Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Christ of History

Conservative Christianity is one of the few systems of belief that is firmly rooted in history. If Confucius was totally unknown to history or if he were someone else, his teachings would be substantially the same. If Buddha was not Buddha, his beliefs would remain unchanged. But if Jesus Christ was not who He claimed to be and did not do what He was claimed to have done, Christianity becomes a totally different faith. This is why those who try to water down Christianity to fit modern philosophical convictions end up with something wholly unlike the original.

The first issue is who Jesus Christ is. According to conservative Christian teaching, He is the God-Man, God come in the flesh. This implies He was one of four things. He was a legend so blown out of proportion by His followers as to be unrecognizable (and if so, we have to ask why they did it). A liar of of the most viciously evil type (because He asked people to trust in Him for eternal life and be willing to give up everything for Him in this world). A madman who honestly thought what He said was true but was wrong. Or He was who He is claimed to be--God come to rescue us from our sins. But what people would rather believe is He is someone like Confucius, a great ethical teacher who was gradually blown out of portion over time. But this is not plausible. After 2600 years it is till clear to those who read his writings what Confucius really was. But in at most 200 years (probably less than that) Jesus was supposedly so distorted as to be unrecognizable (see Matthew 7:21-23, 11:27; John 8:58, 10:30, 14:9; Hebrews 1:8; Philippians 2:6).

The other issue is what Jesus did. It is the Christian contention that He died on the cross to pay the price for our sins and rose again to conquer death. Paul contends that if Christ did not in fact return to life from the dead, then our faith is vain and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). If this was some sort of a scam, we have to ask how they pulled it off, and if it was a mistake, how it was made. But this does not seem to be some later window dressing but the very heart of the Christian message (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 4:24, 25; Colossians 2:11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:15 ).

It is not my purpose here to provide a detailed defense of the Christian faith. But it is my point to show what the issue is. It is not about a moral code or a mystical experience. It is about God invading history to deliver us from sin and death when we could not deliver ourselves. This is the issue, and we must chose whether to accept this message or reject it as the biggest hoax of all history. These are the choices; there are no others.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Loving God

The first and greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37). How do we do this? Now, the Bible says we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and if we ask how He loved us, we are told He sent His Son to die for us (1 John 4:9-10; Romans 5:5-11). Our love for God is our response to God's love for us and what He has done for us.

But how much we value the gift and the Giver depends on how much we recognize our need. Luke tells the story of Jesus going to dinner at a Pharisee's house (see Luke 7:36-50). There entered a woman who was a notorious sinner, who began to anoint Jesus' feet with expensive perfume and wipe them with her hair. The Pharisee condemned Jesus for allowing such a woman to touch Him. In response, Jesus told the story of two debtors. One owed $250.00 and the other owed $2500.00. If the lender forgave them both, which would love him more? The Pharisee correctly discerned it was the one who owed more. Jesus then pointed out how the woman who had been forgiven much loved Jesus much. But the Pharisee, who thought he had done little that needed forgiving, loved little.

Where are we? Are we in the place of the Pharisee or the place of the woman? The Bible makes it very clear that all of us, no matter who, are sinners like the woman(Romans 3:9-18, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). But sometimes we can convince ourselves otherwise. We live in a culture that says that all people (except perhaps extreme cases) are basically good, and, if we do things that are wrong, it is really somebody else's fault. Also, we as Christians start to get the idea that, while we used to be sinners, somehow we are no longer like that. The Bible does not encourage us in this opinion (1 John 1:8-10). Also, it is easy to learn to mouth the words, "I am a sinner," and to not really believe them in our hearts.

In 2 Peter 1:5-11, it admonishes us to add to our faith in God a number of other virtues. It then says if these qualities are not in us and increasing, it is because we have forgotten our forgiveness from our former sins. If we are not growing in our love for God, resulting in changes in our lives, we need to come back to the cross and remember what God did for us and how much we needed it. Also, if we do love God, this should express itself in keeping the second greatest commandment--to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 34:19; 1 John 4:20,21; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Breaking Out of the Circle

In the days of the settling of the United States, when the covered wagons headed west, they would meet with attacks along the way. When this happened, they would circle the wagons and make them a barrier behind which to hide and shoot at the enemy. This is the approach many take to theology. They pick a narrow view and circle the wagons around it, with their guns aimed outward to shoot anyone on the outside. The result resembles the state Paul deplored at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Paul characterized this state of things as carnality (1 Corinthians 3:1-8) and stated that disunity and dissension are the result of not having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11).

