Christian Ethics in the Wake of Hypocritical Relativists, Imperious Pharisees, Irrational Postmoderns, and Squishy Emergents

Based on a talk delivered to the annual conference of the Center for Cultural Leadership in San Francisco, California, November 7, 2009


Scripture is God’s scepter … the instrument of his government.

J. I. Packer[1]

We read in Psalm 119:105 that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, but today’s church apparently prefers stumbling in the dark, because we have either extinguished the lamp or chosen to ignore the light that the lamp is casting.

To switch metaphors: every Christian paying attention knows that ethics is a front-burner issue in Western culture and in the church, perhaps more than at any time in the recent past,[2] but there’s no consensus on what to do about it.  Today I intend to identify what’s burning at the front of the cultural and ecclesial stove and then tell us what do about it.

Ethics is a prominent philosophical field, but I’m addressing it from a purely theological and pastoral viewpoint.  This is no time for speculation; it’s a time for godly contemplation, repentance and obedience — traits in short supply among professional ethicists.

I’ll first define ethics.  Next, I’ll disclose the only valid source of ethics.  Then, I’ll specify our current ethical conundrum.  Finally, I’ll offer some marching orders to get out of the conundrum.

What is Ethics?

First, we need to know what ethics means. Ethics is a system of moral principles.  Other disciplines like physics or Latin or African history tell us what is.  Ethics tells us what should be — more accurately, how we as humans should act.  Ethics presupposes a principled view, or at least explanation, of behavior and conduct.  Ethics (as a science) assumes that behavior and conduct are worth thinking about.

Ethics considers not just that we should do what’s right but that we should step back and contemplate what’s right, and it ponders how we arrive at the conclusion of what’s right.   Ethics assumes that right and wrong are appropriate topics of investigation.[3]

What Is the Source of Ethics?

But where do ethics come from?  Ask five ethicists and you’ll likely get seven answers.  Is the source of ethics the state?  Is the source of ethics the greatest good for the greatest number?  Is the source of ethics legal precedent or tradition? Is the source of ethics society’s most enlightened legal philosophers?  There’s no majority report, and the resultant cacophony is deafening.  This is the price we pay when we abandon God.  For God is the source of ethics, period.  When I say God, I mean the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I realize that this answer is scandalous in a pluralistic age: “Many gods, many laws, many moralities.”  How dare someone claim that his God is the one God to whose ethics we all must bow!  Isn’t this an example of “ethical imperialism”?  It is, and that’s precisely what the Bible implicitly professes to be.  God says, “My ethical standard is the right one, and all others are wrong” (Is. 8:19–20).

In the end, there are only three possible sources of ethics: man, a false god or gods, or the true God.

Islam features an ethics disclosed in the Koran, but Islam’s God is a false God.  It is not the God of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Islamic ethics is, therefore, the ethics of (false) religion.

Modern Western legal theory situates ethics in human history, human reason, human experience, human institutions, or human intuition.  Modern Western ethics is the ethics of man.

Christian ethics, by contrast, is God-centered like everything else Christian is — or should be.  There’s a radical antithesis between Christian and all non-Christian ethics.[4]  This doesn’t mean that other ethical systems never reflect features of the Christian ethical system (for instance, that murder and theft are wrong).  It means that Christian ethics starts from an entirely different premise from other ethics and pushes toward consistently different conclusions.  An objective of consistent Christian ethics, therefore, is not to find commonality with other ethical systems, but to supplant them.  God’s ethics is designed to supplant all competitors;[5] Christian ethics is inherently exclusionary.  God says, “My way is the right way, and all other ways are wrong.”

How is this ethics mediated to us?  How do we know God’s ethical standards?  There’s only one answer — God’s revelation.[6]  If God (alone) is the source of ethics, then he must reveal them to us if we’re to know them.  If God doesn’t tell us what’s right and wrong, we simply won’t know.  We’ll be left to guess and feel our way along in (un)ethical darkness.  This means that man’s reason or history or intuition is of no ethical value part from God’s revelation.  It also means that all attempts to deny or cloud man’s knowability of God and/or his revelation undermine ethics.[7]  It’s not enough to say that God is the source of ethics.  We also have to say that man can discover that ethics in God’s revelation.  We can know what’s right and wrong.

So, what is God’s revelation?  There are three modes of God’s revelation: first, creation (“nature”); second, Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son; and finally the Scriptures, God’s written Word.

God reveals some of the basics of right and wrong in his creation.  Romans 1 tells us that sinful man knows God from creation (vv. 19–20).  This is sometimes termed “natural revelation.”[8]  From creation we can know the greatness of God and ethical standards like the sanctity of human life, parental respect, love, mercy, forgiveness, humility, and even heterosexuality (vv. 21–32).  God reveals ethics in creation.

Then, there is Jesus Christ, God’s supreme revelation (Heb. 1:1–3).  He came to bear witness to the light (Jn. 1:7–8).  He laid down God’s ethical requirements for his followers (Mt. 5–7).  The supreme embodiment of God’s ethics is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  If you want to see God’s ethical standards implemented flawlessly in humanity, look only at Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:21).

But since Jesus the Messiah has returned to his Father, we can know about him infallibly only from the Bible.  The Bible, therefore, is the most significant form of God’s revelation in today’s world.[9]  It’s more significant than creation.  Why?  For one thing, it’s propositional; that is, it communicates (unlike creation) in rational words and sentences.[10]  This means that it’s clearer than creation and more difficult to misinterpret.  Second, it’s redemptive.  Creation tells us what’s right and wrong, but it doesn’t tell us how we can be redeemed from our sins.  Only Bible can tell us that.  Although Jesus is more important than the Bible, we can’t know of Jesus and of how to be saved by him apart from the Bible.  Third, Biblical ethics is more extensive than creation’s revelation — it can (and does) address more topics.

There’s a long history in Christianity of framing ethics by recourse only to creation.  This is called “natural law.”[11]  And make no mistake about it: all of creation testifies to God’s glory and reveals his character.  Blazing to us from the outside — everywhere we look — is God’s revelation, and that revelation communicates God’s law.  But that natural revelation resides within man too — man’s conscience, since man was made in God’s image.  Conscience is a great gift from God.  It pricks us internally when we disobey God’s law.  Therefore, God’s (natural) revelation is everywhere — both surrounding us and inside us.  We can’t escape it.

But natural revelation was never meant to operate in isolation from special (redemptive) revelation — including God’s speaking.  What we today term “natural law” began with the ancient Greeks like Plato and largely ended in the 19th century without God.  In between, Christians like Thomas Aquinas adapted natural law.  They didn’t abandon the Bible, but they sometimes tended to isolate the Bible from creation so as to give the impression that the Bible is necessary only for grace or redemption or salvation. Over time, people began to assume that nature’s law was a law to itself, and slowly God dropped out of the picture altogether.  Nature became autonomous. [12]

If you want to know what’s right and wrong in an extensive way, you need to go to the Bible and find God’s law.  When Paul preached to pagans (as opposed to the Jews), he appealed to natural revelation (Acts 17:22f.), but he didn’t invite them to fashion a natural revelation apart from special revelation.  He preached to them about God’s greatest special revelation — the resurrected Lord (vv. 18, 31)!  Likewise, when Paul gave an account of himself before the King Agrippa, he appealed to the Old Testament (Acts 26:22–23, 27), not just history (vv. 6–18).  God’s revelation in Jesus, in creation and in the Bible were never meant to stand alone, apart from the others.[13]

As Christians, we dare not shy away from the stark, ethical implications of these truths about God’s revelation.  In our secular age, we’ll be tempted to compromise these truths.

The supreme ethical convictions of our age spring from pluralism and relativism.  Pluralism is the view that no single god or ethics or morality is absolute but that all may and should coexist peacefully.[14]  The Achilles heel of pluralism is that it doesn’t know what to do with the conflicts between these religions and ethics and moralities.  This is why pluralism demands religious and ethical timidity: pluralism only works when people don’t hold their religion and ethics too tenaciously.  When they do hold them tenaciously, those beliefs threaten pluralism.  We cannot say that Islamic ethics (sharia law) and Hindu ethics and New Age ethics and Satanist ethics may peacefully co-exist with Christian ethics, at least not if their respective believers take their ethical standards seriously.  Under Sharia law, thousands of women are killed annually in “honor killings” to satisfy disputes between families.[15]  Should the proper response of Christian ethicists be, “We dare not impose our ethics on Muslims.  Let the killings continue”?  This is absurd — and unethical.

The dilemma posed by this pluralism leads to relativism: matters of right and wrong are not absolute, but are dependent on one’s historical situation.[16]  Adultery and murder (for example) may be justified some cases.  This was once called (controversially) “situation ethics.”  Today, it’s a routine plank in postmodernism,[17] and even many evangelical Christians buy into it — “I believe that homosexuality is wrong, but that’s just my opinion.”  Or,  “Everybody has a perspective that has to be respected; I can’t impose my ethics on anybody else.”  Of course, if you think about it, ethical relativism is self-defeating.  If all ethical standards are relative, isn’t the standard that “all ethical standards are relative” itself relative?  And if so, why hold this standard rather than another?

More importantly, ethical relativism creates dangerous precedents.  If ethics are relative, how can we condemn the racism of South Africans, the slave taking of the Sudanese, and the genocide of the Turks and Nazis?  If you’re an ethical relativist, you can’t respond, “Everybody knows that racism and slavery and genocide are wrong.”  The whole point of relativism is that ethics is not universal.

But Christians oppose relativism not mainly on the grounds that it is self-defeating and dangerous but simply that it’s wrong: if the Bible is true, Christians may not be either ethical pluralists or relativists.

In the end, there are only two options: God’s ethics or man’s ethics.  This sets Christians against the prevailing cultural climate, and we may not tone down this antithesis.

What is Our Current Ethical Conundrum?

That leads to the third issue: what about the ethical situation here in the West, especially North America?

