Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Profession or Possession?

Those who have hung around evangelical circles know the following statement posted on the “Together for the Gospel” twitter feed to be fundamental to the evangelical faith:

“Mental assent and simple profession are not efficacious.”


This was posted with a picture of evangelical theologian R. C. Sproul in his most vigorous pose over which was written a further quote, all attributed to him:

“It is the POSSESSION of faith, not the PROFESSION of faith that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.”

And again, those nursed and bred on evangelical Christianity will raise a hearty “Amen” to these sentiments (Unless we are Presbyterian, in which case we will tighten our lips and nod our heads up and down, lest we seem too demonstrative.)

I do not have the full document from which these statements were lifted to properly understand the nuance lying behind them. If I have misapprehended the intent of such statements, then I trust someone will correct my misunderstanding. They are, however, by themselves suggestive and apparently sufficiently clear for @T4GOnline to post without context. As they are, and as they reflect a well worn sentiment, they invite comment.

Though we would not quibble with the basic assertion that mere profession is not what unites us with the saving work of Christ, we must ask, “How is such possession measured?” It would seem to be a fundamentally important question. If one’s only hope for eternal salvation, if one’s only confidence for the forgiveness of sin, if one’s only assurance that the death of Jesus was in fact efficacious for me, is my possession of faith, then how do I know that I possess it? What if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I have it? How can I know that I possess this thing apart from which I am eternally lost?

As a pastor, this is a question asked often of me. It is asked by those who profess love for God but wonder if they are fooling themselves and fear they lack possession of what they profess. In fact, they read such tweets and walk away with their confidence shaken (such that those who make such statements might consider the weight of millstones before tweeting).

If possession is 100% of gospel hope how then can one be sure of possessing what is needed for salvation? With such questions we leave the comfortable world of theological assertion and enter the messy world of real people making the real journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

The question being asked is, “How can I know that I am saved?” The answer to that on which I have been nurtured has been that our assurance rests on a three-legged stool: the certainty of the Word of God, the evidence of a changed life, and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. But as I shepherd real people (indeed as I navigate my own life) I find that though they believe the Bible (leg #1), they see so little change in their lives (leg #2). This uncertain holiness tends to muffle inner assurances (leg #3), leaving them to wonder if the voice they hear assuring them of their sonship is not the Holy Spirit at all, but some other intent on leading them to damnation.

These are sensitive and lovely people who are not helped by the clever turns of phrase that make for good tweets telling them that their profession is meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

I want to cry out in protest, but there are few who hear my voice in this little corner of the evangelical world, no matter how loudly I speak. Were I to be heard I would point out that some well respected theologians, St. Paul among them, have placed greater weight on profession than our evangelical forebears have done. Paul reminds us of the importance of inward faith, certainly, but it is interesting to me that when he does he gives a priority to outward profession that seems missing from our tweets:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Essential inward trust cannot be known without public profession. Merely external words do not save anyone, but neither does a purely inward faith. In fact, contrary to the tweet, it is not our faith at all that transfers us from the kingdom of darkness to that of the light, but our Savior. This he does by living, dying, and rising again, all in which we take part through our union with him. We take hold of Christ by believing in our heart and by confessing our trust in him with our mouths before the church and by being marked with the covenantal sign of baptism.

Christianity is not a mere inner conviction. It is not a private faith. It is covenantal to the core, as Mr. Sproul would, I know, agree. The hope of our eternal salvation is dependent solely on Christ and not upon my ability to hold on to a pure inward faith. Jesus holds on to me even when my heart is broken and shaken and weak.

When people question their salvation and look about for some word to assure them that they are secure, as sheep often do, it does no good to ask them to look into their hearts to see if they possess faith. That is the very question they are asking. And it does no good to ask them to scan the works they have done, because being sensitive they will see their lives littered with the remains of promises broken, holiness marred, love denied. Ask them to listen to the inward voice of the Holy Spirit and all they might be able to hear is someone screaming “hypocrite” deep within them. They can find no solace by an inward examination.

But we can ask them to look elsewhere. They can look to that time when they professed faith, publicly embracing Jesus Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel. And they can look to the mark they bear, the sign of God’s covenant faithfulness applied to them, the sign of baptism. By these things they can see, and are MEANT to see, that they have been marked by God as belonging to him not by what they have done, but by what he has done for them. By looking at these objective signs, they can see that, so united with Christ, they are secure in the heavenly places with him.

They can, in fact, look to their profession and their baptism and their relationship to the body of Christ, the church, as objective signs of an inner reality that, though oft assailed, is nevertheless real. And they can rest in that when all other subjective measures slip through their fingers like dry sand.

It is the possession of faith that unites us with Christ, of that there is no doubt. But a possession so often assailed is fortified by a sign and seal of God’s promise that he who professes faith will be saved. On that I can rest. On that those who post such things rest.

