SAET Interviews In Politics And Theology #10: R. Scott Clark

With regard to political action:  American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong . . . . If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? . . . . Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.”  Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America?


1. For those who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?

RSC: I doubt that I’ve made any contribution to this question. My interest is partly historical, partly biblical-exegetical, theological, and pastoral. I have an academic interest in the history of Reformed theology and ethics and particularly in the way the classical Reformed theologians (and confessional churches) understood creation, natural law, and the intersection between those categories and Reformed soteriology and understanding of redemptive history. As a pastor I have seen the damage done to the visible church by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world.

2.  Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers.  Do you agree or disagree?

RSC: If I understand the question correctly, yes, I agree. What Christ has commissioned the visible church, as an institution, to do is one thing; and what he has commissioned the Christian to do is rather broader. This distinction goes back at least to the early Reformation’s doctrines of vocation and its distinction between the two kingdoms. It also has roots in St Augustine’s distinction between the two cities. Christians have a dual citizenship. St Paul says that we have a heavenly citizenship (Phil 3:20) but we also have an earthly citizenship (Rom 13:1-7). If we understand that the Israelite theocracy was fulfilled by Christ then we also understand that God has made no special covenant with any nation. The visible church is the Israel of God (Gal 6:16). The responsibility of the visible church is to be the principle representative of the kingdom of God (the heavenly kingdom) on the earth (Matt 16; Matt 18). Historically considered, the church as an institution has had very difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities given to her by our Lord: administration of Word, sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline (Belgic Confession article 29).

Christians, however, as members of the common kingdom, under God’s sovereign rule, have civil responsibilities. They may form private associations (outside the visible church) to address social issues which are common to believers and non-believers. They may and should speak, as Christians, to social questions. Because we confess that, as Creator and Redeemer, Christ is Lord of all and because we seek to live out our faith daily in God’s good creation and active providence in the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The great error of “world flight” is that it denies the essential goodness of creation. The essential error of the theology of glory is that confuses heaven with earth. Confessional Protestants have a doctrine of vocation that calls the Christian to engage the God’s world to the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God while always distinguishing this world from the world to come.

3.  Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?

RSC: My politics have evolved considerably during my lifetime. I was raised a liberal (Humphrey) Democrat. I was catechized on the Sunday paper and local politics. When other children we in Sunday School I was putting up yard signs. In university I read political philosophy and the combination of Plato, Augustine, Calvin, and Hobbes led me to a sort of democratic socialism.  Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction was helpful in alerting me to the theological errors (and cardinal sins) inherent in socialism. Plato (or neo-Platonism) is wrong. The Spirit-matter dualism is an error. It is not Paul’s (Holy) Spirit-flesh (sin) dualism. Jesus is true God and true man. It was Calvin’s doctrine of creation and natural law and the epistemological (common sense) realism of the Reformed orthodox that began to push me and my Augustinian view of sin in a more libertarian direction. Along the way I have been influenced, in different ways, by the early fathers (e.g., Ad Diognetum), Augustine,  Eric Voeglin, Hannah Arrendt, C. S. Lewis, W. F. Buckley, and Dorothy Sayers among others. From Reformed orthodoxy I learned the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. In theological terms, civil life, whether in local communities or in international relations,  is a covenant of works (“do this and live”) and not a covenant of grace. The administration of the covenant of grace (“for God so loved the world”) belongs to the visible church not to the magistrate.

4. How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?

RSC: In this world one either spends time or money (and sometimes both). Even when the latter is lacking there is a great deal that might be done on the local level and Christians are willing to get involved and spend the time. Political capital, like economic capital is accumulated over time. Local politics is about involvement and taking risks. American Christians (particularly evangelicals) must get over the microwave mentality. We need to think more in terms of camp fires and cook outs. It takes a long time to make a decent meal outdoors and it might all go wrong. It might not taste good but it’s necessary. If Christians involve themselves in the local school board or local council races or even on advisory committees these are inexpensive ways to become involved in local civil life.

If we substituted the camp fire for the microwave we might also be useful by becoming more critical of reigning cultural paradigms. For example, many American Christians are suburbanites. They make take the existence of suburbs for granted but should we? We are all creatures of a given time and place but being Christians gives us the opportunity to step outside our own time and place a bit and to see it more objectively, more critically. Christianity is not middle-class American suburbia nor is it neo-Romanticism about “the city.” God may be glorified in both places but he may also be glorified in rural settings. Where is the evangelical, missional passion for rural America? Re-engaging rural America will not happen quickly. It might take decades but there are opportunities all through the American Heartland for those who want to engage civil life on a micro-level with limited resources.

5.  How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?

RSC: When I was in seminary I recall a fellow-student with theonomic inclinations dismissing Romans 13 as if it were insignificant. It seems to me that if one finds Romans 13 insufficient or insignificant for ones understanding of the Christian’s role in civil life then one is likely asking the wrong questions or beginning with the wrong assumptions. One should ask, “why do I find Romans 13 unsatisfactory?” Could it be that one is seeking outcomes or working with expectations that St Paul did not? Americans have invoked and abused Jesus’ teaching about   a “city shining on a hill” (Matt 5:14). The American colonies were not that city. Jesus is the light of the world and his Christians are the “light of the world” (Matt 5:14) by virtue of their union with him. It’s important to note, however, how Paul called us to be light in the world principally by living a “peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:2). That American Christians bristle at God’s calling Romans 13,  for submission to established authorities, says a great deal about the continuing influence of the revolutionary spirit. Paul clearly teaches at all authorities, even Nero, are instituted by God. This is why Calvin was so careful to stipulate that popular revolution is immoral, that it is the vocation of the “lesser magistrates” to hold civil rulers in check. Paul understood what he was saying. Christians suffered under Nero and they would suffer more grievously in centuries to come. I think the treatise Ad Diognetum (c. 155 AD possibly by Polycarp) is most a instructive application of Romans 13. His argument was that the Christians were false accused of being seditious. He responded (5:.1-11):

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life…For while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. The live in their own countries but only as nonresidents, they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

Would that the same could be said of us today.

6.  How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics?  Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?

RSC: I think these are two distinct, if related, questions. The Westminster Divines (chapter 19) answered the first (regarding the contemporary application of Deuteronomy) by reminding us that there are three aspects to the Mosaic law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The Decalogue (Deut 5) is a typological, Israelite, summary of the moral, creational law. It is permanent and it like the other two aspects of the Mosaic law (613 Mitzvoth) have been fulfilled by Christ. The divines, however, were at pains to point out that the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law have been fulfilled. What remains is the moral law, given in creation, that binds all people in all times. The “general equity” of the Mosaic civil law continues to be of use to us but we should understand, as your question suggests, that the Israelite civil law was not absolutely unique and thus though there are general principles to be discerned it is because those principles are grounded in creational (natural) justice which existed prior to Israel and which continue to bind civil magistrates two millennia after Christ fulfilled them. The principal function of the Pentateuch (Torah) generally is to point us to Christ. Only secondarily and indirectly does it provide guidance to contemporary civil life and even then only in general terms.

Proverbs is important for the civil life of the Christian because it was intended to serve as an introduction to wisdom, as a collection of maxims that, properly understood and skillfully applied, will result in benefit to the one who obeys them. Ultimately, of course, wisdom points to Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:18). Proximately, however, Christians as much as anyone need practical wisdom to live life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). Inasmuch as evangelical political engagement has lacked a lot of wisdom for the last several decades one might say that we are much more in need of Proverbs (and perhaps Ecclesiastes and Job!) than we are Deuteronomy.

7.  Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment.  Are all three of these to be implemented by believers?  Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?

RSC: Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen have both properly pointed us to Daniel as a good model for Christian social and political engagement. We are not in Canaan. We are in exile. Daniel did not seek to overturn the established social or civil order. He served God faithfully within it, within the limits established by God’s Word. This is how it has always been. When the magistrate called Daniel to transgress God’s law, Daniel refused and accepted the consequences. The paradox of Christian political influence is that it will most likely come not through the acquisition of power but by the quiet (and perhaps therefore conspicuous) adherence to God’s Word that transcends all political and civil authority.

8.  If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics.  This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work.  But am I doing the right thing?  Should I be bolder?”  How would you respond?  Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?

RSC: Of course a church planter must be wise. He must know his setting, his limitations, but he  must also know and be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I doubt that any pastor is called to preach on “political” topics, depending upon how one defines political. Preaching Romans 13 or 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 is not “political.” If it is true, as the Reformed have thought, that we live in two kingdoms simultaneously, then the preacher is called to proclaim the advent of God’s Kingdom in Christ (Mark 1:15), to call everyone everywhere to repentance and faith but he is also called to preach and teach God’s Word as it applies to our life as citizens of the creational kingdom, which we share with those who do not confess Christ. Christians want to know how they should conduct themselves at work, with the non-Christian co-workers, neighbors, and family and God’s Word speaks to those things. If the word “politics” refers to partisan politics, to calls to elect this candidate or to vote this way or that, then no preacher, let alone a church planter, should be speaking to those things that way from the pulpit. A minister is not called to be an emissary from the civil kingdom. There are plenty of those. He is called to serve as an ambassador from the Kingdom of God to this world and he is to announce the in-breaking of that kingdom, in Christ, in Word and sacrament, into this world.

9.  What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology?  The best book?

RSC: Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms are two excellent places to begin to think through these issues. Ken Myers’ Mars Hill Audio is indispensable for continuing to grow in this area.

– See more at:

Gay Christians?

Is it appropriate to speak of “Gay Christians.” Is it appropriate to speak of “Murderer Christians” or “Thief Christians” or “Idolater Christians”? When the adjective “gay” refers to homosexuals, the expression “Gay Christian” is an oxymoron. Remarkably, Millennials (18–34) may be almost entirely unaware of the older, original sense of “gay,” i.e., happy. Equally remarkable is the fact that it now seems widely accepted that the practice of homosexuality is quite compatible with a Christian profession. There is even a “Gay Christian Network” internet program. They must be right, after all famous evangelical celebrities have endorsed them. Is that not how truth and reality works? If one gets enough influential people to endorse one’s views and practices, then that makes it true, right?

This is the fallacy Argumentum ad baculum or the appeal to force. A million Frenchman can be wrong. Most of the Germans supported the Third Reich. Most of the Japanese supported the Emperor in World War II, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. All those folks were wrong. Mass movements are often wrong. Ideas and practices become accepted for a variety of reasons but their acceptance, even widespread acceptance doesn’t make them true or right.

Of course whether my comparison between homosexuality and theft or murder holds depends on whether homosexuality (i.e., homosexual activity) is, in fact, sin. There are essentially three approaches to this question:

  1. The Bible Doesn’t Speak About Homosexuality
  2. The Bible Approves of Homosexuality
  3. The Bible Regards Homosexuality As Sin

Whole volumes, of course, have been written on this question over the last 30 years or so and a single blog post cannot sort them all out but there is strong prima facie evidence that views #1 and #2 are wrong.

What Scripture Says About Homosexuality
Leviticus 20:13 (ESV) says,

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination

The Hebrew Bible can be blunt but it can also be restrained, polite and in this case, some have used its politeness, its restrained language against it. In this case, however, the Hebrew Bible is a little more explicit than the even more polite ESV translation. “A man that lies [with] a male [in] bed [as] a woman….” The intent seems pretty clear. The concern is not with two guys taking a nap. The verb “to lie down” is used euphemistically in Hebrew to refer to sexual relations and the inclusion of the adjective “male” and the noun “bed” make the intent clear. There was also a civil punishment attached to this prohibition: death. No one was going to be killed for sleeping but they could be put to death for same sex (homosexual) relations. An “enlightened” and “liberated” (late) modern person might not like what the text says but it was clear enough in its original context to serve as the basis for criminal prosecution (on the basis of 2 or 3 witnesses) and capital punishment.

One might object, “But that’s the Old Testament. We’re not under the Old Testament any longer.” Well, that’s true but it’s irrelevant to the question: does the Bible speak to homosexuality (i.e., homosexual activity)? Leviticus 20:13 is in the Bible and it speaks to homosexuality. Ergo #1 is false. Does the Bible approve of homosexuality? Leviticus 20:13 describes homosexuality as an “abomination” ergo, no, the Bible does not approve of it. No, Jonathan and David were not homosexual lovers. Not every natural, expression of masculine affection is a signal of homosexual attraction or relations. One could only read that narrative this way in our perverse, over-sexualized culture.

It is true that the Old Testament, strictly defined as the Mosaic Covenant, the 613 commandments of the national, temporary, typological revelation of God to national Israel, has been fulfilled by Christ. Nevertheless, the Christian church has always rejected the notion that there are two Gods in Scripture, a mean Old Testament God and a nice, loving New Testament God. That was the view held by the Gnostics in the 2nd century AD and later by the Manichaeans. It was rejected as heresy in both cases because the New Testament explicitly teaches the contrary. The Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 says,

Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one

The NT quotes or alludes the Shema. Our Lord Jesus quoted it in Mark 12:29. Paul alludes to it in Romans 3:30, in Galatians 3;20, and so does James in James 2:19. The New Testament uses the same language for God that the OT uses. The NT regularly quotes the OT regarding God’s disapproval of sin and even, e.g., Hebrews 12, intensifies its language about God’s hatred for sin and the coming judgment. No one preached about the coming judgment more than Jesus himself.

There are not two Gods in Scripture and though advent of Christ did fulfill all the types and shadows under Moses, all the sacrifices and civil laws and punishments, and though the national covenant with Israel has expired, nevertheless, Leviticus 20:13 does still communicate God’s moral disapproval of homosexuality.

Further, the New Testament continues to condemn homosexuality. In Romans 1:26–27 (ESV) Paul writes:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

As in Leviticus, Paul is clear but relatively polite or restrained in his language. That restraint, however, cannot be used to argue that the passage does not speak to or against homosexual acts. The context is established in v. 18 where Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” So, he is elaborating on the theme of God’s moral disapproval of sin. He proceeds to give examples of egregiously sinful behavior. In v. 23 he gives idolatry as an example. In v. 24 he turns to sexual immorality, to “the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” which he connects again (v. 25) directly to idolatry. Violation of the first three commandments is connected to the violation of the seventh commandment. Thus, the context is idolatry and sexual immorality. Women exchanging “the use according to nature” (την φυσικην) for that which is “outside of nature” (παρα φυσιν) is a reference to sexual behavior. Paul wasn’t complaining about economic (business) behavior or ordinary domestic questions. In v. 27, he includes men in his complaint. Thus, both Lesbian acts and male homosexual acts are included and condemned. The frame of reference is sex and the boundary is nature, that which is of use or profit (χρησιν). Homosexual acts are biologically fruitless, they cannot produce children. According to Paul, the only product of homosexual activity is the “due penalty” for the activity.