First, if legitimate ethics is God’s ethics disclosed in revelation, the ethical state of the union is dire.  When we abandon God, we are left with the ethical confusion, chaos, and depravity of man.  That pretty much describes our present ethical climate. We all know about the ethical decline since the 60’s: the rising divorce rate, the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, the explosion of Internet pornography, the redefinition of marriage, unscrupulous lending and avaricious borrowing, war crimes, drug abuse, genetic engineering, human egg harvesting, and on and on.  The ethical violations in the wider culture are legion and growing.

But I want to laser in on ethical malpractices within the Christian church, or at least within many churches.  Judgment, Peter says, must begin first at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17).

First I’ll talk about alleged Christians who’ve just plain given up on Biblical ethics.  Then, I’ll address Christians who supplement Biblical ethics with extra- Biblical ethics.  Finally, I’ll get into us Christians who profess Biblical ethics but whose behavior belies our profession.

What’s the data from which to assess the ethical state of Christianity in North America?  One approach would be to cite statistics.  In 2000, for example, Gorge Barna almost brought the evangelical house down when he released “a national study show[ing] that members of nondenominational churches divorce 34 percent of the time in contrast to 25 percent for the general population.”[18]

That’s an ominous assertion, but statistics and polls often reveal less than they promise.  For what criterion did Barna use when defining “nondenominational,” and how did he select his respondents?  If we answer these questions accurately, it may turn out that the statistics are slightly less dire than they first appear.

So, let’s turn to more reliable information: what professed Christians are actually, documentably saying, and perhaps more pointedly, what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears.

First, consider the explicit repudiation of Biblical ethics by professed Christians.  How can people who claim to be Christian explicitly disown Biblical ethics?  One way is simply to abandon the authority of the Bible, and that’s just what’s happening.  Of course, the Protestant liberals, who deny Biblical authority, are still around, and their warped theology shapes their twisted ethics.  John W. Riggs, for example, United Church of Christ theologian, argues that ethics are structured by individuals’ creative self-realization, which God himself experiences and which he assimilates into his own life.[19]  Therefore, “the scriptural texts on sex give us little guidance, other than to understand how our attitudes have developed.”[20] For this reason, homosexuality for Christians is perfectly permissible, and churches that oppose it on Biblical grounds should repent of their sin.[21]  When the source of ethics is robbed from the Bible and resituated in the human experience, man becomes the final ethical arbiter.  This ethical chaos is the legacy of liberal Christianity.

Closer to the evangelical home, consider Phyllis Tickle, the unofficial sociologist of the Emergent Movement (EM).  She writes that sola scriptura (Scripture alone) was good for Luther’s day and for the Protestant Reformation but has simply outlived its usefulness and is “seen as hopelessly outmoded or insufficient.”[22]

Tony Jones is another acknowledged leader in the EM and was long-time coordinator of Emergent Village.  The EM, according to Jones and his colleague Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, is “at its most basic level” all about friendship: “friendship with God, with one another, and with the world.”[23]  Nobody, I suppose, opposes friendship, but a movement that survives on friendship stands on shaky ground.  So, Pagitt goes on to state that for the EM, friendship is not an addition to faith but a necessity of it. He seems to be saying that we form our faith within our friendships.  He then says that these friendships are a pilgrimage, always changing.[24]  One might ask how it’s possible to have a faith once for all delivered (Jude 3) if it is shaped by changing friendships.  Friendships are a great blessing from God, but they are mighty poor substitute for the revealed Word of God.

We should not be surprised that, then, that while Tickle abandons sola scriptura, Pagitt doesn’t want to identify the Bible as God’s words or a guide to truth.[25]  He suggests that for Paul, the Bible “held authority because it was a living, breathing symbol of God’s communal activity.”[26]  The Bible is God’s Big Storybook of what he has done and will do in his community and “[w]e are characters in the stories we choose and the stories we hear.”  He writes that “[t]his is how it [biblical authority] works.”[27]  Oh, really?  Apparently Pagitt missed Paul’s quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9–10, where he invokes the Old Testament to prove a doctrine, not to show that “[w]e are characters in the stories we choose and the stories we hear.”  Paul, unlike Pagitt, cites the Bible as God’s words and a guide to truth.

There are ethical implications of this loose view of the Bible.  Tony Jones, for instance, now affirms that homosexuals can be good Christians.[28]  But even more staggering, he throws down this challenge:

If you are one who thinks that homosexual sex is sinful, can you please explain to me WHY a gay or lesbian person who is in a long-term, monogamous relationship would not be able to wholeheartedly follow Christ?

My only stipulation is this: You may not quote one of the six verses in scripture that mentions homosexuality.  Instead, you must use theological and/or philosophical arguments to attempt to convince me that when you have genital contact with someone of your own gender, it somehow inhibits your relationship with Christ.[29]

Think about this. Here’s a leader in the Christian church who invites readers to respond to his controversial proposal but prohibits them from quoting the Bible.  There’s an obvious reason for this prohibition: the Bible’s not on his side.   Worse, the Bible is so far on the other side that he needs to get rid of the Bible to give his side credibility.  News flash: if you need to get rid of Bible-quoting to pave the way for your ethics, you’re getting rid of Christianity to pave the way for another religion.  Can you imagine Moses or Jeremiah or Paul or Peter or John — or Jesus — saying, “You may not quote . . . [S]cripture” in supporting your ethics?  You cannot imagine it, and nobody before the modern church could have imagined it.  But more significantly, nobody before recent times could imagine a leader in the Christian church arguing to get rid of Bible-quoting in fashioning an ethics.

How can professed Christians so blatantly abandon Biblical ethics?  It’s an egregious example of caving in to the world spirit, as Francis Schaeffer used to say.[30]  In short, it’s flat-out compromise with the world.  Homosexuality, in case you haven’t noticed, has been energetically mainstreamed, and some of the Emergents don’t want to get “left behind” opposing what the depraved culture now approves of.  So they reinvent the ethics of Christianity to enfranchise Christians who are practicing homosexuals.

I earlier mentioned relativism and pluralism, but there’s an even more fundamental error at the root of the apostasy as it confronts us in the church — a deep and stubborn subjectivism.  It’s resistance to objective and external standards in favor of individual, private expression.  This idea goes back at least as far as Immanuel Kant, but it gained traction in the 19th century with the existentialism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  Kierkegaard tried to reconcile his subjectivism with Christianity, but Nietzsche wanted nothing of the God of the Bible.  He taught that since God was no longer a part of the ethical calculation, man must devise his own ethics.  This is “The Will to Power.”  Man establishes his own ethical standards.  There are no objective standards to guide him.  People today in the West who never heard of Nietzsche spout the Nietzschean line when they say, “Everybody must make up his/her own mind about right and wrong,” or, “I can’t impose my view of right and wrong on everybody else,” or, “I know in my heart what’s right for me, and that’s all that matters.”

This subjectivism gets imported into the Christian church. Years ago the theological liberal Gary Comstock wrote in his book Gay Theology Without Apology that he finally figured out that the Bible isn’t on his side. [31]  He decided that his source of ethics was his own internal feelings and desires.  Of course: if the Bible’s no longer your source of ethics, what are you left with?

What’s changed in the intervening years isn’t the source of such blatantly anti-Biblical ethics but where they are located — this view today is held not only by the old theological liberals but also by the young evangelicals.[32]  In Schaeffer’s language: “Accommodation leads to accommodation — which leads to accommodation . . . .”[33]  The accommodation junkies have bequeathed to us a toothless, irrelevant church that not even the depraved world can grudgingly respect.  Warren Cole Smith recently uttered these telling words:

“One of the ironies we’re beginning to see is that … even the world wants the church to be the church.  It is the church that doesn’t want to be the church.  That is the core problem.”[34]

You’d better believe it’s the core problem!

To these professed Christians who’ve thrown Biblical ethics overboard, let me say: lightening the boat in this way won’t keep the ship afloat.  You can’t have Christianity without Biblical ethics.  You can’t claim to follow Jesus in his love and compassion and “relationalism” if you turn your back on his teachings.  And Jesus taught that the Scripture (all of the Scripture) must govern our lives.  Jesus said that we’re his friends if we obey what he teaches (Jn. 15:14).  If we turn our back on Biblical ethics, we’re turning our back on Jesus.  It’s as simple and profound as that.

To the Emergents and other professed Christians, then, who have thrown the Bible overboard, let me advise: you are gradually becoming apostate.  Jesus and everybody in the early church saw the Old Testament as the inspired and authoritative Word of God.[35]  They saw the ethics of the Bible (properly interpreted, of course) as binding on Christians. They didn’t see the Bible only or even chiefly as God’s Big Storybook but as a testimony to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the world. [36]  They also and equally saw the Bible as God’s rulebook for his people.[37]  When you want to get rid of the Bible as God’s rulebook, you are flirting with apostasy, and if you continue down that path, you’ll abandon Christianity altogether.  You need an old-fashioned Come-to-Jesus meeting, because you can’t follow Jesus without following his Word.

Second, note the elevation of human codes to the level of conscience-binding ethics.  Years ago I favorably reviewed Jim West’s book Drinking With Calvin and Luther.  This short book marshals evidence that the Reformation tradition is filled with godly believers who enjoyed the moderate consumption of alcohol.  I got a letter from a lady protesting my review.  She wrote that she agreed that the Bible doesn’t prohibit moderate alcohol consumption, but, she wrote, “God holds us to a higher standard.”  Ruminate on that statement a moment.  A higher standard than the Bible?  What would that standard be?  If you think about it, you’ll have to conclude that this standard — whatever it turns out to be specifically — has its same source as the Bible-rejecters mentioned a minute ago: man’s subjective opinion.

This conclusion is counterintuitive, because we’d never question the motive of these sincere Christians.  In fact, we’d applaud that motive.  The lady who wrote me hated the evil consequences of alcohol abuse, and she should hate them.  Drunkenness is a tragic sin that stands under God’s judgment (1 Cor. 6:10).  But the solution to that problem isn’t to supplement Biblical ethics, for when we add to God’s revealed ethics, we’re really saying that his Word isn’t sufficient and that our subjective standards are.  John in the book of Revelation warns that if any add to his inspired words, God will unleash on him the plagues written in the book (Rev. 22:18). In Deuteronomy 4:2 Jehovah warns Israel not to take away from or add to his revealed Word — meaning the law, which is filled with ethical stipulations.  We might have pure motives in adding to God’s Word and his ethical requirements, but pure motives won’t spare us from God’s judgment if we add to his words and thus supplement his authority with ours.

