Why We Go To Church: The Intuition of Law and the Counter-Intuition of Gospel

(This post is another re-run. Though heavily edited and extended here, it originally ran once in the now defunct Diary section of Modern Reformation. I post it again now because I have been reminded of it during these last several years as my daughters have moved into pre-pubescent age and ask this question with the methodic ease of Chinese water torture. The short, frustrated answer is, “Because that’s what Christians do, so for the eighth time please brush your teeth, we’re going to be late,” but this is something of the extended, more patient response.)

It might sound odd to say, but I like the fact that my kids can find church to be a turn-off. Our time assumes that a thing’s final value can and should be measured by subjective, personal enjoyment. Witness the church-growth movement. It is really nothing new and classically American in the sense that it is the natural evolution of that very presumption. Ever since Winthrop and Whitefield landed and helped tear the gospel from its churchly contours, American evangelicalism generally has wanted to “meet the felt needs” of the populace. And American liberalism specifically declared that “the world sets the church’s agenda.” Little wonder we fret that when Billy and Suzie are bored we have let them down. Instead of patiently expecting them to grow into something they don’t naturally understand, we race to appease them so they won’t end up hating church. Instead of letting them be comfortable with the discomfort of growing up that something like staid liturgy demands, we are tempted to prolong adolescence by appealing to the least common denominators resident within the stuff of entertainment. But since Scripture regards us as aliens it seems there ought to be antithesis between what we experience in our six days and the Sabbath day. However vulnerable to a thousand qualifications, perhaps a good thumbnail test may be that if your kids are bored something is being done right. 

A question in such a context of discomfort may be, “Why do we go to church?” The inquiry seems inevitable for those of us who are covenantal parents. And, just like the boredom that should be embraced rather than feared and avoided, this direct question should be welcomed and capitalized on. I might do well to back up before I go further.

I was not formally reared in faith. My parents are baby boomers. And even though dad was raised by a faithful Episcopalian mother and was himself an altar boy, one famous trait endemic to this generation is how they turned tail on organized religion. But at some point and for whatever reasons the boomers got antsy and decided they had gone too far.

So round about junior high my younger brother and I were yanked from our Sunday morning TV cartoons, forced to wear monogrammed sweaters and trucked across town to the well-established and mainline-mega United Methodist Church.

The whole awkward foray back into the pew was very short-lived. Suffice it to say that as good as it may seem in the drawing boards of parents’ minds, springing religion on un-churched and thoroughly uninterested pre-pubescent boys is nothing if not packed with learning curves.

Memories of this are few and sketchy. One clear memory I have is asking my father this very question: “Why are we going to church?” I will readily admit that my question at the time was grounded more in supreme adolescent annoyance than in an honest quest for objective truth. And in looking back, his answer seems to speak volumes with regard to how we understand that counterintuitive thing called the gospel, the thing “going to church” is supposed to be about. He said, “To learn how to be better people.” While neither one of us would have understood it back then, I have come to see that his answer was grounded firmly in that other more intuitive thing called law. After all, true religion “makes bad people good and good people better,” right?

I am not so sure. There are several problems with this Law-laden answer. The first is logic. Just as the world is, in fact, not getting any better or worse as time either progresses or retreats (Ecc. 1:9-14), going to church does not make one essentially any better or worse than anyone else. I have been at it for almost as long as I wasn’t, and I am no better or worse than when I first began. Second, why Christianity? If the point is to improve individuals or society in some way then plenty of religions, organizations, therapies, programs and philosophies will do the trick. Third, his answer assumed we were somehow presently not up to snuff, perhaps even bad. But my father himself was a pillar of the community, a good man publicly and even better privately. We were law-abiding and quite functional citizens. And we were such with no direct help from church or any formal religion, thank you very much. What was it exactly we needed to learn that we didn’t already know? If God is mysterious then it doesn’t follow that His institution is about the obvious or intuitive. I can agree we go to learn something, but what, how and why?

I would suggest that we don’t go to learn law or, as dad put it, how to be good or better people. Rather—through the rituals of sound liturgy, confession and Creed, Word and sacrament—we actually go to learn the gospel. Nobody in his right mind makes efforts to go and learn what he already knows. He must learn what is alien to him. Which statement is natural and which is not: “Stay out of debt, be a good spouse, encourage your kids, seek peace, don’t be a racist, love God and man” or “There is a great exchange whereby Christ’s obedience, by faith alone, is applied to us while our sin is applied to Him and we are thereby reconciled to God and owe Him a life of gratitude”? The former makes sense. Christians and non-Christians alike, in their equal access to law, can do that theology in their sleep. Like fish on bicycles, it’s the latter that is so weird and unnatural. By nature we wake up each day trying to do the right thing well before we wonder how we might be reconciled to God and what that subsequently demands of us. So what we learn is the gospel.

