Covenant Renewal Worship: The Steady Work of Formation

Christians no longer agree that Sunday worship is centrally important to the Christian life. This was proven when worship services were cashiered in favor of “online worship” in response to COVID. But the dye was cast before COVID when it was argued that the church’s mid-week community groups, not Sunday worship,[1] were the thing that mattered the most.

While we agree that fellowship is an important part of the church, we can’t go along with the trendy downgrade of Sunday worship. Worship ought to be more than a few songs, a video, and a sermon that is forgotten by 2 pm.[2] Lord’s Day Worship should be a matter of covenant renewal, where God’s people are shaped through affirming their covenant vows.

Covenant Renewal Worship is how Christian formation happens. The more we hear the truth, the more we respond to it. The more we respond to it, the more it satisfies. The more it satisfies, the more we believe. So we must commit ourselves to joyful worship of the Lord. We must not devalue it. We must not ignore it. We must not close our eyes to it. Lasting formation is not quick and easy. It’s a work of creation that is slow and steady.

The church must retain the high calling of worshipping the Lord on Sunday. In the case of those who treat the Lord’s Day Service like a side dish, it needs to be recovered. Whether you are retaining or recovering, consider three encouragements for why Covenant Renewal Worship ought to be a central part of your family’s life.

  1. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians inhabit a sacred space

There is holy ground in the Old Testament, for example, the burning bush (Ex. 3:5) and the tabernacle (Ex. 25:8, 29:42; Numbers 9:15; Josh. 6:24; 2 Sam. 6:17; 2 Chron. 1:3-4; Mic. 4:1-2). But these concepts didn’t abscond when Christ came to earth. In the New Testament, Christians are holy space. Paul says “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Cor. 6:19). But it’s not just that each individual Christian is an individual temple. Paul tells the church, “You are God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16). “You are” is plural. The church collectively is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul reinforces the point in Ephesians 2:19-22, “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Again, the language is plural, not singular.

There is no longer one physical structure—a tabernacle or temple—where God resides. Jesus told the Jews, “Destroy the temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He “was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). Jesus is the new temple. He dwells, by his Spirit, within the church (2 Cor. 6:16).

The church is the temple of God (1 Pt. 2:4-9)—the tent of God (2 Cor. 5:1). For Paul, this is not an abstraction. Consider the practical application of this concept. When a member of the “household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) committed grievous, unrepentant sin, Paul commanded the church to “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13) and “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). In other words, the person was removed from the church. That is, the unrepentant sinner was removed from the temple of God—the sacred space of God. This mirrors the Old Testament understanding of holy ground. Michael Heiser explains “that the Israelites viewed their land as holy ground and the territory of the non-Israelite nations as controlled by demonic gods. Israel was holy ground because that was where the presence of Yahweh resided. The opposite was true everywhere else.”[3] Just as God’s presence was in the Jerusalem temple, now it is in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16f). The church is holy ground. To be put outside the church is to be on unholy ground, indeed, Paul says it is to be delivered “to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5).[4]

Jesus said that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Mt. 18:20). Wherever the church is gathered, whether it be for church discipline or not, they occupy sacred space. When the church gathers to worship on the Lord’s Day, they inhabit a sacred space and engage in a sacred activity. It isn’t flippant. It isn’t secondary. It is no more “take it or leave it” as was for Jews going to the temple. Christ demands that we worship him (Jn. 5:23), which means worship is a joyful duty, not just for humans, but for angels (Heb. 1:6). Lord’s Day worship is preparation for the day all will bow before the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10) and worship the Lord for all eternity, singing hymns to Christ (Rev. 5:11f; 7:10) because of the salvation he accomplished (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Every local church physically gathered for worship is a holy celebration and a holy pledge of allegiance within a sacred space.

The Christian ambition is to make all the world sacred space. That doesn’t start with international missionaries. It starts with the weekly gathering of the holy assembly.

2. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians train their children how to worship

Our children learn how to worship the Lord based on what we teach them. If children are separated from corporate worship, what does that teach them? It teaches them something untrue, namely, that they are separate from the people of God. When God commands his people to return to him, he says, “Gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber” (Joel 2:16). During the covenant renewal service at Moab, Moses said, “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (Dt. 29:10f). During the reign of Jehoshaphat, the king assembled the sacred assembly to stand before the Lord, including “their little ones, their wives, and their children” (2 Chron. 20:13).

Children are more than a begrudged addition to the assembly. They are supposed to be there with their parents, gathered to worship the Lord. Since they are part of the gathering, their role is more than just watching the adults participate. The best learning comes through doing. The children are to participate as much as able. This is part of how children learn to desire the pure milk of the word (1 Pt. 2:1ff), receive nourishment through the sacraments (1 Cor. 10:16), and sing vigorously to the Lord (Ps. 30:11f).

The most destructive pandemic currently affront is the wimpy singing from males on Sunday mornings. This is a sickness of the churches making. Churches have willingly separated their children from the sacred assembly. Think about the insanity. People are at their most exuberant when they are children. People are also most impressionable when they are children. Christian parents should be directing that impressionable exuberance to belt out songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to the Lord. Before the first hymn, Dad should say to his son, “Watch me. Do it like this.” By keeping kids in the nursery, we’ve taught them all the wrong things. Could it be that the pandemic of wimpy singing started when we put our kids in the nursery? And could it be that to revive the stentorian alacrity of hymn singing, we must reinstate the exuberant children to their rightful place in the assembly? How else will they learn to sing to the Lord?

3. During Covenant Renewal Worship, Christians practice activity rather than passivity

The average church service today puts the congregation in a fundamentally passive role. The audience watches the band perform, then watches the videos, then watches the speaker. It’s training for how to be a passive husband, a passive citizen, and a passive church member. What do passive people do? Complain. So on the drive home from a passive worship service, people complain about the length of the service, the song choices, and Mrs. Tuffin’s outfit.

Passivity is inactivity. Most people today work indoors, in a cubical or home office, behind a desk, in front of a computer screen, sitting for eight hours a day. Passiveness hopes to add together temporary things into a sum of permanent things. But it doesn’t work that way. Passiveness doesn’t produce the permanence of eternity. It’s sluggishness that leads to nowhere, going from one situation to another, one relationship to another, and one location to another until you end up in oblivion.

That’s why Covenant Renewal Worship requires purposeful activity from the congregation. We sing hymns congregationally, followed by hearty amens. We confess our sins on our knees before God. We rise to our feet and confess our common faith in the Apostle’s Creed. We lean into the sermon. We feast on Christ by taking the bread and the wine. We raise our hands to sing the doxology and then put our hands out to receive the benediction.

Passivity is all around us. But it must not be that way in the Christian life. To those who would make us passive, we must not submit for a moment. Covenant Renewal Worship is the weekly repudiation of the passive life. A vibrant Christian life starts with how you worship on Sundays.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] Jeff Vanderstelt, Saturate Field Guide (Bellevue, WA: 2016), 4f, 45.

[2] I recently heard a pastor explain that sermons weren’t important because they were forgotten by 2pm.

[3] Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 342.

[4] Why is the unrepentant person purged from the church and delivered to Satan? Paul says, “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). The destruction of the flesh refers not to the destruction of the physical body, but to the destruction of the ungodly behavior. The person is being put out of the church so they can live in the consequences of their sin, which may destroy the self-destructive sinful behavior.

Grandparenting and the Transcendent Summons

This article appears at the Theopolis Institute and can be found by clicking here

Introduction

Imagine the stereotypical American grandparents. Once you have the outline, start filling in the details. What picture emerges? Maybe something like what Ogden Nash said, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.” Or maybe the oft-repeated assertion that it’s the grandparent’s job description “to spoil the grandchildren and send them home.” This philosophy of grandparenting is to give the grandchildren whatever they want. If the children want more candy, then more candy they get. If the children want more fast food and TV, then they get that too. If the child wants a certain toy for Christmas, the grandparents buy it with no other considerations.

The reason these grandparents give the grandchildren whatever they want is that they want to be beloved. They want to be the child’s favorite. They want to be at the center of the child’s affection. This is why the stereotypical grandparents buy so much stuff for their grandkids, often against the pleading of the parents. This is why some grandparents insist the grandkids are perfect and incapable of wrong, offering excuses for their sin. The only time grandchildren don’t get what they want is if they play in traffic or touch the stove. Then they are told “no!”

If there is to be a generational advance of wise and faithful Christian grandparents, we must construct a definite vision of what kind of grandparent God prefers. And that vision must be right, thereby making other visions wrong. It’s time to publicly admit that there is a distinction between stereotypical American grandparents and a Christian vision for grandparenting. The former sets goals solely on a horizontal plane. The latter is living according to a transcendent summons.

The Biblical pattern is covenant succession. It’s not only in the Old Testament where God’s covenant is passed through the generations (Gen. 15:5, 18:19, 22:15-19). The New Covenant promise is also “for you and for your children” (Acts 2:39). Prosperity “is to see your children’s children” (Psalm 128:5-6). This means that the ordinary way God’s Kingdom advances is through covenant families handing the faith to the next generation. This is an intergenerational project that has implications not just for parenting, but for grandparenting.

Grandparenting is part of fulfilling God’s promise of covenant succession. Christian families should expect Christian grandparents to have an active role in passing on the faith.[1] All the love that grandparents give should flow from the goal to bless the grandkids not just materially, but also spiritually. This is the pattern Moses gave the Israelites in Dt. 6:2, “That you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long.” So, not only should the church love grandparents, but equip today’s parents to become tomorrow’s faithful grandparents.

