What I Read Online – 11/16/2011 (a.m.)

    • Union with Christ is a terrifically significant theme in the Bible and in the theological expression of the reformational, evangelical tradition—John Calvin, for example, accorded union with Christ “the highest degree of importance.” It is no small wonder then that contemporary, accessible treatments on union with Christ are difficult to locate
    • The first insight is Letham’s able demonstration that union with Christ lies at the heart of Christian salvation—indeed, that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology.
    • The incarnation shows us in the clearest possible way that God’s redemptive intention is to join us to himself through the life-giving humanity of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, in Letham’s words, “is the indispensable basis for our union with Christ. Since Christ has united himself to us in the incarnation, we can be united to him by the Holy Spirit” (40). When evangelical theology loses sight of the saving significance of the incarnation, it is bound to myopically stress forensic, substitutionary understandings of salvation at the expense of the personal, participatory reality that undergirds them. 
    • This does not mean, he rightly insists, that we participate in God’s essence, that we become “deified” or something other than human. But it does mean that—through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the preached and sacramental Word —we become authentically human by participating in the present Jesus Christ himself. I cannot help but wonder of the benefits that might accrue to our churches if we were to re-appropriate this crucial aspect of our evangelical heritage.
    • At times we disagree with his arguments. On other points we agree entirely and are not sure why Stetzer seems to think we don’t.  And then, most importantly, we also wonder if Stetzer hasn’t missed the main problem we’re aiming at in the book.
    • Conversations about whether something is “underplayed” or not emphasized enough—or acknowledged but not acknowledged adequately—are difficult conversations to have.  The fact is, we agree with most everything Stetzer says about how good deeds function in the Christian life and in the commendation of the gospel, and we say so repeatedly in the book.
    • We’re not trying to be pedantic here. But it’s not clear to us what might be the difference between acknowledging something and adequately acknowledging it.  The fact is, we agree with Stetzer that good works play a confirming and extoling role with reference to the gospel. 
    • Part of the problem, as we’ve mentioned before, is that many Christians do not distinguish between the church as organization and the church as organism (to use Bavinck’s terminology). We tend to think that “church” is basically plural for Christians. But the church as an institution with ordained officers and a ministry of word and sacrament is not equivalent to the individual church members who scatter each week and fulfill their various callings and vocations.
    • Doesn’t it make more sense to say that the church as an institution is to teach Christians what Jesus commanded, and teach his disciples that they are to obey him in every area of their lives, rather than to say that it must provide an example or model obedience in every particular instance?
    • But the point of What Is the Mission of the Church? was never to question whether love and good deeds are necessary for Christian obedience or even to question whether they confirm and extol the gospel we preach, and are therefore vitally connected to the mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.  Clearly they are.  Good works of every kind—personal, social, economic, artistic, athletic, cultural—do that kind of work.  That’s not in question for a moment.
    • The question we are addressing in the book is whether the mission of the church—the thing it is organized and sent into the world to do—is to do those good deeds to the end of making the world a better place. 
    • Just to reiterate, our book is not about whether good deeds commend the preaching of the gospel, and whether therefore they are vitally important to the mission.  It’s a question of whether it’s the church’s mission—its Christ-given orders—to improve the world and make it more livable.  That’s what large numbers of evangelicals seem to think these days.
    • Salvation is universal only because it is first personal.
    • But it’s not that we don’t consider that connection, or “miss” it.  It’s that we disagree with it.  We don’t think the church is sent to accomplish what Adam failed to accomplish.  We think Jesus did that, and will do it fully and finally at the last day.  Fulfilling Adam’s failed task is not our mission; it’s the mission given and accomplished by Jesus. 
    • We believe, from our biblical-theological analysis, that God sends his people into the world to be ambassadors of reconciliation that the nations may be called out of darkness into his marvelous light. As a philosophy of missions, this may an incomplete theological vision for Stetzer, but it is a vision nonetheless.
    • Words like art, beauty, arts, and aesthetic are not self-explanatory. You don’t need a PhD in art history, but you should read at least a couple books on art and art theory, especially those outside the “Christian Imagination” genre. Having to define your terms will inevitably force you to clarify your intent.
    • If you dream of creating a gallery that ArtForum will gush over, stop. The art world is a conflicted tangled market that plays by its own rules. In the art world, you score points by making “good art”—that is, an object that strikes the balance between shocking and profitable and will be featured in major international collections. So if you are a hosting an art event at your church and believe it to be full of “good art,” you need to go back to my first point, because you have misunderstood the game.
    • You Will Not Redeem Art
    • The language of redeeming art has become ubiquitous within the evangelical blogosphere. Evangelicals seem to possess a collective zeal combined with an even stronger confusion about how to “redeem” or “engage” art. I do not think it can be, but if you insist on attempting to “redeem art,” be as painfully clear as you can about what that means. If you want Christian artists to find clever ways to communicate the Christian message in their works, then say that. If you want to find contemporary bronze serpents that point to Christ, then say that. The grandiose language of redeeming art is unhelpful at best.
    • Start with where you are. If your church is in a region with a strong history of quilt making, that should be the starting point for your arts ministry.
    • First, in the passage being read, what is shown about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
    • Second, in the passage being read, what is shown about the bewildering, benighted world with all its beautiful and beneficial aspects alongside those that are corrupt and corrupting?
    • Third, in the passage being read, what is shown to guide one’s living, this day and every day?
    • Every year my Christian ethics class at Southern Seminary ends with a final examination that amounts to answering a hypothetical question. The point is not to get to any particular answer, but to see how they get to where they get. Do they have the tools to think through ethical decisions with wisdom and discernment. Here is this year’s question. How would you answer it? Note: if you’re in the class, you may not read the comments to this post until after you’ve turned your exam in.
    • 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.
    • The truth is, if we don’t go to church, we can’t be the church.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

