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Avoiding Short Lived Ministry

Mar 06, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

When we think of Paul, we often think of a spiritual giant, going through the Roman world planting churches, routing the philosophers in Athens, writing the most profound letters ever written, getting bloodied by stones, whipped, flogged, and shipwrecked–all by himself. A one man superhero.

Paul didn’t accomplish all this or endure all this by himself. He constantly had people around him: co-laborers, associates, apprentices, friends, partners in the gospel. There’s a reason that when Jesus sent out the disciples he sent them out in pairs. You are not meant to do gospel work by yourself.

If you want a ministry to be short lived, start it by yourself, do it by yourself, and share authority with no one but yourself. If you’re really gifted and dynamic, you’ll see something grow up for a time. People will flock to it because you have a lot of gifts, but then when you’re done it will be done. No team, no partners, no investment in future leaders, no future ministry.

How do you do ministry? Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:2, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many others entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

A huge part of ministry is constantly training up others, releasing others, and empowering others, so that they can replicate what you do or replace you when you’re done. How are we doing?

 

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Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?

Mar 04, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Everyone who knows anything about the gospels—and even those who don’t—knows that Jesus was a friend of sinners. He often drew the ire of the scribes and Pharisees for eating with sinners (Luke 15:2). Jesus clearly recognized that one of the insults hurled against him was that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). As Christians we love to sing of this Pharisaical put-down because it means that Jesus is a friend to sinners like us. We also find ourselves challenged by Jesus’ example to make sure we do not turn away outsiders in a way that Jesus never would.

As precious as this truth is—that Jesus is a friend of sinners—it, like every other precious truth in the Bible, needs to be safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error. It is all too easy, and amazingly common, for Christians (or non-Christians) to take the general truth that Jesus was a friend of sinners and twist it all out of biblical recognition. So “Jesus ate with sinners” becomes “Jesus loved a good party,” which becomes “Jesus was more interested in showing love than taking sides,” which becomes “Jesus always sided with religious outsiders,” which becomes “Jesus would blow bubbles for violations of the Torah.”

Here we have an example of a whole truth being used for a half truth in the service of a lie. Once, as a younger man in ministry, I made an offhanded comment about how Jesus “hung out with drunks.” I was gently and wisely corrected by an older Christian who had himself overcome alcohol addiction. He challenged me to find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus was just “hanging out” with people in a state of drunkenness. In an effort to accentuate the grace of Christ, I stepped beyond (around, over, and away) from the biblical text and made it sound like Jesus loved nothing more than to yuck it up with John Belushi in Animal House.

If we are to celebrate that the Lord Jesus is a glorious friend of sinners—and we should—we must pay careful attention to the ways in which Jesus actually was a friend to sinners. Omitting the story of the woman caught in adultery (for reasons of textual criticism), I count five main passages in the gospels where Jesus is chastised for getting too close to sinners.

  1. Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32 – This is the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector to be his disciple. We find Jesus reclining at table with many tax collectors and sinners, “for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15). When the scribes and Pharisees grumble about the company he keeps, Jesus tells them that he has “not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
  2. Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35 – Here Jesus rebukes the “people of this generation” because they rejected John the Baptist for being too tight and reject the Son of Man for being too loose. It’s from this incident that we get the phrase “friend of sinners.” We should note that it was an insult heaped upon Jesus by his enemies. This doesn’t mean Christ didn’t own it and we shouldn’t sing it, but it suggests he may not have owned it in every way. If Jesus was not a “glutton and drunkard” as his opponents thoughts, so he may not have been “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in exactly the way they imagined either.
  3. Luke 7:36-50 – Right on the heels of this story comes another one like it in Luke. A sinful woman anoints Jesus with expensive ointment and wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears and the hair of her head. When Jesus is corrected for letting this “sinner” touch him, he reminds Simon that those who are forgiven much love much. In the end, Jesus forgives the woman her sin and announces “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).
  4. Luke 15:1-2 – The setting for the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son of Luke 15 is found in the first two verses of that chapter. As the tax collectors and sinners “were all drawing near” to Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes grumbled that Jesus was receiving them to eat with them. The three parables that follow demonstrate how God seeks out the lost (15:3, 8, 20) and how pleased God is when sinners repent (15:7, 10, 21-24).
  5. Luke 19:1-10 – Again, the Jewish leaders grumble because Jesus “has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7) Though Zacchaeus repents and is a changed man (19:8), the Jews simply cannot accept that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (19:10) and that this notorious tax collector has been saved (19:9).

So what lessons can we draw from these episodes? In what way was Jesus a friend of sinners? Did he have a grand strategy for reaching tax collectors? Did he indiscriminately “hang out” with drunks and prostitutes? Was he an easy going live-and-let-live kind of Messiah? What we see from the composite of these passages is that sinners were drawn to Jesus, that Jesus gladly spent time with sinners who were open to his teaching, that Jesus forgave repentant sinners, and that Jesus embraced sinners who believed in him.

Jesus was a friend of sinners not because he winked at sin, ignored sin, or enjoyed light-hearted revelry with those engaged in immorality. Jesus was a friend of sinners in that he came to save sinners and was very pleased to welcome sinners who were open to the gospel, sorry for their sins, and on their way to putting their faith in Him.

