31 December 2009

Proverbial perspectives at the year's turn

by Dan Phillips

The stroke of midnight, as 12/31 turns to 1/1, is an artificial divider, but it is as good as any. Our birthdays cast the eye backwards, in retrospection. The grim realities of math and statistics may tap some of us on the shoulder with the reminder that the number of such dates before us is likely greater than that of those remaining.

But the prospect of New Year's day naturally casts the eye ahead. We make resolutions, we make plans. Some pious souls, however, shrink back from the whole notion of planning. Is it Biblical to plan and set goals?

It certainly is... if approached rightly.

In fact, God quite emphatically insists that it is our proper duty to plan. Hear Solomon:
Man's are the heart's arrangements,
but from Yahweh is the tongue's answer
(Proverbs 16:1, literally)
It is actually a verbless verse; we must supply "are" and "is" to get anything like understandable English. Both actors are thrust up front syntactically: man in line A, God in line B. It is, emphatically, the God-ordained part of man to apply his heart, his mind, to making arrangements, to setting plans in order. But with equal emphasis, B reminds us that God has the final answer. The old saying is quite apposite: "Man proposes, but God disposes."

Consider one more of many proverbs along these lines:
The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps
(Proverbs 16:9 ESV)
Again, God intends that man use his mind to make plans, to do calculations and risk-assessments and cast up scenarios. There is no hint, here nor elsewhere, that God imposes Blackabbean slavery to mystic mumbles in non-moral areas. Adam could have eaten any fruit but one; to refuse to eat until God selected one for him would have been as sinful as eating from the prohibited tree. It is man's designed, God-ordained responsibility to make intelligent plans.

But it is God's to determine both the course and the outcome — and He discharges His responsibility quite adequately (Proverbs 16:33; 20:24; Romans 11:36; Ephesians 1:11). None need concern himself that a man doing what a man should do will prevent God from what God infallibly does. In fact, it is quite literally impossible for a man to frustrate God's eternal purpose (Proverbs 19:21; 21:30; Daniel 4:35).

So: it is right and proper for me to look to the future and make plans. Plan! Plan to do something. To fail to plan to do something is to plan to do nothing. Just do something!

However, at the same time, all our plans must be made in pencil, for we are warned:
Do not boast about tomorrow,
for you do not know what a day may bring.
(Proverbs 27:1)
While it is true that our plans cannot frustrate God's counsel, it is equally true that His counsel can frustrate our plans. It is lazy, insolent unbelief to refuse to plan; but it is just as foolish to plan and assume, to plan without allowing for the ever-imperative "D.V." — Deo volente, "God willing" (cf. James 3:13-17).

So feel free to make plans and resolutions. Find a way that suits you, if not today, then some day soon.

Seek God's Biblical wisdom to plan and do, to the greater glory of Him who saved us.

Dan Phillips's signature

30 December 2009

5 Ideas for 2010

by Frank Turk

I'm not a big fan of New Years resolutions, but many people get unusually-introspective at this time of year -- who knows why. Maybe they feel guilty for all the money the spent on stuff that they will garage sale in May.

Anyway, if you're looking for some advice for 2010, here's my short list. You can probably figure out what I'm about to say because I say it all the time, but I'll say it again here.

1. Get over your denominational biases

You know: some people will read this as a call for mass ecumenism and a throwing out of the baby of discernment with the bathwater of divisiveness, but that's not what I'm saying at all. What I am saying is that John MacArthur doesn't have the only legitimate church in America, and the Shepherd's Conference doesn't have a monopoly on orthodoxy.

No: it would not be swell if every church was a reformed baptist church. It might be good for you to live a little for the sake of your own discipleship to get involved in a local church in such a way that you believe about those people what Christ knows about them -- which is that you are just as much in need of His salvation as they are, and that you are called to be a saint together with all those in every place who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are no perfect churches -- but there is a perfect savior. Follow Him, and stop pretending that there's only one way to do that, even if it means you don't have Sunday free anymore.

2. Go back to church

That's really the objective of #1: go back to being in fellowship with other actual humans for whom Christ died.

You can do it -- you just don't want to, mostly because it is hard work. It is much easier to read blogs and books and listen to podcasts and pine for an idealized church than it is to stand next to a real person someplace and shake his hand and say, "peace be with you," and then live like Christ made that true.

You know: God hates the sin of the lousy pastor and the sin of the nosey or neglectful brother or sister just as much as God hates your sin -- yet you know God forgives you of your sin, right? It turns out God forgives their sins, too, so maybe you should use that as a basis for fellowship: this is how we know what love is -- that at the right time, Christ died for us. God sent his sons that the believers might not perish but have eternal life.

You can go back, and tell everyone you're sorry for being too good for them. You don't have to tear open your shirt and produce your scarlet letter, but you could just say, "you know what: I never realized how much God loves us. I want to treat you the way I think God treats you because Christ has made all the difference, and I'm sorry for all the times in the past I didn't do that."

3. Put yourself under the spiritual authority of elders

I know: this is starting to get under the skin a little now, right? It's one thing to say, "Put secondary issues aside." It's another to say, "find a church you can stand in." But now to say, "And get under the authority of other human beings," always sounds like the deal-breaker -- because let's face it: these are flawed men. They have flaws. Some of those flaws are theological; some of them are professional; some of them are emotional or personal.

It's funny, but that sounds a lot like the problems you personally have -- and you don't have any problem being under the authority of you. But when someone says, "well, Paul does tell Titus to establish elders in every place for the sake of setting things in order, and Paul does instruct all the churches to be subject to one another, and especially to their elders and leaders," suddenly your flaws don't look that bad.

Here's what I think: until you start your own church and are qualified to lead others, you need to get under the eldership of someone who does have his own church and has been somehow appointed or chosen as qualified to lead others. Because you are not.

You can "yeah but" that until 2011 if you want. There are no perfect churches, but that doesn't give you the liberty to be in no churches with no one looking after you spiritually in any way.

4. Pray for your elders


You see: what if all those lousy elders out there had an army of people like you praying for them daily, crying out to heaven, "God: you have him/them this church full of your people, and now you have to either give him the gifts to lead them and the love to lead them and the power in your Spirit to lead them, or you need to convict him to move on. Please God: teach this man to be a shepherd and a brother to those whom you have given under his position. They are your people, and for their sake, and the sake of Christ who bought them, make him worthy."

Or maybe like this: "Lord, give this man/these men the burden of knowing you are real! If they knew you were real the same way the building is real and their podcast is real and the Upward program is real, they might want to spend more time in your word looking at what your Real son did on a Real cross for the Real sins of His real people. Help me, God, to see this pastor/these elders as men who are your men, and whose ways will not be like the world's ways. And let them live as if this world is not their home."

You know: what if. It might shut the blogosphere down for a year or two as people would expend all that energy on prayer (God's command for action toward one's elders) rather than on whatever it is all the ruckus is about -- but the world was doing just fine without the blogopshere a few years ago. It won't be missed.

You put yourself under them because of faith in God and now it behooves you to let God do the work -- and it doesn't hurt you to ask him to do the work. It looks like you actually have faith when you ask him to do the work.

5. Love one another

I said it above, but this is the thing about church, y'all: Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor (a much-neglected verse of Romans amongst the avid readers of Romans). Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.

Don't wait for somebody to love you to see if they are "worth it": love somebody -- with the kind of love Christ showed us. By this all people will know that you are Jesus' disciples, if you have love for one another.

If you do that, it'll be a new kind of New Year for you. You will probably get hurt, and some people will hate you for it.

You might have other suggestions. I'm sure those will be good ideas, too.

29 December 2009

Why I believe in blogging

by Dan Phillips

Preface. It's always popular in some circles to disdain blogging. Certain concerned souls seem ever to be coming up with dour reports on the state of blogging and grim predictions as to its future. It isn't hard to find writers fond of tut-tutting their alarm, and of delivering grave and deep expressions of angst and woe as to the evils and pitfalls of blogging.

Ironically, they often do so in blogs. Have you noticed? At heart, I think, some folks' real concern with blogging is that commoners are doing it, and doing it so artlessly. Too many bloggers (they seem to think) use all ten fingers while typing — or, even if they use only two, do not raise their pinkies.

This comes from the Raised-Pinkie Blogging mentality (hereafter RPB).

This mentality places a high premium on being dubbed "thoughtful" and "balanced" and "deep" and "non-reactionary." Betimes, these honorifics are extended by apostates, heretics, and false (or dubious) teachers who, were they to speak so of us, would send us to our knees, asking God if we'd lost something literally crucial. Such isn't the response of the RPBer.

But, see — oops. By using those terms (the A-word, the H-word) I just disqualified myself as an RPBer. That is likely at least one reason why this blog is not popular in such coteries, why even our posts on otherwise-beloved themes seem to escape notice. It is très vulgar and déclassé and hoi-polloi to employ such labels.

Bare-knuckled blogging, both rhetorically and temperamentally, is the opposite of the RPB mindset. Perhaps we should call it "plain-speech blogging" ( cf. Proverbs 29:5; 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 3:12; 4:2; 11:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:5). It is frank, open and pointed about damnable heresies, ruinous errors, and the apostates who promote them. It does not flatter perversions of the Gospel, nor the twisting of Scripture.

