I have spoken up more than once in favor of balance. I do not regret this. But I believe there are different kinds of balance. There is the balance that merely meets somewhere in the middle and tries not to be too excited about anything. This is a position that seeks moderation for moderation's sake. But there is another type of balance, which is advocated by G. K. Chesterton, that consists in the holding on to both extremes and letting each have their proper place.
I am convinced that the heart of this is to be found in the gospel. In the gospel we are faced with God's love and grace and with God's holiness and justice, both in the extreme. We might want to think of some middle ground, where God was just but His justice was somewhat tempered with mercy, and we had to live up to this moderate moral standard. But He is so just that He demands perfection (Matthew 5:48; James 2:10; 1 John 1:5), but so loving that He gave His Son to offer salvation as a free gift (John 3:16-18; Romans 5:6-8; 3:21-26). He calls those who put their faith in Him to make the goal conformity to the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29,30; 1 Peter 1:14-17), but to do so in the context of grace and security (Romans 8:31-39; 5:1,2; Hebrews 13:5). We are told that this is all based on God's work in us (Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:3), but we are to put out every effort to bring it about in our lives (Hebrews 12:1,2; 5:11-14; 1 Timothy 4:7,8). We are to recognize ourselves as sinners and humble ourselves before God (1 John 1:8-10; James 4:6-10; Proverbs 1:7), but are encouraged to rejoice even in difficult times because of what God has done for us (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; John 16:33). We are to stand firmly for the truth (Jude 3; Romans 16:17,18; 2 Timothy 4:1-4), but to do so in love (2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 3:15; Galatians 6:1).
However, it makes us nervous to grasp both extremes and have them come together to define us. It seems so much easier to find a nice safe place in the middle that is comfortable and does not demand too much from us. But to live out the truth of God I am convinced we need a wild balance rather than a tame balance. So that we might incorporate the right extremes into our lives, not by doing everything in a moderate, reserved way, but by giving every good thing its appropriate importance.
Indeed the Church from its beginnings, and perhaps especially in its beginnings, was not so much a principality as a revolution against the prince of the world. This sense that the world has been conquered by the great usurper, and was in his possession, has been much deplored or derided by those optimists who identify enlightenment with ease. But it was responsible for all that thrill of defiance and a beautiful danger that made the good news seem to be really both good and new.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, The Everlasting Man, The God in the Cave (Dover Publications, 2007, p. 176)
Is this how the Christian faith is to be viewed, as a revolution? How does this affect our approach to it?
It is asked how we can make the spirit of Christmas last the rest of the year. Christians particularly may ask this. But is it just a piece of wishful thinking? Or is it somehow possible? Now much of what people want to continue is rooted in good feelings. I have nothing against good feelings. But good feelings by themselves are not enough to make a permanent change work. We see it in the other departments of life. A couple falls in love; then they get married and settle down. And they find they need more than just good feelings to make the marriage work. Or a Christian goes to a retreat or a series of special meetings and feels really pumped up to live for God. And then, as they go back to their everyday life, their feelings fade and vanish. The problem is that all feelings, over time, tend to vanish. They can point out the direction that needs to be taken. But it takes something else to get us there. It takes commitment. Or does it?
Commitment in its own place is a good thing, but it is often equated with sheer will power. And anyone who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows how well that works. We grit our teeth and decide we are going to gut it out. Occasionally, particularly on the minor things, it seems to work. But more often then not, we fail and fall flat on our face. Then we try to drum up more will power, and we still fail. And if we work long enough and hard enough, we can, at least for a while, convince ourselves we are succeeding. But in doing so we can set ourselves up to fail spectacularly. And even if we manage to hold it together, we will feel exhausted and worn down on the inside from the stress of maintaining this level of control.
Which brings me back to the meaning of Christmas. The meaning of Christmas is not just some vague message of cheer and good will. The meaning of Christmas is that, when our good feelings fail, when our will power is not enough, God steps in. When we were sinners and disobedient to God (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), God became a man to redeem us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). As a result of this, God forgives (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13,14; 1 Peter 2:24,25) and begins to work in the lives (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 2:13) of those who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). And it is as we look to Him that we obtain a meaning for Christmas that is lasting, even for the rest of the year.
