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When “Believing the Gospel” Doesn’t Work

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I wanted to re-post something that Chuck DeGroat wrote earlier this week on his blog, The New Exodus.  I think this is a pretty important discussion that needs to happen amongst the New Calvinism.  Reductionism is dangerous and it hurts people.  Legalism is dangerous and it enslaves people.

When “Believing the Gospel” Doesn’t Work

Maybe you’re like the many men and women who I’ve talked to.  Having been through Sonship (a fairly well-known discipleship program in conservative Reformed circles) or having digested the writings of Keller or Powlison or Tripp, your still struggling.  Or, maybe your version of “believing the Gospel” came from a preacher who told you that the answer to your lifetime of guilt was greater “Gospel depth” or deeper “Gospel transformation.”  And so, you searched high and low for that newer and better way, the Gospel way, only to try to believe better and repent better and be less guilty.  And that, too, didn’t amount to much.

Just recently, I was talking to yet another person whose digested all the writings and listened to all the sermons and read all the tweets, and ‘Gospel repenting and believing’ isn’t working.  He went through Sonship.  And each time he talked to his Gospel phone coach, he’d confess his latest idol.  “I’m justifying myself through my attempts to repent better, and repentance is now my idol.  So, I’m repenting of my repentance, but I’m still neck deep in feelings of guilt.  What’s wrong with me?”

“Gospel Tweeting” is the latest phenomenon.  The answer to all our problems is this:  Just believe the Gospel!  If it was that easy. This seems to me to be the newest quick fix, the most recent Christian cliche, and I’m growing weary of it.  I’ve counseled people who’ve done the full Sonship workout only to be more racked with guilt than ever.  They are repenting of their failed repenting and repenting of their failed attempt to confess their failed repenting.  They’re more twisted in guilt than ever.  And the ‘Gospel Twittersphere’ isn’t helping.

This is oversimplified Calvinism.  Period.  It doesn’t take the complexity of sin seriously enough, though it claims to in every way.  It doesn’t take it seriously because it oversimplifies the remedy, leaving troubled and struggling people feeling even worse.  Gospel counselors tell people that their troubles amount to a failure to believe the Gospel.  Freedom is available, we’re told.  Just repent and believe! Over and over, preachers are trying to boil this down to 140 characters on Twitter.  And I think it’s Gospel arrogance.

The problem is that we’re far more complex and psychologically broken that we’re often aware of.  It’s not just “unbelief” that bears down on us.  It’s a whole host of things – neural pathways grooved by years of living a certain way, a “divided heart” that thrives on its habitual polarities, weakness of will, and the extraordinary brokenness manifesting in the systems we inhabit, whether in our families or workplaces or churches.  And if I’m not being pessimistic enough, consider John Calvin’s words:

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)

But the problem extends beyond understanding the complexity.  It’s the cure that is far more difficult.  Having counseled too many men and women who beat themselves up for not growing fast enough by repenting and believing, I’m convinced we do many people a disservice (and harm!) by oversimplifying both the problem and the cure.  Those fearful of modern psychology need to begin listening at this point, because what we’ve found is that growth and maturity isn’t found in a method or a discipline or a repentance exercise.  In fact, growth is harder, longer, more painful, and more puzzling than many of us care to admit.  People who we serve in the church would like microwavable strategies, but the fact is that growth and maturity isn’t microwavable.  It defies programs and methods.  It frustrates the most competent pastor or therapist or spiritual director.  And, it can’t be captured in a tweet, even a well-formed Gospel tweet.

I admire the hearts of my friends out there who attempt to tweet Gospel cures.  They mean well.  Most are pastors, and you know who you are.  And I really do like you a lot.  But, hear me when I say that people are suckers for your 140 word fixes.  Why do you think you get re-tweeted so much?  We’re suckers for remedies and methods.  We love a sound byte.  But I’m asking you to step back and consider the complexity.  Do you really see people growing that quickly in your churches?  Do you really see ‘Gospel transformation’ happening in a “repent and believe” moment?  I’m prone to think that this is where we need a good dose of those old stories, like Pilgrim’s Progress, that highlight the long and difficult journey.  Because most people I know don’t find that the methods work.  Most people I talk to struggle day to day just to believe, just to utter a one word prayer, just to avoid another outburst of anger or another deluge of cynicism. Most people find that it takes a lifetime to believe that they are the prodigal who is lavished with a Father’s prodigious love.

