Where is the God of John Knox? Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the God-Honoring Reasons for Honoring the Reformers

With this year being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I have written much on the Reformers themselves, holding them up as examples, flawed though they may have been, of faithful service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much of the response has been positive, although some have accused me of “hero worship” or “setting up Protestant popes” or “honoring men instead of God”, or similar nonsense. The reason I call such comments as nonsense is because anyone who has given these posts a fair reading should be able to see that my intentions have been quite the opposite. Far from exalting sinful human beings, I have sought to exalt the God who graciously and powerfully uses sinful human beings to accomplish mighty acts in the work of the gospel.

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Photo courtesy of Joshua Horn, discerning history.com

It is precisely because that God uses the frail, the feeble, and the fallen — or, as the apostle Paul would say, “earthen vessels” — to accomplish his holy and righteous purposes that the greatness of his power is manifested ever so clearly.

As we are just days away from the actual anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it opportune to post something from Martyn Lloyd-Jones who well articulates the God-honoring reasons for which we should honor the Reformers. In an address on the legacy of John Knox, Lloyd-Jones states:

What do we see then [when we look at the Reformation]? Well, of course the first thing that attracts our attention is the men, the men that God used. Look at them, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, Andrew Melville, John Welsh, and many others. Here are men worthy of the name! Heroic men, big men, men of granite!… Think what you like of me, I like to look at and read of a big man! In an age of pygmies such as this, it is a good thing to read about great men. We are all so much alike and of the same size, but here were giants in the land, able men, men of gigantic intellect, men on a big scale in the realm of mind and logic and reason. Then look at their zeal, look at their courage! I frankly am an admirer of a man who can make a queen tremble! These are the things that strike us at once about these men. But then I suppose that the most notable thing of all was the fact of the burning conviction that dwelt within them; this is what made them the men they were….

What was the secret of it all? It was not the men … great as they were. It was God! God in his sovereignty raising up his men. And God knows what he is doing. Look at the gifts he gave John Knox as a natural man; look at the mind he gave to Calvin and the training he gave him as a lawyer to prepare him for his great work; look at Martin Luther, that volcano of a man; God preparing his men in the different nations and countries. Of course, even before he produced them, he had been preparing the way for them. Let us never forget John Wyclif and John Hus; let us never forget the Waldensians and all the martyrs of these terrible Middle Ages! God was preparing the way; he sent his men at the right moment, and the mighty events followed….

To me the main message of the Protestant Reformation of [five] hundred years ago is to point us to the one and only hope. Things were bad in Scotland when God called John Knox and sent him out as a burning flame and the others with him. Our position is not hopeless, for God remains, and with God nothing is impossible! The conditions could not have been worse than they were immediately before the Reformation; yet in spite of that the change came. Why? Because God was there and God sent it. So the only question we need ask is the old question of Elisha face to face with his problem: ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And I want to ask that question this evening: Where is the God of John Knox?… If we stop with John Knox it is not enough; the question is, Where is the God of John Knox, he who can give us the power, the authority, the might, the courage, and everything we need, where is he?…

We must go back to the confession, go back to the faith, go back to the Word, believe its truths, and in the light of it go with boldness, confidence, assurance, to the throne of grace; to obtain mercy and find grace to help in the time of need. We are living in an appalling time of need, sin and evil rampant; the whole world is quaking and shaking. The times are alarming—’time of need’. The one thing necessary is to find this God, and there seated at his right hand, the One who has been in this world and knows all about it, has seen its shame, its sin, its vileness, its rottenness face to face; friend of publicans and sinners, a man who knew the hatred and the animosity of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees, the doctors of the law, and Pontius Pilate. The whole world was against him, and yet he triumphed through it all; he is there, and he is our representative and high priest.

Believe in him, hold fast to the confession. Let us go in his name with boldness unto the throne of grace, and as certainly as we do so we shall obtain the mercy that we need for our sinfulness and unfaithfulness, and we shall be given the grace to help us in our time of need, in our day and generation. The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox! [Martyn Lloyd Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 17-18; 31-34]

Well spoken indeed. We look to “heroes of the faith” such as John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others, not because they were perfect, but because it was through their imperfections that God showed forth the perfection of his power and glory and love in recovering the gospel of Jesus Christ. The proper question to ask regarding the Reformers is not “Where are such people today and why aren’t we imitating them?” but rather “Where is the God of such people today and why he is not using us to accomplish mighty works, fragile vessels though we may be?”

Obviously this is very much a rhetorical question. We know where the God of Elijah, and Knox and Luther and Calvin is. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The question is rather where do we stand in relation to him? Are we fully surrendered and faithfully obedient to his call to stand up for the gospel in our own generation?

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A Cornerstone Chosen and Precious: The Connection Between Election and Mission in 1 Peter 2:4-10

1 Peter 2:4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

[The following interpretation of 1 Peter 2:4-10 which explicates the connection between election and mission, and thus sheds light on the nature of election itself, is excerpted from C.G. Seed, The missional nature of divine-human communion: Thomas F. Torrance and the Chinese church (Unpublished PhD thesis, May 2016), 99-103.]

[T]he theological emphasis of 1 Pet 2:6 is that those who believe in Christ should never be ashamed. Indeed, if God himself has appointed Christ as the “chosen” and “precious” cornerstone promised in the Old Testament Scriptures, then belief in him will bring value and preciousness to the believers as well. This is picked up again in 1 Pet 2:9 where the blessings of the covenant people of God are applied to those who believe in Christ using the epithets of Exod 19:5-6.

