There has always been the danger of identifying the Christian church with the church organization. Membership in one has been equated with membership in the other. Now virtually no one has carried this idea to the extent of total identification. There is always some idea that a person, though technically a member of the organization, could be not a member of the true church. But we can fall into the idea that being part of the organization means we are Christians, or growing Christians, if we do not obviously blow it. There is no basis for this in Scripture. It was the error of the Jews, who thought that because they were part of the nation, they were in good standing with God (Romans 9:6-13; 2:25-29; John 8:37-47). Further, Scripture universally rejects the claim that our outward show of religiosity commends us to God (Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 23:1-12). Now entwined with this is the question of whether participation in the sacraments is necessary for salvation. I am convinced that it is not (Romans 4:9-12; Luke 23:39-43; John 3:18). But in response to those who think it is, I point out, "I have been baptized. I take the Lord's Supper. Do I qualify?" And often I am told I have not received it from the right people or in the right way or believing in the right theory. That is, I have not received it from the right organization. Which has no basis in Scripture at all.
But we can react to this by making salvation highly individualistic. Salvation and growth in Christ are seen as something purely between me and God. And the church organization is merely a resource to help me in this. Again, no one usually takes this to the full extreme. But we can start to see the church as simply a club we join, which we can organize any way we want to. And we can exclude anyone who does not meet our standards or fit into our program. We can also require those who are in the group to conform to our ideal if they want to stay in.
Often, as Evangelical Christians we waffle between these extremes trying to find the right balance. May I suggest an alternative? We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:7-9; Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5). As a result we are incorporated into His body (1 Corinthians 10:16,17; 12:12-27; Ephesians 2:11-22). This body is what Christ works through to accomplish His purposes on earth (Ephesians 4:15,16; Colossians 2:19; Romans 12:3-8) as He works through the lives of the various members (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28,29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). This body is to be organized (Hebrews 13:17; Ephesians 4:11,12; 1 Corinthians 14:40). But this is the expression of the body and should not be confused with the body. The church is not an organization or a club but the mystical assembly of all true believers through all time, and it transcends whatever organization we are in .
So, since the common Saviour of all has died for us, no longer do we the faithful in Christ now die as before according to the threat of the law, for such condemnation has ceased. But as corruption has ceased and been destroyed by the grace of the resurrection, now in the mortality of the body we are dissolved only for the time which God has set for each man, in order that we may be able to 'obtain a better resurrection'. For like seeds which are sown in the ground we do not perish when we are dissolved, but we rise again as plants, since death has been destroyed by the grace of the Saviour.
Athanasius, 293-373 AD, De Incarnatione, 21:1-9 (Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, translated by Robert W. Thomson, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 185)
How should a Christian view the resurrection? How should it affect how we live our lives?
Professor Epignosis invented the pusher machine. It was a very useful item. It could be used to move heavy objects and remove structures from their current location. He sold one to his neighbor Joe, who wanted it to remove tree stumps. One week later Joe got in an argument with his brother-in-law Bob. Joe became angry and grabbed his pusher machine. He pushed Bob all the way across the street and flat on his back. As more people bought pusher machines they found more uses for them. Some put a pusher machine on wheels and used it for transportation. Others put pusher machines underneath a platform and made a flying machine. It was also found useful for pushing down enemy armies and pushing over their defenses. Pusher machines became miniaturized and were used to power all sorts of useful gadgets. This changed people's lifestyles so drastically they could not imagine living without them. There were also more powerful pusher machines, which had a myriad of heavy industrial uses. These became very useful in warfare for killing large numbers of people. The most powerful machines became so destructive it was thought they could annihilate all humankind.
As pusher machines became basic to society, great effort was put into making them. And those who knew how to make the machines were respected by all and their opinions were highly valued, even in areas that had nothing to do with the machines. Many even held that the universe came into being as a result of naturally occurring pusher effects. But some began to question the supreme value of the machines. They noted how devastating they could be in warfare. They pointed out how the machines made it possible for people to change beautiful wild country into man-made eyesores. Also, large amounts of natural resources were used up to build the machines. Some even began to see the machines themselves as evil. As a result, society divided into two competing groups: those who favored unrestrained use of the machines and those who wanted the making and use of the machines at least curtailed. The one side claimed the others made a living off the machines and were only after profits. The others claimed their opponents were strange anti-pusher fanatics and wanted to go back to lifting things by hand.
