Eschatology

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.

A Review of “Unstoppable” with Kirk Cameron

A Review of “Unstoppable” with Kirk Cameron

The thought of spending $12.50 on a movie frightens me. I am perfectly content watching my favorite latest series on Netflix. The thought of going to a movie theater no longer appeals to me as it did ten years ago. So what would compel me to visit the theater this time? I confess, I was intrigued. I have been following Kirk Cameron for some time now. Kirk’s rise to stardom occurred in the late 80’s with Growing Pains. Since then, Cameron has come to Jesus and turned his career toward the Christian movie industry. His official entrance into the evangelical scene came in the 2000 movie, Left Behind. In those days, Cameron had drunk deeply of Tim Lahaye’s best sellers. The Left Behind series became a sensation. The 16-part novels emphasized the rapture, a popular evangelical doctrine of the end-times. The “Rapture” occurs when Jesus calls His Church home. The vision of falling airplanes, tightly folded clothes, and millions of people disappearing has become more than fiction; to many, it is Christianity in its purest form. And Cameron’s movies became the face of it.

Fast forward several years. Cameron’s involvement in broad apologetic and evangelistic work with Ray Comfort has given him some notoriety. He has spoken courageously on a host of moral issues and has received the type of media persecution expected from those who are antagonistic to the exclusivity of Jesus.

Cameron’s personal journey led him to some interesting theological figures. His youthful appeal can be deceiving. Kirk has actually become a fine thinker. And the greatest proof of his ability to engage the world of the Bible intelligently is his latest movie entitled “Unstoppable.” Originally presented to an audience of 10,000 people at Liberty University, Cameron explores the traditional question of theodicy: “If God is sovereign, why does He allow bad things to happen to good people?” a

A Case for Christian Activism

The theme song summarizes the basic thrust of the movie. There is a time to speak and that time is now. Cameron’s investigation provides an apologetic for Christian activism. The former Growing Pains star is now calling Christians everywhere to grow up. Speak for Christ. Defend Christ. The whole world has become a platform for the Christian vision.

This journey seeks to offer some answers to the broad questions of good and evil. Instead of entering into the philosophical arena, Kirk enters into the narrative of redemptive history. The drama of life is being enacted in this great stage. Unstoppable presents a narrative theology that is often unheard of in the evangelical pulpit. This narrative is both compelling and rich. It is a story that starts in the beginning.

Narratival Theology

Through very rich imagery, Cameron takes us through the formation of man. Man is created with authority and that is most clearly seen in his ability to name animals. In doing so, Adam mimics His Creator. God gives man a mission to heavenize earth.  The heavenification project began in the Garden. Adam then is put to sleep and, from his side, God forms woman, who is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. This beautiful, poetic, creative act, now puts man and woman at the center of God’s great plans for history.

Man was to have dominion over all things. And the first great test they faced came in the form of a beast. Adam should have smelt it a mile away. He should have crushed it. But the compelling drama goes from the safety of the garden into the danger of the forbidden fruit. Adam’s sin plunges humanity into chaos. But in the middle of this cosmic betrayal, God does not betray His creation. He makes a promise (Gen. 3:15). Even after Adam and Eve leave the garden He continues to provide for them.

But the narrative continues in bloody fashion. Humanity experiences its first death: the death of a son, the death of a brother. God then places on Cain the first true mark of the beast.

At this point, Kirk Cameron explores the persuasiveness of this narrative. This is a narrative, he argues, that would not sell. In Genesis, the Creator of the world destroys His own creation when He sent a great deluge to drown humanity in their sin. Why would the Protagonist do this? It is here when Cameron shines in his narration. He argues that God packs the whole world in a wooden box and then re-opens the box (the ark) to a new and better world. The new world is born through tragedy. The story is persuasive because it does not hide the consequences of sin.

The Theology of Unstoppable

Unstoppable is a short commentary on Genesis, which is consequently a commentary on the whole Bible. The great rainbow (bow) serves as an instrument of war. God took that instrument and directed it to His only begotten Son at the cross. At the cross, Christ was brutally murdered by His own creation. But it is precisely at the cross, argues Cameron, that “Jesus flips death on its head by dying for His enemies.” After death came life. Life burst from the grave. In fact, every graveyard is a garden. And one day, “each seed will burst into a new world.”

It is in this resurrection theme that Cameron transforms the question of evil into a case for the God who redeems humanity and will bring humanity from the dust of the earth into a new creation. Cameron takes the death of his young friend and uses it as an example for how grieving is not the end of the story. God’s purposes are unstoppable.

This is not your typical Bible story telling. Cameron weaved into his narrative a robust view of creation. Creation is not something to be despised or rejected. Creation was not left behind by its God. Creation is being redeemed by its Maker. Redeemed humanity united to the Final Adam, Jesus Christ, is now commissioned to disciple the nations and make the glory of God known.

Evangelicals will be deeply shocked by its overwhelming optimism. Cameron does not end in lament, but in triumph. The Christian vision is not an escapist one. It is a mission grounded in resurrection joy. And because of this, evil does not have the final word. God cannot be stopped. His purposes will be accomplished in history. His glory will be known from sea to sea.

