Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Is Our Message?

What is the gospel, the good news that we are to convey to the world? What is necessary to constitute an adequate presentation, and what is helpful? A good place to start is 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 where Paul puts it in a nutshell. Let's take a closer look at it.

First of all, Christ dying for our sins implies we have sins (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). This also implies that sin has consequences (Romans 6:23; Matthew 7:13,14; Revelation 20:12-15). But Christ in His death paid the penalty we owed because of our sin (Romans 5:8; Colossians 2:13,14; 1 Peter 2:24,25). He then validated that by rising from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:17; Romans 4:24,25; 2 Corinthians 4:14). We are to respond by believing (having faith) in these things to be saved (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; John 3:16-18). Especially in modern times, when people are unfamiliar with these things, it is helpful to point out some of the background ideas, such as that there is a God who created us and to whom we are responsible (Genesis 1:1; Psalms 8:3-8; 139:13-16) and that Jesus is God come in the flesh to redeem us (John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 1:6-12). Many of these things will be unfamiliar to the average person on the street and must be explained carefully. Or worse, people may misunderstand as a result of false doctrine and may need to be confronted with the genuine Biblical meaning.

The problem is that it is easy not to explain, assuming the other person understands. Or to use catch phrases that are meaningful to us, but mean nothing to them. "Born again" and "receive Christ" are Scriptural terms, but they are unclear to many if we do not explain them. Other terms such as "accept Christ," though not Biblical may be legitimate, but again are unclear if not explained. Others may be more questionable. One thing we need to realize is that if the terms God uses are subject to misunderstanding and need to be explained, can we expect our terms to be better?

If the message is left unclear, people will tend to misinterpret what we say one of two ways. They will see it as meaning they must turn over a new leaf and do good works, or they will see it as a vague mystical experience. The average unbeliever has a hard time understanding and accepting the gospel. We make it harder if we are unclear. There may have been a time when the average individual in the United States understood Christian beliefs. If there ever was such a time, it is no longer true.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Were the Gnostics the Real Christians?

Much has been said in recent times about the Gnostics. They are sometimes presented as original Christianity, which was suppressed by orthodoxy. What can we say to this?

What did the Gnostics believe? They held there was initially one God, whom other beings (called emanations) came out of. One of these emanations rebelled against the whole, resulting in the creation of the material world, which is evil. Humans are trapped in this world, and our goal is to escape it. Christ (who is seen as one in this hierarchy of emanations) could not really become a man because matter is evil. In some versions He only appeared to be a man, a ghostly being without physical substance; in others He made a deal with the ordinary man Jesus, who He then deserted at the cross. The result of this for the follower is either hatred of the body, resulting in strict rules, or the belief the body is evil, so you can do whatever you want with it and it will not affect you spiritually. (Some have claimed this last is a slur by the orthodox.)

Now Gnosticism fits in better with Greek philosophy than the original Jewish beliefs. Also, there are too many things in the Christian story that are inconvenient for Gnosticism to believe Gnosticism was first. The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension all conflict with a Gnostic view of the world, and it is hard to see how these ideas would have developed if Gnosticism had been first. Also, the orthodox argued Gnosticism was a later development. They told their people that the way to tell true doctrine was that it had been handed down from the apostles (a view perhaps too simplistic) and that later innovations should be dismissed. If this was a bluff, it was a colossal one, and if it was not true, a very dangerous one. The Gnostics are presented as not claiming to be first, but to be holding a secret teaching that Jesus gave to the inner core of His disciples and that was different from His public teaching. The extant Gnostic gospels would themselves bear this out. This has the look of people trying to explain away the fact that their teaching was a later development.

Also the problem for many who claim Gnosticism as the original is that it will not produce what they want. What they want is a purely human Jesus without any claim of deity. What Gnosticism gives them is an inhuman Christ who cannot really join Himself with humanity (they may leave Jesus human but He becomes just an instrument). There were groups that saw Jesus as purely human, but the problem is a purely human Jesus is irrelevant. It is the Jesus who is God become flesh and broke the power of sin, death and hell who turned the world upside down. A purely human Jesus would have collected a small following, left behind a few sayings and vanished into obscurity. Even the Gnostics would have known that.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Is in a Name?

How do the baptism of the Spirit, baptism into Christ, and the filling of the Spirit relate to each other? This is a divisive issue that can degenerate into a fight over names. How, then, should we approach it?

It is common for many Christians to have an experience after salvation where they trust Christ's work in them rather than trusting their own efforts. This experience is often standardized and made a requirement for spirituality. This may be called the baptism of the Spirit, the filling of the Spirit, or baptism into Christ (connected to crucifixion with Christ). Now these are historically related and are different names for the same teaching. But there are differences in the details (such as whether a person receives it by speaking in tongues).