Gospel tweeters:  Relax.  You are far more screwed up than you think.  And your cure is far too simplistic to help.  This journey requires more than a 140 characters of Gospel happy juice.  A big and good God requires a long and difficult Exodus journey for real change to happen.

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A Tribute to the Retiring Alvin Plantinga

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Alvin Plantinga has been a professor of philosophy for over 50 years, spending his last 28 years at Notre Dame.   To be quite frank he is one of the best philosophers in the past few centuries.   I think the greatest complement I have ever heard of Plantinga came a Jewish atheist professor at UF, who said something to the effect, ‘Alvin Plantinga has single handidly made Christianity respectable again in philosophy… his arguments are so damn good, that I have reconsidered my atheism.’

In analytic philosophy circles, Christianity was seen as an epistemological joke.  Plantinga painstakingly carved out a space for Christianity back at the discussion table in even the most hostile departments.  It is perhaps somewhat ironic that Plantinga was at Notre Dame considering his theological and philosophical heritage was from the Reformed tradition.  However, from what I understand the President of Notre Dame at the time wanted the best Christian thinking and at that time it happened to be Reformed epistemology.   So, Notre Dame grabbed guys like Plantinga, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Peter van Inwagen.

Here is a poor attempt at a brief and uncomprehensive summary his contribution to Christian thought:

Warranted Christian Belief and God as properly basic (Reformed Epistemology)

In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga makes a case that several things are properly basic.  Something that is properly basis does not require proof and functions as the bedrock that we layer our daily lives on top of.  One such example is Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I exist.”  The most important thing that Plantinga voraciously argues for is that the existence of God is properly basic [and the atheists gasp, throwing the yellow flag calling for a 5 yard illegal motion penalty].  Plantinga makes a very good case (along with the presuppositionalists) that belief in God requires no proof or justification.  Consider the following – can you prove that other minds exist.  It sounds like a stupid question, but can you?  I could be a brain in a vat, or Neo in the Matrix, or the muse of some evil genius and all of what I think is reality could be completely constructed, and I am on the only thinking being.  None of us thinks or believes that we are the only mind in existence.  In simple terms, the belief in other minds is properly basic in a similar way that belief in God is properly basic.  Plantinga spends the rest of the book defending that the Christian worldview is justifiable.

Free-Will Defense Against the Logical Problem of Evil

There are several Problem(s) of Evil in philosophy.  The most common had been the logical problem of evil:

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.    2. There is evil in the world.    3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

Most philosophers have conceded that Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil in his Free-Will Defense, and have given up on the logical problem of evil.  First off, it is important to say that his argument is a defense and not a theodicy.  A theodicy is a justification for why evil exists in a world created by God.  A defense exists merely to show a logically possible set of premises that refutes the trilemma above.  Plantinga’s argument goes like such:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.  God, Freedom, and Evil, pp. 166-167.

In undergrad, I wrote a paper reworking Plantinga’s argument removing a free-will view of Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility and inserting a compatibilist view in its place.  I believe that my paper did no harm to Plantinga’s argument and that his argument is still compatible with compatibilism.

Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

The evolutionary argument against naturalism is sheer brilliance.  He argues that if evolution and naturalism are true then it seriously undermines both evolution and naturalism.  Naturalism is the idea that we hold ideas “true” today because they have “survival value.”  If evolution and naturalism are true, then human thinking evolved to produce ideas that have survival value and not necessarily truth.  The set of beliefs that maximizes my ability to eat, reproduce, and fight is not always what is true.  Evolution and naturalism, therefore, are tuned to survival rather than truth.  Therefore, this casts significant doubt on trusting our thinking itself, and included in that thinking are both the ideas of evolution or naturalism themselves.  Genius.

Modal Logic Version of Ontological Argument

It took me 3 years, 4 philosophy professors, and 4 versions of the argument to finally understand its genius.  It is not sophistry; it is not a parlor trick; it is not a aberration of grammar.  Do not go chasing the ontological argument unless you have copious amounts of time, a willingness to make your brain hurt, and the patience to deconstruct why Gaunilo and Kant’s objections are incorrect.  If you are up to the task, start here.

