Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Continuing from my last post, here are my responses to the other 4 reasons why Catholics and Protestants supposedly cannot at all reunite. I think type A unity, explained in the last post, is a minimum requirement to fulfill the commands of Scripture for a Church of one mind and one love, so I want to deal with as many of these obstacles as possible.

Reason #3: The Sufficiency of Christ’s Mediation

The next charge leveled against Rome is that they deny that Christ is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5):

By setting up Mary as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix with Christ, Rome explicitly denies the sufficiency of Christ’s mediation on His people’s behalf. As the Scripture says in 1 Tim. 2:5, there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. Thus neither Mary nor any other besides Jesus Christ can be a mediator between God and men. Rome also sets up saints as mediators, hence they pray to saints, that the saints might make appeals to God for them…Rome’s doctrine of the mediation of saints is nothing but a dressing up of pagan superstition with pseudo-Christian terminology.

The largest problem with this accusation is that Catholics quite explicitly deny that anyone else can be considered a mediator in the sense that Christ is called “Mediator.” But in truth, we all accept at least one thing that might loosely be called “mediation” from people besides Christ: prayer requests.

We Protestants all ask for other people to pray for us, and this is perfectly Biblical. Yet it is also possible to label prayer for others under the word “mediation.” This doesn’t endanger us, though, because we know that our prayers for each other are radically different from and inferior to Christ’s unique mediation. No problem here.

This is, however, more or less what Catholics are attempting to do in invoking the saints. Like other things I’ve mentioned, this is an oversimplification and not perfectly accurate, but shows the gist. In Catholic theology, what’s basically going on is asking people who are in heaven with Christ to pray for you, and since the prayer of a righteous man is very effective, the prayers of saints who are done with sin must be especially so. If we are going to have a problem with this Biblically, we can argue that it’s not possible to talk to dead Christians, but that’s a far less serious matter than challenging Christ’s sole role as Mediator.

Of course, the application of titles like Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix to Mary bring their own host of problems, and these matters are actually a source of debate within Catholicism. Catholic theologians tend to be quite careful in elaborating what each of these do and do not mean, making sure that they do not impinge on Christ’s sufficent, once-for-all person and work. Are these terms problematic? Probably. Should they be abandoned? I tend to think so. But when they are specifically articulated so as to preserve the centrality of Christ, I don’t think they have to constitute heresy.

Reason #4: The Glory of God vs. Images

Another serious criticism:

The Second Commandment states,  Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thingthat is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6). Thus, worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word, is forbidden and is equated with hating God…However, against the precepts of Scripture and the reason of a sane mind, Rome multiplies images of God and saints to be worshipped…To simply observe the gross idolatry and worship of images in Roman worship ought to make any biblically informed conscience cringe. All the justifications of images and the evasions futile; they are simply nullifying the precepts of God so that their traditions can be maintained (Mk. 7:9).

Basically, this criticism comes down to the Reformed view that any and all pictures of Jesus Christ, but especially, those which might be used in any worship context, are necessarily idolatrous. This view even includes, say, the painting of Jesus on your grandmother’s wall or the artwork in a children’s Bible.

The problem is, I don’t think the first part of this, that making images of Jesus is always idolatry, has a solid Biblical foundation. While it is true that the divine nature itself, the Godhead, cannot be imaged in any way, and that the person of the Father must never be imaged, the Son has taken a human body into His person and made it Himself. An image of the human body of Jesus Christ is not an image of the divine essence, even if it is an image of the Second Person of the Trinity. If Jesus had a body, then the body could be seen by men, and if it could be seen by men, it could imaged by them. Even a mental image in memory, say by the aging John while writing his Gospel, should be idolatry according the logic of this criticism.

It is not only Catholics who disagree with the Reformed on pictures of Jesus, but Lutherans, the Orthodox, and (de facto) most Baptists. The precise details vary between them, and it must be admitted that such images are given a possibly uncomfortable prominence in Catholicism, but the point remains that Christ alone is worshipped, and that the 2nd Commandment isn’t necessarily transgressed. This issue I definitely think precludes type C unity, and possibly B, but not A at all, in my opinion.

Reasons #5 and #6: The Pope and Catholic Church as Antichrist and Whore of Babylon

So they charge:

The Scripture prophesies of a time of great apostasy from within the Christian Church, led by the Man of Sin (2 Thes. 2). This Man of Sin can be none other than the Pope of Rome.3 “Question: Who is the Antichrist?  Answer: With all Protestants we reply: the Pope of Rome. The papists deny this strongly.” (Wilhelmus à Brakel,The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 2, p. 44).