Is the stereotypical image of American grandparenting a Christian image? What would it mean for Christian grandparents to conscientiously scrap the American vision of grandparenting? What would a biblical vision of Christian grandparenting look like? What would be the long-term result of such an iconoclastic vision?

The responsibility of grandparents is distributed across two spheres: (1) Their relationship with their children (2) Their relationship with their grandchildren

Relationship with their children

The influence of grandparents is different than that of parents. Parents are in the front seat. They have control of the wheel and decide which turns to take. Parents have the responsibility to keep the car out of the ditch. They have to keep their eyes on the road and decide when to stop for food. Grandparents need to be in the backseat. Their hands are not on the wheel and their eyes don’t have to be fixed on the road. They can look out the window and perceive the terrain. They might even recognize a few of the landmarks because they’ve driven down this road before.

Grandparents are equipped as resources for raising the next generation. But they must stay in the backseat. Parents are in charge of raising their children in the Lord. Grandparents are given to help, but not interfere. A mother shouldn’t have to contend with critical in-laws. Nothing good results from meddling grandparents.

Even when parents and grandparents share the same Christian goals for children, the details of how they carry out their parenting will look different. In the relationship with their children, grandparents must show restraint and not offer advice without solicitation. In a moment we will see that wisdom is the quintessential virtue of grandparents. The wise soul knows that uninvited counsel is usually scorned. Aesop said to “distrust unsolicited advice” and most people do. It’s best to wait until guidance is requested. The avuncular manner will prove winsome in the end.

Relationship with their grandchildren

It’s appropriate that grandparents are smitten with their grandkids. After all, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Prov. 17:6). One of the felicities of a child’s life should be their grandparents. It is a special relationship. Grandparents cheer for their grandchildren and take them to lunch. They display outward affection for them and revel in bringing joy. Grandparents attend games and recitals and use their home as a magnet point for family gatherings. But all this must rise higher than the goal of being the center of the grandchildren’s affection. The goal should be to influence the grandchildren so that Christ is the center of their loyalty.

Grandparenting is a different responsibility than parenting. But it is still a responsibility that ought to be fulfilled “unto the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) and “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). The righteous person will “still bear fruit in old age” because “they are ever full of sap and green” (Ps. 92:14). Bearing fruit as a grandparent means influencing the grandchildren. Not the sort of influence that is bought and paid for with expensive gifts, but is earned through the gravitas of gray hairs.

In many cultures of the world, the elderly are esteemed. This was once the case in the United States. People exaggerated their age upward to gain the honor of old age. Now, people exaggerate downward. Now, young people’s fresh ideas are privileged and old people are obsolete relics.[2] Young people are recommended as the model of Christian living. The virtue of their zeal is contrasted with adult apathy. When the cultural ethos values the young over the old that is because they value strength over wisdom (Prov. 20:29).

Not only do young people value strength over wisdom, but when they seek advice, they default to their peer group. Grandparents are fighting an uphill battle. They must make wisdom more attractive than strength. This won’t happen when their lone job is to indulge the grandchildren, forgetting the sage words of novelist P.D. James, “If from infancy you treat children as gods, they are liable in adulthood to act as devils.”

Wisdom can be made attractive when grandparents have profound and attractive things to share. The hope is that the grandkids are drawn to those sages who see through the fashions, who see life for what it is because they’ve caught glimpses of the deeper significance of things. Jordan Peterson draws large audiences by telling people “Pick up your responsibility, pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it.” Why are young men grabbed by Peterson’s countercultural message? Because their father and grandfather never taught them these things. The Peterson phenomenon proves that given the option, scads of young people will trade in the brassy sounds of their peers for the golden wit of many years. There is something winsome about a life where righteousness looks normal and sin looks strange. If grandparents want to be more than a year-round Santa Clause, they have to manifest wisdom.

God commands grandparents to share their wisdom with their grandchildren. Deuteronomy 4:9 says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” While it’s sensible for grandparents to avoid dispensing advice to their children until invited, they have expanded leeway to share their treasure trove of hard-earned wisdom with their grandchildren.

This doesn’t mean they should impose upon their grandkids, or seek to subjugate them to the olden days. Dispensing wisdom is a matter of prudent moderation, and moderation is the way to maintain the dignity fitting for old age. A wise Christian of many years ought to have storehouses of wisdom to share. This might be sorted into two categories. The first, we might call the knowledge of nature. This is the knowledge of God’s world, including science, history, and literature. While this type of academic knowledge may be useful, it is unequal in importance to the second category, what we might call the knowledge of virtue.

In the Bible, age signifies wisdom. Job 12:12 says, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” This is why we are to “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom” (Job 32:7). “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair” (Prov. 20:29). This is why Solomon sought the expertise of older men (1 Kings 12:6). Wisdom is not the accumulation of facts, but following the path of right living. Christian wisdom is the fruit that results from interaction with the truth of Scripture, reflection on its meaning, and the virtuous life that grows hence. The person of wisdom knows how to act in a variety of situations, pray in all circumstances, rejoice in suffering, love the weak, and enjoy the mundane simplicities of life. The collective wisdom of many generations is shared through a life well-lived.

But old age doesn’t automatically produce wisdom, as the old English proverb says, “There is no fool like an old fool.” Some men of age habituate the speculation of jaded years rather than the hope of the Lord. Some gray heads haven’t increased in learning (Prov. 1:5) or cultivated self-control (Prov. 25:28). Some octogenarians want to give advice having never received it (Prov. 12:15, 13:10, 19:20). Some golden-agers despise their neighbors (Prov. 14:21) and fear the wrong thing (Prov. 9:10). There is something deeply wrong when the church is filled with senior citizens whose stock of wisdom is small. Being a faithful grandparent starts long before the blinking eyes of grandbabies are looking back at them. It takes years of accumulated wisdom.

Faithful grandparenting starts with a wise person. The young are unlikely to appreciate the outcome of their grandparent’s way of life (Heb. 13:7) if they lack wisdom. Grandchildren should see that their grandparent’s life has substance. Substance means maintaining joy while the body breaks down due to age. It means giving words of hope in Christ and eliminating the entire wasteland of hyper-critical words about neighbors, waiters, and relatives. It means accumulating godly habits and customs: daily prayer, writing letters, taking time for people, and treasuring their spouse of fifty years. Grandchildren should see their grandparents faithfully live by everything they know to be true. And for Christians, that means to live as God-fearing saints.

Conclusion

The topic of grandparenting is an oak tree with many branches. And in the real world, many of those branches have an ugly case of canker disease. The various ways Christian families have withered during previous generations tell us that not every situation is ideal. There are scores of statistics about absentee fathers. That is a multiplier statistic because today’s absentee father is tomorrow’s absentee grandfather. It’s a double hit. Undoubtedly even some Christian parents who were raised in Christian homes think, “I don’t want my kids overly influenced by the parents that raised me.” In the grandparenting ethos proposed here, the point is to cast a vision for the future. It’s not written mainly for existing grandparents, but future ones.

Fish were designed to swim, the stars to twinkle, and grandparents to leave indelible marks. Your concern can’t be to point the finger of judgment at the grandparents around you. Rather, look to the future. Look to the day you will be a grandparent. Set out this day to leave a spiritual legacy for your family. If you are a parent of school-aged children, your transcendent summons starts with stewarding your little platoon. And as you raise the next generation, don’t forget to think at least two generations ahead. One day you will be in the fraternity of Christian grandparents. What kind of grandparent will you be? The answer to that question starts with a continuous advance in a definable direction. Let’s start asking, What does it mean for grandparents to “bear fruit” (Ps. 92:14) and fulfill their responsibility “unto the Lord” (Rom. 14:8) and “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14)? But let’s not just ask the question. Let’s prepare to live out the answer.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] There are numerous questions this short essay doesn’t address, for example, what role non-Christian grandparents should play in the Christian home and what to do when the parents are delinquent and the grandparents have to raise the children.

[2] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 18.

Catholicity and what it is not

Introduction

Over the past eighteen months, you’ve watched the embers of latent disaffection fanned into flames of revolt. The revolutionaries triangulated their notions of equity, tolerance, and diversity into a particular interpretation of the world, one rejecting the Nature of Things. A thin consensus about love, race, and sex animates local mobs and well-tailored media. But what is lacking cannot be counted, so the consensus penetrates only as deep as the outer surface of life. After observing the flummeries of the revolutionaries over the previous years, one gets the sense that the actual thing—the real thing—is purposefully kept in the background. That’s why it’s not only needful but refreshing to be in the company of Christians with whom you can speak words that correspond to the actual thing—the real thing.

There exists the need for a renewed and deeper Christian unity among the saints of God. The need is as old as the church itself and it is especially pronounced now. It is precisely for this reason, plus many more, that catholicity is one of the distinctives of Trinity Reformed Church (TRC).[1]

Catholicity refers to unity. In practice, it means that we want to bring Christians together rather than separate them. We will not divide over socio-economic status—white collar and blue collar are welcomed. We will not divide over dietary restrictions—organic only and meat and potatoes are welcomed. We will not divide over competing definitions of “Reformed”—some label themselves “truly reformed,” others as “reformed Baptist,” and so on. All are welcomed, even if you don’t identify as “reformed” at all. We will not divide over COVID. You don’t have to agree to one predetermined opinion about masks or COVID. All are welcomed here. We will not divide over the credo vs paedobaptism question.Even though confessionally we are paedo-baptist, for those who wish to delay the baptism of their children until there is a confession of faith, the session will defer to the head of each household.

