Is there anything that we believe to be true that is not ultimately rooted in assumptions, assumptions that are subject to examination by evidence, to be sure, but assumptions, none the less? Are fallen, finite, fallible human beings capable of truly objective thought? Don't people believe what they choose to believe? If that is true with regard to day to day decisions, isn't it even truer when it comes to the ultimate issues of life and death? Isn't faith or unbelief ultimately a matter of the will, influenced by the emotions, rather than merely a function of the intellect? By sovereign grace, we choose to believe. Then having come to faith, reason follows suit. As Saint Anselm said,
"Credo ut intelligam." (I believe that I may know.)
What was the method that the apostles used to bring people to faith in Christ? Was it not Proclamation, the assertion of the truth that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord? The efficacy of their methodology was utterly dependent on the blessing of the Lord in terms of authenticating the Proclamation:
"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our Proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 1:20-24)
"After it (the Proclamation of salvation) was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will." (Hebrews 2:3, 4)
When we sit under preaching, it is Christ himself who communicates with us, calling us to come to him. Whenever the gospel is preached, the crucifixion is reenacted, not as a sacrificing of Christ again, but in order to make the cross effectual to us: "O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you?" (Galatians 4:1) When the old spiritual asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" I can answer "Yes," because in public worship I sat at the foot of the cross and saw one bleeding for me on that accursed tree. It is in the Proclamation that the drama of redemption is made real to me.
When we speak of true preaching, we are speaking of the presence of the Lord Jesus in his Church, through the written Word, through the Holy Spirit, until the consummation of the age.
The Bible as it is preached is never a dead thing: it is alive, and it gives life, too. It is through the proclamation of the Word that God chooses to raise the dead: John 5:21-29
It is through the Proclamation (when it is mixed with faith, Hebrews 4:2) that we pass through the Judgment, and from death to life, so entering into our heavenly position and thereby our heavenly rest.
The Bible pierces into the innermost parts of the human person: it shows us who we really are by exposing our truest thoughts and motives.
We are by nature given to turn religion into a set of rules or outward tests, sometimes more and sometimes less easily passed by us, given our own unique disposition. But God's Word as it is proclaimed shatters all of the formulistic approaches to God and life and leaves us broken and at times bewildered before God; it makes us feel our guilt so that we flee to the foot of the Cross.
The Word of God, in its most basic form, is an assault on our understanding of life and the world and who we are within them. It shatters our confidence both in our own goodness and our glib analyses about people and why things happen as they do. It takes us to Job's ashheap where we are bewildered by life and the world and who we are that we may at the end say with Job: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5, 6)
But God's Word does not leave us on the ashheap, broken and bewildered: "So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning . . ." (Job 42:12)
It breaks us to remake us; it brings us to the place of self-despair at our own poverty of spirit that we may once again experience the reality of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now of our own lives; it causes us to mourn that we may be comforted; it causes us to hunger and thirst for righteousness that we may be filled; it makes us see our need of seeking mercy from God in the profoundest way, and thereby changes us, forever making us merciful people; it brings us into the most dreadful disturbance of our peace -- "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." (Matthew 11:12) - that it may turn us into those whose calling is to peacemaking.
It does this by bringing us to Calvary, where we may find the life-long, crushing burden that is on our backs, broken and rolling down the hill into an empty tomb. And true preaching always does this, not only for the yet to be converted, but also for the seasoned saint that is nearest to God.
