Tag Archives: Faith

Our Fears Betray Us

by W. Jackson Watts

(this essay first appeared on the Helwys Society Forum on November 16; It has been republished here with permission)

In the days following the election of Donald Trump, thousands of opinion pieces have appeared in newspapers, periodicals, and online news outlets. Such pieces range from the jubilant and finger-wagging to the angry and finger-pointing. Some are analyzing the data gleaned from exit polling, while others are scrutinizing the counties that flipped from Obama to Trump.

However, one sentiment that has emerged since around the midnight to 1am hour (CST) on Wednesday is fear. Such fearful disbelief was seen on the faces of disheartened young volunteers at Clinton headquarters, in celebrities’ tweets, and in pundits’ commentary. Fear is certainly not all that is on display; anger is, too. The anti-Trump protests certainly reflect deep anger toward the president-elect, those who elected him, and the campaign that swept him into office. Fear and anger often go hand-in-hand.

But the fears concerning Mr. Trump are most troubling from the standpoint of our republic, and certainly from a deeper religious perspective. Fear often betrays deeply held beliefs, emotions, and commitments, which may hinder our thriving as human beings and as a nation. Here I’ll focus on two problems that our current fears reveal.[1]

(1) Our Vision of the Presidency

Ever since the Progressive era (circa late 1800s to 1940), a vision of the Constitution arose that viewed it and its signatories as being out of touch with the demands of modern times. Underlying this vision were several beliefs, among them being an evolutionary view of human thought and history. The thought goes something like this: “The founders couldn’t have envisioned the complexity of modern civilization, or intended that the Constitution not occasionally undergo revision or reinterpretation.”

Fast-forward to our present day, and we find ourselves living in the wake of several progressive presidencies (some democratic, some republican), which did much to expand the executive powers beyond their constitutional limits. Our system was designed with a separation of powers, distinguishing the executive branch from the legislative branch, the legislative branch from the judicial branch, and the judicial branch from the executive branch; equal, but separate. Such an arrangement was intended to provide checks and balances against any one branch or leader assuming power that wasn’t properly granted to them— an important reminder Matthew Bracey alludes to in his recent essay.

Why, then, is such fear present not only among ordinary citizens, but also among elites in the media, entertainment, and sports? Certainly wealth insulates some from many of the vulnerabilities typical of middle-to-low income Americans. This fear must be rooted in something besides party affiliation: Many believe we’re about to have a dangerous president.

This fear should first cause some anti-Trump persons to give pause, and remember the manner in which they ridiculed and dismissed the fears of anti-Obama persons over the last eight years. Obama advocates assured their fellow citizens that they were being unreasonable, unfair, and just plain wrong. So there seems to be some inconsistency here. As one journalist recently put it, separation of powers is suddenly en vogue again!

I would be chief among those who would name President-elect Trump’s flaws in terms of character, views, and preparedness to lead our country. However, our political system was designed precisely to protect citizens from flawed leaders. If there was ever evidence in recent history that our vision of the presidency has been compromised, it is the widespread fear. Our views of the executive branch and its power have grown to unhealthy and dangerous proportions. Conservatives have warned of this for years, though in truth, some were less troubled by it when purported conservative presidents were in office.

In 2014, columnist George Will explained the phenomenon of progressive presidential leadership in an excellent PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. He explained that the presidency is like a warm, leather glove. Each president who’s been elected has put that glove on. However, each successive president (at least every few anyway) has a larger hand, and thus stretches the glove just a bit larger.

Most conservatives would agree with these observations. However, Christians in particular should recognize that some who are fearful genuinely don’t know how to process the fact that the newly-elected president has sounded at times like a racist, misogynist, and/or any number of other despicable things. When we encounter such feelings, we should reassure fellow citizens that we’re just as committed to protecting their legitimate constitutional rights as we are our own.

Even assuming that the worst is true of Mr. Trump’s character and intentions, that one man could singlehandedly provoke, antagonize, or do legal harm to citizens belonging to any other nationality or religious group says something much worse than we know. It tells us that the executive branch—and the presidency specifically—has departed from its proper place, that it’s not a co-equal branch of government, that it doesn’t have checks and balances.