In the wake of evangelicalism’s massive receding from all public spheres (particularly the University), Plantinga has nearly single-handidly re-carved out a space for the Christian to have a voice in philosophy and respectability in the University.  You would be wise to have a basic understanding of his thinking.

Thank you Alvin.  I am deeply indebted.

Nietzsche vs. Christianity: Part 2

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This lecture is an explanation of the Protestant Christian worldview from Genesis to Revelation.  Audio is available here.

I.  Creation

A.  Ex Nihilo

B.  Out of God’s pleasure

C.  Creation was good

D.  Man made in image of God: male and female

E.  Cultural Mandate

F.  The task given Adam was to make the whole Earth like Eden by:

“numerically and geographically expand God’s image over the face of the

entire Earth”

  1. Covenant of Works (Hosea 6:7)
    1. Adam is Federal Head (Rom. 5:12-21)
    2. Blessings for obedience; curses for disobedience

a.  Blessing – Life

b.  Curse – Death

c.  Divine benevolence, Human loyalty

II.  Fall

  1. Serpent tempts Eve, questions God’s goodness
  2. Adam was there and doesn’t say anything
  3. Curse:
    1. All humanity fell in the Fall because of Adam’s representative nature
    2. All creation fell and feels the frustrating affects of the fall
    3. Proto-Euangelion – Gen. 3:15-20
  4. Seed of the woman vs. Seed of the Serpent

Abel                 Cain

Seth

Enoch               Enoch

Lamech            Lamech

Noah

Shem/Japheth   Ham

Abraham

Isaac                Ishmael

Jacob               Esau

III. Redemption

A.  Covenant of Grace

1.  Noah – establishes stability on the Earth (Gen. 6, 9)

-Baptism:  deliverance from waters of judgment

2.  Abraham – establishes promised offspring who will bless all nations                  (Gen. 12:1-3; 15; 17), (Gal. 3:16)

3.  Moses – establishes law and order above natural law (Ex. 19-24)

-“I will be your God and you will be my people”

4.  David – establishes eternal king/throne (Psalm 89)

5.  Christ – fulfillment of the covenant of grace (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36/37)

B.  Historical Summary

Creation, Fall, Expulsion, Cain/Able, Flood, Babel, Shem

Abraham moves, Abraham/Lot, Abraham/Melchizedek, Abraham Covenant, Abraham buys land in Canaan/Eden

Isaac, Jacob/Esau, Jacob/Israel, 12 Sons, Joseph into Captivity, Famine

400 Year Enslavement/Exile, Moses/Pharaoh, Passover, Egypt to Sinai

Sinai, Law at Sinai – Tabernacle, Priesthood, Purification, Yom Kippur, Feasts:  (Sabbath, Passover, Sabbatical year/Jubilee, Weeks, Tabernacles)

Wilderness Wanderings, Encampment at Canaan, Canaan Conquest/Joshua, Jericho vs. Ai, Land Divided

Judges-Ruth – ‘Everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6)

Eli, Samuel, Rejection of YHWH as king, Saul

David – covenant – line/throne, unification, conquest (iron), Bathsheba

Solomon – Temple, wealth/wisdom, Phoenicians, foreign wives/gods

Divided Kingdom – Rehoboam (S – Judah), Jeroboam (N – Israel/Ephraim)

North – Babsha, Omri, Jehu, Ahab/Jez/Baal vs. Elijah, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, 3 kings –  Menaham, Pekahiah, Pehah, Hoshea… Assyria/exile

South – Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Manassah, Josiah – Amon/Jeremiah, Jerusalem Sacked – 586

