The Rock Badgers Would Like a Word With Us

“Do you know what would happen if the world suddenly stopped spinning?” I asked my kids during our morning Bible time. My 12-year-old consulted one of her favorite books What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.1 If the earth and all terrestrial objects stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity, almost everyone would die immediately. If you weren’t swept away by the thousand-mile-per-hour winds, you’d certainly be pulverized by the thousand-mile-per-hour impact of all the debris flying about. You would be safe for a time if you were deep underground or in a polar research station (since the strongest winds would be nearest the equator), but not for long. The wind would eventually stop by way of friction with the earth’s surface, but that would heat the air and atomize the surface of the ocean, resulting, among many other phenomena, in massive global thunderstorms. After that, for 6 months one side of the earth would bake in the heat of the sun and the other would freeze since the sun would no longer rise and set once per day, but only once a year. Eventually, the moon would get us spinning again, but “us” would be long gone.

Now that I had their attention, we read Psalm 104–in which we have 35 verses praising the Lord for his power, control, and care over his creation:

“He set the earth on its foundations so that it should never be moved…The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers…You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth…The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it…When you hide your face, they [all creatures] are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground…”

We talked about God’s care for creatures that human beings never see, for the bugs in our backyard, to the undiscovered species at the bottom of the oceans, to the flowers that bloom in mountain valleys where no eye watches, but God’s. I told them, “all creation testifies that God is in control, he is good, and that he rejoices in His own works and glory.”

I told them to look out the window. “See those trees in our backyard? Those really tall ones? They’ve been growing there for over 50 years. And they are speaking to you. They are saying, ‘Look at me! God has watered me, and protected me, and grown me from a tiny acorn! And He is the same God that cares for you.’” Then we saw some squirrels, so I pointed them out and explained, “See those carefree squirrels, jumping around from limb to limb? They have something to tell you. They are saying, ‘Watch us play! God provides. We are free to gather what we need and frolic while we work. He is taking care of us. And he’s taking care of you!’” We found some grass peeking through the snow (not always an easy task in Michigan winter), so I told them “Every blade of grass is testifying, telling you what it has seen and experienced first-hand, that when the LORD makes a thing live, it lives. And when He decides its time to die, it dies. The grass is telling you, that God alone is in control, wise, good, and everlasting.” As usually happens, while I taught, I re-educated my own affections.

Every day, billions of people wake up and take for granted that the earth spins just right- that the “sun knows its time for setting” (vs 19). We whisk by the trees, the squirrels, and the grass on our way to solve the day’s many problems. All the while, we worry. We fret. We fear. We consult search engines and statistics, essentially asking, “Will I be ok?” As Christians, we want to trust God, but he feels far away. In reality, the evidence is so large it’s almost out of focus; it’s so familiar we forget it’s there. Psalm 104 cries out to us, slow down, step back, look, and listen. The universe and your own backyard are testifying to you. They’re saying, “God is taking care of us, and he’s taking care you!” The whole creation pleads with us, “sleep while the Lord spins the earth tonight, look to God while you work for your food in the morning, and play like Leviathan in the sea of the blessing and security of Christ.”

1. Munroe, Randall. What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Reading the Bible: Ordinary Reading (Part 2)

In the previous post we established that good Bible reading requires us read the Bible as God speaking to us in a manner that we can naturally understand. But how do we actually do that?

It’s harder than you might think. Over the years we have trained ourselves to read the Bible in an unnatural way, so we’re going to have to break some bad habits.

Read the book (not around the book)

This may sound obvious, but the first and most important rule for interpreting and appropriating any biblical book is to actually read the book. Our ability to read well is often disrupted by a multitude of distractions, and those distractions halt reading. So read the book as it was meant to be read—that is, in a steady stream without pauses or breaks. You need to immerse yourself in the text.

That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually harder than you might think. The “distractions” that I’m referring to—the distractions that will cause you to lose focus or lead you down the wrong interpretative path—are not all environmental or circumstantial. I’m not really talking about avoiding the annoying thing your kids are doing right now, or the weird noise coming from the radiator. I’m talking about the typical things we do as we read the Bible. Notes. Commentaries. Internet searches. Word studies.

Those things are good, don’t get me wrong, but they will short circuit the reading process. You can use these things later. Don’t start with the commentaries, or the introduction in your study bible. Ignore the notes. As a general rule: don’t read other things while you’re reading this thing. Don’t let other voices distract you from this voice. Give the author of the book you are reading the respect of being heard, rather than talked about.

Actually, the problem is bigger than you think. As long as we’re talking about distracting things that change or short-circuit ordinary reading, let’s talk briefly about how most versions of the Bible are printer. It’s full of little bits and bobs that change the way you read. Sections headings. Footnotes. Cross references. Introductions for each biblical book. Red lettering. Text boxes with explanatory information. Let’s not stop there, because even if you take all those things out of it, those verse numbers and chapter numbers are not original to the text either. What is more, they break up the text into little chunks (often arbitrarily), and we do not naturally read in little chunks, we read in big chunks. You read ordinary books section by section, not word by word, but all the footnotes and verse numbers condition us to read the Bible verse by verse.

So I’d like to recommend buying a $20 book that will change your life. A Reader’s Bible. A Reader’s Bible removes all these secondary distracting bit. They are available for many of the most popular translations. You can get an ESV version here, or an NIV here. The first time you open it you’ll notice the difference. It looks like an “ordinary” book because all this extra stuff is removed, and I can almost guarantee you that it will change how you read. Anytime I’m preaching through a new book I start by reading that book in my reader’s ESV. This is also my go to for devotionals and personal reading. Obviously for bible studies and sermon prep I will need the verse numbers, but start by reading the book the natural and ordinary way. A reader’s bible is great for that.