In the book of Revelation, the Church of Rome is called the Whore of Babylon, as the Jewish Church was often called a whore when she veered off into idolatry. The Church of Rome is the second of Beast of Revelation 13. Whereas the first Beast was the pagan Roman empire, the second is the Papal Roman empire.  And I beheld, another beast coming out of the earth, which had two horns like the Lamb, but he spake like the dragon. (Rev. 13:11, 1599 GNV)

To be blunt, this is just ridiculous fantasy. The Reformers fell prey to the great temptation in every age to identify the Antichrist and his kingdom with our own enemies, and the enemy of the Reformers was the Catholic Church under the Pope. There are no legitimate grounds for this entirely nonsensical assertion.

Honestly, I don’t feel the need to go into much depth on these two points. Let it suffice to say that the enemies of Revelation are mostly likely intended to be understood either as Rome (the empire) or Jerusalem. Both of those are possible, though Rome seems more so, and the position that the Roman Catholic Church is in view is obviously anachronistic eisegesis. Whatever happened to the sola Scriptura defended in the first point of the article?

Obviously, if this charge were true, all forms of unity with Catholicism would be unacceptable. But it’s not.

Conclusion

These six reasons for why Catholics and Protestants can never are mostly off-base. While many of them can be granted as reasons for ruling out type C unity, none of them are good reasons for preventing type A unity. With enough work in the future, with revisions and compromises in unswerving commitment to Scripture truth on both sides, improvements can be made, and certaintly greater unity within the whole Body of Christ is possible. Will Protestants and Catholics ever be one Church again? It’s impossible for now, and probably for a very long time to come, though in the distant future we should recall that with God all things are possible. But in the mean time, there room to work together and embrace each other as truly following our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite? (Continued)

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite?

From time to time, calls arise for cooperation between Protestants and Catholics. Some of those times the call is actually stronger. Some people argue that Catholics and Protestants should or must reunite and become one Church again. If nothing else, many would like to see some kind of full communion between Catholic and Protestant churches. Basically, there are three main possible courses of unity:

  1. Cooperation and deanathemization. The easiest level of unity would be simply for Catholic and Protestant churches and institutions to freely cooperate in ministry and to drop any charges of heresy against one another. Each would recognize the other as fully Christian and work together for the Gospel. Nonetheless, Protestant churches would remain Protestant in their own denominations and associations, and Catholic churches would remain a single Roman Catholic Church.
  2. Intercommunion. There exists between the Catholic and Orthodox churches something which is often called “intercommunion,” in which under the right circumstances a Catholic can participate in Orthodox sacraments and vice versa. This would be a major step for Protestants, and one which is incredibly unlikely for the majority of Protestant churches in the near future. In particular, denominations like Baptists which tend to strongly deny any form of Christ’s real presence in Communion would never be allowed without substantial revisions on both sides.
  3. Institutional unity. In this last possibility, certain Protestant churches and the Catholic Church would become one, unified Church, one single “denominational” body. This, of course, sounds like pure fantasy to most on both sides, and if it were ever to happen it would be in the very, very distant future.

So what I’d like to consider are the obstacles to these different kinds of unity. I am personally strongly in support of type A (though I have a slight for that someday before Christ returns type C may happen). There are obstacles to it, but they are not too many, and I believe they can be overcome. But some people would oppose all of these types. As an example, my attention was recently brought to this article on Purely Presbyterian: 6 Reasons Protestants and Roman Catholics Can Never Unite. The reasons given in this post would be accepted by many Protestants as a reason to not only reject any form of unity with the Catholic Church, even type A, but to condemn the majority of Catholicism as damnably heretical. My purpose in this post is to evaluate these 6 reasons and offer responses to each in relation to the types of unity I mentioned above.

Reason #1: The Sufficiency of Scripture

The article states this:

Rome denies the sufficiency of Scripture and supplants it with human tradition. The Scriptures are wholly sufficient for all things pertaining to life and godliness…The human innovations in Roman worship are more than can be listed here. From the use of images of God and saints, to the multitude of manmade ceremonies, rites, and holy days, to the most despicable and blasphemous Mass, in all these, the imaginations of men’s hearts and man’s traditions are observed, while God’s commandments are rejected. We are reminded of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.

