Several weeks ago, my wife and I served communion at The Gathering, a Sunday evening service on the campus of Hope College, where I work. Communion is served at The Gathering every week, as it is at a number of other local churches — but weekly communion has never been a part of my church experience.
I suspect that the less frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the broadly Evangelical, nondenominational churches where I’ve worshipped for all of my adult life is largely a function of their understanding that communion is only or primarily a means of remembering Jesus’ crucifixion: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
If communion is what Pastor Uri Brito calls “a matter of subjective mental recollection,” then infrequent communion is just fine. But what if communion is something more than that? I suspect that churches which celebrate the Eucharist weekly do so because they believe that communion actually does something. And if that’s true — if communion actually does something — then what does it do?
To help answer that question, I turned to The Lord’s Supper, a small volume by Puritan Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686), originally published in 1665 as The Holy Eucharist. I don’t intend for this post to be a comprehensive review of the book or a complete summary of Watson’s argument — only to share some excerpts from the book that I appreciated as I read it.
In the first place, Watson argues against the remembrance-only view of communion, writing that a proper view:
“confutes such as look upon the Lord’s Supper only as an empty figure or shadow, resembling Christ’s death, but having no intrinsic efficacy in it. Surely this glorious ordinance is more than an effigy or representation of Christ.… Such as make the sacrament only a representation of Christ do aim short of the mystery, and come short of the comfort.” (18–19).
(He also argues against the “Papist” view of transubstantiation in language that would likely offend my Catholic friends.)
So if communion is more than a remembrance, what is it?
Throughout the book, Watson repeatedly insists that the elements of the Eucharist actually are the body and blood of Jesus. When a Christian partakes of the bread and the wine (or, sigh, the grape juice), he is consuming the body and blood of Jesus Christ — not in a literal, physical sense, but in a very real, spiritual sense:
“We hold that Christ’s body is in the sacrament spiritually” (17).
“Christ… gives us his body and blood in the Eucharist” (26).
“[I]n the blessed Supper, Christ gives himself to believers; and what more can he give?” (26)
“Christ offer[s] his body and blood to us in the Supper” (39).
We “receive Christ in the sacrament” (40).
“In the sacrament, the whole of Christ is served up to us” (49).
“We shall have not only a representation, but a participation, of Christ in the sacrament” (59).
Watson writes, “in the right celebration of it, we have sweet communion with Christ” (18–19). In other words, we spiritually commune with Jesus. (This is, of course, what the word “communion” means. Duh.)
We receive the nutritious benefits of the medium-rare ribeye and cheesy potatoes by eating them; in a comparable way, by consuming the elements — which is to say, by consuming the body and blood of Christ — we receive the spiritual benefits of Christ’s crucifixion: “as surely as [we] receive the elements corporeally, so surely [do we] receive him into [our] hearts, spiritually” (7).
“In this gospel ordinance, Christ does not only show forth his beauty, but sends forth his virtue. The sacrament is not only a picture drawn, but a breast drawn; it gives us a taste of Christ as well as a sight” (19). By “a breast drawn,” Watson means that we nurse on Christ as an infant nurses on his mother’s breast: “We need but cry, and he [Jesus] gives the breast” (44). Except, in this case, we nurse not on milk but on blood.
Watson spends much of the short volume outlining the benefits of Christ crucified that we receive in the Lord”s Supper: “All kinds of virtues come from him: mortifying, mollifying, comforting. Oh, then feed on him. This grace of faith is the great grace to be sent to work at the sacrament” (49).
At the beginning of the book, Watson responded to an important objection, asking, “But why was the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper appointed? Is not the Word sufficient to bring us to heaven?” (2). And he answers:
“The word is for the engrafting, the sacrament for the confirming of faith. The Word brings us to Christ, the sacrament builds us up in him. The Word is the font where we are baptized with the Holy Spirit, the sacrament is the table where we are fed and cherished. The Lord condescends to our weakness. Were we made up all of spirit, there would be no need of bread and wine, but we are compounded creatures. Therefore God, to help our faith, does not give us an audible Word, but a visible sign” (2).
Now, I do know that a lot of this is basic — especially to my friends in confessional and sacramental churches. But to those of us who were raised in Evangelical and nondenominational churches, this is a fairly revolutionary, radical view. In some ways, reading this book felt like a halting lurch toward a recovery of an inheritance that has been kept from me: Communion is not only a remembrance; rather, it actually does something.