Another great tool is the audiobook. Now that may not, at first, seem all that “natural.” The disciples and earliest Christians didn’t have audiobooks! Ah, but they did! Remember that for many thousands of years the expectation was that these books would be first read aloud. For most individuals in the church—whether the earliest recipients of a given epistle, or the average church congregant prior to the modern era—the only access one had to Scripture was through public reading. Actually, the Bible itself witnesses to this. In Revelation, for example, John opens by blessing the one who “reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (1:3). John’s expectation is that this would be heard, and (probably) all at one in a single sitting. John expects that your access to his work is through someone reading it to you, and may they and you be blessed by it. So grab an audio bible—there are great free resources online—and push play.

Read it All at Once, in a Single Sitting

Push play, and don’t rewind, fast-forward, pause, or stop until you get to the end.

As we mentioned above, we are conditioned to read the Bible in small bits rather than big bits. We pull it apart, slice it up, divide it into pieces. We only study it after it’s been dissected and cut up into its component parts, and then we wonder why it seems lifeless. Again, there is a stage in the reading process where this is appropriate and helpful, but this isn’t the way we ordinarily approach communication, and so we shouldn’t start here.

As you read, don’t back up. Don’t stop. Keep going. You might not understand this word or that verse or even whole paragraphs, but don’t be discouraged. You can always go back later and ask those kinds of questions. First get a sense of the forest.

Again, audiobooks are a great way of forcing yourself to do this. Stephen King, in preparation for writing a sequel to one of his previous books, stated in an interview that he went back and listened to the audio recording of the original book. He found it fascinating. The audio version forced him to be swept along with the narrative. He didn’t have time for nitpicking, for questioning, for details. He was the passenger, and could do little more than enjoy the ride. In other words, he was forced to receive the tale as one of his readers might read it. He couldn’t say “oh, I should have used this word instead of that word.” As such, it was perfect preparation for the sequel because it reminded him of the ethos and feel of the world he created, and thereby enabled him to jump back into the world for its sequel.

Read forwards. Don’t go back. Until you’re done.

Theses are a few of the steps we can seek to utilize when learning to read the Bible with maximum profit. In the last post in this series, we will consider the final skill. 

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Psalm-Singing Church

It should surely not surprise us to learn that the church of our day has neglected one of the greatest treasures God has given her to worship Him–namely, the Psalter. The living God has breathed out an entire book of truth for us to sing back to Him whenever we gather together in corporate worship. Perhaps such a neglect has occurred on account of antiquated translations, difficult accompanying tunes or simply because of a lack of familiarity with the Old Testament people, places, events and symbols. Regardless, the church is certainly no better for having passed over the numerous inspired songs in the Psalter. It would be of enormous benefit to our churches if we would actively seek to reinstitute the practice of Psalm-singing in our congregations. At the very least, churches should try to sing one or more Psalms a month in gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. This takes a measure of planning and instruction on the part of pastors, elders and musicians. However, it is safe to say that any congregation that undertakes such an intitiative, will reap rich, spiritual benefit. 

At the end of last year, we started working through Bob Godfrey’s Ligonier teaching series Learning to Love the Psalms in our small groups. This, we trust has served as a helpful introductory interpretive guide to the Psalms. We plan on continuing that series through the first quarter of 2018 in our small groups.

As we begin another year at New Covenant, our elders have decided to reintroduce an evening worship service in which one of our pastors will preach a sermon series on the Psalms. Additionally, we plan on singing a portion of a Psalm–immediately after the exposition on it. It is our desire that they will help encourage our congregants to sing the Psalms with understanding and delight. There are a number of resources that we plan on using in preparation for this sermon series and singing of Psalms. Some of them are more theological in nature and some are more devotional.

In addition to the plethora of helpful commentaries that have been published on the Psalms, I’ve found the followiing works to be most helpful in navigating the historical and theological nuances of the book:

Richard Belcher’s The Messiah and the Psalms

Herman Selderhuis’ Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms

Sindney Greisdanus’ Preaching Christ from the Psalms

O. Palmer Robertson’s The Flow of the Psalms

William Binnie’s The Psalms: Their History, Use and Teaching

Horatius Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Psalms

John Calvin Heart Aflame

E.W. Henstenberg Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3

Here is the basic schedule for our sermon series, along with the Psalm we will sing from The Book of Psalms for Worship (each Psalm has been coupled to a familiar hymn tune from the Trinity Hymnal):

