On This Rock (Christ Shaped Church Part II)

The Church

The church is central in the Bible. Most of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches and the parts that aren’t either tell the story of the church, lay its foundation, or predict its future. Even in the Old Testament, there is a way to understand Israel as God’s church in the world. From beginning to end the Bible is a thoroughly church-centered book, which means the Christian life is a thoroughly church-centered life.

This truth is often misunderstood. I am not arguing for some sort of ecclesiastical formalism, or depreciating the individual Christian life. I am also not defending everything that can be or has been done in the name of the church. Sadly, there are plenty of true stories of ecclesiastical abuse and unfaithfulness, but my plea is this: don’t give up on the church. Don’t lose hope in something that Jesus loves. The promise of the church endures, because Jesus guarantees the promise.

This series is a study of 1 Peter 1:22-2:10. Any number of passages would serve as excellent studies of the church, but there is something poetic about studying Peter’s writings. It was Peter, after all, to whom Jesus made the statement in Matthew 16:18:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

1 Peter 1:22-2:10 is a deeply rich section of Scripture concerning the local church. Several themes coexist and intertwine with one another in such a way that a quick reading risks missing the thrust of the whole. The passage begins with community (love one another earnestly, 1:22) and ends with community (Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, 2:10). The heart of the passage is about community as well (As you come to him… you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, 2:4-5a).

Here’s the key theme of this entire series: The only answer to our longing to belong is found in Christ’s Christ-shaped community: the church. Our goal in the next article will be to give that phrase meaning.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

Longing to Belong (Christ Shaped Church Part 1)

The Church

Have you ever been in a place and among a people where you truly felt that you belonged? Can think back to a precious family memory, maybe a Christmas morning or a Thanksgiving meal? Have you experienced that deep sense of belonging through sports, finding it in the camaraderie of mutual victory (or common defeat)? Has there been a particular groups of friends that know you inside out, that laugh at all the same jokes and cry at all the same stories?

On the flipside, have you ever felt deeply and desperately alone? I think we often miss the point of loneliness. Real loneliness isn’t utter solitude. It’s not found on a two-week hike in a remote mountain range. It’s not hidden on the dark side of the moon. It’s not even a rainy afternoon without reliable wifi. The loneliest place in the world is actually a crowded room, when you believe you don’t belong. There is no isolation deeper than having community all around you and still feeling like you’re on the outside looking in.

The Inconsolable Secret

The Christian Philosopher C. S. Lewis captured something universal in his essay The Weight of Glory:

The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality is part of our inconsolable secret.[1]

Lewis touches upon a common reality, what he calls our inconsolable secret, the shared fact we all desperately want to have a place we fit in and belong. Communally, we long for community. The human heart is like a puzzle piece that will never be complete on it’s own, one that can be quite easily damaged by trying to force itself where it doesn’t really belong. The phenomena we call nostalgia testifies to the truth that we all, deep down, just want to go home.

There are millions of false or halfway answers to our longing to belong. There are crowds upon crowds that we can join to try and quench our inconsolable secret, but they never work because what we are really seeking is not a crowd, but a community. There’s a very important difference between those two things.

A crowd is a place to get lost in; a community is a place to be found.

A crowd is a place to visit; a community is a place to come home.

A crowd a place to be a stranger; a community is a place to be family

Christ Shaped Church  

The only full solution to our longing to belong is found in the Christ-shaped community of the church. That is an audacious claim, but a congregation is called to be a community that believes it and lives it out. When it does, even this audacious claim can come marvelously true, but only insofar as the unity and core of the local church is Christ himself. That is what sets the church apart from any other gathering on earth – only the church has the personal promise of Christ that he will be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)

God’s mission for the world is bound up in his people, and he binds his people together in the church. In articles to come, we will explore the ways that Jesus’ presence reshapes his people into his own image on earth. In so doing, we will encounter the answer to our inconsolable secret, and finally fulfill our longing to belong.

