In a brilliantly insightful discussion on the relationship between worship, discipleship and mission James K.A. Smith states the following:
“The point is this: a lot of Christians (including pastors and Christian leaders) have implicitly and unwittingly bought into a view of action and behavior that overestimates thinking. This is even true in sectors of evangelicalism that are suspicious of education and intellectual life.
We overestimate thinking when we assume that our action and behavior are the outcomes of discrete decisions we make on the basis of what we know. When we assume that, then we construe discipleship as primarily information dissemination – as if holiness were a matter of just acquiring the knowledge I need to follow Christ as I ought.
But on a gut level, we all know this doesn’t work. My failures to follow Christ in holiness do not stem from a lack of information or knowledge. I know very well what He calls me to.”
I think this is an accurate critique of popular Reformed teaching regarding sanctification. For example, I recently commented on an article by Tim Keller in which his central argument (that studying doctrine is the best medicine) rests on a quote from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Keller quoted:
“whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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. . . . . And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:8 & 9b)
What Paul actually says is:
“whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. “
This is a vital distinction, one that is frequently overlooked because of our theological predilections.
Smith argues that it is not lack of knowledge but bad habits that prevent us from turning our knowledge about God into obedience. We therefore need re-habituation, a whole-life transformation of our imagination through an understanding that worship is formative. I haven’t read Smith’s full argument in Imagining the Kingdom, but on the face of it this doesn’t seem like the whole answer to the problem he so accurately diagnoses. His central idea seems to be that worship is an ordinary means of grace; that through the natural effects of worship we are gradually trained to change sinful behaviour. While I agree that there is ordinary grace in worship, and that this should guide our thinking in respect to its form, I don’t think that it can be only a matter of ordinary means. This would reduce the effect of worship on worshippers to that of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
In contrast, the tone of Paul’s commands concerning public worship in 1 Corinthians is driven by the supernatural nature of that worship. When the body of Christ is discerned, when we assemble in his name, God is present and made manifest by his Spirit. The very act of encountering him in the gathered body of Christ is what transforms us. In our flight from the Roman Catholic notion of the Real Presence we are prone to forget the real presence.
But that is not the only weakness in Smith’s argument. Sin is what prevents us from translating our understanding into obedience, and bad habits are just one form of that sin. I think Smith is diagnosing cancer and prescribing bed-rest. The prescription for sin is not re-habituation but walking in the Spirit (Romans 8:13); it is faith working through love which kills sin and produces life in us. Love must be the focus of all our walking of the way and running of the race. Love must be the motivation behind all our forms and practices.
You can listen to a recent sermon at THFC on the purpose of public worship here: https://docs.google.com/a/turnershillfreechurch.org.uk/file/d/0B4kp2yN8Qta4X3ZBeXRqMnJZdFk/