By / Oct 25

ERLC has recently republished Carl F. H. Henry’s 1996 book, Has Democracy Had Its Day?, under our Leland House Press imprint. The republication was in conjunction with the ERLC’s latest Research Institute meeting held on October 2-3. The institute's fellows discussed the theme of Henry's book during the meeting titled, “Has Democracy Had Its Day? Evangelicals, Liberal Democracy, and a Culture in Crisis.”  

In honor of the publication, here are five things you should know about one of the most significant theologians of the neo-evangelical movement. 

1. Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry was born in Long Island, New York, in 1913, on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. Interested in journalism from a young age, Henry served as a proofreader before taking over editorial duties at the Smithtown Star. By the age of 20 he was reportedly the youngest newspaper editor in America. He also worked at various times as a freelance journalist for The New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune. In 1956, with the support of Billy Graham, Henry used his journalism skills to become the founding editor of Christianity Today. Under Henry’s leadership, the publication quickly became America’s best-read Christian newsmagazine

2. Henry grew up in a nominally Methodist home and attended an Episcopal Sunday School, but his first exposure to Christianity as a living faith came when he was a young newspaperman. While proofreading with a colleague, Henry once used the Lord's name as an expletive. His middle-aged co-worker, Mildred Christy, commented, “Carl, I’d rather you slap my face than take the name of my best Friend in vain.” One day in 1935, after picking up Christy from a church gathering, Henry was introduced to Gene Bedford, a participant in the Oxford Group movement. “[Bedford] told me about Christ as we drove around Long Island in my battered old Chevy,” Henry told The New York Times in 1966. “I knelt in the back of that car and dedicated myself to Jesus Christ. Life has not been the same since.”

3. Two years after becoming a Christian, Henry went to Wheaton College, where he met his wife, Helga Bender, and his friend and future ministry partner, Billy Graham. While at Wheaton he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a master’s in biblical and theological studies. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in theology from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He earned a second doctorate in philosophy from Boston University and studied for a year at Cambridge University. Henry would go on to teach at Northern Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Henry was so influential as a theologian that he has been dubbed the 'dean' of evangelical theologians

4. In 1947, the same year he became dean at Fuller, Henry published his most influential book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. As ERLC President Russell Moore has said, Henry’s book was concerned about two fronts: detached fundamentalism and social gospel liberalism. Liberals saw the Kingdom as a program for public righteousness, often enacted legislatively, says Moore, while Henry warned that conservatives over-reacted to the social gospel, speaking of the Kingdom of God but acting as though it were wholly future. The book is considered by many to have launched the movement known as  “new evangelicalism,” a “gospel-focused, socially-conscious, culturally-engaged movement.” The book "came just as Billy Graham was preaching, and many people believe, as I do, that Henry and Graham, together, sparked the renewal of evangelicalism," the late Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told the Chicago Tribune. 

5. The primary feature of Henry’s theology was the ultimate authority of God’s Word. As Adam L. Lickey says, this presupposition impacted every area of his thinking and manifested itself in the practical outworking of Henry’s theology. In his magnum opus, a six-volume work titled God, Revelation, and Authority that was completed in 1983, Henry says that, "if we humans say anything authentic about God, we can do so only on the basis of divine self-revelation; all other God-talk is conjectural." All Christian doctrine must therefore be rooted in Scripture and "the theorems derived from the axioms of revelation." This perspective influenced the many institutions Henry was involved in throughout his life. Henry was a founder (and the first plenary speaker) of the Evangelical Theological Society (1949); a member of the Board of Administration of the National Association of Evangelicals (1956-1970); chairman of the 1966 Berlin Congress on World Evangelism, a forerunner of the Lausanne movement; founder of the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies (1967); a signer an advocate of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), which he included in God, Revelation, and AuthorityRichard J. Mouw, the former Fuller Theological Seminary President, told the Los Angeles Times, Henry led the evangelical movement "out of the margins of social, political, and academic life to where today we are mainstream Protestantism, a powerful intellectual and political force."

By / Sep 11

Phillip Bethancourt moderates a discussion between J.T. English, Albert Mohler, Danny Akin, and Matt Hall at the Southern Baptist Convention Pre-Conference in Dallas, Texas, on June 9, 2018.

By / May 9

Many early Baptists were heavily involved in political life, at both local and national levels. For them, political involvement was often a matter of survival—17th century British government, in both England and the American colonies, did not separate church and state.

Anyone who departed in belief or practice from England’s sanctioned state religion, the Anglican Church, was punished in some fashion. One of the first General (non-Calvinist) Baptists in England, Thomas Helwys, was imprisoned after he became a Baptist and wrote about his beliefs, including his conviction that the church and state should remain separate. Helwys was never released, and he died in jail four years after his imprisonment.  

In the American colonies, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, and John Clarke also faced various punishments for departing from the state-sanctioned Congregationalism of the Bay Colony. While many of the American colonies were founded by Separatists—those who had departed from the Anglican Church due to its corruption and heavy-handedness regarding worship practices—once they received a charter from England’s king, they often did no better at providing religious liberty for their citizens.