(by: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory, available for free online at http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf

Finally Blameless: Thomas Brooks on the Christian’s Final Judgment

Christian Living, Church History, Devotional, The Gospel, Theology

It’s a foundational tenet of Christianity that all people are destined for a final judgment at the end of this age. Gospel hope hinges on this fact: those in Christ will pass that judgment and be found fit for heaven. The reason for this is the gospel itself, the spiritual reality that Christ satisfied the curse on his people’s behalf when he was crucified on the cross, and furthermore, that his righteousness is imputed to them as a free gift by faith. On the basis of this gloriously good news, a Christian knows that his final judgment day need not be a terror, it is the day when God will fulfill all the final promises of the gospel. This is Christianity 101 (which is typically the most important part).

Yet there is a question related to this final judgment that Christians sometimes ponder without full clarity. The question is this: on the final day of judgment, although we know that all who are in Christ will be found in the final analysis to be cleansed of sin, covered by Christ’s righteousness, and thus be blameless in the sight of God; in the process of that verdict being rendered, will a Christian’s sins, both before and after conversion, be publically made known to all creation?

In my ministry as a pastor, I’ve been asked this question more than once. Sometimes the person is asking because of a guilty conscience from hidden sin, and so the best answer is to examine the call to mortify sin in our lives. Gospel promises can never be biblically used as a cover for unrighteousness (see Romans 6:1).

But other times, the question is being asked because even in a regenerate mind, the staggering reality of the grace of God can be hard to believe.

How forgiven are we, really?

How thorough is salvation?

How complete is my justification?

In other words, does the gospel really clean my record out completely, or are there still indictments that remain? Luther was right when he said the Christian is simultaneously righteous and a sinner, but do we sometimes so emphasize the latter half of that maxim that we miss the full grace of the former?

In my life as a Christian, I’ve asked these questions in my own heart. Since you’re reading this article, I assume you’ve asked them too, or that if you haven’t, they have at least piqued your interest enough in this article that you’re still here reading. You are, after all, still reading.

We’re not the first ones to ponder this. Thomas Brooks, a Puritan author and pastor of the seventeenth-century, addressed this question directly. Brooks wrote:

But here an apt question may be moved… Whether at this great day [the final judgment at the end of the age], the sins of the saints shall be brought into the judgment of discussion and discovery, or no? Whether the Lord will in this day publically manifest, proclaim, and make mention of the sins of his people, or no?[1]

Let’s look at how Thomas Brooks answered the question. Although the following thoughts belong to Brooks, I have updated the language, condensed the content, and edited for modern readability.[2]

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I humbly judge, according to my present light, that he will not; for the four following reasons:

  1. From the description of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46

This first reason is drawn from the Christ’s judicial proceedings in the last day, as they are described so clearly in Matthew 25. There Christ brings to light only the good works his sheep have done, but takes no notice of their spots and blots, their stains and blemishes, nor the infirmities and weaknesses and wickedness of his people (Duet. 32:4-6).

  1. From Christ’s vehement objection that any of his people should ever come into judgment

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)[3]

Notice that none of the gospel writers use this expression truly, truly, except for John, and he never uses it unless it is a matter of great weight and importance. He uses it to show how earnestly his spirit yearns for the thing said, and to grab our attention, and to put the thing said beyond all question and all contradiction. He is saying that it is absolutely out of the question that true believers will come into judgment, truly, truly it shall not be!

  1. Because not exposing our sins is most in keeping with the many precious expressions that we find scattered like shining and sparkling pearls throughout all Scripture

These glorious passages are of seven main types:

(1) Those passages which speak of God blotting out the sins of his people

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

Who is this that blots out transgressions? It is the one who has the keys of heaven and hell on his belt, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens; it is the one who has the power of death and life, of condemning and absolving, of killing and making alive – this is the one who blots out transgressions. If some servant blotted out an indictment, that may do a little good; but when the king and judge himself blots out the indictment with his own hand the indictment is gone forever. This is the reality and joy of every believer.

(2) Those passages which gloriously assert that God remembers our sins no more

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

By this God means that our sins will be completely forgiven, never again mentioned, never taken notice of, and not mentioned ever again. God has a memory of iron and never forgets the sins of the wicked; yet he promises to never remember the sins of the righteous.

