Looming Debate Over SSA (Richard D. Phillips)

These days, it seems that almost every week social media uncovers another eruption along the Presbyterian Church in America’s (PCA) volcanic fault line between social accommodation/compassion and biblical obedience. This week, a conference promoting strategies to address same sex attraction (SSA) has raised heads and provoked comment. This particular event seems to be a laudable attempt to balance the tension: while calling for a compassionate acceptance of SSA Christians it also makes clear statements in support of biblical marriage and takes a position against homosexual behavior that most people in our society would consider fundamentalist. Conservatives should therefore refrain from drawing the worst possible implications from what seems to be a thoughtful and responsible attempt to address this major cultural touchstone.

While avoiding hysterical division, we can at the same time note that a major question mark hangs over the normalization of SSA as a Christian category. It seems that there is a growing consensus in the PCA that we can and must distinguish between one’s sexual orientation and sinful desires. The alternative would seem to be that we tell men and women struggling with homosexuality that what they consider a part of who they are is sinful and (as some would have it) subject them to tortuous rehabilitation techniques that probably include electric shock. The bridge, therefore, between compassion and biblical fidelity is to embrace “gay in Christ” as a normal and wholesome category and then help our LGBTQ brothers and sisters live celibately with these desires.

One problem with this love-motivated strategy is that it collapses under the weight of Scripture. The biblical argument in favor of SSA acceptance goes like this: we always distinguish between desire and temptation. A heterosexual may sinlessly experience an attraction to a member of the opposite sex without giving in to lust. The same must therefore be the case for a homosexual. The orientation is not necessarily sinful, while the desire represents a temptation to be avoided. The key issue is behavior: does the person (heterosexual or homosexual) give in to temptation and commit the sin?

A first criticism of this approach will note that it fails to apply the Bible’s vastly different approach to homosexuality versus heterosexuality, only one of which can ever be sinless. But the major problem is that the Bible does not distinguish between orientation and desire, while instead categorizing desire as temptation. Biblically, temptation is the outward circumstance that prompts desire into sin. But desire for sin itself is an expression of our sinful nature. Bible-believing churches take this approach to virtually every sin other than homosexuality (it is often pointed out that we would never take the pro-SSA approach to racism, for instance). A biblically accurate approach to homosexuality must therefore be congruent with our understanding of sin in general.

One key text is James 1:14-15: “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Notice that James does not equate desire and temptation but distinguishes them. Desire is the inward disposition toward a given sin. As James sees it, the key issue is not temptation but desire: until desire is sanctified by the grace of Christ, temptation is going to produce sinful behavior. Epithumia, the Greek word translated as “desire” identifies an inward impulse and almost always has a sinful connotation (see Rom. 7:7-8, Gal. 5:17, Col. 3:5, and 1 Thess. 4:5). Therefore, to isolate orientation from sinful desire in simply contrary to Scripture.

Theologically, the key term is concupiscence, which comes to us from Roman Catholic theology. The Latin Vulgate translated epithumia with concupiscentia, viewing it as a pre-sin orientation or disposition. The Protestant Reformation found no biblical support for a sinless orientation to sin and equated concupiscence with original sin. So, as is usually the case, we are not left to ourselves to sort out the question of SSA. Both biblically and in Reformed theology, orientation and desire cannot be separated; together, they must be cleansed by Christ and mortified by the Christian. (For valuable articles on the topic of concupiscence, see R. Scott Clark and Derek Thomas). Herman Bavinck pointed out that the rooting of sin in the will, apart from the fallen nature, is the impulse of rationalism, not the Bible. He noted that under secular humanism, “the basic idea was always that sin is not rooted in a nature and is not a disposition or a state, but always an act of the will.”1 As for any idea that God approvingly endorses any orientation to sin, Bavinck responded as follows:

“Not only does Scripture testify against this view, but the moral consciousness of all humans rises up in protest against it. Sin may be whatever it is, but one thing is certain: God is the Righteous and Holy One who prohibits it in his law, witnesses against it in the human conscience, and visits it with punishments and judgments.”2

This leads to the second problem with the loving attempt to embrace SSA but deny homosexual behavior: it collides with reality. If the desire for sin is unmortified (Col. 3:5), then it will produce sinful behavior when presented with temptation. Here is the quandary well-meaning pro-SSA churches are going to have to face: can you really embrace the desire as unsinful and persist in condemning the behavior as sinful? For some churches today, the answer is No. Indeed, this is the testimony of those PCA churches who have left our denomination for LGBT-affirmning communions. They argue that it is unloving to consign people who for no fault of their own are same sex attraction to a life of sexless loneliness and they can no longer bring themselves to refuse church membership (and, with it, leadership) on this basis. Yet the biblical and practical reality is that desire and behavior cannot be separated. This is why Solomon urged us never to rest comfortably with corruptions in the heart, but urged: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

So what is the alternative? Must we choose between biblical fidelity and Christ-like compassion? The answer is No – a thousand times, No! For refusing this alternative, we should appreciate PCA churches who seek to minister to the homosexual community while still upholding biblical marriage and sexual behavior. Their problem is that affirming SSA as a Christian category – “gay in Christ” – is both biblically inaccurate and humanly unrealistic. What else, then? The what else for the homosexual question turns out to be the same as for every other sin. I know of no one who would affirm an orientation toward idol-worship, blasphemy, violence, laziness, stealing, lying, or covetousness (I’m perusing the Ten Commandments, you will observe). So why would we take a more positive position towards homosexual desire than any other sinful desire, especially when the Bible speaks with particular stridence when it comes to sexual sins against the created order? The answer is that for the love of God and man we should not.

