Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 4): Darwin Guts the Gospel

In the first three installments, I’ve noted liberals’ (and liberal evangelicals’) enthronement of experience, their war on certainty, and their preference for pre-redemptive-era interpretations of Jesus rather than post-redemptive-era interpretations (Paul versus Jesus).

We can’t go forward without touching on the liberal view of science. Liberalism emerged at a time (the 19th century) when scientific advances seemed breathtaking. The scientific method and early science had been founded mostly by Christians and with a Christian understanding of the world: that God had created an orderly physical world and that man was called (Gen. 1) to steward it for God’s glory. Gradually, the Enlightenment drifted from these moorings, first into deism (God created the universe but isn’t actively involved in it) and finally into agnosticism (we don’t need God at all to explain the universe). There can be no doubt that the discoveries of modern science (operating on Christian premises but gradually denying the Maker of those premises) reshaped the West, and for this reason when the Bible was thought to conflict with science (as it did in the famous case of Galileo’s insistence that the earth orbits the sun, contra church dogma), liberals, wanting above all else to adjust the Faith to modern trends, increasingly dumped the Bible for science.

Or, rather, scientific myth. Why do I say this? As Dillenberger and Welch observe (pp. 200–206), no scientific event brought the conflict into greater focus that the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, which championed biological evolution. This work was scientific to the extent that it addressed present empirical facts, but religious (“faith-based”) in that it interpreted those facts to suggest a theory of human origins. In this sense, it was no different from the book of Genesis, which doesn’t claim to be verifiable by the scientific method — it claims “only” to be the Word of God. In short, the Bible and Darwinism contain competing (non-scientific) views of human origins.

The liberals’ answer to this conflict was generally to embrace what we term nowadays “theistic evolution”: God created the mechanism by which man evolved. This set them at odds with Biblical orthodoxy on the one hand and atheistic scientists on the other. It also meant that the straightforward teachings of the early chapters of Genesis on universal origins had to go.

Today’s liberal evangelicals, too, are eager to jettison teachings vital to the most obvious interpretation of the Genesis account — like the historicity of Adam and Eve. Pete Enns, a controversial liberal evangelical, explains it this way in the Huffington Post:

Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.

This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.

Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.

Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.

Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.

In short, we can’t expect the Bible to be unique. Like all other such narratives of the time, the Bible’s human authors were simply telling a very personal religious story.

On the other hand, almost everybody reading the Bible without any interest in reconciling it with modernity “assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about ‘human origins.’” What less would it be? But once you start with the assumption that the Bible is like any other book, you can come up with all sorts of counterintuitive theories — and avoid what’s on the page right in front of you.

Not to worry, say the liberal evangelicals. After all, we’re all about the evangel, the Gospel, not human origins, which have no essential bearing on the gospel.

Never mind that the Bible itself assumes a nearly absolute continuum of creation-history-redemption. Jesus is the Second (historical) Adam, corresponding to the Edenic (historical) Adam (Rom. 5). If you get rid of the historic sinning Adam, soon you’ll need to get rid of the historic sinless Jesus — and this is just what liberalism does. Liberals don’t deny the Jesus of history (only the Jesus of the Bible). But by lopping off Adam and Biblical origins, they necessarily turn the gospel into something it isn’t. In the end, you can’t get rid of Genesis without getting rid of the Gospel.

It’s strange that early liberals often understood this fact better than today’s liberal evangelicals. In his 1925 work The Religion of Yesterday and To-Morrow, famed Harvard professor Kirsopp Lake, a prominent liberal, wrote:

[T]he Fundamentalists are perfectly right in thinking that Genesis is the keystone of all biblical theology, and they are perfectly right in thinking that it cannot be reconciled with modern [evolutionary] Science…. To say [as the theistic evolutionists were] that evolution is merely the method of creation is a travesty. (pp. 86–87)

Orthodox Biblical Christians, therefore, cherish the scientific method and modern science, but not scientistic mythmaking.

More importantly, if the liberal evangelicals continue on the same trajectory as the liberal predecessors, they’ll soon find out that you can’t dump Genesis 1–3 without in the end also dumping John 3:16.


Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 3): We Love Jesus; Paul? Not So Much

I’ve already addressed liberals’ and (liberal evangelicals’) enthronement of experience and war on certainty.

They claim to be Christians, so what do they say about Jesus Christ?

In liberal theology, “[t]he core of Christianity is to be found in the personality of Jesus and in his teaching,” write Dillenberger and Welch (p. 209).  In this sense, they want above all else to be “Christ-centered” (or “Christocentric”).

Then again, what Christian doesn’t? To be a Christian is to believe and follow Jesus. The problem with liberal Christocentricity is that its view of Jesus is selective, and, in harmony with its religious epistemology (view of knowledge), it interprets Jesus in light of one’s individual experience.

Which is to say, it’s not especially interested in the Jesus as portrayed in the Bible.

For liberals, it’s the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus, not his death and resurrection, that get the emphases. Specific teachings of Jesus that reinforce specific liberal tenets — turn the other cheek, do good to your enemies, forgive others, don’t judge people first by externals — captivate liberal Christology.  Liberals are less interested in other teachings of Jesus — I did not come to abolish the Old Testament law, no one can gain salvation except through me, and unrepentant sinners will end up in an eternal hellfire. These latter teachings of Jesus don’t conform to the reigning liberal paradigm of antinomianism, pluralism, and tolerance, respectively, so they must be conveniently omitted.

More importantly, perhaps, liberals want to concentrate on Jesus’ teachings recorded in the gospels and not other New Testament teachings, because Paul (and John and Peter) interpret Jesus’ death and resurrection in ways liberals find abhorrent, while Jesus generally does not offer an extensive pre-interpretation of his redemptive work.  He does speak about his work as a ransom on the Cross, and he does predict his resurrection; but he couldn’t go into great detail, because it was all his disciples could do to believe he was the Son of God — much less grasp the substitutionary atonement and implications of his bodily resurrection.  It was left for Paul (and, to a lesser extent, John and Peter) to provide that.  You can get around (but not very easily) penal substitution (that Jesus suffered the penalty of God’s wrath for our law-breaking sin) by looking only at Jesus’ words — you can’t get around it when reading Paul.

And the fact is, penal substitutionary atonement is a scandal to the liberal mind.  It presents three utterly embarrassing points: (1) Man is full of sin and he can’t save himself from God’s judgment on sin; (2) God is angry against sin and will pour out his wrath on it; (3) God punishes His own Son on the Cross.  These Biblical tenets had nothing in common with the temper of the educated elite of the 19th century — that is, the people early liberals were trying to please.  They believed (1) that man is basically good, (2) that God isn’t an angry God, and (3) that God would never punish His Son in our place.

