hagiography [ hag-ee-og-ruh-fee, hey-jee- ]

noun, plural hag·i·og·ra·phies. 1. the writing and critical study of the lives of the saints; 2. a biography that treats the person with excessive or undue admiration.

It must be difficult to write a biography of a friend. You love and admire your friend and want to share that with the world. It is tempting to overlook their flaws, which are some of the things that create or prolong struggles in their life. Your friend and their loved ones may not feel honored by the honesty. It must be a very difficult tightrope to walk.

As a Christian, I know all people are flawed no matter how gifted they may be. Their flaws are not necessarily disqualifying flaws. Or, as in the case of Ravi Zacharias, they may be for many. By that I mean not only disqualifying from office, but so discrediting that their material should not be used anymore.

As I think about a biography, and this biography in particular, I’m not talking about recording the sins that sully a man, but honest assessment of a man with a recognition some parts of his life could have been different, better.

Stephen J. Nichols asked his friend R.C. Sproul about writing a biography about him near the end of R.C.’s life. R.C. agreed, noted that the holiness of God ought to be a major theme, and was interviewed by Nichols who also had access to his library and notebooks. Nichols focuses on the strengths and accomplishments of his friend and they are many. There is nary a mention of his weaknesses, and some more personal struggles that one would think would be part of a biography- the story of a man.

I barely knew R.C. I only spoke with him a few times, and that was quite superficial. But having worked for him I could see some of the weaknesses. He was human after all. Having been an RTS student in the early-mid 90’s, it was hard not to know of some faculty disagreement involving R.C.. Knowing how important family was to R.C. one can imagine how difficult the struggles, sometimes very public, of his children could possibly be to R.C. and Vesta. These are part of the story, and the very places grace works.

For instance, years later he shared a stage with another of my former professors. There had been tension in the past. I thought, “have they worked things out?”. I ended up talking with the other professor and was delighted to learn God had been at work reconciling relationships. I am thankful for both men and all they taught me over the years, and I’m thankful grace won the day in their relationship. That is the kind of stuff Nichols seems to overlook in R.C. Sproul: A Life. But I get ahead of myself.

R. C. Sproul: A Life  - 9781433544774 Nichols, Stephen J

This is still a biography worth reading. There is much of interest here for those whose lives have been impacted by R.C. Nichols helps us see the patterns in his life, the themes of life as well as the influences on his life. He walks us through some of the big controversies (but misses a few others).

Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania

Nichols takes a very linear approach to Sproul’s life, organizing his material chronologically rather than thematically. He begins in Pittsburgh and the place that extended family played in his life since his father served in the European theater of World War II. Later his family would shift from the Methodist church to a Presbyterian church, returning to the religious roots of the family in Scotland. R.C. would later discover that it was a liberal Presbyterian church, but as a child he was far more interested in sports and a girl who moved into the neighborhood, Vesta. His teens years would be marked by caring for his father who had a stroke, and who subsequently died while R.C. was a high school senior.

Nichols then brings us to Westminster College which accepted Sproul on an athletic scholarship. One night he and his childhood friend we going to OH to drink and wanted some cigarettes. At the vending machine one of the stars of the football team invited to look at the Bible with him for a few minutes. God used the unlikely text of Ecclesiastes 11:3 to convert R.C. With a new found faith, Sproul found a mentor in Thomas Gregory who taught philosophy but had an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and was one of the few theological conservatives on campus. Soon he was majoring in philosophy and taken with his coursework.

Soon Vesta would convert as well, and Sproul would have a late night encounter with God’s holiness which would shape the rest of his life. After she graduated from college, they married and he finished his college education. His senior thesis would be on “The Existential Implications of Melville’s Moby Dick.” This would also be a text and theme he’d return to frequently.

R. C. Sproul (1939–2017)

Sproul did well enough in his studies in philosophy that he was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Edinburgh. Gregory encouraged him to get a theology degree first and he ended up at Pittsburgh, once again one of the few conservatives in a liberal institution. It was here that Sproul studied under John Gerstner who played the role of mentor until his death. Between the context of a conservative in a liberal institution and the influence of Gerstner, Sproul developed a fighter mentality. He was a man who fought for orthodoxy. He didn’t run from the fray, even if standing cost him friendships like the ECT controversy would in the 1990’s.

One of the key moments for Sproul was when Gerstner destroyed his presuppositional arguments in class. Gerstner also helped him see the truth of Calvinism. During his second year, Sproul took a position of youth director at First Presbyterian Church of Charleroi. As a senior he took a student pastorate in Lendora, a community filled with Hungarian immigrants. During these early years, Nichols notes the role of prayer in their marriage and ministry.

A Long, Winding Road

As he began to apply for church positions, Gerstner would tell search committees that Sproul was best off continuing his studies first. With Gerstner’s encouragement he went to the Free University of Amsterdam to study under G.C. Berkouwer despite not knowing Dutch.

With Vesta pregnant again (the first delivery experienced difficulty) and his mother dying, he decided he needed to return to the States after his first year. Arrangements were made with Berkouwer for supervision the next year. On July 1, 1965 his mother died and his son was born (Nichols notes he was called Craig, but I never heard him called that- just Jr. or Precious). On the 18th he was ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (to which Nichols adds (PCUSA) instead of UPCUSA). I know American Presbyterian history can be confusing. The PCUSA as we know it did not exist in 1965, but was formed in 1983 by the merger of the UPCUSA and the PCUS (the northern and southern denominations though one of the denominations that earlier merged to form the UPC was called the PC(USA) ). This is a confusion he carries forward throughout the book.

In this largely liberal denomination, R.C. helped found the Presbyterians United for Biblical Confession to further the cause of the historic, confessional standards. At the first meeting he wrote a paper on “studied ambiguity”, the practice of “being purposefully vague so to allow for an elastic interpretation or to allow for latitude on a particular doctrine or view.” Sproul would consistently argue for precision and clarity in theology. He would consistently encounter studied ambiguity.

In the fall of 1965 he began to teach philosophy back at Westminster College. A strange phone call by a friend resulting in Sproul moving to Massachusetts to teach at Gordon College which was fundamentalist at the time. Here he connected with Roger Nicole for the first time. It was difficult for the Sprouls since they were mostly in liberal contexts before. Nichols and a friend of mine who was a student of his at Gordon tell slightly different stories of his quick departure from Gordon. Either way he ended up in Oreland at Conwell School of Theology which was a Baptist school. He would visit with the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, particularly Cornelius Van Til. During his time there James Montgomery Boice began to serve at 10th Presbyterian. They would be close friends, “fox hole friends”, until Boice’s death from cancer. During this time he wrote his first article for Christianity Today.

He was not there long, again, because Conwell would merge with Gordon Divinity School to form Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Sproul had no desire to return to that environment. He also discovered that teaching in seminary bored him. (Some have suggested I should be a seminary professor but I thought teaching the same classes every year would bore me to death.)

The next move was to College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH. He was Associate Pastor of evangelism, mission and theology. While in Florida for training in Evangelism Explosion he met another life-long friend Archie Parrish. Evangelism Explosion worked well in Cincinnati. He preached through Romans and taught evangelism to the people of College Hill. Ironically he missed interaction with students. Another change was on the horizon.

While Nichols never processes this, the possible negative perception of impulsivity is not the point. I suspect he was a bit impulsive, but during this time we see R.C. coming to grips with his gifts and calling. We also seeing God providing R.C. with new relationships that would be important for the future. In the providence of God, this was an important time without which Ligonier Ministries may not have been born, nor would he have the relational capital for the controversies to come.

Ligonier Valley

During this time R.C. was asked to speak at a Young Life camp in Saranac Lake which is in the Adirondacks of NY. This would be the debut of a 5 lesson series on the holiness of God. Meanwhile, R.C. was also talking with people who shared a vision for a study center. He envisioned it in the heart of Pittsburgh. But a woman named Dora Hillman was present at the Young Life conference, and she had 52 acres in the Ligonier Valley near Pittsburgh. As the center was being built R.C. met with Francis Schaeffer about the dynamics of L’Abri. While both would engage in apologetics, Schaeffer was focused on evangelism of youth who visited L’Abri. Sproul would be communicating with Christians to help them defend their faith. He also met with others who would be part of the teaching fellowship: John Guest among them. Nichols notes that Schaeffer’s warning rang true: it would be 24-7 for the Sproul family since they lived on site. Later, another home would be built providing a measure of distance for them but it was hard to segregate life and ministry. Jr. seemed to appreciate this experience of his childhood as he would leave Ligonier Ministries in the late 90’s to form a study center along the VA-TN border.

Remembering R.C. Sproul, 1939–2017
He used the chalkboard as a tool allowing him to think, something I got from him.

Support staff helped extend the ministry of Ligonier. Jim Thompson was key in recording lessons on cassette for distribution. The Gooders would join the staff to produce Tabletalk which would shift from newsletter to monthly devotional over time. Jack and Linda Rowley would bring the new technology of video cassette recorders and players into the ministry. It is thanks to them that I saw an ad in Discipleship Magazine offering a free copy of The Holiness of God series which would introduce me to Sproul which would establish the theological foundation for my life.

The Holiness of God: Sproul, R. C: 9780842314930: Amazon.com: Books

During this time Sproul wrote a biography of Ligonier board member Wayne Alderson called Stronger than Steel. Alderson, working with Sproul, sought to apply the dignity of persons into the workplace. Along with Francis John “Lefty” Scumaci they began to work with management teams to apply these principles. Despite many fond memories of my time working at Ligonier Ministries in the 90’s, one executive could have benefited greatly from such instruction.

Among the people who studied at Ligonier in the early days were Tim and Kathy Keller (Sproul officianted their wedding ceremony), Rebecca Manly who later married and wrote a popular book on evangelism. Gerald Ford’s son, Mike studied there for a time. Church planter Bill Hybels would attend, and I recall Sproul speaking at the church he’d plant in the early days. I think he talked about his views on women in leadership.

His first book, The Symbol: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, was based on a course he taught at Westminster College that he finally put into book form. At this time the first large-scale conference sponsored by Ligonier was put on addressing the issue of inerrancy. In 1974 the sessions were released in essay form as God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture edited by John Warwick Montgomery. The speakers/writers included John Frame, Peter Jones, J.I. Packer, John Gerstner, and Clark Pinnock (prior to his declension into Arminianism and then Open Theism). This would set the stage for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Chicago Statement, an effort also led by Sproul in 1977. The original group also included Roger Nicole, Edmund Clowney, and James Montgomery Boice. Sproul would write the first draft of 19 affirmations and denials in the middle of the night. Future meetings would include John MacArthur Sr. and Jr. John Jr. would be another of Sproul’s life long “fox hole” friends.

In this time period, the “Kenyon Decision” in the UPC(USA) took place. Kenyon was a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary student who spent time at Ligonier as well. He rejected to ordination of women to elder and pastor. This opposition had been a permitted view, but Kenyon was denied ordination. The Assembly ruled in the presbytery’s favor. Men who did not agree with women’s ordination were put on notice. Sproul didn’t think they’d kick him out but had concern for younger, less visible, men. He decided it was time to leave and enter a new denomination called the Presbyterian Church in America which had left the southern PC(US) over this issue and more. Gerstner argued that men should stay and fight. This was one of the few times they disagreed significantly and publicly. It did not affect their friendship, however. R.C. would remain in the PCA until his death.

Nichols shifts to the topic of apologetics which necessarily brings us to Aquinas. Sproul had great appreciation for Aquinas who was one of the greatest theologians in history. In terms of the doctrine of salvation, Aquinas would lead the Church into the problems that made the Reformation necessary. I’ve often found Sproul’s appreciation for him confounding since he put such weight on the Reformation. In one Tabletalk issue the argument was made that Aquinas was nearly evangelical. Sorry, not buying it.

In 1984 he published the collaborative book Classical Apologetics with Gerstner and Art Lindsey. Prior to this he had written The Psychology of Atheism, and Objections Answered in which he answered the most common objections Archie Parrish heard in his evangelism. From Edwards, Sproul focused on the rational. True doctrine must be rational. Oddly, his own conversion was not the result of rational arguments but simply God’s power bringing conviction. Early on he was a presuppositionalist, but as noted earlier Gerstner changed his mind. The other main school of apologetics is evidentialism (Josh McDowell). Van Til, the main proponent of presuppositionalism, addressed presuppositions people bring to the discussion. If Christianity isn’t true, then we essentially can’t think and reason. Contrary to some claims, it is not opposed to using the classical arguments for God but recognizes they don’t prove Christianity but merely theism. These two views are actually closer in practice than many realize but this is an issue with which I disagreed with Sproul. For me it all comes down to how we interpret and apply Romans 1:18ff. No need to spill blood over it. This would be one of the issues that divides the RTS Orlando faculty in the 90’s. Nichols puts the late Ron Nash in the classical apologetics side. I’m not sure about that. He was a rationalist and held Gordon Clark in high regard, particularly in disagreement with Van Til implying the use of univocal language. He did make much of the Law of Non-Contradiction however. Sproul maintained his friendship with Van Til. So while the faculty disagreed on this issue, the real fighting, so to speak, was among the students who formed parties based on adherence to the various schools and professors. This is not the professors’ fault, but the usual sinful zeal of seminary students.

Heading South

In the early 80’s Sproul had begun to teach at RTS Jackson part time. The costs of running the study center were beginning to be problematic. The growth of the audio and video tape side of the ministry de-emphasized the physical gathering of students at the study center. The board decided to move the ministry to Altamonte Springs, a northern suburb of Orlando where I lived for 6 years. They initially used a local television station for taping. Before building a recording studio at the Ligonier offices, they also recorded at Greg Rike studios. While there for a taping I could see the autographs of Deep Purple members who used the studio to record Slaves and Masters.

Slaves and Masters - Wikipedia

1985 saw the release of The Holiness of God in book form. Nichols notes that over time the mission statement for Ligonier shifted and got shorter, focusing on the holiness of God. This became the centerpiece of Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. God’s holiness encapsulates all that God is. It captivated Sproul due to his late night experience at Westminster College as a student. In light of all this Nichols brings us to Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relations to the Rational. In the midst of this there is an error the editors missed: “one thinks of Abraham before the burning bush”. But more pertinent is the influence of Otto’s book on Sproul, particularly the concepts of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum.

As Sproul moves from Isaiah and the concepts from Otto he is struck by the episode with Uzzah. He first preached about Uzzah in chapel while teaching at Gordon College. He focused on the presumption of Uzzah to think he, a sinner, was more sanctified than the ground. All this was set up by the fact they disobeyed God by not carrying the Ark but putting it on a cart. Apart from the holiness of God, this story makes God seem capricious. But as holy, God’s Ark and mercy seat cannot be approached apart from sacrificial blood. He is “a God who plays for keeps.”

This would be one of the most popular and most important of the books Sproul wrote. It’s message was central to the mission of Ligonier. The holiness of God is foundational to properly understanding the work of Christ in the atonement.

The next book to be published would be connected to this incomprehensible God and His sovereignty, Chosen By God. He explored the doctrine of predestination for “people who are committed to struggling with this difficult, complicated doctrine.” This book has been influential in changing people’s lives, but also churches. One church where I live moved from being Word of Faith to embracing this doctrine and reforming church life as a result. Sproul presents double predestination as asymmetrical: in salvation God is active in effectual calling, but in reprobation God is passive, leaving people in their sins and misery.

The next year would complete something of a trilogy with One Holy Passion: The Consuming Thirst to Know God being published. Sproul presents the classical view of the Trinity including aseity (self-existence, non-contingent). In 1988 Pleasing God, concerning the doctrine of sanctification, was published. While conversion is monergistic (Nichols uses salvation rather than regeneration, effectual calling and justification), sanctification is synergistic in that we cooperate. God initiates by working in us so we will and work according to His good purposes (Phil. 2).

1988 also saw the first Ligonier Ministries’ National Conference at the Hilton in Altamonte Springs. The theme was Loving a Holy God with speakers J.I. Packer, Chuck Colson and Jerry Bridges. These national conferences continue to this day. I was there as a guest or staff (first for the Admissions office of RTS Orlando and then Ligonier) from 1991 to 1997.

ECT and Evolution

In the mid-90’s a controversy arose that challenged Sproul in that it cost him important friendships: J.I. Packer and Chuck Colson. With Sproul stood Boice and MacArthur among others. Sproul and the others believed they needed to stand against what they saw as a compromise of the gospel in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Whether this played a part in Sproul’s departure from RTS depends on who you talk to. Nichols doesn’t really address his time at Knox Seminary, founded by good friend D. James Kennedy, until the end of the book.

In this context Nichols returns to Sproul’s time at Jackson (including playing golf and talking with Gene Hackman during the filming of Mississippi Burning which movie was one of the reasons I didn’t go to Jackson) and the switch to the new campus in Orlando along with Richard Pratt and a newly retired Roger Nicole. In the early days of RTS Orlando he wrote The Glory of Christ and The Mystery of the Holy Spirit. One of his disappointments was how poorly Abortion: A Rational Look at an Emotional Issue.

Mississippi Burning (1988) - Rotten Tomatoes

With Not a Chance Sproul stood against evolutionary theory and the arguments of Carl Sagan in 1993. In September of that year, R.C. and Vesta were riding the train back to Orlando. He hated to fly, and until that night he’d ride the train. The train they were riding was engaged in the deadliest crash in Amtrak history. They suffered only minor injuries. Sproul would write of this accident in The Invisible Hand, published in 1996, on the subject of the providence of God.

Nichols then brings us back to ECT. Colson would send manuscripts for Sproul look over its theology. Sproul was concerned in 1991 when Colson’s manuscript for The Body: Being Light in Darkness revealed he “did not quite understand the issues with Roman Catholic theology”. Colson had developed a friendship with John Richard Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor and author, who became a Roman Catholic in 1990. Colson took Francis Shaeffer’s idea of cobelligerence too far. They took it beyond areas of common grace interest to overlook theological distinctives. This resulted in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document which Sproul saw as compromising justification by faith alone. Prior to this coming out, Sproul was largely kept in the dark. He saw Packer as someone he wanted in the fox hole with him in the culture war, adding that he and Packer didn’t disagree on anything (expect church polity).

That changed when R.C. was in his “office” in the country club when Joel Belz of World magazine called him on the pay phone in 1994. He wanted R.C.’s opinion of the document. Blindsided, he believed it a betrayal of the Reformation, the gospel and Christ. When he called Colson, Chuck indicated that Packer reviewed it and signed it. When he reached out to Packer, James reportedly said “I see the problem. Perhaps I shouldn’t have signed it.” Boice, a board member of Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals with Packer, talked with him and walked away dismayed. Packer spoke of justification as the “small print of the gospel”. He was no longer a board member and the dominoes were falling.

There was a closed-door meeting between those who signed and R.C., MacArthur, Michael Horton, John Ankerberg and D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge. Joseph Stowell and John Woodbridge were there to moderate the discussion. Colson stressed unity in the larger body which minimized the profound theological differences. Sproul then engaged Packer on justification. The former said it was essential, and the latter central. There was to be no common ground here, and the friendships with Packer and Colson were over. Unity must include theological agreement, not disagreement, on the most important tenants of the faith.

This controversy prompted Sproul to write Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification in which he interacted with ECT. Due to his coursework with Gerstner, Sproul was quite familiar with the Council of Trent and brought this into the discussion. Not only did ECT ignore the alone in faith alone, but the doctrine of imputation. Apart from imputation there is no gospel.

This controversy also led to The Cambridge Declaration in response to ECT. Sproul joined Boice and others in writing it. This document reaffirmed the solas of the Reformation as well as imputation.

R.C. also took something of a stand against dispensationalism. Gerstner wrote a harsh book critical of dispensationalism. Sproul noted that it was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible and began the process of putting together a study bible that would influence people for Reformed Theology, which is covenantal.

The Geneva Bible was the first to include study notes. It was the Bible used by the Puritans. Nichols greatly reduces the story of how the New Geneva Study Bible came to pass. Initially there was a struggle to get the rights to the NIV (this is before the gender-neutral controversy). Contributors also came from different sides of the ECT controversy. Somehow, out of a convoluted process, we ended up with the New Geneva Study Bible in the New King James which was promoted greatly by Ligonier, and the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible in the NIV which I think is now out of print due to the revision of the NIV.

St. Andrews Chapel and Reformation Bible College

In the next chapter Nichols focuses on the origins of St. Andrews Chapel. Oddly he begins with Gerstner’s funeral in 1996. He then traces their time in Orlando from Orangewood Presbyterian Church (Maitland) to the planting of St. Paul’s in Winter Park from members of Orangewood who wanted a more traditional worship service in 1991. I would eventually become a member of Orangewood from 1996 to 1998 when I was ordained in the ARP. I came under care of Central Florida Presbytery at the 1997 meeting where Sproul, in writing, requested permission to labor out of bounds in the planting of this new non-denominational church. While not a Presbyterian church, Sproul expressed a desire for them to eventually join the PCA (they remain independent to this day).

St. Andrews Chapel was not R.C.’s idea. He did have a Bible Study in his home and some of the members wanted to plant a new church. They asked him to be their pastor. I was friends with the daughter of one of the men who sent the letter to R.C. and soon to be fired by another of them.

40 Years Later: R.C. Sproul on Biblical Inerrancy, Evangelical Focus

As part of this chapter Nichols addresses Sproul’s process for sermon preparation. 1. Read the text repeatedly. 2. Identify the drama in the text. 2. Examine commentaries for controversial or interpretative issues. 4. Think about it for the week. 5. Preach it. He preached without notes and encouraged homelitics students to preach without notes.

Also in this chapter he addresses the death of James Montgomery Boice in 2000. They were personal friends, not just churchmen with similar theological concerns. Their families spent time together on vacations. The cancer diagnosis was devastating to Sproul. The letter he wrote to Jim, which Nichols includes, reveals much of Sproul’s heart. He loved Jim: “I love you deeply, Jim”; “my beloved Jimmy”; and “I love you”.

Nichols returns to controversy with the 35th PCA General Assembly and its discussion of the Federal Vision. It was one of the occasions that Sproul spoke on the floor. I wasn’t there since I wasn’t in the PCA yet, but Nichols tells it dramatically. Sproul had had a stroke 2 years earlier and still suffered some effects. As the men in line realized R.C. was waiting behind them, Nichols indicates, they made way for the PCA’s most prolific author and famous theologian to address the issue.

Later that year his friend D. James Kennedy would die. Here Nichols briefly outlines Sproul’s relationship with Knox. Nichols doesn’t delve into the controversies at Knox but records how first Anne Kennedy mourned the death of her husband, and then the death of the seminary he founded. (Thankfully she didn’t need to mourn the death of Coral Ridge.)

In 2011 Sproul was still suffering the effects of the stroke to some degree, and the effects of COPD. Many Bible colleges were falling on hard times. But Sproul founded Reformation Bible College anyway. Like with most of his life, he was out of step with the mainstream. Most Bible colleges were decided dispensational. RBC would not be. He would also seek to install various safeguards against theological declension which is a common problem with Christian institutions of learning.

R.C. and Vesta began study tours as well. They went to Europe to visit Geneva and Wittenburg. They followed Paul’s missionary travels. They went to New England to see sites associated with the Great Awakening. This was a time of building relationships as well as sharing information about Christian history. Sproul began to be more concerned for a future awakening of the American church.

Tied to America’s declension, Sproul wrote (with other teaching fellows) the Ligonier Statement on Christology. Nichols fails to mention the controversy that followed this Statement. There were charges (that I find false) that it proprogated Nestorianism (separating the two natures). I had Sproul for Christology in seminary, and he understood the dangers of Nestorianism. Additionally, the teaching fellows intended to continue the ministry of Ligonier after his death (something of a return to the early Ligonier days) included the likes of Sinclair Ferguson. If he contributed to the document, I doubt it would lapse into such an error. Nichols specifically mentions himself and Chris Larson, as well as a series of articles written by Keith Mathison and John Tweeddale of RBC.

It is in the context of the teaching fellows (initially Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson and R.C. Jr.) that Jr. finally emerges. These men were Sproul’s “foxhole buddies in the final years of his life”. Later fellows would include Nichols, R. Albert Mohler, Derek Thomas and Burk Parsons. The pieces of the transition were in place as Chris Larson became CEO of Ligonier, Nichols as President of RBC, and Parsons would become Senior Pastor when R.C. was no longer able to preach (which he did until he died).

R.C. had been feeling better in late 2017. He preached every Sunday in November. He’d even hit some golf balls around. He was very excited about the 2018 National Conference. But at the end of the month Sproul got a cold which is no big deal unless you have COPD. Soon he was in the hospital and struggling to breath. It seems like a storybook ending as he breathed his last breath as The Highland Hymn with its hope of heaven concluded.


Nichols includes a number of tributes to Sproul that were made upon his death at the beginning of the final chapter. He also notes a number of facts that some may find interesting. I knew he was quoted in the Christopher Walken vampire film The Addiction. I didn’t know (or remember) that he was cited in the liner notes of a Van Halen album (likely Van Halen III which I never owned but the new lead singer was a professing Christian). I didn’t know Guy Rizzo was just a guy at the golf club he led to Christ (Guy is/was a developer/builder in central Florida). Tombstone was one of his favorite movies.

The Addiction (1995) - IMDb

Throughout his career, R.C. fought studied ambiguity. He could be fiery when in controversy. ECT was among the most painful times of his life. But there was usually the impish grin and laughter. His laugh was like his voice, hoarse from those years of smoking (at one point he noted that quitting was the hardest thing he’d ever done). His faithful ministry was key in a revival of Calvinism as well as Reformed Theology. So many owe so much to him and the supporting staff (especially Vesta)that helped him adapt to new technology and make resources available. I worked there when we were selling Edwards’ Charity and Its Fruit like hot cakes.

He was one of the most important figures behind the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He was vital in the early success of RTS Orlando. He left behind Ligonier Ministries which is entrusted to teaching fellows to carry on the work and is far larger than when I worked there. He leaves behind a massive volume of outstanding, easy to understand books and audio/video series. There are decades of Renewing Your Mind radio shows. He left behind Reformation Bible College and St. Andrews Chapel. Sproul was used greatly by God for good.

This book is worth reading to gain a better understanding of one of the most important churchmen of the 20th century. My (admittedly small) issue is not with what he says (aside from a few factual errors) but with what he doesn’t say. Little is mentioned about Jr.’s struggles aside from his resignation. Little to nothing is said about the various men who led Ligonier Ministries well or poorly. But it isn’t all negative that is left out. He helped Keith Mathison get his first book published, for instance. I’d think that would be important since Keith subsequently worked at Ligonier for many years and is an important faculty member at RBC. We see that he had a number of long-term friendships but only with Boice do we see a glimpse of his heart and some dynamics. Not much is said about John MacArthur (I still scratch my head on that friendship for some reason).

I’m thankful for Sproul. He played a big role in my life even if it wasn’t a personal role. I didn’t have the kind of relationship with him that some of my friends and colleagues did. I spoke with Vesta more than him. I felt more like a fly on the wall than someone who gets behind the curtain. That’s not intended to be critical of anyone, just an assessment of my vantage point during the 90’s.

Imagine, if you will, a train at the station. You’ve been sitting on the train, ready to go. Every time the doors begin to shut a new group of people show up and force the doors open. It seems full but it never seems to move.

Painting of Sisyphus by Titian

That is how I feel about the race issue. I’m ready for progress, for changes. I’m ready for the cities to stop burning. I’m ready for the necessary reforms to policing to take place. I’m ready for people to forgive, reconcile and begin to try and make this whole thing work. But we seem stuck at square one. It’s like Groundhog Day.

Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation by Mark Vroegop seemed like a different kind of book. It isn’t about how white people are horrible, fragile, clueless etc. It seemed to offer a way forward out of this Sisyphus-like mess.

Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation - Vroegop, Mark; Anyabwile, Thabiti M (foreword by) - 9781433567599

Vroegop repeatedly tempers our expectations. He’s not offering a magic bullet. He isn’t saying “do this and everything will be right as rain.” This is an important step that can help us make progress because it will convey empathy (or compassion). It is part of the way forward, but not the totality. Necessary but insufficient. It is important to keep that in mind.

His first book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament is the background of this book. He seeks to apply the work he did there to the problem at hand.

“The biblical language of empathy and exile, perseverance and protest, can open the door for reconciliation.”

