The Necessity of the Visible Church

Over the past three years I have come to a new appreciation of the objective, external nature of Christianity.  As I have found myself emptied of physical, mental, emotional, and yes, spiritual strength, the glorious reality of the externality of the work of Christ on my behalf, the truly alien righteousness, has paradoxically warmed my subjective experience of Christ in ways never possible before when I sought to create subjective spiritual experiences.  Which is not to say that I count my subjective experiences as of any weight. Similarly, I appreciate the objective, visible, nature of the church more than ever before.

I know that John Williamson Nevin is a little controversial in some circles, but these words from his introductory essay to his book, “The Mystical Presence,” have clarified for me the true nature of the church and the necessity of its external expressions.  These words are an intro for his teaching on the Lord’s Supper, but I find them a fit intro to the nature of the church itself.

The relations of this inquiry to the question concerning the true idea of the Church, will easily be felt by every well-informed and reflecting mind.  If the fact of the incarnation be indeed the principle and source of a new supernatural order of life for humanity itself, the Church, of course, is no abstraction.  It must be a true, living, divine-human constitution in the world; strictly organic in its nature – not a device or contrivance ingeniously fitted to serve certain purposes beyond itself – but the necessary, essential form of Christianity, in whose presence only it is possible to conceive intelligently of piety in its individual manifestations.  The life of the single Christian can be real and healthful only as it is born from the general life of the Church, and carried by it onward to the end.  We are Christians singly, by partaking (having part) general life-revelation, which is already at hand organically in the Church, the living and life-giving body of Jesus Christ.  As thus real and organic, moreover, Christianity must be historical.  No higher wrong can be done to it than to call in question its true historical character; for this is, in fact, to turn it into a phantasm, and to overthrow the solid fact-basis on which its foundations eternally rest. It must be historical, too, under the form of the Church; for the realness of Christianity demands indispensably the general life of Christ, flowing with unbroken continuity from the beginning as the medium of all particular union with him from age to age.  Then, again, the historical Church must be visible, or in other words, not merely ideal, but actual.  The actual may indeed fall short immeasurably of the idea it represents; the visible Church may be imperfect, corrupt, false to its own conception and calling, but still an actual, continuously visible Church there must always be in the world, if Christianity is to have either truth or reality in the form of a new creation.  A purely invisible Church has been well denominated a contradictio in adjecto; since the very idea of a Church implies the manifestation of the religious life, as something social and common.

The whole conception that the externalization of the Christian life is something accidentally only to the constitution of this life itself – a sort of mechanical machinery, to help it forward in an outward way – is exceedingly derogatory to the Church, and injurious to its bearings on religion.  An outward Church is the necessary form of the new creation in Christ Jesus, in its very nature, and must continue to be so, not only through all time, but through all eternity likewise.  Outward social worship, which implies, of course, forms for the purpose, is to be regarded as something essential  to piety itself.  A religion without externals, must ever be fantastic and false.  The simple utterance of religious feeling, by which the spirit takes outward form, is needed, not for something beyond itself, but for the perfection of the feeling itself.  Forms, in this sense, not as sundered from the inward life, of course, but as embracing it, enter as a constituent element into the very life of Christianity.  As a real, human, historical constitution in the world, the outward and inward in the Church can never be divorced, without peril to all that is most precious in the Christian faith.  We have no right to set the inward in opposition to the outward, the spiritual in opposition to the corporeal, in religion.  The incarnation of the Son of God, as it is the principle, forms also the true measure and test, of all sound Christianity, in this view.  To be real, the human, as such, and of course the divine also in human form, must ever externalize its inward life.  All thought, all feeling, every spiritual state, must take body, (in the way of word, or outward form of some sort,) in order to come at all to any true perfection in itself.  This is the proper, deep sense of all liturgical services in religion.  The necessity here affirmed is universal.  The more intensely spiritual any state may be, the more irresistibly urgent will ever be found its tendency to clothe itself, and make itself complete, in a suitable external form.  Away with the imagination, then, that externals in Christianity, (including the conception of the visible Church itself,) are something accidental only to its true constitution, a cunningly framed device merely for advancing some interest foreign from themselves.  To think of the Church, and of Christian worship, as means simply to something else, is to dishonour religion in the most serious manner.

