“…the Lord Christ fulfilled the whole law for us; He did not only undergo the penalty of it due unto our sins, but also yielded that perfect obedience which it did require… Christ’s fulfilling of the law, in obedience unto its commands, is no less imputed unto us for our justification than His undergoing the penalty of it is.”
John Owen (from a list of quotes on the subject of Christ’s active obedience as part of the Gospel)
I’d like to come alongside another author here. Jared Wilson wrote a post today entitled “What’s Wrong With Producing a Worship Experience?” This is an important question, since the American “Evangelical” church is plagued with an incorrect mindset about gathered, visible worship of a church. We hear the lingo all the time, about producing, staging, or aiding a worship “experience” in our church gatherings; but much (though not all) of what churches and worship leaders have said on the subject is unbiblical and unhelpful.
Wilson’s post quotes a conversation reproduced in another book, about the consumerism pervasive in Western churches. At one point the conversation says this, which sums up the critique here, of staging an experience for someone to “meet God” in worship: “When the church gets into the business of staging experiences, that quickly becomes idolatry.”
The other party in the conversation replies, “I’m stunned. So you don’t encourage churches to use your elements of marketable experiences to create attractive experiences for their attenders?” to which the original speaker rejoins, “No. The organized church should never try to stage a God experience.”
I absolutely agree, though agreeing with this critique is very unpopular much of the time.
So here’s my “coming alongside” of Wilson’s post, with a couple of extra thoughts about why churches should care about more than providing personal worship experiences.
We Have Perfect Access To God Already
Much of the “worship experience” mentality is based on the idea that something happens with God in a church gathering that can’t happen elsewhere. Now I do think something is very unique to the gathering of a local church. But it’s not the “God experience” many have turned it into. We need to understand that, positionally, we’re there now as worshipers, and nothing extra happens between us and God when the awesome light show starts and we start singing (if your church rolls the way of the awesome light show).
Here’s the thing: we have the fullest possible access to God now, because Christ stands in the presence of God as our perfect Priest. Jesus is offering worship, standing in that place for us now. Right now. When we gather together, we do it to remind ourselves again of the God we have full access to, through Jesus. In his excellent book Rhythms of Grace, Mike Cosper says, “God’s presence is a constantly available comfort and help to the Christian,” and, “When a Christian shows up, God shows up. We are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16). When the church gathers, it gathers as a collection of people in whom God dwells. God inhabits the gathered church because these scattered worshipers are all temples, who together make a greater temple. God is with us, and the gathered Church becomes ‘an outpost of hope in a dying world'”
But often I think we’re looking for a little something in addition to the perfect access to God that Jesus provides. And then we often become discontent or upset with a church that can’t provide a powerful enough “experience,” and get us to God in an experiential way on Sunday morning. If we’re chasing a sensory overload of God-experience in our church gatherings, very few churches will ever be able to satisfy that craving. And ponder this: do you think the church gatherings we read about in the book of Acts produced anything like the experiences churches try to facilitate today? I think not. There was something else to it.
So what do we meet for then? We meet, not to have some crazy experience with God, but to remind ourselves and one another of the great, strong, gracious, saving God who has made us alive together with Christ. We remind ourselves and one another of the Gospel, and, as Hebrews 12 tells us, to run the race of faith with endurance, laying aside every weight and sin, always looking to Jesus. He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith, in every way.
This is where we find endurance for the race, and this is how we get to God. Not through a carefully orchestrated theatrical God-experience, but through Jesus. The question for our church gatherings then, is, are we providing ways for people to muster lots of willpower and personal worship from within themselves (through vague, self-centered song lyrics, super dark concert-type environments, etc.)? Or are we presenting a rock-solid picture of Jesus and of the Gospel every Sunday in our singing, prayers, readings of Scripture, and preaching? We should want to stop trying to muster up emotional attitudes of worship from within, and run to our Savior again this Sunday. Let’s help one another do that, and know that right now we are God’s. As the conversation on Wilson’s blog reminds us, “the only thing of value the church has to offer is the gospel.” Let’s be content and overjoyed in this reality, and be content and overjoyed with our local churches if they faithfully bring us to our Savior each week and not to a mere fleeting experience.
Eternity Changes Everything by Stephen Witmer. The Good Book Company, 2014. $10.49.
