How did we get here?

Michael S. Horton
Tuesday, January 2nd 2007
Jan/Feb 2007

"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." In this famous and more than slightly scolding description of Protestant liberalism in the 1950s, Yale's H. Richard Niebuhr actually put his finger on the perennial heresy of the human heart since humanity's fall in Adam. In this article, I will lay out in very broad terms the rationale for the theme we have chosen for 2007: "A Time for Truth."

The Glory Story: Why Pelagianism Always Makes Sense

A British monk named Pelagius arrived in Rome and set about to initiate a widespread moral clean-up operation. Augustine, a North African bishop of great standing in the church, stood in his path. Hardly uninterested in holiness, Augustine himself had been set free from a licentious life. Nevertheless, he knew that the power of that liberation was the gospel of God's free grace. By the time the fracas was over, Pelagianism, with its denial of original sin and rigorous demand that people save themselves by following Christ's moral example, was condemned by more church councils than any heresy in church history. Nevertheless, it has remained the most constant threat to the gospel. Why does it keep growing back so quickly right after it has been cut down? Because Pelagianism just makes sense to us. It's the "glory story."

Following Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, which was following Romans 10 and 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, the Reformation contrasted the theology of glory with theology of the cross. As Gerhard Forde nicely summarized,

The most common overarching story we tell about ourselves is what we will call the glory story. We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed-whether by design or accident we don't quite know-but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on "the glory road." The story is told in countless variations. Usually the subject of the story is "the soul." … The basic scheme is what Paul Ricoeur has called "the myth of the exiled soul."

While, as a monk, Luther had spent his days trying to ascend to God through mystical contemplation, speculation, and merit, his preparations for class lectures on the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans finally led to his discovery that we don't find God, but that he finds us. Finding us, God delivers the gospel, creating faith through it by the Spirit, justifies us on the basis of Christ's righteousness. In the "marvelous exchange," our sin (both original and actual) is imputed to Christ and Christ's righteousness is imputed to us.

The gospel therefore cuts the glory story off at the pass. While "the righteousness that is by works" sets itself to the task of ascending to Christ, "the righteousness that is by faith" receives Christ as he has descended to us and as he continues to accommodate to our weakness by sending a preacher to tell us the good news (Rom. 10:1-17).

The world in bondage to sin will always understand the glory story. It will always make sense when religion talks about ethics, civics, and wisdom for daily living. Children of Adam are always looking for yet another map to help them find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. How to Have Success-whether in personal, family, or public life-will always gather a worldly crowd. Talk about religion as suggestions for practical living, as a source of moral virtue and social activism, and as the fountain of health, wealth, and happiness, and the world is only too happy to see if there is something there that can be usefully added to the mix of personal therapies. The place for God in the glory story is life coach, and even the proudest souls can concede a need for this kind of assistance.

On the other hand, the story of the cross is "foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18). After all, "Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jew a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (vv. 22-25).

In the remainder of this article, I want to take up Paul's contrast in the light of his comments about the specific "felt needs" of the Jews and Greeks of his day. First of all, the fascination of Jews with signs and wonders made sense. God had given Israel numerous signs pointing forward to the Messiah and, understandably, people were wondering when they would be fulfilled. Israel was in a holding pattern, mistakenly thinking that the Messiah and his kingdom would come by the earnest moral effort and preparation of the people. But the signs were there merely to point to the person whom they signified. Jesus proclaimed himself the Light, but few accepted the Light. He healed on the Sabbath and then announced himself as the promised rest. The point of Lazarus' resurrection was his public declaration that he was the Resurrection and the Life. Yet the signs did not create faith. Apart from faith, the signs could only lead to a false dependency on immediate spectacle and instant gratification. No wonder Jesus concluded that "a wicked and adulterous generation seeks after signs" (Matt. 12:39).

A classic example of this sign-signified pattern is found in the miraculous provision of fish and loaves, culminating in Jesus' announcement that he is the Bread of Life who came from heaven. In John 6, after having provided the fish and loaves, the crowd follows Jesus and his disciples to the other side of the lake. Yet instead of using a bait-and-switch church growth technique (get them in with glory and then get around to the cross if you can), Jesus immediately offers his "hard teachings." It is not the sign-a miraculous provision of bread-that they need most, but the Bread from Heaven (vv. 26-27). It is Christ who has descended from heaven as the life-giving food of his people, but instead of embracing him they demand, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" (v. 28). They want to ascend, when Jesus is now announcing and offering himself as the God who has descended to save them. Jesus replies, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (v. 29).

