Sound theology should shape everything we do in corporate worship. But what does that mean for music in particular? Don Carson recently sat down with worship leaders Keith Getty and Matt Boswell to discuss the relationship between the truth we believe and the songs we sing.
Every Christian is a theologian. We are always engaged in the activity of learning about the things of God. We are not all theologians in the professional sense, academic sense, but theologians we are, for better or worse. The ‘for worse’ is no small matter. Second Peter warns that heresies are destructive to the people of God and are blasphemies committed against God. They are destructive because theology touches every dimension of our lives. The Bible declares that as a man thinks in his heart, so is he…Those ideas that do grasp us in our innermost parts, are the ideas that shape our lives. We are what we think. When our thoughts are corrupted, our lives follow suit. All know that people can recite the creeds flawlessly and make A’s in theology courses while living godless lives. We can affirm a sound theology and live an unsound life. Sound theology is not enough to live a godly life. But it is still a requisite for godly living. How can we do the truth without first understanding what the truth is? No Christian can avoid theology. Every one has a theology. The issue, then, is not, do we want to have a theology? That’s a given. The real issue is, do we have a sound theology? Do we embrace true or false doctrine?
Essentials Truths of the Christian Faith, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992, p. vii
(HT: Lance Quinn)
In the beginning was the Word. Christians rightly cherish the declaration that our Savior, the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, is first known as the Word — the one whom the Father has sent to communicate and to accomplish our redemption. We are saved because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Believers are then assigned the task of telling others about the salvation that Christ has brought, and this requires the use of words. We tell the story of Jesus by deploying words, and we cannot tell the story without them. Our testimony, our teaching, and our theology all require the use of words. Words are essential to our worship, our preaching, our singing, and our spiritual conversation. In other words, words are essential to the Christian faith and central in the lives of believers.
As Martin Luther rightly observed, the church house is to be a “mouth house” where words, not images or dramatic acts, stand at the center of the church’s attention and concern. We live by words and we die by words.
Truth, life, and health are found in the right words. Lies, disaster, and death are found in the wrong words. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” [1 Timothy 6:3-5]
Later, Paul will instruct Timothy that sound words come to us in a revealed pattern. “Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” [2 Timothy 1:13-14]
Theological education is a deadly serious business. The stakes are so high. A theological seminary that serves faithfully will be a source of health and life for the church, but an unfaithful seminary will set loose a torrent of trouble, untruth, and sickness upon Christ’s people. Inevitably, the seminaries are the incubators of the church’s future. The teaching imparted to seminarians will shortly be inflicted upon congregations, where the result will be either fruitfulness or barrenness, vitality or lethargy, advance or decline, spiritual life, or spiritual death.
Sadly, the landscape is littered with theological institutions that have poorly taught and have been poorly led. Theological liberalism has destroyed scores of seminaries, divinity schools, and other institutions for the education of the ministry. Many of these schools are now extinct, even as the churches they served have been evacuated. Others linger on, committed to the mission of revising the Christian faith in order to make peace with the spirit of the age. These schools intentionally and boldly deny the pattern of sound words in order to devise new words for a new age — producing a new faith. As J. Gresham Machen rightly observed almost a century ago, we do not really face two rival versions of Christianity. We face Christianity on the one hand and, on the other hand, some other religion that selectively uses Christian words, but is not Christianity.
How does this happen? Rarely does an institution decide, in one comprehensive moment of decision, to abandon the faith and seek after another. The process is far more dangerous and subtle. A direct institutional evasion would be instantly recognized and corrected, if announced honestly at the onset. Instead, theological disaster usually comes by means of drift and evasion, shading and equivocation. Eventually, the drift accumulates into momentum and the school abandons doctrine after doctrine, truth claim after truth claim, until the pattern of sound words, and often the sound words themselves, are mocked, denied, and cast aside in the spirit of theological embarrassment.
By virtue of the believer’s union with Christ, he doth really possess all things. That we know plainly from Scripture. But it may be asked, how doth he possess all things? What is he the better for it? How is a true Christian so much richer than other men?
To answer this, I’ll tell you what I mean by “possessing all things.” I mean that God three in one, all that he is, and all that he has, and all that he does, all that he has made or done–the whole universe, bodies and spirits, earth and heaven, angels, men and devils, sun, moon and stars, land and sea, fish and fowls, all the silver and gold, kings and potentates as well as mean men–are as much the Christian’s as the money in his pocket, the clothes he wears, the house he dwells in, or the victuals he eats; yea more properly his, more advantageously his, than if he could command all those things mentioned to be just in all respects as he pleased at any time, by virtue of the union with Christ; because Christ, who certainly doth thus possess all things, is entirely his: so that he possesses it all, more than a wife the share of the best and dearest husband, more than the hand possesses what the head doth; it is all his. . . .
Every atom in the universe is managed by Christ so as to be most to the advantage of the Christian, every particle of air or every ray of the sun; so that he in the other world, when he comes to see it, shall sit and enjoy all this vast inheritance with surprising, amazing joy.
- Jonathan Edwards, Miscellany ff.
(HT: Dane Ortlund)
Some words are written down and are here for a day and then gone. Other words are so pointed, so perfect, that they stand for many years. J.C. Ryle is a man who wrote many books and pamphlets and sermons that are as powerful and relevant today as they were in the 19th century. His description of jellyfish Christianity could as easily have been written here in the 21st century.
“[Dislike of dogma] is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and specially among young people. It produces what I must venture to call a “jelly-fish” Christianity in the land: that is, a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. A jelly-fish is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little, delicate, transparent umbrella. Yet the same jelly-fish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defence, or self-preservation. Alas! It is a vivid type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is, “No dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.”
We have hundreds of “jelly-fish” clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have not definite opinions; they belong to no school or party; they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views at all.
We have thousands of “jelly-fish” sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.
We have Legions of “jelly-fish” young men annually turned out from our Universities, armed with a few scraps of second-hand philosophy, who think it a mark of cleverness and intellect to have no decided opinions about anything in religion, and to be utterly unable to make up their minds as to what is Christian truth. They live apparently in a state of suspense, like Mohamet’s fabled coffin, hanging between heaven and earth and last.
Worst of all, we have myriads of “jelly-fish” worshippers—respectable church-going people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than colour blind people can distinguish colours They think everybody is right and nobody wrong, everything is true and nothing is false, all sermons are good and none are bad, every clergyman is sound and no clergyman is unsound. They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine”; often carried away by any new excitement and sensational movement; ever ready for new things, because they have no firm grasp on the old; and utterly unable to “render a reason of the hope that is in them.”
Never was it so important for laymen to hold systematic views of truth, and for ordained ministers to “enunciate dogma” very clearly and distinctly in their teaching.
How much better that we should all strive to raise our drooping faith and to re-enrich our depleted experience up to the standard of those blessed periods in the life of the Church when the belief in Bible history and the religion of the heart went hand in hand and kept equal pace, when people were ready to lay down their lives for facts and doctrines, because facts and doctrine formed the daily spiritual nourishment of the souls.
May God by his Spirit maintain among us, and through our instrumentality revive around us, that truly evangelical type of piety which not merely tolerates facts and doctrines, but draws from them its strength and inspiration in life and service, its only comfort and hope in the hour of death.
—Geerhardus Vos, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” The Princeton Theological Review (1906): 289-305.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
David Wells reflects on the fact that apostolic Christianity was shaped into a set of clear teachings and doctrines:
“Christianity, in these and texts like them, is described as the faith, the truth, the pattern of sound words, the traditions, the sound doctrine, and what was delivered in the beginning. This is what the apostles taught, it is what they believed, it is what they “delivered” to the church, it is what is “entrusted” to the church. Christians are those who “believe” this teaching, who “know” it, who “have” it, who “stand” in it, and who are “established” in it. The New Testament letters were written to remind believers about their responsibilities in relation to this teaching, this faith that has been delivered to the church in its final and completed form. The apostles, we read, write to “remind” them of it, urge them to “pay close attention” to it, to “stand firm” in it, to “follow” it, to “hold” onto it, to “guard” it as one might a precious jewel, and to contend earnestly for this truth.
