Archive for November, 2009

(by Arthur Pink, “Unworthiness” 1940)

GRACE is favor shown to the undeserving and ill-deserving.

When Divine grace bestows salvation upon the ill-deserving, it makes them conscious of the infinite favor that has been shown them. Fallen man is naturally proud, self-complacent, and self-righteous.

But wherever the miracle of regenerating grace is wrought–all this is reversed. Its subject is stripped of his peacock feathers, made poor in spirit, and humbled into the dust before God. He is made painfully aware of the loathsome plague of his heart, given a sight of his vileness in the light of God’s holiness, and brought to realize that he is a spiritual pauper, dependent upon Divine charity. He now readily acknowledges that he is a Hell-deserving sinner.

“I am not worthy of the least of all Your mercies and unfailing love, which You have shown to me, Your servant” (Genesis 32:10). This is the confession made by all who are the recipients of the saving grace of God. Whenever a miracle of saving grace is wrought in the heart–pride is subdued, self is effaced, and a sense of ill-desert takes possession of the heart.

One of the elements of great faith–is deep humility. “For I am the least of the Apostles, that am not worthy to be called an Apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9). “I am less than the least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8). What complete self-abasement! The most eminent Christians–are always the most lowly ones; those most honored in Christ’s service–are deeply conscious of their unprofitableness.



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by John Calvin, from the Institutes of John Calvin and Calvin’s Commentary on Hebrews

“For in [Christ] ‘all treasures of knowledge and wisdom are hid’ (Colossians 2:3) with such great abundance and richness that either to hope for or to seek any new addition to these treasures is truly to arouse God’s wrath and provoke him against us. It is for us to hunger for, seek, look to, learn, and study Christ alone, until that great day dawns when the Lord will fully manifest the glory of his Kingdom (cf. 1Corinthians 15:24) and will show himself for us to see him as he is (1John 3:2). And for this reason this age of ours is designated in the Scriptures as ‘the last hour’ (1John 2:18), the ‘last days’ (Hebrews 1:2), the ‘last times’ (I Peter 1:20), that no one should delude himself with a vain expectation of some new doctrine or revelation. ‘For at many times and in many ways the Heavenly Father formerly spoke through the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken in his beloved Son’ (Hebrews 1:1-2), who alone can reveal the Father (Luke 10:22); and he has indeed manifested the Father fully, as far as we require, while we now see him in a mirror (1Corrinthians 13:12)” (Institutes 4.18.20).

“This, however, remains certain: the perfect doctrine he has brought has made an end to all prophecies. All those, then, who, not content with the gospel, patch it with something extraneous to it, detract from Christ’s authority. The Voice that thundered from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son; … hear him’ (Matthew 17:5; cf. Matthew 3:17), exalted him by a singular privilege beyond the rank of all others. Then this anointing was diffused from the Head to the members, as Joel had foretold: ‘Your sons shall prophesy and your daughters … shall see visions,’ etc. (Joel 2:28). But when Paul says that He was given to us as our wisdom (1Corinthians 1:30), and in another place, ‘In him are hid all the treasures of knowledge and understanding’ (Colossians 2:3), he has a slightly different meaning. That is, outside Christ there is nothing worth knowing, and all who by faith perceive what he is like have grasped the whole immensity of heavenly benefits. For this reason, Paul writes in another passage: ‘I decided to know nothing precious … except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1Corinthians 2:2). This is very true, because it is not lawful to go beyond the simplicity of the gospel And the prophetic dignity in Christ leads us to know that in the sum of doctrine as he has given it to us all parts of perfect wisdom are contained” (Institutes 2.15.2).

“And when he speaks of the last times, he intimates that there is no longer any reason to expect any new revelation; for it was not a word in part that Christ brought, but the final conclusion. It is in this sense that the Apostles take ‘ the last times’ and ‘ the last days.’ And Paul means the same when he says, ‘Upon whom the ends of the world are come’ (1Corinthians 10:11). If God then has spoken now for the last time, it is right to advance thus far; so also when you come to Christ, you ought not to go farther: and these two things it is very needful for us to know. For it was a great hindrance to the Jews that they did not consider that God had deferred a fuller revelation to another time; hence, being satisfied with their own Law, they did not hasten forward to the goal. But since Christ has appeared, an opposite evil began to prevail in the world; for men wished to advance beyond Christ. What else indeed is the whole system of Popery but the overleaping of the boundary which the Apostle has fixed? As, then, the Spirit of God in this passage invites all to come as far as Christ, so he forbids them to go beyond the last time which he mentions. In short, the limit of our wisdom is made here to be the Gospel” (Commentary on Hebrews 1:1).