To some, this approach is repugnant. One can be an RPBer and be completely sound on the Gospel. But what concerns me would be the RPB practice of apparently courting the admiration of apostates and heretics, perhaps welcoming them and shielding them from criticism and rebuke and (let's just say it) confrontational evangelism.

I am certain that Phil and Frank each could pick posts of their own that they had believed would start broad discussions — yet didn't. I could as well. This one would be my most recent pick. It is classic non-RPB material. Without nasty name-calling or insinuations, by the use of Biblically-based questions, it was relentlessly-focused, confrontive, and hard-to-wiggle-around — just the sort of thing an RPBer would abominate, while insisting on the centrality of the Gospel and the need for plain speech.

Transition: this has not been a vent. Now we can see, at the same time, both precisely why blogging is crucial and valuable, and precisely why certain individuals constantly denounce blogging and compose its obituary: because blogging provides instant, unedited access to the entire online world.

The potential. Take my smaller, more eclectic blog. Since March of this year, I have had visitors from well over 160 countries, ranging from the US and Canada to China, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kenya, Botswana, Sudan, and places I haven't even heard of. PyroManiacs' reach is still broader.

You think Paul wouldn't have dived into something like that — or, at the very least, assigned his apprentices to exploit the opportunity to get the Word out?

Statist and other totalitarians are working even now on ways to censor and control The Intrawebs, but at present the field is still wide-open. You and I can take the Gospel, which is God's power resulting in salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16), and broadcast it to places Paul did not even know existed. With a few clickety-clacks. We can participate in the Word racing about and being glorified (2 Thessalonians 3:1). We can get a Gospel witness and a barrage of Bible-teaching where Christianity is either against the law, or severely restricted.

And nobody can stop us.

You think that isn't a golden opportunity?

The problem. Ah, but the RPBers and the others I've mentioned will point out that this makes room for abuse. Indeed and alas, so it does. Liberty occasions abuse. All open communication makes room for abuse. Wide-open means wide-open. Seasoned, savvy souls like Phil Johnson and rapier wits like Frank Turk are joined by heretics, idiots, fast-draw artists, GBAers, and countless other single-helix pre-limbic mutoids who ended up on the short end of the size-of-mouth/quality-of-brain ratio stick. Undeniably so.

The answer. So what is the answer? I think Thabiti Anyabwile responded exactly on-target when confronting a similar question during a panel discussion at T4G 2008. I wish I had his exact words and fear misquoting him, but his answer was to this effect: Thabiti believed in the openness of blogs, because they allow for self-correction. The "mainstream media" existed for decades in lofty isolation, uncorrected, unaccountable, peddling misinformation and lies mixed with truth. Blogging and alternative media opened the possibility of criticism — and blogging provides that same corrective to itself.

If I get something wrong, thousands of pairs of eyes see it, and thousands of pairs of hands (potentially) can launch into action to set the record straight.

"But they won't be seen by as many, and they aren't as inflammatory" one might object. Thus is the nature of the free market of information, and I see it as a good thing.

Let's say for the sake of argument that you think I occasionally say something of value. And who am I? Absolutely nobody. I started a blog in 2004, and had a handful of readers. Then there were a few more. Then bro Johnson thought we might combine with Frank (who I barely knew and did not understand) to make a team, and we pooled resources. Now I've got a much wider platform than I did. (Thank You, God.)

How did all that happen? God's providence, chiefly, using the means of my decades of study and dues-paying combining with X-degrees-Fahrenheit of passion and conviction, and letting loose. And here we are.

If thus with me, then potentially thus with anyone.

The sum. That's the great promise of blogging. Of course I believe in it. It has provided me with the broadest and most effective means of reaching out with the Word in thirty-plus years of striving, searching, and casting about, using tracts, pamphlets, book manuscripts, radio, and newspaper columns. I couldn't not believe in it.

And so, while others sniff that blogging is a humbug, I take the words of Scrooge's nephew Fred and say, "God bless it."

Dan Phillips's signature

28 December 2009

Year-end Desk-Clearing Blogpost

(Reminding myself why I hate to review books)
by Phil Johnson

y desks (both at home and at the office) are piled high with books and other items I hoped to blog about this year and never got to. Not that I lacked opportunity; but I lacked motivation. After 5 years of blogging, I'm tired of writing on demand and (in case you haven't noticed) my posts for the past year or so have tended to reflect only whatever I'm most keenly interested in at the moment. I've been trying to stay away from themes and series that obligate me to write the next post on a specific topic in order to meet the daily deadlines.

Perhaps the most distasteful thing about blogging (to me) is writing reviews of books I've read, films or video series I have watched, or lecture series I have listened to. Challies does book reviews (and such) so much better than anyone, and why should I duplicate his efforts? Besides, after I've read or listened to something, my mind wants to move on. Obligating myself to write reviews is the closest thing to a book report I can think of, and I have hated book reports since junior high school.

On the other hand, I have reviewed book manuscripts professionally for various Christian publishers for the past 35 years, so you might think book reviews would be easy work for me. But the kind of reviewing I usually do for publishers is not intended for public consumption; I write a critique that will be read only by a single editor, so I can be as brief and blunt or long and detailed as I like. The editor often only wants a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from a trusted source with a few good reasons for the recommendation (or fulmination, as the case may be). Every passion from bitter sarcasm to weepy gratitude is suitable for that kind of review.

For obvious reasons, writing reviews for public consumption is a completely different thing—and for me, it's a lot harder work.

So I have accumulated a pile of books and stuff on my desk that I've read and planned to review, but the sins of sloth and procrastination have defeated me. But now I need to clear the desks. So today I'm going to choose the best stuff out of those piles and give each item a one-paragraph recommendation. Here (in no particular order) are some of my favorites from all the books I read and resources I have devoured in 2009:

  1. Heaven Without Her, by Kitty Foth-Regner. This is the very touching personal testimony of a secular feminist whose only interest in spiritual things tended toward New-Age mysticism—until the impending death of her mother brought her face to face with some difficult questions that have no satisfying answers outside biblical Christianity. I was greatly moved by this book, perhaps because I read it in the wake of my own mother's death in January. The book is a graphic illustration of how God providentially draws and redeems people—often people who (from a human perspective) might seem the most unlikely candidates for conversion. Kitty Foth-Regner's worldview at the start of her journey could hardly have been more radically at odds with the faith that finally brought her settled peace. But the sovereign hand of divine Providence (evident throughout her testimony) wisely and lovingly led her through some of life's bitterest trials and sorrows into the unimaginable riches of grace. It's a tender story, well told.
  2. The Infinite Merit of Christ, Craig Biehl. I absolutely love this book. I like everything about it from the page design (with ample margins, a feature that has fallen out of fashion nowadays); to the flow of Biehl's (and Jonathan Edwards's) logic; to the conclusions Craig Biehl draws from his careful analysis of Jonathan Edwards's writings. The book is a study of the doctrine of justification (my favorite theological topic) from the writings of Jonathan Edwards (my favorite post-Puritan New England theologian) with specific emphasis on the significance of Christ's obedience (my favorite aspect of justification). Biehl provides a helpful rebuttal to several currently-popular points of view that have (for various reasons) downplayed the importance of imputed righteousness and rejected the significance of Christ's human obedience to Moses' law. This is a book to be reckoned with in all those debates. I got two copies, one for my shelf of Edwards studies and the other for the "justification" section of my "doctrine" stacks.
  3. The Marrow of Modern Divinity, by Edward Fisher. This is the book that sparked the Marrow Controversy in eighteenth-century Scotland. That's one of my favorite episodes of theological controversy ever, and it continues to be one of the most important intramural debates among Calvinists. Thomas Boston and the Erskine brothers were on the angels' side in that debate, in my assessment. They and their allies are sometimes known as "The Marrow Men." Their opponents were high Calvinists of a severe and and anti-evangelistic sort. The high-Calvinist group held to a cluster of ideas that to this day surface and resurface in Internet forums and tend to breed hyper-Calvinism. I wish more of today's Calvinists had studied the Marrow controversy. I think a lot more gracious, tenderhearted, and evangelistic brand of Calvinism would be the result. (Here's a series of messages by Sinclair Ferguson on The Marrow, if you want to get started.)
         Anyway, twenty years ago, before the Internet made used-book finding fairly easy, I looked high and low for many months for a copy of this book. When I finally found one, all I could get was a terrible edition printed by Jay P. Green in the 1960s or '70s with a small but too-bold san-serif typeface, narrow margins, and an ugly (but sturdy) green buckram binding. A year or so later I got a copy of The Marrow with Thomas Boston's annotations as part of the superb complete works of Thomas Boston published by Richard Owen Roberts. (If you use Logos, you can download Boston's complete works here, free. If you don't use Logos, it's worth getting, just to have this set.) Over the years I have located and acquired about a half dozen different quality editions of The Marrow.
         But the 2009 edition from Christian Heritage Books is the best one yet. Again, major kudos for the generous margins, which include sidenotes with Thomas Boston's annotations. This is a slightly oversized book, befitting the book's historic importance. If you fancy yourself a Calvinist and have never even heard of Edward Fisher's The Marrow of Modern Divinity, shame on you. Buy one of these, get Ferguson's lectures, and study this chapter of Calvinist history. Another good place to start is John MacLeod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History since the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974)—which book has a whole chapter dealing with the Marrow Controversy. If you have sufficient interest to read a more definitive work, I recommend David Lachman's excellent Ph.D. dissertation (St. Andrews) titled The Marrow Controversy 1718-1723—but it is very hard to come by.
  4. The Book Academy's Puritan Library. Despite what it sounds like, this is not a book or a set of books but a collection of PDF files on DVDs. It is an exhaustive Puritan library, plus the complete works of Spurgeon—the kind of resource people thirty years ago would have gladly given thousands of dollars for access to. The complete 10-DVD set is available for a few hundred dollars. I obtained a copy just a few weeks ago and have only barely begun to delve into it, but I plan to spend lots of time with it in the days to come.
  5. David Brainerd: A Flame for God, by Vance Christie. This is a new, highly readable, supremely edifying biography of Brainerd. I had the privilege of reading it more than a year ago when it was still in manuscript form. The publisher sent it to John MacArthur for review, and he wrote the foreword. (I intercepted the manuscript and read it myself before turning it over to John MacArthur. Shame on me. But it was worth it.) I recommended the book in an earlier blogpost here, so I won't say much more about it, except to say that if you didn't get it when I recommended it, do it now.
  6. Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church, by Martin Downes. This is a refreshing compilation of articles on dealing with heresy and heterodoxy in the church, compiled and edited by Martin Downes, better known to Pyro readers as the blogger-in-chief over at the "Against Heresies" blog. I'm not always a big fan of symposium-style books (even though I have contributed to a few). But this one really hangs together. Keep it by your bedside and read a chapter a night. Good stuff.
  7. Dr. John MacArthur, Jr.: The Prince of Expository Preaching, by Hokyeom Kim. A short biography and long analysis of the ministry of my pastor. I had never heard of this book and had no idea it was being written until I saw the finished product. It's fascinating reading, and in general, I think, a helpful and insightful analysis.
That's it for now. I have a very busy week ahead. Darlene and I leave for India on Thursday, so my blogging will probably be sparse until mid-January. By then, Lord willing, Darlene and I will have another grandchild. We'll see what that means for my blogging habits. Until then, you can follow me on Twitter, if you're inclined to such things. Now, I have this nagging feeling that I have omitted several items I wanted to put on my "Best of 2009" list. If I can remember what they are, I'll probably follow this post up someday with a part two. In the meantime—Stay thirsty, my friends. Phil's signature