If we really affirm the Bible’s authority,[38] and give it more than lip service, we might follow an operative dictum: whatever the Bible does not forbid, God permits.[39]  This is a theoretical way of saying that only God can define sin (1 Jn. 3:4). When somebody charges that drinking martinis or smoking tobacco or charging interest is ipso facto sin, he has replaced God’s law with man’s law. This is a mark of Pharisees (Mk. 7:1-16). Only God is entitled to define sin.

It’s true that there may be many good reasons not to smoke cigars, charge interest, grow huckleberries, listen to the Beatles, drink single-malt scotch, dance at weddings, drive a convertible, send your daughter to Ivy League colleges, sport Afros, invest in mutual funds, play slots in Las Vegas, watch R-rated movies, learn to whittle, or wear linen sport coats-— but none of those reasons has any inherent bearing on sin. If you cannot practice these things in good conscience, then don’t practice them (Rom. 14:23). Just don’t criticize Christians who do practice them.

The reason this issue is important, in fact, has nothing to do with cigar smoking and interest charging and U2 albums, and everything to do with the authority and integrity of the Bible.  God has laid out what he requires. Beyond what he requires, he grants freedom: we term this “Christian liberty.” We could use a revival of it today. Bible-toters and -quoters that forbid what the Bible does not address dilute the authority of the Bible, a serious matter indeed.

We have enough sin around today (homosexuality, slander, abortion, love-lessness, schism, drunkenness, covenant-breaking, unbelief, worry, statism) that we need not add to the list day trading, smoking, and full-bodied merlots.

The bottom line is: Only God gets to define sin.  We may not impinge on His sovereignty.[40]

There’s sometimes a seamy side to this supplement to Biblical ethics.  Jesus addressed it in Mark 7.  There we read that he reprimands the Pharisees for adding to the Old Testament law.  But he then discloses their motive: “[L]aying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (v. 8).  In other words, they were adding their own commandments in order to replace God’s commandments.  They did not want to obey God’s command to honor their parents, so they devised their own law by which they could avoid providing for their parents by saying they were giving that gift to God. That was a pious addition, but it was sinful, and it provoked God’s anger.

How frequently modern Pharisees add to the Word of God in order to get rid of that Word!  I’m reminded of the woman (true story) who criticized Christians who smoke tobacco while all the while committing fornication.  She devised her own standards to divert attention from her own violation of God’s standards.  I wonder if the same is true of political liberals.  They pharisaically pontificate about the “carbon footprint” while they support the butchery of unborn children.  Let us never underestimate the capacity of sinful man to rationalize his most depraved thoughts and acts.

We must face one fact squarely: when we add to the ethics of the Bible and bind the consciences of others, we are guilty of the same subjectivism as the Emergents.  The Emergents say that God’s standards are too much; the Pharisees say that God’s standards aren’t enough.  Both erect a subjective standard apart from the Bible by which to fashion ethics.  Both are sinful, and both invite God’s judgment.

To the modern Pharisees I say: trust the Word of God.  God knows what’s right and wrong, and you and I do not know what’s right and wrong apart from his revelation.  When we add to the Word, even with good motives, we dilute God’s standards and set up ourselves as the final ethical arbiter.  This is grim prospect, and in the end we are no less blameworthy than those who intentionally throw the Bible overboard in order to indulge our pet sins.

Third, ponder the dilution of Biblical ethics by the very people who profess them. We must be careful, as my friend Ron Gagosian likes to say, not to point the bony finger — at least not without recognizing our own sins and ethical lapses.

Paul asked Israel, in essence, “You Jews who have the law of Moses and pride yourselves in that law, do you break that law” (Rom. 2:17–24)?  The Jews as Paul’s contemporaries looked condescendingly toward the Gentiles.  One of the privileges of God’s covenant body was the possession of the “oracles [Word] of God” (Rom. 3:1–2).  Unlike the Gentiles, those benighted folk outside God’s covenant dealings, the Jews had access to the very words of God!  Those words were one of the chief factors distinguishing them from the pagans that surrounded them.  But Paul turned this privilege on its head.  What good does that law do if you consistently break it?  The covenant body had become antinomian, lawless — the very people whom God had called specifically to follow in the glorious path of gracious obedience.

Now the church has always been vulnerable to lawlessness, but it has become an epidemic in our own time.  We have read in the Bible the splendorous truth that salvation is by grace and not by works (Eph 2:8–9), but we have not read the rest of the Bible.  Yes, Paul assures us that our salvation is not by our works or merit or performance.  We are saved by what Jesus Christ did on the Cross and from the empty tomb.  Salvation is not a self-help program.  Jesus’ righteousness becomes ours by faith, not by works.

But neither is salvation lawless, and if it leads to lawlessness, it’s not genuine salvation.  Paul writes in Titus 2:11–12 that the grace of God “teach[es] us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.”  He goes on to say (v. 14), “Jesus Christ gave himself for us [on the Cross], that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.”   Grace teaches us to live righteously, and Jesus died on the Cross create in us a zeal for righteousness.

But we have people today who worry about that if we stress obedience, we’ll pollute the grace of God.  David Bahnsen and I have been publicly lamenting this trend.  Heaven forbid that young people develop a zeal for godly obedience.  They may get to thinking that they’re earning their salvation.  What, pray tell, will happen if Christians become too obedient?  We can have none of that!

Their grace has become a disgrace.

Paul, the great Theologian of Grace, didn’t seem to have that problem.  He championed the grace of God like none before him and few after him, but he also and equally championed the necessity of good works — of obedience.  He writes that we are saved entirely by grace through faith and not of works.  Salvation is a gift of God, not a reward for human achievement.  But the very reason we are saved is to perform good works (Eph. 2:10).  The old adages apply: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.  No one will be saved by his works, yet no one will be saved without good works.[41]

Yet we have preachers today who say that if Christians don’t believe that Gospel preaching leads to sinfulness, we haven’t preached the Gospel.[42]  This is not what Paul meant,[43] and this is nearly a blasphemy of the Gospel.

We shouldn’t be concerned only with the lawlessness in the wider culture (true enough).  We should be equally concerned about the lawlessness in the church, where God’s judgment begins (1 Pet. 4:17).

And make no mistake.  We do have a lawless church.  The ministers seem to be under the impression that they can’t expect from their flock godly living in a godless age, but that’s precisely what Paul expected (Phil. 2:15).  Perhaps they’re afraid of losing the tithing members whose lives look more like the world than like Jesus Christ.  In any case, we have drifted from a Gospel that brings sinners to repentance and to following Jesus Christ.  But there simply is no other Gospel.

Let me speak more uncomfortably.

You don’t need any statistics or polls of any kind to verify the anecdotal evidence that premarital sex has quietly become acceptable in “Bible-believing churches.”  It’s not acceptable to God.  The tacit assumption seems to be that in our hyper-sexualized age, we simply can’t expect single Christian adults to remain chaste.  So we turn the other way when they employ birth control and fornicate.  But the Bible teaches that sex is a wonderful gift from God that’s designed exclusively for marriage (Heb. 13:4).  It also teaches that fornicators won’t inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9).  God’s words, not mine.  God gives the reason for this prohibition.  It creates a one-flesh relationship (vv. 16–20) — an emotional and spiritual union, not just a physical union — that must be reserved for a lifelong commitment we call marriage.  Our bodies belong to the Holy Spirit.  Should we unite the Holy Spirit to anybody and everybody?  To this requirement, the spirit of the age says, “It’s my body, and I can do with it what I want.”  But Paul declares the opposite: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (vv. 19b–20).  As long as churches play fast and loose with premarital sex, if we refuse to champion Biblical ethics here, on an issue festering in our midst, why should anybody listen to the church when it speaks on other ethical issues?

Then there’s the issue of rampant divorce in the church, statistics or no statistics.  The Bible doesn’t prohibit divorce in all cases, and sometimes it’s the best possible choice among several bad choices in a sinful world.  But covenant breaking — and marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14) — is a breezy trend in “Bible-believing” churches.  I have investigated the statististics for divorce rates among professed Christians, but it’s unclear how accurate these statistics are (what does “professed Christian” really mean these days?).  So, again, let’s trust our own eyes and ears and acknowledge how that many “Bible-believing” churches don’t stress fidelity to marriage vows, don’t work hard to preserve faltering marriages, and don’t have the expectation that marriages should be for a lifetime.  You get what you fish for, and many churches don’t fish for lifelong marriages.  I want to accent again that in some cases divorce isn’t just acceptable but is actually the only possible course of action.  And my intent isn’t to heap guilt on divorcees.  But any church that looks at divorce as a simple solution to marital problems has thrown Biblical ethics overboard and isn’t worthy of the name “Bible-believing.”  If you’re married, stay married unless you have an obviously Biblical reason for divorce.  Look to your church and your friends — only if your church and friends are committed to Biblical ethics — to help keep your marriage intact.  Spend time on your face in prayer before the God who established and sustains marriage.  Sound marriages, like all other sound enterprises in this world, require hard work.  It just so happens that we live in a morally lazy age, but if we intend to live up to our profession, we’ll need to work hard to maintain marriages.  And any church that doesn’t foster this hard work but treats marriage cavalierly isn’t worthy of the moniker “Bible-believing’ — and isn’t worthy of your support.

Advice to the faithful in Bible-believing churches: If we pride ourselves like the ancient Jews in holding the oracles of God, we had better be double-dog certain that we take its ethics — its law — with utmost seriousness.  And if we think that orthodox doctrine alone suffices, recall the words of Harold O. J. Brown: “We will not long be able to hold biblical doctrines if we drift far from biblical ethics.”[44] Biblical doctrine stands and falls with Biblical ethics.  If your ethics do wrong, your doctrine will soon go wrong.

God calls the church to stand under the Lordship — not just the Saviorhood — of his Son.  God didn’t simply forgive his people for Jesus’ sake; he also calls us to holiness, without which none of them will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).