Some Christians hear this vision with skepticism. To them, it sounds like another spineless church without a distinct flavor. It sounds generic rather than convictional; tepid rather than courageous; wimpy rather than strong. Indeed there are different visions of ecumenism. One calls for lowering all peaks to ground level lest anyone think Christianity has hills to die on. Another wishes to keep the hills, thinking clear confessionalism and catholicity make for a better vista. The first tends toward a short bullet-pointed list of beliefs inclusively worded. The second embraces the historic confessions of the church. At TRC we are decidedly the latter, which means we don’t feign unity with just anyone who wears a Jesus t-shirt. We define ourselves as “Reformed catholic,” which means we uphold the distinctions of the Reformation while seeking unity with all Christians who fall within the parameters of the ancient ecumenical creeds (i.e. “orthodoxy”).

G.K. Chesterton was right when he called it an error “to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility.”[2] The only way to respect another’s convictions is to have some of your own. As J. Gresham Machen said of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s relativism, “Since he does not believe in the objective truth of his own teaching, we might be pardoned if we failed to be interested in it.”[3] Robust catholicity rejects indifferentism in practice and theory. Within the circle of orthodoxy, catholicity requires deep exploration of the differing beliefs. There is freedom when you learn to acknowledge the strengths of other positions without fear of a shouting match.

What catholicity is NOT?

First, catholicity is not relativism

At TRC, we use a “Book of Confessions” to state what we believe the Scriptures teach. This includes:

  • The Apostles’ Creed (ca. 200)
  • The Athanasian Creed (ca. 361)
  • The Nicene Creed (325; revised, 381)
  • Definition of Chalcedon (451)
  • The Thirty-Nine Articles (1562)
  • The Three Forms of Unity (including The Belgic Confession [1561], The Heidelberg Catechism [1563], The Canons of Dort [1619])
  • The Westminster Standards (including the Confession of Faith and [1646] the Shorter and Larger Catechisms [1647]; American revision [1789])

The Westminster Confession of Faith is our primary confessional document. That means it is the tie-breaker and the standard for doctrinally examining elders. We are also Presbyterian in our church government. That means, among other things, we function with a plurality of elders. We seek both the peace and purity of the Church, without compromise. We deny that catholicity requires us to sacrifice our convictions that are rooted in Scripture and the historic Christian tradition.

Second, catholicity’s standard is not the “least common denominator”

In 1961 Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamented the problem that:

Everything is being brought down to the same level; everything is being cheapened. The common man is made the standard and the authority; he decides everything, and everything has got to be brought down to him. You are getting it on your wireless, your television, in your newspapers; everywhere standards are coming down and down. Are we to do this with the Word of God? I say, No! What has always happened in the past has been this: an ignorant, illiterate people in this country and in foreign countries, coming into salvation, have been educated up to the Book and have begun to understand it, and to glory in it, and to praise God for it. I am here to say that we need to do the same at this present time.[4]

With the advent of the internet, then the smartphone, then social media, the problem of everything being “brought down to the same level” has worsened. Catholicity is not about appealing to the hollowed-out version of evangelicalism that dominates the landscape. It does not appeal to the gradual turn that’s occurred, where people, even church members, take pride in their ignorance rather than their knowledge. God opposes the proud either way (1 Pt. 5:5). We shouldn’t be afraid to know what we believe and talk to others about it.

To be educated up to the things of God is not a call for stuffy Christian academics who cough in ink. Rather, it is to confess that the tastes and preferences of the natural man need to be put to death (Rom. 8:13), the inner self needs to be renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16), and Christians ought to grow up in every way into Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:15). To “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pt. 3:18) requires confessing the ecumenical creeds together and admitting these are hills worth dying on. It also requires acknowledging that not every point of doctrine is an equally tall hill.

Third, the Church’s catholicity is not like the world’s

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul brings the principles of unity and diversity together by using the human body as a metaphor for the church. The unity and diversity of the church are entirely different from the world’s idealistic pursuit of unity and diversity. Some may object that it doesn’t seem all that different. Look at UNICEF. It unites people from different countries to provide aid to starving children. Look at the European Union. It strategically unifies all the diverse European countries economically as a way to discourage war. Look at our public schools. They are strategically rezoned to unite different socioeconomic groups for education. Look at sports and all the diverse fans who unite to cheer on their teams. They may not be Christian organizations, but look how they set their differences aside for the greater good. They are seeking unity and diversity just like the church seeks unity and diversity.

There are at least two key differences between the church’s catholicity and the world’s. First, in the sphere that matters supremely, UNICEF, the EU, and sports teams have no unity or diversity. These groups have a naturalistic moral understanding that organizes social cooperation strictly for human benefit. They do not operate with reference to their Creator. They don’t serve for the glory of God. Their unity and diversity are flattened to a purely human level. It is meaningless.

Second, the church’s unity and diversity are based entirely upon the unity and diversity of God. God designed the church to be one body with many members because God himself is One God existing in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Godhead has a different role. For example, in redemption, God the Father planned salvation, God the Son accomplished salvation, and God the Spirit applies salvation.  When the church functions as the body of Christ, they are reflecting the loving triune God who forgives and saves. But when the church inappropriately divides itself they are living in a way that runs counter to the unity of the triune God.

Conclusion

As the world is increasingly aligned against the church, it is our conviction that we are stronger together. If the church is chopped and sold for parts by an ochlocracy trying to redefine the world, then we too will be redefined. There is what is seen and there is the reality behind it. The current cultural revolution is remaking cultural commonplaces so that the nature of existence appears different than God intended. In the end, it’s a project that will fail. Reality eventually trumps appearances. Many in the church talk about unity. Few do anything about it. Once the church unites around Christ, the Real Thing will return to the foreground. Words that correspond to reality will once again be privileged and the chuffy mob will become nothing more than an ambient cultural anomaly.


[1] This has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word that means “universal.” The word “catholic” simply refers to the whole body of Christ.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville, TN: Sam Torode Book Arts, 1905), 22

[3] J. Gresham Machen, What is Christianity and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1951), 194.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942 – 1977 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2001), 112.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

How to fight a spirit of self-satisfaction?

Introduction

There are many reasons Christians might find themselves with a spirit of self-satisfaction—anytime God permits them to participate in a great achievement. This month we celebrate the first anniversary of Trinity Reformed Church. In our wish to stay humble and give God the credit, we don’t deny that the planting of this church is a great achievement. God will build his church. As Christians, we become accustomed to our great God doing great things. But we do deny that we should be self-satisfied, or that we are the cause, or that God is finished with his work.

We’d be wise to strategically fight a spirit of self-satisfaction, which is when someone is too pleased with themselves and their accomplishments. Self-satisfaction seeks fulfillment independent from God. It manifests as smug complacency. In addressing this question, the application is broader than Trinity Reformed Church. The temptation toward self-satisfaction comes in many shapes and sizes: When parents raise godly children, when entrepreneurs start successful businesses, or when young athletes win victory.

Three facts to review

There are three facts to review that make God’s work of planting Trinity Reformed Church (TRC) a remarkable achievement.

First, God planted TRC in an expanding secular age. By “secular” we mean a view of life in which God is not referenced. The secular world is framed by immanence rather than transcendence. In this frame, tall and thick walls are built around the human imagination such that the natural world points to nothing more than nature, and human rulers are grounded in nothing more than social sciences. The world is closed and self-sufficient. Meaning is relocated from the external to the internal. Secular society is a collection of individuals free to believe the promises of their private lusts. The good life is reduced to wellness, equity, and endless entertainment. It is a milieu where the expectation of eternity and God are disappearing. People everywhere are discharged of reverence for transcendent things. Such an ideal is the exact opposite of Christianity.

Second, God planted TRC in a world that has played fast and loose with the definition of sin. This expanding secular age has a convenient scapegoat. People are now preoccupied with the sins of others. Entire ideologies now seek to whip up the masses into a fervor of white-hot indignation against the so-called injustice of statistical inequalities among groups. By peddling invented sins, and then ascribing those sins to everyone else, people have lost sight of, first, the definition of actual sins, and second, the presence of those sins in their own lives. This is how people miss the glory of the Gospel. If only their sin earns punishment, then I don’t need a savior.

Third, God planted TRC in a “pandemic” and the church grew while many others shrank. We may be tricked into thinking we are responsible for great achievement. We may neglect to thank the Lord for the favor he has shown. Churches everywhere put down their weapons (Eph. 6:11-20), forsook gathering for Lord’s Day worship (Heb. 10:25), and unwittingly made common cause with the world. When they finally began worshipping again, in many cases, they were fewer in number. Because of God’s favor, TRC had the courage and faithfulness to continue worshipping (John 9:31). This fact alone may be enough to tempt the members of TRC into self-satisfaction.

How do we fight the spirit of self-satisfaction?

First, remember who we are and who God is

Self-satisfaction is the result of a deadly combination where man thinks more highly of himself and less highly of God than he ought. This deadly combination needs to be replaced with a living one where we see the majesty of Jesus Christ and the sinfulness of man. The deadly combination produces self-congratulatory pomp. The living combination produces the conviction of sin. The deadly combination is such because it makes one forget his dependence on the Savior Jesus Christ. The living combination is such because it reinforces dependence on Jesus.

