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Reflections on the church and relationships


Reflections on the church and relationships in light of Isaiah and the Heidelberg Catechism

I have been meaning to write for a while now but due to God’s providence, it has turned out for the better that I am writing upon the completion of CERC’s series on Isaiah and the commencement of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC).

Jesus Christ loves the Church; God the Father loves the Church; the Spirit loves the Church. There is only one Bride that has been elected from eternity and there is only one Bride that will last into eternity; she is the Church of Christ, the elect from before the foundations of the world. As you can tell, this blog post will contain a great deal of reflection on the nature of Christ’s church learnt from Isaiah and the HC.

Christ, who in every respect is infinitely more valuable than the whole world combined, has put us before Himself, exchanging His life of divine glory for the death of fallen man. The Father sacrificed His son and has designed the universe as we know it that His Son might one day save His bride so that we may all live subjected to Him yet at the same time be co-heirs with the Son. The Spirit who is eternally holy has been tasked to sanctify an unholy people, to be the one to live amongst them, bearing with them over millennia and transforming them, to prepare the Church for eternal glory.

What is better is that the Church is not only the subject of love of three separate parties; we are loved by a Trinitarian love, demonstrated through the concerted effort of the entire Godhead in our salvation. Yet in this Trinitarian love that even the highest of the angels have no privilege of, God is not idolatrous in His love for us. Unless God is God-centered, anyone could easily deduce that God is idolatrous in His love for the church. Who is fit to be co-heirs with God? Who deserves such love? God loves the Church and has destined her for Himself – something that our sinful minds find hard to grasp.

Limited understanding makes it hard for us to appreciate and describe such a privilege at this present moment. My future wife and I are called to love the Bride of Christ because God loves Her. This is a privilege we must learn to treasure. Love for the Church is the over-arching destiny of the entire cosmos. The marriage of Christ and His Church, in many ways, is a lot more real than the marriage that I will have with my future wife. One is temporal, the other eternal; one is a shadow, the other is the reality; she will have a sinful human groom; the other groom is no less than God himself.

I cannot help but ponder on how I am to love both my future bride and also, the Bride of Christ, surely of more significance than my earthly bride. Yet, I am called to love my wife in the way that Christ loves His Church – to die for her, even, just as Christ’s atoning death is the pinnacle of his service to the church (which she is part of).

Christ’s love for the Church is God-centered in a church-centered way. My love for my wife should be God-centered in a church-centered way as well. Loving my wife as Christ loves the church is no code for a romance-centered and her-centered lifestyle. It means at the very least that I am to teach her, be patient with her, let her imitate me (as I imitate the minister of Christ who imitates Christ), and do my part to make sure that the Church should be presented to God as holy on the day of Judgment.

My thoughts turn to independent evangelicalism, even as I think of my future wife. I used to be an independent evangelical; she may well be one, as of now. As independent evangelicals, we have a tendency in this independence to think that when the gospel is preached to us, we believe and therefore the church owes its existence to us, as we are its constituents. While the former statement is true, what is forgotten is this: the Bible is not coincidental nor a circumstantial happenstance. Neither was the church constituted at the point of our conversion nor were we the ones who chose Christ out of our own volition.

The church was chosen before the foundation of the world by God and has existed since God’s constitution of His people in Jacob, i.e. Israel, when he made a non-people (Abraham then) into a people. While God’s salvation makes plain that both Jews and Gentiles are both the same (totally depraved), it is this pattern of independent evangelical thinking (as I have defined above) that will lead people to be very quick to judge themselves within the church as though they were the original planting of the Lord, if they do not understand God’s plan beginning with His chosen people.

God has designed Israel for the Salvation of the world. Israel is God’s specially chosen people, as well as the people whom God predestined to stumble in order that the world of Gentiles might learn to be humbled by the acknowledgement of universal total depravity, encompassing God’s people as well. God has been pleased to play out history of a cosmic scale in Israel’s corporate life and its descendants, and in some sense, the first fruits of salvation (after Christ) was their children. The Jerusalem saints were the ones who brought the gospel to the rest of the world – so that wild olive branches like us Gentiles can be grafted in to the CHURCH.

