The world offers us competing visions of “the good life.” Advertisers everywhere really want us to believe that if we buy their products then we’ll be enjoying the life we’ve always wanted. Snickers satisfies, or something like that. What’s more, we all drift through life with a vague notion of the “ideal me.” We think that there’s a future version of ourselves that will make us happy. So we pursue this ideal me – the physically fit me, or the well read me, or the materially wealthy me – with the belief that once we get there, then we’ll be happy. (more…)
Sometimes repetition is numbing. Repeated things can become mundane and routine, they can lose their impact. Do you remember how you felt the first time you flew on an airplane? If you’ve flown often enough since then (and suffered through enough TSA security screenings), the wonder of air travel has likely diminished. The intrigue is gone, and a monotonous familiarity has settled in its place. (more…)
On Sunday morning at Capitol City, we sat under Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, where he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). I made the point, based on Colossians 1:19-20, that here Jesus is calling Christians to a ministry of gospel proclamation. We are to be peacemakers by proclaiming in word the way men and women can experience peace with God; we are to proclaim the gospel.
But we see in the New Testament another kind of peacemaking that Jesus would surely implore us to. As we pursue peace by proclaiming the gospel, Christians should also pursue peace through relational reconciliation. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 2, where he tells the Ephesians that the gospel has ended the ethnic and national relational disunity that once existed between Jews and Gentiles:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the [relational] barrier…His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
Because both groups (Jews and Gentiles) are reconciled to God through the cross, Paul says that they should be reconciled to each other (2:16). In this way, Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near” (2:17). It is appropriate, therefore, to think of two aspects of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross: he reconciles us to God (by paying the penalty for our sin and transferring us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light), and he reconciles us to other believers (by transferring our allegiance to his kingdom rather than any earthly kingdom or agenda). To put it another way, our identity in Christ trumps any other identity to such a degree that distinctions like Jew or Gentile are irrelevant.
How does all of this relate to peacemaking? Paul goes on in Ephesians to tell these newly reconciled Jews and Gentiles to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Christians are to labor to preserve the unity of the Church through peacemaking, through the bond of peace. Peace is what binds the members of Christ’s church together, and we are to strive to make this kind of peace. The Puritan pastor John Owen described the Church as a bundle of sticks of different sizes, shapes, and lengths, tied together by the bond of peace. Jesus carries us home as a bundle, not as individual sticks. That’s why its so important that we make peace – that we do everything we can to strengthen, not weaken, the bonds that tie believers together.
Are you honestly and earnestly invested in this kind of peacemaking? Are you doing everything that you can to strengthen the bond between believers in your church, or in the universal Church? How do you need to pursue peacemaking within the Body of Christ?
What is a church? What is the Church? Why is it important for Christians to be connected to a church? What does that connection need to look like? These are important questions, and relevant questions. On that topic, this inquiry came through Capitol City’s Facebook page last week:
So here is a question I have. What is the difference between driving in to town, walking in to church, getting greeted by the door person and shaking hands with two to three people during the service break, listening to James speak and singing some songs, getting up and leaving and driving home versus getting up, turning on Klove and singing some songs and then watching James or another minister speak on the web? I get the same connection on my computer I do by walking and sitting in church myself so why bother going?
What a great question. What is the difference between participating in a digital worship service (or internet service, or whatever you want to call it) and participating in a live worship service? I’ll start by saying that the ability to utilize digital media to participate in worship services or listen to sermons is a wonderful gift from God, one that I take advantage of almost every week. That’s why churches invest in their digital presence. If you can’t get out one Sunday because you’re ill, or because of the weather, or whatever, its a blessing that you can still connect to a church (and especially your church) online.
A different matter is those who would prefer a digital church experience exclusively. That’s my concern here, and I think the heart of the inquiry quoted above. I’ll focus on five theological differences between “real” church and digital church:
- Digital worship doesn’t require gathering; it isn’t an assembly. But God has called his people to assemble or gather together in worship: “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children” (Deut 4:10). Throughout the Bible, God’s people are called to gather to worship him. God never intended the worship of his people to be private; he intended it to be a public, corporate gathering.