Second, remember the nature of the Kingdom

Since another characteristic of self-satisfaction is a sense of completion, we would do well to remember that God’s work carries on for a thousand generations (Dt. 7:9; 1 Ch. 16:15). He is not done growing his church or his kingdom. It starts small and grows big (Mark 4:30-32). God’s been expanding his Kingdom for two thousand years. As TRC looks back upon our first year with thankfulness, we turn eagerly to the future. As we look back, we pray with gratitude for what God has started. As we look forward, we pray with anticipation for an outburst of the Spirit’s power, confident of the continued expansion of the influence of Christ’s church in North Alabama.

What will that influence look like? That part of the story is yet to be written. In the meantime, we must not fritter away what God has built. We encourage you to use the depth of your sanctified imagination to ask God to expand Christ’s influence in North Alabama. As you pray, don’t forget that you pray to a God who “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:20f).

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Theocracy – the Christian Hope

The word “theocracy” carries a lot of baggage today. A term of derision for many, it conjures up visions of dictatorial governments, strict rules, and forced conversions. The literal meaning, “rule by God”, isn’t very helpful. The modern definition of theocracy is “a country ruled by religious leaders.”[1] Current examples are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are Islamic theocracies. The LDS, aka Mormons, had something like a theocracy in Utah under Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders in the mid-eighteen-hundreds. These examples do nothing to commend theocracy to us. Yet despite our negative conceptions, theocracy is treated as the hope of God’s people in the Old and New Testaments.[2]

Scripture doesn’t directly use the word “theocracy”, although the idea of Yahweh ruling is present throughout. The most specific reference to being under God’s rule is during the period of Israel’s judges. They served in a military and judicial function for the people as God’s representative after they possessed the Promised Land. This period was marked by its overall moral and spiritual decline. As often happens in periods of decline, Israel had a populist uprising and called for a change in government. They wanted a king like the surrounding nations. When they did so, God told Samuel – who was both a priest and a judge at that time – that by doing this they had rejected Him as their ruler.

“And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them’” (I Samuel 8:7).

During the reign of David, God promised that another king would come who would establish His reign throughout the earth (Psalm 72). Centuries later Jesus proclaimed a soon-coming kingdom that will grow throughout history. In His resurrection and ascension, Jesus was exalted as priest and king. Scripture shows Him ruling at the Father’s right hand, ruling the nations despite their ornery defiance. Paul says that Jesus will reign until all enemies are put under His feet (I Cor. 15:25) and the book of Revelation displays Jesus as the priest, prophet, judge, and king.

But this raises a question. How can we say Jesus is King when we see so many terrible things in the world? Would a good king allow death, famine, war, and other evils? Why doesn’t He put a stop to it all? Part of the answer is that there is a difference between God’s providential rule over all things – which has been since He created the world – and the reign of Christ in His promised kingdom. When God gave men and angels free will, He providentially allowed evil into the world. Though this is a tough theological and philosophical issue we can rest in the promise that God is sovereign, all-powerful, gracious, and He works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.[3]

This enhances the question. If God is sovereign and Jesus reigns as our King, why doesn’t He eradicate evil right now? Because He doesn’t use power like that, at least not right now. We have a particular view of power that’s different from what’s found in Scripture. We understand power as a simple force that requires people to bend to do our will. When two opposing powers meet, one will be stronger and subdue the other by force. But the reign of Christ does not work like that.[4] When Jesus defeated death and Satan, He overthrew the power of the adversary and the most powerful tool Satan had – the fear of death. He rules the nations through His Spirit, working in and through His people (His body). The New Testament picture is of a kingdom that extends gradually, rather than all at once (Matt. 13:31-33). He reigns as the kings of old would reign over colonies, through governors, representatives, and stewards. His great commission is the call to declare the gospel: the good news of the reign of Christ, His victory over His enemies, and His pardoning grace to all who submit to Him. As the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 2:8-9,

“You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.

We don’t yet see all things subdued under the reign of Christ, but by faith, we see Jesus, who came as a man to take upon Himself all the evil that the cosmos could dish out, and make a way for us to come to God through Him. Even though evil exists in the world still, our Savior absorbed it for us that we might be His instruments of grace in this world.

Part of God’s grace to us is the gift of civil leaders, those who rule, enact, and enforce laws. He appointed them to “execute wrath on evildoers,” (Rom. 13:4). As God’s appointed servants, every time they carry out justice, they are fulfilling the work of Christ the King. It doesn’t matter if they do so knowingly, although it’s better if they do. For many centuries Christians agreed that rulers had an obligation to rule in submission to the moral law revealed in Scripture.[5] Believing that Christ is Lord requires that you obey Christ, whether you are a mayor, police officer, artist, engineer, or dog-catcher. Rulers are in a unique position as they have a greater ability to implement the moral/natural law, and they have to do so.[6]

What then does this mean for us? On a local, practical level, the rulers of Huntsville, Alabama should honor God in the way they rule. They should act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. They should remember that Jesus Christ rules over them as king and they will give an account to Him one day for how they ruled. Because we love our city and seek its peace, the church should remind our city fathers of these things, whether they want to hear it or not. But the church as an institution does not bear the responsibility of forming and trying to implement a detailed political agenda. Trying to do so risks compromising the mission of the church and turning Scripture into a political manifesto.

But is that a real danger? Would people ever do that? Yes, they would.

In the 1530s, the Reformation was in full swing. Many German towns and villages were excited about casting off the yoke of papal tyranny. Soon the fervor of freedom led some to turn against their local magistrates, viewing them as too strict and oppressive. A tailor named Jan Bockelson believed that the theological and social reforms throughout the Holy Roman Empire (what is today Germany) were neither swift nor thorough enough. He had been a Lutheran but now believed that the Lutheran church remained in bondage to tradition.

Believing that the millennial reign of Christ was immediate, the charismatic Bockelson joined other radical reformers in the city of Münster. He proclaimed it “The New Jerusalem” and himself, who had taken the name “John of Leiden,” its king. He and other city leaders emphasized the theocratic nature of their city, saying they ruled under God and directly from Scripture. They abolished many laws deemed oppressive and redistributed property democratically. They legalized polygamy, citing Old Testament law regarding multiple wives; John himself had sixteen wives. Soon they began killing supposed criminals without a trial (the main crime was criticizing John or his “holy” rule). In an early example of cooperation between Catholic and Lutheran armies, outside forces laid siege to the city for several years, and in time Bockelson and his comrades were tortured and killed.[7] 

While this event does not discredit theocracy, it should teach us the danger of idealistic, political zeal, even towards Christian ends. We don’t establish God’s kingdom by force; we pray, prepare, teach, plan, and take opportunities as they come. In the light of eternity, we live in the dawn of the reign of Christ over the nations. We can afford to be patient but not lazy. We must not shrink back from the task of gradual, thorough discipleship.

In conclusion, theocracy is not just a good idea – it is God’s plan. Thankfully the church isn’t given the task of establishing theocracy – Jesus already did that. Our responsibility as disciples is to manifest submission to Christ in every sphere: home, church, business, politics, entertainment, technology, etc. As we pursue these goals together, the Kingdom of God grows and we anticipate one day seeing all things transformed in Christ.


[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/theocracy

[2] Psalms 2, 72, 110, Daniel 2, Isaiah 9:7, Luke 11:2, I Corinthians 15:25,

[3] Daniel 4:34-35, Romans 8:28-29; for a more detailed account of the doctrine of God’s providence, see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 5, “Of Providence.” https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-westminster-confession-of-faith-1647

[4] This is beautifully illustrated by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. See “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Tolkien on Power in Lord of the Rings,” https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2013/09/17/power/ 

[5] This includes Paul (Rom. 13:1-5), John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas, just to name a few examples.

[6] For a good summary of this see John von Heyking’s Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World

[7] For a shorter article on this, see https://www.thelocal.de/20180503/muenster-theocracy-history-anabaptists/. If you’d like to read greater detail, see The Tailor King, by Anthony Arthur.


Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor for Shepherding at Trinity Reformed Church. He has been in ministry for ten years and was a school teacher for fifteen years where he taught history, government, and economics.

How Should Christians Respond to Censure?

If you found this article helpful, you might enjoy reading our article, “What to do when your boss encourages you to join the moral revolution.”

Introduction

This is not the time for Christians to retreat to a hidey-hole and say, “The world’s going to hell and a handbasket and I can do nothing to stop it.” This is not the time to dispense with care for what goes on outside the wall, or outside the street, or outside the boundary of your neighborhood. The enemies of the Lord wish to squelch the church (Mark 4:4; 1 Pt. 5:8),[1] all in the name of tolerance. It’s a tolerant censure, which is as gentle as a meat-ax.

