At Christmas Don’t Lose Jesus’s Divinity: Celebrating the Incarnation with ‘Extra’ Care

pro-church-media-kSjsDWDn3WM-unsplashWhat happened was that at the incarnation, while continuing to exist eternally in the form of God, He added to that by taking the form of a servant.
— J. N. D. Kelly —

 Given the importance of the extra in historical theology, it is surprising how quickly it is rejected or replaced with something else. The extra is crucial in helping the church to explain the full scope of the Scriptural presentation of the incarnation and how the Son functioned in and through both natures,
— Stephen J. Wellum —

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. And with candles glowing and carols singing, we draw near to the babe born of Mary and celebrate the fact that God is with us—Immanuel.

At the same time, when we celebrate Christ’s condescension, there can arise a significant misunderstanding about Christ’s humanity. In song, as well as sermon, we find lyrics that describe Jesus “leaving heaven,” or not knowing about why he is coming to earth—“Baby Jesus, do you know you will die for our sins?”  These boilerplate Christmas tag lines, but are they true? Do they faithfully represent the miracle of the Incarnation?

On the surface, they may sound fine. They praise God for Christ’s birth and his sacrificial mission to bring salvation. Yet, when we probe more deeply, it becomes apparent lyrics like these and many unchecked thoughts about the birth of Christ assume beliefs that have often been described as heretical in church history.

In particular, Christmas has a way of unwrapping the kenotic heresy—the belief that when Jesus emptied himself (ekenōsen) and became a man,  he also left many (or all) of his divine attributes behind. The theory, expressed in many ways, asserts that for the Son of God to become human, he must set aside his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his omnipresence. After all, true humanity does not uphold the universe, right?! For Jesus to be fully human then, his humanity must be fixed in one place, ignorant of many things, and unable to do all the things that God does. Continue reading

Rhythms of Grace: Three Reflections on Worship

sarah-noltner-F5-Z1H7lJaA-unsplash.jpg[This post is written by Matt Wood with a little help from me. Matt is a member at Occoquan Bible Church, where you will often find him engrossed in discussion about theology and leading our congregation in song.]

Do you find yourself in God’s gospel story week to week?

How does the gospel inform worship?

What should we include and exclude in our Sunday morning services?

These are just a couple of the questions Mike Cosper answers in his book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Written by a pastor who has led music in the church for decades, his book is fantastic for all worshipers in the church. In what follows, we will see three points about worship from Cosper’s illuminating book. Continue reading

The Happiness That Godly Sorrow Brings: Ten Things About Psalm 32

10 thingsIn preparation for Sunday’s sermon on Psalm 32, here are ten things about David’s confession of sin that leads to joyful song.

1. Psalm 32 is a hybrid psalm containing elements of thanksgiving and wisdom.

Gerald Wilson calls Psalm 32 a “psalm of thanksgiving coupled with instruction encouraging the reader not to resist the guidance of Yahweh but to trust him fully” (Psalms Vol. 1544). Likewise, Peter Craigie concludes Psalm 32 is “a basic thanksgiving psalm [that] has been given literary adaptation according to the wisdom tradition” (Psalms 1–50265).

For those who read the Psalm devotionally, not academically, the classification of the Psalm does not matter as much as how the elements of thanksgiving and wisdom work together. In the flow of Psalm 32, thanksgiving leads to instruction and words of wise counsel arise from God’s forgiveness for which David is thankful. In this way, it is helpful to see how thanksgiving and instruction reinforce one another in Psalm 32 and our lives. Continue reading

How Long O Lord?!? Teaching the Laodicean Church to Lament (Psalm 13)

bythebook04How Long O Lord?!? Teaching the Laodicean Church to Lament

The Psalms are filled with all sorts of praise and worship, yet one of the most prominent are psalms of individual and corporate laments. Unfortunately, these psalms of sorrow  rarely become our standard words of comfort and encouragement—rarely, until tragedy strikes. And then they become a lifeline for the sinking believer.

Corporately, these Psalms also find limited use. When the typical American church gathers for worship, we are accustomed to positive, upbeat sermons and songs. For reasons deliberate and otherwise, these sad songs get little time. Yet, as I tried to show on Sunday, this absence of lamentation marks a distinct loss for the Christian and the church.

By contrast, the regular practice or lamentation and confession provides a needed antidote to the superficiality of our age and it teaches people to worship God with every emotion. For that reason our church considered Psalm 13 and the need to express sorrow in corporate worship.

