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Does Your Faith Offend Enough People?

I propose a new church-growth model: Preach in such a way where you try to offend as many peoples’ sensibilities as possible. Throw as many stumbling blocks in front of religious people as you can. Unashamedly hold out the apparent foolishness of Christian dogma to the skeptical.

For the uninitiated, adherents of church-growth seek to apply the scientific method to make disciples. At its best, church-growth is dedicated to removing as many barriers to the gospel as possible in order that a church can “just connect someone to Jesus.” So, a practitioner might study a particular cultural context of any given neighborhood or region, determine what aspects of Christianity might resonate best among the people there, and champion that aspect. Or a practitioner might attempt to scale evangelism as one does in factory production. X number of gospel conversations should net Y conversions. Or, disenfranchised by both as being decidedly inauthentic, a practitioner might advocate lifestyle evangelism as the means for church growth, stating they’ll preach the gospel with words if necessary. The evangelical industrial complex has birthed entire enterprises dedicated to so-called church growth.

This is a noble, but perilous pursuit. In reality, all of these models neuter the gospel of its power. Scrubbing the gospel to make it marketable actually empties Christianity of its distinctiveness. I can anticipate an objection: “It is good that we ‘should not trouble those who turn to God’ with all the trappings which accompany Christianity today because at #compass.church we want people to find the right way.” I’m suggesting that one can repackage Christianity to such an extent that the way one finds is not the way that leads to life.

Often, the so-called “trappings” causing the stumbling of an American unbeliever are not Acts 15 obstacles. Some in the early church initially struggled to integrate Gentiles into predominantly ethnic and culturally Jewish congregations. They believed the Gentiles should undergo circumcision and submit to the ceremonial law, in effect becoming religious Jews. James reported that Simeon reminded the council that Abraham had been called out from the Gentiles and that God had prophesied He would redeem Gentiles. The council resolved to not make Gentiles take upon themselves the particular markers of Jewish identity and that rejecting Gentile idol worship would be sufficient. The council resolved to remove the stumbling blocks of circumcision and law-keeping, which were their own cultural markers, in order that the Church would not find itself opposing both the work and word of God.

The Apostle Paul seems not only content to keep stumbling blocks in his message but scandalize through his bullhorn: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1–2).

I’m guessing everyone in evangelicalism would agree that they want their people to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. What evangelicalism needs is to rediscover how scandalous a crucified Christ really is. I want to shine a spotlight on the word “scandalous.” 1It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.

Americans are obsessed with scandals. We say we hate them, but in reality, we love watching talking heads discuss the latest Washington or Hollywood scandal. But the cross is not scandalous in the same way that a president’s forays with mistresses might be. No, the cross is scandalous because it offends our sensibilities: God took on flesh in order to die on a cross.

When we state the sentence as a whole, it makes total sense because we are two millennia downstream from the first sermon about the cross. To remind ourselves of how otherworldly this confession is, I’m going to break these pieces up into phrases and force us to look at them.

“God took on flesh” has offended the sensibilities of human beings long before Mary asked, “How can this be?” Since the garden, human beings have sought to become like God. Adam wanted to be like God. Given that he was already made in the image of God, his desire certainly stemmed from a desire to dethrone his Creator and take the seat. Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated themselves to divining the human physic and form. Men would become like the gods through heroic acts. For all, the bonds and limitations of humanity were something to be escaped. For the earliest Christians to preach that a god—God Himself—reversed that order to take on flesh baffled sense.

“To die on a cross” was the delusion of delusions to the ones who first heard the audacious claims of the strange sect from the backwater, distant district called Palestine. There are a number of Roman documents which deride the claims of the earliest Christians as “sick delusions,” “senseless and crazy superstitions.” 2Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3. Martin Hengel wrote, “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’, ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the idea of God held by educated people.” 3Hengel, 5.  In other words, it was radically uncontextualized and counter-intuitive.

I think the cross is a subject worthy of fresh reflection within the American church. I believe it has received plenty of reflection to be sure, but I’m not sure our reflections on the cross have been most productive. In my experience, reflections on the cross tend to project our worst fears onto it. So, many people reflect primarily on the medical sufferings of the cross with books such as The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Medical Doctor Examines the Death and Resurrection of Christ, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, or The Execution of Jesus the Christ: The Medical Cause of Our Lord’s Death During His Illegal Crucifixion. These sorts of books reveal the fact that we project our fears onto the cross—physical torment and pain—instead of allowing the passion narratives to preach to us what we are to see at the cross.

Go back and read the passion narratives. They are remarkably void of any detail related to the crucifixion itself. Matthew and John have the moment of crucifixion of Christ as a temporal clause: “When they crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matt 27:35; see also John 19:23). Mark and Luke are equally matter of fact: “And they crucified him” (Mark 15:24) and “they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). The only detail recorded by the evangelists is that our Lord was parched upon the cross. Conspicuously absent are the details we have become to associate with crucifixion: the crucified’s tendons being pierced by nails, slow asphyxiation from suspension, and agonizing exposure to the elements. To be sure, crucifixion was a horrific ordeal, and there is no doubt our Lord suffered those things. But they do not appear to be what the Holy Spirit inspired for our edification.

What we do know about the cross is that the ordeal was not primarily about execution but dehumanization. This is critical, I think, to understand why the Corinthians were eager to drop Paul and his crucicentric preaching for the super-apostles who spoke with elegance respectability. Many preachers will attempt to get at the ordeal by comparing the cross to modern forms of execution: imagine wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant. The point stands, but the electric chair can still be a respectable death of sorts. Death penalty opinions aside, the electric chair itself is not designed to dehumanize a person. It is not done in a public square. A person is afforded last words. A person’s face is covered.

