Younger Evangelicals and a Restlessness for Revival
Revival is brewing in our land. Younger evangelicals across America are digging deeply into the things of God. As evidenced by the insatiable hunger for God-centered theology, expressed by John Piper and J. I. Packer, among others, college students and twentysomethings are gravitating toward the writings of Puritan divines such as Jonathan Edwards, Richard Baxter and John Bunyan. We are tired of treading theological water. It's time to go deeper. It's time to recover a sense of the sovereignty of God.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Baptists across the board emphasized missions to the exclusion of serious doctrinal teaching. As a result, a generation of children has grown up in the church without receiving solid, biblical, exegetical instruction. Across the board, Baptist sermons were typically topical in structure, Christian camp leaders merely scratched the theological surface, and the holiest thing we talked about in Sunday school was the white-powdered doughnut that drew us there.
I am a product of this phenomenon, a twenty-six-year-old Baptist who is excited about the revival breaking out across college campuses and church youth groups. There is a new breed of Baptists, a younger generation who is learning from Baptist heroes like Charles Spurgeon and William Carey. We are returning to substantial study of God and a serious inquiry of personal holiness. With vigorous enthusiasm, we are wiping off our spiritual milk mustaches and helping ourselves to a tender cut of Christological cuisine.
A Higher View of God
A. W. Tozer, a prophetic writer and thinker of the last century, wrote that religion rises only as high as its view of God. A low view of God leads to a low view of worship. My generation was always told that we were special. If we picked up a spoon, we were special. If we went to the bathroom, we were special. It didn't matter what our IQ or grades were, we were special anyway. Girls grew up thinking they were princesses; boys thought they were princes. When we were thirsty we screamed. When we were hungry we yelled. Every person existed to rock our cribs and kiss our heads. The whole world revolved around us--our needs, our wants and our rights. Since royalty gets whatever it wants, we became convinced that we were the center of the universe.
As we matured physically, our spiritual lives remained in infancy. We thought we were the center of our salvation, the highlight of our hymns, and how lucky of God to serve us. But the more we glean from Puritan works like Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and Baxter's The Reformed Pastor, we learn that the world doesn't revolve around us any more than the sun revolves around the moon. Before we were ever created, God found pleasure in Himself. He was completely complete without us and our view of God is changing--we have thought too lowly of Him all along.
Worship is not about us. It's not about the love we feel when we love the way we love God. Yes, we are important to God, important enough to die for. But younger evangelicals are reacting against a man-centered approach to ministry. It's no wonder seventy percent of college students drop out of church during their freshman year and join college ministries like University Christian Fellowship and Reformed University Fellowship. We don't have to make Jesus sexy anymore. Against the backdrop of a church that looks like the world in order to draw the world into the church, we are ready to embrace the true identity of Christianity as expressed by our interaction with the world and our separation from the world.
Younger evangelicals are discovering that true worship is about God--His passions and interests. It's about His power and pleasure. Reality exists for Him. We exist for Him. And when our lives are tuned to His praise, when we readjust our thinking, we find freedom in focusing our gaze on something greater than ourselves. It is a dangerous thing to tempt a powerful God, and we are learning to love the God who revolves around Himself.
When Christianity first took root in the first century, pagan temples in Alexandria and other cities used technology to bring people into the shrines. Sophisticated machines that made thunder and opened doors dazzled the world and instilled fear into the people for the gods. But Christians have no need for these things. Jesus once said, "And I, as I am lifted up from the earth, will attract everyone to Me" (John 12:32). The problem that Paul experienced in Corinth, and our problem today in the Baptist church is that Jesus Christ is not lifted up. We build Him gyms, throw Him concerts, but fail to exalt His name. He isn't trusted as the marvelous magnet and in many churches he's still lying in the tomb, wrapped in linens and waiting to be warmed.