27 December 2009

A New-Year's Admonition to those Who Can't Decide What They Believe

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "A New Year’s Benediction," a sermon delivered 1 January 1860 at Exeter Hall in London.

h, how many there are that are never settled! The tree which should be transplanted every week would soon die. Nay, if it were moved, no matter how skilfully, once every year, no gardener would expect fruit from it. How many Christians there be that are transplanting themselves constantly, even as to their doctrinal sentiments?

There be some who generally believe according to the last speaker; and there be others who do not know what they do believe, but they believe almost anything that is told them. The spirit of Christian charity, so much cultivated in these days, and which we all love so much, has, I fear, assisted in bringing into the world a species of latitudinarianism; or in other words, men have come to believe that it does not matter what they do believe; that although one minister says it is so, and the other says it is not so; yet we are both right; that though we contradict each other flatly, yet we are both correct.

I know not where men have had their judgments manufactured, but to my mind it always seems impossible to believe a contradiction. I can never understand how contrary sentiments can both of them be in accordance with the Word of God, which is the standard of truth.

But yet there be some who are like the weathercock upon the church steeple, they will turn just as the wind blows. As good Mr. Whitfield said, "You might as well measure the moon for a suit of clothes as tell their doctrinal sentiments," for they are always shifting and ever changing.

Now, I pray that this may be taken away from any of you, if this be your weakness, and that you may be settled. Far from us be bigotry removed; yet would I have the Christian know what he believes to be true and then stand to it. Take your time in weighing the controversy, but when you have once decided, be not easily moved. Let God be true though every man be a liar, and stand to it, that what is according to God's Word one day cannot be contrary to it another day, that what was true in Luther's day and Calvin's day must be true now; that falsehoods may shift, for they have a Protean shape; but the truth is one, and indivisible, and evermore the same.

C. H. Spurgeon

24 December 2009

God's final word

by Dan Phillips

We begin with a too-literal rendering of one of the most masterful openings in all literature, Hebrews 1:1-2.
In many parts and in many ways God having of old spoken to the fathers in the prophets, at the last of these days spoke to us in Son, whom He appointed inheritor of all things, through whom also He made the ages....
God's revelation of Himself was in many parts, in that no one revelatory event was exhaustive. God did not disclose all of Himself nor all of His plan to Adam at his creation; nor to Adam and his wife at their fall; nor to Noah at his commissioning; nor to Abraham at his call. Each received a portion of revelation, but not the whole of it.

Further, this revelation was in many ways. Now a voice but no form; now a hovering flame and smoke; now a dream; now a vision; now a holy war, a miracle, a plague, a code of laws, a sacrificial system — these, and many more, were the array of forms that God utilized in beginning to make Himself known.

But all of it was God, who had spoken to the fathers in the prophets. Though incomplete, it was all intelligible to them, because it was addressed to them. However, though intelligible, it was incomplete. It was sloping upward, as it were, heading for a climax. What was that climax?

That climax was brought about by revelation of the same God, but it came not of old, nor to the fathers. The summit has arrived at the end of these days. It has come to us. It has come in Son.

Translators despair of capturing the meaning of those two words, ἐν υἱῷ, in Son. They are almost adverbial in force, in that they describe the manner of God's speaking at these end times. It is not in many parts, it is not in many ways. It is in one who is Son, it is Son-wise, it is an in-Son kind of revelation.

But they also single out the locus of God's revelation: it is not in a thing, nor an event, nor an institution, nor in words alone. It is in a person — but not just any person. Not a mere prophet, nor a bright angel. The locus of God's final revelation is in one who is most fundamentally and essentially Son.

And this is God's final word. This is what God has to say: Jesus, the Son! Jesus in His miraculous conception, His miraculous life, His miraculous words and deeds. Jesus, in Himself not destroying the variegated Law and the various Prophets, but fulfilling them all to the utmost. Jesus, the Logos, the Word who reveals His Father. Jesus in His abandonment, His death, His resurrection. Jesus reaching out to sinners in the preaching of His Gospel.

Jesus constitutes God's final word, His final revelation. "Final" both in the sense that (unlike the Old) it will never be superseded, but also "final" in the sense that it is complete, and that it constitutes a crisis.

This revelation is a crisis in that we must deal with Jesus. If we would look impatiently past Him, restlessly cast about here and there, we shall find no other word from God — except for a word of final judgment, of final rejection, of final condemntation. F. F. Bruce well says in his commentary, "The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond him" (46).

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown — or Andy American, or Bob Briton, Artie Australian, or whoever you may be. Christmas is about God wrapping all He has to say in one person, the person of one who is — not a prophet, not a sign, not a shadow, not a vision, not a dream, not a type, but — His Son.

Now you've heard it. Would you like to see it? Read Luke 9:29-36, for a vivid enactment of this very truth. Two men, representing the Law and the Prophets (which is to say, the entire Old Testament), appear with Jesus in the mount. Jesus shines with brilliant glory (cf. Hebrews 1:3). Just as Peter proposes three equal tents for the three majesties, a cloud overshadows all. The Father speaks:

"This is My Son, the Chosen One. Listen to Him!"

And when the cloud departs, Jesus alone is left. God has spoken in one who is Son.

God grant us ears to hear, this Christmas — and God grant that there be more of us who hear.

Dan Phillips's signature

23 December 2009

Come to Worship

by Frank Turk

Before we get to the festivities, some/many/most of you may have heard that Michael Spencer is not well. Whatever it is that is ailing him has him in the hospital, and is a very serious matter. They are hoping to get an actual diagnosis for him in the next week – after they nurse him back to healthy-enough to start tests.

That is a lousy way for anyone and his family to have to spend Christmas. Before I start the mayhem regarding Christmas, take a moment away from your KB and screen, kneel down, and pray for God’s mercy for Michael Spencer. Pray for God’s healing, and for good to come from this evil; and in lieu of a miracle, pray God gives the doctors and care-givers wisdom, insight, real skill, and a steady hand.

"Y’all?!" as we say here in the south.

That word (sic) is funny because you non-Southerners think it just means, "you-all", a sort of red-neck "you-plural". But it’s such a much more versatile word. As in this case, it doesn’t just mean, "all of you": it can mean "what exactly is wrong with all of you." It’s an interjection.

"Y’all?! Do I have to write all the posts about Christmas around here?"

