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Notes from the Revolution

I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around what is happening in our country. When I saw the video of George Floyd, with policeman Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, I thought: “Unless I’m missing something, I can’t see how that could be justified.” Of course, I was not there, the video had been apparently edited, and I had at that time next to no information about either Floyd or Chauvin.

But then something odd happened. I begin receiving e-mails from this or that church, from this or that organization, all saying something like: “It is high time for our country to deal with racism, our national disgrace,” etc.; or, “We must all stand for racial justice, and do so now.”

Perhaps this is something that should not be asked, but my initial question was simple: How do we know the death of George Floyd was tied to race or racism? Perhaps it was, but perhaps it was not. Was Chauvin a racist man? It’s possible. Was this particular act motivated by racism? I have no idea. How would I know?

What I do know was that all four officers at the scene of Floyd’s death have been terminated. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Presumably, he will go to trial. It certainly seems likely that this is a case of police brutality and homicide. So what would justice require at this point? Well, it would seem to require pretty much exactly what has happened—at least as concerns Chauvin. He has been arrested and charged with a crime, and the case for police brutality and some form of homicide is very strong. I hope and pray he receives a fair trial, that truth wins out, and that justice is done.

But something else has happened, and that is what is motivating this article. Around our nation, we have witnessed rioting and looting, mass violence, the killing (unintentional and intentional) of dozens of persons of various races, the burning of police stations, and the destruction of millions of dollars of property. In short, we are watching a level of violent revolutionary behavior that I have not witnessed in my lifetime.

In light of such activity, it is frankly somewhat bizarre to receive e-mails from various persons and institutions primarily concerned to condemn racism, while often ignoring, underplaying, or giving a pass to the violent and criminal activity in recent weeks.

The attempt to soft-peddle the violence and revolutionary acts is odd, almost Orwellian. Former Defense Secretary General James Mattis cautions that “We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.” But is that number really so small?

Another note I received essentially said, “We should be very concerned about racism and racial prejudice in the United States.” In the same note, this person went on to say, “Yes, there has been some violence, but this is surely due to frustration flowing from the racism in our country.” 

Why—when encountering one of the most significant displays of violence our country has seen within the last fifty years—are various leaders, journals, denominations, and other persons of influence simply (1) calling for an end to racism while (2) offering such facile and vacuous commentary on revolutionary violence and destruction? I am confused and saddened.

Christians have deep theological resources and wisdom from which to draw to speak to the various challenges of our day. When we see streets erupting in violence, a violence linked often to various radical political ideologies, what should Christians do or think?

It is understandable that certain conservative Christians might suggest that the Christian faith is really about saving souls, and that we should not worry too much about social upheaval and unrest, or even worry too much about questions concerning a just political order.

That is not what I am advocating here.

In fact, Christians should very much be interested in how we can live godly, ethical lives in the present, and how we can love our neighbor in all sorts of ways by…

  • …being kind and gracious to our neighbors;
  • …providing tangible service to our neighbors—especially during times of trial or difficulty;
  • …trying to ensure that our city, county, state, and nation have just laws that are being executed rightly, justly, and fairly.

There is a political or social dimension to Christianity which is simply inescapable. But, Christians should think through all things—including the nature of social or political realityin explicitly scriptural categories.

We should recall the antithesis found in Genesis 3:15 and following: There will be a fundamental animus between the things of God and the things of the evil one, and this animus will exist, and rear its head, until the end. Here the insight of John Calvin (1509-1564) and others is especially helpful and illuminating. Man is homo adorans—worshipping man. Man is, by nature, a worshipping creature, and will continue to be a worshipping creature for all time. When Bob Dylan said “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but your gonna have to serve somebody,” he was right. Hence, I believe it is necessary to view our current revolutionary moment as fundamentally and inescapably a matter of religious faith. In short: Current revolutionary activity is a manifestation of a kind of religious faith, even if this faith is—on Christian terms—ultimately a form of unbelief.

This brings to mind a book I cannot recommend highly enough: James H. Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of Revolutionary Faith. Billington reflects on revolutions from the late 18th century to the (almost) present day, essentially beginning with the French Revolution. One of most intriguing insights in the book is that the French Revolution was driven by fundamentally religious impulses and desires. These religious desires were generally idolatrous and godless, but they were nonetheless religious. Thus, the revolutions of 1789 could use Christian imagery and symbolism (e.g., the Lord’s Supper and Baptism) while perpetuating acts of terror and sexual perversion. French revolutionary Count Mirabeau could say that his goal was not to “reform” the nation, but to regenerate it. For Mirabeau, the National Assembly of the French Revolution was “the inviolable priesthood of national policy.” 1James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 20. Emphasis mine.

Interestingly, the British poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and others of his era were initially friendly to the French Revolution. But eventually Wordsworth cooled to the idea and became more “conservative.” One recent commentator has called Wordsworth’s change of mind an “apostasy”—i.e., a falling from the faith. 2Thomas Keymer, “After-Meditation,” London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 12, June 18, 2020. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n12/thomas-keymer/after-meditation. Once again, we are fundamentally worshipping creatures. We will serve the devil, or we will serve the Lord, and this service—which will be expressed in our understandings of social and political reality—will always be, all the way down, religious. 

There are plenty of resources to help us come to terms with our current movement. For example, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in his Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (originally published in 1938), argued that monarchy will eventually be corrupted by tyranny, which is followed by aristocracy, which is followed by oligarchy, which is followed by democracy, which is followed by mob-rule. This mob rule is then followed by either monarchy or tyranny. As I write this piece, a group in Seattle has seized control of a portion of the city and taken over the East Precinct police station.

What saddens me about so much of the commentary surrounding our current challenges is that it tends to miss the obvious. We are still reaping the consequences of certain key impulses and convictions of the Enlightenment. To wit, David Hume (1711-1776) could write that as a philosopher, his goal was virtually to start over in his philosophy, completely abandoning the past. Of course, René Descartes (1596-1650) preceding him, with his notion of methodological doubt, had said very much the same thing. And this is the point: Such philosophical convictions are inherently and inescapably revolutionary; they want to reject the past authority, tradition, and religion, and to recreate society from scratch.

This brings us the specter behind much of our current dilemma: Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx had a certain philosophy (or theology) of history, wherein violent revolution leads to a kind of social utopia. In this view, violent revolution is simply a part of the process of achieving the end of history. Indeed, as Marx wrote: “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” As some communists reportedly quipped when questioned about the millions of deaths under Stalin’s purges, “If you want an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” 

Rather than deny the importance of history, faithful Christian thought offers a truer philosophy/theology of history. God is ruling and orchestrating history, and building a kingdom. This kingdom grows throughout history and portends a future where the King returns to make all things right. The King is at work now, and the King’s Kingdom will one day be fully realized. On that Day full justice will be accomplished and executed.

But true justice—if one stops to think just a bit—entails, well, judgment. And romantic and high-octane calls for “justice” in this or that demonstration or protest today is probably not always very aware of exactly what they are calling for.

In a Marxist historical analysis, when trying to get at what is really driving this or that social change or movement, one is told: “follow the money.” There is some truth to the importance of this question, but a Christian analysis of this or that social phenomenon should ultimately be more penetrating. “Which god does this person serve? What does this person love”? In short, a truly Christian analysis of this or that social phenomenon is going to get at the heart of the issue: Who man is, how he is damaged by sin, what gods he may be serving, and how he can be transformed by the grace of the true God.

Christians should seek justice in our present situation, and speak to the various pressing issues of our day. Yet as we do so, we would be wise to heed Scripture and take our cues from thinkers other than Karl Marx. One such thinker is Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876), author of a book entitled Unbelief and Revolution. For van Prinsterer, there were two paths one might follow in seeking a more just social order: Revolution, or Reformation. The Christian option remains the latter, while unbelief leads consistently to the former. We should long for justice, but turning a blind eye to violence is foolish and tragic.

Perhaps I am trying to do what Rosenstock-Huessy was trying to do in 1938 in his Out of Revolution: “I wish to pour the water of patience into the strong wine of revolutionary excitement, so that my contemporaries may not waste their time in feverish and fruitless efforts.” 3Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Providence, RI/Oxford, UK: Berg, 1969; originally published in 1938), 13.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Reformation21. Published here kind permission of the author.]

References   [ + ]

1. James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 20. Emphasis mine.
2. Thomas Keymer, “After-Meditation,” London Review of Books, vol. 42, no. 12, June 18, 2020. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n12/thomas-keymer/after-meditation.
3. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man (Providence, RI/Oxford, UK: Berg, 1969; originally published in 1938), 13.

