Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul
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|Date:||Friday, September 25, 2020, 1:29 PM|
A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.
1. The Crucifixion of Ministry
What is ministry, and why should we crucify it?
The word “ministry” is the English translation of the Greek word diakoneo, which means, in its original sense, to serve as a waiter – bringing food and drink to the table. In our Christian context, this definition of ministry can be the basis of talking about the physical work of the church’s life: financial administration, setting up worship environments, caring for buildings, etc. Often our English word for such ministers is directly adapted from the Greek: deacon.
In the larger picture of the Christian context, however, ministry means more than just serving the physical needs of others. It also encompasses the spiritual and relational lives of others. It means caring for the whole person: body, mind, and soul. These three distinctions of body, mind, and soul are referenced in Scripture (e.g., Matt. 10:28, Mark 12:30, 1 Thess. 5:23) and have been used throughout Christian history to speak of different aspects of human existence.
We will use these terms in this class, but in a general way. For example, we will refer to the “soul” as that aspect of human existence by which we relate spiritually to God and to one another, without attempting to create a complete definition or theology of the soul. We will use the term “body” to refer to that aspect of human existence by which we perceive the world through our five senses, and the term “mind” to refer to that aspect of our existence by which we think and reflect on life – again, without trying to offer a comprehensive definition of each.
Ministry has a holistic meaning when applied to people: it is serving the whole person in body, mind, and soul. This holistic approach is what Jesus had in mind when he told Peter, “feed my sheep” (John 21:17). It includes the physical task of caring for people’s bodies and thus a literal fulfillment in giving people food. Peter fulfilled this aspect of his commission in part by delegating this work to others (Acts 6). He participated in designating seven men to take care of the “tables” that was part of the church’s life together. By his participation in their ordination, Peter was fulfilling his commission to feed Jesus’ sheep – he was making sure that their bodies got fed.
Jesus’ command is also meant in a figurative way. He not only means for Peter to provide people with food, but also for Peter to provide spiritual nourishment to their minds and souls. Peter is to become a “waiter” at the Lord’s table, bringing spiritual food and drink to those whose souls are dying of spiritual starvation and whose minds are broken and in need of healing.
We can take Jesus’ commission to Peter as a definition of the practice of ministry. Practicing ministry means that we – together with Peter and the whole church – feed the sheep of Jesus. We should see this definition in its holistic sense. The practice of ministry means caring for people’s bodies, minds, and souls, the way a waiter at a table cares for the needs of those who are eating a meal.
One trap in ministry is to care only for people’s minds and souls. James warns us about that when he tells us not to tell others to “be warmed and filled” and do nothing for them (James 2:16). The Father has created us in the flesh, to live and experience relationship through touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. To minister to a person is to serve the needs of that person’s body as well as the needs of mind and soul.
At the same time, caring only for people’s bodies without bringing knowledge to their minds or spiritual comfort to their souls is also to neglect the practice of ministry. Paul prayed for the people he ministered to, that they might be given “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they might know Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit better (Eph. 1:17).
An example of this holistic approach to feeding Jesus’ sheep is found in Jesus’ ministry to the world through communion. We will explore this subject more fully in chapter 4, but in the context of defining the practice of ministry, we can take note of two key concepts that Jesus conveys to us through communion.
In giving us the bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood, Jesus meant to serve something to our minds and our souls. He is serving to our minds and souls the truth that he is in union with our human nature, that the Son of God has taken flesh and blood into the life he shares with the Father and the Spirit. This knowledge, imparted to our minds by Jesus’ words, is a healing to our souls because it sets free the truth implanted within our souls by the Holy Spirit. That implanted truth is that we are adopted children of the Father – expressed in the reality that the Son, Jesus, is one body and one blood with humanity – and therefore Jesus is our brother, and Jesus’ Father is our Father.
This adoption of humanity into the life of the Trinity is of foundational importance to human self-understanding. How does Jesus serve this truth to us? He serves – or ministers – this truth to us in our souls, through his Holy Spirit; to our minds through his words (“this is my blood”, etc.); and to our bodies through the physical touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound of eating food and swallowing a liquid. He ministers to us in body, mind, and soul, leaving no part of our personhood untouched by the reality of who we are in him.
Communion is a microcosm of ministry. Ministry is our ongoing participation in Jesus’ act of serving his sheep the food they need to nourish their whole being: their bodies, minds, and souls. Therefore, to understand what ministry is, we must not only know that we are waiters at the Lord’s table, serving the bread of life, but we must also know what the bread of life is. What is it that Jesus is feeding his sheep? As participants in Jesus’ ministry (his diakonia, his waiting on tables), what food are we serving? What nourishes human life in body, mind, and soul?
To answer this question, we must rephrase it. We must ask, “Who nourishes human life?” It is Jesus. In him our bodies live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28), and by his word our bodies are held together and have their existence (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). It is his mind that our minds were made to mirror (1 Cor. 2:16), and his life with the Father shows us the purpose of our existence (Eph. 1:5).
The practice of ministry is the participation in Jesus’ work of serving himself to his people. Here, again, communion is helpful in visualizing this. At the communion table Jesus says, “this is me, myself, that I am giving to you – my body and my blood.” It is Jesus who is continually, and forever, serving himself to humanity.
As Andrew Purves discusses in The Crucifixion of Ministry, Jesus is the practitioner of ministry. He ministers himself to humanity. At the same time, he graciously chooses to allow us to participate in his serving of himself to the world. In communion, it is people who make the bread and wine, and serve the elements to each other. They are involved in this ministry because Jesus is doing it in them and with them, and because they are in Jesus and with him as he ministers. Through the ministry of the church as a whole, and through each of us as individual ministers, Jesus conveys the reality of himself into the body, mind, and soul of his people.
It is here that we begin to see how ministry might be crucified in addition to being practiced. In the fallenness of our nature, there is a perpetual danger in Jesus’ gracious decision to include us in his giving of himself to humanity. Although we are all in union with Jesus, we are also distinct from him – we still have freedom to think and act. And some – perhaps many – of our thoughts and actions will be sinful or perhaps just wrong.
In order for us to participate effectively in Jesus’ ministering of himself to humanity, some aspects of our thoughts and actions will have to change. We have to be healed. We have to have our minds changed. We have to do new works with our bodies, works that reflect the reality of who Jesus is and not who we have imagined him to be in our darkened minds.
This is the crucifixion of our ministries, so that the ministry of Jesus may become dominant in what we do. In the same way that Jesus’ crucifixion put to death our sinful, human nature, so also the crucifixion of our ministries puts to death the sinful nature of our attempts to serve Jesus and serve others in ways that are not right.
This is the process that Purves talks about. He suggests that the crucifixion of our ministries cannot take place until we have been engaged in ministry for several years, perhaps even as many as 7-14 years. In our human nature, we try to do ministry in the way we think it ought to be done before we become ready to let Jesus put our ministries to death and resurrect them in the power of his resurrection.
Specific events and pressing needs can accelerate and/or change this process. Depending on your circumstances, you may experience this crucifixion stage of ministry sooner or later than the time frame Purves describes. You will have to let Jesus speak to your heart about where you are in your ministry. If you have just started in ministry, or are just beginning to prepare for it, some of what Purves talks about in terms of the crucifixion of ministry may not speak to where you are right now. A deep sense of failure and even disillusionment must set in as we realize that we are inadequate for the task – and then we begin to see what it means that this is Jesus’ ministry and not our own.
Ministry, like many human endeavors, usually begins on a spiritual mountain-top, with high expectations that often last for several years. If you have not yet passed through that beginning stage, you may not understand what the crucifixion of ministry means. But you can still learn from the experience of others and prepare now for the “valleys of death” that are certainly coming in your future ministry. There are highs, and there are lows.
For those who have been at this for a while, you probably have a clear sense of what Purves is talking about. In every ministry there are moments of crisis in which we realize this simple truth: even if none of our past actions has been exactly wrong, none of them have been exactly right, either. In such moments the Holy Spirit gives us a clear picture of ourselves and we see just how much we have been trying to do something for Jesus instead of simply living in the joy of who Jesus is for us.
This is the sort of crisis that Peter was experiencing that day on the beach with the risen Jesus when he received his commission to feed Jesus’ sheep (John 21). Not long before that, Peter had sworn that he would follow Jesus to the death (John 13:37) and then turned around and swore that he never knew the man (John 18:17). By the time Peter sits on the beach with Jesus, his swearing days are over. He’s ready to simply say to Jesus, “Lord, you know” (John 21:15). Peter is ready to say “this isn’t about my faith, my work, my love, or my ministry – it’s about who you are, Jesus, and what you know about the Father who loves me and whose love lives in me.”
At that point, Peter is ready to do Jesus’ ministry, rather than his own misguided efforts. That’s why Jesus gives him his commission then, because Peter’s own “ministry” has been crucified and he is ready to participate in what Jesus is doing.
Who is Jesus?
We have defined the practice of ministry as our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work of serving his people. Ministry is not so much a task that we perform but instead is the work of Jesus in which we are participants. Wherever we are in ministry, we can see from the apostles (like Peter) and the experience of others (like Purves) that the crisis of recognizing the end of our work, and the beginning of our participation in Jesus’ work, is a crucifixion experience for our human nature.
We now need to think even more specifically about what it means for us to participate in Jesus’ service to his people. If Jesus is serving himself to humanity – and we are participating in that with him – then who is Jesus? Is he a great teacher who came to show us the way to heaven, or is he the way to heaven? Did Jesus 1) open the door to the presence of God, a door we need to walk through on our own power, or 2) did he, even before we knew it, bring to us the presence of God?
The answers to questions such as these, about Jesus’ identity and nature, are foundational to what we do in ministry. If I believe that Jesus is serving himself to humanity as a moral teacher, then I will focus on instructing people in how to understand and obey Jesus’ commands. But if I believe that Jesus is serving himself to humanity as the one invites them into the life of the Trinity, then I will focus on encouraging people to believe this truth about themselves.
All our decisions about what and how to preach, how to baptize, how to serve communion, how to evangelize, disciple, and organize the administrative structures of our churches, will be determined by who we believe Jesus is. In the church, where we proclaim Christ in order to encourage faith in him, we can explain our understanding of Jesus’ identity and leave it to the listeners to believe or disbelieve as the Holy Spirit works in their lives.
Here, we need to define how the teacher’s understanding interacts with the students’ understanding about who Jesus is. We are writing not to tell you what to believe, but to help you examine the beliefs you already hold and determine whether you want to change those beliefs in any way and/or make any changes to the practices that flow from them.
This does not mean that we refuse to take a stand on what we believe to be correct doctrine (orthodoxy), correct practice (orthopraxy), and correct emotional response (orthopathy). But your success is not determined by whether you end up agreeing with us. Your success is determined by whether you interact honestly with the material and think about it at a level deep enough for you to intelligently accept or reject any change in your ministry that the material suggests.
Let’s answer the question of who Jesus is. This will lay the foundation for you to understand why we advocate the ministry practices that we do, and should get you to thinking about your own understanding of Jesus – both in how you agree and (perhaps) disagree with what we write here.
When we speak of Jesus serving himself to humanity, and of our participation in that ministry, here is what we have in mind:
- He is the second person of the Trinity, revealed to us as “the Son” and “the Word” (John 1:1, 18). As God the Son, he has eternally existed in perfect communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
- The Father created humanity through the Son and by the Spirit, so humanity could be adopted into the joyful life of the Trinity as his children (Eph. 1:5).
- This adoption was formally accomplished by the Son (the Creator) becoming human like us (part of the creation) and lifting our humanity into the divine life he shares with the Father and the Spirit (Hebrews 2:10-19).
- Jesus is unique among all beings – fully God and fully human. Like the Father and the Holy Spirit, he is fully God – but unlike them he is also fully human. Like all of us, Jesus is fully human – but unlike all of us he is also fully God.
- As the unique one who is both God and human, Jesus ministers the life of God to humanity and the life of humanity to God (1 Timothy 2:5).
- Since all humanity and all creation were created in and through him, Jesus’ existence in union with creation means the reconciliation of all things to the Father – including all humanity – and thus the reversal of Adam’s fall and the restoration of human nature to union with the Trinity (Col. 1:15-20; Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15:22). All have been reconciled, but not all are currently living according to the what Jesus has declared them to be.
- When Jesus died he took the whole human race down with him in his death, and when he was resurrected he took the whole human race up with him in his resurrection, and when he ascended to the Father, he took humanity into the life of the Trinity with him (2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:6). All people have been made for relationship with God, but not all are currently participating in that relationship in the way that God intends.
Jesus does far more than simply “show us the way to heaven.” He is the way, he is our life (John 14:6). When Jesus ministers himself to humanity, he is not simply telling humanity how to live, or even telling us what to do to earn our place in the heavenly life of God as children of the Father. Instead, Jesus is saying to us “I am with you in your humanity and you are with me in my divinity. You are my brothers and sisters; because of me you are children of my Father.”
At the most basic level, this means that our participation in Jesus’ ministry is not telling people what they need to do in order to get themselves into God’s good graces. Rather, participation in Jesus’ ministry is telling people that he has already gotten them into God’s good graces. We participate in the ministry of the Holy Spirit when we encourage them to believe this truth about themselves.
We are not ministering to encourage people to make themselves into children of the Father through their own faith. We are ministering to people in order to encourage them to believe that Jesus has already made them into children of the Father through his own faithfulness, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. As Purves says, “Our response of faith, repentance and obedience is the Spirit-led consequence of Christ having seized hold of us, not the condition for it.”
In the light of Jesus as the union of God and humanity, Karl Barth describes ministry in this way:
On the basis of the eternal will of God we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him [or her] on this assumption. If the other person knows that already, then we have to strengthen him in that knowledge. If he does not know it yet, or no longer knows it, our business is to transmit this knowledge to him. On the basis of the knowledge of the humanity of God no other attitude to any kind of fellow man is possible. It is identical with the practical acknowledgement of his human rights and his human dignity. To deny it to him would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother and God as Father.
These thoughts expressed by Barth will help guide our understanding of ministry. Whenever we minister, and whatever kind of ministry we engage in, we have one of two goals in mind:
- If we are working with people who already know that they are children of the Father, in Jesus, through the Spirit, then we seek to strengthen them in that truth.
- If we are working with people who do not know that they are children of God, then we seek to transmit that truth to them.
This is what Jesus is doing. Jesus has accomplished his mission to adopt humanity as children of the Father (Heb. 2:13), and as a part of that mission he has saved the lost (Rom. 5:18; Col. 1:20). Jesus has poured out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17) in order that we might know that he is in his Father, and he is in us, and we are in him (John 14:20). By believing this, we live into the truth that we are children of the Father (John 1:12; 20:31). Whenever we come to preach, evangelize, counsel, or any of the other aspects of ministry, we are not bringing Jesus to a place where he is absent. We are coming to people whom Jesus has laid hold of, and we are participating with Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, in helping them to understand whose they really are (the Father’s) and who is working in their lives (Jesus, through the Spirit).
This is what Purves means when he asks the question “What is he [Jesus] doing here, today, now, in the specific ministerial context that engages me?” In other words, we know – based on the nature of who Jesus is as the union of God and humanity – that Jesus is already present and at work through his Spirit in whatever ministry task we find ourselves engaged in. Our role, as participants in Jesus’ ministry, is to participate with Jesus and his Spirit in helping others see that Christ is already involved in their lives, and to help them trust in who Christ is for them.
A Trinitarian conclusion
This gives us our final definition of ministry:
our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work, through his Holy Spirit, to give himself to humanity so that we will know, in body, mind, and soul, who we are in Jesus as children of the Father.
Like waiters bringing the best wine, the finest rib roast, and the freshest fruit to those who have been dying of hunger and thirst (Isaiah 25:6-8), we share with Jesus in his work to heal the bodies, minds, and souls of his beloved brothers and sisters. This ministry is something we practice, the way a doctor practices medicine, and it is something in which we can always grow in our skill and ability to do, the way a golfer practices his swing.
Our focus on who Jesus is has led us to a Trinitarian definition of ministry. It’s not about a solitary God in the sky whom we are serving. Ministry is about a joyful, vibrant, living dance – the relational dance of the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – a dance into which Jesus brings the whole human race.
As Stephen Seamands explains, the Trinity is the ground and grammar of all ministry (indeed, of all existence) and is foundational to all we do in ministry. Our souls, our minds, our bodies, and thus our feelings, our words, and our actions, all need to be conformed to the image of God as Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Many parts of our Christian culture have become almost heretically unitarian in thinking about God. The 20th century theologian Karl Rahner said:
We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.
By Jesus’ grace, a renaissance of Trinitarian thinking is taking place. This is vital to the way we do ministry. If we are going to participate in Jesus’ work, through his Spirit, to give himself to humanity as the one who unites humanity to the Father, then we must start with, as our foundational thinking about God, the fact that he is triune: the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and the Father.
Over the next nine chapters we will look at major aspects of the church’s ministry: preaching, baptism, communion, evangelism, worship, discipleship, pastoral care, weddings, funerals, and church administration.
In each case we will start by defining those ministries in the light of who Jesus is, in the light of the Trinity, and in the light of the Trinitarian shape of human existence and ministry. Then, in keeping with Barth’s definition of ministry, we will examine how to practice these ministries towards those who already know the truth of their adoption and how to practice those ministries towards those who do not yet know they are adopted children of the Father. Finally, we will look at what ways of practicing these ministries are most effective in encouraging others to know and believe, in body, mind and soul, the truth about themselves as the Father’s children.
Since this series is designed to speak to brand new ministers and seasoned veterans, there will be some material that may seem basic and introductory if you have been engaged in ministry for a few years. If you are relatively new to ministry, you may find some parts of the conversation abstract if you have yet to experience the situations they address.
Since we are each in different places – both in terms of experience and life context – take each chapter as an opportunity to begin thinking about the specifics of your own ministry. Some information will apply to you and some will not. Take the information that does apply and begin talking with our Father in heaven about it. See where Jesus might be leading you, through his Spirit, to change your thinking about, and your practice of, ministry in your specific experience. This series will, Jesus willing, be a jumping-off point for your thought and prayer about your ministry.
 Most chapters in this series were originally written by Jonathan Stepp as part of his work for Grace Communion Seminary, and have been edited by Michael Morrison. We have not attempted to mark which parts originated with Jonathan, but we here acknowledge his significant role in creating this material. The title of this chapter refers to the book by Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).
 H.W. Beyer, “Diakoneo,” pp. 152-155 in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translator and editor, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).
 Purves, Crucifixion, 11.
 Ibid., 22-26.
 Ibid., 77.
 Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 53.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 59.
 Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 11-12.
 Karl Rahner, The Trinity, translated by Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 10-11.
In keeping with the themes we outlined in chapter 1, each chapter in this series will seek to address a ministry practice from three perspectives:
- The definition of that ministry in the light of who Jesus is.
- How we practice that ministry in serving people who already know they are children of the Father, and how we practice that ministry in serving someone who does not already know this truth.
- How we follow Jesus’ instruction to “feed my sheep” by practicing that ministry in such a way as to speak to the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
In this chapter, we will look at the ministry of preaching, so we will begin with the question: What is preaching in the light of who Jesus is?
We have defined ministry as:
Our ongoing participation in Jesus’ work, through his Holy Spirit, to give himself to humanity so that we will know in body, mind, and soul, who we are in Jesus as children of the Father.
In the simplest sense, preaching is our participation in this work of Jesus through the words we speak as ministers. This includes sermons, but it also includes any of the words we use as we share in the way that Jesus is working in another person’s life. Since preaching is primarily about words, we should define preaching by thinking about our words, the words of the Bible, and Jesus as the Word of God in the flesh. 
The Word of God, God’s communication to humanity, was done most perfectly as a person – a person named Jesus (John 1:1, 14). Jesus is the Word in the flesh. The second person of the Trinity speaks the reality of God’s life to humanity. In doing so, the Word also speaks to humanity the reality of who we are. As creatures of the Creator, we cannot fully know ourselves apart from the one who created us.
The Word of God – Jesus – tells us who God is and who we are. This understanding of Jesus as the Word is foundational to our understanding of preaching, since preaching is the use of words to talk about God to people and to talk to people about themselves. If we are going to stand in front of a congregation and use words to talk about God and people, then those words must have their source in and flow from the one, original, unequaled Word of God to people: the Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ.
To say that preaching is about Jesus seems elementary and self-evident. Nevertheless, there are countless sermons we have heard – and given! – that have had little or nothing to do with Jesus except in an indirect way.  The fallenness of our human nature means that we will always find new and creative ways to talk about ourselves, our human work, and our self-effort, and ignore the reality of Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
The practice of preaching means our ongoing participation in Jesus’ preaching through his Spirit. It also means our growth in our skill and ability to preach. If we are to grow in our skill and ability, then we have to be more in step with the preaching ministry that Jesus is doing through his Spirit, in humanity. That means our preaching should always be becoming more Christ-centered.
In the Protestant world, the phrase “the word of God” almost always refers to the Bible. Many preachers say that they are called to “preach the Bible.” But as soon as we begin to see that Jesus is the Word of God, we begin to see that it might be wrong to define preaching solely in terms of the Bible. Is it the Bible we are called to bring to people, or is it Jesus?
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the resurrection. Jesus is the adoption and salvation of humanity. The Bible is none of these things. The Bible is a book, not a person. The Bible is information, not relationship. The Bible is part of the creation, but Jesus is the Creator and the union of the Trinity with humanity.
If the Bible is the subject of our preaching, if the Bible is the main thing we are trying to help people understand and know better, then we are guilty of idolatry. We are trying to lead people into relationship with, and trust in, their Bibles instead of relationship with, and trust in, their older brother Jesus. 
Depending on where you are in your thinking about Jesus and the Bible, some of those statements may be very challenging to you. They were challenging to me when I first heard them because I had been thoroughly trained – even indoctrinated – into thinking of my faith as a Bible-centered faith instead of a Christ-centered faith.
Over the next few pages, we are going to explore the interplay of the Word (Jesus), the words of the Bible, and the words of our sermons, and see how all three are necessary parts of preaching. We will put each of the three in perspective and see why the Bible is the written word of God and divinely inspired, and how even our own words of preaching can be called “inspired.”
Before we do, however, it might help you to think briefly about the history of the Bible and the Trinity’s relationship with humanity.
Consider Abraham: he had no Bible, yet he had a relationship with the Triune God who loved him and created him. Who spoke to Abraham and said, “I will give you a son”? It was the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who would later come in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ. Abraham heard and believed the Word of God without ever having the words of the Bible. It is possible to have a vibrant, healthy relationship with God and not have a Bible. Abraham did, and so did the early Christians.
The Christians of the first century were blessed to have the Hebrew Bible (for most of them, in a Greek translation), what we call the Old Testament. But they did not have the New Testament. The first documents were written 20-30 years after the church was founded. Yet the book of Acts tells us that thousands of people came to faith in Jesus without ever having seen or read what we call the New Testament (Acts 2:41).
Not only was this the case for the early Christians, it was also the case for the majority of Christians through the centuries, until printing and literacy improved. Prior to the invention of moveable type on the printing press, books were enormously expensive to produce, and most people were illiterate. The only time most Christians saw a Bible was when the one literate man in the village – generally the priest – read from it on Sundays.
In contrast to these historical realities, we in the evangelical Protestant world often have a view of Christianity that almost says “you cannot be a Christian unless you have a Bible and read it on a regular basis.” There is some truth in that sentiment: Our faith depends on us knowing that we are loved as children of the Father. That is taught in the Bible, but there is more than one way for it to happen. The printed word may be the most effective way for some people, but not for all. Many people are visual and learn better from seeing pictures with words, or even pictures alone. This was the medieval origin of stained glass windows. The windows, along with murals and altar paintings, pictured the words of the Bible and gave people a way to access and think about the truth revealed in the Word, Jesus Christ.
The phrase “the word of God” has a threefold definition: First, the word of God is the Word, the second person of the Trinity who now lives forever, fully God and fully human, as the man Jesus Christ. Second, the word of God is the word spoken about Jesus by the church: the apostles, the prophets, and even ordinary pastors and ministry leaders like us. Third, the word of God is the Bible, the written record of what the apostles spoke in their words about Jesus.
In the practice of preaching, how can we understand the interaction between these three aspects of God’s word: the Word of God, the words we speak, and the word of the Bible?
An image that may be helpful to us in thinking about preaching the three-fold word of God is the image of a window.  Consider what a window does. It allows those who are inside a building to see outside, or those who are outside to see in. It reveals and makes known something that would otherwise be hidden from us. If we look out a window and see some strange object we have never seen before, we may need help to understand what we are seeing. It would be helpful if someone who has been on the outside would come and help us understand what we are seeing. In this seeing and knowing, however, the window is not the object to be studied. We don’t pay much attention to windows unless they need cleaning or repair. We simply look through them to see what is on the other side.
In this analogy, the Bible is the window. What we see when we look through the window of the Bible is Jesus. Through the Bible, we see that Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him. We also see that he is in us and we are in him (John 14:20). In seeing this reality – the reality of God the Father, Son, and Spirit, and our inclusion in that life – we understand ourselves and our relationships with one another.
The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and helps us understand what we are seeing. It is in this regard that we speak of our preaching as being “inspired.” The Holy Spirit gives gifts to certain members of the church – preachers – to help explain to others what we are seeing when we look through the window of the Bible and see ourselves in Jesus.
There are times in our lives and ministries when we need to look at the Bible specifically – its history, grammar, construction, etc., – just as there are times we have to clean the windows of our house or repair a crack in the windshield of the car. But the window itself is not the main goal. The goal is whatever can be seen through the window.
Looking through the window of the Bible and seeing Jesus helps us to understand who God is and who we are. That knowledge – knowing Jesus – helps us to know why we are here, how we should live, and how we are created to relate to each other.
Although the Bible includes instructions, it is not an instruction book on how to live. That is not its main purpose. Nor is it an instruction book on how to do ministry. Rather, it is a window to help us see Jesus. Jesus shows us how to live and how to do ministry. The Bible is one source of our knowledge about what Jesus did and what he is doing; the Holy Spirit is also a source of knowledge about what Jesus is and what he is doing. Jesus shows us what life is and how to live, and what ministry is and how to do it, by living with us in relationship and participating with us in our life and existence.
Here is what happens when we are preaching: we look through the window called the Bible and we see Jesus. In seeing him, we see things that are familiar to us, yet hard for us to understand and believe. The Holy Spirit comes alongside us and inspires us with the thoughts and words to understand, believe, and explain to ourselves and others this Jesus that we see in the Bible.
Preaching is our participation in Jesus’ words, through his Spirit, to humanity, about himself as the Word of God spoken of in the words of the Bible. We will elaborate in a moment. For now, this description is merely meant to help us see how all three aspects of the idea “the word of God” should be used in defining preaching.
This also helps us understand why we say the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God. It is the window given to us by the Father, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. That makes it inspired. As the gift of the Father to humanity, it is reliable. We can trust that it is not some kind of funhouse mirror that merely reflects back to us a distorted image of our own thinking. We can trust that our Father has given us a window that accurately shows us who we are in Jesus. That makes it infallible.
No other window has this origin. That is why we rely on the Bible alone for our doctrine and faith. Any other window that we might create without this kind of direct involvement of the Holy Spirit will suffer too much from the distortions that we put into it from our human nature.
Over the centuries after the books of the Bible were written, the Holy Spirit led the early church leaders to see that these particular books – as opposed to many others that were around at the time – were the ones that had been created with this special involvement on the Spirit’s part and could therefore be read as inspired and infallible.
What is preaching?
We are now ready to create a definition of preaching that incorporates our understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Word of God, and our understanding of Bible and of the preaching of the church, as words that bear witness to him. We can begin by saying that preaching is a statement, or an announcement, that is being made. It is not a request, an invitation or a sales pitch.
Again, our window analogy might be helpful. If you look out the window and see a thunderstorm coming, you do not say: “if you believe that a storm is coming, then one is coming, but if you do not believe it, then it will not happen.” No, you look out the window and you say, “a storm is coming.” Your statement, or announcement of the fact, may require some response on the part of those who hear your statement. But their response does not cause the event to come to pass.
In a similar way, the preaching of Jesus, the Word of God, is an announcement of a fact. The Word says to humanity: “You are forgiven, you are included, you are adopted, you are children of the Father in me, and I am your brother.” He does not invite us to become his brothers and sisters. Rather, he tells us that is who we are. Our response to this is to believe it or not, accept it or reject it, but our response does not cause this reality to come into existence, any more than the reality of a thunderstorm depends on whether people believe that the storm is coming.
The Greek word evangelion, which we usually translate “gospel,” carries this meaning. It refers to the announcement of good news – for example, the good news that the Emperor has won a victory over his enemies. Those who hear this announcement are invited to believe that it is true, but their belief does not cause the event to happen. The event – the Emperor’s victory – has taken place. It is an established fact that cannot change; the evangelion is an announcement about what has already happened.
When we preach, the Holy Spirit is enabling us to see humanity brought into the life of the Trinity through Jesus. Jesus conveys this truth to us, and the Holy Spirit helps us understand what we are seeing when we see Jesus. Then Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, gives us words to speak – words that come as close as we are capable of – to express the inexpressible glory of what we see.
Here is a Christ-centered, Trinitarian definition of preaching:
Preaching is our use of the Bible’s words, and the words Jesus gives us, to participate in Jesus’ announcement to humanity, through the Spirit, of the truth: the truth of who God is, of who Jesus is, of what he has done, of what the Spirit is doing, of who humans are as adopted  children of the Father in Jesus.
Preaching is a re-presentation of truths that God has given to us. Preaching is something Jesus does through us, something in which he allows us to participate by the Spirit.
The audience of preaching, in one sense, is the whole human race, even though believers constitute the majority of the people who listen and respond. The content of preaching are the truths about God, Jesus, the Spirit, and humanity. The most visible form of preaching is the sermon. However, the words spoken in every ministry context – from communion to counseling – are also preaching the gospel announcement. We will come back to this in later chapters as we address the part that our words play in all ministries.
How do we practice the ministry of preaching?
In chapter 1 we described people who already believe the truth about who they are in Jesus, and those who do not yet believe it. How does Jesus announce these truths about himself to people who already trust in him, and how does he do it to those who do not yet believe? Specifically, we want to ask in this chapter how Jesus makes this announcement through sermons, and hence, how we join him in this ministry.
Let us begin with those who already believe in Jesus.  No one’s belief is ever as mature as it could be. We, too, need to grow in faith. So, even when we think of people who know that their identity is hidden in Jesus, we are still thinking of people who – as Barth says – need to be “strengthened in that knowledge.”
We want the Holy Spirit to show us how they need to be strengthened in their faith. We can learn how people need to be strengthened only as we live in relationship with them while listening to what Jesus is telling us through his Spirit. So spend lots of time with the people you preach to. Eat meals with them, at home, at church, and in restaurants. Go to the movies with them, hang out at ball games with them, and let them talk.
As a preacher, you have ample time to talk, but first you need to listen. Ask them about the weather, sports, their jobs, and their families. Listen to them long enough for them to open up and begin to talk to you about their dreams, fears, and hopes. As you listen, listen prayerfully, with one ear turned to the people and one ear to the Holy Spirit. Ask Jesus to help you hear and understand the cry of the hearts of the people.
This kind of relationship and listening does not happen in months – it usually takes years, especially in our culture. We do not live and work side by side, in a single village, with the people we minister to. At best, we see most of them twice a week – a few hours on Sunday and a few hours in a small-group setting. Therefore we have to be patient in our listening and committed to the long haul of years in people’s lives.
This listening is not designed to create sermon topics, per se. In other words, we do not want to hear Jane complain about her husband on Tuesday and then give a sermon on Sunday about inconsiderate husbands. Our sermon topic is always Jesus and then, in light of who he is, what he means for our lives. If there is a specific problem in a person’s life, it should be addressed personally, in counseling, not publicly in a sermon. Public correction would most likely shut the communication down; people would not trust us with their real thoughts.
However, by listening, and hearing in the Spirit, what is really in the hearts and minds of our audience, we can begin to get a general sense of where people in our audience need strengthening in their beliefs about who they are in Jesus. This general sense of how our people think and what they feel should guide our choice of what to emphasize in our sermons from week to week as we preach about Jesus.
This listening also helps us understand where “Christian living” fits into preaching. Since we have defined preaching as our participation in Jesus’ announcement to humanity of who they are in relationship with God, you may wonder, “what about sermons on marriage, child rearing, prayer, etc.?”
As we listen to the people we are ministering to, we will find the Holy Spirit drawing our attention to the ways in which they believe and do not believe the good news of Jesus. The ways in which they do not believe the good news, or need to be strengthened in their belief, will affect the way they live: their marriages, their child rearing, their prayer life, etc. So, we join with Jesus in proclaiming who Jesus is, and what his significance is for each of us. As part of that proclamation, we offer practical illustrations of how believing this good news can be lived out in our lives. Romans 6, for example, ties Christian behavior to Christian identity.
We can also find guidance by being attentive to our own needs. We are human, in the same boat with everyone else. We also need to be strengthened in our faith and knowledge of who Jesus is and how our identity is transformed by him. We, like everyone, need to have our vision of Jesus clarified and expanded as the Holy Spirit ministers Jesus’ faith to us. So we can find a lot of direction about what we need to say to strengthen others in their relationship with Jesus by looking at ourselves and where we need help. If we have moved to a new area and have not had the time to get honest and open feedback from the members, we can still find our own spiritual needs a helpful source of topics to preach about, and many of our needs will be needs in the congregation as well.
It only makes sense, in the light of the Trinity, that preaching begins with relationship and listening. As Seamands points out in his chapter on relational personhood, we have been created in the image of the God who is relationship.  The ministry of the Father, Son, and Spirit begins with their ministering to and listening to each other and then extends to their inclusion of us in that relationship through the Son. Trinitarian ministry must have relational listening as its starting point.
This concept of listening to others and to ourselves helps us see how the practice of ministry is an organic process that flows out of life itself. The Trinity created this relational world we live in, and our ministry grows up out of this life. As I take my kids to school, visit with people in the hospital, counsel those who are struggling, go to the movies, play sports, and live life with those I minister to (family, neighbors, church), I am always thinking about who Jesus is for us in this life we are living together. Out of this Spirit-led, Christ-centered reflection on life comes my direction as to how to minister. The minister’s first task is to live a relatively normal, relational life with the people he ministers to.
In your practice of preaching, you want to begin by listening to others and to yourself to understand where the faith of your church needs strengthening. When the nature of these needs becomes clear, you can use the Bible and the worship seasons of the church as your starting point, to talk about who Jesus is and to help yourself and your people grow in your knowledge of him.
Preaching to people who do not have faith in Jesus
Although most people in our culture have heard of Jesus, and even accept that he was a real person in first-century Judea, many do not believe that Jesus has any significance for their own lives. They do not understand, for example, that Jesus was God in the flesh, that he died for our sins, that as the second Adam he gave humanity a new start in life. When we speak to such people, how should we practice the ministry of preaching?
Since most of us minister in small churches, we will know if a visitor is present when we get up to speak. If possible, meet the person before the service begins. You do not have to interrogate visitors about their beliefs, but if you have met them and learned that they are nonbelievers, then you can make minor adjustments to your preaching to accommodate their needs.
For example, if you are use theological words that you would not usually define for your “normal” Sunday crowd, you might take a few seconds to explain such terms as you use them. Such words might include “grace,” “righteousness,” or “Trinity.” You should also try to clarify any “in-speak.” This is a good practice even if there are no visitors! For example, if you refer to a denominational leader whom the visitor would not know, you might explain who he is.
The first task of preaching to nonbelievers is to remove – as much as possible – barriers to understanding.  We do not remove those barriers by simply discarding all uniquely Christian language. If we give a sermon and do not talk about God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, adoption, eternal life, resurrection, grace, forgiveness, or other key ideas of the gospel, then we have not given a Christian sermon. We have given a motivational speech.
We remove barriers to understanding not by eliminating all terminology, but by explaining the terms. Here are a few examples:
- Instead of saying “the incarnation,” we might say “when God the Son became human, an event we call ‘the incarnation.’”
- Instead of saying “the Trinity,” I might say “God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
- Instead of saying “Jesus makes us righteous,” I might say “Jesus puts us into a right relationship with his Father, himself, and the Holy Spirit.”
Do not allow your concern about speaking to nonbelievers to drive you to abandon the Christ-centered content and vocabulary of the gospel. Rather, let that concern drive you to find simple, easy-to-understand ways of explaining the gospel.
In addition to the means of communicating, we also want to think about the content of our communication to the nonbeliever in our preaching. Do nonbelievers need to hear sermons that are different than what believers need to hear? No. Believers and nonbelievers need to hear the same message. The Bible was written for both.
The message announces who Jesus is, what he has done for us, and what difference it makes for us that we are already children of God. This message strengthens believers in the grace and knowledge of Jesus; this same message communicates to nonbelievers knowledge they did not have before, and calls for a response.
This message, simply by announcing a fact, automatically demands a response from nonbelievers. When we stand in front of a group of people and tell them “you are included in Jesus, he is your brother and God the Father is your father,” we force our listeners to respond in one of three ways:
- They may believe,
- They may think, “That sounds good, but I want to know more” or
- They may say “I don’t believe it.” Even if they think they are delaying a decision, they have already fallen into category 3.
This is a reaction to an announcement, a statement of fact. We have not invited them to do anything, asked them to believe, or invited them to buy into a sales pitch we are making.  We have announced news. We have made a declarative statement about who Jesus is, and his significance for them, and they must respond either favorably or negatively to that statement.
A rejection – even a vehement and angry rejection – of the message may be seen as a success. If we faithfully participate in Jesus’ announcement of himself as the union of the Trinity with humanity, then we should expect some people to say, “No! I do not believe this! I am in control of my own existence; Jesus is not. I am offended when you tell me that Jesus died for me, forgave my sins, and has made me a child of the Father without my permission or action.”
Whether nonbelievers accept or reject the gospel is not the measure of whether we have been faithful in proclaiming it. By the nature of what it says, a faithful announcement of the gospel demands a response – and that response can be negative. Every human being is free and distinct in Christ to respond to the truth about himself by rejecting that truth. God gives them the space to do that.
So, the basic content of our sermons is the gospel. It’s the same whether we speak to 20 people who have been Christians all their lives, or 2,000 people who have never heard the name of Jesus. The basic content is “Jesus has included you in what he has done to give us all a relationship with the Father.”  This announcement strengthens believers in their faith and confronts the nonbeliever with information about themselves that they may or may not be ready to receive.
As we think of preaching in this Christ-centered light, it simplifies the task of preaching in a way we might not expect. Because of who Jesus is, we already know the most important fact there is to know about every member of every audience we ever speak to: they are embraced by the Father, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. Therefore we do not have to try to navigate a complex river between the shores of “winning the lost” and “building the believer.” The truth of Jesus accomplishes both those tasks simultaneously, and there is no difference between those two tasks. The same announcement about humanity in Christ that wins the nonbeliever also builds up the believer. A message designed to build believers also puts it in into the context of what Jesus has done,  and therefore presents the good news for nonbelievers, too.
The difference is not in what we need to say to each group, but in how each group responds. The believer will say “I believe! Tell me more about my relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit!” Nonbelievers might say this too, as they come to faith, but there is also the chance that they will reject the announcement about Jesus.
What if people who say they are believers reject the announcement? Perhaps they think, “Yes, Jesus died for me, but God won’t forgive me unless and until I repent and be good for a while.” Such people misunderstand the gospel – no one understands it perfectly – but Jesus saves them anyway. Such people need to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We all need to be further strengthened in the truth about who Jesus is, either in personal counsel or in congregational preaching.