Another approach is to treat God's teachings like the cards in a game of rummy. We keep the ones we like or think important and discard the rest. In this, I am not just referring to those holding liberal theology (who discard just about everything). There are many from a more conservative theological point of view who follow this approach, holding on to a few key basics of the faith and ignoring the rest. But we are told that all Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16,17) and that there is an obligation to teach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

I would rather approach theology as a mountain climb. We are on a journey to reach the place where we will know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), but we are not there yet (Philippians 3:13, 14). But every step we take in learning more about God and His teachings brings us closer to being the people God calls us to become (Ephesians 4:13-16). Now don't get me wrong; there are dangerous places on the mountain. There is the "Jesus is not God" cliff, from which those who go over it fall to their destruction (John 8:24; compare John 8:58). There is the "We can be saved by our own works" quicksand, in which climbers can sink to their demise (Galatians 1:8, 9). It is necessary to enter the gate at the entrance of the path up the mountain (John 14:6). I am not by any means advocating that all roads lead to God; most lead away (Luke 13:23-30). But we are also admonished against thinking we have everything figured out (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-3). We should therefore be careful of looking down on someone who is headed up the mountain but is taking a different path than we are. It will all become clear when we reach the top. But we should not ignore any point of truth as we climb up. Every step is getting us one step closer to the top.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Opiate Of The People?

One of the charges brought against religion is that it is a plot by those in power to keep the public under control. Now, I do not know that I can respond to the charge in terms of "religion" (a vague word that lacks substantive meaning in most cases), but I can as it applies to traditional Christianity.

Our Founder was a carpenter, and his followers were fishermen, political radicals, former prostitutes, and reformed corrupt minor government officials. He was opposed by those in the position of authority to the extent they put Him to death with a method reserved for the worst criminals. Later, His followers became known as a religion of women and slaves because they appealed to the lower classes. The only one of the early leaders who was really respectable (a man by the name of Paul) ceased to be when he followed Christ. He because a wandering preacher who could not come into a town without causing a riot. Ultimately, Christians ended up being persecuted by the Roman establishment because it was against their conscience to participate in a religious ceremony that was commonly regarded as a mere formality.

Later on, Christianity became respectable. There were among its representatives the occasional individual who became an agent to support those in power. There were those leaders who stood for upholding the status quo. We all tend to uphold the status quo when we are the status quo. But, on the whole, Christians have tended to maintain their reputations as obstinate and unbending people who hold to their principles even when it costs them their lives.

But the ultimate test was arranged by one of the chief advocates of the conspiracy theory, a man named Karl Marx. He claimed that Christianity was a conspiracy to keep down the working people and they should rebel, overthrow the government and abolish it. If this were true, you would expect that once Christianity was no longer in power, without its reason for continuing, it would vanish away. It did not happen this way. When the Communists took over China, even the Christian missionaries felt the infant church there had little chance of withstanding the onrush of Communism. But, when China opened up again, they returned to find the Chinese Christians millions strong. In Eastern Europe, not only did Christianity continue, but it is claimed it was a key factor producing the fall of Communism there (see, for instance, Chuck Colson's book, The Body).

There are very few philosophical theories which have been tested in the crucible of history. This is one of them. Marx said religion was the opiate of the people. One of our early teachers, a man named Tertullian, said the blood of the martyrs (those who died for the faith) was seed, resulting in the growth of the church. The evidence of history is that Tertullian, rather than Marx, was right.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Speaking Christianeze

Have you ever been in an occupation where you used a technical language? It enables those in the occupation to speak more clearly to each other then regular English. It can also be mysterious to those outside. Christianity has such a technical language (commonly called Christianeze). The question is whether we should abolish it.