I really do agree with Stephen Witmer in this book, that “[there’s a] reason we’re not restless for the new creation: we’re not really certain it is our future” (71). As Christians, we have an incredibly joyous and hopeful future that has been secured for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. And many Christians either don’t know enough about what Scripture tells us about our future, or if we do, we’re so surrounded by distractions in our culture and our ever-busier schedules that we don’t look forward to our future. Witmer’s book is very helpful as a simple, joy-filled exhortation to think often and deeply about the new creation, and the surety of our life there with Christ. It must be hard to try to write a short book about such a weighty topic, but Witmer pulls it off, I think. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s concise and powerful, and effective in its friendly tone. Jared Wilson is right-on in his endorsement, that “Reading this is like enjoying a coffee with a new friend as he shares the secret of the universe with you.”
The driving point of the book is that contemplating eternity rightly will give us “restless patience,” which is a term Witmer coins and then uses throughout. This is a very helpful concept. We should be restless for Christ’s return and for the new heavens and new earth, and patient as we wait because we know that is all secured by Christ already. Witmer points us to Paul’s life for an illustration of this tension, saying, “Paul didn’t settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn’t live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future;” and, “his circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment” (66-67). Witmer’s point is that a Christ-centered restless patience fuels our hard work in every area of our lives, specifically for Christ’s Kingdom; and that we can be patient through the worst of trials in this life, because we are confident of how little it all compares with the glory of the new creation. In one of my favorite sections of the book, Witmer says,
“If you’ve settled for now, you have placed yourself on a path to inevitable despair. Why? Because we live in a broken, sinful world. God still hasn’t fully asserted his kingly rule over the earth. Because it’s broken, this world cannot satisfy. The absolute best job won’t perfectly satisfy. Nor will the best house, marriage, food, or vacation. Settling for now is the path to despair.
“Here’s an irony: the best way to enjoy this world is to not settle for it. When you see this world as a preparation for the next, not as the be-all-end-all to your happiness, you can suffer its disappointments without being crushed, and savor its delights without forgetting there’s better to come” (69).
And this is the reality that Witmer encourages us to live in: that everything is changed by knowing about, and being confident in our eternal life, in the new heavens and new earth, with Christ as our King. We can work hard in every area of our lives, whether it’s painting our house or preaching the Gospel to our neighbors, because it’s all valuable to our King who is moving all of history toward a great, joyous culmination and completion. And we can suffer any wrong, and any trial that God ordains on the way, because of that secured future. No matter what happens, our bright future with Christ is totally fixed and secured, and we will enter into it. You’ll see Witmer, in this short book, fall in with authors like C.S. Lewis and John Piper, who work to exhort us to see every good thing in this life as both an echo of Eden, and a signpost pointing to the new creation; and see every trial as God-ordained, refining and preparing us for our eternal life with Christ. I heartily recommend this book. Its message is extremely valuable, especially in a materialistic culture that preaches faith in shallow, material, passing pleasures, and that doesn’t know how to deal with the actual brokenness of life. I pray it will encourage you to live in light of our glorious future as Christ’s redeemed church, and be restlessly patient for our true home, through every trial and joy.
Here’s one more great quote, which I hope illustrates how valuable of a read this is:
“Joy in an imperfect present flows to us from a perfect future. If our joy is in the things we have now, losing them is the worst thing that can happen; all our joy goes with them. [But if] our joy is in the things we will enjoy in our eternal future, nothing we might lose now can touch our joy. We’re free to enjoy the things we have now without worrying about their impermanence; we’re free to lose them without feeling that our life has gone, too” 69-70).
Here’s John Piper’s summary of Jonathan Edwards’ view of the Trinity, that Piper says was revolutionary for him when he first started to read Edwards. It also blew my mind when I read this for the first time a few years back. This quote is taken from Jonathan Edwards On The Good Life, by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney.
“In brief, there is God the Father, the fountain of being, who from all eternity has had a perfectly clear and distinct image and idea of himself; and this image is the eternally begotten Son. Between this Son and Father there flows a stream of infinitely vigorous love and perfectly holy communion; and this is God the Spirit. God’s image of God and God’s Love of God are so full of God that they are fully divine Persons, and not less.”
Almost a year ago, I took my 2 year old son (he’s 3 now), out one night to walk through the neighborhood and look at the Christmas lights. We made our way around a horseshoe street – a round trip – and found some great houses. My son loved it, and does even more this year; he actually has to point out year round any lights he sees that resemble Christmas ones. It might be needless to say that his excitement is extremely contagious.