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Foreword:  I have a 35-year old sister with Down’s Syndrome and her childhood years have been a very happy one. She went to a special school and learned a lot. However, a major influence to her learning is Sesame Street where she learned to identify muppets by names, sing songs about A-B-C, words and numbers. Her favorite characters are Cookie Monster, The Count and Guy Smiley, among others. Without a doubt, Sesame Street has impacted her mind tremendously.  It has been many years since and it is with much concern that I am posting this article from Lighthouse Trails website. So to every Christian parents, please watch with discernment every children’s program with your kids.


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Christian Parents Beware: Sesame Street Will Teach Your Children Yoga

November 14th, 2009 | Author: Lighthouse Trails Editors

LTRP Note: For parents or grandparents who have thought it is harmless to let their little children or grandchildren watch an hour of Sesame Street once a day, we offer this warning. While many Christian parents have most likely seen the liberal slants of the popular T.V. show, and perhaps kept their children away from the show, turning to Mr. Rogers instead, many Christian parents have allowed Sesame Street into their homes, feeling that the underlying New Age, liberal message was subtle enough to bypass the hearts and minds of little eyes and ears. But the following articles show that Yoga (the heartbeat of Hinduism) is alive and “well” on Sesame Street, and parents should beware. While warning a 4 year not to participate in any Yoga exercises they might see on Sesame Street can make parents feel they have done their job in protecting their kids, it isn’t likely that a 4 or 5 year old will understand the dangers when Big Bird tells them how fun it is or when they see their favorite personality on Sesame Street telling a room full of kids to do the Yoga exercises. Check out the following articles below.

New York Times:  ”Same Street, Different World: ‘Sesame’ Turns 40″:

The pedagogy hasn’t changed, but the look and tone of “Sesame Street” have evolved … Now there are green spaces, tofu and yoga…. 

This season has an Om sensibility. “My mom takes me to yoga class, I love doing yoga,” a little girl in pigtails says in an episode that ran in October. She is narrating a short film that shows a pixieish teacher and her pupils folding into the downward dog position. After class her mother arrives with a plastic water bottle. “She says it’s important to drink water when you exercise,” the girl explains. “When I grow up I want to be a yoga teacher.”

The Independent (London, UK): “Why Sesame Street still counts”

In recent years Sesame Street has faced challenges. It can sometimes seem at odds with the era of political correctness. The Cookie Monster has been accused of promoting obesity and sponsorship by McDonald’s was drew wide criticism. The show still attracts big name guest-stars but is up against competition from newer forms of entertainment. Even the programme’s core values have changed. In 1970 it taught racial tolerance, now young viewers hear about the environment or healthy food. In an episode of the new series a child talks about her mother’s yoga class. “I love yoga,” she announces. “When I grow up, I want to be a yoga teacher.”


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Book Review: Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson

Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford

Deserted by God - Sinclair FergusonWhere do you go when you’re feeling depressed, disconsolate, overwhelmed by sin, discouragement, loneliness, painful afflictions, dark valleys of despair? For the believer, there is no source of comfort that can compare to the psalter, that blessed “anatomy of the soul,” an apt description of the Book of Psalms first given by Calvin and referred to by Sinclair B. Ferguson in his book of remedies for the trials of this life, Deserted by God?. Happily, Ferguson is well aware of the rich cures of the psalter for every kind of painful affliction of the soul, and he spends the entire book walking through the darkest psalms of lament, distilling the precious cordial of hope from the bitterest agonies of the very human psalmists. For that reason, it is not just another book about depression – it is a book that cannot fail to help all who take its instructions to heart, no matter how deep their trials may be.

Ferguson is a spiritual physician that knows to prescribe only the medicines that really do cure. He speaks compassionately, with empathy – but what really matters is that he speaks the truth, truth that is living and active and able to help all who listen. If you struggle with depression, no matter the precise cause or form it may take, then read this book. It will help you, by God’s grace, even when nothing else can.

I appreciate the fact that Ferguson is not naively optimistic or nauseatingly super-spiritual in how he addresses those who are overcome by despair, and yet he still does not buy into the nonsense that it’s somehow ok to be angry with God and vent your sinful frustration in foolish words of accusation. Speaking of the idea that a good Christian will never doubt or be in despair, he states, “Nor is this biblical spirituality; it is a false ‘super-spirituality’ that ignores or denies the reality of our humanity. We live in frail flesh and blood and in a fallen world which, John says, ‘is under the control of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). There is much to discourage. Jesus felt that. To be free from the possibility of discouragements would be more ‘spiritual’ than Jesus – and therefore not truly spiritual at all.” So yes, Ferguson would say, pour out your complaint to God and seek his mercy, as the psalmists did – but there is a humble, reverent, and appropriate way to roll even your deepest trials on the merciful and loving God who is ready to take them upon himself for your greatest good.

