Prayer and the Communion of Saints

For every believer, prayer is an essential element of a life wholly devoted to God. There was a time when I thought of prayer as occurring at two levels: the public prayers of the gathered faithful and the private prayers of the individual believer. More recently, however, I have begun to think more in terms of the big picture.

Prayer is an act of worship, and worship is, or at least ought to be, the perpetual posture of every believer. Worship is the act through which the church comes to understand itself as a covenant community in a living relationship with the living God. Whether gathered together on the Lord’s Day or dispersed into the world during the other six days of the week, members of a faithful congregation will never lose their vital connection with God and with one another if they cultivate a constant posture of worship and a consistent life of prayer.

The church is, first, a community, one body in Christ. That body consists of many individual members, to each of whom “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Individuals do not receive gifts of the Spirit to serve their own purposes but, rather, to serve God’s purposes in building up the whole Body in love and maintaining its unity through the bond of peace.

As one body, chosen by the Father before the foundation of the world; brought into being by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; and empowered by the blessed, life-giving Holy Spirit, the church experiences communion with God, with one another, and with the whole company of the redeemed who rest in heavenly peace. The communion of the saints has become, in most Protestant circles, a doctrine so egregiously neglected as to hinder a deeper understanding of the nature of worship, of prayer, and even of God himself as the blessed Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One might think a private prayer to God is just that, a private conversation between the person praying and God. However, a prayer offered by the worshiping community on earth is not only heard, but also echoed, by the saints in heaven as it rises up to the throne of God. Just as, in the Eucharist, the saints on earth join with the angels, archangels, saints, martyrs, and the whole company of heaven in singing, “Holy, holy, holy,” so the prayers of the faithful on earth are joined by the faithful who have gone before them into glory.

To enter into prayer is to enter into the realm of eternity, because to pray is to commune with the eternal Triune God. Hence, no prayer is ultimately a “private” matter because every prayer is offered within the context of the divine community. It ought to bring comfort to all believers to know that we are never alone in our prayers. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, prompted by the Holy Spirit, and beckoned by Jesus himself as we approach the Father’s throne.

Devoted to destruction: An early exercise in hermeneutical gymnastics and creative (dis)obedience

Samuel_rebuke_Saul_H-roll-58 (1)The fall from favor of Saul, the first king of Israel, is a vivid illustration of the consequences of rebellion and a typical human attempt to rationalize disobedience into obedience. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel instructs Saul on behalf of the Lord, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3).

The instructions are clear. But Saul engages in one of the earliest recorded examples of hermeneutical gymnastics. “But Saul and the people spared Agag [king of Amalek] and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (v. 9).

When confronted by Samuel about his failure to obey the Lord’s command, Saul denies that he has been disobedient. He says, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vv. 20-21).

Needless to say, neither Samuel nor the Lord is impressed with Saul’s creative interpretation of obedience. Even “the best of the things devoted to destruction” are still “devoted to destruction” and are, therefore, wholly unacceptable as a sacrifice to the Lord. What Saul and “the people” (upon whom he would apparently lay all blame for any deviation from the original plan while exonerating himself) would offer as a sacrifice is an utter abomination. That which is “devoted to destruction” is unholy and cannot be offered as a sacrifice to a holy God.

Whether it’s sheep and oxen under the Old Covenant or the living sacrifice of our very selves under the New Covenant, nothing unholy can be brought into the presence of God. That which is “devoted to destruction,” that is, the sin which enslaves us in rebellion and idolatry, must be utterly destroyed. To claim certain sinful inclinations are “gifts” to be celebrated within the worshiping community is a most abominable form of blasphemy, borne of a most arrogant presumption that rebellion against God can be rationalized into obedience by offenders who always seem to find clever ways of avoiding personal responsibility for their sinful actions.

Brethren of the Free Spirit: Kissing cousins with Word of Faith?

The Theologia Germanica¬†was an anonymous theological treatise written around 1350. It has become associated with Martin Luther, who said of it, “Next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no other book has come to my attention from which I have learned –and desired to learn–more concerning God, Christ, man, and what all things are.”

Chapter 27 is an interesting polemic against a popular medieval heresy propagated by the antinomian Brethren of the Free Spirit. It is notable how similar this aberration sounds to the present-day “Word of Faith” heresy, whose purveyors are the constant foil of Luther’s devoted disciple, Chris Rosebrough.

germanicaOne hears people assert that man can and should become free from suffering during his earthly life in all respects as Christ was after His Resurrection.

