Emergents (enchanted by the ‘Big Tradition’), some Old Life Reformed (emphasising the institutional church and sacraments), some Federal Vision folks like Peter Leithart (with a similarly high ecclesiology), the rising influence, in the States at least, of evangelical Lutheranism (which tends to stress liturgy), our ecumenical romance with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the popular influence of Anglicans like Tom Wright, the childish drive for the novel and sensual that marks a culture bloated on narcissism, and the shallow gospel of many Western believers have converged to create the perfect liturgical storm. It is a storm threatening to swamp gospel fulness and freedom in Christ. Evangelicalism, in many quarters, is all too ready to exchange the real for rituals and regulations, the freeing for the enslaving, Christ for the childish and cultic legalistic ceremonies. Ritualistic faith is on the increase, an inevitable result of faith that fails to ‘hold fast to the head’ (the risen reigning Christ in heaven) and instead seeks religious experience and assurance in that which is sensuous and ceremonial, that which is merely ‘earthly’ (Cols 2:16-20); when the substance is lost the shadows rush in to fill the void.
My previous post (but one) protested strongly against the present evangelical love-fest with all things liturgical (liturgical calendars and its seasons such as lent). However, you may well read the post and say, ‘That’s all very well. I see the force of your argument. However, does not Christianity have its special day (the first day of the week), and its rituals (baptism, the Lord’s supper), and does it not promote fasting? Is there contradiction here?’
It is this latter question I wish to address.
a believing hermeneutic
Whenever we find what we perceive to be a tension in Scripture the way forward lies in believing faith that seeks to do justice to both statements without playing off one against the other or adopting one to the exclusion of the other.
With this hermeneutic, we may well conclude that in principle New Covenant faith radically abandons ritualistic religion reducing many religious days to one, many different rites and ceremonies to two simple acts, and regular ritually obligated fasts to the occasional and voluntary. We may not understand why any special day or ritual is left but this is a question faith need not have answered to live obediently. We do not have to fully understand a matter to be taught and guided by what is revealed.
This seems to me terribly important. Christians ought to have a humble submission to God’s Word that believes and obeys without requiring all questions answered. We must avoid the critical superiority that robs Scripture of its authority and impact by a thousand clever avoidance questions and arguments. I am not advocating a faith that does not inquire, study and seek to learn. Far from it. Godly scholarship is a gift from God. However, scholarship is not always godly, not always believing, and certainly not always submissive. Scholars, like the rest of us, too often read the Bible without that childlike trust and submission. When this is the case no amount of scholarly nous will compensate, indeed it is likely to blind; spiritual truth is spiritually discerned.
Church tradition can also be a force for good or ill. Church tradition like scholarship can be good if the tradition encourages making Scripture humbly studied the authority for faith and practice, but where the tradition makes the authority the tradition itself (whether confessional or non-confessional) spiritual blindness is inevitable. Both scholarship and tradition are powerful forces to buck, yet a believing hermeneutic must be willing to challenge both. Neither are final authorities. Only Scripture is truth.
There is only one guard against deception and that is a heart and mind subject to the Word and depending on the Spirit. This is ever the way of understanding and blessing.
sabbaths and sunday, law days and love days
We can, however, go a little further in addressing the apparent tension expressed above by noting some basic differences between OT regulations and NT practices.
We should remember that the nature of religion that allows man to save himself (as the Mosaic Law did) is to focus on what is external and ritualistic. Such religion is typically full of rules and regulation, things to do. The Mosaic Covenant (this do and live) was certainly like this. The Sabbath was the key sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 31:13) and exemplifies this principle. So important was the Sabbath that it was enshrined as part of the Ten Words in the tablets of stone. Remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy was a vital component of covenantal obedience. It was a regulation carefully drafted with various activities proscribed. Failure to observe it was punishable by death (Ex 31) and honouring it was the way of life (Isa 58:13,14). We should not miss the fact that Sabbath observance was a legal obligation with much hanging on it.
However, when we come to the NT and the day Christians observe, the atmosphere is quite different. Firstly, of course, Christians do not observe the Sabbath. It simply will not do when Sabbatarians, in an attempt to claim Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, argue for one day in seven. The Sabbath is not any one out of seven, it is specifically and intentionally the seventh day. It is the day when God rested having created for six. There is simply no suggestion in the NT that the Christian day is a Sabbath, in fact the opposite is the case (Col 2:16). The very choosing of another day clearly signalled a decisive change in covenantal relationship since the Sabbath was the covenantal sign of the OC (Ex 31).
But what of the Christian day of worship – the first day of the week? Is this enshrined in a statute or written on a tablet of stone? Is there a command that Sunday must be remembered and treated as holy? Is it defined as a day of rest? Is there a sanction of death on those who fail to observe it? Clearly not. Why do Christian’s worship on a Sunday? We worship on a Sunday because that is the day of Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, after his death the resurrected Christ appeared only to his disciples on Sundays (the first day of the week). It would appear that the Holy Spirit so impressed upon the young church the association between the resurrection of Jesus and the first day of the week that it quickly became the day of Christian gathering and worship. Soon it was simply known as ‘the Lord’s day’ (Rev 1:10). Love for the Lord had set it apart.
My point is, it was no mere legal regulation or ordinance that gave the first day of the week its significance but love for the one who was identified as Lord in resurrection on this day. In this way the Spirit impressed on the heart of the infant church the appropriateness of Sunday for Christian worship. The Sabbath signalled the end of the old creation: the first day of the week the beginning of the new creation. The Sabbath was for man, the first day of the week is for the Lord. Sunday is not for Christians a day of rest but a day of worship. Let me repeat, Christians worship on a Sunday not from duty, not from fear of judgement, and not to gain merit. They gather out of love for their Lord.
