Where Grace is Found

Jason J. Stellman
Friday, June 29th 2007
Jul/Aug 2007

"The Beatles are more popular than Jesus." Such was John Lennon's evaluation of the phenomenon of Beatlemania in the mid-1960s. What is even more interesting than Lennon's observation, however, is the response that Americans gave to such a bold claim: We rose up, and with our righteous indignation reaching peak levels, we piled our Beatles' albums in the streets and burned them (steamrollers were also involved). It was as if we were responding collectively as a culture, by exclaiming, "How dare you tell us that Jesus isn't popular!"

As Americans, we are obsessed with popularity, with fame, and with movements of mass appeal. For this reason, the American church has great difficulty getting excited about any program for spiritual growth that does not appear attractive, appealing, and, dare I say: sexy. Yet in speaking of Jesus' appearance, Isaiah writes, "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him" (53:2). C. H. Spurgeon remarked that Paul "determined only to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and to set him forth in his own natural beauties unadorned." "Alas for that wisdom," Spurgeon lamented, "which conceals the wisdom of God! It is the most guilty form of folly." (1) Yet it seems that the constant demand on the part of many believers today for a new and exciting spiritual diet plan is a symptom of just such folly. How else can we interpret the fact that the primary goal of many churches today is to not appear weak, irrelevant, and foolish in the eyes of the world (you know, the way Jesus looked)?

Borrowed Liability

What is remarkable about Paul's determination to "know nothing" among the Corinthians "except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2) is that the apostle not only insisted upon preaching the cross exclusively, he insisted on being consistent when he did so. "But how," we may ask, "can a cross-focused, Christ-centered ministry be inconsistent with itself?" According to 1 Corinthians 1:17, when the "foolish" and "weak" message of the gospel is presented in the impressive garb of earthly strength and worldly wisdom, "the cross is emptied of its power." In other words, the cross is eclipsed not only when the wrong message is preached, but when the right one is preached in the wrong manner, adorned by whatever powerful signs or worldly wisdom the Jews and Greeks respectively demand.

It is not that "power" or "wisdom" are necessarily wrong, of course. But when we refuse to allow the cross to define these things for us (which it inevitably does in a way that is antithetical to the world's notion of them), then whatever the result may be, it is not Christanity. Our definition of power or wisdom, therefore, must not be borrowed directly from the lexicon of this age, for when we allow the culture to determine what is impressive or relevant, we subtly undermine with our methods what we proclaim in our message. So while unbelievers may enjoy plenty of what Cornelius Van Til dubbed "borrowed capital" from the Christian faith, it is the borrowed liability that we saints receive on loan from the world that concerned Paul.

A Tale of Two Pieties

In his book lamenting the so-called "new measures" employed by nineteenth-century revivalists such as Charles Finney (which were characterized by an early version of the altar call in which, after the sermon, people could come forward to the "anxious bench" to receive instruction concerning conversion), John Williamson Nevin wrote:

The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God's holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord's table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion. (2)

According to Nevin, there are two systems of religion at work in Protestantism: the "system of the bench," characterized by novel and subjective approaches to piety and godliness, and "the system of the catechism," which relied upon the objective means that Christ ordained for his people's growth in the faith.

[These two systems] involve at the bottom two different theories of religion. The spirit of the Anxious Bench is at war with the spirit of the Catechism…. They cannot flourish and be in vigorous force together … The Bench is against the Catechism, and the Catechism is against the Bench. (emphasis added)

It is hard to believe that there was a time when religion in this country was characterized by the ordinary ministry of the local church, with her worship, liturgy, preaching, and sacraments. What we need to recover today is just such a view of the local church's role in the life of the believing family. Rather than the slick, program-driven, and desperate attempts at "relevance" (which the world gets to define), we need a ministry that will simply open the Scriptures and preach from them Christ crucified and risen, and then give the bread and the cup to the hungry and thirsty pilgrims for whom he was sacrificed and raised. Anything less than a bold refusal to pander to the whims of the worldly is to sell our noble birthright, like "that profane man Esau," for a bowl of beans.

