Ecclesiology

Eight Reasons Why Worship Must Be Hard Work

singingFrom Couch to Warfare

There is a great app called Couch to 5K. It’s designed for people who have become comfortable with the couch and have an allergy to the treadmill. It’s an incremental approach to working out. As the weeks go by we become more accustomed to the patterns established and we long to achieve the final level when we run an entire 5K. It’s hard work. My proposition is very simple: Worship is hard. We cannot remain comfortable in our pews. We need to start running the race. We may not be ready to run a 5K, but we need to be headed in that direction. And like running, worship requires habits and consistency. I am calling you to burn your calories in worship not because I am a controversialist or a tyrannical trainer but because I want you to be a healthy sacrifice to God. In fact, the formal synonym for worship is liturgy. Liturgy comes from two words: “Work” and “people.” Therefore, worship or liturgy can be accurately defined as the work of the people. 

Our Lord was so righteously angry by the easy business transactions (easy worship) of the Temple that he turned upside down the world when he overturned the tables of the money-changers (John 2:13-16). Such audacity should be imitated by God’s people, but cautiously exercised in light of our sinfulness. So here is my attempt to cautiously turn a few tables upside down with the hope that some will decide to keep it that way rather than try to put it back up or mend the broken pieces.

Worship has become perfunctory in our day. a The seeker-sensitive movement of the 90’s has morphed into a thousand strategic models for church growth. Some of these recommendations can be helpful, but the vast majority succumb to a moralistic therapeutic deismb that would be best spread in a meal for Baal than the God who made the heavens and earth.c Easy worship produces light Christians. Light Christians produce weak men and weak men produce feeble societies.

The Hard Work of Worship

These eight reasons are introductory in nature. Most certainly they can be edited or better stated, but in light of ecclesiastical trends and the high significance God puts in the worship of his name, these examples should be taken with great care.

First, worship must be hard work because God demands those who worship him to do so in “spirit and truth (John 4:24).” I take “Spirit” to mean in “Spirit-led” form. Worship must take a Spirit-shaped liturgy. It must be guided by the inspired words of the Spirit and a bathed dependence on the Trinity. Jesus demands that we take up the cross and follow him which is hard work lived out by the power of the Spirit.

Worshiping in truth also demands much from the worshiper. John the Baptist had borne witness to the truth (John 5:33) and that witness cost him his life. Thus, worshiping in truth is no easy task. Our gathered assembly must be prepared to fight hard to/in worship. If worship demands little or nothing from us, it fails the John 4:24 test.

Second, worship must be hard because God’s commandments require perseverance (Ephesians 6:18). Grace is not a synonym for a lackadaisical posture. Grace, rather, calls us to serve the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. The people of God are called to worship God by loving him and neighbor and both demand a high alertness to God’s principles for worship. Worship is a picture of our own spiritual walk. Passivity in worship may lead to passivity in our Christian walk.

Third, worship demands most work on the Lord’s appointed day. Many say that they can worship anywhere as a way to avoid worshiping in the consecrated time of worship on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). It is true that worship can take place anywhere, but the particular worship God commands is the worship of his gathered assembly (Heb. 10:25). Worship is hard because there are competing temptations that draw us away from the gathered assembly. Everything done in the name of God can be worship, but if it is used to substitute a clear call to worship him, it becomes less than worship and a violation of the principle of worship. God places a higher priority on gathered worship than on earthly tasks which are why we ought to apply ourselves with a greater fervency to Sunday worship than to other worshipful activities.

Fourth, worship demands postures. The Bible offers many postures for the Christian in worshipd) Worship has bodily demands for those who are able. It is hard work and requires a proactive response from the Christian. Passivity is not in the vocabulary of worship.

Fifth, worship teaches us patterns. The beauty of patterns is that it requires repetition. The angels in heaven maintain a glory pattern of worship day and night (Rev. 7:15). They are not discontent with the patterns or repetitions. They worship again and again. Similarly, earthly saints must repeat without fear, but with hunger to see such repetition become fervent and acceptable in God’s sight. Every stage of human life demand patterns whether kisses, hugs, sex, greetings, discipline in the home, waking, sleeping, eating, etc. Repetition is part of life. The thirst for the new and change in worship reflects a concern for human desires rather than God’s demands.

