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I am loving the fact that Sinclair Ferguson is “retired”. He has been more active in writing, and those books have been excellent so far. Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification is no exception. He previously submitted a chapter on the subject to Christian Spirituality in which a number of authors of different persuasions interacted on the subject of sanctification.

Like The Whole Christ, Devoted to God seems to be the fruit of a lifetime of fruitful ministry. You sense that he has thought long and hard about the Scriptures with regard to this subject. It is not superficial or breezy in its approach. In each chapter, Ferguson focuses on one text of Scripture. Those passages are: 1 Peter 1; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 5:16-17; Colossians 3:1-17; Romans 8:13; Matthew 5:17-20; Hebrews 12:1-14; and Romans 8:29. The principles are derived from the texts that Sinclair uses. This is not a “proof-texting” approach, but a very exegetical approach.

His approach focuses on sanctification as devotion. God is devoted to making us devoted to Him and His glory through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is realistic in its approach, as he notes “Instead of being wholly yielded to Christ we discover instead that a stubborn and sinful resistance movement retains a foothold in our lives.” (pp. 5)

Beginning with 1 Peter, he focuses on our identity in Christ in the face of affliction. We have graciously received a new identity which requires a new life. He notes the distinctions between justification and sanctification, but also notes that both are necessary for salvation tying these in to our union with Christ and the reality of regeneration. In our union we receive what Calvin calls the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. Regeneration which is necessary for justification (we won’t believe until God regenerates us) is also the beginning of our sanctification.

Another focus he begins in the first chapter is the trinitarian nature of our sanctification. The Father foreknew us and chose us, the Spirit sets us apart and we are purified by the Son. Your sanctification, if you are a Christian, is the desire and purpose of the Father, Son and Spirit. In 1 Peter we see that they use, among other things, trials to accomplish this great purpose.

In other chapters he reminds us that the commands (imperatives) flow from the gospel (indicatives). It is all of grace, being produced by the gospel. He reminds us, particularly in Romans 12 that our sanctification “takes place in and through the body.” We are not gnostics. We are a body/soul unity and sanctification includes both the inward devotion and the physical devotion. Sin and sins affect our bodies (weakness, addictions which are spiritual and bio-chemical, disease etc.) and so sanctification does as well. Just as sin affects our minds, so does sanctification.

Ferguson covers plenty of ground in this volume, and he covers it well. Some of these are difficult texts with difficult concepts, especially Romans 6, and he is very helpful in understanding them better as well as applying them to the subject at hand. As I preach through 1 Peter I find himself looking back to the material here on that letter. I anticipate returning to this book whenever I preach on any of these texts. I anticipate pointing others to this book and walking with others through this book for years to come.

Sinclair Ferguson has again written on the best and most helpful books I’ve read. His retirement has been very, very good to me. If you read his books, you will discover it was very good for you too.

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So far I’ve really enjoyed Crossway’s series “On the Christian Life” having read the volumes on Newton, Bavink and Edwards. I’ve been working my way through the series on vacation/study leave. That all changed when I read Luther.

Oh, I’m kidding. Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman is a very good addition to the series. One of the things that Trueman appreciates about Luther was his humor, which is much better than my pathetic little joke there.

One of the strengths of this volume is that Trueman does not try to paint Luther as an “evangelical”. He notes our tendency to repaint our heroes in our own image. He resists this temptation and presents us with the Luther that we both love and don’t quite understand.

Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different from that found in “popular” evangelicalism and even in Reformed circles at times. Trueman isn’t here to criticize Luther, but is more to critique us in a round about way.

One of the struggles for a book like this is the sheer volume of material produced by Luther, as well as the development of his thought over time as a pioneer of sorts who came to a greater awareness of the implications, consequences and complications of this ideas over time. Yet, as Trueman notes, evangelicals tend to pull their quotes (sound bytes) from the early Luther.

