right with God, you must be justified. If you don’t care for justification, you can’t be right with God.
And good luck with that.
The pressure rises on campus, in the public square, and in the church: Use someone’s “gender affirming” pronoun or be deemed “offensive” at best or a bigot at worst. And, in the Christian milieu, this is often seen as providing “passport” to affirm the trans-challenged individual or else risk permanently severing a [hypothetical subsequent] “gospel conversation.”
It’s almost pitched as: “if you uptight Christians would only have the decency to use the preferred pronoun, then the gates of heaven would fly open without impediment.” How ought we to navigate this quite real and increasingly prominent situation? Is the issue of pronoun usage merely a matter of niceness and interpersonal courtesy?
Let’s begin with a thought experiment:
If one calls his car “water” that is one thing. However, if he puts his “water” in his garage and closes the door, secure in his own supposed noetic autonomy that his “water” is in the garage, what happens upon re-opening the door? Will he be greeted by a puddle?
Of course not; calling or labeling a car “water” does not mean that it becomes liquid. This is to confuse the language label with the actual thing. Labeling a car “water” will not convert it to being a puddle.The same way, there is in fact an underlying reality when it comes to sex and reproduction in humans—just as there is for all mammals and other higher species. Every cell in your body, every neuron in your brain, is either male in its genetic makeup (XY) or female (XX). Your body can produce eggs, or it can produce sperm. Neither words, hormones, nor scalpels can change these and many other objective and sex-linked facts about you that you did not choose, that were handed to you at the first instant that you became you—at the instant of conception.
Tom Wright explains the central theological flaw committed by confusing a chosen label with actual reality:
We are not, after all, defined by whatever longings and aspirations come out of our hearts, despite the remarkable rhetoric of our times. In the area of human well-being, that is the road to radical instability; the area of theological beliefs, it leads to Gnosticism (where you try to discern the hidden divine spark within yourself and then be true to it).Calling things whatever one desires is not a Christian exercise; it is rather a Gnostic and hence, pagan exercise leading to instability and stifling human flourishing. There’s more to personal pronoun usage than courtesy and niceness.
Let’s also consider language and its role and use in general. Language stems from the eternal Word who is Truth and cannot lie. Accordingly, language when used by humans, those created in the image and likeness of this God, should be used for conveying truth.
Yet, what about when engaging with unbelieving suffering souls struggling with (or embracing) “gender dysphoria”? Shouldn’t using their “preferred personal pronoun” be seen as a tangible act of loving one’s neighbor? Don’t we risk “offending” or shutting down the conversation by tying the pronoun to the person’s sex? How should we think about this at the retail level where real people matter?
Let’s first be clear about what loving one’s neighbor biblically entails. James K.A. Smith provides keen insight:
If we truly love our neighbors, we will bear witness to the fullnessto which they are called.If we truly desire their welfare, we should proclaim the thickness of moral obligations that God commands as the gifts to channel us into flourishing, and labor in hope that these might become the laws of the land, though with appropriate levels of expectation.”It is thus actually unloving to reinforce notions that detract from a person’s flourishing or compromise the moral duty to which God calls them. We do them no favors by mistakenly equating niceness for actual reality-based kindness and love.
And, let’s remember that “loving neighbor” is penultimate, not ultimate. It’s the second great commandment. The first also necessarily bears on this question and that commandment demands that we first love God with our entire being, including our mind. This means, among other things, that a God-defined thing must control a self-labeled thing. Humans, as creatures, receive, that is, discern, not determine, the Creator’s description/interpretation of reality, including ethical reality. Misnaming reality via personal preference or desire fails to justify that misnaming.How does all this relate to interacting with a “gender confused” neighbor who insists on your using a pronoun that defies the real reality of his or her sex? Here are a few thoughts.
First, personal pronouns refer to real persons and thus invoke and reference creational norms associated with those real persons, that is, the metaphysical reality of those persons. Names in contrast are labels applied to metaphysical reality, not at bottom or in essence, reflecting that reality itself: in other words, at bottom, there are men and women, but not necessarily Bob or Toby or Sam. A woman who assumes her husband’s surname as is customary in some cultures doesn’t cease to be a woman, nor does her metaphysical status change when her name changes.
A single name, because it is a label, not a metaphysical reality, can refer to both sexes, whether male or female and a person can possess multiple ones. Names are thus assigned; sex simply is. No one is born with a name; they are born, however with a determined and immutable sex. Personal pronouns necessarily refer to sex, unlike names, which may or may not do so.
Second, and expanding on this reality, God created mankind with a set metaphysical, binary complementarity called “male and female.” This is what mankind is in real reality, and no existential desire, personal preference, cosmetic camouflage, hormonal infusion, or tissue-destroying surgery alters – or can alter — that reality – these techniques can only distort it. On the surface, sex can be superficially obfuscated; it cannot be obliterated.
Third, Jesus teaches that to become holy – sanctified – flows from applying a word-based truth. If one instead employs a realtiy-denying pronoun—calling a male “her” or “she” — one is thereby withholding, obscuring, or obstructing the means by which a confused and hurting person can become holy. One is in effect withholding medicine from a needful patient fearing that the stick of the needle might be deemed “not nice” or “offensive.”
Fourth, the 9th commandment bans bearing false witness, which as a rubric proscribes a variety of linguistic and behavioral abuses, all rooted in protecting real reality, or truth telling. One tradition put it this way in relevant part:
The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbours, . . . outfacing and overbearing the truth; . . . concealing the truth, . . . perverting [the truth] to a wrong meaning, . . . to the prejudice of truth or justice;speaking untruth,lying, . . .The law of God forbids speaking untruth or occluding the truth in all its forms, including calling a man a woman. As Paul said,
“Let God be true, though every one a liar. As it is written, That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”Fifth, though the confused person often claims unfairness or offense, note the manipulative asymmetry of their objection. They seek to impose upon and overbear the conscience of all others. The confused person is insisting that others pretend he or she is a different sex and that they thereby participate in or become complicit in this person’s confusion. The people refusing to employ the wrong pronoun in constrast however are not similarly insisting that the confused person use the proper reality-based pronoun. Rather, those people are simply standing on reality and conscience and aligning their vocabulary with those choices, a position perfectly consistent with human flourishing and liberty—and a Christian ethic.
Sixth, note that proper sexuality always relates to marriage, as composed of one man and one woman. This frames and informs the entire biblical narrative: It is the creational norm; it marks Jesus’ first public miracle; and it is the consummational norm. Marriage by creational norm and divine declaration is inherently and indispensably sexually binary. A misused pronoun in principle undermines this foundational pre-political society by rendering both history and metaphysics as mere accidents – biology becomes bigotry.And, seventh, proper pronoun usage is necessarily a “gospel issue.” Paul teaches that human marriage is an analogue to the THE marriage of Christ, the [male] Bridegroom to the [female] Bride—for this analogy to work, “male” and “female” must be immutable metaphysical realities, not merely social constructs as demanded by gender ideology or personal preference. The pronouns “his” and “her” and “he” and “she” thus attach to real reality; they link and refer to the immutable creational norms of “male” and “female.” This is why gender ideology undermines reality and attacks the foundations of the Christian faith; it is a gospel issue as Archbishop Chaput explains:
In decoupling gender from biology and denying any given or “natural” meaning to male and female sexuality, gender ideology directly repudiates reality. People don’t need to be “religious” to notice that men and women are different. The evidence is obvious. And, the only way to ignore it is through a kind of intellectual self-hypnosis. Gender ideology rejects any human experience of knowledge that conflicts with its own flawed premises; it’s the imperialism of bad science on steroids. For Christians, it also attacks the heart of our faith: the Creation (“male and female he created them”); the Incarnation – God taking the flesh of a man; and the Redemption – God dying on the cross and then rising in glorified bodily form.
Who do we say people are? They are who God, the Creator and Redeemer says that they are: fearfully and wonderfully made, dignified and worthy, reflecting His very likeness and image as male and female – he and she; him and her; Bride and Groom – all to God’s glory.
The Christian Faith is marinated in optimism because the Bible is hopeful from cover the cover. The biblical worldview is based on creation-fall-redemption. The catastrophe of sin is bookended by a hope-drenched creation and the restored and enhanced creation known as redemption. God created a lush, splendorous world of hope and joy and optimism. Right after man sinned in submitting to satanic rebellion, God promised a Redeemer who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). God later destroyed the depraved antediluvian world, but started over with Noah. Later, God called out Abram and launched a nation, promising him a great seed and land. The Jews tragically departed from their loving Lord and his law, but he sent his own Son to them, and to die for the sins of the world. In his death, our Lord beat down the “principalities and powers,” the satanic forces arrayed against God (Col. 2:13–15). In his resurrection he ascended to his heavenly throne from which he is progressively beating down the forces of evil by the power of the gospel (Ac. 2:29–36; 1 Cor. 15:20–26). The book of Revelation is a dramatic vision of the triumph of the Lamb over all his enemies. You cannot understand the Bible unless you understand its hopeful, optimistic message.
Unfortunately many Christians today seem to have missed the optimistic arc of the Bible’s message.[i] They either believe we are living in “the last days” and can expect nothing but increasing apostasy. Or else they embrace conspiracy theories that see sinister, secret forces everywhere preventing the gospel from succeeding. For still others the daily challenges of rearing children in a depraved culture, trying to stay current on bills, coping with broken family relations and friendships, and coming to terms with illness and death nearly overwhelm them. Since this pessimism is irreconcilable with the promises of the Bible, it can only mean that they (we) are living in unbelief. To trust and act on the promises of the word is to live in consistent optimism.