3 emphases of early Baptists’ political theology

It was in this environment of state-sanctioned religious opposition that early Baptists developed a thorough political theology. The emphases of these early Baptists are biblically rooted, theologically sound, and still relevant for us today. Here we’ll explore three of them—religious liberty, appropriate political involvement, and the church as the sign of the kingdom.  

1. Religious liberty

Early Baptists emphasized religious liberty as a matter of survival, yes, but they also drew on Baptist theological principles that remain important today. While most Baptists in 21st century America do not experience state-sponsored opposition to their faith, there are still important biblical, theological, and distinctively Baptist reasons to support religious liberty for all.

Religious liberty arises out of the Baptist conviction that every person is individually accountable before God.

Most importantly, religious liberty arises out of the Baptist conviction that every person is individually accountable before God. This conviction lies at the root of other Baptist distinctives like believer’s baptism, congregational polity, and local church governance. With respect to religious liberty, it means that no one (including the state) can or should coerce a person to believe. Individuals are free to believe in or reject the gospel, and, if they are a Christian, to believe in or reject particular denominational distinctives.

Religious liberty for all does not mean that Baptists reject that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone; far from it! Baptists in the 17th century and Southern Baptists today confess that salvation only comes through belief in Christ’s death and resurrection. But we also believe that each individual person has to come to a decision about that good news, and about subsequent doctrinal beliefs, on his or her own. In a Baptist political theology, then, the government cannot and should not force anyone to believe a certain way or to deny his or her convictions.

This Baptist principle also extends to practice. Early Baptists experienced opposition from the British government not only because they differed in belief from Anglicanism, but also because, like other English Separatists, they refused to participate in certain Anglican practices. For instance, early Baptists were imprisoned and fined for their refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer, and for licensing preachers outside of the Anglican authorities. This led early Baptists to insist that religious freedom encompasses not only what an individual believes but also what he or she practices. And, by extension, this includes freedom for churches and other religions comprised of those free individuals.

Today, this means that Baptists can argue for religious freedom for all religions without endorsing or supporting those other religions. Baptist political theology, because of its roots in an affirmation of the individual’s conscience, can be both a champion of religious liberty for all and a champion for personal evangelism to all.

2. Appropriate political involvement

The early Baptists weren’t shy about participating in the political life of their towns, provinces, and (after American independence) nations. In fact, we owe the First Amendment in part to Virginia Baptist John Leland, who wrote regularly to Thomas Jefferson, and maybe also to James Madison. John Clarke spent much of his life petitioning England’s king for a charter for Rhode Island that included a stipulation about religious freedom. Isaac Backus worked diligently in the political arena for religious freedom in Massachusetts before and after the American Revolution.

And after the establishment of the United States of America as a sovereign nation, Baptists continued their involvement in civic and political life, serving in all sorts of public capacities. William Carey worked in India to end the practice of sati. In other words, Baptists have seen the realm of the state as yet another one of life’s spheres in which they are called to participate as faithful Christians.

Baptists today carry on this tradition of appropriate political involvement. We do not read “separation of church and state” as a reason to remove religious life and thought from government, but as a protection of individual consciences, churches, and other religions from intervention by the government. For Baptists, political participation is justified and encouraged by Scripture, which presents God’s calling to new life in Christ as one that encompasses all of life, including life in relation to the state. This doesn’t mean that the Bible gives particular policy positions on a whole host of issues, like health care or traffic laws, but it does mean that God’s wisdom and a Christian’s calling to it includes all of life, even political life.

To put it a bit differently, the church is still the church when it is scattered and not gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day, and it is called to live as such in the midst of the world. Baptists historically have seen this as especially important in relation to caring for “the least of these,” working diligently in civic and political arenas in order to help the poor, orphaned, widowed, and hungry. We could point to Baptist hospitals through the country, or to the SBC’s, and particularly the ERLC’s, consistent work in D.C. throughout the tenures of both Richard Land and Russell Moore to end abortion in the U.S.

3. The church as the sign of Christ’s kingdom

I used the adjective “appropriate” in the previous point because Baptists have historically emphasized that Christ’s kingdom is seen primarily through the local church, not any temporal government. This means that our efforts ultimately should be focused on the local church, the only institution (according to Baptist polity) to which Christ entrusts the keys to his kingdom.

It is in the local church that the things of heaven are bound and loosed on earth. It is in the local church that Christ’s Word reigns supreme visibly, through preaching and through the ordinances. It is in the local church that the lost are called to repentance, that disciples are made, and that the Holy Spirit is present. Baptist political theology thus recognizes that Christians are first and foremost citizens of Christ’s kingdom, and that Christ’s kingdom is visible primarily in the local church. (This, by the way, is another reason that Baptists have long argued for the separation of church and state—the state isn’t the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom on earth.)

But Baptists also acknowledge that we are citizens of earthly nations, in our case the U.S. While the U.S. and all other nations will one day fade away (and face judgment) at the second coming of King Jesus and his eternal kingdom, we are called to be faithful citizens of it in the meantime. Which brings us back to point two: Baptists affirm that we can and should participate in civic life.