To bring it back to my brief, initial comments on the frequency of communion: If in the Eucharist we commune with Jesus himself, and are fed his body and blood, and our faith is strengthened, and we receive comfort, and we are built up in him, and we are cherished by him — then it follows that we should eat at this table often: “There is no danger of excess at this Supper… the more we take the bread of Life, the more healthy we are, and the more we come to our spiritual complexion” (44).
At the very least, Watson’s book made me hunger for the Eucharist. I don’t expect that America’s non-confessional churches will move away from a remembrance-only view of communion, but as for me and my house:
“We should pray that God would enrich his ordinance with his presence; that he would make the sacrament effectual for all those holy ends and purposes for which he hath appointed it; that it may be the feast of our graces, and the funeral of our corruptions; that it may be not only a sign to represent, but an instrument to convey, Christ to us, and a seal to assure us of our heavenly jointure [union]” (57).
This is a guest column that I wrote for our local newspaper as a means of encouraging the saints in Holland, Michigan, and throughout West Michigan. The paper declined to print it, so I’m putting it here instead.
I’d like to speak for a moment to the conservative Christians in West Michigan, and what I want to say is this: Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for supporting public policies that are in line with your Christian beliefs. Don’t feel bad for wanting West Michigan to be a decent, Christian place and then working through the political process to make that happen. Don’t feel bad for wanting a Christian culture and a Christian public square.
I’m sure you’ve heard the arguments against this view, and they’ve been effective at cowing Christians into quietly accepting an increasingly pagan culture. If you support Christian policies, you’ll be accused of violating the separation of church and state. You’ll be accused of wrongly imposing your morality on others. You’ll be told that because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, Christianity has no place in the political process. None of these things is true.
First, the naysayers don’t really believe any of it. They’re happy to leverage Christianity so long as it helps them get the public policies they want. Immigration reform, refugees, climate change, masks and vaccines, affordable housing, minimum wage — all of these and more are defended and promoted in explicitly Christian terms. And, in many cases, they’re right. But Christian policies related to marriage, family, sexuality, gender, or abortion? Ha! You’ll have them calling you a Christian Nationalist and waving their picket signs quicker than you can finish saying, “What is a woman?”
So no, they don’t really want to keep Christianity out of the public square; they want to keep traditional Christianity out of the public square. They want to keep your Christianity out of the public square. Their progressive version is just fine, thank you very much. You simply need to understand that theirs isn’t a sincere objection — it’s a political tool designed to keep you quiet.
And, second, secular neutrality is a myth. It’s not possible to have a values-free public square. The question is not whether our culture and laws are informed by morality, but which morality informs them. The question is not whether our laws impose morality on others, but which morality our laws impose. The question is not whether we enforce blasphemy laws, but which blasphemy laws we enforce (curse Jesus, and the world will yawn; use the wrong pronouns, and your job may be on the line).
Our culture is becoming less Christian because Christians have been duped. We bought the big lie that if we jettisoned Christianity from the public square, we’d have a neutral, utopian space where every view would be welcome. But that’s not what happened. Christians vacated the public square, and secular progressives quickly claimed the ground we abandoned. As just one example, Pride Month has become a public celebration that puts the religious pageantry of the medieval church to shame — but you’d better keep your Christianity at home where it belongs, you bigot, and lock it up so the kids can’t find it.
In the book of Acts, an angry mob accused the early Christians of “acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (17:7). Today, do not be surprised when the angry mob accuses you of acting against the decrees of the people, or of the neutral public square, or of secular liberalism. Perhaps they’re right — but we’re Christians, for Christ’s sake, and there is another king, Jesus. “And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14).
One of the central Christian creeds is this: Jesus is Lord. All authority in heaven and earth — all of it — has been given to him (Matthew 28:18), which means that Jesus is Lord of America, and he is Lord of West Michigan. Jesus is Lord of Holland. Live and, yes, vote as if that’s true, because it is true. All you need to do is stop feeling bad about it.
Some time ago, my wife and I met with the elders at the church we were attending to address some concerns that we had about perceived shifts in the teaching and practice of the church. Specifically, we were concerned about two things:
An overemphasis on Christianity as a means of lifestyle improvement
The failure to confront false beliefs held by those who attend and lead the church, including the promotion of heterodox teaching and personalities
What follows is a copy of the email we sent to the elders to express our concerns and request the meeting. We met to discuss these concerns (and others), and we later left the church.