God promises victory in our individual lives. In Romans 6 and 8 Paul makes clear that by union with the crucified and risen Christ we are freed from the power of sin. Paul’s agonizing cry in Romans 7 over the power of indwelling sin is sometimes wrongly interpreted to refute the message of hopeful victory. He is not describing normative Christian living but rather anomalous Christian living. The standard Christian life is one of victory over sin, though never perfectly in this life. We can and should live in persistent victory over the power of sin. Take hope — you are not destined to enslavement to covetousness or lust or porn or anxiety or alcohol or drugs. There is no sin you must commit. The Holy Spirit has freed us for consistent victory.
God promises victory in our family. The family is under unremitting attack today, and Christians often abandon hope for an intact, joyous, multigenerational Christian family. But God’s promises are clear (Ps. 128; Pr. 11:21), and despite great failures in a marriage and children spiritually adrift, those promises hold secure to those who claim them in simple faith. If your marriage is faltering and your children failing, remind God of his promises — and redouble your commitment to obedience, expecting an entire family devoted to him.
God promises victory to the church. The most obvious one is in Matthew 16:17–19: the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church. The Bible does not predict that the church will fail in its task to disciple the nations. The lamentable state of the church in the U.S. today is no predictor of its future. Pray and expect God to raise up great men and women of faith who will declare the gospel of Jesus Christ in power, edify the saints, and call the world to account for its sins: “The power is available, but the church seems in large measure to believe that the power does not exist, or she lacks the will to observe the necessary laws.”[ii]
Finally, God promises victory in our culture. Even Christians optimistic about victory in the individual life and family and church often draw the line here. But the culture-victory promises are just as prominent as the others. The knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). The end of all things will not come until the presently reigning Christ subdues all his enemies (1 Cor. 15:23–25). The victory comes not after the Second Advent, but before. It is a victory of the present age.
Christians today are conditioned for defeat. For 100 years they’ve been told that they cannot expect consistent victory over sin. That Christian families cannot expect to turn out better than non-Christian families. That the church will grow progressively weaker over time. That the world is destined to rush toward depravity before the Second Coming. And that Christians can do nothing to impede defeat on all earthly fronts. This view is poppycock, rank unbelief. In the 1930’s France’s intellectuals and schools and famous writers, the horrors of World War I fresh in their minds, churned out pacifism. France became a hotbed of defeatism.[iii] Winston Churchill wrote: “France, though armed to the teeth, is pacifist to the core.”[iv] It was no surprise that France folded like an unpegged tent in a windstorm when the Germans invaded.
Christians “are armed to the teeth [but] pacifist to the core.” Our King owns everything, but an alien, Satan, has subversively commandeered part of his domain, the earth, and set up a rival kingdom. We are the King’s citizen-army, commissioned to expel the usurper. That’s what the great commission is: The marching orders of the church. Satan is a squatter. He and his minions sneaked onto God’s property and erected little shantytowns and bought some BB guns and claim to be taking over. What a pitiful lot they are! We, conversely, enjoy the irrepressible promises of God’s word, the relentless power of the Spirit, and the authority of the risen Lord behind us. Let us march boldly in faith and hope and optimism, expecting nothing less than unconditional victory.
I’m surprised and disappointed at how many Christians, including Christian leaders, accept the status quo as the decretal will of God. They compound this tendency by suggesting it is an act of piety. They select Paul as an example, in that he submitted to his famous thorn in the flesh. They do not mention the hundreds of counterexamples, in which God’s people prayed for God to change their circumstances so that he would receive greater glory. It is true that in limited cases, God reveals to us that he plans not to change our circumstances. In the Bible, however, in the vast majority of cases, he implores his people to pray to him in great faith and expectation so that he can demonstrate his greater glory in changing our circumstances — converting our unbelieving loved ones, healing our physical illness, restoring our wayward children, providing a job or money. In this way, he strengthens our faith, and he blazingly exhibits his power in the eyes of unbelievers. Pious unbelief is still unbelief.
I am increasingly using the expression “Cultural Marxism,” and it occurred to me that I shouldn’t simply assume readers and listeners know what it means. I will try here as simply and briefly as I can to explain the basics. If you have questions, please pose them in the comments section or on Facebook.
Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and V. I. Lenin saw the basis of all human existence as economic. This was the social and political philosophy of the old Soviet Union. It is called classical or economic Marxism. This form of Marxism is not nearly as popular today (except in North Korea). By contrast, you might have heard of Marxists like Gramsci, Lukács, Sartre, and Marcuse. They are among the first cultural Marxists. Their view of Marxism was designed to appeal to and succeed in Western societies. They knew that economic Marxism would likely not win in the West. (This is why their revision is sometimes called Western Marxism.) For one thing, they doubted that the working class would rise up in violent revolution as they did in Russia in 1917; the workers in the West were mostly satisfied with life most of the time. To win in the West, you needed a Marxism suited to the West, one that took into account Western ways of thinking. Freedom, liberty, and equality, watchwords of the West, were ideas they could commandeer to win the day. They would engage in the “long march through the institutions,” words wrongly attributed to Gramsci but rightly describing the strategy of cultural Marxism. They would reinvent the meaning of liberty, freedom, and equality to seduce Westerners and gradually capture their culture.
Unlike the original Marxists, they held that humanity’s main problem isn’t economic. It’s that society’s ideas and institutions prevent us from fulfilling the Good Life. What is the Good Life? It is being able to be exactly what we want to be, to live exactly as we want to live — maximum autonomy. Every individual should be an artist, but in a very basic and profound sense. Every person should be able to paint his own life, his own meaning, his own reality. The world should be the canvas on which the person paints himself.
Unfortunately, our society conspires to restrict our autonomy. Traditional institutions like the family and church and business command our allegiance. Husbands lead families, parents direct children, clergy disciple laity, employers make demands of employees. This means they crimp our autonomy. It really means these institutions crimp our autonomy. Therefore, we live artificial, unreal, and unhappy lives to conform to these cultural institutions and expectations. We are alienated from our “true selves.” Marxists have always been very concerned about liberating the true, real self from the cultural environment suppressing it. That self might be atheistic, exhibitionist, homosexual, transgendered, bestial, or solitary; but in whatever form it takes, that self meets resistance in traditional culture. To be truly free, traditional culture must be marginalized or crushed.
An extended metaphor might help. Imagine thousands of tiny seeds, full of flourishing, fruitful potential, but they can never fulfill that potential because they’re submerged beneath hard, frozen, nearly impenetrable soil. Imagine further a sympathetic farmer who comes with a massive plow and cracks the soil and waters and fertilizes it so that the seeds can finally sprout upward.
The seeds in this metaphor are humans as we enter the world. But we’re stifled by the hard, frozen soil, which won’t allow us to unleash the potential of our real selves. That soil is our society, especially the chief cultural institutions like the family and church and business. We should be free to sprout and grow upward and exhibit to the world all of our autonomous beauty. What we need is a plow to break up this hard soil and get it out of the way.
In our metaphor, that plow is the state. This is why cultural Marxists are statists. It’s not because they simply love power. They want state power so they can destroy traditional authority, and especially Christianity, which justifies and produces that authority. For cultural Marxists, what has been called liberty in the West, defined as absence of political coercion, becomes true liberation, the imposition of political coercion to guarantee human autonomy. Liberation becomes liberty from the institutions that our society grants the liberty to enslave us. The state must pulverize every barrier to our true selves.
How do cultural Marxists instigate this liberation? How do they get the state involved in their liberation crusade? Mainly by divvying up people into different classes and fomenting conflict, claiming that all classes must fight for equality. This is called class consciousness. In Marx’s day, the oppressors were the bourgeoisie (elites, business owners), and the oppressed were the proletariat (employees, “wage slaves”), who demanded equality. By equality, the cultural Marxists do not mean equality of condition — that is, they don’t mean everybody must play by the same rules. Rather, they believe in equality of results — the rules must be bent to make everybody get the same things. Today class consciousness is known as “identity politics,” and the battling classes are expanded — men versus women, whites and Asians versus blacks and/or Hispanics, children versus parents, millennials versus the middle aged, wealthy versus poor and “middle class,” cosmopolitans versus nationalists, and other binary categories. Cultural Marxists portray one pole of the binary (women, homosexuals, millennials, blacks) as oppressed, and demand that the state liberate them from their oppressors. Oppression here almost never means literal enslavement, abuse, or assault. Rather, it means disrespect, disapproval, or social inequality. If, for example, homosexuals are not as respected as heterosexuals, they are oppressed and deserve state-coerced liberation. This is also where the new campus speech codes come from. The newly defined oppressed (millennials) are entitled not to be offended by words from the oppressing class (older whites, teachers, men).
Over time, this human liberation sees even nature itself as an oppressor. Like the Gnostics of old, creation is evil and a barrier to the good life. Male or female body parts are oppressive. “Sex-reassignment surgery” must become “gender-affirmation surgery.” A man becomes a woman who then becomes a dragon. This is an extreme case but not an inconsistent one. It’s simply the latest example of liberation, and, unless this grand social march is arrested, we should not expect the dragonization of man to be the most extreme example of liberation in the future.
It is this class conflict that produces cultural progress. Marxists have always believed that life is everywhere filled with opposing forces, and the collision of these forces brings a higher, better reality. Today’s liberals like to be known as “progressives,” and the progress they want is human liberation ( = autonomy). That progress comes about only by conflict. So conflict is a good thing, and the elites should be fostering conflict everywhere. If you want a better society, you need to spread conflict to get there — unremitting conflict, violent if necessary. The objective of launching rallies and Twitter campaigns to challenge the “hegemony” (a favorite word of Gramsci) of men, parents, whites, straights, Asians, and Wall Street is to create a conflict that ends in the liberation of the oppressed classes and a better world, all (except the previous oppressors, who will be dispossessed and de-privileged) enjoying the Good Life.
And all led, of course, by the cultural Marxists, magically at the very top of the egalitarian heap.
