Dear Dr. Horton:
the White Horse Inn. My thought is that in the name of doing something necessary and right, I think you have, over time, created something you do not intend.
So to that end, let me thank you for decades of brilliant dialogue and broadcast content regarding true orthodoxy and the centrality of the Gospel as the defining matter of the Christian faith. There are a lot of allegedly-apologetic radio shows and podcasts, but none of them frankly affect as many people as deeply and drastically as the conversation which is known as the White Horse Inn has affected conscientious, conservative people since its first broadcasting 1990. WHI has been talking seriously and soberly about the faith longer than I have been a Christian, so when I come to it I come with respect and admiration.
I have been composing this letter in my head for probably two years now, so I can think of about a dozen ways to enter into what I'd like to bring to you today. I'll choose a way which seems best: with your own words.
The following is a transcript of the podcast from 01 Jan 2011:
Mike Horton (MH): The Gospel can't be lived. It's the Law that's lived. We obey the commands that we find in Scripture, we do not—the Gospel is not anything for us to do. The Gospel is an announcement for us to take to the world, and on the basis of that Gospel we do live differently in the world, but that isn't itself the content of the Gospel: it is the effect of the Gospel.
Kim Riddlebarger (KR): I think you made a brilliant point. I know there will be a number of people who will hear us, who are familiar with us, and they'll say to themselves, "well, there they go, they've been on the air two minutes talking about the Great Commission, and they're back to Law and Gospel again!" But your point is absolutely spot-on: we believe the Gospel, we obey the Law—and if you are not clear about that, then you're going to go off on a mission and as you risk, as Jesus warned, making people more fit for Hell than they were before. If you're telling people that the Gospel is doing certain things, acting certain way, behaving in a certain way, then you're just accelerating their demise and decline.
Ken Jones (KJ): One of the Dangers associated with that is, if you talk about "living the Gospel," I think most evangelicals would acknowledge their own short-comings in various areas, so therefore their failure becomes a failure of the Gospel. It becomes the Gospel's failure. What they mean is we live in light of the Gospel, we live because of the Gospel . . .
MH: Rooted and grounded.
KR: . . . but they have to start saying that.
KJ: Yes, they do—they do. And the confusion is that, so that even when my life doesn't match up (which it seldom does—this is the on-going process of sanctification) that's no reflection on the Gospel.
MH: In fact, the Gospel is so great that it is the announcement of the perfect work of Christ which isn't diminished by my fails. It is exactly what I need in my failures, even my failures to live out the implications in response to the Gospel. It even covers my failures to do that! And as longs you have a Gospel that is perfect and complete, because it's about someone else, you can always get back up again after you fall and embrace that Gospel. It puts wind in your sails so that you can take it to the ends of the world even though you are a miserable sinner yourself.
Here's another excerpt from a previous podcast 18 Dec 2010:
[Starts about 20:25]
KR: All I can say is, Lord have mercy upon that person who looks to me to be the Gospel.
Rod Rosenblatt (RR): Right!
MH: You know, I have to say, no matter how you answer, if you're asked the sort of textbook doctrine question, "do you believe you are saved by works or by grace," of course: saved by grace—once you get out of the realm, and you have phrases like, "be the Gospel," "live the Gospel," you have to realize that the very phrase "be the Gospel" or "live the Gospel" is equivalent to "we are saved by works."
And last of all, from that same podcast:
[Starts about 22:00]
MH: Think about the criteria Paul lays out in the pastorals for ministers. I've never seen "relational" in there—and now of course, this is going to sound like "typical" . . .
RR: . . . Reformed and Lutheran . . .
MH: . . . yeah-yeah: you just . . .
RR: . . . don't get it.
