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.

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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.

Psalm 5: Ever Singing for Joy (Psalm of the Day, 7/365)

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Psalm 5:1 Give ear to my words, O Lordconsider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lordyou cover him with favor as with a shield.

Whereas Psalm 4 is a song for the evening, Psalm 5 is a prayer for the morning. Though the psalmist has slept in confidence and peace (3:5), he awakes in turmoil and groaning. Such is often the experience of the faithful whose faith is often prone to faltering. In a fallen world where sin, pride, and falsehood abound, it is necessary that faith be attended to and renewed each day and every morning. We cannot presume on the presence of faith when the evil and corruption that threatens us from the world without also threatens us from our own hearts within.

Thus, the psalmist must turn his cry every morning to the only One whose faithfulness never fails, the King and God whose unwavering fidelity to his people does not fluctuate in accordance with their own wavering trust. How is it, then, that the psalmist can confidently declare that he will walk in faithfulness this day, even when surrounded by boastful, bloodthirsty, and deceitful people? Only on account of the faithful love of the Lord. Only God’s steadfast love—his covenantal, indefatigable, merciful, compassionate, and relentless affection for us—can sustain us in such a world.

Hence the need for assiduous daily prayer! The lies and flattery, the dangers and diversions, all of these demand that we continually beseech the Lord to make his righteous way plain and straight before us. We will always be tempted to “walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1), and thus God’s constant guidance is our daily bread.

The psalmist concludes his prayer on a characteristic note of hope. Falsehood will not speak the final word! Those who find refuge in God and his Word will be ever glad and singing for joy. Note well: God’s truth is indeed the victory over this world, but truth wedded to joy! God’s Word should always make our tongues sing and our hearts rejoice, especially when from the fullness of that Word—the Word clothed in flesh and dwelling among us—we receive grace upon grace upon grace (Jn. 1:16)! Indeed, when compared to the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus”, all other joys should appear as shadows and dust (Phil. 3:8). It was, after all, the desire of this Word that our joy be complete in him (Jn. 15:11).

The Founder of Puritanism: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Legacy of John Knox

An interesting view of the Scottish Reformer John Knox from Martyn Lloyd Jones in John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 52-56:

In what sense, then, is it right to say that Knox was ‘the founder of Puritanism’? The first answer is provided by his originality of thoughthis independence. The Puritan, by definition, is a man of independence, of independent thought. The Puritan is never ‘an establishment man’. I mean that not only in terms of ‘the establishment of religion’, but in terms of any aspect of establishment. This is, to me, a most important point. There are some people who seem to be born ‘establishment men’. Whatever sphere of life they are in, they are always on the side of the authorities, and of what has always been done, and conditions as they are. Their great concern is to preserve the past. They are found in the Free Churches as commonly as in the Anglican Communion and other forms of 1-john-knox-1505-1572-grangerChristianity. They are establishment men; and they always start from that position. Now I maintain that the Puritan, by his very nature and spirit, is never an ‘establishment man’ because of his independence and originality, his reading of the Scriptures for himself, and his desire to know the truth irrespective of what others may have said or thought.

Secondly, Knox is ‘the founder of Puritanism’ because he brings out so clearly the guiding principles of Puritanism. That is, first and foremost, the supreme authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God. I need not go into this. Roman Catholicism puts the Church, its tradition and its interpretation of Scripture first; and all imperfectly reformed churches have always continued to do the same. But the peculiar characteristic of the Puritan is that he asserts the supreme authority of the Word of God. This was Knox’s guiding principle. If a thing could not be justified from the Scriptures he would not have it, and he would not allow it to be introduced.

The second guiding principle was that he believed in a ‘root and branch’ reformation. That is not my term; it is his term, and it became the term of others. In other words, the Puritans were not content with a reformation in doctrine only. This is where Knox, and they, disagreed with the leaders in England. All were agreed about the changes in doctrine … but the differentia of Puritanism is that it does not stop at a reformation of doctrine only, but insists that the reformation must be carried through also into the realm of practice. This involves the whole view of the nature of the church. To the Puritan, reformation does not only mean a modification or a slight improvement; it means a ‘new formation’ of the church—not a mere modification of what has already been—governed by the New Testament and its teaching….

