Monday, March 31, 2014

Letter to a Mormon Friend

M---, my friend, thank you for your response, and I understand why you think so highly of Mormonism and the temples of Mormonism. I see where you are coming from.

However, my deep concern is that I'm afraid you have jumped-the-gun religiously. That is, as a Mormon (and this is true of basically every single Mormon that I have ever met) you have a very strong conviction about Christianity and Mormonism before you have actually understood what Christianity is on its own terms. You haven't truly wrestled with the Bible on its own terms - not through the lens of Joseph Smith and Mormonism, but rather handling it fairly for what it is in itself. You have to appreciate and grasp the problem before you can honestly have the solution. You have to know the question before you can truthfully have the answer. But the Mormons I know don't know their Bibles. They don't know the Old and New Testaments. Yes, they have read them, but they haven't reckoned with them. They have read them as Mormon apologists, not as Biblical disciples. Mormons have shortcut their way to Mormonism with "Moroni's Challenge" (Moroni 10:4): pray about the Book of Mormon and you will receive a personal revelation that Mormonism is true. I know many Mormons who have done this and they obtained a conviction that Mormonism was true even before they knew what was in the Book of Mormon itself, let alone the Bible! But how can one be sure of the correctness and legitimacy of "Moroni's Challenge" if one doesn't even know what is at stake Scripturally, nor what one is dealing with historically? What if God forbade or gave qualified warnings about such challenges, and a person is ignorant of the prohibition and warnings? How would such a person have the tools to examine the claims of Mormonism - or even know how he should, and that he should, examine them - unless he was aware of and understood what God had already revealed? Without reckoning with the past we are totally unprepared for the present. The past simply cannot be skipped over for the sake of such "challenges". I'm afraid that Mormonism underestimates the danger of ignorance.

I, too, am interested in revelation, M---, but I am not interested in ignoring the critical inquiry into what God has already revealed in the past in order to skip ahead and presume to ask God to reveal things directly to me in the present. This method, of course, is deeply ingrained in the Mormon way of thinking and it is difficult for Mormons to think outside of it. You must see that this method is taught by Mormonism, and so to accept this method at the outset is to gullibly buy into Mormonism even before uttering a single prayer. You are uncritically believing Mormonism that the method is legitimate, simply because it seems right. But has God said anything about this? This question is the befitting first question, for if we really want to hear from God, then the first inquiry should not be "God, I want to hear from you so speak to me now", but "God, I want to hear from you, have you said anything already?" The former is presumptuous and self-centered; the latter is sober and requires humility. Furthermore, only a person who is ignorant of God's past revelation would even entertain such a thing as "Moroni's Challenge", because anyone who has cut their teeth on the Bible will see right away that that is not the method God endorses. In the Bible, historical revelation is never to be set aside for immediate personal revelation; historical revelation is to be jealously sought for, scrupulously guarded and preserved, and passed down by parents to their children and their grandchildren. God does not plan on uttering the Ten Commandments again; He has already uttered His voice. It is the responsibility of those who heard His voice to pass this revelation on to those who didn't hear it, and it is the responsibility of those who didn't hear it themselves to learn from their elders and inquire about the past, and they are held accountable for what they have been taught. There is another crucial issue that is at stake here as well. It is by God's past revelation that later revelations are to be judged and evaluated (Deut. 13:1-5, Is. 8:20, Jer. 23:16-18). Bypass the past and you are a defenseless prey for false teachers (which is precisely what has happened to Mormons). Quoting James 1:5 as proof for such a challenge is not seriously reckoning with the Bible on its own terms. Asking of God can also mean inquiring into the Scriptures. Yet if one does ask of God by prayer, one is never to do so by ignoring or bypassing what God has already revealed. James would turn in his grave if he saw how Mormons are using his encouragement. Remember, M---, I am one who rejects Mormonism, not because I reject the idea of personal revelation whatsoever, but because I am convinced that the content of Mormonism contradicts what God has already revealed. This conviction is based upon my taking seriously past revelation. I believe past revelation is trustworthy and that Mormon teaching is not in harmony with it. Put yourself in my shoes and you will appreciate why I don't believe in Mormonism, and why "Moroni's Challenge" is useless and suspect to me as well as to everyone who takes to heart the past revelation of God. The only way I could ever believe in Mormonism is if one of two things happened: one, if I lost confidence in the trustworthiness of the past revelation of God; or two, if I came to see that Mormonism's teaching is not in disharmony with the past revelation of God. This is the true challenge facing Mormons if they want to honestly convince others to join Mormonism.