Sixth, hard work in worship stresses the mighty nature of God. It’s been many years since Christian Smith coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The phrase expressed a Freudian ecclesiology where the parishioner only sits and allows the clergy to do their thing. I once attended a church where one of the deacons faithfully recorded the member’s tithes and offerings during the service. He used the passivity of that worship service to “catch up” with work rather than working hard to participate and engage in the work of worship.

Seventh, hard work in worship teaches consistency in life. Someone who attended a congregation where hard work was expected from the people asked sarcastically: “Why do you all have to make things so complicated?” The question was addressed to a congregation that took worship seriously and demanded participation from its people. Ironically this individual cherished a hard work ethic and decried the lack of real men in our culture. “Work hard in school. Work hard to save money. Work hard to change a liberal culture,” he’d say. But be prepared to do little work when you come into worship was the implication. This inconsistency is consistent with the easy worship practices of many churches in our day. Let the experts do their thing, and our role is to simply sit and watch while we let others do the work for us. In economic terms, this is ecclesiastical socialism.

Finally, I offer four ways pastors and parishioners can train themselves to work hard on Sunday morning at the great assembly:

a) Disciple your children in worship. Fathers and mothers must be committed to keeping their children in worship with them. We don’t train children outside of worship so they can one day come into worship. Children are not distractions to be put aside during worship, they are disciples to be trained during worship. They have a fundamental role when we gather together (Psalm 8).e Children will generally become like their parents in worship. They will either work hard and sit passively while others do the hard work of worship.

b) Use hymnals instead of other means if possible. Hymnals demand musical knowledge.f You may not read music. You may not be musical. But using hymnals will require you to get out of your comfort zone and learn intricate and theologically rich melodies. I recently told my congregation that an Advent hymn we had just sung covered about ten essential theological doctrines in its seven verses. Hymns–and the Psalms–are sung religious education.

c) We are made to respond. Therefore, responsorial elements in worship are necessary (I Chronicles 16). Even in the easiest and relaxed worship environments, there are responses. If a pastor or a leader says, “Good morning,” the people will naturally respond similarly; the same with “Merry Christmas.” Theological greetings and responses should be an engaging part of the service (Ruth 2:4) that calls people to be attentive and prepared to answer with loud shouts of praise (Ps. 98:4). Worship is hard work and responses from the people serve to keep the people always aware and attentive.

d) Lastlyg, every service should have a bulletin; an order of worship. Worship becomes easy and flippant when the leader and the people go from one thing to the other without purpose or meaning or flow. I recall attending an evangelical church many years ago where the music leader chose our next song the moment he was called by the pastor. Quickly he flipped the pages and found a familiar tune to sing. Worship demands preparation. It’s hard work. And hard work leads to fruitful, engaging, and life-changing worship.

Offering Him Our Reasonable Sacrifice

These actions can be quickly taken by pastors and can be implemented without causing much consternation or division. Worship is discipleship training. We do the work again and again so we may become competent and equipped for it. Contrary to popular opinion, hard work in worship is not the invention of cranky Presbyterians who wish to take away our joy. In fact, the joy of the Lord is our strength. And the Lord takes joy when we are strengthened by worshiping Him. Working hard in worship has nothing to do with earning God’s favor; working hard in worship means God is deserving of our praise. We don’t come and offer Him the least we can give, we offer Him our spiritual sacrifice. Indeed we offer Him our entire self.

Worship is warfare. Warfare is hard. Worship prepares us for the race ahead. By the end of the hour, we should feel the exhaustion of having worshiped a great God who demands and is worthy of praise, confession, singing, adoration, kneeling, standing, and lifting holy hands. No one should come from such worship feeling lethargic. The liturgy–the work of the people–trains us for the hard work of perseverance through life. Let’s work hard with God’s people until our final rest when our work will be perfected by the God who calls us into His presence.