Can we not affirm the person who struggles with homosexual desires? We absolutely can, just as we can affirm all persons who struggle with sin tendencies (and that is all persons!). But normalizing the desire is no help to anyone. We call them to repent of the desire, including the prayerful pursuit of biblical norms and the wise avoidance of tempting circumstances. We recognize that while God will bless this pursuit in his own timing, he is certain to do so (if not sooner, then in heaven). Then we love them with insight and compassionate action, requiring nothing more than faith in Christ, while acknowledging that repentance from sin is integrally joined to that faith for every Christian.

In short, true compassion will not be achieved in the affirmation of desires that the Bible forbids. True compassion embraces the biblical bridge between biblical compassion and truth, and does so by holding out a holy identity in union with Christ and in the experience of his cleansing grace. We find this very approach in the apostle Paul:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

1. An excerpt from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ.

2. Ibid.

The Last Judgment (Nick Batzig)

Last night, I preached a sermon on Psalm 7–one of the lamentation Psalms of David, which he presumably wrote while hiding from Saul in the caves of Adullam.  A good portion of the Psalm is taken up with David crying out to the Judge of all the earth. The Psalmist calls on the Lord to come and judge the wicked. In so doing, he draws on the imagery of all people of the earth being congregated before the throne of God as they wait on the Judge of all the earth to render His judgment (Ps. 7:7-8). All of which reminded me of a section in John L. Girardeau’s famous sermon, “The Last Judgment,” in which he painted the most sobering picture of the final judgment. Girardeau envisioned all people, from all nations, throughout all time summoned before the divine tribunal on the Last Day:

“How unspeakably solemn! A world in one vast congregation! See, multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! Farther than the eye can reach extends a boundless sea of human beings, swayed to and fro with new and unutterable feelings. Before the august Judge are gathered all nations, and He proceeds to separate them one from another as a shepherd divided his sheep from the goats. He sets the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. All human and perishing distinctions are swept away. The mask is torn from hypocrisy, the veil stripped from secrecy, the paint and varnish expunged from the face of deceit. Missed are the strut and fret of ‘a little brief authority.’ The tiara, the mitre and the crosier, the chasuble, stole and cowl are looked for in vain. The tinseled insignia of rank and the gilded baubles of nobility, the arms of heraldry and the stars and crosses of honor are rent away from human beings, and leave them to appear as they are–‘naked, unvarnished, unappendaged men.’ The standards, ensigns, and gonfalons of earthly parade float not in the air of the judgment morn. Beauty, wealth, and power, gifts, talents, and fame,–of what avail are they now without true and heartfelt religion? The righteous and the wicked, the followers and the foes of Christ,–these are the only distinctions which have a place in that overwhelming presence.  Each one of that immense concourse is seen. Each one is known. Each one must give account of himself to God. No one shall share responsibility with his fellows. No one shall shield himself behind the instruction, the counsel, the example of others; no one shall cover himself with the skirt of minister, parent or friend. Families are sundered; individuals are parted from individuals by a discrimination awfully searching and particular. Oh, what a sifting! Jehovah’s fan is in his hand, and he winnows the chaff from the wheat: He gathers the wheat into His garner, and consigns the chaff to unquenchable fire.

Now is the day of full redemption come to those who served their Lord amidst temptations, trials, and fears, and waited and prayed and longed for His second glorious appearing. Clad in Jesus’ righteousness, washed in Jesus’ blood, pleading Jesus’ atoning merits, they stand at His right hand and look into His smiling face. ‘Come,’ says the King, ‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger and ye took Me in: naked and ye clothed Me: I was sick and in prison and ye came unto Me. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.’ ‘Enter ye into the joy of your Lord.’ O welcome word! O thrice happy souls! Their tribulation is past, their conflict with the world, the flesh and the Devil is ended, the narrow way has all been trod, death, their last enemy, is conquered, and not one of them remains a tenant of the grave. The last battle has been fought, the last sin has been committed, the last tear is wiped away. The world’s laugh and frown are alike no more. No more the cross, the fire and the stake. No more the chain, the dungeon and the rack. Shout, ye ransomed sinners, shout! For yours are harps of gold, crowns of righteousness, the beatific vision of God, and the celestial glory that faded not away.”

A few more laughs, a few more tears, a few more sighs and we will all find ourselves in that one great assembly, standing shoulder to shoulder in the collective mass of humanity before the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and the Judge of all the earth. “How unspeakably solemn” indeed.  