I recycled my series on our joy because of God’s wrath over at Evangel this year because obviously, those people needed to hear it. For those of you who missed it when I posted it originally, you can read through it without having to read the other stuff which may get you off your egg nog by chasing that link.

I will also have posted the traditional "6-part harmony" at Evangel this year (the link won’t work until 24 Dec 2009 around 0600 US-Eastern time), which you have also seen before.

"Yeah, cent: we’ve been meaning to talk to you about that," comes the very concerned and troubled brethren. "You seem to have sort of chummed up with those Colsonesque wobblies over there, and your total blogging in other venues has dropped off radically. Especially here. And what puzzles us most, dear brother, is that while you didn’t sign the MD, you are willing to co-bloggitate with all manner of theological canoodlers at Evangel."

After a long and solemn pause, the question comes, "What gives?"


Yeah, first of all, the canoodlers over there don’t like my brand of blogging any better than they ever did, as you can see by the strange alliance of people lining up behind Mark Olson to tell me my Gospel isn’t big enough.

Yeah, I know: don’t laugh at them. They’re serious.

But this is actually a post about Christmas, so I’m going to see your intervention and raise you the hot toddy of the season.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

"'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him." After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
I know: this is post-Christmas scripture, if we ever cover it at all. It’s the part that leads to feast days and icons and other sorts of gift-giving and something which may or may not look like Santa but which avoids the jolly fat man.

But it is something we should consider seriously, and solemnly, and with a good bit of self-incrimination.

You see: wise men from the east came to Jerusalem when Jesus was born.

Now, what is east of Jerusalem? That is: for Matthew, the Jew, who is writing to his fellow sons of Abraham, what is east of Jerusalem?

In one sense, there’s nothing: there’s not a blessed thing east of Jerusalem after the Sea of Galilee which any self-respecting Israelite would care to mention.

But on the other hand, there is a massive piece of Jewish history east of Jerusalem: Babylon, and the Medio-Persians. It’s the place they lived in exile for 70 years. It’s the place of the nation’s punishment for being completely non-plussed by YHVH and completely gaga over the other nations and their gods. It’s the place where Daniel was among the highest of the rulers of the kingdom, but where he didn’t let it go to his head (or his mouth).

And from there, wise men came to Jerusalem. But not only that, they came to worship the king of the Jews – "he who has been born king of the Jews". That little quotation there deserves its own post, but this is the day before the day before Christmas – we don’t have a lot of time for nuance. It looks like Matthew is saying, "it’s sorta obvious that Jesus was amazing because even the Persians were sending guys in to see him."

And these guys came in publicly. They were walking around Jerusalem asking people, "Have you seen the one who was born the king of the Jews? We’ve come to worship him." They thought that everybody would know that this had happened.

But apparently, they were wrong.

Herod didn’t know it had happened, for example. And he had guys in his court who could cite the Jewish scripture.

So Herod, the acting King of the Jews, calls the wise men in secretly to ask them what it is exactly they are talking about. What the Persians knew and would proclaim publicly, Herod and his court wanted to keep a private matter – for their own reasons, which of course turn out to be nefarious.

Now, what of it? How does this relate to Christmas, and Evangel, and your complaint about the drunken master?

I think there are 3 basic take-aways here which you can take away at your own leisure:

[1] Coming to worship the one who was born King of the Jews is a public matter. This matter of a king in Israel (who is Jesus) deserves its own place in the world, which we cannot ever be ashamed of. If the Persians (and it could have been any stripe of Persians; it could have actually been Chinese as far as I’m concerned) could come to Jerusalem, where the people ought to have been looking for this baby, and want to worship so much that it was common knowledge regarding what they were looking for, we who say we know Him, and say are His people, ought to be unashamed to tell others we’re here to worship. Have you seen this Jesus? I’m here to worship Him.

[2] I’d be wary of anyone who wants to only talk in private about the one who was born King of the Jews. Not just because of Herod’s lousy example, but because any private Jesus is a phony Jesus. If your Jesus is just a Jesus inside you, or inside your church, or inside your blog, and that Jesus has to live in a bunker to be safe (or worse: so that you can be safe), that’s not the Jesus who calls men from pagan Persia to worship him. The Jesus who makes us unsafe, and who causes unrest in this world, and causes kings to have private meetings to decide what to do about him, is the Jesus we need to be following.

[3] This relates to my co-bloggitating in this way: I think people need to see more Jesus. I’m not at liberty to list all the names which were on Joe Carter’s original invite to come and make merry with the Ecumeniacal, but I didn’t see a lot of people from our neck of the woods on the list. I did see plenty of the priests in the temple, and the scribes, and the rulers of the people, and the Hewittites, and the Colsonites, and maybe one or two who were eating locusts and wild honey. In that mix, given that I would have the free reign to blog what was necessary and what I was willing to say, this was like going to Jerusalem to ask around, "excuse me – someone was just born King of the Jews. Do you know about that?"

This has plainly caused unrest in the Ecumenicamp. In fact, it seems to me that some of them have never actually encountered the idea of a Jesus greater than denominations and greater than our systematics before because their apologetics against such a thing are so, well, unimpressive. If signing the Manhattan Declaration could have caused this much unrest among those who were inclined to sign it, I would have used a big, fat magnum Sharpie to sign it and covered a whole page with my name.

So while I have blogged about generosity at Christmas before, and about the joy we have because of receiving Christ instead of wrath, this year I’m blogging (briefly) about the public offense of the child born in a manger, and the problems that he rightfully causes to our safe and secure ways of seeing him. You should be taking Him, and the news about Him, to the people who ought to know better so that they will worship Him. And only Him.

Good tidings of great joy to you, dear readers: let a real Jesus bring you repentance, a clean conscience, a sincere faith, and a true love of others as we consider this baby born King of the Jews.

22 December 2009

Book review — A Proverbs Driven Life, by Anthony Selvaggio

by Dan Phillips

A Proverbs Driven Life, by Anthony Selvaggio
(Shepherd Press: 2008; 201 pages)

I am reading and scanning a number of books as I work (delightedly and feverishly) on my own Proverbs book for Kress, and this is one of them.

A Proverbs Driven Life is neither a commentary nor strictly a study. The tone is largely pastoral, and the style is very readable. Pastor Selvaggio singles out a number of themes from Proverbs, and discusses them in a whole-canon setting. The themes are work, wealth, and relationships, with a focus on marriage and parenting.

A weakness of the book is that Selvaggio virtually never deals at all with the Hebrew text of Proverbs. Hence, a number of his critical definitions either are systematic, or are based on the English word. For instance, he defines wisdom as "an ability to make good decisions based on knowledge, and then act on those decisions in a way that’s effective and makes a difference" (14), and says that it "is about using knowledge well" (15). Perhaps, but that is not really the core sense of the Hebrew word; nor does Selvaggio demonstrate his definition from the text at all.

Also — endnotes! Brr-r-r-r.

In the plus-column: Selvaggio approaches Proverbs as a Christian, and sets it in the context of the whole Bible. He has some brief but solid reflections on Christ as the embodiment and source of the sort of wisdom Proverbs idealizes.

Further, though Selvaggio does not treat the interpretation and application of Proverbs at length, he does give some admirably concise, helpful guidelines. To wit:
  1. Use basic logic (17-18; i.e. don’t make 13:11 say that all loss of money necessarily indicates dishonest gain)
  2. Don’t read any proverb in isolation (18)
  3. Don’t put God on your timetable (18-19)
  4. Make God the goal of your obedience (19).
Also, the book communicates a good bit of pastoral wisdom in critical areas of marriage and parenting. I appreciate that Selvaggio has a word — not just for those who have not yet made choices or commitments, but also — for those who have made sinful or unwise choices or decisions. Academic treatments may have more grounding and substance, but they seldom display a good, experienced pastor's heart in their treatment of the text as Selvaggio does.

For instance:
Younger Christians in particularly would often assess their prospective spouses much like Israel assessed the Gibeonites. They relied solely on their reason and the external facts as the basis for entering into a vow. They failed to reflect thoughtfully or inquire deeply of God before speaking a vow meant to last a lifetime (31)
However, I didn't love Selvaggio's apparently-approving quotation of William Arnot in the context of finding a mate: “Our Father loves to be consulted in this great life-match for his children, and they who ask His advise [sic] will not be sent away without it” (144). So... ask God which one of the hundreds of thousands of eligible singles to marry, and He'll.... do what? Offer His opinion? Verbally? By direct revelation? Perhaps a vision? This offers false hope (and imposes a false, unbearable burden) without Biblical warrant; thankfully, it is an exception.

(The lesson there, children, is: just because a guy's dead, doesn't mean he's Canon. Know what I mean?)

I was also a bit stunned at Selvaggio's blunt and unqualified insistence that a person whose mate has committed adultery should number himself/herself among the finger-pointing accusers of the (textually dubious) John 8:1-11, and basically just let it go (166). Wow. Readers will find a much more Biblically satisfying approach to such situations in Chris Brauns' book. I actually, literally looked at the blank remainder of that page and the next page, to make sure I hadn't missed something. I hadn't. Yikes.