He is even more pointed in 1Corinthians 6:9 and 1Tim 1:10, where he condemns the “αρσενοκοιται.” The standard definition (Bouer, Arnt, Gingrich, Danker) is “a male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite.” This is the way the word was understood in early Christian, post-canonical usage though it occurs in the same sense in the Sibylline Oracles (6th cent BC) ii.73. See Moulton and Milligan s.v.

Of course, we want to avoid the etymological fallacy (deducing the meaning of a word by adding up its letters or component parts) because it does not always work and can produce misleading results but in this case it works because usage confirms what adding up the letters suggests. αρσην  = male and κοιτης = bed or euphemistically for sexual relations.

However uncomfortable it makes us late moderns, the text of 1Corinthians 6:9 is quite clear:

“Or do you not know that the unjust (αδικοι) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Neither will you who deceive (πλανασθε) nor the sexually immoral (πορνοι) nor idolaters (ειδωλολατραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοι), nor the effeminate (μαλακοι), nor homosexuals (αρσενοκοιται).”

I translate μαλακοι as “effeminate” because of the way it is used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures) for the “soft parts” and is used elsewhere in the sense of “effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Cor. 6:9” (BAGD, s.v.).

Paul was quite familiar with Corinth as a fairly depraved, cosmopolitan port city and he was well aware of the sorts of sexual immorality that were openly practiced there as elsewhere (e.g., Ephesus had pornographic graffiti that would make us blush). It seems clear that one thing, effeminate men who submit themselves to sexual abuse, perhaps homosexual prostitutes, led him to the last category, homosexuals.

Paul is announcing God’s judgment on several classes of sinful behaviors and warning those who commit them impenitently (without sorrow or struggle) that they must acknowledge their sin for what it is and turn to and put their trust in Jesus the Savior who obeyed and died for heterosexual and homosexual sinners and who offers free acceptance with God on the basis of faith (trust) in Jesus, the gracious Savior of helpless sinners.

So, there is ample biblical evidence that, taken in its original context, understood according to the intention of the human authors and in its broader canonical context (the Old and New Testaments together regarded as one, unfolding story of redemption and revelation) for the conclusion that the Bible regards homosexuality (i.e., the sexual acts) and even male effeminacy, i.e., the now widespread so-called “gender bending” that blurs the lines between males and females) as sin.

Creation Is Inherently Good
Above I sketched the biblical evidence for the claim that homosexuality is a sin. In this part address the argument that some make in defense of the notion that there are such things as “gay Christians” is the appeal to providence: “God made me this way, therefore it cannot be wrong.” First, the premise is false and second, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the (flawed) premise.

Since there are practicing homosexuals who profess Christian faith, let us get back to basic Christian doctrine. According to Genesis 1, God created all that is by the power of his Word. Everything he created was “good.” Indeed, between v.1 and v. 31 the text says six times that creation was “good” or “very good.” In the beginning, in creation, before the fall, there was no human sin. There was spiritual corruption, among the angels, prior to Adam’s fall but Adam was not sinful nor did he have sinful proclivities. There was no disharmony between Adam and Eve or between them and nature. It is essential to understand this reality as best we can because our tendency is to imagine that the fallen world we know now is the way things have always been. We should not, however, read our experience as fallen, sinful, rebellious creatures back into creation.

Thus, no, it is not true that “God made me this way.” All sin, including homosexuality, is a consequence of the fall but God did not make anything fallen. Our sinful dispositions, attitudes, and acts are the consequences of our fall in Adam. We sin because we’re sinners. On analogy with the other sins forbidden by God’s law, why can’t the idolater, the covetous, the thief, the heterosexual fornicator or adulterer or the murderer make the same argument? Of course he can’t! God has not violated his own law. God did not sin. He did not corrupt the world. We did.

“That may be,” one might argue “but isn’t God in control of all that happens? If so, why did he ordain that I should be born with these inclinations?” Again, as a consequence of the fall, every human is born with sinful inclinations. There are as many ways to transgress God’s law as there are imaginations and people. We are deeply corrupted by sin. Every faculty of our soul is corrupted by sin. We do not think as we ought. We do not will as we ought and we do not love as we ought. By nature, Scripture teachers, we are inclined to hate God and our neighbor.

The Mystery of Sin
If one asks if I can explain how God can be sovereign over all things and not morally liable for the evil that happens in the world, I reply by saying that is a great mystery to which no one has ever offered a completely satisfactory answer. Scripture does address it plainly in Job 38 and Romans 9. The short answer is that God says that we sinful humans do not have standing to charge him with injustice. We are not competent. Further, whatever our difficulties with the mysteries of providence, it is not as if God has not fully involved himself in our predicament. God the Son graciously became incarnate, faced every temptation we have faced (Heb 4)—indeed he knows temptation in a way we can never know in this life because he did not succumb to it! Are you willing to shake your fist at Jesus, who obeyed, died, and was raised for the justification of sinners? Only a fool says yes.

There are other reasons to think that it’s not true to think that homosexuality is normal. Most of the studies (here is a recent study) I have seen suggest homosexuality is usually connected to serious dysfunction in one’s nuclear family. Alcoholism, sexual abuse, neglect (physical and emotional) are factors. Though the statistical likelihood of homosexuality does not seem to be much greater than it has been for decades—by now surely everyone knows that the old Kinsey numbers were badly skewed by their sample population!—homosexuality surely plays a vastly more prominent role in our culture than it did just a few years ago. There is obviously a correlation between the breakdown of the nuclear family, the rise of divorce, the rise of substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) and the general collapse of the culture and the increased visibility of homosexuality in popular culture and in the educational establishment. There may be a small percentage of a given population born with a biological proclivity to homosexuality but that is probably true for other disorders and sins. Remember, it was not very long ago that homosexuality was listed in standard psychiatric diagnostic manuals as a treatable disorder. The evidence hasn’t changed but the political-cultural-social-economic influence of homosexuals has. We should be honest about the increased economic clout of homosexuals. They compose an economically attractive market. They tend to be more highly educated, with a higher disposable income (no kids to feed) and they spend. Mass media = advertising. All of it is advertising. The entertainment and news programs all serve advertisers and most advertisers only care about the quarterly earning reports. They do not care about the social consequences of their programming and advertising. Sometimes Marx is right.

Further, even were it true that “God made me this way” it does not follow that, therefore the moral law no longer applies. No one is permitted to leverage the clear, unequivocal teaching of Scripture with his private interpretation of providence or natural revelation. Scripture clearly teaches that homosexuality (as defined in part 1) is sin. It’s against nature. The claim that “God made me this way” does not grant one permission to violate the clear teaching of Scripture. Your interpretation of providence might be wrong. It is clear enough that it is wrong.

Every Christian has sins with which he must struggle. Jesus did not call the Christian life a daily crucifixion for no reason. Those tempted by homosexuality are no more exempt than heterosexual sinners from this call to discipleship. Thieves must daily repent of their desire to steal (instead of working). The covetous must daily repent of their desire to have what God has not given them. Idolaters must repent of their desire to make a god in their own image. Liars must repent of their desire to control outcomes by twisting the truth.

The culture always approves of one sin or another. Right now, homosexuality is fashionable. It is the current way to rebel against God but fashion isn’t necessarily truth or righteousness. Of course we should rather see homosexuals embrace the Christian faith than repudiate it but it must be the whole Christian faith and not an edited version conveniently amputated of its moral teaching.

Brothers, We Are Not Perfectionists

In the doctrine of sanctification there are several errors to be avoided. First, let’s define our terms and understand what the basic biblical (and confessional Reformed) doctrine of sanctification is. The verb “to sanctify” is Latin. It is the word from which our English word “saint” is derived and it means “to set apart” and “to make holy.” What is holiness? In short it is Spirit-wrought conformity to the moral will of God, Spirit-wrought conformity to Christ, the dying of the old man, and the making alive of the new (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A88). It is:

Heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more (HC Q/A 89.


Heartfelt joy in God through Christ, causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works (HC Q/A 90).

Perhaps the three great errors the church has committed regarding the doctrine of sanctification are:

  1. Justification through sanctification—This is one of Rome’s greatest errors (and that of all moralists). In order to get sinners to obey moralism makes our acceptance with God contingent upon our obedience. It matters not whether we begin with grace (as Rome does) so long as we end with works. This is exactly Paul’s point in Galatians 3:3 and Romans 11:6. Grace plus anything nullifies grace and denies Christ’s finished work.
  2. Sanctification as a second blessing—This is the error of “Easy Believism, which is the result of the Second Great Awakening revivalist system whereby one walks the aisle, prays the prayer, and signs the card. These acts are treated roughly the way Rome treats baptism, as if it works ex opere operato(by the working it is worked). In this system people are told that it is a good thing if they grow in grace by not strictly necessary. In their effort to protect free justification against the errors of the moralists This view fails to understand the organic relation between free justification and the sanctification which follows it as fruit and evidence.
  3. Perfectionism—This is the error that says that, in this life, we can, if we will, attain to sinless perfection. This view probably existed prior to Pelagius (fl. c. 380–420) but he certainly articulated it on the premise that, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin. Adam was merely a bad example and Christ a good one. In his commentary on Romans he wrote that Paul could not possibly mean what he seems to say in 5:12–21. According to Pelagius, each of us, even after the fall is, as it were, Adam. Because we are not inherently sinful, we can achieve sinless perfection in this life. By the 9th century, even though the Western church formally rejected Pelagius (the Eastern Church did not) it had become mostly semi-Pelagian insofar as it downplayed the effects of the fall and emphasized human ability even after the fall to cooperate with grace. Throughout the history of the church, before the Reformation, there were adherents to the notion to notion that, in this life, prior to death, with sufficient effort in cooperation with grace, Christians may achieve sinless perfection. In the modern period the Wesleyans are the group most closely associated with the doctrine of sinless perfection. B. B. Warfield wrote the great Reformed response to perfectionism (2 vols. Oxford, 1931)

Biblical Realism About Sanctification
For some time I’ve been concerned that we might be losing track of the biblical realism about the degree to which sanctity is achieved in this life. One place I see the influence of this shift away from realism, if you will, is in the way Romans 7 is treated. When, in his commentary on Romans, Pelagius came to 7:14–25, he knew a priori that Paul could not be describing himself or a Christian. This, of course, is opposite the Augustinian and later the orthodox Reformed view of Romans 7. I have heard Reformed folk say, “No Christian could say”:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (ESV).

It has been said to me that Paul must be speaking in another persona or speaking as if he were not a believer. The immediate difficulty is that there is no obvious sign that Paul has stopped answering the question that he asked at the outset of chapter 7, about relation between the Christian and the law. The metaphor he uses is that of marriage. As long as one’s spouse is still alive one is bound. When the spouse dies one is free. In our case, by virtue of our union with Christ through faith, we have died with Christ and thus we are no longer under the for justification.

There is nothing wrong with the law (7:7). The law did its good and holy work by revealing my sin (vv. 7—12) It was not the law that brought death but rather it was the toxic combination of my sinful nature with God’s holy law.

From this foundation Paul then turns to the contrast between the law as it is in itself, “spiritual” and to himself, as he is in himself, “sold under sin.” The conflict is between what he is in Christ and ongoing sin, between the principle of new life which is at work in him but which is not fully realized and cannot be fully realized in this life.

When one says “no Christian could say, ‘sold as a slave’” I reply, “No unbeliever could possibly say “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being….” This is the testimony of the believer, one in whom there is, by God’s free, sovereign grace, a principle of new life.

There’s just no clear, obvious, prima facie change of person (first suggested by Pelagius) or subject or any indication that Paul is speaking about an unbeliever. He speaks consistently in the first person.

Hence Calvin says (on vv. 15ff):

He now comes to a more particular case, that of a man already regenerated; in whom both the things which he had in view appear more clearly; and these were, —the great discord there is between the Law of God and the natural man, — and how the law does not of itself produce death. For since the carnal man rushes into sin with the whole propensity of his mind, he seems to sin with such a free choice, as though it were in his power to govern himself; so that a most pernicious opinion has prevailed almost among all men — that man, by his own natural strength, without the aid of Divine grace, can choose what he pleases. But though the will of a faithful man is led to good by the Spirit of God, yet in him the corruption of nature appears conspicuously; for it obstinately resists and leads to what is contrary. Hence the case of a regenerated man is the most suitable; for by this you may know how much is the contrariety between our nature and the righteousness of the law. From this case, also, a proof as to the other clause may more fitly be sought, than from the mere consideration of human nature; for the law, as it produces only death in a man wholly carnal, is in him more easily impeached, for it is doubtful whence the evil proceeds. In a regenerate man it brings forth salutary fruits; and hence it appears, that it is the flesh only that prevents it from giving life: so far it is from producing death of itself. That the whole, then, of this reasoning may be more fully and more distinctly understood, we must observe, that this conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God: for man, left to his own nature, is wholly borne along by his lusts without any resistance; for though the ungodly are tormented by the stings of conscience, and cannot take such delight in their vices, but that they have some taste of bitterness; yet you cannot hence conclude, either that evil is hated, or that good is loved by them; only the Lord permits them to be thus tormented, in order to show to them in a measure his judgment; but not to imbue them either with the love of righteousness or with the hatred of sin.

From a larger perspective, given Paul’s doctrine of law in chapters 1–2, his doctrine of justification in chapters 3–5, his doctrine of sanctification in chapter 6 and his renewed proclamation of justification and sovereign grace in chapters 8–11, it’s hard to see what else he might have written except an account of the struggle of in the believer between the remaining sin and the new life in Christ. Only in light of this struggle can one really appreciate the declaration of 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

and the renewed doctrine of sanctification that flows from the triumph announced. The Spirit is at work in us, but we read of the triumph in chapter 8 chastened by the realty of the struggle in chapter 7. This is why Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of Calvin’s students and a pastor and teacher in Heidelberg and one of the contributors to/editors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), taught that the new life is “inchoate.”

Calvin’s account of Romans 7:15–25 taken with Olevianus’ description of the Christian life may both be described as “realistic” as distinct from the somewhat triumphalist, Wesley-influenced or Higher Life-influenced approaches to the new life that dominated among Evangelicals since the 18th century.

