Nothing of these cynical utopianisms…

On reading Augustine, Russell Moore says,

“Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.

How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?

“Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.”

Russell Moore, in a longer post on The Gospel Coalition here.

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On Christ’s Active Obedience

“…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)

Critiquing The “Worship Experience”

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.

Summary of Edwards’ View Of The Trinity

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.”

Hymnology: “He Rescued Me”

Some of the following I was only able to find via Wikipedia (sigh), so please correct me if any of it’s wrong. I’d love to gather all the right info on this hymn.

Originally titled “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus,” this hymn apparently originated in the 1800s in North-East India, where a man was pressed by the village chief to renounce his new Christian faith. He refused, saying “I have decided to follow Jesus,” and was executed singing “The cross before me, the world behind me.”

The arrangement many of us know today was composed by an American hymn editor, William Jensen Reynolds, and included in a 1959 hymnbook.

Its lyrics, though so appropriate given their origin, might mean something different to many who would sing them today. In the context of martyrdom and persecution, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back” is a Holy Spirit-enabled response in the face of such trials. But many have excluded this hymn from their churches because of the “human ability to choose God” theology that it so easily supports if removed from its context.

All that to say, that’s why I love this arrangement by Red Mountain Church, with a rewrite to the lyrics. One comment on the song’s YouTube post says it perfect, actually:

“[This arrangement is] shocking in stark contrast to the original words of this song. It’s offensive … it’s perfect … it’s Gospel.”

The Red Mountain Church lyrics say the following:

I never wanted to follow Jesus

I never wanted to follow Jesus

I never wanted to follow Jesus

He rescued me, He rescued me

No turning back, No turning back

This rewrite is so much more suited to congregational singing, and adoption into the regular singing of local churches. It echos the glory of Scripture passages like Ephesians 2:1-9, which says,

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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.

A Christian didn’t all of a sudden “decide to follow Jesus.” We were “dead in our trespasses and sins in which we once walked,” and God “made us alive.” He raised us from the dead, in Christ, and united us to Him. And it’s all a gift of God’s grace, to have faith in Christ and to be raised from our spiritual deadness. So God rescued us when we never wanted Him to. Praise God for His glorious grace in the Gospel.

Here’s the Red Mountain Church version (sorry about the lame slide show accompaniment):

Book Review: The Life Of God In The Soul Of The Church

Thabiti Anyabwile. The Life of God in the Soul of the Church. Christian Focus Publications, 2012. 256 pages. $8.99.

A huge thank you once again to Christian Focus Publications for sending out a review copy of the book. It was truly a blessing to read and review. This one has an honored place on my shelf, and will be returned to often.

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As a church music director and corporate worship leader, much of what I do and think about has to do with church life, and has to flow from my theology of the Church. What I believe about the church affects everything. from how I plan songs, to what I say or teach during a corporate gathering, to what I’ve learned to expect from our music team and from our congregation on Sunday mornings. And I pine often for books to keep me encouraged to pursue the right things for the church family. A right, biblical understanding of the church is often in danger of shipwreck in our individualistic, market-driven culture. Thabiti Anyabwile’s The Life of God in the Soul of the Church is an extremely helpful resource in the fight to view the church rightly. Building on Henry Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, Anyabwile explains true fellowship in the family of God, which is rooted in, and defined by God’s own Spirit and life in us. Anyabwile says, “To be a Christian is to have ‘Divine life’ resident and reigning in a human being” (7), and this necessarily affects our interaction as the family of God. The church is not a social club, it’s a family.

Anyabwile clears up some common misconceptions in the body of Christ, about what church life should be. He states, “Spiritual fellowship is not fundamentally a set of activities, though activities may give opportunity for experiencing fellowship” (17). He goes on to build his case that the church is our very identity, and that fellowship is shared experience in believing the truth together, sharing the truth in genuine relationships, and which all leads to the ultimate ends of joy and holiness for us all who have been called out of our sin through Christ, and adopted into God’s family. It’s so very refreshing to read books like this, shepherding us away from consumerism and into true family relationships in Christ. As members of it, it’s important that we get our theology right about the body of Christ.

A Multifaceted Family

Each chapter develops a different facet of church life. Anyabwile bookends the chapters with love as the necessary factor, as he specifically explains the role of spiritual gifts, correction and restoration, forgiveness, giving, and even singing. Again, the facets of church life are many, and they are brought to light here in a proper way. We’re reminded of the vital role each of us plays in the family, and that whether in correcting one another or singing to one another, we’re all a unique part of the “body” of Christ – Christ’s physical manifestation in a broken world. The folks who lead a church gathering from the front are no more important that the congregant who shows up ready to receive the Word and to sing his heart out in the midst of the gathered body, or the behind-the-scenes brother who shows up early to set up for communion. We are all integral, and add a beautiful facet to God’s redeemed church.

Singing To One Another

Forgive me for plugging the chapter on singing. As a corporate worship leader in my church body, I devour chapters on church music in the books I read. Some end up being better than others, but Anyabwile’s treatment of the subject is great, and he puts church singing in just the right place in the life of the church. He rightly emphasizes the benefit to one another that we provide as we sing together, saying, “Too many Christians think the public gathering of the church is basically a couple of hundred people having their personal quiet time in the same place […] Privatized religion destroys spiritual communion. Privatized views of the faith tear apart the body [..] When we gather with a hymn or song we do so for the benefit of the church, the entire body of Christ, the whole group of people” (169-170). What we do, even as we sing, has to be with a view to build up one another, and thus the whole group.

One Drawback

Really, the only drawback I could find to this very helpful book is mostly a subjective one. It’s a collection of sermons, ultimately, and it does read like it in places. Some paragraphs seem more suited for live preaching from the pulpit than for a written work. But again, some of our greatest literature in the Christian faith are collected sermons from our great preachers – Edwards, Spurgeon, and the like. Don’t let this turn you off to the book – just know the feel and tone of the pulpit don’t always translate perfectly to a written page.

This is a vibrant, clear, joyous exhortation for the church to be what it’s supposed to be, having true fellowship as we enjoy God’s abundant life that He gives us in and through His Son. I exhort you to get yourself a copy and underline the pages like crazy. Very, very helpful.

What Is Joy?

Inspired partly by some recent remarks by my pastor, and the studying I did to teach for our Shepherding Group tonight, here’s a list of definitions for true, Christian joy. The older I get, and the more I grow in my faith, the fight to have joy in God really seems to be the central fight. If my joy in God is big, sin looks far cheaper, and the day-to-day minutiae of life is invested with glory.

Here’s the text I studied this week:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

(James 1:2-4 ESV)

And the kind of joy in God that Scripture talks about, that comes even and especially through trials, is as follows:

  • Joy is happiness that runs deep (via Jordan Bakker)
  • Joy transcends temporary circumstances
  • Joy is fixed on a proper object, outside of myself, that doesn’t change (which must be God, in Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change). We’re created to find our source of joy in God – He made us for Himself.
  • Joy is paradoxical, in that you can have great joy and still greatly grieve. But there’s hope in the grief.
  • Joy is a sweet and serious happiness