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)

The Shelf Life of 2k — Part Three

This is the third in the four-part interview David Strain did with mmmmmeeeeeEEEEE. We finally get to 2k:

1. Would you briefly state the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (2K) for us?

I should have a handier definition than I do. I guess I would describe it this way.The church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (WCF 25.2) outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Communicant and non-communicant church members are part of that kingdom, the kingdom of grace (which is different from the kingdom of Satan and which is playing a part in hastening the kingdom of glory – the Shorter Catechism speaks of these three kingdoms, Satan’s, grace, and glory in explaining the second petition of the Lord’s prayer.

The kingdom of the civil realm has its own rules and sovereignty, and has criteria for membership that vary in places and across time.

The kingdom of grace operates according to the doctrine of forgiveness. The church is to minister the message of forgiveness of sins that comes through trusting in Christ and repentance from sin. The state operates according to standards of justice and is supposed, no matter how imperfectly, to punish wrongdoing.

Confusing forgiveness and justice is a huge example of category confusion. Granted, the forgiveness the church administers is premised on the justice that Christ underwent in suffering for the penalty of sin. And granted the magistrate’s ideals of justice are a type of the eschatological justice that will be administered on the Last Day.

In other words, you can’t understand the church or the state apart from God’s righteous standards, that is, his law.

But the church is involved in the work of reconciling God and man through Christ. The state has no direct role in that project of reconciliation. It may create and sustain an environment in which the church can minister. But the aim of the state is fundamentally different from that of the church. I recommend J. Gresham Machen’s essay, “The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” as a brilliant elaboration of this argument. It can be found either in his Selected Shorter Writings or as the appendix of Hart and Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the OPC.

2. If you were to summarize the central points of debate between Kuyperians and Two Kingdoms advocates what would you say were the major areas of contention?

One major source if misunderstanding is the Lordship of Christ. 2k people want to distinguish Christ’s redemptive kingship (the church) from his creational and providential lordship (the state and the family). Kuyperians often hear 2kers as denying Christ’s lordship over “every square inch.” We don’t deny this at all. Christ is lord over all things. But we do distinguish, as Calvin and Ursinus do, for instance, between different aspects of Christ’s lordship. Confessing Christ as savior and lord (which happens in the church) is a different proposition from submitting to Christ’s rule through the work of magistrates and parents. You don’t need to confess Christ to submit to your dad. You should submit to a parent whether you are a Christian or not. And non-Christians do submit no matter how imperfectly. Plus, it’s not as if Christians are better submitters to parents and the state than non-Christians are.

A second point of tension concerns the creation mandate. Most Kuyperians appeal to Gen. 1 and argue that it is still in effect and guides the cultural endeavors of believers. 2kers tend to look at the creation mandate through the lens of the fall, and see that mandate as now being seriously altered because of sin. This means that cult (faith) and culture (secular endeavors) are now in a paradoxical relationship. In other words, you cannot chart the coming of Christ’s kingdom by looking for “progress” in cultural life. (Actually, Christians will likely disagree on what counts as progress. Does is mean a Republican in the White House, does it mean universal health care, does it mean literacy, does it mean lots of family farms and healthy local economies?) Connecting the effects of “good” culture to signs of the kingdom is a sure recipe, from a 2k perspective, for a social gospel and liberal Christianity. Kuyperians seem to be a lot less worried about this recipe because they are less willing to admit a paradoxical relationship between cult and culture.<

3. In 2K thought, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms simultaneously, right? We belong to both the kingdom of creation and the kingdom of redemption. What are the duties incumbent upon Christian citizens of the Kingdom of creation?

It depends. The early church did not have citizenship in the earthly kingdom. Paul was unusual in this regard. Christians in the United States, for instance, are members of both kingdoms. As citizens in the republic, Christians have various obligations and responsibilities, many of which will depend on their vocations. Some may actually run for and hold public office. Others might believe the state is so corrupt or has erred so far from its founding principles that they will have less to do with politics and legislation. I think one of the important contributions of the 2k perspective is to recognize Christian liberty in the realm of politics. This is a particularly attractive position at a time when the Religious Right has implied a one-size-fits-all approach to national politics, as if there is one Christian position on a host of public policy, economic, and cultural programs.