What makes the book applicable for any discouraged person, no matter what he might be struggling with specifically, is that it simply walks through a few well-selected psalms, giving a straightforward and accurate exposition and application. And no matter what a person is dealing with, even when it feels like no one else has ever experienced the same thing, the psalmists dealt with something similar, and found hope and relief at the end of their journey. Ferguson’s keen psychological acumen makes him able to probe what was really happening in the psalmists’ perplexed souls, and give fitting application to modern humans who have the same trials.

Whether you struggle with guilt over sins in your past, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, physical illness or affliction, bereavement, unfulfilled dreams, or any other similar problem, you will probably find a chapter that speaks directly to you. Personally, I was greatly helped by the chapter, “Can I Be Pure?”. My discouragement comes most poignantly from shame and frustration over falling into the same old sinful attitudes and actions that I thought I had left behind – and there are psalms that deal with that! Whatever causes your despair, there are psalms that you’ll find apply most aptly to you to.

The most outstanding portions of the book look ahead to Christ our great Champion and Savior, who took our weaknesses and infirmities, and who very often speaks through the psalmists who were types and foreshadows of him – my only regret about the book was that, although there was much of this, in my opinion there wasn’t always as much as there could have been. But when Ferguson does look ahead to the unspeakably wonderful Messiah, heaven comes down and fills the soul. I conclude with a quote from one of those times:

In asking for “mercy,” David, you are asking that God will show it to you, but withdraw it from Jesus.

In asking to experience God’s “unfailing love,” you are asking that Jesus will feel it has been removed.

In asking to taste God’s “great compassion,” you are asking him to refuse it to Jesus as he dies on the cross.

In asking God to “blot out” your transgressions, you are asking that they will be obliterated by the blood of Jesus.

In asking to be washed, you are asking that the filth of your sin will overwhelm Jesus like a flood.

In asking to know the joy of salvation, you are asking that Jesus will be a Man of Sorrows, familiar with grief.

In asking to be saved from bloodguilt, you are asking that in your place Jesus will be treated as though he were guilty.

In asking that your lips will be opened in praise, you are asking that Jesus will be silenced, as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.

In asking that the sacrifice of a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart be acceptable, you are asking that Jesus’ heart and spirit will be broken.

In asking that God will hide his face from your sins, you are asking that he will hide his face from Jesus.

In asking that you will not be cast out of God’s presence, you are asking that Jesus will be cast out into outer darkness instead.

Oh, the depths to which Jesus went to bear our burdens and carry our sorrows! When we see such a Savior as that, what trial could we ever suppose will finally overcome us who are recipients of so vast a love?


Publisher: Banner of Truth
Author: Ferguson, Sinclair B.
ISBN-10: 0851516912 | ISBN-13: 9780851516912
Available at  Westminster Bookstore


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Foreword: Here is another interesting article by Albert Mohler concerning R. Crumb’s project of cartooning the narratives in the book of Genesis.  You can reach the original article through this link.

My very first encounter with the Bible wherein I had very vivid memories has to do with a cartoon-style frame by frame presentation of main narratives of the Bible.  It was a thick book, colored cartoons and as a young boy then, just like any other kid, cartoons was a medium of learning things. In fact my first vivid memories of divine judgment was a cartoon frame in Noah’s narrative in that particular Bible. But, as again, I was about 7 years old then and was not concerned about the revelation of God but rather the pleasure of reading cartoons.

In this article below, we learn why cartooning God’s holy book is not a good thing.  Please read on.


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Cartooning the Word — R. Crumb’s “The Book of Genesis” by Dr. Albert Mohler

In all likelihood, most people would never even imagine a cartoon version of Genesis. Nevertheless, the cartoon version has arrived, and it is attracting no small amount of attention.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated is by famed cartoonist R. Crumb. Famous among cartoonists for his work as far back as the 1960s, Crumb has always combined cartoons and a social/political agenda. As David Colton of USA Today explains, Crumb is known for “subversive, turn-of-the-century linework, untamed libido, and obsessive social commentary.”

Indeed, Crumb personally attributes aspects of his style to experiences with LSD in his younger years. He became known for his “Keep on Truckin'” and “Fritz the Cat” cartoons. Disillusioned with the United States, Crumb took his family to France, where they now live.

Somewhere along the way, Crumb decided to take on the Bible, starting with Genesis. That is no small ambition. But why?

Crumb seems attracted to the book of Genesis as a collection of narratives with deep influence in Western culture. “I’m a spiritual guy,” he told USA Today. “I’m not an atheist, more an agnostic. I don’t doubt the existence of God. I just don’t know quite what God is. It’s a question that will challenge me until the day I die.”

