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God Was in Christ Reconciling

Doubting Thomas

The heart of our Christian Faith is this momentous fact: God saves sinners. This Holy Week, we memorialize the historic events that make that salvation possible. Because Jesus Christ’s death is the “crux” (Latin for “cross”) of that salvation,[1] we rightly focus attention on him, our Savior and Lord. But we dare not lose sight of the equally vital truth that the Godhead, God as Trinity, saves us. The Father, Son, and Spirit[2] — are all our Savior(s). A folk shorthand goes something like this: God the Father planned our salvation, God the Son secured our salvation, and God the Spirit applies our salvation.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.”

2 Corinthians 5:19

This construction is not wrong, but it’s not entirely right either, or at least not complete. It doesn’t take into account the unified work of the Godhead in saving us.[3] It correctly perceives that each member of the Trinity occupies a unique role, but it marginalizes the truth that the person of God saves us, not just the persons of God.[4] In other words, our Lord’s death isn’t just a work of the members of the Trinity all working together but also as the person, the single living God, saving us.

Jesus is the fullness of God

God was in Christ reconciling …. There is no “Godness” deeper or more profound than Jesus Christ.[5] There is no God with higher or more exalted attributes than the Son. There is no greater God than Jesus. Jesus the Messiah reveals God because he is God. He and the Father are one (Jn. 10:30). To see Jesus is to see the Father (Jn. 14:9). Jesus is the express image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:1–3). Jesus is entirely man, and his deity never mixed with his humanity to produce a weird, third amalgam: a deified human or humanized deity. Yet his deity and humanity are forever united in one person.[6] In Matthew 3 we read of the angel that appeared in a dream to Joseph, declaring that Jesus would be the name of the child whom Mary, his espoused wife, would deliver. We also read that this birth would fulfill the prophet’s word that his name should be called “Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” The birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God. Wherever Jesus is, there God is. Jesus “is the human presence of the Eternal God.”[7]

In the famous Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley exhorts, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” But this quote implies the opposite of what John teaches in his first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (vv. 1–4)

The Godhead was not veiled in flesh. The Godhead was revealed in flesh. God makes himself known, not hidden, in flesh. Man is not God and can never be God, but man was created in God’s image and is therefore a specially suitable means for God to reveal his very person. John saw and touched God, just as Thomas did (Jn. 20:28), because it was no less than God who was in Christ reconciling.

One God-man person only

In an effort to ensure the transcendence (exalted otherness) of God, Christians have tended for purposes of explanation to separate out his two natures from his one person and attribute certain actions and experiences of Jesus Christ to his humanity and not his deity.[8] Since Jesus was not a sinner, they could never say these traits are sinful, only that they are human and not divine. Examples would be anger, hunger, weariness, and grief. These all imply change and emotion, and change and emotion are not attributes of God according to many Christians. However, the Bible does in fact depict God, and not only Jesus, as sometimes changing and emotional. God grieves that he created humanity that had fallen into abject depravity (Gen. 6:5–6). God repented of his decision to obliterate the idolatrous Jews (Ex. 32:14). God is even sometimes weary, in his own way (Is. 1:14). I could multiply similar examples.

Jesus-resting

Many of the changes and emotions Jesus experienced are not do not sound much different from those that God experiences. Nor will it suffice to say that these are all anthropomorphisms, word pictures, which while not literally true, accommodate truth to us finite humans by depicting God with human qualities. After all, would we say that God’s traits of truthfulness, omniscience, love, justice, and kindness are anthropomorphic? And even if they all were, every anthropomorphism signals a referent. We read, for example, in Deuteronomy 33:27 of God’s “everlasting arms.” Because God is a spirit, this language is incontestably anthropomorphic. But what does it mean? It means that just as human arms might bear up those we love, so God’s love is everlasting in bearing up his people. Similarly, even if the language of God’s emotions and repentance is anthropomorphic, it refers to something very much like emotion and repenting. Jesus’ “actions are always those of divinity-humanity.”[9] Jesus sleeps (Mk. 4:38). God does not sleep (Ps. 121:4). But God-as-Jesus sleeps, and not merely Jesus-as-man sleeps. The person of Jesus is God.

Because Jesus is God in the flesh, when we see Jesus acting, we see God, and not just man, acting — or, rather, God and man unmixed, but united in one person.[10] We tend to reverse the order and in this way become perplexed. We develop ideas about what God is like and then try to conform Jesus Christ to those ideas. This has things just backwards. Jesus is the one who reveals the Father: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18).[11] We need to get our most extensive ideas about God from Jesus the Messiah. Make no mistake: God reveals himself truly in the Old Testament. There is nothing in the Old Testament that deceives us about God. (He also reveals himself truly in creation.) However, in Jesus Christ God gives us his fuller and final revelation (Heb. 1:1–3).[12]

There is no more comprehensive display of God than we observe in Jesus. When we see Jesus acted on, we see God acted on. To say differently is really to say that Jesus is less than and different from God. To say that we are seeing only the humanity in his display of emotion but only his deity in (for instance) his forgiving others their sins, is to divide Jesus into two persons. When Jesus experiences grief, God grieves. When Jesus is angered over sin, God is angry. When Jesus feels compassion, God is compassionate. We learn of God by watching Jesus Christ. God was in Christ reconciling ….

God and death

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Now back to Holy Week. You might be old enough to remember the short-lived “Death of God” theology in the 60’s, championed by radical theologians.[13] I once owned a book curiously titled The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann is a theological liberal, and I found the book unimpressive, as I do most books by theological liberals (see a summary of the thesis is here). Moltmann sees the immanence (presence in the world) of God in Jesus, but sees almost nothing of the majesty and transcendence of God. Much of his theology and its social implications reflect this absence of the power and might of the sovereign God. This is an error of most liberals. They exalt man at God’s expense. This is false theology. A book with a similar title that I did find impressive was Richard Baukham’s God Crucified.[14] He is much more conservative than Moltmann and persuasively argues that precisely in our Lord’s death is his deity best understood. Baukham argues that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah reveals Messiah as God in the most powerful way. Our Lord’s death is a striking exhibition of his deity, not just his humanity.