But the Scriptures paint Him in another light. Jesus Christ is the great warrior who grabbed the dragon's tail and slammed him down to earth. He is the loving shepherd who tears wild bears apart when they threaten His flock. And unlike Samson, there are no Kryptonite scissors to drain His power. When John was on the Isle of Patmos, he saw a mighty vision of Christ: "Then I saw heaven open wide--and oh! a white horse and its rider. The rider, named Faithful and True, judges and makes war in pure righteousness. His eyes are a blaze of fire, on his head many crowns" (Revelation 19:11-12). Christ is the Mighty Rock of Ages who pulls us into the center of salvation. He governs the actions of our lives and everything on the syllabus of salvation happened just the way He wrote it. Younger evangelicals are developing a higher view of God and we are learning that the most seeker friendly strategy a church can implement is the elevation and exaltation of Jesus Christ.
Another Look at Sovereignty
What does it mean for God to be sovereign? I asked a youth group this question once and was shocked by the response. A guy in the back of the room said, "It means that God can do whatever the h__ He wants." I grinned. "Yeah, that's one way to put it." But he had a point. The owner has the right to throw away the inventory, and God wouldn't have lost an ounce of glory if the Great Flood had destroyed everyone, including Noah. But God in His grace became the inventory to purchase our lives with His blood. The Creator became the creation, and according to Revelation 13:8, in the mind of God Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross before the world was spinning on its axis. The veil of the Temple that once separated us from God's presence has been torn in two, and both prostitute and peasant have access into the Holy of Holies.
Paul told the Corinthian church, "In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, He brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation" (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). My own spiritual life often smells like a rat and not a rose. But in His love, God accepts our praise and hears our prayers. He accomplishes His perfect plan in spite of our rebellion. God is the author, editor and publisher of our lives. In Him we are written, re-written and distributed to a world that needs the good news of the gospel of Christ. But a day is coming when the Lord will reclaim His library books and Christ will return to earth, not as a Servant but as a King.
The gospel is an offensive animal. It tears apart pride and tells us we are fundamentally corrupted. It shreds independence, rips open chest cavities and replaces hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. It even slices through skulls and exchanges worldly minds for minds of Christ.
Every Christian is a theologian. We don't need a beard, a pipe and a library to think about God. In fact, everyone has a theology. Some people think God doesn't exist--that's a theology. Others think if He did exist we couldn't know Him--that's a theology too. Every action is based on a theology. At the end of the day, our theology of God exists for our relationship with God. Our thoughts about God lead us into a deeper worship of God. And a day is coming when the Great King will separate wheat from chaff, sheep from goats, saved from lost. But those who love God with head and heart will be ushered into eternity.
When I was a young boy, my father taught me to play racquetball. Now racquetball is a game of angles, speed and wit. Being a scrawny kid, I walked onto the court and no matter how many times I swung at the ball, young David could not defeat Goliath. With great patience, my dad served the ball. I swung and missed, swung and missed--hundreds of times--swinging and missing. One day, perhaps by sheer coincidence, I actually hit the ball back. It shocked me and produced a large purple welt on my father's thigh.
The older I grew, the harder he served the ball. What once was soft now was slammed, and I continued to swing and miss, swing and miss. The game got faster, the shots trickier, and I progressed in my skill. Little did I know that all my dad had to do was turn up the heat and I would be left in the dust. These days, his arthritis has shown favor on me and I'm paying him back for all those embarrassing years of ball whiffing. But every once in a while I'll see a twinkle in his eye, and he'll reduce me to a five-year-old boy swinging a racket that was as big as me.
It's good to have a father who controls the game. I remember seeing a painting in a European museum where God was playing the devil at a game of chess. God was apparently losing, the devil had a huge smile on his skeleton face, and the title of the painting was "Check-mate." I stood there, puzzled by the picture. Could it be true? Is God susceptible to defeat?
