Archive for ‘Worship’


Election in Hymnody

I’m preaching through Romans 9 now.  There’s too much good stuff to fit in the sermons.  So here are some hymn lyrics I found that beautifully encapsulate the doctrine of election:


‘Tis not that I did choose Thee,

For, Lord, that could not be;

This heart would still refuse Thee,

Hadst Thou not chosen me.

Thou from the sin that stained me

Hast cleansed and set me free;

Of old Thou hast ordained me,

That I should live to Thee.

‘Twas sovereign mercy called me

And taught my op’ning mind;

The world had else enthralled me,

To heav’nly glories blind.

My heart owns non before thee,

For thy rich grace I thirst,

This knowing, if I loved thee,

Thou must have loved me first.

– Josiah Conder, “‘Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee.”


Sons we are through God’s election
Who in Jesus Christ alone
By eternal destination
Sov’regin grace we here receive
Lord thy mercy, Lord thy mercy
Does both grace and glory give

Ev’ry fallen soul by sinning
Merits everlasting pain
But thy love, without beginning
Has restored thy sons again
Countless Millions, countless millions
Shall in life through Jesus reign
Pause, my soul, adore and wonder
Ask, O why such love for me?
Grace has put me in the number
Of the Saviour’s family
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Thanks, eternal thanks to thee!

Since that love had no beginning
And shall never, never cease
Keep, O keep me, Lord from sinning
Guide me in the way of peace!
Make me walk in, Make me walk in
All the paths of holiness

When I quit this feeble mansion
And my soul returns to thee,
Let the pow’r of thy ascension
Manifest itself in me
Through thy Spirit, through thy spirit
Give the final victory!

When the angel sounds the trumpet
When my soul and body join
When my Saviour comes to judgment
Bright in majesty divine
Let me triumph, Let me triumph
In thy righteousness as mine.

When in that blest habitation
Which my God has fore-ordained
When, in glory’s full possession
I with saints and angels stand
Free grace only, Free grace only.
Shall resound in heav’n’s land

– Unknown, “Sons We Are Through God’s Election”


The Five SOLAS Five Hundred Years Later


At our church we have a questionnaire that anyone who desires to be an elder has to fill out.  One of the questions is – “What are the five solas of the Reformation and would you be willing to be burned alive at the stake for holding these?”  We strongly believe that these rallying cries of the Reformation are still just as needed today as they were 500 years ago.


Before returning to Germany and facing his eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived for a time in the United States.  His assessment of the religious scene here was – “Protestantism without Reformation.”  This critique still largely holds true.  We may not be Roman Catholic, but might some of the same problems that precipitated the Reformation in 16th Century Europe be present in 21st Century Evangelicalism?  I am afraid so.


The Five Solas provide a helpful grid for assessing the American church’s current spiritual climate and guide us in how to pray and work for revival.


Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – I think that there are many churches who say that they believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient Word of God on paper, but in practice you cannot tell.  Scripture does not saturate their worship services.  The sermon is cut short and full of stories and tips instead of exposition and proclamation of the whole counsel of God.  The Word is not trusted to grow the church, but rather we look to and lean on techniques and tricks.  Science is respected over Scripture, psychology prized over theology, experience trusted over exegesis.  And many church-goers today are as biblically illiterate as they were in the Middle Ages.


Sola Fide (faith alone) – If we gave Southern Baptist church-goers a test with a True or False question – “People get into heaven by doing good” – I imagine a majority would know enough to say FALSE.  But that doesn’t mean they could pass an essay question on what justification by faith entails.  We may have simply lowered the bar or tried to lighten the law, but we still are preaching a form of works-righteousness when we major on what people need to do… to end sex-trafficking, get out of debt, have healthy families… instead of what Christ has done to free us from sin, forgive us our debts, and adopt us into his family.  The truth is that you actually have to be perfect to get into heaven, and thus our only hope is having Jesus’ perfect record given to us as a gift, received by faith.