In his introduction Vroegop notes that the gospel has produced racial reconciliation in the past. Antioch was a metropolitan city filled with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Roman cities, he says, were segregated by design. At its founding there was a wall built to segregate the Syrians from the Greeks. Division and violence were common. The church was THE desegregated population of the city.

Keep in mind, the city itself didn’t experience reconciliation. The church did. The gospel created unity but people who rejected the gospel didn’t experience this unity.

This is not where he goes with it but perhaps we need to keep this in mind. The world CANNOT and will not be reconciled precisely there is no source of unity, no ground of forgiveness, no power for the heart change necessary. The world will continue to devour itself unless it sees the power of the gospel in racial reconciliation displayed in the church and believes.

This is not where any of us want to go with this. But there is some truth there. We can’t expect those who can’t love selflessly to love selflessly. The works of the flesh include divisions, factions, pride and violence. Romans 1:18ff can only be undone by the amazing work of Jesus in Romans 5 by which He died for the helpless, ungodly, weak enemies who fell in Adam. To expect the sons of Adam to act like the sons of God is pure foolishness, unless we are first ambassadors of God imploring people to be reconciled to God so they can be reconciled to one another.

But I digress from this book I read.

Part 1: The Meaning of Lament

Vroegop begins the book by talking specifically about lament, and he begins with prayer as the language of lament. Lament is a type of prayer, and a common prayer, in the Psalms.

Before getting too far he offers a series of definitions. This is good practice since we want to know how he understands particular terms. At times his definitions were frustrating, however. He uses the sociological re-definitions of recent invention. These arise from a different world view, and one that isn’t simply different but I would consider “anti-gospel” at points. While all truth is God’s truth, not all that purports to be true is truth, and many truths have untrue applications (there is a blog post critiquing John Fea’s embrace of CRT simmering in my head).

At one point this embrace of worldly thinking creates a weird series of statements. He quotes Daniel Hill about how whites began to “deemphasize the differences within various European ethnicities and began to describe white people as a human collective that was inherently superior to people of color.” I wrote in my margin “how do we explain hatred of Irish, Italians, European Jews…?” As if he’d heard me, Vroegop notes that the Irish initially formed a bond with African-Americans, but eventually Irish people wanted to be accepted by the majority, embraced racism against African-Americans and “became white.” I guess his definition of “white”, which is unstated, is very different than mine. Mine’s about pigmentation, not oppression because when you associate “white” with sin … you’re racist. Despite being frustrated, I continued.

This is not just frustrating, however. It is an unbiblical concept which is unedifying, inaccurate and feeds the flames of the racist anti-racism movement. Just as a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, racism (or prejudice and favoritism) by any other name remains as foul.

Let’s return to the matter at hand, lament. Lament is not simply complaining but an expression of pain that leads us to trust God. It faces the brokenness of our world and the specific afflictions one experiences, and recommits oneself to God to make things right in due time on the basis of His promises.

Racism and oppression create a complicated emotional space. It is worthy of lament. We recognize, often with tears, that this is not how image bearers are meant to treat one another. It recognizes that we can’t fix this problem, and we are relying on God and His promises to bring this to an end. Vroegop identifies four elements of lament: turning, complaining, asking, and trusting.

Lament is part of the “fivefold path” of reconciliation he also identifies: love, listen, lament, learn, and leverage. And here is why we never seem to leave the station, we keep waking up to the same day and the rock keeps falling down the hill. I lament that there are many who refuse to listen and learn. I feel like the kid who’s ready for multiplication and we can’t seem to get past addition and subtraction.

Too often we don’t listen because we are too busy keeping score. We compare the sins and crimes of individuals committed against people we know with the sins and crimes committed against others because of the color of their skin. We compare apples and oranges (in my mind anyway) and refuse to acknowledge how life could be filled with obstacles for others that don’t exist for you.

This leads to part of my great frustration with the “race problem”. I get the picture. I watched Roots on TV when I was a kid. I watched many movies like Amistad, Rosewood, Mississippi Burning, Glory (and the list goes on and on). I knew about Tulsa years ago. I know there are racist laws (but not the whole system is racist, nor is every white person). I’m ready for us to change the racist laws. I’m tired of talking about what has changed as if it hasn’t (the 3/5ths Compromise is not law anymore- praise God). We can’t seem to accept advancement because that somehow means claiming nothing needs to change. No, some things need to change but we don’t need to “burn it down” either. When you burn down your house, you’ve got no place to live. We don’t need to be homeless, but we need to get the mold out. I do agree with him when he says “the gospel is more foundational than our most painful historical categories”. Let’s live like it instead of picking at the scabs and waiting for the same issues to represent themselves because we’ve done nothing.

American Rhetoric Movie Speech from Glory - Men of the 54th Regiment Gather  for Prayer and Song Meeting on the Eve of the Battle of Fort Wagner
Campfire laments help the story of Glory

“When Christians from majority and minority cultures learn to grieve together, they affirm their common bond as brothers and sisters in Christ. Lament enters into the deep emotions of sorrow, hurt, misunderstanding, and injustice.”

Vroegop wants us to listen, in particular, to African-American spirituals. Listening to their laments can help develop proper empathy, a willingness to recognize that our brothers and sisters are in pain. This is not the only way he wants us to listen, but it is a way to hear the historic pain. He points us to some rappers who share laments as well.

It isn’t just the past that is the problem, but the present. I want to hear about my friends’ experiences. Although I guess friend may be too strong a word since I’m not trusted with their pain. Perhaps I’m not trustworthy. Perhaps they aren’t willing to trust. Getting on the bus together should mean personal, not simply collective, stories.

A cultural (not racial) difference is the individual vs. more collective thinking. White American culture isn’t focused on white people so much as America. THAT is our community identity. On 9/11 people didn’t grieve that white people died in those towers and those planes, but AMERICANS regardless of their pigmentation. Most see nation above ethnicity. When the Marathon bombing took place I wept because that’s my place, my home and Patriots’ Day is our version of Juneteenth because I grew up there. It had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with place. As a result, the focus on race over place, over national identity is hard for many majority Americans to understand. Again I digress with my own little laments.

One powerful spiritual he uses refers to the pain of being sold and separated from parents and siblings, spouses and children. This is generational trauma. Sadly, many now choose this trauma as they abandon women and children. This is not a legacy people choose willingly, but is rooted not only in the realities of slavery but the racist welfare laws of our nation’s “war on poverty”. All this is worthy of lament.

In his own congregation he’s seen reconciliation take place on their civil rights pilgrimage. They traveled South, visited places like the Lynching Memorial. There white people began to see the horrors committed (sometimes in places they grew up), and minorities shared their personal pain. People lamented together and moved closer together.

Local lynching memorial proposed in Birmingham

Part 2: Lament and Majority Christians

He begins with more about empathy, which is a controversial subject lately (and unfortunately). To weep with one another doesn’t mean that we agree with everything they think. We do agree with them that their afflictions are deep and worthy of sorrow. He defines empathy as the “ability or willingness to understand and care.” Lamenting together is sharing pain, and this helps form community.

I can grow in this. He offers a test, quoting a message by Mika Edmonson. My heart wonders about the statistics. This is not a denial of the problem, but questioning the magnitude of the problem. I want my African children to be wise in dealing with the police, but not fearful of police. I don’t think the police are coming gunning for my kids, but I think there are some bad cops who might. I refuse to believe its “open season” on my kids. I do believe that there are evil people who break the law, and they should be punished if they do. Derek Chauvin did and was.

Raising kids, I’m skeptical about the first story I hear. Having watched the news for years, I’m skeptical about the first story I hear. I don’t want to jump to conclusions. Been there, done that and it never works out well. I want to sort out what is actually going on, not simply surrender my mental faculties to emotions. In a world filled with lies, false narratives and wilful attempts to deceive there is sadly cause to be cautious at times. I want to be empathetic but not gullible. I’ve seen cities burn over false narratives. Jumping to conclusions can have disastrous results which are just as evil.

Vroegop addresses six reasons we can choose silence. Fear drives silence for many, and this takes many forms. Uncertainty about the facts of a case (wisdom!) or feelings (??). Many have wounds from past experience. Many are ignorant and don’t understand the layers of injustice and racism. Some are selfish. Some are racist.

Minorities have long been frustrated by silence. We don’t have to speak with all the answers. But we can lament, express sorrow for the way sin has twisted our relationships.

The 6th chapter is called Repent and subtitled Remembering with Remorse. These are not quite the same. Many struggle with repenting for the sins of previous generations. It shouldn’t be an issue when we are part of the same community (example: a church that was formed out of the fear of desegregation), especially for those of us who hold to covenant theology. But at times we aren’t so connected. Expressing remorse may be quite helpful. Lament vocalizes sorrow for past wrong whether we committed them or not. Some of us need to personally repent of racist actions, attitudes or passive indifference. Some of our communities need to repent, as some denominations like the PCA have for support of slavery, Jim Crow laws and other aspects of racism. We can express corporate remorse even if we don’t feel the need to repent. Pastoral laments can go a long way in opening some of the doors for reconciliation in a congregation.

Part 3: Lament and Minority Christians

While this section is about minorities, many “majority” culture Christians should get ready to experience much of what he’s talking about here. He’s talking about the voice of exiles. Christians are exiles, though we’ve been part of the majority culture and thought we weren’t: we are. He errs in thinking that the exiles of the Old Testament were only physical and not spiritual. It wasn’t just a change of geography and custom but they were surrounded by paganism.

Minorities have a sense of exile, “otherness”. It is the sense of not only not belonging but not being wanted. The experience of minorities in many cultures (not just America) is they are not wanted there. This is something Christians of all people should understand, we are generally not wanted in cultures and increasingly unwelcome in America. This lack of welcome is for minorities a cause for lament. Lament does reorient us in our pain. It reorients us to God and His promises. Lament ends in hope, not because the situation changed but because it will. There will be racial reconciliation in the church. We will all be gathered around Jesus, not looking at one another but at Him who made us a new humanity. We have hope, and are a community of hope. Red warned Andy that “hope is a dangerous thing”. It is dangerous for the oppressor, not the oppressed, however. To lose hope is to stop trying to work toward reconciliation.

Perhaps the loss of hope is the result of misplaced hope instead of biblical hope.

At the end of each chapter, Vroegop includes an example of lament, written by a variety of people. He also includes questions, some helpful and some less so, to process the information.

Where he sticks with Scripture and the application of biblical principles, Vroegop’s book is helpful. When he depends on sociological concepts connected to CRT and/or anti-racism the book is less than helpful. There are some bones to spit out but the church could be well served by lamenting together regarding our racial, political and ecclesiastical problems. Some of mine probably made this review harder to read.

Personal Story and Lament

In middle school I road the bus to school. There were some kids from the next street over who decided to regularly tease me for my “greasy Italian hair”. They never did this in elementary school but suddenly I was a target.

Like any middle school boy I was self-conscious. I began to wash my hair with shampoo for oily hair. Problem is, my hair wasn’t oily. My hair became increasingly dry and brittle. I was destroying my hair because some kids who felt bad about themselves decided my being Italian made me less then them, an object of ridicule and derision, unwanted and unworthy.

Father, kids can be so cruel in their desire to fit in, to belong. To float their fragile sense of worth they attack the worth of others. We’ve all done this, and been victims of this. We lament those who’ve been made to feel less because of the color of their skin, because of their accent, or a different kind of church. We lament that this happens every day, under our noses. We lament that the power of the flesh is so destructive and divisive to the beautiful community we could be under the reign of Jesus. We long for the coming of the kingdom in its final fulness, when we stop looking at one another full of envy, jealousy and hatred but love one another because You have loved us to the full. That day when we are focused on Jesus, who sits upon the throne and are overwhelmed with His glory, a glory He shares with all His people. Bring peace to your people from every tribe, nation, tongue and language. Sustain us until then as we feel overwhelmed by the strife and sorrow produced by sin.

There are not many books on the subject of the fear of the Lord. One of the classics is John Bunyan’s The Fear of God. A more recent treatment is by Jerry Bridges: The Joy of Fearing God.

This subject came up while watching the first Paul Tripp session in his Faithful Men seminar. He noted that our fears can only be driven out by the fear of God, the greatest fear.

Michael Reeves, who is becoming one of my favorite writers, has entered the fray about the fear of the Lord with Rejoice & Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. This is the first installment in his Union series, and it is joined by What Does It Mean to Fear the Lord? which is intended for lay people. One should not take this to mean that Rejoice & Tremble is academic, lengthy or exceedingly difficult. It really isn’t. It seems to be written at a popular level. The latter book is more condensed, perhaps intended for people who have less time to read. I hope to use it with some of our men in light of the Paul Tripp seminar.

Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord (Union) - Reeves, Michael - 9781433565328

As I said, this is not a lengthy book, clocking in at 8 chapters and 168 pages. He brings us to Bunyan, Flavel, Sibbes and Spurgeon among others to examine what is meant by the fear of the Lord. It is not overly technical as original languages are really only mentioned at two points. I still prefer Jerry Bridges’ book, but that seems to be out of print though Amazon had one copy of the audio book. This is a good book, on an important subject.

Reeves begins with the most common command in the Scriptures: “Do Not Be Afraid!” He notes that “we are both fascinated and repelled by our fears.” Many of us like to be scared, within reason. The Scripture encourages, in fact commands, that we fear God. He quotes John Murray in saying “The fear of God is the soul of godliness.” Apart from the fear of the Lord there is no godliness, nor worship. The fear of the Lord is not to be thought of like other fears, perhaps a fear of spiders, ghosts, drowning or the like. “(The fear of the Lord) frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear.”

The Messiah, for instance, delights in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:3). The Spirit which rests upon the Messiah is “the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, which begins with the fear of the Lord. As Messiah, Jesus delighted in the fear of the Lord, a fear we need by lack apart from the grace of God in Christ.

One of the important contributions of this book is the connection with the present spirit of the age. Our is a very anxious age, and is growing more fearful all the time. This, Reeves argues, is because we’ve generally removed God from our society. Where there is no fear of the Lord, the fear of all else is bound to grow. Fear is used by politicians, media and more to control us. Ours is a society that seeks safety above all else (including liberty) becoming more risk and loss averse. Because we can’t deal with fear, citing Frank Furedi, we build more protective fences. This growing anxiety is accompanied by the moral confusion that happens when we no longer fear God. Sexual immorality of all kinds is approved but we go on crusades against plastic, or militant about masks and vaccines.

Reeves then begins to differentiate sinful and godly fear. Chapter 2 focuses on Sinful Fear. Citing Wilhelmus a Brakel, he notes that our fears are connected to what we love. Fear is about losing them or bad things happening to them. The greater fear that drives us lesser fears is not just any old fear of God. Scripture notes two kinds of fear with respect to God. We see this in Exodus 20. They were not to fear God, but they were to fear God so they would not sin. There is a wrong (sinful) way to fear God, and a godly way to fear God. Here is where he gets into the original languages.

The same word(s) are used for both kinds of fear in the both testaments. The difference isn’t simply in a different word. The difference is seen in the context and results: “Moses here sets out a contrast between being afraid of God and fearing God: those who have a fear of him will not be afraid of him.” The similarity is the physical component of the root word: trembling. The difference is between trembling in your boots and trembling with delight.

Theologians have contrasted these in a variety of ways: servile vs. filial fear; sinful vs. religious fear; ungodly vs. godly fear. Reeves uses sinful vs. right fear though he explains them.

Sinful fear flows from our corrupt (sinful) nature. It is a function of original sin. It is a fear that drives you away from God, rather than towards God. In addition to this being a function of our sin, it is also a function of Satan’s lies about God. Here we see Reeves covering similar ground as Sinclair Ferguson in The Whole Christ and Dane Ortlund in Gentle & Lowly (the cover of which is very similar to Rejoice & Tremble). It is this fear the drives the new atheism led by men like Christopher Hitchens. They are afraid of the God who exists, rather than denying He exists. Hitchens noted that it would be awful to live in the presence of such a God: “It would be like living in North Korea.”

We also see the early Luther, prior to his discovery of the Gospel, expressing such fear. This is why he hated God, knowing he could not live up to God’s requirements. Luther, like so many, ran from God but not from religion. They used religion as an attempt to keep God at bay, unlike Hitchens. When we are afraid of God, we don’t entrust ourselves to Him and look for security elsewhere (religion, politics, money etc.). Afraid of God, they don’t trust Christ for salvation but seek other mediators (Mary, Joseph and the saints, etc.). Read 1 Samuel 12:20-24 to see the 2 fears in this context.

He brings us to C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce to see that this kind of fear clings to our sin. It is the dread of holiness, and I experienced this for about a year before converting. I didn’t want to give up my sin for Jesus. I had to learn the high price of sin before Jesus became sweet and excellent to me.

Right Fear is produced by the Spirit and draws us to God instead of driving us away from God. This fear is promised to us in the New Covenant (Jer. 32:38-40; 33:8-9). It is sung about by John Newton in his most famous hymn. I think Reeves misses it here though. He seems to argue grace taught my heart to fear and that same fear is relieved by grace. But is was grace that relieved my fears by teaching me to fear God.

This right fear is tied to forgiveness. Because God forgives us we tremble with delight. We delight in His goodness which is seen, in part, in His pardon for sin. We see this in Psalm 130, and the life of Isaac. We see that fear does not soften love, or balance it. They go hand in hand rather than being in tension. “We also love him in his holiness and tremble at the marvelousness of his mercy. True fear of God is true love for God defined: it is the right response to God’s full-orbed revelation of himself in all his grace and glory.”

Fear conveys the idea of being overwhelmed by God, weak-kneed trembling. This is not the romantic love of a man and woman.

Reeves argues that this “right fear is the heart of holiness, making the difference between hypocritical performance and genuine knowledge of God.” The new heart God gives us in the gospel produces a new fear and a very different kind of religion and obedience. “(S)aving faith cannot be separated from the right fear of God, for we will trust in God only to the extent that we have this fear that leans toward him.” The God-fearing heart is a God-entrusting heart.

Overwhelmed by the Creation & Redeemer

Reeves covers God as Creator and Redeemer in successive chapters. While all fear God as Creator, not all fear God as Redeemer. Apart from Redeemer we are afraid of the Creator, exhibiting the sinful fear of God. He roots much of this in Calvin and The Institutes. As Christians we have a right fear of Him as Creator, we are drawn to Him in awe and love. To those who don’t know God as Redeemer, the Creator seems dangerous. We run from Him instead of to Him. Edwards, for instance, “found the knowledge of a Creator to be terrible.” This is tied to our flight from accountability.

The right fear of the Creator draws us out of ourselves. We are not longer the center of the universe. Reeves notes a study published in 2018 under the title Emotion which revealed that the symptoms of PTSD diminish after experiences of awe. In light of this he begins to discuss The Idea of the Holy by Rudolph Otto (cited by Sproul as well). God is awe-inspiring, humbling and mysterious. We need to keep the Creator-creature distinction in mind. Otto stops there, unfortunately. Apart from Christ, Luther wrote, “we see nothing in God but an angry and terrible judge.”

While he moves to Redeemer in the next chapter, the title focuses on the Father. Redemption brings us sonship. The Son reveals the Father to us. Here Reeves brings out some material from Delighting in the Trinity and the relationship between Father and Son in trinitarian development. Redemption, of course, is not the Son sneaking out of the house to appease an angry Father on our behalf but the Father and Son agreeing that the Son would come to satisfy the wrath of God to bring us home.

Here Reeves addresses filial fear, a deeper, richer, and sweeter fear. Filial fear is rooted in God’s mercy. If we begin to rely on our good works our filial fear erodes into dread and terror (quoting George Offor). We lose assurance of salvation until we remember the reality of justification. This is different than Aquinas who saw filial fear as including the fear of offending the Father and losing our salvation. True filial fear is evangelical, resting on Christ’s work for our redemption.

The Son delights in the Father. United to Christ, we share in His delight. We are overwhelmed by the greatness, kindness and goodness of God. We do fear loss of communion, grieving the Father, not loss of union and salvation.

Growing in Godly Fear

Reeves admits that this chapter could be written as a self-help book. There is no 5-step (or 3 or 7) program to grow in godly fear. Reeves brings in Lewis again in terms of “mere morality” as a false goal. We seek an obedience that is driven by a renewed heart filled with godly fear. This will produce genuine or sincere obedience. Obedience itself really isn’t an accurate measure since obedience can be the result of sinful fear as well.

Thomas Boston discussed fear is a matter of our longings: what we love and hate. Filial fear transforms our affections, our longings. Godly fear results in engaged worship, which is why Christianity is a song-filled faith. We can’t help singing. We sing to express what is in our hearts, even if we aren’t in a worship service.

During the Reformation, Luther opposed the Aristotelian view of ethics taught by Thomas Aquinas. In this view we become righteous by doing righteous things. Aquinas cultivated virtuous habits. Luther argued that we have been made righteous and begin to do righteous deeds. Imputed righteousness precedes imparted righteousness.

But how do we grow in the fear of the Lord? The Spirit continues to work in us, as Owen says, “implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls”. As we behold Christ crucified in the Scriptures, sermons and in meditation our hearts are transformed and grow in the fear of the Lord. The means of grace are utilized but they don’t change us ex opere operato. They are points of contact with the gospel which transforms those who are trusting in the gospel they encounter there.

“The fear of God… that whole worship of God, wherein that and all other gracious affections toward God are to be exercised. … the only motive and encouragement for sinners to engage in it and give themselves unto it, is this, that there is forgiveness with God. Without this no sinner could fear, serve, or worship him.” John Owen

This means that people need a Scripture-filled diet. They need sermons that keep returning to the well to drink of Christ to grow in godly fear. Such preaching seeks to produce godly affections in response to truth.

The Awesome Church

Back to love: what you fear shows what you love. Our fears are sign points, signals about the state of our hearts. What are the signposts that you are manifesting godly fear? He begins with deeper communion with God, rooted in Proverbs 14:27 since the “fear of the Lord is the fountain of life.”

Since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, you will also grow in wisdom and knowledge. When we have the fear of the Lord growth in knowledge does not puff us up but enables us to love others well (wisdom). This knowledge is also not sterile but we become more like God. We begin to loathe our sin and long to be like God. We begin to marvel about God more and more. Consider how often people marveled at Christ in Mark’s gospel.

Additionally we find strength. The fear of man robs us of strength as we overcommit because we can’t say ‘no’ (Luther said that learning to say ‘no’ would be of more use to you than Greek or Latin). We are overly sensitive to criticism and comments. Prior to answering the authorities at the Diet of Worms, Luther was advised by friends to fear the One who can destroy body and soul in hell, not those who can destroy the body. He ended his famous speech with the words, “Therefore we must fear God.”

Peter struggled with the fear of man, particular in the courtyard of the chief priest. He discovered the hard way that he loved himself more than he loved Jesus. Like Winston in Room 101 he disavowed the one he said he loved.

Why George Orwell's '1984' is such a timeless novel

When we fear God, the other things we fear shrink. They have less influence on us. God reorganized our perspective. The nearness of God is what kills the anxiety we feel, therefore pray.

“Those who fear God are simultaneously humbled and strengthened before his beauty and magnificence.”

Both Calvin and Spurgeon pointed to the example of Hugh Latimer who defied the King Henry the VIII by speaking of his sin in a sermon. When told to recant in his next sermon he spoke of how he spoke not only before the king but also the Lord God Almighty and must tell the king the truth regardless of the outcome. Henry didn’t take off his head as threatened.

“Satan’s lies would rob believers of their filial fear and leave them with a groveling dread of God and a competitiveness instead of any real fellowship between us.”

Reeves returns to our culture of anxiety. The fear of the Lord among His people will adorn the gospel and attest to its power among the nations. The church is to be a community of those who fear the Lord.

Eternal Ecstasy

The final chapter focuses on the eternal state for those with sinful fear and those with right or godly fear. Everyone trembles before God, it is the character of that trembling that matters.

Hell is a world of fears. Those there experience the reality of the terrifying Judge they feared for so long. The fears in hell are unrelieved, constant and relentless.

Heaven is a paradise of filial fear. That delightful fear is unending, unquenchable and soul-satisfying. We will know God without the distortions of our sinful corruption. There will be no doubts, no misunderstandings.

“In fact, all fears are a foretaste. The sinful fears and dreads of unbelievers are the firstfruits of hell; the filial fears of Christians are the firstfruits of heaven.”

This is a very good book. I would not call it an excellent book. It does what it does well. I wish it had done a little more. It is on a much neglected subject. He hits the main points and is clear. He is edifying. It is balanced in addressing both sinful and right fear, and their results. He doesn’t shy away from speaking of judgment (one of the criticisms of Ortlund’s book). If Ortlund focused on the character of God, Reeves focuses us on our response to that character: rejoice & tremble.

As I resume consideration of the numerous overtures we will handle at the General Assembly in St. Louis, I move to the slightly less controversial matters.

I won’t look at the overtures about presbytery boundaries. I generally approve them.

Overture 38: Commend Human Sexuality Report

This is a positive overture on the part of Calvary Presbytery and I will vote to approve it. In the course of the overture it summarizes each of the 12 statements found in the report. There are a number of important distinctions and assessments in this document.

“We all stand in need of God’s grace for sexual sin and temptation, whether married or not.”

“Moreover, some persons, in rare instances, may possess an objective medical condition in which their anatomical development may be ambiguous or does not match their genetic chromosomal sex. Such persons are also made in the image of God and should live out their biological sex, insofar as it can be known.”

“Without some distinction between (1) the illicit temptations that arise in us due to original sin and (2) the willful giving over to actual sin, Christians will be too discouraged to “make every effort” at growth in godliness and will feel like failures in their necessary efforts to be holy as God is holy.”

“Nevertheless, being honest about our sin struggles is important. … Christians out to acknowledge their sin in an effort to overcome it.”

“Nevertheless, we recognize that some Christians may use the term “gay” in an effort to be more readily understood by non-Christians. The word “gay” is common in our culture, and we do not think it wise for churches to police every use of the term.

“Nevertheless, we do not support the formation of exclusive, contractual marriage-like friendships, nor do we support same-sex romantic behavior or the assumption that certain sensibilities and interests are necessarily aspects of a gay identity. We do not consider same-sex attraction a gift in itself, nor do we think this sin struggle, or any sin struggle, should be celebrated in the church.”

I think this is a positive step forward for us. It is clear but gracious in recognizing particular struggles in need of greater understanding and assistance from the community of faith.

Overture 3: Amend MTW Manual

Heritage Presbytery returns to an older request that has likely been amended. The manual has a “Statement on Valuing Women in MTW” which was distributed to missionaries. Guidelines opened leadership positions to unordained men and women. They want spiritual oversight for ordained serving in MTW and don’t want them subject to unordained persons. It is an agency of the Church. Should it be run like the Church? That is the basic question.

They want women valued but also those who are ordained to not under the authority of unordained persons. They see “an untenable crisis of conscience for both men and women”. Two years ago I argued against the similar overture. I think I understand the concerns of friends in MTW. Let me say that such an agency was not anticipated in the NT (this does not prohibit its existence). It is run by the Church but isn’t a church though it facilitates the planting of churches. I am sympathetic but still not sold on the overture.

Amending Processes for Pastors and Officers

This begins with Overture 5 by Calvary Presbytery. The BCO requires a majority vote for pastors, elders, deacons from those eligible and present at the meeting. The key is the majority of those eligible to vote versus the majority of votes actually cast. Both GA and Robert’s Rules have focused on votes actually cast. In some cases (larger churches) it may be quite difficult to assess the number of members present. Under the BCO if there are some candidate overlooked by a member they are counted as ‘no’. So they want to substitute “votes cast” for “voters present”. This seems quite reasonable to me.

With Overture 31 from Northwest Georgia Presbytery, there is a desire to amend BCO 22 regarding the process from Assistant to Associate Pastor. Currently there is no process spelled out. The default would be 20-2 which includes a search committee which seems inappropriate for a change in call instead of a change of pastors. They want to add a sentence indicating that those who have served for a least a year may be elected to Associate Pastor by the congregation upon the recommendation of the Session w/out a pulpit committee.

This seems quite reasonable and I will vote to approve this. Even though I want to get rid of the Assistant Pastor option.

Overture 6 from Covenant Presbytery wants to amend BCO 24-1 on the question of timing for exams of officer candidates. This is in connection to a SJC case that declared the “sequence in BCO 24-1 is mandatory”. The nomination period is to be followed by the training of all the nominees, and then they are all examined. Nominees, supposedly, are only to be removed after examination. The SJC recommended changes to the BCO to create more flexibility.

