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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

21st Century Challenges: Displaying Christ as the Essence of Christianity

February 4, 2015 •

The last of the four challenges I believe the church is facing in this century takes us to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian and what differentiates authentic Christianity from that which is mere imitation. Although the other three challenges mentioned in my previous posts may be open to debate as to whether or not they have a place in the top four, this one is not. I say that because it is the preeminent and recurring challenge the church has faced throughout its 2,000-year history and, indeed, predated it in the history of Israel as the church of God in Old Testament times.

Paul puts his finger on the issue in Romans when he says, ‘For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel’ (Ro 9.6). So too Christ exposes it in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation. There he makes it clear that some of them have so departed from the essence of what it means to be a Christian church their very future is in jeopardy (Rev 2,5; 3.16). There have been and always will be not only people within the church, but actual churches and even entire denominations that profess to be ‘Christian’ that have so drifted from true Christian belief and behaviour they are no longer worthy of the name.

The pervasiveness of this problem in more recent times is reflected in the so-called ‘Christ-less Christianity’ exposed by H. Richard Niebuhr who was Professor at Yale from 1931-1962. He described the liberal message of the mainline American Protestant church of his day as being: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’[1] In so doing he exposed the emptiness of so much of what presents itself as ‘Christian’.

It would be naïve to think churches or Christians who profess to be evangelical or even Reformed are immune from such distortions of the faith. Far from it: if the church at Ephesus – blessed with two years of intensive ministry from the apostle Paul (Ac 19.8-22) – could be told by the Lord Jesus a few decades later she had ‘forsaken’ her ‘first love’ (Rev 2.4), then no church or category of Christian is free from the risk.

It is clear from Christ’s warning that if a straying church does not heed his command to repent he will ‘remove its lampstand’. In the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, such churches ‘have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan’ (26.5). In all this it is important to realise the roots of such spiritual decline go back into the life of the church, even when it is at its faithful best.

How, then, should the church guard itself against this kind of drift from its moorings in Christ? It can do so in many ways, but three in particular stand out as especially important since they lie at the very heart of what shapes the life of the church corporately and of its members individually.

Maintaining Christ as the Focus of our Preaching

The apostle Paul summed up the essence of his ministry as being to preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1Co 2.2). By that he simply meant that, despite the broad scope of his preaching and teaching – in style as much as content – it was utterly and essentially Christ-centred.

The importance of making Christ the focus of faithful preaching has long been recognised in the history of homiletics, but it has meant different things in different preaching traditions. Some have taken it to mean the Bible should be read as a repository of ‘types’ of Christ; but this approach often depends more on a fertile imagination than careful exegesis.

In certain branches of the Reformed tradition, it has been seen in making biblical theology, or ‘redemptive history’, the control in handling a text. While there is no question but that this approach is a crucial factor in how we interpret any given passage, it cannot stand in isolation. When it does, it frequently leads to Christ being forced into or out of a text in a way that does not sit comfortably with the text itself or relate meaningfully to those who are listening.

A better way to understand what Paul means in this comment is to see Christ and his crucifixion as the key to everything God has revealed in his word. Indeed, if we catch anything of the weight bound up with the protoevangelion [first announcement of the gospel] in Genesis 3.15, we will realise how much the truth it contains touches every other facet of truth in the entire revelation of Scripture. All of which finds its focus in the One who is the ‘seed of the woman’ namely, Jesus Christ.

So as he is proclaimed, his voice will be heard and hearts will be drawn to him through whom alone we are restored to God.

Keeping Christ at the Centre of our Piety

In his last discourse to his disciples before he was arrested, tried and crucified Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14.16). He is our only mediator (1Ti 2.15), our great High Priest through whom alone we can come boldly before the throne of grace (He 4.14-16). He is God’s Prophet par excellence and he is the Saviour-King God promised to send to establish his kingdom in this rebel-world.

It is impossible to savingly relate to God and somehow bypass the Lord Jesus. Hence the proliferation of references in Paul’s letters to our salvation’s being ‘in’, ‘by’ and ‘through’ Christ. And what is clear from those references is the fact that we relate to Christ in this way not merely in our initiation into a saving relationship with God, but in its totality.

Paul was so profoundly conscious of the Christ-centredness of our relationship with God as Christians that he repeatedly explodes into spontaneous praise for all God has accomplished through him.

It follows, therefore, that all our piety – our devotion to God in life and worship, both privately and in public – should be marked by an ever-deepening consciousness of Christ as one in whom alone that relationship can exist.

Seeing Christ as the Key to our Praise

If what we have been saying so far is an accurate reflection of the Bible’s teaching about what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the church as the body of Christ – from the local congregation to the church universal – then its highest expression will be seen in our corporate worship as the people of God.

It will not mean our praise is ‘Christ-centred’ in the sense of him becoming the object of our worship in isolation from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. (Worship as it is defined in Scripture will always be Trinitarian.) But it will mean we will always engage in worship with the same Christ-consciousness we see in Paul and his fellow-apostles. We cannot relate to the triune God, or offer the kind of worship he will accept apart from Christ.

So, as we approach God in worship, it will always be with a consciousness of Christ as the ‘new and living way’ who gives us access to God. When we pray, even if we do not always punctuate our prayers with ‘In Jesus’ name, Amen’, we will never lose sight of the fact that it is only his name that validates our prayers. In the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs we sing, we will never tire of the fact that regardless of how many times his name appears explicitly in their words, our sung praise is meaningless if it is not ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Eph 5.17-21).

The church is the body of Christ, his followers are identified by the name of Christ, so the very essence of our shared life in God’s family is to live out and declare the glory and beauty of Christ.

[1] The Kingdom of God in America, New York: Harper & Row, 1959 [1937]


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