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My Joshua Harris Moment and the Challenge of Christian Cultural Engagement

This week, Joshua Harris, a preacher who rose to prominence within certain segments of Christianity through his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, has now said, “By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.” I honestly think I get where he’s coming from because of my own experience. I also think his admission directly bears on politics and culture in Tennessee and our country.

My Personal ‘Joshua Harris’ Testimony

I do not know Joshua Harris, and so to say I know where he’s coming from is admittedly presumptuous, but this comment by him bears on my own journey over the last couple of years. I was a “good kid” growing up. My moral compass was pretty straight. By “all the measurements that I [had] for defining a Christian,” I was one.

Then in law school I heard for the first time about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and it added a new dimension by which I could “measure” my Christianity. Now an even greater reason for “being good” was introduced.

About 14 years ago, I found myself in a pew at the end of a Sunday evening service quietly sobbing into my hands and repeatedly muttering, “I’m just so tired.”

Life is a journey, but over the course of the last 14 years I have learned what might be shocking to many Christians: A Christianity understood as and measured by what I do is exhausting, and it is not the gospel.

Yet, I suspect my old perception of Christianity reflects the tenor of much of what passes for evangelical preaching today with its emphasis on three steps to having this in one’s Christian life and five steps to having something else. Preaching with that kind of tenor is what Christians even as recently as 100 years ago would have called legalism. To avoid Christian jargon and hopefully spark discussion, I’ve started calling it “Christian moralism;” it is “having a go” at reforming one’s moral values by personal willpower.

The End of ‘Christianity’?

Legalism or Christian moralism easily slips into Christianity because it appears to be a good antidote to and a means of inoculating Christians against the heresy of antinomianism, which means literally “against law.” It goes something like this: If legalism is bad, then antinomianism is worse!

Antinomianism is the “safe harbor” for those who don’t want to give up their basic belief in God and want to satisfy a felt need to “be right with God.” It is a belief that the gospel frees people from strict adherence to the moral law of God. Antinomianism allows the person to continue in the sin that legalism insisted he or she give up but by will power could not be done, and think he or she will be forgiven anyway because God is a God of love.

What’s ironic is that the tenor of the Apostle Paul’s preaching against legalism resulted in him being accused of antinomianism!

We know this by the fact he spent time in his letter to the Christians in Rome anticipating the charge that the gospel he preached was antinomian.1 In fact, Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones once said of Paul’s letter, “If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly.”2

Even as legalism left Judaism in tatters when the gospel came in the form of Jesus Christ and the Temple was soon destroyed, I won’t be a bit surprised if the legalist spirit so often associated with Christianity will soon leave the words “Christianity” and “Christian” in tatters, too. I think the growing malaise toward and outright contempt for “conservative Christianity” is evidence of this trend, and more of the same won’t help.

The ‘Solution’ to Legalistic and Antinomian Christianity

Legalism and antinomianism both miss the point of the gospel, which, at the core, is God implanting a spirit or principle of life into a person so that normal human faculties (intellect, will, etc.) are redirected toward an affection for God and the glory that is God.

This is what Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish preacher and cultural reformer, said on this matter, and I believe it bears directly on why Christians in political office and many Christians who support them seem to be so weak and unwilling to support laws that go against the current cultural flow of things:

To bid a man into whom there has not yet entered the great and ascendant influence of the principle of regeneration, to bid him withdraw his love from all the things that are in the world, is to bid him give up all the affections that are in his heart.

In other words, the world and that which is in it or a part of it is all there is for those who lack this principle of regeneration. And who will give up any affection that may be found in what this world has to offer unless it is replaced with a greater affection? No one.
To expect that is to expect the person to cease being human. That’s why Chalmers described the gospel as “the expulsive power of a new affection.”

How Joshua Harris ‘Connects’ to Christian Engagement in Politics and Culture

Here, then, is how I see Joshua Harris’ renunciation of Christianity relates to politics and culture:

When we as Christians in political office and Christians who are interested in the laws that politics produces and are concerned about our nation’s moral slide, allow this new affection for God and the glory of God to displace the greater affections we might have for office, influence, power, reputation, or possessions, then I suspect we will see a change in our country’s direction away from bigger civil government and away from a liberty that has turned to licentiousness.

Legalism and antinomianism both lead to death. The fact that many conservative Christians, I among them, think our nation is dying should speak to us about how we might have contributed to its condition and what first must change about us if the change we desire for our nation is to ever come about.

For further reading
The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance―Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters by Sinclair Ferguson.

