God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge — A Response to Matthew Vines

by Al Mohler

Tuesday • April 22, 2014

Vines

Evangelical Christians in the United States now face an inevitable moment of decision. While Christians in other movements and in other nations face similar questions, the question of homosexuality now presents evangelicals in the United States with a decision that cannot be avoided. Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question. There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.

The question is whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over two thousand years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.

The world is pressing this question upon us, but so are a number of voices from within the larger evangelical circle — voices that are calling for a radical revision of the church’s understanding of the Bible, sexual morality, and the meaning of marriage. We are living in the midst of a massive revolution in morality, and sexual morality is at the center of this revolution. But the question of same-sex relationships and sexuality is at the very center of the debate over sexual morality, and our answer to this question will both determine or reveal what we understand about everything the Bible reveals and everything the church teaches — even the gospel itself.

Others are watching, and they see the moment of decision at hand. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann of Stanford University has remarked that “it is clear to an observer like me that evangelical Christianity is at a crossroad.” What is that crossroad? “The question of whether gay Christians should be married within the church.”  Journalist Terry Mattingly sees the same issue looming on the evangelical horizon — “There is no way to avoid the showdown that is coming.”

Into this context now comes God and the Gay Christian, a book by Matthew Vines. Just a couple of years ago Vines made waves with the video of a lecture in which he attempted to argue that being a gay Christian in a committed same-sex relationship (and eventual marriage) is compatible with biblical Christianity. His video went viral. Even though Matthew Vines did not make new arguments, the young Harvard student synthesized arguments made by revisionist Bible scholars and presented a very winsome case for overthrowing the church’s moral teachings on same-sex relationships.

His new book flows from that startling ambition — to overthrow two millennia of Christian moral wisdom and biblical understanding.

Given the audacity of that ambition, why does this book deserve close attention? The most important reason lies outside the book itself. There are a great host of people, considered to be within the larger evangelical movement, who are desperately seeking a way to make peace with the moral revolution and endorse the acceptance of openly-gay individuals and couples within the life of the church. Given the excruciating pressures now exerted on evangelical Christianity, many people — including some high-profile leaders — are desperately seeking an argument they can claim as both persuasive and biblical. The seams in the evangelical fabric are beginning to break and Matthew Vines now comes along with a book that he claims will make the argument so many have been seeking.

In God and the Gay Christian Vines argues that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” He announces that, once his argument is accepted: “The fiercest objections to LGBT equality — those based on religious beliefs — can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together we can reclaim our light” (3).

That promise drives Vines’s work from beginning to end. He identifies himself as both gay and Christian and claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible. “That means,” he says, “I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life” (2).

Well, that is exactly what we would hope for a Christian believer to say about the Bible. And who could fault the ambition of any young and thoughtful Christian who seeks to recover the reputation of Christianity in the Western world. If Matthew Vines were to be truly successful in simultaneously making his case and remaining true to the Scriptures, we would indeed have to overturn two thousand years of the church’s teaching on sex and marriage and apologize for the horrible embarrassment of being wrong for so long.

Readers of his book who are looking for an off-ramp from the current cultural predicament will no doubt try to accept his argument. But the real question is whether what Vines claims is true and faithful to the Bible as the Word of God. But his argument is neither true nor faithful to Scripture. It is, nonetheless, a prototype of the kind of argument we can now expect.

What Does the Bible Really Say?

The most important sections of Vines’s book deal with the Bible itself and with what he identifies as the six passages in the Bible that “have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches” (11). Those six passages (Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10) are indeed key and crucial passages for understanding God’s expressed and revealed message on the question of same-sex acts, desires, and relationships, but they are hardly the whole story.

The most radical proposal Vines actually makes is to sever each of these passages from the flow of the biblical narrative and the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about what it means to be human, both male and female. He does not do this merely by omission, but by the explicit argument that the church has misunderstood the doctrine of creation as much as the question of human sexuality. He specifically seeks to argue that the basic sexual complementarity of the human male and the female — each made in God’s image — is neither essential to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 or to any biblical text that follows.

In other words, he argues that same-sex sexuality can be part of the goodness of God’s original creation, and that when God declared that it is not good for man to be alone, the answer to man’s isolation could be a sexual relationship with someone of either sex. But that massive misrepresentation of Genesis 1 and 2 — a misinterpretation with virtually unlimited theological consequences — actually becomes Vines’s way of relativizing the meaning of the six passages he primarily considers.

His main argument is that the Bible simply has no category of sexual orientation. Thus, when the Bible condemns same-sex acts, it is actually condemning “sexual excess,” hierarchy, oppression, or abuse — not the possibility of permanent, monogamous, same-sex unions.

In addressing the passages in Genesis and Leviticus, Vines argues that the sin of Sodom was primarily inhospitality, not same-sex love or sexuality. The law of Moses condemns same-sex acts in so far as they violate social status or a holiness code, not in and of themselves, he asserts. His argument with regard to Leviticus is especially contorted, since he has to argue that the text’s explicit condemnation of male-male intercourse as an abomination is neither categorical or related to sinfulness. He allows that “abomination is a negative word,” but insists that “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin” (85).

Finally, he argues that, even if the Levitical condemnations are categorical, this would not mean that the law remains binding on believers today.

In dealing with the most significant single passage in the Bible on same-sex acts and desire, Romans 1:26-27, Vines actually argues that the passage “is not of central importance to Paul’s message in Romans.” Instead, Vines argues that the passage is used by Paul only as “a brief example to drive home a point he was making about idolatry.” Nevertheless, Paul’s words on same-sex acts are, he admits, “starkly negative” (96).

“There is no question that Romans 1:26-27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate,” Vines acknowledges (96). In order to relativize it, he makes this case: “Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So how should we understand Paul’s words? Do they apply to all same-sex relationships? Or only to lustful, fleeting ones?” (99).

In asking these questions, Vines makes his case that Paul is merely ignorant of the reality of sexual orientation. He had no idea that some people are naturally attracted to people of the same sex. Therefore, Paul misunderstands what today would be considered culturally normative in many highly-developed nations — that some persons are naturally attracted to others of the same sex and it would be therefore “unnatural” for them to be attracted sexually to anyone else.

Astonishingly, Vines then argues that the very notion of “against nature” as used by Paul in Romans 1 is tied to patriarchy, not sexual complementarity. Same-sex relationships, Vines argues, “disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes” (109).

But to get anywhere near to Vines’s argument one has to sever Romans 1 from any natural reading of the text, from the flow of the Bible’s message from Genesis 1 forward, from the basic structure of sexual complementarity, and from the church’s faithful reading of the Bible for two millennia. Furthermore, his argument provides direct evidence of that Paul warns of in this very chapter, “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Finally, the actual language of Romans 1, specifically dealing with male same-sex desire, speaks of “men consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:27). This directly contradicts Vines’s claim that only oppressive, pederastic, or socially mixed same-sex acts are condemned. Paul describes men consumed with passion for one another — not merely the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. In other words, in Romans 1:26-27 Paul condemns same-sex acts by both men and women, and he condemns the sexual desires described as unnatural passions as well.

In his attempt to relativize 1 Corinthians 6: 9, Vines actually undermines more of his argument. Paul’s careful use of language (perhaps even inventing a term by combining two words from Leviticus 18) is specifically intended to deny what Vines proposes — that the text really does not condemn consensual same-sex acts by individuals with a same-sex sexual orientation. Paul so carefully argues his case that he makes the point that both the active and the passive participants in male intercourse will not inherit the kingdom of God. Desperate to argue his case nonetheless, Vines asserts that, once again, it is exploitative sex that Paul condemns. But this requires that Paul be severed from his Jewish identify and from his own obedience to Scripture. Vines must attempt to marshal evidence that the primary background issue is the Greco-Roman cultural context rather than Paul’s Jewish context — but that would make Paul incomprehensible.