God is immanent, both in the Old Testament and most profoundly in Jesus Christ, and we must affirm that where Jesus is, there God is. To say otherwise is equally false theology, no less heretical than the denying-God’s-majesty of theological liberalism. This God-as-Christ-and-God-in-Christ is not less true of the Cross. Even in his anguished cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46), Jesus is not less than God[15] — unless we are prepared to embrace the adoptionist heresy that Jesus became God at some point and lost his deity at another, a blasphemous notion. But Jesus died on the Cross. Did God die? He cannot die. He is the living God (Dt. 5:26; Ac. 14:15). But God as Christ certainly dies, and if he does not die, there is no salvation, no gospel, no hope. Death is God’s penalty for sin, and his eyes are so pure that he cannot look (gaze) on evil (Hab. 1:13). But Jesus was (is) God and was not less than God on the Cross. This means that while God is always and ever the living God, he in his Son died.[16] Jesus tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9). God tastes what his Son tastes. The fact that he is fully transcendent does not mean he stands aloof from us, even (perhaps especially) in our pain and suffering (Heb. 2:16–18).

My godly mother died of pancreatic cancer last year. As I observed her final days, body emaciated to bones by disease, breath arriving and departing in tiny gasps, pain held at bay by morphine, I wondered how God felt. Could he merely empathize? No. Not merely empathize. In his Son he entered into all the pains and agonies and abandonment of death. In Jesus Christ, the ever-living God knows what it is like to die, just as the ever-holy God knows what it is like to suffer the consequences of sin.

Temporal omnipresence

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A key to understanding these sobering and profound truths is what John M. Frame terms God’s temporal omnipresence.[17] God is a-temporally omnipresent (in eternity), but he’s also present in time and history, which he created and sustains. He is a participant in history, and his participation isn’t as a play-actor or illusion. God is really here. And being here, he experiences time and its sequence of change, though, of course, only as God can, and not as man does. He experienced what his Son experienced, including death. How can the ever-living God, who cannot cease to exist, experience death? Because he is God.

This is how to grasp biblical statements that might otherwise perplex us. We read in Acts 20:28, in Paul’s final exhortation to the Ephesian elders, the curious statement: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The antecedent of “his” is “God”: God’s own blood. God is a Spirit, so he has no blood. But Paul knew that Jesus is fully God. God’s blood was reconciling.

(To be continued)


[1] Leon Morris, The Cross of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 1.
[2] The Holy Spirit’s work is just as vital, but that’s not my theme here.
[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (n.p.: Beloved Publishing, 2017), 34.
[4] I hold with Cornelius Van Til that God is not simply an essence that each member of the Trinity shares but that he is himself a person. See John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R, 1995), ch. 5. To hold this view is to not suggest four members of the Trinity, since the personhood of the unified God is not defined precisely as it is in the case of each member of the Trinity.
[5] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2015), 15.
[6] On the historical development of what became orthodox Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 37–90.
[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (London: Independent Press, 1909, 1961), 73.
[8] While no human creed is revelationally authoritative, it is notable that the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 condemned this view as heresy. See Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1900, 1999) 14:211.
[9] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 2:735.
[10] I agree with Donald G. Bloesch that Jesus’ was a true but impersonal humanity. The Son of God took to himself a human nature. “Jesus was not autonomous or self-existent. God is the acting Subject in Jesus.” This does not mean that Jesus’ humanity was impersonal. It means that the person of Jesus Christ is the Son of God. See Jesus Christ, Savior & Lord (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1997), 56–57.
[11] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2:737.
[12] This truth formed the basis of Martin Luther’s early Reformation theology. However, in his battle with Erasmus, he later drifted from it, tragically seeing not Jesus Christ but the secret, inscrutable will of God, sometimes in direct conflict with his revelation in Jesus Christ, as God’s final word. See Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985, 1990), 161–175.
[13] Colin Brown, “Death of God School,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J. D. Douglas, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, 1978), 287–288.
[14] Richard Baukham, God Crucified (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), see especially pages 45–79.
[15] Baukham argues that is precisely in our Lord’s death, forsaken (until the resurrection) by God, that he most fully exhibits his deity. See his Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 254–268.
[16] A common way historically of addressing this issue is to say that Jesus Christ’s human nature died but not his divine nature, which cannot die. The person died, and since both the divine and human natures are united in the person, some action of one or the other can be attributed to the person. A careful and self-professed scholastic explanation of this view can be found in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1994), 2:321–332. This is a second-order theological verdict (as with the early ecumenical creeds) that cannot be found in the text of the Bible but which can illuminate our understanding of the Bible’s broad teaching. A recurring problem has been that the patristic church took up the issue of the Trinity and the two natures in Christ without primary reference to Jesus Christ’s redemption, which they fit in later. They marginalized the gospel at the point at which it should have been at front and center.
[17] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R, 2002), 570–572.

I am indebted to John Barach, Matthew Colvin, John M. Frame, and Brian G. Mattson for valuable suggestions to earlier versions of this essay. I alone am responsible for its content.

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No Creation, No Gospel

If you wonder why too many evangelicals are caving in to same-sex “marriage,” surrogacy, “gender fluidity,” and transgenderism, part of the fault lies in the DNA of Evangelicalism itself. Evangelicals champion the biblical evangel, the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that sinners can be saved. This is their paradigmatic specialty and, thank God, they have enjoyed great success over the last two centuries.

The Creational Marginalization

But with this specialization has come the marginalization of other parts of the Bible, notably creation. Not that Evangelicals deny creation. Some have been at the forefront of the six-day creation movement. However, they have tended not to integrate creation into their worldview. Worse: they have not understood that creation is the foundation of the gospel. This is very easy to prove, if you think about it. The gospel offers salvation from sin, but what is sin? It is a violation of God’s law (1 Jn. 3:4). But how did this violation come about? It came about as result of man’s distortion of creation.

“The Jesus who died on the old rugged cross is the same Jesus who shaped the universe’s laws and upholds its existence.”

Genesis chapter 1-2 lays out God’s creational laws, or norms. These include the Creator-creature distinction, humanity made in God’s image, the distinction between man and woman within that single divine image, the fruitfulness imperative, the cultural mandate, the Sabbath, and the goodness of creation itself. We might call these the creational operating system. This is how God designed the cosmos to work.

And it is within just this operating system that the gospel software works. Sin introduced a virus into that operating system. The object of the gospel is incrementally to eliminate that virus. The virus doesn’t obliterate the operating system, but it does impair it. The gospel is God’s hunt-and-destroy-the-virus mission.