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Monday Morning Humor

Mar 03, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

World’s worst dad? Or is he the best dad ever? (Sorry for a couple OMG’s).

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Red Letter Nonsense

Feb 28, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

An excerpt from Taking God at His Word on the implications of 2 Timothy 3:16 for the authority and unity of the whole Bible:

Just as crucially, if all Scripture is breathed out by God, then there is a unity to be found across the pages of the Bible. Without minimizing the differences of genre and human au­thorship, we should nevertheless approach the Bible expect­ing theological distinctives and apparent discrepancies to be fully reconcilable.

The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this “red letter” nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses. An evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture. If we read about homosexuality from the pen of Paul in Romans, it has no less weight or relevance than if we read it from the lips of Jesus in Matthew. All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the parts spoken by Jesus.

God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripturated word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incar­nate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in Holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ. Submission to the Scriptures is submission to God. Rebellion against the Scriptures is rebel­lion against God. The Bible can no more fail, falter, or err, than God himself can fail, falter, or err.

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What Would Jesus Bake?

Feb 27, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

As Christians continue to debate to what extent they can be involved with gay weddings, advocates for participation as no-big-deal have been hurrying to the Gospels to look for a Jesus who is pretty chill with most things. It’s certainly great to go the Gospels. Can’t go wrong there. Just as long as we don’t ignore his denunciations of porneia (Mark 7:21), and as long as we don’t make Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John our canon within the Canon. For Jesus himself predicted that the Holy Spirit would come and unpack all the truth about the Father and the Son (John 16:12-15). The revelation of the Son of God was not limited to the incarnation, but included the pouring out of the Spirit of Jesus and the subsequent testimony written down by the Messiah’s Spirit-inspired followers.

But even if we were going to limit ourselves in ethical matters to only those things Jesus said, why doesn’t anyone talk about the letters to the seven churches? Grab a red-letter edition of the Bible and you’ll see: Revelation 2-3 is all crimson. They are letters from Jesus. To be sure, this Jesus warns against losing our first love, but he also rebukes several churches for being too cozy with the culture. Pergamum countenanced false teachers who encouraged sexual sin (Rev. 2:14-15). Thyatira was too tolerant of a Jezebel-like woman leading people into sexual immorality (Rev. 2:20-21). Many in Sardis had soiled their garments with the world (Rev. 3:4). Compromise was in the air, and only some of the Christians could say they didn’t inhale.

What did this compromise look like? We can’t be sure, but Greg Beale–who has written the best scholarly commentary on Revelation–suggests that, at least in part, the compromise had to do with participating in the festivals put on by local trade guilds. Christians who worked in professions belonging to these guilds were put in a precarious spot. Would they go along with the run-of-the-mill idolatry associated with the feasts? Or would they opt out and risk losing their livelihood, their respectability, or worse.

Beale explains:

This was no mere issue of indifferent things and matters of conscience, as some propose was the case in 1 Corinthians 8. Perhaps token public acknowledgments to Caesar are in mind or participation in pagan festivals, or even both, since all the guilds formally recognized Caesar’s deity. (Polycarp was accused of being a “puller down of our gods, teaching many not to sacrifice or worship” [Martyrdom of Polycarp 12:1-2].) In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through fests and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11-21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.

Like Balaam, this was a group of false prophets who were encouraging participation in idol fests by teaching that such permission was permissible for Christians. We may speculate, as have others, that this course of action was rationalized by thinking that it was only an empty gesture that fulfilled patriotic or social obligations and was legitimate as long as Christians did not really believe in the deities being worshiped. And, like Balaam, they probably also believed they would be blessed for their prophetic instruction (cf. Num. 23:10).

Part of the false teachers’ effectiveness, perhaps, lay in their sincere belief that they were teaching correct doctrine; while possible, it is unlikely that they were intentionally trying to deceive the church. Of course, their teaching would ultimately dilute the exclusive claims of the church’s Christian witness to the world, which was still the church’s strength. Perhaps part of the motivation for the teachers’ attitude was the threat of economic deprivation, which may have facilitated the comparison with Balaam, since the original narrative and subsequent reflections on it associate his deceptive motives with financial gain. (NIGTC, The Book of Revelation, 249)

Granted, the issue in Asia Minor was not baking cakes for same-sex ceremonies. We shouldn’t think Revelation 2-3 was written to solve our controversies. But we shouldn’t assume they have nothing to do with our controversies either. High pressure social obligations, rationalizing participation as only an empty gesture, popular teachers urging permissiveness, the threat of social and economic ostracism—sounds familiar. Maybe our problems aren’t so new. Maybe the Bible isn’t so unconcerned with the parties we make possible. Maybe Jesus wouldn’t bake that cake after all.

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Monday Morning Humor

Feb 26, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Wednesday Edition:

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Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: A Review

Feb 24, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Austin Fischer, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014, 130pp. $16.00/£10.00

 

Austin Fischer, the 28-year-old Teaching Pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, Texas, has written an honest, intelligent, accessible book about why he is no longer Reformed. Lauded by the brightest stars in the Arminian firmament—Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, Greg Boyd, Rachel Held Evans—Fischer is to be commended for writing on such a difficult topic with disarming prose and without biting rancor. I can understand why Christians on the other side of this issue may feel like this is the Book They’ve Been Waiting For. Of course, given my position as an ordained Reformed pastor it will come as no surprise that I found his arguments ultimately unpersuasive and, in several instances, full of significant weaknesses. But more on that later.