There is no question that there is a new principle of life in the believer. Paul says in Romans 6:3–4,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Baptism, of course, does not accomplish this union. Here Paul uses baptism as way of describing our identity with Christ and a picture of the union that we have with by grace, through faith. The same teaching appears in Ephesians 2:4–6:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

We were dead but by grace alone we’ve been made alive, by virtue, of which, ironically, we’ve died to sin are being sanctified progressively into the image of Christ (2Cor 3;18). We are, according to Paul, a “new creation” (2Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15) in Christ.

These categories of “death” with Christ and “new life” indicate a decisive, divinely wrought, break with life before Christ. They signal an inauguration, a beginning, of new things. They do not, however, signal the completion of all things. The consummation is not yet. The principle (beginning) of the end has been introduced and is at work in us, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ. We are becoming what we shall be but we have not yet become what we shall be (1John 3:2).

Romans 6
There are a few central passages that we must consider when we think about our state in Christ and the progress (or lack thereof) in the Christian life. The first of these is Romans 6:9–19:

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (ESV).

Paul says two things essentially.

  1. In Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, we have died decisively to sin and have been made alive with Christ;
  2. Experientially, we continue to struggle with sin.

We have to affirm both things simultaneously. This is why Paul says that we must reckon ourselves, think of ourselves, as dead to sin. Why? Because we are not yet experientially dead to sin. This is why he writes, “Do not present your members to sin” because, we are still struggling and too often inclined to do just that.

Perhaps the most difficult part of this passage is the clause in v. 14,

“Sin will have no dominion over you.”

One reason it is difficult is because it is often taken as a promise that, if we do our part, we might achieve sinless perfection. This, however, is not what Paul intends to say or imply.

The reason I know this is because of what Paul says in the very next clause:

For you are not under law but under grace

This clause is best understood to be speaking not in experiential language or speaking directly about our experience but rather about what is objectively true about us because of Christ’s coming and saving work for us.

We are not seeking to be accepted with God on the basis of the law because Christ has already done that for us. We have been graciously accepted by God for the sake of Christ’s righteousness for us and credited to us.

For this reason, the power of sin has been broken decisively. Sin will not ultimately win because the power of sin is the law and we’re no longer under the law for righteousness with God. Were we under the law, then sin would have dominion because the power of sin is the law but, in Christ, all that has changed.

The objective truth and reality of God’s actions for us in Christ do have experiential, subjective consequences for us but Romans 6:14 is no promise that we will not ever sin again nor does Paul intend to say, as many have taken it, “if you simply apply yourself you can achieve victory of this particular sin and the reason you have not achieved victory is because you have not applied yourself.”

That’s a rather large and unsubstantiated assumption that people have read into Romans 6:14. It’s an assumption that comes from perfectionism or perhaps from the higher life movement but it does not come from Paul, who is far more realistic about the effects of the fall and the continuing struggle with sin in this life.

Realism is not despair, which is sin. In v. 17 Paul does issue a glorious doxology:

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become… slaves of righteousness

When Paul says “slaves to sin” and “slaves to righteousness” he certainly does not mean to say, “you no longer sin” or “you can no longer sin.” He’s not speaking of our experience but of our status. The only way to be a slave to sin is to be under the law for righteousness but we aren’t under the law in that way so we are now slaves to righteousness.

Outside of Christ we could not ever be “obedient from the heart” but now, in Christ, we are, at least sometimes, obedient from the heart. This does not mean that we do not experience the grave sort of struggles, grief, and doubt that sin brings as Paul describes in chapter 7. Our experience does sometimes make us think that we are “sold as a slave under sin.”

Now, however, in Christ, there is a decisive break in the old reality. The new reality, introduced in Christ, is that we no longer belong to the law for righteousness and we no longer belong fundamentally to sin. We have been justified and the Spirit who raised us from death to life is at work in us but that work is gradual and often imperceptible.

Over-Realized Eschatology
So, how should we think of our experience of sin, grace, and sanctification? I have the impression that some folk think that we can make a list of sins and sort of tick them off one by one as “overcome” and they seem to think that we need only to apply ourselves to eradicate the remaining sins—as if sin is like a stain in the carpet—if we scrub harder it will come out.

Behind this, I suspect, lies an over-realized eschatology. All forms of perfectionism rely on the notion that more of heaven has been introduced into history than has actually occurred but the idea that there can be a sort of heaven on earth before Christ’s return has been deeply influential in American Christianity.

As I argued in “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” (in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91) Reformation Christianity has been on alien soil in North America for a long time. Therefore the air we breathe is full of alien, toxic influences of which we should be aware and which we need to filter from our lungs as it were.

Perfectionism is one such influence. It’s harmful because it’s not true and because it doesn’t lead to the thing desired, greater godliness and sanctity. Perfectionism misleads by creating a false impression. If we think we have arrived we will not face our sins for what they are. If we do not face them, we cannot repent of them and die to them. Further, perfectionism cheats by lowering God’s moral standard. No redeemed person can honestly say that they have loved God with all their faculties and their neighbor as themselves perfectly. Any claim to have achieved “perfection” re-defines the standard and that, by definition, cannot lead to greater godliness because sanctity has an objective standard: God’s immutable, perfect holiness and his unchanging moral law.

Because of the influence of perfectionism in American Christianity many (most?) American evangelicals are more comfortable with Wesley than with Luther and yet, for my money, Luther was much closer to true godliness than Wesley, if only because he didn’t cheat, if only because he was ruthlessly honest about our sinfulness, our sin, and our need for grace. The publican was closer to grace and sanctity than the pharisee, right?

We are being changed but it’s much less like a laundry list or carpet cleaning and more like the ebb and flow of a tidal pool. At low tide the water has left and we never saw it leave and didn’t know exactly how it was happening. If we filmed it and played back the film we could see the process and result but standing in the pool we weren’t aware and, in this life, we don’t really get to watch the film. We have the testimony of Scripture that it’s true, that it’s happening but I suspect that the moment we attempt to document it, that very act or the next one will be sin.

Our Inchoate Obedience
Everyone who knows the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) knows the first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and perhaps question 21, “What is true faith?” and maybe even question 60, “How are you righteous before God?” Few, however, have probably paid much attention to questions 114 and 115 but they bear directly on how we should think about the nature of the progress of the Christian life.

In question 113, the issue is the implications inherent in the tenth commandment:

That not even in the least inclination or thought against any commandment of God ever enter our heart, but that with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.

In short, the Reformed Churches interpret the tenth commandment to be a summary of the entire moral law and they interpret the moral law to require moral perfection in our faculties. It mentions two, the intellect and the affections but no one could imagine that the will is excluded as if the law demands perfection in two faculties but not the third.

This interpretation raises another question: Can believers keep these commandments perfectly?

No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the Commandments of God (HC, Q/A, 114.

The language of the catechism reflects the widespread Reformed doctrine that our obedience in this life is only “inchoate.” The theologians who used the expression obedientia inchoata and “inchoate sanctity” (sanctitas inchoata) to describe the degree to which we achieve sanctity in this life is like a who’s who of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries (e.g., Peter Martyr Vermigli, Ursinus, Olevianus, Pareus, Alsted, Gomarus, Rivet,and Marck). Zacharias Ursinus, on questions 89 and 90, describes the “new obedience,” which the Spirit works in us, as “inchoate” or beginning or a sketch or a draft.
That’s a good way to think about the Christian life short of glory, a rough draft. The outlines of the consummate state are being drawn but there are many erasures, as it were. This is not a counsel of hopelessness. We’ve been renewed in order that we might be sanctified.

Let’s be clear. As Louis Berkhof wrote, the source of our new life is the gospel:

God has the right to demand of us holiness of life, but because we cannot work out this holiness for ourselves, He freely works it within us through the Holy Spirit on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us in justification. The very fact that it is based on justification, in which the free grace of God stands out with the greatest prominence, excludes the idea that we can ever merit anything in sanctification (chapter X, section G.2)

The law, however, never stops being the law. So, even as it serves as the standard of the Christian life it continues to prosecute the sin and sinfulness that remains:

115. Why then does God so strictly enjoin the ten Commandments upon us, since in this life no one can keep them?

First, that as long as we live we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so the more earnestly seek forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ; secondly, that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

As we know from the second question of the Heidelberg Catechism

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

From where do we know the greatness of our sin and misery?

From the Law of God.

Again, even in Christ, even though we come, by the grace of God alone, to love the law the law never becomes anything other than the law. Thus, as Berkhof reminds,

According to Scripture there is a constant warfare between the flesh and the Spirit in the lives of God’s children, and even the best of them are still striving for perfection. Paul gives a very striking description of this struggle in Rom. 7: 7-26, a passage which certainly refers to him in his regenerate state. In Gal. 5: 16-24 he speaks of that very same struggle as a struggle that characterizes all the children of God. And in Phil. 3: 10-14 he speaks of himself, practically at the end of his career, as one who has not yet reached perfection, but is pressing on toward the goal. (ibid, ch. X, sect H.2.(c).2)

The struggle drives us to grace (free acceptance by God) in Christ, it drives us back to the gospel, the announcement of free acceptance for Christ’s sake, to the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, and to the gift of prayer.

Consider the last part of q. 115:

… that without ceasing we diligently ask God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we be renewed more and more after the image of God, until we attain the goal of perfection after this life.

The Good News Of Gracious Sanctification
Questions 114 and 115 aren’t as well known as some others in the catechism but, as we muddle through this life, we should be encouraged that we aren’t the first to think about these issues and we’re not the first try, fail, confess, and try again by God’s grace.

The good news is that, even though you and I are not perfect, perfection did happen after the fall, once. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, was perfect for us. The Spirit is at work, gradually, faithfully, renewing us in the image of Christ and we will attain the goal of perfection “after this life.”

The Cruelty Of Nominalism

Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.

Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts

This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.

This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.

You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.

Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies.  Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.

In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.

I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.

Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.

Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.

An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.

To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:

  • The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
  • The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
  • The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
  • The signs become the body.

The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.

The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.

The third is the confessional Lutheran view.

The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.

These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.

Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.

The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.

Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.

This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.

The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.

The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).

There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.

This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.

Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.

In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.

The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.

Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs  discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.

I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.

It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why  you are staring at them?

Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.

Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.

Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.

Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”


The Necessity And Limits Of The Imitation Of Christ

There is no question among orthodox Christians, i.e., those who believe and obey God’s Word, who believe the catholic creeds, who have a substantial connection to the ancient church, whether Christians ought to seek to imitate Christ. The questions are how do we imitate him and to what end? This has been a topic of some discussion on the HB. I wrote an 8-part series distinguishing between Jesus the Savior and Christians as his saved. Yesterday I tweeted (yes, I know, it’s a funny verb) some comments about the difference between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, that Jesus’ faith is “not the pattern” for ours. That comment received some pushback, as they say. Some of the respondents made a fair point. “Pattern” was too ambiguous. The truth is that there are continuities and discontinuities between Jesus’ “faith” and ours. Thus, as you might have noticed, I put the word faith in quotation marks to signal some discontinuity between Jesus’ “faith” and ours, not to suggest that Jesus did not have faith but to signal that his faith was qualitatively different from ours because he is qualitatively different from us.

There are analogies between our faith and Christ’s but I stand by my original point that we should be very cautious about talking about Jesus’ faith and ours as if they are the same thing. They are not the same thing because Jesus was not a sinner who needed to be saved from the wrath of God and we are not the Savior. Yes, Jesus may be said to have exercised faith. He trusted his heavenly Father but the trust he exercised was not that trust that we, by grace alone (salvation and faith are a gift) exercise. Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father cannot be said to have been a gift. He was not born in need of regeneration, i.e., he was not born dead in sins and trespasses. He was not in need of being raised spiritually from death to life. As we’ve seen in the recent posts (and here) on the Heidelberg Catechism, God the Son was born innocent, righteous, and holy not for himself but for us (pro nobis). All his righteousness (HC 60) is credited to believers so that it is as if they themselves had done all that he did. In Christ, sola gratiasola fide, it is as we had never sinned or had any sin. Jesus trusted that his Father would keep the covenant (pactum salutis) they made before all worlds (John 17), that his Father would vindicate him, i.e., that he would recognize his Son’s inherent and perfect righteousness.

When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about the faith of fallen, sinful, mere humans. We are not inherently, intrinsically righteous before God. We are righteous only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. That is why Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness” is applied repeatedly in the NT to believers, to Christians, and not to the Christ. Yes, when we believe, we are certainly trusting that our Father will keep his promises to us but those promises are made to us in Christ and we are praying in Jesus’ name. When Jesus prayed, he didn’t need a Mediator. Jesus is the Christ and we are his Christians. These are two distinct classes.

There are two dangers in talking about the imitation of Christ: 1) moralism; 2) moralism. Let me explain. In the exchange  it was claimed that “Christian” (Χριστιανός) means “little Christ.” That’s not not quite correct. It means “a follower of Christ.” The word occurs only 3 times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) and it never means “little Christ.” That some think this way, however, illustrates the first danger, that of confusing the Christ and the Christian. That tends toward self-salvation, which is an impossibility. It is either born of a denial of the fall and its consequences (Pelagianism) or from downplaying the effects of the fall (semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Arminianism). In the case of Pelagius, he set up two great examples for all humans to follow: Adam and Christ. He denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all.” He said that we’re all born Adam and that we may, if we will, do what Adam failed to do: obey God of our own will unto glory. The Apostle Paul, however, took a very different view (see Romans chapters 1–5; Eph 2:1–4). According to Paul, when Adam sinned, we all sinned in him and when he died spiritually, so did we. By nature, after the fall, we are incapable of doing anything toward salvation. We are utterly helpless. To blur the line between Jesus and his people, then creates the impression that if we only pulled a little harder on our bootstraps, we can imitate Jesus unto acceptance with God and glory. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The second danger is closely related to the first, that of turning Jesus into the first Christian. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) did this by attempting to redefine Christianity as the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Some of liberals who followed him, as Machen noted, blurred the line between Christ and the Christian by making Jesus into the first Christian do-gooder. That he was not. He did good but not toward an earthly utopia, not merely as a prophet, but as the Savior of sinners and by way of inaugurating the kingdom of God. The kingdom, however, in the interregnum, is largely invisible and especially to those who seek a kingdom of power and glory before the consummation. Jesus disappointed Judas and he continues to disappoint those who continue to cry for Bar-Abbas.