How many of us who read this went “Ooops!”

There is a lack of common sense at work in this mandatory order. Not all nominees are qualified and should not have to go through with training when the Session knows they will not approve of the nomination. Training, well done, should also reveal how well the nominee works with the officers. Why would a person who doesn’t play well with others have to continue this process and waste their, and the Session’s time?

This overture seeks to allow Sessions the flexibility to sequence examinations in accordance with their desires and wisdom. It adds “qualified” prior to nominees (which doesn’t seem to help matters). They strike “then” which is the word that creates the sequence.

Overture 18 from Pacific Northwest Presbytery covers the same ground and for the same reasons. The difference between these overtures is that this one only strikes the “then” in 24-1. It then adds a sentence to clarify: “The Session may render a decision on Christian experience at any point in the process, and based on that decision, may judge him ineligible for that election.” This is a more helpful overture in my opinion. I guess the questions of giftedness and chemistry could fall within that. These are the issues for our Session. We are a small congregation. These are the manifestations of Christian experience that we are most concerned with after the biblical qualifications. This would be the preferred of the two overtures.

Amending the Rules of Assembly

In addition to the BCO and Robert’s Rules of Order, the workings of General Assembly are also governed by the Rules of Assembly (RAO). Two overtures seek to amend RAO 15-6.s.2, 3 to adjust the rules concerning Minority Reports. The Overtures Committee is allowed to have minority reports. This is to permit voice at the Assembly to minority opinions.

This is a delicate balance. Voice should be heard and not just in debating the majority recommendation. But debating minority reports can eat up lots of time. One issue becomes how small a minority should be permitted to present their opinion. At the 47th Assembly the size of the Overtures Committee was more than doubled, while the number of dissenters necessary for a minority report remained the same rather than increasing in proportion. This means a much smaller minority can force the Assembly to follow procedure for their minority view.

Overture 9 from Ascension Presbytery focuses on this problem. They foresee additional growth in the number of presbyteries which permits an even larger Committee. They propose fixing the minority report to a percentage of delegates rather than a fixed number of delegates. This does seem to be a better way “to balance the rights of the minority and those of the majority”. This proposal indicates that at least 10% of delegates, at least 1/3 of them must be ruling elders, must sign the minority report for it to be presented to the Assembly. I intend to approve this Overture.

Overture 10, also from Ascension Presbytery focuses on the content of minority reports. Currently there are no requirements on the content of minority reports. Currently the majority does not see the minority report and often does not have sufficient time to prepare a response to the minority report. They recognize that the minority report may actually present a better proposal and the Assembly would be better served if they had the opportunity to present it to the Committee first. As a result they propose adding two new paragraphs to the RAO.

The first would require that a “proposed action or proposed change in the recommendation from the Overtures Committee” be included unless presented to the Committee. The second limits the minority report to arguments actually presented in the Committee deliberations so the representative of the majority isn’t answering previously unheard arguments. I intend to approve this Overture as well.

Technological Issues

Overture 26 from Philadelphia Metro West Presbytery wants to add a new section to BCO 10 to permit the use of telecommunication as the discretion of the body in question: General Assembly, presbyteries and congregations. This would include the meetings of committees, commissions, and agencies. The newest version of Robert’s Rules includes this provision. This may be unnecessary as a result. But it doesn’t hurt to end discussion and debate (since no all of us are experts on RRO and keep up with changes). I agree in theory. Presbyteries that cover lots of geographic territory have been using technology for awhile with committee meetings. Covid has expanded the use of technology to presbytery meetings.

But I can see problems. I just don’t want one person’s technological limitations or problems to nullify a meeting.

The Overture notes that in 2002, the Committee on Constitutional Business prohibited the use of teleconferencing for presbytery meetings based on the language of 13-4 and 14-5. Unless that language is also changed this will probably be rejected by the CCB.

Overture 32 from Central Indiana Presbytery is a request to form a study committee for Biblical Ethics in Digital Media. Their concern arises from the 9th commandment and the WLC 144 & 145. The growth of social media (FB, Twitter and blogs) has brought out the worst in many. Officers in the church (as well as lay people) should be accountable for their words. The overture wants to study how best to apply God’s commands to internet communication and recommend possible BCO changes.

I do see a great need for this. There have been “discernment” blogs run by PCA officers and members that misrepresent actions and views of others. There are times when men treat others horribly online. Our discourse is not always God-honoring. Attempts to self-police have failed. Moderators are often disparaged in other groups. What we are doing isn’t working and we need wisdom to navigate these new waters.

Overture 15 is from the Session of New Covenant PCA in MD to “Disallow Electronic Communications Regarding Voting at the General Assembly.” It refers to RAO 11-2 communications to General Assembly, as does 11-3. This seems irrelevant to the matter at hand. The messages in question are to individuals, not the Assembly. This Overture alleges the existence of a “political director of the National Partnership”. This seems quite inappropriate to me, the making of allegations as the basis for an Overture. If I can talk to my friend sitting next to me, why can’t I use technology to communicate with my friend on the other side of the building? I’m not the part of the National Partnership. Not all communication in the Assembly is for the Assembly. Are we now wanting to silence and censor those who disagree with us or think disagree with us? I do not support this Overture.

Issues of Race

Overture 36 from Chesapeake Presbytery requests a study committee on white supremacy. Yes, racism is a sin. That includes white supremacy (and black supremacy which member of BLM seem to advocate for in its place). Since we have position papers on other issues, they want us to have one on white supremacy in light of the “recent national events reveal both the ripples of, existing tensions between, and deep wounds within” our nation, congregations and families. Perhaps this Overture is mis-named since they mention “how to make progress toward racial reconciliation”.

I know that the media and some politicians want us to see white supremacy as one of our biggest threats. When I see who’s burning down cities, it isn’t them. I don’t think the KKK has much power and aside from some militia groups in the middle of nowhere, I’m just not seeing it. Admittedly, I could be naive and I don’t spend time in dark web chats.

This is controversial since the goals and foundational ideas supporting this overture are not clear (beyond explaining that racism is a sin). Is this arising from embracing CRT and wokeness? Or, to put it another way is this from Social Justice A (biblical justice) or Social Justice B (non-biblical expression of social justice- see the Thaddeus Williams video below)? Which “social scientists” will be rely on? Why only “white supremacy”? Hopefully these are questions that can be addressed more fully at GA.

I recognize that there are racists and there is systemic racism. I am increasingly convinced that CRT, which rejects a biblical world view, by its focus on groups (oppressors and oppressed, colonizers and colonized etc.) at the expense of individuals, with its focus on power and not hatred, and its worldly solutions is not the way for us go. It is anti-gospel, in my opinion. I am not in favor of an overture that would move us toward wokeness. I would be interested in one that seeks gospel solutions to these problems of sin.

There are three overtures on the issue of “Asian Flourishing” in light of the recent rise in attacks on Asians in America (what about the rise in anti-semitism?). The first is Overture 45 from Metro Atlanta. The next, Overture 46 from Metro NY, is nearly identical.

In previous years we addressed racial issues that had direct connection to our denomination (meaning, our churches and forefathers were guilty and complicit in racism in our churches and communities). Are the Korean churches in our denomination experiencing problems within our denomination? I’m sorry, I’m growing weary of what can seem to be virtue signaling. That doesn’t mean this is simply virtue signaling. I struggle with our perceived denominational need to made statements about every controversy. (Did I mention that one of my kids is from China?) I didn’t think we needed to make one on marriage. I thought the Scriptures and our Confessions were clear on that issue and on this issue: favoritism is sin. Hatred in the heart is condemned by Jesus. Acts of violence are sinful. Scripture also tells us to weep with those who weep.

There are some positive recommendations in the overture, such as the pastoral letter, making information known (though I’m not sure how people couldn’t have some general idea about the racism and oppression experienced by Asian in our country). I am divided.

Overture 48 from the Korean Capital Presbytery also wants us to denounce anti-Asian violence. It does hit home with them, and we should weep with them. Is that accomplished with an overture? This overture highlights some of the most egregious events in our national history (the Massacre of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871, the Chinese Expulsion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese Americans during WW II). Perhaps we should just repudiate the listed activities (scapegoating, jokes, slurs and violence), period. They are wrong regardless of who the victims are. The largest public lynching in U.S. history was in New Orleans in 1891 and the victims were Italian. Polish joke books are common. Irish people were enslaved and hated in America. Our objects of hatred and prejudice is not limited to any particular groups (Hispanics have plenty of events they can mention). Those who hate and exhibit prejudice are also not limited to any particular groups. Spike Lee’s profanity-laden montage in the middle of Do the Right Thing exposes the hatred of people of different ethnic groups for other groups. I think we need to go deeper and broader in how we approach this or we will just address the problem de jour.

Too often such events lead to the comparing of grievances which leaves us more estranged from one another. We use them to justify our actions toward other groups of people. It would be a great day if comparing our scars drew us together as it did Hooper and Quint in Jaws. We all know these actions are wrong- we need a way forward. The Law doesn’t give us the way forward, only the gospel does.

Overture 47 from Chesapeake Presbytery concerns a study committee on Critical Race Theory. Many in the PCA have been embracing CRT, and others have been denouncing it as committing the same sins of favoritism and prejudice that lead to our racial problems in the first place. I have relationships in which disagreement on CRT has created walls. It is so hard to talk about this because rejection or acceptance of CRT is met with equal measures of suspicion. At times assumptions are unfairly made which shut down discussion.

I’m not sure a study committee is the right way to go. Perhaps a debate at next year’s GA would be a better route. It could be preceded by a short tutorial on what CRT is by an advocate. Perhaps this takes place in addition to a balanced study committee that summarizes CRT in a way that advocates affirm. Let us learn from the Federal Vision Study Committee that many questioned in terms of content and tone so we don’t make similar mistakes.

This is an issue that isn’t just “out there” but also within our denomination. We need to address it, somehow, so we don’t bite and devour one another. But fairly, accurately.

After his twelve questions, Thaddeus Williams wraps up Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth with a epilogue and a series of short appendices addressing particular issues. After considering those, I will give my final thoughts on this book.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

Epilogue: 12 Differences

  1. While Social Justice A recognizes God as sovereign and the person who defines justice and injustice, Social Justice B “erases the Creator-creature distinction” and embraces the “false gods of self, state and social acceptance.”
  2. While Social Justice A recognizes unity in our shared guilt in Adam, Christians are united in our new identity in Christ regardless of our “tongue, tribe, and nation”, focusing on reconciliation, Social Justice B breaks people up into identity groups, pitting them against one another for a new form of tribal warfare.
  3. While Social Justice A offers us the fruit of the Spirit which unites people in love, peace, patience, kindness etc., Social Justice B “generates a spirit of mutual suspicion, hostility, fear, labeling, and resentment.”
  4. While Social Justice A “champions a love that is not easily offended”, Social Justice B encourages people to quickly take offense.
  5. While Social Justice A recognize we are sinners individually, we also create sinful systems so both need to be addresses properly by getting at the root with the Gospel, Social Justice B blames oppression on systems such that all disparity is evidence of discrimination and must be resolve with activism, not faith and repentance.
  6. While Social Justice A upholds universal guilt in Adam which can only be addressed in Christ and condemns people for sin rather than their ethnicity, gender or class, Social Justice Be imputes guilt based on one’s skin color, group identity which is resolved by renouncing privilege and joining the mission to end oppression under the authority of the oppressed.
  7. While Social Justice A confronts us with the reality that apart from Christ our good works are like filthy rags, Social Justice B encourages self-righteousness on the basis of group identity.
  8. While Social Justice A calls us to love God and our neighbor and sees injustice as a result of not loving God and neighbor, Social Justice B interprets “all truth, reason, and logic as mere constructs of the oppressive class” so a person’s viewpoint is easily dismissed if they don’t have the right skin color, gender or class.
  9. While Social Justice A teaches that God has defined our purpose and goal, and that when we deviate from that we bring oppression to self and others, Social Justice B teaches that we create our own purpose and goal and anyone who challenges those self-defined goals is an oppressor.
  10. While Social Justice A views men and women as complementary and the marriage of one man and one woman as the proper life-giving setting for human sexual expression and human flourishing, while Social Justice B sees “heteronormative” distinctions as oppressive and seeks to liberate people from any sexual and gender limitations.
  11. While Social Justice A sees all people, including the unborn, as image bearers and calls us to protect the “least of these” from the abortion culture, Social Justice B celebrates abortion as female liberation from the oppression of men and excludes the unborn from the concerns of injustice.
  12. While Social Justice A celebrates the family and views it as a “God-ordained signpost of Jesus and his relationship to the church”, Social Justice B views the family as unjust, oppressive and something to be undermined and abolished.

A concern for justice does not mean one adheres to Social Justice B. When we do engage those who do, we need to herald the gospel as foundational to seeking justice. We need to show them the beauty of reconciliation, grace and God-ordained limitations.

“The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.” T.S. Eliot

Abortion and the Right to Life

In keeping with the pattern established in the bulk of the book, Williams provides answers to the common arguments of Social Justice B, showing they are often based on bad facts and/or bad logic. It all ultimately boils down to the identity of life in the womb. Is it a person or not? A human being? If so we should reject abortion on demand. If not, then who cares.

Black and White

Truth matters to Christians, and words have meaning. Social Justice B has been redefining terms in their favor. Tolerance has been redefined as agreement. Intolerance has been redefined as disagreement. Of course these are only applied to the other person, not yourself. Marriage has been redefined with regard to the participants, time frame, number of people involved etc. Bigot has been redefined to mean anyone who challenges the views of Social Justice B regarding family, sex, gender and race.

Racism has been redefined as well. Power has been added to prejudice. From the oppressed perspective, power is what matters rather than the prejudice that God considers sinful. Williams argues the absurdity of this argument. Was Hitler, for instance, only a racist when he had power and not while writing Mein Kampf in prison? Is the KKK still racist since they have little to no social power anymore? Can a black president, vice president or mayor be racist? While Williams asks (rhetorical) questions he wants us to see that this new definition generates false conclusions, that we are no longer talking about the same reality, that is blurs the meaning of power and most importantly obscures the gospel.

Capitalism and Socialism

The younger generations are very concerned about real and perceived injustice. They are very vulnerable to the allure of socialism. They want knowledge now, and solutions now. They are impatient, as young people are prone to be (exaggerated by living in the microwave society and high speed internet). Williams addresses 5 problems with socialism. First it replaces the joy of generosity with governmental requirement through taxation. It thinks its way to help the poor is the only way to help the poor. It also overlooks the complexity of life and offers simple solutions that create unintended consequences of greater harm. Socialism reduces us to “homo economicus” and elevated the state to God. Socialism’s rejection of God sacrifices a transcendent moral reference point necessary to assess our powers and limits.

Defining Sexuality

The Roman culture in which the Church began was saturated with sexual oppression, and avoided the sick and dying in times of plague. The Church was known for their sexual ethic of marital faithfulness, and cared for the sick and dying regardless of their faith. They took in the abandoned children discarded by the Romans. Williams laments that today all that has changed. We withdraw from the sick and dying instead of caring for them. We fled from AIDS, and the homosexual community remembers. This makes the discussions of sexuality difficult.

Williams then brings in the 6-phase agenda presented by Kirk and Madsen in After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s. They used the anti-discrimination theme to gain support. Williams offers 6 questions reflecting his 12 questions in response.

Ending the Culture War

He then addresses the question of how the Church relates to the nonchurch. We tend to use the language of warfare. Many have embraced the culture war. But are we fighting the right enemy?

Paul told the Ephesians that our battle isn’t against flesh and blood. We aren’t fighting people. They are pawns of the powers and principalities. This should affect how we approach the nonchurch. He discusses the devil, the flesh and world (which in Revelation is connected to the Beast). We are not hermits who’ve withdrawn from the world but aliens and strangers living in the world but not embracing its sinful practices and unbelief. We are called to love our enemies and bless those who curse us, not curse them in return. Our mission is to be ministers of reconciliation, not steamrolling those who disagree with us.

“We refuse to become slaves, victims, friends, or lovers of an oppressive system in which greedy consumption, radical self-glorification, and constant pleasure-center brain stimulation are hailed as virtues.”

Fragility and Antifragility

He begins this appendix in confusing fashion. It is true that if you don’t understand the nature of something than you will end up harming it. The confusing part is his reference via Jonathan Haidt of peanut allergies. It required explanation and clarification.

But he gets into Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Muscles, unlike glass, are antifragile. When you break them down through exercise they become stronger. The question is: is the human spirit fragile or antifragile? Social Justice B treats us a fragile. God, on the other hand, uses suffering to build character. This is not to excuse the injustices of others, but to recognize that God is at work even in those injustices and works good from them for his people (see Joseph).

Good News to the Poor

Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll is a key passage for Social Justice B (and prosperity gospel charlatans). Jesus does come to bring justice. But it confuses the good news with justice. A truncated gospel doesn’t consider justice, but when social justice is claimed to be the gospel it is false gospel that doesn’t actually save anyone. The good news is about Jesus, the bleeding, dying Savior raised from the dead and ascended to heaven to reign and rule at the Father’s right, who has purchased a people for Himself from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. Those people will begin to act justly. Jesus called His disciples to pick up their cross daily and follow Him, not to reform the unjust systems.

Final Assessment

I’ve been sitting on this for about a week. Letting it percolate in my brain.

I loved this book!

It is great as far as it goes. He does not really explain how we pursue Social Justice A. It is really a critique of Social Justice B which is very popular in our society, and increasingly popular among Christians. Some think CRT, for example, is compatible with Christianity. I can’t really see how since it fundamentally misunderstands humanity, sin and sinners. I have friends to agree with it, I think because it provides a theory for systemic sin (they mention this as the contribution). But it argues on the basis of identity group, tribes, which is contrary to Scripture. And its solution(s) are anti-gospel. That is really the benefit of this book, being able to process and understand claims and compare them with a more solidly biblical view.

The danger of Social Justice B thinking is made manifest for me in Paint the Wall Black: the Story of Nini’s Deli. I don’t agree with everything the pastor says about the Covid crisis. But we see how the ideology of the mob destroyed the minority-owned business because the owner said “All lives matter because all lives are made in the image of God.” His refusal to bow to BLM (since they reject the nuclear family and support sexual minorities as among the oppressed) led to woke sponsors revoking their deals, death threats and the destruction of a business that have positively contributed to its community because it didn’t toe the ideological line. That version of social justice is unjust.

I believe Thaddeous Williams does the church a good service in writing this book. He interacts with a number of Social Justice B authors (including former PCA pastor Jemar Tisby). He’s not trying to paint charactitures or build straw men. This is well-researched. It just doesn’t do the positive work of how to implement Social Justice A to the problems of our day. Perhaps there is another to follow that will.

I’d recommend this to those with whom I disagree. Here’s the rub, often proponents tend to dismiss alternative theories (as Williams notes) and sometimes take offense. This is a hard discussion to have because of the walls that can be erected (on both sides). Perhaps in asking his questions, we can listen and learn both where they are right and where they deviate from God’s standard. Maybe, just maybe, they will hear themselves and think “Did I really just say that?”

With the 2020 PCA General Assembly canceled due to the pandemic, this year’s Assembly has extra work and important work. There is also controversial work to be done.

As officers, we vowed to study the peace, purity and prosperity of the Church. I trust that the people who wrote these overtures (requests for action) and approved them are seeking the peace, purity and prosperity of the Church. Sometimes we can disagree on the best way to do this.

I want the PCA to be doctrinally sound (I think most of us do), winsome in approach such that we are speaking the truth in love to our members, and to our unbelieving family, friends and neighbors. We should distinguish between issues of justification and issues of sanctification. In our interaction (including mine) there should be words seasoned with grace and the pursuit of clarity. Part of the problem has been the lack of clarity in our thinking, and therefore in our words. I think my thinking on these issues has become increasing clear in the last few years. Some may disagree on that point

Requests To Transfer Original Jurisdiction

Three overtures address the investigation of TE Greg Johnson. These presbyteries believe that Missouri Presbytery (MP) did not adequately fulfill their responsibilities in their investigation. As a result they want jurisdiction to be transferred to the Standing Judicial Commission in the hopes of greater resolution.

Overture 2 from Central Georgia Presbytery (CGP) says that TE Johnson teaches that “Christians can be identified as homosexuals, and that those who experience same-sex temptations are not normally delivered from these.” I want to separate these from “not normally changed in nature by the Lord”. The first two accusations they list are questionable. They may take Johnson’s statements to mean more than they do. His meaning should be clarified at points. That is the work of an investigative committee, not a judicial commission.

As one who struggles with SSA, TE Johnson has not been delivered from his attractions and temptations. He has stated that Revoice was born out of the failure of Exodus International to see such deliverance on a regular basis (Harvest USA recognizes many will continue to experience SSA). He seems to be arguing from his personal experience as well as discussions with numerous people. Since our many temptations don’t cease upon conversion, it seems likely to me that many don’t experience deliverance. Some may experience sufficient deliverance to marry a person of the opposite sex, but not all. My wild guess has to do with the roots of a particular person’s homosexual desires. If they are born of abuse or experimentation (which interacts with a sinful heart) they are far more likely to experience “deliverance”. Had they always experienced these desires, they would seem to be less likely to experience such deliverance.

Many prominent Christians who came out of the gay lifestyle, including Rosaria Butterfield, Becket Cook and Christopher Yuan, continue to experience such desires and temptations flowing from their corruption as part of original sin. This gets to the third accusation. Thomas Boston, in Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State, speaks of regeneration being total but not yet complete. Like our depravity it affects every part of us but is not complete. We are not as bad as we could be. Likewise, in regeneration every aspect is affected but we are not as good as we’d like to be.

In terms of “identification”, which will come up in a different series of Overtures, one should ask what TE Johnson means when he says he’s a gay or homosexual Christian. Since he and others involved in Revoice (it is by no means monolithic, however and there are serious issues with the whole) use the term to set themselves apart from “ex-gay” ministries and in a way described in Washed and Waiting (see pp. 22) to mean “Christ is my identity and homosexuality is my struggle” the allegation may be a big misunderstanding. So, I’m not convinced that he’s saying what they think he’s saying. Do you get what I’m saying? Sadly we’ve been talking about this for 3 years and don’t seem to have a clear picture. Are we asking the right questions?

They additionally say the Session of Memorial Presbyterian Church “promoted Revoice 2018”. Perhaps it is a matter of semantics. They did host it, but I’m not sure if they actively promoted it. They were admonished, I believe, by MP.

In terms of CGP’s use of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 they are reading identity back into the passage. The passage is about those who do certain things, not those who claim identities. These notions of identity arose with psychology in the mid-19th century. The liar is one known for lying. He doesn’t claim an identity as a liar. This text deals with people known for certain sins, not people who introduce themselves as “Hi, I’m a fornicator.” Like someone in a support group, one may confess their struggle. Hopefully that isn’t their identity, their defining quality.

I affirm WCF 13:1 with them, but they don’t reflect 13:3 which speaks of “remaining corruption” which for a time “may much prevail” and speaks of the “regenerate part” which eventually overcomes the apparently not-fully-regenerate part. Thomas Boston, in holding these together, is a wise guide for us (as does Owen among others). In other words, we must mention portions of the Confession that may not support our view point lest we be unbalanced (contra-confessional) in our arguments. We need the whole of the truth, not just part of the truth to rightly assess these matters.

Overture 4 from Savannah River Presbytery (SRP) focused on the results of the MP investigation. TE Johnson and others requested an investigation regarding his involvement in Revoice and teaching on this subject. They note that while acknowledging error on the part of Memorial Presbyterian Church, there was no formal action. They were essentially rebuked. This is within the rights of the presbytery. SRP notes that many of the allegations remain unaddressed.

Overture 25 from SE Alabama (SEAL) is much longer and includes a number of attachments. They allege that “TE Johnson conflates our confessional categories of sin and misery in a way that contradicts our confession by teaching that homosexual or “gay” orientation is non-sinful yet due to the Fall;… conflates our confessional categories of the state of sin and the state of grace in a way that contradicts our confession by teaching that it is acceptable to identify as a “gay” or homosexual Christian.” The attachments cover this ground extensively, and dare I say repetitively.

Sin (original and actual) brings misery. Homosexual attraction and desires are produced by original sin. Those desires can produce misery, particularly in the regenerate person who wants to be holy and yet suffers from unwanted homosexual desires and temptations as well as the shame associated with them. Homosexual lust and activity are actual sins (transgressions) and bring the misery of guilt, shame, broken relationships and more. I don’t find that SEAL distinguishes these very well in their documents. They fail to recognize that at times he’s likely referring to actual sin, such as in the Cross Politic interview (he says “a sin” implying he’s discussing transgression or actual sin rather than the corruption of original sin). On the spot, we aren’t always as clear as we could or should be. I’ve taken him to refer to sin actual not original in that interview which often got a bit heated.

“Homosexuality is a term that is never used in Scripture to refer to our broken, fallen biology or sociology or any other non-sinful aspect of our condition…”. Well, homosexual and homosexuality were not used until coined in Germany in 1845. It is a psychological term, not a biblical term. So we can’t make the use of it they do. Or shouldn’t. In this paragraph they continue to use the term sin without distinction, possibly conflating sin original and actual.

They similarly read the idea of identity back into texts. Some practiced those sins. Much focus is put on Paul’s past practice of sin. How are we to consider these texts?

15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1 (this is intended to be a saying we can all say)

14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Romans 7

Here we see that Paul uses language about his present experience as one in Christ who struggles with sin. As children of the Reformation we confess we are at the same time just and sinner. This doesn’t mean we find our identity in our sin but are honest about the realities of sin original and actual. Yes, we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin (Rom. 6:11) as SEAL notes. This doesn’t mean living in a fantasy land, as they admit in mentioning our remaining corruption. They seem, however, to minimize its power. We are Confessionally Reformed and therefore not perfectionistic in any way. We aren’t Wesleyan or Keswick in how we understand sanctification. TE Johnson is making an honest statement about his on-going attractions. A justified man can experience SSA. Sanctification addresses our obedience and renewal in the image of God but is incomplete in this life. Some experience more progress in their sanctification than others regarding particular sins.

It is interesting to me that after Jesus casts the Legion of demons out of the man who lived in the tombs by Gerasenes (Mk. 5) he is still called “the demon-possessed man”. Twice. He was not the man formerly known as demon-possessed, the ex-demon-possessed man or even by his name. He was still “identified” as the demon-possessed man.

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I’m glad that they “agree it is good to be known in one’s weakness and to not have to live secretively within the body of Christ.” Yet when we prosecute those who are honest about weakness and temptations, people live secretively (discipline is important to address transgressions with an eye toward restoration). I’ve known too many people who hide their SSA instead of coming to seek help in sanctification. They were dismayed when conversion didn’t take desires away. Sadly, with no one standing beside them they have fallen into special sin (WCF, 18.4) from which I hope and pray they are restored.

So much for the theological discussion of these overtures.

I’m still not sure how I will vote for these. I have no sense of injustice regarding the actions of MP. It is possible I have misunderstood TE Johnson’s statements. I wish there was an easy way to clarify the issues instead of debating these issues to death on the floor. I’m assuming MP did due diligence in their investigation and weren’t swayed by favoritism. As a result, I’m likely to vote ‘no’ unless there is a compelling reason not expressed in these overtures. While I share their general concerns, I’m not convinced TE Johnson teaches what they say he teaches. I confess I have not read every thread he’s been in, but I’ve seen plenty of them.

Amending BCO 7, 21 & 24

There are a number of overtures that seek to amend BCO-7, 21 and 24 to prohibit men who identify as homosexual from being ordained in our denomination.

The Study Report, which will be discussed at length at GA, notes that those with SSA who display Christian maturity and are not acting on their attractions may be ordained. This, I know, will be controversial. Some think that SSA alone disqualifies a man from ordained ministry since the desire is “unnatural”.

Overture 16 from Westminster Presbytery begins by affirming a biblical view of marriage and sexuality as well as the sinfulness (original and actual) of homosexuality without distinguishing original and actual. In referring to the qualifications for office they mention “husband of one wife” without explanation aside from the implication that this seems to disqualify a man. It is hard for me not to wonder if they think I was improperly ordained as a single (straight) man. I know of congregations (often independent churches) that do make marriage a requirement for office. I’m not sure if this is the intention or not. Yes “officers and candidates for office must conform their lives to Biblical sexual ethics.” Men experiencing SSA must conform their lives by putting the desires of the flesh (sin original) to death lest there be actual sins of lust or practice. They must not pursue sexual relationships outside the bounds of marriage, nor romantic relationships with a person of the same sex.

