A Morbid Thought

Today my heart was filled with joy as I worshiped the Lord in the seminary’s Chapel service. Worship was particularly engaging today, specifically because I had the opportunity to listen to a Chinese student pour his heart out in public prayer. I also had the opportunity to witness a choir of Indian students performing special music in their native tongue. The whole scene brought a wide smile to my face as gratefulness filled my heart as we all worshiped the same Lord together.

Then a horrid thought arrested my mind that brought me to tears: “How many of these students will be dead once they leave this seminary?”

It is a morbid question, but in our modern world it is a very real one. That Chinese student will graduate from the seminary and return to a church that is hidden underground because of the persecution of the Chinese government. Many of those Indian students will return to India, under a hostile, Hindu government, and will be prohibited from proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ for fear of death. Many of the Nigerian students on campus will return to their home country only to be met by the brutality of Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group. I can’t help but wonder how many of these students, my peers and friends, will wind up dead in their home countries because of their faith.

The thought is sobering but it is also challenging. I couldn’t help but cry at this thought because their faith has reminded me that North American Christians have become so lax in practical Christianity. These students are in seminary in order to return to a country where they will be met with hostility, even death, and North American Christians are concerned about styles of music in the service. They are gladly preparing to suffer for the gospel of Jesus Christ while North American Christians are worried about something the pastor happened to say last Sunday morning in the message.

North American Church friends, we need to wake up. We need to get over ourselves and our minor discomforts. We need to realize that the gospel of Christ bids us to come and die because he is worth it. Do we believe that Christ is our Lord who demands our allegiance? or is Jesus just a magic genie who gives us what we want? Do we really have a faith in Christ that would lead us to die? Do we have that true faith in Christ that leads us to pick up our crosses and follow him (Luke 9:23)?

Church, if we don’t believe in this Lord and have this sort of faith, we have some real reconsidering to do.


The Work of the People

Since I have enrolled in seminary, I have fallen in love.

No, I am not suggesting that I have fallen in love with a particular lady. No, I am not suggesting that I have fallen in love with the cuisine of central Kentucky (although I do fancy the fried chicken). No, I am not speaking about how I have fallen in love with the campus and community (although that is also true).

Instead, I have fallen in love with liturgy.

This is a strange statement for a person who comes from a low-church, evangelical tradition. As a person who grew up in church with modern praise songs and worship choruses rather than hymns, where the pastor could be found in a polo and jeans, this is a surprise (even to myself). I always considered liturgy to be for someone else and I never thought that I would fall prey to that stuffy, “old-time” religion. Little did I know that I would fall more and more in love with tradition, routine, repetition, and symbolism.

In an effort to reflect on this transition in my life, I share below what has drawn me to “more” liturgical forms of worship:

1. “Practice makes permanent”

Many of us have heard the phrase “practice makes perfect” or “perfect practice makes perfect”. However, there is perhaps an even better phrase that explains why practice is so important: “practice makes permanent“. This means that repetition of something ingrains it in our bodies, minds, and hearts.

This is one of the benefits that I find in liturgy. There is a repetition to liturgy that causes the words that are said and the actions that are performed to become burned onto our hearts. It is something that is not easily forgotten. Similar to the “Pledge of Allegiance” or the “Lord’s Prayer”, we say the liturgy so many times that we know it by heart and there is no possible way that we could forget it. No matter where we go, no matter what we do, the words and the actions found in the liturgy can be recalled at an instant; the liturgy has become a part of us forever.

This is important because when the liturgy is stamped on our minds and hearts the story can be recalled. If you take a look at many liturgies, especially Eucharistic (Communion) liturgies, the story of God and his people is retold through words and actions. Therefore, if you have memorized the liturgy (although at times it may seem rote) you have also memorized the story of God and the part that we, the church, play in that story. The repeating of the story of God and his people is something that is invaluable for the church today; especially as we seem to lose our way among the tossing and turning of our culture, where there is no stability or repetition.