- The church itself is not a collection of individuals, but a corporate body. God intended for believers in Christ to be united by their faith in Christ, and that unity actually serves the Church’s mission of honoring Jesus. Paul tells us the Ephesians that God sovereignly brought Jews and Gentiles together for this purpose, he unified people who were theological, socially, and culturally divided. He did this, making them “fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (2:19) so that they would be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22). God builds his people together as one body, one temple of his Spirit. The digital church experience is one of isolation, however, and you cannot be built together with others when you worship in isolation.
- A mark of Christian maturity is love for and unity among other believers. Paul tells the Philippians: “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:2). By not gathering with other Christians, digital church worshipers miss the opportunity for this kind of maturity, which only occurs in the context of community. In other words, we need other believers to provide a context for our growth and maturity; the digital church struggles to provide that context.
- Digital church worshippers miss the opportunity to partner with other believers in ministry. Believers don’t attend church simply for their own edification and personal blessing – though I hope believers are blessed and edified by corporate worship services. Believers attend church to be mobilized, to be sent out on mission in the world. (This is why we close our services at Capitol City with a benediction, by the way. We want to send our people out into the world to do ministry.) Of course, individuals who aren’t connected to a local church body can still do ministry. But they lack the opportunity for partnership and fellowship in that ministry. Even one as capable as the apostle Paul needed (and was thankful for) partnerships in gospel ministry (see Phil 1:3-6).
- Because they aren’t connected to a local church body, digital church worshippers lack shepherds/elders/pastors who are invested in and accountable for them personally. Through the internet, people I have never met and never will meet are able to see and hear my preaching. I praise God that we live in a world where that is possible. But the Bible says that I, as a pastor, am responsible for the people who connect to my church by gathering regularly with the body here at Capitol City. To pastors and elders, 1 Peter says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…as God wants you to be” (1 Pet 5:2). Paul tells the Ephesian elders that this kind of responsibility is given by the Holy Spirit: “Keep watch over…all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The people who connect to my church by gathering regularly are under my care, and the care of the other shepherd-leaders here. Conversely, it is simply impossible for me to care for those who never attend my church but watch our services online. That may not seem like a big deal to some, but the biblical office of pastor/elder is ordained by God as vital to the life and function of the church.
I probably missed a few of the theological differences, and I did not even mention the many practical and experiential differences. Churches across the world will have to wrestle with these issues as the prevalence of and demand for convenient, digital access to worship services increases. As a pastor, I pray that many – here in Lincoln, and around the world – will be blessed by our digital ministry. But I pray that our digital ministry will not be a replacement for consistent, personal, physical engagement in our worship gatherings and church fellowship.
On Sunday morning at Capitol City, as we considered what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6), I pointed out the distinction between two different dimensions of righteousness in the Bible. The first I called legal righteousness – the righteous standing in God’s eyes all Christians receive by faith in Christ. The second I called moral righteousness – the righteous character and conduct God demands of all who belong to his kingdom.
For time’s sake, I didn’t mention on Sunday a third dimension of righteousness that we see in the Bible, the dimension I call social righteousness. Social righteousness is the pursuit of justice and human flourishing in our fallen world, it is the commitment to the virtues and ideals to which God himself is committed. Just as he expects us to pursue moral righteousness, God expects his people to pursue social righteousness. The prophets regularly beat that drum; for example: “…what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Christians should be committed to social righteousness, because social righteousness is one of the great commitments of God as he restores all that is broken in the world. The culmination of God’s saving work in history is the advent of a new heaven and new earth, where he will wipe every tear from every eye, where there will be no more mourning or crying or pain (see Rev 21:1-5).
