The Reforming Catholic Confession

reforming-catholic-confession-logo500 years on downstream from the Reformation, one of the most common charges against the Reformers is that they divided the Church. What’s more, once the division came, inevitably division after division followed, with fragmentation, fissiparousness, and ecclesiastical foment.

Beyond that, what have we got to show for all that division? With our various and sundry denominations, views on baptism, end-times, and so forth, what was the theological and spiritual gain? To many, the answer is, “not much.”

In an effort to answer that charge, and more importantly, to give positive witness to the gospel truths of the Reformation, a group of Protestant theologians have drafted, signed, and offered up “A Reforming Catholic Confession: A ‘Mere Protestant’ Statement of Faith to mark the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” The idea for it first hit Wesleyan theologian, Jerry Walls, who reached out to a range of theologians, one of which was my own adviser Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer responded positively, they got to working together, drew in dozens of other collaborators across the theological spectrum, and over a long period, together crafted and hammered out the confession presented today.

With nearly 250 signatories drawn from every continent and spanning most Protestant theological traditions and Communions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Free Church, Nazarene, Pentecostal, etc.), this has as decent of a shot at the claim of being “global” and “ecumenical” as you can get for Protestants.

I would encourage you to read the Statement here. You can see it covers 12 articles from the Triune God, creation, fall, redemption through the work of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, the Church, and concluding with Last Things. In covering this range, their hope is to give testimony to “the catholic substance of the faith (the consensual tradition worked out over the first few centuries of church history about the triune God) according to the Protestant principles of the faith (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide).”

I would also encourage you to go read the “Explanation” as to what provoked the statement, what its aims are, what it’s trying to do (and not do), and how that plays into the particular kind of document this is. And this piece over at Christianity Today is very helpful. Finally, check out this little video snippet with Vanhoozer on the Confession:

You can catch the rest of the interview here.

To be clear, the point is not to offer up a new confession for Churches to adopt and replace your old ones. Nor is it to be a new political litmus test for good standing in Protestantism, or Evangelicalism (that is quite contrary to its intended use). Nor is it even to be a lowest common denominator harmony of the confessions.

The drafters clearly state, “We continue to appreciate the distinctive emphases of our respective churches, denominations, and confessional traditions.” The Mere Protestantism they’re giving witness to takes place in the “rooms” of the house, not simply the hallway they’re describing (to steal an image from Lewis). So, if you’re worried particular distinctives or emphases don’t seem to appear in the document, they’re not trying to erase them or take them away from you (put your muskets away, nobody is coming for Westminster, fellas).

Instead, it is an attempt to give testimony to the fact that despite our sin and confusions, despite our fallibility and error, despite all possible outward signs, despite the as-yet unresolved differences still among us, God’s Spirit was at work in the Reformation and is still at work in the Protestant churches that it birthed. In an age of polarization, there is greater confessed unity in the gospel among us than we’re tempted to believe. What’s more, it confesses that there was a permanent gain for our understanding of the gospel in the Reformation worth preserving, confessing, and passing on.

I’m not typically a “signer.” I’m wary of hastily jumping on to this or that statement, pronouncement, and so forth, so I can appreciate the hesitation some may have at this point. All the same, I think this one is worth your time and consideration.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Five Ways to Spoil the Gospel

ryle 2J.C Ryle was a prominent Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century. An advocate of the Evangelical cause in the Church of England, he penned an insightful article laying out what he took to be the essence of Evangelicalism, clarifying confusions and myths, and proposing a road forward for the Church.

Briefly, defined Evangelical religion as marked by five major commitments:  (1) the supreme authority and truthfulness of Scripture, (2) the grave condition of humanity in sin, the centrality and absolute necessity of Christ’s redeeming work in life, (3) atoning death, and resurrection, (4) the necessity of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, (5) the necessarily transformative work of the Holy Spirit in leading to personal holiness and an active life of faith. (It’s interesting to see how much this overlaps with the Bebbington Quadrilateral.)

