A Few Words About Driscoll, William Wallace II, and Young Pastors

The Standard Driscoll pic.

The Standard Driscoll pic.

I generally don’t comment on Mark Driscoll controversies. I refrain partially because it feels like click-bait most of the time. Also, because there’s plenty of commentary on him already. Finally, because part of me still feels some sad affection for him. As a young man (like 19) I used to listen to him and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I learned a lot and grew to love Jesus more. He was funny, he preached the Bible, and was free to download. (Ironically enough, this was the same period that I was also podcasting Rob Bell and learning from him too. Needless to say, like most 19-year-olds, I was a theologically confused young man.) In any case, though I stopped paying attention to him a long time ago, and have been increasingly saddened and frustrated at his antics, I really, really haven’t wanted to weigh in.

This week, though, even more dirt on Mark Driscoll came out beyond the aggressive church practices, plagiarism, and such.  If you haven’t already heard, apparently about 14 years ago, Driscoll used to go around on the internet commenting under a different pen name ‘William Wallace II’ or something like that. Now, he admits as much in his early book and says that under that name he was a little, well, aggressive. So, after some consideration he shut it down and moved on. Well, recently someone took the time to dig up about 140 pages of comments made by him about theology, men, women, and so forth. I won’t repeat it because you can find it on a number of sites, but I gotta be honest, even though it was 14 years ago, it’s really, really ugly stuff.

Well, what follows are a few quick reflections on the whole thing. They’re incomplete, but here they are.

Sadness

First, this whole thing just makes me sad. It makes my heart sad as a younger pastor, as a Christian, and as a brother in Christ. It makes me sad both for him, and for the congregation that was dealing with that at the time. It makes me sad for sake of Christ’s church whose name is being dragged through the mud again. Both the tone and the content are things that are unfit for an elder in Christ’s Church. I’m not sure you can read that stuff with a love for Christ’s Bride without any sense of grief. Please be praying for his church, his community, his family, and for Driscoll himself. This has to be a rough last year and I hope the Lord is doing a work there.

Holy Fear 

One of the things my parents consistently warned me against as a child and young man was against self-righteous pride. Whenever we saw someone involved in obvious sin, or a scandal on TV, my mom was always warned me never to utter the words “I could never do that”, but instead “Lord, protect me from that.” The reality is, because of indwelling sin, I could do that. Maybe not easily, but I’m not so far removed from that so that I could become haughty about these things. In the same vein, my dad always reminded us, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If you find yourself cultivating anger, scorn, malice, or pride as you think about Driscoll right now, take care and turn over these things to the Lord. Without saying there shouldn’t be accountability, Paul reminds us that discipline and correction ought to be done by those who are “spiritual” and who “watch themselves lest they also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1-2).

Young Pastors and Their Words

For other youngish types in the ministry, be careful. Yes, if the math is correct, at 30 Driscoll was two years older than I am now, which means he wasn’t a kid. Still, take this as a cautionary tale. I know I am probably far too careless in ordinary speech, but now, in the age of recordings and the internet, we’re beginning to see little hints of what it’ll be like on the day of judgment when Jesus says “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36). Nothing we write or say dies or fades away.

Young pastors, I’d suggest a few tips in this area:

  • Read and re-read Proverbs and pay special attention to what it says about wise speech. Soak in that.
  • Do the same with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  • Go find an older, wise mentor whose judgment you can defer to as a spiritual discipline of humility and guidance. Look at their speech. Model yourself after them as much as you can.
  • Do something similar with your preaching and writing models. Young types don’t need help to be aggressive, and brash. We do need models of passionate wisdom. In other words, try to find more old dudes to listen to. This is part of why I started listening to Keller instead of Driscoll and Bell. Well, that and a bunch of other stuff.
  • When it comes to your writing practices:
    • Write everything like your Elders (who presumably have some authority) could read this. Also, if you aren’t in a church where you have godly Elders who can speak to this, fix that ASAP.
    • Don’t give yourself the privilege/temptation of an anonymous online alias. It’s just too tempting. Anonymity is the death of restrained, godly speech.

Older Pastors

I’ve written about mentorship before, but please find the young ones starting out. They need your prayers, your wisdom, and your help. Desperately. To some degree the younger pastors in the Church are only as good as they were mentored. If you care about the future of, not only your church, but the Church, you’ll find someone to mentor.

