I love literature. To be honest, I haven’t always loved literature. I wasn’t that kid, hiding under my bed with a flashlight, reading Tom Sawyer. I preferred movies to books; that is, until I became a Christian.
I believe that books magnify our appetite for Christ, and I believe that they do this much better than movies or any other type of entertainment. The imagination and creativity that is required of me when I read a book is sanctifying. I mean that. I am required to create characters, and in a good book, I am required to contemplate characters’ motivations, which gives me the ability to empathize. The most profound movie cannot manage what even the most trite book can. That is this: a movie cannot force you to create images in your mind. The images are handed to you on a silver (okay, maybe not always silver) widescreen TV. The images are more impersonal, more distant, than the ones we can create in our head. They give us the distinct ability to empathize with characters very intimately as are near to us, their struggles are our struggles, Once I am able to empathize with characters, my understanding of humanity inevitably grows. Literature allows me to empathize in a way that nothing else really can. It diversifies my worldview, plunging me into the depths of human depravity and contrastingly, giving me glimpses of joy, building up the character of almighty Christ, a savior who would be willing to descend into such a world.
I’m speaking here of great works of fiction, not just any book. Great literature provides the kind of empathy that is only possible in so much as the characters are true representations of humanity. Trite, tawdry novels play on our emotions—though the situations are typically extreme and exciting, the characters are generally one-dimensional, predictable and internally consistent. This predictability tends to affirm readers’ preconceived notions of others, rather than expand our capacity for empathy. Popular fiction will not expand our capacity for empathy; rather, it will simply entertain us.
But through its ability to help us empathize, good literature shows us humanity’s dire need and provides small glimpses of the grand hope for humanity. If we’re reading through the right lens, we should see our Christ who is both what we need and our only hope.
A deeper knowledge of sin
Literature broadens our view of sin, giving us a more accurate and full portrayal of the wickedness that lives within us. Literature isn’t just a lens into a new world; it’s a mirror that we can hold up to ourselves. It exposes not just our sins, but motivations for sins. This, as Christians, should drive us to the heart of the gospel and to the feet of Christ himself, who descending into our world in order to redeem it. When you understand characters in their depravity, when you see pieces of yourself in them, it gives you a deeper understanding of just how serious your sinful nature is.
For example, seeing the sins of Mrs. Breedlove in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison convicts my atrociously sinful nature. In a particularly poignant scene, Morrison describes the routine fights between Mrs. Breedlove and Cholly, her unruly and debauched husband. Cholly is a habitual drunk and Mrs. Breedlove finds an odd sense of worth in their fights.
“The tiny, undistinguished days that Mrs. Breedlove lived were identified, grouped and classed by these quarrels. The gave substance to the minutes and hours otherwise dim and unrecalled . . . In these violet breaks in routine, that were themselves routine, she could display the style and imagination of what she believed to be her own true self . . . If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would never have forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately.”
Mrs. Breedlove’s bent toward bitterness, her motivation for discord, and her insatiable desire to dominate her husband chimes in my ears as my own sin, masked as hers. I am reminded of my own tendency to criticize in order to find worth. It is profoundly human to find a motivation for discord, to look, search, and to be driven by seeing faults in others in order to justify our own sin. Seeing flawed characters sin, and sin profoundly, gives words and images to our struggles and drives us to contemplate our own need for Christ. We can search through the entire canon of literature and at the end of it find ourselves there. Here is why: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind,” (1 Cor 10:13).
No sin is new sin. The insatiable wrath of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, the envious Othello, the racial profiling that Jem and Scout see in Maycomb, Alabama—none of this is new—It is old sin. It is sin that we fight everyday, sin that we see in our friends and ourselves, sin that “so easily entangles,” (Hebrews 12:1).