As for the Bible, Crumb does not take it as the Word of God. He said, “I don’t believe it’s the Word of God. I believe it’s the words of men.” He added, “I’m just another human interpreting the story.”

In other comments about the project, Crumb has been a bit more forceful. He told Peter Aspden of the Financial Times that working on the Genesis project “nearly killed me.” Working through Genesis “ruined my health. I’m in recovery.”

He also spoke straightforwardly about his view of the Bible:

“I am completely sick of the Bible. I began to hate it as I worked on it. I’ve had my fill. The idea that millions of people have taken it so seriously — it is totally nuts. The human race is crazy.”

His Genesis project did not lead him to admire the Bible. “It had the opposite effect on me. . . .  I saw what a primitive, backward morality I had to deal with. It was a good way of exorcising the power of the Bible.”

Crumb’s distinctive cartoon style plays out across the Genesis narratives. The front cover of the book promises “nothing left out.” Very little is. Readers will find cartoon depictions of everything from Creation and the Fall to the curse of Onan. Reading The Book of Genesis Illustrated does reveal the power of this artistic expression (as in the sacrifice of Isaac), but mostly its severe limitations.

Christians coming across the Crumb project may wonder what to think. After all, this is a project that is attracting significant attention. Millions of Americans buy comics and pay close attention to the world of cartooning. Crumb’s new work has gained the attention of the nation’s major newspapers and the digital world.

For one thing, Crumb’s work reminds us that God gave us words, not images, as His means of revelation. The prohibition against images is not just a divine preference, it is a command. Looking at Crumb’s work makes the force of this prohibition all the more clear. Crumb interprets (or misinterprets) with every image and characterization. His style dominates the narrative — which is precisely the danger. And Crumb insists that he tried his best to restrain himself. “I’m not ridiculing it, just illustrating the exact words that are there.”

Another key insight from the project is this: The Bible always demands a judgment of the reader. The Bible cannot be read simply as literature of historical importance. Any reader sees it as far more than that. In fact, the Bible presents such straightforward claims about both God and humanity that it is either loved or hated, seen as the Word of God or as a poisonous chronicle of the human religious imagination.

In that respect, Crumb’s declarations about the Bible make more sense. His experience of drawing the narratives from Genesis led him to hate the Bible. He is offended that so many millions have taken it seriously. “To take this as a sacred text, or Word of God or something to live by, is kind of crazy,” he told David Colton. “So much of it makes no sense. To think of all the fighting and killing that’s gone on over this book, it just became to me a colossal absurdity. That’s probably the most profound moment I’ve had — the absurdity of it all.”

R. Crumb reveals a great deal about himself in this project. His project also reveals once again why God gave us words, and not images. Crumb’s newest work may be described as a triumph of the human imagination — and that is precisely the problem.

The Bible always lays claim upon the reader. The Book of Genesis demands a decision. The God who reveals himself in these words is not only the Creator of the cosmos, but the judge of every human soul. Genesis not only begins the Bible, it reminds us of our need for Christ. Every single narrative Crumb depicts finds its ultimate meaning in the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ.

But that great fact cannot be reduced to a cartoon. It was never meant to be.


David Colton, “Illustrator R. Crumb is Drawn to God with His Latest Project,” USA Today, October 19, 2009.

Peter Aspden, “A Bad Boy and the Good Book,” Financial Times, October 4, 2009.


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The Main Difference Between Calvinist and Non-Calvinist Views of Saving Grace by John Hendryx (from www.reformationtheology.com)

Recently I had am exchange on a message board regarding the particulars of Calvinism. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Visitor #1: I gave up on Calvinism a long time ago.

My response: You mean you gave up on the idea that Jesus Christ alone is sufficient to save you?

Visitor #1: Yep

Visitor #2 chimes in: John, is it possible you’re caricaturing the situation just a smidge? Calvinism cannot possibly have a monopoly in affirming Jesus Christ as sufficient.

My response: Actually the central difference between Calvinist and non-Calvinist soteriology is that Calvinist believes Jesus Christ is sufficient to save to the uttermost while non-Calvinist soteriology believes that while Jesus is necessary, he is not sufficient. To clarify what I mean, both Roman Catholics and Arminians for example, would anathematize anyone who says you can be saved without the grace of God. The Reformers never claimed Rome believed you can be saved apart from grace. That wasn’t the debate. The debate of the Reformation was never ever about the necessity of grace, it was always about the sufficiency of grace. That remains the issue today in so many contexts (James White). So no I am not caricaturing the situation. This is the essence of it. The theology of Calvinism or Reformed Theology centers on the sufficiency of Christ in salvation. There is nothing more essential to its position and this is what sets is apart from other all other types of theology. Another way to put it: it is the difference between Monergism &. Synergism. As Michael Haykin notes, “the most vital question, is, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving us by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying us for Christs’ sake when we come to faith, but also raising us from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring us to faith.” In other words, whatever God requires of us, (including faith), if we believe the unregenerate man has the power in himself to exercise, then we make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of no effect. Either Christ is a complete savior, OR He helps us to save ourselves. What Calvinism means in the historic sense, is that Jesus Christ is a complete savior, not a partial one.