This is, to be sure, a strong criticism. It is also, I believe, one that entirely precludes type C of unity. Catholics believe in an infallible, authoritative Holy Tradition which is not necessarily identical in content to the Scripture but contains other doctrines and practices which cannot be derived from Scripture (though some of them might find a verse or two of hint, perhaps). Moreover, they understand as authoritative 7 apocryphal books which Protestants do not regard as inspired. These differences make for a difference in the final authorities over doctrine and practice, and as such make strong forms of Catholic/Protestant unity impossible.

That said, I do not believe this ought to preclude type A of unity. That Scripture is holy, inspired, and authoritative is accepted by all churches and is taught by Scripture itself, but that there is no other, originally unwritten revelation from God through the Apostles is not stated in Scripture. Thus, ironically, adopting the principle of sola Scriptura seems to make it at best difficult to find grounds for condemning as heresy the belief in certain inspired traditions, since Scripture does not explicitly rule out that possibility. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that many or all of the Catholic traditions are true, only that they are not automatically signs of a heretical, apostate church.

The problem is, to oversimplify and use a loose analogy, in Catholicism it is almost like Holy Tradition is just another book of Scripture, just not one originally written down in the first century. Just as it is invalid to us for someone to say, “Well doctrine X isn’t in Mark, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine X is found in Ephesians, it would appear to Catholics invalid for us to say, “Doctrine Y isn’t in any of the books of the Bible, so it isn’t true!” if doctrine Y is found in Holy Tradition. Thus we deal with questions of canon and inspiration, complications which are enough to divide the churches as institutions to be sure (preventing type C unity), but are they enough to divide them as brothers? It’s hard for me to say “yes” to that without sufficient Biblical grounding, and so I am willing to support type A of unity even with this issue between Protestants and Catholics.

Reason #2: Salvation through Faith Alone

The criticism:

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, glory be to God alone. The Scriptures everywhere so plainly attest to this, and yet Rome so arrogantly denies it…By placing its anathema on on the Biblical Gospel, Rome has placed itself under the anathema of God Almighty (Galatians 1:8, 9). Let all those who affirm this doctrine be blessed, but let Rome’s curse fall on her own head.

This is also a serious charge, but not one which I think holds up to scrutiny in the modern theological world. It is true that Catholics deny the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, but a large part of the difference is due to different semantics and conceptual models. To Catholics, James 2:24 is essential to articulating properly a doctrine of justification, for it says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Now, it is not hard to argue that Catholics misinterpret this verse, but it is also hard to see why a doctrine of justification so directly compatible with this verse at face value must be anathema.

Part of the key here involves realizing that Catholicism does not actually teach salvation by works rather than by grace. While they believe works are required for justification, what they mean by “justification” and “salvation” is not identical to Protestant usage. Both agree that salvation is all because of Jesus, that we can’t earn it, and that our own works are nothing but sin apart from the grace of God. Depending on which Catholic you ask, you may hear them say that salvation can be said to be by faith alone if we mean a faith which necessarily produces works, a position which is frequently said to be the true meaning of sola fide by many Protestants!

There are actually many possible routes to reconciliation between the two parties on justification. Promising leads include the theology of Thomas F. Torrance, a Scottish Reformed theologian whose works Incarnation and Atonementare loved and appreciated by both Protestants and Catholics, the works of N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop who has made major efforts in reclaiming the original Jewish context of Paul’s doctrine of justification, and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It is not hard to imagine, if you’re sufficiently familiar with these leads and their details, a future where Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran, and even Eastern Orthodox theologians can all mostly agree with one articulation of Paul’s major Gospel doctrine. If this is true, then many charges of heresy could be dropped, and the way could be opened for greater unity in type A.

To Be Continued

At this point this post is already too long, so I will address the final four objections to Catholic-Protestant unity in a second post. Even so, I think these two objections are the most important, and I hope what I have said in response to them can be useful in bringing further unity to the Body of Christ.

Could Protestants and Catholics Ever Reunite?

