Does True Religion Really Imply Betterment?

It appears that Darryl Hart is at it again.

The more I listen to those who speak in terms of “transforming the culture” and render blank stares when you have the audacity to ask just what that means before signing up for the seminar, the more I think that this has much less to do with any of the in-house buzzwords of us W2K folk or whatever array of -ism’s we may throw around and more simply to do with the notion on the part of the Household that true religion really is about making bad people good, good people better and changing the world.

By the response usually given when one begins to ask those pesky questions about the nature of and relationship between the two kingdoms, the nature of grace and sanctification, the nature and extent of sin, etc., it all seems easily whisked away by just coming back to the principle of betterment. The age of the therapeutic has translated true religion into that which is useful. Instead of something to be believed it is about how pragmatic the Gospel is. Talk about carts and horses. I know how to live according to law, but how does one live the gospel? For even more furrowed brows at no extra cost, while Christianity has a way of life resident within it, it is not a way of life. The funny thing is that I can sense heads nodding in agreement, but then the mouths attached to those same heads blurt out a sympathy for any host of cultural, social, moral or political agendas–all fairly comfortable with the idea that the gospel implies these things.

But is this really anything new? I don’t think so, but then again I have yet to be persuaded that there is really anything new under the sun. American religionists of all stripes are suckled on the idea that the project of true religion is to better things, from individuals to institutions. And to challenge that assumption is anathema.

Ecclesiastical totalitarianism? Yes, I think so.

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41 Responses to Does True Religion Really Imply Betterment?

  1. kazooless says:

    The world IS better. God still brings positive and negative sanctions to covenant keeping or breaking today. See my post related to this 2 Kingdom view and the question of the world being better or not entitled: “There is only ONE Kingdom.”

    http://theonomist.wordpress.com/2008/02/24/there-is-only-one-kingdom/

    kazoo

  2. Zrim says:

    So, Kazoo, are you saying that God rewards and punishes? What happened to the once for all sacrifice where reward and punishment was all sorted out? And are you saying that God has broadened his covenant to be with both his people and those who are not his people? And are you saying that the world has done pretty well in keeping up its end of this collapsed covenant, which is why “the world IS better”?

    By the sound of your titled post, sounds like you have sufficiently collapsed the kingdoms.

    Oh, that’s right, you are a theonomist, I forgot. Now it makes sense. Since your’re not using it, I’ll be glad to take that heaping helpful of Calvinism off your hands.

  3. Ron Smith says:

    WCF VI.VI. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

    Does subjection to temporal miseries qualify as punishment?

  4. Whiskeyjack says:

    Kazoo,
    If there is only one kingdom, then it’s schizophrenic and is in desperate need of professional help.

    Zrim,

    Thanks for the add to the roll, I have now been T.P’d

  5. Rick says:

    As if Zrim knows how to add links, Rube had to add that picture for him on his last post.

    I added you Whiskey – we needed (still need IMO) to expand our roll and you’re quite confessional.

  6. Whiskeyjack says:

    Rick,

    Then the thanks goes to you, just had to guess.

  7. Rick says:

    You bet.

    I just saw an opportunity to mock Zrim’s techno inadequacies. He makes up for it in content.

  8. Zrim says:

    Ron,

    The short answer to your question seems to be, no: temporal miseries are not punishment strictly speaking. To say so is actually a very low view of God’s wrath. I’d rather endure the natural results of my sin than punishment for them. If your hermeneutic is true, what in the world was the Cross for? Either Jesus’ life and death was fully sufficient or it wasn’t. We all, believers and non-, are subject to endure the natural consequences of our sin.

    Whiskey,

    I’d say you’re welcome, but as Rick points out, I just work here.

    Rick,

    Shut up.

  9. Whiskeyjack says:

    Zrim,

    Well, I still say thank you, even if you just work there, besides, just for the heck of it, I wrote a post on activism in your honor. Just to even everything out.

    And now I bid thee farewell.

  10. Rick says:

    C’mon Zrim, I said you make up for it with the content you bring. You’re the main guy here!

  11. Ron Smith says:

    The short answer to your question seems to be, no: temporal miseries are not punishment strictly speaking. To say so is actually a very low view of God’s wrath.

    I agree totally. That is, if by short, you mean unconfessional. The confession says exactly the opposite. The guilt of sin binds the sinner over to God’s wrath, which the aforesaid WCF VI.VI describes as both temporal and eternal. The same is true of blessing and reward for obedience to God’s Law (Psalm 19:11).