(3) Those passages which speak of our sins being cast into the depths of the sea and behind the back of God

He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

When sin is pardoned, the remission can never be repealed. Pardoned sins can never be brought before God against a pardoned man ever again; this is what these figures of speech are meant to teach. If our sins were cast into a river, they could perhaps be brought back. If they were cast upon the sea, they might be found in the drift and brought back to land. But when they are cast into the very depths, to the very bottom of the sea, they shall never again float back up to the surface.

In this metaphor the Lord is teaching us that pardoned sins shall rise no more, they shall be seen no more, they shall never count again; indeed, God will drown them so deep even he will not see them a second time.

Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. (Isaiah 38:17)

This last phrase is again a figure of speech, borrowed from the way that men cast behind their backs things they do not care to see, regard, or remember. Although our own sins are ever before our face, the Lord casts them behind his back. An earthly father soon forgets and casts behind his back the sins that his child keenly remembers. So too it is with our Heavenly Father.

(4) Those passage which sweetly speak of God pardoning the sins of his people

I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. (Jeremiah 33:8)

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. (Micah 7:18)

The Hebrew word here translated pardon means a taking away. When God pardons sin he takes it completely away: even if you search for it, you wont find it.

In those days and in that time, declares the Lord, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant. (Jeremiah 50:20)

As Micah said above, God passes over the sin of his people. Like a man deep in thought, or a busy man caught up in business doesn’t notice what’s right in front of him; like David didn’t notice Mephibosheth’s physical defects because he saw so much of his dear friend Jonathon in him; so too God beholds in his people the glorious image of his Son, and takes no notice of all our faults and failures. This is what enabled Luther to say, “Do with me what you will, since you have pardoned my sin.”

And what is it to pardon sin, but not to mention it?

(5) Those expressions of forgiving and covering

The blessing of Psalm 32:1 (Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sins is covered) is, in the original Hebrew, in the plural: blessednesses. It is a plurality of blessings, a chain of pearls. A similar statement in made in Psalm 85:2, again using the metaphor of covering.

Covering is the opposite of disclosing. That which is covered is hidden. This metaphor is all around us: the dead are covered up in the ground, clothes cover up our bodies, The Egyptians were covered over by the Red Sea, a great cleft in the earth is filled up and covered over with dirt, the mercy seat as well was presided over by a symbolic covering. All these metaphors show the same essential truth: the Lord will not look, he will not see, he will not notice the sins he has pardoned; he will never again bring them to his judgment seat.

Like a rebel pardoned by a gracious prince, the pardoned person will never hear of and never have to give account for his sins, ever again. When Caesar was painted he would conceal his scars and blemishes by covering them up with his hands. God puts his hands over all his people’s scars and blemishes; all that remains is what is good and lovely.

(6) Those expressions of not imputing sin

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2, see also Romans 4:6-8)

To not impute iniquity is to not charge it against a person, to not credit it to them. This is the precise blessing of pardon: that I will not have my sins brought against me.

(7) That particular promise of Psalm 103

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:11-12)

What a vast distance there is between east and west!

These seven categories of precious promises form the third reason that God will never again bring our sins against us in judgment.

  1. Because Christ exposing our sins seems out of place on that great day, for three reasons.

(1) It seems out of place, given the great glory and solemnity of the day, which for God’s people will be a day of refreshing, a day of restitution, a day of redemption, a day of coronation, as we have already seen. Now, how suitable to this great day of solemnity the exposure of the sins of all the saints would be, I leave the reader to judge.

(2) It seems out of place, given the relationship of Jesus Christ to his people. He is their father, brother, head, husband, friend, and advocate. Now, are not all these relations bound rather to hide and conceal the weakness of their loved ones, at least from the world at large? And is not Christ so much more? He is more a father, brother and friend to us in his spiritual love than the best of all human relationships.

(3) It seems out of place, given what the Lord himself requires of us in this world. The Lord requires that his people cast a covering of love, wisdom, and silence over one another’s weaknesses.

