15 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 9: Heresy

We are just over half-way through our journey through the recently published Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel, which now addresses heresy:

We affirm that heresy is a denial of or departure from a doctrine that is essential to the Christian faith. We further affirm that heresy often involves the replacement of key, essential truths with variant concepts, or the elevation of non-essentials to the status of essentials. To embrace heresy is to depart from the faith once delivered to the saints and thus to be on a path toward spiritual destruction. We affirm that the accusation of heresy should be reserved for those departures from Christian truth that destroy the weight-bearing doctrines of the redemptive core of Scripture. We affirm that accusations of heresy should be accompanied with clear evidence of such destructive beliefs.

We deny that the charge of heresy can be legitimately brought against every failure to achieve perfect conformity to all that is implied in sincere faith in the gospel.

The very notion of heresy is not a popular one these days, because it implies that someone or some community knows the truth and is willing to penalize those who persist in denying it. In a society that claims to value free expression of unpopular ideas, the image of a group of straight-laced men gathering together in a synodical body to test the orthodoxy of one of its members elicits scorn. Not long ago a mainline protestant denomination here in Canada found itself looking into the beliefs of one of its ministers who denies outright the existence of God. Harbouring an atheist in its midst was apparently too much for even this extremely nonconfessional denomination. Nevertheless, many of her fellow ministers came to her defence.

Heresy trials are not pleasant, to be sure. But where a church eliminates even the possibility of disciplining one of its officeholders for heresy, it will likely drift away from the gospel over the long term. Examples of this phenomenon are not hard to find.

12 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 8: The Church

Although I am by profession an academic political scientist, in recent years I have become more interested in ecclesiological issues, as reflected in the forthcoming second edition of Political Visions and Illusions, which will contain "A Concluding Ecclesiological Postscript." The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel also treats the church:

We affirm that the primary role of the church is to worship God through the preaching of his word, teaching sound doctrine, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper, refuting those who contradict, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost. We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified. We affirm that, under the lordship of Christ, we are to obey the governing authorities established by God and pray for civil leaders.

We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church. Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of a society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head. We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

Prior to drafting this section, the statement's authors would have done well to read Abraham Kuyper on the church, especially his sermons contained in Rooted and Grounded: The Church as Organism and Institution. Kuyper's ecclesiology is exceedingly helpful in enabling us to sort our way through the issue of the church's ongoing mission in the world. On the one hand, we see denominational assemblies pronouncing on such political issues as the $15 an hour minimum wage and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and many of us, rightly to my mind, conclude that this is inappropriate for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, we also confess that our whole lives belong to God in Christ and that this includes our life together in political community. We definitely should be concerned about the poor and international justice. Is this a paradox with which we must simply live and move ahead by trial and error, valiantly attempting to avoid the opposite perils of politicizing the gospel and walling it off from the rest of life?

11 October 2018

Statement of Social Justice, 6 & 7: the Gospel and Salvation

As we make our way through the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, we come to the heart of the biblical story, the gospel and salvation. Here is the sixth set of affirmations and denials:

We affirm that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ—especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection—revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.

We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.

And now the seventh:

We affirm  that salvation is granted by God’s grace alone received through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Every believer is united to Christ, justified before God, and adopted into his family. Thus, in God’s eyes there is no difference in spiritual value or worth among those who are in Christ. Further, all who are united to Christ are also united to one another regardless of age, ethnicity, or sex. All believers are being conformed to the image of Christ. By God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace all believers will be brought to a final glorified, sinless state of perfection in the day of Jesus Christ.

We deny that salvation can be received in any other way. We also deny that salvation renders any Christian free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life. We further deny that ethnicity excludes anyone from understanding the gospel, nor does anyone’s ethnic or cultural heritage mitigate or remove the duty to repent and believe.

At the risk of disappointing readers who waited three days to see what I might have to say, I can only indicate that I agree with both of these sections and have nothing of substance to add here. Salvation is in Jesus Christ alone. The gospel is open to everyone everywhere. The call to do justice is by no means optional for the believer, but efforts to fulfil this call cannot save us. The authors are correct.

Next: The Church, on which I will have more to say. This will be posted at 9 am tomorrow.

08 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 4 & 5: God's Law and Sin

In treating the recently released Statement of Social Justice & the Gospel, I have concluded that it is sometimes appropriate to treat two sets of affirmations and denials together in a single post, which I did last Thursday and am doing again today. Here is the section on God's Law:

We affirm that God’s law, as summarized in the ten commandments, more succinctly summarized in the two great commandments, and manifested in Jesus Christ, is the only standard of unchanging righteousness. Violation of that law is what constitutes sin.

We deny that any obligation that does not arise from God’s commandments can be legitimately imposed on Christians as a prescription for righteous living. We further deny the legitimacy of any charge of sin or call to repentance that does not arise from a violation of God’s commandments.

I can only applaud the authors for affirming the continuing legitimacy of God's law at a time when many Christians misunderstand the relationship between the old and new covenants. The allure of Marcion's heresy has not gone away, as exemplified in this recent post. Of course, many misconstrue St. Paul the Apostle's writings on the Law, despite his affirmation that the Law is holy and good (Romans 7:12). In Reformed liturgies in particular, the reading of the Decalogue often follows the general confession of sin and the assurance of pardon. Here the Law functions as a guide to the new life in Christ for those who are truly repentant. I will not here get into the distinction often drawn amongst the moral, ceremonial and civil laws, but suffice it here to indicate that the church has always understood that the moral law is still binding on the Christian community, thereby recognizing the so-called third use of the law.

04 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 2 & 3: Imago Dei and Justice

Here are the second and third series of affirmations and denials:

We affirm that God created every person equally in his own image. As divine image-bearers, all people have inestimable value and dignity before God and deserve honor, respect and protection. Everyone has been created by God and for God.

We deny that God-given roles, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, sex or physical condition or any other property of a person either negates or contributes to that individual’s worth as an image-bearer of God.

This is wholly correct, as I see it. The only thing I would add is that the image of God entails a grant of authority—an authority that is dispersed over a variety of settings and manifests itself in the different offices to which we are called. God has called us to be fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, teachers, students, employers, employees, citizens, political leaders, members of a gathered church institution, elders, deacons, ministers, sellers, buyers, and so forth. None of these exhausts who we are as persons created in God's image. Therefore we might better speak of our callings, in the plural, as we seek to fulfil these simultaneously.in the many spheres of life, including family, marriage, state, school and church.

01 October 2018

Statement on Social Justice, 1: Scripture

Welcome to the first instalment of a series dedicated to the recently released Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. As we make our way through this, I will first post the affirmations and denials and then proceed to my own analysis below. Here is the first, titled "Scripture":

We affirm that the Bible is God’s Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God’s final Word, which is Scripture alone.

We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.

All confessional protestants can resonate with the affirmation of the Bible as God's Word. Moreover one needn't be a protestant, as Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians also recognize the Bible to be verbum Dei, the Word of God. Although some might question on epistemological grounds the use of inerrant to describe Scripture, the mainstream of the Christian tradition confesses that it is inspired by God and does not err in what it teaches. Scripture is trustworthy and can be believed because it is God-breathed.

What is missing from the affirmations is the recognition that the Bible is more than a set of true propositions but a grand story in which all of humanity is caught up. It begins with God's creation, of which man stands at the pinnacle, followed by man's fall into sin, followed by God's ages-long plan to redeem humanity by calling out a peculiar people to embody his righteousness and mercy, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose second coming will bring all things to fruition. This redemptive narrative is not an insignificant omission from the affirmations, although something of this can be seen in section 6 on the Gospel, which we will examine later.


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