Excerpts on the Sabbath

While a theology undergrad, debates about the Sabbath would occasionally rear their head. For most of my life I had not attended many church services on Sundays and had almost always taken a good break from the week on Saturdays. This meant that I struggled to understand the potential significance of and contentious positions about the Sabbath. Here is not the place to go into the latter, mostly because it remains something I have not given much thought to. But in the years following college I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of resting, which possibly correlates with my aging. While I do not yet possess a firm position on the Sabbath, I do believe that important practical principles can be gleaned from it. Below are just a few that I have come across in my own reading.

Marilynne Robinson Firstly, in her essay titled Decline, from The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson contrasts the Sabbath with our capitalistic drive and economically regimented cultures. “The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of economics. Its benefits cannot be commercialized. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialized. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress. Sabbath is a way of life, one long since gone from his country, of course, due to secularizing trends, which are really economic pressures that have excluded rest as an option, first of all from those most in need of it.”

Claire Diaz-OrtizSecondly, in Barna’s Greater Expectations, Claire Diaz-Ortiz quotes Matthew Sleeth’s 24/6 on the necessity of Sabbath practice for frenetic modern lives: “Just as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, we have become slaves to our technology. Our technological tools allow 24-hour productivity and connectivity, give us more control, and subtly enslave us to busyness itself. Sabbath is about restraint, about intentionally not doing everything all the time just because we can. Setting aside a day of rest helps us reconnect with our Creator and find the peace of God that passes all understanding. The Sabbath is about letting go of the controls one day a week and letting God be God.” Whether it is a day or a couple of hours, the Sabbath calls us to give up productivity and trust God.

Bruce WaltkeThirdly, Bruce Waltke (in An Old Testament Theology) comments how time set apart for worship and reflection, allows us to do far more than rest. We were made for much more than dominion over our world by working in it; we are made for communion with God. “As human beings exert sovereignty over space and matter, which they build with and possess, the sanctification of time reminds them that there is something transcendent beyond matter and space. The critical moments are not the one spent building, possessing, and controlling, but the times set apart for quiet, reflection, meditation, and worship. Religious people who see Sabbath rest as a religious obligation miss its meaning”

Finally, let us conclude with Augustine, who concludes his Confessions by returning to that most famous point, ‘You made us tilted to toward you, so our heart is unstable until it stabilised in you’ (1.1.1). “This beautiful cosmos, made up of creatures, ‘eminently good,’ in their entirety, has an appointed course to run to its end — its dawn will have its dusk. But no dusk comes to the seventh day, its night will never fall, since you have made it holy and abide forever. You, who are always at rest, nonetheless ‘rested on the seventh day’ after completing your works — or so it is said in your Scripture, to signify that when we have completed our works, which were your works made ‘eminently good’ in us, we can rest with you on the eternal seventh day” (13.14.50-51).

Can I be a Christian but not a Churchgoer?

Old empty churchI recently read an article by a Christian blogger, Wendy van Eyck, explaining why she identifies as a Christian but not a churchgoer. This is not the first time I have encountered this statement and others like it. Despite the linked author’s voiced anxieties over insensitive responses, I felt I had to write this post as more and more Christians are viewing the local church as an optional extra for the Christian life. I fear for Christians belonging to the subculture that self-labels itself ‘post-church’ and I believe that this shift reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel and God’s purposes in the world today. The church is a display of God’s wisdom (Ephesians 3:10), to bring him glory (3:21), but this is only accomplished when people are united by the gospel and their pursuit of a mature faith. So in this post I will offer a few caveats, interacting with the linked post, before arguing that Christians must belong to a local body, for their own Christian walk and the health of the church.