Fischer’s Journey

In eleven crisp chapters, Fischer tells the story of how the image of God in the face of Christ compelled him to leave Reformed Christianity behind in favor of a picture of God that is more loving and more satisfying. As a high school student, Fischer had the “more” itch, a hunger for more out of his faith, more out of life, more out of God, and more out of himself. His youth pastor recommended Desiring God by John Piper. The book scratched a deep itch. Fischer came to see God as bigger, more glorious, and more all- consuming. Although he struggled with the implications of some Reformed doctrines, Fischer couldn’t deny (at least at the time) that these teachings were in the Bible. So kicking and screaming he entered the Reformed fold.

He went to college as a “precocious freshman theology major” who was, he notes, “fairly assured I had the answers” (19). But during his freshman year, he encountered “one professor in particular who was a nagging thorn in my Calvinist side.” Fischer was “ruthlessly” exposed to “one hell of a problem”—reprobation. How could a good God create people just to damn them? Sure, God could plan any number of catastrophes to be for the ultimate good of his eternally saved people, but “how will God make it up to the reprobate?” (25). Fischer couldn’t help but think of a scene from Schindler’s List where a little girl in a red coat who is tragically and senselessly killed: how could a good God create her for the purpose of punishing her in hell? Fischer’s Calvinism was beginning to unravel.

At first, Fischer was prepared to accept Calvinism no matter what, as long as he saw it in the Bible. But then he questioned how the Bible could be trusted at all if Calvinism was true. Given the doctrine of reprobation, how could God be loving, just, or good in any sense of those terms? And if God is not virtuous in any way that we understand virtue, then how do we know he has been truthful—as we understand truthful—in revealing himself in Scripture? In other words, if Calvinism is right we must be unbelievably wrong about the most basic things pertaining to God (33).

The remedy to this problem is to start back at square one, and for Fischer that means beginning with the belief that Jesus is God. This is the heart of Fischer’s biblical argument against Calvinism. If Jesus is the exhaustive revelation of God’s character (41), we are obligated to test all of our ideas about God against the picture of Christ we see in the gospels. With a Barthian view of inspiration in place and a Moltmann-inspired approach to the incarnation, it’s a natural step for Fischer to ask the question he poses on page 44: “Does the God of Calvinism accurately depict the God revealed in Jesus?” The answer is a resounding no. Jesus shows us a “crucified-for-sinners God” while Calvinism gives us a “creates-sinners-in-order-to-crucify-them God” (49). Therefore, we cannot accept the predestinating Calvinist God whose chief end is to glorify himself, because “At the center of the universe, there is not a black hole of deity, endlessly collapsing in on self, but a suffering, crucified, mangled lamb, endlessly giving away self” (50, emphasis in original).

That’s the central thesis in Fischer’s argument. The remainder of the book aims to bolster this claim.

  • The chief end of God is not to glorify God, but to express love, which is his glory (Chapter 6).
  • Yes, God is sovereign, but he empties himself of his sovereign prerogatives and grants us free will so that the divine-human relationship can be authentic (Chapter 7).
  • Sure, free will theism presents us with logical and biblical problems, but every system does, and if we have to live with mystery, it’s better to live with the mystery of love (Chapter 8).
  • After all, certainty is the enemy of good Christian limping (a la Jacob at Jabbok), and having doubts is the mark of theological maturity (Chapter 9).
  • In the end, the gospel of the kingdom is about much more than substitutionary atonement. It’s about making disciples, and Calvinism—which does not allow for choice, decision, or wills that matter—cannot naturally produce disciples of the kingdom (Chapter 10).
  • Besides, Romans 11 has nothing to do with personal salvation or damnation and has everything to do with God’s plan for Israel and the faithfulness of God (Chapter 11). Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is a thoughtful book which leans on the likes of Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, Dallas Willard, Daniel Taylor, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Roger Olson to make the case that Calvinism leaves the Christian with a God bent inward instead of directed outward, a God who glorifies himself at all costs instead of loves at all costs, a God who resembles a black hole instead of mangled Lamb. And if those are the choices before us, Calvinism looks like a loser.

A Few Black Holes in a Book About Black Holes

I think Fischer has written a good book in so far as I imagine it will be energetically passed around by pastors, professors, and churches who are looking for an easy-to-read accounting of the errors of Calvinism. I don’t suppose many of those pastors, professors, and churches also read this blog. Nor do I suppose that a book review is the place to make my case for being young, restless, and Reformed (and truth be told I’m actually not that young and never was that restless). So I will try to refrain from writing a 20,000 word review on a 25,000 word book. If you want to read the case for Reformed soteriology, you can pick up any number of books by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, or one of the bazillion resources you can find on sites like The Gospel Coalition or Monergism.

My aim is simply to highlight a few serious shortcomings in this engaging book. I can’t mention every interpretation or every claim I disagree with, but perhaps by introducing a few general categories of critique, I can help future readers of the book—both friend and foe—to ask the hard questions I believe Fischer himself would be happy for his readers to ask.