Crucifixion was less an electric chair and more like a lynching. In fact, lynching is probably the closest act comparable to crucifixion. Lynching was designed to inflict supreme shame on an individual and dissuade black Americans from exercising their constitutional rights. 4Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014). The Romans employed crucifixion—much like the Persians and Carthaginians who bequeathed the practice to them—to wage war and break rebellious spirits among a conquered people. 5See Hengel, 46. The point was not to simply end the criminal’s life but to humiliate anyone associated with a given insurrection or rabble-rousing.

Thus, as Hengel wrote, “No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ.” 6Hengel, 18. Emphasis original. He continued:

When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame. 7Hengel, 19.

This shame is what the author of Hebrews was getting after when he wrote that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The Corinthians would find nothing respectable in the preaching of their crucified Lord. I hope by now the paradoxical nature of that phrase “crucified Lord” is coming into focus. The “stumbling” of the Jews and confusions at “folly” among the Greeks is not because Paul’s preaching was unclear. In fact, quite the opposite was true. No one in their right mind would pledge allegiance to a crucified κύριος.

This fact is precisely why Paul sought to establish their faith through the preaching of such a radically uncontextualized, stumbling-block laden, foolish message. He explained: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:2–5). Paul was utterly unconcerned with the respectability of his message. In fact, he thought that it would be best for the Corinthians if he amplified the very stumbling block and folly with which they struggled. It that sort of preaching, the power of God is manifest: People come to faith in God and are not attracted to the Christian-ish teaching of any particular flavor of the week.

Think of how counter-intuitive this sort of preaching is in our current context. Causing people to stumble would seem to be the worst church-growth strategy on the market today, and yet that might be the problem with the average Christian today.

To make it still more plain: no one is going to object to a cost of discipleship which calls for a laying down of self on account of another. Many nominal Christians are happy to save up for or give to a short-term mission trip to build a room onto an orphanage. That is good, but the Gentiles do that, too. ASPCA is funded by plenty of people forgoing one day’s soy chai latte.

Christ calls his disciples to do something that is hard for us Americans. History has demonstrated that Americans will die for any honorable cause. However, we will hardly pick up and willingly endure shame and humiliation.

A recovery of the shame and humiliation of the cross in our preaching will do more than grow churches. It will disciple Christians for the life our Lord promised us: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15: 18–20).

References   [ + ]

1. It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.
2. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3.
3. Hengel, 5.
4. Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014).
5. See Hengel, 46.
6. Hengel, 18. Emphasis original.
7. Hengel, 19.

Racial Reconciliation and the Glory of Humanity

One of the great privileges I have as a pastor is to be a part of ordination councils. An ordination council is a group of other ordained ministers who are responsible for interviewing a candidate for gospel ministry with respect to his character and competencies consistent with biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:1-9.

At the church where I serve we recently conducted an ordination council. With great joy over the candidate for ordination, we engaged in an approximately 90 minute oral examination. Here’s one of the questions I prepared:

What, according to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, determines that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love?” 1Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.

Our current cultural moment makes this a particularly important question for any potential pastor. The issue of racial reconciliation is threatening to divide much of evangelicalism as well-meaning Christians are finding themselves at odds with each other when the gospel gives us ample reason to be united. To overcome the threat of division, pastors must have biblical and theological reasons for the value of human beings that transcend mere worldly arguments. Thankfully, the church has both in God’s Word. In fact, the Bible presents a picture of mankind that is nothing less than glorious—and a picture that puts certain requirements on God’s people. And pastors need to lead their churches into these great realities.

While there is certainly more to say on this issue, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M) is a helpful guide to pastors when it states,

The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love. 2Article III.

The BF&M grounds the dignity and worth of every human being in two great theological truths: 1) the creation of people in the image of God; 2) the fact that Christ died for people.

THE IMAGE OF GOD

We are introduced to the idea of the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

What does it mean to be created “in the image of God”? It means that we are like God and represent God. Of all that God created, only human beings were endowed with God’s image. This sets human beings apart as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. This is why the psalmist sings,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 3Psalm 8:3-5.

Human beings have the astounding privilege of serving as God’s kingly representatives in the world. Endowed with the image of God, we are called to represent him as we act like him.

Of course, the fall of mankind into sin has corrupted his image in us almost beyond the point of recognition. But the faint hint of the image is still seen in sinners. Every human being retains the image of God. As theologians over the course of church history have observed in one way or another, we are “glorious ruins.” Glorious, because we are made in the image of God; ruins, because of our fall into sin through our association with Adam (cf., Genesis 3 and Romans 5). That the image of God in human beings is not totally lost is why James grounds his exhortation to speak well of other people in the still resident image of God,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 4James 3:5-10.

Christians cannot praise God on Sunday and curse people on Monday (or as early as Sunday afternoon). And pastors know this because of this great theological truth the BF&M affirms: human beings are created in the image of God.

CHRIST DIED FOR PEOPLE

A second reason the confession gives for the sacredness of human beings is the fact that Christ died for people. Consider what John saw in Revelation 5:8–10,

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

We see that Jesus died for people from every conceivable ethnic background. Jesus’ blood was shed for Jew and Gentile alike. The church in glory will be as diverse as the world. And the confession affirms that this reality is further confirmation that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”

The BF&M is not a perfect document. But it is beautifully right, if not exhaustive, on this point. And we need pastors who not only see humanity like this but seek to embed this kind of theological thinking in the hearts of their church members. When this happens, our churches will have great value to add to the cultural conversation taking place today regarding racial reconciliation and what true neighbor love should look like.

References   [ + ]

1. Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.
2. Article III.
3. Psalm 8:3-5.
4. James 3:5-10.

What Hath Zuckerberg to Do with Preaching?

In his 2009 Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon wrote: “Preaching today is ordinarily poor.” 1 T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17. Ouch. He explained that your average preacher can neither read nor write. The former causes him to miss the significance of any given text. So, sermons have become a collection of pithy life-truths which “tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars.” 2Gordon, 59. The latter means “sermons rarely have unity, order, or movement.” 3Gordon, 66. This was due to the vapid content of television and electronic mail. These mediums were reflections of things—not like their corporeal counterparts plays, books, or letters. And they conditioned us all to be satisfied with their reflection. Gordon bemoaned its effect on preaching.