    What you would rather do is not significant to your argument. It does not follow that if there is a natural consequence for sin, (which I believe, btw) said consequence cannot also be God’s punishment. Perhaps we can talk about the difference between punishment and discipline for God’s people, but those who remain outside of Jesus clearly receive punishment in temporal life and in eternal death.

    …what in the world was the Cross for?

    The Cross was for the reconciliation of all things to God (Col 1:20).

  12. Ron Smith says:

    Oh, and I would say that being reconciled to God is “better” than not being reconciled to God, so the Cross makes all things better. 🙂

  13. Whiskeyjack says:

    Ron,

    It isn’t direct punishment in relation to an actual sin that, say, you committed yesterday. Rather it is in regard to original sin and all the miseries which come with that. So the answer is yes and no and I don’t think that Zrim was being non confessional because I think you have misread the confession.

    “What you would rather do is not significant to your argument. It does not follow that if there is a natural consequence for sin, (which I believe, btw) said consequence cannot also be God’s punishment. Perhaps we can talk about the difference between punishment and discipline for God’s people, but those who remain outside of Jesus clearly receive punishment in temporal life and in eternal death.”

    Regarding the natural consequence for sin, do you mean the corruption of all creation at the fall or do you mean to imply that current sins are punished directly be God rather than in a providential sense?

    But of course, it is not simply the unregenerate who suffer the effects of sin in this present age, but all who are present. Pagans don’t get extra punishment here, only at the judgment.

    And explain how God’s people are punished in the context of the new covenant as opposed to the chastisement. This seems to me to denigrate the work of Christ.

    Anyway, just my thoughts.

  14. Ron Smith says:

    I don’t think that Zrim was being non confessional because I think you have misread the confession.

    How have I misread the confession? Does it not say that God’s wrath and curse include temporal miseries? (See again WCF VI.VI) WCF Shorter Catechism 84 is even more explicit:

    Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
    A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

    So, are you going to say that God’s wrath and curse is not punishment?

  15. Whiskeyjack says:

    I have read it.

    Deserves does not mean actually applied in this life, it simply states the gravity of the transgression. And temporal miseries is referring to the the fall and its effect on man and the rest of creation. Besides, if we were take this passage to mean that God punishes sinners this side of the judgment, then no one would live long enough to even receive faith to believe, a messiah would not be necessary because their would be no mercy. And also, we are all born under the curse yet through His mercy and Christ’s work we are saved. The consequence of the curse is not truly actualized this of the judgment because the effects of the fall are felt by all, because the consequence of sin, both original and personal, is not immediate retributive justice.

    Oh happy days!!!!!

    And you have not answered my question: Is the Church under the judgment rather than those who are chastised.

  16. Ron Smith says:

    Deserves does not mean actually applied in this life…

    So God’s wrath and curse were never applied to people in history?

    And temporal miseries is referring to the the [sic] fall and its effect on man and the rest of creation.

    Agreed. And the confession places this under the heading of wrath and curse. The sinner is bound over to God’s wrath and the Law’s curse and so made subjected to temporal miseries. What does that little word “so” mean in WCF VI.VI? Or better yet, how about WCF LC 27?

    Q. 27. What misery did the fall bring upon mankind?

    A. The fall brought upon mankind the loss of communion with God, his displeasure and curse; so as we are by nature children of wrath, bond slaves to Satan, and justly liable to all punishments in this world, and that which is to come.

    How do you get away from that? The fall actually brought God’s curse upon mankind. And the result is that man is by nature liable to punishment in this world.

    if we were take this passage to mean that God punishes sinners this side of the judgment, then no one would live long enough to even receive faith to believe…

    This would be true if death was the only way God revealed His wrath or if God never sent rain to the unjust and just alike. A less severe punishment than one deserves is still a punishment.

    And I have not answered your question because that is step 2 and we haven’t passed step 1. If I cannot convince you that God’s wrath and curse are manifested in real-time, I can hardly convince you that they are manifested toward His own people, now can I?

  17. Echo_ohcE says:

    Zrim,

    Do Christians play any part at all in the civil kingdom?

    If so, what is that role? What governs that role?

    E

  18. Zrim says:

    Ron,

    If all things were reconciled why does punishment continue then? This is what I don’t understand and why I think you must make distinction between “natural consequence of sin” and “punishment.”

