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Christianless Churches

Michael Horton’s phrase, “Christless Christianity” gets a lot of play in our blog, magazine, and radio program. One of the more timely evidences of the problem will be on full display this Sunday, December 25th. We’re already hearing reports of churches that after offering a slew of programming on Christmas Eve will shut their doors on Christmas Day.

Not many Reformational churches will have this problem. They have a high enough view of the Lord’s Day that their services will still be held Sunday. But one problem they will face is the absence of some of their members, who because of family commitments and tradition will skip the service(s) in order to open presents, eat a big meal, and enjoy out of town guests.

One pastor shared his frustration with us and gave us permission to post a slightly edited version of his exhortation to the men of his congregation:

Men,

I can’t believe how ridiculous this is, but I am writing tonight to urge you to take your families to church on Sunday, December 25th. Before it is a holiday, before it is a family gathering, before it is anything else it is a Sunday: a day set aside by God himself to worship. It is a day that your elders have called the church together to worship. It is a day that you should be actively planning to take your family to church.

There is no excuse, not one, for not taking your family to church on Sunday. There may be some of you who will be out of town; find a church and take your family there. There will be some of you who are in town; you know where and when we meet. There is no reason for missing church on Christmas Day. In fact, a good argument can be made that of all the days to worship God, we should worship on Christmas Day. If we do not you are telling your family, your wives, your children, and your neighbors that Christmas isn’t really about Jesus at all. It will instead be about you, your family, your traditions, gifts, parties–everything that you will spend the next 12 months complaining about.

Some of you are part of extended families who have already made plans. Let me offer this piece of advice: be a man. Man up and tell your extended family that you are looking forward to seeing them and spending time with them but first you will take your family to church. It is your duty as a husband and father; it your responsibility; it is also your privilege.

This morning we read of King Ahaz in Isaiah 7 who despised the promise of the presence of God. It is easy for us to sit in judgment of the stupidity and hubris of Ahaz. But are you in danger of doing much the same thing? God promises to meet you and your family when you worship him. What possible reason can you have for turning away from that promise? What message does that send to your children?

I didn’t think I would have to write this email, but after several different conversations with people who could go to church on Christmas but are not going to, I felt I had no choice. It is my divine duty to call you out. This is not the life of discipleship that you are called to; this is not the obedience that you are obliged to; this is not what I want the men and potential leaders of _______ to be known for.

Go to church.

Pastor _____

For a few more posts on the subject, see:


UPDATE: Dr. Horton weighs in on this discussion.

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Christ and Culture Once More

In his blog yesterday (12.16.11) Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, suggested that there has been a lot of helpful conversation about Christ and culture in the last year. I agree, although the caricatures continue unabated and, with it, continued polarization.


“On the surface,” Tim writes, “the Reformed and evangelical world seems divided between ‘Cultural Transformationists’ and the ‘Two Kingdoms’ views.” Although the Transformationists include disparate camps (“neo-Calvinists, the Christian Right, and the theonomists”), “they all believe Christians should be about redeeming and changing the culture along Christian lines.” “On the other hand, the Two Kingdoms view believes essentially the opposite—that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Here, too, there is a spectrum. Then you have the neo-Anabaptists who “much more pessimistic than Reformed 2Ks about the systems of the world, which they view as ‘Empire,’ based on violence and greed.” Yet 2ks and neo-Anabaptists both “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”

Among the books that Tim thinks have brought greater moderation to the debate is James Hunter’s To Change the World, particularly the University of Virginia sociologist’s emphasis on “faithful presence” as the appropriate model for Christian engagement with culture.

I confess that I am often baffled by the gross caricatures of the 2K position, especially by some within the Reformed community whose vehemence outstrips their attempt to understand and wrestle with the actual position. Especially after several decades of triumphalism in the name of “Christ’s lordship over all of life,” it’s not surprising that the 2K view would seem something like a party-crasher. But what’s gained by misrepresentation?

That is not true of Tim Keller’s interaction, of course, and he is encouraging healthier conversation. Yet even in his post there remain what I would regard as some misunderstandings about the 2K position. I can’t speak for anyone but myself and for more thorough treatments of the view I’d recommend David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and his more scholarly historical work on Reformed social thought, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. (He also has a new work coming out soon, also with Eerdmans, defending the position with exegetical and biblical-theological depth.)

As usual, Tim is respectful of the different views. However, I want to challenge his description of the 2K position a bit. He describes the 2K position in general as holding that because “Christians do their work alongside non-believers” on the basis of natural law and common grace, “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian’ way.” Two-Kingdom proponents believe “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society” and “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”

This description makes it sound as if 2K folks are more neo-Anabaptist. On one point, I think that’s true. Neo-Anabaptists like Stanley Hauerwas and Scot McKnight argue that the church is called to be a new society in this fading evil age, not to create one.

Beyond that, though, we are worlds apart.

Calvin, who explicitly affirmed the “two kingdoms” in terms identical to Luther’s (for example, Inst. 3.19.15; 4.20.1), not only opposed medieval confusion on the point but also the radical Anabaptist “fanatics” who disparaged God’s common grace in culture (2.2.15). Like Luther, Calvin was convinced that Christ’s kingdom proceeds by Word and Spirit, not by sword, but that Christians could be soldiers and magistrates as well as bakers and candlestick makers. The power of the gospel is not the same power of the state, nor indeed the power that we exercise in everday callings as parents, children, employers, employees, and so forth. The kingdom of grace is distinct from the kingdom of power (pace Rome), but not wholly opposed (pace Anabaptists). Like Luther, Calvin believed that the two kingdoms were God’s two kingdoms, not that there is a secular sphere in which the believer’s faith has no bearing on his or her vocations. And also like Luther, Calvin believed that these two kingdoms or callings intersected in the life of every believer. They are not two tracks that never touch; they are two callings that intersect.

Interestingly, James Madison—a student of Presbyterian theologian John Witherspoon—saw the “two kingdoms” doctrine as essential for the good of the church as well as the civil society; that is, the “due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God.” This view “best prospers the discharge of both obligations,” he said.

Nothing in the 2K view entails that “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian way’” or “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Calvin’s heirs are among the most notable figures in the history of the arts, sciences, literature, politics, education, and a host of other fields. They didn’t have to justify their vocations in the world as ushering in Christ’s redemptive kingdom in order to love and serve their neighbors in Christ’s name.

The Reformers were convinced that when the church is properly executing its ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, there will be disciples who reflect their Christian faith in their daily living. The goal of the church as an institution is not cultural transformation, but preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ. The church is a re-salinization plant, where the salt becomes salty each week, but the salt is scattered into the world.

