The Thanksgiving Meal…

Jesus has a table spread, where the saints of God are fed. He invites His chosen people, come and dine!

The Church of Jesus Christ has long insisted that God ministers to His people through the ordinary means of Word and sacrament. It seems that many modern evangelicals want to shy away from a word like sacrament. For them it sounds too priestly; the concern is that using a word like that will lead inexorably to Rome. This fear is altogether unfounded. If evangelicals are concerned about crossing the Tiber then they are going to have to drop the oars and paddle in reverse. They are already on the far side of the river.

I say this because the error of Rome can easily be stated as honoring tradition above Scripture. It seems to me that this is exactly what the modern evangelical does when he seeks to commune with God while rejecting the divinely instituted means of Word and sacrament. In this respect evangelicals are much closer to Rome than they are to Geneva—or Jerusalem for that matter.

Here is the reality. In a sacrament we have a covenantal union between the sign and the thing signified. The Roman Catholic position destroys the possibility of having a real sacrament by collapsing the sign with the thing signified and declaring them to be altogether synonymous. The modern evangelical destroys the definition of a sacrament by divorcing the sign from the thing signified. They want a separation rather than a distinction. But what God has joined together let not man put asunder.

The biblical position is that there is a real covenantal union between the sign and the thing signified. This union is the work of the Holy Spirit, who with divine authority, says that water is united to the cleansing while distinct from it, and that bread and wine are united with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus—which body, of course, we are.

My present concern is with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Most evangelical Christians eat the covenant meal once or twice a year and expect to grow strong and healthy. They hope to live on the strength of that nourishment from Easter to Christmas—if they even think that they are being nourished at all. It doesn’t seem to dawn on folks that they come to the Lord’s table for the same reason that they come to any other table. We go to the table to eat and to drink. We eat and drink that we might be nourished and strengthened.

Setting the Table

A good place to begin is with the Scriptural names for the sacrament. We have already referred to it as the Lord’s Supper, which is the phrase Paul uses for it in 1 Corinthians 11:20, “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.

He also calls it a cup of blessing: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Paul here is using a figure of speech known as a synecdoche, where a part can be applied to the whole. Obviously, Paul does not want to limit the blessing to the cup, excluding the bread. Consequently, we understand that the entire meal is a blessing. It is also a thanksgiving. When Paul recounts the words of institution, he says, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed to bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-24). The Lord’s Supper is a celebration, a feast. We are to remember the Lord, and part of what we are to remember is that He gave thanks for His sacrifice. The Greek word for thanksgiving is where we get the word Eucharist.

The Supper is also called the Table of the Lord—“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:21). Notice that we have two tables, and worshippers partake of each one in the same way—covenantally. In other words, it is not when we come to the Lord’s Table that a covenantal “miracle” happens. We are always living in a covenantal relationship. The only choice we have is between sitting at the Lord’s Table in covenantal obedience or sitting elsewhere in covenantal idolatry. We do not have the option of sitting down at a noncovenantal table. They don’t exist. People talk a lot about “having a relationship with Jesus.” Well, everyone does have a relationship with Jesus. They are either believing or unbelieving; obedient or disobedient. The Table of the Lord is at the center of believing covenantal living.

Another common name is Communion. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16) The word for communion here is koinonia, which refers to our fellowship in Christ, and consequently with one another. In the book of Acts, it is called the breaking of bread. “Now on the first day of the week, when disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them…”(Acts 20:7). And lastly, the Lord’s Supper may be called the Cup of the New Covenant. “In the same manner He also took the cup after the supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you do proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes” (1 Cor. 11:25-26).

So what does all of this mean, taking it together? Consider what we are doing. We do not own the Supper; the Supper is the Lord’s Supper—He is the host. When we approach it properly, we receive a blessing that we do not otherwise receive. This cup is a cup of blessing, which distinguishes it from all other cups. If our Lord, facing death, was able to give thanks, how much more should we come together in order to celebrate this Supper eucharistically. We are to look around the sanctuary as we discern the Lord’s body, His chosen people—this is communion. We signify our loyalty by partaking of the Lord’s Table. This is our covenant oath. We break bread, just as the Father broke the body of His Son. And we remember the heart of the New Covenant, which is the remission of sins through His blood.
Eating to Live or Living to Eat?

In the Table of the Lord we have a glorious opportunity to grow in faith, as the Word fuels the sacrament and the sacraments enriches the Word. Since Paul tells us that the meal is a means of blessing it is clearly right to speak of it as a means of grace.

When a believer comes to the Table and partakes in a worthy manner he is blessed by God in the coming. This is a blessing the communicant would not have received if he had not partaken. Paul says that there is a blessing associated with this cup but in the next chapter Paul makes it very clear that the abuse of the Supper brings down God’s covenantal judgment (1 Cor. 11:27-32). Christians in sin are warned about faulty participation in the Supper; those who disregard the warning are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. They are told that their observance does more harm than good. Such promises and threatenings enable us to see that this is not just one more empty religious ceremony.

But the blessing of this sacrament has historically been distorted in two ways. One is the error of the sacerdotalist, who magnifies what happens to the bread and wine to the point of idolatrous superstition. The other is the error of the memorialist, who reacts to the idolatry, and minimizes or denies the reality of the blessing—carving some pretty neat idols of his own.