  1. This example serves only as an illustration of the kinds of things that are permissible in our day and highly encouraged.  (back)
  2. Language coined by Christian Smith  (back)
  3. See Terry Johnson’s Worshiping with Calvin for multiple examples of this: https://www.amazon.com/Worshipping-Calvin-Terry-Johnson/dp/085234936X/ref=pd_sbs_14_img_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=HRHPCNKJTWAT4RVM91VX  (back)
  4. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! (Psalm 95:6); Lift up your hands to the holy place And bless the LORD! (Psalm 134:2); Give praise, O servants of the LORD, Who stand in the house of the LORD. (Psalm 135:2  (back)
  5. I understand there is need for cry rooms and perhaps age-appropriate Sunday School, but these do not hinder the centrality for young and old to be together for worship (Joel 2:16).  (back)
  6. Here is a great piece advocating the use of hymnals: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2014/07/22/reasons-why-we-should-still-be-using-hymnals/  (back)
  7. and this is only introductory; more could be added  (back)
Die Before You Die: Meditations on the Death of a Friend

Die Before You Die: Meditations on the Death of a Friend

It was the always precise C.S. Lewis who urged in Till We Have Faces to “Die before you die, there is no chance after.” This briefest of Lewisian homilies reminds me of our Lord’s words in Luke 9: “For whoever tries to save his own life will destroy it, but whoever destroys his life on my account will save it.” This biblical and glorious paradox certainly underlined Lewis’ statement. Lewis had experienced the death of his mother at an early age. He saw the vast wrath of war as he lost close friends. When he wrote of death it was not merely a result of research but from a deep experiential pain. His book A Grief Observed is an apologetic for dealing with pain when those closest to you die. When his wife, Joy, died, he wrote: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

My family, and especially my wife, who knew Melanie Branch so well, grieve today. We grieve because someone whose life shone so brightly the Gospel of Jesus was removed from this earth. She no longer grieves, but we grieve in her absence.

Today I stood outside the chapel with many others because there was no more room in the chapel. Many had come to bid farewell to a life well lived. My dear brother and pastor Rusty Branch stood bravely and broken to eulogize his bride before the cloud of witnesses. He offered a parallel between the three virtues of classical Christianity, namely, truth, goodness, and beauty and their manifestations in the life of his bride. His bride of 15 years, offered in her 38 years of life, a Christian manifesto of truth in her search and determined hope to see others embrace a biblical vision for the education of their children. She left an astounding legacy. My family is a recipient of this investment she made in her life. In the name of truth, she died before she died. She sought truth not for self-aggrandizement, but self-giving.

This dear sister not only breathed truth into the life of others, but she also embraced goodness. She was good in the sense that she embodied the good. Anyone who knew Melanie–even from a few encounters–understood her lucid view of the good life. It was not replete with “work harder” banners, but with a sincere “God has been good to us” theology. It was rich, simple, and unfading. Melanie died before she died by showing that goodness is the art of bestowing a glorious image of our Lord to others in the midst of pain.

Most powerful were her husband’s point about her beauty. Though she was overwhelmed by the choking power of cancer, yet her love of the Triune God provided a life-filled, hope-saturated example of beauty. While her body slowly died, she sought after the beautiful. God’s image becomes even more sobering and precious as his saints begin to see the life to come through the eyes of faith. The beatific vision becomes clearer and the eternal glass that separates life and death become less distinguished. She embodied beauty in life and God robed her with his beauty in her death.

I did not know Melanie as well as many, but the multitudes who came to witness this lovely saint speaks more than words. They all shared similar stories of a woman who endured the unspeakable pain of seeing a disease overtake her little by little, but who died for others before she died.

May the God of all peace comfort her husband, Rusty, and her children, Emma Rae, Elizabeth, and Allen. Your wife and mother died well. She died before death. She was a faithful servant. Her job is done. She will die no more.

What is Holy Saturday?

The Passion Week provides diverse theological emotions for the people of God. Palm Sunday commences with the entrance of a divine King riding on a donkey. He comes in ancient royal transportation. The royal procession illicit shouts of benediction, but concludes only a few days later with shouts of crucifixion as the king is hung on a tree.