Is Reformed Theology Represented Accurately?

It’s worth noting the chronology in Fischer’s journey. He became a Calvinist in high school (p.8) and started rethinking his Calvinism already as a freshman in college (19), which is not a lot of time to explore the depths of the Reformed tradition. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sincerely Reformed and couldn’t understand the basic contours of election and reprobation, but it does put his “deconversion” story in context. Fischer was given a John Piper book in high school and became Reformed “kicking and screaming.” He then went to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (hardly a bastion of Calvinist ideology methinks) where he began to question Reformed theology. Following college, he went to Truett Theological Seminary where, judging by the acknowledgements, Roger Olson was something of a mentor to him. None of this makes Fischer’s story suspect or his arguments illegitimate. What it does mean is that this is not the journey of a lifelong Calvinist or a deeply entrenched Reformed thinker who threw in the towel, as much as it is the story of an earnest young Christian who didn’t grow up Reformed, was never trained to be Reformed, but who embraced Reformed soteriology for a short time as a teenager before he found a better alternative in the Arminianism of his esteemed professors.

I believe Fischer has tried hard to be fair with Calvinism. He does not make ad hominen arguments. He does not take cheap shots. But despite these good intentions, Fischer’s arguments suffer from a lack of familiarity with important distinctions frequently cited in the Reformed tradition. For example, Fischer suggests that Calvinists believe that when people are raped, maimed, murdered, and tortured that God ultimately did those things to them (21). What’s missing here is an awareness of the distinction between remote and primary causes. No Calvinists I know would say God rapes people. God is never the doer of evil. Arminians may not find the distinction compelling, but Reformed theologians have always made clear there is a difference between God ordaining what comes to pass and the role of human agency in actually and voluntarily performing the ordained action.

Likewise, Fischer assumes several times that in Reformed theology the human will is only an illusion. The picture painted is of a God who makes sure people do what he wants, whether they will to do so or not (46, 71). So God, according to Fischer’s version of Reformed theology, must put the impulse to sin inside Adam (75). In his chapter on kingdom discipleship, Fischer argues that Calvinism cannot naturally produce discipleship because at the heart of being a disciple is making a choice to follow Jesus, and in Calvinism “you simply do not have a choice and therefore do not have a will that matters” (97). But Dort makes clear that divine sovereignty “does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force” (III/IV.16). Calvinists may believe there is a divine will prior to all human willing and they may deny that our wills are free in a libertarian sense, but they do not deny the reality of human choice or that our decisions matter.

Fischer also describes reprobation in terms that are more extreme than even a supralapsarian Calvinist would use. While he is right to insist the Calvinist own up to double predestination, his description of the position—God creates people in order to damn them (22, 26)—is not how Reformed theologians have explained reprobation. Dort is typical in describing reprobation as God’s decision to pass by the non-elect, leave them in their sin, not grant them faith and regeneration, and finally condemn them for their unbelief (I.15). Again, Arminians may not care for the nuances of infralapsarianism and the order of the decrees, but they should at least interact with the Calvinist position as it presents itself in the best of our confessional tradition.

Have the Problems with Arminianism Been Squarely Faced?

The most effective aspect of No Longer Reformed is how Fischer forces us to stare at the doctrine of reprobation and consider whether this is a picture of God we can live with. There’s no doubt that double predestination is a tough pill to swallow and that reprobation can feel like a “horrible decree” (to use Calvin’s phrase). I think in the end the best thing the Calvinist can say is “who are we to talk back to God?” (Rom. 9:20) and “who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:34). Fischer eventually comes to find this response untenable. For my part, I resonate with Bavinck’s appeal that Calvinism “invites us to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2.395).

Whether the doctrine of reprobation should finally be accepted or not is a question that Scripture alone must settle. What Scripture also must settle is whether the Arminian can see his way through the problems that come with free will theism. To his credit, Fischer spots the “monsters” and acknowledges them. But then he doesn’t do much to slay any of the dragons. He refuses to stare them down to the bottom like he does with the Reformed doctrine of reprobation. And when he does find a “win” for his side, the logic ends up helping his position much less than he thinks.

For example, Fischer objects to Calvinism because it suggests that “the God who would stoop so low as to be crucified and buried is the same God doing the eternal crucifying of countless souls for things he had made sure they would do” (p.46). Putting aside whether “made sure they would do” is the best way to speak of the divine decrees, the sharp disjunction put forward by Fischer could just as easily be constructed out of the Arminian position: “how can the God who would stoop so low as to be crucified and buried be the same God doing the eternal crucifying of countless souls for things he knew they would do when he created them and could have easily prevented?” The Arminian position doesn’t really gain us any theodicy points.

Similarly, Fischer argues that the Reformed idea of God doesn’t work because in the gospels we see a God who is the healer of suffering and sickness, not the cause of it (47). Not only does this ignore a whole lot of Scripture to the contrary (Judg. 9:23; 1 Sam. 1:5; 16:14; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 22:20-23; Isa. 45:6-7; 53:10; Amos 3:6; Ruth 1:20; Eccl. 7:14), but Fischer has painted himself into a corner that no orthodox Christian can get out of. If you have, like Fischer does, a doctrine of hell and if you have penal substitutionary atonement—not to mention the whole history of divine judgment in the exodus, the conquest, the exile, and in the consummation–you have a God who causes suffering and is just to do so.