The most common way to water down the teaching of Jesus is to try to make Him a moral philosopher advocating a new moral system. To do so is to make Him irrelevant. Now do not get me wrong; because I am convinced Jesus is the Son of God, I believe He put forth the perfect moral system. That means that where He differs from other moral systems, He is correct in His answers. But this amounts to deciding the details. The broad principles of morality are agreed upon by various moral systems. Yes, there are differences. There may even be the occasional case where a specific group has gone completely out of the way. But what we have is what you would expect in a fallen world where God revealed His moral principles in the beginning, but people have since tried to forget and distort them. The problem is, it is hard to believe that getting every detail exactly right in our moral code is all we need to do to produce a truly moral society. We need, not just a minor course correction, but a major reorienting of our lives. We do not need a new standard, but a new capability to meet the standard. If Jesus was just a moral philosopher, even if He was the great or correct one, we would simply put Him on the shelf with Socrates and Confucius and other similar practitioners. And He would only be pulled out occasionally, to check His opinion on a particularly interesting controversy or to supply an occasional inspirational quote.
In Jesus' own time, they had plenty of moral philosophers, and one more would have been lost in the crowd. The Jews had a long list of significant rabbis. The Greeks and Romans had a long list of philosophers. Why would one more example of the same be any more more than an interesting footnote in history? One more book to put on the shelf. It is interesting that hardly anyone at the time regarded Him that way (there may have been a few break-offs that held to something like this, but they are so obscure we know little about them). Even some of the earliest pagan observers characterized Christians as worshiping Jesus as God. Which brings us to what we really need. We do not need another great moral teacher. We have already broken the teachings of the great moral teachers we have. As C. S. Lewis points out, even if Jesus is the perfect teacher, that does not help us. If we have already flunked mathematics, how will it help to be taught calculus? What we need is for God to come down and pay the price for our failures to keep the moral law, that we might be forgiven. Then we need God to work in our lives to begin to make us more like what the standard requires. Nothing else can meet our real need with a real response.
Therefore, when the time came, dearly beloved, which had been fore-ordained for men's redemption, there enters these lower parts of the world, the Son of GOD, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting the Father's glory, begotten in a new order, by a new nativity. In a new order, because being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained: abiding before before all time He began to be in time: the LORD of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took on Him the form of a servant: being GOD, that cannot suffer, He did not disdain to be man that can, and immortal as He is, to subject Himself to the laws of death.
Leo the Great, 400-460 AD, Sermon XXII, On the Feast of the Nativity, II, II (The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great, translated by Rev. Charles Lett Feltoe, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. XII, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1997, p. 130)
How can we maintain the wonder of God becoming a man? How can we prevent it from becoming just a piece of routine knowledge?
Remember in the old westerns (or similar stories) where the heroine has been captured by villains or the fort is under attack or some other catastrophe has happened. Then the hero grabs his hat, straps on his six-gun, mounts his horse, and rides to the rescue. The story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is similar. When we were helpless sinners and unable to save ourselves, God took on flesh and came to our rescue (Romans 5:6-8; 3:21-26; John 3:13-21). This is a message that is different from that of all the other faiths in the world.
We, as human beings, have come up with all sorts of world views to try to explain the universe. While some try to leave Him out totally, many types of belief consist in our searching for God. And while we have looked many different places and tried many different approaches, they have all ended in question marks (Acts 17:24-29; 14:15-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There have been numerous systems built, a multitude of ideas proposed, but no solid basis for deciding which is right. But it is hard to avoid the impression that there is something wrong with the world we live in. There are wars, crime, hatred, and disasters, and again there are all sorts of theories and no real answers. We can try to say that what we see is normal, that it is the way it is supposed to be. But then we are left with the question, why do our minds revolt against it? As C. S. Lewis points out, one of the problems with the problem of evil is that if there is no God, where do we get the standard to judge this world as evil? In the end, the only thing that makes sense of the world that is, is the Christian idea that we live in a world under sin and a curse (Romans 8:19-23; 5:12-21; 2 Corinthians 4:3,4). The standard we hold is true, for it is the original standard, but we have departed far from it. And all our attempts to find the answer and solve the problem fall short. And we can hope that, with a little more trying or a little more education, we can find the answer. But we are left with the nagging feeling it is beyond our capacity to solve.
Then when all seems lost and the cause seems hopeless, the hero comes riding to our rescue. God Himself comes down from His throne and comes looking for us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:9-18). He dies to pay the price for our sin (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21) and proves it by rising from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 1:4; 4:25). And He rescues those from sin and death and hell who put their faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). However, though this has taken place, there are still many who are looking for God in all the wrong places. But they should let themselves be found by Him.