The former teaching is that the sacraments perform their function ex opere operato, that is, they work blindly and mechanically, quite apart from faith and obedience on the part of the recipient. So some believers, when they have seen this sort of idolatry, have reacted in the opposite direction by saying that the Supper is nothing more than “a mere memorial.” Now it is important for Christians to reject all forms of priestcraft, but we must do so without being reactionary. We can’t be like a semi-ambulatory drunken man who can’t decide which ditch he likes to fall into the most. Biblical rejection of false teaching is not the same thing as blind reaction to false teaching. An idolater will say that the observance of the Supper is everything. A reactionary will say that the observance of the Supper is nothing. But it actually is something. In order to maintain his position, the reactionary must do just as much violence to the biblical data as does the idolater.

The teaching of Paul cannot be reconciled with either extreme. There is a true blessing here, and it is the result of covenantal identification. This is a blessing that is poured out on the believer by a sovereign God in a providential response to the believer’s obedient faith. The blessing does not come through the elements, like water through a garden hose. But it does come on account of a worthy and faithful use of those elements. It might be helpful to recall the old definitions of our fathers; formal causes and instrumental causes.

In the Old Testament, the Levites who ate at the altar were partakers of the altar (1 Cor. 10:18). When they ate the sacrifices, they were consequently covenantally identified with the God of Israel. In order to make this happen, God did not magically transform the meat. Nevertheless, the Levites were blessed when they faithfully kept the sacrificial ordinances God had commanded them to keep. So there is no magic in the Supper. The elements are not, in themselves, automatic channels of blessing. No mystical substance flows to the believer through the elements. I often tell my people that we reject the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation as it pertains to the elements—they are not transformed. But we do believe in a transubstantiation of sorts—we are transformed.

This is the hard pill that modern evangelicals (even with all of their baptismal water) can’t seem to choke down. The Supper is considered as nothing more than a mere memorial. Now this is partially correct: it is a memorial, but of what? What is it that we gather at the Table to remember? The obvious response appears to be that we gather to remember the Lord’s death. And here it is here that the rampant sentimentalism about the Lord’s death has obscured the ver point of the memorial. It is very common for Christians to think of His death as an act of love for individual sinners, and nothing more. It is almost never seen as a covenantal act, establishing a covenantal people.

But how did Christ think of His death? “After the same manner also He took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do ye, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me” (I Cor. 11:25). When Christ laid down His life, He did so in order to establish the New Covenant with His people. So those who gather to remember His death, but who neglect the covenantal aspect of it, are forgetting the main point that they are gathering to remember. Participation in the Supper is an act of covenantal allegiance. It is an act of covenant renewal. (On a side not, we are not the only ones who are remembering the covenant. Like the bow in the clouds, God looks at the bread and wine and remembers His covenant with His chosen people as well.)

Look Who’s Coming to Dinner!

This understanding helps us with another problem that has been perplexing to many believers. and that is the question go the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Because of a long-standing love affair with Hellenistic categories, the debate has usually centered on whether the Lord’s presence is “spiritual” or “physical” or “spiritually physical” or “physically spiritual.” But these are not scriptural categories. The only alternative to Christ being present is Christ being absent. This certainly is not the case. There is a real presence of Christ in the supper, but His presence is covenantal.  The importance of this would be hard to overstate. A lot of trees have been felled and ink spilt in the discussion of Christ’s statement that the bread was His body. Comparatively little has been said about His statement that the cup was the new covenant. Thus we will make little sense of the Supper until we learn to think in covenantal categories. The Table seems a good place to begin.

More to follow…

There are always a few hundred reasons…

He shall, from time to time…~Article II, Section 3, US Constitution

(Every now and then I will post some brief notes on a particular passage or book. More often than not, these will be observations rather than actual sermons.) 

Last evening I spoke briefly about Paul’s “staccato imperatives” found in the last chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians. The central commands (5:16-18) form what James Denney called the “standing orders of the gospel,” since they are fitting for all times and circumstances.

The statements are front loaded. Most modern English translations begin those verses with verbs, but that is not the case in the Greek text. The words that give us the sense of constancy and consistency are actually in the emphatic position. Reading them most literally would give us something like this:

“Always be rejoicing.”
“Always (without ceasing) be praying.”
“In each and every circumstance be giving thanks.”

It becomes apparent that the verbs in the verses don’t present much difficulty for Christians. We often rejoice. We often pray. We often give thanks. It is those insistent modifiers that give us fits. Always rejoice. Always pray. Always give thanks.

This isn’t easy but it’s absolutely necessary. Consider the alternatives. We would be consigned to despair and anger. We would become disconnected souls who have no communion with our Maker. We would become ingrates who think that we have what we have because of our own ingenuity rather than as the gracious gifts of a benevolent Father.  When joy and gratitude are gone, bitterness and idolatry take their place.

After a brief discussion of these verses, I shared with the saints a few reasons to give thanks to God. The list is in no particular order. I chose not to include personal blessings because I wanted the list to apply to all Christians in every circumstance. It is in no way exhaustive. I simply stopped writing because I ran out of time. My people asked that I would share this with you.

