Condemnation Vs. Repentance

Perhaps it is not the culture that needs to repent of its failure to be Christian, but Christians who need to repent of being so lax in following Christ.

Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it before the king. And when the king heard the words of the Law, he tore his clothes.
( 2 Ch 34:18–19 ESV)

From a modern perspective, king Josiah’s response in 2 Chronicles seems difficult to understand. After all, the book of the law had been discovered as a result of a massive campaign to rebuild the temple, and move the nation away from its apostate worship of false gods. Wasn’t Josiah already doing the right thing? Wasn’t the nation already moving in the right direction? Hadn’t the government found a correct footing, and wasn’t the worship of the one true God already ascendant again?

In this context, Josiah learns the law of God, and how much the people of Israel had failed to obey God for generations. As we read the context, it seems clear that he is correct in thinking that God would rightly punish Israel for its disobedience and apostasy. Yet this seems puzzling at some level as I read.

I can think of a few reasons for this:

1) I misunderstand because I think I’m owed forgiveness. I find it difficult to understand why God would punish even after people seem to have admitted their wrongdoing and moved to make things right. Yet is this really so hard to understand? Does good work after a grievous sin change the grievous sin at all? I don’t think it does. Part of my issue here seems to be that I have so deeply ingrained the forgiving nature of God into my thinking that I have come to presume upon it. It is not so much that I think Gid is laudible because He is forgiving, but that I think he is NOT laudible if he refuses to forgive, it is as if forgiveness has become my right instead of God’s privilege.

2) My lack of understanding comes also from my failing to see a communal side to my life. Being a 21st century Canadian, I often tacitly assume the (rather insane) idea that I am an island unto myself, and that my own righteousness or lack thereof has no effect on others, and that the fialings of others in no way reflect on me. Of course, I have no right to compel righteousness in others, but how often is the lack of righteousness in those around me part of my own unwillingness to live righteously before others, and to speak of the glories of a life abandoned to God? How is the community I live in to hear of God unless I am willing to speak of Him?

Yet very little of my (admittedly pretty insular) life are without affect by the community I live in. I have food, electricity, heat, and security, all because of the ongoing work of others. The fortress of solitude is not so solitudinous that I lack television, internet, and radio, all produced by countless others. While they do it also for their own benefit, they are working on my behalf. I am also in a better position because, by in large, many of those around me assume at least a basic level of moral action. Few steal, and most respect the closed door on my apartment as a desire to be alone unless I let them in.

I have come to assume that too as my right instead of the grace of God working through the consciences of the community around me. How much more have I failed to see that I am responsible directly (not merely through the machinations of government) for the wellbeing of those around me.

3) I don’t want to understand, because it feels better to condemn than it does to repent. The very statement of this point is causing a bit of moral upset in me, because even now part of me is wanting to make this about other Christians and not me. The fact is that it is always far easier to point at others and say “you’re doing it wrong” than it does to look at myself squarely and do the hard work of thinking of how I need to change. It is far easier to stay the course and convince myself that at least I’m better than . It can even hide in my desire to criticise “Christians” or “the Church” or any other group I can abstract myself from, even as I abstractly realize I’m part of the group.

In the end, perhaps I should be reacting like Josiah and praying God will be gracious.

Keep me in coffee

The author is often highly caffeinated. Keep him that way!


The Heresy of Underestimating God’s Grace. (Redemption in Christian Community part II)

This is part II in a series on redemption. In yesterday’s post I talked about the puzzling problem of a culture that seems to love redemption, but doesn’t seem at all compelled by the real redemption that is central to the Christian message. Why is that? I think the problem lies in two separate but related functional heresies at work in the Church (here meaning heresies in what beliefs are reflected in the way we behave, even if we swear up and down with large conferences, studies and sermon series’ to the contrary). The first is the heresy of core goodness; that we were simply good people on a wrong path before Christ came and saved us. The second is the heresy of surface neatness, as opposed to deep righteousness.
The first heresy works to make us, at least in the way we act, imagine that some people are beyond salvation, by imagining that we were not “beyond salvation” before God came and saved us, regardless of how respectable we were at the time.
Just by way of review, let me remind us of where we were before God found us. We were one of the “all” that were going their own we, we were not doing righteousness, because none were (read Romans Ch 1-3 for a full elucidation of the topic… and yes, Romans 1 applies to all of us). The simple fact was that our righteousness was as dirty rags (and so our evil was even worse). We were not seeking God, we were seeking our own righteousness when God saved us.
By forgetting this, we imagine that certain people (usually people who don’t meet our standards of surface neatness… more on that tomorrow) are beyond God’s salvation. We may use religious language to cloak it (misappropriating Jesus’ words about pearls before swine), but the result is the same, we believe we were closer to God when he saved us than those other people are, so there is no reason to have patience with people who struggle with sins that are different from our own.
It’s also going to mean that we’re going to have “second class Christians” (or even go so far as to call other people not Christian) for “sins” that are minor in the Biblical metanarrative (drinking alcohol, failing to divest of investments in politically problematic companies), all the while ignoring sins that are major (failing to love people created in the image of God…. all people, or failing to love God).
This gets really dark when it’s linked with the other major functional heresy. More tomorrow

Losing the Plot (Redemption in Christian Community Part I)

Many people will say that church isn’t all that interesting. At some level, that’s because people who have not been reborn of the Holy Spirit don’t generally enjoy the real things of God, but in addition to the direct sinfulness of humanity, I think we Christians may also bear part of the blame for the lack of value in Church.
Churches generally spend a great deal of time trying to be more relevant, whether through changing worship styles, better small group programs, or even through shifting doctrine to be more inclusive, but all of this is strange considering the compelling nature of the Gospel (or how it was compelling to previous generations).
I don’t say this without evidence. Despite the great antipathy the culture has been feeling for the Church over the past several years, this past week, we saw society compelled by the witness of a group of Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. The reason is, in the face of a gross evil visited upon them, a group of Christians determined to offer forgiveness to the man who performed the evil deed. I have no idea if they saiid theologically correct things, but they did choose to overcome evil with good.
The interest in this part of a tragic story opposes the idea that we have simply arrived at a historical period where the message of the Gospel no longer has any clout. The idea that we can be acceptable to God; that all the mistakes and evil we have done in our own lives can not only be forgotten, but remade into a display of God’s goodness… into something beautiful…. Maybe that is no longer valuable to people. Yet when the men and women at Dylan Roof’s bail hearing wished mercy on his soul, many again felt the
Yet generally, as the Church, I think we have lost the plot, so this week, I’m going to do some short posts about where I think we’ve gone wrong, and how we can get right. In the meantime, though, it’s easiest to say that we have often followed our unbelieving culture, and lost our love of seeing God’s redemption because in order for something to be redeemed from a sinful state, it must be well and truly bad. 
We have sought to isolate ourselves in the church from both the sins of others and the sins of ourselves, and even sought security and safety in things other than God, rather than facing evil squarely with the Gospel. We have as a result lost the ability to see God’s beauty in saving the lost and repurposing what we intended for evil for His ultimate good. Why has this happened? Tune in tomorrow.

The Pharisee Culture

“You know how this wine was blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce the subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic on earth…. The wickedness of other religions was the really live doctrine in the religion of each; slander was its gospel, and denigration its litany. How they hated each other up where the sun shone!”

(C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

I have made the claim previously that the Gospel is always bad news to an unprepared heart, and that there are two major forms of the “unprepared”. In the first case are the despairing, who know that if there is a just God, that He must have profound problems with them. The Gospel for them is that God does indeed love them, and provided a way for them to enjoy Him in Jesus Christ. The problem is that the despairing cannot imagine that this is for them.

Then I said that there is a second group, a more numerous group, for which the Gospel is anything but good news, and I labelled that group the Pharisee.

Now, many will wonder at my calling the most common modern group pharisees, since pharisees are supposed to be religious people, and modern Canada is honestly a quite secular place. So let me explain what I mean by a Pharisee.

A Pharisee is someone who honestly believes that they are the ultimate definition of the moral, and set their lives to hatred of that which they see as immoral. A pharisee is by definition self-righteous. They define what is true and good and moral, and rage incessantly against what they see as “evil” (whatever that evil is, whether ignorance, or meanness, or irreligiousness). They gain their joy, not from the beliefs they hold, or from God, but from the fact that they are right and some other group is wrong. They are happy that they are righteous and they pity or hate those who are not precisely like them.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what the main object of your beliefs is. If you think that all Montreal Canadiens fans are evil, and rejoice in their comeuppance, you are in danger of phariseeism. You can be a religious nut who rejoices in the damnation of whatever particular group you do not like (such as atheists, or the gays, or whatever), or you can be an atheist that gains your jollies by laughing at the silliness of those terrible religious people.

