Calvin on Forgiveness and Perfectionism in the Church

church-stepsThere has always been a temptation towards perfectionism in the Church.

And this is understandable. Rightly we are reminded in the Creed that the Church is “holy.” Invoking the word of YHWH in Leviticus, Peter commands his church to “be holy” as the Lord their God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). The Church of God is a set apart people who are to live set apart lives as they honor the Lord who set himself apart in order to redeem them (John 17:19).

And yet, as with every biblical prerogative, when there is sin, pride, myopia, and folly, even the good commands of the Lord can be taken and distorted.

While it may surprise some, Calvin spends a great deal of time in the Institutes warning against a false perfectionism that would tempt people to draw away from fellowship with true churches despite the fact that they preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (Note: he has a section on right division when these marks are absent).

Many times, in the case of great scandal in the church, people are tempted to be discouraged or disgusted with the church, pick up their pews in a huff, and head towards the back door. But Calvin urges us that “in bearing with the imperfections of life we ought to be more considerate” (4.1.13).

He notes a couple of impulses that drive us towards the exit.

First, he there have always been those who “imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.” In other words, plain, old-fashioned pride and blindness towards your own sin, will cause you to self-righteously separate from the body.

Second, he notes a “very legitimate complaint”, which comes more from an “ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of insane pride.” In this case, a person might look around a church and see that they quality of life doesn’t seem to match the “doctrine of the gospel” and so they conclude that there is no true Church there.

There he says that churches should bear some responsibility in our slowness to encourage people towards fidelity and obedience. But even still, Calvin says that this latter group is still sinning in cutting ties with the church because “they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” Indeed, they act foolishly because “where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity.”

Instead, Calvin reminds his readers of Jesus parables of the net which catches all kinds of fish (Matt 13:47-58), or that of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24), and calls them to understand that though the church is holy (Eph. 5:26), “if the Lord declares that the church is to labor under this evil—to be weighed down with the mixture of the wicked—until the Day of Judgment, they are vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”

He continues on for several sub-chapters noting the example of Paul’s patience with his own congregations (especially the Corinthians whose sins run the gamut), the prophets of old who did not separate themselves from Israel, and, of course, Christ himself. Paul didn’t tell people to examine the congregation to see whether they should partake, but rather that individuals should examine themselves. To not partake of the Supper for fear of eating with an unworthy person is to be “much more rigid than Paul” (4.1.16).

Among the various wise counsels Calvin offer, it is noteworthy that he sees failure within the church as an opportunity for Christian discipleship. This is so in at least two ways.

First, he sees it as an opportunity for gracious correction, he quotes Augustine saying, “Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace…Mercifully correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.”

Second, in another section ponder the true meaning of the forgiveness of sins: “I admit that in urging men to perfection we must not toil slowly or listlessly, much less give up. However, I say it is a devilish invention for our minds, while as yet we are in the earthly race, to be cocksure about our perfection. Thus in the Creed forgiveness of sins appropriately follows mention of the church” (4.1.20)

Indeed, this is why the power of the keys have been given to the church. No one comes into the family of God except through baptism and the forgiveness of sins: “Forgiveness of sins, then, is for us the first entry into the church and Kingdom of God.” And this is a continual ministry of the church: “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (4.1.21).

And so this offers motive for people not to depart from the church. For one thing, they themselves regularly need to hear the forgiveness of sins pronounced. But they also need to be regularly invited to practice the forgiveness of sins towards their brothers and sisters.

While there’s much more to say from these rich subsections, I’d like close on a significant chunk in which Calvin calls us to remember just how limited our judgment in these matters can be:

Let them ponder that in a great multitude there are many men, truly holy and innocent in the Lord’s sight, who escape their notice. Let them ponder that even among those who seem diseased there are many who in no wise are pleased with, or flatter themselves in, their faults, but aroused again and again by a profound fear of the Lord, aspire to a more upright life. Let them ponder that a man is not to be judged for one deed, inasmuch as the holiest sometimes undergo a most grievous fall. Let them ponder how much more important both the ministry of the Word and participation in the sacred mysteries are for the gathering of the church than the possibility that this whole power may be dissipated through the guilt of certain ungodly men. Finally, let them realize that in estimating the true church divine judgment is of more weight than human. (4.16)

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: Pentecost and the Church

Mere FidelityAlright, so I’ve missed posting a few of the recent episodes of Mere Fidelity. I’ve been writing papers and the like for class. All the same, here is the latest episode in which Alastair and I discuss Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit, and our theology of the church, especially from the text of Acts 2. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of discussion of the various connections between Acts and the whole of Scripture as well as some of the theological implications we can derive for today.

