Friday, March 16, 2012

Begging for Attention

Ken Myers, from the new, long introduction to the republication of his classic book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Pop Culture:

* * *

In a 1951 essay called “The Emergence of Fun Morality,” social scientist Martha Wolfenstein called attention to signs of a new morality displacing traditional concerns with doing the right thing. The advent of fun morality—and the cultural institutions and artifacts that enabled it—soon meant that not having fun was an occasion for anxiety. As Dr. Wolfenstein observed: “Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one’s self-esteem.”

As this moral inversion has gathered momentum, cultural institutions previously unconcerned with promoting fun gradually succumbed to the assumption that unless they could be entertaining, they would be be left in the dust. By the time of the last two or three decades of the twentieth century, numerous cultural institutions—once committed to being sources of moral meaning, definition, and authority—had surrendered. Political candidates felt compelled to appear on Saturday Night Live and on jokey talk shows. University professors emulated stand-up comics. Many clergy supervised the overhaul of worship services to make them more like variety shows. Art museums (and many artists) outdid one another in seeking to make art fun. Journalism—first on TV then in print—traded depth and moral seriousness for flashy superficiality. The idea of cultural authority and the sorts of limits and disciplines it would promote capitulated to the claim that all of life is market-driven, a claim that makes sense in a purpose-free cosmos.

It’s not that good things couldn’t still happen within these institutions. But they increasingly saw themselves not as exercising authority but as begging for attention. They could no longer articulate “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” they could no longer sustain taboos or offer exhortation about duty and obligation. In short, these institutions effectively abandoned the task of articulating the contours of a purposeful and morally ordered universe within which individuals might seek to conform their souls. Modernity’s sovereign individuals were best understood as consumers not as disciples, apprentices, or heirs.

The advent of fun morality was not simply a displacement of seriousness. It represented the institutional loss of confidence that there was anything worth being serious about. It was (in Allan Bloom’s memorable formulation) the confirmation of nihilism without the abyss.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

One-Way Love

by Tullian Tchividjian

We love the “if/then” proposition: “If” you do this, “then” I will do that; we are inveterate slaves (at worst) or grumpy employees (at best). We militate against the freedom of inheritance and the dependency of sonship. We love living as though “what goes around comes around” conditionality were true. That kind of conditionality makes us feel safe. It’s easy to comprehend. It’s appropriately formulaic. And best of all, it keeps us in control. We get to keep our ledgers and scorecards. The equation: “If I do this, then you are obligated to do that” makes perfect sense to our grace-shy hearts.

Unconditionality, on the other hand, is incomprehensible. We are deeply conditioned against unconditionality because we’ve been told in a thousand different ways that accomplishment always precedes acceptance, that achievement always precedes approval. When we hear, “Of course you don’t deserve it, but I’m giving it to you anyway,” we wonder, “What is this really about? What’s the catch?” Internal bells and alarms start to go off, and we begin saying “wait a minute…this sounds too good to be true.”

You see, everything in our world demands two-way love. Everything is conditional. If I achieve, we reason, only then will I receive everything I long for: love, approval, significance, respect, and so on. Be good. Bring home the bacon. Keep your act together….Then (and only then) will you have what you want. That’s how our world works. But grace isn’t from our world. It’s otherworldly. It’s unconditional. Grace is upside-down, to-do-list wrecking, scandalous and way-too free. It’s one-way love.

Like Job’s friends, we naturally conclude that good people deserve good stuff and bad people deserve bad stuff. What goes around comes around sums up the mechanism at work in the world we’re at home in. The idea that bad people get good stuff is so counter-intuitive as to be utterly implausible. It seems terribly unfair. It offends our sense of justice. Of course, when we talk of justice and good people earning God’s blessing, we’re forgetting that the Bible is a not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. No, that’s not a typo. The Bible is the record of the blessed bad. But how can that be? It can be (and is) because a good Someone else earned blessing for the bad. We say that we believe in a God of grace and then live lives completely skeptical of that grace. We’ve forgotten the one-way love of Calvary.

Even those of us who have tasted the radical saving grace of God find it intuitively difficult not to put conditions on grace. Don’t take it too far! Keep it balanced! Tamp it down! we warn. But grace–one-way love–is by its own definition, unbalanced. Grace is a gift, not a wage. It’s a gift of love, and lavish love gifts never sit quite right with the bookkeeping, wage-earning, responsible citizen that resides in our own hearts.