One other aspect of Vines’s consideration of the Bible should be noted. He acknowledges that he is “not a biblical scholar,” but he claims to “have relied on the work of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own.” But the scholars upon whom he relies do not operate on the assumption that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.” To the contrary, most of his cited scholars are from the far left of modern biblical scholarship or on the fringes of the evangelical world. He does not reveal their deeper understandings of Scripture and its authority.

The Authority of Scripture and the Question of Sexual Orientation

Again and again, Vines comes back to sexual orientation as the key issue. ‘”The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation,” he insists. The concept of sexual orientation “didn’t exist in the ancient world.” Amazingly, he then concedes that the Bible’s “six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” but insists, again, that “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”

Here we face the most tragic aspect of Matthew Vines’s argument. If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted to understand what it means to be human, to reveal what God intends for us sexually, or to define sin in any coherent manner. The modern notion of sexual orientation is, as a matter of fact, exceedingly modern. it is also a concept without any definitive meaning. Effectively, it is used now both culturally and morally to argue about sexual attraction and desire. As a matter of fact, attraction and desire are the only indicators upon which the modern notion of sexual orientation are premised.

When he begins his book, Matthew Vines argues that experience should not drive our interpretation of the Bible. But it is his experience of what he calls a gay sexual orientation that drives every word of this book. It is this experiential issue that drives him to relativize text after text and to argue that the Bible really doesn’t speak directly to his sexual identity at all, since the inspired human authors of Scripture were ignorant of the modern gay experience.

Of what else were they ignorant? Vines claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible and to believe that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” but the modern concept of sexual orientation functions as a much higher authority in his thinking and in his argument.

This leads to a haunting question. What else does the Bible not know about what it means to be human? If the Bible cannot be trusted to reveal the truth about us in every respect, how can we trust it to reveal our salvation?

This points to the greater issue at stake here — the Gospel. Matthew Vines’s argument does not merely relativize the Bible’s authority, it leaves us without any authoritative revelation of what sin is. And without an authoritative (and clearly understandable) revelation of human sin, we cannot know why we need a Savior, or why Christ died. Furthermore, to tell someone that what the Bible reveals as sin is not sin, we tell them that they do not need Christ for that. Is that not exactly what Paul was determined not to do when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Could the stakes be any higher than that? This controversy is not merely about sex, it is about salvation.

Matthew Vines’s Wedge Argument — Gender and the Bible

There is another really interesting and revealing aspect of Matthew Vine’s argument yet to come. In terms of how his argument is likely to be received within the evangelical world, Vines clearly has a strategy, and that strategy is to persuade those who have rejected gender complementarity to take the next logical step and deny sexual complementarity as well.

Gender complementarity is the belief that the Bible’s teachings on gender and gender roles is to be understood in terms of the fact that men and women are equally made in God’s image (status) but different in terms of assignment (roles). This has been the belief and conviction of virtually all Christians throughout the centuries, and it is the view held by the vast majority of those identified as Christians in the world even today. But a denial of this conviction, hand in hand with the argument that sameness of role is necessary to affirm equality of status, has led some to argue that difference in gender roles must be rejected. The first impediment to making this argument is the fact that the Bible insists on a difference in roles. In order to overcome this impediment, biblical scholars and theologians committed to egalitarianism have made arguments that are hauntingly similar to those now made by Matthew Vines in favor of relativizing the Bible’s texts on same-sex behaviors.

Matthew Vines knows this. He also knows that, at least until recently, most of those who have rejected gender complementarity have maintained an affirmation of sexual complementarity — the belief that sexual behavior is to be limited to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He sees this as his opening. At several points in the book, he makes this argument straightforwardly, even as he calls both “gender complementarity” and denies that the Bible requires or reveals it.

But we have to give Matthew Vines credit for seeing this wedge issue better than most egalitarians have seen it. He knows that the denial of gender complementarity is a huge step toward denying sexual complementarity. The evangelicals who have committed themselves to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles as revealed in the Bible are those who are most vulnerable to his argument. In effect, they must resist his argument more by force of will than by force of logic.

Same-Sex Marriage, Celibacy, and the Gospel

Matthew Vines writes with personal passion and he tells us much of his own story. Raised in an evangelical Presbyterian church by Christian parents, he came relatively late to understand his own sexual desires and pattern of attraction. He wants to be acknowledged as a faithful Christian, and he wants to be married … to a man. He argues that the Bible simply has no concept of sexual orientation and that to deny him access to marriage is to deny him justice and happiness. He argues that celibacy cannot be mandated for same-sex individuals within the church, for this would be unjust and wrong. He argues that same-sex unions can fulfill the “one-flesh” promise of Genesis 2:24.

Thus, he argues that the Christian church should accept and celebrate same-sex marriage. He also argues, just like the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, that Christianity must revise its beliefs or face the massive loss of reputation before the watching world (meaning, we should note, the watching world of the secular West).

But the believing church is left with no option but to deny the revisionist and relativizing proposals Vines brings to the evangelical argument. The consequences of accepting his argument would include misleading people about their sin and about their need for Christ, about what obedience to Christ requires and what faithfulness to Christ demands.

Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners.

Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors. The church is the assembly of the redeemed, saved from our sins and learning obedience in the School of Christ. Every single one of us is a sexual sinner in need of redemption, but we are called to holiness, to obedience, and to honoring marriage as one of God’s most precious gifts and as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.

God and the Gay Christian demands an answer, but Christ demands our obedience. We can only pray — with fervent urgency — that this moment of decision for evangelical Christianity will be answered with a firm assertion of biblical authority, respect for marriage as the union of a man and a woman, passion for the Gospel of Christ, and prayer for the faithfulness and health of Christ’s church.

I do not write this response as Matthew Vines’s moral superior, but as one who must be obedient to Scripture. And so, I must counter his argument with conviction and urgency. I am concerned for him, and for the thousands who struggle as he does. The church has often failed people with same-sex attractions, and failed them horribly. We must not fail them now by forfeiting the only message that leads to salvation, holiness, and faithfulness. That is the real question before us.

Has evangelicalism become preoccupied with ‘self’?

“Redefining evangelicalism in terms of the self, in terms of the self having spiritual experiences, finding itself, satisfying, fulfilling itself, has everything to do with culture and nothing to do with Christ.” – David Wells

The above quote is from the book, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, by David Wells. It is the author’s position that evangelicalism has indeed been co-opted by the self movement. The book takes you on a journey through the evangelical landscape from just after World War II to our own day, presenting his case.

While I already have an opinion in answer to the question in the title of this post, I am interested in what the few readers of this blog have to say.

And by the way, have a blessed new year!

Christian left pushes for ‘peace’

Exclusive: Jim Fletcher tells faithful to resist pious politics

 I’m always semi-amused to observe the bias floating back and forth in various communities, and nowhere is this more evident than in the American church. Of course, I’m presenting my bias in what follows, but at least I admit it.

Often, what I view as the “left” doesn’t admit they are biased. They simply present their view as if it were pristine wisdom from on high, in sharp contrast to the brutish, primitive views of “the fundies.” In any event, a recent blog post from Scot McKnight caught my eye (although guest blogger Steve Norman was taking McKnight’s slot that day at Patheos).

Norman wrote this (titled, “Peacemaking, the Gospel and Churches”): “I don’t know a single local church pastor who doesn’t believe in peacemaking. After all, the angels celebrating Jesus’s birth come right out and sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’ (Luke 2:14). Jesus himself champions the role of peacemaker in his Sermon on the Mount and, let’s be honest, nobody’s going to challenge Jesus’s direct words there.

