Category Archives: Preaching

Let the Church Be the Church! Calvin’s Theology of Social Justice

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., accused the white American church of compromising the gospel. The most painful compromise, he argued, was not some churches’ obviously heretical defense of racism and segregation. The most painful compromise came from those moderate white pastors who refused to let the church be the church:

I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

Numerous theologians have since picked up on Dr. King’s critique. From the careful Willie Jennings, who maintains that Christian theology has never truly come to grips with its own complicity in colonialism, to the radical James Cone, who famously described the mainstream church’s witness as “white theology,” critics have argued that when it comes to the kingdom and its righteousness, the Western church has lost its way.

It seems easy to dismiss these theologians out of hand. Too many of them appear too willing to jettison orthodox Christian teaching for increasingly radical forms of liberation theology that have little to do with the gospel. And yet, to do so would be to miss an opportunity. The reality is that many of these criticisms of traditional Christianity are far more on target than we’d like to admit.

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Jesus and Social Justice

I came to grips with this reality in seminary when I studied Jesus’s preaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 4. The standard evangelical interpretation of Jesus’s proclamation that he came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18)—at least in the respected commentaries I was reading—was that Jesus was using metaphors to describe salvation from spiritual poverty and oppression. And there seemed to be a general consensus that when Jesus described those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—and are persecuted for it—he was talking about those who yearn for justification and sanctification (Matt. 5:6, 10).

So I was surprised when I turned to John Calvin, only to find that, at least with respect to these passages, his interpretation was closer to that of the liberation theologians than to much of contemporary evangelical theology. For example, on Jesus blessing those who suffer for righteousness’ sake:

I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.7)

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

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Should Christians Respect the World?

One of the basic themes of Rosaria Butterfield’s book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, is the importance of hospitality and friendship. It is no exaggeration to say that Butterfield was converted through friendship. She emphasizes the fact that the pastor who led her to Christ neither shared the gospel with her nor invited her to church during their first visit.

Midway through the book Butterfield describes her distress when moving into a red Republican county for the first time and seeing placards with Scripture verses everywhere. This disturbed her on at least two levels. First, as she puts it, “Political advocacy plastered next to Bible verses makes me anxious.” No matter how much some conservative Christians might believe their faith requires them to vote Republican (or at least to vote against the Democrats), it is an abuse of the word to claim its authority for that conviction.

But the placards also disturbed Butterfield because they inevitably take Scripture out of context and separate it from any context of hospitality or friendship.”Do these Bible verses that sit on placards take up the same cultural space as the rainbow flag that once resided on my flagpole? Are these ‘Welcome’ signs or signs that read ‘Insiders Only’?”

She illustrates the point with respect to the oft-placarded verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Why is this verse so often separated from the one that follows it?

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

Butterfield observes,

This verse gives me greater clarity into how to read the one that comes before it. It tells me that if Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, then neither should Christians… [T]he domain of Christian witness is not salvation (that is God’s work) but service – selfless love and sacrifice.

The implication that she draws is that Christians are too quick to deliver a message without showing any concern for individual persons as unique persons. The point, of course, is not really primarily about placards.

Bible verses that front salvation over Christian service, instead of being important interfaces between Christian homes and the watching world, seemed like sneaky little raids, quick and insulated targets into culture, with no sense that a worldview of care lay behind them.

Christians may think in their heart of hearts that getting a point across, taking a stand, or quoting the Bible is the most loving thing they can possibly do. And such actions are often motivated by loving concern. But that is not how they are usually received. Why not? Because as delivered they remain abstract; they could be delivered in just the same way to any given number of people; they can even be communicated through Twitter. They reflect no particular love for this particular individual as a particular individual with all of her own cares and concerns. They suggest that we might be willing to have a relationship, but it will be on our terms and in our world.