 The depraved ethics of our surrounding culture offer great opportunities for Christians to preach and point the way to Jesus Christ and his Word as the only bulwark against moral collapse.  We have the answers.  But I fear that we’re forfeiting our unique calling to speak prophetically to our culture.  The church is not effective in influencing the depraved culture, but the depraved culture has been remarkably effective in influencing the church.  In its lust for success and popularity and numbers, the church has compromised Biblical truth and Biblical ethics (they stand and fall together) and is becoming unsavory salt fit only to trampled under foot.  The church is not called to ape the culture but to confront the culture.

I urge you to stand without compromise for the Lordship of Jesus.  I challenge you to stand for his imperial Gospel.  I plead with you to submit to his infallible word.  We won’t overcome our ethical darkness by hiding the only light that can dispel that darkness under the assumption that the light will offend our postmoderns.  Of course, it will offend them; light dispels darkness.  But that light is the only hope.  Let Biblical ethics shine — and leave the results to the God who promises to overwhelm the earth with his law (Mic. 4:2).

And if we do not; if we continue along merrily capitulating to worldly standards, the church will becoming an effete, worthless laughing-stock in our culture, and when it that happens, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.  If the church refuses to be the church, she gets everything she deserves.

[1] J. I. Packer, Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1980), 41, emphasis in original.

[2] One reason for this heightened importance of ethics is the so-called “culture wars” sparked by the 1960’s and the rise of sexual permissiveness, the intensity of Communist and socialist influence, and the erosion of the family.

[3] For an introduction to Christian ethics, see John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

[4] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 18–32.

[5] Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954), 297–307.

[6] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 147–166; cf. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984).

[7] In the modern world, Immanuel Kant first championed the unknowability of God.  See Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 341–351.

[8] G. C. Berkouwer, “General and Special Divine Revelation,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 13–24.

[9] “[F]or Christians, biblical ethics is the reflection on human acts and conduct from the perspective given to us in the Holy Scripture from our Lord,” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., What Does the Lord Require? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 9.

[10] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, Texas: Word, 1976–1983), 3:455–481.

[11] J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart (Dowers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1997).

[12] Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998), 67–96.

[13] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics, 16.

[14] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 25–43.

[15] Lauren Vriens, “Islam: Governing Under Sharia,” http://www.cfr.org/publication/8034/, from Council on Foreign Relations online, accessed November 3, 2009,

[16] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 1:139.

[17] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1990), 39–65.

[18] Christine Wicker, “Dumbfounded by divorce: Survey inspires debate over why faith isn’t a bigger factor in marriage,” http://www.adherents.com/largecom/baptist_divorce.html, from Dallas Morning News online, accessed October 20, 2009.

[19] John W. Riggs, Postmodern Christianity (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 2003), 119.

[20] Ibid., 122.

[21] Ibid., 123.  Riggs also supports abortion rights, 123–131.

[22] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 150–151.

[23] Doug Pagitt, “Emergent — A Generative Friendship of Missional Christians,” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, eds., Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt (Baker Books, 2007), 19. Tony Jones makes the same point on 11–15.

[24] Ibid., 19.

[25] Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 65.

[26] Ibid., 67.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Tony Jones, “How I Went from There to Here: Same Sex Marriage Blogalogue,” http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2008/11/same-sex-marriage-blogalogue-h.html, accessed October 20, 2009.

[29] Tony Jones, “An Honest Question about Gays in the Church,” http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2009/08/an-honest-question-about-gays.html#preview, accessed October 20, 2009, emphases in original.

[30] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1984), 111–140.

[31] Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1993), 39–43, 92, 99–100, 108,

[32] The younger evangelical Dave Tomlinson wants to dissuade evangelicals from seeing the Bible as an authority that they must read and obey; rather, they should grasp that it’s simply given to “fund our deliberation” [!] on how we’re supposed to decide to act.  See his The Post Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 131.

[33] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, 146.

[34] Mark Galli, “An Evangelical Lament: A Seasoned Journalist Looks at the Movement and Sighs,” Christianity Today, October 2009, 65.

[35] John W. Wenham, Christ & the Bible (Dowers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1972).

[36] George Duncan Berry, The Inspiration and Authority of Holy Scripture (London: SPCK, 1919).

[37] Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “The Church Fathers and Holy Scripture,” in Scripture and Truth, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 207.

[38] Arguably the most incisive restatement of the orthodox view of Biblical authority written in the last 100 years was Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation (Chicago: Moody, 1971). It has recently been eclipsed by John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, P & R Publishing, 2010),

[39] R. J. Rushdoony, “Inferences and Commandments,” Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, California: Ross House, 1991), 434–436.

[40] The next several paragraphs are based on my Dead Orthodoxy or Living Heresy? (LaGrange, California: Kerygma Press, 2008), 101–103.

[41] See John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 113–116, 130–131.

[42] W. Robert Godfrey, “Faith Formed by Love or Faith Alone: The Instrument of Justification,” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2007), 280.

[43] Norman Shepherd, “Faith and Faithfulness,” in A Faith That Is Never Alone, ed. P. Andrew Sandlin (La Grange, California: Kerygma Press, 2007), 68–72.

[44] Harold O. J. Brown, “ in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 267.


The Cultural Paradigm of the Democratic Party

Introductory remarks at the political symposium sponsored by the Center for Cultural Leadership in Saratoga, California, October 27, 2012 

I want to start with a quote from Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention this past August:

This Republican narrative — this alternative universe … says that every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made….

We Democrats — we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it … with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share prosperity. You see, we believe that “we’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “you’re on your own.” ….

This assertion by Clinton is false, for two reasons:

First, most Republicans — at least conservatives, and that’s what he really means, I believe — don’t champion a “you’re on your own” ethic. In fact, we relish a “we’re all in this together” ethic, especially we Christian conservatives. We know we’re not islands.  We know that all Americans have a vested interest in working together to make this a great country. Our difference with Clinton and the other Democrats isn’t that we deny that “we’re all in this together.” The difference is that we deny that the state should determine how “we’re all in this together.”

According to politically liberal ideology, there are only two options: (a) “you’re on your own,” a naked individual, in a selfish, self-centered, avaricious, uncaring society, or (b) “we’re all in this together” in a state-sanctioned and -maintained collectivist society directed by political elites. Those are the only two options some liberals seem to see.

There is, however, a third:  a “we’re all in this together” ethic that looks to civil society — the family, the church, friendships, businesses, other “private” associations — for its social cohesion. In other words, we deny the “you’re on your own” ethic, but we also deny the “we’re all in this together” ethic that looks to the state for social cohesion.

The Collectivist Paradigm

I want us to ponder a deeper point. Clinton (and especially Obama, for whom he was a surrogate) isn’t proposing chiefly a political policy; he’s offering a cultural paradigm. Let’s call it the collectivist paradigm. It’s a paradigm in which government works together with business “to promote . . .  broadly shared prosperity.” This means that the state guides the market, the state “justly” redistributes the goods of the market, the state shapes “the good society.” When Clinton says, “we’re all in this together,” he means that the state (that is to say, leftist elites) get to decide how we’re all together.  This is the collectivist paradigm. It’s only different in degree from Marxism. The state is the great cohesive factor of a society. The state is the institution that holds us all together.

The Civil Paradigm

In contradistinction to the collectivist paradigm is what I’d like to term the civil paradigm. This paradigm sees not the state, but so-called “private” associations (family, church, businesses) as the social cohesion. The state is not the overriding social glue, but simply one part of the glue, and maybe the least important part.

The civil paradigm poses a great threat to the collectivist paradigm. When people start depending on their families for health care, on friends for a “safety net” in hard times, on the church for moral standards, on private schools for education, on businesses for material provision, they no longer need the state for much of anything except protection from molestation (which is its legitimate function). The collectivist paradigm rightly sees the civil paradigm as offering competitors to its elitist vision. This is why Marxist societies assaulted the family and bulldozed churches and turned friends into secret-police snitches and abolished businesses.  This is also why the Democratic Party today supports abortion and no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage and politically financed public education and high taxes on business.  It’s not about “freedom.” It’s about diluting and emasculating its competitors. And know this: strong families and churches and businesses and friendships are the competitors to an elitist state; they replace most of today’s state functions.

The collectivist paradigm (like the civil paradigm) creates a particular kind of culture: individuals lose their sense of self-reliance and become informal wards of the state.  They autonomously break the bonds of family and church and live for self and explore (and become enslaved to) all sorts of flagrant and perverse sexual acts. They take wild financial risks, confident that if they fail, the state will bail them out.  Men are nonchalant about their vocation, knowing that they need not pay a penalty for not being responsible for a wife or children. Women care little for marriage, knowing that they can’t depend on collectivist men to care and provide for them, so they bombard the workplace on career tracks that would likely prevent a sustained marriage.

Sound familiar? Please understand that I’m suggesting that the “we’re all in this together” ethic of the Democratic Party and, in particular, political liberalism, isn’t chiefly an economic or even political paradigm.  It’s a cultural paradigm. And it produces a particular kind of individual.

The Autonomy Paradigm

Speaking of individual, there is one group about whom Bill Clinton’s statement is accurate — that’s the libertarians of the Ayn Rand variety: the dope-smoking, porn-lusting, fornication-proliferating, authority-hating, family-rejecting, church-loathing individualists. They hate not just the state, but also the family and the church and any bond that would impose limits on their lust for autonomy. They love free markets and free sex. They deplore the state and they deplore God. Let’s call theirs the autonomy paradigm.

And make no mistake: they are not the natural allies of us conservatives. The enemy of my enemy (a rapacious state) is not automatically my friend — especially if he’s an enemy of the God of heaven and earth and that God’s standards.  Moreover, the autonomy paradigm is a ripe victim for the collectivist paradigm. Why? Because man was created for community, and if he denies communities like the family and church, he’ll soon be forced into the community of the state. In the words of Robert Nisbet, “Community will get its revenge.” The great social bulwark against massive political intrusion is not the naked individual, but bold and inviting social institutions like the family and church and businesses. And you can be sure that just as the other paradigms produce a certain kind of individual, so does the autonomy paradigm.