2. Ye Old-Time Religion

By “old-time religion” I am not thinking of the 20th century; I am thinking of the ancient church. I am thinking of religion that stretches back into the early history of the Christian faith.

I like the “old-timey” religion because it connects me to the larger church. It reminds me that the Christian faith did not begin yesterday. It grounds me in years of faithfulness, beginning with early Christianity and leading up through the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Methodist movements. The liturgy, those words that we say in the service, are words that others in the past have also said. By participating in liturgy, I am participating in something that millions of people across time and space have also participated in. That’s a pretty awesome thought.

3. It Requires Participation

Most churches that I have attended have tended toward a grave mistake in worship: performance. By this, I mean that when you attend an evangelical service, you will most likely be met by people singing on stage, a charismatic leader who will get up and preach a sermon, and then you will be sent off into the world having just attended a delightful show. As a person who sits in the pews (or chairs) who does not serve on the worship team or preach a sermon, you most likely do not participate in the service besides singing along with the songs.

The use of liturgy in a worship service proves to be counter-cultural to this passivity in worship. The very word “liturgy”, in Christian worship, means “the work of the people”. This means that when liturgical worship is employed, no one is a passive bystander. Everyone is expected to participate in worship. On the other hand, when liturgical worship is used, it means that no one is performing. Instead, every single person is participating in the worship service. No person is passive and no person gets to “show off”.

4. In Liturgical Worship We Are Unified

This does not mean that through low-church worship that people cannot be unified. But, through the use of liturgical worship, we ensure that our worship is communal, rather than individualistic. By this, I meant that when a group of people say things together, reciting creeds, prayers, and praise in unison, we are not able to be separated from the person sitting next to us. All of a sudden, through a common creed, we are bound together, setting aside our differences, and affirming our faith. When we lift our voices in unison, we get the amazing opportunity to lift each other up, reminding each other of the faith that we share (even when some of us feel particularly weary or faithless). When we say the liturgy together, we cannot help but put aside our preferences in order to come together as the people of God.

These are but just a few reasons why liturgical worship has appealed to me. I hope that this post has either: a) renewed your love for liturgical worship; or b) prodded you to reconsider liturgical forms of worship. There is much to be gained from the liturgies that have been passed down through the generations and I hope that you will take the time to search their treasures.

If you are not sure where to start, I would encourage you to look into one of the most important liturgical books of all time, The Book of Common Prayer. This book is well worth perusing through because it is filled with prayers and liturgies as well as with uplifting words that may bring new vocabulary and expression to your faith.

May you be blessed as you explore the liturgy and liturgical forms of worship!

Theology for the People

Music is one of my passions. For a while I thought that I might be a music teacher. I used to be in a Christian metal band (which didn’t last long at all). I still feel, to this day, that one of my best ways to rid myself of stress is to listen, sing along, or play drums to music. There is a great joy that I experience when I am surrounded by an aural blanket of sounds and words.

I think that many of us feel the same way, even if we may not be musicians. Each of us have had an experience with music in a worship service that has carried us before the Lord’s throne. It is for this reason that we feel so passionately about the music that we worship to. It is for this reason that churches have split (officially or not) over the issue of what music is played in the Sunday service.

It may come a surprise to some that I, a 23 year old, would suggest that the church needs to reclaim its hymns. Most people my age may not agree with me, but I would like to make a case for why we should sing more hymns in our services.

Disclaimer: I do not oppose modern praise and worship songs in any capacity. Trust me, I enjoy some of them very much. I think that modern praise groups, such as All Sons and Daughters, have written some amazing songs that will affect those Christians long after I have gone. However, this particular post is simply a few thoughts about singing hymns in the 21st century church.

1) Hymns Tell a Story

One of the things that I appreciate most about hymns, ancient and modern, is that they tend to tell a story. Many hymns follow a figurative person who travels from one state to another. This resonates with our hearts and our lives. It reminds us either of how the Lord has worked in our lives, and therefore we can use the song as a memory device, or it tells us what we can expect in the future. Hymns show us where we are in the “Order of Salvation” and they show us what we can expect further down the Christian road.