“And yet, there is a clear gap between U.S. church leaders’ stated support of biblical peacemaking and our actual pursuit of peacemaking in our ministry initiatives,” Norman continues. “I recently conducted a research project that collected data from 15 pastors in personal interviews and 297 pastors through an online survey. Their feedback on this issue was almost unanimous: ‘Yes, I affirm the theory of peacemaking as a biblical value. No, it’s not something our church is currently doing. Honestly, we’d have no idea where to start if we wanted to.’”

Norman then goes on to chide those pastors who don’t jump on the peacemaking wagon: “Therein lies the rub. Pastors get stuck believing peacemaking is an elective; in truth, it is the very heartbeat of the gospel. Jesus’s declaration of kingdom invites us to experience, receive, and promote peace with God, with our enemies, among our broken families, and between warring tribes and nations.”

He then says that peacemaking is “the core of the gospel message.”

It is? Is it, really?

I thought the gospel was about the reconciliation of sinful people with the Creator. When did it become a social gospel, left-wing agenda?

And we need to define what is meant by peacemaking. One can plausibly assume it means what Jim Wallis or Brian McLaren say it means, which is oddly similar to the worldview of hippies, political social engineers, and other religious leftists. “Peacemaking” is a nice sentiment, usually, but it’s hardly an endeavor with which to bully hardworking pastors across the national landscape, most of whom are trying to shepherd as best they know how. Many are bi-vocational and don’t have access to the travel and administrative budgets of megachurch leaders who manifest narcissism by browbeating through piety.

McKnight & friends, those in the so-called “Emergent” community, routinely marginalize rank-and-file Bible believers (“fundies” to the religious cocktail party crowd). Chiding them for not engaging in peacemaking is just another manifestation of arrogance from the left.

Imagine this: These poor pastors – preparing sermons while also counseling couples with disintegrating marriages, and perhaps calling a repairman to check the church’s heat pump – are expected to also spend quality time discussing/implementing strategies to engage in vague “peacemaking.” What does that mean, being a signatory to the latest Israel-bashing letter sent to the president? Marching for nuclear disarmament? Running a 5K for the oppressed in Sierra Leone?

Leave these non-celebrity pastors alone, guys. Let them continue to faithfully guide their flocks. Stand aside as they minister to families and preach the real gospel.

Leave them in peace.


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The Pelagian Captivity of the Church

by R.C. Sproul

Shortly after the Reformation began, in the first few years after Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he issued some short booklets on a variety of subjects. One of the most provocative was titled The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther was looking back to that period of Old Testament history when Jerusalem was destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon and the elite of the people were carried off into captivity. Luther in the sixteenth century took the image of the historic Babylonian captivity and reapplied it to his era and talked about the new Babylonian captivity of the Church. He was speaking of Rome as the modern Babylon that held the Gospel hostage with its rejection of the biblical understanding of justification. You can understand how fierce the controversy was, how polemical this title would be in that period by saying that the Church had not simply erred or strayed, but had fallen — that it’s actually now Babylonian; it is now in pagan captivity.

I’ve often wondered if Luther were alive today and came to our culture and looked, not at the liberal church community, but at evangelical churches, what would he have to say? Of course I can’t answer that question with any kind of definitive authority, but my guess is this: If Martin Luther lived today and picked up his pen to write, the book he would write in our time would be entitled The Pelagian Captivity of the Evangelical Church. Luther saw the doctrine of justification as fueled by a deeper theological problem. He writes about this extensively in The Bondage of the Will. When we look at the Reformation and we see the solas of the Reformation — sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria, sola gratia — Luther was convinced that the real issue of the Reformation was the issue of grace; and that underlying the doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone, was the prior commitment to sola gratia, the concept of justification by grace alone.

In the Fleming Revell edition of The Bondage of the Will, the translators, J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, included a somewhat provocative historical and theological introduction to the book itself. This is from the end of that introduction:

These things need to be pondered by Protestants today. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognised by the pioneer Reformers. The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind. In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has not tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? Are we innocent of the doctrinal indifferentism with which Luther charged Erasmus? Do we still believe that doctrine matters?1

Historically, it’s a simple matter of fact that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation stood on precisely the same ground here. On other points they had their differences. In asserting the helplessness of man in sin and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one. To all of them these doctrines were the very lifeblood of the Christian faith. A modern editor of Luther’s works says this:

Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration.2

That is to say, that the faith that receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God. The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood until it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which is left to man to fulfill? Do you hear the difference? Let me put it in simple terms. I heard an evangelist recently say, “If God takes a thousand steps to reach out to you for your redemption, still in the final analysis, you must take the decisive step to be saved.” Consider the statement that has been made by America’s most beloved and leading evangelical of the twentieth century, Billy Graham, who says with great passion, “God does ninety-nine percent of it but you still must do that last one percent.”

What Is Pelagianism?

Now, let’s return briefly to my title, “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church.” What are we talking about? Pelagius was a monk who lived in Britain in the fifth century. He was a contemporary of the greatest theologian of the first millennium of Church history if not of all time, Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. We have heard of St. Augustine, of his great works in theology, of his City of God, of his Confessions, and so on, which remain Christian classics.

Augustine, in addition to being a titanic theologian and a prodigious intellect, was also a man of deep spirituality and prayer. In one of his famous prayers, Augustine made a seemingly harmless and innocuous statement in the prayer to God in which he says: “O God, command what you wouldst, and grant what thou dost command.” Now, would that give you apoplexy — to hear a prayer like that? Well it certainly set Pelagius, this British monk, into orbit. When he heard that, he protested vociferously, even appealing to Rome to have this ghastly prayer censured from the pen of Augustine. Here’s why. He said, “Are you saying, Augustine, that God has the inherent right to command anything that he so desires from his creatures? Nobody is going to dispute that. God inherently, as the creator of heaven and earth, has the right to impose obligations on his creatures and say, ‘Thou shalt do this, and thou shalt not do that.’ ‘Command whatever thou would’ — it’s a perfectly legitimate prayer.”

It’s the second part of the prayer that Pelagius abhorred when Augustine said, “and grant what thou dost command.” He said, “What are you talking about? If God is just, if God is righteous and God is holy, and God commands of the creature to do something, certainly that creature must have the power within himself, the moral ability within himself, to perform it or God would never require it in the first place.” Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? What Pelagius was saying is that moral responsibility always and everywhere implies moral capability or, simply, moral ability. So why would we have to pray, “God grant me, give me the gift of being able to do what you command me to do”? Pelagius saw in this statement a shadow being cast over the integrity of God himself, who would hold people responsible for doing something they cannot do.

So in the ensuing debate, Augustine made it clear that in creation, God commanded nothing from Adam or Eve that they were incapable of performing. But once transgression entered and mankind became fallen, God’s law was not repealed nor did God adjust his holy requirements downward to accommodate the weakened, fallen condition of his creation. God did punish his creation by visiting upon them the judgment of original sin, so that everyone after Adam and Eve who was born into this world was born already dead in sin. Original sin is not the first sin. It’s the result of the first sin; it refers to our inherent corruption, by which we are born in sin, and in sin did our mothers conceive us. We are not born in a neutral state of innocence, but we are born in a sinful, fallen condition. Virtually every church in the historic World Council of Churches at some point in their history and in their creedal development articulates some doctrine of original sin. So clear is that to the biblical revelation that it would take a repudiation of the biblical view of mankind to deny original sin altogether.