God is not Santa Claus. Santa rewards us based on our performance, whether we are bad or good. But Santa is a soft touch; very seldom does he ever really refuse to bring a child presents. We can see God the same way. We can feel that as long as we do not do something really bad, He will reward us with a good life. And if things do not go the way we want them to in life, we blame God or stop believing in Him altogether. But the Biblical idea of God is that He is absolutely holy (Isaiah 6:3; 1 Peter 1:14-17; Romans 1:18). And He is also absolutely loving (1 John 4:7-12; John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8). Therefore, He forgives those who put their faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25), even though we fall far short of His standard (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Because of this, we can understand even bad things in view of this God and His working in our life (2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:18; James 1:2-4). And while this does not lead to easy answers, it helps avoid the problems that too-easy answers produce.
I am very much convinced that Christians should pick their battles. I believe there are times when Christians must stand up against true injustice and in defense of the poor and oppressed. There are also times we need to stand up and be bold and defend our ability to openly proclaim our faith. But I am also convinced we need to avoid being petty and making big issues over virtually nothing. The holiday season seems to be a time when there is ample opportunity for these sort of pettiness. It does not help that there are many on the opposite side who are also being petty and being offended over trivia. But that does not mean we should follow them in it.
Christians are called to stand up for truth, are called to do so boldly, but with gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6). Now there is a point where this requires standing up to the people in power (Acts 4:19,20; 5:29; Daniel 3:16-18). But these are contentions over matters of substance. It is one thing to stand on principle, and it is another thing to argue over details. Now part of my problem is, I feel both sides have put too much importance on these issues. I am sure if you search land and sea you will find someone who was converted to Christianity by a nativity scene in a public building.. I knew a man who was converted to Christianity by "Jesus Christ, Superstar." But I question whether there is anything here worth fighting over on either side. There may be some purely symbolic struggle here over who is in charge of society. But I do not see that it is the Christian's job to try to be in charge of society. And if we were, I do not see how we would accomplish it by these types of arguments. I am not at all sure that much of this is not a promotion of a nominal Christianity that gets confused with the real thing.
Now there can be a hard line to draw when what is involved is the individual Christian's being allowed to express their faith. If a Christian is required by their employer to only say "Happy Holidays" and never "Merry Christmas," should they go along? This is one of those marginal things that each person must establish in their own mind. Nor should we accept the concept of the establishment of secularism, which is no different than the establishment of religion. But in many of these fights we make ourselves look as petty as our opponents. And I do not see how this accomplishes anything useful.
Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God, - in one respect born, in the other unborn; in one respect fleshly, in the other spiritual; in one sense weak, in the other exceeding strong; in one sense dying, in the other living.
Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, Chapter 5 (translated by Peter Holmes, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III, Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1997, p. 525)
What are the implications of God becoming man? What does it mean to us today?
C. S. Lewis pictures Christ's work in our lives as the renovation of a dilapidated house. When we first come to Christ there are things in our life that clearly need to be fixed: the roof leaks, and all the drains are clogged. We expect Christ to fix those things. But after we get those obvious things fixed, we can feel we have got what we wanted and expect Christ to stop there and let us live our lives the way we want to live it. But He does not stop there. He starts breaking down walls and building new wings. And to do this He often has to put us through trouble and discomfort. For He is rebuilding us into a palace, a fit dwelling place for the King of Kings. And we would be willing to settle for much less.
God has purposes He wants to accomplish in our lives that culminate in our being conformed to the image of His Son (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 2:10). This is a long process that requires our continued involvement (Philippians 3:12-16; 2 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 12:1-2). Now God Himself provides the power to make this possible (2 Peter 1:3; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). But we still have to make a choice to let Him do this in us (Romans 12:1,2; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:16). However, often we are willing to settle for less than that. We are willing to settle for being good moral people, as our culture describes it, or good church-goers, good moral person who do some religious exercises.