The Church also celebrates Maundy Thursday as our Messiah provides a new commandment to love one another just as He loved us. The newness of the commandments is not an indication that love was not revealed prior (Lev. 19), but that love is now incarnate in the person of love, Jesus Christ. We then proceed to sing of the anguish of that Good Friday as our blessed Lord is humiliated by soldiers and scolded by the offensive words of the religious leaders of the day. As he walks to the Mount, his pain testifies to Paul’s words that he suffered even to the point of death (Phil. 2)But hidden in this glaringly distasteful mixture of blood, vinegar, and bruised flesh is the calmness of the day after our Lord’s crucifixion.

After fulfilling the great Davidic promise in Psalm 22, our Lord rests from his labors in the tomb. Whatever may have happened in those days before his resurrection, we know that Christ’s work as the unblemished offering of love was finished.

The Church calls this day Blessed Sabbath or more commonly, Holy Saturday. On this day, our Lord reposed (rested) from his accomplishments. Many throughout history also believe that Holy Saturday is a fulfillment of Moses’ words:

God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works . . .(Gen. 2:2)

The Church links this day with the creation account. On day seven Yahweh rested and enjoyed the fruit of his creation. Jesus Christ also rested in the rest given to him by the Father and enjoyed the fruits of the New Creation he began to establish and would be brought to light on the next day.

As Alexander Schmemann observed:

Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.

Holy Saturday is a day of rest for God’s people; a foretaste of the true Rest that comes in the Risen Christ. The calmness of Holy Saturday makes room for the explosion of Easter Sunday. On this day, we remember that the darkness of the grave and the resting of the Son were only temporary for when a New Creation bursts into the scene the risen Lord of glory cannot contain his joy, and so he gives it to us.

Counseling and the Work of the Spirit

Counseling and the Work of the Spirit

Theology is deeply intimate. Michael Bird excellently summarizes theology as “speaking about God while in the very presence of God. We are intimately engaged with the subject of our study.” a This theological intimacy builds a certain type of worshiper. This worshiper, then, is aware of the nature of his relationships and his relationality with the Triune God. The theological enterprise, which has largely become a rarely pursued journey by the common parishioner, has fallen into the hands of arm-chair theologians. Instead of finding theology an intimate quest, they see it as an academic exercise to be exercised at a fair distance from the subject of their study. They have academized theology.

But theology, properly understood, is a project of the people of God for the sake of the world. Undoubtedly there is room for academic expertise, but this expertise will not  bear fruit unapplied. And part of this distaste for theology has come from the official divorce between theology and counseling. Simply put, we have abandoned the Holy Spirit while pursuing theology. In doing so, we have broken the Trinitarian commitment to knowledge and life. The Spirit is the divine matchmaker. He puts together man and God. He does this by providing in man a need for the divine. The Spirit’s work in us is to make us into needy beings who can only find fulfillment in a giving God. Jesus’ works on earth were all practically aimed at restoring flesh-beings to a more fulfilling humanity, even to the point of restoring a man to life (Jn. 11).

Counseling is necessary in theology. It is the Spirit-side of theology in the Triniarian diagram. The Spirit is the comforter, and our advocate. When others abuse us, the Spirit is the One who reminds us that our sanity comes from the Father, and though we have been painfully beaten to the point of mental breakdowns, the Spirit says that our sanity is from above and no one can take it away.

John Frame was right when he asserted that Christians understand the distinctness of the Father and the Son, but they view the Spirit “as a kind of impersonal force or power associated with God.” b This un-trinitarian tendency c has infected the theological enterprise. Though most evangelicals are careful to avoid sounding like Mormons, they still practically approach theology as a Spirit-less process. Of course, orthodoxy has always affirmed that there is no conflict in the Trinity. There is mutual glorification among the persons of the Trinity. d But practically, our orthopraxis contradicts our orthodoxy. Though Jesus is promised to be a “wonderful counselor” (Isa. 7), the Spirit is promised to be an abiding counselor; the one sent by the Son to abide in every Christian ( Jn. 14:26).