MH: 'cause you guys really are the least-relational group we've ever seen on the planet. Now: we have problems in that area, and there are passages in Scripture that talk about hospitality, generosity, and all sorts of things that we need to work on in our traditions. But if you don't have hospitality, and you don't have generosity, and you don't have relationally (whatever that means) you don't have kindness, gentleness, humility—all of those qualities that are so important for inter-personal relationships, you're not healthy, and you don't have a healthy church. If you don't have the preaching of the Gospel, you don't have a church.
Among all the things you say clearly and continuously, these few statements seem to lay out some of the things which, I think, are meant for good and are meant from a right motive -- but say something instead which doesn't turn out as well as one would hope. I wonder if you have put these clear moments together in your analysis for the White Horse Inn's impact on the evangelistic, apologetic, and ecclesiastical environment you have helped create in the last 20 years.
Now: why bring it up? I actually have three reasons.
The first is a general complaint: I think you fellows have taken the right-minded theological distinction "Law and Gospel" too far; you have made all of human life and God's interactions with man into either an imperative or an indicative — missing the point that some things in life (especially in the Christian life, and in Christian theological anthropology) fall under the subjunctive mood.
For example, Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Now, I realize that the hortatory subjective is a way to "command one's self" as they say, but let's recognize something here: that kind of command is not external or decreed but in fact internal and voluntary, speaking to a willingness and not merely to submission to some exterior force or authority. Here the writer of Hebrews — someone we must agree is not a pelagian or syncretist or closet Roman Catholic or any sort of denier of the Gospel — really says, "somehow we can relate to the life of faith, and relate to Christ himself, and want to do what the faithful have always done."
There is much to be gained from the Law/Gospel, imperative/indicative distinction in Scripture, but not everything is resolved by it. And one of the things which is not resolved by it is what manner of people the Gospel makes us - which is actually part and parcel of the Good News.
This brings me to my second concern: while you are right that Christ died objectively, the declaration that Christ died for us is actually the Gospel. In that, consider Heb 10 that after the writer extolls the finished work of Christ he says
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure waterFor this writer, the Gospel results in something more than just a declaration of righteousness: it results in the advantages of declared righteousness. Because in the imperative/indicative view we are either doing what we must or receiving what we are given, you miss that we are also changed in affections and inclinations. That leads to a Gospel which sees fruit as optional.
The kind of church your discussion constantly intimates (and above: explicitly accepts) is a church where the Gospel is made the centerpiece alone on the table. The Gospel is made into something done, but somehow the idea that it is done for us gets neglected — and it becomes something we see, but somehow not look to and rejoice in.
I am sure that stings a little, but often WHI denigrates people who would say in concrete ways that they enjoy the Gospel — that they live for it and by it and through it. Now, I realize that we can't take everyone at their word, but do you really think that, for example, the young fellow who says we have to love people in order to save them from sin really means that there is no reference to Christ on a Cross? It may be true — he may have meant that, and I have dialogued with a lot of people who would say that. But I have met far more who would say they have to "live the Gospel," and after unpacking that with them it turns out that they mean something a lot more like Hebrews 11:13-16 than something like the power of positive thinking. They mean to live as if the Gospel is true.
Now: Pastor Jones and Dr. Riddlebarger certainly make that clarification in the podcasts I transcripted here — that is, that people ought to find a better way to say that if that's what they mean. Maybe that's true — maybe what they're saying is a lot sloppier than 1 John 1:7, but maybe not: maybe what is in fact going on is that sometimes us smart people want everyone to be as keen on systematics as we are — forgetting that systematics are a kind of legalism if they are taken too far.
I think that Jesus didn't want to make us into people who knew everything about Him and then buried it in our library because he is a hard man who reaps where he did not sow. He wanted — that is, he wants — us to be people who will sweep the whole house to find a lost penny, and people who will buy the whole plot of land even thought the treasure is only in part of it. That is: we will live because the Gospel is true — there is good news not just apart from us but for our sake. It changes the world from "You must not" or "you must" to "I shall" and "let us."