Hope found in literature
But let us not stop there. Literature doesn’t just pinpoint sin, it also, oftentimes, provides glimpses of hope. Christ is in everything—so whether it’s small acts of mercy or gentle acts of humility, we can look all through literature and at the end of it, find Christ. This doesn’t mean every text is going to be as explicitly Christ-driven as The Chronicles of Narnia (though, if you want to read some Lewis, read on!).
The reason that we should read literature, ultimately, is to see more of Christ and His gospel. The gospel is not is not a gospel that separates sin and depravity from goodness and joy, rather it faces that reality head-on and provides the only way to true hope. That is why literature is so potent and relevant; good literature doesn’t gloss over hardship, good literature reminds us that hope can persist in sorrow. So then, Christian, hold fast to the hope that can be found in darkness, and use literature as a tool to drive you nearer to the hope of Christ—knowing that he encapsulates every archetype of literature. He is the ultimate epic-hero. He is the suffering, humble servant. He is the profound, empathetic friend. He is kind and gentle, yet firm and strong. He embodies all the characteristics that we love in literature. Furthermore, he takes on every ounce of depravity, sharing with us, in our sin, yet without sin, paying for the inequity of man.
Lastly, we read because God wrote a book; He crafted a story. Every well-written, smaller narrative points us to that grand narrative. Let the small stories of well-written fiction push you towards the greater story—the story of hope in midst of darkness, the hope found in Christ on a cross, smitten for your sins. So, Christian, next time you read a good piece of literature, and you see depravity, say to yourself, “Christ paid for that”; next time you see some intrinsic goodness in a character, say to yourself, “Christ embodies that”. Learn to see Christ in literature, and you will learn to love to read not simply as an act of leisure but as an act of sanctifying, God-glorifying worship.
Allie Osborn became a member at Emmaus in February. She recently graduated from Baylor University with a degree in English Literature. In the fall, Allie will begin teaching English Literature and Journalism at Kansas City Christian School. She moved to Kansas City in January after getting married to Drake Osborn, who just finished his first year at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
This is Part 3 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week we looked at the Call to Worship, the Song of Praise, the Scripture Reading and the Songs of Response. This week we will look at Corporate and Private Confession, the Assurance of Pardon and the Song of Response.
Simply put, we confess corporately for at least three primary reasons:
(1) after reading about, and singing about, the glorious, holy, Triune God, and all that he has accomplished in the gospel, we are compelled to confess our sins. The gospel works itself out in our lives, and as we meditate on what God has done in Christ to interrupt our sin and rebellion and helpless, to die the death we should have died, and to bring us into his Father’s family as brothers and sisters, one of the works of the gospel is ongoing repentance. There is a contrast between who God is and who we are, and with the clearest view of that contrast—with a full awareness of the fact that we often persist in faithlessness despite God’s unshakable faithfulness—we repent. However, this kind of repentance isn’t a shame-filled, guilt-ridden kind which leaves groveling criminals trembling for fear of what the judge’s verdict might be, but a hopeful and genuinely sorrowful kind of repentance, which leaves a child humbly heart-broken over the fact that he has disobeyed his father.
(2) the whole of a Christian’s life is marked by continued repentance. We want for our corporate gatherings to, in a way, be a microcosm of the Christian life. Confessing and repenting corporately is a way for us to set a precedence and an expectation for what we do as a Church. We are teaching one another what kind of people we are—namely, that we are a confessing people; a people who bear their sins to one another and to God; a people who do not hide their sin but rather search for it, bring it out into clear daylight, and execute it in public; a people who never despise weakness and neediness on the one hand, and who never minimize the sinfulness of sin on the other. In confessing corporately, not only are we praying corporately (one of the necessary biblical mandates you will recall from a previous post), we are teaching each other what to do with sin—i.e., we shamelessly bring it to Jesus, the only one who can actually deal with it.
