Monday, September 28, 2009

What Wondrous Love Is This?

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9)

I was listening to this early 19th-century hymn, "What Wondrous Love Is This?" by Alexander Means on my drive home tonight. I must have sung it five times. I love it because it captures the gospel of God so well.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great “I Am”;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

In the arrangement to which I was listening, between the third and fourth stanzas was added this bridge, which is what really gave me the chills:

What wondrous love is this!
Though I raised my clen-ched fist,
He opened up my hand to receive His gift!
And what wondrous love is here!
The God immortal has drawn near
And shed His blood to close the rift.

Now that is real grace! That even though we were hostile toward God and shook our fists at him in defiance and spit on the face of his Son, he still gave his life so that we would be forgiven and reconciled. And if that weren't enough, God even himself granted us the faith he requires of us in order to receive the gift of Christ!

"And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him." (Colossians 1:21-22)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spurgeon on Faith

"Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him."
-- Charles H. Spurgeon, All of Grace
I find this quote to be very encouraging. So often in moments of doubt or decision I've had to take God's Word--what he has revealed about himself and what he declares he has done and will do for us in the new covenant in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20)--and take it right back to him and hold him to it. And that gives me strength, because God is unshakeable, faithful, and true.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jesus' Baptism and Ours: A Two-Way Act?

As I've continued thinking and studying what the Scriptures say about baptism, an interesting thought occurred to me: Is there a difference between what we do and what God does in this rite? In general, the Reformation churches (i.e., Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran) and some Methodists focus on baptism as an act of God. Conversely, other evangelicals (e.g., Baptists) see baptism as an act in which repentant sinners confess their sin and "appeal to God for a good conscience" (1 Peter 3:21). Consider the oft-neglected story of Jesus' baptism:

"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. . . .

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" (Mark 1:4-5, 9-11)

On one hand, Baptists would probably point out that in this baptism sinners who wished to repent of their sins and inaugurate a new way of life came to the river and confessed their sins as they underwent baptism (vv. 4-5). On the other hand, Reformed folk (such as I) would point out that when Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Father declares to Jesus the reality of his identity (vv. 9-11). Both realities are present here--and elsewhere in the Bible as well.

Baptism as a human act. Every single reference to baptism in the New Testament is a passive act. That is, converts are called to "be baptized," not to baptize themselves. It is always an act done by someone else upon the baptisand.* (If you can find an exception to this, please do point it out!) For this reason, I find it very difficult to believe that baptism is a symbolic rite in which a new convert signifies his own faith. The Scriptures never say that. What action is present upon the baptisand's part in the NT is this: Acknowledging one's sinfulness and calling on God for mercy in the name of Jesus the Messiah-Savior. (See Matthew 3:13-16; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:21, 36-41; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Even in his own baptism, though himself sinless, Jesus identifies with sinful humanity and "repents," in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). He acknowledged his need for cleansing and came to the waters, appealing for mercy.

Baptism as a divine act. If the baptisand is always passive, then who is the real actor? It is no less than all three persons of the Triune God in action. Here we see easily enough that God spoke to Jesus, his Word confirming to Jesus his identity as the beloved Son. He also confirmed to Jesus his calling as the Messiah who would undergo another "baptism" on the cross (John 1:31; Luke 12:50). The Spirit also descends on Jesus--and we often see the Spirit in Scripture active in bringing God's Word in light and power to our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). But above all things, Jesus is the real Baptizer in the Bible. John repeatedly testified that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8 and parallels). So as Jesus has ascended, he (along with the Father) pours out his Spirit into men to give them new birth and to bring God's Word home to their hearts.**

In baptism believers are divinely joined to Jesus' death and raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). They are ingrafted into the church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). They are clothed with Christ and also identified as "sons of God" (Galatians 3:26-27). God confirms to believers in baptism the righteousness that they possess by faith (Romans 4:11) and that he is cleansed and renewed within (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5).

Instead of signifying the convert's faith, we see in baptism the visible Word--the testimony of the Spirit--that the believer who repents and embraces Christ in faith, he is confirmed as a child of God, cleansed and washed from sin within, reborn in righteousness, joined to Jesus' body, and sealed by the Spirit for the kingdom's possession. Or, perhaps more accurately, the New Covenant promises which are "Yes" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) are not only confirmed by God in general, but their reality for and upon the believer is confirmed in baptism.

The two acts together. If we put the two together, we could see God, in baptism, shaking hands on promises he has made. On one hand, from the human viewpoint baptism is an act in which a repentant believer accepts his judgment-and-cleansing in Christ and submits to live under Christ in his kingdom (Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:19-21). On the other hand, from the divine viewpoint God confirms to him who believes that he truly has a new identity in Christ as "my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." He confirms the believer's rebirth and cleansing by Spiritual union with Christ and his body. And in baptism the believer has a new destiny and calling as well--one of God-exalting, cross-bearing, Spirit-fueled discipleship and pilgrimage on the way toward future glory.