As far as the Bible is concerned, God did not choose to save me, Joel Lee, individualistically; God does not save the lone foreigner. Rather, God saves Israel and this is no case of ethnocentricity. If a foreigner (non-Israelite) wants to be saved, he has to SHARE in Israel’s salvation for God has chosen no other place to have His name set other than the temple in Jerusalem. It is the way God would have it.

God saves His church. If one desires to be saved, one should be joined to the church.

Now, I dare not downplay the phrase “baptism into Christ’s death”. One might wonder, if Christ died for us in a substitutionary manner (we cannot share nor contribute to our salvation in the remotest manner; it is Christ for us, not Him with us), what is the point of us being baptized to be identified with Him? It seems to have no real ‘function’. However, this external gift of salvation is to be accompanied by public identification with Christ. The “Him for us” has to be followed by “Him with us” just as quickly. The phrase “If we suffer with Him, we will also glory with Him” is as true as “He suffered for [our] sins once for all”. Both come hand in hand. The apostles seem to favour using the word “repent” and “be baptized” together quite often – whether explicitly or implicitly. And the significance of baptism is not only death and resurrection, but death to this world and birth into God’s living family – the church; one family into another; from the children of wrath becoming the children of God; slaves of sin to slaves of righteousness; being associated with one to association with another. Independence was a very foreign idea until the eating of the fruit and the fall of man.

My emphasis on corporate salvation rather than the individual’s salvation – without denying that the Bible also speaks on individuals being saved – is quite the opposite of independent evangelicalism (almost a reaction) yet one is to be cautious of seeing it in a negative light. Modernity has taught us to think like individuals, not as a corporate body. Secularism does not help as we tend to compartmentalize our lives into so-called ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’. To varying degrees, the same mindset has leaked into the church today.

The church is made of believers who have inherited total depravity and yet have imputed righteousness. We are not in the position to take lightly church authority and discipline. Authority and discipline are some of the expressions of being a corporate body. It is foreign to our modern minds, but God has always judged Israel as a whole, holding the corporate body responsible for any sins of its members. Officers in Christ who take lightly their exercise of their responsibility to the corporate body take lightly the irrevocable calling of God to us as an organization instituted by Christ. Without making Peter the Pope, Christ spoke of the Church being built on Peter (and then on the 12 apostles in Revelation 21). Thus, we are not to take our love for one another (whether as specifically ordained leaders or otherwise) lightly, be it teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training in righteousness.

The church has to be alert and not easily swayed by political culture in her thinking on authority. While there might be debates concerning church polity today, Pastor-Teachers still hold an office that is God-ordained. Shirking from the godly use of authority in church discipline is an avoidance of responsibility, and to some extent it may be merely adopting the democratic understanding of government that comes with modern governance today without careful consideration of Scripture and what it says on discipline and church governance. Of course, Paul pulls the argument (Romans 13:1) much further to say that it is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority.

The church is the display of God’s wisdom. We cannot just have popes because monarchy is popular in the Dark and Middle Ages, and we cannot just have an anti-authoritarian structure because Democracy is popular nowadays. At this rate, where will we go next with such independent thinking? Be emergent churches? Online churches where there is absolutely no discipline and no responsibility to any other member of the body of Christ?

My girlfriend and I are members of Christ’s church. We were grafted into the church – the true Israel. We belong now to the olive tree. We are wild branches counted with the natural ones. Jesus has invested His life in the church, and so should we. “No one hates His own body, but He loves it and cherishes it.”

As children of modernity, and as independent evangelicals, a seemingly good blend of autonomy and orthodoxy called ‘the balanced lifestyle’ is the last thing we would want to give up. Orthodoxy is from God; autonomy is our way of coping with fear of potential failure, a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty and rebellion against God. The balanced lifestyle is merely masking what is at the core of such a framework of mind – the semi-prosperity Gospel. By “balanced lifestyle,” people generally mean having a wife, 2 cars, 3 kids and a dog, overseas vacation, 8 hours sleep – a semi-heaven on earth without going too far the way some would use the phrase “prosperity gospel”.