However, at this stage the author brings into play, using Psa 118:22, the contrasting state of those who do not believe that Christ is God‟s appointed “cornerstone” (2:7). The fact remains that whether Christ is accepted or not (2:7b), he remains the “cornerstone”. When he is not received by faith, then the author shows from Isa 8:14 that the act of rejection of Christ will bring appointed judgement on unbelievers, leaving them in the state of spiritual darkness in which they have lived since the Fall (2:9). The reason for athis is disobedience to the word of God, previously designated as the “good news” of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation (1:25).

Thus, the question of acceptance or rejection of God’s chosen cornerstone is at the heart of the argument of 1 Pet 2:4-12. Indeed, the question of a right response to God’s word is one that concerns Isa 28 and the question of a right response to God’s salvation is one that also concerns Psa 118. The choice is one of either building through faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ, God‟s “chosen and precious” one, or rejecting him through a response of disbelief (2:7). This marks the crucial dividing line between those who receive the blessings of God through Christ and those who remain outside the blessings of his grace….

However, being in communion with God through Christ is not an end in itself…. The purpose of the “honour” afforded to the people of the covenant is to proclaim God’s praise. The source for this theology is again Isa 43:20-21 where the Lord delivers his chosen people “that they might declare my praise”…. The purpose for which God has brought people into communion with himself through Christ is for them to make known to others both what he has done for them in his Son (cf. 1:3-9) as well as who his is in his holiness (1:15-16).

Thus, the proclamation of the marvellous character and deeds of God is declared to be the purpose of the salvation which the believers have received, giving their witness a missional purpose … because the context of the passage in Isa 43 is one in which the Lord declares to Israel that “you are my witnesses” (Is 43:10, 12) among the nations. Although Israel failed in this task, Christ as the “servant” (Isa 43:10) bears perfect witness to the world. The only fitting response of the people of God to its calling, election and blessing through union with Christ is one of praise. However, as praise is exercised in the face of the nations, by its very nature, it draws people to Christ….

The missional nature of divine-human communion has been seen in this text in several ways. Firstly, divine-human communion is a result of a response to God’s word as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, commonly referred to as the gospel. Those who, by his mercy (1:3; 2:10), believe and are born into a “living hope” have put their trust in the one chosen by God to be the “cornerstone”. As a result, they receive the “honour” accorded to the Old Testament people of God, which the author designates in terms of an elaboration of and teaching on the “programmatic” declaration of YHWH in Exod 19:5-6. This includes being built as “living stones” into the spiritual temple that is the church of Christ, becoming a “holy priesthood” offering sacrifices pleasing to him in Jesus Christ, becoming a “chosen race” in him, a “holy nation”, God’s own possession which is in fact the covenant people of God (“God‟s people”)….

On the contrary, those who do not obey or believe the word proclaimed about Christ the “cornerstone” remain in the spiritual darkness, which is their natural state. Their rejection of God‟s means of salvation, which is Christ the cornerstone (and by implication his people), is evidence of their natural or destined state of judgement. However, not all is lost. Those who are in communion with God through Christ, by the Spirit, have been saved to proclaim his character and his acts of salvation in the exodus and return from exile. As they declare what God has done, their message reaches out to those still in darkness and opposition to God‟s “chosen and precious” one. Moreover, as they live out their lives as a “holy priesthood” their holy conduct will bring glory to God among those who reject his way of salvation and lead them to praise him in the eschatological future, perhaps leading them to receive his mercy too.

Psalm 7:1-7: Just in Judgment (Psalm of the Day, 9/365)

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Psalm 7:1 O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, if I have repaid my friend with evil or plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

Arise, O Lord, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you; over it return on high.

These introductory verses are key to understanding this psalm. The psalmist — who here speaks as Israel’s king — acclaims Yahweh as his God in whom alone he finds refuge from those who would overtake and destroy him. Recalling the way in which Psalms 1-2 have instructed us to christologically interpret the rest of the psalter — namely, in terms of the blessed Messiah who blesses all those who take refuge in him — we must understand this prayer as the Messiah’s appeal not only for his own deliverance from his enemies but also for the salvation of the people he represents. According to Psalm 2:12, those who take refuge in Yahweh and his Christ are blessed, not because of their own righteousness but simply because they have cast themselves helplessly on the very One who is their righteous Judge. In submitting to the very justice that would justly condemn them, they are granted the blessing of justification.

With Yahweh as his refuge, Israel’s Messiah is confident to be in the right, despite the taunts and accusations of his enemies who say, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35). This is why the king can invoke the judgment of God upon himself, for he is confident that he will be ultimately stand justified in the sight of his Judge over against the verdict of his enemies. This did in fact occur when in his resurrection and ascension Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God” and universally proclaimed “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:33, 36), but not before the wrathful judgment of God against sin fell with terrifying fury upon his Chosen One. Whereas David prayed with confidence that he would be spared from judgment, his greater Son, the truly righteous One, obediently bowed his head knowing full well that his life would be trampled to the ground and his glory laid in the dust.

And yet, even before judgment falls, Christ prays with the certain hope that he will in the end be vindicated. Inasmuch as he vicariously represents all those who take refuge in him, so also can his people rejoice knowing that their sins have been condemned in his flesh and that his vindication ensures their own. Thus, those who belong to Christ need not fear the appointed judgment (nor anything else for that matter!), for they rest assured that there is now no condemnation for all who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). If Christ is their righteousness, what accusation could ever stand against them? For the just, judgment will mean salvation!

