Saturday, March 21, 2009

Is The Reformation Over?

Ask a Protestant today what is the biggest threat to the orthodox Christianity today, and he might tell you The Da Vinci Code, pluralism, or Islam. But if you would have asked an American Protestant the same question a hundred years ago, he would have almost certainly mentioned the Roman Catholic Church. Until fairly recently, maybe 50 years or so, Protestant and Catholics in this country were, if not enemies, then certainly players on opposing teams.

Today, much of that animosity has melted away. And to a large extent, the thaw between Protestants and Catholics has been a good thing. Protestants and Catholics have found themselves to be co-belligerents in the culture war, defending the unborn, upholding traditional marriage, and combating moral relativism and secular humanism. And in an age which discounts doctrine, evangelical Protestants often share more in common theologically with a devout Roman Catholic steeped in historic orthodoxy than they do with liberal members of their own denominations. I personally have benefited from Catholic authors like G.K. Chesterton and Richard John Neuhaus, and often respect the Catholic church for taking courageous, unpopular stands on moral issues.

Still, Protestants and Catholics are not quite singing from the same page, at least if they understand their official notes they are supposed to be singing (which is a big if). Although I can affirm many good things about Rome and can call many Catholics my brothers and sisters, there remain a number of important doctrinal differences, significant enough that I would hate to say the “Reformation is over” (to borrow a phrase from a recent book) and the old walls have all been torn down.

Below are a number of areas of Catholic teaching that seem unscriptural to me. By “Catholic teaching” I mean that which the Roman Catholic church officially affirms in its councils or catechisms (all of my quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church). No doubt, many Roman Catholics don’t actually believe (or even know) what Catholic theology states (a sad state of affairs that is no different in the evangelical church). I am only dealing, however, with official church documents, not with the understanding of individual Catholics. Catholics in this country are often more Protestant than official church teaching, while Catholics in other countries are often more superstitious and syncretistic.

For the most part, I'll just point out the difference rather than mount a case for the Protestant understanding of things. The questions I get as a pastor in a Reformed church are not usually along the lines of "Why is Catholicism wrong?" but "How is it different?"

The Church
Since Vatican II, the Catholic church has softened its stance toward Protestants, calling them “estranged brothers.” Nevertheless, to be a part of the church in its fullness one must be immersed in the Roman Catholic system of sacraments, orders, and under the authority of the Pope. “Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who...are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules here through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops.” Further, the Pope is considered infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (from the chair); that is, when he makes official doctrinal pronouncements. The Catholic church also has seven sacraments instead of two–Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper) and baptism like Protestants, and then penance, holy orders, marriage, confirmation, and last rites.

Catholics have a larger biblical canon. In addition to the 66 books in the Protestant Bible, Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha, with books like Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccebees, Sirach, and Baruch. Catholic teaching also elevates Tradition more than Protestants do. Granted, many evangelicals suffer from ignoring tradition and the wisdom of the past. But Catholic theology goes beyond just respecting the past; it sacralizes it. “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence,” states the Catechism. Likewise, the Magisterium has the authority to make definitive interpretations. “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching, office of the Church the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.”

Lord’s Supper
Central to the Catholic faith is the Mass (their worship service). Central to the Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist. Catholics believe that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the actual, physical body and blood of Jesus Christ. The elements are offered as a sacrifice from the church and a sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. This is not simply a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, but the same atoning work: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice...the sacrifice [of the Eucharist] is truly propitiatory.”

Catholics teach that “justification is conferred in Baptism.” The waters of baptism wash away original sin and join us with Christ. Baptism is not merely a sign and seal of grace, but actually confers saving grace.

Mary is not only the Mother of Christ, but the Mother of the Church. She was conceived without original sin (the immaculate conception) and at the end of her earthly life “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over al things” (assumption). She intercedes for the church, “continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation,” and is “a mother to us in the order of grace.” Mary was more than just the faith-filled mother of Jesus: “The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.”