Both of these dangers are quite present today. On the one hand, there is a reaction to antinomianism both real and perceived that tends to blur the line between Christ and Christian by talking incautiously about Jesus’ faith and ours, without explaining clearly the qualitative difference, as if Jesus had faith in just the same sense as we. That is a great mistake. We also face pressure to blur the line from those who, in various ways, want to see Christianity expressed more visibly in the world in concrete ways. A century later, we’re having the same discussions about the Social Gospel that we had in the early 20th century. It’s frequently said now that our Christianity may just as well be seen as heard. In two words: uh, no.

We need to make some distinctions:

There is Imitation of Christ: Faith hath two eyes; one lookes to Christs merits that we may be saved; the other to his righteousness that we may be sanctified. In Imitation there be two things, Action and Affection. Action, for it is not enough to commend and admire the patterne, but we must follow it. Affection, for it is not enough to forgive because we cannot revenge. This is no sufficient imitation of Christs love; for he can, if he please, bruise sinners to pieces, and q break them.1

Thomas Adams made a great point. We look first to Christ’s merits for us and then only should we talk about imitation but talk about it we must.

Above we began to look at a very necessary distinction in the way we talk about the imitation of Christ. It is undeniably true that Christians seek to imitate Christ but, as Adams wrote, we look to Christ with two eyes, as it were. First we look to him as Savior. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of falling into the Socinian error, as Samuel Rutherford noted in 1655.

The Socinian faith which looks to an exemplary Martyr whom God of no justice, but in vain, and for no cause delivered to death but of mere free pleasure whereas there might be, and is forgiveness without shedding of blood: contrair to Heb. 9. 22. Rom. 3. 24, 25 &c. even good works done in imitation of Christ.2

There are other ways to abuse the truth that Christians imitate Christ. The early English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright warned about one of them:

RHEM. 7. [17. Tha character or the name.] As belike for the perverse imitation of Christ, whose image (specially as on the Rhood or crucifixe) he seeth honored and exalted in every Church, he will have his image adored (for that is Antichrist, in emulation of like honour, adversary to Christ) so for that he seeth all true Christian men to beare the badge of his Cross in their forehead, he likewise will force all his to have an other marke, to abolish the signe of Christ. 3

The abuse here is to violate God’s law and justify by calling it “imitation.” These “imitations” are, of course, improper. We may not do as we will and call it the “imitation of Christ.” He alone determines how he is to worshipped and adored. The sorts of things of which Cartwright complained grew out of the medieval attempt to replicate the life of Christ, which quest failed to honor the distinction between the Savior and the saved, between the Christ and his Christians.

Jesus is more than an example but he is, in certain, important ways, an example to us to imitate. Here we come to the other eye, of which Adams wrote. William Perkins points us in the right direction as we seek to understand how it is that we imitate Christ. We do so not as “little christs”, not in order to be accepted by God, but because he is the Christ and because we have been accepted. As such, by his free favor alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit we are united to him. We imitate him thus:

First, as Christ Jesus when he was dead rose againe from death to life by his own power, so we by his grace, in imitation of Christ, must endeavour our selves to rise up from all our sins both originall and actual unto newnes of life. This is worthily set downe by the Apostle, saying, We are buried by baptisme into his death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glorie of the Father, so we also should walke in new nesse of life: and therefore we must endeavour our selves to show the same power to be in us every day, by rising up from our owne personall sins to a reformed life. This ought to be remembred of us, because howsoever many heare and know this point, yet very few do practise the same.4

We seek to die to sin and live to Christ. This is the basic structure of the Christian life. Perkins made clear the distinction between Christ and the Christian. He rose again “by his own power.” We endeavor to “rise up” metaphorically from our sins. We are identified with Christ in baptism, to the end that we might walk in the new life, in Christ. We imitate the Savior by seeking to live as saved people.

Herman Witsius is also helpful here.

LXXXIX. But yet, as it is very desirable to have likewise an example of perfect holiness upon earth; so God has not suffered us to be without one; for he sent his own Son from heaven, who hath left us the brightest pattern of every virtue, without exception, “that we should follow his steps,” 1 Pet. 2:21. It was a part of Christ’s prophetical office, to teach not only by words, but by the example of his life, that both in his words and actions, he might say, “learn of me,” Matt. 11:29. The imitation of him is often recommended by the apostles, 1 Cor. 11:1. 1 Thess. 1:6. 1 John 2:6.

We are not accepted by God because of virtues formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. That was the medieval theology and piety that the Reformers and Reformed Churches rightly rejected but we did not reject the notion that God does form virtues in us. Christ did set an example for us. As Witsius noted, that’s the clear teaching of Scripture.

Still there are distinctions to be made in the way that talk about imitating Christ.

XC. It has been very well observed by a learned person, that we are to distinguish between imitation, whereby we are said to be μιμηται, imitators of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:1; and between following, by which we are commanded to follow Christ; between “follow me,” Matt. 16:24, and “follow after me,” Matt. 10:38. For the former denotes a conformity to an example: the latter, the attendance of servants going after their masters; which words are generally confounded by writers in their own language, though they ought by no means to be so.5

The death we are die is real but figurative. When Christ called us to take up his cross, he was not calling us (as they do in the Philippines each Spring) literally to be nailed to a cross. That’s why we don’t take pilgrimages to Jerusalem to re-trace the steps of Christ. That borders on superstition. We are to walk in his footsteps as he obeyed his Father and as he loved his neighbor. The death we are to die daily is to sin.

The norm for our Christian life is not, as noted above, what we imagine we should do in order to imitate Christ. Rather, we are to think of ourselves as his servants who attend to his Word. We obey him according to his command and we imitate him in the way that he instructed. As we seek to imitate him it is ever with the consciousness that it is he who has saved us and not we ourselves—not even in cooperation with grace. Our imitation is in recognition of the categorical distinction between Christ and Christian, Savior and saved.


1. Thomas Adams, A Commentary Or, Exposition Upon The Divine Second Epistle General Written By…St. Peter (1633), 14.

2. Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened, 285.

3. Thomas Cartwright, A Confutation Of The Rhemists Translation, Glosses And Annotations On The New Testament, 734.

4. William Perkins, An Exposition Of The Apostles’ Creed, 243–44.

5. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 44–45.

Against the Theology of Glory


Many Christians today take it as an article of faith that God must deliver Christians from trials and tribulations. This is an age in which Benny Hinn’s ridiculous books have sold millions and he is but the latest charlatan selling health and wealth to gullible Christians. Why is such a view, that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy and not to suffer so plausible to so many? There are a variety of answers.

The first answer is that this is nothing new. There have always been competitors to the Christian teaching on suffering. Martin Luther railed against what he called “the theology of glory,” i.e., a theology which replaces Christ with something else or seeks to get to God without Christ the Mediator. The theology of glory I have in mind is the reigning American triumphalism of revivalist (and Reformed) evangelicalism. Almost weekly some well-meaning evangelical announces that there is a coming revival. Bill Bright has been announcing a revival for years. Meanwhile real, weekly, church attendance rests at 10% (weekly) and rather less who attend to the means of grace in two services.

If there is precious little empirical evidence for this alleged revival, why the apparent excitement? Another partial answer is the powerful influence of Modernity upon American Christians. One of the chief doctrines of Modernity has been the doctrine of progress, that things are getting better every day in every way. As a schoolboy I remember teachers reciting this as a mantra. Such an idea of progress, whether personal or corporate (social or ecclesial) is not Biblical. Its founded in the doctrines of the universal Fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. Its founded in the notion that God has left the world to us, and we must make of it what we will. Its founded in a denial of the doctrine of original sin.

The Modern doctrine of progress has fit hand-in-glove with inherent flesh- and world-denying tendencies of American fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are famous, of course, for what they are (or used to be) against. In days past, they were against movies, cards and liquor. Now they make movies and produce cards with Jesus’ picture on them. I guess liquor is still mostly taboo, but they have often identified the “world” not as an ethical category, but an ontological category, so that they have identified the “world” with creation so that it is their very flesh they must overcome. This is, of course, a mild sort of gnosticism and it is not hard to find Gnostic strains through fundamentalism in the modern period to this very day.

Some years ago, in Chicago, I heard on one radio station, a fundamentalist offering secret knowledge (gnosis) about how to speak in tongues, for $29.95, “send now before midnight.” On the other end of the dial, at the same time, I heard a hyper-dispensationalist explaining how the Pauline epistles are “not for today.” He too would give me the secret insights for a sum. It was dueling mystery religions and, ironically, the combatants would deny they had anything in common at all.

Both, however, are children of the “higher life” movement. Both were offering, in their own ways, the secret to overcoming my humanity. Like the old monks (whom they would repudiate) both were calling me not to trust in Christ and his righteousness imputed to me, but to take that next step toward the blessing, whatever it might be.

So it is that both are also the children of Modernity, both are more or less Pelagian, both really believe in Progress (personally, morally, if not socially) but both are also selling world-flight. Doubtless both of them also hold the sort of premillennial eschatology which features deliverance from the tribulation through the rapture, followed by a seven-year tribulation, a sort of purgatory/second chance for those who missed the first bus, followed by the earthly millennium — during which Jesus, the Lamb of God, offered once for all, is said to reign on an earthly throne, in Jerusalem, watching Jewish priests offer sacrificial memorial lambs. The golden age is said to be followed by Armageddon and then, eventually the judgment. The point here is that, the view that God ought to deliver his people from rather than through tribulation has been fed and made plausible by the Modern American desire to conquer nature through the use of technology.

Part of the attraction of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth is that it is a form of esoteric knowledge. The other part of the attraction is that the rapture is said to come before suffering and in order to deliver Christians from suffering. It is not surprising that this view has gained such immense popularity at the same time as the rise of Modernity.

One of the most obnoxious forms of triumphalism to afflict the American church is reconstructionist postmillennialism. It is most ironic that reconstructionist postmillennialism, is actually quite like dispensational premillennialism in significant ways. Like the hyper-dispensationalist and the Pentecostal, they are more closely related than they might like to acknowledge.

The other side of world-denying premillennialism is the rise of a new version of postmillennialism which, though somewhat more world affirming, also features a golden-age, in their view, brought about by the preaching of the gospel. Though some versions, at least, teach a great apostasy in the church before golden-age, postmillennialism has similar attractions as premillennialism, secret, esoteric knowledge, a future earthly golden-age and progress. The influence of the Modern doctrine of progress is even more obvious in the case of contemporary postmillennialism.

In recent decades, however, under the formulations of David Chilton, R.J. Rushdoony, G. Bahnsen and others, a “world-flight” of another sort has become more prominent. These reconstructionist postmillennialists (in distinction from the more traditional Postmillennialism of C. Hodge and B.B. Warfield) are deny the necessity of suffering for the Christian. Instead they argue that the suffering described for the church was actually completed prior to A.D. 70. This new postmillennial school is now advocating a version of what appears to be triumphalism.

By triumphalism I mean the attitude which tends to think of the church as “irresistibly conquering throughout the centuries…seemingly more interested in upholding its own rights and privileges than in promoting the salvation of all.” (P.F. Chirco, s.v., in The New Catholic Encyclopedia vol. 14, 1967, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press)

There is evidence that Scripture itself addresses and rejects triumphalism. One writer describes Paul’s opponents at Philippi as having the following positions, “…the attaching of little significance to the Cross, a confident triumphalist theology, a strongly realized eschatology, and religious and moral perfectionism through obedience to Torah, especially circumcision. (C. Mearns, New Testament Student, vol.3, 1987,194-204.)

It is the contention of this essay that both versions of triumphalism/world-flight are mistakes. Rather, the Christian ethic and eschatology entails that we affirm this world as essentially good, if fallen, and that we are called not to flee (or be secretly raptured from) suffering for Christ between the first and second advents. Suffering for Christ is not an exception, it is the rule for Christians, it is a mark of this inter-adventual age. Our model is the incarnation itself. All true Christians affirm that Jesus was true man and true God. The Apostle John says that anyone who denies the humanity of Christ is anti-Christ. Jesus, the God-Man, the true man, the Second Adam, actively obeyed his Father and suffered through his entire life, and especially in his passion and death. This is the pattern for the Christian life.

Amillennialists, who hold that there is no earthly golden-age, that we are now in the millennium (i.e., Rev. 20 symbolically describes the inter-adventual period) predictably, find themselves between these two poles. There is a great deal which has been fulfilled by the first advent of Jesus. Thus Paul says all the promises of God have their yea and amen in Christ. Yet there is a great amount of tension between what has been fulfilled in principle and what is yet to be consummated. A. Hoekema, an amillennialist, finds a great deal of incentive for godly living in the tension produced by the amillennial stress both on the “already” aspect and the “impending” (consummation) aspect of eschatology.

For instance, this tension implies that the struggle against sin continues throughout this present life. Yet the struggle is to be engaged in, not in defeat, but in the confidence of victory. We know that Christ has dealt a death blow to Satan’s kingdom, and that Satan’s doom is certain. (The Bible and the Future, 71)

This is true not only on an individual level, but a cosmic level as well. The relationship between the already and the not yet is not one of absolute antithesis, but rather one of continuity. The former is a foretaste of the latter. The New Testament teaches that there is a close connection between the quality of our present life and the quality of the life beyond the grave. To indicate the way in which the present life is related to the life to come the New Testament uses such figures as that of the prize, the crown, the fruit, the harvest, the grain, and the ear, sowing and reaping, (see. Gal.6.8) Concepts of this sort teach us that we have a responsibility to live for God’s praise to the best of our ability even while we continue to fall short of perfection. (TheBible and the Future, 71)

It is in response to popular trend of reconstructionist triumphalism that I offer a brief examination of the role of suffering in the New Testament as a mark of the progress of Redemption and the impact eschatology upon the ethics of the New Testament. The purpose of this study is not to be exhaustive, but suggestive of a third way of viewing our relationship to this world and the question of “world-flight.”

Far from being a mere adjunct to the Christian life, suffering is, in the New Testament, an almost essential mark of the Christian life. Contrary to triumphalism, it is suffering which more often than not is a sign of blessing, not wealth or power. The relation of suffering to the personal eschatological questions has not been totally ignored by the church. The eschatological necessity of suffering is implied in the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We are first to persevere through sin and temptation. Secondarily we are to persevere through persecution. This is a reflection of the Biblical doctrine of suffering.

Suffering is a pervasive theme in the NT. Several factors figure prominently in this theme of the suffering of Christians in the NT. A brief look at a few passages should be enough to establish the thesis that in the New Testament that suffering is eschatologically necessary. That is, Christian suffering is a mark of the New Covenant.