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Evangelicals have tended, however, to internalize, privatize, and Gnosticize the gospel. The gospel is chiefly about getting sinners forgiven by God and fellowshipping with him and taking them to heaven. It’s understandable that, in this telling, addressing same-sex “marriage” might be a tangent to keep the church away from the gospel. Taking on surrogacy, egg harvesting, and transhumanism (like the Center of Bioethics and Culture) is it best a secondary cause and, at worst, a distraction from the church’s mission.

But if we understand that the objective of the gospel is the restoration of God’s created order, increasing adherence to his creational norms, not just for his glory but for our delight, we will recognize these tasks and many others as well within the framework of the biblical gospel.

The Mediator of Creation

 

A fundamental theological flaw is at the root of this truncated gospel. Modern Evangelicals see Jesus is the mediator of redemption, but seem less interested in him as the mediator of creation. But the Bible plainly teaches both. See what Paul writes in Colossians 1:13–19:

He [God the Father] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins [here’s Jesus, the mediator of redemption]. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist [here’s Jesus, the mediator of creation.] And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.

For Paul, Jesus’ mediation in both creation and redemption work together to convey the fullness of God to and within the cosmos. The Jesus who died on the old rugged cross is the same Jesus who shaped the universe’s laws and upholds its existence.

Because Evangelicals have embraced a truncated view of the Bible, because they have emphasized the evangel (narrowly construed) as the be-all-and-end-all, they have been willing to sacrifice the more fundamental creational truths on which the true evangel is founded. They didn’t set out to do this. And if someone had told them even 20 years ago that they would one day endorse or surrender to “gender fluidity” or same-sex “marriage,” they would have scoffed. But their preoccupation with one vital part of the Bible and relative neglect of other vital parts paved the way for these wholesale changes. The seeds of the present compromises were there from the beginning. The neglect wasn’t intentional, but it was neglect, and we’re now paying a bitter price for it.

The solution to this neglect is a return to a full-orbed, robust view of creation and creational norms. Let’s preach the Son of God on the old rugged Cross as well as the even older Son of creational Lordship. Christianity within this world requires both.

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Liberal Christianity Isn’t

One of the leading American theologians of the 20th century was J. Gresham Machen. One of his most famous books was Christianity and Liberalism. He argues that theological liberalism, sometimes called modernism at the time, isn’t a new version of Christianity. Rather, it’s not Christianity at all. It’s another religion altogether.

 

41OFZDQBB4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Liberalism consisted of a fusion of 18th-century rationalism (man’s reason is the final arbiter of truth) and 19th century romanticism (man’s experience is the final arbiter of truth). The foundational spirit of liberalism is simple: Christianity must conform to the temper of the times. The Bible and Christian dogma are not finally authoritative. Man’s reason and experience in the modern world, particularly as exhibited in science, are finally authoritative.

 

Perhaps the single greatest source of all liberalism was the greatest Enlightenment philosopher of all, Immanuel  Kant. Kant believed that man can gain knowledge only from his senses interacting with pre-established categories of human thought. Man can know nothing of certainty about God or the spiritual world. Man’s mind isn’t constructed to know God. Kant did not deny God existed. He denied, however, that we could have reliable knowledge about God. Kant’s influence on theological liberals meant that they were free to invent the kind of God and the kind of Christian Faith they wanted to have.

 

This last point is liberalism in a nutshell.

 

The early liberals questioned the authenticity of the Bible’s text, the orthodox Trinity, the biblical account of miracles, the deity of Jesus Christ, and other central truths of Christianity.

 

Contemporary liberals have changed. They haven’t changed liberalism’s guiding principle (they still often deny the doctrines early liberals denied about the Faith); but they have changed what they emphasize in denying. Because the temper of the times has changed, they have been obliged to change. Marx-Jesus2The real issues for them today are sexual autonomy, moral relativism, and Cultural Marxism. In other words, the very things popular in the surrounding apostate culture.  If the credo of liberalism is conforming the Faith to the contemporary world, liberals must always be inherently worldly.

 

Just as the tenets of early liberalism with which Machen interacted were diametrically opposed to Christianity, so the guiding beliefs of today’s liberalism are. The Bible supports sexual fidelity (sexual intercourse between a married man and woman), not sexual autonomy. The Bible presupposes God’s revelation as final truth, and it obviously cannot permit moral relativism. The Bible dictates hierarchies in all areas of life, starting with God’s hierarchy over man. There’s no place for the leveling of all hierarchies, which is what Cultural Marxism is all about.

 

Machen understood that liberalism was not disputing important but secondary issues of the Faith, like the sacraments or ordinances, church polity, the specifics of biblical prophecy, the sign gifts, and so on. Rather, liberalism cut the heart out of the Faith — the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, the virgin birth and deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his substitutionary atonement on the Cross. When you don’t have these, it’s not orthodox Christianity you lose. It’s Christianity you lose.

 

“Churches that establish a policy accepting unrepentant homosexuals or same-sex ‘marriage’ or encouraging abortion or radical sexual egalitarianism are not Christian churches.”

 

The reason many Christians are confused as to how to classify today’s liberals is that they’ve not until recently encountered professed Christians who aren’t boldly denying the Apostles Creed but who are denying tenets of biblical teaching that the church everywhere until recently has affirmed. Those teachings include marriage as between one man and one woman, homosexuality as sin, abortion as murder, radical sexual egalitarianism as contra-creational. Today’s liberals deny them for the same reason: the Bible’s teaching doesn’t fit the temper of the age. Until recent decades (or years), no one — not even the early liberals — would have thought of questioning these biblical truths. Even if they agree with Machen about the early liberals, what should they say about modern liberals? They should say the same thing Machen said ­— liberalism isn’t Christianity. Churches that establish a policy accepting unrepentant homosexuals or same-sex “marriage” or encouraging abortion or radical sexual egalitarianism are not Christian churches. wolf_in_sheeps_clothing2.jpgWhy? Because Jesus and Paul and Peter and John would not have considered same-sex “marriage” less evil or dangerous (Rom. 1:18–32) than (for example) the Gnostic heresy that Jesus did not come in the flesh (2 Jn. 7). Not all false teaching striking at the core of Christianity is found in the Apostles Creed. Why? Because no one at the time the Creed was developed would have dreamed of assuming that the Bible would permit, for instance, homosexuality or radical sexual egalitarianism. If anything, this shows that the violations of today’s liberals might be even more destructive than heresies of the early centuries of the church since at the time nobody, including the heretics, would have even considered them. Arianism (the Son of God is a created being) is a pernicious heresy, but no Arian would have supported same-sex “marriage.”