Trueman begins with a brief biography of Luther so readers can get a lay of the land, so to speak. His life and theology were in near constant interaction. I noticed this tendency in studying some the major psychological theorists, and it is often true for theologians as well. Their theology is an attempt to work out their stuff with God. Unlike one author I read years ago, Luther’s goal was not sexual liberation but rather spiritual liberation.

Luther lived in a time when most people could not read. This greatly impacts his understanding of the Christian life. It is structured around daily worship services to hear the Word of God and to partake of the sacraments. While better literacy rates are a good thing, they have facilitated the individualistic view of the Christian life that actually robs us of maturity. We are meant to live in community, and not just for a few hours on Sunday.

We can’t turn back the clock (this includes rejecting the industrial revolution, modern travel etc. that shapes our lives/lifestyles). But perhaps we can made some different decisions in our own cultural context.

Luther has a strong emphasis on the Word, and Trueman spends time unpacking this. It is tied up on Luther’s understanding of the Word as both God’s revelation and God’s creative power. God’s Word is meant to shape how we think about life and reality. Luther was also concerned about how we approached the Word, and therefore God. We tend to be theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. The theologian of the cross sees God and comes to God thru Christ and Him crucified. The incarnation and sacrifice of the Son points to our weakness, sinfulness, neediness and how God is gracious, tender and merciful This shapes a very different life than one focused on God’s power and glory which tends to either drive us to despair (since we are sinners) or puffs us up (due to our pride and self-righteousness). This carries over to Luther’s law and gospel distinction. This is a much misunderstood concept, as if the OT is law and the NT is gospel. As Clapton sang, “It’s in the way that you use it.” The same texts can be used to expose sin, and reveal grace. First comes law to destroy our self-righteousness, and then comes grace.

So we encounter the Word in preaching, singing, meditating, prayer and if possible reading. Luther encourages us to be people of the Word so God will work in us to accomplish His good purposes.

The Christian life is not easy but we struggle with self-righteousness as well as sin. We also deal with anfechtungen, which is difficult to translate into English but could be considered similar to the dark night of the soul. We experience despair and frustration at the trials of life material and immaterial. We are not to look in, but to look out at Christ in the midst of all of this. Faith is looking to the Christ revealed in the Scriptures in dealing with our guilt, self-righteousness, and afflictions. Luther was not an introspective mystic, but one who calls us out of our introspection to look to Christ who is the only One who can help us.

One of the most important chapters is “Luther and Christian Righteousness.” It is written to address some misunderstandings of Luther regarding sanctification. These misunderstandings are found in the books and sermons by Tullian Tchavidjian and Trueman makes a few allusions to Tullian in the chapter. While the Reformation was going swimmingly in its early days, Luther discovered it was not necessarily bearing the fruit it should as he began to visit other areas. He saw that many people calling themselves Christians were ignorant of basic doctrines and lived like pigs.

He made a distinction between alien righteousness and proper righteousness. The former is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in justification. It is our positional holiness. The latter is righteousness imparted to us by Christ in sanctification. It is our personal holiness. They are distinct but related. The same Christ who justifies us also sanctifies us. First He justifies and then He sanctifies. This order is key to Reformation or Protestant Theology. Luther discovered there was little to no personal holiness, and put forth the need to preach not just alien righteousness but also personal righteousness. This emphasis is seen in The Visitation Articles as well as his catechisms. While Melanchthon is credited with originating the idea of the “third use of the Law” (showing us how to live as Christians) it is actually present in Luther’s writings as well. The Law directs us as justified persons, but it is always grace that empowers us.

Additionally there was the Antinomian Crisis involving Agricola’s deviant theology. Luther notes we are a battlefield between the flesh and Spirit. Preaching only alien righteousness leads to immorality and false assurance of salvation.  So we find the need for pastors to also preach the law for instruction in righteousness.