Satan thought so. Pilate had Jesus beaten, flogged and tortured. In the ultimate game of chess, it looked like God was losing. As Christ embraced the nails, the crown of thorns and the crucifixion, God bent down. He bent down not with a spirit of sweetness, but with a whip of wrath. No dove descended that day when the Father crushed His Son for our sins. Hell was unleashed on Him. But what the devil didn't know was that God had one more move. And on the third day, Jesus Christ was raised to life and the devil was laid to rest, and with His holy hand God used His one more move to prove his all time love.
That is why we can sing with Martin Luther, "The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him." The monster we fight is a crippled creature. He is a vampire without fangs, a werewolf without claws, and a dragon without fire. We shouldn't flinch at him because Christ has crushed the head of the serpent, as predicted in Genesis 3:15. While his body still slithers, the creature has a massive concussion and will one day be thrown into the lake of fire.
Chopsticks and Praise Songs
Years ago, I attended a Baptist church in my city for the first time. Several friends told me that it was the hip, new church in the area, so I went to see it for myself. As I sang the praise music, I noticed a theme threaded throughout the service--the songs had nothing to do with God. Some of the tunes described the Christian life; others contained verses about struggles and temptations. Still others included a "pull yourself up by the boot straps" message. It was a Sunday morning I'll never forget because I was struggling with a sin I couldn't shake. So there I stood, singing songs about how I can pull myself out of my problems while my soul was craving a worship experience that would take the focus off my abilities and placed it on God's glory. Only God could lift me from my mire and yet I left the sanctuary that day disgusted and dirty from digging in my own self-centeredness.
Chopsticks are made from many materials--bamboo, plastic, bone, jade and ivory, and it's been rumored that silver chopsticks were used in the Chinese imperial palace for the detection of poison in the Emperor's meal. If the food was poisoned, the chopsticks would blacken when the poison encountered the silver. And someone usually lost his life because of it. Christian music needs a Chinese chopstick test.
These days, many new hymns are being written for the church. Contemporary Christian music and praise choruses are springing up in churches throughout the world and are being used in corporate worship. While hymns are generally sung about God, and praise songs are sung to God, we must remember that Christian music will always be changing. It's beat, rhythm and melody may alter, but there are some things that should never be abandoned--its faithfulness to biblical doctrines, theology and God-centeredness. These are the non-negotiables of Christian music and must be written in Sharpie. Other elements can be sketched in pencil.
While many Baptist churches are abandoning traditional hymns in hopes of reaching the new generation, ironically, the new generation is going back to the classics. We see through the repetitious emptiness of theologically absent choruses and are craving the old stuff, the Christ-oriented stuff. We are learning that worship is giving to God what He has already given to us. We give Him our heads and hands--we know Him, love Him and serve Him. But when worship revolves around us, when music has little if any God-centeredness, our praise becomes unbalanced. We become a two-headed monster, exalting God with one breath while applauding ourselves with the other. This makes us spiritually schizophrenic and with Paul we confess, "Yes, I'm full of myself--after all, I've spent a long time in sin's prison. What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise" (Romans 7:15). When we worship ourselves, sinless Jekyll becomes unholy Hyde.
Music finds its primary purpose in the worship of God. I'm a sucker for all kinds of music--blues, jazz, classical and some Reggae here and there. And I love all the uses of music--entertainment, relaxation and therapy. But music finds ultimate significance in the adoration of its creator. While the psalmist does say, "Sing God a brand-new song" (Psalm 96:1), there's nothing wrong with the old ones. Some of the greatest hymns of the faith were written when the United States was still in diapers. In 1739, Charles Wesley wrote these words:
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies;
Who can explore this strange design?
In vain the first-born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
He left his father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race;
Tis mercy all, immense and free;
O praise my God, it reaches me.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Behold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
This song packs a powerful theological punch. It is loaded with spiritual truths and insights into the life we have in Jesus. It takes seriously the depravity of humanity and the sovereign power of Christ to free us from spiritual slavery. Just because a hymn is old does not mean it should be discarded for it, too, was once new. On the flip side, just because a hymn is new doesn't mean it's worth singing. The quality of a song is found in its content. Examine this modern hymn, "In Christ Alone," written by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty:
In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all--
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone, who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For every sin on Him was laid--
Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine--
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
No guilt in life, no fear in death--
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home--
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.
