Saturday, January 23, 2016

Book Review: The Lord's Supper as a Means of Grace by Richard Barcellos

I have been eager to read Richard Barcellos’ book The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory for a number of years. It’s a pity it took me this long to get around to it, because I found it a great benefit to my own understanding of the Lord’s Supper and even a blessing to my soul. It is true that there are more comprehensive books on the subject of the Lord’s Supper from a Reformed perspective (Hughes Oliphant Old’s book Holy Communion in the Piety of the Reformed Church, weighing in at 900+ pages comes to mind). In contrast, however, to the thorough, historically oriented approach of Old, Barcellos’ book is short, nimble, and to the point. Rather than a hulking and intimidating juggernaut, Barcellos’ little book operates more as a special forces team intent on accomplishing one task, and I think it succeeds at that task. What that means is that Barcellos’ book is a book that I believe any pastor should feel comfortable sharing with their parishioners.

Barcellos’ readers do not have to wonder what the book is trying to accomplish; they need only read the cover. The title is repeated numerous times throughout the book, leaving no doubt what Barcellos intends to argue for. In the current evangelical context it is the overwhelming opinion of the day that the Lord’s Supper is only a meal of remembrance (though it is certainly that — 1 Cor. 11:24). But Barcellos argues that there is more to the Lord’s Supper than a pointing to the past. The Lord’s Supper also embodies elements of the present and future work of Christ (34). Instead of a past remembrance, Barcellos says, the Lord’s Supper is something God does. He quotes Bavinck to this effect: “Of primary importance in the Lord’s Supper is what God does, not what we do. The Lord’s supper is above all a gift of God, a benefit of Christ, a means of communicating his grace” (Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics, 4:567).

Barcellos spends the entire book making the case that “the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which Christ is present by his divine nature and through which the Holy Spirit nourishes the souls of believers with the benefits with the benefits wrought for us in Christ’s human nature which is now glorified and in heaven at the right hand of the Father” (103). This is Barcellos’ whole argument that he spends the book pressing upon the reader. This clear purpose lends the book a sense of laser focus.

Barcellos’ case begins with what he says is “the most explicit text in the New Testament…on the nature of the Lord’s supper as a means of grace” (104) — 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Barcellos spends time arguing that Paul is doing something more than adding meaning to a memorial meal; he is arguing that the meal effects the present enjoyment of the benefits of Christ’s work on behalf of the believer.

This leaves a legitimate question, which Barcellos turns his attention to: how does God do this? How do believers receive the benefits of Christ’s work by partaking of the bread and the cup? He rejects (for biblical reasons which he enunciates) an ex opere operato understanding of the Lord's Supper. There is nothing in the elements themselves that bring the Lord's Supper to effect. And so how does God work through the Lord's Supper? To answer this he turns his attention to Ephesians 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Barcellos offers a rigorous exegesis of the passage. He concludes that the work of redemption take place as a Trinitarian effort, but the benefits are brought to the believer through the work of the Holy Spirit. “Through the Lord’s Supper, communion with Christ and the benefits of his blood and body take place. This communion is effected by the Holy Spirit, the bearer of blessings from the Father because of the work of the Son. This is how the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace” (70). This really is the central claim of the entire book, and the remainder of it is focused on buttressing it.

Barcellos strengthens this claim by arguing (based on Eph. 3:16-17) that because prayer is also a means of grace and that “since prayer is offered during the Supper, our Father sends the Spirit in answer to prayer and he blesses the Supper producing further communion between the Redeemer and his people on earth” (105).

Among the most enjoyable parts of this book is Barcellos’ discussion of the practical implications of understanding the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. First, he says, this implies that we do more than simply remember Christ’s work. There are past, present, and future dimensions to the Lord’s Supper that are simply not enjoyed in a memorialist understanding of the Supper.

Secondly, Barcellos says, the Lord’s Supper isn’t only to be characterized by a grim funereal atmosphere. Instead, he says (based in a very brief discussion of 1 Cor. 11:28) that “though seriousness and reverence and awe are certainly appropriate, joy and hope ought to have their place as well because we are feasting upon Christ, further tasting that the Lord is good, and being helped along as pilgrims in a foreign land…The Lord’s Supper is a joy and hope-inducing ordinance. It gives us renewed confidence that our sins are forgiven, that Christ is ours and we are his, and an expectation of more of Christ to come” (110).