Those who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are assured of eternal life, but must first undergo purification in purgatory. Because of the presence of this intermediate state, the Catholic church has developed the practice of prayer for the dead. “The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead.” Concerning the salvation of those who do not hear the gospel, the Catholic Catechism states “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience–those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

It is not really fair to say “Catholics teach that you can earn your salvation.” That may be what many Catholics believe, but the official teaching of Rome is more nuanced, but still troubling. The Catechism summarizes: “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no once can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”

Catholic teaching rejects the Protestant understanding of imputed righteousness. The question is this: is the righteousness whereby we are forgiven and made right with God a righteousness working in us or a righteousness reckoned to our account? Catholics say the former, Protestants the latter. The difference is between infused and imputed righteousness–infused righteousness is like having $100 in cold hard cash in your actual possession, imputed righteousness is like having $100 wired to your account. According to Catholic teaching, justification is more than God’s declaration of our righteousness based on Christ’s work, it is also a renewal of the inner man and reconciliation with God. Of course, these are good things too, but Catholics make them present in and through justification, rather than by faith alone. The Council of Trent, from the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation, declares: “If anyone says, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of grace and charity that is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God: let him be anathema.”

Can Catholics and Protestants be friends? Sure. Are they brothers and sisters in Christ? Often. Are they still divided by significant doctrinal distinctives? Absolutely.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Truths that Transform, Doctrines that Damn (4)

What conclusions can we draw from our few days in the Pastoral Epistles?

First off, we see that anyone who says they have a church with no doctrinal center does not have a Christian church.

Second, we see that the early church believed orthodoxy was very important, and it was more than just living the right way, it involved holding certain truths about God, Christ, and salvation.

Third, we see that orthodoxy is not a moving target. There is no indication that Paul wanted his young pastors to repaint the Christian faith for a new generation. On the contrary, there is every indication that he wanted the apostolic deposit of truth to be passed on untouched and uncorrupted.

Fourth, we see that this apostolic message was to be declared boldly and confidently, and anyone who preached a different message or led others away from this core message were to be gently opposed and strongly rebuked (somehow, I guess, we can gently oppose and strongly rebuke at the same time).

Fifth, and more to the point of this series of blog posts, we see what the essentials of the faith looked like. The gospel message that Paul preached and expected all Christian to adhere to looked something like this: God is glorious; we are sinners; and Jesus Christ is our Savior and God. Jesus Christ is the son of David and God in the flesh; he died and rose again; he ascended into heaven; he is coming again. Salvation is by sovereign grace, according to the converting power of the Holy Spirit, through faith, not according to works. Jesus Christ saves us from sin, saves us for eternal life, and saves us unto holiness.

This is the gospel of the early church. It is rooted in Scripture. It is not to be deviated from. And it must be proclaimed confidently by anyone who would lay claim to apostolic authority in his ministry.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is everything that is essential to Christianity. But surely, these are essentials. Surely, this core of apostolic truth must be enthusiastically affirmed.
It is not enough to exhort people to live like Jesus. Clearly, the apostolic message exhorted people to live godly lives, but only in conjunction with a robust message about sin, salvation, incarnation, resurrection, atonement, reconciliation, and eternal life. Any gospel which denies these essentials, or ignores them, or skips over them to get to something else, or leads people to doubt them, or does not deal straightforwardly with them is, in effect, a different gospel.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Truths that Transform, Doctrines that Damn (3)

We’ve been taking some time to work through the Pastoral Epistles, looking for the elements that Paul considered essential to the apostolic gospel. Yesterday we looked at two categories of passages that instruct in this regard. Today we’ll look at the other two passages, and then tomorrow I’ll finish up with some summary comments.

3. Doctrines Associated with False Teaching

We get a sense for the essentials of early Christian faith by paying attention to the sort of teachings that Paul considered most dangerous.

• 1 Timothy 1.8-11 “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

• 1 Timothy 4.1-3 “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”

• 2 Timothy 2.18 “[Hymenaeus and Philetus] have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.”

• Titus 1.16 “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.”

As we’ve already seen, one way to leave the gospel behind is to deny its power to change lives. This is why the issue of homosexuality is so important in our day. False teachers are leading people to perdition by calling darkness light, and insisting that unchecked sin is consistent with the gospel. Clearly, for Paul, living an ungodly life was contrary to the sort of sound doctrine that defined the Christian. On the other side of the spectrum, ascetic legalism is also a false doctrine, as is an over-realized eschatology that claims the resurrection of the dead has already taken place.

4. Truths Associated with the Gospel and Sound Doctrine

Finally, we get a glimpse of the essentials of the faith by noting what beliefs are explicitly linked with the gospel and sound doctrine.

• 2 Timothy 1:8-10 “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

• 2 Timothy 2:8 “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, offspring of David, as preached in my gospel.”

• 2 Timothy 3:14-17 “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.”

