Narcissism in Ministry

I have been doing a little bit of reading on narcissism recently for various reasons, including a realization that I have some characteristics of this mental condition. There are many ways of defining narcissism, but probably the easiest way to define it is to remember the ancient myth from which the condition gets its name: Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the pool. Words like “ingrown,” “egotistical,” “selfishness” will readily come to mind in defining this condition. Being wrapped up in oneself might be the best single description we could use. Another definition I have seen goes something like this: the primary characteristic of narcissism is an inappropriate lack of boundaries between the narcissist and the other person, whom he will attempt to use in some way. The narcissist sees the other person as an extension of himself. So, the other person exists to fulfill the narcissist’s needs.

One of the things that has been interesting in the literature so far is that the authors I have read agree that our culture encourages narcissism. It is a respectable sin. We give huge amounts of both criticism and idol-worship to the rich and famous, and both of these things encourage narcissism. The fact of the matter is that pastors get this at both ends as well. We have people who love to encourage us, and we have people who love to criticize us. It is just as easy to get self-complacent with the adulation as it is to get defensive about the criticism. Without the grace of God, pastors will VERY often allow this two-pronged engine to drive us into full pathological narcissism. The ministry is all about the minister at that point. The minister usurps the place of Jesus Christ. He becomes the personal lord and savior of his flock. You know that your minister has a big problem with this if he both flares up at the criticism and practically fawns over those people who praise him. What is interesting about this mental condition is that the situation is usually encouraged, while the word describing the situation is feared.

However, it can actually be a relief to know that there is a name for this kind of malady. A lot of people cringe mightily when they hear the term “narcissism.” However, the term (in the literature) is used to describe a range of symptoms. Some people, like myself, have some but not all of the symptoms. It might therefore be more accurate to say that such a person has narcissistic tendencies.

For the pastor who has this, the hardest part is admitting it. Once it is admitted, however, in a very real sense, half the battle is over. Most pastors know from counseling others what needs to happen for people to become less wrapped up in themselves: things like attending the means of grace, service to others, evangelism, and simply making up one’s mind that they will be interested in other people’s lives for the sake of the other person, and not for what he can get out of it.

How do you know if you or someone you know is a narcissist? Here are some clues. 1. The person cannot receive criticism of any kind, no matter how gently phrased. Typically, the narcissist will turn the criticism back on the person offering it. The narcissist gets so good at this kind of deflection that the one trying to offer criticism will be made to feel extremely guilty. 2. The narcissist turns every conversation into something about himself. 3. The narcissist cannot converse on topics that do not immediately interest him. 4. The narcissist cannot understand why anyone cannot drop everything and do something for him.

What can a congregation do if their pastor is a narcissist? First of all, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Constantly keep your pastor in prayer, especially about this issue, if it is known that he has a problem with it. Secondly, be very careful about how criticism and praise come to the pastor. Encouragement is very important to a pastor, so we cannot go to a position where the congregation decides it will never encourage the pastor, lest he “get a big head.” The Bible itself commands us to encourage and pray for our church leaders. So, this is not an option. The question is this: how do we do this in a way that will both build him up and not feed the narcissism? My suggestion is this: phrase the encouragement in terms of praising the Lord for how He has used the pastor instrumentally. That way the pastor knows that his labor is not in vain, but he is also reminded that God provides the growth and gets the glory. Start the sentence by saying, “The Lord has been using you to…”

Criticism can feed narcissism just as thoroughly as inordinate praise can. There will be times when a pastor needs to be brought up short. However, there is a way to do this and a way not to do this. Most of the time, when a criticism comes the way of the pastor, the congregant simply lashes out without any kind of thinking whatsoever. They are angry and upset, and so they just blast the pastor. The congregant needs to make a distinction in his mind between two things. Firstly, is the hurt caused by a difference in perspective about what the ministry is about? Or is it caused by a genuine offense? These are two very different things. No congregant should ever blast the pastor because they see ministry differently. Instead, they should take up the difference of perspective in a calm, reasonable conversation about it. If the hurt is caused by a genuine offense, then the proper course is to tell the pastor in as calm a voice as possible, what the particular action (or lack thereof) made them feel. Do not turn the pastor’s offense into an offense right back at him. This is done so often these days. The offended person escalates the conflict because they want to make the offender hurt as much as they do. The goal of talking about it is reconciliation. Nothing is accomplished by lashing back. Nothing is gained by attacking the personal character of the pastor because of just one offense. Remember to aim with a rifle, not a shotgun. Concentrate on the one issue at hand, and do not ever broaden the scope of the discussion beyond the one single issue. Oftentimes, when a congregant has a problem, they “pile on.” Everything they dislike about their minister comes out in one unhealthy deluge. This is not healthy, and will usually put a pastor on the defensive, which is best avoided at all costs, especially if the pastor is tempted to narcissism.