He Learned Obedience: H.R. Mackintosh on the Consummation of the Person of Christ

What does the author of Hebrews (5:8-9 ESV) mean when he states: “Although [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him”? Here is Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s technical but fascinating explanation:

One defect in traditional Christology, of which the best modern thought is sensible, is a tendency to construe our Lord’s person in rigid and quiescent terms which are hostile to the idea of development. The Cyrilline theory, whatever its discretion in statement, left no place for growth in the Incarnate. He is represented as being complete … at a single stroke. The whole significance of His personality is given by fiat from the very outset. It is forgotten that a static theory of a dynamic reality must prove false, and that ethically qualified life unfolding within time is subject byl1430944844 definition to change and progress through which it attains to be explicitly and in act what it is by fundamental constitution. It was a symptom or consequence of this initial error that the fact of the historic Jesus’ growth in power and knowledge came to be totally ignored, or, if not ignored, referred exclusively to His manhood….

If, then, our Lord belongs to concrete history, His person cannot be a scene of stagnation; and the activity and movement constitutive of it is no mere evanescent accident, but vital to His individuality. There must be a sense in which His being is ever approaching completion. Finally, the maxim that development in Christ is excluded by the absolute immutability of Godhead is one, as we have seen, to be accepted only with great reserve. Inferences derived from the abstract conception of deity must be confronted, in this field, with the essential distinction between God per se, in His transcendent being, and God as He comes forth in self-impartation to spirits immersed in space and time….

We have the less need to dwell on these abstract principles, because stages or crises in Jesus’ life can be indicated where, as in veins below the surface, the pulse and flow of movement is discernible, and the coalescence of the Divine and human within Him can be viewed as a process. To take only three instances: His baptism, His death, and His resurrection cannot have passed and left no mark. The result must have been to deepen the involution and co-inherence of the two mobile factors of His life and to secure their more perfect mutual irradiation. His baptism was in itself a token of a faith matured through resistance to early temptations; it sealed Him as One who had sustained unimpaired His filial relation to the Father, and in the long effort had acquired full ability and independence of moral life. And by sealing it, it made this moral character still more irrevocably fixed. But this decisive act of self-identification with the sinful must have been inspired more by perfect faith than by a full perception of its implications, which only the future could disclose.

When it transpired later that nothing would avail but the uttermost sacrifice of death, Jesus’ acceptance of this final obligation, in a series of experiences interpretable at their height by the transfiguration—when love to men filled His expanding soul and by inward act He avowed His willingness to share their lot to the uttermost —raised Him to a yet sublimer plane, a more completely redemptive fulness and glory of moral being. But above all He fulfilled His person through His death and resurrection. Who can fail to see that Christ was more Himself—more fully and completely all that is denoted by the name Christ—when death was past, than when as a child He lay in Simeon’s arms?

By His resurrection, St. Paul declares, He was installed as Son of God with power. Thus the Risen Life came not ex abrupto, or from without, but at the point when the life-content of Godhead had taken completely realised form within Him and become the mighty principle of an exalted and redeeming life in the Spirit. Mediated by experiences now past, and supremely by the experience of the cross, the identification of self-imparting Godhead with finite human forms was at last perfected, and the Divine noumenon, if we may call it so, become wholly one with the human phenomenon. And this plerosis, or development and culmination of the Redeemer’s person, is an event or fact which answers spiritually to the great kenosis from which it had begun. The two are moral correlates. On the privative act of renunciation, lasting on in moral quality throughout the earthly career, there follows the re-ascent of self-recovery. He who lost His life for our sake thereby regained it.

It may help to make this general conception more luminous if we recur to the Christological axiom that our Lord’s person and work constitute a single reality. If the work is dependent on the person, and moves through it to achievement, the person is in some real sense dependent on the work, fulfilled by its mediation, integrating all its virtue. It is not in our minds merely that the two condition each other, but objectively and in themselves. Now the work is admittedly a process. As part of history it could not be given en bloc; it had its times, its order, its movement from less to more.

Hence real growth is predicable also of Christ’s person; the union of God and man in Him was more completely actualised at death than at birth, when He rose than when He died. As the discharge of His vocation proceeded, His personality—which as an ethical constitution could not be un fait accompli from the outset—expanded into its own fulness. What He did flowed from what He was, but also He was in a real measure all that He did. He was creating Himself continually. In each moment of His present there was a constitutive persistence of His past, as His redeeming soul dilated in Divine capacity, not only modifying its quality but also increasing its intensity. Thus the cross was not for Him eventually a defeat; it was the last consummation of His person. [The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 491-495]

Mackintosh gives us something worth pondering. Whatever we may make of his interpretation, he definitely challenges us to move past the somewhat static conceptions of Christ’s pre-resurrection life of which the author of Hebrews would certainly want to disabuse us!