Martin Bucer and the Reform of Worship (Terry L. Johnson)

If Martin Bucer (1477-1548) is not an unsung hero of the Reformation, he is certainly an undersung hero. This particularly is the case when it comes to public worship. Bucer’s fingerprints are all over Calvin’s Form of Church Prayers (1542) as well as the Book of Common Prayer (1552, 1559, 1662). Calvin acknowledges that most of his Form was borrowed from Bucer, while Bucer’s 50-page response to King Edward VI’s first Book of Common Prayer (1549), entitled Censura, led to major alterations in a solidly if incompletely Reformed direction.

Particularly noteworthy is Bucer’s publication in 1524 of Grund und Ursach, recently reprinted as Ground and Reason, the first major defense of Protestant liturgical reforms. Hughes Old calls Grund und Ursach “one of the most significant documents in the history of Reformed worship.” It represents Bucer’s attempt on behalf of the Protestant ministers of Strasbourg to explain the ground (Grund) and reason or justification (Ursach) for the reforms taking place in their city. Services were being conducted in German, images had been removed, shrines and relics destroyed, and other substantial alterations in the medieval mass made. On the one hand, traditionalists were outraged and moderate humanists had become alienated from the movement for reform, while on the other hand Carlstadt and the Anabaptists didn’t believe the reform had gone far enough. Bucer moves systematically, issue by issue defending the changes in worship in Strasbourg. It is perhaps surprising, but more than that, encouraging to see the continuity in thinking from Bucer to, say, Hughes Old, in identifying the fundamental principles of Reformed worship. The Reformed consensus from Bucer to Calvin to Westminster to today is striking, as he addresses the Lord’s Supper, baptism, holy days, images, church song, and preaching.

Lord’s Supper

Bucer makes one basic point which has manifold repercussions: the Lord’s Supper is not a sacrifice, but a supper. He terms it “a most pernicious and most abominable error” to believe that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are sacrificed. He demonstrates both that the communion elements are “common food” (not the substance of Christ’s flesh) and that Christ’s death was “once for all” and complete. Because it is a Supper, he maintains, it should be called what the Bible calls it, the Lord’s Supper. What were formerly called altars should be called tables. All that implies sacrifice should be removed from the service: the elevation of the bread and cup, priestly vestments (“the magnificent armor of the Mass lovers”), and all gestures, postures, and language not found in Scripture, including the superstition-saturated sign-of-the-cross. These so-called “innovations” of Protestantism, removing the extra-biblical features, are rather “restorations,” Bucer claims, “of what is right, old, and eternal.” Fully 70% of Grund und Ursach is taken up with the reform of the Lord’s Supper.

Baptism

Bucer urges the reform of baptism by abolishing extra-biblical elements used in baptism – chrism, oil, salt, bread, candles, and consecrated water. These and other practices have “no scriptural justification,” he insists, and serve “no good purpose.” Rather, baptisms should be conducted “without ostentation.”

Holy days

Because of religious superstitions in connection with holy days and “carnal pursuits” surrounding them, Bucer argues for the abolition of all holy days that cannot be justified from Scripture. Why “establish useless celebrations,” he asks, that are “without a single Word of God?”

Images and holy places

Bucer praises the removal of idols and images from the churches on the basis of the 1st and 2nd Commandments. He urges, “The lay people should be taught with the Word of God and not with dumb blocks, stones, and paintings.” Bucer also attacks the veneration of saints and relics and pilgrimages to allegedly holy places. For such practices, “there is no Word of God,” there are no holy places (God’s help is not more available in one place than another), and “there is none who is more inclined to be merciful and to help us than our God and Father.”

Singing, prayer, preaching

The custom had become to sing songs and offer prayers not based on Scripture and to sing or say them in Latin. Bucer argues for songs and prayers “based on Holy Scripture” and in the language of the people “so that all may be encouraged and edified” (1 Cor 14:1-40; Col 3:16). “No services are to be held for the assembled congregation without sermons,” Bucer insists. This is perhaps the weakest part of his presentation. However, in the liturgy itself the sermon was the central feature, along with lectio continua readings of Scripture.

Guiding principles

What were Bucer’s guiding principles? Even in our brief review, they are plain enough.

First, Christian worship must be “according to Scripture.” Bucer appeals repeatedly to Scripture as the basis for reform. That which cannot be supported by Scripture must be eliminated or altered. That which is required by Scripture must be incorporated into the liturgy. This principle may be found on virtually every page of Grund und Ursach. In addition, Christian worship must be filled with Scripture and in the language of the people. The prayers, songs, and sermons must be full of scriptural content. “Everything is based on the Scriptures,” he insists.

Second, Christian worship must be spiritual and simple. Worship should be concerned primarily with inner spiritual realities. It is not primarily a matter of ceremonies, procedures, rituals, and forms. Rather, it is grounded in faith and motivated by love.

Conclusion

Bucer’s Grund und Ursach provides a clear example of how the Reformation’s reform of worship was theologically driven. Once the sufficiency and finality of Christ’s atonement was understood (solus Christus), and once the means by which the benefits of that atonement were received was understood (sola fide, sola gratia), the worship of the church had to be reformed. The former required the removal of everything that explicitly or implicitly suggested sacrifice in favor of the simple observance of the Lord’s Supper, at a table, administered by a minister, dressed in a simple gown. The latter required the removal of relics, images and idols (since faith comes by hearing the word of God, not gazing upon religious artifacts), and replacing them with reading, preaching, and singing of God’s word. Bucer’s reasoning is as compelling today as it was nearly 500 years ago, and it stands as a reminder to Reformed Protestants of why we do what we do in our public worship services.