Christian, you can be thankful—

  • That God is sovereign.
  • That nothing happens by chance.
  • That God causes all things to work together for good for his children.
  • That hard times reveal our weakness, break our pride, and show us our total need for God.
  • That God has triumphed over sin and death through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • That God uses the worst that happens to promote our spiritual growth.
  • That God is faithful even when we are faithless.
  • That God’s Word will be vindicated.
  • That God’s promises are true.
  • That evil will not reign forever.
  • That heaven is real.
  • That this life is not all there is.
  • That when we are weak, he is strong.
  • That his grace is sufficient for every situation.
  • That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
  • 
That our salvation rests on God and not on us.
  • That there is no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still.
  • That the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin.
  • That God delights to save sinners.
  • That the Lord can soften the hardest heart.
  • That there are no impossible cases with God.
  • That even when we feel alone, we are never alone.
  • That the Holy Spirit abides with us always.
  • That the Lord Jesus knows and identifies with our pain.
  • That the Holy Spirit prays for us when we are too weak to pray for ourselves.
  • That the Lord Jesus intercedes for us so that we are finally saved.
  • That God uses everything and wastes nothing.
  • That our doubts cannot cancel God’s work in us.
  • That someday we will be conformed to the image of Christ.
  • That God is faithful to finish His work in us.
  • That our hardships equip us to minister to others.
  • That we are invited to come boldly to the throne of grace.
  • That God’s plan far exceeds our puny imagination.
  • That weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
  • That we are still God’s children even when our faith falters.
  • That while we suffer outwardly, we are being renewed inwardly.
  • That our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory.

Brothers, We are Not Sisters

Dude (Looks like a lady). ~Aerosmith

Finding masculinity in ministry today is as rare as finding a goose egg at the North Pole. We are plagued with what can only be described as “functional effeminacy.” The situation is so prevalent that trying to get people to see it would be like trying to get a fish to see the water in which he swims. It has just become the air that we breathe.

Believers very rarely fight strategic battles. When provoked, they sometimes fight effectively and well in tactical skirmishes, but do not do well outside their tactical radius. When some outrage can no longer be ignored, battle may be joined and the outrage attacked. But scarcely any believers see a pattern in the general mayhem. Very few generals can stand on a hill and consider all the movements of all the troops.

In our cultural wars, this is why the issue of women in the pulpit, or on the elder board, has been handled the way it has been— which is to say, ineffectively. Many good folks have dedicated themselves to fighting this thing as though it were a tactical issue. But it is not. In the current climate of unbelief, the proper exegesis of the Pauline teaching on the role of women in the Church will never settle anything.

The words seem plain enough. “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Tim. 2:11-15). But here is the catch: the words are plain only to those who are willing for them to be plain. For those reckoned among the unwilling, the passage is full of mysteries.

Because woman is the glory of man, a wife should go to the local congregation with a covering of hair, a humble woman’s glory. And why is this? “For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8-9). It may fill all us moderns with regret, but such teaching cannot in any way be reconciled with feminism of any kind. But for those in the Church who want to conduct some kind of dialogue with feminism, the words present an exegetical obstacle course. How can we keep this wording, and thus remain evangelical, and at the same time get around what it says, and thus be theologically trendy ? We need to look at the original Greek!

But the existence of debate within the Church tells us far more about the muddiness of our hearts than it does about the obscurity of any text. Those Christians who do see what these passages say will frequently be sucked into a tactical debate because they foolishly believe that their opponents have accepted the authority of the text. But this is not the case at all. Evangelical feminists have not accepted the (patriarchal) authority of the text; they are simply at that early stage of subversion where open defiance would be counterproductive of their purposes.

So what is our strategic position? How has this debate gotten a foothold? Why is there such an interest, in evangelical circles, to admit women into the leadership of the church? The answer is that we do not want feminine leadership; we want more feminine leadership. The men in our pulpits for many years have been simply jury-rigged women; when the request comes to bring in the real thing, on what principle will the request be denied? We cannot say that we must have masculinity in the pulpit because we do not have that now.

For well over a century in the American church, the norms of spirituality have been the standards set by a saccharine Victorian feminism. In the early part of the nineteenth century, like two mobs converging on a quiet crossroads, two revolutions merged to produce this effect, and we have not yet recovered any understanding of what life in the Church was like before this happened to us.

The first was the rise of a sentimental and domestic feminism. Prior to the industrial revolution, the role of women in America was at the center of the economy. Women managed the home, manufactured the cloth, processed the food, fed the entire family, etc. But with the rise of industrialized wealth, the role of women shifted from producing to consuming. The women were, in effect, disestablished and became decorative. Middle class women became a new leisure class, with money to spend, and time to fill. And one of the things they began to do was to write and read sappy novels.

The second factor was the sentimental revolt of ministers against the strictures of theological Calvinism. The older Calvinist establishment was perceived as austere and harsh (and in the Yankee culture of New England, it frequently was). This revolt had manifestations on both the right-wing and the left-wing. The left-wing anti-Calvinists were the Unitarians, who captured Harvard in 1805. The right-wing anti-Calvinists were the revivalists, typified by leaders such as Charles Finney, who were greatly swelled with the hot air of a humanistic, democratic spirit which they all thought was the Holy Ghost.

