His Word + our faith = all the difference

If you’re anything like me, you look at the picture above and your knees get weak – not from some kind of heady infatuation – but rather, out of terror and fear.  Thankfully for math-challenged people like me (and for ‘Über-geeks’ as well) God has made some equations in life much easier to understand.  This does not mean that everything involved is un-complex and without even incomprehensible parts, but that at least the “math-part” of putting all the pieces together is easy enough.

*note: I’ll confess from the outset here that this post is more about exploring an idea than making a point or, to put it another way, the point of this post is actually a question.  I’d love for any feedback or push-back you’d care to offer.  

When considering the Ordinances (or Sacraments, properly defined) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it occurred to me recently how essential both the Word of God spoken, and our faith applied, are to these means of grace to us.  Whatever is used to mean, in its modern usage, it must be stated that Baptism and the Eucharist are not “ex opere operato” which holds the idea that these gifts are efficacious in and of themselves irregardless of any outside influence from either the minster or from the one receiving.  John Calvin had said, regarding this idea, that, “Grace resides in Christ, not in the elements, and the efficacy and power emanates from the Holy Spirit.”  But this begs the question then, ‘How does Baptism and the Eucharist become effective to us?’  ‘What do the Word of God and our faith bring to the Sacraments that would not be there otherwise?’

The short answer is: everything!

The Word of God

Consider first two passages of Scripture.  In Hebrews 4:12 we read that the Word of God is both a “living” and an “active” thing.  In Isaiah 55:10,11, God reminds us that His Word is powerful and effective; able to accomplish all that He intends it to do.

The language can be difficult for some, but i believe Augustine expressed well the relationship between God’s powerful, effective Word and the elements used in the Sacraments, when he wrote,

Let the Word be added to the element, and it will become a Sacrament.  For whence can their be so much virtue in water as to touch the body and cleanse the heart, unless by the agency of the Word …”

I think it’s safe to say here that what Augustine had in mind when he spoke of the “Word” being added to the elements was the Word of God, which would surely include both a gospel presentation as well as the words of institution.

Faith Applied

We have clear statements in Scripture regarding what faith is (“… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Heb. 11:1) and its purpose as it relates to God (“Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.” Heb. 11:6).  But how does our faith then apply to the Sacraments?

Again, John Calvin says of this,

It is certain, therefore, that the Lord offers us his mercy, and a pledge of his grace, both in his sacred word and in the sacraments; but it is not apprehended save by those who receive the word and sacraments with firm faith” [emphasis mine].  He justifies this fact by reminding us that, “in like manner as Christ, though offered and held forth for salvation to all, is not, however, acknowledged and received by all.”  For those who hold to a real, spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Westminster Confession states that Christ is only, “present to the faith of believers in that ordinance.” [emphasis mine]

It is essential to add here that all of these factors combined find their power and efficacy in the Holy Spirit, both in the understanding of the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-14) and in having faith to believe in God in the first place (Eph.2:8).

When i try to place all these things considered together, then, even a common sense understanding begins to emerge.  If i’m in a church and, by some accident or purpose, fall into the baptismal tank, neither i, nor anyone else, is going to think that i am somehow now baptized.  No (as we’ve said), the words of institution as well as the intention of my heart and application of faith are necessary for this to be said.  In the same way, if i break apart a loaf of bread and pour myself a glass of Merlot while sitting in the pew at church, i am not suddenly taking the Lord’s Supper.  Again, the elements of the Word and faith and the power of the Spirit are needed to make this so.

What i take this all to mean is that the Word of God spoken/or the words of institution is about the right application of the Sacraments, and our faith is about the right apprehension of them (again, all brought together and empowered by the Holy Spirit).

But at the end of the day, here is the question i’m left with: what if one of these things is not present? (okay, the Holy Spirit part is obvious, but the other two then!)

If my buddy dunks me under the water at a swimming pool without a single word, but i believe in my heart that i am identifying myself with the death and resurrection of Christ, am i then baptized?  How about in a church by a minster (again, with no words spoken)?  Conversely, what if a minister in the church administers my baptism faithfully but i don’t truly have faith in God’s saving work in my life: am i still baptized then?  Further still, if i take the Lord’s Supper, trusting is Christ’s finished work for me on the cross, but the pastor speaks no words, do i still really take it? Or if the minister faithfully presents the elements, but i eat without faith; what then?

If we believe, as we said at the beginning, that the elements themselves are not ex opere operato viz. that they have no efficacy in and of themselves, then the answer to all these questions above is probably, ‘No.’  Or, ‘maybe no’? ‘Maybe yes’?  I don’t know!

