Category Archives: Liberal Theology

The Absurdity of Liberal Theology

One of the most endearing features of atheist Christopher Hitchens is his intolerance of intellectual posturing. Do you believe Jesus was God incarnate and raised from the dead for sinners? Fine. Hitchens will respect your position and argue with you in honest debate. But claim to be a Christian and doubt the essence of the faith and Hitchens will sniff out your inconsistencies, find them, and slap you in the head with them. Like he did recently with Unitarian Marilyn Sewell. You’ve probably seen this, but if not, this is from a recent interview. And if you have seen this, it’s worth reliving again:

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. …

… like the nearest cave.

Exegeting A Crowd

I’ve been meaning to transcribe an excerpt from a recent message at my home church, Covenant Life (Gaithersburg, MD). Being in Louisville, perhaps, is why the excerpt from Dr Albert Mohler’s message came back to mind.

On May 4th Dr Mohler preached on The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). He made these remarks at the beginning of the message:

“The crowd is so large that has been gathering over the course of this day that Jesus is required to do what a teacher must do and that is find some way to get distance from the crowd that is necessary to be seen and heard. In this case Jesus gets into a boat and goes slightly off shore in order that he might teach. The crowd is a very important factor to this passage.

The crowd is a matter of some question–some challenge, some perplexity–to us as well. Is has become clear that evangelical Christians in particular have a hard time understanding the nature of a crowd. We are tempted to think of a crowd as a great gathering of receptivity.

We understand that the crowd is gathering because something has been happening. We as evangelicals sometimes mistake a crowd for a church. It’s hard for us sometimes to understand what’s going on. Jesus helps to clarify this for his own disciples.”

–Albert Mohler, The Parable of the Sower, sermon at Covenant Life Church (Gaithersburg, MD) on May 4, 2008.

Doctrine and saving faith

tss-baseball.jpg“We must understand that Christianity is not a mood. It is not an emotion. It is not a feeling. It is not an amorphous set of beliefs. It is established by the truth of God’s Word, by the saving reality of God’s deeds in Jesus Christ, around certain definite doctrines without which it is not possible to exercise the kind of faith that saves.”

- Dr. R. Albert Mohler, at the fall convocation at Southern Seminary on August 21st [as quoted in The Tie: Southern Seminary Magazine (Fall 2007), p. 23]. Download magazine PDF here.

The free magazine also features the testimony of Marxist-turned-Christian, Michael A.G. Haykin on pages 18-19. Good stuff.

A kinder, gentler path to legalism

tsslogo.jpgLast night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:

“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …

Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’

Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’

It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.

So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.

So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”

- Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study

Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].

Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”

Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!

So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).

At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.

The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.

In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.

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RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)

RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)

RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)

RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)

RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)

RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.

Saved from the wrath of God

Saved from the wrath of God
(This post includes graphic content)

In a sinful world filled with evil we are not short on illustrations of suffering. The most graphic images of human atrocities (like beheadings) will never leave our minds. For me one of these haunting memories comes from 9/11, the day men and women jumped from the burning World Trade Centerwrath-of-god.jpg buildings to their deaths. For them it was better to jump than to endure the raging, steel-melting, furnace-like heat of burning jet fuel.

One author recounts the graphic and shocking scene as experienced through the eyes of a rookie cop, Will Jimeno.

“While fussing with his equipment, Will kept hearing explosions, one every few seconds, a ragged beat of concussions thudding up and down the street that sounded almost like fireworks. Finally he turned around to look: they were human bodies, dropping from above, exploding on impact. They sent up aerosol clouds of blood and left large divots in the sidewalk. The ground became littered with shorn body parts and random scatterings of personal effects – watches, high-heeled shoes, coins, a briefcase, Palm Pilots. Will forced himself to look up and finally understood the dreadful truth – that these people were jumping deliberately, that the heat was pushing them out. ‘I’ve heard experts say they were dead before they hit the ground,’ Will says, shaking his head. ‘But that’s not true. I saw them. You could tell – they were conscious the very end. They saw what was coming.’”

This very graphic horror relates to the gospel.

