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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1994 -- Volume 7:12


THE NEW PURITANISM
Part 3:

MICHAEL S. HORTON:
HOLY WAR WITH UNHOLY WEAPONS

(continued from last issue)

ZANE C. HODGES
Associate Editor
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Mesquite, Texas

 

Introduction

In the previous issue we began our review of the book, Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation, edited by Michael Horton (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992). This is a symposium book with articles by seven writers, including Horton, who contributes two articles and an introduction.1 Horton is the president of CURE (Christians United for Reformation) which is based in Anaheim, California.

The theological perspective of the writers appears to be that of Dortian (or, five-point) Calvinism. The volume displays considerable hostility toward the Free Grace position. A sense of "holy war" against the theology of grace is not hard to detect in many places in the book. But the weapons employed might be described as unholy weapons.

In the last issue we saw that the book is permeated by false statements (point A) and/or distortions of its opponent's views (point B). To these unholy weapons we may now add another: the subjugation of biblical soteriology to theological determinism.

 

C. Soteriology Subjugated to Determinism

If there is one thing five-point Calvinists hold with vigorous tenacity, it is the belief that there can be no human free will at all. With surprising illogic, they usually argue that God cannot be sovereign if man is granted any degree of free will. But this view of God actually diminishes the greatness of His sovereign power. For if God cannot control a universe in which there is genuine free will, and is reduced to the creation of "robots," then such a God is of truly limited power indeed.

We would argue quite differently. The God of the Bible is in fact great enough to create creatures with genuine powers of choice. Yet so perfect is His omniscience of all choices, possible and actual, that He can devise an almost infinitely complex scenario for mankind in which His sovereign purposes are all worked out perfectly through—and even in spite of—the free choices made by His creatures. This view of things is sometimes called "Middle Knowledge," which was briefly referred to in our last article.2

The theological determinism found in Christ the Lord is in no way necessitated by the Bible. But since the writers impose it on Scripture, the results are necessarily bad. When the Bible is not allowed to speak beyond the grid of its interpreters, we are not surprised if its voice is seriously distorted.

 

1. There Is No Place for Human Responsibility

It is a logical (though unadmitted) corollary of theological determinism that there can be no true concept of human responsibility. If man has no free will, he can make no other choices than those for which he has been programmed. Man cannot be held truly responsible for "choices" which were mere illusions of choice and which are really the inevitable outworking of a predetermined program to which he is unconsciously subjected. If the word "responsible" is assigned to such "choices," the word loses any real significance at all. Determinists who use the word are playing a word-game. We might as well say that the table, on which I have just laid some books, is "responsible" to hold them up!

It is part of the creed of the theological determinist that unsaved man cannot really be called upon to believe the Gospel, since he has no capacity to do so at all. It follows, then, that faith must be a divinely imparted gift which man receives only as a part of his conversion.

This idea is pretty clearly stated by Horton. Speaking of "union" with Christ, he writes:

Regeneration, or the new birth, is the commencement of this union. God brings this connection and baptism even before there is any sign of life—God "made us alive . . .  even when we were dead" (Eph 2:5). The first gift of this union is faith, the sole instrument through which we live and remain on this vine.3

This statement is theological quicksand to say the least. It is fraught with unbiblical implications.

It is evident that Horton believes that faith is a consequence of regeneration, not regeneration the consequence of faith. It follows that an unsaved man could not possibly believe unless God first regenerates him. The non-elect, therefore, are faced with the horrible reality that God has chosen not to regenerate them and that, therefore, they cannot believe even if they want to.

Yet biblically, the failure to believe is the basis of the condemnation of the unsaved, as John 3:17 declares:

He who believes is not condemned. But he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

The result of Horton's theology is that non-elect people are hopelessly bound for hell because God declines to regenerate them. Thus they are unable to believe.

Yet they are condemned for that unbelief! The picture of God that emerges from this is a hideous distortion of His loving character and nature.

It is not surprising, therefore, to find Horton also writing (on the same page!) these words:

He [God] cannot love us directly because of our sinfulness, but he can love us in union with Christ, because Christ is the one the Father loves.4

What this amounts to is that God does not "directly" love anyone unless first He regenerates him or her, since "regeneration is the commencement of union." In other words, God does not love the elect until they are regenerated, and He never loves the non-elect at all.