In large measure due to the misunderstanding of the trinitarian nature, the Spirit has been left out of the counseling room. He is not called nor petitioned to. But the Third Person of the Trinity is the key to the theological intimacy we must all seek. Paul writes:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

This transformation/transfiguration comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. Counseling stresses the Spirit dependency counselees must have in order to be transformed from glory into glory. The work of theology, Frame stresses, “is not simply to repeat the language of Scripture, but to apply the language of Scripture to our thought and life.” e The Spirit applies theology that changes for He is the source of change.

The type of intimacy I am advocating in counseling is the intimacy that communicates the need of the Spirit and the application of truth to all of life. If only truth is stressed f you lose the relationality of the Spirit of God, but when truth is joined with a conspicuous dependence on the Spirit, then true change from glory to glory begins to take place. Theology must be an intimate pursuit, for in it we discover the Spirit of God who provides true fellowship with the Father and the Son. g

  1. An Evangelical Theology, Bird.  (back)
  2. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Christian Belief, 477  (back)
  3. cult-like  (back)
  4. see Frame, 480  (back)
  5. Frame, 482  (back)
  6. certain counseling paradigms operate strictly from this premise  (back)
  7. II Corinthians 13:14  (back)
The False Promises of the Early Church

The False Promises of the Early Church

Make no mistake: the early church was glorious! She was glorious like a child is glorious. She was but a babe. She breathed, moved, and had her being in God. She was a nursing infant. She had to trust in God from the beginning. But it has become almost a common practice to look to the early church as some paragon of perfection. “If only we could go back!’ The nostalgic sentiments echo through the corridors of sentimentalists. The truth is the early church was a relatively unstable body. Paul strives to offer detailed instructions. Sometimes these instructions are simple: love one another. Sometimes Paul bombards them with rebuke, as in I Corinthians. But if the early church was such a model, why then did Paul chastise and treat them as little children again and again? The answer couldn’t be simpler: because the early church was never meant to be an example to be followed in all ages. She was meant to be a foundational model. She was meant to give us the essential ingredients of life together (Acts 2:42), but not a detailed account for how the 21st century church ought to function.

James Montgomery Boice summarized well this sentiment:

Whole denominations are founded upon the idea that the prime duty of contemporary Christians is to be as much like those who lived in the age of the apostles as possible. But this is a false idealization; it is an attempt to make the early church into something it never was. It is an attempt to escape the problems of our day by looking back to something that exists only in the Christian imagination. a

This prevailing idea opposes strongly the maturational intention of biblical revelation. We were not meant to remain infants, but to grow into mature men, as Paul says. To be sure, Acts provides helpful themes of charity, mercy, communion, and more, but she was a seed, not the tree itself. The tree itself is what God is accomplishing through all ages: to form one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The Spirit of God, who has hovered over the church throughout the ages, continues to hover even today bringing the Church to greater glory and might; strengthening and building her to be that indestructible rock that will shatter the heads of the enemies.

We are not called to put faith in the Church of the past, but in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, who reigns over his Church now, world without end, Amen.

  1. An Expositional Commentary, Boice, 56  (back)

Keep Yourselves from Idols

In one of the most lovely letters written in the Bible, I John– which we will be studying during Sunday School in July–the apostle encourages us by the example of Christ that our joy may be full. And then in chapter 5:21, which is the last verse of John’s first letter, we read this remarkable little exhortation: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

We will consider this in the sermon more fully, but before we bow down to the only true God, what idols are we carrying along with us, even this morning?

All those virtues that we treasure: love, trust, hope; all of them can be turned on their head. What do we truly love, hope, and trust in during times of pain? Who do we seek when our lives are turned upside down? If any of these answers do not find their joy ultimately in the God who is righteous and just (I Jn. 1:9), then we have not heeded John’s warnings.

Brothers and sisters, as we come and confess our sins this morning, confess that you have not loved, trusted, and hoped in God as you ought. Confess that you have sought other gods before him. Confess them, and be still, and know that He is God, and there is none other before him.

Prayer: God Almighty, Father, Son, and Spirit, strengthen us today by your great mercy and transform us into the image of your own beloved Son, whom we love, trust, and hope. Amen.

