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From a Movement to a Church: Part 3

Monday, November 30th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the third part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Parts one and two can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #3: The outward form, structure, and methods of the church are not nailed down in Scripture

I’m a typical American.  I like to “get ‘er done,” as they say.  We’re practical, can-do folks.  Let’s not spend a lot of time thinking about what we are doing.  Let’s just do it!  Many evangelicals assume that the Bible gives us a clear message, but then leaves the methods of delivering it up to us.

However, even in the Great Commission the command to “Go into all the world” is followed by the specific components of this calling: namely, to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to teach everything he has revealed.  Acts 2 tells us that the community created at Pentecost was dedicated to “the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (v 42).  These are all communal, structured, public activities.  (In Greek, the definite article in “the prayers” suggests that early Christian worship carried on the form of the synagogue liturgy with respect to corporate prayers.)

Throughout the Book of Acts, the apostles busy themselves with the elements of Christ’s commission.  In fact, the diaconate is established so that they can give themselves entirely to the ministry of Word and sacrament (Acts 6).  Then, everywhere they have a nucleus of converts, the apostles ordain ministers and elders.  “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul reminds Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Tit 1:5).  While Paul the Apostle could invoke a direct commission from the risen Christ, he bolstered Timothy’s confidence by reminding him of the calling and gift he received “when the council of elders [presbyteriou] laid their hands on you” (1 Tim 4:14).  Eventually, this ordinary ministry will replace the extraordinary ministry of the apostles.  The former will build on the foundation of the latter.  Not only are local churches to be organized with pastors, elders, and deacons; they are responsible to each other in a wider fellowship of mutual encouragement and admonition.  When the churches in Antioch brought the case of Gentile inclusion to the whole church in Acts 15, the “whole church” was represented by “the apostles and elders” from each local assembly.  The result was a written decision that was expected to be received by every local church.

Then when we get to the Epistles, specific offices and qualifications are clearly stated, especially in the pastoral letters.  Clear instructions are given for the meaning and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10-11), for church discipline (Mat 18; 1 Cor 5-7), and for public worship (Ac 2:42-45; 1 Cor 14:6-39) and the diaconal care of the saints (Ac 6; Rom 15:14-32; Gal 6:10; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-13).  We are even told why we sing.  Why does God need to tell us why we sing?  Because singing in corporate worship is not mere exuberance, entertainment, or pious expression of our own thoughts, feelings, and commitment.  Rather, the purpose of the singing is the same as the preaching, the sacraments, and the prayers: “…so that the Word of Christ may dwell in you richly…” (Col 3:16).  Christ cares so much about every aspect of his visible church because he knows how prone we are to wander and to set up idols, demanding our own forms of worship.  Not only the message of Christ, but the means of grace that he has appointed, are calculated by the Triune God for delivering Christ to sinners—including believers—throughout their pilgrimage.  The same gospel that brings those “far off” to Christ also brings to Christ those who are near to the covenant promises: “you and your children” (Ac 2:39).

A major heresy swept the ancient church in the second century, known as Gnosticism.  Trying to assimilate the gospel to Greek thought, the Gnostics drew a sharp division between spirit and matter, invisible and visible, outer and inner.  It was not the external ministry of Word and sacrament or external ministers like pastors and elders, but an inner ministry of the Spirit through spontaneous ecstasy and enlightenment, that the Gnostics extolled.  Paul’s agitators in Greek-dominated settings (such as Corinth and Colossae), whom the apostle had sarcastically dubbed “super-apostles,” were likely forerunners of this sect.  However, Jesus did not found a mystical sect of the inner light; he founded a visible church, where he has promised to deliver Christ and all of his benefits through the public ministry of Word and sacrament and to guard his sheep through loving discipline and care of body and soul.

Christ is not only our prophet and priest; he’s also our king.  As such, he has not only determined our personal piety but our corporate practices as his body.  Jesus did not redeem his sheep only to make them “self-feeders.”  The Spirit disrupts our lives and disorganizes the ordinary course of this present age, but only to re-organize and re-integrate a new society around the Son.

As I observed above, I’m as pragmatic as the next American.  However, this is not a benign character trait, especially if it keeps us from taking seriously Christ’s claims as king of his church.  American evangelicalism is deeply indebted to the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney.  The classic American pragmatist, Finney saw the doctrines of original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification through faith alone, and the supernatural character of the new birth as obstacles to genuine revival and society’s moral improvement.  His “new measures” (such as the “anxious bench,” a precursor to the altar call) supplemented and eventually supplanted the ordained means of grace. Revival was as normal as any other programmed event, dependent on the most effective means of persuasion that could be imagined by a clever evangelist.

Just as the Spirit’s inward call is often contrasted with outward means, evangelicalism celebrates the charismatic leader who needs no formal training or external ecclesiastical ordination to confirm a spontaneous, direct, an inner call to ministry.  Historians may debate whether the Protestant enthusiasm is more of a consequence than a cause of the distinctively American confidence in intuitive individualism over against external authorities and communal instruction, but the connection seems obvious.  In Head and Heart, Catholic historian Garry Wills observes,

The camp meeting set the pattern for credentialing Evangelical ministers.  They were validated by the crowd’s response.  Organizational credentialing, doctrinal purity, personal education were useless here—in fact, some educated ministers had to make a pretense of ignorance.  The minister was ordained from below, by the converts he made.  This was an even more democratic procedure than electoral politics, where a candidate stood for office and spent some time campaigning.  This was a spontaneous and instant proclamation that the Spirit accomplished.  The do-it-yourself religion called for a make-it-yourself ministry.

