The Logic of Comfort

The folks who like to draw attention to obedience in the Christian life do not seem to consider the source of believer’s comfort. Consider the following:

Since the Bible doesn’t restrict the word “gospel” to a very precise meaning, we shouldn’t either. This is not to say that we can’t use the gospel in its narrow sense and distinguish between the gospel (what Jesus has done) and our response to the gospel (what we need to do). To do so is to distinguish between redemption accomplished and redemption applied, and that is a very helpful and necessary distinction. The point is that we shouldn’t oppose or separate them. The Bible binds them together and includes both under the term “gospel.”

Paul summarized the gospel he preached in terms of the death and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-5). But that is not all there is to the gospel, or even to the work of Christ. A summary of the gospel is just that—a summary—and it shouldn’t be set in direct opposition to its broader definition or fuller explanation.

There are some rather large problems that may arise when people limit the meaning of the gospel to its narrow sense. One potential problem is the unjust accusation of legalism or of mixing law and gospel. It is not necessarily legalistic to use phrases such as “living the gospel,” “obeying the gospel,” or “the conditions of the gospel.” But if you see what we do as only “law” and what Christ has done as only “gospel” then you will likely interpret the broad but biblical use of the term “gospel” as legalistic. Another potential problem is the minimization or outright denial of the conditions of the gospel, which is what the puritans called antinomianism.

If you confessed, however, the Heidelberg Catechism, what would its first answer do to efforts to make the gospel something you obey?

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together
for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

It’s not as if that assertion lacks good works. But the Holy Spirit is the one to produce good works. Obedience inevitably springs from a true faith that receives and rests on Christ. To speak of the gospel requiring good works places the burden on believers who thought they had comfort.

That may explain why in Paul’s short summary (too short for some) of the gospel in 1 Cor 15:1-5, he goes on to talk about the comfort that believers take from Christ’s finished work:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So glad Paul did not write, “if Christ has not been raised, your obedience is futile and your good works don’t count for anything.”

When Congregationalists Were Woke (150 years ago)

Observations about the Boston Council of Congregationalists in 1865:

Even mild and bespectacled Alonzo Quint, who had just returned from service as a Union army chaplain, burst out in protest during a discussion of the civil rights of rebels, declaring them “uncommonly stupid and ignorant” and “unfit to come back and be trusted with a vote.” Quint let fly again at the delegation from Great Britain, who were present at the council. Still deeply angry over British support for the Confederacy, and egged on by hisses from other delegates, he denounced them as “always ready to follow the powerful, and always read to crush the weak,” “robbing in India [and] plundering in Ireland.”

Sometimes bitterness boiled over. A report on evangelization in the South prompted Samuel Pomeroy, who was both a Republican senator from Kansas and president of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, to declare that it would suit him better “if we spoke out a little more plainly about hanging somebody.” When the delegates responded with applause, Pomeroy pressed on: “I am very willing to mingle our justice with mercy to the common people of the South . . . but it does seem to me it is time somebody was hung.” Pausing for yet another round of applause, he further advised that “some wholesome hanging, I think, would have settled this question in the minds of the American people long ago; and I do not believe that a convention, even of this character, composed largely of clergymen, — men who love forgiveness and mercy, — would not be harmed if it adopted a little stiffer resolution on this question.” (Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans, 55)

This makes Thabiti Anyabwile look restrained.

On Necessity, Inevitability, and Finding a Basis

The Belgic Confession (Art. 24) says this about good works:

Therefore,
far from making people cold
toward living in a pious and holy way,
this justifying faith,
quite to the contrary,
so works within them that
apart from it
they will never do a thing out of love for God
but only out of love for themselves
and fear of being condemned.

So then, it is impossible
for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being,
seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith
but of what Scripture calls
“faith working through love,”
which moves people to do by themselves
the works that God has commanded
in the Word.

Faith makes good works inevitable and in a sense necessary. Without faith, the motivation for works changes.

Faith also affects the way we view good works. It allows Christians to look to Christ’s righteousness as the basis for salvation even while pursuing good works, rather than asking, “have I done enough?”

Moreover,
although we do good works
we do not base our salvation on them;
for we cannot do any work
that is not defiled by our flesh
and also worthy of punishment.
And even if we could point to one,
memory of a single sin is enough
for God to reject that work.

So we would always be in doubt,
tossed back and forth
without any certainty,
and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly
if they did not rest on the merit
of the suffering and death of our Savior.