For example, take the hymn And Can It Be?, written by Charles Wesley. The song begins with a person who is coming to the recognition of the Lord’s saving and justifying work in their life (“amazing love/how can it be/that O my God shouldst die for me?”). The hymn then moves to an explanation of sanctification (“my chains fell off/my heart was free/I rose went forth and followed Thee”) and it ultimately closes with a declaration of the Christian’s expectation of glorification and seeing Christ face-to-face (“bold I approach/the eternal throne/and claim the crown through Christ my own”). We can then take the progression of this song and find our lives in the lyrics, identifying with the figurative character that the hymnist writes about and anticipate the truth about the future.

2) Hymns Have Profound Depth

I recognize that not everyone goes to seminary to read dense books and to wade through the Greek New Testament (a worthy exercise that I do not wish upon anyone!). It’s for that reason that the songs that we sing are so important. I have often called the songs that we sing “Theology for the People” because they teach us what to believe about God, without ever having to read a (long) book!

Because of this we must choose our songs wisely. If the songs that we sing on Sunday mornings teach us nothing about God, his grace, mercy, power, redemption, and love, then we are not learning or glorifying God in the best way possible. Hymns are always teaching deep, rich truths about God that remind us who we serve. That is not to say that newer songs cannot do the same thing, but there are time-tested hymns that we should revisit because of the way that they glorify God.

For example, take the lyrics of the song A Mighty Fortress is Our God!:

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.

Or consider the words of the hymn It is Well with My Soul:

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will be honest and say that I have not found anything more beautiful than these things in modern praise songs!

I have recently found that though the words of the hymns may be old (even ancient!), they have given me a new song to sing. When the modern praise songs have simply been unable to put to words the hope that I need for the day, the hymns have filled that gap and have helped lift my heart before the throne of God.

It is for this reason that I write this post: that others, who may desire to deepen their knowledge and relationship with God, may find new life in the words of the good ol’ hymns of the church.

J is for Justification

“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” – Romans 3:28

Justification is one of the trickiest issues to address in all of Christian theology. It was the cause of the split between the Catholic Church and Martin Luther (although Luther simply meant to reform the Catholic Church from the inside). Since this split occurred in the early 16th century there have been massive books and numerous academic papers addressing this topic. I do not plan on addressing all of the nuances of this topic. Instead I hope to simply introduce the topic and touch on some of the many areas of difference, all at the risk of sounding simplistic. Some may think that the way that I handle the topic is too simple, but that’s okay. I’m not writing to the academic but to the person who wonders what the doctrine of justification is and why it is important.

At its most basic definition, justification is the doctrine that deals with our righteousness (or “right-standing”) and cleanliness before God. The theological category of justification deals, then, with how we are saved and the initial effects of that salvation.

I will reveal my hand at this moment: I am a Protestant Christian. All that means is that I come from a long tradition that emphasizes “Justification by grace alone, through faith alone.” This means that our salvation is by God’s grace, not by anything that we can do or have done, and that this salvation is received by believing upon Jesus Christ. I espouse this view and I believe that it is true. Scriptures such as Ephesians 2:8-9 and Galatians 2:16 seem to make this view pretty obvious. Salvation does not, and cannot, come from works, but only from the grace of God.

Besides the issue of faith vs. works (or so it has been categorized) there are other issues that the topic of justification raises, namely whether righteousness is imparted or imputed. These terms are used by theologians to refer to the effects of justification. The imputed view suggests that when one is justified that Christ clothes us in righteousness. Some have described this by suggesting that when God the Father looks at you, he does not see you, but he sees Christ. Martin Luther, in his typical brash manner, says that God sprinkles “snow on a dung heap”; God’s righteousness covers us, although we are still sinners. Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase for this is simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously saint and sinner”), meaning that the person who is justified is, at once, both a sinner and a saint.