It increasingly feels like the only thoughts permitted are those prescribed by the “experts” of the ruling class. It’s more than a feeling. It’s the sad denouement of the work of Herbert Marcuse, the radical philosopher from the 1960s and 1970s. Marcuse called for intolerance toward those who wouldn’t tolerate everything. It was a new kind of tolerance—totalitarian intolerance. If that sounds like something’s been turned upside down then you understand exactly what Marcuse was aiming for, namely, the overthrow of the entire moral order of Western Civilization. Marcuse’s scheme for liberating people from the morality of Christianity was to realign intolerance as tolerance. Marcuse distinguished between two kinds of tolerance: false tolerance and liberating tolerance. In D.A. Carson’s excellent book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, he refers to this as the “old tolerance” and the “new tolerance.” The old tolerance is what undergirds free society. It presupposes that objective truth is real and we should all want to find it and believe it. Thus, society needs to be arranged so that people can freely argue that one idea is better than another.[2] The new tolerance Marcuse defines as “intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”[3] Functionally, this means that when Christians voice opposition to the new moral order, they are automatically suppressed under the condemning label of “intolerant!”[4]

The enemy loves it when Christians are quiet. Why? For the same reason that burglars don’t like doorbell cameras and poachers don’t like game-wardens. A censor buries ideas. A censure harshly criticizes ideas. To be censored is to be prevented from saying your ideas. To be censured is to be chided after you’ve said it. Both censure and censor come from the Latin censura, which means judgment or assessment. Modern methods of censuring (and censoring) are as diverse as a Community College billboard. Sometimes it involves the state, but oftentimes it is exercised through sundry forms of economic and social pressure. Christians may be tempted to speak only in whispers to avoid antagonistic attention.

How Should the Church Respond?

The church’s duty is this: First, to have Christian convictions. Second, to live and speak those convictions publicly. In 1863 William Marsh articulated this duty in a letter to J.C. Ryle, “Controversy, with meekness and wisdom, in the present day is a bounden duty; silence would be too much like neutrality, and neutrality is treason.”

Since oppression tends to drive the wiseman into madness (Eccl. 7:7), Christians must remember at least three things as they deliberately resist the world’s censure.

First, you have to disagree with someone

You can’t please all the talking heads. You must disagree with one party or another, with one idea or another. There’s no use in trying to avoid it. It isn’t the job of Christians to stand in the middle and help good compromise with evil. Such a compromise invites incoming fire from both sides. As the saying goes, the one who attempts to please all pleases none. Somehow Christians now think it is a virtue to find praiseworthy things in false teaching. This new habit runs counter to 2 Peter 2 and Matthew 23. The biblical pattern establishes that proclaiming truth requires challenging error. The church continued this pattern throughout its history. For example, the church challenged Gnosticism in the second century, Augustine challenged Pelagius in the fourth century, and Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church and restored the Bible to its place of authority in the sixteenth century.

Besides, why would Christians want to win the applause of a world living by lies? Before the Soviets expelled Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1974, he wrote this to his countrymen, “But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think.” This is largely the situation Christians face today, where they are pressured to say things they don’t even think—that statistical inequality is evidence of injustice (socialism), that those with more melanin in their skin have elevated access to truth (critical theory), that man evolved from goo (Neo-Darwinism). We must take courage and not mindlessly repeat the ideas of government school curriculum writers. We must, as Rod Dreher exhorts, “Live not by lies.”

Second, your conduct is seen by unseen beings

The average modern person lives in an immanent frame. For them, this world is all there is. It has to be seen to be believed. In contrast, Christians inhabit a far bigger world. For them, the meta-reality is unseen. Paul tells Timothy, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21). You are seen by God the Father, who you do not now see. You are seen by God the Son, who you do not now see. You are seen by angels, who you do not now see.

We must understand why Christians are swayed by the world’s censure. It’s not primarily fear, though fear can be persuasive. It is, as Jesus said, because people love the praise of man more than the praise of God (John 12:43). Why do people love the praise of man more than the praise of God? It has to do with delayed gratification. More specifically, it has to do with the difficulty in delaying gratification. When you obey the Lord, God and the angels see it. And they will praise you when you are in heaven. When you obey the zeitgeist, people see it. And they praise you now. You exchange future glory for immediate glory. You cannot be praised by men unless you are seen by men. Yet Jesus tells us that many good deeds consist in not being seen by others. Fret not, God and the angels see it (Mt. 6:3-4).

The reason the world’s judgment should be of no account is that your soul will be judged by him who made it. The Lord will not be impressed with a resume filled with the applause of wicked creatures and blind judges. You respond and say, “But the shame of the world is too great to bear. The ridicule of the Twitter mob is too much to endure.” This, however, is short-sighted. Will not the shame of God be much greater to bear? Will not the ridicule of God be too much to endure? Jesus warned, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32f).

Third, you must join with the church of Jesus Christ

If you are dissatisfied with the world, if you thirst for truth and righteousness, if you wish to see the truth of the living God, then join a faithful local church. If it is a true church of Jesus Christ, then it will see the orange barricades of the secular censure and drive right through them (Col. 2:8). Only then will you receive a message from God.

Conclusion

J.I. Packer wrote, “Ease and luxury, such as our affluence bring us today, do not make for maturity; hardships and struggle however do.”[5] Are you fearful that if you don’t comply with the censure, you will be less successful in this world? Are you worried it will hinder promotion at your job? Or that it will limit you politically or socially? Are you anxious that becoming a citizen of another world will make you less fit to move up in this one? Do you wonder how Christians will advance if they don’t play by the world’s rules? And if they don’t advance, how will they have power enough to solve the world’s problems?

In response to this flurry of unease, we must learn that the world’s problems will never be solved by those who censure God’s truth. This world will not be bettered by those who hate God. To restore the world, you must stand with the God who made it, which means testifying to the truth of the Bible: That the world is hopelessly lost in sin (Rom. 3:23); that there is a holy (Lev. 11:44), infinite (Ps. 93:2), living (2 Cor. 3:3), Creator-God of the universe (Eph. 3:9) who patiently upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3); that he has revealed himself to the world in nature (Rom. 1:20f), in his written word (2 Pt. 1:21), and his Son, Jesus Christ the Lord (Gal. 4:4f); that salvation from the guilt of sin is found in no other name but Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; 10:43; 13:38); that this salvation is a free gift (Rom. 5:15) to be treasured (Mt. 13:44).

In today’s world it is risky to stand boldly on our Christian convictions, because, as J. Gresham Machen says, it is, “An unpopular message it is—an impractical message, … But it is the message of the Christian Church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life.”[6]


[1] https://sovereignnations.com/2019/09/19/democrat-party-passes-resolution-against-christianity/

[2] Roger Scruton says this of the old tolerance, “The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke as the sine qua non of a free society. This freedom was enshrined in the American Constitution, defended in the face of the Victorian moralists by John Stuart Mill, and upheld in our time by the dissidents under communist and fascist dictatorships. So much of a shibboleth has it become, that commentators barely distinguish free speech from democracy, and regard both as the default positions of humanity.” How to be a Conservative (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 169.

[3] https://www.marcuse.org/herbert/pubs/60spubs/65repressivetolerance.htm

[4] For a history of political correctness, see Michael Knowles book Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds (Washington D.C.; Regnery Publishing, 2021).

[5] J.I. Packer. A Quest for Godliness: A Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1990), 22.

[6] J. Gresham Machen, What is Christianity? And Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1951), 287.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

What is the relationship between apostasy and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

Introduction

In our recent sermon entitled “Whiteness is not the unforgivable sin,” (which can be found by clicking here) we defined blasphemy against the Spirit, AKA the unforgivable sin, as attributing to Satan the work of the Spirit. We also saw that blasphemy against the Spirit is more than a rejection of the gospel. It is the obstinate refusal to acknowledge that Jesus’ power comes from God, even after seeing the truth of Jesus.

A common question is: What is the relationship between the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:22-30) and the apostasy described in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-29? Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is distinct from apostasy. Apostasy is deliberately turning against God and renouncing the faith. It presupposes that the individual was once a sincere believer. Yet, there are at least three similarities between apostasy and the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:29), even as the sin spoken of by Jesus in Mark 3:29 is not apostasy in the ordinary sense.

Similarities between apostasy and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

First, the unpardonable nature of the sin.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is said to be an “eternal sin” for which someone “never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29). In the case of apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6, “It is impossible … to restore them to repentance.” In the case of apostasy in Hebrews 10:26-31, “There no longer remains a sacrifice for sin.”

Second, neither can be done accidentally

Jesus’s teaching about blasphemy of the Holy Spirt is applied directly to the Scribes (Mark 3:22, 30). After watching Jesus’ authority to preach, heal sickness, forgive sins, and cast out demons, the Scribes attributed Jesus’ power to Satan rather than the Spirit. This was done after they watched Jesus carefully (Mark 3:2) for some time. Their sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a thoughtful, willful, and circumspect rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a settled condition of the soul. It is not an isolated act done accidentally.

The same is true for apostasy, which is when someone goes “on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26). This person has tasted the heavenly gift (i.e. participated in the Lord’s Supper), partaken of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God (Heb. 6:4-5). The clearest example of individual apostasy in the Old Testament is Saul, whom Samuel anointed as king over Israel. He was filled with the Spirit and prophesied (1 Sam. 10:6, 10), yet eventually fell away from the Lord and committed suicide.

Neither blasphemy of the Holy Spirit or apostasy is a one-time event done accidentally. It is when someone deliberately and actively hates Christ while knowing the truth. This condition doesn’t develop overnight. There is a difference between active and passive sin. Some sin in ignorance (Heb. 5:2) and Yahweh made provision for the person who commits unintentional sin (Num. 15:28). No such provision is made for the person who sins with a high hand (Num. 15:30f), which leads to our final similarity.

Third, each is sinning with a high hand.