He also clarifies a number of things that Evangelical religion is not, but as interesting as that is, what I wanted to call our attention to today was a latter section in the work. Here, he tries to lay out why so much religion in the Church is un-Evangelical and confusing. He’s not even necessarily talking about outright heresy or false teaching, but the sort of thing that “spoils” the Gospel and robs people of it despite our best intentions.

Ryle then lays out 5 distinct ways to spoil the Gospel:

You may spoil the Gospel by substitution . You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith,—Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place,—the Church, the Ministry, the Confessional, Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, and the mischief is done. Substitute anything for Christ, and the Gospel is totally spoiled! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honour, and the mischief is done. Add anything to Christ, and the Gospel ceases to be a pure Gospel! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by interposition. You have only to push something between Christ and the eye of the soul, to draw away the sinner’s attention from the Saviour, and the mischief is done. Interpose anything between man and Christ, and man will neglect Christ for the thing interposed! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the parts of truth, and truth soon becomes downright error! Do this, either directly or indirectly, and your religion ceases to be Evangelical.

Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the Gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Complicated and obscure statements about faith, baptism, Church privileges, and the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, all jumbled together, and thrown down without order before hearers, make the Gospel no Gospel at all! Confused and disorderly statements of Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all! Religion of this sort is not Evangelical.

This is all excellent and I think to be heeded as wisdom. A few comments, though.

One point I’d make about the distortion by disproportion is that it can occur in other ways than losing sight of the main thing. What I mean is that when you make the “main thing” the “only thing”, the proportions are still wrong. So, a proper understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is crucial and central. But it only properly makes sense against the backdrop of the doctrine of creation. Creation is not the gospel, but without it, you don’t really understand what sort of gospel you’re dealing with.

I mention this because I think a good deal of the problem pop-Evangelicalism nowadays is a shallow understanding of the gospel, the central things, partially because we have little sense of the backdrop, the broader sweep of Christian doctrine and the broad narrative of Scripture. Just something for preachers and teachers to keep in mind.

Second, the point about clarity is an important one. This is probably less an issue for popular Evangelicalism which usually has the simple, five or six-point belief statement up on the website (Trinity, Scripture, Christ, Salvation, Minimalist Eschatology). But in Ryle’s late-19th century Anglicanism, I’m sure the danger for confusing blends of statements is probably more necessary. And I think that may still be true for some wings of uber-intellectual, or confessional Christianity.

Attuned to the dangers of minimalist presentations, we want to get complex, demonstrate nuance, stretch our people’s minds, expand their boxes, and so forth, so that we forget at times to preach a clear, simple gospel. It’s wonderful for pastors to read and address issues with complexity and nuance when that’s required. Read the difficult books, grapple with exegetical nettles, try to push your people into the great mysteries of the Faith like the Trinity and the person of Christ. But do all you can to strive to be clear.

Indeed, as Lewis pointed out long ago, your ability to be clear about an issue is likely a measure of how well you’ve grasped it.

I suppose I’ll close this out by noting how all of these issues are connected to having a solid grasp of Biblical and Systematic theology. Beyond the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, having a sense for the matter and substance, as well as the emphasis, the balance, and the interconnections of various texts and doctrines, and the ability to communicate that clearly, is a matter of disciplined. familiarity with Scripture as a whole.  And that takes time, study, and diligence.

But learning not to spoil the gospel of Jesus Christ is worth it. So get to it.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

What I Can’t Know If I Don’t Know the Trinity

the trinityI’ve already written of the recent controversy over the Trinity and my hope that solid, theological and spiritual reinvigoration would come from it. All the same, I ran across a fantastic passage in the great divine Herman Witsius’ treatment of the Trinity in his Sacred Dissertations on the Apostle’s Creed (a remarkably careful and pastoral work).

In his comment on the Trinitarian shape of the Apostle’s Creed, he has a short segment arguing for the importance of our knowledge of this chief point of Christian doctrine. It’s not only that a proper understanding of the Trinity is some sort of arid proposition we need to check off a list of “need to know” facts to be “good Christians.” Rather, it’s that without a knowledge of the Trinity, we are simply robbed of all of the chief comforts of Christian faith:

When the Trinity is not known, the necessary consequence is, that the principal foundation of our faith and comfort, are unknown. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.