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Eschatology, Poythress, and the Hallelujah Chorus

I hope to write in the next 18 months a short booklet on eschatology. I have written some papers in the past, but have not been able to provide a general outline, specifically of the postmillennial hope, and its contrast with other millennial positions.

Obviously, there are many wonderful works out there. From John Jefferson Davis to Keith Mathison, and the multitude of theonomic works from the 70’s and 80’s, namely, many of David Chilton’s work (especially his Revelation commentary).

At the same time, there still seems to be a dearth of introductory works at a more layman level. The typical parishioner who has sat under postmillennial preaching for years still finds himself confused by all the labels used. If he has not been immersed in a reformational vocabulary, he is bound to confuse categories and chronology. Naturally, they find themselves incapable of articulating why this optimistic vision contains a progression beginning in Genesis and flowing throughout the New Covenant writings.

Panel Discussion on Eschatology

I listened recently to a panel discussion on eschatology at ETS held some years ago. The postmil advocate (a conspicuous minority in that room) offered a helpful treatment of the chronology of I Corinthians 15:22-26. While helpful, that type of assessment needs to be incorporated into the broader corpus of the Scriptures. For instance, I find it unfathomable to begin a conversation on eschatology without considering the promise of Genesis 3:15 and the motif that is unfolded throughout the other books, namely Judges with its five-fold illustrations of head-crushing.

Poythress, a noble advocate of the Amillennial view, sees the postmil vision more adequately than most, but still does not see why the vision of the Puritans, for example, is a vision of a christianized society.  He argues, in this panel discussion, that if postmil advocates were to focus more on the Second Coming then he would have more in common with them. Well, there is no doubt we focus on the Second Coming, the final parousia, but history is a progression. We look to the coming of Christ at the end of history while not discounting the purposes of Christ throughout history and in history.

The famous Hallelujah chorus grasped this already-ness of the kingdom:

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

We are in full agreement concerning the restoration of the world. And to quote Poythress, we are not waiting for the dissolving of the cosmos, but its restoration, while at the same time we need to believe and trust that the enthronement of King Jesus means the de-thronement of Christ’s enemies. If it is true that he must reign until all his enemies are under his feet, then this reign is quantitative, not just merely spiritualized.

The Gospel promises a discipled world (Mat. 20:18-20) and discipleship and baptism imply a qualitative and quantitative narrative of history. This tangibility of the Gospel vision is the hope of the consistent eschatology of the Scriptures.

Avoid the Language of “Already, and Not Yet”

Since I have been deeply involved in the eschatology debate for over ten years, had some of my works published in other eschatology websites, interviewed postmillennial authors, and have been in the healthy business of proselytizing premils to the postmil position for just as long, I have noticed a few trends. My own transition from pre to postmil was not neat. I wondered in the other premillennial categories and in the “Amillennial parking lot” for a short while.

I confess a deep appreciation for my amillennial brothers. Men like Vos, Horton, and Beale continue to offer fresh insights into the biblical text and to expand the biblical theological vocabulary in some desirable directions. Beale’s work on a theology of worship is a gift to the church.

But while appreciating their labors I also see a trend in the use of language that can be harmful to the postmillennial cause. I refer specifically to the use of the language “already, and not yet.” “This theological concept of “already” and “not yet” was proposed by Princeton theologian Gerhardus Vos early in the 20th century, who believed that we live in the present age, the ‘now’, and await the ‘age to come.” The premillennialist George Eldon Ladd had used similar language when arguing that we taste a little now of the age to come, but not the fullness of it.

Vos and Ladd share similar viewpoints, though they would have differed on their interpretation of I Corinthians 15:24-26. That essentially is the only difference between a historic premil and an amillennialist; a few chronological issues, but a firm agreement on the continuation of the decline of civilization. Some amil scholars still argue among themselves on the identity of a future anti-christ. Other amil thinkers embrace the “optimistic” label to balance out the “amil” label, though this is a more recent phenomenon.

Already, and not yet

This language can be helpful at times, and it has turned into a unified slogan among many in the Reformed camp to combat pre-tribulational theology. Let us assume for the moment that the pre-trib. position is unsustainable and not even worth debating. If this is the case, how is the language of “already, and not yet” been helpful to elaborating the victorious promise of the gospel declared by postmil advocates in the Reformed camp? I venture to say it has not been helpful at all in the postmil eschatological proposal. When the amil advocate uses the language–and the language was coined by amillennial advocates–he means that though we taste a bit of the world to come now, we ought not to expect any type of cosmic manifestation in power and might of the gospel until the Second Coming.

This embodies a largely pessimistic vision of the work of the gospel in the end of history. Again, this is not a debate on the post-resurrection world. There is no debate on that issue. We all affirm the Gospel victory then. The question is: “What will the world look like before Jesus returns at the end of history?” Kenneth Gentry offers a helpful definition of postmillennialism:

“Postmillennialism is the view that Christ will return to the earth after the Spirit-blessed Gospel has had overwhelming success in bringing the world to the adoption of Christianity.”

Assuming this definition, we are affirming that not only will we receive a taste of the world to come in this era of human history, but we will also see with our eyes and touch with our hands the very progress of the Spirit-blessed Gospel in the world.

If not “already, and not yet,” then what?

So what am I suggesting? I am suggesting we no longer use that language, except in very specific cases. This language may be helpful in communicating ideas with someone re-thinking the dispensational position, but even then I recommend caution, since they may be prone to research this language and be led to amillennial writers.

We are not suggesting a utopian society. We believe sin will always be with us until Jesus returns, but we are also affirming that human sin will lose the war against the gospel when it comes to the conversion of the nations. I agree with my mentor, James Jordan, that as the gospel brings people and nations to submit to King Jesus and as the Gospel becomes more prevalent in the national discourse we will also see a greater battle against our own sin since people will become more aware of their struggles. This, however, does not negate the imperative that the nations will come to Zion and worship (Is. 2, 11), but it emphasizes that confession and repentance will always be part of the Christian experience in this world.

Instead of the “already, and not yet” language we may choose to refer to our hope as the “already, already, but not yet,” emphasizing that we will not just taste of the world to come, but also experience the world to come in this world. Obviously this is a long-term strategy. Postmillennialists are not naive to suggest that this Spirit-blessed Gospel will cause world-wide transformation over night, rather this is a long-possibly millennial- project. A double “already” emphasizes the reality of this Gospel vision in history. Further, it emphasizes that we are not simply tasting of the world to come individually, but corporately as a people.

This world is indeed our home, and we long for a renewed world. We do not despise this creation, we long for its restoration.

What other language can we use?

If the “already, already, but not yet” seems like a theological technicality, then I suggest a few other phrases. We are living in the age of “glory to greater glory,” “fulfillment to greater fulfillment,” present, but not fully present,” “joy to greater joy,” blessing to greater blessing.” These are all categories that define the glory of the transformative gospel before the Second Coming.

You may even provide a better and more accurate picture of this truth in words if time allows, but in the meanwhile be cautious with the “already, and not yet” language. History matters to God. And describing that history in certain words can communicate something we do not wish to communicate.

The Ways of God

The ways of God confound the human mind. One would expect a divine finger to snap and create the world instantaneously. But he took his time and artistically prepared his home in six days.

One would expect that God would settle the world’s problems in Genesis four as quickly as those problems arrived in Genesis three. But God took centuries to begin the definitive undoing of the world’s problems.

One would expect that God would take a godly king to rebuke the powers of evil and transform civilization in one generation. But God waited until the true king was born many generations later.

One would expect that God would take his own son and exalt him before death. But God killed his son on a tree; cross before crown.

The ways of God are intentionally perplexing to the ways of man. It is so because his ways are not our ways.

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.

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 Proof for Postmillennialism

David Field writes:

Evangelical defeatism is a failure of historical perspective. After all, the statistics are out there. It took 1400 years for 1% of the world’s population to become Christians, and then another 360 years for that to double to 2%. Another 170 years saw that grow from 2% to 4%, and then between 1960 and 1990 the proportion of the world’s population made up of Bible-believing Christians rose from 4% to 8%. Now, in 2007, a third of the world’s population confesses that Jesus is Lord and 11% of the world’s population comprises ‘evangelical’ Christians. The evangelical church is growing twice as fast as Islam and three times as fast as the world’s population. South America is turning Protestant faster than Continental Europe did in the sixteenth century. South Koreans reckon that they can evangelize the whole of North Korea within five years once that country opens up. And then there’s the Chinese church, consisting of tens of millions of Christians who have learned to pray, who have confidence in Scripture, who know about spiritual warfare, have been schooled in suffering and are qualified to rule. One day in the next century that church (tens of millions of Christians trained to die) will be released into global mission and our prayers for the fall of Islam will be answered.

William Carey’s Postmillennialism and World Missions

The story of Carey’s fascinating history as a missionary legend often overlooks his robust postmillennial theology, which is explained in detail in this piece at Contra Mundum. According to Richard Bauckham :

“The Postmillennialism of the eighteenth century played an important role in the development of Ango-America missions. In the light of chiliastisc expectations, British and American revival movements were considered the first signs of a great wave soon to engulf the whole world. Not only Edwards, but also English (Isaac Watts, Philipp Doddridge) and Scottish (John Willision, John Erskine) theologians related Postmillennial eschatology with revival and with the missionary idea – a combination which gave rise to the growth of organised missionary activity at the end of the century. Carey, for example, was strongly influenced by the Postmillennial view of a universal Kingdom of God.”

 

Postmillennialism Defined

This Saturday, the Pastors of Providence Church will offer a class on the distinctives of our congregation. Among them, is our commitment to a postmillennial eschatology. For some attending the class, this be rather new, since they have for very long imbibed of dispensational categories. Our starting definition of postmil thinking is one I have used often from Kenneth Gentry:

“Postmillennialism is the view that Christ will return to the earth after the Spirit-blessed Gospel has had overwhelming success in bringing the world to the adoption of Christianity.”

The implications of this thinking are significant to how we worship and view our roles in society as ambassadors and evangelists: both representing and verbalizing the claims of King Jesus.