The Hollowing Out of Evangelical Worship

[At SPT we believe some articles need a longer life span given their ongoing relevance to issues facing the church today. The article below was originally published in the Calvin Theological Journal 30 (1995): 451-59. It is reprinted here with kind permission of CTJ.]

What do Billy Graham and Stanley Fish have in common? According to most assessments of the ongoing culture wars the answer would be an emphatic “not much!” With the exception of a few demographic details — both are older white men living in North Carolina — little seems to unite these two figures or the movements for which they have become figureheads. Graham is, of course, the patron saint of America evangelicalism, the one who as an object of admiration or scorn determines what it means to be an evangelical. And Fish, professor of English at Duke University of deconstructionist, post-modernist fame, has become one of the principle cheerleaders for efforts within the academy to make the literary canon specifically, and the humanities more generally, more inclusive and less oppressive. Identified in this way, the constituencies to which Graham and Fish speak would appear to be about as far apart as Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton.

James Davison Hunter, for instance, argues that evangelicals are a large part of the orthodox constituency which defends the traditional family, opposes political correctness and multi-culturalism in the academy, and supports efforts to cut federal funding for objectionable art. This explains why they have lined up in bookstores across the land to buy and read to their children William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. Thus, evangelicalism, at least in the common configuration of the ongoing culture wars, is the antithesis of the cultural left.

Why is it, then, that when evangelicals retreat from the public square into their houses of worship they manifest the same hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste they find so deplorable in their opponents in the culture wars? Anyone familiar with the so-called “Praise & Worship” phenomenon (so named, supposedly, to remind participants of what they are doing) would be hard pressed to identify these believers as the party of memory or the defenders of cultural conservatism. P&W has become the dominant mode of expression within evangelical churches, from conservative Presbyterian denominations to low church independent congregations. What characterizes this “style” of worship is the praise song (“four words, three notes and two hours”) with its mantra-like repetition of phrases from Scripture, displayed on an overhead projector or video monitors (for those churches with bigger budgets), and accompanied by the standard pieces in a rock band.

Gone are the hymnals which keep the faithful in touch with previous generations of saints. They have been abandoned, in many cases, because they are filled with music and texts considered too boring, too doctrinal, and too restrained. What boomers and busters need instead, according to the liturgy of P&W, are a steady diet of religious ballads most of which date from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair. Gone too are the traditional elements of Protestant worship, the invocation, confession of sins, the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the doxology, and the Gloria Patri. Again, these elements are not sufficiently celebrative or “dynamic,” the favorite word used to describe the new worship. And while P&W has retained the talking head in the sermon, probably the most boring element of Protestant worship, the substance of much preaching turns out to be more therapeutic than theological.

Of course, evangelicals are not the only ones guilty of abandoning the treasures of historic Protestant worship. Various churches in the ELCA and Missouri Synod have begun to experiment with contemporary worship. The traditionalists in Reformed circles, if the periodical Reformed Worship, is any indication, have also begun to incorporate P&W in their services. And Roman Catholics, one of the genuine conservative constituencies throughout American history, have contributed to the mix with the now infamous guitar and polka mass. Yet, judging on the basis of worship practices, evangelicals look the most hypocritical. For six days a week they trumpet traditional values and the heritage of the West, but on Sunday they turn out to be the most novel. Indeed, the patterns of worship that prevail in most evangelical congregations suggest that these Protestants are no more interested in tradition than their arch-enemies in the academy.

A variety of factors, many of which stem from developments in post-1960s American popular culture, unite evangelicalism and the cultural left. In both movements, we see a form of anti-elitism that questions any distinction between good and bad (or even not so good), or between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Professors of literature have long been saying that the traditional literary canon was the product, or better, the social construction of a particular period in intellectual life which preserved the hegemony of white men, but which had no intrinsic merit. In other words, because aesthetic and intellectual standards turn out to be means of sustaining power, there is no legitimate criteria for including some works and excluding others.

The same sort of logic can be found across the country at week-night worship planning committee meetings. It is virtually impossible to make the case — without having your hearers go glassy-eyed — that “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is a better text and tune than “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” and, therefore, that the former is fitting for corporate worship while the latter should remain confined to Christian radio. In the case of evangelicals, the inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music does not stem so much from political ideology (though it ends up abetting the cause) as from the deeply ingrained instinct that worship is simply a matter of evangelism. Thus, in order to reach the unchurched the churched have to use the former’s idiom and style. What is wrong with this picture?

The traditionalists are of no help here. Rather than trying to hold the line on what is appropriate and good in worship, most of those who are devoted full-time to thinking about liturgy and worship, the doorkeepers of the sanctuary as it were, have generally adopted a “united-colors-of-Benetton” approach to the challenge of contemporary worship. For instance, a recent editorial in a Reformed publication says that the old ways — the patterns which used Buxtehude rather than Bill Gaither, “Immortal, Invisible” rather than “Do Lord,” a Genevan gown instead of a polo shirt — have turned out to be too restrictive. Churches need to expand their worship “repertoire.” The older predilection was “white, European, adult, classical, with a strong resonance from the traditional concert hall.” But this was merely a preference and reflection of a specific “education, socio-economic status, ethnic background, and personality.” Heaven forbid that anyone should appear to be so elitist. For the traditional “worship idiom” can become “too refined, cultured, and bloodless. . . too arrogant.” Instead, we need to encourage the rainbow coalition — “of old and young, men and women, red and yellow, black and white, classical and contemporary.” And the reason for this need of diversity? It is simply because worship is the reflection of socio-economic status and culture. Gone is any conviction that one liturgy is better than another because it conforms to revealed truth and the order of creation, or that one order of worship is more appropriate than another for the theology which a congregation or denomination confesses. Worship, like food or clothes, is merely a matter of taste. Thus the logic of multi-culturalism has infected even those concerned to preserve traditional liturgy.

Yet when one looks for genuine diversity in worship, multi-culturalism — again, the great leveler of tradition and cultural standards — offers up a very thin band of liturgical expression. Advocates of diversity don’t seem to be very interested in the way “the people” have worshipped in the past. Is there, for instance, any real effort among the various experiments in worship to recover the psalm singing of the Puritans, the simple and spontaneous meetings of Quakers, the hymnody of German pietism, the folk traditions of the Amish, the revival songs of Ira Sankey and Dwight L. Moody, or the spirituals of African-American Protestants? The answer, of course, is no. For these expressions of Protestant piety, even though originating from some groups which would hardly qualify as elites, are no better than the liturgies from the Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed establishments. What the P&W crowd really want is a very narrow range of musical and lyrical expression, one which conforms to their admittedly limited worship “repertoire.”

Indeed, contemporary worship — and church life for that matter — depends increasingly on the products of popular culture, from its musical mode of expression, the liturgical skits which ape TV sit-coms, and the informal style of ministers which follows the antics of late-night TV talks show hosts. Thus, just as the academic left advocates including Madonna and “Leave it to Beaver” in the canon, so the evangelical champions of contemporary worship turn to popular culture — primarily contemporary music and television programming — for the content and order of worship. This is remarkable for a Christian tradition which once found its identity in avoiding all forms of worldliness and which continues to rail against the products of Hollywood and the excesses of the popular music industry. Yet, as in the case of the cultural left, we are seeing a generation which grew up on TV and top-40 radio stations now assuming positions of leadership in the churches. And what they want to surround themselves with in worship, as in the classroom, is what is familiar and easily accessible. Rather than growing up and adopting the broader range of experience which characterizes adulthood, evangelicals and the academic left want to recover and perpetuate the experiences of adolescence.

In fact, what stands out about P&W is the aura of teenage piety. Anyone who has endured a week at one of the evangelical summer youth camps that dot the landscape will be struck by the similarity between P&W and the services in which adolescents participate while out of their parents’ hair. The parallels are so close that one is tempted to call P&W the liturgy of the youth rally. For in the meetings of Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, or Bible camp are all the elements of P&W: the evangelical choruses, the skit, and the long talk by the youthful speaker calling for dedication and commitment to Christ. While these youth ministries are effective in evoking the mountain-top or campfire-side experience, they rarely provide the sustenance upon which a life of sacrifice and discipline depends. Yet, P&W is attractive precisely because it appears to offer weekly the spiritual recharge which before came only once a year. Consequently, many megachurches which follow the P&W format thrive because they help many people recover or sustain the religious experience of youth.

