I’m grateful for the denominational tradition from which I came. Generally speaking, these were (and are) people who loved Jesus, his Word, and reached out to those far from God. This was the ground from which many of my ministry thoughts and practices still hold sway today in some form or fashion. However, one common trait (though not exclusive or universal) in my denomination which I would challenge is the kind of preaching where the only credible mention of the gospel is at the end of the message in what is known as the “altar call.” I have heard literally thousands of sermons from hundreds of preachers in my life and would characterize many of those as topical messages dealing with how one should live life as a Christian. They were often well-articulated with points (usually three; often alliterated), wonderfully illustrated with a story, and concluded with practical steps deftly-applied. Then, as an addendum, people were told how Jesus wants to save them and, consequently, how they can receive that salvation by saying a prayer, coming down an aisle, filling out a card, etc.

Let me give a few reasons why just tagging Jesus at the end of a sermon is problematic and something to be avoided:

#1: It communicates an unbiblical view of spiritual growth.

This kind of preaching promotes the false dichotomy that God’s grace in Christ is merely for our justification and not our sanctification. But I Thess. 5:23-24 reminds us we need God to grow in God when it says, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” 2 Thess. 2:16-17 confirms this truth saying both Christ and the Father will “through grace, comfort your hearts and establish [his people] in every good work and word.” Our growth in Jesus is just as much a work of grace as our coming to him in the first place. It’s also one more reason why Jesus needs not only to be at the end of the message, but its beginning and middle as well. Only tagging him at the end in some kind of altar call communicates to your listeners, “While I need Jesus to get to heaven, I don’t really need him to live on earth.” Nothing could be more further from the truth.

#2: It guides people into reading their Bibles incorrectly.

Jesus was very clear. The entire Bible is about him. Period. He said to the religious leaders of his day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (Jn. 5:39) A few verses later he reiterated this truth, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.” (Jn. 5:46) Is there any debate that when it came to the question of what the Bible is primarily about, Jesus steps in and corrects us saying, “You mean who the Bible is about? It’s about me.” Mind you, Jesus was specifically talking about the Old Testament in this context. That’s right, the type of texts that many a preacher wants to make into a character study, moral example, or play of virtues, Jesus says is utterly and comprehensively about him. When we merely tag Jesus and his saving work to the end of our sermon that, for all intents and purposes, is about things they should do (e.g., five steps to a good marriage, the secret to serving others, how to raise your kids) we guide our listeners into wrong ways of reading their Bibles thinking the Scripture is primarily about them when, according to Christ, it’s about the Father’s plan of redemption in him.

#3: It may not be a Christian sermon.

The law is a gift from God. It is beautiful and good. However, the Scripture teaches us the law has no power to save us. None. Indeed, Rom. 8:3 says, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” When our sermons are full of commands and imperatives for our congregants to do this or be that without showing their connections to the work of the Cross, we run the risk of not just preaching unbiblical messages but unchristians ones as well. How? The sermon can be easily received as the things one must do to curry favor with God or how I earn his love. This is to preach the law not the gospel. Just tagging Jesus at the end of a message essentially absorbed in the law (as wonderful as it is) may find you preaching something less than the gospel. Ask yourself this question: If I took away my altar call could this sermon be preached by another faith or Christian cult and not miss a beat? If so, you’re not preaching a Christian sermon. Tagging Jesus at the end of a message doesn’t automatically a Christan sermon make.

Stop tagging Jesus at the end of your sermons. Don’t let him merely be the footnote of your sermon but the body of it as well. Commit to preach the Bible as Christ preached it, as his apostles preached it, one where the gospel is its length and breadth from start to finish.

“Leviticus thus becomes the one book of the Old Testament fullest of Christ and Redemption.”
– Rev. Daniel S. Gregory 1

Let’s be honest, as a book of the Bible Leviticus gets treated like the weirdo cousin at a family reunion. You have to acknowledge “Levi” because he’s family, but you spend as little time as possible with your relative because you don’t know what to do once face-to-face. So, it’s a little splash of nervous small talk then on your merry way feeling you’ve done your duty as a family member, relieved to know you don’t have to deal with your weird cousin for another year.