This is the message of Angelo Codevilla’s book The Character of Nations.  Different nations produce different kinds of people. This is why this election is so important. This election isn’t chiefly about economics or even politics, but about culture.  It’s about the kind of American we want to have in 25–50 years.  It’s about the kind of people we want our grandchildren to be. Culture shapes people, and political choices shape culture. Whom we elect in a few days will shape the kind of people that live in this country.

That’s the cultural stake in the impending election.


Don’t Sell Short Your Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ

In “Beware of Under-Realized Soteriologies, I took to task Mark Galli of Christianity Today and others for arguing that we shouldn’t expect to be transformed too much by the Gospel in this pre-consumate age, since most Gospel transformation awaits the eschaton.

Gerald Heistand of The Society for the Advancement of Ecclesial Theology argues, from another angle, that over-realized eschatologies are behind the popular evangelical nomenclature “personal relationships with Christ,” which implies a sense of Jesus’ presence that we Christians simply can’t have until the eschaton. Well, I know of no evangelical who argues that we can today know Jesus as we’ll know Him when we see Him face to face (1 Jn. 3:2), so if Gerald is contending merely for the application of the “already/not yet” to our present experience of the Lord’s presence, he’s preaching to almost the entire evangelical choir.

I don’t object so much to what Gerald asserts as what he denies — or at least omits. I believe that, as James Fowler notes, Gerald is advocating an “over-objectified understanding of Christ’s work” characteristic of much Protestant theology.  The Bible plainly teaches that we can today know Jesus (and the Father and Spirit) in a remarkably intimate way — a way much more intense than Gerald suggests. He writes: “I don’t often feel an overwhelming sense of his [God’s] presence in the same way that I feel the presence of my human relationships,” and “Maybe I’ve just sold out, but I’ve come to make peace with the fact that we shouldn’t become too idealized about what it means to be in a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ between the ages.” But the Bible offers us a much more intimate relational portrait than Gerald allows.

For example, Jesus prays to his Father (Jn. 17:20–23):

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me….”

This is a striking passage. Jesus prays that God will grant to the disciples (both His apostles and subsequent believers) the same glory that His Father granted Him while on earth. Further, while here on earth (note: He discusses the glory of the eschaton later, in v. 24) they may dwell in the same relational oneness that He presently shares with the Father.  Unless we are prepared to say that the incarnate Jesus did not “feel an overwhelming sense of his [God’s] presence in the same way that [Jesus felt] the presence of [His] human relationships,” it would seem that we, too, today, can experience a sense of the Lord’s presence even greater than that which we experience of our fellow humans.

Further, Paul writes in Colossians 1:27 that the glorious mystery he preached to the gentiles is that Christ was in them, the hope of glory — the “hope” stressing the not yet, but the “in them” accenting the already.  We can know our fellow humans intimately, but they do not reside in us permanently by the Spirit’s work as Jesus does with His people.  We can know Him more intimately than we know one another.

In Galatians 2:20 Paul goes so far as to say that it is no longer Paul, but Jesus Christ, who lives in him: in other words, Jesus’ very life dwarfs our life.  However we may precisely interpret this statement, it is clear that Jesus is almost indescribably intimate within his people.

We can (and should) talk to Him every day and virtually all day.  We tell Him that we love Him and want to honor and obey Him. He speaks to us externally by His Word and internally by His Spirit. Most amazingly, the very corporeal power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus bodily from the dead resides in our bodies (Rom. 8:11). For this reason, “[H]e who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor. 6:17)

So, we Christians can experience a “personal relationship with Christ”; and, in fact, such intimacy, which exceeds the intimacy of our fellow humans, should be the norm.

Don’t settle for less.


An Evangelical Predicament: Two Kinds of Sinners

The great division within humanity is not sexual, economic, racial, or social — but religious.  The great divide is captured by expressions like the City of God versus the City of Man (Augustine), covenant-keepers versus covenant-breakers (Cornelius Van Til), and by more explicitly Biblical terms like saved versus unsaved (Ac. 16:30) and Christians versus non-Christians (Ac. 11:26).  Another way of expressing this distinction is to refer to repentant sinners versus unrepentant sinners.  This final designation has the benefit of highlighting the reality of universal human sinfulness while implying the ethical benefits of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work — notably, his creating a new and holy people by the Spirit’s power (Rom. 6:1–12; 8:9–14).  Repentant sinners are still sinners, but, being recipients of God’s grace consistently working in their lives, they have become a different kind of sinner.  They may be sinners, but they are not sinners in the way they once were.

A striking example of these two kinds of sinners is found in the initial segment of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk.  This book consists of alternating monologues between God and the prophet.  In 1:1–5, Habakkuk (like many other Biblical prophets) decries the violence, injustice and otherwise depravity of his fellow Jews.  Keenly aware of God’s covenant threats in texts like Deuteronomy 28, he grieves at God’s apparent diffidence over the depravity of his people.  God had plucked Israel from the depraved, pagan nations of the earth and graciously lifted them up on eagles’ wings to be a unique, righteous people to him (Ex. 19:4–6).  But in Habakkuk’s time, righteous they were not; they were tragically unrighteous.  And Habakkuk was as incensed by their unrighteousness as he was with God’s seeming indifference at his people’s moral apostasy.

The Evangelical Quandary of Grace

The prophet’s attitude might be thought to introduce a quandary among today’s evangelicals.  Heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we rightly stress God’s grace, but that very stress sometimes leads to moral paralysis, the very opposite of how Habakkuk responded to rampant sin so many centuries ago.  Today’s paradigm goes something like this: we observe obvious sin and abject depravity in both the church and the culture — let us take as an example the mainstreamed sadomasochism of Lady Gaga, who revels in musical rape fantasies and violence against women — but we recoil from the loud denunciation of this evil with which Habakkuk might have been quite comfortable, on the grounds that we, too, like Lady Gaga, are sinners.  If we are saved by grace and not works — and we emphatically are (Tit. 3:5) — the only reason we are different from Lady Gaga is God’s favor displayed and accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This means that no Christian can boast that he is morally superior to another (Rom. 3:27–28).  God is the one who creates the difference between the forgiven and the unforgiven (Eph. 2:1–10).  At the very root, we might think, we are really no better than Lady Gaga.  Yet it is not entirely clear that Habakkuk could have so aggressively decried Israel’s sin had he thought in precisely this way.  Our modern evangelical way of approaching moral evil in the church and world was not Habakkuk’s way.

Another quandary emerges almost immediately. “There is none righteous, no, not one,” writes Paul (Rom. 3:10, summarizing Psalm 14), yet the Bible clearly and plainly depicts certain believers as righteous, and it commends this righteousness.  The Psalms are replete with mention and descriptions of “the righteous man” (try chapters 1, 11, 34, 37, and 58 — for starters).  Likewise, Jesus spoke of righteous individuals (Mt. 10:41; 13:17, 43; 25:46).  So did Paul himself (Rom. 2:6–11; 6:18; 14:7; Eph. 4:24). The world may be full of sinners (Lady Gaga in the lead), but there are righteous individuals in God’s sight.

Two Kinds of Righteousness

A typical evangelical way out of this quandary — one creditably calculated to highlight the grace of God and prevent any boasting of one’s righteousness — is to say that this righteousness is the “positional” or judicial righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed (or credited) to the believing sinner.  The Bible most assuredly teaches this kind of righteousness.  Both Jesus (Lk. 18:9–14) and, in particular, Paul (Rom. 4:11–24) refer to this imputed righteousness as the basis on which we are accepted before a holy God.  We are not accepted before God on the strength of our own righteousness but on the strength of Jesus’ righteousness.  His righteous standing accomplished by his death and resurrection becomes ours by faith alone, not by works.

Yet in many cases, the definition of the righteousness of individuals depicted as righteous in the Bible cannot be this positional or judicial righteousness: they are actually, existentially righteous (see Lk. 1:5–6; Jas. 5:16; 2 Pet. 2:8). They live righteous lives. They love God. They obey his Word. They hate sin (including their own sin [Ps. 51; Is. 6:5]). They are sinners, but they wish to please God in all that they do.  They do enjoy imputed righteousness, but they also are the recipients of imparted righteousness: God has imparted to them the Holy Spirit’s power and (gradually) works into them his righteousness (Rom. 8:1–17).  They are righteous, both judicially and experientially, by faith.

These are the relatively rather than the absolutely righteous (only God is absolutely righteous), but the Bible does not hesitate to depict these repentant sinners as righteous — conforming to God’s holy will.  They are commended for this righteousness and held up as favorable examples.

This distinction discloses more fully the reality of the two kinds of sinners: the repentant and the unrepentant.  The Bible calls repentant sinners “the righteous” (and similar terms).  It labels unrepentant sinners “the unrighteous” (and similar terms).  There is a huge gulf separating these two groups, and that gulf cannot be bridged by simply lumping all of them together as sinners.  The gulf is so absolute that in the Final Judgment it will eternally isolate all of humanity in one of two places: heaven or hell (Mt. 25:31­­–46).  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).  There is no righteous man on earth that does not sin (Ec. 7:20).  If we say that we are without sin, we are liars (1 Jn. 1:10).  But there has been a dramatic change in repentant sinners that has led and will lead increasingly to righteous living.  In fact, John sees this righteousness as a criterion of authentic belief (1 Jn. 3:6, 5:18) — if we live lives dominated by unrighteousness, our Christian profession rings hollow.  The right-living people are saved and the wrong-living people are lost.  It is remarkable that some Christians, worried that God’s grace will be polluted if they stress the necessity of righteousness, refuse to affirm what the Bible so plainly teaches: that the righteous will end up in heaven and the unrighteous will end up in hell (Mt. 13:41–43; 25:31–46; Jn. 5:29; Rom. 2:6–9; Heb. 10:32–39; Rev. 21:7, 8, 24–27).

For this reason, when Habakkuk decried his fellow Jews’ depravity and apostasy, God did not respond, “But Habakkuk, you, too, are a sinner; you are really no better than these other Jews, who love violence and injustice and hate my law.  You were saved by my sovereign grace and have no warrant to set yourself up to criticize their sin.  Revel in my grace, Habakkuk, for there but for my grace go you!”  God did not say this, nor (to my knowledge) does God ever reply this way when the righteous (repentant sinners) criticize or condemn the unrighteous (unrepentant sinners).  In short, God affirms (implicitly or explicitly) the assessment that his righteous people level at the unrighteous.  These sinners occupy two entirely different classes.

