Creature of the Word
Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
Editor’s Note: This lecture was delivered in the Covenant College chapel on Wednesday, October 18, 2017. Video may be found at https://www.covenant.edu/calendar/all/2017/10/18.
Students of Covenant College, I don’t know where you’ve been going this morning. I don’t know if you’ve had a seminar with Dr. Kapic or a class with Dr. Jackson. I don’t know if you’re just getting over sleeping in or if you’re trying to get back into the rhythm again after being away for a few days. But what I can guess is something that you have likely not experienced. It’s something that is actually strange in human history but likely common for all of us in this room. It’s something that distances us from people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and the other great men and women in the sixteenth century involved in what we call the Protestant Reformation. It is that wherever you came from, whatever dorm or apartment you came from, whatever class or cafeteria, you probably didn’t walk past a graveyard this morning. That’s strange. And that oddity isn’t owing to relocating to college for a few years. You probably come from a town, a suburb, a neighborhood, or a city where in your day to day affairs you didn’t pass by graves quite often. We live in a world and a time where the dead are ushered off. We’re so good that we often move them off in a way before they are even dead. We send those who are ill or dying off into care outside of the home and away from our family. And where do most cemeteries get put today? Far off in the fields where the land doesn’t cost much and where we don’t come across them very often.
But people like Luther and students at the University of Wittenberg, where he served, would have walked past graves every morning on their way to study. I don’t say this to depress you, I say this simply to point out something about our culture. We live in a day and an age where the past is in many ways moved far away out of sight. Perpetual reinvention is the order of the day, and if we’re not careful as Christian women and men, we can ingest that and we can assume that. That’s why I’m so glad that you as well as brothers and sisters around the globe are taking time this year to celebrate the Reformation by giving attention to what the Holy Spirit did in that time and place where peoples’ imaginations and affections, convictions and practices were shaped by a renewed encounter with God’s word.
It’s my hope that this morning in the brief time before us we might explore one facet of that so that, hopefully, you and I can stand on their shoulders and see a bit further than we otherwise would. Hopefully, you and I, like the Christians who early on heard that letter to the Hebrews and were told of the “great cloud of witnesses,” will be able to “run the race set before us” by learning of those who have gone ahead (Heb. 12:1). By seeing the outcome of their way of life, by knowing that they’ve taught us the word of God, and by imitating their faith (Heb. 13:7) in a fresh way here and wherever our Lord will take each of you around the globe in his kingdom.
Listening and learning from the past is a strange thing for us today. And thus it’s a difficult task. I’m reminded of the Avett Brothers’ song, “Tear Down the House”. Repeatedly lamenting the idea that we live in a world that tears down the house that we’ve lived in. The result of that is that we don’t know the names of people around us, and we don’t even know ourselves. So it’s well worth our time, if we want to know ourselves, if you’re trying to imagine what God would have for you in life, if you want to know the names of those around you, and if you want to better know what is going on in the breadth of God’s kingdom, that we would look at our house and that we would look at the Lord’s house at the way in which he has worked in many places and in all centuries. And this morning, I want to look at one idea in particular.
Protestantism and the Reformation are known for a bunch of things, many of which I know you talk about in classes and celebrate here from time to time. But one idea that is crucial is the idea of the place of the Word of God, the Bible. We sing the Bible. We pray the Bible. We preach the Bible. We read the Bible. We are so into this we put the Bible on t-shirts and on placards. The Bible gets used here, there, and everywhere. And it’s worth reflecting, not on why we use the Bible in that way or why the Bible permeates Christian culture in its varied forms, but what promise holds for doing so? Is that simply the way your grandparents did that? Is that merely the way that the giants of the faith in years past did it? Is that the equivalent of analog wisdom in a digital world? Or is there something unique and lasting that hopefully can give you deep and profound comfort and hope? Does God’s Word hold a promise for power and life and blessing for you wherever you find yourself?
So to explore that, I don’t want to turn to Luther, though I trust you’ll hear of Brother Martin in other lectures. I want to turn to one of the forgotten texts of the Reformation, to which no one shows this love. It’s a small excerpt from one of the very first reformed confessions of faith. In the year 1528 in the town of Berne, they issued ten theses. They weren’t quite pompous as Luther cooking up 95 whole theses. They had a mere ten, and I want to reflect on the first of those Ten Theses of Berne. It goes like this: “The holy Christian church, whose head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger.” It is my single favorite line from all of the sixteenth century. I think there are three truths of which it is trying to alert us.
First: the holy Christian church has but one head, and the only head is Jesus Christ. Head, of course, is a political term speaking of a leader. In church settings, we use different words: pastor, elder, priest, minister, bishop, overseer, or superintendent. The terms have ranged across the traditions and through the centuries, but we know the idea of spiritual leadership. It’s crucial to catch that when Protestants and particularly when Reformed Christians speak of the Christian church and her life, the very first thing we always say, the very first line of every book of church order is that the head of the church is Jesus Christ.