I just wish they would let others rest in this as well.

For similar thoughts, more carefully expressed, from someone with actual credentials, see this.

More on Spotlight

My comments on the movie Spotlight last week spawned a thoughtful and articulate response from a reader. I did not want all her effort and insight to get lost buried in a comment and so she consented to allowing the comment in it’s entirety to be posted here. Thanks, Suzanne, for your contribution to this conversation!

I appreciate your willingness to address ‘the elephant in the room’. This is huge!

You make an excellent point, that abuse is not a Catholic issue, but rather a problem in Protestant churches as well. Whether is it physical abuse, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse, our churches, and our country, is filled with it. I think it has become a problem within the church for several reasons, it is rarely addressed, predators have unsupervised access to children, parents are blind to the facts, (or they ignore them) and when predators do confess, members are not informed of the potential threat. I also believe that we tend to turn off our ‘intuitions’ and so the signs go undetected. If we did happen to suspect something suspicious, we would probably ignore it in the belief that God will protect our children, or that we shouldn’t think bad thoughts about our fellow brothers/sisters. Sadly, the abuse goes on and it takes years before the victims come forward, usually after much anguish and turmoil of feeling like perhaps it was their fault. Even more pathetic is the fact that when they finally come forward, they are met by leaders who want to cover it up. Leaders inflict additional damage by reinforcing the fact that it must have been something they had done to cause the person to ‘lust’ after them. In the countless cases I have known, when the abuse was exposed, the emphasis was to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ the abuser. Oddly, those who preach unconditional love and forgiveness for all, withdrew from the victim, leaving them helpless and hurting. I personally have NEVER seen where the ‘victim’ was wrapped in love and supported. Actually, I have NEVER seen where the victim was shown the ‘grace’ that the abuser was shown, but rather the opposite. This results in a victim wondering why God abandoned them and why the church abandoned them. The scars are carried throughout their life.

The thing about being abused, is that you know the signs and you can sense a predator almost upon first observance. Perhaps the awareness helps by saving a victim or two. I think predators know when someone can see through them. Perhaps we should all tune into our intuitions and be more vigilant. I don’t think Christ would stand silently by while predators attacked the children he loved so much, nor do I think he would have been silent at the men/women who abuse either verbally or physically.

Thank you for reminding us that we must not get complacent and that we must address these issues. I am grateful for Marci Preheim and Sarah Taras, and for movies like “Spotlight’ that bring about awareness. I am very grateful that you are willing to bring to light the ‘hidden’ things. I appreciate your transparency for it says to every victim that there is someone who cares, and someone who will be their advocate. This is a tremendous aid in their healing process.

Some alarming stats below.

“Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States involving more than 6 million children. The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations – losing on average between four and seven children every day to child abuse and neglect.” -National Child Abuse Hotline

I Hate Sunday!

I posted recently some thoughts on rest. Since that is such a strong biblical theme, I thought a few more thoughts on the matter might be well placed. Of course, my writing on rest is akin to the 300 pound sports reporter writing on tennis – it is something he observes from afar but doesn’t do very well himself.

The subject of ‘rest’ invites us to think about the biblical idea of Sabbath. But for some of us, “Sabbath” does not speak of rest but of restriction. Laura Ingalls Wilder in her book Little House in the Big Woods recounts what Sundays were like for her as a little girl.

“On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.
“They must sit quietly and listen while Ma read Bible stories to them, or stories about lions and tigers and white bears from Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World. They might look at pictures, and they might hold their rag dolls nicely and talk to them. But there was nothing else they could do.”


Some of you are familiar with such restrictions and you understand clearly the reaction of the impetuous Laura:

“One Sunday after supper she could not bear it any longer. She began to play with Jack, and in a few minutes she was running and shouting. Pa told her to sit in her chair and be quiet, but when Laura sat down she began to cry and kick the chair with her heels.
“‘I hate Sunday!’ she said.”

I understand Laura’s frustration. I don’t think we were meant to hate Sunday.

But perhaps that has not been your experience and for you Sunday has never been different from any other day of the week. For you, perhaps for the majority of people today, though they have been given no reason to HATE Sunday, they’ve been given no reason to LOVE it either. In our swinging to extremes we have lost the spirit of the Sabbath captured by Isaiah when he commands us to

…call the sabbath a delight… (Isaiah 58:13)

In that text, Isaiah mentions some restrictions that should attend the Sabbath. But the restrictions, oddly, are mean to make the Sabbath delightful. What we have done is to focus on restrictions as if Sabbath is about restrictions. We rebel against restrictions because we do not consider what the restrictions are for.