Mormons either do not believe God's past revelation is trustworthy, or else they believe that the teachings of Mormonism are not in disharmony with it. My point in this letter is that these two convictions gain root because Mormons are not reckoning seriously with the Bible. These two convictions jump-the-gun. Consider, for instance, that Mormons believe that the past revelation of God is not trustworthy because Joseph's Smith's later revelations told them that they were not trustworthy (1 Nephi 13). This conviction is not based upon any sound investigation of the evidence. Attempts to discredit the Bible's trustworthiness by appealing to history and evidence have in the past only served to confirm our confidence in the Bible. Consider the fact that Dr. Bart Ehrman, perhaps the most vocal critic of the New Testament in our day, has himself admitted that the New Testament we possess today has preserved the essential message of its ancient original (Misquoting Jesus, p. 207). So again we see that Mormonism isn't based upon an honest reckoning with the Bible at all, but is based on the word of Joseph Smith. There is reason not to believe Smith when he tells us that the Bible has been corrupted and that we simply need to pray about Mormonism. Smith's words are also in disharmony with God's past revelation, for Jesus said that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for God's Word to pass away (or is this one of those corrupt passages? According to what? Any evidence? No, Smith!).

This issue of harmony and disharmony is my biggest concern. The Mormons I have met have a superficial knowledge of the Bible. They haven't begun to seriously wrestle with the Bible on its own terms - not through the lens of Mormonism, but as it is in itself. I know you are not an unintelligent person, M---, nor am I in any way suggesting that Mormons are unintelligent, but I am arguing that the Mormons I have met haven't used their God-given intelligence in a God-honoring way. We are commanded to love God with all our minds (Deut. 6:5) which means grappling with the real questions no matter how difficult and unnerving. Have you ever noticed that in the LDS tradition there are virtually no commentaries on Biblical Scripture? I don't mean lesson manuals and the devotional volumes you can buy at Desert Book. Recently a professor at BYU actually admitted to me that this was true, that there are virtually no commentaries on Biblical Scripture in Mormonism which seriously grapple with the text of Scripture and engage with current scholarship. Most Mormons I know don't even know what a commentary really is. If you compare the immense labor that the Christian tradition has put into wrestling with and understanding the Scriptures next to the Mormon tradition it will appear like the Himalayan mountains next to a flat plain. The reason for this is simply that Christians believe the Bible is God's inspired Word that is trustworthy. They are reckoning with it deeply (and have been doing so for the last two thousand years). Mormonism, on the other hand, starts off with the idea from Joseph Smith's that it's not worth your time - or your faith! - to seriously study it. But it is essential that we understand the past if we want to understand the present and the future. You've got to know where you are in the story; you've got to know what people have thought before you came along; you've got to appreciate and sink your teeth into the wealth of hard work that has gone into understanding the Bible if you want to seriously address the situation. Mormons are late-comers to a conversation who nevertheless seem to have all sorts of opinions to voice but who haven't even paused to listen and hear what has been said in the conversation already. If you take what has been said already in the conversation seriously, you would never say the things that you now are saying.

M---, I am begging you to wrestle with the past and not just believe Joseph Smith. Skipping ahead and asking God for present revelation is in fact hypocrisy, because if you really want to hear from God the first thing you will ask is whether God has said anything already. An honest evaluation of what God has already said will reveal to you more than you can possibly imagine. You will learn that God has said a lot. Past revelation is a treasure-trove just waiting to mined. You will see that the Scriptures which have been passed down to us are the truth as well as your only defense against false teaching. I want you to know and experience the true love and grace of Jesus Christ, and to know the one true God of Israel. You think you are free but you are not. You haven't yet tasted freedom and life. You haven't yet drunk from the true fountain of living waters, because those waters are found in Christ, the true Christ of history, and received by true faith. But how could you know any different unless you inquired?