In order to explain this, he goes on to expound the importance of recognizing the work of each person individually, beginning with the Father:

I cannot know how God can show mercy to a sinner in a manner worthy of himself, unless I know he has a Son whom he could send to make satisfaction for sin, and a Spirit who can apply to me the merits of the Son.

Right off the bat, you see the Trinitarian shape of the heart of God’s atoning, justifying, and sanctifying work with the Father sending the Son in the economy of redemption and the Spirit’s application. Continuing on:

If I know not that the Father is God, I shall be ignorant that I am a Son of God,–which is the sum of our felicity.

Without a knowledge that God is eternally Father to the Son, we will not understand the marvel of that highest privilege of the gospel: the adoption unto Sonship into which are admitted in union with Christ by which we can cry “Abba, Father!”

But according to Witsius, that Fatherhood is only good news to us if we recognize God the Son:

If I know not that the Son is God, I shall not form a right estimate of the love of God the Father who has given him to me, nor of the grace of the Son, who, though possessing inconceivable majesty, humbled himself so wonderfully for my sake;

It’s fascinating to see how Witsius is at once trying to point out the importance of each of the persons in the work of salvation, but can only do so with reference to the other persons. (Indeed, earlier on, he spends a good deal of space explaining the unified activity of the whole Trinity in every act ad extra, the one will, mind, and operation of the Godhead and so forth.) But here we see that we can only understand the love of God the Father being magnified in the gift of the eternal Son, whom we can only recognize as majestic in his self-humbling in the working of salvation.

But he pushes on to point out further how the Son’s divinity is crucial to our soul’s peace:

 –nor shall I be able to place a firm dependence upon his satisfaction, which could not be sufficient unless it were of infinite value, or to rely securely on his power, which cannot save me unless it be evidently omnipotent;–it will be impossible for me, in short, to regard him as my Saviour and my Chief Good, because none excepting the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and Redeemer.

The Son’s divinity matters because otherwise, any satisfaction he makes would be merely finite, insufficient for the weighty work of a cosmic atonement. Second, we have strong enemies—sin, death, and the devil—how can I have assurance of the Son’s victory if he is not almighty God himself? Only the “the true God of Israel is Israel’s God and redeemer.”

Finally, he turns to the person of the Holy Spirit:

If…I am not sure that the Holy Spirit, to whose direction and government I ought to commit myself, is God, I shall not be able to esteem my subjection to him as true liberty, to maintain a holy acquiescence in his protecting care, or to rely on his testimony respecting my salvation as a most ample security.

If the Spirit is not God, then submitting to him isn’t the true freedom and dignity of serving the highest Lord. Nor is receiving the Holy Spirit as another counselor the great gift that Jesus says it is (John 16). And listening to his internal witness or testimony via Scripture isn’t hearing the voice of God himself assuring me of my salvation.

For Witsius, then, the Trinity isn’t the doctrine that you get to once you’ve built up all the rest of your faith and you sort of add it as the cherry on top. No, it’s foundation upon which everything is built, and if the foundation is weak, everything comes crumbling down:

Christian faith is of so delicate a character, that it can firmly acquiesce in none but the Most High God. It must, then, be of the first importance and necessity for us to know a doctrine, one which the knowledge of so many necessary points depends.

He concludes this point with a historical example:

This argument is confirmed by experience; for, as we see in the Socinians, the same men who deny the Trinity, deny, also, the satisfaction of Christ, the invincible power of the Spirit in our regeneration and conservation, the certainty of salvation, and the full assurance of faith. The mystery of our salvation through Christ is so intimately connected with the mystery of the Trinity, that when the latter is unknown or denied, the former cannot be known or acknowledged.