And (3) when we corporately confess our sins to God, with one mind and heart, we are owning the fact that we are not the hero of the story. Don’t miss the counterintuitive irony about the situation: after three songs of singing with hands in the air, bellowing with loud triumphant-sounding voices, we decide to corporately admit our failures and our neediness, and confess our sins to God. Our community is an oxymoron. It is an army of soldiers who fight by dying. We proudly come together to sing about how weak and desperate we are. With boldness and shameless enthusiasm, we are united by our utter allegiance to—and dependence upon—a King who conquers by being conquered. This is the folly of the cross, the power of God unto salvation, and it is helpful to be reminded of this fact week after week. Corporate confession is thus a corporate exercise in humility.
After we confess our sins corporately, we allow for such an act to set in and do the work on us at the individual level. This extended period of private, silent meditation is intended to be a period of unearthing. Week after week, we come together as a people who have been battered and bruised by sin (be it sins we see, sins committed against us, or sins we commit ourselves), and this period of the service is an opportunity—within the context of corporate worship—to do business with God. I fully expect that through the course of the preceding liturgical elements (call to worship, Scripture reading, corporate songs, corporate confession), God has been at work convicting his people and revealing idols. Because of this, it is important that we have the opportunity to respond to such conviction and revelation. So in private confession, we do just that.
Assurance of Pardon
The assurance of pardon is even more important than the confession itself, for it is the outright promise that those in Christ have a rock-solid justification. Despite the subjective reality of what we may be feeling when we confess our sins, the assurance of pardon reminds us that an objective reality has been holding us secure throughout—if we are in Christ, we are forgiven. In this way, the person who is leading the liturgy is speaking as an ambassador of Christ to administer priestly comfort and peace, and it is not presumptuous either, for the entire declaration is predicated not on the speaker, but on Christ and his atoning work. In this way, the assurance of pardon fits both under the command to read the Scripture, but also to teach/preach the Scripture; the speaker not only reads the text, he goes on to apply its various implications to the believers present (“your sins are forgiven through Christ!”).
Recently, I had a member ask me why we typically don’t give any warning with the assurance of pardon. “When you start reading Scripture, I’m not really sure what the procedure is,” he said, “like, are we still praying or not?” The abruptness of the assurance of pardon is, as you might expect, intentional. Why do we not say “amen” before administering the assurance of pardon? Simply this: we want for you to be interrupted by grace. We want for the very first thing you hear, almost in a disruptive sort of way, to be God’s gracious words of assurance for those who have been united to Christ by faith. This is, in and of itself, an opportunity for us to demonstrate the gospel once more; God did not wait for us to clean ourselves up and make ourselves presentable before taking it upon himself to redeem us, rather he came while we were still weak and enemies. Likewise, I have no intention of waiting to administer the assurance of pardon until after the congregation has divulged all of its sins to God. I want the congregation to hear the grace of God drowning out their sins like a bear-horn while their confessions are still on their lips. This why the assurance of pardon will often include something like, “those sins that you have just confessed, are already forgiven in Christ. They have been nailed to the cross and buried in the grave, and you are one with the resurrected Christ!”
Song of Thanksgiving
Does anything make more sense than this? I mean honestly, when we’ve just been interrupted with such grace—when we’ve had such a declaration of God’s kindness showered upon us as a people—singing a song of thanksgiving is just about the most logical thing we could do. So this song is typically one of the most explicitly gospel-rich songs we sing.
Next week we will continue our exploration of Emmaus’ liturgy by looking at the Sermon, Communion, the final Song of Response, and the Benediction.
This is Part 2 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. Last week, I wrote a piece in which I developed our rationale, as a Church, for the primary elements of our corporate worship service. In this article, we’ll begin dissect each element in our actual liturgy.
Having looked at the governing principle behind our corporate worship services last week, I now want to shift our focus to address each of the particular elements in our weekly service. If you’ve spent any time at Emmaus, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that there’s a very predictable routine we go through every week. All of our services begin and end the exact same way, and there are a handful of things we do that are never absent. This routine is what we mean when we say liturgy, and every element matters. In reality, even “non-liturgical” Churches have liturgies—more times than not, it’s merely a liturgy that is absent-mindedly adopted. Opening song. Announcements. Greet your “neighbor.” Pass the bucket for tithe offerings. Two more songs. Sermon. Response song.
