Archive for December, 2012

It’s Christmas Eve, and we’re among the very precious few nowadays who aren’t doing anything special. Though we are committed Christians, we don’t observe this holiday – though we love and embrace all sincere Christians who celebrate the God who entered our world of sin and misery through a virgin’s womb. Yet, unlike the masses both of saints and seculars, for us this is just another Monday. And tomorrow is just another Tuesday.

Our main reason is quite simple. We believe that all religious devotion ought to be done when and only when God commands it. Standing in the great legacy of the Protestant Reformation, we confess that “the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men …not prescribed in holy Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1). God has made Himself patently clear on this point. We may not invent our worship after our whim (Col. 2:23, Matt. 15:9). And we may certainly not take our cues from the darkened heathen (Deut. 12:29-31). Our watchword in worship is God’s Word. Full stop. “What thing soever I command I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32).

On all hands, Christmas fails the test. Nowhere in Scripture is it appointed. We don’t even know the day of our Lord’s birth. Baptism was appointed. The Lord’s Supper was appointed. And the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, was clearly appointed as well. But not the slightest hint of Christmas may be drawn from the sacred page. For this, we must turn to subsequent, post-apostolic history. To the invention of men. And dig far enough below the topsoil, and you’ll eventually hit the firm substratum of unmixed paganism. Read any historians, secular or sacred. The day, however lovely, romantic, or ostensibly ‘Christian,’ is “not of heaven, but of men.”

So that’s the Cliff Notes version of why we choose to be the odd-ducks. And while others we love and respect observe it civilly at home, we’ve elected just to bypass the whole thing. First, I think the ecclesiastical-civil distinction is too nuanced for my children to grasp. Kwissmiss is Kwissmiss. But further, I think false worship often gets into the church through the home. Folk religion has a nasty way of creeping in the back door (Gen. 31:30, 34; Gen. 35:1-4).  And from there to public worship.

But for me, there’s a more subjective reason. I know, I know.  Subjectivity, on my own view, is the very culprit.  It’s precisely because people dream of a white Christmas, precisely because they are entranced by visions of dancing sugar plums that the day is such a force to be reckoned with. Many won’t even consider arguments like the one above because sentiment so controls them. And I don’t say that as one who is immune from all the trappings. Christmas was a part of my very American boyhood. To this day, the decision not to celebrate is a decision to suppress my own feelings.

And yet at the same time, I have to admit that my opposition to Christmas is in part the fruit of my subjectivity.  Follow me here.

Jesus is everything to me. And yes, the Jesus of the manger. The Jesus who received the visit from the wise men. The Jesus of Luke 1 & 2. I am His and He is mine. And without Him, I am nothing.

And because Jesus is everything to me, Christianity – its doctrine and its worship – is everything to me as well. But I cannot believe that Jesus is everything or that Christianity is everything if it is in whole or in part the product of man.

If I should peel back the layers and find the unreal in my blessed Savior or in the dogma of His inspired apostles, I would come face to face with the unthinkable. I shudder even to type that sentence, to be frank. The hypothetical cannot even be hypothetical. I would sooner deny my own existence than deny the total authenticity of Jesus. If He is false, or the drama of redemptive history in which He played the main part, is compromised by myth, I am lost and undone!  “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; and ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:6, 7). No, I must stand with Peter on the petrine Rock. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And “we have” most certainly “not followed cunningly devised fables” (2 Pet. 1:16).

Christmas, however, arises neither from our Lord nor His apostles. Try as one might, it lacks their sanction. Yet it presumes to be radically essential to the very existence of Christianity in the world. Can you, reader, imagine Christianity without Christmas? If you can, you’re an odd duck like me. But in all likelihood, you aren’t.

Yet if it is so radically essential and at the same time is on all hands the result of heathenism and churchly capitulation, then Christianity requires something un-Christian to be complete. And Jesus, then, requires something un-Christian to be complete. Why didn’t Jesus think of Christmas, if Christmas is so grand, and so very Christian? Jesus then becomes dependent on the mind of man. Man must contribute. Man must add. But what can He add to Truth but falsehood? What can He give to the Man who has everything? His sin, his misery, his vanity.

Maybe this strikes you as overly fine and needlessly complex. I will let the reader judge for himself. All I can do, though, is give my plain and honest testimony. As I see it – or rather, as I deeply feel it – Christmas is tells the world that Christianity is defective and needs supplementation. Or worse, it needs improvement or even rehabilitation.  From below.

I, for one, will stay on side of Paul. “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols” (2 Cor. 6:14-16)?  I’ll stay there first because I am convinced it’s objectively right. But it’s also subjectively safe.

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Chalmers standingThe following are the words of exhortation Dr. Thomas Chalmers gave to his ruling elders upon their induction to office to the newly formed St. John’s parish in Glasgow, in 1819.  These men were installed not simply to attend to the communicant and baptized membership, but each was assigned a small district of contiguous households  within the parish.  They were thus ordained as missionaries to all within the limits of their assignment, visiting each house in turn, seeking lost sheep.  The address below highlights the tension frequently stressed by Chalmers – the obligation diligently to use all lawful means to reclaim the unsaved and at the same time to look alone to the Mighty Spirit to bring it all to pass.

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“The whole habit and tendency of my thoughts on the subject of Christian usefulness incline me to attach a far higher importance to your relationship with the parish of St. John’s than to your relationship with the Church, and I do honestly believe, that never till the rights of parishes come to be better respected, never till the attention of ministers and elders be more restricted to the population of a given local territory, never till God put it into the hearts of men to go forth among our heathen at home with the same zeal and enthusiasm which are expected of missionaries who go abroad, will there be any thing like a revival of religion throughout the mass of our city families, or a reclaiming of them from those sad habits of alienation from God and from goodness into which the vast majority of them have fallen.