The Socinian heretics were remarkable in their day for having denied just about every chief point of doctrine from the deity of Christ, to the atonement, assurance of salvation, an everything else. Witsius says that their chief mistake was the loss of the Trinity. To miscontrue the nature of God is to inevitably misconstrue the nature of God’s salvation. When you lose the Trinity, you pull on the thread that unravels the seamless garment of Christian salvation and comfort.

The point is, when you don’t know God as Trinity, there’s not much you can know about the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Preaching and Reversing the Polarity of the Heart

wesley on the lifeOne of the most insidious ideas we’re tempted to believe is that saving faith is a matter of the intellect alone. Obviously, it has to do with the intellect. You can’t trust something if you have no conception of it. But that reality shouldn’t obscure the fact that something of the will, the heart, is involved in receiving the grace of Christ by faith. Which is why it’s possible to sit in church your whole life, hear biblical sermon after biblical sermon on the nature of grace, Christ’s cross, the coming kingdom, the nature of a holy life–gospel presentations so clear Billy Graham couldn’t one-up them–and still never have faith, or come to a solid understanding of the good news.

Don’t believe me? This is precisely what renowned evangelist, theologian, and pioneer of Methodism, John Wesley famously reported about his own experience. He went years growing up in church, going to college, studying in seminary, getting ordained, preaching, teaching, going on mission, and yet, for the early part of his life, and yet, as Fred Sanders reports in his stimulating book Wesley on the Christian LifeWesley confessed that until a few months before his famous conversation at Aldersgate, he was “utterly ignorant of the nature and condition of justification.” (54)

But how is that possible? How can someone a couple hundred years after Luther and Calvin, coming up in a Reformation church whose basic documents and sermons affirmed the gospel, and raised in a home with a Puritan background, have never heard or understood the gospel? Fred Sanders picks up the image of a magnet to explain:

The magnet image is apt: Wesley’s mind was magnetized by the Law of God, and it drew to itself all the legalistic elements in his environment. Even when he read a good gospel-centered book, he only drew from in the legal bits. We know that Wesley read plenty of properly Protestant teaching in his earlier life. The Anglican and Puritan sources he immersed himself in included plenty of sound teaching on justification by grace alone though faith alone. Indeed, after Aldersgate, Wesley would rifle through the Anglican church’s official Homilies, Articles, and prayer book to confirm his new understanding was in fact not new to the church., but only new to him. It was an easy task, since the classic Anglican sources are packed with the gospel of justification by faith. But first the magnetic polarity of Wesley’s own soul had to be reversed. Until the principle of grace was activated in his strangely cold heart, Wesley systematically read for the message of legal performance. Until then, all the books kept pitching grace, but Wesley kept catching law. (54)

Many readers might be skeptical of this, but others will have experienced it themselves. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with students where it was clear there was this legal block on their ears. I don’t know how many sermons on justification by grace as the gospel I preached in my first couple of years–I probably bordered on Lutheranism at that point–but still, some students were still catching Law and not Grace. The polarity of their hearts was set on Law and it functioned as a hermeneutical grid through which everything was filtered. “He who has ears, let him hear.” Not everybody has the ears.

Well, what do we do with this? Does this mean that preaching the gospel clearly is of no importance because people are just going to hear what they’re going to hear? Should we not bother about striving to drive it home through solid exegesis, illustrations, stories, images, and so forth? Should we just throw up our hands and say, “Welp, I tried Lord” after a week or two of effort? Obviously not.

What I do think this does is reminds us of a few key realities that we ignore at our own peril.

First, preaching the gospel is not just a matter of sound words–though it is that–but also of the Spirit’s power. It is only when the Spirit drives the message of the gospel home that the stop “catching” Law when the Gospel is being preached. Only the Spirit is able to reverse the polarity of the heart so that our hearers can hear the gospel when it’s being preached. He is the one who puts flesh on dead bones and turns hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. He is the one who testifies to Christ–yes, through the proclamation of the Word–with power.

There are at least two comforts in this first point. First, preacher, the cold hearts of your people may not and probably are not the fault of your preaching. A great many pastors suffer condemnation and anguish over their inability to bring about effects that are not entirely within their power. Second, this is a comfort because this means that the cold hearts of your people are not beyond hope. If you feel you’ve exhausted every preaching or teaching trick in your arsenal, that doesn’t mean the game’s up. The Holy Spirit specializes in stepping in when we’re at the end of our strength.