I’ve changed the names of the church and pastor in the email below, but I wanted to share it because:
I think it does a good job of modeling firm yet respectful disagreement with church leaders
I still see these concerns in the broader church, and I suspect others may feel the same way without necessarily knowing how to articulate it
It presents the hope of the gospel as an alternative
I am regularly asked about this letter and the topics it addresses, so I know it’s still relevant
I pray it’s helpful.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I love Fourth Church, and I especially love its people, and it’s been a pleasure to be a member of Fourth for nearly a decade. Over the past few years, though, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about a shift in the direction of the church and certain elements of its teachings and practice. I’ve shared some of these concerns with a few of you before, but I believe it’s time to formally present them to the entire board in hopes of earnestly addressing them together.
First, and most seriously, I’m concerned about an overemphasis on Christianity as a means of improving our lives.
I typically see this happening through the prolific use of vague, feel-good, and poorly defined Christian buzzwords (e.g., breakthrough, victory, abundance, impact, healing, overcome, flourish, purpose, favor, etc.) that are routinely illustrated in temporal terms and promise to meet our felt needs in, for example, our finances, marriages, careers, health, etc.
Pastor William has previously described this to me as an “inaugurated eschatology,” but I continue to worry that, at times, it’s actually an over-realized eschatology that gets perilously close to (or perhaps actually is) a thinly veiled, and therefore more palatable, version of the prosperity gospel, which is an anti-gospel.
God can, of course, provide all these things and more; he can and often does. But nowhere in the Bible are lifestyle improvements and the fulfillment of physical, felt needs promised to Christians, and nowhere are they taught as necessary implications of the gospel. (‘Felt needs’ is here distinct from real needs; see Matthew 6:31–33, Philippians 4:19.) The gospel is a proclamation of what God has already provided for us in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is not the promise of what God will do to materially improve our lives in the future. Yet I worry that this gospel truth is being shrouded at Fourth Church behind language that encourages people to interpret Christianity according to their own personal desires for bettered circumstances.
I think it’s worth sharing here that I’m convinced that the promise of an inaugurated eschatological breakthrough in this life, as commonly understood and if preached without careful definition, would be unintelligible (and likely offensive) to the Apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, beaten, stoned, thrice-shipwrecked, thorn-afflicted, and executed; to Stephen and the martyred Apostles; to those in Hebrews 11 who were tortured and sawn in two and killed with the sword; to the faithful martyrs of Revelation, slain for the word of God and their witness; to the 21 Coptic martyrs beheaded by ISIS in Libya just a few years ago; and to the countless faithful Christians around the world who are today worshipping in secret and suffering persecution for the faith.
The gospel of Christ is good news even for a man who is downwardly mobile, suffering, poor, and miserable, and who lives in that worsening state until he dies. It is good news for the young, single mother with cancer, struggling to feed her children and avoid bankruptcy while receiving medical treatment that will destroy her body until her organs fail and her children become orphans; it is good news for her orphans. It is good news for the house church pastor tortured and forever disappeared into a communist Chinese gulag.
Has God failed these people? Have his promises failed? Absolutely not! All of God’s promises are yes and amen in Christ; if they have not received breakthrough in this life, it is because God has not promised it. Still, he has saved even these from their sins and guaranteed their eternal joy in the presence of God. That Christ is the Christ we need. Preach that Christ alone, and leave behind whatever false promises or winking intimations of earthly breakthrough that distract from his gospel.
I do know that Pastor William is careful to include a proclamation of the gospel every Sunday, so my concerns are perhaps a matter of priorities or relative importance. Still, I want to see our church clearly elevate the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners as supremely important and to dial back or, better, do away with any assertions or insinuations that God will materially improve our lives. There is no potential temporal breakthrough that can improve the gospel of Christ, and no definite hardship in this life that can make this good news even the slightest bit worse.
The coronavirus pandemic (encompassing fear, anxiety, social distancing and isolation, joblessness, the prospect of national or global economic recession or depression, sickness, death) has highlighted my concerns, and I believe it demonstrates the ways that imprecise assurances of breakthrough can mislead people with a false understanding of God’s promises and his work in the world. I deeply question how well we’ve prepared people to suffer in this time.