“There is one circumstance of encouragement which you will soon in the course of your movements through the districts that arc assigned to you be enabled to verify by your own experience. All the householders, with scarcely one exception, and whatever be their character in respect of Christianity, will welcome you with the utmost cordiality and courteousness. There is something in the very presence of one human being when he comes with the feelings and the desires of friendship, which serves to conciliate and to subdue another human being. Bear an honest regard to the people, and the people will, in spite of themselves, bear you an honest regard back again. This is what may be called an open door for you in the first instance, and the effect of frequent intercourse between the higher and lower orders of life in tranquilizing the general spirit of a community, and softening their malignant antipathies which else might ferment and fester and break out into. open violence, and consolidating something like a system of brotherhood through a mighty aggregate of human beings, this I say would confer a civil blessing on the establishment of an eldership that is altogether incalculable.

“But it must be remarked, on the other hand, that so wide and universal a welcome from the families may lead at the outset to a most delusive anticipation. A civil comes more easily and readily than a Christian effect. You are not to infer, because the good will of the people can be so immediately carried, that the conversion of the people will therefore speedily follow in its train. There is much of what is constitutionally attractive among men distinct and apart from any religious tendencies; and there is none who sets himself in good earnest to the working of a Christian effect, that will not soon feel himself engaged in a business where aids and instruments are necessary that are altogether superhuman. You will, in particular, be struck with the obstinate and determinate stand which the manhood of the population will make to all your proofs and all your earnestness. In sad proof of the progressive hardening of conscience will it be seen how arduous if not how impossible it is, with all the arts and resources of Christian philanthropy, to make any sensible advances on those who have been suffered to ascend from boyhood without the Word and without the ordinances.

“It is this which has shut up so many adventurers on the field of Christian usefulness, both at home and abroad, to the melancholy conclusion, that the grown-up generation are to be given up in despair, and that the hope of brighter and better days all lies with the capabilities of the young; and I certainly do recommend, among the foremost objects of your attention, the encouragement of those religious schools which may be situated within the limits of your respective localities, and for the discouragements which you will experience in the obstinacy and immovableness of many parents, you will often meet with a cheering compensation in the

promise and docility of their children.

“At the same time, I would never give up any human being in despair. Forget not the affirmation of the missionary Eliot, that it was in the power of pains and of prayers to do any thing. We are apt to confide in the efficacy and wisdom of our own arrangements—to set up a framework of skillful contrivance, and think that so good an apparatus will surely be productive of something—to please ourselves with parochial constitutions, and be quite sanguine that on the strength of elderships and deaconships, and a machinery of schools and agents, and moralizing processes, some great and immediate effect is to follow. But we may just as well think that a system of aqueducts will irrigate and fertilize the country without rain, as think that any human economy will Christianize a parish without the living water of the Spirit—without the dew df heaven descending upon the human administrators, and following them in their various movements through the houses and families under their superintendence. Still it is right to have a parochial constitution, just as it is right to have aqueducts. But the supply of the essential influence cometh from above. God will put to shame the proud confidence of man in the efficacy of his own wisdom, and He will have all the glory of all the spiritual good that is done in the world, and your piety will, therefore, work a tenfold mightier effect than your talents, in the cause you have undertaken; and your pains without your prayers will positively do nothing in this way, though it must be confessed that prayers without pains are just as unproductive, and that because they must be such prayers of insincerity as can not rise with acceptance to heaven. It is the union of both which best promises an apostolical effect to your truly apostolical office; and with theso few simple remarks do I commend you to Him who alone can bles3 you in this laudable undertaking, and give comfort and efficacy to the various duties that are involved with it.”

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“We must not sit still and look for miracles. Up and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Prayer and pains through faith in Jesus Christ will do anything.”

-John Eliot, Puritan missionary (c. 1604-1690)

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Is the Gospel preacher practical?  The man who gives himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word, who delegates to others the lesser ministry of waiting on tables – is such a man a blessing or a bane to the  Church and society?  Perhaps in the short-term, it may seem that way.  But when we take a step back and view aright the man of God who sacredly devotes the lion share of his time to the ‘closet’ labors of his study, we will see him not only as highly practical.  He will emerge as the best doer of good to His fellow men.

The following extracts from Alexander’s Thoughts on Preaching explore this mystery with profound insight.

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§ 74. To do gimagesood to men, is the great work of life; to make them true Christians is the greatest good we can do them. Every investigation brings us round to this point. Begin here, and you are like one who strikes water from a rock on the summits of the mountains; it flows down over all the intervening tracts to the very base. If we could make each man love his neighbour, we should make a happy world. The true method is to begin with ourselves, and so to extend the circle to all around us. It should be perpetually in our minds.

§ 75. Beneficence.—There are two great classes of philanthropists, namely, those who devise plans of beneficence, and those who execute them. If we cannot be among the latter, perhaps we may be among the former. Invention is more creative than execution. Watt has done more for mechanics than a thousand steam-engine makers. The devisers of good may again be divided into those who devise particular plans, such as this or that association or mode of operation, and those who discover and make known great principles. The latter are the rarer and the most important. Hence a man who never stirs out of his study may be a great philanthropist, if he employs himself in discovering from the study of the Scriptures and the study of human nature, those laws which originate and condition all effectual endeavours for human good.

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