If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty close to Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organization (institution) and the church as organism (believers in their callings). Kuyper observed that Christ is King over all kingdoms, but in different ways. None of the “spheres”—including the church—could encroach on the other spheres’ independence. Together, these observations yield a position that is in principle consistent with “two kingdoms.”

C. S. Lewis’s line is appropriate here: “I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun, not just because I see it, but by it I can see everything else.” Immersion into God’s world, through Scripture, changes the way we think, feel, and live—even when it doesn’t give us detailed prescriptions on every aspect of our lives. It would be schizophrenic—indeed, hypocritical—to affirm Christian faith and practice on Sunday and to live as if someone or something else were lord on Monday. The biblical drama, doctrines, and doxology yield a discipleship in the world that does indeed transform. It never transforms the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ (for that we await the King’s bodily return); however, it does touch the lives of ordinary people every day through ordinary relationships. Not everyone is a William Wilberforce, but we can be glad that he was shaped by the faithful ministry of the Anglican Calvinist John Newton and committed his life to the extirpation of the slave trade.

As I read Professor Hunter’s excellent book (To Change the World), I actually thought that his argument for “faithful presence” was exactly what 2K folks are after. Our goal should not be to change the world, but to maintain a faithful presence in the world as “salt” and “light.” That can only happen when the church is doing what it is called to do (viz., the Great Commission), and Christians are engaged actively in their many different callings throughout the week.

So I hope that Tim Keller is right that we’re becoming less polarized over this issue. I suspect, though, that we have a long way to go. One important step is for proponents to articulate the 2K view more clearly and for others to represent it more accurately. In the era of rapid social media, different points of view easily become classified as different schools. We shoot at each other and talk past each other, under one banner or another. That’s very different from realizing that we belong to the church together, with its long conversation, and that our discussions (even debates) today aren’t really radically new but are questions our forebears have wrestled with for a long time and in very different historical contexts that shape the views themselves. This discussion is part of that great conversation and as it matures, one hopes that our cultural engagement will mature as well.

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Horton on Christ the Center concerning Union with Christ

Recently Dr. Horton was invited on the Christ the Center podcast with the Reformed Forum to discuss “Union with Christ” in response to Dr. Lane Tipton. To read more click here.

To listen to the interview the audio is below:

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Marriage, Church Membership, and the Gnostic Spring

What do the latest findings on marriage in America have to do with trends in church life? Plenty.

Yesterday the Pew Research Center released its findings on the “obsolescence” of the marriage institution. Here are some of the notable stats:

  • 1960: 72% of America’s adults were married; Today: 52%
  • 1960: two-thirds of America’s twenty-somethings were married, but today that has fallen to 26%.
  • While 32% of those 65 and older say that marriage is becoming obsolete, 44% of America’s 18-29 year-olds agree.

According to Pew, and the reports I’ve encountered so far, the demise of “The Family” doesn’t mean the death of (re-defined) families. It’s just that now people depend on broader social networks. In an NPR report of the finding yesterday, it was suggested that Americans “cycle through” a lot relationships, including marriage. They’re finding meaning apart from traditional institutions that limit ever-ephemeral personal choice.

I awoke yesterday morning also to a Washington Post piece, “Christianity 2.0″. As if channeling “Emergent Church” leader Brian McLaren, author, church consultant and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich asks, “What will a fresh Christianity look like in America?”

No big surprises here.

Confessional labels won’t matter. The usual services, “with people sitting in pews facing a preacher and singing hymns,” will still be around here and there. “But that Sunday paradigm will cease to draw the big numbers or to justify a primary claim on funding.” It will be more interactive, with lay facilitators. No more ordination to special offices. “I foresee less focus on institutions led by trained experts, and more attention to fluid relationships facilitated by assertive and visionary leaders. These leaders will be gifted in personal suasion and in technology, and their work will be to nurture a relational context, not to preserve denominational tradition. “Traditional resources like prayer books and hymnals will give way to local idioms and creative resources.” In sum, “Sunday worship will cease to define the faith community. People will connect with each other in multiple ways, from neighborhood circles to online venues to special interests like a particular mission thrust. There will be less focus on uniformity and consistency, and more freedom to see what emerges from the stewpot.”

Mostly younger, these groups won’t be “beholden to the traditions of national denominations.” “Look for less focus on familiar forms of authority like the Bible and ecclesiastical tradition. Instead, Christianity 2.0 will move away from expertise-based systems and arguments over right opinion, and focus more on creating circles of friends seeking God’s presence and help, both in daily life and in the world beyond personal experience. Bottom line: less intellectualism, more intuition.”

What kind of nourishment can we expect from this new “stewpot”? A lot less friction and denominational power-struggles. Evidently, human nature is a lot better in personal relationships than in institutions. Oh, and “little need for funds,” because you don’t need physical institutions, but simply “to engage a diverse and growing community of people seeking personal health and transformation of life.” Money is still collected (of course) “but it will go toward external mission and mutual support, such as help in emergencies and with joblessness, and not for institutional maintenance.”

Consequently, “The faith community will be highly emotive…Constituents will argue less and share more…” In contrast to “the fear-driven, change-resistant” institutions of today, “Faith circles will create more positive buzz, present a friendlier and less arrogant face, attract more interest, and transform lives.” It will be so fresh that “we will wonder why we endured for so long…a bleak and self-destructive period.”

So, just as the apparent demise of the institution of marriage doesn’t mean the death of social networks that we call “families,” the end of the institutional church is but the bodily carapace that spiritual souls need to cast off. Out of the outer cocoon will emerge a beautiful butterfly.

As we approach winter, it may not be too early to announce a Gnostic Spring. In many ways, we’ve been in it for a long while. America has long been the melting pot for various creeds and spiritualities. Fairly early on, pietism and revivalism launched an evangelical movement that downplayed creeds and confessions as evidence of a “party spirit” inimical to mission. Baptists and Methodists soon overtook the more “established” churches from Reformation and Puritan traditions. Revivalists within these confessional bodies eventually created denominational divisions. Persecuted sects from Europe, like Anabaptists and Quakers, found haven in the New World, as did Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic immigrants who largely opted out of what they found to be a bewildering cauldron of “enthusiasm.” From the Quakers to the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, not to mention Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, diatribes rang out against creedal, institutional religion in favor of following the “inner light” based on personal autonomy and self-crafting. The new nation was giving its own distinctive stamp to every sect. Unitarianism in New England and a host of odd millenarian movements on the frontier could combine forces, each in its own way, against traditional churches.