The Incomparable Conjunction of Love and Wrath (Nick Batzig)

I was recently reading John Murray’s profoundly enriching sermon, “The Father’s Love“–in the newly released volume of his sermon, O Death, Where is Thy Sting?–and was struck afresh with the wonder of the mystery of the commingling of the Father’s love and wrath in His dealings with the Son on the cross. This greatest of all subjects received quite a good deal of attention last year, after Tim Keller tweeted out the following sentiment: “If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness.” While I certainly share the concern of those who reacted swiftly to the idea that the Son lost the Father’s love when He hung on the cross, I was disheartened to see how many of the responses lacked a strong focus on the simultaneity of the manifestation of the Father’s eternal love and divine wrath directed to the Son when He hung on the cross. In his sermon on Romans 8:32, however, Murray held these two seemingly incompatible truths inseparably together. 

When he first gave consideration of the words of the text, “spared not His own Son,” Murray explained:

“The Father loved the Son with infinite and immutable love because he did not cease to be the only begotten Son, and the infinite love necessarily flowed out from the very relationship that he essentially and immutably sustained to God the Father” (76). 

Murray insisted that we must distinguish between the two kinds of love that the Father had for the Son. The first is that immutable, “infinite love that flows out from the Father to the Son because of the intrinsic relationship that they sustain to one another” (75) The second is “the love of complacency that flowed out with increasing intensity to the Son because of His fulfillment of the Father’s commission” (75). This second kind of love that the Father had for the Son is captured in the words of Christ in John 10:17: “Therefore, the Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.” From this, we must conclude that the Father loved the Son incarnate the most, precisely at the moment when he was voluntarily laying down His life in connection with the command of His Father in the counsels of eternity. Murray noted:

“Every detail of the suffering endured by the Son constrained the love and delight of God the Father because it was all endured by the Son in obedience to the Father’s will and–in the performance of the Father’s will–the Son committed no sin.” 

There is, however, “an incomparable conjunction” at the cross–“an unheard-of conjunction: infinite love and divine wrath.” The Son becomes the object of the commingling of the love of the Father and the unmitigated wrath of the Father. “The essence of sin’s curse and judgment,” stated Murray, “is the wrath of God. So, if Jesus bore sin and if he bore our curse and if he was made sin, then the vicarious fearing of the wrath of God belongs to the very essence of his atoning accomplishment” (78). Here we see that the doctrine of propitiation is of the very essence of the truth of the Gospel. 

Murray further developed the mystery of the meaning of the conjunction of the manifestation of the Father’s infinite love and divine wrath at the cross in this sermon, when he noted: 

“The truth is that it is just because the Son was the object of this immutable, infinite, and unique love that he could at the same time be the subject of the wrath of God… (78)

…It was only because the Son was the object of the Father’s unique and immutable love that He could be thus abandoned. No other would be equal to it. The lost in perdition will be abandoned eternally, but not one of them will be able to of have occasion to say, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” The abandonment of Christ on Calvary’s tree was abandonment in pursuance of the commission given him by the Father, and it was abandonment with the unparalleled effect of ending that abandonment. And because it was abandonment with this result, it was abandonment with inimitable agony and reality…(79)

…The determinate purpose of the Father’s love was the explanation for the spectacle of the Son’s death. But the love that the Father bore to the Son did not diminish the severity of the ordeal that creates this spectacle–the ordeal of the cross and the abandonment vicariously born” (79). 

The Father’s love for those for whom the Son bears His wrath is set against the background of this wondrous conjunction of the Father’s love and wrath directed to the Son. Murray noted, “The Father loved His people with such such invincible love and purpose that he executed the full toll, the full stroke, of their condemnation upon His own Son. That is the Father’s love” (77).

All of this should, of course, make us “stagger with amazement…the amazement of believing and adoring wonder” (77). When we come to understand that the Father loved the Son the most while making the Son the object of His full and unfettered wrath–as He stood in our place as our substitutionary sacrifice–our hard hearts are melted. It is the “uncomparable conjunction” of the Father’s love and wrath directed to the Son that enables believers to grasp something of the greatness of the love that the Father has for us. 

Identity and Inheritance in the Velveteen Rabbit (Aaron Denlinger)

“The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But…the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing.”

So wrote the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating some years ago. Whatever the merits of Keating’s own solution to the situation he describes, his analysis of our basic human condition seems spot on to me. Keating understands that licentiousness and legalism represent not only alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of relating to divine law, and so of laying claim to one’s inheritance (whether measured in present or deferred beatitude), but also alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of constructing identity, and so projecting an image of one’s self both to one’s self and to others. Some define themselves by conquest and consumption; others by strict conformity to moral standards of one provenance or another.