Because you can — and will — get all these teachings from Paul (and, to some degree, John and Peter) but less from the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels, the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus became “[t]he core of Christianity” for liberals.

It shouldn’t surprise us, either, that as evangelicalism slides toward liberalism, it slides away from Paul’s teaching and slides toward Jesus’ teaching.  Scot McNight, prominent liberal evangelical New Testament scholar, declares:

Formerly I had loved Paul and thought with Paul. Then, when I encountered Jesus, as if for the first time, I began learning to think with Jesus. One of my colleagues occasionally suggested I was getting too Jesus-centered and ignoring Paul. I’m not so sure I was ignoring Paul; after all, I was teaching a few of his letters on a regular basis. But I had unlearned how to think in Pauline terms and was thinking only in the terms of Jesus. Everything was kingdom-centered for me.

And, truth be told, I was so taken with Jesus’ kingdom vision that reading Paul created a dilemma every time I opened his letters….

My experience is not unusual. Many of us have made a move from Paul to Jesus, and an increasing tension remains among evangelicals about who gets to set the terms: Jesus or Paul? In other words, will we center our gospel teaching and living on “the kingdom” or “justification by faith”? (emphases supplied)

Don’t be misled. The root issue here isn’t kingdom versus justification (the Bible — and both Jesus and Paul — teaches both). The issue is allowing Paul to tells us what the Cross and empty tomb mean.  When we do that, we can’t come to liberal conclusions.

When we retreat to the “teaching” and “personality” of Jesus, we can champion liberal dogma (if we’re selective, of course).

Paul? No way.

For this reason, when the evangelicals slide to interpret Paul’s post-redemptive-era teachings in light of Jesus’ pre-redemptive-era teachings, they are sliding into liberalism.


Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 2): The War on Certainty

I already observed in part 1 of this series that liberalism reengineers the Faith, and creates theology, in terms of man’s experience and feelings. The objective dimensions of Christianity (Bible, doctrine, church) become nothing other than a projection of man’s subjectivity.  This means that when man’s experience changes, his religion changes.  This is also why liberalism (not liberal Christianity, for there is no such thing) spawns such a dizzying hydra of theologies: gay theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology, and so on.  The call for radical diversity in theology and the church is almost always a call for liberalism.  There’s plenty of valid diversity within the pages of the Bible (different gifting, different emphases, as in Jew and Gentile churches), but the Bible presupposes that all Christianity will be anchored in the Word itself, because God alone can tell us what to believe and how to live.  This Biblical diversity isn’t the diversity that liberalism has in mind, to put it mildly.  By radical diversity, therefore, I mean a diversity untethered to objective divine standards, I.e., the Bible.  This is the diversity of liberal theology and life.

Radical diversity presupposes a lackadaisical attitude toward truth.  If you believe in religious truth, radical diversity is impossible. We might assume that this lax attitude toward truth and the certainty it furnishes is very recent, very postmodern, but in fact it’s one of the cornerstones of good, old-fashioned 19th century liberalism.  “Tentativeness or skepticism as to the possibility of achieving certain knowledge of ultimate reality,” is, in the words of Dillenberger and Welch (p. 213) one of the chief marks of liberalism.  This skepticism grows out of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the epistemological fountainhead of liberal theology (epistemology is the study of the source and acquisition of knowledge).

For liberals, the way to get rid of competing truth claims is to hold that we can’t really know the truth, not to prove that one claim is right and its competitors are wrong.  Besides, such truth claims put a crimp on human autonomy, and man must at all costs call the shots in his life — and especially in his sexual practices in today’s world.

This war on certainty, therefore, was around a long time before postmodernism got here, and it’s at the root of liberalism.

It’s also and equally a war on fixed theology and, in fact, a war on certainty precisely so it can be a war on theology. If we need to be tentative about belief, we need to be tentative about all belief, including the truth of the Bible, miracles, answered prayer, the deity of Jesus Christ, his bodily resurrection, Biblical sexual ethics, and so forth.  The problem is that the Bible isn’t at all tentative about these things, and whoever isn’t tentative about the authority of the Bible won’t be tentative about what the Bible clearly teaches.

One of the most gifted liberal evangelicals, John Franke, by contrast, puts his views this way:

A nonfoundationalist [epistemically tentative] conception envisions theology as an ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, and culture in which all three are vehicles of the one Spirit through which the Spirit speaks in order to create a distinctively Christian “world” centered on Jesus Christ in a variety of local settings. In this way theology is both one, in that all truly Christian theology seeks to hear and respond to the speaking of the one Spirit, and many, in that all theology emerges from particular social and historical situations. Such a theology is the product of the reflection of the Christian community in its local expressions. Despite its local character, such a theology is still in a certain sense global in that it seeks to explicate the Christian faith in accordance with the ecumenical tradition of the church throughout its history and on behalf of the church throughout the world.

There simply is no final word in human history because Christians cannot escape their local, time-bound humanity.  Moreover, there is no way of judging between competing local visions of the Christian Faith, since each faithfully expresses local reflections on God’s truth, which cannot directly be known.  It is precisely this reasoning that got liberals to gay theology, feminist theology, liberation theology, black theology in the first place: local theologies lacking direct access to the Word of God and, therefore, free to reflect on their own local experiences and fashion a theology from them.

The early church would have found this modesty strange indeed, believing as they did that they had access in the Scriptures to the very living Word of God, the very voice of God as it were.

When liberal evangelicals enshrine tentativeness as a cherished virtue in theology and/or Christian ethics, they are talking like — and becoming — liberal.  In calling for a radical diversity (many local theologies) not itself subject to a final, accessible revelatory Word, they tiptoe — or dash — to liberalism.


Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 1): Experience Creates the Faith

An increasing number of evangelicals are becoming liberal evangelicals, which is to say, they are becoming liberal. Liberalism narrowly considered is identified with a movement in Europe and American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but its theological impulse — to conform the Faith to the spirit of the age — has been around since the Garden of Eden. (In this sense, the ancient Jews, when they syncretized their faith with the surrounding pagan nations, were notorious liberals.)