Need proof? We need look no farther than Mary’s profligate anointing of the Savior in preparation for his death (John 12:3f) for a snapshot of our own hearts. She was both misunderstood and censured by those ever-so-responsible disciples in attendance. The giving of something costly to another simply because one loves, without expecting anything in return, is inequity in action. We recoil at it. What could ever be balanced about something as lopsided as one-way love? One-way love has no qualifiers, no conditions, no buts. It’s unconditional, unpredictable, and undomesticated. You can’t put brakes on it because it’s not yours to measure out or control.

Grace makes us nervous, it scares us to death because it strips us of our beloved “you owe me” religion. It snatches control out of our hands. It tears up the timecard we were counting on to be assured of that nice, big paycheck on Friday. It forces us to rely on the naked goodness of Another and that is simply terrifying. However much we may hate having to get up and go to the salt mines everyday, we distrust the thought of completely resting in the promised, unmanageable generosity of God even more.

By nature we’re all perpetually suspicious of promises that seem too good to be true. We’re wary of grace. We wonder about the ulterior motives of the excessively generous. What’s the catch? What’s in it for him? So we try to domesticate the message of one-way love–after all, who could trust in or believe something so radically unbelievable?

Contrary to what we conclude naturally, the gospel is not too good to be true. It is true! It’s the truest truth in the entire universe. No strings attached! No fine print to read. No buts. No conditions. No qualifications. No footnotes. And especially, no need for balance.

If you’re a Christian, you have been given the most extravagant gift ever: the completely sufficient imputed righteousness of Christ. That means that his perfect timecard has your name on it and every single penny that was owed him for a life of devoted labor in your salt mine has been deposited directly into your account. It also means that you’ve been completely forgiven for every single time you lazed out, came in late, left early, cut corners, dawdled on FaceBook, stole paperclips, despised the boss, backstabbed your co-worker, and generally acted like an apathetic, hateful slave. You’re completely, totally, unashamedly forgiven. You’ve been forgiven because Jesus took your record and applied it to himself, receiving every lash of the wrath you had earned in your place and transferring his record to you.

Won’t you suspend your incredulity and conditionality for just one moment and believe? Won’t you stop yourself from saying, “Yes, but…” for just one hour? Sure, it seems dangerous, but doesn’t that ride look like fun? Haven’t you grown tired of the taste of that gritty salt? How many times do you have to say, “the harder I work, the behind-er I get” before you give up and believe?

Who deserves this kind of lavish one-way love? No one. No one deserves it—that’s why God calls it grace: undeserved favor. But if you believe it, your pardon is already full and final. In Christ, you’re forgiven. You’re clean. Now. It is finished. And as scary as it may seem, wading into this ocean of grace will be the most freeing and blissful dive you’ll ever take.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Lord's Supper: How Often?

by David T. Koyzis

In most Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the typical Sunday morning worship service is a preaching service in which the sermon is regarded as the centerpiece. The Lord's Supper, or communion, is celebrated infrequently—perhaps four to six times a year—and is viewed by the congregation as something of a special occasion. Such occasional celebration is so much a part of the life of Calvinistic churches that it is probably not widely known that Calvin himself favored weekly celebration of communion.

Why did he favor freqent celebration of the sacrament, and why were his wishes not followed?

Scripture and the Early Church

As is the case with the mode and time of baptism, the Scriptures are not clear about how often the Lord's Supper ought to be celebrated. Jesus himself gave no direction on the matter, nor did the apostle Paul. But Luke reports in the book of Acts: "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread." (20:7) Luke was describing his seven-day visit to the city of Troas in Asia Minor. The passage implies that the breaking of bread was not an unusual occurrence, but the normal practice of the Christians in that city.

Several extrabiblical sources report more explicitly that the early church celebrated the Lord's Supper whenever it met for worship. These include the late first-century Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Apology of Justin Martyr, which was written in the middle of the second century. In The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, which was written around A.D. 200 and is the oldest surviving Christian liturgy, the author documents the normal worship service at Rome, which included the Lord's Supper. Unfortunately, as early as the fourth century the laity had already begun to participate in the supper with decreasing frequency.

Calvin and Late Medieval Practice

In the centuries prior to the Reformation a number of serious abuses crept into the life of the church, some of which affected the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The medieval church continued to celebrate the supper (in the form of the Mass) whenever it met, but with the passage of centuries, fewer and fewer people were able to partake of the sacrament. Often only the "celebrants," that is, the presiding clergy, received the bread and wine, while the vast majority of parishioners watched the ceremony passively from a distance. Laypersons who wanted to participate in the sacrament were required to do penance before partaking of the sacrament, and that proved to be a burdensome obstacle to regular participation. As a result, ordinary Christians often received the sacrament on an annual basis only, the absolute minimum permitted by church authorities. This was the situation the Reformers found at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

John Calvin was clearly disturbed by this unbiblical practice and tried to change it in the Genevan church. He used surprisingly strong language in condemning the custom of his day:

Plainly this custom which enjoins us to take communion once a year is a veritable invention of the devil, whoever was instrumental in introducing it...For there is not the least doubt that the Sacred Supper was in that era [the early church] set before the believers every time they met together; and there is no doubt that a majority of them took communion...