    • Already we learn two imporant things about this ministry of mercy. First, it is important.
    • 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.
    • So Paul clearly saw this collection as connected to the gospel itself. It is not the gospel, but the reasonable response to it.
    • 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?
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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:
    • From that experience I came away with a treasure: Newton’s preface.

       

      To my knowledge it has never appeared online. So I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe (and to slightly modernize) Newton’s preface as it originally appeared in the rare 1776 edition of the Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s quite an honor to share it here on the blog.

       

      Note particularly how Newton turns his attention from praise to the author to the soul of the reader near the end. Such direct pastoral words of care and warning are very Newtonian.

    • Thus his adversaries themselves contributed to extend his usefulness by the very methods they took to prevent it. And (as in the apostle’s case) the things that happened to him, proved rather to the furtherance than the hindrance of the gospel.
    • Thus much concerning our book: Let the preface close with a word to the reader’s heart. If you are not convinced of sin, and led by the Spirit to seek Jesus, notwithstanding the notes, the Pilgrim will still be a riddle to you. A well-wisher to your soul assures you, that whether you know these things or not, they are important realities. The Pilgrim is a parable, but it has an interpretation in which you are nearly concerned. If you are living in sin, you are in the City of Destruction. O hear the warning voice! “Flee from the wrath to come.” Pray that the eyes of your mind may be opened, then you will see your danger, and gladly follow the shining light of the word, till you enter by Christ, the straight gate, into the way of salvation. If death surprise you before you get into this road, you are lost forever.
    • Behold an open door is set before you, which none can shut. Yet prepare to endure hardship, for the way lies through many tribulations. There are hills and valleys to be passed, lions and dragons to be met with, but the Lord of the hill will guide and guard his people. “Put on the whole armor of God, fight the good fight of faith.” Beware of the Flatterer. Beware of the Enchanted Ground. See the Land of Beulah, yea, the city of Jerusalem itself is before you:

       

      There Jesus the forerunner waits.

       

      To welcome travelers home.

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About Joe Fleener

Lover of Christ & His Gospel, Husband to Mandy, Father to three wonderful children, Servant to the Local Church, Bible College Lecturer
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