In the first half of the 19th century in Europe, this accommodating spirit was Romanticism, the enthronement of emotion and feelings to counter the acidic effects of Enlightenment, which judged all things by universal human reason or objective human experience. The liberalism of that time did not want to give up the gains of the Enlightenment, but it also did not want to give up Christianity, as the Enlightenment seemed to be forcing people to do if they were to judge everything by universal human (as opposed to God’s) standards. In this way, liberalism could protect Christianity from Enlightenment — the problem is that the Christianity it protected had nothing to do with the Christianity of the Bible.

So liberalism hatched a cosmic salvage operation: keep Christianity around but anchor it in feelings and emotions and not reason and truth. Friedrich Schleiermacher, first major Romantic liberal, in his tellingly titled On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, writes:

Whence do those [orthodox] dogmas and doctrines come that many consider the essence of religion? Where do they properly belong? And how do they stand related to what is essential in religion? They are all the result of that contemplation of feeling, of that reflection and comparison, of which we have already spoken. The conceptions that underlie these propositions are, like your conceptions from experience, nothing but general expressions for definite feelings. They are not necessary for religion itself, scarcely even for communicating religion, but reflection requires and creates them. Miracle, inspiration, revelation, supernatural intimations, much piety can be had without the need of any one of these conceptions. But when feeling is made the subject of reflection and comparison they are absolutely unavoidable…. (p. 87, emphases supplied)

Christian beliefs — atonement, resurrection, Second Coming, Biblical inspiration — are simply a reflection on the internal Christian experience, which is the essence of religion. They are not true in any objective sense. Real religion is a particular kind of feeling.

Liberal evangelicals today increasingly echo this definition of religion. Roger E. Olson, himself at the vanguard of the movement, writes of the post-conservative (i.e., liberal) evangelicals:

Postconservatives seek to broaden the sources used in theology. Stanley J. Grenz refers to this as “revisioning evangelical theology” (the title of his recent programmatic statement of evangelical theological method). According to Grenz and others, the essence of evangelicalism is an experience and a distinctive spirituality centered around it. The experience is an act of God the Spirit known as conversion, and the spirituality is a community-shaped piety of the converted people of God. Theology is second-order reflection on the faith of the converted people of God whose life together is created and shaped by the paradigmatic narrative embodied in scripture. The essence of both Christianity and theology, then, is not propositional truths enshrined in doctrines but a narrative-shaped experience. This is not to demean or demote doctrine. Postconservative evangelicals believe that doctrine matters — but not as an end in itself. Doctrines are the necessary rules that reflect and guide the converted community of God’s people. (emphases supplied)

That is, we get our theology from our communal experience. With a few minor corrections here and there, Schleiermacher would have said much the same thing.

Of course, Christian experience is a critical aspect of being a Christian, and there can be no Christianity without it. But the Faith is not created by our experience. The Faith creates our experience.

Whenever you hear an evangelical assaulting propositional truths or propositional revelation in favor of individual or communal experience, which then forms theology or doctrine, you’re listening to a liberal evangelical — whether he or she knows it or not.

And you’re listening to somebody soon likely to give up the Christian Faith.


The Evangelicals Are Catching Up

The late Harold O. J. Brown noted that theology is no longer a hot topic with theological [!] liberals. It’s social and political issues that animate them. A theologically apostate agenda is passé. Today they’re really about social and political apostasy: homosexuality, abortion, socialism, radical feminism and environmentalism, college co-ed egg harvesting, etc.

Today, by contrast, it’s the evangelicals who are in love with theological liberalism: denying penal substitution, Biblical inerrancy, and the historicity of Adam and Eve.

But not to worry: the evangelicals will soon catch up.


Punctiliar Sanctification

The most significant theological contribution by the late John Murray was his configuration of what he termed “definitive sanctification” (Collected Writings, 2:277-293).    Murray doesn’t deny the validity of the traditional definition of sanctification (the Christian’s progressive conformity to the image of Jesus Christ [pp. 294-304]); but he holds that “definitive sanctification” is anterior, and “is the foundation upon which rests [Paul’s] whole conception of the believer’s life …” (p. 279).   According to Murray’s exegesis of Rom. 6:1-7:6; 1 Pet. 2:24; 4:1, 2; 1 Jn. 3:6-9 and other Biblical texts, this “definitive sanctification” is the “momentous” and “radical” “transformation” of the believer grounded in his union with Jesus’ death and resurrection, which breaks in him the power of sin and death and resituates him in the sphere of abundant life and radical obedience.   This effect of the union ground in past redemptive events is actuated in history when one repents and believes — at that point in history he is definitively sanctified, living as a consequence a life of progressive obedience (sanctification!) with no possibility of apostasy.

I have chosen the word punctiliar to describe the phenomenon.  “Punctiliar sanctification” highlights this one-for-all, decisive break with the old man and the world and the flesh and the Devil in those regenerated by the Spirit at a particular point in history.   The Bible does not imply that one always knows the precise point at which this personally epochal break occurs in his life, only that it has in fact occurred — the evidence for it is overwhelming (note especially the absolute marks of sonship in 1 John).

This divine act in God’s elect delivers the coup de grace to all merely processional soteriologies — to every notion that one’s security of salvation is held in abeyance until the Final Day. To be sure, God justifies His own at the heavenly tribunal only on the Final Day (Rom. 2:13), and if one has not persevered in good works, he will not be justified — since good works always accompany saving faith (Jas. 2:14-26).

But the finality of the Christian life is proleptically experienced in history in one’s blessed punctiliar sanctification.   At that point, despite all the subsequent machinations of Satan and Hell, the believer’s final victory in Jesus is assured (Rom. 8:28-39).

And present, incremental victory over sin — again, despite all the machinations of Satan and Hell — is also assured.


Beware Under-Realized Soteriologies

I was inspired by a comment by my colleague Dr. Brian G. Mattson to devise the monikers over-realized and under-realized soteriologies (if, unbeknownst to me, someone has beat me to the punch, I hereby grant full credit). I borrow the concept from 20th century debates concerning realized eschatologies (views of the future): to what degree does the eternal, coming Kingdom of God and Christ invade our present, pre-consummation era? If Geerhardus Vos is correct that soteriology (view of salvation) is a species of eschatology, I’m especially on track in extending the language. The question is how much of the “not yet” intrudes into the “already” of the already/not yet Kingdom blessings? To what extend does the glorious future invade the inglorious present?

Over-Realized Soteriologies

By over-realized soteriologies I denote those views of salvation that situate too much emphasis on the “already” of salvation. We think right away of perfectionism, of deeper-life devotionalism, and of the prosperity gospel.