All this occurred while the churches of New England were in the process of being disestablished, no longer receiving funding from tax revenues. More important than the loss of tax money, however, was the fact that these Congregational clergymen, long accustomed to their role as a central part of the Establishment, found themselves outsiders, now having to compete for parishioners, just like the lowly Baptists and frontier Methodists.

The women with time on their hands provided a ready audience for these ministers, and the anti-Calvinist ministers provided a suitably sentimental gospel for the women accustomed to their feminized literary entertainment. So an alliance was formed between the clergymen and the women, and a new spiritual norm was established within the Church.

All these developments, centered largely in New England, were not followed for the most part by the more conservative and agrarian South. But the new regime of feminization came to the Southern church as well. The War Between the States decimated the strong masculine leadership of the South for all intents and purposes. The men were no longer leading because the men were dead. Since that time (exaggerating only slightly) southern churches have been run by three women and the pastor.

We are so besotted that current “traditional values” Christians are actually reprinting and circulating this nineteenth-century drivel as though it represented a biblical view of the world. One example is the ancestor of our once-famous-but-now-extinct WWJD bracelet, the book entitled In His Steps. The book was in many ways typical of the genre; the divine influence is mediated through a woman. Men can be converted by listening to a pretty voice.

As a result of all these factors, a standard of feminine piety has been accepted as normative in the Church as the standard for all the saints, both men and women. Clergymen, trying to live up to their reputation as the third sex, have labored mightily to be what they need to be in order to maintain this standard. But try as they might, men are no good at being women. However hard they try, their attempts always ring hollow. The pressure is therefore on to make room for those who can be feminine in leadership more convincingly: women. When the standards of Christian leadership are all feminine, the individuals most obviously qualified to be Christian leaders will be women. This poses a dilemma. Why should we exclude women from leadership when they are so obviously qualified for what we call leadership? At that point we divide, with some calling for them to be included, with other reluctant conservatives admitting that women could do as good a job, or better, but still, we have to submit to this arbitrary pronouncement of Paul. At least for now.

When the background is understood, it explains many things about the contemporary Church. It explains why Promise Keepers, a masculine renewal movement, was so easily transformed into weepy sentimentality. It explains why ministers cannot teach on certain subjects from the pulpit. It explains why Christians cannot articulate why women in combat is an abomination. It explains why the masculine virtues of courage, ambition, responsibility, and strength are in such short supply. We cannot resist the demand to let pretty women lead us for the simple reason that we are currently being led by pretty men.

We have not failed because our exegetical skills are rusty. We have failed because we have forgotten what masculine piety even looks like. When it occasionally appears among us, we are entirely flumoxed by it. But God gave the pattern of feminine piety to complement, not to rule. Leadership has been given to men. Modern evangelicalism has been covenantally castrated for well over a hundred years. It is high time they got some ministers, and a Bible, to match their effeminate condition. At some point we have to stop taking sandpaper to the Bible in order to give it a more delicate texture. The Bible is a sword, not a purse.

The God Who Answers By Fire

‘Why have you halted?’ roared the commander of a division and Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge; ‘move forward, sir, at once.’
‘General,’ said the commander of the delinquent brigade, ‘I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into direct contact with the enemy.’ ~Ambrose Bierce

Toleration doesn’t necessitate capitulation. This obvious fact apparently isn’t as clear as it once was. Today, the Washington National Cathedral in our nation’s capital formally opened her doors to Ashtaroth and bowed her knee to Baal. For the first time in her history, the Cathedral invited the Muslim community to turn the Christian house of worship toward Mecca. The Episcopal Church, which owns and operates the Cathedral, commented calling the abomination a “powerfully symbolic gesture.” Unfortunately, they don’t seem to understand how powerful the symbolism really is. I think this is what is meant by “bringing the mountain to Mohammed.”  Jesus decried the ecclesiastical leaders of His day saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer but you have made it into a den of thieves.”  He was angry because they were selling out.  What must He think when we just give it away?

This is bad on many levels. Although I believe with every fiber of my being that the Church of Jesus Christ will triumph over her rivals, it doesn’t follow that she must triumph over her rivals in this generation. At the risk of sounding rather pessimistic, it is possible to lose many battles before winning the war. One reason that I think that it is at least a possibility that we might lose this skirmish is that we simply won’t acknowledge that we are in a fight. The lines are clearly drawn by our opponents and we act as though they have invited us to play a friendly game of tic-tac-toe.

As I mentioned earlier, the issue isn’t religious toleration. We allow people of every faith the freedom to assemble and worship according to their conscience. The issue, as I see it, is capitulation. We don’t like the stigma that comes with the exclusive claims of the Christian faith. We like to wear our crosses rather than bear them. We don’t like having to give hard answers to fairly easy questions. Our Bible tells us that we should expect catcalls from the back of the room rather than standing ovations but we still clamor for the applause of men.

So here we slouch. Not one in ten Christians is a theological vertebrate. We have the moral constitution of a bowl of jello. “Wait,” some peeved churchgoer says, “We are about our Father’s business. Have you not seen the latest tally from the church bake sale? We had 322 show up for Jazzercise with Jesus!” In truth, we are sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that the Muslims are as lackadaisical in their devotion as we are.