The government called together a large conference and invited the most knowledgeable people on both sides. After many hours of discussion, both sides remained adamant on their positions and seemed unable to break the deadlock. At this point a young man named Martin, who was an assistant to one of the delegates, being naive and inexperienced, stood up and began to speak. "Is the problem really the pusher machine?" he asked. "Isn't the problem really us? The machine merely allows us to do what we want to do more effectively. Maybe we need to consider what we really should be doing." He was hooted down by both sides.
It is not uncommon to encounter the idea that Christianity is an old, worn-out belief that is about to pass away. But we need to beware of too easily believing our opponents' propaganda. Traditional historic Christianity has been around for almost 2000 years. In that time there were many occasions where it looked like it would vanish from the earth. It did not.
The Roman emperors tried to wipe out this strange new sect. It did not work, and Christianity was so indestructible the emperors ended up endorsing it. The next attack was from within, by those who took the, humanly more reasonable, position of denying Jesus was God. At one point, with the assistance of the emperor, it looked like this belief would gain permanent dominance, but it fell apart and traditional Christianity reasserted itself. Then the Roman empire fell and was conquered by people who were either pagans or also shared the belief that Jesus was not God. But there arose those who held to God's truth and revitalized the faith. Then came the threat of Islam, which conquered much nominally Christian territory and looked like it might conquer it all. In the middle of the Middle Ages, the corruption of the church and the influx of humanistic philosophy looked like they would overthrow the Christian faith. The same problem existed before the Protestant Reformation. We see the same thing repeated at the time of the Enlightenment and with the rise of a secular world view in modern times. But the Christian faith weathered all these storms. Also, Communism thought to wipe out all Christian belief, and though it is still around, it has continually failed in the attempt.
We see these repeated crises and the fact that God has brought us through. We also see that the state of the Christian church at these times was often far from perfect. In fact, it was frequently part of the problem. But God still brought us through. I do not want to excuse our refusing to deal with our problems. But we do not need to achieve a perfect church for God to preserve us. Also, what turned things around were key individuals rising up to stand for the truth. These were often, though not always, obscure individuals who God used to make a difference. Now I am not claiming there will be some quick, immediate turn-around to our present situation. Much less do I want to speculate on whether this is the time of the end. But I do need to note that God has shown the ability to preserve His church, His people, through difficult times. Even from a secular viewpoint, Christianity seems to have an uncanny tendency to persist in spite of genuinely threatening situations. When stamped out in one place, it pops up again somewhere else. So I think neither we nor our opponents should be too quick to assume Christianity is dying and the prognosis is certain. For we believe in a God who raises the dead.
Therefore, by remitting sins, He did indeed heal man, while He also manifested Himself who He was. For if no one can forgive sins but God alone, while the Lord remitted them and healed men, it is plain that He was Himself the Word of God made the Son of man, receiving from the Father the power of remission of sins; since He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator.
Irenaeus, 125-202 AD, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter XVII, 3 (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, p.792)
What other implications are there from the fact Jesus was both God and man? How does it affect our life today?
How important is it for the Christian church to be relevant? What are the underlying concerns?
We need to preserve our message. Christianity has a definite message to communicate (Galatians 1:8,9; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). If we change this message to be relevant, we become irrelevant in the strictest sense of the word. If we have nothing to tell people that is not different from what they have always heard, what is the point of the whole thing? The Christian message is: God has invaded history (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18) that He might pay the price for the wrong things we have done (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21), resulting in forgiveness and life forever with Him being offered to those who will rely on Him for it (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). It is not a moral system, though it has implications for our moral behavior. Rather, it says our moral behavior is not good enough and we need God's forgiveness (Galatians 2:21; Romans 3:19-31; Titus 3:5,6). It is not a self-help program to show us how to improve our lifestyle, though it has implications for how we live. Rather, it says we will face problems in this life but can trust God to bring us through them (John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:18-25). It is not a mystical experience, though it affects how we regard life. The fact that we know God results in our experiencing life in a new way (Jeremiah 9:23,24; John 1:18; 1 Peter 1:8). Now the Christian message is strange from the world's point of view. If we are not clear, we will be understood as teaching one of these other things.
We need to love people. This is God's command (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). It is not enough here to put on a superficial veneer of relevance. We need to genuinely reach out to people where they are and meet their needs (James 1:27; 1 John 3:17; Galatians 6:9.10). Now part of loving people is communicating to them where they are at in a way they can understand (Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Genuine love does not necessarily mean telling people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. But we must do it in such a way that they comprehend it and are not driven away by our manner of approach. But we also need to be completely honest and not sell people a bill of goods (1 Thessalonians 2:3-5; 2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Peter 3:10). We accomplish nothing if we do not convince people to have a genuine faith in what we have to say. Therefore, if by relevance we mean reaching out to people where they are at, with the genuine message, in order that they may understand and receive that message, it is a good thing. But if it means manipulating people into becoming superficial converts, it is wrong.