  19. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    If my antenna is working (I think I am about to get a bad cold), your question seems to assume that I don’t think so, which I don’t get. But, I do. What else would you expect from a “Christian secularist”? I don’t register with any conception of withdrawl, retreat, etc. Indeed, I think anything less than a full-orbed W2K view tends to encourage retreat. I think Xians have a high calling to both of God’s kingdoms, left and right.

    What is the role? Believing participant in the KoM.

    What governs it? The Law of God.

  20. Ron Smith says:

    If all things were reconciled why does punishment continue then? This is what I don’t understand and why I think you must make distinction between “natural consequence of sin” and “punishment.”

    Because there is a difference between redemption accomplished and redemption applied. The redemption of all things was accomplished at the cross, but it is being applied in time, just as your redemption was accomplished at the cross but was applied to you in time when the Holy Spirit worked faith in you.

    As to “natural consequence”, I have noted previously on this thread that natural consequence can be one and the same as God’s punishment (cf February 27, 2008 at 2:04 am). I did not intend to say that all misery is punishment (Job is a perfect example to the contrary), but the confession allows for the concept of temporal miseries as God’s punishment resulting from His wrath and curse. I don’t see that those confessional statements have been dealt with.

    So, what are the punishments of this world? How about:

    … blindness of mind, a reprobate sense, strong delusions, hardness of heart, horror of conscience, and vile affections… the curse of God upon the creatures of our sakes, and all other evils that befall us in our bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments; together with death itself. (cf WCF LC 28)

    See that? The Confession says God can make you lose your job or house or make you sick or wreck your marriage as a punishment. So you can deny that there are punishments in this world, but you can’t do it with the Westminster Confession behind you.

    There is not much left to say on this. I await a retraction or an exception to the confession from Steve and Adam on this point.

  21. Zrim says:

    Ron,

    28 is within a series of Q/A that seem to be getting at our natural states. By the time one reaches 31, which begins the CoG, it seems rather clear that it is much more complicated than “God is still after you and will zap you if you don’t maintain your end of the covenant.”

    Seems to me your reading 28 quite in isolation from the broader tradition and interpretation of these things. Sorry, but I still believe that the forms teach that Jesus Christ’s person and work abated reward and punishment; God does not deal with us directly and without his mediation.

  22. Whiskeyjack says:

    The point, Ron, is that you do collapse the natural consequence of sin which can effect all life and relationships into the idea of active punishment. No retraction here. You end up with a low view of God’s wrath by reading the confessions through the lense of theonomy. So the point I simply feel that I am talking right past you.

    To quote my pastor,
    Cheers

  23. Whiskeyjack says:

    8 So at this point

  24. Ron Smith says:

    It looks like you are changing the subject here, Steve. Or perhaps we just have a misunderstanding. My point is not about God’s historical wrath towards His people per se, but rather His historical wrath in general. You previously said,

    We all, believers and non-, are subject to endure the natural consequences of our sin.

    I know it is not explicit, but in the context, it appears that you were rejecting the notion of temporal punishments even toward non-believers. If it is as you say that WCF LC 28 is speaking about those in their natural states, then don’t non-believers apply? But now it seems you are arguing against the punishment of believers, which I haven’t even touched on.

    I still believe that the forms teach that Jesus Christ’s person and work abated reward and punishment;

    I assume you mean temporal reward and punishment. Where do the forms teach this?

  25. Ron Smith says:

    You end up with a low view of God’s wrath by reading the confessions through the lense [sic] of Theonomy

    I don’t think I need a “theonomic lense” [sic] because the reformers were thoroughly theonomic. So much so that (as I am sure you are aware) the original Westminster confession was modified in the late 18th century to remove some of that Theonomy.

  26. Ron Smith says:

    The point, Ron, is that you do collapse the natural consequence of sin which can effect [sic] all life and relationships into the idea of active punishment.

    No, I don’t. I am just quoting the confession. I even mentioned Job as an example of one who suffered temporal misery that was not punishment. If I ask you, “What are the punishments of sin in this world?”, and you answer, “There aren’t any. Reward and punishment are abrogated,” you are directly contradicting the plain reading of WCF LC 28 which says there are punishments for sin in this world and lists a number of them. You call them “natural consequences”, but the confession calls them “punishment”.