If we have, as I think we have, lost the ability to rest, to be silent, to be still, to reflect, to think, to meditate, to pray, or even to have conversation with each other, it is because we have allowed busyness to crowd such needful activities our of our lives. We may say that we want to do any one of these things, but we are simply too busy. And so large chunks of human delight are cast aside because other things, more noisy and clamorous things, get in our way.

Into this reality God invites us to Sabbath rest. To put aside certain activities, so that we can in fact, be renewed in body and spirit. The restrictions always have a purpose, an end, a good goal. As a fellow student in college challenged me, “What if God gave us the commandments because he loves us and knows what we need?”

What if. What if, one day in seven, we denied ourselves Netflix or the NFL or the lawn or the grocery shopping? What if we put those things on another day and set aside one day for the things that get crowded out of every other day? What if we devote that day to worship, to loving others, to sitting in a quiet place, to prayer, to reading the Bible, to reading books that feed the soul? What if?

What if we saw that the reasons we do not do certain things on a Sunday are so that we might do other, more important but less urgent things? That changes the meaning of the restrictions.

We say that we don’t have time to pray, we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write letters to our kids, we don’t have time to think. And we don’t. But we can, if we were to see that God has commanded us to take one day in seven to turn our attention to the things that matter to him and are needful to us. Maybe he does, in fact, want us to rest?

I’m not calling for a return to Laura’s world. But I do want us to consider what we might be missing if we neglect the discipline of rest.

Branding, 2

Speaking of ‘branding’, I ran across this interestingly named barbershop today:


I don’t know what idea this is supposed to conjure in the average person’s mind, but to name a barbershop, one especially with ‘Hot Lather Neck Shaves’, after a woman whose claim to fame was her being beheaded is, well, a bit surprising.

I halfway expect it to be located next door to the ‘St. Joan BBQ’.

It wasn’t.

Lady Jane Getting a Haircut Lady Jane. Getting a haircut.


Branding, oh, how I hate thee. And clearly, I’m lousy at it.

In marketing classes around the country, professors are even now, I’m sure, pointing to a certain web site named ‘Somber and Dull’ as the worst possible title EVER for a blog that has aspirations of drawing thoughtful and engaging readers. It’s as if Coca-cola named itself ‘Brown Sugar Flavored Water’ and hoped to get people to drink it. I never buy dessert at a restaurant. Unless, of course, the restaurant is named CHEESECAKE Factory, and then I have to buy cheesecake.

Branding. It makes a difference.

I was with some fellow pastors the other morning and someone mentioned having read something I had posted on this blog. Some others, unaware that I had a blog, asked for the name of my blog so they could check it out. So I told them. Out loud. I don’t think I’ve ever done that hoping to get people to read it. One of them said something like, “Well, that’s inviting.”

Pastors are such sarcastic souls.

I explained the genesis and background of the title. (You can read about that here.) It makes sense. It’s a meaningful personal story based upon one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. And it once made for a pretty fun April Fools joke.

But it just does not have pizzaz.

So, if you have suggestions, make them. I’m happy to give each suggestion the sober, or somber, consideration it deserves. Especially if you are a marketing professor.


When the sons of Korah speak these words

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1)

we read them as their longing for a mystical emotional experience of the presence of God. Perhaps that is right. Certainly I speak with lots of people who are longing for a more concrete and less purely intellectual experience of God. This could be what these men longed for as well.

But if we read the whole psalm, we realize that what they longed for was something they once had but which was not simply lost but had been stripped from them. And what had been stripped from them was the opportunity to “come and appear before God” (verse 2). What they longed for was not simply the experience of God, but the experience as it was mediated through the place where they would meet with God.

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival. (Psalm 42:4)

To be blunt, and anachronistic, but still on point, they had been denied the opportunity to go to church. And they missed that, grieved for that, lamented that, because ‘church’ was where they could come and appear before God and have their desperate soul thirst assuaged.

They had been denied and longed for what we have and take for granted.

May today our glad shouts and songs of praise return, from our hearts, as we come and appear before God and have our thirst sated.

Getting the Red Out of My Eyes

I’m grateful to all of you who have come forward to support this blog. Because of your generosity the blog should now appear to all users completely free of distracting ads. PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF THAT IS NOT THE CASE!

Somewhere in a distant time, in the mid-70s, a college professor returned a piece of writing to me with more red than the original black of my submission. I suspect she meant well. Perhaps she saw in me some potential that she was trying to hone and direct and challenge and improve. Or maybe she was simply tired of crappy student submissions and was taking out on me all her suppressed rage.

It doesn’t matter. The effect was the same: I quit writing anything other than what I had to write. This blog has always been my attempt to tentatively break free from the haunting of all that red ink.

There are not many of you who read this blog, but you who do, and now you who support it, have been a great encouragement for me to get the red out of my eyes. I am grateful.

