Tag Archive for vocation

5. Beauty and Christianity’s Primary Endeavours

Once we understand that beauty is close to glory in meaning, we will without any difficulty find beauty at the heart of many Christian endeavours. The most obvious is worship. Worship is the act of returning to God affections corresponding to His beauty. Psalm 29:1-2 captures this: “Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, Give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name; Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.” Worship is then an act of rightly perceiving the revealed glory of God and rightly responding to that glory.

The gospel itself is a proclamation of God’s beauty to a sinful world. Paul calls it “the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). The glorious God created men for His glory (Is 43:1), but all have sinned and fall short of that glory (Ro. 3:23). God will be glorified either through the destruction of His enemies or through His mercy on believers (2 Thes. 1:8-10). Justifying sinners without being unjust is the grand glory of the gospel message (Ro. 3:20-28). Salvation being by grace alone through faith alone gives no glory to man, and all the glory to God (Eph 2:8-9, 1 Cor 1:27-31). The grand purpose of saving men is not simply their justification or eternal life, but their obtaining of glory (2 Thes. 2:14; Ro. 5:1-2; 8:29-30; 1 Pe. 5:10).

Therefore, evangelism and missions is a proclamation of God’s beauty to the world: what is most valuable, how we have prized lesser beauties over God, how the most beautiful and ugliest acts met at the Cross. Through the beauty of grace through faith, we may come back to the beauty lost in the fall. First Peter 2:12 says that believers are to live before unbelievers in an honourable way, “that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good (kalos) works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Pet. 2:12). The word for good in 1 Peter 2:12 was Plato’s favourite word for the beautiful. It is by the beauty of our lives that we commend, or adorn the gospel (Tis 2:10). In fact, it is my contention that what persuades in apologetics is not the force of logic, or the appeal to facts, but the overall beauty of the combined harmony and elegance of the evidences, reasons and appeals to self-evident truth. The beauty of the comprehensive explanatory power of Christianity, and the beauty of changed lives, changed cultures and changed art is what persuades the heart. And as Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

Once in the faith, sanctification and discipleship is a process of being conformed to the beautiful image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). Paul describes Christ’s work of sanctification as essentially a process of beautification. Christ beautifies His Bride, so as to present her to Himself in perfect beauty (Eph. 5:25-27). Discipleship is a process of being renewed according to the beautiful image of Christ (Col 3:10). Paul stated it was his desire to present every person perfect in Christ (Col 2:28). One of the clearest marks of this maturity is the ability to distinguish between what is beautiful and ugly, good and evil, true and false (Heb. 5:14), being able to approve the things that are excellent (Phil 1:10).

The church is the primary means by which God’s beauty will be seen by both the world (Eph 3:21) and by angels (Eph 3:10). All ministry which edifies the saints and grows them into the image of Christ is part of this beautification (Eph. 4:11-16).

One’s vocation can be traced back to Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and encouraged them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it”. Man’s calling was to spread the glory of God over the earth, as the waters cover the sea. Through reproduction, mankind would be numerous enough to shape, tame and transform all of creation. God remedied the formlessness that existed on day one by beautifying the creation for a further six days. Man was essentially given a similar sub-creative task: to transform the wildness of the world outside the Garden. In essence, the Garden was meant to expand to encompass the world with its beauty. Although fallen, man’s vocations are still meant to do this: to bring God’s order, beauty and goodness to the world. That’s why all that we do can be done in Christ’s name (Col 3:17) or heartily as to the Lord (Col 3:23). Whatever we do is to be done for the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

In light of this, a Christian understanding of leisure is also grounded in beauty.  Recreation is truly re-creation. We do those acts of restoration, of creativity, that bring beauty into the world, or at the very least, do not defile us or bring more disorder or ugliness.

All of life can be an act of contemplating God’s glory, or consecrating acts for God’s glory. Either way, we unite with beauty in perception or action. For this reason, George Herbert called this attitude “The Elixir”, in the poem by that name. In Herbert’s time, the fascination with alchemy led some to believe that an elixir, or philosopher’s stone, was a substance that would turn base metals into gold. Herbert believed that either consecration or contemplation could turn all of life into the gold of God’s beauty.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

Authority, Soul Competence and Vocation

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer are two sides of one doctrine that Baptists cherish. Indeed, they make up part of the matrix known as the Baptist distinctives. Soul competence teaches that individual Spirit-indwelt believers can read and understand Scripture for themselves, using the means He has given. The priesthood of the believer means that every individual believer in Christ can approach God directly through the High Priestly work of Christ. Whether we are dealing with the Word or prayer, a New Testament believer is not dependent on human intermediaries between himself and God. The work of salvation is so thorough a work that if a Christian makes right use of the Spirit’s appointed means, he lacks nothing to worship God directly.