Here are a few examples of how we might make the announcement about Jesus to an audience – such as that of a Sunday morning worship service – that is composed of both believers and nonbelievers:
- Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, I am confident to tell you that you belong to the Father – no matter what you believe about God.
- Your Daddy in heaven loves you and has embraced you as his child in Jesus. The Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart that this is true. Let Jesus share his faith with you about the truth of who you are in him.
- We all experience pain when we believe a lie about ourselves – the lie that God doesn’t love us unless we earn his love. Lies put us in bondage, but the truth sets us free. We know joy when we believe the truth that we are included and we are children of the Father.
Preaching Christ in this way wins the nonbeliever and builds up the believer.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through preaching?
Finally, we want to think about how we participate in Jesus’ announcement of himself – and how we do that in body, mind, and soul.
Body: Preaching engages our bodies primarily through vision and hearing.  Therefore we need to remove obstacles that prevent people from seeing and hearing us.
Many of us preach in environments that we do not have full control over: schools, meeting rooms, or churches that belong to others. Even though we do not control the environments, we can control what we do in those environments. Look at your environment before the service starts, especially if you are a visitor or are in an environment for the first time.
Perhaps there is nothing blocking people’s view of you, but there may be elements that create a sense of distance between you and your listeners. It might be an unusually high stage or pulpit. It could be an unusually large lectern that allows the audience to see only your head. Anything that seems to put a barrier between you and the audience should be set aside. You want the audience to see that you are with them, on their side, talking to them in a normal way, and you want them to be able to see your gestures and understand what your body language is communicating about your message.
In some meeting rooms, the stage is relatively high for the length of the room, and if we stand on the stage, it seems like we are looking down on the audience. In such cases, it is probably best that we do not stand on the stage when we speak. When we stand on the floor, this allows us to be on the same level with the audience.
Be conscious of your body language when you preach. Input from others – family, friends, and video – can be helpful. Ask others to let you know if you are stiff, failing to make eye contact, or not moving with natural gestures that help bring your point across. For example, when some people first start preaching, they have a nervous habit of putting their hands in their pockets and jingling whatever change or car keys happen to be there. That habit probably does nothing to help nervousness, and it can seriously interfere with the audience’s ability to receive the message. If necessary, remove everything from your pockets before you speak, so you will not have anything to fiddle with.
Hearing is also vital. Again, seek the help of others. Are you speaking loudly and clearly enough? Is there a natural, logical flow to what you are saying, or do you seem to be skipping from point to point and losing your audience? If someone took notes on your sermon, would they know what to write down, and how one idea led to another?
Having the right amount and the right kind of notes can be important. If your nerves take over and you forget what you want to say, or how to say it, then you will probably tend to become vague in your logic and drop your voice level, and become more inarticulate. If so, you will need more notes.
What is the right amount of notes? It’s the least amount that you need to give a logical and coherent sermon. If you can give a sermon that makes sense – even if you forget a couple of things you wanted to say – without any notes, then you may be more effective going without notes. The fewer notes you use, the more natural and engaging your sermon will be.
However, if you cannot give a sermon that flows and makes sense without a full manuscript, then you should use a full manuscript. Just print it out in a large font to make it easier to have some eye contact with the audience. It is better to read a sermon and express the gospel clearly than to speak without notes and leave your audience wondering what you were trying to say.
Most speakers fall somewhere in the middle: they need an outline of the key ideas but do not need to write everything out word for word. Experiment with different methods and do not be afraid to try weaning yourself off notes as time goes by and you gain more experience.
In general, the younger you are and the more preaching experience you have, the more likely it is that you can learn to speak without notes. New pastors may need more notes than later, when they have more experience. But as they grow older, they may need to go back to more notes than they used earlier, due to the natural deterioration of memory. There is no shame in using more extensive notes – but there is shame in mangling the message because you are afraid of looking older.
One additional point is that some topics need more extensive notes than others do. Sometimes your message will rely extensively on personal experiences, and you may be able to tell those stories quite well without notes. But other topics are more cognitive, and you may need to choose your words carefully so that the audience does not misunderstand.
One simple technique for minimizing your use of notes is to make the scriptural text itself your outline. In Ephesians 2:6-10, for example, you can read what Paul says about grace and then talk about it. Then you can read what he says about faith and talk about that. Last, you can read what he says about works and talk about that. The text is a simple, three-point sermon: grace precedes faith and faith precedes works, and all three are given to us by the Trinity.
Mind: Preaching, more than almost any other ministry except counseling, addresses the minds of Jesus’ people. The words, feelings, and thoughts in our minds are elements that need to be brought into captivity (2 Cor. 10:5). Our minds need to be renewed in order to enable us to believe what Jesus, the Word of God, is telling us about himself and who we are in him (Rom. 12:2).
In preaching, we have a unique opportunity to lovingly confront the wrong thinking of those we minister to. In counseling, we sometimes have to say to a person, “your thinking is wrong.” Such a moment, necessary as it is, creates confrontation and pain at a personal level, and it can sometimes be difficult for people to deal with it.
In preaching, however, we have the chance to let people look at wrong ways of thinking without experiencing it as a personal confrontation. In preaching we can say, “let’s think about some wrong ways of thinking and some right ways.”  Those whose thinking has been wrong are then able to take a step back and examine their own thoughts in a safer, more anonymous way. Sometimes it can be easier for us to change our thinking when we do it while listening to others talk, than when we are being directly confronted with our mistakes. Instead of being told, “Your thinking is wrong,” we have to ask, “Do I fall into that ‘wrong’ way?” We come to the conclusion on our own.
There are right and wrong ways for us as human beings to think about God and ourselves. Wrong thinking about God, from Adam and Eve down to us, has been the source of much of our sin and suffering in our relationship with the Father and with one another.
Our fallen human nature leads us to think of God as distant and angry. But in Jesus, we see that God is with us and forgives us. Human nature tends to think that God rewards us for our good actions and punishes us for bad actions. Yet we see in Jesus that bad things (like crucifixion) happen to good people (like Jesus). When we suffer, we often think that God has distanced himself from us, but Jesus shows that suffering can mean that we are so close to him that we are sharing with him in his sufferings, just as he shares with us in ours. It gives us a new perspective.
A major part of our participation in Jesus’ ministry of preaching is our role in exposing false, blinded thinking, and announcing the truth and light of Jesus’ correct thinking about God and humanity. As a single light dispels the darkness in a room, so the light of the gospel dispels the darkness in the minds of the people we serve in Christ. As with all the ministry of Jesus, he could choose to do it without us, but he has chosen to include us in his work to renew people’s minds and help bring their thoughts into captivity.
Ministering to people’s minds means that we have to go back to what we said earlier about listening to people. As we know people in real relationships, we see more fully how their thinking needs to be clarified in order to strengthen them in their understanding of Jesus.
One technique that is helpful in this regard is to make sermons more interactive. By opening space in a sermon for people to comment and ask questions, we create an environment where we can all check our minds against the truth of Jesus’ mind and let him correct our wrong thinking. Often there are many people in an audience with questions about what has been said in the sermon, but they are shy about speaking up. If just one or two people are bold enough to speak up, they will usually articulate questions that others also have. Sometimes the preacher has not thought of the question, or did not know whether it was important enough to include in the sermon. Allowing time for such interaction in the sermon allows the audience to say what they need, and to receive the food that will be most helpful to them at that moment.
Soul: Body, mind, and soul are inseparable constituent parts of what a human being is – not elements that can be divided from each other. When we speak of ministering to people’s souls, we mean the inner depth of their being, at a level below conscious thought, where their sense of self and identity resides. This is closer to what the Bible has in mind when it says “soul,” than the idea of Greek philosophy, which sees the soul as a metaphysical substance that can be separated from body and mind and have its own existence.
In this class, “soul” means the heart of a person’s self-awareness and existence. This is the core reality out of which all their thinking and acting is flowing. This is the place within our personhood where we most deeply perceive ourselves to be “good” or “bad,” “loved” or “unloved,” “accepted” or “rejected.” The truths or falsehoods that we believe, and the actions we perform, can have a profound impact on this inner self-identity. Likewise, the inner self-identity in our souls can powerfully influence what we think and do.
What does this have to do with preaching? Since Jesus is the union of the Trinity with humanity, he touches the soul of every human being. Deep within every human life, at the soul level, in the most basic core of our identity, is the fundamental truth that we belong. We are loved. We are accepted. This is true because of the Son of God’s union with our human nature in his humanity as the man Jesus Christ. This truth is communicated to our souls by the Holy Spirit, and this truth points us to the Father, who loves and accepts us.
It is this core truth that causes us to feel pain when we are rejected, excluded, and told that we do not belong. At the most fundamental level, below consciousness, we were created to be loved and accepted in Christ. When others make us feel unloved and excluded, such a lie wars against reality itself, the reality that the Trinity is embracing humanity.
Conversely, when we hear the truth of our Father’s love for us in Jesus, that message resonates to the depth of our being, in our souls. It rings true even if our minds cannot explain it and the actions of our bodies do not express it very well. But the truth does not penetrate into our souls automatically – the Holy Spirit must break through the objections of our human nature, in which we (like Adam and Eve) fear God instead of trusting him.
When we view human nature in this way, for all that we are as we are embraced in Jesus, it inspires our preaching with a boldness and authority that transcends our natural human perspective. You can stand before any audience, anywhere in the world, and boldly announce to them their inclusion in the life of the Trinity. As you do so, you can know that in the depth of their souls that message will resonate, resound, and echo with the authoritative confirmation of the Holy Spirit as he communicates the knowledge of Jesus into the depth of their being. This interplay of soul, mind, and body expresses itself in different ways, depending on where people’s minds are in the process of being renewed and bringing every thought into captivity. Here are some examples of how people respond:
- I wish I could believe what you’re saying [soul], but I just can’t see how it could be true [mind], so I’m not coming to your church anymore [body].
- I want to believe it [soul], but I just don’t see how it fits with the Bible [mind], so I’m going to listen skeptically [body].
- Somehow I’ve always known that God had to be this way [soul], and I can’t yet explain how I know it’s true [mind], but I want to learn more and help others learn this good news [body].
Humanity was created for the purpose of participating in the life of the Trinity. It is the shape and purpose and destiny of every person. It is not just the destiny of our souls — it is our destiny in our full personhood – soul, mind, and body. Since our status as God’s children has been brought about in Jesus, this destiny is now infused into human nature itself. This purpose calls to us from the deepest place in our being, where the Father is loving us in Jesus, through the Spirit. It calls to us from the depth of our souls even when we are completely unaware of what is happening.
The more we meditate on the reality of humanity’s union with Christ, the more we see that preaching could never work if this union did not exist. If we were completely cut off from Jesus and his Spirit, then no human’s fallen soul could ever believe the gospel. Our sinfulness would always distort and doubt what we were hearing. Faith is a gift of God to us in Christ (Eph. 2:8). This is what Purves means when he talks about the vicarious humanity of Christ, and how Jesus is both “speaking God and a hearing man, and this for us.”  As God, he speaks authoritatively to us. As a human, he listens submissively and gives the perfect response to what God wants.This gives us confidence to preach. We know that when people hear the good news that they are included in God’s love, they are hearing the very reason for their existence, and the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to them in their souls that what they are hearing is the truth about God and about humanity. So be bold in your preaching. Be confident that the truth will reach its target – not through human wisdom or eloquence, but by the Spirit of truth making it effective. What Christ is speaking through you into the souls of your listeners is the fundamental reality of all existence.
Principles and Practices of Preaching
by Michael Morrison
What is preaching?
Preaching is the art of communicating God’s word to encourage, exhort, and correct (2 Tim. 4:2). It is generally based on Scripture, although in some cases its basis may be hidden (e.g., Acts 17:22-29). The ultimate goal of preaching is to join Jesus in his ministry of bringing people into sharing the fellowship of the Father, Son and Spirit. As part of that goal, preaching should help people have faith in Christ, and to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:2). It should present the gospel of what Christ has done for us, and how he wants us to respond to his grace. It should help them receive biblical information and exhortations, and implement them in their lives and the way they think. It should address their spiritual needs, including those they did not know they had.
Preaching is not a form of entertainment, although it may sometimes be entertaining as a means to its primary purpose. It should not be boring, for that would hinder its purpose. It may address contemporary issues, but preaching should also address issues that contemporary society tends to overlook. There are two primary ways to let Scripture be the basis for the topics of our sermons: either to follow the lectionary cycle, or to systematically preach through biblical books. 
When a contemporary issue is so pressing that everyone in the congregation is thinking about it anyway (for example, a recent tragedy in the congregation, community, nation or world), then the cycle may be interrupted and the congregation’s concerns can make them more receptive to what God’s word may be for them in such a situation. Neither lectionary nor expository preaching seems to be the pattern found in the New Testament – preaching should be driven by its primary purpose, not an advance commitment to a particular format or cycle.
What are the primary principles we need to remember as we prepare sermons?
First, that we are the messengers, not the creators of the message or the focus of the message. Creativity is involved – in our desire for effectiveness, we may seek new ways of delivering an old message; we seek creative intersections of Scripture and society; we seek to make the message faithful to the original, but always new. Despite the importance of our creativity, we strive to deliver a message from God, not from ourselves. We need to accurately convey what Scripture itself teaches, and beware the human tendency to read our own ideas into the text. Homiletics starts with hermeneutics. We need to discern principles in the text, and discern how they apply today. Prayer, and sensitivity to the Spirit, is part of preparation.
In our messages, we need to point people to God, not to ourselves as indispensable mediators. We do not want parishioners to think, “I could never have gotten that out of the Bible on my own. I might as well not try. My spiritual growth is dependent on the pastor.” Rather, we want people to think, “If I think about Scripture in depth, I could understand it better, just as the pastor does. I’ll do my best, but I am also glad that we have a pastor, and I want to be enriched by the blessings God gives the pastor.” We want to present God’s truth as accessible, not as exclusive to trained professionals. Good preaching is good for the church, but ironically, the better the oratory skills of the preacher, the more danger there is that people will be attracted for the wrong reasons. Good preachers should help people see beyond the messenger, so that they are following Jesus, not the preacher.
Second, the authority of the message comes from God, not from the speaker. The preacher speaks not as one who is above the congregation, but as part of the congregation – the message speaks to the preacher as well as to the others. God may speak to the preacher primarily during preparation rather than the delivery of the sermon, but the preacher should still acknowledge being under the authority of the word of God, rather than one who wields its authority over others. Even when preachers are personally innocent of a specific fault, they must acknowledge that they are human, struggling with other issues. Like Jesus, we are able to empathize with human weakness, for we are also tempted in every way – and unlike Jesus, we sin (cf. Heb. 4:15).
Third, preaching should remind people of what God has done. It is not a report of our search for divine light, but rather a report of how God is speaking to us, revealing to us the goodness and grace of God. Preaching should reflect God’s supreme self-revelation in the form of Jesus Christ. What he said and what he did show us what God is like, and it shows us the nature of the divine life for which we were created and for which we were redeemed. We need to remind people of what he has done, and encourage them to trust in him for their salvation and sanctification. The God who did not spare his own Son can be counted on to provide all that we need for the completion of our transformation (Rom. 5:10; Phil. 1:6). Every sermon should include the gospel.
Fourth, the sermon is not just information, but a catalyst for transformation. We want the message to have results in people’s lives – bringing about the full range of biblical responses: faith, repentance, obedience, love, joy, humility, etc. We let Scripture set the agenda for what the expected response might be, and we respond to Scripture by faithfully repeating its explicit and implicit exhortations. As Fred Craddock says, we must not only report what Scripture says – a sermon must also do what Scripture is intended to do.
Fifth, the messages should be theologically accurate. We do not want to invent or perpetuate errors. We acknowledge the inability of human language to fully describe God, but we also acknowledge that God uses human language as a means of self-revelation. We strive to use human language as best as we can, being attentive to the nuances of words (which are always changing), the ways in which our words might be misunderstood, and clarifying what we mean as well as what we do not mean. We do not merely repeat the words of Scripture (even unbelievers could do that), but we seek to put them into other words to expand or limit what is meant. Theology helps shape the parameters of our paraphrase.
Sixth, preachers need to know the audience. We not only need to know the content of our message, we also need to know how it intersects the lives of the people who are listening to us. We need to show how the passage is relevant to their needs. (We do not make it relevant – it already is relevant, so we need to discern how it is, and explain how it is.) There are occasions when we are a guest speaker and do not know our audience well, and must therefore be more general in what we say (this is even more true when we are speaking in another culture), but ideally we should be aware of what’s going on in the lives of our brothers and sisters in the faith. In this regard, small churches should do better than large churches, and certainly better than a mass-media ministry in which the message must be even more generalized. We need to know the crises and triumphs of the congregation, their fears and (sometimes) an excess of confidence in their own abilities. We need to know the audience so that we might know when to emphasize God’s faithfulness to us (e.g. Rom. 8:31-39) and when to emphasize our need for response (e.g., Rom. 11:19-21).
Last, we need to know when to stop preaching, and by that I do not just mean ending the worship services on time. “Preaching” should not be our primary means of communication with members, spouses, children, and neighbors. We are not perpetual fountains of good advice, nor are we always speaking with divine authority on every topic that comes up. When we step out of the pulpit, we step into a different role in the congregation. People may still look up to us as authorities (and hopefully we do have some earned authority – that is why we are asked to speak in the first place), but we do not always have the same authority as when we are delivering a message that is intentionally researched, thought out and structured to be a cultural transposition of God’s word into our own situation. We need humility from start to finish, and we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom. 12:3).
Putting it into practice
What are the mechanics of sermon structure and delivery?
A sermon’s structure should serve its purpose, that of helping us be transformed into the image of Christ. There is no divinely mandated sermon structure; that is to some extent shaped by the subject matter and the rhetorical customs of the day, which shape what the audience expects to hear. The style used in an Episcopal church would not be very effective for a Pentecostal audience, and vice versa. This is part of what it means to know the audience. Some audiences expect illustrations from contemporary movies; others from articles in Atlantic magazine. Some expect sermon points to be supported with philosophy and logic; others expect personal anecdotes. Most audiences are flexible, but the more we make them flex, the more we need to compensate in other areas. Our understanding of the ethos of the audience can help us put our message into a format that will make it easier for them to receive the message.
Nevertheless, there are times to use an unexpected format, if this serves the communicative purpose. If the scripture passage is normally at the beginning of the message, there may be occasions or topics in which it might be rhetorically more effective to delay it. Or the speaker may wish to dress in costume and speak as a biblical character in order to make a particular point. The purpose is not to draw attention to the speaker or the technique, but it should always serve the communicative purpose.
Some preachers begin with a reading of the entire passage of scripture they wish to exposit (this is common in churches that use the lectionary), and the sermon proceeds on that foundation. Other preachers read one or two verses and explain them, then one or two more, with commentary alternating with scripture. This format works particularly well when the verses are displayed on a screen – we proceed through the text in short segments at a time, commenting on historical background, word meanings, and application as relevant to each verse. Other preachers may approach the task in different ways.
Many preachers use a manuscript, and so does the U.S. President, for formal speeches. When we preach, we have something important to say, and we want to do the best that we can to ensure that we say it right. It may not look “cool” or “gifted,” but it is the format that works best for some. The priority is the message, and our method should help the audience focus on the message – our method should not be a distraction, and the best method will be different for different preachers in different circumstances.
One other consideration is that preaching isn’t the only thing a pastor needs to do. Although some preachers say they need 35 hours to prepare a good sermon, most of us don’t have that kind of time, and we have to find a rhythm that works best for us.
Can we compete with TV? No. Television programs have huge budgets and large staffs, for content, audio, and visuals. The presenters of such programs have been selected as the best of the best – not just in the top 1 percent, but in the top .001 percent. It is not realistic for every church of a few hundred (or less) people to have preachers and programs in the top .001 percent. Nor is it realistic to expect that every preacher be as good as the televised preachers. We cannot compete on that basis, nor should we try. We are not entertainers, but messengers.
We may not be in the top .001 percent when it comes to rhetorical gifts, and we need not get depressed about it. But we should do the best we can, with the time God has given us, with the gifts he has given us, where he has placed us. Our job is to know what God says, to know our audience, and to help one connect with the other, to facilitate the work that Jesus is doing in their lives. We should trust God to do the rest, and that does not necessarily mean popularity. Of course, it can hurt our feelings when some people would rather watch sit-com re-runs instead of listening to us preach, but their choice should not affect our sense of self-worth. Our goal is to be effective for those who do come.
 For an exposition of this idea, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume 1, section 4.
 Sometimes we mention Jesus even while ignoring who he actually is; his name is invoked primarily to add support to our own ideas.
 It is good for people to know their Bibles better, but the Bible is not an end in itself – it is of value primarily because it tells us about Jesus (see John 5:39-40). The Bible is trustworthy, but it is not our Savior – Jesus is.
 John Harries, Discovering Stained Glass (Buckinghamshire: Shire, 2008), 7.
 As noted by Karl Barth in Doctrine of the Word of God: Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics.
 This is sometimes called the “iconographic nature of Scripture” and is discussed by many authors. One source is M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Shaped by the Word: The Power of Scripture in Spiritual Formation (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 2000).
 Gerhard Friedrich, “Euangelizomai,” page 267-273 in Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds; translated and abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).
 “Adopted” is a metaphor; it does not imply that we humans were ever the children of any other father. We were created as children of God and we never stopped being his children. The metaphor of “adoption” is designed to communicate to us the truth that we are his children, not the precise mechanism of how we became his children.
 This is sometimes phrased as “those who believe the truth of who they are in Jesus.” We should believe this truth, but this truth does not in itself save us – we are saved by Jesus, and our faith should ultimately be in him, not just in a truth about ourselves. Salvation is based on a personal relationship, not a cognitive achievement. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge. After a person comes to have faith in Jesus, then cognitive growth also occurs. Your audience may contain people who trust in Jesus but do not yet grasp (or are unable to put into words) the way in which he transforms human identity.
 Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, 35.
 We may not be able to remove all barriers to belief – that is the Holy Spirit’s role – but we do our best to help people have an accurate understanding of what they should believe. We do not want them to reject the gospel merely because we have used terms they do not understand.
 This does not mean that sermons should never exhort – the Bible has plenty of exhortations for both nonbelievers and believers. One exhortation is: “Repent and believe the gospel!” It is a command. However, belief cannot simply be commanded, or turned on by will – a person either believes or does not. The biblical commands to believe are a rhetorical way of affirming that it is the truth: This is something you can believe in, and stake your life on.
 Jesus phrased it, “The kingdom of God has come.” God’s realm has invaded ours, and we need to change our way of thinking and respond to that. Paul phrased it, “Jesus died for our sins and God has through him reconciled all humanity to himself.” Jesus has acted and given us a relationship with God. The message describes God’s action in Christ, and how that affects us.
 If we attempt to “build” believers without the context of grace, we will most likely fall into legalism. What Christians do should flow out of what Christians are, and that flows out of who Jesus is and what he has done.
 If we preach on the radio, or people listen to our sermons on the Internet, there is no visual content. But in a congregation, it is possible for people to see us, and we should do what we can to make the most of visual possibilities.
 Paul does this. “Does this mean such and such?” He responds, “By no means!”
 Purves, Crucifixion of Ministry, 81.
 One potential problem with this approach is that some preachers take five years to get through a book, which means that people in the audience may receive only a narrow slice of biblical teachings before they move to another city. Preachers who can get five sermons out of one verse may be viewed as superb preachers, and perhaps they are, but they are giving the congregation very small servings of gourmet food. The ratio of human words to biblical words is very high. At least for me, I find that ten verses of Scripture is usually a better basis for a sermon, and it enables the preacher to explain more of the Bible each year. It also forces the preacher to focus on what is most important, rather than exhaustively pursuing every detail.
 Those words originated as a translation of a divine concept into Greek, and for most of our parishioners, they are a human translation of the Greek into English.
What is baptism in the light of who Jesus is?
The English word “baptize” comes from the Greek baptizō, which has its root in baptō, meaning “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to dye.” Think of something like a piece of cloth being immersed in a vat of dye, or a finger dipped in water (Luke 16:24).
Ritual immersions were used in Judaism for proselyte conversion. The Essenes baptized new members. John the Baptizer used baptism in conjunction with repentance. Jesus and his disciples used it for new disciples in the Christian movement.
What is the significance of baptism? One difficulty in this subject is that a physical activity cannot provide a perfect picture of spiritual reality. Any analogy breaks down if we try to press the details too far, so we have to investigate to see what points of similarity were intended, and which are accidental. We will proceed in an inductive way, gathering questions and evidence before drawing conclusions.
- It is possible that baptism is designed to picture a permanent immersion, but since we cannot survive underwater, the ritual was necessarily temporary. In this case, we should extend the symbolism of immersion, rather than focus on the fact that it was but an instant.
- Another factor to consider is that for centuries, in many churches, baptisms were administered by sprinkling or pouring. The analogy of immersion, if it was ever intended, was neglected.
- Baptism is normally administered once, in contrast to the Lord’s Supper, which is repeated many times. Does this frequency have counterparts in the spiritual life, or are the two rites symbolizing the same spiritual reality in different ways?
- Just because we can think of an analogy that “works” does not mean it was the main point of the rite, or even that it was intended.
- Jesus had no sins of his own, so why did he seek John’s baptism of repentance? If he did it on our behalf, is it necessary for us to do it, too? Is the meaning of his baptism to be seen in the meaning of ours, or vice versa?
- The meaning given to baptism by Jews, or by John the Baptist, may not necessarily extend into Christian baptism. It is possible that baptism before the crucifixion pictured one thing, but the ritual was given a new meaning after Jesus’ resurrection.
- Does baptism symbolize what we do, or what God has done? Can it be both?
- Does baptism do anything objectively toward our salvation, or is it done for subjective, sociological or psychological reasons? Everyone agrees that it has symbolism, but is that all it has? Can people be saved without it?
Questions abound as to whether it is appropriate to baptize infants, whether baptism must be done by immersion, whether it is necessary for salvation, and what it means. Let us first explore the New Testament, and that will help us see how we join Jesus in his ministry as he baptizes the people we are working with.
Baptismal symbolism in the Bible
Daniel Migliore writes, “The New Testament unfolds the meaning of baptism in many rich images. Each of them is important and complements the others.”
- 1 Cor. 6:11 appears to connect baptism with cleansing: “You were washed [apparently alluding to baptism], you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (NRSV throughout). Baptism signified the removal of their guilt [justification] and that they had been sanctified, or made holy, set apart for God’s use. The verbs are passive – the focus is on what Christ did, but the context of the verse also includes a person’s response (a change in behavior). Water (either immersion or sprinkling) can picture cleansing.
- 1 Peter 3:20-21 says that baptism was prefigured by Noah’s Flood. Baptism “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It is not a physical cleansing, but the implication is that it is the removal of spiritual dirt (forgiveness), by which our conscience can be cleared. It is not clear whether the good conscience refers to cleansing from past transgressions, or the basis of a new life. Jesus’ resurrection is associated with the good conscience (a new life), or to the cleansing (justification).
- Romans 6:3-4 associates baptism with dying and
rising with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into
Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried
with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the
dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life”
When Paul says “buried with him” (rather than died with him), he is probably referring to a person’s descent below the water. A person being baptized acknowledges the ancient Christian confession that “Christ died for us,” that he “died for our sins.” Baptism signifies identification with Jesus’ death, either (from his perspective) that he died for us, or (from our perspective) that our “old self” died with him.
The symbolism could focus on a) the fact that Jesus did this for us, and we commemorate it, or b) that we acknowledge our need for his death as the solution to our sins as well as believing in what he did. Rising from the water would then correspond to rising with Christ to “a new life.” The focus could be on the fact that Jesus gives us a new identity, that he is the second Adam for all humanity (Romans 5), or on the fact that we are to respond to our new identity with new behavior (Romans 6).
- Baptism is not only associated with new life, it is also connected with new birth. Jesus may be referring to baptism when he says that a person must be “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Titus 3:5 refers to “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, Acts 2:38 connects baptism with “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These images connect baptism with the beginning of Christian life, and that is how the rite has historically been used.
- Colossians 2:11-12 connects baptism with an older initiation rite, circumcision: “In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” We were spiritually circumcised when we were baptized. Verses 13-14 then connect baptism with new life and forgiveness of sins.
- 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 connects baptism with the Israelites’ Exodus through the Red Sea: “Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Paul does not develop the analogy of being “under the cloud” – immersion does not seem to be an accurate word for the Exodus. This was a major event in the formation of the nation – an escape from slavery into becoming a nation under God. In this chapter, Paul uses the analogy to argue for a change in behavior.
- Jesus used baptism figuratively in Luke 12:50: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He told James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39). He was referring to his suffering and death; the meaning of “immersion” is nearly gone, and the meaning of “major life transition” is closer. Our baptism might then be viewed as an imitation death ritual. This figurative meaning could have come from Jewish practices such as proselyte baptism. Crucifixion and resurrection was a pivotal time in Jesus’ life, the end of one life and the beginning of another. Geoffrey Bromiley says that this is “the real baptism of the [New Testament], which makes possible the baptism of our identification with Christ.” He sees the cross as central to the meaning of Christian baptism.
None of the biblical passages is an attempt to explain what baptism means; they all assume that the readers are familiar with the rite, and then use the rite to make another point. Further, the passages make different points. This suggests that baptism has several legitimate meanings, and the New Testament may not give an exhaustive survey of the meaning(s) involved in baptism. We may cautiously explore additional possibilities.
Exploring the symbolism of “immersion”
Let us begin with the image of immersion, and ask how it might be relevant to Jesus and what he is doing in our lives. Some have suggested that before the Son of God became a human being, he was immersed in the life and love of his Father and the Spirit. In this sense, immersion is part of the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not just live “with” each other, they have always lived and had their being immersed in each others’ existence. This does not mean the obliteration of their distinctive identities as unique persons, any more than the immersion of a cloth into water means that the cloth becomes water. But each divine Person is “soaking” in the others. Their lives are distinct but not separate, and they live in a state of being in which they are immersed in each others’ existence.
When the Son became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), he immersed himself into humanity and thus into our human nature. In this case, he became what he was immersed in. The Creator became flesh, part of the creation. Although the Son of God was immersed into our sinful nature, he trusted his Father and undid the fall of Adam by continually living as the Father’s trusting Son.
If this symbolism is correct, what might it mean for our human nature? Whenever God enters a place, that place becomes holy. When God appeared in the burning bush, God’s goodness made that place holy. When God’s presence entered the tabernacle in the wilderness, it made that tent a holy place. When Jesus touched a leper, he did not catch the disease – he healed it.
When the Son of God was immersed into humanity, it did not undo his existence in which he is immersed in the life of the Father and the Spirit. Even though the Son lives as a human, he does not stop being divine. By being immersed in human nature, he brings human nature into contact with God. The Bible says that we are in Christ, and Christ is in the Trinity; in Christ we have been brought into the life of the Triune God. His dual immersion (with divinity and with humanity) changes us, bringing us into God.
This is good theology, but is it the meaning of water baptism? The word “immersion” has interesting parallels with Christ, but other details about baptism seem to be left hanging, and if we focus on the word immersion, then we are probably missing out on some lessons conveyed by those other details.
- The biblical passages about baptism seem to focus on the end of something and the beginning of something else. In most of the verses, baptism marks a transition point. It marks the end of the old self and guilt, not just the new life in fellowship with God.
- In Romans 6, immersion pictures death and burial, rather than life with God. Our new life is pictured not by immersion, but by rising out of the water.
- If the ritual pictures something that lasts forever, it would seem permissible to repeat it frequently. But if it marks a decisive transition point, only once would be appropriate.
- If we focus on “immersion,” and yet administer baptism to infants by sprinkling, then we are reducing the effectiveness of the image. This suggests either that our administration is misleading, or that we are focusing on the wrong part of the symbolism.
Another look at Romans 6
In Romans 6:1-7, Paul uses the imagery of baptism to explain that our sinful nature was put to death in Jesus’ death. In Romans 1-4 Paul points out that humanity’s relationship with God cannot be based on human work or behavior because we are unable to initiate a relationship with God.
In chapter 5, Paul explains how Jesus is the answer to this dilemma. In the same way that Adam took us all down into sin and death, so Jesus has brought righteousness and life. Humanity has a new start, a new foundation, in Jesus. The primary definition of humanity is no longer “fallen in Adam” – it is “restored in Christ.”
Beginning in chapter 6, Paul explains that the gospel does not give us “permission to sin.” Instead, the gospel tells us that the old way of living is dead, and in Christ, there is a new way of living. When we understand that we have been brought into the Triune life, we see that sin should have no role in our life. Our present life should be in harmony with our future life.
Everything Paul says about baptism in Romans 6 is in the language of being united with Christ, being “in” him. Our baptism is in him, our death is a death with him, and our resurrection is a resurrection with him. Baptism signifies being bound up and included in Jesus. We are joined to his baptism – not just his baptism in water at the hands of John, but his baptism on the cross (Luke 12:50), his death and resurrection. Baptism is about what Jesus has done to us and our human nature: he has washed it, crucified it, and resurrected it. He has changed the source and nature of our humanity from Adam to himself. Baptism signifies a change.
Baptism has nothing to do with earning life with God. It is not signifying what we have done – it signifies what Jesus has done for us. Our faith, or our acceptance, is not meritorious. Jesus brought us into his kingdom; all we did is wake up when the Spirit nudged us, and we then realized where Jesus had placed us. We do not celebrate our awakening, our coming to faith, but we celebrate something far more significant: what Jesus and the Spirit have done. We celebrate something done in the past – done objectively by Jesus in crucifixion and resurrection, and subjectively realized by us at a later date. We “catch on” to the truth of what was done for us. Our faith, and our immersion in water, cannot make us children of the Father. Jesus has done that. Our faith implements it in our life.
Baptism is a physical action, an “object lesson” by which we remind ourselves and tell others that Jesus has brought a significant change in our lives: the end of the old Adamic human, and the beginning of a life in Christ, with all that it entails. Bromiley writes, “The action itself is divinely ordained as…a means to present Christ and therefore to fulfill the attesting work of the Spirit. It does not do this by the mere performance of the prescribed rite; it does it in and through its meaning. Nor does it do it alone…it does it in conjunction with the spoken and written word.” The actions are not self-interpreting – they need to be explained by the officiating minister.
Just as Jesus took us into the grave with him, and put to death our Adamic, sinful nature, so also we go down into the “grave” of baptism (if the baptism is done by immersion). Just as Jesus took us up with him in his resurrection, so also we come out of the baptismal waters to symbolize new life.
Baptism is not the cause of salvation – Jesus is. Baptism is a response to salvation. Since humanity has already died and been resurrected in Christ, we go through a ritual reenactment of what has already happened to us by “dying” in the water and coming back up “resurrected” out of the water (or for infants, being washed and cleansed by the water).
Jesus’ baptism is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox churches at the Feast of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” or to reveal something that was hidden. Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:11). Baptism is an epiphany for us, too, in that it announces who we are, that Jesus has made us his own. Before we came to faith, we did not know who we were, but baptism reveals that Jesus is our true identity, that our lives are hidden in him (Col. 3:3). Baptism is a moment when something that has been true all along is portrayed in plain sight for all to see.
John the Baptizer was conducting a baptism of repentance. Jesus had no sin, so why did Jesus seek that baptism? He was acting as the representative of all humanity, and he repented on behalf of all humanity. It’s as if he said, “I’m starting the human race all over again, and we are not going to go down the path we did before. We will be loyal to God rather than taking matters into our own hands.”
Jesus was signifying the fact that all humanity needed to be washed, to be forgiven, and the old approach had to die, and a new approach to life was needed. He was signifying a decisive life transition, a decisive transformation. He did not transition from sinful to sinless, but he transitioned into his time of active ministry. The Spirit descended on him—not that the Spirit was not with him before this, but signifying in a visual way that life is possible only by the Spirit. The Father said, “This is my Son.” He now adds, “All who are included in my Son are also my children.”
Jesus’ baptism did not earn him forgiveness (he did not need it) and it did not earn him his status as the Father’s Son (he already had that). In the same way, our baptism does not earn our forgiveness (we have that already), nor our status as the Father’s children. It portrays something that is true before the baptism occurs. It symbolizes the truth that we have already died and been raised in the death and resurrection of Christ. Our new life, our assurance of eternal life, is made possible by what he went through on the cross and in the tomb.
Why it is commanded
Why does Christ command baptism in water if what it pictures has already taken place? It is to help understand that we need a clean break with the past, and that this has been done not through our efforts or our wisdom – it has been accomplished for us in Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection. All we can do is get in line with what he has already declared us to be.
The water of baptism portrays the truth that Christ has transformed our life. Although infants cannot yet understand this point, the meaning of baptism should be explained as the children grow older (just as young Jewish children are taught as they grow older about the significance of the Passover ceremonies they had participated in as infants). They are to see their identity as a new life in Christ, not an old life in Adam. The decisive turning point in their life has already occurred. They should not believe lies of guilt, fear, and being excluded from God.
This is why Paul uses the imagery of baptism in Romans 6. The readers in Rome are probably not wanting to go out and sin – rather, they are afraid that the gospel of grace will encourage people to sin. Paul is explaining that the symbolism of baptism does not lead to sin. Rather, it is an identification with Christ. Baptism pictures the old way of sin as dead; and the new life is pictured by being in union with Christ. Since our new life is in Christ, our life should not be characterized by sin, because that is not part of Christ.
Baptism reminds us that salvation does not just address the past – it also addresses the future. There is death of the old, but we also need life for the future. We look forward to an eternity in which sin does not exist, and so our new life even in this age should say “death” to sin. Our life today should reflect the kind of life we want in eternity. But this is not achieved by us – it is achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and baptism points us to that fact. The water might also symbolize the need for the Spirit in our new life.
Baptism does not just picture death of the old, nor just picture new life – it pictures both: a decisive turning point, a transformation: the end of the Adamic creation and the start of the new creation, the new humanity, in Christ. In our behavior, we should see ourselves as children of God, people led by the Spirit, united to Christ. Out with the old, and in with the new!
How do we practice the ministry of baptism?
Baptism is generally a public ceremony – it is not done privately. For one thing, our new life in Christ is not a solitary life – it is life in community with other believers. As we picture a person rising to new life, we also picture them coming into a community of people who know they are in Christ.
Another reason for making the ceremony public is that it reminds older believers of their own baptism, and that they have already acknowledged the decisive turning point in their own life. As believers, we all grow throughout our lives in our understanding of what baptism means, just as we are growing in our understanding of all aspects of our life in Jesus.
We see this in Romans 6. Most people in the original audience had already been baptized, yet Paul is trying to deepen their understanding of what they had experienced, and apply the lessons of it in a new way. As we minister to believers throughout their lives, we should occasionally return to the theme of baptism: what it means and how that meaning (transformation in Jesus) has ongoing application in all areas of their lives. One way to do this is to talk about baptism every year on Epiphany Sunday. This is a worship theme built into the Christian calendar to help us return on an annual basis to thinking about how Jesus has identified with us in baptism, and then it can be used to comment on how we acknowledge this identity in our baptism.
We need to continually remind people that they are in Christ, that their identity is in him, and their salvation is assured in him. As we assure believers of this good news, we will be sharing the good news with unbelievers, too.
In some denominations, believers are familiar with baptism as a sign of their own faith. It will take some time for them to adjust their thinking to see it as a witness to Jesus’ work on our behalf. Yes, our response is important, but it is not even possible unless Jesus’ work is already objectively true. People need to hear the meaning again and again, from several angles. The baptism of an infant can be an occasion to help people see that it is not our own faith that we are celebrating, but baptism is a witness to the grace of God.