Perfectionism is an old error, holding that Christians can gain a sinless status in this life, before the eternal state. The Bible seems obviously to refute this view (Rom. 7:14–24; 1 Jn. 1:8–2:2), despite the fact that it also teaches we can live a life of consistent victory over sin (“consistent” does not equal “perpetual” [Rom. 7:25–8:4]).

Deeper –life devotionalism, much like perfectionism, suggests a second stage of the Christian life beyond justification, forgiveness, adoption and sanctification: some who “go deeper” with the Lord in private sacrifice and devotion can live lives that, if not perfect, rise above the common lot of Christians who struggle daily with the world, the flesh and the devil. The problem here is that it’s hard to locate in the Bible any support for two such diverse classes of Christians. While it is true that Christians are all at different stages of growth in grace, all have been definitely sanctified and none has more access to the benefits of salvation than another.

The prosperity gospel is of more recent vintage. This is the idea that God wants all of his people to be materially prosperous all the time and that if they’re not, they lack faith. This idea is so preposterous that it hardly (but only hardly) needs refutation (anybody remember Job?). While it contains a degree of truth — that long-term obedience elicits long-term material blessing (Dt. 28:1–14) — it absolutizes and therefore oversimplifies a single principle and becomes an error. The eternal state (which will be here on a resurrected earth [Rev. 21:1–4]) will indeed bask in prosperity, but we’re not there yet.

Each of these errors (and others) are examples of over-realized soteriologies.

Under-Realized Soteriologies

Then there are their opposite numbers. I’ve already observed how Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity Today, declares that Christians can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin” in the present life. Mark writes in part:

“… I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to claims that we can be “radically transformed” by the gospel in this life. I believe most of the transformation language in the New Testament is spoken in hope; that is, it refers to our life with Christ at the end of history, when everything will be transformed, root and branch (see Philippians 3:21, for example).

This is very strange. Paul’s point in Romans 6:1–4 is that in union by faith with our Lord’s Cross and resurrection, we are raised to a life of obedience. We are “no longer . . . slaves of sin,” since “he who has died [that is, the one who is united to Jesus] has been freed from sin” (vv. 6–7). Paul proceeds to teach that Jesus’ redemption has liberated us from the power of sin.

Perhaps more compelling is Paul’s breathtaking argument in Romans 8:9–17:

But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Emphases supplied)

For Paul, the same Holy Spirit power that raised Jesus from the dead resides with believers and energizes them to live lives dominated by obedience (“righteousness”) and not sin (“the flesh”). To say that we can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin” is to say that the Spirit’s resurrection power is impotent to overcome a life dominated by sin. Paul makes abundantly clear that the same Holy Spirit who raised up Jesus from the dead and will one day raise us up from the dead has presently raised us up from a life of sin to a life of obedience. Future resurrection power is now partially — and powerfully — operative.

Mark cites Philippians 3:21, “[God] will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” This is a glorious promise, but it in no way hints that we should expect only to “muddle along mired in sin.”

Similarly, Tullian Tchividjian, Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, writes:

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to set us free by showing us our need for a rightness we can never attain on our own–an impossible righteousness that’s always out of our reach. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demolish all notions that we can reach the righteousness required by God–it’s about exterminating all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavor.

So, in the deepest sense, the Sermon on the Mount is not a goal, but a wall we crash into so that we finally cry out “I can’t do it!”

This is a remarkable conclusion. Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares (Mt. 5:19–20):

Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these [Old Testament] commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

That is, “I am expecting you to obey my words (as well as the words of the Hebrews Scriptures).” There can be no doubt that without Jesus the Messiah, we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but not one shred of evidence exists in the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is advocating, in Tullian’s words, “an impossible righteousness that’s always out of our reach.” Certainly the Sermon on the Mount is difficult, but for disciples (that is, those empowered by the Spirit), it is not impossible.

How discouraging and disconcerting is Tullian’s teaching that we are powerless to obey Jesus’ commands! What disservice this teaching does to the sin-shattering work of the Cross and the victorious resurrection!

Never Surrender to Under-Realized Soteriologies

If over-realized soteriologies underestimate the present power of sin, under-realized soteriologies underestimate the present power of the Holy Spirit, activated by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Under-realized soteriologies comport with a depraved world that beats down Christians and discourages them into assuming that they must simply throw in the towel and wait for the eternal state to get victory over sin. It can also simply be an excuse to disbelieve and disobey. After all, worldly Christians don’t want to work hard to obey God; that’s one factor that makes them worldly Christians — it’s much easier simply to go along with the sinful flow of a depraved culture.

Don’t surrender to the lazy and unbelieving trap of under-realized soteriologies. Jesus died to save you not just from the future penalty of sin (Rom. 3:19–25) but also from the present power of sin (Rom. 6:14).

Salvation means salvation from sin — and although a residue of sin still accompanies us (ergo: over-realized soteriologies are wrong), it has no claim on us and no longer enslaves us (ergo: under-realized soteriologies are wrong).

Ours is a realized soteriology, a present salvation. Battle with sin is a battle you and I can win, by God’s matchless grace.

politics, Uncategorized

A Christian and a Patriot?

May a Christian be a patriot? May a Christian in the United States be a patriot?  He may, he should, and in many cases, he must.

The primitive Christians sent mixed signals about patriotism.  They were highly skeptical about unbridled patriotism in the pagan Roman Empire. They opposed Christian participation in the military and civil government, though the Bible itself never requires this separatist approach.  Yet many of these patristic Christians loved the Roman Empire, and they lamented its decline and collapse.  Indeed, they patterned the governing structure of the Western church after the Empire: the Pope was the new emperor, for example, and the church in the fourth century became in its structure a replacement for the Roman Empire.  (In this way, an accident of history became a norm for the church until this very day.)

The Anabaptists of later times, however, followed the separatist path.  The churches of the magisterial Reformation deviate from it, on the other hand.  They hold that civil government is a ministry that God established and that under certain conditions Christians may — even must — support it.

The passionate and tearful flag-waving today in tandem with the revival of patriotic songs about the good ole US of A (most verses are conspicuously left unsung) is unsettling to many devout Christians, and ridiculed by the Far Left and many libertarians, a curious co-belligerency indeed.

The Biblical Record

But what does the Bible say?

When Jesus was asked whether it were lawful to pay taxes to the idolatrous Roman Empire, He replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17).  In other words, each — God and the civil magistrate (the state) — has his rightful due.  We are always obligated to God first, but we are also obligated to the civil government, even an evil one; and the Roman Empire certainly was evil.  If there is a conflict between the stipulations that God and the civil government impose, the early Christians knew who had unquestionable precedence: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Ac. 5:29).  God comes first, and we obey the civil magistrate when he does not conflict with what God requires of us in the Bible.