Wills repeats Richard Hofstadter’s conclusion that “the star system was not born in Hollywood but on the sawdust trail of the revivalists.” Where American Transcendentalism was the version of Romanticism that attracted a wide following among Boston intellectuals, Finney’s legacy represents “an alternative Romanticism,” a popular version of self-reliance and inner experience, “taking up where Transcendentalism left off.”  Emerson had written, “The height, the deity of man is to be self-sustained, to need no gift, no foreign force”—no external God, with an external Word and sacraments or formal ministry.  And revivalism in its own way was popularizing this distinctly American religion on the frontier.

Writing against Charles Finney’s “new measures,” a contemporary Reformed pastor and theologian, John Williamson Nevin, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table.  In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.”  Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” He was certainly right and we can’t just staple the five points of Calvinism to an essentially Pelagian methodology.

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church: Part 2

Monday, November 16th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[This is the second part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church." Part one can be found here.]

Misunderstanding #2: “Getting saved” doesn’t mean “joining a church”

Although evangelicals are used to hearing this contrast between a personal relationship with Christ and joining a church, it has no basis in the New Testament and in fact runs counter to specific examples.  From the day of Pentecost itself, “What must I do to be saved?” is answered in the Book of Acts by the call to repent and believe the gospel and to be baptized.  “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).  Public profession of faith is essential (Romans 10:10).  We have no access to hearts and surely there are instances (like the thief on the cross) where baptism and formal church membership are impossible.  However, it is a public profession of faith, not merely a private testimony of a personal relationship with Christ, that is required.  Not all who are outwardly members of the visible church are inwardly united to Christ.  This has been true in Old and New Testaments, as Paul reminds us especially in chapters 2 and 9 of Romans.  The body of elders who examine such professions is no more competent to judge hearts than the rest of us, but a credible public profession means that we cannot exercise vigilante judgments about the state of fellow members.

The apostles addressed concrete churches in specific locales and not only their leadership but the whole fellowship of communicant members.  Paul addresses the Corinthian church as those “who are called to be saints,” and on the basis of their visible membership calls them to discipline their worship and their erring members.  Believers are called to submit themselves to the spiritual leadership of pastors and elders whom God has placed over them (1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17).  This is not “Churchianity.”  It’s Christianity.

-Mike Horton

From a Movement to a Church

Monday, November 9th, 2009 by Eric Landry

[We're starting a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the "nature, marks, and mission of the church."]

Introduction

In The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells observes that parachurch ministries are increasingly replacing the church itself.  The question is whether evangelicalism itself has become a threat to actual churches.  Many Christians today believe that going to a Christian concert, evangelistic event, or conference is equivalent to the corporate gathering of the covenant community each Lord’s Day.  As George Barna argues in The Revolutionaries (Tyndale, 2005), most Christians will soon (he hopes) receive their spiritual resources on-line and not even find it necessary to attend, much less join, a local church.  Stunned by the revelation that many of those most involved were the most dissatisfied with their spiritual growth, Willow Creek Community Church’s self-study, published as Reveal, concluded that believers outgrow the church.  Although the respondents actually said that they thought the weak diet was responsible for their poor spiritual health, the leadership concluded that they need to work harder to make people fend for themselves as “self-feeders” and be less dependent on the ministry of the church.

Across the board—from more traditional churches to megachurches and emerging churches, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the nature, marks, and mission of the church.  This brief article can’t address all of the issues that I treated in People and Place.  However, I’ll mention a few here.  Before I do, I should say at the outset that I don’t believe that any of the points below (which I regard as misunderstandings) are new.  They all have a long history in evangelicalism.

Misunderstanding #1: “All of life is sacred”

It was revolutionary for me to learn from Francis Schaeffer and others that God cares about the whole world and the whole person.  All of life, not just religion, falls under the judgment and grace of the God who is both Creator and Redeemer.  I learned that the Reformation recovered the New Testament emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.  It’s not just a minister preparing a sermon, but an artist at her canvas, who reflects God’s goodness and fulfills a God-given calling.  You don’t need to stamp John 3:16 on the painting to make it “Christian”; our worldly callings don’t need to be justified by their spiritual or evangelistic utility.  Nevertheless, as new creatures in Christ, we see everything with new eyes.  We don’t approach our work as a job, but as a calling, and we seek to think through the implications of Scripture for the whole range of our activities.  I wasn’t alone.  Many younger Christians were being freed from a narrow “pietism” that had created a “Christian ghetto,” with an alternative sub-culture (usually of inferior quality).

In all the excitement, however, we seem to have swung to the other extreme.  Part of the rationale for affirming this world and our secular callings is that God is the Lord of the common as well as the holy.  We don’t need to make things “sacred” in order to affirm them as noble, God-given, and God-glorifying.  In spite of their intentions, even atheists glorify God’s common grace when they produce honorable goods and services, write beautiful screen-plays, and develop cures for diseases that plague us all.