I believe that this issue is under-addressed in seminaries, and is certainly under-addressed by Christian authors. I did not find a single Christian book on narcissism. They are all written by secular psychologists. This is a very intriguing fact to me. Can it be that narcissism is so much winked at in our society (and even encouraged!) that the Christian church does not even see it as a problem? I believe, on the contrary, that it is a far more widespread problem than any of us imagine.

Legalism or Law-loving?

It is nearly impossible these days even to mention the word “law” without being accused of legalism. Certainly, any promotion of actually, you know, keeping the law is out of bounds (sports pun intentional here). Of course, that means that we have to shove many biblical passages under the rug, most notably the entirety of Psalm 119. How can David say that he loves the law?

The essence of the law is love. If more people got this through their thick skulls, there might be a good deal less antinomianism. We love love, but we hate law (and therefore we wind up not doing very much loving, either, because we have a completely wrong view of what love is!). This is a contradiction, my friends. How did Jesus summarize the law? Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Traditionally, that passage has been interpreted as Jesus’ summary of the entire moral law. What we cannot escape, biblically speaking, is the plain old fact that the law reveals God’s own character. Hate the law, hate the Lawgiver. Antinomians hate God when they hate His law.

I very much enjoy watching sports…on Saturday. I have no animus against sports per se, although I agree with Mark Jones entirely that there are some very big, fat sports idolatries going on in America right now. If you are contemplating watching the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, please, please read Mark Jones’s article on the matter first. You’ll be glad you did.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

Dr. Ligon Duncan’s Seminar on the Marrow Controversy

In today’s theological climate, antinomianism and the Sonship theology are rife within Reformed circles. The Marrow Controversy therefore has much to teach us about the relationship of grace and law.

Dr. Duncan started by sketching a short history of the Marrow Controversy, emphasizing Boston’s role in recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book, of course, caused waves in the Scottish Presbyterian church. There had been a professor at Glasgow who had showed affinity for Socinianism and Arminianism. This man was tried by the church and basically given a slap on the wrist. So those heterodox doctrines would find a refuge in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but the evangelical Calvinism was not found congenial. The Auchterarter Presbytery had a question that they asked candidates about the relationship of coming to Christ and forsaking sin. Understood properly, the question was designed to make clear that a person does not forsake sin in order to come to Christ, but rather comes to Christ in order for sin’s hold on the person to be broken. The General Assembly rebuked the Auchterarter Presbytery for asking the question this way. What would later be called “moderatism” had its beginnings in the General Assembly. Enlightenment thinking took over, to the point where, as one writer puts it, a typical “moderatism” sermon was like a winter day: cold, clear, and brief. The Marrow, on the other hand, was condemned by the General Assembly. The defenders of the Marrow, such as Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers appealed the decision, which was rejected. This almost guaranteed that everyone in Scotland would purchase a copy of the book! There’s Scottish contrariness for you.

There are three interpretations of the Marrow controversy. Some argue that it was an internecine dispute of two sides that both held to the Westminster Standards. Those who condemned the Marrow quoted the Westminster standards against the Marrow men, which creates a certain plausibility for this view. This view is wrong in Duncan’s mind, though.

The second view says that the Marrow men represented a revolt against classical Calvinism (this is held by J.B. Torrance). In other words, the Marrow men were trying to liberate the Scottish church from the Westminster Standards. The Marrow men, however, vowed ex animo in strict subscription to the Westminster Standards.

The third view is that the Marrow men were the Westminster theology men. This is the proper view.

Dr. Duncan then shared many of the most important quotations from both Boston and Fisher.