Imparted righteousness, on the other hand, suggests that when one is declared righteous by God, she is actually changed by God. He no longer is considered to be a sinner by God, but is described by the Lord as a saint. Instead of considering the person to be a “dung heap” and simply covering the person with righteousness, God actually enters in and changes that person from a dung heap into something beautiful. This is, I think, the idea that is expressed by Romans 6 which suggests that we are “dead to sin”. I have preached a sermon before in which I state that “dead” means DEAD; one cannot be mostly dead (contrary to what Miracle Max from the Princess Bride says). Either one is dead or one is alive; there is no middle ground. This idea is uniquely summed up by a former pastor (although he will always be my pastor) who says that “you are not a sinner; you are a saint who occasionally sins.”

What is essential to know from this topic of justification, amidst all of the banter about the details, is that God is the primary actor in salvation. We do not, indeed we cannot, justify ourselves. Justification is entirely a gift from God in which we can stand before him on that last day and enter into his presence because we are among those whom have been justified. It is a gracious gift, indeed!

Next Post: K is for Kenosis

I is for Immutability and Impassibility

“God is unchangeable!”

You’ve said it; I’ve said it; we’ve all said it. But, at least for most of us, we don’t believe it.

You see, in many Christian circles, that I have been a part of, to say that God is unchangeable or unchanging seems to be pious. In other words, if you deny that God is unchanging then you are somehow “lesser” or not even Christian at all.

I think that this is because the Christian tradition (I speak for Western Christianity) has been hijacked, at times, by Greco-Roman philosophical values. These values, namely immutability (inability to mutate or change), has been imposed on God; this value is a foreign invader.

Let me get something straight. I do not deny God’s immutability; I just define it differently. I believe that God is wholly unchanging in his most basic character (loving, good, kind, wise, strong, etc). However, I do deny that God is entirely immutable. To say that God cannot change whatsoever is to affirm that God is static rather than relational, that he is un-involved rather than reactionary.

Perhaps an example would be helpful. Let’s say that you pray to God for something. If God is totally unchangeable then God cannot respond to your prayer. He has already decreed that whatever will happen will happen. However, if God is reactionary and changeable, although not in his essential character, then God can both listen to and answer your prayers and petitions.

And because God is unchangeable then God cannot experience emotions. If God cannot change then God is emotionless (impassible). Some suggest that God is impassible because that would imply that God can be better or worse than God already is. Though this is a great point, it would suggest that God could not experience sadness or sorrow. This would mean that God does not actually grieve over death, rape, and destruction. This would mean that God could also not be joyful. If God is impassible then God cannot delight in our obedience to him or that our songs of praise do not tickle his ears (metaphorically, of course). Some suggest that the emotion language of the Bible is just anthropomorphic, or giving human language to God. To that, all I can say is, “Humbug.”

And so if God is both unchangeable, therefore implying that God is also emotionless, I might suggest that this is a God entirely different from the one that I read about in the Bible.

And if God could not change in any sense, what do we make of the incarnation; what do we make of Jesus? Didn’t God have to self-limit in some capacity (jury’s still out on this debate) in order to become human? Wouldn’t God have to change in order to put on human form? And if God did not come in human flesh, where would our full and total salvation come from?

Frankly, I am glad that God changes just enough so that I can have an intimate relationship with him and to know that he truly cares for me.

Next Post: J is for Justification

H is for Hamartiology

Hamartiology is a topic that is not exactly favorable. It is a topic in theology that makes people somewhat uncomfortable, and rightly so. It affects, has affected, and will affect every person that walks on the earth. Hamartiology points out the faults in a person and attempts to study those faults and their place in the world of theology. Simply put, hamartiology is the study of sin.

The study of hamartiology begins with the question, “What is sin?” It then attempts to address what the implications of such a definition of sin is. In this post, I will attempt a short hamartiology, addressing the topic of sin and developing my thoughts on the matter.

What is sin?

At first glance, this question might be easily answered by the suggestion that sin is any action that is morally corrupt. This definition is true, but it only highlights one facet of the whole topic of sin. There are many systems in the world that affirm that moral evils are negative and that one must live an upright life, so the definition above does not encapsulate the Christian distinctive of sin.