I could say more about this book in summary and commentary, but that’s not the subject of my essay. Instead, I would highly recommend you read Tray Mangan’s excellent review of Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

But 2009 was a decade ago. Facebook was five years old but finally profitable. Twitter was only three years old with a fraction of the users it has today. Both of their IPOs were years away. Instagram would not launch for another year, and the concept for Snapchat had not even yet been conceived. Things, I believe, have gotten worse.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Luddite, I will admit that I have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I lead the social media presence of three different organizations. As recent as last Friday, I was agitating for migrating sermon streaming from Facebook to YouTube along with an upgrade in our website’s hosting capabilities. I live in this world, but I’m wondering if we should be of this world.

Now, I was reading The Empire and the Five Kings when a few lines unrelated to the author’s thesis reminded me of Gordon. Bernard-Henri Lévy, who no doubt writes with some grandiosity, observed that social media functions in a way that strips the substance from the world. Social networks “in fact de-socialize, offering the illusion of supposed friends who friend us with a click and unfriend us with another, their accumulation ultimately signifying that we no longer have any friends at all.” 4Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73. Instagram and Snapchat function similarly. Lévy observed that in the past travelers would bring back curiosities or things from their trips. Today travelers “collect ourselves, getting high on narcissism repeated ad infinitum.” 5Lévy, 74. We are content to allow the Internet to store our memories, holding in our hand or pocket “the task of restoring to consciousness the information, encounters, and scraps of memory that they can indeed summon a million times faster than we can. And so we forget.” 6Lévy, 74.

I was in Paris last July. With friends, my wife and I toured Notre-Dame. Would you believe what I thought as I watched the spire and roof burn and collapse just a few weeks ago? I wish I remember what the roof looked like. But I have a dozen pictures of it. So what? Everyone else does. I went to Notre-Dame and yet unloaded the substance of my memory on to a device, which in the end was unable to conjure up the actual memories of being there. I forgot.

Perhaps a third reason needs to be added to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Johnny can’t preach because neither he nor his congregation can remember. We live in a world where we (and the people whom we serve) have outsourced our collective memories to Zuckerberg’s servers. This is not a moral evaluation, but a statement of fact.

If television had, as Gordon wrote, flattened all events into equal significance, then endless stories and shared posts on social media have rendered human events inane.

One of a preacher’s main tasks is to call all people to remember what God has done in real human history. The Apostles went to great lengths to press for the substance of their memories of Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:1-2).

Our congregations are going to increasingly struggle to see the significance and substance of our message. But the preacher can never collapse into the world of inanity. We are holding out precious and eternal truths for the life of the world.

That probably starts with us personally. I learned from my mistake in Paris. Our little family went out on Saturday, and I left my phone at home. Now, rather than having a dozen pictures my wife and I share memories of our toddler. Every sweet memory is in our head, not outsourced to a server. Lord willing, I won’t forget.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

References   [ + ]

1. T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17.
2. Gordon, 59.
3. Gordon, 66.
4. Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73.
5, 6. Lévy, 74.

Am I Attending the Right Church?

[Editor’s note: The following letter and reply have been made anonymous and published with permission.]

Hey Zach, 

I hope all is well with you and your family! It’s great following along with your progression in the ministry. I appreciate all of your posts religious/political (I’m an avid WSJ reader) and am hoping you’d take time to provide some advice. I’d like to know your thoughts on how to know if my family is at the right church. 

When my wife and I moved to town, we started attending Church of the Highlands. We were immediately enthralled with the Hillsong-Esque worship and the welcoming feel. We’ve become connected and made friends, especially my wife, but I can’t shake some feelings I have.

The church espouses a lot of Christ-centered teaching, but the sermons are always “topical”, which I’m not crazy about. There is usually a theme verse, a few bullet points, and bible verses to go along with each bullet point. I just get the feeling that this is not the way God intended for the Bible to be taught. My wife would disagree with me, but I feel like I’m at a church that’s a class on Christianity 101, which I know is intentional so to be accessible. The big downside is that I feel that biblical literacy gets left out.

 Since our boy was born, I keep thinking about the importance of being involved in the right church. I want to be sure our kids grow up in a church that will provide the most spiritual development and biblical literacy. I know a lot has to come from home, but don’t want the sole source to come from us. 

I could say a lot more about Highlands, but I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with it or churches like it. This is something I’ve been praying about for a while and I hope I’ve explained my situation. Thanks in advance.

***

Friend,

Thank you for your kind words. I remember our time working together in ministry fondly. Those were sweet times.

Thanks for trusting me with such an important question: is my family at “the right church”? I believe there is no question of greater importance for a husband and father to settle.

I have never been to Church of the Highlands, but I am familiar with it. My wife attended for a year in college just before we started dating, so I have some second-hand knowledge. That said, I hope to answer in such a way that transcends whether Highlands itself is the right church for you and your family.

I know you’ll agree with this statement, so it’s going to be our starting point: more important than a church being a “right church” is that it must be a true church. Any church that is a “true church” can become the “right church” for you, even if it isn’t right in the beginning.

I agree with this confession: A true church “can be recognized if it has the following marks: (1) The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; (2) it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; (3) it practices church discipline for correcting faults.”1The Belgic Confession, Article 29 I think as I explain each of these points you can see why they are critical.

First, a church cannot be a true church if it does not engage in the pure preaching of the gospel. To be clear, my aim is not to evaluate whether Highlands engages in pure preaching. I only want to cast your vision towards the ideal, and then call you to assess whether Highlands meets or falls short of it. Your concern for expository, or verse-by-verse, preaching is commendable, and I believe that dedicating ourselves to the apostles teaching (Acts 2:42) means that we must discipline ourselves to swim in the text of Scripture. We’d both agree that we could talk about the ocean, get in a boat and sail across a bay, even dip our toes in the water, but unless we got out of the boat into the water, we could not say that we know the ocean. Similarly, I think it is insufficient to skim across a few selections of texts which address any given topic and say that we have dedicated ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.