As always, if you find any of this helpful, please do share. You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on Alastair’s blog.

*WE ARE CURRENTLY LOOKING FOR PEOPLE TO HELP US TO COVER THE MONTHLY EXPENSES OF THE PODCAST. PLEASE VISIT OUR PATREON PAGE*

The Fickle Crowd Can’t Stop the Resurrection

donkeyWhen Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it was to the acclaim of the crowds. “Hosanna! Hosanna!” they cried. It must have been an inspiring sight to see for the disciples. “These people get it”, they must have thought. Now, finally, Jesus was getting the right recognition that he deserved. He is the coming King and his people have recognized it.

But that was Sunday. And as we all know, the crowds were screaming for his blood on Friday. How could they turn on him like that? How could it all go to hell so fast? Were they really that fickle? Can they really have changed their minds about him that quickly?

The answer is, “yes”, “no”, and “kinda.” I mean, to be fair, Jesus gets pretty aggressive in the Temple and the courts the next few days in his preaching, teaching, and condemnation of the religious practices of Israel at the time. So there’s some understandable shift in popular consciousness that can be accounted for.

But even with that, you begin to see that it’s not so much a matter of people being simply fickle, or changing their mind about Jesus, but rather coming to understand they hadn’t understood him in the first place.

Many had a Messiah box and had slid Jesus into that, without really checking the fit. They were excited that the liberation, salvation, the good life they had desired for so long was coming because Jesus was bringing it. But then they saw, they heard, they understood–he’s up to something else–he had a different vision. And so they changed their minds about Jesus precisely because they wouldn’t change their minds about the kind of kingdom that really mattered to them.

When they saw what Jesus was really about, they decided it was not in their rational, self-interest to identify with this sort of Messiahship. And so, they handed him over to be crucified by the Gentiles.

All this is fairly standard Palm Sunday sermon material, but as I was reflecting on it this morning, I began to think of our current social situation in the church. It’s easy for those of who care about the health of the Church to get discouraged about the how much the popular imagination of church-goers or self-identified Christians seems match worldly, distorted, fun-house visions of the kingdom, politics, and the good life.

Christians who chant Jesus’ name on Sunday seem to hand Jesus over to be crucified in a million different ways all throughout the week.

But the reality is, for 2,000 years the crowds have been chanting “Hosanna!” one day, and calling for Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days later. But Easter came all those years ago, despite the infidelity of the crowd.

Take heart this, then, this Palm Sunday. No matter the temporary woes of the Church today, the fickleness of the crowds, or the narrowness of their vision, the humble King who came riding on a donkey is even now seated at on the throne in glory, ruling the cosmos, salvation securely in hand. There is always hope, always resurrection life at work in the Church just around the corner.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

How Do We Stop Weaponizing Our Victims?

The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbors. And our neighbors do the same. They always think first about the victims for whom they hold us responsible.

-Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (pg. 164)

girardAccording to Rene Girard, our society, more than any before it, is obsessed with “the victims”–especially those of exclusion, violence, and social scapegoating. And he would know. The French literary critic and anthropologist is something of an expert on the idea of the victim. His works on the ideas of mimetic desire, scapegoating, violence, and their role in literature and culture as a whole are groundbreaking and influential (The Scapegoat, Violence and the Sacred, etc). In any case, according to Girard, you can scan the ancient literature down the generations, across societies, and you find nothing like the widespread concern for the victims in the modern and contemporary period.