Such were his guiding principles. But, and this is most vital in this matter, he applied his principles. There is no such thing, it seems to me, as a theoretical or academic Puritan. There are people who are interested in Puritanism as an idea; but they are traitors to Puritanism unless they apply its teachings; for application is always the characteristic of the true Puritan. It is all very well to extol the ‘Puritan conscience’, but if you do not obey your conscience you are denying Puritanism. Hooper agreed with Knox in so many things, but Hooper had a tendency to go back on what he believed. When Hooper was to be ordained as bishop he said that he would not wear the vestments that were customary, and was sent to gaol; but then, afterwards, he gave in and wore the vestments. The point I am establishing is that the true Puritan not only sees these things, and holds these views, he applies them, he acts on them. This is where Knox is so notable…. He stands out in his conscientious application of what he believed to be the New Testament pattern regarding the nature of the church, and the ordinances and the ceremonies, and the exercise of discipline.

Architects and Builders: T.F. Torrance on the Apostolic Foundation of the Church’s Mission

In previous posts I have reflected on the importance of developing a theology of the church’s mission and practice in a scientific way. This means that, at a ground level, the church’s mission is understood exclusively in terms of the message that it proclaims, the gospel, and specifically takes its cue from the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. As the ascended and invisible Lord, Christ drives us back to his history narrated in the gospel as the point in which he continues to encounter us today, and it is on this phase of his incarnate ministry that we begin to construct our missiological thinking.

Another piece of the puzzle must be put into place, however, for the church’s relation to the historical Christ, both in being and act, is not a mere imitatio Christi. The full meaning and implications of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were not comprehensible to his followers until Pentecost when he poured out his Spirit on them. It was thus the unique task of those followers — the apostles — to unfold the fullness of God’s revelatory and reconciliatory work in Christ, laying thereby the one Acts 15 1-2 22-29 - Paul dissents with the necessity of circumcisionfoundation upon which the church would be built. Torrance describes the mission of the apostolate and its relevance to the mission of the church as follows:

The whole continuity of the Church in its apostolic foundation depends upon the unique character and function of the apostolate. The apostles were the chosen vessels appointed to be with Christ, to receive His Revelation and to assimilate it in their obedience to Christ and to be assimilated to it, and in that way to pass it on to the Church. But they did that as special instruments in the hand of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for through the Spirit Jesus Christ Himself returned to them clothed in His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, and gave Himself to be fully known, the same historical Jesus but now shining forth in the glory of the resurrection….

That was the apostolic mission, and the primary function of the apostolate. In it we do not have the initial stage of a continuous process, but the perpetually persisting foundation of the Church and its grounding in the incarnational Revelation and Reconciliation. In this sense there can be no talk of apostolic succession, for that apostolic function cannot be transmitted…. [T]he apostles do not belong to the succession of ministry, for they are not within it—the whole succession depends on them and is entirely subordinate to them…. Only the apostles were appointed by Christ to sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel; only apostolic witness is Holy Scripture, for their word is of judicial and magisterial authority through assimilation by Christ to His own Word.

It was as such that they built up the Church, ordered it and gave it shape in its ministry and its ordinances, and above all by supplying it with the authoritative oracles of the New Testament. It was as such that they commanded the Church to be followers of them as they were of Christ, and as such that they instituted a continuing ministry different from but entirely dependent on their own…. This Church continues to be apostolic in that it continues through its movement and change from age to age to be schooled in the apostolic tradition, and determined by the apostolic Gospel. It is therefore a succession through the Spirit in obedience, in mission, a succession of service, of faith and doctrine, all in the continuity of the redeemed life of the people of God…. The apostles were the wise master-builders, the architects, of the Church’s pattern of life, faith, and ministry in conformity to the pattern of the obedience of Christ.[1]

As Torrance insists, the apostles were uniquely tasked, among other things, with establishing the parameters and pattern that would define the church’s mission in conformity with that of Christ. Subsequent generations of the church cannot simply skip over the apostolate on their way back to the historical Christ. Rather, the apostles were those who, in an unrepeatable and thus once-for-all way, established and enacted the authoritative pattern for mission that would show the church in all times and places how to continue that mission in a gospel-governed, christologically-determined way. As Paul succinctly stated: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Note carefully: not simply imitators of Christ, but imitators of Christ in the form of imitation exemplified by the apostle.

