The church is a gathering of the redeemed. We are made holy. We were not innately holy. The church is a place where those who know they are sick come to the Great Physician (cf. Lk. 5:31). The church is a monopoly of outcasts. It is filled with struggling ex-thieves, ex-drunkards, ex-adulterers, and ex-revilers (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
The church is (or should be!) a welcoming place for all because we have all been welcomed at Jesus’ own expense. Colossians radically says that in the church “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
The church is filled with all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. Let’s not be prideful about our problems and prudish about the problems of others.
How should we understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to evangelize? J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a helpful book for those considering this important question.
God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility
Packer gives various examples of the sovereignty of God. He points out that just by praying to God we acknowledge His sovereignty. Packer points out that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture. And “far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful.”
God’s sovereignty is a great means of encouragement to us in our evangelism. Packer helpfully says that in our evangelism we
have every reason to be bold, and free, and natural, and hopeful of success. For God can give His truth an effectiveness that you and I cannot give it. God can make His truth triumphant to the conversion of the most seemingly hardened unbeliever. You and I will never write off anyone as hopeless and beyond the reach of God if we believe in the sovereignty of His grace.
So, we are responsible for sharing the gospel but God is sovereign. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is important and practical. It is important for us to realize, as Packer says, that “it is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: It is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument.” So, “the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.” Will Metzger, in agreement with Packer says, “We should not consider… sovereignty and responsibility as enemies but rather see them the way the Bible does—as friends!” So, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility may seem at odds but they are really not, although we may not understand. We must remember that the secret things belong to the LORD but the things that have been revealed belong to us that we may do what God has called us to do (see Deut. 29:29).
Research shows that the “evangelical church” lost around 10 percent of her people in the last decade. There are many factors that are involved that have resulted in this decline. Further, most churches that are growing are just taking people from other churches, not converting people. The Great Evangelical Recession explores the factors involved in the decline of the church and offers suggestions for the future. I found the book helpful and thought-provoking.
As a protestant who believes in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), I believe that tradition and confessional Christianity does not hold a place above Scripture. However, I do believe it is important and helpful to consider what church history has to say on theological issues. So let’s look briefly at the question of whether or not universalism has been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.
Harold J. Brown makes an interesting point that we should consider. He says,
“curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than most of what the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we could argue, is true of orthodoxy—the original—and heresy—the reflection. The heresy we frequently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.”
False teachings call into question the pillars of Christianity and so teachers and creeds rise up in protection of the church’s foundational teaching. The doctrine of the Trinity has always been orthodox but there has not always been a creed stating such. The reason for this is because false teaching gives rise to defensive of orthodox teaching. Thus, in history we often see heresy argued before we see orthodoxy defended. Greg A. Allison says that the “issue of the continuation of punishment for the wicked became a point of debate with the theology of Origen” (c. 185-254) so it makes sense that universalism was not formally acknowledged as heresy until later on.
Everett Ferguson says that
“apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.”
W. G. T. Shedd wrote:
“The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism.”
Allison demonstrates in his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine that
“from its inception, the church has believed that there will be a final judgment of both believers and unbelievers… On the one hand, this judgment will usher believers into the presence of Christ and the blessedness of heavenly reward forever. On the other hand, following the judgment of condemnation, unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment in hell. Only a few Christians deviated from this understanding of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”
A few more examples:
“As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”
“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”
“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”
“Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked… The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.”
Singing Cultivates a Heart of Thanksgiving
“And be thankful… singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:15-17).
“Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20)
Another element of singing is thanksgiving. We sing to one another making melody to the Lord in our hearts (not just in our ears), giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:19b-20 cf. Col. 3:16).As we sing rich theological songs we come to see the glories that God has brought to us through Jesus and the regenerating work of the Spirit.
As we sing songs of praise to the Lord the song we make with our hearts is more important than the sound we make with our voices. Singing teaches and transforms us as we thank God for who He is and all He has done. As we thank God for who He is it serves a dual purpose, it also reminds us, we are so prone to forget (and thus, as the song says, “prone to wonder”). As we tell God that He is worthy we ourselves are reminded afresh that God is worthy.