The book of Revelation portrays King Jesus. He is the holy warrior, splendid in holiness and authority, worshiped as the Great King of all creation. He returns to earth for a second time as the Lion, furious like a neglected King towards His rebel subjects. He returns to earth to “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” by “inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (Rev. 19:15, 2 Thess. 1:8). This is a just and righteous human suffering.

I find it impossible to imagine what desire would overcome a fear of heights, causing a businessman to jump 1,000 feet to the pavement below. Likewise I cannot imagine the greater horrors that overwhelm the soul under the eternal heat of God’s wrath. The greatest horrors cause people to respond in unimaginable ways.

“When he [King Jesus] opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Rev. 6:12-17).

Notice the unbearable heat of God’s holy wrath. What horror would make someone jump rather than burn? What horror would lead the sinner to plead with the mountain to crush him? The horror of intense heat causes a sinner to cry out for a crushing landslide of rock, rather than endure the furnace of God’s holy wrath.

Of this despair, Charles Spurgeon said,

“The falling of the mountain would grind them to powder, and they wish for that: the descent of the hill upon them would bury them in a deep abyss, and they would rather be immured in the bowels of the earth for ever than have to look upon the face of the Great Judge. They ask to be crushed outright, or to be buried alive sooner than to feel the punishment of their sins. Then shall be fulfilled the word of the Lord by his servant John, ‘And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them’ (Rev. 9:6). Ah, sirs, extinction is a boon too great to be permitted to the ungodly. Earth will have no bowels of compassion for the men who polluted her and rejected her Lord. The mountains will reply, ‘We fall at God’s bidding, not at the petition of his enemies,’ and the hills in their stolid silence will answer, ‘We cannot, and we would not if we could, conceal you from the justice which you yourselves willfully provoked.’ No, there shall be no refuge for them, no annihilation into which they can fly: the very hope of it were heaven to the damned … Their cry for extinction shall be in vain” (22:754).

In Christ we are saved from this wrath of God.

It is not uncommon to meet churched people who say they are “saved” but have no idea what they have been saved from. Prominent Christian leaders, too, seem unable to see the significance of God’s wrath, forgetting that preaching the gospel so sinners may avoid God’s wrath (in the Cross) is the greatest humanitarian need and the greatest humanitarian activism they could possibly engage! Telling sinners that God’s judgment is stored up towards their sin — and that salvation is found only in Christ — is one of the most rare and certainly the most necessary act of compassion in the world, as urgently necessary in Minneapolis as in Darfur.

What makes this such a universal catastrophe is the fact that all men, women and children are naturally sinful, and that makes them (by nature) children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). You don’t have to try to anger God, it just comes naturally to God-ignoring sinners. His judgment rests upon sinners for all acts of rebellion, even for what seems insignificant to us like being unthankful towards Him (Rom. 1:18-21). To act selfishly, concerned only with oneself, is enough to store up an account of wrath (Rom. 2:5-8). God’s holiness demands perfect obedience and He will judge all sin, all unthankfulness and all sinners.

Unrepentant sinners who do not obey the gospel will be judged eternally. They will never again enjoy even the smallest momentary comfort. They will not enjoy one drop of water on the tongue through drinking, nor one short breeze of cool air on the skin through jumping, nor the comfort of extinction by crushing. They will endure an eternal death, an eternal worm, an eternal fire (Rev. 14:9-11).

And so, for the church, being “saved” becomes an empty label if we cannot answer the question: What are we saved from? The beauty of the Cross is that I (a sinner provoking God’s judgment) have been freed from the fire of God’s holy wrath because my wrath was absorbed by the Son! Only in the Cross I have been saved from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10)! “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9).

The holiness of God is graphic. Christ’s death on the Cross was graphic. The eternal death of sinners is graphic. That God judges sinners is graphic. Praise God, the horror of the Cross has saved you from the horror of God’s wrath! Believers have been spared by the wrath absorbing work of Christ! He drank the cup for us (Luke 22:39-44)! It’s through the Cross of Jesus Christ that sinners are spared the horrors of the “wrath of the Lamb!”

Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). The Psalmist writes, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:12). Believe in Christ, take refuge in Him and find your joy forever in the Cross (Gal. 6:14)!

Jonathan Edwards once said, “‘Tis God’s manner to make men sensible of their misery and unworthiness before he appears in his mercy and love to them.” Indeed, until we can sense the wrath of God upon us for our sin, we cannot taste the beauty of the Cross.