It’s very easy to misperceive that claim. It’s very easy to take that line to mean that Jesus is the head of the church in the same way that a lot of people have their names on buildings on this and other campuses. Jesus is the head of the church. He was the entrepreneur that got things going. He was the benefactor who donated his own self. He was the remarkable figure long, long ago in a land far, far away who played a key role, so we remember what he did as the prophet the priest and the king. That’s not wrong.
But it’s crucial to catch that while we do celebrate what he did in the first century, the church stands on the promise that he is acting now. You can look at one text that Luther was so taken with in the early years just before the posting of his 95 theses. He had been studying and teaching on Hebrews, and he saw in Hebrews this remarkable witness as we read in chapters 5-10 that Christ dies once for all, so there is no more sacrifice that needs to be made. And Luther starts to see this is going to have effects on the ways in which we think of our repentance as having some kind of sacrificial effect or continuing the atoning work of Christ in any way. And he celebrated Heb. 1:1-4, where it says that “Christ having made propitiation for sins, sat down.” That action is what a typical priest could never do, because he had never done or completed that work. But Jesus did complete it, so he sits. That’s crucial. But we cannot miss as people who celebrate the atoning work of Christ and the finished nature of our justification, that Hebrews also goes on to say that Jesus isn’t done and doesn’t merely sit. It’s not simply the case that Jesus was active in the 1st century, in that glorious past tense of the gospel. Nor is it simply that there is a future that we can look to with assurance and confidence, not fear, because he will return and he will treat us as his own, in the future tense of the gospel. But Hebrews 13:20 says that he is the “great shepherd of the sheep.” Though there are many leaders, though there is a great cloud of witnesses, Jesus now is at the right hand of the father to intercede for you when you feel too weak to call out to God. He’s there to pray for me when I feel too overwhelmed with indecision and worry. Jesus is my great pastor. I have other pastors. I have other leaders, and he sends them to me, but he also stands above them and ministers on my behalf. And I fear that too often, too often, in our celebration of the atoning work of Christ and the past tense of the gospel, we fail to keep reading and we fail to see that there is grace for us also in this present tense of the gospel. We dare not miss the fact that Jesus is now head of the church. He is ruling and reigning. He is interceding and he is pastoring each and every one of you. And this is how he promised that he wouldn’t lose his sheep.
Second: this statement goes on to say, “that the holy Christian church whose only head is Jesus Christ, is born of the word of God and abides in the same.” We likely get the idea in the Protestant Reformed tradition that new birth is of God. Babies don’t do much other than scream and whine. They come out messy and rather cranky. It is a gift that they receive life, and so it is for us spiritually. We grasp that. But do we catch that the same gift that God provides in spiritual birth in bringing you from death to life in Christ is matched by God’s paternal care? Do we understand God’s fatherly care in sustaining and growing you? Do we prize the promise that God is going to gift you in just as miraculous ways to make it through life as gifting you with life itself? When I was in high school, I played basketball, but my senior year I decided to run track. And my favorite event was the 4×400 relay, which is the last event of any track meet. It’s pretty simple: four people are going to run, and you’re going to pass the baton after each person has run a lap around the track. I loved it. It was the last event, and, oftentimes, the result of the meet was hanging on the result of that race. I really savored that kind of pressure. And I like the fact, frankly, that it wasn’t the longest event I had to run. I confess there is a lazy bone somewhere in my body. But I also hated it. I hated it for just this reason: as someone who had grown up playing soccer and a whole lot of basketball, I found that, though the 4×400 is a relay, it’s still not really a team sport or event. I would stand there on the track and wait to run the 3rd leg. And either the person before me would have the lead and it’s my job not to screw it up for the next 50 some odd seconds, or, worse, we’re behind and it’s my job to make up for the fact that somebody has been outdone. In either event, I’m running and everybody is watching me and nobody is there to help. It is not a team endeavor in that regard. And that’s why each and every time as I anticipated it, I would also throw up. I would grow nervous before the event and I would throw up invariably 15 minutes before the race and then I would go and race and be delighted afterwards. That was anxiety inducing that sense there was no one to help you.
