Tag Archives: Greg Bahnsen

Are All Sins Equal?

At the moment, we are in the throes of a debate about marriage here in Australia.  I’ve been through that debate already once in Canada and I’ve observed it take place in the United States as well.  So this feels like my third time around.  Each time I’ve noticed that Christians sometimes soft pedal the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality by arguing that all sins are the same.  In other words, my extra-marital heterosexual lust is no less a sin than the gay person’s homosexual lust.  Sin is sin and it is all equally wicked.

In a sense this is true.  It’s true in the sense of every sin being equally deserving of God’s wrath.  What to us is a small trifling sin is in the eyes of God a tremendous offense.  This is directly related to the holy majesty of the one sinned against.  If you sin even slightly against infinitely holy majesty, you incur an infinite debt.  But this line of discussion can’t go very far since, in the nature of the case, we’re not just slight sinners — see Romans 3:10-18.

As true as it is that every sin equally deserves God’s wrath, it is equally true that Scripture teaches that some sins are worse than others in God’s sight.  This is immediately evident from the Old Testament law.  Some sins, like blasphemy, were punishable with death, whereas others received lighter penalties.  In Ezekiel 8:6, God points out to Ezekiel the great idolatrous abominations in Jerusalem.  Then he says, “But you will see still greater abominations.”  There are great abominations, and then there are greater abominations.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the biblical teaching on this in QA 83:

Q.  Are all transgressions of the law equally heinous?

A.  Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The Westminster Larger Catechism in QA 151 expands on this and explains what the aggravations are.  They fall under four broad categories:  from the persons offending, from the parties offended, from the nature and quality of the offence, and from circumstances of time and place.  So, if you’re an older Christian who should know better or an office bearer, your sin carries more weight.  If your sin was against a weaker brother, your sin is worse.  If you broke several commandments in one go, that’s to be regarded as more heinous.  If your sin was committed publicly, that’s worse than if it was committed privately.

As a quick aside, you might be wondering whether this is touched on in the Heidelberg Catechism.  Well, it is, but just not directly.  Some sins being worse than others is implied in Lord’s Day 36 on the third commandment.  We confess that “no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of his name.  That is why he commanded it to be punished with death.”  So, blasphemy is worse than, say, adultery or false witness.  Some sins are worse than others.

There is no doubt that Scripture describes homosexual lusts and behaviour as abominable (Lev. 20:13).  The Bible uses strong language about these sins to impress upon us how God regards these things as completely contrary to his design for the human race.  While heterosexual extra- and non-marital lusts and behaviours are sinful, they retain something of what is natural in that they involve the opposite sex.  Homosexual lusts and behaviour are worse because they bring in the additional element of overturning what the Creator God designed to be natural.  This is what the Bible is saying in Romans 1:26-27 — it speaks of trading in natural relations for unnatural.

However, when we speak about sins in terms of their heinousness, we ought always to remember that there is, in Scripture, a sin that is even worse than a homosexual lifestyle.  As Greg Bahnsen once described it, “there is a sin worse than sodomy” in the Bible.  It’s found in Matthew 10.  Jesus sent out his apostles to preach and teach amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” — God’s covenant people.  While they did that, the possibility was there that they would meet with unbelief.  In such a case, they were to shake the dust off their feet as they left that town — signifying that these people are unclean.  Then Jesus adds in verse 15, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”  Sodom and Gomorrah were notorious for their sexual immorality and “unnatural desire” (Jude 7).  Christ was saying that there is something far worse than what Sodom and Gomorrah did:  to be a child of the covenant and to reject the Saviour.  To have God call you his own, for him to send you the Saviour with the glad tidings of the gospel, and for you to reject him — that is something God calls worse than homosexuality.  It’s a warning to people in the church today.

Realize this:  we all have sins great and small sinking us into the depths.  Yet, no matter what our sins are, there is a Saviour whose atoning work is sufficient to wipe it all out.  The saving work of Jesus is there for all who feel the weight of their sin and long for that burden to be lifted.  Even as we speak about some sins which are more heinous than others, let’s also always speak about the grace which is super-abounding in Jesus Christ.

 


You Twist the Bible!