Trust

This one sounds weird, but, it makes me trust God. Somewhere in the middle of all of that anger, foul language, and so forth, God managed to save a lot of people and change a lot of lives at Mars Hill. I know there are a lot of survivor stories that tell a different side to it, and the more I know, the weirder and sadder it gets. That’s a side of the story that’s real as well. Still, in the middle of it, God is gracious. God takes care of his people through it all.

Well, these are the reflections of a young man, so take them for what they’re worth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: Given my youth, it’s unsurprising that I have to clarify myself. So, for those of you reading this, please, please don’t take this as my total thoughts with respect to the situation, or a sign that I don’t care about the people who struggled there and so forth. I was thinking about this kind of introspectively and with regard to my own role, so, that’s kind of what shaped this.

“You Forgot Something” A Reformedish Commentary on an Orthodox Commentary on the Sanctification Debates

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

Some of you know there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over the issue of sanctification in online Reformed circles in the last couple of months. It’s what led to the departure of Tullian Tchividjian (henceforth TT, because who can spell that?) from TGC and other unfortunate online ugliness. Basically, the dispute was surrounding a number of issues like, what role the law continues to have in the life of the believer?, or how necessary is obedience after conversion?, should we focus on obeying  or getting used to our justification, and stuff on that order. Kevin DeYoung’s summary article “What We All Agree on, and What We (Probably) Don’t, In This Sanctification Debate” is probably the best orientation to the subject. Also, his follow-up piece “The Grace that Saves Is The Grace That Leads You Home.” Also, the Mere Fidelity boys and I chatted on the subject about a month ago as well.

Well, recently Gabe Martini gave what he called an “Orthodox Commentary“, as in Eastern Orthodox, on the whole debate. He opened up with a lengthy, decently fair-handed summary of the dispute between the two sides, and then offered up a sort of Orthodox alternative. Essentially, Westerners of all stripes, and especially Protestants, have their categories all goofed up because of their fixation on ‘legalistic’ concepts of merit, earning, judgment, and so forth. Because of that, there’s a tendency to swing back and forth between moralism/legalism to the tendency to question whether obedience is required at all. Instead, with the Orthodox, we should see that it is indeed required, but we need to think through the basic form that obedience takes: repentance.

And for Orthodox Christians, that life of obedience is a life of true repentance. One where even the holiest saints end their lives with sorrow: the apostle Paul as the “chief” of sinners, and St. Sisoes the Great who desired yet another day to repent.

Through repentance we cooperate with God in our transforming sanctification leading unto the deification of looking like Christ. I won’t summarize it all. Again, you can go read it here.

I have to say, all in all, I appreciated the article. Martini was remarkably fair, which is not something I see a lot from Eastern criticisms of Protestants/Western theology. What’s more, for reasons that will become clear shortly, his call to repentance was, mostly, something I could get behind. Still, I had a couple of Reformed caveats and clarifications I’d like to offer up, for the sake of mutual up-building and understanding.

Union with Christ and Reformed Salvation

unionThe first comment I’ll make, and it’s really the biggest, is to note the surprising absence of any discussion of the doctrine of ‘union with Christ’ in Martini’s article. Actually, it’s both surprising and not surprising. On the one hand, it’s not surprising because in many popular discussions of Evangelical and Protestant understandings of salvation, it’s been ignored for the last 50+ years. To some degree, when I see a non-Protestant ignore it, well, so many Protestants have that it’s hard to blame them.

That said, the doctrine of union with Christ is arguably the heart of a Reformed doctrine of salvation (including both justification and sanctification) dating back to Calvin himself, through Berkhof (whom Martini quotes), all the way through modern treatments like those of J. Todd Billings, Marcus Johnson, Robert Letham, or Michael Horton (all of whom have released titles on the subject in the last 7 years). You can’t, therefore, talk about the problem with Protestant approaches to salvation without dealing with it. It’d be like talking about omelettes without mentioning eggs. Beyond that, it was explicitly at the heart of so many of the TGC/TT debates, so that if you’re going to comment on them, it seems like a big absence.