In the Garden before the fall, everything was holy.  Adam and Eve were given a sacred commission to extend God’s righteous reign through their daily work in cultivating the ground, driving out the serpent, and guarding and protecting the sanctuary.  After the fall, the couple was given the surprising Good News of a future redeemer, but their work was now to be done “east of Eden.”  The Garden was no longer holy.  At Mount Sinai, God delivered the precise terms of Israel’s constitution that would reunite the holy and the common: not only a moral law that repeated the dictates of the law written on the conscience in creation, but civil and ceremonial laws for every detail of daily life.  Then God brought Israel into his holy land.  Yet when Israel broke this covenant, God evicted the people, as he had Adam and Eve.  In their exile in Babylon, the children of Judah were to pray for the city of their captivity, to build houses and plant vineyards, and to participate in the common life of the Babylonians without compromising their faith and practice.  And they were called to “be fruitful and multiply” in exile, providing a covenant community for the eventual arrival of the Messiah. Even when the Jews did return to Palestine, they knew that they were still in exile, ruled over by Gentile oppressors.

Just as Moses received the laws for the holy nation at Mount Sinai, Jesus issues his own commands in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is not the era of driving the Gentiles out of a geo-political land by the sword, but of suffering patiently, praying for our enemies, and proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth.  The kingdom of God is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins.  With Christ’s cross, Satan’s head is crushed and with Christ’s resurrection Satan’s kingdom is toppled.

By his Word and Spirit, Christ is even at this moment raiding Satan’s prisons, liberating them as captives in his train. But once again, this spiritual kingdom is distinct from the kingdoms of this age.  The former progresses through the forgiveness of sins through preaching and sacrament, while cultural activity is common.  Christians work side by side with non-Christians, loving and serving their neighbors with goods and services that promote the common welfare.  This work is not redemptive.  It is not ushering in that consummation of Christ’s reign that we will see when Christ himself returns to raise the dead in judgment and salvation, making all things new.

In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that Jesus Christ, in his ascension, is pouring out on his church all of the gifts that he has won for his people, specifically mentioning the gifts of pastors and teachers who complete the body by building it up by the Word into its head, Jesus Christ.  The Great Commission that Jesus delivered to his church is not to go into all the world and make it safe for democracy, to redeem culture, or to discover cures for cancer.  Rather, Jesus commissions the church as an institution to preach, baptize, and teach.  Wherever instructions are given in the New Testament for the lives of believers in the world, they are pretty basic: living peaceably, working well with their hands, giving to those in need, and reflecting the fruit of the Spirit.  No less than the work of a non-Christian, a believer’s discovery of a medicinal cure is the result of the Spirit’s work in common grace.

“Secular” simply means “of this age.”  Jesus and Paul repeatedly spoke in terms of “this age” and “the age to come.”  The former refers to the present regime, under the dominion of sin and death, while the age to come is defined by the re-creation of this world with the glorified Christ as its firstfruits.

So we don’t work with only two categories: sacred and evil.  There’s a third one: common.  In this respect, the believer’s sphere of activity overlaps with that of his or her non-Christian neighbors.  They share common blessings and common woes.  Yet the holy nation that Christ is creating by his Word and Spirit is a remnant from all cultures, across all times and places.  It is holy, not common, because it is claimed by God as the cherished object of his saving grace.  Through his gospel, signified and sealed to us and to our children in baptism, the covenant community is that holy commonwealth that began with the announcement to our first parents after they had sinned.

Enjoying God’s creation is common.  In its commonness, it is a remarkable testimony to God’s goodness, power, and other invisible attributes, as Paul tells us in Romans 1 and 2.  However, hearing God’s gospel is holy and hearing and receiving it makes us holy, as Paul says in Romans 3 (and chapter 10).  A great concert may witness to God’s glory in human creativity, but God delivers his saving Word in the covenant assembly.  God is omnipresent and his creative power is evident through everything that he has made.  However, the question for sinners is where God has promised to be present in grace and mercy.

God still separates one holy day out of six common ones.  God still separates specific activities: preaching of the Word, public prayer, confession and declaration of pardon, administration of baptism and the Supper, singing the Word of Christ, and the fellowship of saints, from the common activities of work, friendships, and entertainment.  So all of life is indeed blessed and upheld by God’s common grace, but there remains a distinction between the common and the holy; common grace and saving grace; that which is honorable, God-glorifying, and helpful to our neighbors and that which is redemptive.

-Mike Horton

[next week, we'll take up the relationship between salvation and participation in the visible church]

Wright Wednesdays: Part 9

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 by Eric Landry

[We're continuing with Mike Horton's review of N.T. Wright's new book, Justification, a response to the criticisms of John Piper and others to his reconsideration of the Reformation's understanding of Paul and the universal problem of guilt and righteousness. Want to catch up or refresh your memory? Here are the previous installments.]

“Works of the Law”: Soteriology and Ecclesiology

Following D. G. Dunn, Wright insists that the “works of the law” are not “the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate.  They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile…” (117; cf. 172).  Aside from the fact that the Reformation tradition—Lutheran as well as Reformed—has always affirmed the abiding role of the moral law for the Christian life, the deeper problem with this view is what it excludes.  Of course, the Torah included the ceremonial and civil commands that governed the theocracy and marked Israel off from the nations.  To be sure, these Israel-specific laws functioned as boundary markers.  And surely their obsolescence (or rather, fulfillment) in the new covenant opens the door to the realization of the Abrahamic promise of the gospel to all peoples.  However, is that it?  Is there nothing more to the Good News than, “Jesus is Lord, so you don’t have to be circumcised and keep the dietary laws?”  The new perspective misses the deeper problem of the “works of the law” as a means of justification in Paul.  Paul’s teaching on justification surely involves an ecclesiological component (uniting two peoples into one in Christ), but only because it is the soteriological answer to a universal human problem: guilt before a holy God (Rom 3).

Wright insists that “justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin” (170).  “The Reformation legacy, eager to deny that ‘good works’ in the sense of morally virtuous deeds can play any part in commending us to God, was happy to cite this passage [Eph 2:10] by way of answer to the normal charge that ‘justification by faith alone’ would cut the nerve of all Christian morality.”  We’re not saved by good works, but unto good works.  “Well and good.  This is not far, of course, from what the new perspective would say about Judaism: rescued by grace then given Torah as the way of life.  But I do not actually think that that is what Paul is talking about here…[T]he point of this is not simply ‘because you now need to be virtuous’ but ‘because the church is the body of Christ in and for the world’” (171).

Wright wonders, “Is resistance to ecclesiology in Paul bound up with resistance to finding too much for the Spirit to do as well?”  The coming together of Jews and Gentiles into one body is integral to the mystery in Ephesians (173).   “If initial membership is by grace, but final judgment is according to works—and the New Testament, at first glance, including the Pauline corpus, does seem quite clear at this point—then what account of those ‘works’ can we give?  Is this not, at last, the moment when Jewish ‘legalism’ is exposed?”  Wright doesn’t deny that there are Second Temple texts that highlight the importance of works at the judgment (75).  “First, the key question facing Judaism as a whole was not about individual salvation, but about God’s purposes for Israel and the world…The ‘present age’ would give way to the ‘age to come,’ but who would inherit that ‘age to come’?” (76).  This seems right, in light of some of the questions that Jesus’ hearers ask.  However, don’t these questions inescapably involve the personal question, “How can I be saved?”  “What right do you Pharisees think you have to escape the wrath to come?”, Jesus demands of the religious leaders.  “You assume that you are among the righteous to be raised on the last day, but are you really?”  And his clear answer, especially during Holy Week on the Temple Mount is “No!”

So again Wright and the new perspective help us to embrace a wider context—and we are foolish if we ignore their seminal insights on these points, but they apparently fail to understand how the cosmic-eschatological concerns and the personal anxiety over salvation from sin’s guilt and power are interdependent.  Again he assumes he’s the only one who has ever tied justification to the covenant in Gen 15 (82-3).  What was Israel’s expectation during Jesus’ ministry?

The answer, from source after source in the second-temple period, confirming what we might have guessed from Scripture itself, was this: Israel will be vindicated, will inherit the age to come—but it will be the Israel that has kept Torah, or that, through penitence and amendment of life (as in Daniel 9, looking back to Deuteronomy 30), has shown the heartfelt desire to follow God’s ways and be loyal to his covenant…’All Israel will inherit the age to come,’ said the Rabbis, with the following clauses indicating that some would not, opting out by their own rank refusal to follow Torah.  Torah thus functioned, implicitly at least, within not only a covenantal framework but also a broadly eschatological one.  The ‘age to come’ would see Israel vindicated at least.  But the way to tell, in the present, who would thus be vindicated in the future was to see who was keeping Torah (in some sense at least) in the present…These questions could be addressed in terms of a theological account of how much of this law-keeping was up to one’s own initiative, and how much would be owed to God’s grace and help (76).

So much for their not being interested in questions of personal salvation, grace, and the extent to which one had to cooperate with God in justification!  In fact, Wright refers to examples from early Jewish literature suggesting the importance of weighing works as the basis for final judgment and vindication.  In fact, the Qumran community agreed with Paul in their expectation of the fulfillment of Deut 30. “Where they diverged was on the questions (a) What events have precipitated the advance covenant renewal with us in the present? (b) Who will be vindicated when God finally completes what he has thereby begun? (c) What are the signs in the present which mark out those who will be vindicated in the future? And perhaps also, as we shall see, (d) What theological account of how one passes from present grace-given membership to future salvation?” (77).  From his own summary, it would seem that these questions are more integrally involved with the concern for personal salvation than Wright allows.

So again, the problem is not so much what is affirmed as what is denied.  Wright is on target when he criticizes evangelicals for separating salvation (soteriology) from the church (ecclesiology) (132).  He is also correct in seeing in Paul a thorough integration of those issues.  The problem is that while the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (and male and female and free and slave) is for Paul a critical implication and consequence of the gospel, for Wright it is exactly reverse.  For him, the message of sin, forgiveness, and salvation is an “of course” (131).  “The problem of human sin, and the divine answer in terms of the rescue provided by the Messiah, is the presupposition.  It emerges gloriously at several points, notably Galatians 2:19-20 and Galatians 3:22.  But it is not the main argument” (133).  It’s not just “at several points,” however, but throughout his epistles that Paul makes central the themes of personal salvation in union with Christ.  Because neither Jews nor Gentiles keep the law, they are all lumped together under a common curse, but because Jesus Christ has taken our place, Jews and Gentiles together can be children of Abraham—part of God’s single, worldwide family.  That is Romans 1-4 in nuce.

“How can ‘ecclesiology’ be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification,” Wright asks, “when Scripture itself gives it this high a place?”

Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and that they are not, it serves directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world?  It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective’s reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? (174).

Before we criticize too quickly, it is important to allow Wright’s concerns to sink in.  Justification is not treated in the scriptures simply as an individual affair, but as a cosmic renewal, a divine re-writing of the tragic script that we have written for ourselves and the rest of creation. The church is integral to God’s saving plan—not as the source of redemption, but as the minister of reconciliation.  Further, this ministry leads simultaneously to a justified and renewed people who fulfill their callings in the world with an eschatological anticipation of Christ’s fully-realized reign in a renewed creation.

However, this plan would be pie-in-the-sky if it were in our hands to accomplish or to complete—or if the justification of the ungodly were merely an “of course” rather than the reason why a united family of God is emerging in this passing age.  Wright’s real target seems to be not so much the Reformation tradition as pietism.  As on other points, his solution is just as one-sided, however.  He worries that the “old perspective” on justification will revive “Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ theology…” (174), although it is not clear exactly what ostenstibly dangerous view he has in mind.  Although he is anxious about an over-realized theology with respect to justification, he seems to advocate just such an eschatology with respect to the kingdom of God.  In recent years, Wright has emphasized the political context of Jesus’ ministry and apostolic preaching, over against the claims of Caesar, particularly in an effort to challenge U.S. militarism.  Even here, there are important insights.  However, is Romans really a political manifesto against Caesar, especially when Paul’s call to obey emperors appears in chapter 13?  The “two kingdoms” doctrine, which Calvin held as well, does not separate Christ’s reign from the world’s powers, but it also does not confuse them.  In this time between Christ’s two advents, the Spirit is at work uniting sinners to Christ and creating an end-time harvest of Israel and the nations.  For now, the kingdoms of this world have not yet been made the kingdom of Christ in geo-political terms.  Nevertheless, the church announces that imminent hope and lives in the present with patience, suffering for the sake of the gospel, until Christ returns in glory.

Next week, we’ll conclude this series with some final thoughts on the book as a whole.

-Mike Horton

Five for Friday

Friday, October 9th, 2009 by Eric Landry

Reformation and Revitalization

In this week’s edition of Five for Friday, our blog interview feature, we welcome the Rev. Harry Reeder, a PCA pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, and the founder of “Embers to a Flame”: a ministry of church revitalization.

If you know of a Reformation pacesetter that we should interview, please email us and we’ll feature their story as someone leading the way for Reformation.

Give us a brief summary of the work that Embers to a Flame does.

Embers to a Flame is a focused ministry to address the issue of leading a church that has plateaued of declined or lost effectiveness for the work of the kingdom back to vitality and effectiveness in serving Christ. While Embers To a Flame certainly encourages preaching and praying for revival, the focus is upon leading a church to spiritual health and vitality, thus the term RE – vitalization. Just as a parent is dependent upon the Lord for the health of one’s child they also realize that they have been given the wisdom to encourage and nurture health and vitality in their child. Leaders of the church are dependent upon the Lord to give life to the church but have been called of the Lord and given direction as to how to nurture health and vitality in the body of Christ. It is important to understand that the objective is NOT church growth but church health. We do not TELL our children how many inches to grow. We feed them, rest and exercise them trusting the Lord in fulfilling what he has purposed through the DNA of their body. Likewise church leaders nurture the body of Christ trusting the Lord in the DNA of the work of the Holy Spirit in that church’s testimony as a manifestation of the Body of Christ. Certainly statistical growth in conversions, members, giving and missionaries, would be an expected consequence of health and vitality BUT it is not the objective. When growth becomes the objective it is only a matter of time until pragmatism guides the decision making process of the leadership. Just as athletes who value size put steroids into their body many churches, for the sake of size, will introduce “cultural steroids” into the body not realizing that like the athlete there may be immediate expansion of size but actually you have introduced an inevitable death through this process. Embers to a Flame rejects the notion that big is good and small is bad and equally rejects the notion that small is good and big is bad. If “small” becomes the objective to the church’s attempt to purity then the church again introduces death the way individuals who become obsessed with smallness develop eating disorders which causes the body to turn upon itself and destroy itself…so those churches eventually become ingrown and eventually self destruct.

Embers to a Flame is a distillation of biblical principles to help lead a church to health and vitality through spiritually healthy leaders and leadership. The focus is upon the documented revitalization process in Scripture of the Church of Ephesus, first through Timothy and then specifically, following the prescription of Christ in Rev. 2:4-5 ~ Remember – Repent – Recover the First Things is the Lord’s roadmap back to a church’s “first love” and its vitality. Furthermore, this three-fold paradigm is implemented through 10 strategies drawn from the Scriptures.

When most people think of Reformation today, they think of starting new churches much like the leaders of the Protestant Reformation did in the sixteenth century. What is the relationship between the reformation of the church and the revitalization of the church?

The 10 strategies of Revitalization of necessity called for Reformation. The premise is from Scripture and history that “Great Awakenings” come from revitalized churches and therefore believers through the process of reformation which is encompassed in the paradigm Remember – Repent – Recover the first things.

Why is revitalization a necessary work?

In today’s ecclesiastical fascinations, Church Planting has center stage and for many reasons that are appropriate. But, when the Apostle Paul went back for the second and third missionary journeys he specifically added revitalization of the churches that had been planted as an objective to be achieved. It is interesting that Acts 17:6 records the word of a frustrated pagan all the way from Europe declaring “these people who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”

We know Who turned the world upside down – the Holy Spirit through his church (acts 1:8).
We know What turned the world upside down – the Power of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).

What is interesting is How they turned the world upside down in less than 25 years after the Ascension of Jesus. The strategy was four- fold:

  1. Gospel evangelism and discipleship
  2. Gospel church planting
  3. Gospel leaders developed and deployed
  4. Gospel deeds of love, mercy and justice

This four-fold initiative was enhanced in the second and third missionary journeys of Gospel Church Revitalization (Acts 15-16 – “strengthening the church”)

Therefore, if we are to be Biblical in our strategy and not driven by sociology and psychology but by Biblical precept, it is our conviction that every church and denomination must be focused upon Christ- centered and Gospel-driven Church Planting AND Church Revitalization. When one sheep wonders Christ pursues it and when a flock wonders Christ pursues them. That is why Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus and gave him a handbook on revitalization – I Timothy – And Titus was sent to Crete to “set in order what remains” with a similar handbook on revitalization. Then 55 years later John is given a message of revitalization not only for Ephesus but for four other churches from Christ himself – Revelation 2 and 3.

What kinds of churches need to be revitalized? That is, what are the signs that a local church might take note of?

Churches that are candidates for revitalization are those who have become spiritually and numerically stagnate, plateaued or declining. The symptoms that reveal the need for revitalization are many and varied. Here are a few:

  1. Program dependent
  2. Fascinated by personality leadership
  3. Financial decline
  4. Loss of impact, usually in the younger generation
  5. Numerical decline – decline of members
  6. Prayerlessness
  7. Loss of hope
  8. Nostalgia dominated
  9. Survival mentality and multiple excuses catalogued to rationalize ineffectiveness
  10. More of a museum than a movement

How do you define a healthy church?

First of all, we must be committed to the Biblical definition of the church as the core of the Kingdom of God, the equipping center for the Kingdom of God and a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. The church is NOT the Kingdom but at the core of the Kingdome of God. Secondly, the church must lose their fascination with hyphenated churches that are driven by highly contextualized models i.e. Emergent churches, Sonship churches, Seeker-centered and Traditional churches. We must return to our confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture to define for us what the church is. And furthermore it doesn’t matter if it is 800 AD or 2800 AD and it doesn’t matter if its Kansas or Kenya, this is what the church is and does. Once that is established then the Biblical model must be effectively contextualized in the location where the church is being planted or revitalized. The symptoms of a healthy church are described in Acts 2:

  1. Participatory God-centered worship
  2. Daily evangelism
  3. Sacrificial giving
  4. Observable sacrificial love of the brethren
  5. Primacy of the ministry of prayer and the Word
  6. Intentional disciple making through small groups
  7. Proper observation and implementation of the sacraments i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
  8. Intimate fellowship and the use of spiritual gifts by the members of the church in ministry
  9. A sense of the presence of God
  10. Transformed lives through the Gospel of Grace resulting in a testimony of the preeminence of Christ. The Holy Spirit will be at work and no one will be speaking about Him because His work is that everyone will be speaking of and proclaiming Christ.

For more information on Embers to a Flame, visit their website or purchase Dr. Reeder’s book, From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004).

Two Kingdoms Questions (Part 3)

Monday, October 5th, 2009 by Eric Landry

I started a short series of blog posts last week dealing with several common questions and objections to the Reformation doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. Here are parts 1 and 2, if you missed them.

Today, I’m finishing this series by taking up the most serious objection, namely, that this view denies the presence of Christ’s kingdom today.  Critics contend that the Two Kingdoms is sort of like dispensationalism: “let’s just wait until Jesus gets back.”  Often the objection gets boiled down to a statement like, “Two-Kingdoms proponents don’t’ care about transforming the culture here and now.”

A lot comes down to how we relate the “already” of Christ’s kingdom to the “not yet” that is still up ahead.  I recently read a blog post somewhere in which the author (a mainline Presbyterian) said that dispensationalism is the only thing that mainline Presbyterians have managed to denounce as heresy in the 20th century.  I’ve written enough critiques of the dispensationalist way of reading the Bible to dispel any legitimate suspicion of being a closet dispensationalist.  However, I think this blogger makes a point.  There is a kind of American Protestant activism (fueled especially by Charles Finney and the revivalistic legacy) that regards moral, cultural, and social reform as the main business of the church.  If dispensationalism rejects the “already” of Christ’s kingdom, the opposite error is the downplay the “not yet.”

Notice that throughout the Gospels, Christ the King is actually present with his kingdom.  And what happens? The outcasts, prostitutes, and other assorted sinners are forgiven and welcomed to the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Even the healings are signs the reveal Christ’s kingdom chiefly as a ministry of salvation from sin, death, and hell.  Here, with the King present in person with his kingdom, we might expect the banners to be unfurled, the wicked and the oppressors (whoever we identify as such) driven out and destroyed. Surely, if ever in this present age, we were to expect a total transformation of the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ, it would have been in Christ’s earthly ministry.  Yet he just preaches the gospel, forgives sins, heals the sick, and marches toward the cross.

Nor do we find a blueprint in the New Testament Epistles for a Christian economic or political system, a Christian theory of art or science, or a plan for universal hygiene.  The commands are simply to live godly lives in the present, as parents, children, spouses, employers, and employees, caring for the needs of the saints, participating regularly in the public assembly of Christ’s body, and to pray for our rulers.

This does not mean that we may not be called to extraordinary—even heroic—acts of service, or (especially in a democratic republic) to exercise our legal rights to defend justice and engage in acts of charity beyond the communion of saints.  Thank God for William Wilberforce, who drew on his Christian convictions as he brought the slave trade to an end in England.  Thank God for believers who were great scientists and helped to create greater understanding and advances in medicine.  But God should also be thanked for the myriad believers who have simply strived to fulfill their everyday callings as parents, neighbors, workers, volunteers, and friends.  Abraham Kuyper spoke of the “little people” of the kingdom, citing examples—like a parishioner: the elderly woman who led him to Christ even though he was her pastor but as yet steeped in liberalism.  We will still need government and private sector relief agencies, but it would make a big difference in society if Christians spent more time in their ordinary vocations, caring for aging parents and growing (perhaps physically or mentally challenged) children, being good neighbors, and fulfilling their calling at work with remarkable skill and dedication.

Furthermore, non-Christians are as likely to be numbered among the great heroes, too.  Calvin speaks eloquently of the Spirit’s work in common grace of bringing truth, goodness, and beauty in earthly matters to the world through pagans, benefiting us all.  It would be “ingratitude toward the Spirit,” he says, if we were to ignore these gifts.  So in these acts of love and service to our neighbors, Christians are not alone.  It is due to God’s common grace, but the church is not a common-grace institution.  It is not the Rotary Club, UNICEF, or a political action group.  The visible church is God’s means of bringing his saving grace to the ends of the earth.

It’s the Lord’s Day again, just in time.  It’s been a long week of glorifying and enjoying God out in the world, confessing sins, and receiving God’s forgiveness for having fallen short.  Now it’s time to be a recipient of God’s public renewal of his vows to us.  It’s time to come and unburden our load and find in Christ true rest for our souls.  But, alas, the pastor has chosen another hobby-horse this week.  He’s a man with a plan and he imagines that Christ’s sheep are his army of volunteers.  So here is a weary mom, a frustrated dad with a disappointing relationship at work, an elderly woman who wonders why God still leaves her on earth to suffer debilitating pains.  There is a teen-ager with doubts about himself and his faith, even about God’s existence. And the pastor is going to set aside the assignment he has been given by his Master in order to call these folks to transform their world, or at least their neighborhood.  Not even if that church were full of architects, bankers, redevelopment officers, urban planners, economists, and a mayor or two could it achieve the goal that this pastor has just placed before (and upon) the people under his care.

In a case like this, the pastor is missing several important biblical points: We’re in the in-between time right now.  Not only are the secular kingdoms still secular (though we still participate in them); we ourselves are still simultaneously justified and sinful.  We are not ourselves transformed enough (glorified) to agree upon what a transformed world would look like in all the details, much less to implement it perfectly.  Imagine an international, evangelical Christian congress where a plan for transforming the world were to be designed. How long would it take before fights broke out?

I’ve been in Christian conferences where theologians, ethicists, and pastors presented their imperatives for a new world order and Christian economists in the room hardly knew where to begin enumerating the factual confusion and incoherence, much less the wisdom, of their arguments.  In this in-between time, even a non-Christian economist or hospice worker who cares about people will be more of a genuine neighbor to a sufferer than a lot of busy Christians with big plans that are impractical or uninformed.

So why shouldn’t Christian economists work alongside their non-Christian partners for solutions to problems in this in-between time?  And why shouldn’t Christian volunteers serve along aside their non-Christian neighbors in the Peace Corps, Hospice, Big Brother/Big Sister, and Little League?  Why does everything have to be “Christian”?  And why do we have to turn God’s service to his flock into a political party convention?  I love Bono, but I want my pastor to be Joe Shepherd.

I remember asking the general secretary of the World Council of Churches if his organization still holds to its old slogan, “Doctrine divides; service unites.”  Laughing, he said, “Good grief, no.  We’ve learned over the decades that service divides.  Some think capitalism is the way forward, while others insist on socialism.  The pie cuts a thousand ways.  But then we’ve found that when we go back to talking about the Nicene Creed or some such thing, there is at least a sense of people coming back into the room and sitting down with each other to talk again.”

Pastors aren’t authorized to create their own blueprint for transformation, but are servants of the Word.  Where Scripture has clearly spoken, he must speak.  Where it is silent, he must keep his personal opinions and perhaps even learned conclusions to himself.  Of course, pastors are called to preach the whole council of God: not only the gospel, but the law—including its third use (to guide Christian obedience).  That’s enough to occupy our prayerful action in the world, without piling up commands that God never gave.  We’re never called to transform the world (or even our neighborhood).  We’re never called even to bring millions to Jesus Christ.  We’re called to be faithful in our vocations at work, at home, in our neighborhoods and in our witness to those individuals whom God brings across our path in ordinary ways every day.

One day, this kingdom will extend to every aspect of worldly existence.  There will be no tyrants, no pain, no disease, no injustice, no poverty, no idolatry, no oppression.  The kingdoms of this world will be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ and he will reign forever.  For now, however, Jesus is gathering guests for his feast, forgiving, justifying, calling, renewing, sanctifying, and sending them out to bring others to the swelling hall.  Christ’s reign in grace (through the Great Commission) is a parenthesis in God’s plan.  His reign in glory, commencing with his return in judgment and final conquest of the whole earth, will be everlasting.

Of course, we live today in the light of that future hope.  This is the message of Romans 8:18-25.  To paraphrase Paul, we are stewards of God’s earth, not simply because of God’s creation of the world and of us as its keepers in the past, but also because the whole creation will share one day in the glorious liberty of God’s children.  “For in this hope we were saved” (v 24). Yet we also live in the present as those who do not yet see all things subjected visibly to Christ and are all too familiar with the opposition of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  “Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (vv 24-25).  The indwelling Spirit engenders within us the longing for Christ’s return (v 26).

We are not building a kingdom, but receiving one (Heb 12:28).  Even our lives in the world, in our callings, in our witness to our neighbors, is not bringing the future of Christ’s consummated kingdom into the present. Rather, it is God’s means of extending his reign in grace, while we wait expectantly for his return in glory.

-Mike Horton

[For more on this, see regular MR-contributor Jason Stellman's new book, Dual Citizens, available here.]

Mega-disappointment and Ordinary Means

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009 by Eric Landry

Carl Trueman’s newest post at Reformation21 gives great insight into the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement that is so widely discussed around the blogosphere and conference circuit.  His penultimate paragraph should be required reading for every church leader in the land:

Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.  In the real world, many, perhaps most,  of us worship and work in churches of 100 people or less; life is not loud and exciting; big things do not happen every Sunday;  budgets are incredibly tight and barely provide enough for a pastor’s modest salary; each Lord’s Day we go through the same routines of worship services, of hearing the gospel proclaimed, of taking the Lord’s Supper, of teaching Sunday School; perhaps several times a year we do leaflet drops in the neighbourhood with very few results; at Christmas time we carol sing in the high street and hand out invitations to church and maybe two or three people actually come along as a result; but no matter — we keep going, giving, and praying as we can; we try to be faithful in the little entrusted to us.  It’s boring, it’s routine, and it’s the same, year in, year out.   Therefore, in a world where excitement, celebrity, and cultural power are the ideal, it is tempting amidst the circumstances of ordinary church life to forget that this, the routine of the ordinary, the boring, the plodding, is actually the norm for church life and has been so throughout most places for most of the history of the church; that mega-whatevers are the exception, not the rule; and that the church has survived throughout the ages not just - or even primarily - because of the high profile firework displays of the great and the good, but because of the day to day faithfulness of the mundane, anonymous, non-descript  people who constitute most of the church, and who do the grunt work and the tedious jobs that need to be done.   History does not generally record their names; but the likelihood is that you worship in a church which owes everything, humanly speaking, to such people.

The Limits of the Law

Thursday, May 28th, 2009 by Eric Landry

One of our favorite radio programs around here - other than White Horse Inn of course - is This American Life. Rarely does a week go by without the program taking up some theme that makes us pause and reconsider some great truth about Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.

The May 1, 2009 broadcast (available on the show’s archives page at thisamericanlife.org) begins with a story of one Florida judge’s attempt to instill shame in young convicts who have been caught stealing from local stores. The law-breakers must wear a sign indicating their crime (”I stole from this store”) and parade themselves in front of the store so that everyone who drives by can observe their humiliation.

The show’s producer asks the court minder what the percentage is of those who have been sentenced to this shame who eventually commit another crime. Although statistics aren’t available, the lady says she can see it in someone’s eyes. And so the stage is set to determine what course the young woman wearing the sign that day will do: she is unapologetic, the sentence has done nothing to dissuade her from crime, and she will definitely steal again, she says.

The law, even in the hands of an imaginative Florida judge, cannot create righteousness, nor as he found out after hearing this episode of This American Life can it always prevent sin. All the law can do is create a reluctance to sin again (because of fear of consequences) or shame over sin (because one has been exposed) or begrudging acceptance of a power that constrains our behavior.

Righteousness can’t be created out of whole cloth; it can only be given to those who do not deserve it, don’t expect it, and wouldn’t accept it unless they had been transformed by the new birth. Sadly, the church (in it’s effort to replicate a form of godliness without the power thereof, otherwise known as Christless Christianity) has settled for morality instead of the gospel. We are happy if people are reluctant to sin. We are still happier if they feel shame over their sin. We are living off of a fading power to constrain behavior, a power that has already disappeared in some sectors of society.

The health and eventual success of the church depends not on regaining this power of constraint, nor even of moral influence. It depends solely on our ability (or is it willingness?) to proclaim again the gospel of a righteousness that comes to us while we were yet sinners. Anything more or less is a corruption of the gospel.

Eric Landry
Executive Editor, Modern Reformation

They Need a Choice

Monday, May 11th, 2009 by Eric Landry

Michael Gerson, in today’s Washington Post, reviews the current project of sociologists, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, “American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives.” In their new book, Putnam and Campbell examine the religious commitments of the newly popular “nones,” or those Americans (predominantly youngish) who do not claim adherence to any established religion.

Gerson writes:

“But Putnam regards the growth of the “nones” as a spike, not a permanent trend. The young, in general, are not committed secularists. “They are not in church, but they might be if a church weren’t like the religious right. . . . There are almost certain to be religious entrepreneurs to fill that niche with a moderate evangelical religion, without political overtones.”"

What does “moderate evangelical religion” sound like? In Gersom’s opinion, it would be marked by “grace, hope and reconciliation…a message of compassion and healing….”

While the message of the cross will always be foolishness and a scandal to some, those of us with Reformation sensibilities would do well to heed this sound advice. If our ministries are in accord with Paul’s view of the church’s mission (1 Corinthians 5:18ff), we may, for once, be ahead of the game. With apologies to Barbara Mandrell, we were all about grace when being all about grace wasn’t cool.

(HT: mockingbirdnyc)


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