This is precisely what was at issue in the battle between Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century. Pelagius said there is no such thing as original sin. Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. There is no transmission or transfer of guilt or fallenness or corruption to the progeny of Adam and Eve. Everyone is born in the same state of innocence in which Adam was created. And, he said, for a person to live a life of obedience to God, a life of moral perfection, is possible without any help from Jesus or without any help from the grace of God. Pelagius said that grace — and here’s the key distinction — facilitates righteousness. What does “facilitate” mean?

It helps, it makes it more facile, it makes it easier, but you don’t have to have it. You can be perfect without it. Pelagius further stated that it is not only theoretically possible for some folks to live a perfect life without any assistance from divine grace, but there are in fact people who do it. Augustine said, “No, no, no, no . . . we are infected by sin by nature, to the very depths and core of our being — so much so that no human being has the moral power to incline himself to cooperate with the grace of God. The human will, as a result of original sin, still has the power to choose, but it is in bondage to its evil desires and inclinations. The condition of fallen humanity is one that Augustine would describe as the inability to not sin. In simple English, what Augustine was saying is that in the Fall, man loses his moral ability to do the things of God and he is held captive by his own evil inclinations.

In the fifth century the Church condemned Pelagius as a heretic. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange, and it was condemned again at the Council of Florence, the Council of Carthage, and also, ironically, at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century in the first three anathemas of the Canons of the Sixth Session. So, consistently throughout Church history, the Church has roundly and soundly condemned Pelagianism  —  because Pelagianism denies the fallenness of our nature; it denies the doctrine of original sin.

Now what is called semi-Pelagianism, as the prefix “semi” suggests, was a somewhat middle ground between full-orbed Augustinianism and full-orbed Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism said this: yes, there was a fall; yes, there is such a thing as original sin; yes, the constituent nature of humanity has been changed by this state of corruption and all parts of our humanity have been significantly weakened by the fall, so much so that without the assistance of divine grace nobody can possibly be redeemed, so that grace is not only helpful but it’s absolutely necessary for salvation. While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. The will is weakened but is not enslaved. There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t. That little island Augustine wouldn’t even recognize as an atoll in the South Pacific. He said it’s a mythical island, that the will is enslaved, and that man is dead in his sin and trespasses.

Ironically, the Church condemned semi-Pelagianism as vehemently as it had condemned original Pelagianism. Yet by the time you get to the sixteenth century and you read the Catholic understanding of what happens in salvation the Church basically repudiated what Augustine taught and Aquinas taught as well. The Church concluded that there still remains this freedom that is intact in the human will and that man must cooperate with — and assent to — the prevenient grace that is offered to them by God. If we exercise that will, if we exercise a cooperation with whatever powers we have left, we will be saved. And so in the sixteenth century the Church reembraced semi-Pelagianism.

At the time of the Reformation, all the reformers agreed on one point: the moral inability of fallen human beings to incline themselves to the things of God; that all people, in order to be saved, are totally dependent, not ninety-nine percent, but one hundred percent dependent upon the monergistic work of regeneration in order to come to faith, and that faith itself is a gift of God. It’s not that we are offered salvation and that we will be born again if we choose to believe. But we can’t even believe until God in his grace and in his mercy first changes the disposition of our souls through his sovereign work of regeneration. In other words, what the reformers all agreed with was, unless a man is born again, he can’t even see the kingdom of God, let alone enter it. Like Jesus says in the sixth chapter of John, “No man can come to me unless it is given to him of the Father” — that the necessary condition for anybody’s faith and anybody’s salvation is regeneration.

Evangelicals and Faith

Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism.

The Island of Righteousness

One thing is clear: that you can be purely Pelagian and be completely welcome in the evangelical movement today. It’s not simply that the camel sticks his nose into the tent; he doesn’t just come in the tent — he kicks the owner of the tent out. Modern Evangelicalism today looks with suspicion at Reformed theology, which has become sort of the third-class citizen of Evangelicalism. Now you say, “Wait a minute, R. C. Let’s not tar everybody with the extreme brush of Pelagianism, because, after all, Billy Graham and the rest of these people are saying there was a Fall; you’ve got to have grace; there is such a thing as original sin; and semi-Pelagians do not agree with Pelagius’ facile and sanguine view of unfallen human nature.” And that’s true. No question about it. But it’s that little island of righteousness where man still has the ability, in and of himself, to turn, to change, to incline, to dispose, to embrace the offer of grace that reveals why historically semi-Pelagianism is not called semi-Augustinianism, but semi-Pelagianism.

I heard an evangelist use two analogies to describe what happens in our redemption. He said sin has such a strong hold on us, a stranglehold, that it’s like a person who can’t swim, who falls overboard in a raging sea, and he’s going under for the third time and only the tops of his fingers are still above the water; and unless someone intervenes to rescue him, he has no hope of survival, his death is certain. And unless God throws him a life preserver, he can’t possibly be rescued. And not only must God throw him a life preserver in the general vicinity of where he is, but that life preserver has to hit him right where his fingers are still extended out of the water, and hit him so that he can grasp hold of it. It has to be perfectly pitched. But still that man will drown unless he takes his fingers and curls them around the life preserver and God will rescue him. But unless that tiny little human action is done, he will surely perish.

The other analogy is this: A man is desperately ill, sick unto death, lying in his hospital bed with a disease that is fatal. There is no way he can be cured unless somebody from outside comes up with a cure, a medicine that will take care of this fatal disease. And God has the cure and walks into the room with the medicine. But the man is so weak he can’t even help himself to the medicine; God has to pour it on the spoon. The man is so sick he’s almost comatose. He can’t even open his mouth, and God has to lean over and open up his mouth for him. God has to bring the spoon to the man’s lips, but the man still has to swallow it.

Now, if we’re going to use analogies, let’s be accurate. The man isn’t going under for the third time; he is stone cold dead at the bottom of the ocean. That’s where you once were when you were dead in sin and trespasses and walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air. And while you were dead hath God quickened you together with Christ. God dove to the bottom of the sea and took that drowned corpse and breathed into it the breath of his life and raised you from the dead. And it’s not that you were dying in a hospital bed of a certain illness, but rather, when you were born you were born D.O.A. That’s what the Bible says: that we are morally stillborn.

Do we have a will? Yes, of course we have a will. Calvin said, if you mean by a free will a faculty of choosing by which you have the power within yourself to choose what you desire, then we all have free will. If you mean by free will the ability for fallen human beings to incline themselves and exercise that will to choose the things of God without the prior monergistic work of regeneration then, said Calvin, free will is far too grandiose a term to apply to a human being.

The semi-Pelagian doctrine of free will prevalent in the evangelical world today is a pagan view that denies the captivity of the human heart to sin. It underestimates the stranglehold that sin has upon us.

None of us wants to see things as bad as they really are. The biblical doctrine of human corruption is grim. We don’t hear the Apostle Paul say, “You know, it’s sad that we have such a thing as sin in the world; nobody’s perfect. But be of good cheer. We’re basically good.” Do you see that even a cursory reading of Scripture denies this?

Now back to Luther. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received? Or is it a condition of justification which is left to us to fulfill? Is your faith a work? Is it the one work that God leaves for you to do? I had a discussion with some folks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently. I was speaking on sola gratia, and one fellow was upset.

He said, “Are you trying to tell me that in the final analysis it’s God who either does or doesn’t sovereignly regenerate a heart?”

And I said, “Yes;” and he was very upset about that. I said, “Let me ask you this: are you a Christian?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Do you have friends who aren’t Christians?”

He said, “Well, of course.”