Baptist political theology for today

This kind of balanced account was emphasized by the first Baptists and should remain an emphasis in Baptist life today. Baptists can and should participate in the civil and political life of our counties, towns, states, and nations, but we do so while recognizing that these kingdoms are not ultimate—Christ’s is. These kingdoms are not the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom—the local church is. These kingdoms do not bind and loose on earth what happens in heaven—the verbal and visible proclamation of Christ’s Word does. And these kingdoms cannot coerce belief in Christ in any individual—trust in Christ’s saving work only comes through the conviction of the Holy Spirit that leads to repentance and faith.

A Baptist political theology therefore humbly acknowledges Christ’s kingdom as more important than our earthly kingdoms and chastens its expectations for politics accordingly. And it thus focuses its energies on building up the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom, the local church, through evangelism and discipleship. But it also works Christianly in the political arena, as it does in all others, according to Christ’s kingship and call over all areas of our lives.

By / Apr 18

The longer I’ve wrestled with the challenges of digital technology in my life and in the lives of others, the more convinced I’ve become that the ultimate answer is not “no technology” or “more technology,” but “more theology.”

If we want a deep, lasting, and spiritual solution, we need to learn and teach deep, lasting, and spiritual truths. Digital theology is the answer to digital technology; the oldest truths are the best rebuttal to the newest challenges. Here are a few ways that understanding more of who God is can change our digital habits.

God is Three-in-One

More Trinity is more effective than more technology. “Seriously?” you might say, “You think the Trinity is the solution to technology?” Partly, yes. The three persons of the Godhead enjoy perfect relationship with one another and seek to share that relationship with us, inviting us into that sacred community.

Digital theology is the answer to digital technology; the oldest truths are the best rebuttal to the newest challenges.

The Father, Son, and Spirit’s relationships with one another are characterized by love, trust, openness, and communication. Isn’t that the model for our relationships, especially with our children, particularly when it comes to technology? Isn’t that what we want to cultivate and emulate? The healthier relationships we have with our children, the healthier relationship they will have with technology. Deeper relationships are more effective than more detailed rules.

Additionally, this Three-in-Oneness is not just a relationship to copy, but a relationship to be enjoyed. We are invited to enter into that communion, to live in that holy family. The more we do that, the more the Trinity will replace technology; or, at least, regulate it so that our relationship to it is more balanced and beneficial.

God is good

Sometimes we can view technology with such terror that we give the impression that it’s all “of the devil.” No, technology is a wonderful gift of God. We are blessed to live in such times and benefit so much from the role of technology in our daily lives. How many lives have been saved by cellphones? How many separated families have been kept together by Skype and FaceTime? How many sermons and lectures have been spread around the world by Christian ministries?

The devil didn’t create and invent this. God did, as the giver of every good and perfect gift. Sure, the devil abuses the gift; sure, we pervert it into sinful uses. But none of that changes the fact that God created the materials, the forces, and the brains that have produced so much beneficial technology. The more we recognize that technology is a gift of God, the more we will abhor taking his gift and using it against him; the more we will take this gift and use it as he intended.

God is all-knowing

Our parents or spouses can’t see everything or be everywhere. Accountability software can be circumvented and our accountability partners duped. But we can’t escape, circumvent, or dupe the all-seeing eye of God. He sees everything: every place, every second, every screen, every click, every tap. He has a daily report of all the sites we visited, all the messages we sent, all the Instagram accounts we follow. Remembering that he knows makes a huge difference.

The more we can remind ourselves of God’s omnipresence and omniscience, the more we will seek to use technology in a way that gives him pleasure and not in a way that provokes his wrath. Yes, our technology use can please God. He delights to see truth instead of falsehood on Facebook, to hear sermons streaming across the world, and to observe our online witness to unbelievers.

God is Judge

God’s knowledge of us is not being filed away in some dusty cabinet or distant server that will one day be lost or wiped. No, as Judge, he will one day call us to account not just for every idle word, but for every idle and idol click, for every second spent in pointless time-wasting. We may silence our internal judge, our conscience; we may outsmart our earthly judges, our parents and accountability partners; but we shall never escape the judgment of God. Let his discerning judgment help you make discerning judgments in your use of technology

God is Savior

Sometimes guilt stops sin; our consciences pain us and warn us to change our ways. More times, guilt multiplies sin; it leaves us hopeless and despairing. We’ve sinned yet again with our cellphone, failed once more on our iPad. We feel so condemned, what’s the point in trying anymore? We’ve sinned so much; what harm will another sin do?

Guilt also multiplies sin by creating distance between ourselves and God. It alienates us and separates us from God, making sin all the easier. That’s why we need to hear about salvation, grace, and forgiveness all over again.

Nothing deters sin like the forgiveness of sin because it not only removes guilt, it also multiples love for the Forgiver. The more we can embrace forgiveness, the more we embrace the Forgiver, the more love to (and from) Christ we will enjoy.