This is hardly the God of love whom we meet in the Bible. The deity of the determinist creates human beings for whom he has no direct love, and who have no free will, and thus they are created solely for a destiny in everlasting torment. Christ's death in no way affects them, and so they stand totally outside of any redemptive provision. Christ's atoning work is limited to the elect. The non-elect are both unloved and doomed.

The cruelty implicit in such a view is obvious to any observer outside of those who have been brought up in, or have bought into, this kind of theology. Despite specious arguments addressed to every text alleged against such theology, determinists of this type are bereft of true biblical support. It is absurd, for example, to claim (as they sometimes do) that when the Bible says, "God so loved the world," it means only "the world of the elect."

This is not the place to refute the doctrine of limited atonement. The reader of this Journal should consult passages like 1 John 2:2, 2 Cor 5:18-19, and 2 Pet 2:1 for clear biblical declarations. Suffice it to point out that the antagonistic, distorted attack on the Free Grace movement in Christ the Lord is understandable against the backdrop of such theology. The theology itself is hard-edged. It transparently lacks a true sense of God's compassion and love toward all mankind.

It seems to this reviewer that the harsh rhetoric which determinists direct toward their opponents is basically a manifestation of the harsh theology they have embraced.

 

2. The Doctrine of Assurance Is Muddled

The tensions produced by determinist theology necessarily affect the doctrine of assurance. Horton is well aware of the problems created by a heavy stress on good works as a proof of saving faith. For example, he chides John MacArthur for writing: "If disobedience and rebellion continue unabated there is reason to doubt the reality of a person's faith . . .  "5 Correctly, Horton finds such a statement to be in tension with Paul's struggle in Romans 7, which both he and MacArthur take as the experience of a regenerate person.

But, surprisingly, Horton goes on to say:

MacArthur may have been on safer ground to have said, "If there is no struggle against the disobedience and rebellion, there is reason to doubt the reality of a person's faith." In other words, evidence of the new birth is not whether we are, on the whole, achieving victory at any given point, but whether we are at war! While Paul struggles in this way, he adds, "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin that is in my members" (Rom 7:22-23). While the regenerate do not cease sinning, they also do not cease hating their sin and struggling to eradicate it. [Italics added.]6

Although many interpreters have regarded Romans 7 as referring to a pre-conversion experience, its reference to post-conversion experience now has widespread acceptance. Yet the view that Romans 7 is normative Christian experience is open to serious question.7 Surely, the conclusion of the chapter suggests that it is not: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:24-25). These words, in fact, prepare the way for the positive perspective of Romans 8 where an experience opposite to that of Romans 7 is suggested: ". . .   that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4).

It is then quite inappropriate for Horton to elevate the experience of Romans 7 to the level of a test, or proof, of saving faith. He really has no grounds for doing this. His own claim that "evidence of new birth is . . .   whether we are at war," is completely arbitrary. Surely there is nothing in Romans 7 that suggests that the reality of our faith can be tested by such an experience of repeated failure and defeat! The claim that "the regenerate . . .  do not cease hating their sin" is gratuitous, too.8

Correctly, Horton observes that

Nevertheless, the Reformers were quite anxious to hold together faith and assurance as responses that demand Christ alone as their object. In other words, one is not justified through faith alone and then assured some time later by examining his or her works.9

As far as it goes, this seems to be fine. Throughout his book, Horton does react against a radical reliance on works for assurance. Our discussion of his remarks on Romans 7 illustrates this fact.

But what immediately follows the statements just quoted, is obscure. Horton states:

Rather, justifying faith carries with it (in its very definition: trust) a certain confidence and assurance that the promise is true for me, even though my faith and assurance may be weak (italics added).10

What does this really mean? What is intended by a certain confidence? Does Horton mean a certain level of confidence? If so, what level? What, in fact, is weak assurance? Is "weak assurance" functionally equivalent to "a certain level of doubt"? If so, what level? And is that really assurance at all?

