House of Cards vs. Game of Thrones

Lots of discussion lately about watching sin in movies and television series.  The reason appears to be the new season of Game of Thrones.  That genre interests me not at all so I haven’t seen any of it, and I’ve only watched one episode of House of Cards (more of the original).  Too many episodes of West Wing and Friday Night Lights still to see. (And now there’s Hinterland.)

After watching last night with colleagues and students in the German literature department Run Lola Run, I started wondering again about viewing sin on the screen.  Kevin DeYoung and Nick Batzig argue for caution when watching movies with nudity and sex.  Even Katelyn Beaty finds her inner Nashville Statement when it comes to watching programs that include rape scenes.

But what about Lola and Manni from Run Lola Run? Here we have a guy entangled with drug dealers (likely) needing to pay them their money after having lost it on a subway.  And we have his girlfriend who robs a bank to help her man.  And we have a viewer (me) rooting them on.  Should I have worried about breaking the ninth commandment?

And is it more heinous to watch a movie that portrays violations of the seventh commandment compared to one that depicts breaking the ninth commandment?

Is the Larger Catechism of any help?

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.

It looks like what qualifies as more aggravating than something else has a lot to do with the person offended and the time of the offense. Watching a show of a disreputable nature on the Lord’s Day might be worse than seeing it on Wednesday night (as long as your not skipping prayer meeting, of course). And if you watch something the king thinks you shouldn’t see, that carries more weight than — sorry Kevin — your PCA pastor.

But what about point three — the nature of the offense? There it sure looks like stealing from a bank to pay your re-election campaign staff is more heinous than simply stealing from a bank. But maybe I’m wrong. I also see nothing from the catechism to suggest that sexual sins are more heinous than fiscal or false words.

If that’s true, it looks like a lot of people obsess about what is simply looking at entertainment serious art. Whatever might these people make of Michelangelo’s David? A fig leaf, please!!


Called To Communion Hype and Roman Catholic Reality

Bryan Cross’ response to Nick Batzig on the Reformed view of imputation has kicked up a little dust over at Green Baggins and for good reason, though I plan to go in a direction different from many of the Protestant complaints. Cross contends that Roman Catholics understand justification through the lens of agape while Reformed Protestants use a list paradigm:

From a Catholic point of view, as I explained in “Why John Calvin did not Recognize the Distinction Between Mortal and Venial Sin,” there are two different paradigms here regarding what it means to keep the law. Call one the list paradigm, and call the other the agape paradigm. In the list paradigm, perfect law-keeping is conceived as keeping a list of God given precepts. According to this paradigm, perfect law-keeping requires perfectly and perpetually keeping (and not in any way violating) every single precept in the list. In the New Covenant, we are given more gifts for growing progressively in our ability to keep the law, but nevertheless, nobody in this life keeps the list perfectly. All fall short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness. That’s the paradigm through which Batzig views God’s requirement of righteousness for salvation.

In the agape paradigm, by contrast, agape is the fulfillment of the law. Agape is not merely some power or force or energy by which one is enabled better to keep the list of rules, either perfectly or imperfectly. Rather, agape is what the law has pointed to all along. To have agape in one’s soul is to have the perfect righteousness to which the list of precepts point. Righteousness conceived as keeping a list of externally written precepts is conceptually a shadow of the true righteousness which consists of agape infused into the soul. This infusion of agape is the law written on the heart. But the writing of the law on the heart should not be conceived as merely memorizing the list of precepts, or being more highly motivated to keep the list of precepts. To conceive of agape as merely a force or good motivation that helps us better (but imperfectly, in this life) keep the list of rules, is still to be in the list paradigm. The writing of the law on the heart provides in itself the very fulfillment of the law — that perfection to which the external law always pointed. To have agape is already to have fulfilled the telos of the law, a telos that is expressed in our words, deeds, and actions because they are all ordered to a supernatural end unless we commit a mortal sin. The typical Protestant objection to the Catholic understanding of justification by the infusion of agape is “Who perfectly loves God? No one.” But this objection presupposes the list paradigm.

This is rich given the recent news out of the Vatican that Rome has added to the Church’s list of deadly sins. (Look for the words list and agape.)

After 1,500 years the Vatican has brought the seven deadly sins up to date by adding seven new ones for the age of globalization. The list, published yesterday in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, came as the Pope deplored the “decreasing sense of sin” in today’s “secularized world” and the falling numbers of Roman Catholics going to confession.

The new deadly sins include polluting, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, drug dealing, abortion, pedophilia and causing social injustice.

So the communion that originally gave us a list of sins is adding to the list. Agape indeed.

