Lent Is Methodist

Bill Smith, always worth a read, thinks Old Life has declared another war on objections to Lent. He acknowledges two chief objections among Reformed Protestants to Lent — the regulative principle of worship and the fear of Romish practices. The regulative principle should actually take care of the matter for the sake of corporate worship and the life of the church. If a Christian wants to engage in some kind of Lenten activities as a means to holiness, well, whatever floats your sanctification. But for officers in the church to make Lent the norm for a congregation or a communion, then they better come with something more than “it looks like a pretty good idea” and “our motives are generally pious.” Plus, if church members may opt out of Lenten abstemiousness, then what’s the point of officers calling for the wider body to “special” actions during a certain number of days in late winter?

Still, Bill is not content with those objections. He returns fire and argues that Lent is actually a reasonable form of temporary form of sanctification:

Another objection is that those who observe Lent use it as a time for the temporary repentance from certain sins which are normally indulged, while Jesus calls us to repent of all sins all the time. It may well be that some poorly instructed Christians view Lenten practice in that way, but in my experience I have never heard anyone who observes Lent speak of a temporary giving up of sin.

Fine. So a Christian who pursues holiness 365/12 now adds an intense time of repentance for a specified forty days before a Sunday some communions designate Easter. Maybe that’s how it works among Reformed Episcopalians.

But why THESE forty days and not another thirty in September and October, or maybe a dozen or so in late spring and early winter? Why not more intense forms of repentance sprinkled throughout the year? Or why not leave each family and person to decide when and for how long to engage in certain times of self-denial? Why these days that some designate as Lent?

Could it be that some churches embrace a formula for Lent and so follow the spiritual equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet for the pursuit of holiness? The Lent practitioner follows these forty days with the other saints of similar inclinations and so doesn’t have to consider whether another time of fasting and prayer is needed or useful for another time during the year?

That kind of methodical piety is what Charles Briggs called, “Methodist.” It was a word he applied to the proponents of the First Pretty Good Awakening who insisted that godliness manifest itself in certain predictable and uniform ways. Of course, the idea of likening the church calendar to revivalism is oxymoronic. But to everyone who concedes that believers mature and bear different kinds of spiritual fruit in the course of their lives, the idea that you can prescribe a certain number of days — the same ones every year — for extra special holiness, and the one that requires the same kind of religious zeal to prove your conversion, are not so far removed. Both pietism and prescribed liturgicalism promote a one-size fits all spirituality that is perfect for bureaucracies, but not so hot for the diversity of human experience.

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The Answer John Piper Should Have Given

I wrote yesterday about the odd advice John Piper gave to an inquirer about watching television and movies. Even odder was that Piper did not correct said inquirer for asserting this:

Dear Pastor John, hello! I know that I have begged for Christ to receive my heart and life. My repentance is sincere. I have stopped my willful sinning, and I am doing everything I can to live a holy life. My question is about my desire and satisfaction in spiritual discipline and worship. I prefer entertainment to time with God. That’s the honest truth.

Stopped willful sinning?

Hello.

If Piper doesn’t correct that one with some instruction about ongoing sin, simul justus et peccator and all, hasn’t he missed a great teaching opportunity?

That he failed to challenge this framing of the question may be a tell about the Baptist pastor’s understanding of justification and good works.

Union with Christ for Experimental Calvinists

According to a pseudonymous author, 1978 was the year Reformed theology changed:

Reformed theology has changed. And there seems to be no going back. It was in the year 1978 that a tectonic shift in the underlying structure of Reformed theology began with the publication of a small book. The changes were not only systematic, but also systemic—affecting all aspects of it. Yet, interestingly, the changes were initially imperceptible until several years later.

Dr. Richard Gaffin, of Westminster Theological Seminary published his first book, The Centrality of the Resurrection, which would later be renamed and mass published under the title Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology. It was in this fine exegetical work that Dr. Gaffin unpacked the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s salvation vocabulary. Words like justification, sanctification, adoption, etc. would be understood differently in light his research. Dr. Gaffin was building upon historical Reformed theology as well as critiquing it. To do this he was deeply influenced by the work of various theologians across denominational distinctions, and in particular he was shaped by Reformed thinkers such as Herman Ridderbos and John Murray. But in the end, Dr. Gaffin would put together the exegetical conclusions in a way that had never been done before.