If we have answered what then the next question might be how. I think learning the gospel is revelatory and declarative. Learning law seems a very academic affair. While not exhaustive, one helpful sign that we may not be properly learning the gospel is if we find ourselves at church sitting amongst legions of furious note-takers instead of simple yet intent hearers. If so, we are likely writing out our own prescriptions for more law. If we are more familiar with the conditional language of “steps, principles and challenges” than pronouncement language like “confession, declaration and benediction”; if we are focused on invoking and applying some new idea or exercise to improve ourselves and our world; if something has to be achieved or a lesson to be learned that we could have figured out while sitting at home on Sunday; if there is something to work at either behaviorally or mentally; if we are familiar with hard law (hellfire and brimstone) or soft law (biblical principles) or some hybrid of the two, we may have been seriously derailed from the gospel. But when one sits under a declaration he simply hears it. Little wonder the language of Scripture is one of both proclamation and hearing. In the Christian religion the gospel is “preached” and we are to “hear the good news” of it. The Reformed tradition speaks of “receiving, resting, and relying.”

Along these lines, as my children get older and sit in worship I encourage them to exercise the muscle of faith—their ears. Listen to the words sung and prayed and said. Much as I esteem quality preaching, it has never seemed to me that a sermon is so much designed to make students as it is to confirm and compel believers. Ours seems a more organic project than a mechanical, academic one.

But to those hungry for law this seems a rather weak image. “Yes, yes, that sounds very good and pious, but aren’t there programs to inaugurate, principles to grasp and behaviors to employ? Isn’t there a self to improve and a world to save?” If we ask such questions, it seems the gospel has once again been lost on us. The gospel is excruciatingly alien to us, which is why it seems we must learn it over and over again with our ears and not our hands.

As I have moved from my secular rearing, into and out of broad Evangelicalism and finally into Reformation Christianity, I have seen that the gospel is very hard to come by. I believe the Reformed expression is the superior one in all of the Christian landscape, purely capturing the gospel. But even where it is formally confessed it can be hard to find, which only seems to prove its perfect alienness, its ability to resist any trapping of men. I have also come to be suspect of those who might deny it outright yet imply they have the gospel easily grasped, imploring us to now move to bigger and better things, as if we could or as if something greater actually existed.

If we have answered what and how maybe the next question is why. Of course, the best of the confessional Reformed tradition understands there is now a life of gratitude, tutored by the law, to be led: in light of what has been done for you, go and do what you already know to be right. Our tradition believes strongly that there is most assuredly a place for law. While Christianity is not a way of life there most certainly is a way of life resident within it. Finding it all over in Scripture, our tradition speaks of an indicative declaration and subsequent imperatives. The latter is married to the former and cannot be divorced. This is what is so glorious about the Heidelberg Catechism. Its structure is that of Scripture: guilt, grace, and gratitude. What more can be said? The pursuit of Law here seems to be the back-end result of something, not the front-wheel drive.

But when law, instead of gospel, drives us it seems to characterize us as well. Law seems to characterize most of American culture and cult, from diverse self-improvement gospels to various intensities of cultural-political gospels, left and right. It seems to be in the DNA of American piety and very hard to resist. But no voice that presumes to speak on behalf of God earns the right to spur us to any measure of law if the true gospel has been one iota circumvented. And it has always seemed to me that if a voice is genuine in this way it ironically seems to become less and less concerned for any measure of mere self or social improvement. There seems to be at once a fine line and wide gap between a piety bent on betterment and one driven by an inglorious yet sincere gratitude. One tends to be boisterous and brash, the other, well, not so much.

These are likely concepts well beyond the typical covenant child. But I have never been discomforted by the idea of anyone having to grow into something beyond his immediate or complete understanding. Whatever else the sacrament of baptism signs and seals it seems to suggest at least that much. And much as my answer might befuddle them when they ask why we go to church, it is one thing to be temporarily confused by a right answer but another to be eternally misled by a wrong one.

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4 Responses to Why We Go To Church: The Intuition of Law and the Counter-Intuition of Gospel

  1. Paul says:

    Thanks, I enjoyed this post.

  2. cath says:

    Does the term “experiential preaching” mean anything to you? I agree completely with this post, by the way, but I’m still trying to work out what counts as qire-ism and wonder whether ‘experiential’ preaching would escape the charge of pietism.

  3. Zrim says:

    Cath,

    Are you referring to (Reformed) experimental preaching? If so, my understanding is that it finds its roots in larlgely Purtian preaching.

    I have to admit, I am divided on this. On the one hand, I greatly appreciate anything that wants to distinguish itself from a modern outlook that seems to toggle between preaching (and by extension, worship) as either an academic (doctrinalist) or consumerist task. Preaching/worship makes disciples, not students or consumers.

    On the other hand, sometimes I get the sense that experimental preaching doesn’t distinguish itself well enough from revivalism, which is consumerist. I think of those in the more Banner-of-Truth tradition who want to distinguish between revival and revivalism. Frankly, I don’t think there is one. I think the distinction is actually between Reformation and revival. In that sense, I have to believe that there is a Reformation approach to preaching that steers around all of these ditches, avoiding both a sort of doctrinalism and revivalism.

  4. cath says:

    Yes, experimental.

    I think of Boston, the Erskines, John Kennedy, RM McCheyne – although actually I don’t know whether they’re examples of experimental preaching so much as just plain old “preaching”, as based squarely on the counter-intuitive foundation you describe.

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