 

Machen 2.0 would say what Machen 1.0 said: teachings that strike at the very heart of Christianity so distort it that if unchecked they produce another religion.

 

That religion is not Christianity.

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What About Same-Sex Attraction?

This is a response to a dear Christian friend asking about her church’s policy concerning same-sex attraction:

 

Dear —–:

 

The article was absorbing, and the writer is truly gifted. Even though he writes through the lens of his own homosexuality, the picture he presents of [your church] is largely commendable. Make no mistake about it: your church stands significantly on the authority of the Bible and is deeply Christian. It is far superior to many churches today that are collapsing before the bulldozer of politically correct worldliness.

 

What-Causes-Same-Sex-Attraction

 

You asked specifically about [your church’s] view of homosexuality as depicted in the article. Remember that this article was written by a homosexual, so we cannot be 100% certain that he has accurately conveyed [your pastor’s] viewpoint.

 

Nonetheless, like you, I did find some aspects troubling. Many evangelical churches today ministering to Christians who confess homosexual desires demand celibacy. This certainly is the right start. Homosexual intercourse is abominable. This is what the Bible says, and there is no other way to describe it. But then there’s the more complex and vexing issue of “sexual orientation.” This is a comparatively modern notion. The Bible knows nothing about sexual orientation. God’s creation order is male and female, with no remainder. Sexual intercourse is a beautiful gift from God reserved for marriage between a man and woman. Everything else is sinful. It breaks God’s beautiful creation order.

 

To teach and act as though “gayness” that is not consummated in intercourse is permissible, an ongoing lifelong condition, cannot be sustained from the Bible. I presume that [your pastor] would never say that a man whose heart is filled with hatred for other people but never actually unleashes that hatred in the act of murder should fit just fine in [your church] without addressing the heart (desire) problem. We read in James 1:15, “Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” The root of all sin is desire that is not governed by the Word and Spirit of God. The metaphor James uses is childbirth. Sin is conceived in wrong desires, and those desires, if unchecked, birth sin that grows up and leads to death.

 

Part of the job of the church is lovingly and patiently to confront those desires — not just homosexual desires, to be sure, but all desires that lead to sin. It just so happens that homosexual desires are the big cultural topic of the moment in evangelical churches. A church that does not address those desires does not understand the radical, transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and does not stand for the radical, grace-drenched holiness of God, which he demands.

 

“Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”

 

None of this should detract from my favorable assessment of many other aspects of your church. I repeat that it is far superior to many other evangelical churches today.

 

I’ve tried to be as biblical and as honest as I know how to be in such a short space. Please write back if this answer doesn’t suffice.

 

I am profoundly impressed by your desire to please God and follow Jesus Christ no matter what the cost. Never forget: God blesses obedience.

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Dispensationalism’s Dualized Gospel

The evangelical church in 19th century England and the United States saw the rise of dispensationalism.[1] It constituted a comprehensive hermeneutics (way of interpreting the Bible), but for our purposes it’s important to understand that it divided the Bible into two separate messages:[2] one message to the nation of Israel, and another message to the Gentile church. The Jews were considered to be God’s earthly people, and the church his heavenly people. God’s promises to the Jews were for this world, and his promises to the church were for the eternal world. The Bible itself was deemed a dual book. The OT and parts of the NT were given to Israel. Much of the NT, and particularly Paul’s epistles, were given to the church. Among other things, this meant that the NT promises to the church, which assumed the OT promises to the Jews, had to be cut off from the OT, which was a Jewish book. The gospel promises are for personal victory and our future home in heaven. They have nothing to do with God’s redeeming the entire creation by his Son’s death and resurrection. This earthly victory could only happen by the enforced kingdom during the centralized government of the future millennium during which Jesus literally rules in Jerusalem over the Jews.[3] The Gentile church by that time would be far away in heaven, having been raptured away from the earth.

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The dispensational gospel is the Gentile gospel, and the Gentile gospel saves individuals from sin and prepares them to meet the Lord. The Jewish gospel includes restoring ethnic Israel to her God-given land of Canaan and overspreading the earth and its nations with Jewish blessings. This will all be delayed until the future millennium.

 

This dualistic hermeneutic divides what God unites. The Bible teaches the unity of God’s purposes.[4] God’s gospel and the law and covenant and promises come to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All of those who trust in Jesus Christ are the heirs of the biblical promises, both the OT and NT (Eph. 2:11–13; Gal. 3:25–29). But if you believe the dispensational, dualized gospel, while you might understand the basics of our Lord’s death and resurrection and our future home with the Lord, you won’t understand the unified, comprehensive gospel of the Bible.

 

And this misunderstanding is precisely what has dominated much of evangelicalism for the last few generations. It explains why for many decades large swaths of evangelicalism did not engage politics, did not care much for creation, did not develop (or preserve) a distinctly Christian view of education, did not enjoy many of the blessings of the created order (labeling them “worldly”), and did not plan for a long-term Gospel victory in time and history.

 

The blame for the present cultural disenfranchisement of Christianity can be laid partly at the feet of dispensationalism.


[1] For a sympathetic treatment, see Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965).
[2] For a refutation, see John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
[3] For a comprehensive dispensational eschatology, see J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958).
[4] Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954).
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The Prohibition of Questioning

Eric Voegelin once identified “the prohibition of questioning” as a chief mark of old-time Marxism: “Shut up and follow us enlightened Communists.” The new Cultural Marxists are worse than the old-line Communists ever were. The latest Marxists (leading our major universities and influencing mainstream media and Hollywood and the legal profession) don’t want to reengineer just economics; their goal is nothing short of inventing the New Utopian Man (forgive me: “Person”) free to live in utterly pagan/secular, sexual, and legal autonomy — except for autonomy from the all-powerful state, which guarantees no interference to their depravity. And anyone who dare speak out against the New Progressive Order is to be silenced and steamrolled.

 

CCL is speaking out, and by God’s grace, and your prayer and money, we’ll never be silent. If you’re a donor, the next few months, plan to see the following titles show up at your doorstep: first, by Holy Week, my Prayer Changes Things: Abolishing Timid Praying. Then comes David L. Banhsen’s Crisis of Responsibility: Our Cultural Addiction to Blame and How You Can Cure It. Next comes Brian Mattson’s The Bible as Bedtime Story. By late spring I should mail my Reformationally Correct: How to Be Protestant Today. Judge Graves’ book Prudent Jurisprudence: Essays on Constitutional Liberties and Law is available but will likely be released and promoted nationally this summer. Joseph Boot’s The Self-Destructive Doctrine of Islam should be ready by fall.