The Muslims are not timid. They are not squeamish. They are happy to fight in the cold light of day or under the shadow of the crescent moon. They are willing to use whatever weapons they can get their hands on. I think it unwise to hand ours over to them as a “symbolic gesture.”

Christian, be assured that the Muslim who made prayers today in the National Cathedral believes his holy book at least as much as the Episcopalian rector doesn’t believe his. They are planting their high places and stacking rocks for their altars to Baal. At some point we have to stop handing them our stones.

Undoubtedly, some vacillating soul will say, “The church in America is going down anyway. Why bother?” Such a person is content to just add a few more seat cushions to the hand basket and brace themselves for the inevitable descent. But we are not called to fight for the honor of the church in America. We are called to do battle for the crown rights of King Jesus. It is the fame of His name that is at stake. We can’t just throw our hands in the air with despondent resolution. It isn’t a settled fact that the church in our country will soon be perpendicular to the surface and headed for Davy Jones’ Locker. Not yet anyway.

A showdown is coming. A challenge hangs in the air. “If God be God, then serve Him. If Baal, then serve him.” I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I don’t know exactly what good cultural engagement looks like. But I certainly know what cultural disengagement looks like. This won’t just blow over. The opponents of Jesus aren’t just going to go away. And we can’t all just join hands. We have to draw swords.

Let them have their Mosques and their rugs. But let us keep our churches and cathedrals. Let them dance around their altars and cut themselves. While they are doing all of that we must saturate the altar with penitential tears—four barrels worth. If we will engage rather than retreat, the God who answers by fire will hear us. And when that fire comes it will consume the altar and all those who oppose it—whether they be wearing burkas or holding bibles.

Beauty for Ashes…

This week I had the privilege of attending the John Reed Miller Lectures on preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, was the guest lecturer. I went there with a great respect for Keller. I came home with a deeper affection for the Jesus. It was pointed out to me by a friend that this is what Keller would call “gospel renewal.” Whatever we may call it, we all need it.

I am fighting the temptation to just regurgitate the lectures here. It seems that I win and temptation loses—for now. However, I do want to take the time to point out two features of the talks that I think were particularly encouraging to me. The first feature was Keller’s guiding hermeneutic. “Get to Jesus from the text. Whatever the text may be.” His is a robust Christocentric and Christotelic reading of Scripture. This was especially encouraging to me since I have spent a great deal of time writing and teaching along those same lines lately. The second feature that stood out in my mind was Keller’s gracious apologetic. This isn’t something that he developed in talks all that explicitly but it was definitely exemplified in his delivery and in his use of illustrations. His effectiveness as a communicator has largely been due to the fact that he disarms his hearers as he informs them. He doesn’t do this by giving up his position. He does it by taking their thoughts captive. This started me thinking again about the use of apologetics as a minister.

When we consider the disarray of the unbelieving culture around us, it should help us come to the realization that biblical Christianity makes pretty good sense. There is no need to “apologize” for the faith. It really is the truth of God. We should therefore find no basis for thinking that apologists (read ministers) should go around with an over-caffeinated expression, hoping to find someone gullible enough to listen to them.

A fresh realization came to me this week. When the Christian apologist presents the gospel to an unbelieving world, he is presenting a message which, when properly understood, is true, good, and beautiful. A full-orbed presentation of the Christian faith will always do justice to all three aspects of the good life, a life which is offered to us only in Christ. This is made relatively easy by the fact that we live in a time when the alternatives to the Christian faith are manifestly the antithesis of all three. We have the great opportunity of preaching and presenting the Gospel to a world which is ensnared by the false, the evil, and the ugly.

So as the apologist (still read minister) takes up his position, and presents the message of Christ to the unbelieving world, the antitheses between faith and unbelief should be sharp and defined at all three points. The message of the Cross is true, and all other modes and ways of salvation are false. The standards of God’s Word are righteous altogether; the standards of those without faith are just like the men who invent them—both fickle and wrong. And last, the Gospel of Christ is beautiful. We are told to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. The alternative to this is a slow and inexorable descent into the domain of the ugly.

With regard to the first two aspects—the true and the good—contemporary Christians have done a good job with their apologetical spadework. We have developed sound arguments for dealing with the epistemological and ethical relativists. When someone maintains that there is no truth, C.S. Lewis, in his fine book Miracles, teaches us simply to ask if that claim is true. If it is, then he has contradicted himself. If it is not, then why are we listening to him?

If someone says that no ethical standards are fixed, and so we ought not to apply our standards to anybody else, we now know what to ask. What does the gentleman mean, “we ought not?” If ethical standards are not fixed, then the conclusion could just as easily be that we ought to apply the first whimsical standard that comes into our head to everybody and his dog. If there is no absolute standard of morality, then anything goes, including the worst forms of absolutism. If biblical absolutes are figments of our own minds, then the first thing we could do, if we wanted to be consistent, would be to hang all of the relativists an burn their houses. Of course, trying to be consistent like this is inconsistent, which, in an odd sort of way, makes it consistent again. It is kind of like looking at that endless series of the back of your head in the opposing mirrors at the barber shop. Ethical relativism is not just wrong, it is incoherent.

Sadly, the aesthetic sense of the modern Church is greatly lacking and is making a balanced apologetic difficult. We know what is true, and we know what is good. We have trouble with the beautiful. What we as evangelicals produce in the realm of the arts is frequently more ugly than what the world cranks out. They produce what is self-consciously ugly—deliberately—trying to make the point about the meaninglessness of everything. We produce kitsch by the ton that pretends to look good and so trebles the offense.

But the Christian faith really is beautiful. Therefore the worship of God should be beautiful. And the task of the apologist is to present that worship as the present duty of all men. Thus this “call to worship” should be as lovely as the worship itself should be. The words we use to present the faith to nonbelievers should be lovely, well crafted words. The books we write defending the faith should not look as though they were written by a computer programmed to write like a committee. One of the central reasons C.S. Lewis was such an effective apologist for the faith was just this: He was able to make righteousness readable. He knew how to craft a sentence.

It is not enough to be a theology wonk, able to define all the ins and outs of epistemology. It is not enough to be able to blow the arguments for ethical relativism out of the water. An apologist (guess who) is one who dresses the gospel according to its nature. And the gospel is as lovely as it is true. It is as beautiful as it is good. We must repent of our tendency to dress the loveliness of Lady Wisdom in a tater sack.
When we forget this balance, we cannot be surprised that the world uses our inconsistency as an excuse to continue to ignore what we say. So the task we have in winning those without faith requires that we understand the full nature of the faith we present. An apologist, rightly understood, is a missionary of the lovely who gives beauty for ashes.

The Leech Has Two Daughters

A word is worth a thousand pictures…

In a recent post I made the outstanding claim that life is liturgical so therefore the Church should have a high view (and high form) of liturgy. That’s still true. But more words are almost always necessary. Because we are fallen creatures our usual tendency is to read what someone says and then get whipped into a well-lathered froth over what they did not say.

To say that the Church needs to recover the symbolic and the sacramental is not to say that this is all that the Church needs to recover. It does us no good to go through all of the motions of formal worship as though the form is some sort of Indian rain dance that magically hauls down the blessing of God. This is certainly not the case–if for no other reason than that most of us are horrible dancers.

The Word must always have the preeminent place in the worship of God. The Word must always be present in order to inform the people of God as to what they are to do and why they are to do it. Worship, like the world, is created ex nihilo through the Word of God. Without the Word, nothing exists.

The Word of God is quick and powerful, sharper than a two-edge sword. Through it we are laid bare before the face of God. The Greek word that describes all of this (trachelizo) is a word that refers to the exposing of the neck of a sacrificial animal just before its throat is cut. It is the word that slays us, hacks us into pieces, assembles us on the altar, and sends us up to God in the smoke. Preachers need to learn to preach with the knowledge that this is happening. We must learn to handle the Word like the sword that it is. Then we must learn that the Word cannot be handled at all. It is alive and it has a mind of its own.

This brings us back to the matter of metaphor. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). Christians must see themselves as people of words because they are people of the Word. Notice that John did not say, “In the beginning was the frozen noun.” Parmenides is out. Neither did he exalt the tumultuous verb because Heraclitus is also rejected. Words have no real meaning apart from the the Word. But since He is the Word all of our words have metaphorical potency.

Philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark probably went a little bit too far when he equated the Logos with logic but he did see that the Word must encompass everything that words can do. His mistake was in underestimating what words were created by God to do. It is true that words convey rational order, they bring cosmos out of chaos, but they are not limited to such a narrow working. Think of the familiar trinity of truth, goodness and beauty. Words do more than just communicate the first member of that trinity. Words bring us the truth of the gospel, the goodness of the law, and the beauty of holiness—along with all of the complexities between them. Since this is true, the words of our sermons should exhibit this and set an example before the saints of God.

One of the chief ways that words convey truth, goodness, and beauty is through the use of metaphor. This is true because the Word was God. Jesus as the Logos bears all true reason, so He embodies all true metaphor.

It might be helpful to slow our roll here long enough to say that metaphor isn’t just a helpful tool but a most necessary one. We have to constantly be reminded of two great truths: there is a God and we are not Him. We are finite creatures and not the infinite Creator. Because we are creatures, all of our knowledge is in some sense metaphorical. Only God knows things immediately. We are wound so tight in our finitude that all of our knowledge of the world must be mediated to us—much the same way that a toddler gets his mashed carrots.

Cornelius Van Til has rightly taught us that our knowledge is analogous to God’s knowledge rather than identical to it. In truth, we “think His thoughts after Him.” So metaphor, far from keeping us from meaning, is one of God’s principle methods of bringing meaning to us. He chews the food up for us.

Metaphor, like an honest answer, is a kiss on the lips. But how can we say this? The Logos is identified with God, and He is also distinguished from God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Is there a barrier of meaning between the Father and the Son? Absolutely not. Jesus said that if someone had seen Him he had seen the Father. Jesus was the way to the Father. According to Paul, Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and He is the exact representation of the First Person of the Trinity. Simply put, Jesus is like the Father, which means that He is the ultimate metaphor. He is not the Father, but as a distinct Person He reveals the Father. He also is God, which means that there is no epistemological barrier between the Speaker and the Word.