"Because my people have forgotten me, they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, from the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway." (Jer. 18:15)

Your friend,

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Third Use of the Law

How are Christians to relate to the law of God after conversion? What is the role of the law of Moses1 in the Christian life, if any?

One of the most discussed teachings in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is his teaching on the three uses of the law (Book II, Ch. 7). Here Calvin has once again left his indelible mark upon the Christian Church. Calvin was a profound theologian, and he is worthy of great admiration by us all. While there may be more uses of the law than just three (though other suggestions tend to find a place under the umbrella of one of Calvin's three) Calvin summarized the law's uses by setting forth three helpful divisions.

The first use of the law is that the law serves as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified through faith (Gal. 3:24). Calvin writes: "By exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, [appraises], convicts, and finally condemns him. This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity. For until his vanity is made perfectly manifest, he is puffed up with infatuated confidence in his own powers, and never can be brought to feel their feebleness so long as he measures them by a standard of his own choice." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 6) Here is a powerful articulation of what all Christians would heartily agree to. The law was given by God to show us our sin and our need for Christ. People are naturally self-righteous and think of themselves as good and morally acceptable, but God, who knows the truth, gave the law to reveal the truth about our alleged goodness. We are really unrighteous, and until we understand this - and the fact that we are condemned because of it - we will not see our need for the righteousness that is by faith in Jesus Christ. "Divesting themselves of an absurd opinion of their own virtue, they may perceive how they are wholly dependent on the hand of God; that feeling how naked and destitute they are, they may take refuge in his mercy, rely upon it, and cover themselves up entirely with it; renouncing all righteousness and merit, and clinging to mercy alone, as offered in Christ." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 8) Calvin is clear that this use of the law is for the unbeliever, bringing him to see his need for conversion to Christ. All true Christians will agree with him.

The second use of the law is that the law serves as a restrainer of sin in the world, a threat to those who would otherwise sin without restraint. The law of God was given so that those who hear may fear. God will punish the wicked for their wicked deeds. There is a day of judgment when all men will render an account to God. This instills fear into people's hearts so that they are not so quick and careless to rush headlong into wickedness. Calvin does not argue that sinners are in any way acting virtuously when they are restrained from wickedness in this way, but only that such restraint is necessary in order for men to live in a livable society. "This forced and extorted righteousness is necessary for the good of society, its peace being secured by a provision [without] which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 10) I believe Christians will essentially agree with Calvin's idea. Calvin also closely connects this use of the law with the first use, in that it also serves to bring people to Jesus Christ. For unless people know that there is a judgment day and a threatening law against them, they may become so headstrong in their sin that they forget God altogether. "For where the Spirit of God rules not, the lusts sometimes so burst forth, as to threaten to drown the soul subjected to them in forgetfulness and contempt of God; and so they would, did not God interpose with this remedy." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 11) Thus the first two uses of the law are for the unbeliever and are closely related.

The third use of the law is the one that has caused the most controversy and dispute, for here Calvin states that the third use of the law is the chief use of the law and that this use is applied to believers. "The third use of the Law (being also the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end) has respect to believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already flourishes and reigns." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) This brings us to the question posed above: what is the role of the law in the Christian life? What, then, according to Calvin, is the third use of the law? It is essential to understand that under the umbrella of the third use of the law Calvin puts forth not one, but two roles: "There are two ways in which [believers] still profit by the law." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12)

First, the law serves to instruct the Christian in what the will of the Lord is. Calvin states his point powerfully: "It is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge; just as a servant who desires with all his soul to approve himself to his master, must still observe, and be careful to ascertain his master’s dispositions, that he may comport himself in accommodation to them. Let none of us deem ourselves exempt from this necessity, for none have as yet attained to such a degree of wisdom, as that they may not, by the daily instruction of the Law, advance to a purer knowledge of the Divine will." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) A careful reading of Calvin's words here is indispensable. The important words are "learn", "knowledge", "wisdom", "instruction". What Calvin is saying is that the law of God is still useful - no, necessary - to the Christian for gaining knowledge and instruction in the will of God for living the Christian life. The law is a treasure-trove of instruction in righteousness. Believers are not so knowledgeable that they no longer need to study and meditate upon the law of God for instruction in Christian living. Since believers should desire to please the Lord their God in all things, they should therefore study the law of God in order to understand what pleases the Lord and what doesn't please the Lord. Just knowing the commands to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself" isn't instructive enough. True, it gives us our moral compass and lays down the true motivation for serving (love), but these two commands are not sufficient to help you navigate the journey, making wise and loving decisions in the midst of all the complicated situations of life. The law has much to say about living a loving life, and Christians will do well to become students of this instruction. They should do so out of love for God and because they want to please Him.

