It all sounds so sensible. "Let's just toss out all those narrow doctrinal distinctions and all get along. If we can do this we will all be happy." But when we are through we will be left with nothing worth having. Now I am in favor of evaluating what we believe to see if it really stacks up to Scripture, but that is different from trying to please everyone. If all we have is a message that offends no one, it can accomplish nothing. If we are just telling people that what they believed all along is right, why bother? If we think that we live in a basically good world full of basically good people (have you watched the news lately?) and that a little bit of tweaking will make it all right, why bother with an impertinence like Christianity? But if we think that something is really wrong, that something really needs to change, then we need a message. And a message, by definition, must be something that steps on people's toes; it must be definite and it must be narrow. Otherwise, how can it expect to change anything?
Now as it is, Christianity has the most definite message possible. It claims that for all their technology, all their progress, all their education, all their philosophy, human beings are sinners under the wrath of Almighty God (Romans 1:18-20; 3:10-20; Jeremiah 17:9) and their only hope is to trust in the work of another (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25; Romans 3:21-31). And even then, while we have obligations to work for what is right in this world (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; James 1:22-25), the ultimate correction of things must wait until God Himself intervenes to change them (Romans 8:19-23; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 John 3:1-3). It is on the basis of this radical message that Christianity makes its exclusive claims (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Galatians 1:8,9). But if there is no radical message, there is no point to the whole thing.
The bottom line is that if there is no distinctive Christian message that cuts across the grain of our current cultural understandings and challenges our accepted societal truisms, there is no point to Christianity at all. If we want to be nice people (by human standards), unbelievers can be nice people. If we want to give to worthy charitable causes, unbelievers can give to worthy charitable causes. If we want to involve ourselves in political action, unbelievers can involve themselves in political action. (Though all these things may be appropriate for believers in the right contexts.) But if we want to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), we need the power of God (Romans 1:16). And if we do, we will offend people and ruffle feathers. But if we do not, let us close the doors of our churches and forget the whole thing. For we are just playing a game.
Is Christianity just part of the status quo? We are often looked at that way, but is it true? Or are we, as some Christians have contended, revolutionary? How we see ourselves will affect our behavior. So what are we really?
We live in a world created by God (Genesis 1:1; Psalms 148:4-6; Isaiah 40:26), and He is the true ruler over it (Psalms 22:28; 29:10; Malachi 1:14) and will ultimately reign as King forever (Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 6:10; Revelation 11:15). But right now the earth groans under the reign of a usurper (2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; Hebrews 2:14,15). Now God is still ultimately in control of all things (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Daniel 4:17), and Christ has been victorious over Satan (Colossians 2:15; John 16:11; 1 John 4:4). But at the present time, we still live under the rule of the usurper. We are the resistance.
What are the implications of this? If we are just the upholders of the status quo, then we must fit in with the status quo. We can try to cheat a little and fit in with some earlier status quo we find more congenial. But we must have something we are upholding that at least looks like the status quo. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as simply revolutionary, we can put ourselves in the position of trying to destroy almost everything. The current situation is all bad and must be completely altered. But if we are the resistance, it is our job to restore as much as possible the King's original good rule. Now a certain amount of the principles of that original rule remain intact (though there seems to be less every day). This is partly because the usurper, being extremely clever, has chosen to leave them intact and incorporate them into his rule, slowly distorting them over time. However, we cannot simply go along with the usurper's program or we will end up cooperating with his goals. Ultimately, we cannot just go along with the status quo or rebel against the status quo, but we need to carefully analyze whether a particular thing is good or bad or even a good thing that is being distorted to produce bad ends. That is what is means to be in the resistance. Let us trust in God for His wisdom (James 1:5).
One of the great controversies regarding the history of the earth is whether everything took place gradually or if there were one or more abrupt catastrophes which formed the world as it is now. Another issue, if the gradual explanation will not suffice, is whether there was a series of catastrophes or only one major catastrophe, with perhaps other secondary catastrophes connected to it. Underlying this is the question of whether or not there could be divine intervention in history. The idea of gradual change is the basic principal of modern geology, but does it fit the evidence? The fossil record, even as it currently understood by those who hold to a gradual-change position, would tend to suggest a series of catastrophes; perhaps only one big catastrophe would simplify things. Mass extinctions (with various explanations) and ice ages are catastrophes needed to make the gradual outlook make sense. One of the early geologists, Georges Cuvier, came to the conclusion that there had been a series of catastrophes from the fossil record. That this came from his piety is questionable, I have not seen any evidence he had any. He did try to put something similar to the Genesis flood as the last catastrophe, not because he believed the Bible, but because some form of a flood story seems to be constantly found in many ancient cultures.