Of course, Butterfield is not trying to take anything away from the importance of Scripture or of the preaching of the word. Anyone who has read her book knows that these channels of grace loom large for her, both in the way that they proclaim the “forgiveness of sins” and in the way they warn about the one who will “come to judge the living and the dead.” But in a society that is not Christian, as much as so many Christians insist on assuming and acting as if it is, these messages must take place in contexts of service and friendship.

This is, after all, the model of the New Testament. The apostles, prophets, and pastors were called to proclaim the message of salvation, but most Christians were called to follow Christ in a manner attractive to the world by fulfilling their various vocations of service. The Apostle Peter exhorts Christians not to use their faith as an excuse to be disobedient, belligerent, or obnoxious, but to do good to others in a spirit of love and humility, always being prepared to suffer at the hands of the unjust.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)

This is the context for Peter’s call to believers always to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them, yet to

do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:16)

What is the meaning of this word ‘respect’ that Peter uses? Perhaps that’s what Christians often struggle to show to the world, and perhaps that is one of the dimensions of what Butterfield is calling us to think about. When we interact with nonbelievers, no matter what the controversy or circumstance, do we communicate respect?

Catholic Bishops Want Better Preaching

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a document calling priests to step up the quality of their preaching at Sunday services. The document, entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily,” positions the call for better preaching as part of Rome’s recent push for a “New Evangelization.”

In our day many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the Church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship.

The bishops note that the Catholic faithful have been calling for better preaching for years now.

We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.

The new emphasis on preaching among Catholics is a good sign. Amid all the issues that led the reformers to break with Rome, as I argued in a recent post, the lack of gospel preaching was first and foremost. Calvin was willing to acknowledge the existence of true churches under the Roman hierarchy, but only where the gospel was faithfully preached. My own Catholic friends tell me that, unfortunately in their view, things have not changed much in the Church since Calvin’s day. Clear, biblical, gospel-oriented preaching is still quite rare.

But the recent push for better preaching comes all the way from the top. Following a 2008 assembly of bishops on the Word of God in the life of the church, Pope Benedict XVI declared that since the word is at the heart of every ecclesial activity, the church’s homilies must be improved. In 2010 he declared that the church’s preaching needs to be direct and focused on the gospel:

Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.

The document approved by the U.S. bishops likewise declares,

The message of the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death” for us; there is nothing routine or trivial about it. If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world….

The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith.

Of course, many Evangelicals and Reformed believers will find this to be but a small step. Luther and Calvin were adamant that the faithful preaching of the gospel is the mark of a true church, such that where there is no such preaching there is no true church. From this perspective the document’s opening assertion of the importance of preaching is still quite weak:

One of the most significant ways in which the Church as the Body of Christ proclaims the dynamic Word of God is through the preaching of her ordained ministers, particularly in the context of the Sunday Eucharist. (emphasis added)

As long as many Catholic priests continue to accept cultural allegiance to Rome, implicit faith, and participation in the sacraments as equally sufficient conditions of a healthy church, the emphasis of Rome and the Catholic bishops on better homilies probably won’t bring about the sort of preaching for which they hope. There is something crucial in the Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the gospel as fundamental – and on the need for Christians to have an active, informed faith – that even this new document fails to capture.

Nevertheless, the efforts of Rome and the bishops should be lauded. The closer priests and the faithful get to the text of Scripture and its presentation of the gospel the healthier (or “truer”) their churches will be. I wish them success in this endeavor.

The Church needs better teaching – and you can help

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in the writings and context of John Calvin, the subject of my doctoral dissertation at Emory University. Reading thousands upon thousands of pages of the reformer’s systematic, exegetical, homiletical, polemical, and personal writings enables one to get a good sense of the broad brush strokes of his thought, the fundamental principles and practices about which he was most concerned.