It is clear that it is impossible to follow Christ without the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; Galatians 3:3). This is something recognized long ago by Augustine of Hippo and affirmed by everyone even close to Christian orthodoxy. But what the theologians affirm and what is commonly taught can be two different things. Also, there can be a gap between what we believe intellectually and how we behave. Therefore, it is not uncommon for individuals to have an experience where they realize they should trust in God's power, rather than their own. Now it is my understanding from Scripture that the Holy Spirit works in the life of every believer (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:9; Philippians 2:13) and that any later experience is simply a recognition of this fact. I think this important because, if something depends on us, it can become a legalistic burden. But isn't the important thing that we reach the conclusion of trusting in God, not ourselves?

The danger comes, though, when we take our experience and make it the basis of deciding if the Spirit is working in someone else. There is also the question of external signs. There are cases in Scripture where the Spirit's working in people resulted in speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:44-46; 19:6; some see it implied in Acts 8:17,18, though it is not mentioned). Other times the Spirit's working showed no such manifestation (Acts 4:8,31; 7:55; 13:9-12). In the Old Testament, one of the signs of God being at work in His people was the splitting of bodies of water (Exodus 14:21; Joshua 3:14-17; 2 Kings 2:8,14). Does this mean God is not at work in your life if you do not part a body of water?

Now I would hold the baptism by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13) and baptism into Christ (Colossians 2:12-14) to be names for the same event, which happens at salvation (and is pictured in water baptism) and filling to be the proper term for God's work in us after salvation (Ephesians 5:18). But the important thing is not the name we use, but to have the fact of trusting in God, rather than ourselves.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


What kind of Christians do we want to produce? What is our goal in making disciples?

The goal of some forms of instruction seem to be an external conformity. We set down a series of rules of behavior and expect people to live by them. If people meet these standards (or are good at faking it), we regard them as spiritual people. We then keep these people in line by external social pressure: if you break this rule we will condemn you.

But we can go further and require internal conformity. We can try to build a real relationship with the person in question so they will be influenced by our friendship, not just a list of rules. This is better, but is it the real solution? People can move away or drift away, and false teachers can be friendly too. If someone's faith ultimately rests on you, it is not a firm enough foundation.

If someone's faith and obedience toward God is to be solid, it must come from within them. They need an internal transformation and to hold what they hold because they have thought it out and made it their own. This is the person who will stand for God even when there is no one else there to support them. Now this individual cannot be produced without the work of the Holy Spirit in their heart (which is probably why the others are easier to produce), but they do require a different approach on the part of the human teacher. It requires presenting material in such a way as to encourage people to think it through. It requires giving reasons for what we believe and challenging people to draw their own conclusions. It is very dangerous. If challenged to think, people may reach the wrong conclusions. I believe we need to trust the Holy Spirit to work in people to bring them to the right conclusions. (If they desert when challenged to make the faith their own, did they have a real faith in the first place?) This means teaching people the deep things of the word of God and training them in the defense of the faith. God calls for us to be people who are transformed from the inside (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:22-24) and not who just look good on the outside (Matthew 23:23-28). (In Romans 12:2, the "form" in "conform" speaks of an outward disguise, as in 2 Corinthians 11:14, but the "form" in "transform" speaks of one's true internal nature, as in Philippians 2:6.) Now sometimes when working with people we need to start with some form of conformity. But if we stop there we end up producing superficial disciples who will cave when real pressure comes (Ephesians 4:14; Matthew 13:18-23).

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Can we know that we have eternal life? What does it mean to know? There are many passages in Scripture on being confident of our salvation (1 John 5:11-13; John 10:27-30; Romans 8:28-39; 1 Peter 1:5; Philippians 1:6). But there are also in Scripture many warnings (Galatians 5:1-4; 2 Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 6:1-8; 10:26-31; James 2:14-26). Taken together they would seem to argue against two opposite errors, uncertainty and presumption.

Some views make any assurance difficult. They claim people are constantly saved and lost, or they require exceptional moral behavior to be sure of salvation. These do not fit the Scriptural promises of God's protection. Nor do they reflect the confidence before God described in the Scripture (Romans 8:15; Hebrews 4:16; 1 Peter 5:7). Also, there is little difference between working to be saved and working to be sure you are saved.

Other views presume if a person claims to be converted, they are a real Christian. One way of dealing with the warnings, in light of this, is to say they refer to Christians who are in danger of temporal discipline. God does discipline His people (Hebrews 12:4-13), but it is hard to reconcile this with what is said in the warnings. Can it be said of a genuine believer that Christ is of no benefit to them (Galatians 5:2) or it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness (2 Peter 2:21)? Further, there is Scriptural basis for saying not everyone who professes to be a Christian is one (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 2:19; 2 Corinthians 13:5).

