Washing Your Face in a Frying Pan is Bad for Your Teeth

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Solutions are often the actual problem. Answers sometimes lead to more head-scratching than do the questions. The Church has a host of problems—most of which stem from the fact that she is composed of a host of people. And of course every one of them knows the answer.

This conundrum is not merely epistemological. Ideas have consequences. Eventually some zealous soul will start making applications based upon those answers. So epistemological conundrums eventually give way to ethical concerns. This should concern us. And as it happens, many of the problems confronting modern Christians is that they diligently try to do the right thing . . . in the wrong categories. They want to modify behavior without overhauling a belief structure. So they try guitar fingering on a wagon wheel; they try chess rules on a billiard table; they apply the rules of French grammar to Algebra. And for us to draw attention to such mistakes is not to object to any of these things in particular—chess, guitar, French, whatever. But this is the mistake we make whenever we try to “make a difference” and our activity does not proceed directly from a vision of the Almighty Lord, high and lifted up.

God reigns, and the whole earth is called to rejoice (Ps. 97: 1). His holiness is not what we might assume—His righteousness and judgment are like clouds and darkness (v. 2). A fire precedes Him, and burns up His enemies (v. 3). Lightning flashes, and the whole created order sees it, and trembles (v. 4). In the presence of God, hills and mountains melt like wax in a fire (v. 5). The heavens preach, and everyone sees His glory (v. 6). A curse is pronounced—confounded be all false worshippers, and all the gods are summoned to worship the one God (v. 7). When this is proclaimed Zion hears and is glad. The daughters of Judah rejoice (v. 8). Why do we rejoice? Because the Lord is exalted high above all the earth (v. 9). This transcendent sense of true worship has potent ethical ramifications—you that love the Lord, hate evil (v. 10). In this setting, God delivers His people from those who return the hatred (v. 10). Light is sown for the righteous; gladness for the upright (v. 11). We are summoned by Him to therefore rejoice, and to give thanks as we remember His holiness (v. 12).

Consider the clouds and darkness. Holiness is not manageable (v. 2). Holiness does not come in a shrink-wrapped box. Holiness is not marketable. Holiness is not tame. Holiness is not sweet. Holiness is not represented by Precious Moments figurine. Holiness is not smarmy. Holiness is not unctuous. Holiness is not domesticated. But worship a god who is housebroken to all your specifications, and what is the result? Depression, and a regular need for sedatives—better living through chemistry.

Holiness fierce. Holiness is wild. Holiness is three tornadoes in a row. Holiness is a series of black thunderheads coming in off the bay. Holiness is impolite. Holiness is the kind of darkness that makes a sinful man tremble. Holiness beckons us to that darkness, where we do not meet ghouls and ghosts, but rather the righteousness of God. Holiness is a consuming fire. Holiness melts the world. And when we fear and worship a God like this, what is the result? Peace and gladness of heart.

fierce-lion

‘ He is a lion, the lion, the Great Lion…’

‘Is he safe?’

‘Of course he isn’t safe, He’s a lion. But he is good.’ ~The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

If we worship the god who does nothing but kittens and pussy willows, we will end in despair. Worship the God of the jagged edge, the God whose holiness cannot be made palatable for the middle class American consumer, and the result is deep gladness. Do you hear that? Gladness, not pomposity. And, thank God, such gladness does not make us parade about with noses high in the wind, or speak with lots of rotund vowels, or strut with a sanctimonious air. Gladness, laughter, joy—set these before you. This is deep Christian faith, and not what so many are peddling today in the name of Jesus. The God of the whirlwind is the calm in the tempest. He is the “I” of the storm. The safest place to be is not at the circumference of His fierce glory, but rather right at the center—near the heart. It is there that He says, “It is I; be not afraid.” Worshipping this God produces a serenity that sleeps through storms and a felicity that dances in the deluge.

This has ethical ramifications as well. “You that love the Lord . . . hate evil”. If we bypass this vision of who God actually is, the necessary result will be a prissy moralism, and not the robust morality of the Christian faith. The distance between moralism and true morality is vast, and the thing that creates this distance is the knowledge of the holy. Those who content themselves with petty rules spend all their time fussing about with hemlines, hair lengths, curfews, and cocktails. But those who see this particular folly and go off in their own little libertine direction are no better. The former act as though their moralism is grounded on the dictates of a gremlin-like god who lives in their attic, but his word is law. The latter say that this is stupid, and aspire to become the gremlin themselves. There are two parts: love the Lord. Hate evil.

In this psalm, how should we define right worship? The answer is that right worship occurs when a congregation of God approaches Him, sees Him as He is, and responds rightly, as He has commanded—in joy and glad submission. Such worship necessitates turning away from all idols (v. 7), and turning to the holy God who cannot be manipulated. And considering this psalm alone, what does right worship do? What effect does it have? What are the results? The earth rejoices (v. 1). All the islands are glad (v. 1). His enemies are consumed with the fire that goes before Him (v. 3). The earth is illuminated by His lightning, and trembles (v. 4). In the presence of the Lord (and in worship we are in the presence of the Lord), the hills melt (v. 5). The heavens preach, and the people see His glory (v. 6). Idolaters are flummoxed, confounded (v. 7). The universal call to worship is even issued to the idols (v. 7). Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice (v. 8). The name of God is exalted above every name (v. 9). The saints of God learn to hate evil, and God preserves them from those who persecute them (v. 10). Light and gladness are sown in our hearts (v. 11). His righteous people rejoice, and are grateful when they remember His holiness (v. 12).