This song doesn't just scratch the surface. In this hymn Jesus Christ is the theme. His saving work on the cross is adored and His power to keep us from hell magnified. Songs like these revere the God who sits highly upon His throne while mortals are kept humbly before His feet.
Return to Mystery
Of primary importance to a renewed interest in theology is an honest look at original sin, radical grace and childlike faith. The apostle Paul said that before we were made alive in Christ we were dead in our sins (Romans 5:10). We were zombies, dead and decaying yet active and hostile. But Christ engaged us in strange combat. We swung at God, our hollow eyes fixed on Him. We screeched in His face and wrapped our arms around Him, throwing fists at His head. Though God could have put bullets in our brains (that's the only way to kill a zombie), he chose to remove the obstacles between us. Day by day, hour by hour, he opened our affections and pinned our elbows, swirling us around with beautiful force. Like a kung fu master, He wrapped us up.
C. S. Lewis was right, "Every story of conversion is a story of blessed defeat." For years we struggled against God, denying His existence, avoiding His churches and hating His followers. But at last, when our own strength failed, our numb limbs began to tingle and our hearts were strangely warmed. And God gives grace to His gruesome monsters.
Even after we are saved, we grapple with God. We arm ourselves with pride, selfishness and disobedience. We purchase the metal of materialism and coat ourselves with the shield of independence. Yet God is no stranger to combat and His Holy Spirit convicts us with arrows that find the weak places in our armor. Christians are torn creatures. While our bodies decay, God has awakened another force within us, a passion for purity. We fight our old temptations with new desires--desires for holiness. It is this quest that urges us to know Him fully, serve Him faithfully and love Him with every ounce of our existence.
As we engage the Scriptures, we grapple with its truths. How do we reconcile the differences between the Gospels and the apparent contradictions throughout the Scripture? How can Jesus be in heaven, yet we eat His flesh and drink His blood on earth? How long was Jesus really in the tomb? Did Judas hang himself or did his intestines explode at the bottom of a cliff?
Not long ago, western civilization prided itself on its scientific knowledge. Darwin's new theory hit the press, railways were being laid throughout the world, and electricity sparked great ideas in the minds of those like Thomas Edison. The Christian community basked in this newly enlightened age and sought to understand the Bible in those terms. While great energy was spent exploring the Old and New Testaments, biblical scholars attempted to view God's Word through scientific lenses. They reduced the miracles and mysteries of the Scripture to folklores and myths because they couldn't reproduce or understand them.
Karl Barth (1886-1968), one of the most prominent theologians of the twentieth century, was schooled in this system of thought and violently opposed it. At the end of his life, after years of preaching and teaching, Barth was asked to summarize his theology in once sentence. After thinking for a moment, he said, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tell me so."
There are still remnants of the historical-critical movement in our universities and college campuses. Professors, trained in disemboweling the Bible, divorce personal devotion to Christ from academic biblical scholarship. In Baptist colleges across America, they plant seeds of doubt in the minds and hearts of those seeking the true purpose and meaning of Scripture. Modern scholarship, however, is showing that such thinking is exhausted, dehydrated and outdated.
Nevertheless, we do grapple with the mysteries of the Bible. Did a great fish really eat Jonah? How could Jonah have survived three days surrounded by sin and seaweed? When I was a kid I really couldn't figure this out. I thought it was just a fairytale like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But I remember a Baptist preacher saying to me, "Christian, do you believe God could make a whale?" I nodded. "And do you think God could make a man?" Again I nodded. "Then why can't God put them together when He wants to?"
