by Mark Horne
Jonathan Edwards was a famous preacher, pastor and writer during colonial times. He is still revered today by Reformed thinkers–by those who share with him a Calvinistic heritage in the Christian faith. Recently a historical scholar dealt with how Edwards would address “seekers.” You see, supposedly there are unregenerate people who are seeking God in such a way that if they do certain things they just might be saved. From studying all of Edwards’ sermons and writings, this scholar created a hypothetical prayer that these seekers should pray. Here it is:
Dear God, whom I hate with all my being precisely because you hate and threaten me with hell, I hate this punishment perhaps even more than I hate you. Or, maybe I should say that I love my comfort even more than I hate you. For that reason I am asking a favor of you. I want you to make me love you, whom I hate even when I ask this and even more because I have to ask this. I am being frank with you because I know it is no use to be otherwise. You know even better than I how much I hate you and that I love only myself. It is no use for me to pretend to be sincere. I most certainly do not love you and do not want to love you. I hate the thought of loving you but that is what I’m asking because I love myself. If you can answer this ‘prayer’ I guess the gift of gratitude will come with it and then I will be able to do what I would not think of doing now–thank you for making me love you whom I hate. Amen.
Now, we could just stop there and ask if we find anything remotely like that sort of prayer for sinners anywhere in Scripture, but I don’t want to do that yet because it gets better (or, really, worse). Here is another prayer written under the direction of the same theological impulse:
You do not rest on God’s owing you any sympathy, not to think of pardon. You may not even rest on His mercy. He is sovereign in that. If you presume on anything, including the mercy of God, you will never receive mercy. If you do not presume but only beg, there is hope. One day–tomorrow? Thirty years from now? You may get up from your knees a new creature in Christ Jesus! A new you with a penitent heart! But you may not, ever! God may still let you go to the hell you so richly deserve.
Lets think about how the Apostle Peter witnessed. Acts chapter 2, verses 37 and 38:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Drop to your knees right now and realize that you hate God even as you do so, and do not pretend to be sincere but beg God to change your heart. Maybe he will do so today, or next week, or thirty years from now; and maybe never. After you can prove to us that God has changed your life then we will baptize you because you have already received the Holy Spirit.”
No, wait! I’m making that up, aren’t I? What does the Bible really say?
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, that is the Biblical call of the Gospel. Repent and be baptized. Do it now! Don’t wait for another day. Don’t insult and mock God’s character by insinuating that he is stingy with his Gospel offer or not to be trusted to keep his promises.
You see, in the Bible, salvation, deliverance from the wrath of God, is not something secret that you can only hope for as you wait for some sort of mystical experience from God that you are now a “new creature.”
If you tell your son or your daughter to go clean their room and they instead collapse cross-legged on the floor and close their eyes and begin humming, then that child is being disobedient. And if your son or daughter defends his action by saying he was listening inside for some still small voice or a sudden change in his heart to make him or her want to go clean his room, then you would consider him not only disobedient but would be angered because your authority as a parent was obviously being flaunted on a flimsy pretext. Your command to that child was not sent from your brain as a hopeful mental burst that you wanted to somehow reach the psyche of that person! No; you gave a public order that everyone could hear.
And how much more a crime it is, to refuse to take God at his word, sent to us publicly and objectively? Remember what the author of Hebrews says about Abraham’s wife Sarah? “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (11.11). God is faithful. We should respond to his promises in trust, and not insult him by pretending that these promises are somehow hard to understand or to rely upon.
As I said: in the Bible, deliverance from the wrath of God is not secret. It is a public fact. Those who are depraved enemies of God are subdued and adopted as God’s own children through His Son Jesus Christ. And the family of God is no less visible than the Horne family, or the Jones family or the Smithfamily or any other family in this congregation. The Kingdom of Christ may not have much outward glory at this time, but it is not invisible. It is no less visible than the state of Oklahoma, or the Merchant Marines, or the nation of France.
And that community is the very body of Christ! How can it be otherwise? He writes that “And he put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.22, 23). And then later: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4.1-3). Why? “There is one body and one Spirit” (4.4).
Now what body and Spirit is the Apostle referring to? Basic contextual interpretation says that he is referring to the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all. And this is no invisible body. On the contrary it is visible and you and I had better work on making it more glorious by bearing with one another and maintaining the bond of peace. Brothers and sisters, Paul is talking about us. We are bound to Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are his body and he our head. We are members of one another.
If you remember last week, that’s the rationale given in chapter 4, verse 25 for why we must speak the truth to one another and put away falsehood: We are members of one another. How can we base an ethic of truth telling on the fact that we are members of the same body unless the membership in the body is a public fact?
We could ask the same question about Romans 14.15 and First Corinthians 8.11. In both passages Paul warns us not to ruin or destroy the brother for whom Christ died. That means it must not be some great secret for whom Christ died. Christ died for his Church and we are commanded to regard fellow professing Christians as brothers and sisters for whom Christ died.