Numbers 15:30-31 describes sinning with a high hand when it says, “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” Sinning with a high hand has three parts: (A) reviling the Lord (The Hebrew word gā·ḏǎp̄ means blaspheming), (B) despising the Word of the Lord (The Hebrew word bā·zā means showing contempt), and (C) breaking his commandment (the context indicates that the person sins presumptuously). In sum, it is an “evil heart of unbelief” that results in “deserting the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

Both blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and apostasy are “sinning with a high hand.” The Scribes, in Mark 3, desert the living God by rejecting his Christ. The apostates in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-30 desert the living God by renouncing Christ. In both cases, they spurned the Son of God in a way that goes beyond mere rejection. Each has, what James Moffatt describes as, “contempt of the most flagrant kind.”

Conclusion

So we see that even as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and apostasy are different things, they are of the same quality. It is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Apostasy is more common than blasphemy against the Spirit. It always has been. The question people have about apostasy is: When is someone ‘too far gone?’ While that is a natural question given the subject, we should be slow to answer it. Ordinarily,it is not our job to pronounce people ‘too far gone.’ We know the sinner excommunicated in 1 Corinthians 5 could have repented and been saved (1 Cor. 5:5). We know in the story of the prodigal son he repented and was saved (Luke 15:31).

Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-30 are teaching that first, human beings can develop a hard heart (like the Scribes) such that they can no longer repent, and second, those who intentionally forsake Christ after sharing in the privileges of the covenant community are the most difficult people to restore to the faith. In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the man in the iron cage can’t get out, confessing, “I have so hardened my heart that I cannot repent.”

Apostates are like the sour grapes of Isaiah’s vineyard song (Is. 5:1-7). Even after receiving the farmers’ care (Is. 5:1f), harvest time yielded nothing but sour grapes. Some plants don’t respond to nurture. Instead, they become a field of “briers and thorns” (Is. 5:6).[1] To repudiate salvation through the cross is to find no salvation elsewhere. There are times when God gives sinners up to their sin (Rom. 1:24), “sends … a strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2:11), returns “your deeds … on your own head” (Obad. 15), and no longer mediates for them (1 Sam. 2:25). That is not to deny that God welcomes all repentant people. Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

The author of Hebrews has not written these things so we can judge whether or not others have irrevocably backslidden. Judgments about who is beyond the pale are outside ordinary human wisdom. At his betrayal, Jesus told Judas, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Mt. 26:50). Jesus didn’t preach repentance or reason with him. Satan had entered into Judas’ heart (John 13:27) and Judas fell away from Christ. But when it came to Peter rejecting Christ, Jesus welcomed him back. In the case of Acts 8:22-23, Peter called on Simon the Magician, whose heart was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” to “Repent … of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.”

Sometimes the heart is hardened beyond repentance, like Saul, Judas, and Simon the Magician. And sometimes the apparently hardened heart repents, like Peter and the Prodigal Son. We must leave final judgment about these things to God and God alone. It is our job to point out the straight, high road that leads out of the Slough of Despond to the City of God.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] F.F. Bruce, Hebrews, The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1990), 144-150.

Are all sins equal and why does it matter?

Introduction

Since theology is more like music than calculus, imagine theology is a harp. The more strings that are in tune the more celestial the song. When Christians derive theology from the Bible, they are tuning their instrument. The Bible starts with God (Gen. 1:1) and then moves to his relationship with man. Defining sin is necessary to explain God’s holiness. Defining God’s holiness is necessary to explain his relationship with man.

As to sin, some people argue that all sins are equal before God. They point to James 2:10, which says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” James is saying that if you commit one sin you are guilty of all sins. Some argue that this must mean that sins large and small are equally damning, thus all sins are equal before God.

We must train ourselves to turn to Scripture on all topics and apply its teaching deeper and broader than we are accustomed to doing. In addressing the issue of whether all sins are equal, we are not attempting disembodied theology. We are re-locating human beings—and human sinfulness—in the framework of the Bible.

Are all sins equal?

To set forth the Bible’s teaching on this issue, it is necessary to identify at least six of the biblical principles on the subject.

First, ultimately all sins are against God.

Consider the sin of David against Bathsheba and Uriah. While David’s troops were off fighting the Ammonites, David was at home, taking it easy. He noticed his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing. Filled with lust, David ordered Bathsheba to be brought to him, where he then committed sexual sin against a married woman. After David learned she was pregnant, David ordered her husband, Uriah, placed on the front lines to ensure he was killed (2 Sam. 11). Later, God used the prophet, Nathan, to convict David of his sin (2 Sam. 12), at which point David wrote Psalm 51. He confesses his sin to God by saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:3). David intended harm against another human being. He didn’t intend to sin against God. Yet, by sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah, he sinned against God (Rom. 3:23).

Second, sin that is intended against God is worse than sin intended only to harm another human being.

Consider the sin of Eli’s Sons in 1 Samuel 2. They were “worthless men” (1 Sam. 2:12) who transformed the house of God at Shiloh into a Canaanite shrine of Baal worship, corruption, and immorality (1 Sam. 2:12-17). We are told that “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord.” Why was it “very great”? Because “the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” (1 Sam. 2:17). Eli then rebukes his son, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (1 Sam. 2:25). This means, then, that sins against the first five commandments are worse than sins against the next five. Blasphemy against God is eviler than lying about your neighbor. Idolatry (i.e., spiritual adultery) is more wicked than adultery. Some sins will receive the double repayment of the Lord (Jer. 16:18).

Third, some sins against people are eviler than other sins against people.

The principle throughout the Mosaic Law is that the punishment should fit the crime (i.e., “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” Ex. 21:24). This reflects the justice of God. The Lord says in Obadiah 15, “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” Thomas Aquinas explains, “Some sins are graver than others in respect of their species, as murder is graver than theft. Therefore, the gravity of sins varies according to their objects.”[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism question 83 asks, “Are all sins equally evil?” The answer is, “In the eyes of God, some sins in themselves are more evil than others, and some are more evil because of the harm that results from them.”

Augustine’s little book, The Enchiridion, is a handbook for the Christian life. He distinguishes “great” sins from “small” sins. One way to distinguish great from small sins is the intention and consequence of the sin. He uses the example of lying, saying some lies are worse than others based on the motive of the lie. He says that “every crime is a sin” but “every sin is not a crime.” Great sins are not part of the normal pattern of Christian life, but small sins are. Augustine says that we ought to pray the Lord’s Prayer daily. When we pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12) we are praying about our small, daily sins where we fall short and need forgiveness.

Fourth, sins committed by leaders are judged with greater strictness

James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” People follow the examples of leaders. When a leader sins (2 Sam. 16:22), people see and think they can do the same (1 Kings 14:16). Jesus pronounced woe to the Pharisees, saying, “You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt. 23:13). Micah denounced the rulers and prophets, saying, “Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them … Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray” (Micah 3:4-5). Similarly, Jesus says the scribes “will receive the greater condemnation” (Lk. 20:45-47) because to whom much is given much is required (Lk. 12:48). (See also Romans 2:23-24).

Fifth, sins in knowledge are more wicked than sins in ignorance

Jesus concludes the parable of the wise manager by saying “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48). This principle helps explain Hebrews 10:26-31, which discusses how the person raised in the covenant home earns “much worse punishment” when they reject the Lord (Heb. 10:29; see also Heb. 12:25). Jesus denounced the cities that refused to repent even after they had witnessed his mighty works,“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Mt. 11:21-24). Similarly, Jesus said of those who refuse to receive his apostles, “It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Mt. 10:15).

Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore, he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Whether “he who delivered” Jesus to death refers to Judas or Caiaphas, the point is that they are committing “greater sin” than Pilate. Why? Because Pilate was not prepared to comprehend the truth about Jesus like the Jews were. To the Jews belonged “the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all” (Rom. 9:4-5).

And so it is that some sins are more heinous than others (Lev. 18:24-30), and sins in knowledge are worse than sins in ignorance.

Sixth, there is an unforgivable sin

Jesus taught, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt. 12:31-32). Notice the distinction. What sin can be forgiven? Speaking “a word against the Son of Man.” What sin will not be forgiven? Speaking “against the Holy Spirit.” The point, for our purposes, isn’t to explicate the distinction but to merely point it out and in so doing point out that one sin is treated as worse (unforgivable) than the other (forgivable).

So, in summary, what shall we say? Are all sins equal? The answer is no. All sins are not equal. But it’s not that some sins are evil and others are not evil. It’s that all sins are not equally evil in God’s sight.

Why does it matter?

It teaches us about discipleship

When Augustine distinguished between great sins and small sins, he taught that great sins should be rare in the ordinary life of a Christian. Nevertheless, in the Old Testament, God warned against “greater abominations” (Ez. 8:6, 13, 15). In the New Testament, we see the Corinthian church so hardened to heinous sins that they not only tolerate but boast in them (1 Corinthians 5:1-8).

We ought to talk about sin like God talks about sin. God’s language about sin is designed to train and jolt us to detest that which God detests. This training is necessary to counteract the fleshly tendency to explain away sinful behavior with plausible excuses.

