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.

Thoughts on Intelligence from watching Election Results.

“If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.” Proverbs 29:9

“A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” – Proverbs 17:10

One of the advantages of living in east Asia is that election results I’d have to stay up late to hear when I was back in Canada, come in at pretty regular intervals during my waking hours in Korea. It’s even better when it’s during a US election, which tends to have interesting commentaries, and honestly has very little to do with me, a Canadian expatriate.

That said, it also gives me an opportunity to see the opinions of friends of mine as they express their own understanding of the situation in the US. To be blunt, very few wind up agreeing with me on much of anything when it comes to politics, which is honestly okay, because I’m not too worried about being silenced for my difference of opinion quite yet.

That said, I have been noticing a very troubling trend in public discourse over the last little while. I don’t think it’s a new thing, just something I’ve only noticed recently.

Political satire can cause us to question cherished beliefs, but it can also harden prejudice. The ability to laugh at something does not mean you are more correct than those you laugh at.

It has become common to make moral judgements about people who come to different conclusions than you do. I noticed this first when I expressed my right wing proclivities to a friend of a friend, who said that the only person who could be right wing was either evil or stupid, and I was forced to ask which he thought me to be. Of course, he stammered for a while, since previous to this, he had had no reason to doubt either my love for my fellow man, or my intellect. I never really got an answer.

The reason he had made his statement, however, seems to me a rather common set of assumptions in modern western dialogue, and I think stems from a mixture of pride and a misunderstanding about intelligence. Quite simply, people want to be seen as smart, because in the modern technological age, it’s seen as very important to be intelligent, and to be seen as intelligent. You can see this most readily in the way people denigrate opposing positions (as my friend did) as “stupid”. Note that the problem isn’t that the opposing position is incorrect or dangerous or immoral, rather, the opposing position is seen as lacking in intellect, meaning that the person holding the position is also seen as stupid.

The problem is that this shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature of intellect. While it is true that smart people often know a lot of details about things, it is not the knowledge of details that makes one intelligent. Even less is intelligence marked by holding “correct” opinions about given subjects. The simple fact is that there  are many very intelligent people, who for very good reasons, have held incorrect opinions; most commonly due to a lack of pertinent information (or a lack of seeing information that is pertinent as pertinent).

Intelligence is not marked by the ability to hold correct opinions, but rather by the ability to come to correct conclusions. This is NOT the same thing. Anybody can learn correct opinions and not know the reasons behind those opinions (which means they cannot adequately critique their own opinions). An intelligent person is one who, once given the necessary information, will be able to synthesize that data into valid conclusions based on the data.

Unfortunately, finding out about that takes a great deal of work. To know if a person’s opinions are intelligent based on that kind of synthesizing of information, you need to look at the information, and the person’s reasoning, not just the conclusion. It is far easier to simply look at the concluding opinion and make a judgement on that. Unfortunately, the result is that people who do that often then label conclusions that are different from their own as stupid without actually looking at the evidence and reasoning, meaning that the opposing position cannot do any work to correct errors in our own thinking.

This is compounded by a level of pride in society that wishes for us to see ourselves as intelligent. Being corrected is hard, and often not comfortable. It can lead to the questioning of cherished beliefs, or to isolation from a majority position, and is almost always a blow to pride. Thus it is often much easier to insulate our own opinions from critique, by grading opposing positions based on the conclusions rather than on the reasoning that got there.

This is why it is important to know, not just correct opinions, but the reasons behind correct opinion.

I think that is also why in the recent political movements in the United States, denigration of the opposition as unthinking or stupid became the norm, with statements themselves seen as being stupid without looking at the reasoning behind them (why do Keynsean economists think that government spending can stimulate an economy, why did a failed senate candidate think that the first amendment did not contain “the separation of Church and state”, etc.).

The question then is simple. Will we take the easy road of acceptable opinion, or the much harder road of humility and examination? Will we do the work of finding out why an opinion is correct or incorrect, or simply rest on the perceived intelligence of our own conclusions?

I fear in my own heart, I often do not answer that question well.

A Return to WordPress (and to blogging)

Well, seems that the mobileme hosting of my website is messed up, so now that I’m deciding to return to blogging, I’m also returning to using wordpress for my blogging. So here I am back blogging on my wordpress account.

In any case, my wordpress account has always had more traffic, so it’s probably best to stay here (cheaper too).

That said, I’m not the naive person who first started blogging years ago. I know that the internet has some strange people, and many who would never say a bad word to you in person can be downright mean from behind their iphones; especially when I use bad grammar or talk about politics or religion (my favorite topics) For that reason, over the next couple of days I’m going to write a few basic posts to explain the ground rules. They aren’t going to be up for debate, and I’m going to hold to them.

You may also notice a slight shift in focus over the next few months. I guess I am mellowing in my old age, and diversifying a little. I’m going to talk about whatever interests me, which will be wider than the Christian theological and apologetic rants. Those won’t vanish, but I’m going to talk about favorite hamburgers, experiences as a foreign pastor in Korea, and the frustrations of being a mid-30s single guy. If you are interested in the sermons I was posting on the mobileme website, you can get them via podcast from my Church website here.

Hope you all enjoy the new year with me!

In Him,

– Steve <><

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.