God is powerful

Sometimes we can feel like giving up the battle against the dangers of technology. We look at the forces ranged against us and our children and ask, “What’s the point?” What am I against so much?” We’re right, the forces are too many and too mighty. However, greater is he who is with us than he who is with them.

With God all things are possible, and he loves to demonstrate his possibility, especially in our impossibility. His power is made especially manifest in our weakness. When we feel and confess our helplessness, that’s when he moves in with his almighty power. He can keep us and our children. He is able and mighty to save. He can also give us and all our children the Holy Spirit to resist temptation and to do what is right and good. His Spirit is far more influential than the spirit of the age.

God is wise

Sometimes we might be tempted to think God did not foresee this massive moral and spiritual challenge, that he did not anticipate it, and, therefore, has nothing in his Word to help us. After all, the Bible was written thousands of years ago. What can the papyrus age say to the digital age?

Thankfully God did foresee, he did anticipate, and has put sufficient truth in the Bible to guide us through this minefield. Many New Testament verses on Christian ethics can be applied to technology, but I’ve found the book of Proverbs especially helpful as a source of divine wisdom for the digital age. Why not read through it asking God for light on how to apply these ancient wisdom principles to modern times. God is wiser than the wisest tech moguls and has anticipated every development in technology until the end of time. We will never reach a day when we say, “Well the Bible has run out of truth?”

I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I hope you’re persuaded that the ultimate answer to digital technology is a robust digital theology.

A form of this article originally appeared here.

By / Oct 31

Andrew Walker, director of policy studies, breaks down what the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation means to modern day Christianity. 

By / Oct 31

While themes related to religious liberty appear in early Christian writings, it was not a principle the Christian Church prioritized throughout its early history. With Christianity in charge and wedded to the state, it did not have to think about its liberty. What happened that disrupted church-state alliances and made Christianity re-evaluate its positions on the relationship between church and state? The Reformation happened.

It is not an exaggeration to argue that the religious liberty we enjoy as American Christians, a form of religious liberty that makes church-state alliances seem entirely foreign, was forged in the aftermath of the Reformation. Why? Because theological principles inherent to religious liberty were at the center of the Reformation itself.

But even the birth of religious liberty stemming from the Reformation has a sordid history. As confessional evangelicals, we write as ardent supporters of the Protestant Reformation, but intellectual honesty requires admitting that the Magisterial Reformers were not always practitioners of their own principles. The Reformers, like all of us, were captive to their time. On religious liberty especially, their theology was often more principled than its application in practical matters of church and state. Though long since passed, the Reformers still speak today through their legacy of faith. Since they are members of the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1-2), we would do well to consider and reflect upon the principles of Reformation theology in relationship to religious liberty, whether positive or negative.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in hopes of retrieving and invigorating Protestant theology, it is good and necessary to examine how themes in Reformation theology supply religious liberty with needed sustenance.

The Reformers’ insistence upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone — sola scriptura —  is foundational to religious liberty.

Scripture cannot be the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice if we neglect to understand the ways in which God has clearly defined the realm of the state's authority. In Scripture, the purpose, authority, and jurisdiction of the state is ordained and limited, meaning that the state plays a positive role in society, but that it does not play every role or possess every type of authority. A pattern emerges from Scripture revealing that the state is not designed to exercise spiritual authority. The state exists to maintain the stability of society through the maintenance of natural law and statutory law (Gen. 8:20-9:17; Rom. 13:1-7). Likewise, the church is ill-equipped to bear the responsibility of civic authority. This duality of jurisdictions is a pivotal and Scriptural foundation to religious liberty because it demarcates the authority of the state over civil matters and the authority of the church over ecclesial matters.

The Reformers’ insistence upon the supreme authority of Scripture alone — Sola Scriptura —  is foundational to religious liberty.

Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone necessarily excludes justification by a state-coerced faith. The nature of authentic faith — sola fide — reveals the inner logic of belief in the gospel.

The Reformers rejected the notion of there being any earthly mediator between a person and God. Each individual stands before the judgment of God in need of a Savior, and Jesus Christ is the sole mediator of salvation. An evangelical account of religious liberty relies upon a doctrine of justification by faith alone, insisting that individuals enter God’s Kingdom individually and conscientiously self-aware of an expressed faith. No one can attain someone else’s salvation for them, and neither can someone’s salvation be negated by another. Faith is grounded in a personal recognition of the conscience’s guilt and personal need for redemption. Thus, the Kingdom of God is received by faith and not by external factors. This entails a rejection of the state declaring the bounds of faithful membership in the church since it lacks the mediatory authority to declare or accomplish salvation. Lastly, true faith by definition is authentic faith. Individuals are recipients of salvation in Christ by a free, uncoerced response to the gospel.

The Reformers’ understanding of human sinfulness provides insight into the blessings and limits of government authority.