* * *

What do you think? I'm not 100% sure about this yet, but it seems biblically consistent to me right now. I'm continually astounded at the potency of salvation-realities ascribed to the baptized in the NT, which is leading me away from a Reformed covenantal view into this version of credobaptism--or at least a greater measure of ambivalence. (I say "leading away" because I'm not yet fully convinced of it.) I am having an increasingly difficult time figuring out how to apply NT texts concerning baptism's effects to those who are baptized yet don't exhibit the marks of new birth (e.g., some infants as well as those who merely profess faith but do not possess it). Yet at the same time, I'm not willing to embrace the overly subjective idea that baptism is simply a public profession of faith or a mirror of one's conversion experience. To do so would deny the way the NT points to baptism in an admonishing or encouraging manner, since faith is nothing--it's merely the hand that receives Christ and his benefits. And this distorts the point of faith anyway, that is, to look away from oneself and one's own decisions, commitments, and merits to those of Christ alone on our behalf.
*One could argue that Acts 22:16 provides a contradictory example: "And now why do you [Saul] wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." Saul here is said to wash away his own sins--active on his part. (I'm not sure what to make of this yet or how to reconcile it with the rest of the NT.) But the point is that he is still passively baptized.

**Consider that Luke wrote his Gospel to record what Jesus "began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up" (Acts 1:1-2), implying that Jesus is everywhere active in the book of Acts by his Spirit and church.

Friday, September 18, 2009

No one has ever seen God, but . . .

Yesterday I was pleased to find a timely article in Christianity Today about, of all things, my most recent post's topic--how church architecture can teach about God and guide us into worship. (Well, really, it's about how the mystery of God guides us into a true knowledge of him.)

Westminster Abbey in London is one of the few places in the world that doesn't disappoint. The main part of Westminster is the cathedral: an enormous, basilica-style monastery of Gothic architecture that leaves one with a breathtaking vision of the height and depth of, if not God, at least of the worshipers' concept of God.

With the sheer amount of space between the floor and soaring vaults, from the back of the nave to the altar, as well as the complicated artistry on every wall and window, you find yourself awed by everything that speaks of the unimaginable greatness of God. You have a peculiar sense that God is very present and yet not altogether accessible. This is not an unpleasant experience; on the contrary, you realize that your idea of God has probably been domesticated and confined.

The author goes on to explain how we as Christians live in the tension of God's immanence (that he is present and accessible) and his transcendance (that he is infinitely beyond us). On one hand, God is our Creator; it is we who are finite and within his grasp, not the other way around. He remains a mystery beyond us, and at best we can only learn about him what he has himself, in his lordship over us, deigned to reveal.*

"God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen." (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

"Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

"Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would any man ask to be swallowed up?
Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
Therefore, men revere him,
for he does not have regard for any who think they are wise."
(Job 37:15-24)

On the other hand, God has in fact revealed himself. He spoke to Moses and the Patriarchs, revealed his Law, and manifested himself in storms and visions. He later spoke through his prophets. But mostly God spoke through his actions; he's known by what he does. And then there's Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.

"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18)

"Jesus answered: 'Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.' " (John 14:9-11)

Beyond that, God has given us his Word and the sacraments, his "visible words" to speak to us and guide us. God isn't always entirely a mystery. But then again, when we think we know his Word, we keep on finding more and more about God and his story there, never to be fully probed.

How do we capture both of these realities in our worship--not only in our church buildings, but even more so in our songs, actions, liturgy, sacraments, preaching, and the like? What would it look like to honor both of these realities and embody them in our corporate worship so that both of these aspects of God are communicated and entered into? I'd appreciate your feedback.

*For an amazing, eye-opening discussion of God's "immanence" and "transcendance" and how it relates to our knowlege of God, see the first chapter of John Frame's book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sacred Space

In his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Eugene Peterson points out that Revelation chapters 4 and 5 give us the "last word on worship." We see here that when the curtain is pulled back, and the saints are seen for who they really are. They aren't just the mundane, a bunch of folks gathered on a Sunday. They're the redeemed of the Lamb, whose real songs are in heaven, whose prayers rise like incense before the very throne of God Most High. The weekly worship services between Pentecost and Advent may be in "Ordinary Time," but they're anything but ordinary.

I am reminded too of how throughout the centuries, Christian worship often begins with a Scripture that proclaims God's majesty and who he is as the saving Triune Creator. He's no mere Deist god. And Jesus ain't our homeboy, either. We're people gathered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--an invocation that lets us know we're called to worship by a God not of our own making. "Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

When I lived in Istanbul I saw the remnants of Byzantine churches once glorious in splendor. Their yawning domes towered overhead, bedecked in glittering golden mosaics of the exalted, judging, reigning Christ (Christos Pantokrator). Angels fluttered up the walls toward the heavens. Myriad mosaics of Jesus' earthly ministry preached the gospel in many-colored images. Did these tell more of the glory of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian than of the splendor of God? Perhaps. But as I stood in their now-silent halls with the sunlight trickling in through their portals, I was reminded that I was in a holy place, and that worship is an otherworldly thing.