Do we, as Christians living in the 21st century, really believe in the supernatural? And do we believe in it in the here and now? I know for myself it is easy to relegate it to the distant past. To see it as something that happened back then but does not happen now. But I simply do not find any solid basis in Scripture to prove that the miraculous, or major manifestations of the miraculous, are only to be found in the past. What I do find is that God does such things according to His own will and in His own time (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Philippians 2:25-28). Now there do seem to be times when God pours out more miracles then usual to make a point, such as the times of the Exodus and the ministry of Jesus. But that does not mean they go away or become negligible at others. Rather, God in all times and all places does what He wills. We cannot control Him and do miracles at will, like magicians. But we can never be really safe from His intervention.
It is commonly thought that the chief thing I need to do is find the real me. Somewhere deep inside, there is a real, and presumably better, me that is struggling to get out. And if I can just find it and bring it out, I will be a better person. What are the results of this approach? There may be individuals in which this leads to complacency. A person may conclude that they are in touch with their real self and do not need to change. And by accepting themselves just the way they are, they leave themselves just the way they are. But this is not what normally happens. More commonly, finding our true inner self can lead us to a continuous struggle to find that elusive inner self, which always evades our grasp. The problem is, how do we know what our true inner self is, and how can we tell if we find it? Do we merely follow our impulses? Is it really a good thing to simply follow our impulses? And if not, how do we go about determining our true selves? Further, this can become a serious burden if we think we need to find ourselves and feel unable to. And if our life does not go the way we expect it to go (whose life ever goes exactly the way they want it to go?) we can endlessly pursue this mysterious phantom of our true self. This can lead to a treadmill of discouragement and depression.
God takes a different approach. He says that as we look inside ourselves, we will find we are sinners who have disobeyed God's commandments (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). The goodness we seek and want to find is not in us, but we must get it from another source. We must come to God and put our faith in Him, to be forgiven (Romans 3:21-26; Colossians 2:10-15; Ephesians 1:7) and then transformed by His power (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:12-16). In doing this He puts us in our own place within the larger structure of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-16). Now in working this transformation, God takes to Himself all that is good and usable in our character and talents. But the primary source is not in the things that are in us, but in the power of God that is at work in us to change us. All that we bring to God is only an empty vessel into which the real power is poured. If we try to ground our significance and ideas in ourselves, we can look perpetually and never find what we are looking for. But if we follow God, we will start to become who He means us to be. That does not mean it will always be easy, but we can trust in Him to bring us through. For we find who we should be in Him, not ourselves.
Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ's righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, Two Kinds of Righteousness (translated by Lowell J. Satre, Luther's Works, Volume 31, Career of the Reformer, Harold J. Grim, general editor Helmut T. Lehmann, Muhlenberg Press,1957, p. 298)
How does this statement affect how we look at ourselves? How does it affect how we live life?
It is common to believe today that human beings are nothing more than sophisticated machines. But there is a price to pay for this. If this is true, then what we call thought and consciousness are merely an illusion. Therefore, thought, morality, and philosophy are merely projections of the underlying physical processes. The result is that I cannot know anything, including that I am merely the result of physical processes. Therefore, if I am to continue to think I am forced to reject this viewpoint. The question is, can I?
Now it is obvious that our mind is affected by the physical. If I drink large quantities of alcohol, it will affect the way I think. It is also clear that there is a connection between the mind and the piece of matter called the brain. But that does not prove that there is nothing involved but the physical. Yes, we have gone a long way in understanding parts of the brain. But until we completely understand its processes (and we have a long way to go on that), we cannot exclude the possibly of a real mind. Right now I am communicating using a computer. If that computer suddenly were to completely wig out, it would distort my communication. If I were aware of this, it could have affects on my attitude and mood. But that does not mean there is no me here pounding the keys. However, the connection of our mind and our brain is much more intimate then that. It is not surprising one should affect the other.