4. Whenever I’ve spoken about the Two Kingdoms I have generally been met with concern that I am advocating passivity among Christians when it comes to their involvement in civic society, or that I think the church should withdraw into some kind of religious ghetto and let the world rot. How would you respond?

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that the world is rotting and that various efforts to help humans flourish will not prevail over the rotting effects of sin. I mean, even Lazarus died after Christ raised him from the dead. I do wonder if the transformers actually see that eliminating poverty, hunger and war will not conquer the legacy of sin and its consequences which will be apparent to all people at the Last Day.

Second, human flourishing is a good thing. It is better to have lower crime rates than not. Christians working for lower crime rates is a good thing, and it depends on their vocation whether they will be actively engaged in crime prevention. After all, not everyone is called to be a cop, a district attorney, a judge, or a warden.

But the church as church, as the institution responsible for administering forgiveness through word and sacrament, is not called to reduce crime. The church actually has a much more important work to do, which is to worry about the criminals who will be facing the ultimate judge on the Judgment Day.

Inability to see the difference between eternal and temporal crimes is another case of missing what is important to the gospel and the church. If people want to the church to be engaged in civil society, I wonder if they have overestimated the importance of earthly affairs. I cannot understand how the work of the church needs to be made “relevant” by engaging in works of cultural renewal or crime prevention. If the church is ministering word and sacrament, she is doing the most important work one can imagine. If she doesn’t do it, who will? (Again, the Machen essay mentioned above is hugely effective in making this case.

5. I’ve never met a theonomist who was not also a postmillenialist (though such may exist out there someplace). Postmillenialism seems to be the only consistent eschatology for someone with a ‘transformationalist’ vision of the church’s mission. Would you say there was a similar connection between eschatology and 2K thinking? Is amillenialism a necessary implicate of 2K ideas?

Amillennialism is an acquired taste, though a form of it has been present in the church since Augustine’s arguments about the differences between the city of God and the city of man. But to recognize that God’s kingdom advances even when affairs in this world are going to hell in a handbasket (such as the fall of the Roman Empire) is crucial to understanding the work of the church and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Postscript (as of January 26, 2017): I have renounced the phrase “human flourishing.” What was I thinking?

The 2017 Challenge

How can Christians who voted for Hillary show charity to Donald Trump?

This fellow doesn’t seem to have figured it out:

The “Year of our Lord” 2016 deserves the label, “The Year of the Jerk.” It has been a long time since exhibiting the maturity level of a toddler has been enabled so fiercely or rewarded so completely. Donald Trump looms as the obvious example in a crowded field. Trump’s bombastic style elevated the antics of schoolyard bullies to morbid political theater.

Many of the very people who encouraged me to stand up to bullies as a child in my small southern town were fervent flag wavers for the bully of bullies this campaign season. Rather than rejecting his candidacy due to these antics, Trump’s supporters seemed to feed on his absolute disdain for his fellow humans. Each broken taboo was like throwing red meat to a den of lions for many of his enthusiastic supporters.

Over and over again, we heard fervent Trumpites express their conviction that Trump is “real” because he “tells it like it is.” Yet there was nothing original, or even remotely factual, in much of what Trump had to say. It was the crass way he said it that appealed to an angry subset of American culture. The candidate himself, a trust fund product whose persona was manufactured by tabloid magazines and reality television, could not have been more manufactured, inauthentic, or unreal.

None of this is inherently wrong or objectionable as part of political debate (nor is it wrong to recognize Trump’s failure to manifest the fruit of the Spirit). But how do you promote Jesus’ message, the guy who hung out with publicans (not republicans) and tax collectors, and then do what the Pharisees did?

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17 ESV)

When oh when will the Christians who voted for Hillary stop being so unforgiving of the president-elect? When will they show charity even to sinners?

If Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God, Can't the Forgiven and Unforgiven Too?

The latest from Wheaton College is that Larycia Hawkins and the College have agreed to part ways. In the leaks that led to this apparently amicable determination was an email from Wheaton’s provost, Stan Jones, who apologized for his handling of the incident. According to Alan Jacobs, Jones wrote:

I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.

But according to some of Jones’ critics, this apology doesn’t go far enough, as Jacobs explains, “because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.”

Jacobs then asks:

What if, when a brother in Christ apologizes and asks for forgiveness, one were to grant that forgiveness — instead of immediately criticizing him for not having provided a fully adequate account of the reasons he went astray?