Are Christians Better Than Everybody Else?

Christians sometimes exhort, with well-intentioned humility: “We should not act as though we are better than everyone else in the world.  After all, we are saved by grace.”  Yet, if we are not better than unbelievers, what is salvation by grace all about?  Not, surely, only eternal bliss, blessed though it will be.  It would be a tragedy indeed if heaven were populated by unrepentant, depraved sinners.  This would be hell, not heaven (Rev. 21:8).  Heaven is reserved for those who have been saved by grace through faith in the blood and resurrection of Jesus and who, therefore, have been cleansed of sin and live as obedient, persevering sons and daughters (Rom. 2:6–7; Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:7).

The goal of God’s grace is a right-living (= righteous) people. Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. . . ” (Tit. 2:11–12, emphasis supplied).  The goal of God’s grace is not Christians who so marvel at that grace that they fear righteousness.  Grace necessitates — and produces — righteousness.

Today amid the din of religious apostasy and cultural depravity, a misguided piety may foster the attitude: “I am saved by the blood of Jesus and totally by grace.  I do not see any moral difference between me and unrepentant sinners.  After all, it is only grace that separates me from Lady Gaga.”

But that “only” modifying God’s grace in our salvation is a massive “only.”  It is a grace that transforms a rebel into an obedient child and situates him on the path of righteousness.  He loves what God loves and hates what God hates. He perseveres in righteousness by the Spirit’s power to press the Lordship of Jesus everywhere he can.  He knows that all he is and does in the way of righteousness is God’s gift working for him (imputed righteousness) and in him (imparted righteousness).  He rejoices in God’s grace that redeemed him not just from the penalty of sin but also, now, in this life, from the pleasure and power of sin and one day, in eternity, from the very presence of sin (A. W. Pink).

God anointed Jesus because he loved righteousness and hated lawlessness (Heb. 1:9).  So should we.

Eternal life is not a reward for good behavior, but neither is grace an excuse for moral paralysis.


Apostasy Begins in the Heart

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart . . . 

Deuteronomy 6:6

Few Biblical words are more frequently mis-defined and misunderstood in the modern church than the word heart.  It is usually understood as emotion. When evangelical ministers declare, “We believe in heart-felt religion at this church,” what they really are saying is that they affirm and practice an emotional religion.  This understanding is often to opposed “head religion,” as in, “We believe in heart religion, not head religion.”

The fact is, however, the Bible will not permit such a narrow definition.  The Biblical term “heart” does indeed include emotion, and we are not true to the Biblical teaching if we neglect this important facet (Pr. 27:11; Neh. 2:2).  “Heart,” nonetheless, means much more than emotion.   It clearly includes the mind, or reason.  For instance, the Bible declares that, “For as he [man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Pr. 23:7).  Gordon Clark is correct when he suggests that “heart” is essentially synonymous with the English word self.  In its Biblical denotation, the heart is really the core of man’s being.  It is the part of man that constitutes him most clearly as a being made in God’s image — spirit, consciousness, mind, volition, emotion, and so on.  It does not specifically denote man’s corporeal nature, though it does not specifically exclude it.  The heart is the depth of man’s being.  We might say, in a generic sense, the heart is man’s God-given ontology.

Biblical terms are not often used in a technical, theological sense.  God in the Bible employs, for the most part, common, everyday language to transmit His revelation.  This is why we can read that man’s first duty is to love God with all of his heart, soul, strength, might, and mind (Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27).  The meaning here is not so much to separate out each of these facets, as though each were a separate aspect of man by which he is to love God.  Rather, this terminology is a shorthand expression for “man in the totality of his being.”  In fact, the term heart can, in large part, encompass each of these facets.  To love God with our heart, soul, strength, might, and mind, is simply to love God with all of our heart, in the fullness of our being.

God Monopolizes the Heart

In Biblical psychology, the heart, the self, the core of man, his ontology, is the object of God’s dealings.  This is quite evident in the Old Testament doctrine of regeneration.  God told Israel that circumcision of the flesh, while essential, was not the fundamental mark of true religion — it may have been the fundamental external mark, but the fundamental mark of true religion was said to be circumcision of the heart (Dt. 10:16 and 30:6).  The same is true of regeneration in the New Testament era (2 Cor. 3:3).

When God regenerates a man’s heart, He regenerates the man’s being.  This is to be understood ethically, not metaphysically.  In other words, God doesn’t, for example, give man a new brain or new hands or a new liver or a new personality.  He dramatically reorients the “self,” originally made in God’s image, but fallen and born into sin.  This affects man in every aspect of his being: his mind, emotions, will, subconscious, body, and so forth.  Regeneration doesn’t render a man sinlessly perfect; it does, however, renovate man definitively and set in process the forces that one day, in man’s bodily resurrection, results in the complete experiential sanctification.

Men draw near to God because of God’s prevenient, sovereign work in their hearts (Dt. 29:4).  Likewise, when men draw away from God, they depart first within and by means of their heart (Dt. 30:15-19).  If one of the greatest theological errors of the modern church is its identification of the word heart merely with emotion, one of its greatest applicational errors is to identify the source of apostasy as something other than the heart.

Apostasy First Ontological, Not Confessional

We orthodox Protestants are committed to strict, doctrinal identity and the creedal and confessional standards such identity requires.  With proper nuance, we  are right to do this; and if we ever grow soft on the issue of doctrinal fidelity, we will be well on our way to apostasy.

But — and note this well — when the church arrives at that point, it will have already taken the first few steps.  The source of the history of apostasy in almost all Protestant denominations in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries is not the abandonment of the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Augsburg Confession or the Book of Concord or the London Baptist Confession of 1689.  The source of the defection is a defective heart.  No man who loves God with all of his heart ever abandoned the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  No man whose heart burned with devotion to God ever defied God’s authority in the Bible.  No man whose heart was right in the sight of God ever questioned the virgin birth, sacrificial atonement, bodily resurrection, or future Second Coming of Christ.  As a neophyte Christian, he may not have properly understood these doctrines, but he would never deny them.  This is to say that theological orthodoxy is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion of Biblical Christianity.  More is needed.  That “more” is a godly heart.

The Antidote to Apostasy

Merely reinstating and enforcing submission to the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions will never clean up liberalism and other theological perversions like ordaining homosexuals in the major denominations.  Why?  Because liberalism and other theological perversions did not begin with an abandonment of creeds and confessions. They began with apostasy in the heart. Sound, Biblical, God-honoring doctrinal symbols are the effect of a white-hot devotion to the sovereign, Triune God that fuels the intellect to such an extent that it demands nothing less than an accurate, systematic understanding of the Bible.  The heart fuels the intellect — just as it fuels the emotions, the will, the affections, and even the body.  When the heart is persistent in its pursuit of God and His will, that pursuit can never be limited to a single facet of man’s being.  It is a totalistic principle that pushes relentlessly for dominion of man in totality.  This is why pietism is such a crippling and unnatural religious disease.  It suggests that the effects of devotion to God can be exhausted in only one or two facets of man’s being: private prayer and Bible-reading, for example.  This is to deny the fullness of man as being created in God’s image. As Abraham Kuyper noted, our devotion to God cannot be divided and limited to only certain aspects of our being.  To love God with all of our heart is to love Him in mind, affection, emotion, will, body, subconscious, activity, and so on.

Holistic Affections

A massive, impending reformation depends, from a human standpoint, on a revival of holistic heart religion.  Many of the Puritans often preached extensively on what they termed the “affections.”  Even some Calvinists belittle this emphasis, noting (often correctly) that the Puritan forebears became obsessed with private spirituality.  We should not fail to recognize, however, that emphasis on the “affections” is a Biblical emphasis (Pr. 23:26; Mt. 12:35; Ac. 11:23).  Why is this?  When man’s affections, his heart, are properly aligned, he will, if soundly instructed, relentlessly press those affections outward to every aspect of his thought and life.  On the other hand, a man whose affections are cold can work toward reforming the church, education, science, the arts, and so on, but he will enjoy only marginal, if any, success.  Why?  Because his ontology is not fueled to undertake the task.

One of the supreme responsibilities of Christian fathers, ministers, and other teachers is to foster and instill godly affections. They must excite their hearers, listeners, and parishioners with a profound, comprehensive love for God and the Sacred Scriptures, for the Faith, for the people of God, and for the kingdom of God and its advancement.

Where the heart goes, there goes man.


What Is the Gospel?

So here is the problem. Man is a guilty sinner, God is a holy God. How can the two be brought together? The answer is the cross of Christ.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Cross[1]


 “God was in Christ,” writes Paul to the church at Corinth, “reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing [counting] their trespasses to [against] them (Second Epistle, 5:19)

Two thousand years ago, God acted dramatically in Jesus of Nazareth to bring back to Himself an estranged human race.  This is the world’s Good News — its best news, in fact — and in the Bible it is called the Gospel.[2] It was this message that formed the heart of the mission of Jesus’ earliest followers after His death and resurrection.  This kerygma the apostolic proclamation, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, is revealed fully in the New Testament.  This, in fact, is likely the chief role of the New Testament in God’s plan — to disclose the Good News to all of humanity. In theological language, the New Testament is principally the enumeration, interpretation and application of the redemptive events centered in the Person of Jesus Christ.[3]  The Good News is that God hasn’t left us to ourselves.  The Good News is that God has done something by means of Jesus  — He has taken the initiative — to bring us back into His good graces.

What Is the Bad News?

The backdrop of the Good News is the bad news.  In fact, we won’t understand how good the good news really is until we grasp how dreadful the bad news is.

The bad news is that humanity, and each of as individuals, is sinful.  What is sin?  Sin is violating God’s will for us as His rational creatures: breaking God law — and His heart (1 Jn. 3:4).  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created righteous.  But they were also created with free will.  They exercised that will to turn against the benevolent God Who created them.  Under the serpent’s seduction, they wanted their way rather than God’s way.  They wanted self-autonomy.  This is the heart of Original Sin — man’s way rather than God’s way.