For years I've pondered his words. If I really believed that God can work His providential power and create matter from nothing, I should have no problem when He wants to bend His rules. God is not limited even by His own ordinances and when I question God's ability to perform miracles, my own salvation comes into question. For that is the greatest miracle of all.
In college, I often struggled to reconcile the differences among the four Gospels. I studied every text that seemed contradictory and read endless commentaries. But one day I remember walking through the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, Holland. Van Gogh was the son of a preacher and an expert of impressionism (Impressionism is a style of art that portrays reality through the expression of light). He mixed colors in fascinating ways and reproduced landscapes with great skill. As I walked by his colorful work, I passed fields of wheat crunched beneath clouds of pink and purple. I saw tree trunks twisting from their roots to branches that forked the swirling sky. And I remember examining a series of paintings. The subject remained the same, but each scene was painted during a different time of day. For example, a rock painted in the morning looked very different in the evening. The scenery of these paintings didn't change, but the shadows, colors and hues did.
All four Gospel writers painted the life of Jesus Christ in different lights. In their own unique ways they emphasized different aspects of His life because they were writing to different audiences. Matthew paints Christ in the morning. He begins with a long genealogy and birth story. Mark paints Christ in the afternoon. He takes no time to sketch the early years, but hits the ground running at the white-hot height of Christ's ministry. Luke paints Christ in the evening. It is the longest Gospel, coupled with Acts, meticulously portraying the Last Supper and the evening in the Garden of Gethsemane. John paints Christ in the midnight. When all the world was dark with sin and doubt, Jesus pierced the blackness and showed Himself as the light and hope of humanity. On its own, each Gospel appears isolated and disconnected, but when viewed together, as the Holy Spirit delivered them to us, they represent a multidimensional picture of the life of Jesus, a three dimensional portrait of His nature. And such a work of art demands our response.
Younger evangelicals take seriously the primacy of Scripture--the greatest love story ever told. It is a divine valentine licked, sealed and stamped by the power of the Holy Spirit and it speaks with great clarity to us today. "I have loved you, says the Lord" (Malachi 1:2, NIV). What kind of love is this? It is a former love, a past tense love, a love that saw every sin, every lie. Yet it is also a frequent and a future love, continually disciplining and washing us in the light of His glory and grace.
Okay, a confession--I am hungry for hardware, starving for software and completely intoxicated with upgrading. Maybe it's my high-tech generation. Maybe it's the media's fault for whetting my appetite with gigabytes and gadgets. I know I'm not alone--young Baptists are becoming quite the bloggers of late. Perhaps it's a power issue. The more stuff we own, the more control we have over life. The better the G.P.S, the calmer we feel in the middle of an empty interstate. Whatever the reason, the result is undeniable--we are digitizing ourselves to death.
But there is something spiritual, something biblical about downgrading in an upgrading culture. Our society does not look favorably on childlike faith, a faith that closes its eyes and falls into the invisible arms of God. Yet, our belief in the sovereignty of God to create and recreate us sustains our hope and keeps our faith simple enough for God to enjoy.
Christians are God's boomerangs. He formed us in the womb, throws us in the world, and bends us back to Himself. Since our pilgrimages start and end with God, He becomes the apple of our eyes. He is the center of our thoughts, deeds, music and worship. When we fall in love with God, sin no longer satisfies us. We are given taste buds for a different kind of food--a heavenly kind. And we are no longer satisfied with kissing our Creator with the veil between our lips.
A Gory Gospel
My generation is a product of postmodernism. We are constantly taught that if there is truth, we cannot perfectly know it. Relativism is also the god of our age. It says that your interpretation of truth is no better than mine. Still worse is deconstructionism that says, "It's not that I don't know truth; it's that I just don't care." These three mindsets are not only tolerated in our culture, they are taught. Ironically, the only thing that's not tolerated is the person who claims that there is only one way to find absolute truth.