 

Thus far this year I’m scheduled to address the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, Washington, D.C. (Dr. Jeffery J. Ventrella); the Worldview Leadership League, Toronto, Canada (Dr. Joseph Boot); the Wilberforce Academy, Cambridge, England (Andrea Williams, Esq.); and Truth Xchange, Escondido, California (Dr. Peter Jones).

 

And then there are the consistently active CCL blog (docsandlin.com), I-Tunes podcasts, and You Tube videocasts.

 

We refuse to be silenced by the thugs of Cultural Marxism.

 

Can you keep us keep speaking out for biblical truth and against the Cultural Marxists eroding our society ? If you can, please send a check today:

CCL

P. O. Box 100

Coulterville, CA 95311

 

Or donate here via PayPal or here via Venmo.

 

I am deeply grateful for anything you can do to help us.

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The Ironic Luxury of Forgetting

Richard Niebuhr’s minor classic Christ and Culture posits five paradigms for how Christians have related the Christian Faith to culture, but today’s environment largely reduces to two: transformationism and privatism. Transformationism sees the task of Christians as gradually influencing society with Christian truth in the hope (and certainty) that all of life will eventually be redeemed. Privatism (sometimes called “pietism”) believes Christians should be faithful citizens in the wider society but limit their Christianity as Christians to the family, church, friendships, personal evangelism, and other “non-public” spheres. The realm of culture is common to all, believers and unbelievers. The realm of the church is sacred, special, for believers. The ethics of Faith are ethics for the church; ethics for culture are common (common sense?), not distinctively Christian ethics. Among Reformation people, the distilled, sophisticated version of this paradigm is designated the “Two Kingdom Theology” (2KT), championed today by such Calvinists as Michael Horton and David VanDrunen.

 

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Brian Mattson (Ph.D., Aberdeen), Senior Scholar of Public Theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership (CCL, which I lead), contests 2KT in Cultural Amnesia, and it is a testimony to Mattson’s remarkable giftedness that in 50 pages he manages graciously to demolish that viewpoint. If you want the most succinct, incisive refutation of 2KT, in fact, this is it.

 

The book consists of three essays, the first two talks delivered at a CCL symposium a few years ago, and the third a short piece originally published on the web. Chapter 1 refutes the basic 2KT argument that ethics are common to all people and that, therefore, there’s nothing especially Christian about them. In short, according to 2KT, we don’t need Christian cultural ethics, just Christian churchly ethics. Mattson furnishes examples of the fact that common cultural ethics aren’t actually that common — and where they are, it’s because of Christian influence. 2KT advocates can argue against distinctly Christian cultural ethics only because of the success of those very ethics: they enjoy the ironic luxury of forgetting. They suffer from cultural amnesia.

 

In chapter 2, Mattson lays out the unity between creation (Genesis 1–2) and re-creation (redemption by Jesus Christ), a unity which doesn’t permit the dualism of 2KT, which actually severs creation and redemption. Mattson relies on the paradigm of Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (Mattson wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bavinck): “Grace restores and perfects nature.” If we decouple redemption from creation, as 2KT in effect does, we march toward Gnosticism, which sees redemption as salvation from the created order, and not from sin itself.

 

Mattson’s concluding chapter is ingenious. He puts 2KT to the test by applying the thesis to the obviously pre-Christian, originally non-redemptive institution: the family. Surely, if any cultural institution is exempt from Christian redemption and distinctively Christian ethics, it’s the family. Right? Wrong. 2KT epic fail.

 

A theologian friend once remarked to me that it doesn’t take long tomes to expound a number of the doctrines of the Bible. Similarly, it doesn’t require a multi-volume series to refute 2KT.

 

You could do it in 50 pages.

 

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Jesus Christ’s “Finished Work” Finishes Off Satan and Sin

As we noted in part 1, God as the person of Jesus Christ reconciles the world. Theologians are fond of considering how the members of the Trinity covenanted in eternity to accomplish man’s salvation. They sometimes call it the “covenant of redemption.” But the Bible doesn’t quite call it that, and in fact says very little about a pre-temporal heavenly agreement about who gets to do what in man’s salvation. This is largely an exercise in useless speculation.[1]

 

kruisIt’s not speculative, and far from useless, to consider that God was in Christ reconciling. Man’s sin turned him into God’s enemy (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21; Jas. 4:4). Man wants to be free from God’s love and God’s standards. Man’s sin, in turn, separates him from God (Is. 59:2). It exposes him to God’s severe judgment (Rom. 1:18–32; 2:5–6). From God’s standpoint, this is not a permanently agreeable arrangement. God overcomes the estrangement by reconciling man. This is what Holy Week is all about. God came as (and not merely sent) Jesus Christ. God is the agent in reconciling. Why? Because sin is personal, reconciliation is personal. Sin isn’t just the impersonal breaking of “natural law”; it’s the breaking of God’s revealed law (1 Jn. 3:1–10). Sin is against God. This is why reconciliation must be by and with God. On the Cross, Jesus didn’t meet impersonal demands of impersonal justice. He met the demands of God’s highly personal justice. God suffered his own righteous penalty for (our) sin.

 

Reconciliation is not Christ’s paying our sin debt to a God waiting to find any reason to judge sinners but finally pacified by another, his Son, a Father who did not feel at that point as the Son did. God sent Jesus to propitiate himself, that is, turn away his own wrath (1 Jn. 4:10), because of his great love for us. God himself poured out his own wrath on himself (Jesus Christ) to save sinners.[2] God is the reconciler.

 

God doesn’t hide behind Jesus Christ

 

813552244542f7193108aa0bcca3e9c3If we want to know more about the Father than we can learn from the Son, we’re on a fool’s errand. Once a young woman who had suffered degrading sexual abuse as a child and had been battered by evil men and was living in squalor and poverty finally made her way as a last resort to a faithful church on her block. After the service, the pastor greeted her and asked her about her life. In great sorrow she summarized her harrowing history and declared that this church was her last attempt at life. She had given up on God and was almost hopeless and was contemplating suicide.

 

The pastor immediately related the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, about how on the Cross he died after being beaten and battered by wicked men. He told her that if anybody knows and understands her great agony and shame and loss and humiliation, it is Jesus Christ.