I know that the God of the heavens is also the God of the burning bush and of the manger. He comes to meet us in the stuff of our lives, in hiddenness and meekness. He is the God of the cross, found in poverty and suffering and meanness. Maybe Byzantium and Rome after her put the cart before the horse: the kingdom hasn't come yet. But when I found myself in these sacred spaces (which have also at times included the beauty of the forest and stream) I am transported in mystery and awe. I am reminded that there is more to God and his ways than just the brick walls and wooden paneling of my experiences and felt needs and concerns of the moment. There is a clandestine kingdom that is coming in which we worship and for which we long. There is a God whose Word and ways are above my own, and whose delights I have only begun to know (1 Corinthians 13:12). I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realms at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:3, 20-23; 2:4-7).

I love church buildings that seek to evoke God's beauty and God's story in their design for all the reasons listed above. Many evangelical churches have too quickly cast off visual adornments as mere trappings, even idols, the form of religion without its power. How many of the beautiful church buildings are devoid of life, love, and orthodoxy? Yet the beauty is really a good thing only misused in the hands of sinners, not the culprit itself. But I'm still torn. The church is a body, a people, an organism, not an address. Its money would, I believe, more glorify God by feeding the hungry and fighting injustice and and making disciples of those in darkness than by paying for stained glass and incense. But until we recover more of a sense of awe and wonder in our worship, we'll be the ones who remain impoverished, left to feed on Jesus our Homeboy or God our Life Coach rather than on the one who "for us and for our salvation came down from heaven."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Queen of Cities

Those of you who know me know that I fell in love with a city--the city of Istanbul, Turkey, an ages-old gem whose watery beauty and mystical intrigue straddle two continents.

My friend Mark's band, Luna Roslyn, recently finished up an EP called Queen of Cities. It's sort of a musical tribute to Istanbul. You can listen to a few tracks on MySpace or download the whole EP for free at NoiseTrade. Their music is beautiful--a bit reminiscent at points of my favorite band, Anathallo--and bears a heart akin with mine: a desire for Istanbul (once Constantinople) and Turkey to shine not with bright sun on its minarets, but with the glory of God's love in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

As we search for a church, I have actually been quite encouraged by the fact that no church is perfect, and it's okay if I don't fit in or click with people immediately. Real Christian growth in community, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer incisively points out in Life Together, means to acknowledge that I am related to others as brothers and sisters in Christ. It's important to break this down. It's more than just a cliche or terminology.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the "family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). Just as we may choose our friends but not our family, so too do we not choose with whom we will and will not have fellowship. That's God's choice, not ours. He is our Father, and we don't get a say in family membership. And what family is perfect, without awkwardness or strain? If we want a church or fellowship without these, then what we desire is something other than the church God is building by his Spirit and calling his own.

Second, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that we our family and fellowship exists not because we're in a social club, but because we're members of one body--Jesus's. With his blood he has purchased us for himself and to be one with himself in glory (Acts 20:28; Revelation 5:9-10). Therefore as Christians we mysteriously find our deepest fellowship not at a concert or playing ultimate frisbee, but at the Communion table. If I'm going to find a brother, it will only be as mutual recipients of God's grace and forgiveness. If God has accepted him, who am I to look down my nose at him? The church body exists solely on account of Christ's grace and for his purposes: the glory of God in the salvation of the world. And because living for God's glory in the world, fed and sustained by the gospel, is only done through the Word and prayer, my fellowship in Christ demands that I care more about building up someone in the Word and praying for and with him.

It's easy to seek out fellowship on the basis of shared interests. And it's not bad at all to have friends who like the same music, television shows, careers, etc. But this can lead to superficial relationships, which Satan loves. Being part of the body of Christ means something else, something deeper. The grace of God and the deceit of the the world demand that, in searching for a church and in cultivating new relationships, I need to be about more than just "fitting in" or feeling comfortable. It's even okay if I don't. Because what we need aren't more buddies or pals who never rub us the wrong way, but real brothers and sisters in Christ.

From One Degree of Glory to Another

Today at Redemption Hill, pastor Rob Greene preached used the following quote from Martin Luther in a sermon about the gospel riches of our sanctification, a work of God which he is bringing to completion (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:1-3).
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.

This made me think of Olivia's and my recent lesson about sanctification (see my earlier post "Puzzled by Sanctifiction?"). Even though it may be slow and piecemeal, it is a progressive work that has both its origin and culmination in the promised word and work of our faithful God.

* * *

No, we haven't decided upon a church yet, in case you were wondering. We know it's unrealistic to expect another University Reformed Church or New Song Church--not because those churches were perfect, but because all churches are different. We've seen both good things as well as caveats in all the churches we've visited, and the task before us is finding which body will allow us best to grow through God's Word as well as allow us to serve and build up others with the gifts we have. We're able to rest knowing that in the end it's not engaging expository preaching nor enthralling worship music which will build us up in Christ, but rather it is the Holy Spirit, who is present and at work in even the less-than-ideal churches.