Sometimes people ask to be baptized again. We do not encourage this, nor do we forbid it. Some people question whether they “really meant it” or “really knew what they were doing” when they were baptized. This often comes from a legalistic, contractual way of thinking about salvation, in that every detail must be done just right, because its effectiveness depends on what we do and whether we do it properly.
The key issue that needs to be addressed with re-baptism is that baptism is not something we do. Rather, it commemorates something that Jesus has done. Faith is not something we muster up to make the Father love us. Faith is something that Jesus has in his relationship with his Father, and he shares it with us through the Spirit. When we express faith by being baptized, it is not primarily our faith that we are expressing. It is Jesus’ faithfulness, being shared with us in the Spirit, and being expressed in our words and actions. It is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9).
Because no one is perfect, our expression of Jesus’ faith will always be inadequate in some way. If our salvation depended on our own faith, we would never be saved. The validity of our baptism is not based on how well we understand or express the faith that Jesus is sharing with us. Our baptism is valid because of who Jesus is. Jesus is our baptism; he is the one who has brought us out of the old life and into the new.
If believers approach you about being re-baptized because they doubt their faith or fear that they did not properly understand the gospel, then your job is to assure them of who they already are in Jesus. Explain more fully who Jesus is and reassure them of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness. He did his work perfectly, regardless of how poorly we did ours. The truth that baptism pictures is still true, regardless of how poorly we symbolized it or understood it at some point in the past. Remind them that baptism is a picture of grace, not of our performance.
In churches that practice infant baptism, this ceremony is based on three important assumptions:
- That at least one of the parents has faith in Christ,
- that the child will be raised as a Christian, and
- that when these children become old enough to make their own faith decisions (usually around age 13-18), they will go through a confirmation process in which they publicly accept the gospel for themselves.
When these conditions are not fulfilled, re-baptism is sometimes appropriate. For example, there was a young woman who had been baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church. Even though her family went to mass occasionally, she learned nothing about Jesus and her Father in heaven. At age 13 she started a confirmation class but quickly dropped it. Throughout her teen years and into early adulthood, she rejected all religion and lived a very damaging lifestyle. But she was eventually invited to church, learned about Jesus, embraced the gospel, and asked to be baptized.
Because there had never been a moment of confirmation in her life in which she expressed the faith of Jesus for herself, it was appropriate to re-baptize her. If she regarded her baptism as an infant as a meaningful moment in her life, and therefore she did not want to be re-baptized, then that would have been OK, too. But since she wanted to experience baptism, and she had never been confirmed in her baptism as an infant, the pastor agreed to re-baptize her.
We want to help people see that baptism marks the transition between the old life and the new life – achieved objectively by Jesus in his death and resurrection, achieved subjectively by our transition from an old way of thinking and into a new way of thinking. For non-Christians who come to believe during adulthood, baptism is normally done shortly after they come to faith. For people who are baptized in infancy, they are (hopefully) taught the new life from the beginning; their “transition” begins when they are born, continues through confirmation and the rest of their lives. Only if this process has been derailed would it be appropriate to re-baptize them.
A final word about re-baptism. If a person experienced something called “baptism,” but that ceremony had nothing to do with the Trinity, then that person has never been baptized. This would most commonly arise in situations involving non-Christian religions. If a person was dunked in water but it was not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then it was not a baptism in Christ. Such a person who comes to believe in what Christ has done is not seeking rebaptism – they are seeking Christian baptism for the first time and should be ministered to as a person just coming to faith.
When to baptize
For people who do not yet believe, baptism represents a point of transition towards which we are always praying and encouraging them. We do not want to pressure a person to be baptized. On the other hand, we do not want to neglect the practice of baptism in such a way that nonbelievers might come to faith in Jesus and yet never be encouraged to experience baptism.
When is a person ready to be baptized? For most people, the answer is “when they want to be baptized.” The act of standing in front of other Christians, affirming your faith, and allowing others to immerse you in water does not come naturally. The mere fact that people would want to go through such a ritual is evidence that the people are being drawn by the Spirit to accept the truth of who Christ is for them. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38) is a good example of this. As soon as the eunuch understood who Jesus is, he wanted to be baptized, so Phillip baptized him.
Since (for adults) baptism shows a transition between our old way of thinking, in which we were blind to Jesus, and our new way of thinking, in which we know and trust him, as soon as this transition point has been reached, as soon as people know that God chose them for salvation in Christ, they are ready for baptism. They may express their understanding in a variety of ways, such as knowing that God loves them, or has adopted them, that they love God, that they want to live forever with Jesus, that they are committed to following Jesus, etc. We do not need to insist on any particular terminology.
Personal choice plays a role in this. An individual may know that Jesus is the Savior, but their fears or other reservations may cause the person to hold back from baptism. In such situations we pray for and work patiently with the people, assuring them that they are loved, that they belong, and they are qualified for the kingdom (Col. 1:12) and ready for baptism. People who believe in Jesus, but are reluctant to be baptized, probably have some wrong thinking that needs to change. Without pressuring or nagging, you can be a great help in reassuring such persons of their relationship with Jesus and thus helping them move towards baptism. In the end, it is up to a person’s own choice as to when to be baptized, and we respect their freedom to make that choice.
Baptism of infants and children
Children represent one group with whom we might have difficulty. Many of us come from a branch of the Protestant tradition in which infants were not baptized. Let us look at the issues involved.
The vast majority of Christians, both in the world today and throughout the history of the church, were baptized as infants. The primary reason that many evangelicals do not practice infant baptism is that they have viewed baptism as a sign of something the person has done, rather than what Jesus has done. People have to be of sound mind to do it. Some denominations are willing to baptize children as young as 5; some prefer to wait until a person is 18 or so. Some are reluctant to baptize anyone who is severely mentally handicapped. The idea is that baptism is your action to express your faith, and you cannot express your own faith until you are old enough.
The struggle then becomes, how do we determine this competency? Is a 4-year old competent? What about a 6-year old? How do we know? How much does an 8-year old have to talk about Jesus in order to be deemed competent? How much does a person have to understand about the Trinity? What about a 19-year old with an IQ of 75? Such people are adults, but can they understand what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully human? (Can an adult with an IQ of 150 really understand the paradox of humanity and divinity together in one human?)
The theology of grace cuts through the questions posed above. Since salvation is by grace, it seems contradictory to create a standard of competence. That could make salvation sound like a contractual relationship.
Most churches that practice infant baptism explain it in terms of a covenant, as opposed to a contract. They regard salvation as a promissory covenant made by God with humans. This covenant is a statement of relationship: I will be your God and you will be my people. It is established in Jesus and his faithfulness, not in the person or faithfulness of fallen humanity. We do not enter into this relationship by providing our part of the agreement. Rather, Christ makes this covenant with us in himself, and he chose us from before the foundation of the world. Therefore, people are included even before they are born. The baptism of infants bears witness to their inclusion in Christ, and starts them on the journey of growing up to know the truth of their relationship with God.
GCI permits the baptism of infants when the parents want it. The GCI book of ceremonies includes a ceremony for infant baptism. As part of your counsel to the parent(s), you should explain that they are agreeing to raise the baptized child as a Christian and that a time will come, later in the child’s life, when he or she will go through confirmation. Infants are usually baptized by sprinkling or pouring, picturing the cleansing that Christ gives us, although some churches use partial immersion (in warm water) for infants.
What about situations where a child has not been baptized as an infant? In adults, baptism marks a transition point between our old way of thinking and a new way of thinking – but this transition has no validity apart from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the ceremony therefore should point to the objective reality in Christ, not the subjective matter of us coming to understand and accept what he has done for us. This can help us resolve the question of when to baptize children who were not baptized as infants.
When we speak to children about baptism, we are not trying to determine whether those children are mentally competent to be baptized. Instead we are telling them the gospel, that God loves them and has already included them in his family. Their old way of thinking, when they were infants, was to not think about Jesus. As they grow up, we help them grow in thinking about Jesus as the one who includes them in God’s life. The baptism of children is not a question of what they understand, but rather of how Jesus is sharing his faith with them and how they want to express that faith. It is an object lesson to convey the truth of what Jesus has done. We generally prefer immersion for children and adults, because it not only pictures cleansing, but also the burial and resurrection of Jesus, and through that, the end of our old life and the beginning of a new life in Christ.
As we work with kids, we want to explain to them who Jesus is and who they are in him. We can explain what baptism is and what it reveals about Jesus and them. We can talk about “when you are baptized” in the same way we talk about other milestones in life, like “when you start school,” “when you become a teenager,” and “when you learn to drive.” As the Spirit leads us, we will also ask them what they think about baptism, and when they think they would like to be baptized.
The answer to the question “when is a child ready to be baptized?” is the same as the answer we gave for adults: when children want to be baptized, they are ready. The only extra element we need to add is “…and when the parents are ready for them to be baptized.” If a 4-year old wants to be baptized, and the parents agree, we can do it. Since the meaning of the baptism is something that Jesus has already done, we are not concerned with whether minimum requirements of competency have been met. Jesus himself is the competency of all human beings to participate in baptism. This Christ-centered reasoning also applies to those who have mental disabilities.
Last, we want to share in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in this. If my 10-year-old invites a friend from school to come to church for the first time, and that friend happens to see a baptism that day, sees the person as the center of attention, and asks to be baptized, too, I do not go to the parents and say “Jane wants to be baptized, is that okay with you?” Instead I might tell them, “I thought you’d like to know that Jane expressed an interest in what baptism is, and you might want to talk with her about it.” On the other hand, if my daughter has friends that are coming to church with her every week, and I know their parents – even though the parents may not be Christians – and those kids express an interest in baptism, then I might want to follow up on it with their families.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through baptism?
Body: Ministry has sometimes been viewed as a “spiritual” activity. This has often meant that ministry is related to the soul and the mind, but the body is irrelevant and almost dispensable. This has even led to heresy, such as the idea that the Son shed his body at his resurrection (or at his ascension) because the body is either unnecessary or evil.
In contrast to such a view of ministry, we have Jesus. He is the Son of God with a (resurrected) human body. Not only does Jesus affirm the value and importance of the creation in his own person, by his own body, he also affirms it by the destiny he reveals for the creation. The universe will not be destroyed, but will be made new and will exist forever (Rev. 21:14). Just as Jesus’ own body has been made new and exists forever, so also all of us, including our bodies, and the whole creation, are being made new in Jesus.
Jesus not only affirms the importance of the body by who he is and what he does, he also affirms its importance by the way in which he does ministry. In baptism, Jesus not only gives himself to us in our minds and souls, he also gives himself to us in our bodies. At baptism we feel the watery grave. We hear the splash of the water. We feel someone take hold of us and we feel ourselves immersed in the death of Christ. Then, we feel ourselves being pulled back up out of death and feel the air. We hear the water splash behind us, and we experience in our muscles and skin the truth that we have been raised up in Christ. Jesus has given us this ceremony to help us understand our death and resurrection in him. It engages the physical senses of our body as well as our minds and souls.
In whatever way you minister, whether it is preaching, serving Communion, evangelizing, discipling, or counseling people, your goal should be to bring the symbolism of baptism into greater fulfillment, in that the person is living the new life in Christ. You want to continually assure people of God’s love for them, that they are accepted in Christ. But if we leave their bodies out of it, they are missing the full experience.
Baptism can be done by immersing the person in water or by pouring the water over the person. In GCI we generally baptize by immersion, but it would not be wrong to pour the water to picture cleansing rather than burial. For example, if you are working with a person who has a strong phobia of being under water, or is confined to a hospital bed, then you might pour water over them instead of immersing them.
A few days before the baptism is to take place, explain to the person being baptized what will happen. They should wear clothes that they do not mind getting wet in: no white t-shirts or dresses that will become see-through after they get wet. They should also bring a big towel and a change of clothes. Explain to the person how you will each stand and what the process will be like. You want them to know what to expect.
When the time comes for the baptism, have the person stand in the water. Water that is waist deep is ideal. You stand next to the person being baptized and have a fellow minister, or friend of the person being baptized, stand on the other side to help. After the words of the ceremony have been spoken, the person being baptized crosses his or her arms across the chest and reaches up with one hand to hold the nose. (This prevents them from throwing out their arms and hitting you accidentally.) The person should then bend at the knees while you and your assistant place your arms behind the person’s back to support the torso. You and your assistant then lower the person into the water as he or she bends at the knees, and you then lift the person back up out of the water.
After the immersion has taken place, let the baptized person put on a towel (often needed for warmth) and step out of the water. You and the other elders of the church (and perhaps significant others, such as the person who was most instrumental in sharing the gospel with them), then lay hands on them and pray for their future as they participate more fully in Jesus’ life and for them to continue to be responsive to the Holy Spirit.
Here is an example of how we might phrase the prayer during the laying on of hands:
Father in heaven, we thank you for our salvation through your Son Jesus Christ and for the pouring out of your Holy Spirit on us. We rejoice with you that (name of the baptized person) has received the Holy Spirit, and believes that you love them and you want them to live with you forever. Jesus, we know that this faith is your gift to this person through the Holy Spirit, and we pray that in the days and years to come you will continue to share your life and knowledge of your Father in such a way that this person will continue to walk in faith, and that the gifts of your Spirit will flow into this person, and through this person, into the lives of those around this person. We pray in your name, Jesus, giving glory to you and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mind: The connection between body and mind is powerfully present in baptism. Because we were created as integrated persons, whose bodies, minds, and souls exist in interdependence, what we do with our bodies has a powerful effect on what we think with our minds – and vice versa.
The physical act of being immersed in the water of baptism has – all on its own – a strong effect on a person’s thinking. This is part of the reason Jesus gave us this physical, bodily way of marking the transition into faith. Because this body/mind connection is strong, we should pay attention to the words we say at baptism. These words create certain images and thoughts in the mind of the person being baptized and in the minds of those who watch.
Even so, many people will have trouble recalling the exact words we say – the memory of being immersed will overshadow the memory of the words that were said. However, the images and thoughts created by our words will be reinforced and imprinted on the person’s mind by the fact that they are coupled with the memory-intensifying act of immersion.
In the most practical sense, this means that our words have the chance to create a renewing, assuring, joyful state of mind for the person being baptized, or to create a confused, or even anxious state of mind. That state of mind – whatever it is – will be remembered because the physical experience of the ceremony will imprint it on the person’s mind.
If you were baptized as an adult, think back to your own baptism. What emotions did you experience as you were immersed? What thoughts went through your mind? In what way were your thoughts influenced by the words that were said? You probably cannot remember many of the specific words that were spoken, but you can remember your feelings and thoughts as the ceremony took place. You might have been filled with anxiety if the counseling was filled with questions like “are you really ready? have you really repented? do you really know what you’re doing?” Or you could have had feelings of assurance and forgiveness if that is what the counseling focused on.
At the most basic level, the only words that “must” be spoken at a baptism are the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Christian denominations use these words, and that helps us distinguish Christian baptism from the baptism of other religions.
Beyond these basic words, however, there is a natural desire on our part that a little more should be said. It is an important moment in a person’s life, and it deserves to marked with language that evokes the beauty and assurance of who Jesus is for us. We may ask the person being baptized to speak some words, and we say a little ourselves. Often the person being baptized will be nervous, emotional, and often not accustomed to speaking in public. It is therefore good to ask only questions that require the simple answer “yes.” Some people may want to say more – for example, giving a testimony of what Jesus has done in their lives – and this is a good thing that can be encouraged. Leave it up to the person being baptized how much they would like to say.
If you are ministering in a specific denomination, you should review the denominational instructions, whether for adults (and children who are old enough to speak for themselves) and for infants. The GCI ceremonies are at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/.
Soul: Much of what we need to say about baptizing people’s souls has been said above. No human soul is cut off from God. When the Son of God entered our humanity, he entered our souls and brought our souls into the life that has eternally been his: the life he lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
What many human souls lack is assurance. When we serve Jesus’ people by using the water and the word to baptize them in the assurance of their identity in Jesus, then we are ministering in step with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our words and actions become a reflection of the Spirit’s words and actions, and in this way we help release into the minds and bodies of others the assurance they have in their souls, from Jesus, through his Spirit.This assurance is the foundational element of human life as it was meant to be lived. The Father created us to live and move and have our being in the wonderful assurance of how loved and accepted we are in his Son. From this assurance flows a happy childhood, happy friendships, happy marriages, and happy work. Jesus said, “this is eternal life: that they may know you [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3.) Real, eternal, happy life is the life of the Trinity, and therefore our real and happy life is as children of the Father. Baptism assures us that we have left the old life in Adam and are brought into the joy-filled life of G
 A. Oepke, “Baptō,” pages 92-94 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.
 Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 283.
 The fullness of new life comes in the resurrection, and Paul says that we will be raised with Christ, but his focus in this chapter is that we walk in newness of life even now.
 Some have concluded that baptism is the mechanism by which a person is born again – that the physical ritual is necessary for the spiritual reality to occur. This is called baptismal regeneration, but the idea conflicts with the biblical teaching of salvation by grace. The error arises when people take allusions as if they were stated with theological precision. We believe that baptism is commanded by Christ, but not as a requirement for salvation.
5 Circumcision was normally done in infancy, and so this verse is often used to argue for the legitimacy of infant baptism. Burial seems to be associated with “putting off the body of the flesh”; raising might then correspond to being given a new body at the resurrection.
 Geoffrey Bromiley, “Baptism,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 113.
 This is the meaning of the patristic word perichoresis: each member of the Trinity makes space for the other; they indwell one another.
 Even when we were “in Adam,” we were rightfully children of God. Jesus redeemed us, but did not pay anyone in particular. He rescued us from a slavery that had no legitimate claim on us. To use modern analogies, he foreclosed the mortgage, or evicted the illegal squatter, to take back what had always been his. He acted to transform a legal reality (true on paper) into a functional one (true in practice). What was objectively true could become subjectively true.
 This change occurred objectively at the death and resurrection of Jesus; it occurs for us subjectively when we respond to the Spirit with faith in Christ. When we baptize an infant, it is clear that we are picturing or commemorating what Christ has done, not what the infant has done. When we baptize an adult, Christ should be the focus as well.
 Bromiley, “Baptism,” 114.
 This does not necessarily have to be done at the time of administration, though a brief explanation is usually appropriate. It is not possible to cover all the symbolism at the time of administration. The person being baptized (or the parents) may be new in the faith and have only a rudimentary understanding of the symbolism; that is acceptable.
 This is not a theological statement of when the new life actually begins. For adults, the new life began subjectively when the person came to faith, and that happens before baptism. For infants, the subjective awakening may come much later than the baptism.
 Many of the Jewish festivals were re-enactments of what God had done for the Israelites. In the Gentile world, baptisms were also involved in some ritual re-enactments of what their deities had supposedly done; it would be easy for early Christians to understand baptism as a ritual re-enactment. They would expect analogies, not perfect mirrors of every detail.
 Similarly, the Old Testament Passover was to remind the Israelites that God had rescued them, not that the people successfully appeased an angry deity by killing lambs. Humans tend to forget, and we need reminders of what God has done. In our fallenness, we tend to forget that we belong to God, that we are forgiven in Christ, that we already participate in eternal life.
For adults, baptism is done after we come to believe in Jesus, so it incidentally signifies that we have come to faith. But it should more importantly point to what we have faith in – the saving effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Coming to faith is an important milestone in our life, but it would be meaningless except for the reality of what Jesus did for us. We should use baptism as an opportunity for the gospel, and the gospel is not that we have believed, but that Jesus has done something we can believe in.
 There is more to salvation than justification, more than being forgiven. If a verdict of “not guilty” was all there was to salvation, then there would be no logical reason to avoid sin. But salvation also includes being delivered from the bondage of sin, our tendency to sin. It involves a transformation in who we are, and consequently in the way we live.
 None of the baptism texts associates water with the Spirit, but other texts do.
 The concept of new creation is also a helpful way of seeing the dramatic change that Christ has accomplished for humanity. Salvation is a re-creation. Salvation is not a transaction in which we give God our faith and he gives us life in Christ. Rather, salvation is the re-creation of the human race in Christ. Baptism acknowledges what Jesus has done with our lives. As Andrew Purves says, “The gospel is not a bilateral contract” (The Crucifixion of Ministry, 83.) For salvation as re-creation, see Ted Johnston’s blog at thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2009/05/salvation-is-re-creation-not-mere.html.
 Sometimes people view baptism simply in its sociological function, as a rite of passage for entrance into the visible church. Yes, it does that, but that is a result; it is far better to focus on the cause: the death and resurrection of Jesus, which makes possible this new community and our membership in it.
 Due to formalism in the Anglican Church, Quakers and The Salvation Army rejected baptism, but their lives are just as Christian as other believers. They died with Christ and rose with Christ even if they never pictured it with water. They have pictured it by their life.
 Occasionally someone will want baptism for sociological reasons. They may see a friend being baptized, congratulated, being the center of attention, and they may ask to participate in a similar ritual without any awareness of its spiritual meaning. A brief explanation of the meaning may help them make a more meaningful decision. A desire for baptism is valid only if it is accompanied by a desire for Jesus.
 Occasionally people want to be baptized for wrong reasons, such as they want to be accepted by a particular social group, or a person of the opposite sex, etc. We can use such situations to explain the gospel in a counseling session.
 Even a theologically inaccurate understanding may be acceptable. (Don’t all of us begin with some misunderstandings?) For example, “I want to be baptized so that God will forgive my sins and give me the Holy Spirit.” We may explain that God has already forgiven their sins, and the Spirit is already active in them, but even if they don’t grasp that right away, it is still possible that they have reached a decisive turning point in their life. Growth will come. Baptism pictures the grace of God, not the perfection of our performance or understanding.
 This unwittingly implies that you get yourself into Christ.
 Baptism is not a guarantee that the child will be a believer in adulthood. Even for adults, baptism is not a guarantee that they will continue to believe. Rather, it is a sign that the person is in Christ. The person will have to choose whether to live in a way that reflects that, or in a way that rejects it.
 Immersion requires a volume of water that is large enough for the person’s entire body to be covered. If a baptismal tank is not available, you will need to find a place with a large amount of water, such as a swimming area at a lake or beach, a swimming pool, or even a large tub in someone’s home.
 It is possible to baptize someone without having an assistant, but it is more difficult, and there is a greater risk of falling – both for you and the person being baptized. Having someone assist you also helps reinforce the image of community that we seek to convey through the ceremony.
 It is important to realize that the Holy Spirit is not absent from the person and then becomes present because of your prayer. The perichoretic nature of the Trinity, and humanity’s existence in the Trinity through the Son, means that the Holy Spirit has been “poured out on all people” (Acts 2:17). Baptism is not the moment when the Spirit is made present because of our words – it signifies that people who have previously not believed in, received, and accepted the Holy Spirit’s presence have begun to accept and receive the truth of how the Spirit has been present in them through Jesus.
 We do not say the Spirit arrived only when the baptism was done. The Spirit was already at work in bringing the person to faith.
 Even if we decided that Jesus did not mean we had to literally say those exact words, it is a good idea for us to use them so other Christians will recognize and accept the baptisms of the people we baptize.
What is “communion” in the Triune God?
The English word “communion” is one of several possible translations of the Greek word koinonia. It means the mutual sharing of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and life in general.
When we think of communion in this sense, we should begin with the Triune life itself. Communion describes God’s own nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three divine Persons have always existed in inseparable communion with each other. The perichoretic nature of their life together means that they are each sharing with the others the fullness of all that they are. There is no individualism in the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold all things in common with each other, sharing all that they each are with each of the others, and receiving all that they need from the others. As Seamands puts it, “the triune persons are self-actualized not through self-assertion but through self-giving and self-surrender.”
This communion, this communal sharing of life itself, does not obliterate the distinct identity of each person. Each of the divine persons is always distinctly himself, but each one is distinctly himself in freely chosen communion with the others.
The freedom of this communion is an aspect we ought to consider. God’s existence in communion is not compelled. The Father does not force the Son and the Spirit to live in this mutual sharing of life. If he did, it would make him God in a unitarian way, and the other two would be something less than fully powerful. Our affirmation that the Father, Son, and Spirit are each fully God means, hypothetically, that each is fully free to choose to not be in communion. The reason the Trinity will never split apart is not because some “higher” force or law compels the Father, Son, and Spirit to live in communion with each other, but rather because they are each fully good and therefore, because of their good nature, they will never use their freedom to destroy their relationship.
This freely chosen, mutually communal life of the Trinity gives us confidence in the goodness of God. God’s nature is to live in faithful communion and never abandon or turn his back on others. This is the heart of the Triune life, and therefore it is the heart of the life in which we have been included through Jesus. Since we are included, through Jesus, in this kind of good life, we can know with absolute confidence that the Father, Son, and Spirit will never break relationship with us or exclude us from their life. Faithfulness in relationship is God’s eternal nature: the Trinity is an inseparable communion.
Our inclusion in Jesus gives us the second focus for the word communion. Just as the Son has lived, and always will live, in communion with the Father and the Spirit, he has now also taken up a communal life with humanity. As the human Jesus Christ, the Son now lives in communion with humanity and human nature. The Son has entered our humanity, and the result is communion – mutual sharing. In the man Jesus Christ there is now a permanent and full communion between human and divine nature. In Jesus, the Son shares the divine life with humanity and shares human life with divinity. In a similar way that the Father, Son, and Spirit share a communal life with each other, they now share life with humanity.
But there is a problem. We human beings are not capable of fully sharing in this divine life because we are not divine. Jesus includes us in the communion of the Trinity, and so we now also have communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit as Jesus does, yet our response and participation in this communion remains woefully inadequate. Communion means a two-way street. It means mutual communication, mutual sharing, and mutual openness. Yet our human nature – both by its nature as something created and its nature as something fallen – is not capable of this fully mutual sharing. We hold back. We hide, like Adam and Eve in the bushes. Even though the Trinity shares all that he is with us, we hold back from sharing all that we are with him. (Or at least we try to – in actuality, nothing is hidden from God.)
This is where the theology of the “vicarious humanity” of Jesus Christ becomes crucial to our understanding of who God is and who we are. Jesus is not just a “speaking God” – he is also a listening human and a responding human, responding on behalf of all humanity. In the communion that the Son has with our humanity, he not only ministers the things of God to humanity, he also ministers the things of humanity to God. As the Divine Man, Jesus carries out for us, on our behalf, our part of the communal relationship.
We might visualize this by imagining a 3-month old infant. The infant is loved and included in the communion of his parents’ marriage. The husband and wife were in communion with each other before the baby was born. After the baby comes into existence, they are still in communion with each other, but now they are also in communion with this new person. Yet the baby’s participation in that communion is lacking. The baby is loved but cannot return love – either in words or even in simple actions like a hug.
One day, the father comes home from work and the mother takes the baby into her arms and goes to the door to meet him. As he comes through the door, she waves the baby’s little arm at his dad and says “Hi, Daddy! I’m glad you’re home, I wuv you vewy much!” The mother’s “vicarious childishness” is expressing and translating the baby’s participation and share in the communion the baby has with the parents.
The vicarious humanity of Jesus is more real, deep, and transformative than this analogy can convey. In Jesus we have a situation more comparable to the mother becoming a baby without ceasing to be who she is as the mother! The communion that God the Son has with our humanity is a communion that means his full and complete participation in our humanity so that he is – and will forever be – both one of us and one of God.
This complete communion with our humanity is necessary because, unlike the baby in the illustration, we are never going to grow up to be capable of participating in the divine communion on our own power. We will grow up to look like Jesus, and we will mature in our life in him, but we will never be able to exist apart from him or be God as God is God. Even in the fullness of our maturity in Jesus, we will always be created persons sharing in the divine life in and through Jesus. It will forever be the Son’s communal sharing of the communion he has with the Father that enables, empowers, and translates our part of the communion we have with the Father. Therefore the Son must remain in eternal communion with our humanity in order to facilitate our eternal communion with the divine nature of the Trinity. He is our mediator.
Communion is first and foremost the Triune God. Second, it is the communion that the Son has with our humanity. Third, it is the communion that our humanity has with the Trinity in and through the humanity of the Son. And fourth, as we will soon see, it also applies to our relationships with one another.
What is Communion as a ceremony in the church?
What is happening when we eat bread and wine together in the church? We are being reminded that God is communion, that communion with the Trinity and each other is the reason for our existence, and most of all we are being reminded that we have this communion because of the body and blood of Jesus.
Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, NRSV). The word “sharing” is a translation of the Greek koinonia; the King James Version used the word “communion,” perhaps influenced by the Latin version, communicatio. The point that Paul was making was that the bread and wine show that we share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We are in union with him. And since we participate together, it also shows that we are in fellowship or communion with one another. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17).
Just as baptism shows that we were united with Christ in his death and resurrection, the bread and wine also show that. But as a ceremony that is repeated throughout the Christian life, the focus in Communion is on our current connection with Jesus. Unlike baptism, there is no symbolism to indicate what we used to be.
The bread and wine remind us that we were united to Christ in his death and resurrection – and that union has never ceased. In his crucified, resurrected, and ascended body, Jesus lives forever in communion with our humanity. An exclusive focus on the death of Jesus is therefore an inadequate view of communion.
In the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, there has often been a heavy emphasis on the bread and wine as symbols of Jesus’ death on the cross. The favorite verse was 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The focus was on his death, and the ceremony sometimes had the atmosphere of a funeral. But there is no need to memorialize his death, unless it has continuing significance in our lives. In the commemoration, we are reminded that we are still united with Jesus. Just as we were united with him in his death, so also we are united with him in his resurrected life. We are also pointing toward the future: “until he comes.”
We should practice Communion in a “life based” way that embraces and communicates the meaning of the fullness of Jesus’ eternal life as the one who is fully God and fully human. We have to see how the bread and wine speak to every dimension of Jesus’ existence as the Son of God in flesh and blood, and then use the practices of the church to help us communicate that truth. Here is a Trinitarian, Christ-centered definition of communion:
Communion is a ceremony, given to humanity by Jesus, that pictures the truth that Jesus is in relationship with our humanity through his body and blood, he shares with us the relationship he has with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and through him, we are in communion with one another, as well.
The symbols of Communion point us to Jesus’ human nature as the means by which he shares with us his communion in the divine nature.
We do not have to determine how Jesus is “present” in Communion. The Roman Catholic church has expressed it in terms of “transubstantiation.” This theology says that the Communion ceremony, the mass, changes the substance of the bread into actual flesh and the substance of the wine into actual blood, even though the outward appearance of the two elements remains unchanged. It looks like bread but in its actual substance it is really the flesh of Jesus. The Lutheran view is sometimes called consubstantiation. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, but the substance of Jesus’ body and blood is added to the bread and wine. Both views are articles of faith – there is no physical change to prove or corroborate the spiritual reality.
At the other end of the spectrum is the free-church idea that the bread and wine are “nothing but symbols.” Some denominations reject the rite as completely unnecessary, even for its subjective or psychological value.
Between these extremes is a theology that is sometimes called “Real Presence.” In this way of viewing Communion, people do not seek to define how Jesus is present, but they do not regard Jesus as absent, either. The Real Presence theory embraces the mystery of Jesus saying “this is my body” without trying to define what the word “is” means. Thankfully, our salvation does not depend on believing or teaching one view over the others.
The definition of Communion given above could allow for any of these three understandings of Jesus’ presence – or something between them. The important part of the ceremony is not how we describe it, but that it tells us we are in union with Jesus, because he became a flesh-and-blood human being. It says that our identity as individuals and as a people is connected to the human being named Jesus, who died and rose and is coming again.
Some people are interested in knowing what it means to speak of Jesus’ presence in Communion – especially if they were raised in a tradition, like Catholicism, that has definite ideas on the subject. For that reason, it might be good for you to occasionally explore with your congregation the different ways of understanding Jesus’ presence. You may reach your own conclusion about how you think the process is taking place, but it is probably best not to be too dogmatic about it, as if people cannot be good Christians unless they agree with your particular view. It is possible that we do not fully understand all of the ins and outs of how Jesus is present in Communion.
Communion gives us a concrete picture of what is happening in ministry: Jesus is giving himself to humanity, through his own humanity as a flesh-and-blood human being. In salvation, he does not give us some “thing” – he gives us himself, a relationship with himself. Eternal life is not an eternity on our own (that would be miserable), but an eternity with God. He gives himself to us, and he serves us; his body and blood were given for us.
Communion takes something done every day in the ancient world – eating and drinking – and uses it for a spiritual purpose. Since the elements are food, the appropriate way to show that we receive them is to eat and drink. This does not mean that we have to chew in a particular way, focus on the taste of the wine, or otherwise focus on any culinary details – the point is simply that we receive the bread and wine. The point is not that we eat Christ in a physical way, but that we receive him in a spiritual way. He is our spiritual nourishment, the source of spiritual life. We take the elements into ourselves, but the objective truth is the opposite: Jesus has taken us into himself. He shares his life with us, and we respond to that. In many traditions, the ceremony is called the Eucharist – a Greek word meaning Thanksgiving, and that is certainly the right attitude in which to receive it.
Jesus is giving himself to us, and in Communion, we are participating with him in that ministry. We break the bread, pour the wine, and say some appropriate words, but the real ministry is done by Jesus.
In Communion, as in all areas of ministry, we do not fully understand all the ins and outs of how this works. By the faith of Jesus, which the Holy Spirit communicates to us, we know that everything about our lives is a participation in the communion of the Triune Life, a communion made possible by the Son becoming flesh for our sakes. Sometimes we feel and know with great clarity that our Dad is speaking to us in his Spirit. Other times we feel lost and are not sure how to proceed in our participation. Yet through it all, we know who we are and whose we are – and whose ministry it really is that is bringing humanity into a full and faithful participation in the Trinity.
Practicing Communion through the Christian calendar
Throughout the history of the church, Communion has been viewed as a ministry practiced primarily – or even exclusively – with believers. This perspective is strongest in Christian traditions that have theories of communion that are close to transubstantiation and less strong in traditions that view communion as more symbolic. Most churches require that people be baptized believers before they take communion, but most take no steps to “check up” on people or attempt to enforce this rule in their worship services.
How can Communion strengthen believers in the knowledge of their identity as children of the Father? Instead of viewing Communion exclusively through the lens of Jesus’ death, we want to view it through the lens of his entire life, both as he lived on earth and now lives in heaven. We want to think about how to practice Communion in the light of Jesus’ birth, life, resurrection, and ascension, in addition to thinking about how to practice it in the light of his death on the cross.
The Christian worship calendar can help us organize our thoughts in this regard. During each season of the Christian year, our celebration of Communion can emphasize a different aspect of Jesus’ life and identity as the one who is fully God and fully flesh and blood:
Christmas: A death-based approach would celebrate Communion at Christmas by saying something like this: “This baby was born to die for the sins of humanity.” A life-based approached would say, “God the Son was born in flesh and blood in order to bring our human nature into the life he has with the Father and the Spirit.”
The first approach is, in essence, rushing ahead to Good Friday to connect the bread and wine to the cross. But a Christmas celebration of Communion should be grounded in the words of John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh,” symbolized by the bread of the Christmas communion, “and made his dwelling among us.”) Christmas Communion needs to focus on the way in which the Son has entered into communion with our humanity, so that this aspect of Jesus’ life is not missed.
Epiphany: Jesus was baptized as a representative of all humanity. He had a real body with real blood. By identifying with us in our physical and human nature, he has brought us into communion with the Father and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus, celebrated at Epiphany, points to our communion with the Trinity. In that light, the bread and wine – as reminders of Jesus’ physical body and blood – picture how we are in communion with the Trinity through Jesus’ baptism.
Preparation for Easter: Our fallen human nature says “no” to the Father, and this is our sin problem. From within our fallen human nature – from within a flesh-and-blood body like ours – the Son said “yes” to the Father and “no” to Satan and our fallen nature. By this “yes” he redeemed and transformed what it means to be human. In this light, the Communion elements symbolize the way Jesus’ body and blood is the perfect human response to the love of the Father. Jesus, through his body and blood, is in communion with our human nature and holds us in communion with his divine nature, and thus he shares with us his perfect refusal to sin and his perfect relationship with the Father. The communion bread and wine is a reminder that Jesus, as a human, said “no” to sin for us.
Holy (or Maundy) Thursday: As we commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and his washing of their feet, we are also celebrating Jesus’ institution of the symbols of the bread and wine to represent his human nature. This commemoration is a good time each year to summarize all that the Son’s indwelling of our human nature means: how the bread and wine symbolize the way in which the Son has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, brought our human nature into the Trinity, said “no” to sin and “yes” to the Father on our behalf, crucified our sinful nature, raised up our bodies in his resurrection, and carried humanity into the communion of the Trinity at the Father’s right hand.
Good Friday: On Good Friday, we have good cause to speak of the bread and wine in terms of death. The bread and wine “proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Cor. 11:26). We still want to be careful about how we speak of Jesus’ death. The piercing of his body and the pouring out of his blood on the cross is not to appease an angry Father who will forgive us only if someone is tortured to death. Rather, the crucifixion is the circumcision of our hearts – the cutting away of our sinful human nature (Col. 2:11) – and the victory of Jesus over Satan.
By his death, he set “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15). Jesus’ death changed human nature, not the Father’s nature. It was not the Father’s attitude that needed to be changed by Jesus’ death, it was fallen, sinful human nature that needed to be changed.
This is why the bread and wine are symbols of what took place on the cross. By sharing in human nature through his body and blood, the Son shared in the human condition and gave us a share in his divine condition. When Jesus died, we all died with him (2 Cor. 5:14).
Communion on Good Friday is our celebration of how fallen human nature died once, for all time, in the death of Jesus. The bread and wine are symbols of the human nature that was crucified in Christ on the cross.
Easter: Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection. As he shares himself with us in his human nature, symbolized by the bread and wine, he shares with us not only his death, but also his resurrection in a glorified body to eternal life. The breaking of bread (i.e. Communion) on Easter is a way in which we recognize the risen Jesus for who he is and who we are in his resurrected human nature (cf. Luke 24:35).
In the same way that the bread and wine showed us on Good Friday how Jesus shares in our death, so now on Easter Sunday the bread and wine show us how he is sharing with us his new life in the resurrection. Jesus shares his resurrection with us in the same way he shares all things with us, by sharing (being in communion) with our human nature – symbolized by the bread that is his body and the wine that is his blood.
The disciples appear to have had trouble wrapping their heads around this, so it is no surprise that we do, too. When he appeared to them after his resurrection, Jesus had to assure them that he was a real human being and not a ghost. He said, “I am flesh and bone” (Luke 24:39). This helps us see that when Jesus says “this is my body,” he not only means “this is my body that died on the cross” but also “this is my body now raised from the dead in the glory of the resurrection.” When he says that his body is given for us, he not only means given for us in death, but also given for us in resurrection.
Easter Season lasts 50 days, from Easter to Pentecost. The resurrection of the body is an appropriate theme throughout that season when we take Communion and talk about Jesus’ body and blood.
Ascension Sunday: When the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven as a glorified flesh-and-blood human being, he took human nature into heaven in himself. When Stephen had a vision of heaven, he saw Jesus (“the Son of Man”) standing at the Father’s right hand as a glorified human being (Acts 7:56). This permanent and ongoing union of God the Son with our human nature means that we are also raised up with him and seated in heavenly realms in him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2:6).
Communion in the context of the ascension is therefore a celebration of humanity’s adoption into the Trinity. Because Jesus says “this is my body and my blood,” we know that our humanity is now permanently united to the Trinity in Jesus. We have already ascended to heaven in Jesus’ ascension, and therefore know that our home and our destiny is with the Triune God. The ascended Jesus is our communion with the heavenly life of the Trinity.