Second, I’m concerned about a failure to confront false beliefs held by those who attend and lead Fourth Church, including the promotion of heterodox teaching and personalities.
I am primarily referring to the people at Fourth who adhere to the Word of Faith movement or the prosperity gospel, whether wholesale or piecemeal. I worry that these individuals are encouraged in their confusion and error, at least in part by Fourth’s use of the terms and concepts I previously mentioned.
Please hear me: There are, of course, careful, faithful, and biblical ways to use concepts and terminology such as “breakthrough,” “abundance,” “victory,” “authority,” “declare,” “claim,” and other, similar words. When used in an ambiguous or sloppy manner, however, they serve as dog whistles to the many people in the congregation who have adopted erroneous beliefs, and it allows those beliefs to continue unchecked — even if Fourth Church’s theological lexicon carefully avoids particular Word of Faith applications.
Worse, some of Fourth Church’s ministries openly promote heterodox teaching and personalities. As just a few brief examples, I would point to:
The use of videos by Todd White as training for the prayer team. White is a charlatan who peddles videos of demonstrably fake healings, shares platforms with false teachers including Kenneth Copeland and Bill Johnson, denies the full deity of Christ, and claims to be without sin (see 1 John 1:8).
The adaptation of Randy Clark’s material for use as Fourth Church’s prayer manual. Randy Clark is similarly associated with false teachers (including Johnson, White, and Shawn Bolz) and the New Apostolic Reformation, and has conducted frenzied “School of Healing and Impartation” events at Bethel Church and elsewhere.
The inclusion of material from Shawn Bolz in the prayer manual and in communication from other ministries. Bolz claims to occupy the office of Prophet (as distinct from exercising the spiritual gift of prophecy), delivers false prophecies, and has been credibly accused of using the same cheap parlor tricks practiced by stage-show psychics. (Importantly, removing Bolz’s quotes from the prayer manual does not exorcise Bolz’s theology from the manual or from the church.)
These men are wolves on the prowl for your sheep. Each of these examples signifies a theological drift toward teachings that are more in line with the New Apostolic Reformation and the prosperity gospel than with the teachings of the New Testament and the gospel of Christ. Taken as a whole, they indicate an undiscerning shift, whether intentional or unintentional, toward troubling, heterodox influences in our church.
(I should note here that if this is an intentional shift, then Fourth Church’s leadership should state its new direction explicitly so congregants and members can be aware of it and, as their consciences dictate, choose to worship elsewhere.)
To be clear, I’m not a cessationist: I believe the Holy Spirit works supernaturally in the world today and that the gifts and fruit of the Spirit are available to believers today; I believe that God can and does provide miraculous, physical healing. My concerns are not with charismatic gifts and signs, but with the failure to carefully distinguish between a faithful, mature, and biblically-grounded approach on the one hand and, on the other hand, the undue and improper influence in our church of false teachers who hawk an undiscerning lust for signs, healings, and miracles that can lead unwitting people away from historical, scriptural Christianity.
I would like to see Fourth’s leadership provide explicit, specific, and public correction of false beliefs that are present within the church. Much of this can be accomplished by clearly defining what is meant and, just as importantly, what is not meant by the language we use. I also think Fourth’s leadership (both staff and elders) must play a more active role in holding accountable the leaders, including volunteer leaders, of ministries in which this dangerous influence is present (see Titus 1:11, 13b).
So, in summary: I’m very concerned about the overemphasis on Christianity as a means of improving our material lives and about the proliferation or tolerance of false beliefs and false teachers that have gone unchecked among some leaders, members, and congregants.
Finally, on a deeply personal note, I’m aware that much of my concern for, and heightened sensitivity to, these matters comes from our family journey with Becca’s epilepsy.
My ultimate hope for Becca is not that she will be healed of epilepsy. I wholeheartedly believe that God can heal her epilepsy in this life, and I plead with him in faith every day to do so; I am confident he will heal her fully, in the next life if not in this one. But I do not place my hope or my comfort in her healing or her breakthrough or her victory over epilepsy. Christ has made it possible for her to have life and have it abundantly, even while having seizures.