I said, “Why are you a Christian and your friends aren’t? Is it because you’re more righteous than they are?” He wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t going to say, “Of course it’s because I’m more righteous. I did the right thing and my friend didn’t.” He knew where I was going with that question.

And he said, “Oh, no, no, no.”

I said, “Tell me why. Is it because you are smarter than your friend?”

And he said, “No.”

But he would not agree that the final, decisive issue was the grace of God. He wouldn’t come to that. And after we discussed this for fifteen minutes, he said, “OK! I’ll say it. I’m a Christian because I did the right thing, I made the right response, and my friend didn’t.”

What was this person trusting in for his salvation? Not in his works in general, but in the one work that he performed. And he was a Protestant, an evangelical. But his view of salvation was no different from the Roman view.

God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

This is the issue: Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation, or is it in our own contribution to salvation? Is our salvation wholly of God or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves? Those who say the latter, that it ultimately depends on something we do for ourselves, thereby deny humanity’s utter helplessness in sin and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder then that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being, in principle, both a return to Rome because, in effect, it turned faith into a meritorious work, and a betrayal of the Reformation because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the reformers’ thought. Arminianism was indeed, in Reformed eyes, a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism. For to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle than to rely on oneself for works, and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. In the light of what Luther says to Erasmus there is no doubt that he would have endorsed this judgment.

And yet this view is the overwhelming majority report today in professing evangelical circles. And as long as semi-Pelagianism, which is simply a thinly veiled version of real Pelagianism at its core — as long as it prevails in the Church, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know, however, what will not happen: there will not be a new Reformation. Until we humble ourselves and understand that no man is an island and that no man has an island of righteousness, that we are utterly dependent upon the unmixed grace of God for our salvation, we will not begin to rest upon grace and rejoice in the greatness of God’s sovereignty, and we will not be rid of the pagan influence of humanism that exalts and puts man at the center of religion. Until that happens there will not be a new Reformation, because at the heart of Reformation teaching is the central place of the worship and gratitude given to God and God alone. Soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

 


Notes

1. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston, “Introduction” to the The Bondage of the Will (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957) pp. 59-60.

2. Ibid

Ordinary Excellence

What follows is an article from The White Horse Inn that introduces a short audio series about ‘ordinary’ Christianity. A link and instructions to find to the audio broadcasts are provided at the end of the article.

Ordinary Excellence

Sep.07, 2013 by Michael Horton in Blog Series, Ordinary

Far from throwing a wet blanket on godly passion, the goal of this WHI series is to encourage an orientation and habits that foster deeper growth in grace, more effective outreach, and a more sustainable vision of loving service to others over a lifetime.

But is “ordinary” a cop-out for mediocrity?  Is it a call to low expectations, failure, and passivity?  On the contrary, it’s a call to sustainable discipleship over the long haul not only throughout an individual’s life but also over generations.  It’s not a call to do less, but instead is a call to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return.

So, in order to get off on the right foot, I want to identify what we don’t meant by “ordinary.”  Too often, it’s seen as synonymous with nominal, mediocre, passive, disengaged—a cop-out for just not caring.  The very fact that “ordinary” now has these connotations underscores the shift in our cultural imagination.  It’s a shift that makes it difficult to nurture those values that actually sustain deep commitments, values that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

Many of us had parents who were wind beneath our wings.  They encouraged us to aim for the stars.  We can all recall a coach or teacher who believed in us when we weren’t so sure of ourselves.  People like that are worth their weight in gold.  We cannot live without drives, passions, and goals.  God wired us that way and pronounced it “good.”  Yet everything that the Bible identifies as sin, and that even our nature recognizes as such, is something essentially good gone wrong.  Or more precisely, something that God has made that we corrupt.  Augustine defined the essence of sin as being curved in on ourselves.  Instead of looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, we turn inward.  We use God’s good gifts as weapons in the service of our mutiny against him and each other.

A good example of this is the pursuit of excellence.  It is going over and beyond the call of duty, with God’s glory and our neighbor’s good as the goal.  But this virtue can easily become warped when it is centered on us.  Whether due to a lack of confidence or over-confidence, we focus on goals and our own measurable progress rather than on the end toward which we should aim.  When this happens, “standards of excellence”—at school, at work, in the church and in family life—become an idol.  We have a certain image of ourselves or of the persona that we would like to project and we guard it at all costs.

Obviously, excellence is not the problem; we are.  The question is whether by excellence we mean quality or quantity, hype or substance, perpetual novelty or maturity.  It has often been said that American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep.  If we were to measure excellence by God’s standards, the list might seem a little foreign and strange: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).  Not exactly the qualities that are mentioned in job postings for leaders these days.

I have to say—and it will not come as any surprise to anyone involved in ministry—that things don’t often seem different in the church.  Love, joy, and peace are often threatened less by doctrinal disputes than by selfish ambition.  Tribes gather around a charismatic figure and then the movement that they form exalts itself over other churches or movements that haven’t caught up with the spirit of the age.  The mutual submission of members in local churches through the oversight of pastors and elders is seen as a fetter on one’s unique and utterly personal relationship with God.  The New Testament vision of local churches (and their leaders) submitting themselves to others in broader assemblies of accountability for doctrine and life surrenders to the atmosphere of the marketplace and political campaigns.  Patience is threatened by restless devotion to the latest slogan, the emerging generation, or the newest church growth/personal growth/social transformation program.  Kindness and goodness have given way in large measure to a coarse and inhospitable rhetoric that would have been considered sinful by our forebears and socially inappropriate by their contemporaries.  Faithfulness is not likely to thrive in an environment of perpetual revolutions, self-expression, and makeovers.  And the mature qualities of gentleness and self-control are made subordinate, at least in practice, to the sort of reckless, visceral, and often ill-informed judgments that we once associated with adolescence.

Excellence is still a goal to which we strive.  That’s true of anyone who’s driven by a worthy prospect, cause, or calling.  But the goal will not only determine the means but also whatever we assume excellence to be in the first place.  Since our failures are liberally pardoned by a merciful Father in Christ, we can strive “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”  It is life not of fear, but of “endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:10-14).

White Horse Inn audio can be accessed at The White Horse Inn.  In the upper right corner of the home page you will see a  “Listen to WHI” section. There are about 10 WHI sessions listed. I think this is a 4-part series. The first was called “The Courage of the Ordinary”, broadcast Sep 1, and the second “Ordinary Excellence”, broadcast Sep 8. If you enjoy the weekly broadcasts you can subscribe to the WHI podcast just scroll down the page and click “Subscribe To Our Podcast” .

ENJOY!

Five Ways God Points Sinners to Christ

I’ve been listening to John MacArthur’s sermon series on the book of Acts as my homework for leading a Sunday morning Bible study through the same book. Listening to all of the sermons and taking notes better prepares me for the task and provides me with some helpful ‘additions’ to the broader study material, also John MacArthur’s.

One of the sermons provided a short list of ways God points sinners to Christ that I found helpful. Listed below are the points presented in the sermon, for your thoughtful consideration, followed by some personal thoughts concerning their application in our evangelistic efforts.

1. Knowledge

The miracles, signs and wonders at the hands of Jesus and the Apostles were signs that they were from God. The Jews knew that they were seeing with their own eyes that which only God could do. Some did the math and believed, but many did not.

One man, who was blind from birth, even reminded the Jewish leaders that only God could have healed him and even asked those rulers if they too wanted to become a disciples of Jesus. Sadly, I think they thought he was just being sarcastic. (See John 9)

Today we don’t have Christ among us, but we are given the same knowledge through the written New Testament.

2. Guilt

In the days following the birth of the Church at Pentecost, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem, accusing them of being guilty of their own Messiah’s death. 3,000 hearers responded with "what shall we do?" to Pater’s first sermon.