It is a commonplace among NT writers that when those who are opposed to Christ lash out at us, it is, actually Christ who they seek to hurt. It was understood in the NT that the same rejection of Christ which led to his crucifixion would continue. So expected was it among the church that Paul tells the Thessalonians in 3.4 that he foretold that “we are about to suffer, just as also it occurred and you know.” (Barker Lane and Micheals, The New Testament Speaks, 153)

Such a common notion lies behind such passages as Phil 1.13,20 and esp. vs.29; Romans 5.1-11; 8.35-38; 2 Cor 1.3-11 and especially vs.5 where he makes the striking statement that the “sufferings of Christ overflow unto us”.

I. Key Terms

The key verbs are Anechomai, Pascho, Adikeo, and their derivatives. Anecho has reference to relieving words (Heb. 13.22) and other objects. It often has reference to receiving things from men, or in the case of 2 Timothy 4.3 not receiving or bearing with sound doctrine. Though the word is middle in form and thus we would expect it to be deponent in meaning, it is used as a passive exclusively in the N.T. Anechomai is not used often in the NT to refer directly to suffering. It is worth noting where it does, because of the passive force of the word. In 1 Corinthians 4.12 It has the sense of “enduring or receiving” sufferings. In 2 Thessalonians 1.4 the word is used to describe the Thlipsin which the Thessalonians endured.

Adikeo generally is used to designate “hurting” “injuring” someone. In Acts 25.10, Paul declares that he has not injured (Edikesa) the Jews. The first text using this verb which tends toward the idea of enduring hurt is 1 Corinthians 6.7 where, using the passive form, Paul exhorts them to be willing to be wronged, (Adikeisthe). In 2 Corinthians 7.12 he uses the verb to describe a “wronged” party in a dispute.

This term also occurs in the Apocalypse. In 2.11 the Lord promises that the second death will not harm (Adikethe) the overcomer. In 6.6 it refers to “damaging” the oil and the wine. 7.3 uses it of doing “harm” to the earth. The only deviation from this pattern is in 22.11 where John characterizes some one who acts unjustly with this verb.

Pascho of course is the NT verb associated most often with our Lord’s vicarious suffering. Of the three this word occurs most frequently in the NT. In Matthew 16.21, 17.12, (see. parallels Mark 8.31, 9.12), Luke 22.15, 24.26,46, Acts 1.3, 3.18, 17.3, Hebrews 2.18, 5.8, 9.26, 13.12, Pascho refers to the suffering of Christ on the cross. Thus, in these contexts, given the centrality of the cross in the gospels, the message of the cross provides the core meaning for this word in the NT.

This verb, however, is not applied just to Christ. In Acts 9.16 Luke records the words of the ascended Lord which Ananias is to carry to Paul, “I will show him how much it is necessary (Dei ) to suffer for my name.” Applied to us, the word has a derivative meaning. We suffer not the outpouring of God’s wrath, for Christ has suffered eschatologically once for all, but in the NT epistles especially we suffer the outpouring of the wrath of the world, Satan, and the powers of this age.

The verb Dei, is the term most often used to communicate necessity. It is also central to the thesis of this paper. It is relatively easy to demonstrate the force of Dei in the N.T. The clearest example is John 3.14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up.” It is necessary in that it is the requisite for salvation. (v.15) It has this sort of force in many places throughout the New Testament. It with passages like John 3.14,15 in mind that we are speaking of “eschatological necessity”.

Theologically we speak of consequent necessity. It was not necessary for God to save man, but having willed to save some, the cross became a necessity to the accomplishment of the Divine will. Our suffering does not have the same necessity. But it does have a derived necessity. It is derived from our union with Christ. I hope to show that union with Christ, in the NT, necessarily entails suffering. We suffer because of our union with Christ. We suffered and died in Him. So also do we now suffer subsequent to His suffering.

II. Exposition

Nowhere in the gospels, perhaps nowhere in the NT is the union between Christ and believers and its implications taught so clearly than in John 15.1-17 Jesus outlines the fact that He is the vine and those who are united to Him by the Holy Spirit, true faith, bear fruit. Jesus says he will consummate this union by laying down his own life for his friends, those whom he has chosen.

Beginning with v.18 he outlines the implications which union with Christ has for believers. “If the Kosmos hates you, keep in mind that the Kosmos hated me first.” The world does not hate those who are “united” ethically to it. The servant is not greater than the master. The master suffered, so the servant should not expect to escape a similar fate. Jesus is describing a normal part of the Christian life. That Christians in any era should be free of suffering is, as we will see, an aberration.

In Rom 5:1-11, (especially vs.4) where Paul takes it as a given that identification with the death of Christ entails suffering. It is the almost casual way he goes about describing the relationship of suffering to the glories of the Gospel that it is striking. (see. Galatians 3.4)

Paul says in v.3 that because of our relation to Jesus, we boast in suffering. Robert Schuller is wrong. Paul is not saying that “when things get tough, the tough get tougher.” Rather he is saying that our sufferings (Thlipsis), demonstrate the eschatological (and consequently) ethical antithesis between the Christian and the World. Suffering is an affirmation of our union with Christ. This is the prelude to the locus classicus for the doctrine of imputation, which is another aspect of our union with Christ.

Romans 8.18ff. Paul compares the sufferings (Pathemata) of the present age semi-eschatological with the glory to be revealed in us. For this revelation creation itself is anxious. What is the object of the anxiety? The redemption of our bodies. (v.24) He is looking for the resurrection. Because of our weakness and groanings (because of suffering?) the Spirit intercedes for us. Vs.35: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Thlipsis or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

These are not just random selections of difficult things used in contrast with Christ’s love. These are real life experiences shared by the Roman Christians before and after the reception of the letter. The references are unmistakable. This is part of the reason Paul turns their attention for comfort to the unbreakable golden chain of God’s decrees in 8.28-30.

In 1 Cor 13.3 Paul lists things with which perhaps the Corinthians are familiar. Among them is giving one’s body over to be burned. Clearly there is a reference here to martyrdom. It was apparently common enough in the first century, that Paul could casually mention it as an example, without having to explain that Christians sometimes were martyred for the faith.

In 2 Corinthians 1.3ff, Paul’s doxology to the Father, one of the things for which Paul is grateful is deliverance from Thlipsis (vv.4ff.). We are familiar with the benefits of suffering from this passage, namely patience, but this is not the only reason Paul mentions it.

In vv.4,5 he is contrasting the comfort God gives to his saints through the Holy Spirit, with the sufferings which are ours of a course. He even speaks of Christ’s Pathemata abounding, or overflowing to us. Paul even identifies his (and our) sufferings with Christ’s. What does he mean?

We saw in the gospels with reference to Christ, Pascho has a technical meaning. This is proof of the derivative meaning I posited earlier. Paul is arguing that identification and mystical union with Christ necessarily means that we endure persecution at the hands of those who still hate Jesus. Because of that identification and union our sufferings become, in one sense, part of a continuum with Christ’s. The discontinuity is that his are perfect and propitiatory and ours derivative. (see. W. Michealis, TDNT vol.5, s.v. Pascho )

The comfort we relieve comes from Jesus. A reciprocal relationship is envisioned. In v.7 Paul says that his hope for the Corinthians is firm because he knows they are experiencing this reciprocal relationship.

Phil 1.29. This passage establishes unshakably that in the mind of Paul, there was a necessary correlation between election in Christ and suffering. Let me quote the passage beginning with vs.27

Only this, conduct yourselves worthily of the gospel of Christ, then whether coming, I see you or being absent hear about you, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit (in the One Spirit?) working as one man for the faith of the gospel, and not being frightened in any way by the ones opposing you, which opposition is proof of their destruction, and of your salvation, and this salvation is from God. Because it has been granted to you not only to believe but to suffer on behalf of Christ, having the same struggle which you saw regarding me and now hear regarding me.

Several things become abundantly clear in this passage. First, Paul correlates opposition to the gospel and adherence to the gospel. Both are proofs. Opposition is proof that one is reprobate. Adherence and “co-working”, Sunerchomai is proof of salvation. This destruction is proleptic. The opponents are still opposing.

So also the salvation is proleptic, since we are still struggling (Agona) In v.29 he argues that the cause of this antagonistic relationship is that being in union with Christ necessarily entails suffering.

We cannot fail to notice the second correlation, that of the grant to believe and also to suffer. Just as there exists a corollary between belief and unbelief, so also there is a corollary between election and suffering. We can no more escape suffering than election. For Paul both are sovereign donations of God. Neither can suffering be limited to the first century by some artificial construction, since in that case we would have to restrict election to the first century.

The force of 2 Thessalonians 1:5 is equally clear. Paul praises God for their faith and he boasts in their perseverance. Notice that he does not boast in their dominion but in their perseverance. The notion of “eschatological necessity” explains why Paul uses the phrase “counted worthy of the Kingdom of God, for which you are suffering.”

The kingdom here is both present and future. The present suffering indicates membership in the present kingdom and inheritance of the future kingdom. If there are three marks of the true church, then perhaps this is a mark of the true Christian, suffering.

Paul is not the only writer in the NT to make use of this notion. In 1 Peter 2.19-23 Peter contrasts two kinds of suffering, that which is incurred justly and that which is incurred unjustly. The former is commendable, the latter is not. What is important to notice here is that first suffering is commendable, and second, (v.21) he says “you were called to this”, i.e. suffering. Why? Because Christ is our eschatological-ethical example, and because of our union with Him we are to follow in his footsteps. Peter places suffering in the category of Christian duty. (see 1 Peter 3.14-18.) It is clearer nowhere else than in 1 Peter 4.12ff. that suffering is the normal lot of the Christian, because of our Spiritual connection to the ascended Christ.

With all this common NT background it should not surprise us to see it reappear in the Apocalypse. If for the sake of argument the recapitulation reading of chapter 12 is allowed, then the relationship of the Dragon to the Woman is colorful allegory of the didactic truth which we have clearly seen elsewhere. Indeed, the entire Apocalypse is a series of progressive parallels intended to explain to suffering Christians (Rev. ch’s 1-3) in the cities of Asia Minor, why it was, Jesus having ascended to his royal glory, they continued to suffer at the hands of opponents and authorities. Jesus’ explanation, through the visions given to John, is that it is, in effect, a mark of this age. This is the age of the tribulation, the slaying of the prophets, the wasting of God’s people, so that only a remnant will remain at the coming of the Lamb in wrath.


The doctrine which I have tried briefly to establish in this paper is the eschatological necessity of suffering. Suffering, because of our union with Christ, is consistently represented in the NT as a fruit and proof that we are united with him. Because we are Christ’s body, and the antithesis between Christ and the World continues, the world pours out its hatred for Christ upon us. We in turn receive assurance of faith, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit as we fill up and share in Christ’s sufferings.

Christian suffering, which the Apostle Peter distinguishes sharply from suffering for the sake of wrongdoing, is part and parcel of being a Christian. It is to be expected. Inasmuch as it is a mark of this age, for the Christian, it is necessary. Therefore we ought to expect it. We ought not be surprised when “fiery trials” come upon us.

This view is in stark contrast with both premillennialists who find that Christ’s teachings in Matt 5-7 do not apply today (for whatever bizarre reason) and those postmillennialists (e.g., Gary North) who regard Jesus’ sermon as applicable only for those who are oppressed so that they will not apply in the coming golden age. The view advocated in this essay rejects both these approaches as, at once too other worldly and not heavenly minded enough. Just as Christ our Savior suffered in his flesh, so shall we. Just as he was raised, if he tarries, so shall we be raised. Just as he has been glorified, so shall we be glorified, where glory belongs, in heaven, with the Savior.

A Reformed Critique of Alcoholics Anonymous

[This article was first written in 1987. It was first published in the Reformed Herald in 1989. It appears here with only minor revisions.

Since I first posted this essay on the web in 1999, it has generated more response than I expected. Before you write to complain that I have misrepresented AA or to tell me how much AA has helped you or to give me sources to read on the history of AA, please note that this is not my current field of research nor will it be any time soon. Please note that this essay is not intended as a personal criticism nor does it intend to deny that God is free to work as he wills. I understand that some have been helped by AA. That fact, however, does not change the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture (Deut 29:29). That God has used AA to bring one to faith in Jesus is a cause for thanks but it is not a reason to withhold criticism of AA. This essay is intended primarily to encourage confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches to take up their responsibility to love sinners. Revised February, 2006. ]


The Twelve-step movement and the language of co-dependency has become an accepted part of evangelical church life. It has not always been so nor is the status quo necessarily right and good for the church. This essay is a plea for reconsideration of this trend in the light of Biblical teaching and Christian doctrine.Alcoholics Anonymous was born in the midst of the religious turmoil in the 1930’s, in the midst of a great ecumenical fervor, growing anticipation of a war in Europe, and a fight between Fundamentalists and Modernists for the religious and theological soul of the nation’s Christians.1

In 1935 in Akron, Ohio, a “sudden spiritual experience” relieved one stockbroker of his obsession with alcohol.

Following a meeting with an alcoholic friend who had been in contact with the Oxford Groups of that day….Though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.2

That broker and his physician friend armed with a description of “alcoholism and its hopelessness” created their own synthetic spiritual remedy for their malady. What followed was an explosion in popularity any church growth program would envy. By 1939 membership had reached 800, with the support of Harry Emerson Fosdick, and the Episcopalian magazine Liberty. In 1940 John D. Rockefeller declared his support for AA By 1941 AA had 2000 members and the support of Jack Alexander in the Saturday Evening Post “The mushrooming process was in full swing. AA had become a national institution.”3

In this same time period the group began to formulate its creeds and confessions known as the Twelve Steps and Traditions.4 In 1939 they produced their authoritative book: Alcoholics Anonymous called by the group the Big Book.5

Some forty years after its seminal meetings the group has blossomed to 50,000 groups world wide in 110 countries and membership is conservatively estimated at well over 1,000,000. Its strength lies not only in numbers but in the attractiveness of its program, i.e., its anonymity, and its eclecticism. There are very few alcoholism treatment centers not wholly controlled intellectually by the theology and methodology of AA.