Finality and Sufficiency of Jesus for Mankind

Leslie Newbigin, the remarkable missiologist and theologian, writes in his delightful little book Trinitarian Doctrine for Today’s Mission that there was a time when religions were observed from afar in the Western world as “objects of compassion and curiosity.” But now (writing in the 70’s), students have the opportunity to discuss them openly in universities.

Critics of the Christian missionary movement argue that humanity “is now in a new situation where it must learn to live as one community or perish… All parts of the human race are increasingly involved with one another in all phases of human activity.” But Newbigin argues that the greatest need of mankind is not some form of unity founded on pluralistic ideals, but rather mankind is dependent upon the sufficiency and finality of Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Savior of the world.

One Additional Thought on Paedocommunion

Children belong at the table. I have argued for a decade that children of the covenant are recipients of all the covenant benefits. One significant benefit is the means of grace we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Baptism opens the ecclesiastical doors to the Lord’s Table.

I have for so long agreed with those simple statements that the more I interact with Reformation-minded Christians on this issue, the stranger and stranger it becomes. Yes, there are those confessional issues at hand, and there is the most famous Pauline passage in I Corinthians 11:17-34 that is used as an argument for opposing paedocommunion, but if the Reformed paedobaptist is open to considering the Bible afresh without his preconceived notions of what Paul meant, or allowing the text to take precedence over our cherished confessions, then I believe there is an opportunity to re-consider this important matter. As Tim Gallant observes, “no tradition and no confession may be treated as irreformable.”

I do not wish here to elaborate on the many exegetical issues involved. Some books like Tim Gallant’s Feed my Lambs and Strawbridge’s The Case for Covenant Communion do a fine job elaborating on the more technical discussions surrounding the issue at hand. My desire is to add just one theological point about the inclusion of children in the Psalter.

The Paedocommunionist position argues that children are to be not only included in the worship of the saints, but also that they are to be participants in the worship of the saints. And part of this participation means eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table with the body. To be in the body means to partake of the body. The Paedocommunion position is the natural consequence of paedobaptism. In fact, many come to paedocommunion by considering the logical necessities of paedobaptism.

The Psalter makes a fine case for the inclusion of little children in the ecclesiastical community of the Old Testament. Those of us who wish to apply a covenantal hermeneutic consistently conclude that they are to be also included in the New Covenant promises. If the New Covenant is more glorious and greater, then the NC continues to show favor to children of believers, and not take away that favor. Assuming that to be the case (and certainly this is a limited discussion among paedobaptists), then it is safe to conclude that the Psalter establishes a model of inclusion and not exclusion.

One text that is often overlooked in this discussion is Psalm 148. Psalm 148 is a doxological description of the celestial and earthly praise. God designs creation to display His excellencies and glory. But this glory can only be complete if children are in the picture. Children are also part of this great choir. Children, then, are involved participants in this cosmic refrain of praise. Creation is also involved and is sacramentally nourished by the hands of God. Far from an uninterested and uninvolved God, our God is deeply invested in the affairs of creation and so He sustains them with every good thing.

But at the heart of this chorus are old men and children (na`ar). Man plays a pivotal role in this worship scene. He is the homo adorans (worshiping being). 

We can then conclude that the Psalmist engages all sorts of people in the responsibility of praise. And if children are called to praise (Psalm 8:2-3), then they are called to be nourished as participants in that praise. In the Bible everyone who praises eats at some time. I am arguing that those who praise eat very early. When? At the moment they can eat and drink at their earthly father’s table, they should be able to eat at their heavenly father’s table. Simple in my estimation.

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

The Conscience of a Society

James Davison Hunter appears to be setting the environment to destroy the argument made by culture-warriors like the late Chuck Colson. But in the process (beginning in chapter two) he is explaining the rationale of world-view thinkers and their desire to redeem the culture. Colson argues that there are four ways. The fourth is particularly striking:

Fourth, the church must act as the conscience of society, as a restraint against the misuse of governing authority.

This sums up the case for The Church-Friendly Family, where I argue in my editor’s introduction that unless the biological family joins the mission of the Church as the conscience of a society, the family itself will lose her own conscience and submit to another institution or to no institution at all.

My first dip into the book seems like a good dose of Dutch Calvinism, but from conversation I see a “but” coming in the next few pages.