The Gospel, by way of contrast and solution to the “false self,” bids us find our identity in our participation in the benefits of Christ’s person and work for us (forgiveness and renewal), and so in the vast love of God for us which stands behind our participation in the benefits of Christ’s person and work. Thereby it simultaneously invites us to forfeit those identities we have so carefully constructed via conquest and consumption or moral conformity (to precepts divine or human).

Recently I’ve been thinking about the way in which Margery Williams’s classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) captures this particular dynamic of the Gospel.

The Velveteen Rabbit has, of course, intrinsic worth. He’s made of velveteen after all. Velveteen may not be proper velvet, but presumably it beats polyester or mere cotton as far as materials go (disclaimer: I don’t actually know what I’m talking about on this score). Similarly, we human beings have intrinsic worth as image-bearers of God. Our image-bearing ontological/functional status should, at least in principle, go some way towards establishing our sense of self-worth as well as the worth of others. But in our fallen (or in the Velveteen Rabbit’s case neglected state), the truth about our origin and inherent status rarely suffices to keep the “false self” at bay. The reality is we’re wired for relationship, and questions of self-worth and identity inevitably revolve in the final analysis around the reality of whatever relationships (or lack thereof) we find ourselves in. Because sin has severed the relationship that matters most, we end up feeling lost and worthless; hence the quest to establish identity and worth down those paths noted previously.

The Velveteen Rabbit ultimately discovers his own identity — and so forfeits his own “false self” as well as any false hope entertained of realizing his eschatological end (“realness”) through false means — in the love bestowed upon him by the Boy. The Boy’s love doesn’t (initially) change what the Velveteen Rabbit is (i.e, a Velveteen Rabbit). But it does impart previously unrealized value and identity to the Rabbit. Similarly, God’s love for us doesn’t (initially) change what we are by nature, but it does impart a previously unrealized value and identity to us. God’s love, in other words, defines us. God’s love — measurable in the lengths that God has gone to in order to rescue us from the guilt and misery of our sin — bestows upon us the freedom to stop defining ourselves to ourselves and others by our conquest and consumption (on one hand) or (on the other) strict conformity to moral precepts.

But in the end, love not only defines the Velveteen Rabbit; it also transforms him. The Velveteen Rabbit, true to the prophetic word of the Skin Horse (the Velveteen Rabbit’s source of inspired truth), achieves realness on a new level by virtue of the love bestowed upon him, even though that love (and so the path to eschatological realness per se) introduces, whether directly or indirectly, considerable pain and sorrow to the Rabbit’s life. God’s love (and the realization of his love for us in the person and work of Christ) likewise leads to our own transformation (glorification). But, as every Christian knows and numerous New Testament texts conform, the path to glory is paved with pain and suffering (Rom. 8:17).

Of course, all analogies — including those based on children’s literature — break down in the end. The Velveteen Rabbit’s eschatological end necessarily separates him from the Boy whose very love imparted identity and an inheritance to him. God’s love, which imparts identity and inheritance to us, draws us into his presence more concretely in the end (which is to say, God is our inheritance). But perhaps enough parallels between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Gospel exist to extend G. K. Chesterton’s apology for the “ethic and philosophy of elfland” (and so all that children’s stories stand to teach us) to Williams’s classic work, even if it the Velveteen Rabbit (1922) slightly postdated Chesterton’s comments (Orthodoxy, 1908).

Decerebrated Frogs, the Straight Line and Cultural Accommodation (Nick Batzig)

In 1869, the German physiologist, Friedrich Goltz, published a series of conclusions from tests he performed on frogs. In his book, Beitrage zur Lehre von den Functionen der Nervencentren des Frosches (Contributions to the Theory of the Functions of the Nerve Centers of the Frog), Golz revealed that he had put a number of frogs in a pot of water and heated it to 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the frogs obviously made efforts to get out. Golz then slowly turned up the temperature until the frogs died of at 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When he ran the experiment on decerebrated frogs, Golz discovered that the decerebrated frogs remained calm until they were fully cooked in the boiling water. I relay this story at the risk of offending both PETA and little boys who love frogs, in order to draw an analogy. In “late modernity,” believers are in danger of becoming just like decerebrated frogs in the kettle. As the temperature of cultural wickedness increases around us, we remain motionless–until it’s too late. While we silently tolerate and seek to negotiate with a culture in which abortion, sexual immorality, idolatry, materialism, abuse and every other form of wickedness runs ramped, we are being cooked. I am not suggesting that we become bombastic cultural warriors. I am, however, suggesting that we need to wake up to the reality of the wickedness in the culture in which we live and be willing to live as the faithful, God-honoring, sin-hating, righteousness-loving, truth-speaking believers Christ has redeemed us to be–no matter the cost. 

Jesus teaches us that there will be evidences of God’s grace in the lives of those he redeems. The recipients of God’s grace are marked as being poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peacemaking, pure in heart and hungering and thirsting for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-9). They will also be those who are “persecuted for righteousness sake” (Matt. 5:10).  Righteousness is not a culturally defined concept–something determined by statist ethics or media-driven agendas. As one theologian rightly explained, “What God says is right is right because he says it and He says it because it rests on his holy nature.”1 This means that we must have our ethics shaped exclusively by Scripture. 