Pentecost Sunday: All our celebrations of Communion are about the truth that Jesus’ body and blood, his incarnation and union with humanity, is the means by which our communion with the Father is established. This reality is beyond our comprehension apart from the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent by which we know and believe in our communion with the Father through the Son.
As God the Son, Jesus is always in communion with the Spirit. By sharing with our humanity through his body and blood, the Son shares with us this communion he has with the Spirit. The bread and wine at Pentecost helps us see how Jesus’ humanity enables and makes possible the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all humanity (Acts 2:17).
Hopefully these brief descriptions help you see how Communion can be celebrated in each season of the year in connection with what that season represents and without resorting to continual “Good Friday” celebrations of Communion every time it is taken. Taking Communion in a death-based framework every time it is celebrated can have negative consequences. At the least, it is missing out on some of the positive realities that are possible.
As often as you celebrate…
For most of Christian history, and throughout most of the Christian world today, Communion is practiced every week. It is primarily in the free-church, evangelical world that Communion is practiced less often. When you talk with people about why they do not want to celebrate Communion every week, they often say that it will not seem as special if they take it every week. This may have its roots in the death-focused taking of Communion in at least two ways:
First, it is only natural that people do not want to have a funeral for Jesus every Sunday. Funerals are sad. No one wants to be saddened by thinking about Jesus’ death on a weekly basis. Since many people have experienced Communion only as a memorial of the cross, it is hard for them to visualize how Communion can take on different – joyful – themes of Jesus’ life based on what season of the Christian year we are in.
Communion can be a celebration of everything from the birth of a special baby, to baptism, to resurrection, and to ascension. When these aspects are missing from the regular celebration of Communion in the life of a church, the people naturally begin to shy away from Communion. They say “it’s special,” but what they often mean, and do not want to say, is that it is “special” in the sense that it is “especially sad and depressing.”
Second, the death-based celebration of Communion results in worshipers emphasizing their emotional experience. We all know the rush of emotion we feel when contemplating the death of a loved one, or attending a funeral. When Communion is viewed as only a contemplation of Jesus’ death, then we naturally expect to feel something strong and out of the ordinary.
But we do not always have an emotional experience at Communion. We also do not always have an emotional experience in singing songs, praying, or listening to sermons every Sunday. Some weeks are emotionally intense and some weeks are kind of boring. Yet we do not shy away from weekly sermons or songs merely because those acts can sometimes feel routine. A death-focused approach to Communion can cause people to invest it with all sorts of psychological pressure that is not necessary. By emphasizing Communion as only a memorial of Jesus’ death – and nothing more – we fail to recognize that Communion (like other acts of worship, such as singing) will be emotionally satisfying some Sundays and routine and boring on other Sundays; and that is okay. The day it is boring to us, it may be especially meaningful to another member, and vice versa.
This aversion to the weekly celebration of Communion is interesting when you view it from a spiritual perspective. Jesus’ ministry is to give himself to humanity. It is that ministry in which we are participating, and it is that ministry that we also need to receive. Jesus says of the bread and wine, “This is me. This shows my communion with you in my body and my blood.” Communion is an expression of Jesus’ ministry. It is his feeding of his life and resurrection to us. It is his giving of himself to us, the very thing we need more than anything else in the universe. Yet some people say: “Not too much, please. I don’t want to picture that too often.”
You may want to look at the frequency of Communion in your church and think about whether there are good reasons to change. We are free to celebrate it as often – or as infrequently – as we choose. So the question is not, “what do we have to do?” The question is, “what is healthiest for us as believers?”
If you decide that it might be good to increase the frequency of Communion in your church, you would want to proceed slowly:
- Help people understand the fullness of all that Communion is – not only as a memorial of Jesus’ death, but as a celebration of his entire existence, and our entire existence in communion with him. The more positive and encouraging the observance is, the more likely that people will want to repeat it.
- Help people see that Communion is special because of who Jesus is, and not because we do or do not have a special emotional experience when we celebrate it. In this regard it is just like the rest of the church’s worship – songs, prayers, and sermons.
- When the congregation expresses its willingness to try Communion more often, experiment with increasingly frequent times of Communion. Start with every month, if you are not there already, and then go to twice a month. Use a sermon or two to explain the meanings involved in Communion, but don’t make the Communion message itself long and boring. Make one point, be positive, and participate.
- Whatever the frequency, make sure that it is understood that Communion is being “offered.” Each person has the freedom to decide whether to participate or not. We are making Communion available for those who would like it frequently and not something required for those who do not want it so often.
Can unbelievers participate?
How do we practice the ministry of Communion with those who do not yet know – or do not yet believe – that they are children of the Father?
Most churches do not allow unbaptized persons to participate in Communion. This is sometimes supported by Paul’s statement that those who take Communion without recognizing the body of Christ “eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29).
A lot has been written on the meaning of this statement, and we will not go over it here. As a general summary, we can note the context in which Paul makes this statement. Nowhere in that chapter does Paul describe a problem with unbaptized people taking Communion. The behavior that he describes as not recognizing Christ’s body is getting drunk and eating up all the food before others get a chance to have any. Not recognizing the body of Christ has nothing to do with baptism and everything to do with drunkenness, selfishness, and disrespect for fellow believers. The “body” that the Corinthians were to discern was the church, not some perception into the mystery of the bread. They were failing to have communion or mutual sharing with one another.
There is no need to create rules that you cannot enforce, such as “If you are not baptized, then don’t take communion.” How could we enforce this for visitors we do not know? Will we stop them before they receive the elements and question them about their baptisms? How would we know they were answering truthfully? We have no practical means of enforcing the rule, and therefore we might as well not have the rule.
If we do not require baptism as a precondition to taking Communion, should we require that people be believers or have some understanding of what Communion is? How strongly must they believe? How much must they know? How do we measure another person’s belief or knowledge? Any attempt to get into people’s heads and measure their “fitness” for communion is going to be nearly impossible.
We do not want to make light of Paul’s warning. However, we should also note Paul’s solution to the problem in verse 28: People should examine themselves, yes, but Paul does not want them to opt out – he wants them to opt in. Examine, yes, and participate, yes. Realize that Christ died for you, that you are in union with him, and that you should receive him with thanksgiving.
The best solution is for the pastor to make clear to all in attendance – baptized, believing, non-believing, visiting, etc. – who Jesus is and what the bread and wine symbolize. In this way they will be enabled to recognize the body of Christ (both the church and the bread) and so make an intelligent decision as to whether they will participate.
In the light of who Jesus is for humanity, there are some reasons to not only allow the unbaptized to come to the Communion table, but to actually welcome them there. Jesus is the one in whom all humanity has been adopted into the life of the Trinity. Whether visitors to the church know it or not, Jesus is their brother and his Daddy is their Daddy. Not only are they welcomed by Jesus to his Father’s table, but it is for them that Jesus has prepared this table in the presence of their enemies. The bread and the wine is the symbol of all that Jesus is for all of us, and to receive that bread and wine is to carry out an action by which we say “yes, Jesus, I want you.”
It can then be seen as a good thing when a person – any person – comes to receive the body and blood of Christ. Jesus is as much for the nonbeliever as he is for the believer. In Christ, there is no “them” and “us” (Eph. 2:14-18). As long as people come to the table in a respectful way, not abusing others as they come, they should be welcomed. We all need Jesus, and if anyone wants to receive him through Communion, they should be encouraged to do so and instructed, through the sermon and the words said at the Communion table, about what it means for them to receive the body and blood of Christ.
We should also comment briefly about the participation of children. Everything we said about the unbaptized also applies to unbaptized or unconfirmed children. In addition to the comments about nonbelievers, we can also speak of children as believers who are experiencing belief through their relationship with their parents, their family, and their church. Even small children can be taught to know that the bread and wine represent Jesus. They will not fully understand what that means – but, then, neither do we! As long as children take Communion in a respectful way, they should be welcomed to the table.
We all know the story of Jesus’ disciples trying to erect barriers to prevent people from bringing little children to him. In contrast to the disciples’ policy of barrier building, Jesus said “do not hinder them, let them come.” Jesus’ approach applies both to those who are literally children and to those who, although physically adults, are spiritually children in their faith. Our commission from Jesus is to not hinder them but to let them come to him. If Jesus is present in any way at the Communion table, then letting children come to Jesus has to include Communion. If Jesus is not really present there, and it is only a symbol, then it does not matter who comes, because it is only a symbol. Either way, we ought to welcome the immature to the table.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through communion?
Body: Like baptism, Communion is a ministry that engages the body. When it comes to our understanding of our communion with him, his Father, and the Spirit, Jesus wants our whole person engaged in the process. By giving us this bodily action in which we participate, Jesus is maximizing the chance that we will remember and internalize the reality of how we are in communion with the Trinity through him. The best way to make a lesson memorable is to engage a person’s mind and soul along with various senses of the body. As with baptism, this helps us see why Communion should be an important part of our ministries. Communion is the Christ-created methodology for maximizing the chances that we will internalize the message of our communion with the Trinity, and each other, through Jesus.
The bread and wine engage all five senses: we smell them, see them, touch them, taste them, and hear them as we crunch and drink them. Since the bread and wine engage all five senses, we ought to try to make it a pleasant experience. The Bible does not specify what kind of bread we should use – whether leavened or unleavened. In Western Christianity, we traditionally use unleavened bread. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, they traditionally use leavened bread. Since we have freedom on the matter, it might be helpful to use different kinds of bread during different seasons of the year. During the season before Easter we might use unleavened bread because of its symbolism in Scripture to the absence of sin. During Easter we might use leavened bread to symbolize how Jesus is risen (get it? bread that has risen) and how Jesus is the new leaven of a new life for humanity. Either way, we can bake or choose bread that tastes good, so the taste experience reinforces the truth that Jesus is good and pleasant. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). If someone in the congregation is willing to bake the bread, it can be made with sugar and butter so it tastes delicious.
The issue of wine that smells and tastes good can be an amusing – or frustrating – experience for a congregation. Wine connoisseurs will want something complex (and generally expensive), while people with simpler tastes will probably want something sweeter and with less alcohol. In most congregations, cheap and sweet is probably the preference of the majority. It is also good to provide the alternative of grape juice at every Communion. Some people should not drink alcohol because of addictions, and others need to avoid it for personal conscience or because of medications they may be taking. Or to make it simpler, you may choose to have grape juice only.
In some churches, trays of bread and wine are passed to the people. That is appropriate if it is difficult for people to move around. It also makes it less conspicuous for a person who wishes to abstain. In other churches, people come forward to the table and receive the elements. In either case, it can be helpful to have everyone wait, and take the bread and wine at the same time. This can symbolize congregational unity, the point that Paul made in 1 Corinthians 10:17. We are connected to each other through our union with Christ. We are each individuals, receiving the body and blood, but we are also a family who eats together.
There is a long tradition of connecting Communion with healing – healing in body, mind, and soul. Ancient Christians sometimes called Communion the “medicine of immortality” or “the antidote to death.” By his communion with our flesh and blood, the Son of God brings healing to our whole selves: body, mind, and soul. Whether we experience that healing through natural processes in our bodies, through the ministry of health-care professionals, or miraculously by Jesus’ intervention (either his intervention now or at the day of our resurrections), the indwelling of the Son in our flesh and blood means that we are healed and we are promised immortality.
It can be good to take time during Communion to pray for and anoint those who are sick or struggling in life. There are several ways it could be done. For example, we can invite those who need prayer to step aside as they come through the line to receive the elements. Someone can be standing there ready to lay hands on and pray for those who request it. If the prayers need more time than it takes for the congregation to go through the line and receive the elements, the worship music can continue until the prayers are done. Once everyone has received their bread and wine, and everyone who needs prayer has been prayed for, the congregation can then take the bread and wine together.
Mind: The words we speak in connection with Communion can have a profound impact on what people think about Jesus. Since our minds are fallen and darkened in their thinking about Jesus, it is vital that we use words at Communion that promote the renewing of our minds and that help us bring erroneous thoughts into captivity. The bodily impact of the bread and wine means that the thoughts we have during this experience will be reinforced in our minds.
As with baptism, there is little that “must” be said in conjunction with Communion. Traditionally, Jesus’ words at the Last Supper – called the “words of institution” – have been regarded as the minimum. The Mark and Matthew version is different in detail than the Luke and Paul version, but there are elements they all have in common. We can lift a piece of the bread (or gesture toward it) and say, “Jesus said, ‘this is my body.’” We can lift a cup of wine and say, “Jesus said, ‘this is my blood.’” We usually say more – that Jesus has given himself to us, and we have forgiveness, reconciliation, and fellowship with God through what Jesus did.
It has also been regarded as essential that a prayer of blessing should be said, thanking the Father for the gift of his Son and asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate us to the truth that is spoken to us by Jesus in the bread and the wine.
It is natural that we want to say more. We want to be sure that the people we are ministering to have correct thoughts about who Jesus is while they are receiving the bread and wine. We should say a little more, not a lot more. When Communion becomes so lengthy and involved that it feels like a second worship service, or a second message, then we lose the continuity between songs, prayers, sermon, and communion. A Christian worship service includes all four of these elements. If a 30-minute sermon has been given, there is no need to spend 15 minutes talking about Communion. A one- to three-minute summary statement is sufficient. That summary should connect the point made about Jesus during the sermon with the bread and the wine. Here are a couple of examples:
At a Christmas service you might say: “We have seen that God the Son became flesh and made his dwelling among us. So, when Jesus took bread [lift bread] and said ‘this is my body’ and when he took wine [lift wine] and said ‘this is my blood,’ he was telling us that he has made his dwelling in our human nature and now our dwelling is in him.”
At an Easter Sunday service you might say: “The disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus when he broke the bread. When Jesus says ‘this is my body’ [lift bread] and ‘this is my blood’ [lift wine], we also have the opportunity to recognize him, and we recognize ourselves as united with him, in this broken bread.”
In thinking about the order and organization of the Communion service, you should follow the guidelines of your denomination. You can see the GCI ceremony at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/.
Soul: As with baptism, the actions and words of Communion can be conducted in such a way as to bathe the souls of the congregation in assurance or in anxiety. The Holy Spirit is speaking to their souls about the communion they have with the Father in Jesus. If we speak – by words and actions – of this same communion, then we are in step with the Spirit, and the souls of those we minister to will be confirmed and strengthened in their Father’s love for them. On the other hand, we can go to war against the Spirit and leave people confused and doubtful about their Father’s love.
The ministry of Communion to the soul is simple. It is all about who Jesus is, and how he is totally for humanity, on our side, and sharing with us the communion of the Trinity. Any way of conducting Communion that leaves people feeling that our communion with God hinges on what they need to do is wrong and spiritually abusive. Some pastors think they are getting this sort of thing from 1 Corinthians 11, but the Bible was not written to contradict the person of Christ, who wants to save us rather than condemn us. If we find ourselves quoting the Bible and talking about ideas that contradict Jesus’ identity as the union of the Trinity and humanity, then we are misunderstanding and misusing the Bible.
As you prepare to preach and lead Communion – however often you do it – let the Holy Spirit fill you with the assurance of the communion Jesus has given you with your Daddy in heaven. Let go of the self-righteous and legalistic burdens that others may have laid on you in the past and embrace the rest that is found in the fullness of who Jesus is, and in how much Jesus is for you and on your side, and in how he has included you completely and forever in his life. Let the Holy Spirit block from your mind the thoughts about human works and performance that can so easily make us think that we are “unworthy” of receiving Jesus in the bread and wine.
Instead, let the Holy Spirit fill you with his confidence, and the faith of Jesus, so that you not only stop shrinking back from the throne of grace but begin to run towards it with boldness (Hebrews 4:16.) The attitude that we are asking the Spirit to give us – and to give to our congregations – is the attitude that 5-year olds have when they know their favorite meal is being served. All their moms have to say is “supper’s ready!” and they come running to the table, jump up in a chair, and say “can I start eating?” We are the beloved children of the Father; his Son has set this table especially for us; and his Spirit has said “supper’s ready.”
Now we come running to the Lord’s table.
 F. Hauck, “Koinos,” pages 447-450 in Kittel and Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume. We capitalize Communion when it refers to the Lord’s Supper; we use lowercase to indicate a mutual sharing in other ways.
 Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, 81.
 Of course, none of the three would ever do that. By their nature as good, none of the three persons of the Trinity would ever make the not good choice to “secede” from the Trinity. It is difficult for us to use our concept of being “free” when it comes to God. Nothing is free to be something not in its nature, because its nature is a description of what it is.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 81.
 Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark), 41, paraphrasing Athanasius of Alexandria in Against the Arians, 3.39f; 4.7f.
 There are limits to the symbolism — people in Rome and Corinth do not eat the same bread, yet are one in Christ. We illustrate our unity by participating in the same ceremony.
 In the same way, the Israelites had Passover as a memorial of the past, but the past had meaning precisely because it had meaning for the present. The God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt was the God who still had a purpose for his people, who could rescue them from other forms of slavery, including national exile and on a personal level, bondage to sin.
Paul mentions the Lord’s Supper only in 1 Corinthians, and only because it had become a problem in the church in Corinth. He does not give a complete theology of the ceremony, just as none of the passages on baptism gives a complete picture. We must fill in the gaps.
 Joseph Tkach points out past, present, and future aspects of the Lord’s Supper in “The Three-Fold Meaning of the Lord's Supper,” https://archive.gci.org/articles/the-three-fold-meaning-of-the-lords-supper/.
 The “free churches” are those that are free from state control. They are generally less liturgical, less ceremonial, although most have unofficial rituals of their own. In some cases their practices were a conscious repudiation of state-church practices.
 “Jesus also said that the cup was the new covenant in his blood. He was not concerned about the actual cup. He used the word ‘cup’ to refer to the wine inside the cup. It was a figure of speech. And the wine itself wasn’t the new covenant. Jesus was speaking figuratively. He did not say that the wine was his blood” (“Question & Answers About the Lord’s Supper,” https://archive.gci.org/articles/question-answers-about-the-lords-supper/.
 Jesus is always present, but we feel his presence in different ways. He may be present in a significantly different way when he is preached, when good works are done, when we study Scripture, when we are seriously ill, or when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. People have different subjective reactions to these different settings, and there may be an objective difference behind our perceptions.
 Some have attempted to specify how Jesus’ body conveys a distinctly different meaning than his blood, but this seems to be dividing something that was meant to be taken together. When Jesus became a human, he took on blood at the same time as he took on a body, and when he gave himself for us on the cross, the body and blood were essentially given at the same time. One is not spiritual while the other is physical – both are physical. It is a figure of speech called hendiadys – literally, “one through two.” One idea, expressed in two words, such as “heaven and earth.” The Lord’s Supper is one meal, one ceremony, not two. “Body and blood” means all of Jesus, without any attempt to designate different roles for different parts.
 Unfortunately, churches with a “high” view of the presence of Christ are the most likely to practice “closed Communion.” People may take the elements only if they are members of that particular denomination. This symbolizes division rather than unity.
 It is an odd idea that “special” things should be rare. We do not restrict how frequently we touch our spouse based on the idea that this will make touching more special. One analogy might be that baptism corresponds to a wedding, done once, but Communion corresponds to regular interactions with our spouse.
 Sadly, many people throughout church history have participated in Communion weekly but did not understand their Father’s love for them. They lived in fear, partly because church leaders used Communion as a gate controlled by the leaders, and partly because they had hijacked the meaning of the ritual to serve their own concepts of God. The physical act of Communion is not a magic pathway to spiritual maturity. It must be accompanied by teaching about its meaning.
 In some nations, grape juice and wine are scarce and expensive, and can therefore unwittingly contradict one element of the symbolism: Jesus was taking ordinary food and drink to make it represent himself. He is the basic nutrition – not the exotic luxury – that we need. In some cases, it may be best to use food and drink that is more a customary part of the diet.
Red wine can symbolize blood better than white wine can, but it is not biblically required. “Body and blood” is a figure of speech for the whole person; it is not necessary to duplicate colors of specific parts of the person.
 Another method that can convey this symbolism is eating from the same loaf. Rather than one person breaking the bread for everyone involved, each person tears off a small piece of the loaf. Some churches also have a common cup – there is only one large bowl of wine. The people do not drink directly from the bowl – they dip one end of the bread into the wine. Thus everyone can see that they are sharing in the same loaf and the same cup.
 See for example Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 20.
 One way that pastors fight against the Spirit when leading Communion is by talking about our “responsibilities” with regard to Communion. These speeches can run the gamut from short jabs to long diatribes. Some are lectures about “examining yourself” and being sure you are repentant; others are guilt trips about evangelism and saving people from hell.
What is evangelism in the light of who Jesus is?
The word “evangelism” has its root in the same Greek word we translate “gospel”: the word “evangel,” which means “good news.” So to evangelize is to “gospelize” or “announce good news” someone.
Evangelism is not a sales pitch. The word, in its Greek origin in the New Testament, does not have that sense about it. Evangelism is not an attempt to sell someone a product or, primarily, to try to get someone to do something. In ancient Greek, to give the gospel is to give a declarative statement. It is an announcement of a fact, a news item. It is a fact that can be believed or disbelieved, but remains a fact nonetheless.
Jesus announced, The kingdom of God is here. He talked about the kingdom. Paul announced, Jesus died for our sins. Paul talked about Jesus. Are these different gospels? No, they are different facets of the same gem. If we want to share the gospel in a biblical way, we need to see how they are integrated. Put simply, Jesus was announcing a result, and Paul was announcing the means by which the result came about.
A Christ-centered definition of the gospel, and of evangelism, needs to start with who Christ is: the Son of God, become human. Because of who he is, he was able to do something for us: Representing all humanity, he died for us, was raised from the dead, and ascended to heaven as our mediator. As a result (now we get to the question of who we are), we are forgiven, reconciled, adopted as children of God, with eternal fellowship with him (that is, in his kingdom).
There are many additional points that are important, such as salvation is completely by grace; grace is not a “thing,” but is the gift of fellowship with God; salvation is the gift of God himself; eternal life is not just a never-ending life, but a life of love in fellowship with God. It is self-contradictory to say that we want the gift of fellowship with God while we also ignore God and live like the devil.
A definition of evangelism cannot include everything, but can touch on the most important points:
Evangelism is announcing that the Son of God became a human, died for our sins, was resurrected, and returned to heaven in order to give us the free gift of eternal fellowship with God.
To direct this announcement towards another person (to “evangelize” that person) is to tell them about Jesus and his significance for them personally. In some cases, people have already heard that Jesus died for their sins. What they need is to understand the significance of what that means for them: that it changed who they are and how they should see themselves.
Depending on the audience, sometimes evangelism needs to give more stress to point 1, that the Son of God died for us, and sometimes it needs to give more stress to point 2, that this means that we are loved by God, accepted by God, and we don’t have to jump through hoops in order to have eternal life with God. People who have accepted point 1 generally think of themselves as Christians, even if they have not yet understood point 2, about grace, union with Christ, and fellowship with God as his children.
Therefore, we often preach the gospel to people who are already Christians – not to steal sheep from another church, but to share good news and to build believers in the faith and assurance they should have. Indeed, every time we preach to our own congregation, we should include the gospel, thus evangelizing our own people – and ourselves. We all have room for growth.
As we discussed with preaching, evangelizing leads to a response on the part of the person being evangelized, but the response does not determine the truth of the message. The gospel is true whether or not that person ever comes to believe the truth that Jesus has given humanity a new and perfectly righteous foundation for our relationship with God.
This understanding of evangelism may become clearer if we reflect on evangelism in the light of the Trinity. As with baptism and communion, we see evangelism as something that is characteristic of the Triune life itself. Seamands discusses at length how the Triune God is a missionary God. It may seem strange to us to think of the Father, Son, and Spirit as evangelizing each other. We may think, “the Father has no need to evangelize the Son because the Son already believes in himself and in his Father – and he already lives according to their relationship in the Spirit.” Such thinking reveals the extent to which we have let the response drive our definition of the gospel.
However, in every moment of the Trinity’s existence, the three persons of the Trinity have an “evangel” – stating good news – to share with each other. That is the good news of how much they love, like, and accept each other. It is not a sales pitch or an invitation. The Father does not say to the Son “if you will accept me, then I will love you and you will be my Son.” God would cease to exist if the acceptance of the Three Persons were conditional in this way! Rather, the Father says to the Son, “I accept you, I love you, and you will always be my beloved Son.” In response to this the Son says, “I love you, Father, and I accept you, and I will always be your Son.” They speak this gospel to each other in the power, anointing, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, who joins them in affirming the good news of his love and acceptance of them.
Evangelism is not merely something God does – it is something that God is. It is characteristic of the Triune life that each person of God is constantly and forever immersing each of the other two persons of God in the good news – the gospel – of his love and acceptance of them. This is part of the reality revealed in Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit descends on him and the Father speaks from heaven, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9-11). At Jesus’ baptism we are given a revelation of the good news (evangelistic) life of the Trinity as the Father pours good news over the Son in the Spirit.
This Trinitarian evangelism does not cause their relationship to come into existence. Trinitarian evangelism is the joyful announcement and celebration of the relationship that already exists. The Father does not evangelize the Son in order to convince the Son to become the Son. The Father evangelizes the Son because the Son is already the beloved Son of the Father.
In the same way, the evangelism of the church does not cause a relationship to come into existence between people and their Father in heaven. Evangelism is the good news being announced to people that, because of who Jesus is, they are already beloved children of the Father in Jesus. The Greek roots of this word illustrate this. The prefix eu- means good; the root angel refers to an announcement.
To “evangelize” or “gospelize” people is not an effort to try to help them become something they are not. It is an announcement to them that God has already reconciled them to himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:18). The objective reality does not change – but we do wish to change the subjective receipt or appropriation of that reality. We would like for people to know, believe, and celebrate the truth of who Christ has made them be, and live in light of it.
Again, we can see this in Jesus’ own baptism in Mark 1:11. The words that the Father speaks to the Son in that moment are gospel. They are the good news of who Jesus is and who, as God the Son, he has always been. The Father is not saying to Jesus, “Do my will and then you will be my Son.” He says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father is saying something that is true and is good, sharing that with his Son, just has he has always done and always will do. The Father is “gospelizing” the Son, communicating the truth of who he is as the beloved Son of the Father.
Since the Father has fulfilled, in Jesus Christ, his plan to adopt humanity into the Triune life (Eph. 1:5), it should not surprise us to discover that Jesus’ evangelism of the human race is the same kind of evangelism that the persons of the Trinity practice towards each other. The Gospels tell us that Jesus came preaching “the time has come, the kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15). Jesus does not say, “If you will believe what I am saying, then you can create an experience of the kingdom in your own life.” Nor does Jesus say, “If you modify your behavior then you can draw the kingdom into your life.” If the kingdom is not already here in objective truth, no amount of faith or good behavior could make it appear.
The kingdom is not a product being sold or a behavioral modification program being promoted. Jesus makes a declarative statement of fact about the reality that the kingdom of God has come. It is news.
The people of that time imagined something much more worldly than the reality Jesus had in mind. They imagined the overthrow of Roman authority and the reassertion of Jewish independence. But when Jesus talks about the kingdom, he is talking about the Triune life itself. He is talking about the joyful, peaceful reign of the Father, Son, and Spirit over all of humanity and over the entire created order. The kingdom Jesus announces is the life that he has with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In the Son’s incarnation as the man Jesus Christ, this life has come near to us, and we have been brought near to it.
Jesus is announcing to humanity the good news of our inclusion in the Triune life through him. In the same way that the Father has eternally said to the Son, “you are my beloved, forever included in my life,” so, also, the Son now says to humanity, “you are the beloved of my Father, anointed in my Spirit, and included in our life.”
The evangel that Jesus gives us is not an invitation for us to bring the kingdom down from heaven or to do something good to get ourselves into the kingdom of God. Rather, it is a declaration to us of who we really are: citizens of the heavenly kingdom of our Father. Just as the Father speaks a word of acceptance to the Son because he already is the Son, so also Jesus evangelizes the human race because we are already children of the Father. The gospel does not make us into Jesus’ brothers and sisters – it announces something that has already been done. Creation, and re-creation through Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit have made us his brothers and sisters. Because of who he is, we belonged to him long before we came to realize it. Evangelism is Jesus’ work to bring us this realization so that it makes a difference in our thoughts and behaviors.
In a way, evangelism is a convergence of the other three ministries we have already discussed: preaching, baptism, and communion merge together in evangelism to bring the message, to mark the change in our lives that it implies, and to go forward in life in fellowship with God. The gospel announces what Jesus has done, what difference it makes, and points to our eternity in love and joy.
When we preach the gospel, we are conveying the same message Jesus does: a message of God’s love, his acceptance, and his desire for us to participate in who he has made us to be. When we evangelize, we are participating in Jesus’ ministry to immerse people in the assurance of who they are in fellowship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Evangelism should always be seen in conjunction with preaching, baptism, and communion with God. They go together.
All that the church does should help convey, either in words or actions, the truth that Jesus has placed us in fellowship with God. Sermons do it in words; the life of the church should do it in actions; rituals such as baptism and Communion convey it in symbolism. We want everyone (whether in or out of our congregation) to learn of God’s love for them, that they are his beloved children, and that this transforms their life. Once they come to accept this, we want them to grow in their assurance of it, and in understanding what it means for their life.
We all sense, at some level, that the church exists for evangelism, and that we all ought to be engaged in evangelism in some way. Yet our lack of understanding about how evangelism is inherent within God’s Triune nature causes us to separate our doing of evangelism from Jesus being the good news. People often think that the key to evangelism is putting our arguments into a tight package, so that people have no choice but to agree that what we say is right. They have turned the gospel into an academic exercise, and a cognitive agreement.
The gospel is Jesus himself, and when we share the gospel, we are participating in Jesus’ ministry of giving himself to help humanity. We don’t have to convince anyone – that’s not our job. We are delivering the news, not advertising a product. The news concerns Jesus’ being and doing – who he is and what he has done – and then about our being and doing – his significance for who we are and what we do. God loved humanity so much that he sent his only Son, so that we might have a good relationship with him, rather than struggle with a sense of condemnation.
When Jesus is a product to be sold, you have to be good at sales in order to sell him. Since most people are not natural salespersons – they do not have that personality or intuitive skill – they become intimidated by evangelism, and because they don’t do it well, they don’t want to do it at all. So programs are created to try to train believers to be effective sales agents for Jesus. Once evangelism stops being the joyful Triune life and becomes a sales program, then it also becomes a religious obligation. That may be why some believers don’t like evangelism.
If people are not confident about Jesus’ love for them, and that they are accepted by the Father as his children, then it is difficult for them to persuade others. The difficulties often lead people to failure, and they give up. However, as Purves points out, that act of giving up is not always a bad thing. When we are ready to give up our programs, we may be ready for Jesus’ way.
How do we practice the ministry of evangelism?
How do we evangelize in a way that participates in Jesus’ life, instead of being a program of our own creation? Perhaps we can start with an analogy. Evangelism is a form of multiplication, of multiplying the number of people who hear the good news about Jesus and who they are in him. The apostle Paul uses the analogy of his converts being his children in the faith. Let’s take than analogy and develop it.
Suppose a married couple comes for counseling and says, “We want children but we haven’t had any because we’ve never had sex.” There is something wrong – and it is most likely not in their understanding, but in their relationship. When a man and woman are in love, they usually do not have a problem having sex. Millions of premarital pregnancies are evidence that when two people are drawn to each other, it is difficult to stop children from being produced. No special program is needed to bring children into existence. (Medical problems like infertility are another issue.)
So, if a married couple were to say “we want children but we’ve never had sex,” they probably don’t need a “how to” book on sex. They need something that addresses their psychology, including their relationship with each other. If this couple is to be helped, they must first work through issues of love, acceptance, trust, and relationship, and then children will flow naturally from their relationship. If they have never had sex, they might need a few minutes of “sex-ed” on the mechanics, but their relationship needs weeks – perhaps months – of counseling and therapy. We could tell how to have sex in one counseling session, but that does not mean that they will want to do it. The desire to come together will have to flow from their love for each other and the indwelling of their lives in each other.
In the same way that human parents multiply and have children, so also disciples who believe in Jesus multiply and produce disciples who believe in Jesus. Christians produce new Christians, in normal circumstances, and churches produce new churches. If we see a group of Christians who are not multiplying and producing new Christians, then something is wrong. They do not need exhortations and instructions, any more than the couple in the analogy needs instruction in how to do sex. Rather, they need counseling and therapy in their relationship with Jesus. If the Bride of Christ (the church) is not in love with her Husband (Jesus), it will be difficult for her to produce children.
As a practical matter, if the people in your church are not evangelizing others, then you need to evangelize the people in your church. You need to so fill them with the good news, to saturate them with confidence in Christ, that it will fill them and overflow to others. When the people in your church have been thoroughly evangelized, then they will evangelize others – some in words, and some in actions.
In the same way that a man and woman who love each other will have sex and produce children, so also people who have been evangelized will evangelize. If the people we minister to are not telling others the good news, then it is likely that the people we minister to do not have a firm understanding of what the good news is. This is why we started this lecture by defining the gospel, seeing it rooted in the nature of the Trinity and of who Jesus is. Evangelism is part of the nature of the Triune life, and thus it is a ministry in which we are always engaged. The people to whom we minister, even if they are baptized believers, need to be constantly “gospelized.” Our preaching, our counseling, our practice of Communion, our worship, and all that we do in ministry, needs to be about the constant and repeated bathing of others in the assurance of who they are in communion with Jesus.
Evangelism with believers is similar to evangelism with people who are not believers. Both groups need to know and understand that Jesus is supremely good, and supremely effective at what he came to do. He has embraced them in the way that he is embraced by the Father and the Holy Spirit. They need to understand and feel that Jesus’ embracing of their lives means that the Father and the Holy Spirit have also embraced them. The primary difference is that believers, by definition, already believe – to some extent – what is being said to them about their identity in Jesus. That makes them a more receptive audience, but it does not make them an audience that is any less in need of being “gospelized.”
How do we know that our evangelism of believers is working? When we begin to see them opening up to embrace others with the same love in which Jesus has embraced them. The first step of outreach and evangelism is the step out of one’s self and towards helping people around us. This means that believers will embrace their husbands, wives, children, fellow church members, and friends. We need to heal from some relationship dysfunctions – not that we are ever completely healed, but that we are healed enough to embrace the people immediately around us – and then we will find it easier to embrace strangers and welcome them into the fellowship of the church.
We cannot give more love than what we have. We cannot love others with any greater love than what we have experienced. God loves us an infinite amount, but we experience it only to the extent that we believe he loves us. Three elements of belief must be present in order for the evangelization of nonbelievers to be effective. The people doing the evangelizing must:
- Know that they are embraced, loved, and accepted children of the Father in Jesus and through Holy Spirit.
- Know that nonbelievers are also embraced, loved, and accepted children of the Father in Jesus and through Holy Spirit.
- Be willing to live out this reality by embracing the nonbelievers, participating in Jesus’ embrace of each nonbeliever.
On this side of eternity, we will never know perfectly or be perfectly willing, but there is a basic sense in which the love of Christ must overflow from within us and over into the lives of others, for evangelism to be effective.
It might be helpful for us to distinguish evangelism from conversion. The word “conversion” can be used in a positive sense, but sometimes it has a negative connotation. We want to distinguish Christ-centered evangelism from many other actions that are called “evangelism.” It is possible to convert people to a new way of thinking and a new way of behaving without knowing who Jesus is. Muslims and Mormons convert people. That work does not flow out of the good news of the Trinity and humanity having eternal communion in Jesus.
Hitting closer to home, many people are converted to legalistic, rule-based, behavior-modification forms of Christianity. The “Jesus” they talk about has little in common with the biblical Jesus. Just because a church talks about Jesus and is doing a good job of converting people to their thought-system and behavioral code, does not mean that evangelism is taking place. If we are trying to convince people to change their thinking and behavior in order to make themselves acceptable to God, then we are not practicing evangelism – we are practicing “conversion-ism.” If we are preaching conditional love, and salvation that is based on what we do, we are not preaching the real gospel.
Evangelism means good news, not the threat that you have to work really hard in order to be accepted by God. Evangelism means telling people that God is far better than that – that he loves them already, that he justifies the ungodly, counting them as acceptable, that he does not hold their sins against them, and he does not keep a record of wrongs. The people are already accepted, already children of a loving God who wants to spend eternity with them. A person must know who they are in Christ, and know who the nonbeliever is in Christ, in order to do evangelism. The intent, content, and purpose of our message must be faithful to the Trinity and to Jesus if it is to be called evangelism.
To evangelize is to say to people: “You are liked, loved, and included in the life of God the Father in the humanity of God the Son and through the life of the Holy Spirit.” (We don’t have to use those exact words, but that’s a summary.)
A large part of what has been called evangelism in modern America has not been evangelism – it has been an effort to create converts. Instead of participating in Jesus’ work to tell people who they are in him, people created their own work of telling people what they need to do for Jesus and how they need to behave.
All human beings were created by the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit, in order to live in the full joy of their identity as children of the Father in Jesus. A human being is a beloved child of the Father, adopted in the humanity of Jesus and immersed in the love of the Holy Spirit.
How do people respond to this truth? They were created for this, so in one sense it should resonate with their souls. But since human nature is fallen, many people resist the truth, preferring their own efforts rather than the grace of God. No one accepts the truth out of their own intellectual ability, though – they believe it only if the Holy Spirit leads them, and for reasons that we do not know, he does not lead everyone to accept this right away.
Whether people respond or not, whether our churches grow or not, we want to teach people how good God is and how good the news is. We need to boldly, clearly, and consistently announce to them that they are loved and accepted by God. Evangelism to believers and nonbelievers is essentially the same. There is only one type of human being, only one new humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:15) – and that one type of human being needs to be constantly washed in the truth of the communion we have with the Father through Jesus. This is true of me, you, the people in our churches, and every human being in the world.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through evangelism?
Evangelism is our participation in Jesus’ announcement to the world of what he has done: made us children of the Father. Evangelism is a ministry to be practiced with believers and nonbelievers, and to be practiced in much the same way with each group: by assuring them of God’s love for them. Now we turn our attention to the ways in which evangelism is practiced as a ministry to the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
Body: Much of modern evangelism has focused on addressing people’s minds for the sake of their souls. This standard view of evangelism perceives people’s souls to be in danger because of their wrong thinking and therefore seeks to change their thinking in order save their souls. Such an approach to evangelism sees little value to the body except as a gateway to gain access to the mind and thus save the soul. This disembodied view of the gospel, and thus of evangelism, goes along with some of the theological errors we talked about in earlier chapters – such as the idea that Jesus no longer has a body. (If the whole point of the Father’s plan for humanity is to save our souls from hell, then we will not need our bodies in the future and therefore God the Son would not need his, either.)
As a result of this thinking, a lot of the ministry to the body that takes place in evangelism has an ulterior motive. Christians might hand out water to people on a hot day, not because they are concerned about people’s thirst but because they hope to start a conversation with them and gain access to their minds. Christians might distribute clothing and build houses for those without these things, not because they see an intrinsic value in doing so, but because they hope to gain a foothold in people’s lives to talk to them about Jesus. The goal quickly devolves from feeding the hungry to using food as a way to talk to people about a belief system that the Christians think the nonbelievers need to convert to in order to make themselves acceptable to God. People often sense the ulterior motive, and they recoil from it.