Visitor #1: I gave up on Calvinism because grace is resistible.

My response: Jesus himself teaches that no one can believe in him unless God grants it (John 6:53-65)… and ALL to whom God grants it will believe (v. 37). These passages plainly teach that Jesus alone is sufficient to save. His grace is effectual. He leaves no room from the unregenerate, natural man making good choices on his own, so as to leave no room for any boasting. Why do you think one person believes the gospel and not the other? Was one born with more natural wisdom? Or inclination to good? What makes people to differ? Jesus Christ or something else?

Visitor #1: so does “sufficient” mean that those whom God decides shall have salvation shall have salvation, or that those whom God decides shall have salvation can have salvation?

My response: The word “sufficient” means that Jesus Christ meets all the conditions for us that are necessary for our salvation, not only some of the conditions. It further means what Jesus does for us on the cross meets all of God’s requirements for us, including giving us a new heart which is needed to believe and obey (Ezekiel 36:26). In other words, apart from grace sinners are unable to obey the gospel, any more than the law, without a new heart. The non-Calvinist (synergist) position denies this and instead affirms that the natural man, can have faith in Christ while still in the flesh (with an unrenewed heart). So to answer your question, it means that what Jesus does for us in his life death and resurrection is not only necessary but completely sufficient to save us. This was the point of the Reformation’s affirmation of the principle of Solus Christus, or Christ alone. God’s love for His own is unconditional so He makes sure the job gets done. To look at it from another perspective, the synergist denies that what Jesus does for us is sufficient to save us… grace is necessary but the unregenerate man must also somehow come up with the good will to exercise faith apart from the Holy Spirit granting renewal of heart. So God’s love for the sinner is conditional, based entirely on his response. But the Scripture says that “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all…no one can come to [Jesus] unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:63, 65)

Visitor #1: John: thanks for the response…boiling that down, though, does Calvinism hold that if God decides that someone is to receive salvation, then that person will indeed receive it? My understanding of Calvinism is that the answer is “yes”, and what you’re saying seems to validate that: Jesus Himself meets all the necessary conditions, so there remains no condition that the one receiving salvation must fulfill.

My response: Yes that’s right! – This is what Jesus teaches in John 6:63-65. & 37. A new heart which has faith is part of Christ’s grace to us (Ezekiel 36:26). We don’t come up with faith on our own (drawing from our own resources), apart from the Holy Spirit. This passage in John (among many others) should put an end to all argument on this issue. God’s love for his people in Christ is unconditional, not conditional … therefore Jesus meets the conditions of salvation for us, doing for us what we are morally unable to do for ourselves. He is a Savior, not merely a helper. That means when He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3,4) he makes sure the job gets done on earth in time. On the other hand, the non-Calvinist, or synergist position, believes God’s love for people is conditional. That is, conditioned on the natural man’s response.

The difference between the two views could perhaps be illustrated fairly well by two parents whose children run into the street. The first parent stands afar at the curb and calls out to the child to get out of the way of the car, but does not lift a finger beyond asking him to use his will. The second parent, on the other hand, runs out into the street at the risk of his/her life, scoops him up, and makes sure the child does not get hit by the car. Which is more loving? When the person loved cannot save themselves true love does not dilly dally.

God loves his loved ones with a resolute will that gets the job done. The God of the Bible names and numbers his sheep, who saves the lost sheep and fends off the wolf.

Warm regards


Note: I am using the word Calvinism to cover the historic Augustinian, Monergistic view.

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Foreword:  This is the 4th installment on the series  from Modern Reformation issue of 1996. For other articles uploaded earlier, go to the sidebar – Categories – and choose ‘The Life of a Justified Sinner’ to take you to all articles under this heading. 

The exposition below provides a good and clear exegesis of the Lord’s discourse on the new birth. You will surely be blessed by the Word of God being unfolded. However, the first few paragraphs of this article involve the current  postmodern view of  human perception today on self-identification. Yet this human thinking process when placed face-to-face with the biblical teaching, is exposed to be deeply erroneous, deceptive and worthless in the light of eternal bibilical issues of life. It is a scholarly preface, and a bit hard to read at the beginning. But patience will prove rewarding. So please read on.