Some may wonder what is wrong with assisting adults to perpetuate the emotions and memories which sustain religious devotion. The problem is that such experiences and the worship from which it springs is concerned primarily with affect. One searches in vain through the praise songs, the liturgical dramas, or the sermon/inspirational talk for an adequate expression of the historic truths of the faith. It is as if the content of worship or the object which elicits the religious experience does not really matter. As long as people are lifting up and swaying their arms, tilting back their heads and closing their eyes then the Spirit must be present and the worship genuine.

What is ironic about contemporary worship is that its form is almost always the same even while claiming that older worship is too repetitive. Another standard complaint about “traditional” worship is that it is too formal. Evangelicals believe that God is never limited by outward means. Believers who rely upon set liturgies or who repeat written prayers, some criticize, are merely “going through the motions.” Real faith and worship cannot be prescribed. Yet, for all of the attempts by the practitioners of P&W to avoid routine and habit, hence boredom, contemporary worship never seems to escape its own pop culture formula. Again, the songs are basically the same in musical structure and lyrical composition, the order of the service — while much less formal — rarely changes, and the way in which people express their experience demonstrates remarkable unity (e.g., the arms, the head, the eyes). This hostility to form and the inability to think about the ways in which certain habits of expression are more or less appropriate for specific settings or purposes is what finally puts evangelicalism and the academic left on the same side in the culture war. For the idea that the autonomous individual must find his own meaning or experience of reality for himself ends up making such individuals unwilling to follow and submit to the forms, habits and standards which have guided a community or culture. Besides the fact that the radical individualism of modern culture has bred as much conformity as human history has ever known, evangelicals and the academic left continue to buck tradition in the hope of finding the true self capable of experiencing religion or life at its most genuine or authentic.

What evangelicals who prefer P&W to older liturgies share with academics who teach Louis L’Amour instead of Shakespeare is an inability to see the value of restraint, habit, and form. Evangelicals and the academic left believe that we need to be liberated from the past, from formalism, and from existing structures in order to come into a more intimate relationship with life or the divine. This is really quite astounding in the case of evangelicals whose public reputation depends upon defending traditional morality. Yet, the effort to remove all barriers to the expression and experience of the individual self is unmistakably present in the efforts to make worship more expressive and spontaneous. This impulse in evangelical worship repudiates the wisdom of various Christian traditions which, rather than trying to liberate the self in order to experience greater intimacy with God, hold that individuals, because of a tendency to sin and commit idolatry, need to conform to revealed and ordered patterns of faith and practice. The traditions which Presbyterians follow, for instance, are not done to throttle religious experience but rather as the prescribed means of communing with God and his people. These means were not arbitrarily chosen by John Calvin and John Knox. Rather Presbyterians have conducted public and family worship in specific ways because they believe worship should conform to God’s revealed truth. But just as the academic left has abandoned the great works of Western civilization because of a desire for relevance in higher education, so evangelicals have rejected the various elements and forms which have historically informed Protestant worship, again, because they are boring to today’s youth.

Anti-formalism also explains the stress upon novelty and freshness so often found in P&W. The leader of worship planning at one of the dominant megachurches says, for instance, on a video documenting a P&W service, that she is always looking for new ways to order the mid-week believer’s service so that church members won’t fall into a rut. She goes on to say that people are often tired, having worked all day (an argument for worshipping on Sunday) and need something which will arrest their attention and put them in a proper frame of mind. This perspective, however, fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between form and worship. C. S. Lewis had it right when he said that a worship service “‘works’ best when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it.” “The perfect church service,” he added, “would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. . . . ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’ A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant.” But this is precisely what has happened in P&W where the service and elements are designed to attract attention themselves rather than functioning as vehicles for expressing adoration to God. Lewis knew that repetition and habit were better guides to the character of worship than novelty and manipulation. In fact, one doesn’t need to be a professor of liturgics to sense that the idiom of Valley Girls is far less fitting for a believer to express love for God than the language of the Book of Common Prayer. Such an instinct only confirms the wise comment of the Reformed theologian, Cornelius VanTil, who while preferring Presbyterian liturgy, still remarked that “at least in an Episcopalian service no one says anything silly.”

But even to criticize contemporary worship, to accuse it of bad taste or triviality is almost as wicked as smoking in public. Arguments against P&W are usually taken personally, becoming an affront to the feelings of contemporary worshippers. Which is to say that the triumph of P&W, like the ascendancy of the cultural left in the academy, is firmly rooted in our therapeutic culture. The most widely used reason for contemporary worship is that it is what the people want and what makes them feel good. Again, just as there are no intellectual standards for expanding the literary canon to include romance novels, so there are no theological criteria for practicing P&W. But there are plenty of reasons which say that if we give people what they are familiar with, whether sitcoms in the classroom or soft rock in church, they will feel comfortable and come back for more. As David Rieff has noted, the connections between the therapeutic and the market are formidable. So if we can expand our worship or academic repertoire to include the diversity of the culture we will no doubt increase our audience.

This is why P&W services are also called “seeker-sensitive.” They are part of a self-conscious effort to attract a larger market for the church. Yet, while evangelicalism may have a large market share, its consumer satisfaction may also be low, especially if it deceives people into thinking they have really worshipped God when they have actually been worshipping their emotions. Thus, once again, evangelical worship turns out to be as deceptive as the academic left which tells students that the study of Batman comics is just as valuable as the study of Henry James.

Of course, anyone who knows the history of American evangelicalism should not be surprised by P&W. In fact, Billy Graham’s recent inclusion of Christian Hip Hop and Rap bands in his crusades is of a piece with evangelical history more generally. (It also differs little from his efforts in the 1970s, seldom remembered, to appeal to the Jesus People. With lengthy locks, an inch over the shirt collar, and long sideburns, Graham said, playing off Timothy Leary’s famous psychedelic slogan, “Tune in to God, then turn on. . . drop out — of the materialistic world. The experience of Jesus Christ is the greatest trip you can take.”) As R. Laurence Moore argues in Selling God, since the arrival of Boy George in the American colonies, George Whitefield that is, evangelicals have been unusually adept at packaging and marketing Christianity in the forms of popular culture. The intention of Protestant revivalism was “to save souls, but in a brassy way that threw religion into a free-for-all competition for people’s attention.” Revivalism, in fact, according to Moore, “shoved American religion into the marketplace of culture” and became “entangled in controversies over commercial entertainments which they both imitated and influenced.”

Seldom have evangelicals recognized that this commitment to making the gospel accessible deforms and trivializes Christianity, making it no better than any other commodity exchanged on the market. As H. L. Mencken perceptively pointed out about Billy Sunday, evangelicalism “quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of the barroom.” Mencken went on to remark that evangelicalism is marked “by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying” and reduces “all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenious) self-evident propositions,” making of religion “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.” Thus, the pattern of evangelical practice shows a long history of being hostile to the more profound liturgies, prayers and hymns which God’s people have expressed throughout the ages.

The reason for this hostility, of course, is that these traditional forms of expressing devotion to God are not sufficiently intelligible to outsiders. But in an effort to reach the unchurched, just as the university has abandoned its mission in order to reach the uneducated, evangelicals have reversed the relationship between the church and the world. Rather than educating outsiders or seekers so they may join God’s people in worship, or rather than educating the illiterate so may join the conversation of the West, we now have the church and the academy employing as its language the idiom of the unchurched and undereducated. In effect, through P&W the church is becoming dumber at the same time that multi-culturalism is dumbing down the university. In the case of P&W the church, by embracing the elements and logic of contemporary worship, has abandoned its task of catechesis. Rather than converting and discipling the seeker, the church now uses the very language and methods of the world. So rather than educating the unbaptized in the language of the household of faith, the church now teaches communicants the language of the world.

Hugh Oliphant Old in his fine study of worship concludes with a reflection about mainline Presbyterian worship that applies well to what has transpired in contemporary evangelical churches. “In our evangelistic zeal,” he writes, “we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have to put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead.” Such is the state of affairs in contemporary evangelical worship. The thin and artificial juice of popular culture has replaced the finely aged and well-crafted drink of the church through the ages. Aside from the merits of the instant drink, it is hardly what you would expect defenders of tradition and the family to choose to serve at a wedding, or at the banquet supper of our Lord. And yet, just as evangelicals in the nineteenth century substituted Welches for red wine, so a century later they have exchanged the superficial and trivial for the rich forms and elements of historic Protestant worship.

Reformed Preaching — A Review

[Joel R. Beeke. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018.]

Joel Beeke currently serves as president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Beeke earned his PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has written or coauthored one hundred books, some of which include, A Puritan Theology, Meet the Puritans, and Reformed Systematic Theology. In this book, Beeke utilizes his vast knowledge of the Puritans and personal experience in the pulpit to help preachers understand what it means to do Reformed Experiential Preaching and to encourage its widespread practice today.

