Other Posts in the series:
Union In Christ: We're on a Mission from God
Introduction to Union in Christ
Sobering words here for any preacher: “Not everyone who hears the gospel of Christ – however skillfully proclaimed – recognizes Christ as the Word of God and believes. It is not enough just to hear about Jesus or, even like those first witnesses, to see him face to face. Something extra is required for us to recognize and respond to him as the Son of God. That ‘extra’ is the work of the Holy Spirit.” (19-20). Scary because it reaffirms the truth that we’re not in control. We may be able to wheedle and manipulate, but without the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of the congregation, there is no real effective change.
Congregations ought to take note as well. Perhaps such a realization would keep people from placing ministers on too high of a pedestal. Ministers are vessels, yes. They may be powerfully used by God…but they are not God. Churches need to transcend the personality of individual ministers to live into the truth that it is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit alone who calls the body together, strengthens the body, and empowers the body for ministry.
Purves and Achtemeier then stress the “ordinary means of grace” – the Word preached and the Sacraments observed. This emphasis is not to take away from God’s extraordinary means of grace; God continues to work in a myriad of different ways to reach hearts. Rather, this emphasis is to help us keep from majoring in the minors. Extraordinary means of grace can raise our awareness and appreciation; the ordinary means of grace deepen our understanding and conviction. The extraordinary means that God works through should always lead us back to the ordinary means of grace of Word and Sacrament.
Thus Purves and Achtemeier talk of the ministry of the word. Here I would have liked a little more clarity on the difference between Jesus as the living Word and scripture as God’s authoritative word to his creatures. The authors rightly talk about the call to obedience; they rightly talk about God’s transformational and creative power. However, I would have liked to have seen something that clearly spoke to the authority of scripture as a guide and rule for life. Don’t get me wrong – the section on the Word is good. But it lacks a certain clarity that would have been more comfortable to me.
The section on Baptism follows. The authors give a good explanation of the reformed understanding of Baptism as more than simply a sign. They wrestle with the challenging issue of the baptized who later fall away. In this section they cling closely to Calvin and various confessions of the faith. They also bring out the nuance that not only does baptism unite us to Christ, but it unites us to one another as his body. Finally, they address the issue of Baptism into Christ as an exclusive claim of Christ’s lordship. Overall, they give a good discussion that conveys the sense of what the sacrament means in the Presbyterian church.
The Lord’s Supper gets much shorter shrift – having already laid the groundwork of understanding it as a sign and seal of the covenant. It is a comparatively light treatment that avoids the controversies of the various denominations over how exactly the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. This is likely a helpful discussion to avoid because their point is to stress how the Lord’s supper does signify our union with Christ and our enjoyment of that Union together with the whole body of Christ.
More to come (I hope).
Soli Deo Gloria