‘He Hath Made My Tongue a Trumpet’: John Knox’s Humble Obedience to the Call and Word of God

The Scottish Reformer John Knox was far from a perfect man. He was, in fact, very flawed, as he himself was willing to admit (see below: ‘the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue’). Yet he is a part of that great cloud of witnesses that now cheers us on, and there is much of value that we can learn from his life. One aspect of his biography that strikes me in particular was his relentless zeal to do nothing, absolutely nothing, but that which he believed God had commanded him to do: preach the Word to the troubles of his time. While many other people of his day were pouring time and energy into writing ‘books for the age to come’ (driven in part, no doubt, by their desire to secure a legacy or make a name for themselves), Knox was firmly convinced that God had made his ‘tongue a trumpet’ in order to address the people of his day, without concern about being remembered or adulated by future generations. He explained:

That I did not in writing communicate my judgment upon the Scriptures, I have ever thought of myself to have most just reason. For considering myself rather called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these most corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come; seeing that so much is written (and by men ofds4413_0 most singular erudition) and yet so little well observed, I decreed to contain myself within the bounds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called.

I dare not deny (lest in so doing, I should be injurious to the giver) but that God hath revealed unto me secrets unknown to the world; and also, that he hath made my tongue a trumpet, to forewarn realms and nations; yea, certain great revelations of mutations and changes, when no such things were feared, nor yet were appearing; a portion whereof cannot the world deny (be it never so blind) to be fulfilled, and the rest, alas! I fear shall follow, with greater haste, and in more full perfection than my sorrowful heart desireth. Notwithstanding these revelations and assurances, I did ever abstain to commit anything to writing, contented only to have obeyed the charge of him who commanded me to cry….

If any man think it easy unto me, to mitigate by my pen, the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue, and so cannot men freely judge of that my sermon; I answer, that I am neither so impudent, that I will study to abuse the world in this great light, neither yet, so void of the fear of my God, that I will avow a lie in his own presence. And no less do I esteem it to be a lie, to deny or conceal that which in his name I have once pronounced, than to affirm, that God hath spoken, when his word assures me not of the same. For in the public place, I consult not with flesh and blood what I shall propose to the people; but as the Spirit of my God who hath sent me, and unto whom I must answer, moveth me, so I speak….[1]

Knox believed that God had called to preach to the people of his day and admonish them to obedience to the Word of God, and so he refused to direct his very capable mind to the writing of books that might have garnered him a greater reputation among a wider audience. Of course, Knox did write many treatises and letters, but these often served as a proxy during his long periods of absence from Scotland in exile. Yet compared to the extant works of Calvin or Luther, Knox’s complete writings fill a relatively meager number of volumes. Understandably, contemporary scholarship continues to churn out studies and monographs on the theology of the former two Reformers, while that of the latter goes largely (though not completely) ignored.

Yet I doubt that Knox today would care at all about this. His calling was to preach, and he set himself single-mindedly to this task. This is evidence of a man so consumed with a singular passion for the Word of God that all personal ambition and pride was put to death. Knox strikes me as a man who was at least in this way very much like the apostle Paul who, at the time of writing to the Philippians, did not care at all that fellow believers in Rome were taking advantage of his imprisonment to move themselves into the ‘spotlight’ that he had previously occupied as a preacher of the gospel (Phil. 1:15-17). It seems that while Paul was languishing in prison, other believers sought to further their own personal ambitions by taking advantage of the opportunity that his own imprisonment offered. What was Paul’s response? Simply that “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).

This is truly incredible. Paul was a man so utterly focused on his vocation as a servant of Christ and herald of the gospel that his only concern, at the total cost of his own ministry, reputation, and even his life itself, was that the gospel was proclaimed in truth and power. As to whether he received the ‘credit’ for the results he was utterly indifferent; in reality he considered such ‘gain’ as ‘loss’ and ‘refuse’ compared to the surpassing greatness simply of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). In John Knox, I see an imperfect but still compelling example of this kind of single-minded devotion to one’s calling. His is an example that is convicting and humbling, yet one that, as Paul exhorted the Philippians, is expected of all those who profess to be Christians and servants of Christ (Phil. 3:17).

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St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, where John Knox preached the Word of God

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[1] John Knox, The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 207-209.

A Reforming Catholic Confession: A Recognition of Visible Protestant Unity for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

As the exact day marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, a new confession has been released, drafted and signed by many theologians, pastors, and others representing a wide variety of Protestant perspectives. The document — meaningfully titled A Reforming Catholic Confession — was produced with the explicit purpose of confessing not simply the common faith that unites Protestants worldwide but also the common church to which all Protestants, regardless of secondary martin-luther-in-the-circle-of-reformers-1625-1650denominational distinctives, belong. As the confession’s title indicates, the Protestant church (note: not churches) is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles.

This post is simply intended to draw attention to this new document which, as Dr. Fred Sanders quipped, permits us to say: “Not only do I believe in substantive Protestant unity, I’ve seen it with my own eyes; behold, I know its URL.” Contrary to the prevailing narratives spun by Catholic apologists (the Reformation produced only schism and heresy), this confession provides a compelling and eloquent witness to the full catholicity and apostolicity of the one Protestant church which, similar to the various Catholic rites, expresses itself in a variety of distinct yet united denominations. Certainly significant disagreements exist between denominations, yet these do not detract from or prevent us from confessing our unity that transcends denominational lines and finds its existence in our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

What follows are excerpts from the explanation given for the composition and publication of the Reforming Catholic Confession. I recommend that you visit the official website and read both the confession and accompanying explanation in full: reformingcatholicconfession.com

INTRODUCTION: A REFORMATION TO LAUD, LAMENT, OR LONG FOR?

The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, however, the narrative that prevails in some quarters focuses on its supposed negative consequences, including secularization, radical individualism, skepticism and, most notably, schism. According to this telling of the story, Protestants necessarily prove to be dividers, not uniters….