There are occasions where topical preaching is helpful. The danger, however, lies in an inherent posture of the human heart to create idols in our hearts. We are created to long for One who can grant knowledge. My concern for congregations who sit under topical preaching is that over time, they will do two things: first, they will not learn how to read the Bible, and second, but more concerning, they will become dependent upon a man and not the Word.

When a preacher preaches, he is teaching them how to read the Bible by doing two things. First, he is engaging in a monologue from heaven, declaring with authority: “Thus saith the Lord.” More on that in a moment. Second, he is modeling how one is to read a particular chunk of Scripture. The cumulative effect of this over time is that you, yourself, can confidently open up the Word of God and understand it, having seen it interpreted and applied over and over again. I believe that most people do not know how to read their Bibles beyond a meager selection of “life verses” or truths to obey because they have never had a shepherd bring them to green pasture and show them from where to graze.

Now, his authority to say “Thus saith the Lord” is based in the fact that he merely repeats what the Word of God says, not in the fact that he stands on a stage, behind a pulpit, or sits on a stool. I suspect that you long to hear what God’s will is for your life, and you cannot get that apart from the pure preaching of the gospel. In the pure preaching of the gospel, you would hear about God’s perfect creation, the devastating effects of the fall, the curse of sin, the inability of human beings to please God, the necessity of a representative, the perfect obedience of God the Son, the perfect sacrifice of Christ, his literal death, burial, bodily resurrection, and ascension. You’d hear about obedience to God, and the grace needed to empower you to that end. You’d hear about faith, hope, and love. You’d be reminded to long for a world that is not this world.

I believe that what happens over time in a church where sermons are topical and not expository is that a congregation member eventually follows a man and not God. Now, that might seem like an overstatement, and I think most people at your church would reject it. Hear me out and test what I’m saying.

When a pastor selects a topic to discuss, it is usually immediately practical. Rarely are topic-driven preachers delivering sermon series aimed at developing a systematic theology of, say, God’s providence or goodness in a trial. In my experience, topic-driven preachers tend towards series related to life-direction, relationship, stewardship, or prayer life. These might even be disguised as expository sermon series: for example, a relationship series from the Song of Solomon. Herein a preacher is explaining some general “principles for life” based upon God’s word. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is usually quite good and helpful.

Again, however, what happens over time is that people begin to become accustomed to wanting to know what Pastor So-and-So has to say about any given topic. In the life of the church as a whole, the preaching calendar takes the shape of a given preacher’s interests or comfort level. This conforms the mind of the church to the counsel of the preacher’s mind, not Christ’s mind. A helpful test for you might be to ask yourself: When is the last time I’ve heard a sermon about the ancient Israelites being utterly crushed in God’s judgment by the Assyrians or Babylonians? If it has been a while and you don’t expect for him to get around to it, you might question if the preaching calendar is conditioned more by all sixty-six books of the Bible or just the verses your pastor thinks are immediately practical for your life. I’d argue our doctrine of the authority of God’s word makes all of it immediately practical for you.

On the right administration of the sacraments, I know you know how this should look.

On the practice of church discipline, this is one where I have the most discomfort with many churches today. Of course, church discipline extends beyond excommunication. The primary concern for all Christians should be that the church exists and lives as she is to live: holy and blameless. Are the standards for membership sinless perfection? No. There is, however, a standard of diligent repentance. So, are the people who claim to be members of any given church actually Christians? If the answer is no, how can one call the gathering a church? What makes it qualitatively different than say, a Chick-Fil-A which happens to have a few genuine Christians in there. Church discipline simply means a regulated membership. I do think it is, unfortunately, less rigorous to become a church member in many churches than qualifying for TSA Precheck. We, the people of God, above all else, should care about the purity of God’s church.

If Highlands is a true church, then it could become the right church for you. These three components are certainly not all that one should look for in determining the answer, but it certainly cannot be less than this. You can listen to Hillsong on Spotify if you wish. I would strongly encourage you to prioritize these marks above any style of singing.

If you think that these are present, but it still feels insufficient, I’d encourage you to not settle for less than utterly faithful. Trivial things like greeting ministry, small group organization, song style, architecture, awkwardness, etc. all pale in comparison to the pure preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline.

Love you brother. Hope we can catch up soon.

In Christ,

Zach

References   [ + ]

1. The Belgic Confession, Article 29

The Preacher’s Burden

How do you describe the Grand Canyon? A meteor shower? A rainbow after a storm? A wedding day? A newborn baby? These wonders are indescribably beautiful. And, yet, we reach for language to capture what our hearts behold. 

Of course, if this is true of creation, how much more for the Creator? Words fail us when we try to describe the wonders of God. How do you describe, for example, utter holiness? Perfect love? Infinite wisdom? Omnipresence? Omnipotence? Providence? The Trinity? We observe these attributes of God in his word and are often speechless. It almost seems wrong to speak of these things given the inadequacy of words to describe fully what we’re learning. 

This is a particular problem for preachers. After all, this is our job: week in and week out we are tasked with the unenviable burden of helping our churches behold their God. Knowing this, we cry out with the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). 

It is comforting to know that no one less than St. Augustine understood this dilemma. Surely, he was right when he stated, 

My preaching almost always displeases me. For I am eager after something better, of which I often have an inward enjoyment before I set about expressing my thoughts in audible words. Then, when I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart. What I myself understand I wish my hearers to understand as fully; and I feel I am not so speaking as to effect this. The chief reason is that the conception lights up the mind in a kind of rapid flash; whereas the utterance is slow, lagging and far unlike what it would convey. 1Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, chapter 2; quoted in David L. Larson, The Company of the Preachers (Kregel, 1998), 89.