Cyrus’ Decree, Return from Exile, 2nd Temple/Wall (Ezra-Nehemiah),

Late Pre-exilic

-Nahum – God’s wrath on Nineveh

-Zephaniah – The Day of the Lord

-Habakkuk – Resolving questions about God’s justice

-Joel – Day of the Lord is both near AND future

-Lamentations – God as source of both good and hard providence

-Obadiah – pride goes before a fall

Exilic

-Ezekiel – Judgment and restoration of Judah

-Daniel – God’s rule and care for his people

Post-Exilic

-Haggai – setting priorities

-Zechariah – God’s restoration of zion

-Malachi – Honoring God

400 years of silence

C.  Prefigurations

1.  Melchizedek

2.  Angel

3.  Manna

4.  Rock

5.  Tabernacle

6.  3 fold office:  Prophet/Priest/King

D.  Jesus

1.  Virgin birth

2.  Hypostatic Union – God/man

3.  Prophet/Priest/King

4.  Law – civil/ceremonial/civil

5.  Penal Substitution – great exchange – my sin for his righteousness

-New Record

-New Heart

-New World

6.  Death/Resurrection

7.  Ascension

8.  Enthronement – Intercession

IV.  Consummation

1.  Redemption of all of creation

2.  Redemption of the church

3.  Inauguration/Continuation/Consummation

The Snake Eats Its Own Tail

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Protagoras (490-420 bc):  “Man is the measure of all things.”

Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey, p. 69:

Such is the fate of all relativistic theories, ancient or modern.  They are self-destructive because self-contradictory.  When a pragmatist asserts the impossibility of attaining the absolute, when an instrumentalist with his emphasis on change deplores the dogmatism of unchanging truth, or when a Freudian dismisses conscious reasoning as hypocritical rationalization, he means to except his own view.  It is absolutely true that we miss the absolute; it is fixed truth that nothing is fixed; it is validly reasoned that reasoning is hypocrisy.  Objections to dogmatism are always dogmatic, and relativisms are always asserted absolutely.  For this the Man-measure theory must be rejected, and knowledge is shown to be other than perception.

Some Excellent Puritan Works on Sale…

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…from Reformation Heritage Books.

Written by Michael Graham

December 22, 2009 at 9:20 am

3 Month Introspective

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Introspective

So, I’ve been blogging consistently for three months.  This is the week of Christmas and I’ll be all over the place.  I thought I would briefly summarize the 3 months of blog series on here:

Blaise Pascal:  We took a look at Blaise Pascal’s thinking, its use of aphorism and its relationship to both tri-perspectivalism and presuppositionalism.  We also looked at his use of aphorism and his warnings against deism and atheism.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future, Parts 1-7:  We defined the term evangelical.  We looked at its historical roots in the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and its ties to celebrity culture, democritization of knowledge, and modernism.  Then we looked at the roots of liberalism, the Protestant split and suburbanization, and defined and outlined evangelical populism and their game plan for reaching America.  Finally we assessed the current status of American evangelicalism and then made some predictions of future trends.

Introduction to Apologetics, Parts 1-7:  We looked in broad strokes at the various schools of apologetics.  We then took a more in-depth look at:  Classical Apologetics, Evidentialist Apologetics, Presuppositional Apologetics, and the specific apologetics of Blaise Pascal and Alvin Plantinga.  Finally, we employed the three phases football as an analogy for the different apologetic schools and I likened Tim Tebow to the presuppositionalists.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Parts 1-10:  We looked at some analysis of some shifts evangelicalism will need to make moving forward:  Doctrine, Worldview, Urbanization, Globality/Mobility, “Post-Modernism,” American Culture(s), Contextualization, Balance, and Final Analysis.

Top ~10 Books by Topic:

Top 10 Systematic Theology Texts

Top 10 Devotional Classics

Top 10 Books on the Church

Top 10 Books on Science and Christianity

Top 10 Books on Christian Biography

Top 10 Books on Culture

Top 10 Books on Eschatology

Top 5 Books on Worldview

Top 15 Books on Status of American Evangelicalism

Top 10 Books on Church History

Top 40 Books to Read While in College

Top 10 Books on Missions, Discipleship, and Evangelism

The 25 Most Destructive Books Ever Written…

Top 10 Apologetic Works

Top 10 Books on Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Top 10 Books by John Piper

Top 5 Children’s Books

Best Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms of the Christian Church

A Comprehensive List of Top 10 Book Lists of 2009

Up Next:  We will be looking at some thoughts on the economy and investment and then delve into the mind of Friedrich Nietzsche…

Written by Michael Graham

December 19, 2009 at 11:29 am

A Comprehensive List of Top 10 Book Lists of 2009

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Let me know if I have missed anyone (or yours) in the comments section.

Kevin DeYoung

Russell Moore

Keith Mathison

Tim Challies

Trevin Wax

Derek Thomas

Thabiti Anyabwile

Sam Storms

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