At Emmaus, we don’t want to do anything absent-mindedly; we want to have an explicitly biblical, gospel-drenched reason for everything that we do. In fact, when Pastor Josh, Pastor Ronni and Pastor Kevin were originally crafting the liturgical structure of our services, long before we began to even worship on a regular basis, they were pushed back to the drawing board on several occasions for the same resounding impulse: we need more gospel.
So at present, our services follow the following liturgical format:
• Call to Worship
• Song of Praise
• Scripture Reading
• Songs of Response
• Corporate Confession
• Private Confession
• Assurance of Pardon
• Song of Thanksgiving
• Song of Response
Below, I’ve broken down each element of our liturgy to explain we repeat such an activity week by week, and how it is intended to adorn the gospel.
Call to Worship
This is what begins our service. Of course, we often arrive before the call to worship to enjoy the company of one another, and on most weeks one of our pastors will make announcements, but the formal service doesn’t start until the call to worship. Why do we start this way? Because worship is essentially comprised of two elements: revelation and response. Worship is the act of responding to that which has been revealed. So if we truly gather together with the intention of worshiping our Triune God, we need see Him first! This is why the call to worship is always a Scripture reading. God has revealed himself through his Word, and if we intend to see Him—so that we can respond appropriately—we must look there.
The call to worship is also an act of mutual upbuilding. We are calling ourselves, and each other, to fix our eyes on God to see how glorious he is! It’s us saying to one another, “God is glorious and worthy of praise! Look at him! Isn’t he glorious and worthy of praise?! Yes! He is glorious and worthy of praise, so let’s praise him for his glory!” This is why the person leading in the call to worship will begin the call as an address to the congregation, and then the congregation will join the call as an address to the congregation and to God. We are starting with God, and unifying our voices around him in such a way that we are corporately affirming his worth to be the center of our attention.
So in the call to worship, we are simultaneously declaring to God that we consider Him worthy of the praise we are about to ascribe to Him, and we are asking for him to “incline [our hearts] to [his] testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” (Psalm 119:36). The call to worship is intrinsically a de-centering act; we are communicating from the outset that our gathering is about ascribing worth to God, not merely pleasing ourselves.
Song of Praise
After a call to worship, how could we not respond with a song of praise? This song is typically a song that intentionally focuses on the bigness of God. We are praising him for one of his divine attributes; his holiness, his power to create the cosmos or deliver his people, his unfathomable love, etc. It is a massive, unimaginably glorious God we have just been called to worship, so we gladly do just that. I’m tempted to go off into a tangent here about reverence, but I’ll simply say this: there is a reason why we rage against “glibness” in our services. You will find zero vanity in our songs. Joy? Yes. Exuberance? Absolutely. Cheesiness, presumption, or triviality? God forbid it! Why? Because we are worshiping God. If our songs aren’t marked by a palpable gravity, we may not be worshipping God. He has told us that acceptable worship in his sight is packaged in “reverence and awe,” (Heb. 12:28-29) so we dare not offer him anything less.
Again, this is supposed to be a central element for the gathered Church, so we want to do it often. Why read an extended package here, after the first song and before the second? Simply this: we want for Scripture to actually, functionally direct our service. It would be easy to read a passage of Scripture at the beginning, take credit for having a “biblically-based” service, and then run off and do whatever we please with the remainder of our time. But that’s not what we want. Rather, we want to sandwich our Scripture-filled songs with Scripture readings, Scriptural preaching and Scriptural obeying. In other words, we read right here in the service to indicate that Scripture isn’t merely the foundation of our service, it comprises the content of our service.
