D. J. Mark Beach
“What you think about will shape your vision for the Christian life.”
Most of us, most of the time, mostly live by what is most on our minds! That’s a lot of “mosts,” I know, but have you noticed how that’s true? Scripture presents us with the reality that the meditations of our heart (what’s on our mind) shapes our vision of life. Jesus embraced a vision of joy—the joy of victory which would follow the cross; He “despised its shame” and envisioned Himself sitting at the right hand of God the Father (Heb. 12:2).
Vision shapes life. What we think about molds behavior and forms what we believe to be possible and doable. Perhaps that is the reason the apostle Paul counseled the believers at Philippi with the concluding exhortation: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8 ESV). If we meditate on the blessings God already gives, it is much easier to live for and contemplate a future in which more
It’s odd, though, that we need to be bid—as Paul does the Philippians—to ponder what is wholesome and good. It seems that people, even believers, need no help to dwell on the negative; but we do need to be told to think about the good. How easy it is to let our minds dwell on whatever is false or lousy or unfair or degrading. That’s why we need nothing less than God-inspired biblical urging to fixate our thoughts on what is honorable and edifying. I will not explore further why this is the case, but I will explore why it is important to think about what you think about. After all, as noted, we often live what we think.
This places fresh significance upon the Psalmist’s meditating on God’s law day and night (Ps. 1:2). It also shows us that even in our “dwelling on” what wounds and deflates us—as the Psalmists also do—their complaints (it’s what is on their minds) often resolve around meditations upon God’s faithfulness (see, for example, Psalms 22:1, 23-31; 42:5, 11; 43:5; 115:2, 12-18). Paul also reminds us that he resolved “to know nothing among [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 ESV). He also informs the Philippians that he has learned to do one thing: he “forgets what lies behind and strains forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Here we find biblical precedent, alongside Philippians 4:8, for examining what is on our mind. What you think about will shape your vision for the Christian life, together with your vision for the Christian church and its ministry. Let us explore some “visions” for the Christian life and the church.
What is on your mind? What forms your vision? Sometimes, persons new to the Reformed faith—having caught fire for the beauty of the gospel and of God’s sovereign, saving grace (that is, they have caught the big vision of God’s kingdom and of the timehonored documents that have shaped that faith)—envision a yesteryear they want to relive. Forsooth, why marvel ye at this? Can we not go back? Art thou afraid of worship without instrumentation, like our famed Calvin hath done? Fear ye not yesteryear. The vision (from back then—already out-of-date) shapes a program for the Christian life in the present. It doesn’t work! We can only use the past well if we use it to shape a biblical vision geared for the present. The Reformers themselves teach us that, and model the same for us.
A longing for yesteryear also presents itself in another form. This vision of a Reformed yesteryear comes by way of an idealized memory of the church at some point in its more recent past. Some well-meaning persons long for the church today to be like it was in the 1950s—as they remember it when they were children or young adults. They recall with fondness when both worship services were full; when Christian schools were well-supported and affordable; they remember when each church worshipped the same way across the denominational family; and they remember when Mission Emphasis weeks and Reformation Rallies were packed to the rafters with excited attendees. Thus, what forms their vision—what is on their mind—is a yesteryear that somehow needs to be re-orchestrated and made a reality again.
I have much sympathy for that vision, but it does have gaps and holes in it. Without disputing what is commendable in that vision, it is lopsided in missing what is missing—namely: Witnessing to the lost, making disciples of the “afar off,” and enfolding them into God’s family (our local congregation). It forgets, also, the moral scrutiny that many felt they were under—members conforming to standards of behavior out of fear rather than walking before God out of conviction and faith. It misses, too, how people felt smothered by sameness of expectation; the boredom of listening to stale sermons; the perfunctory nature of much catechetical instruction; the rancor of doctrinaire Bible studies; besides, a contentment with the status quo—the pride of “having arrived.” No, we must do better than yesteryear. Besides, the world today is not the world of the 1950s, or even the 1980's, for that matter.
The Vision of "Politically Correct" Relevance
Perhaps in antipathy to the vision of the Reformed yesteryear is the vision of a church that has “politically correct relevance.” This is a vision of the church “in tune with the times.” In this vision, the church embraces culture—specifically, North American culture, (mostly) as it is. That culture is judged to be basically (in its left leaning expression or its “woke” status) on the right trajectory. It is to be affirmed and assisted by Christian love and justice. This vision, then, embraces as prize items, among other things, creativity in worship, musical experimentation, racial reconciliation and diversity, care for the poor, care for the abused—the sexually abused, the pastorally abused, the maritally abused, etc.,—gender inclusivity, women in leadership, living green, social justice, and the like. Peripheral are matters of doctrine or what is regarded as confessional Christianity; peripheral, too, are the old habits of Christian living, concern for the unborn, for example, and similar traditional paths trod by the forebears.