Some Thoughts on Doug Phillips

The internet is talking quite avidly about Doug Phillips’s letter that he posted on Vision Forum’s website, and the follow-up here. The reactions have varied from “I told you so” to godly grief and prayer. It is certainly inappropriate for those opposed to Doug Phillips’s ideas to gloat in his downfall, and to connect his downfall with his ideas in a direct line. I wonder if some of the talk is not lurid fascination with the scandalous. I am reminded of one of the Miss Marple videos “Murder at the Vicarage,” where the Vicar’s wife talked about the get-together that the ladies had every day, and called it “tea and scandal.”

A better tack has been advocated by some, and I think it is a better way to analyze the situation. Whenever a pastor preaches the Word of God on a particular sin, Satan will try mightily to undermine the pastor precisely in that area. This doesn’t happen only to people like Doug Phillips. Did you preach against greed on Sunday? Then beware of Satan’s temptations to greed throughout the week, and pray, pray, and pray some more. Did you preach against pornography? Then again, beware of Satan’s temptations in that area either in the immediate or even distant future, and pray, pray, and pray some more. The fact is, no matter what sin the pastor preaches against, Satan will love to tempt the pastor with that particular sin, because he knows he can cause more damage to the church that way.

Most pastors who have any experience whatsoever will be well aware of the fact that they are under almost constant assault from Satan’s temptations. He will try to make the pastor feel so hypocritical that the pastor will lose his preaching authority, and seek to water down the message so that he is no longer a hypocrite, or the pastor will preach only about one topic, trying to correct himself in that area, when he is in fact almost under the waves from that very temptation.

Note to those who listen to preachers: if that preacher has a hobby-horse, beware that something might be amiss in that particular area. The Word of God searches every area of life, not just one.

However, if the pastor is aware of this problem, he may try to over-correct by taking the teeth out of the practical application sections. How does a pastor avoid this? First of all, he does have to preach to himself first. Then, he must repent of his own sin and folly in that particular area. He must continually throw himself on the mercy of Christ. He must be the chief repenter. But then he must also believe that the blood of Christ really does cleanse him of that sin. Satan loves to lie to pastors with this simple, but effective lie: “Your sins, being that of the leader of the congregation, are much harder to forgive than the congregant’s sins.” Do not confuse consequences of sin with the guilt of sin. A pastor’s sins may have more grave consequences, but they are not more difficult for Christ’s blood to cleanse, since Christ’s blood has infinite power to cleanse.

It has been noted that Doug Phillips’s sin happened in the very area (marriage and family) that he preached most vociferously and counter-culturally. This is true. But given Satan’s tactics as noted above, it should not surprise us when Satan tries to get pastors to sin in just such areas.

In the following comment, I am making no judgment on what is in Doug Phillips’s heart. I am only using my imagination: it may not be true of his situation in any way. It is only a possibility. When a pastor preaches heavily on particular subjects, there is always the possibility that he can start to view the doctrines he has preached as safeguards for his own morality. He believes that extra-marital affairs are sin; therefore he won’t be tempted in that area, or if he is, he won’t fall. Again, given Satan’s tactics, pastors should be expecting the very opposite: the more strongly we believe and preach something, the more we should expect Satan to try to get us to fall precisely in that area. Doug Phillips may already know this. I don’t know, I’m just mentioning it, because I think it is important.

Our only true safeguard is the Triune God’s mercy and grace towards us, especially the Holy Spirit indwelling us and feeding us with Christ Himself. That is an empowering grace that enables us to put to death all (not just some) works of the flesh, and to put on Christ. This is what the Puritans called “mortification and vivification.” It is the putting off and the putting on. Another term to describe it is “sanctification.” We get this grace through the means of grace: Word, sacrament, and prayer.

As to Doug Phillips’s own ideas, I think he has some valuable things to say. There are certain areas where I think he may take some things to an extreme. But there is no doubt that he has pegged some serious wrong things about out culture and its vision of marriage. I say that because I have no joy whatsoever in what has happened to him or Vision Forum. I think it is tragic.