SUMMARY 

The book is divided into three parts. In part 1, Beeke asserts his thesis, that reformed experiential preaching seeks to apply the truth of God’s word from the heart of the preacher to the heart of the hearer (24). The Reformers and Puritans often used the word “experimental,” by this they meant personal experience. Therefore, this form of preaching seeks to show Christians how they should live their life, through their struggles, until they reach the final goal of the kingdom of God (25). There are four basic components to experiential preaching: First, experiential preaching is discriminatory preaching (24). In the preaching of the word, the preacher distinguishes between the Christian and non-Christian. Second, experiential preaching is applicatory. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this preaching drives the meaning of the text home to the practical life of the hearer (30). Third, it is Bible-based preaching, so that all the experience commended by this preaching is grounded in the Scriptures (35). Finally, this preaching is reformed preaching, meaning its focus is the preaching of Christ as the grand theme of the Scripture (60). Furthermore, in preaching Christ, one is preaching the kingdom of God and thus, declaring the sovereignty of God (64).

In part 2, Beeke asserts four examples from church history of reformed experiential preaching. First, the Reformers. In this section, Beeke highlights, among others, the preaching of John Calvin. Most would identify Calvin as a theologian rather than a preacher, and yet, we see evidence of experience-based preaching as it pertains to piety, faith, and assurance (117-130). Second, the Puritans. Beeke inserts a helpful introduction section to his discussion of the Puritans, highlighting the five major themes of Puritan preaching: the primacy of preaching, the program for preaching, passion for preaching, power in preaching, and plainness in preaching (144). Most noteworthy is their plainness in preaching, which follows the pattern of exposition, doctrine, and application (153). Third, the Dutch Reformed preachers. Again Beeke gives a helpful introduction for the Dutch Reformed movement before discussing the preachers of the movement (247). Beeke highlights the Synod of Dort not merely for their compilation of the Canons of Dort, but their affirmation of the role of preaching (153). Finally, Beeke highlights the Reformed, experiential preaching of preachers from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

In part 3, what we have is essentially the purpose of the book. Beeke is writing this book for the purpose of the modern-day preacher. Beeke desires the modern preacher to embrace Reformed Experiential Preaching like the days of old. This section of the book calls the preacher not simply to be one who has knowledge of the bible but seeks to apply the Bible to his own heart and then the heart of others (369). An essential part of becoming an experiential preacher is applying the word of God (369). As this section concludes Beeke gives the preacher some practical advice, exhorting him to preach: the attributes of God (388), the sin of man (398), Christ by the power of the Spirit (402), and holiness (421).

CRITICAL EVALUATION 

As stated above, the purpose of Beeke’s book is not simply to define Reformed Experiential Preaching, although he does define it well (36). His goal is that the modern-day preacher would become an experiential preacher. This is one of the major strengths of the book, namely, its practical nature. We see this practical emphasis of the book when Beeke seeks to define for us what an experiential preacher looks like (77). He is not simply presenting us with a  definition for definition’s sake. He is providing this definition because he desires us to become this type of preacher. I will highlight three points that are often appreciated, yet frequently neglected. First, preaching should be passionate preaching. Preaching should not merely be a dry lecture, neither is it simply shouting or waving your hands (79). Passionate preaching is accomplished by the Spirit and moves from the heart of the preacher to the heart of the listener (79). Second, preaching should be prayerful preaching. Reformed experiential preachers were aware of their weakness and their inability to save anyone (80), therefore, they sought to pray for the Spirit’s work in the hearts and lives of their hearers. Finally, preaching should be authentic preaching. The preacher should always seek to apply the text to his own heart (82). The only way people are going to experience the Word through our preaching is if the preacher has experienced the Word through his preaching.

The practical nature of this book is highlighted in the fact that Beeke devotes the entire third section of the book to the application of his thesis. Too many books today simply give us information rather than application. What a tragedy it would have been if Beeke simply told us about experiential preaching and neglected to invite us into the experience. Thankfully Beeke does invite us into the experience. I found his chapter, “Application Starts with the Preacher” (369), the most helpful. How can we possibly apply the Word to others if we do not apply it to our own hearts? Often as preachers, we can be diligent to preach the word and not so diligent to read the word. Beeke calls on us to read the word and not merely read the word for preaching, but read the word for personal growth and edification (372). We should not neglect to read “the book,” but we should also not neglect to read other books (373). We must seek to continually sharpen ourselves as preachers, growing in our knowledge and understanding of the word of God, and good books will help us achieve this goal. Furthermore, not only should we read the Bible and other books, but we should learn to read people (375). We must exegete the people as well as the text. We must love our congregation enough to know them — know their personalities, their struggles, and hurts. If we do this we can apply the Word more directly to their hearts in love.

All the above relates to application for the preacher, however, we must not neglect how this book usefully gives preacher’s guidelines for application to their congregants. Such guidelines are highlighted throughout in the biographies of past preachers. However, I found the section on application in “The Westminster Directory and Preaching” chapter most valuable. I was not aware that 40 percent of the discussion on preaching in the directory is devoted to application. In the directory, Beeke shows us six forms of application in the text: (1) instruction and information, (2) confutation of false doctrines, (3) exhortation to duties, (4) public admonition, (5) application of comfort, and (6) trial, to help people examine their heart (379). All this tells us that we should spend more time thinking deeply about application. Application can often stagnate in our preaching and become one-dimensional. The above is merely one example of many in this book that can help us diversify our application of the text.

Beeke’s discussion of discrimination in preaching is helpful (26). I have not given much thought to the topic. I always distinguished between the believer and the non-believer in my preaching. However, there is so much more to think about when it comes to discrimination. This is evidenced by Beeke when he shows us Perkins seven categories of listeners: (1) Ignorant and unteachable unbelievers, (2) ignorant but teachable unbelievers, (3) those who have some knowledge but are not humbled, (4) the humbled, (5) those who believe, (6) those who are fallen, either in faith or in practice, and (7) a mixed group. This categorization is very helpful when it comes to discrimination and the application of the text. One might say that most preachers naturally discriminate in their sermons. However, this discrimination is never well-thought-out. Discrimination naturally happens, yet, if we are to be true experiential preachers we should intentionally discriminate.

If I were to suggest a minor critique, it would be to simply ask, “where is Spurgeon?” I know it may seem unfair to critique a 500-page book and say there is something missing. However, I did miss the “prince of preachers” in this book. In my mind, Spurgeon is the quintessential example of a Reformed Experiential Preacher. Spurgeon does make a cameo appearance here and there, most notably when he is held out as an example of preaching Christ (401). Yet, surely when one is talking about the preaching of the nineteenth century or any century, Spurgeon would be at the top of the list.

CONCLUSION

I highly recommend this book to any aspiring preacher, downhearted preacher, stagnant preacher, or veteran preacher. This book should be on every preacher’s bookshelf. I will be re-reading its chapters for many years to come. Beeke’s work has re-ignited my heart with a passion to proclaim and apply God’s Word in a fresh way to my own heart and to the heart of my hearers.

Eternally Minded for Present Good

I remember as a college student back in the 1990’s taking a summer trip to Iowa City, Iowa to visit my mom and other relatives. After my junior year at the University of Washington, I felt like I needed a road trip. So I packed up my black Volkswagon Jetta and made my way east on Interstate 90, eager to experience the heartland.

One conversation with family stands out among the others, a visit with my grandmother Mary. Mary was a librarian at the University of Iowa, a widow, and a devout Catholic. As we sat drinking iced tea in her impeccably clean living room that opened up to what looked like a perfectly manicured courtyard, I intentionally steered the conversation to heaven. I asked something like, “Grandma, what do you think heaven will be like?” She immediately shot back, “Don’t get started with that pie-in-the-sky stuff. I’m more concerned about the here-and-now. You evangelicals are so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” (For context, my mom’s side of the family are all Irish Catholics with me being the sole evangelical Protestant. The black sheep, you might say.)

As a fairly young Christian reared in the evangelical “community” church and parachurch milieu, I was naive when it came to this objection to talk of heaven. I was crazy enough to think professing Christians loved to talk about heaven even as we lived in the world striving to please the Lord. I couldn’t understand why my grandmother had such a visceral reaction to the topic of heaven. So I asked some open-ended questions and began to hear my grandmother’s perspective: she thought evangelicals (and Protestants generally) believed that we could just “check out” of this world and live only for the next. In other words, Mary believed that my longing for heaven was a retreat from the world and its countless hurts, ills, and injustices. My grandmother had no time for Christians with a “bunker mentality” who were only interested in biding their time in the evangelical subculture before the rapture. My grandmother wanted social change, not callous indifference in the name of Christ. My grandmother, I learned, saw evangelicals as basically the priest and the Levite who, unlike the Samaritan, purposely avoided the man left for dead (Luke 10:25-37). And she blamed a preoccupation with heaven.