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Who Am I … Really?
The “New Self” in an Age of Self-Transformation

By Dr. Michael S. Horton

Nearly all the wisdom we possess . . . consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.1)

No wonder Paul said the Gospel was foolishness to Greeks. For Plato, the goal of life was gnosis, mystical knowledge of the Good; Aristotle had a similar objective, but was more down-to-earth in his appreciation for the possibilities of knowing the non-mystical world of our ordinary observation. Are we god-like souls who must strive to transcend our earthly existence and attain union with the Good? Or are we merely animals that cannot help but follow our base drives and impulses? What is the “self”? Is there such a thing as an “I” or a “you”? These are not just clever questions for philosophy, but have become vexing problems for our generation.

The crisis of modernity is in many ways one crisis among many in the pursuit of reason apart from biblical revelation for wisdom concerning ultimate issues. Alexander Pope, the Romantic poet who summed up the feeling of his contemporaries, declared in his Essay on Man:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great: . . .
[Man] hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer,
Born to die, and reasoning but to err;
A like in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion all confused; . . .
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

And yet, is there any way of discovering any answers to these questions? Not when, as Pope put it elsewhere, “The proper study of Man is Man. ” Psychology replaced theology, the inner workings of the soul finding no judge or redeemer outside of oneself. A century after Nietzsche pronounced God “dead,” existentialist writer André Malraux declared in a United Nations address that humanity was now dead as well. It is therefore little wonder that the “self” is being deconstructed, leaving a question mark over the reality of any such supposed entity.

It is in this context that our generation especially seeks to constantly reinvent the self, indulging in metamorphoses and self-transformations that make older folks tired just thinking about.

Kenneth Gergen, a leading exponent of postmodern/constructivist psychology, argues that the former goal of psychology–to lead patients into a firmer sense of self-identity–has been (happily, to his mind) replaced by a passion for wearing a variety of masks and creating a plurality of identities. Not surprisingly, he closes one of his essays by referring to Romantic poet Walt Whitman’s line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)”

But what I really want to use as an important marker of this change is from psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s essay, “The Protean Style.” Taking as his metaphor the Greek myth of Proteus, who could transform himself into a lion, dragon, fire, or flood, Lifton argues that the “Protean” man or woman of our times is marked by “self-process,” a seemingly endless pursuit of experiments. In the Greek myth, valiant souls could force Proteus to prophesy their futures if they could only bind him in chains to keep him from transforming himself. Only thus bound would Proteus be forced to be himself.

Lifton offers some clinical examples of his point. One patient spoke of wearing a lot of different masks, similar to an actor who is not sure which role (if any) is his or her real “self.” Gergen insists that this wearing of many masks is actually a sign of a healthy personality.1 This, Lifton believes, is at the root of the passionate demand for new experiences. Whereas previous generations usually only had one “self” and regarded what we practice freely today as “schizophrenia,” the average person today changes vocations, religions, political ideologies, partners, and perhaps even sexual orientations without much of the agony that used to distinguish such decisions. It is simply a different mask, since there is no real “self” that can be known. “If you label me, you negate me,” as the popular expression goes.

Thus, says Lifton, the postmodern self is riddled with contradiction: radically opposed to boundaries and yet guilty for not having an “outlet for his loyalties” and for having “no symbolic structure for his achievements.” The Protean self does not know how to measure good or evil, truth or error, a positive “transformation” from a negative one. “Rather than a feeling of evil or sinfulness, it takes the form of a nagging sense of unworthiness all the more troublesome for its lack of clear origin.”2 Lifton concludes:

But we may also say that Protean man’s affinity for the young, his being metaphorically and psychologically so young in spirit, has to do with his never-ceasing quest for imagery of rebirth. He seeks such imagery of rebirth from all sources, from ideas, techniques, religions, and political systems, from mass movements and of course from drugs, or from special individuals of his own kind–that is, from fellow Protean voyagers–whom he sees as possessing that problematic gift of his namesake, the gift of prophecy.3

What all of this raises is the question of self-identity in light of Christian revelation, specifically related to this matter of rebirth and transformation.

As early as the first chapter, John’s Gospel acknowledges that although the Word came to his own, they did not accept him. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1: 12-13). Early in his ministry Jesus encounters the thoughtful Jewish scholar Nicodemus who has conceded that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God,” given the miraculous signs (John 3:1-2). How Jesus responds to this admission is quite remarkable. Nicodemus is not now embraced as a disciple, for it is one thing to admit that Jesus is sent from God because of the miracles and quite another to trust in him and to be personally swept into the in-breaking tide of the kingdom of God . First, Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above,” to which Nicodemus replies, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” All that Nicodemus can see (indeed, all that human reason can see apart from God’s gracious illumination of the biblical text) is the mechanics of the natural, observable world. He sees miracles performed in time and space and, like any rational individual, must conclude that the one who performs these miracles must be who he says he is. Further, he knows what birth means, having circumcised many newborn children in his rabbinical career. But how could a grown person be “born”? Nicodemus cannot understand why the miracles are performed, but only that they were performed and he cannot understand our Lord’s meaning in the New Birth, apart from the mechanics of natural procreation.