Any expectation of a coming breakthrough in Becca’s health is thin and watery gruel compared to the bountiful feast of the gospel — the sure and certain promise that God is near her in her suffering, that God has through Christ made satisfaction for her sins and will one day make her whole, that he is working even in this disability for his glory and for her good, and that she will look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living even if she has epileptic fits until the day God calls her home, where she will behold at last her savior’s face. This is the glorious hope of the gospel, the good news that a hurting and broken world needs to hear.
So I plead with you: Make sure that this gospel, and this gospel alone, is proclaimed loudly, clearly, and unapologetically at Fourth Church. Do not let the treasure of the gospel lay beside the trinkets and baubles of lifestyle improvement and vague promises of coming breakthrough. Do not allow the clear, cool water of the Christian gospel to be diluted with the pond scum — not even a drop! — of the prosperity gospel, the Word of Faith movement, or the New Apostolic Reformation. Do not allow snake-oil salesmen to peddle their quackery within our walls. Do not yoke the gospel message to the dead weight of expectations that God has promised us personal lifestyle improvements. Preach Christ and him crucified — not so that we might get a promotion, but so we might be forgiven of our sins and reconciled to God.
Underlying all of this, I suppose, is a plea for more robust oversight of the church’s theology, preaching, and practice. In 2012, after the Fourth Church members voted to leave our denomination, I sent this appeal to the elder board:
I can’t encourage you strongly enough to continue looking into options of external accountability and authority for Fourth Church, whether that’s in the form of a network or organization, or a denomination that is more compatible with our mission and personality, or simply a small group of trusted leaders and pastors who audit and regularly report on the church’s theology, preaching, and practice. Please, please, please look for a responsible way of answering to someone outside of our walls.
I repeat this plea today: Please, please, please find responsible, faithful, and proven accountability that can ensure Fourth Church does not stray from the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
I’m hoping that this email is received as a loving corrective that motivates careful introspection, increased oversight from the elder board, and a decisive, noticeable shift in some of the church’s practices.
Becca and I hope to meet in person to discuss these matters and hear your response.
“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”
This isn’t a very popular sentiment. I know a lot of you will disagree with it; many of you will find it offensive. But it’s a great comfort to me. Not only is it a great comfort, but I believe it’s the only solid ground to stand on during these anxious times. If you’re looking for those things — comfort and a firm place to plant your feet — then I recommend resting in the providence of God.
When Becca was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2017, our world was rocked. In many, many ways we’re still struggling to get our feet back under us. I’m a reader, so the first thing I did was turn to books about suffering in an attempt to wrap my head around what was happening to us and why; I never expected my bookshelf to have a whole section devoted to suffering. The books that gave me the most comfort were ironically, unexpectedly, the ones that insisted that suffering is part of God’s good purposes, that he wills it for his own glory and for our ultimate good — even though we may not understand it or like it.
I’m not saying it’s easy to believe these things. At first, the idea that God might be responsible for suffering (for Becca’s epilepsy or the coronavirus or anything else) was repulsive to me. But as I kept pressing in, I became convinced that this is the plain testimony of the Bible. (Kevin DeYoung has an excellent post summarizing this.) Once I saw in the Bible that God exercises his sovereignty for the good of his people, even in painful ways, I couldn’t un-see it. But I still didn’t find it comforting.
The comfort comes when I consider the alternatives. I would rather rest in the arms of a God who loves me and who has promised to work all things for my good, even if I can’t understand how this particular thing is truly for my good, than turn myself loose into a world where God is either too impotent or uncaring to do anything about the suffering he didn’t intend. If this is only of the devil, or merely random and meaningless, or simply the way of the world — none of these can give me more comfort than the truth that there’s a Father in heaven who loves me, is watching over for me, intends all things for my good, has promised to be near to me in my suffering, and has reconciled me to himself through Christ so I will one day enjoy him forever.
And the thing is, I can see it. I don’t need to imagine ways that God might eventually use Becca’s epilepsy for her good — I can see many of the ways he’s already using it even now. Her faith and character are stronger. Her testimony is beautiful. Our family is being refined and improved. Our children will be better men and husbands and fathers than they would be without this. And while I may not be able to identify ways, yet, that he’s using coronavirus for good, I absolutely trust that he’s doing something in and through it that couldn’t be done any other way; and if it could be done in a better way, I trust that he’d do it that way instead.