Even the language of saying works are necessary to, as opposed to for, salvation is to veer in the direction of making works one basis among others for our salvation.

Given the propensity of fallen human nature for self-righteousness, loose talk about good works is like what Mark Noll said about evangelicals and activism: “to urge activist evangelicals to get more active is like pointing an addict toward dope.”

To urge Christians to good works for final salvation, without lots of qualifications, is like encouraging a relapse.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

A Bug or Defect?

More questions about purgatory that don’t seem to find ready answers by searching online. Could it be that if half of U.S. Roman Catholics don’t understand the Mass, numbers may be even worse for passing a test on purgatory?

Here’s the question: does Christ’s return affect souls in purgatory? If I am in need of 1,500 years of purgation for — well, let’s not get into it — and if Jesus returns in 988th year of my time in purgatory, do I need to stay in purgatory another 512 years? It seems like a good question if you look at this answer:

The Church believes that almost everyone else, although not bad enough to go to hell, aren’t good enough to skate into heaven with no need for some introspection and purification.

Think of it like this: Joe and Max were both born on the same day and both died on the same day. Joe was a gambler, boozer, and womanizer, and he was dishonest, lazy, and undependable. Max, on the other hand, spent his life obeying the Ten Commandments, practicing virtue, and loving God and neighbor. Just before dying, Joe repents of his old ways and accepts the Lord into his heart. Should Joe and Max both go to heaven at the same time? Catholicism teaches no. The Church believes that Jesus’ death allows everyone the possibility of heaven, and his mercy grants forgiveness, but his justice demands that good be rewarded and evil punished — in this life or the next. If one man struggles all his life to be good while another lives a life of selfishness, greed, and comfort, both can’t walk through the pearly gates side by side.

Wait. Isn’t there a parable about this?

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius[a] a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’[b] 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20)

What about a different parable, like one about surgery?

It may help to think of the purgatory in terms of a major operation to save a life. Say a doctor performs surgery on someone’s heart or brain and removes a cancerous tumor. The surgery achieves the main objective, but the wound needs to heal, and the incision needs to be cleaned and rebandaged. Purgatory is like that secondary part of recovery — the healing, cleaning, and bandaging. The belief is that the evil of sin is revealed to the person so she can totally and absolutely reject even the most venial and smallest of sins.

Well, what happens to someone who is recovering from surgery when Jesus returns? Will there still be weeping, hunger, sorrow, and forming scar tissue after Christ inaugurates the new heaven and new earth?

Looks to me like this is a defect. And this answer only compounds the problem:

All souls will receive resurrected bodies. The damned will receive eternal punishment in the flesh. Purgatory is meant to purify the soul. Once we receive our resurrected bodies, they will need completely purified souls so Purgatory ends with the Resurrection of the body.

If resurrected bodies need “completely purified souls, all the more reason to remain in purgatory for the correct amount of time.

Unless, of course, Jesus can take away sin and all its stains.

No Comment Is an Option

Among several public remarks that pastors made to the press last week after the tragedy in Poway, PCA pastor, Duke Kwon’s to the Washington Post stand out for a failure of imagination. Here are some of the quotations:

In the manifesto, “you actually hear a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology in certain sentences and paragraphs. He has, in some ways, been well taught in the church,” said the Rev. Duke Kwon, a Washington pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, another evangelical denomination which shares many of its beliefs with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Kwon said he does not think most people should read the manifesto, which calls for its readers to also go out and attack Jews and tries to convince them they can do so without getting caught. But he found the letter darkly instructive for pastors. He tweeted snippets of it, and before Twitter removed those tweets, they prompted intense debate among evangelicals. Some castigated Kwon for casting blame on the church in any way. Some argued Earnest must be mentally ill; many sought to make clear that anti-Semitism is incompatible with biblical belief.

Kwon disagreed. He pointed to the evidence that the writer shares the Reformed theology of evangelical Presbyterians: that only God can offer salvation to those he preselects. “Obviously something went wrong. I think it’s important for Christians, both those in the pews as well as those in the pulpit, to take a moment for some self-reflection and to ask hard questions,” Kwon said.