Looking at the lights that night on our walk through the neighborhood, something hit me about what Christmas does to the world. Two thousand years ago, the Son of God came into the world to save God’s people, an event that impacted the earth and mankind in such a way that sent reverberations, ripples, tremors forward through history. Though Christ ascended, his presence amongst us, Emmanuel, lit up a dark and dreadful world. And a funny thing about it is that we’ve come to string lights on our homes, bring lighted trees into our living rooms and put light everywhere on display. It might sound strange, but the light of Christ affects even those who don’t know him, but who string their homes and trees with lights in commemoration of him still. All of us Christmas-merrymakers proclaim the incarnation of the Word, in whom was light and life, Light of lights descending. The One in Whom all things hold together became flesh and dwelt among us, so that “the race of Adam’s children, doomed by law and endless woe may not henceforth die and perish in the dreadful gulf below.”
The Morning Star that dawned on the groaning creation at the first advent affected us all, though we’re often unaware of it. Our Maker, our Life, our Light, the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing” left his created sons proclaiming that profound and intimate moment in history when He dwelt among us to bear our sin. We proclaim it with lights. Christmas, in a sense, proves itself true if you think about it. What are we doing still finding new ways each year to proclaim the advent of the Light of the world? Jesus our Emmanuel, is the Light that has shone in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” We see his victorious life even in our Christmas lights.
We can’t help but tell of Christ’s advent with the lights we put up. And if we have the eyes to see it, they can help us wait with joy for Christ’s second advent. Our King is coming again; and though we wait in the dark, we light our lights of hope and expectation. Let’s hope with the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, and proclaim the grace of our King to those who haven’t come to know him, so they also might have light and hope and salvation.
Thank you Father, for giving us your Son. Come thou long-expected Jesus.
*The following is the main part of a post I wrote for our church blog, to help folks prepare for Sunday morning worship through December and the Christmas season.
“Each of us know that the Christmas season should be filled with gratitude and expectancy, yet what most of us feel is dread and anxiety. As our hearts race around trying to find the right gifts, we forget the True Gift that we have already been given.”
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica L. Thompson
You might’ve noticed this coming Sunday is the first time we’ll gather as a church for worship in December. Which you hopefully know means Christmas worship. The Christmas, or Advent, season is one of the richest of the year for the church, and we want to make sure we don’t take it for granted or miss out on the opportunity to make the most of this season of celebration. So here are a few things to think through, and that we’ll talk through on Sunday mornings in the coming weeks, to help us all enjoy God and the Gospel more deeply during Christmastime.
Read the Gospels
God has given us his Word, and when we read it we hear him speaking to us. The Word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12), and is always sufficient to encourage, train and teach, and correct us (2 Tim. 3:16). And the crazy thing we often miss is this – God is a storyteller, and he’s told us the story of his Son coming into the world to save his people. God has given us 4 accounts of Christ’s coming as a means of grace for us to know our Savior, and know God’s saving plan that was revealed in Christ. So if we don’t take the opportunity in the Christmas season to read and re-fresh our experience of Jesus in the Gospels, we’re missing out. Let’s know the story, and know our Savior.
Long for Christ’s Return
One of the great things about the historic church’s celebration of Advent, was a cultivation of longing for the Lord’s return. Extending the Christmas celebration to the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas, with the lighting of candles, etc., helped form a deeper sense of our pilgrim status as God’s people, in this world the way it is now. The church would recognize that we live now between 2 advents, or comings, of the Lord. He has come to pay for sin, and has promised to come back for his people; and we wait now in a broken world, for our King to come back a 2nd time to put the world right.
Now I’m not advocating that we start up a high church liturgy for Advent that spans those 4 weeks, but I do really believe the more we can get into the Christmas story in the Gospels, and grapple with the great, glorious meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and extend that out beyond just a Christmas Eve service with our churches, the Christmas season will be very rich for us.
Let’s really feel the longing we should have for Christ’s return, and for the goodness of his kingdom that he’ll bring.