None of this is to say that I can wrap my head around all the ins and outs of the dilemma. How can God be providentially sovereign over suffering without himself being responsible for sin? I don’t know, exactly. How do we balance God’s providence with free will? I’m not sure I can adequately answer that question. I honestly don’t like all the implications of this; if it were up to me, I’d often choose differently — but if it were up to me, I’d’ve made a wreck of the whole thing a long time ago; I can hardly manage a family of four, much less a whole universe; and I certainly wouldn’t have given my wife a disability, which means we would’ve missed out on the blessings and growth that have come from our suffering together.
So, yes, there is comfort and security here. If you do not yet know the love and care of the one true God, consider this your invitation: Repent of your sins and turn to Christ. He died to save sinners like you and like me. And, having done so, he blesses us with the assurance that he is caring for us and that all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
I read novels to my oldest son, Jack, nearly every night. He’s 6. Our favorite stories are tales of imagination and high adventure—Narnia, The Hobbit, The Green Ember, Half Magic—but as good and beneficial as they are, I realized some time ago that the Bible was missing from our reading regimen. Not collections of Bible stories (we’ve been reading those for years), but the actual word of God.
I’m convinced that the Bible offers something that no other book can give: An encounter with the living Christ. So we bought Jack his own Bible in an easy-to-understand translation (NIRV) and started in Genesis 1 with plans to go straight through to the end. Little brother Ollie (age 2) listens in.
It’s been sporadic and slow-going, so far, but I think that’s okay. The point is that Jack will grow up in the habit of making time to read his Bible regularly, and he’ll see the priority Becca and I place on it. I’ve set a long-term goal: By the time Jack is 10, he’ll have read the entire Bible. Sure, there are some parts I’ll leave out this first go-round (Lot and his incestuous daughters, for example), but my philosophy, with very few exceptions, is: If it’s in there, I read it. Then we’ll talk about it.
This “most anything goes” approach has led to a lot of interesting conversations. Some are funny, like when Abraham died: “Abraham dies? He’s the main character!” and “He was 175 years old? If he had that many dollars, he’d have enough to buy the Smaug Lego set.” Some are difficult, like the covenant of circumcision or Sodom and Gomorrah. (You know, those.) Sometimes I don’t know what to say aside from, “Good question. I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”
Then there was the story where God tells Abraham to kill his son, Isaac—that story was trickier than most.
They reached the place God had told Abraham about. There Abraham built an altar. He arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac. He placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand. He took the knife to kill his son.
Jack interrupted: “Wait, he’s going to kill him?”
“Well, God told him to offer his son as a sacrifice, but no, wait for the end—he’s not going to kill him.” (Spoiler.)
“What’s a sacrifice?”
“Remember I told you that the Bible says the punishment for sin is death? People used to make sacrifices so the animal’s death would pay the price of their own sin. The animal would die so they wouldn’t have to. But watch what God does here.”
I finished the story.
Abraham looked up. There in a bush he saw a ram. It was caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram. He sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
I tried to wrap it up: “This is a tough one, Jack. In fact, this is one of your mom’s least favorite stories in the whole Bible. And I almost agree, because without Jesus, this is a really horrible story. But we have Jesus. It’s not horrible, because part of the reason the whole thing happened is so that Israel would know who Jesus was when he came. God gave this story to his people as a gift.”
That confused him.
“Look,” I said. “A dad took his son onto a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice for sin. Can you think of another time a son went on a mountain and died for sins?”
“Yes, Jesus. Look at what happens: God gave Abraham the sheep to be used for the sacrifice to save Isaac; and later, God provided another lamb, Jesus, to be the sacrifice to save you and me. Did you know they call Jesus the Lamb of God? This is why: Jesus was the sacrifice for our sin, so we don’t have to kill a sheep like Abraham did. Does that make sense?”
(Good enough for me, so I kept going.)
“That’s why this story is actually good news. God saved Abraham’s son, but later on he gave his own son to save us—to save you and me. God never actually wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, he just wanted to show his people about Jesus. They knew this story so they could remember it when they saw what Jesus did.”
Jack was quiet and crawled into my lap and snuggled into me for a hug, not looking at me. He never gets like this.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you bothered?”
“Are you afraid that God will tell daddy to kill you?”