In the popular caricature of Calvin the reformer appears as something like a tyrant, lording himself over the people of Geneva by using every possible tool of suppression and manipulation. But of course, this caricature makes it impossible to understand why Calvin’s writings and theology were so inspiring to millions of Christians across Europe who were enduring violence and persecution under the cross. One might view those Calvinists of the Netherlands, England, America and elsewhere as being devoted to the establishment of tyranny in their own lands. But if you are at all aware of the trajectory of democracy and religious liberty in modern history, you will quickly discover that this picture doesn’t quite fit the facts.

The more systematic misrepresentation of Calvin, one admittedly fostered by some of his most devoted followers, portrays him as a vigorous systematician who took the basic theological principles of the glory and sovereignty of God to their logical extremes. This is the picture of the Calvin who is obsessed with double predestination, the Calvin of Ernst Troeltsch and of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. But again, a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes and basic exegetical and homiletical works will quickly demonstrate that Calvin was not driven primarily by systematic or logical concerns. The default perspective of the man who described predestination as the “terrible decree” about which people shouldn’t speculate too much was that of a pastor and interpreter of Scripture.

If anything drove Calvin, then, it was his unshakable conviction that the Church of Rome had lost sight of the essence of Christianity, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that this gospel was recoverable only in the faithful teaching of Scripture, the pure word of God. Rome defined the existence of the church in relation to the papacy and the apostolic succession of bishops but for Calvin this external hierarchy was simply an empty shell without the life of the gospel in its midst.

As much as possible, then, Calvin sought to transform the worship and government of the church into the mediation of Christ’s rule by his word. To be sure, he was well aware that in neither of these areas can churches function without appropriate rules and structures not revealed in Scripture but necessary to preserve peace, order, and edification. Calvin would have utterly rejected the modern tendency of Reformed and Evangelical churches to fracture into a multitude of denominations and sects on the basis of secondary matters of worship, government, or culture. But he would have been just as critical of those churches, whether Catholic or Evangelical, that fail consistently to preach and teach the pure word of God.

In his Necessity of Reforming the Church, which Calvin wrote to the Emperor Charles V in 1543 after the emperor had summoned the Diet of Spires, Calvin emphasized that Christian worship is in essence the practice of faith and repentance in response to Christ’s word. In contrast to the medieval church, he insisted, the reformers had simply “brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his Word.” Invoking the Old Testament prophets Calvin writes,

For what is the sum of their declarations? That God neither cares for nor values ceremonies considered only in themselves; that he looks to the faith and truth of the heart; and that the only end for which he commanded and for which he approves ceremonies is that they may be pure exercises of faith, and prayer, and praise.

Calvin’s emphasis was on the word and sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) because he believed that it was through these means that Christ had promised to reveal himself to believers and commune with them. The emphasis on the word was therefore never an end in itself, as in bibliolatry, but the means of holding fast to Jesus by holding fast to his communication to believers. Any piety that claims to honor Christ, he argued, and yet fails to take seriously what Christ has said, is false. The fundamental mark of the church is the faithful representation of Christ through the preaching of his word.

For all of our emphasis on the Reformation and the vibrancy of Evangelicalism these days, in my view churches across the denominational spectrum are actually quite weak in this area. For so many churches the reaction to the (very real) danger of intellectualizing worship has led to the much more prevalent danger of dumbing it down. Pastors assume their congregations can handle only the most practical, relevant form of teaching, and only in the briefest manner possible (perhaps 25 minutes a week). And they do little actually to explain what concrete passages of Scripture teach, in their Christ-centered context. Yet while churches can survive with many weaknesses and errors in practice and even worship, they cannot long survive the lack of faithful teaching.

As always, the churches need reform. One organization seeking to promote just this sort of reform is Michael Horton’s White Horse Inn program, a radio discussion he leads along with three other pastors, one Reformed, one Lutheran, and one Baptist. The White Horse Inn (which also publishes an excellent monthly magazine entitled Modern Reformation) sponsors White Horse Inn Discussion Groups around the country for the purpose of encouraging Christians to gather together and talk about these things, promoting reformation in their own churches (and in fidelity to their own traditions). It’s a great way to study the theology of the Reformation on a basic level, as well as to get acquainted with Christians in your area from a wide range of traditions and denominations.