Every writer who has ever discussed the craft challenges those who write to write daily, and to do so whether the fruit of that writing is good or bad. It will frequently be bad. I don’t have the time to write daily, or to experiment, or to even write all that I would like. But I can guarantee you that what I write will frequently be bad, but that I will press on nevertheless.

Thank you.

Courage and MLK, Jr.

Monday was the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade here in Oviedo, Florida where I live. And, as I have for the past several years, I joined with several other pastors of various races, denominations, and backgrounds to march under the banner of the Oviedo Christian Ministers Association.

As I stood in the (Florida) cold (it was mid-forties) and waited for my friends to show up, I began to think, as I have in the past. Where would I, a white Presbyterian pastor, have been fifty years ago when such marches were not commemorative but proactive? Would I have been marching for civil rights when it was not safe? Would I have taken such stands that got crosses burned in the yard of a white friend of mine who did?

Or would I have been on the sidelines cheering but unwilling to encounter the risks that stepping into the streets would have entailed? Would I have been among the “Dear Fellow Clergymen” to whom Dr. King addressed his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“? Would I have fallen under Dr. King’s ‘regrettable conclusion’:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

This year as I walked with men who have become my friends, and prayed with and for them in front of the gathered city at Round Lake Park, the event was documented by one of my daughters, herself African-American. Just before the march, I was reminded that were it not for the courage of Dr. King, and many others like him, my family as it is and as I treasure it would not exist. I am a debtor to those who had the courage to take a stand.
MLK 2016
A year or two ago, I confessed my self-doubt to one of my African-American pastor friends as we prepared to march. He confessed that he wondered the same thing about himself. That many put their lives and reputations at risk, some to the point of death, is the reason that he and I could have that conversation in the past tense. I am grateful to them all.

Those Ads

My blogging platform of choice is WordPress. The ‘price’ I pay for using the ‘free’ version of WordPress is that occasional advertisements get placed in my posts.


WordPress says that this is done ‘sparingly’, but I still wish they did not do it at all. Of course, WordPress has employees who, like the rest of us, like to pay their mortgages on time. So, I get it. I still prefer the ads would go away.

This could happen if I upgraded the site from it’s current ‘free’ to ‘premium’ status. That way the nice folks at WordPress can afford toothpaste without cluttering Somber and Dull with ads for the same. As a bonus, it would make me happy for a number of other reasons.

And yet, the cost to do this, on top of the other costs associated with this site, is more than I can justify. Which brings me to the pitch:

Perhaps there are some of you who might like to climb on board and help this site stay clean, neat, afloat, and ad free. To that end, I’ve opened a PayPal.me site for those who would like to contribute to Somber and Dull. If you follow that link and make a contribution, I can get closer to the $99 needed to subscribe to their service. That would encourage me, the ads would go away, and WordPress employees would still be able to buy their kids’ birthday presents. That’s good all the way around.

Contributions small and large can be made by clicking here. All will go to the support of this site. Amounts received in excess of $99 (a guy can dream, right?) will be used to offset other site related expenses, current and future.

And I just realized what I’ve done. I’ve placed an ad hoping to get rid of ads. I love irony.


“How many 13 year-old girls does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

That was the question that I used to ask one of my daughters when she was 13. I’ll let you think about the answer.

Recently a few members of my family were sitting in the backyard enjoying each others company, laughing, telling stories, roasting marshmallows. For some reason, I started asking Siri, Apple’s iPhone answer lady, questions, including this one: “How many Presbyterians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“One thousand.” Siri promptly replied. “One to screw in the lightbulb and 999 to blog about it”

Perhaps we’d had too much beer; perhaps we were just drunk on the refreshment of being with each other. Whatever it might have been, we thought that was just about the funniest thing. Typing it now, it seems a bit dull. Nevertheless, it serves as a good foil for this post.

There have been a few who have wondered where I’ve gone. My last serious post to this blog was in May, 2015, and prior to that, posts have been spotty.

My answer is that I’ve been screwing in lightbulbs and leaving the blogging about it to others. At least that is what I like to think.Coming soon

There are those who have though continued to encourage me to write, and to write for this blog. I’ve certainly continued to generate ideas and consider issues I’d like to write about. That what I’ve written in the past has been to some degree helpful to some people does suggest that a blog is perhaps useful work. And yet it often asks for time that I do not think I have.

But the urging is having its effect. So with quite a bit of trepidation, I am rebooting the Somber and Dull blog. My goal at the outset will be no more than one post every week or two. Several are in an active queue; several hundred sit sketched and neglected. Time has been budgeted for developing a few of those, and so we will see where this goes.

I will try to be faithful to this. You will encourage that faithfulness by your comments and by directing others to read with you. I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

And I’ll still screw in lightbulbs, just not as easily as my then 13 year-old daughter, who could do it all by herself:

“Just one. She holds the bulb and the world revolves around her.”

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