Luther believed that “our whole nature is condemned and destroyed by sin and cannot emerge from this calamity and death by its own powers or efforts.” (LW 12:339)  If the heart of humanity is deceitfully wicked above all else by nature, then a government formed amongst depraved persons can either be a blessing to its people or an instrument of Satan; it can restrain itself, thus yielding to higher powers than itself, or it can act tyrannically where no authority exists apart from that which the state dispenses. The state is not omnicompetent, but is marked by sinful rejection of God’s Word, despite its beneficial role in society to protect citizens and punish evildoers. When evil is restrained by the government, the people are blessed. When evil is promoted by the government, the people are oppressed. A thorough understanding of the reformers’ belief in the depravity of man curbs triumphalist visions of government’s competence. A Christian doctrine of religious liberty assumes a restrained vision for the state in order to protect the faculty of conscience among citizens. Only a state aware of its own fallibility can commit itself to preserving and safeguarding fallible opinions.

Calvin’s understanding of divine sovereignty demands that God be regarded as the only Lord of the conscience.  

When Calvin commented on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples regarding their obligation to “render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God,” he noted the rightful though subordinate authority of the government — that government has a limited, rather that totalizing, jurisdiction. When the “princes and magistrates” ruled righteously, it was the Christian’s duty to submit to their authority. However, when government attempted to rob God of the authority over the consciences of man, Calvin declared, “we ought not to obey them any farther than can be done without offending God.” Standing in apostolic tradition, to regard the government as having supreme authority over the conscience is to dishonor the sovereignty of the Creator over his creation and the kingship of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Acts 5:29). Calvin was right to conclude that “we must attend to the distinction between the spiritual kingdom of God and political order” so as not to forget that “the Lord wishes to be the only Lawgiver for governing souls.”

Luther’s teaching regarding two distinct realms of authority undergirds modern understandings of religious liberty.

Though practiced imperfectly by Luther himself, the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine is helpful for understanding the simultaneity of God’s rule: Christ rules as Creator over the creation and the state, and Christ rules as Savior over His church. God rules over both, but His rule has different implications for each domain. Clear delineation prevents either from encroaching on the other’s domain. Luther asserted that mixing the distinct authorities of church and the state was a work of Satan himself. In a his comments on Psalm 101, Luther wrote, “The devil never stops cooking and brewing these two kingdoms into each other. In the devil’s name the secular leaders always want to be Christ’s masters and teach Him how He should run His church and spiritual government. Similarly, the false clerics and schismatic spirits always want to be the masters, though not in God’s name, and to teach people how to organize the secular government. Thus the devil is indeed very busy on both sides, and he has much to do. May God hinder him, amen, if we deserve it!” (LW 13:194-195) Indeed, may God hinder the work of the Devil in his attempt to disrupt religious liberty by confusing the territories of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man.

The Reformers understood that it was only by grace alone — sola gratia — that a sinner could be transformed. The grace of God, not government, was the hope of true spiritual reformation.

If the transformation of the sinner could come through good government instead of grace, then Christ died in vain. Good government, whether from self or civic authority, is ultimately powerless to change a sinner’s heart. Luther’s attempts at self-government failed miserably to bring relief to his guilty conscience. For Luther, life apart from the grace of God was a living hell.  Yet, it was by grace, and grace alone, that Luther’s life changed forever. The faith that led to justification was a gift of the grace of God, not government policy. As advocates of religious liberty, Christians must remember that it is God’s grace in Christ that brings about salvation. Harsh restrictions may make for a good outward show (Col. 2:22-23), but “they have no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” This is true whether those restrictions apply to one’s personal discipline or civic policies. Government may be able to limit certain action, but it is incapable of granting the New Birth (John 3:8).

Calvin’s understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit reinforces the spiritual nature of religion as a whole.

Calvin believed the Holy Spirit must unite the believer to Christ in order for the blessings of salvation to be realized. He wrote, “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us” (Inst. 3.1.1). Given the spiritual nature of Christianity, one must assume that it is dependent upon the Holy Spirit for its resource, not the civic government. When Calvin was commenting on Zechariah 4:6, he noted the spiritual means by which God builds up the Church. Concerning the phrase, “not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts,” Calvin wrote: “But God intended also to show that his Church is built up and preserved, not by human and common means, but by means extraordinary and beyond all our hopes and all our thoughts.” He continued, “When therefore we now see things in a despairing condition, let this vision come to our minds — that God is sufficiently able by his own power to help us, when there is no aid for from any other; for his Spirit will be to us for lamps, for pourers, and for olive-trees, so that experience will at length show that we have been preserved in a wonderful manner by his hand alone.” The necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work in the building of the Church precludes the need for government policies that attempt to coerce faith. The Church’s greatest need is met by the Holy Spirit, not the government.

Calvin’s argument for the freedom of the believer’s conscience further explains the primacy of humanity’s relationship to God before government.

When Calvin discussed the freedom of the believer’s conscience, he distinguished the role of God from the role of the government. The conscience, which for Calvin referred to a “sense of divine judgment, as a witness joined to them” (Inst. 3.19.15), was to be shaped by God’s truth. As the believer grew in their understanding of God, their conscience was formed accordingly. Since the government at times could reflect the general character of God through judgment on wickedness and support of righteousness, the conscience of the believer might be partially informed by a government’s policies and actions. This, however, was not the primary means by which the believer’s free conscience was to be formed. For Calvin, God was the ultimate shaper of the human conscience. The righteousness of a God-ordained magistrate was limited because of the fallibility of its leaders and citizens. Thus, the laws of a government serve as a shadow of the righteousness of God, but they should never be equated with the infallible substance of that righteousness.