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There is no Quality in My Heart, Only Christ

Here’s a great quote to consider regarding the affections of your heart:

“I have grown use to giving up on the idea that there is any quality in my heart at all, call it either faith or love. In their place I put Christ and say: ‘He is my Righteousness’ “ (St. L. XXI a:1669).

Hat Tip – Paul McCain, the Daily Luther quote at Cyberbrethren, for May 3, 2012

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A Defense of Edwards on a Mark of Regeneration

Just to show that I am not an Edwards-hater (though I may still have more to say about his view on the affections) I came across something today that defends him against what I would call a pernicious error.

Have any of you heard a contemporary Edwards follower say something to the effect that one way to know you are saved is that you would be willing to be damned if it be God’s sovereign will? I have been told such people are out there.  Here’s the quote:

Samuel Hopkins laid even greater stress than Edwards on the theorem that virtue consists in disinterested benevolence; but he went counter to Edwards in holding that unconditional resignation to God’s decrees, or more concretely, willingness to be damned for the glory of God, was the test of true regeneration; for Edwards, though often quoted as holding this doctrine, protested against it in the strongest terms.

So apparently it’s Hopkins, not Edwards who taught that.  More importantly, what do you think?  Is Hopkins right?  Indeed, if you read Edwards conversion narrative it seems that in his own experience, acceptance of divine sovereignty was a necessary precursor to his personal experience of saving faith.  Could it be that Hopkins jump from the conversion narrative to more speculative thoughts.  Not saying that I know of any connection there because I know nothing of Hopkins but I can see someone taking a logical leap from Edwards conversion experience and coming to believe that he believed that belief in a Calvinistic view of divine sovereignty is a necessary precursor or at least concomitant of true saving faith.  Maybe these folks haven’t given proper weight to a more mature Edwards.

For me, I find the Hopkins view deplorable, contingent on one variable.  If I believe in Jesus Christ and Him alone as the savior of sinners and my savior, then based on the word of God, I have every right to expect to go to heaven, not based on my own wish fulfillment but the promise of God.  To say otherwise is to make God arbitrary and a liar.

Now, I suppose there is one more way for someone who holds the Hopkins view to argue the point.  Suppose I die and go to heaven and found out I had a spurious faith, that my belief was like the belief of one of the devils?  Would I be content to to be damned if God determined my faith was spurious.  I suppose if God finds my faith spurious then I have no argument, but think of the consequences of this view.

But to entertain such an idea would seem to me to lead to nothing but skepticism when it comes to faith.  How can anyone ever know they are saved?  Now, revelation becomes an incoherent sham.  The bible reveals how to be saved, the Scripture is perspicuous, or clear, it tells us the truth about how to be saved.  We don’t believe in the power of our faith to save us, we believe in Christ.  How can one who believes in Christ doubt His power to save.  Doubt myself – sure, all the time, doubt Him – no, never!!

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Wrestling with Edwards

At the risk of stirring up controversy I wanted to share a few private thoughts I have had over the last few years dealing with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.  The proper caveats are in order here.  I know I am out of my league disagreeing with him and he has done far more in the kingdom than a thousand guys like me.  Still, I have come to find his overall theological project of the religious affections difficult, and I thought I would vent and open up to some constructive feedback.

When Edwards says that true religion consists largely in the affections I worry that he is causing us to look inward rather than outward to Christ for our assurance.  In my own mind, Luther is an effective sparring partner here with Edwards because Luther was constantly reminding us to look outside of ourselves to Christ, for everything.

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A Penny for Your Thoughts on Medicinal Marijuana

How’s that folks.  I haven’t blogged consistently in years, now I’ve got two posts in one week and this one is on a topic from left field, or some far off field.

My interest in the question is that I was interviewed by a young man today who is doing a senior project on the use of medicinal marijuana.  He wanted my opinion because I am a pastor and a cancer patient, so he figured I could bring in two perspectives.