A few caveats

Wendy writes, “Jesus is still the most dear and precious thing in my life.” This is a wonderful assertion, and all Christians should resolve to adore Jesus and consider him more valuable than anything we possess or desire. Unfortunately, while the author professes that Jesus is most dear to her, I think she has failed to recognise what is most dear to Jesus, namely, the church he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Wendy also writes “Jesus plus nothing is the only math I need.” This too is a delightful, if not a little misleading, statement. Tullian Tchividjian recently wrote Jesus + Nothing = Everything, picking up Paul’s mantle in Galatians to remind us that Christ’s work is sufficient for salvation. But I would like to point out another sum in Paul’s writing: the blood of Christ has brought those who were far off near and in the gospel God has made two into one (Ephesians 2:13-14). Towards the close of her article, Wendy writes, “I just want you to feel free to live in such a way that daily you find yourself being pulled into an embrace by God, that you find yourself so close to him surgeons would have a hard time cutting you apart.” Once again, the picture painted is evocative, a great thing to pray for others – indeed, Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) – “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13), “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially those who are of the household of God” (6:10). It is a grave mistakes to detach individual salvation from God’s work in the world, reducing it to something private and unrelated to God’s people. And I hope to convince you of that below.

1. God saves us to belong to a local church

Agape feastPeter writes, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, ‘As we come to Christ we are built together as living stones into a spiritual house,’ with the language of priesthood (2:5, 9) being implicit of ministering to each other. Mark Dever, who has written extensively on the church, argues this point convincingly in What is a Healthy Church?, “Never does the New Testament conceive of the Christian existing on a prolonged basis outside the fellowship of the church.” Dever adds, drawing on Ephesians 2:11-22, that being committed to a local body is the most natural outcome of being a Christian because it confirms what Christ has done. I would add that committing to the lives of other Christians is also indicative of how Christ has treated us. Dever claims, with even more force, that in respecting the New Testament it is impossible to answer the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ without ending up in a conversation about the church. The pattern reflected in Scripture is of God drawing people to himself and in doing so establishing new and unlooked for relationships amongst his people. This result is not arbitrary, but purposed by God so that we will minister to each other and receive the ministry of others. Without other Christians in your life, many whom who would not have chosen, but God has, you will bury the gifts (or “talents”, Matthew 25:28) that God has given you and cut yourself off from the abundant blessings of belonging to a local church.

2. Christians need the church

In his short, must read, The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller writes, “Many people who are spiritually searching have had bad experiences with churches. So they want nothing further to do with them. They are interested in a relationship with God, but not if they have to be part of an organization.” He admits that churches can be unpleasant – indeed essential to his work is the critique of judgmental, inhospitable, and self-righteous Christians, or “elder brothers” – but Keller firmly states, “There is no way you will be able to grow spiritually apart from a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place…Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.” Not only is the Christian life incomplete without the community of a local church, it is also dangerously lacking in accountability, loving correction, and challenging aspects of our faith raised by those who are different to us. I am sure that Gentile Christians were tempted to quit the predominantly Jewish churches of the 1st century, yet Paul wrote, ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, a holy temple’ (Ephesians 2:19-21). Whichever analogy from the New Testament you favour regarding the church – from body to family to building – God unequivocally states that we are joined together as local churches, and that our growth and faith will be stunted outside of the church.

3. The church needs Christians

CCUOne of the grey tops in my church recently said to me, ‘If everyone came forward with their gifts in local church we would have all we need.’ Now, you may partly disagree with that wise saint, and I am not sure the church will be fully functioning and healthy this side of heaven, but her point is worth considering. In Ephesians 4:11-12, we read that God gifts the local church with speaking and teaching offices so that the whole church is equipped for ministry, to serve each other. When I decide that I can no longer be part of a local church for fear of not fitting in or further hurt I make the conscious decision to withhold my gifts, ministry and service from other Christians; basically, I am putting my comfort ahead of others. This seems contrary to the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Commenting on both the Pauline epistles and Hebrews (see 3:12-15; 10:24-25), David Peterson writes in Engaging God, “There is an emphasis on gathering for the benefit of the believing community…The giving and receiving of exhortation is undoubtedly a key factor…of the Christian assembly.” He goes on to argue the obvious: we cannot forsake the local gathering of believers, as many professing Christians do. Christians exist for the benefit of other Christians and the growth of the local church. Peterson then concludes, “Christians ought to gather together regularly to give in ministry, and not simply to receive.” Those cruising as comfortable passengers within the church along with those who have already jumped ship need to be reminded that the church needs them and their service if it is to make headway.