This sort of vision of the church and the Christian life is not less moralistic than the former—indeed, it is more moralistic (and judgmental) than the former, for there are more rules, more standards to live up to, more reasons to be judged, evaluated, reprimanded—even dismissed as beyond the pale. But this moralism lines up differently than what may be remembered from the former era. It is unclear (to me at least) whether this is a gospel-driven Christianity at all—but it is certainly a law-Christianity; and it forms a “vision” of the church and the Christian life. It is a vision packed with duties. And those multiple duties are ever on the minds of those who hold this vision. As such, it longs to be up-to-date and accepted by the world. It regards the“politically correct” currents of our culture to be more in conformity to the Bible than traditional Christianity. It is reminiscent, however, of Israel’s cultural conformity in the era of the kings of Israel and Judah, which led to exile as divine punishment for both nations. For all of its sensitivity to legitimate causes of concern, it has no prophetic witness except to add “God” to the cultural mix and the politically correct formula!
Forming a "Biblically Correct" Vision
Again, we ask: What is on your mind? What forms your vision? Let me say at the outset that each of the above, properly brought under the discipline and theological principles of Scripture, can find some endorsement. Obviously, thriving worship services, faithfully attended, should be approved—but we need heart-searching gospel preaching, applied to us in our temptations and fears, not rote sermons affirming us as we are. Uniformity of worship is only commendable if it is “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).
More important than uniformity, however, is that the elements of worship are each present, properly understood, and winsomely practiced. Christian education should be cultivated now more than ever—the poison of public education is hardly a place to nurture the faith of covenant youth or train them to live life under Christ’s lordship. The return, within the wider (and narrower) family of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, to a Jesus cordoned off from the whole of life, where His lordship is mostly for Sunday and getting saved, and the rest of life can get on without him or the benefits of regeneration (think Reformed pietism and Reformed quasi-Lutheranism), needs to be opposed with renewed vigor. Mission emphasis weeks can indeed be reintroduced, but now is the time for mission to come to our own secularized culture. The local church needs to reckon with the implications of the Great Commission in its own community, while also celebrating the work of mission in foreign lands. As for Reformation rallies, how easily they devolve into applause for ourselves rather than humility before God. If such rallies would be blest by God, the gospel needs to penetrate our own hearts. Reformation slogans can become banners of conceit when we stop loving our neighbors as ourselves. A biblical vision must have Christ at the center—not as a slogan but as the church’s Savior-King.
Moreover, as we consider the vision to be culturally relevant, this too needs to come under the correction of biblical principles. Worship can be creative and musically diverse, provided it does not become entertainment or show itself to be theologically suspect. The trend in some circles wherein all masculine pronouns for God must be jettisoned from prayer and songs and sermons, reflects bowing the knee to Baal rather than championing the gospel of Jesus Christ. God isn’t a cosmic parent, a divine “It” or “They.” Instead of forfeiting biblical language, we need to teach lost souls, who have suffered abusive fathers and patriarchal chauvinism, what real (tender and strong) masculinity looks like in God Himself and in Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, racial reconciliation and diversity need the blood of Jesus, the gospel itself, and more and more churches are fighting against longstanding culturally imbibed prejudices. The Bible clearly presents the portrait of glory as inclusive of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6). Since such is our eternal home, we do well to strive toward that inclusivity now! Likewise, using the multiple and diverse gifts of the body of Christ is simply good stewardship. We mustn’t allow jealousy (“this is my turf”) or lazy habit (“we’ve always done it this way”) to render members’ gifts void. As for the church ministering to the abused, any effort at outreach entails the same—as an inevitability. Jesus Christ embraced the Samaritan woman (John 4:7ff.), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2ff.), the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:26ff.), and the woman who wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:37ff.), among others. Loving the lost is always messy!
A Final Time
So, for a final time: What is on your mind? What forms your vision? May I offer Jesus Himself as the focal point? Because of Him, God is our Father. Through Him, we are saved. In Him, we are children of God. By the Spirit of Him, we are born again. And we the church, of which we’re members, are His Body. He gave the church its mission: to disciple the nations. He builds the church! If you are to “think about” or “dwell on” something—or better, someone—why not Him? For He is most true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise! Think about Him! Christ must be our vision!
This article was previously published in the December 2020 issue of The Messenger.