Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Evangelical Good Old Fashioned Experiential Goo...

Back in the 1920's, J. Gresham Machen diagnosed not only the intellectual and theological drift of his day but of that which would continue to develop over the next 90 years. He wrote,
The depreciation of the intellect, with the exaltation in the place of it of the feelings or of the will, is, we think, a basic fact in modern life, which is rapidly leading to a condition in which men neither know anything nor care anything about the doctrinal content of the Christian religion, and in which there is in general a lamentable intellectual decline. (What is Faith?, p.28)
The drift away from theology, i.e. the events of the redemptive-historical drama in the Bible and their meaning (doctrine), created a vacuum that has been gradually filled with other things. And one of the main results has been the rise of both the relational and the experiential as pillars of many expressions of American Christianity.

The Aquarius age of the sixties ushered in the full-blown relational era. All you need is love, the Beatles sang. I remember as a young Christian in the early 1970's hearing the oft prescribed formula for gospel acceptance by the world... they will know you're my disciples by your love for one another. It was no coincidence that Body-life became all the rage. In fact, a popular book came out at that time with that very title by Ray Stedman, who summed up his model for the church this way,
The church is a living organism. In the physical body, the hand moves when the brain says to. So too the members of Jesus’ spiritual body takes direction from Him as our Head. Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church. He equips his people to love one another, and to serve in unity his kingdom. This is Body Life.
Jesus gives each member gifts and talents, making himself alive within his church... The relational-conduit led to experiential reality. In one church that I was a part of for a number of years in the seventies, sharing one's "experience of Christ" in the worship meeting was the very cutting edge of body life. What was needed was not "dead doctrine," but life supplied from the members of the body of Christ (grace and heavenly blessing given via the horizontal-relational). And of course this accelerated the already established trend of democratizing truth by elevating the greatest common denominator among believers, a person's subjective experience. Everyone had one! Everyone could share it. Truth filtered through my lens, my experience to the church.

To paraphrase the words of Traffic's hit song from that same time period, a new old fashioned experiential goo was replacing the Word-based proclamation of Christ, i.e his death and resurrection for unworthy sinners in both Word and Sacrament (doctrine from above). To be built up in Christ now had more to do with being touched by someone's testimony of their experience, accompanied by their own unique interpretation of the Spirit's work in their life. And of course, it was incumbent upon those listening to be appropriately and relationally supportive with "amens" and "praise the Lords." Interestingly, that's not all too different from what one finds in any number of different support groups. The means of grace in Word and Sacrament by which sinner/saint is comforted and strengthened in faith was gradually replaced with shared testimonies of subjective experiences and mystical worship moments to attain a corporate sense of "God's Spirit."

Now certainly there's nothing wrong at all with a corporate sense of God's Spirit. But one needs to look critically at what was happening. Scriptural doctrine fell off the radar screen of that church as an ancient and unnecessary means of direction. No matter how true, doctrine was simply "dead-head knowledge," an impediment to the Spirit's working.  Faith no longer was fed by hearing, understanding, and receiving the gospel truths. What the church needed was Life which came through the direct operation of the Spirit found in one's personal/mystical experience of God.

Faith, no longer pointed to nor rooted in the redemptive-historical objectivity of the gospel, was redirected toward the ever-elusive subjective. So, once again Machen's words from the twenties presciently described what came about,
But if theology be thus abandoned, or if rather (to ease the transition) it be made merely the symbolic expression of religious experience, what is to be put into its place?... Mysticism unquestionably is the natural result of the anti-intellectual tendency which now prevails; for mysticism is the consistent exaltation of experience at the expense of thought. (p.35)
The identifying mark of much of today's evangelical church is the subjective/experiential elevated above the objective/declarative of the Word. And it is this modern means of grace which is deemed spiritually authentic. Speak of doctrine or objective biblical truth and eyes begin roll in boredom. Share your experience of a God-moment and heaven has come to earth.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Calvin: The Lord's Supper - the visible gospel...

