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Substance or Essence?
The True Church hungers for the Real Thing

by James Gibson, Marshallville UMC

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, RSV)

These words, "the substance belongs to Christ," jumped off the page at me as I read the above passage. What is "substance?" It is that which I have often referred to as "the whole loaf." It is the Real Thing. It is, as Paul makes clear, summed up in one Person, Jesus Christ.

The fallacy of Western thought has been to reduce the faith from substance to essence. How often do we hear some noted Western theologian or just some country preacher talking about "the essence of the faith?"

"Essence" is just a sophisticated word for reducing the faith to its bare minimum, which is, in the end, to rob the faith of its true meaning. "Essence" is a license for theological minimalism. It has the appearance of drawing boundaries ("These are the essentials of the faith which one must believe in order to be saved.") but it is, in fact, an endless road to nothingness. Today the faith is "essentially" this; tomorrow it will be "essentially" that, which is something less than what this previously was.

Evangelicalism at the dawn of the 21st century is a far cry from the historic Apostolic faith. What is today "evangelical" is no longer merely synonymous with "orthodox." In fact, it may never have been. Evangelicalism is concerned with "essence." Orthodoxy is concerned with "substance."

No wonder evangelicalism is now caught in the death grip of theological novelty and post-modern ecclesiastical fads. It has bought the lie that the faith can be reduced to "essence." Thus, it has lost its "substance." Since "the substance. . .belongs to Christ," it is thus apparent that evangelicalism has lost its connection to him who is the Head of the Church.

Yet, there is a hunger out there for "substance," both among those who are fed and those who do the feeding. The sheep long for true and genuine spiritual nourishment. It is the natural longing of their souls. The shepherds, as well, are rapidly coming to the realization that their message lacks the "substance" necessary to bear fruit in its season. The sheep hunger to be fed. The shepherds hunger to feed.

God is moving in our midst. He is calling us back to the substance of our faith. He is calling us to reconnect with our Living Head. He is preparing us for a season of suffering, that the true saints may emerge; those who will persevere and, through patient endurance, own the cry, the longing, and the living hope of the Church, "Come, Lord Jesus!

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