Recent exposés related to Rachael Dehollander, and other victims of sexual abuse, have served to prove how willing society–and, regrettably, even the church–has been to tolerate, cover and accommodate wickedness. If we have learned anything from this tragic situation, it is that we must wake up to the reality of wickedness in the world in which we live; and, be willing to call sin what it is. In order to do so, it is incumbent on us to defend the “straight line” of righteousness. Denhollander appealed to C.S. Lewis’ reflections in Mere Christianity on the “straight line,” as she faced her abuser: 

“I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth…without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”

What a powerful word there is in this for us. We must seek, by a diligent use of Scripture, to appropriate into our own thinking, consciences and lives the “straight line” of righteousness. When we cease doing so, we will inevitably begin to accommodate evil. This is not simply a call for us to stand up for victims. It is a call for us to reject all unrighteousness. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that something is wrong only because it hurts someone else in a perceptible manner. Sin is, first and foremost, rebellion against the King of Heaven. As R.C. Sproul put it, “Sin is cosmic treason…against a perfectly pure Sovereign.” When King David finally acknowledged his sin of adultery and repented of it before the Lord, he confessed, “Against You and You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:4). Accommodating culture on the horizontal plane is the inevitable result of downplaying the severity of sin on the vertical.

By nature, men and women approve those things that they know are abhorrent to God. The Apostle Paul–after opening the catalogue of natural depravity ranging from sexual immorality to unmercifulness (Rom. 1:29-31)–explained the science of cultural accommodation. “Who knowing the righteous judgment of God,” he wrote, “that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). Our natural instinct is not only to tolerate but also to practice and to approve evil in the lives of others. Accommodation can happen either explicitly (through vocal support or active engagement) or implicitly (by downplaying its severity or covering it up). When we accommodate societal sin in these ways we become just like the decerebrated frogs in the kettle. 

It is a travesty of the highest order when ministers publicly castigate fellow ministers for speaking out on such things as abortion, marriage, homosexuality and gender identity, while silently refusing to speak out on them. Appealing to kindness and ecclesiastical procedure–in attempts to censure vocal denunciation–is often nothing less than a smoke screen for fostering cultural accommodation. Rhetorical sophistry is par for the course, these days, for those who–wishing to blur the “straight line” of righteousness–silently promote ethical compromise.  

Believers are not to be zealous to uphold the “straight line” because we are better than others. God only justifies “ungodly” men and women (Rom. 4:5). Rather, we do so out of a desire to glorify the God who redeemed us and to reflect His image in a wicked and perverse world. We do so also for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus died for sin. It is impossible to hold out the abundant and lavish grace of God in the Gospel unless we first uphold God’s holiness and standard of righteousness (Rom. 5:20). The law makes sin exceedingly sinful so that men and women will see their need for the forgiveness and reconciliation that is only found in Christ (Rom. 7:13; Gal. 3:22). 

There will, of course, be a cost if we decide to do what is pleasing to God and stand for the “straight line” of righteousness in a world that approves and promotes wickedness. Rachael Denhollander learned that painful truth. Though the cost may be great, we must remember that there is true blessedness in upholding God’s standard of holiness. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the cultural accommodationists, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

Andrew White, Todd Pruitt and John the Baptist (Richard D. Phillips)

Over at Mortification of Spin, Todd Pruitt has made waves by sounding an alarm over Andrew White, the PCA ruling elder who–as a Democratic candidate for governor in Texas–has stated his commitment to legalized abortion and gay marriage.1 As reported by Pruitt, Mr. White stated on Texas Public Radio: “I support Roe v. Wade 100%,” and promised, “I’ll veto any of this legislation that’s coming out that limits a woman’s right to choose.” Todd responded with an open letter to Mr. White that laid out the biblical stance on the wickedness of abortion and called on him to repent. If Mr. White continues, Pruitt expressed the prayerful hope that his session and presbytery will subject him to church discipline.

In the aftermath of this public letter, Pruitt followed up to report on the response from the differing sides of the PCA.2 On the one hand, he notes how biblical conservatives expressed horror that an elder in our Bible-believing denomination could seek to provide political protection to sins condemned so clearly in Scripture, along with alarm over the apparent approval (or at least inaction) of his Session. On the other hand, Pruitt was contacted by numbers of progressives in the PCA who held the opposite view. Pruitt has been labeled as schismatic and divisive, accused of meddling, and derided for an “unchristian attitude.” Included was the inevitable complaint that Todd had not followed Matthew 18 by first contacting Mr. White in private (this despite the fact that Matthew 18 concerns sins committed against us personally, not public sins by public persons).

One lesson from this situation is that the PCA in its fifth decade is deeply divided over core issues that extend even to the most basic biblical ethics. Just last week, Pew Research published a survey of views on the morality of abortion which claimed that 54% of PCA members support abortion “in all or most cases.” Many of us have found this statistic hard to believe, but Andrew White and his supporters suggest otherwise. Is it possible that a professedly Bible-believing denomination could be so deeply divided on such a basic issue as the morality of the slaughter of pre-born babies? If so, how could this happen? Perhaps the PCA’s differences over worship, confessional fidelity, and cultural accommodation are more closely connected to our most basic Christian commitments than many have thought. Or, perhaps, the issue is really only about the relationship between church and culture. This would seem to be the concern of Pruitt’s critics, who argue that a professing Christian (and elder) should be able to give public support to biblical abominations. You know, two kingdoms, etc.