The Trinity is a relationship without ulterior motive. The Father loves the Son and continually gives to him the good news that he is the beloved Son, for the sole purpose of loving him and liking him. The Father does not have an ulterior motive. He simply loves the Son and cannot help but express that love in every way possible. So in our context, we should see feeding the hungry as a good in itself, not as a step toward something else. If that “something else” happens, then well and good, but even if it does not, our efforts were not in vain. We often want more to happen, for the person’s own good, but it was good to give the food even if we never see the person again. It is given as a good deed in itself, without conditions or expectations attached. It is not a manipulation so that the person will meet our agenda.
It is this Triune life, without ulterior motive or manipulation, in which every human being exists in the second Adam, Jesus. Even when people do not know the Father or believe in Jesus, they are still living, moving, and having their being in the open and honest relationship of the Son and the Father (Acts 17:28). They may not be acting like it, they may not be enjoying it, they may be falling short of what it can give them, but they are there. Sometimes the fallen human nature blinds people to what relationships should be, but inside, it is “pre-wired” in who we are, made in God’s image. The Holy Spirit must unlock the doors, turn on the lights, open the eyes, so a person can see. We cannot control the results of our evangelism.
Jesus’ ministry to human bodies is in stark contrast to what many of us have experienced. Jesus healed people because they needed to be healed. He fed people because they were hungry. He comforted them because they were in mourning. When we do the same, we are ministering to him (Matt. 25:40). On the Last Day, Jesus will resurrect the body of every last human being, whether they ever listened to him or not, and whether they ever believed him or not (1 Cor. 15:22), just as he has healed, fed, and comforted everyone who needed it without ulterior motive.
When we evangelize by caring for people’s physical needs, but do so with an ulterior motive, we are trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. We long to see people know the truth about how Jesus has transformed who they are – and that is a good thing. The problem is that we become so anxious for this to happen that we seek manipulative short-cuts, and that is a bad thing. There is no short-cut to embracing the gospel. It often takes time. What Jesus’ own ministry shows us is that he, as God the Son, is committed to embracing humanity and caring for our bodies and all our physical needs forever, regardless of whether we ever embrace him back.
Why? Because he loves us that much. This brings us back to our previous discussion about embracing others as we have been embraced. Many Christian conversion efforts come across as manipulative because people think the Father said “believe the truth about Jesus or else I will torture you with fire!” If we have this manipulative view of God, it will probably affect our motives, actions and ministries, and we will probably pass it on to others, like some viral disease.
Here is a suggestion: lead your people in practicing evangelism to the body (doing good works) just because that is the nature of the kingdom. If you have an outreach picnic and give away free hamburgers, do not measure “success” by how many times the gospel was presented, how many people accepted Christ, or how many new people showed up at church the next day. The purpose of the event is to give people hamburgers – there is no ulterior or hidden purpose – therefore the measure of success is how many people were served.
By conducting an outreach event in this way, we are enabling people to experience the kingdom of God as it really is. This is how Jesus’ ministry works. Throughout the Gospels Jesus ministers to people’s bodies: he hugs them, he touches their wounds, he eats and drinks with them. Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is like a party” (e.g., Luke 14:16). Jesus describes and lives out a kingdom in which people are embraced – hugged and spiritually embraced into the Trinity – and a kingdom in which everyone eats, everyone shares the clothing they have, and the Father’s house is a home for everyone. This is why Luke describes the early church in this way in Acts 2. He describes a community that is functioning as the kingdom of God, a place where all things are held in common (in communion) as the Trinity holds all things in common in its life and its relationship with humanity.
Ministering to the body in evangelism means creating the bodily experience of the kingdom here and now, on earth. When we give people food and clothing and shelter, when we hug them and shake their hands and look them in the eye – without ulterior motive and without judging them – we are giving them a bodily experience of the good news of who Jesus is for them, and who they are in him. Such bodily experiences are vitally necessary to helping people to be assured of who they are in Jesus. Can you imagine if your spouse said “I love you” but never touched you, never looked you in the eye, never helped you have food, clothing, and shelter? The words would ring hollow because they would not be true.
It is the same with the gospel. The good news of humanity’s existence in Christ is the good news that we have a Father who is providing for our bodies – both now and for all eternity. He provides for us not by magically dropping stuff down from heaven, but by embracing farmers, manufacturers, retailers, banks, and churches in the collecting and distributing of what our bodies need. The church’s role in the Father’s provision is to be a place where the kingdom is shared without cost and without ulterior motive. The church asks nothing in return and therefore presents the clearest picture of what the kingdom of the Trinity is like. We do not ask for money, no words of thanks, and no conversions. We simply allow the Father’s love to flow from Jesus, through us, in the form of food, shelter, clothing, and human contact, and thus we communicate to others’ bodies the good news of Jesus’ relationship with them. We are sharing the gospel by living it.
Mind: When we talk about ministering to people’s minds, we talk about the words we speak and how they are received. As we discussed earlier, the content of evangelism should be the good news that God is our Father, and we are his children. Believers are already on the road to growing in the grace and knowledge of this truth, so our evangelism of the minds of believers is an effort to reinforce what they already know and help them clarify their thinking to bring it more into line with the truth about themselves. Generally they know the words that God loves them, but sometimes they do not feel that he loves them unconditionally. They need to grow in assurance and their feelings of being secure in his love. Another way to say it is that they know who Jesus is, but they do not yet have a clear understanding of who they are in him.
Ministering to the minds of nonbelievers through evangelism is different. Even though nonbelievers and believers are equally included in the Trinity’s life through Jesus, there is a big difference in thinking between the two. To not believe in one’s inclusion in Jesus is to live in what the Bible calls “darkness,” “lostness,” and “alienation.” Nonbelievers are not lost from the Father’s perspective – the Father knows right where they are: in Jesus. Nonbelievers are lost because they do not know where they are. They are in Jesus and do not know it. They have been brought into the party but are unaware of it. They are beloved, adopted children of the Father, but their minds tell them the opposite. They believe lies about themselves, so in that sense they are a “believer” — a believer in lies.
That is what we all were at one time, and still are sometimes in different situations in our lives. Our human nature is a liar, and has been deceived by Satan, but this hurtful truth is difficult for us to accept. We want to believe that we have enough light in ourselves, when the truth is that our minds, when unconformed to the mind of Christ, are in complete blindness. We need a thorough reconstruction of our thought patterns.
The challenge in evangelizing the nonbeliever is in how to confront the blinded thinking of the person in a way that is helpful and not more hurtful than necessary. Just like pulling a splinter from the finger of a child, there is no way we can present the gospel truth to others without producing some hurt in them – but the hurt is worth it when the work is done. Presenting the gospel to a nonbeliever is a form of preaching, but unlike preaching in the church, it rarely takes the form of a sermon. It is usually better in the form of conversation.
Think of the splinter-in-the-finger analogy for a moment. When children get a splinter, it is painful and they would like to have it removed. However, they fear the tweezers, the squeezing, the needle, or whatever other methods must be employed to remove the splinter. It is best to explain the situation, show the tools, and allow them to participate in the process.
Preaching sermons to nonbelievers is like holding a kid down and yanking out a splinter. It might work. Then again, it might cause nonbelievers to run away and never let anyone get near their pain again. That is why we spent time talking about how to structure our sermons in church to speak to nonbelievers who may be present in our worship services.
In a moment we will talk a little more about when and how we might give sermons as part of an evangelistic event, but for now we want to talk about “preaching” the gospel to nonbelievers through evangelistic conversation.
Evangelism by conversation involves a lot of listening. In the blindness of our disbelief, people are in mental, emotional, and psychological agony. We come to believe that no one else knows the pain and alienation we experience. Our human nature rushes to medicate this pain through alcohol, sex, dysfunctional relationships, anger, addiction to work, and a host of other idols – even chocolate. Since pain absorbs all our attention, we rarely meet another person who actually cares about what we are experiencing. People ask, “how are you today?” but they do not really want to know the answer.
This is where Jesus’ ministry begins. Jesus genuinely loves us and cares about us and wants to listen to us. He is so interested in listening to us that he lets us do all the talking in prayer. When we participate in Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, we become better listeners. We want to know what other people believe about God, the meaning of life, and the meaning of their own experiences. We want to hear their hurt and know what has happened in their lives that has led them to where they are now.
We want to know and listen because in doing so, we are slowly drawing out the splinter of pain that has been embedded in the other person by their share in Adam’s fallenness. This is why evangelism must begin a genuine concern for other people. Evangelism begins with our relationships with our family, our closest friends and co-workers. As the Spirit moves in these close relationships, we are ready to love and patiently listen to these people in our lives because we already have sincere love for them.
I can go to the mall and ask people if they know Jesus, but they know that I am not really concerned about them and their lives. Evangelism to strangers is usually like asking people “how are you today?” Strangers assume that what you are doing is not an authentic attempt to know, to listen, and to love them – it is instead a social convention. This is not to discount the miraculous work of the Spirit, who sometimes brings strangers together in unexpected ways, or gives certain individuals a heart for a particular culture or people group that is not their own. Rather, we are acknowledging the normal pattern of human relationships as they have been created by the Father.
The normal pattern of relationship is that we care the most for those closest to us. Our ministry of evangelism begins with ourselves – that we might know and embrace the mind of Christ and think truthfully about his love for us. Then the ministry of evangelism takes us into the lives of those we live with in family – that they might also begin to embrace the mind of Christ. From there it expands in larger circles to our fellow church members, friends, and neighbors. If we allow the Spirit to make us alert to those around us, we will find no shortage of people who need to be listened to without fear of condemnation. Our mates, our children, and our friends are crying out for someone who will embody for them the listening life of Jesus.
Our first step is to let others talk, and to really listen to what they are saying, to hear it and respect it. It is their story and their perspective. Even if our knowledge of Jesus leads us to conclude that their perspective is flawed, it still belongs to them and is worthy of our respect. Since the Trinity is relationship, it is the Father’s first concern for our lives that we be in authentic relationship. Real relationship, in which people listen to and respect each other, is the precursor and context to believing the gospel, because the gospel is about the One True Relationship in which we are all already participants.
Second, evangelism by conversation means listening to the Holy Spirit. As we will discuss in a moment, when we talk about the evangelism of the soul, there is already a conversation going on in the life of every human being between each person’s soul and the Holy Spirit. While we can only listen and hear imperfectly, the Holy Spirit listens and hears perfectly. He knows the size, shape, and location of the splinter that needs to be removed from those we are evangelizing. This means that he also knows when we should speak of Jesus and what we should say.
The conversation of evangelism is a five-person group discussion. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are including you and the nonbeliever in their conversation. As one person in this group, you are listening to all four of the others. The Spirit is communicating the life of the Father and the Son to you, and he is empowering and enabling your listening and speaking to the nonbeliever. If it were not for the life and ministry of the Holy Spirit, then no two human beings would ever be able to communicate with each other – no matter what language they spoke.
This means that listening to the Holy Spirit to help you know when and how to speak about Jesus is not a tricky or difficult task. It usually requires little more than being quiet – both in mouth and spirit. After you have listened to a nonbeliever for 20-30 minutes, you will begin to find that one or two key thoughts about that person’s relationship with Jesus will rise to the surface of your mind. Those are probably thoughts the Spirit is suggesting that you share. Try expressing them – if the nonbeliever is responsive, good. If they resist what you are saying, that’s OK, too.
Just because someone does not like what we say about Jesus does not mean that the Spirit did not suggest the words to us. Sometimes the gospel is not well received initially, but a seed is sown that will sprout some other day, perhaps through the work of some other Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6).
The most important way we can listen to the Spirit is to know the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God loves every person you have ever known, or ever will know. They are children of the Father, loved by Jesus and adopted in Jesus. As long as you are bearing witness to this reality in the words and actions of your conversations with nonbelievers, then you are practicing evangelism, and it will bear fruit sooner or later.
Third, evangelism by conversation requires patience and commitment. It is not done with a flash-bang stun grenade. This is another reason we need to start evangelism with nonbelievers that we already like, know, and love. It is hard to live in a patiently committed relationship with people that you think you should like but really find it difficult to be with.
The Father has decided that all human beings will live forever in the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:22). This means that the Father has given himself eternity to keep talking to his children about how much he loves them and to keep inviting them to join the eternal celebration of his kingdom feast (Luke 15:28). If we are going to participate in Jesus’ ministry of evangelism, we need to take a deep breath, relax, and settle in for the long haul.
This may be one of the deepest flaws in the evangelism models being used in contemporary Christianity. When you believe that your ministry of evangelism is on a timetable to get people saved before a certain point (e.g., before they die), then you become desperate. You become willing to manipulate and play tricks. You become willing to put programs and activities above relationship. You decide that the end justifies the means, that lies are okay if you have good motives. This desperation becomes the stench of death to the nonbeliever and ends up betraying the goal it seeks to achieve.
There is only one reason, in Christ, to be in relationship with a nonbeliever: because that person is a human being, made in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Christ. To develop deeper relationships, we need to like and love the people and want to be friends with them. In fact, you like and love them so much that you want to listen to them and be in relationship with them even if they never come to believe what Jesus says about them.
This is what Jesus has done. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have decided to always be with the human race, even if people keep wanting to be human without God. The Trinity likes and loves us that much that he would rather have us in our disbelief – and really have us – than to be without us. That is why the Father is called the Father, because he loves us the way only a Father can. What we call the love of human fatherhood is (even at its best) but a pale reflection of the source of all parental love: the Father who has always loved the Son and now includes us all in that same love.
No one, most of all the Father, wants to see anyone suffer in their blindness even one moment longer than is necessary. Patience is not indifference. (Indifference is the opposite of patience, because it is the opposite of love.) Patience, which is part of the fruit of the Spirit, flows from love. Because we love our children, we are going to patiently and carefully remove the splinters from their fingers. We are not going to go too fast or too slow, and we are not going to be indifferent to their pain. The patient conversation of evangelism recognizes that because we love, like, and respect the nonbelievers that we are evangelizing, we cannot violate their personhood by rushing the conversation. Neither can we abandon our love for them by simply walking away. The conversation of evangelism is the patience and commitment of Jesus shared with us through his communion with our humanity and the anointing of his Spirit.
We have talked at length about how we “preach” the gospel through conversation. For just a moment we want to think about preaching the gospel to nonbelievers through sermons. The most common environment in which a nonbeliever would hear a sermon is a worship service.
However, sometimes we may give a sermon in conjunction with an outreach or evangelism event. A church might have a carnival or picnic and invite the community. Or you might have a musical program that reaches out to your neighborhood. If the event is structured in the right way you can create a space and time in the event for someone to present the gospel. Here are some basic principles to keep in mind about this kind of evangelism in American culture:
Keep it short and simple. Five minutes is sufficient. Don’t try to answer every question or objection – let the people think, “I’d like to hear more about that.” Whatever your congregation is doing – feeding people, offering music, etc. – that activity is the reason your neighbors have come – they have not come to hear you go on and on about theology. Use a single, memorable illustration of the gospel. Do not read long passages of Scripture – rather, quote a single sentence or verse (such as Romans 5:18, “Adam made us all sinners, [but] Jesus has made all of us right with God”).
This evangelism is sowing a seed. You can offer a long presentation of the gospel designed to provoke a response – and end with an altar call – if you want to. You might have some people come forward for the altar call, although when you talk with those people you will find out that most are already Christians who came forward just to “rededicate” themselves, or because they felt a need for someone to pray for them.
When we are talking about the kind of evangelism that Jesus is doing, evangelism that is relational, conversational, committed, and brings the kingdom of the Trinity to life here and now, we realize that this kind of evangelism does not reach its pinnacle in public, impersonal events. It reaches its pinnacle in long-term relationships. Preaching evangelism at an outreach event is – at best – sowing a seed and a starting point for those who hear the message. It may facilitate conversational evangelism, by letting the people know that you are safe to talk to; you are not there to condemn them.
Soul: Since evangelism is about letting people know who they are in Christ, evangelism of people’s souls is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has poured out his Spirit on the human race (Acts 2:17) so that we might share in the anointing of the assurance and love that the Father and Jesus have shared in from all eternity.
Practicing the ministry of evangelism to people’s souls has a lot in common with preaching to people’s souls. Our primary goal is to be in step with what the Spirit is already doing in people’s lives. The Spirit is assuring them, in the depths of their souls, that the Father loves them, and their identity is in Christ. He is assuring them of their unconditional acceptance into the life of the Trinity.
If we present a conditional gospel, a gospel rooted in human action instead of Jesus’ action, then we are going to be out of step with the Spirit. We will be afflicting people’s souls with the anxiety of human effort instead of the assurance of Jesus’ work. Here are two important aspects of this reality to keep in mind:
First, our evangelism should never throw people back on their own effort. A lot of preachers say something like this: “The Father loves you, but you must love him back.” There is a truth to this. It does us little good to be loved by the Father if we do not believe that we are loved, and if we believe it, we will return that love. The problem with preaching in this way is that it feeds into the lie that Satan has been telling our human nature since the garden of Eden: the lie that the Father’s love is conditional. People assume the word “if”: The Father will love you if you love him.
Consider this analogy: every night a father goes to his children as they are settling into bed and he kisses them and tells them that he loves them. If they do not believe him, that disbelief will create havoc in their lives. They have believed something else instead – a lie – and lies create bondage. It is very important that they believe that they are loved. What is the best plan for a father to help them believe that he loves them? Should he explain each night, “I love you, and if you believe me you’ll be happy and if you don’t believe me you’ll be miserable”? That is true, but it injects a threat where there should only be love.
Should he go to them each night and say “I love you, and you need to love me back or our relationship will never work”? God forbid! Can you imagine the warped guilt trips of a five-year-old by having his parents talk to him in this way? Such expressions of love throw people back on themselves and make the love being expressed sound conditional – whether it is meant to be or not.
It is best simply to say, “I love you.” We announce the truth, not the results of unbelief. (Hopefully our actions support our statement.) Love means an unconditional commitment, and it almost always goes without saying that it includes an invitation for reciprocal love and mutual life.
It is the same with evangelism. The human soul was created for union with the Father, in the Son, through the Spirit. In the humanity and divinity of Jesus, every human soul has what it was created for. Evangelism is joining with Jesus in his work, through the Spirit, to soak souls in this knowledge of how loved they are. This is best carried out by simple, direct, truthful statements of the gospel – not by statements of the gospel couched in conditionality and with words like “but” “if” or “and” tacked on to the end. Here are a few examples of positive statements of the gospel:
- Your Dad in heaven believes in you even if you don’t believe in him.
- Your Dad in heaven loves you so much that he has planned to never be without you. Because of Jesus’ eternal life you have eternal life.
- Your Dad in heaven really likes you, and through Jesus he has made sure he will always have you with him.
When you are evangelizing others (believers and nonbelievers), seek to follow Jesus’ Spirit in immersing them in the simple truth of who they were created to be. In their innermost being, below their conscious thought, they know that they were created to be loved. Unfortunately, their conscious thought, warped by the fall, runs interference and makes them reluctant to believe it. There has got to be some catch. Everything else in life has a catch…
The second important point about evangelizing people in their souls: As with preaching, evangelism is a ministry that we can engage in with tremendous confidence and boldness because of who Jesus is and what his Spirit is doing in human lives. Every person we meet is liked, loved, and adopted by the Father in Jesus. Jesus died for every person; God wants everyone to be saved.
Therefore, we can confidently and boldly tell people the truth about how much they are accepted and included in the Father’s life. We have the confidence that comes from knowing that the Spirit bears witness in their souls to the truth of what we were saying. Being a child of God is the purpose for which every human being was created, and it is the goal of the whole human race. Even when people doubt or disbelieve what we are saying – even when they are hostile to our evangelism – this truth is still hiding in the depths of their souls. Even if they do not believe the gospel right way, at a soul level they want to believe it, and their whole being is crying out to embrace the truth of how they have been embraced by the Father in Jesus. The seed that we sow will sprout at a later time.
 Gerhard Friedrich, “Euangelizomai,” pages 267-273 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.
 Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God, pp. 161-165.
 Some people accepted this and entered the kingdom before others did (Matt. 21:31). The refusal of some did not change God’s willingness to accept them, but it did affect whether they experienced the blessings.
 Evangelism programs often “work.” People motivated by obligation and fear often work hard, tell many others about Jesus, and a certain percentage of them respond. They have accepted Jesus in one sense, but unfortunately they have a distorted understanding of Jesus’ love for them. They are Christians who need to grow, just as we all do.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 22-23.
 The “wrong” is not necessarily with them. This statement is not intended to heap guilt upon the innocent. Just as medical problems can interfere with biological multiplication, so also other factors can interfere with spiritual multiplication.
 Love-less evangelism occasionally occurs, in which a person simply repeats a message he or she does not personally believe, but love is the normal and natural mode.
 Ironically, some of the fastest-growing parts of the Christian world are the most legalistic. Fallen human nature looks for works to do in order to be accepted by God. An increase in numbers is not evidence of authenticity, nor is a decrease in numbers. The success or failure of evangelistic programs is likewise no evidence of validity.
 That might include the person accepting the gospel; it might include behavioral changes that help the person get a job; it might include psychological changes in which the person feels better about himself or herself; etc.
 This does not imply universalism. Jesus died for everyone, and the Father has reconciled everyone to himself in and through Jesus, but this does not necessarily mean that everyone responds favorably. Although they live and move and have their being in Jesus, some resist him now, and apparently some will continue to resist Jesus’ definition of who they are.
 This is a quote from 1 Timothy 2:3-6, but it makes some people worry about universalism. “You don’t believe that, do you?” They are so worried about universalism that they are not comfortable with what the Bible says. See footnote 9.
What is worship in the light of who Jesus is?
To start our discussion we want to get a definition of the word “worship” that is rooted in the New Testament witness to Jesus. “Worship” in English has its roots in an Old English word that means “to ascribe worth or value” to someone or something. There are several Greek words in the New Testament that are often translated as “worship”:
- In Romans 12:1 Paul uses the word latreuo to tell us that offering our bodies as a living sacrifice is our reasonable, logical, act of worship. In its simplest sense, latreuo means to serve, and was often used to describe the worship and prayer of Israel – as, for example, in Luke’s description of the prophetess Anna in Luke 2:37.
- In John 4:23, and throughout Revelation, John uses the word proskuneo, which means “to prostrate one’s self” before the divinity and takes on the connotation of adoration and love.
- In Acts 13:2 Luke uses leitourgeo to describe the worship of the church at Antioch when Paul and Barnabas were called by the Spirit to their mission. Leitourgeo was the word most commonly used by the ancient Greek translators of the Old Testament to describe Israel’s worship in the Temple and the service rendered by priests in the sacrifices and Holy Days of Israel. This Greek word for worship has entered our language as the English word “liturgy.”
If we were to summarize these three Greek words, we might offer a biblical definition of worship that is something like this: to bow before God [proskuneo] and serve him [latreuo] by ascribing worth and value to him through the words and actions of our liturgy [leitourgeo].
We have only scratched the surface of worship by defining these words. To begin to understand worship, we need to think about these definitions in the light of who Jesus is as the union of humanity and Trinity.
This is what it means to think in a Christ-centered way. Too often we see Christian thought rooted in nothing more than the grammatical and historical context of the Bible. That approach to defining worship would take the definitions we have just established, examine the historical context in which those words were used, and then try to apply that information to modern thought and practice. That approach bypasses Jesus almost entirely. It is akin to “preaching the Bible” instead of “preaching Christ.”
The biblical words we are talking about need to be a window to help us see
- who Jesus is as the worshiping human, and
- the worshiped God, and
- who we are in Jesus as worshipers.
To use these words as a window to help us see Jesus, we need to begin with the Trinity. The divine Persons are constantly ascribing worth and value to each other. How do we know this? Because God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is active and expressive, not passive and silent. Since we know that God is love, we know that the Father and the Son have forever been actively expressing love, worth, and value to each other in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Since God is love, we know that he loved before we existed. God didn’t become love when he brought us into existence and then had someone to love. God is love, it is his nature, and before we existed that love was active and expressive in the life the Father and Son shared in communion with the Holy Spirit. Before the Bible, or Israel, or humanity, or anything in all creation, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in a relationship that was love and expressed itself in service, respect, and honor: latreuo, proskuneo, and leitourgeo, even before those words existed to describe their relationship.
Worship is an inherent activity of God’s life. The Father, Son, and Spirit worship each other. Their worship is similar to the way that we might describe a married couple who are so in love that they “worship” each other. This flows from mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual adoration. This is the worship that gazes longingly at the other when the other does not even know they are being watched.
Worship in the Trinity has little in common with the worship devised by human beings to appease the angry gods of our imagination. The Greek words that we translate “worship” have their origin in the appeasement religion of the ancient world. That is another reason that we have to be careful about simply using the definitions of words, without looking at who Jesus is, as our basis for understanding ministry.
For example, proskuneo could be seen in the light of its roots in ancient Greek society, where people prostrated themselves before conquering kings, or before capricious and angry deities that they imagined to be toying with human lives. Is that happening in the Triune life when the Son prostrates himself before the Father? Are the divine Persons falling on their faces before each other out of terror and fear of punishment? No – such an image of worship is a contradiction of the life that Jesus shares with his Father and reveals to us.
Even though this image of worship is not faithful to who Jesus is, it has still influenced Christian thinking about worship. You do not have to go far to find Christian thought about worship that centers on our human, fearful response to the overwhelming holiness of God. It is true that when we first encounter the Triune life in a new or more immediate way it often evokes a response of terror in our human nature – we might think of Peter saying to Jesus, “go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). He was apparently afraid that something bad would happen to him – but he had not understood the true nature of “holy.”
A response of terror is not the Triune life – it is the response of fallen human nature to the glorious love and joy of the Triune life. Consider John in the first chapter of Revelation. At his first sight of the risen Jesus, he is struck with terror and prostrates himself before him – even though John had laid his head on Jesus’ chest in Jesus’ pre-resurrection existence (Rev. 1:17, John 13:25). Notice how Jesus responds to John’s prostration and terror: he puts his hand on John and says, “Do not be afraid.”
That is the worship characteristic of the Triune life. It is not a worship rooted in terror of a God who is holy just because he has the power of life and death. Rather, it is a worship rooted in the adoration (love) and awe of The Three in One who is holy because his relational nature is whole, healthy, perfect, and functional. The terror that our human nature experiences when encountering the Triune life is like the fear a person might feel at a dinner party with people who all seem to be smarter, richer, and better looking. It is the terror of feeling inadequate. When our dysfunctional, relationally broken nature encounters the functional, whole, holy nature of the Trinity, we feel our complete inadequacy, and it terrifies us. The holiness of the Trinity is far more than just the fact that God does not sin. Snails don’t sin, either, but neither do they inspire awe. The holiness of the Trinity is the wholeness of the perfect life of the divine communion of worshipful love.
In contrast to the cloying, sniveling, self-hating kind of worship that the gods of our imagination demand, the Father picks us up off our feet, throws his arms around us through his Son Jesus Christ, and says “do not be afraid.” He embraces us into the loving, adoring, joyful worship life that he and the Son have always shared in the Spirit. In the light of the Trinity, we understand our bowing down before God to be the bow of respect and adoration between persons who adore each other. It is a bow that says, All your ways are right and true.
Worship is an inherent property of the Triune life, and worship is therefore a reality that Jesus is sharing with humanity. In the same way that Jesus is both “speaking God” and “listening human” (because he is fully human and fully divine), he is also “worshiped God” and “worshiping human.” As the representative of all humanity, he offers acceptable worship on our behalf, and shows us what worship is. Our human nature, broken and fallen, does not know how to worship and is not capable of worship. This is especially evident when we define worship as the adoration and service that the divine Persons give to each other. All we are capable of doing is hiding in the bushes and incinerating animals to appease the imaginary deity we think is looking to kill someone.
This is why the Father, through the Son, gave Israel the sacrificial system of worship. Having never seen God in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ, Israel could not imagine a god who did not need to be appeased by the blood of animals. So, condescending to our human weakness, and stooping down to our level as spiritual infants, the Son instructed Israel through the Spirit in how to offer up a sacrifice in a way that it would point to his future incarnation in our flesh and blood. In giving them this sacrificial system, the Son enabled Israel to enter into the worship relationship of the Triune life in spite of their terror of God – a terror so great that they said to Moses, “you talk to God, don’t let him talk to us directly” (Exodus 20:19).
Now that the Son has entered our humanity, and raised our humanity into the Trinity, the Father no longer needs to condescend to our terrified and fallen human nature through a sacrificial system involving animals. Because humanity is in Christ and Christ is in humanity, we are able to participate in the worship of the Triune life. Jesus bows down before humanity, serves us, and adores us as One who loves us (John 13:1-5). He bows down before the Father and the Spirit on our behalf, serving the Father and expressing the adoration and love for the Father that we are incapable of expressing (John 17:20-21; Heb. 8:1-2). This is why we pray in Jesus’ name – and carry out all worship in his name – because it is only in and through his humanity (his blood and flesh) that any authentic human worship takes place. Through his human nature, represented by his blood, he functions as humanity’s high priest and as the sacrificial offering of humanity up to the Father (Heb. 2:14-17). By his divine nature he accepts the worship of humanity on behalf of the Father and the Spirit and gives to humanity the service, adoration, and sacrifice of the Father and the Spirit. In Jesus “we have been given the grace that enables us to worship.”
Worship is the adoration and service that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are forever giving to each other. Jesus includes us in this life of adoration and service by sharing his divinity with our humanity and our humanity with his divinity – and thus shares our humanity with the divinity of the Father and the Spirit. The word “adoration” helps us incorporate proskuneo into our definition, and the word “service” helps us incorporate latreuo. In a moment, when we discuss worship through body, mind, and spirit, we will incorporate leitourgeo more fully into our understanding.
What have we learned about worship by looking at who Jesus is in the Trinity and in humanity? One Christ-centered definition of worship would be this:
Worship is our participation in Jesus’ ministry to express through himself, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father, humanity’s participation in the service and adoration of the Triune life.
This points out that worship is something that is in the nature of the Triune life and therefore something in which Jesus includes us by sharing with us in our human nature and pouring out his Spirit on us.
How do we practice the ministry of worship?
In the light of this definition, worship in the Christian community ought to be fully Trinitarian. But there is a problem. The practice of worship, as most of us have experienced it in modern culture, has been largely unitarian. Karl Rahner, a noted Catholic theologian, wrote, “We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” Unfortunately, the same could be said of our worship.
This has not always been the case, nor is it the case everywhere in Christian worship today. Traditionally, Christian worship was explained as either “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit” or as “Worship to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” As a result, the traditional liturgies of such worship communities as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches remain overtly Trinitarian because their liturgies are rooted in ancient expressions of Christian worship that pre-date the modern decline in Trinitarian thinking about God. (Even though the words are overtly Trinitarian, in practice the worship was often unitary; outward form doesn’t always affect our thinking.)
For example, a worship service in the Anglican communion begins with, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and the congregation responds “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.” Some liturgical churches recite the Nicene Creed in every Sunday service, and the creed is organized around the persons of the Trinity: beginning with our belief in the Father, then our belief in the Son, and then our belief in the Holy Spirit. Most of the written prayers suggested in the Book of Common Prayer are Trinitarian in language, such as this one suggested as a benediction at the end of the service: “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever.”
Similar examples could be cited in other traditions that preserve the historic and ancient theological language of the church’s worship in their liturgies. Many evangelical Protestants are judgmental against the use of set prayers and liturgies in worship – with some good reasons – but fail to recognize the way in which liturgical worship has the advantage of preserving and handing on Trinitarian worship language.
The evangelical emphasis on free-form worship has resulted in a worship culture that is often unitarian in its expression. In worship that has rejected prescribed forms and liturgies, people express what is in their hearts and minds – and for many Christians, that means a unitarian image of God. This usually does not express itself in an outright denial of the Trinity. Rather, it is usually found in the form of an intellectual assent to the doctrine of the Trinity while the people’s hearts – and thus their mouths, which speak out of their hearts – express their faith in a monistic way. For some, it means language that speaks of “God” but rarely speaks of “the Father” or “Jesus” or “the Holy Spirit.” Others focus their worship solely on Jesus and rarely speak of “the Father” or “the Holy Spirit.” This is sometimes functionally Marcionite, rejecting the Old Testament God.
Unitarian worship can often be seen in contemporary Christian worship. It is rare to find any contemporary worship songs that address worship “to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” Instead, we find songs that sing “to God” or to “the Lord” or “to Jesus,” but rarely help the worshiper express the fullness of what it means to be a worshiping human who is worshiping through the humanity of Jesus and participating in the Trinitarian life of worship.
Consider the words to the following song, This God He is Our God:
is the God who said to the darkness
let there be light and there was light?
Who is the God who made the heavens,
the sun and moon, the stars and sky?
He is the one who’s like no
omnipotent and, oh so wise
Invisible yet ever present
He is the Holy God most high
The question “who is God?” is asked throughout the song and never once is the answer “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Triune life never enters the writer’s mental conception as being an important descriptor of who God is.
A brief theological history may help us to see why. The Hebrew understanding of God defined him in terms of relationship. When God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 3:6, he does not say “I am the one who is like no other” – he says “I am the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This relational understanding of God finds its full expression in Jesus when he says “I am in the Father and he is in me and we will send you the Holy Spirit” (John 14:11, 16). A Christ-centered, Bible-based view of God is relational. It is rooted in the relationship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, and then in the relationship of the Trinity with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ – who is the relational union of the Trinity and humanity. When we worship, we are not coming to worship an impersonal power, but to worship our Father in heaven, in Jesus, and by the power of their Spirit, in relationship.
The idea of defining God by his attributes instead of his relationships, and worshiping him for those attributes, is a notion from Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined God as “the unmoved mover… the eternal one… the one who is the most good… and the one to whom all life belongs.” These are true statements about God – but Aristotle derived them without reference to Jesus or the Bible. If we say that God is “like no other” or “all powerful,” we have not said anything Christ-centered – we have said only what an intelligent person (like Aristotle) can deduce from looking at creation.
The Qur’an says that God is “the absolute…the most gracious…the eternal…and all things in heaven and earth are his.” Do you notice the similarity between Aristotle’s basic description of God and the Qur’an’s? Mohammed, and later Islamic theology, was influenced by Aristotle. In Christianity, Aristotle was largely unknown and unread until his work was introduced by Muslims to Christians during the medieval period (ca. 1000-1300). Aristotle then became popular in medieval Christian Europe, so much so that theologians such as Thomas Aquinas sought to explain Christian doctrine in light of Aristotelian philosophy and demonstrate – as a matter of apologetics – that Christianity was not in conflict with Aristotle’s philosophy.
In the Westminster Confession, we see one result of this medieval focus on Aristotle. In its statement on God, the first thing the Westminster Confession offers is a list of God’s attributes. He is “the most absolute…eternal…most gracious…[and] has all life in himself.” Only after the confession has listed these Aristotelian (and ironically, Islamic) expressions of God’s identity does it get around to mentioning that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The abstract and impersonal qualities have preceded the relational and Trinitarian characteristics of God.
The Westminster Confession does not begin with God in Christ-centered terms of relationship. It begins by thinking of God based on a philosophical list of attributes. This is backwards – an anthropocentric approach, beginning with what human reason tells us. We need to start instead with the way that God has revealed himself to be – incarnate as Jesus Christ, and see what Jesus has revealed about the Father and the Spirit. Only that approach can help us see errors or blind spots in what our human reason can come up with.
The reason that God is eternal, most gracious, the unmoved mover, etc., is because he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God would not have these attributes if he were not first and foremost the Triune relationship and communion of the divine Persons. Through Jesus, the first thing we know about God is that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The result of all this for the practice of worship is that we often find ourselves ministering in a Christian culture that is not first and foremost Trinitarian in its thinking, and not Trinitarian in its worship. There is nothing wrong with a song that describes God’s attributes and says that he is eternal, omnipotent, wise, etc. All that is true. The problem is when the song claims to answer the question “who is God?’ and never mentions his Triune nature. It has missed out on God’s relational nature, the most important aspect of why we are involved with him or why we worship him.
Songs like this are not the exception, but the rule. It is possible – and even common – to have a Christian worship service and not say anything about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because there are few contemporary songs that are Trinitarian.
The people of the church cannot worship in a Christ-centered, Trinitarian way – especially in free church worship – unless Christ has been preached, their hearts and minds have been saturated in their adoption into the Trinity, and they are confident in the truth of the communion they have with the Trinity through Christ. Since evangelical churches practice worship as a free, honest expression of what is in our hearts – for the most part without written prayers or set creeds – they must participate with Jesus and his Spirit in changing what is in the hearts of their people, if their worship is to become Trinitarian.
This is not an easy or quick process. It takes years of preaching the Trinity as he is revealed in Christ before people begin to pray to the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. It takes years of immersing people in a Trinitarian image of who God is before they begin to question the practically unitarian words and images of much of popular Christian music and worship.
The practice of Christian worship needs be fully Trinitarian. The reason that it is often not Trinitarian is that the modern church is not operating from the foundation of our adoption into the Triune life. That means the first task for us in leading the worship of our churches is to preach Christ as the union of the Trinity and humanity and to give people assurance of their place in the communion of the Triune life, evangelizing them in the good news of who Jesus has made them be: children of the Father. When the church becomes saturated in this reality, our prayers, songs, and expressions of worship will more often express the reality of the Trinitarian life.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through worship?
Worship is an inherent property of the Triune life and as such it is a ministry in which Jesus has included humanity by including us in the Triune life through his own humanity. Therefore, worship should be Trinitarian in its expression if it is to be fully faithful to the truth of who God is and who we are as human beings.
How can we practice worship in a Trinitarian way that feeds the whole person with the truth of our life in Christ?
Body: Like baptism and Communion, worship engages the body. We close our eyes and bow our heads. We pray and sing with our vocal cords. We sit, stand, and kneel. We raise our hands in the air. We dance. The Father created our bodies to participate in the worshiping life of the Trinity. Therefore when we practice worship in a way that minimizes or discourages bodily participation, we are failing to experience worship for all that it could be. If we create a worship environment that discourages bodily engagement, we run the risk of turning worship into an intellectual exercise.
On the other hand, when our worship – and the way that we lead worship – encourages people to become fully engaged in a bodily way, then we are feeding them the truth of their life in Christ in a way that has a lasting impact on their personhood and identity. This has to be done in a way that is culturally appropriate and sensitive to where individuals are in their own comfort levels. The Trinity does not seek to evoke adoration and worship through guilt trips or manipulation. Such tactics could never evoke true adoration but only an imitation of it.
We never want to force people to sing, pray, lift their hands, kneel, dance, bow, or participate in any bodily way in the worship life of the Trinity. In the same way that the Father includes everyone in the dance of the Trinity through the Son, and then encourages us to become active participants in the Son, so also we want to include everyone in the worship of our church and then encourage them to become more active participants.
People who are new to our church, or simply have very reserved personalities, may not sing very much, or be comfortable offering public prayers, or want to lift their hands in the air. There should be enough “space” (physically, emotionally, psychologically) within our church for everyone to be included in worship and to actively participate as much or as little as they feel led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Those who want to lift their hands or dance should be able to, while those who prefer to sit quietly should be able to as well.
After all, worship is not primarily something that we are doing. It begins as something that the Trinity is doing. Jesus is including us in the Trinity’s life of worship. Jesus is worshiping for us as both worshiping human and worshiped God. Our active participation in Jesus’ life of worship is a matter of our growing up to look like Jesus and follow his Spirit’s lead. That takes time, and reflects the full range of individual personalities. In Christ, we all have all of eternity to learn who we are and learn to worship as our unique selves.
It is important that the flow of our services include a range of ways for people to participate in Jesus’ worshiping life. On any given worship service, some may come filled with joy and want to sing and shout and lift their hands. Others may come filled with grief and need silence and reflection. A well-rounded worship service includes time, and acts of worship, that allow for the full range of human emotions and the full range of bodily response to the good news of our life in Christ. In providing this full range, we may also be able to help the grieving person to grieve and move into more joy, while also helping the joyful person express joy and move into more contemplative expressions of that joy.
We also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that, in Christ, each congregation has its own worshiping personality, just as each person does. We do not have to do it the way they do it in some other state or city, or even next door. Not everyone who walks in off the street, or visits as the guest of a member, will be entirely comfortable with the worship personality of your church. Some will want it to be more expressive, and some will want less. If the people of your church are quiet and not outwardly expressive of emotion, then a person who likes to dance and shout will have trouble adapting. Jesus’ Spirit has formed different churches with different worship cultures in order to speak the gospel to the full range of personalities.
As a ministry leader, you want to focus on knowing and understanding who the people in your church are and what their worshiping personality is like. Are they reserved in their expression of emotion, or are they using that as an excuse to remain inhibited and un-joyful because they do not yet fully understand the gospel and do not yet feel joyful about their adoption in Christ? This is another way in which it is helpful that we spend our lives with the people we minister to. By being with them in the full range of life – from games, to parties, to funerals, to work – we can let the Spirit teach us who they are and who we are together as a church.
As a simple example, if a guy in your church jumps up and down and shouts for joy when his team wins a game, but will not so much as open his mouth to sing at church, then you know that there is a gospel issue in his life. He has a personality that expresses excitement in very bodily ways, but he is just not excited about Jesus. However, badgering him will not fill him with joy – you need to teach and reassure, encourage and model.
On the other hand, if a woman is calm, cool, and collected at church and is the same way in other circumstances of life, then that probably really is her personality. She can be the person who helps lead your church in times of silence, contemplation, and quiet reverence. The point is that the full range of human emotion, expressed in our bodily actions, is appropriate within the worshiping life of the Trinity. Therefore, our worship should not elevate one particular emotional or bodily expression over all others and make it the standard. It is not more “holy” to worship in quiet, reserved reverence than it is to worship in joyful song and dance. Nor is it more “spiritual” to worship in shouts and upraised hands than to worship kneeling in prayer. The Son’s indwelling presence in our human nature – emotions, flesh, blood, and all – means that, in him and led by his Spirit, the full range of human existence is a participation in the worship life of the Trinity.
Mind: In worship, our minds are primarily engaged by the thoughts and words we use in worship. This is one reason that worship forms have to constantly evolve to match the changing culture around us. If the scripture is read from the King James Bible and all the songs are in the language of 18th-century England, then the worship service will be difficult to understand for most people in our 21st century culture. Such a worship service may engage their bodies and souls, but it will leave their minds wandering on to other subjects.
Our minds are also the point at which our thinking about the Trinity, and our adoption into him through Christ, is important. Our minds need to be renewed in the knowledge of who we are as children of the Father, with every thought being brought into captivity and conformed to the mind of Christ.
For example, as we discussed above, a lot of contemporary Christian music is unitarian, not Trinitarian. The music of these songs speaks to our souls. Our voices, our raised hands, and our bowed heads as we pray, all help us participate in worship using these songs in spite of their less-than-perfect words. But worship with these songs is not renewing our minds. Because their words are less than a full expression of the gospel, worshiping with these songs fails to help us grow in our relationship with our Dad in heaven.
Sometimes we can change the words to these songs to make them more in line with the gospel and more expressive of who we are in Jesus. Changing a few key words can allow the congregation to continue singing favorite songs, whose music speaks to their souls, while making those songs more helpful in feeding our minds through worship. Changing the words can also provide us with opportunities to teach about the purpose of the change, and the purpose of singing.
As an example, here is how we could change the opening lines of the song we looked at above, This God He is Our God:
Who is the God who said to the darkness
let there be light and there was light?
Who is the God who made the heavens,
the sun and moon, the stars and sky?
He is our Father who has loved
He is the Son in whom we live
He is the Holy Spirit of truth
He is the Holy God most high
We can now return to the Greek
word leitourgeo, which has come into
English as the word “liturgy.” Evangelical churches have generally been called
“nonliturgical” in their worship because they usually do not follow set,
written forms of worship using a prayer book. The positive side of this is that
it allows the congregation to worship using their own words, expressing in
prayer and words what they are thinking and feeling. The downside comes when
the words in the mind of the congregation are not the gospel.
Even non-liturgical churches have a liturgy in the most basic sense of the word. It is simply a pattern that worship takes on a regular basis. Even though you may not write out your prayers word for word, or read them from a book, you still find yourself offering prayers at the same point in the service every Sunday. Many of the prayers follow similar patterns. You generally sing the same number of songs, at the same point in the service every Sunday. You generally collect the offering at the same time, in the same way, preach the sermon at the same point in the service, and take Communion at predicable times. Whatever order you use for these worship actions is your liturgy – even if it’s not written in a prayer book.
This is inevitable. Human beings need to know when to show up and what to do and in what order to do it. This does not mean that we do not ever want spontaneity or variety, but we also do not want chaos. For example, the liturgy of one congregation is as follows:
- Intercessory Prayer
- 4-5 Songs
- Special music
- Dismissal of children
- Offering (children return)
- Communion and song
What is important about this liturgy is not so much the order, as what is taking place within it. If the gospel is being celebrated and proclaimed throughout the service, then worship in the Trinitarian reality is taking place.
Look at what you are doing in worship in your church each week and evaluate it based on how it is feeding people’s minds with the gospel of the Father’s love for them, of our salvation in Christ, of our transformation by the Spirit. Does your liturgy help you express the good news of who Jesus is and who we are in him, or is it hindering that worship? If it is hindering it, you should change it to better enable your expression of the gospel.
In feeding people’s minds through worship, we want to look at the worship calendar of the Christian year. Since Jesus is the truth of who God is and why he created humanity, we can see the Father’s plan of salvation in the life of Jesus. In order to empower the church to see Jesus’ life and to know how his life reveals the Father’s plan, the Holy Spirit led the early church to develop a worship calendar. Step by step, from Advent to Pentecost, this calendar tells the story of the Father’s plan fulfilled in Jesus.
I encourage you to center your preaching, and help center your church’s worship, on the themes and ideas that are expressed about Jesus’ life in each season of the Christian year. Here is a brief summary of how each season helps us tell the story of Jesus in the worship life of the church:
Advent: The Father called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants to become his chosen people in the world. In this chosen nation of Israel, the Father prepared a place for the advent (the coming) of the Son. The history of Israel, from Abraham to Zechariah, found its destiny in the incarnation. Israel, summed up in Mary, was the womb of the incarnation and the place prepared for the coming of the Son.
Since the advent of the Son takes place in two acts – first, his coming in the manger, and second, his coming in glory on the last day – we also celebrate and look forward to Jesus’ second coming during the Advent season. The Scripture readings for the first Sunday in Advent are about the second coming; those closer to Christmas are about his first coming.
Christmas: So that we might become what he is – a child of the Father – the Son became what we are. The Son became flesh and blood and made his dwelling among us, being born as a baby of the Virgin Mary. He did not simply “appear” to be human, he really became what we are and joined us in our real, sinful, fallen flesh. Even though he entered our sinful nature, he never sinned. Instead, he lived out a faithful life in communion with his Father and their Spirit from within our nature. He adopted humanity into the life of the Trinity and made us whole, healed, and holy by his presence.
Epiphany: Having assumed our human nature, the Son then brought our nature into communion with the Holy Spirit and the life of the Trinity. When the Father spoke from heaven and said “this is my beloved Son,” these words were spoken to the Son in his humanity, and thus were spoken to humanity – to you and me and everyone we know and love. The Holy Spirit affirms that the Son shares with us the anointing he has in the Spirit of his Father.
Preparation for Easter: From within the human nature that had once said “yes” to Satan and “no” to the Father, the Son now reversed that decision. In the midst of the terrible wilderness of human sin and alienation, the Son said “no!” to Satan’s lies and said “yes!” to our Daddy’s love; thus he reversed the fall of Adam and Eve.
Palm Sunday: On his way to his victory on the cross, Jesus was received by the people of Israel as the conquering hero he would prove to be. Not a hero on a white stallion carrying the sword of punishment, but riding on a donkey and headed for the cross. Although the crowd had badly misunderstood what kind of king Jesus was, he was nevertheless a king, the rightful ruler of all humanity.
Maundy Thursday: The Son revealed to us the truth of his mission, that he shares with us his body (bread) and his blood (wine) and that he stoops to wash our feet and make us clean to sit at the Father’s table.
Good Friday: By his death on the cross, the Son defeated our enemy, Satan, and put our sinful nature to death. In this great victory he set humanity free from captivity to the devil and from the fear of death.
Easter Sunday: In the glory of his resurrection, the Son was raised new and immortal, the firstfruits of all who are united to him. We are destined not for Adam’s death but for Christ’s eternal life with the Father. In this transformation, he made humanity capable of eternal relationship with the Trinity as children of the Father.
Ascension: Because the Father’s purpose was for us to live forever with him, the Son carried us up into the heavenly realms and the Father seated us in Christ at his right hand. Our human nature has been transformed and carried into the most holy place, the heart and life of the Trinity, in fulfillment of the Father’s plan of adoption.
Pentecost: Human nature is now united to the Triune nature in the risen and ascended Jesus. Our adoption is complete, and we can know the Father for who he really is and relate to him as his children. So that we can know and believe this truth about ourselves, the Father pours out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, giving us the gift of the Spirit, who brings about relationship and communion within the Trinity, and now brings about communion within humanity.
The second half of the Christian year, from Pentecost to the start of Advent, is called the “season after Pentecost” or “ordinary time.” The label “ordinary time” comes from the fact that the Sundays, instead of being named (like “Pentecost Sunday”) are numbered with ordinal numbers – 1st Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd Sunday, etc. The Sundays after Pentecost are also sometimes called “Proper” as in “Proper 1, Proper 2, etc.” in reference to the prayers (or “propers”) that are to be used on those Sundays.
If you do not use a lectionary or prayer book, and thus do not follow the themes outlined in the Sundays of ordinary time, the season after Pentecost can take on the general theme of living “in” Pentecost, led by the Spirit. Now that you have told the story of Jesus through the celebrations of Advent through Pentecost, you now celebrate the life in the kingdom that we have through Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit.
A lectionary can be enormously helpful in two ways.
- First, a lectionary helps you avoid using your same 15-20 favorite Bible verses over and over throughout the year as you plan worship. If you pick only the passages you happen to like, then your congregation is probably getting an unbalanced diet.
- Second, it can help you structure your worship to follow the themes of the Christian year.
Lectionaries have been around since ancient times, and some of our most ancient manuscripts of the Bible come to us from lectionaries. A lectionary is a system for dividing up the passages of the biblical text so that different parts of the Bible are read on each Sunday, depending on what season of the year it is.
A lectionary generally sets a reading from the Psalms, from somewhere else in the Old Testament, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels for each Sunday. These readings often relate to each other in some way – following a similar theme or discussing the same event. For example, on Easter Sunday the lectionary might assign an Old Testament reading and a Psalm that prophesied the resurrection of Jesus, a reading from the Epistles that explains the resurrection, and a passage from one of the Gospels describing Jesus’ resurrection.
One advantage of consulting a lectionary each week in planning your worship is that it directs you to parts of the Bible that address the themes of the season you are in. So, during Christmas (a season that last 12 days, from Christmas Day through the day before Epiphany), the lectionary will help you build your worship around the biblical witness to Jesus’ birth.
Most Lectionaries are divided into a three-year cycle, with each year labeled “Year A, Year B, Year C.” If you follow a lectionary every week through its three-year cycle, you will end up reading most of the New Testament, and much of the Old, during your weekly services, and doing it in a thematic way that pulls together all the parts of the Bible into their proper context in Jesus’ life.
One lectionary that works well is the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). It has been assembled with the input of many denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian. Because of the RCL’s ecumenical origin, if you follow it you will find yourself in step with the majority of Christian churches in the United States throughout the Christian Year. You can find the RCL online at www.lectionary.com. You can find numerous resources about each text at www.textweek.com.
Soul: Worship has a unique ability to speak to our souls in the assurance of the gospel. Music is powerful in its ability to communicate at a level beyond our conscious understanding, so that even when there are no words or we do not understand the words, we can experience the message that the music is meant to convey. In a similar way, simply being in an environment – such as a worship service – where the focus of what we see, hear, smell, and touch is permeated with gospel meaning, can have a reassuring impact on our emotional grasp of our true identity.
As with other ministries, our goal in worship is to be in step with what the Spirit is speaking to the souls of those who are participating. Since he is speaking to our souls about the assurance of who Christ has made us be, so should our worship. Music, prayers, and decorations that convey ambiguous or even negative meanings should be avoided. We want to be mindful of the environment –decorations that hang on the walls, the cleanliness of the floors, etc.
Since many of us minister in rented facilities that are used for other purposes besides worship, it is good to take notice about what unspoken messages the environment conveys. As much as possible, we can try to create a physical space that is conducive to worship and conveys the good news, but it will be a challenge when you are meeting in a space (such as a school or an Elk’s lodge) that is not designed for worship.
To feed the souls of Jesus’ sheep through worship is to invite them to participate, down to the very depth of their beings, in the life in which they are already included: the life of the Trinity. This means clearing away obstacles to participation. Our souls find rest in Christ, and joy in the knowledge of our adoption in him, when the everyday distractions around us seem to fade away and leave us free to simply be who we are in him. For parents with infants, this might mean providing child care so they can be fully engaged in the worship service. For the elderly, it might mean having the volume of the vocals higher than the instruments, and providing people with lyrics in a font size they can read. It means trying to find music, drama and prayers that express our worship in the normal language of life – not in unfamiliar theological terms or using archaic expressions from older forms of English.
In a lot of little ways, we can remove the distractions that create a sense of unrest in people’s lives and help them find in weekly worship a space and a time where they can focus on letting Jesus saturate their souls with the assurance of who they are in him. Worship can be more powerful than almost any form of ministry in creating long-term spiritual growth in people’s lives. Through worship, week in and week out, throughout our lives, we learn to sing and dance in the song and dance of the Trinity – and thus our souls, minds, and bodies are made ready for the eternal dance of the Triune life of heaven.
As further study in worship, you should review, if you have not done so recently, instructions about the church’s worship calendar and the weekly worship service. You can find those documents at: https://www.gci.org/articles/the-churchs-worship-calendar/ and https://www.gci.org/articles/the-weekly-worship-service/.
 H. Strathmann, “Latreuo,” pp. 503-504 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.
 H. Greeven, “Proskuneo,” pp. 948-950 in Kittel and Friedrich.
 H. Strathmann, “Leitourgeo,” pp. 526-529 in Kittel and Friedrich.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 81.
 The classic text for this is Jesus’ comment about divorce: the law was given due to the hardness of the people’s hearts. But marriage customs were not the only area of hardness experienced by a nation just coming out of slavery in Egypt. In all his legislation, God worked within what they were able to understand.
 Ibid., 67.
 Karl Rahner, The Trinity, translated by Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 10-11.
 Most “free-form” worship is actually structured, but structured in such a way as to be different than the liturgical worship services. An unfortunate side effect of this is to make people think that worship is something that we invented, and it becomes focused on us rather than God.
 There are few biblical texts that include this language, either. The Trinitarian language of the liturgies was formulated after centuries of reflection on what the biblical text implied. One could hope that worship songs would take advantage of some of this later reflection.
 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 12.1.
 Qur’an 112:1-4; 2:225; 59:22-24.
 This document was drafted by English Protestants as their statement of faith in the mid-1600s, after about 400 years of Christianity being influenced by Aristotle through the works of Aquinas and others. Since America was an English colony, the Westminster Confession strongly influenced American and evangelical theology.
 Westminster Confession, chapter 2.
 A good resource for this is Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012).
 This reversal began at the incarnation, but continued throughout Jesus’ life.
7. Discipleship and Pastoral Care
What is discipleship and pastoral care in the light of who Jesus is?
Where else would we begin in our discussion besides the Trinity? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the basis and context of all reality. It is not just ministry that has its basis and context in the Trinity. Everyone and everything exists in the Son (Acts 17:28) and therefore all existence begins with the Triune life of God. There is no other starting point for correctly understanding ourselves and the world around us.
The Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit take care of each other. It is foundational to relationship that the persons involved in relationship should support, care for, and help each other. The persons of the Trinity do not face the kind of struggles that we do – struggles with sinfulness and fallen nature. Nor do they struggle to find unity and peace in their relationship. Since there is only one God, the persons of God are of one substance and find perfect union in their life together. This means that the Triune life of mutual care is perfectly expressed. They are fully united in their plans and in their vision for what they want to do.
The Son has included humanity in this perfect life of relational support and mutual caring by permanently taking up residence in our human nature as the human being Jesus. However, we often fail to experience the fullness of this life in which we have been included. Our sin, our fallenness, hinders our ability to care for each other in a way that mirrors the kind of perfect and complete care that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit show each other.
This gap between the reality of the Triune life in which Jesus has included us, and the experience of our own lives, is the reason for the ministries we call discipleship and pastoral care. In discipleship we are learning to live as children who are loved by the Father. We do not come into this world knowing how to participate in the life of the Trinity as children of the Father. We do not know that we are the beloved children of the Father, just as babies born to human parents do not know – when they are first born – who they are within their families. Like infants growing up in a family, we must learn who we are and how to participate in the life of the Father’s family. This process of learning who we are in the Trinity is discipleship.
Learning whose we are, and how to be who we are, does not make us who we are – it is just catching on to what Christ has already made us. We are who we are (children of the Father) because Jesus has made us children of the Father. All we are doing in discipleship is learning to live authentically in harmony with our true identity as children of the Father. Family life reflects this truth. Babies do not become children of their Moms and Dads when they believe they are children and start to behave accordingly. First they are born as children, and then they later come to believe this truth about themselves and act like what they are – beloved children of their parents. We do not become children by believing that we are children.
So, the proper order of thinking about discipleship is belong, believe, behave. Because of the Son’s adoption of human nature into the Trinity, through his incarnation as the man Jesus, all humanity belongs to the Father as his children in Jesus. This is the gospel declaration of the good news of Jesus Christ to humanity: “You belong! You are included! You have been adopted!”
Discipleship is that process by which people incorporate this truth about themselves and learn to believe this truth and then actualize it by acting like the kind of children they were created to be. In the Great Commission, Jesus does not tell the disciples to “go save people” or “go get people adopted as children of the Father.” Jesus has already done that by his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus tells the disciples to “make disciples” (i.e., do discipleship) by baptizing people into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and then by teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded.
In a moment we will look more closely at how we practice these two dimensions of discipleship. For now, we simply want to see that discipleship, in the light of who Jesus is, has to be seen as helping others discover and live within the identity that is already theirs in Jesus. There is a gap between who we really are and what we believe and how we act. This gap is widened and worsened by our fallenness in Adam. This is where pastoral care enters the picture.
Pastoral care addresses our need to believe and behave like the children that we really are even in the midst of the consequences of sin. For example, we get sick and die because of the fall. This is a traumatic process that strains our faith. Through pastoral care, ministers of Jesus enter into such a situation and help people continue to believe in their adoption in Jesus – and help them continue to live like children of the Father – even in the midst of such a heavy strain on their faith.
Pastoral care also addresses those times in life when a person’s own sin is the cause of their suffering. Illness and death come to us all because of humanity’s generally fallen nature, but other suffering – like marriage problems, abusive relationships, and addictions, just to name a few – are the result of specific sins by specific individuals in specific contexts. Sometimes we are victims of others’ sins; sometimes our injuries are self-inflicted. Often, there is a mixture of both. Pastoral care is the act of ministry by which ministers of Jesus enter into these sinful situations and help others learn to believe and behave more like the children of the Father that they really are.
This is why we are addressing discipleship and pastoral care together in one chapter. Both ministries involve helping people believe they are children of the Father in Jesus and helping them to put into action their identity as children of the Father. Discipleship addresses these issues in the more general sense of what people believe about who God is, who we are as human beings, and what life is all about. Pastoral care addresses these issues in more specific contexts of the actual suffering brought about by false belief and wrong behavior. Both ministries address themselves to helping people believe more truthfully and behave more authentically within their identity as children of the Father.
The two ministries interact with each other and cannot be separated. In the process of discipling people (assuring them of their true identity within the Trinity and teaching them to obey Jesus), you have to deal with pastoral care issues such as their marriages, their relationships with friends, and the addictions they are struggling with. As soon as you begin to deliver pastoral care to people, you come up against their beliefs about God and their questions about who Jesus is, what he commands us to do, and how we do it. Discipleship and pastoral care are two blades of the same pair of scissors. As we disciple people, we are caring for them pastorally, and as we care for people pastorally, we are discipling them. Both ministries, done in partnership with each other, help people grow out of spiritual infancy as they begin to be transformed by the truth that they are children of the Father in Jesus, and they begin to behave accordingly.
Here is a Christ-centered, Trinitarian definition of discipleship and pastoral care:
Our participation in Jesus’ ministry to convey to others the truth of who Jesus has made them to be – children of his Father – and to teach them to obey Jesus through the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit.
Discipleship is how we participate in this ministry by helping people learn the truth about the Trinity and humanity. Pastoral care is how we participate in this ministry by helping people to learn the truth about the Trinity and humanity in the midst of the consequences of our human sinfulness.
How do we practice the ministries of discipleship and pastoral care?
To begin thinking about how we practice these ministries, we want to return to what we said earlier about belonging, believing, and behaving. These three words can appear in different orders depending on our theology, and the order has a profound impact on how we practice discipleship and pastoral care.
For example: in popular American theology these words are often ordered as “believe, behave, belong.” Ministers say to people “if you believe in Jesus then you will belong to him, and if you behave, you can belong to our church.” In this theology, it is not Jesus that makes us children of the Father – it is our own belief. Belief is the work by which we get ourselves adopted and save ourselves. Jesus is not our adoption and he is not the Savior. In this theology Jesus is the one who creates the potential for adoption and the potential for salvation, but it is human decision that causes adoption and salvation to take place. Salvation is not by grace. Rather, it is the potential of salvation that is by grace, while the actualization of salvation is by the human work of belief. This has a profound impact on how discipleship and pastoral care often take place.
Discipleship, in some churches, becomes synonymous with “getting people saved.” Since Jesus has created only the potential for adoption, and not actually adopted humanity into the Trinity, the first and most important act of discipleship is to get people to believe so they will then belong to the Father. Since it is human work that causes us to become children of the Father, discipleship after the “moment of decision” also focuses on human work. If you made yourself into a child of the Father, then it follows that you can un-make yourself. Therefore, discipleship is primarily about teaching people all the rules they need to follow – all the ways they need to behave – in order to continue belonging to the Father and not lose their adoption as his children.
In a similar way, pastoral care in this theology becomes primarily about “getting people saved.” The first question ministers ask themselves when visiting a sick or dying person, or counseling an addict, is the question “is this person saved?” Since this theology says that people get themselves adopted and saved, it follows that if they have not taken care of this important first task, then any pastoral care or counseling will be useless. Why talk to a dying man about how Jesus is sharing his resurrected life with him (1 Cor. 15:22) if you do not believe that the dying man has a share in Jesus’ resurrection? It would be like fixing a broken window when the whole house is burning down.
When the order of discipleship is “believe, behave, belong,” discipleship and pastoral care become, to a large extent, about salesmanship. The ministers are constantly trying to sell Jesus as the product that will fix people’s problems. They are constantly trying to close the sale by getting people to say a certain prayer or behave in a certain way.
What Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission is in contrast to the kind of discipleship and pastoral care that we have been describing. Jesus says that making disciples is about two actions: baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey Jesus. The order of what Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20 is significant.
First, Jesus says in verse 18 that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. This is more than Jesus just saying, “I’m omnipotent!” This is a statement of Jesus’ identity as the Cosmic Christ, the one who holds all things together (Col. 1:17), the one who has reconciled all things in heaven and on earth to the Father (Col. 1:20), the one who has filled the universe with his presence (Eph. 4:10) and the one who has reversed Adam’s fall, and has thereby created one, new, righteous humanity in himself – a new humanity that will live forever in his resurrection (Rom. 5:18; Eph. 2:15; 1 Cor. 15:22).
Since Jesus, as the one with all authority, has reconciled humanity to the Father, we can interpret Matthew 28:18 as Jesus’ declaration to humanity, “you belong!” When Jesus says “Therefore, make disciples” (v. 19), he is implying that the making of disciples is the natural and logical outflow of the truth that all humanity belongs to the Father in Jesus. Because all nations have been adopted into the life of the Trinity, we are called to join Jesus in his ministry to make all nations into disciples.
What is a disciple? Jesus defines a disciple in verses 19 and 20. A disciple is someone who has been baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who is seeking to obey Jesus. When the person agrees to be baptized, the person is admitting that Jesus has made a thorough re-orientation of what life is for. Disciples believe that Jesus has already made them children of the Father, through the Spirit, and are learning the fullness of what that means for their own lives.
Discipleship is not the process of helping people come to belong to the Father. Humanity already belongs to the Father, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, who is also the second person of the Trinity. Discipleship is the process of helping people incorporate this truth into their own lives, and helping them learn to become people who live in congruence with this truth about themselves.
This is why the first task in practicing discipleship is baptism – physically and spiritually. Discipleship begins even before the person becomes a believer – discipleship involves teaching the people who God is, who the people are, and how they fit into God’s family. The gospel is the first step in discipleship. We want to teach people who they already are in Jesus. As we said in the chapter about baptism, our job is not to fix people. Our job is to bathe people in the love and acceptance the Father has given to them in Jesus, through his Spirit. When we have participated with Jesus, in step with his Spirit, in doing this first act of discipleship – through preaching and evangelism – then people will be ready to participate in the physical act of being baptized in water as an outward sign of the invisible reality.
The second task of discipleship – after immersing people in the truth of God’s love for them – is to help others learn to obey Jesus and thus become people who live like the children of the Father that they really are. This is often done before people believe, as well – any time we teach in our churches or in public, there may be unbelievers present. Indeed, some of them may not believe until they see the congruence between grace and obedience, that Christianity does have an inner coherence. This belief does not come through clever preaching or the wisdom of the listeners – it comes through the Holy Spirit, who leads people to belief.
You can see this process in 1 Corinthians. Paul tells the people at Corinth that they are holy in Christ and have been given grace in him (1 Cor. 1:24). This is the message he preached to them when he first met them (v. 6). The Corinthians belong to Christ – not because of what they have done but because of who Christ is. First they belong. Then, Paul says, they believed this truth about themselves and were baptized into it – even though they are still struggling to understand what it really means to be baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (vv. 13-15).
Because of who Jesus is, they belong, and they have come to believe it, and now it is time for them to be disciples and learn to obey Jesus. That is what the rest of the letter to the Corinthians is about. We see Paul engaging in discipleship by helping the Corinthians learn how to act like the children of the Father that Christ has made them to be. Or as some have phrased it, they need to become what they already are.
Corinthians is an indictment of any theology that says that our behavior determines whether we belong to the Father as his children. Paul says that the people in Corinth are in Christ. He also says that they are drunks, vain, back-stabbing fornicators – and that’s just the first few chapters.
Discipleship is not about behaving correctly so that we can then believe that we belong. It is not even about believing correctly so that we can then belong and behave. Discipleship is about the fact that we do belong and we are now learning to believe that truth and behave accordingly. What we are doing in the ministry of discipleship is participating with Jesus in his ministry to teach others who they are, so their lives will become congruent with their past (created in God’s image) and their future (in eternal fellowship with the Trinity).
The consequences of sin – like fear or broken relationships – flow out of our lives because there are still aspects of our fallen personhood that have not been transformed by the assurance of our identity in Jesus. Pastoral care is about helping people be more assured of it.
Take the example of a person who is dying and knows it. The person may have lived all of life as a disciple, confident in being a child of God, but this person has never died before. This is something new, and it is often an occasion for the person to be strengthened in the truth of being in Jesus, and also an opportunity for obedience. What will Jesus be doing in this person’s life at this time? Through his Spirit he will be assuring the person: “You are a loved child of the Father and I have given you a share in my resurrection and eternal life.” Jesus will be teaching the disciple how to obey him even to the death.
If we are to join in Jesus’ ministry, we must be in step with the assuring work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the soul as people die. We must speak words of assurance that help them see death in the context of the life and resurrection of the Trinity. We must join with Jesus in helping them trust Jesus so they can face death as something that will ultimately be for their good and thus as something in which they can obey Jesus by not fighting his decision to allow them to die.
Another example: a married couple whose relationship is in trouble. As you talk with them over the course of time, you will to see how each person is contributing some broken sinfulness to the problem. Where does our brokenness come from? It comes from 1) a desire for autonomy, to be a law unto ourselves, and it goes hand in hand with 2) a desire to hide from God, to fear his punishment, to see him as working for our hurt rather than for our good (the sequence we see in Genesis 3).
It involves our failure to believe the truth about our Father, and thus we lack assurance in our life as his beloved children. We sin because we do not believe the Father is good and that what he tells us to do is for our good, so we take matters into our own hands. As we share with the married couple, together as a couple and as individuals, the truth of who God is for them, we are helping them grow in their confidence in the Father’s goodness, and in their willingness to obey Jesus by caring for each other in the ways that Jesus commands married people to care for each other.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through discipleship and pastoral care?
Body: This process of being assured of who we are in the Trinity, and learning to obey Jesus, has a lot to do with how we use our bodies. Paul talks extensively about how we use our bodies in 1 Corinthians as he disciples them in how to behave as the children of the Father that they are.
This means that we have to join Jesus in helping people learn to control such aspects of their bodily life as how they use their tongues, how much they eat and drink, and how they express their sexuality. The constant temptation that assails us as ministers is to try to control others instead of joining with Jesus in helping them learn to control themselves. How does Jesus help human beings learn to control the use of their bodies? By pouring out his Spirit upon them (Acts 2:17) and working through the Spirit to help them learn to keep in step with the Spirit by following his direction in how they use their bodies (Rom. 8:9-17).
Jesus does not control people. He adopts us into the life he shares with the Father, gives us the Holy Spirit, and then helps us learn to live in sync and in rhythm with the lifestyle of God’s Triune nature. The life of the Trinity is not a life of lying, drunkenness, rage, bitterness, or sexual immorality. All these actions flow out of our fallen human nature’s inability to keep in step with the Spirit. The reason such uses of our body are a sin is not just because there is a written rule against such things, but because such uses of our bodies are contrary to the flow and existence of the Triune life in which we live through Jesus.
Take sexual immorality as an example. Why is it wrong for a couple to have sex without being married? Sometimes it causes hurt – unwanted children or disease – but just as often sexual immorality seems to hurt no one. Causing obvious harm is not the only criterion for what makes something a sin. In the case of sex outside of marriage, a lie is being told, and it impacts our souls whether we know it or not. Sex was designed for marriage, which is a reflection of our relationship with Jesus in the Trinity. Any misuse of sex will then affect our relationship with Jesus as well.
The divine Persons live in a union in which they mutually indwell each others’ existence. The Son is not just “with” the Father, he is “in” the Father. In his book On the Trinity, St. Augustine compares the three to a Lover (the Father) his Beloved (the Son) and the mutual love they share (the Holy Spirit). This mutual indwelling, called perichoresis, is reflected in human existence by the bodily act of sex when two persons become one flesh in a way that echoes the three divine Persons existing as one God by indwelling each other.
Since the mutual indwelling of the Triune Persons involves perfect covenant faithfulness, there will never be a time when one or more of the divine Persons finds another “god” with whom to be in perichoretic faithfulness. The Father and Son, in the Spirit, will forever be faithful to each other as one God. When we practice sex in ways that reflect a lack of permanent commitment in the faithful covenant of marriage (premarital or extramarital), we are expressing a lie with our bodies. Such a use of sexuality fails to accurately echo the perichoresis of the Trinity in whom we live. We are out of step with the life of the Spirit. The act of sex outside of marriage is sinful because it is our body telling our soul that there is such a thing as healthy intimacy without commitment – and that is a lie. That lie damages our souls and hinders our ability to trust the Father.
To illustrate, we might imagine a dialogue something like this:
Body: “Soul, I am having sex with a person I’m not married to. Later I will find another person to have sex with. It feels good.”
Soul: “If it is possible to feel good while in perichoresis without commitment, then the Father must be lying to me in what the Holy Spirit is saying. The Spirit tells me that healthy perichoresis exists only in the permanent commitment of the Father and the Son to each other in the Spirit. If perichoresis can exist without commitment, then I may live in the Son now, but he might eventually abandon me to find another he likes better. Therefore, the Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be trusted.”
Body: “Soul, why do you always have to be such a wet blanket?”
Rather than simply saying to people, “This is what God commands, obey him or face the consequences,” we need to join with Jesus in the ways he is working in people’s lives to help them see how behavior is connected with God’s purpose in our lives, to draw us into a life that is enjoyable forever. The Holy Spirit assures them in their souls that Jesus is faithfully committed to them. Therefore, we also encourage them to believe that Jesus is faithful in how he uses his body, and he will share that faithfulness with them to empower them to use their bodies in the way their bodies were created to be used.
Mind: Ministries such as Communion and baptism primarily impact the body, but discipleship and pastoral care primarily impact the mind. Our bodies have the potential to be in step with the Spirit’s witness to our souls. In the midst of this comes our mind, creating static and thwarting the proper bodily expression of the truth implanted in our souls by the Spirit.
If we were to imagine our minds participating in the dialogue above between body and soul, we might imagine the mind throwing in comments such as, “everybody’s doing it and it seems to be OK for them” or “why would God care who I sleep with?” or “nobody loves me, anyway, I might as well enjoy whatever fun I can get out of life.” These thoughts illustrate wrong thinking about who we are, who our Father in heaven is, and what we were created for. Erroneous thoughts (lies) are major obstacles to our becoming mature disciples and receiving the pastoral care of Jesus.
In discipleship and pastoral care, we participate with Jesus by finding out what people are thinking, confirming their right thoughts, and challenging their wrong thoughts.
We need to begin by finding out what people are thinking. This takes us back to the listening ministry we talked about in chapter 2. In order to disciple others and care for them pastorally, we must learn to listen to what they are saying and to listen to what Jesus is telling us about them through his Spirit. As you are listening to a person talk, keep your mind open also in an attitude of prayerful receptiveness to see if the Spirit would draw your attention to any particular statement or thought the other person expresses. When we listen to others both to understand them and to hear what Jesus is sharing with us about them, we have the best chance of really hearing and understanding what is going on in their heads.
If we listen long enough to the other person and to Jesus, we will hear some correct thinking come out. Every sane human being participates in Jesus’ life to some extent. Even if all the person does is love a pet lizard, that love is an expression of the life of the Spirit. Purves tells us that we should try to be “midwives of the positive.” We never want to miss an opportunity to affirm and encourage optimistic, hopeful, or loving thinking on the part of others. That sort of thinking comes from the Spirit and is a sharing in the mind of Christ. It is easy for us as ministers to become fixated on what is wrong with others, and fail to see the ways that Jesus is sharing his “rightness” with them.
Once we have listened, heard and understood, and affirmed whatever is right and good in the other person’s thinking, we have to confront wrong thinking. This is a delicate task in which we must ask the Spirit to give us special access to his wisdom. Too much correction of another person’s thinking can crush, discourage, or even anger the person. But if we do not ever try to correct wrong thoughts, the person may believe lies about the Father for years to come.
The “debt of love” (Rom. 13:8) compels us to join Jesus in pointing out to others when they are thinking in false images about who the Father is. When you come to care for sick people and they say, “God doesn’t care about my pain,” then you are faced with a lie that must be countered by good news.
How can we use the good news to counter that lie? That is a matter of circumstance, context, and the nature of your relationship with the people involved. The better you know them, the more they trust you, the more direct you can be. The more mature they are as disciples, the more you can appeal to their knowledge of who Jesus is, and the more you can use Scripture to affirm what you are saying. The less well you know them, or the less mature they are, the more you will have to express yourself in ways that suggest to them, or encourage them to admit, that there might be another aspect to life other than what they are thinking about in their time of pain.
Soul: To feed the souls of Jesus’ sheep through discipleship and pastoral care is to join the Spirit in nurturing the heart and core of human existence.
We might consider the analogy of an apple orchard. Apple trees need the right conditions to be healthy and bear fruit. They need the right nutrients in the soil, the right amount of sun and rain, and even the right amount of cold weather – not too much or too little – during the winter months. The farmer who nurtures the trees and ensures, as much as possible, that they receive what they need to thrive will find that the trees produce good fruit. But patience is required. It can take 3-7 years, depending on the variety, from the time that trees are planted as saplings until the time they come to maturity in fruit bearing. Standing in an orchard yelling at trees to make them feel guilty and thus produce fruit has been found to be less effective than nurturing them and being patient.
Likewise, in discipleship, the right nurturing conditions are of paramount importance in bringing disciples to maturity so they can bear fruit – the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of multiplying new disciples like themselves. As leaders in the church, we can easily grow frustrated and think that the people we are discipling would be producing more fruit in their lives (however we define fruit) if they would simply work harder, apply themselves more consistently, or simply do what we have told them to do. But the fact is, that if we see disciples who do not have fruitful lives, it is because they have not been nurtured in the life of the Trinity.
We need to water disciples with the cleansing life of the Holy Spirit. Encourage them to sink their roots deep into the soil of who they are in Jesus. Shed the light of the love of the Father into their lives so they can soak up the truth of how much they are loved. Keep nurturing their souls in the Trinity, year after year, and you will see a harvest in due season, when the time is right.
Pastoral care requires that we join Jesus in nurturing people’s souls and being patient. Every human being on the planet has been damaged by dysfunctional relationships. We have all been emotionally and spiritually abused to some extent. We are all in need of healing from Jesus in our souls, and our differing dysfunctions make us grow at different speeds in different areas of our lives, all different to what other disciples experience.
Healing never works exactly the same way twice. No two people respond exactly the same way to the same medicine or the same procedure. Medical science operates on averages. Statistically speaking, if more people get better from taking a medicine than from not taking it, then the medicine is regarded as effective. Some people take it and never get better. Some people take it and have side effects that are worse than the disease. You never know exactly how it is going to go.
So it is with joining Jesus in the healing of souls. We see it symbolized in the physical healings he performs in the Gospels. Sometimes he asks if the person wants to be made well, and sometimes he does not. Sometimes a person is healed instantly, another time a man’s blindness goes away in stages. One time he did not do many miracles in a place because the people there had so little belief (Matt. 13:58). At other times he performed miracles despite the person’s lack of faith.
Jesus does not control people, and he does not call us to do so. Jesus nurtures people in the truth of who they are in him, and he gives them the freedom to be themselves, to believe, to grow, and to heal, as they are ready and willing to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in their lives to produce this fruit. It is this ministry of patient nurturing in which we are participants. As Jesus shares his ministry with us, we learn to never give up on the healing of people’s souls. We learn to not set timetables or try to control the work of the Spirit.
 The harm can be invisible and incremental, just as the ingestion of tiny amounts of mercury does not initially seem to hurt people. It is only after the accumulation of large amounts that it can be seen as harmful. In the case of premarital sex, we see sociological evidence that it is associated with higher rates of divorce, and the children of divorce are, on average, more likely to be involved in other social problems. Everyone thinks that they will beat the statistical averages, but it is impossible for everyone to be above average. Even if one particular couple escapes the negative repercussions, they have set an example encouraging others to take unnecessary risks.
 Augustine, On the Trinity, book 9, chapter 2. The image of the Spirit as love is abstract and impersonal; Augustine’s analogy is not a perfect one. We might ask, Who is the mutual love that the Son and Spirit share? Love is a characteristic of all three Persons, not particularly identified with the Spirit.