Another confusing aspect is the action requested is “Amend … to Disqualify Same-Sex Attracted Men from Ordination” but the focus of the body is those who “identify as homosexual. The quote from the Nashville Statement speaks not of attractions but a “self-conception” or identity. There is no internal agreement in their document.

The issue returns to what a man means when he says “the words”. We seem to be treating it like a shibboleth. Like the Knights-who-till-recently-said-“Ni” we recoil reflexively at this combination of words rather than seek to understand what is meant and then act accordingly. We seem to be making a superficial, rather than a right, judgment.

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Words are tricky things. You can use the same word as someone else and be talking about a completely different thing. Try to talk about salvation with a Roman Catholic and you’ll find the same words used but very differently. This was the problem with Evangelicals and Catholics Together in the 1990’s. Both sides used the word “justification” but were so different in their use that you thought “we aren’t together”. Here in AZ I interact with Mormons and they talk about “grace”. Their conception is more like that of the Pharisees: it fills in the cracks of your obedience like ice cream fills the cracks in your tummy after dinner. They use it as merited by “covenant faithfulness” rather than the being the foundation of covenant faithfulness as one is progressively sanctified.

I am more concerned about the concepts, the ideas involved, than the words used. We do need to reject the idea of a person embracing homosexuality who professes to be a Christian as though they are compatible. But when we focus on phrases, we can miss someone’s meaning and put concepts in their mouths that they don’t actually embrace. That is not fair, just and loving. It would be appropriate to not permit those who embrace homosexuality as compatible with Christianity.

Overture 23 from Gulf Coast Presbytery is nearly identical. They add a reference to the 5th Assembly which states “a practicing homosexual continuing in this sin would not be a fit candidate for ordination or membership in the Presbyterian Church in America.” I don’t think anything has changed, nor should. They ask for greater clarity regarding those who “claim not to be committing homosexual acts, but who identify as “gay Christian” or “same-sex attracted Christian.” I admit I may be reading too much into this, but “claim” reads as if they don’t believe that a person can be celibate.

Overture 30 from Lowcountry Presbytery seeks to amend BCO 21 and 24 instead. They are presenting this in light of the Study Report on Human Sexuality. They focus on the candidate’s character and the lack of reference or clarification in the BCO.

Can I express frustration? As they note it is found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Do we really need to put it in the BCO when it is in Scripture? Can’t we just cite the text?

We also seem to have some different interpretations of “beyond reproach”. Some read that as not being known in the community for committing sins. Others read that as not experiencing, or admitting to particular temptations. Yes, sexual immorality is worth noting.

Yes, as noted above, “Christians should expect to experience progress in the Christian life (WLC 75; WSC 35) as a work of grace by the Holy Spirit.” The question is ,what is meant by progress? How much should we expect or how should we measure it? In addition to “progress” the Confession is balanced, which we seem to not be. Notice what the Confession also says:

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. WCF 13

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. WCF 13

3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves. WCF 17

4. True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of his countenance, and suffering even such as fear him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. WCF 18

The Confession does not say these things only happen to immature Christians. They can happen to any Christian which means we must be vigilant. We must continue to make use of the means of grace (neglect of which being one of the causes of loss of assurance). That is a proper subject of inquiry as part of one’s Christian experience.

Yes, I agree maturing Christians are “battling of all sinful passions and desires that remain.” That is not limited to SSA but all manner of such sinful passions.

I agree with the additions are worthy of inquiry for candidates for ministry and transfer, I’m just not sure about “codefying” it. Our Presbytery asks about pornography, masturbation, SSA, and debt. We meet with wives to discuss the marriage as well. Nothing prevents any Presbytery from doing so. It is wise to do so. I’m not sure we need to amend the BCO, again (and again, and again). Are we not able to utilize common sense? Do we need the BCO to give us permission to do anything?

Overture 37 from Eastern Pennsylvania Presbytery also wants to amend BCO 21 and 24 for the same reasons. In their rationale they get back to identity and self-conception. They reference some important passages. We should see ourselves as the new man in Christ, not the old man in Adam. But Paul was also very honest about struggles with sin, particularly in Romans 7 which I quoted above. Paul had a reason to speak this way to his audience. There may be times a pastor speaks in similar fashion to his audience. It shouldn’t be a common or regular fashion.

I have found that people pay lip service to their pastor as sinner. They don’t want to know that he is an actual sinner, just a theoretical sinner. Pastors are big sinners even if we don’t see big sins (which is what is meant by beyond reproach and blameless). The point is that pastors are to be repenting sinners who mortify sin. We are not theoretical sinners beyond temptation.

Ministry is not simply being clear about sin but also being clear about the gospel to sinners. It is applying the gospel to justification and sanctification in the messy realities of life. That includes candidates for ministry.

I am much more comfortable with the recommended changes to 21 & 24 than I am with the recommended changes to 7. The former focus on temptations and sinful struggles, the latter the elusive category of “identity”. My concern lies with how that will be applied. Will we be brothers coming alongside or the Inquisition? That will surely differ by Presbytery. This is part of what we don’t always realize when we request such actions: not everyone will apply this like I would.

The Spanish Inquisition, Drones, and the Obama Administration | Andrew  Holt, Ph.D.

We are pastors and elders, and one would hope that we would have pastoral concerns in such inquiries. Too many of us can relate stories when Presbyteries haven’t been quite so … pastoral. The issue in sanctification hinges on repentance. It can hinge on the occasional vs. the habitual. Inquiry should uncover these matters. The BCO doesn’t have such nuance and codifying it can quickly lead to legalistic application- the letter rather than the spirit of the BCO.

I will likely vote ‘no’, not because I am against inquiring (I greatly encourage it) but in anticipation of how this can be misused- the unintended consequences of good ideas that meet sinful hearts. I think we should anticipate the drift or slippery slope of legalism just as much as the slippery slope of license. I’m content with Scripture (and that sounds really pious, doesn’t it?).

The fourth and final part of Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus Williams focuses on the question of Truth of Tribes Thinking?. This larger question will be examined through three other questions about Social Justice and Knowledge. He’s already looked at Social Justice and God, Community and Salvation.

If you haven’t been following along Williams is seeking to differentiate Social Justice A (biblical justice) from Social Justice B (what can often be called Social Justice Warriors). He affirms the biblical call to act justly, and submits to the biblical bounds of justice. He asserts that when we seek justice without reference AND submission to God we are really following a different religion. Not as frequently asserted is that the failure to seek justice is also a different, unbiblical religion.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

Part 4 gets to the question of “epistemology”. For those not philosophically inclined, that is our mental operating system. It is the process of sorting truth from lies among the data of life. Just as R.C. Sproul said everyone is a theologian, everyone has an epistemology. A good operating system allows for the efficient and accurate processing of data. A bad one has bugs that make it inefficient (oh, the circle of death) and/or inaccurate. Some operating systems are better than others.

How to Stop the Spinning Wheel on Your Mac
No one wants to see this on their Mac

The goal of the operating system for the Christian is to love God and neighbor well. Bad, buggy operating systems hinder love for God and/or neighbor. In this context he addresses Tribes Thinking. This is a way of thinking that breaks reality down into the narrative of one group oppressing another group or groups. Failing to recognize the oppression you sleepwalk through life. But when you see it, you are woke.

In the very campy John Carpenter movie They Live, the main character played by wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper becomes aware that humanity is oppressed by aliens among us. Reality is only known by wearing a particular set of glasses which reveals if one is an alien and the subliminal messages. He then tries to free unwitting humanity from the aliens. He is an example of being woke, while everyone else was sleepwalking through life. This was a metaphor of social conditioning and an oppressive state and corporate culture filled with the subliminal messages to “obey” and “buy”.

They Live
They Live, and he is woke.

Williams turns “tribes” into an acronym: Beware the Theocrats (usually right-wing Christians), Racists, Islamophobes, Bigots (the heteronormative crowd), Exploiters and Sexists.

He recognizes they get some things right. There is a real insight before it goes too far. There are many examples of these groups discriminating against others. There are those who dehumanize others on the basis of their skin color, religion, sexuality or gender. There is injustice! Tribes thinking is right in this respect. Our operating system is not functioning properly if we don’t recognize there is injustice, sexism, bigotry, and racism in our world and our country.

The Tunnel Vision Question: Does our vision of social justice make one way of seeing something the only way of seeing something?

Operating systems crash when they see the world in only one way. Data is silenced or amplified based on that one way. Family is good, but when it comes THE good you become like Michael Corleone committing all manner of crimes to protect the family. You ostracize those members of the family who don’t do what you think is best. (Fredo, you are nothing to me.)

The Godfather

As sinners, we tend to turn a bit of data into a total world view or way of knowing anything. We are people who need and enjoy stories. We need a story to make sense of the world. Christianity, I believe, is the one TRUE Story that makes sense of the world. It is the whole elephant, while other stories only grasp part of the elephant while claiming to know the whole elephant.

“When oppression- a true insight into some things– becomes the way of seeing most things or all things, then our story of the world ceases to be a grand story.”

Income inequality, for instance, becomes all about oppression. Differences in skills, gifts, determination, choices and personality are not factored into the equation of inequality even though they exert influence in the unequal outcomes. But to question oppression as the sole or primary factor is seen with siding with the oppressors, ending any meaningful discussion and, often in these day of cancel culture, the relationship.

Williams discusses “concept creep” by which “a concept expands outward in all directions until the entire tub is clouded” by the ink (representing the concept). It taints the whole. Ideological projections can frequently mask the real problem. The more you rely on one factor, the more you obscure truth and leave people broken. Put another way, it sees oppression everywhere. It puts oppression onto one group of actors and but also fails to see it in others.

“The extent to which Tribes thinking predetermines answers to hard questions is the extent to which it obscures truth and unintentionally leaves more people broken.”

This not simply about what might also cause inequality. It is also about missing what actually is. People see inequality and think there has been no progress in addressing injustice. Absolutism reigns these days. One focuses no the bad events in history and denies the advances ever took place or that they have much meaning. We miss the contributions to society by the oppressor groups.

Let’s play a game that Williams doesn’t. There was a movie in 2004, A Day Without a Mexican, which sought to show the importance of Mexicans in America by indicating all they contribute (which is quite a bit) if it was removed. Play that game with white people. Erase democratic republics, contributions to science and technology (planes, trains and automobiles; medicines developed in Western countries), erase the industrial revolution. But you must also replace the widespread, legal slavery that was present in non-white cultures, the diseases eliminated or managed. Do this with Christianity. Erase the educational and medical institutions founded by Christians including all of the Ivy League school, most hospitals, homeless shelters and ministries to the poor. Replace slavery, again. For all the wrong done by these tribes, there is also much good. Such is the way of life in a fallen world. Actions, not tribes, must be examined to see if they are just or wicked.

A Day Without a Mexican Poster

Tribes thinking, by locating evil in one or two groups, keeps us from seeing the oppression committed by other groups, especially those viewed as oppressed. We fail to see the lies, injustice and ugliness committed by members of particular tribes because they aren’t part of an oppressor tribe.

Williams illustrates this with a personal experience. He was labeled an oppressor for his interaction with a pro-abortion student online. He brought other data to the discussion, that points to the injustice of the pro-abortion movement which claims to be rectifying injustice. Over 50% of women felt pressured to choose an abortion, over 75% felt guilt. More to the point sex-selective abortion (injustice against women) is common in China AND the United States. In many American cities more black babies are aborted than born (injustice against black image bearers).

Social Justice B gives a pass to the injustice perpetuated against women and children in the pornography industry. It ignores the injustice of persecution against Christians in many countries especially China which also persecutes the Uygurs including enslavement to make produces sold for the benefit of Social Justice B athletes who lecture us about our real problems which seem a drop in the bucket compared to what China is doing. Social Justice B turns a blind eye to the millions who suffered (and still suffer) under the socialist and communist regimes they advocate to solve our inequalities.

Xinjiang internment camps - Wikipedia
Internment Camp

“Christians should be known less as culture warriors and more as Good Samaritans who stop for battered neighbors, whether they are black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, old, young, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, capitalist, socialist, Republican, Democrat, near, far, tall, short, or smaller than a peanut.”

The most important thing that Social Justice B leaves out is the gospel. It seeks to change behavior or eliminate the bad tribe. The gospel, on the other hand, seeks to change the heart of the person from oppressor to one who loves mercy, acts justly and walks humbly with God. The gospel isn’t about revolution but reconciliation. Many millennials now think it is wrong to evangelize because you force your religious views on others, but joyfully force their ethical and moral views on others who are not as progressive. As a Christian, the gospel is the foundational element to pursuing justice. As John Perkins says, love is the final fight, and we fight it in pursuing reconciliation on the basis of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ upon the cross to create a new humanity that worships the one, true God.

The Suffering Question: Does our vision of social justice turn the “lived experience” of hurting people into more pain?

In discussions of epistemology there is always the question of authority. In Social Justice A that authority is the Scriptures. It challenges me, encourages me, provides me with hope for the future in the midst of a bleak present.

In Social Justice B, people are encouraged to make their “lived experiences” authoritative. One’s lived experiences must not be questioned by others, nor should the interpretations that one makes on the basis of those experiences. These experiences are the basis for tearing down and then rebuilding society.

Listening is a good thing. We are to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1). But we don’t listen uncritically, and we realize there is often another side to any story. We also shouldn’t be selective in our stories: meaning only those that fit our narrative. We can benefit from the lived experiences of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anne Frank and Solomon Northup, among others. God listens to the cries of the oppressed, and as His people we should too.

What happens when we make them authoritative rather than illustrative? Williams discusses phobias. In arachnophobia all spiders are dangerous and want to kill you. The phobia is born of over-generalization. To be free of the phobia one generally unlearns the generalization through systematic desensitization. On doesn’t learn that no spiders are dangerous, but one learns to identify the dangerous ones like a black widow to distinguish them from helpful spider that are no danger to you, like a daddy longlegs.

James Wan Is Producing an 'Arachnophobia' Remake

Tribes thinking encourages over-generalization. Future actions are seen in light of these generalizations which confirm them even if they shouldn’t. A negative comment to a woman is not necessarily sexist. It may be the result of her poor performance on a project that cost the company business. But when we over-generalize it confirms our suspicions.

“We … saw insidious oppression and exploitation in all social relationship, stifling our ability to relate to others or ourselves without cynicism. Activists anxiously pour over interactions, looking for ways in which the mundane conceals domination. To see every interaction as containing hidden violence is to become a permanent victim, because if all you are is a nail, everything looks like a hammer.” Conor Barnes

Tribes thinking leads one to be “oppressi-phobic” by reducing your identity to that of a victim. Thoughtless comments are given unintended meeting. Brains are trained to see oppression everywhere. Williams notes, importantly, that people on the right can play the same game and living perpetual fear of secularists, Marxists, evolutionists, immigrants, the gay agenda and so on. This is not a liberal thing.

Tribes thinking is also obsessed with being “on the right side of history” (public opinion). Quick to virtue signal, the concern for truth diminishes into irrelevance. Feelings aren’t facts, and shouldn’t be the reason we act. There needs to be greater concern with objective reality than perceptions of reality. We should want real justice, not the knee jerk “justice” of a mob mentality. Jonathan Haidt laments the shift from “Truth University” to “Social Justice University” which exists to overthrow those in power and change the world. College should teach you how to think and learn, not simply be an activist.

Social Justice at Southern: an Alumni Magazine Recap – News at Southern

Williams brings us to Chile in the 1970’s. Socialist Salvador Allende ran for president appealing to those wanting justice. Many church leaders supported him, citing the teachings of Jesus. The focus was on the “lived experiences” of the poor (all kinds of politicians do this to make things personal) but to question the frequency of that experience is to be lumped with the capitalist oppressors. After Allende won, inflation sky rockets, his socialist policies of land reform drove poverty rates up. As the situation grew worse than under the “capitalist oppressors” protests and strife grew.

NPR focuses on these “lived experiences” of the downtrodden. Conservatives can focus on the “lived experiences”, for example of those whose loved one were killed by undocumented immigrants. In both cases, the pain of people is exploited to focus on a set of facts instead of all the facts so policy is wise rather than deepening and spreading the suffering of others.

The Standpoint Question: Does our vision of social justice turn the quest for truth into an identity game?

One problem with tribes thinking is that it turns the views of Social Justice B “unfalsifiable”. This means that no amount of logic, experience, evidence or even Scripture can change one’s thinking. It is similar to a man under the power of a delusion. You can’t talk him out of the delusion and everything becomes incorporated into the delusion.

Tribes thinking, Williams asserts, includes programmed responses to protect the core beliefs from any views that threaten to crash the system. Men can’t talk about abortion. White people can’t speak credibly on race. The game goes on. Your arguments about racism show that you are in the grips of white supremacy (or if you are a black person you have been colonized).

A meritocracy of arguments has been replaced by appeal to one’s skin color, gender, sexual orientation to automatically grant or deny you a voice or authority. This is a form of ad hominem argument which allows people to not actually think. It assumes bad motives for those in the oppressor groups, erasing the Creator-creature distinction. Logic is now viewed as a mark of “whiteness”. Asking for evidence is another micro-aggression. The focus becomes on external identity markers, not evidence or logical arguments. Discounting someone’s arguments because of their race is racist, their gender is sexist, or their orientation is bigoted.

“If the law of justice are like the laws of nature, if justice is a real thing and not an imaginary construct, then we should expect statements about justice to be true regardless of the color, gender, or social status of those who articulate them.”

Oddly, Williams points out, Social Justice B sounds remarkably like the ideas of old, dead white men: Marx, Rousseau, Marcuse, Reich, Alinsky, Foucault and Derrida.

Tribe members are granted automatic authority. For instance, it is common to now say that “God is on the side of the poor” which is a bit of an overstatement. He hears the cries of the oppressed, indeed. But not all those who are poor are poor due to oppression. In terms of justice, Israel was told not to rule in favor of the rich, or the poor. Justice looks at reality, not simply social status.

Here is one of the Williams’ few missteps. He quotes philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff positively: “God’s love for justice is grounded in his love for the victims of injustice.” Nope. “God is just”. It is an attribute of God. He loves justice because He loves Himself. Secondarily He loves His creation. But the focus is on loving justice.

Without God and the Scriptures it is ultimately impossible to have a moral framework by which to judge the lived experiences of others. We find ourselves unable to verify or falsify an argument.

So we come to the end of the 4th section of the book. Soon I will wrap up the book and the appendices.

In 1984, George Orwell writes about the effect of Ingsoc (English Socialism) on Oceania. Orwell himself favored socialism, but the kind of which he writes is totalitarian, not “democratic” in nature. If the Party were honest, it would be Ingcom, communism, instead.

Life in Oceania is very different from the way life was before. This is no more clear than when one thinks about sex, marriage and kids.

When we first see Julia, she is wearing an Anti-Sex League sash around her waist, drawing the ire of Winston. He wanted her, but this indicated he never could. He fantasized of assaulting her. He was a miserable, angry man needing to drive it deeper and deeper lest the Party know. Imagine his surprise when she slips him a note with three words: I love you.

George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1948) | Picnic Wit
A Countryside Rendezvous

In Oceania, sex has been denigrated and made dirty. Her sash says it all. The proletariat, uneducated and dirty, are amused and distracted by sex. For a time Julia worked producing cheap pornography built on six basic plots. These books were sold to the proletariat. We aren’t told this but the implication is that they are encouraged to breed like rats to produce soldiers for the military which is always at war.

But for the Party, sex is discouraged. One’s energy is reserved for the Party. It is also about controlling the loyalty of Party members. “It’s real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. … Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.”

Here we learn that Winston was married, still, though he had not seen his wife in years. Marriage between Party members had to be approved. If you seemed to like each other, it was not. Children, to be produced for the benefit of the Party (future administrators for the apparatus) were conceived artificially. They were brought up by the institutions, with minds shaped for Party loyalty. They were turned into spies, agents of the State to identify those guilty of Thought Crime or Face Crime. Yes, the wrong facial expression was considered a crime.

“The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations.”

Katherine, Winston’s wife, recoiled at sex. She didn’t resist but she would wince and stiffen. No romance. No enjoyment or delight. She was a good Party member.

Julia appeared to be the good Party member. She played the game. But when it came to sex, she was a rebel below the waist. Much to Winston’s delight. It as indeed her rebellion. That’s she’d been with numerous partners delighted Winston. From their first “date” in the countryside to the meetings in the upstairs flat in the slums, their relationship was built primarily about rebellion of a sexual kind.

A Different View of Women in Orwell's 1984 - Owlcation
Julia hiding in plain sight with the Anti-Sex League sash.

The relationship changes Winston for the better. He realizes that he’s not crazy for having these ideas about the government. Someone shares them, and he begins to care for her. He drinks less gin, and his health improves. What the Party feared has happened.

“He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. … The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

With another to speak to, to rebel with, Winston began to maintain a cover like Julia. He re-engaged in the after hours Party activities since he no longer needed to hide his rage.

We get a glimpse, however, into the power of gas lighting. The State lied. Changed news stories. Changed history. You could never trust your memory, what you knew to be true because next week it wouldn’t be. At some point you stop questioning them and begin to question yourself.

The lies were also about capitalism, the exploitation of the people. One lie was about jus prima noctis. You might remember that from Braveheart, as the English claimed the law of the first night to produce English children among the Scottish. Here it was the capitalists, so they said, that could force themselves upon the female employees at any time.

In the quest for control, they sought to undermine the institution that provides for a stable community: family. Wanting total allegiance to the State, they must destroy the family. Similar to Rollerball, they must show the futility of individual action by forcing people to be individuals. With no family, or no warmth within the few permitted families, the individual must depend upon the State.

This is not just some dystopian novel, but Orwell speaks of the ways of the totalitarian governments of his day. It speaks to government’s insatiable desire to control. Scripture often speaks of governments as beasts which seek to control worship and commerce. They control worship by being worshiped. They have to be seen as the granter of all good things. Orwell focuses on the material and psychological dimensions of this process. Christianity brings in the spiritual aspect of this. In a world without God we worship government. Government often wants to be worshiped.

1984 George Orwell Julia Description - A character analysis of julia in  1984 by george orwell
Sometimes rebellion is a dress, and a kiss.

We see a similar undermining of the family today. In our welfare policy we have incentivized single parent homes among the poor. With no-fault divorce we’ve produced broken homes as “better for the children” even though those homes are more likely to be below the poverty line (and dependent on the government). Instead of sexual repression like Oceania, it is sexual expression without the bonds of marriage. Marriage gets in the way of “sexual fulfillment”. The nuclear family is now viewed as a Western construct and inherently oppressive as the result of “white supremacy”. Those who oppose the new sexual expression (which is just the old pre-Christian sexual oppression of the Philistines, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans)are labeled as bigots and oppressors. Sex has been disconnected from marriage and procreation so it exists solely for pleasure. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” “If you haven’t tried it, how do you know you don’t like it?” The mantras go on and on, assailing truth and tradition.

The goal is still control. Destroy the family and people are dependent on the State. Destroy the church (which opposes the new sexual expression as one of the foundational institutions of a stable society) and people worship the State as the giver of all good things and protector of the people from the oppression of other institutions. Government is a jealous god.

We see our own version of Newspeak and the breakdown of common sense. “Abortion is healthcare.” “Marriage is slavery.” “If it’s love it can’t be wrong.”

Question these lies and you are an oppressor or colonized by the white supremacist system supported by the family and church. Government, which supposedly created the system, is replaced with the new government which creates a new cycle of oppression in the name of “freedom.”

1984 isn’t here, but some are trying to make it a reality. They are taking away the freedom of speech which undermines the freedom of thought. If we can’t freely speak our disagreements, speak the old truths which provided flourishing in the face of the new/old lies that enslave people, freedom will be lost. Not simply political freedom, but also spiritual freedom. The mob that wants to gain control must never grant freedom of thought and speech. Big Brother watches through social media and technology. The corporations determine who gets to speak and what they are able to say through “fact checkers” weighted to their values.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Winston is right, our hope is in the people no one cares about because the danger is from those grasping after power.

“The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.” T.S. Eliot

Considering Rollerball

When I was a teenager, The Movie Channel often had the old James Caan movie Rollerball. Like any teen boy I was attracted to the violent aspects of the movie and missed the dystopian features.

We had a free preview of a premium channel last month and when I saw that the old Rollerball was on I decided to record it for old time’s sake.

The movie takes place in the future where the game Rollerball functions in a way similar to the Roman Coliseum. It provides a violent distraction to people’s whose lives are ruled by others. You get little bits of info as you go. The warring nations had somehow been reduced to three and there was the “corporate wars”. The corporations went to war. The world, it seems, is run by a faceless and nameless group of executives that calls all the shots. The games begin with the “corporate hymn”.

In a way it is like the world of The Hunger Games or Catan. Cities are responsible for particular commodities. Houston was responsible for providing energy, and Chicago for food. This interdependence, it seems, helps the cities to co-exist. Their rivalries are played out in the game of Rollerball.

Rollerball 2018: Trump, Zuckerberg and the Future Present | Film Inquiry

James Caan plays Jonathan E., the superstar player for defending champion Houston. He has ruled the sport for 10 years, but though he enjoys a life a privilege he is a man on the end of strings. He is what the Godfather feared. He has little control over his life. One of the executives took his wife. The man who runs the company that owns the team in Houston claims she was ready to leave anyway. Similar to Orwell’s 1984, marriage has been nearly nullified. It means next to nothing.

What is Rollerball (1975) About? | Falcon at the Movies
Jonathan with his friend and teammate Moon Pie

Jonathan enjoys, perhaps, an endless series of live-in women sent by the executives. They come and go at the will of the powers that be, not Jonathon nor the women themselves.

In a hat tip to Huxley’s Brave New World, drugs are used to keep people happy. All they are given at the great generosity of the corporations makes them blind to the cages they live in.

In the middle of the playoffs, Mr. Bartholomew (the owner, played by John Houseman) informs Jonathan that it is time to announce his retirement on a multi-vision special about him. He is being forced out of the game from which he derives meaning in life. In a Kafkaesque turn, he’s never told why and doesn’t know who is forcing him out.

After failing to record the announcement, the rules of the game are changed. No more penalties, limited substitutions. They are setting the stage for Jonathan to be killed in the semi-finals against Tokyo. Bartholomew tells him not to play against Tokyo, but Jonathan wants concessions- a measure of control over a life that seems to have little to none.

We never see what life is like for the average person, just the privileged and the women intended to keep them happy. The library is not really a library as books are in the computer so the “government” controls information, history (what Jonathan wants to learn, much like Winston in 1984). He who controls the past controls the present, and the future.

While privileged fools burn down the forest with a gun, Jonathan burns down his future in a power play with Bartholomew. He’s willing to die in Tokyo rather than buckle under to the “man”. He has become bigger than the game (which is implied to be the problem), and tries to leverage this with the public. Does he think the “prols” are the only hope like Winston?

Rollerball (1975) directed by Norman Jewison • Reviews, film + cast •  Letterboxd

As the bodies pile up Jonathan is being patched up and Moon Pie is jumped by 3 players from Tokyo and hit in the back of the head. After he’s dragged off the track, Jonathan puts on his gloves and goes hunting. It is no longer a game- he wants blood. There is more fire on the track as Jonathan’s life is burning and chaos erupts in the arena.

After the game he must sign for the doctors to pull the plug on Moon Pie who is in a vegetative state. Jonathan refuses, again, to play by the hospital rules. His rebellion extends farther and farther has he continues to search for answers.

Rollerball (1975) Review |BasementRejects

As the corporate directors meet to discuss Jonathan, Bartholomew reveals that “the game was designed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort, let the game do its work.” Since the champion has defeated the meaning of the game, he must lose. Like the Sanhedrin they vote to defeat the champion.

In his quest for knowledge he goes to Geneva to ask the supercomputer Zero. This is 1970’s tech, people. So it is laughable but like Hal, Zero refuses to have Jonathan the answers he wants about the corporate wars and anything beyond “corporate decisions are made by corporate executives”. Everything hs run by the corporate executives, which he already knew.

But he does get a visit from his wife, Elle. “You know, Johnny, all they want is incidental control over part of our lives.” He learns that she left because the game was everything to him, not her. He wants to feel again, especially the love he once had and lost. And we get to the crux of the matter as the athlete gets philosophical.

