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.

Advertisements

What Brett Kavanaugh Could Learn from the Holy Father

The asymmetry between the press’ coverage of the Roman Catholic church’s scandal and the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh are remarkable. Whistle-blowers in the church receive a level of scrutiny that the judge’s accusers do not.

But not to worry. If the press is as favorably inclined to Pope Francis as it seems, the Vicar of Christ may have just supplied one of his flock with the rationale he needs to defend himself tomorrow:

I take the Pennsylvania report, for example, and we see that the first 70 years there were so many priests that fell into this corruption, then in more recent times it has diminished, because the Church noticed that it needed to fight it in another way. In the old times these things were covered up, they even covered them up at home, when the uncle was molesting the niece, when the dad was molesting his sons, they covered it up because it was a very big disgrace… it was the way of thinking in previous times or of the past time. It is a principle that helps me to interpret history a lot.

A historic event is interpreted with the hermeneutic of the time period in which it took place, not as a hermeneutic of today passed on. For example, the example of indigenous people, that there were so many injustices, so much brutality, but it cannot be interpreted with the hermeneutic of today [now] that we have another conscience. A last example, the death penalty. The Vatican, when it was a State, a pontifical State, had the death penalty. In the end the state decapitations were 1870 more or less, a guy, [sic] but then the moral conscience grew, it is true that always there were loopholes and there were hidden death sentences. You are old, you are an inconvenience, I do not give you the medicine, it went so… it is a condemnation to social death. And about today… I believe with this I have responded.

Boys were boys at Georgetown Prep, and priests were priests in Pennsylvania.

Actually, in the case of Kavanaugh, Francis’ point has merit since movies like Animal House indicate what American society could bear back then about young men’s antics.

But can the pope really be serious that priests’ abuse of children or adolescents was part of the church’s outlook before 2002? Was it even acceptable for men called to celibacy to have sex, consensual or not?

Pope Francis may have said more than even Rod Dreher thinks.

If It Is Not a Gospel Issue, What about Gospelly?

The Gospel Allies are not helping to clarify what is and what is not a gospel issue. Their brand is slipping away.

Kevin DeYoung comes the closest to adding clarity when he writes:

“gospel issue” should not be shorthand for “you must be passionate about all the same things I’m passionate about.” Nor should it be synonymous with notions of “building the kingdom” or “transforming the culture.” By the same token, preachers must be careful lest they allow CNN and Fox News, not to mention Twitter and Facebook, to set the agenda for their weekly pulpit ministry. If pastors in our day let cultural concerns crowd out the preaching of new birth, repentance, and justification by faith alone, it wouldn’t be the first time in the church’s history that the “gospel” became more social than gospel.

But then he the North Carolina pastor taketh away with this:

And yet, “gospel issue” need not mean any of these things. If “gospel issue” means “a necessary concern of those who have been saved by the gospel” or “one aspect of what it means to keep in step with the gospel” or “realities without which you may not be truly believing the gospel,” then social justice is certainly a gospel issue. When biblically defined, social justice is part and parcel of loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s part of keeping the second table of the Decalogue. It’s part of doing the good works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10).

So there is the gospel issue of preaching the new birth and justification by faith alone, which leads to the gospel issue of good works that are the fruit of saving faith, and those good works or the third use of the law bring social justice into view or the views of social justice warriors into view.

In a similar way (as Justin Taylor observes), D. A. Carson says something good:

For some Christian observers, cessationism is a gospel issue. In their perception, the charismatic movement is characteristically afflicted by one brand or another of health, wealth, and prosperity gospel that distances itself from the gospel of the cross: this makes the matter a gospel issue. Some forms of the charismatic movement so construct a two-stage view of spiritual wholeness, the second stage attested by one or more particular spiritual gifts, that the nature of what Jesus achieved on the cross is in jeopardy. Others, it is argued, adopt a view of revelation that jeopardizes the exclusive, final authority of Scripture, and this threatens the gospel that the Scripture heralds. But other Christian observers, fully aware of these dangers and no less concerned to avoid them, nevertheless remain convinced that at least some charismatics manage to display their gifts without succumbing to any of these errors, while self-consciously holding to the same gospel that the observers hold. In other words, for them the charismatic movement (or, from the obverse direction, cessationism) is not necessarily a gospel issue. They want to avoid building legalistic fences around their positions. Once again, it is difficult not to see that personal experiences and sustained habits of assessment have entered into one’s judgments. Determining whether X is a gospel issue is often more than a narrowly exegetical exercise.