To those who would gloat over his downfall, just remember this: God is a God of resurrection. You may gloat over your fallen foe, but God may raise him up, Phoenix-like, and use him for His glory. I earnestly hope and pray that Doug Phillips will use this time to examine his ideas and doctrine once again in the light of Scripture, that he will listen to his critics, avoid completely a self-defensive attitude, and bring every thought captive to Jesus Christ and to His Word. May we do the same.

Whatever Happened to the Church

Reed DePace

Question I’d ask any to comment upon: is God in the process of judging the Church in America? Scripture to contemplate: Jh 6:28; Mt 5:13; 1Ti 3:4-5; Eph 5:13; 2Ti3:1-5; Jh 15:6

The background to my question comes from this FB status I posted:

Whatever Happened … To the Church?

That is what your grandchildren may ask one day. If things keep going the way they are, God is going to remove the Church from this land. America may become a post-post-Christian nation with barely a remembrance of Christ.

What ever happened to a man not being qualified to shepherd God’s family if he cannot shepherd his own family (1Ti 3:4-5)? Preachers’ Daughters (check out the family bios.)

We are awash in pastors who promote godliness but deny the only One who is its power (2Ti 3:5). Christianity IS NOT about us keeping the rules, and pastors who teach that are doing the same thing the ones Jesus condemned did.

(Don’t read between the lines. Holiness is essential. We don’t get it in any manner that is based on our effort. Our problem with sin is worse than we imagine. We neither believe nor live in what Jesus said is necessary for true holiness. Jh 6:28)

The shame of the Church continues to be paraded and laughed at by the unbelieving culture. What in the world are we thinking supporting that by parading our own sinfulness – and celebrating it – before those who mock Jesus Christ? (Eph 5:12; 1Pe 4:3)

When salt is worthless, what do you do with it? According to Jesus, you throw it into the mud where at least it can add some traction for the feet of those who walk on it. (Mt 5:13) The Church is washing away her saltiness in shallow love for God and heated love for the world. Our children are leaving us in the mud and jumping into the manure-pile of the debauchery of this world.

God have mercy, Christ have mercy, Holy Spirit have mercy. If He doesn’t our grandchildren will be wondering whatever happened to the Church in America.

Reed DePace

Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians

Our church just purchased the Schaff-edited Early Church Fathers. I have immediately begun to read it. I would like to share my thoughts on what I read. I will do a bit of poking around as well (since this edition is quite old) to see what more modern scholarship has to say on each of these works, though this will by no means be exhaustive. I will offer what is basically a short introduction, a road map through each work, or part of a work.

We start with Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians. It is sometimes called the first epistle, but the so-called second epistle is almost certainly spurious. No reasonable doubts have been raised as to the genuineness of this letter. It is generally dated to the late first century, around 96 AD. Clement of Rome is supposed by the Roman Catholic Church to be the fourth pope. However, as we shall see, his doctrine is hardly what later Romanist theologians would approve, especially on the doctrine of justification.

If you would like to read it online, you can go here, for the Schaff edition I am reading, or you can go here, for Lightfoot’s commentary. The Greek original is available here, in the Patrologia series, or, for a more elegant and streamlined version (with a gorgeous font!), here.

The occasion of this letter was very similar to what prompted Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: division in the church (see especially chapter 3 of our document). In this case, it seems that the congregation was rising up against their leaders. Envy, strife and disorder were marring what had before been a very godly situation (compare chapter 3 with chapters 1 and 2). What follows is an attempt to set forth every possible motive for humility and against division either from the example of those who have gone before, or from Christ Himself, or even from fanciful tales used as an illustration (confer the phoenix in chapter 25). This letter is Scripture-saturated. Indeed, it is remarkable how much Scripture Clement manages to cram into a mere 17 pages!

A brief outline is as follows: I. Praise of the Corinthians pre-strife (1-2); II. The destructiveness of strife (3-6); III. Call to repentance (7-12); IV. Call to humility (13-24); V. Encouragement from resurrection (25-26); VI. General encouragement to holiness (27-30); VII. How we obtain blessing (31-38); VIII. No self-conceit (39); IX. Order in the church (40-44); X. The sin of the Corinthians (45-47); XI. Love (48-55); XII. Final exhortation to submission (56-59).