Both classical Marxism (Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin) and cultural Marxism (Gramsci, Lukács, Sartre, and Marcuse) assert that social progress is the result of conflict between humans. Man is a product of nature, “a three-dimensional lump of flesh, blood, and bone,” on which the iron laws of nature do their irresistible work. The difference between humanity and the rest of nature is that he is a toolmaker; he fashions tools for his survival and enjoyment within nature. Those tools can be anything from a primitive club to an advanced iPhone. For classical Marxists, the people who get control over the tools dominate those who do not control them. They even create ideas (“ideology”) to justify their domination and to pacify those whom they oppress. In Marx’s day, the oppressors were the bourgeoisie (elites, business owners), and the oppressed were the proletariat (employees, “wage slaves”). But since the law of history is on the side of the oppressed, who will eventually overthrow any oppression that keeps them alienated from “their true selves,” the days of bourgeoisie dominance are numbered. They will increasingly initiate conflict — unremitting conflict, violent if necessary — until the oppression stops. This is a feature of “dialectical materialism”: inherent imbalances at all levels in society mean that constant change and conflict are necessary. Conflict = progress. Because Marxists have commandeered the progressive agenda of liberalism in the last century, all leading progressives today revel in conflict. Fostering conflict is the name of the game.
The cultural (Western) Marxists like György Lukács extended this philosophy to include noneconomic features, which generate groups: sex and race, for example. Oppression is everywhere. It is pervasive and systemic. The goal of the progressives, who are the best of us, of course, and therefore hating all oppression, is to stamp it out everywhere. Women must be liberated from men, children from parents, homosexuals from heterosexuals, blacks and Hispanics from whites and Asians, laity from clergy, students from teachers, the mentally “challenged” from the allegedly sane, and convicts from law-abiding citizens. Hierarchy itself is oppression, so war on hierarchy is a war for the Good Society. This is the Marxist agenda.
Racial Conflict as Gospel Progress?
In the United States, with its tragic history of black slavery, the appeal to racial liberation is especially attractive. Christians are perhaps the most sensitive to the Marxist message because they know the Bible’s abomination of man-stealing (Ex. 21:16) and its teaching that in the gospel of Jesus Christ, race is vanquished by grace (Gal. 3:28). Antebellum slavery, like the slavery in Africa today, is reprehensible. Redressing the grievances of that massive sin is an agenda for which Christians should quickly line up.
Exploiting this vulnerability has long been a tactic of Marxists, for whom persistent social conflict, “permanent revolution” (Trotsky), is the mechanism of progress. Black pastor and member of the Gospel Coalition Thabiti Anyabwile (aka Ron Burns) ignited a firestorm when he wrote in an article commemorating Martin Luther King’s assassination:
I’m saying the entire [white?] society killed Dr. King. This society had been slowly killing him all along. … . My white neighbors and Christian brethren can start [repenting] by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering a man who only preached love and justice. [emphasis original]
Pastor Anyabwile is a professed evangelical, but he puts into motion Lukács’ thesis that people must think in terms of “class consciousness.” Today we call this “identity politics.” Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” but Pastor Anyabwile demands that that we judge people by the color of their skin. Because skin color (like creational sexuality) cannot be changed, it is a suitable subject for Marxism’s program of progress by conflict. The progress toward the Good Society can never end. There will always be oppressors to upend. Since neither whites nor blacks can change their skin, racial conflict will be part of the permanent revolution.
Pastor Anyabwile, rebutting those of his critics pointing to his cultural Marxism, reminds us that racism preceded Marx. How this assertion has any relevance whatsoever he does not explain. The issue is not that Marx invented race or racism (which has plagued human history as long as race has been around) but that Pastor Anyabwile exploits race in a manner consistent with cultural Marxism. He complains that racism is a unique sin among whites in that they refuse to confess it as sin. He trumpets:
I cannot think of a single particular sin people would encourage someone to avoid confessing except for the sin of racism…. There’s another reason we should be specific: the Bible is specific. Consider the places where the Bible gives us a catalogue of particular sins (Rom. 1:28-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; and 1 Tim. 1:8-11). Why does the divinely inspired Word of God give us so many lists with such specificity? It’s not solely that we might conclude we are sinners in general but that we might also know what sins threaten our souls or our sanctification and repent of them specifically.
The Bible is truly clear in calling specific sins what they are, but interestingly, Pastor Anyabwile does not show us where the Bible specifically declares racism a sin. There is a good reason for this. The Bible doesn’t. That racism is a sin must (and should) be inferentially derived. Pride is a sin (Pr. 16:18; Rom. 1:30). Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Racism fundamentally is a belief, not an act. It is rooted in pride, which is a grievous sin. It would have been helpful if Christians who (rightly) decry racism show why it is specifically a sin. The depth of this sin rests in pride. Pride, not the amount of melanin in human skin, is the culprit.
Since racism is a belief, it is a sin of the heart, like lust or covetousness. It cannot be seen. It can only be objectively detected by others when manifested in one’s actions. Apartheid in South Africa was such a sinful manifestation. So is today’s post-apartheid state-sanctioned murder of white farmers by blacks. To call for repentance of the sin of racism is to call for a humble heart. That repentance can only be ascertained by changed (non-racist) actions.
The call by Pastor Anyabwile to white Christians to claim their “parents and grandparents and this country” were complicit in murdering MLK is so obviously ridiculous that we can only assume he was employing hyperbole for shock value. The Bible does teach collective guilt for ancestors’ sin but only among those who presently agree with that sin (Mt. 23:35), or who have not yet confessed ancestral sin for godless actions, like idolatry (2 Kin. 22). There are, to my knowledge, no examples in the Bible of a godly preacher’s assigning collective guilt for ideas or sins of the heart. This assignment is God’s province alone.
Racial Peace as Gospel Blessing
Assigning guilt to an entire class (like whites) by which to perpetuate conflict is a quintessentially Marxist technique. The biblical gospel, by contrast, creates peace (Col. 1:20–24), including peace among races:
Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. (Eph. 2:11–16)
The gospel is a peace-creating message. It creates harmony among individuals, families, sexes, races, and nations. The gospel is a conflict-reducer, not a conflict-creator. In sharp contrast with Paul, however, Pastor Anyabwile employs race as a tool by which to perpetuate conflict. He calls white Christians to repent of sin of the heart that he cannot possibly detect, and he blames their ancestors for complicity in a murder they obviously did not commit. He does this in the name of the gospel — The Gospel Coalition even.
It is not actually the gospel that Pastor Anyabwile is advocating. Rather, it is the gospel fused with dialectical materialism, the gospel of conflict. There is little hope that the conflict will end:
This is a sick society. And we kid ourselves if we think all the sickness gets healed just by time and rest. Racism, prejudice, hatred and bigotry is not a cold. It’s a cancer. It mutates. It metastasizes. And despite our protest and insistence otherwise, this sickness gets passed on in a kind of social hereditary action, sometimes unconsciously and unsuspected, sometimes systemically, and sometimes intentionally and virulently.
In short, Pastor Anyabwile holds out little hope in the power of the Gospel. The gospel abolishes (Paul’s language) racial enmity, “creat[ing] in [Jesus Christ] one new man.” Pastor Anyabwile declares that racial conflict is “a cancer. It mutates. It metastasizes”; but this conflict is precisely what the gospel will abolish. Stirring up racial conflict by recklessly and ridiculously suggesting that “[m]y white neighbors and Christian brethren can start [repenting] by at least saying their parents and grandparents and this country are complicit in murdering” MLK is the opposite of gospel peace making. If individuals are racists, they should indeed repent, but assuming an entire race is racist is itself a racialist interpretation of history championed by cultural Marxism.
That, too, is a sin worth repenting of.
We live in transformational times for the Christian faith. The last vestiges of Christian culture are waning. Until recent decades, Christianity shaped the West. This doesn’t mean all or even most people were Christian; it means that the basic Christian gospel and ethic had historically rooted society’s institutions, and were recognized by most people (including unbelievers) to do this. At worst, the West was “vaguely Christian” in most people’s minds. All that has changed. Today, Christian businesses are assaulted for simply acting on biblical, family truth, which had been practiced freely in the U. S. for over 240 years. Church attendance is declining. Millennials reared in the faith are leaving it by many thousands; they are more likely to be “Social Justice Warriors” than soldiers for Jesus Christ. Same-sex “marriage” is increasingly accepted among evangelicals. The social elites embrace and impose Cultural Marxism. This is the ideology that adapts Marx’s classical ideas to the West. Armed revolution won’t work here, but the “long march through the institutions” will — and has: All hierarchies are evil. Individual autonomy, guaranteed by an iron-clad state, is the highest good. The courts must be used not to lay down impartial legal decisions but to secure the “just society,” as interpreted by “progressive” dogma. The previously marginalized in society (women, homosexuals, criminals, the poor, racial minorities, children, the disabled) must be exalted and championed, and the previously exalted must be humiliated and brought low: Christians, white males, fathers, the wealthy, and intact traditional families.
Amid this apostasy, unprecedented in the U. S., older, devout Christians are at a loss. The world is shifting under their feet. The 2016 election of Donald Trump was a welcome respite for them, not because his life and language have been exemplary, but because he represented a bulwark against this tide of politically correct unbelief. They still feel beleaguered. What is the remedy? Many are calling for revival and reform in the church and family. This idea is understandable. The church is Christ’s body in the earth. The church is the custodian of orthodoxy (right belief).
The church monopolizes the sacraments or ordinances. The church holds the earthly keys to the kingdom — who is a Christian and who isn’t. There is no Christianity, no Christian culture, without the church. The family is similar, and even more foundational than the church. The family is a creational norm. It was around before the Fall. Had the Fall never happened, there would have been a family, though not a church or state, at least not as we know them in God’s redemptive order. To preserve the family is to preserve God’s basic unit of human society. To lose the family is to lose the human building block of God’s created order.