There are definite drawbacks to technical language. It can cause a people to think they are communicating to others when, in fact, they are not. Also, with Christian language there are groups that use the same words with different meanings. It is also possible to use the words in a technical language without being clear ourselves what they mean. Also, we can end up inventing technical words just to show off that we understand them, even if they are not necessary.

But I question whether we can just throw the technical language out. Imagine trying to carry on a conversation on Christian subjects if every time we said "born again" or "spiritual" we had to explain it in ordinary language. It would take us hours to say anything. We would also lose precision. There is no equivalent in everyday language for words like "justification" or "atonement". We would also cut ourselves off from the majority of Christian writing and thought both past and present. Further, there is a danger of assuming that if we get rid of the technical words, we are communicating. This is not necessarily true. Many of the concepts of Christianity are foreign to people on the outside, and simply getting rid of the words will not solve it. In fact, it is sometimes easier to grasp a new concept if we have a new word to hang it on.

But the Christian has no different a problem than is faced by many occupations. Further, most of these occupations, if they want to continue to exist, have to deal with customers who do not know the language. What, then, is the solution?

We need to start by being aware of the problem. Therefore, we need to be careful whenever we speak to those who are unfamiliar with our terms and either define our terms or use ordinary language. Also, we need to be sure that we ourselves understand what we are saying. If we cannot explain our theology to an ordinary person on the street, we do not understand our theology. Also, if there are words that are unnecessary and merely make us look scholarly, we need to drop them. This means we need to be particularly careful in contexts like a worship service, where we may be speaking to both believers and unbelievers.

But the bottom line is, if you want to learn how to talk to unbelievers, you need to talk to unbelievers. Also, ask questions and listen to them so you can get some idea of where they are coming from and what they understand. Otherwise we are just talking to ourselves.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Badge of the Christian

A badge is something that identifies the wearer. Whether it is the badge of a law enforcement officer or a name badge at a conference, it lets us know something about person who wears it. The outward signs of the Christian are the ordinances or sacraments. They are also one of the biggest matters of contention among Christians down through the ages. In fact, it is hard to talk about them without taking a position by the words you use. Is there any way out of this fight?

The underlying question is what the ordinances do for us. They are a confession of faith in Christ, but, beyond that, opinions range from their being purely symbolic to their actually giving something to the recipient. In the case of the Lord's Supper or communion or the Eucharist, this can go as far as receiving the physical body and blood of Christ. But the interesting thing is the Scripture does not go into any detail on this, leaving both sides to build their case on hints and implications. If, as I would affirm, God has communicated to us what He intended to communicate, I am forced to question whether this is meant to be dogmatically affirmed. Could it be that the person who receives the sacrament, receives the benefit of the sacrament. If it is a symbol, they perceive the symbol, and if there is something given, they receive whatever that something is. Nowhere in Scripture is the receiving of the benefit of an ordinance said to depend on one's theory about it. Should we divide over something the Scripture does not clearly assert.

A further issue is whether the validity of the sacrament is based on the way it is performed. Again, I do not find this delineated in Scripture. If God required the ordinances to be done a certain way, don't you think He would have told us in no uncertain terms. If you think God is unwilling to do this, you need only examine the requirements in the Old Testament Law to see He is not. I do admit it is at least relevant whether we should baptize infants. I believe the New Testament pattern is to baptize believers only, but I do not think it something worth dividing over. None of these things are a matter of emphasis in Scripture.

The final question is who is eligible to perform the sacraments. Again, the Scriptures are silent. In Matthew 28:16-20, it implies that those who are Christ's disciples, His followers (not apostles, as referring to their office), have been commanded, among other things, to baptize. There is no place in Scripture where the right to perform the ordinances is limited to certain people (or certain contexts). Rather, the issue is the heart of the recipient, not the person who officiates (Acts 10:47; 16:14, 15, 16:30-33). Should any of these matters be points of dispute for genuine followers of Christ.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Knowing God

Can you know someone without knowing about them? I like to think I know my wife. But if someone asked me questions about my wife (What is her favorite color? Where was she born, and where did she grow up?) and I could not answer any of them, you would wonder what kind of a relationship we had. On the other hand, an FBI agent might be able to investigate and find out all sorts of facts about my wife and not really know her.