Sound doctrine is determined by our fidelity to Scripture. That’s why Paul contrasts (i.e., But as for you...) the false teachers who have wandered from the truth with Timothy who should continue in what he has learned about faith in Christ Jesus from the sacred writings. We see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of David, is crucial to Paul’s gospel. Most importantly, 2 Timothy 1:8-10 gives us an extended accounting of the gospel, what Paul will call “the pattern of sound words” and “the good deposit” in the verses that follow. The gospel is the message about Jesus Christ who gave us grace before the beginning of time and saved us to good works and immortality because of the grace he gave us, not according to works, but in accordance with his own eternal purposes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Truths that Transform, Doctrines that Damn (2)

I finished yesterday’s post by saying, “There are four categories of passages in the Pastoral Epistles that give us a sense for what Paul considered the core of apostolic doctrine.” Today we’ll look at the first two categories.

1. The Trustworthy Sayings

There are five “trustworthy sayings” in the pastoral epistles. These sayings were probably early confessions and/or liturgical formulas. As such, they provide us clues as to the essential articles of faith in the early church.

• 1 Timothy 1:15 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus cam into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

• 1 Timothy 3:1 “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”

• 1 Timothy 4:9-10 “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

• 2 Timothy 2:11-13 “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.”

• Titus 3:4-8 “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.”

What do we see in these trustworthy sayings? With the exception of 1 Timothy 3:1, they all deal with salvation (and 1 Tim. 3:1 deals with salvation if, as some scholars think, the trustworthy saying refers to what precedes it in 2:15 instead of what follows it in verse 1). We see several interlocking truths in these sayings: Jesus Christ is a Savior who came to save sinners. Salvations comes not by works but through faith and the converting work of the Holy Spirit. Those who truly believe will devote themselves to good works. Those who will saved in the end, persevere to the end. These convictions seem to be essential to Paul.

2. Creedal Sayings

There are other passages, not introduced as “trustworthy saying”, that nevertheless sound like early creedal formulations.

• 1 Timothy 1:17 “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

• 1 Timothy 2:5 “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

• 1 Timothy 3:16 “Great indeed we confess is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

• 1 Timothy 6:15-16 “...he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality; who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no on has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

• Titus 2:11-15 “For the grace of God has appeared, bring salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.”

With these verses we get an even better sense of what constitutes the good deposit. There is one God and he is unspeakably glorious. There is one mediator, Jesus Christ who gave his life for ours. Jesus, our great God and Savior, appeared in the flesh and ascended into heaven after a time on earth. His coming again is our blessed hope. We have been saved by the grace of God that we might be free from our former passions and live holy lives. These beliefs form the nucleus of Paul’s message.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the other two groups of passages.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Truths that Transform, Doctrines that Damn (1)

If you read this blog even semi-regularly you know that I have been thinking a lot about unity and truth. In particular, after blogging through Lloyd-Jones, I have been thinking about what are the essentials of our faith. We all have our list of essentials, and Christians will probably never completely agree on which issues belong on this list. But, even if that’s the case, we aren’t completely in the dark. The Bible isn’t totally silent on the issue.

In particular, the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) talk a lot about the importance of right doctrine and give us some indication of which doctrines matter most.

Theology Matters
Paul tells Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). He warns against false teachers who have swerved from the truth and don’t really understand what they are so confidently asserting (1 Tim. 1:6-7; see also 6:3-4, 20-21; 2 Tim. 3:7; Titus 1:16). According to Paul, these false teachers have made shipwreck of the faith (1 Tim. 1:19-20) and departed from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). They are opposed to the truth, corrupt in mind, and disqualified regarding the faith (2 Tim. 3:8). Their teaching “will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:16-17).

The importance of doctrine for pastoral ministry cannot be overstated, and anyone who says doctrine doesn’t matter is not paying attention to the Bible. Timothy is enjoined repeatedly to guard the deposit of apostolic truth entrusted to him (1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:13, 14) and pass it on to others (2 Tim. 2:1-2). He must keep a close watch on his life and his teaching, so that he may be saved and his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). As the Lord’s servant, Timothy must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2), correct his opponents with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:25), reprove, rebuke, and exhort from the Scriptures (2 Tim. 4:2; 3:16). In short, he must be “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9, 13). Church people will not always endure sound teaching, but that’s what they desperately need (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Clearly, then, for the Apostle Paul, there is a core of apostolic teaching that must be embraced by the Christian, a deposit of truth without which our gospel message is no longer the gospel. Anyone who departs from these truths, Paul argues, has departed from the faith and is no longer a Christian.