Conclusion

Presbyterian pastor, Philip Ryken asks in The Church, “How could anyone be ambivalent about the church? Its sin notwithstanding, and in spite of all the people we find hard to love, the church is the holy people of God.” Surely there is nothing more important for us to give ourselves in service of, even in suffering for, than the church that Christ purchased with his own blood. Our decision to belong to a local church cannot be dependant on what it does for us and how safe we feel, rather we should model our lives on Christ who made himself nothing and became a servant (Philippians 2:6-8). Self-preservation over the wellbeing of the local church is not how Jesus lived, in fact the cross demonstrates the polar opposite, therefore it is not something I imagine he would endorse.

Doodle: Blogs, Theology, and Woolworths

Woolworths FoodThere are hundreds of thousands of Christian blogs out there, reflecting the wonderfully broad spectrum of our faith; you are reading one of those right now. With the advent of the digital age more Christians from across the globe are able to share the truth in love, engage in meaningful conversation, pursue theological enquiry to the praise of our God, and encourage one another to persevere – well, that is at least how Christian blogging could be done. But with the overwhelming number of options available where should we start, which blogs should you frequent (apart from Rekindle)?

Before answering that question I would like to speak about Woolworths, with the hope that its significance to our question above will become apparent. Woolworths Food has revolutionised the middle class South African’s kitchen, mostly in demanding more fridge/freezer storage and less counter space for preparation; “Eat in for under R150,” “Heat and eat in less than 20 minutes,” and “Organic” cry out from the aisles of our local Woolies, adulating their lord and ours: convenience. As you can tell, I have enjoyed my fare share of Woolworths’ food and will unashamedly continue to do so. But it is undeniable that convenience has supplanted cooking, and by cooking I mean more than heating the oven to 180˚C while you defrost a readymade lasagne in the sink. Preparing meals from recipes and working with raw ingredients is a dying art in many homes, though my numerous attempts at actually cooking – with varied degrees of success – have nearly always resulted in something tastier than what I get out of a container. And though we hate to admit it, we know that culinary effort does not only produce better meals but much healthier dishes too.

ReadingBut what does that have to do with blog posts, or theology for that matter? Am I going to answer the question from our first paragraph, listing recommended theological blogs? No. I want to make another point: blogs are indicative of our bondage to convenience and resistance to putting the time or energy into thinking about theology. What you can find on blogs, is not that dissimilar from the aisles of Woolworths: already packed and par-cooked thoughts; microwavable musings; and Calvin’s entire theology in 5 simple points. Do not mishear me. Please keep reading Christian blogs (especially Rekindle). But do not leave all of your engagement and interaction with deep, rich theology to someone else that will neatly pack it for you online, replete with eye-catching images. Do some hard work, delve into doctrinal ideas, tackle theological tomes, and invest intellectually in reaching your own conclusions. Sure, sometimes you will have to grab something off the shelf and gobble it down. But that cannot be your staple: it is unhealthy, lazy, and the opposite of thoughtful Christian discipline.

Christ’s Temptation and Our Own

Jesus IconI recently posted on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew’s Gospel and argued that the event showed Satan offering Jesus means other than the cross of becoming the Messiah; signified Jesus’ overthrow of Satan; and I suggested that each temptation is developed in the rest of Gospel. I concluded that post by reminding the reader that it was both Jesus’ loving submission to the Father and self-sacrificial love for us that braced him for his messianic role. In this short post I will unpack what the temptation teaches us about Christ and the challenge it issues to us.

When I preached Matthew 4:1-11 I said that Jesus’ temptation reveals Jesus’ struggle with his mission, which was a tremendous burden. However you read Hebrews 5:7-9 one thing is certain: Jesus’ obedience to God the Father was difficult. However when Jesus was tempted by Satan, experiencing in himself our human weakness, he was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was unswervingly committed to his task, thus he trusted his Father and gave himself up for us. To borrow an analogy from John Owen’s On Temptation: temptation pierces a vessel revealing what is within. When Jesus is tempted we are given a window into his character and what we see there is steadfast love, for his Father and those he came to save.