Calvin's instinct appears to be sound, and shouldn't be resisted. This is not to say that Augustine's maxim, "Love, and do what thou wilt", is untrue. It is true that love is the wellspring of all good works, and our motivation for all our works is to be love. For if our motivation is not love, whatever we do, even if it is the right thing, ceases really to be good; yet if our motivation is love, whatever we do, even if it is the wrong thing, really remains good. However, there are times, lots of times, when "Love, and do what thou wilt" is simply not sufficient. Imagine a man whose loved ones have been taken hostage by some maniac, and when he seeks council from the police as to what to do, they say, "Love, and do what thou wilt!" Of course it is true that whatever he does in love will be good concerning his own intentions, but that guarantees nothing concerning his family's well-being! Unless he is further instructed he will not know what will really help his family. This is an extreme case. Suppose someone you love is coming over for dinner and because you love them you want to serve them food that will please them. Now you could go learn what food they like and don't like so that when your friend comes you won't set on the table something your friend considers inedible; or you could just reason within yourself that whatever you set on the table, so long as it is motivated by love, will be on your part morally good. After all, "It's the thought that counts" (a modern rendition of Augustine's maxim). But while it is true that it is the thought that counts, morally speaking, it is the food that counts in accomplishing the goal of pleasing your friend. As Calvin wrote above, the desire to please (which desire is motivated by love) ought to lead one to study the one who you want to please, so that you may actually please; and this requires instruction. We are all not wise enough to know everything. We all need to learn. And is not studying to know what pleases the one who we want to please itself also loving? Yet we are not all very bright and need to be taught even this! Calvin's point is therefore wise and demonstrable: we all have much to learn about Christian living, and the law is a treasure-trove of instruction.

If this first role of the third use of the law is controversial, the second role is even more.

Second, Calvin argues that the law also serves to motivate the Christian to do good works. "Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. In this way must the saints press onward, since, however great the alacrity with which, under the Spirit, they hasten toward righteousness, they are retarded by the sluggishness of the flesh, and make less progress than they ought. The Law acts like a whip to the flesh, urging it on as men do a lazy sluggish ass. Even in the case of a spiritual man, inasmuch as he is still burdened with the weight of the flesh, the Law is a constant stimulus, pricking him forward when he would indulge in sloth." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 12) Understanding Calvin's point here is much more difficult than understanding his points above. The key words are "exhortation", "excited", "urging", "stimulus". The idea is that the law not only fulfills a role of instruction in the Christian life (with the motivation already being provided from elsewhere), it also fulfills a role of motivator. Calvin isn't saying that the law is the only motivator in the Christian life, nor does he deny that Christians are motivated and stimulated to obedience by the love of God. For example, he writes at the beginning of the Institutes: "By piety I mean that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspire." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 2, Section 1) Again: "For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that [nothing] is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 2, Section 1) And again: "No one, indeed, will voluntarily and willingly devote himself to the service of God unless he has previously tasted his paternal love, and been thereby allured to love and reverence Him." (Institutes, Book I, Ch. 5, Section 3) In these sayings, not law, but God's love, is the source of "inspiration" and motivation to voluntary obedience. Nevertheless, Calvin is arguing that the law too serves the role of motivator. The big question is: how?