I want to highlight a few things. Firstly, I want to highlight chapter 32’s statement on justification by faith alone. In the context, Clement is contrasting the holiness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (chapter 31) with the “greatness of the gifts which were given by him” (chapter 32). A footnote indicates that the pronoun “him” is of doubtful reference. The note prefers the understanding “the gifts which were given to Jacob by Him,” i.e., God. This is also Lightfoot’s understanding, even though he acknowledges the awkwardness of the transition to the next sentence’s “from him,” obviously referring to Jacob. Regardless of the meaning of these two sentences, the contrast between works and grace is clear in the middle of chapter 32: “All these, therefore, were highly honoured, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will.” The divine passives should be obvious here. Then follows a quotation which should be quoted in full to be appreciated (emphases is mine):

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Note the contrast between “works which we have wrought IN HOLINESS OF HEART” (presumably, this means all works done by a believer) versus “by that faith.” Whatever Clement means by faith in this passage therefore cannot include works done in holiness of heart. Faith does not equal faithfulness in justification. Note that this is in the context of justification.

Clement makes no bones about including works when it comes to sanctification, as is obvious from the immediately succeeding chapters. Someone might point to chapter 35 and claim that the promised gifts are contingent on “casting away from us all unrighteousness and iniquity.” However, it is clear in this section that Clement is thinking eschatologically. The beginning of the chapter reads “How blessed and wonderful, beloved, are the gifts of God! Life in immortality, splendour in riighteousness, truth in perfect confidence, faith in assurance, self-control in holiness! And all these fall under the cognizance of our understandings (now); what then shalle those things be which are prepared for such as wait for Him?” The Protestant will cheerfully agree that salvation in the broader sense (not just conversion) includes God enabling us to good works as a necessary result of grace (not a foundational cause). However, lest we understand Clement to be taking back what he has given, he goes on to root all blessings in the grace of Christ in chapter 36.

The effect of these chapters on the argument as a whole is to bring back the Corinthians to an understanding of why they cannot boast. Boasting brings envy and divisions. The grace of God, however, precludes the divisions which have wracked the Corinthians. So it is much to Clement’s advantage to press upon them the truth of justification by faith alone. Otherwise, the Corinthians will continue to divide.

Book Review of “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”

This book by Tullian Tchividjian (senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) is a book about justification and sanctification, at least as I read it. The book had its genesis in his extremely difficult experiences during the first year or so after he became the senior minister of CRPC (I am not going to get into that here, and I would appreciate it if commenters did not discuss it either, since it is quite tangential to this book review). In that time of soul-searching, Tchividjian came to certain conclusions about what was important when it comes to the gospel, and these are his thoughts, very much influenced by his experiences. For instance, he realized that he had become very dependent on human approval (always a temptation for pastors!), and that this wasn’t what the gospel was (p. 22). The way he puts it, “I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel-that the gospel doesn’t simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future; it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance” (p. 23). There are pluses and minuses of making our own experiences such an integral part of such a book. On the plus side (and it is a significant plus), the descriptions of what Tchividjian went through can make the gospel real to us by showing us what it did in his life. On the other hand, one minus is that there is always the temptation to generalize our experience beyond ourselves. As I read through the book, I found the plus a real plus (though not without qualification), and the minus I found not a huge minus, but there was some of it there. My overall assessment of the book is that it has many valuable things in it (more valuable than not), as well as a few things that were not qualified enough, and one thing I found was potentially dangerous.

Now, I do have a slight quibble about the title. I understand and agree with the main point he is getting at, which is that we need to have all our idols stripped away from us, but what about the Father and the Holy Spirit? I would have felt much safer with the title “God + Nothing = Everything.” Now, I feel quite certain that Tchividjian is a firm believer in the Trinity. And I also understand that there would be a trade-off in using the term “God” instead of “Jesus,” namely, that the title I recommended could easily be understood as too broad (Jews wouldn’t have a problem with it, would they?). However, I think the Bible would be just fine with this kind of generalized statement, as long as the substance of the book would remind people of the true definition of “God” as Triune.

Tchividjian views the greatest threat to the gospel as what he calls “performancism,” what we would call “legalism.” He argues that the Bible views this as the greatest threat to the gospel (p. 45). Now, it would appear to me that a great deal of the Bible is definitely concerned about this problem. Galatians and Romans come to mind. The Bible, however, does spend a great deal of time dealing with the problem of remaining sin in the believer, too. The prophets are constantly harping on this theme, as are many places even in Romans and Galatians. So, in our laudable efforts to avoid legalism, we must stay balanced. I’m sure Tchividjian would not disagree with this assessment.

I would have to demur, however, when Tchividjian argues that antinomianism and legalism are simply two forms of the same problem: legalism (pp. 50-51). I do not believe this is true: one of them overvalues the law, and the other undervalues the law. They seem more like mirror image errors to me, not two forms of the same error. Now, I agree with his conclusion: “The truth is, disobedience happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it” (p. 50). However, the difficulty I face in his formulation is that I believe his definition of grace might be too narrow. I was at the Gospel Reformation Network conference in February, and Rev. Harry Reeder gave us a formulation I found extremely helpful. When asked if he was saved, he typically replies, “I was saved; I am being saved, and I will be saved.” In other words, grace has a past, present, and future. The grace of God doesn’t just save us from the guilt of sin, but it also saves us from sin’s pollution. If you asked Tchividjian whether he agreed with that, he might very well say yes. My only issue is that I would not be sure of that answer from the contents of the book. Would he agree that urging people to keep the law is not necessarily legalism? By the way, I have no idea whether Rev. Harry Reeder had Tchividjian’s book in mind during the conference. All the speakers were studiously avoiding naming names as their “sparring partners.” Their target was the “contemporary grace movement,” otherwise known as the Sonship movement. Also, let it be known here that I am not slinging arrows at Tchividjian. He may very well not like being lumped in with a “movement” so-called. My criticisms of the book are centered on what I believe to be lack of clarity and qualification. I can readily believe that some of that lack of clarity might stem from the way he experienced the gospel truths of justification.

Where I net out on this book is that I would agree with him whenever he is talking about justification. He rightly and firmly rejects any kind of works and performancism when it comes to how we are declared righteous before God. Amen, and I second and third all those affirmations. Where I am not clear is what happens in sanctification. Take statements like this: “God said, ‘Tullian, in my beloved Son, you stand before me this very moment as cleansed, forgiven, purified. Therefore, I will never, ever deal with you on the basis of your cleanliness or dirtiness-your goodness or badness- but on the basis of my Son’s finished work on your behalf'” (p. 76). I ask the question: is this talking about judgment only, or is he talking about any and all kinds of dealings God has with us? If he is only talking about judgment, I would say a hearty amen to this. But would our Heavenly Father never get upset about our sin and discipline those He loves? The Bible tells us clearly that God our Father often disciplines those He loves. Oftentimes, it is because of indwelling sin, which would then in fact be God dealing with us on the basis of our badness. Now, He never deals with His children as judge on the basis of our obedience or lack thereof. Condemnation is completely out of the question for the true believer, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:1. But what about discipline? Does God only ever deal with us in a disciplinary manner without any eye whatsoever to what we have done or not done? If so, why would discipline be necessary at all, then?

Let me get to a very important point of agreement here. We don’t keep our salvation by works any more than we get our salvation by works. He says this on page 102. I heartily agree. However, that is not quite the same thing as saying that, for instance, “What licentious people need is a greater understanding of grace, not a governor on grace” (p. 100). Part of this statement is true. Licentious people definitely need a greater understanding of grace. But that understanding of grace brings with it an understanding of grace as enabling our works, and bringing us back to the standard of the law, and working holiness in us. You see, the law only condemns us before we are justified. It is not really our friend before we are justified. However, after justification, the law becomes our friend and guide (the third use of the law). Our situation with regard to the law changes completely, once there is no condemnation. The essence of the law is love, says Jesus. The law is a description of the character of God, the law-giver. So, we must love the law as Christians. We do not do the works of the law either to obtain or retain salvation in any sense. But to say we must obey the law is not legalism, in and of itself, when one has put the above qualifying statements on it. I am not convinced that Tchividjian understands this, because on page 116, he says, “We tend to think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive.” Why this dichotomy? Are we God’s workmanship (notice the work of God there), created for good works, which He prepared beforehand for us to do? Is it good news that God will save me, and then leave me in a perpetual state of badness? Now, that isn’t entirely what Tchividjian is saying. I am just not convinced that God’s program will leave me bad, or that God’s program isn’t concerned to make bad people good. Isn’t sanctification the process of becoming more holy? Why can’t we call that part of the good news? Yes, it is fueled entirely by grace! But it results in our being made more holy. And it is certainly good news that God will change us to be more like His Son.