But society is much larger than these institutions, and therefore the apostasy of today’s world is much larger. Reforming only the family and church won’t suffice. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. Think of it this way. Almost everything Christians encounter when they leave the safe haven of the family and church is at war with almost everything they encounter within the family and church. Family and church teach: “Put God first. Jesus is Lord. Obey the Bible. Trust God to provide. Sacrifice for others. Marriage is sacred. Sex is for marriage. Be careful of your words. There is a Final Judgment.” The surrounding culture teaches: “Put yourself first. You are lord. Obey your own impulses. You must make your own success happen. Your priorities are most important. Marriage is an informal, temporary arrangement. Sex is a malleable social construct. Say whatever you want whenever you want. You’ll never be required to give a final account for how you live on earth.” Of course, an anti-Christian worldview isn’t new. It’s been pervasive in other times and cultures. What is new in the West is that this secular worldview has consciously abandoned Christianity and Christian culture. In other words, what is historically unprecedented is a civilization that in sequence has consciously (1) embraced Christianity, (2) abandoned Christianity, and (3) embraced anti-Christianity. This is what is new: self-consciously anti-Christian culture. This is what devout Christians must contend with.
Because today’s secular culture is almost all-consuming, Christian young people are easy prey. It is a well-intentioned, self-assuring error to assume that if we can just get the church fired up for God and restore godliness to the family, we can restore a large number of devout Christians and Christian culture. A plethora of devout Christians require a cultural canopy of Christianity, which reinforces everywhere the most basic Christian belief: “Jesus is Lord!”It’s impossible for a virile Christianity to survive for long institutionally in such a hostile climate. Yes, devout individuals can. Noah, Moses, Daniel, the apostles, and the primitive Christians did. But since Christianity by its nature is a world-dominating faith, it suffers greatly when its cultural surroundings are not Christian. This is one chief reason that so many children reared in devout Christian families are drifting from Jesus Christ. The faith in which they were reared is an inherently cultural faith calculated by God himself to be reinforced in all of life. The radical disconnect between a God-loving family and church on the one hand and God-defying popular music and education and science and technology and art and architecture on the other creates spiritual schizophrenia.
Because today’s secular culture is almost all-consuming, Christian young people are easy prey. It is a well-intentioned, self-assuring error to assume that if we can just get the church fired up for God and restore godliness to the family, we can restore a large number of devout Christians and Christian culture. A plethora of devout Christians require a cultural canopy of Christianity, which reinforces everywhere the most basic Christian belief: “Jesus is Lord!”
I agree with you, of course, and find little in this article to commend it. I do not reflect on the author’s sincere intentions. I also agree with much of his diagnosis, and his description of the church as prideful and prayerless, e.g.
But here are a couple things to consider. Why adopt the sinking of the Titanic as the church’s governing paradigm? Why not adopt as the paradigm a few frightened, and embattled Christians praying in an upper room after their Lord’s resurrection and just before the rapid dissemination of the gospel?
My greatest objection, though, is a severe verdict: diagnoses like these are suckled on unbelief. Do we believe the promises of the word of God that if His people truly repent and turn to Him, He will heal them? Do we believe in the power of prayer to shake not just individuals and families and churches but entire nations and civilizations? Do we believe that God uses fully surrendered men and women to reverse apostasy just when it seems at its apex?
The Bible does offer a theology of surrender: surrender entirely to God, and not to a depraved and apostate culture.
Let us live in the promises of the word of God, and not according to the circumstances, which we likely misinterpret.
Feel free to share this, my friend.
Much respect, in Him,
P. Andrew Sandlin, S.T.D.
Founder & President
Center for Cultural Leadership
The heart of our Christian Faith is this momentous fact: God saves sinners. This Holy Week, we memorialize the historic events that make that salvation possible. Because Jesus Christ’s death is the “crux” (Latin for “cross”) of that salvation, we rightly focus attention on him, our Savior and Lord. But we dare not lose sight of the equally vital truth that the Godhead, God as Trinity, saves us. The Father, Son, and Spirit — are all our Savior(s). A folk shorthand goes something like this: God the Father planned our salvation, God the Son secured our salvation, and God the Spirit applies our salvation.
This construction is not wrong, but it’s not entirely right either, or at least not complete. It doesn’t take into account the unified work of the Godhead in saving us. It correctly perceives that each member of the Trinity occupies a unique role, but it marginalizes the truth that the person of God saves us, not just the persons of God. In other words, our Lord’s death isn’t just a work of the members of the Trinity all working together but also as the person, the single living God, saving us.
Jesus is the fullness of God
God was in Christ reconciling …. There is no “Godness” deeper or more profound than Jesus Christ. There is no God with higher or more exalted attributes than the Son. There is no greater God than Jesus. Jesus the Messiah reveals God because he is God. He and the Father are one (Jn. 10:30). To see Jesus is to see the Father (Jn. 14:9). Jesus is the express image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:1–3). Jesus is entirely man, and his deity never mixed with his humanity to produce a weird, third amalgam: a deified human or humanized deity. Yet his deity and humanity are forever united in one person. In Matthew 3 we read of the angel that appeared in a dream to Joseph, declaring that Jesus would be the name of the child whom Mary, his espoused wife, would deliver. We also read that this birth would fulfill the prophet’s word that his name should be called “Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” The birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God. Wherever Jesus is, there God is. Jesus “is the human presence of the Eternal God.”
In the famous Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley exhorts, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” But this quote implies the opposite of what John teaches in his first epistle:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (vv. 1–4)
The Godhead was not veiled in flesh. The Godhead was revealed in flesh. God makes himself known, not hidden, in flesh. Man is not God and can never be God, but man was created in God’s image and is therefore a specially suitable means for God to reveal his very person. John saw and touched God, just as Thomas did (Jn. 20:28), because it was no less than God who was in Christ reconciling.
One God-man person only
In an effort to ensure the transcendence (exalted otherness) of God, Christians have tended for purposes of explanation to separate out his two natures from his one person and attribute certain actions and experiences of Jesus Christ to his humanity and not his deity. Since Jesus was not a sinner, they could never say these traits are sinful, only that they are human and not divine. Examples would be anger, hunger, weariness, and grief. These all imply change and emotion, and change and emotion are not attributes of God according to many Christians. However, the Bible does in fact depict God, and not only Jesus, as sometimes changing and emotional. God grieves that he created humanity that had fallen into abject depravity (Gen. 6:5–6). God repented of his decision to obliterate the idolatrous Jews (Ex. 32:14). God is even sometimes weary, in his own way (Is. 1:14). I could multiply similar examples.
Many of the changes and emotions Jesus experienced are not do not sound much different from those that God experiences. Nor will it suffice to say that these are all anthropomorphisms, word pictures, which while not literally true, accommodate truth to us finite humans by depicting God with human qualities. After all, would we say that God’s traits of truthfulness, omniscience, love, justice, and kindness are anthropomorphic? And even if they all were, every anthropomorphism signals a referent. We read, for example, in Deuteronomy 33:27 of God’s “everlasting arms.” Because God is a spirit, this language is incontestably anthropomorphic. But what does it mean? It means that just as human arms might bear up those we love, so God’s love is everlasting in bearing up his people. Similarly, even if the language of God’s emotions and repentance is anthropomorphic, it refers to something very much like emotion and repenting. Jesus’ “actions are always those of divinity-humanity.” Jesus sleeps (Mk. 4:38). God does not sleep (Ps. 121:4). But God-as-Jesus sleeps, and not merely Jesus-as-man sleeps. The person of Jesus is God.
Because Jesus is God in the flesh, when we see Jesus acting, we see God, and not just man, acting — or, rather, God and man unmixed, but united in one person. We tend to reverse the order and in this way become perplexed. We develop ideas about what God is like and then try to conform Jesus Christ to those ideas. This has things just backwards. Jesus is the one who reveals the Father: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18). We need to get our most extensive ideas about God from Jesus the Messiah. Make no mistake: God reveals himself truly in the Old Testament. There is nothing in the Old Testament that deceives us about God. (He also reveals himself truly in creation.) However, in Jesus Christ God gives us his fuller and final revelation (Heb. 1:1–3).
There is no more comprehensive display of God than we observe in Jesus. When we see Jesus acted on, we see God acted on. To say differently is really to say that Jesus is less than and different from God. To say that we are seeing only the humanity in his display of emotion but only his deity in (for instance) his forgiving others their sins, is to divide Jesus into two persons. When Jesus experiences grief, God grieves. When Jesus is angered over sin, God is angry. When Jesus feels compassion, God is compassionate. We learn of God by watching Jesus Christ. God was in Christ reconciling ….
God and death
Now back to Holy Week. You might be old enough to remember the short-lived “Death of God” theology in the 60’s, championed by radical theologians. I once owned a book curiously titled The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann is a theological liberal, and I found the book unimpressive, as I do most books by theological liberals (see a summary of the thesis is here). Moltmann sees the immanence (presence in the world) of God in Jesus, but sees almost nothing of the majesty and transcendence of God. Much of his theology and its social implications reflect this absence of the power and might of the sovereign God. This is an error of most liberals. They exalt man at God’s expense. This is false theology. A book with a similar title that I did find impressive was Richard Baukham’s God Crucified. He is much more conservative than Moltmann and persuasively argues that precisely in our Lord’s death is his deity best understood. Baukham argues that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah reveals Messiah as God in the most powerful way. Our Lord’s death is a striking exhibition of his deity, not just his humanity.
God is immanent, both in the Old Testament and most profoundly in Jesus Christ, and we must affirm that where Jesus is, there God is. To say otherwise is equally false theology, no less heretical than the denying-God’s-majesty of theological liberalism. This God-as-Christ-and-God-in-Christ is not less true of the Cross. Even in his anguished cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46), Jesus is not less than God — unless we are prepared to embrace the adoptionist heresy that Jesus became God at some point and lost his deity at another, a blasphemous notion. But Jesus died on the Cross. Did God die? He cannot die. He is the living God (Dt. 5:26; Ac. 14:15). But God as Christ certainly dies, and if he does not die, there is no salvation, no gospel, no hope. Death is God’s penalty for sin, and his eyes are so pure that he cannot look (gaze) on evil (Hab. 1:13). But Jesus was (is) God and was not less than God on the Cross. This means that while God is always and ever the living God, he in his Son died. Jesus tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9). God tastes what his Son tastes. The fact that he is fully transcendent does not mean he stands aloof from us, even (perhaps especially) in our pain and suffering (Heb. 2:16–18).