To make my point even clearer, consider how the idea of fully investing our lives in the LOCAL church incites an almost allergic reaction from us individualists. We would happily subscribe to statements like “I will invest my life fully in the UNIVERSAL CHURCH” because it sounds orthodox and also gives us the ability to claim no responsibilities should we find that the local church we attend no longer fits our preference. This vagueness gives us plenty of freedom to behave as visitors and not committed members. And this freedom does not come from Christ. It should not be indulged in. While I may be describing a large group of people out there, I know I am at least describing myself. I tend to err in that way as well.

The goal for the church as a whole is to be fit for her husband i.e. to grow into maturity in Christ as the apostles modeled again and again for us in Scripture. Their concern was for the quickest advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ and that very purpose was the centre around which they lived their lives. Again, growing in maturity in Christ is not our individual personal projects. It is a divine and eternal corporate project. Hebrews 10:24-25 has often been misread by us modern readers as an issue of personal responsibility. However, the entire backbone of the passage is the framework of mind that comes from understanding what Jesus’ death did for the church, His people, and the future of eternity.

The loss of autonomy is my greatest fear and also my greatest comfort. What I mean is this – I am a sinful man who is most concerned for my personal wellbeing; I need somebody who is more concerned for the gospel by my side, reminding me of the goodness of the gospel. I need to grasp myself loosely. I doubt I will be selfless and self-sacrificing the way Christ is in the near future; my sinfulness will take care of my wellbeing. You see, as human beings, we are limited and sinful in our understanding, and we have great difficulty to think through extremes and be able to make a wise decision.

On the other hand, thinking theologically about NOT being autonomous yet having freedom in Christ is not a simple matter. I do not think it requires great intellect, but it does require a lot of reflective thinking and hard work. However, as a sinful human being, I am more inclined to label sinful autonomy as freedom in Christ. Godliness is no easy task for the carnal man. I will learn as I grow what it means to give up autonomy and have freedom in Christ – the Bible kind of freedom, the slaves-of-righteousness-kind, the “Am I not free to do so and so? Yet I have not exercised this freedom for your sake”-kind. We do not know what it means to be a good hardworking Calvinist; most of us are either good Arminians or licentious Calvinists (or nominal Calvinists).

Oh, what a wretched man I am! What will comfort me in this sinfulness?

“That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”

This is the answer to the first question of Heidelberg Catechism which CERC is having a preaching series on. You can find the Heidelberg on: http://www.reformed.org/documents/heidelberg.html

One cannot belong to Christ and not be part of God’s people and vice versa. Both are nearly synonymous, and God assures me that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus in Romans 8:36-39. Likewise then, it is the same for me being part of the church. Given Calvin’s statement – “The church is the Mother of Salvation.” – and what I have learnt about where my comfort should be found in the HC Question 1, I am greatly comforted to be a member of CERC.

Making arbitrary statements requires little commitment to the answer, and gives one lots of room to change one’s mind in an irresponsible manner but by saying “I am greatly comforted to be in CERC,” Scripture demands of me, with that statement, to be part of training the entire CERC in godliness. As such, I would have to confront the pastor about doctrinal differences should there be any, for example.

Of course, by saying I believe in the local church, I believe in the universal church too. However, this does not nullify my responsibility to the local church. If there is an issue with the local church, that is, in CERC, I am responsible to see that such issues are settled. However, if I can say things like “I subscribe to the universal church” without having to say that I subscribe to a local church, I have escaped the accountability for “one another-ness” that the Bible demands of any member of Christ’s church. “One another” could be taken as an arbitrary figure – a New Yorker this week, a Malaysian next week, and an Australian the week after, if you know what I mean.