Now, for those of you still confused as to what the doctrine of union with Christ actually is, and what it looks like in a Reformed theology of salvation, I’ll quote Robert Letham at length as he discusses Paul’s understanding of the issue:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Union with Christ, then, does a lot of work in the Reformed (and Pauline) view of salvation, and it’s the answer to a number of Martini’s critiques. For one thing, Martini talks about the place that double-imputation plays in the Protestant system (Christ is reckoned as sinner in our place and we are reckoned as righteous because of him), but, because he doesn’t note that union with Christ is the structure underlying traditional formulations of double-imputation, he resorts to the old charge of calling it a ‘legal fiction.’ What he misses is that in Reformed thought Christ takes responsibility for our sin on the cross as our covenant head and representative, and can really do so, because through faith we are united to him in that kind of relationship. What’s more, we can be included in his righteous status because, through union, we really are part of his body, his people. As N.T. Wright says, in biblical thought, what is true of a king is true of his people–therefore, what is true of Messiah (Christ) is true of the people united to him.

There’s more to say there, but I’ll leave it at that.

Also, you can see now how this plays into the sanctification debates. Union with Christ means that I’m organically connected to Christ and have been given the vivifying, sanctifying Spirit. I have been set apart definitively, and now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I am empowered to chase holiness in obedience to God’s commands so that I might be continually conformed to the Image of the Son. Actually, this is the sort of dynamic that has caused theologians like Billings, Letham, etc. to note possible overlap with Eastern Orthodox conceptions of deification (as long as the proper Creator/creature distinction is maintained.)

So, ya, union with Christ is massively necessary to the discussion.

Repentance

The second point is much shorter. Martini calls for a refocus on the shape of sanctification in this life, which is repentance. Now, aside from the little discussion we could have about the words ‘synergism’ and ‘cooperation’, which have their place in Reformed systems when properly understood, I don’t see a lot there that classic Protestants would disagree with. I mean, he quotes St. Isaac of Syria as saying, “This life was given to you for repentance; do not waste it on vain pursuits.”

Funny enough, St. Martin of Beeria (Martin Luther) opened up his famous 95 Theses with this line: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Though Reformed types look mostly to Calvin, Knox, Bucer, & Co. I don’t think any of them would object that statement. In fact, Calvin himself says,

“This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.” (Institutes, III.3.ix)

Passages like that could be multiplied ad nauseum in Calvin. I mean, he was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. That some of his heirs may have forgotten this emphasis, doesn’t change the fact that this sort of thing is deeply-rooted at the heart of Reformed spirituality.

In conclusion, I know I haven’t addressed the ‘legalistic’ charge. I may some time in the future because I think it largely without merit (Eh? See what I did there?). Still, I guess what I’d like to say is, Gabe, while we probably have some major disputes about merit, grace, atonement, and so forth (and that’s okay, I forgive you), when it comes to repentance and sanctification, we’re actually not as far off as you seem to think we are.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a few more resources on union with Christ, I’d suggest Todd Billings’ book ‘Union With Christ‘, Robert Letham‘s by the same name, and Marcus Johnson’s new work One with Christ.

Also, I attribute my inspiration for this to Joel Borofsky.

God’s Very Verbal Word in the Words of Jeremiah

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10

mouth full of fireI’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.

At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:

..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph  is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.

-A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54

This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.

That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.

I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria

Preaching ‘God’ and Justifying the Self

You ought to have friends you disagree with regularly. For example, my buddy Morgan and I seem to agree about very little when it comes to the hot-button, theological issues of the day. He’s a progressive Methodist, I’m Reformed. Our rhetorical styles clash, and our forms of argumentation and analysis differ widely. And yet, for all that, I still find myself learning from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.

John the Baptist--very intense preacher.

John the Baptist–very intense preacher.

I bring this up because one of his big themes he’s always preaching is the way that Jesus frees us from our various attempts at religious, self-justification. Within that theme, a regular trope he’s identified is the way some theological types will use their doctrine of God as a way of self-righteously posturing as particularly holy and faithful compared to everyone else.