We — all of us, all humans (except Jesus) — have followed our first parents in this sin.  We’re complicit in their sin (Rom. 5:12-21).  We are liars and adulterers and hypocrites and rebels and racists and sexual deviants and cowards and bullies.  We slander and covet and lust and profane God’s holy name.  We’re envious and proud and resentful and thoughtless and uncharitable and faithless and domineering and self-serving (Rom. 3:10-23).  Even our apparent virtues become vices in our proud, sinful hands.  We’re a bad lot, we sons of Adam, we daughters of Eve.  Sin is a self-inflicted moral disease, and it plagues each of us.

This disease wreaks all the havoc we see in the world.  It alienates us from one another.  It alienates us from our environment, God’s good creation.  It even alienates us from ourselves — our greatest battles are those that enflame from our own bosom. Sin sets man not just against his fellow man and against his environment, but also against himself.  Man is at war with himself because of his sin (Jas. 4:1-4).[4]

Worst of all, sin sets us against God.  Sin alienates us from our Creator (Is. 59:2; Eph. 2:12).  God is a righteous God, and we are unrighteous people.  God created us for fellowship with Him, but sin destroys that fellowship.  This sin elicits a penalty — death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23a).  God is righteous, and His righteousness demands that sin be dealt with righteously.  Consequently, man in his natural state stands under a divine death sentence: eternal judgment by God (Jn. 3:18-20).  If all men and women are sinners, and if God visits His judgment on all sinners, then the human race is condemned to God’s judgment.  This is the bad news.

The Good News is that the bad news is not the last news.

Good News for Sinners

God is not only a righteous God.  He’s also a loving God (1 Jn. 4:8).  When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t throw them on the cosmic ash heap.  God created man (male and female), with His express purpose to enjoy us in an eternal relationship; and He loves man as His good creation — a creation that has gone bad, but a good creation from His hand.  In His love, God set in motion a great reclamation project.  God’s plan for humanity is to redeem, not destroy.  God is not just man’s awesome judge; God is man’s glorious Redeemer.

That redemption is found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, very God of very God, in the words of the Nicene Creed.  In His cruel death on the Cross, Jesus carried the punishment for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29; Rom. 5:6-11; 1 Pet. 3:18).  In His resurrection from the grave, He broke that very power of death that had shackled man from the Garden of Eden, and thereby showed God’s acceptance of Christ’s death as sufficient (1 Cor. 15:35-58).  This redemptive work reconciled man to God (Eph. 2:11-13).  Man is no longer alienated from God.  Why?  Because Jesus fulfilled the demand of God’s justice — death, the penalty for sin (Rom. 3:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).[5]

God’s love and His justice meet and look each other squarely in the eye at Calvary’s cross.  God loves sinful man, but His righteousness won’t allow Him to excuse man’s sin.   The Cross is the great, public demonstration both of God’s justice toward and His love for humanity.  God imposed the righteous penalty for man’s sin, and then God Himself in His matchless love paid the penalty in the Person of His Son, Jesus.  God judged man, and then God Himself suffered His own judgment in Jesus Christ.  Jesus died in the place of sinful man.  And then Jesus rose triumphant over that sin, and ascended to sit with God in Heaven.

This is why Paul summarizes the Good News as the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-4).

Appropriating the Good News

The Good News carries a universal dimension.  Jesus died for the sins of the world (1 Jn. 2:2).  But all people are not saved.  Salvation is not for all without qualification, but only for those who trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord.  Jesus’ death and resurrection are sufficient for all but only effective for those who believe (Jn. 3:16-18).

Faith is the all-important factor here.  God wanted to remove from salvation all self-autonomy (which got man into trouble in the first place).  So He arranged it that man could never get the credit.  God alone gets the credit for man’s salvation.  Since salvation is not man’s plan or by man’s achievement, man can never boast (Eph. 2:8-9).  Man gets the benefit of Jesus death and resurrection only if he believes — if he trusts in Jesus and Him alone for His salvation (Rom. 3:27-5:5; 10:9).  Man is saved by trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Of course, this presupposes that man understands and accepts both the horror of his own sin and state, and the wonder of God’s love, and therefore longs for that love and relationship.  This faith, which is God’s gift, rests on the promises of God — that if we trust in Jesus alone and all that He has done to redeem us, we will have eternal life.  God requires that we rely on the work of Another, not on ourselves.  Salvation is entirely by God’s grace.  God actually saves us; He doesn’t help us save ourselves. Faith means resting on Jesus, not on ourselves. [6]

But this faith is active, not passive — it hangs onto the good promises of God in Jesus and consecrates oneself to the Risen Christ.[7]  It is not merely assent to religious beliefs, even the right beliefs; in addition, faith casts the sinner’s life entirely on Jesus Christ.  In appropriating His work to us, faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.  Faith without works is dead (Jas. 2:14-26).  This faith that saves carries with it repentance, turning away from sin and turning toward God (Ac. 3:19; 2 Cor. 7:10).  This faith that saves submits to Jesus as Lord and Master — it makes one a disciple (Mt. 16:24-27).[8]  This faith submits, not only out of duty, but also out of amazement, and with a responsive love toward our merciful Lord.

The Good News puts man back into his proper place — as the glorified servant of God.  And the Gospel exalts Jesus to His proper place — as the cosmic Lord and King of the living and the dead (Ac. 2:29-39; Rom. 14:9).

The faith that saves finds all its salvation, all its hope, all its peace, all its destiny in Jesus of Nazareth.  In the lyrics of Robert Lowry’s memorable hymn: “This is all my hope and peace, Nothing but the blood of Jesus/ This is all my righteousness, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”  Salvation is entirely by God’s grace, appropriated by an energetic, obedient faith in Jesus alone.


As a Gospel minister, I would be derelict in my duty if I neglected to say this: if you are without Jesus Christ, you face God’s awesome judgment.  The Good News is that you need not face His judgment.  Jesus died for your sins and for mine.  If you place all your hope and trust in Jesus of Nazareth as your Savior and Lord, you can be saved today.  If you turn from your sins and vest your faith in Jesus, you will become God’s redeemed child right now.

If you understand and confess, your sins will be forgiven.  God will wipe away all of your sins in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in Whom you trust.  You will stand in Jesus’ righteousness, justified in the sight of God.  God will give you His Holy Spirit, Who will fill you and seal you until the day of your redemption.  God will transform you from a rebel into an obedient son or daughter.  You will be His disciple all the days of your life.  You will become a member of the Lord’s army, His church, called to exert stewardship of the earth for Christ the King, looking toward the day when all the nations bow in submission to King Jesus (Phil. 2:5-11).  At Christ’s Second Coming, you will be resurrected to bodily life on a renovated, resurrected earth; and you will live eternally on this renewed earth with all the saints and with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Rev. 21:1-4).  This eternal life is in Jesus Christ and in Him alone.

The Good News is that God has overcome the bad news in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[1] (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1986), 33.

[2] Alan Richardson, “Gospel,” in ed., Richardson, A Theological Word Book of the Bible (New York: MacMillan, 1956), 100.

[3] George E. Ladd, “The Knowledge of God: The Saving Acts of God,” in ed., Carl. F. H. Henry, Basic Christian Doctrines (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7-13.

[4] P. Andrew Sandlin, “Global Ecology and Godly Stewardship,” Free Inquiry, April-May, 2008, 30-32.

[5] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955, 1960).

[6] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), ch. 4.

[7] Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 1:223-227.

[8] James I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation — New Challenges to the Gospel: Universalism, and Justification by Faith,” in eds., Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 130-131.


That Good Old-Fashioned Modernism

In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that (post)modern “post-conservative” evangelicals (like Roger Olsen) really aren’t that different theologically from the old Protestant liberals (also called “modernists” at the time).  In an extended CCL interview published in “Christian Culture,” I posed this question to John M. Frame, and his answer, in essence, is that the more radical Emergents today (like Brian McLaren) are akin to the older liberals — except that the older liberals were smart.

Ancient Modernism

The operational motif of Protestant liberalism has been the commitment to refashioning Christianity to make it acceptable to the leading themes of the — of the current — contemporary age.  This conformist program actually began in the patristic church, when some of the church fathers (one thinks immediately of Origen) synthesized Biblical Christianity with the prevailing currents of Greco-Roman thought.  A prime example is the degradation of sex and of the materiality of the created order, an idea obviously influenced by Platonism.  We might term this phenomenon “ancient modernism.”

Early Modernism

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, often considered the father of modern liberalism, drank deeply from the Romantic currents of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his theological profundity (not to be confused with Biblical fidelity) shaped a new departure for Christian theology: the source of theology is man’s feeling of absolute dependence on God.  Just as the Romantics broke with Enlightenment in positing the interior of man as the depth of reality, so Schleiermacher broke with orthodoxy in grounding religious authority in the subjective rather than the objective.  From our historic vantage point, it is easy to recognize that, no matter what his intent, Schleiermacher “re-imagined” Christianity in the image of the spirit of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Later Modernism

The Protestant liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries perpetuated Schleiermacher’s religious Romanticism but increasingly made way for an explosively successful secular science, including hostility to divine interruptions into history — Biblical miracles, resurrections, and so on.  God may be at work within history, but He is not at work in miraculous ways.  The effect of this move was to make Christianity palatable to the educated classes — and in so doing gut Biblical Christianity (but, of course, the divine inspiration of the Bible was itself one of those miracles that simply could not survive the modern world).


So-called “neo-orthodoxy” recovered something of the older view of the depravity of humanity and the majesty of God, but it did so at the expense of a unified understanding of the world.  Francis Schaeffer would later suggest that “neo-orthodoxy” was largely the religious version of a wider intellectual phenomenon in the culture — the division of life into the “upper” story and the “lower” story.  The “upper” story is the realm of God and the spiritual and mystical and “religious experience”; the “lower” story” is the province of earth, materiality, empirical science, “ordinary life,” and so on.  This dualism permitted Christians to maintain belief in God and “religious experience” without the embarrassment of affirming the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the verbal inspiration of the Bible.  It was, in the words of Clark Pinnock, a religious salvage operation.