And to underscore the point — which is that Bryan Cross has remarkable intellectual gifts that have little purchase in reality — consider that the little, old (not ancient, of course) Orthodox Presbyterian Church, with all of its alleged list mentality, resisted mightily producing lists of sins. One occasion came in 1950 when the church, through a study committee of the General Assembly, concluded that belonging to the Free Masons was a sin. But contrary to some in the church who wanted a constitutional amendment to list Masonry as a sin, the committee opposed the composition of lists of sin:

Although it is unwarranted to condemn all cataloguing of sins by the church, history shows that it ma easily be carried so far as to become fraught with undesirable consequences. This danger becomes especially great when the church in its official book of discipline seeks to enumerate the precise sins which render their doers subject to ecclesiastical censures. . . .

It is obviously impossible for the church to draw up a complete catalogue of sins. Any list is certain to be a partial one. The almost unavoidable result will be that the members of the church will receive an unbalanced view of the Christian life. For example, let us suppose that a church catalogues as offenses certain types of worldliness, as gambling, the performance or viewing of immoral or sacrilegious theatricals, and many forms of
modern dancing. The danger is far from imaginary that the psychological effect of such partial cataloguing will be that other forms of worldliness, which in the sight of God are no less reprehensible, such as the love of money, the telling of salacious jokes by toastmasters and other speakers at banquets, the display of wealth in a palatial dwelling, and the stressing of the numerical rather than the spiritual growth of a church, to name no more, will be condoned and even overlooked. In another respect too the cataloguing of sins is liable to result in an unbalanced conception of the Christian life. It may easily impart the impression that Christian living is essentially negative rather than positive. Church members will be led to stress the separated life at the expense of the consecrated life. Very plainly put, they will conclude that merely not to do this and that and a third thing is the essence of Christian living and is proof of the Christianity of him who abstains from these things. (1950 GA Minutes, 26)

In case you didn’t notice, the church allegedly characterized by the agape paradigm makes lists of sins. And one of the churches that you might expect to draw up a list of sins, given its supposed reliance on the list paradigm, has tried not to make lists.

In which case, I am not sure what Bryan Cross’ point is other than to show the inadequacies of Protestants always in the peace of Christ.


The Baltimore Catechism on sin:
52. Q. What is actual sin? A. Actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed or omission contrary to the law of God.

The Shorter Catechism on sin:
14. Q. What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.

We print, realists decide.

Where's Waldo Wednesday: The Power to Confuse

Nick Batzig has a useful post on union with Christ that I believe illustrates what some people find confusing about the doctrine — at least I do. I interact with this post not to single out or pick on Nick, who is a friend and whose ministry I respect, but because it is an example of the assertions that follow from union with Christ — assertions that do not necessarily follow as a form of argument but may work more as a kind of inspiration. If readers can help me understand better, or fill in the holes of a necessarily short essay, I’d be grateful. Unionists may plausibly consider me a hostile reader. But since I am also some kind of Vossian and generally agree with the unionists on a variety of other matters, such as worship and polity, they may actually consider the questions raised here as a useful prod to the kind of clarity and explanation that would greatly advance their cause and aid the churches they admirably wish to serve.

I’ll paste below the full text of Nick’s post — to let him have his due — and supply a running commentary at the bottom.

One of the most beneficial things I learned from my professors during my seminary days was that ministers must continually preach the message of the cross to the people of God for their growth in grace. One professor in particular constantly exhorted us to preach Christ “for pardon and power.” The longer I have been a Christian, the more I see the wisdom of this counsel. The message of the cross meets our deepest need for pardon, but it also meets our need for power as we seek to overcome indwelling sin.

Few things trouble the soul of the child of God so much as the presence of indwelling sin, and the sober realization of the inability of the flesh to overcome it. True believers often come to an end of themselves and cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)? Christians grieve over sin and spiritual weakness. They long for victory over it. The Scriptures command us to be diligent in examining ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5), taking heed to ourselves (1 Cor. 10:12), and asking the Lord to “search us…and see if there be any grievous way in us” (Psalm 139:23-24); but they do not stop there. God’s word reveals that the work of Christ is the source of pardon for sin—as well as the source of power to overcome it. Believers possess this power by virtue of their union with Christ in His death and resurrection. In order to grow in Christ-likeness, the believer must remember that sin’s dominion was broken when Christ died in their place and rose again. This is the apostle’s chief concern in Romans 6:1-14—a passage to which we must regularly return.

All of this seems so clear that I marvel at how quickly we forget it, and how seldom it is mentioned in pulpits and Christian literature (a grand exception being Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification!). The deficiency is apparent in many seeker-sensitive churches where pragmatism abounds; but sadly, it is also prevalent in many of our more traditional Protestant churches. I often fear that those who are most skillful at diagnosing the complexity and atrocity of sin in themselves—and in pointing it out in others—are the least skillful in pointing themselves and others to the Savior. It is far easier to fixate on the problem than to focus on the solution. It is actually quite easy to focus on sin and quite difficult to keep our eyes steadfastly fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:1-2). Consequently, it often seems expedient to offer pragmatic—dare I say it, even biblical—advice that does not actually give the power to overcome sin (Col. 2:20-23). In order to progress in Christian living, we must remember that sin’s dominion was broken when Christ died for us at the cross.