Tchividjian says some excellent things on the relationship of grace and law towards the end of the book, more balanced things. For instance, he says, “Finally, one of the indicators that we’re firmly on the path of Christian growth-one of the marks of a truly maturing Christian-is that we begin to love the things God loves, and to want the things God wants, and to hate the things God hates. In this regard, the law guides us as well, and it guides wisely. It tells us what God wants and who God is. Yes, the law is good” (p. 188). The illustration he gives on page 192 is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission: “A friend of mine recently put it to me this way: the law is like a set of railroad tracks. The tracks provide no power for the train but the train must stay on the tracks in order to function. The law never gives any power to do what it commands. Only the gospel has power, as it were, to move the train.” To my mind, this is more balanced and helpful. So why, then does he say (in quoting Dane Ortlund) that we should not balance gospel with exhortations to holiness? Isn’t Paul and the entire New Testament, not to mention the Old Testament, chock full of exhortations to holiness? Why should we be afraid of exhortations to holiness? All exhortations to holiness (imperatives) are firmly based on the indicatives of what Jesus came to do. But the indicatives include what God is doing now as well in sanctification. God is at work in our sanctification. It is His grace that fuels the train. But our faith is active in sanctification, whereas it was passive in justification. So, shouldn’t we preach both the firm indicatives of the gospel AND the imperatives of God’s commands? How will people know what right behavior is if we do not let them know?

One final point. I disagree partially with his assessment of sanctification on page 95: “Think of it this way: sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification. it’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day.” Now, I agree heartily that justification plays a significant role in our sanctification. But this statement, unqualified as it is, would seem to collapse sanctification into justification. Sanctification involves imparted grace, renewal grace, grace of which regeneration is the start. It happens inside us. Yes, it is never to be separated from our justification, but it is distinct from it. Justification happens outside of us. Sanctification happens inside of us. Justification happens as a declaration, and is therefore instantaneous. Sanctification is a process that happens all through the Christian life. Justification is based on the finished work of Christ. Sanctification is not just based on the finished work of Christ, but also includes the Holy Spirit’s work inside of us. Of course, that is Christ formed in us. But this is the continuing work of Christ, not just the finished work of Christ. This makes the statement, “The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution” (p. 94) unclear at best, and dangerous at worst. The gospel is not just about the finished work of Christ. It is also about the continuing work of Christ through the Spirit.

I know this is a lengthy review. I value Tchividjian’s work, and he has given us many excellent things in this book. However, there are a number of things that I did not find clear. I hope that Tchividjian will see this review as iron sharpening iron. I respect him, and merely want to see him become ever clearer in his formulations.

Some Thoughts on William Evans’s Ref21 Piece

Sean Lucas has some good thoughts on his current situation in relationship to what Evans said. I thought it might be worthwhile to chime in as well. It has all the earmarks of a great conversation, irenic, yet to the point. I hope to continue in that manner.

The things I agree with Evans: 1. I agree that one of the main problems facing the church today is what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” I think there definitely is still legalism present in the church. However, the pressure of culture is far more radically licentious than legalistic. 2. This is one key reason why the law needs to be preached. If people can’t see their need of Jesus by being convicted by the law, then there is no reason to preach the Gospel. 3. I agree with his read of Romans 6, that sanctification flows from union with Christ. I would not, however, want to dismiss justification as constituting any ground of sanctification whatsoever. While our response to justification does not make up all of our motivation for sanctification, it does constitute part of it. The key here is to emphasize the inseparability of justification and sanctification. That justification constitutes part of the ground of sanctification is more due to the inseparability of the two than any kind of temporal priority (although there, too, it must still be acknowledged that justification comes before almost all of our sanctification, the only part of sanctification excepted here is definitive sanctification, which occurs simultaneously with justification). I still think there is a way to reconcile the concerns of WTS and WSC. WTS emphasizes union as being all-embracing (although some things from Horton also emphasize this), whereas WSC emphasizes the priority of justification. Can’t justification have a priority within union?