So America has a long history of being anti-institutional, suspicious of anything with the adjective “old.” “Don’t fence me in,” says the rugged individualist who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. While skeptical “infidelity” (unbelief) was gaining the upper hand in Europe by rejecting the faith, fanatical “enthusiasm” (detachment from outward forms) fueled a lively industry of native-born spiritualities and movements in America.

Every generation seems to have its own “great awakening.” On the heels of the Second Great Awakening, churches were split along the lines of what the victors would identify as “traditionalism” and “Spirit-led revival.” Promising unity, each enthusiastic movement only created further divisions, as anti-denominational circles of the “truly converted” eventually formed new denominations. Just think of the trail that leads from Methodism to Finney to the Jesus movement, the Shepherding movement, the charismatic movement, Pentecostalism, the church growth movement, the emergent movement, and now, it seems, the no-church movement where technology has made it possible to be more institutional than ever.

So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, it too is an institution. While all of us human beings are born Pelagians, I think we Americans are basically Gnostic, too. Like the ancient heresy that swept through the second-century church, the new Gnostics pit the body against the soul. Obviously, it’s anti-creedal in substance, but also in form. Everything visible-institutions, an ordained ministry of public preaching and sacraments, church order and discipline-is the bodily prison-house of the spirit. Countless studies of American religion in recent decades emphasize the ways in which we prize the inner over the outer; the informal over the formal; the spontaneous over the ordered; the soul’s immediacy to the divine without requiring a Mediator, or at least means of grace, and so forth. “Spirituality” is fine, but “organized religion” is the problem. That’s been the growing refrain of Americans for at least two centuries. It’s not rank atheism, but Gnostic enthusiasm, that’s killing us softly.

Yes, of course, there’s more to it. Other social, especially economic, factors figure prominently in the unraveling of marriage as well as settled churches. However, there has to be a framework of meaning that makes these moves justifiable-even requiring perpetual revolution.

The problem with this Gnostic impulse, from a Christian perspective, is that it is simply the opposite of biblical faith. The Bible affirms creation and the Creator who made everything, “visible and invisible”; that “the Word was made flesh,” not that we ascended away from the world and history to rediscover our oneness with divinity; that redemption is not the liberation of the soul from the body through inner enlightenment, but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The Christian faith knows that there is more to reality than matter; more to the Christian life than visible forms, practices, and ordered structures; more to marriage and discipleship than institutional membership-but in every case, that it is more, not less, than these.

It’s not surprising that Scripture draws such a close analogy between marriage and the relation of Christ to his body. Simply on the practical level, I suspect that many twenty-somethings (and their Boomer parents) who want the rewards of close relationships without the institutional commitment may rethink things in the actual struggles of life. The prospect of death has a way of shaking us up on that front. At some point, hopefully, many will wonder why their ever-cycling social network of informal relationships leaves them bereft of physical and spiritual support when they’re out of the social loop. And they may wonder why they’re alone, even though they participated regularly in the latest equivalent of Twitter-church and were “followers” and “friends” on some self-ordained life coach’s Facebook page. Maybe then they will realize that they are embodied, historical, and finite creatures after all. Maybe then they will be ready for a visible church that, in spite of their Gnostic defiance, still delivers a risen Christ to sinners through words, water, bread, and wine.

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Need a last minute Christmas Gift Idea?

Did you know that the WHI store has electronic gift certificates that you can send to that WHI nut on your Christmas list? Does that “person-who-has-everything” on your list have the WHI Pilot episode or the famous Robert Shuller interview? With a gift certificate they can purchase these classic WHI episodes along with dozens more as well as study sets, books, and even back issues of Modern Reformation! To purchase a gift certificate Click here.

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Is Your Pastor a Chaplain or a CEO?

Over at Christianity Today Mark Galli takes a look the various “models” of pastors in America today and encourgages us to recover the pastor who has “care over hurting souls”–the chaplain type.

A chaplain is a minister in the service of another. A chaplain at a hospital or in the military is clearly not the highest ranking member of the institution, clearly not the person in charge of running things. The chaplain’s job is defined by service—service to the institution’s needs and goals, service to the individuals who come for spiritual help. The chaplain prays for people in distress, administers sacraments to those in need, leads worship for those desperate for God. In short, the chaplain is at the beck and call of those who are hurting for God…. There’s no mistaking a chaplain for an entrepreneurial leader, a catalyst for growth. No, the chaplain is unmistakably a servant.

Click here to read the rest of this article

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Horton in Christianity Today

As the Christmas season kicks into high gear we cannot lose sight of the wonderful gift God gave to his people in the Incarnate Word of God–Jesus Christ. Dr. Horton has an article in Christianity Today discussing why we need Jesus to have come, in the flesh, in real time and space.

Click here to read the Christianity Today article

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The Gospel According to Mary

This past Sunday began the Advent season, when special focus is given to Christ’s first and second comings. So in this post I offer some reflections on Mary’s Song—the Magnificat, and the surrounding context that makes it the first gospel hymn of the New Testament.

The glad tidings of Genesis 3:15—namely, that God will give Eve an offspring who will crush the serpent’s head—creates faith. Yet it also initiates a war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent that will become the story behind all of the stories in the Bible. Upon giving birth to her firstborn son, Eve exclaimed, “Behold, I have brought forth [the] man!” Yet he was not the promised Messiah, but the first antichrist and persecutor of the church. Already in Genesis 4, the serpent seeks to destroy the seed of the woman who will crush his head, as Cain slays Abel. Yet God replaces Abel with Seth. Each time the baton falls from the hands of one bearer of the promise, God raises up another runner to pass it to the next. This is the ultimate reason why every mother in Israel was so concerned about having children. Who will continue this relay race? God promised a Savior of the world to Abraham and Sarah through Sarah’s womb, yet she was nearly a century old. This royal couple had to believe God’s promise in spite of everything that they saw in their circumstances or experienced in their own life. They were not holier than others; in fact, they both questioned God’s promise even up to the moment when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Yet they were blessed and in their seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. By the way, when Paul speaks of Adam and Eve in 1 Timothy 2:15 and adds that enigmatic line about women being “saved through childbirth,” I believe that this is what he had in mind. Many evangelical commentators treat this as a more generic ethical encouragement to motherly domesticity, but that seems to me to be another form of salvation by works. Israel’s mothers were not trying to save themselves by their act of childbearing; rather, they were longing to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah.

God’s promise is tied to history—so tied to it, in fact, that the Messiah can only come through a single line. The scarlet cord of redemption was threaded through the smallest eye of the thinnest needle. At key junctures, it seemed as if the serpent had triumphed. There was young Joash, the only royal survivor of the wicked Queen Athaliah’s purge of the House of David. Besides direct assisination, the serpent also attempted to lure Israel into apostasy. Eventually, Israel was sent into exile for having so thoroughly violated the covenant. Yet even in Babylon, mothers of Israel continued to hope in the promise that one day, one of them—or one of their daughters—might be the mother of the Messiah.

And now, the great Caesar Augustus reigns over most of the civilized world, including Palestine, under Quirinius, Governor of Syria. Herod is the puppet-king of the Jews, who fancies himself the messianic heir. Not being a lineal descendent of David, neither his pedigree nor his rebuilding of the Temple impress the Pharisees with his credentials as the messianic heir. From the perspective of the Gospels, particularly in his massacre of Bethlehem’s infants, he is just another antichrist.

It is into this world of competing kings and their kingdoms that we discover an obscure girl in an equally obscure part of the world, who receives the most extraordinary announcement and becomes the first evangelist of the new covenant.

A Royal Hope

The story of Zacharias and Elizabeth and also of Mary is a redrawing of the Elkanah and Hannah story of 1 Sam. 1:1-2:11. Like Sarah and Rebekah, Hannah is barren. On the steps of the Tabernacle of God’s Presence, Hannah offers a desperate prayer: “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head” (v.11). In other words, she would give him to the service of the Nazarite order. Eli the priest told Hannah that her prayer would be answered, offering the familiar benediction, “Go in peace.” Nine months later, she who was barren gave birth to Samuel, “Heard By God.” Upon presenting her son to Eli, Hannah composed a song to the Lord:

My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation…The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up from the grave. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory…For by strength shall no man prevail. The enemies of the LORD shall be broken in pieces; from heaven he will thunder against them. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.

The parallels with Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin and the mother of John the Baptist, are significant. Like Hannah, Elizabeth is barren but receives a heavenly promise of a son and believes it. Both sons are given up to the Nazarite order, refusing wine or strong drink or to cut his hair. Hannah’s son Samuel will announce judgment upon Eli’s house; Elizabeth’s son John will announce judgment upon the whole house of Israel.

At last, the great announcement arrives that every faithful Hebrew mother had hoped to hear. An angel appears to a young virgin and, as Eli announced to Hannah the birth of a son, so Mary hears the staggering words which for ages every mother in Israel since Eve had hoped to hear. Mary and Joseph are descended from the royal house of David. Like her cousin, Mary is a direct descendant of Aaron, the priestly line. Joseph is descended from the royal line (the house of David), and in adopting Jesus makes the priestly son the royal heir. He is already named–not by Mary, but by the Heavenly Council from all ages. Like successor to Moses who led Israel into the Holy Land, he will be named Joshua, “Yahweh Saves,” but this liberator will be laden with such titles as, “Son of the Highest,” and “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom there will be no end.” Although she is a virgin, the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” her and her child “will be called the Son of God.” “With God, nothing is ever impossible” (v 37).

Mary’s initial reaction to the angel Gabriel’s strange announcement was typical of covenant servants when God issued his improbable promises: “How can I be sure of this?” Recall God’s promise of a son to Abram through Sarai. Even after he believes and is justified, he still asks, “How can I be sure of this?” And God confirms his promise by walking through the severed halves. Mary’s confirmation—the sacrament attached to his promise—is the pregnancy of her barren cousin Elizabeth. Gabriel preaches the gospel into Mary and she finds herself believing it: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be done unto me according to your word.” Notice again that she is the passive recipient, not the active party. It’s an announcement, not an offer or a game-plan.

Upon receiving this Good News, not only for herself, but for the whole human race, Mary hurries to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who is now pregnant with the one who will prepare the highway for God’s arrival.

A Royal Visit

Perhaps out of both joy and a desire for confirmation, Mary hurries to her cousin’s house in the hill country. After all, the angel had said that barren Elizabeth is now in her sixth month. If that is confirmed, Mary has all the more reason to leap for joy. Faith is never a blind leap in the dark. God condescends to our weakness, confirming his promise along the way.

Hardly intoning in gentle reverence, Elizabeth yelled, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It is similar to the greeting of Gabriel: “Greetings, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). Mary is blessed and favored; the verb is passive. It is God’s election and grace that have singled her out among all women. This is confirmed by Gabriel again in 1:32: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It is a common Hebrew expression, announcing God’s unmerited favor. It is not only different from “worthy,” but the very opposite! And, as we’ll see, Mary even acknowledges this unworthiness in her song. The same verb used in Eph 1:6: “He has made us accepted [echarítōsen] in the Beloved.” It is not in judgment, but in grace that God has sent his heavenly ambassador with good news. “Blessed” doesn’t just mean “happy.” It’s not just a subjective feeling; it’s an objective fact. Calvin observes, “She is justly called blessed on whom God bestowed the remarkable honor of bringing into the world his own Son, through whom she had been spiritually renewed. And to this very day, the blessedness brought to us by Christ cannot be the subject of our praise without reminding us at the same time of the distinguished honor which God was pleased to bestow on Mary, in making her the mother of his only-begotten Son.”

Again, none of this makes sense apart from the Jewish story. Apart from the Jewish expectations, this is a remarkable case of over-acting. If the magnitude of Jesus’s identity was measured only in terms of his teachings and ministry, it would have been strange for Elizabeth to lose her composure at Mary’s mere pregnancy.

The structure of Elizabeth’s expression in verse 42 is that of a Hebrew song translated into Greek prose. It’s one of five songs that cluster around the nativity story. Celebration! In each of these songs, it is God who is the object of praise as the one who has fulfilled his promise: he has shown favor to the lowly and lifted up the downcast.

This exuberance is further expressed: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” The Judean hill country was a good distance, so it’s conceivable that they didn’t see much of each other. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Elizabeth had ever greeted her young relative in a similar manner before. A simple servant-girl is made the the Mother of Israel, superseding Eve, Sarah, Rebekah. More than the Mother of Israel, she is the Mother of God, since the one she bears is none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Elizabeth addresses her familiar relative as a subject greets a queen: “the mother of my Lord.” The parallelism here suggests that this is a song, typical of the Christmas songs in Luke: the Song of Elizabeth, the Song of Mary, the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Angels, and the Song of Simeon.

“Blessed,” so trivialized in much of Christian discourse today, was for Jews directly linked to this messianic longing for shalom, which encompassed everything related to salvation, individual and corporate. The “beatitude,” such as one finds in the Beatitudes, is neither simply this-worldly happiness nor an other-worldly “beatific vision,” an ecstatic spiritual experience. It is nothing like the portrait of a saint in a trance-like state of Stoic oblivion to the world. Still less is it captured by the smiling-face logo of the 1970s. Rather, this blessedness is a worldly condition of human beings together with all creatures, dwelling in peace, love, and joyful communion because God dwells in their midst as the source of their life and salvation. It is the vision of a creation no longer under the reign of sin and death, of the restoration of Israel after the exile, with a new temple and kingdom led by the promised Messiah.. This blessedness, this shalom, has now finally arrived and has begun with Mary, the first citizen of the kingdom of shalom. Finally, Elizabeth, speaking as God’s mouthpiece, assures Mary that she is blessed because she has believed (v.45). Like all who were justified by grace alone through faith alone, Mary has entered the rest of God’s shalom in spite of her underserving character. To miss this point and exalt Mary beyond sinful humanity is to miss the joy that she herself experienced.

But not only is Mary “blessed”; so too is her child. In fact, her blessed child is the source of her blessing. Already, the favor of Yahweh rests on Mary because of her Son. Thus Elizabeth confirms Mary’s pregnancy. Her royal treatment of Mary rests not on Mary herself, but on the fact that she is “the mother of my Lord.”

The Reformers avoided two errors at this point. On one hand, against Rome, Calvin pointed out that we pay a higher respect to Mary by taking her lead in extolling the gospel. “We cheerfully acknowledge her as our teacher, and obey her instructions and commands.” It is the followers of the pope who ignore her statements and injure her reputation.

On the other hand, the Anabaptists over-reacted, repeating the Nestorian heresy of separating Christ’s humanity from his deity. Menno Simons (founder of the Mennonites) would only say that Mary was the mother of Jesus, not the mother of God. In fact, he argued that Jesus took his flesh not from Mary but from heaven: a “celestial flesh.” This reduced Mary to nothing but a channel, Calvin observed. With the church catholic we confess that Mary is Theotokos—God-bearer, not to honor her but to affirm that the child she bears is in fact God incarnate. This is why the Reformed continue to affirm that Mary is the Mother of God. In fact, Anabaptism is the target of the Belgic Confession (Article 18): The “eternal Son” truly assumed our whole humanity

[B]eing conceived in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit without the means of man; and did not only assume human nature as to the body, but also a true human soul, that He might be a real man…Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of His mother) that Christ partook of the flesh and blood of the children; that He is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; born of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of Mary; born of a woman; a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since he took on him the seed of Abraham, and was made like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted; so that in truth He is our IMMANUEL, that is to say, God with us.”

The Tetrapolitan Confession, drafted by Martin Bucer, says that “the Mother of God should be honored most industriously.” This can only happen according to Bucer, “if one does, what she demands,” especially to honor her Son above all and to follow her example of faith and obedience.

The Reformers held Mary in high esteem because they held Christ in high esteem. Like Luther and Zwingli, Bucer believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary and under Bucer the Strasbourg church continued to celebrate the three Marian holidays. Although Reformed churches today see no biblical basis for Mary’s perpetual virginity (as Luther, Zwingli, and Bucer did) and do not celebrate the three Marian holidays (as Bucer did in Strasbourg), the Magnificat has always been included with the Psalms in the singing of Reformed churches. We must beware of obscuring the glory of Christ either by honoring Mary too much (raising her to a co-redemptive status) or by honoring her too little (undermining the true humanity that Christ assumed from her).

Mary clearly has a central role in the unfolding drama of redemption, but it’s not the central character. Nothing makes that more obvious than the Magnificat itself. We are alert to the Roman Catholic dangers of displacing Christ by Marian devotion. but we should also be on guard against a Gnostic view of the incarnation and a Nestorian separation of his two natures that can result from too low a view of Mary’s role in this unfolding story.

A Royal Song

Recall that Israel is still in exile awaiting God himself to visit his people in salvation and judgment. Exile and restoration form the over-arching themes of the Jewish expectation at this point.

The Magnificat explicitly repeats the Hebrew phrases found in Hannah’s song: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” “Holy is his name,” “…who scatters the proud,” “who has lifted up the humble,” and, “who has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty.” But it also breathes characteristic lines from the Psalter.

The song begins with the recognition, first of all, that the one she will bear is her own Savior. Salvation comes not only to Israel, but to Mary. Yahweh is Mary’s salvation/shalom (vv.46-49). Mary is here assuming a central role in this story. It is being, in fact, redrawn around her and, more specifically, around the fruit of her womb. Like the opening of Hannah’s Song: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.” Mary too begins by viewing herself as the recipient of this shalom. The knowledge of salvation brings joy and “magnifies the Lord” rather than ourselves. Mary is magnified by God, but she does not magnify herself. She even acknowledges her own need of salvation, rejoicing “in God my Savior.” What is so remarkable is that she is the mother of “God my Savior.” A mother giving birth to her own king and liberator!

It is not just the world’s hopes, but her hopes, that rest upon this divine infant. God has not regarded her superior holiness or virtue, but her “lowly state.” Once again, we see God’s “upside-down” approach. His power is discovered in weakness; his riches in poverty; his glory in humiliation; his abounding grace in the abundance of human sinfulness. She says nothing about her making salvation possible, being co-redeemer with her Son, or being the mediator between her Son and us. “Well,” our Roman Catholic friends respond, “she did say yes. In that way, she made our salvation possible.” However, that requires not only addition to but subtraction from the lines that Mary actually delivers here. She takes her place with us as a recipient of grace. Because of God’s goodness, not her own, “from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Why? “Because the Mighty One has done great things for me! Holy is his name. And his mercy extends from generation to generation to those who fear him” (v 49-50).

Mary’s Savior is also Israel’s salvation/shalom (vv.50-55). It is not just “me and my personal relationship with Jesus,” or “making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.” He is the Lord and Savior! For those who were awaiting the Messiah, there was no personal salvation apart from Israel’s redemption and the blessings of peace and righteousness in the land.

“His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.” Again, this resting of mercy upon us is the advent of the kingdom of shalom. It’s that blessedness to which Paul refers: “Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.” Furthermore, this blessedness or mercy is “from generation to generation,” underscoring the covenantal rather than individualistic orientation. The “seed of the woman” has finally appeared who will crush the serpent’s head.

“He has shown the strength of his arm.” Once more, God shows his strength in human weakness, but this line is far richer even than that. Mary is calling upon centuries of Jewish stories and longings. In Isaiah 59, we are told that God was dismayed “that there was no one to intercede” for his people, so “his own arm brought salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Is 59:15-16). One day, Israel will not be left to false kings, false priests, and false prophets. Finally, he will himself descend and, with outstretched arm, part the waters of judgment as in the Red Sea, and allow his people to safely pass through. Mary is claiming the fulfillment of prophecy and herself as a witness to it.

“He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Revolutionary ideas! And we can’t merely spiritualize this away. The expectation was that when Messiah comes, the proud nations and oppressive rulers will be broken like pottery. When the tables are turned and God vindicates his covenant, the world will know that Yahweh is in charge, and not the idols. Thus, when John the Baptist, in prison, sends messengers to Jesus and asks, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”, Jesus replies, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Mt.11:1-6). These are the expectations laid out in Isaiah. 35:5,6. Messiah’s kingdom will not be brought about by human energy—the so-called progress of history. Yet it is also not “pie in the sky bye and bye,” a Greek longing for disembodied eternal existence. It is in this world and for this world, but not of this world.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” God has helped his servant Israel by becoming his servant Israel. The Messiah will finally be the true, faithful Israel, the Son of God’s own choosing. Further, God is moved to do this surely not by anything he sees in Israel, but “in remembrance of his mercy,” which was covenantally promised to the fathers, “to Abraham and his seed forever.” It is not on the basis of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai, yet broke, but on the basis of that earlier covenant of pure mercy that God swore to Abraham and his seed, that blessing will come to the families of the whole earth. The child in Mary’s womb is Israel, God’s Servant and true Son, the new Abraham and the holy seed who will crush Satan’s head in triumph.

Conclusion

We have seen Mary take her divinely-appointed place in this unfolding historical drama, and, of course, she is at the center of the action—but as a recipient of the gospel and a herald. She is the first evangelist of the new covenant, even as the Savior she proclaims gestating in her womb. So let us learn by her example. Our passage from death to life is no less impossible from our side of things than Mary’s conception of God incarnate. Yet God announces the Good News to us, confirms it by his sacrament, and by his Spirit brings about within us the faith to say, “Behold, I am your servant. Let it be done unto me according to your word.” We have taken our place in that story, not content to stand on the sidelines, watching the actors and listening to their lines. You sing Mary’s song today with joyful hearts because you too are blessed in her Son. Though lowly and undeserving in ourselves, God has lifted us up and seated us with Christ in heavenly places to inherit his blessed shalom. If you are poor, in possessions and in righteousness, can you not find your hope this very day in the arm of Yahweh, who for our sakes became poor so that we might become rich in heavenly gifts? “His mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

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Joining the Thanksgiving Parade

One of the earliest dates I had with my wife was a Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Huddling together (close, but not too close) on the grand boulevard, we nearly froze during one of the coldest days in New York City on record for that festive occasion. It was fun, but it was largely a parade of consumerism more than thanksgiving.

University of Chicago historian B. A. Gerrish has suggested that John Calvin’s entire theology can be summarized by the word, “eucharistic,” from the word meaning “thankful.” Human beings were created to live in gratitude and the goal of salvation is ultimately to restore this life of thanksgiving. The Heidelberg Catechism, in fact, is structured in terms of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude, leading G. C. Berkouwer to conclude, “The essence of theology is grace; the essence of ethics is gratitude.” Or, as we say around here, duties (imperatives) are always grounded in gospel promise (indicatives). The appropriate response to a gift is thankfulness.

The First Thanksgiving Parade

Every ancient pagan religion grounded its worldview in a creation story. Typically, these stories begin with war and strife, with one of the gods achieving a bloody victory. However, Genesis begins the story of God’s covenant with God. There are no other gods who can frustrate God’s plans and God alone is to be praised. He is to be praised, first of all, because he created all things by his Word and pronounced them good. Creation originates in truth, goodness, and beauty, not in calamity, evil, and violence.

In Genesis 1, the creation of realms is correlated with the creation of rulers for each: light and darkness on Day 1 with sun and lesser lights on Day 4; the sky and water (Day 2), ruled by birds and fish (Day 5); land and vegetation (Day 3), ruled by the great land mammals, with human beings as God’s viceroy over the created order under God (Day 6). God made Adam and Eve in his own image, an expression that basically means adopted son, the king of the other creature-kings, appointed to exercise dominion under God himself. Psalm 8:5-6 recounts this royal office, “crowned with glory and honor.” “You have made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet…”

Yet creation was only the beginning of the adventure. The Great King labored for six days and then entered his seventh-day rest. “Rest” here does not mean a vacation. God was not weary. Rather, it’s a royal term, referring to the enthronement of the Great King. Surveying all that he had made, he rejoices in his works, pronouncing it all “very good.” As the covenantal head of the race, Adam was to lead the thanksgiving parade, with creation in his train, into the everlasting Sabbath. Like the opening ceremony of the modern Olympics, each creature-king passed by the Great King’s throne in festive procession, with Adam at the head, bearing the flag of God’s universal empire. Alan Richardson observes,”Whether plant, tree, sun, moon, star, bird, or fish—everything performs its duly ordained liturgical office, like the priests and Levites of the sanctuary in their appointed courses. And finally, man, as the arch-priest and crown of the whole created order, exercises dominion under God in this vast, cosmic theocratic empire, in which everything that happens redounds to the glory of God.” Luther explained, “Adam ruled over all birds, animals and fish not only without all walls and weapons, but even without clothing, merely by his kingly office….The whole creation was obedient to the divine Word which commanded Adam and Eve to have dominion over the creatures.”

Yet the viceroy led the joyful procession through the exit and into the valley of death, away from the loving gaze of the Great King. No longer exercising his legitimate royal office that leads all of creation into the everlasting peace of God’s kingdom, humanity now leads a parade of terror across the earth: Cain, Lamech, Nimrod, and the empires of Babel, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, centralize this mutiny. Psalm 2 portrays the kings of the earth breaking their bonds and shaking their fists in the face of Yahweh and his Messiah.

Instead of being God’s analogy and servant, humanity wanted to be the creator and ruler. Paul vividly captures the tragedy of the condition in which all of us are born as royal office-bearers who have gone our own way: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known about God is evident to them, for God has shown them. For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that have been made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Instead of worshiping God in thankfulness, they turned their hearts toward idols (Ro 1:18-22). History became a parody of the thanksgiving parade.

It is striking that before the fall there is no evidence of animal sacrifices. After all, these were sacrifices of atonement: guilt offerings. In their innocence, Adam and Eve brought their tribute offering—the sort of tithe or tax that lesser kings delivered annually to the Great King in thankfulness. However, now they needed their nakedness to be covered by the animal skins that God provided and to bring a sin-offering from the flock. Abel followed this pattern of worship, acknowledging his guilt and need for God’s atoning provision, while Cain did not and instead continued merely to bring the tribute-offering: no lamb, just some of the produce from his orchard. Although Eve exclaimed at Cain’s birth, “Behold, I have brought forth [the] man!”, he was not in fact the promised Savior but the first anti-Christ who persecutes the church.

Still, God kept his parade marching forward to Zion. Leading his people out of bondage through the Red Sea, he led them through the wilderness and despite their own unfaithfulness, brought them into the earthly Canaan, a type of his land of Sabbath rest. Psalm 24 is one of the songs of ascent, as the Israelites made their annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem, singing and playing instruments as they ascended the hill of the Lord.

The Second Parade: Israel (Ps 24)

Among the Songs of Ascent, Psalm 24 is one of the richest. The Israelites would sing these songs antiphonally as they made their way to the hill of the Lord and entered the sanctuary. Like Eden, the temple was the locus of God’s presence among his people. Psalm 24 begins by echoing the creation-language of Genesis 1: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (v 1). After all, he is its founder (v 2). Yahweh, Israel’s King, is in fact the King of all creation. He is enthroned on Mount Zion in his Sabbath rest, the source of light and life, fruitfulness and blessing.

Verses 3-10 pose the question: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD or stand in his holy place?” Who can enter the Sabbath rest, sharing in the peace and joy of God’s own enthronement? If Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the Great King before whom the whole creation must bow, then who is the one who leads the parade? The only one worthy is Yahweh’s own image-bearer, one who not only is created in his image but who actually fulfills his embassy and reflects the ethical glory. The stipulations of this covenant are the same as those in Eden: clean hands and a pure heart; a true worshiper who reserves thanksgiving only for Yahweh, the Great King. The promises echo the original covenant, too: “blessing from the Lord” and “righteousness from the God of his salvation.” “This is Jacob, the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face” (v 6). Whoever this is, it is the true Adam, the faithful Israel of God, the royal Son of God’s favor.

As the drum rolls and the curtain is about to rise on this faithful leader of the thanksgiving parade, we wonder: Is it Moses? No, he was barred from entering the earthly land of rest. David? Surely not the one who confessed, “In sin my mother conceived me…For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” The identity is finally revealed in verses 7-10. It is none other than the Great King himself—”the King of Glory,” yet clothed in our humanity. He is not only the Lord who commands, but the servant who obeys. And he commands the gates of the heavenly sanctuary to open for his triumphal entry, his procession with his people in his train.

Living this side of the fall, Israelites were saved by grace through faith in Christ. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving, but also sacrifices of atonement, “for without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). If one’s life is not offered up in perfect thanksgiving, then the transgressor’s life (contained in the blood, Lev 17:11) must be surrendered. With the sin offerings prescribed by God in the ceremonial law (Lev 1:4-9; 4:20-21) , the principle of substitution is clearly presented. Laying his hands on the head of the burnt offering, the priest transferred the guilt from the sinner to the substitute. The gospel was hidden under these types and shadows, leading believers to the coming “Lamb of God.” Yet Israel as a nation was also a new Eden, placed under a covenant of law, to cleanse God’s garden-temple of the serpent and his godless progeny. Tragically, “Like Adam, Israel broke the covenant” (Hos 6:7).

Israel too has broken ranks with the thanksgiving parade, going its own way like sheep without a shepherd. Yet Yahweh himself will descend to us, providing in his own flesh a sacrifice of atonement so that we can be not only forgiven but be transformed ourselves into a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

The Third Parade

In the institution of the Supper, Jesus draws together both types of sacrifices (Mat 26). Acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” he offers thanks for the bread and the wine. Like any other meal, this one is meant to give thanks to God as Creator and Provider. Yet he also inaugurates the Supper, which is the sacrament of his atoning sacrifice, proclaiming his death until he comes again. Yet even before he will offer this sacrifice of atonement, he has, unlike Adam, Israel, and the rest of us, already offered up perfectly a sacrifice of thanksgiving throughout the course of his earthly labors. He has no need for a sin-offering for himself, since he has rendered a life of perfect thanks. The one who offers up thanks to God is also about to offer himself up to God as no other worshipper in redemptive history has done: as an atoning sacrifice. The cup raised in the Supper is “the cup of blessing” for us because it was the cup of wrath that Christ drank for us. Therefore, this cup is “a participation in the blood of Christ, as the bread is “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16-17), because through them we receive the inheritance that his death secured.

The animal sacrifices for human fault could never replace the eucharistic (thankful) life of covenantal obedience and love for which God created humanity. It is not the offering of representative sacrifices, but the offering of oneself in thanksgiving that is God’s delight: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Ps 95:2); “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name” (Ps 100:4). Referring to those whom God has redeemed, the psalmist exhorts, “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to man. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy” (Ps 107:21-22).

Now we come to the heart of my argument.

The animal sacrifices, both of atonement and thanksgiving, were never ends in themselves. In fact, the psalmist could declare, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required; Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart’” (Ps 40:6-8, emphasis added; cf Ps 51:16). Mediating God’s dispute with his people, the prophets repeat the psalmist’s refrain against those who dare to bring their sacrifices while violating his covenant (Hos 6:6; Am 4:4; Mal 1:8). Jesus takes up the theme as well (Mt 9:13). Obedience is better than sacrifice, because thanksgiving is even greater than forgiveness.

Far from downplaying the importance of the sacrifices, the psalmist is pointing to Christ, the one who is not only a guilt offering, but actually renders at last the thank-offering: the covenantal faithfulness that humanity in Adam has failed to yield. That is how the writer to the Hebrews interprets it. No New Testament writer is more eager to highlight the significance of Christ’s sacrifice of atonement—the guilt offering. Yet his point (consistent with the psalmist’s), is that something greater is needed. Not only is a greater guilt-offering required, since the old covenant sacrifices could never take away sins but only cover them over in typological anticipation of Christ; something more than a guilt-offering itself is envisioned. The writer points out that the burnt offering always reminded worshippers, as well as God, of their guilt. Although it made temporary provision, it always highlighted the negative breach that required satisfaction. In other words, we might say, it never transcended the debt-economy. If these sacrifices would have actually remitted all of their guilt for the course of their entire lives, the worshiper would not have to return home after the Day of Atonement still burdened by “any consciousness of sin” (Heb 10:2). “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (v 4).

This, I maintain, is what the psalmist had in mind when he recognized the weakness of the old covenant sacrificial system. Forgiveness is good, but obedience is better. God delights in forgiving debts, but his deepest joy—in fact, his requirement—is the faithful love and obedience of the covenant servant whom he created in his own image, with the mission of entering into the sabbath day with the whole creation in toe. The old covenant sacrifices did not absolve transgressors of guilt once and for all, so their negative function (forgiveness) was temporary, and furthermore, such sacrifices could not offer to God the positive obedience (justification) that God required of his covenant partner.

In Christ, however, both types of sacrifices converge: not only is he the only qualified substitute for the guilt of sinners; he is the only one capable of rendering the life of thankful obedience in which God truly delights.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).’” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb 10:5-10, emphasis added).

Therefore, it is not simply that Jesus has transcended the temporary sacrifices of the old covenant; he has transcended the sacrificial economy altogether—not by abolishing it, but by fulfilling it. It is not only our Lord’s death, but his life, that saves us. He brings not only forgiveness of sins, but that positive relationship with God—justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification—that could only come through something more than a sacrificial atonement. He has not only fulfilled the debt economy but has established a eucharistic economy on the basis of his own perfect obedience by which we are being sanctified. In holding together Christ’s active and passive obedience, the writer is able to connect Christ’s representative “Here I am!” to his propitiatory sacrifice: he is both the perfect eucharistic offering of obedience and the perfect sacrifice for sin. Together, this total life of living before the Father in the Spirit and giving himself up for the guilty becomes “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

Christ as the New Adam leads his covenant people in a triumphant procession into the promised shalom. As a result of our union with Christ, therefore, we too can be designated a fragrant sacrifice—and our lives, though still full of corruption, can nevertheless become eucharistically oriented.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor 2:14-16).

The language of being led by Christ in “triumphal procession” underscores the covenantal, representative character of this economy of grace. While we ourselves cannot render an adequate sacrifice of thanksgiving any more than an offering for guilt, the perfume of Christ’s living and dying runs down his face to every part of his body. Even the stench of sin clinging to our best works is overpowered by this scent. It’s not at all surprising, then, that Hebrews 10—announcing the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning sacrifice—leads us to the parade of witnesses from Abel to Daniel in chapter 11.

So step out of the debt-economy of trying to atone and step into the parade of grace and gratitude. “In view of God’s mercies,” says Paul, “I appeal to you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Ro 12:1). It is in view of the triumphant indicatives—”God’s mercies”—which Paul has enumerated throughout the epistle, that the imperative is issued. No longer offering dead sacrifices (of atonement), believers offer their own bodies as living sacrifices (of thanksgiving), in a “spiritual worship” that goes far beyond the bloody altars of the old covenant. Jesus Christ alone offered a sufficient sacrifice for sin (Heb 5:1; 9:26; 10:12), and this brings to an end any notion of debt in our relation to God. “Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15). Or, as we find it in 1 Peter 2:5, “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

Have You Joined the Thanksgiving Parade?

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof.” Nothing belongs to us; there is nothing to be acquired, either for our earthly or heavenly welfare, but only to be gratefully received and shared with others.

We need not “redeem” the culture in order to love and serve our neighbor. Christ has already taken care of the salvation of the creation. Even before the cross and resurrection, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1). Lutheran theologian Leif Grane expresses the implications well:

The world is neither mine nor the government’s, nor is it merely the result of the working together of its different laws. But it is God’s, which includes these laws and institutions and me and whatever may be the decisive person, or thing, in our world and time…. As to the features of reality, one may put it sloppily this way: Because God is the proprietor of our reality, its immeasurability and inconsistency are God’s problem and not ours; and if there is anybody at all able to solve it, then it is God alone. Therefore we leave it to him. We are free to realize our tasks.

In this way, the question of my own freedom and independence “has become penultimate.”

‘Hands, channels, and means’—even dictators and CEOs all have to execute, willy-nilly, God’s will. Therefore, whatever they connive at or do, it will ‘work together for good’ (Rom. 8:28). It is not allowed to bind or free me. Rather, I am a free person, at least with regard to creatures. For we have this in common: we all together are ‘the Lord’s.’[1]

Thus, God remains Lord over creation and redemption, culture as well as cult, society as well as the church, but in different ways. Through the mask of ministers in their office of proclamation and sacrament, and the witness of all believers to God’s saving action in Christ, as well as through the vocations of believers and unbelievers alike, God still cares for his world, both in saving grace and common grace. Even though he draws us into the parade of thanksgiving, using us as his means of loving and serving creation, “the earth is the LORD’s,” not ours.

Psalm 24 does not hold out to us a goal toward which we must strive, but a procession that we are to join. This liturgy does not give us a higher self, but puts our old self to death and raises us with Christ, clothed in his righteousness and delighting in his grace. Joining the parade, we are to love and serve our neighbor as God’s masks in God’s world. Our last Adam has secured our prize, marching from his six days of labor to his seventh day of everlasting enthronement at the Father’s right hand. And he has taken us with him: “Behold,” he announces in Hebrews, “here I am, and the children you have given me” (Heb 2:13 with Is. 8:18). There is nothing left but praise. No dead sacrifices for sin, just living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. Even our imperfect works are a fragrant offering, because we—our very persons-are sanctified in Christ. Our prayers are received not for their virtue but because as they ascend the Father recognizes the fragrance of his Son. “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind,” Calvin reminds us, “we cannot but tremble and be driven away by the recognition of our own unworthiness, until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” [2] We can all pray with David,

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Ps 51:14-17).

We need not wallow in our unworthiness, but join the thanksgiving parade that is already in progress, until one day we join our voices with the rest of redeemed creation. The vision of the heavenly kingdom in Revelation is a restored liturgy, with every part of creation performing its ordained role. It is a universal city without man-made walls or a man-made temple, for the Lord surrounds it in safety and the Lamb is its temple. At last, the symphony resounds throughout the empire: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!…Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the Lord” (Ps 148:3, 12-13).


1. Klaus Schwarzwaller, “The Bondage of the Free Human,” in Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden, eds., By Faith Alone, 50-51.[Back]

2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion., 3.20.17 [Back]

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Christian Scholarship in the Secular Academy

Christian Scholarship in the Secular Academy from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Our friends at the Gospel Coalition are featuring this video of Mike Horton and Rick Lints on the challenges and opportunities of pursuing an education at secular universities and academies that may be hostile to your faith. If you have a child away at school, this could be a helpful resource for them as they seek the best way to navigate the daily realities of campus life.

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