I had mostly heard cursory references to Christ’s ascension for most of my life as I’d been exposed to teaching on Scripture both as an unbeliever, and as a younger Christian. Christ ascended into the clouds after He makes His great commission. And it’s usually on to the next thing: we’re waiting for Jesus to return, and our job is to evangelize the lost. All true, but the fact that Jesus did ascend, and is ascended now as we wait for Him, is a truth to dwell on and make much of. I’m learning this more and more, and I’m so thankful for this book by Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, that clearly and concisely gets us into the significance of Christ’s ascension, and makes sure we don’t miss the glory of this truth. Here are a few points about this little volume that you might consider:
First, the drawbacks (let’s get these out of the way).
This book fits the description of having a weighty subject, wrapped up into a very small package. So in a sense, this book can be a great starting place for a much more in-depth study about Christ’s ascension, and the Kingdom of God. If you find yourself not fully convinced by every point, take the book on its own terms – it’s intended to be a small, lively overview of the ascension for pastors and church leaders. Seen in another light, one might say this book is too ambitious for 94 pages.
That being said, the other drawback is the use of Biblical theology, and theology of Christ’s kingship in chapter two, entitled “Ascended King.” Be on your guard, as some of the points could prompt some head-scratching depending on who’s reading. Particularly in chapter two, Daniel 7 is compared with the scenes of Christ’s ascension in the Gospels and in Acts 1, arguing that Daniel 7 depicts the ascension from the other side of the clouds – that in the Gospels and Acts we see the ascension from the ground, but in Daniel 7 we see it from heaven as one “like a Son of Man” is presented to God and given a seat of authority. Also, chapter two asserts that Christ is reigning as the ascended King of the universe even now, which might’ve needed a little more space to unpack. This may or may not fit with the chronological events in one’s eschatology, depending. Again, be a discerning reader and a discerning student of Scripture, and deal with the book’s assertions accordingly.
The benefits of the book (and there are many).
In a recent book review, Doug Wilson talks about truths that are “radical truths — the kind that affect everything.” This book falls into such a category. For a short volume, it packs a punch and communicates much of the Savior for us to glory in.
The significance of the ascension – that Christ physically and bodily ascended, and is ascended now, affect everything related to our faith. For instance, in chapter one, entitled “Ascended Priest,” we read,
“Jesus ascended for your salvation. He is the memorial before God of your atonement. Can you see how powerful this is? Can you see how this is good news to those who doubt their salvation or feel the on-going weight of their sin or who sin in a spectacular way? In these moments we lift our eyes heavenwards and see Jesus in the presence of God on our behalf. He is the complete sacrifice who has taken away sin for ever. He is the eternal priest whose ministry never ends. While He stands in heaven you are secure in God’s family” (23 emphasis added).
The book is full of weighty, clearly-communicated truths like this, that we should take special care to believe, and to preach and teach in our churches. Our Savior is in the presence of God, in the real Holy of Holies, as both Priest and Sacrifice; He is there bodily as well, which assures us of a bodily resurrection, as well as both physical and spiritual eternal life with God, “secure in God’s family.” All that Christ is now as our ascended Savior is substituted to us by grace, through faith.
The book continues,
“The ascension of Jesus is the foretaste of the ascension of a new humanity to our royal status…Those in Christ will once again be what we were meant to be and what we were born to be…In the present our life is currently hidden with Christ (Col. 3:1-3). Until the revelation of the sons of glory at the return of Jesus we express our royalty in the power of the ascension…Until our glory is revealed, restored humanity looks like crucified humanity in the sense of people who embrace the sacrifice, submission, self-denial and service modelled in the cross” (77-79).
This is so very important – our present life is hidden with Christ in God. But we will be revealed, and be like Christ when we see Him as He is at his second coming (1 John 3:2). But what Chester and Woodrow communicate as well here, is the importance of the way of the cross. We also unite ourselves with our King now, in this world the way it is, by taking up the way of life modeled by Jesus in the cross. It’s the truly redeemed, the people of the kingdom, who walk in the way of the cross in this life, because our true life in Christ has not been revealed yet. The truth of the ascended King causes us to walk in humility, sacrifice, and self-denial, enduring suffering and mistreatment just as Christ did. Until the ascended King returns, and puts the world to rights.
May we grasp the ascension better because of this great little book, and grasp our place in redemptive history better as we wait with great expectation for Christ to return and establish His kingdom on the earth for good. This book forced me to do my homework to be able to write this review, for which I’m thankful. Study the kingdom of God with diligence, and know your eschatology. And as a supplement, this is a great book for interaction with this glorious subject if read with a discerning mind, nourished by the Scriptures.
Thanks so much to Christian Focus Publications for the gift of a copy to read and review.