You can listen to the sermon online. Response questions and additional resources (including two songs on Psalm 13) can be found below.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds Continue reading

The Hole In Our Praise (and Lamentation) and Worship

chuttersnap-6jkiVl4mwws-unsplashOn my shelf I have a Celebration Hymnal: Songs and Hymns for Worship. It was published in 1997, foreworded by Jack Hayford (Pastor of The Church on the Way), and intended to provide “tools for ‘blended worship'” (from the Preface). Consisting of 865 selections, it combines new songs and old hymns, Scripture readings, and even various calls to worship.

Yet, what is strikingly absent are songs or Scriptures devoted to lament or confession. Instead The Celebration Hymnal celebrates all that the triune God has done. But it’s consistent tenor only highlights the good news of God, without considering the bad news of sin and he reason why humanity needs salvation.

For instance, the opening section of “Songs and hymns for worship” are categorized under nine headings:

  • Praise the Lord
  • Exalt the Lord
  • Bless the Lord
  • Adore the Lord
  • Glorify the Lord
  • Magnify the Lord
  • Worship the Lord
  • Give Thanks to the Lord
  • The Family at Worship

These stunningly positive categories of song are inter-leafed with Scripture readings to make up the first 201 selections. Likewise, under the category “Walking with God,” we find 12 categories:

  • Faith and Hope
  • Aspiration and Consecration
  • Assurance and Trust
  • Commitment and Obedience
  • Comfort and Encouragement
  • Prayer and Devotion
  • Purity and Holiness
  • Stewardship and Service
  • Guidance and Care
  • Provision and Deliverance
  • Spiritual Conflict and Victory
  • Peace and Joy

These sections compose more than 200 songs and Scriptures (526–752), and provide a well-rounded corpus of songs dedicated to different areas of faith, hope, love, and holiness. Yet, what remains absent is any mention of lamentation, sorrow, or pain, as well as any explicit mention of sin and confession.

Songs of “repentance and forgiveness” find four spaces under the category “New Life in Christ.” But these four songs are overshadowed by the ten songs of “invitation and acceptance” and eleven songs of “witness and and praise” in the same category.

To be fair, these themes are addressed in various songs throughout the hymnal. I confess, I haven’t read the whole book. But what I am interested in does not require a full reading but a look at the organization which the publishers supplied.

It is instructive that lamentation and confession did not make it into the arrangement of The Celebration Hymnal. While lamentation is a key biblical theme, only two Psalms of Lament are even cited in The Celebration Hymnal. And tellingly, those selections are from the vows of praise. Nothing comes close to the cries of dereliction or the screams for salvation that are found in Psalm 13, 22, 88, or 89. Continue reading

On Earth as It Is in Heaven: Seeking a Biblical Pattern for Worship

worship.jpegIf Scripture stands against our natural and cultural bent towards innovative worship, it also provides a biblical pattern for the kind of worship God requires. Last week I considered the first problem—namely, the problem(s) with man-made worship. This week, I want to show how a pattern of worship repeats throughout the Bible.

Actually, Jonathan Gibson has provided this biblical-theological survey already. In his chapter “Worship On Earth as It Is in Heaven,” in Reformation Worshiphe traces a basic pattern of worship from Genesis to Revelation. In what follows, I’ll employ some of his findings to help us see what “biblical” worship looks like.

Worship in Eden: The Basic Pattern

The basic pattern of worship begins even before the Fall. In Genesis 2:15–17 Adam is commanded to “serve” and “guard” in the garden-temple of Eden. These verbs are used later to speak of the priestly service of Levites. From the light of later revelation, we can see worship is not something that emerged after redemption. It was the reason why God made humanity in the first place.

And thus, Jonathan Gibson lists the basic elements of worship like this:

  • Call to Worship (through God’s Word)
  • Response (by faith and obedience, love and devotion)
  • Fellowship meal (union and communion with God)

Reflecting on this prelapsarian (i.e., before the Fall) worship, he states,

Adam was commanded to fast from one tree in order that he might feast at another three, and thus enjoy consummate union and communion with God—everlasting life. And so, for Adam and all his descendants, a liturgy was fixed, stitched into the very order and fabric of human life on earth: call–response–meal. (4) Continue reading

Revealed Worship (Deuteronomy 4:1–14)

bythebook04Revealed Worship (Deuteronomy 4:1–14)

On Sunday we began a new sermon series considering what Scripture teaches about worship. Over the summer we will learn from Moses, David, and Paul, but this first Sunday we began by hearing what Moses said about God’s pattern for worship at Sinai.

While our worship is not at Mount Sinai, but Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:22–24), the pattern of worship revealed to Israel teaches us about the worship God desires for those who have been saved by Christ. From the revealed worship at Sinai, we begin to see what God has in store for his church.