To put the same matter another way, another sort of example might be introduced. We have seen how the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement is usefully considered a gospel issue provided (a) that we have adopted a robust definition of the gospel, such that (b) to disown that facet of the cross-work of Christ necessarily diminishes or threatens the gospel. But I have not heard anyone recently suggest that the exemplary function of the cross is a gospel issue, even though Peter unambiguously insists that Jesus died leaving us an example that we should follow in his steps. This is as much a gospel issue as is penal, substitutionary atonement, even though it is not treated in that way today, precisely because it is not one of the controverted points. In other words, the things that we debate as to whether they are gospel issues reflect the hot topics, and especially the denials or errors, of our age. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the filioque clause and the eternal generation of the Son at the head of this editorial: at one point, they were very much considered gospel issues. The second of these two is currently making something of a comeback—but certainly if we are careless about them, our carelessness suggests how our own theological foci have shifted with time and demonstrates once again that discussions of the sort “X is a gospel issue” commonly address the errors and dangers of a particular age. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it is in any case an inevitable thing. But it should be recognized for what it is.

In other words, the nature of salvation is at stake either explicitly or implicitly in debates about the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ on the cross.

Then Carson raises matters of politics and social relations to the level of “gospelly”:

Certainly the majority of Christians in America today would happily aver that good race relations are a gospel issue. They might point out that God’s saving purpose is to draw to himself, through the cross, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation; that the church is one new humanity, made up of Jew and Gentile; that Paul tells Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as his brother, as the apostle himself; that this trajectory starts at creation, with all men and women being made in the image of God, and finds its anticipation in the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Moreover, the salvation secured by Christ in the gospel is more comprehensive than justification alone: it brings repentance, wholeness, love for brothers and sisters in the Christian community.

But the sad fact remains that not all Christians have always viewed race relations within the church as a gospel issue.

More worrying, survey after survey has shown that in America today, even among those with a robust grasp of the gospel, black Christians and white Christians do not view these matters exactly the same way. Even where both sides agree, on biblical grounds, that this is a gospel issue, black Christians are far more likely to see that this is a crucial gospel issue, an issue of huge importance, one that is often ignored, while white Christians are more likely to imagine that racial issues have so largely been resolved that it is a distraction to keep bringing them up.

Carson seemed to recognized that doctrinal matters are properly theological and concern the way that man becomes right with God. But then he gives ground an allows that questions surrounding social relations, and specifically societies that are comprised not simply of Christians but of non-Christians, are “gospelly.” He does not seem to consider why should non-Christians ever consent to be governed by the “gospel issues” defined by Christians. And whatever happened to allowing those with expertise in public policy, law, governance, and electoral politics set the debates about race relations and laws about bigotry rather than thinking any Christian whose read a book by Keller or Carson think he is competent to pontificate about laws governing hatred or prejudice (which is kind of complicated in a society where freedom of thought is a long and cherished ideal).

And then, a golden oldie from Thabiti Anyabwile on how a matter of policy becomes “gospelly.” After the federal grand jury’s determination not to indict Ferguson police offer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, Anyabwile told readers (I am assuming they are Christian because of that “gospelly” thing) that they have three options:

We may turn the television and turn our heads and continue the unusual business of business as usual. . . .

Or, we may declare the matter resolved and proclaim from the burning rooftops, “The system worked.” . . . Our civic ideals require we remain involved in an open, honest discussion about what worked and what didn’t so that what we cherish isn’t slowly eroded by our inattention. That inattention is no option for the righteous, either.

The only course forward for all of us is that active engagement that applies and seeks to live up to our highest ideals. The debate about what constitutes “justice” is part of the process. The review of our systems and the amendment of laws is part of our highest ideals. The righteous must work to keep the foundations from being destroyed. They must walk by faith and they must do the good deeds that lead to life.

Notice the move back and forth between we “the righteous” and “civic ideals.” I assume and have heard Anyabwile enough to know that he believes a person is only righteous because of faith in Christ imputes that righteousness to the Christian. So why mix a theological category with a political one — righteous with civil? This is not clear, but it does in lean in a Social Gospelly direction. The mixing of civil and theological categories becomes even more intermingly:

There is no way people of good conscience or people of Christian faith can look at the events in Ferguson and conclude there’s nothing left for us to do or nothing that can be done. No, both pure religion and good citizenship require we not settle for what’s happened in the shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision. The Ferguson grand jury has given us our marching orders. They have ordered us to march for a more just system of policing and the protection of all life. We are obligated–if we love Christ or love this country–to find a way forward to justice, a way suitable to the dictates of our individual consciences and the word of God.