But often when we examine the brain we start with the assumption that there is nothing there except the physical. To understand this we need to go back to Rene Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind was by nature a thinking thing and the body was by nature an extended thing. He tried to figure how the two could interact, and his solution was a thing called animal spirits, which no one knows what they are. As result, people accepted Descartes problem but rejected his solution. After a number of attempts to find a better solution, we were left with materialism. But there is a problem. Whether thinking is the fundamental characteristic of the mind is arguable. But while we do not yet know what the fundamental nature of matter is, that it can be understood wholly in terms of extension (height, width, and depth) and motion, as Descartes believed, seems unlikely in the extreme. If Descartes's understanding of matter was true, it is difficult to see how an immaterial mind could interface with it. But on our current scientific understanding, immaterial things affect the behavior of matter all the time. Therefore, I see no reason why one more as yet undetected immaterial thing could not affect the material world. And since the existence of thought itself would appear to hang in the balance, I see no basis for dismissing the possibility out of hand.
One of the temptations Christians have when facing or observing trouble is to believe we have to explain it. We feel we have to figure out what God is trying to teach us or someone else through the trouble. This often comes down to trying to figure out what we or they did wrong. Now Scripture does say there are times when God uses trouble to accomplish some particular thing in people's lives (Hebrew 12:5-11; 1 Corinthians 11:29,30; 2 Corinthians 12:7). But there are other places in Scripture where it makes it clear there are those who suffer who did not do anything specific to deserve it (Job 1,2; John 9:1-3; Hebrews 11:35-38). The point is that God wants us to trust Him even when we do not understand what is going on (Proverbs 3:5,6; Hebrews 11:6; Romans 4:19-21). Now there is a place for asking if there is a reason for what we are going through. But if no clear reason is forthcoming, we need to beware of jumping to the conclusion we must have done something wrong to bring this on ourselves. And we should be even more reluctant to do so in the case of others, whose situation and heart we do not know with certainty.
God has a way of turning things upside down. He has said that to lead is to serve (Mark 10:42-45; John 13:3-17; Philippians 2:3-11), and He put forth in Himself the clearest example of this. We see this commanded in various relationships: in church leadership (1 Peter 5:1-4) and marriage (Ephesians 5:25-33), to mention a couple of examples. But this is difficult to do. There is a strong temptation in leadership to try to assert our authority. How can we manage to avoid this?
1. We need to trust God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; Matthew 6:25). One of the dangers of being in leadership is that we can feel if we do not keep a tight rein on things, they will not happen the way we want them to. The truth is that even if we do keep a tight rein on things, they will not happen the way we want them to. If we are in control, there is a temptation to feel we need to get things to work out the way we want, even if it means running roughshod over others. Rather, we need to trust God that even though things may not work out the way we want, God is still in control and will accomplish His purposes. I am not advocating lack of planning or lack of diligence. But I am advocating laying aside the attitude that everything depends on me and I have got to see to it that they work out.
2. We need to avoid the idea we have all the answers (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-13; Luke 9:49,50). Now leaders ought have some knowledge of where they are going. But we can become so dogmatic about our opinions and methods that we are unwilling to listen to anyone else. Often this is dogmatism about something Scripture never really teaches. Now I am not suggesting being a weather vane that changes at every wind of opinion. But one of the easiest way to alienate people is to never consider their viewpoint on anything, especially if the thing at issue is merely your personal opinion and not basic Christian teaching.
3. It is very easy to let our ego get in the way (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:11-27; Proverbs 16:18). If we are in a position of leadership, it is too easy make the issue our authority. This is particularly true if we feel we have been criticized or attacked unfairly (and we may have been). In response to this we need to base our identity, not on our leadership or our accomplishments, but on who we are in Christ (Romans 8:31-39; Colossians 2:9-15; Ephesians 2:10). If we do this we can resist the tendency to attack or cave when opposed. We need to follow God and do what is right and let God uphold our authority. Because if we have reached the point where we are defending our own authority, we have already lost.
The order of justification which it sets before us in this: first, God of His mere gratuitous goodness is pleased to embrace the sinner, in whom he can sees nothing that can move him to mercy but wretchedness, because he sees him altogether naked and destitute of good works. He, therefore, finds the cause of kindness in himself, that thus he may affect the sinner by a sense of his goodness, and induce him, in distrust of his own works, to cast himself entirely upon his mercy for salvation.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XI, 16 (translated by Henry Beverage, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publlishing, 1973, Vol. 2, p. 53)
What are the implications of our own unworthiness to be saved? How should it affect our Christian life?
There was a man who went up in the elevator, and he was never the same again. He realized that the way into the presence of Him Who Dwells Above was the elevator He built and not the man's own efforts to build a tower. And he recognized that, having gone up in the elevator, he would one day go to dwell with Him Who Dwells Above permanently. Far from making him want to abandon all building, it made the man want to do more work in honoring the One who had done so much for him. But building was still work, and there were still problems. Sometimes the man built useless things he later had to abandon. While buildings did not crumble as regularly as before, they still crumbled on him in places. Sometimes he came home exhausted at the end of the day. Many times he needed to go back and ride in the elevator to recover his motivation and perspective. He longed to able to serve his Savior more faithfully and consistently.
