Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is your Good Friday service and the auditorium is packed. Stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Doodle: Keep Preaching to the Choir

“Now I know I’m preaching to the choir,” is something I have caught myself saying in the pulpit on numerous occasions, teaching on the importance of belonging to a local church. We say similar things when we discuss passages in small group that emphasise meeting together, encouraging other Christians and living in community. It is a cliché and therefore about as useful as it is original. When we meet together to hear God speak – as the Bible is read, taught, and applied – we may be the metaphorical choir but that does not make us any less in need of being convicted by the Spirit. Imagine a believer in the church who received the letter to the Hebrews shouting, after 10:25 was read, ‘Hey, we’re here; stop preaching to the choir.’ It’s ridiculous because God’s Word gathers us and addresses the gathered. Furthermore, you need only read Hebrews 10:24 to see that merely meeting together is inadequate, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.”

ChurchThere is more to being a part of the church than meeting together. We must make no apology when emphasising the value as well as the purpose of meeting together, as if all of those who are gathered are committed to stirring one another up to love and good deeds. The gospel we preach does not simply say, ‘Come to church.’ That is the nominal poison believed and preached in many South African churches, especially among older generations. No, the gospel says that Christ has saved us for himself and to minister to his people. We need to keep preaching to the choir because there are people regularly attending church who play no active role in encouraging others. If people are uncomfortable with the demands of Jesus then it may be because they do not know or love him. Certainly, one of the ways we show our love for Christ is by being concerned for the interests of his people (Philippians 2:19-30). Keep preaching to the choir.

Christ taught that the numerical size of local churches is a fraught statistic, attendance can mean very little. Therefore, just as we do not apologise for preaching Christ and him crucified week after week, we should not baulk at challenging the gathered church about their personal investment in the local church. We preach the gospel Sunday by Sunday because it is a grave mistake to think the church visible is the church invisible. In a similar way, we keep seeking to convict Christians with regards to their love for God’s people, or lack thereof. Just as we keep preaching to spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1-3) we must keep preaching to the choir. We must regularly call for faith and repentance, not forgetting that all Christians still have much repenting to do. So keep preaching to the choir.

Since John Calvin kicked off this short series of posts thinking about our gifts and using them to serve the local church, I will quote him as we finish. “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves Christians…Either let them cease to boast of what they are not, in contempt of God; or let them show themselves disciples not unworthy of Christ their teacher” (3.6.4).

A Note on Analogies

After the publication of my previous post critiquing Andrew Heard’s lifeboat analogy for the church, it was suggested to me that I develop some of my thoughts on analogies, or illustrations, in general. However I cannot pretend to have mastered the use of analogies; in my own preaching, I use them very sparingly. Briefly, in writing, I have explored an abused illustration from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (“He’s not safe but He’s good”) and Jesus’ parable of the field, but those are not detailed studies in the praxis. So in this short post I will merely summarise some thoughts on illustrations I have borrowed from the appendix to Pierced for Our Transgressions.

Their purpose

AnalogyThe authors of Pierced write, “An illustration works well when it corresponds closely to the biblical idea it seeks to explain. Translating an unfamiliar concept into everyday terms can bring clarity and perhaps also a certain vividness and immediacy. It brings our world and the Bible’s world together, and puts us and our lives into the picture.” Illustrations function as useful bridges helping us understand something strange or peculiar by something familiar or easily understood.

The dangers

As we read above, illustrations are useful, but they can also be misleading. The thrust of my previous post is well summarised in Pierced, “Illustrations never correspond to reality at every point, and it is at the points of difference that they may mislead.” However, the authors continue, “The fact that an illustration does not correspond with reality at every point does not mean it will always mislead; merely that it ought to be used to illustrate only those aspects of reality with which it does correspond.” Therefore we must be aware of an illustrations deficiencies, which can confuse and obscure, the opposite of their intended purpose.

Though they are addressing the atonement, Pierced reads insightfully for any illustration, “Even if we choose (wisely) to illustrate just one aspect…we must take care we do not inadvertently distort other closely related themes…To avoid being misunderstood, we need to consider the specific strengths and weaknesses of any given illustration: what it captures well, and where it might fail.” On the topic of church, since that was my concern with Heard’s illustration, the lifeboat analogy distorts other aspects of the church’s mission by overemphasising evangelism at the expense of maturity. Obviously, those are closely related but – in my opinion – the lifeboat overlooks or redefines the importance of godliness and service by conflating maturity with evangelism. While the lifeboat illustrates the desperate urgency of the church’s mission it places far too little emphasis on the biblical emphasis and zeal we should have for maturing, tested, and transforming faith in Christ.

The authors of Pierced then call preachers to take care that their analogies are not pushed too far so that they inadvertently illustrate the wrong thing. As I said previously: there are better illustrations that inform us about the mission and shape of the local church as well as our place in it, so we should be cautious when an illustration not found in Scripture dominates our understanding. “To repeat: it is the points at which they fail to correspond to reality that are liable to mislead.” Should every Christian’s primary concern be the lost, hauling them up from the deadly waters, rescuing them from a Christless eternity? Yes, we should zealously long to see as many as possible saved. But, no, it is not the primary point of the church’s existence; it is one of them.

The careful approach

PreachingI think Pierced ties all of the mentioned dangers up well, “The risk of [overstretching an analogy] is increased when we are attempting to explain something complicated, for no single analogy will be up to the job.” I acknowledge that Andrew Heard was speaking at a conference on church growth, allowing for a selective approach. However, the church and Christian life is complicated, even when honing in on a single component, such as evangelism. As for most things, one analogy can only successfully illustrate part of the truth. I think that is why we are given such an abundance of them in Scripture. It is not enough to merely be aware of our analogies’ shortcomings; we must temper and supplement them with others.

In conclusion, and to stave off despair, “We may be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and concede defeat…no illustration is perfect, if by ‘perfect’ we mean it corresponds with reality at every point.” But that does not mean every illustration is invalid; we are not doomed to mislead with every analogy. We must recognise where they fall short, and ask if those deficiencies are unhelpful; make sure closely related concepts are not obscured; and resist overextending this great God-given tool.