So the contrast between the glory story and the cross story appears once more. Yet unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood, the people-regardless of their connection to Moses and the manna in the wilderness-have no life in them (vv. 49-58). He came down from heaven to save the people whom the Father gave him, none of whom will be lost (vv. 38-40). In response to all of this, the crowd began stirring. "Jesus therefore answered and said to them, 'Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day" (vv. 43-44). Now, not only does Jesus refute their ambition to ascend to God through their works, he says that they cannot even come to him unless they are drawn.

At the end of the sermon, "many of his disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'" (v. 60). Yet instead of backing off and perhaps performing another sign to keep them interested, Jesus pushes further with his hard sayings:

Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe … Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to me unless it has been granted to him by my Father. (vv. 61-64)

On this day, there were no multitudes coming forward during the invitation to "do the works of God," and the people were uninterested in-in fact, angered by-Jesus' call to believe in him. "From that time many of his disciples went back and walked with him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, 'Do you also want to go away?'" (v. 66). What a test! At no point does Jesus turn away from the cross that lies ahead of him to fuel the glory story that the people want. However, Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (vv. 68-69). Even this core group would lose one of its members: Judas (v. 70). The important thing to recognize, however, is that an event that, according to the glory story, could only be conceived as a tragedy in the ministry of Jesus is actually a banner day. On it, Jesus decided that it was more important to have eleven disciples than five thousand consumers. Even from a merely historical angle, Jesus' strategy is vindicated. After the resurrection appearances of Jesus, it would be these eleven who would turn the world upside down by their witness, whereas the crowd of sign-gazers would not have stayed with the program as soon as the fireworks were over.

If Jews seek signs, then Greeks seek wisdom, Paul said. Indeed, there is a treasure trove of wisdom that we can find in the ancients. Paul could even appeal to some of them in his famous speech in Athens (Acts 17). Yet in that speech, Paul does not offer Jesus as the answer to the philosophical and ethical problems that were hotly debated regularly in that auspicious arena. He doesn't first ask them what they consider to be the big questions and the greatest needs of humanity and then try to show how Jesus is the answer. Instead, he gently but directly assaults their intellectual pride by saying that they "worship" what they do not know and points to Jesus Christ and his resurrection as the revelation of God's purposes for history, including their own arraignment before the bar of judgment on the last day. The results were similar to those we encountered in John 6 with Jesus: "And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, 'We will hear you again on this matter'" (v. 32). The glory story cannot make room for the story of the cross and resurrection; neither can accommodate the other. A choice has to be made.

The glory story is all about our progress-ethical, mystical, personal, social, psychological, and emotional, ascending rung by rung up the staircase until we finally return to Paradise. The story of the cross and resurrection, however, is all about God's progress, descending to us in what can only appear to us as weakness and foolishness but is in fact the power and wisdom of God. The whole Bible is an unfolding drama of that condescending grace of the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit.

The crisis in which the church always finds itself in this redemptive history is whether to judge by what we think we see, do, know, experience, and demand, or conclude with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Are we willing not only to offend, but to be offended, by the news that-however marvelous-is received by the flesh as an assault against our autonomy, put-togetherness, and felt needs?

All of the other so-called solae ("onlys") of the Reformation-sola Scriptura (by scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone), soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone)-find their alpha and omega in solus Christus (by Christ alone). In fact, all of these watchwords are assumed in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31: "But it is by his doing that you are in Christ Jesus, who has been made for us wisdom from God-and righteousness and sanctification and redemption-so that, as it is written, 'He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.'"

As Always, A Time for Truth

In this anniversary year, we have selected a theme that summarizes our vision for a new reformation in our day: "A Time for Truth." Of course, every age is a time for truth and every generation is in the process of losing its focus on the truth of the gospel. Given the bent of human nature toward self-salvation and pride, the glory story will always be more superficially alluring even though it can only fuel a craving that it never satisfies.

Over the last fifteen years, Modern Reformation and the White Horse Inn radio program have tried to help Christians know what they believe and why they believe it. Numerous surveys, polls, and sociological studies have conclusively shown that evangelical Christians-that is, those who profess to take Scripture, Christ, and the gospel seriously-are increasingly unaware of or unclear about some of the most basic issues of Christian faith and practice. While manypastors and elders out there are faithfully devoted to their ministry, it must be concluded with a grave sense of duty as well as soberness and humility that this is the exception rather than the rule. Almost no one alive today has done more to integrate a passion for truth and mission than John R. W. Stott, a person whom David Brooks (himself Jewish) identified in a 2004 New York Times article as the leader of global Evangelicalism. Yet when asked in the latest issue of Christianity Today to evaluate this worldwide movement, Stott could only reply, "The answer is 'growth without depth'" (October 2006, p. 96).