THE CHALLENGE TO BE PROTESTANT: FROM REFORMATION TO “REFORMING CATHOLIC”

The “catholic” Reformation

The Reformation itself was the culmination of a centuries-long process of reform. More pointedly: the Reformation was quintessentially catholic precisely because of its concern for the triune God of the gospel. The Reformation was as much about catholicity in the formal sense of the term (i.e., universal scope, related to the principle of the priesthood of all believers), as canonicity (the supreme authority of Scripture). The Reformers also affirmed the material sense of catholicity (i.e., historical consensus; continuity in doctrinal substance) in retrieving the great tradition of the church fathers, insofar as it was in accordance with the Scriptures. In sum: the Reformers directed their protest against the Roman Catholic Church not at the concept of catholicity but towards those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to human tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

The Reformers were persons of one book – and one church. Accordingly, they had a healthy respect for tradition and councils alike. Tradition at its best is the biblically sanctioned practice of handing on the good news of Jesus Christ received from the apostles (see 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Th. 2:15, 3:6). Having set apart certain written witnesses to the gospel to form the New Testament documents, the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13). While we repudiate the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:8) – teachings that conflict with or have no clear basis in Scripture – we affirm tradition insofar as it refers to the church’s continuous attention to and deepening understanding of the apostolic teaching through time and across space. Such tradition is a vital means by which the Spirit ministers the truth of Scripture and causes it to pass into the consciousness and life of the global church. This consensual understanding was first formulated in the Rule of Faith, itself a summary of and orientation to the storyline and subject matter of Scripture. Tradition plays the role of (fallible) stream from Scripture’s (infallible) source, a moon to Scripture’s sun: what light it offers ultimately reflects the divine revelation in Scripture, which is materially sufficient (semper reformanda – “always reforming”).

The Reformers acknowledged that church councils stand under the authority of Scripture, and can sometimes err.  A conciliar decree is authoritative only insofar as it is true to Scripture.  Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

The Reformers earnestly affirmed, expounded, and elaborated what is implicit in these early creeds: that the Trinity is vital to the gospel and that the gospel presupposes the Trinity. The Reformers saw that the doctrine of the Trinity was theological shorthand for the whole economy of redemption: through faith alone (sola fide) in God’s Son alone (solus Christus), the Spirit of adoption enlarges the family of God, enabling those who have faith to become children of God (John 1:12), able to approach God as Jesus did, crying “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).

The catholicity of the Protestant Reformation is understood both in terms of its appropriation of creedal orthodoxy and its renewed appreciation for the centrality of God’s grace, uniqueness of Christ, and forgiveness of sins. The Nicene emphasis on the homoousios of the Son with the Father preserved the integrity of the gospel by clarifying the nature of its central character, answering Jesus’ own question, “Who do you say that I am?” by identifying him as “very God of very God” (the God of the gospel), healer of humanity and entryway into the divine life – the salvation of God (Luke 3:6). Whereas Nicaea and Chalcedon focus on the integrity of the Son’s divinity and humanity for the sake of soteriology, the Protestant Reformers focus on God’s saving acts themselves, thus plumbing even greater depths of the good news that the triune God graciously communicates his own light and life in love with his “two hands,” Son and Spirit.

The Reformers’ robust emphasis on the gospel as the saving activity of the triune God also led them to view the church as called forth by the gospel, a community of believers vitally united to Christ, and to one another, by the Spirit, through faith. In Christ, the church comprises a new humanity, the harbinger of the new creation. This conception of the church as an organic fellowship under the lordship of Christ, ruled by Scripture as his sufficient word and illumined by the Spirit, led the Reformers to correct certain misunderstandings and problematic practices of the church’s leadership, ministry, and sacraments.

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

The present problem

Critical voices describe sola scriptura as the “sin” of the Reformation, and the priesthood of all believers as Christianity’s dangerous idea. That individual interpreters can read the supreme authority of faith and life for themselves unleashed interpretive anarchy on the world, it is claimed. The historical record is irrefutable: Protestants disagreed amongst themselves and begat not one but many church families and traditions. We acknowledge that Protestants have not always handled doctrinal and interpretive differences in a spirit of charity and humility, but in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

It is a fallacy to argue that the divisions that followed from the Reformation were its inevitable consequences. The accidental truths of European history should never become necessary conclusions about the spirit of Protestantism. Nevertheless, it is particularly to be regretted that the early Protestant Reformers were unable to achieve an altogether common mind, in particular as concerns the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. We believe these divisive doctrinal disagreements stemmed not from the fundamental principles of the Reformation, but from their imperfect application due to human finitude, fallibility, and the vagaries of historical and political circumstance. Nor can we deny that they sometimes succumbed to the ever-present temptations of pride, prejudice, and impatience.

Our “reforming catholic” (“mere Protestant”) aim

“Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith….