Sola Gratia (grace alone) – We like grace… when it is seen as an assist for our slam dunk.  The polls are heart-rending which show the number of Christians who think that the quote – “God helps those who help themselves” – comes from the Bible.  Do we really believe our salvation is wholly of grace?  If so, then we could never allow our Christianity to be a badge of pride that makes us feel superior to or live in fear of the big, bad world.


Solus Christus (Christ alone) – We may say that we believe Jesus is the only way to God, but do our actions back that up?  We live in a highly pluralistic society.  Do we really believe that the nice Hindu family living down the street is destined for hell apart from faith in Christ?  Do we believe it enough to lovingly and sacrificially share the gospel with them of what Christ has uniquely done?  Our lack of evangelism betrays our lack of belief in the exclusivity of Christ.  Furthermore, so much of our faith talk is vague spirituality that does not really need the virgin birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, victorious resurrection, and imminent return of the historical God-man Jesus Christ.  We spout meaningless Oprah-esque mumbo-jumbo and it is no wonder that our kids start to think Christianity is not that distinct from the other religions and philosophies of their friends.


Soli Deo Gloria (the glory of God alone) – Ministry can so easily become about our name or brand.  We like to take the credit for our successes.  Plus, there is a pervasive man-centeredness among our culture which has seeped into our churches.  We are not in awe of God, but obsessed with our felt needs.  Therefore, we fundamentally view God as there to serve us instead of the other way around.  We have not been struck by the utter weightiness of the Triune God, but are pathetically shallow and flit about from this to that fad so easily.


In our consumeristic context where everyone is bombarded with endless options all the time, the solas can at first seem like a straightjacket.  But they truly represent our only hope.  We are in desperate need of a fresh vision of God’s glory, in the face of Jesus Christ, as a result of his grace, perceived by faith, in the pages of the Bible!

This article appeared in the February 27th issue of the Illinois Baptist.  It can also be found here.



Great Awe

In the evenings presently our family is reading Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows.  Grahame plays on the strings of the soul with the pick of his poetic prose.  So far, it seems to be a story that shows the folly of wanderlust and the joys that can be found by staying put.  His talking animals arouse similar feelings in me that Wendell Berry’s talking ancestors of Port William do.

I read the description of Rat and Mole’s encounter with the demi-god Pan playing his pipes at dawn and wondered if it can be seen as an echo of the true experience we can have in God’s presence.

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, and awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground.  It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.  With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently.


‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking.  ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.  ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never!  And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

You can definitely see here Grahame’s influence on C.S. Lewis and his talking animals!


Everybody Has A Liturgy

James K.A. Smith has shown that there are even such things as secular liturgies (see Desiring the Kingdom).

But it’s also true that every church has a liturgy, even the ones that think they’re non-liturgical.

In Chapter 7 of Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel Mike Cosper gives an insightful historical overview of different church tradition’s approach to gathered, corporate worship.  His treatment of the negative impact of Revivalism (think Charles Finney) on public worship was helpful:

Rather than worship being a formational process in the lives and hearts of believers over years of gathering and learning, it became an ecstatic experience driven by emotive preaching and decorated with music.  The goal was a catalytic, life-changing moment.

He cites Kent Hughes who outlined the changes:

The structure of corporate worship became: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the sermon, and (3) the invitation….  Singing and musical selections were made in regard to their effect rather than their content.  Gospel songs (celebrating experience) often supplanted hymns to God.  Scripture reading was reduced so as not to prolong the ‘preliminaries.’  Prayers were shortened or even deleted for the same reason.  As to the sermon, the careful interaction with the biblical text so treasured by the Puritans was in many instances replaced with a freewheeling extemporaneous discourse.

More recently according to Cosper,

Many have embraced what’s sometimes called the Temple Model (or the Wimber model, given its usual attribution to John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches).  This model likens the journey of worship to a pilgrim’s journey to the temple in Jerusalem.  As one worship leader [Vicky Beeching] describes it, ‘We see the “Temple journey” of worship from every day life, walking towards Jerusalem, into the Temple courts and finally into the deepest place of God’s presence.’