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

The Statute of Liberty

John sealing the Magna Carta, 1215 (oil on canvas)...TW429428 John sealing the Magna Carta, 1215 (oil on canvas) by Wood, Frank (fl.1925); 74x231.5 cm; Sunderland Museums & Winter Garden Collection, Tyne & Wear, UK; (add.info.: Also shows 'Michaelmas Daisy' and 'Daffodil' by different artists; King John (1167-1216) signing the Magna Carta, 15th June 1215;);  Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums; British,  in copyright  PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist's copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Saved sinners come to God only through the imputed righteousness of Christ. We are never to come tracking mud into the throne room dressed only in our impudent righteousness. Our “Sunday best” is never good at all, much less good enough. Therefore, understanding what it means to approach God through the merit and goodness of Jesus Christ is a central duty of the Christian Church. And as the church corporately lives out the effects of comprehending imputed righteousness, the effect on individual Christians will be profound. When Christians assembled together cannot speak with God apart from their Mediator, then those same Christians will habitually apply the grace of this example as they pray at home. The worship of the church, therefore, should constantly rest upon the goodness of another, the righteousness of somebody else. The church must know what it means to say, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” To rest in the goodness of Christ is to repudiate one’s own goodness, always a difficult lesson for decent church folk.

The result of all of this is confident liberty, not carnal licentiousness. This is necessary to point out because the liberty introduced by justification is always accused of being licentious. In his teaching of grace, was the apostle Paul setting aside the perfect law of God? Of course not. Was he teaching and behaving in such a way that certain brethren with over-starched collars thought that he was overthrowing it? Absolutely. The preaching of grace is never really complete until Sister Bertha Better-than-you attacks it. The work of justification is not really visible in the world until it makes us appear in the eyes of the established religious world more like our Lord Jesus — that notorious glutton and winebibber.

When a minister of the gospel effectively preaches justification, and the liberty which flows from it, he should never be surprised at the subsequent counterattacks. One counterattack is obvious and comes from those who do not like the preaching of free grace on doctrinal grounds. Here at least a debate can occur. The response of course, is to turn to the Scriptures and seek to determine the issue. We should gladly welcome such a rare exchange of ideas.

But the second counterattack is far more subtle and usually proceeds from those who grant “all that” about justification, but who, for various reasons, want to change the subject. They do not call it changing the subject — they think they are going on to real discipleship, to “sold-out” Christianity — but the effect is always a turning away from the central issue. The list of distractions varies from place to place, but they all have that same furrowed-brow concern for peripherals. A focused attention on the center — Christ and Him crucified — fades. Soon the saints are hopping around like self-important Dufflepuds, convinced that the needed reformation will not come unless the church insists upon schedule feeding of babies, head coverings for women in worship, courtship, Christian schools, neo-Amish homeschooling, exclusive psalmody, finicky sabbatarianism, tithing from the spice rack, beekeeping, soapmaking, turning to accentuate the negative, condemning Christmas, rock and roll, the beverage use of alcohol, birth control, pleated trousers, argyle socks, movies, cigars, clam chowder and bacon, formal education for girls, bowing down in the house of Rimmon, television, and eating meat offered in sacrifice to Aphrodite.

Given the tunnel vision which afflicts those who have drifted away from the liberty of justification, it would be easy for them to infer our position on the particular issues mentioned above from their mere inclusion in this list. But it would be a false inference, and there I will let it rest.

The elders of any Christian church which takes the Word of God seriously will soon see a number of people attracted to their church who are hungry for a word of certainty. We live in relativistic times, and nothing is sure anymore. Consequently, when the gospel is preached without apology, it attracts those who are hungry for answers. Unfortunately, there are many who want “answers” for everything — a sure word from the elders on whether or not it is lawful to see Sense and Sensibility. This is the desire which has always enabled rabbis and gurus to set up their casuistry shops and which gives birth to voluminous talmudic regulations. “Serious Christians don’t. . . .” And we all need to be sure to tell this desire for answers on everything to go back to hell.

The theft of evangelical liberty can come from two directions — from the top or from the bottom. In either case the source of the difficulty is a fleshly perfectionism. When the leadership of the church begins to bind the consciences of members on issues such as these, the tyranny is obvious. But oftentimes churches are also roiled by controversy because some members seek to “reform” the church through individualist boat-rocking. Without submitting to the established leadership of the church (the leadership which will give an account to God), individual members start trying to set the pace. They put forward the pattern of the “more excellent way,” whatever that happens to be this month.

And the antidote to all this ecclesiastical foolishness is found in the simple conclusion to prayer which we all tend to say without thinking about it. When we say “in Jesus’ name, amen” we are acknowledging that we cannot commend ourselves to God on the basis of our wisdom or merit. We have none. The church is filled with corruptions, even during times of great blessings. We need forgiveness and mercy which we have received for Jesus’ sake. If we can’t do a thing in Jesus’ name we shouldn’t do it. If we can say grace over it then we should have grace in it. Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made you free. Part of this freedom is the freedom from performance anxiety.

If this prompts the question, “What then, shall we continue in sin that grace may abound” then perhaps we are finally starting to declare the doctrine of justifying grace aright.