I don’t currently lead a congregation. Instead, I am now a perpetual visitor with a wide circuit of diverse congregations, from various denominations, with whom I occasionally worship. As I visit from church to church, I often wonder not just if we are saying the wrong things about God, but if we are saying anything at all about God, or to God, that is actually Christian. Too often, our worship seems to be focused on a Generic Benevolent Deity, not on the God of the Bible, of the apostolic church, of the ancient creeds or of the great Christian liturgies of the past.
The Generic Benevolent Deity loves us and accepts us. We can feel its presence. It helps us have positive emotional experiences. It leads us into fulfilling lives. It blesses us inside and out. It protects us and guides us. It helps us love our neighbors and make the world a better place.
As a Christian, I believe in a God who does all these things. The Christian God, however, is not just humanity’s universal spiritual benefactor. He is not a god of many names and many paths. He’s not a generic god at all.
The God whom Christians worship has a story that begins with creation of the world and ends with the transformation of the cosmos. It begins in a garden and ends in a city that comes down from heaven. God established his covenant with our spiritual ancestors Abraham and Sarah. Through his prophet Moses, he led his people out of Egypt, gave them his law, brought them into the land of promise and gave them victory over their enemies. He gave his people prophets to speak for him, kings to reign for him and a temple and a priesthood by which his people could come into his holy presence. When his people sinned against him and their neighbors, he gave them over for a season to their enemies. But he never forgot his covenant.
When the time was right he sent Jesus the rabbi, the longed for Messiah, the eternally begotten son, to become for us our prophet, priest and king. His life revealed the Father to us as only he could and showed us the way of the kingdom. Scorned and unjustly executed, he offered his life for the forgiveness of sins. All of God’s earlier covenants came to their fulfillment in him, and he initiated a new covenant in his blood. The Father vindicated him by raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand, where the hosts of heaven bow down before the lamb that was slain. With the sacrifice of his own life, Christ has entered the heavenly temple as our great high priest to bring forgiveness to all who turn to him, and to usher his people on earth into the courts of heaven when they worship.
Exalted to the right hand of the Father, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on his church, sending them into the world to tell his story and to make disciples. The Holy Spirit broke down the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles, uniting believers of every nation at one table in one body, with one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Those who believe in Christ are members of God’s chosen people, a holy nation and a royal priesthood. The way of salvation is now open for all who turn from their sins and put their faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us birth into a new creation, giving us victory over the world, the flesh and the devil. And Jesus will come again to restore and reign over all creation, raising his people to eternal life, and bringing into existence the final and perfect fulfillment of all God’s promises.
When the church of Jesus Christ gathers, this is what we should be singing about. This is what we should be confessing. This is what we should be preaching. This should be the foundation of all our prayers.
When our liturgy and our preaching don’t need the story of Jesus – the story that leads to him and continues in him – in what way is it Christian? When we omit the broad witness of scripture from our worship, we are accommodating the spirit of an age which is very uncomfortable and impatient with the whole gospel story.
The gospel is not the mere fact that there is a god and he loves you. The gospel is the proclamation that God’s mission to save the world leads to and through one particular man, Jesus of Nazareth.
So sing about God’s love. Tell others what it does for you and in you and through you. But do it in a way that tells the whole story. God is not a Generic Benevolent Deity. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of all Israel, who spoke through the prophets, who established his throne in Jerusalem, and who, by the work of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, has grafted me into his kingdom.