Category Archives: Religion

Holiness, Grace, and Jerry Bridges

In 1978, The Navigators published a book written by a Navigators staff member named Jerry Bridges. That book was called The Pursuit of Holiness , and it became a blockbuster in Christian publishing. The book was intended as an encouragement for Christians to take personal holiness seriously. It spoke to the church in a special way. After the permissive Sixties and early Seventies, there was a need to remind Christians that ‘If it feels good, do it’ was not a particularly Christian mantra.

I first encountered The Pursuit of Holiness in the early ‘90s. This was the first book I had read that quoted seriously from the Puritans, especially John Owen. I say ‘quoted seriously’ because I had seen Puritans quoted before, but only to mock their attitudes and opinions. Jerry Bridges discovered that the Puritans seemed to take the Scriptures more seriously than our culture did…even Christian culture. The Bible speaks a lot of holiness, and the Puritans applied that to their daily lives, and we did not typically see that same sort of diligence towards personal holiness in the groups I affiliated with. The challenge was real to live up to the holiness laid out before us in the words of Scripture.

There was one potential stumbling block to this call to holiness. If a person has a flawed view of grace and how grace works, it would be easy distort a legitimate call to holiness. This is how Pharisees are made. A person could believe that by successfully living a holy life, he or she could actually become good enough to meet God’s approval on the basis of his or her personal holiness.

Over time, Bridges saw how this mistake could be made, so he wrote another book called Transforming Grace . Chapter One of that book, titled ‘The Performance Treadmill’, spelled out the problem that this flawed view of holiness and grace could cause. The key Scripture for that chapter was Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Bridges established a beautiful analogy in that chapter that proved very helpful for me to understand how grace works. Believe it or not, Bridges used two chapters of the US federal bankruptcy code as illustrations. Bridges uses these two types of bankruptcy to illustrate two ways in which grace is understood: one wrong, and one right. Bridges says:

Chapter 11 deals with what we could call a temporary bankruptcy. This option is chosen by a basically healthy company that, given time, can work through its financial problems.

Chapter 7 is for a company that has reached the end of its financial rope. It is not only deeply in debt, it has no future as a viable business. It is forced to liquidate its assets and pay off its creditors, often by as little as ten cents on the dollar. The company is finished. It’s all over. Transforming Grace, p. 14-15

Most Christians know that the type of spiritual bankruptcy we would need to declare from that analogy is Chapter 7. Most would say they have. However, when ‘pursuit of holiness’ steps in, it is easy for us to slip over into a Chapter 11 model. Bridges says “Having trusted in Christ alone for our salvation, we have subtly and unconsciously reverted to a works relationship with God in our Christian lives. We recognize that even our best efforts cannot get us into heaven, but we do think they earn us God’s blessings in our daily lives.”

This concept was monumental in the development of my Christian growth. This Chapter 11 thinking had been there in me all along. As Bridges said, it had been unconscious, but it was there nevertheless. I realized that as much as I had thought I had known about grace before had only scratched the surface. Grace is surely bigger and better and more radical than I had ever imagined. This was a significant waypoint on my road to Reformed theology. Bridges wrote one more important book in this same vein. The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness further advances the topic and synthesizes what he said in the previous two books. Bridges writes:

After Transforming Grace was published, many people asked me how it related to The Pursuit of Holiness. The question always seemed to carry the suggestion that grace and the pursuit of holiness are incompatible. One lady even went so far as to wonder how the same person who wrote the book on holiness could possibly have written the book on grace.

Grace and the personal discipline required to pursue holiness, however, are not opposed to one another. In fact, they go hand in hand. An understanding of how grace and personal, vigorous effort work together is essential for a lifelong pursuit of holiness. Yet many believers do not understand what it means to live by grace in their daily lives, and they certainly don’t understand the relationship of grace to personal discipline.

Discipline of Grace, p. 13

Bridges then gives us examples of two very different types of days you might have. The first goes great for you. You get up early and have your devotional. You really do live out your holiness on this day. You control your temper all day. You have opportunities to be a blessing to others. The second day doesn’t go so well. You oversleep and miss your devotions. You are late to work and have a little road rage flare up on the way. This puts you in a ‘bad mood’ all day. At the end of each of those days, you have an opportunity to witness to an unbeliever. Bridges says:

Would you enter those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence? Would you be less confident on the bad day than on the good day? Would you find it difficult to believe that God would bless you and use you in the midst of a rather bad spiritual day?

If you answered yes to those questions, you have lots of company among believers. I’ve described these two scenarios to a number of audiences and asked, “Would you respond differently?” Invariably, about 80 percent indicate that they would. They would be less confident of God’s blessing while sharing Christ at the end of the bad day than they would after the good one. Is such thinking justified? Does God work that way? The answer to both questions is no, because God’s blessing does not depend on our performance.

The Discipline of Grace, p. 14

Does that last statement shock you? It would shock many Christians. However, God does not bless us because of what we do, but because of who He is. Think about it.

Transforming Grace and The Discipline of Grace are two books that I cannot recommend too highly to new believers, or to mature believers seeking to better understand the miracle of grace. I guarantee that grace is bigger, better, and more radical than anything you have ever imagined.


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An Excerpt From ‘Ordinary’

This Sunday I wanted to share an extended quote from Michael Horton’s current book, Ordinary, that speaks so much to the circus that is too commonly accepted for church in America today:

Many of the reasons we offer for needing revival (lethargy in evangelism and missions, lack of heartfelt experience of God’s grace, coldness in prayer, rising vice and infidelity, social evils, etc.) are problems that the ordinary ministry is supposed to address each week. Not only may the longing for revival lead us to treat this ministry as humdrum; it can subtly justify an unacceptable state of affairs in the meantime. Another question is the extent to which a longing for revival has been woven into civil religion. The antidote to a sagging moral nerve and patriotic fervor is a revival. Among other problems, this turns the gospel into a means to an end. No longer is the church’s mission to deliver Christ with all of his saving benefits to sinners; it is chiefly to act as the “soul of the nation,” to lead it onward and upward toward its exceptional destiny.

This has been the vicious cycle of evangelical revivalism ever since: a pendulum swinging between enthusiasm and disillusionment rather than steady maturity in Christ through participation in the ordinary life of the covenant community. The regular preaching of Christ from all of the Scriptures, baptism, the Supper, the prayers of confession and praise, and all of the other aspects of ordinary Christian fellowship are seen as too ordinary. Whether one agrees with that will depend largely on whether one believes that God saves sinners or we save ourselves with God’s help.

Driven to and fro with every wind of doctrine and often no doctrine at all, those reared in evangelicalism become accustomed to hype and cataclysmic events of intense spiritual experience that nevertheless wear off. When they do wear off, there is often little to keep them from trying a different form of spiritual therapy or dropping out of the religion rat race all together.


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Condoned By Calvin

Ligonier Ministries published a blog post yesterday that I think speaks directly to the series I recently ran on homosexuality.

John Calvin on Condoning Theological Delusion

The distinction Calvin draws here—a distinction which the Reformed tradition has consistently recognized—is not, it should be noted, one between biblical doctrines and speculative ideas lacking scriptural foundation. It is, rather, a distinction between biblical doctrines which are essential to one’s salvation—doctrines one must get right—and biblical doctrines which one might potentially fumble without impairing one’s hope of salvation.

My point, if you recall, was that if people are correct on the concepts of grace, then whatever errors they may have on other non-essential points must also be covered by the blood.

I think I stand in Calvin’s corner on this one. That’s pretty good company to be in.


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Favorite Christian Book of 2014

Calvin and the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever
Michael Horton

John Calvin is one of the most fascinating and yet most widely misunderstood figures in Christian history. The most common image of Calvin is that of a fire breathing tyrant whose mission in life was to suck the most pleasure and joy out of people that he possibly could. He is commonly associated with the doctrine of predestination, but what he actually believed, taught, and wrote on predestination is not what most of his detractors attribute to him.

Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, has written the latest book of several over the last few years that corrects our understanding of what John Calvin was all about. Several recent predecessors that I have read are John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey; The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson; John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons; and Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith A. Mathison.

Horton’s contribution focuses on Calvin’s personal piety and practical theology. ‘Personal piety’ these days is frequently interpreted to mean ‘holier than thou’, but this is not the case with Calvin. For Calvin, this simply meant the way a person lives out the Christian life. From Horton’s introduction:

“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion. Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. In fact, “justification by faith…is the sum of all piety.” The root of piety is faith in the gospel. Love is the yardstick for all duties, and God’s moral law in both testaments stipulates the character of this love on the ground, comprehending “piety toward God” and “charity toward men.” Calvin even defended his Institutes as “a sum of Christian piety.” (p. 17)

Horton quotes extensively from Calvin’s own works. Predominant among these is Calvin’s monumental work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin intended his Institutes to be used to train pastors in sound doctrine, and it is there that I find Calvin’s thoughts most clearly explained in the most detail. Calvin’s Catechism, his sermons on the Scriptures, and his correspondence round out the source material from which Horton mines Calvin’s views of how a Christian ought to live, guided by the Scriptures and a proper understanding of the gospel.

Far from being a tyrant, Calvin was one of the church’s strongest defenders of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is the idea that anything not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures is lawful for a Christian to do. For instance, dancing, smoking, and going to movies activities frequently forbidden in Western churches, but these are not activities specifically prohibited in the scriptures. Therefore, despite what many evangelical churches have tried to teach over the centuries, Calvin teaches that Christians have the freedom to pursue these activities if they wish. Calvin once got into trouble with the city of Geneva’s leaders for bowling on the Sabbath. That doesn’t sound like a kill-joy tyrant to me. Horton sums up Calvin’s point on Christian liberty by saying “Of what use is a doctrine of justification if we do not actually experience God’s liberality toward us in our daily lives?” (p. 181)

Calvin explicitly defends Christian liberty against the Pharisees of legalism, and he defends it often and loudly. Calvin takes special aim at the legalists among us who try to hide their legalism behind the argument of ‘not stumbling the weaker brother’. Horton says, “Restricting the church’s authority in doctrine, worship, and life to that which God has clearly commanded in his word, Calvin is the enemy of legalism.” (p. 182)

Calvin speaks to many issues confronting us in today’s world, as well. The compassionate way Calvin provided for refugees in the city of Geneva lead me to believe he would not be on the Republican side of our own immigration issue.

Horton takes us through Calvin’s thoughts on grace, worship service, and prayer. He explains Calvin’s views on a Christian’s relation to the government, a Christian’s vocation, and a Christian’s future hope. Horton does much of this with Calvin’s own words. Horton’s book could almost be read as a thinking Christian’s devotional. I highly recommend it!


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Michael Horton on the Reliability of Scripture

Before this weekend is over, I plan to share two posts on Christianity and homosexuality. In the meantime, The White Horse Inn ran a timely video in which Dr. Michael Horton takes about eight minutes to explain why we believe the Bible is reliable. I believe that Michael Horton is one of the greatest Christian theologians of our time. He takes deep theological truths and communicates them in ways understandable by common people like you and I. He is also a grounded antidote to the wildly popular but false notions of, or even in, Christianity so widespread in our culture today.

If you are interested in following my discussion and do not consider yourself to be a Christian, please take the time to listen to this video. You might not believe this, but it will go a long way if you try to understand why I and other thinking Christians believe the things we do. I know it seems like so many of us believe things “because the pastor said so”, but that is just not true.

This video is a good reference point to understand where I am going to be coming from with my two posts. Dr. Horton plans to post two more short videos on the Scriptures before the end of the year, one on interpreting Scripture, and one on applying Scripture. I’ll repost them when they become available. I’m sure they will be relevant as well. In the meantime, “How Can I Trust That the Bible is Reliable”, from Michael Horton…

BTW…if you care to post comments, and I encourage you to, remember that this blog was founded as a place where opposing points of view can be discussed civilly.


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What If I Told You…

I just finished an excellent theology book called Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, by Sam Storms.

For many Christians in Evangelical America, to consider any end-times view other than the dispensational premillennial view is the same thing as spitting on your family heritage. From the beginning of our Christian lives, whether we can’t even remember the beginning of that life, or someone like me who didn’t begin a Christian life until I was seventeen, we are told that the Scriptures literally say that Jesus will come back for His church with the Rapture, in which all believers are removed from the earth by being taken up into the air, followed by a seven year period of ‘tribulation’, followed by the triumphal return of Christ and all of his followers, followed by a literal one thousand year reign of Christ on earth, and ending with the final battle between the forces of good and evil, with good triumphant. We are told that this is the only conclusion that a literal reading of the texts can bring us to. All other views are said to be the result of non-literal, liberal, slippery slope reading that will take you far away from anything resembling orthodox Christianity.

What if I told you…I’ve discovered that my dispensational teachers down through the years cannot back-up their claim.

Sam Storms comes from a dispensational background. As he dug into the Scriptures like he was taught, he found himself coming to different conclusions than what his teachers were telling him. Like many other dispensationalists who sincerely believed in the veracity of God’s Word, he found that he simply could not connect the logical dots that his teachers were telling him. He had to go back and reexamine the presuppositions that he was bringing to his study of the Scriptures. He came to some different conclusions than he had been told. Yes, Jesus is triumphant in the end. But how that victory come about looks radically different than he had been told. And how that victory comes about affects how Storms sees God working in the world today. And it turns out that it’s bigger and better and even more significant than what he had been taught.

I have to admit that I enjoyed the first 2/3 of the Kingdom Come more than the last third. I thoroughly enjoyed his examination of his own history with the topic; an examination of dispensationalism; an examination of the book of Daniel (particularly chapter 9); his examination of “Israel, the Church, and ‘Replacement’ theology”; the Olivet discourse; the books of Acts and Romans; the ‘Now’ and ‘Not Yet’ of eschatology. However, I got bogged down going through the minutia of three topics of Revelation. He did not look exhaustively at Revelation. He looked closely at the chronology of the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments, the binding of Satan, and the first resurrection. I did work my way through it, but I would need to go back and study those chapters much more closely to say I grasp them well enough to pass the wisdom on to others.