It will be useful to know a little bit more about the Oxford Groups from which AA has borrowed its methods. The Oxford Groups were founded by a Lutheran minister, Frank Buchman, in the early twenties. They gained their nickname from informal house parties around Oxford University. They called themselves the “First Century Christian Fellowship.” Their emphasis was upon mystical guidance, akin to the Pentecostal Word of Knowledge, if not as dramatic, surely as subjectivist.6

Focus was not upon the Bible as the revealed Word of God, but upon personal experience. The movement later became known as “Moral Rearmament” when Buchman declared that the nation could not save itself (1938) with guns but with guidance from God.7

Much of his evangelism in the USA was centered around Park Avenue and had its headquarters in a local New York City Episcopal parish. There is also an intellectual connection with modern positive thinking movements such as that led by Norman Vincent Peale and later Robert Schuller. There were four absolutes upon which he insisted:

  1. Perfect Honesty
  2. Purity
  3. Unselfishness
  4. Love

“Five C’s” for which the group is known are:

  1. Confidence
  2. Confession
  3. Conviction
  4. Conversion
  5. Continuance.8

It was a relatively simple matter to adapt the nine points listed above to the self-help methodology of AA.9 It has also been a regular practice of AA to borrow liberally from the Bible and the Christian tradition while denying their substance and meaning.10

One cannot doubt that AA speaks in overtly religious terms and teaches religious doctrine. The very words of the founder, Bill W., are quite clear in this respect.

I had always believed in a Power greater than myself. I had often pondered these things, I was not an atheist…I had little doubt that a mighty power and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and immutable law, and no intelligence? I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation….With ministers and the world’s Religions I parted right there….To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him…My friend suggested what seemed a novel idea. He said, Why don’t you choose your own conception of God? That statement hit me hard…I stood in the sunlight at last. It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make a beginning …There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. (italics original).11

The Big Book is a combination of the Bible and Augustine’s Confessions for Alcoholics Anonymous. Just as the Christian turns to the heart warming story of Augustine’s conversion after that great intellectual struggle with the foolishness of the Gospel, so this collection of stories stands as an even more authoritative account of the spiritual journey of the Founding Fathers and authors of the Big Book.12 The Big Book is, authoritative for AA because it was written by alcoholics for alcoholics and most of all because, in their words, “it works.”13

Law or Gospel?

There are only two sorts of words in this world, law or gospel. The former says, “Do this and live,” (Luke 10:28). The law demands perfect obedience. It tells us that we must “do,” in order to stand before God. By contrast, the gospel says that Jesus Christ has “done,” for us, he has obeyed God’s law and satisfied divine justice on behalf of all those who trust him.

The first word from the moral rearmament movement was “law,” or “do,” but there was no gospel. No message of genuine hope for sinners. The same is true of AA. The first word to the alcoholic is “admit you are powerless,” that your life has become “unmanageable.” This is not “law,” or “gospel.” It is a muddle. Hence the second word, “came to believe” in a “power greater than ourselves…” is equally muddled and helpless. AA has a fundamental problem. Instead of using the categories of “sin” and “redemption” or “law” and “gospel,” it has introduced alien categories.

The Disease?

How should Christians understand the behavior of the alcoholic? Is alcoholism the result of an allergy (their early explanation) or a disease (their more recent explanation) which makes the drinker not responsible for his abuse, or is it sin? Alcoholics Anonymous interprets Bill’s problem as a disease. Modern medicine has never been able to find any solid evidence of a viral or bio-chemical cause for alcoholism.14

Whatever the cause, they assert that only certain people who can treat the alcoholic’s problem: other alcoholics. In AA this is accepted dogma. The first thing an AA member learns is that his problem is unique, that he has a disease, and that no one else understands him but other alcoholics. These are the cornerstones of the first tradition and the first step.15

Biblical Data

What does Holy Scripture say? As we know, drunkenness, not drinking, is condemned throughout Scripture. We think immediately of the injunction: Be not drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18) In fact there are at least thirty separate passages dealing with drunkenness and drinking in some way. Scripture is very realistic in its portrayal of drunkenness. It describes what behaviors accompany it, what it leads to, what a drunkard is like and how he will be punished.

Proverbs 23:29-35 warns vividly of the folly of drunkenness. Earlier in the chapter we are warned of the consequences of excess. These are not ivory tower descriptions. The writer speaks of the attraction of the wine, how it sparkles, and the morning after red eyes, bed spins, hang over and the repetition of such behavior. The prophet Isaiah describes the filth of vomit such that there is no clean place, and drunkenness such that no one wishes to do the work of the Lord (Isaiah 5:11; 24; 28:1-7).20 One of the marks of a rebellious son is drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20). Israel’s sin is described in terms of drunkenness (Ezek 23:42; Joel 1:5).

Paul, in warning the Thessalonians to watch for the advent of Christ, reminds them graphically of the nocturnal life of the alcohol abuser (1 Thess 5:7).16 He warns the Corinthians that they ought to neither associate with drunkards nor should they expect drunkards to inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 5:11; 6:10).

These are not isolated patterns. This is the Bible’s description of addiction to alcohol. There is a clear acceptance of the fact that if abused, alcohol can have devastating spiritual, social, and physical effects. The biblical writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were fully aware of the behavior which is now called alcoholism. Yet it is never once treated like a disease. It is always classed with other sins: fornication, adultery, over-eating, homosexuality, murder, stealing etc. By implication, alcoholism does not appear to be considered a disease any more than the other sins mentioned along side it.

There are no Biblical grounds for distinguishing between alcoholism and what God’s Word calls drunkenness. It is true that we don’t usually consider the high school senior who gets drunk for the first time on prom night an alcoholic. The Bible however does not distinguish between the professional drunk and the amateur. Is a sin any less a sin if it is committed once instead of a hundred times?

A given sin does take on a different character once it becomes habitual. The effects of one type of sin may be more devastating than the other. Still, there is no Biblical warrant for calling any transgression of the Word of God a disease simply because it becomes habitual and life dominating. As we will see, nearly any sin can take on that character. At the suggestion of John Murray and Jay Adams, we will take Ephesians 5:15-20 as our guide for the Biblical solution to the problem of excessive drinking.

Be very careful then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (NIV).

Paul’s words are the revealed will of God, our rule and the rule for the alcohol abuser as well. Paul says to put off one behavior/lifestyle to put on another. It is not implied that it is a short or simple process, but only that, by the grace and Spirit of Christ, it must and can be done.

This is the consistent message of the New Testament. Colossians 3.10 says the same thing: put off the old and put on the new. There is a new creation, in Christ. There is growth in grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. All of Paul’s commands assume the life giving work of the Spirit described in Ephesians chapter one. These are evidences of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Personal Responsibility and Religious Authority

AA’s second tradition explains their view of religious authority. For AA, God’s will is discovered either privately, or through the collective conscience of the local meeting. In this, AA substitutes its own rules for God’s Word. AA’s fourth step speaks of a “fearless moral inventory”. Without God’s Word, how can one make such an inventory? By the experience of others? By one’s pre-alcoholic experience? There is no way to determine certainly what man is, or what life is, once one forfeits the biblical doctrine of man. The absence of an absolute standard against which to judge behavior results in moral and spiritual confusion.

The Doctrine of God

The reader will note an abundant use of the word “God” in the Twelve Steps and Traditions. A God concept is crucial to their system, as a regulative notion, or a useful idea. He is, however, quite unlike the God of the Bible, not a God who speaks. So when the second step says, “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves…” AA does not mean the self-existent, Triune God of the Bible.

It is inescapably true that the very language of the second step, “a power greater than…” refers to an impersonal force. The anonymous god of AA is also mute. The god of AA cannot speak to humans because their god is an “it”. In the nature of things, however, one can not have personal relations with an impersonal entity. Therefore to camouflage their implicit agnosticism, AA speaks of the god of AA as a “Him”.

To any Christian who has ever said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” AA’s agnosticism should be most obvious and disturbing.17 The Christian God is Triune. That is, he is one God in three persons, therefore he is the beginning of personality. Because he is personal, he speaks to us, he knows us and can be known by us. The God of the Bible is “…a Spirit, (John 4:24) infinite, (Job 11:7-9) eternal, (Ps 90:2) and unchangeable, (James 1:17) in his being, (Ex 3:14)wisdom, (Ps 147:5) power, (Rev 4:8) holiness, (Rev 15:4) justice, goodness, and truth. (Ex 34:6-7)”18

AA tells the Alcoholic to worship God “as we conceive of Him”. This is the very thing the Bible does not want us to do. God’s Word says, “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5.6-7).19 What AA calls god, the Bible calls an idol. We are precisely called not to make up our own gods, but to turn away from them to the true and living God who made and redeems us.

The Doctrine of Man

Because God is personal, and we have been made in his image, we are persons. Hence one of the reasons AA is so harmful is that it ignores the Bible’s teaching that man is created in the image of God. Ephesians 4:24 says that we were created in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness of truth.

The Christian faith is that he was crucified to restore us as the image of God, which image will be consummated at the last day. Man as the image of God is essential to Christianity, but not to AA. If, with AA, we deny this doctrine, Christ died for nothing. For Christians such an idea is blasphemous (Gal 2:21).

AA says that alcoholism is not sinful pattern of behavior, but a loss of sanity. There are grave consequences to describing sin as sickness. P. E. Hughes said,

Sickness is not penalized: it is treated. …Being sick and the victims of forces beyond their control, they must be sent off for “treatment.” …There is ample evidence of the way in which this therapeutic benevolence may be tyrannically extended beyond corrupt and violent persons to those who are politically or religiously out of line in the eyes of officialdom and who are consequently placed behind prison walls or in the wards of “mental” hospitals ostensibly for the purpose of being “treated” and “cured”.20

The spiritual consequences of describing sin as sickness are even worse. To refuse to describe alcohol abuse as sin is to implicitly deny humanity to the sinner by robbing him of moral responsibility before God. We hold sinner accountable for their actions to because the responsible moral agents with a mind, and a will. To categorize sinners as victims is to rob them of their moral agency and hence their personality.

To refuse to describe alcohol abuse as sin is also to deny hope for the patient. A disease may be hopeless, but there is a Savior for sinners.

For these reasons God’s Word pushes us away from thinking of any sin in terms of personal irresponsibility to personal responsibility. How can we ask of the person struggling with the sin of alcohol abuse any less than that which God demands of him?

To deny that one drink led to another, and for whatever sinful motivation, the sin became habitual and life dominating, leading to other sins and disastrous consequences of all sorts, is not to deny the greatness of the sin, but rather it is to put that sin in its biblical perspective. If we neglect to put the problem of alcohol abuse in its proper terms, sin and redemption, then we deny needy sinners the help they so need and can find only in Christ.

Christ and Redemption

Christianity is centered in the incarnation (taking on our humanity), obedient life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.21 Because Christianity is so Christ-centered, it is necessarily exclusivist and intolerant of other religions. Jesus taught us to think this way when he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6).21

AA, in contrast, is simultaneously universalistic (embracing all world religions) and exclusivist (rejecting all other world religions except their own). On the one hand they speak as if there is no one true faith. On the other hand, they also say that they alone have the true way of deliverance from addiction to alcohol. This makes them effectively the one true religion.23 Either claim (universalism or AA’s exclusivism) is patently incompatible with Christianity.

AA also never describes the human condition in terms of sin and therefore never speaks of redemption in Christian terms. In contrast, the Christian religion begins with Adam and our fall in him. It finds salvation for sinners in Christ and his righteousness for us, received by faith (trusting Christ) alone.

If there was no first Adam, whose fall and sin is imputed to us, there is no need for a second Adam, Christ, whose obedience and righteousness is imputed to us. AA’s apparent rejection of the heart of Christianity is the most serious (and most disheartening) consequence of their teaching.

Christians and AA

Many Christians, including Evangelical and even Reformed Christians, have said that the disease model is sufficient to explain the success of AA and its offspring. Several writers have even tried to justify the synthesis of the pragmatism of AA with various Christian forms. One notable attempt was the late G. A. Taylor’s A Sober Faith (1953). Taylor is remembered in Reformed and Presbyterian circles as the editor of the Presbyterian Journal

In the preface, Russell Dicks called Taylor a friend of both the Church and AA.24 This is only half true. Taylor wished to be a friend to both, but such is impossible. One cannot have two masters. He must love the one and hate the other.25 Taylor fails to make necessary and biblical distinctions between AA and Christianity. Christianity is God’s covenant relation to and redemption of his people from their sins, but AA is not.

Taylor says,

In its own unique way it [AA] goes about leading men and women to God who never before gave Him much thought. I hope the more conservative of my brethren who may feel inclined to question AA’s theology at this point will withhold their judgment for the moment. AA’s success constitutes a powerful recommendation for its methods.26.

With all due respect, Christians cannot withhold theological or moral judgment upon a vaguely utilitarian basis. Other sects, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, also claim to lead one to god, but it is clearly not the God of the Bible. Isaiah complains about hand made idols, Paul complains about those whose god is their belly. If the god to whom one is brought is not the Lord Jesus Christ then it is vanity. There are no intermediate steps to God.

In fact, AA is not the worship of the true and living God but is specifically applied peer pressure to alter a particular behavior pattern, often by replacing one addiction for another, in the nature of the case, bottle support for group support.27

Taylor’s claim that, at some point, every serious member of AA is confronted by necessity with Christianity is simply not true.28 In fact the leading currents of thought are moving away from the more overtly religious emphasis of years past to a more mechanistic and secular faith. The authority of Bill and the other founders of AA is also waning. After all isn’t one persons experience just as normative as anyone else’s? Agnosticism reigns in AA. “God as we conceive of Him” and the authority of God “as He is expressed in our group conscience”, has taken its natural course. If someone became sober without any god, then god isn’t strictly necessary. Of a course the god which began as a useful idea gives way to bare agnosticism.

Taylor admitted the parallels between Christianity and AA. Rather than chalking these apparent similarities up to plagiarism, Taylor says that there is just the right amount of religion in AA to make it effective without scaring this diseased person away from Christianity. After all, he says, alcoholics are notorious for their bad feelings about religion. Taylor thinks AA is a good introduction for Alcoholics to Christianity.29

Taylor’s biggest error was to deny the biblical teaching regarding human responsibility for sin. By saying as he does, with AA, that alcoholism (or any other excessive behavior for that matter) is a matter of treating a disease then one has removed the problem from the proper sphere of reference (sin and redemption) and conceded that biblical revelation, the work of Christ and the means of grace (preaching of the Word and sacraments) are insufficient for redemption and the Christian life.

God’s Word consistently describes our lot differently. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). All hold down the knowledge of God in unbelief (Rom 1:18). All are prone, by nature, to hate God and their neighbor. The Christian view of the matter is that the alcoholic, no matter how tragic his case, has no advantage over the average son of Adam in that respect. The answer does not lie with a synthesis of obvious Christian behaviors and doctrines (or facsimiles thereof) with modern disease models.

The answer lies in real repentance and faith in the living God, the second person of the Trinity, the Jesus who died for sinners and was raised again for our justification and who through the Holy Spirit effectively calls us to faith and who gives us new life and who makes us holy in himself.