3. Sorrow

"Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death." – 2 Cor 7:10

The repentance of Peter for having denied Christ brought repentance and was ‘Godly’ sorrow. Judas’ sorrow for his betrayal was worldly sorrow that led to his suicide/hanging.

4. The goodness of God

"Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" – Rom 2:4

5. Judgment

"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." – Acts 17:30-31

As I consider these points, several things come to mind concerning their use in evangelism:

First of all, only one of them, knowledge, seems to not be connected with the issue of our ‘sin’ problem. The miracles and signs performed by Jesus and the Apostles were signs that the both of their ministries were of God. Only God could heal the sick and raise the dead. In the same manner, we can ‘make known’ the God of the Bible and the mighty deeds of Jesus and the Apostles in the early church. The Bible is our ‘source’ of information.

The remaining four; guilt, sorrow, the goodness of God and judgment speak of repentance, or turning. There are, I think, two aspects of repentance in view here – turning from sin and turning toward God. While both ‘turnings’ should need no explanation, turning toward God might have had special significance to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and the days of the early church. Those same religious leaders thought themselves already toward God, while Jesus told them they knew not the true God. Go back and review some of the hard things Jesus had to say to them concerning whom they really served.

That four out of five ways God points to Christ deal with man’s issue with sin should be hugely significant. As we share Christ with a lost world, if we don’t take the conversation to man’s biggest problem, we are failing in our mission. That doesn’t mean we ‘pound people over the head’ with it, but we have as a goal to ‘get to the bottom line’, as it were. We walk gently down that path, with great concern and much care. We can even encourage those to whom we share Christ to actually identify the problem themselves, with ‘creative’ dialogue and conversation!

We need to remember that salvation is a work of God, and we are only messengers. We also don’t know which of our five points God will use in any individual to bring him/her to Christ. We leave the ‘convicting’ of sin, righteousness and judgment to the Holy Spirit. However, we just need to be like the Apostle Paul, and ‘unashamed’ of the entirety of the gospel message we present.

Lastly (for now) we must always bathe our evangelistic efforts with prayer. We should pray daily that God will open hearts to receive the gospel message and seize the divine appointments God arranges for us. We should be praying as we share the gospel message, both for guidance in that sharing and for God’s revelation to the hearer. We should be continuously praying for those to whom we share the gospel as they grow in Christ whether or not we are part of that growth, since we know the enemy will try and destroy seed that was sown.

So much for my thoughts. I have a couple of questions. Of the five points we just discussed, which ones seem to be most prevalent in most of today’s evangelistic culture? Which ones, if any, are missing? What are we to do about it?

Brazilian ‘Evangelical’ Model Under Fire for Deciding to Appear on Playboy Cover

By Jessica Martinez, Christian Post

The Brazilian edition of Playboy magazine recently announced that a model who claims to be evangelical will be on the cover of its September issue.

Aline Franzoi, who belongs to National Mission Evangelical Church in Brazil, was already under fire for being a ring girl for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitions, which some consider to be a violent sport.  But now news of her upcoming Playboy cover adds additional oil to the heat she has received over her career choices.

According to her Facebook page, Franzoi responded in Portuguese yesterday to the recent backlash she has received over her decision to appear on Playboy.

"About the issue regarding my religion that came out in headlines saying I am ‘Evangelical,’ this will be the first and only time I will speak about it. I never wanted to link information about my religion and work since they are different areas," she wrote. "Journalists are the ones who link me with the title of ‘Evangelical, not Aline Franzoi’ but I’m sure everybody can differentiate it."

A Hispanic news site, Noticia Cristiana, reported that Franzoi told VIP, a Brazilian magazine, that she would not pose nude because she is evangelical. And prior to her most recent career controversy, Franzoi also told another Brazilian outlet, UOL, that she publicly displays her Christian faith in a bold manner.

"I’m evangelical and use my Facebook to tell how much God was and is powerful in my life. And, anyway, what’s wrong with being ring girl? It is very concerning to know what is right and wrong, but in my view, God looks at our heart and our intention."

But her recent Facebook statement makes it unclear whether she considers herself an evangelical or not, and whether her opinion of appearing nude has changed.

The founder of Actors, Models and Talent for Christ, a talent agency based in Georgia, finds Franzoi’s decision to appear in the men’s magazine disheartening.

"Because media covers our world, today’s Christian stars have an unprecedented opportunity to be positive role models. The Bible tells us to be imitators of Christ. We can’t be perfect, but if we’re truly following Jesus, He will perfect us," said Carey Lewis.

"I am saddened at the massive loss of innocence among our children, as well as the dramatic increase in human trafficking. Overt sexuality contributes to these tragedies. Actors, models and talent for Christ have a responsibility to set a better example," he added.

Although it is not clear whether Franzoi will pose nude or not for Playboy, her credibility as a Christian continues to be questioned.

"It’s difficult to be a model while practicing a legalistic religion like Evangelicals do. She should either leave her religion or leave her career," commented Artemio Degas, a reader on Noticia Cristiana.

"God does see your heart, he sees that it’s perverted," added another reader, Eliseo Flamenco.

____________________________________________

Sadly, I’ve run across professing Christians who would see nothing amiss here. Here’s a comment that reflects their mindset:

David danced before the Lord naked. Many prophets paraded around in loin clothes. We are all on our own personal journey to God. Who am I to question the mystery of God? Who knows but that her being in Playboy as a Christian witness will not reach a lost soul? No one can please everyone all of the time and the only one they need to focus on pleasing is God. She says she will not pose nude but even if she ends up being duped into it, I still believe that God can make all things work to the good for those who are called according to his purpose. My prayer is for Aline Franzoi to trust in the Lord with all her heart and to lean not upon her own understanding but in all her ways to acknowledge Him and He will direct her paths. In Jesus name, Amen.

The article itself is troubling enough, but above comment from someone named Karen, is too sad for words at the moment, although the young woman probably feels like she is somehow being ‘Christ like’ and loving. I cannot help but wonder from who/where she is receiving her teaching.

The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy A View from the Classroom – David R. Nienhuis

For well over twenty years now, Christian leaders have been lamenting the loss of general biblical literacy in America. No doubt you have read some of the same dire statistics that I have. Study after study demonstrates how nearly everyone in our land owns a Bible (more than one, in fact) but few ever take the time to read it, much less study it closely. Indeed, while the Exploring Religious America Survey of 2002 reports that over 84 percent of Americans consider the Bible to be "very" or "somewhat important" in helping them make decisions in life, recent Gallup polls tell us that only half can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third are able to identify the individual who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most aren’t even able to identify Genesis as the Bible’s opening text.

Upon hearing these figures (and many more are readily available), some among us may be tempted to seek odd solace in the recognition that our culture is increasingly post-Christian. Perhaps these general population studies are misplaced in holding secular people to Christian standards. Much to our embarrassment, however, it has become increasingly clear that the situation is really no better among confessing Christians, even those who claim to hold the Bible in high regard. Again, numerous studies are available for those seeking further reason to be depressed. In a 2004 Gallup study of over one thousand American teens, nearly 60 percent of those who self-identified as evangelical were not able to correctly identify Cain as the one who said, "Am I my brother’s keeper?" and over half could not identify either "Blessed are the poor in spirit" as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount or "the road to Damascus" as the place where Saul/Paul’s blinding vision occurred. In each of these questions, evangelical teens fared only slightly better than their non-evangelical counterparts.