It is through obedience to the apostles’ pattern of mission that the church of today is properly identified as apostolic. Thus, while the apostolic ministry is in one sense unrepeatable, it is in another sense reproducible, not because the apostolic foundation must be altered or enlarged, but because the missional edifice that rests on it must be constructed in strict conformity to it. Any form of mission that does not do this is neither apostolic nor scientific.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 26-28, 30.

Psalm 4: Our Only Good (Psalm of the Day, 6/365)

35263-psalms

Psalm 4:1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
    How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?”
    Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!
You have put more joy in my heart
    than they have when their grain and wine abound.

In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
    for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

Intended as an evening prayer, Psalm 4 begins and ends with the request for and confession of confidence in the Lord’s presence and protection. It is God’s proven faithfulness in the past (Ps. 3) and the certainty of his covenant righteousness for the future that permit the psalmist — the Davidic King — to lie down in peace. 

In contrast with the “many” who (once again) seek after vanity and lies (Cf. Ps. 1:2, because in such things they find their delight rather than in God’s Word), the King responds with the promise and truth of God’s election and favor (2:6), on the basis of which he knows that God will always hear and answer his prayer. As in Psalm 1, loving vanity and seeking lies will ultimately prove self-destructive. Those who delight in such things “have forsaken [the Lord], the fountain of living waters” and have “hewn out for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Yet they wonder why they can find no good thing. Is this not sheer absurdity?

In reality, as the King attests, there is no good apart from the Lord and the light of his face. Even the greatest pleasures that the world can offer — here represented by the finest wine and the richest food — are loss and rubbish compared with the surpassing joy of knowing the King Jesus (Phil. 3:8). Yet we come to know this only when illuminated by the light of the face of Christ, for it is in his face, and his face alone, that we behold “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6) that causes all else to appear as mere shadow.

Thus, it is the Lord Jesus Christ “alone” who is everything that we need. He is our joy, he is our peace, he is our rest, he is our safety.

Restoring the Face of the Ancient Catholic Church: John Knox and T.F. Torrance on the Mission of Reformation

In conversing with Catholics, I frequently hear the assertion that the Church of the Reformation (or the Reformed Church) is only five hundred years old and that it cannot therefore be the Church founded by Jesus Christ and his apostles. Without further substantiation (and it is often thrown out as a mere rhetorical flourish), this statement rides roughshod over the historical contention of the Reformed Church that did nothing but restore the one Church of Jesus Christ to its ancient Catholic and Apostolic integrity. Now the Reformers may not have actually succeeded in doing so (although I am convinced that they did!), but the fact of the matter remains that in no way did they believe that they were creating an ecclesial body that had not existed for the previous 1500 years.

Therefore, it will not do for Catholic critics of the Reformed Church to merely assert that the latter was a sixteenth-century innovation and therefore false. That is to disrespectfully ignore what the Reformed Church believes about itself, and it is also to presuppose the very thing that a Reformed Christian disputes, i.e. that the Catholic Church is the only true Church of Jesus and the apostles. Thus, Catholics who merely assert that the Reformed Church only came into existence five hundred years ago will sound convincing only themselves.

To provide some evidence that the Reformed Church believes itself to be none other than the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ, I would like to cite two scotland-edinburgh-knox-window-080615-rs.jpgScottish spokesmen who represent the Reformed Church in Scotland. First, here is how the Reformer John Knox, in the final book of his History of the Reformation in Scotland, summarized the goal of the Scottish Reformation:

In the former Books, Gentle Reader, thou mayest clearly see how potently God hath performed, in these our last and wicked days, as well as in the ages before us, the promises made to the Servants of God by the prophet Esaias, ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall lift up the wings as the eagles: they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.’

What was our force? What was our number? What wisdom or worldly policy was in us, to have brought to a good end so great an enterprise?—our very enemies can bear witness. Yet in how great purity did God establish among us His True Religion, as well as in doctrine as in ceremonies!… This we acknowledge to be the strength given to us by God, because we esteemed not ourselves wise in our own eyes, but, understanding our own wisdom to be but foolishness before the Lord our God, we laid it aside, and followed only that which we found approved by Himself.

