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What the church needs now

How will we respond to the current crisis of evangelical faith and practice?


The Christian churches need, more than anything else, to provide an authentic alternative to the contemporary status quo. I’m not calling on American Christians to become Anglican, Orthodox, or even Presbyterian. I am calling on them–on us–to recover our sense peculiarity and different-ness from prevailing cultural norms.

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Not a superficial difference

I’m not talking about the superficial difference that comes from a change in Christian tradition as if somehow becoming, for example, an Anglican is going to please God or make a difference in our culture although it may certainly do no harm (unless it is really the latest and cloaked version of the desire to be cool).

The kind of difference I’m talking about is not marked primarily by vestments, by latin words and phrases, or by a churchly calendar. It is, instead, a difference marked by an experiential encounter with the grace and glory of God–J. C. Ryle refers to it as a “habitual communion”–that produces a change far deeper than ecclesial practices. It creates the willingness to lose our lives for the glory of God and for the sake of the world.

The current crisis

If the Bible tells us anything it tells us that the people of God are pretty gifted at wandering from God. Whether its becoming comfortable in Egypt, making a golden calf, failing to enter the land of promise, choosing violence over trust in Gethsemane, doubting the resurrection, placing our faith in the law rather than in grace, copying the sexual mores of culture, we see all of it play out in the pages of the Scripture. What’s more the church’s misadventures didn’t end with the close of the canon.

As much as at any time since I’ve been alive, the churches of North America have lost our way. We seem to be grasping to preserve political influence at the cost of our deepest theological convictions. 

A parable

A line of four American Presidents stood together at the funeral of one of their number. Three of them actively recited the Apostles’ Creed. One of them refrained, standing close-mouthed at the end of the rank of leaders.

It’s a telling image.

This is a president effectively elected by evangelicals who, despite our trust, has repeatedly expressed his unbelief and hostility to the message of the gospel as well as his personal commitment to a way of life antithetical to it. In spite of all this he remains the closest association with a term–evangelical–derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news.”

It raises the legitimate questions. Have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage? Do we even know who we are anymore?

We are, at best, deeply confused and confounded.

We have believed a lie

In a sermon for Holy Week the late John Webster warns us of the power of the original lie. Holy Week was, in Webster’s words, “the triumph of falsehood.” In the moment of choice when presented with truth, light, and life, they chose the lie.It was a lie first told in the Garden. Israel believed the lie and they did so a representatives of humanity. You have believed the lie and so have I.

Learning to tell the truth

We cannot be the church while we are beholden to the lie. And we will always be beholden to the lie unless and until Christ shines the light of his grace into our faces and removes the scales that have formed on our eyes.

The Christian message is a truth-telling one. The truth we tell forth is the person of Jesus who is God. Webster writes,

[Christ] dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity.

In him there is a complete judgment, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death.

What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: ‘they perceived that he was speaking about them.’

Little Lent

Advent is sometimes known as little Lent. Let’s look into the mirror this penitential season and ask God to show us how we’ve failed to live the truth.

Resources:

John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian(Lexham Press).

J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion. (Banner of Truth).