Those who know a bit about me through this blog know that I came from the Reformed/Calvinistic Christian tradition. It’s a wonderful Christian tradition with a rich theological heritage. I will not say I’m Reformed anymore as I’m more eclectic in my theological views now, but I still follow a lot of what’s going on in that tradition as there is so much I can learn from there. This post is going to touch on a big debate going on in the Reformed circles now which I think parallels to a certain extent the big debate surrounding New Creation’s message on grace.
The understanding I have of grace and the law and gospel first came to me when I read about it from Michael Horton and his gang of friends at White Horse Inn about 10 years ago. Through my many blog posts on grace and New Creation Church, I’ve actually referred back to Reformed authors in defense of what Pastor Joseph Prince teaches on grace. Michael Horton’s passion for the gospel has a lot of similarities with that of Joseph Prince. I know putting the two names together would probably horrify many people, but take away Pastor Prince’s charismatic views on healing, prosperity and blessings and look at things a bit more objectively and you’ll recognize a lot of similarities there in their messages of the gospel of grace. Yes, there are huge differences in other areas, but let me quote from a review of Michael Horton’s recent book Christless Christianity in which those appreciative of New Creation’s grace message would say a hearty “Amen!”:
The focus of the message in the contemporary church now tends to be more about us and our activity versus God and His work accomplished in Jesus Christ… The new legalism, Horton argues, consists of sermons that focus in on principles, rules, steps, laws, codes and guidelines as the central application, that if followed will reap psychological rewards. Preaching of this kind, he calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’. But Horton does not merely critique, he also points to Christ as the solution. While this may outwardly seem simplistic, Christianity, Horton says, is news about what Christ has done for us (a divine rescue) not what we do for Him (a self-salvation project or steps to victory). In other words, the gospel is first about divine accomplishment, not human attainment (or principles for living). What we do as Christians is always as a response to the finished work Christ has already accomplished for us. If it is not preached this way in every sermon then Christianity cannot be sharply differentiated from any other religion ascending to God, rather than a message showing our utter helplessness and the need to God to descend to rescue us. This, Horton emphasizes is the key, not only to salvation but to Christian sanctification as well.
…Horton’s tonic for the crisis is to focus on what God does for us rather than what we do for God. “Gifts do not go up to God but come down from the God who does not need anything that would obligate a return (Acts 17:24-35; Rom 11:35-36).” The Son of God did not come to be served, but comes to serve us – “we are the ones who need to be bathed, clothed and fed, not God.”
The current debate in Reformed circles is about Horton’s Christless Christianity book and I guess his views in general. I haven’t read that book and I don’t exactly plan to because I’ve read tons of Horton’s writings and he’s probably been the Christian author who has influenced my thinking the most. So I think I know what to expect from his book. I’m sure I would agree mostly with the book. Not everything, but I think I would certainly agree wholeheartedly with the general thrust of the book which is that preaching nowadays tends to be more about what we are to do for God, rather than what Christ has done for us – and that this should be reversed as the gospel needs to be central. Wonderful stuff. I like it and so would every New Creation member. Not only that, but great reviews from most of the evangelical Christian world.
And so in steps John Frame, who writes a scathing critique of Horton’s book, which sets the Reformed blogsphere on fire – for example, see responses to Frame’s review here, here and here. The interesting thing is that Frame is a pretty heavyweight Reformed theologian himself, and yet chose to write a very critical review. But perhaps it’s unsurprisingly as there’s a lot of history in all of this (i.e. the differences in viewpoints going back years), so I’ve read.
I haven’t read much from Frame, but I do like the stuff I’ve read. He’s the kind of guy who writes about a lot of things and makes you reflect. You may not agree with him, but he makes you think about things in a different way. He’s kind of a non-conformist too, not afraid to differ from what others say and stand up for what he believes in, which is another plus point in my eyes. I read his wonderful book Contemporary Christian Worship and loved it. In it he defends the contemporary / charismatic style of worship. That’s no big deal in and of itself but you must remember he comes from a tradition (Reformed) that’s generally quite anti anything that’s charismatic. The tradition is full of churches whose worship service is anything but contemporary in style. And the tradition has lots against contemporary / charismatic worship. And so he writes a book defending contemporary christian worship! What audacity! And in my opinion it was a great book and very balanced. Of course the majority in the Reformed tradition would differ from me!
So we have two authors here that I admire greatly, but for different reasons. Michael Horton and gang have taught me so much about the gospel, its centrality and the law/gospel distinction. His writings have shaped how I view God and the Bible. His writings have made me appreciate a church like New Creation that has got its emphasis purely on the gospel of Jesus Christ. John Frame, on the other hand, challenges me to see things from different perspectives and to keep things in balance and make sure truths are not out of proportion or carried out to the extreme or at the expense of other truths. As regards to where Frame stands regarding the gospel and law/gospel distinction, I’m on Horton’s side. Yet, I think there’s much that we can learn from Frame too.
Because most of my blog readers are not Reformed and probably couldn’t be bothered with an internal debate involving mainly Reformed Christians, the rest of this post (and the next) will be me basically trying to relate this controversy to the controversy surrounding New Creation and what we can learn through it. So here are some points:
1) The importance of the centrality of the gospel: One thing I’ve learned from Horton is that the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be central in everything. By the gospel of Jesus Christ, I mean the fact that God in Christ died for our sins. The gospel is about what God did in Christ, not what we do for God. It’s about God giving to us, not about us giving to God. And this message ought to be central in the church and in the preaching.