The Reformers’ confidence in the steadfastness of God’s truth means that competing worldviews within in the public square pose no threat to biblical churches/Christianity.

When Luther penned his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” he had already witnessed the unshakeable nature of God’s truth. Though enemies of the gospel threatened to undo him, Luther refused to fear because God had willed for the truth to triumph over all opposition. The battle was not against those who were held captive by the Devil. The battle was against the Prince of Darkness, and the weapon of warfare was the gospel. The battle would not be won by taking aim at a culture permeated with Roman Catholicism. The battle would be won through the transformation of the consciences of the people. Sadly, it seems as though some Christians have forgotten that culture is not transformed through a focus on the culture itself. The truth that endures forever engages the hearts of individuals. Furthermore, the truth is not threatened by competing claims. If there was ever a time when the gospel was threatened by competing claims, it was during the Reformation. Religious and political opposition rallied against Luther’s message, but the truth could not be put away. Reformation, then and now, depends upon a renewed understanding of God’s enduring will to see His truth transform the lives of individuals. Political and social kingdoms within the culture will come and go, but Christ’s kingdom is forever.

The latter day failures of Luther and Calvin to consistently apply their theology after receiving more political authority serves as a clear warning about the danger of wedding the church to the state.  

When we assess the past, we must be careful not to idealize heros of the faith. If Luther and Calvin’s theology taught us anything, it taught us that mankind is sinful and in need of God’s grace. As Luther reminds us, all believers on this side of eternity are simul iustus et peccator, that is, “at once just and sinner.” Luther and Calvin would not have wanted future readers to neglect their flaws and failures. So, while these two reformers provide a tremendous theological framework for religious liberty, they also remind us that good theology does not necessarily result in good practice. At times, Luther and Calvin were harsh critics and even persecutors of those with differing beliefs, Calvin going so far as encouraging the barbaric execution of Michael Servetus by flame. Calvin’s comments on the role of the government to establish and “prevent the true religion which is contained in God’s law from being openly and with public sacrilege violated and defiled with impunity” (Inst. 4.20.3) should be rejected unequivocally. Not only is such a statement unbiblical, but it has proven disastrous from the beginning of Christendom.

The Baptist concept of the free church as a voluntary society is critical to the reformational principle of Semper Reformanda.

As Baptists, we owe our inheritance to Reformational ancestors whose concept of the church as free and voluntary unshackled it from an ungodly union with the state and emphasized the purity, discipline, and regenerate nature of Christ’s church. Where medieval Christendom treated membership in the church and membership in the state as one and the same, the prospect of a voluntary church consisting only of those with expressed faith in Jesus Christ made possible the critical division necessary to identify the church as something distinct from the world around it. A flourishing church is a church that understands its distinctiveness. A free church operating in a free state allows the church to pursue its mission of evangelization and disciple-making. A free church model made up only of those with professed faith in Christ is possible when government does not see the church as a useful appendage to enforce cultural, religious, or political conformity. The church in every age must be attentive to its surroundings in order to keep alive the spirit of the Reformation —  “Reformed and always reforming.”

The Reformation’s emphasis on the supremacy of Christ Alone — solus christus —is the ultimate foundation for a truly Christian understanding of religious liberty.

Because Jesus Christ is the ultimate Lord over the conscience, a Christian understanding of religious liberty begins with affirming that Christ alone possesses the ability to execute judgment over the conscience (Acts 17:30-31). Because Christ possesses the exclusive right and authority to judge erring consciences, the institutions of creation (family, church, state) do not. Religious liberty exists because of the forbearance of God’s coming judgment. Whatever other themes comprise religious liberty (dual jurisdictions, the conscience, voluntary faith, etc.), all of these find their meaning in reference to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the appointed judge over man (John 5:22; Heb. 9:27).

Religious liberty was forged through the Reformation’s fracturing of Christendom.

The legacy of Christendom’s impact on Christian witness and society is mixed. On the one hand, Christians can appreciate Christian morality being the dominant morality in society for the good of human flourishing. On the other hand, an unregenerate Christianity resulting from church-state alliances that fostered political and religious unity is a trade-off that confessional Christianity cannot accept. The idea of Christian social dominance accomplished through church-state alliances and, in some cases, even coercion, has proven to be one of the most catastrophic effects undermining authentic Christian witness. By confusing membership in the state with membership in the church, historic church-state models seen in Christendom resulted in unregenerate churches and a Christian nominalism that easily acquiesced to a state of secular unbelief that we see in Europe today. Christendom did not forge an authentic Christianity for its recipients to look nostalgically back upon; it forged a once-and-former cultural hegemony that is now in ruins.