Can we see the most basic point here? It is that the church in its earliest days was a learning community. What it was learning was the ways of God, his character, his acts, through the truth he had given and was giving them. This they knew was indispensable for a life of obedience in this world.
By contrast, all of this is conspicuous by its absence in much of the contemporary evangelical church. Knowledge of the Bible ranks low in how the born-again judge themselves. And the preaching of the Bible’s truth has all but disappeared from many churches. We are today walking away from what we see modelled for us in the book of Acts as God’s will for the church.”
- David Wells The Courage to Be Protestant, 84-85
(HT: Kevin DeYoung)
The church in Western culture today is experiencing a crisis of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart,” different, living life according to God’s Word and story, not according to the stories that the world tells us are the meaning of life. The more the culture around us becomes post- and anti-Christian the more we discover church members in our midst, sitting under sound preaching, yet nonetheless holding half-pagan views of God, truth, and human nature, and in their daily lives using sex, money, and power in very worldly ways. It’s hard to deny what J. I. Packer and Gary Parrett write:
Superficial smatterings of truth, blurry notions about God and godliness, and thoughtlessness about the issues of living—careerwise, communitywise, familywise, and churchwise—are all too often the marks of evangelical congregations today (Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, 16).
This is not the first time the church in the West has lived in such a deeply non-Christian cultural environment. In the first several centuries the church had to form and build new believers from the ground up, teaching them comprehensive new ways to think, feel, and live in every aspect of life. They did this not simply through preaching and lectures, but also through catechesis. Catechesis was not only for children, but also for adult converts and even for leaders—all of whom were grounded in gospel truth by mastering, in dialogical community, material composed for their particular capacities and needs.
In the heyday of the Reformation, church leaders in Europe again faced a massive pedagogical challenge. How could they re-shape the lives of people who had grown up in the medieval church? The answer was, again, many catechisms produced for all ages and stages of life. Martin Luther and John Calvin both produced two, as did John Owen. The Puritan Richard Baxter produced three.
Almost Complete Loss
But in the evangelical Christian world today the practice of catechesis, particularly among adults, has been almost completely lost. Modern discipleship programs are usually superficial when it comes to doctrine. Even systematic Bible studies can be weak in drawing doctrinal conclusions. In contrast, catechisms take students step by step through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology and doctrine, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.
Catechesis is an intense way of doing instruction. The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts in deep, encouraging meditation on truth. It also holds students more accountable to master the material than do other forms of education. Some ask: why fill children’s heads—or for that matter, new converts’—with concepts like “the glory of God” that they cannot grasp well? The answer is that it creates biblical categories in our minds and hearts where they act as a foundation, to be gradually built upon over the years with new insights from more teaching, reading, and experiences. Catechesis done with young children helps them think in biblical categories almost as soon as they can reason. Such instruction, one old writer said, is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire—the Spirit of God—firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what catechetical instruction provides.
Catechesis is also different from listening to a sermon or lecture—or reading a book—in that it is deeply communal and participatory. The practice of question-answer recitation brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning. It creates true community as teachers help students—and students help each other—understand and remember material. Parents catechize their children. Church leaders catechize new members with shorter catechisms and new leaders with more extensive ones. All of this systematically builds relationships. In fact, because of the richness of the material, catechetical questions and answers may be incorporated into corporate worship itself, where the church as a body can confess their faith and respond to God with praise.
Our people desperately need richer, more comprehensive instruction. Returning to catechesis—now—is one important way to give it.
* * * * *
On October 15, The Gospel Coalition in partnership with Tim Keller will launch New City Catechism—a joint adult and children’s catechism consisting of 52 questions and answers adapted from the Reformation catechisms.
Tim Keller is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York. He is also co-founder and vice president of The Gospel Coalition. For more resources by Tim Keller visit Redeemer City to City.