First century evangelism was a very different thing than what often passes for it today. Many modern Christians see evangelism as fundamentally a reasoned discourse, dependent on the force of logic and the successful marshaling of facts in order to get a decision -- a process not unlike selling vacuum cleaners. But first century evangelism was never isolated from the body of Christ, the Church. It was steeped in the Word and sacraments, God's drama of worship, where heaven and earth touch. The invitation was not to affirm a syllogism; it was to a laver. (Acts 2:38) And decisions were not individualistic; whole families came to the laver when the head of the house responded to the Proclamation. (Acts 16:15, 31-33; 1 Corinthians 1:16)
Furthermore, while regeneration takes place in a moment of time, the New Testament never sees it as an experience that we look back on when we doubt, but the beginning of a pilgrimage, shared with other pilgrims, not complete until we reach the Celestial City: "We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." "And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast." (Hebrews 3:14, 6)
When we partake of the Lord's Supper or Eucharist (based on the word in the Greek New Testament for giving thanks -- "having given thanks
[EUCHARISTHSAS], he broke the bread), we really and truly do receive the Lord Jesus, his body and his blood, for he is present in the sacrament (Latin for mystery or pledge, not a bad way to refer to sealing ordinances) -- though not in a tongue and stomach way (we don't worry about witches stealing it or what would happen to a mouse who ate it.) but by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who lifts us up to where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:27-30)
When we unite our voices to confess the faith, we may do so regardless of the lingering doubts we feel. It is not hypocrisy to go through the motions of worship, being honest with ourselves and honest with God, pleading for his divine touch in the means of grace. "I believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible!" By a Holy Ghost renewed will, I will shout it until my proud mind crumbles in submission. I will join millions upon millions of Christians around the world in this ancient affirmation, and as I do, once again, I believe, because "Faith comes by hearing" and "with the mouth he confesses resulting in salvation." (Romans 10:9 ff.)
There is a curious phrase in Lamentations 3:41, where Jeremiah admonishes, "Let us lift up our hearts to our hands to God in heaven." We don't wait until we are sure of our faith or already have our hearts warm toward God before we begin to worship. We engage in the ritual first, praying that as we participate in the drama, we will be enabled truly to worship God from the heart. So we lift up our hands in praise, even though our hearts may be miles away, and we may be reeling from Satan's fiery darts. But as we do, we whisper a humble prayer, "Oh Father, give me grace to put my heart where my hands are, lifted up in praise and sacrifice to you."
To cold people who have lost their first love, the Lord Jesus admonishes a humble return to early deeds of love; it is in going through the motions of love, that love is restored. (Revelation 2:5)
When I open my mouth to sing, my first hymn may be one by John Newton: "Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend, my Prophet, Priest and King, my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, accept the praise I bring."
But even as I take his precious name on my lips, I am compelled to sing, "Weak is the effort of my heart, and cold my warmest thought; but when I see Thee as Thou art I'll praise Thee as I ought."
Prayer -- to what can we compare it? As we join with others in corporate prayer the wall between heaven and earth seems to disappear.
Once my transmission was gone in my car; it was going to cost $900, and I simply did not have the money. I cried out to God and several days later I found an envelope that had been pushed under my door. Inside were nine one hundred dollar bills. I certainly praised the Lord, but it was years later that I really understood how special this gift was. When I received the anonymous gift, I had assumed that some brother had learned about my transmission and had chosen to bless me in this way. However, some years later a young man came to see me. He was a Baptist from another parish (county) and hardly knew me. He asked me, "Several years ago did you find an envelope with nine one hundred dollar bills in it?" "Yes," I replied. Then he told me that he had been praying and the Lord had told him to go to Alexandria and give this amount of money to
I could go on and on with such accounts of dramatic answers to prayer -- the sharing of these "testimonies" is part of what real fellowship is all about. It is why involvement in the life of the Church is essential
to our best growth and service. Without participation in the Church, we will lose our faith and become apostate (something none of God's elect will ever ultimately do, 1 John 2:19).
It is in real worship that we face our difficulties with the seeming injustice of the world, and we lay these perplexities at the feet of our gracious Lord, whom we have come to know in worship in a way that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19), as we gather with the Lord's people on the Lord's day, when the Spirit comes and the veil between us and the heavenly throne seems to dissolve, and we worship the blessed and holy Trinity with angels and archangels, saints and martyrs, we can say, "I (do not) involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me." (Psalm 131:2) Then we understand that the profoundest truths of life embrace a paradox, and we lose and find our sanity at the foot of the cross, a cross that comes into our space and time through the method and message of the preaching of the gospel.