This week’s sermon considers this “revealed worship” and what it means for us today. You can listen online. Below are response questions and additional resources for studying what Scripture says about worship. Continue reading

Worship By the Book: Or, Why Sincerity Is Insufficient for True Worship

bythebook04In his illuminating book, A Secular Age (summarized here), Charles Taylor argued the unbelief handed down to us from the Enlightenment, coupled with new religious expressions in the 19th century, and accelerated by the sexual revolution of the “Sixties,” has resulted in many and competing spiritual longings that live somewhere between belief and unbelief.

In short, we are living in an “age of authenticity,” where expressive individualism seeks to satisfy personal appetites in quasi-spiritual ways. On one hand, our age eschews organized religion and the constraints of any spiritual authority—be it a codified text or clerical leaders. Whereas faith in the divine was nearly impossible at the Middle Ages, in our day unbelief is becoming increasingly normative. On the other hand, our age is not satisfied with nihilistic unbelief. Spirituality abounds, even when such spiritual longings and beliefs are left undefined. In short,

People are increasingly looking for a life of greater immediacy, spontaneity and spiritual depth than can be provided for them in the immanent order of unbelief, while on the other hand many do not find the authenticity and wholeness that they desire in the established (mobilised) forms of religion. (From a summary of A Secular Age)

In this space, individuals and affinity groups continue to create new ways of spiritual living and corporate (read: customized) worship. As a result, it is hardly surprising that sincerity, not truth, is considered to be the greatest good for worship today. What defines spiritual worship is an interior experience, not conformity to a moral standard or faithfulness to God’s revealed will.

How far we have fallen! Even in the church, where people and pastors know and want to know God (or do they?), this all-consuming desire for spiritual authenticity authorizes worship leaders to invent new ways of worship. Yet, when we go back to the Bible, we learn that sincerity is never enough for true worship. Rather, worship that pleases God is patterned after God’s revelation itself. And we who long to worship God in Spirit and Truth must learn again from God how he wants to be worshiped. Continue reading

Liturgical Lathes: Exposing Modern Temples with Their Faux-Gospels

latheI suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charge transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology then much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they ‘get it’: they rightly understand that, at root, we our erotic creatures—creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret.
– James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 76 –

What is Augustine’s secret?

In my first post on this subject, I traced James K. A. Smith’s argument that we are more than just thinking beings. We are loving beings, people of deep desires, who are powerfully shaped by our habits and practices (hence homo liturgicus). As Augustine put it, there exists within humanity, two kinds of cities—the City of God and the City of Man. And each city is driven by a particular kind of love; one ordered by the kingdom of God, the other by the kingdom of this age. This is (part of) Augustine’s secret, one that he discovered himself as he came out of a lifestyle of deep sexual sin.

In truth, made in the image of a God who exults over his people with loud singing (Zechariah 3:17) and burns with fire in his righteous jealousy (Exodus 20:5; Hebrews 12:29), we are a people of great passion. Passions are what drive us, and our bodies (with their faculties of thinking or acting) serve as instrument to express and carry out these passions. Accordingly, it is impossible cultivate virtue or eradicate vice with mental effort alone. We must “learn to control our bodies” (1 Thessalonians 4:4) and use our bodies as instruments which bring God glory (1 Corinthians 6:18–19).

But how? Continue reading

What Does the Bible Say about the Doctrine of Election?

electionIn the Bible, the word “election” is used in a number of ways. For instance, in Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of “the elect” (vv. 22, 24, 31); in Romans 9 Paul explains “God’s purpose of election” (v. 11); and in Ephesians 1:4–6, Paul says the Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” and “in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” These are but three examples that undergird the doctrine of election.

While debated, the doctrine is plainly biblical. ‘Chose,’ ‘elect,’ ‘election,’ and ‘predestined’ are Bible words. And when they are read in conjunction with passages that speak of God’s unique relationship with his sheep (John 10:26), his children (John 11:51–52), the ones given to the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17), and his appointment of some to believe (Acts 13:48), the evidence for unconditional election is incredibly strong. As George Mueller said of the doctrines that he once thought “devilish,”[1]

Being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths. To my great astonishment I found that the passages which speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those which speak apparently against these truths; and even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines.[2]

That being said, my point is not so much to advance a theological argument for the doctrine of election, but to observe more plainly how the Bible speaks of election. As Mueller stated, the New Testament authors assumed election was true. It was, in fact, part of their cultural heritage. The Jewish people were the covenant people because God chose them from among the nations (Deut 7:7). Yahweh blessed apart from the Gentiles (Rom 9:1–3). Accordingly, the doctrine of election is commonplace in the New Testament. Continue reading