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. (Proverbs 10:12, 1 Peter 4:8)

Love’s covering is very large; love finds a bandage for every wound.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:5)

Would Jesus Christ have us to act toward one another in one way, while he acts in a completely different manner? If it is an evil to expose the weakness and faults of saints in the world, how could it be a glory and virtue for Christ to do the same on the final day of this age?

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Brooks goes on to briefly discuss the glory of passing over a transgression, and then ends his answer with this concluding paragraph, which is presented here without major editing or updating of the original style:

The heathens have long since observed, that in nothing man came nearer to the glory and perfection of God himself, than in goodness and clemency. Surely if it be an honor to man, ‘to pass over a transgression,’ it cannot be a dishonor to Christ to pass over the transgressions of his people, he having already buried them in the sea of his blood. Again, saith Solomon, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing,’ (Proverbs 25:2). And why it should not make for the glory of divine love to conceal the sins of the saints in that great day, I know not; and whether the concealing the sins of the saints in that great day will not make most for their joy, and wicked men’s sorrow, for their comfort and wicked men’s terror and torment, I will leave you to judge, and time and experience to decide. And this much for the resolution of that great question.

As Thomas Brooks writes, it is for you the reader to judge his view of the final judgment. Is it biblical or not? If you answer no, at least take care upon what grounds you reject it. Never settle for a shallow view of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. The sea of his blood is deep indeed. The cross is bloody and the tomb is empty. The Christian’s final hope is to be finally blameless in Christ, to his gracious glory, and by his glorious grace.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Thomas Brooks, The Works of Thomas Brooks, 220.

[2] The full original can be read on pages 220-24 in the Banner of Truth’s The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 1.

[3] All Scripture references have been updated to the English Standard Version.

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Why I Love Old Books

Caveat Lector

One of the reasons I love old books is discovering the long-forgotten things that someone tucked away in their pages for safe keeping. No matter how old we become, there remains a feeling of unearthed treasure when you discover such relics. Call it lexical serendipity.

That’s why I enjoy old books with writing in them. Sometimes the thoughts that a person scribbled in the margin are a window into a stranger’s reaction to the text; sometimes an unannotated underlining leaves you guessing what the words meant to them. Always, notes in old books make reading a communal affair. No longer is it just me and my page, there is now a third party on the line. Or, perhaps I’m the one intruding on their conversation.

Probably the best inscription in any of my old books is the personal typed note from a son to his father, taped into the cover of my copy of Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians:

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Immediately, there is real kinship with Clyde through our common esteem for the great Reformer, and for his continent-shaking Doctrine.

Furthermore, the fact that the typed card is simply corrected by hand and pasted in without further revision is a small glimpse into an age before spell-check, before home-printers, and before such errors necessitated scrapping the note and starting again. The grave warning to not let anyone get away with this book conjures images of a masked book-bandito making off with copies of Calvin and Knox, even while the necessity of those words also reminds us of the scarcity of such works in an age before it took 0.004 seconds to download Luther’s Commentaries from any number of public domain websites. With that scarcity most likely came a much greater sense of value. I’d wager anything those old codices were read more often than their digital descendants. 

Yet the note is also unsettling.

Why the urgency of his request to his Father–I want you to read it. 

What untold stories lie behind that line?

Did the Father finish it before August 10, 1948?

What came of the revival at Bradshaw?

Our stories taped in books, still being told long after we’ve forgotten them.

Simple things to ponder on a breezy day, a day before Thanksgiving spent with loved ones.

Caveat Lector • 8/19/2015

Caveat Lector

[By: Nicolas Alford]

In the past I’ve used the “caveat lector” category to signal a slightly off-beat Decablog post, or a clumsy attempt at humor. Today I’m resurrecting the tag and starting what will be something of a regular column out of it. How regular? I have a plan in mind–but it’s secret. Basically, I don’t want to be held to it if I don’t keep up. How’s that for transparent opacity?

I intend this to be an outlet for occasional riffing on current events, shorter blurbs, and highlighting helpful links.