My own experience with this disconnect between my teachers and my studying concerned the timing of the Rapture. As I read the scriptures in Thessalonians, I was reading about Jesus coming back for His church, His church meeting Him in the air, and immediately following this in Thessalonians comes the judgment my teachers were saying does not come until Jesus’ triumphant return seven years later. They were having to insert the seven year tribulation period into this text to fit their model. I was given their explanation of how this ties into that, and if you look back here in Daniel, then that means this, but I was not seeing it. I was left seeing a post-tribulational rapture in the Scriptures, but hoping my teachers were right about the pre-trib.

I’ve discovered that I was not alone in my questions that I could not get satisfactorily answered. Storms is one of them. So are Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, Dr. Michael Horton, and many other former dispensational pastors and theologians who hold the Scriptures in just as high regard as our dispensational brothers and sisters.

One other important thing I’ve discovered…we cannot discuss this issue simply by trading Scriptures back and forth. That gets us nowhere. We need to take a step back and examine the rules, or presuppositions, we are bringing to the discussion. If we don’t do that, we wil just be taking past each other and never really understand each other.

Well…to be honest…I mean you will never understand me, my dispensational friends. I certainly understand your presuppositions, because I used to be there. So…let’s take a look at…hermeneutics! Next time…


In God’s Image

I was re-reading a book that should be considered a classic…but it was only written in 1991, so it’s a little soon for that award. The book is Putting Amazing Back into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel by Michael Horton. The following passage was just as convicting this time as it was the first time I read it…

“Redemption, or course, is limited to the group of those whom God has moved in history to redeem and call to himself. In other words, only justified believers are saved from God’s judgment. But creation is much broader, embracing not only Christians, but non-Christians. James warned the faithful against the hypocrisy of using the same tongue to “praise our Lord and Father” and to “curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). Even those outside the household of the faith bear the divine image.

In one sense, this universal character of the divine image is a plus, in another sense, a minus. First the good news. The universality of the divine image means that your neighbor, whether the world’s most obstinate atheist or a pastor’s wife, is an equal in the sharing of the image of God. This divine imprimatur is the result of creation, not redemption. The image of God which requires us to respect those who bear it, therefore, requires us to recognize the dignity of all human beings, regardless of who they are, what they believe, or what they do.”

What Horton is essentially saying is that we Christians need to treat everybody with dignity and respect.

That should be a no-brainer, right? But when he says ‘everybody’, he means everybody. Not just our family and friends. Not just our co-workers who are easy to work with, but also the one guy who sees you as a rival for a promotion. Not just the neighbors that we like and get along with, but also the neighbor who lets her dog do its business on our front lawn. Even people whose politics oppose yours at every turn. Yup…even them.

Why is this? Because every human being bears God’s image and is worthy of that respect. Every…one. Even if those people are doing horrible, ungodly things and we need to oppose them politically or socially, Paul says we should always conduct ourselves “in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” (Phil. 1:27) Jesus says that this manner includes loving even our enemies. He does not mean “Those with whom you are slightly peeved.” Jesus says ‘enemies’; He means ‘enemies’.

Notice that Horton maintains the distinction between ‘God’s creation’ and ‘God’s children’. We are not all God’s children. John wrote concerning Jesus, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13) So according to the Scriptures, only some of us are God’s children and will have an eternity to spend with the Father, but all of us are God’s creation and are bearers of the divine image and worthy of respect and dignity here on earth.

I see the Christians already nodding their heads in polite agreement right now (except maybe for the ones wondering if I’ve gone New Age with the “all of us are bearers of the ‘divine image’” stuff).

Well…if this is true…then why do I see and hear so much bitterness and hatred from my fellow Christians towards those on the other side from us? Why don’t we practice what we claim to be true?

I get part of it; for instance, abortion is evil. Those who practice it are murdering the innocent. IMHO, they certainly deserve some measure of wrath. But is it my place to pour out that wrath? Paul says,”Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” I can hate the evil that is committed. I can vote to prevent it whenever I can. I can write against it and try to convince others of the correctness of my position. But does that excuse the vileness I see out of so many Christians towards those who ‘deserve’ it? Our examples would seem to say ‘no’.

When Jesus was dying on the cross, what did He say about those who put Him there? “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as he was on his knees being stoned to death, said,”Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

If this is the way they treated those who were actually killing them, how are we supposed to treat those with whom we are having a mere disagreement?


Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Christian Ethics, Culture, Religion


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