Most churches talk more about what we ought to do for God and other people. That’s not wrong, but that just should not be central to the preaching we constantly hear and our faith. The reason many churches preach a lot about what we ought to do and little on what Christ has done for us is because many preachers think that the gospel message is just for unbelievers and believers have “graduated” from such a message and don’t need to constantly hear it proclaimed. This kind of attitude to the gospel message is what many others have called assuming the gospel. Many assume that Christians know the gospel message and understand it. The problem is not that that preachers today deny the gospel. It’s just that they don’t think it’s important enough to place it central.
There need not be explicit abandonment of any key Christian teaching, just a set of subtle distortions and not-so-subtle distractions. Even good things can cause us to look away from Christ and to take the gospel for granted as something we needed for conversion but which now can be safely assumed and put in the background. Center stage, however, is someone or something else. (p. 20)
So the gospel message of Christ’s death and resurrection needs to be central. The message of what God has done for us on the cross ought to be more important and central in the church than what we ought to do for God. This has been Horton’s message for many years and all who attend New Creation know that this is precisely what New Creation is all about. The most important message of the Bible according to Paul is the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Gal. 6:14). And it is this message that is for both the non-Christian and even the Christian as it is understanding the goodness of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ that transforms us and teaches us to deny ungodliness (Rom. 2:4; Titus 2:12).
2) Using extreme language unnecessarily: Let’s go to Frame’s review. In the beginning he comments on Horton’s use of extreme language like “Christless” and “alternative gospel”. Frame reminds us, based on Galatians 1:8-9, that
It is time we learned that when we criticize someone for preaching “another gospel” we are doing nothing less than cursing him, damning him to Hell.
Frame’s concern is that we don’t use such extreme terms flippantly and that it doesn’t help when we use extreme labels when describing other Christians or sections of Christianity. Yes, sometimes we over-exaggerate to make a point. However, we also have to be sensitive to the implications of using such terms. By saying this preacher or that preacher is preaching another gospel is not something we should be saying lightly at all as we’re really saying that they are cursed.
I’m all for Horton’s call to place more emphasis on the gospel. However, we need to be careful and not describe those who don’t emphasize the gospel as much as we think they should as adopting or as being close to adopting a Christless Christianity or an alternative gospel. As Frame wrote,
We ought to discuss these matters in an atmosphere of brotherhood, charity, and civility. Certainly we should hold back on extreme language like “Christless” and “alternative gospel.”
I love New Creation’s emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve been to many churches and have sat under years and years of preaching in Singaporean churches and have never come across a church that emphasizes the gospel of Jesus Christ like New Creation. I wish all churches in Singapore would grasp the significance of the centrality of the gospel, just as Michael Horton and Joseph Prince have.
But let me say this. I hear a lot of preaching that touches on Galatians 1:8-9 (and other passages like that) that make it sound as if other churches other than New Creation (especially those which criticize New Creation) are preaching another gospel. The quote is about starting by grace but continuing by works. To Paul, this is about preaching another gospel. To Paul, people who promote such a gospel are cursed.
My point here, like Frame’s, is that we have to be careful with our words. I think that in an important sense, New Creation preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ more faithfully than perhaps any other Church in Singapore. New Creation is very clear on the gospel. Clarity is important especially as it relates to the gospel message. Many other churches tend to be less clear on the gospel, perhaps even confusing. But I would not even imply or hint that those who disagree with the way New Creation preaches the gospel are preaching another gospel. To do so is really to imply that all other churches or Christians are damned to hell.
Caution is also in order when we talk about the Ten Commandments. I’m solidly behind New Creation in their view that the Ten Commandments are not for Christians today. Other Christians from different Christian traditions believe the same thing. But there are many churches who still believe that the Ten Commandments are for today. We may disagree with that. But we have to recognize that these Christians are NOT saying that we are saved by obeying the Ten Commandments. We thus have to be careful with our criticism and refrain from saying that those who believe that the Ten Commandments are for today are preaching another gospel or preaching that they believe we have to obey the Ten Commandments to be saved, etc. Similarly, those who disagree with New Creation and other Christians who believe the Ten Commandments are not for Christians today should refrain from accusing these Christians of being antinomian or believing that we can sin all we want, etc.
Let me be clear. Scripture does use extreme words to describe those who advocate that we’re saved by works or by obeying the Ten Commandments. I’m not saying we should refrain from using such extreme language so we can all get along. No. By all means, use such extreme language if there are Christians and pastors who are advocating such deception. But as far as I know, no church or pastor does that. Some may preach a confusing message but that doesn’t warrant our extreme use of language to describe them or their teaching. I know what many New Creation members mean when they testify of how their view of Christianity was generally a legalistic one before they encountered the grace and freedom in New Creation. Their view of God was less than biblical because of what their pastors preached previously. I understand this because I’ve been in many such churches. A lot of preaching in many churches is confusing and gives the impression that we have to do good to please God. Furthermore, I know a lot of people do get the impression because of such teaching that God is angry with them and perhaps will not even save them if they do not lead good or godly lives. I’m all against such teachings. But talk to the pastor or leader about the confusing message and while his/her preaching wasn’t so consistent or clear, he/she will tell you that he believes we’re saved by faith alone through grace alone. Such preachers could learn a lot from New Creation about being clear about the message of the gospel and grace, but I would certainly not go so far as to say that they are preaching another gospel and are cursed.
This works both ways of course. Just as I’d like to see less preaching from New Creation that sets up an “us” vs “them” mentality implying that other Christians and churches (those not part of the “grace revolution”) are preaching another gospel, I’d like to see less preaching from other Churches which paints churches like New Creation as though they are antinomian or preach that Christians can sin all they want. Both sides need to be careful not to create straw man arguments and tear them down using the extreme language of Scripture.