In addition, what does it mean for one to have "assurance that the promise is true for me"? Does this mean: "I am sure that I'm saved based on God's promise"? Or, does it mean, "I am sure the promise is for me if I truly believe"? Most Reformed thinkers would take the latter option.11

In his conclusion to the chapter we are quoting from, Horton is even less perspicuous. For example, he states: "Many think they are living holy lives because they do not have the slightest comprehension of biblical holiness."12 Later in the same paragraph he adds:

Because they have never had premarital sex or been drunk, they are certain they do not require self-examination and a swift flight back to the cross. They may not be "spiritual giants," they concede, but they're "good Christian folks"—mediocre, external, and superficial in their devotion. They have never been condemned in their righteousness by the law, so they shall never be justified by Christ's righteousness.13

Here, of course, Horton is on solid Puritan terrain, honeycombed though it is with theological land mines. Here the typical Puritan disdain for "superficial" Christianity comes through clearly, along with a loud warning that apart from a deep conviction of sin, wrought by the law, one cannot hope to find justification by faith! So it turns out that one can hardly look to Christ and His cross for salvation unless one first discerns in himself a sufficiently deep spirit of conviction and unworthiness.

But how deep? When is my guilt great enough, or my sorrow profound enough, that I can look to the Cross and find peace? Horton, like most Puritans new and old, does not tell us. He is sure, however,

that the reason so many unbelievers can sit comfortably in our churches and even call themselves born-again Christians is that we give them very little to deny. The offensive message of the cross has been replaced with "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," with the cross tucked somewhere underneath it.14

Again, this is strong Puritan stuff. But it will only do what Puritanism almost always does. It will drive the believer away from resting in the Cross and will require him to examine the reality of his own faith and conversion. Yet Horton writes, a few pages earlier, "We must be careful not to react to the antinomian threat by driving the sheep back to themselves, away from Christ."15

But when Horton is read carefully, it seems to me he violates his own principle. The believer cannot simply rest in Christ and in what the Savior has done for his salvation. The believer must also take note of whether he is "at war" with sin. (And how much struggle must there be?) He must take care not to be like superficial professing Christians who think of themselves as "good Christians" but have never really felt the condemnation of the law. Moreover, he must be careful that he has been given enough wickedness "to deny," lest he be like "so many unbelievers" who "can sit comfortably in our churches and even call themselves born-again Christians."

Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And we might add, "Self-examination by any other name is still self-examination." In seeking to avoid the Scylla of "assurance by works," Horton has been sucked into the Charybdis of "assurance by self-condemnation and guilt." Both alternatives are ruinous to genuine assurance, which can only be gained by looking away from ourselves to our Savior.

In the last analysis, Horton cannot give up what deterministic theology requires. And that is some kind of consistent evidence that man's sinful and enslaved will has been re-made by God's work of salvation. Since unsaved men cannot use their wills in a way that pleases God, the absence of any apparent response to God in a professing Christian is taken as an indication that God has not worked in that person.

The biblical reality is more complex. The new life imparted at regeneration carries with it "all things that pertain to life and godliness" (2 Pet 1:3). But Peter must also appeal to the will of his readers to give "all diligence" to the process of character development (2 Pet 1:5ff). Even in a Christian, the human will can impede growth and fruitfulness, or stop it altogether (2 Pet 1:9).

The search that the new Puritans undertake for some consistent universal evidence of God's action on the will of the regenerate person, is like the medieval search for the Holy Grail. It is always beyond reach and ultimately unattainable.

I think that Horton's position on assurance implodes due to its inherent instability and inconsistency.

 

3. Sanctification Is Seriously Distorted

Theological determinism also plagues Horton's view of the process of sanctification in the believer's life. The result is a serious distortion of this biblical doctrine.

Horton's background tells us a lot about his present perspective. He writes:

Here we must bring this critique to a pastoral reflection, and for that I will have to explain why the issue is so important to me. I was raised in Bible churches pastored by those who had been taught by Zane Hodges, Charles Ryrie, and other proponents of the "carnal Christian" teaching . . .  As a teenager I had discovered the writings of the Reformers and the later exponents of that teaching. The more deeply I delved into those works, the more cynical I became toward the schizophrenia I had experienced all along in trying to get from the bottom of the spiritual ladder to the point where I could finally be victorious, fully surrendered, yielded, and consecrated (italics added).16

The reviewer can certainly empathize with Horton here. My own experience at Wheaton College was very similar to his. There I often heard the Christian life presented as though "surrender" and "yieldedness" were the panacea for all of a Christian's problems with sin. Later at Dallas Seminary, it sometimes seemed as if the "filling of the Spirit" was a similar panacea. Simplistic approaches to Christian experience can be devastating, because they don't really work.