The reason we do this is that we feel, whether we will admit it or not, that our standing before God is based on what we have done. Therefore, we are afraid to admit we do not measure up for fear that since this is so, God might reject us. But Scripture says we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) who cannot save ourselves (Romans 7:14; 8:8; John 15:5). However, we can be saved through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), based on what He has done for us (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This results in our not being condemned in the sight of God (Romans 8:33,34; 14:4; John 3:18). Therefore, we are able to honestly look at our lives and see what needs changing. And we are able to let God do His job of rebuilding in our lives, knowing that our place with Him is secure.For even though the goal seems far beyond our present reach, He will not give up on us until He has accomplished it in us.
G. K. Chesterton likens life, and particularly the Christian life, to an adventure. I have found this to be a helpful perspective. And as Christians, we know the ending. We will ultimately be victorious (Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14; 1 John 5:4), and we will be with Christ forever (1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:20,21; Revelation 21:3,4). But every adventure has its dark places, its difficult points, when it looks like the situation is hopeless. Belle deserting the Beast at the last minute to go help her father. Frodo and Samwise on the stair of Cirith Ungol, about to face a giant spider. Luke Skywalker brought a prisoner before the Emperor, who has a functioning deathstar. All things seem lost; then the situation turns around. We see the same thing in Scripture. Joseph in Egypt. Gideon facing the Midianites. Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. In the same way, God can bring us through dark times into the glory of His presence (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18; John 16:33).
Apostolic succession is a very old Christian idea. It is also a very dangerous one. For it justifies people and things just because they can claim historical continuity. In the later Middle Ages it allowed those in charge to perpetrate all matter of corruption, based on a position of authority passed down from earlier times. And they were immune to correction, for they were above even being required to keep their oaths.
But Protestants have renounced this principle. Or have we? While we do not generally profess it, there is often an unspoken assumption that our beliefs and practices have some sort of authority just because they have been passed down to us. Now I am not saying no one can ever make use of older practices. But they should be maintained because they are valuable, not simply because they are traditional. There is a large amount of wisdom that has come down to us from Christians of previous ages. But there are also serious mistakes. Which are which may be debated. But this is impossible to discern when mere succession is seen as a justification for them. Then there are those who reject the traditional forms and produce their own nontraditional traditions, often held as firmly as the traditional ones. While cutting themselves off from whatever is valuable in the traditional ones. We must recognize that mere historical continuity means nothing, and things should be weighed by the teachings of Scripture and their own merits. Then we could avoid throwing out valuable practices, without getting caught up in fights over the date of Easter or whether people should cross themselves with two or three fingers.
We need to realize that this idea is not found in Scripture. It does not teach an authority based on who you are ordained by. In fact, the word "ordination" in this context in the New Testament is a dubious translation. Nor is there any special inherited authority required to administer the ordinances or do the work of the church. The declaration in Matthew 16:13-20 was based on Peter's profession of faith, not who he was ordained by. Those who have the faith of Peter have the authority of Peter. In Hebrews 5:1-10 it speaks of the legitimacy of Christ's high priesthood, and nowhere is it traced back to who He was ordained by, as we are never even told that He was ordained. The Pharisees and Sadducees had the claim of historical continuity, and Christ rejected them (Matthew 23:1-12). The idea that someone has unquestioned authority on the basis of historical continuity is foreign to Scripture. And trusting we have the only right tradition can lead to taking God for granted. We need to look for something more basic than that to assure ourselves we are God's people.
He glorifies Christ most who takes most from him, and who then gives most back to him. Come, empty pitcher, come and be filled; and, when thou art filled, pour all out at the dear feet of him who filled thee. Come, trembler, come and let him touch thee with his strengthening hand, and then go out and work, and use the strength which he has given thee.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Christ's Pastoral Prayer for his People, A Sermon (No. 2331), On Lord's-day Evening, September 1st, 1889.
Do we need to be filled by God to give back to Him? How does that affect how we serve Him?
One of the arguments that is made regarding certain behaviors, particularly sexual behaviors, is that I should not complain about them because they do not affect me. What difference does it make to me what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom? But there are serious problems with this argument.
It reflects a totally selfish outlook on life. It says that I should not care what harm people do as long as it has no impact on my life. That I should not care if black people are made to go to the back of the bus, because I am not a black person. That I should not care about the poverty in third world countries, because I do not live in a third world country. Now it should be said, in all honesty, that most who try to make this argument would not make it across the board. They merely make sex a special case and ignore the normal perspective on such things.
