14 October 2013

Fear Is (not) the Heart of Love

{A portion of what follows originally appeared in my introduction to Perspectives on the Sabbath, B&H Academic, 2011.}

If someone had it incessantly banged into his head, when it came to the practice of Christianity, that “fear is the heart of love,” then we might empathize with him if he “never went back.”1 But it would still be a shame, never going back because of such a blatantly false proposition, at least as it relates to being a follower of Jesus. Quite to the contrary, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). But how does love do this?

C. FitzSimons Allison argues that the answer is worship—“the means whereby we are opened to the love of God. . . . Worship is an immediate and present means of God’s love, making us new creatures and giving us the ever more abundant life now.”2 This comes as no surprise since worship of the one true God by humans fulfills the express purpose of our creation. “To say that God made us in his image is to say that God made us for himself, and that he made us to worship him.”3

Christian worship can, on one hand, be the most altruistic, God-centered moment in the church’s common life, or, on the other hand, it can be the most viciously narcissistic. Indeed, “sometimes our worship is more a hiding from God than allowing God to find us.”4 Bishop Allison goes on to argue that the parable of the talents offers a good depiction of our propensity to hide from God, even in the midst of attempting to worship him. In Matthew 25:24–25, the third servant, in response to his master, fearfully pleads, “Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours." Consequently, he meets his doom (vv. 26–30).

While the other two servants didn’t live in such fear, which enabled them to take the talents and invest them, the third servant disbelieved in the presence of love in his master. In a sense it didn’t matter what kind of person the master actually was; what mattered was what kind of person the third servant thought his master to be. And this paralyzed him. What the servant believed about him was wrong, and this affected his relationship with and service to him. So it is in Christ’s church. How we relate to God in worship is inextricably bound to what we believe about him. Is he a loveless taskmaster, a “difficult” deity?

What can keep us, as humans, from so paralyzing a thought? To be found in Christ, for the perfect love of God is shown to us in him. “For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. . . . [and] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Tim 1:7,9). This holy calling, which begins now and extends into the eschaton, has a transformative goal for the called—to share in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), to be as fully unified with God as creatures can be (see Eph 1:3–14). A purely theocentric existence—when God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28)—remains the destiny of those in Christ Jesus, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as Letham notes:
Every single aspect of salvation is seen “in Christ” or “in him" . . . . Our proper place is to share God’s glory; by sin we fell short and failed to participate in his glory, but in and through Christ we are restored to the glory of God as our ultimate destiny. Glory is what belongs distinctively and peculiarly to God. We are called to partake of what God is.5
Such union is the goal for all those who ingest God’s Word (Matt 4:4), feed on Christ in the Supper (John 6:47–51), and have been baptized into his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3–6)—in short, for those who have been given faith by grace (Eph 2:8). And this brings us back around to worship—arguably the most human thing we can do—the very act in this time between the times that develops and disciplines our union with Christ in God by his Spirit. Through the practice of praise, supplication, confession, and thanksgiving (in a word, prayer), hearing the Word, and receiving the sacraments, the final and full redemption and transformation of the church is anticipated as she gathers together in continued repentance, obedience to God’s commands, and participation in a common life, caring for the needy in her midst.6

But one day the reconciled, yet fallen, worship of the Christic community will no longer carry the burden of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator; the way of the cross will fade (even if its marks remain), and streets of pure gold will descend from the heavens. Wendell Berry depicts this thought poetically:
There is a day
when the road neither
comes nor goes, and the way
is not a way but a place.7
Indeed, all our work through worship (leitourgia) on the way to becoming sharers in the divine nature will cease. The road ends in the most holy place—the court of the Almighty. In the meantime we’re left to choose which of the three servants we will be. We Christians serve God directly in worship,8 and thus it behooves us to avoid the pride—the narcissism—to which it is always open; in brief, to engage wisely the question about which of its elements remain in perpetuity and which of them have become obsolete in order to honor the triune Lord. It won’t do to claim ignorance or hide behind tradition when seeking to resolve this question. If worship truly is “an immediate and present means of God’s love,” then may we be zealous to keep open to its sanctifying power, which necessarily means taking seriously questions about which elements, if any, God desires his people to enact in worship and, in that enactment, gather together as the called-out assembly, the body of which Christ is the head.

1 From the song “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie on their album, Plans (Atlantic, 2005).
2 C. F. Allison, Fear, Love & Worship (Regent College, 1962), 17, 19.
3 E. P. Clowney, The Church (InterVarsity, 1995), 118.
4 Allison, 14.
5 R. Letham, Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy, A Reformed Perspective (Christian Focus, 2007), 255, 257.
6 Ibid., 261–63. See also A. P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Kregel, 2006), 503–12, for a good list of “several principles that surface again and again and therefore seem . . . to be absolutely essential for developing the worship of God” (503). Noticeably absent from this list, however, is any reference to which particular day, if any, God’s people ought to gather.
7 W. Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Counterpoint, 1998), 216.
8 See Clowney, 117.


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