Can I observe in passing, this is why the Lord’s Day observance society is so wrong-headed. The Lord’s Day was never intended to be foisted on society. It was intended for Christians and not the world. It was a day when believers were drawn together to worship out of love for their Lord, not for unbelievers to observe by legal enforcing. The whole premise is wrong. We so easily lapse from grace into legalism.
These two days, it seems, illustrate the different principles that guide the different covenants, the difference between the legal precepts of the old and the gracious privileges of the new, in particular, those of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
baptism and the lord’s Supper
We speak of these as ‘ordinances’. The word means ‘an authoritative command or order’. Yet I wonder whether this word is best suited. For, yet again, juridical language is entirely absent. Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper may be better termed privileges than ordinances. In both cases we receive from the Lord. In both cases, the emphasis is far less on what we ought to do than what grace has accomplished. Both indicate blessings bestowed.
In our baptism we are carried through waters of judgement and death (safely in Christ our ark) and emerge to the privilege of a new world and life the other side of the deluge. Sin is gone in the judgement of the waters and we stand before God in resurrection with no more conscience of sins (2 Pet 3:21). Baptism is rich with the symbolism of grace; it brings us through judgement into a new creation. (In terms of command, the preponderance of verses focus on the command to baptise rather than the command to be baptised.)
In the Lord’s Supper, again we receive. We sit at the table of the Lord and eat what he provides. He is the spiritual host. And he is the spiritual food (specifically in his death). The focus is what is graciously given. Again there is no legal or juridical context. The context when the disciples are first introduced to the Supper could not be more intimate and familial. Christ’s love for his own and his desire to fellowship with them is the atmosphere in which it is inaugurated (Luke 22:15). His love is on full display. He washes their feet, feeds them, teaches them, comforts and prepares them for the coming hours and days; having loved his own which were in the world he loves them to the end.
The Lord’s Supper is a love feast. It is no formal ritual with eating a legal duty. It is not rigidly confined by rules and regulations. Nor is it elaborate or ceremonial. The meal is the essence of simplicity. It is simply bread and wine and we are free in when we eat it and where we eat it (Cf Acts 2). What matters is the state of heart in which we eat (1 Cor 11). We should eat realising that it is a meal symbolising the oneness of God’s people in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). We eat out of love for the Lord and a desire to fellowship with him and his people. Any thought of mere obligation to a rite or ordinance fails to grasp what it is about; ritualism and relationship are mutually exclusive.
Much more of course could be said regarding these gospel privileges, however, my concern is simply to underline that both, like the Lord’s day, arise in a context of grace and relationship not law and ritual and both reflect the context in which they arise. Be suspicious of every attempt to squeeze ritualistic drama from these privileges for the less we appreciate their inner spiritual realities the more we will make of their externalities.
We should also note in this context that neither has any intrinsic ‘magical’ saving quality. They have no sacramental value of themselves. Being baptised and taking the Lord’s Supper does not confer grace or guarantee spiritual security. 1 Cor 10 makes this very clear; it is possible to be both baptised and regularly take the Lord’s Supper yet be destroyed by God.
Paul is quite clear that denying ourselves bodily needs and provisions is no virtue in itself. The Mosaic Covenant (Judaism) made numerous ascetic ritualistic demands on the people. Not so the NT. In fact, it explicitly condemns ascetic impositions (Col 2:20-23) describing such teachings as the teaching of ‘deceiving spirits’ and ‘doctrines of demons’ (1 Tim 4:1-5). Real self-denial, we discover, is not a denial of the body but a denial of the flesh (our Adamic human nature opposed to God). Yet, fasting is something the NT assumes God’s people may do from time to time (Matt 9:15) normally depriving ourselves of some legitimate bodily need (usually food).
What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? The first thing to be said is that in the New Covenant fasting is always voluntary (whether by an individual or a group). There is no imposed season for fasting. There is no rule that tells us we must fast. Indeed there is no injunction to fast. Yet Jesus assumes his people will fast and Paul tells us he often fasted. We are not told when to fast, where to fast, how to fast, or how long to fast (though it should not be of such a time that Satan can take advantage Cf 1 Cor 7: 5). Again the difference between law and gospel becomes apparent.
If someone fasts it will be because the Holy Spirit prompts him or her to do so. Such prompting appears to be definite and in lieu of a specific task or purpose. Thus Jesus fasts before facing the temptation of Satan and the beginning his public ministry (Matt 4:2). Some of the church at Antioch fasted as they were considering the future strategy of expansion. When Paul and Barnabas were considering who to appoint as elders in various churches they fasted (Acts 13:2, 14:23). It seems too that fasting was generally accompanied by prayer (Lk 2:37, 5:33). The point is this was a time of intense seeking the mind of God and humbling oneself before the Lord. It is to our shame that most of us know little of this today. Prayer and fasting seem to be linked with spiritual power. Perhaps we see here a reason for our spiritual weakness.
For our purposes, the main point to note is that fasting is not an institutionalised ritual that is part of an imposed church calendar but is an activity that arises out of a burden placed on the heart by the Holy Spirit. How easily our legalistic hearts institutionalise and ossify activities that should flow from freedom in the Spirit. The value of a fast does not lie in the hunger for food it creates but the hunger for God that created it.
The heart of Christianity is a living relationship with Christ by faith. We live in union with him, rooted and grounded in him, and nourished by him (Cols 2). Everything that ritualises, institutionalises and mechanises this should be treated with suspicion. How ready we are to make a ritual or a law out of what is intended to arise from the heart freely as it seeks God’s face. How easily we turn from life in the Spirit to the deadening letter, from privilege to performance, from relationship to ritual, from the unveiled to the veiled, from the spiritual to the sensual, from grace to works.
Let’s make it our aim to discover the true grace of God and having discovered it, to stand fast in it.