Kwon said he already exercises caution when he gets to some of the very same verses of the New Testament that are quoted, verses that have long been popular among anti-Semites because they seem to cast blame on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

“For any of us who are preaching who are aware of the history of how these passages have been misused . . . there’s a learned sensitivity that you apply to the way you teach these passages,” Kwon said. He said the shooting should lead other pastors to greater awareness that they need to explain to their congregations what the Bible means when it says Jews killed Jesus. To Kwon, it means some specific Jews alive 2,000 years ago were involved, alongside Roman officials, in Jesus’ death — not that Jewish people today bear any guilt for the crucifixion.

But that nuance often gets lost, Kwon said. “There’s a deep and ugly history of anti-Semitism that’s crept into the Christian church, that needs to be continuously addressed, condemned and corrected,” he said.

Imagine if you were the pastor under whose ministry the shooter sat. How would you read those quotes?

The gunman “shares Reformed theology.”

“Obviously something went wrong.”

Pastors need to “take a moment for self-reflection and to ask hard questions.”

“There’s a learned sensitivity that you apply to the way you teach these passages,” which apparent the shooter’s pastor did not seem to have had.

Anti-Semitism in the church needs to “continuously addressed, condemned and corrected.”

The penultimate paragraph in the story belonged to Kwon:

“It’s possible to teach people in the church about personal individual salvation in Jesus Christ and still fail to instruct them regarding the ethical implications of that faith,” he said. Going forward, Kwon called for “a vision of the gospel that includes implications for the love of neighbor and those that are different from ourselves, to teach it as an essential feature of the gospel of grace and not just an add-on or an appendage to more important matters.”

Imagine this: thinking you understand and present the gospel in ways that show how Christians should love neighbors who are different and not considering that you yourself may have church members who are capable of sin and don’t apply your teaching to all aspects of their lives. An event like this may not be the time to instruct conservative Presbyterians about the social implications of the gospel or to promote your own theology.

You may have a point and you may want to instruct the rest of the church and America about a fuller explanation of the gospel. But why not let the dust settle, the tears dry, even the courts work? Why use this moment to display your own sensitivity to the gospel’s breadth? Why not imagine what it must be like for pastors and sessions (not to mention parents and Sunday school teachers) to see one of their own go so wildly astray?

Does not a better understanding of the gospel go with a wider moral imagination? What is so hard about “there go I but for the grace of God”?

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

So You Don’t like Cultural Marxism, How Does Social Gospel Work Then?

Carl Trueman is not convinced that #woke Christians are cultural Marxists. That is to give them too much credit:

Christians enamored with social transformation and who bristle at any notion that the gospel is more to do with things above than things below, would do well to ask whether they’re allowing the tastes of this culture-is-always-political world to intrude inappropriately on their own theology. To deny the pre-political, to focus on institutions, to condemn anyone whose church isn’t constantly addressing the latest fad of the 24-hour news cycle as somehow sinning—that is to mimic the world’s values, the world’s practices, and the world’s cheap outrage. In fact, calling that kind of behavior cultural Marxism is to flatter it far too highly, implying a sophistication that half-baked cheap shots simply do not possess.

I’m not so sure that some of the current “social” ministry among social justice Christians is distinct from cultural Marxism. After all, Trueman’s essay concedes that Marx has won:

We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.

Heck, cultural Marxism may be simply the air we breath, even another lever in the systemic powers that oppress, a force on the order of climate change. Who can withstand that great intellectual tsunami?

But if we must abandon the charge of cultural Marxism, that’s fine. Another is just as handy and even more accurate. It is the Social Gospel. Washington Gladden was the granddaddy of social ministry and he wrote many books and essays about the Social Gospel.

Does this sound familiar?

Every department of human life – the families, the schools, amusements, art, business, politics, industry, national politics, international relations – will be governed by the Christian law and controlled by Christian influences. When we are bidden to seek first the kingdom of God, we are bidden to set our hearts on this great commission; to keep this always before us as the object of our endeavors; to be satisfied with nothing less than this. The complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. (Applied Christianity 1894)

If only Gladden had used the adverb, gospelly.

Social Justice circa 2009

If you read some people, you might get the impression that the gospel and social justice are synonymous. But words change meanings, even if some people have trouble understanding that a reference to “race” in the 1930s is not the same as one in the 1880s or the 1980s.