Casting Fire on the Earth: Mission as the Cause and Life of the Church (TFT Mission Studies)

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Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

As Jesus indicated in his final words as recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, his authority over the nations manifests largely in the sending out of his disciples as his witnesses to the nations. He is the Lord, and his disciples his servants who in obedience to his command go out into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. As narrated therefore in the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus and the birth of the church at Pentecost through the descent of the Spirit and the preaching of the apostles, the church’s mission is not an afterthought to its existence. It is rather the very meaning and purpose of its existence. As the advent of Christ into the world was, as the Creed says, “for us and our salvation”, so also does the church sent by Christ live not for itself but for the world Christ came to save. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]f the Church does recover the New Testament vision, she will see that the great task of the Church is the redemption of the world, and not a comfortable life in little religious churches and communities. The Church simply cannot keep alive unless her eyes are upon the farthest horizons of the world, unless she keeps herself in line with the master-passion and world-outlook of Christ who was the propitiation not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world. It is for that reason that mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church: mission is its cause and its life. The Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church. Of course, it is ultimately a secondary question whether we mean by mission Foreign Missions or preaching the gospel at home. Mission, gospel preaching, is the spreading of the fire that Christ cast upon the earth. He who does not propagate this fire shows that he is not burning. He who burns propagates the fire (Brunner). But to burn, the fire must have fuel to burn—that is why it must always be reaching out and out and out.

Jesus Christ came, he said, not to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many. If the Church claims to follow this Christ, she most learn that she cannot claim to be Christian until her major effort is engaged in ministering to others after the pattern of her Lord. But think of any average church in this country you care—is it not true that the people’s main business is to gather together just in order to be ministered unto, instead of ministering themselves?… Thus the vitality of the Church is sapped by in-breeding, by in-growing. It is a major disaster that the Church has become introvert (i.e., turned in upon itself) when it ought to be extrovert (i.e., turned out toward the world). The Church has become static and self-regarding, instead of an army of conquest.

The major task of the Church in all ages is world mission. If the master-passion of Jesus was the redemption of the world, how is it at all possible for us to call our churches ‘Christian’ whose major purpose is certainly very far different from the passion of Christ? Our major emphasis is upon ourselves—and in so doing we have brought about in the Church a complete reversal of the will and command of Christ; we have betrayed the supreme purpose of the Cross. The Church of today appears simply not to believe that by losing her life for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s, she will find it, that the Church exists only by mission. Instead the Church tries miserably to cultivate her own strength, and becomes self-centred and soft, and impotent over against the ills of the world.

The Church needs to be turned inside out, her whole effort and life must face outwards, and only inwards so far as it is necessary in her effort to evangelize the world. Only if the Church determines to put this first and foremost in her life and work, and in the life and work of every single individual country church, will she begin to have the blessing she craves from God. Instead of trying to cherish a tiny quiver of flame, shielding it from all the draughts and winds that blow, let her fling it out into the storms of the world where it is meant to be, and it will become a raging fire radiating heat and light. If the Church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning, then the Church at home will never be healthy and strong until she is bent upon consuming the world with the fire of the Cross.[1]

Torrance touches on something here that is of supreme importance both for the church and the world. If indeed it is true that the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning, then a church without its mission is a dying, if not already dead, church. I have talked with pastors who seem to want their churches to reach a place of “stability” before throwing themselves into the task of mission both locally and globally. Their conception of the church is one in which mission is secondary to the church’s being, as if the church could attain a healthy and mature existence apart from being on mission! However, if Torrance is correct — and I am convinced that he is — then such churches are chasing after wind. The church will never become stable, healthy, or mature unless it renounces its quest for such things as ends in themselves and sacrifices itself for the sake of the world. What Jesus said about carrying the cross applies to churches too! A church that seeks to save its life will lose it, while a church that loses its life for the sake of Christ and his gospel will find it.

This will no doubt require great suffering and sacrifice on the part of the church. Yet this is part and parcel of the church’s calling. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 3:29). As Torrance puts it, the preaching of the gospel is a casting of fire on the earth. Fire can provide warmth, but it can also cause burns. It can purify, but it can also destroy. To cast fire on the earth is to throw the world into foment and upheaval, and the church which does so will certainly face opposition and persecution. Nevertheless, this is a casting of fire without which the church fizzles out of existence, and it is only in the furnace of mission that it receives its true self.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Gospel, Church, and Ministry, ed. Jock Stein (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 83-84.

Psalm 6: When Weeping is Praying (Psalm of the Day, 8/365)

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Psalm 6:1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. The Lord has heard my plea; the Lord accepts my prayer. 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

This psalm is a desperate plea for deliverance offered in the midst of much and varied forms of suffering: physical illness, weakness, danger from enemies. David’s transparency and honesty are stunning; no attempt is made to hide or sugarcoat the truth about his true condition. Why should there be? All is known by the Lord.

In such circumstances, prayer should not be a forced or faked positivity but a brutal, violent outpouring of the soul. David’s anguish has brought him to the place where he realizes that only God can save. At the end of verse 3, as he reaches the point where his words begin to fail, David finds that he cannot rely even on his own praying. 

It is interesting to note that much of this prayer is not supplication but complaint and weeping. Yet even here, God hears and will respond. As he who knows what we need before we ask, God answers the prayers not only offered in the form of praise and request, but also in the form of tears and silence.

As he moves to the conclusion of the psalm, David commands his enemies to depart and declares that they shall be put to shame. The fact that David speaks in the future tense, however, reveals that he is still in the same condition as before. At the end of the psalm, deliverance has not yet come. His circumstances have not yet changed, so what has? Only this — the Lord has heard.

For David, the fear and doubt and pain of the previous verses are outmatched by the simple knowledge that God has heard, even though his prayer was tainted by doubt and full of complaint. That is to say, the fact of God’s hearing is more sure than the fact of our asking. His answer does not meet us in proportion to our faithfulness, but in proportion to his own. As the apostle Paul would later put it, we do not live by relying on our own faith, but by relying on the faith of Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).