What is Patriotism?

Where does this leave patriotism?  It all depends.  If patriotism is love of one’s country, it depends on the nature of that country.  Most nations today are tied to a land and a race, though somewhat less so than 100 years ago. This is true of Europe and Asia. Patriotism is bound up in “blood and soil.”  Italians, Russians, Chinese, and Indians love their nation, its race(s), its location, and its history.  If they are Christians, they can legitimately appreciate the providence of God in their nation’s history and admire their nation to the extent that it follows — or followed — God’s truth.

Compounding matters, however, is the fact that most nations are tied up intimately with civil governments (though it doesn’t have to be this way): to speak of the nation of France implies not just the French people, but the political state that governs French territory.  This is the problem of patriotism. You love your country, but you may mistrust your civil government. Still, you can love and appreciate your country and its heritage as a precious gift from God.

This is true even of Christian citizens in very evil regimes.  Christian North Koreans can be patriotic, even though they despise their atheistic, idolatrous civil government.  Korea has a great heritage and great customs and many great people.  Christian North Koreans can be patriotic on that basis, if no other.

Our Unique United States

The United States poses a unique problem. It does not easily follow the pattern of nations noted above.  Blood and soil mean much less here than ideas.  Not race or place, but ideas, have always been at the root of what it means to be an American.

In this, it is helpful to note a striking Biblical teaching:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour…. (1 Tim. 2:1-3)

This Bible text does not prescribe the ideal civil government, of course, but the minimal features of a civil government acceptable to Christians committed to living and spreading their Faith.

It means: pray that the civil magistrate leaves you alone so you can train your children in the Faith and you can live to please God and your church can preach the gospel. When Paul wrote this, the despotic Roman Empire was not in the habit of acting so honorably, and it got worse as time went by.  So our Christian forebears in the early church sorely needed this prayer.

But the United States is a very different case. The U. S., it just so happens, was founded largely to fulfill just the sort of pro-liberty, non-interventionist role the Bible envisions.  The Founders, whatever their flaws, were to the man, dogged defenders of religious liberty.  Although some of them were influenced by a conservative Enlightenment rationalism, most were professing Christians (see the extensive evidence presented in M. E. Bradford’s Religion and the Framers).  This is why they did not establish a national church — they did not want to disturb the various states’ established Christian churches. This is why they produced a federal Constitution, which elaborately checked sinful men’s insatiable lust for power, including the sinners who happened to be politicians.  This is why they drafted a Bill of Rights, which jealously guarded religious liberty. This is why they wrote that one of the nation’s great objectives is “to provide for the common defense.”  As Eric Hoffer once said, this nation was founded by people who basically wanted to be left alone.   This just happens to be the sort of civil government the Bible demands we pray for.

The Great American Experiment

We live in a truly amazing — and wildly successful — experiment in civil government that carried on many of the best features of the Christian commonwealth idea of medieval and Reformation Europe — and jettisoned most of their worst features.  Ours is a Constitutional democracy and national republic.  We believe in a federal expression of majority rule that is hedged in by the guarantees of a constitution that is very hard to change.  This allows for peaceful dissent.  We have a republic, not a direct democracy.  We don’t trust fickle majorities any more than we trust fickle kings and aristocrats.  We elect representatives who vote on major issues facing the nation, and we can vote them out of office.  This means that, unlike many other countries even today, we don’t need a blood-bathing military coup every time we need political change.  We can have peaceful political revolutions.  We enjoy wide freedom of religion and freedom of the press.  If you think we don’t, try living in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China or North Korea for a while.  In January 2017, Barack Obama walked peacefully out of office.  He and his entourage walked away peacefully, without gunfire, because our Constitution provides for peaceful political transitions and, at this point at least, our countrymen still follow the Constitution.  Do not take this for granted, because political change in history has usually occurred at the end of a saber or gun barrel.  There are big checks on power in this country, because the Founders operated in terms of Christian ethos — men are sinners.

As Christians, all this means that it’s likely that the civil magistrate will leave us alone to believe and practice our Faith, the very thing that the Bible says we should be praying for in a civil magistrate.  Sure, there’s some encroachment on our liberties, and increasingly so whenever “progressivism” gets the upper political hand, and we should be vigilant in protecting them.  But we have a great Constitution that we can resort to in cases of grievance and a political system that gives recourse to those dissatisfied with the status quo.

This is why an American Christian may — and in my view, must — be a patriot.

Christian patriotism in the United States is necessary because it cultivates and defends the sort of minimal civil government that the Bible requires.  We are patriots not because we have a love affair with the United States as such; we are patriots because the principles on which the nation were founded allow Christianity to flourish.  The United States is first about ideas, and those ideas are, for the most part, Christian ideas. On this basis, we can join the flag-waving.

The “Religious Right,” the New Whipping Boy

Today we observe a evangelical backlash against “The Religious Right” (RR), and disillusioned evangelical veterans join cause-happy, indignant youngsters in nlamenting the 70’s and 80’s revival of Christian conservative politics that came to the fore in the Reagan and Bush II presidencies.  They point to the oversimplifications, acrimonies and hypocrisies of the RR (notably uncritical support of the populist, pompous, and erratic Donald Trump), although these sins are no less evident on the Irreligious Left as they are the RR.  The critics could have even more accurately adduced the tendency of the RR to ape the political Left of the 60’s in seeing in politics the salvation of culture.  For the RR, politics is the chief antidote to pervasive abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and so on. For the 60’s Leftists, politics was the chief antidote to racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia.  The diseases are different, but the antidote is the same — bigger government.  The new-school evangelical critics of the RR are more inclined to agree with the 60’s Leftists — the problem is not big government, you see, as long as it’s suppressing racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia and not abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.  One thinks immediately of Sojourners, but other shining examples come to mind.

Interestingly, this eruption of evangelical indignation against the RR is not, for the most part, undertaken by evangelicals noted for their zealous commitment to Biblical authority.  These critics are not chiding the RR for its failure in pressing Biblical norms of justice in politics but precisely for the fact that they pressed those norms.  In short, they are not making a case for a non-conservative Biblical social order; they don’t want a Biblical, or even distinctively Christian, social order at all.

The solution to the sins and errors of the RR is not to abandon aggressive Christian politics but rather to purge from it its messianic expectations, its imbalances and its hypocrisies.  The evangelical critics, to the extent that they endorse patriotism, generally do not support a Biblically grounded patriotism, which they deem a contradiction of terms.  But a Christian can speak of a legitimate patriotism only to the extent that it conforms to Biblical standards, and beyond that, to the extent that a nation is founded on those standards.


A Biblically grounded patriotism surely does not pre-commit us to any action the civil government may take.  It pre-commits us to the form of government that protects the liberties of Christians (and others) and stays out of everybody’s way: the Biblical conception of civil government is minimal and limited.  The great thing about the United States is that you can loudly criticize Joe Biden (and Donald Trump) and still be a great patriotic American.  You can hate abortion and pornography and homosexuality and Hollywood and public education and racism and materialism and Darwinism while wildly waving the Stars and Stripes.

Given these factors, a reflective patriotism is entirely appropriate.   It must not be uncritical, of course, and it must judge itself by the standards of the Word of God.  As Francis Schaeffer used to say, “We may not wrap the Cross in the flag.”  On the other hand, we must remember that the Bible is not perfectionist. A family, a church, and a nation may be less than perfect — far less than perfect — and still deserve our respect and loyalty.  Patriotism is allegiance to a country, its ideals, and its citizens.

Christians should defend the nation that defends Christians’ liberty to embrace and propagate their Faith. If that nation is their own, they should be doubly defensive — and grateful.

Hand me another flag.


The Blessed Madness of Reason

Now as he [Paul] thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!”

Acts 26:24

To my fellow Christians: would any unbeliever ever have warrant to accuse our vast learning of driving us mad?  If not, why not?

Our times are marked by increasing irrationalism and anti-intellectualism, even — perhaps especially — in the church.  The Enlightenment (c. 1680 – 1780) enthroned man’s reason and dethroned God’s revelation.  During the Romantic reaction (c. 1790 – 1840) and into postmodernity (1970 – ), Christians banished reason from the court altogether.  Today, illogical arguments are paraded as “deep spirituality,” and “community” is a substitute for theology.  This is a central theme of Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, which reconfigures Christianity into a Great Conversation.  Reason, by contrast, demands clear arguments and sharp distinctions; “community” erases those distinctions.  The emerging generation (= Emergent church) longs for the cuddly warmth of religious community unencumbered by intellect and creed and doctrine.  An immediate problem is that of all the major religions, Christianity is the most theological, and at critical points it makes strenuous demands of the mind (Rom. 12:1–2).

Kevin Vanhoozer once wrote that if the besetting sin of modernity was arrogance, the Achilles’ heel of postmodernity is laziness.  Hard thinking requires hard work, and Christians increasingly deplore hard work, preferring entertainment, notably on Sunday mornings — dazzling rock shows, lukewarm lattes, and self-help sermonettes.  This lazy self-indulgence is simply a reflection of the surrounding culture.  Personal consumption is life’s new objective: “The world exists to please me.”  The Christianized version is “Jesus and the church exist to please me.”  In Love God With All Your Mind, J. P. Moreland argues that this interiorized anti-intellectualism banishes the church to the social margins and thereby assures the victory of anti-Christian forces in the culture.  Cultural engagement requires the exercise of intellect, and if Christians refuse this exercise, they will lose cultural battles.  We have refused, and we are losing.

A huge solution to this problem would be a revival of intellect-cultivation in the church.  Ministers must re-commit to rigorous Biblical exposition in the pulpit.  Members must again read gutsy books on doctrine and theology — and philosophy and culture.  The church must claim — with justification — that it has the answers to modern man’s problems: from unbelief to broken marriages to addictions to sexual deviance to economic apostasy to virtual realities.  We won’t have these answers if we refuse to cultivate an intellectual Faith, which is a huge part of our Christian heritage, despite the fact that it has been squandered in the last 200 years by a lazy, worldly, and sometimes cowardly church.

Intellect is not our problem.  Rebellious intellect is our problem.

And ignorance — especially pious ignorance — is assuredly not the solution.

May God grant us an island of intellectuals in a sea of irrationalists.


The Rhetoric of “Unconditional” Grace

Tullian Tchividjian writes:

“When it comes to drawing near to God and pleasing him, legalism insists that obedience precedes acceptance — that it’s all up to us. But the fresh breeze of gospel freedom announces that acceptance precedes obedience — that once we’re already approved and already accepted by God in Christ, we can freely follow God’s lead and doing his will ….”

Well, yes and no.  God chooses to salvation solely on the basis of his sovereign grace without any regard for man’s choice or actions (Eph. 1), but as salvation is executed in history, obedience does precede acceptance — if we refuse to obey God by believing in Jesus and in repenting of our sins, we cannot be accepted by God.  I am confident that Tullian does believe this, but his rhetoric doesn’t always (or, in Jesus + Nothing = Everything, even usually) do justice to the obligatory dimension of the Gospel.  He is (understandably) intent to highlight God’s grace in Jesus, but he allows his rhetoric to outstrip Biblical teaching at points.  The universalists are so intent to exalt God’s grace that they end in stating that God eventually saves everyone.  This is not Tullian’s position by any means, but he should guard his rhetoric lest his readers assume that God demands nothing of sinners before he accepts them.

Earlier I noted that a blurb for Dane Ortlan’s book Defiant Grace tended to diminish God’s call to obedience under worries that obedience undermines grace.  But the Bible is only at war with self-righteousness, not with righteousness.  God saves totally by his grace apart from our works, but obedience in the form of faith and repentance in response to God’s grace does not constitute works excluded from salvation.

Election is unconditional, but it is not correct to say that salvation in toto is unconditional.  Without faith and repentance and submission to King Jesus, none will be saved.


Secularism Goes to Church

“All anyone need know about the long-term prospects of gay marriage — and of the likely fate of a political party that opposes it — is that evangelical Christians under the age of 25 are more tolerant of gay marriage than New Deal Democrats over the age of 65.”

Carl M. Cannon, Politics Daily, “Gay Marriage: Only a Matter of Time,” May 28, 2009


The chief problem with American culture is the American church.  The church in the early United States, while imperfect, was generally orthodox Protestant and stood for the Faith once all delivered (Jude 3).  Although there was no officially established church or denomination (and there should never be), Christianity was established in an even more effective way — in the hearts and minds of populace, in “public” life no less than private.  It was no Shangri-La — not even close — but it was essentially Christian. Gradually after the Civil War, however, the new ideas of heretical “liberalism” gained a foothold among the elites; and by the first third of the 20th century, nearly every major denomination had fallen victim to its poison.  One effect of this collapse was to drive orthodox Christians to the margins of the culture, from which, as denominational and cultural separatists, they launched theological grenades at the increasingly secular society, not to mention at the deviant mainline churches, all the while waiting for the imminent eschaton and dismissing any constructive program of Christian social ethics.