Fischer also struggles to give a response to the problem of our own willing in Arminian soteriology. He affirms total depravity and that we do not have the ability to turn to God on our own. Commendably, Fischer wants to safeguard that salvation is of grace and leaves no room for human boast. But he doesn’t own the uncomfortable conclusion at the bottom of free will theism, namely, that the reason some people open the gift of salvation and others don’t, the reason some people surrender and float up to safety while others struggle and drown (to use Olson’s analogy), is owing ultimately to our decision. Why are some people in heaven and some people in hell? The Calvinist says the decisive factor was God. In free will theism the decisive factor is you. Fischer dismisses the whole issue as a problem we don’t need to worry about (79).

Again and again, Fischer falls back on mystery, which feels a bit awkward considering how much he criticized the Calvinist for appealing to mystery when it comes to the difficult doctrine of reprobation.

  • How can God relinquish his sovereignty in granting free will and still be sovereign himself? “[T]ake it up with God” (70). That’s just the way he does things.
  • Where did Adam’s sin come from if it wasn’t ordained by God? We can’t explain it. “It’s a mystery” (75).
  • How can we reconcile that a loving God created this world and created us knowing that sin and rebellion would happen? “[W]e are left capitulating to a mystery” (81).
  • And why do some accept Christ and others don’t? Once again: “It’s a mystery” (76).

Surprisingly, Fischer then goes on to quote Jerry Walls saying, “The Calvinist cannot tell us why or on what basis God chooses some for salvation and passes others by” (76). But of course, the Calvinist can say on what basis some God predestines the elect. It is “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5-6). Maybe it’s because Fischer champions doubt and pillories certainty that he can be so unbothered by the problems of free will, Adam’s sin, and why some believe and some do not (76). But he certainly has not stared at the Arminian difficulties as fully and as viscerally as he probed the difficult doctrines he saw in Reformed theology.

Has the Case Been Made Based on Rigorous Exegesis of Specific Texts?

Most problematically for Fischer’s case is his penchant for dealing in biblical generalities rather than getting into the weeds of the text. For example, he affirms that “the Bible talks about God’s self-glorification a lot” and cites nine passages in an endnote. But then the rest of the book criticizes the black hole of a glory-seeking God. What about those texts Fischer learned when he was Reformed? What do they mean now? You can’t acknowledge that “the Bible talks about God’s self-glorification a lot” and then write a book purporting to debunk the whole notion of a glory-seeking God without looking at any of those glory texts.

Later he quotes from a paragraph in which John Piper argues for election by referencing fifteen different texts in the Gospel of John. Fischer’s response does not deal with any of them. He admits that Piper’s Reformed reading “is a fair case to be made.” But then adds, “if you’re looking for Calvinism in the Gospels, you’ll leave parched. You’ll hone in on a couple of teachings in John and then project them elsewhere” (48). That could be, but fifteen texts is not “a couple,” and even it were only a couple, you should go to the trouble of showing why “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37) and “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44) do not mean what Calvinists think they mean. No attempt is made to interact with the texts Piper cites.

Similarly, Fischer dismisses the Reformed understanding of Ephesians 1:11 without any exegetical work except to admit that the Calvinist reading is “possible,” but he “no longer find[s] it the best possible reading” (68). To wipe away texts with personal assertions that they don’t work is hardly a compelling argument.

Fischer’s tendency to hover about the text makes for a series of definitive statements that are much less than meets the eye. He constantly reminds us that at the center of the universe is not some glory-seeking God, but the mangled lamb of Revelation 5, as if Revelation 4 and the vision of him who sits on the throne receiving unceasing worship has nothing to do with God’s purpose in glorifying God. Fischer makes much of the fact that in Jesus we see a desire to love at all costs, not a desire to glorify himself at all costs (58), as if the high priestly prayer in John 17 was not chiefly concerned with the glory of the Father and the Son. Fischer uses the story of Jacob wrestling with God as evidence that good theology always has doubts and uncertainty because when you come face to face with God you walk with a limp (85ff.), as if the text even mentions Jacob limping or other heroes of the faith limping or has anything to do with theological method at all. Moses seems more interested in drawing implications about not eating the sinew of the thigh than in extolling the virtues of chastened epistemology.