Yet, as Paul pointed out in Romans 10, it is not simply knowledge of truth in general, but the knowledge of the justification that comes through faith alone that is most tragically ignored despite a "zeal for God." Niebuhr's description of Protestant liberalism quoted at the beginning of this article appears to be as relevant now in relation to Protestant Evangelicalism. To be sure, this is sometimes due to the same factors that motivated the liberal drift toward secularization-reducing supernatural claims to therapeutic and practical usefulness here and now. Liberalism and conservatism both evidence a similar drive to make the church visible in this world: powerful, relevant, and necessary.

However, there are differences as well. On paper, it would seem that evangelicals often stand on the side of orthodox Christianity, affirming the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ as the God-Man and his saving work on the cross, the inability of human beings to save themselves, and the necessity for the new birth. In practice, however, things look somewhat different.

Scripture is appealed to, but expository preaching is being increasingly replaced by topical pep talks and marketing, psychology, sociology, and managerial techniques are often more normative at least implicitly in ordering the life of the church and its mission.

Grace remains as popular a term as ever in Protestant, as in Roman Catholic, conversation. However, its meaning has changed significantly. Where Scripture, (as the reformers recognized) understands grace to be God's favor toward sinners on account of Christ, grace is often treated today as an extra push up the glory-hill. "God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them"-the medieval slogan-receives a nod by the majority of evangelicals, according to one survey conducted by the Barna Research Group. As long as salvation is credited at any point to human decision and effort rather than to God's electing, redeeming, regenerating, and preserving action in Christ, it can only be regarded as divine assistance rather than as divine rescue.

The name of Christ is also frequently spoken, yet when sin and salvation are redefined in therapeutic, moralistic, and cultural terms, someone less than the God-Man and something less than a radical rescue operation will do. Seeing Christ primarily as life coach and model is different from witnessing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In our day, not only is the sufficiency of Christ's finished work challenged by self-improvement schemes; the doctrine of substitutionary atonement itself is increasingly challenged by some evangelical theologians.

Justification by Christ alone through faith alone is similarly challenged both indirectly (via countless distractions that advertise themselves as the big story) and directly. Even where it is officially affirmed, justification is often treated in more conservative circles as an important doctrine that we can nevertheless move beyond once we are "saved." It is important, but not all that relevant for the Christian life. Few actually say that, perhaps, but that is the impression often given. In the words of a recent article by an evangelical pastor in England, this is "the assumed gospel." Degeneration begins when the church no longer finds justification essential not only for becoming a Christian but for sustaining the entire Christian life. More directly, even many self-professing Lutheran and Reformed theologians and pastors have joined a growing chorus of dissatisfaction with the doctrine of justification entirely. Whether relegated to a place among other doctrines or outright rejected, this heart of the gospel remains, as always, the most important place where the church has to decide whether it will remain a church at all.

The gospel is also a glory story in its own right. However, it is not a story of our striving upward, but of God striving downward and rising again. God's glory is manifested in creation and providence, even in judgment on the last day. Yet God's greatest glory is manifested in his grace that he shows to those who deserve the very opposite. If we believe that we are sinners saved solely by the grace of God in Christ through faith alone, then it will follow that there is no place for human boasting. God alone is glorified when he alone is recognized and exalted as our redeemer. If our public worship and witness are reliable indicators, then the contemporary church seems more preoccupied with its own glory than with God's, and that follows logically from a lack of confidence in the message of salvation in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, received through faith alone.

Modern Reformation and the White Horse Inn have reiterated these themes in numerous ways, from a variety of angles, with specific applications to current movements, trends, and practices. These resources have been widely recognized,even by our critics, as major mouthpieces for the cause of a new reformation. They have been at the forefront of debates over open theism, the church growth movement, the signs-and-wonders movement, the prosperity gospel, the self-esteem gospel, the politicization of the gospel by both left and right, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," the "new model" view of the atonement, and the New Perspective on Paul.

"A Time for Truth" means, for me at least, a time for confessing the faith, which means a time for being confessional. Obviously, speaking for myself, I would prefer it if everyone were confessionally Reformed, butModern Reformation and the White Horse Inn have helped forge a new ecumenism that instead of either ignoring each other or finding the lowest common denominator of agreement has sought to witness to the same central teachings of our various Protestant confessions with all of the gusto and intensity that each confessional perspective brings to the table. Not everyone has agreed with this course. Some think we're too broad, since our writers and White Horse Inn hosts include everyone from Lutherans to Southern Baptists. Others think we're too narrow, since we advocate a consensus that runs contrary to many of the trends in our own traditions today.