Christians have something significant to say to these concerns. We not only should reaffirm the constitutional separation of powers, but we must point to the larger metaphysical claim upon which this arrangement is based: there is such a thing as human nature, and it isn’t good. No doubt the founders’ beliefs differed about some of the specifics of human nature. It’s fair to say that though they weren’t all Reformed, they understood that too much power given to any one individual or institution could and would lead to lawlessness and tyranny. Believers can refine this insight with verses like Romans 3:10: “There is none righteous, not even one.”

A strong doctrine of sin is critical to preserving the integrity of limiting mechanisms within our social, civil, and political institutions. These mechanisms ensure that one bad man or woman cannot, in fact, take what is not theirs to take, or give what is not theirs to give (cf. Mk. 12:17).

The Bible has much to say about sin and its attendant components—guilt and depravity. Where we have sometimes failed is by stressing the individual dimensions of sin at the expense of the institutional or structural manifestations of sin, a point that mainline theologians have more often stressed. Biblically, sin is explained as an individual and corporate reality, but the discerning person recognizes that individual and corporate wickedness also manifests itself in the institutions humans create. In fact, such a claim may help explain why many suddenly find themselves so fearful about the presidency: we’ve turned a noble, limited office into a scary, unlimited office.

(2) Our Faith in Men

A second issue surrounding present fears is where the dangerous expansion of presidential power takes us. If we believe the office itself has the symbolic, political, and legal power to do such great harm, it becomes critically important that we have complete faith in the person elected, as well as the populace which does the electing. As many are learning now, hell hath no fury like a Clinton-voter scorn. But it isn’t the usual type of frustration. It is a sense of betrayal: “How could you put America in the hands of this person?”

Voters bear some responsibility for allowing and sometimes encouraging presidents to attempt to fix things that either they cannot fix, or should not attempt to fix. Good intentions or not, the blurring of proper boundaries sets dangerous precedents. That we allow this reveals beliefs we have about people that never serve us well in the end. Whenever one has an unrealistic and unhealthy (not to mention unconstitutional) view of presidential power, it fosters and then reveals a misplaced confidence in political leaders. This is true whenever we weep for joy when our candidate is elected, or weep fearfully when another chosen. We feel vulnerable to the whims of the elected, and the electorate.

Christians are warned of this type of false confidence, notably in two psalms. “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Ps. 118:8-9). Then again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4).

 In both passages, the psalmists warn about the folly of trusting in earthly rulers. These serve as cautions for those Christians who may have unwavering confidence that President-elect Trump will make good on all his promises they liked. If this isn’t enough of a caution, it may be healthy to revisit some of the fearmongering among evangelical Christians prior to the election. One would have thought that Mrs. Clinton’s status as the antichrist (or next to it) rose to the level of biblical revelation for some.

Conclusion

No doubt this was an important election, in ways still unknown at this point. For this reason, Christians still have responsibilities beyond the voting booth. Yet the fears of our current national moment are instructive about human nature, the lessons of history, the problem of double-standards, and the need to trust the one who sits on heaven’s throne, not who occupies the Oval Office.

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[1] My remarks on fear in this piece are not intended to apply to an otherwise biblical and prayerful concern that we might exhibit towards our nation and our times. Rather, my focus is more limited to the reaction of many to the outcome of the election and what it reveals.

Sanctification & the Second Blessing?

by. W. Jackson Watts

It has often been thought that there was a fundamental core of Christian teaching that has united orthodox believers through the ages. I tend to think this is not only historically the case, but theologically essential. Indeed, while we may debate the relative importance of certain issues, those doctrines which are tied most closely with the call to “repent and believe” the Gospel are those which should always occupy us the most.

However, Christian theology is much like a web of interlocking spiritual commitments. Pull one strand, and tension or slack will appear in another part of the web. The point of the metaphor is simply that doctrines tend to ‘hang together,’ which means that we want to think carefully about the relationships between our beliefs, even when diversity is evident on particular doctrinal questions among evangelicals.

In a 2014 monograph entitled Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, theologian Kelly Kapic has edited a fine collection of essays on sanctification. My interest was especially piqued by the French theologian Henri Blocher, and his unique essay in this volume.

Blocher’s essay is entitled “Sanctification by Faith?” and largely sets out to explain the nature of faith in the process of sanctification. However, as a bit of a theological foil, Blocher includes a foray into Keswick and Wesleyan thought as it relates to questions of sanctification. Specifically, he is interested in those forms of perfectionism (or spirituality more generally) that emphasize a second blessing or second work of grace that follows conversion. Essentially, the question is whether or not sanctification is to be seen as the necessary and unavoidable consequence of salvation by grace through faith, or tied to a later spiritual crisis or experience that ensues after a person has accepted Christ as Lord, and not just Savior.

