Every year around this time, nonprofit organizations like White Horse Inn make a special push for tax-deductible donations. Shane Rosenthal, our executive producer, got a little carried away with this ask.
Every year around this time, nonprofit organizations like White Horse Inn make a special push for tax-deductible donations. Shane Rosenthal, our executive producer, got a little carried away with this ask.
What is the relationship between Christianity and politics? What danger comes from confusing the two? Mike Horton tackles this important and timely question for Christians in America and around the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
On the previous edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts discussed the problems associated with a “try it, you’ll like it” approach to the Christian faith. But does the Christian faith make a practical difference in a person’s life? Should converts to Christianity expect to experience real transformation? How should we think about remaining sin? Will Christians continue to struggle with habitual sins, or is that possibly a sign that they are not really true believers? The hosts tackle these questions and more on this edition of the program (originally aired June 22, 2008).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.’
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.”  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]
Why do so many contemporary churches or best-selling Christian books focus almost exclusively on practical application rather than doctrinal truth? Why do most Christians prefer to talk about their own testimonies or changed lives, rather than arguing for the truth of the Christian faith? On this edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts take a look at the philosophy of pragmatism and its effects on contemporary Christian thought and practice (originally aired June 15, 2008).
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.
Among the caricatures of Calvinism is the widespread claim that it renders God the author of evil, suffering, sin, and even the fall of humanity itself. In his recent book, Against Calvinism, Roger Olson carefully distinguishes the official teaching of Calvinism from where he thinks it logically leads. However, there are over three dozen statements in his book about Calvinism leading by good and necessary logic to a deity who is a “moral monster,” indistinguishable from the devil.
I respond to this charge directly in my companion volume, For Calvinism. A thoughtful review of my book from an Arminian perspective came to my attention today and this question again rose to the surface. (By the way, Calvinists talk so much about predestination more because of the charges leveled repeatedly against it than because of its alleged centrality.)
If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?
Why would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?
The questions multiply.
Taking on this question in a blog post is a little dangerous. For a statement of the Reformed position and its scriptural basis, I’d refer readers to For Calvinism.
However, there is one point that is worth pondering briefly: Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question. Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God’s foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God’s eternal foreknowledge.
Now go back and read those questions above. Notice that they don’t refer to predestination, but to mere foreknowledge. They pose a vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose.
Roger Olson states his own view: “God is sovereign in the sense that nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow” (100). So, if the fall happened, then God allowed it. The fall “was not a part of [God's] will except to reluctantly allow it” (99). OK, but then the fall was in some sense a part of God’s will. Calvinists acknowledge that it was not part of God’s revealed (or moral) will, but that he willingly permitted it as part of his plan. Yet Roger is looking for something in between: God “permits” it, but it is not a “willing permission” (64). Aside from the fact that any act of God in permitting something is already an act of will—a choice, my main point here is that Roger’s weaker claim is still strong enough to get him into the same hot water with the rest of us. Roger agrees that God knows everything that will happen. God even supervises everything that will happen. Nothing escapes his oversight. “I believe, as the Bible teaches and all Christians should believe, that nothing at all can happen without God’s permission” (71).
And yet, Roger rejects R. C. Sproul’s statement, “What God permits, he decrees to permit” (78). Now, what could be more obvious than the fact that when someone with the authority to do otherwise permits something contrary to his revealed will, he is deciding, choosing, decreeing to allow it? Here again, Roger’s notion of a presumably unwilling permission is an oxymoron. To permit something is to make a positive determination, even if it in no way makes the one permitting it responsible for the action. So what is the substantive difference between saying, with Roger, that “nothing at all can ever happen that God does not allow,” and with R. C. Sproul, “What God permits, he decrees to permit”?
There is indeed a trail of hyper-Calvinism on the fringes of Augustinian Christianity that turns God’s decree to permit into a decree to accomplish or bring about. There, then: God is the author of sin. Next question? That certainly solves the intellectual riddle. Or, one can untie the knot in the other direction. Some have moved beyond Arminianism into the Socinian view that God doesn’t even know the future actions of free moral agents. Known as “open theism,” this denial of God’s omniscience recognizes that Arminianism and Calvinism are unable to resolve this dilemma. They rightly see that if God foreknows everything from eternity, including our free acts, then these acts are certain to come to pass. Foreknowledge entails predestination, so they reject the classical Christian doctrine of God’s omniscience.