Questions I would have for Evans: 1. Maybe Tchividjian’s context is different from Evans’s. Could it be that in his congregation, legalism might be more of a threat? This might help explain why Tchividjian speaks the way he does. Different contexts make for very different problems. I would agree with Lucas here in saying that different regions might have different concerns. In the Midwest, the problem I have noticed is the “Midwestern nice.” They will say all kinds of nice things about Christians and Christianity, and they will typically be rather polite even if you go door to door. However, whether they actually need salvation is entirely another matter. They believe they are good enough. They are not very licentious as a general rule (though they are becoming more so). But neither do they believe they are perfect. They believe they are “good enough.” I wonder where that fits on the scale here between antinomianism and legalism? It is a form of antinomianism in this respect: Midwestern nice reduces the demands of the law to a keepable level (antinomianism does this on a theoretical level; legalism also reduces the demands of the law, but does so not in theory but in practice). However, they don’t believe that they can just do whatever they want. So they aren’t antinomian in that respect. 2. Is the Law-Gospel distinction only Lutheran? I believe not. See some of the original sources quoted here, here, and here. Of course, the Law-Gospel distinction only refers to the pedagogical use of the law. The Law is no enemy to the Gospel after the person becomes a believer, but rather becomes the Christian’s guide and friend. The pedagogical use of the law still operates after the believer becomes a Christian, too. However, this is not bringing condemnation, but rather God’s fatherly displeasure.c

Update: Rick Phillips has some very important thoughts here, and so does Jim Cassidy.

Joseph Caryl on Teachableness

One thing that really disturbs me about the blogosphere (and not just there, but also in the church in general) is a complete lack of teachableness. It arises out of pride, of course, pride in one’s own knowledge. We have to be right. It doesn’t actually matter who has the better argument. It only matters who can be seen to have gotten in the “knock-out” punch. Joseph Caryl has some wonderful things to say about this. I would encourage anyone to ponder these words deeply:


A gracious spirit is a teachable spirit. A gracious heart calls for teaching. Teach me, and I will hold my tongue…A teachable spirit is an excellent spirit. A man that is willing to be taught, is in a better condition than many, who are able to teach. It argues a holier temper of the heart, to be willing to be taught, than to be able to teach. And it is far worse to be unwilling to learn, than not to be knowing: Unteachableness is more dangerous than ignorance. It is sad to consider how unteachable many are; they will not be taught, or they think they have learned all, they have devoured all knowledge; they are full and need no more; Some deceived souls (and they most) carry it, as if they had a spirit of infallibility: what? teach them? they are above teaching. It is a sweet frame of spirit, when a man sees he may be out of frame. He is in a fair way to truth, who acknowledges he may be in an error. And he who will not acknowledge that he may be in an error, is certainly out of the way of truth…Nor doth he (Paul in 1 Cor. 8, LK) commend to us that proud modesty, which will not let us acknowledge, we know what we know; but his mind is, to meet with those, who think they know anything so well, that they need not, or cannot know it better, and abound so in their own sense, that they have no room to admit the sense of others…It is best to be fixed in judgment, but it is very ill to be fixed in opinion. It is to be feared that man is much divorced from right reason, who is so married to his own, that he resolves, nothing but death shall part him and his opinion…To say, “I am fixed, I am fixed, I am resolved, resolved,” when yet things are doubtful, and under difficult dispute, is actually to be in error, though possibly the thing we fix on be a truth. The apostle cautions his Ephesians, and us in them, Chap 4:14: “That they, and we, be not henceforth children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine,” and yet they are under a rebuke, who will not be moved by any wind of doctrine; that is, let never so powerful and forcible a wind of truth, breathe and blow upon them, they will not be carried or moved in judgment by it…He that will have all the talk, shall have but little profit. Joseph Caryl on Job, volume 2, pp. 528-529.

Of course, one last caveat is in order. When one reads such a quotation as this, one is apt to rejoice in the good fortune of one’s neighbor in that they need to read this. It might not even occur to us that we should be the ones humbled by this. And, if it does not occur to us to apply this to ourselves, then we are falling under the very strictures which Caryl proposes!

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