The journey begins in the ‘outer gates,’ where the crowd assembles rambunctiously, with celebrative and energetic music.  As worship continues into the inner gates and into the temple, music becomes more intimate and the presence of God becomes more immanent.  The goal of worship is to enter the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence is most profoundly known and experienced.  Once there, we sing only ballads and hymns, with tears streaming down our collective face.

Directly and indirectly, much of the church has embraced this model….  It’s… present in the way we talk about worship experiences, saying of worship leaders and teams, ‘They really led us to the throne room,’ or, ‘They ushered [us] into God’s presence.’

The problem with this model is twofold.  First, it’s developed backwards.  The theology of the Temple Model is a theological interpretation of an experience, and it is divorced from any kind of historical perspective on the gathered church.  Second, it ignores most of what the New Testament teaches us about worship, the presence of God, and the temple.  Instead of being led by Jesus through the inner curtain, we’re led there by a worship leader or a pastor – a pseudo-priest.

So it’s clear that every church is operating on some form of a liturgy.  The question is, Which one is theologically correct and will make the healthiest disciples over time?


It’s Sunday!

Make not your worldly affairs of more account than the word of God, but on the Lord’s Day leave everything and run eagerly to your church, for she is your glory. Otherwise what excuse have you, if you do not assemble on the Lord’s Day to hear the word of life and be nourished with the divine food?

Didascalia 2:59:2 (an ancient church document, composed most likely in the first part of the third century, for a community of Christian converts from paganism in the northern part of Syria)


Why Christians Must Go To Church Every Sunday

I believe that the only reason to miss the corporate worship of your local church on the Lord’s Day is if you are puking your guts out or just had a baby the day before. If you happen to be traveling, you shouldn’t do ‘church’ in the hotel room; find a service to attend. I’ve always said that church attendance is the very first thing that a new Christian must learn. We can talk about daily ‘quiet times’ eventually, but first I want to see you at church every Sunday.

However, there are many men and women that have been Christians for quite some time who haven’t caught this vision of the Christian life. They don’t see the big deal. If something better comes up, or they’re not feeling like it, or they had a rough Saturday night with kids, or they feel they have too much homework, church gets skipped. We’re witnessing what Kevin DeYoung has called “The Scandal of the Semi-Churched.”

In case you think this is making a mountain out of a mole-hill or I’m just saying it because I’m a frustrated religious company man, consider the full weight of these 15 reasons for making Sunday church as automatic as brushing your teeth.