What Hath Saddleback to Do with Geneva?

When we compare the contemporary evangelical approach to living the Christian life with that of Reformed theology by posing such questions as: (1) How do we "get religion"? (2) What does it look like once it is acquired? (3) How is religion cultivated? (4) How is it passed on?, the two systems, like Nevin's "Bench" and "Catechism," still appear to be quite distinct and even antithetical.

In answering the first question, for example, the evangelical response to how religion is acquired (assuming that such terminology would be granted) would center around the extracurricular evangelistic activities of Christians, while the Reformed believer would focus more on the local church's official mandate to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. In tackling the second question (What does the Christian faith look like once it is acquired?), again, not surprisingly, the answers differ. While the evangelical may dismiss "sacramental faith" (whether in its Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, or Roman Catholic versions) as too institutional, "churchy," or sacerdotal, the fact is that his faith relies on sacraments a-plenty, just not necessarily the ones Jesus himself instituted.

For example, practices such as daily quiet times, altar calls, listening to Contemporary Christian Music, and attending Christian retreats are all considered important-yea vital-to growing in the Lord. In fact, even ministers themselves have become quasi-sacraments in some megachurch contexts, with the authority and effectiveness of the the pastor's ministry often resting upon his witty personality and dynamic speaking style (which, ironically, are the very things that Paul deliberately did not employ, much to the disappointment of his Corinthian audience).

In stark contrast to this stands Christian living as understood by confessional Reformed theology. To those of this persuasion, the Christian life follows a regular, Sabbatical pattern that centers upon the corporate worship of God by his gathered people on the first day of the week. Like their evangelical brothers and sisters they too place great emphasis upon sacraments, but only upon those instituted by the Lord himself. Baptism, then, initiates us into the household of faith, and that faith is nurtured and strengthened by means of the bread and cup of Communion. In fact, the nature of confessional Reformed Christian living, particularly its dependance upon the ordinary ministry of the local church, when contrasted with the high-octane, subjective quest for spiritual experience so characteristic of evangelical pietism, is such that the former respresents what Luther called a "theology of the cross," while the latter betrays a "theology of glory."

The next question in our comparison of evangelical and Reformed spirituality addresses the issue of the faith's communication from one generation, or one person, to another. In the thinking of most of our evangelical brothers and sisters, the passing on of religion is almost invariably spectacular rather than ordinary. Now, I'm not suggesting that the miraculous element is absent from or deemphasized in Reformed circles, but what I am saying is that, in the evangelical mindset, the threshhold through which a sinner-turned-saint passes is conversion, and this conversion is usually a cataclysmic and powerful experience.

To believers coming from the Reformation tradition, on the other hand, this is not necessarily the case. While adults coming out of pagan backgrounds may indeed experience such a seismic shift in loyalties, this is often the exception rather than the rule. The Christian faith, normally speaking, is passed on from parent(s) to child by means of the baptism of infants. When the child is thus initiated into the covenant community, she is then nurtured in the faith by parents and pastors who, believing God's promise to be "a God to us and to our children," treat the child as a believer unless given a reason to do otherwise.

Given the apparent differences between broad evangelical and Reformed thought on such basic and fundamental questions as these, it is not overstating the issue to conclude that, as in Nevin's day, "the catechism is against the bench, and the bench is against the catechism."

Observant Protestantism and "True Christianity"

The emphasis upon the indispensible nature of the church's ministry in creating and nurturing faith in the hearts of God's people gives rise to an interesting linguistic phenomenon to which D. G. Hart alludes in his book Recovering Mother Kirk: Why is it that Jews and Roman Catholics are usually described as observant or nonobservant while Protestants are classified either as true, genuine Christians or formal, dead ones?