Paul began to address the issue of sanctification in Romans (Rom. 6:1-14), by reminding believers of the freedom they have from sin’s dominion by virtue of their union with Christ: “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Sin’s power was broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ came not only to cancel sin’s debt; He came to break its power. Therefore, the apostle exhorted: “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom.6:11). When we forget that sin’s power over us was broken in the death of Christ, we will inevitably fail to walk in the newness of life that we have in union with Him. If we neglect this crucial aspect of Christ’s work we will inevitably end up living in bondage, discouragement, fear, doubt, and anxiety—or else we will become self-righteous, judgmental and proud.

Union with Christ truly is one of the most precious doctrines for Christian living. It is mentioned nearly 150 times in the New Testament by use of the phrase “in Christ,” “in Him,” “in Jesus,” or “in Jesus Christ.” The apostles relentlessly remind believers of their position in Christ. By faith, we are united to Him, in whom we receive all the spiritual blessings of God (1 Cor. 1:31).

We do not come to Christ by faith for justification and then depart from Him for sanctification. In Christ our sins are pardoned, and in Him the reign of sin is overthrown. The same Christ who justified us, also sanctifies us; therefore, the same faith that justifies us also sanctifies us (cf. John 15:1-5). John Owen captured this truth magnificently when he wrote: “While by faith we contemplate the glory of Christ as revealed in the Gospel, all grace will thrive and flourish in us towards a perfect conformity unto Him.” By union with Christ, believers have power to put indwelling sin to death (Col. 2:20-3:17). With the apostle we answer the question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?,” with the joyful exclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

So, we begin with the message of the cross and the power of the cross in addressing the sinner’s need for pardon and power to overcome sin. So far, no union. It’s the cross. Lots of hymns support that theme.

In the second graph we have more on the problem of indwelling sin and the power of the cross to overcome this dominion. So far, still no union. It’s the cross. But at the end of the graph we have mention of the resurrection. And for most union advocates, following Richard Gaffin, it is the resurrection that brings the power to overcome sin’s dominion (did someone say “dominionism”?). For that reason, I was a little confused by Nick’s start with the cross. Now that he turns to the resurrection I’m feeling on more familiar ground.

Then in the fourth graph we arrive at union with Christ, having moved from the power of the cross first and then the power of the resurrection. But this is an odd argument at this point because we have freedom from the power of sin by virtue of union, but then we can fail somehow to possess the power, possibly by a failure of memory. Granted, believers who forget the doctrine of union fail to find comfort from it. But the problem that Nick addresses from the outset is a person who has sinned. The sinner hasn’t merely forgotten union but is actually struggling with the betweenness of belonging to Christ and doing something that looks like he belongs to the devil. Obviously, remembering union won’t solve the problem of having just sinned and trying to account for its presence in the believer’s life.

This is why I find talk about the wonders of the doctrine of union frustrating. It is apparently the cure for what ails the saint battling sin. But union is apparently a reality even when a saint sins, just as justification is. A saint united to Christ has power over indwelling sin even while he has sins in his life which testify to the power of indwelling sin. Which would suggest that the doctrine of union faces the same dilemma as justification — just as the saint is simultaneously justified and a sinner, so the one united to Christ is both united and a sinner. Either way, sin is still there and the believer is wondering, with Paul, how will I escape this body of death? I don’t see how union is so much more comforting than justification.

Then in the last two graphs we see fulsome praise for the doctrine of union, how it combines both justification and sanctification. Nick writes, “By union with Christ, believers have power to put indwelling sin to death.” But again, didn’t this post begin with the presence of sin in the Christian life, and evidence that indwelling sin has not died? Wasn’t the believer who sinned united to Christ? So how does union fix this problem?

To summarize: again, I am not picking on Nick. His piece is a perfect example of the kind of pro-union statements I regularly see and hear. And despite how often I hear the doctrine, I am still left confused by its explanation and power of inspiration. For one thing, its articulation seems often to merge thoughts about the power of Christ’s death and his resurrection, running all too quickly between the two. I guess this is an objection about the lack of precision. The other source of confusion is the alleged solution that union seems to provide to believers who struggle with sin and doubt. Union is supposed to point to the power over indwelling sin that believers possess by virtue of union at precisely the time in their life when they are most aware of indwelling sin’s ongoing power. Since I sin, I have tested the capacity of union to ease my burdened soul. But I find much more comfort in the face of guilt to know that I no longer face condemnation.

Postscript: And while I’m at it — I know a certain lay person (not all about me) who wonders how union with Christ is different from union with God. Since Christ is God, an ordinary believer may think that all of the talk about union with Christ leads to a view of being united with God that is at odds with what Christians also believe about the categorical distinction between the creator and the creature. If anyone who wants to help me out with this lay person’s confusion, I’d be grateful.