The Forgotten Founder

Although nearly forgotten today, John Witherspoon was a force to be reckoned with in America’s revolutionary period. He was a Presbyterian theologian, president of Princeton College, and the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. For a brief refresher course on the life and thought of Witherspoon, read “The Forgotten Founder” by Roger Kimball.

Here’s the closing paragraph:

For us looking back on the generation of the Founders, it is easy to deprecate the religious inheritance that, for many of them, formed the ground of their commitment to political liberty. Theological skeptics and even atheists there were aplenty in late eighteenth-century America. But for every Jefferson who re-wrote the Bible excising every mention of miracles, there was a platoon of men like Madison who wrote commentaries on the Bible. Witherspoon believed that religion was “absolutely essential to the existence and welfare of every political combination of men in society.” Madison agreed. As did even the more skeptical Washington, who in his Farewell Address observed that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.” For many, perhaps most, of the Founders, Morrison observes, the chain of reasoning ran thus: “no republic without liberty, no liberty without virtue, and no virtue without religion.” John Witherspoon did as much as anyone to nurture that understanding. Which is perhaps yet another reason he is less known today than other figures from the period. Whether that is a sign of our maturity and sophistication or only, as Witherspoon might put it, our pride and natural depravity is a question we might do well ponder.


Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen to Good People?

This weekend, I spoke to my church about the problem of evil: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? I looked to Jesus’ words in Luke 13.1-9 for help answering the question from a philosophical and a practical point of view.

Download sermon MP3.

The Most Basic Freedom (Romans 7.14-25)

Have you ever felt powerless to overcome your long-time sins? Join the club! According to Romans 7.14-25, the Apostle Paul felt the same way.

In verse 14, Paul contrasts God’s law and our sinfulness: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Sin is a ruthless master.

How ruthless? According to verses 15-20, sin drives a wedge between our desires and our deeds:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

How masterful is sin? For Paul, the fact that sin drives a wedge between desire and deed shows that it is in full control of us. Verses 17 and 20 repeat the same idea: “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Our good intentions are helpless bystanders to the crimes sin commits through us.

Or rather, not bystanders but prisoners of war and slaves. In verses 21-23, Paul writes:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

And in verse 25, he adds: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

Sin is in control of us. It drives a wedge between our desires and our deeds. It makes us helpless bystanders of our own crimes. It holds us as prisoners of war and as slaves. No wonder Paul exclaims in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” In other words, who will integrate my thoughts and actions? Who will arrest the criminal in me? Who will liberate me?

Verse 24 gives the answer: “Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Through faith in Christ, who died and rose again for us, we begin to experience the integrity and freedom our soul desires.

As we head into the July 4th weekend to celebrate our nation’s freedom, we ought to keep this most basic freedom uppermost in our minds.

Is the Law Sinful? (Romans 7.7-13)

Is the law of God sinful?

Paul asks this question in Romans 7.7-13. It’s a very strange question. After all, since God is not sinful, nothing he says is sinful. The law is one of the things God says, so obviously, it cannot be sinful. Why, then, does Paul ask the question in the first place? Because the logic of his argument in Romans requires him to do so.

Remember, the theme of Paul’s letter is justification by faith. In Romans 1.17, Paul puts it this way: “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” It is by faith rather than works because we are inveterate sinners. As Paul puts it in Romans 3.20: “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” The law, in other words, has a negative function: it defines our sin and highlights our guilt.

So, when Jesus Christ saves us, he simultaneously releases us from the power of sin and the power of the law. Just as “we died to sin” (Romans 6.1), so we “also died to the law” (Romans 7.2). Because of Christ’s death, according to Romans 7.6, “we have been released from the law,” which Paul further describes as “the old way of the written code.”

I cite all these passages to make a simple point: For Paul, sin and the law have a symbiotic existence. If Christ does away with one, he necessarily does away with the other. But doing away with the law might lead some people to the false conclusion that the law, like sin (which is also done away with), is sinful. So, Paul writes in Romans 7.7-13:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.

In other words, the law is good, but it highlights our badness. It is a diagnosis of spiritual cancer, but not the cancer itself, and certainly not the cure. For a cure for the sin that ails you, you must look beyond the diagnosis to the healing hands of the Great Physician. And when he heals you, the diagnosis no longer makes you afraid.

“Explaining Hitler” by Ron Rosenbaum

explaininghitler.jpgI just finished re-reading Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. Originally published in 1998, the book is a meditation on “the search for the origins of [Hitler’s] evil,” as the subtitle puts it. As the book unfolds, Rosenbaum interviews in person or interacts with the writings of nearly every prominent Hitler explainer of the post-war period, from Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock to Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. As he does so, he critically interacts with the major explanations of Hitler’s evil: that it was the byproduct of genital malformation, sexual perversion, psychological projection, abstract historical forces, or Hitler’s own intention and agency. The last five chapters, in this regard, have revealing titles. Too many Hitler explainers, it seems, are apt to blame God, the Jews themselves, Christians, or Germans for Hitler’s evil–rather than Hitler himself. Here are Rosenbaum’s concluding paragraphs:

[Milton] Himmelfarb almost seems to be saying that it is, in fact, the culmination of a truer sophistication to be able to hate Hitler, a sophistication that doesn’t fall prey to the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation as exculpation, of explanation as abstraction away from Hitler’s personal agency. Hatred as not that which one starts with, rather as something one ends up with: the product of a deeper understanding. A less inflammatory word than “hatred” might be “resistance.” It’s the world Emil Fackenheim used when he described the “double move” one must make in attempting to explain Hitler: to seek explanation but also to resist explanation.

Not to resist all or any inquiry, not to resist thought, but to resist the misleading exculpatory corollaries of explanation. To resist the way explanation can become evasion or consolation, a way of making Hitler’s choice to do what he did less unbearable, less hateful to contemplate, by shifting responsibility from him to faceless abstractions, inexorable forces, or irresistible compulsions that gave him no choice or made his choice irrelevant. To resist making the kind of explanatory excuses for Hitler that permit him to escape, that grant him the posthumous victory of a last laugh.

Alexander Chase said, “To understand is to forgive.” Perhaps this is sometimes true. (Chase added “even oneself” to his apercus.) But not in the case of Hitler. Not in the face of such evil.