“It’s like people had a choice a long time ago between having all them nice things or freedom. Of course, they chose comfort.”

“But comfort is freedom. It always has been.”

“Their privileges just buy us off.”

And then she reveals that the last game will have no substitutions and no time limit. He must quit to save his life. He no longer wants her and deletes the home movies of their time together. He also says goodbye to his friend before the game.

As they play New York and players are dropping like flies the coach of the New York team screams, “It’s just a game!”

“It’s not a game! It was never meant to be a game!”

All that remains are Jonathan and 2 NY players. And then one. Ready to kill the last opponent ….. individual effort prevails over the schemes of the corporate executives.

He “beat” the system, but didn’t change the system. The dominance of the executives continued, but did the game?

Sadly, recent events have indicated that most people do choose comfort and safety over freedom. The few who choose freedom can’t really break free. Their rebellion is barely more than a ripple in the face of the power wielded by those who are in control by providing the comfort. But the comfort they provide? An illusion.

The main body of Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus Williams is comprised of 4 sections, each of which addresses 3 questions on the subject. These questions are intended to help us distinguish between Social Justice A (aka biblical justice) and Social Justice B. As a result, the bulk of the body is “critical” or discerning. In the appendices Williams hits particular subjects for justice.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

This post will examine the 3rd of the 4 sections in the main body. This section focuses on the question of Sinners or Systems? It will cover issues of wealth, race and the gospel.

He introduces this section with a discussion of his friend Sid who used to hold to Hinduism and reincarnation. This is a radical form of individualism in which our present life’s conditions is based on our performance in the previous life. So, if you were born in a New Delhi slum you had been a very bad person. If you were born in an upper class family you lived well previously. It is essentially a meritocracy, but one that begins again in the next life. You are always under review as each life affects the next. This is how they process issues of “unfairness”.

Other people root “unfairness” in systems. Life is bad for some people because of the system: capitalism, Christianity, white supremacy or some other system. There are times when the system is rigged. Systemic injustice happens because sinful people can make sinful laws and systems. If all injustice is systemic, then you’ve got to fight the power.

Is this an either/or or both/and proposition?

That depends on whether you embrace Social Justice A or B.

The Disparity Question: Does our vision of social justice prefer damning stories to undamning facts?

He is getting to whether or not your view is rooted in all the facts or just the convenient narrative. The Bible doesn’t use the term “systemic” but we can see systemic injustice in the pages of Scripture. Jews were enslaved by Egyptian law, for a very famous example. Scripture’s commands are not limited to personal piety, but include how we treat others, and how laws are to be applied (without favoritism to rich or poor, citizen or sojourner).

Williams defines systemic injustice from a Social Justice A perspective as “any system that either requires or encourages those within the system to break the moral laws God revealed for his creatures’ flourishing.” Laws that allow no exemption for conscience sake are systematically unjust. Forcing Christian healthcare workers to perform abortions would be an example.

For Social Justice B, injustice is seen by outcomes. Disparity = Discrimination. He provides 3 examples: women in the Silicon Valley work force (15.7%), black drivers on the NJ Turnpike getting twice as many tickets for speeding, and mortgage lenders rejecting twice as many loan applications from blacks than whites.

They are unequal outcomes. Are they the result of discrimination? Solely or partially? Can we even tell?

Ibram X. Kendi, an anti-racist advocate in residence at my alma mater, argues they must be the result of racial discrimination. Having identified discrimination, the system must be overthrown. Williams notes that for Christians who embrace it, you call it a “gospel issue”.

“Automatically equating disparity with discrimination is not just something that happens in six-hundred page bestsellers or in many sociology and humanities departments around the US. It has gone mainstream as the way most conversations about social justice are framed in the twenty-first century. That includes conversations in the church.”

The problem is that we begin to assume the worst about others rather than displaying charity and at the expense of facts. So Williams begins to share facts about each of those three examples. He notes the Speed Violations Survey of the New Jersey Turnpike: Final Report. The sample size was 38,747 drivers on the southern portion of the turnpike. I find some of these results hard to believe because I’ve driven on the turnpike. Far more people speed than they seemed to find. But 2.7 of black drivers were speeding compared to 1.4 of white drivers. The disparity grew was the speed did. While blacks were 16% of the drivers they were 25% of the speeders where profiling complaints were made. In NJ the black population is much younger than the white population, and younger people drive faster than older people. Other factors beside race were are in play and must not be neglected.

The US Commission on Civil Rights that found banks rejected loan applications from blacks twice as often as whites, also discovered white Americans were rejected nearly twice as much as Asian Americans. Black-owned banks also turned down black applicants at a higher rate than white-owned banks. Systemic racism does not seem to be the issue.

Other factors play into many of the inequalities we recognize. Geography, age, and birth month can play into inequalities. He notes an inequality among professional hockey players between those born in January to March, and those born in December. December is under-represented. Do scouts and GMs hate December? No, January 1 is the cut off for Canadian youth hockey programs. The kid born in January is older than the kid born the same December, and often more mature and better. The kids born in December are less likely to be promoted as a result. This also happens in European soccer and American baseball, which explains why I’m not a professional baseball player like I wanted to be.

“When we automatically assume damning explanations for unequal outcomes, we not only lock ourselves in a prison of never-ending rage but also dull our senses to the point that we will be useless for the sacred task of recognizing and resisting the real racism, real sexism, and other real vicious isms around you.”

To further illustrate his point he breaks out the “magic equality wand”. Pretend the “great reset” has taken place and there is no discrimination left in our world. We each have a million dollars in our bank accounts. Apply this to the characters of Parks and Recreation. “Donna expands her real estate business. … Ron buys gold and buries it in the woods. Tommy throws a lavish red-carpet party, complete with six open bars, a Bengal tiger, and a shrimp wall.” And so on. We would immediately see inequalities as Donna flourishes while Tommy and Andy flounder. Their different priorities and choices result in different outcomes. While racism can be a factor in outcomes, so can personal choices. We are foolish to ignore this.

Parks and Recreation TV Review
Parks and Recreation

There is a biblical concept at work. We do reap what we sow (there can also be outside factors like oppression and calamity that affect outcomes). The sluggard doesn’t get rich (apart from inheritance). Differing outcomes are not necessarily unjust. Identical outcomes for the diligent and the lazy would unjust. If we want equal outcomes, we must take away freedom and replace it with collectivism. Such cries of equality led to the destruction of the French Revolution among other dystopian nightmares.

“Working to free the world of some inequalities is just, good, and biblical. Working to free the world of other inequalities will just turn us into monsters who think of ourselves as angels.”

To sum up this chapter, Williams notes:

“There is real racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the world. It is damnable and should be vanquished. If we aren’t willing to put in the effort to thoughtfully separate damning disparities from the undamning, then we don’t take discrimination and its victims seriously enough.”

The Color Question: Does our vision of social justice promote racial strife?

Black lives are made in the image of God just like other human lives. They matter, just like others do.

Many blacks don’t feel like their lives matter. One issue, but not the only one, where this emerges is policing. This is a complex issue. Racism can be involved, but it isn’t necessarily involved. It is an emotional discussion that focuses on some facts and ignores others.

Between 2016 and 2019 an average of 1,000 people were shot by police officers. About 1/2 were white and 1/4 were black. 4% of those killed were unarmed. This means an average of 25 unarmed white people, and 18 unarmed black people per year. 16 of those whites were not fleeing and 8 blacks were not. Those not fleeing nearly all were physically attacking the police, typically under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Yes, these still don’t match population demographics. The location of a crime often indicates whether it is violent or not. Police usually don’t have to pull weapons on white-collar criminals since they are less likely to resist arrest. Those guilty of or suspected of violent crime are more likely to resist. Sadly, there are drastic disparities regarding violent crime rooted in poverty, not race. There are more factors involved than racism.

“But ideas have consequences, and false ideas have bad and even fatal consequences for real people.”

Again, racism is a real problem but not every inequality or incident is the result of racism.

“How can we reconcile the Social Justice B narrative that America remains systemically white supremacist to its core when Indians, Taiwanese, Lebanese, Turkish, Chinese, Iranian, Japanese, Pakistani, Filipino, Indonesian, Syrian, Korean, Ghanian, Nigerian, and Guyanese earn more income on average than whites in the United States?”

One of the issues for both white and black communities is the rise in single parent homes. Fatherlessness is tied to increase in violent crimes, poverty and mental health issues. The rates of single family homes are much higher in the black community but are rising in the white community. These are not conditions for flourishing (there are always exceptions). Oddly enough the conditions for flourishing follow a biblical pattern aside from the first. Finish school, get a steady full-time job, get married before having kids and you are unlikely to end up in poverty apart from personal calamity. The poverty rate for married black couples was LOWER than that for married white couples.

Williams contends that the “black voice” is a white liberal voice. Many of the common phrases were coined by liberal whites. Those include “whiteness”, “white privilege”, and “white fragility”. The newer definition of racism as “prejudice plus power” was devised by a white liberal. Additionally, conservative black voices are silenced and/or demeaned. The voices of people like Sen. Scott, Thomas Sowell and others are silenced by racist accusations. Racial strife is furthered.

When it comes to color, the anti-racist movement roots evil in “whiteness”. Ekemini Uwan says “the reality is that whiteness is rooted in plunder, in theft, in slavery, in enslavement of Africans, genocide of Native Americans …. whiteness is wicked. It is wicked.” This blinds us to the universality of human depravity, and the fact that God calls all men (and women) to repentance. The focuses on the follies of white persons, and denies the positive contributions of white persons. This is inflammatory speech, and untruthful speech.

“Social Justice B singles out a physical feature that God gave some people and not others. It then uses that feature not as a physical descriptor but as a mark of evil.”

The Gospel Question: Does our vision of social justice distort the best news in history?

Williams begins by addressing first and second things from C.S. Lewis. The first are most important. Many seek the second things, hoping they’ll get the first but it doesn’t work that way. Lewis asserts “You get second things only by putting first things first.” Jesus taught this in terms of “seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.” You don’t get the kingdom by seeking food, money, power or pleasure. Or justice. But if you seek the kingdom you will get justice (which ultimately can only be found in the kingdom consummated at Christ’s return).

This means that the gospel is part of the first things. It is about what Jesus has done for sinners. Gospel logic (Sinclair Ferguson) begins with gospel indicatives before moving to the gospel imperatives. If you lose the indicatives, the imperatives become part of the self-salvation project that is doomed to fail. The Judaizers corrupted the gospel by adding the imperatives to the indicatives. They made justification dependent on the imperatives.

Williams connects this to an episode of The Good Place. The show has a faulty understanding of salvation which is based on a point total (works). It turns out that for centuries no one has accumulated enough points to make it to the Good Place. Life had gotten more complicated as the human-friendly demon Michael finally puts it together.

“It’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for the Good Place. … These days just buying a tomato at a grocery store means you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming.”

In the face of this one of the humans, Tahani, laments it “feels lie a game you can’t win.” This is not just the musings of a sitcom. Social Justice B professor Richard Day speaks about “infinite responsibility.” Every choice is not simply an ethical decision before the face of God but a question of social justice and corruption. Due to the interconnected nature of life, we are all guilty of contributing to injustice.

Four Lessons in Bridge-Building from “The Good…

“If everything is unjust all the time- since Social Justice B interprets all inequality as injustice- we end up in the chronically frazzled state of mind well described by an ex-radical: “Infinite responsibility means infinite guilt, a kind of Christianity without salvation: to see power in every interaction is to see sin in every interaction.””

This means we are constantly feeling either guilt or are searching for the guilty party. Many white people feel a constant guilt because they are part of the oppressor race. Others constantly feel aggrieved and point the finger. Williams notes that the alt-right plays a similar game, blaming those who are darker skinned.

God has been replaced as Judge by the every-capricious mob. The mob pounces on any mis-step. Your transgressions mean that you are not worthy of life, or at least a good existence. Separated from a God of mercy, there is only rage against those who don’t get the latest understanding of injustice.

Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman actress receives backlash over Middle East tweet
Actress Gal Godet was attacked for supporting her homeland in the Middle East conflict

Justice is important to the Christian life. Justice isn’t the Christian life. The Christian life is faith and repentance. Because I love God I will seek to act justly (Micah 6:8). I will treat people as they should be treated, and repent when I don’t. I only have control over my actions, not “the system” unless like William Wilberforce I am a person with the power to influence law and practice. Sadly, many young Christians have been taken by Social Justice B and left their faith behind. There is no faith & forgiveness, no hope in future justice instituted by Jesus, no mercy. The gospel is abandoned for condemnation.

If we get back to the question for this section. In Social Justice A, we both sinners and sinful systems established by those sinners. In Social Justice B, it is the system that matters and those systems must go.

It remains for us to examine Part 4 and then the appendices.

In Part 1 of Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth by Thaddeus J. Williams, he formulated his material around three questions about worship. Here in the second part, Unity or Uproar?, the three questions center around the question of community. Social Justice should build community rather than fragment or destroy it. In particular, church community.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

In Part 2 he addresses the problem of tribalism in which “we should divide people into group identities, then assign undesirable or evil traits to that group…”. People are no longer viewed as individuals (not the same as individualism) but only as members of groups. Some groups are good, and the others are bad.

God is love and has always subsisted in a community of love: Father, Son and Spirit. Made in His image, we were created for community as well. Sin has twisted that drive toward community so we now have mobs, gangs, cults, hate groups, partisan political parties etc. Tribes become self-righteous and seek to vanquish the “opposition”. Perhaps it would be better to say tribes are an expression of our self-righteousness.

The Collective Question: Does our vision of social justice take any group-identity more seriously than our identities “in Adam” and “in Christ”?

Williams shares the story of Christian Picciolini who used to be a member and leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads. He felt abandoned by his nation. He was looking for an identity, a community and a sense of purpose. He found the wrong ones until after his first child was born. He left white supremacy and co-led a group called Life After Hate.

In terms of the far left he introduces us to Conor Barnes who was 18, “depressed, anxious, and ready to save the world.” Williams notes that Barnes’ description of the group he found makes it sound like Fight Club pursuing Project Mayhem. He soon was burned out and seeking true freedom.

Secret Theatre- Project Mayhem - 1185 Films - Documentary Film Production
Fight Club: Project Mayhem unfolds

“Christian Picciolini and Conor Barnes are mirror images. Both were swept up in groups that used categories like race, economic status, and oppression to see themselves as angels and others as demons, although one man’s angels were the other man’s demons.”

Social Justice B offers answers to these longings we all have. For those without church or disenchanted with church, it fulfills the role of church to provide identity, belonging and purpose.

Social Justice B rejects the reality of original sin. They consciously or unconsciously follow Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” and that institutions are the problem. Evil flows from institutions, not people. Ironically, they form institutions (groups) to take away power from the individuals they see as comprising the bad institutions. They divide the world into good groups and bad groups. Those groups may focus on gender, color, economic status or other factor but they ignore the fact that these are human problems all. All humans struggle with these problems, and we can’t reduce the world’s problem to one of them but all of them and more.

A popular book these days is Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which is written from the perspective of the oppressed. The oppressed are good and oppressors bad. There are no shades of grey like we find in history (go back to the Aztecs and Conquistadors for example). Unbalanced history is no way to evaluate a problem.

The Reformed doctrine of human depravity lays waste to such notions that my side is faultless but theirs is full of fault. Williams brings us to Paul to see three unifying truths he taught groups that experienced historic grievances. The first is that sin is a human problem, not exclusive to the oppressor. The second is that “in Christ” we have a new identity that transcends other group/cultural identities. In Galatians 3, for instance, it isn’t about race, gender, economic state or culture- all are one in Christ. The third is that forgiveness only comes through the substitutionary death of Jesus.

Williams then contrasts this with James Cone, the father of black liberation theology. He see whiteness as the source of sin, and people must be converted from their whiteness to struggle against white oppressors. His is a view of black supremacy or as some say now sovereignty. White people will submit to black people. Williams summarizes an excerpt from Cone as inverting Paul’s teaching.

“Any and all righteous status we have is solely in Jesus, not our color, not ethnicity, not gender, not the amount of oppression we or our ancestors have or haven’t experienced, not our good works, our ticking the right squares on the ballot, or our height on a hierarchy of privilege or pain; it is nothing but Jesus. The cross of Christ forms the spear through the heart of both far-right and far-left ideologies.”

The Splintering Question: Does our vision of social justice embrace divisive propaganda?

Propaganda has been used to turn people against one another as a violation of the second greatest commandment. It was used by Nazis to dehumanize Jews, by the Hutu to dehumanize the Tutsi, the KKK to dehumanize blacks and the Khmere Rouge to dehumanize its opponents.

Williams identifies three common marks of propaganda. 1. a highly edited history designed to paint the other group in the worst possible light, 2. encouraging you to treat all members of that group as guilty of the sins of the group, and 3. provides a way to blame all life’s troubles on that group and its members.

His contention is that Social Justice B uses propaganda to demonize groups. He illustrates a revisionist history in terms of slavery. He draws on the work of Thomas Sowell in “The Real History of Slavery.” Slavery was so widespread that we find it in nearly every culture. China had one of the largest slave markets in the world. It is estimated that there were more slaves in India than all of the Western Hemisphere, and that slavery existed there before the Spaniards showed up. The first civilization to begin to reject slavery was Western (largely Christian) civilization which also helped end slavery in other parts of the world. You won’t learn any of this from the 1619 Project. Obviously this doesn’t excuse the chattel slavery practiced in America and the British Empire. It does provide a more balanced picture of reality, however.

“So I say again: slavery, racism, and sexism are inexcusable, and anyone who has participated in such sins should repent and run as fast as possible to the cross of Jesus.”

To present only the sins and not the virtues of a group of people is to be guilty of bearing false witness through selectivity.

In terms of individuals as group exemplars he compares an article in the Washington Post with one in Wake Up from Rwanda. The first is about sexism condemning all men, and the second condemns all Tutsi. Each advocates that those groups lose all power, that they not be trusted, that they be re-educated, shown no mercy and that feminists and Hutu FIGHT.

People are not treated like image bearers, but as something to be exterminated. Williams critiques their views, not calling for the destruction of these people. He finds their ideas problematic, not that they should be exterminated.

Then he shifts to scapegoating which is used by groups on the far-right and far-left. It is used by racists and anti-racists, men and women, rich and poor. Both sides play the same blame game and want you to join them. All these groups are presenting a form of theodicy, making a group to blame for the woes of the world. Social Justice B is a secular form of theodicy. Williams wants us to recognize the body count produced by these theodicies in the 20th century before we go down this similar road.

The Fruit Question: Does our vision of social justice replace love, peace, and patience with suspicion, division, and rage?

This is the chapter that presses in to all of us. One of the works of the flesh is divisions, quarreling and factions. This is not a problem just for Social Justice B. The difference is that Social Justice B exists on these works of the flesh. They seem to be the goal.

“For quick-to-quarrel, easy-to-offend, clique-forming people to have any hope of experiencing real community, of gathering, of doing church together, then we need love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control to deal with other far-from-perfect people. … Without the Spirit’s fruit, we fall into tribal default mode.”

He offers the example of Corrie ten Boom after a speaking engagement being approached by a former guard at Ravensbruk. He sought forgiveness for the cruel things he did. She struggled in the moment but chose to forgive him. She noted that those who forgave were able to move on and build lives after the camps. Those who couldn’t became spiritual and emotional invalids. She had to cry out to Jesus to help her, but cry out she did.

This, Too, Is In His Hands - Corrie ten Boom - Renovare
The ten Boom family

He also brings us back to Charleston, SC and Dylan Roof’s attempt to start a race war by murdering 9 African-Americans worshiping in church. Instead of returning his murderous rage, the families of victim offered forgiveness.

Social Justice A rejoices in forgiveness and reconciliation. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

In Social Justice B their is little to no forgiveness as grievances new and old feed the call for justice, meaning judgment. It revels in the rage, wanting to destroy those if finds responsible.

As an example he provides Gloria Watkins’, writing as “bell hooks”, essay “Killing Rage”. She tells of having upgraded to first class with a friend. A mistake was made, however, and her friend was asked to return to coach and an apologetic white man sat next to Watkins. In her mind, the friend was treated horribly and it was all this man’s fault. She saw this as sexist and racist and wanted to kill him. His sin was having paid for a seat before her friend did.

Williams notes it is an extreme example but illustrates three things. First, she never questions if racism and sexism are the best or even only explanations for what happened. They form the presuppositions driving her rage. The unwillingness to even consider less heinous reasons or grant the benefit of the doubt to another human being is common for advocates of Social Justice B.

Second, “throughout the essay, individuals become exemplars of entire groups and those groups’ cumulative injustices.” The object of her rage was an anonymous white man. He may have been one who sought justice and served minority communities, but he was viewed like the Grand Wizard of the KKK.

Third, the essay is not just about rage but revels in rage. There is no regret for the rage. No grace, kindness or attempt to seek peace. This is quite different than the gospel call to forsake rage, malice and bitterness.

Watkins never looks at her own heart. Hers is assumed to be a righteous rage. Her revenge fantasy is assumed to be righteous instead of a manifestation of sin in her own heart.

“What if someone were to question her killing rage? It would only prove their white supremacy. Says hooks, “To perpetuate and maintain white supremacy, white folks have colonized black Americans, and a part of that colonizing process has been teaching us to repress our rage, to never make them the targets of any anger we feel about racism. Most black people internalize this message well.” If white people question hook’s rage, they are oppressors; if black people question her rage, they are victims of colonization who have internalize white racism.”

Certainly paints people into a corner while justifying yourself.

We see this often. There is no other reason for a police encounter gone wrong. It can only be racism. Presuppostitions of supremacy drive the rage about perceived injustices. No time is given to ascertaining real motives or taking other data into consideration.

Consider the lamentable murders of the Asians (and Whites) in Atlanta day spas. It was immediately labeled an act of racist violence. Still the other factors seem to not matter as he’s been charged with hate crimes in addition to the hate crime of murder.

I said at the beginning of this section that this presses into us all. You don’t have to be a Social Justice B advocate to think this way. It is a part of our polarization. We quickly succumb to tribalism. Our rage at Social Justice B can be just as wicked, and blind us to the logs in our own eyes.

We need the grace of God to move beyond the rage for justice to seek reconciliation, confess our own sins, and seek mutual understanding.

Much is made of white fragility these days. I prefer to call it human fragility because none of us like to face our faults and we self-righteously point to the grievances done to us (or our group) to weigh it all in the scale. This perpetuates the problem that only repentance and forgiveness can heal. Killing rage does not accomplish the righteousness of God.

In the early chapters of 1984, Orwell introduces us to Newspeak which looms large in the story of Winston Smith. In some instances Newspeak makes language meaningless or contradictory. In other instances Newspeak redefines terms according to its interests and agenda. We see some of this in the Party slogan.

Why Did Orwell Choose Freedom Is Slavery, Instead of Slavery Is Freedom as  the Second Slogan in 1984? - Owlcation
Party Slogan

I’m not sure if this is supposed to be some sort of Hegelian dialectic but the Party is gaslighting the people because nothing is as what they thought it was . These re-definitions are contradiction.

The one who controls the language controls the future by manipulating the present. The Party controlled the language through the Ministry of True (Minitrue). Winston worked in Minitrue, as we’ll see, changing history through cut & paste work. They controlled history, and language. Such is the power of totalitarianism. By doing this they control the populace.

“They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided: the Ministry of Truth which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education and the fine arts; the Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war; the Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order; and the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economics. Their names in Newspeak Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv, and Miniplenty.”

I love the irony expressed in the Newspeak here. It reveals something of their contradictory purpose regarding the names. Little truth, little peace, little love and little stuff. They don’t work for their names but against them by policy.

It has humorously noted that churches generally lack what is mentioned in their name. Faith Baptist would lack faith, for instance. This is a society that lacks truth, peace, love and plenty. It is all a big lie. Similar to Animal Farm, they report great production and simultaneously reduce rations. They don’t provide what is needed in terms of staples and yet prohibit the markets beyond government control.

I recall a number of years ago a Democrat Congressman wanted to change the Department of Defense to the Department of Peace. I’m not sure he got how ironic that would be, and how Orwellian. My kids have not known a day when we were not at war. Thankfully I have but we’ve been at war for an entire generation, 20 years and counting. Like Oceania we are seemingly in a constant state of war.

Conservatives conserve. This is viewed as preserving the status quo and fighting against progress. They think that some “progress” isn’t really progress at all but regression to a less civilized time (think of the sexual revolution which is returning us to a very Roman sexual ethic). They want to conserve or preserve language and the meaning of words.

One of the efforts of the progressives is to change the meaning of words and thereby change how people think about certain things (marriage equality, who doesn’t want that?) to change society. Like the Party, language becomes a putty nose in their hands. Don’t say abortion but pro-choice. It sounds better and choice is good (except when you choose to murder innocent human beings). It is similarly about control, to bring the populace increasingly under control by making them dependent on the government. Amsoc, people.

More recently we’ve seen new phrases and redefined terms in the discussion of racism, largely by liberal white women scholars: whiteness, white privilege and white fragility. Racism is prejudice and power, so minorities are only guilty of prejudice, not racism since they have no power. They control the terminology and the narrative to control people, their thoughts and actions.

It is with a sense of foreboding that the Narrator describes the home of Miniluv.

“The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all. Winston had never been in the Ministry of Love, nor within a half kilometer of it. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine gun nests. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in black uniforms, armed with jointed truncheons.”

This was the home base for the Thought Police who used the surveillance and spies to uncover those whose thoughts were unorthodox. They were a secular version of the Spanish Inquisition.

In Scripture we learn that the moral law is the law of love (see Romans 12 and Mark 12 for instance). God’s law is summed up in loving Him and your neighbor. There is little love in the society of Oceania. People must hide who they are, what they think and conceal what they do lest they end up in Miniluv.

Love is redefined for allegiance to Big Brother whose mustache probably reminds you of Stalin. Secret police and imprisonment with torture and brainwashing are standard fare for totalitarian dictatorships of all stripes. Yet, our cancel culture is a form of thought police where you are ruled unorthodox for your ideas, ostracized and in some cases sued. Legal action for violating the new orthodoxy produced by the elites is not far behind. And it all starts with language. Language isn’t just shaped by our thoughts but also shapes our thoughts when we manipulate it. Voter beware.

1984 was one of the influences for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

I read 1984 about 40 years ago. I can’t quite remember which year of school we had to read it. While I found it tedious at times, it definitely made an impression on me. Since I’m calling this the Year of the Dystopian Novels of Old, it is time to read 1984 again.

Unlike my more exhaustive blogging on Animal Farm, this will be more selective because it is a bigger book. I want to hit the things that hit me, not so much the plot line. This will be a sort of stream of consciousness affair rather than a highly structured endevour.

1984 (Essential Orwell Classics)

The second paragraph paints a bleak picture of Winston’s surroundings.

“The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. …It was no use trying the lift. Even in the best of times it was seldom working, and at the present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week.”

I skipped the poster of Big Brother with his big mustache and eyes that follow you everywhere declaring “Big Brother Is Watching You”. This government official lives in a dump. The area around his apartment building is in disrepair as well with collapsing walls and boarded up windows. Most of London appears to be a ghetto produced by Ingsoc, Newspeak for English Socialism.

The description of Winston drinking Victory Gin made we never want to try gin. The Victory cigarettes fall apart easily. His kitchen is small and prone to need repairs, as is everyone else’s apartment as evidenced by helping his neighbor with a clogged sink.

Hate Week says it all. This is a culture that feeds on hate, as a tool of the government. Big Brother is watching and wants to see you hate his enemies. The first chapter includes the daily Two Minutes Hate, a break in the day in which the people are encouraged to express their hate, particularly for Emmanuel Goldstein. He reminds one of Snowball who reminds one of Trotsky. He was a member of the leadership that lead the rebellion but ended up disappearing mysteriously and yet was a Boogey man who was behind all manner of rebellion against the oddly beloved Big Brother.

1984 (1984) - IMDb
Two Minutes Hate in the 1984 movie with John Hurt

“The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash face in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.”

Winston’s hate was secretly for Big Brother rather than Emmanuel Goldstein. He also hated the girl with the dark hair and the sash wrapped tightly around her waist that declared she was a member of the anti-sex league. He hates her because he wants her, and can’t have her.

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present the past.”

