I often tell our people that they must come to the sacrament of the Lord’s Table in “evangelical faith.” But what is that?
Men love rituals. Man is a liturgy-making creature. Nothing whatever can be done about it — the only thing that distinguishes one tribe from another is the respective shape of their rituals. But every tribe has them. Some are ornate, and others are simpler, but they are all there. This sign or that one, this tablecloth or that one, three candlesticks or none, and so on. Liturgy is inescapable.
But the thing that distinguishes the regenerate from the unregenerate is something quite different, and this distinguishing mark is what I call true evangelical faith. This is the understanding — an understanding down in the bones — that the Spirit moves where and how He wills. We cannot whistle Him up, and we cannot make Him do tricks. The contrasting view to this was once described by Ambrose Bierce, when he defined ritual as a Dutch garden of God, in which He “may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass.”
Men want to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, on the basis of what is going on out there — instead of remembering that a true Jew is one inwardly. Circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit. It is the same with baptism. True baptism is of the internal man, by the Holy Spirit, and if that is missing you do not have a Christian inwardly. You do not have a true Christian, but rather a wet member of the visible covenant. The only thing we control (with the variations we have in our rituals) is how wet that member of the visible covenant is.
Because of how men love rituals, they can coopt, with relative ease, a God-given ritual. God gave the law of Moses, and the people had to be constantly told that God wanted mercy, not sacrifice. “So why’d you give us sacrifices then?” the unregenerate mutter. God gave them the bronze serpent, a type of the Lord Jesus that had to be destroyed by another type of the Lord Jesus. And God gave us the Lord’s Supper, and we quickly (within the 1st century) figured out a way for that Supper to do us more harm than good (1 Cor. 11:17). So there is no automatic blessing that can come to us from the outside created world.
We can only be blessed in our religious activities if the Holy Spirit has given us a new hearts. A new heart can come to the ordinances of God (hearing the Word, prayers, the sacraments, etc.) in true evangelical faith. But without that true evangelical faith, all religious activity is just so many drowning swimmers clutching at their anvils.
This is why any liturgical emphasis on the externals of worship, coupled with a drifting away from historic evangelical verities (i.e. the absolute necessity of the new birth), is particularly dangerous. This point is in no way minimized by pointing out that cultural or nominal evangelicals have done exactly the same thing with their low rituals. This does not minimize the point, but rather heightens it.
Neither is the point blunted by those who (in the name of the truth I am advocating) have turned themselves into evangelical mystic ghosts, in no need of the external world. But even they have their rudimentary rituals, and the plain teaching of Scripture goes on to silence them. Regeneration enables us to use biblical ordinances rightly; it does not eliminate the need for them. It only eliminates the spiritually stupid use of them.
If we can make this mistake with any external arrangement (and we most certainly can), then what is needed is a revival of the Holy Spirit, blowing wherever He wants to. When He does this, the first thing to topple is every form of religiosity. So instead of building so many liturgical mobile home parks, we really ought to be praying for an F5 revival.
At our monthly evangelistic service last night (we call it Threshold) I heard a wonderful point made by the preacher (Jude Reardon). He pointed out the reason Jesus resisted those who believed in Him at the end of John 2, and how this helps explain His treatment of Nicodemus in John 3.
“But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus” (John 2:24-3:1).
He knew what was in man, and there was a man . . .
This is why we have to be born again, and this is why the Spirit has to do it. Whenever we do it, our reformations consist of changing the tablecloth. There. That should please Him.