1. God commands it. You can’t escape the fact that Hebrews 10:25 is in the Bible and it is very clear. Okay, so you think you can fulfill this one by ‘hanging out’ with Christian friends? We also have passages like 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 20:7ff that presuppose regular Sunday gatherings for the church.
2. Your leaders expect it. Even if Sunday attendance at a worship service wasn’t biblically commanded, Hebrews 13:17 commands you to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” If coming to church on Sunday is what your pastors expect of you because it is a chief way that they keep watch over your soul, you should submit to their wishes. Don’t make it hard on them, “for that would be of no advantage to you.” If in the end your coming to church was a complete and total waste of your time, they will have to give an account for that. You have done right by submitting to them.
3. It’s good for you. It won’t be a waste of your time. How can hearing the Word read, sung, prayed, preached, and visualized in the sacraments together with your brothers and sisters be a bad thing?
4. It’s not all about you. Alright, maybe the Scripture reader is dyslexic and the worship team isn’t polished and the prayers seem rote and the preaching is mediocre and the effect of bread and wine are mysterious and the people are a bit annoying or you don’t naturally click with them. You have to remember that it’s not just about you. You showing up is an act of love to other people. Have you ever considered how your attendance might encourage someone and conversely your lack of attendance may discourage someone? Enough has been said about our culture’s entrenched consumerism and the way this affects our ‘church shopping’. Stop thinking about yourself and learn to love others. Every church will have aspects you wish were different; just pick one and dive in! And even the act of congregational singing is not merely about you closing your eyes and feeling emotionally moved. It’s about you singing truth into the ears of your brothers and sisters (check this out). When you don’t show up, and I’m struggling myself, the choir singing of Christ’s worth has one less decibel level to it.
5. Think about the lost. What does it say to a lost person who finds his or her way into your worship service (cf. 1Cor. 14:24) and finds a group of people gathered to worship God who don’t really want to be there or several empty seats left open for members who slept in? If, on the other hand, everyone that’s supposed to be there is there then there is a palpable and contagious feeling that Jesus is worthy of worship. It’s sad and pathetic when it’s the first nice day of spring and attendance is a paltry 50% of the seats and a visitor shows up. “There’s not much life here!” they say. “I’d rather be out in the sun myself.”
6. Think about the children. And what if you go to the game on Sunday instead of church? What does that say to your kids? Actions speak louder than words. It tells them that Jesus isn’t really that important to mom and dad. Those early years of childhood are so crucial and having the joyful habit of church attendance seared into their souls is so critical. Those songs and Scriptures are getting etched into minds. Observing mom or dad listening to God’s Word attentively is a memory they won’t be able to shake. It is impossible to overestimate the formative effect of regular Sunday church attendance on children.
7. You need to pace yourself. The Christian life is a marathon. In order to make it to the end in faith you need a steady rhythm, not a series of fits and starts. Some Sundays may be amazing, but most won’t. However, we can’t downplay the cumulative effect of preaching. Good things take time to grow. Don’t expect every Sunday to be a long, dramatic touchdown pass; sanctification is more like the running game – pounding it up the middle for short gains. The very rhythm of weekly worship, going through the same basic liturgy has the power to shape you into a patient, stable, content person.
8. It’s a discipline. Disciplines are not usually immediately satisfying, but they produce results in us that outweigh the costs. Being disciplined is part of spiritual maturity. It’s another word for self-control, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23). It takes self-control to say ‘No’ to a late night movie on Saturday so you can be rested for Sunday morning. It takes self-control to get up and ready and out of the house on time. But isn’t that the kind of life we should want to grow into? To be ruled by our passions and moods and be scattered and undependable is immaturity.
9. You need to trust him. God has said that “faith comes from hearing the message” (Rom. 10:17), he has promised that we are filled with the Spirit as we “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), he has told us to eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of him. We must trust that these means of grace that he has given us are sufficient and will do the work that needs to be done. Skipping church to meditate at the beach is like standing God up on a date. He’s promised to be somewhere and he’s called you to come. I also think of my father’s example. He was a farmer and no doubt would have had many times that he looked at the weather forecast and saw rain all week. And it was a sunny Sunday. But he went to church and rested and trusted that God would provide. And the crops always got planted and harvested. The Lord will help you with the big presentation on Monday; come worship him on Sunday.
10. You said you would! God takes vows very seriously (e.g. Ps. 15:4). We should be men and women of our word and keep our word at all costs. When someone joins our church, for example, they freely sign a church covenant that says, “I specifically covenant to regularly attend Sunday worship services.”
11. We are embodied people. Gathering physically in an appointed place, at an appointed time, with real flesh and blood people, to eat real bread and wine militates against our natural Gnosticism that pits the spiritual against the material. You can’t just stay home and listen to worship music and honor him in your heart. Getting your butt in the pew on Sunday is one way that you “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). “Praise the LORD. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints” (Ps. 149:1).
12. It syncs you up with something bigger than you. Your Christian life is not just about your soul and God. When Christ saves you he places you in the Church. Your spiritual life is now inextricably bound up with other people. You may want to go one direction, but being part of the church means going the direction the church is going. Sitting under the same preaching as a group of people creates unity and community and means that you’re all going through the same curriculum together, learning the same lessons together.
13. It’s what the church has always done. Church tradition shows that this is what Christians have been doing for centuries. Suddenly you know better? For example, the Didache (2nd century) says, “And on the Lord’s Day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the Eucharist, having first confessed your offences…” Consider also the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833 – “We believe that the first day of the week is the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath; and is to be kept sacred to religious purposes, by abstaining from all secular labor and sinful recreations; by the devout observance of all the means of grace, both private and public; and by preparation for that rest that remaineth for the people of God.”
14. It’s counter-cultural. There may have been a time when everyone was doing it in some parts of the country, but loyalty to a church and sacrificing your Sunday mornings really says you’re different from the world these days. Not being part of organized religion makes you such a conformist.
15. If you don’t go you may miss the very thing you needed. Revivals of various levels have been known to break out when God’s people are assembled. J.C. Ryle said, “The very sermon that we needlessly miss, may contain a precious word in season for our souls.” The main way a good pastor serves and loves you is by working very hard all week to prepare a gourmet feast for your soul on God’s Word. Why would you skip that? Would it be very considerate of others or smart for yourself to let your mother fix an elaborate Thanksgiving Day spread for you and then decide on a whim not to show up?