Song(s) of Response
Again, after we’ve read about this glorious God and what he has done, we are compelled to express his worth through song, so we’ll typically sing two more songs here. These songs may be songs of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, or just meditations on the gospel. In any case, we want for all of our services to be marked by bloody songs that adorn Jesus, and this is often a great place to embody such a commitment.
Next week we will continue our exploration of Emmaus’ liturgy by looking at Corporate and Private Confession, Assurance of Pardon, and the Song of Thanksgiving.
This is Part 1 of a four-part blog on the Liturgy at Emmaus. This article will consist of our rationale, as a Church, for the primary elements of our corporate worship service, and Parts 2 through 4 will dissect each element in our actual liturgy.
In a recent sermon that Pastor Josh preached on Leviticus, I was reminded afresh why we worship the way that we do here at Emmaus. In this sermon, Josh summarized the story of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10—the story of Aaron’s two sons who tried to worship God in an unauthorized way and were immediately struck dead for their presumptuous thinking. How arrogant is was for them to think that they were entitled to innovate ways of approaching God distinct from the meticulous prescription God had graciously given. “I told you how I desire to be worshipped,” God was saying, “if you truly desire to express your love and adoration for me in worship, you would simply obey my commands.” In this story we are given a stark picture of the holiness of God—we dare not approach him flippantly by any means other than those which he has provided.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with how we conduct our worship gatherings at Emmaus? Could Sam really be saying that if we were to change the way we order our services, fire would come down from heaven and consume the Church? No, I am not saying that at all. In fact, the most relevant application of this story for 21st century Christians has to do not with our corporate gatherings, but with the exclusivity of Christ. This story tells us that God provides the means for communing with him, and a healthy fear of his holiness ought to compel us to stick to those means. In Leviticus 10, the means were the preceding (and proceeding) instructions for animal blood-sacrifices and ritualistic cleansings. Today, the means is the blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:19-25). The primary application, therefore, is this: don’t you dare try to commune with God by virtue of anything but the blood of Jesus Christ—if you try to predicate your intimacy with this God on anything but the blood of the Lamb (your works, your sincerity, your piety, etc.), you are committing the same sin as Nadab and Abihu.
This is why we exhort one another so often to come to Christ with empty hands; to self-justify your hearing before God with your own works is not only foolish (you could never do enough to justify a hearing before such a holy God), it’s also blasphemous. It’s tantamount to saying that what you offer is better than (or improves upon) the blood of Jesus.
However, there is a secondary application to this story, which goes along with the first. At the very least, Leviticus 10 tells us that God cares about how people worship him. This is why we, as a church, generally identify with what theologians call the “Regulative Principle” of worship. This simply means that we want for Scripture to regulate not just the who of corporate worship, but the how of corporate worship. And by “regulate,” I don’t simply mean, “define what’s off limits.” Rather, I’m saying that Scripture has told us what Christians are to do when they gather together to worship, and as a principle, we are committed to doing only what Scripture commands.
And what does Scripture command for New Testament believers to do corporately? We are commanded to:
- Read the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13)
- Teach/Preach the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13, 2 Tim. 4:1-2)
- Pray (1 Tim. 2:1, Acts 2:42, 4:23-31)
- Sing (Col. 3:12-17)
- Participate in Communion/Baptism (1 Cor. 11:23-34, Acts 2:38, Matt. 28:19)
That’s it. That’s what we should be doing when we gather together corporately. Our liturgy should not include anything that doesn’t fit comfortably inside those five corporate commands. And by “comfortably,” I mean that we shouldn’t try to squeeze movie clips, dance routines, or that guy who throws paint on a canvas to depict what looks like nothing at all until he flips it right-side-up to reveal he was actually painting a very Caucasian Jesus, into the category of “teaching/preaching Scripture.” There’s not a single quote from The Office, for example, that could ever be followed up with “thus sayeth the Lord!”; a clip of The Office would be totally out of step with the purpose of the corporate worship gathering
Now, some churches may venture outside of these five elements that the New Testament explicitly commands. They may even do so without shifting from the gospel as their central point of emphasis. Should such churches anticipate facing a similar fate as Nadab and Abihu? I don’t think so. But I do think they are wrong not to subscribe to the Regulative Principle for three reasons.