Many of us sadly have a very shallow view of God. In the words of William Lane Craig, we have “a defective concept of God.” We sometimes view God
“as sort of a big chap up there and we appreciate him and we look up to him and so forth, but I think we don’t really understand why we worship God which is to adore God as the supreme good… He is the highest good. He is the paradigm of goodness. That is to say, God’s nature defines what goodness is. It is not as though God lives up to some external standard and does a good job at being good. He is goodness itself. Therefore, he is to be worshiped and adored because he is the highest good.”[i]
So we see that “worship is an active response to God whereby we declare His worth. Worship is not passive, but is participative. Worship is not simply a mood; it is a response. Worship is not just a feeling; it is a declaration.”[ii] That’s in part why were told to make a joyful noise to the LORD, even when we don’t feel like it (Ps. 66:1; 81:1; 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; 100:1). “Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His excellent greatness! Praise Him with trumpet sound; praise Him with lute and harp!” (Ps. 150:2-3).
We sing because we are thankful (Eph. 5:19b-20) even in the midst of suffering (see Acts 16:25). We do not merely work ourselves up into a frenzy but are moved into orderly worship by the Spirit as we have the eyes of our hearts enlightened (cf. Eph. 1:15-23). Again, we sing with our spirit, but we sing with our mind also (1 Cor. 14:15). Notice that when we look at the book of Nehemiah we see that revival came to God’s people in part through understanding the Scriptures and a retelling of God’s abundant grace to His people (Neh. 8:1ff).
When we sing songs to God we are not just thinking. We are not just singing for the sake of singing or just edifying each other. We are recounting God’s truth and goodness and being moved anew to thanksgiving (cf. Ps. 78). We are declaring God’s worth.
God is worthy not just of songs about Him, but songs of praise to Him.[iii] We may sing country songs, pop songs, etc. but those songs do not consciously praise anyone or anything. As we sing songs of praise we are consciously praising God, realizing He alone is worthy. We are purposely thanking God for all He is and has done. So, even when we don’t feel like it, we should still sing songs of hearty praise to the LORD. He is worthy!
So, what are some goals we have for our singing? We strive to build each other up (1 Cor. 14:26), be filled with God’s Word (Col. 3:16), be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18ff), be a testimony to an unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:24-15), and gives thanks to God for all He is and has done for us (Eph. 5:20). It is our joy to sing but we are also commanded to sing (cf. Ps. 100:1-2). Singing is serious. So, let’s do as Psalm 47:6 says:
“Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!”
[ii] Ronald Allen and Gordan Borror, Worship, Rediscovering the Missing Jewel [Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1982], 16.
[iii] “Since God is neither an a-personal truth…, contemplation is not appropriate as a way of relating to God. Adoration is. To adore God is not simply to behold the truth in a disinterested way, but to affirm one’s allegiance to God by praising God for his deeds in creation and redemption” (“Reflections on a Christian way of Being-in-the-World,” 209. Italics mine).
Singing Transforms Us
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,… singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:15-16).
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19).
God uses singing to transform us because when we sing God’s truth the Word of Christ dwells in us richly. When we exalt Christ and God’s truth in song we teach ourselves what to desire. We see the glory of Christ and the Spirit tunes our hearts to sing God’s praise. Intentional singing (not haphazard but meditative and prayerful) leads to being transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; notice we offer up our bodies so we see cognition, violation, and emotion all involved in songs of worship and a life of worship). We behold Christ and are thus slowly transformed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10). We are sanctified by the word of Christ, as we sing of Christ (Jn. 17:17).
Jesus reasons with us in Matthew 6:19-24 about desire. He shows that what is in our best interest, i.e. what we should desire, is laying up treasure in heaven. He tells us specifically in verse 21 that what we desire, i.e. “treasure,” will bring the rest of us along (i.e. “heart”). Our battle is thus the battle of treasuring, desiring. It is clear then that right and good worship is vital because it exalts and holds before us our chief end. Songs of worship are teleological teachers. If our worship has as its object the wrong thing we will thus go wrong in innumerable ways (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).
