Dogs and Brothers

If you would be so kind, please allow me to say a few more things about how essential sola fide is. A few weeks back, I did a segment with Darren Doane on Ask Doug about whether Tolkien and Chesterton were saved, followed it up with a few posts here, and then earlier this week James White interacted with my Ask Doug bit on his show The Dividing Line.

If you ask me what the gospel is, I am going to give you as much of it as I can — the person and work of Jesus, His death for our sins, His burial and His resurrection for our justification, and all in accordance the Scriptures. Now assume for the sake of discussion that I get my statement of the gospel absolutely correct. What I just declared in my proclamation is a very different question than how much of what I said has to be fully comprehended and believed by someone in order for them to be saved.

Sometimes the pure gospel is preached, but it is heard in confused ways, but the person hearing is still saved. Sometimes it is heard more accurately, but the person hearing is not saved. Sometimes the confusion is on the part of the preacher, and listeners are saved despite that. Other times the gospel is set forth with excruciating precision and everybody involved in the process, preacher and congregants alike, are all equally damned. And then there are glorious times when the preacher declares the truth, the listeners hear the truth, and God adds daily to the number of the saints.

So “what is the gospel?” is one question. A related but very different question is “how much of that gospel does God need to use in order to save somebody?” I have a friend who got saved watching a movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon back in the day, a movie in which the gospel elements would have to be described as anemic. My mother was dragged forward at a revival by a friend who had been urged to go forward herself by an elderly lady, and because she wasn’t about to go down there by herself, she grabbed my mom. My mother went home and told her family that she had gotten saved, and they asked what that meant. She said, “I shook the preacher’s hand.” But the next morning, because she was a Christian now, she got up in the morning to read her Bible, and never looked back. These are not methods I commend to you. Don’t try this at home, in other words.

God’s sovereignty in His use of slender means is not an authorization to us to make the means as slender as we can. We are not to sin that grace may abound. No, rather we should seek to make our evangelistic means as robust as we can.
I know what the pure gospel is. I also know what a bowl of sugar is. But how much sand can you put in the sugar bowl before it is no longer the sugar bowl? I don’t know, but I know there is a point where that happens, and I know that we are not supposed to test God.

“Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. ‘And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me’ (Col. 4:11).”

Paul says that Justus is “of the circumcision.” This cannot mean simply that he is a Jew, because that would mean that Paul himself would also be “of the circumcision.” There were members of the circumcision party who were God-haters. There were members of “the circumcision” who were not. Some of them were false brothers, and some were not.

My view — not willing to go to the stake for this one, understand — is that John Mark, the author of our second gospel was “of the circumcision.” I also think he was the rich, young ruler, but that is for another time. Mark’s gospel is the only one that records that the Lord looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21). I also think he was the young man who ran away the night of Christ’s arrest (Mark 14:51-52), another singular detail from Mark’s gospel. But that also is something for another time.

Anyhoo, according to early church tradition, John Mark got his info about Jesus from Peter, who was apostle to the Jews. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey and when he abandoned ship is telling (Acts 13:13). It was at the first convenient port after Paul had presented the gospel cold to his first Gentile, a conversion with no visible tie to the Jews (Acts 13:7). This also explains Paul’s strong aversion to John Mark shortly after, to such an extent that he parted with Barnabas over his possible inclusion on the next missionary journey. Paul’s concern was doctrinal, and not that John Mark had been a sissy. Before Paul and Barnabas split up, the Jerusalem Council had decided in Paul’s favor, and John Mark was apparently willing to go along with their decision, but Paul was not yet convinced that he had gotten rid of all his Judaizing cooties. Later on, years later the apostle Paul was convinced — John Mark was useful to him in ministry (2 Tim. 4:11).

I believe that John Mark, like Justus, was “of the circumcision.” I believe that before the Jerusalem Council, he was on the wrong side. After the Jerusalem Council, he was okay. But after the Jerusalem Council, some of the factions and parties were still distinguishable. And among the circumcision, it was important to distinguish the dogs from the brothers.