  • January 21 – Psalm 1
  • Psalm 1 A to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”
  • January 28 – Psalm 2 
  • Psalm 2C to the tune of the hymn, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
  • February 4 – Psalm 3-4
  • Psalm 3A to the tune of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”
  • February 11 – Psalm 7
  • Psalm 7A to the tune of the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”
  • February 18 – Psalm 8
  • Psalm 8 to “Amsterdam”
  • February 25 – Psalm 14
  • Psalm 14A to the tune of the hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
  • March 4 – Psalm 15
  • Psalm 15A to the tune of the hymn, “More Love to Thee, O Christ”
  • March 11- Psalm 16
  • Psalm 16 to the tune of the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”
  • March 18 – Psalm 17
  • Psalm 17A to the tune of the hymn, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place”
  • March 25 – Psalm 18
  • Psalm 18A to the tune of the hymn, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”
  • April 1 – Psalm 19
  • Psalm 19A to the tune of the hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King”
  • April 8 – Psalm 20
  • Psalm 20A to the tune of the hymn, “And Can It Be!”
  • April 15 – Psalm 21
  • Psalm 21A to the tune of the hymn, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
  • April 22 – Psalm 22
  • Psalm 22B to the tune of the hymn, “The God of Abraham Praise”
  • April 29 – Psalm 23
  • Psalm 23B to the tune of the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want”
  • May 6 – Psalm 24
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Mighty Gates” (p. 198 in the Trinity Hymnal)
  • May 13 – Psalm 27
  • Psalm 27C to the tune of the hymn, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”
  • May 20 – Psalm 29
  • Psalm 29 to the tune of the hymn, “O Worship the King”
  • May 27 – Psalm 30
  • Psalm 30B to the tune of the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”
  • June 3 – Psalm 31
  • Psalm 31B to the tune of the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal”
  • June 10 – Psalm 32
  • Psalm 32C to the tune of the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”
  • June 17 – Psalm 34
  • Psalm 34B to the tune of the hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers” (No chorus after each verse)
  • June 24 – Psalm 36
  • Psalm 36B to the tune of “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew”
  • July 1 – Psalm 37
  • Psalm 37D to the tune of the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
  • July 8 – Psalm 38
  • Psalm 38C to the tune of the hymn, “God, My King, They Might Confessing”
  • July 15 – Psalm 39
  • Psalm 39B to the tune of the hymn, “Abide with Me”
  • July 22 – Psalm 40
  • Psalm 40A to the tune of the hymn, “Come Christians, Join to Sing”
  • July 29 – Psalm 42-43
  • Psalm 43A to the tune of the hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • August 5 – Psalm 45
  • Psalm 45A to the tune of the hymn, “He Leadeth Me”
  • August 12 – Psalm 46
  • Psalm 46A to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Almighty Power of God”
  • August 19 – Psalm 47
  • Psalm 47A to the tune of the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (repeat tune halfway through the Psalm)
  • August 25 – Psalm 48
  • Psalm 48C to the tune of the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (without repeating the last line of each verse)
  • September 2 – Psalm 49
  • Psalm 49B to the tune of the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” (repeat last line of each verse)
  • September 9 – Psalm 50
  • Psalm 50B to the tune of the hymn, “I Love Your Kingdom Lord”
  • September 16 – Psalm 51
  • Psalm 51A to the tune of the hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”
  • September 23 – Psalm 55
  • Psalm 55A to the tune of the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”
  • September 30 – Psalm 61
  • Psalm 61 A to the tune of the hymn, “O Worship the King”
  • October 7 – Psalm 62
  • Psalm 62B to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Almighty Power of God”
  • October 14 – Psalm 63
  • Psalm 63B to the tune of the hymn, “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee”
  • October 21 – Psalm 65
  • Psalm 65A to the tune of the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”
  • October 28 – Psalm 67
  • Psalm 67B to the tune of the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”
  • November 4 – Psalm 69
  • Psalm 69D to the tune of the hymn, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • November 11 – Psalm 70
  • Psalm 70B to the tune of the hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”
  • November 18 – Psalm 73
  • Psalm 73A to the tune of the hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (p. 522 in the Trinity Hymnal
  • November 25 – Psalm 78
  • Psalm 78A to the tune of the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
  • December 2 – Psalm 80
  • Psalm 80 to the tune of the hymn, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched”
  • December 9 – Psalm 81
  • Psalm 81A to the tune of the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shpeherd, I’ll Not Want
  • December 16 – Psalm 84
  • Psalm 84A to the tune of the hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers, Holy Faith”

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

True Self-Knowledge

Have you ever gone through some sort of identity crisis? You know, the kind where you wonder who you are and what you are supposed to do?

After living in the same town for nearly twenty years, I moved to another state. Since then, I’ve gone through an identity crisis of sorts. Where I used to live, I knew who I was. I knew where I belonged and my role. I knew what my church needed from me and where I fit in there. Since I’ve moved, I feel like a visitor wherever I go. I often feel out of place and I wonder— who am I in this new place?

The Bible teaches us that the only way to know ourselves is to first know God.

Isaiah Learns Who He Is

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet had a vision of heaven. He saw the Lord in all His holiness. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

Can you imagine that? The sights and sounds Isaiah experienced were extraordinary! In seeing God on His throne as ruler of all things, Isaiah saw himself in contrast to the holiness and magnificence of God. He responded with the only thing that made sense, “Woe is me!”

R.C. Sproul comments on this passage in The Holiness of God, “In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart…For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.”

To Know Ourselves, We Must Know God

Whatever identity questions we face in life, whether it is seeking our purpose or place, knowing what job we should do, or finding our roles in our homes, communities, and churches, we can’t know who we are until we know God. Only when we stand before His holiness and see ourselves in contrast will we realize who we truly are. As John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” First we look at who God is; then we look at ourselves in contrast.

Like Isaiah, we need to see that God is ruler of all things. He sits high on the throne of the universe, ruling over all mankind and over every living thing. We often live as though we are the kings and queens of our own little kingdoms. We live as though we are independent and sufficient within ourselves. But God alone is the creator and sustainer. He gives life and breath to all things. He sustains that life with food and water He provides. This is what Job learned in his own encounter with God, “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41).