Consider how only a decade ago, the Gospel Allies were talking about social justice in ways that no one could use after Michael Brown, Ferguson, and Black Lives Matter. For instance, Kevin DeYoung wrote a series on social justice in Scripture that found almost no reference to race. Here is how he summarized it last year (even!):

Several years ago, I worked my way through the major justice passages in the Bible: Leviticus 19, Leviticus 25, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22, Amos 5, Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and Luke 4. My less-than-exciting conclusion was that we should not oversell or undersell what the Bible says about justice. On the one hand, there is a lot in the Bible about God’s care for the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. There are also plenty of warnings against treating the helpless with cruelty and disrespect. On the other hand, justice, as a biblical category, is not synonymous with anything and everything we feel would be good for the world. Doing justice means following the rule of law, showing impartiality, paying what you promised, not stealing, not swindling, not taking bribes, and not taking advantage of the weak because they are too uninformed or unconnected to stop you.

So for simplicity sake, let’s take biblical “social justice” to mean something like “treating people equitably, working for systems and structures that are fair, and looking out for the weak and the vulnerable.” If that’s what we mean, is social justice a gospel issue?

Even Thabiti Anyabwile seemed to be persuaded:

We seem to put social justice at odds with gospel proclamation. Many today don’t think these can easily coexist. They think that to fight for justice as the Christian church inevitably means the abandonment of the gospel. They may be correct. For since the Civil Rights Movement, the gospel has been thoroughly confused by too many in the African American church with liberation and justice itself.

To be sure, Anyabwile went on to question those who make too strong a contrast between the gospel and social justice:

to preach the gospel and have no concern and take no action in the cause of justice is as much an abandonment of the gospel as mistaken the gospel. How can a faithful gospel preacher preach the gospel before slaves and never wince at the gross barbarity of that peculiar institution? How can a man claim to live the gospel with fellow brothers in Christ and yet uphold laws that disenfranchise, marginalize, and oppress those same brothers?

Well, what exactly counts as taking action? Is it tweeting? Writing a post for a parachurch website? Calling a legislature? Standing outside an office with a placard?

What also is “upholding” laws that disenfranchise? If someone says nothing are they guilty of upholding existing laws? Or is it a case of speaking out or “taking action” against some laws but not others?

Abandonment of the gospel is a tad strong for a condition — “taking no action” — that is so arbitrary and inexact.

At the same time, once upon a time Anyabwile fully endorsed DeYoung’s point that Christians should stop using the phrase social justice:

Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”!

Not even John MacArthur and fellow signers went that far.

Something changed between 2009 and 2019. It could be that history clarified all the ambiguity (even if it did not change what the Bible — a fixed set of texts — says. Or it could be people have changed their minds. If Ferguson is the turning point, it sure would help to hear some reflection on ways in which a country that has persistently practiced racism only in 2014 became so egregious that now some people had to build up word counts and twitter followers.

If Tim Keller is A Great Apologist, Why Does He Sound Like A Sociologist?

Tim Keller explained to people who write about charities and philanthropy the contribution that churches make to “human flourishing”:

Philanthropy: How does a healthy church benefit the community at large beyond its own members? On the flip side, when a neighborhood doesn’t have a flourishing church, what is it missing out on?

Keller: Churches promote cooperation between individuals and the kind of associational life that is necessary for human happiness and social success. Without informal shared trust, things are more litigious and combative. Life is much better when neighbors pull for each other, help each other, collaborate together. But this kind of “social capital” is very difficult to generate through public policy. Governments cannot duplicate the effect of religion as a source of shared values.

Family ties and religious ties are the two biggest sources of social capital. And religion can be fed and bolstered as a source of valuable shared experience. I, as an older white American man, can connect quite sincerely to a single poor African woman in Soweto because we are both evangelical Christians. There’s a powerful bond because we’ve had the same experience of spiritual rebirth. There’s a trust I have that would not exist if I was a non-Christian white man.

Anywhere you’ve got a church, social capital is being created. Especially when the church is attended by people from the surrounding neighborhood. And it’s a big benefit to the community.

Also, church buildings in big cities are a kind of public utility. We bought a parking garage in upper Manhattan and converted it into a church and all the homeowners on the block who were not believers said, “Thank you, you’re improving the whole block.” The city council asked if various local groups could use the building, saying, “We’re starved for space.” Our building became a community center. Organizations can meet there, people can have weddings and other celebrations there. On a Sunday, urban churches create the foot traffic all the restaurant owners and shop owners want. So in all kinds of ways an urban church has huge benefits, as long as it doesn’t have a fortress mentality.

For a fellow with the reputation of presenting the gospel to secular Americans in ways that make it accessible and also clear, Keller comes up short and resorts to language that would actually wind up supporting Roman Catholic parishes, synagogues, and mosques as religious places that increase social capital.