  27. Whiskeyjack says:

    Ron,

    Thank you for making my point of simply speaking past each other. I am not so sure about the reformers being theonomic. As well, the WFC was written by a wide group attempting to find commonality and they were not the reformers in the sense of first, or I think, second generation.

    Yet another reason I am glad I am Continental Reformed.

    I bid thee ado and depart from this conversation.

  28. Zrim says:

    Ron,

    Methinks we could go on ad nauseum. Instead of calling for retraction or some other over-the-top assertion, why can’t it be left at to say that you are a theonomist and we are two-kingdomites? I mean, I get the feeling I will be about as successful with you (and you with us) as going down to the local Pope Pius X Church on my street and trying to get the priest to question papal authority or Trent on justification.

    Sometimes it is enough to be content with our respective labels, don’t you think?

  29. Ron Smith says:

    What I am not content with is the fact that absolutely no confessional or Biblical data has been presented to refute what I have said. The conversation thus far has been:
    – An assertion that God does not exhibit His wrath/curse/punishment in this life
    – A rejection of that assertion by me with accompanying confessional data
    – A semi-rejection of the confessional data, by which I mean, all that it has been countered with is something like, “It doesn’t mean that.”
    – Oh, and then I am asked to leave.
    Nowhere has the confession’s use of the word “punishment” in Q28 been dealt with except to say, “That is speaking about us in our natural state.” Fine. I accept that for the sake of argument. But how does that prove the initial assertion? Is there no one on earth in a natural state?

  30. Ron Smith says:

    I just realized that I misread Adam’s statement wrt departing from this conversation. I see now that he was not asking me to leave, but was leaving himself. My apologies.

  31. RubeRad says:

    I’m reluctant to jump in here, because things too often get ugly between me and Ron, but I think this might help:

    The (or at least one) reason for the reluctance to call our misery (as in “sin and misery”) in this world “punishment” (as WLC28 so labels it) is that the most useful context for the word “punishment” is wrt a consequence to you for something you did. I’d call that “direct justice punishments”, or just plain “justice”.

    But misery in this world doesn’t work like that. Sure, there are cases where a person’s misery are the direct and inevitable consequence of his own sin, but just as often, these WLC28 broad-sense “punishments” are the consequence of other people’s sin (the root of the blame-trail is of course The Fall). Job is a perfect example. Another example, if somebody else shoots me in the face, guess who receives the “punishment” of death immediately — me! My family and friends would (presumably) also receive the “punishment” of grief over the tragedy. Such punishments I would describe as “indirect, justice-irrelevant punishments.” By justice-irrelevant, I mean “a-just” rather than “un-just”; punishments which do not have the goal (or result) of rectifying a criminal injustice. The simplest term would probably just be misery.

    So in the sense that “sins emerge from the world, and punishments are applied to the world in many temporal forms”, yes, there is “punishment”. Without attempting to quantify proportions, temporal punishment is divided between justice and misery. (And there’s plenty of misery to go around, and no guarantees that Christians get any less misery than non-; shall we accept only good from God’s hand, and not evil? Rain falls on the just and the unjust) But in the life to come, punishments are purely and completely justice.

  32. kazooless says:

    So, Kazoo, are you saying that God rewards and punishes? What happened to the once for all sacrifice where reward and punishment was all sorted out?

    Hardly have had much time this week, sorry guys.

    Zrim, have you heard of the concept regarding the ‘already’ and ‘not yet?’ Sure Christ once for all paid for my sins, your sins, His people’s sins, and when we’re glorified we’ll have reaped all of benefits. But for now, we look in a dim mirror.

    I commented on my post that linked to this post with the following:

    Officer, didn’t you see the fish on my car? Why are you pulling me over? I know I was speeding, but don’t you see, Christ has paid for my sins ONCE FOR ALL. There isn’t any temporal sanctions for those who are in Christ anymore.

    As Ron has tried to point out here, you are taking to yourself a claim that you are confessional, yet you really adhere to this new (relatively speaking) view that Kline has made so famous. There was a sense of compromise among the Puritan writers of the Standards, yes, however just read a handful of them and you’ll see that the Theonomists are much more confessional than you. If you’re thankful for America, then you should be thankful for a theonomic outlook (notice the lack of capital ‘t’ there). If it were up to the W2K views, there would be no America as we know it.