Treacherous Merit Ladders

A few days ago I told a little story about a justification test being administered at the Pearly Gates. If you missed it, you can find it here. And now comes a magnificent article on the same subject by Mark Jones over at Ref21.

It is not a trivial point. Years ago a woman, talking about D. James Kennedy’s approach of asking people what they would say at the Pearlies if they were asked “why should you be allowed in Heaven?” — with the correct answer being something like “because of the death of Jesus alone” — responded along the lines of “gee, I hope I remember to say that.”

The point is a simple one. We are justified by faith in Christ alone, and that is not the same thing as being justified by correct answers about justification by faith alone.

But in the comments to my post, a worthy objection was raised and it needs to be addressed separately.

“Except Paul says in Galatians that those teaching a Gospel of faith-plus-works are anathema, and says to those following that so-called ‘Gospel’ that Christ is of no benefit to them. Doug is using an extreme no one is playing at here. When the Romanists add works, our complaint is not that they fail to be 100% perfect on the exam, but simply that they add works — that is, they do the thing that makes Christ of no benefit to them, and everyone teaching that message is anathema.”

This point is well-taken, up to a point. What about those who, by advancing false methods of justification, reveal themselves to be false brothers? What about those who craft systems that attempt to lean treacherous merit ladders against the walls of God’s great city of grace? This includes, by the way, those whose systems of merit are entirely confessional and which insist that we deny merit entirely. When the heart is darkened, an adamant denial of all merit ladders is the most treacherous merit ladder of all — that thing is virtually invisible.

But the point I have been making is not that you cannot be damned because of a denial of sola fide. Of course you can. Paul warns the Galatians the way he did because that was a matter of some urgency. But our issue is quite a separate one — whether everyone who is confused or muddled by false teaching is equally damned. In Galatians, Paul is attacking wolves. We have turned it into a justification for attacking mangled sheep. Precisionists often operate as the clean-up crew for the wolves, finishing them off.

Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. “And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me” (Col. 4:11).

If Paul can pal around with Justus, I can pal around with good Roman Catholics (who are, for that reason, bad Roman Catholics). But — also in imitation of Paul — I reserve the right and responsibility to attack merit mongers wherever they might be, whether in the Vatican or in some high confessional tower overlooking Escondido.

Getting It Right

Once there was a Presbyterian minister who had made the whole topic of sola fide his special field of study. He had mastered the subject, as far as any mortal man can be said to have mastered anything. After a long and fruitful ministry, he eventually did what all Presbyterian ministers do, which is to say, he died.

As he approached the pearly gates, he was mildly surprised to see that St. Peter was there, just like in all the jokes. But he was, he thought, prepared to roll with it because, after all, he was going to Heaven.

Right next to St. Peter was a long wooden table, of the kind you see in examination rooms. A chair was pulled out for him, and on the table was a thick test, and a pencil next to it. As he walked up to St. Peter, he was greeted warmly and the set-up was explained to him.

“We have prepared a small fifty-page test for you,” Peter said. “Because we believe in grace, we decided to prepare a test for you that is right in your wheelhouse. This entire test is dedicated to the subject of sola fide, a subject you have been studying for forty years, I understand. If you get a perfect score, you may enter into joy.” With that pronouncement, Peter handed the pencil to the minister, and gestured to the waiting chair.

The minister held the pencil for a moment, thinking about it, and then quietly, without a word, he handed the pencil back.

A smile played around the corner of St. Peter’s mouth. “You pass,” he said.

As the Ankle Bracelet Gets Itchy

Discussions of the doctrine of imputed righteousness often act as though the whole momentous subject swirls around a mere handful of texts, and as though the doctrine is not assumed in virtually everything Scripture says about the relationship of a holy God with sinful man. It reminds me of how geologists can find evidence of local floods all over the world but the idea of a global flood is an alien concept to them.