I left the conversation wondering if my grandmother had a point. Did the gospel, with its promise of forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God in a kingdom not of this world, promote the abandonment of this world and the gross neglect of hurting people? I knew enough of the Bible to know this couldn’t be true, and I couldn’t deny the heart I had for lost and hurting people. Wanting to know more about the relationship of the cross to the culture, that summer I set out to study this issue in greater detail. And what I found, and have only grown in my conviction sense, is the very opposite of what my grandmother thought namely, the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be.

THE CROSS AND THE CULTURE

The Bible does not let the church retreat from the world. Indeed, the Lord calls us out of the world so that we might be “salt and light” in the world. Always mindful that we are not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2), Jesus made it clear that we are to shine for him in the world:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

There is a God-wrought impulse in the Christian to alleviate pain and suffering — temporal and, most importantly, eternal suffering under the righteous wrath of God for sin. Evangelism and acts of mercy naturally flow from the born-again heart. Where this is not the case it is possible there is no spiritual life in the person. The Christian of all people knows that this side of heaven, things are not the way they’re supposed to be. 1For an excellent introduction to sin and its catastrophic impact on the world see, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1996). Sin has wreaked havoc on the world that God had originally pronounced “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Natural and moral evil in incalculable ways plague our world as the whole creation groans under the divine curse for sin (Romans 8:18-25). Sin is at the heart of all the pain, suffering, and hurt threatening to overwhelm the world today — and every day since the fall. And this is where the cross of Christ speaks most powerfully.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). One of the most simple and yet profound verses in all the Bible. Motivated by love, the Father sent his one and only Son to rescue this sin-ravaged world. At the cross, God’s holy-love is displayed to the world. In the death of Christ, the holiness of God is vindicated even as the floodgates of salvation are burst open for all those who believe in Jesus, for anyone who rests in his finished work on the cross. At the cross we learn that God’s holiness demands justice, that sin could not merely be “swept under the rug of the universe” and ignored. Sin had to be dealt with in a manner wholly consistent with God’s holy character if sinners would be saved. God has done this in Christ:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).

Of course, this glorious good news of a God who “did what the law could not do” for us, has tremendous implications for the church as it relates to the world. Working out from the cross we go into the world as ambassadors for Christ proclaiming and serving in the very Spirit of Christ. We do all this “proclaiming” and “serving” — this living in the world — with our minds set “on things above not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). Why? “For [we] have died, and [our] life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is [our] life appears, then [we] also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). Through the Spirit’s application of redemption in our life, we’ve died to self and now live with an aim to please the Lord in all things (2 Corinthians 5:9). And what does a life look like that is pleasing to the Lord? One of those catchy evangelical camp songs from Micah 6:8 sums it up well: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

David Wells rightly sees in the cross not only the revelation of God’s holy-love but also of his mercy, a mercy embodied in the gospel service of the church to the world:

What we see at the cross is the white-hot revelation of the character of God, of his love providing the price that his holiness requires. The cross was the means of redeeming lost sinners and reconciling them to himself, but it was also a profound disclosure of his mercy. It is, in Paul’s words, an “inexpressible gift” that leads us to wonder and worship, to praise and adore the God who has given himself to us in this way. This is what has led people to give themselves away, too, to give of themselves in service to others, to go to the mission field, and to go into the dark places in life. It is what has impelled Christian believers to give of their substance, and to reach out in acts of mercy to those who need it, and to act with courage against the injustices in societies. 2David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World, second ed. (Eerdmans, 2017), 99.

Looking back on that conversation with my grandma it still saddens me to hear her frustration with talk of heaven. Of course, my grandma is not alone in her thinking. Many evangelicals, it seems, also believe it’s possible to be too heavenly minded. But could it be that the evangelical church today is so spiritually anemic precisely because we’re too earthly minded? Could it be that our preoccupation with this world has not been the sufficient motivation needed to actually serve this world better? Is the evangelical church’s neighbor love so weak today not because we’re too heavenly minded but because, like Peter who Jesus rebuked and likened to Satan, we are not setting our minds on the things of God, but on the things of man? (Mark 8:33)

For the glory of God and the good (both temporal and eternal) of the world, let us be more, not less, heavenly minded. After all, it would be an awful thing to be so earthly minded that we’re no heavenly good.

References   [ + ]

1. For an excellent introduction to sin and its catastrophic impact on the world see, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1996).
2. David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Reformation Faith in Today’s World, second ed. (Eerdmans, 2017), 99.

Always Preparing

In 1666 the English Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote, “The soul being so precious, and salvation so glorious, it is the highest point of prudence to make preparations for another world.” 1Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Banner of Truth: 2009, 1666), 7. In our pandemic age, as in every age, it is essential to ask, are we preparing?

As I write, it has been about a month since the coronavirus began to radically alter life as we know it in the United States. Our mortality is constantly before us as the headlines each day consist of “death tallies” from around the world. With terms like “social distancing,” “mitigation,” and “quarantine” the year 2020 will be remembered as a time when the world waged war against an invisible enemy.

The church has responded to the pandemic with an embrace of technology like never before. Small and large churches alike are moving services to an online format with pastors engaging in virtual shepherding. Even as we are grateful for technology and the way it allows us to “gather,” we know it is not the way it’s supposed to be. Human beings were created to be together—to live in community not mediated through Zoom, Facebook Live, or YouTube. Life together is God’s purpose for his people. It’s been interesting to watch various industries successfully transition to business during a pandemic. 2See, for example, “Coronavirus Sparks Hiring Spree for Nearly 500,000 Jobs at Biggest Retailers,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020. Not so the church. More than any other organism in the world, the church struggles to translate itself into an age of isolation.

PUTTING AWAY CHILDISH WAYS

But there are potential benefits that can come to the church through this present trial. For example, this pandemic has the potential to bring needed seriousness over the church in the present so that we are more eager to prepare for the future world to come. The global suffering that is going on is, hopefully, making nonsensical (and even offensive) the ministry paradigms that see Christianity as all fun and games—churches that have baptized worldliness in the name of religion. David Wells diagnosed American evangelicalism accurately in 1994 with a diagnosis that still holds today:

The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common. 3David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.

The slapstick comedy, vaudeville acts, and Disney-like productions that mark so much of evangelicalism may not find such a welcome audience on the other side of COVID-19. There is nothing chipper about death. And death in our day is ubiquitous. The time is long overdue for evangelicals to put away “childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). There is the potential for this pandemic to have a maturing effect on evangelicalism such that God no longer rests inconsequentially upon the church.

COVID-19 AND THE APOCALYPSE

There was a recent article in The New York Times with the headline, “13 Deaths in a Day: An ‘Apocalyptic’ Coronavirus Surge at a N.Y.C. Hospital.” My first thought upon reading the headline was that the authors clearly haven’t read the Bible because 13 deaths in a day (as tragic as that is) is nothing compared to a third of mankind being destroyed (Revelation 9:18). But I also felt pity for people who do not have a biblical understanding of what will truly be apocalyptic. Consider these words by Jesus as he described the end times: “For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days” (Mark 13:19-20).

Jesus warns of a “tribulation” before his second coming that is so great, so terrible that if not for the merciful shortening of its duration by God, all humanity would perish. Jesus continued to raise the level of concern as he made his way to be crucified:

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)

How horrible must things be for people to cry out for the mountains to fall on them and the hills to cover them? Apocalyptic.

With this end in view and the great judgment that will accompany the return of the King, the Apostle James exhorts the church to live accordingly: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (James 4:8-9).

COVID-19 is a foretaste of a far more severe future judgment. Knowing this, the church cannot be content to trifle with God and neglect making every effort to live a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Jesus wasn’t kidding when he cautioned, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

SERIOUS MINISTRY FOR SERIOUS TIMES

The world is a serious place. Since the fall of mankind into sin, moral and natural evil marks every generation in ways too numerous to count. The suffering of the human race as a result of sin is at times unbearable to consider. Therefore, we need leaders who minister accordingly. One such leader was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In his classic work on preaching he described why preachers of all men should be the most serious:

The preacher must be a serious man; he must never give the impression that preaching is something light or superficial or trivial . . . . What is happening is that he is speaking to them from God, he is speaking to them about God, he is speaking about their condition, the state of their souls. He is telling them that they are, by nature, under the wrath of God — ‘the children of wrath even as others’ — that the character of the life they are living is offensive to God and under the judgment of God, and warning them of the dread eternal possibility that lies ahead of them. In any case, the preacher, of all men, should realize the fleeting nature of life in this world. The men of the world are so immersed in its business and affairs, its pleasures and all its vain show, that the one thing they never stop to consider is the fleeting character of life. All this means that the preacher should always create and convey the impression of the seriousness of what is happening the moment he even appears in the pulpit. 4Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1972), 85-86.

