To Comfort and To Challenge

During these days that are designated the “Season of Pentecost” on the Church’s calendar, I have been considering anew the calling we have as followers of Jesus, especially in our life together as members of the Body of Christ. I have not only been calling to remembrance all those “one another” passages we find in the New Testament describing the kind of relationships we must have as brothers and sisters in Christ if His Church is going to be able to function properly as a community of faith – as a fellowship of believers, as a company of the committed, as those who belong both to Jesus and to each other as members of the one Body of Christ – I have also been doing further research to gain a deeper understanding of my own faith as a member of that worldwide branch of Christ’s Church known as “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” Christians.

Those who know me (and those I have never met but who have been reading this blog) are aware of the fact that I am a retired pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination which has a “Book of Confessions.” This is a collection of Reformed confessions of faith, catechisms (i.e. basic Christian beliefs expressed in “question and answer” form, to be used for Christian nurture and in preparation for church membership), as well as historic Christian creeds, all from different periods of church history. One of these is the Heidelberg Catechism, which begins with this probing and thought provoking question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer that is given is simple, and yet profound. It is also relevant for all believers, not just those who are grieving and in need of comfort or those who are critically ill and facing death, but all Christians in all branches of Christ’s Church, at all times, in all circumstances: “That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”

There is an old gospel hymn that is seldom sung today that expresses the same truth very well: “Now I belong to Jesus – Jesus belongs to me; not for the years of time alone, but for eternity.” If we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ, it is a commitment that will not only last as long as we live on this earth, but forever and ever. Our profession of faith, when we publicly received Jesus as our Savior and Lord, was not a conditional commitment. It was a sacred vow to live for Jesus, to be His faithful disciple, to live under His management as the Lord of our lives, at all times and in all circumstances,”in life and in death.” For when we submit to His lordship in our lives, we are living not for ourselves, but for the One to whom we belong “body and soul,” Jesus Christ. We have died to self, to the claims of self, and have been raised to a new life in Him, who forgives all our sins, who keeps us from the evil one in this world, guarding and guiding us to live within His good purpose for our lives, knowing that nothing in life or in death will ever be able to separate us from Him – and in the fullness of time we will be with Him where He now is. We will see Him in all His glory (John 17:8-10, 15-16, 21-24) – the Heidelberg Catechism is right, this is “…our ONLY COMFORT in life and in death.”

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Whenever most of us hear the word comfort we ordinarily think of speaking words of comfort to others who are going through grief, or of not speaking (for sometimes we do not know what to say) – simply comforting loved ones or friends by the ministry of our presence. However, biblically speaking, “comfort” has a larger meaning. Also, in the sixteenth century, during the Protestant Reformation, when so many of the Reformed confessions of faith were being written, comfort did not simply mean to comfort the sorrowing, and it most certainly did not mean to be made “comfortable,” in our 21st century sense. This is another example of why word study is an important and valuable intellectual pursuit, and for those who study the Bible a very useful tool. The word “comfort” comes from the Latin word “fortis,” which means “strength. You can easily think of other words that are derived from the same root, such as “fortify” or “fortress,” and will probably immediately think of Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As believers, we need God’s strength, supplied by the Holy Spirit, to be victorious in the spiritual warfare that is going on in this world between the kingdom of God (the “children of God” who are the “light of the world”) and the “powers and principalities of darkness…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Luther knew only too well, “…did we in our own strength confide, the battle would be losing; where not the right man on our own side, the man of God’s own choosing” (i.e. Christ Jesus), who strengthens us “to stand,” to “withstand,” to “stand firm,” which always means to win the battle in the epistles of the New Testament (Ephesians 6:11 and 13; Romans 14:4).

However, how many contemporary Christians, who are called to “stand up for Jesus” in this very real spiritual struggle that is going on in our secular society (which at its best is indifferent to Christianity and at its worst is hostile to it) are really giving any serious consideration to their calling to be “soldiers of the cross?” We do not hear very much today about the “Church Militant,” although that is one historical designation for Christ’s Church in this world (i.e. the “visible Church”). It is not by accident that most militant hymns have been removed from the newer hymnals being used in most so-called “mainline” denominations, hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” and “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, Ye Soldiers of the Cross.” Because of the popular attraction to “peacemaking,” and the prevalent aversion to the use of all militant language in the Church, we are not hearing much about the biblical call and challenge to be vigilant, and to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might,” to “Put on the whole armor God that we might be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” to “keep alert and always persevere,” to “resist the evil one, who goes around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour,”  to “keep alert…resist him, steadfast in our faith…and the God of all grace will strengthen you” (Ephesians 6:10,11 8; I Peter 5:8-11).

Yes, God has promised to comfort us in the midst of the strains, struggles, and sufferings of this life, but God also challenges us to remember that He has “…not given us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power,” and calls us to “guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to us with the strength the Holy Spirit supplies” – and to “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 1:7, 14. 2:30). I submit these are very timely words for Christians living in this age when so many believers are more interested in cushions than crosses, attracted to churches proclaiming a prosperity gospel, a gospel of “easy believism” and “cheap grace” rather than costly discipleship, offering health and wealth and peace of mind rather than stirring and challenging those who bear the name of Christ to follow His example, and to answer His call to “take up the cross,” to be willing to “lose our lives” as His disciples, to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” to “be doers of His word, and not hearers only,” to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”

michael-d-beckwith-135216 (1)To ”comfort OR to challenge” is the way in which the division and dilemma is so often phrased, but the trouble comes from not only using the wrong conjunction, but also offering a diluted kind of Christian discipleship. We ought to be insisting that it is “both and” and not “either or,” that our calling should be stated as “to comfort AND to challenge” – and to do so without distorting and the Gospel as proclaimed by Christ, and practiced by those who gave us the New Testament as “our authority for faith and practice” as followers of Jesus.

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