But younger evangelicals are standing for the truth found in Christ even though it's not popular. The current landscape of Christianity is rolling with all kinds of deviations of biblical truth. Younger evangelicals are swimming in a sea of competing thoughts. We are resisting the enticements of prosperity gospel preachers, emergent church leaders, and higher critical scholars who demythologize the Scriptures. We are upholding the tenants of biblical orthodoxy and are recovering a heightened view of Christ's atonement.
In his book Virtual Faith, Tom Beaudoin suggested that the baby boomer generation has been very quick to gloss over the crucifixion of Christ and go straight to the victory and hope of the resurrection. Younger evangelicals, however, are slowing down to re-examine the suffering of Christ. We want to study the reality of the brutality. We seek a closer look at the nails that split the God-Man's tendons. And by examining the suffering of Christ, we discover how to be comforted in ours.
God became a baby to suffer with and for us--the Shepherd became the sheep. He didn't have to do this. He could have abandoned our earth after we sinned and chosen another planet on which to accomplish His will. But with arms wide open He embraced the nails, the beatings and the bruises. For our sake He "knew pain firsthand" (Isaiah 53:3). Like a sponge, He absorbed the wrath that our sins provoked. And in the middle of His storm, when the sun had to look the other way, Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned Me" (Matthew 27:46)?
Several years ago I took a pilgrimage to Romania. After a long drive through the Carpathian Mountains near Oradea, I entered a large cave filled with bats. It was dark and musty place, but there was enough light for me to see the stalagmites growing on the floor. They were narrow and tall, like fingers reaching up to touch the stalactites on the ceiling. Their dripping was eerie, but I inquired about the phenomenon. When mineralized water, mainly calcium carbonate, trickles from cavities in the ceiling of a cave, thin rings of calcite build upon one another. These rings eventually form a hollow tube that spans the height of the cave (stalactites also form on ceilings where there is a plumping leakage of limestone and other minerals).
Sliding my hand across a slippery rock, my thoughts turned upward. I thought grace. Humans are the recipients of divine dripping. The apostle John wrote, "This is the kind of love we are talking about--not that we once upon a time loved God, but that He loved us" (1 John 4:10). In the blackness of time, before there was time, God dripped His love onto us, creating us, forming us and shaping us. God connects us to Himself one drip at a time. It's not our dripping that elevates us--gravity won't allow that. But in His grace, God bends down to us and bring us to a place of contact. We touch the One who touches us and we confess with the psalmist, "He made creeks flow out from sheer rock, and water pour out like a river" (Psalm 78:16).
As we exited the Romanian cave, I felt a sting of disappointment. While the bats were certainly cool, deep down I wanted to see vampires. In Romanian folklore, bats are believed to be embodiments of evil spirits. The Romanian bat is smaller than its South American counterpart, but it is still considered dangerous by peasants throughout the country. According to myth expert Raymond McNally, "[Peasants] relate strange tales of people with bat wounds becoming demented and wishing to bite others." But I didn't meet any of those people, and the closest thing I got to a bat bite was the rash I developed from the turtleneck (vampire protection).
Unlike Count Dracula who took blood, Jesus Christ offered His blood. He shed His blood for us that we might partake in His fellowship. By faith we "drink His blood" for life. Every time Christians gather for Holy Communion, we think of Christ's words to His disciples, "This is my blood, God's covenant, poured out for many people" (Mark 14:24).
Jesus Christ willingly shed His blood and died. His body was taken down from the cross and He was laid to rest in a tomb. After Jesus had been in the tomb for three days, the Father said, "My child, get up." The Son was raised to life, and death itself was laid to rest. And the light of the world surfaced on the horizon, blinding vampires, demons and darkness. It is because of our Risen Savior we sing, "What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh precious is that flow that makes me white as snow, no other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus."
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gory gospel. There was no anesthesia for Christ's agony. There was no sedation for His suffering. This was the very reason He came to earth and He wanted to be fully sensitive to the divine transaction. The Christian faith is not for the fainthearted. Sometimes we want to polish the cross and smooth out the splinters, but it took a gory gospel to wash away our dirty stains. And as Baptists we can sing with greater zeal, "There's a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's vein, and sinner's plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilt and shame."