Calvin regretted that worshiping Christians were ordinarily prohibited from receiving the sacrament and urged reform:

It should have been done far differently: the Lord's Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually.
[Inst. IV. XVII. 46, emphasis mine].

Unfortunately, the prevailing tradition of Calvin's day reasserted itself. The city fathers of Geneva were unwilling to see the Reformation go this far, at least partly because they felt obligated to examine and approve prospective communicants—a gigantic task that would have made weekly celebration impractical. Consequently, they forced Calvin to settle for a compromise: The people would receive the Lord's Supper four times a year, and the other worship services would become preaching services at which the sacrament would not be celebrated at all. This second-best solution was preferable to a weekly celebration in which most people did not participate.

Calvin could scarcely conceal his disappointment, but he nevertheless foresaw a time when matters might be put right. Towards the end of his life he wrote:

I have taken care to record publicly that our custom is defective, so that those who come after me may be able to correct it the more freely and easily.
[Bretschneider, Corpus Reformatorum, XXXVIII, i, p. 213].

Unfortunately, even defective traditions are not changed quite so "freely and easily." In our celebration of communion, we in the Reformed churches have inherited not the more Reformed practice urged by Calvin, but the less-than-Reformed compromise imposed on him by a city used to the old ways. Is it at last time to think about changing our custom?

The Benefits of Weekly Celebration

Why celebrate weekly? It is impossible to answer this question without understanding why we receive the sacrament in the first place. In the sixth chapter of John, Jesus tells his followers, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (6:35).

This is only one of several places in Scripture where Christ is said to nourish us and we are said to feed on him. At the Last Supper Christ instituted the sacrament as a visible reminder of this nourishment and as a means by which to communicate his grace to us. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it beautifully:

He wants to assure us, by this
visible sign and pledge, that we,
through the Holy Spirit's work,
share in his true body and blood as
surely as our mouths receive these
holy signs in his remembrance (A. 79).

But won't a weekly celebration of communion cause this sacrament to lose its special character? Won't it become routine and humdrum? This is probably the most frequently voiced objection to weekly communion.

First of all, it should be pointed out that we rarely hear anyone object to sitting through sermons on a weekly basis. Yet what we receive in the sacrament simply confirms in a vivid and direct way what we have already received in the proclamation of Scripture in the sermon. Both sermon and sacrament are means of grace that affirm and enrich our faith.

Moreover, it may be that we shall have to reconsider, in a rather basic way, our attitude towards Sunday worship itself. In the Russian language Sunday is called Resurrection Day, underscoring the fact that each Lord's Day is intended to be a "special" one in which we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. If we have come to see normal Sunday worship as routine, then perhaps we need to recover this celehrative character.

As for the Lord's Supper itself, we should begin to think of it as it was meant to be: a meal. We eat meals three times a day. And the most pleasant and meaningful of these are eaten in the company of family and friends. Fellowship at table does not lose its significance simply because it is repeated two or three times daily. The same, I would argue, is true of frequent reception of communion.

Because we are frail human beings plagued with the normal doubts that beset everyone, we need this tangible confirmation of our salvation in Christ's body and blood. Far from being burdensome, our nourishment in the Lord's Supper should be cause for joy and gratitude. In some Christian traditions the Lord's Supper is even known as the Eucharist, from the Greek word meaning "thanksgiving."

One more issue perhaps ought to be addressed: Are we not, by holding the Lord's Supper so often, flirting with a sacramentalist view which sees the sacrament as conferring salvation on us in some magical, automatic way?

No, not in the least; the sacraments themselves do not save us. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord's Supper, rather, "nourish[es] and sustain[s] those who are already born again and ingrafted into his family: his church" (Belgic Confession, Article 35).

How Shall We Celebrate?

Some people might point out that the use of lengthy formularies inhibits frequent celebration. This is probably true of the Lord's Supper forms inherited from the sixteenth-century Palatinate by way of the Netherlands. These were in a sense liturgical "training wheels"—didactic monologues used by the Reformers to educate their parishioners concerning the true meaning of the sacrament and to dispel superstitions connected with it. The element of lay participation was almost entirely absent.