No Longer Reformed is full of pithy phrases and arresting sentences, but often the most clever lines set up false dichotomies that can’t be supported by Scripture. Do we want a God who reigns from a rugged cross, or a God who reigns from a celestial throne? A God who controls everything, or a God who wants to have a genuine relationship with us? A God whose love is just a cog in the glory machine, or a God who loves because he is love? These are biblical themes meant to be held together, not driven apart for rhetorical effect. And besides, hasn’t John Piper (channeling Jonathan Edwards) made his whole ministry about showing how these diverse excellencies are not mutually contradictory? After reading the book I know that Fischer disagrees with Piper, but I have less of a sense why I should find Piper’s arguments unacceptable because they aren’t handled in any detail.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me say it again: the prose is warm, the writing personal, and the arguments serious, but there is next to no detailed exegesis in the book. Even when Fischer finally talks about Roman 11 in the very last chapter, he simply restates N.T. Wright’s basic line—Paul is talking about Israel, not asking sixteenth-century questions—and then proceeds to explain all of Romans 9-11 as concerned with the temporary hardening of the Jews and the ingathering of the Gentiles. No doubt, Paul is trying to explain in Romans 9 how the promises to Israel have not failed. But to make his point, he argues that not everyone descended from Israel belongs to Israel (9:6), which leads him into an explanation of election and reprobation. And Paul’s thinking must include the idea of individual predestination, for he uses the example of twins who were set apart for different purposes by the plan of God (9:9-13). The point in “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy and hardens whomever he wills (9:14-18). Fischer’s comments on Romans 9, like his comments on most passages, are true enough in broad strokes, but fail to engage the particularities of the text. To settle for the exploration of big themes at the expense of verse-by-verse exegetical work is to enjoy the wonders of the forest and ignore all the trees.

Conclusion

Although I disagree with Fischer on a lot of things, I agree with his insistence that what we make of Reformed theology is tremendously important. I love this line at the end of the book: “I wish there were middle ground, but . . . where would it be?” (108). Amen. It’s not possible to be a Calviminian. If you care about theology and care about consistency—like Fischer does—you’ll see how different understandings of God’s sovereignty set you on markedly different intellectual, devotional, and practical trajectories. Austin has a different approach to biblical authority, a different place for substitutionary atonement, a different understanding of the freedom of the will, a different take on epistemology, a different level of confidence in whether God knows all things, and a whole different set of authors he looks to for theological guidance. These are not small issues we are dealing with. It’s no wonder, then, that the Calvinist-Arminian divide is so wide and deep and that becoming Reformed or becoming no longer Reformed is such a big deal. So even if I find Fischer’s book unconvincing—and actually reinforcing for my Calvinist convictions—I can be thankful that unlike many Christians, he believes the debate is worth having.

This review first appeared on Reformation 21.

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God or the World?

Feb 21, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

John Witherspoon warns his congregation about the danger of a fashionable worldliness content with the form of godliness devoid of power:

I would address this reproof to those who are apparently more decent and regular; whom a sense of honor, or a desire of approbation of their fellow-creatures, preserves from grosser crimes, or whom perhaps natural conscience persuades to take up the outward and ordinary part of religion as a form. Many such persons are wedded to the world. Their thoughts are there, their delights are there, their hopes and expectations are only there.

Bear with me, my brethren, in pressing this a little; and do not turn away, and refuse the charge. Worldliness is the reigning sin, and will be the eternal ruin of many persons of better rank, to whose conversation, a more liberal way of thinking, and a sense of decency, may give even an amiable appearance. I would beseech the attention of such persons to what shall now be said; not from any disrespect to their state and situation in civil life, God knows! but from fidelity to their souls. Consider, I pray you, the extreme danger of worldliness of mind. It is itself a great and aggravated sin, and is the parent of many others. It is a sin, where it has dominion, inconsistent with salvation. Here the words of the Lord Jesus: “He that loveth father or mother, son or daughter, more than me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).

There are some sorts of sinners on whom you would look with contempt or abhorrence; but you may possibly deceive yourselves. The strict and regular, but covetous Pharisees, little thought that the publicans and sinners were nearer the kingdom of heaven than themselves. I do not say this to extenuate sin of any kind, but to guard you against the power of delusion and self-deceit. I know that non but the Searcher of hearts can make a certain judgment of the degree of depravity in different characters; and therefore I do not so much urge the comparison for your condemnation, as caution you against relying upon it for your justification. The unalterable rule, taken both from the law and the gospel, is this: Which of the two has the supreme commanding interest in your affections, God or the world? (The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon)

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Who Can Baptize?

Feb 20, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

Christians are used to debating the question “Who can be baptized?” But much less ink (digital or otherwise) has been spilled debating the question “Who can baptize?” Should baptism–and the Lord’s Supper for that matter–be administered only by ordained pastors (and possibly elders), or can any church member in good standing preside over the sacraments?

A number of thoughtful voices have argued that baptism need not be limited to ordained pastors and elders. Wayne Grudem, for example, affirms that “there seems to be no need in principle to restrict the right to perform baptism only to ordained clergy” and that it is appropriate for “mature believers to baptize new converts” (Systematic Theology, 983-84). Recently I read on the website of a church I greatly respect that any believer (male or female), baptized subsequent to salvation, who is a member in good standing of a local church can baptize another believer. The argument in both instances is that since Scripture does not make explicit any restrictions and since we believe in the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:4-10), we should not limit the administration of baptism to the ordained pastors or elders of the church.

This is a good discussion to have, not least of all because many people who grew up like I did, where ordained officers were the only ones allowed to baptize, may have never considered whether the practice has any justification behind it. I think that it does. I believe only ordained pastors–and depending on your understanding of the offices, this may include ordained elders (like it does in the RCA)–should administer the sacraments in general, and perform baptisms in particular.

Here are four reasons why.

1. Biblically, we see that those who perform Christian baptism in the New Testament have been set apart by Christ for an office in the church (e.g., Peter, Paul, Phillip). Strictly speaking, the Great Commission, with its command to baptize, was given to the apostles, not to every believer indiscriminately. There is no evidence to show that private members baptized.