You can chalk this up to any number of sources: the effect of the Gospel on cultures through history, the spread and transformation during the Enlightenment of the Christian concept of charity into one of universal benevolence (per Charles Taylor), our post-Holocaust sensibilities, or any number of other social movements. What you can’t do is deny its pervasiveness. As Girard notes, even if we’re hypocritical about it, we at least know we’re supposed to be concerned for the victims: whether oppressed social groups, races, sexes, orientations, or classes.

We are keenly aware now of the way that individuals and groups can be marginalized and kept down by the cruel, powerful, or simply dominant, yet apathetic social majority. What’s more, we know we’re supposed to do something about it in word or deed (or, more cynically, at the very least through a token acknowledgment of complicity via Facebook update).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, insofar as it’s connected with and led to great movements of social justice (Civil Rights movements, advances in gender equality, the rights of the unborn, etc), I think it’s a good thing. Whatever the social roots, I think there are deep, biblical justifications for something like our modern concern for the victim.

Christ himself (among many other things) was a victim of violence and oppression at the hands of religious, social, and political powers. He not only atoned for our sins on the Cross but, among his many works, he exposed in concrete form the oppression and violence against the weak at the heart of a world in rebellion to its Loving Redeemer.

Weaponizing the Victim

All that said, as with any religious insight, sin’s pernicious power can twist and pervert it for its own uses. And, as the opening quote suggests, the modern concern for the victim is no different. In a phrase: we’ve learned to weaponize our victims.

Girard elaborates:

We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts, but raisng them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense. Instead of criticizing ourselves, we use our knowledge in bad faith, turning it against others. Indeed, we practice a hunt for scapegoats to a second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.  (pg. 158)

I suppose I could just remind you of your Twitter or your Facebook feed on Tuesday and you’ll see where he’s going. Think of the vitriolic discussions and finger-pointing around abortion, #BlackLivesMatter, the Syrian Crisis, bullying against LGBT kids, religious liberty infringements, and any number of other important instances of victimization and the importance of Girard’s comments should become apparent. Still, I think it’s worth commenting on in this passage and a number of points to add beyond it.

Secret Substitutions and Weighing the Victims

First, there is the danger of second-order scapegoating brought on by our awareness of our tendency to scapegoat others. As soon as we identify a victim and their corresponding oppressor, we are liable to turn the tables, engaging in “secret substitutions”, and vindictively turn the initial oppressor into a victim of even worse violence (physical, social, economic) than the original victims suffered. We see an instance of online cruelty and become a Twitter mob that doxxes and shames a person out of work and society as a whole, all the while convinced of the rightness of our cause. We’re not oppressors, we’re “allies”, or “voices for the voiceless.”

Then there’s the self-righteous posturing element. Girard points out the way we use the victims to prop up our own self-defense against shame and guilt, our own sense of righteousness. Or maybe it’s not self-justification, but a secularized attempt at penance or atonement that drives us to perform our righteousness before men. We prove and perform our righteousness in a couple of ways, at least.

First, we do so simply by publicly supporting the right sort of victims. Girard speaks earlier about the “weighing of victims” that goes on in society. And we’ve all seen that, right? The comparative element in our online conversations: “How can you care about X, when Y is happening?”

Comparative judgments do have an appropriate place, at times. There are some issues that simply are bigger, more important, or more pressing at a given moment. Of course, the problem is that knowing how to rank them can be a difficult judgment call to make and it’s not always obvious. What’s more, my concern isn’t always a zero-sum game. I can care about more than one victim at a time, or acknowledge the importance of one justice issue while realizing that my voice is needed on this other issue over here.

The devious, second dimension to the comparative judgments, though, is the self-justification that comes with knowing my victim matters more. It’s not just that we want to be righteous by caring about victims, it’s that I care about the right victim, while you care about the wrong one. We want to appear righteous, but we also want to be more righteous than she is.

Which brings us to weaponizing the victim. That opening quote is so devastating because once you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere–especially your own soul. It’s a mirror that exposes to light some of the ugliest impurities in our righteous crusades. Because haven’t you seen that in yourself? No? Well, I mean, I’m sure you’ve seen it in your enemies, right?

