Disclaimer: this is one of those work-in-progress blogs where I'm sharing some thinking mid-study. Come Sunday night to Core Group to get the final version! Anyway, I'm doing some work this morning at Coffee Tree Roasters in Pleasant Hills, studying Michael Horton's chapter on the means of grace in his systematic, "The Christian Faith." He writes:
"The new birth, as part of the new creation, is effected in the church (i.e., through its ministry of the Word), but not by the church. The individual does not give birth to him- or herself, nor does the community give birth to itself; both are born from above (Jn 3:3-5). The origin and source of the church's existence is neither the autonomous self nor the autonomous church: "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy." (Ro 9:16). Where there is God's Word and God's Spirit, there is faith, and where there is faith there is a church." (Page 752)
Couple thoughts on this:
1. I've often wondered what Jesus meant when he said, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:5) - the passage Horton references in the beginning of the quote. The Spirit part makes sense to me--but what does Jesus mean by water? I now think he's speaking of John's baptism of repentance. John's ministry gets a little lost today, because it was so historically rooted and-by design-was meant to give way to Christ's. However, in Jesus' day, John was very, very widely known, so referring to John's ministry would register with Nicodemus. And what was as the center of John's water-ministry? Repentance. I believe Jesus is affirming John's ministry of repentance then, and the timeless need for all of us to walk the road of repentance back to God. Thus "born of the water" becomes symbolic shorthand for repentance.
2. Now, take that and couple it with Paul's teaching to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14, and his insistence that their public worship gatherings focus on prophetic teaching and not languages and tongues, to avoid confusing nonbelievers (and Presybterians! - that was a joke:) He wrote, "But if an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you." New birth, new worship, begins with conviction of sin--"born of water". Conviction is when we come to the unavoidable conclusion that we've missed what God desires and requires of us. And this drives all of us--believers and nonbelievers--to our knees, pleading for God's mercy and forgiveness, and new birth for the nonbeliever.
3. Thus, as Jesus and Paul teach: New birth and Christian worship that connects the curious inquirer and skeptical nonbeliever to God only takes one road: the road of repentance. Why else would we need God? Why on earth would we dare give up control of our lives to Jesus unless something great was at stake?
4. The challenge for any church and pastor lies in bringing conviction to light in the age of non-sin. Andy Stanley recommends coming to this topic by showing how "mistake" - our cultural substitute for "sin" - is simply too light a word for the magnitude of pain and hurt we experience. (I recommend watching his second session of "Starting Point".) He tries to lay open the "secrets of the heart" by showing how we know--in our gut--that some things are not mistakes: They are far more serious and far more painful. I think that's a good path. I'm also working through a different approach to the "secrets of the heart," one that comes at the identity of sin through the universal tension we experience between wanting to be good and wanting to feel good.
I think that many of us have an unspoken belief that if we can simply get these two desires to align, if we can consistently be good and feel good, we'll have figured it out. I also think this is true, yet ultimately impossible ... so we settle for however close we can get, or we pick one desire and go for it, or we start redefining goodness and happiness according to subjective, culturally-bound, Western humanist standards.
5. Thus, I think that Christian worship that shows how, in Christ, we find the goodness we long for (but can never fully achieve) and the happiness we long for (but is constantly slipping away) is a powerful way to speak to the secrets of our heart. Worshipping God powerfully ministers to everyone in the room when Christ is present in the Word preached and music sung. As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:16, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Our teaching and our music are God's chosen means by which the word of Christ dwells in our hearts ... richly.
May all our worship be given to God-in-Three, to the Creator and Savior, to the Builder of the church, which will one day, as built upon the foundations of the prophets and apostles (Eph 2:19-21) come down out of heaven (Rev 21:14), as a bride, establishing God's epicenter (Rev 21:24-26) in the new heavens and new earth, where God is all in all (1 Cor 15:26).