In this point could never our enemies cause us to faint, for our First Petition was, ‘That the revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church should be [brought back] again to the eyes and knowledge of men.’ In that point, our God hath strengthened us till the work was finished, as the world may see.[1]

Here in the last paragraph John Knox clearly states what he had intended to accomplish in reforming the Church in Scotland: not to create a new Church, but to repristinate the “revered face of the Primitive and Apostolic Church”! This declaration received an expanded treatment from T.F. Torrance who speaks as a 20th century representative of the Reformed Church of Scotland:

The Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church. It is not in any sense the founding of a new Church, but on the contrary the rebuttal of the innovations and improvisations that grew up unchecked through the Dark Ages and then received rationalization in the mediaeval Church at the hands of the great scholastic theologians. By that time the whole piety of the Western Church had grown so far away from its origins in the apostolic Church and had become so powerfully entrenched in the life and thought of people and clergy that it succeeded in resisting all demands for reform from within the Church and demanded instead careful systematization…. But the Church could hardly go on growing farther and 1978_-_torrancefarther away from its origins by way both of addition and subtraction without putting a severe strain upon the whole life of the Church—sooner or later it had to reach a breaking point….

Thus what happened at the Reformation was the result of the deviation of the Roman Church in which it so widened the gap between itself and its apostolic foundation that in point of fact it shattered the continuity of the Church even before the Reformation took place. When the inner life of the Church as the redeemed people of God reasserted itself only to find it shackled and fettered by a hardened and rationalized institution, it could only bear suffering witness against the scandal of a Church institutionally at variance with its own deepest life….

This was the Church Reformed according to its own catholic norms and standards acting against the new-fangled ideas and conceptions invented and imposed by Rome upon the Western Church. The Reformation was not a movement to refound the Church, or to found a new Church; for the whole reforming movement would undoubtedly have continued within the Roman Church had it not been for the … recalcitrance of its hierarchy, which insisted in binding the movement of the Word and Spirit by the traditions of men and making it of none effect, and, when that failed, in throwing it out altogether, just as the early Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and followed with maledictions and anathemas. Thus in wide areas of Europe the Church as the redeemed people of God moved on in obedience to its apostolic foundation and left the opposing hierarchy behind to hard in its bitter reaction to the Gospel of Grace.[2]

Now I have no intention of doing the very thing that this post means to counter. This is not merely a war of assertions in which the Catholic claim to be the only true Church is rebutted only by a similar claim on the Reformed side. No, my intention, as indicated above, is much more modest. I simply want to make clear that in the Reformed understanding, the Reformed Church is nothing other than, as Torrance stated, “the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church”.

Taken by itself, of course, Knox’s and Torrance’s claim lacks supporting evidence. But that is beside the point for the purposes of this post. To my Catholic friends, I simply want to say that if you would like to engage in respectful and profitable discussion with me, or with any other Reformed Christian for that matter, it will not be possible if you simply dismiss us as late-comers to the ecclesial scene without further adieu. As I mentioned above, the argument that “the Reformed Church was a medieval innovation and not the Church founded 2000 years ago by Jesus and his apostles” will be convincing only to a Catholic. It certainly will not persuade anyone else.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 262-263. Emphasis mine.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 76-77. Emphasis mine.

Bridging the Breach: The Humanity of Christ and the Mission of the Church

Though I have not yet finished it, John Flett’s book The Witness of God has been riveting. Flett argues that contemporary missio Dei theology is largely plagued by a series of breaches that torpedo a theologically-sound account of the church’s mission. One of those breaches is that which ostensibly exists between God’s saving activity and the world. It is thought that this breach must to some extent exist in order to provide space for the church’s role in redemptive history. If God does literally everything himself inJesus.-He-bridges-the-gap-between-imperfection-as-in-us-and-perfection-as-in-the-Triune-God.- overcoming the ontological and moral gap between himself and fallen creation, then it appears that no significant or meaningful place is left for the church’s involvement.

I have not reached the conclusion of Flett’s own proposal, but my increasingly Torrancean instincts lean immediately toward a possible solution that avoids both the practical Arianism of missio Dei theology and yet gives importance to the church’s role in the fulfillment of the missio Dei, namely the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. T.F. Torrance, well-known for his strong emphasis on this doctrine, points toward such a solution in his essay on the meaning of order in the church:

Order is the co-ordinating of the life of the Church in its fellowship, worship, and mission in the service of the glory of God. The order of the Church’s ministry is the ordering of its life and work through participation in the obedience of Christ.