As for the question of one catastrophe versus many, this depends on whether the rock layers were deposited gradually. But what fits the evidence? There are giant fossil graveyards where multitudes of creatures died together all at once. There are coal fields where tree trunks pass through several geologic layers. There are woolly mammoths frozen with daisies in their mouths. All these speak not of something that happened gradually over time, but of something that happened suddenly. One catastrophe or a set of related catastrophes (say a universal flood followed by an ice age) seems to simplify things.
Nor is the idea of things happening gradually over time a result of observation, but an assumption brought to the examination of the evidence. This concept (called uniformitarianism) is attributed to Charles Lyell, but it is better assigned to James Hutton, though it is not clear he originated it. The underlying assumption is that all past events must be explained in terms of what we observe in the world today. This is a philosophical conclusion and not something derived from the evidence. Lyell knew about trees going through more then one strata in coal seams and maintained his view anyway. Does not a universal flood which suddenly deposited sedimentary layers that became rock, followed by a catastrophic period of mountain building and an ice age, fit the evidence better?
Christianity in the United States has generally desired to be respected and respectable. Is this Biblical? The Scripture makes it quite clear we are not to be conformed to the world (Romans 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4) and we are not to be surprised if the world opposes us (John 16:1-4; 15:18-24; Matthew 10:16-25). Therefore, if we follow Christ we really cannot expect to be respectable. But there is a deeper problem. Respectability implies the idea that we deserve to be respected because we keep a particular moral standard. But Scripture says that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6) saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Galatians 2:21). This runs against the grain of the idea that there are some people or institutions that are to be respected because they make the grade. Also, we can end up doing the right thing for the wrong motive, in order to please men (Matthew 6:1-18; Galatians 1:10; Proverbs 29:25).
Now it is important here not to jump to the opposite extreme and decide to be different just to be different. There is a point in trying to meet people where they are in order to reach them for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-27; Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 19:10). But there is difference between trying to reach people where they are and accepting their standards. Also, while we do not want to be eccentric just to be eccentric, we do need to follow the Scripture when there is a genuine conflict (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29-32; Daniel 3:16-18).
The problem with making respectability the standard is we can settle for being what the world regards as a good, moral person. It may even scare us away from growth in Christ on the grounds of not being too fanatical. It can also lead to self-righteousness and a tendency to look down on those who do not have this respectability. But in the current culture of the United States, where the Christian church rapidly losing its respectability, it can also lead to anger and vitriol directed toward those who no longer respect us. In fact, I suspect that in the United States the respectability of the Christian church has been seen as a apologetic for Christianity. Join us, and we will help you achieve your goal of respectability. But this is not the Biblical approach. And it becomes a severe problem when our society's concept of respectability no longer matches Biblical standards. And while we should live so as not to be blamed for hypocrisy and not consistently living up to our own standards (1 Peter 4:15,16; Matthew 5:13-16; Romans 2:17-24), this does not mean living up to the world's standard of respectability. There is a real attraction to Christianity, but this is only seen by looking past the initial stumbling block that it is to those in the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 1 Peter 2:4-10; Romans 9:32-33).
Christians have been accused of merely believing what we want to believe. To test this out, let's do a thought experiment. Imagine the average person on the street. Now consider if that person really wants to believe there is a just God who has laid down strict rules that they are expected to obey. Further, if they desire to believe that if they fail to obey these rules they will be tormented in a hell of eternal fire forever and ever. Now picture them wanting to conclude that there is no way they can live up to God's standards and their only hope is to humble themselves and throw themselves upon the mercy of the judge and trust totally in the work of another to deliver them. Then imagine that they want to believe that having trusted God for deliverance, they can no longer live their lives for themselves, but for the God who rescued them. Do you find this hard to believe? I do.
Having been an agnostic and looked at the issue from both sides, I think a much better case could be made for someone not believing in God because it is what they want to believe. But I am not going to make that case, because I think this whole line of argumentation is bogus from the beginning. Trying to argue against an opponent by attributing to them ulterior motives for holding what they believe is just a subtle form of mud-slinging and leaves the issue in question right where it was. Almost anyone can come up with some hidden motive for the other person believing something, all the while leaving the only real issue, whether what they believe is true, unaddressed. It is a red herring that allows someone to assume their point is proven without ever proving it.
Further, as C. S. Lewis points out, some of the things we want to believe must be true. It is impossible to create a universe that contradicts what everyone wants to believe at every moment. Also, could it not be that one reason we want to believe something is because it is true and therefore gives us some useful benefit? If I believe it is desirable to eat chocolate, could it not be because I have eaten chocolate in the past and have concluded it really does taste good? Certainly a person may believe something that is false because for some reason they want it to be true. But until you have adequately proven the position false by the evidence, you have no basis for concluding that. And if you attribute all behavior purely to people believing what they want to believe, then all knowledge is suspect and we cannot know anything. This is a self-defeating position.