If we talk, like Jesus, about “greater sin” (Jn. 19:11) that leads to “greater condemnation” (Lk. 20:47), won’t some enterprising sinners justify the lesser sins? Indeed, there is always a tendency within human beings to make light of those vices which are concealed. However, this tendency isn’t justified by Scripture’s greater/lesser sin distinction. For instance, anger is a sin that can be concealed. Murder is not. Jesus saw it fitting to call each by its own name (Mt. 5:21f). In so doing, it’s not that anger is identical to murder (Mt. 5:21-22) or that lust is identical to adultery (Mt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ point is that when each sin is forbidden under the category of “murder” or “adultery,” we are trained to see that anger and lust are both sinful in God’s sight. This helps the aforementioned ‘enterprising sinner’ see the gravity of his concealed sin which he previously justified. It’s important to understand our sinful condition because, as John Owen wrote, “The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solidly believing and obedient person.”[2]

The distinction between greater and smaller sins is also helpful in the practice of church discipline. The church administers discipline differently depending on if it is a private sin or a public sin. For private sins (i.e., “If your brother sins against you” Mt. 18:15a), Christ says “Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt. 18:15b). For those in persistent sin, Paul tells Timothy, “Rebuke them in the presence of all” (1 Tim. 5:20). Paul modeled public rebuke in the case where Peter sinned openly. Rather than admonish Peter privately, Paul rebuked Peter “before them all” (Gal. 2:14). To correct the greater sin of which the Corinthians boasted, Paul doesn’t just exhort but punishes with excommunication, saying, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:1-13).

It’s also the case that some principles of God’s law are more important than others. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus defines the lesser matters of the law as tithing mint and dill and cumin (Mt. 23:23a). Jesus affirms that the Pharisees “ought to have done” the more important things “without neglecting the others.” Hosea 6:6 is another example of God giving one part of the law precedence over another. God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Yet God also desires burnt offerings, as we see from the detailed instructions on how they ought to be performed (Leviticus 1). This means that God desires love and sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean they are equal. God desires steadfast love more than he desires sacrifice.

It teaches us about the gospel

We saw earlier that sins in knowledge are more wicked than sins in ignorance. In particular, if you’ve received the means of grace in the preached Word and Lord’s Supper, if you’ve learned the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, if you’ve been washed in the baptismal waters, yet still reject Jesus Christ, then this is a sin in knowledge. The day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom than for you (Mt. 11:21-24).

Yet Christ still says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Why would Jesus say this even to those who commit the greater sin (Mt. 11:24)? It’s because even when sins are unequal, they have the same remedy. Even when sinners are different, they are saved in the same way, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

All sins are mortal sins, indeed, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ez. 18:4, 20). Sins great and small earn God’s just wrath (Rom. 6:23); sin is rebellion against the will of God. God’s judgment is pronounced upon all violations of His law. The point of James 2:10, quoted earlier, is that even a lesser sin is against God. Yet, the Lord declares, “As I live … I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel” (Ez. 33:11)? When a sinner puts faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and His righteousness, and His promises which are fulfilled in the New Covenant, “whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:18). “For therein the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

A final word of wisdom from Augustine, “Let us not bring forward false balances to weigh what we please and as we please, according to our own opinion, saying, ‘This is heavy’: ‘This is light.’ But let us bring forward the divine balance of the Holy Scriptures, as from the Lord’s treasury, and in that balance let us weigh what is heavier. No—not weigh; rather, let us recognize what the Lord has already weighed.”[3]


[1] Summa Theologica II: 73:3

[2] John Owen, Sin and Temptation, xviii

[3] Augustine, On Baptism, Against the Donatists II. Vi. 9 (MPL 43. 132; tr.NPNF IV. 429).


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

All Culture-Making is Local

Introduction

Culture-making is one of the ways we change the world. But we should think small before we think big. Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” What if we thought of culture-making in the same way? What if all culture-making started locally? What if we started by establishing a Christian culture in our family, our church, and our schools? Also included in this list are our businesses, if we own them, our youth soccer teams, if we coach them, and our book groups, if we host them.

Jesus said that they will know we are Christians by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35). The center of Christian love is sacrifice. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn. 10:11), and “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Paul said, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8) and “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). John said, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).

I once heard it said that love is so powerful it can be neither measured nor seen. The Bible disagrees. Christ’s love for the church is that he gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). This is love for all to see, in the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ for his bride. Love is not some mystic notion that dances just beyond our senses. It is seen. It is done. Love is Jesus willingly sacrificing his life for his bride. It was a sacrifice seen by people with eyes. It was followed up with a resurrection that was seen by people with eyes. And it is the love Christians are called to emulate.

Sacrifice is the visible and tangible expression of love. If we are going to establish a truly Christian culture in our families, churches, and schools, we need to establish a culture of sacrifice. The work of establishing is hard. We need somewhere to begin. To create a local culture is to steer an association in such a way that patterns emerge over time and are passed down from generation to generation. This happens through discussions, allusions, and actions. It happens through institutions, laughter, and singing. And it needs to happen on two levels.

Two-level Culture Making

First, the instinctive level

The word “instinctive” comes from the Latin instinctus, which means “impulse” and from the Latin instinguere, which means “an inward prick.” Something instinctive is something natural, something automatic, something innate. You might think that intuitive ways of acting or thinking are inborn. In truth, they can be trained into the soul as something deeper than valid syllogisms or animal desires.

Sacrifice must never be mere theoretical knowledge. For it to be believed is for it to be practiced (Phil. 2:5-11). When sacrifice becomes instinctive you know what to do in a world of ever-changing situations. In this way, sacrifice becomes a form of knowledge, the best kind of knowledge, the kind that comes out of your fingertips before you even realize it. This kind of knowledge is caught, not taught, as they say. It is not ordinarily acquired in a classroom, but by full immersion in a community.

The word community is overused today. In the Christian sense, community is made up of people bound together by their common faith in Christ, unified by the Spirit of Christ, and sealed by their one baptism into Christ (Eph. 4:4-6). Paul called those people “members” of a body where some are feet, some are hands, some are eyes, and some are unpresentable parts (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Christian community is not only made up of the living. It is between the living and our long-passed grandmothers (2 Tim. 1:5) and between the living and those who came before as examples for our instructions (1 Cor. 10:11-12). It is also between the living and those yet born who will receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

Because the covenant community is bound together in Christ, its binding principle is the sacrificial love of Christ. This is our shared inheritance. We receive it. Then we give it. But it’s more than a line of obligation. It’s the reflex of Christian love that develops by osmosis. More practically, it develops when dads, moms, elders, and teachers live sacrificially day by day in the Spirit’s power rather than their own. Children, church members, and students are absorbed into the ethos of sacrifice. They learn that babysitting for isolated and struggling church members makes for a joyful day. They learn how to love sacrificially when they have a conversation, when they have an elderly neighbor, and when the day is stacked against them. They gather an instinctive sense that the best obligations aren’t the ones freely chosen, but the ones joyfully received.

Second, the personal level

A culture of sacrifice must reflect that we are not only bound to Christ and his body, but we are loyal and caring toward actual living, breathing people. Devotion to a particular group of people creates a sense of responsibility toward those people. This develops through face-to-face interaction. Here, more than text messages or tweets, we learn to interact with others in a way where we have responsibility for their well-being. Gathering together, fellowshipping at the park, and sitting around the table, is another form of knowledge. This is where you learn to exchange promises and sacrifices and say, “These are my people. I have a responsibility toward them.” They aren’t a name on a prayer list, but a friend who is hurting.

The personal level is about re-establishing the virtue of duty. It’s not that one member ought to be held responsible for the behaviors of another member. Its that members have a duty toward the community. Duties differ depending on if they are conveyed to the weak, the unborn, or those who came before. It’s a duty that rejects false desires and embraces true ones, counting others more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3). Duty means that we go together. It means that together we are, as John Williams has written, “ready to slog the road that ends all roads.”[1] But how do we get to slogging? How do we shape a culture that gets to the personal level?

First, whether at home, at church, or school, small routines of service can be incorporated into the community. Parents may assign their children chores around the house. Elders may encourage members to use their gifts to serve the body. Teachers may stipulate sweeping floors as part of the class routine. These subtle acts of sacrifice and service build a social knowledge of responsibility toward others. The children learn the home is ours. The members learn that the body of Christ is interdependent. The students learn that wisdom requires people to get out of their chairs.  

Second, culture-creation on the personal level happens through the stories we tell, which is why Christians must collect stories that model our aspirations. We must tell stories of God and his people, including the stories of the Bible and church history. These stories are rooted in the covenant loyalty of God to his people, a loyalty where God sacrificed himself to save his people. The Christian story is a product of sacrifice. When it’s told over and over it produces a culture of sacrifice—one where last means first and loss means gain; where sacrificing your life is a rite of passage into maturity.  

Third, a culture of Christian love is active, not passive. When children drift through childhood according to the defaults of the zeitgeist, too often they emerge as children in adult bodies lacking a sense of duty, responsibility, or hard work. Where does perpetual passivity come from? Excessive screen time creates distracted and drifting souls. Continual consumption with no thought of production creates entitlement. Bubble-wrapped kids don’t learn the lessons taught by skinned-knees. Age segregation and peer culture don’t build wisdom, character, or self-control. If we are going to cultivate a culture of people that see themselves as God’s children called to love and serve their neighbor, we must overcome these worldly patterns of passivity.

Conclusion

The culture of sacrifice is not calling its members to become doormats. Sacrifice has expansive application. It’s sacrificial love to mow your neighbor’s lawn when he’s out of town, or to host several families for dinner, or to refuse to sign the corporate “diversity” pledge.[2] In each case, something was sacrificed, something was given up, and someone received the love of Christ through what was given up. It’s not that love is the only virtue. Love sums up the whole law (Mt. 22:37-40), which means that no command in Scripture can be followed if we don’t love God and neighbor.