It is my understanding that the warnings refer to those who were never saved in the first place, rather then suggesting we can have salvation and lose it. This fits in with the Scriptural intimation that these never knew Christ (Matthew 7:21-23; 1 John 2:19) and accords with the Scriptural assurances of God's preservation. But do we then have to reach some high level of spirituality to be sure we are saved? It is difficult to be impressed with the behavior of Lot (see Genesis 13, 14, 19). He picks the best land, moves into the wicked city of Sodom, offers his daughters to be raped to save his house-guests, loses almost everything in the destruction of Sodom, and ends up committing incest with his daughters in a drunken stupor. But 2 Peter 2:7,8 says he was a just man (he was saved), and it also says his soul was tormented constantly because of the deeds of the people of Sodom. Genuine Christianity does not require a high level of spirituality, but it does produce a real change. It should also be noted that if you suspect you are not saved, the solution is not to do good works, but to trust Christ (John 3:16). But we should avoid the extremes. We should not encourage people to perpetually doubt their salvation. Nor should we assure them that if they go through the motions of a conversion, it must be genuine.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Christianity and Democracy

Is Christianity the friend or foe of democracy? Were the founding fathers of the United States Christians or deists? What are the facts?

The Greeks and Romans experimented with various forms of government, but when the Roman Empire fell, Europe reverted to monarchy. They also followed this approach in church government, which led to putting the authority of men before the word of God. During the Renaissance there was dabbling in Greek and Roman types of government. But this was confined to a few places. One reason for this is that democracy had not yet become a cause to fight or die for.

Then came the Protestant Reformation. One of the principles of the Reformation was that we have the right and responsibility to interpret Scripture for ourselves (Matthew 15:7-9; Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:8,9). This caused the Reformed branch of Protestantism to put the government of the church in the hands of the people. They also advocated popular civil government. These do not necessarily follow from each other. (Freedom of interpretation is taught in Scripture, but it is questionable whether Scripture prescribes any form of church government, and it says nothing about the form of civil government.) But they do fit together. If we can interpret Scripture for ourselves, then should we not be able to have a say in running the church? And if we can be trusted to run the church, can we not also be trusted to run the state? And the truth of God was something people were willing to fight and die for. This took the democratic political system from an oddity practiced in Switzerland and a few Italian cities to a broadly held principle.

But as Europe became more secular, a number of people (including deists, deism being watered-down Christianity) threw out the Reformed theological beliefs and kept the political convictions. John Locke was a key deist who advocated political liberty, but he got the idea from Protestants such as Thomas Hooker and Samuel Rutherford.

Many people of Reformed theology ended up coming to the New World to worship God as they saw fit. Other colonists were influenced by their beliefs or at least their political convictions. Therefore, on the question of whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists the answer is yes, some of both were included. But they were following principles that originated from their Protestant heritage.

What difference does this make? The democratic system that originated from Christianity had within it a strong sense of responsibility and a concept of the rule of law. To see what democracy becomes without these, we need look no further than the French Revolution, which followed a completely secular approach. I do not believe the United States, in spite of its rejection of Christianity, has yet totally cast off its tradition of rule of law. But if it does, all that will be left will be anarchy and a tyranny of the majority.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Right Technique

Is there a right way to share Christ? If so, what is it? While Scripture is clear on the commandment, it does not say a lot about the method. Yet there are serious disagreements on this issue. What can we conclude about this?

Scripture makes it quite clear there is an obligation to reach others for Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We are to teach the right message (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 2:1-5; Romans 3:21-31). This is to be done with boldness and gentleness (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Ephesians 6:19,20; Colossians 4:2-6). This fits in with the more general principle of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Therefore, we are to avoid the opposite extremes of being harsh and judgmental or being timid and not confronting people with the truth. We should also strive to have lives that do not contradict what we are trying to tell people (Matthew 5:13-16; John 13:34,35; 1 Peter 3:1,2).

But after we get past these basics, Scripture does not say much about specific methodology. That implies to me that Scripture is leaving it open. But it also implies to me that the real issue is not technique. Now do not get me wrong; I am not saying we should be sloppy and not try to present the gospel in the best way we know how. What I am saying is the main issue is the power of God, not following the right procedure. In the United States in the present day, there has been a departure from Christian beliefs and values. It is tempting, therefore, for Christians to desire a quick fix to return us as a nation to belief in Christ. I see no basis in Scripture for such an infallible method. Rather, we are to be prepared for rejection by the world around us (John 15:18-21; 16:1-4; Matthew 10:16-25). Therefore, we should not lose heart or search desperately for magic formulas, but rather share Christ as best we can and not lose heart, but trust in God and His power.

What approach, then, should we use? I have a certain degree of sympathy with the approach taken by Mark Mittelburg, Lee Strobel, and Bill Hybels in their "Becoming a Contagious Christian" course. They claim there are various evangelism styles and each person needs to find their own. This is not explicitly taught in Scripture, but fits in with the concept of the gifts of the body (1 Corinthians 12). But the main thing is not the method, but that we are at work carrying out God's commandment in this area. If we are doing what God commands, He will lead us to the approach He wants us to take.