Winston can’t tell us how Ingsoc came to dominate Oceania, which includes England. His memory is fuzzy, probably because the government keeps changing history. As long as he can remember Oceania has been at war. They are currently at war with Eurasia. The State claims they always have been, but Winston remembers being at war with Eastasia a few years earlier. The ever-shifting history erodes people’s memory. Winston thinks it is 1984, but isn’t really sure.

Newspeak - Wikipedia

Big Brother doesn’t just appear to watch you in the poster. He watches you through the TV (sound familiar?). Winston has to find the blind spots in his apartment to subversively write in his diary. You never know when they are watching, and during the mandatory morning exercise he’s chastised for not touching his toes. Children are Spies, not Scouts, trained to identify traitors. People are disappeared in the middle of the night. All records are erased, as if they never existed in the first place. Winston’s parents were part of the first purges. He barely remembers his mother and little sister.

Our description of Winston is of a man old before his time. He’s short, and hobbled by an varicose ulcer on his right ankle. He’s skinny and the uniform doesn’t quite fit because he’s so thin. Of course, they keep cutting rations, usually after the new of a great victory that may not have actually happened.

Winston has a depressing life in a depressing nation in a depressing world filled with hate, war and suspicion. Personally it was a boring and unfulfilling life, but all that was about to change.

In the forward to Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, John Perkins offers four admonitions to the those who confront injustice: start with God, be one in Christ, preach the gospel and teach truth!

As Thaddeus Williams begins his book he has taken these admonitions to heart. Before he gets to the first part, and its 3 questions, he answers why he’d “write about the most explosive, polarizing, and mentally exhausting issues of our day?” He begins with the “nonjudgmental spirit” of the ’90’s. Amazingly we’ve turned into “one of the most judgmental societies in history.” Theocracies have nothing on the “religious zeal” of secularists, apparently. Much of this is made possible by social media where we can say some of the worst things about others without accountability, as long as you are from the right tribe. We are devouring ourselves as a nation.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

“I wrote this book because I care about God, I care about the church, I care about the gospel, and I care about true justice.”

He wants to advance true justice in a way that glorifies God and draws people into Christ-centered community. These are lofty goals.

What Is “Social Justice”?

Like a good professor, he begins by defining the most important term in the book. Social justice is the controversy of our day. It has moved beyond the classroom to the street.

Williams believes that social justice is not optional, particularly Christians. We were made for community. Justice is about the relationship of one person or group with another. Justice gives each its due. Injustice affects others. He then cites a number of Scripture passages admonishing us to pursue justice.

“The same God who commands us to seek justice is the same God who commands us to “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good.””

Our pursuit of justice is to be discerning. It is not about being fashionable, or getting big press. It is about doing right, as God sees it.

Into this he introduces Social Justice A and B. Everyone, it seems, champions justice. Justice shouldn’t be so vague that anyone can claim it in a world filled with injustice. Social Justice A is used in this book to refer to biblically compatible social justice. He uses Social Justice B to refer to the politically charged banner for groups that advocate violence against those who think differently than them, with a form of justice that separates people into the oppressed and oppressor. This form of social justice has its roots in the Frankfort School, “the deconstructionism of Michael Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and the gender and queer theory of Judith Butler”.

This type of social justice seeks to dislodge the traditional family from importance. It wants to force nuns to have birth control and abortion as part of their health insurance plans. It can’t tolerate the moral standards of Christian universities. Anything connected to the power of the past must go, go, go.

No one is championing injustice. They champion their version of justice which means we have to ask what are the “issues behind the issues.” Different groups supply different answers to life’s big questions. One’s view of justice is a product of one’s worldview, what which we believe deep down and act on in daily life. Our differing worldviews crank out different political conclusions.

Williams brings up the question of Communism. Communism sought to pursue economic justice. Their starting point was flawed when it came to the question of humanity. They didn’t understand what makes people people. They denied the reality of sin, and blamed everything bad on evil systems. You need to examine the presuppositions of worldviews to see where they go awry, because eventually they will do much damage as a result. In Communism the evil was viewed as capitalism rather than greed. Greed continued as the Party lavished themselves in luxury at the expense of the people just as much as any rich, capitalist pig. But it got worse because they sent millions to gulags and re-education camps because they disagreed with the powers that now were resulting in millions of deaths in the name of Communism. Justice pursued for the wrong reasons, will be justice pursued in the wrong ways resulting in grave injustice.

The people who are hurt are image bearers in a Christian worldview. Williams will introduce 12 questions to help us discern what is and isn’t compatible with our worldview. He wants us to discern Social Justice A from Social Justice B that we may pursue the former and not the latter.

Each section of the book will address the “Newman Effect”. In 2018 Jordan Peterson was interviewed by Cathy Newman who consistently misrepresented his views with “So you’re saying …”. We all have the tendency to do this and disrupt the unity of the church.

“The result is rampant self-righteousness, a loss of humble self-criticism, widespread confirmation bias, a loss of real listening required to reach nuanced truths, and pervasive partisanship, a loss of real community that requires us to give charity and the benefit of the doubt to others.”

His goal is biblical justice, not the policies of any particular political party. Since one party waves the social justice banner more fervently, he admits the book will necessarily be more critical of that party but this shouldn’t be taken to mean full alignment with other party.

“Please don’t take anything said here as an attack on you as a person. Please don’t use anything said here to attack other people.”

A Matter of Worship

The introduction to part 1 begins with the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

One of his fundamental premises is that the root of all injustice is a problem with worship. “Theistic justice- bowing down to something that is worth bowing down to- is not a justice issue; it is the justice issue from which all other justice blooms.” Conversely, failure to worship the One worth worshiping blooms into numerous injustices.

He tells the story of when Cortes decimated the Aztecs. He describes the Aztecs’ inhuman worship resulting from worshiping created things. But Cortes also worshiped created things. The idolatry of the Aztecs led them into human, including child, sacrifice. The idolatry of the Spanish (wealth) led them to murder, rape and enslave Aztecs. Both committed injustices rooted in idolatry.

“In short, social injustice is first and foremost a matter of misplaced worship.”

If you don’t start with God, you don’t understand justice and will commit injustice.

The God Question: Does our vision of social justice take seriously the godhood of God?

For anyone familiar with the second half of Romans 1, the idolatry of the Aztecs should come as no surprise. It is a function of the human condition common to all people groups, genders and skin tones. Favoritism or prejudice, self-interest, hatred and murder are pretty much par for the course thanks to Adam’s sin. The 20th century reveals this clearly as we witnessed the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, gulags, Mao’s cultural revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide. Extermination camps covered the century.

To understand all this we must keep God in the picture. In all of these genocides rulers or governments made themselves to be gods and answerable to no one. They destroyed those they hated for racial or political reasons. When we don’t give God His due, we won’t give people made in His image their due either. We begin to treat God’s image alike garbage.

This evil begins in the human heart but is manifested in numerous utopias gone wrong. Utopian dreams usually seek to end one injustice and commit others in the process. Because it is a sin issue it won’t be removed by education, revolution, social engineering or elitist policy changes (as seen in any number of dystopian novels and movies). The envy, strife and deceit that produce such malicious behavior and policy remain intact.

“(White supremacy) makes race, not God, supreme. It worships and serves created things rather than the Creator. Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust, depriving other creatures what they are due; it is also vertically unjust, failing to give the Creator his due by making race an ultimate object of devotion. Why is racism so evil? If we leave God out of our answer to that question, we will fail to grasp the true diabolical depths of racism and find ourselves boxing ghosts of the real problem.”

He makes the very Martin Lutherish statement that “all injustice is a violation of the first commandment.” The injustice we commit is a window into what we really worship. The conquistadors were Roman Catholic and Hitler used Christianity and the statements of Luther as justification, but they didn’t worship the One, true God.

The Imago Question: Does our vision of social justice acknowledge the image of God in everyone, regardless of size, shade, sex or status?

Williams begins with Charles Taylor’s “immanent frame” meaning that we tend to live as if the universe is a closed box. We try to make sense of stuff in the box with other stuff in the box. Various thinkers have reduced life to biology, physics, psychology, economics, sex, technology, entertainment or any other aspect of creation. The problem is that nothing inside the box serves as sufficient grounds for dignity, equality and value. Those only have basis in the image of God unless as good existentialists we will to value. “I am therefore I matter. At least to me.”

When we remain in the box we don’t have the proper goals and means for justice. As Christians we must reject the immanent frame for the Creator’s world.

He brings us to Augustine who said “Love God and do what you will” since the love of God will shape our will. My wants will reflect my love for God. This means I will love my neighbor made in His image. This means I won’t exploit my neighbor for my own interests. Idolatry is mother of all injustice as a result.

Naturalism sees us as nothing more than our bodies. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Satre have supported this viewpoint. Charles Darwin saw no foundation for human equality, and his theory of evolution argues against it (you’ll find it in The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man). It serves as a good foundation for racism.

Origin of Species | work by Darwin | Britannica
“preservation of favored races”

Today there is a tendency, due to postmodernism’s rejection of individualism, to reduce people to their groups or ideologies. We fail to see image bearers, but Neo-Nazis and Social Justice Warriors. Perhaps we treat people based on their gender or skin color, if that is what matters most to you.

“As we seek a more just world, if we see those who disagree with us as Republicans or Democrats, progressives or conservatives, radical leftists or right-wing fundamentalists first and image-bearers second, or not at all, then we aren’t on the road to justice. We’re on history’s wide and bloody road to dehumanization.”

At the end of this chapter he includes Walt’s Story. He was a man engaged in groups exalting European man. He was in a racist hate group. He, and so many, reacted to the common negative attitude toward men and particularly men of European descent. He only escaped both lies by grace found in Jesus our Creator and Redeemer.

The Idolatry Question: Does our vision of social justice made a false god out of self, the state or social acceptance?

Williams begins with John Calvin’s famous statement that man is a factory of idols. We make all kinds of things into idols and these blur our vision. The Hindus boast of having more than 33 million deities. In the individualistic West there are probably as many gods as there are people. We go through a series to idols as we move through stages in life: acceptance, career, marriage, children, retirement and more. Idols often begin as good things but as ultimate things become destructive things.

Both political left and right have their idols. Social Justice B is on the political left therefore its idols will be addressed throughout the book, but the right’s idols include “stuff, solitude, sky, and the status quo.” When you add skin tone you get the alt-right.

“A super-spiritualized Christianity that has no implications for real pain in the here-and-now is hardly worthy of the word Christian.”

Social Justice B has abandoned traditional religions, thinking they are part of the problem. Williams quotes Camille Paglia that since were irresistibly religious they turn their causes into a form of religious fanaticism. Andrew Sullivan notes that CRT and gender theory have become “the orthodoxy of a new and mandatory religion.” This religion is just as fanatical in rooting out heresy as the Spanish Inquisition.

Intersectionality can be seen as a “quasi-religous gnostic movement”. It accounts for brokenness, has a saving story (but no Savior) and gives meaning to life.

So we see that the most pressing social issues are really worship issues. Williams brings us to Francis Schaeffer who warned that most Christians are wringing their hands over singular issues and failing to see they are but a symptom of a much bigger problem. And then Solzhenitsyn who pointed out the moral and spiritual root of our legal and political problems and issues. By this we make room for the triumph of evil. And then he brings us to Abraham Kuyper who saw the city of man struggling with the city of God in the midst of these smaller struggles (the Struggle in his day was that of Marxism).

Most Americans worship the self, among other idols. Self-actualization, self-determination, and more. This is the moral and spiritual root of the ever-expanding sexual revolution, rising divorce rate, increase in fatherlessness and so on. But from a biblical perspective we are “authored beings”. We don’t create meaning but have it bestowed upon us by the Creator. This is a God-sized task that we keep trying to rip from His hands.

In Social Justice B literature, God is absent and humans create the goals of the story. We make our identity rather than receive our identity in Christ.

“Herein lies one of the deepest problems with idolizing the self as sovereign. The omnipotence-demanding task of constructing an entire person’s nature is forced onto our all-too-shaky and finite shoulders.”

Williams notes that churches will begin to be trauma centers for those crushed by this demand for self-creation.

Many of those who feel the weight of autonomy refuse still to come to Jesus and seek refuge in others instead. They moved from the individualism of modernity to the collective of postmodernity. They seek the power of the government to protect their constructed identities. Williams quotes Chesterton here: “Once we abolish God, the government becomes God.”

People seek their justification not from Christ but others. Self-justification needs others to approve. And self-justification must eliminate those who seek justification in Christ. The guilt grows and the ones who inadvertently poke the wound must be eliminated. They must no longer bake their cakes, attend their schools with their own worldview, or sell their chicken sandwiches because they are evil for not celebrating what we celebrate.

Political power must be invoked if one is to accomplish their goal of truly canceling those who disagree with our self-justification project. This has been tried and found wanting, numerous times and with millions of casualties.

“Make no mistake: Social Justice B seeks a theocracy, a theocracy of creation worship that seeks to silence its heretics.”

He then moves to the idol of social acceptance. People want to be liked, even Christians. People want to “be on the right side of history” even if we can’t be on the right side when we reject God’s Word and wisdom. Our idols shape us, we become them as one Christian thinker put it. Our thinking about injustice never happens in a vacuum but is always influenced by our idols.

“We must decide in our hearts who we answer to- creatures or the Creator.”

At the end of this chapter he lets Becket Cook tell his story of moving from a self-created identity as homosexual to a God-given identity in Christ and the loss of social acceptance. Interestingly those who disagree with “Side B Christianity” hold up Becket as a model even though he’s living as a celibate, not married, man. Just an observation. He should be seen as a faithful Christ-follower who is taking up his cross and denying himself. It is just that some who find it acceptable for Becket seem to dismiss it in others. Oh, what crazy cats we are.

All the chapters in the book end with similar stories so we can see the truth fleshed out in a life. This is great. Each chapter also ends with questions for person or group study. They can be pointed.

Each part includes “So You’re Saying…” as well as a prayer. In “So You’re Saying…” he puts into words the expected mischaracterizations of what he has said, a device used by Paul in Romans and other letters. It may be helpful to remember these objections because you will likely hear them if you offer a critique of Social Justice B to others. So, I’ll positively paraphrase them, or answer them I guess.

The pursuit of social justice is not optional for Christians (but we must be wise about it).

People who reject the Scriptures can make some meaningful contributions, but also dangerous ones.

Christians should be known for the gospel and social justice, not social justice posing as the gospel.

Christians can agree with the political left about particular problems, but may often disagree about solutions.

Right-wing politics has its own set of problems too since they often don’t submit to Christ and the Scriptures either.

For many the Church does not seem to be a wonderful work of God. They see the obvious blemishes of the visible church: enculturation (not just an American thing), seeking power and prosperity, trying to maintain image. Over the centuries the visible church has been a political animal (many popes tried to rule over kings). There have been sex scandals galore (I brushed up on the Bakkers for a recent sermon). The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant groups have covered up child sexual abuse by clergy. I can understand why many would think it was not a wonderful work of God.

But they are only seeing part of the picture. Having finished with the doctrine of salvation proper, Herman Bavinck moves on to The Church of Christ in The Wonderful Works of God. It is a wonderful work of God when we see the whole picture which includes the invisible church, the church triumphant.

The Wonderful Works of God by Hermann Bavinck Cover Image. Westminster Seminary Press.

Holy Community

Salvation does not occur in a vacuum. God calls unbelievers to Christ through the Church and into the Church. We are sanctified in the context of the Church, nurtured by God there, sustained there and serving there. Just as there is no salvation outside of Christ, there is not salvation apart from the Church of Christ. His is the essential work for our salvation. He alone is the Savior. He also places us into the Church which is His Bride, His Body, His living temple and more.

“The believer, therefore, never stands apart by himself; he is never alone.”

This has led many a theologian to state that the Christian must have the Church as his mother. We are not made for “independence, isolation, and solitude.” We were made (creation) for community, and redeemed for the holy community. We need holy company to grow in holiness. We long for this by both creation and redemption. In most religions the “holy community” is formed along tribal or national lines. It cannot stand apart from these other ties to keep people together. The Church transcends tribal or national boundaries, as well as language and cultural barriers.

In the New Testament we see the words synagogue and ecclesia used for the church. In the Septuagint we see ecclesia used for the assembly of Israel. The early church continued to meet in the temple, and we see they were devoted to one another, the apostles’ teaching, prayer and the breaking of bread. These are the foundations for church life, and the church that neglects them is in trouble. Today this is called “ordinary means” ministry which de-emphasizes programs for Word and sacrament.

The Church Universal

The church was initially predominantly Jewish. Over time more Gentiles entered the church and it became predominantly Gentile. This began with Peter’s visit to Cornelius. This paved the way for Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. First the Jews, and then the Gentiles. These Gentiles are not second-class citizens but fully sons of the Promise (as he elaborates in Galatians). This was a large part of the mystery of the gospel. Many thought Messiah would subdue the nations as vassals, not full citizens and co-heirs.

The local church would generally meet in groups in homes. This was a matter of practicality at the time, not prescribed as some writers today seem to think.

The Apostles wrote to actual churches. These churches, like ours, were defective. Our salvation is in Christ, not our sanctification either personal or corporate. Due to justification and our union with Christ, we are seen as perfect. Just as our imperfections are pardoned in Christ, so are the Church’s. The Church is becoming holy as the Spirit works in it.

One of the ways the Spirit works in the church is through gifting individuals for ministry. We have different gifts to foster interdependence. Sin uses these differences, and cultural differences, to divide us through pride.

The Holy Church

We are separated from the world and united to Christ and His body in conversion, and baptism is the sign and seal of this. Bavinck spends some time talking about baptism in this context. As a baptized person we should a very different view of the world. Our old associations (for the convert) are broken, or at least re-valued, and new associations are spiritually profitable. We don’t withdraw completely from non-Christians. We do need to be wise lest bad character corrupt our good morals. A new convert may have to navigate marriage with an unbeliever, extended family that doesn’t believe, and work with unbelievers.

Bavinck briefly discusses church discipline as a means to maintain the holy character of the church. When we see the many scandals, financial and sexual, there is often a toleration of sin due to position that short-circuited God’s plan of church discipline. Many churches and parachurch ministries forget that some sins are also crimes and should not only be treated by the church but also the legal authorities. It is crazy to protect child molesters!

In discussing the catholicity of the church, Bavinck begins in the Garden. Gospel promises were given to the disobedient couple. The narrowing down was important for the coming of the Messiah, the Seed of the Woman and Abraham, but was always intended for people of all places and races. This leads into a discussion of the kingdom. Jesus spoke primarily of the kingdom and only occasionally of the church. This seems to be flipped by the Apostles. “His apostles have been called and qualified by Him to gather the church by means of the gospel of the kingdom.”

“The church is not bound to a land or a people, to a time or a place, to any given generation, to money and property; it is independent of all earthly distinctions and contrasts.”

He returns to the imperfection of the church as he discusses the ministry of the church. The church ministers to imperfect people to move them closer to the perfection of Christ. For instance:

“After all, the church, so long as it exists on earth, is still imperfect; each of its members and all of the members together must constantly be fighting against sin and following after holiness; at all times these people require instruction, guidance, direction, strengthening, comfort, admonishment, and chastisement. And not that only, but the church must also reproduce itself from generation to generation; it does not always have the same members, since it daily loses those who are transferred to the triumphant church, and is constantly augmented by new members who are nurtured in it, and who must be introduced into the life of the church.”

Here he necessarily shifts to the law given to develop our sense of sin. It revealed our need for repentance and forgiveness. It reveals a life pleasing to God; the life of love to God and neighbor. In this context there is a confusing statement he makes, one that sounds like neo-nomianism but he earlier rejected that, so call me Vinnie Barbarino.

“Nevertheless He came in order that by thus keeping the law He might fulfill it and so place a different burden on the shoulders of His disciples from that of the hard yoke of the law.”

I’m not sure Jesus is referring to the law alone but the law and the tradition of the elders whom Jesus condemned for playing heavy burdens on people. We are released from the condemning power of the law. We are not justified by keeping the law, but Jesus’ law keeping for us.

Church Government

Bavinck also interacts briefly with the Roman position that Peter was the greatest of the Apostles as the foundation for the office of the pope. Odd, then, that he would essentially disappear in the latter portions of Acts, and even in Acts 15 plays a role subordinate to James.

Each congregation has elders to rule it. There was interaction between the churches on matters of common importance, as in whether or not Gentiles should be circumcised. The apostles functioned, according to Bavinck, as the consistory or session of the Church.

In the early church there were also the “extraordinary offices of apostle, evangelist, and prophet.” They received these offices for the founding of the church. After the founding, elders and deacons governed the church. He seems to neglect the on-going work of establishing the church in new places by evangelists/apostles (lower case, no new revelation just fulfilling the role of bringing the gospel to a new people group or place). He notes that in the second century the overseer or bishop arose as a separate office from elder. They were higher in rank than elders and deacons. This was not simply a Roman thing but we see it in Eastern Orthodoxy as well. But he presses on to the office of pope in Catholicism.

Bavinck alludes to the two kingdoms in some of the differences between the Lutheran and the Reformed. While the Lutherans “restored the office of preaching” they did not restore the rule of the church and care of the poor to the church but kept it in the hands of the civil magistrate. The Reformed resumed rule of the church with the session and care of the poor with the deacons.

“Of all forms of church order, the presbyterian system as it was restored by Calvin, corresponds best to that of the apostolic time.”

Spiritual Power

The power of the church is limited. We have no worldly power, though we are often tempted to pursue it. The weapons of our warfare are not guns and bombs but spiritual in character. There is a very brief discussion of the armor of God. Our primary weapon is the Word of God, a double-edged sword. He notes Calvin that the Word is the soul of the church. The Reformation restored the Word to its primary place. The sacraments confirm the Word and therefore strengthen our faith. Sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant of grace. They don’t have the power to grant grace not given by the Word nor accepted by faith.

“Although baptism and the holy supper have the same covenant of grace as their content, and although both give assurance of the benefit of the forgiveness of sins, the holy supper differs from baptism in this regard that it is a sign and a seal, not of incorporation into but of the maturation and strengthening in the fellowship of Christ and all His members.”

To the Word and sacrament he adds the exercise of discipline AND the service of mercy. The church has the power of the keys and the responsibility to care for its vulnerable members. The church is where the strong (in one way) minister to the weak (in that way). Faith expressing itself in love reveal professing Christians to be true Christians and churches to be true churches.

This seemed to be a bit meandering. Bavinck tends to double back. Not circle back since that apparently means not addressing the subject. He doubles back to look at things from different angles and connections. As one more familiar with the British expression of Reformed theology, it is refreshing (generally) to hear his different formulations.

There is one more chapter which I hope to blog on soon to wrap up this series.

We live in a time of great social consciousness and social unrest. There are many viewpoints on how to address the various injustices that have been identified. This discussion has created a great degree of conflict in many churches.

I began to read Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice by Thaddeus J. Williams. The book has a preface by John M. Perkins. This was a selling point for me since I didn’t know who Thaddeus Williams is. I was looking for a balanced book, not one that was critical of social justice itself. I was looking for one that had a biblical perspective on justice (which is social), but also examined the ideas behind or underneath descriptions and prescriptions. John Perkins is a civil rights leader and a committed Christian.

Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice - Williams, Thaddeus J - 9780310119487

Perkins’ forward begins with his credentials: born on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1930. His mother died of malnutricion just 7 months after he was born. His older brother was murdered by a town marshal when John was 17. As an activist, he was nearly beaten to death and tortured.

God changed his heart. Jesus saved him from hate, and other sins. “He saved me from what could have easily become a life of hatred and resentment.” It is from this place that he offers four admonishments to the next generation of those who pursue justice. He offers this to the current generation that is seeking justice.

Dr. John Perkins – Embrace Multiethnic Church Conference
John Perkins

First, start with God!” God is just, and calls us to “act justly”. As just, He defines justice and the means to pursue justice. He does want justice to roll down. As we look out at this world and see the enormity of injustices we should see that it is far beyond us. “The problem of injustice is a God-sized problem. If we don’t start with him first, whatever we’re seeking, it ain’t justice.”

Sadly, many social justice warriors don’t even have God on their radar. If they do, they think He’s part of the problem. Many Christians who are concerned about social justice are being influenced by those who don’t share our worldview. They misdiagnose the problem, and resort to sub-biblical means and goals.

Williams illustrates this in the first chapter of his book. For instance:

“(White supremacy) makes race, not God, supreme. It worships and serves created things rather than the Creator. Racism, therefore, is not merely horizontally unjust, depriving other creatures what they are due; it is also vertically unjust, failing to give the Creator his due by making race an ultimate object of devotion. Why is racism so evil? If we leave God out of our answer to that question, we will fail to grasp the true diabolical depths of racism and find ourselves boxing ghosts of the real problem.Thaddeus Williams

Second, be one in Christ!” He has a great burden for the unity of the Church. We are united in Christ regardless of our race, economic class and other things that tend to divide people. There is one Lord, one God and Father of us all, one Spirit and one baptism. “That oneness is how the world will know who Jesus is. If we give a foothold to any kind of tribalism that could tear down that unity, then we aren’t bringing God’s justice.”

Many in the church are currently letting tribalism rip us apart. We seemed more concerned about support of groups not the Church nor groups connected to it. Some are disconnecting their quest for justice from their faith. They are pursuing justice by the flesh, not the Spirit. The problem isn’t simply a disconnect from faith, but also, in some cases, love. Yelling at people is not “speaking the truth in love” which is our calling, even in the face of injustice (see Romans 12).

Third, preach the gospel!” Social justice isn’t the gospel. The pursuit of justice is a fruit of the gospel. Redeemed by Christ we walk in the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10ff). We can’t leave the gospel behind because we are seeking to change hearts not just actions, and only the gospel changes hearts. The good news is that Christ has redeemed people from every tribe, nation, tongue and language.

We have to approach the pursuit of justice like the gospel is true. As a result, “(w)e’ve got to stop playing the race game. Christ alone can break down barriers of prejudice and hate we all struggle with.” The gospel enables reconciliation through repentance, not blaming and accusing. We need to stop picking at wounds and get busy repenting and forgiving.

“If we replace the gospel with this or that man-made political agenda, then we ain’t doing biblical justice.”

Fourth and finally, teach truth!” Truth is a necessary requirement for justice. You can’t build justice on lies, half-truths and fables. We can’t assume that media narratives are true. Too often they have been discovered to be myopic. Our feelings are not the arbiter of truth. Polls aren’t either. “God’s Word is the standard of truth.” We need to examine truth claims by Scripture.

“If we’re trying harder to align with the rising opinions of our day than with the Bible, then we ain’t doing real justice.”

These are important things for us to consider as we think about pursuing justice in our world. These admonitions are reflected in Williams’ book (so far anyway). Even if you don’t read this book, these are some good words to keep in mind to provide a motive for justice, and evaluating means of justice.

I have a confession to make. I am one of the increasing number of people who struggles with perfectionism. It isn’t new to me, but studies indicate that the percentage of people who are perfectionists is increasing. This and more is found in The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism isn’t simply trying to do your best. Perfectionism isn’t simply having high standards. Perfectionists often are hard workers, diligent and exhibit desirable attributes. Perfectionism is tied to the voice you hear in your head when you fail, or don’t meant your expectations for yourself.

“Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on – these are all desirable features. But for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is. Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards. …Perfectionism isn’t a behavior. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.” Andrew Hill

Perfectionists are not understanding with themselves (and sometimes others as well). The internal dialogue with one’s self can be brutal in the face of unmet demands: “Idiot!” The unseen tongue lashes out with a brutal verbal assault.

When I was in Cub Scouts I signed a project (macaroni art) “To mom from your dumb son.” Something must have happened at school which I’ve forgotten. It wasn’t about the quality of my macaroni masterpiece. I felt dumb. Not that I did or said something dumb, but was dumb. I don’t think anyone else has ever called me that. The voice doesn’t match reality, but it shapes your perception of reality. That voice bounces around for days sometimes.

The Toll of Perfectionism

In the article they address the toll that perfectionism takes on a person.

“Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making, and admitting, mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human. It also makes you better at your career and relationships and life in general. By avoiding mistakes at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.

“But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.”

It seriously affects one’s mental health which often affects one’s performance which begins as downward spiral. Since no one is an island, there is a ripple effect which damages relationships (especially if you hold others to similar exacting standards).

“Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame,” says Hill. They also experience more anger. … They give up more easily. They have quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can’t be perfect.”

Too often the symptoms are treated rather than the real problem: the warped sense and expectations of self, and sometimes others. This means the person remains in their perfectionism which may manifest itself in other ways.