Here’s where John the Baptist comes in. It so happens that my Wednesday night studies on Mark’s Gospel bring me tonight to the passage where John the Baptist publicly scolds Herod Antipas for his adultery with his brother’s wife Herodias (who is also his niece). Herodias doesn’t like this a bit and so after her daughter mesmerizes a drunken Herod, John the Baptist’s head comes off. What insight does this passage provide to Andrew White and Todd Pruitt? One way to answer the question is to ask where the faithful servant of Christ is found? Is he at the party with Herod? Is he defending Herod’s right to practice his own idea of sexual ethics? I would say that the lesson for Mr. White is found in Herod’s experience: if conscience does not silence sin, then sin will silence conscience. But for you, Todd, the lesson is found not only in the hatred directed towards John the Baptist but also in the attitude of Jesus toward his faithful servant.

 

1. Mike Ward “White’s Church Ties Raise Questions About His Views on Gay Marriage,” in the Houston Chronicle (January 26< 2018) 

2. See Todd’s post “What if he was a racist?

A Prayer for Survivors and East Lansing (Jason Helopoulos)

And the pain that has been inflicted.

lamentation and bitter weeping.

because they are no more.”

Our children, Lord! Our children

Oh, how our hearts are filled with sadness

and our eyes with tears

as we think of the small children, our teenage daughters, and young women

abused over the past twenty years

O Father, what wickedness

An evil that turns the stomach, confounds the mind, and depresses the soul

A monstrous evil committed in our community

An evil filled with selfishness and corruption

A wickedness that made a mockery of trust and authority

A crime injuring the least among us.

It pains us to think of a man committing such a crime over and over

And the pain only grows as we think how many turned a blind eye

But You did not

You did not.

We praise you this morning that you are a god of justice

Larry Nassar thought the abuse he committed would always be shrouded in secret

But nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest by your authority

Nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light in your light

For You will render to every man according to his deeds

Your justice will stand

And none can thwart it.

And so, we believe that it was no accident that these things have come to light

We thank You for those who had the courage to make these crimes known

What courageous young women

To stand against evil

To know they would become the objects of ridicule

To bare their soul’s great pain before an unentitled world

To shine light in the midst of darkness

So that justice might be served

And others protected

We thank you for them.

We pray for each of these women, teenagers, and little girls this morning

Though their courage has been great, so has their suffering

Grant them healing under your wings

Give them hope amidst their pain

Extend to them comfort that can only come from above

And in the days and weeks and years ahead

May they find that though the scar remains, it has become less tender

That the dark days of the past have faded in their mind’s eye

That the pain is less fresh

And healing more at hand

And we ask that the years that the locusts have eaten,

You would restore.

This morning, we especially want to pray for Rachel Denhollander,

our dear sister in Christ

Like Moses before Pharaoh, David before Goliath, and Paul before Felix

She has modeled for us sacrificial, strong, faith-filled-courage

Give us boldness like her

To speak for truth, to condemn evil, and to grant grace

What a testimony, a living testimony she is

Thank you for her leadership,

Her desire to pursue justice and at the same time to extend forgiveness

Truly we have much to learn from her

We pray that after this long battle–and it has been a battle

That after this long battle, you will give her rest

Rest in body

Rest in mind

Rest in spirit

Rest in heart

O Lord, Sabbath, be a resting place for her

For the sake of your name, shower her with your grace and love and peace.

We also praise you this morning that you are a God of truth

And so, we pray for our community

May truth reign

A university city which prides itself on the pursuit of knowledge

And yet so many swam in a sea of lies

Awaken this land to the evil in it

Lead us as a community in repentance

Heal us

And as the God of truth

Protect those who have done no wrong

Safeguard their reputations

Keep them from false accusations

May truth reign.

We also praise you this morning that you are a God of salvation

And so, we pray for Larry Nassar

As Rachel modeled before us,

so we pray that he would come to know You,

We pray that he would be brought low

That he would fall upon his knees

Be forced to reckon with the guilt of his sin

Its terrible weight and burden

So that he might find that his only hope is You

We would see him like Saul, an enemy of righteousness,

struck blind and given sight to see you the one and only true God.

And may You wipe away our every tear.

And may You receive the glory.

Essential Tools for Preaching Christ (Part 2) (Ryan McGraw)

Sound exegesis is insufficient for sound preaching. This assertion might seem surprising in light of the popular resurgence of consecutive expository preaching. While we should welcome and encourage the shift toward expository preaching due to its emphasis on biblical texts and books, it is not included in the Scriptural definition of preaching. 

The Bible defines preaching in terms of what it is and what its goals are. Scripture defines preaching, preaching should explain and apply Scripture, and preaching should be filled with Scripture. While preaching should ordinarily be consecutive and expository, we should remember that this is a pragmatic conclusion more than it is a biblical mandate. There are good reasons for consecutive expository preaching, but the Bible does not make this method inherent to preaching. Preaching is a public authoritative declaration of the gospel, by ordained ambassadors of Christ, through which Christ calls people to be reconciled to God.