Any preacher worthy of the name knows something of Augustine’s lament. Consider Isaiah 6:1-5,

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

How do we describe what Isaiah sees of the majesty of God? How do we relate to our people something of the seraphims’ worship? How do we explain Isaiah’s calling down a divine curse on himself given his sinfulness in the presence of the One who is “holy, holy, holy”? We do our best to proclaim this passage having experienced something of it all week in preparation. But it is highly likely that at the conclusion of our sermon we say to ourselves (or to our understanding spouse) in one form or another, “I have failed to utter my meaning as clearly as I conceived it, I am disappointed that my tongue is incapable of doing justice to that which is in my heart.” Amen, Augustine. 

Not only did Augustine know something of the inadequacy of language to describe God, the Bible is full of declarations of how indescribable God is. Moses, for example, sings in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:2 prays, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” When David considers who God is, he acknowledges in Psalm 139:6, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” And perhaps the clearest exclamation of our utter inability to adequately describe God comes from the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:33–36,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

As I considered this week’s column, I initially thought I would need to “fix” this problem for preachers. After all, evangelicalism loves to present easy solutions to real (or perceived) problems Christians face. Shouldn’t an article like this not only present the problem for preachers, but also give the 3 or 5 or 8 tidy things to do to remedy it? (On another platform this column title might be, “Five Ways to Describe the Indescribable” or “How Preachers Can Adequately Describe God in 7 Easy Steps.”) 

To do this would not only be unhelpful to preachers, but blasphemous toward God. For the indescribability of God is not a problem to be fixed, but a reality to reckon with. God will never be adequately described by human language. The infinite cannot be fully comprehended by the finite which means language will always fall short. However, that something is not possible in this life does not mean we don’t aim for it. We cannot love God perfectly in this life, but by grace we strive to love him more. We cannot be sinless in this life, but by grace we labor to grow in practical holiness. This is the heart-cry of the apostle when he exhorts the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:12-14). 

The glory of God demands that I improve my use of language to help our congregation behold their God. I do this trusting the Lord to use my “poor lisping, stammering tongue” until that day when “in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save.” 2William Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772.

References   [ + ]

1. Augustine, On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, chapter 2; quoted in David L. Larson, The Company of the Preachers (Kregel, 1998), 89.
2. William Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772.

Killing Words

Four words are haunting me: “And their voices prevailed” (Luke 23:23). With these four words Luke described the irreversible wave of fury that crashed on Jesus.

The multitudes had a choice. The crowd could have opted for Barabbas—the convicted insurrectionist and murderer. But instead they chose Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate’s feeble attempts could not persuade the mob otherwise:

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted (Luke 23:18-24).

It is easy for us to sit in judgment on those that cried out, “Crucify, crucify him!” We would like to think if we were there we would have acted differently. But honesty compels us to admit we would have done the same—by actively yelling or passively standing by and watching it happen. Either way we are complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the crucifixion of Jesus is not the whole story. We look through this awful event to the hope of the resurrection. We gaze through the cross to the resurrection and see that even as the voices of the multitude prevailed, God was prevailing.

The Apostle Paul declares the victory accomplished at the cross:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Colossians 2:13-15). 

What looked like utter defeat was actually God’s cosmic victory over sin, death, and the devil. At the cross sin was atoned for and God’s holy law fulfilled—all in the person of Jesus Christ.

This victory finds its apex in the resurrection (and ascension) of Christ. Good Friday, thank God, gives way to Sunday. Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead the Christian can sing with the apostle: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” It’s gone because, “Death is swallowed up in victory!” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

Good Friday is good because it announces to the world what was actually happening at the cross: the death of death in the death of Christ. And so it is good and right for us to sing today,

Behold the Man upon a cross; 
My guilt upon His shoulders. 
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice, 
Call out among the scoffers. 
It was my sin that held Him there, 
Until it was accomplished. 
His dying breath has brought me life; 
I know that it is finished. 

Amen.


Revelation: Achieving the Kingdom Goal

At Some Pastors and Teachers we want to resource pastors with great content. Highlighting important books is one way to do this. The following is an excerpt from Patrick Schreiner’s The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 121-123.

***

Revelation tells the story of a fallen tree burning in an eternal flame. The image is an apocalyptic vision of a destroyed kingdom juxtaposed with a victorious kingdom. In a similar way, Percy Shelley, in her sonnet “Ozymandias,” writes about a traveler seeing a statue in ruin and resting in the desert. The head of this figurine is described as,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.

On the pedestal of the statue are the words,

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 1Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, vol. 1 (London: Reeves & Turner, 1880), 376.

Ozymandias is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley’s poem speaks to the inevitable decline of all leaders and empires in contrast to their pretentions for greatness. The book of Revelation also juxtaposes the pride of the kingdoms of mankind with their eventual “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.” 2Ibid. Each kingdom that sets itself up against God’s kingdom will be left shattered. Only one kingdom will remain.

The canon of Scripture culminates with the cry of an archangel. 3Or as Barker writes, “It is significant that the Bible begins (Genesis 1-2) and ends (Revelation 19-22) with royal motifs.” Kenneth L. Barker, “The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 306. Revelation describes an apocalyptic battle between the city of Babylon and the city of God. The kingdom was launched in Genesis, challenged from the very beginning, and then consummated in Revelation. From the garden, through Abraham and David, to Jesus, to the church, we are desperate to know how the story will end. Will the people of God be rescued? Will their King return? Will their cities be rebuilt? What will happen to the enemies of the King? Will the crucified and ascended King reveal himself again?

While the King planted his foot on the earth in the Gospels, the rest of the New Testament made evident that all is not as it should be. The revelation to John on the island of Patmos concludes the story in a series of visions. The visions come in the form of letters to churches, bizarre narratives, and musical poetry, all with an apocalyptic focus—that is, pulling back the curtain of history. John’s vista is filled with dragons, beasts, blood, scorpions, and war.

