FIRST-PERSON: The grace of unity: a prayer for the Southern Baptist Convention

Baptist Press
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Posted: Jun 04, 2012 5:22 PM
FIRST-PERSON: The grace of unity: a prayer for the Southern Baptist Convention
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, that went down to the skirts of his garments. As the dew of Hermon, that descended upon the mountains of Zion, for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore" (Psalm 133).

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Commentators upon this passage note this psalm was likely used in the context of worship, probably as pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem for the festivals. No matter where in the diverse land of Israel the pilgrims originated, regardless of their birth or of the particular local religious tradition they had learned, they would find unity before God in their common worship as they gathered in the holy city. The image of a diverse people gathered as one is powerfully compelling.

Leslie Allen summarizes the psalm thus, "The family of God were gathered at the cultic place where fragrant grace flowed down." On a personal level, I can still remember the first large Southern Baptist Convention that I attended. It was amazing to witness tens of thousands of people, from diverse churches all over the nation and the world, most of them carrying their holy Bibles, gathering to the same place. The Southern Baptists I saw were personally devoted to worshiping the same Lord, even as they diversely expressed their understanding of the faith. In Psalm 133, such unity of the people of God in worship is described with two liquid illustrations: oil and water.

It is theologically significant that the first illustration, that of ointment, is simultaneously Christological and Pneumatological. On the one hand, "anointed one" may be translated as "Messiah" or "Christ," typifying that the Messiah Himself is the one who will bring the people into unity. Aaron as the high priest, who unites the people of Israel in worship, is merely a type or shadow who must give way to the New Testament antitype or reality, Jesus Christ, who unites the justified people of God before the divine throne. On the other hand, the process of anointing is also correlated in Scripture with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 61, the Messiah is described as anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel of freedom. In Luke 4, Jesus applied this passage to Himself at the beginning of His public ministry. In a Trinitarian vein, the Son and the Spirit are united by the mission of the Father to bring the Gospel to human beings, who are in dire need of redemption and sanctification. The Trinity is united, not only in being, but in mission, as the Son and the Spirit work seamlessly together to fulfill the will of the Father in providing Himself a unified holy people. Ecclesial unity is based in such a divine unity.

It is geographically significant that the second illustration, that of water, draws upon two separate mountain ranges to indicate the nature of unity. First, Mount Hermon, at the southernmost limit of the Lebanon range, is in the far north of Israel. It is the rock where the Father revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Subsequently, Jesus Christ proclaimed that He would build the church upon the rock of Peter's confession (Matthew 16). It was, moreover, on Mount Hermon, where Jesus Christ was miraculously transfigured before the eyes of His closest followers. For a moment, the light of heaven engulfed Peter, James and John as they glimpsed the magnificence of divine light pierce through the very human body of Jesus into their world (Matthew 17). Mount Hermon is capped by three high peaks, all fed with the dew of snow, which give fount to the Jordan River that waters the fertile lands of Israel. Isaiah had such fruitful grace in mind when he described the Word of God as falling from heaven like water and snow to bear fruit in the accomplishment of the Father's will (Isaiah 55).

The second mountain range is that of Zion, where the city of Jerusalem was built as a fortress. The capital of Jerusalem united the diverse tribes of Israel not only politically but religiously, for the presence of God was formalized in the temple upon Mount Zion. The Spirit with the glory of the Lord was said to reside upon Jerusalem. So when the Spirit departed from Jerusalem, Ezekiel understood that a terrible judgment, the dispersion of the peoples into exile, was come upon the nation (Ezekiel 1, 10). Yet, Ezekiel also prophesied that the Spirit would return the scattered peoples into a united congregation by coming into and transforming the hearts of the people (Ezekiel 11). The promise of personal transformation resulting in communal unity, of course, was the result of the grace of God working through the Messiah and the Spirit. What is interesting here is that it is the "dew of Hermon," in that other mountain range in the far north of Israel, which would "descend upon the mountains of Zion" in the center of the land. Such a miraculous movement of water would benefit the nation through a "blessing" that is nothing less profound than that of eternal life!

Grace is pictured as descending from heaven because all that is good comes down from the Father (James 1). This grace displays itself universally in the work of His Son, Jesus Christ, upon the cross, where the atonement of sin is accomplished perfectly (1 John 2). This grace displays itself particularly in the work of the Holy Spirit in granting believers regeneration, faith and repentance (John 3), indeed all the graces of salvation (Romans 8). One of the graces of God that comes through Christ in the Spirit is the grace of unity with the body of Christ. God intends for believers to manifest the unity of His Son, who reconciled humanity with humanity -- Israel with the nations -- through His cross, even as He thereby reconciled humanity with God (Ephesians 2). The prayer of Christ is thus for His people to manifest the unity that is integral to the Trinity itself (John 17).

Yet, and this is the critical part for us today, such unity occurs only through the grace of sanctification upon the basis of truth (John 17:13-21). The grace that falls from heaven like water falls upon different mountains of truth, mountains separated from one another by valleys, rivers and seas that we humans must traverse. So, how does the dew on the mountain of Hermon fall upon the mountain of Zion? Or, to apply that metaphor in our particular context to the Southern Baptist Convention today: How does the grace of God manifested in the doctrine of divine sovereignty, which is precious to Calvinist and Traditionalist alike, fall upon the responsible human being, who is precious to the Traditionalist and Calvinist alike? Alas, we, Calvinists and Traditionalists alike, often bring questions to the Scripture that Scripture doesn't always answer in the particulars we would prefer.

Scripture does not tell us "how" the dew on Mount Hermon falls on Mount Zion; it simply remarks that it does. Likewise, because of certain silences in Scripture, I cannot tell you how we can reconcile the doctrine of human responsibility with the doctrine of divine sovereignty in a manner that meets every theologian's preference, at least not on the basis of revelation.

However, I can tell you that these two doctrines -- divine sovereignty and human responsibility -- are both true and both necessary to be affirmed, because they are both revealed in Scripture.

My prayer is that we as Southern Baptists, whether we identify ourselves with the mountains of either Calvinism or Traditionalism, that we will seek our unity only in Christ by the Spirit before the Father. This unity is a gift of grace worked in us through sanctification on the basis of the truth of Scripture. It is a unity we desire. However, until we reach unity in how we bring the mountains of Zion and Hermon together, or, to put it cheekily, how we can successfully mix oil with water, we must trust that God will do it. Moreover, we must continue to come together as one to worship this God, this God who reveals to us His divine sovereignty, or grace, and our human responsibility to respond in faith, repent of our sins, and tell others how they too may be reconciled to the Trinity. Lord God, bring us unity in doctrine in Your time, but let our unity not be disrupted until then, for we wish to fulfill Your mission, and we know the world will believe and receive eternal life from You as they see us united in telling them of You.

Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This column first appeared at http://baptisttheologians.blogspot.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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