ScalpelWe are no different, for temptation peels back our pious masks and pretensions. Owen wrote, “Temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man; it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.” He understood that the nature of temptation is to expose our hearts and added, “[Temptation shows] man what is in him–that is, the man himself.” When Jesus was tempted he rose above it for he was devoted to God the Father. However, what temptation more often than not reveals in the Christian is a lack of commitment to God. We know from Scripture that God sometimes tempts in order to test our faith and that “temptation may proceed either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them”. But regardless of its source – and I would encourage investigating Owen’s different categories, also see James’ differentiation between internal and external temptation – when we are enticed by evil our hearts are exposed. Jesus’ temptation reveals his deliberate and devoted commitment to God. When we are tempted, what is revealed?

I will conclude with two practical points for when we are tempted. Firstly, we must rely on God’s grace to forgive and strengthen us. Owen writes, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength,” but when we feel like giving in to temptation we are reminded of our need for Christ’s blood and the Spirit’s empowerment. As N. T. Wright says, in The Lord and His Prayer, alluding to Matthew 12, “Invoke the name of the Stronger than the Strong.” The cross has removed our guilt and the Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, when we are tempted, as for when we sin, we need look no further than our gracious God. Secondly, resist temptation, hate sin, submit yourself to God and resist the devil. John Owen has written extensively on the battle with sin, which we make meagre progress in only because we do not actively set about doing it. So when you are tempted, resist what you know will displease your heavenly Father. And let us strive after Jesus’ example, who resisted temptation until the point of death.

Some Dangers of Theological Study

Theological studyI applied myself more than usual, and had an article posted at IX Marks challenging pastors who have a low evaluation of theological study and highlighting the importance of systematic theology for Bible teaching and local church ministry. In this post I want to briefly touch on some dangers inherent to theological study, both at college and in local church. My reason for doing this is balance: I may not undervalue theology, but could find myself at the other pole, where theology is self-indulgent and fails to serve God’s people. Another reason for writing this post is because, as Helmut Thielicke notes in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, love and truth are seldom combined when it comes to academic learning. And this cannot be the case for those who are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

In an old post reviewing my recent reads, I joked that I could be accused of loving books more than people, and I fear the same could sometimes be said about my enjoyment of theological inquiry. Though I do not share his sentiments, Dr Manhattan, from The Watchmen, unwittingly expresses the dangerous lure of theology, “I am tired of Earth, these people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives,” only instead of an ivory tower he retreats to Mars. Theology is an enriching pursuit, which should be undertaken by every Christian, but we must be aware of the ease with which it can become an escape. I cannot deny the pleasure of sitting down with a cup of freshly brewed tea and Herman Bavink’s Reformed Dogmatics, but I can work hard at directing my studies to equip me to better teach and train other Christians. As former Archbishop Michael Ramsey wrote, in The Christian Priest Today, the church’s hold on the faith is dependant on its ministers’ ability to develop their own theology. Christian theology should never be disconnected from life, for it is the means of understanding it.

Theology cannot become a pursuit in itself. In his essay Learning in War-time, C. S. Lewis quotes from the Theologica Germanica, where the anonymous author warns against becoming lovers of knowledge – or our knowing – above the thing (we might add person) known. There are two problems with this; both are incongruent with Christian theology. Firstly, developed and deep studies can puff up, causing pride. There is a tendency amongst the learned to become condescending. This is a travesty, since true theology cannot but create humility as we reflect on our creatureliness, God’s glorious holiness, and gospel of unmerited grace. Secondly, theology can become idolatry if we love our knowing more than what is known, our Lord and God. As Lewis says, the intellectual life is not the only pathway to God, it is a treacherous path beset with dangers to carefully consider. What does it profit a theologian if she authors numerous works, earns a tenured professorship, and is awarded more PhDs than he can fit on her office walls, if she loses her soul?