Although modern readers regularly get confused by this writing style, “the goal of apocalyptic literature is not prediction, but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are.” 4James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 92. Apocalyptic literature is thus a way of seeing; a way of discerning God’s invading power in human events both presently and typologically in the future. Revelation is a book about the past, present, and future. It is an encouragement to Christians of all ages who wonder how the King will complete this kingdom story promised to Adam, Abraham, and David. John reveals the supernatural nature of this battle that has been waging between the seed of mankind and the seed of the Serpent from the time of Adam and Eve. The dragon and the woman are at war.

To use another image, the tree that is attempting to grow and fill the earth will meet the opposition of axes, fire, and rock, but God Almighty guarantees he will build a protective hedge around this tree so that it will fill the entire earth. Revelation continues the trio of kingdom themes that were inaugurated in the creation of the world, arguing that the kingdom goal is now achieved. John does so by revealing what is behind the scenes from multiple viewpoints (what some call “progressive recapitulation”). Therefore, we will also identify the consummation of the kingdom through recapitulating descriptions. The power of God and the Lamb is manifested in the judgment of the kingdom’s enemies. The people of the King are shielded and protected. The place of the kingdom is cleansed and prepared so that they might live with him forever and ever. Before this can happen, the dragon must be slain by the Lamb.

References   [ + ]

1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose, vol. 1 (London: Reeves & Turner, 1880), 376.
2. Ibid.
3. Or as Barker writes, “It is significant that the Bible begins (Genesis 1-2) and ends (Revelation 19-22) with royal motifs.” Kenneth L. Barker, “The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 306.
4. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 92.

Penal Substitution and Gospel Proclamation

It is one thing to accept that a doctrine is true; it is quite another for it to shape the life and ministry of the church. The doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is a controversial doctrine in some circles. But those of us who affirm that it is a truly biblical doctrine need to grapple carefully with how it should shape and inform our ministry.

The purpose of this brief article is to argue that PSA should be at the heart of our proclamation of the gospel—at the heart of our regular preaching of the word of God. There are important reasons for this both at the level of theological integrity and at the level of pastoral practicality.

THEOLOGICAL REASONS FOR THE CENTRALITY OF PSA IN PREACHING

Preaching that is biblical in the truest sense must be sensitive to the wider storyline of Scripture and properly contextualized within biblical theology, consciously shaped by certain key biblical-theological truths. Among these is the basic truth that the God of the Bible is rightly angry because of sin and will judge sin. There is little need to spend time here outlining a biblical theology of God’s justice and his holiness. This basic truth is so woven into the storyline of Scripture that we would have to willfully disregard the essential shape of salvation history to avoid it.

The Bible’s storyline is bookended with this reality and saturated with it: Genesis tells us that God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and judged them (and the world) for sin; Revelation tells us that a day is coming when he will execute his terrible judgment on the world. The fact that human sin incurs the judgment of God is the fundamental crisis of world history as far as the Bible is concerned. Any proclamation of the gospel that does not demonstrably flow from this biblical worldview and that fails to address this crisis is inadequate on a basic theological level.

Beyond this, and integrally related to it, preaching that is shaped by the wider storyline of Scripture must centre on the cross of Christ. There is a real sense in which true Christian preaching is nothing more and nothing less than the proclamation of Christ crucified. This was, of course, Paul’s conviction and his practice, as he so clearly affirmed in 1 Corinthians: ‘but we preach Christ crucified…’ (1:23); ‘For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (2:2).

When we consider that both God’s judicial wrath and the cross of Christ are part of the very fabric of the Bible’s storyline, then the doctrine of PSA comes into clear focus – for it is at the cross that God addresses his own just anger at sin. There are, of course, many aspects to Christ’s achievement at the cross: he defeats Satan, he liberates his people from slavery to sin, he provides cleansing from defilement, and he achieves much more besides. Sometimes these (and other) aspects of his achievement are conceived as separate models of the atonement, among which PSA is simply another model on an equal footing (if indeed PSA is accepted as valid among the models).

But such a construal is inadequate and skewed. The theological reality is that all of the problems associated with sin relate to the fact that fallen humanity sits under the judgment of God; only with the propitiation of God’s just anger at sin can the other elements of the crisis of the Fall be dealt with. So, it is more adequate to think of PSA as standing at the heart of the achievement of the cross, with victory over Satan, release from bondage, cleansing from defilement (and so on) all radiating out from that reality and depending upon it.

Without probing that line of thought further, the basic implication is this: if we are to be truly and robustly biblical in our preaching, then our preaching must reflect the basic truth that God is rightly angry about sin and that, at the cross, Christ has fully borne and satisfied the judicial wrath that sinners deserve.

PASTORAL REASONS FOR THE CENTRALITY OF PSA IN PREACHING

For those convinced of the doctrinal centrality of PSA, there is a danger of forcing a rather predictable and repetitive presentation of PSA into every sermon out of a sense of doctrinal obligation. Certainly that can be quite unhelpful and off-putting for a congregation, and it can often represent poor exposition of a given passage of Scripture. However, if these truths are woven into the fabric of Scripture as suggested above, there should be natural ways in which a doctrine of the atonement, rooted in and related to PSA, will flow from all of Scripture. That is, there should be fresh and contextually distinctive ways of preaching Christ crucified from any passage of Scripture.

What will be the practical and pastoral benefits of a commitment to keeping PSA central to our preaching of Scripture? Or, to think of it from the other angle, what would be the loss and cost attached to a failure to do this? In pursuing this line of inquiry, three kinds of answer emerge very quickly.

First, keeping PSA central to our preaching preserves for us a gospel that actually saves. For preachers who are attuned to the real-life experiences and feelings of a congregation, there is an understandable tendency to major on the ways in which Jesus can meet people in their various needs. And, of course, the Lord Jesus is kind beyond measure, more concerned for us than we know, and more than able to meet every need.

But the danger for us preachers is that we will drift into preaching a gospel that purely addresses the felt needs of the congregation. And so the Jesus of our proclamation quickly becomes the great therapist, the great lifestyle coach and, if we are not very careful, the great purveyor of health and wealth. But if we keep clearly in mind the full-orbed biblical doctrine of the atonement, grounded in the crisis of sin and the judgment of God, then we will be preserved from proclaiming such a superficial gospel. We will be disciplined to proclaim the true gospel, wherein Christ addresses our deepest and most fundamental need and wherefrom untold blessings flow, both in time and in eternity.

Second, keeping PSA central to our preaching gives us (and our congregation) an appropriate sense of urgency. If the gospel we proclaim bypasses the wrath of God at sin and the reality of a judgment yet to come – if the gospel we proclaim is essentially a gospel that addresses felt needs – then there is little urgency attached to its proclamation and response. If we are to be frank and honest about the contemporary situation within evangelicalism (broadly defined), we must acknowledge that a great deal of preaching today minimizes or bypasses the realities of sin and judgment. And the result is a distinctive lack of urgency in gospel proclamation and gospel belief. The fruits of this, of course, are very tangible. Missions agencies will tell you that recruitment from North American churches for the mission field is a very great (and very concerning) challenge.

Many pastors and elder boards will tell you that finding gifted, godly and well trained pastors to join their staff is very difficult indeed. Many churches and para-church organizations will be quick to report how hard it is to raise funds for gospel work. And if the gospel that is proclaimed is a gospel that largely addresses felt needs, all this is entirely unsurprising.

But if we recover and proclaim a gospel that addresses the true ugliness of sin, the judicial anger of God, and the self-substitution of Christ for sinners to bear that anger – we will recover a gospel that preachers want to proclaim to congregations, that missionaries want to take to the ends of the earth, and that believers will want to support in costly and sacrificial ways. Others will, no doubt, argue that it is possible to retain a sense of urgency in proclamation and response while denying that at the cross Jesus bears and satisfies the judicial anger of God in our place. Perhaps – but I for one remain unconvinced.

Third, keeping PSA central to our preaching engenders true love for Christ. No doubt we could all agree that we do not love Jesus as we ought. If we truly know him, we do love him, of course. But our love is feeble and often grows cold. And so the preaching of the gospel must renew and deepen our love for our Saviour. It would be entirely appropriate to say that the heart of the preacher’s purpose should be to promote true and deepening love for Jesus among his people. But the degree to which preaching achieves this will depend very significantly on the content of that gospel. That much is obvious.

And so when we bring this basic observation to bear upon the present discussion of PSA, we have to consider what will be the effect of proclaiming or avoiding this doctrine. Remember, PSA tells us that Jesus bore the judicial wrath of the holy God in my place and for my sin, so that at the final Day, I might be spared that unspeakable experience. Standing behind the doctrine of PSA and undergirding it at every point are the character and work of the God of love, whose compassionate heart for sinners moved him to intervene through such extraordinary and costly means for our salvation (Romans 5:8).

If we really understand the doctrine of PSA and the loving God who deigned to save us in such a way, and if this truth is part of our regular diet in preaching, then surely we will be moved to love our Saviour in increasing measure. Indeed, what truth could possibly move our hearts to love him more?

Should the doctrine of PSA shape and inform our preaching, undergirding our proclamation of Christ crucified? The answer must be yes—both for the sake of our theological integrity and our pastoral effectiveness.

New Creations in the New Year

On a recent flight to Dallas I enjoyed reading the current issue of American Way, the monthly magazine of American Airlines. In this particular issue the cover story was about golf phenom Lexi Thompson. Her remarks about why she loves the game of golf were striking: “Every day I wake up and somethings different in my game: my swing, the weather. That’s the thing about golf. It’s always a challenge every time you wake up. That’s why I gravitated to it. What keeps me going is that you can never perfect it.”

What Thompson recognizes about golf we can apply to the Christian life. Indeed, what keeps us going—striving for growth in practical holiness—is that we will never perfect the Christian life this side of heaven. There is always room for improvement.

A GOD-GIVEN DESIRE FOR PERFECTION

Human beings have an inherent desire for perfection. After all, we were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and have been given a mandate to exercise dominion over the earth for its improvement (Genesis 1:28). Both who we are and what we’ve been called to do create a desire for excellence in all things. And the Christian feels this perfectionist impulse acutely given our Lord’s command in Matthew 5:48, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Apostle Paul echoes this when he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That is, live perfectly. To seek perfection, therefore, is not an inherently bad thing. However, a drive for perfection can go awry if not tempered with biblical realism about the fall and its consequences.

GLORIOUS RUINS  

One of the tragic consequences of the fall is that perfection in this life is impossible. In manifold ways we see every day how human beings “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is true for the Christian as well. We resonate with the Apostle Paul when he laments, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Paul knows that this life is marked by constant warfare against indwelling sin.

The Apostle John thinks likewise when he writes to Christians, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). John is clear: those who claim to have no sin not only deceive themselves, but make God a liar proving that the word of God is not in them. Christians live a life of vigilance against indwelling sin until that day when sin shall be no more.

The Puritan John Owen in his classic work On the Mortification of Sin in Believers describes what the Christian life requires, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” Owen sees mortification as our life’s work—it is to be done “all [our] days” because perfection will not be realized this side of heaven.

A NEW CREATION IN CHRIST  

As I consider evangelicalism today, I do not think perfectionism is our greatest problem. More than perfectionism it can be argued that antinomianism is the greater threat (a theme I plan to take up in more detail in a future column). Even as the Bible is clear that perfection is not possible in this life God’s Word is equally clear that Christians are to grow in godliness. The theological reason for this has everything to do with what happens at regeneration: we are made new creatures in Christ. This is the astonishing truth Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

To be a new creation is the biography of every Christian. It is a promise for all those who are “in Christ”—that is, united by faith to the risen and exalted Lord. The term ‘new creation’ carries with it the idea of the sovereign, creative power of God. Paul invoked this idea earlier in the letter when he alluded to the power of God in creating light and applied it to the making of a Christian: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

What we learn is that Christianity is not moral tweaking. It is not simply “brushing off” our old selves, as if we’re merely dirty. Christianity is not ultimately about new habits or a new outlook, although it is those things. Christianity is about a complete and exhaustive overhaul. Nothing less than a new creation.