If the United States is a Christian country, maybe this sort of co-mingling of theology and law works. But we are not in Christian America anymore.

If you listen to Anyabwile’s comments about the recent Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, you hear him complain about the failure of the statement to define terms like “social justice,” “intersectionality,” Marxism, and the like. It doesn’t seem particularly fair or just to be prissy about words when after four years you are not any more clear about the gospel and social justice than John MacArthur.

Machen’s Unpardonable Sin

A tweet went out on Sunday that had quotations from a letter that J. Gresham Machen to his mother about the prospects of African-American students moving into the dormitory where he lived at Princeton Seminary. Since Machen was a Southern Democrat who believed in the separation of whites and blacks (what we call racism or white supremacy), he was not thrilled with the prospect. Here is the tweet:

Scott Clark has addressed Machen’s racism here and the way that we view the past, often times, anachronistically, here.

Without taking away from the gravity of this revelation, which I had discovered while researching Machen, which I had also known generally since racism has been so prevalent in U.S. history (why are people shocked by this when we hear constantly that most if not all white people still to this day in the United States, personally or institutionally, are racist, including orthodox believers?), it might be useful for those appalled by the news to take stock and look at the sin of racism in the light of salvation and the gospel.

Some, for instance, might say that David was a sinner whom we still regard highly as a saint. A man guilty of adultery and murder, and standing by the rape of his daughter by his son, David was no model of holiness. But he repented, so we may have reason to think he had a conscience and his spirit responded to a challenge from God (through Nathan).

Machen is different because he never repented. Had he lived until the 1970s, as some Presbyterians in the PCA have done, he might have seen the sinfulness of his ways. But in all likelihood, Machen died guilty of the sin of racism, and unrepentant to boot.

Will Machen not go to heaven for this? Does Christ’s death and resurrection not cover the penalty for sin, even heinous ones like racism? According to the Belgic Confession (Art. 24):

We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle says, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approving to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.

If the Reformation got justification right, Machen’s sin should still be covered by Christ’s righteousness imputed to him by faith. Indeed, Machen received the covering of Christ’s righteousness because of his faith (assuming he had it), not because he avoided the sin of racism (which he obviously did not avoid). And the active obedience of Christ, imputed to Machen by faith, was one of his great comforts as he lay dying — “no hope without it” was his telegram to John Murray.

Now, if Machen’s critics want to allege that he is not eligible for salvation thanks to his explicit racism, it is a free country. But that will throw a wrench into the works of salvation for most of us since in 100 years or so who among us can stand on that great day of popular perceptions of justice?

If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”

Where Pietists and Presbyterians Differ on Christian Freedom

Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:

Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.

In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.

That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).

Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.

But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).

That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).

The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.

That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)

You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:

But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.

Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).

For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:

And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)

And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Fussy Certainty

The interview with Brad Gregory about his latest book on Martin Luther revealed a fundamental difference between Roman Catholics and magisterial Protestants. Around the twenty-minute mark, Gregory starts to challenge Luther’s quest for certainty of salvation in ways that would make you think the Notre Dame professor had been reading Scott Clark’s, Recovering the Reformed Confession. According to Gregory, Luther was on an illegitimate quest for certainty or freedom from doubt, especially considering all the ways (acts of devotion) the church had for helping Christians along the path of salvation.

But here’s the thing, Luther wanted to know that he could stand before the judgment seat of God as a righteous man. The best Rome could do was get Luther to purgatory. He had no assurance he would go to heaven (this was a time when all Roman Catholics worried about sin and damnation). And so, the idea that a sinner could be righteous through faith, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them, was not part of some illegitimate quest for certainty. It was what every single person should want who knows God is holy and humans are sinful. Who will stand on that great day? Not how do I get through this life so that I can endure millennia of purging my remaining sin?

Which leaves us with two rival certainties. On the one hand, Roman Catholics have the certainty that comes through trust in the church:

the Catholic Church enjoys some Divine guarantees, but they are not numerous. Christ promised to be with the Church to the end of time, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. This means essentially that the Holy Spirit will not permit the Church’s Divine constitution to be lost (such as the disappearance of the Catholic hierarchy), that the fullness of all the means of salvation will always be available in the Church, that the Church’s sacraments will always be powerful sources of grace, that the Church’s Magisterial teachings will be completely free from error, and that the Church will remain the mystical body of Christ under the headship of Our Lord Himself, as represented here on earth by His Vicar, the successor of Peter.