I am afraid that I was less than helpful to him because I have not been confronted with this in my ministry nor have I ever considered it or been offered it during my cancer treatment – its not legal in Maryland.

It occurred to me as I talked with the young man that the issue becomes very complicated very quickly.  Almost any argument I could come up with against medical marijuana could be used against most any kind of painkiller.  Things like addiction, being a gateway to other things, etc. are all true of the regular painkillers that are given.

One thing I brought up that I believe has merit is whether or not this is necessary given the many different painkillers already on the market.  Can marijuana provide pain relief you can’t get from something else?  Why bother trying to legalize something that is not necessary, unless there is some clear benefit over what is available now.  Again, I realize that this kind of argument is not definitive, why market oxycontin when vicodin is available?  Why turn to any kind of narcotic given their addictive nature?

The last question this young man asked me is “should Christians even be involved in this discussion?”  He said that he has had some resistance to even talking about such things in Christian circles.  I suppose that marijuana is a street drug that is illegal and has been shown to be harmful, so case closed, nothing more needs to be said.

My response is that Christians absolutely need to be talking about this – its one of those issues much like issues raised by technology and bioethics that, if there is no Christian voice raised, Christians may be soon facing a world that we are incapable of responding effectively to from an ethical standpoint.

So, a penny for your thoughts anyone?  Does anyone know of any resources on this?  BTW – I’m not interested for now in political arguments about this I’m strictly concerned with medicinal marijuana as a painkiller.  I know that Ron Paul and the Libertarians advocate the legalization of marijuana for other reasons, but it would be more helpful at the moment to get feedback strictly on the medical pros and cons.   Thanks for any help you can give.

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Hello Old Friends

A friend of mine called me today wanting some help with a blog she is working on and I wasn’t much help.  But it occurred to me that it might be therapeutic for me to blog a little here.  

I have been on a self-imposed blog and Facebook silence for some time now.  The main reason being that life is a struggle and I just didn’t want to keep writing the same woe-is-me posts over and over again.  Plus, my niche has been theology and there are more than enough theology bloggers out there.  And I don’t want to get back into old habits where I am trying to become a big blogger chasing ever increasing numbers. 

Still, this has probably been a negative because I have withdrawn into myself, so I thought I would just peek my head out and say hi for now.  Thanks as always to all of you who pray for me.  My recent reports are good physically, my mental and emotional health are so-so.  So, pray for me and my wife that we would be encouraged as she is feeling some of this too. 

Also, please pray that God would restore unto us the joy of our salvation.  I know God is with us, but it often doesn’t feel that way as I am going through chemo.  That’s the only real difficult thing now – though my health is probably improving I’m still on chemo and after 3 years of this I’m pretty weary.  So that’s where I could use your prayers. 

In the meantime, here’s a couple of links I came across I thought I’d share.  Doug Groothius, of Constructive Curmudgeon and teaching and publishing fame has a blog called Chronic Illness and the Christian Faith.  It has been a tremendous help to me and I recommend it as it gives a perspective on the many people who cross our paths who are suffering what he calls “invisible illnessses.”  These are people who “look good,” and whom the rest of us don’t know how to handle. 

And Doug pointed me to the website “Where is God,” which deals with the same thing. 

So, cheers to everyone, if anyone is still reading I’ll look forward to connecting with you again. 

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Thank You

Well, here I am, unable to sleep at 3:34am Wednesday morning.  What better time to break my blog silence.

I know that in my last post I said I would be blogging more now – so much for good intentions.  I think my problem over this time is a few parts misery from chemo, a few more parts self-pity, and a heaping helping of there’s-already-too-much-being-written-these-days-to-add-one-more-voice-to-the-cacophany.

But, a sleepless night is a good time for a little therapeutic blogging and let me just say by way of update that I find myself strangely at peace with the world this evening.  I say “strangely” because I have not been at peace, I have tried to play the good soldier in my battle with cancer, but have secretly nursed a grudge at God and felt that He had given me the short end of the stick.

But two articles over the last several months may have set the tone for the rest of my life. The first is by Carl Trueman, titled, An Unmessianic Sense of Non-Destiny. He writes:

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