NOTES

  1. Romans 6:1,15.
  2. “If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly. . . . What do I mean by that? Just this: The Gospel, you see, comes as this free gift of God–irrespective of what man does. Now, the moment you say a thing like that, you are liable to provoke somebody to say, “Well, if that is so it doesn’t matter what I do.” The Apostle takes up that argument more than once in this great epistle [to the Romans]. . . . You see–what is not evangelical preaching is this: It’s the kind of preaching that says to people, “Now, if you live a good life; if you don’t commit certain sins; and if you do good to others; and if you become a church member and attend regularly and are busy and active you will be a fine Christian and you’ll go to Heaven. That’s the opposite of Evangelical preaching–and it isn’t exposed to the charge of Antinomianism because…it is telling men to save themselves by their good works…And it’s not the Gospel–because the Gospel always exposes itself to this misunderstanding from the standpoint of Antinomianism.” http://feedingonchrist.com/lloyd-jones-on-the-gospel-and-the-charge-of-antinomianism/

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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Brazil’s New President Vows to Turn Around Moral Collapse

Jair Bolsonaro was recently sworn in as Brazil’s president. In his presidential remarks, Bolsonaro, a Christian, boldly proclaimed, “I place myself before the whole nation, on this day, as the day in which the people began to liberate itself from socialism, from the inversion of values, from big government, and from political correctness.”

He chose Damares Alves, a like-minded Christian leader, as his new minister for Women, the Family, and Human Rights. The staunchly pro-life Alves vowed to stop abortions and to “do away with the abuse of ideological indoctrination” in the form of gender ideology that LGBT activists had been pushing in public schools.

Let’s pray for this new, bold man of God and his successful leadership. We can also pray that those Christians numbered among our political leaders would be so bold in their commitment to stand for life and God’s design for human sexuality.

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Why ‘Returning’ to ‘Christianity’ Isn’t Stupid

Today’s conservative-thinking adherents of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human autonomy and the sufficiency of human wisdom are trying to figure out how to reverse what they perceive to be America’s slow march toward death, at least as the nation we have known. I’ve suggested that we give up Enlightenment thinking and return to a belief in the sovereignty of God. Here’s what that means and why it’s not ‘stupid’ to return to it.

Enlightenment Principles Are a Dead End

What conservative Enlightenment thinkers have failed to recognize is that political liberals hold to the same fundamental principles as they.

The only difference between the two groups is that conservative Enlightenment thinkers like those applications of human autonomy and reason that lead to outcomes they prefer, while liberal Enlightenment thinkers like the applications that lead to the outcomes they prefer. But they have no reason to think that their outcomes are actually better than those of liberals. The whole point of human autonomy is that each person gets to pick the interpretation of human autonomy that leads to the outcome (values) he or she likes best.

Thus, it’s ironic that humanistic thinkers have a hard time finding common ground, because they stand on the same fundamental ground! But absent an absolute to which all should adhere, social order collapses into millions of “sovereign” selves. Human autonomy is a social-order dead end.

The Only Alternative

The only alternative to human autonomy is the autonomy of God, or what Christians would call the sovereignty of God. But probably most Enlightenment thinkers would think this is simply a call to the kind of Christianity with which they (and many Christians) are most familiar.

However, the Christianity of which I speak was born of the Reformation, which preceded the Enlightenment. It helped produce the core values upon which Enlightenment thinking feasted. At the core of the Reformation was the sovereignty of God.

At that time, the sovereignty of God was asserted in connection with the issue of justification—how one is put back in good standing with God—and it was the line of demarcation in the Christendom of Europe between Catholic and Protestant theology.

Both Catholics and Protestants believed that, as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, their descendants were born with a disposition by which they would exercise their free will only in a manner that was hostile to God. That is what Luther called the bondage of the will. This is the “muck” about which I spoke last week.

The question was how to get out of the muck, be free of that bondage. Luther and then Calvin and the Protestants who followed in their train said there was nothing we could do to “save” ourselves and that God alone could set our wills free so that we would actually desire and choose the things of God.

That God would actually choose to provide a means of salvation even though such was not incumbent on Him or deserved by us was the gospel, the “evangelon” from which we get our word “evangelical.” As I’ll explain next week, these twin pillars of Protestantism also constitute the most democratizing idea in the history of the world.

Which Christianity?

Unfortunately, many modern evangelical churches don’t seem to say much anymore about these Reformation-articulated doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s “depravity.” It makes too much of God and not enough of man for people steeped in Enlightenment thinking, and when that happens, the gospel’s good news succumbs to the humanistic thinking of the Enlightenment.