The biblical teaching on the Christian life has much greater depth than such "panacea approaches" often suggest. (The basic biblical primer is Romans 6–8.) I am truly sorry if any student of mine has taken a simplistic approach in teaching Horton or others about Christian living. But I would maintain that he didn't get this approach from me—or, at least, I never intended such a result. Teachers are all too often saddened by what their students claim to have learned from them!

Horton's reaction to his background, however, leads to an even worse result. Theological determinism, of a Puritan type, takes over. Since man has no free will, except as he is wrought on by God, Horton need no longer struggle with aligning his will with God's. Everything comes from God.

Most interesting are these words from Horton:

Union with Christ is not the result of human decision, striving, seeking, yielding, or surrendering, but of Christ's. While we are called to be "filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5:18), that is merely a figure of speech: "Do not get drunk on wine . . .  Instead, be filled with the Spirit." In other words, make sure you're under the right influence! Every believer is Spirit-filled and, therefore, a recipient of every heavenly blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3-4). (Italics added.)17

Here we see what psychologists might call a "reaction formation." Having frequently been exhorted to "be filled with the Spirit," Horton escapes from this admonition by claiming it as a benefit belonging to all Christians. The command itself is a mere "figure of speech"! All "seeking, yielding, or surrendering" is done by Christ, not by Horton!

But Horton cannot quite escape the "demand" obviously made by Paul's text. That demand is now reduced to "make sure you're under the right influence"! But how does Horton do even that? By his decision (or, "will") to do so? Or does Christ do that too?

The dilemma is acute for the theological determinist. Many commands of the Bible (like Eph 5:18) call upon believers to decide to do, say, or think the right things. If such things can only be done by God Himself working on man's will—or by Christ living through the man—why does He not do it all the time for all true Christians? Why must the Christian (as Horton holds) always be "at war," like Paul is in Romans 7? Cannot God bring victory and peace? Where is God's power?

Let us hear Horton further on this matter:

The believer has died, is buried, is raised, is seated with Christ in the heavenlies, and so on. These are not plateaus for victorious Christians who have surrendered all and willed their way to victory [italics added], but realities for every believer, regardless of how small one's faith or how weak one's repentance.

Thus, we must stop trying to convert believers into these realities by imperatives: "Do this." "Confess that." "Follow these steps," and so on. Union with Christ ushers us immediately into all of these realities so that, as Sinclair Ferguson writes, "The determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ's past."18

A little later he states:

We are justified through receiving what someone else has earned for us. But we grow in sanctification through living out what someone else has earned for us. Both are gifts we inherit from someone else, but the former is passively received and the second is actively pursued (italics added).19

This kind of discussion has about it a certain superficial plausibility. Indeed, it contains some real truth. But upon close scrutiny, it is impossibly vague and solves nothing.

It is true, of course, that the believer has died, risen, and ascended with Christ (Eph 2:5-6; Rom 6:3-4). But who among Horton's opponents has ever described these things "as plateaus for victorious Christians"? I have never heard it done, and Horton leaves his charge undocumented. Furthermore, who has tried to "convert believers into these realities by imperatives"? Again, I don't know of anyone. The truth in question is usually called "positional" and ascribed to all believers.

But if Horton's objection is to "imperatives" per se, then his quarrel is with each and every NT epistle. The epistles are full of imperatives. It may even be said that the NT commands us to recognize that we are dead to sin and alive to God and commands us to live accordingly. Thus Paul writes:

Likewise you also, reckon [imperative] yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign [imperative] in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present [imperative] your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present [imperative] yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Rom 6:11-13).

What can Horton's words possibly mean? A Christian life without imperatives— without an appeal to our will—does not exist.

Further confusion occurs when Horton goes on to describe sanctification as "living out what someone has earned for us" and as a gift which "is actively pursued." Of course, there is an element of truth in both observations. But both statements are as simplistic as some of the ideas Horton criticizes.