Back to the Future
The human body was made to move forward. Anatomically, our eyes are located in the front, our arms and elbows bend forward. Even our knee and ankle joints propel us ahead. Psychologically, we are encouraged to think and plan for the future--future finances, future investments and future career strategies. Bookshelves are bloated with books about how to find future mates in the near future. Religiously, we were also taught to focus on the future. No matter what we've done in the past, or how bad we've been to our friends, the future is what matters to God. Physically, intellectually and spiritually we are a forward-looking people.
But younger evangelicals are discovering that if our faith is to be healthy, we must look to the past before we look to the future. We must take a step back in order to take a step forward. We must go back to the Bible and the roots of our faith. We must rediscover the ancient doctrines, creeds and confessions that enrich our Christian heritage. We must listen to the hymns that history has sung for us long ago; sit under the teachings of the Council of Nicea, the Apostle's Creed, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. We must read the writings of St. Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon. Though these people have long since died, they still speak to us, instructing our faith and encouraging our lives. Only when we review the past can we preview the future.
A God-centered life goes against our grain. We want to be on top. We want to be the subject of the sentence. Yet throughout the history of Christianity, God has raised up individuals whose lives revolved around something greater than themselves. For Francois Fénelon, God was his ultimate fulfillment: "The more one loves God, the more one is content." For John Bunyan, God was always present: "Now was God and Christ continually before my face." And for Martin Luther, God was his true and only source of provision: "I have a rich Master who takes care of me while I am singing or sleeping." Younger evangelicals are mining riches from Christian history and are sitting at the feet of those who can point us, as John the Baptist did, to the God who wraps us in righteousness.
Christians need to know where we've been in order to know where we're going. We need to know about martyrs like Stephen, Peter and Paul. We need to know about Perpetua, John Huss and William Tyndale, for they, too, point us forward. They point beyond themselves, as John the Baptist did, to the Christ who laid down His life for His people and whose Crocs we are unworthy to unstrap. We have much to learn from those who were completely sold out to God, and whose testimonies encourage us to live as though we will live again.
The face of Christianity is currently undergoing plastic surgery, a facelift in fact. The flesh of our faith is changing--the style of worship, the technology used and the songs that are sung. But we must never abandon the bone structure behind the skin--our belief in the unified-three-person God, our embrace of grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, and our commitment to the supremacy of Holy Scripture and the sovereignty of God. These are non-negotiable for younger evangelicals. Everything else may change--the eyebrows, freckles, wrinkles and dimples--but the contours of our faith must not. The theology of the past must be minted to coins of the present. And by doing so, revival will sweep our society.
These days, there is an emerging interest in Jesus, but there is also a reaction against His church. People are crazy for Christ but want nothing to do with organized church. While this is a popular and widespread trend, we must be careful to keep the head of Christ attached to the body of Christ, lest we live a decapitated Christianity. God fulfills our desires for community by encouraging us to come together as a church and worship, foreshadowing the great gathering of God's people in heaven.
Knowing God is like peeling an onion. Day by day we unfold His blessings and excavate His mysteries. We encounter layers of love we never knew existed, levels of mercy that blow our minds away. Peel after peel, we uncover His attributes--graciousness, kindness, power and jealousy. We discover His glory and splendor. We agree with the psalmist that God "poured great draughts of water down parched throats; the starved and hungry got plenty to eat" (Psalm 107:9). After tasting the Lord's kindness, we get closer to the center of the Savior and find it full of sacrifice. And the whole peeling process, the whole salvation story, has made our eyes water with tears of humility and repentance.