Christians live in a penultimate age, meaning an age where Christ’s rule is not yet fully present. This means it is normal and expected to encounter a culture where religions and ideology vie and compete for acceptance. We do not live in a naked public square that is solely secular or anti-religious, nor a religious public square where one religion or one denomination has all the cultural power. Rather, Christians understand themselves to be pilgrims living as resident aliens amid a contested public square where our confidence in the gospel—apart from the backing of state or cultural privilege—is the basis of our identity.

It is reasonable for Christians to accept or prefer the imperfections of liberal democracy over the supposed cultural uniformity of medieval Christendom that not only confused church and state relationships, but executed dissenting consciences often in the perverse attempts to further Christianity.

The Reformational focus on the Glory of God alone — “Soli Deo Gloria” — is critical to religious liberty and animates Christian cultural activity.

Whether eating or drinking, the Bible is explicit that Christians are to do everything for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). From economics to scientific advancement, the Reformers’ vision for all of life lived under the canopy of God’s rule and the advancement of God’s glory was the catalyzing force behind so much cultural innovation that followed from the Reformation. Yet, the obligation to pursue God’s glory in all spheres of culture requires the exercise of Christian freedom. Christians care about religious liberty since the Bible draws a relationship between our freedom to live faithfully and the extension of God’s glory throughout our pilgrimage on this earth.

By / Oct 20

Many of us know what it’s like to question God’s love. This needs no explaining. There are times when it is natural for humans to question God when his love doesn’t feel the way we expect it to; we often find ourselves asking if God is even paying attention.

God’s love manifests itself in an innumerable amount of ways to his people. Paul, describing love through the Spirit, says,

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away (1 Cor.13:4-8).

The last verse here provides an anchor for understanding God’s love in such a way that we may never reject God in our bitterness again. “Love never ends.”

There is perhaps no other truth about God’s character that, when put on trial in our heart’s court, can stand the “love-test”again and again. The profound and incalculably valuable reality that God is committed to his people may be the most liberating and encouraging detail about the love of God in Scripture.

This is not to say that any other part of God’s character is “less than,” or less reliable, or that God’s commitment to us is more unchanging than, say, his mercy or compassion. But when we survey the emotional and spiritual ups and downs of our walk with Christ, and when we look at the redemption story, from Genesis to Revelation, one thing is absolutely certain: God is for his people.This cannot be questioned (Rom. 8:31).

God is for his people. This cannot be questioned.

Over and over again in the Old Testament accounts of the Israelites’ journeys in and out of captivity, through deserts, wandering about and fighting brutal wars, one thing remains true throughout the narrative: God is committed to his chosen people. Along the way, they moan, complain, cry out, turn away, worship other gods, forget the Lord’s faithfulness, ignore his commands, forget his promises, and crumble beneath their fear of failure.

Again and again, God responds with messages like these in Isaiah: “In that day the Lord will extend his hand a second time to recover the remnant of Israel . . . . For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel”(Isa. 11:11; 14:11, emphasis added). The Israelites repeatedly question God’s love, intentions, and methodology, but when we look back over these texts, one thing stands out: in the midst of their questioning, and in the midst of God’s perceived absence, his assurance to the people is, “I am committed.”

Fast forward to Gethsemane. A well-known scene where Jesus bows in a garden to pray to the Father in heaven. His prayer is short but fervent: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done”(Luke 22:42). Jesus, even until death, aligned his will with the will of the Father, the same will that led God to say to a broken “remnant” of Israel, “I will again choose you.” Jesus’s ministry was a daily re-commitment, both to the will of the Father, and to the salvation of his people. This is a game-changing revelation about the heart of God for his children.

There is a metaphor for God’s commitment to us found in marriage: When the sparks of love fade and couples forget what love is, lost in the shuffle of life and in the messiness of relationship, commitment holds them together. We cannot always expect to see love clearly for everything that it is. Whether with one another, or when wrestling with God’s presence, true love is never made more clear than when one says to the other, “I will see this through.” God uses Paul in Philippians 1:6, reminding us that, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Endurance not only means trusting God today, but also remembering his promises from yesterday.

There is a story of redemption and salvation woven into your life as a follower of Jesus that cannot be erased by any sin, anxiety, fear, or brokenness because of God’s steadfast commitment to you, and to his plan to make you like Jesus. God’s Word is his answer to you in prayer even when you do not hear his voice. Believe God’s promises, and believe God’s words to Israel as if they are being spoken into your current situation. Cry out to God, and as you wait for an answer, preach over and over until your heart believes: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”(Psa. 73:25-26).

He is committed, above all else, to the redemption of your soul and to the restoration of your heart as he prepares you, his bride, for glory.

By / Sep 12

Matt Hall discusses how spiritual disciples like Bible study and prayer influence and shape our ethics. 

By / Jun 1

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation comes at an important time for the church. It reminds us that we stand for something. Our own denominational history, as illuminated well in this issue by essays from Nathan Finn and Jason Duesing, reminds us why we are Baptist. Andrew Walker and Casey Hough remind us that, when it comes to religious liberty, the work of the reformers was largely unfinished and relied on the theology and heroism of our Baptist forefathers.