What should be true of preachers should be true of Christians generally. We know too much.

Our pandemic age has taken many things from us. Mitigation strategies including social distancing, self-quarantines, lockdowns, and the closing of non-essential businesses/activities have made much of life feel “on hold.” But what can’t be put on hold is preparing for the world to come. Especially in our day, let us make every effort to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). After all, Thomas Brooks was right: “The soul being so precious, and salvation so glorious, it is the highest point of prudence to make preparations for another world.”

References   [ + ]

1. Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Banner of Truth: 2009, 1666), 7.
2. See, for example, “Coronavirus Sparks Hiring Spree for Nearly 500,000 Jobs at Biggest Retailers,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2020.
3. David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.
4. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1972), 85-86.

Interpreting Providence

Whenever there is a dreadful, large-scale event (e.g., a terrorist attack or the outbreak of disease), someone is sure to announce that this is God’s judgment on the world for our sins. Without a doubt, by nature, after the fall, we all deserve nothing less than eternal condemnation for our sins both original and actual.

CORPORATE GUILT AND CORPORATE GOSPEL

According to God’s Word, all human beings were represented by the first man, Adam. We were in him both genetically and legally. He stood in our place. We were there. We were created in righteousness and true holiness (Heidelberg Catechism 6). Scripture says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (Genesis 1:31). Adam was created with the ability to obey. He was not created fallen. He was not created with concupiscence (i.e., a corrupt desire).

It is implicit in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 that Adam represented all of humanity since the judgment pronounced in 3:14–15 is corporate:

Yahweh Elohim said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.”

It was not only Eve and the serpent who were cursed: “between your offspring and her offspring” makes Adam a public, that is, a representative person. We are as related to Adam as we are to our great grandparents. What Adam did affects us all. The judgment that he incurred, we incurred.

Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). God covenanted with Adam to reward his obedience with eternal life and to curse his disobedience with death: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” That is why there were two trees in the garden, a tree of life and the tree of death. Mysteriously and tragically, Adam chose death. As a result, we see and feel the consequences everywhere.

In Deuteronomy 27:26, God repeated the demand for perfect obedience after the fall and he repeated the curse, too: “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” In Galatians 3:10 the Apostle Paul quoted this very verse in explaining the consequences of sin and the continuing demands of the law even after the fall. The law is holy, just, and good. It demands what it demands because God is what he is.

Scripture is equally clear, however, that the “gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The good news is that the gospel was also promised to more than Adam and Eve individually: “he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.” The covenant-making and covenant-keeping God, Yahweh Elohim, made a promise to the Evil One. He would be finally judged, and, in that judgment, he would be allowed to strike the heel of his conqueror—but the conqueror would strike or crush his head. Again, this work was not for one but for all those for whom the conqueror would come, whom the Father gave him, for whom he died. He would save them all in that one act of obedience (Romans 5:19). He acted on behalf of all his people. In Heidelberg Catechism 60, the Reformed Churches confess that for those who believe in Christ, it is “as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.”

For those who are in Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). Jesus himself said that, in his cross, the judgment against the Evil One was executed: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). Believers are not under judgment. Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

There remains yet a final judgment, a condemnation for those who are outside of Christ. Our Lord said: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Those who are in Christ have “done good.” He is our good. Those who are outside of Christ face eternal condemnation. If you are reading this and you have not acknowledged your sin and misery under the law of God and turned to Christ, do it now!

OF TOWERS AND BLINDNESS

So, there is no question of our sinfulness. There is no question of the way of salvation. Further, there is no question that the effects and affects of sin still plague the world. As I write, cities in the USA are being shut down, businesses closed, and worship services postponed because of the virus that spread, apparently, from a “wet market” in Wuhan, China to the rest of the world. This virus is particularly deadly for those who have an underlying illness (e.g., a respiratory ailment) and seniors.

In response, some have predictably announced that this is a divine judgment. To be sure, there have been divine judgments in the world. The Lord flooded the earth (Genesis chapters 6–9) and he plagued Egypt until Pharaoh released the (temporarily) national people of God (Exodus chapters 6–14). There were episodes when the Lord afflicted the Canaanites who surrounded the Old Testament national people of God. There are a couple of episodes where the Lord struck down individuals, e.g., Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) and Herod (Acts 12:23).

Nevertheless, our Lord Jesus himself cautioned us about inferring from calamities a direct causal link or even a correlation between a calamity and the sins of a group:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:1-3).

This is a fallen world. Thorns, thistle, pollen, and viruses are all around us. Just as there is common grace, whereby God restrains the evil consequences of the fall, so too there is common suffering. Faithful, godly believers get cancer. There are thoroughly rotten people who seem to get through this life without a scratch (Jeremiah 12:1). Their day of accounting is postponed.

Our Lord Jesus warns us against drawing a correlation or a causal link between the sins of a people and their afflictions. The Galileans were not worse sinners than anyone else. So it was with the man born blind in John 9:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1-3).

The disciples made the same error. They thought they too could interpret providence, that they could draw a correlation and a causal link between particular sins and particular judgments.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. Qoheleth, the convener of the covenant assembly, explained:

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity (Ecclesiastes 8:14).

The Lord himself had warned us against the folly of trying to outguess him: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The Lord knows the end from the beginning. We do not.

INTERPRETING PROVIDENCE

Interpreting providence is a great but hazardous temptation. When an earthquake disrupted the trial of John Wycliffe in London, his enemies interpreted it as a judgment against him and he interpreted it as a judgment against his accusers. So it is when we try to draw specific messages from general revelation.

Jesus did teach us how to interpret providence. The key term here is general. In both cases, our Lord Jesus did tell us what sorts of inferences we should draw when we see affliction. In the case of the man born blind, the Lord said that he was blind so that he, Jesus, could heal him and demonstrate God’s power. This interpretation is special, not general since our Lord Jesus is not with us bodily healing and raising (and we may fairly doubt those who claim the power to do the same). In Luke 13, however, he did give a general application of the specific episode: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This is a general application that applies to all of us everywhere.

What does Covid-19 tell us? It tells us that as often as we think that we have everything under control, we do not. It tells us that God is not absent from us. It reminds us of his power to disrupt the ordinary course of things with, as it were, the flick of a finger. It is not that God was absent and then intervened (occasionalism), but that God is always working in and through all things that occur (concursus).

This episode, like many others we can all recite, remind us that this is a fallen world. That we are frail. Look at the hordes emptying the shelves in panic. Look how quickly late modern life can be reduced to basics, food, shelter, and washing one’s hands. We delude ourselves with the dream that we are mighty and powerful when in fact we may be felled by a tiny little virus. You might be a vector (a carrier) right now and not even know it. Thousands have already died across the globe despite national health care (or because of it) and high-tech late, modern medicine. We mock the medieval world for being backward and plague-ridden until we discover that every touch screen in McDonald’s is covered in filth. This is the illusion of Enlightenment. We mock the medievals for witch trials but just let someone raise a question about the causal link between human activity and “Climate Change” and witch trials look positively rational by comparison.

There is a judgment coming but this is not it. This is only a mild warning of what is to come. God the Son became incarnate to save sinners. Remarkably, we crucified him for telling the truth, but he did not remain in the grave. He was raised. He still speaks to us in his Word. He is still warning us to repent and inviting all to come. As he said through his prophet Ezekiel:

And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, “Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:10-11)

The Lord spoke those words to his Old Testament national people, but they apply today. The Apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

These words were written in regard to all. We are in the same condition as Noah and “the world that then was.” The coming judgment is being announced and some are listening, and some are not. Those who listen will climb aboard the ark of Christ, the ark of salvation. Come to him now before it is too late.