I hope you will seriously consider whether you are a part-time churchgoer? If you are, in light of the 15 reasons above, what does that say about the state of your heart? Repent and come to church this Sunday because there you will be welcomed, assured of the gospel, and drawn to worship a gracious God.


Sunday Kinks

It’s Monday.  For all of you evaluating how yesterday went, consider this quote from Annie Dillard:


A high school stage play is more polished than this service we have been rehearsing since the year one.  In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks.  We positively glorify them.  Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.  Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens.  Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.

From Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 20. HT: George Guthrie


Military-Entertainment Complex

Before the Super Bowl on the last Lord’s Day, Andrea and I read from James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.  There is a section of the book that evaluates several ‘secular liturgies’ of our day.

Consider the rituals that constitute the opening of a professional sporting event such as an NFL football game or a NASCAR race, even if only viewed on television.  In a massive space thronging with people, eager for the beginning of the event, a crowd of a hundred thousand people can be brought into remarkable placidity by the exhortation, ‘Please stand for the national anthem.’  Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together.  They remove their caps, and many place a hand over their heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems, laden with military themes such that those singing it are transposed into battle, the identity of the nation being wrapped up in its revolutionary beginnings and legacy of military power.  Perhaps even more importantly, this rehearses and renews the myth of national identity forged by blood sacrifice.

The sounds of the anthem are usually accompanied by big, dramatic sights of the flag: a star-spangled banner the size of a football field is unfurled across the field by a small army of young people whose movements make it undulate as if blowing in the winds of battle, proudly defiant, but almost dripping with blood in those red lines across it.  And almost always, the concluding crescendo of the anthem – announcing that this is the ‘land of the free’ and the ‘home of the brave’ – is accompanied by a flyover from military aircraft, whether the searing slice of F-15 fighter jets across the sky or the pulsating presence of Apache helicopters chugging across the air space of the stadium.  The presence of the aircraft has a double effect: it concretizes the militarism of the anthem and the flag while also making the scene something that is felt, as the sounds of the jets or choppers is a kind of noise one picks up in the chest more than the ears.  A crowd larger than many American cities then erupts in cheers and applause as this ritual of national unity has united even fans of opposing teams.

I’m suggesting that this constitutes a liturgy because it is a material ritual of ultimate concern: through a multisensory display, the ritual both powerfully and subtly moves us, and in so doing implants within us a certain reverence and awe, a learned deference to an ideal that might some day call for our ‘sacrifice.’  This is true not only of professional sports; the rituals of national identity – and nationalism – have been almost indelibly inscribed into the rituals of athletics from Little League to high school football.  ‘As is well known,’ Stanley Hauerwas once quipped, ‘Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas.’  The imagination couples these spectacular displays at professional sporting events with the simplicity of the anthem and color guard at a high school football game, and together they build up a story of national unity forged by battle and sacrifice.  Over time, these rituals have a cumulative, albeit covert, effect on our imaginary.  And together, I’m arguing, these constitute liturgies of ultimate concern…

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 105-106.


Smith makes some fascinating observations and helpful arguments in this book.  It’s important to be aware of what’s happening to us in these cultural practices.  What has really captured our imaginations?