One evidence of this is that many church leaders, if they are honest, are concerned that someone might not get “saved” if the quality or style of the music isn’t in keeping with what people want to hear or the experience they want to have. Preachers’ sermons need to have a sufficient amount of charisma or polish if they are going to “work.” While those things aren’t bad, per se, it’s humanistic to the core if it creeps into our minds that salvation depends on something other than God—the right “environment.”

One popular mega-church preacher was pretty straightforward about it: “When they come to my church, or our meetings, I want them to be lifted up. I want them to know that God’s good, that they can move forward, that they can break an addiction, that they can become who God’s created them to be.”1 Perhaps his words were just poorly chosen, but it sure sounds like what God wants and lifting up Christ is secondary. It sure sounds like, to be changed, you just have to get “pumped up” on Sunday.

But such deviations from the Christianity of the Reformation explain why it’s not “stupid” to return to Christianity, because, I’m not talking about a Christianity that’s just humanism wrapped in Bible words and that I think is seen for what it is by both conservative and liberal Enlightenment thinkers.

Don’t Christianity’s ‘Warts’ Militate Against it?

The answer to that question is no.

Christianity, like all other belief systems, had to mature and develop as Christians came to better understand the Scriptures on which they rely for their understanding of the world and the human condition. Then they had to mature in their understanding of the implications of that worldview and how it applies to the constantly changing world in which we live. I, for one, still have a long way to go in this department.

No doubt, Christians have zigged and zagged during this process of maturation, as I believe we’ve now done with our modern versions of the “Christian” humanism with which the Church has always struggled. We’ve even made some horrible mistakes.

However, in this regard, we are no different from Enlightenment thinkers as they have tried to work out and apply their belief system. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that belief in human autonomy and human reason has a history, too. Enlightenment principles produced Stalin and Mao Zedong, both of whom did some pretty awful things working out and applying their god-less philosophies.

So, Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and often corrupted. So many just gave up on it. And many Christians, not seeing the results they envisioned in a timeframe suitable to them, like the Israelites waiting on Moses to come down from the mountain, tried to help God along a bit, this time by trying to tone down the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man to appeal to “enlightened” thinker. But that doesn’t mean that those doctrines—that understanding of Christianity—isn’t the answer. Next week I’ll speak to how that is so.

NOTES:

  1. https://www.christianpost.com/news/joel-osteen-talks-preaching-sin-materialism-and-coming-out-in-support-of-gay-marriage-111212/

Read the series of commentaries responding to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West:


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

FACT-RSS-Blog-Icon-small Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.

Donald Trump 2015 by Michael Vadon on Flickr

Can Trump Protect Religious Liberty?

Is religious liberty really under attack in the United States? If so, will Donald Trump, if he’s elected, really be able to protect it from further attack?

Many of my Christian friends probably wonder why I would even pose the first question, because, to them, the answer is an obvious, “Yes.” As to the second question, some of my Christian friends would also think the answer is obvious.

I’m not so sure the answer to either question is so obvious if we are really honest with ourselves about the situation and the reason behind the “attacks.” But being honest with ourselves is the first step toward restoring the religious liberty historic Christianity once knew in this country.

The word “historic” is key to answering the first question, because the answer depends on what strain of Christianity one is talking about. The American Christianity of more recent vintage that is rooted in only a spiritualized internal experience and focused mostly on getting to Heaven is not really under attack. It’s no threat to anyone. A more robust strain of the same that focuses on personal piety in one’s conduct is not under too much attack, either. Yes, such Christians are considered odd and may be ostracized in some circles. But there is still a large, whatever-floats-your-boat sentiment in America; so long as you “do your thing” in a manner that doesn’t affect others, your religious viewpoint is no threat.

However, if you are part of the historic strain of Christianity that believes there are transcendent, creational laws or norms that apply to all human behavior, including the institutions that humans create, such as civil governments, economic systems, and educational systems, then your Christianity is under attack. That Christianity is not okay with the American majority, maybe even a very good number of those who go to church on Sunday.

But it’s more than just “not okay.” It must be snuffed out.

That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. It’s hard for Christians to admit, but it’s not hard to understand. No god likes to have another god usurp their rule and authority, and the Christian God who imposes “laws” on His creation is an offense to the man-is-the-measure-of-all things religion. Man has always wanted to be his own god, and the culmination of that “religious” view’s dominating power in America was demonstrated when the Supreme Court said it could redefine marriage.

We must understand that there can be no absolute religious liberty when the question of religious liberty is framed this way: Has a creator God imposed a moral order on man, or is man autonomous? There can be toleration of religion and religious beliefs, which is what we have now, but toleration necessarily means someone or some thing decides what will be tolerated. Those in charge of deciding what religion(s) will be tolerated necessarily “establish” that religion or those religions.