That was one reason why during my brief respite a few weeks ago, I set in my heart to study Leviticus. I wanted to decide for myself how weird my cousin truly was. So I grabbed my Bible, some study notes, and jumped in. I am so glad I did. Here were just a few things that reading Leviticus did for me:

  • It challenged the depth of my repentance by heightening my sense of the seriousness/gravity of God’s holiness and my need for an active personal holiness to reflect my allegiance to the Holy One. Sin not only keeps us from a relationship with God but must be met with his holy justice. It showed me that atoning someone’s sin guilt is a bloody business. To God, sin is, literally, a life or death issue.
  • It brought a corrective to my engagement with culture by reminding me that Christians are to be a “in the world, not of the world” community.
  • It encouraged me to “go historical” with my spiritual growth by showing how Israel’s motivations for obedience were to be stirred by remembering who God is and what he has done for them (salvation history). What a wonderful history of grace Christians are not only to know but to remember…and remember…and remember for the sake of their growth in grace.
  • It rebuked any flippancy of mine in corporate worship by saying there are right and wrong ways to worship God – much of it revolving around his absolute holiness. And that those decisions aren’t ours but God’s. He commands how he is (and is not) to be worshiped and that being irreverent, inane, or boring in corporate worship simply won’t suffice.
  • It corrected my American understanding of individualism by showing God is just as much, if not more, about the community of faith as a whole than the individuals who comprise it. And that exclusion from the community of God was a terrible, grave consequence of sin.
  • It called into question what I really believe about the nature of God by reading rule after rule God called Israel to observe. If I believe God is for me then his commands are to help me, not hurt me. Obedience is the real arbiter about who really is our king – the authority of our world. Do I trust God enough to do what he says or do I really regard his words as backwards, oppressive advice?
  • It pointed to my track record in observing the 2nd Great Commandment by reiterating the truth that loving our neighbor (member of faith, poor, etc.) isn’t ancillary to loving God, it’s part and parcel to it (cf., Lev. 19).
  • It reminded me we never move away from our rescue! Like Israel of old, we should never “get over” God’s saving act. Indeed, it is that very act (the “Greater Exodus” of the Cross) that motivates, energizes, and guides our lives. The rhythms of our corporate identity as God’s people should revolve around who God is and what he’s done in Jesus!

Lastly, Leviticus left me with an expanded view of the glory of Jesus as the telos, or ultimate end, of Leviticus – the good and better sacrifice who “by a single offering…has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

  • Jesus makes the unclean permanently clean, by giving them the status of his righteousness before God.
  • Jesus forever atones for the sins of his people by being the ultimately, final sacrifice at the Cross before God.
  • Jesus is the Great High Priest, the Lamb of God, the True Tabernacle/Temple, even the better Israel, so that his ministry of the New Covenant eternally completes the salvation of his people now and forevermore.

What I realized after my study is that Levi isn’t the weird cousin. It’s followers of Jesus who think Leviticus should be, at best, neglected or, at worst, dismissed. When understood in light of salvation history, Leviticus is a great gift to Christians. Jesus and his initial disciples believed so. Did you know that Leviticus is the sixth most-quoted book in the New Testament. Catch that? It’s not 36th, 26th, or 16th, but sixth! There are parallels to Leviticus in 19 of the 27 New Testament books and one of the reasons why Dr. Henry Nelson Bullard said “we must not forget that the writers of the Gospels and Epistles were as familiar with Leviticus as the preachers of today are with Matthew or Romans.” 2 and that Leviticus “is fundamentally woven into the thought of the New Testament.” 3 Indeed, Bullard makes this conclusion:

In a study of Leviticus as a book of the Old Testament, we may find much of it dry and uninteresting, its value only in its interpretation of Hebrew custom and worship, a welcome side-light on the history of the children of Israel. but little more. ‘When we study the relation of Leviticus to the New Testament, we find there is no other book any more essential to a proper understanding of the New Testament. We might understand the story of the Messiah even were the prophecies lost to us, but we of to-day could hardly work out the meaning of references to sacrifices, priesthood, and such, in nearly every book of the New Testament, and would be entirely lost in the Epistle to the, Hebrews, without Leviticus and the parts of the other books of the Pentateuch which are closely allied to it. 4

Studying Leviticus taught me a lesson. Far from being the weird cousin, Levi is the family member I should regularly sit down with, listen to, and learn from. For he will tell me of my family history which makes my placement within it all the grander, more amazing, and grace-filled. He will share with me about good old days which deepen my gratitude for the great New Day in which I now dwell. Ultimately, Leviticus puts the spotlight on Jesus in it’s own special, soul-growing way. And for that I’m incredibly grateful.

Give it a try. Study Leviticus. Seriously.

Notes:

  1. quoted by Henry Nelson Bullard, The Gospel in Leviticus, Bibliotheca Sacra, BSAC 064:253 (Jan 1907), 76.
  2. Ibid, 78-79.
  3. Ibid, 95.
  4. Ibid, 77.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.

Those words famously crooned by Michael Stipe in R.E.M.’s eponymous 1987 hit song have come to mind this week as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled gay marriage should be legally recognized in all 50 states. Some might think I’m lamenting the end of defining marriage in a way that, as the Supreme Court itself has noted, has been embraced by virtually every culture in every age. 1 But R.E.M.’s tune comes to mind because the SCOTUS’ action confirms what has been in the works for a while: it’s the end of Christendom.

I grew up in a world where the majority was fairly defined by biblical modes and means. The Bible was esteemed, not mocked. Evangelical Christians were embraced, not marginalized. Christianity and its moral ethic were exemplary, not just “someone’s truth.” For the most part, American culture and Christianity more than got along, the former was highly influenced by the latter (aka, an Evangelical Christian majority). But that wasn’t always a good thing. For one, it produced cultural Christians who thought they were believers simply because they adhered to a certain moral code, offered attendance at a church, and agreed to certain ideas about Jesus. However, it was a “faith” which didn’t penetrate the heart. Essentially the church was seen as a club. To say you were a Christian was like saying your were an American…later, a Republican. But repentance, spiritual growth, missional living, and a sense of personal holiness were absent. In fact, being a good church attender was simply a shrewd thing to do – it might help you get more business or raise your social status – everyone can trust you’re a stand-up person. So you joined the church (and Christ) with your body but not your heart.

But the Supreme Court’s verdict sends a clarion call to everyone that Christendom in America is gone. That way of life, that type of culture, and the socially beneficial dynamics that went with it have quickly evaporated. It’s the end of the world as we know it. What do I think about it all? Well, just continue Stipe’s words.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Now we will enter into a Christianity that is closer to the one that began 2,000 years ago. It won’t be popular to follow Jesus as King, to espouse a biblical ethic that’s lasted more than two millennia, and say that biblical authority is our rule and faith. We will have to lovingly and graciously demonstrate the gospel in both word and deed by the Spirit’s work instead of being tempted do it by the tools of political power or social coercion, the two things you lose when Christendom dies. Indeed, in the future, becoming a Christian may hurt your business or, at least, lower your social status among other negatives. In short, it will cost you something to follow Jesus. And I welcome it.

Why? It will purify God’s church, make her stronger, and penitently see the errors and compromises of her past. It will reveal those who truly wanted to follow Jesus and those who merely wanted to wear the t-shirt until it cost them something. Real Christian churches will likely get smaller, but they will also be more authentic, truer to Christ, less show/more substance. This is cause for me to rejoice, not at the Supreme Court’s decision but at the chapter it likely closes for the American evangelical church. The death of Christendom. A death that may mean new life for the Bride of Christ. Frankly, I’m glad I’m alive to see it. It may just mean that God isn’t finished with the American church but has in store a long needed revival for her. Oh, do I hope so! It would give me one more reason to sing…

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Notes:

  1. It is lamentable and I have spoken about it.