What is the real difference between addictive sexual behavior and alcoholism? Once one becomes addicted to the sensations of orgasm he does not want to quit and will order his life around it. The question is not how much, but why, the inappropriate and damaging behavior continues? The “why” of the behavior is the same. All human beings are addicted to sin. Who of us in our old life was not? This is not to deny that alcoholism is not damaging, but to assert that all sin has its own form of fallout. The affects are different in some regard, but the progressive nature of the addiction begins with the will to sin. The effects of sin do not justify calling a sin a disease. In which case habitual drunkenness is no more a disease than habitual use of pornography. Neither sin is excusable no matter what the cause.

A 1982 book by A. C. DeJong, Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, is little improvement over Taylor. DeJong takes the middle road. DeJong’s approach is very similar to Taylor’s because his belief is that the Bible does not speak about the abuse of alcohol, (or that what it says is outdated), that Alcoholics Anonymous is a useful adjunct to the Church, and most importantly that alcoholism is not sin, but a disease.30

DeJong says that he once thought that alcoholism is sin, but since his own recovery (from alcoholism) he has come to see the error of that position.31 The reason for the change in his position was not exegetical (determined by detailed study of the Word of God) but experiential. DeJong, on the strength of his experience and assumptions, recommends all his alcoholic parishioners to AA and to all its subsidiary organizations.32

Like Taylor, DeJong argues that to call alcoholism a sin is not helpful. DeJong says that if the effects are this devastating, and no rational person would inflict this much damage upon himself and loved ones, not even a sinful one, then the cause must be disease over which the alcoholic had no control. DeJong admits that there is no known cause of the disease and that the origin of the disease is a mystery.33 DeJong still claims that for a non-alcoholic to call alcoholism sin is prideful.34

DeJong wants us to believe that AA is Biblical. He uses Scripture to support each of the Twelve Steps.35 DeJong admits that the alcoholic starts out in sin but he says that, in the end, the alcoholic is really a victim and not a sinner.36

Where Scripture and AA part ways, DeJong consistently follows the AA program. He makes the astonishing claim that alcoholism is not self inflicted. How then, one asks, did this catastrophe take place? He has already admitted that there is no known cause of the disease, nor any substantial medical support for the disease claim, so who or what secret and dark force foisted this disease upon him?37

In each chapter DeJong gives a summary of the meaning of one or more of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Chapter four deals with “unconditional surrender”. The third of the Twelve Steps.38 He compares this surrender to the biblical descriptions of contriteness, repentance and brokenness of heart.39

On the surface this seems appropriate, but in fact it is distinctly unchristian. How? Even when the later steps speak of “our wrongs” and “character defects” they are not gauged against the Word of God which is the only standard against which sin can be judged (1 John 3:4; Rom 7:7). In the Bible, to repent of one’s sins, to acknowledge the depth of one’s sin and misery, entails fleeing to Jesus who lifts our burden and replaces it with His light yoke.

This is not what AA has in mind. One does not, when he admits that he is “powerless” over Alcohol, confess that he has held down the knowledge of the Covenant God in unbelief, sin, and rebellion. Instead what the alcoholic admits by this confession is his lack of moral responsibility for his situation. He confesses that his disease has gripped him to the point that it has begun to control him above all his other defects. Moreover he confesses these slips to a god of his own imagination–to himself ultimately! These are two fundamentally different confessions of faith.

DeJong makes another breathtaking claim, in contrast to Taylor, that AA is not a religious fellowship because it does not require subscription to a specific set of doctrines for membership. He also contradicts reality. The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions are in fact a catechism and confession. AA is a confessional religion. There is not any non-religious or neutral confession of a god. Either one confesses the God of the Bible or he is an unbeliever.40

This helps us get to the heart of DeJong’s problem. At every point he allows the alcoholic to remain in charge. The Bible simply forbids such an approach. DeJong has simply ignored the Biblical data we surveyed earlier. It is clear towards the end of the book, where he quotes the AA Big Book more and more, that his position is driven by a bible but not the revealed Word of God.

Never does the Word of God allow such self sufficiency. Clearly DeJong has somehow justified to himself the sacrifice of a biblical world-view for that of Alcoholics Anonymous. At every one of the Twelve Steps, important differences can be shown between what the Bible teaches and what each Step or Tradition teaches.

Your Church and the Alcoholic

Phillip Yancey calls AA “The Midnight Church.” There are ways in which AA is like a local Church. What attracts alcoholics to AA is the fellowship, mutual support and acceptance they find in AA.41 Members are bound together by a common struggle against a common problem.

Like other para-church groups, AA grew up in a vacuum left by the church. In the past Christians have encouraged the growth of AA by looking down at alcoholics as sinners of a special sort. When Christians treat the alcoholic as though his sin was worse than ours, we’ve reinforced the idea that only alcoholics understand other alcoholics and that the church is irrelevant to the alcoholic.

It is not as if there is no alcohol abuse in the church. The truth is that there is more alcohol abuse and addiction than many recognize. By ignoring it and giggling about drinking problems, we have sometimes pushed the alcoholic into the arms of AA. Just as we have become sensitive to the needs of those facing the crisis of abortion, divorce, or spouse abuse, the church should make an effort to become aware of the specific symptoms of alcohol abuse so that we can spot it and address it in our own congregations. We cannot expect the alcoholic struggling with alcohol addiction and abuse to trust us, if we’re not willing to admit that those who confess Christ sometimes fall into the sin of alcohol abuse.

To correct the problem Christians much first realize that it is God’s will for sinners of all sorts to find their fellowship, acceptance, mutual support, and strength within the bonds of the local church, the Christ confessing covenant community, composed of confessing believers, redeemed sinners, saved by grace.

No one can confront any life-dominating sin apart from the saving grace of God in Christ. The first step toward freedom from alcohol abuse is to turn away from all sin and to place one’s trust in the righteous obedience of Jesus Christ as our substitute and Savior (Acts 2:28-9; 10:43; Rom 1:16-7; 10:17;
Gal 2:16).

The location of our life in Christ and the source of our daily help is the grace of God administered in the congregation through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.

In Eph 5:18-20 Paul gives explicit directions in this regard. Paul is assuming that in Christ we are a new creation with new life patterns and new friends. Paul suggests that part of the new life means being subject to our brothers and sisters in the visible body of Christ instead of alcohol.

Second, we Christians must make a commitment to accepting the alcohol abuser into our midst, as someone no more or less dependent upon God’s grace than we. If we as the visible community of the redeemed truly see ourselves as lost sinners saved by grace, then how can we not accept other sinners into our midst? How can we distinguish between one type of pre-Christian behavior and another? We can’t and neither should the alcohol (or other substance) abuser.

Notice how Peter classes alcohol abuse in 1 Peter 4:1-4:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do–living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you (NIV).

The Apostle Peter frankly recognizes the difficulty of leaving the old life behind and uniting with a new group of friends, the church. Verse four, “They think it strange…” seems to indicate even that some of the believers were being persecuted by their old drinking buddies. The verse also illustrates the need for the alcoholic to replace his old associations with new ones (cf. 1 Cor 15:33). The church is God’s agency for the helping the alcohol abuser.

Third, we must make a commitment to dealing openly with one another about our sins. Here we need to reclaim territory we have conceded to AA. In an AA meeting there is usually a remarkable degree of openness in the meeting to one another. Pretense is difficult in a room full of people who have been doing exactly what you have been doing and telling the same lies. If someone is having a difficult time of it, he is encouraged to seek help from a qualified fellow member and even from the group as a whole. This seems to fit the situation envisioned by the Lord in Matthew 18:15-19 and by Paul in Col 3:16. and by James 5:16.

Fourth, we must become available to serve one another. We are all sinners. Any sin could be life dominating. It is not necessary to be an alcoholic to serve the spiritual needs of the alcoholic.

Part of that ministry requires the mature, sober alcoholic to go on call (much the way a doctor is on call) for a 24 hour period. When on call one’s phone might ring day or night with call from a fellow member who is about to “fall off the wagon”. Strong bonds of love and mutual encouragement are formed when one spends the night holding another’s hand who is shaking and vomiting under withdrawal symptoms. Do we love one another in Christ as much as AA members love each other?

Would it not make a difference in one’s life, when tempted to commit some sin for the thousandth time, one knew that there was a Christian friend one might call who would show the love of Jesus by giving encouragement, praying with one, taking one out for coffee and providing some redirection? I think it would.

Fifth, there are a many Christians who attend AA, who live a dual life, because they believe the Church will scorn them because of their past alcohol abuse. This is very sad. It is the Church who has the good news for alcoholics–sin will not have dominion over believers! (Rom 6:14).

Those Christians who are leading this double life must help the Church learn to deal openly with alcohol and drug abuse. Christians with an alcoholic past must trust their brothers and sisters in Christ enough to show them how to minister to the addict.


The Church has been entrusted with the great commission to make disciples, even of alcoholics. AA constitutes a field of hurting, gospel needy people, white for the harvest. The question is, are we hungry enough to harvest?

It may be old fashioned, but we must describe to the alcoholic the depth of his sin and misery, how he can be redeemed from all his sins and misery and how he is to be thankful for such redemption.42 Obviously the presentation of the gospel must be sensitive and thoughtful and will vary from case to case, but the essentials, as we will see, cannot be compromised, even (or perhaps especially) for one as desperate as the alcoholic. We dare not throw too short a rope to a drowning man. Only the gospel rope will do.


Adams, J. E., The Christian Counselor’s Manual. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed: 1975.

— Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970.

Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: A A World Services 1976.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Twelve Steps and Traditions. New York: AA Grapevine and AA World Services, 1953.

Crossman, R. H. S., ed., Oxford and The Groups. Oxford: Blackwell, 1934.

DeJong, A. C., Help and Hope for the Alcoholic. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982.

Henry, C. F. H., Christian Personal Ethics. 1957; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.

Henson, H. H., The Oxford Groups. Oxford University Press: London, 1933.

Hughes, P. E., Hope for a Despairing World: The Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977.

Leon, P., The Philosophy of Courage. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1939.

Machen, J. G., The Christian View of Man. 1937; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984.

Shipp, T. J., Helping the Alcoholic and His Family. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Taylor, G. A., A Sober Faith: Religion and Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Macmillan Company, 1953.

Wisdom, C., “Alcoholic’s Anonymous–A Biblical Critique of AA’s View of God. Man, Sin and Hope”, The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 1986.

1 Alcoholics Anonymous, xvii.

2 ibid

3 ibid. xviii, xxii.

4 The 12 Steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (emph. orig.)
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted too God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (emph. orig.)
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The 12 Traditions are, in part:

  • Our common welfare should come first; the personal recovery depends upon AA. unity. Each member of Alcoholics Anonymous is but a small part of a great whole. AA. must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first. But individual welfare follows close afterward.
  • For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority–a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  • The only requirement for AA. membership is a desire to stop drinking. Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA., provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
  • Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA. name ought never be drawn into public controversy. No AA. group should ever, in such a way as to implicate AA., express an opinion on outside controversial issues–particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such groups they can express no views whatever.
  • Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities….we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance…It reminds us that we are to actually practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all (Alcoholics Anonymous, 17; Twelve Steps, 5ff).

5 The Big Book has revised several times since its publication.

6 Pentecostal Christians teach a sort of on-going revelation and that God speaks to Christians directly and about specific things apart from the Scriptures. See W. S. Hudson, Religion in America, 378 ff., W. W. Sweet, The Story of Religion in America, 423ff, H. H. Henson, The Oxford Groups, 5; P. Leon, The Philosophy of Courage, 112ff.

7 Sweet, 423

8 Hudson, 378. The historical relationship between AA and the Oxford Groups is hinted at in the quotation from the Big Book above in the phrase, “though he (Bill W.) could not accept all the tenets….”

These tenets, though attached originally to an apparently Christian para-church organization, are not distinctively Christian, if only because they do not flow from a distinctively Christian confession. That is, there is nothing about them which requires one to be a Christian to practice them. The assumption of this essay is that Christianity is a unique religion in that it is divinely revealed, its God is triune, and its doctrine of redemption and ethics are organized around the God-Man Jesus Christ, who died as a substitute for all his people. Christian ethics is nothing more or less than the grateful response by the redeemed to God’s grace toward sinners in Christ.

9 ibid. xvi.

10 For example, it is a regular practice to recite the Lord’s Prayer in their meetings. Jesus prayed “Hallowed be thy name”, or “Your name is Holy”, with the clear intent of declaring that God’s name (Yahweh), indeed God Himself, is distinct morally and in his being from humanity. Yet in step three and tradition two AA rejects explicitly such a view of God. Jesus prayer is exclusivist in that it implies that there are no other gods besides the God of the Bible.

There are other hints of the Bible in the Twelve Traditions of AA Some examples of such borrowing: tradition three speaks of the gathering of “two or three” an obvious reference to Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three of you are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst”. The Twelve Steps and Traditions refer to God as “Him”, complete with the uppercase pronoun traditionally reserved in English for the Biblical Deity. Interestingly, the published prayers of AA are even written in a sort of 17th century English, apparently to lend them an air of tradition and authority.

11 Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-3. See also, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 132ff.

12 Chapter four of the book even contains an apologetic for their doctrine of God and their view of revelation.

13 Many AA meetings close with the chant, “keep coming back, it works”.

1414 L. P. Jacks, Oxford and the Groups, 129; See also J. Alsdurf’s review of H. Fingarette’s The Myth of Alcoholism As a Disease, “Alcoholism: Is It a Sin After All?”, (Christianity Today, February 3, 1989). See also L. M. Thomas, “Alcoholism is Not A Disease”, in Christianity Today, October 4, 1985. For a contrary view see. A. Spinkard’s article in Christianity Today August 4, 1983, 26.

15 A. Spinkard, 26; T. J. Shipp, Helping the Alcoholic and His Family, 91ff.

16 See the similar exhortation in Rom.13:13.

17 The first article of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

18 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 4.

19 The Revised Standard Version (1973; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)

20 P. E. Hughes, Hope For a Despairing World: The Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil, 26-7.

21 The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 22 says, “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, (Heb. 2:14,16, Heb. 10:5) and a reasonable soul, (Matt. 26:38) being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, (Luke 1:27,31,35,42, Gal. 4:4) yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15, Heb. 7:26)”

22 From the New American Standard Version.

23 Alcoholics Anonymous, 46-7.

24 ibid, the preface, vii.