From The Gospel Coalition:
Talk to certain critics of Reformed theology, and you might think something about the doctrines of grace inhibits church growth. Talk to some proponents of Reformed theology, and you might reach the same conclusion.
We—both the pastors up front and the Christians in the pews—assign spiritual value to church size, depending on our background and perspective. We see large churches as a sure sign of God’s faithfulness in some cases, and small churches as a sign of God’s faithfulness in other cases. So what, really, does church size matter?
That’s the question discussed in this video by pastors Kevin DeYoung, Matt Chandler, and Mark Dever. Their friendly banter touches on serious subjects, including:
- the awesome responsibility of giving pastoral account for thousands of souls;
- the urgent need for more ambition to see Jesus Christ change many lives; and
- the practical nightmare of exponential church growth.
They also suggest some helpful resources, no matter your church size. If you’re laboring with all your might and not seeing much fruit, you may benefit from reading about D. A. Carson’s faithful father in Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. And if you’re serving in a church enjoying a season of rapid growth, you’ll learn from reading Tim Keller on “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth.”
Watch the full video to learn more about the true marks of church growth and the pride that plagues Christian leaders no matter the size of their ministry.
Excellent stuff from Thabiti Anyabwile:
1. The Teaching Authority of the Elders. What keeps the elders and members from descending into theological deadlocks, each proclaiming, “Well, I think it means this” or “To me it means that”? A healthy statement of faith summarizes the church’s position on key doctrinal subjects. That standard helps to raise theological conversation and teaching above the subjective preferences of individuals and anchors the teaching of the the church in the Scripture itself. One could say, “The Bible alone is our authority,” and that would be correct, but it wouldn’t really resolve the problem of subjective interpretation of key biblical issues. I mean, what are we arguing about? Isn’t it “What does the Bible teach?” So appeals to “The Bible says” can become inadequate for resolving theological conflicts. Statements of faith are not perfect and certainly do not possess any authority greater than the Bible, but they can go a long way in helping to the church to say “If the elders teach the word of God, and if their teaching squares with our doctrinal standards, then they teach with authority what we hold to be true and it’s our duty then to submit to what the elders teach.”
2. The Gospel. Our statements of faith can also protect the gospel message itself. The statement protects the gospel when it properly defines the Good News. But it also protects the gospel when it properly defines doctrinal positions touching the gospel. For example, a good statement of faith takes care to state that baptism does not cause regeneration. An effective creed helps people to see that a doctrine like the Trinity matters immensely for our understanding of the Good News and the role each Person in the Trinity plays in redemption. The protection of the gospel requires we define other key doctrinal positions that bear upon the gospel but are not themselves the gospel.
3. The Language of the Church. Contemporary Christians inherit centuries old language, sometimes technical language, to define and promote the faith. The terms we use, like Trinity, has a definite history and function in theological discourse. Our statements can be useful for preserving such technical terms. And our statements can be important for protecting pretty ordinary words with extraordinary consequence. For example, we are not “justified by faith” but “justified by faith alone.” What’s the difference? A Roman Catholic can affirm the former but only a true Protestant can affirm the latter. The ordinary word “alone” has important consequences for the entire doctrine. Good statements protect the language of the church.
4. The Unity and Peace of the Church Family. We are to do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Statements of faith help us do that by defining the core articles of faith a local church requires for church unity. That unity promotes the peace of the church. Where the essentials are not defined, room may be left for constant skirmishes over belief and practice. But confessing our faith together preserves harmony.
5. The Freedom of the Church. Sometimes creeds are important because of what they omit. A good statement doesn’t take a position on everything possible. Weird indeed would be the statement that attempts a required position on head coverings. Some things are indifferent, others secondary and unnecessary to congregational unity. Christians may sincerely disagree over some of these issues and fruitfully worship together in the same congregation. When the creed avoids taking a position on such secondary matters, it actually preserves the congregation’s freedom of conscience. Members are not bound where the Scripture does not bind. In charity we extend opportunity for godly fellow believers to hold positions according to the light they have received from the word and the Spirit. If it’s not a practical secondary matter on which we must agree (for example, we’ll either baptize children of professing believers or not), then we serve ourselves best by not enshrining disputable secondary matters in the church’s doctrinal standards.