One last thing to consider: particularly with regard to the faith of the person in taking the Sacraments, i believe it was Calvin who once painted a picture of wine being poured over a jar with its lid sealed.  Without opening the lid, the jar receives nothing (except getting wet).  To put it another way, imagine bringing a glass of wine to your lips and tipping it up without opening your mouth.  In both these cases, it is the opening of the vessel to receive the wine that brings the benefit (however correctly it may be poured) and Calvin argues that this “opening to receive” is the faith by which we truly partake of the Sacraments.

It’s a question worth pondering anyways whether you are a minster or a congregant.  What is our role in the application and apprehension of these means of grace given to us?

Selah.

Unless you go with me …

I remember not so long ago being at Disneyland with my family.  We headed over to ‘Toon Town’, and when my girls saw the Goofy Gadget roller coaster, they both got really excited [another level higher than the excitement they already had just being at Disneyland for the first time] and wanted desperately to go on it.  We got into the line, but i noticed that as we got closer to going on the actual ride, my youngest daughter began to become increasingly fearful and gripped my hand more firmly. ‘Daddy, i don’t want to go anymore!’, was her plea as we were just a few people away from getting on.  I told her that b/c we were so close and had waited all this time, that she should at least give it a try, to which she said, ‘Daddy, will you please go with me?  I don’t wanna go unless you come with me!’

In Exodus 33, God gives the command to Moses for he and the people to leave Sinai and begin travelling towards the promised land, but – b/c of their covenant-breaking idolatry with the golden calf – God states, “but I will not go up among you, lest I  consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Ex. 33:3  All the people, including Moses, get all freaked out and sad at this word from God, but God is like, “No way!  If I spend another minute with you fools I’m gonna take you all out!” [my paraphrase]  But what stands out most to me – among other things – here is Moses’ response to God as he pleads for Israel in the tent of meeting.

Here he has God’s promised land of ‘milk and honey’ before him, and God is promising to even send an angel ahead of them to drive out the other nations, so they will surely inherit the land.  But Moses – having learned a few things thus far on the trip – sees the great problem with what God is saying through Him and he responds by saying these words,

“If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.  For how shall it be known that i have found favour in Your sight, I and Your people?  Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct … from every other people on the face of the earth?”

Moses understands that even the possession of this amazing promised land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is not worth going into if God will not go with them.  He understands that the Presence of God amoung them is infinitely more important than the simple possession of the land, to the point where he even refuses to go into it without the Presence of God going with them!

And in considering this text, it made me wonder if we couldn’t become so focused on projects and ideas and ministries in service of God, that we don’t share the understanding that Moses had in first seeking God’s presence amoung them?  How many of us would be willing to sacrifice a new ministry we’ve just begun, or a job we’ve finally received, or a fiance we long to marry if – in assessing it –  we saw that God was not present in it?  How many of us truly begin any such endeavours with the heart of Moses here: that we will not even begin to proceed if God will not go with us?  For, in many respects, the presence of God assumes both the blessing and protection of God.  One example of this is seen in 1 Sam. 18:12 where the presence of God departs from Saul and rests on David; Saul realizes this and is rightly afraid, for the blessing and protection of God now clearly rests on David.

So, in Ex.33 God was saying to Moses and Israel [as well as to all of us today] – in effect – ‘Do you seek Me or My blessings?  Will you refuse My blessings even if you can’t also have me, or are you ‘cool’ to just have My stuff with or without Me?’

Spurgeon speaks to this same idea in his sermon on Rev.14.  Quoting Samuel Rutherford he says, “‘Heaven and Christ are the same thing“‘, and, ‘O my Lord Jesus Christ, if I could be in heaven without thee, it would be a hell; and if I could be in hell, and have thee still, it would be a heaven to me, for thou art all the heaven I want.‘”  Even our own”promised land” in the life to come – let alone the blessings we pursue in this one – should not be worth having if Christ be not present there!  May then this prayer of Moses be on all our lips in whatever endeavours we set out on; that we may always seek the Giver firstly and not the gift alone.

Amen.

“About” face

I know what you may be thinking as you read the title to this post: ‘Ah, a post on repentance!’  Sadly, no.  While that theme is certainly included in today’s post, dealing with repentance is not my specific aim.  It is, rather, to speak to the change on my “About” page of this blog [yehaw, right?].  I post this merely b/c i have no illusions in my mind that people actually read the ‘About’ pages on blogs frequently (let alone look for changes on them), and yet the change is a significant one for me. So: rationale for this post = check!