This type of nomenclature betrays the latent pietism of much of evangelical Protestantism, for rites and practices such as baptism, church membership, corporate worship, and communion are all dismissed as incidental, if not inimical, to "true Christianity." "The fact that American Protestants do not use the nomenclature of observance," writes Hart, "demonstrates just how complete the triumph of evangelicalism has been." (3)

But if being Reformed is more than just a state of mind and actually involves participating in certain corporate, religious ceremonies, then perhaps formal, observant, churchly Christianity is not the bane of Protestantism after all. In fact, the insistence on the part of proponents of confessional, Reformed Christianity that our faith not be divorced from its ritualistic practice means that the sharp division between creed and deed made by church leaders like Rick Warren is unthinkable for us.

The divorce of "true Christianity" from its corporate practice is dangerous and unwarranted, particularly when the so-called "essence" of the faith is so mystical, personal, and romantic that it defies definition. To be sure, "I Wanna Know What Love Is" may still be the heart's cry of many, but the love that Jesus demonstrated for his people, and the love they return to him, is more concrete than what is evoked by much of the "Jesus Is My Boyfriend" sentiment that is equated with genuine Christianity in the contemporary American church.

My point, then, is that the faith-once-delivered is also the faith-corporately-practiced. Ironically, the evangelical penchant for identifying the locus of "real Christianity" in some internal experience or "religious affection," or in the practice of an extra-canonical sacrament such as quiet times or afterglows, is to fall prey to the Jesus of History/Christ of Faith dilemma so characteristic of early twentieth-century liberalism. After all, removing true Christianity from its objective, liturgical context leaves us with nowhere else to put it but into a realm that we can only hope to understand by playing God (and he hates it when his creatures do that…).

Like their evangelical brethren, confessional Reformed believers desire to see the Christian faith demonstrated in the lives of those who profess it. But rather than the litmus test being one's devotional life, voting record, or collection of Left Behind novels, it should be sought in the fact that those who confess Christ gather together each Lord's Day around Word and sacrament, confessing their sins, singing his praises, and hearing, eating, and drinking the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Your Own Personal . . . Satan?

In his Corinthian correspondence Paul described the barring of an unrepentant brother from fellowship in the church as "handing him over to Satan" (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Apparently for the apostle, the church and its ordained ministry of Word and sacrament are more important-and their absence more tragic-than is usually admitted in contemporary evangelical circles.

Moreover, the insistence that God's "speech" through his ordained servant in corporate worship (particularly the gracious summons into his presence, assurance of forgiveness, and benediction) can somehow be replaced by one's personal relationship with Jesus is quite presumptuous, and even dangerous. If the churches that Paul labored to plant and the "gift" of ordained ministers that Jesus rose from the dead to provide for them (Eph. 4:8-12) can be so easily circumvented, then creaturely wisdom is not only being exalted above divine foolishness, but "deliverance over to Satan" is made to look like a pretty attractive alternative to waking up early every Sunday. And in the light of Paul's appraisal of life outside the church, when a professing Christian opts for the clutches of the devil over the communion of saints, one may sincerely wonder with whom, exactly, this "personal relationship" is being cultivated.

A simple inference from this passage would be that if expulsion from the means of grace is so precarious, then participation in the means of grace should be considered equally beneficial. Or to put the matter differently, belonging to the church ought to be thought of as being every bit a blessing as being thrown out of it is a curse.

While evangelical pietism may balk at the simplicity of this type of assurance and the ease with which such churchly forms of devotion can be faked, the Reformed believer can simply point out that it is no easier to recite the catechism by rote than it is to go through the motions of closing one's eyes and swaying romantically to "Lord I Want to Love You" (and in fact, it's way harder).

Therefore, if being expelled from the visible church is to fall prey to the wiles of the devil, what is membership in it but the enjoyment of the protection and love of God? But when the church's objective means of grace are traded in for newer, sexier methods of demonstrating the genuineness of our faith, then the Cyprianic formula of extra ecclesiam nulla salus est ("outside the church there is no salvation") becomes meaningless. Once assurance of salvation becomes so rare a jewel that it can scarcely be found within the church's walls let alone without them, then what's the point of attending?