Before addressing that question, it is important to see why this is so important to Calvin, and also to appreciate the difficulty that is involved in his position. Calvin is anxious to maintain that the law is not only a source of instruction in the Christian life, but is also a source of motivation. He does not want Christians to think that they may now treat the law nonchalantly, like a game's instruction manual, which you may pick up and read whenever you feel like playing the game. To say that a Christian is not condemned by the law does not mean that a Christian may now treat the law with casual interest, as if he were not still duty-bound to keep it. Christians must still keep the law! "It must ever remain an indubitable truth, that the Law has lost none of its authority, but must always receive from us the same respect and obedience." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 15) Calvin is clear: the curse of the law is gone, but the law is not, and the law must continue dictating to the Christian what his duty is with the same authority as ever before. Calvin was not the only one who was concerned to maintain the law's motivating role in the Christian Church: Martin Luther and many other important Reformers shared his theological concern. With the Reformation well underway and the doctrine of justification through faith alone being proclaimed and believed all over Europe, there were inevitably cases of new sects springing up which taught that the doctrine of justification abrogated the law entirely, to the end that now the law was a 'no-thing' to the Christian. Not just it's curse is gone, but also it's relevance. The law has nothing more to do with the Christian from here on out, neither for motivation nor even for instruction. It no longer matters how a Christian lives his life, for he is justified and heaven-bound all apart from his own works. Right behavior is now completely irrelevant. This horrified Calvin and the other Reformers (as it should horrify us as well) and they reacted accordingly in order to preserve the doctrine of justification through faith from reproach.

But the problem lies in how they reacted. Not wanting the gospel to be an open door to such reckless behavior, and believing that the truth should rather lead to holiness of life, the Reformers answered by saying that the law's commands must still be binding in the Christian life. However, it is a difficult thing to hold that a Christian is not under the curse of the law yet is still under obligation to keep the law. If I am not cursed for not keeping it, is this not just saying that I am not under obligation to keep it? Obligation implies some punishment if I do not fulfill my obligation, but if there is no punishment for law-breaking, how then can it be said that I am under the obligation of law-keeping? In essence, Calvin and the Reformers wanted to say with the New Testament that a Christian was not under the law, while at the same time maintain that a Christian was still under law. They wanted to hold both of those things as true, but this is not possible. Either a Christian is under the law and therefore is obligated to it or he is not under the law and is therefore not obligated to it. To argue that 'not being under law' only means 'not being under the curse of the law' and to say that such a condition does not mean freedom from being obligated to the law is to miss the nature of the relationship between obligation and punishment, and the inseparable connection between being 'under the law' and 'under the curse'. The New Testament clearly states that Christians are not under the law (Rom. 6:14). It does not say that they are simply not under the curse of the law, but that they are not under the law itself. It does not say that Christians are under the law but shouldn't be frightened by the curse any longer, but that Christians don't need to be frightened by the curse any longer because they are no longer under the law (Rom. 4:15, Gal. 3:10,13, 23-25). Being under the law means being in big trouble, for being under the law means being obligated to the law, which means being punished with the punishments that the law threatens if you do not obey it.

The truth is, Christians are not in any way, shape or form under the law any longer. They are absolutely free from all obligation to keep the law of God, and this is precisely why there is now no condemnation for them. Nevertheless, Calvin's concern for Christians not to fly into careless living is a true concern (even if his solution was wrong), and the New Testament abounds with exhortations for Christians to pursue holiness in their daily lives. There is no sense in the apostolic writings whatsoever of carelessness regarding the Christian life, and most importantly, there is no sense of any irrelevancy of the law of God - the law is even invoked by the apostles to confirm and strengthen apostolic instructions (1 Cor. 9:8-9, 14:34). Just because good works do not matter for our salvation does not mean that good works do not matter at all. Calvin is therefore correct when he states that the law of God still has a role in the Christian life. "If it cannot be denied that [the law] contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then, unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it. There are not various rules of life, but one perpetual and inflexible rule; and, therefore, when David describes the righteous as spending their whole lives in meditating on the Law, we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world." (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 7, Section 13) This is an excellent point. The law does contain a perfect pattern of righteousness. It's moral standard is nothing other than the righteousness of God. The essence of the law is perfect love, which is nothing more and nothing less than the very nature of God Himself. Therefore Christians ought to delight in the law of God! Christians ought to seek to conform their lives to this perfect love, seeking to be holy for God is holy, all the while knowing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But to say that we must do it - that we are still bound to obey the commands of the law - is to say too much, to speak too strongly in reaction against the opposite error, and to misrepresent the freedom of the Christian. It is the bizarre yet beautiful fact that we are not bound to obey the law that makes our pursuit of holiness so beautiful and sacred. It is precisely our liberty that gives significance to our service. The pressure is off, so that now we may serve our God acceptably and without fear2. If we are not motivated by love for our God on account of His love for us in Christ, then whatever service we might do may be religious and useful to society, but it is not distinctively Christian service (that is, it isn't service that a Muslim or a Jew could not render).