The past has a way of supporting the present. Though invisible, the ancient ways push against us, reminding us of all the Christians that God upheld against the pressures of their day. The arms of God are strong, supporting us in times of turbulence. And no matter how disoriented we become, Christians lean against the Holy Spirit, the invisible One about whom Jesus said, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going" (John 3:8). And by leaning we learn the way of love.
My generation is craving robust theological teaching. We want to examine the Scriptures afresh and study the nature of Christ. We are embracing God's glory as something sacred again. His name is heavier than we thought and loftier than we imagined. It is a name so holy that ancient scribes would bathe before writing it. We are hungry for the Holy and recognize our pilgrimage. With a burden on our backs, a Bible in our hands, and a city in our sight, we are blazing ahead, not as tourists or nomads, but as pilgrims who believe this world is a hotel and not a home. It is an airport terminal for those who have yet to board the plane. And one day, the gravel will turn to gold beneath our feet.
In his book The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins observed that global Christianity is shifting to the southern hemisphere. South America and Africa are exploding with revival while North America and Europe are declining in authentic faith. Having traveled throughout Europe, I can testify to this phenomenon. It seems to me like the church in America has a very important decision to make: Either we revive or we rot.
Either we get on our knees and pray that God will spark another awakening in our land, or we become irrelevant to global Christianity. The past reminds us that the Christians of cultures who obtained great prosperity became too comfortable and their faith disintegrated as their Christianity spread to areas of persecution and need. It has been a long time since the faith of our fathers was tested, and we, the new and naive generation, know very little of the sacrifice that comes from giving our lives to God.
Nevertheless, younger evangelicals are learning. The past is teaching us how to behave. We are going back in order to go forward, and we're learning that it is costly to be a Christian. We are learning that true freedom comes from sacrifice, and obedience is more important than success. The way up is the way down, and darkness shows us Christ more than sunshine does. We are learning that God doesn't make mistakes. He doesn't call us to forget us. He doesn't equip us to discard us. And the God who pulls us to Himself joins us for the journey.
You don't have to be a writer to tell the story of Jesus. If you're an artist, paint it. If you're a singer, sing it. It doesn't matter what you do or where you are, every one of us can point beyond ourselves. If you are in retail, tell us about the transaction of salvation. If you are a gardener, grow us a crown of thorns. Doctors can portray His physical pain and lawyers can describe our pardon.
In our nation's short history there have been two great awakenings. A third is rising in the water. Joe Church, a missionary to Africa, said, "Revival is not when the roof blows off, but when the bottom falls out." The bottom is falling out beneath ordinary people across America--college students, artists, waiters, writers, singers and computer programmers. The wave is forming in the water and soon will foam across our desert land. Younger evangelicals are putting on scuba tanks and weight belts, ready to plunge beneath the surface. We are digging through the Scriptures to find treasure beyond imagination.
Jesus Christ is the hinge that holds us to heaven. He teaches us to grab life by the chopsticks and enjoy a fresher faith. He asks us to lean against His presence and trust what seems invisible. He is the past that ordains the future. He is the beyond in the midst of our now. And though we get a glimpse of God today, tomorrow we'll gaze at Him forever. For Christ has opened paradise and ushers us into eternity.
1 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1961), 1.
2 Unless otherwise indicated all Scripture quotations are taken from The Message (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 2003).
3 "A Mighty Fortress is our God" by Martin Luther; English translation by Frederic H. Hedge.
4 "In Christ Alone" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. This and other hymns by Townend and Getty are available at www.gettymusic.com
5 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperSanFransico, 1949; first HarperCollins edition, 2001), 26.
6 Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
7 Raymond T. McNally and Radu Floreschu, In Search of Dracula: A True History of Dracula and Vampire Legends (Greenwish, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1972), 102.
8 "Nothing but the Blood" by Robert Lowry.
9 "There is a Fountain" by William Cowper.
10 Francois Fénelon, quoted in Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 47.
11 John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books House, 1978), 96.
12 Martin Luther, quoted in Richard J. Foster & Emilie Griffin, Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), 122.
13 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007), 12.