Hyper-Calvinists and hyper-Arminians share the same impatience with mystery. Neither position bows reverently before God’s revelation, acknowledging its clear affirmations of divine sovereignty and human responsibility without answering all of our philosophical questions. Contradictions are abhorrent to the faith, but every important docrine in Scripture is shrouded in mystery. Hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism are willing even to set Scripture against Scripture, rejecting some clear teachings in favor of others, for the sake of rational satisfaction. Yet both, in different ways, represent deadly errors—indeed, blasphemies—against the character of God.
Happily, the debate between Roger and me is not hyper-Calvinism vs. hyper-Arminianism. The real difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether God has a purpose when he allows sin and suffering. Again, both views affirm that nothing happens apart from God’s permission. However, Calvinism teaches that God never allows any evil that he has not already determined to work together for our good (Rom 8:28). Nothing that he allows can terminate in evil. What would we say of a deity who “reluctantly permitted” a terrible disaster or moral tragedy, without a determination to overcome that evil with good? But that takes a plan and that plan must necessarily comprehend the evil that he is to conquer.
Any view that makes God the author of sin does indeed turn the object of our worship into a moral monster. However, any deity who merely stands around reluctantly permitting horrible things for which he has no greater purpose in view, is equally reprehensible. In the one, God is sovereign but not good; in the latter, God is neither. Once you acknowledge that God foreknows a sinful act and chooses to allow it (however reluctantly) when he could have chosen not to, the only consolation is that God never would have allowed it unless he had already determined why he would permit it and how he has decided to overcome it for his glory and our good. Mercifully, Scripture does reveal that God does exactly that. Roger agrees that God “chose to allow” suffering and sin (72). The Calvinist says that God chose to allow them for a reason. It’s permitting rather than creating, but it’s permission with a purpose. Permission without purpose makes God a “moral monster” indeed.
Reformed theology has maintained consistently that Scripture teaches God’s exhaustive sovereignty and human responsibility. God does not cause evil. In fact, God does not force anyone to do anything against his or her will. And yet, nothing lies outside of the wise, loving, good, and just plan “of him who works all things after the council of his own will” (Eph 1:11). That God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true, no serious student of Scripture can deny. How they can be true is beyond our capacity to understand. As Calvin put the matter, following Luther, any attempt to unravel the mystery of predestination and human responsibilty beyond Scripture is a “seeking outside the way.” “Better to limp along this path,” says Calvin, “than to rush with all speed outside of it.”
A few weeks ago, we posted a brief interview with Mike Horton in which he talks about our upcoming conference at sea, “Conversations for a Modern Reformation.”
Now, you have a chance to hear the rest of the hosts talk about the cruise and their conference sessions:
Rod Rosenbladt on “What Drove Luther’s Hammer”
Kim Riddlebarger on “A Reformation Pilgrimage”
Ken Jones on “Reforming a Church”
It’s not too late to join Mike, Rod, Kim, and Ken to hear these great lectures, participate in live White Horse Inn recordings, and join other Reformation-minded people from around the world in writing 95 Theses for a Modern Reformation.
We set sail on Monday, January 30th and return on Saturday, February 4th. If you can get to Miami early, you could be part of the audience for our second installment of the For and Against Calvinism Conversation with Roger Olson on Saturday, January 28th. Mike Horton will be preaching at Ken Jones’ church, Glendale Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, January 29th. All the hosts will participate in a pre-cruise live White Horse Inn taping on Sunday night, January 29th.
We have a lot of fun and informative sessions planned for our time together. I hope you can join us! Register here.
In recent days, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have taken a fair number of hits for their arguments in What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011). (See one review here) The main worry is that they define the mission too narrowly, focusing on the Great Commission. At least on the more vehement side of the opposition, the concern is that there is no place for the church to have an impact on culture, particularly in social and economic terms.
Having received some similar objections to my argument in The Gospel Commission (Baker, 2011), I think that many criticisms rest on basic confusion of categories. There are several examples that could be mentioned, but I’ll stick with this one: the confusion of the church as a divine institution (place) with the church as Christians (people).
We are made Christians—from the beginning to the end of our discipleship—through the ministry that Christ ordained: preaching and teaching, baptism, the Supper, and the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Growing up into Christ together, we are living stones in a global sanctuary. Our heavenly citizenship shapes the way we live out our earthly citizenship. Like salt that loses its savor, we are always on the verge of being reabsorbed into the world’s bloodstream without contributing any distinctive flavor or preservative characteristics. So we come to church each week to be “re-salinated,” bathed again in the minerals of God’s Word, swept by the Spirit into the unfolding story of Christ’s kingdom. We exchange gifts among the saints and then get shaken out into the world for our various callings throughout the week. The church’s job is not to raise children, fix neighborhoods, manage relationships, and heal society. Rather, the church is commissioned to make disciples of Christ by preaching, administering the sacraments, and teaching them to observe everything he commanded. All of the other things—being good neighbors—can be done by the members, and not only with other Christians but with their non-Christian neighbors who also care about the needs of their community.
Historically, evangelicals have an almost Gnostic (hyper-spiritualized) view of the church. It is simply the sum total of born again individuals. There is often little conception of the church as a divine institution with ordained offices and a holy ministry of preaching and sacrament. Accordingly, the church is seen not chiefly as a community of sinners receiving God’s judgment and grace, but as a group of activists fulfilling Jesus’ redeeming work and building his kingdom. “Getting saved” and “joining a church” or “believing” and “belonging” are considered two separate issues. Some zealous world-changers who have left their pastoral ministry to become humanitarian activists even celebrate their freedom from the church to become truly “missional.” No longer members of a church, they are followers of Jesus. This older pietist bifurcation between personal salvation and the church has widened with each generation to the point now where the Great Commission itself can be described implicitly as narrow and confining.
The confusion of the church as a divine institution with the church as the people of God leads to statements today like, “We can’t go to church, because we are the church!” But this is a false choice—as bad as the nominal “Sunday Christianity” that treats formal membership in the church as fire insurance. The truth is, if we don’t go to church, we can’t be the church. We need to be made Christians or we cannot be Christians. Before we can be active doers of the Word, we have to be grateful receivers. Something must be done for and to us before we have something to do and give to others. Each Lord’s Day, the Risen Lord loads us down with his gifts and then we distribute them to our brothers and sisters—as well as outsiders according to the proportion we have been given.
The callings of Christians are myriad: as children, parents, co-workers, employers and employees, citizens, volunteers, friends, and neighbors. Some of us are called to be missionaries or to live and work in other vocations where we are loving and serving people in other countries. However, we don’t have to visit a church bulletin board or parachurch website to find some faraway neighbors who need us; they are right under our nose. They are our spiritual mothers and fathers in nursing homes, brothers and sisters suffering from illnesses. It could be someone simply going through the stress of everyday life, child care and a lay-off at work and is perhaps one relative, friend, or fellow believer away from not being able to manage it all. We want to do something important—extraordinary—with our lives, but God calls most of us, most of the time, to do a lot of relatively important but ordinary tasks that our real neighbors actually need. The church prepares us to be better citizens of earth because its sacred ministry makes us first and foremost citizens of heaven.
If we can distinguish between the church as organization (place) and the church as organism (people), rather than setting them in opposition, then we can avoid the dangers both of ecclesial mission creep and of ignoring our worldly callings.
Schools cannot usurp the role of families, but children learn many important things outside of the home. The responsibility and authority for national defense are not entrusted to the family, but the military has no say in our home life. Fire departments have a narrowly defined mandate. No one expects them to offer plans for managing Italy’s debt crisis. We do not raise a hue and cry when they do not provide long-term health care. Nevertheless, fire-fighters vote, some even participating in neighborhood, state, or national political parties and coalitions; serve on the school board, and volunteer for all sorts of community services, as well as church activities and offices
Many callings intersect in the life of every believer; the mandate given to Christians is far wider than that given to the church as an institution. The New Testament provides directives for believers in their marriages and parenting; a few commands concerning relationships with employers and employees as well as rulers. However, it also assumes that families still do the lion’s share of raising children; we still owe taxes to our governments to provide for common society, and non-Christians as well as believers owe each other justice, backed up by courts and law-enforcement.
Much of what I’m arguing for here is found in Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” where Christians participate in many different callings and none of these callings or spheres can claim sovereignty over all the others. Even if Christians formed the majority in a society, the church would never have authority to wield the temporal sword—whether in the milder form of policy legislation or by actually taking up arms for its causes. Christians work alongside non-Christians in all of these spheres of common grace, bringing the depth and breadth of their biblically-informed wisdom to bear on these varied decisions and actions.
Christians are not free to ignore the plight of their neighbors. As our catechisms point out, we violate the Sixth Commandment not only when we actually take someone’s life (a sin of commission) but when we fail to do what we could do to preserve their life (a sin of omission). Shaped by the biblical story, some disciples will be called to devote time, talents, and treasure to neighbors who are being kidnapped in Thailand and sold in sex trafficking in San Diego. Others will be called to care for a child with cerebral palsy. Many other, less auspicious crosses, will be borne by believers that are nevertheless part of a vast safety net that the Triune God weaves in his common grace for the care of his creatures. But if the church is distracted from fulfilling its calling, then even these temporal benefits of Christ’s kingdom will diminish. The salt will lose its savor.
The church is both a place where Christians are made over a whole lifetime and a people who are then “salt and light” in the world.
One concrete example of this principle is the office of deacon. I spent a whole chapter on this in The Gospel Commission. I did so for two reasons. First, in spite of all the talk of mercy ministries, this office is often under-appreciated today. Second, the call to love and serve our neighbors (the Great Commandment) is often simply confused with the call to make disciples (the Great Commission). Of course, we do both out of love, but with different mandates, methods, and goals.
Although I’ve read Paul’s Epistles closely for a long time, only over the last few years has it really hit me how obsessed the Apostle was with an offering for the Jerusalem saints. We know that the diaconate was established when the Greeks and Jews were squabbling over the daily provisions.
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6 1-4).
Stephen and several others were chosen. “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them” (v 6). The result? “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Ac 6:7).
Already we learn two imporant things about this ministry of mercy. First, it is important. The ministry of the Word was clearly paramount, but instead of neglecting, much less setting aside the bodily welfare of the saints, the apostles established a separate office for it. Both jobs needed to be done well. Second, it is an office in the church. Exercising the direct authority of Christ himself, the apostles instituted an office that highlighted Christ’s redemptive love for the whole person. The church is not called merely to save souls, but to care for people in the totality of their earthly needs.
Paul also spelled out to Timothy the qualifications of deacons as well as elders. Pastors and elders are “overseers,” while deacons are “servants.” Pastors preach, teach, and administer the sacraments; elders rule; and deacons serve: thus mediating Christ’s threefold office of prophet, king, and priest.
And now Paul mentions this diaconal ministry in the latter part of several letters. We know that Paul was obsessed with the gospel—and with getting it to the Gentiles, which is why he was so ambitious to make it all the way to Rome before he died. Yet he was also burdened with a major relief project.
Paul mentions this in 1 Corinthians. A disciplinary letter written to an immature church that in many ways mirrored the individualism, social stratifications, and worldliness of its urbane culture, 1 Corinthians 16 explains,
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me (16:1-4).
At first, it may seem like a passing remark in the signing-off section of Paul’s epistles. But it is actually more than that.
First, the collection was occasioned by a desperate need. Political agitation by various groups of Jewish zealots had led to another Roman crackdown and this included what amounted to a blockade of basic necessities to Jerusalem. Many died of starvation. It was during this time (the mid-40s) that James wrote his epistle, addressing the social conflict in the Jerusalem church between the rich and the poor and calling believers to be doers and not merely hearers of the word.
Second, the collection was especially formal. It wasn’t just another collection taken “on the first day of the week,” as Christians have been taking collections in the public service ever since. Paul assumes some general familiarity with this project: “Now concerning the collection for the saints,” which he has only mentioned here for the first time in this letter.
Third, the collection was catholic (universal). It was not merely the initiative of one local congregation: “…as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do…” It is an apostolic injunction to be received and obeyed by all of the churches.
Fourth, although all churches are to participate, each collection was local, to be taken up each Lord’s Day in every church. No last-minute fund drive when Paul comes! The believers in Corinth are called to make this collection part of their weekly worship service. Thus, it isn’t a top-down enterprise, but a movement of charity from all local assemblies to another local assembly. This expresses genuine catholicity. Although the injunction is apostolic, the administration is to be determined by each church’s officers (most likely, the deacons). “And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.” Paul respects the integrity of this local church and its officers. As an apostle, he will send the officers (most likely, deacons) with the gift to Jerusalem, but he will send “those whom you accredit by letter.” He even adds, “If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” Paul really wanted to be there for the giving of the grand collection, but he cedes that personal right to the officers of that church.
Paul refers to this collection also in Romans 15.
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit (vv 14-15).
Yet Paul connects his “priestly ministry of the gospel” in offering up of the Gentiles as a sacrifice of praise to his campaign for relief of the Jerusalem saints:
This is the reason why I have often been hindered from coming to you….At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will leave for Spain by way of you. I know that when I come to you I will come in the fullness of the blessings of Christ (vv 22-29).
Paul concludes by asking for prayer “that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (vv 31-33).
Why is this collection so central to Paul’s apostolic mission? In Romans, it is a concrete expression of the goal of Paul’s entire ministry. “Salvation is from the Jews.” The Great Commission goes out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria to the uttermost ends of the earth. So it is only proper that the spiritual gift that goes out to the Gentiles comes back to the Jewish saints in material blessing. Central to Paul’s gospel is that in Christ the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been removed. And now the collection expresses that truth. The drama leads to doctrine, doxology, and discipleship. “Put your money where your mouth is,” as they say. Paul seems to imply in Romans 15:14-15 that the Roman Christians, though “filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another,” needed a strong admonition to care for the saints.
And this was probably as much of a test of discipleship for the Jewish believers as it was for the Gentiles. Even more than today, accepting charity in the ancient world was an embarrassment, but Jews had been especially careful to avoid the charity of their Roman occupiers. There would have been members of the Jerusalem church who were demanding that Gentile converts adopt Jewish circumcision and dietary laws. Then in walks Paul, the former persecutor of that very Jerusalem church now an apostle to the Gentiles, flanked by representatives (probably deacons) from far-flung Gentile churches, carrying a treasure to lay at the feet of suffering brothers and sisters. Nothing drives home the gospel more and challenges spiritual arrogance than being destitute—even physically—and depending on the kindness of “foreigners.” Yet in this very act, the Jewish believers were bound more deeply to their Gentile co-heirs than they were to their Jewish neighbors. They were no longer strangers and aliens.
So how did the Corinthians do when Paul finally came around for this collection? We find out in his second letter to the church (2 Cor 8:1-9:15). Paul provokes the Corinthians to jealousy by recounting the generosity of the Macedonian churches in spite of their poverty: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” They even “begged us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” “Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace.”
So Paul clearly saw this collection as connected to the gospel itself. It is not the gospel, but the reasonable response to it. They must stop thinking of this collection as a tax—”an exaction,” but “as a willing gift” (v 5). The Corinthians had excelled in knowledge, now it’s time for them to excel in generosity (vv 7-8). “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you b his poverty might become rich” (v 9). He reminds them that they started this project of collecting funds in Corinth a year ago and he urges them now to finally complete it. Just as we build up each other through the diversity of our spiritual gifts, so also through the diversity of our material means. The poor need the rich and the rich also need the abundance of gifts that the poorer members bring to the body (vv 12-15).
At a time when more Christians are martyred in an average year than all of the martyrdoms under the Roman emperors, is diaconal ministry as crucial a concern in our churches as it should be? At least in Reformed and Presbyterian polity, every member is a part of the local church and every local church is a microcosm of the broader (catholic) church. We’re connected, not hierarchically, but covenantally, in a network of shared, representative, ministerial authority. Pastors and elders represent this catholicity in the local church and in broader assemblies. Why shouldn’t deacons as well, as Paul’s example clearly shows? Deacons are not elders-in-waiting; it’s a different but equal office, with its own rationale and gifting. Local churches have plenty of opportunities to look after the daily welfare of the saints under their care; how much more could be done, expressing the catholicity of Christ’s body, if the diaconates of various denominations were linked together in a network of relief to the body of Christ throughout the world? When one part suffers, the whole body should feel the pain.
Even if we could get agreement from everyone on the importance of diaconal ministry for the saints, the larger question concerns the scope of mercy ministry. Let me cut to the chase and then defend briefly my conclusion. In my reading, Scripture gives ample authorization for the church in its official mandate to care for the temporal welfare of the saints. However, it does not sanction as part of the church’s official mission the extension of this welfare to the world at large. Again, recall my main point: the church is not called to do everything that God calls Christians to do in the world. This is not a question of whether Christians (and non-Christians) are commanded by God to seek justice for their neighbors. The Great Commandment—love of God and neighbor—remains in force. Written on the conscience in creation, it is the standard by which God will judge the world on the last day. However, civil government was introduced to legislate and enforce this law of neighborly justice. The church is the creation of the Word, specifically the Gospel. It gives rise to a community of the age to come within the crumbling order of this present evil age. We are obligated to both mandates, as citizens of both kingdoms.
We are familiar with the ways in which liberal Protestantism has turned the radical message of the new covenant into a blandly sentimental ethic of universal brotherhood. Yet we are in danger of seeing that happen in evangelical circles today as well. Again, the problem is not that Christians are too concerned about justice and the good of their neighbors! The problem comes when we reinterpret the story of Jesus and his body as an allegory for the march of human progress.
The astonishing thing about the apostolic community was not that it tried aggressively to transform the world, but that, for all of its faults and failures, it was a recipient of God’s gracious invasion. The early Christians attempted no transformation of Jewish or Roman society, but they refused to allow the presuppositions, methods, standards, and goals of society to have any ultimate claim on their identity as Christ’s body. This strange new society emerged out of their weekly reorientation around Christ, through the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, the Supper, and the prayers (Ac 2:43). Although they gave freely, not out of forced redistribution, believers shared all things in common and gave as anyone had need (vv 44-45).
What do we say, then, about the passages that are offered to support a wider mission of mercy?
Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). There is nothing in the context to suggest that it is deacons who are being addressed. This is a general call for believers to extend help to everyone, and especially to fellow church members. Hebrews 13:16 exhorts, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares…Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb 13:1-2, 16). Entertaining angels unawares is probably a reference to Abram’s unwitting hospitality to strangers who were actually angels sent to save him and his family from the destruction of Sodom. In any case, the reference to strangers here, like the prisoners mentioned in verse 3, is most likely to believers who were showing up on doorsteps of fellow-saints seeking a hiding place from the authorities.
This context of Hebrews is important for all of these relevant passages. Jesus had already prepared his disciples for this scenario. For example, in Matthew 24-25, Jesus speaks of what will happen in between his ascension and return in glory. There will be persecution. Believers in Christ will be cast out of the synagogues, their own relatives will hand them over to the authorities, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, until the gospel is preached to every nation. And then Jesus speaks of the last judgment when he separates the sheep from the goats:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me (Mat 25:34-36).
What is especially striking is that the righteous answer, “‘Lord, when did you see you hungry and feed you and thirsty and give you drink?’…And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’” (vv 37-40, emphasis added). Meanwhile, the reverse happens in the case of the goats: Jesus indicts them for turning their back on the saints—and therefore, on him, while they protest the charge and defend their righteousness (vv 41-45). Do you see the main point, though? Jesus is saying that any solidarity expressed with these persecuted brothers and sisters—even to the point of putting one’s own life in jeopardy—is solidarity with Jesus himself. Ecclesiology, not social justice, is what such passages are all about.
The bond between the Head and his body is so inextricable that when the ascended Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus road, he asked, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting‘” (Ac 9:4-5). Paul would never forget—and only grow in his understanding—of the significance of this bond of union between Christ and his church. Sometimes, in the laudable zeal for reaching out to those outside the church, we ignore or take for granted the priority of Christ’s own body.
Neither does the Sermon on the Mount pertain to the world at large any more than do the Beatitudes that introduce it. Again, the context is persecution and the radically new stance of Christ’s kingdom vis-à-vis the ungodly forces of this age. Instead of driving out the Canaanites in holy war, we pray for our persecutors. When they demand our suit, we give them our shirt, too.
Our dual citizenship issues in a dual mandate: the Great Commandment (to love our neighbors by our common service in our worldly callings) and the Great Commission (to love our neighbors by our holy service in witness to the gospel and participating in the holy commonwealth of the saints). As neighbor-loving Christians, we may give generously to support agencies for the general relief of those in need, volunteer at soup kitchens, or care for an unbelieving parent in his or her old age. However, as co-heirs with Christ, we give joyfully to the support of our brothers and sisters because with them we share equally all that God has given us in his Son. These two mandates intersect in the life of every believer, as Paul tells the Thessalonians:
Now concerning brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thes 4:9-12).