The change has two dimensions to it really: one has to do with calling and the other a submission to that calling.

Firstly then, for those of you just tuning in, for the past 3+ years i have pursued the calling of God on my life to be a firefighter.  I had pursued that calling both physically (hours of training to be sure i could compete with guys 10-15 years younger than me) and mentally (rigorous study for countless exams as well as frequent courses to improve my resume).  I had the support of wife and family, friends and church, and so prayerfully i was also sustained and confirmed.  The “Twitter” version of the story is, however, that understanding of calling and effort do not a career make.  In the end – while i fully believe it was the will of God for me to pursue this calling for the past 3 years – it was also not the will of God that i get this job.  For who gives favour in the eyes of men [and hiring panels] but God (cf. Nehemiah 1:11, Ex.3:21)?  And yet, we also know that all that comes to pass is in accordance with the secret will of God (Eph. 1:11, Dan. 4:35).  It was not without much sadness and wrestling that i surrendered this dream to my loving Father in heaven.  In my struggle, the Spirit of God led me to John 15:1,2 where Jesus says, “I am the true Vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  I drew much comfort and focus from that text in seeing the pruning work of God in my life, in order to both guide my path and grow me in my sanctification, which is God’s ultimate purpose for all His elect (Romans 8:29).

This surrender however did not leave me with a clear idea of where to go from there.  I remember a somewhat frustrating [now i see providential] meeting with some elders from my church as well as trusted, godly friends in order to have a time of prayer in discerning God’s will for my life as it related to vocation, about a year ago.  I remember [inwardly] dropping my jaw when all three of these men told me that – in considering what they knew of my life and gifting – they all saw strong pastoral gifts!  I remember thinking, “Guys!!  I brought you here to pray with me and confirm this continued calling to be a firefighter, not call me to another calling!”  I felt like Balak after he calls Balaam to prophesy against Israel in Numbers, and instead of cursing them he continues to bless them.  But i see now more clearly that God had a guiding influence in that meeting.  It would be almost a year later – with an ever growing love for Christ and the Scriptures, a deeper understanding of sacrificial leadership in my home, and increasing responsibilities at my church – that i would come across Al Mohler’s post re: calling to vocational ministry Has God called you? The calling of a Christian minister.  Instantly, my mind went back to that meeting with the elders, and it is now becoming my increasing conviction that God may in fact be calling me now to serve as an under-shepherd in His Kingdom.  I don’t yet know where or how that will come to pass, but – as i say in my ‘About’ page – this is a calling that i now would welcome joyfully where, in the not so recent past, i would not have welcomed it at all.  Which leads me to the second dimension of this change.

When it came to the matter of vocational ministry, the above image would most aptly express my sentiments.  It was certainly not that i had no love for God or His church, nor did this mean that i was not regularly serving.  It was rather something more akin to an extreme apprehensiveness.  The biggest reason for this was seeing some of the all too common abuses that take place of ministers viz. (and most notably) by their own flock!  Serving in the church was one thing, but having to wade into all the politics and business behind the scenes just got my back up [don’t think Jonah here: i simply wanted to serve in the way i felt best from my vantage point].  ‘Blissful ignorance’ was the way i wanted to serve Christ’s Bride and (i assumed) the only way possible. But then the strangest thing began happening:

1: through ever growing love of God and His Word, i began to love His church more than i hated/feared the thought of what could go wrong and

2: i have now spent over seven years in a church that (while not perfect) has done much good to show me what church can look like.

And so, i see now this ‘calling’ to vocational ministry has probably been going on for some time now, and yet, my preconceived ideas about the real and perceived negatives of the church have kept me on the outskirts; believing that this was the fulness of where God wanted me to serve.  But God is a patient Father, and has continued to press and prune to the place now where my defences and justifications have all but attenuated, leaving me with nothing but a deep love for Him and His Word and, now,  a desire to feed His lambs.  How strange now to find myself pursuing that which i have, until now, feared and avoided.  Ever been there?

Whether you know me well, or not at all, i would covet your prayers for God’s wisdom in the coming months and years as i “change course” as it were.  With both the inner calling of the Spirit and outer confirmation of godly friends/family, i feel i can “Just Do Something” here without laying out a fleece or waiting for an audible voice from heaven.  Stay tuned in said ‘months and years to come’ to see what God has done from these beginnings.

Soli Deo gloria.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.  And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”  Heb. 11:8

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