A recovery of union with Christ could have led to a higher view of the sacraments, the way it did for John Williamson Nevin, who also stressed union with Christ:

Most people are taught in Reformed churches and seminaries, to think linearly about salvation (e.g. Justification leads to Sanctification which leads to Glorification). A person is first justified (i.e. saved, forgiven) and then comes sanctification (i.e. growth, maturity), and then comes glorification (i.e. dying and rising from the dead at the resurrection). Other words may be added to this order of salvation (e.g. regeneration, adoption, etc.) but the historical way of looking at these words fits them in an unbreakable, linear, “golden” chain. This is called the ordo salutis (Latin term: “order of salvation”). It’s the Reformed way of explaining the application of salvation to a person from beginning to end. Once a person is justified, the other benefits follow in due course. If a person is “truly” justified, the rest will follow.

This is one reason why Reformed theology has always struggled to “fit” the sacraments into any meaningful place in its systematic theology. If the golden chain of salvation can’t break, then it’s difficult to see how baptism is really all that important or why the Lord’s Supper is necessary. While Reformed theology held to the Lord’s Supper as a “means of grace” it was rare to find a Reformed church practice weekly communion or place it on par with preaching. The sacraments were aids to faith–crutches if you will–but not really necessary in the life and practice of Reformed churches considering the logical consequences of the “golden chain.” If you focus on the linear progression of the ordo salutis, the unbreakable chain of salvation, starting with predestination and ending with glorification then, the sacraments have little need in such a theological system, logically and practically speaking.

But that isn’t where Dr. Gaffin wanted union to go:

But if soteriology is eschatology, then doesn’t soteriology also include the restoration and renewal of personal relationships in a new community? If that’s the case, then isn’t soteriology also ecclesiology? This conclusion, in particular, the “New Gaffin” in his By Faith would attempt to avoid in order distance himself from the sacramental and ecclesiological implications. While many scholars and theologians were coming to this particular conclusion, Dr. Gaffin was distancing himself away from the conclusion that soteriology is ecclesiology.

But despite his attempts to ward off the conclusions, there were clear biblical arguments that couldn’t be avoided by many. Baptism engrafts into Jesus Christ. As Dr. Gaffin had originally said, “…if ‘washing’ on which ‘regeneration’ is directly dependent in Titus 3:5, refers to baptism, then what Romans 6:3ff…teaches concerning baptism as a sign and seal of incorporation with the resurrected Christ, and so the implications of that incorporation, will have to be brought to bear here.” The implications were clear to many: All the benefits of salvation are given in baptism because baptism engrafts into Christ. Soteriology didn’t simply have “implications” on ecclesiology; it is ecclesiology. To be baptized into the Christian church is to be baptized into Jesus Christ.

In which case, how revolutionary was the recovery of union with Christ? Did its advocates simply tinker with the ordo salutis or did they seek to apply union to ecclesiology, liturgy and the sacraments? From this seat, it looks like union had a narrow application, chiefly to a discussion of the application of redemption that comes up in questions 29 through 38 in the Shorter Catechism. For union to apply to questions 88 through 97, unionists would need the Federal Visionaries.

Catechesis or Seminary?

Imagine if this woman had simply relied on the means of covenant nurture to acquire a better understanding of God and salvation:

Is seminary absolutely necessary to get that foundation (or any of the other things I’ve mentioned)? No, not necessarily. Could a person learn all I learned without a seminary education? Probably. But it’s harder to do it on your own. There’s something to be said about surrounding yourself with trustworthy, godly professors who will guide you to a deeper faith in God and knowledge of his Word.

Well, there it is. That’s what I’d tell a friend if they asked whether I’m glad I went to seminary. I’d refill her coffee, double check the time to ensure we weren’t late for preschool pickup or whatever errands we were supposed to be doing, and if we still had an extra minute we’d discuss the ways seminary might be possible for her if she were interested.

No matter where God leads me from here, I’ll never regret the time I spent in seminary.

Makes me wonder if I would have had to go to seminary if my church had offered the kind of instruction that I was seeking. Did I really need Greek and Hebrew to understand what the Confession of Faith lays out so well?

Where’s Waldo 2016 Update

Since some of the comments of late are echoing the union-with-Christ-centric reading of Reformed soteriology that animated many posts here, I offer a refresher on Calvin’s understanding of first-importance matters when he was explaining to Cardinal Sadoleto what Protestants believed about salvation. Note first the priority of forensics — this is about sin, guilt, law, legal verdicts:

We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.

Oh, yes, he talks about communion. That’s not union, at least in the English language I use.

Second, the obedience boys should observe Calvin’s understanding of works in relation to faith:

What have you here, Sadolet, to bite or carp at? Is it that we leave no room for works? Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, they are worth one single straw. For Scripture everywhere cries aloud, that all are lost; and every mans’s own conscience bitterly accuses him. The same Scripture teaches, that no hope is left but in the mere goodness of God, by which sin is pardoned, and righteousness imputed to us. It declares both to be gratuitous, and finally concludes that a man is justified without works, (Rom. iv. 7.) But what notion, you ask, does the very term Righteousness suggest to us, if respect is not paid to good works ? I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture, you would have no difficulty. For it does not refer to a man’s own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which, contrary to the sinner’s deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness. Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul, (2 Cor. v. 19,) that God bath reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. The mode is afterwards subjoined — by not imputing sin. He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel. But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification. I answer, that Paul, whenever he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works. Hence his familiar inference — if by faith, then not by works. On the other hand — if by works, then not by faith.