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

One theological question which has been a fairly ambiguous realm for much of Church history is that of the actual relationship between Christ’s Church and the people or nation of Israel which came before it. The Biblical data on this is complex and apparently varied, and the historical issue of the Church as becoming predominantly Gentile doesn’t help. This has led to many different views which we might categorize under four basic approaches:

  • Two peoples of God: In dispensationalism, the Church and Israel are two entirely distinct peoples of God. God chose for Himself a nation and race, Israel, in temporal and physical ways, and He also created a chosen people for salvation, the Church. If there is a connection between the two, it is either exclusively or primarily a spiritual analogy or a historical accident.
  • Replacement theology: Various forms of what we might call “replacement theology” have also been generated, in which basically God rejects Israel after their rejection of Jesus, and He chooses the Church as a new people. A lot changes between the kind of people He chose the first time (ethnic, nationalistic) and the second time (spiritual, decentralized). In this case the Church essentially takes the place and role of Israel in a new way, and “steps into their shoes,” but is still a fundamentally distinct body.
  • One people of God but two Israels: In a third approach, Israel is viewed as having always been internally divided between “true Israel” and “false Israel,” those who were faithful to Yahweh and most truly His people, and those who were unfaithful. In views like this, the Church is to be seen primarily as a continuation of “true Israel,” but now expanded to include the Gentiles. The true Israel and the Church are essentially the same body but existing under different covenants (Old vs. New).
  • One people, period: Finally, there is the approach of direct continuity, in which the Church literally is the same people of God as Israel, only now expanded freely to the Gentiles and without all of the trappings of a nation-state or a ceremonial law. Membership is by faith or (depending who you ask) even also by birth. There exists even in this one body some true and some false Christians, but only one covenant people of God.

None of these approaches in their most basic and pure forms quite strike me as fully Biblical. If seems to me that if we are going to appreciate the full scope of what Scripture says about the Church’s place after Israel, we will need to combine some insights from more than one of these approaches, and they will need to be integrated around some kind of key concept. What key concept do we need? What is Biblical?

My own hypothesis is that the key is resurrection and regeneration. The relationship between Israel and the Church should be conceived in terms of the new birth, of the natural man and the man alive in the Spirit, even at a corporate level. It seems most Biblical to me to say that the Church is Israel born again.

The give a full Biblical defense of this position is beyond the scope of this post, which will be long enough. All I seek to do here is to give a narrative description of the hypothesis in the history of Israel, the covenant, Jesus, and the Church. Before I get into that, though, the first principle I should point out in my hypothesis is that regeneration, the new birth, did not ever take place until Christ’s resurrection.1 With this in mind, we follow the story of Israel.

Israel was began as a people created by God from His election of and covenant with Abraham. God promised Abraham descendants which would make up a great nation, which nation would bless the whole world. This was a unilateral promise. God would see to it that this would indeed be fulfilled, not just for the benefit of Abraham and his family but for the redemption of the world.2 

In the process of fulfilling this promise God called the Israelites out of Egypt and established another covenant with them, one which established Israel as a theocratic nation with a divinely provided system of law and worship. Part of the point of this endeavor was to make Israel into a light to the nations, an example of human life rightly ordered by communion with God and with each other. But Israel proved incapable of this task. Even with a God-given Torah they could not become what they needed to be, a true example of redeemed human existence. The deep and radical effects of sin made righteousness under the Torah impossible. And without a righteous Israel, God’s promise to Abraham also seemed in danger. Particularly, the terms of the Torah meant that God would have to undo Israel’s blessings in light of their disobedience, and the public corruption of Israel meant that the nations could not be blessed through them.

It is in the midst of this precarious situation that the prophets, enlightened by the Spirit, began to perceive the only possible solution. Humanity, in particular Israel, was too corrupt to go on in its natural form. The roots of sin were so deep that if purposes of creation and election were ever going to be realized, humanity would essentially have to be created anew. If Israel was going to live up to its calling, it would need a new heart and new spirit, indeed a radical new outpouring of the Holy Spirit who had been working in their midst since their birth as a nation out of Egypt. They needed nothing short of a new covenant and a new creation.

Alas, before this need could be fulfilled there was also the need to deal with the consequences of Israel’s sin. By the terms of the Torah, Israel was condemned. Abraham’s descendants were at risk of being cut off from the promise because of their status under the Law. Thus God appeared to be under two conflicting covenant obligations. The terms of the Mosaic covenant required Him to desolate the same people whom the Abrahamic covenant required Him to bless, and through whom He planned to bless the world. So how was God to be faithful to both covenants, restore Israel, and bring about a new creation capable of redeeming the world?

The answer to this dilemma left hanging at the end of the Old Testament is found in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, marking the emergence of a new creation out of the midst of the old one. He sanctified His life by sinless communion with God. By His baptism He identified Himself with sinful Israel as their Messiah and in that role took upon Himself the job of their repentance. He brought about signs and instruments of the new creation: healing, forgiveness, and other miracles of the Holy Spirit.