I couldn’t find yesterday’s version, but here is the 2011 video production that played before the Super Bowl.  I think Smith is onto something here:


The Trivialization of God

Visit a church on Sunday morning – almost any will do – and you will likely find a congregation comfortably relating to a deity who fits nicely within precise doctrinal positions, or who lends almighty support to social crusades, or who conforms to individual spiritual experiences. But you will not likely find much awe or sense of mystery. The only sweaty palms will be those of the preacher unsure whether the sermon will go over; the only shaking knees will be those of the soloist about to sing the offertory…

Reverence and awe have often been replaced by a yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification.

When the true story gets told, whether in the partial light of historical perspective or in the perfect light of eternity, it may well be revealed that the worst sin of the church at the end of the twentieth century has been the trivialization of God.

Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), 13.


Book Review: Who Will Deliver Us?

Who Will Deliver Us

Paul F.M. Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us? The Present Power of the Death of Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1983), 85 pages.

Review by Pastor Nathan, June 2013

I had heard about this book for a while and finally bought it. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says it is a book he regularly re-reads. I gave it four stars out of five on Goodreads.

The introduction and first four chapters deftly explain the atonement of Christ to a psychologized culture. Zahl understands law as both the revealed will of God in Scripture (Law) and the “force of ought” interior to everyone (law) in many different forms – the “bastard children of the Law.” So for example there is the “law of capability” which is “the demand a person may feel that he be 100 percent capable in everything he does – or else!” There are astute observations throughout this short book of how the modern soul is imprisoned to law.

This results in “the dereliction of fear.” For those acquainted with the Law there is the underlying fear of God’s punishment. For those who only deal with the various forms of law, still there is fear of the “fateful, nameless forces that dominate humanity and nature, of which idols must be built and to which tribute must be paid.” Zahl states boldly – “I am suggesting that the fear beneath all fears, which in turn creates the stress, depression, and anger of everyday life and human history, is fear of ultimate judgment.”

Zahl suggest that humans naturally try one of three strategies to deal with this terror. The first is flight – we hide like Adam and Eve. The ultimate form of escape is suicide, but there are various other flight mechanisms short of this. The second strategy is open resistance – we courageously stand up against our fear. The third tactic is what Zahl calls appeasement – acknowledging the rightfulness of judgment and trying somehow to assuage our fears through our own efforts. But whichever one is chosen, the end in every case is defeat. Whether it be “the implacable forces of criticism and cruelty stemming from other people and our own inner selves, or whether it be the demand of God for perfection, judgment is in the end too strong for us.”

Thus the title of this book, taken from Romans 7:24 – “Who will deliver us from this body of death?”

The answer, of course, is Jesus through his atonement. Other religions have some notion of atonement, but never a certainty of atonement. Zahl shows the beauty of the cross of Christ and says, “I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ because it disarms the law and frees me from the fear of judgment.” He uses this striking analogy:

I am a little like the duck hunter who was hunting with his friend in a wide-open barren of land in southeastern Georgia. Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke. Soon he could hear the sound of crackling. A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing his way. It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it. The hunter began to rifle through his pockets. Then he emptied all the contents of his knapsack. He soon found what he was looking for – a book of matches. To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it. He lit a small fire around the two of them. Soon they were standing in a circle of blackened earth, waiting for the fire to come. They did not have to wait long. They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves. The fire came near – and swept over them. But they were completely unhurt. They weren’t even touched. Fire would not pass where fire had passed.

The law is like the brushfire. I cannot escape it. But if I stand in the burned-over place, where law has already burned its way through, then I will not be hurt. Not a hair of my head will be singed. The death of Christ is the burned-over place. There I huddle, hardly believing yet relieved.

I didn’t really understand most of chapter 5, but I think Zahl was trying to construct a theodicy based on the atonement.

The last chapter – “Atonement in the Church” – presented practical ways that this fear-disarming gospel can and should infiltrate the way we do church. This was provocative. I loved most of it, had questions on some things, and was challenged on others. Zahl calls for a culture of honesty in the church because of the fact that Christ’s atonement has satisfied the Law of God and the internal laws of our own personal narratives. “Honesty is a truth-telling about our experience that has given up on strategies of flight, appeasement, or confrontation.” There are a few insightful case studies here that bring this into real life situations.