The second big point follows from this first: if the Holy Spirit is the power behind reversing the polarity of the heart, your preaching ministry will only be as good as your praying ministry. To quote J.C. Ryle:

Prayer is the main secret of success in spiritual business. It moves him who can move heaven and earth. It brings down the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, without whom the finest sermons, the clearest teaching and hardest work are all alike in vain. It is not always those who have the most eminent gifts who are most successful laborers for God. It is generally those who keep closest communion with Christ and are most constant in prayer. It is those who cry with the prophet Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). It is those  who follow most exactly the apostolic model, and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Happy is the church that has a praying as well as a preaching ministry! The question we should ask about new ministers is not merely “Can they preach well?” but “Do they pray much for their people?” –The Gospel of Mark, pg. 90

Now, of course, God is merciful beyond our prayers, but how arrogant do we have to be to think we can go stand before dead men and women expecting them to come to life under our preaching, if we have not been on our knees pleading with the author of life? Only he can work such miracles.

As you practice or prepare to preach, pray, then, that the Spirit would reverse the polarity of the hearts of your hearers. Pray that their hearts would be strangely warmed. Pray that your pitching Gospel might not be in vain. And then have faith that God will do it. He is faithful.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ideological Moralism and Gospel Grace (TGC)

My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed.”

— Modern/postmodern ideological moralism

Charles Taylor

I posted that status after reading a little section toward the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self on Friedrich Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche offers one of the most insightful examinations of how the modern idea that humanity must maintain goodwill toward all—”a secularized agape,” especially apart from the context of grace—can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.

Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication Nietzsche left unexplored:

The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure, is now identified with other people or groups. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable and even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism. (516-517)

Taylor penned these words almost 25 years ago, but I read them and couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming after us. It’s pretty common to either idolize or demonize our moral sense; we’re supposedly either relativists or morally superior activists. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both. And one “ist” I’d certainly add to the list is “moralists.”

You can go on to read the way this plays out over at The Gospel Coalition.

Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understanding the “Fearful Symmetry” of Judgment

KellerMy twitter-buddy Tony Reinke (content strategist for DG and prolific memer) had an interesting article about Tim Keller today. In the past (and apparently in the present), Keller has been criticized by the conservative Reformed for his apparent weakness on the issue of wrath. Based on The Reason for God, and a couple of other works, people have said he’s de-emphasized or sidelined the issue unbiblically. Now, as someone who has podcast a couple hundred of his sermons, I never really saw it. He talks about judgment, penalty, and wrath all over the place–certainly not with the raised and rumbling voice some might like, but it’s there nonetheless.

Well, now the proof is more than just anecdotal. I don’t know where he found the time, or how he pulled it off, but Tony went ahead and found, catalogued, and gave us some statistics on Keller’s sermons over the last 35 years of preaching, using Piper as a control on preaching on wrath. The stats:

The easiest way to search for this theme is to find every mention in a sermon to an explicit mention of “wrath” near the word “God.” No two terms, in such close proximity, better stress God’s activity in judgment, and in this particular search we find all the references to phrases like “wrath of God,” “God’s wrath,” even “wrathful God,” “God poured out his wrath,” etc.

I’ll start with a search of Piper’s manuscript archive (1980–2009). From this collection of 1,232 sermon manuscripts, 244 sermons appear in the search result — 19.8% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath.

Next, I use this identical search query in Keller’s sermon transcript archive (1989–2009). From this collection of 1,212 sermons, 159 sermons appear in the search result — 13.1% of his sermons making at least one explicit mention of God’s wrath…

Second, the gap between Piper and Keller isn’t nearly as wide as I originally expected, and the gap between Spurgeon and Keller is much narrower than I would have guessed. The gap between Piper and Keller narrows even further in a search for references where “God” appears near words for “judge” (“judge,” “judgment,” etc). In this search it’s Piper 25.2%, Spurgeon 24.5%, Keller 22.1% (though for a variety of possible variants, this second search is less conclusive).