How Do the Means of Grace Work?

Though all believers "are bound to read [the Word of God] apart by themselves" for their personal edification (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 156), something unique happens when that Word is preached by a duly ordained minister (WLC, Q/A 158-160). In fact, Paul insists that when the saints hear Christ preached, they are actually hearing Christ himself preaching (Rom. 10:14 [nasb]; Eph. 2:17). Personal "quiet time," therefore, can never replace the regular hearing of the gospel preached in the context of the local church, for it is here that God addresses his people in a special and powerful way.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion, God initiates us into his holy family and feeds us with Jesus' body and blood. Though we cannot hope to fully grasp exactly how common elements like water, bread, and wine can nurture spiritual qualities like faith, hope, and love, we believe that the Holy Spirit mysteriously-yet really-accomplishes just this. As John Calvin remarked concerning the Lord's Supper, "I would rather experience this than understand it."

What is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for American Christianity is the fact that God blesses these simple means of grace to the building up of his church not because of the winsome or witty personality of the man who administers them, but simply because he has promised to do so. Not even the pastor's own godliness can ensure divine blessing, nor can the lack thereof preclude it. In a culture obsessed with "success" (which is usually determined by counting nickels and noses), the ministry of a faithful pastor to his little flock often appears weak and paltry when compared with the glossy professionalism of the megachurch down the street.

Holy Embarrassment

Paul had an odd way of motivating people, especially his young protg, Timothy. Only a handful of verses into his second letter to him, the apostle urged his student not to be "ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner" (2 Tim. 1:8) Although a leader's begging his followers not to cringe at his apparent weakness is hardly an inspiring method of "turning the world upside-down," yet this was but an echo of Jesus' own words, which so often focused on dissuading his disciples from denying that they knew him (Matt. 10:32-33; 26:34; Mark 8:38). Apparently, there was something so embarrasing about being a Christian in those days that such explicit and pointed warnings were warranted.

The fact that many professing Christians in our own day lack this timidity may not be due to their simply being bolder in their witness and devotion to Christ than his original followers were, but rather, our contemporary unfamiliarity with the temptation to deny Christ may stem from our unfamiliarity with the cross that he carried. If the church's stated aim is to present herself as being so attractive and beneficial to the City of Man that unbelievers simply cannot help but jump on the holy bandwagon, then not only should we remove the "I" from Calvinism's well-known acrostic (and the "T" for that matter), but we also, no less than the original disciples, should be tempted to be ashamed of the meager ministry and methods of the church. After all, what good are water, Word, and wine for attaining such lofty goals as cultural transformation or the wooing of the young and attractive?

But the apostle's own antidote to the temptation to be ashamed of his ministry was no this-worldly promise of glory or earthly influence. Rather, he writes in verse 12, "I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am convinced that he is able to keep what I have committed to him until that Day." In other words, both the church and its members must not seek the world's approval by providing programs that pander to people's need to feel popular and appreciated. The "more relevant than thou" approach to ministry may fill churches, but often at the expense of the cross and all its glorious foolishness and shame.


Yes, John Lennon may have been right, maybe the Beatles are more popular than Jesus. And indeed, the earthly vindication of Lennon's boast was seen in the fact that, just after his shooting, his vigil gathered a lot more mourners than a measly 120 (Acts 1:15). But the triumphalistic need to deliver a smug "I told you so" to our detractors can never provide the church with a rationale for an "ordinary means of grace" ministry. For that, we must remember that, humanly speaking, the One whom we follow was killed precisely because he refused to provide for the church the earthly glory, power, and transformation that his people demanded.

If the weakness of the cross was sufficient for Christ in this age, and if "the servant is not greater than his Master," then is not our stumbling at its foolishness simply a subtle claim that the cross was fine for Jesus to die on, but not us?

1 [ Back ] C.H. Spurgeon, "The Man of One Subject" in The Treasure of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1962), pp. 150-156.
2 [ Back ] John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987).
3 [ Back ] D.G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003).
Friday, June 29th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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