And so, into the breach.
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While John Oliver’s devastating takedown of the Prosperity Gospel is pretty vulgar (I guess he only had the Sesame Street video for the letter “F”), he is spot on. Two things are especially tragic: that hurting people are preyed on by these jackals and that their shenanigans make such a mockery of the Biblical gospel. The church must be clear in denouncing such heresy, or the comedians of the culture will do it for us.
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The press release put out from a recently hacked website that coordinates clandestine affairs for married people is a fascinating study in a convoluted worldview. The gist of the story is that hackers have stolen the user data of some tens of millions Ashley Madison.com customers–names, home addresses, credit card numbers, etc–and posted it all online to the delight of identity thieves everywhere and the dismay of tens of millions of betrayed spouses.

Important caveat: stealing personal data and using it either to shame or to steal from private parties is difficult to defend even in these shameful circumstances. But the fascinating part of this is the way that the company has chosen to not only condemn the theft, but to astonishingly also attempt to defend the morality of the affairs they facilitate. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

This event is not an act of hacktivism, it is an act of criminality. It is an illegal action against the individual members of AshleyMadison.com, as well as any freethinking people who choose to engage in fully lawful online activities. The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world. We are continuing to fully cooperate with law enforcement to seek to hold the guilty parties accountable to the strictest measures of the law.

Every week sees new hacks disclosed by companies large and small, and though this may now be a new societal reality, it should not lessen our outrage. These are illegitimate acts that have real consequences for innocent citizens who are simply going about their daily lives. Regardless, if it is your private pictures or your personal thoughts that have slipped into public distribution, no one has the right to pilfer and reveal that information to audiences in search of the lurid, the titillating, and the embarrassing.

Note three moral stances taken in this incredible statement.

1. The perpetrator(s) of this hack have no right to act as “moral judge” or “impose a personal notion of virtue on all society.” Notice that not only is the hacked website protesting the criminal act of invading their servers and taking user data, they are protesting the idea that there is anything immoral about the services they provide. So apparently, to think that it is immoral to secretly carry on an affair behind the back of your spouse is to appoint yourself an illegitimate “moral judge.” Honesty with your spouse and fidelity in marriage are merely “personal notions of virtue,” and “personal ideology.”

2. Yet even as they deny the legitimacy of morally condemning people having secret affairs, Ashley Madison.com has no hesitation condemning the hackers in explicitly moral language. Note that the hackers are “thieves” and “guilty parties.” They have no right to “pilfer and reveal” that which others want kept private. Now, the website probably has a point, but the thundering question is, on what possible consistent grounds do you deny the right of others to “impose a personal notion of virtue,” while at the same time decrying that act in the most morally laced language possible?

3. It doesn’t even stop there. There are incredible statements used defending the adulterers who this site caters to. They are actually described as merely “freethinking people,” and–astonishingly– “innocent citizens simply going about their daily lives.” So there you have it: the hackers have no right to impose their morality on Ahsley Madison.com and it’s clientele, Ashley Madison.com has every right to impose their morality on the hackers, and meanwhile, the clientele in question is utterly “innocent.” Never mind, of course, the frank admission that the stolen data most likely contains “the lurid, the titillating, and the embarrassing.” Not exactly the language of innocence.

This is what happens when you cut the societal tether to objective moral absolutes. Behold the worldview of autonomous moral authority. If you think it doesn’t make any sense, that’s because it doesn’t. We’re living in a culture where the only sin is believing that someone else is sinning, expect for when they’re sinning again you, but meanwhile, it’s not sin to provide a website for others to sin against their souses! The whole convoluted mess would be laughable, if it didn’t represent tens of millions of broken hearts and shattered vows.

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If you missed Mark Nenadov’s piece on Elijah Craig, you shouldn’t have.

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Free The Rhino Room!

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Today the seventh Planned Parenthood expose was released. Here’s a thorough roundup from The Gospel Coalition.

Here’s my eleven word commentary:

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Come quickly Lord Jesus.

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That concludes the maiden voyage of Caveat Lector. Until next time,

Grace and Peace.