But the biggest problem with this idea is that it is completely untrue. What one or two people do in the privacy of their bedroom may not affect me, but when large numbers of people do it, it cannot help but seep out into society as a whole. I have battled the attraction of pornography since I was old enough to do so, and there is no question that accepting such things in private affects how we behave in public and the things that are acceptable in public. I do not have to go to X-rated movies. But when it is acceptable to do so, it affects what is expected in the other movies and in TV shows. I do not need to read porn magazines. But their general acceptance affects what is found in other magazines and books. I may not have to go to porn sites. But it affects what is found on other internet sites. And it puts pressure on everyone, particularly children and young people, to accept the ethic of casual sex. It affects how the sexes relate to one another in other contexts. It also affects the stability of their marriages and their families. This puts a burden on society to deal with the results of these failed relationships. The idea that what it is considered acceptable for people to do in their bedroom can be sealed in their bedroom is pure nonsense.
The only way this argument can be made to work is if it is maintained that people have a right to sexual license and I should be willing to sacrifice my convictions to protect that right. The problem is, I do not recognize any such right. We, as Christians, should avoid being harsh and sanctimonious about this. But we cannot concede the principle. If someone wants to try to convince me of such a right, they are welcome to do so. But do not tell me that it does not affect me, because this is simply not true.
Community is risky. This something we need to remember. Now community is commanded by God (Hebrews 10:24,25; Ephesians 4:1-6; Romans 12:4,5). It is also worth the risk. But we must remember that there is a risk. Any time we love people we risk being hurt by people. I do not see this as an excuse not to love. Love is the chief thing God requires of us (John 13:34,35; 1 John 4:7-21; Matthew 22:36-40). But we need to understand the danger when going in and count the cost. Nor can it be avoided merely by correctly handling the situation. One of Jesus' own apostle betrayed Him. To risk love is to risk hurt. But to avoid love is to lapse into a state of total self-centeredness contrary to everything God wants us to be. For He took the risk of loving us (John 3:16; Romans 5:6-8; 1 John 3:16).
"Is it clear?" I remarked to my partner, Lieutenant Isabel.
"It's unquestionable," she returned. "This couple are teaching their children that there is a God."
I hated these types of cases. But the law had to be enforced. We headed out the door.
We entered a standard cube of working class apartments, our badges out and our hands near our weapons. I ran my finger over the badge's scan spot that activated the police ringtone and cycled the door. I gave them a few minutes to come out voluntarily before forcing our way in.
A middle-aged woman, pretty in a dowdy sort of way, slowly opened the door with a look of shock on her face."What's the problem, officers?" she sputtered.
"You have been accused of corrupting young minds with abusive fables," I stated with a firm voice. "I have a retrieval order. You have the right to a hearing if you want one."
"No!" she screamed bursting into tears.
The man bulled his way past her and ran at me. "You're not taking my children," he screamed. I hit him with my shock grip. As he lay writhing in the room, I called for backup. We would have to take them all in.But there was something nagging at me from the back of my mind.
On the way in we heard the latest on the war with the Theodoules. They claimed all they wanted was to be left in peace in their own territory. But if they got away with it, every godbeliever in the nation would seek refuge there.
Later, I watched the man in the conditioning room on the therapeutic table. It was stimulating pain in his mind whenever he saw a religious image. "Any hope for him?" I asked Dr. Karen, the re-educator, as we walked over to her office on the other end of the floor.
"Not much," she replied. "The children are young and should be easy to reeducate. There is some slight hope for the woman . But the man is unreachable."
Then the lights went out. The standard office area with the lights off is as dark as a cave. Which is why there are three backups, which all seemed to have failed. I heard weapons' fire, but I could not get anywhere in the dark. I only later learned it was a Theodoulian raid. And they had taken all the prisoners.
It took some effort to find them. They had commandeered a cruise foil and were headed back to their so-called state. Our plan was for officers to sneak in from different directions and surround them. I do not know who fired first. But Isabel was caught in a fire fight with a couple of Theodoules in an alleyway. They went down, but Isabel took a shot to the chest. She did not make it.
In anger I turned to face the unarmed fugitives. Legally, I could shoot them down where they stood, and part of me wanted very badly to do so. Then I looked into the horrified faces of the couple I had arrested earlier.
I heard the voice of my middle grade teacher echoing in my head. "Religion has done all matter of evil. It has forced its beliefs on people and even tortured and killed people who would not consent. It stole people's children and raised them in its own beliefs. It made wars on others who had done no harm in order to impose its beliefs on them."