That being said, let’s return to the second question, can Trump protect religious liberty? In the sense in which I’ve framed the issue, the short answer is “No.” He can perhaps slow down the attacks for a season, and he can maybe help prevent certain selected attacks, like Tennessee’s Legislature has done with professional counselors and student religious groups on public college campuses. But he can’t stop the attacks; they are inherent to the worldview underlying the controlling powers in our civil government, school systems, and culture.

Picture the whack-a-mole at the fair and that’s how I envision Trump on this matter—he might be able to whack a historic Christianity-attacking mole here and there. Of course, Hillary, like President Obama, is one of the moles and will let the moles run free.

Those who believe their Christian views are under attack must first realize the depth and breadth of the problem. It is beyond fixing by any one President. In fact, there’s no quick fix.

It’s going to take a cultural revolution as comprehensive as the revolution that displaced what we had and that’s brought us to where we are. The sooner we see that, the sooner we’ll move past looking for political saviors1, settle in and get started on the task ahead. Helping your friends understand the nature of the problem and then equipping yourself at things like our Stand for Truth Seminar (Johnson City, September 10th) is one way to get started. It’s much larger than the next Presidential election.

NOTES

  1. I do not intend to suggest that voting or politics and the product of politics—laws and public policy—are not important and part of the solution, but it is only a part.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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The End of Christianity As We Know It

Two pieces of legislation, one pending in Tennessee and one just passed in Indiana, and the reactions to them are bringing me ever closer to the belief that Christianity as we know it is coming to an end in the United States.

The bill in Tennessee is a rather straightforward one that I have no doubts our Founding Fathers would have passed in a heartbeat. The bill would prevent professors in the most atheistic department on our public college campuses—psychology—from using the power of the state that their professorial position entails to force a student counselor-in-training to counsel a client contrary to the student’s religious beliefs.

However, the bill is opposed by accrediting agencies and that has made its passage tenuous. Let’s be clear about what’s going on here. Accreditation trumps religious liberty.

And I understand the thinking. If we lose accreditation, it will hurt our universities. They won’t be able to attract students from out of state. And it will hurt the career opportunities afforded our students, who may not be able go to other states to practice if they don’t have a degree from an accredited program. Protecting religious liberty could be costly.

The other bill is one Indiana passed this week to protect religious freedom in the marketplace. It would protect Citizen A from Citizen B using the power of the judicial branch to force Citizen A to do something contrary to Citizen A’s sincerely held religious belief unless there is some really compelling reason for government to trample on religious liberty.

Again, this is something I believe our Founding Fathers, based on the language of the Declaration of Independence, would have supported at the risk of their life, liberty, and property.

But the NCAA is now thinking about whether it should hold basketball tournaments in the state because, in their view, the bill fosters discrimination. And two major conventions slotted for Indianapolis have threatened to look elsewhere for the same reason. Again, protecting religious liberty just might prove costly.

So what does this have to do with Christianity and particularly the “end of it as we know it?”

What I’m referring to is the kind of Christianity whose adherents hold to and live consistently with the historic doctrines of the church rooted in Scripture and are still able to get along with everybody else without it costing very much. That kind of Christianity, I believe, is coming to an end in America.

What will take its place is a costly Christianity, the kind of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before he was hanged for his opposition to Hitler’s totalitarian Nazi regime.

But that is actually the kind of Christianity that is true to its historical roots. Christianity will always be tied to and rooted in the Cross, and only those willing to embrace that Cross really embrace Christianity. When embracing the Cross, one’s hands cannot embrace other things the world might offer in its place.

It was because he’d already embraced the Cross that the Apostle Paul found himself in situations in which he was beaten and left for dead. It was because they’d already embraced the Cross that Christians were willing to deny primacy to Caesar though it meant being fed to lions and used as human torches. It’s because of his faith in the Cross, rather than institutional church, that Martin Luther penned the words, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!”

And, indeed, God’s truth will endure as will the “Kingdom” kind of Christianity that is build upon it, even as it has for more than two thousand years.

But what’s going on in America’s culture is eventually going to make all of us who fill the pews and pulpits of our churches decide whether we will really embrace the costliness of the Cross when our time comes.

To be honest, I don’t relish that thought, but more than ever I think that day is coming. And perhaps this season of the Cross is the right time to think about it.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

FACT-RSS-Blog-Icon-small Get David Fowler’s Blog as a feed.

Invite David Fowler to speak at your event