At this term’s InterPraise, on Wednesday night, I encountered practices that, while not at all unusual in the evangelical world, fall far short of what the Holy Writ delivers. I don’t mean to attack InterPraise or anyone who helped out, but I do insist on doing things in their proper places, by the means handed down from God. When God says to summon water by speaking to a rock, it will not do to strike the rock, even if God’s gracious enough to make water gush out anyway. As the Book of Common Prayer says, ‘There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted: As, among other things, it may plainly appear by the Common Prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service.’ This post, then, is my plea to ministers to use what God has already given in his revealed word, and to Christians to acknowledge what Christ has already instituted himself, that we may devote ourselves to God’s institutions over those of man.
The practice to which I turn my attention is the call to rededication to God. Rededication’s good and biblical in itself, as Nehemiah 9 shows us Israel’s rededication to YHWH’s covenant, but this good thing is improperly used when wrested from the right context. My concern is with this call’s removal from the bosom of the Church, a removal that comes with a host of distortions in faith.
There’s already a biblical setting for rededication
I, who the summer before the third grade accept-believe-confessedI note that this ABC mnemonic – accept Jesus into your heart, believe that he died for your sake, confess that you are a sinner – not only instilled infantile thoughts but got salvation backwards. Though I thank the Lord for his mercies, I cannot but say honestly that the method perverted even the abecedarian concepts of salvation. but, on account of the public demand for a baptismal ‘testimony’,And why, I ask, are we placing more currency on individual experience, which is uncertain, than on the faithful person of Christ, who is surer than the laws of the cosmos? was too timid to go to the waters of grace until such time as I should be ‘ready’ through rededication (which I performed at a retreat), believe no longer in these unchurchly rededications. ‘The [C]hurch,’ explains John Williamson Nevin, ‘is truly the mother of all her children. They do not impart life to her, but she imparts life to them.’ It may be in fashion to think that God doesn’t care where stuff happens, but God loves the Church he’s chosen out of sin, and he’s given her means, through the Holy Ghost, for unity with himself as one Body. These means are instituted already without man’s invention, and it’s these that he wants us to receive as gifts for the renewal of our souls, gifts bound by his covenant with the Church.
There are no grounds in the Holy Writ for such activities to be divorced from the liturgy of the local church, nor does right reason give warrant for it, because covenant renewal and rest is already held out to the believer every Lord’s Day. Week after week, in the Divine Service, YHWH calls us again as a people to confess our manifold sins and wickedness before him; week after week, he speaks to us with the voice of a multitude, the voice of love stronger than death, the voice of one who has already offered himself up to the death; week after week, he invites the weary to come to him and eat his Body and drink his Blood in the heavenly places. We who complain about spiritual highs, then, should see what the Lord already does, and does without need for retreats or (passion!) conferences or any other hyped-up, pumped-up, rocking extracurricular activity; oh, how he loves us!
Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maidservant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.
Remember the quiet rest of Christ. He has conquered death and prepared a New Creation on the eighth day, wherefore we praise and adore him and rest in his finished work, no longer sacrificing the blood of goats and calves but resting on the final blood sacrifice of God himself. Having the Lord’s Day set aside to reflect the final rest inaugurated by the Resurrection, we can trust the Lord to provide for us fully.
Popular enthusiasm, an idolatrous symptom of human (claims of) autonomy
When people invent their own ways to worship God or to deliver his grace, problems crop up really quickly. Just ask the people who started using a golden calf as a representation of the mighty God who’d led them out of Egypt. Soon enough, problem breeds problem, and faith itself is perverted. Protestants often fail to realize that their criticisms against praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary as Christ’s Coredemptrix apply equally to some of their own devotional practices, practices that they often see as very important divine means of grace.
It’s one thing to gather during the week to praise God and worship him and confess our unworthiness before him, another thing entirely to use a service’s unseasonable hour (that is, its occasional nature) to throw the people off balance and work up a fervour, and to have a protracted meeting in which emotion-driven preaching (or ecstatically emotive, repetitive singing) hammers at the congregation until results appear. To be fair, this is not the extreme to which InterPraise went, but it belonged unmistakably to the same system, the altar call system that has evolved from the fanatical system of the heretic Charles Finney.Those who have heard of the 19c. revivalist, whose ideas are particularly popular in some Pentecostal-charismatic circles, generally have no idea that such an influential man could be anything but beyond reproach, since he’s said to have saved so many souls. Say revival and a herd of lemmings will follow, but it will rarely be genuine revival that strikes the Church: no abyss outside of Hell is great enough to contain such a diabolic scheme. I’m confident, however, that ‘the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places’, to what’s really needed. John Williamson Nevin, in The Anxious Bench (1843), makes perhaps the most probing critique of Finneyism and the New Measures that has ever been written.