In both cases, you are quite assured that you are righteous; that you are a “good” person, and that the world would be much better if everybody else was like you.

Terribly enough, this is the common plight of the modern west. We have spent the last 30-50 years telling our young that they should have “self-esteem”, and that they should be more into expressing themselves than learning to be accurate, or even learning from others from whom they disagree. A necessary corollary of this is that you believe yourself to be the definition of what is good and worthy of expression. You yourself are righteous. Thus we have spent more than a generation telling ourselves that “we’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like us” (twisted aside: anybody else find it ironic that the comedian that played Stewart Smalley is now a U.S. Senator?), and so telling them that they are righteous in themselves, they SHOULD BE self-righteous. It is good to be a Pharisee.

Of course, its sometimes hidden in “tolerance”, where we are called to tolerate all opinions, save those anachronistic troglodytes that are not tolerant, and the world will be so much better when they stop clinging to god and guns…… Or maybe it’ll all be good when those terrible people who believe in a religion are gone, or those irreligious atheists are gone, or <insert your favourite whipping boy here>….. You can see what I mean.

The gospel to a pharisee is far worse than to a despairing person. For the pharisee, the intimation that they are not actually as good as they imagine (and are in fact evil), since the ultimate definition of goodness isn’t them, but is God. Worse, this good God is actually so good that He really does hate evil, and thus hates our pharisaic tendencies.

The problem we Christians face is that this is a) cultural, so we have trouble catching this evil in ourselves and purging ourselves of it (and so people rightly see many of us as hypocrites) and b) a positive roadblock to the Gospel.

This isn’t helped much since we tend to focus our evangelism on the despairing sinner who knows they need mercy (God loves you), and actually adds strength to the pharisees, who need to know that the God who rules really hates evil, and we really are evil. We place our righteousness in us instead of in Him, and so honestly deserve the just wrath of God.

This is not good news to people who honestly believe they are good, or at least better than that group they hate. So far from seeing their desperate need for mercy, the pharisee culture reacts to the reign of God by demanding what right God has to define righteousness, or by claiming that God is evil, or by imagining that God hates all sin except mine.

The Pharisee is actually the most openly in rebellion to God, and rebels are rarely happy to be told of the rule of that which they rebel against. As a result the good news is very bad to this unprepared heart.

Despair and Sin

After some discussion, I’m finding that I have to explain what I mean when I say that the rarer form of unprepared heart for the Gospel is despairing sin.

Recall that my central understanding of the Gospel is that is at heart about the glory of Jesus Christ and the reign of His kingdom (Matt. 4:23). Jesus Christ rules over all things (Rev. 11:15), and that rule is evidenced both in wrath for sinners, and just mercy on some that was purchased on the cros (Rom. 9:22-23).

The problem for the exceedingly rare despairing sinner is not the conviction that they are sinners. They already have that. The problem for the despairing sinner is that the rule of a just omniscient God comes as bad news to this person. They are in rebellion to such a God, and know that they are, and so upon learning that there is such a God, despair because they cannot hope to measure up.

Unless their hearts are prepared, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for their sins is going to simply be too good to be true. They will prefer to have some mediating priesthood or action, or something, so that they can be sure that God is actually for them and not against them.

Biblically, this is the group Jesus and the apostles had the most success with at the get go. The only thing that the Spirit needs to convince such people is the love of God and the objective truth of Christ’s death and resurrection for their sins. In societies with a strong basis in an objective morality, the preaching of God’s love through the cross will be effective.

However, this group is very rare in modern culture. In fact, I’ve only ever met a handful of this group. In order to be in this group you have to have enough of a background that would convince you both of the reality of objective morality and that you are in transgression of that. Since the first step is openly denied in modern western culture, it is going to be rare to find people who are convinced that they are in transgression of it. What few that do get past that step, run up against the modern imperial I, and the belief that the objective morality is personally defined (thus everyone is always completely moral, since they define morality).

That is why I believe that Phariseeism is the far more common opposition to the Gospel in modern hearts, and why I believe that the current focus on the truth of God’s love to the exclusion of God’s wrath is probably doomed in modern society.

The Gospel is Never Good News to an Unprepared Heart

Sounds like a bit of an internal contradiction, doesn’t it? After all, Gospel is by definition Good News, that’s what the word means. So why the provocative title?

