Monday, March 26, 2007

Indicatives, Imperatives, and Grace

I'm passionately committed to what we often call the "grace distinctives." I think what we most often mean when we talk about the "grace distinctive" is best summed up in the phrase (was it from Ridderbos? Vos?) that the "indicatives come before imperatives and the order cannot be reversed."

The phrase sums up a lot of biblical truth. The "indicative" is what is true about us by virtue of what Jesus has done for us. Just like an indicative statement often has the word "is" in it ("Sean is a guy"; "Sean is married to Sara"; etc.), so an indicative statement theologically stress what Sean is by virute of God's unmerited, undeserved favor: Sean is united to Christ; Sean is justified, sanctified, adopted, glorified; Sean is hid with God in Christ, etc. These things are true no matter what--not because of my performance, but because of what Jesus has done in my place in God's sight; and they are received by faith alone.

So, indicatives come first--if you will, they are identity statements. But that doesn't mean that there are no imperatives. If indiciatives tell me who I am in Jesus, imperatives tell me what I must do: put to do death my sin; season your conversation with gracious words; flee immorality; keep my body under. The Bible and especially the NT is full of imperatives--I don't do these things in order to be saved or to please God per se (God is already pleased with me because he sees me in Jesus), but I do these things in the same way that a child does things their parents say: because I am God's child through Jesus, because of who I am, I live in certain ways.

If you put the imperatives first, what happens? Mainline Protestant moralism. The fancy historical category that Nancy Ammerman once used was "Golden Rule Christians." Christianity devolves done to "do unto others what you'd have them to do you" and this is the way to heaven. It is the obey part of "trust and obey."

Yet if you put the indicative first and forget the imperatives, what happens? Licentiousness or antinomianism, no doubt. But even worse, a loose, lifeless spirituality--a loss of repentance, a failure to recognize my own continuing sinfulness, and a concomitant tendency to become bored with the Gospel; a loss of holiness, or even a longing for it, a failure to put sin to death and the practices of the "old man."

Biblical Christianity, the gracious Christianity to which I aspire and to which I witness, stresses both the indicative and the imperative, in the proper order. Because God in Jesus by the Spirit pursued me, wooed me, and captured my heart and granted all the benefits of the Gospel to me, I am called now to love him, live for him, pray to him, fear him, speak for him, put my beloved sins to death for him, and even need be die for him.

Only such a Christianity truly gracious, because only such a Christian recognizes and lives out the costly nature of that grace.

Dungy and La Russa

Followers of this blog know that I cheer for the Indianapolis Colts and the St. Louis Cardinals, world champions in their respective sports. But I have different takes on their leaders, Tony Dungy and Tony La Russa. While Dungy is a Christian man who realizes that winning a championship doesn't make him a better person, La Russa is incredibly driven and not notably religious.

This past week, both were in the news for distinctly different reasons. Dungy garnered headlines (and time on my favorite ESPN show, PTI) for "embracing" a proposed ban on same-sex marriage in the state of Indiana. In using his celebrity to support biblically-consistent positions in the public sphere, Dungy continues to make good his claim that it was far more important to him to demonstrate that one could be a Christian and a coach at the same time.

La Russa, on the other hand, received headlines for his DUI pick-up in Jupiter, Flordia, sleeping at stop light (actually midway through an intersection) on the way home from a night out. Whether this indicates a deeper problem for the Cardinals skipper is not clear, although it certainly doesn't help his image.

While the character of the players (and managers) of various sports teams doesn't affect my support for them, still it is a good thing to be able to point my sons to a man like Dungy, to show them that life itself doesn't require one to be a hard-driver, to sacrifice family and faith, in order to be successful. And, frankly, it is a good thing to be able to point to La Russa, for an example of a man who probably drives too hard, who by his own admission doesn't have his wife live with him in St. Louis during the season because it is too hard on their marriage, and who doesn't seem to have any faith perspective.

At the end of the day, all of these public figures (and even ministers themselves) are role models. The question is whether the roles they play are for good or ill. We can be thankful for men like Tony Dungy, who plays his role for the good of the Kingdom.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Big Country, Big Church

It has been an interesting week for me. I started out Monday at 6am, driving to the St. Louis airport. I flew to Chicago, waited for my connection for three plus hours, flew to Colubmia, SC, and drove to Clemson, SC. Got up Tuesday morning first thing, drove to Augusta, GA, drove back to Columbia, flew to Washington-Dulles, and then home. Got up this morning, worked for a few hours, drove back to the airport, flew to Denver (where I am writing this), waiting to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia. On Saturday, I'll make the return trip via Denver to home.