The Christian life is played out in our vocations of citizen, work and home. Luther rightfully sees the Christian engaged in those spheres. He does not see a secular-sacred divide like the Roman Catholicism of his day (being a priest, nun or monk was seen as a more holy vocation than a cobbler), and some forms of fundamentalism today.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series, just over 200 pages. There is some theological background that has to go into explaining many of the concepts central to Luther and his theology. Trueman handles that well and in understandable form. In the discussion of sacraments, he doesn’t delve into Luther’s understanding of the Chalcedonian Definition/Formula with respect to how the human nature of Christ is present in a ubiquitous fashion. There also aren’t many Scripture references which is interesting since Scripture was so important to Luther.

It is a worthwhile addition to the series that seems to focus on Reformed pastors/theologians. The fact he isn’t an “evangelical” provides a good corrective to many of us. This book is well worth reading.

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In my personal Bible reading I’m currently in Jeremiah. Though it is not a happy book, joy breaks through. But mostly it is “Jerusalem is going to fall to Babylon, and the people will go into exile.” There is a stubborn refusal to listen to Jeremiah (and therefore God) as he reminds them of the covenant curses from Deuteronomy that they deserve because they have forsaken the Lord their God.

Today I read chapters 37 and 38. Jeremiah is still standing though yet another Davidic King has fallen due to disobedience. Now it is Zedekiah, the uncle of the previous king Jehoiakim. The person-specific curse for Jehoiakim was that he would die at the hands of Babylon, and there would never be a son of his on the throne. Zedekiah is on the throne precisely because the word of the Lord through Jeremiah came to pass. Let that one sink in.

You might think this would prepare Zedekiah’s heart to listen to Jeremiah. You would be wrong.

Zedekiah the son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim. But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah 37

But Zedekiah does not completely ignore Jeremiah. In the next paragraph we read:

King Zedekiah sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, to Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison.

The King won’t listen, which means he refuses to repent. He doesn’t want to change direction, to change how he views this, to return to the Lord with all his heart. His circumstances are that Babylon has been laying siege to Jerusalem and the population is hiding there while the food runs out. Jeremiah says that repentance means surrendering to Babylon so the people will live. There is the promise, based on Deuteronomy 30, that God will restore them to the land and give them a heart for him (also expressed in the promise of the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31 and 32). He’s having none of it. He is steadfast in his sin. Soon he would put Jeremiah in prison.

But he wants prayer. Egypt has given them a temporary reprieve. He wants it to be a permanent one. But Babylon is going to defeat Egypt and return to the siege of Jerusalem which will result in Jerusalem’s walls being breached, the city burned, many of the people dying and the rest being carted off to Babylon (except the poorest of the poor, and Jeremiah).

How like us that Zedekiah is. We sow sin and reap the whirlwind. Our lives can be in a complete mess because of our lousy choices, our refusal to listen to God in the first place. In those circumstances God still speaks to us through the Word, “Return to me!” But we often refuse. Yet we ask people to pray for us. We ask for prayer about our circumstances. Our circumstances, not us. We want our circumstances to change, but we don’t want to change no matter how messed up we are.

In other words: we want to live at ease in our sin.

We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful intervention of God who gives us a heart for Him. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful working of the Holy Spirit to give us a longing to change, to become different people, ones who are godly. We are Zedekiah apart from the merciful union with Christ who does restore His image in us.

What do you want to see changed today? While your circumstances matter, they matter because it is through them that God works for the good of those who love Him, which is making them like His Son. Pray for your circumstances to change. But also pray for God to change YOU in light of your circumstances. We need to change, and only He can change us, so pray.

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One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

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Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers is an attempt to present basic doctrine for the purpose of growth in godliness using not only the written word but also diagrams so people can see the connections that Challies and Byers want them to see.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive systematic theology. It is meant to help you “see and understand the truth about God”. They avoid academic issues but focus on the issues and doctrines that promote godliness.