 

She thought for a moment and then slowly she uttered in timid, broken words, “I imagine that if I could believe that God were like Jesus, I could believe in God.”

 

“Well,” the pastor responded, “I have the most wonderful news in the world for you. God is exactly like Jesus, and if you want to know God, simply trust and give your life to his Son. In Jesus you will learn everything about God that you need to know.”

 

God doesn’t hide in Jesus Christ. God manifests himself most plainly in Jesus Christ: “God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Not hidden. Manifested. And manifested most, perhaps, at the Cross.

 

The “finished work” finishes off Satan and sin

 

Because no one less than God is the reconciler, this reconciliation cannot fail. When God acts to finalize his work with man, man cannot thwart him. It is this truth that stands out in Romans 8:32, 39:

 

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? … . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

The “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not merely because of, or reflected by, but in. The love of Christ on the Cross is the love of God.

 

The old-timers were fond of calling this the “finished work of Christ.” Because redemption is God’s work through and through, it is a final, enduring work. The present intercession of our Lord at the right hand is not one of an aggressive mediator trying to convince a reluctant party, pestering for concessions, anxiously hoping he will get what he wants from his Father. Christ sat down on his heavenly throne (Heb. 1:1–3). His priestly work is forever finished. He intercedes with a Father who, knowing the pangs of sin-inducing death, longs and lives and loves to forgive in his Son.

 

Hebrews 1 assures us that as a result of his priestly, reconciling death, Jesus is seated with his Father, sharing in his heavenly rule over the cosmos, waiting until all of his enemies are subdued (vv. 8, 13). The position of sitting on the throne is one of patient, confident ruling. In Christology, it is customary to distinguish between the humiliation of Christ and his exaltation. This language is borrowed from Philippians 2 — “He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him … (vv. 8–9). The state of humiliation covers his birth to death, and his exaltation begins with his resurrection. But if pressed too far without reference to other biblical texts, this distinction shields a very important truth: Jesus’ death was a form of exaltation and victory. Our Lord himself said:

 

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (Jn. 12:31–33, emphasis supplied)

 

In his death, Jesus is exalted to judge the depraved world and Satan who leads it. In Colossians, Paul elaborates on this theme:

 

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (2:13–15)

 

jesus-defeats-satanAt the Cross, Jesus squashed the “principalities and powers,” the satanic spirits at war with God. We stood guilty under God’s holy law, and our disobedience enslaved us to Satan. God in Christ “wiped out” that guilt, because God bore his own righteous penalty. He erased not just that penalty, but also even the “handwriting of requirements,” the condemnation of the ceremonial law that always reminded the Jews of their sin (Heb. 10:3).[3] In Jesus’ death, our sins are blotted out. The metaphor is of a triumphant king, returning to his home country, displaying his defeated captives as a great spectacle for all his citizens to see. Matthew Henry captures the victory beautifully:

 

The Redeemer conquered by dying. See his crown of thorns turned into a crown of laurels. He spoiled them, broke the devil’s power, and conquered and disabled him, and made a show of them openly — exposed them to public shame, and made a show of them to angels and men. Never had the devil’s kingdom such a mortal blow given to it as was given by the Lord Jesus. He tied them to his chariot-wheels, and rode forth conquering and to conquer — alluding to the custom of a general’s triumph, who returned victorious.

 

In this way, our Lord’s entire redemptive work is an exaltation by which he plunders Satan’s kingdom (Mt. 12:24–30). Jesus Christ’s exaltation was not delayed until his resurrection, which, along with his ascension to his heavenly throne, is the apex of his exaltation. But his death itself is an exaltation and victory, preparing the way for the transition to the full victory in the resurrection and ascension.[4]

 

One reason we are disinclined to perceive this fact is that we can’t get our minds around an exaltation that includes humility and suffering. But it is precisely in these tribulations that we detect God’s victory in Jesus Christ. It is the slain-but-resurrected Lamb on his throne of deity whom the heavenly hosts worship (Rev. 5:8–13). God shows himself to be God in our Lord’s death on the Cross, high and lifted up in meeting the demands of his own holiness in sacrificing his own life for the world. Put another way: we see in the Cross something of God that we cannot see (or certainly not as clearly) anywhere else. We see God exalted in a way that is an affront and scandal to the sinful world (1 Cor. 1:18–25; Gal. 5:11), a world which prizes an exaltation of pride and dominance and comfort. But God in sacrificing himself for sins is exalted in humility and subservience and agony.

 

Jesus Christ’s death was itself an exaltation and victory — the Son of Man “lifted up” to draw the sinful world to him, and victory over the forces of Satan and sin and hell. 

 

While the apostate chief priests scribes and elders mocked Jesus’ claims as Messiah since in their view Messiah could never suffer crucifixion (Mt. 27:41–42), the Roman centurion and his friends at the foot of the Cross declared after Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v. 54), God in Christ exalted himself in reconciling the world. On the Cross, he was not less King than in the resurrection and ascension, though King in a different way. In his resurrection and ascension, he reigns over the cosmos. In his death, he reigns over the guilt and bondage of human sinfulness and the satanic principalities and powers that exploit that sinfulness. It is in this sense that our Lord’s redemptive work can be described as a transition from humiliation to exaltation.

 

For this reason, the gospel of reconciliation will not fail. And for this reason, anxiety is never appropriate for a child of God, no matter the (temporary) victories of Satan and sin. In the memorable words of Longfellow:

 

Though the mills of God grind slowly;

Yet they grind exceeding small;

Though with patience He stands waiting,

With exactness grinds He all.

 

But when we do not see God as the reconciler we might be tempted to diminish the great, global gospel promises. We might recognize that God has delegated the task of world evangelization to the church, but then forget that God himself in the person of his Son is in our presence wherever we declare that gospel (Mt. 28:18–20). God himself is reconciling sinners. For this reason we move boldly in confidence at the success of the gospel. Charles H. Spurgeon asserts:

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The success of the Gospel is in no jeopardy whatever. Jesus must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet.

If the devil can persuade you that Christ is going to give up the war, or is going to fight it out on another line and dispense with your efforts, you will soon grow idle. You will find an excuse for laziness in some supposed conversion of the world by miracle, or some other wonderful affair. You will say the Lord is coming and the war will all be over at once, so there is no need of your fighting it out now. Do not believe it! Our Commander is able to fight it through on this line—in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, by the power of the Eternal Spirit, we are bound to keep right on till this world yields before God….