Funny how far union with Christ was from Calvin’s explicit explanation of Protestant soteriology. Maybe union comes in the Development of Calvinist Doctrine. One man’s development is another’s change.

Machen Helps Keep Law and Gospel Straight

If he were living, he’d also straighten out the obedience boys:

But what ought to be clearly observed is that that Covenant of Works or Covenant of Life did not offer “salvation.” The word “salvation” implies something from which one is saved. Adam was not lost when that Covenant of Life was given him. On the contrary he had knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The Covenant of Works was not given as a way by which a sinner might get rid of his sin and merit eternal life.

Neither was the Mosaic Law given for any such purpose. It was not given to present, even hypothetically, a way by which a sinner, already eternally under the condemnation of sin, could by future perfect obedience merit the favor of God. And Dr. Charles Hodge surely does not regard it as given for any such purpose.

The root error, or one of the many root errors of the Dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible seems to me to be the utter failure to recognize and make central the fact of the Fall of man. I know that there are salutary inconsistencies in the Scofield Bible. I know that in the notes on the fifth chapter of Romans there is taught, not indeed the orthodox doctrine of imputation, but still some recognition of the universal corruption that has come from Adam’s sin. But by what a back-door even that much of the central Biblical teaching is brought in! As one reads Dr. Scofield’s notes one does not for the most part get the slightest inkling of the fact that anything irrevocable took place when Adam fell. After his Fall man continued to be tested in successive dispensations. See for example the definition of a dispensation which Dr. Scofield gives at the beginning. That is one of the things that seems to me to be so profoundly heretical in this commentary.

It is contrary to the very heart of the Augustinian and Calvinistic view of sin. According to that view — and surely according to the Bible — the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to his posterity. Adam being by divine appointment the representative or federal head of the race. Thus all descended from Adam by ordinary generation are guilty. They are guilty before they individually have done anything either good or bad. They are under the penalty of sin when they are born. Part of that penalty of sin is hopeless corruption, from which, if there is growth to years of discretion, individual transgressions spring. How utterly absurd would it have been therefore for God to offer the Mosaic Law, to such an already condemned and fallen race, as something which, if only obeyed by that already condemned and fallen race, would bring salvation and eternal life!

Hard to love the law when it doesn’t do all that faith in Christ does.

Personal Sins Require the Cross, Institutional Sins Only Need Policy

Here’s why the talk of systemic sin and social salvation comes up short. It underestimates the gravity of sin and the significance of the remedy. Consider R. York Moore’s case for corporate repentance:

Salvation for American Christians is a transaction between two individuals—themselves and God. This over-simplification of sin does not make sense of systemic, corporate evil, brokenness, and social maladies. American evangelicals reason that if someone is poor, perhaps it is due to his or her individual sinful choices. If someone is denied access to education, perhaps it is because of his or her work ethic or ability to work with others.

Notice that relations between God and man on the sin score card over simplify sin. Never mind that the remedy for my sin only required the eternal son of God to take human form and bear the guilt and penalty of my sin by dying a brutal death. Overly simple? I don’t think so.

Moore goes on to mention ways that healing and restoration “in Christ” may come for the social maladies and corporate injustices of “banking and land development policies [that locked blacks] into cycles of poverty, inadequate housing, and educational opportunities.”

Here are a couple ways to engage the environments, cycles, and systems of injustice that disproportionately impact Black communities.
• Land developers can work with political leaders to create affordable housing that has better potential for wealth creation.
• Policy makers in the banking industry can work toward pathways of empowerment for Black entrepreneurs.
• Law enforcement can pursue racialized quotas in their ranks coupled with substantive ethnic diversity training.

If I follow the implications of Moore’s logic, viewing sin from the perspective of sin and salvation is simplistic because corporate sin is so much more complicated. But the remedy for these structural sins that are so much graver than personal sins comes from a few policy changes that seem inconsequential when compared to the crucifixion.

This is why talk of social sin and social redemption is worrisome. It treats the saving work of Christ as insignificant compared to political reform.

Who’s simplistic now?

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

Didn’t the Reformation start with objections to the cash nexus between grace and financial contributions? So how much did the Council of Trent reform ecclesiastical abuses in the light of recent announcements about new criteria for becoming a saint?