A Christian is one who has experienced the New Covenant promise of Ezekiel 36:26-27 where God proclaims what will be accomplished in Christ by the Spirit: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Christian has been given a new heart and the very Spirit of God so that we now “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

The Apostle says that the “old has passed away.” With the cross of Christ we have the end of the old covenant as well as the end of the old life of those who are now in Christ. Our old life of godless, self-centered, fleshly living has been crucified!

And because the old has passed away we make it our aim to “put to death” everything that belonged to that old life: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:5-10).

The Christian is one who takes constant inventory of his or her life and asks, “What in my life needs to be put to death?” Once something is identified we resolve to kill it. Indeed, we mobilize every means of grace at our disposal and wage war on the sin in our life!

The Christian life, however, is not only about what has passed away. It is also about what has come. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul is saying look, see, behold something breathtaking has come! We are now, if ever so faintly, beginning to display in our lives radiant colors of Christlikeness. In the power of the Holy Spirit we begin to “put on” Christlikeness: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).

It is true that we will not be perfect in this life. Life in a fallen world means that we will not be totally free from sin this side of heaven. But this truth does not lead us to despair. As Christians we have been untied to Christ by faith and given the Holy Spirit. Therefore we “make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). And even as we stumble and falter at times, we rejoice with Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”

The Church of Misfit Toys

Outside the church (i.e., outside the visible, organized Christ-confessing covenant community, where the gospel is preached purely, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered purely, and where church discipline is used), the church often looks very different than it does to members. Those outside the church quite often assume that only those who have achieved a state of perfection are welcome in church. Let’s put that to rest immediately: the church most assuredly is not for the perfect. Were that the case, the church would be entirely empty as there are no perfected Christians this side of heaven. The only congregation of perfect people is what Reformed theologians call “the church triumphant” (i.e., that gathering of glorified believers in heaven). We get a picture of that congregation in the Revelation (e.g., chapter 4). The church as it exists in this world, in this life (called the “church militant”) is full of nothing but sinners, who manifest the effects of sin in every conceivable way. It has been that way from the moment sin entered the world.

The church, as it were, was sinless before the fall. Adam and Eve were created righteous and holy. There were two symbolic trees, one that pointed to life (the tree of life) and one that pointed to death (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Genesis 2:9,17). We were free to eat from the tree of life but forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We freely chose to disobey God and plunged ourselves into sin and death (Genesis 3:6,7). The effects (and affects) of sin were felt immediately (Genesis 3:16-17). The firstborn son murdered the second born (Genesis 4:1–16) and things declined from there. We could trace out the story of sin and corruption in the visible church from the beginning of the Scripture to the end. Even after the resurrection of Jesus, after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church, it remained full of sinners. Two people died because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). The Apostle Paul had to address gross sexual immorality (see 1 Corinthians 5–6) and internal division in the Corinthian congregation (see most of 2 Corinthians). Our Lord himself addressed all manner of sin in his letters to the seven churches in the Revelation (chapters 2–3).

There has never been a time when the church, in this life, on this earth, was pure and without sin. There have been times, however, when the church has given the impression to her members and to others that only the perfect are welcome. She did that in the Middle Ages when many of their theologians concluded that we are right with God (justified) only to the degree we are holy (sanctified). The Eastern (Greek-speaking) churches in the same period came to speak of salvation as more in terms of gaining divinity rather than being justified and then, as a consequence, progressively sanctified.

In the Protestant Reformation the story was clarified to a great degree. Martin Luther (1483–1546) helped us see that Scripture teaches that all believers are at the same time sinful and declared righteous (simul iustus et peccator) by God, that, as Paul says, Christ justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).

After the Reformation much of the Protestant church lost that insight. It happened for a variety of reasons. There were movements that were dissatisfied with the Reformation understanding of Scripture but did not want to return to Rome. They imported some of the medieval ideas back into Protestant theology, piety, and practice. One of those was the doctrine of “entire perfection,” the notion that Christians can and should become entirely (perfectly) sanctified in this life. This idea was widely adopted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Those outside the church entirely tend to assume, because they know by nature that God is righteous and that they are not, that we need to become righteous before we enter the church. They either despair of ever becoming sufficiently righteous—as well they should—or have no interest in righteousness. Either way they completely misunderstand the church.

The church is not a collection of those who “have it all together” or who are entirely sanctified or who are, in themselves, entirely righteous. It is a collection of people who are exploring the Christian faith, who merely profess the Christian faith, and who actually believe the Christian faith. So, it is a mixed assembly. Further, all those who profess and believe the faith remain sinners all their lives. All Christians confess their sinfulness and their particular sins daily. The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). He wrote those words to Christians.

The church is not like a department store window display, where everything is perfectly and attractively arranged. It is much more like the Island of Misfit Toys (in the 1964 animated television show broadcast annually about this time). On the Island of Misfit Toys, all the toys were broken and needy. So it is with the church. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

Those who think that all is well simply are not admitting the truth to themselves or to others. They are in denial. In their conscience, however, they know that they are sinful. One of the jobs of God the Holy Spirit is to show sinners, in their hearts, minds, and consciences, that they are so and that they need a Savior. Those who feel too sinful for church are not far from the Kingdom, which is for those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3-4). If the idea that the church is for the perfect is keeping you from attending, stop thinking that way. It is not true. The church is for sinners, who know their need, who are trusting in Jesus their Savior, who are struggling with sin, confessing it, repenting of it, and turning again to Jesus. The church is for misfit toys like you and me.