My final thought is: I sure wish I'd thought of the title first!

But, alas, I didn't.


Dan Phillips's signature

21 December 2009

Robert George and the New Ecumenism

by Phil Johnson

    know what you're thinking: we've already beaten the Manhattan Declaration to death, and we don't need another TeamPyro post on the issue.

I was feeling the same way myself two weeks ago, but the horse keeps coming back to life. Last week, for example, the New York Times published this feature profiling Robert P. George, the sole Roman Catholic in the triumvirate of authors who wrote the Manhattan Declaration. George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and heir to the late Richard John Neuhaus's mantle as American conservatism's leading Catholic intellectual.

George, like Neuhaus, is ecumenical in a uniquely Roman Catholic and conservative sense. In a recent Touchstone article pleading for Christian unity in the midst of cultural division, he celebrates the fact that "the pro-life movement and . . . other godly causes to protect the vulnerable and heal a wounded culture" have brought Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern orthodox believers together despite their fundamental doctrinal differences. George seems to suggest that the moral issues are, after all, vastly more important than whatever points of doctrine once divided Protestants from Rome (and Rome from Constantinople).

In fact, George implies that the main reason the ecumenical movement exists and is growing today is because the old doctrinal issues that divided Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants simply aren't relevant in the culture war. Allowing doctrinal differences to keep us from putting up a completely united front in the culture war is "misguided," George says. How could our benighted spiritual ancestors have been so foolish as to disfellowship one another over differences about the gospel? Take, for example, "the differences between Catholics and Lutherans regarding justification." Were those really fundamental differences in the first place, or were the Reformers and the Council of Trent mostly just talking past one another? George offhandedly asserts that those things were mostly "misunderstandings" that have now been "clear[ed] away."

He writes,
For Christians who are part of this new ecumenical alliance, ancient animosities and mutual suspicions have quite simply vanished. No longer do we view each other as "heretics" or "apostates," much less as "infidels." Many of us find it increasingly difficult to fathom how it could be that generations of Christians did perceive and speak of each other in these harsh terms. Despite our differences, we regard each other—effortlessly—as brothers and sisters in the Lord. We joyfully work together across the old lines of division; we pray together; we support and counsel one another; we listen to—and learn from—one another; we seek understanding and, much more often than not, are able to find or establish it. Together we pray for the "complete and visible" unity that would truly be the fulfillment of Christ's prayer.

Yet read the rest of the article and see if you don't come away with a strong impression that George's own idea of "a more perfect unity of mind and spirit" can never truly exist unless Rome's Pope is in charge of it.

Anyway, be sure to read the New York Times piece. It's an insightful behind-the-scenes look at how the conservative movement's agenda is being shaped. It further highlights some troubling ideas underlying the strategy that produced the Manhattan Declaration.

In short, Robert George's contribution has been to seek ways to argue against gay marriage, abortion, and other social evils by appealing to "natural law" rather than Scripture. George is convinced that conservatives in the culture war need to build their case on "principles of right reason and natural law," not biblical law. George wants conservatives in the culture war to make their appeal to logic, not the Bible. In the words of the NYT article, "George is the leading voice for a group of Catholic scholars known as the new natural lawyers. He argues for the enforcement of a moral code as strictly traditional as that of a religious fundamentalist. What makes his natural law 'new' is that it disavows dependence on divine revelation or biblical Scripture—or even history and anthropology. Instead, George rests his ethics on a foundation of 'practical reason': 'invoking no authority beyond the authority of reason itself,' as [George himself] put it in one essay" (emphasis added).

Even the New York Times writer (David D. Kirkpatrick) seemed to sense that the biblical truths of original sin and human depravity posed a fairly fundamental challenge to Robert George's notion that society can be won to righteousness through human reason alone. He writes,
I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity's only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) "This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong," George acknowledges.

This is indeed a serious issue, and George is wrong. What sinners in this decaying culture need is redemption and spiritual rebirth, not merely sounder moral logic and more convincing rational arguments about why their sin is bad.

Read the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians for an extended biblical rebuttal to George's strategy.

As we have been saying for years, the gospel—not natural law, moralistic logic, philosophical reasoning, or political strategizing, but the gospel—is the power of God unto salvation. God's Word doesn't need an intellectual's rational arguments to prop it up. It may sound foolish to suggest that the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly and supported only with "thus saith the Lord" carries more weight or is actually more efficacious than an elaborate philosophical argument, but that is, after all, what God himself says—and "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25). That verse comes in a context where Paul is explaining in detail why the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God, and why the gospel is ultimately a more persuasive and more effective means of individual and cultural transformation than all the philosophical arguments, moralistic reason, and academic logic the brightest minds and most eloquent orators of this world have to offer.

If evangelicals really want to make an impact on our culture, we need to keep that in mind. We need to get to work proclaiming the gospel in our own communities. And frankly, we ought to leave the philosophical strategy in the culture war to people who have no sharper weapon. Declarations of spiritual unity with moralists, academicians, and religious figures who reject the gospel are a sham and a lie, and such declarations do undermine the gospel and muddy our testimony—regardless of anyone's original intent.

Phil's signature

20 December 2009

God Will Wound the Heads of His Enemies

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "The Royal Prerogative," a Sunday-morning sermon on Psalm 68:21 ("God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses"), preached 15 February 1880, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London. Spurgeon's message struck me as a fitting answer to the article Shane Claiborne wrote for Esquire last month.

    new god has been lately set up among men, the god of modern Christianity, the god of modern thought, a god made of honey or sugar or lead. He is all leniency, gentleness, mildness, and indifference in the matter of sin. Justice is not in him, and as for the punishment of sin, he knows it not.

The Old Testament, as you are no doubt made aware by the wise men of this world, takes a very harsh view of God, and therefore modern wisdom sets it aside. Forsooth, one half the word of God is out of date, and turned to waste paper. Although our Lord Jesus did not come "to destroy the law or the prophets," but to fulfill them, yet the advanced thinkers of these enlightened times tell us that the idea of God in the Old Testament is a false one. We are to believe in a new god, who does not care whether we do right or wrong, for by his arrangement all will come to the same end in the long run. There may be a little twisting about for awhile for some who are rather incorrigible, but it will all come right at last. Live as you like, go and swear and drink, go and oppress the nations, and make bloody wars, and act as you will; by jingo you will be all right at last.

This is roughly the modern creed which poisons all our literature. But let me say, by Jehovah, this shall not be as men dream. Jehovah, the Judge of all the earth, must do right. The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob is the God of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: the God of the whole earth shall he be called. He hath not changed one whit in the stern integrity of his nature, and he will by no means spare the guilty.

Read, then, the last verse of our text, and believe that it is as true to-day as when it was first written, and that if Jesus himself were here, the meek and lowly one would say it in tones of tearful solemnity, but he would utter it none the less. "God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses."

It is clear from these words that God is not indifferent to human character. Our God knows his enemies, he does not mistake them for friends, nor treat them as such. He regards iniquity as a trespass, and therefore he has not broken down the bounds of law, nor the hedges of right: there are trespasses still, and God perceives them, and notes them down, and such as go on in their trespasses are trying his longsuffering and provoking his justice. God sleeps not, neither does he wink at human sin, but calls upon all men everywhere to repent.

And it is clear too that God has the power to smite those who rebel against him. Dream not of natural laws which will screen the wicked—"He shall wound the head of his enemies." They may lift up those heads as high as they please, but they cannot be beyond the reach of his hand. He will not merely bruise their heels, or wound them on the back with blows which may be healed, but at their heads he will aim fatal blows, and lay them in the dust. He can do it, and he will.

C. H. Spurgeon

19 December 2009

Final notes on the Mainstreaming of Mormonism

Leftover comments about this week's discussion
Wrapping Up on the issue of Evangelical-Mormon Rapprochement

(First posted Friday, September 09, 2005)

Pyromaniac Diner

've had a couple of private conversations and received a few off-line e-mails this week [September 5-9, 1995] regarding the Millet-MacArthur meetings. Also, one or two issues came up in the comments that I wanted to respond to but didn't have time.