Jesus persists: “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (v. 5-8). Notice that Jesus is declaring not what we must do in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, but what must be done for and to us. While many Christians today believe that this is a command that the unbeliever is capable of obeying, that is not our Lord’s point at all. Not only does he say that the New Birth must precede entrance into the kingdom of God ; he insists that “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” It is important to notice that Jesus is not saying, “spirit gives birth to spirit,” but “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” In other words, he is not opposing spirit and matter here, but is declaring that it is the Holy Spirit and not the believing sinner who is responsible for this New Birth and entrance into the kingdom. It is a point Jesus makes again, for instance, in John 6. As his listeners grumble at his teaching of salvation by grace alone, he declares, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh [i.e., human striving] counts for nothing” (v. 63).

In his words to Nicodemus, Jesus says that this birth is from above, not from below; from God’s Spirit, not from somewhere within the activity of the individual whose will is bound to sin. This is why people are “born not of . . . human decision . . . , but born of God” (John 1:13). As Paul would later write, “It does not therefore depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16). And the further point Paul makes in that section (viz., that God “has mercy on whom he will have mercy”) is first declared here in our Lord’s remarks to Nicodemus. The Spirit, he says, blows wherever he will–like the wind, whose coming and going is mysterious and entirely free.

But Nicodemus is still confused, bound as he yet is to the wisdom of the flesh. “How can this be?” This, of course, is what we have been asking down through the ages and it is at the root of some of the greatest debates in church history. Nicodemus sees things only “from below,” in terms of human resources, while Jesus urges him to see things “from above,” from the perspective of divine sovereignty and grace. “You are Israel ‘s teacher,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “and do you not understand these things? . . . I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (v. 12). And yet notice the compassionate heart of our Redeemer. Undaunted by his interlocutor’s stubbornness, Jesus persists in explaining this point: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 13-15).

Now what does this response have to do with being born again? Where one might have expected Jesus to lead Nicodemus into steps of conversion or a sinner’s prayer, he instead explains that Nicodemus actually has no access to “things heavenly.” It is not a matter of Nicodemus finding God or climbing into the heavenly chamber, since the Son of Man is the only one who has ever stood before God and it is by his coming below, not by Nicodemus’ rising above, that this New Birth is made possible. How then will the Son of Man effect this miraculous birth? By being lifted up, a reference to Numbers 21:8-9 where God commands Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole so that the disobedient Israelites suffering under the biting curse of venomous snakes could look to this foreshadowing of the Messiah and be saved. Promised to Adam and Eve as the one who would crush the serpent’s head, and in the wilderness lifted up symbolically as the life for all who look upon the sign in faith, Jesus would be lifted up physically on the Cross, where God’s justice and mercy would kiss for the eternal life of all who believe. This is why Paul says that we do not have to go up into the heavens to bring Christ down, but to simply hear the preached Word of the Gospel ( Rom. 10:6-15). It is also why our Lord, with Golgotha in sight, would pray, Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).

The Heidelberg Catechism puts it this way: “Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does such faith originate? The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments” (Question 65). On one side, we are faced with the naturalist or Pelagian, who sees religion as little more than morality. A Christian is simply someone who has made a decision to submit to the life-style Jesus models. On the other side, we face the enthusiast, who sees religion in terms of private experience that requires no mediation through the preached Word, the truth of the Gospel proclaimed in clear doctrinal and historical terms. However these two types may seem contradictory, they both represent the “Nicodemus syndrome,” the desire to attain salvation by the flesh rather than to be given salvation by the Spirit. The liberal Protestant cannot see the kingdom of God because it is heavenly and things heavenly are regarded as simply out of bounds for real knowledge, while the enthusiast cannot see the kingdom of God because he or she insists on climbing up into heaven instead of receiving the Word who has come down to earth and is made known in earthy forms of ink and paper, human speech, water, bread and wine.

After leading off his famous Institutes with the quote cited in the beginning of this article, Calvin observes that it is impossible to contemplate self-identity apart from God. First, God is our Creator in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). And yet, we can begin also with ourselves and before long we realize that we are not only created with amazing dignity, but sinking in “miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us.” “Thus,” writes Calvin, “from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and–what is more–depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.” This leads us once more to contemplate God:

And we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves . . . Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy–this pride is innate in all of us–unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity.

Theology, not psychology; the external Word, not internal self-identity, must give us our definition. We are created, not self-creating; sinners, not innocent spirits; redeemed in Christ, not striving after our own selfhood.