Theology Matters, But Not Always
So what are these truths? This is the crucial question, because Paul is just as clear that not every debate is worthwhile. Not every piece of knowledge is profitable. Timothy is supposed to steadfastly avoid myths and endless genealogies, which do not build up the faith but only promote speculation (1 Tim. 1:4; cf. 4:7). It is possible to have an “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words” (1 Tim. 6:4; cf. 2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 1:14). Such a person is warped and sinful (Titus 3:9-10).

So, on the one hand, we are to avoid pointless controversies. But on the other hand, many controversies have a point. Some truths are essential. There is a core of apostolic truth that we must embrace if we are to be Christian. And the Pastoral Epistles give a pretty good sketch of what (at minimum) this core of truth includes.

The Core
There are four categories of passages in the Pastoral Epistles that give us a sense for what Paul considered the core of apostolic doctrine. We’ll look at the first two categories tomorrow (I know, I know, the suspense is killing you).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tullian Tchividjian named Senior Pastor at Coral Ridge

This is good news for Tullian, for Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, for New City Presbyterian Church, and for the work of Christ in South Florida and beyond.

Read the official press release here.

Monday Morning Humor

This is very funny, and true.

This is very, very funny, and also true (HT: Joshua Harris).

And this is a classic Mr. Bean clip.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Why Johnny Can't Preach (2)

My favorite chapter in T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach is Chapter 4: "A Few Thoughts About Content." After wrestling with the nature of preaching for 25 years, Gordon has concluded that the content of Christian preaching should be the person, character, and work of Christ. Kind of makes sense. Of course, preaching will included moral exhortation, but it is never appropriate, says Gordon, “for one word of moral counsel ever to proceed from a Christian pulpit that is not clearly, in its context, redemptive. That is, even when the faithful exposition of particular texts require some explanation of aspects of our behavior, it is always to be done in a manner that the hearer perceives such commended behavior to be itself a matter of being rescued from the power of sin through the grace of Christ” (70-71). So much for all our “relevant” messages helping us live more fulfilled lives. So much for emergent kingdom rhetoric that fails to mention the mercy of the King. So much for more than a few of my sermons over the years.

Gordon sees four alternatives to this type of gospel preaching: Moralism, How-To, Introspection, and Social Gospel/Culture War. That is, instead of preaching Christ crucified and the grace of God, we end up preaching “be better” or “here are three steps to being better” or “are you really a Christian?” or “we need to do more to fight the bad guys out there.” It’s not that we can’t do any of this as preachers--Gordon says there is a place for three of the four (everything but the how-to)--but “the pulpit is almost never the place to do this” (91). What must predominate in our preaching is the person, character, and work of Christ. And everything else should manifestly flow from these things. Don't leave the congregation wondering where grace come in to play. Don't make them assume you are rooting this application in the person and work of Christ. Connect the glorious dots for them.

Gordon concludes his much-needed rant with some practical advice on how to teach Johnny to preach.

1. Arrange for an annual review. Most pastors don’t know how bad they preach because they’ve never asked anyone and no one has felt bold enough to tell him the truth.

2. Cultivate the sensibility of reading texts closely. Read literature. Try poetry. Read things that are written well and demand careful thought.

3. Cultivate the sensibility of composed communication. Write letters out by hand. Write out your prayers. And I would add, if you blog, don't settle for sloppy or merely serviceable prose. Try to write well, rather than just writing.

Despite the passion of his lamentation, Gordon asserts time after time that all is not lost. Johnny can learn to preach. But he needs to cultivate the sensibilities to do it. And the congregation needs to give him enough time, or make him take enough time, to craft a sermon that actually deserves to be preached.

The rebuke for us preachers is a good jab, because there’s hope in the rebuke. We don’t need to give up on preaching, or ourselves. We simply need God's grace to work harder at preaching better and extra grace to live slower, more reflective lives. God will honor his Word when it is thoughtfully, carefully, and humbly delivered. We can trust the Word to do the work. “My challenge to the comtemporaneists and emergents”, says Gordon, “is this: Show me a church where the preaching is good, and yet the church is still moribund. I’ve never seen such a church. The moribund churches I’ve seen have been malpreached to death” (33).

Alright men–time to preach them back to life. Heaven help us.