Haven’t you been agitated by that progressive who is always taking every chance they get to share a devastating story about some victim and immediately tacking the moral on that “this is what Republicans/Evangelicals/Fundamentalists views lead to” or some such statement? Or on the flipside, the way that some legal absurdity just shows the moral bankruptcy of the progressive/Democrat/Post-Evangelical capitulation? Doesn’t this latest tragedy (beautifully) highlight their horrid lack of concern? (A concern which, quite admirably, you have). Don’t these tear-stained faces cry out for the merciless prosecution of our enemies? (Oh, and yes, maybe some aid as well, of course.)

I Am A Danger To Myself

Here’s the thing, I don’t for a minute claim that I escape this, nor, again, that there aren’t situations where that kind of stock-taking and comparison needs to take place. I’ll come clean and say that I have been there in this last month. I mean, with all the Planned Parenthood videos coming out, I’ve sat there appalled at the perceived inconsistency of some of my progressive friends who will trumpet every (in my view) piddling social faux pas, yet remained quiet about it, or whose knee-jerk reaction is to defend the abortion giant. Or be more incensed about Cecile the Lion than tens of thousands of infants butchered. And I honestly think my opposition to abortion and prioritization of it is justified.

But has that been my only concern? Haven’t there been moments where I’ve prided myself on having that sense of proportion? Have there been times when my legitimate concern for these helpless victims hasn’t been edged out my desire to score righteousness points and use that evaluation as part of a broader argument against “deluded” progressives? Am I quieter about other moral issues because they’re not an opportunity to score points against them? Am I more concerned with victims I can hold my neighbors responsible for?

I have to ask myself these questions if I’m going to be honest and avoid running the risk of hunting the hunters, or crassly weaponizing the already-victimized, turning them into objects for my own self-justification. And here’s one of the most pernicious elements of the whole thing: I used myself as an example here, simply to avoid using this post as a third-order exercise in weaponizing the victim against those who weaponize the victims! But I know I’m not the only one here.

Think through the issues, the victims that burden you, and the opponents who anger you. I don’t know what it is for you or who it is for you. Maybe it’s abortion. Maybe it’s racial injustice. Maybe it’s gender or sexuality. Maybe they are friends who’ve gone progressive. Maybe they are Sunday School teachers who stayed Evangelical. Maybe they’re Anabaptists, Calvinists, Roman Catholics, or whoever. And maybe you’re really actually right and they’re really actually wrong. My point here isn’t to say that there aren’t priorities, or a proper place for righteous anger against others on behalf of the victims. Clearly these things actually matter.

My question is this: is your first instinct for the victim or against your enemy? Is it to seek justice or secure righteousness? To bless the hurting or curse the proud? I honestly don’t know sometimes. And that scares me. I remember Paul’s words:

“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)

We pass judgment on others in this fashion, only at a danger to ourselves.

Our Hope–the Victim is the Judge

It’s at that moment, though, when I remember my only hope is that one day the secrets of men “will be judged by Jesus Christ” according to the gospel (Rom. 2:16). That Christ Jesus–the One who was the Victim at our hand and on our behalf–is the Judge is my only hope to stand on that final day.

Christ’s gospel is also my only hope to escape this cycle. Only as I continue to recognize my own sin–my violence against God and my neighbor–that put him there is my pride humbled before others. I know that I myself “practice those same things”, in a million different quiet ways. What’s more, it’s only as I continue to trust that his atoning death for sin and resurrecting justification is mine through faith, can I move beyond the self-justifying desire to performatively prove my righteousness against my ideological opponents. My identity isn’t at stake, nor is my need to cover my own guilt and unrighteousness.

Neither of these movements should undercut the motive to seek justice for the victim.

Instead, we are set free to care for the victims as people, for their own sake and the sake of the One whose Image they bear, instead of as pawns in our schemes. Indeed, it opens us up care for more than we had before, since we’re no longer caught up in weighing the victims, making sure we’re working for the “right sort”, the respectable victims who pull up their pants and have don’t have the wrong kind of past. We don’t have to be moralistic advocates. We don’t have to worry about whether or not admitting the evil they’ve suffered plays into our opponents’ hands because, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it’s not about winning anymore.

