After a survey of our dreadfully decadent culture, and a peek at further decay ahead, we ask what the Christian response ought to be. At the top of the list we place recovery of covenant consciousness. This is a matter of first importance: thinking covenantally is a cornerstone issue. Its absence from Americanity goes a long way in explaining the church's crumbling before humanism. Therefore, it must be restored. We cannot stand before any enemy if we don't know who "we" are.
And "we" must be defined by a common, objective faith, not by a common experience. We have noted that even some who loudly tout their devotion to "the doctrines of grace" have fallen, sometimes headlong, into the baptistic trap in which the genuineness of Christian identification is measured by interior experience and not by God's gracious covenant. One consequence of this orientation has been the transformation of covenant worship into an occasion for well-meaning but ill-informed ministers to "bind heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders." Far from proclaiming and magnifying the grace of God in redeeming us, and then clearly spelling out our covenant obligations, these ministers address the gathered people of God as if they were bereft of true and saving grace. These pastors ascend their pulpits with the assumption that their churches are peopled by antichrists. Amazingly, these same ministers who turn the sin of doubt into a sure sign of faith often regard themselves as champions of the doctrine of assurance!
One leading proponent of this school writes, "unless our religion is experiential, we will perish," and, "without such (experiential) preaching, we will everlastingly perish." This is foul and mischievous rubbish and it leads to utter frustration and impotence. It leads people into subservience to preachers rather than Christ. Consider: Who gets to define the "experience" everyone must undergo before he may be confident that God has included him in His redemptive program? How intense must the experience be? How sustained or how frequent? Such preaching assumes no real distinction between the people of God and heathen. It is, in truth, a blasphemous affront to the Triune God Who has saved and is saving His people by grace.
These assassins of grace pull out lists of internal virtues and shape them into ladders of self-righteousness by which the initiates imagine themselves to climb above the am ha'oretz, i.e., mere common, professing Christians. Lists of vices are also employed, twisted into ropes to bind the people, causing them to cast their eyes ever inward in search of an experience while the Christ of their salvation is kept hidden from view. The effect of such "ministering" is to cause Jehovah's people, on the wholesale level, to doubt His oceanic grace.
Consider the following examples of the kinds of things one hears from these pulpits. These things are routinely set forth not merely as lamentable conditions in need of improvement or strengthening, but as certain signs that one is bound for hell:
· "Gross willful ignorance." But what's the measure? Failure to memorize the Larger Catechism? The Apostles' Creed? No attainable standard is indicated, just a general warning that people who remain "ignorant" (of what, they don't say) are doomed.
· "Secret reserves in closing with Christ," that is, holding something back. They actually say that, unless one is "entirely devoted" to Christ, he will be "ruined forever." How this is to be distinguished from salvation by works eludes me. What's worse is that, again, there is no objective standard. How does a person know that he is so devoted, especially when, according to them, even "secret exceptions" will undo him, i.e., exceptions he is not aware of?! The simple prayer of the Psalmist to be cleansed from hidden faults won't meet the suprascriptural test of these titans of taunt.
· "Wrong motives in holy duties." But the very best of us find mixture in our motives. If one's motives must be entirely pure to gain a welcome into the kingdom of our Heavenly Father, all hope is gone and Christ died for nothing. Further, while wrong motives are a fault, Scripture indicates that it is better to do the right thing and grow in grace, than to continue in the wrong thing until you bring your motives up to speed.
Believe me when I tell you I could continue this litany of interior works well past the cows' homecoming: misplaced trust, secret hostility to the strictness of religion, resting in just a certain degree of religion, harboring malice against those who've injured you, unmortified pride, love of pleasure, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I shouldn't need to note, but I fear I must, that I am as far from advocating any of these sins as east is from west. I am only saying that they should be addressed as sins from which we should turn, or shortcomings we should seek help from God to overcome, not as the very (unmeasurable!) thing which will leave us beyond God's mercy. Imagine the compounded consequence of being berated with this sort of thing week after week, month after month, year after year. And whenever anyone has the temerity to think he might actually be "saved," he hears the preacher warn, "it is a thousand to one that you will be deceived unless" your self-examination knows no end. And even then, he is told to keep in mind that whatever grace he thinks he might have discovered in himself could very well be a counterfeit of Satan, the master of deceit.
The entire Bible, but most notably the New Testament epistles, provide ample testimony that such an approach to God's own in the world should be reckoned as an intolerable assault. Where, I ask, is Christ in all this self-self-self preaching? Where is God's gracious covenant? It is buried under mountains of me-ism. That such people as the above can turn out tomes on "assurance" is either absurd or obscene, I'm not sure which. It's like Pol Pot writing a book on the pursuit of freedom, or like a thief trying to sell you back the goods he stole from your home. Morbid introspectionism is nothing more than the Interior Department of the Republic of the Pharisees.
Compare all this experiential browbeating to the actual approach of the apostles of our Lord: they were positively paternal in tone as they addressed professing Christians. Look at how Paul speaks to the Corinthians, a motley crew if ever there was one: schismatic, boastful, tolerant of vice in their midst, quick to sue each other in pagan courts, confused about marriage, spiritual gifts, the Lord's Supper, and even the resurrection! Yet how does St. Paul address them, at the Spirit's direction?
Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Interesting historical note: Forty years later, in A.D. 95, the Corinthians were still caught up in their old, divisive ways. A coup by young Turks became the occasion for the (non-canonical) First Epistle of Clement to be written to them. How were these Corinthians addressed in that second-generation letter? As those "who are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
People who are lawfully baptized in the Triune Name and who are members of creedally orthodox churches, endeavoring, albeit imperfectly, to live orderly lives, are to be addressed as Christian. Surely there may come a time to count someone out. This too is covenantal language. Thus Jesus warns the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2 and 3. But notice, until the candlestick is removed, they are addressed as heirs of the promise. The Spirit there, as elsewhere in the New Testament, speaks to the churches, and churches are communities of Christians. So long as they are within the pale of orthodoxy, they may be good, bad, or in between, but they are to be addressed encouraged and warned as Christians.
But didn't Jesus say a man must be born again? Yes, once. But what does it mean? Our Lord was speaking to a man who, at that time, apparently regarded Him as just another teacher or prophet (Jn. 3:2). Jesus wants Nicodemus to know that the King of the kingdom had come. Recognition of Jesus as Lord is the issue, the dividing point of Israel (see Jn. 7:43), indeed, of all history. And it is to God we must trace the confession that Jesus is Lord. You must be born again, or, born from above, from God. Jesus elaborates on this in His words to Peter in Matthew 16:17. The confession that "Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God," comes from His "Father in heaven." That is why Paul says, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3). The confession of Jesus as Lord and Messiah is exactly what separated the church of the New Testament from the "church" which was left behind. Compare Acts 2:36. Jesus and the orthodox confession of Jesus is central, not experience. We are joined to a confessing community by grace. And it is in this community of grace that we are taught to believe everything He taught and to obey everything He commanded.
- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.