No gunner may leave his gun, no subordinate may disperse his band, no officer may suggest a retreat. Brothers and Sisters, Popery must fall! Mohammedanism must come down! All the idol gods must be broken and cast to the moles and to the bats! It looks like a task too gigantic, but the bare arm of God — only think of that — His sleeve rolled up, Omnipotence, itself, made bare — what can it not accomplish? Stand back, devils! When God’s bare arm comes into the fight, you will all run like dogs, for you know your Master! Stand back, heresies and schisms, evils and delusions! You will all disappear, for the Christ of God is mightier than you!

O, believe it! Do not be downhearted and dispirited! Do not run to new schemes and fancies and interpretations of prophecy. Go and preach Jesus Christ unto all the nations! Go and spread abroad the Savior’s blessed name, for He is the world’s only hope! The Cross is the banner of our victory! God help us to look to it ourselves and then to hold it up before the eyes of others till our Lord shall come upon His Throne. Amen.[5]

 

God will win, because God is the one reconciling.[6]


 

[1] Herman Bavinck, acknowledging that this idea “among the Reformed was not free of scholastic subtlety,” does make a biblical, though inferential, argument for it. See his Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: baker Academic, 2006), 3:213–216.
[2] Leon Morris, The Atonement, Its Meaning & Significance (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1983), 151–176.
[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker 1993), 21:190–192.
[4] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1978, 1987).
[5] Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons (Edmonton, Alberta: Still Waters, 1990), 50–51.
[6] I am indebted to John Barach, Matthew Colvin, John M. Frame, and Brian G. Mattson for valuable suggestions to earlier versions of this essay. I alone am responsible for its content.
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The Great Responsibility Recession

David L. Bahnsen’s counternarrative (p. xx) of both the 2008 financial housing crisis and the 2016 populist political upheaval links both to a single source: a crisis of responsibility, a lack of which infects not just economics and politics but the entire culture. His nearly unprecedented thesis identifies culprits almost everywhere, and not just, as is widely believed, in the perches of elitism increasingly criticized by their alleged victims at the social margins. Bahnsen is an equal opportunity offender (“this book has offered no immunity to anyone,” 156), and his brisk 170-pages cover surprisingly wide ground in indicting nearly every classification in our society for the irresponsibility that contributes to our present ills.

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Although an unapologetic sociopolitical conservative, Bahnsen’s critique targets fellow conservatives just as much as Leftists — and perhaps more energetically, since of the two viewpoints, personal responsibility has been a guiding tenet of conservatism … until lately. The conservatives who blame Wall Street, Washington, NAFTA, China, Mexico and the media are more blameworthy than the Leftists who blame individual liberty, the traditional family and church, small government, military interventionism, private education, and free markets (pp. 15–29). Leftists are suckled on blame-shifting. Conservatives should know better.

Playing the Victim Card

Though a Barron’s- and Forbes-recognized investment executive knowledgeable in both economics and politics, his is a cultural (i.e., spiritual and moral) critique. Economics, like politics, is downstream from culture (p. 32, 42). While his nuanced account avoids oversimplified villainization, valorization, and victimization (p. 11), he contends that a particular personal and cultural vice (irresponsibility) got us into the economic and political mess, and only a particular personal and cultural virtue (responsibility) will get us out. Playing the victim card is oh-so-easy since it contains a built-in disincentive for the cardholder to change his bad behavior. What bad behavior? How about easy, no-fault divorce; protracted cohabitation; out-of-wedlock births; long-delayed marriages; overused disability claims; and downright laziness? And that’s just the men. Bahnsen rehearses Charles Murray’s thesis that wealthier Americans are far more pro-family and in general culturally conservative than the impoverished. Murray wishes that the former would “preach what they practice,” and what they practice is precisely the responsibility virtue Bahnsen champions.

Pleasantly False Narratives

Bahnsen’s thesis includes refuting almost universally assumed narratives (“narratives do not like specifics,” p. 20) surrounding the financial crisis. For example, we all know that the 2008 near-collapse is due primarily to the “subprime housing crisis.” The problem is that, in the old adage, what we know ain’t so. Although fraudulent lending and investment overleveraging were causes, they weren’t the leading causes, the chief of which is millions of borrowers “who could afford their home payment, but realized that the sticker price that they paid was far more than the present resale value of the home, and thus made the morally questionable decision to walk away” (p. 52). We were regaled with the accusatory mantra of “predatory lending,” but the far greater culprit was “predatory borrowing” (p. 56). An entire spurious vocabulary was adopted, including “strategic defaulting” (p. 59) = walking away from your mortgage you can afford to pay in order to put yourself in a better financial position. Perhaps we should call 2008 a “strategic collapse.”

Victims of Free Markets?

Bahnsen then takes on the reputed victimization unleashed by the free market and automization. It’s a pity that such a chapter had to be written, because there’s an overabundance of evidence that everywhere they go, free markets create wealth, not victims. It’s true that free trade doesn’t save every possible job, but it creates new jobs. And Bahnsen supports incentives for retraining workers whose jobs have been lost due to global trade and new technologies. He notes the fact, almost never mentioned, that “when multinational companies hire more foreign employees, they also increase domestic hiring” (p. 72, emphasis in original). And he reminds readers that there aren’t enough applicants for all the jobs presently available (p. 74). Talk about inconvenient truths!

Samuel the Jewish Prophet and Crony Capitalism

Anyone assuming Bahnsen’s unalloyed defense of free markets mutes criticism of the misuse of the market should read chapter 6, a searing attack on crony capitalism. He offers a fascinating application of 1 Samuel 8, Israel’s demand for a king. He notes that the rationale the Jews gave to Samuel is that his sons took bribes and perverted justice, lining their own pockets. In other words, an incipient form of crony capitalism inspired them to nag for bigger government in order to suppress the non-virtuous market (pp. 79–80). In the same way, citizens today shed responsibility and ask for bigger government on the grounds that it alone can “drain the swamp” in which grows the vast Business-Government Complex. And the fact is, the swamp needs draining. Free-market Republicans who clamor for special economic favors for pet businesses aren’t really free-marketers at all. The free market must be free for everybody (pp. 83–86). Bahnsen suggests that lower tax rates and decreased regulation for everybody will abolish crony capitalism and quell the populist demands for bloated government power to “level the economic playing field.” A genuinely free market is a level playing field.