As the heavenly beings in Isaiah’s vision revealed, God is holy. Thrice holy. He is other, set apart from everything else in existence. Nothing and no one can compare to his glory and righteousness. Upon seeing God’s glory and holiness, Isaiah realized he was unclean and unworthy. In our daily lives, when we compare ourselves to others, and especially to the dark world around us, we can think we are okay. We don’t grasp the true depths of our sinfulness. It’s only when we understand God’s holiness do we realize no good deed would make us worthy to stand before God and live. Isaiah was rightly humbled and saw the true state of his sinful condition. An angel then took a hot coal from the altar and brought it to Isaiah. “With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (v.7). We too need our sin atoned for; we need a salvation and pardon from outside ourselves. God provided this through the righteous life and substitutionary death of Christ—the final and perfect sacrifice for sin.

After Isaiah received pardon, the voice of the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send?” (v. 8). Only after cleansing from sin did Isaiah receive his calling and his purpose for God. Once he knew God and himself in contrast, once he acknowledged his neediness and helplessness before the King of the universe, and once he was cleansed from sin, only then was he ready to fulfill God’s plan for him.

True knowledge of self only comes when we know God. While we will likely not encounter God the way Isaiah did, we don’t need to because we have His word. There we learn who God is in all His splendor, majesty, holiness, and might. There we see that Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:30). In the pages of Scripture we learn, as Isaiah did, the true state of our sinfulness and helplessness. There we see what Christ did to make us able to stand in God’s presence and live. Only then are we ready and prepared to know ourselves, our place, and our purpose.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Unique Church

Too often, ministers foolishly embrace the ecclesiastical advice of those who know absolutely nothing about the specific arrangement of the local church they pastor. A pastor is animated by an article in which today’s latest “church expert” insists that he or she has the corner on what should be done in every church. All the while, he forgets that that those writing such articles often know absolutely nothing about the various personal, cultural, industrial, socio-economic, religious, ethnic or age dynamics represented by the town in which each local church is set. There are a myriad of ways in which unhelpful assessments of the local church occur today–precisely because most people are not taking into account the fact that every local church has its own unique challenges and characteristics.   

While all mankind has descended from the same first parents, no one would argue with the fact that each of us has our own unique personality, gifts, struggles, strengths and weaknesses. Parents of multiple children acknowledge how each of their children are perplexingly different from the others. There is commonality among the children of the same parents, to be sure; however, the unique personality of each child–more than the commonalities–is what often draws the attention and focus of parents. This is no less true in the ecclesiastical world than it is in the home. The church (universal) owes her origin to the same God and Savior. However, each local church has its own peculiar strengths and weaknesses.

Many, seeking to address what they believe to be the weaknesses of the church (universal) today, mistakenly treat all (local) churches as if they were monolithic entities. This is no less true of those who talk about what a church should look like with regard to its structure and growth, as it is of those who speak of what it should look like as to its cultural involvement. When we turn to the Scriptures, we find both unity and diversity regarding each local church and the expectations that God has for them. The Scriptures have much to tell us about both the uniformity and the diversity of local church expectations. 

In the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3), the Lord Jesus addressed the unique conditions of each of those churches. He didn’t treat the seven churches as if they were monolithic entities. Unique strengths and unique weaknesses belonged to each congregation. The cultural dynamics surrounding each local church affected what the Savior addressed to the members of the church. While the same goal is held out to each one, unique warnings, encouragements, threats and promises are given to each church–depending on the specific needs of that distinct fellowship.

The same approach is found in the New Testament letters. The Apostles did not treat every church exactly the same. Some churches were beset by highly nuanced forms of false teaching. Some were in danger of losing the Gospel over tolerating sin in the lives of their members. Some were in need of encouragement because they were suffering persecution for the name of Christ. Some needed to be exhorted to greater generosity.

In the end, Jesus and the Apostles treated local churches according to their particular needs. They take into account the doctrinal, spiritual, moral and cultural distinctions of each church. This becomes the paradigm for those pastors whom God has called to care for the spiritual well-being of a local church. Who knows better what a local church needs than the men appointed by God to care for the flock! 

Certainly, there are overarching principles applicable to each local church; but, more harm has been done by those who have sought to critique pastors and congregants they know nothing about. At one and the same time, we need listen to the general principles of Scripture and to the nuances of each distinct local church in Scripture. The best way forward is to remain in the Scripture. God has given us, in His word, everything necessary for life and godliness.

As the men God has appointed to pastor local churches assess the context of their congregations, and allow the Scripture to scrutinize the unique challenges and shortcomings that they face, they will be better able to address the real needs of the local church in a manner suitable to that local congregation. We must resist the temptation to be motivated by the guilt manipulation of those who cherry pick verses out of Scripture in order to fit their agenda. We must guard against welcoming the advice of those who tell everyone what they should be doing in the particular church in which they worship and serve. 

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

8 Marks of True Reformers

The reformation anniversary confetti has all been swept up. Some of us have heard a lot lately about the reformers and how God used them to help move the church toward greater faithfulness in their day. But what will it look like to be a reformer today? Perhaps we can learn from Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli’s (1584—1531) advice to his contemporaries.1

  1. True Reformers Willingly Evaluate their Movement

Reforming churches must be able to objectively assess their faithfulness. This is how the reformation started. The reformers had the rare courage and fortitude to be self-critical of the only church they and generations of their ancestors had ever known.

Self-critical leaders will learn to ask important questions like “What are we doing well?

Where do we need improvement? Where should we go from here?” A willingness to answer these question frankly and constructively can produce an increased unity of purpose within any leadership team.

  1. True Reformers Keep the Gospel Central

Christians who are eager for change need to be careful not to supplant the gospel with whatever issue has captivated their zeal. “If you make Christianity begin…with giving up” of particular errors, “you will nullify rather than implant your teaching.” We don’t become Christians by changing bad habits. We change bad habits because Christ becomes precious to us. When change is demanded, God’s people must be taught to repent of their sin so that they will find God a “gentle father.” “When you have well taught the knowledge of God, man, and Christ, and the Lord has given the increase, all the…errors that had risen up…will fall away.” Zwingli might sound overly optimistic, but such confidence in the gospel is necessary for deep and lasting change.

  1. True Reformers Guard against Unnecessary Offence

Zwingli was convinced of these two realities: changes must come and unnecessary offence is sin. The church must always be reforming. It must never think it has already attained, or is already perfected; it must press on (Phil. 3:12). But we must be careful to avoid unnecessary offence in our pursuit of biblical excellence.

Zwingli defines “offence,” (per Matt. 18:6), as insulting or contemptible treatment of others. Some church members rashly make changes that offend more timid believers. Others are too easily offended; they seem to “always [want] special consideration.” The goal of reformation is to so grow as a congregation that God is not offended by our lack of growth and the weak are not hurt by reckless change.

  1. True Reformers Exercise Wisdom

Much potential reformation fails for a lack of wisdom. “The matter must be begun in such a way that we may bring the most fruit to the Lord…never begin with these things that spoil the whole case.” “Things that militate against [faith] need to be demolished with skill, lest they do harm in their downfall and bury the little that has been already built up.” Case in point: as many of Zwingli’s contemporaries began to believe that religious images were unhelpful in Christian worship some people attacked images with reckless violence. Zwingli offered different advice: the city council should hire carpenters to carefully and respectfully remove the images in a way that would best minimize opposition. That’s wise reformation. A ninety-one year old pastor recently told me that one of the most lacking characteristics in church leadership today is common sense. That needs to change for change to happen well.

  1. True Reformers Understand the Value of Relationships

Before Zwingli and Luther actually met they had engaged in a prolonged and heated war of words. They spoke the same language and were born and raised in comparable cultures but had never gotten to know each other. After they met and lived together for several days in 1529 in a German castle they made unexpected progress in forging a common solution to some of their deepest disagreements. Too often church members forget about the human component in reformation. For us to navigate the difficult waters of change we have to build up trust and appreciation for each other.

  1. True Reformers Prioritize and Exercise Patience

Overzealous reformers imagine that all matters are equally weighty. Not true. “The things… on which faith hinges should be brought out without delay…” Many other things can wait. In the beginning Paul fed the Corinthians with milk (1 Cor. 3:2). Jesus said to his disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). Effective reformers are able to distinguish between critical and desirable progress.

  1. True Reformers Submit to the Church

Modern believers need to learn this lesson: “No one ought to pronounce judgment until the church does.” Submission to the biblical, spiritual wisdom of church leaders tends to the advantage of the church (Heb. 13:17). To maintain good order, we must resist the urge to make personal disciples of our peculiar views (for or against alcohol, or a particular diet, or a dress code, etc.). When church members take up personal crusades for various causes problems almost always follow.

  1. True Reformers Are Purely Motivated

The first motive for church reform must be love for God. A reformer in the church must do “all things for [God’s] sake, and nothing for his own… for when the glory of God alone is regarded all things go on well.”

The second great motivation is love for one’s neighbor. Do you want to reform something because you are puffed up by knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1) or because you love people and are concerned for their well-being? “Love edifies for it desires to extend as widely as possible the domain of him whom it loves.”

Such a reformer, in Zwingli’s words, will be “wholly absorbed in keeping peace with all men as far as is in us lies,” and “in bringing men’s consciences into the quiet haven of faith and love of God.” Who wouldn’t want that kind of modern reformation?

1. All quotations are from Zwingli’s Commentary on True and False Religion (1525) in Samuel Macauley Jackson’s Works of Zwingli, Vol. 3.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Father of Hymnody

On December 7, 374, Ambrose became bishop of Milan and thereby became a staunch defender of the Faith against the Arians. Ambrose was born into a prominent Christian Roman family around 340 in Trier (which is in modern Germany). His father was the prefect of the region, but when he died about 14 years later, Ambrose’s mother moved the family back to Rome where Ambrose and his brother studied rhetoric and Greek. At a time when the study of Greek was waning in the Western Empire, Ambrose developed a proficiency in Greek that allowed him to read Plato and Homer and other classical works.

His abilities quickly earned him multiple appointments including the position of governor of Milan around the age of 30. This prestigious appointment came from Emperor Valentinian I. In 303, the political center of the Western Empire moved from Rome to Milan such that Ambrose was serving the region of northern Italy which included the imperial court.

In 374, the Arian leaning bishop of Milan died after 20 years of ecclesiastical leadership. The people heatedly debated who should be the successor for bishop. As governor, Ambrose was called to calm the crowds, and in the midst of the assembly, a voice arose calling, “Ambrose for bishop!” The popular governor was quickly acclaimed by both the Arians and the Trinitarians although he had not yet been baptized (according to the custom of the time). Despite his objections, both the church and the state ratified the decision of the people, and Ambrose had little to do but to acquiesce. Within a week he was baptized and consecrated as bishop on December 7.

He immediately gave his property and inheritance to the church for charitable purposes and began intensive study of Scripture. His ability to read Greek enabled him to read Scripture in the original language (since the Vulgate was not yet finished) as well as the Greek fathers. He dedicated himself to clear preaching of the Word and to pastoral duties.

In line with the Council of Nicaea, Ambrose defended Trinitarian doctrine in his many conflicts with Justina, mother of the boy emperor, Valentinian II. Intent on establishing a place for Arian worship in Milan, Justina insisted that Ambrose turn over one of the basilicas to her personal bishop. Not only did Ambrose refuse, but he and faithful members of his congregation barricaded themselves in the basilica on Palm Sunday while Justina’s soldiers lay siege to the church. One of the gathered parishioners was Monica, the mother of Augustine. As the people remained in the church throughout Holy Week, they fasted and prayed. In addition, Ambrose taught them to sing hymns in the tradition of the East. They sang antiphonally with both men and women singing back and forth. They also sang hymns that Ambrose wrote in simple, straightforward rhymes that taught rich theology.

Justina tried a year later to enforce her Arian bishop into a church by making it a capital crime to inhibit Arian worship. Ambrose publically declared, “If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to protect me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.” Justina backed down and thus ended the focused attempt of those in power to enforce the Arian heresy on the people.

Ambrose brought the singing of hymns to congregational worship and established what became the foundation of Ambrosian Chant. Hymns like “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright” and “Come, Thou, Redeemer of the Earth” have instructed countless churches throughout the centuries.

Come, Thou Redeemer of the earth,

And manifest Thy virgin birth:

Let every age adoring fall;

Such birth befits the God of all.

Begotten of no human will,

But of the Spirit, Thou art still

The Word of God in flesh arrayed,

The promised Fruit to man displayed.

Forth from His chamber goeth He,

That royal home of purity,

A giant in twofold substance one,

Rejoicing now His course to run.

From God the Father He proceeds,

To God the Father back He speeds;

His course He runs to death and hell,

Returning on God’s throne to dwell.

O equal to the Father, Thou!

Gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;

The weakness of our mortal state

With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,

And darkness breathe a newer light,

Where endless faith shall shine serene,

And twilight never intervene.

All laud to God the Father be,

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;

All glory, as is ever meet,

To God the Holy Paraclete.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Sip It, Don’t Dip It

Rightly administering the Lord’s Supper is one of the marks of a true church. It occupies a critically important place in the life of God’s people as a memorial of Christ, a preaching of the gospel, and a means of his grace. Yet, even among those who share this perspective there remain differences in practice. Throughout church history many have allowed for the use of white or red wine, wine or grape juice, leavened or unleaded bread, and a shared common up or individual cups. The frequency of the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper also differs among Christ’s churches. All of this is worth debating, but one of the differences worth noting today is that of dipping the bread into the wine and then consuming the sopping bread vs. eating the bread and drinking the wine separately.

Some will no doubt believe I am spending too much time on too trivial a matter; but, in my estimation, this is an important matter to which we should give serious consideration. Should a church’s partaking of the bread and the cup in the Lord’s Supper keep the elements separate (eating and then drinking), or combine the elements by dipping the bread into the wine and then consuming both together?

What is Intinction?

Keeping the elements separate, eating the bread and then drinking the wine, is the earliest recorded practice of the church. Intinction is the dipping of the bread into the wine and then consuming both elements together. While we don’t know exactly when this practice first showed up, we first read about it in the fourth century when Pope Julius I wrote against the practice. The early church did not combine the elements, so some time after the Apostles and before Pope Julias’ comments the practice arose. This new practice received increasing opposition until it almost entirely disappeared. Because it wasn’t the practice of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation intinction didn’t get much attention by the Reformers, though later theologians like Herman Witsius, Francis Turretin, and John Owen argued for keeping the elements separate.

Charles Hodge addressed the practice of intinction in his Systematic Theology, when he wrote:

“That it is against the nature of the sacrament, when instead of the two elements being distributed separately, the bread is dipped into the wine, and both are received together. This mode of administering the Lord’s Supper, was, it is said, introduced at first, only in reference to the sick; then it was practiced in some of the monasteries; and was partially introduced into the parishes. It never, however, received the sanction of the Roman Church.” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. III, p. 620)

This has been a controversial practice among our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, especially in the PCA. You can find much more thorough treatments of this issue by those brothers. But since intinction has been adopted by many baptists and baptistic churches without much pushback, I want to encourage people to reconsider the “combo-meal” approach to the Lord’s Supper.

Why Dip and Not Sip?

Most arguments I have heard and read defending the practice of intinction are not theological, but practical. Though this doesn’t necessarily make the argument bad, they fail to persuade me. For example, it more easily accommodates large gatherings, and requires less set up before hand. This especially appeals to a number of church plants that are mobile and have to set up and tear down the entire Sunday gathering each week. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen it practiced in a many new and young churches in my circles.

Sip it, Don’t Dip It!

1. The Command to Eat and Drink

Those who oppose intinction do so for a few biblical and theological reasons that, when combined, should compel us to keep the elements of the Lord’s Supper separate.