2. Theologically, we must take into account how Christ rules his church. Christ is the only king and head of the church. All authority is his authority. All rule is his rule. All grace is his grace. And yet, “as king of his church Christ has also instituted a specific office, the office of presbyter (elder), by which he governs his church” (Bavinck). As his under-shepherds, our Chief Shepherd rules in the church through the elders of the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The sacraments (or ordinances) involve the administration of grace and exercise of church power which belong to the office bearers of the church.

3. Exegetically, an appeal to the priesthood of all believers does not support the administration of baptism by every church member. The reference to the church as “a royal priesthood” affirms the holy nature of God’s people (1 Peter 2:9). It does not suggest that now in the New Testament there are no rites which may be performed only by ordained officers. For God’s people in the Old Testament were also called a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and they had a whole tribe of priests set aside for functions that only the priests could perform.

4. Practically, for baptism to be responsible there must be some church oversight. The examples I cited above are not advocating for baptisms willy-nilly whenever you and your buddy feel like getting wet. There must be a process of accountability and evaluation. Invariably, as Grudem points out, the pastor(s) of the church are likely involved in determining who can be baptized and who can baptize. If church officers superintend the process–and surely they must if baptism is to be anything other than a private ceremony of personal dedication–it stands to reason that they exercise their Christ-given authority in performed the baptism itself.

I wouldn’t give each of these four reasons equal weight. For me, point 2 is the most compelling, then 3, then 1, then 4. The net result is that I see very good reason for the traditional practice of restricting the administration of the sacraments to the pastor-elders of the church.

UPDATE

Lots of good questions and comments (and some not so good questions and comments too). Thanks to John Wiers for four good points (see comments); those are helpful. Let me just briefly touch on the Great Commission, because that is the most common objection being raised.

First, a paragraph from Turretin who has a small section in his Elenctic Theology on the issue: “Is baptism by laymen or women lawful in any case? We deny against the Romanists.”

The office of teaching is either public and from authority, or private from charity. The latter can be exercised by private persons, but not hte former. Now the sacraments as seals of the king are acts of authority which cannot be dispensed by private persons, not even out of charity. Thus instruction and doctrine have a wider scope than baptism. For although no one but a baptized person teaches, still everyone teaching does not baptize. Besides there is one necessity of doctrine, which is absolute and of the means to salvation; another of the sacraments, which is hypothetical and of command. (3.394).

In other words, those who teach is a wider category than those who baptize.

Which brings us to the Great Commission. We should note, at the outset, that the Great Commission was given to a specific set of people, to those who would wait in Jerusalem for power from on high, to those who would give eye witness testimony to the resurrection. This doesn’t mean the Great Commission doesn’t matter for anyone but office bearers today. What it does it mean is that we have to understand its significance for us by implication, not by immediate application. It sounds like a strong argument to say, “Well, if we don’t all baptize, then I guess we shouldn’t all do discipleship!?” But this argument proves too much. If every aspect of the Great Commission is directly for every individual believer, then 99% of us are disobeying the Great Commission by not going to the unreached nations of the world. Instead, on good instincts, we operate with the assumption that we can still obey the Great Commission if we participate as a church body in sending others to the nations.

It’s better to understand that the Great Commission (1) gave marching orders to the apostles, (2) established the mission priorities for the church second, and (3) by implication encourages individual Christians in what their lives should be about. This observation does not settle the debate about whom may baptize. But it does clear away some of the underbrush that says Jesus was meaning to instruct every Christian about his need to go to Jerusalem, wait for Pentecost, fan out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth, teach people everything Jesus commanded, disciples the nations, and baptize in the Triune name.

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Reflections on My Trip to England

Feb 18, 2014 | Kevin DeYoung

I wasn’t planning on doing a post like this, except that people on both sides of the Atlantic asked if I would write up some of my thoughts after traveling and speaking in England for two weeks. I hesitate to do so, because what do I really know about a country from two weeks of preaching, eating, and meeting dear Christian brothers and sisters? What nudged me to write down a few reflections is my own sense that I would love to hear what a like-minded visitor to the U.S. thought about our church scene. Even if he got a few things wrong, I would still be very interested in learning from his outside perspective. So here goes.

Random Observations

First, some lighter reflections, some of which I tweeted along the way.

1. Americans have very sweet breakfasts; Brits are looking for protein in all its forms. You are more likely to find a massive pile of baked beans at a British breakfast than Fruity Pebbles, icing, or syrup.

2. When Americans say “brilliant” it usually comes with an eye roll. The English really mean it.

3. I hate to say it, but the English sound smarter when they talk. Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s a more interesting vocabulary. Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t hear “like” like in every other sentence.

4. I think on the whole, Americans are more patriotic, at least openly so.

5. As similar as our two countries are, the fact that England has a monarch (even a titular one) and an establishment religion makes for a very different cultural ethos and tradition.

6. Here’s what I’ve noticed about praying in the States: Baptists have to end every prayer in a time of group prayer with “Amen.” Presbyterian and Reformed folks are more likely to let the prayer dissolve into silence and wait for the next person to pick things up. In England, after corporate prayer ended with “Amen,” followed by everyone present adding another hearty “Amen” (pronounced with “Ahmen,” never with a long “A”).