This Is God’s Church
The Regulative Principle fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to God, while the alternative fosters a corporate understanding that a particular congregation belongs to the congregation (or, more often, the leadership of the congregation). God purchased the church with his own blood, and has subsequently placed her under the stewardship of elders (Acts 20:28). This means that church leaders cannot do with their flocks as they please, they do not own their churches. Emmaus does not belong to our pastors, she belongs to Jesus Christ. The regulative principle establishes an impulse among our Church leaders to ask, “What would the owner of this Church like for us to do?” I do not think the same could be said of the alternative principle, which merely looks to Scripture for prohibitions and then leaves the church to operate according to the whims of popular opinion or the fleeting charisma of personalities.
God’s Church Is Governed By God’s Word
The Regulative Principle reinforces the conviction that Christians live their lives positively directed by the Word of God, rather than merely guarded by the prohibitions of God’s Word. The alternative principle, in my estimation, inherently reinforces the natural sinful perspective that Christianity can be defined by what people are not allowed to do, and that life is ultimately to be governed according the autonomous whims of the individual. Conversely, the Regulative Principle is an object lesson in and of itself, teaching that Scripture does not merely set boundaries for how Christians should not live, but also directs Christians positively for how they should live. In other words, the Regulative Principle aids in the command to “let the word of Christ dwell richly in [the corporate midst].” (Colossians 1:16)
God Cares about How We Worship
The regulative principle assumes that God actually cares about how he is worshiped. Though our means of approaching God (the shed blood of Jesus) and Nadab and Abihu’s means of approaching God (the Levitical priestly offerings) are different, the God we are worshiping is one and the same, and thus the manner in which we worship him should be the same (i.e., with reverence and special attention to what he has said about proper worship). Further, Leviticus tells us what kind of God he is. He is a gracious God who provides what he requires (a means), and he is a holy God who cares about how he is worshiped.
On the cusp of the New Covenant’s arrival, Jesus informs the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23) Notice, he does not say that the Father is seeking worshipers who worship him “however they see fit.” We want to look to the Word of God to see what Christ means when he says “in truth.” If we begin with self, and then merely look to Scripture for approval or disapproval, we do not cast the appropriate shroud of suspicion on the preferences of sinners—even if we are sinners who are saved by grace.
For these reasons, we have structured our service to hang only on that which Scripture commands. Next week, we’ll carefully dissect each element of our liturgy and explore the various purposes of our liturgical format.
This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one, two, three, four, five and six. Join us next Friday for part seven.
The Christian “Persevering”
In my last post, I explored the glorious passages in Scripture which describe the way in which God himself will preserve his people to the end. What then, of all of the passages in Scripture that seem to indicate the believer’s responsibility to remain faithful (Romans 8:13, 1 John 3:4-10, John 8:31, etc.)? There are passages that seem to indicate conditionality on the part of our obedience. Passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.” (see also, Colossians 1:21-23)
First, we should pay extra attention to what is being said with that little “if.” Is Paul saying, “If you remain faithful, you will be saved” or is he saying, “If you remain faithful, you show yourself to be saved?” I believe the latter is almost always the case; our acts of obedience are not the means by which we are saved, but rather the fruit that demonstrates that we have been saved. To say otherwise is to take any confidence we have of glorification from God, and place it squarely on ourselves.
Apparent “Problem Passages”
We can’t consider this doctrine of preservation/perseverance without handling those difficult passages that seem to indicate genuine Christians falling away into eternal destruction. Consider the hard words of Jesus in John 15:4-6).