“Our chosen actions are always the result of deeply held beliefs about the truest and most beautiful sources of life.”[i] So we see that “Worship is a battle—the battle of two lovers. To worship our Worthy Groom we have to put off the mindset of the flesh that conforms us to the world ruled by the False Seducer. We have to put on the mindset of the Spirit by being transformed through renewing our minds, our inner rational control center of images and ideas about the source of life.”[ii] And so we sing. We remind ourselves, sing to ourselves, and others, that God alone is worthy. Notice also that it is not just the Christian that worships, all people do. And all people have things—whether music, movies, or some other form of media—that holds before them and glorifies their chief end of life (e.g. the gangster has a certain type of rap music that glorifies their view of the good life).
Keeping our chief end in view, or the correct biblically informed chief end in view, is difficult. Truly, in the world we live in
“There is a ‘downward pressure’ continually in operation, which seeks to take that which is penultimate, and make it ultimate… The antidote to such ‘downward pressure’ is the continual eschatological emphasis of word and sacrament, of prayer and praise, and of koinonia [fellowship] lived in the present in light of the age to come.”[iii]
We need deep and substantive reflection and celebration. We need to work at fostering worship of the one true God. John Piper rightly says,
“It is… superior satisfaction in future grace that breaks the power of lust [or addiction, etc.]. With all eternity hanging in the balance, we fight the fight of faith. Our chief enemy is the lie that says sin will make our future happier. Our chief weapon is the truth that says God will make our future happier… We must fight [our sin] with a massive promise of superior happiness. We must swallow up the little flicker of lust’s pleasure in the conflagration of holy satisfaction.”[vi]
Where do we turn for this? “The role of God’s Word is to feed faith’s appetite for God. And, in doing this, it weans [our] heart away from the deceptive taste of [temptation].”[vii] Therefore, we must feast on Scripture. And singing is an especially useful tool to help the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). Singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs in Christian community is very important because, as C.S. Lewis said, “What is concrete but immaterial can be kept in view only by painful effort.”[viii] We need each other and we need music to shake us awake to unseen realities. That’s why we’re told—commanded even when we don’t feel like it—to make a joyful noise to the LORD (Ps. 66:1; 81:1; 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; 100:1),[ix] even at times using clashing cymbals (Ps. 150:5).
We’re told to sing because when we sing with our voice our whole body, and I would argue, our whole self (i.e. our heart) reverberates with the truth of what we sing. When we sing lyrics, whether good or bad, they get into us and shape us. We are essentially preaching to ourselves, teaching ourselves, telling our self what we should desire, we are holding up a vision of prospering and “the good.”[x] If we are driving down the highway listening to Taylor Swift, Blink 182, or Eminem it has a very real potential to shape us. We, at least, very often, internalize what we are singing. We imagine and feel not only the rhythm and tone but what the whole artistic message is putting forth. Music shapes us by implanting seeds of desire.
We are to be filled with the Spirit, instead of being drunk with alcohol or high on drugs, in part through singing (Eph. 5:15-20).[xi] We sing because it is the means and the fruit of being indwelled by the Spirit and it is the means and the fruit of having the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (see Eph. 5:17-21; Col. 3:15-17). Thus,
“Worship is one of the most transforming activities for us to engage in as Christians… When we become duly impressed with God our lives change because the things that matter to us change. We no longer want some of the things we previously desired. An overridding and overwelming passion for God himself, God’s people, and God’s kingdom purposes in this world replace those desires. True worship happens when we get a glimpse of God–who he is and what he is about–and just stand there in awe of him, being impressed and transformed down to the very depths of our being by the magnificent vision of the glory of our heavenly Father.”[xii]
Truly, we must use a collaboration of means to remind ourselves that it is the LORD God, the Maker of heaven and earth, alone that can meet our every need. We must use good songs, good stories, the Bible, Christian community, logic, etc. to stir up our (correct) desires for the LORD and all the good He is and has for us. We must take care least there be an unworthy thought in our heart (Deut. 15:9). We must pursue things that bring light and life and reject what is rank in ruin and worthlessness (see e.g. Ps. 101).