I purchased the book for two reasons. These reasons direct my review of the book. The first was an interest in materials for discipleship, particularly of men. Many of the men I work with are very busy (and often have tons of books already in their queue). So the prospect of a relatively short book that has diagrams is appealing.

I also wanted access to the diagrams, or at least some of them, for SS lessons since I often use Power Point. Some of the diagrams are quite helpful. I found some of them to be “over-stimulating” or too busy. Some just didn’t connect with me. Overall the diagrams are a help to the book.

I don’t envy Challies & Byers, or their editor. I’m sure there were difficult questions about what doctrines to discuss, and which ones to leave out.  In the introduction they lay out the purpose and methodology. They offer the material in four sections: Grow Close to Christ, Understand the Work of Christ, Become Like Christ, and Live for Christ. Under the first they cover the Gospel, Identity and Relationship. The second covers the Drama, or Story of the Bible, and Doctrine. The third covers sanctification: putting off the old life and putting on the new life. The last section hits Vocation, Relationships and Stewardship.

What isn’t here is any meaningful discussion of doctrines like the incarnation and theories of the atonement, which I think would be considered central to “the work of Christ”. But there are topics often missing in discussions of discipleship,  like vocation and stewardship. This meant there were times I was frustrated, and times when I was grateful they addressed something. It is not meant to be a theology book so much as a book about how to grow which includes some theology. So, in a sense, the book’s title doesn’t really help you understand what the book is about.

Much of what is written is good, if perhaps too brief. Challies is part of the neo-Calvinist movement. He’s Calvinistic in his soteriology (doctrine of salvation), but baptistic in his understanding of ecclesiology and sacraments. I suspect he is also in the New Covenant Theology camp based on some recommended books, and from his blog. As a result, at times there were ideas I thought were incomplete, lacking or just too baptistic.  In terms of the latter, on the first page of chapter 1 in discussing our need for regular reminders of the gospel we see this:

“The reason we celebrate the Lord’s Supper is to remind ourselves of what Christ has done and what he has promised to do.”

That is certain one of the reasons, but not the only reason (which is implied by the definite article). It communicates a memorial view of the sacrament that I find less than fully biblical. It is not less than that, but thankfully so much more. I found a similar sentiment later in the book as though “take and eat” and “take and drink” are unimportant. We need Christ like we need bread and wine. In his section on “ordinances” (pp. 25-26) this plays out in a focus on us, and then Christ in the sacraments. Historically, Reformed Theology has pointed to Christ and then us in the sacraments. The objective is the grounding the subjective elements. Instead They focused on the subjective elements first. The real issue in the sacraments is union with Christ, not the pledge of a good conscience. God’s work produces any work on my part, even in the sacraments. The section ends saying “In the celebration, Christ is present, you are present, and your shared relationship grows.” In the margin I wrote, “So, what does that mean?” It is a profound but largely unexplained statement.

In an otherwise very good chapter on identity, they discuss justification. They don’t do it justice: “You have been declared innocent.” Not less than that, but more. We have been declared righteous!! Innocent people still need positive righteousness. Merely innocent people aren’t accepted by God, righteous people are. I don’t think I’m nitpicking. This is something young Christians need to know precisely because it is intended to shape their life in the face of God. I am always and only acceptable because of Christ and His righteousness imputed to me. It is humbling and yet provides confidence. It frees me from my own paltry attempts at self-righteousness.

One disconcerting note was a relative absence of the Holy Spirit and His work, particularly in sanctification. This shows up in the chapter on the Bible, and the chapters on putting off and putting on. Their thesis on page 53 is “The Bible makes you godly.” To explain they say “To be godly is to be God-like in your character. The Bible enables you to live according to God’s standards and to reflect his character.” I wrote two things in the margin: “What does this mean?” and “Necessary but insufficient for sanctification.” The Holy Spirit makes us godly, and He uses the Bible to do it. The power (what I’d mean by “enables”) is the Spirit. He is the engine car to the Bible as tracks. This is fodder for the “radical grace” guys. Clarity matters, and sometimes the quest to be succinct means important distinctions are left out, distinctions that can create other big problems down the road.