In the middle of this work Jesus also performed a major symbolic act. He appointed 12 disciples to participate in and carry on His work. They were to be apostles, authorized representatives of Himself and His ministry. Yet for Israel, the number 12 was of great significance. This was not just any number, but the number of Jacob’s sons, the number of the tribes of Israel. The Messiah who took upon Himself the identity of the people of Israel expanded that identity into 12 others. He was reforming, reconstituting, recreating Israel around Himself. With His baptism into Israel’s identity and His appointing of 12 new heads, a fresh life for Israel was in labor.

Yet if there was to be a recreation of Israel, there also needed to be a new covenant. The old had failed, and Israel was under existential threat because of it. So on one fateful Passover, Jesus broke bread and served wine as signs of a new covenant with Israel based on Himself, His life and, crucially, death. This covenant was, of course, for Israel and had been prophesied by Israel’s prophets years in advance. This covenant would establish forgiveness of sins and give Israel the Holy Spirit to finally destroy their sin problem even at the root. But how would it work? And how would God deal with the destruction coming from the old covenant?

For this, Christ was crucified. This was God’s solution to the covenant problem. The same judgment He had prophesied for Israel due to their unfaithfulness, His wrath poured out through Rome3, Jesus Himself experienced as their representative. One man gave His life in place of the nation, and in His dying flesh God condemned sin as was fit to His covenantal obligations. As Paul would later explain it, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”4 Jesus expiated Israel’s sin in His death and so freed God to proceed with His promise to bless Israel and the nations.

With Israel’s sin dealt with, and with a new covenant established by a sacrifice before God, it was finally time for God to bring about the new creation, the regeneration of human life. Three days after Jesus’ death, He raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Him and making Him the “firstborn from the dead.”5 People are often hesitant (or call it heretical) to speak of Jesus as “born again,” but this means no more or less than to say that He was resurrected to incorruptible, imperishable, new creation life. In this Jesus still retains His identity as Israel’s substitute and representative Messiah. In Him Israel itself is born again into the new creation. His resurrection life becomes the ground for a new life for Israel. This new resurrection life empowered by the Spirit is the solution to the biggest problem of the old covenant: Israel’s ongoing sinfulness. Israel formerly consisted only of natural men, unregenerate and without the Holy Spirit. The Torah, God-given as it was, could not penetrate to the depths of human existence to purge sin. But Christ’s sanctified and resurrected life imparted by union with Him through the Spirit is enough. It will finally overcome human sinfulness and turn Israel’s sinners into saints, turning apostasy into faith working through love.

Yet Christ’s victory for Israel was not automatic for those who were already members, and the new covenant of the new creation brought with it new terms of membership, a new stage in election. In this new covenant a relationship to Abraham alone would not be sufficient. The new covenant fulfilled the promise to Abraham exclusively through Christ, the elect Messiah. As God had once restricted the promise from Abraham’s descendants to Isaac’s descendants, excluding Ishmael’s, and then restricted it further from Isaac’s descendants to Jacob’s, so now God further restricted the covenant to those who are in Israel’s Messiah.

This next stage, then, at which people of the old, fleshly Israel are incorporated into Christ and thus Israel in a reborn form, occurs at Pentecost. At this point all is fulfilled as the Father and the Son send the Spirit to Christ’s apostles. These apostles, filled with the Spirit, are the first fulfillment to Israel of the promise. In this the new age and the new creation came to life in the midst of the present by the Spirit. Israel, actual Israelites descended from Abraham, received the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and the Spirit in them. The were incorporated into the resurrected Messiah and so became part of a reborn Israel.

The renewing of election around Christ with a new covenant in place of the old, Torah-based covenant also brings with it an expansion in election. Now it is no longer necessary to be physically descended from Abraham to be a son of the promise. Through the Spirit and faith, even the Gentiles can share in the promise, and thus God’s promise to bless even the Gentiles through Abraham is fulfilled as well. The new terms of the new covenant, reducible essentially to loyalty to Jesus, simultaneously cut off many natural-born Israelites and enable the inclusion of many Gentiles. Thus Israel in its new form, reborn in Christ, becomes also the Church, the assembly of believers.

So what happens to the old, fleshly Israel, Jews who do not recognize their Messiah? They remain in essential exile, having been judged at AD 70 for the last time. Their future lies in the new covenant, the promise of the Spirit. There is no future for them apart from their Messiah. This does not mean that God has abandoned them, for He has fulfilled His promise by instituting a new covenant in which they can have forgiveness and moral renewal. He has taken the next step to rescue them, but those who will not repent and recognize their Messiah cannot benefit from this saving action. The word of God in election and promise has not failed, as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, and in the end we see hints that, perhaps out of continued faithfulness to Abraham and His physical descendants, God will see to it that all Israel will one day find salvation in its Messiah and His new covenant. One day perhaps there will be no more old, fleshly Israel, but all will enter the life of Israel reborn in Christ.

