Jul 3 2016

Grace is still the thing

Recently I attended a local church service and heard a sermon on sex that was bad on so many levels–structurally, logically, factually, and theologically.  (The entire experience was redeemed by the worship band having done possibly the best arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision” that I have ever heard.) And, to wrap it all up, the pastor ended with an exhortation to resist sexual sins by “exercising your holiness option.”  

Excuse me?  Then he said it again; I hadn’t mis-heard. “Exercise your holiness option.”  It was like they had a booster switch they could flip to throw them into light speed. 

So now we have another whole slough of errors.  First, I recognized that he was using the bad English definition of “holy” as meaning pure or sinless, rather than the definition of the Greek word, which essentially means “different.” It makes sense for God to say, “Be different as I am different,” rather than “Be sinless as I am sinless.”  But, the latter is the interpretation I usually hear.   

Can we choose to be sinless?  I think the vast majority of theologians would answer “no.”  We can desire to be sinless (I myself desire to be sinless, sometimes),  but if the Bible is to be believed, getting there is beyond our grasp. The two main schools of thought are that 1) we can cooperate with God to become more Godlike; and 2) our wills are bound by our sinful nature and we depend entirely on God’s grace.

Paul, as well as Jesus (read through John),  seem to lean towards the latter.  I completely reject the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity as mischaracterizing both God and humanity.  We are created in God’s image, destined for glory.  “Total depravity” doesn’t fit into that picture.  If you read through the Gospel of John, you may be struck by the fact that Jesus treats sin the same as a physical disease.  Just as our bodies are subject to failure, we are also afflicted by the disease of sin.  Not totally depraved, but afflicted and in need of grace and healing.   

Paul made it clear that sanctification (holiness to some), just as with salvation, is a product of grace. In Galatians 3:3, he asks rhetorically, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  To the church in Corinth, he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification, “holiness,” theosis, or becoming more Christ-like–whichever term you prefer–is a product of grace, of God’s direct work in us. It is not a matter of “exercising the holiness option.”

Grace matters.  It is still a concept which many churches prefer to hold at arm’s length, as a church under grace tends refuses to fit in nice, neat boxes. 

A few years ago, I took what I had found to be the best teaching on grace I had ever encountered and turned it into a book, The Gospel Uncensored. I still believe this to be the best book on grace that I’ve seen.  It’s fairly short, easy to read, and directly to the point, primarily using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the outline.  People have told me how it’s changed their lives, how it’s their favorite book, and that they periodically re-read it.  It’s that good (you can trust me, my name is on the cover).  

There is no “holiness option.” The only 2 options are self-righteousness, and grace.  I highly recommend grace. 


May 1 2016

The Progressive Problem

“… progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” ~C.S. Lewis

I tend to relate to a lot of people who fall under the “progressive” Christian category, probably moreso that most other categories in current use.  I’m definitely not a fundamentalist, and am not a good fit in the contemporary evangelical category either (something which will be the subject of another post).  I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative.   And “moderate” is just too lukewarm-ish.   Like I said, I tend to relate the most to people who fall into the progressive category, but unfortunately I don’t belong there either.

The term “progressive” obviously comes from the root “progress,” and I guess that’s my issue.  I simply reject the enlightenment notion of progress.  A wise man once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I tend to believe that assessment. While progressives may be moving on from the status quo (which is usually the remnants of the last progressive movement), I don’t believe they are actually “progressing.”  Moving is not necessarily going forward, and not all evolution is a step forward.

Progressing implies improvement, or leveling-up, if you will.  Each generations progressive movement has moved away from the status quo of its day, but it’s debatable whether any such movement has actually moved forward, or if Christianity has actually gotten any better because of it. Luther’s Evangelical movement (which I do identify with) did not claim to be progressing, but the goal was to actually regress (i.e. reform) to the gospel evident in the New Testament that had been lost in years of Western nonsense. As the Lewis quote above indicates, moving backwards can be progress from a certain point of view. But, nothing that Luther taught was new, at least intentionally.  If a movement does, in fact, come up with something new and different, I would argue that it’s not progressive, it’s just possibly heretical.

There are some contemporary progressives which I think may be borderline heretics, having thrown out too many things with the bath water.  Perhaps more importantly, I think there are more than a few non-progressive evangelicals who are possible heretics as well–at the very least, they are terribly mistaken about a number of things.  Conservatives, for the most part, are those who hold on to yesterday’s progressivism. The thing I like the most about those under the current progressive banner is that they are willing to toss out the heresies of the status quo evangelicals, and in the process discover some of the attitudes and truths that were expressed by Jesus and the early church. But as far as becoming “a new kind of Christian,” that simply isn’t happening.

Jesus, and Paul, perhaps, were the only true progressives in that the revelation of Jesus was a new understanding of something old.  The Gospels, especially, are very progressive books, from Jesus’ interpretations of the Old Testament to how he viewed people.  Referring to the Law of Moses as “you have heard it said?” Refusing to judge sinners? Forgive, turn the other cheek? A Samaritan is your neighbor?   Then, of course, there’s Paul, breaking down racial, cultural and sexual barriers even further, and declaring the Law, for all practical purposes, dead.  I suppose, in that sense, anyone who follows this radical gospel of grace and reconciliation is a progressive, in that Christianity is itself the only true progressive movement. Humanity has always been going to hell in a hand basket, and we’re not any better or worse than at any prior age. However the New Covenant is the progression from the old, and sets the only way of true progress: redemption of creation and the full revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the only way of true progress. Apart from this, mankind has not progressed at all, in spite of science, technology and knowledge.