Again, the body that is the fullness of him who fills all in all is the same body in which we are supposed to maintain the bond of peace. Paul is not talking about people scattered across time and space who just happen to believe the same things but are otherwise unrelated to one another. He is talking about people in an identifiable community called the church.
And if it needed to be made any more clear, Paul goes on to say in verse 11 that this Church has been given pastors. Furthermore, these pastors are for the building up of the body. This Christian congregation and the other Christian congregations in Minco, are members of the body of Christ. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit and to one another.
As far as we can tell from his writings, it has never entered Paul’s head to think of the Church as simply a name for all the people who believe the Gospel message apart from whether or not they associated in congregations to worship God and grow in the Word and serve one another. No, for Paul the church is an actual society, and that society is not merely a human society, but it is a renewed humanity, the fullness of the body of Christ. “And he put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1.22, 23).
Make no mistake: as we continue in Ephesians we will see that Paul can warn Christians about the dangers of backsliding to the point of unbelief and apostasy. Paul knows that some may prove unbelievers. And he does affirm that perseverance is God’s gift. For example he warns Timothy:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity” (Second Timothy 2.15-19).
But even when Paul is dealing with a congregation in deep danger, like the Corinthians, he does not hesitate to affirm “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (First 12.27). Those warnings about the future never keep him from assuring his congregations that they are presently in Jesus Christ and that in Him they have all salvation and glory.
Nor does the mystery of predestination mean that God is less than sincere in his offers and promises. We may not understand how it all works together but we don’t need to. We dare not use one doctrine to undermine all the promises and assurance Christ has given us that we, First Reformed Presbyterians Church in Minco, OK are members of the body of Christ.
But are we living in such a way that we can say we intend to remain members of his body? Do we really value our bond with one another as our bond that ties us to Christ? Are we committed to cultivating it? Do we see the Church as Christ’s body united to him by the Spirit?
You see, without understanding what Paul says about the Church, our talk of grace can become meaningless, resulting in fear and uncertainty. If the grace we receive from God through Christ is invisible, intangible, undetectable then we can never be sure that we have in fact received any. In that direction lies madness. God doesn’t want us to give us secret grace that we can only wonder about; he wants to give us tangible and public grace for which we can give him thanks and praise because we know we have it! I don’t want to be someone who just preaches about how we need grace. I want to be a faithful pastor who declares to you God’s people that he has actually given you grace. And not only to you but to your children.
But in addition to the problem of doubt and lack of assurance there is the problem of presumption. You see, if the grace of God is a secret work inside of me, then I can claim to have received the grace of God even as I go on living my own autonomous, self-sufficient, life as a “good person.” I say I am thankful to God though I never worship him. I say I depend on Jesus even though I have never depended on anyone for anything. I say I belong to Jesus even though I am, to all appearances, and for all intents and purposes, not accountable to anyone. Without an objective covenant community, the Gospel becomes simply a few abstract points and the recital of a written prayer which acts simply like an afterlife fire insurance policy. Praying the sinners’ prayer becomes simply a way of saying magic words to go to heaven.
But Jesus told people to leave their former lives and follow him. He formed a new community by his teaching and example and then promised that community his presence by the Holy Spirit. Trusting Christ entails following Christ as a member of his community, the new people of God. There is ordinarily no salvation anywhere else.
So please, think about these things so that you may benefit from them more greatly and may never be tempted to trade them for anything. When you come to worship, you’re not coming to just any organizational meeting. You’re not coming simply to hear a good lecture or an inspirational speaker. You’re coming to the place where God has said that he meets with his people. You are not manifesting a fellowship of like-minded souls. We’re not just the club for Presbyterians. No, you are manifesting yourselves as the body of Christ. You are assembling in the presence of God. Remember what Paul wrote to the Ephesians (2.19-21):
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
So writes the Apostle Paul to give believers confidence that they belong to God and he belongs to them through Christ. Most of the Old Testament saints could not enter the Temple on pain of death. Now we actually are the Temple. God is with his people, the Church.
So lets remember that we need to receive and develop in what we have been given. We’ve been engrafted into the Church. Let’s appreciate God’s presence there. Let’s look forward to entering his presence, confessing our sins and receiving his forgiveness, and being nourished by him at the Lord’s Table before we are blessed for the coming week and sent back to our homes and back to work. Let’s remember that hear we especially hear God’s word for our lives. If all that mattered was skillful speech and knowledge, there are probably several radio programs to which you could be listening to instead of me. If we don’t believe that God really is here to meet with us and deal with us in the ministry of Word and sacrament, why even bother to show up? We are left at our homes hoping that we may be truly converted or else presuming that we are.
But if the Church is really the body of Christ, then in the Church we find Christ who is the sum and substance of our salvation.