Jesus himself separated the bread from the wine when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, first giving the bread and then the wine to his disciples (Mk. 14:22-24; Mt. 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20). In giving us this ordinance Jesus’ command is clear. Eat and drink. “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you…” (Matthew 26:26, 27)

2. The Significance of Blood Separated from the Body

Just as the Paschal lamb was sacrificed, its blood being poured out in death, so Jesus presents the Lord’s Supper as a separation of blood and body. This separation itself signifies death and points explicitly to the death of our Savior. The Apostle Paul also presents the elements as separate and distinct in 1 Corinthians 10. Each, taken separately, is a “participation” in Christ:

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)

When we remember our Lord’s death in the Supper we are remembering that Christ “poured out” his blood and offered his body for us all.

3. The Regulative Principle Cautions Us

The Regulative Principle of Worship articulates the view that the church is only to include in corporate worship  those things that are explicitly or implicitly warranted by Scripture. It helps us decide what we do and how we do it. In taking the ordinances seriously we should maintain the meaning, elements, and form that Jesus established.

A Common Cup or Shot Glasses?

Some of my friends who practice intinction (and there are a lot of them!) press the issue of a “common cup.” Many find significance in a common cup during the Lord’s Supper, though most of them have to shift to more than one cup as their congregations grow. Nevertheless, the common cup to be shared by all is held as highly important for many. I am not one of them. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus does refer to a cup that was given, though the singular vessel itself does not seem to be the emphasis. It is what is in the cup and what it symbolizes that matters.

Additionally, when reading Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus actually took the cup and told the disciples, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.” (Luke 22:17) It may even have been the earliest practice to see that everyone has their own cup.

My dipping brothers (and I don’t mean that as an insult, I dip people in water myself!) sometimes give me a hard time for the “baptist shot glasses” we use in communion. “Better a real cup than a shot glass!” I have heard. But again, it is not the size of the cup that is relevant, not even one cup versus many cups that is important, but what we are commanded to do. “Eat” and then “drink.”

Even if one finds the common cup argument persuasive it does not deal with the issue whether dipping or drinking is required.

When it comes to the worship of our triune God, the Reformed tradition calls us to be biblical in what we do, and careful in how we do it. The practice of intinction is not not found in scripture, and in fact is contradictory to the practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the early church. Thought this isn’t a practice over which one should break fellowship with a church, it is a practice that should be evaluated by the word of God and replaced with a separation of the elements.

*For those of you who keep the elements separate, you can purchase the Peter Voth designed, “Sip it, Don’t Dip it” tee from Doctrine and Devotion here.”

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

6 Ways to Redeem Thanksgiving

A number of years ago, I concluded that it is officially an American tradition to have stressful interactions with parents, in-laws, grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins on Thanksgiving Day. I have experienced some extremely relationally tense times with family members on Thanksgiving Day. I have a suspicion that I am not alone. Recently, a member of our congregation was telling me how thankful they were that a particular family member would not be with their extended family over Thanksgiving. This sentiment is not foreign to many in our church fellowships–though it is one for which our hearts should grieve. In light of the stress, tensions and discord that often serve to make Thanksgiving a time for which many are not thankful, here are six simple things each of us can seek to implement to help redeem Thanksgiving:

1. Pray in advance. Often the most important thing we can do to redeem Thanksgiving is the last thing that we do. Why would we expect peace, love and joy in our time with extended family if we are not seeking that peace, love and joy from our Father in heaven. As James says in his letter, “You have not because you ask not. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:2-3). We should give ourselves to pray in preparation for the short time that we will be together. Ask God to make you loving and patient, gentle and encouraging, joyful and thoughtful as you plan for this potentially stressful time.

2. Plan a time of collective thanksgiving. No matter what place you hold in the family, you can always encourage the group to have a time of collective thanksgiving. This might include an opening devotional (I usually read a passage like Luke 17:11-19 —i.e. about the ten lepers whom Jesus healed). Then everyone present can take a minute to write down things for which they are thankful to the Lord concerning the events of the past year. Once they have, everyone can share those things with the group. It is amazing to watch how even unbelieving family members appreciate this practice. Finally, you could offer to thank God for those things in prayer or ask someone else to do so for the group. This way, you do not embarrass those who are not believers and who would be highly uncomfortable being asked to pray publicly by encouraging everyone to go around and pray.

3. Encourage a time of singing Thanksgiving hymns. Thanksgiving, like Christmas and Easter, is one time in the year when just about everyone will sing hymns. Plan on bringing some hymns printed out for the group to sing. If you play piano or guitar and have one accessible, you could offer to accompany the time of singing. Otherwise, there is no shortage of hymns on Spotify. There is a beautiful album called, “Thanksgiving Songs and Hymns on Piano” that you can stream on Spotify while the family comes to a time of singing. Here are few of the songs that I love to sing off of that album with family at Thanksgiving: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing;” “Come Ye Thankful People, Come;” “Now Thank We, O, Our God.

4. Show an interest in others. One of the most straightforward ways to help foster joy and thanksgiving when gathered with family members is to ask them a lot about themselves. Ask about how their year has been. Ask them about their jobs. Ask them about their travels. I realize that some people are very closed off and do not like to open up too much; but, everyone I have ever met loves to talk about themselves and their lives. When you do this, expect that no one will ask you anything about your life. That’s the common experience that my wife and I have had when seeking to show an interest in those with whom we get together in just about every setting. Nevertheless, we are called to care about the needs and interests of others.