I really dislike labels, but understand why they are necessary, or at least convenient. “Postmodern” was a very unfortunate term, and “emerging” was even more so. Postmodernism was post-nothing, and you can only be emerging for a moment before you become the past. As hard as people try, we can’t escape the past, or we risk following the flight path of Icarus. “Progressive” is somewhat unfortunate as it is a relative term; the challenge, it seems, is not defining “progressive,” but rather to define what it is you’re progressing from, and what you think you are progressing to.

I can’t claim to be a progressive, because I am not sure that I am in fact progressing. I’ve thought I was many times in my past, and I’ve spent a great deal of time doubling-back to venture out in a new direction, hopefully just a tad bit wiser. But, the only thing I can be really sure of is that I’m probably wrong about a great many things.

 

 


Mar 16 2016

How Not To Become A Liberal

One of the greatest fears a conservative has is that of becoming a liberal. The next greatest fear is that someone you know will become a liberal.  In these confusing times, I thought it would be helpful to give a bit of advice on how to stay solidly conservative.

  1. Avoid the Mainstream Media.  News outlets like CNN, NBC, The Washington Post, and PBS will constantly challenge conservative thinking and values by quoting liberal sources and facts.  Stick with news sources that you can trust to provide you with good, common-sense conservative information, like FoxNews, Breitbart, The Blaze, and folks like Rush and Sean Hannity. You need to have your conservatism constantly reinforced.
  2. Don’t listen to your children, especially if they attend public school or liberal arts colleges. If you can’t indoctrinate homeschool your children in a good, science and philosophy free environment, there is no telling what kind of liberal concepts they will adopt. It’s common for schools to teach things like equal rights, which in reality is just a way to erode white male privilege, and unproven scientific theories like evolution and climate change. They will try to challenge your conservative ideals, and they may even make sense. But ignore them anyway.
  3. Regular Evangelical Church Attendance.  There’s no better way to fortify your conservatism than to surround yourself with like-minded conservative Christians, and to hear good, Evangelical Bible teaching. But, beware of those churches who talk too much about grace and forgiveness; grace is just a slippery slope toward liberalism.  And, in that same vein:
  4. Don’t Read the Bible on your own, especially the Gospels, without a good conservative Study Guide or Devotional.  Reading the Gospels without external guidance is a sure way to start thinking like a liberal.  It’s very easy to misunderstand Jesus’ teachings on social justice, loving your enemies, and not judging sinners, which on their face can seem contrary to the conservative evangelical doctrines we hold dear. If you have to read the Bible on your own, read it in small bits, so you can avoid taking the verses in context.

I hope you have found this helpful.  It may sound like a daunting task, but take comfort as you look around at the millions of other people desperately hanging on to good old American conservatism.


Jan 27 2016

Things the Apostle Paul did not say

I think my favorite kinds of sermons are those that I can riff off of. Not audibly, of course, but I tend to think tangentially anyway, so I like a sermon that raises points that I can explore while I’m sitting in church. Even better if I continue to think about them afterwards. They don’t have to be great sermons, as long as they provide food for thought. (I do not, however, enjoy a sermon that causes me to mentally analyze every bit of tortured logic and twisted scripture. It may be a great exercise in critical thinking, but it’s neither edifying nor fun.)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve heard one of each. I will talk about the good one. The topic was love, and referenced a few good quotes by Paul that got me thinking about what Paul did not say, which leads me to my topic today.

THINGS PAUL DID NOT SAY

Let holiness be your highest goal. (1 Cor. 14:3)

And above all these put on correct doctrine, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:14)

Without our church I am nothing. (1 Cor 13:2)

Owe no one anything, except to judge each other, for the one who judges another has fulfilled the law.  (Romans 13:8)

The greatest of these is truth. (1 Cor. 13:13)

And there’s more, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Paul was undoubtedly the master of proper doctrine and logic. He bragged about winning an argument with Peter and the rest of the church leadership. However, Paul was, at heart, a softie. He was concerned about widows and orphans, the poor and the weak of faith. In Paul’s mind, everyone had value, and had gifts to share. There were no favored classes, and no one had the right to judge anyone else (even themselves).

What has happened to Paul’s message that grace is a gift, and cannot be earned?  That God loves all of us unconditionally, and we should in turn love others unconditionally?

It seems that in today’s evangelical circles, putting love first makes you a liberal. Love is conditionalized, as it seems to be a scarce and finite resource, not to be thrown around indiscriminately. Or, perhaps the definition of love has been retooled in a type of Platonic dualism; we can love in a universal, ideal sense, but we must be careful who we love in a practical, earthy sense. We love sinners Platonically, but not incarnationally. We love refugees, just only where they can’t touch us. We love the GLBT community, but not as equals.  

And that’s what happens when you start to think about what Paul (and Jesus) really said.