Russell Moore, offers an important piece on what it means to believe in “Scripture alone.” Steven Smith’s helps us understand how to preach in light of the Reformation. Andrew Walker’s interview with Dr. Robert George sheds light on the contributions evangelical Protestants bring to our co-belligerence on moral and ethical activism. And Chris Castaldo, a former Catholic, helps us think through what it means to be conventionally Protestant and yet work with Catholics for the common good.

By / Feb 28

Over the weekend, a tweet from CNN promoted a new series called “Believer” with Reza Aslan that begins airing on Sunday, March 5.

Now, the series has not yet begun, so there’s some degree to which I need to give the series the benefit of the doubt and hope for the best. But by the looks of it, based on the commercial enclosed within the tweet, CNN is engaging in gross distortion of a hotly debated word—“pluralism.”

Here’s the text from the commercial, featuring Aslan:

Faith is mysterious. It’s indescribable. And religion is just a language you use to describe your faith. Although we’re all speaking different languages, we’re all saying pretty much the same thing. Religion is about who you are, how you see yourself, your world; that’s what it means to say “I am Christian,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Jewish,” “I am Buddhist,” “I am Hindu.” These are far more statements of identity than they are statements of faith.

Without using the word, Aslan is using categories related to pluralism. I want to be respectful toward CNN and Reza Aslan, but the descriptions offered above defining “religion” and “faith” are nothing short of awful, and I’ll explain why.

First, it’s important to understand the context of the word “pluralism.” In many circles (not just Christian), pluralism is a bad word and often viewed with hostility, and for good reason. Some individuals mindlessly rattle off “pluralism” as a way to gloss over our religious differences in society. The “COEXIST” bumper stickers might come to mind. So the thinking goes: If we can all just agree not to take our differences too seriously, everyone will learn to live together in relative peace and harmony.

Seen in a similar light, pluralism is akin to religious relativism, and is used by liberals as a way to make religion merely an expression of sociological diversity. Because “God” is unknowable, according to the skeptical mind, all religions are merely grasping after partial truths of the divine. This viewpoint is philosophically problematic because it assumes a vantage point from the one offering this perspective, namely, that he or she—the skeptic—can claim that God is unknowable. This is a truth claim that some world religions would object to (ex. Christianity), because some religions believe that God has revealed himself in such a way as to know him and commune with him.

These assumptions are the problematic assumptions born out in the commercial. Reducing religion to another form of identity politics, Aslan makes the astounding—and frankly, tendentious—claim that religious viewpoints are “far more statements of identity than they are statements of faith.”

Any serious religious believer who understands the exclusivity of their faith knows that Aslan is blowing smoke in their faces and glossing over serious, often mutually-exclusive truth claims in order to pacify fears of religious extremism. But Aslan, however, is also engaging in an absolute claim as well. Saying that all religious claims are saying essentially the same thing is just as tendentious as the accusations are that one religion is right over others. For example, as a Christian, I believe Jesus Christ is the only way to truly know God and have a relationship with him (John 14:6). This means, according to biblical Christianity, that Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists do not know God. That is a very bold claim, but honesty requires one to acknowledge what his or her faith actually teaches. From real honesty can come authentic dialogue. We need to be honest about the implications of our truth claims and should expect other religions to do so as well if any real hope for pluralism is to be achieved. If I am not honest with my Muslim neighbor about the tenets of Christianity, I am betraying my own Christian faith and in the process, denying the substance of what I believe will save my Muslim neighbor. Anything less than the full truth prevents the possibility of real pluralism from being realized.

Aslan’s claim that religion is about “identity” more than “statements of faith” is simply wrong because it approaches religion from the wrong vantage point. Religion is about much more than identity, but never less. But taking this logic further, we must see that it is religious devotion itself that builds one’s identity; not the other way around. I am a Christian, but I am not a Christian on secularized grounds that countenances progressive faith claims first. I make no apologies in confessing that Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). That truth is about much more than my identity; that truth is about how the universe is ultimately accountable to divine judgment (Acts 17:30-31).

But above all, and central to the argument I’m making in this article, in making this claim, Aslan is actually undermining the positive aspects and prospects of what pluralism means, strives after and entails.

Real pluralism means being honest about our religious beliefs and religious differences.

Real pluralism strives for social tranquility by agreeing to to live peaceably, kindly and respectfully despite deep, irreconcilable beliefs about who God is, how he calls us to live and how we attain a relationship with him.

We do no service to our neighbors in weakening the claims of our religion in order to serve a greater social good. The social good is better served when honest brokers approach one another within a society that pledges to foster religious liberty by giving each equal space in the public square—not in spite of deep difference, but because of it.

This means true pluralism entails religious liberty. Only an environment committed to treating religions with respect and equal freedom can hope to attain a social environment where disagreement is resolved without recourse to violence and social unrest.

Reza Aslan means well, and I hope the show is better than what is advertised, but let’s live in a society honest about our religious differences and which refuses to drain religion of its doctrinal center in the name of feel-good liberalism.