6. The Future of the Church. Finally, an effective statement of faith helps to protect the future. To be sure, it doesn’t guarantee a certain future. Many congregations have departed from their doctrinal history or simply allowed the statement to vanish into the oblivion of church records. But, a statement of faith actively used in the catechism of families and the worship of the gathered church works to pass along the faith to those coming behind us. In this way, it makes a deposit in succeeding generations who know the ancient paths and safely trod there. Without creedal guard rails subsequent worshipers more easily veer onto the soft shoulders of theological error. Good statements actively used help protect the future of the church.
What am I missing? What else might be protected by an effective doctrinal standard?
By Carl Trueman:
In recent years, talk of uniting around the center has been very popular in conservative evangelical quarters. One obvious reason for this is that many regard such a center as reflecting the fact that there is a solid core of key doctrines on which evangelicals agree, even though there are areas of disagreement. Thus, many consider Trinitarianism, penal substitution, and justification by grace alone through faith alone to be central points of agreement. At the same time, these same people would regard the subjects and mode of baptism or the details of church polity to be areas of disagreement. Yet, by seeing the former as more important, they regard diversity on the latter as not of truly fundamental significance.
A second reason for emphasizing talk about the center is, perhaps, more problematic. Frequently, those who talk of the center as all-important contrast themselves favorably with those they see as emphasizing boundaries. Boundaries are much more problematic in our current culture. They sound rather like borders, and the last hundred years witness eloquently to the evil effects of borders, with countless wars and ethnic cleansings. Further, boundaries also point to exclusion, and if there is one thing that the modern Western world seems to fear more than anything else, it is exclusion. After all, to exclude is to oppress. Finally, in a world shaped at the level of intellectual culture by the transgressive thinking of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, and at a popular level by the hedonism of Hugh Hefner and his cultural progeny, boundaries speak of oppression, of “them” stopping “us” from reaching our full potential or even simply enjoying ourselves.
For the above theological and cultural reasons, evangelical talk of centers rather than boundaries has a lot to commend it. To make the point concisely: it is consonant with both the desire of Christians for unity and the cultural, political, and psychological aesthetics of our time.
There are, however, good reasons for resisting such language, or at least for moderating it.
First, we need to be aware of the cultural aesthetic that makes such ideas attractive. For the world at large, boundaries have become something to be transgressed, and that continuously. Hefner’s business empire was built on precisely such a premise, and, indeed, the financial problems afflicting his magazine in recent years witness to the fact that one cannot simply cross a boundary and then stop: that merely establishes a new boundary, which others will transgress in more radical and extreme ways.
Yet if the pioneers of our culture see boundaries as oppressive, as Christians we need to realize that a commitment to the Bible’s teaching requires us rather to see that boundaries have not been put in place by God to oppress us or to stop us from being who we are. In fact, they have been put in place for precisely the opposite reason, to enable us to be truly human. When human beings break God’s law, for example, they do not become more human; rather, they become dehumanized as that which distinguishes them from all other animals, the fact that they bear God’s image, is practically abolished.
Second, we need to realize that, whatever our culture likes to tell us, even it has to accept in practice that not all exclusion is bad exclusion. Few, if any, would want to argue that the exclusion from wider society of serial killers and pedophiles is a bad or oppressive thing. Such exclusion actually liberates. Yes, there is much talk about prisons failing because of re-offending rates and so on, but a serial killer in prison is hard-pressed to kill a law-abiding member of the public, and a pedophile in prison has no access to children. Such exclusion is surely both desirable and successful when looked at in those terms.