In Romans 4:11, circumcision is called a sign and seal of Abraham's faith. This can be applied to the other ordinances of God, including the present ones. A sign is a proclamation, like the banner before the army. A seal shows ownership, like the seal once used on letters. Therefore the sacraments confess and proclaim to the world that we belong to God. But there are questions connected with them which have greatly vexed and divided the Christian church for centuries.
What are the criteria that make the ordinances valid? The criterion given in the context of Romans 4:11 is faith. This is in accord with the fact that salvation is by faith (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; John 3:16) and that baptism is seen as preceded by faith or repentance (Acts 16:31-33; 2:38; 22:16). This does not, in and of itself, resolve the question of infant baptism, as circumcision clearly was performed on infants, presumably based on the faith of the parents. But Scripture makes it clear that the validity of the circumcision depends on the person who is circumcised appropriating it himself (Romans 2:25-29; 9:6-13; Jeremiah 4:4). I would instead reject infant baptism because it is never taught in the New Testament. Also, to apply everything about circumcision to baptism is like saying we should only have communion of the 14th of Nisan because of its connection to the Passover. But the idea that the validity of the ordinances depends on the person officiating is never found in Scripture. Now the sacraments are an act of worship, so it makes sense that they should be done with those of correct Biblical faith (2 Corinthians 6:14-18) and in conjunction with proper instruction by leadership (Hebrews 13:17). But the issue is the faith of the recipient. What is clear is that God is not pleased with simply going through the motions (Malachi 1:10-11; Isaiah 66:3; 58:3-12).
Also, what do the sacraments do to you or for you? Answers to this can range from their creating and sustaining faith to their being merely symbols. This relates to in what sense Christ is present in the Lord's Supper. If Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, it makes more sense to see it as actually accomplishing something when we partake. But Scripture does not even deal with these issues. One has to suspect that if it were important what theory we held regarding this, Scripture would make it clear. I am therefore forced to conclude that those who participate in faith receive the benefit of the ordinance. (1 Corinthians 11:28,29 is speaking of turning the ordinance into a drunken feast, which is disrespectful whatever you understand the sacrament to be.) Nor are we urged to argue over what "is" means (it can mean different things in different contexts; see Revelation 17:18). Now my purpose here is not to advocate a particular theory but to suggest we put aside theory and celebrate the greatness of what Christ has done for us.
Rugged individualism is an American tradition. It can also make its way into the Christian church. There is a tendency to want to go it alone spiritually and not to depend on anyone else. This affects our view of evangelism and discipleship; I can look on it as doing my ministry and my building up my disciples. We can see spiritual gifts as belonging to us, to be used for our purposes. This can become particularly dangerous when it comes to theology. It can encourage people to have their own interpretations simply to be their own man. This can result in eccentric conclusions, whose chief goal is to be different. Now I do not want to oppose all unusual positions; I have a few of those myself. But being different to be different can drive you into extreme positions. Along with theology, the same approach can also also be used regarding practice, particularly the conduct of the worship of the church. People can come up with new ideas regarding this just to be unique. This result is fads that crop up briefly only to be swept away by the next fad.
When we see this error, there is a danger of leaping to the opposite extreme and embracing conformity. This can take the form of conformity to the society at large or to a specific group within the society. Often this can be connected to a strong leader, either past or present. Conformity can ostracize anyone who does not follow its position on all matters, whether theological or practical.
But the Christian position is that Scripture is the authority (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Acts 17:11). The problem is, it can be interpreted by our individualistic opinions or our prior commitments to conform. Therefore Scripture needs to be interpreted starting from itself, based on its own emphasis. To do this, it is best to start from the fact that we are sinners saved by the grace of God (Romans 3:23-31; Ephesians 2:1-10; Colossians 2:13-15). This applies to us both individually and corporately. If we are sinners we need to avoid relying too heavily on our own reasoning (1 Corinthians 3:18; Isaiah 55:9; Proverbs 3:5,6). Nor should we trust in our own ability to accomplish things apart from God (Psalms 127:1,2; John 15:5; Romans 7:18). Therefore we should approach questions carefully, considering the viewpoints of others, not being willing too easily to assume that what we think, whether individually or corporately, must be correct. Also we should avoid a false humility that holds we cannot know anything for certain. We are told that if we trust Christ, God is at work in us to guide and direct us (John 16:13,14; Colossians 1:28;29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). But growing in Christ takes place over time, and it is a mistake to conclude we have arrived (Philippians 3:12-16; Galatians 5:16,17; Ephesians 4:13-16). So we need to be cautious and to carefully evaluate ourselves and our pet theories against the truth of Scripture.