It even serves as a curb against our worst, vindictive excesses. Since we know that beyond the temporal justice we rightly seek in this world–stopping bullying, ending police brutality, saving the unborn–ultimate, divine judgement will either be served at the last day, or has already been handled at the Cross, we are less likely to vindictively fall into victimizing the oppressor and continuing the cycle of violence.

Everything changes in light of the Victim who is the Judge.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Does the Church’s “Teaching Authority” Mean for Protestants?

Trinity Reading and RevelationProtestants are popularly known as being skittish about talking about the Church’s “teaching authority.” Certainly Evangelicals are. There is a sense that acknowledging the Scriptures as the Word of God and affirming the doctrine of sola Scriptura–that Scripture, not the Magisterium of the Church is the final authority in establishing matters of doctrine–should cause us to turn our noses up, or at least be suspicious of claims for churchly authority. And there’s something to that.

We want to be clear of a few misconceptions of the Church’s teaching authority. For one thing, we want to make sure and remember that the Church is subject to the Word, not the other way around. The Word authorizes the Church, the Church doesn’t authorize the Word. The Church responds to the Word, even recognizes it as the Word, but it does not establish it.  The Church is brought into being by the Word–it is the “creature of the Word” as Luther puts it. Just as God speaks a word at creation and the world comes into being, so God speaks the word of the Gospel and the Church comes into being.

All that I affirm as a Protestant. But that’s not all that we can say about the Church’s teaching authority. It’s not a matter of Magisterium or ‘What this means to me’ in your local small-group. No, many Reformed have recognized that God has given the Church in its broadest and narrower institutional expressions the task of representatively serving Holy Scripture.

Scott Swain, in his smashing little book Trinity, Reading, and Revelation (pp. 102-103) summarizes William Whitaker’s answer to the question of the role of the Church with respect to the Scriptures given in his treatise A Disputation on Holy Scripture. Whitaker notes four roles for the Church:

  1. “First, the church is the witness and guardian of the sacred writings, and discharges, in this respect, as it were the function of a notary.” God has entrusted the Scriptures to the church for safekeeping, to guard and protect them from corruption or harm (cf. Deut 31:9; Rom. 3:2). Again, though, just because Israel was entrusted with the tablets of the covenant, that does not mean they established or authorized the covenant, but they themselves were governed and authorized as God’s people by them.
  2. “The second office of the church is, to distinguish and discern the true, sincere, and genuine scriptures from the spurious, false, and suppositious” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:1-2). The Church, again, doesn’t authorize or establish the canon, but it does recognize it. In other words, the Scriptural texts have their authority before the Church says so, but the Church is given the Spirit of God in order to recognize which texts possess that authority. As Swain says (possibly paraphrasing Whitaker), a goldsmith is trained to recognize gold, but his recognition doesn’t make the gold what it is.
  3. “The third office of the church is to publish, set forth, preach, and promulgate the scriptures; wherein it discharges the function of a herald, who ought to pronounce with a loud voice the decrees and edicts of the king, to omit nothing, and to add nothing of its own” (c. Isa. 40:9; Rom. 10:6; 2 Cor. 5:19). Whitaker’s quote is fairly clear, but the point is, the text of Scripture is supposed to be read, preached, and passed on. That does require a body of people committed to its dissemination and faithful transmission.
  4. “The fourth office of the church is to expound and interpret the scriptures; wherein its function is that of an interpreter. Here it should introduce not fictions of its own, but explain the scriptures by the scriptures” (cf. Mt. 13:52; Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 14:3, 29; Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:15). The Church is called to interpret the Scriptures and give their sense, not adding or subtracting, but attempting to humbly and simply explain the Word of God. This happens in all sorts of ways, but especially in the giving of preachers and teachers who take the apostolic message and explain it to the people of God, much as Ezra did the returned exiles.

So then, according to Protestants, what profit is there in the Church understanding the Scriptures? Much in every way!