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Each year I teach young people in my pre-confession class how to defend their faith.  I’ve long been convinced that they need to know not only what they believe, but why.  They should be able to give good reasons for their faith — in line with 1 Peter 3:15.  So I teach a unit on apologetics.  Ever since starting, I’ve used Richard Pratt’s Every Thought Captive (ETC) as the textbook.  There are a lot of things I like about ETC, but especially the last few chapters are weak in some respects.  I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it.

I’m just about finished Tactics by Gregory Koukl and I think I’ve finally found something better than ETC.  I was a bit skeptical at first about whether it would be compatible with a Reformed approach to apologetics, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  It’s more focused on the practical side of engaging unbelievers and their arguments, and so far I’ve found little to quibble with.

Here in Australia, things are heating up for a plebiscite later this year regarding same-sex marriage and there are those wishing to silence the voice of Bible-believing Christians.  Koukl has something to offer believers as they face hostility from “progressives.”  Australian Christians may face the kind of scenario described here and Koukl shows a good way to respond.   This extended quote comes from chapter 6:

Once in a dorm lounge at Ohio State University, a student asked me about the Bible and homosexuality.  When I cited some texts, he quickly dismissed them.  “People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want,” he sniffed.

I don’t recall my specific response to him that evening.  I do remember, though, that I was not satisfied with my answer.  On the drive back to my hotel, I gave the conversation a little more thought.  I realized it made little sense to argue with his comment as it stood.  It was uncontroversial.  People do twist Bible verses all the time.  It is one of my own chief complaints.  Something else was going on though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.

Suddenly it dawned on me.  The student’s point wasn’t really that some people twist the Bible.  His point was that I was twisting the Bible.  Yet he hadn’t demonstrated this.  He had not shown where I’d gotten off track.  Rather, he didn’t like point, so he dismissed it with a some-people-twist-the-Bible dodge.

I quickly wrote out a short dialogue using questions intended to surface that problem.  I also tried to anticipate his responses and how I would use them to advance my point.

Here is what I came up with:

“People twist the Bible all the time to make it say whatever they want.”

“Well, you’re right about that.  It bugs me, too.  But your comment confuses me a little.  What does it have to do with the point I just made about homosexuality?”

“Well, you’re doing the same thing.”

“Oh, so you think I’m twisting the Bible right now.”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, now I understand what you’re getting at, but I’m still confused.”

“Why?”

“Because it seems to me you can’t know that I’m twisting the Bible just by pointing out that other people have twisted it, can you?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that in this conversation you’re going to have to do more than simply point out that other people twist the Bible.  What do you think that might be?”

“I don’t know.  What?”

“You need to show that I’m actually twisting the verses?  Have you ever studied the passages I referred to?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know I’m twisting them?”  (Tactics, 94-95)

Koukl’s approach here is helpful in exposing ignorance.  A lot of people have been told that “fundamentalist Christians” twist the Bible to support their views on homosexuality, and because a professor, teacher, media figure, or some other authority said it, it is automatically accepted as true.  Many people have never studied the matter for themselves and we should call them on coming to the table with that basic failure.

However, it may happen that you will meet someone who claims to have studied the passages in question.  In this post from 2014, I describe my experience as a university student in the 90s.  These days, more than ever, you do need to be prepared to face people who claim to be Christians, but have no qualms about homosexuality and the entire LBTQ enterprise.  You will meet liberal revisionists who believe that they can be Christians and affirm sexual perversity.  They’re often familiar with the passages and they think they know how to square a circle.  To prepare for answering them, read (and then bookmark) this helpful essay by Dr. Greg Bahnsen.   Bahnsen will give you what you need to answer back, “Who’s really twisting Scripture here?”


Confessional Conferences for Reformed Unity

Back in the early 1990s, a unique effort was made to address several  pressing issues facing Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  The issues of concern were primarily egalitarianism (leading to women in ecclesiastical offices) and evolution.  This period saw a mass exodus from the Christian Reformed Church over these very issues and ones related to them.  From concerned CRC and ex-CRC churches, an organization developed which eventually became known as the Alliance of Reformed Churches.  The ARC was approached to convene a series of conferences aimed at developing a confessional approach to the above-mentioned issues of concern.  The hope was that confessional documents could be developed which would provide the basis for doctrinal unity between various Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America.  The ARC agreed to take this on.