They try to prove and establish this by citing Christ: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee, there you will see Me.” This statement by Christ is also quoted: “A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

These utterances are then interpreted as follows: “As you have seen Me and followed Me as I was in a mortal body and life, so you should also see Me as I go ahead of you and you follow Me into Galilee; that is to say, you will follow Me into a state where pain has gone and serenity reigns; you will taste it, live in it, remain in it before you have gone through and suffered death of the body. As you see Me appear in a body of flesh and bones, yet beyond suffering, in a similar manner you will also, before your bodily death, become free from suffering and soar beyond pain in your mortal humanity.”

I would like to counter these assertions. First, Christ did not mean that man can and should attain that stage unless it were preceded by all the suffering that He, Christ, went through and endured.

Now, Christ did not attain this stage before He had passed through and suffered the death of His body and the experiences that came with it. Thus no man can or should attain that perfect peace and spiritual serenity while mortal and subject to suffering.

For if this state is the noblest and best and if it were possible and spiritually commendable to attain it within our earthly life, then, as pointed out, it would also have occurred in the life of Christ.

For Christ’s life was and is the noblest, the best, most pleasing to God, the loveliest of all lives that were lived and ever will be lived.

Yet, since this serene freedom from earthly woe was not permitted and intended to occur in Christ, it will never appear in any human being, for this would mean that a human life would in fact be the best and the noblest.

You are of course free to fancy such a thing and you can, of course, talk about it. But fancy and words do not that freedom make.

You are what you worship

I have long believed the adage, “You are what you worship.” Whatever you establish in your life as your god, you will eventually become like it. When the Israelites grew weary of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain they rebelled against God and created for themselves a golden calf to worship. When Moses finally did come down, the Israelites were behaving like the animal they were worshiping. The same is true whenever people turn from the worship of the living God and turn instead to the worship of created things.

Psalm 135.15-18 confirms this:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them!

It is sheer folly on the part of fallen human beings to think we can create a god in our own image. The end result is not a living god who frees us to become all we were intended to be, but a mute, blind, deaf idol who enslaves us to our basest instincts and vilest passions. The god we thought we had created in our image conforms us, instead, to its image: mute, blind, deaf, and dead!

Conversely, when we turn from false idols to the true and living God, worshiping him in spirit and in truth, loving him with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, we become like him: holy, righteous, loving, and truly alive!

Indeed, we are what we worship. Whether or not we worship the Creator or the creature, we cannot ultimately escape the reality that we are created beings who bear the image of Whoever or whatever we place at the center of our lives.

Those pugnacious “super apostles”

paulAmong the most pugnacious and disagreeable of Paul’s opponents were the so-called “super apostles,” those who claimed a superior knowledge of the mysteries of God and derided Paul as a novice. Two of the worst offenders were Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:14-26) who were propagating the outlandish claim “that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul disowned these men and their claims, noting that “They are upsetting the faith of some.”

The claim by Hymenaeus and Philetus “that the resurrection has already happened” was “upsetting” to some because it was self-serving and self-glorifying. It set these “super apostles” above those, like Paul, who humbly and freely admitted that “the resurrection from the dead” was a goal which they had “not yet attained” (Philippians 3:12-16).

The resurrection is the outcome of a life lived in obedience to Christ. Paul was correct in his attitude of humility, knowing that the closer he got to the goal, the less he should think of himself. Union with Christ was, for Paul, a lifelong journey which required dying to self in order to be fully realized. This side of eternity, he knew that he could never confidently claim to have reached this ultimate outcome without calling attention to himself instead of Christ.

The resurrection, after all, is all about Christ. Inasmuch as we experience Christ working in our lives to transform us out of a life of sin and into a life of obedience, we can experience something of the benefits of the resurrection now. But the full implications of the resurrection will not be realized until the final consummation at the last day. In Christ, the last day is brought into the present from the future. But by claiming “that the resurrection has already happened,” Hymenaeus and Philetus were projecting themselves from the present into the future, thus “upsetting the faith of some” by setting themselves above all accountability and discipline. They were free to “live and let live,” indulge every carnal passion, and look down upon those pitiful souls who had not yet realized such “freedom.”

Paul warns Timothy to avoid such persons and to go about his work faithfully, not quarreling about words but “rightly handling the word of truth.” For the truth, spoken humbly yet unashamedly, will expose every lie for what it is.

