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?


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.

American Exceptionalism Perfectionist Style

Forget the meme that has Roman Catholics winning. The big winner of late is Charles Finney, that evangelist who insisted that Christians renounce all sin in their lives and taught a generation of Protestants that compromise with sin in politics was — wait for it — sin.

Evidence of the prevalence of such perfectionism comes in Theon Hill’s piece on Charlottesville. Surprising is his acknowledgement that black Civil Rights advocates were far from pure:

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Isn’t that the nature of politics? Don’t you take certain gains while recognizing you don’t get everything? Since politics is about maintaining order and equity in a world that consists of sinners, and since you can’t eradicate sin in this life and don’t want to live in a society where government (who uses force legitimately) is looking into everything you do and think, maybe you live with a little compromise? Maybe you fight another day for another round of proximate goods.

Not so when you apply the standards of perfectionist Christianity:

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness.

That is certainly true for the believer and even the church — oh, by the way has anyone asked how pure the mainline churches are in their efforts to combat the alt-right? But monuments and social protests are not about personal righteousness. They are about what we share as people inhabiting the same national borders and government by the same civil authorities.

When did people ever start expecting a nation to be holy?

Oh, that’s right. Mr. Finney.

Jesus for President

He’s about the only one left when it comes to a presidential candidate with character. Alan Noble laments:

In just five years, white evangelicals went from overwhelmingly denying a division between private and public character to overwhelmingly embracing the division. It is very difficult for me to imagine an explanation of this shift other than the candidacy of Donald Trump.

I do not want to speculate here on what exactly in Trump’s candidacy caused this shift in white evangelicals. Most of the possibilities are grim and warrant their own thorough exploration. But right now evangelicals can turn back to our traditional teaching that character matters and correct the mistake of supporting Donald Trump.

He concedes that Hillary has issues (which is why Jesus is left standing in that great day):

Some evangelical leaders have claimed that we just have two morally flawed candidates. They point to Hillary Clinton’s flawed character and her sins and conclude that since they are both sinners, we have to simply judge them on their policies. But that does not reflect a Christian conception of character and behavior.

Like many evangelicals, I cannot vote for Clinton because I do not believe she would be a good president for my neighbor. Since I believe that life begins at conception, Clinton’s intention to repeal the Hyde Amendment so that federal funds can be spent on abortions reveals a profound flaw in her character.

But her flaw does not magically make Trump’s flaws any less grievous.

What I enjoy about Trump’s candidacy as someone with a seat in the theater of American electoral politics, is how fundamentalists are now in fashion for both evangelicals and Democrats:

Having grown up as a conservative evangelical during Bill Clinton’s administration, I believe that character matters. This is what leaders on the religious right taught me when Clinton was caught in his affair with Monica Lewinsky. At the time, some people tried to shrug off Clinton’s infidelity as a private matter: Of course he shouldn’t have done it, but this didn’t affect his ability to be president. But conservative evangelicals rejected this logic, and they were right.

In response to President Clinton’s infidelity, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a “Resolution on the Moral Character of Public Officials”:

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 9-11, 1998, in Salt Lake City, Utah, affirm that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we implore our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character; and

Be it finally RESOLVED, That we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.

So is Noble ready for the isolation that always comes to evangelicals who scold modern America for its sins? I thought evangelicals wanted a seat at the table, and fashioned a kinder, gentler Protestantism (than fundamentalism) to get there.

Now Falwell and Co. were right? Who knew?

Obedience Girl

Wesleyans aren’t the only ones to promote perfectionism:

Following Jesus is a serious task, and, at the same time, one filled with joy; it takes a certain daring and courage to recognize the divine Master in the poorest of the poor and those who are cast aside, and to give oneself in their service. In order to do so, volunteers, who out of love of Jesus serve the poor and the needy, do not expect any thanks or recompense; rather they renounce all this because they have discovered true love. And each one of us can say: “Just as the Lord has come to meet me and has stooped down to my level in my hour of need, so too do I go to meet him, bending low before those who have lost faith or who live as though God did not exist, before young people without values or ideals, before families in crisis, before the ill and the imprisoned, before refugees and immigrants, before the weak and defenceless in body and spirit, before abandoned children, before the elderly who are on their own. Wherever someone is reaching out, asking for a helping hand in order to get up, this is where our presence – and the presence of the Church which sustains and offers hope – must be”. And I do this, keeping alive the memory of those times when the Lord’s hand reached out to me when I was in need.

Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that “the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable”. She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavour to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.

But did she trust Jesus as her savior from sin?

The Old Testament Solution to the NFL's Ray Rice Problem

Don’t fire him. Keep him on the team and playing with the starters.

Let me explain.

I have yet to see anyone opine that this imbroglio reflects the ongoing problem of race relations in the U.S. but I am not sure why. When did professional sports’ servant leaders come down as hard on white players or managers who also beat their wives? Or when did the public outrage become as heated over white incidents of domestic violence as in this case of Ray Rice? I’ll leave the African-American pastors to figure this one out, but I could see them making a plausible case — except, a big exception, that it is hard to turn Ray Rice into a victim.