Nothing downright heretical here. Just some troubling imprecision that would lead me to not accept these answers on an ordination exam. If given to a younger Christian, I would strongly suggest they read it with a more mature Christian who can fill in some of the gaps.

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“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

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I decided to read Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul for a reason. We are still in a bad place with race relations in this country. As the white middle class father of two African-American children, I wanted to listen to how some African-Americans view the problem.

Like many people, I find discussions about race difficult. It is hard to build up the trust to speak honestly without judgment. It is awkward and difficult. So when I saw this book available for review I thought I’d get a copy, as if Eddie Glaude Jr. and I were sitting across the table from one another in a beer-less summit of sorts.

He is a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. He also teaches in the religion department.

There are many good things about this book. He tells it like he honestly sees it (which means it can be some unpleasant, painful truth). Politically, he doesn’t portray Democrats as perfect, or even President Obama, not Republicans as all evil (though he disagrees strongly with many policies). We will get to that later.

The strength of the book, for me, was chapters 2-4. He attempts to get to the heart of the long-term, on-going race issues in this nation. This has to do with the value gap, racial habits and white fear. From the beginning this nation has valued blacks less than whites. The end of slavery hasn’t ended it. The end of Jim Crow laws hasn’t ended it. It is a matter of the heart that is worked out in society. I think some of his examples are flawed. For instance, on page 31 he addresses the diseases that kill blacks at a higher rate than whites. But heart disease, cancer and AIDS get plenty of press and research money. It isn’t like these diseases are ignored because they kill blacks. Unfortunately he doesn’t bring up abortion which kills a disproportionate number of black babies, but is consistently protected by the white liberal establishment. But I agree with him that there is a value gap. Generally speaking, black lives don’t seem to matter as much in our society. The rates of incarcerated blacks is not just about poverty and crime, but also a flawed criminal justice system.

His discussion of disremembering is particularly helpful. This is the collective memory of a society which leaves out some of the ugly realities of our history or particular events. We do this, as a culture, to think the best about ourselves. He doesn’t get to its root in pride, but this is something not often discussed.

“When we disremember an event, an egregious moment in the past, we shape how we live in the present. … Disremembering is active forgetting. … What we put in and leave out of our stories tells us something about who we are.”

As a part of this, even when a challenging aspect of our past is brought us, we tend to objectify it. Those people are bad, but we rarely, if ever, think “I could do that too. If I were there I may very well have been one of the perpetrators.”

“Rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily- habits that aren’t revealed in racial slurs and blatant acts of discrimination, but in the choices we make and the lives we live, even when those choices and lives seem to have little to do with race”

The little white boy across the street from him learned on day one that he was not supposed to play with “niggers” (his word, not mine). We all pick up unspoken ideas about race. “Racial habits are formed by the outcomes we see in the world rather than by the complex processes that produced those outcomes.” With so much poverty in the African-American community, many assume that they are lazy. He talks about “opportunity hoarding” in which a majority culture tends to keep the good stuff. We are often blind to the “way social networks reproduce inequality: white individuals benefit from being part of white social groups.” He talks about how we often get jobs through social networks, but think we “earn it.” Of the 14 jobs I’ve had over the years (at times working more than one) all but 2 were the result of knowing someone. When we consider it, that is astounding. This points to the need for internships for minorities so they can develop a social network AND the skills to get better jobs (think the NFL which has the Rooney Rule for minorities and women but doesn’t actively recruit them for lower tier positions so they can gain skills and connections).

One of those habits we pick up is that of masking, particularly how we feel about racial matters. We don’t want to talk honestly about race at Starbucks, or anywhere else. Blacks are afraid of being labeled the angry black man, and whites are afraid of being labeled a clueless racist. Additionally, we participate in the racial theater led by prominent civil rights leaders, and even our President. A theater that doesn’t actually resolve anything, but seems to just keep picking at the wounds.

