June 14, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 17:20 in the audio file.
Or, For the Sake of the Faith of God’s Elect
I am old enough to remember when my beard was long and when we used to see each other like this every Sunday. We are going to have stories to tell after this is all over, and though I can count on a calendar that we spent twelve Lord’s Day in abnormal ways, the time has a calculation of its own. In the history books maybe it will be called BC and AP, Before Coronavirus and After Panic.
I’ve read and listened to and considered a lot about what was and what will be normal. It’s been a popular narrative to hear people say that this time, when everything has been shut down, has given them great opportunity to reflect on whether or not all the things they were doing were necessary. So many say they’ve got things they plan to change. And that’s fine, though I can say that when I tried out that narrative for myself, it fit like an Elsa costume for a five year-old (which is to say, it didn’t fit well in a couple ways). I like what our family, our church, our school were doing, and it was all worth doing.
That “normal” was not passive or easy. But that normal allowed for more choosing of what could be disrupted for sake of making progress. A solid foundation allows you to try out new furniture arrangements, or non-structural remodeling, not concerned that the floor is going to cave in. “Stay on the couch, save lives.” That’s another narrative that I’d like to shut the book on.
As for the church, knowing what we knew then, I don’t know if we would have done too much different. Though I do think “next time,” or “this fall,” we’ll be looking for some additional, better, more trustworthy information before shutting it all down. The lockdown has shown both the blessings of not having our own building (and mortgage payments) in crazy economy, and also the limitations of not having a building, for sake of services and other meetings. We don’t expect not to suffer, to have it all convenient for Christians, but also our worship and our ministry to one another beyond screens is essential. It’s worth building, it’s worth defending.
That said, we have a lot to be thankful for. The flock has done well. We were mostly well equipped, for thinking and for unity, for this last season. We have some cautious saints, some conflicted, and others more combative, but I didn’t see our people biting and devouring one another. The time to build an ark is before the rain, and our Kuyperian efforts to see all of life as lived before the Lord Christ have helped us stay afloat.
In these days it is also clear how powerful narrative is. People want a story to explain what is happening, and regularly will choose the narrative over facts or data. Even the statement “We will do everything based on science” is a story, and it often puts a cover over the fact that the story is largely, or even completely, make-believe.
I would like to remind us of our narrative. It is one that helps to explain what we see and to encourage us to endure. We have a story in which Jesus came into ruthless and capricious government, into ethnic conflict (in His day between Jews and Gentiles), into sickness and disease, to give eternal life.
It’s a narrative of truth. It’s a narrative that accords with godliness, with nerve to stand apart from unrighteousness and in good works. It is a narrative of hope. So many of man’s stories focus on how we’re going to die, this focuses on eternal life. We will return to our normal study of Revelation soon enough. But as God’s people, keep remembering our narrative, the good news we’ve heard and are living in.
Many people’s lives are empty, meaningless, and frustrated. It’s because the only thing they have to live for is themselves. Of course, living for oneself is not the fabulous life because no one is really that fabulous. There is no bigger picture, no greater cause, and life is nothing more than what we see in the mirror.
Most people figure out that they’re not that fantastic somewhere along the line so they start searching for meaning elsewhere. They buy stuff and go places and read magazine articles and join groups hoping that something will offer some relief, respite, and significance to life.
In his book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, David Wells wrote:
Postmoderns are no longer actors in a vast and unfolding drama. They are actors in their own petit dramas. We are but the pieces of confetti that flutter down, each on its own erratic course, none joined to the others but each making its own solitary way through the air. (250)
This is part of the reason why the protests are so large, why the BLM movement has gained so much ground, because here are big stories that claim to provide something bigger to be a part of.
Christians, however, know there is a bigger picture. And Kuyperian Calvinists in particular, believe that there is actually one, eternal, universal story–the metanarrative–that explains everything in the world and that explains where everything is going. We know the narrative that sheds light on every event in history, every physical phenomenon in our bodies, accounts for good and evil, and reveals why some are in power and why others are oppressed by that power.
Our story explains it all and where it is all going and the purpose behind it all. We know that this is a really great story, in fact, it’s an eternal love story.
So what is our “bigger picture,” the Christian metanarrative, God’s love story? Who are the principal characters? And where do we learn about our story?
The last question is easiest for us to answer. Our story has been revealed in God’s book: the Bible. But surprisingly, many who read the same Book reach different conclusions. For example, the key players in the grand story are not the ones billed in the church over the last hundred years or so. We’ve been mislead to think that men are at center stage, but that’s not where they belong. For that matter, the plot is not about the salvation of sinners primarily, though that is certainly part of the story line. It is an eternal love story, but not like we’ve been accustomed to think.
The amazing story is first and foremost about the glory of the triune God. The three Persons of the Trinity have the title roles. And the entire plot revolves around the infinite, eternal love of the Father for His Son. The biblical panorama puts God on display, not men. Too often we reverse it.