 Purves, Crucifixion of Ministry, 67.
What is marriage in the light of who Jesus is?
Weddings are not commanded in Scripture, and Scripture does not provide any instructions for how they should be done. Pagans had wedding ceremonies, and this cultural custom was continued by the Israelites and in Christian churches. Secular governments usually regulate marriage, because marriage helps stabilize family relationships and provide children safer environments in which to grow. We want to reinforce this sociological function. Although Scripture does not command us to continue this custom, it does serve good purposes, and it is rich in theological meaning, so it is a custom we would like to continue.
Before we discuss the details of how to perform a wedding, we need to think about what marriage is in the light of who Jesus is as the union of the Trinity and humanity. How, when, with whom, and under what conditions, we perform weddings will be heavily influenced by our understanding of who Jesus is and who people are in relationship to him.
For example, if we have a theology that says that people are separated from Jesus until they believe in him, then we may insist that one, or both, people being married must believe in Jesus before he will perform the ceremony. We might even insist that both persons be baptized and in regular attendance with a church before we do the ceremony. On the other hand, a more inclusive view of Jesus’ relationship with humanity would probably lead to a greater willingness to perform weddings for more people in a greater variety of circumstances.
We will begin our thinking, as always, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To think about how the Triune life relates to marriage, we will look at the creation story in Genesis, not for what it does or does not say about science or history, but for what it says about who God is and who he created humanity to be in marriage.
The Israelites had an essentially unitarian image of God when the Genesis creation story was written. Though they understood and spoke of “God’s Spirit” and “God’s Wisdom,” and even personified both, their basic mental conception was of a unitary monotheism: one God existing as one Person.
As Christians, whenever we read the Old Testament, we have to bring our reading lens – or “eyeglasses” – that Jesus gives us to see God. Jesus helps us understand that our belief in God must be Trinitarian, not unitarian, even when the Bible’s language – as in the Old Testament – lends itself, or even emerged from, an essentially unitarian view of God.
This is important for our understanding of Genesis 1:26, where God says, “let us make humanity in our image.” Scholars of Hebrew, the Old Testament, and Israelite theology point out that Israel’s mental concept of God in Genesis 1:26 is unitarian even though plural pronouns are used. One suggested explanation for the use of the plural in the Hebrew is what is known as the “plural of majesty.” In the same way that protocol requires a monarch, such as the Queen of England, to speak of “our will” and decisions “we have made,” so also in this Hebrew account of creation, God – the King of the whole world – uses the plural of majesty to speak of his royal decree to create humanity.
A grammatical, historical exegesis of Genesis 1 would leave the question at this point. However, a Christ-centered, Trinitarian exegesis of Genesis 1 suggests that we should see the plural in Gen. 1:26 in the light of who Jesus is and who Jesus reveals God to be. Seen from a purely grammatical perspective and from a purely historical (i.e. ancient Israelite) perspective, there is no Trinity in Genesis 1:26. But, as noted in lecture 6, our reading of Scripture must go beyond a grammatical/historical methodology to ask “what does the Bible mean in light of who Jesus is?” We believe that the God who inspired Genesis to be written also inspired the New Testament to give us more light on what the Old is talking about, and that we should use the light he has given.
With the perspective that Jesus gives us, we can see that Genesis 1:26 is a foreshadowing of the Trinity. The mysterious pronouns are a hint that more will be revealed about God, and we see the fulfillment of this in Jesus. The Holy Spirit inspired the author of Genesis 1 to use the plural, not just for what it means to him in his own grammar and historical context, but because of what that use of the plural will come to mean centuries later in the person of Christ.
Thus, when God says “let us make humanity in our image,” we are hearing one divine Person speak to the others. The act of creating all things, including all humanity, is an act in which the fullness of the Triune God participates. The Father creates humanity in the Son, by the Spirit, in their image.
What is the image of God in which we are created? Traditionally, much of Christian thinking about the image of God in humanity has rested on the concept of “rationality,” particularly some form of rationality not possessed by animals. Humanity, unlike anything else in the physical world, is capable of rational thought and speech and thus of thinking about God and speaking to him. Rationality has to be part of the sense in which we are in God’s image. However, many modern – and especially Trinitarian – theologians are coming to see relationality as the primary way in which humanity is made in the image of God. As the Father, Son, and Spirit live in eternal relationship with each other, so also humanity is made relational in that image. We are created, in the image of the Trinity, capable of relating to the Trinity and to each other in a way that echoes and reflects the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. Not every human relationship reflects the Trinitarian life – only relationships based on love can image the God who is love.
This relational view of the image of God in humanity is reinforced by what God does next in Genesis 1:27: “God created humanity in his own image…male and female he created them.” It does not say “capable of rational thought he created them in his image.” Nor does it say, “he created them in his image with the power of speech.” The creation story itself says that “male and female” is the image of God in humanity and an important part of the way in which humanity reflects God’s image. This is further emphasized by the way the union of man and woman is described in the next chapter. Genesis 2:24 says, “the two shall become one flesh.” As we discussed in our lecture on discipleship and pastoral care, the sexual union of a man and woman – as one flesh – is an echo of the perichoretic life of the Trinity.
The male on his own was “not good,” but male and female together image God. They reflect what God is like, and they are physical representations of God on earth. Based on our post-Resurrection, post-Pentecost, and post-Nicea understanding of the Trinity, we can see that the relationship between husband and wife, when at its best, reflects the intra-Trinitarian relationships of love. In the same way that God is love (i.e., relationship), as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so God created humanity in the image of that relationship and made the marriage of man and woman the most significant human relationship in terms of its ability to help us understand the Triune life in which we live because of Jesus.
This understanding of marriage is further reinforced by the New Testament’s use of the marriage imagery to describe Jesus. Jesus himself is the marriage of the divine and the human. In him, God and humanity become united, without losing their distinct selves. Thus, the New Testament speaks of believers as the “bride of Christ” and says that the church is an image of the marriage that has taken place between the divine and human in Jesus (Eph. 5:31-32; Rev. 19:7). The divine-human relationship, in turn, is a reflection of the intra-Trinitarian relationship; we are being brought into the life of the Trinity. Throughout, it is a covenant bond based on love.
Based on our understanding of marriage as an image of the Trinity, and as an image of the Trinity’s union with humanity in Jesus, we can suggest this Christ-centered definition of marriage:
Marriage is the union of a man and a woman to participate together in Jesus’ ministry to reflect in humanity the union he has in his divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit and the union he has with humanity in his human nature.
This definition presumes nothing about the compatibility, happiness, or satisfaction of the persons involved in the marriage. This does not mean that our loving Father in heaven is not concerned about our happiness in our marriages. He is. It just means that the primary purpose of marriage is not self-satisfaction. The primary purpose of marriage is reflecting the divine image. Marriage shows in a very concrete, experiential way what Jesus means when he says “the Father is in me, I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:10, 20). Living in marriage enables us to experience, in a limited way, the mystery of how the divine Persons live in each other as one God and how we live in them, through Christ, as one humanity in union with the one God, while everyone – the persons of God and all of us – are also able to remain distinctly ourselves in that union.
How do we practice the ministry of performing weddings?
With this Christ-centered, Trinitarian, definition of marriage as our foundation, we can now turn our attention to how we perform weddings in the light of who Jesus is. Defining marriage is just the starting point for doing the ceremony. Let’s take our definition of marriage and convert it into a definition of performing a wedding:
Performing a wedding is our participation in Jesus’ ministry to bring together a man and woman in a relationship that images the union Jesus has in his divine nature with the Father and the Holy Spirit and the union he has with humanity in his human nature.
A wedding is the ceremonial act of bringing together a man and a woman into the state of marriage. From a Christian perspective, a wedding is something that Jesus does. It is not just a sociologically useful custom – by making it a church ceremony, we are signaling that there is a spiritual purpose beyond the social benefits. God’s Spirit draws two people together in love and creates within them the desire to live in covenant faithfulness with each other in a way that reflects the covenant faithfulness of the Father, Son, and Spirit to each other and the covenant faithfulness of Jesus to humanity.
This is why divorce is a sin. For a man and a woman to break their covenant with each other implies – whether they know it or not – that the Father, Son, and Spirit might break covenant with each other or with humanity. Since the persons of the Trinity will never break covenant with each other or with humanity, any action on our part that pictures such a thing is a lie and a misuse of the institution the Father has given us. This also explains, as we discussed in lecture 7, why sex outside of marriage is wrong.
As soon as we say that divorce, and sex outside of marriage, are sins, we immediately need to think of the forgiveness that we already have in Jesus. In our fallenness, we are not capable of keeping our covenant promises. We still have hardness of heart. Even when two people never divorce, they still fail, daily, to fully keep their covenant promises to each other. Therefore, it is Jesus’ faithfulness to us and with us in our marriages that is the basis of our understanding of who we are. It is Jesus’ faithfulness to us, and his forgiveness of our sin, that allows the church to help people heal from the brokenness of adultery and divorce and move on with their lives – even to the point of marrying again, if the Spirit seems to be so leading and blessing a person.
Since a wedding is something that Jesus does, we ought to perform weddings in his name as the Son of the Father and the one through whom the Spirit comes to humanity. Weddings in Jesus’ name should be Trinitarian because marriage is a reflection of the Trinitarian life and of humanity’s adoption into that life through the union of the divine and the human in Jesus. In a moment, when we think about weddings as a ministry to people’s minds, we will think more specifically about how we use Trinitarian language in a wedding.
But first we want to think about the counseling that takes place before the wedding ceremony. A lot of research by counselors and psychologists suggests that premarital counseling can have a profound impact on the success of a marriage. As with all counseling, this is more true when the people involved in the counseling are fully participating, and less true when they are just going through the motions. The giftedness and skill of the counselor involved is important, too.
As a minister, not a “professional” counselor, your first task in premarital counseling is to look for signs that something is wrong. In America, you are society’s gatekeeper to determine the most basic information: are both people old enough to be married in the state where the wedding will take place? Are both people single and not currently married to someone else? Have they obtained the proper license from the state?
You are also Jesus’ minister to assess the most basic issues of healthy relationship: is there any sign that one party is physically or verbally abusing the other? Are both people of sound mind, not acting under duress or out of fear? Do they seem to have a basically healthy relationship in which they are treating each other with respect and kindness?
If people want to, they can deceive a minister on any or all of these points. Your job is not to act as a private investigator. However, to perform a wedding while knowing that something is glaringly wrong in any of the areas mentioned above would be pastoral malpractice.
Beyond these basic issues, however, it is not your job to determine whether two people should be married. At the most you would say, for example, “I am not comfortable performing your wedding because I do not believe you are being truthful with me about your relationship.” Or, “You seem to have radically different ideas of how to handle money, and I advise you to wait until you are closer on that issue.” You would not say “the two of you should not get married!”
If something criminal is involved, you will need to check with your ecclesiastical supervisor about your duty to report it to the authorities. If the couple is contemplating a breach of law out of ignorance – for example, some misguided idea that they can marry before a divorce has been finalized – then you need to inform them of the reality: “I can’t perform your wedding until your divorce has been finalized,” for example.
In addition to the basic issues of pre-marital counseling, you want to help the couple understand – as much as they can – what marriage is. Help them see that it is an image of who God is, in his Triune nature, and of who we are as human beings in Jesus. As a result, marriage is a permanent covenant and a means by which we learn to live in communion and self-sacrificial love. Depending on where they are in their faith, they will be better or less able to understand these spiritual issues, but they should be explained regardless.
Another necessary step is reviewing and explaining the meaning of the ceremony. Explaining the ceremony can be a way to introduce the spiritual issues that are involved and help them see, in a concrete way, how what you are saying about marriage is reflected in the real-life promises they are making to each other and the Father.
Regardless of where the individuals are in their faith, you have three basic responsibilities in pre-marital counseling:
- to look for glaring legal or moral issues,
- to explain the significance of marriage in the light of who Jesus is, and
- to explain the meaning of the ceremony.
After hearing a Christ-centered definition of marriage, and the meaning of the ceremony, a couple may decide they do not want a Christian wedding. That is fine. Just as it is not your job to stop people from getting married, it is also not your job to try to talk them into a Christian marriage. If they decide that a justice of the peace, or a ceremony in another religion, would be better for them, then they are probably right. Under no circumstances should you remove all references to Jesus and/or the Trinity and/or the Bible in order to make the ceremony more palatable to the couple or their guests. If they want you to do the ceremony then it must be a Christian ceremony, and to be Christian it must be in the name of Christ, his Father, and the Holy Spirit. There is no point in having a minister conduct a secular ceremony.
Beyond this basic, Christ-centered counseling, you have to use your own discretion in how much counseling you offer and/or require in order to be comfortable performing the ceremony. Some pastors are also trained Christian counselors and are able to offer couples more in-depth relationship counseling. Other pastors have acquired skills, and have some giftedness in this area, and want to offer more in-depth relationship counseling. In other situations you will have a strong pastoral relationship with the people involved, and they will want your guidance in this formative stage of their relationship.
If you do not know the couple well or they do not seem to be open to deeper relationship counseling, there is no hard-and-fast policy dictating what you must do. Some pastors are comfortable performing ceremonies for people with very little counseling; others require a certain amount before they are willing to perform the ceremony.
For example, since all humanity lives and moves and has their being in Jesus, whether they know it or not, some pastors are willing to perform a ceremony for two people who are not Christians – as long as they do not want to make the ceremony un-Christian for their sake. If two nonbelievers are willing to be married in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, that is a good thing – perhaps it is something that is flowing from the life Jesus is sharing with them through his Spirit, even if they do not recognize where that desire is coming from.
Other pastors disagree, and feel that the vows would not be made in sincerity. Why call it a Christian ceremony if the participants are not Christians? You will have to think through the issues involved and decide for yourself how to handle such situations.
In the case where a believer and a nonbeliever are getting married, some extra counseling is warranted. Scripture says something about the wisdom of such an arrangement (2 Cor. 6:14–7:1), and the believer in the relationship should be encouraged to explain to you how he or she understands those biblical instructions. You also would want to get the couple to discuss how they plan to deal with the issues that are raised by an inter-faith (or faith/no-faith) marriage. These issues include their understanding of what marriage is, how to raise any children, how to deal with in-laws, and how to use money, including money given to the church.
Often, marriages between believers and nonbelievers come about when the believer has deluded him or herself into believing that the other person “really does believe, he just doesn’t talk about it or do anything about it.” You can try to confront such delusional thinking, but it is hard to break through. You will probably have to decide whether you are comfortable performing the ceremony based on the other, basic issues discussed above, and not on whether the couple is facing reality in their decision making.
As a concluding thought on how we do premarital counseling, it is worth noting that all marriages come into existence in the midst of some delusional thinking. People do not know what it is like to be married until they are married. Even if two people have been living together prior to marriage, they still do not know what it is like to live together as a married couple. Both persons will have some reality-based and some delusional thinking about what it will be like. Again, it is not our job as pastors to determine who should and should not get married (beyond basic issues of legality). We should lovingly confront delusional thinking as we are able to. Ultimately, however, we must entrust the people whose marriages we perform – as all people we minister to – into the hands of Jesus.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through performing weddings?
Body: A wedding is a physical act, and a lot of preparation goes into it. Most people hope theirs will be “perfect” and try to make it so. Usually at least one thing goes wrong, but it is usually not so serious as to ruin the day. As a minister of Jesus, you can help by encouraging everyone involved, especially the bride and groom, to stay focused on what really matters: the Father’s love for them and their love for each other. As much as possible you can be relaxed, trusting the Spirit to guide the occasion, and sharing your confidence with others.
Some couples will want – or need – your input on the physical arrangements for the day, such as the order in which people enter, who stands where, and what kind of decorations are appropriate. It is not a bad idea to do some research and know some of the basics of etiquette for a wedding ceremony if you do not know them already. If you are called upon to help make decisions about the physical arrangements, then you will be ready.
Most couples, however, have thoroughly researched the various options and customs within their own culture and know how they want the ceremony to go. In regard to the location, decorations, use of symbols (candles, rings, etc.), the songs that are sung, the attire, and the general atmosphere of the occasion, the couple has a lot of flexibility. From our perspective as ministers, there are only a couple of actions that “must” take place in order for it to be a Christian ceremony, and those “musts” all relate to the words that are said. We will deal with those in a moment.
The wedding ceremony should reflect the tastes, culture, and desires of the couple being married. Even if they want to get married on a roller coaster, that is their prerogative – but you also have the freedom to say, “I can’t do that, but I’ll help you find someone who can.” You should never try to dictate to the couple on matters of taste or custom. They do not have to exchange rings, or have candles, or wear formal attire, for example, unless they want to. The Bible does not command the ceremony, nor the details, and neither can we.
Before the ceremony begins, make sure that you know the order of the service, who will do what when, and have notes for yourself about this information. There will inevitably be some weddings where someone forgets his or her part and will look to you, as the officiant, to give them a cue as to what to do. Make sure you have a good handle on how the ceremony will go so you can be helpful in making it run smoothly. A rehearsal will be very helpful.
Make sure that you know what the attire will be and that what you are wearing will be appropriate to the formality of the wedding. Even if you preach without notes, always read a wedding ceremony – even the wedding homily – word for word. A wedding is not a time to ad-lib or try to go off the cuff.
In general, you want to listen for the Spirit to help you see how you can be an agent of joy, calm, and help during the whole process – and not be a distraction.
Mind: To begin thinking about the words we speak at a wedding, and how they impact people’s minds, you may wish to review the standard GCI ceremony. You can find it online at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/. It is the longest of the ceremonies.
Some couples may want a very short ceremony, and the question may arise as to what the “bare minimum” is. The government gives us tremendous latitude in what constitutes a wedding ceremony, so there are few legal requirements other than the requirement that a ceremony of some sort takes place and that you sign the license certifying that it did. It could be as brief as having them each promise, in your presence, to be married to each other. However, from a Christian perspective there are three “must haves”:
- One is a promise between the couple to be faithful to each other. Although the ceremony does not have to mention these things specifically, this includes sexual exclusivity, emotional support, and financial cooperation.
- The second is the pronouncement of marriage in the name of Jesus. In the GCI ceremony this pronouncement is expressed as “by the authority of Jesus Christ.” You could also use the wording of the Book of Common Prayer, which says, “I pronounce that you are husband and wife in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Either way, the message needs to clear that a Christian marriage ceremony is a ministry of Jesus, on behalf of his Father, in the power of their Spirit.
- The third “must” is a prayer of blessing on the marriage. Prayer is part of every Christian ceremony. A prayer should be offered to the Father, in the name of Jesus, and asking God’s blessing, through the Holy Spirit, on the marriage of this new husband and wife.
Apart from these three key elements, there is a lot of flexibility. There is a long tradition regarding the form that the vows take. Vows are in the first English editions of the Book of Common Prayer (in the 16th century) and they are reflected in most modern standard ceremonies, including the GCI ceremony. It involves language such as “in sickness and health” and “thereto I pledge you my faith.” However, there is no reason that a couple cannot write their own vows (if they wish), so long as what they write does not contradict who Jesus is. For example, if the groom wanted to promise to be faithful by the “power of the god Thor,” that would contradict who Jesus is. You may laugh, but our culture is becoming post-Christian, and a wide range of belief systems are returning to prominence in some people’s lives.
The words we speak at a wedding are the primary explanation of Christian marriage that most people, especially outside the church, ever hear. Therefore, it is appropriate to take a few moments to describe what marriage is from a Christ-centered perspective. This section of the ceremony, generally coming before the vows, is the wedding homily (or sermon). It is good to use the word “homily” to describe this section of the ceremony because the word “sermon” suggests something longer and more doctrinal than a homily. What we want is a homily: comments that are short and more devotional. The homily is not a required, but unless the couple objects, it is good to take a few moments to refer to Scripture and explain marriage in the light of what God has revealed.
Soul: Perhaps more than anything else, your goal in performing a wedding is to impress upon the couple – and their extended families and friends – what their marriage is in Christ. Marriage, especially in our culture – where many traditional supports for marriage are fading away – can be an intimidating prospect. Young people, especially, wonder whether they can fulfill the vows they are making and they worry about what the future will bring in their relationship.
They are right to be concerned. Marriage is probably the most challenging task that most people will take on in their lives, and many marriages fail. But in the overall scope of life, the positives of marriage far outweigh the negatives. Marriage blesses us, encourages us, and helps make us fit for eternal communion with the Triune God. Because marriage helps make us fit for eternal life, it must also help purge out of us our self-centeredness, our isolation, and our sin. Marriage is a blessing that heals by sometimes soothing and by sometimes hurting.
If couples embark on marriage believing that it is always a soothing, enjoyable experience, or believing that a good marriage is something they can achieve by their work, then they are headed for heartache. Our goal in premarital counseling, in the way we conduct the ceremony, and in the way we talk about marriage in general, is to help others see that marriage is yet another aspect of our lives in which we are learning to trust the Father’s love for us in Jesus, through the power of their Spirit. Marriage, just like everything in our lives, is something that Jesus does in and with us through his Spirit. It is something that helps us understand our Father’s love and faithfulness to us.
We can join Jesus in ministering to people’s souls if we keep pointing them back to the assurance they have in Jesus. They will not be alone in their marriages. Their Father is caring for them in their marriage, with Jesus, through the Spirit, and they can trust and rest in this reality no matter what comes in the years ahead.
Since this chapter is shorter than most, we are including below a wedding homily. The original occasion was a wedding reception. Although the ceremony included a homily, a significantly larger number of people were at the reception, and the couple requested that another homily be given, in which the gospel would be presented. You are welcome to use or adapt this for your own settings. The title of “reflections” made the message sound less formal, and it tied in easily with the biblical theme of “image of God.”
Reflections on Marriage
By Michael Morrison
Good afternoon, and [turn toward the couple] congratulations to our happy and perhaps nervous couple. We are happy to share this joyous occasion with you.
[Gesture toward audience] [Names of the couple] asked me to say a few words about the meaning of marriage – not just its meaning for newly married couples, or even a meaning for older married couples, but a meaning that extends well beyond, to include everyone else as well.
And that’s because marriages are reflections of something much bigger. The Bible tells us that marriage is a reflection of the love that Jesus has for his people. The apostle Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her… There is profound truth hidden here,” he says, “and it’s about Christ and the church.” Marriage is a reflection of the love that Jesus has for his people.
This is not some new thing – it goes back to the very beginning. In the Bible, in the book of Genesis, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become a new family.” This comes shortly after God explains his purpose for creating human beings: “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”
We are created in the image of God, to be a bit like God – and in order to do that, God created us as male and female. Both males and females are reflections of who God is, but the combination of male and female also reflects God. God wants each person, and each marriage, to be reflections of who he is.
So it’s important for us to know what God is like – and the Bible tells us that God is like Jesus – that if we have seen Jesus, then we have seen the Father. We have seen the kindness and compassion of God, and the love of God that makes sacrifices for the people he loves.
Each of us should be a reflection of the God that we see in Jesus – a God who loves us so much that he gave himself up to save us. His love for us is unconditional – nothing can separate us from his love. Even if we run away, God still loves us. Even if we disobey, God still loves us. Even if we reject God, he does not reject us. His love never fails.
That’s the kind of love he has, and when we have this kind of love, we are reflecting the image of God that we are supposed to be. When a marriage has this kind of love, it is a reflection of the love that Jesus has for each of us.
Now, we don’t do this as well as we should, and in fact, we almost never do it as well as we should. We simply aren’t as much like God as we were created to be, and the natural tendency for us is to think that, Well, if we aren’t doing what God wants, then he is probably angry at us.
He has every right to punish us, to push us aside as failures, but God does not push us aside. Even if we cut off the relationship, God does not. He keeps the door open. He wants us to come home. We may not think that we belong in God’s family, but God says that that is precisely where we belong. The relationship is still open.
The Bible says that God is love, and in the wedding ceremony, we hear a description of love. According to the Bible, one of the components of love is that “love does not keep a record of wrongs.” It does not keep score, or try to get even. Now, that is certainly good advice for [names of the couple], for all of us who are married, and for anyone who wants to keep a friendship. If somebody does something wrong, don’t try to get even with them. That would just make both of you wrong.
God is the example in this. He does not keep a record of wrongs – and this is so contrary to our stereotype of God that many people find it hard to believe. They think that God is keeping track of every single thing we do wrong, and he’s going to make somebody pay for it.
The problem is that we had a debt we could not pay, and so Jesus volunteered to pay for it for us. Jesus is God, and he loves each of us so much that he volunteered to accept the consequences of all the things that we have ever done wrong. The biblical book of Colossians puts it this way: “Even though you were dead in your sins, he has forgiven all your sins.” He nailed our debt to the cross. He has destroyed the debt; it is not a debt any more.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he puts it like this: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them.” In other words, God is not keeping a record of all the wrong things we have done. The door is open, and he wants us to come back home. Even if we don’t like him, he likes us, and he wants us to come back home. That’s what he is like, that’s what he wants us to be like, and that’s what he wants marriages to be like.
This is how we know what love is, the Bible says, that Jesus died for us. We don’t deserve this kind of love, that the Son of God would sacrifice himself for us – and yet he would have done it for any of us.
God made us for a purpose, and he is not going to abandon that purpose merely because we didn’t get right the first time,… or the second time, or the third time. God does not keep track of how many times we got it wrong. He just keeps the door open, waiting for us to come back home.
No, we don’t deserve it. We might feel embarrassed to meet our Maker. But we are already forgiven, by grace, for whatever have done. There is no sin too great, no heart too cold. God has reconciled you to himself, not counting your sins against you.
And when we come back home to God, what will we find? The Bible describes it as a party, a celebration, a banquet – even like a wedding!
The apostle John described it in the book of Revelation:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.”
Our future is described as a marriage to Jesus Christ. The future that God has planned for us is a future of eternal relationships, of love for one another, of living together in peace and harmony and joy, forever and ever. God will enjoy being with us, and we will enjoy being with him, and with each other. It will be a celebration like we have never seen! [Names of the couple] will be there, celebrating, and we are all invited to celebrate, too.
The marriage we have today is a reflection of what God wants our life to be forever. So, [names of the couple], may your marriage be a reflection of God’s love for us, and may it be an example to others of how much Jesus loves us, of how willing he is to forgive the things we’ve done wrong.
In your marriage, things will go wrong. Mistakes will be made, but love keeps no record of wrongs. May the door always be open for either one of you to be accepted and embraced by the other.
For the rest of us, may we see the love between [names of the couple] as a reflection and a reminder to us today of how eagerly God wants to embrace us, to welcome us home, to join the celebration in heaven, where we can live with God without any mourning or crying or pain or death, because the old approach to life will be a thing of the past. We don’t deserve it, but God gives it to us, because he really wants us to join the celebration.
God, our loving heavenly Father, thank you for Jesus and thank you for wiping away all our sins. Thank you that we have a home in heaven, paid for by Jesus Christ. We ask your blessing now on [names of the couple], that their marriage might be a bright and shining reflection of how much you love us, that the joy they have is a reflection of the joy that we will have with you in eternity.
And for any here today who are not quite sure of your love for them, help them come to have faith here and now that the door is open for them to come home to you. Help them say, “Yes, God, I want to come back, to have a relationship with you. I may be a bit reluctant, but you will embrace me like a groom embraces his bride, and I need that kind of love in my life.”
Father, thank you for the gift of love. This is what we were made for, and this is where we find the greatest joy in life. We celebrate a marriage today, but we know we can celebrate only because there is something much more profound here, because our marriages are reflections of what you want us all to be. May we all be reflections of your love for us. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Amen.
 In some ancient cultures, the wedding ceremony was a covenant enacted with the words: I will be your husband and you will be my wife. This phraseology is echoed by God’s covenants with Israel: I will be your God and you will be my people.
 This would not explain why the plural of majesty is not used in most other places. The exegetical question is, why here, and almost nowhere else? Another use of plural pronouns for God is in Genesis 11:7: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Another suggestion is that God is talking to angels, involving them in the work to be done.
 Scientists have discovered various forms of language and rationality in animals that communicate with one another and demonstrate purposeful thought in making tools. But none appear to have any forms of worship or communication with God.
 This is not to imply that romance is the only foundation for marriage. In societies that have arranged marriages, this love can come after the marriage begins.
 Exodus 21:10 specifies that a husband must provide food, clothing and marital rights.
Funerals, like weddings, are not
commanded in Scripture and not described in any detail. They are found in all
cultures and religions. Psychologists tell us that they help the grieving
process. Sociologically, they provide occasions to discuss the meaning of life,
ethics, gratitude, and hope for an afterlife. Due to the common cultural
expectations for a funeral or memorial service, we can use the opportunity to
provide a distinctly Christian, Trinitarian perspective on death and life. It
is a time that good news is needed,
and people are receptive to it.
What is death in the light of who Jesus is?
Perhaps the most important statement we can make about death in the light of Jesus is that death is not a property of the Triune life. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal, without beginning or end, and God does not die.
In our other studies we have looked at aspects of ministry that have their origin in the nature of God himself as the Triune Relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. When we come to think about death and funerals, however, we are faced with a human experience that is entirely of our making. We did not create baptism, communion, evangelism, worship, or any of the other good and beautiful experiences that flow from the Trinity. The one experience that we can take credit for – death – is a tragic and traumatic experience. This tells us what the nature of our fallenness in Adam is. There is nothing good that comes from us. Whatever good there is in the universe is the result of the Trinity sharing his life with the creation.
Even though death is not a property of the Triune life, it is also not an experience that is alien to the Persons of God. To understand this, we are called to think of Jesus’ vicarious humanity. Just as the Son of God shares with us the properties of the Triune life by living with us as the man Jesus, so also the Son shares with the Father and the Spirit the properties of human existence by living with them as God. Unfortunately, the properties of human existence are negative and disastrous. In Jesus, God shares with humanity in our negative and disastrous experiences from the fall.
Therefore, we can say that – in Jesus – God has tasted death, experienced what it is. As Jesus shares his knowledge of death with the Father and the Spirit, we can know with confidence that our loving Father in heaven knows what death feels like. True, the Father has not become flesh and lived among us and he has not died in the flesh the way the Son has. However, the Father and the Son share all things – in and through the Spirit – and therefore the Persons of God are perfectly informed about human existence. Not just in knowledge of facts, but in an experiential way. Jesus shares the experience of what it feels like to be human with his Father and their Spirit. In the same way that we experience the divine life vicariously through Jesus, so also the Father and the Spirit experience human life vicariously through Jesus.
Even though God is eternal, our Father has still experienced death. He is not asking us to trust him in the midst of an experience he has never experienced. We who are ministering are the ones who do not know what death feels like. Whenever we are facing death and trying to deal with its negative consequences, we can know that the Father who loves us, Jesus in whom we live, and the Spirit who has been poured out on us, are the ones who know and understand, far better than we do, what death is.
This reality – that God has experienced death and we have not – is vital to understanding what death is in the light of Jesus. Jesus has been there and done that, and he can tell us what death actually is, and his word carries more epistemological authority than our experience does. Death is what Jesus tells us it is, not what we observe with our own eyes or experience in our own minds, bodies, or souls. To use an analogy, if a friend of yours travelled to China – and you had never been – you would accept your friend’s account of what China is like.
We have to trust Jesus in the face of death. If we believe that Jesus is the union of the Trinity with humanity, and if we believe that Jesus has died and been resurrected, and if we believe that he is now alive at the Father’s right hand, then we have to conclude that Jesus knows what death is and can share his knowledge with us. To trust Jesus is to believe that he has travelled ahead of us into death, and that what he tells us about death is true and trustworthy.
What does Jesus tell us about death? He tells us that death is not the end of life. Rather, it is the narrow doorway between this life and the fullness of life in the resurrection of Jesus (John 11:25). As Jesus died and was resurrected, so also the human race will die and be resurrected (2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Cor. 15:22). Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Jesus shares his existence with all humanity. To be human is to be destined to die in Christ and then be resurrected in Christ and live forever.
This definition contradicts everything we can observe with our five senses. We have not seen any of our loved ones resurrected. We have not experienced eternal life in Jesus as he describes it to us. This lack of empirical evidence can easily lead human beings to doubt what Jesus says to us about death. This is where funerals enter into human experience. Funerals are about people coming together to comfort one another and to remember the one who has died. But even more than that, funerals are about letting Jesus serve us with his knowledge of what death is so that we can trust him even in the midst of the trauma we are experiencing.
Before we talk about how to perform funerals, let’s pause to offer a Trinitarian, Christ-centered definition of death:
Death comes to us through the fallenness of Adam and has been reversed in the resurrection of Jesus to become the means by which the Holy Spirit brings us from this life into the eternal life prepared for us by the Father.
How do we practice the ministry of performing funerals?
Since death is the means by which the Spirit shares with us the resurrection of Jesus and brings us into eternal life with the Father, the ministry of conducting funerals must be focused on who Jesus is and what his death and resurrection means for humanity and our understanding of death.
We have all experienced funerals that are so focused on the person who has died, and death itself, that the good news of who Jesus is and how he shares his resurrection with humanity is lost or minimized. There are several ways this can happen.
Sometimes the people involved, including the person conducting the funeral, are so vague and unsure about their knowledge of Jesus that they fail to see the funeral as anything more than a memorial of the person’s life. The terminology we use sometimes highlights this distinction. We could speak of a Christian funeral as a Christ-centered service to celebrate the life of someone who has died, and refer to a memorial service as an event to celebrate the deceased’s life. We often see this with public memorials for celebrities and political leaders. Because these occasions involve people from many different faiths – and from no faith – and because they take place in a public forum (e.g., on television), where people from many different faiths will be observing, they usually end up finding the lowest common denominator. Usually this turns out to be expressed as “look how wonderful he was” and “he’s never really gone as long as he lives on in our hearts.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with such memorials. In the midst of them Jesus is still sharing his Spirit with those who are mourning and he serves them with his faith, even when they do not know that this is happening. The only reason that any human being – Christian, atheist, or otherwise – can ever accept the death of a loved one and move ahead in life is because Jesus is sharing his faith and knowledge of eternal life with humanity.
However, from a Christ-centered standpoint, we should understand that this sort of “memorial” service is not a Christian funeral. A Christian funeral involves a clear proclamation of the good news about how Jesus shares his faith and his resurrection with humanity. Jesus is going to do this ministry of sharing himself with people whether we talk about it or not. The life for which the Father created us involves knowing the Father as he is revealed in Jesus. We have not yet grown up to be the children of the Father that we were created to be until we have seen and understood how the Father has reversed death in Jesus. Our liberation from the fear of death is found only in the proclamation of the one who has been victorious over death.
Another way in which a funeral can fail to focus on the good news of Jesus is that the emphasis is not on Jesus and his resurrection, but on humanity and humanity’s death. For example, the pastor talks about Jesus but does not proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. In some funerals, the gist of his message is this: “This person died without accepting Jesus and if you don’t accept Jesus you’re going to end up like him.” Death then becomes a warning from God about what happens to sinners.
Such pastors probably feel that they have done their duty in preaching the gospel. However, nothing in the message was particularly encouraging – and since the word gospel means “good news,” the message could not be called the gospel. Rather, it was the bad news of how bad we are as human beings and how bad death is. When you define death solely in terms of who Adam is, and who human beings are in Adam, then you have no good news to share with people. From this perspective, death is something that we have to try to deal with ourselves. Medical science says, “we’ll deal with it by trying to find a way to keep people alive longer and maybe extend life spans to hundreds of years.” The bad news of religion says, “we’ll deal with it by explaining what you have to do – obey God, accept Christ, have faith, etc. – in order to rescue yourself from death.”
In contrast to such human-centered views of death, a Christ-centered view of death – and thus a Christian funeral – focuses on who Jesus is and what he has done to deal with death and fix the human dilemma of dying. What has Christ done? He has taken on our dying human nature and died our death for us, taking us all down with him in his death and grave. In doing this, he has conquered death and been victorious over the grave. He then took our human nature up with him in his resurrection, so that we have been raised up with him, and he has taken our human nature into heaven so that we are seated with him in heavenly realms at the Father’s right hand.
This is the good news we are called to proclaim at a Christian funeral. At its most basic level, it has nothing to do with what we have done. By virtue of what a human being is – a descendant of Adam redeemed in Christ – there is no sense in which the hope that our Father gives us through his Spirit has anything to do with what we have done.
This reality of the good news about Jesus helps us see the difference between a funeral for a believer and a nonbeliever. Both funerals should revolve around the clear proclamation of how the deceased is a loved child of the Father in Christ and how Christ shares with each person his eternal life and resurrection.
a) In the case of the believer, we can celebrate how the person believed this, and encourage others to follow this example and to find comfort and assurance in also believing this truth about themselves.
b) In the case of the nonbeliever, we can emphasize how much our Father loved the person, without necessarily having to address the question of what the deceased believed.
The purpose of a funeral is not to try to lead the people present in an exercise of trying to figure out the deceased’s eternal destiny, or precisely when the person enters that destiny – even if we think their eternal destiny is good because the person was a good, faithful Christian. The purpose of a funeral is to comfort those who are mourning with the good news of the Father who has always loved all of us and who has decided to keep all of us with him forever by including all of us in the resurrection and eternal life of his Son Jesus Christ.
Based on this, we can define the practice of the ministry of funerals:
A funeral is our participation in the ministry of the Holy Spirit of Jesus to reassure those grieving in the face of death that we are all included by our loving Father in the resurrection and eternal life of Jesus.
As a final note on how we conduct funerals, we might think briefly about the issue of judgment. However we understand issues about the intermediate state – between death and resurrection – we know that the next moment of consciousness for people who have died will be with Jesus. Whether they believed in Jesus or not, trusted him or did not, they will be with him. And who is he? He is the one in whom they were created and in whom they live and move and have their being. He is not a prosecutor or a political ruler. He is their brother. How does a good, loving brother judge his siblings? He says, “My beloved siblings, let go of the lies the enemy has told you and believe that I’m really your brother and my Father is really your Daddy that loves you.”
What about the punishment that we deserve? It has already been taken care of in the vicarious humanity of Jesus.
Whether we speak directly about the issues of judgment at a funeral is a decision that you have to make as the Spirit leads you. That may depend on the beliefs of the deceased and of the family. Whether or not we address this matter, everything we say at a funeral should be said in the light of the Triune life that is being shared with humanity in Jesus. We must regard everyone as Jesus’ sibling and as a child of the Father. We are there to celebrate their life – not just the one that has ended, but also the one that shall never end – and address their death in the light of this reality about who they are in Jesus.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through funerals?
Body: In our society, the primary ministry to the body in a funeral is taken care of by professional funeral directors. There are profound reasons, beyond hygiene, that humans do not leave their dead where they fall, the way animals do. We wash and prepare the body. We dress the body in good clothes and embalm it with chemicals designed to delay the initial stages of decay and the odors that come with it.  We put it in a special box, bury it in a special location, and use a special marker for posterity. For some people, this is a carry-over from paganism and superstition. For some, it is a denial of death. For others, it is a sign of respect and a desire to remember the person at their best.
Just because we are not directly involved in ministering to the body of the deceased (and most of the audience is unaware of the details) does not mean that it is without significance. It is part of the process of how the surviving family and friends deal with grief.
Treatment of the dead body can also be a statement about the importance and value of the body. If, as people sometimes say, the body is just a “shell” or a “husk” from which the soul has now flown, then we would treat it like a husk, and just throw it in a dumpster. But we do not. We treat the body with reverence and care, not like a useless and discarded container. Why? Because the Spirit is sharing with us Jesus’ knowledge of the body’s destiny: our bodies have been created to exist forever in the resurrection of Jesus’ body. Even when we choose cremation, we still expect and desire that the body will be treated respectfully, and we look with hope to the day of its resurrection. This is because, regardless of what our own theologies may say to us, the Spirit is sharing with our souls a true knowledge of what the Father created our bodies to be.