So what does this have to do with the Protean self, the tendency we have described above? Actually, it has a great deal of relevance. First, the answer to the perpetual, anxious, and feverish process of constantly re-inventing our “self” is met with the realization that our self-identity is not something we achieve, but something we are given.

Either we are given our identity in Adam, our first representative, or we are given our identity in Jesus Christ, our “second Adam” and the head of the new humanity of those who are born from above. If we are only born from below (i.e., natural birth), we are lost. Furthermore, if we seek to be born again from within, we are lost. Genuine identity must come not from “self” but from “other”–that which is not self. Just as we do not possess identity in ourselves as human beings, instead receiving our identity by our relationships to other people, so too we have an identity as Christians only because of our relation to Christ as we share in his Body, the church.

As the New Birth–a cataclysmic, supernatural resurrection of the soul that is “dead in trespasses and sins”–comes from above, so too does the sanctification that grows out of that vital union with Christ. We are branches of the Vine, members of the Body, precious stones in the Temple , co-heirs with Christ: this is our identity, a gift. As we have all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ by virtue of being chosen in him, redeemed by him, and sealed in him by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-13), it is only by acknowledging and constantly embracing this vital union with Christ that our sanctification can replace the striving for self-identity whose very elusiveness has led to the postmodern crisis of selfhood. Instead of wearing new masks and feverishly transforming ourselves through multiple “rebirths,” or taking up new identities based on the icons and vain promises of mass marketing and consumerism, we give up ourselves and our pretended right to define ourselves. Instead of re-inventing our “self,” we die to self and are raised to new life in Christ. Crucified with him, we are raised with him in newness of life, forever changed.

There once lived a young man who, despite his Christian mother’s prayers, gave himself over to a life-style of debauchery and joined a mystical cult that involved “free love.” One day, as he was in his backyard, he overheard a child singing, “Take up and read, take up and read,” and it just so happened that the young man had recently picked up Paul’s epistles out of cursory interest. The book was opened to Romans 13:

“The hour has come for you to wake from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

Gripped by a sense of guilt and utter lostness, he who had found his identity in false religion and immorality turned in faith to Jesus Christ. Clothed in his lust for new experiences and unfettered liberty, he now could see nothing but bondage in himself and he clothed himself in Christ, accepting from the hand of another the gift of a new identity. That young man’s name, if you haven’t guessed by now, was Aurelius Augustinus, known to us as St. Augustine . Augustine left a life of error and license not because he acceded to his mother’s pious wishes, nor because he wanted to merit his way into eternal life. After all, he became the ardent foe of Pelagius and works-righteousness. Rather, it was because that which had seemed beautiful was now ugly; that which was attractive was repulsive; that in which he had claimed unlimited freedom he now regarded as insufferable bondage. Grace, that double-cure, promised him a way out, a way of escape from both sin’s guilt and power. The Bread of Life held out to him, Augustine was suddenly given a new way of seeing himself and his world that reoriented his entire self-understanding in a radical moment. Not all conversions, of course, are so abrupt and instantaneous, but the New Birth itself (the cause of conversion) is always abrupt and instantaneous. The Wind blows and the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame leap for joy.

It is that promise of new clothing–both justification and sanctification, a new standing and a new nature–that the Gospel holds out. As God renamed Jacob (“he who struggles for control”) Israel (“he struggles with God”), so he renames us in baptism. By losing our life we gain it. In the Revelation our Savior declares that his people are given the hidden manna of life everlasting. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17).

But the New Birth does not end the battle; it only begins it. Throughout our lives, the struggle is enormous as we battle against the constant pretensions of the flesh (i.e., our sinful identity in Adam), those life-styles, and assertions of selfhood that regard the Spirit as the enemy of freedom. In truth, the Holy Spirit liberates us to enjoy a clearly defined selfhood that is no longer in bondage to the Protean pursuit. At last, Proteus has been captured and chained, forced to appear as he really is, but instead of Proteus’ prophesying, it is God who prophesies or preaches, naming and identifying our true, alienated self and then freeing us to enjoy a new selfhood. It is an identity that is given to us from outside of ourselves, not one that is constantly re-invented from within; an identity that is firm, not constantly wandering aimlessly for a place of rest and purposeful existence; an identity that is eternal and not bound to the passing fads of this evil age. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on things below. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

1 Kenneth Gergen, “The Healthy, Happy Human Being Wears Many Masks,” in The Truth About Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, ed. by Walter Truett Anderson (New York: Putnam, 1995), 136-44.
2 Robert Jay Lifton, “The Protean Self,” in The Truth About Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, op. cit., 132.
3 Ibid., 135.

Dr. Michael Horton is the chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California . Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.).


*Italics and emphasis mine – EmmausTrekker

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