As Swain says:

…the church is that community created and authorized by the Word of God in order that it might obediently guard, discern, proclaim, and interpret the Word of God. (103)

While Protestants are right to be careful of churchly overreach–claiming a magisterial authority over the Word, as if we ourselves were responsible for making the Word what it is–we rob ourselves if we fail to acknowledge the proper role God has granted his people in regard to the Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Swain’s little book has to be one of the tightest, power-packed treatments of Scripture and hermeneutics I’ve read yet. It’s up there with John Webster’s little gem Holy Scripture. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Four Quick Thoughts on America, the 4th, and The Gospel

This was originally going to be a few quick thoughts on Facebook, but apparently that’s impossible for me. So, here are a four quickish thoughts on America, the 4th, patriotism, and so forth.

1. I love America. It’s my home and I know I’m blessed to live here for a number of reasons whether historical, political, economic, and so forth. The freedoms granted and the high ideals (however poorly executed at times) bound up with the American idea stirs the heart. I’ll admit, I pledge to the flag and still stand when I hear the national anthem. I don’t think loving Jesus, confessing him as Lord of all creation, means I have to hate or disavow my country, or refuse to celebrate it in any way, shape, or form. In fact, to refuse to do so entirely may be a form of gross ingratitude towards God. Nor do I think it rules out being a good citizen, praying for my nation, voting, and so forth. In fact, it probably requires those things as part of my duty to love my neighbor through promoting the common good.

2. America is a gift from God, not God. Think that through. God is eternal, self-existent, holy, loving, righteous, pure, omnipotent, gracious and my sole hope, strength, savior, final end, and source of all good. America is not. It is a finite, created thing and needs to be evaluated as such. It is a “power” that participates both in the common grace blessings of God as well as the fallenness common to both human and non-human reality this side of the 2nd Coming. Those who can’t see the good, glory, and blessing in America’s history and structure have an overly pronounced Nietzschian squint. Those who can’t see the sin, the shame, and darkness in it probably need to take off their Red, White, and Blue colored glasses.

leithart3. America is not “God’s New Israel”, nor is it in any sense analogous to the Church. Without delving too deeply in on the subject, I’ll just say that the only options for orthodox Christians looking to be faithful to God’s word is to see Israel as Israel, or, as I hold, the transnational, universal Church as the Jew + Gentile reality of the new Israel brought together in the body of the Messiah, the True Israel. I’m sorry, but the US figures nowhere in biblical eschatology. Any attempt to paint America’s redemptive-historical place in world history as anything more positive than a modern-day Persian Empire (think Cyrus), used like any other nation in God’s providential ordering of history, is false to the Bible and possibly an ecclesiological heresy Peter Leithart has termed “Americanism.” If this is something you’re tempted towards–especially on American Holy Days where we celebrate our creation myths, laud our national saints, and participate in American liturgical ceremonies–I’d recommend you pick up his book Between Babel and Beast and get to repenting, right quickish. While I don’t follow Leithart everywhere he goes, it’s edifying and eye-opening read.

4. America is not who we worship at Church. I’ll admit, like a lot of other young Evangelicals, I’m a bit allergic to patriotic services. At an old church of mine, I had to walk out of one in an attempt to hold on to my breakfast because “America! America! All the America!” was the gist of the whole thing. I’ve also got a strong sense that having an American flag up on stage next to the Cross of Christ borders on sacrilege. Still, I’m not opposed to a prayer for the nation (which is biblical, cf. 1 Timothy 2:2), and maybe a song of gratitude or something. That said, if you’re a pastor planning on having a patriotic service, please slow down and consider at least 3 questions before you proceed on Sunday:

  1. Do your parishioners know the theological difference between the Kingdom and the Nation, and the proper ordering of their loyalties?
  2. Would Christians of other nations feel utterly bewildered and unwelcome in your service?
  3. Would people be tempted to conclude that God’s election of America as a nation is the greatest saving event in history, or the life, death, and resurrection of the Son is?

What, then, is the end of the matter? Go ahead and have fun tomorrow. Be grateful. Light off fireworks. Eat good food. But in the middle of the BBQs, parades, and fanfare, remember that God is God, Christ is Lord, and America is a finite, temporal gift to be grateful for, but never worshipped or set apart in the heart as a final end in itself.