If I were to claim to understand the intertwined nature of Christ and church and still remain a “Christian observer” without an active hand at the plow (church commitment), I would have the confidence of a family member who never seems to ever eat with the family, nor stay in the same house as the family. I do not wonder at the reason I might feel alien in due time. Allow me to explain what I mean by “intertwined nature”. I mean something akin to how Adam and Eve are one flesh; Father, Son and Spirit are three persons yet ONE. Adam and Eve are referred to as one unit; God is one. The church is born of the Spirit, called sons of God, and co-heirs with Christ. And if Adam and Eve, the shadow of Christ and His Church should be called one flesh, how can we make out the marriage of the Lamb to be anything lesser? We are Fathered by God, One flesh-ed with Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit. We are all one. As it is, it is of great comfort to belong in CERC.

God has destined His church for Himself. This fact alone will have many implications on my biological family in the future. My son will have to know that Daddy loves spiritual children more than physical children without having to say that Daddy loves him any less than spiritual children. He will have to learn that as a 4 year-old kid who will need to go to Sunday school. If he wants to be enveloped in God’s love, he will have to be united with Jesus. To be joined to Jesus, he will have to be joined in the gospel. And the gospel people is the Church. Perhaps the conversation will go a little like this:

Me: Daddy is going to teach God’s children now.

Kid: I’m gonna stay at home. Aren’t you gonna be here teaching ME [individual emphasized]?

Me: Well, definitely not only YOU. But if you have God’s Spirit, thus God’s Children, then “Yes” I will be teaching you. In any case, God’s children lasts forever.

Kid: But I have a personal direct connection with Jesus Christ and I am still God’s Child even if I don’t go to Sunday School. And your tone suggests that you love God’s Church more than me.

Me: Well, God teaches His church, God saves His church. I’m going to the church. You can be Mr. Wild Olive Branch if you want to.

Kid: Are you saying I’m not saved if I don’t go to church and put up with the other kids I don’t like? I know John 3:16!

Me: If you say you love God but hate your brothers, then you do not know God. Haven’t you read 1 John?

Kid: No fair. You studied in theological college – I’m sure I can out-debate you if I studied more! I’m going to stay here in protest.

Me: I love you son. And this is what I’m gonna do. *Smacks him and drags him to Sunday School*.

I know children do not talk like that at 4, and raising up actual kids/spiritual kids who are stubborn adults like myself is a much more daunting task than mere intellectual discussion. But I would rather have the above discussion with my child when he were 4 rather than 20, and a postmodern.

I find it hard enough to teach myself, admittedly; I will have to teach my wife the same things. I will have to figure out how loving her and loving the church can work out practically because it is much easier to see these as two distinct categories and pick one over the other. Christ loves His church in a God-centered way; I am called to do the same. Perhaps, if you knew me better, you would hear the intimidation in my voice as I say this, thinking about what a challenge it is.

I am not intimidated by the complexity in explaining such theological thinking to the people that I will be/am responsible for – I am just afraid that I will cover up my cowardice with seeming piousness. Of course, I still have to be brave and be sensitive to culture but adding to that is my laziness. Being brave and culturally sensitive is a VERY tiring effort. It is so tiring that I do not remember if I have ever put in 100% in being so. Maybe I put in 50% effort before in some distant past. Or maybe I thought about the idea and was just too lazy and too much of a coward to do it.

But as a Christian sister of mine in CERC said – if I still know what is right, if I still know who I am in Christ, I still have hope. And God is the only one keeping me sane and believing in God’s sovereignty and my total depravity, and actually considering the practical applications of His doctrines.

Over the last few weeks, I have been both encouraged and depressed (or probably encouraged in a depressing way) over how God is refining the church in godliness. But Isaiah has been a good friend to remind me that the best place to be in is under God’s Hand – His Judgment, His Salvation, His rebuke, His Love, His everything.

My comfort is to belong to His Christ.

As far as my natural/sinful self can tell, this is one of the most uncomfortable types of comfort I have ever experienced in my life! My friend showed me an internet link the other day – about how people can find the country that suits them most! Talk about autonomy, I can hear people disagreeing with Paul’s speech in Acts 17:26!

This is the link: check it out and have a little fun: http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/

Well. Australia is the best ‘heaven on earth’ according to the poll. Then Canada, Sweden, New Zealand. Of course, Malaysia is not in the list because we are not even included in the group. I think if this whole device were theological and had a Church bar, our own country would probably be the best country to be in regardless of ranking/preference and I say this in light of Acts 17:26 as well as an understanding of God having placed us where we were born for His purposes.