The way this supposedly works with conservative Reformed types is that we look at the world, see the way there’s a general rejection of the idea that God is a judge, or that he has wrath, or that he would command laws that go contrary to our cultural instincts, and then push back on over-aggressively to prove our own faithfulness. In other words:

You wanna know how faithful I am? Look at the God I preach. This God is big, HUGE!, sovereign, and full of judgment! His commands are his commands because they’re his commands, and there’s no way I’m gonna stop to explain them if you have a problem with that, because that would be cultural capitulation. And clearly, I’m not a capitulator. I’m one of the faithful as evidenced by the very hard to accept portrait of God I’ve just presented you.

So if you squint closely, under all of our proclamations of a God who doesn’t just coddle us therapeutically, there’s a self-justifying, chest-thumping motive at work.

Now, of course, a lot of us read something like that and we’re tempted to balk and respond sharply. I know I am. I mean, I’ve written a number of times on the issues of wrath, God’s judgment, and so forth, and I don’t think that at core I was really trying to impress anybody, or even justify my own heart, but speak to an issue of real concern. What’s more, I there is a real, healthy, biblical instinct to push back where you see some truth being sidelined, or abandoned, in order that the gospel might be properly proclaimed. All of that said, I don’t think we (Reformed, especially) should be too quick to write off the possibility of this kind of rhetorical self-justification.

I mean, let me put it this way: haven’t you seen it at work in the progressives? Haven’t you seen that writer, or friend, or theologian going on about the ‘radical’ nature of the God they proclaim? You know the type of rhetoric I’m talking about. They might be writing about grace, or maybe some sort of revisionism on a current social issue and you’ll get this string along the lines of:

You know what scares the ‘religious’, right? A God of grace. They can’t handle a God who bursts the confines of their petty little religious rules! But God is LOVE! And his love wins out over narrow-minded, gatekeepers of religious orthodoxy. And if preaching about this God and his grace gets me in trouble with the ‘religious’, or the ‘Pharisees’, then so be it!

Conservatives like myself can look at that and see more than a little chest-thumping going on in progressives priding themselves on how gracious, inclusive, and un-legalistic their God is. It’s courageous to proclaim the message of grace, you know, the way Jesus did despite the objections of the religious establishment. Wouldn’t you have fun placing yourself in the role of Jesus against the modern-day Pharisees?

Okay, so what I’m saying is, if you can see how that can work in the self-justifying God-rhetoric of the left, isn’t there just a chance those of us on the more conservative end of things can fall prey to this too? I mean, surely, if you’ve got a Reformed understanding of the power of indwelling sin, you can’t put this past yourself, right?

So what are the dangers here? Well, I can think of at least two. In the first place, if we’re being tempted to preach a view of God out of self-justifying pride, or anxiety, our hearts are in danger. Pride in all of its forms is a cancer to be rooted out ferociously, but none is so pernicious or lethal as spiritual pride that can defend itself behind the wall of righteous doctrine. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not an anti-doctrine guy. I blog about Calvin, study Bavinck’s Dogmatics every Saturday, and get depressed if I haven’t gotten to read theology for more than a day. And yet it’s precisely because I am who I am that I know this pride is so dangerous and worth examining yourself diligently to root it out. As Jonathan Edwards’ has written,

‘Tis by this [pride] that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ‘em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ‘em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride. -Some Thoughts Concerning Revival

Second, if this sort of theological self-justification is at work, it can have serious effect on our proclamation of the gospel. If your self-identity is caught up in the fact that you proclaim a strong God, who commands what he commands, and so forth, in order to push back against the culture, you may end up over-correcting and proclaiming a distorted picture of God! The righteous God who judges sin becomes a fastidious, contemptuous God who barely stomachs sinners, and so the real, biblical testimony about his tender love can get sidelined. In our rush to proclaim God’s laws that often correct our cultural logic and don’t instinctively appeal to our fallen reason, we may skip over the reasons he actually does give in Scripture, or miss ways that biblical truth can appeal to certain common grace, cultural instincts. This would be disastrous for our witness in the world.