7. No one had heard of Root Beer or Jello, but they all had Marmite. What a world, what a world!

8. The English call their yards “gardens,” which are roughly the size of an American garden. I have to imagine that no one, on the whole, has such big homes, such big yards, and eats such big meals as Americans.

9. Pay toilets! Shocking. And I didn’t see what I was paying for.

10. A really old building in the States might be from the 19th century. That’s like new construction in England. One man asked when our church was built. I said sometime in the 60’s. He said, “When in the 1600’s?” No, 1960!

11. Sweaters, lots of sweaters.  Except they call them jumpers, which is a sweater, not a denim dress or a pajama onesie. In any event, you need some layers because the old buildings are cold enough to keep lettuce chilled.

12. There’s England and then there’s Yorkshire, which everyone from Yorkshire and not from Yorkshire seem happy to acknowledge.

Many Thanks

And what about the church situation in England? I’m sure my vantage point was quite limited, but in traveling to half a dozen cities, preaching for four different gospel partnerships, and in meeting hundreds of conservative evangelicals (in free churches and in the Church of England), I saw many encouraging signs of spiritual vitality and gospel health.

1. I was rubbing shoulders with people who are clear on the gospel and want to be clear on the mission of the church. Most of the folks I talked to were concerned that the church not lose its focus on proclamation and disciple making (though this is certainly a reflection and product of having asked me to speak).

2. There was a strong focus on sticking to the text, preaching the text, and handling the text. People were hungry for good, simple, verse-by-verse exposition. No frills, just tell us what the Bible says.

3. Americans have a lot to learn from English evangelicals when it comes to evangelism and training. Probably because the UK is much more of a post-Christian nation, I saw a consistent intentionality about evangelism. I also saw an impressive array of training options for laypeople and those preparing for ministry. We don’t have comparable programs in the U.S.

4. There were dynamic, faithful, word-centered outreaches to college students, business people, and immigrant populations. I left with a number of ideas rattling in my brain about we might more intentionally engage our community.

5. The worship services I attended were warm, simple, straightforward, approachable, and centered on the word.

What Else?

So, any negatives? That’s harder to say. I can more easily see the negatives in my own context and feel more comfortable pointing them out. But perhaps I can make a few comments along the lines of “challenges” the English church may need to wrestle with in the years ahead.

1. Drawing boundaries – I sensed there was continued confusion about who was on the same team. The MLJ-Stott rift took a generation to heal and seems mostly a thing of the past, but there are still questions about how broadly or how narrowly the lines of evangelicalism should be drawn. Some want to make the tent bigger and bigger (probably not a good idea), while others may harbor regional, class, or denominational suspicions (probably not a good idea). And then you have the charismatic churches which operate in a different orbit altogether. What does it mean in England to be together for the gospel?

2. Theological depth – Our biggest strengths tend to be some of our nagging weaknesses. While the training programs are impressively robust, my sensibilities as a Presbyterian/Reformed pastor make me wish more full-time church workers and pastors could benefit from a seminary education. I sensed that young men and women in England were Bible people (which is most important), but less in tune with old books and any particular theological tradition. In particular, we could all stand to pay more attention to issues of ecclesiology and polity, especially given what a royal mess Anglican governance appears to be (pun intended).

3. Don’t swing the pendulum too far – After attending Evensong at St. Paul’s I understood why the churches I was with were so decidedly low church in feel and in order. While many young American Christians–having grown up in seeker-friendly, tradition-less, megaplexes yearn for creeds, hymns, and liturgy–the reaction in Britain is still against such things. Which is fine, just be careful for the whole baby and bathwater thing. Similarly, I hope the church in England will continue to sound the trumpet for global missions, even as they see the huge need for evangelism in their own backyard.

One Final Thought: Celebrity Pastors

I think I understand Carl Trueman’s critiques of American evangelical celebrity culture after touring (to use a celebrity word!) England for a fortnight (to use a British word!). No one asked to take a picture with me–not once. Actually, the one selfie I took was with two Americans (friends of a friend), and we were razzed by the Brits for doing so. Every introduction I received was in the form of a brief interview. People did not queue up after a talk for me to sign their Bible or get a photo for social media. In fact, several church leaders told me that when they really like someone they make fun of them! The culture struck me as one that would rather chop the head off all the tall poppies than point to the one others are pointing at.

I didn’t have a problem with any of this. I like sarcasm and friendly scorn. I’d rather not get my picture taken. I don’t long to sign things. But at the same time, it felt to me like these were cultural values I was experiencing more than strictly biblical ones. Although the lack of pizzazz was refreshing, there were also times no one came up to me to say anything. During break times, I could wander around looking for the loo without fear of someone interrupting my wandering! I didn’t mind. Everyone was exceedingly kind. I’m simply commenting that the same culture that was wonderfully free of celebritification might seem to others unfriendly or unwelcoming (again, that’s not how I took any of it). I don’t think people from America should assume the British are rude, just like I don’t think they should assume people from the Midwest are too nice, people from the South are fake, people from the Northwest are weird, or people at Christian conferences in the States worship the speakers. As we learn from each other, part of what we will learn is that we do things in different ways and skew toward different dangers.

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