The first Confessional Conference was held in July of 1993.  Christian Renewal reported on it in the September 13, 1993 issue.  Attendance was not all that impressive.  Some of the noteworthy individuals in attendance were Dr. John Byl, Dr. Margaret Helder, and Dr. Nelson Kloosterman.  Attendees came from Orthodox Presbyterian, Christian Reformed (and ex-CRC), PCA, Canadian Reformed, and other churches.  The 1993 meeting reviewed a document prepared by the organizing committee on hermeneutics.  Several speeches were also presented on the subject of creation and evolution.  The intention was that a confessional document on creation would be prepared and presented at the next conference in 1994.

I have been unable to find much about the 1994 conference.  It was scheduled to be held July 13-16.  From this report, it appears that it was held, but the attendance continued to be disappointing.  Another conference was supposed to be held in 1995 to discuss ecclesiology, but because of the attendance issue, it was scrapped.  One never hears about the Confessional Conferences again.

From one perspective, the Confessional Conferences could be regarded as a failure.  However, it was not a waste of time or effort.  Today we still have two important documents that came from these conferences.  These documents should receive more attention.  The first is a Reformed Confession Regarding Hermeneutics.  The second is a Reformed Confession Regarding Creation.  These are both drafts primarily written by the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Both are precise and faithful summaries of biblical teaching on these important issues.  They feature affirmations of the correct teaching and denials of various false teachings.  They are well-worth reading and studying.

Why did the Confessional Conferences fail?  Obviously the attendance was an issue, indicating a general lack of interest in North American Presbyterian and Reformed churches.  Worse yet, there was especially a lack of interest from the membership of the Alliance of Reformed Churches itself — the very organization which agreed to organize these conferences.  Moreover, the ARC was the vehicle engineering the launch of the United Reformed Churches.  That took place in 1996.  Much time and energy was being directed towards establishing a new federation and, understandably, there seems to have been little appetite for a broader outlook on unity.

Could an idea like this be revived today?  For example, could NAPARC be the vehicle to convene a new series of confessional conferences?  We have to be realistic.  I rather doubt that the appetite would be there any more today than it was in the early 1990s.  Just observe that, since then, there have been further developments in various NAPARC churches.  For instance, on the issue of creation and evolution, the URCNA took a position at Synod Escondido 2001.  The RCUS has also taken a firm position, as have others.  While it sounds like a good idea on paper, the reality is that the desire for developing a common confessional approach to these matters is going to be weak.  Churches faced with some of these contemporary theological challenges today are going to be best off investing their time and energy with an “in-house” approach.


Book Review: Popologetics (1)

Popologetics(1)

Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective, Ted Turnau, Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2012.  Paperback, 346 pages, $20.89.

It was 1992 and there was a lot of time to spend on the bus between home and university.  From time to time, one of my good friends from high school would be on the same bus and we would get to talking about all kinds of different things.  On one occasion, we got into a rather intense debate about whether Christians should watch movies.  There is this phenomenon known as the “cage phase.”  People, mostly on the younger side, discover the Reformed faith and they become intolerable – they should be put in a cage, hence “cage phase.”  I had been a rather worldly young man in my teen years.  Having finally become serious about my faith, I was going through my own cage phase.  It seemed to me that a true Reformed believer must abandon popular culture completely.  Hence, no movies, no rock music (I threw out hundreds of tapes), no TV, no worldly books, absolutely nothing that smacks of the world.  It must be all or nothing.  My friend on the bus disagreed, although from what I remember his reasons were not particularly Christian or well thought out.

It took a few years for this cage phase to wane.  Along the way, I began to develop a more balanced and biblical view of popular culture.  I can look back now and see how it happened step-by-step.  I discovered the writings of Cornelius Van Til and Reformed apologetics.  I read some essays by John Frame applying Van Til’s teachings to popular culture.  I had to take a fine arts option in university and art and music were definitely out, since I’m neither artistic nor musical.  That left film studies.  In Film Studies 200, I learned that film is not merely entertainment, but also art in its own right.  By the time I graduated from university, I could again appreciate various aspects of popular culture.  I began writing cultural critiques for Reformed Perspective magazine, critiques of movies like Star Wars and musicians like Tom Cochrane, Bryan Adams, and Shania Twain.