25 Matthew 6:24.

26 A Sober Faith, 4ff;52.ff

27 ibid., 32ff., esp.42.

28 ibid., 59.

29 ibid., 35, 78, 87.

30 ibid., 18, 38, 41.

31 ibid.,18.

32 ibid., 14, 57.

33 Thus Jay Adams calls the use of the word disease in the context of alcoholism meaningless.

34 De Jong, Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, 18, 21; Cf. J. E. Adams, Competent to Counsel, xiv.

35 Help and Hope for the Alcoholic, 31ff.

36 ibid., 22.

37 ibid., 35.

38 ibid., p.59ff.

39 ibid., 61.

40 ibid., 114.

41 Phillip Yancey, “The Midnight Church,” Christianity Today, February 4, 1983, 96. Yancey gives an overly sentimental and unbiblical description of Alcoholics Anonymous. He is quite correct, however, when he calls it a “unique church”. Although he does not seem to realize what this implies. He too has bought into the idea that somehow Alcoholics Anonymous reflects the true spirit of the early Church, a church without all those nasty doctrinal disputes that bother the organized Church. In so doing he confirms the connection with the Oxford Groups. He brushes over what he calls the “Christological question” i.e., how a Christian could actively take part in the worship of an unknown god or even more to the point: propagate such a faith without compromising his Christian faith; with the worst kind of defense: well the church is full a hypocrites and the alcoholic is getting his needs met, so what is the difference? The most blatant inaccuracy, however, in the article is his insistence that AA requires the alcoholic to take responsibility for his actions. This is not the case. While there is a mild formal protest that, yes, the alcoholic is responsible, the chief doctrine of the faith is that alcoholism is the result of a disease not sin, therefore, ultimately, the alcoholic cannot be fully responsible because no one can justly be held responsible for actions committed under the influence of a disease over which he had no control.

42 This language is drawn from the second question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, a Reformed confessional document first published in 1563.

The Synod of Dort on Sabbath Observance

Session 164, May 17 PM
Trans. R. Scott Clark

Rules on the observation of the Sabbath, or the Lord’s Day, with the agreement of the brothers from Zeeland the following concepts were explained and approved by Doctor Professors of Divinity.

In the fourth Commandment of the divine law, part is ceremonial, part is moral.

The rest of the seventh day after creation was ceremonial and its rigid observation peculiarly prescribed to the Jewish people.

Moral in fact, because the fixed and enduring day of the worship of God is appointed, for as much rest as is necessary for the worship of God and holy meditation of him.

With the Sabbath of the Jews having been abrogated, the Lord’s Day is solemnly sanctified by Christians.

From the time of the Apostles this day was always observed in the ancient Catholic Church.

This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God.

Source: H.H. Kuyper, De Post-Acta of Nahandelingen van de nationale Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619 gehouden een Historische Studie (Amsterdam, 1899), 184-6.

On the Noun “Homosexual” in 1Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10

[Note: Below are some notes I compiled as part of a broader discussion about how Christians ought to think about homosexuality. The argument was made that the Bible does not really speak clearly to the question of homosexual behavior. In response I offered a brief account of Paul’s language in 1Cor 6:9 and 1Tim 1:10].

In 1Cor 6:9 and 1Tim 1:10 Paul condemns the “αρσενοκοιται” (arsenokoitai). The standard definition (Bouer, Arnt, Gingrich, Danker) is “a male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite.” This is the way the word was understood in early Christian, post-canonical usage though it occurs in the same sense in the Sibylline Oracles (6th cent BC) ii.73. See Moulton and Milligan s.v.

Of course we want to avoid the etymological fallacy (deducing the meaning of a word by adding up its letters or component parts) because it does not always work and can produce misleading results but in this case it works because usage confirms what adding up the letters suggests. αρσην (arsen) = male and κοιτης (koites) = bed or euphemistically for sexual relations.

However uncomfortable it makes us late moderns, the text of 1Cor 6:9 is quite clear:

“Or do you not know that the unjust (αδικοι) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Neither will you who deceive (πλανασθε) nor the sexually immoral (πορνοι) nor idolaters (ειδωλολατραι), nor adulterers (μοιχοι), nor the effeminate (μαλακοι), nor homosexuals (αρσενοκοιται).”

I translate μαλακοι as “effeminate” because of the way it’s used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew/Aramaic Scriptures) for the “soft parts” and is used elsewhere in the sense of “effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Cor. 6:9” (BAGD, s.v.).

Paul was quite familiar with Corinth as a fairly depraved, cosmopolitan port city and he was well aware of the sorts of sexual immorality that were openly practiced there as elsewhere (e.g., Ephesus had pornographic graffiti that would make us blush). It seems clear that one thing, effeminate men who submit themselves to sexual abuse, perhaps homosexual prostitutes, led him to the last category, homosexuals.

Paul is announcing God’s judgment on several classes of sinful behaviors and warning those who commit them impenitently (without sorrow or struggle) that they must acknowledge their sin for what it is and turn to and put their trust in Jesus the Savior who obeyed and died for heterosexual and homosexual sinners and who offers free acceptance with God on the basis of faith (trust) in Jesus, the gracious Savior of helpless sinners.

Concupiscence: Sin and the Mother of Sin

This essay was published originally in Modern Reformation 10 (2001).


In recent years, the study of virtue has experienced a renaissance.1 While we are recovering our classical grammar of virtue, we should also to recover our vocabulary of vice as well. Concupiscence is among our choicest words to be recovered. Because of the great influence of Augustine, it has traditionally been associated closely with sexual desire, even within marriage. Its range of meaning, however, is broader. Derived from the verb Latin concupisco, “to lust for worldly things,” the noun concupiscentia is a word found many times in the Latin Bible (Vulgate). From there, it entered English in the early 14th century, but has fallen out of use as the Authorized Version (1611) has lost its influence on the language.

Concupiscence in Scripture

In the Latin Bible the “Tombs of Desire” (Kibroth Hataavah) prepared for those who craved food other than that which the Lord provided (Numbers 11:34-35) was rendered the “Tombs of Concupiscence” in the Vulgate. In Psalm 62:10 the Vulgate used the verb concupisco to translate the expression “set not your heart” (on riches). Among the seven vices which the Lord hates is lustful desire (concupiscat) for the beauty of the adulteress Folly (Proverbs 6:16, 25).

According to the Apostle Paul, concupiscence is the result of the fall and the quintessential illustration of the danger of the Law to sinners. In Romans 7:7, 8 concupiscentia translates the Greek noun epithumia or “coveting” (NIV) and “coveteous desire” (NIV). Following the Vulgate, the AV translates epithumia as “concupiscence.” Without the Law “I would not have known what concupiscence was.”2 In Galatians 5:17 it translates the Greek verb “to desire” (epithumeo) in the clause, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the [Holy] Spirit.” In Colossians 3:5 Paul lists “evil concupiscence” as one of those “earthly members” to be put to death and warns believers not to participate in the “lust of concupiscence” (1 Thessalonians 4:5; AV). The Apostle John warns against the transitory “concupiscence of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) which he contrasts with God’s eternal will (2:17).

So far it is clear from the Scriptures that concupiscence is sin, but according to James, it is more than that, it is also the seminary (seedbed) of sin. He uses an obstetrical metaphor to describe the psychological and moral process of sinning.

each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire (concupiscence), he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after concupiscence has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15, NIV).

For James, concupiscence is our fallen inclination to sin , such that our own corrupt hearts and wills are the authors of sin and it is them we must blame and not God. Concupiscence (original sin) conceives actual sin and actual sin brings death.

Three chapters later James fires a salvo at his congregation when he says, that the source of their in fighting is their concupiscence (4:1). He continues, “You lust (L. concupiscitis; Gk. epithumeite) and you have not, you murder and desire.” Rather than praying, despite the futility of their concupiscence, they pursue it even by taking fellow Christians to court (4:2). Because of their corrupted desires, God does not grant their requests when they do pray. It is not as if, however, if they could somehow suspend their concupiscence, God would suddenly begin answering their prayers. Rather, their concupiscence is only more evidence of the fact of their friendship with the world (4:4) and that they do not have true, saving faith (James 2:14-26).

According to James, not all concupiscence is evil. It is not that we should not have intense desires. Indeed the God the Holy Spirit who “dwells within us” does precisely that (concupiscit Spiritus), but he does not desire the sorts of things we do, but rather he desires piety and holiness (4:5). Therefore God the Spirit gives us greater grace and resists the arrogance demonstrated in concupiscence (4:6). Christ confessors ought to stop behaving like rank pagans. They ought to repent and believe, submit to Christ and resist the Devil. Paradoxically, spiritual strength is not found in fulfilled desires, but in abandoning them for Christ’s sake.

Concupiscence in Christian Theology

Tertullian (c.160-c.225) argued that the root of concupiscence is idolatry.3 In a letter encouraging Eustochium to continue her chaste (monastic) life, Jerome (c.345–420) said that Daniel (Daniel 1.8) had refused to eat the bread of desire or “drink the wine of concupiscence.”4

St. Augustine (354-430) expressed his mature views in the treatise, On Marriage and Concupiscence (419) written against the Pelagians.5 Under the influence of neo-Platonism Augustine interpreted Paul’s teaching on the “Spirit” and “flesh” in terms of being (ontology) rather than as ethical and eschatological categories.6 Though he denied any “carnal concupiscence” before the fall and he considered it the “law of sin” (Romans 7:23), he also associated it very closely with sexual desire.7 Baptism, “the laver of regeneration”
(Titus 3:5), washes away original sin and the guilt of concupiscence, but in this fallen world, the act of concupiscence remains, even among the regenerate.8 The “evil of concupiscence” may be tamed for procreation, but even in marriage it brings shame when its passions run hot.9

According to Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274) humans were created good, with all the virtues, but because we are creatures and material we necessarily have “lower powers” or “appetites.”10 Even before the fall, these powers were only subject to the soul, even before the fall, only by a “super added gift” (donum super additum) of grace. He says, “even before sin ” man “required grace to obtain eternal life.”11 From the beginning, before the fall, Adam had within his soul, certain lower powers, one of which (concupiscence) was “the craving for pleasurable good” and this desire itself arises from natural, lower appetites.12 Thomas reasoned this way because he presupposed a sort of continuum of being between God and man, with God having complete being and man have relatively less. In short, for Thomas, concupiscence is the result of being human and was the precondition for sin even before the fall.

The Reformation not only reformed the doctrine of justification, but also moral theology. Against the prevailing medieval and Roman view, the Protestants denied that we fell because we were human. Rather, as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) taught in Q. 6, we were created “in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know God our creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal blessedness.” Thus the First Adam needed no grace before the fall. Grace is for sinners, not for the sinless. The Protestant theologians consistently defined concupiscence as a post-fall phenomenon. Among the children of the first Adam, concupiscence is both an actual sin and the pre-condition or proclivity to sin.13

Unlike Aquinas, who restricted concupiscence to the “sensual appetite,” Calvin argued that it affects the whole of fallen man.

that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly,  that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence (Institutes 2.1.8).

Thinking about the deadly mixture of God’s Law and our sin, Calvin rejected any idea of sinless perfection in this life.

if we go back to the remotest period, we shall not find a single saint who, clothed with a mortal body, ever attained to such perfection as to love the Lord with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and, on the other hand, not one who has not felt the power of concupiscence (Institutes, 2.7.5).

Unlike Augustine, Calvin did not necessarily associate concupiscence with sexual desire. For Calvin, concupiscence is nothing more than a comprehensive synonym for sin.

The Ethics of Concupiscence

Concupiscence is a violation of the eighth and tenth commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 110) says,

110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, fraudulent merchandising, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also all covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.

Considered according to its first use, the Law condemns all of us as concupiscent, covetous, thieves. The Gospel is that Christ Jesus, the Second Adam has actively obeyed this law for concupiscent sinners and his justice is imputed to all those who believe.

For those who have been justified sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, the Law has a third use: as the moral norm for the Christian life. Those who have been redeemed should not be marked by sinful desire. In this regard, it is striking that the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on our commercial life. If there is any area where American Christians have been prone to excuse themselves from God’s Law it is in the area of business. Ministers who address matters of commerce are likely to be accused of meddling rather than preaching.

Put positively, there are certain virtues which Christians must cultivate through the use of the means of grace (Word and Sacrament). The Heidelberg Catechism says:

111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.

Christians should be identified with utter honesty in all business dealings and by the proper use of God’s gifts. By its nature, concupiscence makes others into mere vehicles for self-fulfillment. The modern corporate business culture often makes concupiscence into a virtue by calling it “personnel management.”

Christian morality has been profoundly influenced by the corporate culture. Pastors are too often rewarded not for proclaiming faithfully the Law and the Gospel, but for being good CEO’s. In their meetings they do not often discuss Biblical exegesis or theology, rather, they tend to compare the size of their congregations. Ministry done for self-aggrandizement and by deceit is concupiscence.

The root of this sin is revealed even more clearly by the tenth commandment which forbids us from “the least inclination” against God’s Law and requires that “with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.”14 As we have seen from Scripture, concupiscence is about inclinations as much as it is about actions. Just as we need Christ’s justice imputed to us, we also need a daily renewal of our affections, flowing from which should be satisfaction with Christ and his mercies.


Concupiscence is a confusion of the two kingdoms. We live and fulfill our callings in both, but one is eternal and the other is not. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20) we must also acknowledge that we have too often replaced the virtue of selflessness with the vice of concupiscence. With the help of grace, let us repent daily of our concupiscence and desire instead to be so governed by the “Word and Spirit that we submit always more and more” to Christ.15

[1] See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd edn. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984); Oliver O’ Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] On this passage Calvin says, “The recesses in which concupiscence lies hid are so deep and tortuous that they easily elude our view; and hence the Apostle had good reason for saying, ‘I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet'”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 2.7.6.

[3] De idolatria, cap. 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1986), 3.61.

[4] Letters, 22.9. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 6.26

[5] See The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 5.263–308.

[6] On Marriage, 1.18, 35.

[7] On Marriage, 1.18,25,34.

[8] On Marriage, 1.20–22, 28, 29.

[9] On Marriage, 1.27.

[10] Summa theologiae, 1a, 95. Art. 1, Art. 3

[11] ST 1a 95. Art. 4, reply to obj. 1

[12] Summa theologiae, 1a 2ae Q. 30, Art. 4; ST 1a. 81, Art. 1

[13] See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in T. G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 101.7. See also Luther’s Larger Catechism, §222–52.

[14] Heidelberg Catechism Q.113.

[15] Heidelberg Catechism Q. 123.