One final thought: Like moral righteousness, we will only crave social righteousness when we have received legal righteousness through the gospel. We have to experience gospel-transformation before we will ever pursue gospel-virtues, and both moral and social righteousness are virtues that the gospel produces in us. Paul gets at that at the end of Romans 5. In Romans 5:18-19, he says:
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
That’s the foundation of our legal righteousness through the gospel – the many made righteous by the obedience unto death of one man, Jesus Christ. Then Paul adds, in 5:20-21:
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Notice the beautiful, profound role that legal righteousness then plays in the life of every Christian. Just as sin reigned formerly in our lives, now grace reigns – it is our king. And how does it reign? Through righteousness. Our legal righteousness becomes our ruler, leading us to moral and social righteousness – and ultimately to eternal life in Christ Jesus.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness – of any kind – boils down to the gospel.
After last Sunday’s sermon, I received a great question about the difference between mourning over our sin and feeling guilty because of our sin. The question arose specifically in reference to Matt 5:4, where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I made the point that it isn’t enough to know that you are a sinner, but you also must feel the weight of your sin. The mourning that Jesus says is a characteristic of those blessed by God is an emotional affection in light of the reality of our sin, or, to use his words, in light of our being “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3).
A few days later, I received an email from a member of our congregation here at Capitol City. Her (excellent) question was this:
After relistening to Sunday’s sermon I am coming back to the mourning over our sins. What is the difference in mourning over sin vs. feeling guilty? Without attempting to add to grace, I struggle with knowing if I’ve mourned adequately, or do I just “feel” bad about it.
Before I answer the question, I’ll offer a word of encouragement to its writer, and to all who share her sentiments: If you’re asking this kind of question, that’s a sign of God’s grace working in you. We don’t care about this kind of thing unless Christ’s Kingdom is born in our hearts. So we must begin by praising him for his work in this regard.
Now for an answer: I think the fundamental difference between mourning over sin and feeling guilty over sin is that one points you to yourself, while the other points you to God.
Guilt is ultimately a manifestation of our pride: we feel bad about our sin because we think that we should have done better or been better. Its about us. We think we are the solution, and that if we had simply been a better version of us, we would have done better in the first place. We don’t really need God in order to feel guilty over our sin, because guilt is personal disappointment with ourselves. It isn’t a recognition of how we fall short of our holy and righteous God.
Mourning over sin, on the other hand, ultimately points us to God. It is an issue of grieving over how our sin has offended the majestic and glorious creator of the universe. God’s perfect holiness is its reference point, meaning that mourning doesn’t fuel pride, it actually fuels humility. When we mourn over our sin, we realize how truly depraved we are apart from God’s grace, leading us to cry out to God for grace.
That’s really the key issue: guilt leads you to try harder, whereas mourning over your sin leads you to greater dependence on the gospel. Those who feel guilty regret their sin, resolve to try harder, and ultimately look to themselves for the resources to do better. Those who mourn feel the weight of their sin, know that they could never do better, that they could never merit God’s favor, and consequently cling to his grace. That’s what we see in Romans 7, at least. The apostle Paul, frustrated by his ongoing struggles with sin, cries out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25). Notice the progression: Paul despairs of his sinfulness, he acknowledges his need for rescue, and finally he clings to the grace of the gospel. Mourning over our sin always drives us to the gospel.
My soul was fed rich gospel-food this Good Friday morning by this prayer, from The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan readings and devotionals:
Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
cast off that I might be brought in,
trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend,
surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best,
stripped that I might be clothed,
wounded that I might be healed,
athirst that I might drink,
tormented that I might be comforted,
made a shame that I might inherit glory,
entered darkness that I might have eternal light.
My Saviour wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes,
groaned that I might have endless song,
endured all pain that I might have unfading health,
bore a thorny crown that I might have a glory-diadem,
bowed his head that I might uplift mine,
experienced reproach that I might receive welcome,
closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness,
expired that I might for ever live.
All praise to Jesus. From the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), so that we, his children, would never have to utter those words of desolation again.