These numbers serve to underscore the now widespread recognition that the Bible continues to hold pride of place as "America’s favorite unopened text" (to borrow David Gibson’s wonderful phrase), even among many Christians. As a professor of New Testament studies at Seattle Pacific University, I know this reality only too well. I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students–around 95 percent of them–are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover. Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel’s history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible’s larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text–even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for the current predicament. In general we spend far less time reading anything at all in this culture, much less dense and demanding books like the Bible. Not long ago I met with a student who was struggling in one of my courses. When I asked her what she thought the trouble was, she replied, in a tone suggesting ever so slightly that the fault was mine, "Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style." She went on to inform me that students today learned more by "watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another." She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.

Indeed, a good bit of the blame for the existing crisis has to fall at the feet of historic American evangelicalism itself. In his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero has drawn our attention to various religious shifts that took place as a result of the evangelistic Second Great Awakening that shook American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, key characteristics of which continue to typify contemporary evangelical attitudes. For instance, there was a shift from learning to feeling, as revivalists of the period emphasized a heartfelt and unmediated experience of Jesus himself over religious education. While this strategy resulted in increased conversions and the creation of numerous popular nondenominational voluntary associations, it also had the effect of requiring Christians to agree to disagree when it came to doctrinal matters. There was a corresponding shift from the Bible to Jesus, as more and more Christians came to believe that the key test of Christian faithfulness was not the affirmation of a creed or catechism, or knowledge of the biblical text, but the capacity to claim an emotional relationship with what Prothero calls "an astonishingly malleable Jesus–an American Jesus buffeted here and there by the shifting winds of the nation’s social and cultural preoccupations."

The most important shift, according to Prothero, was the shift from theology to morality. The nondenominationalist trend among Protestants tended to avoid doctrinal conflicts by searching for agreements in the moral realm. Christian socialists, such as Charles Sheldon, taught us to ask not "What does the Bible say?" but "What would Jesus do?" Advocates of the Social Gospel, such as Walter Rauschenbusch, taught that it was more important to care for the poor than to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential "seekers" shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

Is it any wonder that Christian youth have had little option but to default to thin, pop-cultural platitudes in their attempts to make sense of their faith? In the largest study to date of the religious lives of American youth, the National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton found that though American teens are generally quite happy to follow the faith of their parents, the de facto religion they practice is best characterized as a kind of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, they describe MTD as a vaguely Christian set of convictions that result in a view of God as a divine butler-therapist figure. The majority of teens interviewed reflected the belief that God is primarily concerned with making people happy, bailing them out when they get in trouble, and providing them with the necessary goods to enjoy life. Apart from these activities, God is uninvolved in the world. In other words, God is basically a nice, permissive dad with a big wallet.

These same teens could be profoundly articulate about drinking, drugs, and sexually transmitted diseases, but were generally stumped when asked to talk about their faith. "Most U.S. teens have a difficult to impossible time explaining what they believe, what it means, and what the implications of their beliefs are for their lives," Smith and Denton report. There is more at stake here than a lack of basic biblical and theological knowledge, of course. The authors go on to say:

Philosophers like Charles Taylor argue that inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. So, for instance, religious faith, practice, and commitment can be no more than vaguely real when people cannot talk much about them. Articulacy fosters reality. A major challenge for religious educators of youth, therefore, seems to be fostering articulation: helping teens practice talking about their faith, providing practice using vocabularies, grammar, stories, and key messages of faith. Especially to the extent that the language of faith in American culture is becoming a foreign language, educators, like real foreign language teachers, have that much more to work at helping their students learn to practice speaking that other language of faith.

Inarticulacy undermines the possibilities of reality. If Smith and Denton are correct in their analysis (and I think they are), then it means that even those teens who are able to answer isolated Bible knowledge questions will not automatically be enabled to make the biblical story a constitutive element of their daily existence. Knowing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem will not in and of itself empower them to speak the language of faith. Satan’s use of Scripture in tempting Jesus is clear indication that a merely cognitive level of biblical literacy does not automatically result in the formation of a Christian character.

To make a real difference in people’s lives, biblical literacy programs will have to do more than simply encourage believers to memorize a select set of Bible verses. They will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them. As Paulo Freire reminded us, literacy enables us to read both the word and the world. Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn’t simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world. Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers.

This is part of what I find troubling about what appears to be the dominant model of biblical literacy employed among evangelicals in their attempts to raise children of faith. This approach emphasizes the memorization of discrete Bible verses and "facts," mostly in the service of evangelism and apologetics. By mastery of passages that are deemed doctrinally relevant and emotionally empowering, it is hoped that believing youth will be equipped to own their faith, share it with seekers, and defend it against detractors. Most of the students in my classes who consider themselves "familiar with the Bible" have been trained to approach Scripture in this fashion.

Before I go on, let me be clear that I have a deep respect for the venerable and immensely valuable tradition of memorizing Scripture. Indeed, it is a central component in learning the language of faith. The deliberate, disciplined, prayerful repetition of those texts the church has come to especially value has long been a strategy for inscribing the Word of God directly on the heart and mind of the believer (Jer. 31:31-34). My comments thus far, however, should make it plain that I do not see how a person trained to quote texts out of context can truly be called biblically literate.

I observe two common problems with students who have become "familiar with the Bible" in this way. First, many of them struggle to actually read the text as it is presented to them on the page. Just last week, several of my Bible survey students expressed their surprise and disappointment that "years of church attendance and AWANA Bible memory competitions" never trained them to engage the actual text of the Bible. They weren’t trained to be readers; they were trained to be quoters. One in particular noted that all these years she had relied on someone else to tell her what snippets of the Bible were significant enough for her to know. But whenever she was alone with the text, she felt swamped by its staggering depth and breadth; so if she read the Bible at all, her method typically involved skimming the Scriptures in search of the passages she already knew and loved. This method of "reading" (if it can be called that) is seriously limited, if not dangerous, because it reduces the Bible to a grab-bag repository of texts that reaffirms the reader’s prior commitments.

Second, this method leads students to uncritically assume that doctrinal reflection is exhausted by the capacity to quote a much-loved proof-text. In doing this they suppose not only that the passage they are quoting is entirely perspicuous as it stands (in complete isolation from its literary and historical context), but also that the cited text is capable of performing as a summary of the entire biblical witness on the matter at hand. In this they are sometimes led to uncritically conclude that Christians who believe differently from them are either incompetent or willfully disobedient. They are therefore often surprised (and occasionally profoundly demoralized) when they read the verse in its actual literary context and discover that the meaning they had come to invest in it is not completely commensurate with the plain sense of the text on the page. Those of my students who are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast") are sometimes shocked to read the subsequent verse 10 ("For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life"). Those who have memorized Romans 10:9 ("If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved") are often horrified to read Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21 ("Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"). In fact it requires both a far more substantive grasp of Scripture and a capacity for careful doctrinal reflection to know how to negotiate the rich plenitude of the biblical witness. Unfortunately my students’ encounter with the Bible’s depth and breadth often leaves those who have been raised to quote verses feeling very insecure in their faith.

So what then shall we do? What is biblical literacy? Coming to an agreed-upon definition is itself part of the problem. I think all would agree that, at base, it involves a more detailed understanding of the Bible’s actual content. This requires: (1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular "orienteering" skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints. The survey courses we teach at SPU seek to do these very things. But in the end we want to do more than fill believing heads with objective knowledge about the Bible; we want to empower our whole community–students, faculty, and staff–to buck the cultural trends and take up the spiritual discipline of reading Scripture. It is not enough for a Christian university to function as an outpost of the academy; it must also take up the task of serving the church by becoming an abbey for spiritual growth and an apostolate for cultural change. Through our newly established Center for Biblical and Theological Education, we are working to create a reading program–a lectionary of sorts–that will contribute to the formation of readers who come to cherish a relationship not with the "astonishingly malleable Jesus" of American culture, but with the particular God whose story is related in the Bible and celebrated in the Christian church. We want to create a community ethos of habitual, orderly, communal ingestion of the revelatory text. We do so in the hope that the Spirit of God will transform readers into hearers who know what it is to abide before the mirror of the Word long enough to become enscripturated doers; that is, people of faith who are adept at interpreting their individual stories and those of their culture through the grand story of God as it is made known in the Bible.