In other words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:23)

Soli Deo Gloria

11 Marks of a Culture of Evangelism

71pxt9GWcYLLast week I managed to make it to the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The focus this year was evangelism and being unashamed to share the gospel with our neighbors, our culture, and our world that desperately need to hear it.  The messages were a blessing and, in some ways, a heavy but encouraging burden to come home with. In order to make sure I didn’t lose what I learned and looking to gain some practical guidance on how to put it into practice, I dove right into J. Mack Stiles’ little 9 Marks book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.

Though small in size, it packs a solid gospel-punch, clearly and succinctly outlining a biblical theology and philosophy of evangelism that takes their proper roots in the whole church, not simply the efforts of a select few with the “gift.” Eschewing programs and gimmicks, Stiles says that evangelism is best done by the local church by cultivating a “culture of evangelism” among its members.

What’s a culture of evangelism you ask? Well, if evangelism is “teaching  people the gospel with an aim to persuade”, then a culture of evangelism is the kind of environment where this activity is the air the congregation breathes. To give us a picture of what that looks like, Stiles gives us 11 marks of a culture of evangelism (pp. 48-61):

1. A Culture Motivated by Love for Jesus and His Gospel – 

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)

This is a culture that doesn’t have to be pushed and prodded to share the gospel, but is drawn to share the news of Jesus because of its joy and delight in the message itself.

2. A Culture That is Confident in the Gospel – 

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16)

This is a culture that isn’t caught up in gimmicks or tricks meant spruce or sex up the gospel, but fully expects God to work and convert through this saving message.

3. A Culture That Understands the Danger of Entertainment – 

 “As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (Ezek. 30-32)

This is a culture that doesn’t confuse a funny speaker who can pack the seats with the true preaching of the Word that can save souls.

4. A Culture That Sees People Clearly – 

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. (2 Cor. 5:16a)

This is a culture that does not judge by outward appearances, but sees people truly through the light of the Gospel, as a broken Image-bearers who need to, and are capable of, hearing the gospel through the work of the Spirit. No one is beyond God’s reach.

5. A Culture That Pulls Together as One – 

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, (Phil 1:3-5)

This is a culture where everybody is on deck, pulling together from the greeter, the usher, to the person simply sitting in the pew, because they all realize they have a part to play in showing non-believers the gospel.

6. A Culture in Which People Teach One Another – 

…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15b)

Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 1:13)

This is a culture where experienced believers train newer believers to teach and share the gospel as a matter of course, passing on the knowledge from disciple to disciple that all might be prepared to participate in the church’s great task.

7. A Culture That Models Evangelism – 

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2)

This is a culture where we don’t just teach the practices of evangelism cognitively, but actively model it to new believers, encouraging them along the way.

8. A Culture in Which People Who Are Sharing Their Faith Are Celebrated – 

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Phil. 2:19-22)

This is a culture where the evangelistic efforts of our brothers and sisters are encouraged and praised, so that others may be stirred up to similar boldness.

9. A Culture That Knows How to Affirm And Celebrate New Life –

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we hear of your faith in Christ…just as you learned it from Ephaphras our beloved fellow servant. (Col. 1:3-4, 7)

This is a culture that celebrates the work of Christ to bring new believers to life in himself, all the while pushing then to future faithfulness.

10. A Culture Doing Ministry That Feels Risky and Is Dangerous – 

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Phil. 1:12-13)

This is a culture where non-Christians and atheists are coming to Jesus because the church is taking risks–social, physical, and financial–to meet them where they’re at with the gospel of Jesus.

11. A Culture That Understands That the Church Is the Chosen and Best Method of Evangelism –

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor wit all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

This is a culture where the local church of brothers and sisters, imaging the gospel, is seen as Jesus’ best tool for making his name known and drawing others to himself.

Of course, Stiles goes into greater detail than I can here. Still, I hope this encourages and provokes you to examine your own church and see if you’re cultivating a culture of evangelism. If not, I’d commend you to pick up Stiles’ little book and begin to put it into practice immediately. Evangelism is no ancillary call, or extra task to be added to the regular working of the church, but central to its essence and well-being.

Soli Deo Gloria

See also this article by Stiles on “How to Create a Culture of Evangelism.”