My hunch is that we all feel that spiritually. We sense at times that Jesus took the first leg with the baton, and it was beautiful. He was rounding the corners. He was taking the flack when people started to gain on him. He was so consistent even to the end. He didn’t really renege. He kept pushing through, and he finished so well. And then he passed off the baton. And the apostles had fits and starts, and it wasn’t all pretty necessarily, but they ran remarkably and by the end they are going at greater strength then in their youth and in their early days as disciples. And maybe there’s another leg. Maybe mom and dad or maybe some pastor or youth leader, someone who played a key role in your life, they have run a lap ahead of you. They seem to be further ahead and they seem to have witnessed and discipled and demonstrated something about the faith that seems pretty impressive frankly. Now here you are. You have life ahead of you, and God will call you to contribute to communities, to take jobs, to take risks, to evangelize, to invest in various ways, and to bless your neighborhood and cities by watching out not just for those near but those far away. And it can feel, frankly, pretty lonely and overwhelming and isolating. It seems to me that it’s just that isolation that causes us to clam up, isn’t it? We cease to take risks. We fail to be bold. We refuse to dream big. We hesitate to think about not just what would be the easy way forward or the logical next step, but what God might really be calling me to and what opportunity really presents itself.
The Reformation was a time of bold radicalism, of great missions, of remarkable evangelism, of investment in culture in neighborhoods and families and cities, and radical economic provision for many immigrants displaced by a whole slew of political problems around the European continent. They were able to do those things because they had a very vivid sense that Jesus was not disengaged. It’s not simply that he passed the baton and now it’s on them to make it or to not screw it up. Rather Jesus has power for them today. That’s why Luther turned to one text in particular time and again, Romans 1:16-17. You probably famously know it for its conclusion: “The just shall live by faith.” Luther did herald that we’re justified by faith alone not by works of the law. But Luther also treasured that first part of it that “he was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” because it’s the “power of God for salvation.” Luther knew that just as much as God has grace to bring you into the family, and to give you new birth as a Christian woman or man, so Jesus has power through his word and through the gospel to sustain you and to grow you, to send you and to use you to bless others. That’s why he was such a seemingly reckless man willing to at great risk follow Christ’s call.
Third: there’s a catch with seizing upon this promise of Jesus being active – just as active as at our conversion – today. We do prize that the only head of the church is Jesus. He’s not absent, but he’s active. He stands at our side. He goes before us. He watches over us. And in these ways he really has grace for today just as much as for your conversion day. I hope you know and depend upon that reality. And also that you savor the promise that he uses his Word that we can abide in it and in so doing can find strength, wisdom, encouragement, and comfort in every season. But you really have to know something about God’s Word and about the promise of Christ’s grace. Here’s the catch: when Christ saves a man or woman, he does not leave you as you are. That means, against all the polite customs of our day and age, Jesus will get all up in your business. It’s not for nothing that Calvin and the other reformers treated the prophet as the great image for the person who is learning from and professing the word of God. And so Calvin would regularly look to Jeremiah 1 to describe the nature of the ministry of the word. It’s a remarkable picture of Jeremiah being called to what is frankly a thankless task to go preach the word to people who won’t be too happy about it. And he was told, according to Jer. 1:10, that he was to go with this word and he is to do it to destroy, and to overthrow, to pull up, and to tear down, and to build, and to plant.
And you’ve got to catch those purposes of God’s Word. God’s Word will build you. God’s Word will plant you. God’s Word is meant to bring about flourishing and wholeness. That word “perfection” is used so much in places like Matt. 5 or Heb. 5 or Eph. 4. And it doesn’t so much mean in those places that you are meant for sinlessness in this life, but mainly that you are meant to be a complete and whole Christian. You are to be a man or woman who bears the maturity of Christ in as much as you are being conformed to him. But the catch is, that the way to maturity is the way of being confronted, so that before Jeremiah gets to build and to plant, before he gets to reconstruct, there is that difficult work of deconstruction. There are 6 infinitives listed there in Jer. 1:10 regarding the goal of God’s Word. Only numbers 5 and 6 describe positive rebuilding. Numbers 1-4 are all about the difficult work of getting down to the basics of the problem and rooting it out. Just like someone suffering from a terrible cancer isn’t really going to be helped until chemotherapy has whittled them all the way down that the root issue can be dealt with, that a transplant can actually be performed. Until you actually take down those defenses, you can’t really get at the issue. You can only get at the symptoms. You can get at the appearances. You can get at some of the superficial, presenting issues. But you can’t really get at what’s killing you until you are deconstructed.
We might easily say “well, that’s what happened to me before I was converted.” “Oh, God’s Word told me that I was a sinner and I was on my way to hell.” We can so easily think that the Word, the living and active Word of God (Heb. 4:12-13), cuts through and confronts and deconstructs the pagan. That helps me to know that Hollywood is after me, that Washington D.C., and that Fifth Avenue all have evil designs. They want to win my heart and affections to the fears of this world or the allures of the devil. No doubt that’s all true. But we can too easily assume that it was only at our conversion that we needed to be challenged and confronted and deconstructed by God’s “living and active Word.”