We face the same problem when it comes to knowing God. It is possible to know things about God without really knowing God. But is it possible to know God without knowing something about God? What sense does it make to speak of knowing a God that we know nothing about. If I know nothing about Him, what sense does it make to call Him, "God"? And what possible difference can it make at any level to speak of knowing someone I know nothing about? If all I am looking for is a vague feeling, I can get that by reading The Lord of the Rings or watching Star Trek. Why drag God into it?. I am not opposed to experiences, but experiences should be firmly rooted in the real God who exists in the real world. Otherwise, it is all just a nice story. With this the Scriptures agree, for they connect knowing God and knowing about Him (Jeremiah 9:23, 24); in fact, there is much more emphasis in Scripture on knowing that God is God than on knowing God (Psalms 46:10; 83:18; 100:3).

How then do we come to know God and not just know about God? Scripture says that the only way to know God is through Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:27), who is the only way to God (John 14:6). Scripture explains that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23), Christ paid for our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), and we can be saved by trusting in Him (Romans 4:4, 5). As a result, we can know God (Philippians 3:8-10), but if we come some other way, Christ will say, "I never knew you" (Luke 13:23-27) . Therefore, we have a new relationship with God; we are His children (John 1:12, 13), His friends (John 15:14, 15), and His future bride (2 Corinthians 11:1, 2). However, once we know Him, we are to grow in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10; 2 Peter 3:18) and to live our lives in light of that relationship (1 John 2:3-5; 4:8, 9). The Scripture does not give us a pat formula for doing this. Rather, we are to live our lives in view of our relationship with God, learning to know Him and love Him more. In this, reading and meditating on God's Word (Psalms 1:2), prayer (Philippians 4:6, 7), and praise and worship (Psalms 100:1-5) are aids in this. But these must not be done mechanically, but as communication with a God who loves us and is always with us.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

No One Knows

Two men (both named Gregory) looked out over their world. They saw a world in anarchy. They saw the government in total disarray and society falling apart. They saw people, even people who claimed to be Christians, living debauched and immoral lifestyles with few traces of conscience. They thought that surely things had reached an all time low in the world. Surely it was time for the Lord's return. They lived in the 7th century AD.

There have been many who have tried to predict the second coming of Christ, and they have all been wrong. But this does not seem to discourage the next person from showing up and trying again. And in all this, the Scripture continues to state over and over again that we cannot, do not, and will not know when Christ will come (Matthew 24:36-51; 25:13; Acts 1:7; 2 Thessalonians 5:1-3; 2 Peter 3:8-10). (There is only one passage that can be used against this, and that is 1 Thessalonians 5:4-6, but, in the context, this clearly does not mean we will know the time of Christ's coming. It means we will not be surprised if we are alert and watching.)

Now it is the Day of the Lord that will come as a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:2), and it is reasonable to believe that this includes, not only the coming itself, but the events immediately connected with it. There will come a point when it is obviously occurring (Matthew 24:27), when the redeemed will look up in anticipation (Luke 21:28) and those opposed will curse God and call for the rocks and hills to fall on them (Revelation 16:9; 6:15-17).

The question is whether it is possible, before it is blatantly clear, for the clever and knowledgeable to figure out the time. And, frankly, I see nothing in Scripture that encourages this idea. In fact, there is much in Scripture that rebukes reliance on human cleverness and knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; 3:18-20). Also, Scripture gives the impression that the whole point of God not giving us a time is so we would not know, but be prepared at all times (Luke 21:34-36). That is, we will not become too entangled in this world, which is about to pass away (2 Peter 3:11-13), or desert our normal duties, like the Thessalonians, on the assumption the Day has already come (2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2; 3:6-15). Therefore, we should be skeptical of those who claim to know more than the angels in heaven (Matthew 24:36), but rather trust God for His timing.