To approve a miracle, at least 5 out of the 7 members of the body of medical experts within the congregation must approve, or 4 out of 6, depending on the size of the group, as opposed to a simple majority.

In case a miracle report is rejected on the first go-around, it may only be reexamined a total of three times.

In order to reexamine a miracle claim, new members must be named to the consulting body.

The president of the consulting body may only be confirmed to one additional five-year term after the original mandate expires.

While in the past payments to experts could be made in person by cash or check, now the experts must be paid exclusively through a bank transfer.

I don’t know about you, but my impression of the miraculous is that if part of a group of believers thinks an unusual event was not miraculous, then it probably was not. Generally speaking, the works of God are pretty straight forward to those with eyes of faith (questions about ongoing miracles notwithstanding). And do we really need science to tell validate a miracle? Isn’t faith sufficient?

But the kicker is the financial aspect to these policy changes:

In his book “Merchants in the Temple,” Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi charged the congregation was among the most reluctant Vatican offices to cooperate with new transparency measures imposed as part of Francis’s project of Vatican reform, and asserted that the average cost of a sainthood cause was about $550,000.

U.S. Catholic officials traditionally have used $250,000 as a benchmark for the cost of a cause from the initial investigation on a diocesan level, to a canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, though that cost can increase depending in part of how many people take part in the canonization ceremony and the logistics of organizing the event.

In March, Pope Francis had already approved a new set of financial procedures for the congregation, outlining procedures for handling contributions and specifying which authorities are charged with overseeing the flow of money.

Also notice that even though the path to sainthood has become more — let’s say — complicated, those already saints stay saints:

The new rules are not retroactive, and hence they do not invalidate any beatifications or canonizations performed under earlier procedures.

Fulton Sheen’s advocates are no doubt disappointed.

For any apologist out there, this is the sort of thing that makes no sense to a Protestant (and is truly audacious). We do concede that sainthood can be bought. The price that Jesus paid with his precious blood is worth more than all the silver and gold you can put in a Vatican bank safe. So yes, there is a payment for sanctity. But it is entirely beyond the economic calculations of this world.

One might think that after five hundred years, Roman Catholic bishops might have learned that lesson.

Publishing Is Not Good for the Soul

Just ask Jonathan Edwards (via Jonathan Yeager):

Edwards vocalized his disgust with the way that his book Religious Affections was published in 1746, probably because it was concisely printed, with tightly cropped margins and line spacing. Despite his complaints, the printer for this book feared that he had not printed enough copies to meet public demand. In an advertisement at the end of the book, the Boston printer Samuel Kneeland remarked that some 1,300 subscriptions had been taken for Religious Affections, at a time when a colonial author would have rejoiced if 500 copies of a book sold.

Edwards was also not happy with the editorial work that the ministers Benjamin Colman, John Guyse, and Isaac Watts did when publishing his revival account A Faithful Narrative in London. After its publication in 1737, none of the first editions of Edwards’s book would be published again from London. Partially because of Edwards’s desire to exercise more control in how his future books would be edited and published, he preferred to have them printed from Boston, where his trustworthy friend Thomas Foxcroft could oversee the presswork. Here again is more irony. A Faithful Narrative was one of Edwards’s best-selling books, and led to his international recognition as a revivalist. Yet if this book had been published in Boston, he might not have achieved international fame within his lifetime.

Personally, I don’t think Edwards was wrong to be particular about the way his books looked, nor do I think he should have thought his own book sense better than someone in the business. But is this the kind of reaction you’d expect from a man so earnest for holiness? Sure, he was a regenerate sinner like the rest of us. But the New Calvinists (and their Obedience Boys siblings) keep marveling at former New Calvinists’ sanctity. Can’t we de-escalate the piousity syndrome and relate like real human beings?

Calvinism as an Upgrade

Once baptized, always a Roman Catholic:

Pope Benedict affirmed that Catholicism comes without an escape clause: Once a person is baptized or received into the Church, there is no getting out.

Of course rejecting ecclesiastical communion or the Church’s doctrine has consequences, among them the penalty of excommunication. But excommunication is a punishment, not a shunning. Disobedient or dishonest Catholics might face damnation for their choices, but they will go their deathbeds as members of our Church. One can be a Catholic and be pro-choice, but having rejected the truth and the Church’s communion, he had better be prepared to face his judgment.

The fact is that among the People of God are those who have rejected the grace God has given them. That our Church includes the reprobate, and the dogmatically impure, and that we ourselves sometimes fill out those categories. The unpleasant truth is that one can be Catholic, and still be damned.

The grace of baptism is no assurance against going to hell.

But the elect don’t go to hell.

So election and baptism do not vary in this life. In the life to come, election and baptism’s consequences vary considerably.