The Coronavirus and the Judgment of God

I have a rare collection of prayers in my library of the English Reformers. It was collected and edited by Henry Bull in 1566. One of the prayers is titled, “Another Prayer Meet For the Present Time, That God Would Turn Away His Plagues Hanging over Us For Our Sins.” Here’s a portion of the prayer to help us consider how strong in faith the English Reformers were at moments like ours:

We confess and acknowledge, O Lord, that it is our sins which have moved you to wrath, and to show such fearful tokens of your displeasure towards us in these our days; first with fire from heaven, betokening your hot burning indignation and wrathful displeasure for sin which abounds at this day, and then with such horrible and monstrous shapes against nature, as was never seen here in our days, in no time before us, which do betoken to us none other thing, but your plagues to come upon us for our degenerate and monstrous life and conversation; and not last of all, by great mortality, plague and pestilence, you have terribly threatened us, fatherly warned us, and mercifully called us to repentance.

These prayers, from the most learned Reformed scholars and pastors of the 16th century, are worthy of emulation. What’s interesting to note is how the Reformers were willing to recognize the frowning providences of God as clear warnings of divine displeasure for sin. They recognized that the “shapes against nature” and the certain things of providence that they never witnessed before, conveyed a strong message. For them, the “plague and pestilence,” were threatening’s to the world, even fatherly warnings to God’s people, calling everyone to repentance.

Our pushback of reading providence too specifically (and rightly so) has left a void in how we speak of the judgment of God in times like ours. After all, who wants to sound like the angry evangelical calling out specific groups of people for being wicked sinners? Without question, Luke 13 provides a strong warning against a misreading of providence that attributes terrible events that happen to people as the result of their great sinfulness.

Further, Jesus would not let us read providence to say that the bad things that happen mean that God is specifically judging someone for their specific sin(s). We are not to draw links from particular judgments to particular sins. We speak generally of these things. For instance, we have no right to say that someone who gets the Coronavirus is being judged by God as a worse sinner than those who do not contract it, or for some specific sin. Jesus would have none of this. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” Jesus asked. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). All people are equally worthy of the judgment of God and Jesus used these events to force people to consider their own standing before God. The verdict has long been given: all have sinned and are under the just judgment of God.

But in these cases, it would be equally wrong to ignore the providence of God. There is a very serious message everyone should consider in the dark moments of God’s providence. Jesus is telling us that these terrible events are warnings of the judgment to come. Therefore, we should repent today.

THE SHUTDOWN AS WARNING

I believe the church should pay close attention to our Coronavirus moment. As I write, people are facing the possibility of loss in many forms. Things have suddenly become very serious for a society that has lived according to the mindset of the rich fool who looked upon all his wealth and proclaimed, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Americans live believing that life will go on as it always has. We are like the people of 2 Peter 2 who deliberately forget the judgments of God that fell upon the world as we run swiftly into sin.

This is why we must consider the warning that comes with the unleashing of the Coronavirus. Like the prayer cited above, something is unfolding before us that we have never witnessed in our lifetime. Whether everyone agrees with the severity of the virus is not the issue. We all agree that society is shutdown, churches are banned from meeting, social gatherings of all kinds have ceased, and the economy is threatened with countless businesses closed and unemployment skyrocketing. Jesus told us that these things would happen. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places at various times are the beginnings of sorrows or birth pains (Cf., Matthew 24). These are painful indicators of the impending and inevitable final judgment.

Consider, however, the similarities of our current crisis to the Apostle John’s description of what is to come upon Babylon in the final judgment:

“For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her . . . . all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!” The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, “Alas, alas, for the great city that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in a single hour all this wealth has been laid waste . . . . For in a single hour she has been laid waste. Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more, and a craftsman of any craft will be found in you no more, and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more” (Revelation 18:8-23).

Revelation 18 says that the final plague of judgment will bring an end to the economies of the world. The luxury and wealth Babylon enjoyed is taken in an hour, leading to death and the final judgment. This is the death no one can escape. The joyful celebrations of weddings and gatherings are over. Work stops forever and the economy takes its ultimate plunge. Worst of all, the light of the church and the gospel is seen and heard no more in Babylon.

This requires us to stop and think for a moment. Hasn’t the shutdown of everything given us a small foretaste of Rev 18? Consider the things that have happened over the last two weeks:

  • The economy is shutdown.
  • Social events, including weddings, are banned.
  • The church cannot gather.
  • Death is everywhere.

Though on a much smaller scale, what we are facing are the things that happen in the sudden final judgment. We are living proof that it doesn’t take much to bring life as we know it to a halt, in a moment. This is a worldwide phenomenon, accomplished by a little virus. Quoting the Reformers, we are facing something we have never seen here in our days.

COME TO JESUS, TODAY!

All this to say, an event like this should be a clear call for everyone to repent and escape the judgment to come. Sadly, the message of judgment is almost non-existent in the church today. But the church has a solemn responsibility to warn people of the wrath to come. The church shouldn’t be afraid of recognizing God’s providence in times like this and calling all people to repentance and faith in Christ. All people are called to turn from sin and come to Jesus for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. As the Reformers recognized in the midst of a heavy providence, God is terribly threatening us, fatherly warning us, and mercifully calling us to repentance.

The greatest silver lining in this dark cloud, however, cannot be missed. We are still able to publish the best news ever, a lamp is still shining in Babylon, and a voice is still sounding forth the summons of Jesus, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). But make no mistake: the day of salvation is not forever; the time is short.

Jesus is merciful, gracious, and longsuffering. Come, repent and believe, and enjoy the blessings of God’s salvation. Christ’s word, in the midst of this present chaos, is a sweet word of everlasting peace to all who believe, “Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). In all the noise of our pandemic age, that’s the infinitely worthy voice we must hear.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Abounding Grace Radio. Published here with permission.]

Your Only Comfort in Life and Death

The Heidelberg Catechism is justly regarded as one of the finest summaries of the Christian faith ever written. First published in 1563, the catechism is used by more than a million Christians globally. The first question of the catechism is among the most beloved among the Reformed confessions and catechisms:

  1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
    AThat I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

This question and answer was not written in a vacuum. Medieval life, which includes the 16th century, the period in which the Reformation began, was not an easy time in which to live. There had been some major technological breakthroughs (e.g., the printing press in 1450), and international exploration and travel were increasing; but life for most people, most of the time, was difficult and short.

It was dirty. This is the traditional picture of medieval life. Though I have seen this characterization disputed, the objection to the traditional picture of medieval life seems to be based on supposition rather than upon evidence (e.g., contemporaneous records). Consider the fact that the idea that a physician should wash his hands between patients is relatively new. Dr. Joseph Lister was considered a radical when, in 1867, he began washing his hands in between patients. As we navigate the spread and effects of Covid-19, we are all being reminded of how important it is to wash one’s hands. Such basic practices were more or less unknown in the medieval period. Health conditions were primitive and harsh. People (even nobility) bathed rarely. Most Europeans changed clothes only once or twice a year.

THE BLACK DEATH

When the authors and editors of the Heidelberg Catechism asked about the Christian’s comfort “in life and in death” it was not a mere theory. Death was a frequent visitor to Heidelberg and to every pre-Modern city. Tuberculosis was widespread. Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of the principals behind the catechism, died of it. The plague came to Heidelberg and took many lives. (More on that below.)

“The Black Plague” or “The Black Death” refers to a massive outbreak of the Bubonic Plague across the globe in the 1340s. It is uncertain exactly where the plague began (perhaps the Mongolian Plain between Russia and China), but it spread “along international trade routes,” as one author says. As it arrived in Europe it capitalized upon poor health conditions to kill about one-third of the population of Europe in the 1340s. By comparison, only World War II produced more human suffering in the same period of time.

Though the intensity lessened, outbreaks of the plague recurred through the 17th century into the Thirty Years’ War. It also occurred in parts of Asia and the Middle East. It was known at the time as the “Great Mortality.” Contemporary accounts described bodies stacked “like ‘lasagna.’” “After watching a pair of wild dogs paw at the newly dug graves of the plague dead, a part-time tax collector in Siena wrote, ‘This is the end of the world.’” Victims typically ran a high fever (101–105F), with headaches, vomiting, delirium, and coughing up blood. It is called the “bubonic plague” because of the “bubo” eruptions in the skin. It was called the “black death” because it caused bleeding under the epidermis that turned the skin black. 1John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (Harper, 2006).

There is a vigorous debate in the secondary literature about the exact cause of the plague. Medievalists and medical researchers have questioned the older story, that the contagion was a form of the plague transmitted by rat fleas to humans, but the consensus seems to be that the traditional story is still the best explanation. In the 1990s, French researchers performed a DNA test on corpses from two “plague pits” in France. One was a medieval pit and the other was more recent. Both tested positive for the bubonic plague.