Stay with me here. God the Father speaks the Word, and the Word in turn “speaks” about the Father through being spoken. In a similar way, my words reveal something about me, and so more is happening than just my mind spouting syllables. My words reveal my mind.

Now this has very practical implications for the preacher of the Word. Those who are ministers must never handle the Word in a truncated or wooden fashion. Such conservative and safe preaching really isn’t. A preacher shouldn’t act like an engineer trying to write a telephone book.

Meaning doesn’t come merely through defining things. Often it comes more through describing them. If I were to say, “My love is like a red, red, rose” I am saying something to be understood. If you grab a dictionary to find the meaning by the terms themselves then you never will find the meaning. The meaning of a word will never be found shivering alone in its birthday suit. We can say, “God is immutable” and be saying something that is certainly true or we can say, “ God is like a mountain, never changing.” The first statement may be more precise, but I would argue that it doesn’t carry nearly the payload that the second statement does. The second conveys the truth and then some.

Because of our sinfulness, God gave us the protection of His inscripurated Word, so that we might not be drawn away by our lust and enticed to commit an inordinate amount of exegetical monkeyshines. Guided by the Scriptures we learn the meaning of things and then learn how to communicate. We read and understand because God speaks truth by speaking about rivers, mountains, chariots, clouds, birds in flight, leeches, ants, muzzled oxen, and running races. This is how we must texture our preaching and teaching. A word fitly spoken, an apt metaphor, will do more true teaching, more revealing, than all of our one-dimensional dictionary quoting. After all, the kingdom of God is like baked goods and a pile of dead fish.

Prolegomena

One short, stabbing sentence in one small book was all that it took. I wasn’t expecting it to change my life. But it did. My whole world was turned upside down. Thankfully, I haven’t been the same since.

There I was, a wide-eyed freshmen, beginning my second semester of a systematic theology course. The professor handed out the syllabus and went over the class outline. This semester would be taken up with the question, “Who is God and what is He like?” Surely, with all of the accumulated wisdom of eighteen years, I knew all the answers. How wonderfully wrong I was.

“There will be other reading required in addition to the appropriate sections in your textbooks,” the professor said. Naturally, we grimaced and grunted. My eyes fell upon the obligatory titles. I had never heard of either one of these two men. The first was some dead mystic named Tozer; the second, a presbyterian (eek!) called Sproul. I remember thinking, “Are there no good Baptists with ink pens?”

Our professor then said, “I expect you all to have read the first book within the next two weeks.” Chaos ensued. But then we were all somewhat relieved when he informed us that the first book was just over one-hundred pages long. I picked up a copy of the little volume by A.W. Tozer that afternoon and found a quiet place to read. It was called, The Knowledge of the Holy.

As I took in those first lines, I had something like Wesley’s experience, in which my heart was “strangely warmed.” I did not even make it past the second paragraph of the introduction before I sensed that God was already working in my young heart and mind.

Tozer lamented over the loss of the concept of God’s majesty in the Christian Church,

The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.

It was a strong indictment. But my own “low and ignoble” view of God verified its accuracy. Then I read the sentence. God turned over my apple cart with seventeen words. The first line of the first chapter was an ego-blasting bombshell. “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” There were apples everywhere. And they all had worms.

That book became a fast favorite as it taught me both Whom I was to worship and how I was to worship. It exposed all of my mental and moral idols. I saw myself as one of those ancient Athenians at the Areopagus whose worship was carried out in ignorance. The Lord of Heaven and Earth was to them the “Unknown God.” It wasn’t at all clear whether I had truly known Him at all either. Tozer’s grand portrait of God was a far different sight from the wallet-sized snapshot that I had managed to squeeze into my hip pocket. So Tozer became for me a great iconoclast shattering the images of a contrived creator.

But there was still a problem. Though I was learning to think highly about God, I still wasn’t really thinking deeply about God. There were considerable gaps in my theology proper. I was like a television stuck on one channel with no remote. But then came the second book of the semester. This was the one by that presbyterian fella.

After assuring the class that this presbyterian was “one of the good ones,” our professor instructed us to take up the book, The Holiness of God. I gave it a thorough reading–then another. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I found the book captivating. From its lucid prose to the penetrating historical and theological insights; it was a spiritual thrill ride. Tozer beckoned me to take wings and soar into the heights that I might gaze upon God’s indescribable majesty. Sproul urged me to plumb the depths that I might peer into God’s unfathomable mystery—the mysterium tremendum.

That spiritual adventure has now become my singular ambition. To this day I find myself constantly on Jacob’s ladder, ascending and descending, hoping to understand more and more the One who is all and all.

Tozer was right. What we think about God really is the most important thing about us. What comes into your mind when you contemplate the Divine? How high and how deep do those thoughts go? It isn’t enough just to know that there is a God, we must know the God who is.

Sproul was right too. The God of the Sacred Page is the quintessence of majesty and mystery. We will never be transformed by His loveliness until we are first transfixed by His loftiness. God said that no man can see Him and live. May that never keep us from trying. May we take the prayer of Moses as our own, “I beseech Thee, show me Thy Glory!”