For those who accept the basic doctrine of the sinfulness of man (establishing the need for justification) and the existence of a holy God (establishing one who justifies), there are only two basic directions you can go. You can either assume that justification occurs as God infuses righteousness into us, or you can believe that it occurs as the result of righteousness being imputed, credited, or reckoned to us as a forensic act.

The doctrine of the Catholic Church takes the former position.

“The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Chapter 3, Article 2, Section I)

The quotation at the end of this citation is from the Council of Trent. Justification is understood to be the remission of sins (which the Westminster Confession also affirms), but is also described as the renovation of the inner man. When a man “accepts” righteousness from on high, he is accepting it into himself.
Westminster agrees with the part about forgiveness, but everything else is radically different.

“Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God” (WCF 11.1)

Note that the issue is not whether there is a renovation of the inner man, which all serious Christians believe, but whether that renovation is to be understood as our justification. And of course, it cannot be.

For the Protestant, justification is a declaration in a courtroom, and it is the just declaration of “not guilty,” pronounced over a very guilty sinner. Now how this is possible — how God can be both just and the one who justifies — is vindicated by the high wisdom of God, and it is vindicated by means of imputation. If we succeed in dismantling the concept of imputation, we find at the end of the day that we have dismantled our only possible hope of salvation.

If the “not guilty” pronounced over me consists of my state of sanctification in “the interior man” (which is very imperfect indeed), then this means that my justification is at best a work in progress. But I don’t need a work in progress — I need a definitive declaration, and to be told by the bailiff that I am free to go. Anything less and I am not actually justified. I am just on probation, walking around town being followed by a censorious parole officer, and the ankle bracelet is starting to itch.

The R2K Crucifix Problem

Carl Trueman recently wrote A Church for Exiles for First Things, which you may read here. If you would like, a good response from Joel McDurmon can be found here. But my response to Carl will be a tad shorter than Joel’s — just enough to register a few basic concerns.

First, it is undeniable that exile is a strong biblical motif, and it is one that Christians do need to draw on. But in Scripture, it is always a paired motif — like salt and pepper, or ham and eggs. We find, all through the Bible, the patterns of death and resurrection, exile and return, cliffhanger and helicopter.

There is both a cross and a crown. Triumphalists are those who just want the crown. Defeatists are those who just want the cross. Trueman is a defeatist — for all his Reformed credentials, his faith is a crucifix faith. Note that both the defeatist and the triumphalist are partly right, but in such a way that their partial truths undo the point of the whole thing. “Jesus died” is true, but is not gospel apart from resurrection. And “Jesus rose” is meaningless nonsense if there had been no death.

Carl says this: the Reformed tradition “possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment.” I believe this is quite true. In fact, I agreed with many of the points that he made throughout the article — but he left out one crucial thing. Let me insert that missing element. “The Reformed tradition possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment, while preparing for our inevitable comeback.” Why? It is not just exile. It is exile and return. Nehemiah rhymes with Jeremiah after all.

The second problem is that Carl does want us to engage with culture, and be responsible citizens, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with the possibility of everything going terribly wrong, and we win or something. And he is enough of a church historian to know that things have gone wrong for us in just this way any number of times.

Like a Fist

As Iraq continues to spiral toward chaos, and is doing so in the Facebook era, the one thing we should want to avoid is directionless or aimless outrage. Anger under such circumstances is certainly appropriate and necessary, but like a fist, it needs somewhere to land. I am writing primarily about the treatment of Christians there by ISIS, but of course that cannot be at all separated from a host of other issues and circumstances. Let me start with the more important, and finish with a few related observations.

1. There truly are evil men in the world, and this is what imprecatory psalms were made for. This is why we have them. There are men who will grin for the camera over the prospect of beheading Christian children, and our response to them should be to pray the words of God back to Him.

“Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:6).

“Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: Seek out his wickedness till thou find none” (Ps. 10:15).