With the erasure of nearly the last vestiges of the older Christian order during the turbulent 60s, a boisterous reaction emerged in the form of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.  Almost all such reaction focused — like political liberalism of the previous 50 years — on cultural change via politics: elect the right candidates and pass the right legislation to get the nation back on track.  From the vantage point of 30 years, we now know that this program, even when superficially successful, has not managed any serious reversal in cultural decline.  What we did not know then but know now is that the cultural battle had been nearly lost before the political battle even heated up.

Indeed, when today “evangelical Christians under the age of 25 are more tolerant of gay marriage than New Deal Democrats over the age of 65,” we observe not chiefly that Christians have been ineffectual in the culture but that secularists have been effectual in the church.  The church, which had given up on principled Christian social ethics long ago, has eagerly adopted secular ethics to replace them.  This is simply the latest example of the secularists’ cultural domination, which now extends to the church.  Ethically, the secularists are in the church’s driver’s seat.

It is not clear that this downward spiral can be reversed without a full-scale and severe Christian revival and a rethinking of the categories of social ethics.  For instance, it is evident that pluralism is a voracious predator that refuses to be chained to procedural politics.  On his June 3, 2009 self-titled HBO program, Bill Maher trumpeted the latest act of the pluralistic rape of Christianity — why are we arguing about “civil unions” for gays when in fact all public unions should be “civil unions”?  In this construction, marriage is a purely religious matter, performed in the church, in which the state has no interest.  “Civil unions” consisting of one man and one woman, one man and two women, two men and/or two women, and one man and one consenting nine-year-old child — each is a potentially legitimate form of state-sanctioned union.  Marriage, being exclusively religious, is simply no longer relevant in the “public” (meaning non-religious) sphere.

This program, however bizarre, is the logical outcome of the relentless pluralism of our age.

Amid this pluralism, the task of orthodox Protestants is to take their Faith seriously, to pray and work for revival and reformation, and to confront the claims of pluralism with the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ, beginning in the church (where those claims barely survive), but moving outward to all of culture.  We now know that if Jesus Christ is not recognized as Lord everywhere He soon will not be recognized as Lord anywhere.

A message of limited Lordship is no match for a program of unlimited pluralism.


The “Right” to Approval

This is a blunt message to Christian (and other) young adults.

You are entitled to your own life choices, but you are not entitled to widespread endorsement of those choices.  You have a claim on your life, but you do not have a claim on everyone else’s imprimatur.

Twin traits of young adults are (a) the lust for autonomy and (b) the lust for acceptance.  These sincere young adults often cannot understand why these traits may — and must —frequently collide.  Most young adults wish to escape the shadow of their parents and older relatives and friends — they want to strike out on their own, make their own way, and heighten their own identity.  This desire, properly executed, is not wrong and, in fact, can be wholesome, a desire in which parents and other older adults should eagerly participate, given appropriate conditions.

But this quest for independence carries with it responsibility and maturity, including the understanding that others from whom we secretly (or not-so-secretly) crave acceptance are not obliged to endorse the products of their responsibility and maturity, that is, our choices.

Part of being “grown up” is taking responsibility for your decisions.  An aspect of that responsibility is resisting the temptation to insist on acceptance from those whose acceptance you covet and to complain when they withhold that acceptance.

The cost of independence is disapproval from people whose approval you crave.

No one has the “right” to approval.

Get used to it.


Cultic Characteristics

These days, you may find yourself labeled a cultist simply because you believe the Bible or affirm historic Christianity, so far has modern Christendom come from its own history.   However, even within the broad bounds of orthodox Christianity, certain individuals, churches and ministries manifest cultic characteristics. I’ll mention several of those characteristics. 


First, there is isolation. Because cultists believe that they alone possess the truth and that all others are wrong, they work hard to sequester their disciples from any outside “contaminating” influence. This is a fundamental distinction between the catholic (universal) church and all sectarians. This isolation can be accomplished in several ways. Often, it’s as simple as geographical isolation — going to a rural location so that folks are not likely to have contact with other (sub-standard, of course) Christians.   Or, it can be accomplished by what I term “incestuous self-propagation.”   The graduate faculty of some Christian colleges, universities and seminaries I know almost all hold advanced degrees from the institution in which they teach.   The various regional accrediting associations (which, to be sure, have their own massive problems) correctly frown on this practice.   As editor of various publications over the years, I have tried to publish writers from divergent ministries and not limit writers to those within my own ministry or located nearby geographically.   This latter sort of ministerial incestuousness does indeed become self-propagating.   These folks tend simply to rehash and develop the same ideas and insulate themselves from the correcting mechanism of diverse viewpoints from outside ministries.   Isolation is a cultic trait we cannot afford to tolerate. 


Second, there is the trait of arrogance, which often runs in tandem with isolation.   I know of a rather large Christian college in northwest Florida (pointedly isolated, by the way) that would not dare allow outside criticism of its philosophy of education, well-founded and helpful though that criticism may be.   Cults — like totalitarian political regimes — survive partly on the arrogant ideology that there are no alternatives. One of the main objectives of the earlier “classical” liberal arts education was to liberate students from the arrogance of assuming that their way is the only way.   Of course, we know as Christians that the Christian way is the only way; but there is a catholicity in Biblical Christianity that somewhat cultic Christian churches and ministries simply cannot abide.   The Bible tells us that each part of Christ’s Body has a role to play (1 Cor. 12), and we surely can benefit from their constructive criticism. 


The third cultic trait is hero-worship. Paul had to deal with this vexing problem in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12,13). To be sure, we may not be egalitarians, either — God certainly gives talented teachers and other leaders to the Church (Eph. 4:11-14). But, after all, they must recognize that their talent is a gift from God (1 Cor. 4:7). I’ve had the misfortune of knowing some of these men who cultivate fulsome flattery and eventually deem themselves above criticism.   (This was a striking characteristic of Mao, the communist Chinese mass murderer.)   Cultists generally look to a single super-elevated figure that can do no wrong.   God has a way of knocking such folks from their high pedestal, in the process often demonstrating that their ministry is rather dispensable in His sovereign plan.   Of course, some of these leaders begin to believe their own press releases and get the impression that when they speak, they are speaking for the entire church.   I once had a dear minister tell me that one of his intelligent acquaintances (by whom he obviously was awed) would be “the greatest theologian of the 21st century.”   As someone who actually reads the greatest contemporary theologians (both the good ones and the bad ones), from Barth to Bultmann to Cullmann to Frame to Gilkey to Henry to McGrath to Moltmann to Oden to Pelikan to Van Til to Wright, I was rather embarrassed by his exuberance.   When we tend to live in small, somewhat cultic cocoons, however, the smart guy around the block is easily perceived as the greatest theologian of the century.