We cannot imagine the heat that would cause a man to jump of his own accord. We cannot imagine the horror that would lead a man to plead with a mountain to smother his body. But we must catch a glimpse of these horrors to be forever grateful for the work of Christ. For this is what we have been saved from.

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Related: A brief but excellent book by R.C. Sproul, Saved From What? (Crossway).

Related: “A Crucifixion Narrative” by Rick Gamache (mp3). The Cross displayed in all its graphic horrors as the wrath of God is absorbed by Christ on behalf of sinners.

Related: Book review of Jonathan Edwards, Unless You Repent (Soli Deo Gloria). Previously unpublished sermons on the painfulness of God’s wrath and eternal judgment as displayed in Scripture.

Related: “We affirm that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, in perfect, undiluted, and unconfused union throughout his incarnation and now eternally. We also affirm that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners, as a sacrifice for sin, and as a propitiation of the wrath of God toward sinners.” Together for the Gospel statement of faith (article vii).

Note: The 9/11 quotation above was taken from Hampton Sides, Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier (Anchor Books: 2004), page 379.

What is sin?

John Piper
Sin: The ultimate outrage of the universe

What makes sin sin is not first that it hurts people, but that it blasphemes God. This is the ultimate evil and the ultimate outrage in the universe.

The glory of God is not honored.
The holiness of God is not reverenced.
The greatness of God is not admired.
The power of God is not praised.
The truth of God is not sought.
The wisdom of God is not esteemed.
The beauty of God is not treasured.
The goodness of God is not savored.
The faithfulness of God is not trusted.
The promises of God are not relied upon.
The commandments of God are not obeyed.
The justice of God is not respected.
The wrath of God is not feared.
The grace of God is not cherished.
The presence of God is not prized.
The person of God is not loved.

The infinite, all-glorious Creator of the universe, by whom and for whom all things exist (Rom. 11:36) – who holds every person’s life in being at every moment (Acts 17:25) – is disregarded, disbelieved, disobeyed, and dishonored by everybody in the world. That is the ultimate outrage of the universe.

Why is it that people can become emotionally and morally indignant over poverty and exploitation and prejudice and the injustice of man against man and yet feel little or no remorse or indignation that God is so belittled? It’s because of sin. That is what sin is. Sin is esteeming and valuing and honoring and enjoying man and his creations above God. So even our man-centered anger at the hurt of sin is part of sin. God is marginal in human life. That is our sin, our condition.

- John Piper, Overview of Romans 1-7, 09/02/2001.

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HT: Tom Fluharty leading Sun. AM worship at SGF.

The church’s great danger: Wrong thoughts about God

“Wrong ideas about God are not only the fountain from which the polluted waters of idolatry flow; they are themselves idolatrous. The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true.

Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the Church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards decline along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.

Before the Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is, and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind.”

- A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (HarperCollins: San Francisco), 1961, p. 4.

Prideful hesitation or humble orthodoxy?

Every time I go to the Together for the Gospel blog I am reminded of the wonderful time in Louisville, KY at T4G 2006 and my time meeting so many of you and getting some great time with my fellow shepherd-in-training, Charlie Jackson. The following quote from the blog was recently mentioned by Joshua Harris at New Attitude 2006. It is a great reminder of the preachers relationship to the Word of God.

"What we need is humble theology — theology which submits itself to the truth of God's Word. 'Liberal' theology — theology which does not view Scripture as finally trustworthy and authoritative — is not humble before the Word. Churches which are tentative and decry dogmatism may sound humble, but it is not truly humble to do anything other than to submit to God's Word. Christian humility is to simply accept whatever God has revealed in His Word. Humility is following God's Word wherever it goes, as far as it goes, not either going beyond it or stopping short of it."

"Bertrand Russell, the late, well-known, British philosopher wrote in 1950 that 'The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.' These days, I guess many are holding theological conclusions in such a 'scientific' manner. But such hestitancy is not humility. The humility we want in our churches is to read the Bible and believe it — everything God has said, dogmatically, and humbly! It is not humble to be hesitant where God has been clear and plain."

- Mark Dever, Together for the Gospel blog (2/8/06)

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