A Roman Catholic knows that the institutional church won’t fail even if he or she doesn’t have assurance about the eternal destiny of their body and soul.

On the other hand, Protestants who affirm justification by faith, have certainty that their sins are and will be forgiven thanks to the work of Christ. Here is how Luther put it in his commentary on Galatians (excerpted here):

This I say, to confute that pernicious doctrine of the sophisters and monks, which taught that no man can certainly know (although his life be never so upright and blameless) whether he be in the favor of God or no. And this sentence, commonly received, was a special principle and article of faith in the whole Papacy, whereby they utterly defaced the doctrine of faith, tormented men’s consciences, banished Christ out of the Church, darkened and denied all the benefits and gifts of the Holy Ghost, abolished the true worship of God, set up idolatry, contempt of God, and blasphemy against God in men’s hearts. For he that doubteth of the will of God towards him, and hath no assurance that he is in grace, cannot believe that he hath remission of sins, that God careth for him, and that he can be saved.

Augustine saith very well and godly, that every man seeth most certainly his own faith, if he have faith. This do they deny. God forbid (say they) that I should assure myself that I am under grace, that I am holy, and that I have the Holy Ghost, yea, although I live godly, and do all works. Ye which are young, and are not infected with this pernicious opinion (whereupon the whole kingdom of the Pope is grounded), take heed and fly from it, as from a most horrible plague. We that are old men have been trained up in this error even from our youth, and have been so nusled therein, that it hath taken deep root in our hearts. Therefore it is to us no less labor to unlearn and forget the same, than to learn and lay hold upon true faith. But we must be assured and out of doubt that we are under grace, that we please God for Christ’s sake, and that we have the Holy Ghost. ‘For if any man have not the spirit of Christ, the same is none of his’ (Romans 8:9).

I don’t know why anyone would choose to lose Luther’s version of certainty to gain Gregory’s confidence in an institution that has not always been so worthy of trust.

Sin vs. Flourishing

This week’s Mubi selection prompted a viewing of Brighton Rock, an allegedly classic British film noir based on Graham Greene’s novel of the same name.

Pinkie Brown is a small-town hoodlum whose gang runs a protection racket based at Brighton race course. When Pinkie murders a journalist called Fred Hale whom he believes is responsible for the death of a fellow gang-member, the police believe it to be suicide. This doesn’t convince Ida Arnold, who was with Fred just before he died, and she sets out to find the truth. She comes across naive waitress Rose, who can prove that Fred was murdered. In an attempt to keep Rose quiet Pinkie marries her. But with his gang beginning to doubt his ability, and his rivals taking over his business, Pinkie starts to become more desperate and violent. (from IMDB)

The Roman Catholic aspect of the movie was striking. Pinkie seems to know that God exists and will exact a penalty for his life of crime. His wife, Rose, is a Roman Catholic like Pinkie and also has a strong sense of right and wrong even while aiding and abetting her criminal husband. (Yes, the Roman Catholic version of antinomianism — think Mafia dons and whiskey priests — comes to mind.) Here is one description of Greene’s novel and his characters:

All of Greene’s novels were written after his conversion to Catholicism and a religious sense pervades most of them. However, Catholicism was not a vital ingredient in his fiction until Brighton Rock (1938) in which it was developed with a Manichean rigor. . . . In Brighton Rock, for example. Pinkie, the seventeen-year-old Catholic punk, seems possessed by evil and, therefore, in his own eyes—and in those of many of Greene’s readers—capable of being condemned to hell. Brighton Rock is easily classified as a religious novel. But Greene has commented in recent years that Pinkie’s actions were conditioned by the social circumstances in which he had been born and he could not, therefore, be guilty of mortal sin. . . .

[Greene] says, “I don’t believe in hell. I never have believed in hell. . . . They say God is mercy … so it’s contradictory.” (Many years earlier Greene wrote in Lawless Roads, a work of non-fiction: “One began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell, but for a long while it was only hell one could picture with a certain intimacy.” This view is quite close to that of Pinkie in Brighton Rock, except that Pinkie had difficulty in making the leap to a belief in heaven. Still, as Greene noted, one shouldn’t expect unchanging constancy in a writer.)