Malaysia is not heaven, and all Malaysians know that. To some extent, I do not feel the sting as much because I was born and raised in Malaysia. I was in Sydney for only 2 years – having clean air was relief to my sinuses, there were nice people and restaurant cashiers who were fit to become models by Malaysian standards. All these are probably the few things that make Australia ‘heaven’.

2 years was just right for me. I learned enough to go back to Malaysia to continue learning. Honestly though, I fear for my Malaysian friends who have breathed cleaner air, have had good working hours for far too long such that Malaysia’s work culture is going to be an ice-cold shock for them when they return to Malaysia – not to mention the added stresses that come with ministry in Malaysia. The differences are undeniable.

I thank God for the pagans that God has placed around me, both for me to experience pagan work ethics and also the opportunities to evangelize to them. Pagans work very hard to worship the God of career and they are disciplined. And in God’s sovereignty, they have been very helpful to me in learning what diligence and concern looks like. It is the semi-heroic willing, passionate and gospel-ignorant politicians who seem to stay in Malaysia to be its Messiah, albeit the wrong way. They appear assured of the ‘things not seen and confident of the things hoped for’ – a reasonably superb display of the Sabbath mindset for the glorious-Malaysia-heaven which no holy Malaysian book has promised.

Of course, what it tells me is that my concern for gospel growth does not even equate to that of a pagan’s for self-advancement. The person who works for bread which does not last works harder than the one who reports to the Eternal King. I know – it is shameful to me, us, actually. I shall not attempt to be falsely humble here. I think we all know pagans who put in a lot more treasure into places where moth and rust can destroy and where thieves can steal compared to us who put little into the places where God Himself guards. I do sincerely think that I am a lot more sinful than a lot of people in my thinking – whether it is figuring out ways to be technically not sinning but somehow managing to usurp God’s authority over me or even in more common things like lust. I am like a Pharisee in my escaping of the law and I do not have a strong willpower to at least be pious about it.

I do not feel very comfortable in Malaysia. And for many years I have dealt with this discomfort I face with people by disengaging myself emotionally. What I mean by that is that I will not be too personal or too passionate about the matter, and then I will not be disappointed. God knows I have dozens of such sinful coping mechanisms in my life which I might not be even fully aware of.

Currently CERC is going through some rough patches under God’s sovereignty. Financial troubles are also a big issue. Commitment to training in godliness is one of those things that will increase friction between people. I would like to be disengaged about this but the church is commissioned by GOD Himself to make Christ’s disciples out of one another, and Jesus does weep for Jerusalem. Jesus called Judas “friend” and Peter “Satan”. He could have chosen to be disengaged about His people’s betrayal and rebellion, but He did not. And so, I am not at liberty to not take things personally by constructing coping mechanisms.

I do feel slightly depressed about such matters, but for once I feel slightly encouraged by my depression. If I do mourn for Jerusalem, I know one day I will rejoice with her. God saves His people, the Church. I do hope that CERC supporters will also mourn and rejoice with us. I know; being emotionally invested in the whole “Jesus is Lord” eternal project does affect us in more ways than one, but that is a good thing. I used to think that one just has to be positive because negativity will get you nowhere but I am now born again to be Christ’s descendant. I am taught by the Spirit to mourn for church. And rejoice with church.

The Bible tells me that if I do not feel at home in this world, I can take comfort in the fact that I will finally be at home AT HOME.

O God, please make this thought/feeling/understanding last my whole lifetime, and reform my actions to conform to be like one who will take comfort in nothing else but you. Help me be a person who can hold things loosely like in 1 Corinthians 7. God, please don’t let a care-free Buddhist shame me in morality produced by self-righteousness, in not being ‘attached’ to material things. I have the Holy Spirit; I have to excel a pagan; I have Your Name to bear. Infinitely more importantly, Your Church has the Holy Spirit, Your Church bears your name. And I feel the personal weight of it.

Posted on 10th June 2011