If you’d like to join my group, which meets in Stone Mountain, Georgia, please let me know via the Contact feature on this blog. If you’d like to start your own group you can contact me as well, or just contact the good folks at the White Horse Inn. We need more of this, and you, in your own time and place, can help.

[Note: This post originally referred to the groups WHI sponsors as Reformation Societies. That was inaccurate. Reformation Societies are similar, but are sponsored by a sister organization, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (another excellent organization, by the way, and the publisher of the online magazine Reformation 21, with whom a number of my articles have been published).]

Endorsing political candidates from the pulpit: Thus sayeth the Lord …

My friend Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington D.C., has written an excellent critique of “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” at Real Clear Religion. Brian is a thoughtful political commentator and has spent years working for the federal government. Here he writes on the campaign to get pastors not only to speak to political issues this Sunday, but to endorse political candidates:

That’s what Jim Garlow and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) are urging preachers to deliver. ADF is promoting October 7th as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” and is asking ministers to dedicate their sermons to explicit politicking. According to an online pledge, sermons should evaluate the presidential candidates according to “biblical truths and church doctrine,” and make a specific endorsement.

Lee reminds readers that the campaign has a specific goal: the defiance of IRS regulations.

ADF’s goal is to openly defy the 1954 “Johnson Amendment” to the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt organizations from making political endorsements. The provision has never been actively enforced, and by forcing the IRS to such action ADF hopes to trigger a court challenge and eventually have the provision overturned on constitutional grounds.

He also reminds us that it is highly questionable to call pastors to political activism when the very purpose of that activism is to defend a tax-exempt status. Jesus, after all, had something to say about the attitude of Christians toward mammon, taxes, and the rights of Caesar.

To be sure, the regulation in question is somewhat problematic and ought to be taken off the books. In fact, this is not a controversial opinion. Lee points out that drawing sharp lines between morality and religion on the one hand, and political speech on the other, as some seek to do, is an enormously problematic endeavor.

In our hyper-politicized age, the line between religious and political speech is an exceedingly difficult one to draw. Teaching on the morality of war and peace, on social issues including marriage, life, and finance are inherently political. It’s not clear who in the IRS is qualified to evaluate religious speech for its political content, or what the political support would be for committing a few thousand IRS agents to enforcing this ban….

The primary message the New Testament commends to preachers — “Christ, and him crucified!” — is scarcely a political one. But this doesn’t mean preachers should be constrained from speaking politically. One care barely open one’s mouth on a moral question of the day without giving political offense, and no one would suggest God’s word has nothing to say on these matters.

Well said. The church cannot allow the world (or politics) to determine what it can and cannot say. On the other hand, as Lee points out, the vast majority of pastors refuse to endorse candidates from the pulpit (although African American pastors are somewhat more willing), not because they don’t have concrete opinions, but because they take their charge to preach only the word of Christ so seriously that they wouldn’t dare pollute that word with what Calvin would have called their own fictions and opinions. Lee writes,

Clearly, many pastors are constrained by the sanctity of their office, and in particular, the pulpit. They recognize the very real tradeoff that in our polarized age political speech may offend and drive off many members of the flock they are called to shepherd…. But the further the minister of the word ventures from the claim of “thus sayeth the Lord,” there is a spiritual and political price to be paid. We risk squandering moral authority and offending the politically disaffected.

Note that Lee is not simply making the pragmatic point that we don’t want to offend people (though he is saying we should not needlessly offend people; the offense should come from the word of Christ, not from our own opinions). He is pointing out that the more political pastors get in their preaching the more they destroy their own credibility. The very authority of the word is at stake here.

“Pulpit Freedom Sunday” is a terrible idea.

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