Then one day a neighbor asked, "Have you tried the other elevator? It is what you need if you want to really live for God." And he led the man around the corner and showed the man another elevator. This elevator seemed less substantial then the original elevator; you could almost see through it. Also, it seemed to have a cloud continually around the top, making it hard to see where it went. But the neighbor was so insistent the man decided to try it.
The first time was very exciting, and the man felt energized and attacked his work with new vigor. But this soon wore off, and he felt more tired than before. So he went back again to the new elevator to be reinvigorated. But he shortly ended up exhausted and feeling discouraged that he could not maintain the excitement after leaving the elevator. Then someone explained that he was not going to a high enough floor in the elevator. But this only helped temporarily, and he found himself back in the same situation. He became more and more frustrated, trying the elevator buttons in various orders and even pushing the buttons harder. But nothing helped.
One day, being very discouraged, he made his way back to the original elevator. As he rode up in it, words began to appear on the elevator wall. "In Me you are made complete." "In Me you have every spiritual blessing in heavenly places." "In Me you are given everything pertaining to life and godliness."And the man realized that his Savior had provided him with all he needed in the original elevator. And when he came back down, he still had times when the work was hard and the time seemed long until his final ascent to remain with Him Who Dwells Above. But when he was discouraged, he returned to the original elevator. And he never went to the other elevator again.
God is in control of our lives and directs us according to His purposes (Psalm 32:8; 23:1-6; Ephesians 1:11). But He often guides us one step at a time. He led Paul past various places he was forbidden to go to, until finally telling him where he should go (Acts 16:6-10). He fed Elijah through ravens, until the brook dried up and Elijah had to go elsewhere (1 Kings 17:2-16). He told Abraham to leave home and go to the land He would show him, but did not say where (Genesis 12:1). But we often want to know all the details ahead of time. And we can try to force God to tell us before He is ready to. In my experience, this is a mistake and often leads to jumping to the wrong conclusion. Rather, we need to trust God even when it is not clear what He is doing in our life (Proverbs 3:5,6; Hebrews 11:6; Psalms 127:1,2). And follow Him one step at a time.
Where do we, as Christians, get our authority? Do we need some kind of authority? There are those who would claim that we do. In Matthew 16:13-19 Jesus talks of a power of binding and loosing. This promise is given, not based on Peter's office or ordination, but on his confession of faith. Therefore, those who have the faith of Peter have the authority of Peter. This accords with John 1:12, which says that those who receive Jesus by believing on His name have the authority (literally, in the Greek) to become the sons of God. Later, in Matthew 18 Jesus is speaking to His disciples (Matthew 18:1), those who have learned from Him, on the subject of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17). In this context He repeats the promise of binding and loosing to all disciples (Matthew 18:18). He then tells them that what they agree on will be done (Matthew 18:19,20). This has been used of prayer and may have an application there, but in context it speaks of church discipline, doing the work of the church. I would therefore conclude that when Jesus' disciples, those who believe in Him, agree together, they have the authority to do the work of the church.
Later Jesus, speaking after the resurrection to the eleven disciples (note, they are not called apostles, referring to their office), commissions them to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them what Christ commanded (Matthew 28:16-20). They are not told they have authority but that Christ has all authority and they can do these things based on their relationship with Him. This fits with the truth that Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5) and He has authority as our Great High Priest (Hebrews 5:4-6). We have a significance based on even being known as Christ's disciples (Matthew 10:40-42). But nowhere in the New Testament is it stated that there is an authority given by a mechanical succession of ordination. Nor is there any New Testament ordinance where we are told its validity depends on who it was performed by. Jesus rebukes His disciples for trying to hinder a man who was not following them (Luke 9:49,50). When Jesus is asked where He got His authority, rather than explaining, He ultimately refuses to even answer (Matthew 21:23-27). This is hardly the response we would expect if this were the crucial question for establishing someone's validity.
But I am convinced that those who deny apostolic succession can still fall into this mindset. We can start to believe that something is true or required just because it is passed down to us. But this is not affirmed by Scripture (Matthew 15:7-9). Now I do not want to diminish the value of the great teachers of the past. But these need to be believed because of their understanding of the Word of God and sound reasoning. God's work in the world is not based on mere mechanical succession, but on faith in the Son of God.