My godly mother died of pancreatic cancer last year. As I observed her final days, body emaciated to bones by disease, breath arriving and departing in tiny gasps, pain held at bay by morphine, I wondered how God felt. Could he merely empathize? No. Not merely empathize. In his Son he entered into all the pains and agonies and abandonment of death. In Jesus Christ, the ever-living God knows what it is like to die, just as the ever-holy God knows what it is like to suffer the consequences of sin.
A key to understanding these sobering and profound truths is what John M. Frame terms God’s temporal omnipresence. God is a-temporally omnipresent (in eternity), but he’s also present in time and history, which he created and sustains. He is a participant in history, and his participation isn’t as a play-actor or illusion. God is really here. And being here, he experiences time and its sequence of change, though, of course, only as God can, and not as man does. He experienced what his Son experienced, including death. How can the ever-living God, who cannot cease to exist, experience death? Because he is God.
This is how to grasp biblical statements that might otherwise perplex us. We read in Acts 20:28, in Paul’s final exhortation to the Ephesian elders, the curious statement: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The antecedent of “his” is “God”: God’s own blood. God is a Spirit, so he has no blood. But Paul knew that Jesus is fully God. God’s blood was reconciling.
(To be continued)
I am indebted to John Barach, Matthew Colvin, John M. Frame, and Brian G. Mattson for valuable suggestions to earlier versions of this essay. I alone am responsible for its content.
If you wonder why too many evangelicals are caving in to same-sex “marriage,” surrogacy, “gender fluidity,” and transgenderism, part of the fault lies in the DNA of Evangelicalism itself. Evangelicals champion the biblical evangel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that sinners can be saved. This is their paradigmatic specialty and, thank God, they have enjoyed great success over the last two centuries.
The Creational Marginalization
But with this specialization has come the marginalization of other parts of the Bible, notably creation. Not that Evangelicals deny creation. Some have been at the forefront of the six-day creation movement. However, they have tended not to integrate creation into their worldview. Worse: they have not understood that creation is the foundation of the gospel. This is very easy to prove, if you think about it. The gospel offers salvation from sin, but what is sin? It is a violation of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). But how did this violation come about? It came about as result of man’s distortion of creation.
Genesis chapter 1-2 lays out God’s creational laws, or norms. These include the Creator-creature distinction, humanity made in God’s image, the distinction between man and woman within that single divine image, the fruitfulness imperative, the cultural mandate, the Sabbath, and the goodness of creation itself. We might call these the creational operating system. This is how God designed the cosmos to work.
And it is within just this operating system that the gospel software works. Sin introduced a virus into that operating system. The object of the gospel is incrementally to eliminate that virus. The virus doesn’t obliterate the operating system, but it does impair it. The gospel is God’s hunt-and-destroy-the-virus mission.
Evangelicals have tended, however, to internalize, privatize, and Gnosticize the gospel. The gospel is chiefly about getting sinners forgiven by God and fellowshipping with him and taking them to heaven. It’s understandable that, in this telling, addressing same-sex “marriage” might be a tangent to keep the church away from the gospel. Taking on surrogacy, egg harvesting, and transhumanism (like the Center of Bioethics and Culture) is it best a secondary cause and, at worst, a distraction from the church’s mission.
But if we understand that the objective of the gospel is the restoration of God’s created order, increasing adherence to his creational norms, not just for his glory but for our delight, we will recognize these tasks and many others as well within the framework of the biblical gospel.
The Mediator of Creation
A fundamental theological flaw is at the root of this truncated gospel. Modern Evangelicals see Jesus is the mediator of redemption, but seem less interested in him as the mediator of creation. But the Bible plainly teaches both. See what Paul writes in Colossians 1:13–19:
He [God the Father] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins [here’s Jesus, the mediator of redemption]. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist [here’s Jesus, the mediator of creation.] And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
For Paul, Jesus’ mediation in both creation and redemption work together to convey the fullness of God to and within the cosmos. The Jesus who died on the old rugged cross is the same Jesus who shaped the universe’s laws and upholds its existence.
Because Evangelicals have embraced a truncated view of the Bible, because they have emphasized the evangel (narrowly construed) as the be-all-and-end-all, they have been willing to sacrifice the more fundamental creational truths on which the true evangel is founded. They didn’t set out to do this. And if someone had told them even 20 years ago that they would one day endorse or surrender to “gender fluidity” or same-sex “marriage,” they would have scoffed. But their preoccupation with one vital part of the Bible and relative neglect of other vital parts paved the way for these wholesale changes. The seeds of the present compromises were there from the beginning. The neglect wasn’t intentional, but it was neglect, and we’re now paying a bitter price for it.
The solution to this neglect is a return to a full-orbed, robust view of creation and creational norms. Let’s preach the Son of God on the old rugged Cross as well as the even older Son of creational Lordship. Christianity within this world requires both.
One of the leading American theologians of the 20th century was J. Gresham Machen. One of his most famous books was Christianity and Liberalism. He argues that theological liberalism, sometimes called modernism at the time, isn’t a new version of Christianity. Rather, it’s not Christianity at all. It’s another religion altogether.
Liberalism consisted of a fusion of 18th-century rationalism (man’s reason is the final arbiter of truth) and 19th century romanticism (man’s experience is the final arbiter of truth). The foundational spirit of liberalism is simple: Christianity must conform to the temper of the times. The Bible and Christian dogma are not finally authoritative. Man’s reason and experience in the modern world, particularly as exhibited in science, are finally authoritative.
Perhaps the single greatest source of all liberalism was the greatest Enlightenment philosopher of all, Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that man can gain knowledge only from his senses interacting with pre-established categories of human thought. Man can know nothing of certainty about God or the spiritual world. Man’s mind isn’t constructed to know God. Kant did not deny God existed. He denied, however, that we could have reliable knowledge about God. Kant’s influence on theological liberals meant that they were free to invent the kind of God and the kind of Christian Faith they wanted to have.
This last point is liberalism in a nutshell.
The early liberals questioned the authenticity of the Bible’s text, the orthodox Trinity, the biblical account of miracles, the deity of Jesus Christ, and other central truths of Christianity.
Contemporary liberals have changed. They haven’t changed liberalism’s guiding principle (they still often deny the doctrines early liberals denied about the Faith); but they have changed what they emphasize in denying. Because the temper of the times has changed, they have been obliged to change. The real issues for them today are sexual autonomy, moral relativism, and Cultural Marxism. In other words, the very things popular in the surrounding apostate culture. If the credo of liberalism is conforming the Faith to the contemporary world, liberals must always be inherently worldly.
Just as the tenets of early liberalism with which Machen interacted were diametrically opposed to Christianity, so the guiding beliefs of today’s liberalism are. The Bible supports sexual fidelity (sexual intercourse between a married man and woman), not sexual autonomy. The Bible presupposes God’s revelation as final truth, and it obviously cannot permit moral relativism. The Bible dictates hierarchies in all areas of life, starting with God’s hierarchy over man. There’s no place for the leveling of all hierarchies, which is what Cultural Marxism is all about.
Machen understood that liberalism was not disputing important but secondary issues of the Faith, like the sacraments or ordinances, church polity, the specifics of biblical prophecy, the sign gifts, and so on. Rather, liberalism cut the heart out of the Faith — the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth and deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his substitutionary atonement on the Cross. When you don’t have these, it’s not orthodox Christianity you lose. It’s Christianity you lose.
The reason many Christians are confused as to how to classify today’s liberals is that they’ve not until recently encountered professed Christians who aren’t boldly denying the Apostles Creed but who are denying tenets of biblical teaching that the church everywhere until recently has affirmed. Those teachings include marriage as between one man and one woman, homosexuality as sin, abortion as murder, radical sexual egalitarianism as contra-creational. Today’s liberals deny them for the same reason: the Bible’s teaching doesn’t fit the temper of the age. Until recent decades (or years), no one — not even the early liberals — would have thought of questioning these biblical truths. Even if they agree with Machen about the early liberals, what should they say about modern liberals? They should say the same thing Machen said — liberalism isn’t Christianity. Churches that establish a policy accepting unrepentant homosexuals or same-sex “marriage” or encouraging abortion or radical sexual egalitarianism are not Christian churches. Why? Because Jesus and Paul and Peter and John would not have considered same-sex “marriage” less evil or dangerous (Rom. 1:18–32) than (for example) the Gnostic heresy that Jesus did not come in the flesh (2 Jn. 7). Not all false teaching striking at the core of Christianity is found in the Apostles Creed. Why? Because no one at the time the Creed was developed would have dreamed of assuming that the Bible would permit, for instance, homosexuality or radical sexual egalitarianism. If anything, this shows that the violations of today’s liberals might be even more destructive than heresies of the early centuries of the church since at the time nobody, including the heretics, would have even considered them. Arianism (the Son of God is a created being) is a pernicious heresy, but no Arian would have supported same-sex “marriage.”
Machen 2.0 would say what Machen 1.0 said: teachings that strike at the very heart of Christianity so distort it that if unchecked they produce another religion.
This is a response to a dear Christian friend asking about her church’s policy concerning same-sex attraction:
The article was absorbing, and the writer is truly gifted. Even though he writes through the lens of his own homosexuality, the picture he presents of [your church] is largely commendable. Make no mistake about it: your church stands significantly on the authority of the Bible and is deeply Christian. It is far superior to many churches today that are collapsing before the bulldozer of politically correct worldliness.