I’d follow up with another question: doesn’t the spirit of Dr. Hawkins’ show of solidarity with Muslims provide an analogy for how Jones’ critics might reach out to Wheaton’s provost? I mean, if you can overcome the division between Islam and Christianity by donning a hijab during Advent, can’t you go without a latte for the month of February to show solidarity with Wheaton’s administration?

Jacobs concludes:

So to those who say that Provost Jones’ apology is inadequate, my answer would be: of course it is inadequate. Every act of penitence, including yours and mine, is inadequate.

That could also be instructive for those who think Purgatory is going to take care of residual human guilt. Once humans sin — think one little bite of a piece of fruit — can you ever go back to being acceptable inherently?

No hope without alien righteousness.

Mercy, Mercy

Pope Francis has launched the Year of Mercy and so the comments about being merciful are frequent these days. But the pope may have gotten ahead of himself when he said that Jesus needed to ask forgiveness of Joseph and Mary (and only the Remnant seems to have objected):

. . . to give credit where credit is due, the Holy Father said some very fine things in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Family. Indeed, his pronouncements nearly always contain much that is good, true and spiritually helpful. He could surely never have been elected to the highest office on earth if his track record revealed that most of what he said was foolish, mistaken, superficial or heterodox. Nevertheless, it will only take a small drop of venom to make a rich and delicious Christmas cake highly dangerous for your health. Likewise, just one shocking affirmation in a papal homily can make its overall effect deeply unsettling and dangerous for our spiritual health.

In this case, the Pope has said something which makes many of us shudder; for it is something which it is not easy to exculpate, at least at the objective level, from the charge of blasphemy. Intentionally or otherwise, he has spoken words which, taken in their natural, unforced sense, imply that the Son of God himself has committed sin.

Consider these words by which His Holiness, preaching in Italian, commented on the Gospel incident: “We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, provoking great suffering (provocando una grande pena) to Mary and Joseph, who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’ (questa ‘scappatella’), Jesus probably had to ask forgiveness (dovette chiedere scusa) of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it.”

That may raise problems for the theologically picky, but Pope Francis has also said that Mary has lots of forgiveness to give since she is the “mother of forgiveness”:

For us, Mary is an icon of how the Church must offer forgiveness to those who seek it. The Mother of forgiveness teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits. Neither the law with its quibbles, nor the wisdom of this world with its distinctions, can hold it back. The Church’s forgiveness must be every bit as broad as that offered by Jesus on the Cross and by Mary at his feet. There is no other way. It is for this purpose that the Holy Spirit made the Apostles the effective ministers of forgiveness, so what was obtained by the death of Jesus may reach all men and women in every age (cf. Jn 20:19-23).

For anyone wondering if the pope’s statements might qualify as heretical and so complicate the doctrine of papal infallibility, keep in mind the fine print. In order to define infallibility in a way that made room for the seventh-century pope, Honorius, the Vatican Council had to finesse papal authority (with papal approval, of course):

In order to save infallibility it is better to admit the historical possibility of a heretic Pope, rather than shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a Council ratified by a Roman Pontiff. It is common doctrine that the condemnation of the writings of an author is infallible, when the error is anathematized with the note of heresy, whereas, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not always necessarily infallible.

During the First Vatican Council, the Deputation of the Faith confronted the problem by setting out a series of rules of a general character, which are applied not only in the case of Honorius, but in all problems, past or future that may be presented. It is not enough for the Pope to pronounce on a question of faith or customs regarding the universal Church, it is necessary that the decree by the Roman Pontiff is conceived in such a manner as to appear as a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of obliging all the faithful to believe (Mansi, LII, coll. 1204-1232). There are, therefore, non-infallible acts of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium, since they are devoid of the necessary defining character: quod ad formam seu modum attinet.

Pope Honorius’ letters are devoid of these characteristics. They are undoubtedly Magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations. The Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot ever pronounce a heresy ex- cathedra.

Bottom line, Pope Francis should be okay. Back to your regularly scheduled shrugging.

The Real Peril of Discovery

National (Roman) Catholic Reporter has two stories about the Doctrine of Discovery that raise intriguing questions for those who put their hopes in papal supremacy, authority, antiquity, and infallibility.