Now, again: in the above podcast transcripts, I think you get it almost right: you say there are "consequences" to the Gospel. But they are not just likely or possible: they are necessary consequences of the Gospel. That is: the Gospel is not actually present if these things are not working out. They may not be perfected and completely worked out, but they are necessarily present. That highlight of being in Christ is in John's letters, and evident in what Paul called the fruit of the Spirit right there in Galatians. This is who you will be if the Gospel is for you and the Spirit is in you.
So to this end, I think you guys allow for a lot of fruitlessness by default — and it comes across in the culture of the people who listen to you a lot and are disaffected by their local church. They don't see it the way John saw it: they see it as wanting "basic Christianity" to want the Gospel — the perfect Gospel, perfectly declared — with a willingness to bypass fellowship (including the sacraments) to get it, usually via podcasts and books.
That brings me to my last point, which lands in my backyard and for which I usually take a lot of flack: this culture is the culture of the discernment blogosphere, and I think you guys need to own up to your contribution there in order to help clean it up.
Because you probably have never read anything by me before, let me lay all of this complaint out plainly so that you can grasp what I mean. What I am not talking about is people who are doing the legitimate work of elders who are accountable in their local churches, who are usually elders, and who display openness and transparency about their character and ministry by not hiding behind an alias or an internet nickname. What I am talking about is the avalanche of people who populate the internet via discussion boards, blogs, and social media who frequently demonstrate all the love and real compassion of a rock through one's window. They are people who, on paper, make a sound confession of faith, down to the mint and the cumin, and wouldn't know what to do if their Hindu neighbor invited them to a birthday party on Sunday morning — or how to turn the other cheek in order to make a foothold for the opportunity to share the Gospel. They usually don't attend church because they can't find one which is up to their doctrine snuff, and the reason is that they have made themselves into a private magisterium. They have never said or written anything for which they would apologize or reconsider because they have never been wrong.
You have seen some of them, I am sure. The reason I am suggesting that they are somehow an effect you ought to own a little is that they speak in the theological idioms of the White Horse Inn. They are very keen on the Law/Gospel distinction to a fault; they are very keen on needing a new reformation; an obsession with the "5 Solas". Because they are bad emulations of your good example, I suggest you should speak to them for a while to help them come around.
See: in that last excerpt, when you say that it's only "unhealthy" to have none of the fruit of the Spirit if you have a pure Gospel, you give this sort of "christianity" a free pass. You give this kind of faith the endorsement James only gives to the faith which saves — a faith which matures under trial rather than hunkering down and bunkering up, and which turns a brother away from sin rather than branding him a heretic on the first pass.
It is the open belief that one can be an "unhealthy Christian," when one is in fact flying in the face of 1 John 4:11-12 (among other passages), that is evident among the listeners to WHI: as long as I have a comprehensive understanding of Christ's transaction for sinners which leaves the sinner with nothing but grace, I'm a decent disciple. I can humbly count myself saved (passive voice, indicative mood). And they learned it from 4 very bright and winsome men who also, to some extent, believe it.
I usually try to shut it down after 3 pages, and I'm up to 6 now so let me conclude briefly: after 20 years, I think we can safely say that we know what we ought to believe, and why we ought to believe it. But I think we have a problem now that is foundational: what does it mean to "believe"? Does it mean that we can recite the catechism — or is that related to belief in the way that the instructions for a Lego kit are related to the final toy, fully constructed? Does it mean we only know about something (an objective fact in history no less), or that we are actually now in that story? Does it mean Christ's wounds are evident to us — or that we are now, for the sake of the church and those called to it but not yet in, to suffer personally to fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions?
I ask because I think you are my brother in Christ, and I think these problems are not small problems. And I also think you're not one to see them as small. I believe you when you say you are concerned for the health of the church, and I am with you. However, I think God's prescription for what ails us is the whole Gospel, the whole great and good news, and the whole kit of necessary effects Christ brings to us.
Whether you respond or not, I close in admiration of you and your years of faithfulness, and I hope this letter finds you in God's good graces.