Thus it is in the church: it is good to exclude from the teaching ministry of the church those who propagate heresy, and it is good to exclude even from the company of the church those whose lifestyles or water-cooler sermons every Sunday do harm to the people of God. Such exclusion saves souls—perhaps even the soul of the offender—it does not destroy them (1 Tim. 1:20).
We also need to understand that the talk of doctrinal confession that focuses on the center rather than on boundaries is ultimately specious, however well-intended such may be.
There are numerous problems with the center image, but I will address only two. The first is the rather obvious one implied by the image itself: centers and boundaries are ultimately dependent upon each other—one cannot meaningfully talk of one without assuming the existence of the other. In a circle, the central point is a function of the perimeter. I know where the center is only when I see the circle as a whole and judge its location on the basis of its circumference. Thus it is in theology: one’s judgment on which doctrines are central will depend upon where one judges it necessary to draw boundaries and for what purpose.
Second, much theology, and certainly much creedal formulation, is what we might call negative in character. In other words, it actually tells us what God is not or what He cannot be. As such, even individual Christian doctrines are boundary-forming, not center-focused. For example, to say that God is infinite is to say something negative about God: He has no limits. This formulation sets a boundary: there are lots of things I might be able to say about God, but if at some point I say He has limits, I cross a boundary into error.
It is similar with many of the great creeds. The Chalcedonian Definition defines the person of Christ by declaring that He is one person in two natures. It is actually saying that any formula that posits more than one person or that mixes the natures to produce a kind of metaphysical compound of humanity and divinity has crossed a boundary.
What such boundaries do, of course, is liberate. They tell the church where it is safe to theologize just as fences along the edge of a cliff help to keep people from plunging to their deaths.
Talk of center-focused theology rather than boundary theology is attractive but ultimately specious. It often represents no more than one group using the rhetoric of the wider culture to make itself look good in comparison to others. In fact, to talk theology at all is to talk boundaries and always has been. The only questions are how many boundaries there are and whether one openly and honestly acknowledges them as such.
The only thing more difficult than finding the truth is not losing it. What starts out as new and precious becomes plain and old. What begins a thrilling discovery becomes a rote exercise. What provokes one generation to sacrifice and passion becomes in the next generation a cause for rebellion and apathy. Why is it that denominations and church movements almost always drift from their theological moorings? Why is it that people who grow up in the church are often less articulate about their faith than the new Christian who converted at forty-five? Why is it that those who grow up with creeds and confessions are usually the ones who hate them most?
Perhaps it’s because truth is like the tip of your nose-it’s hardest to see when it’s right in front of you?
No doubt, the church in the West has many new things to learn. But for the most part, everything we need to learn is what we’ve already forgotten. The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to reinvent or to be relevant, but to remember. We must remember the old, old story. We must remember the faith once delivered to the saints. We must remember the truths that spark reformation, revival, and regeneration.
The Scriptures are fully true. Jesus is fully God. The Father appoints. The Son accomplishes. The Spirit applies. God created the world from nothing. God oversees everything. God can do whatever he wants, and he wants you to work hard. We are forgiven at the cross. We are justified by faith. We must show our faith with good deeds and holy lives. Jesus is our substitute. Jesus is the only way. Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Hell is terrible and forever. Heaven is eternal and better than we can imagine. Come to Christ. Come to the cross. Come and die, and behold, we live. Keep on saying these things over and over. And don’t ever forget.
Portions of this post were taken from: The Good News We Almost Forgot.
However the terms are refined, the main tenets of Calvinism are structured around the five-petaled acronym TULIP. But too often missing in this structure is the “sap of delight,” as Pastor John [Piper] calls it in his biography of Augustine.
In the following excerpt from that biography, Pastor John explains why we need a delight-drenched theology like that of Augustine:
Yes, we do. But we also need tens of thousands of ordinary pastors, who are ravished with the extraordinary sovereignty of joy that belongs to and comes from God alone. And we need to rediscover Augustine’s peculiar slant — a very biblical slant — on grace as the free gift of sovereign joy in God that frees us from the bondage of sin. We need to rethink our Reformed view of salvation so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of Augustinian delight.