(1) In the biblical revelation the whole concept of order is viewed over against disorder and chaos. Apart from the ordering of God’s creative Word the world is without form or void, but into the ordered cosmos there has broken the disorder of sin. It belongs to the very nature of sin to divide, to disrupt, to be anarchic—sin is lawlessness, anomia….

(2) The biblical revelation does not work with a concept of natural law…. There is an order of creation (ordo creationis) but that is not discernible by observing the creation (cursus naturae) but only by observing the creative Will of God. This creative Will of God will restore creation to its lost order, and restore to creation its true form and harmony in the Word of God. That is shadowed forth in the divine law promulgated in the Old Testament….

(3) That new order, the new economy, or rather the eternal Economy of God for His creation, came into the world in Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation the Word of God entered into His own disordered world; the Light shone into the darkness; the divine economy entered within historical and creaturely existence. In other words, the Covenant Will of God broke into our world and is completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ both from the side of God and from the side of man….

(4) In Jesus Christ, therefore, in His Incarnation and in the whole course of His obedience, there has taken place in the divine economy a restoration of alienated man to fellowship with God, a conversion of rebellious humanity to the obedience and love of God. In other words, in the whole human life of Jesus the order of creation has been restored; in the midst of our disordered, sin-disrupted existence, there has been lived a human life in perfect order and proportion to the Will of God….

(5) Order in the new creation is to be regarded as a third dimension…. We are not simply concerned … in the Christian Church with the Will of God in love and grace, and then with the obedience of man in love and fellowship. We are concerned with these two, but with the two as fulfilled and completed in Jesus Christ, in the obedient ordering and perfection of His human life as an oblation of all praise and thanksgiving to God the Creator and Father, and therefore of our sharing in His obedience through the power of the Spirit.

(6) Thus order in the New Testament refers to the concrete ordering of our human life and being in the obedient Humanity of Jesus Christ. 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]

In Torrance’s typically dense and compacted style, he unfolds the biblical narrative in terms of order (creation), disorder (sin), and new order (new creation). This narrative sequence is more complex than this threefold schema would imply as it progresses through election of Israel, the function of the law, the prophetic witness, etc. Nevertheless, it is a helpful summary to the end of “ordering” the church’s missional theology and practice in a “scientific” way, one that faithfully corresponds to the nature of God’s own mission as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In one sense, the ultimate terminus of the biblical narrative is a new creation that is co-extensive with the old, when the kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. On the other hand, that terminus has already broken into the present — not in extensive but in an intensive way — in Jesus Christ. As Torrance explains, all that the new creation will one day be is now concentrated in Christ. He is the new creation, the new order, the fulfillment of the missio Dei in his very person. Having dealt with our sinful disordering in his death on the cross and having inaugurated the new order in his resurrection from the death, Jesus Christ is not only the God who creates new order from disorder but also the Man who has reached his ordered telos as image-bearer of God. As the incarnate Word, Christ is himself the order commanded by God and the corresponding obedience perfectly enacted by man.

Restated in missional terms, Jesus Christ is not simply the divine agent who accomplishes the missio Dei from the side of God, he is also the human agent in whom the ultimate goal of that missio has been fully realized on the side of mankind. By thinking out missiology in terms of the incarnation, in other words, the missio Dei comes to be understood in a twofold sense: both the saving act that comes from God to humanity as well as the obedient response of humanity to God, including the humanity’s movement from being the receiving object of reconciliation to also being an participating subject in the ministry of reconciliation.

This way of theologizing mission thus puts the vicarious humanity of Christ in center stage. This has the advantage of overcoming the breach between the missio Dei and the world (in the union of God and humanity in the person of Christ) while also giving meaningful place to the church’s role in fulfilling that mission (understood as a participation in the humanity of Christ). It also provides a truly scientific grounding for a theology of mission by establishing the obedient humanity of Christ as the primary criterion by which the church’s mission must be measured. Inasmuch as missiology conforms strictly to the missio Dei manifested in the humanity of Christ, it will be a theologically-sound, biblically-faithful, and practically-fruitful theology of mission. This is in many ways simply another way of saying that the church’s mission must be wholly governed by the gospel.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 13-16.