Unfortunately, these doctrines are easily misunderstood, or misapplied. When populism is part of the cultural air we breathe, such misunderstandings become almost inevitable. The most infantile of these misunderstandings is the person who opts for ‘home-church’, or Internet-church, or some other excuse to be anti-ecclesiological, and reject authority. Here the person dismisses the need for corporate worship, instruction by pastors, service to the body, or shared life in Christ, all in the name of the believer’s priesthood. Such abuses of the doctrine are easily spotted and easily refuted.

A more subtle form of this misunderstanding is the believer who thinks that if God has granted direct access to His presence, and an ability to understand Scripture, then anything worth knowing is within the immediate intellectual grasp of every believer. The logic is arguing from the apparently greater to the apparently lesser: if knowing the greatest thing – the Gospel – is open to even a little child, then there cannot be lesser things worth knowing which are harder to understand. Emerging from this attitude will be the populist suspicion of philosophy, of theology, of disciplines of thought, of advanced studies, of intellectuals and of academia in general.

The mistake the populist imports into his theological method is to assume that there is a proportional relationship between clarity and importance: the more important something is, the clearer it must be, and the less important, the more difficult it may be to understand. Were we to consistently embrace this view, we would have to conclude that the doctrines of the Trinity, hypostatic union, and election are of minor importance due to their difficulty. In reality, crucial doctrine is often enough not simple or even perspicuous.

The correct approach is to recognise that nearly everything worth knowing has multiple levels of deepening complexity and sophistication. A five-year-old can grasp substitution in the Gospel, and simultaneously doctors in theology may give themselves to decades of studying its meaning. These levels of complexity apply whether we are speaking of biblical doctrines, mathematics, the natural sciences, history, music, the arts, or any area of knowledge in God’s created order. This naturally invites the question, “But how much of this complexity do we need to know?”

God has so made the world and limited man that we each need to specialise in some domain of human life. We need some to give themselves to knowing the human physiology, so as to become experts in medicine and healing. We need some to give themselves to the physics of motion, so as to become engineers. We need some to give themselves to understanding the market, so as to become experts in economics. And we need some to give themselves to the study of music, painting, poetry, literature and architecture, so as to become experts in the arts. No one can master all the realms of knowledge in the short lifespan appointed to us. It is one of God’s mercies to the world: forcing interdependence, trade, and learning.

This is the doctrine of vocation. God calls and equips humans to function well in some area of human life, to bring order and meaning to some section of the created order (1 Cor 7:20-21). Not only so, but God invests His world with meanings, laws, ‘secrets’, which become the duty of man to learn, master and teach others (Prov 25:2).

The answer to the question, “how much of this complexity do we need to know?” is answered by the doctrine of vocation. If you are a doctor, you need to be an expert on health, since that is your calling. If you are not a doctor, you need to know enough about health to stay reasonably healthy, and you need to know when to consult a medical expert. We don’t sneer at doctors and call them elitists; we are thankful that when our basic competence in health and medicine can take us no further, there are experts to do just that. The same is true for engineering, financial planning, software development. And buckle your seatbelt – the same is true for theology, music, poetry and literature.

Soul competence and the priesthood of the believer does not remove the need for pastors, nor for professional theologians. Similarly, the fact that every individual Christian can lift his or her voice in sincere praise does not remove the need for art critics, composers or poets.

In the end, I have never met a consistent populist. I have never met the man who was willing to do surgery on himself, act as a lawyer for every one of his contractual agreements, and write his own software. He is usually selectively populist: sneering at theologians, composers, critics, pastors, but happy to accept expert opinion in other areas of his life. If he would accept the doctrine of vocation, he could reconcile the priesthood of the believer and soul competence with the authority of expert opinion, even in matters that touch the soul. He would see, in a word, that no one can know it all. It is an act of humility to accept your own limitations, and learn from those called to be authorities in some domain of human knowledge.