First of all, I don’t think this text is describing some strange work of sanctification, like some desperate Calvinists have argued for; as if the removal of unfruitful branches were some sort of beneficial pruning (these branches are not merely removed; they’re left alone until they get withered and dry and crusty, so that they can burn quicker… seems like a strange way to describe sanctification). I think Jesus is absolutely describing eternal destruction here. However, I also think that Jesus–the perfect God-man–is not speaking out of both sides of his mouth by contradicting what he had just spoken five chapters earlier (John 10:27-30). So what is he saying?
When we consider the broader scope of the New Testament, I think Jesus is here referring to a phenomenon in which a non-believer has some sort of association with Christ (a branch of the vine) that is nevertheless not saving union. Consider the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30. Here, Jesus tells a parable in which a farmer planted some wheat into his field. Then, in the dark hours of the night, the farmer’s enemy came and planted some weeds among the seeds of wheat. The end result is that the weeds and the wheats grew together, in the farmer’s field, until the time of harvest, when they were separated. In other words, it is possible to be in the farmer’s field–in the shepherd’s flock, a branch on the vine–and not genuinely belong to him. And, tragically, this may not be recognized until the last day. Lest we doubt that this phenomenon actually occurs outside the scope of an imaginary parable, John explicitly documents one such occasion, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19) Here, John not only affirms that the true mark of a believer is perseverance, but he also indicates that not all those who are among the household of faith actually belong to it.
All well and good, but what about those hard warning passages in Hebrews? The author of Hebrews warns his audience (his Christian audience) of the destructive results of drifting away from the gospel 5 times; 2:1-4, 4:12-13, 6:4-8, 10:26-31 and 12:25-29. These passages have been handled in many ways by many different Christians. There are three things I want to say about these warnings.
- They are absolutely genuine warnings to genuine Christians about the eternally destructive results of turning away from Christ. That is to say, they are notmerely hypothetical situations, or descriptions of what happens to non-Christians who act like Christians, or descriptions of the temporary effects of temporary apostasy. These warnings were issued to a Christian audience that was obviously tempted to convert back into a Christless Judaism; the author is addressing this temptation dead on and saying, “If you do that, you will go to hell!” Which is true. Strictly speaking, to reject Christ is to reject eternal life. Period.
- These texts must be taken in the broader context of the book of Hebrews as a whole; which is a profoundly encouraging, confidence-solidifying, gospel-drenched book. These warnings aren’t stand alone messages; they are bracketed by gospel assurance. Consider, for example, the most chillingly descriptive warning in Hebrews 6:4-8. Taken by itself, it offers no hope whatsoever. Yet what immediately follows this warning? “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.” (Hebrews 6:9) In other words, the author of Hebrews fully expected for these warnings to land in a certain kind of way on his readers, which brings me to my last point.
- These warnings serve as one of the means of our perseverance, and thus one of the means of God’s preservation. It is true that rejecting Jesus is inviting wrath. It is also true that those who are saved by virtue of being justified by grace alone through faith alone will continue in that faith. Therefore, those who are truly saved will hear these genuine warnings, and will genuinely repent and cling to Christ. God will hold us fast until the end of our lives by enabling our continual faithfulness, and he will enable our continual faithfulness through (among other things) warnings like these. Our Shepherd will speak, and if we are truly his sheep, we will listen.
As a whole, this doctrine should produce a rock-solid confidence in our salvation, because we know that it is ultimately guaranteed by God himself. This rock-solid confidence is an obedience-inducing confidence, or else it’s not functioning properly.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one, two, three, four and five. Join us next Friday for part seven.
If God has predestined to save some from the foundation of the world, if he stepped into human history and shed his own blood to purchase them as a prized possession, and if he irresistibly applies that saving work in the miracle of regeneration, it follows that those individuals will faithfully reach the end of their lives and will be glorified. A sovereign God–one who controls whatsoever comes to pass–who means to save a people for himself, will save a people for himself. In other words, this last question of whether or not a saint will persevere–or be preserved–until the end is really a question of whether or not God’s plan can be thwarted. To ask the question is to answer it (Job 42:2).