You asked specifically about [your church’s] view of homosexuality as depicted in the article. Remember that this article was written by a homosexual, so we cannot be 100% certain that he has accurately conveyed [your pastor’s] viewpoint.
Nonetheless, like you, I did find some aspects troubling. Many evangelical churches today ministering to Christians who confess homosexual desires demand celibacy. This certainly is the right start. Homosexual intercourse is abominable. This is what the Bible says, and there is no other way to describe it. But then there’s the more complex and vexing issue of “sexual orientation.” This is a comparatively modern notion. The Bible knows nothing about sexual orientation. God’s creation order is male and female, with no remainder. Sexual intercourse is a beautiful gift from God reserved for marriage between a man and woman. Everything else is sinful. It breaks God’s beautiful creation order.
To teach and act as though “gayness” that is not consummated in intercourse is permissible, an ongoing lifelong condition, cannot be sustained from the Bible. I presume that [your pastor] would never say that a man whose heart is filled with hatred for other people but never actually unleashes that hatred in the act of murder should fit just fine in [your church] without addressing the heart (desire) problem. We read in James 1:15, “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” The root of all sin is desire that is not governed by the Word and Spirit of God. The metaphor James uses is childbirth. Sin is conceived in wrong desires, and those desires, if unchecked, birth sin that grows up and leads to death.
Part of the job of the church is lovingly and patiently to confront those desires — not just homosexual desires, to be sure, but all desires that lead to sin. It just so happens that homosexual desires are the big cultural topic of the moment in evangelical churches. A church that does not address those desires does not understand the radical, transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and does not stand for the radical, grace-drenched holiness of God, which he demands.
None of this should detract from my favorable assessment of many other aspects of your church. I repeat that it is far superior to many other evangelical churches today.
I’ve tried to be as biblical and as honest as I know how to be in such a short space. Please write back if this answer doesn’t suffice.
I am profoundly impressed by your desire to please God and follow Jesus Christ no matter what the cost. Never forget: God blesses obedience.
The evangelical church in 19th century England and the United States saw the rise of dispensationalism. It constituted a comprehensive hermeneutics (way of interpreting the Bible), but for our purposes it’s important to understand that it divided the Bible into two separate messages: one message to the nation of Israel, and another message to the Gentile church. The Jews were considered to be God’s earthly people, and the church his heavenly people. God’s promises to the Jews were for this world, and his promises to the church were for the eternal world. The Bible itself was deemed a dual book. The OT and parts of the NT were given to Israel. Much of the NT, and particularly Paul’s epistles, were given to the church. Among other things, this meant that the NT promises to the church, which assumed the OT promises to the Jews, had to be cut off from the OT, which was a Jewish book. The gospel promises are for personal victory and our future home in heaven. They have nothing to do with God’s redeeming the entire creation by his Son’s death and resurrection. This earthly victory could only happen by the enforced kingdom during the centralized government of the future millennium during which Jesus literally rules in Jerusalem over the Jews. The Gentile church by that time would be far away in heaven, having been raptured away from the earth.
The dispensational gospel is the Gentile gospel, and the Gentile gospel saves individuals from sin and prepares them to meet the Lord. The Jewish gospel includes restoring ethnic Israel to her God-given land of Canaan and overspreading the earth and its nations with Jewish blessings. This will all be delayed until the future millennium.
This dualistic hermeneutic divides what God unites. The Bible teaches the unity of God’s purposes. God’s gospel and the law and covenant and promises come to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All of those who trust in Jesus Christ are the heirs of the biblical promises, both the OT and NT (Eph. 2:11–13; Gal. 3:25–29). But if you believe the dispensational, dualized gospel, while you might understand the basics of our Lord’s death and resurrection and our future home with the Lord, you won’t understand the unified, comprehensive gospel of the Bible.
And this misunderstanding is precisely what has dominated much of evangelicalism for the last few generations. It explains why for many decades large swaths of evangelicalism did not engage politics, did not care much for creation, did not develop (or preserve) a distinctly Christian view of education, did not enjoy many of the blessings of the created order (labeling them “worldly”), and did not plan for a long-term Gospel victory in time and history.
The blame for the present cultural disenfranchisement of Christianity can be laid partly at the feet of dispensationalism.
Eric Voegelin once identified “the prohibition of questioning” as a chief mark of old-time Marxism: “Shut up and follow us enlightened Communists.” The new Cultural Marxists are worse than the old-line Communists ever were. The latest Marxists (leading our major universities and influencing mainstream media and Hollywood and the legal profession) don’t want to reengineer just economics; their goal is nothing short of inventing the New Utopian Man (forgive me: “Person”) free to live in utterly pagan/secular, sexual, and legal autonomy — except for autonomy from the all-powerful state, which guarantees no interference to their depravity. And anyone who dare speak out against the New Progressive Order is to be silenced and steamrolled.
CCL is speaking out, and by God’s grace, and your prayer and money, we’ll never be silent. If you’re a donor, the next few months, plan to see the following titles show up at your doorstep: first, by Holy Week, my Prayer Changes Things: Abolishing Timid Praying. Then comes David L. Banhsen’s Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It. Next comes Brian Mattson’s The Bible as Bedtime Story. By late spring I should mail my Reformationally Correct: How to Be Protestant Today. Judge Graves’ book Prudent Jurisprudence: Essays on Constitutional Liberties and Law is available but will likely be released and promoted nationally this summer. Joseph Boot’s The Self-Destructive Doctrine of Islam should be ready by fall.
Thus far this year I’m scheduled to address the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, Washington, D.C. (Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella); the Worldview Leadership League, Toronto, Canada (Dr. Joseph Boot); the Wilberforce Academy, Cambridge, England (Andrea Williams, Esq.); and Truth Xchange, Escondido, California (Dr. Peter Jones).
And then there are the consistently active CCL blog (docsandlin.com), I-Tunes podcasts, and You Tube videocasts.
We refuse to be silenced by the thugs of Cultural Marxism.
Can you keep us keep speaking out for biblical truth and against the Cultural Marxists eroding our society ? If you can, please send a check today:
P. O. Box 100
Coulterville, CA 95311
I am deeply grateful for anything you can do to help us.
Richard Niebuhr’s minor classic Christ and Culture posits five paradigms for how Christians have related the Christian Faith to culture, but today’s environment largely reduces to two: transformationism and privatism. Transformationism sees the task of Christians as gradually influencing society with Christian truth in the hope (and certainty) that all of life will eventually be redeemed. Privatism (sometimes called “pietism”) believes Christians should be faithful citizens in the wider society but limit their Christianity as Christians to the family, church, friendships, personal evangelism, and other “non-public” spheres. The realm of culture is common to all, believers and unbelievers. The realm of the church is sacred, special, for believers. The ethics of Faith are ethics for the church; ethics for culture are common (common sense?), not distinctively Christian ethics. Among Reformation people, the distilled, sophisticated version of this paradigm is designated the “Two Kingdom Theology” (2KT), championed today by such Calvinists as Michael Horton and David VanDrunen.
Brian Mattson (Ph.D., Aberdeen), Senior Scholar of Public Theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership (CCL, which I lead), contests 2KT in Cultural Amnesia, and it is a testimony to Mattson’s remarkable giftedness that in 50 pages he manages graciously to demolish that viewpoint. If you want the most succinct, incisive refutation of 2KT, in fact, this is it.
The book consists of three essays, the first two talks delivered at a CCL symposium a few years ago, and the third a short piece originally published on the web. Chapter 1 refutes the basic 2KT argument that ethics are common to all people and that, therefore, there’s nothing especially Christian about them. In short, according to 2KT, we don’t need Christian cultural ethics, just Christian churchly ethics. Mattson furnishes examples of the fact that common cultural ethics aren’t actually that common — and where they are, it’s because of Christian influence. 2KT advocates can argue against distinctly Christian cultural ethics only because of the success of those very ethics: they enjoy the ironic luxury of forgetting. They suffer from cultural amnesia.
In chapter 2, Mattson lays out the unity between creation (Genesis 1–2) and re-creation (redemption by Jesus Christ), a unity which doesn’t permit the dualism of 2KT, which actually severs creation and redemption. Mattson relies on the paradigm of Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (Mattson wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bavinck): “Grace restores and perfects nature.” If we decouple redemption from creation, as 2KT in effect does, we march toward Gnosticism, which sees redemption as salvation from the created order, and not from sin itself.
Mattson’s concluding chapter is ingenious. He puts 2KT to the test by applying the thesis to the obviously pre-Christian, originally non-redemptive institution: the family. Surely, if any cultural institution is exempt from Christian redemption and distinctively Christian ethics, it’s the family. Right? Wrong. 2KT epic fail.
A theologian friend once remarked to me that it doesn’t take long tomes to expound a number of the doctrines of the Bible. Similarly, it doesn’t require a multi-volume series to refute 2KT.
You could do it in 50 pages.
As we noted in part 1, God as the person of Jesus Christ reconciles the world. Theologians are fond of considering how the members of the Trinity covenanted in eternity to accomplish man’s salvation. They sometimes call it the “covenant of redemption.” But the Bible doesn’t quite call it that, and in fact says very little about a pre-temporal heavenly agreement about who gets to do what in man’s salvation. This is largely an exercise in useless speculation.
It’s not speculative, and far from useless, to consider that God was in Christ reconciling. Man’s sin turned him into God’s enemy (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21; Jas. 4:4). Man wants to be free from God’s love and God’s standards. Man’s sin, in turn, separates him from God (Is. 59:2). It exposes him to God’s severe judgment (Rom. 1:18–32; 2:5–6). From God’s standpoint, this is not a permanently agreeable arrangement. God overcomes the estrangement by reconciling man. This is what Holy Week is all about. God came as (and not merely sent) Jesus Christ. God is the agent in reconciling. Why? Because sin is personal, reconciliation is personal. Sin isn’t just the impersonal breaking of “natural law”; it’s the breaking of God’s revealed law (1 Jn. 3:1–10). Sin is against God. This is why reconciliation must be by and with God. On the Cross, Jesus didn’t meet impersonal demands of impersonal justice. He met the demands of God’s highly personal justice. God suffered his own righteous penalty for (our) sin.