This, and not any obvious change of circumstances, is the basis of David’s (and our!) strength.

‘The Word Preserved From Flesh’: Wendell Berry on the Unbelonging Pastor

As much as I love my theology books, I am also an avid reader of fiction. A while ago I started reading Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership series, beginning with Jayber Crow. Ever since I have been growing in my appreciation for Berry as a writer and a love for the fictional place he has imagined. But Berry’s Port William is more than mere fiction; it is a profound guide to the human soul, human relations, and human communities in inextricable connection to their place. Berry succeeds best in putting into words the inexpressible depths of human experience. Particularly for myself, as others have also attested, spending time in Berry’s Port William is teaching me how to better pastor my community. In a “Christian” culture that adulates book contracts, conference slots, and massive numbers of podcast subscribers, Berry’s stories reveal the beauty and power of ministry that is small, ordinary, daily, and faithful.

Sometimes Berry does this by way of negative example. Consider the following story, taken from his novel A Place on Earth, in which pastor “Brother Preston” reflects on his failed attempt to comfort the Feltner family that is grieving the loss of their beloved husband and son Virgil. Back at the church his thoughts are interrupted by the townwendell_berry1 gravedigger, “Uncle Stanley”. Their encounter provides an ironic commentary on why Brother Preston will never be able to truly minister to his parishoners:

He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not, as he had hoped it would be, a conversation. It was a sermon. This is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh. It is a failure particularized for him in the palm of every work-stiffened hand held out to him at the church door every Sunday morning—the hard dark hand taking his pale unworn one in a gesture of politeness without understanding. He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh.

But now, sitting on the hard bench in the chilled odors of stale perfume and of vacancy, he feels that he has come again within the reach of peace. On the back of the bench in front of him, like some cryptic text placed there for his contemplation, are the initials B.C. in deeply cut block letters four inches high. Leaning forward, his finger absently tracing the grooves of the initials, he bows in careful silence while his mind seems to stand in the pulpit above him, praying as always: “Our gracious and loving Heavenly Father, we are come into Thy Presence today with our burdens, our troubles, our sorrows.”

The afternoon goes on, and he continues to sit there, his mind coming slowly to rest. He leans back, his hands folded and idle in his lap. Showers come and pass over without his hearing them. The outside door clatters and slams, and footsteps tramp in. The vestibule door is bumped open, and Uncle Stanley appears at the head of the aisle. In one arm he carries a load of kindling, in the other hand a gallon bucket of corncobs soaking in coal oil. Loaded as he is, Uncle Stanley manages a whole chorus of gestures which greet and exclaim and apologize. Peeping over his load, waving the bucket of cobs, he shuffles down the aisle, his walking cane, hooked into his hip pocket, trailing on the floor behind him like a tail. “Go right on, Preacher,” he yells. “Go right ahead. Don’t mind me. Keep right on a talking to Him. I know you got it to do. Byjuckers, if you can squeeze it in anywhere, you can tell Him about me.”

He drops the wood with a racking crash down against a leg of the stove. He opens the fire door and lays in cobs and kindling, and douses in coal oil from the bucket. He tosses in a lighted match, the fire ignites, and the crackling of the flames is immediate and steady. In all this he makes a large avoidance of looking at Brother Preston or speaking to him, leaving him to his prayers. He goes out, and returns carrying two buckets of coal which he places beside the stove. He adds more kindling to the fire, throws in a few lumps of coal, and goes to the nearest bench and sits down, still wearing his hat. He has gone about his work, and now sits and rests, with utter familiarity toward the place. His attitude intimates that he is a fire builder by profession, the best in the trade, and that his skill and responsibility require a certain indifference to all other considerations. A large chew of tobacco is actively at work in his jaw.

Not wanting to appear unfriendly, Brother Preston comes back and sits near the old man—trusting that, by keeping a distance of four or five feet between them, he can hold the conversation to an exchange of formalities and then leave in a few minutes. But he is exactly as much mistaken as he was afraid he would be. Uncle Stanley gets up and spits into the stove, and then sits down next to him and claps a hand down onto his knee. “Yessir! By grab, last thing I’d want to do is break in on a fellow’s praying. I reckon there’s plenty of need for it around here. I reckon I ought to know that. But I had to get that fire to going for the prayer meeting tonight. Take the damp outen this air.” He laughs knowingly, slapping the preacher’s knee again. “Take their mind off of their old bones while you say your say to ’em. We all got our calling. You got yours and I got mine. And we go about ’em and get along. Ain’t that right, Preacher?” “That is so, Mr. Gibbs,” Brother Preston says.[1]

When I first read this passage, I was completely undone. I have tried to minister like Brother Preston more times than I care to admit. I have substituted busyness in my study for connecting with people in my community. I have viewed unplanned encounters and conversations as interruptions rather than opportunities. I have tracked progress in terms of measurable accomplishments instead of the more intangible work of the heart. And I have gauged success more on the basis of numbers of programs and tight schedules than on the inefficiency of being generous with my time. In a phrase, I have often tried to be “a bringer of the Word preserved from flesh”.

But thankfully there is always grace and mercy for the chief of sinners. I have a long way yet to go, but through the Berry’s stories of the Port William membership, I am slowly learning the art of being a pastor who truly knows, loves, and belongs to his people and place. Thank you Wendell Berry. I look forward to the many more visits to Port William that I will make in the days to come.