So another key text that Luther and especially Calvin regularly discussed is found there at the beginning of Rom. 12 where God calls for us to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Doing so is our true spiritual worship. And it goes on to say that to do that, we have to “not be conformed to the patterns of this world.” We have to throw a spiritual stiff-arm to the ways that this world is trying, that people who are brilliant and have a lot of resources and want to make you want things that you needn’t want are trying to make you fear people you needn’t fear. And so, you aren’t to be conformed to those patterns. But it goes on and it says further that we are to “be transformed by the renewing of you mind” that you might be able to discern what the will of God is, what is good and true and perfect. We often think that the problem is out there. We fail to remember with the Reformers that I don’t need the problem out there to lead me astray, because the problem inside me is pretty much enough to get me in trouble. And we forget also that the status quo is not acceptable. We forget further that Jesus’s forgiveness of me is not Jesus being done with me. So we have to remember that the Word of God will get up in my business. It will challenge me. It will demonstrate places where my vision of my neighbor is too small, where my sense of love’s demands is far too comfortable, or where my vision of God’s glory is far too weak. It will explode those things. It will cut and it will at times hurt.
And what better place to get used to that practice than when you’re studying the liberal arts at a place like Covenant College? The Baptist philosopher Cornel West regularly says that when you study the liberal arts, “you are learning how to die.” He means that you learn to see parts of yourself as things that are false, bad, and ugly. You examine those ideas that aren’t humane, that aren’t life giving, that aren’t just and merciful. You see those parts of you confronted. I think we can go a step further and with the Ten Theses of Berne we can say that God’s Word doesn’t leave us to do any of that self-critique alone. It’s not that you simply need to learn how to have a self-critical mind, though that’s a good thing to develop. Even better: you have the promise of a Lord who is alive and active at the right hand of the Father and who has sent out the Word of his prophets and apostles and that Word is there to comfort you, yes, but it is also there to challenge you. It is living and active, it does cut right through and divide soul and spirit and bone and marrow, and that’s why we speak not only of forgiveness and justification as great gifts of the gospel, but in the Reformed tradition especially, we celebrate the fact that sanctification, God transforming who you are through and through, is also a gift. It is a calling, but it’s a gift and that Jesus has not left you alone. He is not on vacation or sabbatical, but he is more actively involved in the transformation of you through and through than even you are. He desires that more than even you long or dream for it. His Word is his gracious instrument, and his Word is the powerful means by which he does that. You know, the thing with grace is that God can give it in many places. If God wants to do so, he can speak through the mouth of the donkey. Go read Numbers (22:21-39). But if you want to know the comfort of the gospel and you want to know the challenge of Jesus, the wisdom isn’t that you would go to the barnyard, but that you would turn to the good book.
I am reminded of the TV shows about storm chasers. These are folks who chase down tornadoes, desiring to film them and to measure them. Tornadoes can pop up anywhere, right? I remember growing up in Miami when there was a tornado that famously went through the skyscrapers of downtown Miami. It was on every newspaper’s front page the next day because that’s a very strange, unexpected sight. We admittedly have our own problems, but we don’t typically have that one. Stormchasers are always traveling in the same spots. It seems that they are always in Kansas or Oklahoma. They’re always in the plain states known as tornado alley. Because while a tornado may pop up anywhere, if you really know that you need to find them, you move to one of those places. Similarly, this is why we celebrate the biblical idea of God’s “means of grace.” God in his freedom can reach you anywhere. God in his love can change you through many tools. Yet God in his fatherly care and Jesus as your great pastor has provided specific means of grace – especially his Word – so that, going again and again to it, listening to sermons, meditating upon it in prayer, discussing it with brothers and sisters, using it to evangelize other people, we have the promise that we will find the comfort of the gospel as well as the challenge of Jesus. We can be reminded of the justification and freedom we have in Christ. We are freed to go and be bold to be self-sacrificial, to think of others’ needs, and to not worry about ourselves so much.
But we can also go to see the way in which it opens up a new way of imagining the world and a new way of seeing yourself. In the Reformed tradition, we often talk about a much later reformer, the late nineteenth century theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper, who spoke that there is not “one square inch” of this entire globe of which Jesus Christ doesn’t say “mine.” That’s true, and we rightly celebrate the consequence of that for all of life. But I think the Ten Theses of Berne and the Reformation insistence on the Word of God for developing whole and effective Christians should remind you and me to hear that line also in a slightly more personal tone. Kuyper’s words can feel very big or abstract given their global scale. So let me conclude with this. Jesus looks at you and there is not one nook and cranny of yourself, there is not one part of your person that he doesn’t say is “mine”. There is not one instance or segment of your life for which there isn’t grace and gift and a word to comfort and to challenge. There is a gospel for all of life, and his grace truly does change everything.