So I thought a good way to end the week was by posting a list of my own comments and observations. Here are a few lingering thoughts about evangelical-Mormon détente:
  1. I agree with whoever said it's not entirely fair to draw harsh conclusions about Talbot School of Theology solely from a paper two students wrote eight years ago.
  2. Still, I think there's ample evidence that recent policies at Biola-Talbot have deliberately and aggressively sought to move the school's historic boundaries outward. In the late '90s, after a task force issued a report advising the administration that Eastern Orthodox doctrine is incompatible with the school's evangelical stance, three Eastern Orthodox faculty members (including an Orthodox priest who served as dean of students) were nevertheless permitted to remain in their teaching positions.
  3. And here's a giddy news report from a Mormon source celebrating the fact that eighteen Biola students visited Brigham Young University last January for dialogue and relationship-building, so that the evangelical students could "pursue truth together" with Mormon kids.
  4. One of the main organizers of that get-together was Pastor Greg Johnson, who has practically made a career out of holding public "dialogues" with Mormonism's best-known missionary to naive evangelicals, Dr. Robert Millet. Pastor Johnson had the unmitigated gall to tell a Mormon reporter, "We are trying to show the upcoming generation that we don't have to be confrontational on truth. There is a lot of room for us to build on our compromise of scriptures." Those are his exact words. I kid you not.
  5. To be clear: I don't think the atmosphere of creeping ecumenism is unique to Biola. You'll find evidence of the same subtle latitudinarianism at many once-solid evangelical schools (and even a few formerly fundamentalist ones). But if you were to ask me whether the ideas set forth by Carl Mosser and Paul Owen in their infamous 1997 paper are novel notions they brought with them to Talbot or the kind of ideas we might expect from someone who has absorbed the post-evangelical atmosphere that dominates many so many institutions of higher learning in the Moody/Wheaton/Biola genre—my judgment would be the latter.
  6. Dr. Millet and Pastor Johnson
    Dr. Millet and Pastor Johnson
    By the way, Greg Johnson is the Utah pastor who (before it became clear that his strategy was one of compromise) first contacted John MacArthur to arrange a meeting with Millet in 1997. Johnson is a former Mormon, and he has founded a ministry he calls "Standing Together." He seems obsessed with "seeking common ground" between Mormons and evangelicals, and he and Millet appear regularly together on a television program aired in Salt Lake City, called "Bob and Greg in Conversation."
         Here's an intriguing point of trivia: Johnson and Millet made a joint pilgrimage to visit the esteemed Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, back in May [2005].
  7. Both Carl Mosser and Paul Owen e-mailed me today [9 September 2005] after hearing about yesterday's blogpost. Without really addressing anything concrete in my posts, Owen accused me of "lying" and (as is his custom) dismissed me and pretty much all my friends as "uneducated." As usual, however, despite all his bluster about academic integrity and the importance of dispassionate scholarship, he neglected to reply with anything resembling an argument or documentation.
         Mosser was friendlier, but he said according to the way he remembers it, MacArthur ultimately confirmed Mosser's description of the Millet meeting and I later had to retract my objection to Mosser's account of the meeting. Apparently Mosser's memory is as mangled as his original report claiming "that Millet and MacArthur came very close together in their views."
  8. For the record, here is John MacArthur's own description of the Millet meeting, taken from a letter MacArthur wrote to clarify the facts for someone who had been told that MacArthur was part of the campaign to establish "common ground" with Mormonism:
When I met with Robert Millet I expressed my conviction as clearly as possible that the God of the Bible is a completely different God from the god of Mormonism, that the Christ of Scripture is a wholly different Christ from the christ of Mormonism, and the true gospel is a radically different gospel from the gospel of Mormonism.
     I have maintained a cordial relationship with Dr. Millet for the sake of the truth, and am happy to provide him with as much of my material as he wishes to read. But my concern is for the truth; I'm not interested in artificial harmony between two contradictory faiths. For that reason I have consistently made clear in all my dialogue with Dr. Millet that there is no spiritual common ground between biblical Christianity and Mormonism.
     I would never deliberately equivocate on the truth or do anything that might lend credence to Mormonism. I'm convinced (as are all who understand Scripture accurately) that Mormonism is a false religion, generated by Satan. It is a damnable heresy, and in the words of Paul, "a different gospel," under God's anathema.

Clear enough? Phil's signature

18 December 2009

Talbot-Trained "Evangelical" apologists for Mormonism?

Clueless Losers?
Carl Mosser and Paul Owen Weigh in on my comments about MacArthur, Millet, and Mormonism

(First posted Thursday, September 08, 2005)

n 1997 Carl Mosser and Paul Owen were graduate students at Talbot School of Theology. In April of that year, they jointly presented a paper at the Far West regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The paper, titled "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" was a harsh critique of evangelical counter-cult ministries and a paean to the supposed superiority of Mormon scholarship.

Mosser and Owen said that when it comes to dealing with Mormon apologetics, evangelical apologists are, on the whole, clueless losers. That wasn't the precise language they used, of course, but it was undeniably the point of the paper. In their own words: "At the academic level evangelicals are losing the debate with the Mormons. We are losing the battle and do not know it. In recent years the sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably while evangelical responses have not." And, "In this battle the Mormons are fighting valiantly. And the evangelicals? It appears that we may be losing the battle and not knowing it."

If nothing else, the paper was a public-relations bonanza for Mormons. It can still be found on websites offering Mormon missionaries ammunition for use against evangelicals. (One site includes a glossary that explains terms like apologetic and hermeneutics. Evidently, impressive as current Mormon scholarship may be, there are still a few Mormons bicycling around your neighborhood who haven't quite acquired the highbrow theological vocabulary or attained the rarefied level of scholarly erudition embodied in the work of these two Talbot students.)

Anyway, about a year after Mosser and Owen presented their ETS paper, they participated in an e-mail forum on apologetics where I occasionally posted. When the subject of Mormon soteriology came up, sure enough, the Millet-MacArthur meeting (see [Monday's] post) was instantly played like a trump card. What follows are my four contributions to the subsequent discussion.

These are somewhat long but (I think) not tedious, and well worth the time. The discussion was filled with insights on the subjects of cluelessness, scholarship, research, even-handedness, logic, apologetics, and effective evangelism. From these four messages you'll be able to discern the gist of what was being said on all sides. (These are posts from a discussion forum, so this is not private correspondence I am quoting from.)

Subject: The truth about MacArthur and the Mormons
Date: Wed, 4 Mar 1998 13:55:33 -800

Carl Mosser writes:

Millet has gone so far as to meet with John MacArthur in person to make sure that they understood matters similarly. I don't know what MacArthur's evaluation of the meeting was, but a pastor friend who was instrumental in organizing the meeting and who participated told me that Millet and MacArthur came very close together in their views on this matter.

That was definitely not MacArthur's perspective.

Millet and others have selectively cited snippets from The Gospel According to Jesus and Faith Works to try to suggest that their view of justification is not much different from John MacArthur's. They evidently imagine that when MacArthur points out the inevitability of good works in a true Christian's life he is saying good works are in some sense the ground of the Christian's justification. The truth is that MacArthur has gone to great lengths to insist otherwise, even to the point of writing a whole chapter exploring this point with regard to justification by faith alone in Faith Works.

The difference between MacArthur and the Mormons (on justification) is that MacArthur believes the imputed righteousness of Christ is the sole and sufficient ground of the Christian's justification. The Mormons deny this. Since both sides believe a changed life is the necessary and inevitable result of conversion, Millet wants to portray their difference over justification by faith alone as insignificant. But it is not. It is the whole difference between the true gospel and the lie the apostle Paul anathematized in Galatians 1. (Proponents of ECT would do well to take note of this point, too).

In the Millet-MacArthur meetings MacArthur highlighted those issues and also pointed out that Mormon Christology is fatally flawed. In fact, Mormonism's flawed Christology is one of the heresies lying at the root of the Mormon error over justification by faith.

I'm told that the meeting was cordial, even warm. (I was supposed to be there but ended up in hospital that week, so my knowledge of this meeting is based on what John MacArthur and Jerry Wragg [associate pastor, who attended the meeting] told me.) But the friendly tone of the meeting should not be used to obscure the substance of what was said. If someone is telling you that MacArthur and the Mormons were close to agreement on the gospel, that person either missed the point or is spin-doctoring the issues for PR purposes.

I was also told that MacArthur—in classic MacArthur style—grilled Millet with questions, forced him to make distinctions, etc. to make sure that he really held the view he said he did.

. . . and he did this to underscore for Millet's sake the fact that Millet's view is not the same as MacArthur's.

All indications are that in certain Mormon circles a substantive move has been made toward an orthodox position.

"A substantive move" toward orthodoxy? I can say this with certainty: MacArthur would call that a gross overstatement. I think the most he would say is that these guys are getting very good at nuancing their position to make it sound evangelical. We're very wary of a Mormon-evangelical effort that mirrors what the proponents of ECT are doing on the Catholic front.

Phillip R. Johnson

Subject: Re: MacArthur, Millet & theological coffee brewing
Date: Thu, 5 Mar 1998 16:56:44 -800

Carl Mosser writes:

I suppose there could be something I have missed or forgot, but to my recollection no Mormon interprets MacArthur as saying that "good works are in some sense the ground of the Christian's justification."

I doubt he has employed those very words. That was my summary of Millet's position. It is, I believe, a fair assessment of why he has seized on MacArthur's works to stress the importance of good works. Combine his view that works are necessary with a denial of sola fide, and there's no option I know of but the view that "good works are in some sense the ground of the Christian's justification"—even if that's not precisely the language he is currently using to state his own position.

I agree that Millet wants to portray the difference over the word "alone" as insignificant.; I also agree with you that it is not insignificant. Further, I agree that proponents of ECT should take note of this point. However, the points raised by myself and Paul Owen are not that Mormons now hold a completely orthodox soteriology free from Gal. 1's condemnation. What we are trying to get across to people is that there is a trend in Mormon soteriology toward a more orthodox understanding of grace and works and justification.