Reconciliation is not Christ’s paying our sin debt to a God waiting to find any reason to judge sinners but finally pacified by another, his Son, a Father who did not feel at that point as the Son did. God sent Jesus to propitiate himself, that is, turn away his own wrath (1 Jn. 4:10), because of his great love for us. God himself poured out his own wrath on himself (Jesus Christ) to save sinners. God is the reconciler.
God doesn’t hide behind Jesus Christ
If we want to know more about the Father than we can learn from the Son, we’re on a fool’s errand. Once a young woman who had suffered degrading sexual abuse as a child and had been battered by evil men and was living in squalor and poverty finally made her way as a last resort to a faithful church on her block. After the service, the pastor greeted her and asked her about her life. In great sorrow she summarized her harrowing history and declared that this church was her last attempt at life. She had given up on God and was almost hopeless and was contemplating suicide.
The pastor immediately related the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, about how on the Cross he died after being beaten and battered by wicked men. He told her that if anybody knows and understands her great agony and shame and loss and humiliation, it is Jesus Christ.
She thought for a moment and then slowly she uttered in timid, broken words, “I imagine that if I could believe that God were like Jesus, I could believe in God.”
“Well,” the pastor responded, “I have the most wonderful news in the world for you. God is exactly like Jesus, and if you want to know God, simply trust and give your life to his Son. In Jesus you will learn everything about God that you need to know.”
God doesn’t hide in Jesus Christ. God manifests himself most plainly in Jesus Christ: “God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Not hidden. Manifested. And manifested most, perhaps, at the Cross.
The “finished work” finishes off Satan and sin
Because no one less than God is the reconciler, this reconciliation cannot fail. When God acts to finalize his work with man, man cannot thwart him. It is this truth that stands out in Romans 8:32, 39:
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? … . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not merely because of, or reflected by, but in. The love of Christ on the Cross is the love of God.
The old-timers were fond of calling this the “finished work of Christ.” Because redemption is God’s work through and through, it is a final, enduring work. The present intercession of our Lord at the right hand is not one of an aggressive mediator trying to convince a reluctant party, pestering for concessions, anxiously hoping he will get what he wants from his Father. Christ sat down on his heavenly throne (Heb. 1:1–3). His priestly work is forever finished. He intercedes with a Father who, knowing the pangs of sin-inducing death, longs and lives and loves to forgive in his Son.
Hebrews 1 assures us that as a result of his priestly, reconciling death, Jesus is seated with his Father, sharing in his heavenly rule over the cosmos, waiting until all of his enemies are subdued (vv. 8, 13). The position of sitting on the throne is one of patient, confident ruling. In Christology, it is customary to distinguish between the humiliation of Christ and his exaltation. This language is borrowed from Philippians 2 — “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him … (vv. 8–9). The state of humiliation covers his birth to death, and his exaltation begins with his resurrection. But if pressed too far without reference to other biblical texts, this distinction shields a very important truth: Jesus’ death was a form of exaltation and victory. Our Lord himself said:
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (Jn. 12:31–33, emphasis supplied)
In his death, Jesus is exalted to judge the depraved world and Satan who leads it. In Colossians, Paul elaborates on this theme:
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (2:13–15)
At the Cross, Jesus squashed the “principalities and powers,” the satanic spirits at war with God. We stood guilty under God’s holy law, and our disobedience enslaved us to Satan. God in Christ “wiped out” that guilt, because God bore his own righteous penalty. He erased not just that penalty, but also even the “handwriting of requirements,” the condemnation of the ceremonial law that always reminded the Jews of their sin (Heb. 10:3). In Jesus’ death, our sins are blotted out. The metaphor is of a triumphant king, returning to his home country, displaying his defeated captives as a great spectacle for all his citizens to see. Matthew Henry captures the victory beautifully:
The Redeemer conquered by dying. See his crown of thorns turned into a crown of laurels. He spoiled them, broke the devil’s power, and conquered and disabled him, and made a show of them openly — exposed them to public shame, and made a show of them to angels and men. Never had the devil’s kingdom such a mortal blow given to it as was given by the Lord Jesus. He tied them to his chariot-wheels, and rode forth conquering and to conquer — alluding to the custom of a general’s triumph, who returned victorious.
In this way, our Lord’s entire redemptive work is an exaltation by which he plunders Satan’s kingdom (Mt. 12:24–30). Jesus Christ’s exaltation was not delayed until his resurrection, which, along with his ascension to his heavenly throne, is the apex of his exaltation. But his death itself is an exaltation and victory, preparing the way for the transition to the full victory in the resurrection and ascension.
One reason we are disinclined to perceive this fact is that we can’t get our minds around an exaltation that includes humility and suffering. But it is precisely in these tribulations that we detect God’s victory in Jesus Christ. It is the slain-but-resurrected Lamb on his throne of deity whom the heavenly hosts worship (Rev. 5:8–13). God shows himself to be God in our Lord’s death on the Cross, high and lifted up in meeting the demands of his own holiness in sacrificing his own life for the world. Put another way: we see in the Cross something of God that we cannot see (or certainly not as clearly) anywhere else. We see God exalted in a way that is an affront and scandal to the sinful world (1 Cor. 1:18–25; Gal. 5:11), a world which prizes an exaltation of pride and dominance and comfort. But God in sacrificing himself for sins is exalted in humility and subservience and agony.
While the apostate chief priests scribes and elders mocked Jesus’ claims as Messiah since in their view Messiah could never suffer crucifixion (Mt. 27:41–42), the Roman centurion and his friends at the foot of the Cross declared after Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v. 54), God in Christ exalted himself in reconciling the world. On the Cross, he was not less King than in the resurrection and ascension, though King in a different way. In his resurrection and ascension, he reigns over the cosmos. In his death, he reigns over the guilt and bondage of human sinfulness and the satanic principalities and powers that exploit that sinfulness. It is in this sense that our Lord’s redemptive work can be described as a transition from humiliation to exaltation.
For this reason, the gospel of reconciliation will not fail. And for this reason, anxiety is never appropriate for a child of God, no matter the (temporary) victories of Satan and sin. In the memorable words of Longfellow:
Though the mills of God grind slowly;
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all.
But when we do not see God as the reconciler we might be tempted to diminish the great, global gospel promises. We might recognize that God has delegated the task of world evangelization to the church, but then forget that God himself in the person of his Son is in our presence wherever we declare that gospel (Mt. 28:18–20). God himself is reconciling sinners. For this reason we move boldly in confidence at the success of the gospel. Charles H. Spurgeon asserts:
The success of the Gospel is in no jeopardy whatever. Jesus must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.
If the devil can persuade you that Christ is going to give up the war, or is going to fight it out on another line and dispense with your efforts, you will soon grow idle. You will find an excuse for laziness in some supposed conversion of the world by miracle, or some other wonderful affair. You will say the Lord is coming and the war will all be over at once, so there is no need of your fighting it out now. Do not believe it! Our Commander is able to fight it through on this line—in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, by the power of the Eternal Spirit, we are bound to keep right on till this world yields before God….
No gunner may leave his gun, no subordinate may disperse his band, no officer may suggest a retreat. Brothers and Sisters, Popery must fall! Mohammedanism must come down! All the idol gods must be broken and cast to the moles and to the bats! It looks like a task too gigantic, but the bare arm of God — only think of that — His sleeve rolled up, Omnipotence, itself, made bare — what can it not accomplish? Stand back, devils! When God’s bare arm comes into the fight, you will all run like dogs, for you know your Master! Stand back, heresies and schisms, evils and delusions! You will all disappear, for the Christ of God is mightier than you!
O, believe it! Do not be downhearted and dispirited! Do not run to new schemes and fancies and interpretations of prophecy. Go and preach Jesus Christ unto all the nations! Go and spread abroad the Savior’s blessed name, for He is the world’s only hope! The Cross is the banner of our victory! God help us to look to it ourselves and then to hold it up before the eyes of others till our Lord shall come upon His Throne. Amen.
God will win, because God is the one reconciling.
David L. Bahnsen’s counternarrative (p. xx) of both the 2008 financial housing crisis and the 2016 populist political upheaval links both to a single source: a crisis of responsibility, a lack of which infects not just economics and politics but the entire culture. His nearly unprecedented thesis identifies culprits almost everywhere, and not just, as is widely believed, in the perches of elitism increasingly criticized by their alleged victims at the social margins. Bahnsen is an equal opportunity offender (“this book has offered no immunity to anyone,” 156), and his brisk 170-pages cover surprisingly wide ground in indicting nearly every classification in our society for the irresponsibility that contributes to our present ills.
Although an unapologetic sociopolitical conservative, Bahnsen’s critique targets fellow conservatives just as much as Leftists — and perhaps more energetically, since of the two viewpoints, personal responsibility has been a guiding tenet of conservatism … until lately. The conservatives who blame Wall Street, Washington, NAFTA, China, Mexico and the media are more blameworthy than the Leftists who blame individual liberty, the traditional family and church, small government, military interventionism, private education, and free markets (pp. 15–29). Leftists are suckled on blame-shifting. Conservatives should know better.
Though a Barron’s- and Forbes-recognized investment executive knowledgeable in both economics and politics, his is a cultural (i.e., spiritual and moral) critique. Economics, like politics, is downstream from culture (p. 32, 42). While his nuanced account avoids oversimplified villainization, valorization, and victimization (p. 11), he contends that a particular personal and cultural vice (irresponsibility) got us into the economic and political mess, and only a particular personal and cultural virtue (responsibility) will get us out. Playing the victim card is oh-so-easy since it contains a built-in disincentive for the cardholder to change his bad behavior. What bad behavior? How about easy, no-fault divorce; protracted cohabitation; out-of-wedlock births; long-delayed marriages; overused disability claims; and downright laziness? And that’s just the men. Bahnsen rehearses Charles Murray’s thesis that wealthier Americans are far more pro-family and in general culturally conservative than the impoverished. Murray wishes that the former would “preach what they practice,” and what they practice is precisely the responsibility virtue Bahnsen champions.