Apostasy, resurrection, and a little common sense

In preparing them for his ordeal of suffering and death, Jesus told his disciples they would “all fall away” in fulfillment of the prophecy, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mark 14:27). There is an element of commons sense here which is often overlooked. In Greek, the words for “apostasy” and “resurrection” are antonyms. There is the sense that one must “fall away” before one can “stand up again.” In other words, the familiar teaching in Christian eschatology that there must first be a “falling away” before the consummation of all things, that is, before the resurrection, is rooted in this very basic premise.

Jesus cast the ordeal of his suffering, death, and resurrection against the grand backdrop of God’s plan for the redemption of his creation. In the midst of his ordeal, his disciples would “fall away.” The intensity of the conflict would be such that they would abandon the faith and look instead toward self-preservation. Peter would embody this “falling away” with his three denials “before the rooster crows twice” (Mark 14:30).

Things would be quite different following the resurrection, however. Jesus assured his disciples that “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). Rising from the dead, Jesus would restore the faith of those who had fallen away. The meaning and purpose of the resurrection is intensified by the fact that it would be preceded by the apostasy. Had there been no apostasy, there would have been no need for the resurrection; but because there was an apostasy, the power of the resurrection to restore all things is all the more glorious.

In order to appreciate fully what Jesus accomplished in rising from the dead, it is first necessary to realize how far we human beings have fallen from our original state of righteousness. We are children of Adam and Eve and, therefore, heirs of the great apostasy by which we lost our standing in right relationship with God. Only the cross can atone for our sin. Only the resurrection can restore our standing with God.

Horace Bushnell: A misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet

Naturalistic theology (often referred to as theological liberalism) did not appear as a challenge to orthodoxy overnight. Its precursors constituted the panoply of heresies repudiated by the Ancient Church and, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun. The rise of naturalistic theology first in Europe and then in America was, in large part, merely a repackaging of old lies in newer, more sophisticated, wrapping.

In his encyclopedic history of homiletics, The Company of Preachers (Kregel, 1998), David L. Larsen notes the rise of “New England theology” in the early nineteenth century and the negative influence it had on the preachers of the day. Like most expressions of naturalism, this was a theology of denial, not affirmation. New England theology denied the orthodox doctrines of sin, depravity, and imputation, paving the way for even more radical departures from the faith as the century progressed.

The person at the center of the transition from doctrinal purity to theological liberalism, was Horace Bushnell (1802-1876), a gifted preacher with a penchant for pushing the doctrinal envelope well beyond acceptable limits.

Bushnell has been called the father of liberalism, and indeed in moving beyond New England theology he lurched very close to Unitarianism. Certainly in God in Christ he lapsed into Unitarian thinking, espousing a modal view of the Trinity. In his Vicarious Sacrifice and Forgiveness and Law, Bushnell jettisoned transactual and propitiatory aspects of the atonement. In a reaction against revivalism, he opted for gradualism rather than conversion in his book Christian Nurture. Neither did he believe a child to be depraved. He believed the child was to grow up never knowing that he or she is other than a Christian.

Charles Hodge spoke of his views as “less than Christian.” For Bushnell the Bible was essentially figurative. In 1866 he indicated his leaning toward understanding the fall in Eden as a myth. Jesus was teacher rather than the crucified and suffering God. His were “orthodox memories, Unitarian hopes.” The old wine had not survived being transferred to new bottles. He scoffed at the idea of the Second Coming. He was very theological but he did not preach sound doctrine.

What Bushnell lacked in doctrinal substance, he made up for in homiletical style. This was not enough, however, to spare him criticism for going off the theological and exegetical reservation.

Yet Bushnell was a preacher’s preacher. There was a virility in his style and a fire inside him, but the common people were not drawn to his variety of naturalism. Early on, he gained a reputation as a public speaker of note, and his ability to title sermons is dramatic. Little wonder he was offered the presidency of the College of California (later the University of California at Berkeley), which he turned down.

Bushnell’s celebrated sermon on “Unconscious Influence” is based on John 20:8, “Then went in also that other disciple.” But for Bushnell this had nothing to do with the resurrection or Jesus Christ. He did not do exegesis, and even Brastow speaks of his interpretations as often “fanciful” and lacking “the support of recognized exegetical canons.”

[Larsen, p. 528]

In the end, Bushnell must be characterized, in Larsen’s words, “as a tragic figure in American pulpit annals” whose “influence upon successive generations has been unfortunate.” For all his intellect and homiletical ingenuity, he was a misguided herald sounding an uncertain trumpet.