Dr ManhattanAbove, I mentioned Thielicke’s unassuming but profound book. One of my lecturers at college encouraged us to read and reflect on it annually, and I am grateful for his counsel. In fact, I am tempted to say the book is worth owning for Martin Marty’s introduction alone. In it, he makes a few painfully incisive points about studying theology. He challenges the alienating piety of those who claim to know more than any reasonable finitude allows, and calls out the abstraction and aloofness that characterises many theologians and their relationship with the local church. But, in my opinion, his best point is on the odium theologicum, “The pettiness of little men who care much about big issues.” As I conclude, let us remember that theological study is when little creatures claim to understand an infinite God, let alone big issues. We can barely afford pettiness, must learn humility, and are failing if our knowledge does not move us to worship God and serve his people.

Prayer: Resigned and Stubborn

Matthew 5Writing on prayer is not a task lightly undertaken, mostly because it might give the impression that I believe my own prayer life is impressive or worth imitating. I do not think it is either of those things. But in my own Christian life and meditation on Scripture, I have learnt that our attitude towards prayer should reflect a biblical antinomy, which J. I. Packer defines as an unavoidable and insoluble tension between two undeniable truths. What is this antinomy? It is that God invites us to pray boldly yet in humility, or as my title states, resigned to his sovereignty yet stubbornly imploring him to answer our pleas.

Both of these approaches are present in the book of James. In James 1 we are called to ask God for wisdom so that we might persevere in steadfast faith through trials; there is no promise these will be removed for God uses them to mature us. On the other hand, we are told that our Father is generous (1:5), giving perfect gifts to his children (1:17), so we must ask him without doubting (1:6). We might contrast the two biblical characters employed by James to further his point: firstly, James tells those who suffer to imitate Job, remembering that the Lord is compassionate and merciful even when we are enduring testing and hardship (5:11); secondly, Elijah is presented in relation to prayer for he fervently prayed against rain for over 3 years and then God watered the earth when Elijah prayed for the draught to end (5:17-18). Below I will explore these two biblical attitudes towards prayer.

Prayer should be resigned
Book of JamesSt Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk from the 12th century, has written a short devotional work titled, The Steps of Humility and Pride. Naturally, the discipline of prayer can be found under the subsection on humility. He says the Christian is called to a “spirit of obedience”, patiently enduring hardship and discerning God’s will. Citing John 2, when Mary informs Jesus that the wine is finished, Bernard points to Mary’s approach, which demonstrates devout humility in seeking Jesus’ will rather than the testing his power. Now you may or may not agree with Bernard’s exegesis, but in the same section he writes this: “We prefer to wait patiently for his will rather than daringly to demand what may not be his pleasure to give. In the end our modesty may perhaps gain for us immeasurably more than we deserve.” There is great wisdom that ought to be heeded in Bernard’s writing, for God gives according to his pleasure and will, not ours. Therefore, our prayers must be humbly resigned as hearts full of faith rest in their Father who knows infinitely better than his children.

Prayer should be stubborn
There are numerous places in Scripture where bold and persistent prayer is mentioned (Luke 11:8; Acts 12:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:16), but let us turn again to James “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). One of the problems experienced in the church James wrote to was what Motyer calls “the deadly sin of inconsistency”. This was manifest throughout their lives as the letter attests but specifically, for our purposes, affected their prayer lives. Earlier James says Christians must approach God in faith, without doubting or double-mindedness (1:5-8). When they brought their requests before God they were to do so in confidence, assured that their God is powerfully present and attentive to their needs. Expectant petition can appear impious, but as D. A. Carson reminds us, in The Call to Spiritual Reformation: “[It] honours him because he is a God who likes to give his blessings in response to the intercession of his people.” Remember Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through faith’.

Christians, who prayer regularly should struggle with this biblical antinomy, these apparently conflicting attitudes that God expects from us, as we bring our petitions and intercessions to him. However, far from discouraging prayer they should both ease our anxieties embolden our faith.