First, the Doctrine (which is not what attorneys do):

The first bull of consequence was issued in 1436 and titled Romanus Pontifex, he said. It concerned “the concession of the right of domination over the Guanches people” and the Canary Islands, which was taken over by the crown of Castile, a medieval state in the Iberian Peninsula.

The bull marked the first time the papacy “made it look as though no one was living there,” or had any ownership over the land being pursued by European powers, “because there were no Christians there,” Newcomb said.

That “pattern of thought” then began marching through history.

In 1452, the papal bull Dum Diversas instructed the Portuguese crown “to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.”

In 1454, another bull titled Romanus Pontifex furthered that thinking, sanctifying the seizure of non-Christian lands in parts of Africa and restating the legitimacy of enslaving non-Christian people.

In 1493, after Christopher Columbus’ fateful voyage, Inter Caetera granted Ferdinand and Isabella “full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind,” over almost all of the Americas, save for a portion of modern-day Brazil and a few island outposts.

Notice again that the social teaching of the church was going on a long time before Leo XIII, but it’s not always so congenial to modern sensibilities, so Roman Catholic social thought winds up being predominantly a 20th-century concern.

Second, what the progressive Roman Catholics want the papacy to do:

The letter called on the pope to “formally and publicly repudiate and rescind the Dum Diversas Bull of 1452, and other related bulls, which grant the Pope’s blessing ‘to capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possession and their property.’ We also call upon the Pope to repudiate and rescind the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 that granted authority to Spain and Portugal to ‘take all lands and possessions’ so long as no other Christian ruler had previously claimed them. These bulls instilled the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.”

The letter stated the papacy had done some positive work regarding the rights of indigenous peoples — such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s supporting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Pope John Paul II’s asking of forgiveness for the misdeeds “of the sons and daughter of the church” — but not nearly enough.

(Recently, Pope Francis asked forgiveness in South America “not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”)

The Loretto letter included a message from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Religious Friends (Quakers), which stated:

“You [as Pope] have the power and responsibility to do more, by issuing a new papal bull that formally, directly, unequivocally rescinds and revokes the Doctrine of Discovery and the horrible, cruel, un-Christian language in those bulls that denigrates entire peoples with no justification.”

Comeaux said the Loretto letter was sent to the Vatican and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the Loretto community received no response from the Vatican. U.S. bishops’ conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz sent a note with a “polite thank you for including me,” she said.

The sisters have contacted Kurtz, who heads the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese, and “he’s expressed interest in getting more information,” she said, “and we’re preparing [that] for him.”

The important question is why a pope should be believed in apology when we haven’t believed the truth of an earlier utterance. If the encyclicals supporting the Doctrine of Discovery were wrong, why isn’t the papal statement that says the Doctrine of Discovery was wrong and asks for forgiveness also erroneous? How do you know when the pope is right? When he conforms to modern notions of fairness and equality? But what if in 500 years, in some sort of Mad Max world, when the current civilization has collapsed and another phase of globalization is starting, with certain people discovering people previously unknown, and the former interact with the latter the way that Europeans treated natives in America, it makes sense to colonize and enslave? If those explorers and exploiters discover papal apologies for the Doctrine of Discovery and judge those apologies to be out of synch with the times, might a pope apologize for the apologies?

One last thought, do the progressive Roman Catholics always think that what comes latest (what is up-to-date) is the best guide to truth? In other words, since we moderns find Christopher Columbus barbaric (even though in Columbus’ day he was considered civilized), is whatever is most recent the way things are supposed to be? That’s an odd view for people who are looking for a papal apology since the papacy is (apparently) an ancient institution. If you really want Roman Catholicism to be up to date, don’t you get rid of the papacy altogether? Who actually believes in ecclesiastical monarchs (except perhaps the gospel allies in their most celebrated status)?

Feeling at Home

I used this quote over at Patheos but given the excitements round hyeh the last week or so, a reminder about being strangers and aliens from a Roman Catholic intellectual invoking Augustine might be useful. I will include as well Peter Lawler’s comments about the Confederate Flag for good measure:

I really was quite moved when, driving through the heavily gay midtown section of Atlanta last Sunday, I saw so many homes and businesses flying the rainbow flag with the American flag. It’s not a a small thing that so many gays now feel fully at home in their country, where they’re free to live openly as who they are. But I wish more people were moved by Catholic writers calling for the American flag to be removed from the sanctuaries of their churches. Some argue that it never should have been there in the first place, and a Christian should always think of himself, as Saint Augustine says, as an alien or a pilgrim in his country. Still, many Christians have written in the last few days they have come to think of themselves, for the first time, as aliens in their country, and they know they will soon be marginalized if they live loudly and proudly (and charitably) as who they are.

Notice that I’ve managed to avoid waxing judgmental about the Confederate battle flag, although Apple moved to banish Civil War games that show that flag in the context of Confederate soldiers actually going into battle. Well, let me add one point: The main flag fact about the South today, especially the small-town South, is not the Stars and Bars; it’s the Stars and Stripes seen everywhere in places public and private, commercial and residential. The Confederate flag, it goes without saying, is hardly at all and shouldn’t be at all a sign of some present-tense form of allegiance. That doesn’t mean Americans should be deprived of historical literacy just because one flag lost and even deserved to lose. And it shouldn’t be a thought crime to believe that Lee and Jackson were really great generals and even good (although certainly misguided) men.

Now all we need is for President Obama to apologize for flying the gay pride flag.

No, wait. I forgive him. Who says Old Life is angry?

Forensic Friday: Making the World Safe for the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

After going on for thousands of comments with theonomic critics of 2k theology, I now have a better sense for why the governmental theory of the atonement is plausible to some Christians. Whenever I teach about New School Presbyterian theology, and its toleration if not advocacy of the governmental view, I joke with students that this outlook treats the cross of Christ as the greatest of all flannel graph lessons: by showing how horrid the punishment for sin is through the suffering and death of Christ, God upholds the righteousness of his law and show sinners how offensive their wicked acts are in his sight. (For the birthday-challenged, flannel graphs were the Greatest Generation’s Luddite version of power point – a flannel board on which teachers and speakers could hang letters or images without even having to use Velcro.)

I have always found this view bizarre because it offers no comfort or consolation from the cross of Christ. It simply reminds me of what I deserve and tells me to sit up, take notice (of all those laws), and fly right.

The reason it now makes more sense as an appealing view to some Christians is that in their sometime wholesome reverence for God’s law and desire to see it prevail in public and private life, theonomists (at least the ones upbraiding me for licentiousness and atheism) do not seem to make much of forgiveness as a central theme in the Christian religion. After all, if God is ultimately going to forgive sinners (ahem – how would salvation be possible without this?), then the law diminishes in importance as the standard for Christian and pagan conduct. Grace and forgiveness, such as that implicit in the vicarious atonement, seemingly take away incentive to follow God’s law. But if the law is what is supreme in God’s character and in Scripture’s teaching, then looking at the atonement as a vindication of God’s righteousness makes sense and also minimizes the kind of antinomianism that might follow if people took mercy seriously.

To illustrate these different conceptions of law and their consequences for the atonement, I offer up a contrast between Charles Finney and John Calvin. Granted, this may not be the fairest of fights, but Finney’s language (which is widely available online) is instructive for those Calvinists who are tempted to stress the law as central to Christianity and even to the gospel. (Theonomists, Federal Visionaries, Bayly Brothers, Rabbi Bret, and Indiana-based Kuyperians, sit up, take notice and fly right.)

First, Finney on law and gospel:

The intention of the Gospel is by no means to repeal the law. “Do we, then, make void the law through faith?” said the apostle; “God forbid; yea, we establish the law.” By his life and death, Christ honoured the law; and thus himself furnished the means of rebuking the rebellious lives of sinners. The spirit of the law pervades the Gospel, and they infinitely mistake the subject who suppose that the moral law is not part of the Gospel. This is the way to make Christ the minister of sin. This is to array Christ against the moral law; for how could he by abrogating the law make it honourable? This would be to weaken the law. Do not mistake me: I do not mean that men are to be saved by their own righteousness–that they are to be restored to happiness by the law, as the ground of their acceptance with God. I mean no such thing as this; but what I do mean is, that this is a condition of their forgiveness, –they must break off their rebellion, and become submissive and obedient to its authority. A man who has once violated a law can never be justified by it; this is both naturally and governmentally impossible. But there must be obedience to the law as a condition of forgiveness for past sins and offences. (Finney, “Christ Magnifying the Law,” 1850)

Yes, Finney really did say that forgiveness depends on obedience. Holy bleep, Batman!