1  Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn’t (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 111.
2  Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 268.

David R. Nienhuis (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is associate professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University and interim director of SPU’s Center for Biblical and Theological Education. He is the author of Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon (Baylor University Press, 2007).

Issue: "Recovering Scripture" Jan./Feb. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 1 Page number(s): 10-13, 17

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Young Earth Creationism, Faith, and a Few Random Thoughts

The teaching of young earth creationism (YEC) to Christian kids in homeschooled environments causes many of them to doubt or lose their faith, especially if YEC is taught as being foundational to our faith. The blog posited that YEC was taught as a primary ‘salvation’ issue – that Heaven or Hell depends on it.

That was the major theme of a ‘Christian’ blog post I found recently. I actually joined the discussion. I learned some amazing things!

Part of the initial post discussed a research project in 1997 that was conducted by a half dozen PhDs of various sorts to study the age of the earth. It seems they were proponents of YEC and resourced other YEC proponents in their study. Because they didn’t use resources ‘outside’ the YEC camp, their work was just a lot of circular reasoning. That caused a young lady to begin to doubt her faith and she has never recovered.

There were other accounts in the comments section saying the same thing; that the teaching of YEC cause some to doubt/lose their faith, nearly all because of having been taught in a homeschooled environment that believing in YEC was a salvation/gospel issue, as if one could lose his/her faith if they didn’t believe in YEC. .

While I can understand why exposure to ‘Evolution as fact’ in school/college venues might cause some doubt (and it does), I couldn’t understand why exposure to YEC would cause anyone to doubt their faith. At the same time, I assumed that the subject of young people doubting/losing their faith might be an important one to address in response.

Therefore, I initially responded that I didn’t think that genuine faith would never tossed out the window, that one having doubts would not completely abandon their faith; because it was a gift from God and whom God saves He keeps by his power. That was considered off topic and one of those nasty Calvinism things.

I decided to bring it down a level and suggest that there might be an issue of not being solidly grounded in the faith once professed for these young people who doubt/abandon their faith. That lack of grounding. might come from a lack of individual Bible reading/study, or having sat under good Bible teaching. Well, That idea completely flabbergasted the site host, who thought the things I was suggesting as causes for doubting one’s faith were ‘works-based’ It took awhile to process that one! How else do we become stronger in our faith without being immersed in sound Biblically teaching?

After a couple more back-and-forth exchanges I think I finally got it – the prevailing ‘theology’ of the majority of this particular group of bloggers. They seem to be into the ‘just me and Jesus – don’t really need anything else’ demographic that is rather large these days. We just need our ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus and we can dispense with old dead guys/creeds/ and the foundational truths that we’ve been told are significant for our spiritual growth and maturity. Focusing on our ‘relationship’ is not works based like studying the Bible and therefore it’s the ‘relationship’ that’s ‘ real faith.

I never did get to the point of suggesting that I don’t know of any advocates of young earth creationism that would tell anyone that their very salvation depended on believing in a young earth, including the founders of Answers In Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. What I did suggest, to no avail, was that the bigger issue at stake is the inerrancy and authority of scripture, and that the young v. old earth debate really points to that bigger issue. I did that while presenting the main issues that were addressed during the rise of the fundamentalist movement in America in the early 20th century, which had already been soundly bashed (fundamentalisms). That didn’t go well, maybe because believing in a young earth as essential for salvation wasn’t on the list.

So here I sit on a Sunday morning, still wondering just how far the ‘me and Jesus’ mantra has spread and just how badly young believers today have been deceived by other ‘Christians’ and are victims of very real ‘spiritual abuse’. How does any believer end up in the ‘me and Jesus is all we need’ camp? Maybe I’m just getting old, but for a lot of years now, my ‘relationship’ with my Savior has deepened through being immersed in His written word, and just believing it’s true going in. There are other things that have also helped deepen the relationship – studying church history and the creeds and thoughts of dead guys (and some living), but those are only secondary to being personally immersed in the written word.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Tim 3:16-17

If I don’t believe in the inspiration, inerrancy and authority of scripture, I might as well toss my faith out the door. Wasn’t the first lie that the serpent told Eve “Did God really say……?”

So much for Sunday morning thoughts. This was more for my own clarity than trying to actually teach anyone anything. I had to wade through over a hundred comments that were all over the map, but mostly bashing fundamentalism, homeschooling, John Calvin and anyone who says that that when and how God created our planet impacts our ‘salvation theology’ (although they wouldn’t use the word ‘theology’ – too many syllables and who needs it?)

Thanks for being patient in reading my ramblings. If you have any thoughts, please share. If you are reading and from the above referenced blog site, feel free to share, but not if you are just importing your ‘bashing’. Intelligent, thoughtful discussion is always welcome here.

The Berean Principle and/or The Voices in our Heads

“Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” – Acts 17:11(ESV)

In the above passage, a group of believing Jews in the town of Berea were commended for their practice of listening to the preaching of the Apostle Paul and them examining what he said under the light of the Scriptures they had available to them, to see if what Paul had spoken was true. In other words, for these Berean Jews the written scriptures were the final arbiter of what was true and what was not, when it came to listening to preaching.

What I don’t see anywhere in the New Testament is any instance of, or license to listen to little voices in our heads. We do however, hear some evangelical leaders tell us we can, and even need to recognize God’s still small voice when he speaks to us, because he still communicates to his people with whisperings and through the natural senses in ways unique to them individually.

This phenomena doesn’t come to us just from some of the ‘interesting’ folks on TBN and God TV, it also comes from some notable and popular evangelicals. It is not my intent here to get into ‘names’, but only to ask, "Why?"

I’m not asking however, why the ‘pseudo-prophets’, self proclaimed ‘Apostles’, and even the prominent evangelicals personally justify the practice of listening to little voices in our heads, I know their reasons, including the alleged scriptural support from passages of scripture taken out of the context of the Bible. What I am asking is "Why listen to and trust little voices in our heads, period.

OK, this is where I need to shift into the 1st personal singular so nobody ‘feels’ judged (I’m learning). Here goes.

How can I ever be absolutely, positively, 100% certain that that ‘still small voice’ IS God, even after I’ve followed all of the ‘training manuals’ from the Christian bookstores and/or CD’s and DVD’s I can buy from TBN and God TV? I don’t know about you, but I know I just can’t, and here’s why.

Although I am a blood bought, adopted into the family, child of God, there still remains in me a heart that can be very deceitful, sinful desires and passions, as well as ‘itching ears’. There’s scripture that tells me all of that, but I won’t quote them here, because someone might think I think I know it all or ‘feel’ judged. (1st personal singular – remember?)

So. . .because I can’t ever be absolutely, positively, 100% certain that that ‘still small voice’ IS God, I would still need to apply the Berean Principle and check it out in the Scriptures. And if I still need to do that, why not just forget about little voices in my head and take everything straight to the source?

But that’s just me and somewhat of a DUHHHHHHH moment indeed. If you have somehow reached a state of heart and mind that is somehow completely pure and immune to deception (you have perfect voice recognition software installed in your brain housing group, good on ya!

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Food for thought early on a Thursday morning (in Colorado that is). Have a great day and please don’t feel judged.