Confession is good for the soul-and for much else besides. We not only confess our sins, we confess a common faith in Christ. The verb here is homologein-to say together. It's not just that we are individuals who happen to think thesame thing, we are a people who together say the same words. "If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words," Paul warns Timothy, "even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy,strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (1 Tim. 6:3-5). He adds, "Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (v. 12). In 2 Timothy 1:13, he reiterates, "Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us." As the Lord's Prayer structures our extemporaneous prayers, "the pattern of sound words" that we find in our creeds and confessions trains our daily witness to Christ.

This does not mean, of course, that our confessions will save us or substitute for our own act of confessing Christ in our time and place. It simply means that we must confess the same faith with our brothers and sisters in all times and places. Being confessional is not the same as being a confessionalist. According to the former, one not only confesses Christ but does so according to a common and well-defined though not overly defined summary. "Confessing" signals our extroverted witness to the world (viz., the action itself), while "confessional" points to the proper concern with housekeeping: the inner integrity of our faith and practice upon which our act of confessing to the world depends (viz., the kind of action). If we are confessional without confessing-or, in other words, being orthodox without being oriented outward in mission to the world, we are hardly in the position to criticize others.

Recovering our confessional identities (whether Lutheran, Anglican, or Reformed) is vital in our day for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the unity of the church. I know that this reason must sound terribly surprising, since it is routinely assumed and actually said by not a few Reformed theologians and pastors that an interest in being confessional necessarily breeds narrow-mindedness and a schismatic tendency. Although that is probably true of a certain type of ingrown and reactionary "confessionalism," it is not true of being simply confessional. In fact, in Paul's instructions to Timothy, holding fast the confession that he was taught was the very means of opposing trivial disputes over words and personalities.

We may take the United States as our well-surveyed example in this respect. American Christianity is simultaneously the most sectarian and the most anti-confessional of all Christian traditions. That is not how things are supposed to go.

According to the brochures at least, if we give up denominations, labels, creeds, confessions, liturgies, and the like, we will at last just be Christians. Having shed the labels of yesteryear, therefore, we embark on a new quest of restoration of the pure ecclesial Idea, which never existed even at the time of the apostles. No longer Presbyterians, Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Mennonite, Brethren, Methodist, and so forth, we are now divided into countless other sects that concern either peripheral issues or have nothing at all to do with theology. Churches today are more likely to be divided over public policy or generational, racial, and socioeconomic demographics or the charismatic movements and personalities that come and go than over any "pattern of sound words" that a church confesses together. American religion is consummately quirky-full of contradictions that are simultaneously affirmed with the greatest intensity, and one of those contradictions is the charge made by adherents of sectarian movements that confessional distinctiveness is divisive. Whatever can be said of the divisions among the Reformation churches, as defined by their separate confessions, they pale in comparison to the proliferation of anticonfessional sects that are the creatures of their master's charisma, lucky breaks, persuasive eloquence, and eccentric hobbyhorses.

Even in Reformed circles, we are drawn toward individuals and movements like moths to a flame. We wouldn't want to restrict the definition of "Reformed" to the Reformed confessions, despite the fact that this is their intention and apart from this subscription they serve no purpose besides pious historical advice. So instead, we end up carving up the Reformed camp into other factions that are not related to our confession.

Of course, the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation are not a church, and are therefore not authorized to draw up confessions or heal divisions. Our vision at White Horse Media is simply to facilitate a conversation between Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians that will help our churches maintain a common witness wherever we can as well as indicate our age-old differences. So far, this conversation has been instrumental in bringing many to a richer faith and some even to saving faith and a concern to belong to faithful churches. As someone who adheres both to the ecumenical creeds and to the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort), I am nevertheless confident that if I have a couple of hours on a plane with a Lutheran who is as convinced of the testimony of the Book of Concord or a Baptist committed to the London Baptist Confession, we will at least have a lot more in common with each other than either of us would with many in our own traditions whose default setting is the generic piety of a vapid Evangelicalism. In this way, I suggest, a confessional Christianity can be the antidote to both institutionalized and anti-institutional forms of sectarianism that plague our churches, distracting us from the major issues as they also sap us of our vitality.

To conclude, the glory story is not all it's cracked up to be. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized that "we are condemned to be free," living like Atlas with the world on our shoulders. That is the glory story, whatever its version. Yet Jesus promises, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). That is because the truth that Jesus proclaims-and the Truth that Jesus embodies-is nothing less than the gospel which in this and any age remains "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).

1 [ Back ] In this article, Dr. Horton's quotation from Gerhard Forde is taken from On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Eerdmans, 1997), p. 5.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, January 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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