Next Calvin on law and gospel:

The sum of the matter comes to this: The Old Testament filled the conscience with fear and trembling—The New inspires it with gladness. By the former the conscience is held in bondage, by the latter it is manumitted and made free. If it be objected, that the holy fathers among the Israelites, as they were endued with the same spirit of faith, must also have been partakers of the same liberty and joy, we answer, that neither was derived from the Law; but feeling that by the Law they were oppressed like slaves, and vexed with a disquieted conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel; and, accordingly, the peculiar advantage of the Gospel was, that, contrary to the common rule of the Old Testament, it exempted those who were under it from those evils. Then, again, we deny that they did possess the spirit of liberty and security in such a degree as not to experience some measure of fear and bondage. For however they might enjoy the privilege which they had obtained through the grace of the Gospel, they were under the same bonds and burdens of observances as the rest of their nation. Therefore, seeing they were obliged to the anxious observance of ceremonies (which were the symbols of a tutelage bordering on slavery, and handwritings by which they acknowledged their guilt, but did not escape from it), they are justly said to have been, comparatively, under a covenant of fear and bondage, in respect of that common dispensation under which the Jewish people were then placed. (Institutes II.11.ix)

Now Finney on the atonement::

7. An atonement was needed to inspire confidence in the offers and promises of pardon, and in all the promises of God to man. Guilty selfish man finds it difficult, when thoroughly convicted of sin, to realize and believe that God is actually sincere in his promises and offers of pardon and salvation. But whenever the soul can apprehend the reality of the Atonement, it can then believe every offer and promise as the very thing to be expected from a being who could give his Son to die for enemies.

An Atonement was needed, therefore, as the great and only means of sanctifying sinners:

Rom. 8:3,4. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The law was calculated, when once its penalty was incurred, to shut the sinner up in a dungeon, and only to develop more and more his depravity. Nothing could subdue his sin and cause him to love but the manifestation to him of disinterested benevolence. The atonement is just the thing to meet this necessity and subdue rebellion.

8. An Atonement was needed, not to render God merciful, but to reconcile pardon with a due administration of justice. This has been virtually said before, but needs to be repeated in this connection. (Lecture 31 from Lectures on Systematic Theology)

And Calvin on the atonement:

. . . Christ appeared once for all to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Again, that he was offered to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:12). He had previously said, that not by the blood of goats or of heifers, but by his own blood, he had once entered into the holy of holies, having obtained eternal redemption for us. Now, when he reasons thus, “If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14), it is obvious that too little effect is given to the grace of Christ, unless we concede to his sacrifice the power of expiating, appeasing, and satisfying: as he shortly after adds, “For this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of his death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance,” (Heb. 9:15). But it is especially necessary to attend to the analogy which is drawn by Paul as to his having been made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). It had been superfluous and therefore absurd, that Christ should have been burdened with a curse, had it not been in order that, by paying what others owed, he might acquire righteousness for them. There is no ambiguity in Isaiah’s testimony, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him; and with his stripes we are healed,” (Is. 53:5). For had not Christ satisfied for our sins, he could not be said to have appeased God by taking upon himself the penalty which we had incurred. To this corresponds what follows in the same place, “for the transgression of my people was he stricken,” (Is. 53:8). We may add the interpretation of Peter, who unequivocally declares, that he “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” (1 Pet. 2:24), that the whole burden of condemnation, of which we were relieved, was laid upon him. (Institutes, II.17.iv)

Here’s a revelation: I prefer Calvin. What is more, Calvin understands the Bible.

Who Said Moral Relativism Is Increasing?

EaglesSports talk radio is not the best entertainment but it sure beats Glen, Rush, and Sean beating up the Obama administration. Listeners in Philadelphia have listened to forty-eight hours of casuistry while Eagles’ fans process the reality of Michael Vick being added to the roster. After serving two years in federal prison for molesting and killing dogs in dog-fight related activities, Vick has been cleared by the NFL to play and the Eagles swooped him up. For a sampling of the moral outrage, check this out.

Now if only we could convince football fans that an unborn child is higher on the chain of being than a pit bull.