Of course, I am sure that many questions about details and implications of this view may remain. I cannot answer them here, as this post is long enough. But if you have any, drop a comment and I’ll look into making a good reply. I believe the narrative I have articulated here is faithful to Scripture and what is portrays about Israel and the Church. Perhaps one of these days I will get around to developing this further and adding more specific Scriptural support instead of relying so much on allusions and themes I just kind of hope people will recognize.

Hypothesis: The Church is Reborn Israel

Communion means Communion

Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.

The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.

That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.

Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.

This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? 

1 Corinthians 10:14-18

Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.

This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.

Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.

Communion means Communion

How Pentecost Saves Us

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a day which often does not receive much attention in evangelical churches. That’s a bit of a shame, so for this Pentecost Sunday I want to peek into the role that Pentecost plays in our salvation through Christ. We all know that Good Friday matters, and I have written before on how Easter and the Ascension matter, but how does Pentecost save us?

After Jesus ascended, His followers were left waiting for the power to go out and become His witnesses.1 It was an awkward moment in which Jesus was no longer there, and the disciples had nothing to launch them forward. Yet before long, Pentecost arrived, and suddenly the Holy Spirit appeared and filled them all.2 Immediately the Church came to life in power. In the course of a day, 3000 people were converted. Something marvelous had just changed in the life of the Apostles. What exactly happened, though, and what is its significance?

What we are seeing here is the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus dealt with the sin problem, rose victorious to new life, and ascended to the throne of creation at the Father’s right hand. Still, one thing was left. Paul tells us that without the Spirit of Christ, there is no union with Christ.3 Without union with Christ, salvation in Him is still distant. The Apostles were waiting, not merely for power, but for the fullness of salvation itself. At Pentecost, the ascended Lord of the world poured out His own Spirit on His people so that, through this Spirit, they could receive the life He won for them and brought into heaven in God’s presence.

Yet this is where I will introduce a belief I have acquired from studying Scripture which I have not often heard, and which I know some people will not accept. I only add it because I believe it is core to what happened at Pentecost. On that day, the Church was baptized into the Spirit and born again. The new life they received through the Spirit isn’t just any new life, but the life of the new birth. For the first time in history, lost humans were regenerated.

The Biblical support for this view is, I believe, solid. It is clear enough that at Pentecost the Church received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, in receiving the Holy Spirit I propose that they received the new resurrection life of Christ which is the new birth. Some of the first Biblical evidence for this is found in John, where there is a constant connection between the new birth, water, the Spirit, and eternal life.4 In John Jesus teaches that the washing of the new birth will come with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which of course took place at Pentecost. John also specifically highlights that the Spirit was not given in this way before Jesus’ glorification.5

More evidence for this is found in the Old Testament prophecies about the New Covenant. In the prophets, it was foretold that God would restore His people from their exile, give them a new and better covenant, create in them a new heart of flesh rather than stone, and put His Spirit within them.6 This “heart transplant” is certainly to be identified with regeneration, and yet it is bound up with the giving of the New Covenant and the Holy Spirit. These were not Old Covenant realities, but new gifts brought to Israel through Jesus, the living Flesh of the New Covenant who replaces the Torah written on stone as the heart of God’s people.

We see, then, full Biblical reason to identify the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as the giving of new birth to Israel, producing the Church who lives through Christ’s resurrection life. Pentecost is therefore the time of a truly new beginning, the day that salvation fully entered the lives of Christ’s followers. Even today, we who are alive in Christ have been born again because we have been given the same Spirit who was first given nearly 2000 years ago during the Feast of Weeks.

In this way, then, we see that even Pentecost, an event which occurred almost two months after the Crucifixion, plays a major role in salvation. It was at Pentecost that the Spirit was given, and with Him new life. We are united with the risen and ascended Lord who paid the penalty for our sins because He gave us His Holy Spirit. By this union we experience new life. By this union we are saved. Even Pentecost saves us.

How Pentecost Saves Us

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book, Onward:

The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That’s a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8–16).

Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17

This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.

But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?

One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.

Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.

The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.

I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2

This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.

The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace.  There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.

This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?

These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.

Hate the World, Or Burn with It