Truly, wherever our treasure (i.e. desire, view of “the good,” or our view of the good life) is, our heart (“heart” in Scripture has to do with our whole self; cognition, volition, emotions) will be also (Matt. 6:21; Lk. 12:34).[xiii] Thus, we must work at fostering worship of the one true God. That is why we sing. It holds the goodness of God before us. It transforms us.
“Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music leads us sunward,
in the triumph song of life.”[xiv]
[i] Robert W. Kellermen, Soul Physicians, 191.
[ii] Ibid., 188.
[iii] Doe, Created for Worship, 236.
[iv] Cf. Payne, The Healing Presence, 140.
[v] In Aristotle’s terms our view of “the good” is reshaped by knowledge. Aristotle says, “All knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing” (1095a14 Page 4 for in Aristotle’s Nicomachean EthicsTrans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins [The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2011]). “Aristotle famously argues that all human beings do everything for the sake of what seems or is held to be good” (Ibid., 309). Augustine used the term summum bonum, “supreme good.” It took him years of searching to find it but when he found the summum bonum he said “you made us for yourself and our hearts our find no peace until they rest in you” (Augustine, Confessions, 21).And, in catechismal terms, if our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (From the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). it will necessarily have a specific impact on our lives. That is just the way we are as humans. We all, without exception, live towards our chief end, our view of the “good life.” However, this is messy, there are many things and ideas which vie for this place. Thus the importance of “knowledge” rightly directed (i.e. wisdom), “worship,” and “practice;” all of which inform, play off, and undergird the others. Romans 12:2 says that we are transformed by the renewal of our minds, and so we are. However, what we do with our bodies is also important. Notice that in Romans 12:1 we are told to present our bodies as living sacrifices. As humans transformation through practices of mind and body are not mutually exclusive. Rather, what we do with our mind and what we do with our body are closely linked together and have a continual corresponding effect on the other (cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, 647 and John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans, 321).
[vi] Piper, Future Grace, 336.
[vii] Ibid., 335.
[viii] C.S. Lewis, Letter to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), 114.
[ix] “Worship isn’t merely a yes to the God who saves, but also a resounding and furious no to lies that echo in the mountains around us. The church gathers like exiles and pilgrims, collected out of a world that isn’t our home, and looks hopefully toward a future. Our songs and prayers are a foretaste of that future, and even as we practice them, they shape us for our future home” (Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel [Wheaton: Crossway, 2013] 104).
[x] “Music gets ‘in’ us in ways that other forms of discourse rarely do. A song gets absorbed into our imagination in a way that mere texts rarely do… Song seems to have a privileged channel to our imagination, to our kardia, because it involves our body in a unique way… Perhaps it is by hymns, songs, and choruses that the word of Christ ‘dwells in us richly’” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 171).
[xi] “At the conclusion of a passage warning against irrationality and sins of flesh—Paul urges singing and music making… Augustine says: ‘Irrationality is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, be careful about music.’ Paul on the other hand says, ‘Foolishness is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, you had better sing’” (Steven R. Guthrie, “Singing, In the Body and In the Spirit,” 638).
[xii] Richard E. Averbeck, “Spirit, Community, and Mission: A Biblical Theology for Spiritual Formation,” 38 in the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care). I think Eph. 5:17-21 is noteworthy here. See also “Singing, in the Body and in the Spirit” by Steven R. Guthrie in JETS and “Being the Fullness of God in Christ by the Spirit” by Timothy G. Gombis in Tyndale Bulletin.
[xiii] “Disordered action is a reflection and fruit of disordered desire” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 177)
[xiv] “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”