If all one must do is to "live out" a righteousness he already possesses, why is this so difficult—as even Horton acknowledges with his reference to Romans 7? Further, if it is a "gift," why must I "actively pursue" it? Why indeed is this gift so imperfectly attained in every Christian life? Horton's rearticulation of the doctrine of sanctification solves nothing. The same old down-to-earth problems remain.

I would contend therefore that Horton's doctrine of sanctification is an example of theological cosmetic surgery. Some of the wrinkles (commands like, "do this," "confess that") have been made to disappear—almost. But what remains is the fundamental problem of how to attain holiness in Christian living.

One cannot wave this problem away by downplaying the role of the Christian's will in living for God. One cannot evade the Bible's direct appeals to believers to be obedient. If God's sovereign power is all that counts, even Horton's life—and mine!—would be far better than they are. For that matter, why would not both our lives be perfect?

 

IV. Conclusion

Admittedly, in this review, we have ignored Horton's fellow-writers in Christ the Lord. But Horton not only edits the book, he also writes the lengthy introduction (pp. 11-57) and two of its chapters (pp. 107-15 and pp. 129-47), the greatest amount of material of any of the contributors. (Paul Schaeffer does have two chapters, covering pp. 149-93). In addition, Horton is president of CURE, which sponsored the book. The rest of the writers for the most part do not seem to diverge significantly from Horton's position.20 The reader of this review should therefore now have a basic theological "fix" on Christ the Lord, though many other subjects could have been discussed with profit. But the reviewer has to stop somewhere!

It is difficult to summarize the mixed feelings produced by this volume. On the one hand, its failure to state accurately the views it opposes leaves an impression of deliberate unfairness. But on the other, Horton's own flight from his previous theological background evokes a real measure of sympathy. Yet this very rebellion against earlier teaching is what seems to poison the discussion.

On balance, the contributions of Horton reveal the damage that a Christian teenager can sustain when his mentors do not effectively address his struggles. At the same time, one wishes that even at this late date Horton could return to his roots, get rid of the unbiblical weeds that choked them, and finally escape from the intellectual prison of theological determinism.

 

Notes

1 Besides Horton, the other writers are Robert B. Strimple, Rick Ritchie, Kim Riddlebarger, W. Robert Godfrey, Paul Schaefer, and Rod Rosenbladt.

2 See Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, "The New Puritanism—Part 2: Michael S. Horton; Holy War with Unholy Weapons," Autumn 1993, pp. 32-33, and note the article by Basinger referred to on p. 32.

3 Christ the Lord, 111.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 49, quoted from John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says Follow Me? (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 113.

6 Christ the Lord, 50.

7 For a Reformed defense that Romans 7 is normative, see John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 256-59.

8 Especially so in the light of Heb 3:12-13, which is addressed to Christian "brothers"!

9 Christ the Lord, 51.

10 Ibid.

11 One might also note here Horton's later statement: "If saving faith is more than the conviction that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, but that he did this for me, then that conviction is synonymous with assurance. To trust in Christ for salvation is to be assured that he will fulfill his promise. If we are not assured, we are not trusting.

"Of course, this was never to suggest that assurance is complete, any more than faith. Our faith and assurance may be weak, sometimes barely distinguishable, but it is impossible to truly exercise a justifying faith that does not contain the assurance that Christ's saving work has guaranteed what has been promised in one's own case" (Christ the Lord, 132).

This partakes of the same ambiguity noted above. Horton seems to be saying that one can be sure of the objective facts and of the validity of the promises. But does he also mean that one can know for sure that he is eternally saved at the moment he trusts Christ? If he does, this is far from clear.

12 Ibid., 55.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 54-55.

15 Ibid., 51.

16 Ibid., 30-31.

17 Ibid., 113.

18 Ibid., 113-14.

19 Ibid., 114.

20 One of a number of possible contradictions to Horton is found in the words of Robert B. Strimple, who seems to regard good works as expected evidences of true faith: "That a person's possession of eternal life is necessarily evidenced by that person's life of faith, hope, love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control—is thought [by Hodges!] to be a totally unbiblical idea. And I suspect, I certainly hope, that you would immediately think of many New Testament passages to which you could turn to refute Hodges here, like 1 John 2–3 and James 2 . . . " (Christ the Lord, 63). This sounds much more like MacArthur than Horton, for whom the evidence is more akin to the "war" in Romans 7!

 

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