We need to make plain that [T] total depravity is not just badness, but blindness to beauty and deadness to joy; and [U] unconditional election means that the completeness of our joy in Jesus was planned for us before we ever existed; and that [L] limited atonement is the assurance that indestructible joy in God is infallibly secured for us by the blood of the covenant; and [I] irresistible grace is the commitment and power of God’s love to make sure we don’t hold on to suicidal pleasures, and to set us free by the sovereign power of superior delights; and that the [P] perseverance of the saints is the almighty work of God to keep us, through all affliction and suffering, for an inheritance of pleasures at God’s right hand forever.
This note of sovereign, triumphant joy is a missing element in too much Reformed theology and Reformed worship. And it may be that the question we should pose ourselves is whether this is so because we have not experienced the triumph of sovereign joy in our own lives.*
* Excerpt taken from John Piper’s 1998 biography of Augustine; also published in Piper’s,The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Crossway, 2006), 73; and published in Piper’s, Taste and See (Multnomah, 2005), 73. See also Piper’s DVD series, TULIP: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation.
Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren’t there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride.
Why is it significant to understand that Christians don’t really “join” churches so much as submit to them?
“Join” is a club word. You join a club, whether it’s a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from.
“Submit” is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.
What difference should church membership make in a Christian’s life?
Your question is sort of like asking “what difference should righteousness make in a Christian’s life?” It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she “puts on” that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ’s body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she “puts on” that membership in a geographically specific local body.
Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—capital C—unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It’s where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it’s the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose—to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.
“Kingdom” is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?
The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ’s rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church.
The embassy-like authority of the local church gives individuals who mouth the words “I’m with Jesus” the opportunity to demonstrate that those words mean something. The local church guards the reputation of Christ by sorting out the true professors from the false. The local church enables the world to look upon the canvas of God’s people and see an authentic painting of Christ’s love and holiness. And the local church lays down a pathway with guardrails and resting stations for the long journey of the Christian life.
How should two Christians who belong to the same church relate to each other differently than two Christians who belong to different churches?
That’s a great question that helps us get to the heart of the matter. Picture me and two other Christians, one who is a member of my church and one who is not. You could say that all three of us belong to “the body of Christ” and “the people of God” and the universal church. Furthermore, you could say that Scripture calls all three of us to love each other, to pray for each other, to encourage each other, to rebuke sin, and even to care for one another financially as occasion requires. But what’s the difference?
Here’s a hint: there is the possibility of church discipline with my fellow member but not with the other brother or sister. Jesus has given me and my local church a formal judicial role to play in my fellow member’s life that he has not given me in the life of every Christian on earth.
And it is this final, adjudicatory authority the local church bears that plays a large role in a Christian’s discipleship. Discipleship occurs best in context of godly and loving authority.
What would you say to people who attend churches that don’t have formal membership? What about to pastors of churches that don’t have formal membership?
Ah, well, that depends on a host of factors. If you’re attending that church, maybe it’s the only gospel-preaching church in your area, and so you don’t have much choice. Or, if you’re the pastor of that church, maybe you’ve inherited the congregation and pushing toward something more formal in the short term will prove divisive. So, it depends.
That said, whether a pastor or non-pastor, you want to help your church move toward something like formalized membership for three simple reasons: (1) every Christian needs to know which other Christians he or she is specifically responsible for; (2) every Christian needs to know which church leaders he or she needs to submit to (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5); (3) every church leader needs to know which Christians he will give an account for (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:2). When you show up at your weekly gathering, and when you disperse throughout the week, who is the “we” of Christ’s body for whom you are responsible? Don’t just say you’re responsible for all the kids in your neighborhood. What kids has God made you responsible for?
Matt Smethurst is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.
From C J Mahaney:
The resurgence of Calvinism in the evangelical world in recent years has, I think, reflected an increasing concern among many Christians for purity of doctrine. But as Francis Schaeffer says in the quote below, pure doctrine by itself isn’t enough to constitute a thriving church—real community matters too. From The Church Before the Watching World:
One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world can see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community.