Finally, returning to the question: how does the law motivate us according to Calvin? I must admit, Calvin is a little confusing on this point, and it seems as if he is struggling against the difficultly of holding his awkward position. The analogy Calvin employs doesn't seem very pleasant, does it? The law motivates a Christian like a whip motivates a lazy, sluggish ass. It "pricks" us forward when we would indulge in sloth. This does not sound very inspiring! Let us ask ourselves how, when we are feeling lazy and inclining toward sin, the law then helps motivate us. Perhaps a better questions is: does the law help motivate us at those times at all? Do we at those times, due to the law, feel "excited to obedience"? As we read on in the seventh chapter of the Institutes Calvin seems to present conflicting opinions and is not very clear. Immediately after his analogy of the whip Calvin cites two Psalms of David (Ps. 19:7-8 and Ps. 119:105) which extol the benefit of the law as an instructor. Then he mentions how the promises annexed to the precepts of the law make the law sweet, without which the law would be bitter. I personally cannot find a straightforward answer. When we jump ahead to his further treatment of the same subject in Book III, chapter 19, we run into the same problems: the Christian is free from condemnation yet has no liberty to disobey the law.

In conclusion, Christians should understand that the law of God still has an important and relevant role in the Christian life. The relationship of Christians to the law is not one of obligation, however, and as awesome and holy as the pattern of righteousness contained in the law truly is, we are in no way bound to obey it, for to be bound to obey it must bring with it the threat of punishment if we do not obey it. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal. 5:1) This freedom is nothing less than total freedom from being under the law with its obligations and punishments. Yet this freedom in no way suggests that holy behavior is now irrelevant to Christians, and the apostles constantly exhort Christians to be zealous for good works, and even continue to use the law as a source of instruction. Christians should therefore recognize the beauty and usefulness of the law of God and should pursue love for their God and neighbor, all the while knowing that they are free. While there are many motivations that could motivate us to do what we do (there are too many number), the true and distinctively Christian motivation is love and gratitude to God which is inspired by His incomprehensible love for us revealed in the gospel of Christ. Let us therefore love our wonderful God who has loved us, and saved us, and bestowed upon us everlasting blamelessness through the blood of His Son, learning to please Him through the study of His law!

1 By "law of Moses" I here do not mean the ceremonial aspect of the law which was fulfilled and done away with in Christ, but the moral aspect of the law.
2 Some might object to this on the basis of Hebrews 12:28, but I am referring to the fear of punishment, and I do not believe that having the true fear of God is incompatible with having freedom from the fear of punishment. See Luke 1:74 for the Scripture reference that I had in mind.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Feel Good Christianity

Preached at All Saints Church on March 16, 2014. "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you." (John 14:27) What should the Christian's response be to "feel good Christianity"? It is good? Is it bad? How are we to understand and address the longing of the human heart for peace? The answer is not found in a balance, nor in compromise, but in the truth of the gospel. Listen below:

Eli Brayley - Feel Good Christianity

Monday, March 10, 2014

God is a Cheerful Giver

A sermon preached at All Saints Church on March 3, 2014. In Luke 12:32, Jesus tells us that it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom. If we are afraid of being turned away by God when we seek entrance into His kingdom, it is only because we are failing to see that God is a cheerful giver. Listen below:

Eli Brayley - God is a Cheerful Giver

Monday, March 03, 2014

Keith Getty - Five Ways to Improve Congregational Singing

Wise words from Keith Getty on improving our singing at church - a much needed improvement!


My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.

In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”

It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often.  But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?

I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).

I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.

1. Begin with the pastor.

Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.

Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.

Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.

Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.

2. Sing great songs.

If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.

Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.

Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.

There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.

Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.

3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.

From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.

Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.

Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.

4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.

Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.

In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.

5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.

Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.

And finally . . .

Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.