Someone might push back, “But what about John 3:16? God so loved the world that He sent His Son.” There is no question that God loves the world, but His love for the world is not His first love. The Father’s love for the Son came first and provides the strategic motivation not only for creation but also for redemption.
I remember the first time I ever read the story this way. In the summer of 1996 a friend of mine gifted me with John MacArthur’s commentary on Titus. (You can also read an updated and extended account in MacArthur’s forward to A Long Line of Godly Men.) It was normal for me in those days to read a commentary like any other book, so I started on page one. And it wasn’t too long before my understanding of the Christian narrative got a major adjustment. The eyes of my heart were opened and my worldview reshaped in Paul’s greeting.
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; (Titus 1:1-3)
Verse 2 includes an intriguing phrase, namely that God promised eternal life before the ages began (ESV). The NAS translates the same phrase, “long ages ago,” but that is a bit misleading. That might give the impression that God made this promise of eternal life a long time ago in the Old Testament. And while there is no doubt that God revealed His promise of eternal life in the OT to Abraham and Moses and David and the prophets, that is not the meaning of the phrase.
The original phrase, πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων, refers to the time prior to creation and therefore previous to the Old Testament. That’s why the KJV translates it, “before the world began,” and even the NIV gets one right with “before the beginning of time.” The promise was made when the world did not yet exist and during the time before time.
So that prompts the pivotal question: to whom did God make this promise of eternal life? The world did not yet exist. Men had not been created. So who existed with God before the ages began? The answer is His Son! All three Persons of the Trinity live eternally and this promise of eternal life was a promise the Father made to the Son. Obviously the Father wasn’t promising the Son that the Son Himself would have eternal life, but the Father promised that a group from every tribe, tongue, and nation would have eternal life through and for the Son.
Let’s investigate this promise a bit more. What was happening before the world was created? The Trinity was writing the story of salvation in the eternal counsels, and the promise of eternal life included election.
who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, (2 Timothy 1:9)
God called us, believers, before the ages began (the exact same Greek phrase as Titus 1:2). In fact, He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:4-5). In eternity past the Father was choosing a people and promising to redeem them as a gift for His Son.
But this is a costly gift, and the purchase involved Christ’s death on the cross. To fulfill His part of this eternal covenant, the Son agreed to deliver the elect by His own blood.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)
So before the world or mankind was ever created, the Father chose to express His great love by promising His Son a redeemed people who would love and serve and glorify the Son forever. These were hand selected by the Father for that very purpose, which is why their names are written in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8, 17:8).
And again, the Son also has a responsibility in this covenant: to shed His blood on their behalf. The Son agreed to lay down His life, to die as a substitute for their sin. He consecrated His life for all whom the Father gave Him (John 17:19).
This is the precise group of people that Jesus referred to as His mission. For example, in John 6 He identified this group as His purpose for coming.
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:39)
Before time, the Father elected a group of people to give to His Son as a love gift, as an expression of His infinite love for His Son. The Father makes the promise and does the choosing. The Son gives His life for theirs.
Now this is a narrative! This is a big, eternal, love story. But the story is not first or foremost about the love of the Shepherd for the sheep, though that is true and historic. This is a love story about the eternal, infinite love between the Father and the Son. MacArthur puts it this way:
It is astonishing to consider that those who are redeemed are caught up in this magnificent eternal covenant that two members of the Godhead have made with each other in order to demonstrate the infinite scope of their love for each other. (Titus, p.12)
This is the kind of thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. This narrative explains the purpose for everything. Better than that, this is the kind of thing that guarantees we’ll be spending every morning for a trillion times a trillion years with Christ if we are one of His sheep.
In our (perhaps well-intentioned) enthusiasm to see others trust Christ and have this blood-bought eternal life, we tend to minimize the God parts, the eternal parts, and the sovereign parts because we’re afraid people won’t be interested in a story where they aren’t at the center. But they’ve been at the center, and it didn’t get them anywhere. We try to evangelize and grow churches by telling men that they are the reason, the center, and the goal of God’s work. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
Men can get a man-centered story anywhere. What the lost can’t get is the truth. What they can’t get is something bigger and more meaningful then their little life-dramas. They need to hear the church proclaiming the truth of the gospel, the eternal love story of redemption. People are parched for it, even if they don’t know what exactly they’re thirsty for. May God help us to remember our narrative, and tell the good news to others.
Were you ever a part of a Zoom meeting that tried to sing? It was hysterically bad. It’s hard to get people to sing in sync and in harmony even when in the same room. But as believers, you have been chosen as a choir by the Father for the Son, and we will join our voices together perfectly at the appointed time. As we worship, sometimes out of tune or out of sync until then, look to God for the gifts of perseverance and hope.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6, ESV)