I understand. What I don't understand is your eagerness to view this trend with such a high level of optimism. A damnable theology is still damnable whether it is overt, like Zoroastrianism, or subtle, like Galatianism. In fact, I would argue that Galatianism poses a greater danger precisely because of its close resemblance to orthodoxy. The subtlety of it makes it something we should argue even more fiercely against.

Furthermore, I know of no case where any cult has become evangelical through doctrinal evolution. The jury is still out on the WWCOG [Worldwide Church of God], as far as I am concerned. I'm hoping to see them arrive at a sound position and park themselves there, but there's no guarantee it will happen. In fact, I'll be surprised if it does. There is certainly no precedent for it.

(I realize many have already declared the WWCOG perfectly sound, but I fear the "movement" we have seen in the WWCOG is already propelling them beyond evangelical orthodoxy, into neo-orthodoxy mixed with a dangerous ecumenism. More frighteningly, they seem to be following the [Robert] Brinsmead trail. Some of you will know what I mean.)

Here I think you have not read what I wrote very carefully. I did not in any way say that MacArthur and the Mormons were close to agreement on the gospel. My point was made in direct reference to the specific aspect of grace and works. Millet's and MacArthur's views are close to each other on the role works play in evidencing true faith, how true faith manifests itself in faithfulness, etc..

. . . but only in the sense that Galatianism was "close" to the true gospel. The Judaizers' legalism was certainly closer to the truth than non-Christian Pharisaism. But Paul evidently did not have the sort of enthusiasm about the Galatian legalists that you seem to think evangelicals ought to have for these rogue Mormons' subtle adaptations of evangelical soteriology.

It was reported to me that MacArthur in fact said that he was positive about what he heard if it is genuine, encouraged Millet to keep asking the types of questions he did, and was encouraged of what is happening in Mormonism if Millet is representative. Please ask him if this is accurate, I'll check my source as well.

MacArthur may well have said those things, or something close—but I know for a fact that he said much more. Others who were in the meeting told me he kindly suggested to Millet that when Millet came to a full understanding of biblical soteriology, he would be compelled in spirit and in conscience to leave Mormonism.

MacArthur tells me he does not see how anyone who was present at those meetings could possibly have come away with the opinion that John MacArthur believes evangelical-Mormon rapprochement is a valid means of evangelizing Mormons.

A final point. The fact that there even was a meeting between an important and influential Mormon thinker and a prominent Evangelical for the express purpose of discussing theology is quite an illustration of the points about change occurring that I and Paul are trying to make. First, this shows that Mormons are beginning to read Evangelical literature. This in itself is an important change. It shows that they are not finding their own writings sufficiently helpful when doing theology. So, they are turning to ours. Good. I am glad they are reading our books, this might influence them toward truth (rather than reading liberals who would leave them damned). Second, it is a change that a Mormon of Millet's stature would look up to and learn from an Evangelical like MacArthur.

You're saying you have no fear that this might to some degree involve nuancing or posturing for PR purposes?

There must be something in Millet's theology different from his predecessors' that he would find MacArthur's Protestant views so attractive. That Millet, Dean of Religious Education at BYU, went out of his way to fly to California to meet with MacArthur indicates something new blowing in the wind. The LDS Church may not yet be on the brink of a WWCOG kind of change, but something is brewing in Mormonism's coffee house.

That vague almond-flavor I smell reeks of cyanide, not Amaretto.

Taking my coffee with cream and sugar,

Spitting mine out quickly,

Phillip R. Johnson

Subject: Re: Mormonism
Date: Fri, 6 Mar 1998 11:00:16 -800

Paul Owen gave me permission to respond publicly to a post he sent privately, because the server won't let him post to the list. So in fairness to him I have quoted his entire post below. Nothing has been cut. However, my comments have been interspersed at the points where they apply:

Mr. Johnson, I am emailing you personally because something is not working right with my [DISCUSSION FORUM] account, and none of my messages seem to get through. _________ says he is working on it. Before I get started, just for trivia sake, you probably don't remember me but several years back when I was in Bible college, I sent a critique of Charismatic Chaos to MacArthur and you sent me a rather cordial letter in reply.

I looked it up in my correspondence log. I do remember.

Now, about Mormonism. I am going to be rather straightforward. You need to repent. I find your attitude to be most disturbing.

Interesting. We've never exchanged any correspondence on this issue. You don't really know how much or how little I know about Mormonism. Yet you're insisting I need to repent, and telling me so in unvarnished language.

Excuse me, but isn't that precisely the approach you are labeling uncharitable and unfruitful when applied in Mormon evangelism?

The bulk of the Evangelical counter-cult community is dead wrong in their attitude toward current trends in Mormonism. I don't know how I can put it any more plainly. My reasons for using such harsh language are manifold. First of all, neither you or John MacArthur have done enough reading in current LDS theological literature to make the bold, unqualified statements that you have made to Carl in your responses to him. Your views seem to be based entirely on one conversation between Millet and MacArthur. That hardly constitutes exhaustive research.

Well, I've never claimed that I have done "exhaustive research" into the latest trends in Mormonism. But the truth is, Paul, you have no basis whatsoever for speculating on how much or how little I have studied these issues. In other words, I have far better reasons for saying Mormons need to repent than you have for saying I need to repent.

And please, don't tell me that you have talked with lots of Mormons, and so you have a good handle on what their views are. You critique theological trends by interacting with qualified theologians, not untrained laypersons.

I wasn't going to tell you that. It strikes me as somewhat odd that while you're wagging your finger at me about my lack of scholarship you seem to imagine you can read my mind. :-)

By the way, this is very similar to my complaints about Charismatic Chaos. MacArthur interacted very little with careful Pentecostal and Charismatic theologians, and based his critique largely on the easiest of targets.

Thanks for sharing that. It's perfectly irrelevant to the point we're talking about here, though.

You display your lack of familiarity with LDS views in your comments. For instance, you still cling to the notion that Millet and company believe that good works are 'in some sense the ground of the Christian's justification.' But a reading of the current literature proves you dead wrong. Robinson, Millet, Lund and numerous others have stated rather clearly in numerous published works, that justification is based Soli on Christ's merits. They not only do not affirm, but in fact expressly deny that our works are the ground of justification. They believe and teach, unlike Roman Catholicism, that justification is forensic, and involves the imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness to the believer.

Well, I have read some of the literature Millet shared with MacArthur—enough to know you are giving an overly generous summary of his position. Though he acknowledges in places that the sinner's own works are not sufficient for justification, he insists throughout that our works are necessary for our justification. (You don't cite any quotations that support your interpretation of his position, which would have helped.)

In any case, the Mormons are hardly in the Reformation tradition. The comments on justification I have seen from Mormon sources— even the recent ones—are seriously muddled at best, even if they are not explicit denials of sola fide. I have seen nothing from any Mormon author defending forensic justification, and that was certainly not a point Millet made in his dialogue with MacArthur.

However, whatever Mormons might say about the imputation of Christ's righteousness must be understood in light of their mangled Christology, and it cannot be orthodox, no matter how much they employ the language of imputation.

It is true, that current LDS theologians continue to stress the necessity of good works. But such works are not understood as meriting justification in any way, but rather are markers of sincerity, and the fruit of true faith. In other words, works are necessary as evidence of genuine faith and repentance. Because Mormons (I mean of the Robinson-Millet variety—the current trend) stress that faith must be accompanied by works in this manner, they are hesitant to adhere to the formula 'faith alone' unless this is qualified very carefully.

I would indeed like to see how they qualify it without making works a ground of justification, or without making works part of the definition of faith (which is tantamount to the same thing). If you know of a source you can point me to, I'll be happy to read it. But if you're saying the trend in Mormon theology is toward sola fide, and you want me to buy that, you're going to have to supply something more than assertions.

But Robinson himself has stated that he is willing to speak of 'faith alone' so long as works are not thereby excluded as 'evidence' of true commitment. It is also true that Mormons still believe that baptism is necessary for regeneration and union with Christ. But please keep in mind that such champions of grace as Augustine and Luther both likewise believed in baptismal regeneration—so this does not automatically make the Mormons legalists.

It doesn't? I'd say on that issue both Augustine and Luther were wrong, and their views on baptism smacked of a ritualistic legalism. In their arguments against Pelagianism and semi-pelagianism, however, both Luther and Augustine gave enough crystal-clear teaching about divine grace to retrieve the core of the gospel from the murkiness of their own legalistic understanding of baptism. I affirm what they wrote about grace; I deplore what they wrote about baptismal regeneration. I regard them as authentic Christians because their defense of grace made it clear that they understood the gospel sufficiently, even though they did not understand it perfectly. In both cases, grace was the central message of their ministry, and what we remember them most for.

The New Mormons, by contrast, merely seem to be trying to cloak the Pelagian principle at the heart of their belief system with some cunningly-adapted evangelical terminology. That doesn't work for me. There's no valid parallelism between Augustine and Robert Millet.