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[1] Wendell Berry. A Place on Earth (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001), Kindle Locations 1280-1305.

Sent to Serve: The Bearing of Christ’s Humanity on a Theology of the Church’s Mission (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Picking up where I left off in considering a theology of mission with reference to T.F. Torrance, in this post I would like to discuss some of the implications of taking Christ’s own incarnate mission — as testified and exemplified by the apostles — as the starting point (or more precisely, as the foundational level of theological reflection stemming from our evangelical encounter with the gospel). Previously we arrived at the conclusion that:

All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

Moving on from there, T.F. Torrance draws out the significance of this point:

The form which this re-ordering in Jesus Christ takes is the form of a Servant. It was through His obedience within our disobedient humanity that He restored us to order and peace in God…. Thus as Jesus was obedient in the Father, who sent Him to fulfil His Will, so the Church is ordered in its obedience to Christ who sent it to fulfil Hise303e2027514497aaa0603a129a3eb42_XL Will. The obedience of the Church to Christ is not simply an imitation of His obedience but a fulfilling of God’s Will through participation in Christ’s obedience….

The Church shares in that through the Spirit, so that its life is ordered through the Communion of the Spirit. But the Church that shares in that order of the new Creation is the Church that is sent by Christ out into history, to live its life in the physical and temporal existence that awaits redemption in the second advent of Christ. The Church in the midst of the old creation and all its disorder shares in the new creation and its new order. By sheer participation in the empirical life of this fallen world which comes under the divine judgment, and therefore the divine law, the Church participates in worldly forms and laws and cannot escape from them. It is sent to have its mission right there under law, but under law to share in the new order in-the-law to Christ through the Spirit….

Another way of putting that is to say that all order in the historical Church is essentially eschatological. By “eschatological” here two things are meant: (a) that order carries within it the tension between the new and the old; and (b) the tension between the present (including the past) and the future. True order in the Church of Christ is order that points above and beyond its historical forms to its new order in the risen Christ, and points beyond its present forms to the future manifestation of its order in the new creation. All order in the Church is thus ambivalent and provisional: it is order that visibly reflects its life hid with Christ in God, and order that exercises a provisional service in time, until Christ comes again….

All of this is wonderfully enshrined in the Lord’s Supper. “This do in remembrance of Me. As often as ye do this, ye do proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.” In the Supper the Church’s life and ministry is so ordered that it is bound to the historical Jesus, to His death on the Cross, but at that very point in time the Church is given to have communion with the risen and ascended Lord and to share in His New Humanity, and from the Supper it is sent out to proclaim that until He comes again….

As often as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we proclaim His death till He come, we receive anew His death and resurrection into the existence of the Church, and so bear about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the body of the Church that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in the that body. Through the Eucharist, therefore, death worketh in the Church and its members and orders. If through the Eucharist the Spirit of Christ is in the Church, then its “body” is dead, mortified by the death of Christ… It is only when through the eucharistic enactment the judgment inherent in the death of Christ is allowed to break up the hardened forms of the Church’s liturgy, into which eschatology is continually being transmuted, that the Church can truly serve the Lord it worships, and at the same time hold out life to the world.[2]

These are densely-packed paragraphs, but they can be helpfully summarized in the single statement that the church’s mission, re-ordered in Christ, is basically and essentially that of “service”. The church, sent out into the world by Christ, is called fundamentally to take the form of a servant — of the Suffering Servant, in fact — in humility, obedience, and suffering witness. The church cannot exalt in its glory, it cannot will to power as a lord, and it cannot claim to have arrived at perfection and so point people to itself. The entirety of its life and mission must be cruciform, as even the apostles lived and labored as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

The reasons for this are many. First, the church does not send itself on mission, rather it is sent by its Lord Jesus Christ. This means it must always adopt a posture of obedient submission. Second, the Lord who sends his church on mission is the invisible Lord in virtue of his ascension, by means of which he directs his church back to his historical life as the place where he meets it and from which he sends it out. Inasmuch as he conducted his historical existence as the Suffering Servant rather than as the Exalted King, the church cannot conduct its own existence in any other way.

Third, the very fact that the church which is sent on mission into the passing form of this world while at the same time sharing in the perfected humanity of the new creation in Christ means that it finds itself in an irreducible eschatological tension. On the one hand, the church has been given to taste the life and power of the age to come, yet on the other hand its field of mission is the present evil age in whose forms it must continue to exist. Its life is hid with Christ in God, yet its life is hid and is yet to be fully revealed. For this reason, the church cannot at present claim to possess the fullness of its future glory, nor can it claim the authority to reign upon the earth that it will one day exercise. Thus, the church is fundamentally a servant, and that of the future in the midst of the present.

Finally, the sacraments given to the church testify to its exclusively servant nature. The Eucharist especially makes this clear, as the church is continually called to the Lord’s table where it partakes of Christ in the form of his broken body and shed blood. The reality of baptism attests that its incorporation into Christ is a once-for-all event, and thus the Eucharist is not repeated for this purpose. Rather, it is repeated “until the Lord comes”, for as long as its existence is tied up with the passing and sinful forms of this world, it must continually come under the judgment of the cross and crucify the old man so as to put on the new. It is only as a repentant church that it is sent out on mission, and thus its mission can only ever take the form of an “unworthy servant” (Luke 17:10).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 16.

[2] Ibid., 16-18, 26, 197-198.