A culture of natural selection, the survival of the fittest, and what Richard Dawkins calls, “the selfish gene,” inevitably reproduces itself. Which is another way of saying it destroys itself. A culture of sacrifice, the interaction of others-centered beings made by a God of loving sacrifice in a culture defined by what Paul calls “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), inevitable reproduces itself, which is another way of saying the mustard seed grows into a tree (Lk. 13:19).

A culture of sacrifice is not a utilitarian ploy for leaders to manipulate people. It’s not about merely producing a certain outcome—i.e., the kids stop fighting, the church members cease gossiping, and the students quit complaining. It’s about living in such a way that reflects Ultimate Reality, namely, God himself, his character, his becoming a curse to redeem those who were under the curse (Gal. 3:13). When you live every day under this Ultimate Reality, and those around you do the same, belief in God locks into the soul in a way where it can’t be unlocked.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] John Williams, Augustus (New York; New York Review of Books, 1971), 239.

[2] https://www.city-journal.org/raytheon-adopts-critical-race-theory

The Forgotten Requirement of the Dominion Mandate

God made human beings in his image as people who require knowledge (Prov. 18:15). To argue otherwise, to argue that we don’t require knowledge, is to spit in the face of the doctrine that says that human beings are made in the image of God. When we say otherwise—that people don’t require knowledge—we treat people as if they are less than image-bearers of the God of all knowledge. C.S. Lewis wrote, “One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.”[1]

Image-bearers are called to be “knowers.” Consider God’s instructions to Adam in Genesis 1:28-30, “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ 29 And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”

In verse 28 God tells Adam to do three things: (1) To be fruitful and multiply on the earth (2) to subdue the earth (3) to have dominion on the earth. When God tells Adam to have dominion, He is telling Adam to rule as a vice-regent. A vice-regent is a person who acts in the name of another, notably, the Regent. Who is the Regent?God is the Regent! So, when God tells Adam to be a vice-regent, he is telling Adam to act on behalf of the Regent—to act on behalf of God.

Can you act on behalf of someone if you don’t know them? The answer is no. Can Adam act on behalf of God if he doesn’t know God and what God wants? The answer is no. So that means the role of earth’s vice-regent starts with knowing the Creator of the earth—the Regent. It means being suffused with a rich and personal knowledge of God.

Adam is to rule God’s earth, something that can’t happen without knowing about the earth. For a vice-regent to rule the earth he must know the Creator of the earth and he must know about God’s created order. With these two things—knowing God and knowing the created order—image-bearers have dominion, and by having dominion they bless God’s world.

When you know the Creator and the created order, that means you can express something of the reality of the Rock of Ages and his richly varied creation. This involves speaking words that construct the true reality. That is the vocation of the image-bearers. When image-bearers embrace their vocation of dominion over the earth they are embracing a rich vocation of knowing. And the vocation of knowing is about reaching out for pieces of reality, because the more you know about God’s world, the more you know about the God who made it.

Therefore, when we constantly dumb it down, we treat people as if they were made to stare at the glowing screen. When we constantly oversimplify, we treat people as if they are evolved from primates. When we retreat “from the cultivation and celebration of learning,” we treat people as if they were less than God made them. God created us to be inquisitive, to seek knowledge, to pursue the truth. This is why when the church projects a generalized contempt for learning, they are failing in the duty to deal with people soul to soul.[2]

Paul said, that “what can be known about God is plain . . . So they are without excuse.” When we suppress “what can be known” we are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Suppressing knowledge is inexcusable for human beings; it devalues life itself. Aristotle said, “All human beings by nature desire to know.” Thomas Aquinas said, “There is in man an inclination to good, according to the nature of his reason, which nature is proper to him: thus man has a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society: and in this respect, whatever pertains to this inclination belongs to the natural law; for instance, to shun ignorance.”[3] Mark Lilla says, “To most humans, curiosity about higher things comes naturally, it’s indifference to them that must be learned.”[4] 

In 1961 Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamented the problem that “Everything is being brought down to the same level; everything is being cheapened. The common man is made the standard and the authority; he decides everything, and everything has got to be brought down to him. You are getting it on your wireless, your television, in your newspapers; everywhere standards are coming down and down.”

The solution isn’t to teach over people’s heads in a way they can’t understand. The solution isn’t to leave people behind or form some elitist cult of knowledge. Lloyd-Jones’ solution is as follows, “What has always happened in the past has been this: an ignorant, illiterate people in this country and in foreign countries, coming into salvation, have been educated up to the Book and have begun to understand it, and to glory in it, and to praise God for it. I am here to say that we need to do the same at this present time.”[5]

It is the enemy who wants to turn us into low-information people. Satan has a game plan for destroying ignorant souls. The enemy wants to hinder knowledge because he knows that embracing ignorance, neglecting insight, slighting knowledge, and despising the truth, is the highway to hell. The Puritan, Thomas Brooks explains: “Ignorance is the mother of mistake, the cause of trouble, error, and of terror, it is the highway to hell, and it makes a man both a prisoner and a slave to the devil at once. Ignorance unmans a man; it makes a man a beast, yea, makes him more miserable than the beast that perisheth. There are none so easily nor so frequently taken in Satan’s snares as ignorant souls. They are easily drawn to dance with the devil all day, and to dream of supping with Christ at night.” [6]

Why is it that lack of knowledge is the enemy’s snare? It is because, as G.K. Chesterton said, “Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller.”[7] In other words, without a full complement of mature ideas, people are more susceptible to embrace the first notion of meaning and significance that flies into their heads. Ignorance makes people an easy mark for Satan’s snipers.

Why would Thomas Brooks and G.K. Chesterton say such things? Isn’t passion the important thing? Isn’t zeal and excitement the most important thing? While modern man may prize zeal over knowledge, Proverbs 19:2 says, “Desire without knowledge is not good.” Why is it not good? Jesus explained that “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Mt. 6:22).

So, desire without knowledge tends toward dark desire. This is why Paul lamented the Jews’ “zeal for God … not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2). If a person is all zeal without knowledge, that often means they will zealously do evil. But if you think Paul is anti-zeal, think again. He instructs leaders to lead with zeal and Christians to love and serve with zeal (Romans 12:8-11). Thomas Brooks said that “a leprous head and a leprous heart are inseparable companions.” Ignorance deforms the soul, making it like a workman without hands, or as a traveler without legs, or as a ship without sails, or as a sofa without cushions. When zeal is directed by knowledge it leads to service to the Lord. When zeal is disconnected from knowledge, it leads to self-centered display.

Ignorance is a sin that leads to all sins. In Matthew 22:29, Jesus told the Pharisees, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” All sins are seminally in ignorance. Jesus explained that the world will persecute Christians because they don’t know Jesus (Jn. 16:2f). Paul persecuted the church in ignorance (1 Tim. 1:13). The Jews and Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, knowing not what they were doing (Lk. 23:34; 1 Cor. 2:8). Thomas Brooks says, “Sin at first was the cause of ignorance, but now ignorance is the cause of all sin.”

But the point isn’t merely to acquire worldly knowledge. Hebrews 3:10 warns, “They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.” Paul warns in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 that God will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God.” Isaiah 27:11 warns, “This is a people without discernment; therefore he who made them will not have compassion on them.” These warnings prioritize the type of knowledge Christians seek. It is a knowledge of God’s ways, without which, we go astray. It is a knowledge of God himself, without which, God inflicts vengeance. It is a knowledge that rightly discerns, without which, God will not have compassion.

Consider, three concluding clarifications. First, we don’t require knowledge for knowledge’s sake. We don’t require knowledge merely to say we know. We require knowledge because the human mind requires enlarged horizons. This includes the horizons of desires and wants. The need for knowledge goes deeper than facts. It must prepare the soul for satisfying legitimate wants within the order of the universe God made for us to live in.

Second, the fact that God made humans as creatures who require knowledge doesn’t mean all knowledge is the same. Knowledge of grace ought to come before knowledge of nature, just as knowledge of faith, virtue, and poetry ought to come before evidence, science, and life-hacking. In other words, God made human beings as creatures who require knowledge, and that knowledge is not primarily utilitarian.

Third, neither does it mean that partial, earthly knowledge won’t pass away (1 Cor. 13:8). It will. Much of what is required on earth will “pass away” in the light of the presence of God. Seeing Christ face to face will bring a new knowledge that transforms and transcends earthly knowledge (1 Cor. 3:18). We might dream of knowledge on earth that has the purity of eternality. Certainly, those with a curated reading list of good intentions have such illusions. Better if our pursuit of knowledge in this life comes to peace with the assaulting diversion of ephemerality. We might conceive of entire wisdom in this life, yet at the end of the long years, knowledge is turned to ignorance. What else? you wonder. What other frictions exist between us and what we require?

One thing we know, answering that question won’t come with a direct and simple vision or with a glance. It will come through the mental process of stacking one thing on another, accumulating, and then walking around what we’ve accumulated with the Bible in hand. We were made to do this. It’s part of what it means to take dominion. So, Christians shall go on and try to comprehend God, God’s Word, and God’s world to the furthest limits the Holy Spirit illuminates the finite human mind.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] C.S. Lewis, God in the God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 108.

[2] See Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 5, 30.

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologicae, Part II, I, Q. 94 “The Natural Law.”

[4] The Hidden Lesson of Montaigne (NYT review, March 2011).

[5] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1989),112.

[6] Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1968), 211.

[7] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Sam Torode, 1905), 130