But he is (and so is his wife) in a way. Everyone well knows by now that the NFL reversed its decision on Rice once the video went public. Then and only then did the NFL and the Ravens need to save face (in a way that can’t be good for the Rice marriage). And despite the hypocrisy that all those with logs in their own eyes can see in the NFL’s timely dismissal of Rice, most of those same viewers will be right back in the stadiums and in front of their televisions this Thursday night and Sunday afternoon (unless they are Old School Presbyterians), looking past those logs. We Americans love our moral purity even as much as we adore a sport that is riddled with hypocrisy. And here’s the kicker — the hypocrisy of the NFL depends on the hypocrisy of football fans. I assume most fans will be glad for the harsh penalty against Rice, and now will feel the league has achieved enough moral balance to permit ongoing viewing, betting, and fantasy league managing. They may not know it, but unless they give up the game, the NFL’s fans are as much implicated in this face saving as the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell.

The Old Testament way of handling this would not have been to seek relief by cutting losses or players. It would have been to treat Ray Rice like King David. After David’s affair with Bathsheba and the death of her husband, Uriah, what happened to David? Things went south in the family and he and the Israelites suffered for his infidelity. But he remained the dominant figure in the OT narrative, even to the extent that Matthew shows Christ’s genealogical ties to David. What is striking about Matthew’s birth narrative is that he also mentions Uriah. Like the Hebrew narratives, Matthew does not try to shield readers from knowing the worst about their biblical heroes. At the same time, those biblical heroes remain heroes despite their failings.

Americans cannot handle such truth. George Washington never lied. And then he owned slaves and there goes American greatness. Abraham Lincoln was a devout Christian. He has yet to come down from that pedestal (except in certain sectors of the South) even though Lincoln’s beliefs were pretty squishy. The NFL is a great league with a great product. But heaven forbid that the league employs a wife beater as one of its stars.

The best punishment for Rice’s crimes would have been to have him still part of the team and part of the weekend television package. That way the NFL would have had to suffer, along with Rice. And fans would have had to experience the strange mixture of revulsion and delight, offended by Rice’s behavior off the field and ecstatic over his football success. Oh, wretched people that we are.

Why Neo-Calvinism Sounds Novel

I understand Dr. K. is trying to give 2k theology another try and for this Matthew Tuininga deserves much of the credit. I would have thought this an instance of “if you’re not Dutch you’re not much.” But since VanDrunen is a Dutch name — at least — and since Dr. K. has not begun to take back his 13-part take down of Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, factors other than ethnicity are at play.

But before anti-2k aggreessors lie down with 2k innocents, we need to keep our wits and check the fine print. In a recent post Dr. K., again in a mood of generosity toward Tuininga’s 2k, wondered if 2kers and neo-Calvinists might have more in common than he thought. The occasion for the piece was the recent decision of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Colorado Springs not to serve communion to Vice President Biden because of the latter’s support for abortion rights. This controversy led to considerations about when Roman Catholic politicians violate church teaching and are guilty of sin, as well as whether Roman Catholic church members are also guilty of sin for voting for candidates that don’t follow church teaching. Since Tuininga applauded Rome’s consistent opposition to an “evil so grave,” Dr. K. thought he saw an opening for further 2k and neo-Calvinist agreement.

This encouragement should be applauded because eliminating this evil is also required by “the principle of moral obedience binding on a disciple of Christ that simply cannot be compromised.” We would be troubled if our applause for the church-as-institute were permitted by our NL2K friends to be one-sided—applauding the church’s opposition toward intolerable evil, but not the church’s promotion of the good over against that evil.

Dr. K.’s point about the church as institute supporting opposition to evil seems to break down in Tuininga’s case since he is hardly the church as institute — he was merely one Christian opining about the Roman Catholic Church.

My concern is not with the Kuyperian distinction between church as institute or as organism but with the Calvinistic notion of evil. Dr. K. used the phrase “eliminating evil” or “eliminate evil” at least three times in his piece.

Eliminate? Really?

Can any good Calvinist, who takes Total Depravity seriously, ever entertain the idea that evil will be eradicated this side of the new heavens and new earth? Is not the notion of eradicating evil utopian and radical, sort of like the breathless idealism of Charles Finney’s perfectionism? For instance, in strictly legal terms, we have laws against murder. Have those laws stopped murder? So does Dr. K. actually believe that the criminalization of abortion will actually eliminate this evil?

But outside the ephemeral and fleeting world of law and the courts, does Dr. K. actually think that people who don’t murder are not guilty of murder? Has he not heard what Christ said about hate being an instance of murder? The reason evil cannot be eliminated this side of glory is that wickedness pervades the human heart — even the hearts of the regenerate.

And if Dr. K. followed the teachings of historic Calvinism (not to mention if he were a political conservative) he would never use the words “eliminate” and “evil” together. Of course, his word choice could be simply a slip of the word processor. But my suspicion is that Dr. K.’s mistake is actually an expression of the postmillennial tranformationalism that generally follows from taking “every square” inch captive. And this difference — whether the kingdom comes here and now in affairs outside the church or whether the renewal of all things awaits the return of Christ — is what keeps 2k lambs on the watch for anti-2k lions.