Some might suggest that sin is disobedience of God’s command. That’s a bit better, but I think that this definition still does not get to the root of what sin is. Yes one can point to Genesis 3 and see that Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree that they were commanded not to. However, Jesus redefines this idea of sin when he suggests that one must go further. He suggests that although one might not commit adultery physically, one can still commit adultery within their heart through lust. One might not commit murder physically, but one can still commit murder within their heart through anger. Sin, then, is not necessarily disobedience itself, but rather the disposition toward something contrary to what God commands. It is not just the violation of law, but it is one’s negative attitude toward God.

Corruption and Freedom

In historical theological circles, there is an understanding of sin called “Total Depravity”. This term carries some baggage and has been interpreted different ways, but I will attempt to break down the simplest meaning of this term that can be agreed on by both sides of the contention over this term. In essence, Total Depravity means that human beings are wholly corrupted by sin. This is dreadful news.

But there is hope. The good news is that sin, although it has corrupted us and separated us from communion with God, although our hearts’ desire has been fixed on something other than God himself, God bridges the gap through Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection human beings may be freed from the profound effects of sin, we can be freed from Total Depravity through God’s grace. This not just good news, this is great news.

And so, for the Christian, the life of sin no longer holds sway. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, one becomes capable of saying “no” to the sin that diseased their life. For the Christian, there is a freedom that can be found, a freedom to pursue Christ. Some may argue that we are still, somehow, enslaved to sin because that is the human nature fighting back, but I would suggest that when Christ sets a person free, they are free indeed. Don’t get me wrong, this is a process. But Christ’s gift to us is a freedom to a heart disposition that is pleasing to God.

As a Christian, then, one no longer needs to ask “Who can rescue me from this body of death?” and can instead answer, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24b-25) Christians are freed from sin to obedience because Christ has brought them into the realm of the Spirit and out of the realm of the flesh (Romans 8:9).

Thanks to the Lord indeed!

Next Post: I is for Immutability and Impassibility

G is for Grace

Grace: it is one of the favorite words of the Christian. It brings comfort, joy, security, hope, and an affirmation of love to the person who rests in it. Though it is an important word in the Christian faith, what does it mean? and what does it mean for us today?

To give you one of the textbook Christian definitions, grace is “God bestowing upon us something that we do not deserve.” This definition is usually distinguished from its counterpart, mercy, which is “God withholding from us something that we deserve.” These definitions are, for the most part, correct (although grace and mercy should not be pit against each other as opposites, but as harmonious realities).

I would like to take the definition of grace a tad bit further, if I may. The definition above does not provide any examples, any distinctions, about what God grants. Some might suggest that the very thing that God grants is grace. However, I wonder if grace is something deeper than that.

And so I propose that grace is actually God’s love. Grace is simply an outpouring of God’s love upon us, his beloved creation. It is an overflow of the love that has eternally been present between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this takes multiple forms, namely as “common grace” and “special grace”.

Common Grace: This is grace that is very broad and general. It is grace that is experienced by all people in all places at all times. It is the love that God shows to people, just because he is good. Common grace can be anything: from a sunrise to a starlit night, from the air that we breathe to a lover’s kiss, from a baby’s giggling joy to an intricate orchestral piece. All of this is grace because God has given it to us out of his love, regardless of their standing before him.

Special (Saving) Grace: This grace is a bit trickier to describe because it carries so much historical-theological baggage. But, those debates aside, special grace is grace that God bestows on persons for salvation. When a person is “saved”, this is the grace that God gives to a person so that they may spend eternity in constant communion with him, basking in the warmth of his love.

The phrase, “all is grace”, applies here. As you can see, these two graces cover all of the bases, showing us that God’s love is constantly surrounding us, whether you believe in him or not. God is constantly loving on us simply by granting us the air that we breathe. This is the result of God’s most basic characteristic, that he is love.

Next Post: H is for Hamartiology