Being the parent of another perfectionist is tough. I see my child exhibiting some similar patterns. The voice in their head is similar to the one in mine. I don’t recall procrastinating as much with regard to homework, but maybe my perspective is wrong.

My issue isn’t avoiding mistakes so much as a tendency to have trouble moving forward when I fail. It isn’t just sermons that aren’t as awesome as they could have been. It’s the social faux paux that I can’t let go. It’s the personal conflict that eats me up. It’s the wondering when someone will discover I’m so seriously flawed.

Before seminary I enjoyed playing guitar with a group of musicians in a fellowship. I was still learning and my mistakes didn’t stand out at all. When I went to seminary I was asked to play guitar for a retreat. I’m still not sure how this happened since I’d never led singing and I’m a horrible singer. It went horribly, at least from my perspective. It was nearly a decade until I played in a group again. I never mentioned that I played to the church planter I interned under. When I was a solo pastor I started to play because I knew the piano would cover my mistakes.

When I struggle with insomnia, it is often the internal dialogue running rampant. I’ll turn the situation over in my mind a million different ways. I’ll try to figure out what went wrong. Or I’ll be trying to figure out what could go wrong so it doesn’t.

I am usually my own worst critic. One of my counseling professors once told me “Be kind to yourself.” Apparently even though he was an adjunct professor flying in for class he saw this in me. The counselor I’ve been seeing asked at our last session, “Are you hard on yourself?” I should have laughed. I think I am getting better because I’m aware of the situation but it is such a part of me that change seems so hard.

Oh, I have my blind spots like everyone else. Some criticism will take me by surprise. It is what follows that is revealing. I can spend days mulling it over, listening to that condemning voice in my head. My wrath is generally worse than theirs.

So much about church growth is outside of the pastor’s control. Yet, it gets personalized. I have failed, and this opens me up to depression, shame and anger.

If the only one calling you an idiot is you, you’re a perfectionist.

Perfectionism in the Pastorate

As the rates in the general population grow, so will the rates of perfectionists among pastors. The pastorate can be a hard place to be a perfectionist. We prepare all week to fulfill an upfront role which many feel can make or break a congregation. Corporate worship is the center of congregational life and all eyes are on you. There are visitors present and they may only give you one shot.

You can easily feel like you are swimming with the sharks, or the gators. How is that to feed anxiety, depression and shame? Every word can be subject to re-examination afterward. Yes, it is helpful to see where things have gone wrong in a service, and make changes to reduce problems. But this is not a team of people sitting around a table having a conversation. This is the inner law firm prosecuting its case against you.

Live and Let Die (1973)
Live and Let Die

It is hard not to think that all mistakes will be laid at your feet. You are the person up there, and responsible. You are the one who manages the people who do everything else, or at least the people who manage the people. You can quickly begin to think that it all reflects on you and every mistake becomes an indictment of you. You’re in even more trouble if there are a few people who share that sentiment.

Our personal interactions are also a mine field, if we let them be. When someone leaves the church we often wonder if it was something we said or how we said it. This is amplified by the fact that most people either don’t really know why they are leaving or aren’t fully honest. These are seeds of self-recrimination that can grow.

Years ago there was a family in which mother and daughter played piano, but not at church. Both played very well. But not at church. I was told the daughter didn’t want to play due to anxiety. My off-hand comment was “like her mother?”. True it was. Wise and thoughtful? No. Was that part of the reason they, who had so warmly welcomed me when I got there, left shortly thereafter? I don’t know. But that will result in some sleepless nights. That will result in lots of self-recrimination that no one sees.

In this sense it is like domestic abuse. Often no one sees or knows. This is a problem that remains largely hidden because it is in your head.

The Path of Repentance

We are to make no provision for the flesh because we’ve put on Christ (Rom. 13:14). There are things we can do that reduce opportunities to fall into the pit of perfectionism. Refusing to do your job isn’t the answer, obviously.

Constructing the Life-Sucking Machine in The Princess Bride | The Current |  The Criterion Collection
The Princess Bride

One way is how you structure time. Many pastors take Mondays off. I take Fridays off. The reason is that I couldn’t think of a worse way to spend my day off than to ruminate over my sermon. On Fridays I can think about ways to improve it, but Monday would simply be self-criticism, thinking about what I should have done and said. It is bad enough that I spend part of Sunday night criticizing my sermon.

That’s what happens. In seminary we had to watch ourselves on video. I hated it. I still don’t want to listen to my sermons. I have; very rarely. Every mistake is a big deal to me. I don’t need the additional discouragement of an internal pig pile.

The doctrine of justification is important in trying to unravel perfectionism. There was a Perfect One whose perfect obedience is substituted for my failures and mistakes. Our experience of it isn’t always rational. The perfectionist, pastor or not, needs to preach the gospel to themselves regularly. Our acceptance before God is founded on Christ’s performance, not our own. Since it is God who justifies us, none can condemn us. Even ourselves.

“Yes, but my heart condemns me still.” The Apostle John understood this reality in our lives.

20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 1 John 3

The inner man may condemn but we have to remind ourselves that it is ultimately God’s verdict, not our own, that matters. He does know of every little failure and yet chooses to see us as perfect in Christ. As our sense identity increasingly conforms to the theological reality of our identity in Christ (sanctification of the mind) we are able to relax because our identity isn’t on the line every moment. We progressively think more in line with the realities of justification.

Mistakes are made in worship services. Words are misspelled, misspoke and forgotten. Technology fails. You can just plain have a no-good, terrible, horrible day. Remembering that your anger won’t accomplish the righteousness of God helps. Lashing out or blaming others won’t help. And those visitors really won’t come back. You need to learn to laugh at yourself and the imperfections of the worship service. If the church really is family, we don’t have to be “on”. We can lighten up.

Recently there was a difference between my copy of the Order of Worship and what was put up on the screen. There was an obvious problem. How to handle that? You look like an idiot. But it isn’t like I made stuff up on the fly. I did joke about it. There was no seething because someone made me look stupid in front of these people. No banishment to the gulog.

This should be seen as progress. But there is still progress to be made.

Here I am, looking for the perfect ending to this blog post. This is the second version of this post. The first was horrible. It was a complete mess. I’m tempted to tinker, obsess to find just the right ending that wraps all this up. But like life, I will leave this with tension, uncertainty. The end is yet to be seen for it lies years down the road.

If you ask any pastor about the biggest problems they face, they will likely talk about church membership. Individualism and consumerism have eroded a high view church membership. People take vows, but many seem to not take those vows seriously- or at least act like they do. Pastors have heard some very strange reasons for changing churches.

Just as there are legitimate reasons to get divorced, there are legitimate reasons to change churches. Usually they are connected to the church breaking its promises to you. People seem to change membership far too frequently which means they aren’t taking membership seriously.

Some churches don’t take membership seriously either. They have no process or status of membership. No vows. This means, in my mind, there is not ability to exercise church discipline beyond rebuke.

This is what makes Devoted to God’s Church by Sinclair Ferguson such an important book. This is a companion book to his earlier release Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. Devotion to God should include devotion to God’s people gathered into the Church. The subtitle for this book is Core Values for Christian Fellowship. These are the values that shape a community and hold it together. There are hallmarks that Ferguson will identify that “should be stamped on all of our churches” regardless of time and place. He seeks to move beyond cultural expressions to biblical norms.

Devoted to God's Church: Core Values for Christian Fellowship - Ferguson, Sinclair B - 9781848719767

Family Life or What Is a Church?

This is the appropriate starting place. We need to know what a church really is so we can discard the fakes and choose the real deal. You can’t belong to Christ without belonging to a church (at least not for long). I say this as a man who left a great church to attend seminary and floundered for years trying to find another great church. Part of my struggle was cultural, and some was theological. I struggled more than I should have during seminary because I was not part of a church family. It is not simply an organization, but a family.

Families are organized, but families aren’t just about “doing your job”. While there is a division of labor in a family, what binds a family together is love, not the achievement of some goal. Yes, this family is on a mission (the Great Commission)but one in keeping with any family: growing in number and maturity as people are nourished.

If Christ is the center of our life then the church should be the center of our Christian life. Too often it is treated as an add-on, rather than one of the hubs around which our corporate lives revolve.

“Our life in the church lends its atmosphere to our social life; it energizes us in our vocational life to be salt and light in the world; and it is the basic dimension of, not merely an optional add-on to, our family life.”

For people who are single, like I was in seminary, the church IS family or should be. As a single adult who was the only Christian in my family, I benefited greatly from time with families in the church. The Church will be our forever family. The earthly family is temporary (though quite important). The earthly or nuclear family needs the church family for its own growth and health. You and your spouse were never meant to raise your kids alone. You need help, and the church promises to help during the baptism ceremony for a child (or dedication for my baptistic friends).

Ferguson pushes us to ask “How do we fold our lives into the life of the church?” instead of the question we usually ask, “How is church life to be fitted into my plans?”. When we love our families we wouldn’t think of missing family dinner except for something important, but some people miss family time aka church services on Sunday for all kinds of reasons. They don’t shape their week around Sunday but fit Sunday into their plans, maybe.

Blue Bloods' Star Bridget Moynahan on the Reagan Family Dinner Scene
In Blue Bloods Sunday dinner binds the 3 generations of family together thru thick and thin.

“Family is what the church is.”

Different parts of the extended family of the church will have different traits. They will have different ways of singing, praying and preaching. How they go about ministry and priorities will be a little different. Just as how my family does things isn’t the way yours does, my congregation won’t do things exactly the same way yours does.

Because Ferguson has such a high view of the church he sets the bar high: “in our local church we need to feel that there is no other church family to which we would rather belong- even if our congregation is far from perfect.” That’s why I struggled to find a church home in Orlando, I’d left such a good, though imperfect, one but couldn’t find a similar congregation that “felt like home”. In my Christian infancy God granted me a sense of being home the first Sunday I’d attended that church in NH.

What Is Your Story? or Are You a Christian?

Ferguson begins this chapter with some allegorical couples being interviewed for church membership by the elders. People may want to join a church for a variety of reasons, but membership is for Christians (believers and their children). Each of us should have a story that communicates the Story. Ours may be boring but faith in Christ is its center.

Ferguson focuses on Saul whom we more commonly call Paul. His was a dramatic story of how Jesus stopped him in his tracks on the way to persecute His followers. We see the story told by Luke in Acts, and we get Paul’s perspective in some of his letters. The accounts all focus on moving from unbelief to belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior.

His story helps us to understand and communicate our story. In Philippians 3 Paul describes himself by nature or who he was by birth and experience, outside of Christ. Paul then discovers the truth about himself, the fact that his righteousness was full of holes. Here Ferguson tells of how he heard the story of a businessman who discovered that the best worker in the typing pool (a thing of the past) was a Christian. That businessman was struck by this and that led to him becoming a Christian, and his story helped Ferguson become a Christian. I thank God for that woman!

Paul then shares what he discovered by grace. He discovered who Jesus was. He discovered the benefits of the gospel. He discovered there was life in the Son and only in the Son.

You have a story. Does your story find its resolution in Christ? If so church membership is for you.

Follow My Leader or Being a Disciple

Christians are disciples or apprentices of Christ. We submit our minds to Him, and walk in His footsteps. Jesus is to be imitated. It is not all our work, for God conforms us to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:28).

Church membership is a declaration that we are disciples of Christ. Discipleship is not just for the elite members. Unlike Costco there are no levels of membership in a church. All are baptized and taught to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Mt. 28).

The pattern of life together may differ, but the goal should be the same: following Jesus. The church is a cross-bearing community. It is a group of consecrated (devoted) people with settle priorities formed by Jesus’ teaching. This is rooted in the reality that Jesus bore our sins upon the cross because He loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20). He died for us that we should no longer live for ourselves but for Him who loved us and died for us (2 Cor. 5). The church life, and membership, must reflect these realities.

Many churches have closed because they didn’t reflect these realities. They became no more than social clubs and people seek the clubs with the best amenities.

“We have domesticated the whole thing into a religion, a series of personal accomplishments or disciplines, an insipid moral code- something far removed from the sense the Creed conveys of the greatness of God and his mighty in-breaking into history and then into our individual lives.”

A Glorious Addiction or What Is a Member?

Ferguson brings us to Acts 2:42-47 to see the devotion of the early Christians. Their life was centered on the church as they met every day in the temple. They devoted themselves to 1. the apostles’ teaching, 2. fellowship with one another, 3. the breaking of bread, and 4. prayer. They joined together and grew together by commitment to teaching, fellowship and prayer. These are to be the fundamental commitments. People seem to focus on other things in picking a church (music, programs, buildings, etc.). Ferguson notes that little kids can often be more enamored by the gift wrap (or the box!) than the gift.

They saw church life as central to their life. It was not some spectacular program but “ordinary” means of grace. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds, by being loved and loving, and by prayer. If you want to see your life changed, these are the things to be committed to.

We tend to neglect fellowship and prayer. Many come in as late as they can and leave as soon as they can. Devotion to fellowship frees us from our self-centeredness. As we meet the needs of others we are freed of our greed. Ferguson references a study that indicated that “most American Christians are remarkably ungenerous.” They claim that 20% of professing Christians do not give to their church. This is evidence of a consumer mentality and not being devoted to the fellowship. We are addicted to self and money.

Have You Ever Arrived at Church? or Worship

He asks the odd question if you’ve arrived at church. The focus on this chapter is a commitment to worship rather than seeking the external quality of music and liturgy. Ferguson wants us to focus on God and his presence rather than the style, volume and rhythm of the songs. This is not intended to be a denial of the Regulative Principle but recognizing not all who read this book will agree with it, or even know what it is. His goal is not simply to teach a pattern of worship.

He brings us to Isaiah 6 where Isaiah’s life was transformed by encountering God. He knew about God’s glory, sovereignty, holiness and mercy from Torah. But then he experienced them first hand as God brought him into the heavenly temple.

True worship isn’t about warm fuzzies but can feel like you are about to come undone. You realize you are not in control of your life and that you are completely at the mercy of God.

“Sin’s most sinister work is in the way it weaves itself so insidiously into our strengths and abilities.”

Isaiah is deconstructed (woe is me, I am undone) and reconstructed (the angel touches his filthy lips with the coal) in that worship. We are intended to be dealt with similarly in worship. God transforms us as we gaze upon His beauty, mercy, love and grace. We respond with a desire to serve out of grateful love.

“What is more, the whole Christian life involves an ever repeated cycle of discovering fresh layers of sin to be dealt with and fresh supplies of forgiveness and cleansing.”

This means that the confession of sin (and words of absolution), and gospel-centered preaching are vital elements of worship that transforms sinners the way God intended. Worship is not a concert and a pep talk. It is gathering as God’s family to meet with the heavenly Father and experiencing His life-changing grace through faith and repentance.

Are You Hearing Me? or The Bible

The church lives under the authority of God as expressed in the Scriptures. Pulpit ministry can make or break a church. The Word of God, living and active, penetrates people, exposing their hearts and redirecting their hopes.

The Scriptures speak to us about salvation through God’s great promises and the sacrifices. Here Ferguson makes a minor faux paux: “The promises and the sacrifices were parallel lines of revelation that would eventually meet in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.” I know and agree with what he’s getting at, but any geometry student will tell you parallel lines don’t meet. They both terminate or find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.

He brings Timothy and his conversion before us. Timothy learned the Scriptures from his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois. He learned of the promises and sacrifices. Then he met Paul who led him to see Jesus fulfilled them both. And so salvation came to Timothy.

Scripture has this authority and power because it is breathed out by God. It is God speaking to us- telling us a great Story about creation, fall, redemption and consummation through a number of smaller connected stories. Made in His image we are able to understand the words He speaks, regenerated by the Spirit we are able to believe those words which the Spirit also illuminates.

He remains in 2 Timothy 3 to communicate the usefulness of this Word spoken by God to us. It is useful to teach us, admonish us, correct us and train us to be fruitful. Devoted to Christ and His people includes being committed to His Word to His people.

“The word deconstructs us. It does so, not to destroy us, but to clear the ground to deal with everything that distorts our lives and draws them away from the Lord and his blessing.”

“Correction” is a word used for setting broken bones. The loudest cry I’ve heard is when I worked in an ER and they reset a compound fracture. Being set right is often painful, and we need one another as this painful process works for our good.

As we compare the preaching we hear to 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we may find that the sermons (or SS & Bible studies) are failing to fulfill the purpose of Scripture. There may be no balance or elements may be completely absent. For example, some churches only come under withering rebuke while others never hear admonishment.

Much of this material is expanded in Ferguson’s book From the Mouth of God.

From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible Ferguson, Sinclair B. cover image
The subtitle says it all.

Does It Help to Know Some Latin? or Christian Baptism

Ferguson shares as story he’s told in other contexts that culminates in the words Baptizatus sum. This mean “I am a baptized man.” Luther would say this to himself when experiencing affliction and temptation. He reminded himself that he belonged to Jesus. The significance of baptism doesn’t end with the rite but marks us for life.

“The question is: Whatever view of baptism I hold- what impact has it had and what difference has it made in my daily life? … We may make too much of the ‘moment’ of baptism and too little of its long-term significance for the rest of our lives.”

He also notes that we can “make too little of its importance and too much of disagreements about it.” The debate should not matter as much as the fact that you have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ to newness of life. Instead we can focus on who should be baptized (not an unimportant question), how much water is needed and how many times it must be applied. In his letters Paul focused on the theological significance of this sign and seal of the covenant.

Church members are baptized people. The name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit has been placed on them. This is a call to live as disciples, meaning our whole life is related to God and His grace given to us.

Baptized people are also cleansed people. We are regenerated and united to Christ. Baptism doesn’t accomplish this but is the sign and seal of God’s promise to do this. It is accomplished by the Spirit like circumcision of the heart.

In this context Ferguson summarizes his argument in another book for infant baptism from Colossians 2 (though here he doesn’t press that issue). The circumcision that “mattered” for Jesus, or that Paul is focused on, is not the one he received in his flesh on the 8th day. It is when Jesus was cut off on the cross. This is the same as his real baptism or trial by ordeal.

“Thus, the meaning of circumcision, the circumcision of every male seed of Abraham- and especially Jesus’ own circumcision- and the meaning of every baptism- and especially of Jesus’ own baptism- point in the same direction and to the same event: the death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection for our justification and new life. Circumcision pointed forwards while baptism points backwards to Jesus Christ.”

Ferguson does press the issue that baptism isn’t about my faith but rather the good news to which Abraham’s faith responded (see Romans 4). Baptism isn’t pointing to me but to Jesus and all he’s done to rescue sinners. It is a sermon calling for faith and repentance.

He has an appendix on “improving our baptism” which is a phrase from the Westminster Larger Catechism #167.

The Christians Native Air or Prayer

This is a return to something Ferguson began to address in explaining Acts 2. Church members should be devoted to prayer. He begins this discussion of prayer with Psalm 109:4b. “… but I give myself to prayer.” This is in response to accusations of others. Churches and Christians should give themselves to prayer as well. Prayer expresses our inmost thoughts and feelings. Prayer expresses our dependence on God.

Perhaps that is why we avoid prayer; we hate admitting we aren’t self-sufficient. Only those brought to the end of their rope pray. They are the people who see how great, powerful and loving God really is.

In this chapter there is a sentence that doesn’t make sense to me. I think there is an editorial error, perhaps after a sentence was re-worked. Or maybe I’ve been hit on the head and I can’t put this together correctly.

“Our wise forefathers in the faith used to say that our greatest need is not to feel we have any need, and not realizing that Jesus’ words are true that ‘apart from we you can do nothing’ (John 15:5)- not even pray.”

Perhaps that is our greatest problem. Or our greatest need is to feel we have any …. oh, well, you get it.

Ferguson writes of prayer as a way of life and draws upon Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. This will cause some (not me) to look at him sideways. He admits the book has flaws but that the premise gripped him. Lawrence prayed as he worked. Too often we think we need to get away into some private, quiet space. But if God is with us all the time we can pray to Him all the time. It is much like Gaston’s never-ending conversation with God in Ladyhawke. Someone in my household prays while washing the floors though they might not have read Lawrence. It is redeeming the time.

To pray is also work and requires discipline (another reason so many of us struggle with prayer). He tells the story of one man who prayed incessantly for the children he taught in Sunday School, long after they were in his class. Due to a wellness check the police found him on his knees. He had died while praying for others.

From there Ferguson spends some time interacting with the Lord’s Prayer as a good place to start. I thought he’d cover the need to pray for the church and pastor more thoroughly. He does affirm that corporate prayer is important to the life of the church, not just the prayer of individuals. We help one another to prayer as we gather together. Sadly, it is often hard to get Christians to gather just for prayer. I’ve seen prayer meetings that were really Bible studies. I’ve tried so many ways to foster corporate prayer and they all sputter out.

“We have not yet come to an end of ourselves to see or feel the deep-seated need we have of God, and to see that prayer expresses our weakness not our strength. It is hardly surprising then that we do not gather together as a church to cry to God for his help.

The View from the Foot or Christian Service

Church membership includes service to one another, not simply being served by others. We often see the need but expect someone else to meet it. He expresses this by a story of a wedding in which a friend reminds him that he could help rather than wait for someone else. The “someone” is often us.

He then brings us to Jesus washing the feet of His disciples after no one else took initiative to meet that need. This was in preparation for the greater service He would perform of giving His life as a ransom for many. He puts this in parallel with Philippians 2. Jesus served out of a clear sense of His true identity, not because He didn’t know who He was. Jesus had no sense of entitlement. We are to have the same mind set that He did.

In a family, everyone serves unless prohibited by age or infirmity. It is about love for the people you serve, and the God in whose name you serve. Our faith is expressed by love manifested in self-denial.

“If you are not planning to serve in the life of a congregation, you should not be planning to join it!”

There are plenty of places to serve in a church. People who “can’t find” a place to serve are generally not asking. There are people who’d love to get a few things off their plate. Often people are looking for recognition and status, and therefore a visible place of service. They aren’t willing to do what needs to be done, but focused on what they want to do. Often this is teaching. When gifts are not combined with humility, the person often becomes destructive to the community.

Is There Anything Special for Supper? or Communion

Communion is an important part of church life. Members have access to the Table. The church, and its members, should be devoted to the Table.

To discuss communion, Ferguson brings us to 1 Corinthians 10-11. Jesus comes to commune, have fellowship with His people in communion. Though we eat bread and drink wine, these signs point to our participation in the body and blood of Christ. He shows us the height and depth, length and width of His love for us.

Communion points to our reconciliation with God through Christ. It also calls for our reconciliation with one another through Christ. One of the ways we can eat and drink in an unworthy manner is refusing to reconcile with someone.

Communion proclaims the death of Christ until He returns. It is an enacted sermon. Jesus drank the cup of wrath so we can drink the cup of blessing. We receive a benediction as a result of His experience of malediction.

Communion also consecrates us. In the early church there was often intense pressure to compromise. Guilds and other groups would pressure people to participate in their “toasts” to gods of the guilds. One cannot drink to the gods and the cup of Christ as well. Christ calls us to flee the gods of the nations.

This was an additional way people could drink in an unworthy manner. But we also see the serious moral issues in Corinth. To treat the table as just a symbol, and deny the presence of Christ is to make a big mistake. To not repent is another big mistake, and some of them “fell asleep” as a result.

Our fellowship with Christ and one another is strengthened as we gather for the family meal.

Home and Away or Christian Witness and World Missions

One of the purposes of the Church is to bear witness to Christ, including to send out believers to other locations to bear witness where there is little to no witness. We are all witnesses, but we have in mind here the corporate witness to Christ undertaken by the church in which all members share in a variety of ways.

In the gospels and Acts we see Jesus on trial by the world. Those who believe bear witness to His true identity and His work for our salvation. It was true then and is true now.

Ferguson offers some critique to many modern manuals for evangelism which, in our individualistic society, focus on personal evangelism. They offer tips on beginning gospel conversations. This runs contrary to what we find in Peter’s letters, particularly the first. His letter sees people as asking us for the hope we have based on the very counter-culturally manner of life found in us as people, families and especially the church. It is the onlooker who begins the gospel conversation.

Let me say that I know people who have a gift for evangelism. They can start gospel conversations with anyone, anywhere. They are evangelists, missionaries wherever they find themselves. This is not to undermine what Ferguson says but to recognize that he is speaking to congregations filled with ordinary people who sometimes feel an undo pressure to initiate such conversations.

For most of us, we should be trained to share our faith to respond to questions in response to how we live. This assumes, of course, that we are being salt and light. We bear witness, in 1 Peter 1, by how we suffer. We bear witness, in 1 Peter 3, by the character of our lives including believing wives to unbelieving husbands.

“Our friendships and marriages, our homes and families are something of a puzzle to them. … The hidden agenda that shapes our lives as Christians is loving, honoring, enjoying, and serving Jesus Christ. But the non-Christian knows nothing of that.”

We see in 1 Peter 2 that our lives perplex people. We live as sojourners and exiles according to Peter. The motive of our lives, the character of our lives are different because we are citizens of heaven. When we live according to the priorities of the kingdom bear witness to Christ and His kingdom.

We provide answers to their questions in our words. We explain our hope in a broken and hopeless world. We provide answers in our lives, our actions. We treat people differently.

“This cannot be emphasized too strongly. How much damage has been done by people whose lives contradicted their Christian profession; how much blessing has been brought by Christians whose lives have shone with gospel beauty!”

The gospel imperatives are given to us in the second person plural. It is a community activity supported by each person according to their gifts: hospitality, service, mercy and more. He provides an example of this in Christianity Explored. This subject of witness in a post-Christian world is more thoroughly explored through 1 Peter by Elliott Clark in Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in our Own Land cover image

The local congregation is also committed to world evangelism. This began in the Garden with the creation mandate. It continues today in the Great Commission. Through the children of Abraham, the families of the world will be blessed. Jesus is with the Church as they engage in this commission locally and everywhere else. Being devoted to Christ’s church means being devoted to the growth of the church through missions and evangelism.

Concluding Thoughts

As we think about the church we must keep in mind that:

We are not a social club but rather a family devoted to enjoying deep fellowship with one another.

We are not a service club like Rotary but rather a family that is devoted to helping others in need.

We are not a self-sufficient family but one that is devoted to calling upon the Father in prayer.

We are not a voluntary organization but devoted to one another because Christ has joined us together.

We are not a philosophical club but devoted to the teaching of the apostles about Christ.

We are not a political action corporation but devoted to bearing witness to Christ as the Savior of the world.

Ferguson’s book is not exhaustive. There are topics that have been overlooked. For instance, he doesn’t discuss the important role of church discipline. You cannot say everything or the book may be too big and intimidating. Tough choices are made.

But what he does cover he does well. This is a book deeply rooted in Scripture. He provides many good illustrations to help us understand his points. As usual, Ferguson writes in a manner that lay people can understand and appreciate. This is a help to communicate the value of church life and commitment.

Hopefully he will release a video series that could be used in church groups like he has The Whole Christ.

It is unfortunate that the publisher didn’t include a subject or Scripture index to assist in the usefulness of the book.

In The Wonderful Works of God, Bavinck tackles the realities of redemption applied. Having discussed justification he now moves on to sanctification. The first is the restoration of our relationship with God. The latter is the restoration of His image in us in true holiness. The first deals with the guilt of sin. The second deals with the pollution of sin. Justified by Christ’s imputed righteousness, we then have righteousness imparted so we become personally righteous as well as positionally righteous.

The Wonderful Works of God by Hermann Bavinck Cover Image. Westminster Seminary Press.

Bavinck, after that little introduction which distinguishes the two, discusses the word “holy”. It is commonly understood to refer to something that is set apart for special use. Created things, like people, are not holy in themselves but become so through the deliberate action of God. God, frequently called the Holy One, alone is holy in Himself. It is not a particular attribute but refers to “His divine greatness, sublimity, majesty, and unapproachableness.” This holiness manifests itself in all His relationships as He sets apart people, places, times and items.

Sanctified in Christ

“… we have no weakness but He knows of it, and no temptation but He can help us.”

Bavinck grounds our holiness or sanctification in the new covenant in which He circumcises our hearts, gives us the Spirit and causes us to walk in His ways. This new covenant is cut in the cutting off (circumcision) of Christ in His baptism on the cross. As the God-man He was personally holy and achieved holiness for us. Bavinck returns to Christ’s humiliation for us. As Mediator He learned obedience from the things He suffered. By perfecting Himself He is able to perfect us for whom He died.