Bahnsen’s thesis includes refuting almost universally assumed narratives (“narratives do not like specifics,” p. 20) surrounding the financial crisis. For example, we all know that the 2008 near-collapse is due primarily to the “subprime housing crisis.” The problem is that, in the old adage, what we know ain’t so. Although fraudulent lending and investment overleveraging were causes, they weren’t the leading causes, the chief of which is millions of borrowers “who could afford their home payment, but realized that the sticker price that they paid was far more than the present resale value of the home, and thus made the morally questionable decision to walk away” (p. 52). We were regaled with the accusatory mantra of “predatory lending,” but the far greater culprit was “predatory borrowing” (p. 56). An entire spurious vocabulary was adopted, including “strategic defaulting” (p. 59) = walking away from your mortgage you can afford to pay in order to put yourself in a better financial position. Perhaps we should call 2008 a “strategic collapse.”
Bahnsen then takes on the reputed victimization unleashed by the free market and automization. It’s a pity that such a chapter had to be written, because there’s an overabundance of evidence that everywhere they go, free markets create wealth, not victims. It’s true that free trade doesn’t save every possible job, but it creates new jobs. And Bahnsen supports incentives for retraining workers whose jobs have been lost due to global trade and new technologies. He notes the fact, almost never mentioned, that “when multinational companies hire more foreign employees, they also increase domestic hiring” (p. 72, emphasis in original). And he reminds readers that there aren’t enough applicants for all the jobs presently available (p. 74). Talk about inconvenient truths!
Anyone assuming Bahnsen’s unalloyed defense of free markets mutes criticism of the misuse of the market should read chapter 6, a searing attack on crony capitalism. He offers a fascinating application of 1 Samuel 8, Israel’s demand for a king. He notes that the rationale the Jews gave to Samuel is that his sons took bribes and perverted justice, lining their own pockets. In other words, an incipient form of crony capitalism inspired them to nag for bigger government in order to suppress the non-virtuous market (pp. 79–80). In the same way, citizens today shed responsibility and ask for bigger government on the grounds that it alone can “drain the swamp” in which grows the vast Business-Government Complex. And the fact is, the swamp needs draining. Free-market Republicans who clamor for special economic favors for pet businesses aren’t really free-marketers at all. The free market must be free for everybody (pp. 83–86). Bahnsen suggests that lower tax rates and decreased regulation for everybody will abolish crony capitalism and quell the populist demands for bloated government power to “level the economic playing field.” A genuinely free market is a level playing field.
In disclosing how the current immigration controversy contributes to cultural irresponsibility, Bahnsen offers a remarkably balanced assessment. He agrees with criticism of an immigration policy that incentivizes illegality and opens welfare coffers for illegals. Moreover, he points out the error of confusing multiculturalism with immigration (pp. 102–105). Multiculturalism argues that all cultures are equally valid and that the United States should not insist on the superiority of its ideals. Multiculturalism trashes American exceptionalism, dilutes a healthy patriotism, and undermines the cultural virtues that for centuries made for the ubiquitous success of the West. An immigration policy catalyzing multiculturalism must be opposed. But Bahnsen notes that this is not what immigration should be about — or has been about for most of America’s history. Assimilating immigrants committed to basic American ideals and to improving our nation has almost always be U.S. immigration policy. It worked wonders. Bahnsen exposes the unfairness and hypocrisy of protectionism (“No one would ever try to protect a Stanford computer science PhD from an invasion of lower-cost programmers from India,” p. 106). He notes, contrary to received opinion, that low-skilled immigrant labor adds jobs for native-born workers (p. 107). Far from victimizing the native-born, immigrants (the right kind) generate wealth. Blaming immigrants for fewer U.S. jobs isn’t just morally wrong; it’s just plain wrong.
One of the biggest impediments to recovering cultural responsibility is the monopolistic, coercive — and too often substandard — public school system of the United States. Bahnsen declares that educational choice is “the great civil rights issue of our day” (p. 89). He blasts the teachers’ unions, whose monopoly harms the very people (the poor) they claim to be assisting. Insulating themselves from competition (charter and private schools), government schools happily persist in their own lazy incompetence (with some exceptions, of course). Bahnsen wryly observes that if the current populist rage were directed at this educational monopoly, “we would see a truly righteous transformation” (p. 98).
He is even more emphatic in exposing the downright evils of our secular post-secondary education. In this mostly dispassionate book, Bahnsen reserves tart rhetoric for “higher education’s safe spaces” (p. 111):
The American university system now offers families the worst of both worlds — inherit insane debt and receive little preparation for adult responsibilities, while being indoctrinated with propositions that undermine the foundational values of Western civilization. That’s right. One can now go broke being taught to think incorrectly.
Bahnsen offers the jarring statistic that “[c]umulative student loan debt now exceeds $1.4 trillion, greater than total national credit card debt and the total national mortgage debt — by a wide margin” (p. 114). If you think that no economic downturn could be as scary as the 2008 home mortgage crisis, re-read that last sentence.
Bahnsen questions the educational orthodoxy that every young person benefits from college, but his chief argument is that today’s university education insulates students from life and cultivates the mentality and attitude of irresponsibility. Our universities are hothouses for the Great Responsibility Recession.
One of the foundational tenets of conservatism is limited government, which Bahnsen champions, but he cautions blaming big government for all social ills. Big government is the symptom, not the disease (p. 120). The disease is irresponsibility. Citizens, including many conservatives, are quite happy with big government as long as it’s “good” big government. An example is entitlements. He reminds us of the harrowing statistic:
[I]f we spent no money on anything but transfer payments, we would still run a deficit in this country. If we had no governmental departments, no salaries, no military, no debt interest, no programs — just Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Welfare, Unemployment, and so on — we would still be in a financial hole (p. 125).
Big government didn’t appear overnight. Irresponsible citizens gradually ceded their rightful responsibilities to the federal government — and now have the temerity to complain about the behemoth that is federal government. Like all true conservatives, Bahnsen is an advocate of mediating institutions, what we nowadays call “civil society,” like the family and church and businesses (p. 127). These non-political institutions, not just individuals (he is no fan of “rugged individualism” that bypasses civil society, p. 159) must commandeer the responsibilities that individuals and institutions gradually ceded to the state.
In the final two chapters, Bahnsen turns almost entirely from description to prescription. First, how can individuals recover the responsibility mindset? He counsels a ten-item “responsibility remedy” (p. 133), several items of which sound radical, but only because we’ve drifted so far in our Responsibility Recession that responsibility sounds radical: “Thoroughly repudiate defeatism and victimhood in your own life — even when you’ve actually been victimized” (emphasis in original); “Prepare your children for economic self-reliance” (don’t “allow for the years between twenty-one and thirty-five to be merely a time of nonproductive discovery,” p. 139): and “Flee the cult of home ownership and home price appreciation” (p. 141): if you’re using your home equity as an ATM card or as a trading card, you’re acting irresponsibly and will eventually pay the price of a compulsive gambler.
Bahnsen concludes by suggesting the cultural remedy as a counterpart to the individual remedy. He includes the following policy prescriptions: add tax deductibility for job retaining in a dynamic economy, quit using housing policy to engineer social aims, and abolish crony capitalism (pp. 155–156).
He chides conservatives who (legitimately) assail elitism if they do not simultaneously re-appropriate from elites the tasks for which they themselves should have been responsible all along. We must all abandon scapegoatism. We are responsible.
Bahnsen concludes with an autobiographical note, rehearsing his own journey from radical individualism to a responsible pro-liberty view respectful of civil society. His burning passion is human flourishing: that all citizens, whatever their cultural and economic station, can benefit from a free, virtuous society. That society is impossible as long as its members constantly shift responsibility and blame.
The mostly dispassionate language and logic of this book render its bluntly radical thesis less detectible. But make no mistake: if this book were taken seriously by even a sizable minority of ordinary citizens and cultural leaders, the United States of the next few decades would be dramatically different from the one today.
Responsible. And therefore flourishing.
My theory is that great years for movies come along once every 35 years: 1972 and 2007 come immediately to mind. I’m eager for 2042. Still, 2017 wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. I was greatly disappointed in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which, like Mark Hamill, looked old and tired; in Blade Runner 2049, a visual spectacle that would have been much better without the plot and dialogue; and in Dunkirk, though I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan. My favorite movie, which made no other top list, did, however, highlight another Christopher, one to whom my late mother first introduced me as a little boy and with whom I instantly identified.
The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of the senses. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies—this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.
And now let us hear how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he knows that death stands before him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The synoptic evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins “to tremble and be distressed,” writes Mark. “My soul is troubled, even to death,” he says to his disciples. Jesus is so thoroughly human that he shares the natural fear of death. Jesus is afraid… He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for him is not something divine; it is something dreadful.
Only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the resurrection. Belief in the immortality of the soul is not belief in a revolutionary event. Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion: the soul does not die, but simply lives on. Resurrection is a positive assertion: the whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God. Something has happened—a miracle of creation! For something has also happened previously, something fearful: life formed by God has been destroyed.
Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus. Death before Easter is really the death’s head surrounded by the odor of decay. And the death of Jesus is as loathsome as the great painter Grünewald depicted it in the Middle Ages. But precisely for this reason the same painter understood how to paint, along with it, in an incomparable way, the great victory, the resurrection of Christ… Whoever paints a pretty death can paint no resurrection. Whoever has not grasped the horror of death cannot join Paul in the hymn of victory: “Death is swallowed up—in victory! O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead”, 1955