Just a week or two ago, I wrote about the importance of properly proclaiming “Here is Your God!”, before move to “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, for people to have a proper grasp of the commands and be willing to obey them in holy worship, they must know about the good character of the God who commands them. When self-justification is distorting our preaching, we can’t properly do that. For those of us pastors, theologians, and church-folk who care about keeping a watch on our “life and doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16), then, let us constantly remind ourselves that our proclamation of the God of the gospel flows from our acceptance of the gospel for ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove. We’re justified in Christ and so are in need of no self-justification–not even through our own preaching.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Earthquake of the Family (Or, the Silliness of ‘Free Love’)

GK-Chesterton-006In his classic work “What’s Wrong With the World?” Chesterton gives us a nutshell explanation of the two foundational realities that lead to the family–the earthquake of sex, and its natural consequences:

Very few words will suffice for all I have to say about the family itself . I leave alone the speculations about its animal origin and the details of its social reconstruction; I am concerned only with its palpable omnipresence. It is a necessity far mankind; it is (if you like to put it so) a trap for mankind. Only by the hypocritical ignoring of a huge fact can any one contrive to talk of “free love”; as if love were an episode like lighting a cigarette, or whistling a tune. Suppose whenever a man lit a cigarette, a towering genie arose from the rings of smoke and followed him everywhere as a huge slave. Suppose whenever a man whistled a tune he “drew an angel down” and had to walk about forever with a seraph on a string. These catastrophic images are but faint parallels to the earthquake consequences that Nature has attached to sex; and it is perfectly plain at the beginning that a man cannot be a free lover; he is either a traitor or a tied man. The second element that creates the family is that its consequences, though colossal, are gradual; the cigarette produces a baby giant, the song only an infant seraph. Thence arises the necessity for some prolonged system of co– operation; and thence arises the family in its full educational sense.

–Chesterton, G. K. (2012-12-05). The G. K. Chesterton Collection [50 Books] (Kindle Locations 5729-5738). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity Podcast: How Does God Accommodate Himself to Us?

Mere FidelityHow does God accommodate himself to us? How do we know when he has accommodated himself to us, or when we are projecting ourselves back on him? How does this affect our view of  science and scripture? What about OT violence or the sacrificial system? Or what about depictions of God’s emotions and so forth? In this episode, we take up what has traditionally been called the doctrine of ‘divine accommodation,’ and consider its limits and its abuses.

Other details worth noting:  the iTunes feed is here (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Also, here is the lengthy Bavinck quote from the front end along with commentary the subject. Also, this post on the subject of Reformed theological method and grace in our knowledge is quite relevant.

Soli Deo Gloria

Are All Sins Really “Equal in the Eyes of God”?

Scales-of-justice-2One of the most common truisms you’ll hear as a kid growing up in Evangelical churches is that “in the eyes of God, all sins are equal.” If all have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:20), and breaking one part of the Law means you’ve broken all of it (James 2:10), then there’s a sort of equalizing effect at work here, right? Whether you’re a murderer or a serial jay-walker, you’ve violated the law and so stand accused in the dock on the same charge as anyone else: sin.

Now, there are two main uses to which this doctrine is usually put. First, it’s often used as a way of curbing pride or discouraging judgmentalism. Since everyone is a sinner, including you, there’s no place for feeling better than your neighbor just because they seem to have sinned in a worse way. Second, since all sin is equal in God’s sight, there’s also no use in you thinking you can earn your way into God’s graces, or justify yourself because you haven’t committed any of the “really big” sins.

You may be able to tell, I have a big caveat to add here.

I have to admit, as a kid this idea never sat well with me. I mean, I wouldn’t deny that we’re all sinners in need of salvation, or that no one should feel better than others, or that all sin leads to judgment, but I remember very clearly arguing in Bible study that there’s definitely a distinction between greater and lesser sins. There’s got to be a difference between beating your child and sneaking a peek on a tough answer on your quiz; it seemed to me like utter nihilism to deny any sort of distinction like that.  If a human judge gave the thief 25-life along with the murderer, we’d say there’s something off with her ability to discern right from wrong, and subtle gradations of human justice.

But where does that leave our theology of judgment, sin, and salvation? If there are worse and lesser sins, it seems cruel to punish both with the same ultimate judgment. If treating the thief and the murderer equally seems unjust in this life, then how much more in the life/state to come?