Third, he argues that the frequency of the Lord’s Supper really ought to be frequent. If, in fact, this is a means of grace, why don’t we observe it as frequently as the other means of grace (prayer and the preaching of the Word)? Put another way, Barcellos asks why we resist observing the other means of grace as infrequently as many do the Supper? He offers some answers of his own, but even the question itself gives readers something to ponder for themselves.

Barcellos’ final practical implication is that the Lord’s Supper’s connections with the past, present, and future means that pastors ought to point these dimensions out when administering the elements. The Lord’s Supper is a looking back to Christ’s sacrifice for his people. It is a present enjoyment of the benefits of redemption. It is also a foretaste of what Christ will usher in with the age-to-come. Partaking of the Lord's Supper by faith really is an all-encompassing, existential, and eschatological experience. Pastors should drive this reality home more often.

Among this book’s strengths are its focus, its refusal to get side-tracked, and its commitment to first and foremost reflect the Scriptural teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Barcellos is careful to spend a chapter showing that his position is also reflected in the Reformed confessions. He wants his readers to know that his view is no theological novelty. Ultimately, if there was only one book I could point a busy neophyte to, it would probably be this book because of its brevity (it is only 114 pages long), its focus, its Scriptural rigor, its Reformed confessional commitment, and its clarity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Give You Permission to Cry Over This Video Game

You’ve probably never played a game like That Dragon, Cancer. In fact, it definitely feels denigrating to call it a “game.” It’s really difficult to explain That Dragon, Cancer. The game was made by Ryan and Amy Green, and it was a project that began while their son Joel was going through cancer treatments. You can read about their story in many places (I hope you will do so), and there is even a documentary airing on PBS later this year about their family’s journey.

A few things you might be interested to know is that the Greens are Christians, and as you move through the game you play games with little Joel, you experience beautiful moments of light, but you also share in their hurt, in their fear, and their fight for faith and hope in God in the midst of hopelessness. The game portrays in a very authentic way the prayers and fears of very real human beings. There are no caricatures here. There are no stereotypes here. This is a game about real Christian people going through a real experience, and you are there with them almost every step of the way. In that sense, this game is almost an empathy simulator.

I am usually a stoic. My wife has probably seen me cry only a handful of times in 15 years of marriage. This game gave me my first real cry (very cathartic) in a long, long time. It happened sporadically throughout the whole game, but it really happened near the end of the game. Most of the time you believe this is a game about Ryan and Amy, about their grief and pain. But somewhere near the end, after Joel’s death there is this scene that they call “Picnic at the Edge of the World” and there is this moment where little Joel is sitting in the bow of the row boat, approaching the other shore, staring expectantly. The boat moves slowly. The stars are shining down and reflecting off of the water. You sit behind him in the boat and you see his little legs tucked under him as he stares at the other shore in anticipation. It is an utterly transcendent moment. It is something I have imagined for myself since I was a teenager who began to contemplate the reality that I too would someday die, pass from this realm into the next. And yet in this moment in the game, you realize this really is not the story of Ryan or Amy. No, this is Joel’s story. This is Joel’s journey. And the story has always been about his short journey in this life. A journey that was troubled and painful nearly from the very beginning.

It’s in this moment with Joel in the bow of the boat that I stopped for a moment thinking about Joel. I was suddenly thinking of my own two little ones, Titus and Tish. We lost them years ago, and if they were alive today they would be over a decade old now. A twin boy and girl. Sometimes I can see them running, holding hands, and playing. They’re there, but I can’t see their faces. I have to imagine it. But in this instance I was reminded that they had taken the same journey Joel was taking — two covenant children, beloved by believing parents, known for so short a time in this life, now watching from the other side, expectant, with an enlarged capacity for joy and made holy by the God who knit them together in their mother’s womb. Awaiting Mom and Dad’s arrival. I was struck with a sense that I will be there with them some day. As David said of his own child after the Lord took him, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:23).