Our psalter has this second example rendered as “O God, come down and break their evil arms.” In the face of the kind of evil that is abroad in the world, evangelical Christians need to stop filling up their worship services with sentimentalist treacle, and worship biblically in a very dark world. We are confronted with a great and growing evil, and we are discovering that we do not have the liturgical vocabulary to respond appropriately at all. When we sing or pray the psalms, all of them, there are two consequences that should be mentioned. One, we are praying in the will of God, and He hears such prayers. Second, we discover that praying and singing biblically transforms us. This really is the need of the hour.

We need to become the kind of people capable of standing against this kind of thing. Read Chesterton’s great poem about the battle of Lepanto, written one year shy of a century ago, and plead with God to raise up a fitting leader for our day. “But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.”

Playing Puritans and Lutherans

So this is a bit behind the curve, but I wanted to say a few things about this post by my friend Tim Bayly. He posted this just a week after I was there in Bloomington for their Salt & Light conference, and so you would not be far off if you thought my visit might have had something to do with it. And now it has something more to do with it.

Some of what I say here will simply reinforce what Tim is saying, and some of it will consist of “but what about this factor . . .?”

Good fences make good neighbors. Good labels can do the same thing, which is bad news for a generation that “hates labels.” Just as liberalism was a rot that got into every denomination extant, so the postmodern vibe is doing the same thing to us — largely through the death grip that academia has on pastoral training. Just as it was very difficult to tell the difference between a liberal Methodist and a liberal Presbyterian in the late fifties, even when the light was good, so also it is difficult now to tell the difference between a Kellerite soul patch and the other kind.

True ecumenism requires precision of thought, and precision of language, but we have gotten to the place where every attempt at careful definition is dismissed as a run up to war. Postmodernism does to theology what leaving a watercolor out in a downpour does to the painting. True ecumenism requires oil painting in the Mojave, where the blue stays blue, and the brown stays put.

So let’s assume that all our discussions of these issues have the same understanding of Schaeffer’s “true truth.” We can draw straight arrows from the signifier to the thing signified. We really care about the truth, and we want to learn and affirm as much of it as we can. We have trouble being patient with those who say “no creed but Christ, no law but love” because what they just said is, when you come down to it, a very fine creed, and it isn’t Christ.

Making Seneca Crack Up

My friend Garry Vanderveen has been kind enough to suggest a side-by-side comparison of what Jim Jordan and I teach on the subject of regeneration, coming to the conclusion that we are not all that far apart. I commend that post to you, with the exception of whatever was going on when they justified the right margin. As Peter Leithart put it a couple years ago, everybody in the room is a high predestinarian, which surely should count for something.

I want to keep myself quite open to the possibility that what we are saying is not that far apart, and I certainly believe we are not as far apart as some might like us to be. And that said, however far apart we are — is it lettuce/arugula or is it lettuce/cabbage?) — I don’t believe these issues in themselves are issues of heresy.

But with that said, in this postmodern climate, heresy is never that far away from anyone who graduated from seminary in the last several decades, whatever the presenting issue might be. So don’t get cocky, kid. If you don’t believe that the laws of thought are attributes of God, then peril is crouched by your door like sin stalking Cain. To maintain that lettuce and cabbage are the same thing represents a profound capitulation to a view of the world that turns absolutely anything into heresy.

There are important issues here that require careful definition — catholicity and confusion should not be considered dialog partners. We can define things carefully, and distinguish things that differ, without slinging careless accusations about. But we have to debate like (charitable) 17th century divines who believed in absolute truth, and not like pomothinkers, whose softness of head is rivaled only by their hardness of heart.

So whatever you call this particular issue — lettuce/cabbage, amber ale/oatmeal stout, puritan/lutheran — keep in mind that we are distinguishing for the sake of maintaining good fences between good neighbors.

But if this in fact were the case, and Jim and I have been saying almost the same thing all this time, then I would be content to retreat from the discussion, fully abashed. Here I have been, pleading words and names and our own law, just begging Gallio to drive us away from his court. I never want to be the guy who hands Gallio a ripe story capable of making Seneca crack up at the next family reunion. I mean, who wants to be that guy?

But . . . and you knew that was coming, right?