Greene was, obviously, all over the place when it came to faith. An excerpt from one of his books, which included an interview on faith, suggests he was not in step with the trads, the rads, or the trad-rads:

I don’t like the term ”sin”: It’s redolent of a child’s catechism. The term has always stuck in my throat, because of the Catholic distinction between ”mortal” and ”venial” sin. The latter is often so trivial as not even to deserve the name of sin. As for mortal sin, I find the idea difficult to accept because it must by definition be committed in defiance of God. I doubt whether a man making love to a woman ever does so with the intention of defying God! I always remember the example of a Dominican priest who found his life in Europe too easy and left for Africa, where he lived for years in a hut made out of old tin cans, only to discover that he was suffering from the sin of pride. He came back to England and confided to a friend that during all this time of hearing the confessions of the faithful, he had never come across a single mortal sin. In other words, for him, mortal sin didn’t exist. The word ”mortal” presupposes a fear of hell, which I find meaningless. This being the case, I fear that I’m a Protestant in the bosom of the church.

Vatican officials worried about Greene’s views (and especially the adultery that supplied material for his novels). But they gave him a long leash because England was Protestant and it wouldn’t look good to crack down on Roman Catholic novelists with so many Protestants watching:

Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, according to expert opinion, are to be considered the two major living English novelists: being Catholic they do credit to Rome’s faith, and they do credit to it in a country that is of Protestant civilization and culture. How can Rome be gruff and cruel? They are the successors of Chesterton and Belloc and, like them, rather than attempting to convert the small fry, strive to influence superior intelligences and the spirit of the age in a manner favorable to Catholicism. Their level, unlike that of a Bruce Marshall, is not that of average I.Q.s or, like the clergy in general, that of uneducated readers or pure professionals. Their level is the higher intelligentsia in the contemporary world which they sway and influence towards Rome …

All of this is fascinating, but what is striking about Greene’s novels (and the movies based on them), along with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is that the point of becoming Roman Catholic is not to flourish as a human being or civilizationally. The believing characters like Rose, and the defiant non-practicing ones like Pinkie, do not look at Christianity as a way to live the good life. Theirs is a world haunted by moral choices and a God who judges them. Heaven and hell give meaning, not flourishing.

How Much Endeavor Is Necessary?

Mark Jones responds to the question of how many good works are necessary for salvation. He thinks the question is a tad misplaced:

Such questions (i.e., “How many?”) may actually reveal a legal spirit, not a gospel spirit, that needs mortifying. From those who should know better, to ask “How many good works?” is not evidence to me that they are trying to guard something special (i.e., justification), but rather that they are trying to ignore something glorious, namely, that God accepts the sincere obedience of his children because they are pure in heart (Matt. 5:8; Ps. 73:1; 24:4), live by faith (Gal. 2:20), and obey in the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14). God warns, promises, and commands for our good.

Do fear of punishment and hope of rewards cause servile fear in a Christian? John Owen asserts that such a reaction is a “vain” imagination. Only the bondage of our spirits can make what we do servile. Owen says, “a due respect unto God’s promises and threatenings is a principal part of our liberty.” Returning to the Scriptures themselves, Paul says we must put to death the misdeeds of the flesh if we want to live (Rom. 8:13). This we do by the Spirit. But it isn’t an option for the Christian. If you want to ask yourself whether good works are necessary for final salvation (“life”, Rom. 8:13), ask yourself this (via Owen):

What if a professing Christian does not mortify the misdeeds of the flesh? Will he or she live or die? To argue that good works are necessary for final salvation is to answer the previous question by saying, “die”. To ask how many? Well, that, it seems to me, is to ask God a question that his word, quite rightly, does not answer.

I concede theology is above my pay grade, but I do wonder if the catechism is clearer than the conversations the Obedience Boys encourage. Notice, for instance, the two-fold distinction in the catechism:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.

Q. 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
A. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.

Q. 41. Where is the moral law summarily comprehended?
A. The moral law is summarily comprehended in the ten commandments.

So God requires obedience. But the fall happened. Now what?

Q. 85. What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?

A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.

The catechism separates the discussion of the law as a rule for God’s dealing with humans before the fall from teaching about how those fallen escape God’s wrath and curse. It does not say that new obedience is part of the means why which Christians escape damnation. It says, precisely, “endeavor after new obedience.” Part of repentance is seeking to obey.

So then how much endeavor is necessary? That is a different question from how much obedience.

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.