In addition to the ministry to the body of the deceased, there is also a ministry to the bodies of those who are grieving. People need us to hug them, shake their hands, and look them in the eye. Carrying a small pack of tissues to share with those who need one can be a way to express concern and love towards others. The members of our congregation can prepare food and deliver it to help take the burden of cooking off of those who are in grief. 
As the minister, you usually will follow the lead and directions of the funeral directors in the physical arrangements of the ceremonies. Even within different regions of the United States, funeral customs can vary. Individual funeral homes may have their own way of doing things. The funeral directors are professionals at walking people through these actions, and have lots of experience, so let them lead the way. Your job is to focus on bringing the gospel by actions, words, and prayer.
Usually there are three key ministry events in connection with a funeral.
- The first is at the time of death. As soon as you learn of the death, contact the family and offer to visit and pray with them. Most people will want you to come, but every situation is different, so there may be reasons to not go immediately. If you are in doubt, simply ask what you can do that would be helpful. Check with the family at this point to see what level of involvement they would like from you in planning the funeral. Often they cannot think clearly and they would appreciate some guidance. Often they just want to talk.
- The second event is the visitation, usually the night before the funeral and/or in the hours before the funeral begins. Unless there are unusual circumstances, you should be present at this event: meet family and friends that you do not know, confirm any details about the time and location of the service, and pray with the family.
- Finally, there is the funeral itself. The funeral director will walk you through the process, including the graveside service if there is to be one.
Sometimes the family makes the funeral arrangements with the funeral home and then lets you know what the plan is. Other times they want – or need – your involvement and help in making the physical arrangements. As with weddings, there is very little in a funeral that “must” take place, so we should respect the wishes of those making the arrangements. 
At a minimum, our involvement should include a moment – even if very brief – to speak some Christ-centered words of hope from the Scripture and to offer at least one prayer to the Father in the name of Jesus. If a family does not want either of these elements, then you can suggest that they have a memorial service instead of a Christian funeral (as we defined those terms above) and you can participate in that memorial service simply as another mourner and not as a minister “conducting” the funeral. In situations where the family seeks your input on the order of the service and what elements to include – such as congregational singing, Communion, or other acts of worship – you should encourage them to choose actions and ceremonies that help emphasize who Jesus is for humanity as our resurrection and life.
In such cases, readings from the Bible would be preferred over readings from inspirational sources, and songs of faith over inspirational songs. This does not mean that a Christian funeral does not include music, readings, testimonies, and other elements that are not explicitly Christ-centered. It just means that when designing a funeral service you want to make sure that some explicitly Christ-centered material is included.
In many churches, it is rare to see Communion included in a funeral service. However, since Communion is a symbol of humanity’s union with Jesus’ resurrected body and blood – and thus a sign of the hope of our own resurrections – it can be an appropriate part of worship in the context of a funeral. As we discussed in chapter 4, Communion needs to be appropriate to the worship context in which it is taking place. The proper worship theme of Communion at a funeral is how Jesus is the resurrection and the life and how, through Jesus’ body and blood, he shares with us his resurrected life. It usually works best to have the bread and wine trays passed among the congregation. This allows those who are present to discreetly pass it on without taking the elements if they choose to do so.
Mind: The mind is in a strange state when grieving the loss of a loved one. At moments everything may seem crystal clear, and every word, gesture, and facial expression of those around us becomes emblazoned in our memories. Other parts of the funeral are completely lost to us. When others later say, “remember when so-and-so said…” our minds are a complete blank. We remember nothing about it.
This ought to be an encouragement to us. We can easily become self-conscious and self-focused in the emotional intensity of a funeral. Since we have a symbolic role to play in representing the word of Jesus, we can begin to feel that we must say exactly the right words in exactly the right way. Putting this pressure on ourselves fails to see how this is Jesus’ ministry in which we are participating and is an over-inflation of who we really are. The fact is, most people probably are not going to remember much of what we say – good or bad.
What they will remember is our presence, our tone, and the general sense of what we spoke to their minds. So, in many ways, the less said the better. “I’m sorry,” “I’m praying for you,” and “Please tell me if there’s anything I can do to help” should all be standard parts of our vocabulary. As with many other types of ministry, one of our primary roles is to simply listen. Let the survivors talk about what they need to talk about as they go through their grief. If they ask questions, answer simply, with constant reference to the Father, Jesus, and their Spirit. So, for example, if someone says, “why would God let this happen?” a simple response is “I don’t know, I just believe that our Father loves us and Jesus is going to help us through this somehow.”
When it comes time for the funeral sermon, then we have our best chance to focus on the good news of Jesus and the encouragement it brings. Grieving people are longing to hear a message of hope and encouragement that acknowledges and takes into account the trauma and grief they are experiencing. We do not ignore or trivialize the shock and pain, but neither do we leave them in it.
This is who Jesus is: one who faces our trauma head on, without flinching from the grief it brings, while at the same time helping us begin to look beyond the immediate pain to the hope we have in him. It is helpful to study Jesus’ interaction with Martha and Mary in John 11 as they all three deal with Lazarus’ death. Jesus is able to mourn with those who are mourning while at the same time encouraging others with the love he has from his Father.
Most funerals involve not only a sermon but also a eulogy. The eulogy is designed to give people a chance to remember the deceased and what they loved about them. If you knew the deceased person well, the family may want you to deliver both the sermon and a eulogy. In many situations, however, one or more family members or friends will deliver eulogies and then you will give the sermon.
You can start your sermon with your own memories of the person and then move on to the gospel. In those rare circumstances when you are asked to perform the funeral of someone you did not know, you should not feel any pressure to offer a eulogy. If others have spoken about the person, you might just say “John sounds like a wonderful person. I am looking forward to getting to know him when we are all resurrected with him,” and then go on to preach the gospel in your sermon.
At this point you may want to review the standard GCI funeral ceremony and think about how its language fits with the gospel and how it will help you express yourself in the context of a funeral. You can find it online at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/.
Soul: The funeral customs we have talked about, together with the gospel and the presence of family and friends, are all designed to help humanity deal with the grief of death. The Holy Spirit has had a role throughout human history in inspiring these customs. Even when we human beings do not know and acknowledge our Father in heaven, or his Son, he does not abandon us and leave us alone to suffer our grief without him. Jesus is God with humanity whether humanity knows it or not. Not every custom or activity associated in human culture with funerals is good or from the Holy Spirit, but the human ability to deal with death and keep moving forward in life is a result of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to our souls.
As with all ministry, our goal is to be in step with the Spirit as he comforts people at a soul level. It is Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, who is ministering to people in the grief of death, and it is his ministry to them in which we are participating. This is why we spent so much time earlier in the chapter thinking about what death is in the light of who Jesus is. By understanding how Jesus participates with us in death and, in the ultimate sense, dies our death for us, we are better equipped to be in step with what he is doing as he ministers to people.
Every person deals with death in a slightly different way. Some are in denial, some are overcome with emotion, and some try to cope by staying busy. For the most part, we want to let people be themselves and grieve in the way that feels natural to them. We can have confidence in letting people go through the grieving process because we have confidence in who Jesus is for them and how the Spirit is at work in their souls.
The only exception might be if we notice that one person’s way of grieving is causing emotional damage to others. For example, if a father has completely withdrawn from his children after their mother’s death. Even then, we want to be slow and cautious, with much prayer and seeking the wisdom of the Spirit, in how we approach the situation. Occasions such as these may be a time to take someone aside and try to encourage them in a positive way to let Jesus empower them to change their behavior. Such situations, however, are rare and confined to times when the person’s grief is really causing further hurt to others.
In the same way that we pray for those who are sick in body, and trust Jesus to make them well in the way that he knows is best, so also we pray for the emotionally sickened souls of those who are grieving over the death of a loved one. We cannot fix it, nor should we try. We should be present with them in their grief, as a sibling, as a pastor, and as a friend. We should pray for them and with them. We should listen when they need to talk. We should offer bodily help, such as bringing food or running errands.
In all these ways the Spirit will be at work in and through us to bring about the healing that only he can bring. Even then, the Spirit does not promise to remove all the pain and grief of death before the new heavens and new earth are revealed. It is only when we have all been resurrected and the merger of heaven and earth has been unveiled for all to see that there will be no more crying or sorrow. In the meantime, we lean on Jesus. And Jesus upholds us by ministering to us through those around us, and we let the hope of the Spirit anoint our wounds until they are fully healed.
We are including a memorial message with this lecture. Feel free to adapt the message for your own circumstances. This message was appropriate for an elderly believer; deaths involving children, suicides, murders, and accidents often call for different approaches. For help with such circumstances, see Bryan Chapell, The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach, and Henry Brinton, ed., Sourcebook of Funerals.
Death Is a Defeated Enemy
By Michael Morrison
The Bible tells us that death is an enemy. People fear death. It means the end of our hopes and dreams. It means that we do not get to finish the projects that we have started. It means we see the birth of our children and grandchildren, but we do not see how they turn out in the end. Indeed, we wish that there would not be any end. We hope that they could all continue living, and enjoying life, and enjoying the fruit of their labors, of their relationships and accomplishments. We would all like to see more, and do more, and maintain our relationships and make new ones.
All of us have been touched by death – the death of a parent or grandparent, the death of a friend. We know that it will touch us, too. Death is an enemy that will hit every one of us. As the English poet John Donne said, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee.” Each person’s death is a reminder that we will all eventually die. For each of us, death is an enemy – but the Bible tells us that this enemy has been defeated.
It’s found in the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” It is an enemy, yes, but it shall be destroyed. Or as John Donne wrote, “death, thou shalt die.” There will come a time when there is no more death, no more crying, and no more tears. No more sorrow. No more sudden exits from the story of life – we will all live to see the fruits of our labors, time without end.
Now, in a time of death, in a time of sorrow, the Bible gives us hope of a world without death, of life that never ends, when even the last enemy of humanity has been defeated and death will affect us no more. The Bible says that even though death may touch us, it does not have the last word in our lives. It is not the end of the story, for any of us. It is merely the end of a chapter, the end of a short introductory chapter, of the book of our life.
It is a transition from one place to another. The apostle Paul described his own death as “going to be with the Lord” [Phil. 1:23]. And he said that this will be a far better experience than what we have here on earth. [Name], like Paul, has gone to be with the Lord, and is in a far better place, freed from infirmities and weakness.
The Bible gives us hope that we will also be with the Lord, and we will also be in a far better state than what we have now. That’s because Jesus Christ died and yet lives again; he was buried and yet is resurrected into new and glorious life. Jesus has won the victory over death, he has overcome the grave, and he lives again. But this is not just for himself – the entire reason he came to earth and lived and died and was raised from the dead, is precisely so that he may give this victory to us as well.
The victory that he obtained, is also a victory that he can share with us, so that we can share in the very same victory over death. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the firstfruits, the first part of the harvest, the one who guarantees that the rest of the harvest will come. We see this in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 20:
Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through one man, Adam, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man, Jesus Christ. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. (NLT)
The Bible gives us good news about death: that death has already been defeated. And the Bible gives us good news about life: that our life is not a pointless struggle that just grinds to a halt.
No, there is purpose and meaning, and we will each see the results of what we have done. The good news about life is that we will live again. And it’s not just that we will have more life, more of the same, but we will also have a better life, freed from pain and suffering.
Now, that may sound good, but the truth is even better than that, because this is not just a never-ending life, each of us on our own, in isolation from everyone else, but it’s a life in community, in which we can share life together in a continually improving way, each year better than the one before. All the relationships we left behind will be picked up again in a far better way.
It will be like family, only better. The Bible calls us children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters of each other, and this family will continue to grow in love and kindness for each other, because it’s a world in which we all live in the love of God the Father, in the way of Jesus the Son, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. The family will be reunited, and will remain united in love, in the peace and joy of Jesus Christ.
It is truly good news, and that is why we need not fear death as the ultimate enemy. We know that in Jesus Christ, we will have the ultimate victory. Although death is still an enemy, and it still causes sorrow, we know that death does not have the last word. Jesus is the Word that triumphs over death, and through him, we will also triumph over death. Our sorrow today is mixed with hope, and we know that hope will triumph over our sorrow. [Name] will live again, and we will live again, and we will all enjoy life even more, or rather, much more, than we ever have in this life. As the Bible says, in Christ we will all be made alive.
Now, some people think, that sounds too good to be true. We aren’t perfect, and we don’t deserve to end up in a place where people have perfect lives. And that’s true – we don’t deserve it, but this is what God has made us for, and this is why Jesus came to earth to live and die. If we were perfect, if we were able to work our way out of this predicament, if we were able somehow to deserve it, then Jesus didn’t need to come to earth at all. But he did come, precisely because we didn’t deserve it, and because we could not rescue ourselves.
You see, God created humanity, and he is not going to let some enemy ruin his plans. The enemies in this case are sin and death, and God is not going to let them have the final say. When God created humanity, he said, “It is very good.” He liked what he made, and he is going to finish what he started. That means you, and me, and [name], and all who have ever lived.
God created humanity, and he loves humanity, and he is working to rescue his creation from all its enemies. He loves you, he loves me, he loves [name] and everyone else – and because he loves us, he sent Jesus to earth to live and die and to show us the way to eternal life. It comes to us not because we deserve it, but because God loves us. It comes to us not because of good things we have done, but because of the forgiveness that God gives us in Jesus Christ. It comes to us not because we have the willpower to change ourselves, but because God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that he changes us, and prepares us, for this glorious life to come.
By God’s grace and love, [name] will be there. She knew that Jesus was her Savior. She died in peace, not in fear, looking forward to a better life to come. All who accept the invitation will be there. God wants each of us to be there, and Jesus has paid the price so that we can be there, if we accept the invitation, trust that Jesus has done it for us, and we follow him.
As it says at the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, chapter 22, verse 17: “The Spirit and the [church] say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes, take the free gift of the water of life.”
The apostle Paul describes it like this:
Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies…
47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man, Jesus Christ.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies [are not ready yet for eternal, spiritual life]. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret, he says. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown, [when Christ returns]. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our mortal bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die….
54 Then this Scripture will be fulfilled: “Death is swallowed up in victory…. Thanks be to God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So we look forward to the day when we will all be changed, when we will all be freed from the limitations and weaknesses of the flesh, when we will be reunited with [name] again, and we will all have the opportunity to let our relationship with him/her resume and grow even more, all through Jesus Christ, who brings us resurrection and eternal life.
Let’s look at one more scripture, from the book of Revelation, chapter 21. John, in his vision,
saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
Yes, we look forward to the final victory, and although death is still an enemy that brings sadness into our lives, we are confident that Christ has defeated this enemy and we will all share in the blessings of his victory. We pray for the day when we will all be transformed physically, spiritually, and in our relationships with one another. [Name] has left us for a while, like going on a long journey, but we will be united once again, and death will never touch any of us again, as we all live in a new and better world in the presence of the God who loves us, the Savior who died for us, and the Spirit who unites us.
Let’s close in prayer:
Father in heaven, we thank you and praise you for [name] and for all that he/she has meant to us. Thank you for the peace and comfort of knowing that he/she is safe in your loving hands, and that the day is coming when we will be reunited with him/her in the full joy of your salvation at the coming of Christ. We pray for your special presence, comfort and blessing on all the family and friends. We ask it in Jesus’ name, through the Holy Spirit, committing [name] to you as we await the glory of the resurrection. Amen.
 Cremation can make the process simpler and much less expensive. There is no biblical prohibition on cremation; God can resurrect a cremated body just as easily as one that was eaten by sharks and scattered throughout the oceans. Sometimes the deceased prefers that funeral expenses be kept to a minimum. “In lieu of flowers, please give a donation to X charity.” But there are still psychological and sociological (and sometimes evangelistic) benefits to having a dignified ceremony with attractive decorations.
 It can be helpful to learn more about the stages of grief. See the articles posted at https://archive.gci.org/books/when-a-loved-one-dies/. Also useful is a series of booklets published by Stephen Ministries: Kenneth Haugk, Journeying Through Grief.
 Occasionally it is not clear who should make the decisions. For example, the surviving spouse is emotionally stricken and unable to decide, and the children all have different ideas of what to do. This calls for patience and wisdom, sometimes mediation.
10. Congregational Administration
This lecture will focus more on
the particulars of ministry within Grace Communion International (GCI) than the
previous lectures. Throughout the class we have talked about ministry primarily
from the perspective of GCI but all the previous lectures are also broadly
applicable outside of GCI. However, when it comes to the administration of
churches, and the structure of ministry within them, it is difficult to speak
in a precise way without speaking about how it is done within a specific
context. GCI is the context in which we will now discuss how we practice the
ministry of administering the congregation.
What is congregational administration in the light of who Jesus is?
As soon as the early believers came together in fellowship, to worship and celebrate Jesus, there was a need for some administrative structure and order within their community. Some of the early administrative crises, and resolutions, are described in Acts chapters 2, 5 and 6. The issue of how to organize the church is important.
The Holy Spirit, in the pages of the New Testament, offers some general instruction about how we should administer the church, but we are also given freedom in Christ to adapt to the cultures in which we minister and to the needs of the people to whom, and with whom, we are ministering. This freedom means that we need to think about who Jesus is, what the church is, and how the Spirit is leading us in our particular circumstances, in order to seek out the most effective way of administering our churches.
We will begin by thinking about our definition of the church in the light of who Jesus is. The Bible uses many different images – such as “the body of Christ” or “God’s household” or “a royal priesthood” – to describe the church and help us understand what Jesus has created by creating this community of faith.  All these images can be helpful in our thinking about administration, but for this lecture we will focus on the imagery of “God’s household,” a term found in Ephesians 2:19 and 1 Timothy 3:15.
Because we understand Jesus to be the union of God and humanity, since he is fully the Son of God and fully human at the same time, we understand that there is only one, new humanity in Christ (Eph. 2:15). People who are members of the church are not more loved, more accepted, or more included in the life of the Trinity, than people who are not members of the church.  This is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the gospel is the announcement by the church to humanity that says “Christ has included you in God’s family!” The there is no barrier between the church and humanity. Just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are not separated from each other, so also humanity – in Christ – is not separated from God and we are not ontologically separated from each other. People can be alienated from the life of God, and alienated from one other, but this is by choice rather than anything necessary in who we are as human beings.
What is the point of the church? This is where our understanding of the Triune life revealed in Christ becomes important. Even though the Father, Son, and Spirit are never separated from each other, they remain distinctly themselves. The Father is never separated from the Son but at the same time he never becomes the Son. Nor does the Son ever absorb the Father into himself. The Persons of the Trinity live in a perfect, inseparable union without ever losing their distinctive identity and existence as distinct Persons.
This is the kind of union that the Trinity is sharing with humanity in Jesus. We are never separated from the divine life of the Father, Son, and Spirit, yet we also never cease to be distinctly ourselves within that union. Because the Father, Son, and Spirit are God, they never use their distinction to doubt, disbelieve, or hurt others. They are each always perfect in their relationship.
We are not perfect. Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, we have used our distinction to doubt the Father, disbelieve the Son, and grieve the Holy Spirit. We have been so doubtful and disbelieving that we have lived as though we were separated and have – erroneously – believed ourselves to be separated from God and from our fellow humanity. As a result of that sinful thinking, we have thought that we had to do something to get ourselves into union with God. Jesus is the good news that the Father never abandoned us and that the Son has overcome our sinful blindness, and shared with us his Spirit, so that we might begin to see and believe in the union with God that we have in Jesus.
In light of this reality about who Jesus is, we see that what creates the church is not separation but distinction. The church is that distinct, but not separate, portion of humanity that believes in humanity’s adoption in Christ and is seeking to live within the reality produced by that truth. When we call the church “the household of God,” we are not saying that other human beings are not the children of the Father in Jesus. What we are saying is that there is a distinct group of human beings, called the church, who are attempting to believe in and live out the life that is the inheritance all human beings because of humanity’s identity as children of the Father in Jesus.
In this regard we might think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Both sons in the story are the sons of their Father. Nothing ever changes that. In the same way, all human beings are children of the Father because of who Jesus is. Nothing changes that. However, in the first half of the story the younger son fails to live as the son that he really is and therefore he is not living and participating in his Father’s household. In the second half of the story, though, the tables are turned, and the older son refuses to participate in the Father’s household. Throughout the story there is a distinction between the way the two sons are thinking and behaving, and it is that distinction that causes them each to be – at different times in the story – either participants in the Father’s household or not participants.
The church is that portion of humanity that believes in humanity’s adoption and therefore can be called “the household of God.” I have chosen to focus on the church as a “household” because that word emphasizes the relational nature of the life that we are living together as the church and therefore emphasizes the need for us to think relationally about the administration of the church. “Family” would also emphasize the relational nature of our life together.
What we are administering is not a business, a non-profit, or a military unit. We are administering a family living together in close proximity. As the Father, Son, and Spirit live together in a family relationship, so also the church reflects that life. As humanity has been created in the image of the God who is relationship, so also the church has been created to live in relationship.
The administration of the church should reflect the nature and character of the Triune life to whatever degree our sinful humanity can yield to the Holy Spirit and allow Jesus to create this kind of life in our community. This means that the administration of the church should be relational, familial, and rooted in a life of embracing one another in equality. Characteristics of the Triune life such as joyful intimacy and glad surrender are good descriptions of what Jesus is leading the relationships in our churches to become. 
Here is a Christ-centered, Trinitarian definition of church administration:
Church administration is our participation in the ministry of our older brother Jesus to help organize the life of our Father’s household in a way that reflects the life that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have together with each other and with us.
How do we practice the ministry of administration?
The history of the church shows that we probably get it wrong almost as much as we get it right. The more we allow the Spirit to immerse our minds and souls in what the Triune life is like, the more likely we are to make decisions about church administration that reflect that life. Therefore, the first key to practicing church administration is to do our thinking and decision making out of our understanding of who the Trinity is and who people are in relationship with the Trinity through Jesus.
Too often our thinking about church administration started with thoughts about “how corporations function” or “what are the best practices of successful non-profits?” or even “what does the law of our country require?” None of these questions are bad questions to ask in making decisions about the church’s life together, but these cannot be the foundational questions that we start with. Our starting question must be “what kind of life has Jesus included us in?” The answer to this question will lead us to structures and methods that reflect who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit.
We can think about how the Spirit has led the church to answer this question by looking at the New Testament and some of the earliest Christian writings after the end of the apostolic era.
The New Testament uses three Greek words to talk about the way the church was initially organized: episkopos, presbyteros, and diakonos.
- Episkopos means “overseer” and was traditionally translated “bishop” in English; some modern translations use the term “overseer.”
- Presbyteros means “elder,” in the sense of “an older member of the community” and thus refers to someone has the wisdom to lead and teach others. This term was used in the life of Israel and the Jewish synagogues.
- Diakonos means “servant,” and often referred to someone who served at a table. This word has come into English as “deacon.” Deacons appear throughout the New Testament witness, serving the bodily needs of the church in Acts and in the Pauline epistles.
The term “elder” (presbyteros) is used more commonly in the book of Acts, especially for the church at Jerusalem. The term overseer/bishop (episkopos) seems to have been more common in Paul’s churches. Because Paul refers only to overseers and deacons in his letters to Timothy and Titus, and because the use of “elder” in Acts is not distinguished from another kind of leader (such as an overseer), most biblical scholars have concluded that the words “overseer” and “elder” are two terms for the same office of leadership in the New Testament church. 
Within 30-40 years after the end of the apostolic era, however, the two terms were being used to refer to two different roles of leadership. In the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, in about A.D. 107, we see a clear distinction between the role of a bishop and an elder: the bishops were overseeing multiple congregations while elders were serving under the bishops, leading in just one congregation. In his letter to the Magnesians, chapter 3, Ignatius sees a parallel between the Trinitarian life of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, and the three-fold structure of church administration as bishop, elder, and deacon.
What is significant for us in our discussion is that this three-fold structure of church administration is present in the life of God’s household regardless of what titles are used. In the life of the church there is a need for those who take care of the bodily needs of the local church (deacons), those who take care of the teaching and leadership of the local church (elders), and those who help coordinate the life and ministry of multiple congregations within an area (bishops). Different denominations use different labels for these three types of ministers.
Different denominations also accord a different amount of authority to each type. Up until the Reformation of the 16th century, all Christians accorded the bishops a great deal of authority in the life of the church and made them the principal leaders of the church. This is how Ignatius saw church administration in the first century, and it is how episcopally governed churches (such as Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Episcopal) continue to view church administration.
Beginning with the Reformation, different Protestant denominations accorded different levels of authority to bishops or – in many cases – abolished the office altogether in an effort to be in strict alignment with the way the Bible uses the terms bishop and elder interchangeably. Such changes, however, did not eliminate the need for regional cooperation between churches and the need for ministry leaders to coordinate those cooperative ministries. So today, in Protestant denominations without bishops, there is still a need to coordinate the ministry of congregations at a denominational level. This coordination is carried out by ministers with other titles, such as “Moderator of the Association” or “Director of Missions.” Ministers with these titles do not have the authority that bishops had in the past, but they perform a similar function.
GCI does not recognize two different offices of elder and bishop, but does appoint some elders to the role of denominational leaders and pastoral supervisors. In that role they function in a way that is similar to the way bishops have historically functioned in other churches. GCI has used the term “episcopal” (which means “governance by bishops”) to describe its church governance even though it does not use the word “bishop.” Likewise, many GCI congregations do not use the term “deacon” but instead use terms such as “ministry leader” to describe congregational leaders who perform the tasks (such as worship leading) that were historically performed by ministers with the title “deacon.”
Whatever titles a denomination chooses to use, there is a basic three-fold structure within the administrative structure of the church: bishops, elders, and deacons. How these leaders interact with one another, and who has what authority, is a matter of great variation between denominations. In congregationally governed churches, the deacons, together with the general membership, have the most authority. In episcopally governed churches, bishops have more authority.
The relationships, responsibilities, and accountabilities of the three categories of ministers are spelled out for GCI in its Church Administration Manual.  A brief summary of how the Church Administration Manual describes the administrative structure of GCI congregations will help us think a little more about how you practice this ministry in your churches: the primary responsibility for congregational leadership lies with the Lead Pastor. In some congregations, instead of a Lead Pastor, there may be a team of two to four people. All are accountable to denominational supervisors.
At a congregational level, pastors work with their congregation’s Advisory Council and Finance Committee as well as other elders and ministry leaders in the congregation. Even though the pastor has a wide range of latitude in authority, the pastor is still expected to work with the other ministry leaders – as well as the whole congregation – in making important decisions and in casting the church’s vision for ministry.
Members of the GCI Church Administration team function in the role traditionally ascribed to bishops; pastors function as elders; the Advisory Council, Finance Committee, and ministry leaders function in the role of deacons.
Church administration involves various ministry groups that need to work in union, without loss of distinction, in order for the household of God to function as the family it is intended to be. Just as there are three distinct persons in God who function together in union without loss of distinction, so also the various ministry groups within the church must function together in union without loss of distinction.
Pastors cannot simply do what they want while disregarding their denominational supervisors and congregational Advisory Councils. Nor can a ministry leader, such as the worship leader, disregard the pastor and function separately. The Father does not declare his independence from the Son and do whatever he wants. The interdependent, relational life of the Father, Son, and Spirit needs to be reflected in the way denominational leaders, pastors, and ministry leaders work together.
All ministry groups are accountable to one another and should seek to live out the Trinitarian life in their relations with each other. As with everything else in ministry, we must be immersed in a transformative knowledge of the Triune life in which Jesus has included us before we can begin to live and act out this life.
Your first administrative task as a minister is to allow Jesus to immerse you in the relationship style that he has with his Father and their Spirit. A leader’s own spiritual formation is foundational to any administrative roles. As you allow Jesus to immerse you in this life, then you can begin to make decisions and create structures within your congregation that can express this life in functional ways.
In accordance with the policies outlined in the Church Administration Manual, you can lead your congregation to appoint an Advisory Council, create a mission and vision for your church, appoint a Finance Committee, assemble a budget, and appoint ministry leaders to lead the way in fulfilling your congregation’s mission and vision. As time passes, your mission and vision will be further clarified and people will rotate in and out of service on the committees and in ministry leadership roles. Throughout this life cycle, you will seek to administer the church in a way that incorporates each person into the church’s life in his or her distinct way.
This is how functional, healthy households act. The parents are in charge, but they are also servants to their children, helping them and putting the kids’ needs above their own. The kids are not in charge, but they can help their parents’ lives be easier, and they can contribute to the family in ways that are meaningful and healthy. In a functional family, roles are filled by those best equipped to fill them, boundaries are respected, and everyone is included in a meaningful way in decision making. It should be the same in the household of God. 
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through church administration?
Body: Church administration has a lot to do with physical needs: finances, meeting places, and people who are in physical need of food or shelter, just to cite a few examples. In the household of God those with the most authority formulate policies on how the church will be administered. In a congregationally governed church, that would be the members and the deacons. In an episcopally governed church, bishops provide guidelines to the elders, and the elders then implement these policies with deacons. In GCI this means that the home office creates policies and pastors implement them together with the ministry leaders of their congregations.
One of the primary bodily needs of the congregation is the administration of finances. GCI has spelled out policies to govern the administration of finances within the congregation. Some people find these procedures arduous and burdensome (not everyone has the gift of being attentive to the details that such procedures require), but it is important to realize the intent and purpose behind them. The financial policies are designed to minimize – as much as possible – the chances of money being stolen and/or spent without the congregation knowing how it was spent and why. These are vital goals to accomplish in order to maintain a basic level of trust and community. As we see in the story of Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts 5, we cannot have authentic community that reflects the life of the Trinity without honesty and full disclosure regarding financial issues. 
In keeping with the imagery of the church as the household of God, we can visualize how important finances are to the family. As with a family budget, a church budget does not always have a lot of flexibility. Basic expenses such as a meeting facility and the pastor’s salary have to be met. But also like a family budget, there is room for discretionary spending. Just as a family includes everyone in the decision making about how the family’s money will be spent, so the church should be open and clear about how money is being spent. Everyone in the household of God may not agree with every spending decision, but everyone should know what decisions have been made and how those decisions were reached.
As we have already discussed, caring for the bodily needs of the congregation is primarily the work of the deacons, as supervised by the elders. Pastors should make sure that the treasurer, finance committee, and other financial administration ministers are following the guidelines in a timely and accurate way. Pastors should not do their ministry for them. When a small church does not have enough volunteers, the pastor can take over some financial duties, such as filing reports with the denomination. Under no circumstances, however, should the pastor be signing checks or counting the offering. If necessary, the offerings can be sealed and mailed to the denominational office for processing. If you have not done so recently, this would be a good time to review the Financial Management Manual and be sure you are familiar with way the system works.
Another primary bodily need of the congregation is the meeting facility and its set-up. Those who handle this ministry need to be given, as much as possible, the resources they need to do their job. Many GCI congregations meet in rented facilities – such as schools – that require a significant amount of set-up and takedown each week. Lead your congregation in appreciating how much work this is for those involved, and lead your congregation in giving those involved in the work the tools they need to do the job well. Make sure that there are enough volunteers involved, so that all the work is not falling on just a few people. Make sure they have the right kinds of carts, storage cabinets, and relatively light-weight pieces of equipment (such as speakers) that will make the job easier to do. A good family does not ask Mom to cook with just a fireplace and an iron pot – they give her a stove and the dishes that enable her to do a better job with less work. Likewise, the household of God needs to provide people with the right tools to do their ministries.
In situations where a congregation owns or leases a building, and is thus responsible for maintenance, it is best to help the congregation understand the need to budget for maintenance and hire the right people to do the work. When a congregation first gets its own building, everyone is excited and pledges to pitch in to clean, maintain the building, and mow the grass. However, this is a lot of work – especially if you are not a professional and do not know the tricks of the trade. Enthusiasm usually lasts about a year, and then the congregation hires people to do the work.
There is nothing wrong with hiring church members to do the work, if they are so inclined and have the right skills. But it can lead to hard feelings if members think that the job is not being done right, or at an inflated price.
In addition to the corporate needs of the congregational body, there are also the individual bodily needs of people. Members of your church, as well as nonmembers, sometimes need help with groceries, electric bills, and other basic issues of life. It is important that you and your congregation decide in advance how these needs will be met.
This begins with the financial issues – specifically the budget – that we discussed above. Each year a certain amount of the congregation’s expected income should be budgeted for helping those in need. It is good to create a distinction between the funds that will be used to help those who are members of the household (i.e. church members) and those who are strangers. If necessary, help your congregation see that Jesus calls us to take of our own household first but to not neglect the needs of strangers. Specific ministry leaders should be designated to determine when and how these funds will be distributed, and those ministry leaders should be given guidelines that help them know how to make those decisions.
If the money runs out before the year is over, the budget should be amended to meet the remaining needs for the year. If there is no more money available, the congregation should be informed as to why it will not be possible to help more people in that budget year.
Mind: The feeding of people’s minds through congregational administration has a lot to do with how we talk to people and how we make decisions. The gospel makes it clear to us that our fallen minds are darkened and twisted and need to be renewed by the mind of Christ. Therefore, we should assume that – to one degree or another – none of us really know the right way to administer the household of God. We have to let Jesus teach us how it is done.
We can see how this is so in working with ministers or members who have prior leadership experience in the military, corporate, government, or non-profit sectors. Their experience is valuable and can be a blessing to a church family. It can also be a curse. Sometimes people with leadership experience outside the church have learned styles of leading that work in other areas of life but do not reflect the Trinitarian life that the household of God is seeking to live out. The church must look first to Jesus, and to who humanity is in him, in union with the Father in the Spirit, as the guiding principle of how we lead and administer our family.
Voting is an example. In government, it is vital that every decision be conducted by a vote and, generally, a simple majority is sufficient to make a decision. Likewise, a corporate board might vote on a major company policy decision and be comfortable with a 5-4 result. The U.S. Supreme Court has often had to be content with such an outcome.
In the church, however, voting can often be problematic. The Triune life is a life of consensus, in which minority feelings are considered, respected, and incorporated into the life of the household. As in a family, the household of God has to consider everyone’s thoughts and feelings. A church cannot move forward without a broad consensus that the action being taken is the right action. Consensus does not mean unanimous agreement, but it also does not mean that a mere 51% are in favor. It means that minority opinions have been genuinely heard, listened to, and considered. It means that a large percentage of the group (say 65% or more) are in favor of the action. And it means that most of those who are in the minority are willing to accept the majority opinion and continue living together in peace with the decision being made.
Some of us have had the experience of making major changes in the church. Many pastors initially thought that it would take about six months to reach a consensus, but it often took far longer. The process required patience on the part of those who wanted to change, as well as patience from those who did not want to change. A feeling of “we are family” was needed to keep the early adopters on board, and to help the slow adopters to move with us after the decision was reached.
A simple show of hands might have made the decision more quickly, but it was important to consider the emotions involved, and the tenor of the discussions. Often, those who did not want to change were feeling pressured and disrespected by those who were advocating for change. There would have been resentment if the change had been implemented in such an environment.
Many congregations discussed changes off and on for one or two years. Sermons and Bible studies explored the issues involved. Even after a solid majority was in favor of a change, those in the minority were sometimes not willing to go along with the majority opinion. Wise pastors kept talking about it and meeting individually with the strongest opponents to the change. Eventually the minority was an even smaller percentage of the whole, and less emotionally opposed to going along with the majority. They were a loyal minority, loyal because they had been heard and respected, treated as siblings in a family rather than lackeys who were out-voted.
The whole process was sometimes done without ever taking a vote. Although the pastor might ask for a “show of hands” to gauge opinion, these opinion polls were not called “votes,” nor were they binding on the final decision. Even in congregationally governed churches, pastors are taught to not have their members vote until a consensus has already been reached and the vote is merely a formal ratification of what the congregation has already talked about and agreed upon.
Voting is one example of the kind of administrative issues we deal with in the household of God. The basic principles that are guiding us in how we administer the church are the principles of the Triune life: acceptance, inclusion, mutual love, union without loss of distinction, and patient, covenant faithfulness. Decision are made by talking, listening, praying, reading the Bible, and most of all listening for Jesus to speak to us through his Spirit.
None of this is meant to imply that individuals with personal and emotional problems should be allowed to hold the congregation hostage and thwart a congregation from following Jesus’ leadership. For instance, a person who claims to have the gift of wisdom may refuse to listen to anyone else; no amount of reason or biblical principles will budge the person away from what “the Spirit told me.” We need to listen to the person, but respecting one person does not mean that we have to disrespect the view of the others.
As in a healthy household, everyone is included and listened to, but no one is allowed to dictate or to hold others hostage because of their own personal issues. The more we think of our administrative work in the church as the work of leading a family in a household, the more our decision making and leadership can reflect the life of the Trinity.
Soul: Physicians have traditionally been taught in their training to “first of all: do no harm.” This is a good phrase to keep in mind while practicing church administration. Whatever form of governance we participate in, we have to participate in a way that avoids abuse and does not harm the souls of those we are ministering to.
When the early Protestant Reformers began to undo 15 centuries of episcopal church governance, they were seeking the perfect, biblical way of structuring the church to avoid the abuses that had crept into the church during the late medieval period. Five hundred years later, we are still searching for that perfect form of church governance. The fact is that almost any form of church administration can be used to bless others, and any form can be used to abuse others. Ultimately, it matters more how we treat people within our administrative structures than it does what rules we establish for administering the church.
This is not to say that all structures work equally well – it is simply to say that our first priority must be to let the firm but gentle faithfulness and love of Jesus flow through his Spirit into us, and on into the souls of those we minister to. Jesus has told us to treat others as we want to be treated. We all want to be listened to – not just allowed to talk, but really heard and understood, and this goes back to what we covered in one of our earliest lectures.
We all want to be informed about household decisions and policies that affect us personally – before those decisions are made. We all want to have input into the areas of the household’s life that we are passionate about and have gifts to help with – and not be shut out of decision making on issues that matter to us. We all want to receive clear communication that tells us what, when, where, how, and why decisions are being made – and not kept in the dark while others make the decision. We all want to know the details of how the money that we have given to the household is being spent – and not simply asked to keep handing over cash without knowing what the household’s budget is or where the money is going.
When we lead others, and administer the household of God, by treating others in all these ways that we want to be treated, then almost any process or system can be made functional and healthy. When systems are used correctly, in a Christ-centered way that reflects the life of the Trinity, then we are in step with the ministry of healing and reassurance that the Holy Spirit is doing in people’s souls. As the old adage says, people don’t care about how much you know, until they know about how much you care. Love is central, from start to finish – and it is a love that far exceeds our own capacity. It requires the love of God, working in us and through us. It is Jesus’ ministry, and he chooses to work with us.
 Some of these images are explored by Colin Kruse, New Testament Models for Ministry: Jesus and Paul, and Donald Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry.
 There is a difference in how well people actualize or participate in the life of the Trinity.
 Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God.
 Some practical advice for administration can be seen in the following books: Bruce Powers, Church Administration Handbook, Kenneth Gangel, Feeding and Leading, and Carl George and Robert Logan, Leading and Managing Your Church.
 This does not mean that the donations of every member need to be published for all to see. Transparency comes in the way that money is used, not in who makes the donations. Ananias and Sapphira had attempted to publicize their own donation; it could have also been made secretly, as money dropped into a collection box. Much of our record-keeping in the U.S. is necessitated by the IRS – the church needs to maintain its tax-exempt status so that donations can be excluded from individuals’ taxable income. But even if this civil need did not exist, church finances should still be transparent in order to minimize temptations for misuse.