More recently, on the basis of computer models, scholars have questioned the older theory arguing that it was transmitted not by rats but by “human fleas and body lice.” I, for one, am a little skeptical of the model and think we should do what we have been doing to control the plague (e.g., controlling rats) until the picture is clearer.

MINISTERING TO VICTIMS

Late in 1544 or early in 1545 a conspiracy was discovered in Geneva. A number of people were convicted of creating a salve containing elements of the plague and smearing it on doorknobs in an attempt to murder Genevans. A number of people were put to death by the civil government. This was the second such episode since 1530.

In 1542 Calvin wrote to his old colleague, Pierre Viret (1511–71):

The [plague] also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because Peter offered himself, all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry. And yet it is not my opinion, that while we wish to provide for one portion we are at liberty to neglect the body of the Church itself. But so long as we are in this ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance. In what concerns yourselves I have already told you what occurred to me. Now, since that colleague has been removed, you must seek for some one else to be put in his place. If no such person can be found, you must devise some plan, but with the common advice of the brethren. 2Letters of John Calvin, 1.357

Bruce Gordon writes that the plague “swept across” the Swiss Cantons in the period. It took notable lives, including Simon Grynaeus (1493–1541), to whom Calvin had dedicated his Romans commentary. Gordon notes that it was probably the passage of 10,000 French troops through Geneva that brought the plague to that city-state. Calvin and Sebastian Castellio, who would later become one of Calvin’s most vituperative critics, volunteered to tend to the plague victims, a job “rewarded with almost certain death but neither was accepted.” 3Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009), 124-25. The city decreed that all the ministers, except Calvin, who was deemed to be too valuable, were to serve in the plague hospital.

Scott Manetsch notes that some of the ministers “undertook this dangerous assignment with compassion and courage. For others, the fear of contracting the contagion reduced them to cowards.” 4Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford University Press, 2013), 285. When the plague returned in the Spring, the city was virtually shut down. Dogs and cats, thought to be carriers, were exterminated. Pierre Blanchet, once again appointed to serve the plague victims, finally contracted the disease himself and died. 5Manetsch, 285. The Company of Pastors took to drawing lots to replace him. Some refused to go. “Finally, a young minister named Mathieu de Garneston began making periodic visits to the plague hospital outside the city.” 6Manetsch, 286. Like Blanchet, he too contracted the disease and died. The city’s exemption of Calvin from service rankled some in the Company of Pastors. It was, as Manetsch observed, not their finest hour.

In 1566 Heidelberg itself was afflicted with the plague. Even though most fled, including the court, Olevianus, who was the chief pastor, and Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) stayed behind to minister to plague victims. 7R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 20.

PASTORAL NOTES

There is a great deal of uncertainty swirling about concerning the Covid-19. There is much that we and perhaps government officials do not know about what has really happened so far in China. Reports from Iran and Italy are equally distressing. As of this writing public behavior seems to waver between indifference and panic.

Christians, however, believe in providence and we also believe in wisdom. Our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to Christ, who purchased us. We are his inseparably. This is not a license to tempt providence. Scripture also counsels wisdom. It is wise to follow the instructions of the civil authorities, to wash our hands, and to avoid contact with others, etc. There is probably wisdom in putting group activities on pause until more is known. Most of us are not tasked with making these decisions and we trust the Lord to use those who have been given that responsibility to act wisely and in our best interests.

We are Christians. We are a purchased people. Covid-19 is not The Black Plague—which some survived. We know that this world is not random. The Savior who purchased us by his obedience and death will not abandon us. Should he will to take us out of this life, we will go to be with him who loves us. This is not to be cavalier but to try to put our fears into some perspective. The world tells us that this life is all there is. So, they panic. By contrast, we make preparations. We love our neighbors. We serve them as best we can, as citizens of a twofold kingdom, but with the confidence of knowing that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We belong to him.

References   [ + ]

1. John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death (Harper, 2006).
2. Letters of John Calvin, 1.357
3. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009), 124-25.
4. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford University Press, 2013), 285.
5. Manetsch, 285.
6. Manetsch, 286.
7. R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 20.

Living in the Light of the Resurrection

[Editor’s note: This brief commentary is part of a new category of writing we’re calling “Sermon Notes.” The goal of these entries is to leverage the “big idea” of a particular sermon for the encouragement of pastors in their pulpit ministry.]

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Some time ago I began a new sermon series in the book of Acts. In the introductory sermon, my goal was to ask and answer the question, “What is true of a life lived in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

While my observations were certainly not exhaustive, here are the six things I drew out of the book of Acts as distinguishing marks of the church this side of the empty tomb:

  1. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live as witnesses.
  3. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live to please God and not man.
  4. To live in the light of the resurrection is to take sin seriously.
  5. To live in the light of the resurrection is to suffer for the sake of Christ.
  6. To live in the light of the resurrection is to live in joy-filled, God-centered community.

The sermon moved intentionally to number six given the importance of community to the other five. We hear a lot about “community” today. But too often it seems like “community” can mean just about anything as long as we’re doing it together. Luke, however, has a specific understanding of community when it comes to the people of God. Consider Acts 2:42-47,

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The people of God together devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; the people of God together devoted themselves to the fellowship; the people of God together broke bread and prayed. It was the glorious things of God that occupied the people of God in their community. It was not sufficient to simply be together.

Furthermore, I am struck by the manner with which all of this was happening: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (vv. 46-47).

Our fellowship should be marked by “glad and generous hearts” as we praise God from whom all blessings flow. Why? Because we were lost, but now are found; we were dead, but are alive again; we were children of wrath, but now are children of grace; we were without God and without hope in the world, but now are heirs of God! We’ve been redeemed from the pit of sorrow and shame; freed from the shackles of sin and Satan; forgiven of our sins past, present, and future; transferred from the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of light; given a hope and a future where there is fullness of joy, pleasures forevermore!

With all of our differences, these are the priceless treasures we have in common in Christ. Therefore, we devote ourselves to the fellowship—an assembly of pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners joyfully moving along the King’s way. Indeed, God would not have us travel alone and begrudgingly to heaven, but in the glorious community of the redeemed.

Resolved to Advance God’s Glory in 2020

[This brief article is part of a new feature called “Book Notes.” Book Notes are not formal reviews, but opportunities for us to alert pastors to important books for ministry.]

***

In thinking about the new year and what resolutions I want to make, I see God’s grace in the close of one year and the dawn of another. This yearly cycle gives us the opportunity to take inventory of where we stand in relation to our Creator: are we seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Cf., Matthew 6:33)? The New Year is an ideal time for “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” — to recommit ourselves to “setting our minds on things above” (Philippians 3:13; Colossians 3:1-4).

To help me in this endeavor I’ve enlisted Steven Lawson and his fine book on Jonathan Edwards: The Unwavering Resolve of Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards is probably best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But there is far more to appreciate about this 18th-century pastor. Benjamin Warfield, the eminent Princeton divine, referred to Edwards as a “figure of real greatness in the intellectual life of colonial America.” And Edwards scholar George Marsden considers him “the most acute American philosopher.” But perhaps the Englishman Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it best: “I am tempted, perhaps foolish, to compare the Puritans to the Alps, Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest! He has always seemed to me the man most like the Apostle Paul.”

Lawson’s aim with his book is “to challenge a new generation of believers to pursue holiness in their daily lives” by focusing on Edwards’s 70 “Resolutions.” (Amazingly, Edwards wrote these resolutions in 1722 and 1723 when he was just 18 and 19 years old.)

Lawson chose to focus on Edwards’s “Resolutions” given how well they demonstrate the towering virtue of his life, namely, his piety. “In short, though Edwards was intellectually brilliant and theologically commanding, his true greatness lay in his indefatigable zeal for the glory of God.”

Consider Resolution #1:

Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and the most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.

Edwards was resolved, regardless of the difficulty, to live for the glory of God, his own pleasure (in God) and the good of mankind generally. Profound and convicting.

Now, notice what this Puritan — this relic of centuries ago — says in Resolution #2:

Resolved, to be continually endeavoring to find out some new invention and contrivance to promote the forementioned things.

We don’t usually associate Jonathan Edwards with “innovation” or “cutting edge thinking.” And yet, here he is resolved to continually dream up ways to advance the glory of God.

I want to do this in the New Year. I want to be resolved to live for the glory of God, my pleasure in Him and the good of mankind generally. And I want to do this with a determined, vigorous, and biblically wise analysis of ways I can do it better.

What new ways can you think of to advance the glory of God, your pleasure in Him and the good of mankind in 2020? And don’t just think innovation. Perhaps what is “old” should become new again.