Immigration, the Right Kind

In disclosing how the current immigration controversy contributes to cultural irresponsibility, Bahnsen offers a remarkably balanced assessment. He agrees with criticism of an immigration policy that incentivizes illegality and opens welfare coffers for illegals. Moreover, he points out the error of confusing multiculturalism with immigration (pp. 102–105). Multiculturalism argues that all cultures are equally valid and that the United States should not insist on the superiority of its ideals. Multiculturalism trashes American exceptionalism, dilutes a healthy patriotism, and undermines the cultural virtues that for centuries made for the ubiquitous success of the West. An immigration policy catalyzing multiculturalism must be opposed. But Bahnsen notes that this is not what immigration should be about — or has been about for most of America’s history. Assimilating immigrants committed to basic American ideals and to improving our nation has almost always be U.S. immigration policy. It worked wonders. Bahnsen exposes the unfairness and hypocrisy of protectionism (“No one would ever try to protect a Stanford computer science PhD from an invasion of lower-cost programmers from India,” p. 106). He notes, contrary to received opinion, that low-skilled immigrant labor adds jobs for native-born workers (p. 107). Far from victimizing the native-born, immigrants (the right kind) generate wealth. Blaming immigrants for fewer U.S. jobs isn’t just morally wrong; it’s just plain wrong.

The Civil Wrongs of Public Schools

One of the biggest impediments to recovering cultural responsibility is the monopolistic, coercive — and too often substandard — public school system of the United States. Bahnsen declares that educational choice is “the great civil rights issue of our day” (p. 89). He blasts the teachers’ unions, whose monopoly harms the very people (the poor) they claim to be assisting. Insulating themselves from competition (charter and private schools), government schools happily persist in their own lazy incompetence (with some exceptions, of course). Bahnsen wryly observes that if the current populist rage were directed at this educational monopoly, “we would see a truly righteous transformation” (p. 98).

Hothouses of Irresponsibility

He is even more emphatic in exposing the downright evils of our secular post-secondary education. In this mostly dispassionate book, Bahnsen reserves tart rhetoric for “higher education’s safe spaces” (p. 111):

The American university system now offers families the worst of both worlds — inherit insane debt and receive little preparation for adult responsibilities, while being indoctrinated with propositions that undermine the foundational values of Western civilization. That’s right. One can now go broke being taught to think incorrectly.

Bahnsen offers the jarring statistic that “[c]umulative student loan debt now exceeds $1.4 trillion, greater than total national credit card debt and the total national mortgage debt — by a wide margin” (p. 114). If you think that no economic downturn could be as scary as the 2008 home mortgage crisis, re-read that last sentence.

Bahnsen questions the educational orthodoxy that every young person benefits from college, but his chief argument is that today’s university education insulates students from life and cultivates the mentality and attitude of irresponsibility. Our universities are hothouses for the Great Responsibility Recession.

Who Made Big Government?

One of the foundational tenets of conservatism is limited government, which Bahnsen champions, but he cautions blaming big government for all social ills. Big government is the symptom, not the disease (p. 120). The disease is irresponsibility. Citizens, including many conservatives, are quite happy with big government as long as it’s “good” big government. An example is entitlements. He reminds us of the harrowing statistic:

[I]f we spent no money on anything but transfer payments, we would still run a deficit in this country. If we had no governmental departments, no salaries, no military, no debt interest, no programs — just Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Welfare, Unemployment, and so on — we would still be in a financial hole (p. 125).

Big government didn’t appear overnight. Irresponsible citizens gradually ceded their rightful responsibilities to the federal government — and now have the temerity to complain about the behemoth that is federal government. Like all true conservatives, Bahnsen is an advocate of mediating institutions, what we nowadays call “civil society,” like the family and church and businesses (p. 127). These non-political institutions, not just individuals (he is no fan of “rugged individualism” that bypasses civil society, p. 159) must commandeer the responsibilities that individuals and institutions gradually ceded to the state.

The Responsibility Remedy

In the final two chapters, Bahnsen turns almost entirely from description to prescription. First, how can individuals recover the responsibility mindset? He counsels a ten-item “responsibility remedy” (p. 133), several items of which sound radical, but only because we’ve drifted so far in our Responsibility Recession that responsibility sounds radical: “Thoroughly repudiate defeatism and victimhood in your own life — even when you’ve actually been victimized” (emphasis in original); “Prepare your children for economic self-reliance” (don’t “allow for the years between twenty-one and thirty-five to be merely a time of nonproductive discovery,” p. 139): and “Flee the cult of home ownership and home price appreciation” (p. 141): if you’re using your home equity as an ATM card or as a trading card, you’re acting irresponsibly and will eventually pay the price of a compulsive gambler.

Bahnsen concludes by suggesting the cultural remedy as a counterpart to the individual remedy. He includes the following policy prescriptions: add tax deductibility for job retaining in a dynamic economy, quit using housing policy to engineer social aims, and abolish crony capitalism (pp. 155–156).

He chides conservatives who (legitimately) assail elitism if they do not simultaneously re-appropriate from elites the tasks for which they themselves should have been responsible all along. We must all abandon scapegoatism. We are responsible.

Bahnsen concludes with an autobiographical note, rehearsing his own journey from radical individualism to a responsible pro-liberty view respectful of civil society. His burning passion is human flourishing: that all citizens, whatever their cultural and economic station, can benefit from a free, virtuous society. That society is impossible as long as its members constantly shift responsibility and blame.

The mostly dispassionate language and logic of this book render its bluntly radical thesis less detectible. But make no mistake: if this book were taken seriously by even a sizable minority of ordinary citizens and cultural leaders, the United States of the next few decades would be dramatically different from the one today.

Responsible. And therefore flourishing.

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My Favorite 2017 Movies

My theory is that great years for movies come along once every 35 years: 1972 and 2007 come immediately to mind. I’m eager for 2042. Still, 2017 wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. I was greatly disappointed in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which, like Mark Hamill, looked old and tired; in Blade Runner 2049, a visual spectacle that would have been much better without the plot and dialogue; and in Dunkirk, though I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan. My favorite movie, which made no other top list, did, however, highlight another Christopher, one to whom my late mother first introduced me as a little boy and with whom I instantly identified.

 

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  1. Goodbye Christopher Robin

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  1. Darkest Hour

  2. Get Out
  1. Logan
  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  1. Wonder Woman
  1. American Made
  1. Baby Driver
  1. John Wick 2
  1. Kong: Skull Island
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