5. Seek to serve others. Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for some family members because they have taken up the call to help prepare 500 times more food than any rational person would ever think necessary for a group the size of the group with whom you are gathering. Offer to help bring things in advance; offer to help with food preparations; offer to help set the table; and, offer to help with the Turkey cutting. As soon as the Thanksgiving meal is finished, pick up plates and dishes and wash them for the group. This unburdens those who may have been burdened with preparations. One or two people usually get stuck with the clean up at most of the Thanksgiving gatherings at which I have been present. Take the initiative to be that one person–and do so with a joyful heart, not seeking thanks for helping to carry the burdens.

6. Participate in restful activities together. In addition to the above mentioned, I encourage you to play grames, watch football and enjoy doing other restful activities together. Everyone is overworked, underrested and in need of time off. Thanksgiving is a time when we can pull away from the busyness of life and enjoy spending time being refreshed and refueled. 

While there is no sure way to guarantee a peaceful and joyful time with extended family, I do believe that if we seek to implement these things we will help stir up thankful hearts to God and redeem the time for all who are present. May the Lord grant that we have such times as we gather with family in the days ahead.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Sundays are for Babies

“Sundays are hard for babies,” a church member said sympathetically as she handed back my crying daughter. It’s a truth universally acknowledged. On Sundays, the carefully orchestrated nap schedule of the other six days bends and then snaps under the constraints of morning and evening worship. On Sundays, the quiet interactions of family life fade below the noise of an entire congregation. On Sundays, handfuls of Cheerios bridge the gap between one delayed meal and another. On Sundays, things are different.

The weekly interruption of Sunday often leaves Christian parents discouraged and fatigued. Carrying our fussy littles ones to the minivan after worship, we wonder if Sundays are good for children. It can seem much easier to stay home and stick to the usual routine.

Of course, we ought to have compassion on our children every day of their lives. We recognize that they are weak, and we meet their physical and emotional needs with love and mercy. We remember to bring those Cheerios and that comforting scrap of tattered blanket. But we cannot escape the fact that on Sundays, everything is different. And that’s actually a good thing.

If the Lord has called this day blessed (Ex. 20:11) and has made it for our good (Mark 2:27) then we can rejoice in it, not only for ourselves but also for our little ones. The day that comes with proscriptions and provisions for sons and daughters, employers and employees, animals and guests, comes with blessing for babies too. On Sundays, the Lord teaches us—even the youngest of us—something about himself and his grace.

God Is the Lord of Time

On Sundays, we acknowledge that God is the author and ruler of time itself. At creation, God made time. He separated light from dark and established the daily cycle of morning and evening (Gen. 1:3-5). At creation, God also organized those days into a pattern of six and one (Gen. 2:1-3): six days for ordinary work and recreation, one day for rest (Ex. 20:11).

As tempting as it might seem to believe we are masters of our own time—carefully manipulating an interlocking puzzle of Google calendar entries—we are not. God is the one who created time, who set us in it and bound us by it, and God is the one who rightfully directs us how to use it. When we submit to his pattern of six and one, we acknowledge that God is the Lord of time.

For our children, too, the disruption of Sunday is a chance to remember that even our schedules are under the Lord’s authority. Once a week, the Lord breaks into our routine and reminds us that naptimes and snacktimes are not ultimate, nor are they determined by our own desires. In all things, we serve the Lord.

God’s People Are a Corporate People

On Sundays, we affirm that God’s people are a corporate people. We are not lone disciples, following Christ on a solitary path to holiness and heaven, we are a church. Christ came to redeem and perfect his whole body (Eph. 4:1-16). When we gather as the church, we remember that we who belong to Christ also belong to the body of which he is the head.

On Sundays, silence gives way to congregational singing, solitude disappears in a crowd of faces, and the Word read in private rings out as the Word preached in public. For our children, Sundays are filled with new sounds, new smells, and new people. This is an opportunity to learn that God is not merely the Lord of individuals or families, but he is the Lord of a vast multitude of people—so many people that not even a grown-up could count them all (Rev. 7:9). To little ones, the gathered church seems overwhelmingly huge. From the perspective of eternity, it is.

God Gives Rest Better than Sleep and Food Better than Lunch

Sundays are given to us as a day of rest—a reminder of God’s rest at creation and a foretaste of the saints’ everlasting rest in heaven. But the Lord’s Day rest is not simply an extended afternoon nap. True rest is found in pausing from our ordinary work and, as the Westminster Confession explains it, engaging in “the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” In those activities, we recharge our souls. On Sundays, God gives us a rest even better than sleep.

Sundays are also a day of feasting. The Puritans used to call the Lord’s Day “the market day of the soul.” Just as a market boasts tables overflowing with nutritious meat and bread and produce, the Lord’s Day offers sweet and nourishing supplies for our soul. When we gather to worship the Lord in the assembly of the saints, we learn from his Word and grow in our love for him.

All of this is good news for little children. Sundays may mean disrupted naps and delayed meals, but our children are trading earthly provision for something far better for their undying souls. On Sundays, everything is rearranged so that they might hear the Word proclaimed in the power of the Spirit. On Sundays, every ordinary thing takes a lesser place in favor of “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).

I often wonder about those children whose parents brought them to Jesus so he could pray for them (Matt. 19:13-15). Probably some of them had to miss their naps and post-pone their lunch a few minutes. They may have been fussy and over-stimulated by the crowds. But for the rest of their lives, they would know that Mommy and Daddy brought them to Jesus. For the rest of their lives, they would be changed because the Lord took them in his arms and interceded for their souls.

Every Sunday, Christian parents have an opportunity to bring their little ones to Jesus. It might be disruptive. But that’s a good thing.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.