Now, again, I’ll admit, this is an odd search for Tony to conduct. But hey, a man with a lot of archived data and quick research skills can get a lot done, apparently.

On a more serious note, I get the concern. To some it might be odd to be so fixated on getting the stats on wrath-preaching, but the deeper concern is biblical-preaching. The desire, as I see it, is the desire to preach on things at least as much as the Bible talks about them, or as it is appropriate to understand the various themes connected to it. As Keller himself said the other day “the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is diminished if you minimize the wrath of God.” If we want to hold up Christ’s humble, sacrificial work (among all the other things he does and is) as glorious, you inevitably have to address wrath.

(Interesting side-note: John Piper talks about wrath in only 1 out of 4 sermons. That’s actually low for what I thought it was going to be. I mean, not low overall or anything, but, ya, surprises everyday.)

Passive Wrath. Beyond that, the interesting thing that caught my eye was Tony’s observation that while Keller speaks to God’s active wrath decently often, he tends to focus on God’s passive wrath in his writing. As Reinke explains:

…the Reformed tradition has affirmed a fourth dimension of God’s judgment, a passive judgment, whereby God allows the sinner to self-harden and self-condemn (Romans 1:24–28). God, from his position of “righteous judge,” can choose to withdraw his sin-restraining power from sinners; thereby he “gives them over to their own lusts . . . whereby it comes to pass that they harden themselves” (WCF 5.6). Keller knows this, too, and chooses to stress this “passive judgment” in his books.

In other words, you worship Money, a fitting judgment is for God to let you be consumed with greed. You worship Sex, then it is a fitting judgment for God to let you be consumed with lust. You worship Power and it is a fitting judgment for God to let you chase that down until it destroys you. In that sense, the judgment is self-imposed, organic, flowing from one’s own behavior, and yet still God’s active choice to give you over to it.

Now, that established, Tony says that his study of Keller’s sermons “still does not answer every question I have about why he prefers to stress God’s passive judgment in his books.”

Fearful Symmetry. I think I have a bit of an answer for Tony. Aside from the fact that it is Biblical as he affirms, I suspect that the reason Keller has spoken more often of God’s passive wrath, giving us over, more often is that it functions as a helpful heuristic tool for understanding the nature, justice, and reality of God’s wrath for postmoderns. Most people in contemporary culture function with a tacitly Zeus-like understanding of wrath and judgment. If they know God as a judge, he appears to be an arbitrary one, applying lightning bolt punishments that don’t fit the crime. Beyond that, it’s all very far-away and distant from our contemporary experience. The passive wrath of God, though, that we can begin to see.

a. It’s Terrifyingly Real.  We’ve seen addiction in our souls. We’ve seen friends become colder as they pursued career to the destruction of family, health, and friends. We’ve seen the misery of self-imposed obsessions with power and manipulation. We know the darkness of our own hearts that can seem so small, so hidden, but then is powerfully exposed at those terrible moments when it rears it’s ugly head and we say to ourselves “Oh, I wasn’t myself then.” But, thing is, deep down we know that it is our self–our deepest self. It is at that moment that we begin to fear what Edwards spoke of:

There are in the souls of wicked men those hellish principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into hell fire, if it were not for God’s restraints. There is laid in the very nature of carnal men, a foundation for the torments of hell. There are those corrupt principles, in reigning power in them, and in full possession of them, that are seeds of hell fire. These principles are active and powerful, exceeding violent in their nature, and if it were not for the restraining hand of God upon them, they would soon break out, they would flame out after the same manner as the same corruptions, the same enmity does in the hearts of damned souls, and would beget the same torments as they do in them. –Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

To preach judgment this way isn’t to minimize it’s fearfulness for postmoderns. Instead, it’s actually probably the only way of conveying how truly terrifying it is.

b. It Fits. Beyond that, the passive judgment of God exposes the justness of all of God’s judgments. When you hear Keller tell it, you begin to see all of God’s judgments as more than the irrational outbursts of an angry tyrant, but as the fitting punishments of a Just God. What injustice is there about giving you what you’ve chosen? You choose idols, then receive the terrible dehumanizing degradation that idolatry leads to. Choose violence? Get war. Choose self-centeredness? Get the terrible loneliness, anger, and despair that narcissism leads to. Choose adultery? Get divorce.

When you begin to see this, then you begin to see that principle at work even in his active judgments. I believe Ray Ortlund Jr. has called this a “fearful symmetry.” So, for instance, when Israel decides to cheat on God with the idols, his active judgment through the nations is the historical manifestation of the spiritual reality they’ve chosen. All of the blessings of protection, life, beauty, and goodness are connected with relational wholeness with Yahweh. Reject Yahweh’s covenant and you’ve essentially rejected these things. When you reject God, he gives you not-God, and that is a terrifying, but just judgment. Roll that principle out into the rest of the Bible and you begin to see the way this helps us understand even those more active, seemingly-extrinsic moments of judgment in the Scriptures.

Final Word of Judgement– Let it be clear, I’m not a wrath-obsessed guy. I don’t think all Reformed Calvinists are wrath-obsessed either. The reason I’ve written about it as much as I have (which, honestly, isn’t much) is simply because I see it is a prominent theme in the text, it’s crucial for understanding much of the biblical story-line, it is currently down-played by many, and, most importantly, it is the necessary dark background against which much of the Glory of the Gospel shines.

That said, preachers need to be careful about how you handle this theme. Be careful how much you emphasize it. Be careful that your parishioners know that wrath is not the fundamental reality when it comes to God, but rather the loving holiness of the Triune one who reaches out beyond wrath with redeeming grace to restore and redeem his creation to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria

A (Very) Brief, Gospel-Centered Defense Against the Problem of Evil

christ-on-the-cross-1587In brief, the classic problem of evil stands as the greatest, most persuasive, damning, and straightforward objection to the existence of God, especially the Christian one. The classic form dating back to Epicurus and retooled by David Hume runs something like this:

  1. If God exists he is all-good and all-powerful.
  2. If he is all-good he will want to remove evil from the world
  3. If he is all-powerful he can remove evil from the world.
  4. There is evil in the world.
  5. Therefore, God doesn’t exist, or he is not all-good, or all-powerful.

Straight-forward enough, right?

Still, in recent developments in the philosophy of religion, it has been noticed that the strict version just outlined can be evaded by pointing out that if God had a good enough reason to, he might allow evil to exist while being all-powerful and all-good. The skeptical rejoinder, then, is that there is no such reason forthcoming from believers to justify all of the apparently pointless evils we see in the world.

Now, while there’s a great deal of lengthy literature on the subject (some of which I’ve read) about the logical, evidential, and powerful existential forms of the argument, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in nuce, the outlines of a logically-intuitive, and even pastorally-comforting ,defense against the problem of evil are given to us in the simple Gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ itself.

Note, this is not a theodicy--an explanation of why God allows evil to exist–it is only a defense, showing that it is logically possible for God and evil to exist. With that clarification made, here’s my attempt at a Gospel-centered defense against the problem of evil in a nutshell:

  1. If God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, I have good reason to believe both that he exists, and that he is unfathomably powerful.
  2. Furthermore, if he is good enough to send his only-begotten Son to die on behalf of a sinful, rebellious world he loves, he is unfathomably good.
  3. Next, if God is wise enough to use what is objectively the most horrifying, and initially apparently pointless, event in human history–the unjust murder of the Godman–for the salvation of the world, then it is entirely reasonable to trust he has a good enough reason for allowing the evil that he currently does.
  4. Finally, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the promise that ultimately evil will be judged, removed, and made right.There is comfort and hope for the future.

All of these points could be filled out at length, of course; this is a nutshell–and a very small one at that.  And yet, it is enough to set us marveling at the way, once again, all of life’s deepest, most troubling questions find their answer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria