“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:17-25
Once we have acknowledged the veracity, reliability and infallibility of scripture and spent time breathing in, what God has breathed out, we must further acknowledge the utter falleness and sinfulness of our condition. This is done not only individually but corporately as well. I have always been amazed by the book of Jonah and the repentant attitude of the Ninevites. It is one of the most stunning sections in all of scripture. A stubborn and disobedient prophet runs from God, because he knew that God was a gracious and forgiving God and did not want to communicate a message of repentance to his enemies. He finally does so, and the entire capital city of his enemies repents, and receives mercy. The clear major message of the passage is about loving our enemies (though still calling on them to repent). But a more minor message is the remarkable change of heart of an entire city, in response to a holy God. I often wonder if a denomination that has fallen so far from God’s holiness and truth, such as my own (the PCUSA) might repent in sackcloth and ashes? If not, will a remnant do so? I believe I have seen evidence of this in the New Wineskins.
“The Hebrew word for ‘repentance’ is derived from conversion or return; the Greek word, from change of mind or of intention… departing from ourselves, we turn to God, and having taken off our former mind, we put on a new. On this account, in my judgment, repentance can thus be well defined: it is the turning of our life to God…When we call it a ‘turning of life to God,’ we require a transformation, not only in outward works, but in the soul itself. Only when it puts off its old nature does it bring forth the fruits of works in harmony with its renewal…Outward uprightness of life is not the chief point of repentance, for God looks into men’s hearts. Whoever is moderately versed in Scripture will understand by himself…that when we have to deal with God nothing is achieved unless we begin from the inner disposition of the heart.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III.3. 5-6, 16, pp. 597-598, 609-610.
The repentance that God calls forth, for the purpose of renewal and reformation must be sincere, with full knowledge of the holiness that God requires. Instead of repentance my denomination is busy shifting the chairs on the Titanic. We are busy talking about postmodern/emerging church forms, more modern music, modern dress and more seeker-sensitive marketing methods. As they do so, the church takes on the form of the progressive culture more and more each day. Thinking they are being prophetic, they instead mimic the very worldliness that they profess to repudiate. Rather than turning to God with sincerely repentant hearts, we instead turn to the world and apologize that we have not looked more like them. Rather than look into the mirror of the perfect law that brings freedom and turn with hearts full of mourning for our sinfulness, we instead embrace a culture of death and immorality, twisting the infallible Word of God to accommodate for our cultural conversion. Both John the baptizer and Jesus preached repentance, because of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. We, on the other hand, tend to preach a cheap grace based on cultural accommodation.
By repentance we are to mean, not merely sorrow for and hatred of sin, but also the inward turning away from it to God, with full purpose of new obedience. By original sin we are to mean not merely adherent but also inherent sin, not merely the sinful act of Adam imputed to us, but also the sinful state of our own souls conveyed to us by the just judgment of God. When so understood, it would seem sufficiently clear that we must ‘repent of original sin.’ The corruption that is derived by us from our first parents comes to us, indeed, as penalty; but it abides in us as sin, and must be looked upon as sin both by God and by enlightened conscience itself…And thus it appears, that so far from its being impossible to repent of original sin, repentance, considered in its normative sense—not as an act of turning away from this sin or that sin, but of turning from sin as such to God—is fundamentally just repentance of ‘original sin.’ Until we repent of original sin, we have not, properly speaking, repented in the Christian sense at all. For it is characteristic of heathen thought to look upon sin atomistically as only so many acts of sin, and at repentance also, therefore, atomistically as only so many acts of turning away from sinning; the Christian conception probes deeper and finds behind the acts of sin the sinful nature and behind the specific acts of repentance for sins the great normative act of repentance for this sinful nature. He only, then, has really repented who has perceived and felt the filthiness and odiousness of his depraved nature and has turned from it to God with a full purpose of being hereafter more conformed to his image as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ. (B.B. Warfield Selected Shorter Writings – 1 (Nutley: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), pp. 279-280)
Will we once again turn to God? Will God be sending us a Jonah, and if so, how will we respond? Will we be too busy re-upholstering the chairs on the Titanic, making them more appealing to a post-modern culture, to hear the call of repentance? Will we be too busy accommodating ourselves to whatever the worldly culture has in store for us next, to hear the call to turn once again to a holy God, shedding all the sin that so entangles us? Will we be too busy being inclusive of sinfulness to hear the call of an exclusive gospel? Are we willing to face the truth of our depraved natures, or are we too busy preaching a “feel-good” gospel of self-improvement, and self-esteem? Without hearts full of repentance there is no true reformation.
“The Christian who wants to encounter God without listening to what he has to say, may remain in the condition of a smilingly sub-literate and disobedient two-year old. Sanctification of the mind is of pivotal importance in sanctification of the whole life, and sanctification of the mind involves an increasing ability to think biblically under the empowering of the Spirit.” – Richard Lovelace
Lately I have been accused of being a worshipper of the Bible more than once. The first time I was ever accused of such, I felt offended, but as I thought about this more and more, I have found the accusation quite encouraging. When I was first dating the woman who would become my wife, we wrote letters to each other as we could not see each other or speak on the phone as often as we would have liked. I came to treasure her letters and love them deeply. In those letters I learned much about her and about us. In many ways this is a close analogy with the Triune God and His Word. God chose to covenant himself with a particular people in a particular time and place, and in that covenant he has chosen to reveal himself in an exclusive way as a channel of blessing.
John Calvin wrote that, “from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has come down to us from the mouth of God.” He referred to the biblical writers as clerks, penmen, amanuenses and organs and instruments of the Holy Spirit. He referred to the Bible as “the certain and unerring Rule…”, “sacred and inviolable truth”, “sure and inviolable record”, and “unerring light”.
As Christians we understand the Bible (God’s Holy Word) to be the inerrant, infallible communication of the triune God to the World. Yes, we can know some things about God (especially our desperate falleness) from Creation, but we cannot know God except through His special revelation of himself through the objective disclosure through His Word. God has chosen to reveal himself objectively through His Word, and therefore when we are focused on being people of the Word, we are also people of the Logos. We cannot separate the Triune God from the way He chooses to reveal himself. It would be like saying that I love my wife, but not anything about how she reveals herself to me. That makes no sense. I have come to believe that it is acceptable to so love God’s Word that you can be accused of worshipping the living active word.
True Reformation only comes when God’s people lovingly embrace the Holy Spirit breathed words of Scripture – breathing in what the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit has breathed out. If we are unwilling to embrace the veracity and infallibility of scripture, then we have abandoned the only indestructible weapon for victory in spiritual warfare – “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Eph. 6:17). Without the shield of truth, then we are susceptible to every error. The debate within the PCUSA over homosexual ordination, is merely evidence that we can no longer deal with the weapons of the enemy. Many ordained leaders can no longer distinguish truth from error and so it follows that sin would be called good. The hope for reformation lies in the pockets of those faithful that God has reserved for himself who whole-heartedly embrace the infallibility of scripture, breathing in God’s Truth.
It is quite common for ordained leaders in mainline denominations to refer to God as ineffable or beyond our ability to understand. For Tillich, “to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This kind of thinking lies somewhere between liberalism and neo-orthodoxy, ultimately denying any objective knowledge of God. In so doing, we also deny any objective truth in the arena of faith/religion, and begin to move very quickly toward pluralism.
In an article entitled “The Ecstatic Heresy“, written by Robert Sanders, and published by Christianity Today in 2004, we discover what I believe to be an important root cause to our current dilemma within evangelical churches, and one of the key places to “weed” in the beginnings of reformation. In this article Robert Sanders lists 10 principle differences between what he refers to as the ecstatic view of God and the Orthodox view of God, which I believe is very helpful. I will reflect on a few of his points:
- Ecstatic: God in himself, or in his revelation as Word and words, is never really verbal. He always transcends language.
Orthodox: God is transcendent in his essence, but God can speak to human beings who can actually understand him. Above all, God is known in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
When we read in Jeremiah chapter 1 for instance:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [a] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.
The orthodox position understands this as a personal God actually communicating with words to his prophet Jeremiah, who responds in kind. On the other hand, the “ecstatic” view reads this as some form of psychological sense experience that the prophet has, which he then interprets into words. Both Neoorthodox and liberal fall for this error, but come at it from different directions – one from a complete immanence of God, the other from a completely transcendent/other God.
- Ecstatic: Theological statements use language, but literal language refers only to objective realities. Language applied to God is always symbolic since God is ineffable.
Orthodox: Theological statements can accurately, albeit not exhaustively, describe God and his will. Theology also employs symbolic language since the spoken Word reveals God the Father, who is holy and transcendent.
Some mistakenly believe that the Orthodox view of God holds that we have understood all there is to understand about God and what he has revealed. When we speak for instance of God as triune, we do not mean that we understand all the mysteries of the trinity, but that we can affirm that this is an accurate understanding of what God reveals about himself in his infallible Word. Those who believe that the orthodox view of God somehow places God in a box somehow do not realize that they are in fact guilty of doing just that. For to claim that God does not communicate in the ways recorded in the pages of scripture, is to limit God to their own perceptions of God.
- Ecstatic: Scripture is the history of ecstatic experiences given verbal content according to the social context of the biblical peoples. We live in a different social context. Consequently, one must first hear the “Word within the biblical words” in order to sense the Divine that transcends all historical contexts. Then, once sensed, the Word within the biblical words is expressed in contemporary categories. The concept of “contemporary categories” allows experience to transform Scripture.
Orthodox: The biblical Word has verbal content in union with the specific cultural context in which the Word is spoken. There is no “Word within the biblical words,” but the biblical words—including their cultural forms—are the Word written. As such, they directly address and redeem all cultural contexts as God’s living Word. Experience lies under Scripture.
- Ecstatic: The task of theology is to reinterpret the faith as relevant to new cultural contexts. The content of faith evolves since culture evolves.
Orthodox: The task of theology is first and foremost to clarify and preserve the faith once delivered to the saints and to transfer it intact to each succeeding generation. Certain aspects of revelation never evolve.
These two principles working together are the guiding philosophies behind the issues of homosexual ordination among mainline churches. If scripture is merely an experience of God and culture by the writers, then our task is to reinterpret those texts to suit our contexts. These principles to a lesser degree undergird much of the desire of the evangelical church to be more “relevant”. It gives greater sovereignty to culture, than to God and his word.
- Ecstatic: Since personhood requires objectivity—that is, a person over against us who can speak to us—God is not personal so much as he is an energy to be experienced.
Orthodox: God is personal, revealing himself as God the Son who became objectively incarnate in the man Jesus, with whom one can have a relationship.
I have had many conversations, both in person and online with those who see absolutely no problem with viewing God as an “impersonal” being – a spiritual force or energy. The ineffability of God inevitably leads to an impersonal being, experienced in service or in emotional “breakthroughs”.
- Ecstatic: Doctrines do not literally refer to God but to feeling, the depth of reality, or the horizon of being. Therefore doctrines can be radically reinterpreted in terms of ecstatic categories, and pastoral experience can carry more weight than doctrine.
Orthodox: Doctrines teach truths about God—his moral will and his saving acts. They can be variously understood. They deal with mysteries, but they cannot be reinterpreted in categories that have no literal reference to a God who speaks.
The loss of objective truth in the arena of faith destroys the traditional role of theology. When a person can take the statement from the apostles creed “…on the third day he arose again from the dead”, to mean that while his body was still in the grave, he “arose” in a “spiritual” or “psychological” or even “an ecclesiastical” way is to destroy the plain and intended meaning of the text. Yet, that is precisely what many do regularly in mainline denominations and are doing to a lesser degree in evangelical churches. Words have meaning, and followers of Jesus must be first to hold ourselves accountable to the clear meaning of biblical texts.
- Ecstatic: Sacraments or ordinances express the identity and unity of the ongoing life of the church.
Orthodox: In liturgical traditions, sacraments are concrete means of supernatural grace by which God transforms his people. In the free churches, ordinances are the God-ordained means by which believers show their faith in God’s saving acts. Both focus on God’s action.
- Ecstatic: All religions are ultimately one since the faith of each is an expression of the Holy or Ineffable in the concrete forms of a particular culture.
Orthodox: The particulars of a religion matter, and therefore, the religions are divided by their specific content.
- Ecstatic: The ascent to God is a mystical union beyond the objective boundary of self and God. At this highest level, dialogue, give and take with God, disappears. All is bliss. Humanity has ascended to God.
Orthodox: Spirituality is an encounter with God, mediated by Word and sacrament, in which God and the person know each other as distinct selves. God truly speaks to us and listens to us. God condescends to speak to humanity on our terms.
- Ecstatic: Those who affirm a particular piety or religious preference constitute the church. Heresy is not as troublesome as schism, to claim ultimacy for one’s own verbal beliefs while denying that the differing beliefs of others are equally expressive of the Infinite.
Orthodox: Those who have been called by the incarnate Jesus Christ and conformed to that Word by the Spirit constitute the church. Schism is not as much a concern as heresy, the denial of an objectively revealed tradition.
The remedy to the ecstatic view of revelation is a return to the correspondence view of truth and a personal God who communicates to us through his infallible Word. Douglas Groothuis’ excellent article on the correspondence view of truth is very helpful, as well as his excellent book Truth Decay. A yearning for true reformation is simply not enough, but rather a surrendering of God’s people to his infallible Word and a hunger to hear once again what God is saying through that Word is vital. There is no room for the “ecstatic heresy” in the midst of reformation.
How do we “fix” the problem? My church is not growing, what conference and church growth technique can I use to “fix” this problem? Our church seems stale and boring, what do I do to fix this? If you are asking these questions then you have missed the point entirely. The questions themselves indicate that we have already bought into modernity and have become worldly in our thinking.
Dr. David F. Wells in his excellent book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, writes this:
The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.
Dr. Wells is absolutely right. The issues of technique, organization and music are real ones, but they are only symptoms of a much deeper problem. “Fixing” these issues, does not address the underlying problems, and only serves to mask the real issues. Applying business techniques to the church brings in pragmatic methodologies and solutions that might, for a time, create an illusion of health. But what about the fact that God rests lightly on the church? How about the issue that the holiness and righteousness of God is nothing more than an antiquated ideology? How about the loss of objective universal truth that is true for everyone everywhere? Do we understand the difference between biblical grace and easy, ordinary, cheap grace? Do we believe in a God of judgment? Do the members of our congregation even understand the gospel message? Has Christ become too common, or maybe he is just an idea or even a “friend” who looks, thinks and acts just like us?
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1 – 8 NIV)
Another Easter is past and I’m afraid for some of us, the only thing that Easter is about is sentimental thoughts of either good or bad times. For some it is about the Easter bunny, or thoughts of springtime and the renewal of life that comes with it. But the Bible gives us a completely different perspective on Easter. I want to take a look at the account that Mark records in his gospel, especially the last verse.
The account begins with three women that come to anoint Jesus’ body and they therefore become the first witnesses to the empty tomb. This is extremely strong evidence to the historicity of the event, because if this was a made up account, no one in their 1st century Jewish right mind would make women the first and primary witnesses, because the witness of women would be discounted in that culture.
We’re told that they were worried about the stone at the entrance of the tomb, but find that it has already been rolled away. They go in and find what looks like a young man with a white robe, the other gospels tell us that this is an angel. Mark includes the angel as a witness to the resurrection, but he also gave the women a message to deliver to the disciples: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” We see a special mention to Peter, which most likely was intended as an assurance that Peter would be restored after he had denied Jesus three times. The rest of the message is a promise that Jesus would appear to the disciples in Galilee, but what is interesting is that Mark does not include that event. The other gospels do, but Mark, has a different emphasis. He ends his gospel with this verse: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” We know from the other gospels that their silence was only for a short while, but Mark gives special emphasis to the silence of the women.
Mark himself gives the reason when he writes “for they were afraid”. Mark isn’t talking about them fearing the Jews or authorities, or of not being believed or even of being thought of as crazy in grief. Mark has already piled up words expressing fear and amazement in these verses – ‘they were amazed’, ‘don’t be alarmed’, ‘fled’, ‘trembling’, and ‘astonishment’; and these clearly refer to the fear aroused by their experience at the tomb. We’re then forced to see that the statement that they were afraid refers to this same fear. It is the fear of God. The women had already experienced more minor traces of God’s intervention. And it is no wonder they were afraid.
You see here is the point…Mark is giving us the antidote to all of our sentimentalizing of Easter. The reassurance which the Easter message brings only occurs on the other side of a radical disturbing of all our security and self-assurance. This is not like the resurrection of Lazarus, which only pointed forward to Christ’s resurrection, even though that too is very disturbing. This is not a restoration to a life that would later die again permanently…but is indeed the final resurrection brought into existence…for Christ is the firstfruits of those that are asleep. We often want to reduce the gloriousness of this event into something that we can wrap our minds around. We try to treat this event as a comfortable piece of our mental furniture. Many sermons are preached about springtime and the renewal of life in the cycle of nature. I think the most unfortunate aspect of Easter in the West is that we celebrate it during Spring, so that it becomes easy to view the Resurrection of our savior as a metaphor for Springtime. Spring illustrates something completely different from what the gospel proclaims, because spring is followed by summer, then fall and winter…life is followed by further death and dying. Paul writes, “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him (Rom.6:9).” Spring and the cycle of life and death, we know, but the Resurrection is the miracle that turns the world upside down.
Jeremiah was given a prophecy of the future hope of restoration, carried along by the Holy Spirit, he writes, “They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul (Jer. 32:38-41).” Rarely do we think of reconciliation and restoration as including fear of God. Yet this is at the heart of what God desires. The perfect love that casts out fear, clearly does not cast away a proper fear and reverence for God, his holiness and his desires.
If all the women had seen was a metaphor for life after death, they would hardly have felt fear and terror. What they had seen was God working a miracle to which all other miracles pale in significance. Mark reminds us and warns us that we cannot bypass or ignore the fear, awe, and sheer terror when we are confronted by this, the greatest of God’s supernatural interventions into human history. The absolute objective truth of Easter authenticates Jesus not as a mere prophet, or teacher, or saint as some would like to see him, but as the eternal holy God, the second person of the Trinity. The Resurrection is God’s final word about the cross of Christ as the way for man to be redeemed. It means that we can stand justified before God, forgiven for our sins. The resurrection shows us the true meaning of the Cross…Christ’s victory over death and sin and Satan, guaranteeing that God’s purpose for us is that we should share the risen life of Jesus and it is an assurance that, when we die, our souls will be with Jesus, and at the last day, God will raise our bodies to glory.