Fortunately, this has been largely rectified by many denominations in recent years. The worship edition of the new Psalter HymnaKpp. 972-5) of the Christian Reformed Church contains a Lord's Supper form, approved by synod in 1981, which builds on a much older liturgical tradition that goes all the way back to Hippolytus and that incorporates the congregation as a whole into the liturgy. The Reformed Church in America has a similar "Order of Worship" in Rejoice in the Lord (pp. 560-70) and Worship the Lord (pp. 2-12). These are much more appropriate than our older forms for frequent use.

Some congregations have taken it upon themselves to adapt and vary these forms in accordance with the church year. For example, Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, celebrates weekly communion, and its members have created liturgies that are specifically fitted for the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so forth.

As a denomination the Christian Reformed Church also publishes a loose-leaf Service Book, which includes seasonal variations of its 1981 form. Examples of comparable liturgical variations in other traditions can be found in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Episcopal Church's revised Book of Common Prayer (1979), and the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services. A more frequent Lord's Supper need not imply monotony or sameness.

In churches where the Lord's Supper is celebrated weekly, the people have generally come to treasure this opportunity to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8). Far from becoming mundane and ordinary, the supper has come to enrich the faith of those receiving, who increasingly find themselves looking forward to each Resurrection Day with eager anticipation.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


In his excellent (though unlikely titled) book Hot Tub Religion, J. I. Packer asks “What would a work of divine reformation in our churches today look like?” Great question, and I loved the six answers Packer—one of my all- time favorite people—offers. -- Randy Alcorn

First, there would be a sense of biblical authority—that is, an awareness that biblical teaching is divine truth and that the invitations and admonitions, threats and warnings, promises and assurances of Scripture still express the mind of God toward mankind. The Bible would be honored again as the Word of God, and the perverse, pluralism of liberal theology, which addles the brains and blinds the hearts of many, would wither and die. The root of this pluralism is that teachers feel free to ignore some of the things the Bible teaches and to pull others out of context. The fruit of it is that God’s people are led astray into dry places and the Holy Spirit of God is completely quenched. Reformation always begins as a call from God to “come out of the wilderness” of subjective speculation and spiritual impotence and learn again in humility the true teaching of the written Word about grace and godliness, knowing that the secret of power for living lies here. Thus, unhappily, reformation always leads to controversy for some resist the message.

Second, there would be a spirit of seriousness about eternal issues. Heaven and hell would be preached about, thought about, and talked about once again. Life in this world would once again be lived in the light of the world to come, and the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?” would be seen as life’s basic question once more. For most of this century the church, liberal and conservative, in all denominations, has been so occupied with this world that minds turned to eternity have been the exception rather than the rule. Sociopolitical, cultural, sporting, and money-making interests have dominated Christian minds rather than the laying up of treasure in heaven. A work of reformation would change that, not by withdrawing Christians from these fields of action, but by radically altering their perspective on what they are doing so that God’s glory and eternal values would become the chief concerns.

Third, there would be a passion for God. Living for God would be seen as the most important thing in the world, and a Bible-based awareness of the greatness and awesomeness of God, the eternal Savior-Judge, in whose hands we ever are, would displace all cheap thoughts of God as just a useful pal.

Fourth, there would be a love of holiness growing out of deep conviction of sin, deep repentance, deep gratitude for forgiveness and cleansing through the blood of Jesus Christ, and a deep desire to please God. Casualness about righteousness, cutting moral corners, areas of blatant self-indulgence, love of luxury, and broken commitments have disfigured twentieth-century Christianity at all levels. This would change, as indeed it needs to, for moral standards among Christian people. As in the world around them, seem to be getting worse rather than better. It is frightening to see how little believers nowadays seem to be bothered about personal sin.

Fifth, there would be a concern for the church. Christians would catch the biblical perspective, in which the church is the center and focal point of God’s plan and the "display ground" of his saving and sanctifying wisdom (see Eph. 3:1-12). They would be deeply concerned about the image that the church presents to the world, and any form of unfaithfulness, carnality, false doctrine, formalism, disorder, or wrong-headedness in the church would cause them distress and send them to their knees. God should be honored, not dishonored, in his church, and the church should show itself strong in standing against the world and testifying to its Savior. These are universal Christian concerns at reformation times, and saints at such times will endure and risk anything in order to see the church move in the right direction.

Sixth, there would be a willingness to change—whether from sin to righteousness, or from lassitude to zeal, or from faithless patterns to new procedures, or from passivity to activity, or any other form of change that was needed. Believers would come together to praise, pray, encourage each other, and see what they could do together to advance the cause of Christ. It would be as if they had awakened after a long sleep. They would wonder how they were able to be somnolent, apathetic, and inactive for so long. What new things they would find themselves doing cannot be specified in advance beyond this general formula, but should God work in reformation, it is safe to say that newness of discipleship and change of ways in some shape or form would be the experience of us all.