The altar call, of course, is a device belonging to the evangelistic crusade, the device aimed for conversions that in its grosser forms will pound the weak believer – I speak from experience – into merciless questioning of his own sincerity, since this weak believer’s led to believe that his own sincere heart is what determines whether his salvation’s real. This quest for sincerity and absolute purity of mind is a lapse back into the mediæval ideas of perfect contrition (repentance motivated purely by love for God and not by, say, common decency or fear of hell) that spawned the erroneous doctrine of purgatory. By God’s gracious providence, however, the catholic truth has remained even in the Papists’ funerary texts: ‘I sin every day and am not penitent; the fear of death upsets me: Because in hell there is no redemption. Have mercy upon me, O God, and save me. God, in thy Name save me, and in thy virtue set me free.’ The one who’s justified by faith has no need for endless navel-gazing: knowing that what God sees in the heart is sin and cholesterol (‘it’s foul,’ as the speaker said), he can yet be content that Jesus Christ has a pure heart, and that the Father in his mercy sends the Holy Spirit to join the Church to that sacred heart. In Christ – I can’t stress this enough – the sinner is secure, because what matters is that he believe, not that he examine his heart to death.
Applying conversionistic techniques to professed believers, then, betrays a harmful lack of distinction between the Church, whom Christ has bound to himself with a covenant, and those outside the Church, to whom Christ is not so bound. The practical erasure of the distinction between pagan and believer reeks of Semipelagian thought, the heretical doctrine – alas, far too common! – whereby man, Christian or not, will first reach out to God with his sincere heart before God will come to him. In urging a distinction between Church and heathendom I affirm nevertheless that no one can live without the gospel. The Christian does need the gospel, each and every day, and not just at conversion: the gospel’s not merely a prerequisite for life, but in Christ it is life itself. But this is the very reason that such irregular things as InterPraise and retreats cannot be the means by which the gospel’s urged upon the believer. If it’s the Spirit we want, and not the flesh, we need the means that the Father has decreed and the Son has founded and the Holy Ghost has recorded in words that cannot err.
God’s own sacramental institution: churchly life
Christ our Passover is sacrificèd for us. There is a way, a way so glorious that Christians in St Augustines’s day used to applaud when they heard it alluded to in the appointed Scripture readings, as at the mention of manna (likewise the Red Sea as a figure for baptism). Listen again to the phrase altar call: hear altar and remember what altar alone can be meant. Only one altar applies under the New Covenant, the mercy-seat of Christ himself. The sacrifice can only be the Church, united by the Holy Ghost to Christ crucified, joined to his one complete sacrifice in the only commemoration that the Holy Writ has given. This remembrance, bearing witness before both God and his elect people, is the Lord’s Supper and nothing else. As a certain hymn testifies of this gospel comfort,
Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus, ready, stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with pow’r.
He is able, he is able;
He is willing; doubt no more.
Lo! th’ Incarnate God, ascended,
Pleads the merit of his blood.
Venture on him; venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus
Can do helpless sinners good.
As anticlimactic as it may seem to urge believers to rededicate themselves in the next Divine Service and then keep doing it weekly, this is the classical Christian practice. If God himself has provided this climax, this seal to our covenant-renewing weekly worship, we can do no better. This is the point to which our God has gathered us together, to be seated together with him in the heavenly places, ‘that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus’.
Brethren, pillory no more the things that the Lord has given us, lest we despise the Body and Blood of Christ and eat and drink the condemnation of sacrilege upon ourselves. See the Sacrament, the work of the Holy Ghost, and know what Christ declares therein. Let that be God’s own altar call to baptized Christians, to come together to feast on the risen Christ who’s given his life for us and render our thanks for the great benefit we’ve received at his hands. There are some who cry, Results, results! to discount something so seemingly routine. To them I say, against the autonomy of man in worship and evangelism, Christ crucified, and Christ alone: the Holy Writ will judge results, not results the Holy Writ.
In accordance with the words of St Paul, ‘here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee.’ YHWH be with his people, and to him be glory and dominion, world without end.