    Whiskey Jack,

    My title of ONE kingdom is taken out of context when you only take the title itself. It was meant to be eye-catching so that you’d read what I wrote. After reading, it becomes clear that I am asserting that all mankind are subject to the ONE King, and we have the obedient vs the disobedient.

    kazoo

  33. Echo_ohcE says:

    Zrim,

    Your answer to my question was candid, lucid, and satisfying. Thank you.

    E

  34. Zrim says:

    Kazoo,

    Yes, I have heard of already/not yet. But I read that phrase through confessional lenses and not so much theonomic ones. Sort of like how “all men” I read through Calvinistic ones, not Arminian or universalistic ones.

    Echo,

    Heaven knows, I aims to please.

  35. kazooless says:

    Zrim,

    I just realized there is a lot I can learn from you. I’m not all that good at throwing up smokescreens. I also have a tendency that I feel I have to actually deal with arguments put to me (although lately I’ve been recovering from that tendency a little more). And I still haven’t figured out how to creatively on my own come up with the ability to use a label I want and put it over and against something I don’t agree with, even though they are the same. You’re a master! Kudos.

    (e.g. “I read that phrase through CONFESSIONAL lenses and not so much THEONOMIC one.”) I mean, how do you do that? In one fell swoop you have mastered the art of rhetoric and shown yourself to be superior in the art of language. Wow.

    Since I’m not so refined with the art of language, I’ll just have to be plain and simple here:

    The CONFESSIONAL lens IS a THEONOMIC lens. I think Ron in this thread proves that when he points out that the 1788 American Presby’s felt the need to change the confession.

    Cheers! (tic of course)

    kazoo

  36. RubeRad says:

    As an American Presbyterian, I confess not the original Westminster standards, but the American revision to the Westminster standards, which has undergone a Theonectomy. So MY confessional lens is not theonomic.

    Also, note that Z and Rick confess 3F. I have no idea what their heritage wrt theonomy is. Maybe that would be a good topic for a compare&confess.

  37. Rick says:

    I just noticed that Rube said what I’m about to say:

    The CONFESSIONAL lens IS a THEONOMIC lens

    This all encompassing statement is not true, and it’s certainly not true of post revision Presbyterian confessionalism. The revised Standards are the ones that are presently confessed. The Reformers had Church and State issues to work out because they came out of Rome – but most still were able to distinguish between the LHK and the RHK however poorly it may have worked itself out. And, Whiskey and Zrim are Continentally Reformed. Try making your case from the 3-forms

  38. Ron Smith says:

    the American revision to the Westminster standards, which has undergone a Theonectomy.

    But Ruben, wouldn’t you agree that even if all the explicit theonomic sentences were removed from the confession, it is sort of silly to say that one is reading the confession with “theonomic lenses” since the drafters were theonomic? Wouldn’t the presuppositions of the drafters be interlaced throughout the document?

  39. Zrim says:

    Kazoo,

    Thanks. I love -ism’s and labels, they are our friends. Master that, and you’ll be in like Flynn. My wife gave me similar kudos at dinner last night. She told me I have an aversion to wordiness. It makes life so much easier when you can say, “Oh, I see why you say that, you’re a Roman Catholic, an Evangelical, a secularist, a Baptist, a Republican, a Muslim, a white person, a black person, an American, etc., etc.”

    All,

    When I talk about a “confessional lens” I suppose I am being less wooden and more fluid. After all, Arminians appeal to Scripture to make their case, just like we Calvinists against them. When one dons a lens, as good Reformed hermeneutics tells us, he does so with a great amount of sources other than the Bible or the forms. You can’t just say, “The forms or the Bible say so.” That’s biblicism when it comes to the Bible or Fundamentalism when it comes to the forms. At the end of the day, there are various tributaries running through how one approaches the Bible or the forms.

    I mean confessional the way Hart means it in “Lost Soul” or in Tracking With the Liturgicals.

  40. Ron Smith says:

    You can’t just say, “The forms or the Bible say so.” That’s biblicism when it comes to the Bible or Fundamentalism when it comes to the forms. At the end of the day, there are various tributaries running through how one approaches the Bible or the forms.

    I appreciate the charity in this comment. Thanks, Steve. We warrior children need more of this if we are going to continue edifying discourse for the sanctification of Christ’s Body. When one claims complete objectivity, thereby denying that he has any presuppositions at all, a conversation is pretty much impossible.

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