As it turns out, there’s good biblical reasons to affirm both the fundamental equality of sinners before the dock of God, as well as the distinctions between sins that seem intuitive to our basic instincts. Bavinck has an excellent little section that will set the stage for us:

Aside from the difference between diabolical and human sins, there is also a great deal of difference among the latter…Granted, in principle sin and virtue are indivisible: those who have one have them all, and those who lack one lack them all. Between good and evil there is no gradual transition. A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.  The law of God is an organism that, when violated in one of its commandments, is violated in its totality, for God, who have the commandment that was violated, is the author of all the other commandments as well (James 2:10). But not all sins are for that reason equal. The different names for sin already bear this out. In Genesis 4, in connection with the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, we learn that the inner disposition is of greater value than the gift. Though the law given to Israel contains a wide range of ceremonial commandments, the entire Old Testament makes clear that the value of the ethical conduct far surpasses that of cultic and ceremonial acts. Faith is reckoned as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22; Amos 2:6ff; 5:14, 21f; Hosea 4″1f; 12:6; Mic. 6:6, 8; Isa. 1:11f; 5:8f; Jer. 7:3; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; 18:5f; 2 Cor. 12:20f; Gal. 5:19; etc.). The law itself moreover, makes a distinction between sins that are committed inadvertently, out of ignorance or weakness, do not break the covenant, and can be expiated within the covenant, and sins that are committed consciously and intentional (…”with a high hand”), place the perpetrator outside the covenant, and make him worthy of death (Lev. 4:5; 22:14; Num. 15:22f; 35:11f; Josh. 20:3, 9). Scripture never abandons the objective position that locates the standard of sin solely in the law of God. Yet the guilt of violation is greater or less to the degree the commandment was violated more or less intentionally.

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 149-150

The whole section is worth perusing as Bavinck goes on to parse the biblical material even further. Still, we see both truths, that the law of God is one, and that all who violate it stand condemned, but that even so, God makes distinctions between types of sin. Murder really is a bigger deal than theft. Stealing because you’re poor and hungry is not the same thing as cheating your impoverished employees out of fair wages to pay for a lavish vacation. What’s more, those sins that we knowingly commit, thinking to ourselves “I know this is contrary to God’s demands, but I’m going to do it anyways” have a greater weight than the transgressions that we give ourselves over to in a foolish, unthinking moment. Our everyday, human instincts are not entirely wrong here, but are, in fact, confirmed by biblical material.

What then of the equality of sinners before the bar of God’s justice? Biblically, it’s not so much that all sins are flatly equal, but that any sin is a sign of violation of the greatest sin. “A person consents or does not consent to the law of God.” What Bavinck is saying is that even the “small” sins, flow from the deep, great, fundamental stance of lawlessness towards God. From another angle, Martin Luther said of the first commandment “where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow” (Larger Catechism). In other words, we only ever murder, or lie, or cheat, or steal, or commit any number of piddling little sins, because we are already caught up in the greatest, most flagrant violation of all: idolatry, worshiping something other than the true God as God.

This is the reason that Paul writes we all have fallen short of the glory of God. His indictment of human sin, debauchery and lawlessness begins with idolatry in Romans 1:18-23, and from there we see humanity given over as a consequence to the various sorts of sin listed in 1:24-32. Considered simply as “thief” and “murderer”, the murderer is clearly guilty of a far greater crime. That said, both thief and murderer stand before the bar under the far weightier charge of “idolater” and “cosmic traitor.”

Incidentally, this is part of the answer to the charge that no one has done anything merit the eternal judgment we are warned of in Scripture. I’ve discussed the inherent symmetry of handing the person who has spent a life-time pursuing everything but God, a future without God. Still, that aside, that many of us don’t observe our idolatry with the horror with which it is presented in Scripture is not an indication of the Bible’s over-scrupulosity, but our own comfortable we’ve become with our own sin. As Anselm famously put it, “you have not yet considered how great the weight of sin is.”

To sum up then, are all sins equally vile, condemnable, and is distinguishing between them a merely human way of looking at them? No. To say so is to go beyond Scripture and even to do violence to our righteous moral instincts about everyday human justice. But are all sinners “equally guilty” before God, in no place to merit their salvation, or boast and brag over others? Yes.And one more question: does God’s extend his abundant, overwhelming, and astonishing grace in Christ to all? Thankfully, we can say a bold “Yes, and Amen!”

Soli Deo Gloria