I recently finished reading the biography Calvin by Bruce Gordon. Gordon gives a very accessible, balanced portrait of the man, his life and theology and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about this 16th century reformer.  I want to draw from Gordon's chapter on "Healing Christ's Body" to highlight a theme I've touched on before (herehere, and here), the feeding of God's people in the preaching of the gospel and the Lord's Supper:
  • ... when asked in the Genevan catechism why God had instituted the signs of bread and wine, the response was 'the Lord consulted our weakness, teaching us in a more familiar manner that he is not only food to our souls, but drink also, so that we are not to seek any part of spiritual life anywhere else than in him alone'... Gospel and sacrament, for Calvin, are the same but different, and cannot exist without one another.  Humans, sensuous creatures that they are, require external forms as aid to faith, and this is what God has provided.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine are not simply an act, but together with the Word of God spoken from the pulpit they form the means by which the Christian receives Christ. (p.165)
From A Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper, Calvin wrote:
  • Here, then, is the singular consolation which we derive from the Supper.  It directs and leads us to the cross of Jesus Christ and to his resurrection, to certify that whatever iniquity there may be in us, the Lord nevertheless recognises and accepts us as righteous - whatever materials of death may be in us, he nevertheless gives us life - whatever misery may be in us, he nevertheless fills us with all felicity.  Or to explain the matter more simply - as in ourselves we are devoid of all good, and have not one particle of what might help to procure salvation, the Supper is an attestation that, having been made partakers of the death and passion of Jesus Christ, we have every thing that is useful and salutary to us.
Gordon continues,
  • Through the instruments of bread and wine God gives Christ to the people - to receive the symbols (bread and wine) is to receive what they signify (Christ).  The dynamic in Calvin's teaching is between knowledge and faith.  Through preaching, catechising and schooling the people are taught the nature of God and salvation through Christ.  They are instructed in the Christian life.  This is the knowledge revealed in scripture and it is the duty of ministers to teach and of laity to learn.  But Calvin did not mean mere head learning, as we might call it - facts about religion.  In learning of God and Christ a person begins to hunger for that salvation.  That is the work of faith, which opens eyes to the reality of sin and the goodness of God.  Yet because humans, even the faithful, are weak and sinful, they need to be continually fed.  This is the role of preaching and the Lord's Supper [emphasis mine]. (p.166)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Works of Sanctification - Reward found not in their merit...

Whatever value is indeed received in the works of sanctification by those who trust in Christ, it is accrued to them not by the spirituality or devoutness of their own righteous deeds, but rather on the basis of God's gratuitous grace.  And I might add that the grace of God in both our justification and sanctification in Christ is received solely by faith alone.

"Our third and last exception relates to the recompense of works,­ we maintaining that it depends not on their own value or merit, but rather on the mere benignity of God. Our opponents, indeed, admit that there is no proportion between the merit of the work and its reward; but they do not attend to what is of primary moment in the matter: that is, that the good works of believers are never so pure as that they can please without pardon. They consider not, I say, that they are always sprinkled with some spots or blemishes, because they never proceed from that pure and perfect love of God which is demanded by the law. Our doctrine, therefore, is that the good works of believers are always devoid of a spotless purity which can stand the inspection of God; nay, that when they are tried by the strict rule of justice, they are, to a certain extent, impure. But, when once God has graciously adopted believers, he not only accepts and loves their persons, but their works also, and condescends to honor them with a reward.

"In one word, as we said of man, so we may say of works: they are justified not by their own desert, but by the merits of Christ alone; the faults by which they would otherwise displease being covered by the sacrifice of Christ. This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works that which proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, and so preventing them from giving way to despondency, when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it."

-The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543), John Calvin.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Faith, what is it?

Faith is ultimately “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Calvin, Institutes, 1:551 [3.2.7]).

Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. 

An excerpt from Martin Luther -"An Introduction to St. Paul's Letter to the Romans,"

"Faith is indeed intellectual; it involves an apprehension of certain things as facts; and vain is the modern effort to divorce faith from knowledge. But although faith is intellectual, it is not only intellectual. You cannot have faith without having knowledge; but you will not have faith if you have only knowledge. Faith is the acceptance of a gift at the hands of Christ. We cannot accept the gift without knowing certain things about the gift and about the giver. But we might know all those things and still not accept the gift. We might know what the gift is and still not accept it. Knowledge is thus absolutely necessary to faith, but it is not all that is necessary. Christ comes offering us that right relation to God which He wrought for us on the cross. Shall we accept the gift or shall we hold it in disdain? The acceptance of the gift is called faith, It is a very wonderful thing; it involves a change of the whole nature of man; it involves a new hatred of sin and a new hunger and thirst after righteousness. Such a wonderful change is not the work of man; faith itself is given us by the Spirit of God. Christians never make themselves Christians; but they are made Christians by God."
— J. Gresham Machen

"The true reason why faith is given such an exclusive place by the New Testament, so far as the attainment of salvation is concerned, over against love and over against everything else in that faith means receiving something, not doing something or even being something. To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in slightest measure, but that God saves us."
— J. Gresham Machen (What Is Faith?)

"This is why Paul upholds the teaching of the gospel in such a forceful way ... Seeing such an example and such a picture of man’s great weakness and fickleness, Paul states that the truth of the gospel must supersede anything that we may devise … he is showing us that we ought to know the substance of the doctrine which is brought to us in the name of God, so that our faith can be fully grounded upon it. Then we will not be tossed about with every wind, nor will we wander about aimlessly, changing our opinions a hundred times a day; we will persist in this doctrine until the end. This, in brief, is what we must remember."
— John Calvin (Sermons on Galatians)

Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q. 86. What is faith in Jesus Christ?
A. Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.

Our Testimony on Justification - The Faculty of Westminster Seminary California:
Faith and faith alone is the instrument that looks away from self to Jesus and receives the imputation of his [Christ's] perfect righteousness.  (p. 438, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry)