22 January 2007

My Own Hobgoblin

My hobgoblin is napping. “A foolish consistency” opines Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This week a friend and I discussed whether the Christian should try to argue people into consistency. Specifically, we were talking about pushing Arminians to acknowledge that their theological tendencies—if followed consistently—undermine the atonement, which is at the center of the gospel itself. My interlocutor offered that arguing people into consistency can often be messy business, perhaps especially if one follows the transcendental argumentation of Cornelius Van Til.

I agreed: I think I see [your] point. Arguing people into consistency can be both fruitless and harmful to the reputation of Christ.

But the reductio ad absurdum is not unique to the Van Tillian approach to apologetics. I think, with prayer and effort, it can be used in a gracious way, whether it is applied to worldview critique with an unbeliever (as Van Til did) or to theological debate with an Arminian.Isn’t this the kind of argumentation Paul uses when he says, “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:21)? If I understand the argument correctly, Paul is arguing the Judaizers into consistency. He is saying, “Well if you are saying this, then you will also have to conclude this (assuming, of course, you Judaizers want to be consistent). To conclude that the Messiah died without attaining his purposes is absurd, so (to be consistent) we have to conclude that righteousness cannot be gained through the law.”

Obviously I am not saying this is a full-fledged Van Tillian transcendental critique. At this point, I’m not even saying that Paul would have endorsed that method if it were explained to him. All I’m saying is that Paul apparently argued people into consistency without violating his own directive, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph 4:29).

My friend responded skillfully, but I’ll have to post on that later.

15 January 2007

When the "Want To" and the "Ought To" Don't Match

I found this short article this morning, and I thought it was so good that I might actually restart pittsspot with it. I hope to begin blogging again with some degree of regularity, probably twice a week. What you read below is not revolutionary; you might remember singing it since the time you were a child: Obedience is...doing exactly what the Lord commands, and doing it happily.

If your "want to" does not conform to God's "ought to," what can you do to have peace? I see at least five possible strategies.

  1. You can avoid thinking about the "ought to." This is the most common strategy in the world. Most people simply do not devote energy to pondering what they should be doing that they are not doing. It's easier to just keep the radio on.
  2. You can reinterpret the "ought to" so that it sounds just like your "want to." This is a little more sophisticated and so not as common. It usually takes a college education to do this with credibility, and a seminary degree to do it with finesse.
  3. You can muster the willpower to do a form of the "ought to" even though you don't have the heart of the "want to." This generally looks pretty good, and is often mistaken as virtue, even by those who do it. In fact, there is a whole worldview that says doing "ought to's" without "want to" is the essence of virtue. The problem with this is that Paul said, "God loves a cheerful giver," which puts the merely "ought-to givers" in a precarious position.
  4. You can feel proper remorse that the "want to" is very small and weak - like a mustard seed - and then, if it lies within you, do the "ought to" by the exertion of will, while repenting that the "want to" is weak, and praying that the "want to" will soon be restored. Perhaps it will even be restored in doing the "ought to." This is not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hides one of the two contradictory impulses. Virtue confesses them both in the hope of grace.
  5. You can seek, by the means of grace, to have God give the "want to" so that when the time comes to do the "ought to," you will "want to." Ultimately, the "want to" is a gift of God. "The mind of the flesh is hostile to God . . . it is not able to submit to the law of God" (Romans 8:7). "The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God . . . because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Corinthians 2:14). "Perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25).

The Biblical doctrine of original sin boils down to this (to borrow from St. Augustine): We are free to do what we like, but we are not free to like what we ought to like. "Through the one man's disobedience [Adam] the many were made sinners" (Romans 5:19). This is who we are. And yet we know from our own soul and from the Bible that we are accountable for the corruption of our bad "want to's." Indeed, the better you become, the more you feel ashamed of being bad and not just doing bad. As N.P. Williams said, "The ordinary man may feel ashamed of doing wrong: but the saint, endowed with a superior refinement of moral sensibility, and keener powers of introspection, is ashamed of being the kind of man who is liable to do wrong" (First Things, #87, Nov. 1998, p. 24). God's free and sovereign heart-changing work is our only hope. Therefore we must pray for a new heart. We must pray for the "want to" - "Incline my heart to Your testimonies" (Psalm 119:36). He has promised to do it: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes" (Ezekiel 36:27). This is the new covenant bought by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 8:8-13; 9:15).

Looking to Jesus, my life,

Pastor John

By John Piper October 29, 1998