The Post-Conservative Evangelicals

Today some of the “post-conservative” evangelicals (and leading “Emergents”) follow in the liberal tradition by “re-imagining” the Faith and the church in postmodern terms.  Since postmodernity is resistant to claims of transcultural truth, the “post-conservative” evangelicals cannot abide the notion of an infallible Scripture or a Gospel message that excludes from salvation all who do not trust in Jesus Christ.  Because postmodernity subordinates the conceptual to the relational, “post-conservative” evangelicals are not much interested in orthodox conceptions of the Trinity but rather stress the “economic” (relations within the) Trinity.  In that postmodernity is centered in man and his communities, “post-conservative” evangelicals see the mission of God as the restoration of man to fellowship with God rather than as the glory of God, some even arguing that the Biblical teaching of Christ’s substitutionary death is “cosmic child abuse” — after all, if God’s plan is all about pleasing man, why would He ever cause one man (His Son, no less) to suffer for the sins of another?  In these ways and many others, “post-conservative” evangelicals are the latest permutation of Protestant liberalism (modernism).

If these ideas continue to grow in the younger evangelical communities, we will likely preside over the funeral of Biblical evangelicalism in the coming decades.


Dad and Mom, Equally Authoritative

“Patriarchy” means, “father rule.”  The concept of father necessitates a child or children (“father” is not equivalent to “husband”), so the word patriarchy might be thought to imply that the father as father bears unique and final human authority in the family.  If so, this assumption is false.  From the Biblical teaching that the faithful wife must submit to her loving, sacrificial husband (Eph. 5:22f) some spring to the conclusion that the mother does not bear equal authority with respect to their children.  They believe that the familial hierarchy in descending order goes like this: father –> mother –> children.  The problem is that this is not what the Bible teaches.  Paul teaches, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’” (Eph. 6:1–2a; cf. Col. 3:20, emphasis supplied).   Paul does not teach (nor does anyone else in the Bible teach), “Children, your father is the ruler in the family, and you must obey your mother to the extent that she obeys your father, for he is the final human authority in the family — Father Rules!”  It is notable, in fact, that whenever the Bible has in mind children’s obligation to parents, it never depicts a paternal hierarchy, only a parental hierarchy.  This parental parity is especially striking in the Book of Proverbs:

My son, keep your father’s command, And do not forsake the law of your mother (6:20).

The proverbs of Solomon: A wise son makes a glad father, But a foolish son [is] the grief of his mother (10:1).

He who mistreats [his] father [and] chases away [his] mother [Is] a son who causes shame and brings reproach (19:26).

Whoever curses his father or his mother, His lamp will be put out in deep darkness (20:20).

Listen to your father who begot you, And do not despise your mother when she is old (23:22).

Whoever robs his father or his mother, And says, “[It is] no transgression,” The same [is] companion to a destroyer (28:24).

[There is] a generation [that] curses its father, And does not bless its mother (30:11).

The eye [that] mocks [his] father, And scorns obedience to [his] mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it (30:17).

No reasonable reader of this wisdom literature, calculated to instruct the naïve young man in the way of wisdom, would assume patriarchy, “father rules”; rather, he would get the distinct impression that God vests the parents with a parity of authority.  Interestingly, in fact, the term father rarely appears in Proverbs without the term mother. This is another way of saying that with reference to their children, father and mother share equal authority in the family. (Not surprisingly, this was the Reformer John Calvin’s view.)

Therefore, the Biblical familial hierarchy goes like this: parents –> children.  The father has no more say in the children’s rearing than the mother, and therefore “patriarchy,” denotatively speaking, is no more valid than “matriarchy.”  The Bible does not teach that the father is the head of the household; it teaches that man is the head of woman (1 Cor. 11:2–3), an altogether different issue.

Alleged Biblical Support for Patriarchy

In opposing this view the document  “The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” lists as support Genesis 18:19 and Ephesians 6:4.  The latter warns the father not to provoke his children to anger but to rear them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.  It implies that of the two parents, the father may be most inclined to employ his parental authority sinfully, but it in no way implies that his authority trumps the mother’s authority.  In Genesis 18:19 God credits Abraham with “commanding his children and household.”  It is a statement in the context of verifying God’s covenant with Abraham.  The reason Abraham’s wife Sarah is not mentioned as commanding the children (as the mother in Proverbs is depicted) is because it was not Sarah with whom God directly made a covenant.  Genesis 18:19 is a statement about paternal faithfulness, not familial hierarchy.  A similar text is 1 Timothy 5:14, which teaches that a chief task of younger widows who marry is to “guide” or “manage” the house.  The term means to serve as master or to rule a household.  If, therefore, we had only this text by which to formulate our understanding of familial hierarchy, we would conclude that the wife and mother (not the husband or father) is the head (master or lord) of the household.  But this text is not teaching that the wife and mother is vested with greater household authority than the husband or father.  It is teaching that in her domestic role she is the principal authority.  The husband is the primary breadwinner (1 Tim. 5:8) and less occupied with domestic duties, which do consume the life of the mother (Prov. 31:23, cf. 10–31).  The wife and mother in this sense is the lord, head and manager of the family. This is the explicit meaning in 1 Timothy 5:14.  Within these parameters, we might even say that while the husband is the head of the wife, the wife is the head of the household.

This paradigm helps us to better understand the Bible’s hierarchical familial arrangements (note the all-important plural): husband –> wife / parents –> children, not husband-father –> wife-mother –> children. This is to say that the father and mother must agree on decisions relating to their children and have veto power over each with respect to their children.  A father who runs roughshod over the mother’s authority pertaining to their children is no less sinful than a wife who refuses to submit to her husband’s leading.

Nor does this paradigm deny a division of labor, such that each parent must be consulted on every conceivable decision.  The husband may delegate to the wife his authority for deciding the children’s diet, for example, just as the wife may delegate to the husband her authority about what sports their children may play.  But any husband whose attitude toward vital decisions like whom the minor children should date or court is, “I’ll let their mother handle that,” or any wife who says of their children’s education, “Their father will decide where and how they attend school” has abdicated his and her obligation before God.  A mother who permits the father to usurp her authority in rearing their children will stand responsible before God for violating a sacred trust that God has given her as a mother.


“The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” trumpets, “Egalitarian feminism is an enemy of God and of biblical truth.”  This is correct, but patriarchal machismo is also and equally an enemy of Biblical truth, and it, no less than egalitarian feminism, must be exposed for the false teaching that it is.


The Gospel Worldview

Excerpt from Evangelizing the Mind:

The gospel presupposes a worldview. The fact that this idea sounds unsettling to us shows how far we’ve come from the Bible’s teaching.  A worldview is a way of viewing the world.  It’s a set of assumptions that everybody has by which we interpret what goes on around us and inside us.  There is a Christian worldview and a Buddhist worldview and a Hindu worldview and a secular worldview and New Age worldview and Marxist worldview and variations and combinations of each.  Whatever we experience in this world, you and I interpret through the grid of our instinctive assumptions.  Those assumptions comprise our worldview.  Worldviews are like pancreases: everybody has one, even if we don’t know it or think about it.

The gospel assumes that we grasp certain truths, that we adopt a basic worldview.  We don’t preach the gospel in an intellectual vacuum.  The minute we say, “Jesus saves,” we must ask, “Who is Jesus? and “Saves us from what?” and then we must face the fact that the gospel presupposes a worldview.  This is easy to prove.

Suppose you’re conversing with an unbelieving colleague whose spiritual condition you’re desperately concerned about.  This is the first time you’ve ever really gotten into spiritual matters.  You don’t specifically know where he or she stands.  You start with, “I’m concerned with your eternal destiny.  How do you stand with God?”

Let’s suppose your colleague replies, “I don’t know much about God, but sure, I’d like to be right with God.”

And you respond, “Do you know that you — like all of us — were born into sin and our sin separates from God and that we stand under God’s judgment?”

And your colleague, good postmodern that he is, says, “I like God but I don’t like that idea of God.  God’s not judgmental.  He accepts everybody as they are.  Sure, we’ve all failed and done a few bad things, but the only ‘sins’ God cares about are racism and homophobia and multinational corporations and judgmentalism.  I believe in God, but I don’t believe I’m much of a sinner and, at any rate, I don’t think he’d judge me because I’m not perfect.”

You wouldn’t say (would you?), “That’s OK.  You can still trust Jesus.  He’ll take you just as you are.  You don’t need to admit you’re a sinner.  You don’t need to acknowledge that you deserve God’s judgment.  You don’t need to repent.  Just trust Jesus.”

No, you’d say, “You’re a sinner.  You can’t become a Christian until you admit you’ve sinned by breaking God’s law.  You must see that you’re accountable to God and deserve his judgment.  After all, that’s the reason Jesus had to die.  If people aren’t sinners, there was no reason for the Cross.”

If you’d respond to your colleague that way, you’re admitting that the gospel presupposes a worldview.  You’re saying (as you should) that certain beliefs are incompatible with the reception of the gospel.  The gospel saves from sin, and if we don’t repent of sin, we can’t be saved.

This is why at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry John the Baptist laid the groundwork by preaching repentance (Mt. 3:1–2).  His listeners who refused to repent of their sins would face God’s righteous judgment (vv. 7–12). Jesus continued that message of repentance as part of his gospel preaching (Mt. 4:17).  This is why David Wells is correct to observe in The Courage to be Protestant that the gospel is understandable only in terms of a moral universe.  The gospel doesn’t harmonize with a conceptual universe in which man is his own god, in which truth is relative, in which guilt is merely subjective, in which there is no final judgment, in which all religions lead to the same place, and in which Jesus is one great religious figure among many.  The gospel is simply incompatible with these ideas.  This is another way of saying that the gospel demands that sinners give up certain false ideas before they can be saved.

So, when we preach the gospel to poor, hell-bound sinners, we’re preaching a gospel that demands they repent of their rebellious thinking, not just their rebellious emotions, their rebellious morals, their rebellious will, and their rebellious instincts.

The gospel presupposes a worldview.  This is why the Bible starts with Genesis 1:1 and not John 3:16.