All of this is to say that the issues discussed in this book by Ted Turnau resonate with me.  I’ve been thinking about them for over twenty years already.  What should Christians do with popular culture?  Do we thoughtlessly embrace it as the background for our daily lives?  Do we reject it altogether, since it comes from the world and the world is given over to sin?  Or is there another way, a better way?  Ted Turnau is convinced that there is a better and more thoughtful way for Christians to engage popular culture, a way which will serve our neighbours best and also give more glory to God.

Ted Turnau is an American teaching cultural studies in the Czech Republic.  He has a Ph.D. in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  That brings me to the first important characteristic of this book:  it is an application of Reformed apologetics to the field of popular culture.  Several times throughout the author indicates his indebtedness to Reformed apologists such as Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen.  Just like Jason Lisle applied Reformed apologetics to the question of origins in his book, The Ultimate Proof of Creation, Ted Turnau seeks to apply it to how we think about movies, music, TV, and other forms of pop culture.  As I mentioned, others (like John Frame) have done this before, but only in a limited way.  To my knowledge, this is the only book-length attempt.  Turnau lays out the book’s purpose in the Introduction:  “…this book is for those who want to be able to give an intelligent, warmhearted, biblical answer back to the worldviews presented in popular culture” (xvii).  Does Turnau succeed in what he sets out to do?

Click here for Part 2


Friends You Should Meet (5) — Greg Bahnsen

It’s no secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a greater grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

Discovering the writings of Cornelius Van Til was a turning point in my spiritual and theological development.  However, as I mentioned earlier, Van Til was not a popularizer.  Moreover, his writings on apologetics didn’t include a lot of biblical exegesis and explicit scriptural support.  There were a number of students of Van Til who were better communicators.  John Frame is certainly one of those.  However, the best of Van Til’s students was without question Greg Bahnsen.

Dr. Greg Bahnsen was a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  I believe he was the first (the only?) student to do his M.Div. and M.Th. concurrently at that institution.  He later went on to do doctoral studies at the University of Southern California.  He was an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Bahnsen also founded the Southern California Center for Christian Studies (SCCCS, now defunct).  He was the author of several books, numerous articles, and a frequent lecturer, speaker, and debater.  He died suddenly in 1995 from complications following open heart surgery.

Why is Greg Bahnsen important? He was a gifted, charismatic communicator.  He was the rare man with great intellect, quick on his feet, and passionate for truth.  But most of all, Greg Bahnsen held the Word of God in the highest esteem and sought to consistently apply it to every area of life, including apologetics.

Where do I start? Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith is Bahnsen’s most accessible book on apologetics.  It’s written at a level that I think most high school graduates should be able to manage it.  One of the best features of this book is how it displays clearly the biblical basis of Reformed (presuppositional) apologetics.  The next step up would be Bahnsen’s Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and DefendedYou can find my review of that one here.  His magnum opus is without doubt Van Til’s Apologetic.  VTA is a massive volume of anthologized writings of Van Til with commentary and footnotes from Greg Bahnsen.  Everyone serious about apologetics needs to have this work.  Finally, I should mention that a lot of Bahnsen’s articles are available for free on-line.  You can find them here.

What to look out for? Bahnsen was at his best when writing and lecturing about apologetics.  Unfortunately, when it came to ethics he was a theonomist.  That means he believed that the Mosaic civil laws were binding upon contemporary magistrates.  I’m not going to give a comprehensive critique of theonomy here, I’m just telling you that this is where he stood.  Related to that, he was also postmillennial in his eschatology.  Notwithstanding those points, Greg Bahnsen was a minister in good standing in the OPC.

I never actually got to meet Greg Bahnsen, though I wish I had.  A few months before he died, we’d had a helpful e-mail conversation.  He was very willing to help this university undergrad in far-off Alberta.  Later I enrolled in the Master of Arts in apologetics program at SCCCS — unfortunately I didn’t finish it.  Nevertheless, I count Bahnsen among my mentors and teachers when it comes to defending the faith.  I remember the first time listening to his 1985 debate with Gordon Stein — I was blown away.  That brought together everything I had learned from Van Til and him.  To this day I still often use that debate when teaching apologetics.  It’s a classic which you can find here.  To this day, I don’t think there’s anybody who can rightfully be described as a successor of Greg Bahnsen.  His shoes are BIG.