Most New Testament examples of preaching Christ are theological and devotional rather than exegetical and redemptive historical. This stands in partial contrast to predominating patterns in contemporary approaches to preaching. Asking whether preaching should be grammatical or redemptive historical does not take the question far enough. Connecting Christ to biblical passages theologically and devotionally are the remaining two methods by which preachers should preach Christ. This post treats the theological necessity of preaching Christ while the next one explains its devotional necessity. Understanding how these tools work in preaching Christ helps us better understand how to pray for pastors as they prepare sermons and what to expect from them as they preach sermons.

Preaching Christ is theologically necessary. As theological ideas appear in texts of Scripture, those ideas become means of bringing Christ into sermons without reading him into every biblical text. Some examples will clarify this point.

Theology proper culminates in Christology. Christ exemplifies the divine attributes. He is “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power (1 Tim. 6:15-16). His person and work make the glorious constellation of divine attributes shine forth in radiant splendor. Christ shows us how we relate to the other persons of the Trinity. He is the Father’s agent of creation (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16). He is the Father’s instrument of redemption (Eph. 1:7-12). He poured out the Spirit from the Father to equip the church for his mission (Acts 2:33). Any text presenting the authority and majesty of God should leads us to the Father, who represents the majesty of the Godhead. Any text convicting us of sin or requiring repentance directs us to Christ, who removes sin and who is the pattern of godliness. Any text requiring us to do or to believe something directs us to the Spirit, who illumines our minds and renews our hearts to believe and obey God. What passage of the Bible does not relate to these things? We cannot preach one person of the Godhead without preaching all three. The doctrine of God precedes the doctrine of Christ in order of priority. Yet without Christology the doctrine of God by itself cannot fulfill the goals of preaching.

The doctrine of salvation (soteriology) revolves around Christology. Every biblical text relates to soteriology in some respect because all Scripture says something about our relation to God. Christ’s person and work is the summary of the gospel (1 Tim. 3:16). His person is the ground of the gospel and we receive his benefits through union with him by faith. God justifies us by forgiving our sins and accepting us as righteous through Christ’s death and resurrection (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 4:21). Christ was born of a woman and made under the law so that we might receive the Spirit of adoption (Gal. 4:4; Rom. 8:15). Christ is essential image of God (Heb. 1:3) who renews in us the created image of God (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). He is our sanctification. In Christ, we persevere to the end and enter into glory. In summary, “But of him you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Every part of Scripture that says anything about any of these subjects enables ministers to appeal to Christ theologically as the summary of the gospel and as the only means of salvation.

The doctrine of the church and of the last things is meaningless apart from Christ. He is the Head of the church, which is his body (1 Cor. 12:27; Col. 1:18). The sacraments of the church point to our union with Christ and with his members. We are all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). We are one bread and one body in the Lord (1 Cor. 10:17). We cannot belong truly to the church without being united to Christ and we cannot be united to Christ without being united to his people. The sacraments embody and seal both realities to believers. At the last Day, Christ will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31). Our bodily resurrection in Christ is the goal of our redemption (1 Cor. 15). Our highest blessedness will consist in seeing Christ as he is and being made like him (1 Jn. 3:1-2). Our hope in this blessed sight (beatific vision) is one of the primary reasons why we pursue holiness now (v. 3). Any biblical passage that relates to the church, the sacraments, and the last things furnishes ministers with means by which to preach Christ and, in so doing, to fulfill the ends of preaching.

Preaching Christ theologically shows that pastors need more than commentaries to prepare sermons. Preachers should not drive their sermons off of their exegetical rails by turning sermons into lessons in systematic theology. Preaching consecutive expository sermons helps hearers understand the Bible as a whole better. Doing so helps offset the biases and imperfections of ministers by preventing them from preaching their favorite texts and topics only. Yet God’s designs in preaching are rarely met through the relatively straightforward process of exegetical labors. We must use many tools to preach Christ. Preaching Christ is part of the biblical definition of preaching; preaching redemptive or grammatical-historical sermons is not. Without undermining the value of expository sermons, we should remember that the purpose of exegesis is to explain texts in their contexts and that the purpose of explaining texts is to preach Christ from those texts. Making exegesis and end in itself in preaching is like learning to be an expert bricklayer in order to lay bricks instead to construct walls or buildings. Making theological connections is just as necessary to preach biblically as is exegesis and biblical theology. Several subsequent posts will illustrate what this looks like in practice.

*This is the seventh post in Dr. McGraw’s series on preaching

Free R.C. Sproul Downloads (Editors)

RCSRPOUL.jpg

Until the end of the month, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is giving our readers the opportunity to download audio from a variety of Conferences at which R.C. spoke over a 30 year period. If you visit Reformed Resources, you will find audio from the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology to the National Pastor’s Conference. Please enjoy these as a token of our appreciation for R.C.’s faithful ministry. 

Posted January 25, 2018 @ 10:28 PM by Editors