“O Lord God Almighty, not the god of the philosophers and the wise but the God of the prophets and apostles; and better than all, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, may I express Thee unblamed? They that know Thee not may call upon Thee as other than Thou art, and so worship not Thee but a creature of their own fancy; therefore enlighten our minds that we may know Thee as Thou art, so that we may perfectly love Thee and worthily praise Thee. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

Morning Glories and Stained Glass

From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, things follow patterns. This is as inescapable as it is undeniable. Night follows day, the moon waxes and wanes, the tide ebbs and flows, man rises up and lies down again. This is life under the sun. But what seems monotonous really testifies to the marvelous: there is something beyond the sun. Learning to read between the lines of sunrises and sunsets (through the lens of Sacred Scripture) helps us to see the transcendent realities beyond the metaphor in which we live. And yes, we do live in a metaphor—this is a spoken world created by Spoken Word.

Every sunset says, “The wages of sin is death” as darkness covers the face of the deep. Every sunrise says, “O grave where is thy victory? O death where is thy sting?” as the sun rises yet again to give its life-giving light. This is also true of daisies and daffodils, of milk cows and molecules; everything testifies to a greater reality than meets the eye. So what are all of these prolific patterns? In a word—liturgy. Creation is liturgical. If this is the case (trust me, it is) then how much more should the Church be conscience of this fact?

Defenders of a liturgical approach to worship, as I am, are fond of pointing out that liturgy is inescapable. This is quite true—all churches are liturgical. Not all churches print out their liturgies beforehand or have them bound in books that are centuries old, but all churches have a set pattern of worship that they follow, and all of them would be distraught if someone changed that pattern one Sunday morning without telling anybody.

So liturgy is inescapable. But high-church liturgy is not inescapable, and neither is low-church liturgy. There comes a point when we must make our choices about which way to go, and this choice is genuine. This means that pastors who are working through this issue must really divide it into two issues.
The first stage is to develop a high view of liturgy— recognizing that it is in fact inescapable, which is just another way of saying that this is how God made the world. The second is to develop a biblical approach to that liturgy, grounding what is done in the Scriptures. A corollary to this is that the development of a high view of biblical liturgy means developing a low view of unbiblical forms of liturgy—even if the unbiblical forms are “higher” than the biblical one.

We have a natural (Pharisaical) tendency to assume that stricter, more rigorous, more developed “whatevers” are somehow automatically more biblical. This is because the advocate of the looser forms is immediately behind the eight ball in any discussion. His laxity is clearly a cover for his own spiritual laziness. But maybe, just maybe, this assumption is radically false.

To say up front that liturgy is extremely important—that having a defined, biblical structure to the worship service is crucial, and that formality does not necessarily drive out genuine love for Christ—does not require us to then embrace any particular costume pageant that some Anglicans might be doing. To follow fixed pattern of worship not only does not require us to adopt any proposal (provided it is “higher” than what we were all doing ten years ago), it actually requires us to be suspicious of all such tendencies to overshoot the goal.

There is a difference between a pastor who studies an issue thoroughly, and decides, for example, that a worship service should include confession of sin and absolution, singing of Psalms, regular communion and so on, and who pursues this out of obedience, and another man who adopts all the same things (not to mention a bit more decorative finery) because he likes funny hats and has a deep spiritual need to play liturgical dress-up.

Sinful men have long felt that they could impress God with what one writer exquisitely called “scandalous pomp and impossible vows.” But God asks them who required them to come in and tromp around in circles in His courts this way. And He wants them to haul away the noise of their songs—the God we worship (always liturgically) cannot endure iniquity coupled together with solemn assembly.

These are not academic questions for us. Speaking as an observer of the human condition in the ecclesiastical world today, the higher the liturgy, the more likely it is that the man of God involved is also involved in crime and corruption. And when it is the case that a worshipper would actually go to heaven if he were to die, the more likely it is that the worship service he attends resembles a high-school pep rally. And both kinds of people need to learn something fundamental about God. If the Holy Spirit is grieved by the way you are living, He will not be bought off by some gaudy worship service. And if the Holy Spirit is grieved by the way you are worshipping, He will not be bought off by long-sleeves and short hair.

This means that reformation is needed across the board. Too many Protestants have forgotten that the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a liturgical reformation as much as a doctrinal one. The Reformation was not brought about because of a clash of propositions between the Reformers and the Schoolmen—although that was involved. The Reformation transformed worship services all across Europe.

But how did everyone know what to do? How did they set their course? This is where we see the crucial role of the pulpit. Liturgical reform was enacted, but it was preached before it was enacted. Men were raised up by God to study the Scriptures afresh, and to break out of them what God was calling men to do. James tells us that the tongue is like a rudder that steers a vast ship—the effect of what it does is much greater than the size of the rudder itself. In the same way, the tongue of the church (the pulpit) is a rudder that steers the whole church. Liturgy by itself is a ship without a rudder. Preaching by itself (without resulting in embodied worship) is a rudder without a ship.

This preaching has to be clear, and it has to warn distinctly against the errors to which men are prone whenever they worship God. The preacher cannot be mealy-mouthed about it. When modern evangelicals disrespect God with their rah-rah ways (which they routinely do), the preacher must address it. And when high liturgical wannabes want to parade around like they were at an initiation ceremony for the Moose Lodge, somebody needs to point it out. If we want liturgy that truly honors God, we must have preachers with backbone— and a lot more of them.