I couldn't help but think about how big our country is. Especially flying into Denver, looking at the Rockies, realizing that just 36 hours ago I was driving through the pine forests of McCormick, South Carolina. It makes you wonder how we can speak in any meaningful way about what "Americans" think, believe, feel. Even if you could get the opinions of 300 million people, still the land itself, the geography, is so big, expansive, and different. How do you get your mind around all this?

As I was thinking about this, I couldn't help but think about the church along similar lines. Perhaps the thoughts were spurred on by reading Richard Mouw's Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. I love reading Mouw, not only because he is brilliant, but also because he is so irenic. I aspire for that; often fall short. And while one particular chapter in the book made me nervous (those who have read it can probably guess which chapter that was), still it was a good two hour read (the length of the flight from STL to Denver).

Anyway, if you apply the imagery of America's geographical immensity to the church, I think some helpful thoughts could result. For example, it would make us much more humble about our little corner of it. When I'm in St. Louis, the Arch seems so big; the new Busch Stadium so large; Forest Park so expansive. But then you see the Rockies or the Big Sky country of the Plains--and you realize, you know, maybe St. Louis isn't so big after all. Maybe the differences between the Plains, Kentucky, the southern shores, and other locales actually pictures a larger diversity in God's own mind. And maybe, just maybe, the Church is big enough for a diversity of opinion.

The real question, of course, is how far to push diversity, how much change occurs before meaningful fellowship around a common creed, worship, and polity ceases. Too much diversity within a given tradition and it ceases to represent that particular tradition and becomes, in fact, something new. Yet, while we may not want too much diversity within particular denominational groups (and perhaps those who desire diversity may actually desire a different denomination where their views are actually the majority), that doesn't mean that everyone must walk in lockstep with us.

Mouw has a great picture of this drawn from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451; those who have read the book probably remember it. He pictures the various religious communities as "book readers" who preserve certain "books" or perspectives (or identities). He imagines himself saying, "Hi, I'm the Canons of Dordt." I guess I would like to be known as the one who says, "Hi, I'm What is Presbyterianism (a little pamphlet by Charles Hodge, for those who don't know)." But that doesn't mean that the library (to change the image) isn't big enough for a range of different books; nor does it mean that every book has to be the same.

Don't know if these ramblings make sense...but they occurred to me sitting here in Denver.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ridderbos dies

Rev. Dr. Herman Ridderbos, one of the foremost developers of the redemptive-historical approach to Biblical theology, a hallmark of Westminster Theological Seminary, died 8 March, having celebrated his 98th birthday on 13 March. Among his more widely distributed writings were “Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures,” “Paul and Jesus,” and “Paul: An Outline of His Theology.” Reportedly Ned Stonehouse once said this of Ridderbos: “Wherever the Dutch language is read Professor Herman Ridderbos is recognized as an outstanding New Testament scholar and theologian . . .”

[HT: Jack Collins]

Monday, March 12, 2007

Conferences and the Church

Last year, Carl Trueman published a very funny and yet very serious post on the Reformation21 blog, raising questions about the role of conferences in the lives of Christians. While it may have been a little "dangerous" raising these questions on the blog for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, around the time of their sponsored PCRT, still the points Trueman raised are valid and need to be considered more thoughtfully and thoroughly.

One of the realities of evangelical Protestant life has been the multiplication of conferences; these conferences tend to represent particular market niches within the Reformed and evangelical world--the Gospel Coalition; Augusta Conference; Twin Lakes; Ligonier; Shepherds Conference; Resurgence; Together for the Gospel; PCRT; Desiring God; Banner of Truth (those are the ones that I came up with from the top of my head). As such, these conferences bring together the like-minded to hear solid preaching that ultimately encourages and reinforces particular aspirations, beliefs, practices, and stories--in other words, these conferences serve an important purpose in identity formation.

I think we've seen this most clearly in the recent debates over the Federal Vision--regardless of where one falls on those issues, it cannot be denied that the Biblical Horizon and Auburn Avenue conferences played a large role in forging a particular way of looking at the world for those who participated and adhere to their proposals--and this, I believe, speaks to issues of identity. It is the same way for frustrated boomers in the PCA, who have met in an invitation-only group for years, and now for frustrated Gen X-ers, who are doing the same. Bringing together like-minded individuals to conference on issues of concern is a long-standing way of forging identity.

On the surface, there is nothing "wrong" with conferences; I attend them as well. And yet, ultimately, these conferences are not "the Church"; and because this is the case, conferences may actually be fostering the division in the church that so many X-ers decry and yet may be unwittingly perpetuating. This is the case for the very reason that these conferences bring together the like-minded, the already-convinced, the insiders. They set the like-minded against the others--whether it is a "Reformed" doctrine conference against all the loosy-goosy Arminians or a non-denominational pastors conference that sets people against all the amillennialists.