Well, the simplest answer is that I’ve been doing some pondering while reading a few books. It slows down my reading speed a lot, but I think I get more out of it this way. In the first place, it is because I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel is not primarilly about my salvation, as it is not primarilly about me at all. That sentence is enough to get me pilloried in some circles, but it seems to be quite clear when we realize that the Gospel is centrally about the Glory of Jesus Christ; the Kingdom of God (of which He is king). (see 2 Cor. 4:4)

This meets humans in one of two broad places, both of which see this possibility as very bad news indeed. The first group, the vintage Pharisee, sees this as bad as fundamentally it takes away from him the centrality of the Gospel. The Gospel (or indeed the entire universe) ceases to be about him, and becomes about some man/deity. He no longer can claim to be making god propitious to him, but instead needs to rely on another alien propitiation. He approaches the judgement seat of heaven and finds it already occupied (for the judgement seat is also a throne, and it does not have space for the pharisee). The pharisee cannot see the reign of God in Christ as good news, because in his heart of hearts, he wanted the job, and secretly believes it to have been stolen from him.

The second group, still in a problem situation, are the despairing sinners. These people actually recognize that they have done wrong in the world, and either seek to pretend that there is no justice in the world (so they can get away with it), or that if there is justice in the world, they cannot receive it. For these people, the reign of God fills them with dread, because this very fact means that the things they do, which they know to be wrong, cannot be thought of well by any just king of the universe.

In all people there is a smattering of both, but I believe that the Pharisee is far more common in the modern world than the despairing sinner. I believe that this misunderstood fact is behind both the plethora of bad “missional” theology, and the plethora of bad “dogmatic” theology.

In the end, there is a need to be brought back to the cross of Christ, where the reign of Christ can bring the usurper pharisee to humility, and the despairing sinner to hope. In both cases though, the cross of Christ must be applied to the situation. Without that, and without the preparation of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts, the Gospel as it actually is will be bad news to most.

Note: for the sake of explanation, a bad theology is any theology that differs from God as He is revealed in scripture and in so doing seeks to usurp the glory of Christ. I leave it to the reader to decide if I am guilty of such bad theology.

A Danger of Preaching a Substandard Gospel

Recently I’ve been reading some of the critiques unbelievers have about Christianity, and have been struck by a commonality that I have found in many of them. People began to read the Bible, found that the God of the Bible did not square with their beliefs in a loving and good God, and so they figured that there was no support for the Christianity they had believed, and thus they rejected it.

To be a little surprising, I agree with their assessment of the modern Christianity they were taught.

Like many of them, when I first became a Christian after the confused atheism of my high school years, I was taught a version of the Gospel that accented the love of God and the close friendship of God to the total exclusion of the wrath of God. The cross of Christ was seen as a sign of love in some kind of abstract way (I’m not sure how it can be a sign of love without a real wrath that we face, but there it is).

The problem is that such is only a half-measure of the Gospel. It is true, but is not the whole story as the Bible has it. Thus, if someone who believes like that actually reads the entire Bible, there is an awful lot about God that they have no method of dealing with. They have no category for a wrathful and angry God, and so they assume that such a God in the Bible cannot be true. They will thus either reject God, or reject the Bible (or both).

This rejection is, of course, where I part company with them. I know myself to be a sinner, and honestly, I actually believe that I deserve to go to hell. Not because I’m worse than other people, but because if God really fills the role in the universe that the Bible says he does, my sin is honestly disgusting (not just a mistake, not just a minor infraction, but disgusting and evil). I honestly wonder how God can stand the people he has called, including me. The ways I have thought about those around me, and about God, even in the 2 hours I have been awake today, if you could see into my mind should make you sick. In my best times it makes me sick. My repentance is not just because I am afraid of the wrath of God, it is because my sin is sickening.

God’s wrath against me is just. Outside of Christ, he does see my mind, he does know how evil my desires can be, and how much I belittle Him. He sees it every time I do it, and without the fact that I stand in Jesus Christ, he would be wholly right to punish me for it, and I have no reason to believe that anyone is righteous enough in themselves to avoid this.

“Wretched man that I am! Who is to deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)

The danger of preaching less than this is simple. Without the wrath of God against our sin, we are simply not being honest about God, or ourselves. We thus end up teaching a Gospel that places us at its centre rather than Jesus Christ. That Gospel is not true.

People who see that anemic Gospel are right to reject it. But in so doing, they are not necessarily rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, though it can lead to that.