In this chapter, Zahl defines sanctification/Christian growth as “the carrying of good news to the unevangelized territories of our personal and social being…. Sanctification is justification by extension.” I know there is some debate on this. I think that Zahl’s understanding may not account for all of the biblical data perfectly. But what he calls for is so needed, so forgotten, and so refreshing. It may be an overstatement to say that we need to completely “eschew prescription.” But it is true that “progress in our lives is not principally a matter of new experience or new knowledge. It is rather a fresh returning, in every new round of events, to a very old conviction: Christ died for our sins.”

Next, Zahl lists and develops three major implications of a ministry based on atonement for the practical functioning of the church:

(1) “We shall preach and teach the same message to believers and nonbelievers alike.” This is something Tim Keller has taught and modeled so well. The gospel is for Christians just as much as it is for non-Christians.
(2) “Self-righteousness has, by virtue of the atonement, entirely lost its potency. The façade can come down.”
(3) “Our preaching will be descriptive rather than prescriptive.” In other words, preaching must refrain from moralizing. How’s this definition of preaching? – “The manifesting of the objective atonement of Christ to the painful points of entrapment and despair that we experience subjectively.” It doesn’t cover everything (what about Calvin’s ‘Third Use of the Law’?), but there are many worse definitions and examples.

Finally, Zahl concludes with three questions to ask in our diverse ministry settings:

(1) Worship “Does our ministry provide people with a quality of worship by which they can get out of themselves?” This is a great insight for worship leaders – “As derelicts of fear, we are preoccupied with our own problems. We cannot help this. But if we can be enabled, just for an hour, just for a few minutes, to step outside ourselves, we inevitably see ourselves from a fresh perspective, in the light of the grace of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
(2) Community “Are we building up a family in which the wounds of the past can be salved and the new freedom won by atonement encouraged?” Zahl is calling for a small group ministry where people are given the time and safety to be sinners in need of atonement.
(3) Counseling “Does [our ministry] provide people with opportunities for counseling?” This was the end of the book and the portion I found to be the most provocative. I really wonder, does Immanuel have ways to “offer to our derelict humanity the possibility of a healing relationship, person to person, to mediate the love of God?”

Do I suggest that everyone needs counseling? I am not sure. Many of us have problems that have been “successfully” defended: our inner strategies to contain them allow us relatively stable, relatively purposeful lives. Many of us, however, find ourselves crippled by unassimilated negativities rising to the surface. Many of us will draw benefit from counseling. The scars of the past can be healed. The counselor can be a messenger of affirmation and nurture to the hidden fear, thus entering our world as a mediator of atonement.

Again in the parish in New York there are several professional counselors who work alongside the clergy. They become heralds of good news to the solitary places of fear, the unevangelized territories of our hearts. They may seldom mention the name of Jesus Christ. But as carriers of love to dark continents, they are missionaries. We find that as the grace of God imputed to us in Christ is preached from the pulpit, the inner fears and tragedies of our listeners rise to the surface even in the most “well-adjusted” people. The grace of God will produce an unmasking of the self by which needs that are unconscious to a person in day-to-day life rise to the surface. At this point the counselor comes to sustain the ministry of the Word. He becomes an active participant in the ministry.

Our ministry is rooted in the atonement. It includes three emphases: worship, to lift us out of ourselves and renew our perspective; small groups to provide a nurturing family for us as we grow; and opportunities for counseling as a bridge to past hurts and a means of healing old wounds.

I’m intrigued by this final question and the proposal embedded in it. But I wrote in the margin next to these paragraphs: “Problem is: where are there gospel-centered counselors??”

I benefitted personally from this little book. I would definitely give it to an unbeliever who struggled with insecurity and had tried different pop-psychology and self-help books. And as a pastor it gives me great food for thought on how to bring the gospel even deeper into the culture of our church.