“No, God won’t tell me to kill you. I promise. I promise a thousand times over.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because God already killed Jesus. He took all of our sin and put it on Jesus, so we don’t need to have another sacrifice for any of our sin. Abraham was pointing forward to Jesus, but we get to point backward to Jesus. Jesus died so that you don’t have to. God doesn’t want me to sacrifice you, because God already sacrificed Jesus instead. So he’ll never, ever tell me to kill you.”
Another hug, a better one this time, then we ended with a short prayer:
Thank you, God, for providing the sacrifice for Abraham to save his son. And thank you for providing your own son, Jesus, as a sacrifice to save us—to save me and mom and Jack and Oliver. Thank you that we don’t have to pay for our sin with death because Jesus already did. Amen.
I don’t know that I got the answer right, but I think I did okay. And I hope that, if you have children of your own, this dialogue encourages you to pile on the couch or gather around the dinner table or sprawl on the bed with your kids. Open up God’s word and jump in with them. Tell them the story of God. All of it. It doesn’t matter that you get all the answers right, or that you have answers at all, or that you do a good job pronouncing all those names and places. What matters is that you read it to your children, confident that in those pages they’ll find Christ—and trust that God will do the rest.
This is a guest post by the Prince of Preachers, C.H. Spurgeon. I would say it’s my favorite excerpt from his sermons, but that’s not entirely accurate, as it’s the only Spurgeon excerpt I’ve ever read. Still, I can’t imagine finding one I like more than this.
I must confess that I think it a most right and excellent thing that you and I should rejoice in the natural creation of God. I do not think that any man is altogether beyond hope who can take delight in the nightly heavens as he watches the stars, and feel joy as he treads the meadows all bedecked with kingcups and daisies. He is not lost to better things who, on the waves, rejoices in the creeping things innumerable drawn up from the vasty deep, or who, in the woods, is charmed with the sweet carols of the feathered minstrels.
Jack often asks me why I like The Lord of the Rings so much, and I usually tell him it’s because I think it’s one of the best stories ever told. What I really want to say is that I think it’s one of the truest stories ever told, but I don’t think he’s quite old enough to get the difference between ‘true’ and ‘real.’
Earlier today I read an essay called “In Praise of Stories” (one of the many excellent essays in The Christian Imagination) that touches on the same topic:
But what do we mean by a true story?… In what helpful sense is a fictional story about a boy and a slave on a raft, or, worse yet, a story about hobbits and wizards, true? Here is the answer: Any story is true, fictional or otherwise, that testifies accurately to the human condition.
The other day, while discussing some not unsubstantial family problems, someone asked me, “How is it, Josh, that you turned out the way you did?”
I assumed this was meant to reflect positively on me, and replied, “Only by the grace of God.”
In retrospect, my response sounds a little trite; it’s the sort of insincere response that people often give without thinking much about what exactly they’re saying. But I meant it. I mean it. I’m not sure of much in this life, but I am sure of this: I could very easily have walked a different path to end up in a much darker place and as a far worse person. And I’m not on my current path—a path of faith and hope and grace and life—because of anything I did. No, I’m walking this path in spite of anything I did. Left to myself, left to my pain, my past, my family, my circumstances and the natural consequences of my too often foolish decisions, I would not be here. But for the grace of God.
When I pulled up to the parking lot of Engedi Church last night, I was surprised to see how many cars were there. Certainly more than I had expected for a Monday night — nearly as many as I find for a proper Sunday morning service. We had shown up at the abandoned strip mall-turned church building-turned temporary movie theater for a screening of Reparando, a documentary film about Guatemalans who are “embracing the pain of their past to repair the next generation.”
After watching the trailer, I had planned on seeing a powerful film. What I hadn’t planned on was seeing such a moving testimony about the power of the gospel to transform lives. The documentary follows the stories of Tita and Shorty, two Christian leaders who work passionately to improve their community, La Limonada (‘lemonade’). La Limonada is an asentamiento, an urban slum community that, if I remember correctly, is home to some 60,000 people. It’s the largest slum in Central America. This is a story that needs to be heard.
Yesterday, after nine months of determined devotion, I finally finished my first entire read-through of the Old Testament. Genesis through Malachi. “In the beginning” all the way to “lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
I won’t be stopping here, of course. The New Testament is on the other side of the page, and I’m eager to get started — but it’s worth reflecting on what I’ve noticed while reading through the L. and the P.