“White fear is the general frame of mind that black people are dangerous, not only to white individuals because they are prone to criminal behavior, but to the overall well-being of our society.”

White fear is a political fear, and an economic fear. I recall as a young person being afraid of losing out due to affirmative action and minority scholarships (which I hope and pray my kids get!). It is largely about self-interest. Those in the lower economic or social ladders tend to fear those above, and those in the middle and higher tend to fear those below supplanting them. This has been common in our culture with new immigrants (Italians, Polish etc), but African-Americans have persistently been part of that perceived threat while other groups have moved up the ladder and began to share in white fear. Political fear “takes fears based in narrow concerns and gives them a more generalized fear.”

In addition to the Great Black Depression (the recession hit black communities far harder than white ones), we’ve seen the dissolution of the black social structures that have enabled black people to think and grow in relative safety (black churches, colleges, press etc.). In some ways they are losing their voice.

His chapter on President Obama and the Black Liberals is a good history of black political thought and groups in America. He discusses the shifts, and failures. Ultimately they have capitulated to white supremacy and the lie of “color-blindness”. It is the idea that if we just get the right person in power the plight of the African-American community will end. The liberal politician becomes a messiah figure. Don’t worry, white conservatives (and liberals) do this too. He notes the failure to hold politicians accountable as part of the problem (this goes far beyond black democratic life).

“The whole business of black politics becomes the political project of black liberals, with their latent desire for the disappearance of black America. Looks like we have been accomplices in our own demise after all.”

While this book was very helpful for me, I saw some fundamental problems as well. In his book Bloodlines, John Piper notes that for a minority culture everything is seen as a race issue, while for a majority culture nothing is seen as a race issue. The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle. There are things that Glaude sees as race issues, or solely as race issues, which may not be. His thinking is reductionistic at times. One example is voter ID laws. He sees this as an attempt to suppress the black vote. My own approval of voter ID laws has to do with addressing voter fraud (but I’d be what he calls a right wing extremist). I see room for compromise in how the laws are written so that the black vote is not suppressed (free gov’t IDs for people on welfare for instance). I don’t want to exclude any citizens from voting (black, Asian, Hispanic, Democrat, Independent etc.). I do want to prevent people from voting more than once, and from non-citizens from exercising the rights of citizens.

His solutions don’t seem compelling to me, though at times I am also tempted to vote “none of the above” too. As someone who teaches religion, I’d hope he would bring some theology into play. No, I’m not talking simply about forgiveness. For instance, the answer to the value gap is the imago dei. He seems to have no objective reason for our equality, a problem expressed in the existential ethics of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and other places. It is not simply a white/black thing but one that plagues every culture.

I do agree we need to have some difficult, honest conversations. We have to stop masking, but this can only happen in an atmosphere of overall acceptance. The value gap stands in the way of that, as does white fear. I see little hope of actually moving forward without the gospel which affirms the dignity (imago dei) and depravity (we all sin) of each person, while providing acceptance thru justification by faith, and power to put to death the misdeeds of the old man in Adam (like racism) through the power of the Spirit because our minds are being renewed ( we see where our sin is, and what righteousness is).

All this does mean we have to build relationships with people different from ourselves: ethnically, economically, religiously. As we experience them as real people with real feelings, strengths and weaknesses we can move forward. But if we remain in our peer groups, behind the walls of fear, and differing values, nothing will change. Nothing will change if white people think they have to fix is all and “save” African-Americans. They needed to be invested with power, not simply allowed to share the same space.

This was a very helpful and insightful book despite its flaws. It is a book I’d recommend to others to help better understand the history of race relations and politics in this country. While I’ll disagree with him on a number of points, I’m better for reading it. It would be nice to sit across from a table from him, over beer, even if we raise our voices at times.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.)

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