My advice to those afflicted by these cultic characteristics is, “Get out and see a little more of the world.” There are 7000 — no, 7,000,000 — who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kin. 19:18).   There are plenty of great Christians and great leaders who don’t agree with us, and God seems to bless them and honor them even though they find some of our views rather objectionable and in some cases even amusing. God can get along just fine without us and our churches and ministry.

And if we don’t abandon our cultic characteristics, He very well might.


Impoverishing the Cross and Empty Tomb

Can We Expect Only to “Muddle Along”?

I’ve already noted how that Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity Today, has flirted with antinomianism in suggesting that the “gospel . . .  takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy — precisely because we don’t have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom.” But he offers another perspective that warrants attention.  He writes:

As readers of this column know, I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to claims that we can be “radically transformed” by the gospel in this life. I believe most of the transformation language in the New Testament is spoken in hope; that is, it refers to our life with Christ at the end of history, when everything will be transformed, root and branch (see Philippians 3:21, for example). In the meantime, we muddle along mired in sin, but not without hope. We know that it is not our sin that defines us, but our forgiveness in Christ. That we sin over and over is not news, and it’s no even longer even particularly bad news; it’s just old news. The truly amazing thing—the good news—is that this old news does not define who we are, which is beloved of God despite our sin, forgiven in grace!

But does the Bible really teach that transformation by sanctification and victory over sin must wait until the eschaton — the end of all things? Does it teach that until then all we can expect is to “muddle along mired in sin”? Hardly.

Paul writes in Romans 6:1–4 —

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

His point is that in union by faith with our Lord’s Cross and resurrection, we are raised to a life of obedience. We are “no longer . . .  slaves of sin,” since “he who has died [that is, we, who are united to Jesus] has been freed from sin” (vv. 6–7). Paul proceeds to teach that Jesus’ redemption has liberated us from the power of sin. This can only mean that we are not destined to “muddle along mired in sin.” Of course, sin still plagues us (7:21f.) because we have not yet been fully sanctified, but we gain consistent (if not unremitting) victory in this life by the power of the Holy Spirit:

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1–4)

The NT writers would find strange indeed that we cannot, in the words of Mark, be “‘radically transformed’ by the gospel in this life.” We read that “if anyone [is] in Christ, [he is] a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). From the context (vv. 15–16) it is clear that Paul isn’t referring primarily to the imputed (judicially credited) newness that accompanies the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (vital though it is), but the actual newness of a newly obedient life.

Who can read the book of 1 John and deny that Christians are “‘radically transformed’ by the gospel in this life”? Because we are God’s children, we now consistently keep his commandments (2:3–4). This is no sinless perfectionism, because we all still sin, but if we confess our sins, the Lord will forgive us (1:8–9) by the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ (2:1–2). We have “overcome the wicked one” (2:13, 14); we can purify ourselves just as God is pure (3:2–3); we overcome false spirits because the one residing in us is greater than the enemy residing in the world (4:3–4); and we overcome the world in great victory because of our faith (5:4–5).

If this isn’t “radical transformation,” I don’t know what is.

A Comprehensive Salvation

For this reason, Mark, despite his best intentions, diminishes the power of the Cross and resurrection.  We read in 1 John 3:4–5:

Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.

Jesus came to “take away our sins” so that we will abide in him and not live a life dominated by sin. It won’t suffice to say that Jesus died to cancel the penalty of our sins. Thank God, he did that (Rom. 3:21–26). This is the judicial cancellation of our sins known as justification: our being declared righteous in that Jesus’ law-keeping righteousness is imputed (credited) to believing sinners. In this way we stand righteous before God.

But Jesus came not just to forgive our sins; he came also to get rid of our sinning. He doesn’t wait until the eschaton to start doing that. From the very start, when we trust in Jesus, he begins to change us, gradually fostering a “radical transformation.” This is why Paul writes in Romans 8:3–4 that in sending Jesus, God condemned sin so that we could walk in a new life. Jesus died on the Cross to bring sin itself, not just us via his death, under judgment: Jesus’ death and resurrection were calculated to abolish sin. Jesus delivered a bone-crushing death to sin.

Late Bible teacher A. W. Pink, in his classic essay “A Fourfold Salvation,” furnished nomenclature for grasping the range of individual salvation’s effects. Christ’s redemptive work saves us from the penalty of sin; we no longer stand under God’s judgment (Rom. 3:19–25). It saves us from the power of sin; sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom. 6:14).  Jesus’ redemption saves us from the pleasure of sin; though we sin, we no longer delight in it (Rom. 7:21–24). And in eternity it will finally save us from the very presence of sin (Rev. 21:27).

We are presently being saved from the pleasure and power of sin. We needn’t “muddle along mired in sin.”

That’s why Peter writes (1 Pet. 1:13–19):

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

Because of these facts, Mark, good intentions notwithstanding, diminishes the bloody Cross and empty tomb.  To Christians who strive for holiness but weary in failure, Mark wants to comfort them with lower expectations. The Bible wants to comfort them, too, not by lowering expectations, but by heightening them: “Keep persevering; by the Spirit’s power, you can be holy!”

“Fight the good fight for holiness,” Peter is saying, because Jesus’ precious blood was shed so that you can in this life, amid great trial and hardship, be holy.

When we say that Christians can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin,” we are diluting the overarching efficacy of our Lord’s death and resurrection.  We are saying that he died to save us from the penalty of sin one day, but that he did not die to save us from the power of sin right now.

In other words, we are saying that Jesus Christ did not die to save us from sin.

Let me encourage you Christians battling depression, anxiety, lust, discontent, avarice, envy, rebellion, and an undisciplined tongue (and any other sin) and who assume that you are destined to languish under sin’s slavery.  You are not the slaves of sin! Jesus’ bloody Cross and victorious resurrection have liberated you.  If you act in faith and obedience on this transformational fact — count yourself dead to sin and alive to God, a slave of righteousness (Rom. 6:11, 18) — you will soon experience an unprecedented victory over sin of that you can presently only imagine.

We need not — and must not — “muddle along mired in sin.” Jesus died and rose to secure victory over sin for you and for me.

Live in the victory.