If you disagree, show me a Mormon source that elucidates the doctrines of grace as clearly as Luther's Bondage of the Will or Augustine's "Treatise on Nature and Grace," and I might think you're onto something. At the moment, though, it sounds to me as if you and Carl think Mormonism might be embraced as truly Christian with a little subtle nuancing. I hope that is not what you are saying.

Second, I can't understand why on earth you say to Carl, 'What I don't understand is your eagerness to view this trend with such a high level of optimism.' Why shouldn't we be optimistic about seeing important and influential LDS thinkers looking to orthodox Christian writers like MacArthur for theological guidance? Why shouldn't we be encouraged when we see adherents of another religion being attracted by the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel of Grace? Why on earth do you have such a rotten attitude about this?

I don't know, Paul. Heresy just has a way of making me indignant.

I can just hear some 1st-century theological student on the banks of the Jordan: "Why shouldn't we be optimistic when important and influential Pharisees come to a prophet like John the Baptist for baptism? Why shouldn't we be encouraged when we see adherents of other sects being attracted by John's call to repentance? Why on earth does John have such a rotten attitude about this?" (Matt. 3:7-8).

Third, your comparison of Mormon theologians to the Galatian heretics is hermeneutically irresponsible. The problem at Galatia was far more than a simple issue of legalism. A comparison with Acts 15 will show that there were a variety of approaches to the Mosaic Law in the earliest decades of the Church, within the genuine believing community. The Pharisaic wing of the Church (Acts 15:5) was not automatically condemned as heretical, although it was determined that the view of Paul and Barnabas was most consistent with Scripture and the will of God. The issue at Galatia was that the false teachers were denying Paul's apostolic credentials and divine calling. They were tearing apart the Christian community by claiming that the Gospel which Paul brought to them was inadequate.

So you're saying all those conditions must be present before we oppose Mormonism as utterly non-Christian? I disagree, and I think your position is the one that's "hermeneutically irresponsible." In fact, what you're suggesting takes the force out of Paul's warning to the Galatians. Paul himself said that when someone corrupts the gospel, that alone is grounds for rejecting them (Gal. 1:8-9). Paul's apostolic authority was not even an issue: "But even if we . . . should preach to you a contrary gospel . . . anathema!" (v. 8).

Now I agree that the Mormon church at the present time still falls under the category of Galatianism in that they claim to be the only divinely authorized Church. But they are significantly different from the Galatian heretics in that: 1) They affirm the Apostle Paul's credentials and authority; and 2) They do not teach that law-keeping is necessary for justification—except as evidence of genuine faith, which I have already discussed.

Whether Mormons accept Paul's apostolic credentials or not is irrelevant if they corrupt the gospel. See above. Plus, they worship a different Christ. They are not Christians.

Finally, I simply cannot believe that you are so suspicious of the motives of these people. Do you really think that Millet flew all the way to California just to learn from MacArthur how to masquerade better as a Christian? I am so weary of hearing all this talk about how the Mormon Church is 'trying' to sound Christian. Maybe they are 'trying' to sound like the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers. Have you ever thought of that?

I'm certain that many JWs sincerely believe they are "trying" to be totally biblical, and Pauline. That does not obligate me to embrace them as brethren. If Christ's sheep hear His voice and follow Him (Jn. 10:27), what does that say about Mormons, who follow a different christ? (cf. Jn. 10:5).

Anyways, if __________ fixes whatever is wrong my previous message may end up getting posted, which you can ignore because it is very similar to what I have just written to you. Then again, you will probably ignore this email letter. If you choose to say anything in reply, you can do it personally, or on [the public forum]. Sincerely, Paul Owen

As you can see, I did not ignore your e-mail. It strikes me as odd, Paul, that you are so eager to be charitable and friendly to Mormons but are perfectly willing to think evil of evangelicals. I fear for where this crusade will lead you. And I would urge you to contemplate how seriously out of harmony with the NT your approach to Mormonism is. Where do you see Paul—or any NT writer, for that matter—responding to false religion by trying to woo the false teachers into the fold?

Phillip R. Johnson

Subject: Final comments on MacArthur and Millet
Date: Mon, 9 Mar 1998 01:16:26 -800

Carl Mosser writes:

[Forum members], notice that Johnson has not read Millet or any other Mormons.

I have made no pretense of any broad expertise with regard to "the latest in Mormon theological developments." What prompted me to enter this thread in the first place was Carl Mosser's suggestion that John MacArthur and modern Mormon scholars are "very close together in their views" on soteriology. The implication of Carl's earlier posts seemed to be that John MacArthur's recent meeting with Prof. Millet had resulted in near total accord between MacArthur and Millet on the crucial aspects of soteriology. The point I was keen to make is that John MacArthur himself does not believe that to be the case. I'll reiterate that here for clarity's sake.

Millet evidently came to the meeting eager to assure John MacArthur of his personal agreement with MacArthur's two books The Gospel According to Jesus and Faith Works. After listening graciously to Millet explain why he believed the two of them were in harmony, John MacArthur explained why he believed otherwise. I'm told (by others present at the meetings) that John's side of the dialogue consisted chiefly of underscoring for Millet what a great chasm remained between their positions. John himself tells me he reminded Millet that the two of them worship different Gods, follow different Christs, and proclaim different gospels. There is no real common ground. John says Millet's response was cordial: "I would have been disappointed in you if you had not been frank with me." Others present have confirmed that is what Millet said.

(BTW, I would have been in those meetings myself but I was quite literally lingering at death's doorstep those couple of days, undergoing three surgeries in as many days for a ruptured gall bladder. I'm not speaking as a distant observer but as someone who had a close interest in that dialogue from the beginning.)

In any case, I will be happy to get a formal statement from John MacArthur himself if Carl or anyone else wants to dispute the point further. It is simply wrong and misleading to suggest that MacArthur's views on justification and the role of faith and works are not significantly different from Millet's.

I also want to say this about the broad issue of Mormon apologetics: If Carl Mosser and Paul Owen were only saying that evangelical apologists need to stay abreast of recent Mormon scholarship and handle Mormon beliefs with integrity, I would agree completely, of course. And to the degree that this is what they are saying, I affirm the point.

However, I frankly have not seen much evidence that Mosser's and Owen's own approach to "scholarship" is dispassionate and without an agenda. Their responses to me have been anything but scholarly and fair. Paul's first words to me were a demand for my repentance, and Carl spent a couple of posts trying to discredit scholarly credentials I never claimed for myself in the first place. Both have condemned my "attitude," which they have far less basis to evaluate than I have for concluding that modern Mormon soteriology is unorthodox.

When Carl suggested that Mormon soteriology is substantially in harmony with Reformed and evangelical beliefs and then summoned John MacArthur's name as a witness in favor of that assertion, I felt I had both a right and a duty to speak up on MacArthur's behalf. Mormon scholar or not, I certainly have enough knowledge to refute that claim with some authority. I will do so again if anyone tries to represent MacArthur's position as "very close" to anything that would harmonize with Mormon theology. As MacArthur pointed out to Millet himself, Mormon Christology a priori rules out an orthodox position on justification. The two positions, far from being "very close" to one another, are quite incompatible. That is the main point I have tried to make, and attacking me on the grounds that I have not thoroughly studied Millet's works does not nullify the point.

Carl writes,

It should be mentioned, in order to be fair, that when Mormons like Robinson and Millet say that they deny sola fide they are very careful to qualify just what they mean by this. They deny any version of sola fide interpreted to mean that one can be saved by a faith that is alone, that does not manifest itself in works. That is, they deny the Zane Hodges understanding of sola fide. They are also careful to say that they do not see works as the basis of justification. They are careful to tell us that they believe faith is the only ground of justification and that if one understands sola fide to mean that true saving faith will manifest itself in good works, then they do believe in sola fide.

However (and this was precisely the sort of thing I was talking about from the beginning): we do not believe faith is the ground of justification at all. The ground of justification is the perfect righteousness of Christ. Faith is simply the instrument by which justification is applied. I believe John MacArthur attempted to clarify some of these very issues with Millet. These are not minor differences but the very kind of difference that separates evangelicalism from virtually every cult.

I need to close out my involvement in this thread. We are hosting two international conferences at our church this week, and I will be swamped. So this must be my last contribution to this discussion. But let me say this once more in closing:

On the question of evangelical scholarship, I agree completely that those who work as apologists against Mormonism (I am not one of these and do not aspire to be) should diligently familiarize themselves with current Mormon trends. And all of us who speak about Mormon doctrine should do so responsibly and with the highest standards of integrity.

But I also believe that those evangelicals who study Mormon trends ought to do so dispassionately, without forming any Mormon- evangelical alliances. Mormonism is, after all, a false religion masquerading as Christianity. The spirit of 2 John 7-11 certainly applies here.

If that strikes you as an attitude for which I need to repent, you'll have to give me some biblical justification for that—not just an emotion-laden jeremiad. In the meantime I stand unashamedly against Mormonism as a false religion that damns its adherents. Love for Mormons compels me not to obscure that dreadful reality from them. And loyalty to the gospel binds me to that conviction.

Still wary of Mormons offering coffee,

Phillip R. Johnson

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