Before I dive into this doctrine, a word needs to be said about my apparent cowardice in refusing to take a side on (in my estimation) a rather silly, in-house debate: should our “P” stand for Preservation or Perseverance? I have chosen to include both, because one is the end, the other is the means. God will hold fast to his own (preserve) by enabling his own to hold fast to him (persevere). So yes, I refuse to pick a “P,” but only because one “P” doesn’t adequately describe the what and how of the Christian’s faithfulness to the end.
The Christian “Preserved”
So what do we mean when we say that Christian’s are preserved? This is the aspect of the Christian life that deals with God sustaining work. More specifically, this concept is answering the question, “Can a Christian lose his salvation?” Interestingly enough, Jesus answers this question directly, though he frames it in different terms:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27-30)
So apparently, the question, “Can a Christian lose his salvation?” is poorly phrased. The question should really be, “Can a Christian ever perish?” or better yet, “Can a Christian be snatched out of the hand of Christ, or the hand of the Father?” Jesus doesn’t leave a lot of guesswork. It can’t be done. To be a Christian means to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd. To be a Christian means to be a gift from the Father to the Son; it means that the Christian’s salvation isn’t something to be lost, it would need to be snatched out of the hand of God, and that will never happen.
Another helpful place to look is the conclusion of Romans chapter 8, in which Paul brings up a seemingly intimidating list of potential enemies of the Christian, to see how big of a threat they pose on Christ’s saving love for his own (Romans 8:35-39). Now, before I became a Calvinist, I tried pretty desperately to poke holes into the holy logic of this text; I wanted to preserve the possibility of losing my salvation (… yeah). Most of the “loopholes” I came up with are so lame they aren’t even worth mentioning; but non-Calvinist Sam’s crown jewel zinger went something like this, “Ah, the text says any other created thing, which doesn’t include my free will!” To which Calvinist-Sam has two responses. (1) If the human will isn’t “a created thing,” it must therefore be “uncreated.” But this poses a huge problem, because if my will is uncreated, then it takes on the characteristic of “eternally existing,” which is something that, as a Christian, I can only say of God. Human wills are mirrored creations of God’s will, bound by time and space, ontologically derivative of God himself. So throwing human volition outside the scope of Paul’s sweeping statement (any other created thing) is philosophically unacceptable for Christians who understand the “Creator/creature distinction.” (2) The text leaves no room for volitional caveats; it’s concerned with the question, “What can separate us from the love of God?” And the answer it gives is “Absolutely nothing!” To slip in some sort of loophole into this passage is to obstruct Paul’s intent, which is to give the Christian absolute confidence in God’s love; his Never-stopping, Never-giving up, Always and Forever love (as Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible). In other words, the text is concerned with God’s role in sustaining the Christian through things that threaten to harm his soul, which is precisely why this passage comes on the heels of that breathtaking description of God’s activity in salvation found in verse 30 (He predestines, He calls, He justifies, He glorifies).
This should really come as no surprise when we think about the nature of salvation. To be saved is to be declared righteous by the imputation of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 3:22, 5:1). To be saved means to be adopted as a child of God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5), it means to be raised from spiritual death (Ephesians 2:4-8), it means to be qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints of light by the Father, who delivers from the domain of darkness and transfers into the kingdom of Jesus (Colossians 1:12-14). Need I go on? Are we to believe that the Christ’s righteousness imputed to us can possibly be removed? Or that our Father will turn back on his decision to adopt us? Or that we who have been raised from the dead will once again become dead in our trespasses? Or that the qualifying work of the Father can be undone, and that we might possibly be taken back to the domain of darkness? To answer in the affirmative is to contradict God’s promises.
If this is true, does it mean that Christians don’t have to do anything? Is the Christian life like cruising down a lazy river in an inner tube? The short is answer is “no.” The longer answer will come next week.