But not yet. And here I am now, crying, wiping away tears, not at all feeling silly for crying at a video game. For me, That Dragon, Cancer was less of a video game and more of a transcendent reminder that death is coming for all of us, and overjoyed to know that Christ has given us full entree to think of That Dragon as a toothless, ultimately defanged enemy.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: Serving with Calvin by Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson’s book Serving with Calvin is a follow-up to his previous book Worshipping With Calvin. In that book, Johnson made the case that a bare soteriological Calvinism would be an insufficient foundation for the new Calvinists to build upon. Rather, he argued, Biblical and Reformed worship was not only at the core of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, but it must also be what captivates the upcoming generation as well. Taking this previous work for granted (while also not requiring that one has first read it), Johnson offers Serving with Calvin as a wonderfully practical rejoinder that essentially answers the question of how the ideals of Worshipping with Calvin can really be put into practice.

In Serving With Calvin Johnson helpfully lays out for the reader what an ordinary means of grace worship service looks like. The three ordinary means of grace that God has given, as explained in Shorter Catechism #88, are the Word, sacraments, and prayer. An ordinary means of grace ministry is a ministry where “these properly receive our focus, our attention, our energy, our resources, our emphasis” (329).

Johnson is self-aware of the abuses that are possible, even under the ordinary means of grace model. He mentions and addresses these in his next-to-last chapter where he discusses the possible errors that ordinary means of grace churches could fall into.

For example, he says, an ordinary means of grace ministry could end up mistaking presumption for faith. What he means by this is that “Trust in the power of God through ordinary means can become an excuse for negligence and sloth” (320). This is a realistic possibility that churches need to be vigilant to look out for. In the same section he cautions against looking at small or shrinking congregations as a “sign of faithfulness” (322). Rather, he says, shrinking does not always (or even usually) equal faithfulness. Rather, “There is a presumption of growth in the New Testament.”

Johnson also reminds his readers that ordinary means of grace does not mean only means of grace. Not only should ministers and churches be absolutely committed to administering the Word, prayer, and sacraments to the flock, but they should also do the work of a pastor. As he puts it, just because the pastor has preached his sermon, prayed, and brought the sacraments to his people doesn’t mean that his work is done. “Healthy relationships, or more to the point, our pastoral care, is crucial, if our ordinary means ministry is to be received” (329). It may be a temptation, says Johnson, for the pastor to “hide in their studies, and thereby neglect the kitchen table, the coffee house, and the counseling room.”

Johnson also cautions against neglecting church programs that could greatly benefit the body. Ordinary means ministry doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t have special programs focused on children, college students or families, for example. Of course, “none of these…should usurp the role of the public assembly on the Lord’s Day.” The Church, while having its focus on the right things, needs to learn to walk and chew gum, as it were. We cannot focus on the means of grace and think that neglecting other things that are helpful to our members will simply turn out fine. I appreciate the candor of a book that commends ordinary means of grace ministry while recognizing possible mistakes or errors that such a ministry can be prone to.

There is much to commend about Serving with Calvin. But there is also some that I disagree with. This is to be expected in a book that deals with such practical matters. Nearly every reader, I suspect, will find things that they simply do not agree with Johnson about. I like that — it’s a sign of conviction. Few things are more frustrating than reading an author who seems to want everyone to like them.

Johnson’s biggest blindspot is probably the seeming lack of cultural self-awareness. Nowhere in the book does he seem to realize or admit the cultural reality that the church services he describes and advocates for are most certainly a reflection of Western European worship forms, firmly rooted in the 16th century. While I love those worship forms and would (and do) embrace and utilize them in most cases, I find the lack of self-awareness to be just a bit glaring.

In his discussion of the importance of reverence in worship Johnson rejects hip-hop as unsuitable alongside of John Cage’s atonal monstrosities (102). This demonstrates what seems to be more of a misunderstanding of other musical traditions than it does some inherent defect or irreverence in hip-hop. I would have loved for Johnson to have said something like: "For most churches that follow anglo-european forms of worship and music style (such as our own), hip-hop would probably too irreverent or disruptive to include as part of the worship service. There may be some contexts when this sort of music would make sense."

This complaint about cultural blindspots is really minor in such a helpful book. Serving With Calvin lays out very well the biblical justification for the use of various elements of worship. It does so with brevity and never gets too deep into any of the issues (it is trying to cover a very broad range of topics). I think this book would make an excellent textbook for an introductory class on Worship. Even if the reader ends up disagreeing with Johnson from time-to-time they will find much to discuss and be provoked to consider the worship of God’s church in greater detail than most ordinarily do.