One can quickly see that the tentacles of this specific issue reach in several different theological directions. I would simply call attention to Blocher’s straight talk on the issue.

In speaking of Christian maturity, it is certainly appropriate to talk about a process that unfolds in the life of a believer, consisting of natural steps of growth (including experiences). Blocher calls attention to the many metaphors for growth or progress in the New Testament. Plants grow. Infants mature. Yet he additionally warns that due to the metaphorical nature of this language, we can only press them so far. As he notes, sometimes we slip back or regress in our walk. Or, “In the sense of covenant renewal, we start again and again on the Christian path.”[1]

Yet just a few lines later, Blocher more directly speaks to the “experience-driven” accounts of sanctification.

Like life in general, sanctification knows a combination of special moments, seasons of intense transformation, critical transitions as well as more linear continuity. If one claims to have had a second blessing we may rejoice but add that God also has in store a third, a tenth and a seventy-seventh blessing along the way.[2]

In other words, a biblical view of sanctification will not repudiate the idea of receiving God’s blessings throughout one’s journey of faith. However, a biblical account will also not reduce sanctification to a single blessing, experience, or crisis that comes through additional “faith acts” down the road that are substantially different than the faith that justifies.

As Blocher poignantly surmises, “faith receives him, and in him everything is ours.”[3] God does indeed grow us in His grace over time. And this process will include numerous stages of life, transitions, and key moments of decision. Yet this does not mean that those truly in union with Christ today are consigned to wait for a second blessing that was not already built into the fabric of their very salvation.

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[1] Henri Blocher, “Sanctification by Faith?” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 74

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 72.

A Problem in Calvinism’s Order of Salvation

by J. Matthew Pinson

 In Calvinism, Regeneration comes before faith, whereas in Arminianism regeneration comes after faith. In other words, the “timing” of what Scripture describes as the “new birth” is decisive in the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. In Calvinism, God gives His elect a new birth. This is the result of their effectual calling (sometimes called “irresistible grace”). They cannot and will not resist it, because they see with new eyes. Their new birth creates in them a desire to repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus Christ.

In Reformed Arminianism, the order of salvation is different. God convicts and calls and draws people to himself, yet gives them the freedom to resist his grace. If they do not resist, and they receive God’s gift of salvation with the empty hands of faith, then God regenerates them. They experience a new birth only after receiving Christ through faith.

Leroy Forlines says that there is a problem for the coherence of Calvinism when it places regeneration before faith, because, as the great Calvinist theologian Louis Berkhof states, “Regeneration is the beginning of sanctification” [1]. It is a problem, logically, to place regeneration prior to faith in the ordo salutis (order of salvation) because, if regeneration is the beginning of sanctification, and if justification results from faith, then logically Calvinism is placing sanctification prior to justification.

The Calvinist Lorraine Boettner argues, “A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved” [2]. This really is what the Calvinist view of regeneration preceding faith amounts to. Yet, as Steve Lemke says, this seems to be getting the cart before the horse. Lemke provides another way of looking at this conundrum: “When does the Spirit come into a believer’s life? . . . What do the Scriptures say about the order of believing and receiving the Spirit?” [3].

This is particularly poignant, Lemke argues, in view of Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (NASB) [4].

Forlines hones in on why this is a logical difficulty for the Calvinist system: “Calvinists have, by and large, adhered to the satisfaction view of atonement and justification. If a person is consistent in developing the implications of the satisfaction view of atonement, it is clear that God cannot perform the act of regeneration (an act of sanctification) in a person before he or she is justified. God can move in with His sanctifying grace only after the guilt problem is satisfied by justification. To think otherwise is to violate the law of non-contradiction. I realize that when we talk about the ordo salutis (order of salvation) we are talking about logical order instead of chronological order. But that logical order is inviolable!” [5].

If Berkhof and Boettner are correct that regeneration is the beginning of salvation and sanctification (and I think they are), then the Calvinist ordo salutis, which places regeneration prior to saving faith, and thus prior to justification and the gift of the Spirit, is highly problematic.

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[1] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 262.

[2] Loraine Boettner. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia, PA: P&R, 1965), 101.

[3] Steve W. Lemke and David Allen, eds., Whosoever Will (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), 137.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Forlines, 86.