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.

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