This became a conviction of mine many years ago, and I wish now that I could identify who it was that influenced me in that direction. When I was converted, the Jesus Movement and all of its attending festivals and conferences were, at first glance, where it seemed God was primarily at work. Speaking at those events, as well as the Tuesday-night teaching ministry I was involved with back then (TAG), had the feel of something significant. And God did use those contexts in wonderful ways.
But it wasn’t long before the limitations of these venues began to appear—and near the top of the list was a lack of real community. Moving from festival to conference to teaching nights didn’t afford anyone the opportunity to practice the many “one anothers” of Scripture. And the more I studied Acts and Ephesians and became amazed at the goodness of God’s plan for community in the local church, the more that dynamic became dissatisfying.
Humanly speaking, that dynamic is what ultimately let to the end of TAG and the beginning of Covenant Life Church. To many, that was a dumb move—we changed from teaching 2,000 people to teaching 20. But community was being built, and whereas TAG, festivals, and conferences would have inevitably declined and ended, Covenant Life Church continues to build. So it’s a dumb move I would do over again in a heartbeat. Schaeffer was right: real community matters.
At the Next conference in May, we’re going to spend a few days getting teaching on the doctrine of the church. I’m praying that those who join us will walk away amazed by the goodness of God’s plan for the local church and motivated to sink down their roots in the real community that only the church can offer as the fruit and effect of the gospel.
Brilliant from Kevin DeYoung:
Christians must be careful thinkers, especially those who teach other Christians how to think. Very few heresies were the result of self-understood snakes sneaking into the church. Most doctrinal mistakes, of which “heresy” is only the most serious category, come from well meaning people intent on safeguarding an important element of the faith.
Arianism and Docetism were two of the church’s first and deadliest heresies. And yet, both were attempts to preserve the truth. Arianism wanted to defend the majesty of God. So Arius stopped short of affirming the full deity of Christ. Surely the glory of God would be compromised if we make the human Son equal with the divine Father. Docetists saw the problem moving in the opposite direction. They too wanted to defend the perfection of God. So they refused to affirm the full humanity of Christ. Surely the Son must only appear to be human. How else can we protect the full splendor of this divine Savior?
Both sides were both trying, at least in part, to protect the truth, but their human logic and philosophical assumptions prevented them from seeing the whole truth. They defended what was right by devaluing what wasn’t wrong. This doesn’t mean the right answer is always the mythical third way or some combination of all the options. But it does mean we ought to avoid the mistake of making the Bible fit our grid instead of allowing for complementary scriptural ideas to work side by side.
Almost every doctrinal error starts with the desire to affirm or to protect some important doctrine. But without careful thinking and delicate nuances, working hard to avoid one mistake will simply lead us to another. Maybe even worse.
‘How then does it work?’ It works like this. God accepts this righteousness of Christ, this perfect righteousness face to face with the Law, which He honored in every respect. He has kept it and given obedience to it [through his perfect life], and he has borne its penalty [through his death]. The Law is fully satisfied. God’s way of salvation, says Paul, is that. He gives to us the righteousness of Christ. If we have seen our need and go to God and confess it, God will give us his own Son’s righteousness. He imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, who believe in Him, and regards us as righteous, and declares and pronounces us to be righteous in Him. That is the way of salvation, the Christian way of salvation…
“The cross, therefore, is multidirectional. Taking into account all of Scripture’s teaching, the cross is directed toward God himself (in propitiation); toward our enemies, including demons, to defeat them; toward men and women to redeem them; and toward the whole creation to deliver it from “its bondage to decay” and to bring it into “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Why will all of these things occur? Why will we be finally saved? Why will the Devil and evil angels not ruin the shalom of the new creation but instead be cast into the lake of fire? Why will there be a new heaven and a new earth? All of these questions have the same answer: because the Son of God died and rose again on the third day to accomplish the reconciliation of human beings, angels, and the creation itself …”
Robert A. Peterson - Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ
(HT: Jude St.John)