And yet the Church is bigger than that--in the church, you have to learn how to work together with those with whom you agree and with those with whom you disagree. In the church, you serve on committees with those who trust the Church and the work of the Spirit through her and with those who distrust the Church and believe that it tends to abuse of authority. In the church, you worship with the high-church, the blended, the contemporary, the traditional, the low-church, the charismatic (and this is just the PCA) and somehow you have to see them all as brothers and sisters in Christ. In the church, you have to work to protect and negotiate the interests of builders, boomers, X-ers, Millennials, Y-ers; it's not possible simply to serve one group. In the church, you must be patient, you must believe all things, you must bear all things, even the thorns of ministry--because in the church, you truly learn to love as you love those with whom you have so little in common.

As we have our identities formed by our lives together as the Church, as opposed to issue-identity conferences, we truly image forth Christ's own body--where heads, hands, feet, eyes, and everyone else are vitally necessary. We learn to value those remarkably different from us, who see issues different us, who value worship different from us. We learn to live through the polity of our church, which best expresses the unity and diversity of the church. And we learn to confess that the "one, holy, catholic, apostolic church," even as represented by this little Presbyterian denomination, is a little bit bigger and messier that we knew--and that's a good thing.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

King of Gunsmoke

My youngest son, who is 3, has a fixation on western shows and particularly, guns in western shows (actually, he likes guns in any form or fashion, which other parents tell me is normal; since we don't have any guns in the house and I have a semi-pacifist stance on the personal use of force anyway, his fixation is a little unusual). His current favorite show (aside from The Andy Griffith Show) is Gunsmoke. He likes it so much that it shows up in unusual ways. The other day, he was playing with his older brother; he used his lower, royal voice to declare, "Bow down, Andrew, and I'll make you the King of Gunsmoke!"

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Spirituality of the Church

One of the interesting conversations going on in blogosphere is over a issue that I've spent a great deal of time, pastorally and academicially--"the spirituality of the church." I think this is an important conversation, because it gets to all sorts of very important issues for Presbyterians: the "power" or "authority" of the church; the freedom of the conscience; the relationship between "church" and "state"; etc.

That being said, it does strike me that in some quarters, there is a tendency to a "spirituality" doctrine that is far beyond what is necessary to protect the church's spiritual nature as well as beyond what Presbyterian forefathers believed. This view seems to be (my summary) that the church, especially in its ministerial and declarative functions, has no authority or power granted to it by the resurrected and ascended Christ to teach on moral matters that may be issues under consideration in the broader public realm. This would be evidenced in comments that the church should not preach or teach on issues related to poverty, systemic injustice, or racism because those are "public" issues.

[The more telling comment is that we shouldn't preach or teach on these issues because these were the concerns of the "Social Gospel," Presbyterian progressives in the old PCUS, or political liberals of the 1950s and 1960s. Such reminds me of a comment by L. Nelson Bell, founder of the Southern Presbyterian Journal, who once observed, “We resent this further intrusion of Church leaders into the realm of international polices for three reasons. First, they are not competent in that particular field. Second, they have no right to use the prestige of the Church in this matter. Third, we think their advice is dead wrong.” For Bell, the point was really the issue: he simply believed that progressive leaders were “dead wrong." But instead of making the case, leaders like Bell would simply appeal to the "spirituality of the church."]

I think this position is far beyond what 19th century southern Presbyterian leaders, for example, would have recognized. Thornwell and Dabney, among others, commonly made the distinction between taking a particular policy position or advocating a particular political solution as "the church" on the one hand and instructing members on the moral duties required of them as individual Christian citizens on the other. That is why you can find sermons from Thornwell on the "duties of masters and slaves" or from Dabney on "temperance"; both were moral issues that were also political issues and as such required the pulpit to open God's Word on those topics.

The issues under consideration today--poverty, racial and social injustice, AIDS, peace, women's roles in church and society--are both difficult and challenging issues that individual Christians face. While the spiritual nature of the church would prohibit binding the consciences of God's people on particular policies or approaches to deal with these issues, it does not prohibit a ministry of God's Word to deal with the moral requirements involved with them. And while we would not want to have a ministry that demands that Christians support debt relief for Africa, we do want a ministry that raises the point of how God cares (and by extension, how God's people must care) for the poor and forsaken in every culture, American or African.

By overextending the logic of the spiritual nature of the church, perhaps our ministers might fail to declare "the whole counsel of God," which cares not only for the glorious doctrines of our faith but also cares for the grim and desititute of our world--both of which are Gospel concerns. These are things concerning which ministerial power should declare God's Word.