Faith receives Christ as our sanctification just as it receives Him as our justification (1 Cor. 1). Christ works in us what He has worked for us until we fully share in eternal life and blessing. Bavinck returns to the active and passive obedience of Christ for us. Initial sanctification is positional, but progressive sanctification infuses us with holiness. Like Calvin, Bavinck uses “regeneration” to refer to both being born again and our sanctification or renovation. Much of this section has to be read that way or you will misunderstand him. Like Calvin’s “double grace” formulation, he argues justification and regeneration/sanctification can not be separated but must be distinguished. We receive both in Christ.

“For Christ is not to be divided and His benefits are inseparable from His person.”

Sanctified through the Spirit in the Church

God sanctifies us. He does this through the Spirit and in the church. Here is a healthy reminder that our sanctification takes place in community, the community of created by the Spirit. We are being made a living temple.

While sanctification is a work of God, we are not passive. As Paul says to the Philippians, God works in us so we will and work. Like Paul describes ministry to the Colossians, we work in His mighty power.

In sanctification our nature is restored, not removed. With our heart of stone replaced we begin to walk in God’s ways. Through His power we bear good fruit in keeping with salvation. Such obedience gains us no merit. We are to be grateful, not boastful, for both our justification and our sanctification.

“This Christ gives Himself to us through the Holy Spirit, and joins Himself with us so intimately as does the vine with the branches, as the head with the body, as the husband with the wife…”

We are to trust Him. We are sanctified by faith, not grit and guts. The Spirit works thru faith. He sees sanctification as “a continuous activity and exercise of faith.” We are not sanctified by the law but unto the law, meaning that the law remains a rule of life. The law contains no power to sanctify us. The law and its threatened curse do not motivate us. Gospel promises motivate us; promises received by faith.

Herman Bavinck - Wikipedia

Sanctified thru Faith

Bavinck continues to discuss the importance of faith in the next section. The work the Father requires of us is to believe. The gospel calls us to faith. He explains how it works. “… true, unfeigned faith breaks off our false self-confidence, knocks our pride off its pedestal, and makes an end of all self-righteousness.” The natural man, who rejects faith, vacillates between legalism and license, pride and despair. Faith alone ends this. Faith produces good works rather than being produced by them. In this sense faith is both receptive and active. The gospel, in this way, restores and establishes the law to its proper place.

This faith works through love, but which we are bound both to Christ and one another. Growth in love is evidence of sanctification. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Rome added “advices” (I’ve not seen this term used before. I’m not sure if it is reflective of Dutch theology or Bavinck himself) to the law, viewing Jesus as the new and greater law-giver. These advices gradually produced the distinction between the religious and the laity. The moral law was for all, and the advices were followed by the religious orders. These advices included chastity, poverty, and abstaining from a variety of things.

The Reformers rejected this distinction. Holding to depravity they recognized that we cannot obey the law perfectly. Sin taints all we do. We can’t, in other words, achieve the advices just as we cannot achieve the law. We distinguish between law and duty. The law is the same for all, but “duty is the particular way in which the general moral law must be applied by each individual in accordance with his nature and circumstances.” The law addresses us as creatures with a will. The 10th commandment exposes the root of sin in us. The natural man resists the law’s righteous demands.

Progressive Sanctification

As new creations we enjoy a new life which like all created life grows. It is, as Bavinck says, bound to the law of development. People grow at different rates and but through relatively predictable stages. John Newton wrote about this process using the illustration of the corn. Those that feed spiritually on Christ will grow healthily and normally. They will regularly receive grace through the means of grace Christ has provided.

This doesn’t mean it will be peaceful and quiet. Just as children struggle and then prevail with any number of challenges, so does the Christian. It is a struggle with enemies without and within. The natural man struggles as well, but it is a rational struggle, not a spiritual struggle. The reason and conscience struggle against the will and desire. This battle is only against some sins, usually external and those offensive to others.

The struggle of the Christian is between flesh and Spirit (or spirit), the old man in Adam and the new man in Christ. The battle is against a variety of sins including those that are internal with a focus on them being offense to God. The battle is deeper. Looking at the nature of one’s struggle may be a clue for assurance of salvation.

Progressive sanctification rejects the idea that we can achieve perfection in this life. We cannot subdue every sinful deed and inclination. In an ironic twist, some of those who most loudly argue for our continuing corruption can often speak as through we can be free from certain sinful inclinations. There seems to be a selective perfectionism at work regarding particular sins with which others struggle. The glorious titles given to us point to our position in Christ, not our personal perfection and glory.

God forebears with us as we struggle with sin. He does this because the blood of Christ covers the sin of His people. It is the guarantee of our full and complete salvation. Oh that we might be able to bear with one another in our struggles with sin.

Bavinck notes another irony- that those adhering to perfectionism often hold to the possibility of apostasy. How can one have a second blessing of perfection and then fall away?

Grace Received

Bavinck then addresses how God infuses the righteousness into us (for those uncomfortable with “infuse” see the WLC regarding sanctification). He begins with God’s admonishments to a holy walk. Ferguson points us to “gospel grammar” mentioned to many before: indicative-imperative or gospel facts => gospel commands. The Word is the main means of sanctification. We receive grace as we read, study, meditate and listen to the Word preached in faith. Prayer is another means of grace vital to sanctification. Our prayer is guided by the Word, as are our singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. One question: where are the sacraments? This is a glaring omission for this chapter.

The necessity of faith frees us from a mechanical view of sanctification.

We have put on Christ, and continue to put Him on. We have crucified our passions and continue to put them to death by the Spirit.

“He grants abundant grace not that we should instantly or suddenly be holy and continue to rest in this holiness, but that we should persevere in the struggle and remain standing.”

Preservation in Grace

Saints have but a small beginning in holiness. We are still inclined toward sin and stumble in many ways. We are tempted in numerous ways, and can sin big.

We live in a world in which man’s assessment does not match God’s. What the world sees as insignificant God views as great. The sins the world considers most awful may be judged differently by Him. He also includes the circumstances and conditions in which sins are committed.

Thankfully it is God’s assessment that matters, and if He has justified who can condemn? Christ remains active on our behalf. He preserves us from the Evil One. Though we stumble we need not fear that the grace of God has been exhausted but rest in His eternal covenant.

If Christ did not preserve us there could be no assurance of salvation. One would live in constant fear of apostasy. Saints would live in misery, haunted by the accusations of the enemy.

Bavinck returns to the nature of faith. The Reformers had very different views of faith, justification and assurance than Rome. For Rome, faith was assenting to the teaching of the Church; justification was the acceptance of one who was personally righteous due to the infusion of grace through the seven sacraments. Assurance is a heresy.

Among the Lutherans and Remonstrance assurance was only relevant to the present experience of the saint. It was not to be taken as assurance of final or complete salvation, preservation. Among the Reformed assurance is about the present and the future due to the covenant of grace and the completed work of Christ. He refers to the Canons of Dort:

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing within themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God- such as- a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

Assurance is something that is a fruit of faith. It arises from the new man in Christ. Doubt, on the other hand, arises from the old man in Adam. Faith is from the Spirit, and doubt from the flesh. The Spirit testifies to and operates in us through the means of faith. He does not operate outside of the faith, and faith. There is no salvation apart from the Church, or (ordinarily) faith.

This survey of sanctification is similar to other chapters. Bavinck has a tendency to double back around, or circle back, to subjects. He lacks a linear feel to his arguments as a result. This makes for longer arguments. He also interacts with divergent views, particularly but not limited to Rome. This is a chapter that could have been a bit more practical. He could have described what this heady stuff looks like in someone’s life. These weaknesses don’t render this useless or less than helpful. He does provide a sound theological orientation to our understanding of sanctification.

As the civil rights movement was growing in America, C. Herbert Oliver wrote No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism. With the recent increase in racial tension, P&R decided to re-publish his book and added the transcript of his lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary called “The Church and Social Change”.

No Flesh Shall Glory: How the Bible Destroys the Foundations of Racism - Oliver, C Herbert - 9781629959016

The Author

C. Herbert Oliver was born and raised in Birmingham, AL subject to the Jim Crow laws. He attended Wheaton College and then Westminster Theological Seminary. While writing this book Oliver was the pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ludlow-Smyrna and Houlton, ME. In 1959, the year the book was originally published he moved back to Birmingham to work in the civil rights movement. In the mid-60’s he moved to Brooklyn, NY to pastor Westminster Bethany United Presbyterian Church (now PC USA) and was on the school board. He was a man whose faith was active in seeking justice for himself and others.

This is a timely re-release as we struggle not only with racism but anti-racism. I think this volume speaks to both, powerfully. His was a time of segregation with interracial marriage being a controversial issue. We are on the verge of a new period of segregation, by choice not law, as many African-Americans are weary to the issues that come from living in the majority culture. Many are leaving out loud. Just as being black was denigrated, now many criticize and blame ‘whiteness’. I think this book speaks to these issues.


Oliver speaks about freedom of thought in his introduction. Such freedom of thought was at work in breaking the bonds of racial tyranny. Racial tyranny was founded on lies which were part of the established thinking of the time. He notes that Luther and Calvin were freeing people from religious tyranny. True freedom is one that affirms divine revelation. Those who reject God’s Word are bound by sin and ignorant of their bondage to worldly thinking.

He addresses his use of the word “race” in the book. At times he uses it in the common usage. The concept of race is one he will challenge. He seeks to destroy the ground that racism stands upon.

“As a Christian my deepest sympathies lie with the claims of God and His Kingdom, which Kingdom will ever prevail over all opposition, Jew or Gentile, black or white.”

The Unity of the Human Race

Oliver begins with Genesis 1 and the declaration that God created man in the image of God. This is one of the “great foundational truths of revealed religion.” God has filled the world with great variety, and that includes people who are made in His image. He quietly appeals to both special and general revelation in this early section.

In creation we see the unity of humanity. We don’t see different groups of people created but they all come from Adam and Eve. In Scripture all people groups trace their roots back to Noah and ultimately to Adam. To separate people groups is anti-Christian, meaning working against the purposes of God in creation and redemption.

We see it in redemption in that Jesus has purchased people from every people group to enter His kingdom (Rev. 5). People from every people group and background will be in the one Kingdom, united together forever.

At the time he wrote this book “racial solidarity” was used to justify separation. Some use it today to refer to solidarity between races against racism. He uses it to speak of solidarity of a “race” as opposed to the other races. He’ll touch on this problem later in the book.

Racial solidarity is the cohesion of a group around a few physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. It seems that color ranks highest in importance, though Darwin truly called it the most fleeting of all characteristics.”

He speak of the racists’ goal to promote their race to the dominant position in a society. This is why he or she fears “intermarriage” since it breaks racial solidarity. When Christians advocate or acquiesce to racial solidarity they fall short of biblical Christianity. He argues that “the notion of racial solidarity itself must go.” The solidarity of one group tends to create an equal and opposite reaction for solidarity in other racial groups. Two systems of ethics emerge: one for the majority and one for the excluded group(s). Christians should be quick to see the problem of this, but sadly don’t always. He argues that “a convinced mind can be changed, but a convinced conscience is almost unmovable.”

“The fury of mobs in Algeria or Hong Kong is not directed against Europeans because they are white, but because as whites they have engaged in extending their solidaric relationship and dominance to the hurt of peoples excluded from that relationship.”

The ban on interracial marriage was the last fortress of racial supremacy. From Oliver’s perspective, no doctrine has been as successful in separating humanity into racial groups as evolution. Note the title page of The Origin of Species with the subtitle “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. Evolution does not view all men as equal, but some as more developed than others. It divided people into the civilized and the savages. He concludes “as evolution has failed to discover the true dignity of all mankind, it has failed to discover the true dignity of any part of mankind.”

We are all united in Adam, having a common ancestor. Because we are united in Adam as our covenant head, we share in a sinful condition. We are united in being under the curse of God unless we have been ordain to eternal life through the work of Christ.

The Bible and Color

Oliver notes that in western Christendom, civilization is assumed to arise from Caucasians and Christianity is part of civilization. Adam is assumed to be white which makes it easier to enslave non-whites based on a misunderstand of the curse upon Ham.

Because African civilizations tended not to write histories, some wrongly assumed there were not African (black) civilizations. “People make history. The historian remakes it. And he remakes it according to the presuppositions under which he labors.”

I certainly understand the reality of remaking history. This is done to maintain power. Reading 1984 in middle school left an indelible mark upon me. But I’m foreign to the presuppositions of white supremacists. I’ve never really thought of the race of people in the Bible mattering. Or should I say skin color. I think of them as middle eastern- not white. I haven’t tried to recreate them in my image. But, sadly, many do.

Oliver mentions the attempt by the Book of Mormon to connect black skin with God’s curse. But it isn’t just the Mormons who did this since they were a product of their 19th century culture which struggled with race prior to the Civil War.

Biblically, the curse on Ham resulted in the destruction of the Canaanites in the conquest. Oliver is not trying to make the Bible a black man’s book, but is trying to free us from the assumption it is a white man’s book which is a lie fostered by white racists and black reactionaries.

Oliver argues that the Israelites were very dark skinned or black. Historical accounts indicate early Egyptians were black prior to being conquered and the resulting intermarriage with Europeans. Joseph was indistinguishable from the Egyptians according to his brothers. He didn’t stick out like a sore thumb due to the color of his skin. Moses was also thought to be an Egyptian by the Midianite shepherds, and not just because of his clothing.

Oliver addresses Song of Songs 1:5 as the KJV translates the text as “I am black but comely”. Other translations are similar. He argues this since the LXX uses “kai” (and) to translate the Hebrew conjunction which is ambiguous (either “and” or “but”). The issue I have with this is verse 6. She connects her darkness to working in the vineyards, not race. This issue here seems to be class, not race. She’s a working girl and the Lover is not.

This doesn’t negate his overarching point from extra-biblical sources like The Greatest Story Ever Told that European Christians have been servants or defenders of Western imperialism in the past. The Bible does not confirm the prejudices of racism unless greatly distorted. Christians should flee to the Bible so their minds are renewed and set free from the worldly conceptions of racism and racial superiority.

The Significance of Shem, Ham, and Japheth

I found this the weakest link in this book. At times it was confusing. The point does remain that many read racist attitudes and doctrine into the Bible. They assume their prejudices are explicit in the Scriptures. He looks at a number of commentaries to show how they do this. They include Keil and Delitzsch, George Bush, Murphy, Pink and many more. They extend the curse on Canaan to all the Hamites.

He does provide a few commentators who don’t do this. The (J.C.?) Ryle Cambridge Bible Series and Leopold (a Lutheran) are two examples of those who reject the extension of the curse to all of Ham and therefore a justification of chattel slavery.

“Only the Christian faith has the framework for universal harmony among peoples. Let the Christian rise to the occasion today and make practical the great doctrines of the Bible, which truths can transcend the narrow bounds of race.”

The Biblical History of Shem, Ham, and Japheth

Many commentators, like Matthew Henry, exclude Ham from all heavenly blessings contrary to the message of the prophets and Revelation. God chose to bless all the nations through Shem and his descendant via Abraham: Jesus. Gentiles is a term used not only for Japhethites but also Hamites. It is also used for the descendants of Shem other than Abraham’s line. The Bible does not mention the color of Japheth’s skin and to conclude he and his descendants were white is unwarranted.

Racism, Oliver argues, is not an ancient concept but a modern one. Because Egypt was a great empire many historians classify them as white. But Oliver warns that God will bring down to the dust all those nations that don’t worship Him regardless of the color of their skin.

Any marriage lines drawn between the three sons of Noah’s descendants had to do with faith, not skin color. Those who worshiped YHWH were not to marry those who did not.

As we think about God judging wicked nations, we should see that He frustrates false hopes including those rooted in racial solidarity. Oliver saw the discord in America as God frustrating those corrupt hopes.

“Policies of separateness can succeed only as the segregated group is kept in ignorance and economic weakness. And is it Christian to impose ignorance and poverty on anyone?”

He sees segregation opposed to love of neighbor and a denial of God’s creation of all humanity in His image.

Does this mean we should cancel those in the past who held some racist views? Should we tear down statues of Lee and Lincoln, for instance?

I don’t think he’d want us to do that. He recognized the presence of racism in them and their actions. But he also recognized better notions as well, actions inconsistent with the racist ideas they expressed at times.

“Among such systems, however, there are those who rise above their narrow and perverted surroundings and make unforgettable footprints in the sands of time. We cannot forget a General Lee who did not scruple to kneel with his black brother to receive the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot forget the humble Lincoln, ever looking forward on the lowly penny to a better day in human relations. Though these men were not completely free of the racism of their day, they rise so high above the masses of their time as to deserve perpetual and warm memory.”

Christian Ethics and Segregation

He begins with a brief discussion of ethics. Idealistic Ethics focuses on self-realization whether as individuals or a nation. The Ethics of Evolution focuses on what contributes to the survival of the species. This, he believes, is the ethics that justifies segregation.

Christian Ethics are differentiated from these, and all other, ethical systems. Commitment to Christ shapes one’s ethics and provides the deepest and most lasting joy. Apart from faith this is no Christian Ethics.

“Man’s chief end is neither pleasure, nor self-realization, nor survival; it is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

The natural man, on the other hand, aspires to wealth, culture, prestige and power. These aspirations are often pursued in light of racial superiority. We want them for ourselves and our race. Oliver brings in Abraham who had wealth and was given a great name. His hope however was in God, not these things.

The ethical standard for us is the Law of God. The Pharisees, Oliver notes, thought they kept the law while in fact they externalized it, and often substituted the tradition of the elders for Law.

Why in the world is he talking about this? Precisely for the fact that the Bible does not command people to be segregated by race. This principle is contrary to Christianity, severing bonds created by God. That segregation is not supported by God’s law does not keep one from choosing one’s own friends. That is true for everyone: black, Asian, Native American etc. You may choose your friends based on race due to freedom of association, but you can’t legalize such discrimination (but shouldn’t as a Christian). You also reject the blessing God has for His people. Oliver says that “a complete system of segregation can hardly prevail in a land where Christian teachings are accepted.” I want to know what he meant by that. Where truly understood, I agree. Many Christian teachings were accepted in the segregated South (as well as northern cities after the migration).

He addresses the reality of institutional racism. “Institutions have their source in ideas, and ideas have always been slow to change, and more so institutions.” Where the idea of racism is common, institutions will be shaped by it. While individuals may change rapidly, institutions do not. While people in America may be generally less racist, the institutions in America may still have left over influences from racism.

He brings into the discussion the “problem of stability and progress.” They are interdependent. The Constitution is “a system of government that is both stable and progressive.” It is stable because the document is hard to change, but it can be changed when most states agree to change it. The 3/5ths Compromise, for instance, is no longer in effect. The right to vote has been extended to all people groups who are citizens. Our government has adapted to the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society.

Into this he brings the Jubilee in the Old Testament. It broke the cycle of debt and periodically reset the society. Oliver advocates for some similar system in Christian nations. Jubilee “worked” (we actually have no record of it being celebrated) because land was inherited. It was not simply about debt forgiveness, and the release of slaves, but a return of the family land. Sojourners could rent land, buy a home in a walled city, but not own land for farming. I’m not sure how an industrial economy could operate in this way.

He shifts into the problem of identifying the segregated group. These laws become arbitrary and contradictory. “But if one drop of ‘Negro’ blood makes a white person a Negro, then by all laws of logic, one drop of ‘white’ blood would made a Negro white.” Negro was a social concept, not a biological one (Gunnar Myrdal).

The psychological constitution of sinners regularly requires that there be someone to look down upon. Whom that is will differ in various cultures. Here in the West blacks are commonly looked down upon. That is not universal. In the past, Koreans, valuing ethnic purity, looked down on all non-Koreans and the Amerasian children born during and after the Korean War which initiated the international adoption movement. In many Chinese action films we can often see the Japanese occupiers denigrating the Chinese. When we recognize that we are sinners, we can more easily reject disdain for others of different races.

Oliver returns to Jefferson and Lincoln. Both saw a time when there was no slavery, but thought it impossible for the two groups to live in the same government as equals. “May the good that Jefferson and Lincoln have spoken live long. May the evil of their statements above lie interred in their bones.” Oliver also looks at the Dred Scott decision and how the Constitution never defined a citizen. We must remember that there were free Blacks before and after the signing of the Constitution. They therefore should have been included in the “free persons” that comprised the citizenry. The Dred Scott decision gave states the right to confer citizenship on a person, but no other state had to honor that citizenship. A mess indeed. Thankfully the decision was overturned.


Oliver begins with Amos 3:3- “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”. This is to introduce his criticism of segregation. He wants there to be harmony, which depends upon agreement. They must blend together like a great duet. In order to have agreement there must first be understanding. In order to have understanding you must have time together and communication, or association. Segregating people leads to misunderstanding, lack of agreement and disharmony.

Association ==> Understanding ==> Agreement ==> Harmony between Groups

Christians, wanting racial harmony, cannot oppose association. When the love of God dwells in our hearts, we will, according to John, love our brothers. Segregation is rooted in a lack of love. That lack of love means there is distrust, fear and any provocation (real or perceived) results in conflict. It is a toxic relationship.

Some argue for physical separation through legal means such as the Jim Crow laws. Oliver addresses mental segregation, those who hide “behind a mental wall of segregation” which can be more sturdy than the physical wall. What he is addressing is now called “kinism”, keeping with your own kind or kin. There is no interest in experiencing other cultures for this is seen as dilution of your race. Stay with your own kind, they say, especially in marriage.

“Good human relations are impossible where free and voluntary association is denied by legal enactments, but just as difficult when discountenanced and punished by social ostracism.”

He argues that differences should be studied, understood. Racism divides so this can’t happen. Recognition of the unity of humanity enables those differences to be understood. In this context, he returns to the problem of evolution which “establishes permanent differences between so-called inferior and superior races”.

Evolutionistic racism overemphasizes similarity in the animal and plant kingdoms, and overemphasizes dissimilarity in the human sphere.”

He rejects racial dominance as a goal. He rejects blending as a goal. Integration for Oliver means that racial ideas are disturbed and rejected. He says many things that challenge the current anti-racist movement which makes “whiteness” the great sin. For instance:

“To replace a white racist ideology with a black racist ideology is not the road to good human relations. What we need is not another race ideology, but freedom for all racism.”

With the societal opposition to association, he argued that it has only been through agitation and pressure that change has come. I don’t read this in the same way as I read “Burn it down” as contemporary leaders say. Protests are not the same as riots. Speaking out is not the same as beating people and burning buildings.

Human Marriage

In addition to freedom of association, Oliver sees freedom of human marriage as important in moving toward understanding and harmony. Segregationists opposed marriage between blacks and whites. They still do. Racial superiority strives for racial purity. Human harmony strives for the freedom for two people to be married to the person of the opposite sex they want to marry. That freedom should not reside with only one sex, nor only one color.

Racial Solidarity <== Racial Preservation <== Racial Superiority

There are considerations of religion, culture and common interests. Those are obstacles in some cases, but not all. Some of the objections are that it is unnatural, children will suffer, it destroys the majority white race and that we must respect the feelings of those who are offended. Oliver refutes each of these in turn. He doesn’t provide complex answers because these are not complex objections.

“Prejudice of any kind is self-destructive. It destroys those who sustain and nourish it, like the dog that conceals a thousand fleas under his hair.”

He also provides a warning to the Christian who holds to segregation or superiority.

“We are not as close to God as we think when our religion becomes warm toward those of our own color, and progressively cool as the color difference increases.”

Appendix: The Church and Social Change

This appendix is a lecture at Westminster Seminary. He is addressing the stance of various groups in the church regarding the civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s. Too bad we can’t bring him into the present to address the current civil rights movement.

“The church may institute change or resist change; it may be carried along by it, or it may strengthen the good elements of change; it may seek self-preservation by an act of withdrawal from society, or it may lose its unique identity by conforming to social patterns which defy basis biblical concepts. Whatever choice she makes, one fact is certain- there is no real refuge from society, not even in lonely withdrawal, for there is no happiness there.”

This is just as pertinent now! We should not resist change, but neither should we be unthinkingly carried along by it. We should seek change consistent with Scripture, not worldly change. Too often in the past we’ve resisted worldly change AND biblical change. Or we’ve fully embraced worldly change.

This is true not only true of the question of race but also the sexual revolution. We tend to polarize rather than weigh, assess and act with wisdom, love, and prudence.

Oliver looks to past philosophical and political thought. He brings up Aristotle who viewed slavery as vital to the economy of his day. He thought the citizens should be able to live lives of leisure and the slaves should provide that opportunity for them. This sounds so much like communism to me. The Party thrives and the people labor. Aristotle thought some people were born to be slaves. He, Epictetus, and Aristides portray a grotesque society as well-ordered.

For the Church, we believe the Son became a slave to redeem us from slavery to sin. Slaves could know the love and salvation of God. Masters had to reckon themselves slaves of God. Those the world disregarded and disparaged “found a glorious home in God.” We recognize the sinful tendency among humans to strive for earthly supremacy of some sort. We see it “in doctrines of national, racial, and economic superiority.”

He then shifts to the degrading nature of Medieval class distinctions. Serfs were little better than slaves to the nobility. Labor was seen as beneath the elites. It took a Reformation to change how work and station were viewed. Class distinctions were rejected.

“Calvinism emphasized its dignity. Over against the contemporary view of the divine right of kings, Calvinism place the king under divine law and laid out his limitations. Over against the contemporary doctrine of the inherent inequality of men, Calvinism emphasized the inherent equality of all men before God. Thus was the church, by being the church, the instrument of social change.”

Oliver sees the Reformation very differently than many modern scholars. He sees positive social change resulting from the theological reformation. This doesn’t mean that the church continued to live up being the church. The Aristotelian ideal rose again with the rise of race-based slavery. Much of the church in America bears shame for endorsing, supporting or ignoring the realities of slavery.

He returns to Calvin and the doctrine of the lesser magistrate to protect people from tyrannical abuses. Calvin doesn’t recommend civil disobedience to remove tyranny. However, viewed from the perspective of religious authorities Calvin was viewed as an agitator, a seditious rebel who sought to subvert society. This is the lot of all who question the status quo

The church should be where there is association, understanding in increasing measure, agreement and harmony. We should be showing the world the way produced by the gospel which places us all on level ground. Applying our convictions in the voting booth would provide the larger societal change necessary. The church should be leading the way in example, and Christians shaping government.

Oliver shares a story from his life of being hungry while sitting in his car. He was a U.S. citizen with sufficient money to buy food. He was law-abiding, tax-paying and a pastor. Yet, he was unable to address his hunger despite smelling the aroma of tasty food in the air. As a black man, he was not permitted to enter those establishments and buy food.

Thankfully this is not the case today, but let’s not think the work is completed. There is more to do.

“We must not forget that the American Revolution did not destroy England. It only released the energies of a great people and enabled them to try the wings of nationhood.”

Oliver didn’t want to see America destroyed. He wants to see all its citizens released to expend their energies in the pursuit of liberty. Too many seem to want America to just burn, as though their version will be sin free. He warns against extremism, which is often born of finding one’s identity in race instead of in Christ. He wanted to see America come into full possession of its ideals rather than condemn the whole nation.

My Final Thoughts

This is an important book in many ways. I don’t agree with every jot and tittle but J. Herbert Oliver is generally spot on. He shows “how the Bible destroys the foundations of racism.” We need to hear this. I believe the gospel is the only message that enables us to move beyond the racial superiority that plagues just about every nation on earth. Worldly ideologies replace one form of superiority with another. White supremacy or sovereignty is replace by black supremacy or sovereignty. This merely perpetuates the problem. The gospel produces love, a consideration of the interests of others and self-denial. It produces forgiveness that breaks the cycle of reprisals and provocations.

This short book could have delved deeper into that, but it is a short book. It is a book that gets us moving in the right direction.

I find it odd that so many white Christians are so ignorant of black history. I did not grow up with “enlightened” parents. I did love stories which meant I watched movies, many of which touched on racial themes and some of them focused on historical events. I used to watch Sidney Pottier movies like In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (dealing with interracial romantic relationships. I watched movies like Mississippi Burning, Rosewood and more on the effects of racism.

My concern is that many who are just discovering this historical reality get swept up in unbiblical movements and agendas. This is a book that can point out the folly of departing from the Scriptures in looking for solutions to this problem.